Thursday, January 1, 2015

Chapter 38 - "General Semantics": Part 2 - A General Theory of Evaluation

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.

Evaluation seemed like it would do the job since it implied some ‘cognitive’ effort connected with values. “Evaluation”, unlike “cognition”, non-elementalistically implied ‘feeling’ operating together with ‘thinking’. Korzybski’s work constituted a general theory of non-elementalistic evaluation. As he would emphasize some years later: 
Abstracting by necessity involves evaluating, whether conscious or not, and so the process of abstracting may be considered as a process of evaluating stimuli, whether it be a “toothache,” “an attack of migraine,” or the reading of a “philosophical treatise.”(2) 

In Korzybski’s usage, evaluating did not require language. Both animals and pre-verbal human infants evaluated—had evaluational reactions—as much as any linguistically-capable adult human did. The difference between animal and human evaluating was roughly indicated in the greater stratification and variety of human reactions connected with symbolism/language. Even when human symbolism/language was involved, evaluation was not mainly a matter of words:
Our actual lives are lived entirely on the objective levels [represented by the circle on the structural differential], including the un-speakable ‘feelings’, ‘emotions’ ., [etc.,] the verbal levels being only auxiliary, and effective only if they are translated back into first order un-speakable effects, such as an object, an action, a ‘feeling’., all on the silent and un-speakable objective levels. (3) 

As a term equivalent to ‘evaluational’, he decided to use the adjective ‘semantic’, without the final “s”, as a modifier to other words, as in “semantic (evaluational) ills”, “semantic (evaluational) blockages”, “semantic (evaluational) flexibility”, etc. In the first half of 1931, perhaps due to his long mulling over of Pavlov’s reflexology, he had begun formulating about evaluation in general in terms of “semantic reflexes”. But by August he decided the implications of the term “reflex” (two-valued, on-off, etc.) couldn’t adequately cover the variety and complexity of human evaluation—no matter how often people seemed to indulge in “knee jerk” responses. The more general term “reaction” covered reflexes as well as more complex states of behavior. The term “semantic reaction(s)”, which he abbreviated as “s.r”, referred to the non-elementalistic and un-speakable reactions to words, symbols, and other events he had been concerning himself with.

Now he had a name beside “evaluation” for the behavioral focus of his work: “The non-el study of the s.r becomes an extremely general scientific discipline.…The present work is written entirely from the s.r point of view;…”(4) As for the name of his work, he would call the general study of semantic reactions, general semantics. He added a long section “On semantic reactions” which became the largest part of Chapter II, “Terminology and Meanings”. Then he went through another round of replenishing the manuscript., changing mentions of ‘thought(s)’ and ‘feeling(s)’ to “semantic reaction(s)”or “s.r”and putting in “semantic,” and “semantically” where they seemed to fit to emphasize his evaluational thrust.

Korzybski had derived his choice of terms from the Greek root, semainein (to mean, to signify). He had wanted to give a historical nod to pioneers in the study of ‘meaning’— Michel Bréal, Ogden and Richards, Lady Victoria Welby, logicians like Chwistek, etc.—although he hadn’t been influenced by any of them in any significant way. Their studies were mainly concerned with more or less elementalistic linguistic and symbolic meanings. ‘Meanings’ or significations could certainly be ‘stretched’ to include the non-verbal, neurological, evaluative responses to events—including language and other symbols—that Korzybski was interested in. But the term ‘semantic(s)’ had so much historical baggage related to linguistic meanings, the history of words, etc., that many people would find it hard to put that aside in considering Korzybski’s use of semantic reaction and general semantics. As a result, the principle of least effort tended to operate. Many people, supporters and critics alike, would confuse Korzybski’s work with the more elementalistic studies of verbal and philosophical “semantics”. (In the first few years after the book came out, Korzybski may have added to the confusion himself—at times casually using “semantics” to refer to his own work.)

Nonetheless, in the book, he had made it abundantly clear: any s.r, i.e., semantic (evaluational) reaction, constituted an un-speakable, psycho-logical response to an event with “a number of aspects, an ‘affective’, and an ‘intellectual’, a physiological, a colloidal, and what not.”(5) It was not words, although any response to words or symbolism necessarily involved s.r. One could go through the text and find numerous examples (almost any reference to s.r) where he explicitly differentiated “language” from the “s.r” connected with it. Discussing the different forms of identification, he made sure to note that one form of it involved “the identification of our s.r and states with words…”(6) 

Insofar as he was dealing with issues of language, Korzybski had thus taken an organismic tack radically different from the approach of the verbally-oriented “semanticists”. Language related to general behavior because, “In different people, through experience, associations, relations, meanings, and s.r are built into some symbol.”(7) At a relatively ‘low’ order of response, say “For the infant, a cry or a word becomes semantic magic. In Pavlov’s language, a word governs a conditional reflex.”(8) Unless this mechanism was understood, adults also seemed likely to respond to language in a similar reflex manner. This was why Korzybski harped so much on the importance of people retraining themselves with the structural differential and consciously using his terminology and the various linguistic devices he had proposed, if they wanted to change their s.r for the better:
We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of s.r and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us. This semantic power is indeed so unbelievable that I do not know any one, even among well-trained scientists, who, after having admitted some argument as correct, does not the next minute deny or disregard (usually unconsciously) practically every word he had admitted, being carried away again by the structural implications of the old language and his s.r . (9)  

Many of the people, some of them ‘followers’, who insisted on calling Korzybski’s work “semantics”, exhibited this kind of mechanism. Their continued use of the old terminology led to an abundance of confused s.r and became an obstacle to understanding and using Korzybski’s system. Korzybski would end up expending considerable effort trying to correct the confusion. For one thing, soon after the book came out he began writing about “neuro-semantic” and “neuro-linguistic” factors, reactions, issues, etc., (see his 1934-1935 “Outline of General Semantics”). Appending “neuro-” to “semantic” and “linguistic” gave these terms a more explicit, organism-as-a-whole connection to evaluation. His use of the two terms, usually side by side, indicated somewhat different but related aspects of evaluation with the neuro-linguistic realm a subset of the neuro-semantic. This new usage would lead to some new and fruitful formulating—by 1940 he had begun to explicitly talk about human cultures in terms of neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environments. Neuro-semantic environments, for example, included not just linguistic factors as such but any of the media later explored by Marshall McLuhan and other “media ecologists”. In the 1930s, after the book was published, Korzybski also devised a non-verbal practice he called “semantic relaxation” or “neuro-semantic relaxation.” This form of muscular manipulation used to reduce ‘emotional’ tensions would be hard to understand for anyone who, in regard to Korzybski’s work, insisted “semantics” had to have something directly to do with language and an elementalistic approach to linguistic ‘meaning’.

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. 
2. “The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes”, in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 686. 

3. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 35. 

4. Ibid., p. 25. 

5. Ibid., p. 23. 

6. Ibid., p. 456.

7. Ibid., p. 513. 

8. Ibid., p. 512. 

9. Ibid., pp. 90–91. 

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1 comment:

Jeff Mordkowitz said...

For a posthumous view on Korzybski and "semantics," you may want to look at an article I wrote for the General Semantics Bulletin: