Friday, January 2, 2015

Chapter 38 - "General Semantics": Part 3 - "A theory of 'meaning' is impossible."

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.

In the book, he had written a great deal about ‘meaning’ and of his own “non-elementalistic theory of meanings”.(10) But by the late 1930s, the conflation of his work with verbalistic “semantics” had become serious enough for him to begin to pull away from talking about his work in such terms: 
…a theory of ‘meaning’, or still worse, a theory of ‘meaning of meaning’, being verbalistic, must be elementalistic and non-similar in structure to the structure of the world and of ourselves.” (1938) (11)  

I introduced the term General Semantics to indicate a general theory of values, a general theory of evaluation of facts, relations, ‘feelings’, etc., not of meanings by mere verbal definition.” (1939) (12)
By 1941, he would devote several pages of his book’s “Introduction to the Second Edition” to “Perplexities in Theories of ‘Meaning’ ” noting their hopeless inadequacy. In 1942, in his “Foreword” with M. Kendig to A Theory of Meaning Analyzed, he would go further and decry,
…‘Cheshire Cat Theories of Meaning’. You know the cat with a head and no body which kept appearing and disappearing, and which Alice found quite bewildering, even in Wonderland. Something drastic must be done about ‘that cat’,...  
....General semantics formulates an empirical natural science based on the action and reaction of the human nervous system. It is a general theory of evaluation involving the nervous system-in-an-environment, and it has very little, if anything, to do with ‘meaning’ in the academic sense. (13) 

With this statement, he had indeed come to the point of doing something drastic. Over the next few years, the conflation of his work with linguistic semantics—especially by some of his ‘popularizers’—became a major irritant to him. As the Third Edition of his book was being prepared in 1947, Korzybski wrote a preface in which he attempted to separate his work from “semantics” and theories of ‘meaning’:
My work was developed entirely independently of ‘semantics’, ‘significs’, ‘semiotic’, ‘semasiology’, etc., although I know today and respect the works of the corresponding investigators in those fields, who explicitly state they do not deal with a general theory of values. Those works do not touch my field, and as my work progressed it has become obvious that a theory of ‘meaning’ is impossible…, and ‘significs’, etc., are unworkable. Had I not become acquainted with these accomplishments shortly before publication of this book, I would have labeled my work by another name, but the system would have remained fundamentally unaltered. (14) 

A theory of ‘meaning’ is impossible. Until the end of his life, he would continue to emphasize this point, in print and in his seminars and presentations. (15) He had long since stopped using the word ‘meaning’ without single quotes. He preferred using terms with more non-elementalistic associations like “orientations”, “methods”, and “evaluations” in discussing the issues he was dealing with in his work.

He also began to fully treat the term “semantic(s)” as the troublesome ‘trigger’ for misevaluating his work it had become. He had introduced the term “general semantics” to emphasize that his work constituted a theory of non-elementalistic evaluation. So, in “What I Believe”, a credo he wrote in 1948, he put “evaluational” in parentheses whenever he referred to “semantic (evaluational) reactions” or “neuro-semantic (evaluational) environments”. In his final paper, “The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes”, which he was editing at the time his death, he made a further transition from this “evaluation in parentheses”. After introducing “semantic (evaluational) reaction”, “neuro-semantic (evaluational) environments”, etc.; he quickly switched to just writing about “evaluations”, “neuro-evaluational reactions”, “evaluational reactions”, “neuro-evaluational environments”, etc., for most of the rest of the paper. In this final work, he thus showed he didn’t need to use the term ‘semantic(s)’ in his serious formulating—despite the somewhat well-recognized name of his discipline by then (1950).

In his 1934-1935 “An Outline of General Semantics”, Korzybski would criticize the confused and self-contradictory uses of the term ‘identity’ in psychiatry, ‘philosophy’, ‘logic’, and mathematics. Ironically, the criticism turned out equally pertinent to the name he chose for his work and his initial attempt to extend ‘semantic(s)’ and ‘meaning’ to cover non-elementalistic evaluation:
...It is necessary to stress here, that it is an unreasonable practice and harmful to mankind, if specialists utilize a common term which implies humanly undesirable orientations, and make out of it a technical term, even if they give it a special meaning. Such unreasonable practices only introduce difficulties in human orientations, make the understanding of scientific issues difficult to the layman, and worst of all, this only facilitates harmful orientations. General Semantics suggests that specialists particularly should be more careful in their choice of common words for their technical terminology, because a technical definition will not alter the folk-meaning, and corresponding living human neuro-semantic reactions. In General Semantics the folk-meanings can no longer be neglected. (16) 

In his later work, Alfred did his best to follow this advice in relation to his own work and thus to correct his initial mistake of not doing so. To be charitable to Alfred, it seems well to remember something he sometimes said: ‘It’s damned difficult to talk sense.’ He never stopped revising his system and, at the time of his death, seemed well on the way to retiring “semantic reaction”. Perhaps if he had lived longer, the next step would have been to find another name for his system to replace “general semantics”. Certainly after his death, people’s automatic, undelayed reactions to the terms “general semantics” and “semantic reaction” became a neuro-evaluational obstacle for teachers of his work who were trying to convey his non-elementalistic approach to others.

But things looked different at the end of 1931. Alfred had just finished replenishing the manuscript with “semantic reactions”, “s.r”, etc. Various people were reading the manuscript and he had begun to get it professionally edited. The damned book did indeed seem ‘done’. Now he and Mira had to decide what to do about getting it into print. Meanwhile, he was ready to present his work to the world. He was writing a summary paper to present at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) winter meeting at Tulane University in New Orleans. He would go there to announce the birth of “general semantics”. 

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. 
10. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 9.  

11. “General Semantics: Extensionalization in Mathematics, Mathematical Physics, and General Education. Paper II: Thalamic Symbolism and Mathematics”, in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 260. 

 12. “General Semantics and You”, in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 273. 

13. Korzybski (and M. Kendig, his coauthor here) provided a footnote for ‘Chesire Cat Theories of Meaning’*: “* To paraphrase Doctor Preston. See George H . Preston, Psychiatry for the Curious, Farrar & Rinehart, 1940, p. 7 ”, in “Foreword with M. Kendig, A Theory of Meaning Analyzed”. General Semantics Monographs, Number III (1942). Reprinted in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 371, p. 379. 

14. “Preface To The Third Edition”, in Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. xxxiv. 

15. See “Author’s Note” (1948) in Selections from Science and Sanity. Reprinted in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 620. 

16. “An Outline of General Semantics”, in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 204. 

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1 comment:

Marcus A. said...

So . . . are you aware of any approaches to a "theory of meaning" that Kouzybski *might* have found tenable? I ask as I focus on this area.