Friday, February 15, 2008

The Fable of the Amoeba

In 1933, Korzybski was preparing to publish his book Science and Sanity. As the epigraph for the book he chose the fable of the Amoeba from Appendix E of Ogden’s and Richard’s The Meaning of Meaning. The quotation had Ogden’s characteristic literary flair (even flamboyance) and playfulness.

In its favor as the epigraph for the book, the fable caught some of the concerns that Korzybski shared with Ogden, Lady Welby (who had first written about “linguistic conscience”) and others in the field of ‘semantics’. However, the quote did not bring out what distinguished Korzybski work, 'general semantics' from these others.

Some years later, many people’s confusion between ‘general semantics’ and ‘semantics' became quite apparent. Korzybski got interested in distinguishing between the two fields as sharply as possible. It didn’t help this to feature Ogden’s fable so prominently in his book. This probably explains why he dropped it in the 1941 Second Edition of Science and Sanity, replacing it with a long quote, “A Voyage to Laputa,” from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This remained as the book’s epigraph in all subsequent editions.

For those who haven't seen it, I include here the fable of the amoeba from The Meaning of Meaning:
Realize thyself, Amœba dear,” said Will: and Amœba realized herself, and there was no Small Change but many Checks on the Bank wherein the wild Time grew and grew and grew. And in the latter days Homo appeared. How, he knew not; and Homo called the change Progress, and the How he called God. . . . for speech was ever a Comforter. And when Homo came to study the parts of speech, he wove himself a noose of Words. And he hearkened to himself, and bowed his head and made abstractions, hypostatizing and glorifying. Thus arose Church and State and Strife upon the Earth; for oftentimes Homo caused Hominem to die for Abstractions hypostatized and glorified: and the children did after the manner of their fathers, for so they had been taught. And last of all Homo began to eat his words.

Now, after much time, there appeared Reason, which said, “Wherefore hast thou done this thing?”
And Homo said “Speech bewrayèd me.”

To whom Reason “Go to now and seek the Doctrine of Symbolism which showeth that the bee buzzeth not in the Head but in the Bonnet.”

But Homo hearkened not, and his sin was the greater in that he was proud and obstinate withal. For as Philosopher and Economist he said—“We will tend to give the matter our careful consideration.” And as Returning Warrior, he asked: “What, grannie, didst thou say in the Great Wars?” And as Plain Man he continued to splash solemnly in the Vocabulary of Ambiguity—and all the while the Noose was tightening and Homo began to grow inarticulate.

Then had Reason compassion on him, and gave him the Linguistic Conscience, and spake again softly: “Go to now, be a Man, Homo! Cast away the Noose of Words which thou has woven, that it strangle thee not. Behold! The Doctrine of Symbolism, which illumineth all things. What are the Laws of Science? Are they not thine own Conceptual Shorthand?
And Man Blushed.

And Reason asked again, “What is Number? Is it not a class of classes: and are not classes themselves thine own convenient Fictions? Consider the Mountain Top—it Hums not neither does it Spin. Cease then to listen for the noise of the humming. Weary not thyself in unravelling the web that never hath been spun.”
And Man replied “Quite.”

Then sang Reason and Man the Hymn 1923, “Glory to Man in the Highest for Man is the Master of Words”—nineteen hundred and twenty-three.
And the sound of the Hymn ringeth yet in our ear.

Thus the Realization of Amœba ended in the Realization of an Error.

“God laughed when he made the Sahara,” says an old African proverb—but Man may yet discover the uses of Dust.

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