“Science” – Etymology

I’ve found an odd linguistic connection while trawling through Buddhist theories of economics and social organisation. It turns out that the suffix to the various forms of science in modern day Indian languages, “Śāstra”, originally meant something like “sharp”, an instrument for cutting or teaching. We say now of people, “she has a sharp mind”, meaning that the individual in question is intelligent. Buddhadasa Bhikku outlines this notion in the following paragraph:

“The term sāstra originally meant something sharp … When sastra is applied to society as sangham-sāstra (social sciences, it means something sharp for cutting through problems. Thus the social sciences are something sharp for cutting through social problems, bringing together all aspects of society as social sciences, such as politics, economics, culture, or even religion. Politics is one social science which can cut through social problems very effectively.”

This almost directly mirrors our own etymology for our word for the same, science. Science derives from the Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” from sciens (genitive scientis) “intelligent, skilled,” present participle of scire “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide,” from PIE root *skei- “to cut, to split” (source also of Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave,” Gothic skaidan, Old English sceadan “to divide, separate;”

Both these words point to the underlying attitude of science and scientific thinking, which is to divide the world into “bits” for the purposes of measurement and counting. The operation of science is one of placing a grid of sorts over the wiggly world, and over time making that grid finer and finer to reliably measure more and more fine detail in the area of reality one is choosing to study.

I wonder what else we can discover from similar relationships and etymologies, from the puns coded deep into the structure of our speech

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5 thoughts on ““Science” – Etymology

  1. I realize this is not exactly on topic, but you do mention “The operation of science is one of placing a grid of sorts over the wiggly world, and over time making that grid finer and finer to reliably measure more and more fine detail in the area of reality one is choosing to study.” While this seems the right way to go, it’s actually very destructive to knowledge, as in, not being to see the forest for the trees. Creating a plethora of “experts” in ever narrowing fields of study, increasingly separate from one another until finally nothing being “studied” relates to anything else and “science” becomes nothing more than a number of religions with their own cults and sub-cults, with researchers increasingly doctoring their findings to beat the other guys, or get that larger prize offered by “Monsanto” or the military industrial complex, and etc…. i.e., corruption.

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