Chapter 3: Ways of knowing – Language (p. 47)

Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma
Chapter 3: Ways of knowing – Language (p. 47)
Language is one of the four ways of knowing:
Language enables us to tap into the collective experience of the community. It is a form of
communication that is:
governed by arbitrary rules of grammar
expressed orally as sounds linking to objects or concepts
used creatively to communicate vast numbers of ideas.
Problems with language:
 deceit
 manipulation (e.g. propaganda)
 misunderstanding
The problem of meaning (p. 51)
We need to understand the meaning of language before its truth can be assessed.
Discussion: Activity 3.5, p. 51
Theories of meaning (pp. 52–5)
Problems of meaning
Definition theory
Words can be defined using other words.
Denotation theory
Meaningful words stand for something.
Image theory
The meaning of a word is the mental image it
stands for.
You know the meaning of a word when you
know how to use it.
© Cambridge University Press 2011
May not adequately express deeper
May just raise more problems of
interpretation of the words used in the
Abstract words do not stand for any
thing in the world, e.g.
‘multiplication’, ‘wisdom’.
People’s names would be meaningless
after they are dead.
Different people may unknowingly
have different mental images.
Different people know how to use the
same words in different ways.
Page 1 of 6
Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma
Discussions: Activities 3.7 and 3.8, pp. 54, 55
Problematic meaning (pp. 55–8)
We sometimes do not say exactly what we mean.
Problematic meaning types
Problems of meaning
Meaning depends on context.
e.g. fast, beautiful
Either: words with two different meanings
Discussion: Activity 3.9, p. 55
Can be used to amuse or mislead.
Discussion: Activity 3.10, p. 56
or: phrases that can be read in two ways
! All the rest of this list may be considered to
be different forms of ambiguity.
Secondary meaning (connotation)
(Note: primary meaning = denotation)
A word may have a number of associations
linked to it, varying from person to person, e.g.
We may use euphemisms to avoid nasty ideas,
e.g. ‘passed away’ rather than ‘died’.
Discussion: Activity 3.11, p. 57
Can be confusing.
The literal meaning of a word or phrase is not
the intended meaning, e.g. ‘He has his head in
the clouds.’
Discussion: Activity 3.12, p. 58
Can be confusing.
Saying one thing but meaning the opposite.
Why care about the meaning of words? (pp. 59–60)
The difference between murder and manslaughter can mean a life or death sentence for the
To reduce unemployment or poverty, the authorities may redefine the words, thus changing
© Cambridge University Press 2011
Page 2 of 6
Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma
Language and translation (pp. 61–4)
Translations should be:
faithful to the original text
back-translatable with consistency.
Problems with translation:
Different languages divide the world up in different ways.
Word-for-word translations often don’t make sense.
Different choices of words can cause subtle differences in meaning.
Context can change the meaning of a word.
Some words are untranslatable.
Meaning can be lost in translation.
Idioms: some expressions/sayings have a meaning other than the direct word meaning, e.g.
‘I was over the moon.’
Discussion: Activity 3.15, p. 62
Labels and stereotypes (pp. 64–7)
Language affects the way we think and hence the judgements we make.
Use of labels (words) to classify things, e.g. apples, sand:
can be efficient
may reflect natural classifications or cultural impositions on the world.
Differences that are not immediately apparent may be overlooked.
Adjectives paint inefficient verbal portraits.
Labels may develop into stereotypes, e.g. assumptions about members of groups of people.
Discussions: Activities 3.17, 3.18 and 3.19, pp. 65, 66
Language and thought (pp. 68–71)
To what extent does language influence our thinking?
The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (linguistic determinism)
Edward Sapir (1884–1939), Benjamin Whorf (1879–1941)
Language determines our experience of reality → our perception is limited by language. (However, it
can be argued that reality determines language.)
© Cambridge University Press 2011
Page 3 of 6
Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma
The Inuit are said to have many words for snow, so they see and experience snow-covered
landscapes differently from other people.
The North American Hopi Indians have no words for present, past, future. Whorf therefore
came to the conclusion that the Hopi have no concept of abstract time.
Testing the hypothesis:
Peter Farb (1929–80) interviewed Japanese wives of Americans living in the USA in
Japanese and in English. Their responses to the same questions asked and answered in
Japanese/English were different.
Multiplication would be mentally impossible using Roman numerals: a symbol for zero and
positional notation are needed to be able to do it.
Babies and animals can think without language.
Some people claim to think in images (which may be an effort to put into words).
If language determines thought, new words could not arise.
A weaker form of the hypothesis could be: language influences thought.
Language and values (pp. 71–2)
Language is used to persuade/influence.
Discussions: Activities 3.22 and 3.23, p. 72 (3.22 is particularly useful)
Using language to influence and persuade (pp. 73–4)
1 Emotionally laden language
Some words can have negative or positive connotations, which affect the way they are used.
Discussion: Activity 3.24, p. 73
2 Weasel words
Words added to a sentence to protect accuracy, e.g. ‘most dogs bark’.
Discussion: Activity 3.25, p. 74
© Cambridge University Press 2011
Page 4 of 6
Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma
3 Grammar
Use of passive sentence constructions to protect the speaker, e.g. ‘We bombed the village’ / ‘The
village was bombed’.
4 Revealing and concealing
E.g. ‘I have invited a blonde/cellist/athlete/lesbian to the party.’ Each description carries different
connotations and is likely to affect the way others may view the person in question.
Discussion: Activity 3.26, p. 74
Language at war (p. 75)
Soldiers are more likely to kill enemies who are dehumanised, e.g. ‘turkey shoot’, ‘Gooks’.
Alternative words are used to make war more acceptable:
Real meaning
security assistance
arms sales
neutralise/take out
no longer a factor
inoperative combat personnel
dead soldiers
service a target
drop bombs on a target
collateral damage
bombed cities
friendly fire
accidentally firing on your own troops
strategic redeployment
reporting guidelines
ethnic cleansing
Language is power; hence the use of ‘spin doctors’ (p. 76).
© Cambridge University Press 2011
Page 5 of 6
Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma
See also:
Linking questions: p. 78
Reading resources:
(Teachers may wish to set their own assignments on these.)
Dialogue on animal language
p. 79
The day a language died
p. 83
© Cambridge University Press 2011
Page 6 of 6