Saturday, December 27, 2014

Chapter 37 - Knowledge, Uncertainty, And Courage: Part 2 - Knowledge

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.

Keyser had stated the basic structural-relational premise: “To be is to be related.”(5) The premise of non-elementalism—“There is no such thing as an object in absolute isolation.”(6)—could be viewed as a corollary. One important example of non-elementalism related to human knowledge. The classical interpretation of ‘objectivity’ tended to treat knowledge as if it existed in absolute isolation from human observers/formulators in their contexts of time and place. This view had to go. 

Korzybski had accepted that “…all we know is a joint phenomenon of the observer and the observed,...”(7) One could no longer study how people know what they presume they know (epistemology) without scientific understanding (at a given date) of the ‘physical’, ‘neuro-biological’, ‘psycho-social’, ‘linguistic,’ etc., factors affecting human observers. Over the past decade, the observer-observed relation had remained the constant focus of Korzybski’s scientific, epistemological research on the process of abstracting in science, maladjustment, and daily life. 

Korzybski’s new emphasis on structure gave him greater clarity about the relations between the inferred process universe and the different levels of abstraction. As he replenished the book in 1930, he realized that as a multiordinal term, “structure” could refer equally to any of the different vertically arranged levels of the Anthropometer—the presumed structure of the process world (represented by the parabola), the implied structure of the nervous system, the structure of non-verbal ‘objective’ level experience (the circles), the structure of a language in its representational aspects (the various hanging labels), etc. Structure was also shown in the horizontal differences between different human abstractors and between human and animal abstractors. Within a few months of his October presentation, he had changed the name of the Anthropometer (a name he had grown to dislike) to the “Structural Differential”.

With his more conscious structural viewpoint, his non-aristotelian system seemed more coherent to Korzybski as a system of interrelated formulations. He continued to work out the implications as he revised. For example, he got more explicit about one of his basic assumptions about the structure of the world, i.e. non-identity

Non-identity involved the complete denial of ‘identity’—defined as the ‘absolute sameness’ in ‘all’ aspects of any two things. ‘Identity’ could never be found in the world inside or outside our skins. No two individuals labeled with one name under a category were exactly the ‘same’ in all respects. Furthermore, since we live in a process universe, anything humans dealt with on the ‘object’ levels—an iron bar, an apple, a toothache, etc.— represented a space-time event. So even to say that “something is identical with itself”, i.e., absolutely the same in all aspects of itself from one moment to the next, seemed invariably false to facts. (Korzybski made sure to point out that this didn’t have to lead to “metaphysical shivers”. If ‘absolute sameness’ in ‘all’ aspects didn’t exist in this world, neither did ‘absolute difference’: “In a world of only absolute differences, without similarities, recognition, and, therefore, ‘intelligence’, would be impossible."[8])

Regarding ‘identity’, when things changed—in the view of Aristotle and his followers—their underlying ‘substance’ still remained ‘the same’.(9) Things which existed in the world remained ‘the same’ for all. Different humans could have ‘the same’ ‘mental’ experience of those things. Knowledge consisted of finding the ‘essence’ of a thing’s underlying nature or substance, which could be expressed in a definition. This quote from the beginning of Aristotle’s On Interpretation epitomizes what could be called the aristotelian “essentialist” approach: 
Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. Just as all men have not the same writing, so all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images. (10) 
With the assumption that ‘mental experiences’ were the same for all, Aristotle had set the horizon for his program. One could conclude that different people’s differing forms of language and symbolism did not affect their ‘mental experience’ in any significant way (for if it did, ‘mental experience’ would surely not be the ‘same’ for all). This radical separation between symbolism and mental experience reduced the need to question or change basic assumptions and the language or symbolism expressing them. Aristotle’s metaphysics—which posited the ‘fixed’ nature (according to our categories) of the things which our mental experiences depicted—remained intact. Attention stayed focused on studying and classifying things according to their ‘essential’ nature and coming to reliable conclusions and agreement through the use of logic. 

The premise of non-identity—fundamentally non-essentialist—significantly diverged from Aristotle’s metaphysical emphasis on fixed substances. Its process view had been foreseen in the poetical teachings of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed. You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.”(11) 

Non-identity could be stated in terms of the “principle of individualization” or the “atomistic principle” which Korzybski had mentioned in the second Time-Binding paper. Briefly, it postulated “...the absolute individuality of events on the un-speakable objective levels,...”.(12) Leibniz had recognized the significance of this in what he called his principle of the “identity of indiscernibles”:
There is no such thing as two individuals indiscernible from each other. An ingenious gentleman of my acquaintance, discoursing with me, in the presence of her Electoral Highness the Princess Sophia [Electress of Hanover, mother of George I of England, and one of Leibniz’s patronesses] in the garden of Herrenhausen, thought he could find two leaves perfectly alike. The princess defied him to do it, and he ran all over the garden a long time to look for some; but it was to no purpose. Two drops of water, or milk, viewed with a microscope, will appear distinguishable from each other. ...To suppose two things indiscernible, is to suppose the same thing under two names. (13) 
However, in referring to this in terms of “the identity of indiscernibles”, Leibniz seems to have reduced the full impact of his insight. He was not able to abandon ‘identity’ altogether, retaining the notion as legitimate in the realm of propositions and ‘necessary’ truths. Wittgenstein also seemed to have noted problems with ‘identity’ in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Roughly speaking, to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing.”(14) (Korzybski had underlined this proposition in red in his copy of the Tractatus.) But the practical import of this did not seem clear in Wittgenstein’s work either. 

As far as Korzybski knew, he was the first to explicitly state the principle of “non-identity” (the denial of ‘identity’) as a basic system premise, exploring its implications and attempting to apply it in science and daily life. In mathematics and ‘logic’, the assumption of ‘identity’ could be done away with. It no longer seemed necessary to interpret “A = A” or “1=1” as “A is ‘identical’ to A” or “1 is ‘identical’ to 1.” Instead the “ = ”sign could be taken to symbolize equivalence, which depended on an agreement by some humans to ignore differences when they didn’t make a difference. 
If we take even a symbolic expression 1=1, ‘absolute sameness’ in ‘all’ aspects is equally impossible, although we may use in this connection terms such as ‘equal’, ‘equivalent’,. [etc,.] ‘Absolute sameness in all aspects’ would necessitate an identity of different nervous systems which produce and use these symbols, an identity of the different states of the nervous system of the person who wrote the above two symbols, an identity of the surfaces ., [etc.,] of different parts of the paper, in the distribution of ink, and what not. To demand such impossible conditions is, of course, absurd, but it is equally absurd and very harmful for sanity and civilization to preserve until this day such delusional formulations as standards of evaluation, and then spend a lifetime of suffering and toil to evade the consequences. This may be comparable to the spending of many years in teaching and training our children that one and one never equal two, that twice two never equal four . , [etc.,] and then they would have to spend a lifetime full of surprises and disappointments, if not tragedies, to learn, when they are about to die, that the above statements are always correct in mathematics and very often true in daily life,...(15) 
This seemed difficult to deny and, for some people, equally difficult to accept. One world-renowned ‘philosopher’ would later ‘report’ that Korzybski had claimed here that “1=1 must be false because the two sides of the equation are spatially distinct.”(16) Whoa! This misinterpretation was subsequently quoted with authority by others as representing Korzybski’s views. He got used to having his views distorted like this and often said “I say what I say. I do not say what I do not say.” 

He would also say that in a world of structure, whatever you say something ‘is’ is not it. This led him to advocate avoiding the “is of identity”. It could mask discernible differences between different individuals placed under a single category. It could also obscure important temporal changes in a single individual. This didn’t mean for Korzybski that all versions of the verb “to be” must be eschewed or that we should somehow stop using categories or classifications—the latter impossible for abstracting nervous systems. However, to remain conscious of abstracting when speaking, people somehow had to remember that any individual thing labeled within a classification/category is not exactly the same in all respects to any other thing so labeled. A label is not the thing labeled. A map is not the territory. 

Beside non-identity, the premise of non-allness characterizes any map-language. In the asymmetrical relation between a territory and a map, a territory always contains more than what any map of it could represent. So a map-language about some object-territory cannot cover ‘all’ of the territory it represents. In this light, it appeared futile to try to capture the ultimate ‘essence’ of any object of knowledge with any particular verbal/symbolic formulation. No finite human abstraction can finalistically cover the apparently infinite field of possible knowledge, represented on the Structural Differential by the parabola—the ‘ultimate’ territory. However, the fruitlessness of an aristotelian search for ‘essences’ clearly did not do away with the possibility of any reliable knowledge. Indeed, Korzybski could see that structure constitutes the sole content of knowledge. As he put it in the chapter “On Structure”:
If words are not things, or maps are not the actual territory, then, obviously, the only possible link between the objective world and the linguistic world is found in structure, and structure alone. The only usefulness of a map or a language depends on the similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map-languages. If the structure is not similar, then the traveler or speaker is led astray, which, in serious human life-problems, must become always eminently harmful,. [etc.] If the structures are similar, then the empirical world becomes ‘rational’ to a potentially rational being, which means no more than that the verbal, or map-predicted characteristics, which follow up the linguistic or map structure, are applicable to the empirical world. (17) 
Further exploring these notions, Korzybski formulated the centrality of identification to faulty habits of abstracting. ‘Identity’, as the absolute sameness in all aspects of two or more different individuals (things), does not exist in the world. However, it is possible to identify—to attribute ‘identity’ or ‘sameness’ (overemphasize similarities while ignoring important differences) to different individuals and/or to one individual from one time to another. Identification, equivalent to confusing orders or levels of abstractions (stratified both horizontally and vertically), constituted the chief ‘idol’ to be knocked down through the use of the Structural Differential. (See below.) 
Structural Differential, Vertical and Horizontal Stratifications, S&S, p. 396

With each individual observer, each successive horizontal level of abstraction represented a mapping of the previous level: the object level served to map or provide some similarity of structure to some event level ‘territory’ but is not the event level and does not cover all of that event territory; a lower order verbal description mapped a particular object level experience but is not that object level territory and does not cover all of it; a statement about the previous statement mapped the previous statement but is not the ‘same’ as that statement, i.e., an inference is not a description; et cetera. When you didn’t distinguish these levels, you identified. When you didn’t distinguish your abstractions from those of other observers (other vertical levels), you identified too. You talked and acted as if your map ‘was’ the territory, and could represent ‘all’ of the territory. 

Beside non-identity and non-allness, there was another significant characteristic of the mapping/modeling/abstracting process: self-reflexiveness. You could always make another map about your current map, another statement about the last statement, and go on indefinitely. As Josiah Royce had pointed out, someone in England attempting to produce a ‘perfect’ map of England would have to include ‘all’ of the details of England including himself producing the map of England. And in order to be complete he would have to produce a map of himself producing the map of himself producing the map of England, etc. (The artist Norman Rockwell made a picture of this kind of self-reflexive process in his 1960 painting, Triple Self-Portrait.) This process, infinite in extent, could never be completed. There could be no final, complete map, no last word. 

As a corollary of self-reflexiveness, the existence of a map always implied a map-maker at a date. You could look at the Structural Differential as a highly abstract portrait of yourself the mapmaker—abstractor, knower, etc.—at any given moment. The parabola’s broken-off edges (visual et ceteras)—sometimes also put on the last hanging label—self-reflexively indicated the incompleteness of any abstractions, including the best scientific knowledge at-a-date. Awareness of this could prevent you from treating any particular abstraction as final. You could best approach the seemingly infinite universe by becoming conscious of abstracting, acknowledging the finitude of your abstractions at a date and indefinitely continuing to explore beyond their limits. In this way, you’d more likely continue abstracting afresh instead of staying stuck in your model of the moment. 

‘Knowing’—the “end-product” effect (at a given date) of this self-reflexive process—“must be considered also as a causative psychophysiological factor”(18) in an individual’s and others’ ongoing behavior because of the spiral structure of human knowledge and action. (Linking of the ‘last’ label to the parabola indicated this circular or spiral structure of human knowing.) Self-reflexively acknowledging this spiral character of map-making, and studying the mapmaker, including yourself, could lead to a new level of responsibility in knowing and living. To bring self-reflexiveness into conscious practice in this way involved a different, more conscious use of language. 

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. 
5. Keyser 1927, p. 94. 

6. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 61. 

7. Korzybski, “The Brotherhood of Doctrines” in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 43. 

8. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 165. 

9. ‘Identity’ was implied but not directly mentioned in Aristotle’s works. Along with the laws of contradiction and the excluded middle—which Aristotle did explicitly advance—what became known as the aristotelian law of identity (A is A) constituted one of the traditional “laws of thought”. These ‘laws’, interpreted as more than just basic ‘logical’ rules, implied deeply-rooted structural assumptions about the world. 

10. Aristotle, “De Interpretatione” in McKeon, p. 40. 

11. Heraclitus (Philip Wheelwright translation), qtd. in Lakoff and Johnson 1999, p. 359. 

12. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 93. 

 13. Leibniz 1979 (1951), “Mr. Leibniz’s Fourth Paper; Being an Answer to Dr. Clarke’s Third Reply”, p. 228-229. 

14. Wittgenstein 1921, Proposition 5.5303 

15. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p.194–195. 

16. Quine 1960, p. 117. 

17. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 61. 

18. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 12. 

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