Saturday, September 05, 2009

Self Improvement

Alfred Korzybski, Polish philosopher and scien...Image via Wikipedia
One day in 1972, while browsing in a book store in Manhattan, I stumbled across a 246-page, cartoon filled self-help pocket book with the eyebrow-raising title How to Develop Your Thinking Ability—A guide to sound decisions by Kenneth S. Keyes, Jr., which I purchased on impulse for a whopping $2.45.

Given that the publisher is McGraw-Hill, and that the original copyright is 1950, I should have anticipated that the quality of the contents might be somewhat better than one of today's functional counterparts, which might bear a title such as Thinking Clearly—For Dummies, and present anything but; but I was quite unprepared for what I encountered.

Far from being a compilation of naïve aphorisms bolsterd by lame observations, the book is actually an introductory text to the topic of general semantics (not to be confused with the related but different field of plain old semantics), and comes with an Appendix showing how to teach children the Tools for Thinking, another labeled "For Further Study," listing bibliographic references to fifteen fundamental source texts on the topic of general semantics, and an Index. For a good overview of the topic see The Institute of General Semantics Web site.

After reading through the book quickly, I immediately returned to the beginning and read it again, making marginal notes. The experience was life changing, as it opened my eyes to a whole field of study with which I was previously unfamiliar, and at the same time immediately served to make me more open-minded and objective in how I relate to other people.

The simple tools for thinking as outlined by Mr. Keyes may be summarized as follows, as paraphrased loosely from the first Appendix:

  1. So Far As I Know: Our knowledge of every matter, no matter how deep, is incomplete, and is subject to amplification that could change our viewpoint.
  2. Up to a Point: There are very few absolutes in this universe.
  3. To Me: However convinced we may be of the rightness of our viewpoint, it is ours alone; all others have their own as well.
  4. The What Index: No two objects are ever absolutely identical, though similarities exist.
  5. The When Index: The same object will be different at different times. Temporal context is important.
  6. The Where Index: Environmental factors change reality.

As happens with newfound interests, I wanted to know more, whereupon I set out to explore more advanced literature on the topic of general semantics as listed in the Appendix.

This led me first to People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment by Wendell Johnson, a speech pathologist who was himself a lifetime severe stutterer. I still remember a paragraph in which Dr. Johnson substituted the nonsense word "blab" for every word in a paragraph of Nazi propaganda extolling the virtues of the Fatherland whose meaning was undefinable—sort of like text typically produced by business marketing departments today. All that was left was articles, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs, so it came out looking like:
The blab blab of blab blab in the blab blab blab blab will blab blab blab blab blab blab and blab blab through blab and blab blab.

Following that I read Language in Thought and Action by Samuel Hayakawa, an English professor who taught general semantics, and who was for one term a U.S. Senator from California, a work that I found quite readable.

Thereafter I was led to check out from the library Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics by Alfred Korzybski, an exceedingly arcane presentation that is generally considered to be the original foundation text on the topic. It didn't take me long to give up on this one, as it required considerably more background in mathematics than I have to understand. By this time my attention was being drawn toward other topics. It was sufficient for me to learn that the field of general semantics had an origin, that the field is one of true science, and that all roads lead from Korzybski.

The effect of this research was to cause me from that time onward to listen more carefully and analytically to what others write or say.
For who has despised the day of small things?
—Zechariah 4:10

Life is just one damned thing after another.
—Elbert Hubbard
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1 comment:

Amy Kehoe said...

I tried to defend myself one day to a doctor for whom I was making a powerpoint presentation by using the word "semantics" as my reason why his version of the due date and my version of the due date differed.

It didn't go over very well.