Printer Friendly

A general semantics glossary (part 6).

identity/non-identity. I have used the word "central" to describe most of the korzybskian terms I have presented so far in this glossary. That's how it goes in a system, a neuro-linguistic cohort, where every defining term is directly related to all of its verbal associates. No cluster of terms can be said to be more 'central' to general-semantics than non-identity and its rejected misevaluation, "identity."

I deem it useful that we consider non-identity from two points of view: the historical ('Aristotelian') and the specifically korzybskian.

The 'Law of Identity' of Aristotle had been challenged on limited verbal-philosophical grounds by Western scholars well before Korzybski. The challenges to and/or rejections of the Aristotelian "Laws of Thought" have a long and honorable history, beginning with Aristotle's own period (384-322 B.C.), reaching an early peak during the mediaeval era (pace, Thomas Aquinas), but rising to a sturdy chorus from the mid-nineteenth century and reaching a most personal crescendo in the writings of Korzybski.

It seems worth pointing out here that Korzybski's position was not anti-Aristotelian. He expressed great respect for the achievements of Aristotle (one of the dedicatees of Science and Sanity). Korzybski's concern was to show the limitations of the Aristotelian orientation, especially as developed by Aristotle's followers over the last 2500 years. Indeed, Aristotle did not himself formulate the 'Law of Identity'; it was said by his disciples and interpreters to be implied or presupposed with reference to his explicitly stated laws and by his methodological treatises in general (Organon). (1) By "non-Aristotelian" Korzybski formulated a point of view which encompasses the valuable aspects of Aristotle while going beyond ('non' in the modern, philosophical-scientific sense) the great formulator from Stagira. After all, Aristotle saw 'logic' as only a preparation for scientific knowledge, not as knowledge itself. (2) He is regarded as the first in both 'West' and 'East' to insist on rigorous scientific procedure, i.e., to be what we would call extensional and what the general scientific community would call experimental: i.e., self-challenging via non-verbal (silent level) tests and observations. Korzybski was fully aware of all this and took pains to point out that his non-Aristotelianism was targeted to a rigid commitment to aspects of Aristotle which Aristotle himself might have rejected -- especially if he lived in 1933! However, Korzybski forthrightly rejected Aristotle's essentialism which became so 'spiritualized' by Thomas Aquinas (the 'substance' and 'accidents' opposition) and others during the heyday of Scholasticism.

"Identity" in the domain of formal logical discourse, which usually remains strictly verbal/intensional, simply affirms that a statement is 'itself': "A is A," in modern usage, a tautology. The copula "is," which links the terms of the above proposition ("A is A"), Korzybski called the "is of identity." (3) He maintained that, even at this level, statements of identity ("absolute sameness in 'all' respects") are false for many structural (process) reasons. He did not however, deny that we can agree on a kind of "'is' of stability" (my formulation: RPP) to provide consistency within discourse. After all, he often said, when misquoted or misinterpreted, "I say what I say; I do not say what I do not say!" But when used to refer to experiences in general, including not only our statements but the non-verbal processes which subtend and give rise to them, identity statements are not only invariably structurally false to fact bu potentially dangerous.

Korzybski was not a practitioner of modern logical-mathematical formalism. He did not attempt to present 'breakthrough' formulations in the rather hermetic and hieratic fields of symbolic logic, mathematical logic, propositional calculi, etc., though he did recognize their value as disciplines which might find eventual applications. (Witness the burgeoning field of 'software engineering'.) Yet he did construct a meta-linguistic schema for examining the structural relations among languages, nervous systems, non-verbal structures-in-general, and human doing. He called it "General Semantics," designed for adequately formulating those structures and combatting neuro-linguistic auto-intoxication.

This is where the "identity" that most concerned Korzybski comes to the fore. When humans who are engaged in abstracting identify (confuse) orders of abstracting, they are "identifying" in the uniquely korzybskian sense. Korzybsk emphasized that orders (levels) of abstracting, while constituting mutually-influencing phases of a totality, (4) ought not to be mistaken for 'each other.' He affirmed this identification as the primary mechanism of misevaluating.

"The word is not the thing." Indeed. But neither are non-verbal ('silent') perceptions, 'feelings', etc., to be confused with the quantum-level processes to which they are personal summary responses (ultimately, semantic reactions). We ought not to confuse the state of our bellies with the state of the world, even though we-bellies are part of (but only 'part' of) that world.

Human nervous systems/brains (organisms-as-wholes) constitute mapping systems. We abstract. Our abstractions are maps that we have constructed. The formulatio of non-identity, so central (again) to general-semantics, reminds us that, though we can (must) build useful maps to make our way in the world, "The map i not the territory."


1. W. L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, "Aristotle," pp. 28-32 and "Organon," p. 404. New Jersey and Sussex (England): Harvester Press, 1980.

See also the excellent material on Aristotle and Aristotelianism in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vols. 1 and 2, NY: Macmillan/Free Press, 1972, pp. 148-162; in the five-volume Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, Philip P. Wiener, ed. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973 and the classic study, Aristotle's Syllogistic: From the Standpoint of Modern Formal Logic, 2nd Edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1957/1972 by Jan Lukasiewicz.

2. Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition. NY: Harper and Row, 1987, p. 47.

3. For what might be Korzybski's most accessible account of these issues, see his last paper, "The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes" in Alfred Korzybski, Collected Writings: 1920-1950. Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics, 1990, especially pp. 695-703.

4. See Robert P. Pula, "A General Semantics Glossary (Part III)" ETC., Vol. 49, Winter, 1992-93, pp. 470-473.


My use of quotation marks in this glossary is in conformity with the convention of the General Semantics Bulletin. To wit:

SINGLE QUOTES (Extensional device)

1. To mark off terms and phrases which seem to varying degrees questionable for neuro-linguistic, neuro-physiological, methodological or general epistemologica reasons.

2. To mark off terms used metaphorically, playfully, etc.

a. 'mind,' 'meaning,' 'space,' or 'time' used alone, etc.

b. "...the semantic reaction formulation could serve as a 'bridge'...between Pavlovian classical conditioning and Skinnerian operant conditioning." (Silverman)

SINGLE QUOTES (Standard usage)

To indicate a quote within a quote.

DOUBLE QUOTES (Standard usage)

1. To indicate a term or phrase used by some referred-to person but not necessarily indicating a direct quote. Example: What Korzybski referred to as the "semantic reaction."

2. To indicate a direct quotation from a named source.

General Semantics Bulletin, Nos. 44-45, 1978, p.8

Robert Pula edited the General Semantics Bulletin from 1977-1985 and served as Director of the Institute of General Semantics from 1983-1986. He has recently written the Preface for the Fifth Edition of Science and Sanity.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Institute of General Semantics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Pula, Robert P.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Mar 22, 1994
Previous Article:Critical analyses of social issues.
Next Article:How language collectives compromise journalistic accuracy.

Related Articles
A general semantics glossary, part IX.
A general semantics glossary (part 10).
A general semantics glossary (part XII).
Natural wonders.
The tyranny of agreement: a response to a response.
Repositioning general semantics.
A general semantics glossary.
General semantics is not "about" general semantics.
A general semantics glossary.
"The world in quandaries" symposium.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters