The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know. Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge.

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“The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know.” Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge.

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Knowledge acquisition is a complex process, constantly being influenced and restricted by various factors, and the validity of the knowledge we acquire is often questionable depending on the ways of knowing that are used. In this sense, though vocabulary communicates our knowledge, it can also shape what we can know to a certain extent because it does not represent the totality of reality. If there is no in-depth knowledge of the underlying concepts and meanings of a vocabulary, the knowledge which we can derive from the vocabulary would be incomplete. However, though vocabulary, as a part of language, can also be exclusive, the absence of vocabulary does not imply the lack of knowledge. Thus, while we consider the effect of vocabulary on knowledge acquisition, this question also arises in our evaluation: is vocabulary developed as a response to new knowledge, or is knowledge derived from new vocabulary?

Before analyzing the statement, it is necessary to first define ‘vocabulary’. Is it what we commonly believe it to be – the words and phrases of a language and their accepted meanings? Or is the definition less restricted and more comprehensive? In order to examine the role ‘vocabulary’ plays in the ways in which we communicate and gain knowledge in the different areas of knowledge, we should interpret it as not only a part of language, but any system of symbols, techniques, tools, etc. which is used to communicate or express thoughts, opinions, emotions, and more. And according to the claim, it is this vocabulary that can limit and restrict the range of our knowledge.

Vocabulary sometimes limits what we can know because it does not always encompass the entire reality of a concept. Vocabulary, by definition, is a system of symbols that represent thoughts and opinions, and in essence, it is like a simplification, a general representation of the knowledge behind the vocabulary. Likewise, in areas of knowledge like the human sciences, vocabulary limits what we can know in similar ways. Take psychology as an example. In many everyday conversations, terms such as ‘ego’ and ‘repressing’ bad memories are used, but not always with an appropriate understanding of the actual meanings and concepts behind these terms – a phenomenon which psychologists have named ‘psychobabble’ (Crane and Hannibal). Without an in-depth understanding of the underlying concepts of these terms, the knowledge which people can derive and learn from them would be incomplete, resulting in what psychologist call today as popular psychology – psychology that is not based on scientific findings but on popular, public belief. Though some knowledge may be correct in popular psychology, it is still partial and incomplete. Knowing these terms does not guarantee that people can acquire knowledge about Sigmund Freud and his work in psychoanalysis because while these terms may encompass particular features or aspects of the concept, they are incapable representing it entirely or thoroughly. Thus, what we can know becomes limited by vocabulary. Likewise, in ethics, simply knowing the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ does not always indicate that people understand the full extent of their meanings. If we learn or come to know the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ only through the vocabulary, our knowledge would be very limited and shallow; it would be like walking around with incomplete, vague dictionary definitions. But as we all know, the relationship between good and bad is complex and can vary from situation to situation, and thus, if we were to acquire knowledge about them only through their vocabulary, our knowledge would be incomplete and insufficient.

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However, while vocabulary does not always encompass the totality of reality, the absence of vocabulary does not necessarily suggest the absence of knowledge, as the claim indicates. If we were to consider the possibility that vocabulary limited all that we can know, how is it that people can learn different languages, languages which they have no vocabulary of at all? Consider emotion as well. Often times, emotion is described as one way of knowing which cannot always be described in words, but when we experience the emotion of anger, but we do not know how to express it, does it ...

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