On Symbolism




by Alfred Korzybski


The affairs of man are conducted by our own, man-made rules and according to man-made theories. Man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us. Now the term ‘symbol’ applies to a variety of things, words and money included. A piece of paper, called a dollar or a pound, has very little value if the other fellow refuses to take it; so we see that money must be considered as a symbol for human agreement, as well as deeds to property, stocks, bonds. The reality behind the money-symbol is doctrinal, ‘mental’, and one of the most precious characteristics of mankind. But it must be used properly; that is, with the proper understanding of its structure and ways of functioning. It constitutes a grave danger when misused.

When we say ‘our rulers’, we mean those who are engaged in the manipulation of symbols. There is no escape from the fact that they do, and that they always will, rule mankind, because we constitute a symbolic class of life, and we cannot cease from being so, except by regressing to the animal level.

The hope for the future consists in the understanding of this fact; namely, that we shall always be ruled by those who rule symbols, which will lead to scientific researches in the field of symbolism and s.r. (semantic reactions : reactions bound to the use of words at the emotional, biological colloïdal, etc., levels) ). We would then demand that our rulers should be enlightened and carefully selected. Paradoxical as it may seem, such researches as the present work attempts, will ultimately do more for the stabilization of human affairs than legions of policemen with machine guns, and bombs, and jails, and asylums for the maladjusted.

A complete list of our rulers is difficult to give; yet, a few classes of them are quite obvious. Bankers, priests, lawyers and politicians constitute one class and work together. They do not produce any value, but manipulate values produced by others, and often pass signs for no values at all. Scientists and teachers also compose a ruling class. They produce the main values mankind has, but at present, they do not realize this. They are, in the main, themselves ruled by the cunning methods of the first class.

In this analysis the ‘philosophers” have been omitted. This is because they require a special treatment. As an historical fact, many ‘philosophers’ have played an important and, to be frank, sinister role in history. At the bottom of any historical trend, we find a certain ‘philosophy’, a structural implication cleverly formulated by some ‘philosophers’ gamble on multiordinal and el (elementalist ) terms, which have no definite single (one-valued)meaning, and so, by cleverness in twisting , can be made to appear to mean anything desired. It is now no mystery that some quite influential ‘philosopher’ were ‘mentally’ ill. Some ‘mentally’ ill persons are tremendously clever in the manipulation of words and can sometimes deceive even trained specialists. Among the clever concoctions which appear in history as ‘philosophic’ systems, we can find flatly opposing doctrines. Therefore, it has not been difficult at any period for the rulers to select a cleverly constructed doctrine perfectly fitting the ends the desired.

One of the main characteristics of such ‘philosophers’ is found in the delusion of grandeur, the ‘Jehovah complex’. Their problem have appeared to them to be above criticism or assistance by other human beings, and the correct procedure known only to super-men like themselves. So quite naturally they have usually refused to make enquiries. They have refused even to be informed about scientific researches carried on outside the realms of their ‘philosophy’. Because of the ignorance, they have, in the main, not even suspected the importance of the problems of structure.

In all fairness, it must be said that not all so-called ‘philosophy’ represents an episode of semantic illness, and that a few ‘philosophers’ really do important work. This applies to the so-called ‘critical philosophy’ and to the theory of knowledge or epistemology. This class of workers I call epistemologists, to avoid the disagreeable implications of the term ‘philosopher’. Unfortunately, epistemological researches are most difficult, owing mainly to the lack of scientific psycho-logics, general semantics, and investigations of structure and s.r. We find only a very few men doing this work, which, in the main, is still little known and unapplied. It must be granted that their works fo not make easy reading. They do not command headlines; nor are they aided and stimulated by public interest and help.

It must be emphasized again that as long as we remain humans, (which means a symbolic class of life), the rulers of symbols will rule us, and that no amount of revolution will ever change this. But what mankind has a right to ask – and the sooner the better – is that our rulers should not be so shamelessly ignorant and, therefore, pathological in their reactions. If a psychiatrical and scientific inquiry were to be made upon our rulers, mankind would be appalled at the disclosures.

We have been speaking bout ‘symbols’, but we have not yet discovered any general theory concerning symbols and symbolism. Usually, we take terms lightly and never ‘think’ what kind of implication and s.r. one single important term may involve. ‘Symbol’ is one of those important terms, weighty in meanings. If we use the term ‘food’, for instance, the presupposition is that we take for granted the existence of living beings able to eat; and, similarly, the term ‘symbol’ implies the existence of intelligent beings. The solution of the problem of symbolism, therefore, presupposes the solution of the problem of ‘intelligence’ and structure. So, we see that the issues are not only serious and difficult, but also, that we must investigate a semantic field in which very little has been done.

In the rough, a symbol is defined as a sign which stands for something. Any sign is not necessarily a symbol. If it stands for something, it becomes a symbol for this something. If it does not stand for something, then it becomes not a symbol but a meaningless sign. This applies to words just as it does to bank cheques. If one has a zero balance in the bank, but still has a cheque-book and issues a cheque, he issues a sign but not a symbol, because it does not stand for anything. The penalty for such use of these particular signs as symbols is usually jailing. This analogy applies to the oral noises we make, which occasionally become symbols and at other times do not; as yet, no penalty is exacted for such a fraud.

Before a noise., may become a symbol, something must exist for the symbol to symbolize. So the first problem of symbolism should be to investigate the problem of ‘existence’. To define ‘existence’, we have to state the standards by which we judge existence. At present, the use of this term is not uniform and is largely a matter of convenience. Of late, mathematicians have discovered a great deal about this term. For our present purposes, we may accept two kinds of existence : (1) the physical existence, roughly connected with our ‘senses’ and persistence, and (2) ‘logical ‘ existence. The new researches in the foundations of mathematics, originated by Brouwer and Weyl, seem to lead to a curtailment of the meaning of ‘logical’ existence in quite a sound direction; but we may provisionally accept the most general meaning, as introduced by Poincaré. He defines ‘logical’ existence as a statement free from self-contradictions. Thus, we may say that a ‘thought’ to be a ‘thought’ must not be self-contradictory. A self-contradictory statement is meaningless; we can argue either way without reaching any valid results. We say, then, that a self- contradictory statement has no ‘logical’ existence. As an example, let us take a statement about a square circle. This is called a contradiction in terms, a non-sense, a meaningless statement, which has no ‘logical’ existence. Let us label this ‘word salad’ by a special noise – let us say, ‘blah-blah’. Will such a noise become a word, a symbol ? Obviously not – it stands for nothing; it remains a mere noise., no matter if volumes should be written about it.

It is extremely important, semantically, to notice that not all the noises., we humans make should be considered as symbols or valid words. Such empty noises., can occur not only in direct ‘statements’, but also in ‘questions’. Quite obviously, ‘questions’ which employ noises., instead of words, are not significant questions. They ask nothing, and cannot be answered. They are, perhaps, best treated by ‘mental’ pathologists as symptoms of delusion, illusion, or hallucinations. In asylums the noises., patients make are predominant meaningless, as far as the external world is concerned, but become symbols in the illness of the patient…..

An important aspect of the problem of existence can be made clear by some examples. Let us recall that a noise or written sign, to become a symbol, must stand for something. Let us imagine that you, my reader, and myself are engaged in an argument. Before us, on the table, lies something which we usually call a box of matches : you argue that there are matches in this box; I say that there are no matches in it. Our argument can be settled. We open the box and look, and both become convinced. It must be noticed that in our argument we used words, because they stood for something; so when we began to argue, the argument could be solved to our mutual satisfaction, since there was a third factor, the object, which corresponds to the symbol used, and this settled he dispute. A third factor was present, and agreement became possible. Let us take another example. Let us try to settle the problem : ‘Is blah-blah a case of tra-tra ?’ Let us assume that you say ‘yes’, and that I say ‘no’. Can we reach any agreement ? It is a real tragedy, of which life is full, that such an argument cannot be solved at all. We used noises, not words. Here was no third factor for which these noises stood as symbols, and so we could argue endlessly without any possibility of agreement. That the noises may have stood for some semantic disturbance is quite a different problem, and in such a case a psycho-pathologist should be consulted, but arguments should stop. The reader will have no difficulty in gathering from daily life other example many of them of highly tragic character.

Excerpt From:
Science & Sanity Ch. VI – ON SYMBOLISM (p. 76-82)
By Alfred Korzybski

via Grey Lodge / Issue #9

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