Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Alfred Korzybski

Since discovering Jacque Fresco's genius work and popularizing it as much as I can, I got contacted by an associate of his and I grabbed the chance to ask if his wonderful way of applying the scientific method to language and society was derived in anyway from Korzybski, who also influenced another one of my heroes Robert Anton Wilson so much, the answer was yes. So I'm gonna read this 900+ page monster of a book called Science and Sanity and put up a little post.

Alfred Korzybski was a Polish-American philosopher and scientist most remembered for developing the theory of general semantics (also check E-Prime)

The essence of Korzybski's work was the view that human beings are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems, and (2) the structure of their languages. Human beings cannot experience the world directly, but only through their "abstractions" (nonverbal impressions or "gleanings" derived from the nervous system, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language). Sometimes our perceptions and our languages actually mislead us as to the "facts" with which we must deal. Our understanding of what is going on sometimes lacks similarity of structure with what is actually going on. He stressed training in awareness of abstracting, using techniques that he had derived from his study of mathematics and science. He called this awareness, this goal of his system, "consciousness of abstracting." His system included modifying the way we approach the world, e.g., with an attitude of "I don't know; let's see," to better discover or reflect its realities as shown by modern science. One of these techniques involved becoming inwardly and outwardly quiet, an experience that he called, "silence on the objective levels."

Korzybski and to be
Many supporters and critics of Korzybski reduced his rather complex system to a simple matter of what he said about the verb 'to be.' His system, however, is based primarily on such terminology as the different 'orders of abstraction,' and formulations such as 'consciousness of abstracting.' It is often said that Korzybski opposed the use of the verb "to be," an unfortunate exaggeration. He thought that certain uses of the verb "to be," called the "is of identity" and the "is of predication," were faulty in structure, e.g., a statement such as, "Joe is a fool" (said of a person named 'Joe' who has done something that we regard as foolish). In Korzybski's system, one's assessment of Joe belongs to a higher order of abstraction than Joe himself.

Korzybski's remedy was to deny identity; in this example, to be continually aware that 'Joe' is not what we call him. We find Joe not in the verbal domain, the world of words, but the nonverbal domain (the two, he said, amount to different orders of abstraction). This was expressed in Korzybski's most famous premise, "the map is not the territory." Note that this premise uses the phrase "is not", a form of "to be"; this and many other examples show that he did not intend to abandon "to be" as such. In fact, he expressly said that there were no structural problems with the verb "to be" when used as an auxiliary verb or when used to state existence or location. It was even 'OK' sometimes to use the faulty forms of the verb 'to be,' as long as one was aware of their structural limitations.

One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he suddenly interrupted the lesson in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. "Nice biscuit, don't you think", said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog's head and the words "Dog Cookies".
The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to throw up, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. "You see, ladies and gentlemen", Korzybski remarked, "I have just demonstrated that people don't just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter." Apparently his prank aimed to illustrate how some human suffering originates from the confusion or conflation of linguistic representations of reality and reality itself.

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