by JS O’Brien
There is a very important man in human history whose name too few people know:Â Alfred Korzybski.Â He’s the father of general semantics, and before you say toÂ yourself, “Oh, it’s only semantics,” understand that improper use of semantics can absolutely, positively, kill you.Â I’ll explain why, shortly.
Korzybski is not only the father of general semantics, but a god high in the pantheon of suchÂ fields as cybernetics, neuro-linguistics, consistency theory, and the like.Â He deserves to be.Â He was the first to examine human behavior in terms of whatÂ people can know, and how they act on that knowledge (Descartes may have provided a foundation, but Korzybski built the palace).Â He said that there are really only two means of knowing:Â (1) through the structure and capabilities of the nervous system, and (2) through the structure of language and how we use it.Â
Korzybski divided allÂ human experience into levels.Â The first level isÂ the event itself.Â The second is our verbal,Â symbolicÂ description of this event, internal or external, and our description is subdivided into three levels of abstraction:Â (1) the descriptive, (2) the inferential, and (3) the judgmental.Â Improper use of theÂ judgmental can kill you.Â For instance:
Descriptive:Â That automobile has itsÂ right turn-signal on.
Inferential:Â That automobile is going to turn right.
Judgmental:Â It’s safe to pull out in front of that automobile.
We probably all know at least one person who is stuck at one of these levels of abstraction.Â Talk to a person stuck at the descriptive level, and you may get a story that goes on forever with “and then he said, and then she said,” without ever arriving at a point.Â Talk to a judgmental person, and you may get, “I hate women drivers, ” or “He wouldn’t have been accused if he weren’t guilty.”
Korzybski pointed out that the very structure of language tends to push us towards the judgmental.Â Most languages have very few intermediate words between polar opposites.Â For instance, find the single, intermediate word between such English pairs as “honest/dishonest,” “relevant/irrelevant,” “learned/ignorant,” etc.Â To be sure, there are some intermediate words in English (for instance, a range or words between “beautiful” and “repulsive”), and taken in context, the word “average” can be very useful.Â But in most cases, we are forced to use modifying words like “very,” “somewhat,” “most,” “many,” etc. if we want to move our language from the judgmental level to the descriptive.Â Another weakness of language is the verb “to be.”Â It implies that people are a certain thing, which isÂ leap to judgment.Â “Joe is lazy” is a greater order of abstraction than, “Joe didn’t get the work done.”
There is debate about whether the symbology of language drives cognitively drivenÂ behavior, or whether language is the ultimate result of hard-wired behavioral tendencies.Â I tend to believe the latter, while recognizing thatÂ there is a reinforcing loop.Â For instance, if we are biologically predisposed to order our world into broad categories to simplify our thinking and reactionsÂ (and I believe we are), then we would structure our language into exactly theÂ judgmental, bipolar words and ways of expressing states of being that we currently possess.Â Having said that, the language itself makes it difficult to break out of the judgmental level of abstraction.Â One must consciously make an effort to use, say, the word “many” in the phrase, “Many elderly people are poor drivers.”Â It appears to be our natural inclination to simplify, saying simply “Elderly people are poor drivers.”
Even our writing classes tend to force people from the descriptive or inferential into the judgmental.Â I once had a journalism professor tell me that the way I worded something told him that I was guessing.Â I replied that guessing was exactly what I was doing, that a guess was all that the data warranted, and that not using modifying words in this case would imply that I was more certain than anyone should be.Â Still, there is this push among writing teachers to use transitive verbs (except among political writers where “mistakes were made” has become ubiquitous) as if there is something virtuous in certainty when certainty is impossible.
The upshot of all this is that jumping to levels of abstraction, like judgment, before we have enough information is a human thinking trap that has caused us much grief over human history.Â For instance, we categorize others by race, as if race has any real meaning, and then apply a structure of judgment to that race that carries over to individuals in that racial group.Â We categorize others by when they were born, calling them a “generation,” and deciding that all individuals of that generation must share the same characteristics.
Understand that it’s not necessary to say something like, “All millennials feel entitled.”Â It’s enough to say, “Millenials feel entitled.”Â In the English language, the “all” is implied unless a modifier is used, in the same way one can say “Water is wet,” without having to say “AllÂ water is wet.”Â
It’s a human thinking trap, and the way to avoid it is to pay closer attention to the way you write and think.Â If you start to use modifying words, I think you will find that you begin to modify your thoughts, as well.Â And uncertainty, painful as it can be, is a very useful thing, indeed.Â It helps us avoid bad decisions.
Â It may help you decide not to pull out in front of the wrong car, someday.
(Note:Â JS O’Brien will have veryÂ limited access to the Internet in the next week.Â Please do not take any failure to respond personally.)