Chapter X. INTERPRETING THE ENVIRONMENT

HERE is a man suddenly plunged into a personal crisis, moral, emotional, or financial. Perhaps he has been implicated in a public scandal. Or his young lady has thrown him down. Or he cannot meet the mortgage due next Friday. Things look black; he is profoundly depressed. No road of escape appears. He begins to generalize with a free use of absolute terms like “all,” “never,” “always.” “I can never succeed. I’ve always been a failure. I can never surmount this difficulty. All my life I’ve made a mess of things. I’ll never pay off that debt. No girl will ever have me. I’ll never get over this disgrace. What’s the use? Better end it all.”

Sometimes the poor devil does. What has been happening in his mind? He has been generalizing from inadequate referents. The characteristics of the situation are not fully reported, but he has extrapolated a curve as brashly as any measurer of the age of the earth. He thinks this unfortunate “time” is all “times.” Blinded by absolutes, he cannot see other “times.” He believes this case is identical with all past and future cases in his life. Pie sees this woman as all women, this debt as all debt, this disgrace as an eternity of disgrace.

If he were trained in semantics, he would say: “This is bad; this is painful, depressing, almost intolerable. But my life, my organism, is a process, always changing.

Nothing stands still. What has happened can never exactly repeat itself; no two contexts are the same. There are no absolutes to bind me. Snap out of it, brother, snap out of it! Prepare for the next context—a better one for all you know.” Often he can deliberately force a change of context by shifting a job, going away for a while, developing a new interest. His task is to break away from the semantic blockage of “This is so, now and forever,” to rid his mind of an unwarrantable identification of the “this” with all things and all times.

The pioneers of semantics whose work we have attempted to summarize in the last four chapters have not produced a body of knowledge which can be called a science of communication, in the sense that physics, or even anthropology, is a science. Korzybski has perhaps come nearest to doing so. Each has contributed valuable material which, in combination, certainly gives us an introduction to a science, and from which a mature discipline may presently develop.

Such a discipline demands four things: First, very extensive observation of how people use language. Second, deductions and inferences from these observations upon which (third) sane men can agree. Fourth, a continuous checking of the deductions by experiment.

The pioneers have assembled many facts, as we have seen. Many more are needed. They have drawn a number of deductions and agree on some of them. Korzybski has begun the fourth step by inventing the structural differential and arranging for its application to mental

patients in hospitals, and to children in schools. Some of the patients have been cured, some groups of children have raised their I.Q.’s. Thus his hypothesis is being checked by controlled experiment.

Let us list categorically those deductions upon which there appears to be agreement by two or more observers, and no announced disagreement.

1. That words are not things. (Identification of words with things, however, is widespread, and leads to untold misunderstanding and confusion.)

2. That words mean nothing in themselves; they are as much symbols as x or y.

3. That meaning in words arises from context of situation.

4. That abstract words and terms are especially liable to spurious identification. The higher the abstraction, the greater the danger.

5. That things have meaning to us only as they have been experienced before. “Thingumbob again.”

6. That no two events are exactly similar.

7. That finding relations and orders between things gives more dependable meanings than trying to deal in absolute substances and properties. Few absolute properties have been authenticated in the world outside.

8. That mathematics is a useful language to improve knowledge and communication.

9. That the human brain is a remarkable instrument and probably a satisfactory agent for clear communication.

10. That to improve communication new words are not needed, but a better use of the words we have. (Structural improvements in ordinary language, however, should be made.)

11. That the scientific method and especially the operational approach are applicable to the study and improvement of communication. (No other approach has presented credentials meriting consideration.)

12. That the formulation of concepts upon which sane men can agree, on a given date, is a prime goal of communication. (This method is already widespread in the physical sciences and is badly needed in social affairs.)

13. That academic philosophy and formal logic have hampered rather than advanced knowledge, and should be abandoned.

14. That simile, metaphor, poetry, are legitimate and useful methods of communication, provided speaker and hearer are conscious that they are being employed.

15. That the test of valid meaning is: first, survival of the individual and the species; second, enjoyment of living during the period of survival.

Not everything in this list is startlingly new. Some items come close to what you and I have long regarded as common sense. The new thing is the growing precision of standards which may be applied to communication, standards upon which wide agreement may presently be possible.

A large fraction of what passes for human folly is failure of communication. The exciting promise of a science of semantics is that certain kinds of folly can, for the first time, be analyzed and modified. A standard is swinging into focus where men can at last agree that this statement makes sense and that statement makes blab. We are in sight of a technique which will let us take a political speech, a dictator’s ukase, a masterpiece of philosophy, a plan to save the world, a column by Mark Sullivan, analyze it, and tell specifically what is wrong with it, down to counting the blabs.

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