Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Korzybski’s Concept Salad

Intrigued that the philosopher Max Black had written about Korzybski (in the concluding chapter of Language and Philosophy, and that Peter Strawson had commented that General Semantics was “a subject which, to judge from the quotations from Science and Sanity, was hardly worth Professor Black's attention”, I had a look for myself. Korzybski’s Collected Writings, 1920-1950 contains a generous dollop of his theories about logic, language, life the universe and everything. The passage quoted below is representative.

As far as I can see, the book is a good example of what I call pseudo-scholarship. What he writes is copiously cited, using an eclectic range of sources from Russell to Wittgenstein to Łukasiewicz, but it hardly shows even a basic understanding of the sources. Why mention the ‘three laws of thought’ in the same chapter as Łukasiewicz? The ‘laws of thought’ formulation was outmoded well before the 1930s, and is not even Aristotelian (Aristotle does not mention the first, for example, and the English rendering of the second two does not capture exactly what he meant). Nor is it true that the second law is a negative statement of the first, nor that the third is a consequence of the first two.

What comes next is even weirder: that we could not properly investigate the semantics of the verb ‘is’ unless we studied all the disciplines he mentions. Logic is generally understood as a propadeutic or preparation for all the sciences, and a basic understanding of the copula ‘is’ is one of the first part of logic (actually the second stage of three, according to Aristotle). Why study colloidal chemistry in order to understand logic? Finally, Korzybski says that this will result in an A_ or non-Aristotelian system. Exactly why, is not clear. But judge for yourselves!

Let me recall the ‘philosophical grammar’ of our language which we solemnly call
the ‘laws of thought’, as given by Jevons.

1. The law of identity. Whatever is, is.
2. The law of contradiction. Nothing both can be, and not be
3. The law of excluded third. Everything must either be, or not be.

These ‘laws’ have different ‘philosophical’ interpretations
which help very little and for my purpose it is enough to
emphasise that: (1) the second ‘law’ represents a negative statement of the
first, and the third represents a corollary of the former two; namely, no third
possible between two contradictories. (2) the verb ‘to be’, or ‘is’, and
‘identity’ play a most fundamental role in these formulations. We should
not be surprised to find that the investigation of these terms may give us a
long sought solution. Such an investigation is very laborious and
difficult. The complete attempt to deal with the term *is* would go to the
form and matter of everything in existence, at least, if not to the possible
form and matter of all that does not exist, but might. As far as it could be
done, it would give the grand Cyclopedia, and its yearly supplement would be the
history of the human race for the time’, said Augustus de Morgan in his *Formal
Logic*, and this opinion I found fully justified.

So I must bebrief, and state but roughly, that in the Indo-European languages the verb ‘to be’ has at least four entirely different uses: (1) as an auxiliary verb, ‘Smith
is coming’; (2) as the ‘is’ of predication, ‘the apple is red’; (3) as the ‘is’
of ‘existence’, ‘I am’; (4) as the ‘is’ of identity, ‘the apple is a fruit’. The
fact that four semantically entirely different words should have one sound and
spelling appears as a genuine tragedy of the race; the more so since the
discrimination between their uses is not always easy.

The researches of the present writer have shown that the problems involved are very complicated and cannot be solved except by a joint study of mathematics,
mathematical foundations, history of mathematics, ‘logic’, ‘psychology’,
anthropology, psychiatry, linguistics, epistemology, physics and its history,
colloidal chemistry, physiology, and neurology; this study resulting in the
discovery of a general semantic mechanism underlying human behaviour, many new
interrelations and formulations, culminating in a A_ system. This semantic
mechanism appears as a general psychophysiological mechanism based on
four-dimensional order, present and abused in all of us, the primitive man, the
infant, the ‘mentally’ ill, and the genius not excluded. [Alfred Korzybski, Collected

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