If we want a new, sustainable society, we must re-vision ourselves and our needs. To do that, we must use a language that supports re-visioning. Our old ways of languaging ourselves-and-our-world have brought us to the edge of self-annihilation—and most people have no idea how or why our “best efforts” continue to propel us towards catastrophe.
My Orwellian colleagues here have mostly proposed ways of improving or repairing our current methods of operating as a civilization. I contend that if we wish-and-will to avoid self-inflicted catastrophe, we must make more profound and radical changes.
How do our best intentions lead us towards disaster? I and my collaborators believe that we have disclosed systematic error in the very way we talk about these problems—a collection of untenable presuppositions buried in the grammar of our languages. I have spent my life analyzing the ways we humans, members of the currently dominant world culture, talk ourselves into species suicide and eco-extermination. My insights have led to fundamental changes, which I have encoded into a body of theory. These innovations have empowered me to enact fundamental revisions in what I do.
I present this paper/talk as an explicit invitation to my fellow-humans. If you don’t want to continue to rely on the lethal presuppositions now guiding us to commit species suicide, and to annihilate the biosphere, and instead would prefer to begin becoming a part of the solution, then, I believe, I and my collaborators provide an ‘outside-the-box’ foundation, a “place to stand”. I invite you to pick up where we have left off.
Keywords: identity, Korzybski, non-aristotelian, non-identity, survival-errors, untenable assumptions
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Up until the recent past, I had not often told how I initiated my long-term research project. When I had done so, I usually had described it in simple, almost child-like terms: “My teachers said this, I responded by saying that,” etc. I had the silent conviction that my description amounted to a teaching-tale—but my wife and my close collaborator, Weld Carter, criticized it as “mere autobiography”, and urged me to drop it.
At the moment, I hold it as an error for me to have persisted in expressing my results in that way—I may have made it more difficult for people interested in my findings to understand the thrust of what I have to say.
To rectify that error, let me begin again. At least one version of the logic of science holds that “The job of a scientist consists of disclosing error in her/his favorite theories, and (if s/he can) finding ways to account for the relevant observations in ways that eliminate the now-apparent error(s).”
I believe that that aphorism describes what I have actually done, over and over again, throughout my long-term research project, spanning the past 58 years or so.
Recently, I saw a deeper way to express, first, just how my long-term research project got started; second, one of the most important sets of “tools” I found; and third, the first collection of related conclusions/predictions I reached.
2.1 So—to express it from my recently-modified standpoint: When, during the interval 1947-49, my prep-school science teachers (especially Dick Brinckerhoff) introduced the topic of the so-called ‘life-sciences’, they also taught us a collection of “facts” (or more properly named, a collection of attitudes) about the ‘life-sciences’: The theories appear “inadequate”: They explain some findings, but rarely those that interest any particular investigator. They rarely deliver testable hypotheses. When they do, and someone performs the relevant critical test, and the hypothesis turns out disconfirmed, no one revises or rejects and replaces the theory thus brought into question. Those theories do not lend themselves to scrutiny or elaboration by the methods of Western mathematics. And so on. One issue, as I learned later, centers on the problem of “complexity.” Theorists consider biology simply “too complex” to deal with using methods that work for chemistry or physics.
I soon recognized these “facts” as a litany of excuses for why not to use ‘scientific method’ in the study of living systems, or to expect others to do so, as a technique to revise (or to reject and replace) those theories.
I started out by focusing on our theories of human behavior—prominently, in the late 1940’s, psychoanalysis and behaviorism. To my teacher, I declared myself: “I intend to revise, or reject and replace, our theories of human behavior.” (He expressed horror, and tried to set me straight.) In light of his response, I used to say of myself, “I refused to accept the excuses.” But (as I now see it) in so doing—refusing to accept the excuses—in effect I recognized a pattern: Our culture (or I could say, equally well, our philosophers or scientists or in general, our specialists) generate(s) cock-and-bull theories (or to say it less colloquially, theories that don’t work) and then protect them from revision. Consider this my first “teaching story”: how, and when, I first began deviating from the main stance of Western science.
2.2 In mid-December 1949, I obliquely encountered the work of Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950). In January 1950, I read the book Language in Action, by S. I. Hayakawa (1941). Enthused by what I found there, and noticing that Hayakawa named Korzybski as one of his most important teachers, I did something I hadn’t done before: I looked Korzybski up in the Bibliography, and sent off for the second of his two books (Korzybski, 1933). I came to recognize that Korzybski had laid the foundations for what I had declared I wanted to do—to an extent that exceeded my wildest teenage imaginings. For the purposes of this teaching-document, I need to point out that Korzybski rejects the logical construct of identity—the notion of “absolute sameness in all respects”. In effect he says, “In a cosmos, or universe, that harbors living organisms, including humans, the construct of identity never survives scrutiny—never proves valid.” He explicitly suggests that we reserve the term identity (in this logical sense) to refer to a human making a mistake.
So then Korzybski becomes radical: he suggests that we not rely on identity. Unfortunately, in that book, he neither demonstrates nor tells us just how to manage that feat. Nonetheless, I ended up making his proposal—that we reject (disallow) identity— a central feature of whatever I subsequently did—a keystone “tool”. Otherwise stated, I saw Korzybski’s proposal as a focus for my curiosity: What would happen—what would it mean—if I actually did succeed in rejecting identity in some particularized location?
Some eight years later, Korzybski (1941) transcends that difficulty—he digs out, and states in English, the most-fundamental presuppositions that underlie the new “system” he has generated. He sets forth three undefined terms and three postulates, and designates these presuppositions as the non-aristotelian premises.
Korzybski started his work by generating the construct of time-binding, which I consider one of the most important innovations ever proposed (Korzybski, 1921).
2.3 On or about 2 November 1952, I generated another “teaching story”. On that date, on Bikini Atoll, American forces detonated the first H-bomb. In its relentless light, I recognized another pattern—completed a Gestalt, which I could call “the destination our culture seeks”. Initially, I expressed my insight as a short poem. I consider it unpleasant—but for those who have not previously seen it, I repeat it here:
nothing living anywhere in sight
the sands fused to green glowing glass
the hills scorched dry eroded bare
the lake foul dead radioactive
while on the lifeless plain beyond
a white-eyed skull surveys its handiwork
Subsequently, I found ways to put into words some of the inferences that underlie the images in that six-line poem:
2.3.1 By 1952, I had already recognized that if our theories of human behavior don’t work, then neither do our theories of biology, for similar reasons.
2.3.2 In the light of the H-bomb, I saw what happens to a culture whose theories of behavior and biology don’t work: Its members find themselves disoriented for how to live in a biosphere; and they make so many survival-errors that they eliminate themselves and their culture from the planet.
Our culture—what Daniel Quinn (author of Ishmael (1992)) calls the currently dominant world culture, whose members make up 96-98% of the current world population, but not the whole human race—our culture has developed such great disoriented power that, if or when we eliminate ourselves and our culture, it looks likely that we will annihilate the biosphere in the process.
2.3.3 The H-bomb (thermonuclear fusion carried out on the surface of Planet Earth) looked—looks—to me like even a more severe survival-error than does the A-bomb (nuclear fission carried out on the planet’s surface).
So I revised my aspirations. Instead of setting out to generate a “theory of human behavior” that works, I chose to study self-destructive behavior at the level of culture (and to frame my findings in ways that work). By so doing, I intended to disclose how our culture manages to pursue self-annihilation, and to find ways to stop such pursuit by learning how to pursue some other goals instead.
In order to understand “a deviation”—or phrased more aptly, to understand “… someone who has deviated from the way her/his predecessors operated”—one must understand the starting-point, the problem that required solving, the error that needed eliminating.
I intend the present string of “teaching stories” to make my lifelong intentions clear: From the point at which, as a teen-ager, I declared myself a scientist and chose my research problem, I intended to deviate from rather than continue in the errors of my predecessors. If these stories do not make that obvious, then they fail as “teaching-stories”—on this score, I fail as a teacher.
As for the noun-verb distinction, I know that in my writings over the years, I may have given insufficient clues to the problem I needed to solve. So now I attempt to rectify that error.
As much as I can get away with, I’ll “hit only the high spots”.
3.1 I did write a ‘theory of human behavior’, which I attempted to base on the non-aristotelian premises. (Hilgartner, 1963, 1965; both revised in 1967—words only, no mathematics)
3.2 Then over the interval 1965-68, in collaboration with John F. Randolph, then Fayerweather Professor of Mathematics at the University of Rochester, I performed a logical analysis on the doctrine I had proposed. I framed my findings as an axiomatic system stated in one of the Western “Let’s Keep Track of What We Say” languages—the mathematical theory of sets. (Hilgartner & Randolph, 1969a,b,c,d)
This, by the way, violates one of the “shibboleths” stated above, concerning the ‘life-sciences’—contrary to what my science teachers had taught me to expect, I could and did use Western set theory to develop and extend my “theory of human behavior”. In so doing, I began the process of breaking out of the Western dualism (e.g., ‘mind’ vs. ‘matter’, or ‘organism’ vs. ‘environment’, etc.)—my theory approximates a viewpoint that presents both the “behaving” (as viewed from the “outside”) and the “experiencing” (as viewed from the “inside”) of a human-organism-transacting-with-her/his-environment-at-a-date.
3.3 In about 1971, I undertook to re-examine the foundations of the theoretical system I had by then developed.
To my astonishment, I disclosed a kind of self-contradiction which I had not previously heard/seen discussed:
Since I had tried to base my “theory of human behaving-and-experiencing” on the non-aristotelian premises proposed by Korzybski, the actual findings, the “content” of the theory, purports to reject the logical construct of identity as not-valid. However, the set theory notation which I used to express my findings requires identity: By explicit postulate, we must regard-and-treat every set as identical with itself (or as self-identical).
So: I found myself facing a contradiction between the premises underlying the “content” of the theory and the premises underlying the notational language in which I had expressed that “content”.
I tried for several months to resolve that contradiction: to find a way through, over, under, around it, etc. Nothing worked.
Eventually, near Christmas 1971, I came to recognize that I myself had introduced the contradiction, when I accepted Randolph’s suggestion that I learn, and use, the mathematical theory of sets as the notational language in which to conduct the logical analysis of my (purely verbal) behavioral theory.
“All” I had to do to resolve the contradiction: I needed “only” to reject the mathematical theory of sets, and all other languages, notational as well as discursive, which belong to the western Indo-European (WIE) family—and replace them with languages based, “from the very beginning” (whatever that phrase might come to mean, in this context) on the non-aristotelian premises.
3.4 I set out to create a notational language that fit these criteria. Initially, everything I tried had the effect of showing me that I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how I could tell, but everything that I tried “smelled” Western.
Eventually, after four to six months of extreme frustration and consistent failure, I had a chance to present a paper (Hilgartner & Johnson, 1968). I’ll tell that story in detail later.
The upshot: I found myself prompted to review a passage written by the anthropological linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, to wit:
The Indo-European languages and many others give great prominence to a type of sentence having two parts, each part built around a class of word—substantives and verbs—which those languages treat differently in grammar. As I showed in the April 1940 [MIT Technology] Review, this distinction is not drawn from nature; it is just a result of the fact that every tongue must have some kind of structure, and those tongues have made a go of exploiting this kind. The Greeks, especially Aristotle, built up this contrast and made it a law of reason. Since then, the contrast has been stated in logic in many different ways: subject and predicate, actor and action, things and relations between things, objects and their attributes, quantities and operations. And, pursuant again to grammar, the notion became ingrained that one of these classes of entities can exist in its own right but that the verb class cannot exist without an entity of the other class, the “thing” class, as a peg to hang on. (Whorf, 1956, pp. 241-2)
Having penetrated deeply enough so I could read “between the lines” of that passage from Whorf, I put it together as another pattern. I presented the following account of this pattern in Baden-Baden in 2002.
4.0 Excerpt from “Languaging for Survival” (Hilgartner, et al., 2002c (presentation version), slightly revised, but preserving its internal outline structure):
B. Second component:Mainly verbal-level. To display it,
I consider what might seem like the single most basic feature of the generalized grammar underlying WIE languages, notational as well as discursive; and then
Ask and answer an “obvious” question. (Hilgartner, 2002a)
1. The basic feature: To make a complete sentence in a language like English, or the mathematical theory of sets, one places at least one noun or noun-phrase or noun-surrogate next to at least one verb or verb-phrase or verb-surrogate.
The cat grinned.
The cat wagged his tail.
C D(C subset of D)
2. The question: Operationally speaking, how do we distinguish the nouns from the verbs?
C. My answer: We do that by means of some tacit rule of the form of Aristotle’s “Law of Identity”, which says: “Everything is ‘identical with’ itself ”.
1. In short, we do so by regarding, and treating, the nouns as identical with themselves:
The cat is the cat;
and by regarding, and treating, the verbs as not-identical with themselves: We virtually never say or write,
*Grinned is grinnedor
*Is is isor
* (where the triple-bar stands for “identical with”)or
* (subset subset of subset)
D. This has nothing to do with whether, or what, you “believe”. The “terms [of the agreement] are absolutely obligatory” (Whorf, 1956, pp. 213-4—see endnote 1 for entire passage)—if you language in a WIE tongue or notation, you “cannot talk at all” without relying on identity in this sense.
E. This type of rule successfully distinguishes these two “parts of speech”—at the price of hiding the untenable logical construct of identity in the grammar.
1. To hold the construct of noun as identical with itself— Noun1 Noun1 —shows every noun as a concealed identity-sentence, and makes it static, distinct from any other noun, separate from its surroundings, existing independent of any observer: the primordial isolated system.
F. This tenet, holding Noun1 Noun1, contradicts our accumulated experience.
1. Over the span of some 500 years of scientific investigating, workers have produced evidence only for dynamic non-verbal “doings” or “happenings”.
2. We have found no evidence that any static, unchanging non-verbal thing actually “exists” or “occurs”.
3. Both our verbal and our notational constructs, however, uniformly remain static.
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century logicians expressed their epoch-making innovations as distinctions (non-identities), e.g. Name vs. Thing Named, the use vs. the mention of a term, ‘map’ vs. ‘territory’, even non-verbal vs. verbal. They showed that not to make these distinctions leads to serious, invalidating logical errors.
Any WIE grammar makes other distinctions, but not the ones eventually put forth by modern logicians, etc. Otherwise stated, these grammars tacitly require their users to treat (or at least, makes it inconvenient for them not to treat) the two members of each pair as indistinguishable—identical—a stance already well-documented as expressing fundamental theoretical error.
question: Can we adequately and accurately describe, or model, a dynamic non-verbal universe in any language which not only
provides no way(s) explicitly to make these key distinctions, but also
requires its users (well, most of us) to posit a static, unchanging non-verbal universe?
4. The great advances set forth by WIE logicians, mathematicians, scientists, etc., over the millennia give the appearance of having provided workers with increasingly numerous and powerful ways to do exactly that—to model dynamic “doings” or “happenings” in static terms.
5. As I show in the next section, that appearance has proved misleading, in deadly ways.
End of cut from “Languaging for Survival”
I came to call this pattern evidence for a previously unknown, unsuspected untenable assumption encoded in the generalized grammar common to the WIE languages. But please notice the consequences! Whenever a speaker of a WIE language uses a noun to point at a dynamic process or happening, s/he acts out the pretense that such an ‘item’ remains static, unchanging. In that acting lies the further pretense that s/he has, and can have, precise, certain knowledge of the entire status and characteristic of that happening. In so doing, s/he, without noticing, takes on––assumes––omniscience, a god-like certainty. Of the errors so far described that a human can make, pretending to god-like powers seems the most grievous.
Elsewhere, I have discussed some of the deadly implications of this untenable assumption, and the contrasting implications of the constructs I have used to reject and replace that discredited assumption. You can find an outline summary in Appendix 2
To most readers, surely the material presented above will seem unfamiliar. I invite you resolutely to hold on to the distinction between unfamiliar and incomprehensible. If you find resonances—if this pattern coheres for you—then, I expect, you could (if you so chose) read any of my other writings, and could make sense of them.
As it appears to me, I have already provided revised foundations, which can in principle and may in fact support us humans to stop our accelerating “progress” towards annihilating ourselves-and-the-biosphere. As an altered way of standing, it may already suffice to enable us to build up viable, sustainable, life-affirming ways for humans to live. To anyone who shares the intention to arrange for our long-term survival, I offer access to my detailed findings to date. Whether you support my findings, or wish to question or challenge my inferences about these innovations, I invite any curious reader to visit my website at www.hilgart.org, or to get in touch with me at my email address, email@example.com.
1. A key excerpt from the writings of the anthropological linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf:
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 every observer in the face; in the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into 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 our 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.
This fact is very significant for modern science, for it means that 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 very many widely different linguistic systems. As yet no linguist is in any such position. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. (Whorf, 1956, pp. 213-4)
2. Language interference
A. Every living organism has ways of detecting
What goes on inside itself (what it needs)
What goes on outside itself (what it can search to satisfy its needs, and what might endanger or threaten it)
B. Every living thing that survives long enough to reproduce gives evidence that it successfully carried out step A.
C. Almost all living things—of whatever complexity—carry out steps 1 and 2 without “thinking” or “talking” about doing so.
D. Humans use speech to discuss and deal with their needs to some extent. (Most aspects of “living” go on without notice unless something goes wrong.)
E. Humans belong to cultures, social systems held together by language and custom.
Custom may include physically or psychologically harmful attitudes about eating, sex, health practices, etc.
Language tends to validate these attitudes, surround them with culturally approved codes.
These “approved” codes may invalidate—even cause to “disappear”—the ways humans have of carrying out step 1, that is, of detecting physical, social, emotional needs.
When the way to detect needs disappears, especially if surrounded by culturally approved codes, the “need” seems to disappear also.
F. Some human speech, mainly that used within the Currently Dominant World Culture (CDWC), generates “identities”—nouns which we accept as referring to valid “things,” “systems,” etc.
Many of these nouns have no clear (point-at-able) referent.
Many of these nouns refer to systems or behaviors that undergo significant, cumulative, and constant change, while the nouns remain unchanging.
If the words we use to refer to something don’t change, we can (and do) assume or pretend that the “thing” doesn’t change either.
G. Alone among living organisms, humans of the CDWC have found ways to sabotage themselves physically, emotionally, psychologically; thus they suffer serious lacks even while living in a rich environment.
H. Alone among living organisms, human speakers within the CDWC have convinced themselves that they exist “above” or “separate from” the rest of the biosphere.
I. Alone among living organisms, humans of the CDWC have convinced themselves that the rich environment they (originally) lived in does not satisfy their needs, so they have found ways to alter it without considering the long-term consequences of so doing.
J. Alone among living organisms, speakers within the CDWC have used their defining characteristic, language, to work to destroy all means of satisfying their physical, emotional, and psychological needs—the biosphere—and to render their own support system non-living.
K. Despite sustained extermination efforts from the CDWC, thousands of surviving tribal cultures (perhaps approaching 2-4% of the world population) have traditions and languages free of the ‘features’ H, I, and J above. Many of these cultures make no use of the noun/verb distinction––their members speak without use of self-identical nouns!
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A. A Logical Calculus of Behavior. Journal of Theoretical Biology 23:285-338.
B. The Structure of 'Unimpaired' Human Behavior. Journal of Theoretical Biology 23:347-374.
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D. The Structure of 'Impaired' Human Behavior. (Unpublished.)
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Hilgartner, C. A., Weld S. Carter, Jr., & Martha A. Bartter (2002c). Languaging for Survival (Presentation version). Invited Keynote Address, presented at the 14th International Conference on Systems Research, Informatics & Cybernetics, Baden-Baden, Germany, 29 July-3 August 2002.
Hilgartner, C. A. (2003). Replacing Our Pattern of Universal Discord. Invited Keynote Address, presented at the 15th International Conference on Systems Research, Informatics & Cybernetics, Baden-Baden, Germany, 28 July-2 August 2003. Sociocybernetics and Human Development 11:53-66.
Hilgartner, C. A., Weld S. Carter, Jr., & Martha A. Bartter (2004). What Biologists Should Know, But Don’t. Presented at the 16th International Conference on Systems Research, Informatics & Cybernetics, Baden-Baden, Germany, 3 August 2004. In press, Advances in Sociocybernetics and Human Development.
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