Sunday, October 26, 2008

Korzybski's General Semantics as an Ecological Approach

As I mentioned in previous posts, specifically Thoughts About Time-Binding 1, Thoughts About Time-Binding 2, and Thoughts About Time-Binding 3, and Thoughts About Time-Binding 4, I recently went back over Alfred Korzybski's first book, Manhood of Humanity, where he discusses his notion of time-binding, and how that process might be improved. Manhood of Humanity was published in 1921, before Korzybski had developed his system called general semantics, which was detailed in Science and Sanity, published in 1933.

The specific volume I was reviewing, however, was the second edition of Manhood of Humanity, published in 1950, the year Korzybski passed away, and this second edition contains new material of no small interest. In this post, I am only going to refer to one item that was added in lieu of a new introduction for the second edition (which Korzybski was unable to write), entitled "What I Believe" (Alfred Korzybski, Manhood of Humanity (2nd ed.). Brooklyn, NY: Institute of General Semantics, 1950, pp. xli-lvii). This piece was originally written in 1948, fifteen years after the publication of Science and Sanity, and provides some insight into Korzybski's own thoughts about his general semantics project.

I should note that if you want a summary of what general semantics is all about, you can find it at the Institute of General Semantics website. In this post, I only want to note some points that I find of particular interest in this essay, especially in light of the connection between general semantics and media ecology. Neil Postman was known to refer to media ecology as general semantics writ large, and it is not that great a leap from understanding how language influences our thought and behavior to understanding how the new languages we call media infuence our thought and behavior.

But I want to go a little further than that, and note how Korzybski himself was working on an ecological approach. It is worth noting that Korzybski must have been sympathetic to mechanical approaches, given his background as an engineer and his prediliction for science. But of course science had undergone radical change in the 20th century, and this certainly colored Korzybski's view of things.

So, let's start with a passage that firmly established Korzybski as an ecological thinker:

I could not use, in my further studies, the older 'organism-as-a-whole' approaches, but had to base my analysis on the much more complex 'organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment'. I had to include neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic (evaluational) environments as environments, and also had to consider geographic, physico-chemical, economic, political, ecological, socio-cultural, etc., conditions as factors which mould human personalities, and so even group behaviour. This statement is entirely general, and applies to highly civilized people as well as the most primitive. (pp. xliv-xlv)
And, well, I guess I could end this post right there, that about sums things up, ecologically speaking, but I think I will continue on. In the next paragraph to follow, Korzybski sets up an interesting distinction between what he considers to be the best and worst case scenarios for the human psyche:

Common sense and ordinary observations convinced me that the average, so-called 'normal person' is so extremely complex as to practically evade an over-all analysis. So I had to concentrate on the study of two extremes of human psycho-logical reactions: a) reactions at their best, because of their exceptional predictability, as in mathematics, the foundations of mathematics, mathematical physics, exact sciences, etc., which exhibit the deepest kind of strictly human psycho-logical reactions, and b) reactions at their worst, as exemplified by psychiatric cases. In these investigations I discovered that physico-mathematical methods have application to our daily life on all levels, linking science with problems of sanity, in the sense of adjustment to 'facts' and 'reality'. (p. xlv)
I am fascinated by this contrast between the psychiatric concept of insanity, and what might be considered a kind of supersanity associated with a scientific orientation. Korzybski parts company with Sigmund Freud on the opposite end of insanity, in that Freud just looked for people to be well-adjusted to the norms of society, and instead Korzybski in some ways parallels Carl Jung, who argued for concept of consciousness as evolving, and now ready to move on collectivey to a higher level. Whether science really represents humanity at its best is of course debatable, and ultimately a value judgment, but it is certainly true that science is characterized by "exceptional predictability"--scientific method represents the best way to make accurate assessments and predictions about reality.

Skipping ahead a paragraph or two, Korzybski makes a basic point about language and symbolic communication:

Linguistic and grammatical structures also have prevented our understanding of human reactions. For instance, we used and still use a terminology of 'objective' and 'subjective', both extremely confusing, as the so-called 'objective' must be considered a construct made by our nervous system, and what we call 'subjective' may also be considered 'objective' for the same reasons. (p. xlvi)
We see then a skeptical orientation, and a step towards what would later be termed social construction or constructivism, the idea that reality is constructed by our communication. There is a kind of irony in that, looking at objecitivity objectively reveals our inescapable subjectivity, which stands as an objectively verifiable fact. Of course, we all share in our subjectivity, so that it is a shared subjectivity, or as Martin Buber put it, intersubjectivity.

Next, Korzybski discusses the key distinction he makes between two different levels, the silent and the verbal. This is fundamental to general semantics, just as other polar oppositions have been elsewhere in media ecology (ear vs. eye, orality vs. literacy, space bias vs. time bias, cool medium vs. hot medium, script vs. print, print vs. electronics, interpersonal communication vs. mass communication, dialogue vs. public speaking, interactivity vs. one-way communication, etc.):

My analysis showed that happenings in the world outside our skins, and also such organismal psychological reactions inside our skins as those we label 'feelings', 'thinking', 'emotions', 'love', 'hate', 'happiness', 'unhappiness', 'anger', 'fear', 'resentment', 'pain', 'pleasure', etc., occur only on the non-verbal, or what I call silent levels. Our speaking occurs on the verbal levels, and we can speak about, but not on, the silent or un-speakable levels. This sharp, and inherently natural, yet thoroughly unorthodox differentiation between verbal and non-verbal levels automatically eliminates the useless metaphysical verbal bickerings of millenniums about 'the nature of things', 'human nature', etc. For many metaphysical verbal futile arguments, such as solipsism, or 'the unknowable', have been the result of the identifications of verbal levels with the silent levels of happenings, 'feelings', etc., that the words are merely supposed to represent, never being the 'reality' behind them. (p. xlvii)
The silent levels correspond to perception, and the verbal to language and symbols, of course, and media ecologists such as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Edmund Carpenter, Tony Schwartz, and others have emphazed the importance of perception as the basis of human understanding. Korzybski acknowledges that his general semantics draws on several other approachs, including phenomenology (which emphasizes the role of perception), in the next paragraph:

Such psycho-logical manifestations as those mentioned above can be dealt with in a unified terminology of evaluation, with the result that an empirical general theory of values, or general semantics, becomes possible, and with its roots in the methods of exact sciences, this can become the foundation of a science of man. For through the study of exact sciences we can discover factors of sanity. Different philosophical trends as found in disciplines such as Nominalism, Realism, Phenomenalism, Significs, Semiotic, Logical Positivism, etc., also become unified by a methodology, with internationally applicable techniques, which I call 'non-aristotelian', as it includes, yet goes beyond and brings up to date, the aims and formulations of Aristotle. (p. xlvii)
An interesting definition of general semantics appears here: "an empirical general theory of values." And he does make it clear that he is not anti-Aristotelian--had he been doing this work in the late 20th century he no doubt would have called general semantics post-Aristotelian.

Going into the next paragraph, Korzybski sums up the point about the disconnect between percept and concept:

Whatever we may say something is, obviously is not the 'something' on the silent levels. Indeed, as Wittgenstein wrote, 'What can be shown, cannot be said.' In my experience I have found that it is practically impossible to convey the differentiation of silent (unspeakable) levels from the verbal without having the reader or the hearer pinch with one hand the finger of the other hand. He would then realize organismally that the first–order psycho-logical direct experiences are not verbal. The simplicity of this statement is misleading, unless we become aware of its implications, as in our living reactions most of us identify in value the two entirely different levels, with often disastrous consequences. (p. xlviii)

And moving on to the next paragraph, he sums it all up in one pithy sentence:

I firmly believe that the consciousness of the differences between these levels of abstractions; i.e., the silent and verbal levels, is the key and perhaps the first step for the solution of human problems. (p. xlviii)

Moving to the next paragraph now, Korzybski continues to emphasize the importance of perception over language:

There is a tremendous difference between 'thinking' in verbal terms, and 'contemplating', inwardly silent, on non-verbal levels, and then searching for the proper structure of language to fit the supposedly discovered structure of the silent processes that modern science tries to find. If we 'think' verbally, we act as biased observers and project onto the silent levels the structure of the language we use, and so remain in our rut of old orientations, making keen, unbiased observations and creative work well-nigh impossible. In contrast, when we 'think' without words, or in pictures (which involve structure and therefore relations), we may discover new aspects and relations on silent levels, and so may produce important theoretical results in the general search for a similarity of structure between the two levels, silent and verbal. Practically all important advances are made that way. (pp. xlviii-xlix)
Hard not to think of how Albert Einstein imagined himself riding on a beam of light here, but I also can't help but think about the connection to autism, given that Einstein might have been on the autism spectrum--a bit of a disconnect from language, and the strong visual imagination, can be found in many high functioning individuals with autism. I get into this in my book, Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, and I won't bother to here. Certainly, following Howard Gardner's work on intelligence, we know that different people have different kinds of intelligences, some visual, some verbal, some mathematical, some socio-emotional. But again, that's a discussion for another time and place.

So, on to the next paragraph, and Korzybski makes a point I find highly significant, on the primacy of relationship or relations:

So far the only possible link between the two levels is found in terms of relations, which apply equally to both non-verbal and verbal levels, such as 'order' (serial, linear, cyclic, spiral, etc.), 'between-ness', 'space-time', 'equality' or 'inequality', 'before', 'after', 'more than', 'less than', etc. Relations, as factors of structure, give the sole content of all human knowledge. (p. xlix)
And this does bring me back to the point I started out with, Korzybski's ecological perspective. I believe that an emphasis on relationships is the basis of an ecological approach, so I think that last sentence bears repeating:

Relations, as factors of structure, give the sole content of all human knowledge. (p. xlix)
Knowledge is not in or of things per se, but in the relationships among things. It's the basic understanding of the universe according to Einstein, and the basic understanding of humanity according to Buber. Can you relate?

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