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Alfred Korzybski

Language as a mind-control device has been discussed by such philosophers as Vico (18th century), Stirner and Nietzsche (19th century), and Wittgenstein (20th century). The most radical scientific critics of language in our time include Count Alfred Korzybski and Dr. Richard Bandler.


Korzybski, who grew up in a house where four languages were spoken (Polish, Russian, French, German) and learned English much later, observed that the words we use influence our perceptions and conceptions of the world—e.g., even in the same language, a book may be called "realistic" by one reader and "pornographic" by another, and each will tend to perceive/conceive the book that way more and more automatically if they repeat their label ("realistic" or "pornographic") over and over. This underlies the mechanism of hypnosis, as Dr. Bandler discovered later. It also explains why you won't make much progress preaching radical equality to somebody who continually uses the word "nigger," or defending the first amendment to somebody who keeps saying "smut" (or "sexism").


But Korzybski made a more radical discovery, namely, that our perceptions/conceptions (reality-tunnels) are also shaped by the structure of the language we use. A Native American, an African, a Chinese, etc.—anyone using a non-Indo-European language structure—will live in a different universe than those who only know Indo-European. Considering mathematics a language, Korzybski also claimed that the mathematically literate live in a different semantic system than those who only know verbal structures.


From these starting points, Korzybski arrived at a devastating diagnosis of most of our culture's habitual linguistic structures (which he called neurolinguistic structures because they act as the software with which our nervous systems, including our brains, process data). Our worst habit, he thought, lay in the constant assumption of identity implied in most uses of the verb "is." Such sentences as "The photon is a wave," "The photon is a particle," "Beethoven is better than Mozart," "The thing I saw was a spaceship," would become, in Korzybski's system, "The photon behaved like a wave when measured with this experimental apparatus," "The photon behaved like a particle when measured with this different apparatus," "Beethoven seems better than Mozart to me," "The thing I saw seemed like a spaceship to me."


English including "is" and its cognates ("was," "be," "will be," etc.) appears as E in the writing of some of Korzybski's students, and English without "is" and its cognates appears as E' (pronounced E-prime.)


Attempts to write the present article in E-prime quickly proved hopelessly baroque and created unreadable prose. You need the "is of identity" to describe conspiracy theories. Korzybski would say that proves that illusions, delusions, and "mental" illnesses require the "is" to perpetuate them. (He often said, "Isness is an illness.")


Korzybski also popularized the idea that most sentences, especially the sentences that people quarrel over or even go to war over, do not rank as propositions in the logical sense, but belong in the category that Bertrand Russell called propositional functions. They do not have one meaning, as a proposition in logic should have; they have several meanings, like an algebraic function. We do not notice this because Russell only discovered propositional functions in this century and the idea has not had wide publicity. According to Korzybski, many of our pet ideologies belong in the propositional function category ("This is an X," "This has too much Y in it," "Get away with that Z-ish Xism"), and we assume we can prove them or refute them, whereas neither we nor our opponents actually know what they mean. They don't mean anything, until the multivalued X, Y, Z, etc. become concretely or operationally related to specific space-time events perceived, touched, smelled, or otherwise encountered by observers making reports.


Propositional functions not recognized as such, or treated as propositions, Korzybski called "'noise" (usually in italics). It seems odd to think that most human anger and violence derives from noise, but this also happens in other primate societies, does it not?


Novelist William S. Burroughs, who studied general semantics with Korzybski, has developed these notions into the surrealist theme of language as an invading virus, found in most of his novels. This virus, according to Burroughs, creates our thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions. Without the virus metaphor, Korzybski would agree, and so would Dr. Richard Bandler.


Dr. Bandler, out of the study of Korzybski and the verbal structures used by Dr. Milton Erickson (often considered the greatest hypnotist of his time), developed Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which shows how verbal structures create the world we think we live in; NLP also has some amazingly efficient gimmicks for changing our verbal habits and seeing/experiencing a much saner and more manageable world.


See also: Book of Lies, Fuzzy Logic, George I. Gurdjieff,


References: Korzybski's system—


http://www.generalsemantics.org/


Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, by Alfred Korzybski, Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, N.J., 5th ed., 1994


To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology, ed. by D. David Bourland Jr. and Paul Dennisthorne Johnson, International Society for General Semantics, San Francisco, 1991