General Semantics vs. "The Entire Western System of Rationalizations"

Article excerpt

In 1988, at the International Conference on General Semantics held at Yale University, Allen Walker Read (1906 2002) invited me to tell the other participants "What I Have Done to Language." In this paper, I tell what I have done with, to, and for general semantics in particular, and to human symbolizing in general.

Introduction

Some while ago, I read an account that posed a question. To me, the question seemed original, insightful, important, and, in my opinion today, still not publicly answered. The questioner, treated as male but not named in the writeup, asked:

  Has anyone published studies which apply general semantics to hard
  science, physics in particular?

The reporter writes that the caller's father had studied with Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), but had warned him (the questioner) that the field of general semantics had fallen away from hard science, and that psychologists and teachers had pre-empted it.

I found that I could not ignore this question and remark. I had recently completed some fifteen years criticizing and proposing revisions to relativity and quantum theory from a Korzybskian frame of reference. Furthermore, I got most of my proposals published in physics journals, including at least one refereed one (Hilgartner, Harrington, & Bartter, 1984, 1989; Hilgartner & DiRienzi, 1995). But I felt that I may not have communicated my findings to non-physicists, including persons or groups within the general semantics community who perhaps should belong amongst my primary audiences. To fill that gap, I have composed the following commentary.

Answering the Query

According to the account, the questioner framed his initial question around the notion of "HARD science." As I understand that phrase, it designates those branches of science which their exponents express primarily in the mathematics of the western Indo-European (WIE) tradition. Most people, I gather, regard the "hard" sciences as "really rigorous," and, therefore, as "better" than the life-sciences. The higher status which the "hard" sciences enjoy seems to follow from the aura of "certainty" which most people grant them; and withhold from the "mushy" or "soft" sciences.

The cavils of (mainly) twentieth-century workers such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Godel, Morris Klein, and many others, suggest, more and more clearly and convincingly, that "certainty," in one sense after another, appears unattainable. However, SOMETHING about the Western logics and mathematics convinces most members of the currently dominant world culture, scientists as well as lay-persons, to regard "absolute certainty" as an acceptable construct, and to believe that the methods of the Western logics and mathematics can attain it--at least in the form of 'certainty of inference.'

Similarly, a number of mainly twentieth-century workers report that the logical construct of identity leads to myriad difficulties. But Western logicians, mathematicians, etc., still resolutely rely on the modern logical axiom of identity (2) as their most central construct--the keystone of their theories. As they do with "certainty" most workers continue to rely on identity, despite the criticisms.

I regard that clinging to the constructs of "certainty" and identity as evidence that most Western workers have unawarely committed themselves to fundamental theoretical errors (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951, pp. 243-244 (3)), which remained utterly unknown and unsuspected until I disclosed them (Hilgartner, 1977/78). I get the impression that few, if any, workers from the Western tradition have found, or even sought, significant connections between the notion of "certainty" and the logical construct of identity.

In my opinion, Korzybski does not base his general semantics on "hard" science or Western mathematics. As his initial breakthrough, working from his own personal experiencing, he rejects the "received wisdom" concerning "human nature" current in his (our) culture, and replaces it with his own carefully-crafted construct, which I often describe as "an operational definition for the species-term Man"--the construct of time-binding (Korzybski, 1921). …