Academic journal article et Cetera

Quandaries, Quarrels, Quagmires, and Questions

Academic journal article et Cetera

Quandaries, Quarrels, Quagmires, and Questions

Article excerpt

Author's Note: This article was presented as a paper at the World in Quandaries Symposium, held at Fordham University, New York City, on September 8, 2006. The symposium marked the 60th Anniversary of the publication of Wendell Johnson's People in Quandaries, along with the 60th Anniversary of the New York Society for General Semantics, and the 8th Anniversary of the Media Ecology Association, and I would like to thank AlLen Flagg, President of NYSGS for making the event possible. Neil Postman, who formally introduced the term "media ecology" in 1968, was known to remark that "media ecology is general semantics writ large. " People in Quandaries was required reading in the doctoral program in media ecology that Postman founded at New York University in 1970, no doubt because it provides an accessible and comprehensive introduction to general semantics (not to mention scientific method). I assume that he did not introduce his students to general semantics by assigning Korzybski's Science and Sanity even though it is the original source because he thought that the book was too hard. I also assume that he did not introduce his students to general semantics by assigning Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action even though it is the most popular general semantics work ever written because he thought that the book was too soft. In other words, my Goldilockean conclusion, if you can bear it, is that Postman thought that People in Quandaries was just right.

THE STORY of the Trojan Horse is a well known tale of deception and betrayal, but it is also a classic example of the disastrous consequences of mistaking a symbol for reality. Clever Odysseus, that great manipulator of symbols, knew that the war-weary Trojans would interpret the meaning of the wooden horse intensionally, that is, in accordance with their own needs and desires. They would therefore be eager to see the horse as a sign that the Greeks had abandoned their decade-old quest to sack their city, and had set sail for home. The horse was the sacred symbol of the sea-god Poseidon, and Odysseus knew that the Trojans would revere it as a holy icon, and not suspect that it was a false idol. Had the Trojans adopted an extensional orientation and engaged in reality-testing, they might have discovered that the Greeks had not sailed across the Mediterranean, but were merely hidden nearby. This in turn might have led them to investigate the horse itself, and determine its true nature as a false front. But after ten years of living with a siege mentality, the last thing the Trojans wanted to do was to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Of course, there were a few Trojans who questioned the symbol of the wooden horse, and the inferences that others had made about its meaning. One of the skeptics was the tragic seer Cassandra, who had the gift of true foresight, but had been cursed so that no one would take her seriously, and most thought her insane. Another was the priest Laocoon, who issued the warning to "beware of Greeks bearing gifts." But Poseidon, who sided with the Greeks, sent serpents to kill him and his sons, and the Trojans took this as a sign that his suspicions concerning the totem were not only incorrect, but also downright blasphemous. And so it came to pass that those who questioned the Trojans' reaction to the symbol, their definition of the situation, and their construction of reality were labeled as being either mad or bad. And so, for want of a general semanticist, or media ecologist, the kingdom of Troy was lost.

Over three millennia after the fall of Troy, another set of visionaries warned us to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Their names were Alfred Korzybski, S. I. Hayakawa, and Wendell Johnson, among others, and the particular Greek that concerned them was not the cunning ruler of Ithaca, Odysseus, but the equally intelligent philosopher from Athens, Aristotle. Aristotle's Trojan horse was symbolic logic, a mode of expression and cognition that misrepresents reality at the same time that it opened the door to most scholarly and scientific investigation. …

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