Korzybski, Words, and Abstraction

 

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?

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Arahant: 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.

    Poland’s problem has always been having a lack of easily defensible borders in a very bad neighborhood.

    Good post.

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    This is today’s entry in the long line of conversations that is our Group Writing Series. May’s theme is The Power of Words, and we still have the 23rd available. (That’s this Wednesday, day after tomorrow.) And if nobody else volunteers, I’ll have to cover the date. I happen to have @percival’s essay on Shakespeare’s Henry IV from when he was a high school senior, and will subject you to it if I must. So, step forward and volunteer today. While Wednesday is the last opening in May’s Group Writing, fear not (unless nobody volunteers, of course).

    June is coming, and the theme for June is, Now That’s Imagination. If you have ever used your imagination in ways that you would like to tell us about and which will not frighten the children or the livestock, our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits you.

    • #2
  3. Matt Balzer Member
    Matt Balzer
    @MattBalzer

    Arahant: One of Korzybski’s famous phrases or injunctions is, “The map is not the territory.”

    Well, now I know who said that, so bonus.

    • #3
  4. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Reminds me of the symbologist from Heinlein’s first short story, Blowups Happen.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Reminds me of the symbologist from Heinlein’s first short story, Blowups Happen.

    It wasn’t just Piper who was interested in General Semantics. Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, Frank Herbert, and many others referenced it or used the ideas. Not all of Korzybski’s ideas were necessarily good or true, either. For instance, there was another science fiction author by the name of L. Ron Hubbard who extended the ideas quite a bit in ways that Korzybski would probably not have approved of them.

    • #5
  6. Matt Balzer Member
    Matt Balzer
    @MattBalzer

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Reminds me of the symbologist from Heinlein’s first short story, Blowups Happen.

    It wasn’t just Piper who was interested in General Semantics. Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, Frank Herbert, and many others referenced it or used the ideas. Not all of Korzybski’s ideas were necessarily good or true, either. For instance, there was another science fiction author by the name of L. Ron Hubbard who extended the ideas quite a bit in ways that Korzybski would probably not have approved of them.

    That’s hardly Korzybski’s fault though.

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Arahant: There is much more to be said and that could be said about Korzybski and General Semantics.

    This was my short way of saying that I don’t agree with all of what Korzybski wrote or what he was trying to do. The reason he called his book Science and Sanity was because he thought GS could be used as a therapy to treat crazy people. That is the part Hubbard extended into Dianetics. While some forms of mental illness might have some response to this sort of thinking, my guess is that most would have no response, because they aren’t having problems with abstractions, but with perceptions of reality.

    I’m more interested in the language aspects, as were people like S. I. Hayakawa.

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Matt Balzer (View Comment):
    That’s hardly Korzybski’s fault though.

    Maybe ten to ninety. What Korzybski was trying to do with GS was a bit more than it was ever going to do. Admittedly, people didn’t know as much in the ’40’s as is now known, and believing in a cure-all did not seem as naïve as it does today. What Hubbard did was much more cynical.

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Here’s Hayakawa from the preface of one of his books, Language in Thought and Action, in 1949:

    The original version of this book, Language in Action, published in 1941, 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 the writer’s conviction then, as it remains now, that everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language—his own as well as that of others—both for the sake of his personal well being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen. Hitler is gone, but if the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.

    • #9
  10. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    If you don’t believe geographical regions of people don’t always follow borders on the map, go down to southern Illinois some time and hear their accents. Anyway, I agree we should all stop the abstractions, but it’s human nature to want to categorize things and other people. It’s part of our need to impose order on chaos. And if you don’t agree with me, you’re a racist homophobe.

    • #10
  11. Isaiah's Job Member
    Isaiah's Job
    @IsaiahsJob

    There are quite a few H. Beam Piper stories and novels available for free on LibreVox, including Omnilingual and Space Viking – the later highly recommended if you like old school science fiction.

    • #11
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Isaiah's Job (View Comment):

    There are quite a few H. Beam Piper stories and novels available for free on LibreVox, including Omnilingual and Space Viking – the later highly recommended if you like old school science fiction.

    I linked to his works on Project Gutenberg above, and here, too. Both of these stories and many more are there.

     

    • #12
  13. MeanDurphy Member
    MeanDurphy
    @DeanMurphy

    I came to Korzybski via Robert Anton Wilson.

    I didn’t know he had influenced Heinlein.

    • #13
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    MeanDurphy (View Comment):

    I came to Korzybski via Robert Anton Wilson.

    I didn’t know he had influenced Heinlein.

    It was a science at the time, and they were science fiction authors. It’s interesting how many have had their writing affected by his work.

    • #14
  15. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    Arahant (View Comment):

    MeanDurphy (View Comment):

    I came to Korzybski via Robert Anton Wilson.

    I didn’t know he had influenced Heinlein.

    It was a science at the time, and they were science fiction authors. It’s interesting how many have had their writing affected by his work.

    I recall seeing explicit references to Korzybski in Heinlein’s SF but not in Piper’s. Are they limited to his non-SF work? 

     Interestingly, the transhumanist goal of uploading human minds into computers is based on the idea that the map — a sufficiently detailed map — is the territory! 

    • #15
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Taras (View Comment):
    I recall seeing explicit references to Korzybski in Heinlein’s SF but not in Piper’s. Are they limited to his non-SF work? 

    If you know to look for it, you may see it. I don’t have it in front of me at the moment, but one might look in The Other Human Race/Fuzzy Sapiens. While not directly mentioning Korzybski and General Semantics, there is a lot about abstraction and consciousness in there. I seem to also remember some oblique references in the Paratime stories.

    Taras (View Comment):
    Interestingly, the transhumanist goal of uploading human minds into computers is based on the idea that the map — a sufficiently detailed map — is the territory!

    It doesn’t mean they are right, though.

    • #16
  17. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Taras (View Comment):
    I recall seeing explicit references to Korzybski in Heinlein’s SF but not in Piper’s. Are they limited to his non-SF work?

    If you know to look for it, you may see it. I don’t have it in front of me at the moment, but one might look in The Other Human Race/Fuzzy Sapiens. While not directly mentioning Korzybski and General Semantics, there is a lot about abstraction and consciousness in there. I seem to also remember some oblique references in the Paratime stories.

    Taras (View Comment):
    Interestingly, the transhumanist goal of uploading human minds into computers is based on the idea that the map — a sufficiently detailed map — is the territory!

    It doesn’t mean they are right, though.

    In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re wrong. A simulation of your brain, even a (hypothetical) perfect simulation, isn’t your brain.

    • #17
  18. E. Kent Golding Member
    E. Kent Golding
    @EKentGolding

    I took a seminar in General Semantics in college. Read some S.I. Hayakawa. It actually was an interesting seminar, I need to go back and reread some of the textbooks.

    • #18
  19. E. Kent Golding Member
    E. Kent Golding
    @EKentGolding

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    If you don’t believe geographical regions of people don’t always follow borders on the map, go down to southern Illinois some time and hear their accents. Anyway, I agree we should all stop the abstractions, but it’s human nature to want to categorize things and other people. It’s part of our need to impose order on chaos. And if you don’t agree with me, you’re a racist homophobe.

    Sounds like a homophone to me.

    • #19
  20. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Interesting. Never studied semantics but sounds like another author I’ll have to read. Can we not say the same thing about models? Mathematical models are abstractions which we often confuse with the underlying reality. In some cases the broader underlying reality may not knowable except through models, e.g. quantum physics (I’ve been told, I understand neither). In others, i.e. economics the models are all some economists know about economies. Is the study of the underlying reality in mathematical models also semantics?

    • #20
  21. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I Walton (View Comment):
    Is the study of the underlying reality in mathematical models also semantics?

    No, that is mathematics…or physics…or whatever the discipline. Also, General Semantics is different from Semantics as disciplines, although the names can be confusing.

    • #21

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