This nOde last updated July 1st, 2003 and is permanently morphing…
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Korzybski, Alfred Habdank Skarbek
Korzybski (kôr-zîp´skê, kô-zhîp´-), Alfred Habdank Skarbek
Polish-born American semanticist who proposed his doctrine of general semantics in Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933).
general semantics noun (used with a sing. verb)
A discipline developed by Alfred Korzybski that proposes to improve human behavioral responses through a more critical use of words and symbols.
The Future of the Future
There was a Fundamentalist Futurist back in the 1890’s who demonstrated that New York City would be abandoned as unfit for habitation by the 1930s. His argument was based on projection forward of population trends, and he correctly estimated that population would grow from 4 million to over 7 million in 40 years. (He didn’t guess it would reach over 12 million by now.) It was then obvious, he said, that the amount of horses necessary to provide transportation for that many people would result in a public health hazard of incredible dimensions: there would be horse manure up to the third floor windows everywhere in Manhattan.
This illustrates the most frequent fallacy found in Future projections: the “elementalistic fallacy” named by Alfred Korzybski. The elementalistic fallacy as Korzybski noted, seems to be built into our very language. We can talk about Joe Smith in isolation from his (or any) environment; we can therefore think about Mr. Smith in such fictitious isolation; and in such “elementalistic fallacy” we will always draw wrong conclusions, because Mr. Smith cannot exist without some environment. (He will explode in a vacuum, and without a social world his mind will similarly explode — or implode — or at least mutate shockingly, as isolation experiments have shown. )
Projecting population forward without projecting other factors forward has produced numerous elementalistic fallacies similar to thinking of Joe Smith without an environment. Malthus, for instance, “proved” that population will always increase faster than resources, but this was disproven by technological history, and we now understand that “resources” only exist when identified by analysis and each new discovery in pure science shows us new resources everywhere. One example: the Newtonian system allowed us to tap 0.001 per cent of the energy in a glass of water; 19th Century thermodynamics showed us how to tap 0.01 per cent of that energy; we can now tap 1.0 per cent. Nobody knows how much we’ll be able to tap in 50 years. Elementalistic fallacies abound in Future projections (including my own). We are only gradually and gropingly learning to think “non-elementalistically” (in Korzybski’s phrase) or “synergetically” as Bucky Fuller liked to say. I have found one quick way to avoid the more obvious elementalistic and Fundamentalistic errors, which is this:
Whenever I project one trend forward, I then re-analyze the situation, projecting at minimum five other trends forward also.
For instance, lifespan and population have both been increasing in the past 200 years. Projecting these trends forward elementalistically (in isolation) has led to some notable Doomsday scenarios in which humanity overcrowds itself to death. An entirely different picture emerges, however, if one projects these trends synergetically along with five other trends, such as:
1.The effect of industrialism on population. As documented by Fuller (_Critical Path_) a nation’s population only rises rapidly in the transition from feudalism to industrialism, then levels off when industrialism is well established in a country.
- industrial track _Critical Path_ MP3 by Somatic Responses off of _Augmented Lines_
2.The emergence of Feminism and self-choice among women, beginning with the 18th century radicalism of Mary Wollstonecraft and now including Women’s Liberation movements in all parts of the world — even dawningly in Islamic nations.
3.The movement of communication technology into space, with clear trends indicating that “industrial” (or more likely, post-industrial) technology will follow, with workers and then families and then schools and grocers and museums, etc. moving into space colonies.
4.The continued improvement in birth control technology and the fading line between contraception and abortion. There is already a heated debate, for instance, about whether certain devices — e.g. the IUD — “are” or “are not” abortifacients.
5.The neuroscience revolution (or H.E.A.D. Revolution — Hedonic Engineering And Development) with its increasing promise that humans in the near future will achieve more freedom from mechanical conditioned reflexes (both “physical” and “mental”) than ever before. Whenever I try to project all five of these trends even 40 years into the future, I find the “overcrowding” problem seems less likely than New York being buried in horse manure. To get a feel for synergetic thinking, try your own projection, “guestimating” what the next decade will bring in each of these fields, and the decade after that, and so on, to 2029.
– Robert Anton Wilson – _ChaosAnd Beyond – the best of _Trajectories__
As Alfred Korzybski and de Bono (among others) have demonstrated, Opinions result from perceptions, and perceptions reinforce Opinions, which then further control perceptions, in a repeating loop that logic can never penetrate. (Only a shocking new perception, too strong to get edited out by Opinion, can break this self-hypnotic loop.)
– Robert Anton Wilson – “Flying Saucers, Phony Photos and Fuzzy Logic” in _Cosmic Trigger III_
Although his cavalier lifestyle and counterculture status has overshadowed his multimedia experiments, William S. Burroughs studied with Alfred Korzybski (who formulated General Semantics and E-Prime), and was a fierce critic of Scientology’s psycho-linguistic games. Burroughs’ interest in epigenetic (brain) and cultural (memetic) evolution as the basis of contemporary advertising techniques anticipated Howard Bloom’s research that the co-evolution of language and brain contains viral elements.
– Alex Burns
- “A map is not the territory.” – Alfred Korzybski, _Science and Sanity_
- acid jazz soul track _Get Another Plan_ MP3 by Abstract Truth off of _Get Another Plan_ 12″ on Streetwave (1996)