A General Semantics Glossary (Part VII)

By Pula, Robert P. | et Cetera, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

A General Semantics Glossary (Part VII)


Pula, Robert P., et Cetera


identity/non-identity. I have used the word "central" to describe most of the korzybskian terms I have presented so far in this glossary. That's how it goes in a system, a neurolinguistic cohort, where every defining term is directly related to all of its verbal associates. No cluster of terms can be said to be more 'central' to general-semantics than nonidentity and its rejected misevaluation, "identity."

I deem it useful that we consider non-identity from two points of view: the historical ('Aristotelian') and the specifically korzybskian.

The 'Law of Identity' of Aristotle had been challenged on limited verbal-philosophical grounds by Western scholars well before Korzybski. The challenges to and/or rejections of the Aristotelian "Laws of Thought" have a long and honorable history, beginning with Aristotle's own period (384-322 B. C.), reaching an early peak during the mediaeval era (pace, Thomas Aquinas), but rising to a sturdy chorus from the mid-nineteenth century and reaching a most personal crescendo in the writings of Korzybski.

It seems worth pointing out here that Korzybski's position was not anti-Aristotelian. He expressed great respect for the achievements of Aristotle (one of the dedicatees of Science and Sanity). Korzybski's concern was to show the limitations of the Aristotelian orientation, especially as developed by Aristotle's followers over the last 2500 years. Indeed, Aristotle did not himself formulate the 'Law of Identity'; it was said by his disciples and interpreters to be implied or presupposed with reference to his explicitly stated laws and by his methodological treatises in general (Ovganon). (1) By "non-Aristotelian" Korzybski formulated a point of view which encompasses the valuable aspects of Aristotle while going beyond ('non' in the modern, philosophical-scientific sense) the great formulator from Stagira. After all, Aristotle saw 'logic' as only a preparation for scientific knowledge, not as knowledge itself. (2) He is regarded as the first in both 'West' and 'East' to insist on rigorous scientific procedure, i.e., to be what we would call extensional and what the general scientific community would call experimental: i.e., self-challenging via non-verbal (silent level) tests and observations. Korzybski was fully aware of all this and took pains to point out that his non-Aristotelianism was targeted to a rigid commitment to aspects of Aristotle which Aristotle himself might have rejected--especially if he lived in 1933! However, Korzybski forthrightly rejected Aristotle's essentialism which became so 'spiritualized' by Thomas Aquinas (the 'substance' and 'accidents' opposition) and others during the heyday of Scholasticism.

"Identity" in the domain of formal logical discourse, which usually remains strictly verbal/intensional, simply affirms that a statement is 'itself': "A is A," in modern usage, a tautology. The copula "is," which links the terms of the above proposition ("A is A"), Korzybski called the "is of identity." (3) He maintained that, even at this level, statements of identity ("absolute sameness in 'all' respects") are false for many structural (process) reasons. He did not, however, deny that we can agree on a kind of "'is' of stability" (my formulation: RPP) to provide consistency within discourse. After all, he often said, when misquoted or misinterpreted, "I say what I say; I do not say what I do not say!" But when used to refer to experiences in general, including not only our statements but the non-verbal processes which subtend and give rise to them, identity statements are not only invariably structurally false to fact but potentially dangerous.

Korzybski was not a practitioner of modern logical-mathematical formalism. He did not attempt to present 'breakthrough' formulations in the rather hermetic and hieratic fields of symbolic logic, mathematical logic, propositional calculi, etc., though he did recognize their value as disciplines which might find eventual applications. …

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