Language power: Korzybski'S interdisciplinary methodology.Introduction
I'm arriving here with two essentially convergent concerns. The first is the current national--if not worldwide--crisis in education. This problem is not new, but it has recently begun to get some more attention in the media. Its roots, however, are the same ones that scientists and philosophers have been attempting to excavate for centuries. A. N. Whitehead identified the problem as a kind "mental dry-rot": a "paralysis of thought induced in pupils by the aimless accumulation of precise knowledge, inert and unutilized" (1929, p. 137). We know that Korzybski, along very similar lines, attempted to identify the stultifying effects of what he called "semantic environments" on human thought and behavior.
But my second concern is a kind of microcosm of the first and follows from opinions that I've recently heard expressed in the General Semantics community: General Semantics is having its own crisis; one that seems to be following closely the same pattern of manifestation.
I want to propose a way to tackle both of these problems in one go: By focusing on education, and specifically by clarifying Korzybski's contribution to what I propose we can identify as an interdisciplinary methodology, General Semantics can at once both revitalize itself through renewed application and contribute to the more general, and much more pressing, overall revitalization of our system of education as a whole.
Part 1: What is Interdisciplinarity?
To answer this we need to first ask: What is discipline? On one hand, the word "discipline" refers to a set of practices. Disciplines are comprised of things that we actually do: they are arts, techne.
But on the other hand, practices are always inscribed in registers of meaning. Practices are always interpretable; we direct them toward preconceivable aims. As such, disciplinary forms are created as syntheses between systems of practice and systems of interpretation. Disciplines, like signs, are basically dyadic. And we can reframe them accordingly, as consisting of: a syntactic component: linear, dynamic functions and techniques; and a semantic dimension: meanings and purposes, the "feels" and styles of the technical functions. Which brings us to the reciprocal analogy: discipline is linguistic, and language is disciplinary.
These reciprocal elements resonate; the integral form of the discipline "as-a-whole" sets up like a standing wave as the balance between syntactic and semantic registers. In other words, sets of practices and sets of meanings achieve structural isomorphism. Korzybski says, "[General Semantics] establishes structure as the only possible content of knowledge" (2005, p. 9).
This interreciprocal structure--whereby sets of practices retain stable structures by appealing to similarly stable sets of meanings, whose structures are in turn maintained by appeal to these same structures--is what allows these interdependent, doubled sets of practices and meanings to reproduce themselves, creating what we refer to colloquially as intellectual "disciplines," but the same principles underlie the reproduction of cultural forms, in general, as traditions, lineages, identities, and I would argue also, biological organisms, ecological scapes, etc.
Part 2: Language Power
Now, as language-users, or what Korzybski called "time-binders," we human beings tend to assume and inhabit these disciplinary and linguistic apparatuses, as what Korzybski called semantic environments. Disciplines are therefore both: our tools-- syntactical, functional objects that we can observe and utilize rationally and consciously--and our-selves--the semantic structures of self (and other)-identification that unconsciously support "our" operations and enable us to cooperate with other structurally complimentary entities. Thus, when we talk about the "power" of disciplinary entities, we need to recognize again that this power is essentially dual.
On one hand, it is a repressive power: disciplinary networks tend toward a kind of closure; they occlude themselves from their larger contexts, the more inclusive spectra of practices and meanings, thereby inherently dissimulating events whose structures fail to correspond with their own. On the other hand, it is an emancipatory power; the language conferred by a discipline (and the discipline conferred by a language) gives us the opportunity to build our own semantic structures, by assembling sets of practices and syntactic techniques, which we can then inhabit provisionally and temporarily (via awareness of abstraction), in order to purposively navigate what we might call the ecosemantic spaces of our immense, complex, beautiful, and dangerous world. Furthermore, our disciplines allow us to perform this task cooperatively with other humans, other language-using time-binders.
So interdisciplinarity cannot, obviously, be simply a matter of mastering, or overcoming discipline, --which attempt would inevitably recapitulate the auto-occlusive (and repressive) disciplinary gesture--nor can it be a matter of simply rejecting discipline--as if there were some procedure or method with which to replace it--but must instead strive to find the balances between and among the necessarily complimentary functions of assuming, employing, and escaping disciplinary systems.
This must have been Korzybski's goal. But the faith that he placed in symbolic logic and the mathematical sciences is perhaps what seems most anachronistic about his work to a contemporary student. The scientific optimism so common in Korzybski's day seems to have given way to the widespread, if somewhat inchoate, realization that the balance between assumption and escape--i.e., commitment and critique--required of us in our encounters with disciplines necessitates a fairly critical attitude with regard to our evaluation of the strong truth--claims made by scientific thinkers throughout history.
Newton: "Hypotheses non fingo!"
This balance that we seek--between contentment and freedom--simply cannot be programmed, or prescribed. We can point to it, feel it, and even refer to it conversationally, but we cannot definitively inscribe it in our languages. We might glimpse parts of its structure through the analogical isomorphisms of poetic or mystical thought, but it itself must remain, to some extent, outside of the reach of all these disciplinary apparata. I think that we can see this realization at work in Korzybski's writing. His famous Map/Territory distinction is like a discipline against discipline: a metadiscipline, which forces us, step by step, to give up our truth fetishes, thus positioning us, locating us, orienting us, vis-a-vis our individual and collective survival(s).
Part 3: Korzybski's Style
Whitehead also says, in The Aims of Education, that "Style is the ultimate morality of mind" (p. 12). I think that Korzybski's method, ultimately, and with regard specifically to the technique that I've referred to as his discipline against discipline, comes down to its style. He exhorts us, both explicitly and through the example of his own heroic efforts, to study all that we can and to learn all that we can of the disciplines and languages that come to bear on the problems that we find ourselves faced with, both individually and collectively.
But he also cautions us against getting too "caught up" in any of these pursuits; again and again he reminds us that the map is not the territory, that we are dealing in abstractions, and that the matters that we attempt to discuss are constantly changing, necessitating our continual circumspection of the structures and functions of our own self-disciplines and languages, the uses we put them to, and the world that they enter into as necessarily imperfect descriptions. And so this style, as Whitehead points out, is also a morality: we must retain our autonomy as individual thinkers without thereby losing touch with our basic continuity with the community of others--scholars, artists, and thinkers, as well as laborers, children, spouses, parents, and neighbors--whose ideas and actions we must both gratefully rely upon and carefully scrutinize.
Freedom of thought, balanced by access to instructional resources, represents a difficult-- because dialogical; hence non-programmatic--moral/ ethical issue for us as teachers, scholars, students, parents, and generally as members of a species with cultural traditions. So rather than thinking of our culture as a set of objects to be passed along carefully, like so many baskets of eggs, from one worried generation of proprietors to the next, perhaps we can begin (again) to think of our history in terms of what Hegel called Geist; a spirit, unspecifiable by the laws of material objects; which would require for its comprehension, its mapping, an interdisciplinary, trans-methodological, general semantics of partial exchanges and continual transformations; and indeterministic, interdependent identitative-productive processes. I suspect that an educational system that was taking these notions into account would be much different, much more interesting, than the one in which we currently live and work, and I suspect that future generations will feel (increasingly) the same way.
Perhaps by recognizing that, in an interdisciplinary methodology like Korzybski's, style must play an indispensable role, we can begin to correct the severe iniquities inherent to both: our systems of education and our appreciation of the works of Korzybski. I think that from this perspective, any function that we could recognize as the power of language would have to lie in our individual and collective abilities to extract ourselves from traditions and habits that we nevertheless continue to honor, depend upon, and respect; to start from scratch, but continuously, rather than having to keep rebuilding on the same insecure foundations.
The ability to pour new foundations, to create new concepts with which to think our situations, to devise new ways of reading the same texts, new ways of interpreting the old thinkers and ideas; this must become an essential foundation of any system or method of education that we would be able to call moral and for which, Geist willing, "interdisciplinary" would become an unnecessary synonym.
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (5th ed). Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics, 2005.
Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and other essays. New York: MacMillan, 1929.
Blake Seidenshaw is a doctoral student at Columbia University Teachers College, where he's working in Interdisciplinary and Cultural Studies in Education. This was presented at the General Semantics Symposium, October 31, 2010, at Fordham University.