28 November 2017


By Andy Weddington
Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Whatever you say it is, it isn't. Alfred Korzybski

Forty years ago I was first introduced to Count Korzybski. 

Alfred or Al or Fred to friends. I'm not certain and I used none of the three. Our relationship (scholastically) formal. 

The Count, not from Transylvania nor related to Dracula, died seven years before I was born. But the minor detail that our paths did not (physically) cross moot. 

His impact, thanks to Dr. Thomas Tedford (a brilliant college professor) who made the introduction, on me and countless (pardon the pun) endures. 

Count Alfred Korzybski founded a field of study known as General Semantics (GS). 

GS encompasses semantics in that the discipline is concerned with not only the study of language but how (any) language influences human behavior.

And the pioneer argued that the limitations of the human nervous system and (use of) language precludes us from having direct access to reality. 

On both accounts he's absolutely correct. 

Our nervous systems are limited. We cannot see, hear, feel, etc. everything. The sensitivities of other creatures proof.

Language is restrictive. That is, first, not everything our nervous systems detect is sensed (as to conscious awareness) and, second, for everything we do sense it is not possible to describe in words to absolute accuracy and completeness. There is always more. 

Awareness to these realities led Count Korzybski to coin a couple of core axioms: 1. The word is not the thing; 2. The map is not the territory.

In short, words and the things they represent are mutually exclusive. It is only through agreement that there's a relationship. For example, we, English speakers, associate the word "fork" with the utensil but could call it anything provided we agreed on the relationship. If a fork were indeed a fork then the Japanese (any other language) word for it would be "fork." It is not. 

And no "map" of any sort is the territory it represents.

Forty years of practicing and studying these ideas and still I learn. Practical application is daily and at every turn. 

Dr. Tedford taught from three books - Korzybski's 'Science and Sanity,' John C. Condon's 'Semantics and Communication,' and S. I. Hayakawa's 'Language in Thought and Action.' 

Since reading the latter two works 40 years ago still they remain close for regular review - to remind; to think deeper; etc. 

I recommend them often to others. 

Most give up. Some take up the challenge and realize they have come across something of merit. 

Recently, a serious-minded brother Marine a decade my senior sent along a review of Hayakawa's book. 

As received ...

Language in Thought and Action: Fifth Edition by S.I. Hayakawa (Author),‎ Alan R. Hayakawa (Author),‎ Robert MacNeil (Introduction)

This excellent book was referred to me by my friend who is a retired USMC Colonel. Because Hayakawa was a conservative US Senator, I fear some will pass the book by because of the political divide. This would be a their loss. According to Wiki, Hayakawa was "a linguist, psychologist, semanticist, teacher, and writer." This book is non-political, in fact there is much that progressives would approve of. From the preface: "The original version of this book, Language in Action, was in many respects a response to the dangers of propaganda, especially as exemplified in Adolf Hitler's success in persuading millions to share his maniacal and destructive views. It was my conviction then, as it remains now, that we need a habitually critical attitude toward language--our own as well as that of others--both to provide for our personal well-being, and to ensure that we will function adequately as citizens. Hitler is gone, but if the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to slogans of fear and race hatred than those of respect and peaceful accommodation among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue." And, "The basic ethical assumption of semantics, analogous to the assumption in medicine that health is preferable to illness, is that cooperation is preferable to conflict."

            He clearly explains the difference between reports, inferences and judgments.  He goes into the uses of purr-words and snarl-words, and details how what should be "reports" are often slanted into judgments. Some other quotes, "It will be the basic assumption of this book that widespread intraspecific cooperation through the use of language is the fundamental mechanism of human survival."  And, "Today the full resources of advertising agencies, public-relations experts, radio, television, and slanted news stories are brought to bear in order to influence our decisions in election campaigns, especially presidential elections." (Published in 1990 before the Internet! But he didn't have much good to say about TV.)  And," If we can get deeply into our consciousness the principle that no word ever has the same meaning twice, we will develop the habit of automatically examining contexts, and this enables us to understand better what others are saying." 

            I wish I had read this book 45 years ago. It would have made me a better senator, and better speaker and a better writer. In my view, it should be read by every reporter, every broadcaster, every politician, every writer and all who rely on clear communication in their lives. 

His closing paragraph telling. 

Though I'd amend the last sentence to, "In my view, it should be read by everyone." 

Were everyone to read, and apply, we'd enjoy better communication. 

And in turn, a saner world. Which seems to me is heading in the opposite direction. 

Oh, did I mention Count Korzybski was a Polish American and wounded in combat while serving in the Russian Army (before coming to America)? 

In closing ...

Condon's book, in my opinion, should be read first. An eye-opening, thought-provoking summary of Korzybski's masterwork. I've read it more than 40 times. And learning still. 

Korzybski's book is the "Bible." It is more challenging than Condon and Hayakawa and contains material (especially diagrams and illustrations) not found in the works of his disciples. My copy is well worn. 

Post Script

Nine years ago I tackled integrating GS, among other disciplines, into a book I titled 'On SEEING & Painting.' Dr. Tedford read it and approved sending me a flattering congratulatory note just before he died. Higher praise will never come. He, through the Count, changed my life. And still. 

Synopsis at link. To be clear, it is not an art book nor a how to paint book per se. Rather, ideas on how to see our visual world differently - with some application to painting but one need not be interested in painting to appreciate said ideas and awakenings. 

Available through site or send me an email: acoloneloftruth@gmail.com 

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