Sunday, December 28, 2014

Chapter 37 - Knowledge, Uncertainty, and Courage: Part 2 (a) - The Language Filter

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.

For centuries, thinkers had already questioned aristotelianism on many fronts. Tearing down the separating wall between experience and language that Aristotle had bolstered if not erected, Korzybski ranks among the boldest of those who challenged aristotelian metaphysics and its assumptions about language and symbolism.

In 1924 Korzybski had written, “All human knowledge is conditioned and limited, at present, by the properties of light and human symbolism.”(19) Since then it had become even clearer to him that if there were no ‘facts’ free from the share of the observer’s ‘mind’, then language and other symbolic media were not neutral. For good and for ill, language served as a major ‘filter’ for human knowledge. Understanding the structure of knowledge required exploring the structure of representational language and its relation to human action. A non-aristotelian revision of the sciences and life required linguistic revision—a new consciousness of what language does with us and what we can do with language.

Of course, it was important not to consider ‘language’ elementalistically. As a product of human nervous systems and a form of human behavior, no language existed entirely separate from the ‘culture’ and ‘consciousness’ of the individuals who used it with others. Humans in societies created their languages, and their languages in turn also affected them. Although not the sole determinant of ‘thought’ and behavior, it appeared to Korzybski that an individual’s language with its related evaluations had tremendous power to channel his ongoing actions.

Any language could be said to have structure, indeed multiple levels of structure. Korzybski had particular interest in the implicatory aspects—the implications, presuppositions, and assumptions a language might ‘entice’ us to project upon the world. Humans tended to act according to the way they mapped the world—‘logical’ destiny. Without consciousness of the mapping effects related to their language, people could react to words, and whatever experiences they processed verbally, like Pavlov’s dog salivating to the sound of a bell. One could change the way one responded to the world by finding some ways to circumvent language (to the extent this could be done, e.g., through silent observation, visualization, etc.). One could also change the structure of one’s language. Contemplation of and practice with the Structural Differential encouraged both of these methods. In addition, Korzybski contended that the use of non-elementalistic terms and various other changes in the structure of everyday language (taken from the simplest of mathematics) could promote greater consciousness of abstracting and a more up-to-date outlook. People could learn to use language more consciously to orient themselves more extensionally (according to ‘facts’) and thus more sanely.

For example, in order to promote a non-elementalistic outlook, it helped to purposefully—and with understanding—use non-elementalistic terms like “abstracting”, “time-binding”, etc. Much mathematical terminology had a non-elementalistic character as well, and could be carried over, when appropriate, into everyday speech. (He recommended Keyser’s Mathematical Philosophy for suggestions in this regard.) Korzybski created other non-elementalistic terms in the book by connecting two terms with a hyphen whenever he wanted to make certain relationships explicit. For instance, ‘logic’ (which he now saw as an aspect or part of mathematics) seemed to him a highly significant product of human nervous systems, involving and affecting human behavior. Therefore Korzybski felt it necessary to link ‘logic’ to the study of ‘psychology’ (human behavior) and came up with the new term “psycho-logics” to make that linkage explicit—although the usage and its significance seemed difficult for many logicians, philosophers, mathematicians, and psychologists to accept. In addition, when using a term with potentially elementalistic or other misleading implications in a given context, Korzybski decided to use single quotes (more common in British usage) as a kind of warning to ‘watch out’ and not objectify the term. Thus ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’, ‘matter’, ‘substance’, ‘language’, etc., might be used with single quotes. He applied such single quotes to terms he found consistently elementalistic or otherwise problematic, like ‘psychology’, ‘logic’, and ‘philosophy’. Some ‘psychologists’, ‘logicians’, and ‘philosophers’—among others—may have considered it silly or felt offended, but Alfred felt he had a useful point to make.

In the book he also used indexes to highlight individuals within categories. For example, as he wrote about it later in his introduction to the second edition of the book, ‘houses’ could include a variety of buildings, some with termites or hidden structural flaws, which had to be examined extensionally as individuals—house1 was not house2, etc. One didn’t want to simply buy a definition, which was what advertisers tended to try to sell.(20) Korzybski also made extensive use of temporal indexing or dating to bring out the awareness of space-time processes. For example, when he knew the book would definitely get into print by the end of 1933, he made sure to emphasize that his statements about science referred to ‘science 1933’—a move that probably irritated some readers. But he wanted to make the point that he was not in a position to legislate for ‘science’ for ‘all’ time. Of course, he didn’t expect his work to go out of date by 1934. Still, he wanted to acknowledge, as part of his non-finalistic outlook, that readers in 1934 or 1974 or 2024, etc., would have to check out what he said in 1933 and possibly revise it.

Throughout the book he had made many statements with lists of examples that he completed by writing “etc.” (et cetera). He was writing “etc.” so many times that he decided to create a non-aristotelian extensional punctuation where a period would represent the “etc.” combined with whatever other punctuation was used with it (for example, “etc.,” would be represented by “ . ,”. Some people treated this punctuation as a quirk on Korzybski’s part and undoubtedly many people ignored it. A proper reading of the book required attending to it. For Korzybski, who later referred to it as “junior infinity”, the use of “etc.” was a tangible reminder of non-allness. He would say that the extensional punctuation (with “etc.” as a period) could help put a stop to a “a period and stop attitude”.

He had to go through the manuscript quite carefully to expunge any uses of ‘is’ that smacked of identity. (Some years after the book was published someone sent him a letter excoriating him for retaining some such ‘illegitimate’ ‘ises’. He spent a number of hours combing through the given page references before he concluded that his critic was not correct.) He also got rid of any uses of the term ‘same’ without quotes. If he was serious about non-identity, he had to apply it in his writing.

Korzybski also emphasized the multiordinality of terms, which was based on the multi-leveled, self-reflexive structure of the human nervous system and its mappings—the fact that we could map our maps and react to our reactions. Awareness of multiordinality could increase a person’s vocabulary tremendously and also opened up a large and relatively unexplored (because previously difficult to talk about) field for students of human behavior. It now made sense to talk about ‘positive’ second order reactions such as “curiosity about curiosity, attention of attention, analysis of analysis, reasoning about reasoning… knowing of knowing…evaluation of evaluation…”; morbid second order reactions such as “worry about worry, fear of fear…pity of pity...belief in belief…conviction of conviction,…ignorance of ignorance”; and reactions where “the second order reverses and annuls the first order effects” in a constructive way such as “inhibition of an inhibition…hate of hate…[and] doubt of doubt….”(21)

Korzybski used certain terms so often that he introduced a number of abbreviations which he used throughout the book. 
Table of Abbreviations from Science and Sanity, Chapter I, "Aims, Means And Consequences of A Non-Aristotelian Revision, p. 15

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. 
19. Korzybski, “Time-Binding: The General Theory (First Paper)” in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings,
p. 59. 

20. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. lxv. 

21. Ibid., p. 440.

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