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INSIGHTS BLOG > Ideas Need Language: The Discovery of Discovery in Both Name and Concept

Ideas Need Language: The Discovery of Discovery in Both Name and Concept

Written on 16 August 2023

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD


A revolution in ideas requires a revolution in language. 

-- David Wotton, The Invention of Science


The earliest humans could gaze up into the skies at night and see the stars and other heavenly bodies, but they could only muse about their origin and nature. 

The Babylonians were reportedly the first to recognize there was a difference between stars and orbiting bodies: Babylonian tablets from the 7th to the 1st century BC have been found containing tabulated positions over time of the sun, moon, planets, and other meteorological phenomena.[1] To distinguish among these celestial orbs – the stars vs. the sun vs. the moon vs. the planets – the Babylonians needed to create a new language to conceptualize, distinguish, and communicate about these differences, presumably represented in the tablets by different signs for each type of body. That is, new concepts (differences between the stars and the planets) require new language to communicate about them (different terms for stars and planets).

Science and Discovery Are Defined

In his treatise, Physics, and his other works, Aristotle (4th century BC) provided a theoretical framework for the conceptualization of nature, asserting to capture “almost all there is to know about the world.”[2] Aristotle started by specifying what he meant by nature, then by using deductive reasoning, he established a language for and conceptualization of the world of nature,[3] the same method used by other philosophers of the time to “create” new knowledge. That is, the world was “discovered” using the mind (i.e., thinking through concepts), rather than using the senses (i.e., interacting with the world).

Aristotle’s purpose in creating his various discourses was to understand how the world worked, purely for the sake of knowing – without a thought for changing – nature.[4] In his writings he used the term science to mean what he referred to as demonstrable knowledge, where demonstrable meant obtained from deductive reasoning.[5] Within this framework, one could uncover or clarify information about what already existed, but, since one was not actually interacting with the outside world, one would not discover or invent anything new. In particular, people simply took the world as given and reacted accordingly. 

Aristotle’s conceptualization of nature, science, and discovery served as the basis for science and natural philosophy for the next thousand years.[6]

Science and Discovery Are Redefined

The dissolution of the Mongolian Empire (end of the 14th century), together with the fall of Constantinople (1453), closed off routes that had historically been used by Europeans to trade with the East. This prompted an Age of Discovery (15th – 16th centuries) – a plethora of maritime expeditions – in search of new trade routes to the West.[7] These explorations came at a time in which other social disruptions were occurring, namely, radical changes in people’s attitudes toward knowledge and truth: During the Scientific Revolution (16th – 17th centuries), it was no longer sufficient for knowledge and truth to be established through tradition, authority, or logical reasoning. Instead, the new natural philosophers who practiced science insisted on testing well-reasoned hypotheses by using objectively designed, reproducible experiments to establish what was true about the world around them.[8]

Isaac Newton (1642–1726) was a pivotal figure during this time, because his laws of motion established that there were laws of nature governing the way the world worked – there was actually a method to the madness, so to speak. For the first time, people could conceive of the idea of manipulating and controlling nature – adapting nature proactively, not simply reacting to it passively – to serve their needs.

With its explosion in new conceptualizations about the environment and how to better go about understanding it and adapting it, the new era needed a new language for people to effectively communicate about what we now call sciencescientists, and inventions

In fact, the term discovery was not an established concept until Columbus discovered the New World in 1492:[9]

In modern translation these words are often represented by the word ‘discovery’, but this obscured the fact that in 1492 ‘discovery’ was not an established concept. More than a hundred years later, Galileo [1564 - 1642] still needed, when writing in Latin, to use convoluted phrases such as ‘unknown to all astronomers before me’ to convey it. 

The core meaning of ‘discovery’, after 1492, is not just an uncovering or a finding out: someone who announces a discovery is, like Columbus, claiming to have got there first, and to have opened the way for all those who will follow… Discoveries are moments in an historical process that is intended to be irreversible…

As previously noted, the terms sciencephilosopher, and natural philosophy had been used since the time of Aristotle to describe the subject practiced by philosophers of using deduction and reasoning – rather than physical interaction– to gain new insights about the world. During the Age of Discovery and the Scientific Revolution, in contrast, what we now refer to as scientists who practice science and create new inventions and discoveries – by specifically interacting with the world around them – were still labeled using the same terms sciencephilosopher, and natural philosophy. However, the terms now had very different meanings, which, not surprisingly, created confusion. 

For over 300 years, people recognized the need to establish a new language to distinguish the new science from that of the old; yet, they couldn’t settle on which new language to use. “The problem was that finding a suitable word – one that did not already have a different usage and was properly constructed…”[10]

In 1834, William Whewell first proposed the term scientist, a new word, to describe those engaged in science. Whewell reasoned that by analogy with artist, a man of science should be called a scientist. Yet, it took 75 years of wrangling, until around 1910, before the term scientist was finally accepted into formal discourse.[11]

A Proliferation of New Ideas and New Language

In addition to Wootton’s insightful remark at the begin of this commentary, that “a revolution in ideas requires a revolution in language,” another comment of his is revealing: [12]

Thus historians who take language seriously need to search out the emergence of new languages, which must represent transformations in what people can think and how they can conceptualize their world.

One can imagine how the number of new terms and concepts must have rapidly expanded as people started interacting with the world as never before, inventing new concepts and new knowledge, during the Scientific Revolution and through the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolutions, and into the Age of Information. It would be interesting to see a consistent count of words in the English language over time to see how it has increased with our knowledge of the world. Unfortunately, with all its prefixes, suffixes, foreign words, and such, counting the number of words, say, in the dictionary is a slippery process. 

Interestingly, the first single-language English dictionary was published in 1604 and contained 3,000 words.[13] In 1806, Webster published the first American dictionary, which contained 70,000 entries.[14] That’s an increase of about 330 words each year during the period. More recently, over the past several years, and Merriam-Webster report adding several hundred (300 - 400) new words to their dictionaries each month.[15] One interpretation of this is that knowledge is expanding over 10 times as rapidly today as it was 200 years ago.

A more objective, if less satisfying, measure than word counts of the increasing extent of our relationship with the world is a count of patents over time. England first established a patent office in 1440 and issued its first patent in 1449[16] (I wonder what that patent was for?), while the US established a patent office in 1790 and issued its first patent that same year (to Samuel Hopkins of Vermont for a process of making potash, an ingredient used in fertilization).[17] Figures 1 and 2 present annual patent counts for the US and for countries in the UK. (A count of number of academic journal articles published for the 1900 – 2020 period is similar to that of patent counts.[18])

Figure 1

1 us uk patents

Figure 2

2 us patents

Clearly, scientists have discovered so much new information over the centuries – and with it, vast amounts of new language have been invented to characterize the new knowledge. And as much new information and language that has already been discovered, the rate of new discoveries and new language is actually increasing. 

Here are a few areas in which scientists are currently generating phenomenal amounts of new information and new language: 

  • The Internet: The advent of the internet, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, and the consequent increasing transition of global activities out of the physical world and into the virtual world has caused a complete social disruption. The internet has fundamentally changed – and continues to change – the way we communicate, socialize, and transact with each other. 
  • Neuroscience: The development of neuroimaging technologies, especially since the 1990s, has spawned huge increases in research into cognitive functioning, including mapping of the brain and trying to understand how memory, mobility, language, emotions, sensory input, and other phenomena occur.
  • Cannabis: The discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) during the late 1980s-early 1990s has generated tremendous amounts of research that’s radically changing the way scientists understand homeostasis and the effects of ECS system interactivity with the rest of the body. 
  • PsychedelicsAround the same time the ECS was discovered and neuroimaging technologies were gaining traction, research into how psychedelics affect the brain and the nature of consciousness were relaunched after having been halted during the 1960s.

Of course, in each of these areas new language is continually being created to describe the new knowledge and concepts being discovered. And the beauty of the world we currently live in is such that all this new knowledge and language are being quickly and easily disseminated through the proliferation of glossaries devoted to providing explanations of the new concepts and associated terminology. For example, Google searches yield the following numbers of hits:

  • Glossary of internet terms: 221 million hits
  • Glossary of neuroscience terms: 1.5 million hits
  • Glossary of cannabis terms: 1.1 million hits
  • Glossary of psychedelics terms: 1.9 million hits

The current pace of discovery of new ideas and new language makes it hard to imagine what the world will look like in even ten years!



[1] Swerdlow, N.M. (1998). The Babylonian Theory of the Planets. Princeton University Press.

[2] Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy. (2023, Apr 24). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Aristotle (350 CBE). Physics. MIT Classics.

[4] Wotton, David (2015). The Invention of Science. HarperCollins. pp. 25-6

[5] Ross, Sydney (1962, Jun). Scientist: The Story of a Word. Annals of Science.

[6] Scientific Method. (2021, Jun 1). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[7] Sheriff R. E. et al (2023, Aug 3). The Age of Discovery. Britannica.

[8] Scientific Method. (2021, Jun 1). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[9] Wotton, David (2015). The Invention of Science. HarperCollins. pp. 58-61

[10] Wotton, David (2015). The Invention of Science. HarperCollins. pp. 25-6

[11] Ross, Sydney (1962, Jun). Scientist: The Story of a Word. Annals of Science.

[12] Wotton, David (2015). The Invention of Science. HarperCollins. p. 48

[13] Cawdrey's 'Table Alphabeticall' (early dictionary): 1604. (n.d.). British Library Board.

[14] About Us. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster.

[15] Winter 2023 New Words: “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once”. (2023, Feb 28). Dictionary.com, From The Discourse To The Dictionary: Fall 2022 New Words. (2022, Oct. 4)., Federico-O'Murchú, Seán (2021, Oct 28). Merriam-Webster adds 455 new words to the dictionary, including ‘fluffernutter’ and ‘dad bod’. CNN.

[16] The intellectual Property Office (formerly known as the Patent Office): The Patent Process.(n.d.). Innovate Product Design.

[17] Anniversary of the First Patent Issued in the United States.(2022, Jul 29). Gov Info.