Monday, April 19, 2010

Grasping concepts

Once some scientists thought that the language we speak determines in a certain degree the way we think and see the world around us. However, this view could not be substantiated by research. Nevertheless I think that our language has some influence on the way we think and observe: Our language is a guide for us, for the way we look at the world and make classifications. It gives us the first categories of what we perceive. But as it is with any guide: we can improve it or we can take a better one. We can use another language with other categories and we can invent new categories. In that sense anything goes.
In science and philosophy we need a language, anyhow, for expressing our thoughts and the results of our investigations. I don’t use the word “express” by chance, for language can be very expressive in its metaphorical way of describing what we think or see and catching the right meaning in a concept. Just the word “concept” is such a beautiful expression that exactly says what it is. “Concept” comes from the past participle of the Latin concipere, which means grasp (capere) together (con-). And if we have brough the parts of our object of thought or research together and caught them in a concept, we have a grip on it and we understand or grasp it. We find this idea of a metaphorical relation between mentally grasping and physically grasping of what we understand also in other languages like German (begreifen=understand; lit. more or less “grasp”), Dutch (begrijpen, as in German) or French (comprendre, which is a literal translation of concipere). It is as if we hold what we understand in a mental embrace or we keep it maybe like something that we carefully enclose in our hand so that it cannot escape. But after some time we usually forget the literal meaning of words. How plastic language can be and how pity it is that it happens so often that the expressive meaning of a word fades into the background and that we do not realize it any longer. And then a concept is no longer something we have grasped but it has become an abstract word drawn away (Latin: abs=away; trahere=draw) from its original meaning.

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