[Extracted from The Power of Words]
What I want to emphasise is the unrecognised power of words, the value of the individual word. We take words - language - very much for granted, just as we take our eyes, our power of vision for granted. But both are tremendously flexible and wide-ranging powers - which have hardly been described in any complete way, never mind explained.The paper is intended to do two main things. to categorise and illustrate the power of words, the different roles which language plays. Second, to assess the relevance for each of the areas considered of the motor theory of language evolution and function.
Language is a powerful instrument. It is used in many different ways and constitutes one of the principal forces controlling and forming human behaviour. Besides its most familiar and normally most discussed use, communication, language is important through its use in one's private thought, in science and in oratory, in poetry, in philosophy - and perhaps most remarkably in techniques of hypnosis. The paper is intended to do two main things. to categorise and illustrate the power of words, the different roles which language plays. Second, to assess the relevance for each of the areas considered of the motor theory of language evolution and function.
How can language succeed (generally) in each of these roles?
OED: "Science. A branch of study which is concerned with either a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain... The kind of knowledge or intellectual activity of which the 'sciences' are examples.
Language of course is not the only remarkable intellectual power which humans possess. Equally remarkable there is Mathematics, an independent power which together with language constitutes modern Science. Science is a system consisting of a network of theories expressed in words. The theories are framed in terms of named entities (time, space,energy, electron, field, galaxy, oxygen).The theories formulate laws which usually employ mathematical symbols to relate the entities in the particular branch of science to one another. Scientists typically communicate by means of words and symbols (mathematical, chemical, etc,). Science involves communication but is obviously a rather special type of communication.
What specifically has to be explained about the role of words in Science? It is how words used in science are able to grasp the real (unseen and unseeable) causal structure of the world, and allow understanding of this structure to be progressively refined and to be transmitted from one generation of scientists to the next.
An essential feature of science is the theory. What is 'a theory'? The OED shows how the term has been used:
A conception or mental scheme of something to be done or of the method of doing it (1597). A scheme or system of ideas as explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena. (1638) Mental view (1710).
The original meaning of theory (THEORIA) was 'viewing', 'a sight'. Science is a mode of perception. A theory is a systematic perception of a realm of scientific facts. In Science, words are used to name new entities (positron, gene) or to relate the results of new investigations to previously-named entities. In Science, words are being extended or narrowed to cover a different range of scientific experience.
The history of science has very largely been bound up with the systematisation and extension of observation. Scientists have extended perception beyond normal, everyday limits. This has been made possible by the development of new or improved instruments: Telescopes, Microscopes, Measuring Instruments, Cameras, Television (from Space), Computer graphics, Models (DNA), NMR, PET, X-rays, Radio waves.
There has been a continuing shift in science from immediate perception to remote, abstract perception. Besides the new or improved instruments, a key factor has been the vigorous exercise of scientific imagination, usually visual imagination. Eminent examples are Copernicus (the solar system), Newton (the falling apple and the falling moon),Einstein (gravity and relativity theory by way of visual imaginings of trams, lifts, measuring rods). The role of visual imagination in the progress of science has been investigated. Jacques Hadamard in 1945 undertook a famous inquiry among American mathematicians to find out their working methods. This produced the striking conclusion that nearly all of them (with only two exceptions) tackled their problems neither in verbal terms nor by algebraic symbols, but called on visual imagery of a vague, hazy nature. Einstein himself wrote: 'The words of the language as they are written or spoken do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought ... which relies on more or less clear images of a visual and some of a muscular type.' Most of the creative scientists, who have described their working methods, seem to have been visualisers.
But even if the advance of science necessarily depends on the extension or intensification of perception, the use of visual imagination, it still remains the case that words, language, play an important role. The classic discussion of the relation between language and scientific progress is in Kuhn's (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In his view, scientific knowledge, like language, is intrinsically the common property of a group. Neither scientists nor laymen learn to see the world piecemeal or item by item. Both scientists and laymen sort out whole areas together from the flux of experience. The current form of a science depends upon discovering what isolable elements the members of the particular scientific community may have abstracted from their more global paradigms and deployed as rules in their research. Textbooks aim to communicate the vocabulary and syntax of a contemporary scientific language. The Copernicans who denied the traditional title 'planet' to the sun were changing the vocabulary, the meaning of 'planet'.
There can be no scientifically or empirically neutral system of language or concepts. The practice of normal science depends on the ability, acquired from exemplars, to group objects and sensations into similarity sets which are primitive in the sense that the grouping is done without an answer to the question, 'Similar with respect to what?'. That sort of learning is not acquired by exclusively verbal means. Rather it comes as one is given words together with concrete examples of how they function in use; nature and words are learned together; learning from problems to see situations as like each other, as subjects for the application of the same scientific law or law-sketch. For a given science, there is a disciplinary matrix, the common possession of the practitioners of the particular discipline,composed of ordered elements. Kuhn remarks that if the student of Newtonian dynamics ever discovers the meaning of terms like 'force', 'mass', 'space' and 'time', he does so less from the incomplete definitions in his text than by observing and participating in the application of these concepts to problem- solution. He has to acquire the same gestalt as other members of his specialists' group, a time-tested and group-licensed way of seeing.
But whilst in these ways scientific knowledge is systematised and preserved, it is also necessary that there should be a mechanism for scientific change. Any new interpretation of nature, whether a discovery or a theory, emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals. It is they who first learn to see science and the world differently. To make the transition to Einstein's universe, the whole conceptual web whose strands are space, time, matter, force and so on, had to be shifted and laid down again on nature whole. This need to change the meaning of established and familiar concepts is central to the revolutionary impact of Einstein's theory. the scientific revolution as a displacement of the conceptual network through which scientists view the world. A scientific theory is usually felt to be better than its predecessors not only in the sense that it is a better instrument for discovering and solving puzzles but also because it is somehow a better representation of what nature is really like. A science's reorientation is a process that involves 'handling the same bundle of data as before, but placing them in a new system of relations with one another by giving them a different framework'. Others have emphasised its similarity to a change in visual gestalt: the marks on paper that were first seen as a bird are now seen as an antelope. There is even evidence that these same characteristics [those involved in scientific discovery] are built into the nature of the perceptual process itself.
Though Kuhn's account agrees with other evidence that the origin of scientific advance is in perception, not in words or in verbal analysis, nevertheless science is dependent on words both for communication between scientists and for the preservation of the content of science over time. Scientific progress reflects in words changes in scientific perception. The words used in science are not arbitrary. Many of the words in the scientific lexicon are those familiar from ordinary uses of language. The first scientific words were ordinary words, water, sun, light, sound. The progress of scientific language has taken three forms: the first has been to add to or define more sharply the content, the reference, of ordinary words used in scientific contexts; some of the greatest progress has come from this e.g. extension or closer definition of words such as rest, motion, force, weight, heat, light. The second type of change in scientific language has taken the form of borrowing from other languages (particularly Greek and Latin); the words borrowed have been ordinary words in the original languages but have been given a special application in scientific use. The third type of change in scientific language has been the creation of new words for new observational complexes; even these words are not arbitrary. They are chosen to fit the existing network of scientific words and to give some indication of their application or meaning. The most arbitrary words in science are adapted from the surnames of scientific discoverers: Newton, Ohm, Watt, Pascal, Hertz, Volt, Maxwell, Henry.Most of these words refer to forces etc. which are not visible and are outside the range of ordinary human experience. Nevertheless, they have been chosen so as to maintain links with pre-existing structures of ideas or prior scientific experience.
How relevant for scientific language is the account given in the motor theory of the origin of words? The ordinary words used in science (including borrowed words) carry with them their primitive 'cartoon' contours - e.g. muscle-spindle, tangent, foot, bacterium, wave, mammal, digit, scale. Scientific concepts are anchored to the structures of ordinary sense, of 'commonsense', by words such as these and, of course, function- words in science [ and, or, all, from, to etc.] are the ordinary function-words. Other than new words for forces, particles etc. where there can be no ordinary perception of the objects or actions involved, the sound-shapes of words in science have the same origin as the sound-shapes of ordinary words. The process of narrowing or extending the meanings of scientific words is much the same process as takes place with ordinary words; children extend or narrow the meanings of words as their experience widens. It seems justifiable to conclude that there is continuity between the development and use of ordinary words in ordinary communication and the development and use of the more specialised words in science. For both sets of words, the power of the words derives from their links with perception and action.
WORDS: This has been an attempt to identify, analyse and explain the power of words. One might ask: Why the power of words and not the power of language? There are several reasons: 'language' is much less specific, a vaguer concept, than words but at the same time there has been much more discussion of the function, structure and philosophy of language than there has been of words. The new point made in this paper is that each word has a power deriving not from convention or authority but from its sound structure. However, the significance of language as such in the evolution and development of human beings and human societies has been immense but needs, and has received, separate treatment in other papers on Evolution and Culture, the Role of Language, the Pinker Language Instinct.
MOTOR THEORY OF LANGUAGE: How far, for each of the areas considered in this paper are the views and the experience of practitioners consistent with the motor theory of language evolution and function? If words, in these different roles, are powerful because of the origin of language by modelling on the motor system and the link to perception, what next? Where does this lead? Where should this lead? Where it should lead is to a complete revision of ideas about the functioning of poetry, the mode of operation of hypnosis, the impact of oratory, the direction of development in philosophy. In due course practitioners in these different fields may find the ideas in this paper useful.
PHILOSOPHY: Academic philosophy is generally fragmented with many academic philosophers heading down ever-narrowing cul-de- sacs. What is needed is a switch from partial philosophies to total philosophy - as philosophy once was. This would not be the old metaphysics, a manipulation simply of verbal concepts and conceptual neologisms but a philosophy which takes full account of the human brain and the human body. The way forward in philosophy is through neurophilosophy (Patricia Churchland), the integration into the thought of philosophers of the ever-growing neurological understanding, reinforced by new methods for observing and measuring the activity of the brain in real time in its production of language, formulation of actions, generation of emotions.
SCIENCE: In Science, both the words and the measuring (instrumental) techniques are needed. E=MC^2 means nothing unless there are the words Mass, Energy and Speed of Light correlated with the formula; the mathematical symbols have linguistic meaning.There is no hard-and-fast line between scientific and metaphysical problems; the words act as Cartoons for complexes of the scientific experience, the iceberg words in Science (in this science and poetry approach one another as St. John Perse proposed). All scientists are describing the same world but in many different languages; the need is to put their descriptions into a single language, which will reveal the common features of the world, make possible an enlightening and satisfying interpretation of the universe.
EVOLUTION: Given the power of words, and their functioning in language, and given language as the faculty so sharply separating humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, a new understanding of words and language must have great relevance in assessing the human race's past, present and future. Should we be preparing an obituary for the human race [see the dinosaurs] or should we attempt to assess an evolutionary future which language and the intellectual capacities deriving from language make possible? [Evolutionary Significance of Human Life.]