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Korzybski. I’m not sure where or when I first heard the name. I do know the who, though. H. Beam Piper was the finest writer that most people have never heard of. He was primarily a science fiction writer from the mid-1940s to 1964, when he died. He introduced me to many other writers and ideas. James Branch Cabell? The time theories of J. W. Dunne? Charles Oman’s The Art of War? Carl von Clausewitz? All of these and more were referenced in his works. And Korzybski.
“That sounds like Korzybski,” Pierre said, as they turned onto Route 19 in the village and headed east. “You’ve read Science and Sanity?”
Rand nodded. “Yes. I first read it in the 1933 edition, back about 1936; I’ve been rereading it every couple of years since. The principles of General Semantics come in very handy in my business, especially in criminal-investigation work, like this. A consciousness of abstracting, a realization that we can only know something about a thin film of events on the surface of any given situation, and a habit of thinking structurally and of individual things, instead of verbally and of categories, saves a lot of blind-alley chasing. And they suggest a great many more avenues of investigation than would be evident to one whose thinking is limited by intentional, verbal categories.”
“Yes. I find General Semantics helpful in my work, too,” Pierre said. “I can use it in plotting a story…. Oh-oh!”
(Excerpted from Murder in the Gunroom)
Piper referred to Korzybski and General Semantics in several of his works, including his one published mystery novel excerpted above. The character Pierre Jarrett, like Piper himself, was a science fiction writer, and used General Semantics in plotting stories. Until writing this, I never really thought about the evidence that was before me. In many of Piper’s short stories, he had twist endings. He was using General Semantics to misdirect the reader slightly, allowing the unexpected to slip in at the end. He also used it more explicitly in some stories or books, as with Murder in the Gunroom.
So, who was Korzybski? Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski was one of the szlachta, the Polish aristocracy that did so well at arguing with each other that their neighbors dismembered the country in the Eighteenth Century. Born three-and-a-half months after Albert Einstein in what was then part of the Russian Empire, Korzybski grew up multi-lingual, learning Polish, Russian, German, and French in his childhood. He was educated as an engineer, so he also spoke math. During the beginning of WWI, he was an officer in Russian Intelligence. He was injured early in the war and came to North America to coördinate the shipment of war materiel to Russia. After the war, he stayed in the US, and eventually became a citizen.
Being a multi-linguist and an engineer, he did the typical engineer’s analysis of what he saw as a problem: languages are imprecise and humans tend to take the words they use and the language they relate through more seriously than the reality those words are trying to describe. We abstract what we perceive in order to communicate it, and then take the abstraction, the verbal categories, as more important than the perception. Piper had his character Jefferson Davis Rand summarize Korzybski’s General Semantics above. Wikipedia puts it this way:
Korzybski maintained that humans are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems, and (2) the structure of their languages. Humans cannot experience the world directly, but only through their “abstractions” (nonverbal impressions or “gleanings” derived from the nervous system, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language). These sometimes mislead us about what is the case. Our understanding sometimes lacks similarity of structure with what is actually happening.
He sought to train our awareness of abstracting, using techniques he had derived from his study of mathematics and science. He called this awareness, this goal of his system, “consciousness of abstracting”. His system included the promotion of attitudes such as “I don’t know; let’s see,” in order that we may better discover or reflect on its realities as revealed by modern science. Another technique involved becoming inwardly and outwardly quiet, an experience he termed, “silence on the objective levels”.
One of Korzybski’s famous phrases or injunctions is, “The map is not the territory.” In other words, what you see on the map is a sparse abstraction of the real territory and what and who resides there.
There is much more to be said and that could be said about Korzybski and General Semantics. But the theme of the month is the Power of Words. I look at many of the arguments here on Ricochet, and what I see is levels of abstraction, perhaps unconscious abstraction, that not only does not give our words the power of communication, but obstructs communication.
One person makes a complex statement.
Another reads it and abstracts it down to a much simpler statement at a higher level of abstraction: This guy is a Never Trumper; therefore, he believes X, Y, and Z, because that’s what Never Trumpers believe. The second person then responds to the abstraction, rather than the nuance of the real individual.
How many times have you seen such in the conversations here on Ricochet?
Would being more conscious of how we abstract lead to more agreement? Probably not. Would it lead to more getting down to the basis of disagreements? In other words, would we be more likely to recognize not only our own abstractions, but also those of others in the conversations, allowing us to ask questions that might find the base level of beliefs where there is no reconciliation and no profit in further discussion of the topic? It might. It might also help us see ways where we are not so far apart and how we really are on the same team.
What do you think, Ricochet?