ISHMAEL AND GENERAL SEMANTICS THEORY

C. A. Hilgartner © 1997

 

Never before have I recommended a book in the way I recommend Quinn’s novel, Ishmael.

To anyone who earnestly desires that today’s children may have the possibility and opportunity to grow to maturity, and eventually to see their own grandchildren grow to maturity, I say: Within seven days of learning of the existence of this book, read it.

 

What on earth could elicit so passionate, so "un-cool" a recommendation as that?

 

By way of answer, first, let me summarize the story. Then I’ll re-examine Ishmael from a general semantics point of view, taking into account recent developments in general semantics theory which pertain to human survival.

 

 

Quinn’s novel presents a first-person narrative — in my opinion, a spoken narrative. We never learn the name of the narrator, and we learn nothing whatsoever about his audience. When the narrative opens, the narrator has just read an ad in the classified section of the newspaper. The ad says, "teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." (p. 4)

 

The narrator proceeds to have a temper-tantrum:

… I choked and cursed and spat and threw the paper to the floor. Since even that didn’t seem to be quite enough, I snatched it up, marched into the kitchen, and shoved it into the trash. (p. 3)

Probably in response to a question, the narrator explains this outrageous behavior by saying that, a couple of decades ago, he had spent several years looking for

… someone out there with an unknown wisdom who could dispel my disillusionment and bewilderment: a teacher. (p. 5)

He never found one, and eventually, concluding that no such critter exists, gave up and went on about his life as best he could;

… but something died inside of me — something that I’d always sort of liked and admired. (p. 6)

And now this charlatan advertises in the newspaper — and of course,

… by noon two hundred mooncalfs, softheads, boobies, ninnyhammers, noodleheads, gawkies, and assorted oafs and thickwits would doubtless be lined up at the address given … (p. 4)

 

Somehow the narrator overcomes his resistances and goes to the address given. He sees no sign of any other respondent to the ad; and he finds and accepts a teacher. The teacher calls himself Ishmael, and the text even gives an account of how he comes to use that name. Almost the entire remainder of the text consists of the dialogue between these two characters, with an occasional "I said," "He said," etc.

 

Ishmael says that his teaching concerns the topic of captivity. He shows the relevance of this usage of the term captivity to the topic of saving the world succinctly:

 

Ishmael thought for a moment. "Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?"

"Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world."

"And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world."

"Yes, that’s so."

"Why don’t you stop?"

I shrugged. "Frankly, we don’t know how."

"You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live."

"Yes, that’s the way it seems."

"So. You are captives — and you have made a captive of the world itself. That’s what’s at stake, isn’t it? — your captivity and the captivity of the world." (p. 25)

 

In pursuit of the topic of captivity, Ishmael defines three terms: (a) by story (myth), he means a scenario which interrelates man, the world, and the gods so as to account for "how things came to be this way." (b) By to enact (a story), he means living so as to make the story a reality (striving to make it come true). (c) By culture, he means a people enacting a story. (p. 41) Ishmael argues that a people enacting a story can, and sometimes do, keep themselves unaware of the story they enact. Let me express that unawareness in Gestalt terms: When we humans do any sensing, feeling and/or moving whatsoever, this occurs as if by the forming of a Gestalt — a structure made up of a figure of focal interest against a (back)ground more or less empty of interest. Thus when someone examines the story s/he and her/his people enact in such a way that s/he completes her/his Gestalt, that means s/he comes to "see" her/his own story as figure against a background of other stories which s/he takes seriously (regards as both possible to enact and legitimate to enact). But a person or a people can also arrange to conceal or ignore the story he/she/they enact. To manage this, the person or people must somehow block the process of figure/ground formation. Thereafter, they cannot "see" the story they enact — cannot apprehend it as even existing at all. And once having accomplished that, they have made themselves into captives of their story.

 

Apropos of our culture, the currently dominant world culture, Ishmael asserts, "[It has] a single, perfectly unified story. You just have to think mythologically. … I’m talking about your culture’s mythology, of course. I thought that was obvious." (p. 45) The narrator readily agrees that other cultures may enact myths, but he has particular difficulty finding this discussion relevant to his own culture, since he believes that he lives in a society entirely myth-free. (Even Joseph Campbell believed that we have no myth — and lamented its lack.)

 

Having provided that much by way of background, Ishmael and his pupil undertake to disclose, to unconceal, the usually unnoticed, unacknowledged myth which underlies the currently dominant world culture, throughout both East and West.

 

In the course of their exploring, Ishmael and his pupil do disclose the myth they sought. They express it in terms of a combination of well-established insights from biology, ecology, ethology, anthropology, archaeology, etc., and of mythological imagery. They put these pieces together into a story which does in fact interrelate man, the world, and the gods and does account for "how things came to be this way." No one, I believe, would doubt the originality of their accomplishment (Quinn’s accomplishment) — nor its accuracy. In Quinn’s hands, Ishmael and his pupil reveal to readers the story which we living humans, members of the currently dominant world culture (East and West), do appear to enact — and do appear to live as captives of. The myth they frame explains what we observe.

 

Furthermore, they show that anyone who enacts that story (and, unfortunately, that includes both you and me) thereby puts her/himself at war with life on planet Earth. This point comes through clearly and convincingly. Ishmael and his pupil make it plain that what we do to our environment, that progressively makes the planet less and less habitable, does not happen by accident or mistake. Instead, it occurs as the direct result of living the way we live. By enacting the story we enact, we commit our full forces, as individuals and as a culture or a collection of cultures, to the pursuit of species suicide and extinction. Whether we say we do so, or not.

 

Still further, Ishmael and his pupil examine a contrasting myth — a well-tested story, so structured that those who enact it ally themselves with life on the planet, and make themselves-and-the-biosphere richer, more diverse, more inter-related, ecologically more stable. Ishmael argues that this myth had its origins back at least three million years ago, among the first humans on planet Earth. Over that entire span, it has evolved with the various human populations, and has survived the pragmatic test of providing a basis for sustainable, viable ways of living on this planet, for the tens or hundreds of thousands of human groups which have arisen here. Today the people who enact this alternative myth make up only a tiny fraction of the current human population. They belong to the few thousands of small, more or less independent cultural groups still extant outside the currently dominant world culture. But their myth still works. Ours does not. In only the roughly 10,000 years since the first beginnings of our own culture, we have brought ourselves to the edge of species suicide and extinction, and the whole biosphere to the edge of catastrophic collapse.

 

By disclosing these two contrasting stories, our narrator and his teacher make it possible for us readers to complete our own cultural Gestalt, and so to perceive the myth underlying our currently dominant world culture, and some of the consequence of enacting it. In the process, Ishmael and his pupil demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that our relentless drive towards species suicide and extinction does not have its basis in anything generically human; but rather, it follows only from our myth — it does not occur at all in cultures which enact that other myth.

 

Ishmael’s manner of teaching, in one sense, makes the whole narrative possible, and believable. On first glance, readers might regard it as Socratic dialogue. But the tone differs from that of Socrates. The wily old Greek rarely if ever set out to prove anything so crude as, "You don’t know as much as Socrates does." Instead, he addresses the proposition, "You don’t know as much as you thought you did." For his adversaries, a dialogue with Socrates must have felt like put-down after put-down — and I contend, it feels something like that even to modern-day readers. In contrast, Ishmael does not treat his pupil as an adversary; and he has a very different message: "You know this material — Mother Culture has been whispering it into your ear during practically every waking moment of your life. You know it — dig!" Again and again, the pupil denies knowing it, then digs, and comes up with the treasure. The experience of reading Ishmael (and re-reading and studying it) seems deeply affirming. It also disturbs me profoundly — and increases its impact by coming through as so "Right on!"

 

In order to complete my task with this text, I must deal with the overall logical structure of Ishmael’s (Quinn’s) argument. Ishmael repeatedly attributes to us as members of the currently dominant world culture the unquestioning attitude that we already possess "The One Right Way To Live." This conviction has supported the central actions of the members of our culture over the course of some 10,000 years. These actions have included (a) practicing a style of agriculture which treats the entire biosphere as a human possession, containing two and only two classes of creatures: those useful to humans (as food, or otherwise), which we cultivate; and unnecessary organisms, which we exterminate; (b) annihilating or absorbing any and all human neighbors not of our culture; (c) waging war on neighboring tribes within our overall culture, a process which ends up institutionalizing conquest and domination.

 

For us to perpetrate such acts, we must blindly believe that we possess "The One Right Way To Live"; and that belief then requires us to impose our way of living on others. But, logically speaking, what does this "One Right Way" phrase mean? To answer that question, I summarize some recent developments in epistemology and general semantics.

 

In his Science and Sanity, Korzybski (1933) discloses a fundamental theoretical error encoded in human knowledge (within the currently dominant world culture) up to that date. He traces this error to the logical construct of identity (or the binary relation of identical with). In effect, Korzybski makes a quick tour of the universe, seeking to answer questions such as, "In a dynamically-changing cosmos which has human observers in it, when and where may we legitimately use the logical construct of identity? When and where does the notion of entire and absolute agreement or negation of difference prove valid? Under what circumstances does it apply?" His considered opinion: Never, and nowhere. Under no circumstances does identity, taken in that sense, survive scrutiny.

 

Let’s consider that conclusion in one application. In a cosmos assumed to undergo dynamic change and to have dynamically-changing human observers in it, the notion of identity implies that someone compares at least two ‘entities’ in some way; and it requires, or assumes, that the results of this comparing will indicate that the ‘entities’ compared show entire and absolute agreement or negation of difference. This immediately leads to several related difficulties:


(a) The notion of comparing (two ‘entities’) implies making measurements of some kind.

 

(i) Difficulties concerning who makes the judgment of "absolute agreement or negation of difference": For a human to make a measurement takes a while, and leaves her/him fundamentally altered. By hypothesis, the process requires her/him to use her/his sensori-motor apparatus, brain, etc. Consequently, this process implicates the imagery of "taking in new material," or "need and satisfaction": Before the "while" in question, our human intended to make a measurement, and has not yet done it and "taken in" the result; after the "while", s/he intended to make a measurement, and has done it and has "taken in" the result. Hence at the end of the "while," s/he now "includes" or "consists of" new material — the results of the measurement. How can an altered observer back up the judgment that nothing has altered?

 

(ii) Difficulties concerning "the ‘entities’ we compare": In a cosmos assumed to undergo dynamic change, we human observers may not assume that, over the "while" required to make the measurement, the ‘entity’ we set out to measure remains unchanged. For example, consider mass: In principle, even a lump of platinum, or of borosilicate glass, has a vapor pressure. Depending on the scale, and the purpose, of the measurements, we may ignore these specified and unspecified changes; but we must not deny that they occur.

 

(b) In a dynamically-changing cosmos with human observers in it, the processes by which we measure can at best deliver some kind of approximation, within statistical limits of error. No process of measuring — e.g., even in what many people regard as the "trivial" case, in which we do a given determination over and over again on one ‘entity’ — can deliver results in principle capable of showing entire and absolute agreement or negation of difference. And if no process of measuring a single ‘entity’ can show it as unchanged and unchanging ("identical with itself"), then in principle no process of comparing two ‘entities’ can show them as displaying "absolute sameness in all respects or negation of difference."

 

These remarks do not exhaust the list of difficulties which follow from the construct of logical identity.

 

Having declared the construct of identity intrinsically incapable of surviving scrutiny (at least, in a cosmos regarded as dynamic and as having human observers in it), Korzybski then makes an outrageous suggestion: Since it never holds, he says, let’s not rely on this construct. Korzybski proposes that we reject identity — disallow it as a valid "relation".

 

As students of general semantics already know, Korzybski begins the job of eliminating the pervasive error which he discloses. He generates what he calls a non-aristotelian system, and eventually, he proposes premises for it: three undefined terms (structure, order, and relations); and three non-aristotelian postulates (Non-identity, Non-allness, and Self-reflexiveness). (Korzybski, 1941) To put his postulates into ordinary English, Korzybski utilizes the ‘map’- ‘territory’ analogy, which expresses a distinction similar to the distinction between Name and Thing Named.

 

I rework that analogy by positing a designated observer who observes one-particular-organism-as-a-whole-dealing-with-its-environment-at-a-date, and records what she observes. This designated observer explains what she observes by assuming that any living organism generates ‘maps’ (perhaps non-verbal) of that ‘territory’ composed of "what goes on in and around itself" —

and then guides itself by these ‘maps’, in the process putting the ‘maps’ to test. (Hilgartner, Harrington & Bartter, 1991)

 

Now, when I take the role of Designated Observer, I find that any biological situation, like a good story, has a beginning, a middle and an end or outcome. Provided our organism lives through the situation, it has opportunities to judge the ‘maps’ it started out with against the outcome — and opportunities to reject and discard any ‘maps’ which lead to outcomes more or less "unfavorable" from the point of view of the organism (or in logical terms, which appear disconfirmed by the outcome).

 

To state this point in logical language, I say that any organism, from bacterium to human, survives in the midst of its in-principle-unknown environment by acting like a self-correcting system — by acting in accord with the patterns described in (at least one version of) the logic of science.

 

These comments give me what I need to spell out the logical structure of the fundamental theoretical error encoded in (our subset of) human knowledge, as disclosed by Korzybski. Consider for a moment what would follow if I could generate a ‘map’ which represented the ‘territory’ perfectly accurately, entirely completely, and entirely objectively — a ‘map’ which stood in a perfect one-to-one relation with the ‘territory’; or in short, a ‘map’ identical with the ‘territory’.

 

Now, if I could generate a ‘map’ identical with the ‘territory’, I would find myself possessed of absolute certainty (concerning a static universe devoid of human observers). In fact, I wouldn’t have to conduct experiments; I wouldn’t even have to look at the ‘territory’ — I would just know (as they say in Spanish) "for certain-sure!"

 

I hold that kind of identity as impossible to achieve. I feel so confident of this judgment that

I choose, accept and espouse the non-aristotelian premises of Korzybski (which posit a dynamically-changing cosmos with human observers in it) as my most fundamental presuppositions. In effect, I posit that any ‘map’ I may make remains intrinsically inaccurate, incomplete, and self-referential; and I insist on saying so at the level of my premises. However, any human — or any culture — can pretend to "absolute certainty", by the not-so-simple expedient of refusing to throw out the guesses which, upon testing, appear disconfirmed.

 

As a shorthand way of designating the class of guesses which pretend to "absolute certainty", I refer to them as consequences of positing ‘map’-‘territory’ identity. By definition of the term mistake, a human — or a culture — that posits ‘map’-‘territory’ identity engages in an archetypal example of "making a mistake."

 

Granted only that much logical machinery, this frame of reference can describe the structure of human behavior throughout its whole range of reliability, from that most likely to support individual and species survival in a sustainable and sustaining ecosystem (namely, that based on distinguishing between ‘map’ and ‘territory’ — making one’s guesses, testing them, and living with the consequences), to that most likely to end in individual, social and ecological collapse, species suicide and extinction (namely, that based on failing to distinguish between ‘map’ and ‘territory’ — clinging to one’s unrevised guesses, no matter what).

 

In Quinn’s novel, when Ishmael and his pupil disclose the myth enacted by the members of the currently dominant world culture — by us — they show that our story includes, and indeed, rests upon, the rigid belief that we have found "The One Right Way To Live". In light of these epistemological considerations, I suggest that that belief amounts to a special case of failing to distinguish between ‘map’ and ‘territory’ — a special case of the archetypal error of pretending to "absolute certainty".

 

 

Near the end of his last lesson with Ishmael, the narrator asks a crucial question:

 

"What do I do if I earnestly desire to save the world?"

Ishmael frowned at me … for a long moment. "You want a program?"

"Of course I want a program."

"Then here is a program: The story of Genesis must be reversed. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you’re to survive. The [people of other cultures] are the endangered species most critical to the world — not because they’re humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of that forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who [and what] should live and who [and what] should die on this planet." (p. 248)

 

After they discuss a couple of ways to do that, the narrator comes up with an objection.

 

"One thing I know people will say to me is ‘Are you suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers?’ "

"That of course is an inane idea," Ishmael said. "The [lifestyle of the peoples from other cultures] isn’t about hunting and gathering, it’s about letting the rest of the community live — and agriculturists can do that as well as hunter-gatherers." He paused and shook his head. "What I’ve been at pains to give you is a new paradigm of human history. The [lifestyle of people from other cultures] is not an antiquated thing that is ‘back there’ somewhere. Your task is not to reach back but to reach forward."

"But to what? We can’t just walk away from our civilization the way the Hohokam did."

"That’s certainly true. The Hohokam had another way of life waiting for them, but you must be inventive — if it’s worthwhile to you. If you care to survive." He gave me a dull stare. "You’re an inventive people, aren’t you? You pride yourselves on that, don’t you?"

"Yes."

"Then invent." (p. 250)

 

 

REFERENCES

 

Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York: Bantam/Turner, 1992. Bantam Trade Paperback edition, 1996, 263 pp., $10.95. ISBN 0-553-37540-7.

 

Korzybski, Alfred (1933). Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Chicago: The International Non-aristotelian Library Publishing Co. 5th Edition (1994), Institute of General Semantics, 163 Engle Street, Suite 4B, Englewood NJ 07631.

 

Korzybski, Alfred (1941). "General Semantics, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Prevention." American Journal of Psychiatry 98(2):203-214. Reprinted in M. Kendig, ed., Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings 1920-1950. Englewood NJ: Institute of General Semantics, 1990.

 

Hilgartner, C. A., Ronald V. Harrington, & Martha A. Bartter (1991). "The Conventions for Symbolizing." ETC.: A Review of General Semantics 48(2):172-97.

 

 

Daniel Quinn has two later books in print:

 

Providence The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest. New York: Bantam Books (1995). ISBN 0-553-10018-1.

 

The Story of B. New York: Bantam Books (1996). ISBN 0-553-10053-X.

 

He also has a website at http://www.B-network.com .