The central korzybskian notion of abstracting resonates with the work of Kant, Schopenhauer and other philosophers who had previously explored this epistemological territory.
For example, Schopenhauer, who built upon Kant’s work, very much seemed to be talking about abstracting when he wrote:
‘The world is my idea’ [This has also been translated as ‘The world is my representation’]: this is a truth which holds good for everything that lives and knows, though only man can bring it into reflected, abstract consciousness. If he really does this, philosophical discretion has evolved in him. It then becomes clear to him, and certain, that he knows not a sun, and not an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world which surrounds him exists only as an idea – that is, only in relation to something else, the one who conceives the idea, which is himself." (1)
What, then, makes Korzybski's model of abstracting special?: it brings previous philosophical discussion about epistemology (how we know what we 'think' we know) into a scientific, naturalistic framework, one that is workable both for further research and application in everyday life. My korzybskian transformation of the passage from Schopenhauer reads:
Anything I experience or know about the ‘world’ consists of my abstractions: this truth, as far as I know, holds good for everything that lives and knows, though only a human can bring it into reflected consciousness. If one really does know this, philosophical-scientific-mathematical discretion (consciousness of abstracting) has evolved. It then becomes clear, and as ‘certain’ as anything, that one knows not a ‘sun’, and not an ‘earth’, but only the result of one’s eye-brain-nervous-system transactions with a ‘sun’ and hand-brain-nervous-system transactions with an ‘earth’. Each one of us participates in the ‘world’ as an integral part of it. The ‘world’ (which includes what is called “the body”) exists—as each of us experiences and knows it—only in terms of abstractions at various levels. These abstractions exist only in relation to something else, the one who abstracts, oneself.
This notion of abstracting provides a key for Korzybski’s critique of aristotelianism in philosophy, science and everyday life. (2)
1. The World As Will and Idea. Abridged in One Volume. Ed. & Trans., Berman & Berman. London: Everyman.
2. This passage from Dare to Inquire: Sanity and Survival for the 21st Century and Beyond, p. 157.