Language and science

by Possible Modernist

In The Invention of Science, his book about the scientific revolution, David Wootton writes that the new science would not have been possible without the construction of a new language with which to think, a language necessarily cobbled together, out of available words and phrases.” [p. 53]

Although the text is wide ranging, Wootton occasionally focuses in on certain key terms, like discovery” or fact”, and traces their usage, arguing that the emergence of science as a community and practice necessitated both the creation of new terms, like satellites” (by Kepler), and the repurposing of existing terms, like evidence”, which Wootton claims was borrowed by natural philosophy from usages in legal contexts.

According to Wootton, until the voyages of Columbus, there wasn’t really a word for our modern concept of discovery” in any of the major European languages. The closest equivalents in Latin were terms he translates as explore”, obtain”, and find out”. Discovery” as a term eventually spread throughout these languages, derived from the Portuguese discobrir”, which previously meant explore”, and gradually took on a meaning closer to uncover”.

These may all sound quite similar, Wootton’s point is that the creation or adoption of a new term goes hand in hand with a new way of thinking. For Wootton, as an historian, this is especially useful in trying to understand the past: Usually, linguistic change is a crucial marker of a modification in the way in which people think — it both facilitates that change and makes it easier for us to recognize it.” [p. 63]

If we believe Wootton’s analysis, previous close equivalents to discovery inherently implied a sense of rediscovery”, because it was widely believed that everything that could be known was already known by ancient people. Even the discovery (and rediscovery) of the Azores in 1351 and 1427 seems not to have had much impact, as it was assumed that others’ must already have known of them. With reports of a gigantic, previously unknown, continent, however, it could no longer be maintained that there was nothing new to be learned, and Wootton suggests that this was instrumental in turning people’s attention towards trying to learn new things. In Wootton’s framing, discovery was a new type of enterprise which came into existence along with the word.” [p. 63]

Crispy has long argued that we need a new language in order to make progress on certain areas of science, including our understanding of language itself. It’s easy to see some version of this happening around us — just think of all the terms related to covid-19 that did not exist a few years ago — but we are so awash in language today that it is very hard to distinguish meaningful conceptual innovation from other processes of linguistic change. I suspect it’s also much easier to see the connection between linguistic and conceptual innovation retrospectively, as in Wootton’s historical work, whereas it seems like it might be difficult to even know when one is in the midst of an important conceptual revolution.

This is only a tentative attempt to scratch the surface, but I suspect that this is a topic that will be worth returning to many times.