Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chapter 56 - Time To Try New Things: Part 4 - The Process of Abstracting

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.

The July seminar-workshop was notable for more than its new structure. Korzybski also produced a mimeographed handout for an important new visualization, to use with the structural differential, for conveying the process of abstracting. As a partly iconic, visual (and kinesthetic) representation of Korzybski’s system, nothing had seemed to match the differential as a training device—once students understood the distinctions and relationships represented. There was the rub. Some basic and persistent misunderstandings of the differential by students had vexed him for several years. The origin of Korzybski’s new diagrammatic formulation of abstracting came from his attempt to deal with some of these issues, particularly brought to the fore by Hayakawa’s work.

He described part of the problem in a May 24 letter to Robert Lee Durham, President of the Southern Seminary and Junior College in Buena Vista, Virginia, who had sent a letter asking about some fundamental issues related to identity and identification:
You know from Science and Sanity the structural differential. On top there is the event, then comes the ‘object’, and then follow higher and higher order abstractions. On a printed page the ‘higher’ go ‘down’. A great many students are somehow confused because higher and higher abstractions in a diagram go physically lower and lower on a printed page. In the lithographed edition [1939] of Hayakawa’s Language in Action the differential was given the way it was in Science and Sanity, from the top of the page down, which was correct. He was pestered by his students on this subject. Somehow he did not know the answer, so in the printed text edition of his book on page 96 he turned around the differential and put in print: ‘Start reading from bottom UP’. Why in the dickens then do it, when normally you read from up down? The answer is the unconscious assumption trained in us in a pre-scientific orientation; namely, the earth is flat and so ‘up’ and ‘down’ have absolute value, while on a spherical earth they have only relative value. (9) 

In the later editions of his book, Hayakawa had further compounded the problem of reversing the Structural Differential by renaming it “The Abstraction Ladder”, a metaphor that reified the unconscious assumption of absolute ‘up’ and ‘down’ and obscured the process aspect of abstracting. Hayakawa’s ladder metaphor effectively eliminated the circularity of human knowledge, the important connection between the highest and lowest levels in the process. In subsequent editions of the book, Hayakawa even used a picture of a ladder with a little man seemingly stranded at the top.

The structure of a representation could radically change what got expressed. Korzybski had long warned his students about the dangers of translating the non-aristotelian system into the old elementalistic distinctions and terminology. To a significant extent, Hayakawa had so far—and would continue—to do exactly that. Korzybski had advised speaking in terms of “evaluation”. But in Language in Action, Hayakawa continued to talk about ‘meaning’ without quotes (easier to forget about a ‘meaning-maker’). Korzybski had built his terminology distinguishing different orientations (extensional versus intensional), from the prior distinction between extensional and intensional definitions. He had rejected the distinction of ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ as elementalistic and confusing, since it depended on what he considered a faulty distinction between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ factors. But Hayakawa built his discussion in terms of ‘extensional meaning’ or ‘denotation’ and ‘intensional meaning’ or ‘connotation’. Hayakawa wrote:
The extensional meaning of a word or expression is that which it points to (denotes) in the extensional [physical] world...[it] cannot be expressed in words, because it is that which the words stand for...The intensional meaning of a word or expression, on the other hand, is that which is suggested (connoted) in the mind. (10

If one accepted Korzybski’s contention that any definition (extensional or intensional) evaluated—by someone—had a neurological context, one could not continue to distinguish ‘denotation’ from ‘connotation’ in the way Hayakawa had done. Using Hayakawa’s elementalistic terms in quotes, any ‘meanings’ had to exist ‘in the mind’, i.e., ‘inside someone’s head’. Talking about ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ in the way Hayakawa did, implied a sharp distinction between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ factors that didn’t exist, even if most people felt familiar and comfortable with those terms.

Hayakawa’s presentation of ‘general semantics’ had other related problems, including: his under-emphasis of non-verbal levels of abstracting; his emphasis on individual words rather than statements to illustrate different levels of verbal abstraction (potentially very misleading since determining the level of abstraction of one word compared to another required a larger context); his under-emphasis on the constructive as well as the ‘leaving out’ aspects of abstracting; his failure to connect mapping to the process of abstracting; his relative neglect of self-reflexiveness and complete neglect of multiordinality; his neglect of the elementalism/non-elementalism distinction and his persistent use of elementalistic formulations (e.g., talking about ‘affective’, ‘informational’, ‘directive’ and ‘pre-symbolic’ dimensions of language as if these could exist as entirely separate forms); his persistence in formulating elementalistically in terms of ‘meaning’ (he could have remedied this somewhat by using quotes but in the book he had neither discussed nor used single quotes or hyphens as safety devices); his interchangeable use of ‘semantics’ with ‘general semantics’ long after Korzybski had warned him and others about the confusion it caused; et cetera.

According to Kendig, as early as 1943 “as he said at the time, [Korzybski] was ‘struggling how to put his finger on’—how to convey to a writer—the hidden confusions in a manuscript about poetry and science.”(11) She nigh surely was referring to Hayakawa as the writer and to his article “Poetry and Science” published in 1942 in the English Institute Annual, which he reprinted in the Summer 1944 volume of ETC. After grappling with these issues for about a year, Korzybski presented his new diagram to the first summer seminar-workshop class. With a revision of it in 1946 (to bring in feedback interactions and interplay among the levels) and further explanatory text then and in 1950, the diagram became a centerpiece of his teaching in seminars and in his writing until the end of his life. Using it as an adjunct to the Structural Differential, he wanted to make as clear as possible the notion of abstracting as a neurological process.

The Process of Abstracting, 
by Alfred Korzybski (1946,1950)

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. 
9. AK to Robert Lee Durham, 5/24/1944. IGS Archives. 

10. Language in Action (1940), p. 27 

11. Kendig, Foreword to Korzybski’s “An Extensional Analysis..., in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 565.

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