Saturday, October 4, 2014

Chapter 23 - Strange Footprints: Part 4 - "Yes, We Have No Bananas"

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Alfred recognized the importance of Principia’s technical discussion of propositional functions—previously formulated by Russell—for what he wanted to do. With the notion of a propositional function, Russell had extended the notion of functionality to logical expressions. As Alfred saw, not just expressions in algebra or symbolic logic, but even the statements of everyday language, could be treated as functions with each term constituting a variable with no single value. What made a statement with variable terms a propositional function? Its variable terms rendered the whole expression ambiguous, indeterminate, or in a certain sense ‘meaningless’. A propositional function with variable terms became a proposition only when its terms were given fixed, specific values (became constants). Until then the expression remained neither “true” nor “false”. But problems could arise when indefinite propositional functions got treated as if they were propositions.

This seemed a major source of human disagreements. ‘Meanings’ were not in words. They existed as values assigned to words, consciously or not, by people. Every word used could have many possible ‘meanings’, or rather values, assigned to it by different individuals at one time, or by one individual at different times. Every individual tended to assign his own personal ‘meanings’ and it was easy to unconsciously assume that others intended the ‘same’ thing by the ‘same’ word. Alfred saw that in order to say anything substantive and come to further useful agreement in any discussion, the participants first had to come to some agreement on the ‘meanings’ of their common terms by adequately specifying them—turning their ambiguous propositional functions into definite propositions, i.e., one-valued, ‘true’ or ‘false’ statements. If those in the discussion failed to reach such agreement but acted as if they did, then further confusion and ultimate disagreement were likely. Alfred eventually realized there were issues here which had to be considered outside of formal logic—issues of psychology, social interaction, even physiology.

Going back to the argument at the International Labor Conference: Did “yes” always mean “yes”, or did “yes” sometimes mean “no”? Samuel Gompers had broken up the meeting by answering simply “Yes!” No definite value could be assigned to the variable terms “yes” and “no” outside of the context, which included the logical level of the statement referred to. A “yes” might indeed ‘mean’ “no”, for example as a response to a previous statement about a previous statement. The following year, the popular song “Yes, We Have No Bananas!” provided an excellent illustration of this: Do you have any bananas? “No.” I’m not sure I heard you correctly, did you mean you have no bananas? “Yes, We Have No Bananas!” Keeping the levels clear was often not so easy.

 (Words start at ~3:05)

Alfred had begun to see the importance of what he had started to call “multi-dimensional words” like “yes”, “no”, “truth”, “fact”, “reality”, “class”, “set”, among many others. Without specifically defining such a word according to a particular level of statement it referred to, using such variable terms could lead to what Russell and Whitehead had called “illegitimate totalities”. Alfred would later rename them “multiordinal terms”.

As Whyte noted, “…the crucial point is to achieve clarity about the structure of any system, whether that system is in the external world or in our own mind. And structure means a pattern of relationships with determinable formal properties.”(7) Whitehead and Russell fully agreed on this main theme, but they differed both in personal temperament, and in the broader philosophical consequences to which they were led by their consideration of the world of science and the history of man. It was the crucial point for Korzybski as well. His interest in practical problem-solving in human relations was leading him to seek clarity about the structure of time-binding, which had to include everyday language use. Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica was helping him to achieve clarity. In the Southern California winter of 1921-22, as Alfred incubated his new work, he was also studying the separate works of each man. Let’s look first at Russell’s contribution to Korzybski’s inquiry.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
7. L. L. Whyte 1951, p. 46. 

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