Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Reading Korzybski through Nietzsche

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Reading Korzybski through Nietzsche

Article excerpt

At the outset, there are sharp differences between Nietzsche and Korzybski: the former is a distinguished critic of Platonic philosophy, a poet, philologist, and philosopher with an unusual style of writing, a thinker whose influence on Western intellectual history was not popularly recognized in the English-speaking countries until the 1960s, and a pioneer of the linguistic turn and poststructuralism/postmodernism, while the latter is a founder of general semantics, a builder of a "non-Aristotelian system" that tries to synthesize diverse areas of human knowledge, a scholar whose work gave rise to the "general semantic movement" in the 1940s and 1950s, and a practitioner of altering people's way of thinking and acting by changing their linguistic behavior. At a deeper level, however, Nietzsche and Korzybski share at least one common position, that is, to deconstruct the ancient Greek philosophical tradition as a basis of Western culture by illuminating the harmful pseudo-identity between the law of reality and the law of language. It is the deconstructive insight and function that marks both Nietzsche and Korzybski's contribution to contemporary scholarship. Many scholars have acknowledged this in similar ways. Foucault (1973), for example, believes that Nietzsche is actually the first thinker who not only treats language as a central issue of philosophy, but also deconstructs philosophy by displaying the identity between language and metaphysics. (1) Breazeale (1976) observes that Nietzsche is "practically and theoretically concerned with problems of language to a degree unparalleled among serious thinkers of modern times" (p. 301). Wilcox (1982), Schrift (1985), and Crawford (1988) argue that Nietzsche's theory of truth, value, and knowledge is inseparable from his philosophy of language. On the other hand, Ogden (1935) claims that Korzybski's work "presents a revolutionary thesis" (p. 82) as well as a wealth of materials that may "clarify a world view" (p. 84). Chase (1938) stresses Korzybski's "stubborn attempt to find out how words behave, and why meaning is so often frustrated" (p. 7), Postman (1988) characterizes Korzybski and general semantics as revealing the relationship between the world of words and the world of non-words as well as how people use words to abstract and symbolize reality.

This paper is a comparative study of Nietzsche and Korzybski's thought on several philosophical and linguistic issues. It consists of four sections: the first one focuses on their critique of Greek metaphysics and their own worldview; the second centers on their deconstruction of logocentralism; the third explores how they understand the nature of language and its relationship to thought and reality; and the fourth inquiries into their similarity and difference by comparing structuralism with poststructuralism. The paper suggests that although Korzybski does not acknowledge Nietzsche's influence on studies of language, the latter actually sheds more light on the relationship between language, thought, and reality than anyone Korzybski does give credit to; compared to Korzybski's pragmatic endeavor in changing people's linguistic behavior, Nietzsche's philosophical investigation has been proved more powerful and far-reaching in altering people's way of understanding and coping with language; in the final analysis, Korzybski can be said of a promoter of structuralism and Nietzsche a forerunner of poststructuralism.

Traditional Metaphysics and New Worldview

In reading Nietzsche and Korzybski, one finds that they share interests in some basic themes, advance a number of similar ideas, and even employ the same key words. (2) Both of them, for example, apply new achievements of natural sciences to their own research; both take a psychological approach to philosophical and linguistic issues; and both seek for answers to theoretical and practical problems in light of mankind's nature. However, the first and foremost similarity is manifested in three respects: critique of ancient Greek metaphysics; analysis of the basic laws of logic; and discussion on the relationship of language to thought and reality. …

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