In today’s post, I am looking at the ideas of Alfred Korzybski, a Polish American philosopher and the father of General Semantics. General Semantics is a doctrine and educational discipline intended to improve the habits of response of human beings, to their environment and one another. Korzybski wanted to understand humanity and why we don’t always get along.
If a visitor from Mars should come, Korzybski showed, and on a tour of inspection should see our bridges, our skyscrapers, our subways, and other engineering feats, and were to ask, “How often does one of these collapse?” man here would say that if the engineering of these projects were correct in all respects, the material used in their construction carefully inspected, and the work well done, they would never collapse.
Taken to our libraries the visitor from Mars, he declared, shown the histories of the world, would be appalled that the same men who could engineer non-collapsible bridges and skyscrapers could build a civilization which was collapsing at some point every year. And the reason, he pointed out, for the difference, lay in the fundamental beginnings of the logic that had built each.
Korzybski is most famous for his idea – the map is not the territory. He wrote his magnum opus “Science and Sanity” in 1933. In reading his ideas, we can find many aspects of systems thinking. Korzybski’s main idea can be expressed by one word – “abstraction”. His view was that what we know is based on the structure of our nervous system and the structure of our language (dependent on the nervous system). Our brain cannot directly access the world outside. Our brain understands the world outside through our sensory organs. Our sensory organs do not directly transfer the “what”, but the amount of the stimuli received. The brain abstracts meaning based on all the previous correlations. The brain selects the data to make the most meaningful abstraction at that point in time. For example, the eyes do not tell the brain that there is a black cat on the mat. The entire experience of sensory data is abstracted into “black cat”.
The only link between the verbal and objective world is exclusively structural, necessitating the conclusion that the only content of all “knowledge” is structural. Now structure can be considered as a complex of relations, and ultimately as multi-dimensional order. From this point of view, all language can be considered as names for unspeakable entities on the objective level, be it things or feelings, or as names of relations. In fact… we find that an object represents an abstraction of a low order produced by our nervous system as the result of a sub-microscopic events acting as stimuli upon the nervous system.
Image source – WIkipedia
An important outcome of this idea is that objective reality is lost in translation. All that we have and can have access to are abstractions. Thus, two observers can come to two different conclusions while witnessing the same phenomenon. Both may have some access to the same phenomenon but not to each other’s abstractions. This idea is very well articulated in the famous “the map is not the territory.” Korzybski came up with a structural differential, a multilayered structure for abstraction. The higher you are on the structure differential, the closer you are to the phenomenon/event and the closer you are to the “reality.” The further down you go, the level of abstraction increases. The loss of the data was shown by holes in the structure. We use words to express real things, forgetting that the words are not the real things. They are abstractions.
‘Say whatever you choose about the object, and whatever you might say is not it.’ Or, in other wordsː ‘Whatever you might say the object “is”, well it is not.’
When we assume that an abstraction is a real thing, it leads to “allness”. We start to believe that we have access to the Truth and that we know all there is to know about something. We also engage in taking things apart, falsely assuming that the collective holistic meaning is maintained. Korzybski called this elementalism. Korzybski advised that we should not verbally separate what we would not empirically separate. The ideas of holism/reductionism in Systems Thinking can be viewed here. Elementalism leads to false dichotomies and linear thinking. “If you are not with me, you are against me.” Or “If I put the best players, we will have the best team.”
Korzybski believed that humans are time binding. This meant that as a species, we are able to transfer knowledge that allow us to stand on the shoulders of the giants and build on what others have done so far. Korzybski wrote:
“All human achievements are cumulative; no one of us can claim any achievement exclusively as his own; we all must use consciously or unconsciously the achievements of others, some of them living but most of them dead.”
This is also applicable for the individual. I build my ideas based on what I already know from the past. An important idea from this is to understand that a thing from yesterday is not the same as the thing from the present. Similar to the Heraclitus quote, “you cannot step into the same river twice”, Korzybski adviced that we should not mistake that things would remain the same. Some of the ideas he proposed to address this were:
- Indexes – This is the idea in mathematics, where we write x1, x2 etc. Korzybski advised that we should differentiate things with indexes. Each one of us is unique. Korzybski wrote – “When I talk about humanity, I am always conscious that every member of our species is absolutely unique.”
- Dating – Similar to the idea of indexes, Korzybski advised using dates for anything we write down or document. My knowledge is based on what I know already. My knowledge last month is different from what I know now. Everything changes and change is the only constant. Thus, dating is a way to differentiate and keep track of our understanding.
When we become aware of the structure differential, we can influence how we make meanings and how we react to things. Some more ideas he proposed in this regard were:
- Quotation mark – When you talk about an abstraction and you really want to point out that it is an abstraction and to be careful in how it is understood, we can use quotation marks. For example, I can say – “Systems” do not exist.
- Hyphen – Korzybski was influenced a lot by Albert Einstein and his idea of space-time. Einstein went against the existing paradigm that space and time are different, which could be viewed as elementalistic, and came up with space-time, where the three-dimensional space and time are intertwined and time is the fourth dimension. The use of a hyphen can sometimes alleviate the confusion that arises from false dichotomies.
- Multiordanality – This is the idea that words can have different interpretations depending on the level of abstraction on the structural differential. This is a way to ensure that we don’t lose the context when we assign meaning to words.
Philosophers tends to take positions such as the correspondence theory of truth (our experience should correspond to the actual reality of the world), and the coherence theory of truth (our experience should cohere with what we already know). It appears to me that Korzybski’s ideas are a mix of correspondence in terms of structures and coherence in terms of the holistic notions. We are all different and alike at the same time depending on the abstraction level we use. Korzybski’s ideas resonate wonderfully with the ideas of Soft Systems theory. We humans cocreate the social reality. The purpose and meaning for an individual should not be stipulated by another. I will finish with wonderful reminders from Korzybski. I see them as his ‘ethical imperatives.’
Any organism must be treated as-a-whole; in other words, that an organism is not an algebraic sum, a linear function of its elements, but always more than that. It is seemingly little realized, at present, that this simple and innocent-looking statement involves a full structural revision of our language.
Korzybski, in 1933, called his theory “general semantics” because it deals with the nervous reactions of the human organism-as-a-whole-in-environments, and is much more general and organismally fundamental than the “meanings” of words as such, or Significs.
To regard human beings as tools — as instruments — for the use of other human beings is not only unscientific but it is repugnant, stupid and short sighted. Tools are made by man but have not the autonomy of their maker — they have not man’s time-binding capacity for initiation, for self-direction, and self-improvement.
Stay safe and Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Storytelling at the Gemba:
I also encourage the reader to check out the ideas of Korzybski and General Semantics.
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