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A general semantics glossary, part 4.

elementalism/non-elementalism. Korzybski formulated time-binding as the defining human act; the behavior by which humans demonstrate their humanity. Having identified language as the tool of time-binding, Korzybski exerted himself to tease out, via linguistic analysis, those aspects of language(s) that, from a structural point of view, constitute flaws and, therefore, impediments to time-binding. One deeply pervasive neurolinguistic flaw he spotted he called elementalism.

By elementalism Korzybski intended the tendency to verbally split what can't be found (observed, abstracted) split in the non-verbal (silent) domain. With words, primarily nouns, we are able to refer to 'things' (presumed phenomena, activities) as if they exist in an encapsulated form, cut off from the surround of which they constitute an interactive ingredient. The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) credits Korzybski with this coinage-formulation thusly:

The verbal separation into separate concepts or entities or things which cannot be separated empirically or physically, e.g., space and time, body and mind.

The OED further notes that Korzybski "established s.r...the semantic reaction." (My thanks to Stuart Mayper for calling this to my attention.) We will limit our focus to these English examples, but colleagues for whom English is not native tell me that mutatis mutandis, applications can be made to languages around the planet.

In addition to the 'splits' that the OED mentions (they are legion) I list two others: observer and observed; intellect and emotion (thoughts and feelings). Korzybski maintained (formulated) that these erroneous linguistic splits violate the structures of the non-verbal world as inferred by up-to-date science and that their use has profound extensional-operational implications.

Since Einstein-Minkowski (1908) we are challenged to accept that no 'spatial' event happens except at some specific 'time'; time in Einsteinian physics is understood as the expression of a measurement (often called the 'fourth dimension') -- the 'time' at which other measurements (length, width, depth, position, etc.) are made. (We can see that, given the number of other measurements made in a given situation, 'time(s)' could qualify as, say, the 'twenty-seventh dimension'!) (1)

Einstein-Infeld put it with elegant simplicity:

...four numbers must be used to describe events in nature. Our physical space as conceived through objects and their motion has three dimensions, and positions are characterized by three numbers. The instant of an event is the fourth number. Four definite numbers correspond to every event; a definite event corresponds to any four numbers. Therefore: the world of events forms a four-dimensional continuum. There is nothing mysterious about this, and the last sentence is equally true for classical physics and the relativity theory. (2)

The point here is that, however many 'dimensions' we may specify, space-time represents a unity, a function of a plenum, and, if we split space and time we misrepresent extra-evaluational (non-verbal) events. Particularly when people objectify 'time' (make of 'it' an it), they generate potentially serious confusion for themselves and others.

The mind and body (or vice versa) elementalism has received intensified attention as the neurosciences have burgeoned in the last two decades. Consistent with Korzybski's admonition, greater numbers of researchers are recognizing, "no body (brain), no 'mind'." That is, that what we have called 'mind' constitutes a summary term for the activities of the brain. We have verbally split what we cannot find split in the extensional (non-verbal) world.

Since we have recognized that any 'object' known to us represents a joint phenomenon, a construct of the observer (abstracting brain) and the observed, we face up to (internalize) the 'obvious' conclusion that we only know what we know as we know 'it.' We can do a lot with that; at least we can escape naive 'objectivity.'

The classical 'cure' for elementalism is found in Korzybski's prescription of the hyphen: not space and time, but space-time; not mind and body, but mind-body; not observer and observed, but observer-observed, the observer-observed continuum.

Some of us have matured to the level where we eschew the term 'mind' as being unnecessary and confabulating. It seems sufficient to refer to the brain or, more fully, the organism-as-a-whole-cum-nervous system/brain-in-an-environment. (3)


1. For an in-depth discussion of 'dimensions' with relation to 'space-time', see Marjorie A. Swanson, Scientific Epistemologic Backgrounds of General Semantics: Lectures on Electro-Colloidal Structures, General Semantics Monographs No. IV, Institute of General Semantics, 1959, pp. 8-10.

2. Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1961, p. 207.

3. For recent formulating in this area by writers who are not general-semanticists, see Patricia Smith Churchland, Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain, MIT Press, 1986 and the September 1992 special issue of Scientific American entitled "Mind and Brain."

Robert Pula edited the General Semantics Bulletin from 1977-1985 and served as director of the Institute of General Semantics from 1983-1986.
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Title Annotation:Lexicon; elementalism
Author:Pula, Robert P.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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