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Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 5th ed.

The Institute of General Semantics has issued the fifth edition of Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski's second book. Originally published in 1933, the book describes Korzybski's theory of sanity, and defines and delineates the general semantics discipline. While subject to some criticism over the years, Science and Sanity has also received praise as well. For instance, Dr. Russell Meyers, the noted neurologist, and department chairman emeritus at Iowa State University, once described it as "the most profound, insightful, and globally significant book I have ever read."

We may wonder at a "general semanticist" who has not read Korzybski, as we would a "Freudian psychologist" who had not read Freud. In my experience, few men and women can talk sensibly, consistently, about general semantics without a knowledge of the subject as presented in Korzybski's book. I also regard Science and Sanity as far and away the best introduction to general semantics for serious students.

One element of this edition that I find of particular interest is the new preface by Robert P. Pula, perhaps the foremost scholar and formulator of general semantics in this era. Readers of ETC will note that Pula, Director Emeritus of the Institute of General Semantics, and leader of Institute summer seminars for the past three decades, continues to create a comprehensive and much-needed general semantics glossary, in a series of installments published in this magazine since the early 1990s.

The Fifth Edition also has a revised and greatly expanded index, plus a page of errata, and a new index of diagrams. These additions, plus the use of thicker paper, have unfortunately expanded an already large book to the thickness of the Random House College Dictionary. I remember, years ago, packing Science and Sanity in my duffel bag, and taking it with me on various trips in the military service, but traveling students owning this edition might just leave it at home now. Dropping the fine, but dated, fourth-edition preface (an admittedly tough decision), and using thinner paper, could have kept the book within bounds. The size of the tome somewhat handicaps it as a portable textbook intended for repeated reading and study over long periods. To me, the prior edition of the book had a more comfortable feel. I hope that this issue will be addressed in future editions.

I find much to praise in Mr. Pula's preface, particularly the obvious care with which he wrote. So many writers seem unaware of the misleading implications of their words. The downside of a rigorous approach such as his occurs when the demands of a certain point-to-be-made clash with the requirements of "accepted" style. For example, he begins one sentence: "If human organisms-as-a-whole-cum-nervous systems/brains abstract as claimed above and described herein..." Quite a mouthful. (It appeared as a style error in my word processor.) However, he skillfully weaves these momentary hesitations for the reader into a stylistic success for the preface as a whole. The problem occurs, I think, when less skillful writers attempt to mimic this kind of writing, causing general semantics to appear as an arcane or even absurd discipline to outsiders. I see this as a particular problem on the Internet, where anyone, without the benefit of an editor, can expound on general semantics.

In Science and Sanity, Korzybski presented all the major elements of general semantics (1933), but passed lightly over his important theory of time-binding. That theory had been fully addressed in his first book, The Manhood of Humanity, and he did not have the space or latitude in Science and Sanity to repeat himself. Korzybski's brief comments about time-binding in Science and Sanity pale in comparison with the extended arguments he gives for the theory in The Manhood of Humanity, where he had room to devote a whole book to it. I would have liked to have seen some brief statement emphasizing the role of Korzybski's original book in supporting the theory. (Pula does list The Manhood of Humanity in a footnote to his discussion of time-binding, at least.) I raise this issue because some critics of general semantics have said that time-binding (as a theory) lacks substance.

The body of the Fifth Edition preface consists of some 31 "selected formulations and points of view, emphases, etc.," which Mr. Pula sees as original with Korzybski. While easily refuting the assertions of certain critics that Korzybski added "nothing new" to human knowledge, these items also serve as guideposts along the way to understanding Korzybski's book. As such, they actually enhance the value of the text, in my view.

I have picked six of the items, to give the reader some sense of the scope of Pula's remarkable list:

Item 3. He describes Korzybski's formulation of the process of abstracting as "neurologically focused." Pula says, "No one had so thoroughly and unflinchingly specified the process by which humans build and evolve theories, do their mundane evaluating, thrill to 'sunsets', etc."

Item 4. "Given the hierarchical, sequential character of the nervous system.... it is inevitable that results along the way should manifest as (or 'at') differing orders or levels of abstracting. These results are inevitable. That they would be formulated at a given historical moment is not inevitable. Korzybski did it in the 1920s, publishing his descriptions in their mature form in 1933."

Item 7. "Structure as the only 'content' of knowledge ... We can not know 'essences', things in themselves, all we can know is what we know as abstracting nervous systems."

Item 10. "Neuro-semantic environments as environments. The neuro-semantic environment constitutes a fundamental environmental issue unique to humans."

Item 15. Korzybski's non-identity formulation. Pula says, "Korzybski's treatment directly challenges the 'Laws of Thought', revered for over two thousand years in the West and, differently expressed, in non-Western cultures. Korzybski's challenge is thus planetary. We 'Westerners' can't (as some have tried) escape to the 'East'. Identifications, confusions of orders of abstracting, are common to all human nervous systems we know of."

Item 28. "General uncertainty (all statements merely probable in varying degrees) as an inevitable derivative of korzybskian abstracting, non-identity, etc. Korzybski, drawing partly on his Polish milieu, anticipated and exceeded Heisenberg's mid-nineteen-twenties formulation of (restricted) uncertainty."

I could have picked any other six items out of the list of 31, and they would have been equally impressive, I might add.

The promise of Korzybski's system as a science-oriented, academic field (and practical discipline) has not been fully achieved in 1998, in my view. Despite being far ahead of its time in many ways, Science and Sanity remains a dated (1933) book. As I see it, now more than ever, the discipline needs: (i) a strict weighing and assessment of the basic formulations of general semantics, (ii) formal, rigorous studies of older and newer training methods, and (iii) careful research and reporting on the science of our time. We can hardly preach the benefits of a science-oriented approach if we fail to apply science (as best we can) to our own discipline.

James D. French, a Director of ISGS, works as a computer programmer at the University of California, Berkeley. His articles on logic, general semantics, and other subjects have appeared in various publications, including The Journal of Symbolic Logic. He was recently elected to the board of the Institute of General Semantics.
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Author:French, James D.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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