Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Not To Study General Semantics

In Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich wrote: 
"To probe a hole we first use a straight stick to see how far it takes us. To probe the visible world we use the assumption that things are simple until they prove to be otherwise." (The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, p. 231)
The point I want to make here with this quote is that one must first use the tool, whether a stick or an assumption or a system of 'thought', i.e., sincerely seeking to understand and apply it (and the understanding and application go hand-in-hand) to see how far it takes us. Only then can one can be in a position to know its limitations and in turn criticize it. 

This relates to learning general semantics, the non-aristotelian study and methodology formulated by Alfred Korzybski in his 1933 book Science and Sanity. Korzybski early realized that one of the main obstacles that people created for themselves in understanding it, applying it—and eventually also realizing its limitations—involved 'abnormal negativistic attitudes',  arguing, verbalizing, and 'philosophizing' about it and in turn rejecting it before applying it.  As he told many people quite early, general semantics involves a practice, a discipline that one needs to train oneself in. A prematurely 'critical'— i.e., negativistic—attitude can prevent one from learning anything new. 

Here is a letter that he wrote to Otis Dixon Phillips on June 21, 1945:
"...I am writing to you to clear up the best I can the problem of 'abnormal negativistic attitudes'. It is a most serious problem and very fundamental in psychiatry, and more so in daily life, usually disregarded. In living life there is such a thing as the 'investigatory reflex', without which life in general, and particularly human life, could not exist in  their most complex environment. This means that to adjust ourselves to environments we have to study the environment, in other words investigate it. If we have the sick negativistic [underlined in original-BIK] attitude we will not investigate, and so never learn by experience.

In the impact of life, if we are not 'open-minded', willing to learn, we are hopeless. In schooling we know that to learn anything we have to be receptive, and therefore not negativistic. A damn fool little boy in school who tries to be a smarty (negativistic) never will learn anything, and so the situation is hopeless. I can do no better to explain, short of a treatise, what negativism can do in life. There is no learning with negativism, and human life depends on learning. 

If you would investigate life and even sick patients in hospitals, you would understand what negativism means. It's really a wrecker of human life. It definitely involves fundamental life issues. Certainly 'abnormal negativistic attitudes' mean much more than a layman, without studying these issues, can understand. 

This is the best I can do to answer you by letter. 

Negativism certainly comes in fundamentally in our work. To undo that is extremely difficult, if at all possible, as it involves a whole reorientation of our attitudes. 

With all best wishes,                                                      
Yours cordially,

Alfred Korzybski"
[AK to Otis Dixon Phillips, June 21, 1945. IGS Archives at Read House, Ft. Worth, Texas]

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