When referring to the role of vocabulary in the six different areas of knowledge- mathematics, the natural sciences, the human sciences, history, the arts or ethics, the way of knowing- language, comes naturally. If the claim ‘vocabulary shapes what we can know’ can be applied universally, can we say that all knowledge is shaped by our vocabulary? If we imagine no form of language in our life, would we not know what we know? For a deeper evaluation of the claim, with language as a way of knowing, let’s consider three of the areas of knowledge: the natural sciences, mathematics and the arts.
If we depend on language as a way of knowing, then it would mean that reality differs for differing language families- meaning language influences thought which is what the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests. Consider the natural sciences; most discoveries are made through observation or experimentation. The understanding of the magnetic field of the earth came from the study of the magnetic orientation in the minerals in rocks. Definitely, Walter M. Elsasser knew the terms ‘mineral and ‘magnet’ to understand the magnetic field theory before he proposed it. If these words didn’t exist in his vocabulary, he may have never understood the complex concept of a magnetic field. He may have never even been interested in anything to do with science. But again, someone coined the terms ‘mineral and ‘magnet’ on behalf of their physical existence. The terms did not exist before the two were seen and studied. And for those of us who did not go for a field study and make discoveries have to use our vocabulary in order to understand the concept of the magnetic field.
These terms hold significance in our mind and have no intrinsic meaning unless we add a meaning or make an interpretation. In semiotics, Saussure defined these words or ‘signs’ as being composed of i) a ‘signifier’- the form which the sign takes and ii) a ‘signified’- the concept it represents. When the ‘signifier’ and ‘significant’ come together, a ‘sign’ or ‘significance’ is formed. Therefore, the words that we know ‘form’ the reality in this sense.
If the form and meaning of a word could lead us to understand something in reality, does it meaning that metaphors and symbols have no meaning?
In the area of the arts, the way of knowing language deals information and concepts in a different way. A word may have more than one meaning in a piece of literature than it does in biology. The natural sciences deal with terminology which may only be dealt as a metaphorical language in literature. The meaning of the word stands in itself, whereas in art, the meaning can be anything as given by the interpreter. For example, Animal Farm by George Orwell may seem just like an interesting novella about a farm unless it is interpreted as an allegory on the Stalin era during the World War II.
The symbolist art movement, for instance, was focused on how art represents absolute truths which can only be described...