Anthropologist Presents 53rd Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture

By Hoffmann, Gregg | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July 2005 | Go to article overview
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Anthropologist Presents 53rd Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture


Hoffmann, Gregg, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


ETHNOLOGIST Robert Carneiro studied with renowned anthropologist Leslie White. He discovered general semantics through the work of Stuart Chase and from there moved on to studying the works of Alfred Korzybski.

Carneiro combined what he learned from these brilliant scholars, and today is known as a brilliant scholar in anthropology himself. Those who attended Carneiro's Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture on April 22 were treated to that brilliance, in a wonderful demonstration of time-binding.

"I don't know if Leslie White ever cited Alfred Korzybski in his work, but they shared a common interest in words and symbols," said Carneiro, who is curator of anthropology division at the American Museum of Natural History, where the lecture was held.

"Of course, Korzybski looked often at the negative side of words. A lot of the problems people get themselves into are the result of mistaking their words as the things. White believed that a symbol did not have inherent meaning, but the meaning given by the user of the symbol."

(White wrote an article, "The Symbol: The Origin and Basis of Human Behavior," in the first volume of ETC in 1944.)

Carneiro also said White and Korzybski both believed that human beings differ from other animals in that each generation can start where the previous one left off, because of the use of language and symbols.

"Translating this into anthropological terms, time-binding is culmination. Culture--evolution--is culmination, the addition of the new along with the retention of the old," Carneiro said.

"This is one of the features of evolution. It consists of building larger and more complex structures by taking elemental pieces of it and building them into a whole."

Carneiro said political evolution has developed in a similar way. That led him into his specialty area.

In his presentation, called "From Autonomous Villages to the State: An Irresistible Trend in the Grand Sweep of Human History," Carneiro laid out his theory of how and why humans moved from tribes to states.

"At the beginning of the Neolithic period, human societies consisted of thousands of autonomous bands and villages," Carneiro said. "Today, 10,000 years later, the world's much larger population is aggregated into fewer than 200 political units--states.

"This transformation was a steady progression, resulting from the operation of definite and identifiable factors."

The move to agriculture was one big factor, but not the only one, Carneiro said. He described his "circumscription theory," which holds that certain constraints, such as geographic obstacles, supplies of resources and fertile land, limited the mobility of some villages and tribes.

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