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Like many other fields, science has its own style of communication full of specific jargon and guided by unwritten rules.  Most of the posts on this blog focus on breaching this barrier to the public’s understanding and appreciation of science.  In this series, I’d like to take another approach by highlighting scientific words which have escaped the confines of jargon to reach a broader appeal because of their sound or their evocative power as metaphors.  Today’s word is a bit different from the earlier words; this time I’d like to talk about the word science itself. [Previous words of science were petrichoralluvium, nychthemeron, crepuscular, and interstitial.]

In English, “science” refers to a specific kind of knowledge and practice.  Physics certainly qualifies, along with biology and chemistry.  Economics and psychology probably count as “science” to many people, though they’re usually distinguished by being called ‘social sciences’.  On the other hand, many disciplines, ranging from history to literary analysis, would never be called science; instead, they fall under the heading “humanities”.

This distinction may seem perfectly natural to native English speakers, but it’s not actually universal.  Several languages, including a few closely related to English, don’t admit the same categories.  The Swedish word for science, for example, is vetenskap, but its meaning is actually somewhat more general; the same is true of the Dutch wetenschap and the German Wissenschaft.  These words all refer to the systematic and serious pursuit of knowledge and the search for general principles through rigorous study, regardless of the field of inquiry.  Vetenskap encompasses the whole gamut of disciplines that English divides into natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.

This isn’t just a peculiar quirk of a handful of Germanic languages.  The Arabic word علم (roughly pronounced ilm (actually `lm)) and the Finnish tiede are similar; both are translations of “science” but actually mean systematic knowledge more broadly.  One can speak of litteraturvetenskap in Swedish (literally “literature-science”) or uskontotiede in Finnish (literally “science of religion”) where in English we might say “comparative literature” and “religious studies”.  When I first saw the world litteraturvetenskap, it took me a moment to properly understand it; I initially went with the literal translation and tried to figure out what “literary science” might be.  Betraying my quantitative bias, I thought it had something to do with analysing word frequencies or usage patterns.

There isn’t really an etymological basis for the distinction that English makes. The word science comes to us from Latin via Old French; the root is the Latin verb scire, which simply means “to know”.  (I do find it fascinating that this may, in turn, come from an older Proto-Indo-European root sci- meaning “to divide/cut/separate” — who knew reductionism was embedded in the very word itself!)  It’s a relatively modern distinction (dating back to the mid-1800s) and we still sometimes use the word in the broader sense, but the modern usage certainly tends to reinforce our awareness of the differences between these fields of knowledge rather than highlighting their similarities.  To my mind, this somehow mirrors the modern conception of a decoupling between science and philosophy, a view which has always struck me as somewhere between narrow-minded and deeply flawed.  I find that I far prefer a more general approach to defining our pursuit of knowledge, whatever form that might take.

  • Do you think there’s a good reason to distinguish between natural sciences, social sciences and humanities?
  • How do other languages you know deal with the words “science” and “knowledge”?
  • Do you think there’s such a thing as “literary science”?  Should Shakespeare scholars be called “literary scientists”?

(This post was inspired by HBG Casimir’s essay “When does jam become marmalade?” in A Random Walk in Science.)

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