The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

8.0 Etymology

8.0/ Etymology

8.1 The Word

8.1.1 Can

8.1.2 Know

8.1.3 Knowledge

8.1.4 Wit

8.1.5 Related & Imported Words

8.2 Findings

8.3 Reconciliation

8.3.1 By the Senses

8.3.2 By the Mind

8.3.3 By the Doing

8.3.4  By the Experience

8.4 Qubit Wit






Symbols gather round the thing to be explained, understood, interpreted.  The act of becoming conscious consists in the concentric grouping of symbols around the object, all circumscribing and describing the unknown from many sides.  Each symbol lays bare another essential side of the object to be grasped, points to another facet of meaning.  Only the canon of these symbols congregating about the center in question, the coherent symbol group, can lead to an understanding of what the symbols point to and of what they are trying to express.

Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, 1954.


* Index & Epithet not in published dissertation

 8.0 Etymology

1.         Michael Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge extends beyond focal/subsidiary use of tools to language.  Polanyi argues language is a pointer “to attend to what it points at, and this is its meaning.”  What language points to and its associated meaning becomes, for Polanyi, “a gestalt-sign”.  Due to psychological displacement or “partial transposition of this experience to a distance”, the object of our attention becomes what we mean (M. Polanyi Oct. 1962, 605).

2.         If, however, we shift attention from what language points to and concentrate instead on the pointer, i.e., the elements of speech, then the meaning of the thing is lost.  As long as language stays subsidiary it is transparent and the “transparent word is like a telescope through which we see its meaning”.  To make explicit such tacit knowledge is to destroy the sign-gestalt (M. Polanyi Oct. 1962, 605). 

3.         To extend the telescope metaphor, there are many different types of telescopes – optical, radio, infra-red, ultra-violet, etc.  Similarly, there are many different human languages, each of which, however, including mathematics (Boulding 1955), is subject to inherent conceptual and other limitations, i.e., to distortion of meaning.  This is certainly the case with English, the language of this work.  Knowledge, as a Platonic abstract noun, is arguably transparent and its meaning appears self-evident - if we do not attend to the origin and meaning of the word itself, i.e., its etymology.  

4.         In what follows I will first place the ‘word’ in the context of language and then provide a detailed etymology of the words ‘to know’, ‘knowledge’ and related terms in English.  The fact that in the seventeen sub-disciplines surveyed for ‘knowledge about knowledge’ there was no etymology of the word highlights how it is treated as a Platonic abstract noun in English.  Nonetheless I recognize that some readers will find a string of definitions tedious and may, with a resulting loss of detail, shift their attention, after section 8.1 The Word, to section 8.3 Reconciliation for my conclusions about ‘knowledge about knowledge’ in English.


8.1 The Word

1.         To know knowledge in English, one begins with the word.  A word, of course, is part of a language that in turn is the foundation of the traditional ‘nation’ or ‘people’, e.g., the Chinese, English, French, German or Japanese language, nation and/or people.  In turn, ‘language’ derives


from the Latin lingua meaning ‘tongue’, i.e., speech or “oral expression of thought or feeling” (OED, language, n 1,1a).  In addition to words or vocabularies, languages differ in their grammar including their syntax, i.e., the ordering of words, and, when reduced to writing, they differ in alphabet (phonetic) and/or script (ideographic), e.g., Cyrillic, Kanji, Mandarin, Roman, etc., and, arguably, mathematics. 

2.         Spoken and written language is a defining feature of our species.  It is the primary but not exclusive means by which human knowledge is expressed and exchanged between individuals and across generations.  Sometimes, however, as with the Logical Positivists, language is treated as synonymous with knowledge leading to other forms being ignored or denied.  Baird calls this “semantic ascent” (Baird 2003, 8).  Nonetheless, “if language-in-use is this all-embracing sort of activity, stylizing most of our other activities as human beings, then man is best defined, not simply as a rational animal but as animal symbolicum - the language-using animal” (Aldrich 1969, 389).

3.         Since the mythic Tower of Babel, language has served to define a nation.  Within a nation, a common language serves to build community, trust and understanding; between nations language creates alienation, confusion, and/or suspicion.  If the primary vehicle for the creation and transmission of knowledge – language – is subject to systemic bias then what one means by ‘knowledge’ differs according to one’s language.  And, as noted by the Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis: “Even accurate translation may be misleading, because in different cultures we use the same word with different meanings.  There is a great danger of misunderstanding” (Lewis 2004).

4.         To cite an example: Kawasaki in his analysis of science education notes that in Japanese there are no proper nouns in the Platonic sense of ‘idealized forms’ (Kawasaki 2002).  Hence abstract concepts such as ‘the computer’ or ‘acceleration’ have meaning in Japanese only as specific experiential cases, not as abstract idealized forms.  He suggests this may explain why the Japanese have excelled in technological innovation but lagged in the pure sciences.  In contrast, the presence of abstract idealized nouns in English may explain why in my survey of seventeen sub-disciplines there was no etymology of the word ‘knowledge’.  In effect, it is treated as a universal, not as a particular.  But the word ‘knowledge’ is, as will be demonstrated, particular to the English language.   

5.         Accordingly, a comparative etymology in all major languages, e.g., Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian and Spanish, is required to provide insight into the nature and meaning of ‘knowledge’ in a global knowledge-based economy.  Ideally, a comprehensive


comparative etymology would embrace all secondary, declining and even extinct languages.  For present purposes, however, I restrict myself to English and to the origin and meaning of four words: can, know, knowledge and wit followed by a survey of related and imported words.  I will then attempt a reconciliation of their meanings.  I draw primarily upon the Oxford English Dictionary (OED 2004) except for a few words whose etymology I derive from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (MWO 2004) including the word ‘science’. 


8.1.1 Can

1.         The verb ‘can’ derives from the same root as ‘to know’, the old English cnáw (OED, can, v, etymology).  The Old Teutonic sense was “to know, know how, be mentally or intellectually able” from which the sense “to be able generally, be physically able, have the power” derives.  This sense of ‘know’ apparently derives from an even early meaning of “I have learned, I have attained to knowledge”.  The ‘know’ sense of ‘can’ has, however, been absorbed by ‘know’ as in ‘know-how’ (OED, can, v. Significance, II, 3).  By contrast, in German, this meaning is retained by a separate verb kennen.  In this sense, much discussion about the ‘knowledge-based economy’ is actually about a ‘know-how’ or ‘can-do’ economy.


8.1.2 Know

1.         The word ‘know’ takes the form of a verb and two nouns in English.  As a verb, it has ancient Teutonic and Aryan roots but is retained only in English.  As has been seen, it shares its root cnáw with ‘can’ (as in ‘know-how’) and also with the obsolete English verb ‘ken’ meaning “to make known, to impart the knowledge” which in Scandinavian displaced ‘to know’ (OED, ken, v.1, 2).  Know, in English, also absorbed the territory of the archaic English verb ‘wit’, the root of the German wissen – to know.  In fact, the English verb ‘know’ covers meanings expressed by two or more verbs in other Teutonic and Romantic languages, e.g., in German wissen, kennen, erkennen, and (in part) können; and in French connaître and savoir.

2.         The OED notes that one group of scholars propose two distinct acts of knowing: knowing by the senses and knowing by the mind.  The first means to perceive or apprehend; the second, to comprehend or understand.  The first derives from the Old English ‘know’ while the second derives from the archaic ‘wit’.  Alternatively, another group of scholars proposes that the only proper object of knowing is a fact or facts derived by reason (OED Signification 2003) in contrast with ‘to believe’ with its sense of emotional rather than intellectual certainty (OED, know, v, III,10a).


3.         The verb ‘know’ has five branches (I-V) with 56 different meanings and sub-meanings.  Each branch begins at about the same time in history.  Within each meanings are presented in the OED sequentially through time (OED, Preface to the Second Edition (1989) General explanations, III. The signification, or senses).  The first branch (I) is rooted in the Old English ‘know’ and involves knowing by the senses primarily meaning ‘to perceive’.  The second (II) corresponds to the French connaître and the German kennen meaning ‘to be acquainted with’ including sexual intimacy or carnal knowledge.  The third (III) is rooted in the archaic English verb ‘wit’ and involves knowing by the mind corresponding to the French savoir and the German wissen.  The fourth (IV) is rooted in the Old English verb ‘can’ meaning ‘know how’.  Finally, the fifth (V) involves use of ‘know’ with prepositions such as know about, know of, etc.

4.         ‘Know’, as a noun, takes two forms.  The first is rooted in the early Middle English cnáw and is related to contemporary use of ‘acknowledgement’ and ‘confession’.  The second is a recent formulation meaning ‘in the know’.


8.1.3 Knowledge

1.         The word ‘knowledge’ takes the form of a verb and a noun.  The OED notes that the origin and relationship between ‘knowledge’ as a verb and noun is problematic but concludes that the verb appeared first.  As a verb ‘knowledge’ has ten meanings and sub-meanings.  The oldest (and obsolete up until now, perhaps) has specific significance for a knowledge-based economy: ‘to own the knowledge of’.  Other obsolete meanings include ‘acknowledge’ and professional recognition, e.g., in medicine and law.

2.         As a noun ‘knowledge’ has three branches and twenty-five meanings and sub-meanings.  The first branch (I) involves the early sense of ‘know’ as a verb, i.e., acknowledgement, recognition and legal cognizance.  The second (II) involves later uses of the verb and involves (i) the fact or condition of knowing as in ‘acquaintance’ including sexual intimacy; and (ii) the object of knowing as information, intelligence, the sum of what is known, branches of learning including the arts and sciences, and a sign, mark or token of identity.  The third (III) involves the use of ‘knowledge’ in combinations such as knowledge power and knowledge base, i.e., the underlying set of facts, assumptions, and inference rules used in a given discipline of thought.


8.1.4 Wit

1.         The word ‘wit’ takes the form of three verbs, a noun and a pronoun.  The first use of the verb ‘to wit’ is archaic except in law where it stands in a formula after the place name of the


venue for a trial.  In general, its archaic meaning of ‘cognizance’ or ‘knowledge of’ has been absorbed by ‘to know’.  The second use is obscure in origin meaning ‘to bequeath’.  The third is current and relates to ‘playing the wit’. 

2.         The OED traces four branches of ‘wit’ as a noun with thirty-four meanings and sub-meanings.  The first branch (I) denotes a mental faculty.  The first meaning is ‘the seat of consciousness or thought, the mind’ (OED, wit, n, I, 1).  The second involves the faculty of thinking while the third involves faculties of perception “classified as outer (outward) or bodily, and inner (inward) or ghostly” (OED I, 3a).  The fourth and final meaning under the first branch concerns the condition of understanding or mental capacity, e.g., sanity as being ‘in one’s right wit’.  The second branch (II) involves ‘wit’ as a quality, e.g., of great mental capacity, wisdom, quickness, quality or lively fancy.  The third (III) is chiefly obsolete involving senses corresponding to the Latin scientia and sentential.  Meanings include learning, departments of knowledge or science as well as the way of thinking corresponding to ‘mind’.  This is the sense of the German wissenschaft meaning learning, science or scholarship.  The fourth and final branch (IV) involves the use of ‘wit’ in combination with other words such as at my wit’s end, wit-loss and wit-jar “an imaginary vessel humorously feigned to contain the wits or senses” (OED, wit, n, IV, 14e).  As a pronoun, ‘wit’ has an obscure relationship to the pronoun ‘we’ as in ‘we two’.


8.1.5 Related & Imported Words

1.         There are several words in English directly related to ‘knowledge’.  Many have been imported from other languages.  They can be grouped according to ‘know by the senses’ and ‘know by the mind’.  The first category – to know by the senses – includes the words: apprehension, conception, perception and science.  Apprehension derives from the French meaning to seize or grasp.  Conception derives from the Latin concipere ‘to conceive’ that, in turn, comes from ‘to take in’ and, as I understand it, colloquially, meant ‘to grasp firmly with the hand’ or, in contemporary Sicilian, ‘to steal’.  Thus ‘a concept’ is a grasping and manipulation with a mental hand.  Perception derives from the Old French out of the Latin meaning ‘to take or receive’.  Science literally means ‘to know’ and derives from the Latin scientia compounded from scindere ‘to split’ or ‘to know’ with the Latin suffix entia that forms nouns of quality (a word derived from the Latin for ‘kind’), i.e., science involves splitting into kinds, types or taxonomies (MWO, science, n).  Arguably, this is the etymological root of reductionism in contemporary science. 


2.         What all four share in common is a grasping and manipulation of the world – inner or outer.  In terms of evolution, using its opposable thumb to grasp and shape parts of the world into tools with which to then manipulate other parts, e.g., to kill game or plant seeds.  Arguably ‘to know by the senses’ involves translation of this original experience of external manipulation into internal psychic or mental manipulation.  This sense of ‘to know’ relates to its fourth branch (OED, know, v, IV) rooted in the Old English verb ‘can’ meaning ‘know how’.

3.         The second category – to know by the mind – includes the words: comprehension, cognition, thinking and understanding.  Comprehension derives from the Latin, and like apprehension, originally meant to seize but in later refinements in Latin and in English took the meaning ‘to grasp with the mind’ (OED, comprehend, v, Etymology).  Cognition derives from the Latin meaning “to get to know”.  Its original English, and present philosophic meaning, is roughly “the action or faculty of knowing; knowledge, consciousness; acquaintance with a subject”.  Suggestively, both the adjective and noun ‘cognate’ involve common descent either of a language or a bloodline.  Thinking derives from the Old English and means “formation and arrangement of ideas in the mind”.  Understanding derives from the Old English and is equivalent to ‘comprehension’


8.2 Findings

1.         From the above, I can report three findings.  First, as a verb ‘to know’ has absorbed many meanings of the archaic verb ‘to wit’.  Thereby, ‘to know by the senses’, in English, has become conflated with ‘to know by the mind’.  As a noun, however, ‘wit’ survives defining the seat of consciousness of a natural person.  This distinction - knowing through the senses vs. knowing through the mind – arguably plays an important role in continuing distinctions between the Liberal and the Mechanical Arts, between Science and Technology and between Management and Labour. 

2.         In addition to absorbing ‘to wit’, ‘know’ has also absorbed the meaning of ‘can’ as in ‘know how’ or ‘can do’.  It also retains its root meaning of to know by acquaintance, i.e., by experience.  Thus in English one verb carries at least four distinct meanings – to know by: the senses, the mind, the doing and the experience.  In German, by contrast, there are separate verbs for each.  The competitiveness implications of this semantic economy is arguably evident in the contrast between the tertiary educational structures in Germany with its wide spread pattern of industrial apprenticeship (Economic Council 1992) and technical universities and their relative absence in the Anglosphere.  My personal interpretation is rooted in a perceived English


language bias reflected in the expression: Gentlemen don’t work with their hands.  By contrast, and based on personal observation, in both Germany and Sweden where a linguistic distinction between different ways of knowing is preserved, the expression would be: One is judged by how well one does something, not by what one does.  Thus linguistic differences reflect cognitive differences in the meaning of ‘to know’ with potentially significant competitiveness implications.

3.         Second, if closely related languages use different verbs for different senses of ‘to know’, then one can reasonably conclude they possess many nouns of subtle meaning not available in English.  These meanings have become lumped together in English into a single word ‘knowledge’ that has become numinous with purpose but confusing due to its multiple meanings. 

4.         If one extends English etymological economy to more distant languages using scripts other than the Roman alphabet, then the distinct and subtle differentiations of ‘knowledge’ may simply not be capable of translation, e.g., in Cantonese, Hindi, Mandarin, Russian, Thai, etc.  It becomes ‘local’ knowledge specific to a nation, to a people, and available only for domestic exploitation in a knowledge-based economy.  All polymorphous forms and linguistic expressions of ‘knowledge’ are raw inputs (and final consumer goods) in a knowledge-based economy.  Given the rate at which human languages are becoming extinct, however, many subtle meanings of ‘knowledge’ are lost every year, perhaps forever. (Sampat 2001)

5.         Three, two disconnected etymological findings need to be reported.  The first set concerns the relationship between ‘knowledge’, ‘ignorance’, ‘belief’ and ‘opinion’.  Ignorance is quite simply “the want of knowledge” (OED, ignorance, 1a).  And if ‘knowledge’ derives from reason then ‘belief’ derives from some other faculty yet is held with emotional certainty (OED know, v., 10a).  Similarly, while opinion may derive from reason or other faculties it is held as a probability, not a certainty (OED opinion, n., 1a).  The second set of observations involves the fact that the OED defines economy, economist and econometrician but not economics.  Economy is defined as management of the household and an economist as the manager of that household.  Econometrics is defined as application of mathematics to economic data or theories.  While economics is not formally defined, political economy is: “originally the art or practical science of managing the resources of a nation so as to increase its material prosperity; in more recent use, the theoretical science dealing with the laws that regulate the production and distribution of wealth” (OED, economy, 3).


8.3 Reconciliation

1.         There emerge four primary meanings for ‘to know’ by: (i) the senses; (ii) the mind; (iii) the doing; and, (iv) the experience.  All are reconciled in an individual human being.  They organically interact, e.g., some people read best (know by the mind) when they can physically handle a text (know by the senses) rather than simply see it on a screen.  Each sense, in turn, generates demand for knowledge-based goods and services.  In this perspective, no aesthetic, moral, philosophic or scientific inhibitions apply to choice, i.e., taste does not matter in that all tastes are admitted and thus one person’s pleasure may indeed be another’s pain. 

2.         In this regard, from a welfare economist's perspective, there are two types of social behavior.  First are onerous activities not performed for inherent satisfaction but only for what they yield, i.e. work.  Thus the disutility of work is compensated by a pay check.  Second, there are activities that are the opposite of work.  They give satisfaction to those performing them.  In turn there are two types of such activities.  The first are antisocial activities that give pleasure by inflicting pain or suffering on others.  Social costs usually outweigh benefits because benefits are transitory while suffering is often long lasting or permanent.  Then there are social activities that impose no physical burden or harm on anyone yet can give satisfaction or pleasure to all.  They include the most benign and valuable of human activities such as love, learning and the Arts (Scitovsky 1989).

3.         What matters, however, is that a human want, need or desire to know exists and thereby an economic opportunity is created for producers to satisfy that need, subject to limited means and the law.  I will examine each in turn.


8.3.1 By the Senses

1.         The physical senses of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell are the elemental means by which an organism knows its external environment and the state of its internal health.  Ontologically, external stimuli affecting one or more of these senses tend to combine, over time and through experience, to form patterns recognized by the individual as pleasurable or painful.  Phylogenetically, pre-programmed recognition of such pain/pleasure patterns may become engrammed into the genetic code of a species.  At the level of the senses, an organism wants to know pleasure and avoid pain.  From this elemental analysis one can deduce that in human culture pleasure industries will evolve to satisfy the need to know pleasure.  Sex, drugs and rock’n roll are examples as are the perfume and food industries.  Of course, knowledge of short-


term pleasure may have costs that cannot be fully assessed by the senses alone, e.g., long-term physical or moral debilitation. 

2.         In this regard, aesthetics, custom and morality play a more critical role than law in defining what is too much or goes too far.  For example, if one considers obscenity in the Anglosphere, the Christian past steps boldly forward as ‘community standards’.  These limit what an artist may express without fear of criminal prosecution.  And what are the heresies of which no one should speak?  Generally, sexual and scatalogical functions of the human body - created in the image of God.  Yet images offensive in the Anglosphere may be symbols of God's glory in others, e.g., full-penetration displayed in paintings or sculpture in ancient Hindu temples.  What is Christian sin (and until recently crime) may be Buddhist or Islamic virtue, and, of course, vice versa.  Failure to respect tacit social constraints has doomed many international business ventures.

3.         The physical senses exhibit acute subjectivity, e.g., what is hot to you may feel cold to me.  Perhaps the most significant social contribution of the Scientific Revolution was scientific instruments that measure physical sensations – touch, tastes, smells, sights and sounds  - at levels of perception at, above, below and beyond our genetic endowment.  They do so, after calibration, without intermediation by a human subject – poet, playwright, philosopher or Pope.  Thus while it may be hot for you and cold for me, the thermometer objectively tells us both that it is 20 degrees Celsius.  This development has had an immense metaphysical effect on Western culture.  Before the instrumental experimental scientific revolution, truth and certainty were the domain of reason (logic) and/or revelation (religion); afterwards, with respect to the physical sense, they became the domain of the machine.


8.3.2 By the Mind

1.         Mind is defined as the:

seat of awareness, thought, volition, feeling, and memory; cognitive and emotional phenomena and powers considered as constituting a presiding influence; the mental faculty of a human being (esp. as regarded as being separate from the physical); (occas.) this whole system as constituting a person's character or individuality. (OED, mind, n, 1, IV, 19a) 

This roughly corresponds to the obsolete meaning of ‘wit’ as the: “seat of consciousness or thought, the mind.” (OED, wit, n, I, 1).

2.         In a way, ‘mind’ is the secular expression of ‘soul’ or Descartes ‘ghost in the machine’.  As previously noted, the uni-dimensionality of thought with Space folded up into Time produces, perhaps the sense of the ethereal, spiritual or transcendental.  Nonetheless, whether a


divine spark or an epiphenomenon of brain structure resulting from circular causality, mind exists on a cognitive plane different from that of the physical senses.  It relies on “inner (inward) or ghostly” senses’ (OED, wit, n, I, 3) captured by the equally obsolete word ‘inwit’ meaning, alternatively, ‘conscience or inward sense of right and wrong’ or, ‘reason, intellect, understanding; wisdom’ (OED, inwit, 1 & 2a).

3.         As with the five outer or physical senses, each of the five inward senses – conscience, reason, intellect, understanding and wisdom – create wants, needs and desires to know.  In turn this creates an economic opportunity for knowledge-based goods and services to satisfy such needs including the education, spiritual, self-help and science industries.


8.3.3 By the Doing

1.         If to know by the senses derives from the original meaning of ‘to know’ and to know by the mind from ‘wit’ then to know by doing derives from ‘can’.  Quoting Richard Feynman, Baird notes: “What I cannot create I do not understand” (Baird 2004, 113).  Knowing by doing, however, involves the tacit knowledge of performance.  The classic example in the philosophies of science and technology is the existential phenomenology of the hammer (Heidegger 1927; Polanyi 1962a, 174-75).  This involves praxis or the “practice or exercise of a technical subject or art, as distinct from the theory of it” (OED, praxis, 1a).  Such knowledge cannot usually be fully codified.  Often, however, it can be demonstrated through apprenticeship programs and master classes.  Even in the natural and engineering sciences much knowledge can be attained only through doing.  This, for example, was the experience of Cambrosio in his investigation of hybridomas technology (Cambrosio & Keating 1988, 249).


8.3.4 By the Experience

1.         To know by experience encompasses all three previous meanings of to know: by the senses, mind and doing.  Experience involves memory as both neuronal bundles and the trained reflexes of nerve and muscle.  In both pattern recognition is engaged.  To know by the senses means, among other things to: “perceive (a thing or person) as identical with one perceived before” (OED, know, v, I, 1) as well as acquainted or familiar with (OED. know, v, II, 5) including sexual knowledge (OED, know, v, II, 7).  With respect to ‘knowing by the mind’, an obsolete meaning of ‘mind’ is “the faculty of memory’ (OED, mind, n, 1, 2).


8.4 Qubit WIT

1.         All four meanings co-exist, are entangled, in an individual human being.  Each, however, generates distinct and sometimes conflicting wants, needs or desires to know. Each, therefore, offers distinct opportunities for producers to satisfy such wants.

2.         Collectively, the balance or blend of these ways of knowing constitutes our first knowledge qubit, the WIT.  It is a qubitic or four-fold measure of the meaning of knowledge in the English language, i.e., by the Senses, Mind, Doing and Experience. 

3.         Given the importance of language in theories of knowledge, e.g., Logical Positivism, the WIT is, by definition, a limited English language construct.  In other languages there are probably senses of ‘to know’ expressed in English only with great difficulty, if at all.  The Logical Positivists attempted to overcome this problem by restricting themselves to the language of mathematics.  Mathematics, however, is a subset of language, not the other way around. 



9.0 Psychology

The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy