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From ETC.: A Review of General Semantics Vol. 5, No. 4 (Summer 1948), 225-230

“What is Meant by Aristotelian Structure of Language”* by S.I. Hayakawa

  • Presented before Section H (Anthropology) of the American Association for

the Advancement of Science, session of 'Linguistics and Culture,' Sherman Hotel, Chicago, December 27, 1947. Also presented before the University of Chicago Chapter of the Society for General Semantics, Kent Hall, University of Chicago, April 8, 1948.

My purpose in this paper will be to explain briefly what I understand to be Korzybski's position on the subject of the relationship between language structure and 'thought,' between language structure and behavior. The existence of such a relationship is, as he says, 'not obvious,' even to intelligent and reasonably well-informed persons. (fn1 - A. Korzybski, _Science and Sanity_ (1933), p. 505. Since this work is quoted frequently in this paper, subsequent quotations will be identified simply by page numbers given in parentheses at the end of the quotation.)

To linguistic scholars, however, this relationship has been well-known for a long time. For example, Whorf says:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare us in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds–and this means by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it onto concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way–an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, _but its terms are absolutely obligatory_; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. (fn2-Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Science and Linguistics,” in Hayakawa's _Language in Action_ (1941), pp. 311-313.

The consequences of linguistic facts such as these have been but imperfectly investigated, at least by the linguistic profession. We are all familiar by now with the fact that the relativity theory, the new quantum mechanics, modern mathematics, etc., have revised not merely our notions of the world but have revised the background structural assumptions upon which traditional beliefs had been built. The traditional agreement to which we had subscribed in the 'organization and classification of data,' the structure unconsciously ascribed to the world by traditional language habits, had proved hopelessly inadequate for modern scientific purposes. New languages were therefore developed, involving new structural assumptions. (fn3-For example, Philipp Frank says in _Einstein, His Life and Times: “Einstein's _relativity of time_ is a reform in _semantics_, not in metaphysics.” See also Korzybski, op. cit., p. 55.)

It is a habit among the linguistically uninformed to objectify language as something 'out there' which can be looked at independently of speakers or hearers. A system of conventional signs is not, however, a 'language' until it has been _internalized_ (as the psychiatrists say) by the members of a social group. A language is therefore not merely the system of signs but also the whole repertory of semantic reactions which the signs produce in those who speak and understand the language. The structural assumptions implicit in a language are of necessity reflected in behavioral reactions. On this point, Korzybski is most emphatic:

“A language, any language, has at its bottom certain metaphysics, which ascribe, consciously or unconsciously, some sort of structure to the world. (p. 89)

“Now these structural assumptions are inside our skin when we accept a language–_any_ language. (p. 505)

“We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of semantic reactions and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses on us unconsciously, is _automatically projected_ upon the world around us. (p. 89)

A main contention of writers on general semantics, namely, that everyday language and, to a large degree, scientific and technical languages especially in fields not yet made rigorous, are permeated with prescientific structural assumptions, is therefore no surprise to any competently trained linguistic student. The logical consequences of this fact, that everyday discussion, public controversy, and even scientific discourse, are often made fruitless or meaningless by the unnoticed intrusion of obsolete prescientific assumptions, is also a familiar notion, vigorously argued by Lady Welby (fn4-Viola Welby, _What is Meaning?) (1903).) and later expounded at length by Ogden and Richards (fn5-C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, _The Meaning of Meaning) (3rd. ed. revised, 1930).) and by Malinowski. (fn6-B. Malinowski, “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages,” Supplement I in Ogden and Richards' _The Meaning of Meaning_.)

The respect in which Korzybski appears to me to have made his most arresting contribution and therefore gone farther than his forerunners is the degree to which he has analyzed human behavior, from the productive on the one hand (in science, for example, and in mathematics) to the unproductive and self-defeating on the other hand (in philosophical and political dispute, in propaganda, in cases of mental illness, etc.), in the light of such linguistic hypotheses. He has concluded that prescientific structural assumptions, primitive metaphysics, etc., underlie the language (and accompanying semantic reactions) of those whose labors are futile and unproductive, and that structurally more adequate and more flexible assumptions underlie the language (and acompanying semantic reactions) of those who are making signal progress in their fields. The former language habits, which involve an implicit postulate of identity, he calls 'aristotelian.' The latter, which involve an explicit rejection of identity, he calls 'non-aristotelian.' Indeed, central to Korzybski's thought is his revelation of the existence in our semantic reactions of an unacknolwedged postulate of identity and his explicit framing of the postulate of non-identity as a basis for re-education. The passage from aristotelian to non-aristotelian language habits and semantic reactions Korzybski regards as a generalized description of the great modern transformation of traditional habits of thought, represented in mathematics by the transition from euclidean to non-euclidean, in physics by the transition from newtonian to non-newtonian (einstinian). As he writes:

“In the present non-aristotelian system, I reject Aristotle's assumed structures, usually called 'metaphysics' (Circa 350 B.C.) and accept modern science as my metaphysics.” (p. 92)

Since practically all of us brought up in Western culture have internalized, and therefore manifest our patterns of reaction and behavior, the traditional Indo-European (aristotelian') language structure, and since these patterns of reaction are demonstrably not adequate for the solution of contemporary problems, Korzybski offers in his 'general semantics' an educational theory and discipline whereby we may hope to overcome our most pervasive and serious cultural lag–one that is largely responsible, as he believes, for other cultural lags in many fields. As Einstein recently said in his 'telegram to the people':

“Unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” (fn7-Quoted by Lilian R. Lieber in _Mits, Wits and Logic_ (1947), p.29.)

General semantics is an attempted anatomy of the old and new 'modes of thinking,' offering methods whereby the transition may be made.

The following are some of the features of traditional IE (Indo-European) langugae structure which Korzybski calls 'aristotelian':

I. The traditional structure of language, involving the so-called “_is_ of identity,' tends to obscure the difference between words and things.

“An object or feeling …is _not_ verbal, is _not_ words…Anyone who misses that–and it is unfortunately easily missed–will miss one of the most important psychologicl factors in all semantic reactions underlying sanity. This omission is facilitated greatly by the older systems, habits of thought, older semantic reactions, and, above all, by the primitive _structure_ of our aristotelian language and the 'is' of identity. Thus, for instance, we _handle_ what we call a pencil. Whatever we handle is un-speakable; yet we say 'this _is_ a pencil,' which statement is unconditionally false to facts, because the object appears as an absolute individual and _is not_ words. Thus our semantic reactions are at once _trained in delusional values_, which must be pathological.” (pp. 34-35).

The generality and importance of this principle are made difficult to understand by the fact that we are all accustomed, in describing other people's misevaluations, to using elementalistic terms such as 'he doesn't think straight,' 'his ideas are wrong,' etc. It takes patient analysis of the mechanics of many controversies, conflicts, case-histories of the mentally ill, etc., to appreciate fully what is meant by being trained in delusional values as the result of the failure to distinguish in one's semantic reactions between verbal and non-verbal levels. As Korzybski says, our cultural tradition, which includes structure of language and accompanying semantic reactions, helps to perpetuate this tendency. A description of this process as it takes place throughout our culture is given from a different point of view by Trigant Burrow:

“The organisms total or primary configuration is early deflected into the socially constructed system of partial reflexes we know as man's code of signs or language–a system of responses to which the organism has become verbally conditioned. So that in the human organism its primary process of adaptation undergoes at the outset secondary deflection…He enters a group whose encircling, protective environment is now fashioned of those secondarily integrated reflexes that constitute for the growing organism the mere signs and intimations of things. In short, as a result of his early training, the child is enveloped not so much within a spontaneous field of total, bionomic reactions as within a field of vicarious symbols that more and more replaces his total world of objective actuality.” (fn8-Trigant Burrow, _The Biology of Human Conflict_ (1937), pp. 251-252.)

In further illustration of our cultural tendency toward regarding the knowledge of words as the knowledge of things, we may cite the history of western science, in which the traditional philosophical quest has been to seek to 'define' the 'essences of things.' This tendency continues to show itself in the 'natural logic' of unreflective persons who feel that when a thing is _named_, one has discovered all he needs to know about it. An observable tension is exhibited by many people confronted by an unnamed object–a tension that usually disappears when a name as been given. In terms of semantic reactions, such as behavior means at all levels a tendency to make one's adjustment not to objects but to names. (fn9-“These are mere names,” as Trigant Burrow says (op. cit., p. xxxviii), “that have become the be-all and the end-all of [man's] existence.” A trivial but revealing instance of this adjustment to names occurred in my own home recently, where I have hanging an abstract painting by the late L. Moholy-Nagy. A woman who was visiting us couldn't keep her mind on the conversation; she kept turning to stare at the painting. Apparently it was disturbing her a great deal. Finally, she walked up to it, found a tiny typewritten label on the frame saying, “Space modulator, 1941.” “Space modulator, is it?” she said. “Isn't that nice!” She sat down, much relieved. She never even glanced at it again after that.)

II. Traditional language structure (and accompanying semantic reactions) divides the indivisible into discrete 'entities'–often obscuring or totally concealing functional relationships. The divisions of 'substance and 'form,' of 'body' and 'mind,' of 'cause' and 'effect,' of 'actor' and 'act,' of 'reason' and 'emotion,' of 'space' and 'time,' etc., Korzybski calls 'elementalism.” He advocates in their place 'non-elementalistic' terms and orientations, especially in those areas of present-day thought which are stalemated. Certainly this matter of artificial linguistic divisions is not a novel idea to linguistic students, who are familiar, especially in their study of non-IE languages, with the variety of ways in which different languages abstract different categories and relationships from the flux of experience.

The novel feature of Korzybski's thought is his proposal that we do something about it.

What is to be done has also been suggested by Whorf:

“No individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free. The person most nearly free in such respects would be a linguist familiar with many widely different linguistic systems.” (fn10-Op. cit., p. 313)

Here Korzybski would feel, I am sure, that a person acquainted with modern mathematics–or at least with the methods of modern mathematics–is already in the situation of a 'linguist familiar with many widely different linguistic systems,' with the advantage, moreover, that these mathematical systems are not the hap-hazard residue of primitive metaphysical notions and animisms, but are systems of propositional functions, which, being deliberately emptied of content, can be given any content.

An instance of elementalism can be seen in the new book, _Body and Mind_, by Flanders Dunbar, M.D., a leader in the new, non-elementalistic field of psychosomatic medicine. She explicitly states a non-elementalistic point of view: “Your body is your mind and vice versa.” In spite of repeated assertions to this effect, the author constantly reverts to the division of body and mind in her text, for example, “The patient has lost the ability to have his mind maintain control of his body,”–a habit which seriously affects the accuracy of her statements. (fn11-See the review by Russell Meyers, M.D., of this work in ETC., V, 119-125 (Winter 1948).) Such elementalism is pervasive, of course, in many disciplines–which accounts for innumerable problems remaining 'insoluble.'

III Traditional language structure and accompanying semantic reactions tend to be two-valued: propositions have to be either 'true' or 'false,' specified ways of behaving are either 'right' or 'wrong,' etc. Internalized, this language structure results in two-valued 'Black-and-white' behavior patterns: “Whoever is not for us is against us.” In place of these patterns, Korzybski proposes what he calls an 'infinite-valued orientation,' based on the internalizing of modern probability logics.

IV. Traditional aristotelian language structure and accompanying semantic reactions tend to ignore a fundamental fact of the functioning of the human nervous system, namely, that we abstract at an indefinite number of levels–by abstracting from abstractions, by abstracting from abstractions of abstractions, etc.

In mathematics, the procedure of symbol manipulation is such that, should a confusion of orders of abstraction occur, the system will at once make the confusion evident by exhibiting a contradiction. The efficiency of mathematics in this respect is shown by the way in which many traditional logical paradoxes, in which shifts of orders of abstraction are concealed by everyday language, are simply solved by mathematical methods. The internalizing of mathematical language structures is the mechanism proposed for escaping the limitations of semantic reactions governed by traditional aristotelian language structure. Language structure and semantic reactions that distinguish unfailingly the different orders of abstraction make possible a fuller realization of the capacities of the human nervous system and of the capacities of language as a tool of inquiry than has hitherto been common except in those limited fields, such as modern science, where such semantic reactions are already commonplace.

The foregoing are some of the features of what Korzybski has called aristotelian language structure. Another interesting contribution is his distillation of scientific language habits and behavior into a few simple formulae. ('extensional devices') which can be used to impart a 'non-aristotelian' orientation to anyone, including the very young. The value of this training in education and re-education is being investigated today in many fields.

The term “aristotelian” as used by Korzybski can be translated “Indo-European” for most purposes, the name of Aristotle being used largely because he was, and remains, foremost in making explicit the structural implications underlying our common Western linguistic heritage, and therefore foremost also in introducing order into Western thought. This order has been, of course, of incalculable value in the development of Western civilizations, but it has, as the consensus of modern scientists holds, long since reached the limits of its usefulness.

The term “non-Indo-European,” however, cannot be substituted for Korzybski's “non-aristotelian,” since historic non-IE languages carry as many (although probably different) conscious or unconscious primitive metaphysical, prescientific, and animistic assumptions as IE languages–possibly more. It is to be hoped, nevertheless, that linguists, especially students of non-IE languages, might be persuaded to examine afresh, in the light of Korzybski's theories, the relationships between language structure and behavior with a view to increasing our present scant knowledge of this subject (fn12-See “Linguistic Reflection of Wintu Thought,” by D. Demetracopoulou Lee, in ETC., V, 174-181 (Spring 1948) for an extremely valuable analysis of the structural assumptions underlying one non-IE language. More similar analyses are urgently needed.) It is a topic of obvious importance not only to education, but the even bigger job of reeducation, which is the principal task of most education today.

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