‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

Alice in Wonderland

I’m beginning to think Korzybski was right. Most of our human troubles are caused by an inadequate language, and the failure to truly internalize the subjectivity of our perceptions.

We think we use a single language, but we don’t. Every one of us uses the language to mean subtly different things, and yet we assume, when we hear someone else speak, that they mean exactly what we would have meant had we said the same words. And they make precisely the same mistake in interpreting our response, and so on and so forth and pretty soon we are lobbing brickbats and thermonuclear warheads at each other.

I envy the Conjoiners in Alastair Reynold’s novels. They broke the biggest barrier of all – the limit that language places on human cooperation by imposing innaccurate maps on our consciousness.

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  1. Which is why we (gen.) need to be absolutely confident we (gen.) understand each other, and try to use language we (gen.) know the other understands.

    Example, I was saying one thing and I assumed you understood what I meant. I learned that you inferred more than I meant. Why? Because I was apparently not clear with my language. Now I need to use this as a learning tool to figure out what it was that I left out (pattern-wise) and actively try to not make the same mistake in the future.

    It will take time and practice to get it right. You know, to get to the point where we can finish each other’s sentences. 😉

    Maybe it means using more words. Maybe it means using more examples. I don’t know. All it can mean is more heartfelt communication. At least for us.

    1. The “we (gen.)” is actually a very Korzybskian sort thing to do 🙂

      1. Just didn’t want anyone to assume I was talking about any group in specific.

  2. hmmmm… part 1

    I just read the Wikipedia article on him, not being familiar with his work, and I have to say… while I agree with some of his points.. e.g. the map is not the territory.. (and i love this position as a great counterpoint to most of the postmodern positions that “everything is a text” ).. I do find myself a bit more leary of some of his other positions… mainly when he starts pushing the “mathematicians and scientists–unlike all other people–provide you with real values and should be the real ruling class”…

    that kind of thing–coming from someone whose entire family and history is one of science and mathematics–is always suspect to me…

    Perhaps, however, it comes from his and my different understandings of the word “value”.. because personally, I do not believe that most of what science and math produces for the world has a particular clearly determined “value” in and of itself–rather, most of what they produce is either a form/structure of logical relationships (math) or a set of data about what they have perceived to be the “natural” universe around us.. (<--and even that can be problematic, because this data is expressed in humanly constructed symbols and its collection was shaped by the subjective values of the scientists choices about what was important to look at..)

    Back to the point.. beyond the pomo critique of science–that notes that most scientists proclaim their work to be objective truth (value free), when actually they often include personal subjective values in this information–how does scientific information constitute a “value” for us? This is what I want to know from him…

    anyway.. back to your points more specifically.. is the problem really with the imperfect tool that language obviously represents? or is the problem more accuraely the fact that we assume that the tool that we are using is perfect…

    in nuce, Isn’t it more of an issue that we are viewing language–a construct used by billions of humans, shaped in trillions of contexts, for a multitude of purposes–as a simple information transferal tool..

    Personally, I tend not to “blame” (=assign negative characteristics to) language in such instances of miscommunication, but rather to try to remember that “meaning” is a subjective phenomenon that we must always tread a bit more circumspectly around–that we must keep ourselves from jumping to conclusions to fast.. and that this goes doubly so when we are dealing with subjects and people that have greater and more existential meaning to us…

    1. Re: hmmmm… part 1

      Korzybski had all the hallmarks of a kook – grandiosity, the insistance that his ideas were necessary and that they would save the world. What saved him from irrelevence was that he was actually a very smart kook, and perhaps because he didn’t come from academia per se (he was an engineer), he brought some fresh perspectives to some rapidly developing sciences. He remains subtly influential to this day.

      However, like so many in his time, he ascribed to what I can only describe as “scientism”, the fetishization of science. It’s amazing, watching old movies and reading books from the 30s-50s, to realize just how widely accepted the idea was that in the future, scientists would naturally be the ones running the world.

      is the problem really with the imperfect tool that language obviously represents? or is the problem more accuraely the fact that we assume that the tool that we are using is perfect

      One of Korzybski’s primary insights, as I understand them, is that these two angles are really the one and the same problem. That language as it currently exists discourages us by it’s nature from recognizing and internalizing the relativity of every human statement. For instance, the ubiquity of the various forms of “to be” blinds us by familiarity to the fact that very few, if any “is” statements are wholly true.

      1. cool…

        yes.. the scientism of the times is really quite quaint in one way.. and quite scary on the other.. (of course, it’s also balanced out with scary humanistic snobbery too…)

        as for the “to be” insight.. I wonder if that is something inherent with people who are compelled to do a kind of “comparative” linguistics by the mere fact of learning to speak a second language fluently… Once you see that different languages are composed of words that don’t always fit perfectly with words in other languages, then you have a greater perspective of just how artificial language is at one level..

        Also.. his original language is polish–which is slavic–and it also means that he grew up in his childhood years as part of the Russian empire–and there, one might note, may be the origin of his aversion to the verb “to be,” since, as I understand it, Russian has no such verb….

        1. Re: cool…

          I understand (and this is getting into territory I know less about) that he came up with an english writing/speaking-form called “E-Prime” which excluded all forms of “to be”, and a number of people actually wrote stories and articles in it. The General Semantics institute still sells E-Prime anthologies.

  3. part 2

    as a final analogy.. I see language pretty much as a set of tools that we carry around with us.. Now..as we wander around in life, we are always going to encounter situations that require us to use our tools to try to fix a problem.. (=exchange information and meanings with others).. and obviously when the problems are fairly complex, having a bigger set of tools–with more specialized tools–will often help you tackle the problem… Thus, having a huge set of tools should help you solve a lot more problems a lot faster…

    However, I think there are two elements that we must always remember…
    1) In all of these problems of exchange–both parties must work on it with their tools for it to proceed with the increased efficiency that a bigger set of tools allows.. if only one person possesses the better tools, then, it isn’t going to work..

    2)Acquiring tools often costs us either time or money.. so the choice to acquire all of these tools is not just a given–it is something that every person needs weigh for themselves… Additionally, I would push the analogy a bit to note that most problems that you encounter probably don’t require a huge, highly specialized tool set–so (and here is where the analogy with language gets a bit shaky) one must consider whether it is always so practical for us to lug a huge, heavy tool set around with us, when 95% of the time, we will only need 10 out of the 500 tools in the set.. (here, I’m basically getting at the fact that in most every day conversations, the tranferral of meaning is not so problematic.. If I ask for a powdered sugar donut from the Dunkin’ Donuts store employee, I don’t need–nor would it be necessarily be advisable for me–to try and employ high level semantics in order to get it.. )

    okay.. I need to go get some text of my own on paper..

    damn you for raising interesting issues so early in the morning! 😉

    1. Re: part 2

      I don’t think it’s about specialized tools, so much. It’s not that we need more precise terms, it’s that we need terms or forms which recognize that every word is meaningless without context; that no matter how precise words are only an aproximation of what are thinking; and that we can never truly know what another person’s sense-perceptions are like in comparison to our own.

      On the other hand, you do have a point about education. I think it’s telling that in A.E. van Vogt’s book The World of Null-A, which posits a world completely based on General Semantics principles, it took extremely heavy-handed measures to create a world where everyone is educated (for their own good, of course) in non-aristotelian thinking. Scientism was always a hop, skip, and a jump away from fascism.

  4. Language is a virus

    “We must find out what words are and how they function.
    They become images when written down,
    but images of words repeated in the mind
    and not of the image of the thing itself.”
    – W.S. Burroughs

  5. and yet we assume, when we hear someone else speak, that they mean exactly what we would have meant had we said the same words

    I find this to be an interesting tool for evaluating others. Because you learn what they would have said in your place. Or, more freqeuntly and more usefully, people will assume that in a cartain situation you would do what they would do, especailly if they think you mirror their values.

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