CHAPTER I. Foundations of language science (1933)
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..." (Dickens 1991:10)
This is the first line you might expect to read if this thesis were a tale of two cities. However, this thesis is a tale of two scholars. A tale which focuses on a single point of temporal significance. A tale which illustrates that it is not so much the object of study which determines the results, but the philosophy of the investigator. A tale which asks questions about the asking of questions.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The year was 1933.
In 1933 these things happened: Adolph Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president of the United States, the 21st amendment to the US constitution ended prohibition, and the Marx brothers released Duck Soup. Certainly the world would never be quite the same after 1933. The two events that this thesis focuses on seem to have less significance compared to the import of the items listed, but to the study of language, the year was enormous - it isn't hard to imagine the linguists and language philosophers of the time asking, "Groucho who?"
In 1933, Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949) published the ominously titled Language. The principles outlined in this book would officially set the program for linguistic science from its publication until 1957, although the weight of its early popularity is still strongly felt today. The year also saw the publication of the equally boldly titled Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950). At the time this book had a comparable effect to Bloomfield's. It called for the creation of a new study of humanity to be known as general semantics, a discipline that flourished for several decades but is presently only marginally practiced as a complete system.
Both books were published in 1933. Both books made broad claims about the nature and methodology of science. Both books examined language and its relation to humankind. Both books elicited an almost fanatical adherence by their readers.
The difference between the two books, which ricochets like machine-gun fire through the text of both, is the place from which each scholar began. Both aimed at understanding language, both used similar ammunition, but they shot from opposite sides of the field.
1.1 The autonomous science of Leonard Bloomfield
Bloomfield said in Language, "This book is a revised version of the author's An Introduction to the Study of Language, which appeared in 1914. The new version is much larger than the old..." (1933, vii). However, it was not just the book that had increased in size. The formal study of language had grown from being academia's orphan, finding its home in the back-offices of Germanic studies, modern language, and anthropology departments, to a bona fide autonomous discipline.
Bloomfield had solidified his recognition as the eminent linguist in North America. In 1923 he helped found the Linguistic Society of America and became its first president. Out of the 264 founding members of the society, only 3 listed linguistics under the courses they taught. However, the society created a journal known as Language and, with the increased legitimacy that came with these institutions, there was a continuous increase in the number of members who called themselves linguists first. A notable difference between Bloomfield's 1914 and 1933 works is an increased incidence of the noun "linguistics" over the adjective "linguistic".
While the stated goal of Language was the same as The Study of Language ("intended for the general reader and for the student who is entering upon linguistic work" [1914, v & 1933, vii]) the revision provided for a true re-visioning of the scientific study of language. There was a marked shift in Bloomfield's attitude towards linguistics as a science, and science in general. The biggest change appears to be in Bloomfield's psychology. In the preface of The Study of Language Bloomfield (1914) stated:
Compare this with the preface of Language (1933):
This shift is by no means insignificant. But the motivation and results go beyond the purely "psychological". Bloomfield was in a sense able to galvanize much of the scientific sentiment of the time. Primarily the feeling that the social sciences should become more objective and function more like the natural sciences.
The state of linguistic science in the 19th century was very much a transitional one. Previous to this, the primary scholarly vehicle for language study was philology. Philology as a discipline definitely did not fit the criteria of science being set by the biological and physical sciences of the time. It was more concerned with an overall study of human culture and its development. Language was simply the most available vehicle for this goal. An example of this approach can be seen in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1988).
The sciences were making huge gains and with each new discovery the reliance on and faith in empiricism increased. It was felt that linguistics could not rightfully claim to be a science if it lacked a rigorously defined scientific method and object of study. At the time no scientific model could have seemed more attractive than that of the biological sciences. Enormous advances were being made in anatomy, zoology, botany, and physiology. This was the period, between 1850 and 1900, when Darwin published The Origin of Species and Mendel's discovery of genetic inheritance resurfaced. The admiration for the empirical sciences and the temptation to emulate them was great. As August Schleicher (1873), the preeminent linguist of the time, said:
This position was met with some opposition, as Erwin A. Esper (1968) notes, "Oertel (1901, p. 59) commented on 'the ill-advised and misleading metaphors in which linguistic writers indulged, borrowing their terms from the dissecting-room and the physiological and biological laboratories,' and referred to denunciations of the biological analogy by Gaston Paris, Osthoff and Brugmann, Wundt, and V. Henry" (Esper 1968:99). The concern that borrowing methodology from a relatively unrelated discipline could mislead linguistics should the analogy be taken too seriously was a very real one. Schleicher referred to "linguistic organisms", and concepts from Darwinian evolution were judiciously applied to language in attempting a historical-comparative approach to language study (Esper 1968:97). However, because these decades marked the general emergence of modern linguistic methodology, it set up an ideal for objective analysis which was felt to be necessary for the separation and defining of a linguistic science.
There was a general sentiment, stemming from the enlightenment of the 18th century through to late-19th century German thought, of "high optimism concerning the future of science and of society" (Esper, 1968:98). This optimism would continue through the positivism of Comte and Spencer to affect Bloomfield in 1914 when he wrote: "the great progress of our science in the last half-century is, I believe, nevertheless sufficient excuse for my attempt to give a summary of what is now known about language." (1914:v). In 1933 he would attempt to direct the progress of the next half-century.
We can mark the progression of Bloomfield's scientific assumptions as part of a general trend towards objectivism in linguistics. However, specific movements as they affected this larger trend may be identified. What Bloomfield created in assuming leadership of American linguistics is often called American structuralism. Structuralism was officially developed in Europe with the publication of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (1959) in the first and second decades of this century. Saussure clearly divided synchronic from diachronic linguistics, separating "static linguistics" from the historical-comparative tradition. Language, claimed Saussure, can be studied as a static object, without reference to history. In fact several times he actually refers to language as a concrete object.
Saussure did not have a direct influence on Bloomfield. Nowhere in Language is there a single reference to Saussure. Yet, it was likely that some Saussurean linguists made their way over the ocean. The important thing to note is that American structuralism, though a separate movement, shared some very basic assumptions with Saussurean structuralism - namely the tendency to reify language. What were the major antecedents of the "structural" bent to Bloomfieldian linguistics? The trend towards empiricism, as briefly touched on above, certainly affected Bloomfield. There is little doubt that he was aware of, and affected by, the Vienna circle and logical positivism, which began in earnest in the 1920s. The quotations from the prefaces to the 1914 and 1933 texts (above) show a major shift in the psychological presuppositions of Bloomfield. This mirrored the shift within psychology itself as it too became infected by the empiricist bug, and moved from mentalism to behaviorism.
Historically there is no doubt as to the major source of Bloomfield's inspiration in revising his handbook. In 1921 he took residence at Ohio State University. While there he collaborated and formed a deep friendship with the psychologist Albert Weiss (1879-1931). Just how much respect did Bloomfield have for Weiss? Consider the following, which he wrote in a 1931 eulogy that appeared in the journal Language as cited in Esper (1968):
It should be clear from the tone of this passage that Bloomfield and Weiss shared a close friendship that went beyond simple academic respect. The two men and their families often spent leisure time together. As close as their friendship may have been, the academic collaboration that ensued was perhaps deeper.
To call Weiss a behaviorist is accurate to a point. His broad claims about the practice of science make the term "objectivist" or "mechanist" seems more appropriate. It was his clearly defined methodological stance that made Weiss a particularly well-suited apologist for the development of a mechanist viewpoint in Bloomfield's linguistics. Esper notes, "The period during which [he] wrote was that of the Great War of the Words, in which psychologists, arrayed in the two hostile hosts of the Mentalists and the Behaviorists ... filled the pages of [their] journals. ... In Weiss's Bibliography of eighteen pages almost all are of this sort..." (1968:184). While his direct impact on psychology is little recognized he had enormous indirect influence. R. A. Elliot stated this in 1931, "Weiss' influence upon contemporary psychology through the work of his students, his associates at Ohio State University, and his wider circle of colleagues elsewhere probably counts for more than the effect of everything he ever wrote." (Esper 1968:175) Bloomfield certainly lists among the group of colleagues through which Weiss's influence is still felt today.
What Weiss did for linguistics was introduce Bloomfield to an objectivist naturalism that had been developing in psychology since the mid-nineteenth century. I have noted that this trend had been developing 'independently' within linguistics already, but the pendulum had by that time swung much further for psychology; perhaps things happened faster there due to the sheer size and organization of the discipline. What Weiss brought to Bloomfield was a much more complete, and strict, empirical system than had previously been available to linguists.
Weiss claimed that psychology must eliminate metaphysical discussion and recognize it as "nothing but language responses and linguistic habits derived from other language responses." (cited in Esper [1968:178]). Weiss goes on to say:
The significance of the above passage will become clearer when we begin looking at Korzybski. Obviously, Bloomfield's Language was light on its discussions of physical phenomena, and Weiss himself did not employ such strict reductionism in the laboratory. However, the importance of such a stance lies in the rejection of mental phenomena and the strict adherence to the empiricism of the natural sciences. Weiss believed that this was the only clear path to the advancement of knowledge. Bloomfield (1933) echoed Weiss's comments in Language:
To many it seemed that behaviorism was simply eliminating consciousness because it was too hard or messy to deal with. However Weiss saw the issue in a more philosophical frame than a utilitarian one. "...no such inference is warranted. Behaviorism claims to render a more complete and a more scientific account of the totality of human achievement without the conception of consciousness than traditional psychology is able to render with it." (Esper 1968:179).
Where Weiss excelled among the behaviorists was in his conception of language. He claimed that there are basically two areas with which psychology must concern itself: biophysical or basic stimulus-response behavior within an individual, and biosocial or behavior of human beings as and within social groups. Language functioned in connecting individuals within groups, functioning as "nerves" connecting the individual nervous systems. This concept was adopted by Bloomfield and expressed in Language as the story of "Jack and Jill" in which "Jill" experiences hunger and asks "Jack" to reach an apple for her (1933:22-27). In this story Bloomfield illustrates the claim that language offers a secondary stimulus-response mechanism connecting the "S"s of one individual with the "R"s of another:
reaction mediated by speech: S ® r.....s ® R
The stimulus (S) of one individual elicits a reaction (r) that becomes the stimulus (s) of a second individual who reacts (R). Bloomfield makes a distinction here between "language, the subject of our study, and real or practical events, stimulus and reactions" (1933:27) and in doing so firmly plants the study of language in the garden of behaviorist science.
The basic thrust of Bloomfield's semantics is descriptive. He for him linguistics should be concerned with describing the speech act alone (r.....s). In Chapter Two we will take a more detailed look at Bloomfield's 1933 conception of meaning. What is important to note, is that Bloomfield was not a rebel attempting to redefine linguistics but in fact provided a synthesis of a greater movement of the social sciences which had been growing within linguistics for several decades. It is not insignificant that Bloomfield was an enormous academic talent with the skills needed to command a central position in an emerging discipline. However, the question remains: was this the only valid approach to studying language scientifically?
1.2 Korzybski and general semantics
We turn our attention now to what on the surface seems to be a very different tack on "the problem" of language. In 1933 Alfred Korzybski published a book entitled Science and Sanity (1958) in which he proposed a new discipline named general semantics. He was something of an outsider. He held no official post within academia and his formal schooling consisted of a chemical engineering degree. Yet Science and Sanity is well over 800 pages when introductory notes are included and it also includes 619 bibliographical entries. Although not a university academic, Korzybski was not isolated from great thinkers of the time; he routinely corresponded with and presented his work to some of the top mathematicians, psychiatrists, neurologists, and physicists in North America.
His status as a 'free intellectual' in fact gave him a bit more room to spread his wings, to take positions that were not representative of mainstream language study. General semantics is at best criticized and ridiculed by professional linguists today, although very few seem to have made an earnest study of it, because of this it is hard to comprehend the immense popularity that it enjoyed in early years. Even in 1966, 33 years after Science and Sanity's first appearance, J. Samuel Bois (1966) would note:
Tomes could be written about the reasons for the relative obscurity in which it now rests; I will return to these issues in Chapter Four.
Alfred Korzybski grew up in Russia-administered Poland. As a young man it was determined that he had a particular ability with mathematics and he was sent to university to become an engineer. After this he served the Russian army in World War I, an experience which profoundly affected him and likely set the scaffolding for his life's work. He was sent to North America on an intelligence mission near the end of the war and ended up immigrating to the United States where he lived until his death in 1950.
In a way Korzybski's work was reflective of the unique cosmopolitan nature of partitioned Poland before World War I. While it is true that there was little support from Germany, Russia or Austria for Polish universities, there were active groups of free intellectuals, which made up the intelligentsia of the time. In this unstructured climate, Korzybski was able to extend his interests quite freely beyond his formal training in chemical engineering and mathematics to philosophy, history, and psychology and the other social sciences.
The historian Ross Evans Paulson (1983) has noted that the time in which Korzybski came of age represented a "period of debate in Polish intellectual circles between the Positivists and Young Poland over the nature of language and its role of healing the breach between the objective sciences and the subjective arts." (1983:81). Polish positivism could not be institutionalized in the university system as it was in most of Europe, but was popularized among the literate by writers and novelists. While they maintained the general positivist notions of reliance on verifiable observation and the view of language as essentially descriptive and didactic they also embraced variations on straight positivism. Notable among these: Ernst Mach's fusion of impressionism and empiricism, empiro-criticism; and the re-appraisal of Polish philosopher "August von Cieszkowski's theory of praxis as a means of overcoming the subject-object split in values." (Paulson 1983:81).
The other major group looking at language was the Young Poland movement. The figures of Young Poland reacted against the positivism which had become so popular and turned to aspects of "French symbolism, to Nietzschean subjectivity, to historic Polish romanticism, and to contemporary existentialism. ... Young Poland saw language as symbolic, psycho-semantic, and impressionistic in nature" (Paulson 1983:81-2).
Korzybski came of age in the midst of this melee and his engineering background predicated his primary adherence to positivism. While he stressed empirical verifiability as a primary concern and looked at language with positivist notions concerning the referencing nature of language, this was tempered by his focus on semantics and the psycho-semantic effects of language, echoing many of the themes which were expressed by Young Poland.
Shortly after arriving in America Korzybski wrote his first book entitled Manhood of Humanity (1950). Paulson has noted that "it was in short, Korzybski's reevaluation of the positivistic tradition and his answer to the question which had haunted the Young Poland movement: How could one be scientific, believe in evolution, and yet find a base for human values?" (Paulson 1983:27). That is, while maintaining the emphasis of the primacy of the natural sciences and their methods, he also embraced the sociological and psychological aspects of language in social context. To this synthesis Korzybski would later add the Americanized intellectual trends of mechanistic biology, clinical psychiatry, and specific mathematical philosophies.
The expressed purpose of the book was to define what humankind is, and to point the way towards a new "science and art of directing the energies and capacities of human beings to the advancement of human weal" (Korzybski 1950:1). Korzybski claimed that humanity had never been properly defined before. Humankind had traditionally been defined as having souls, or some indefinable "divine quality" which made it separate from the animal kingdom. After this, positivism, empiricism, and evolution theory had failed by stressing that man was nothing but an animal. Korzybski used a mathematical analogy to separate humanity from the lower animals by calling us a time-binding class of life. Time binding being "the capacity to summarize, digest, and appropriate the past ... the capacity in virtue of which man is at once the inheritor of bygone ages and the trustee of posterity." (Korzybski 1950:59)
The defining feature that accounted for this capacity - and its running smoothly or not - was language. This then became the main focus of Korzybski and the central concern of Science and Sanity. For now the basic premise of Korzybski's approach was that the "map is not the territory". Stated briefly, our linguistic "maps" which we use to represent reality are not reality and rarely even accurately represent reality. Korzybski then, suggested a consciousness of the process by which language operates, and a reformation of linguistic practice and language to provide a better map.
When he wrote Manhood of Humanity, Korzybski had already been greatly affected by American ideas and scholars. One of the first great influences on him was the "mechanistic biologist" Jacques Loeb (1859-1924) whom Korzybski credited with convincing him to remain in America after the war (Korzybski 1950:xi). From Loeb Korzybski assimilated and further developed the idea of treating the "organism-as-a-whole". He also constantly reminded readers of Science and Sanity that talking of humans as separate from their environment was illusory, since not only is an individual a functioning whole, but it is inextricably situated in society and in an environment. His admiration for Loeb's scientific approach and theories also influenced Korzybski's development of the concept of non-elementalistic concepts and a language to refer to it (Korzybski abbreviated this as non-el). This aspect is illustrated by a quotation from Science and Sanity.
We are reminded of the "mechanist psychologist" Weiss's assertions in the preceding section that behaviorism, by eliminating the conception of consciousness, would provide "a more complete and a more scientific account of the totality of human achievement" (Esper 1968:179). Korzybski viewed human beings as functioning wholes, and when using words which traditionally referred to strictly mental notions, placed these in single quotes. Yet he still used these terms, for lack of better non-el ones, and he did not deny the existence of 'mental' aspects.
He did not, as Weiss and the behaviorists did in practice, reduce human functioning to behavior. Korzybski (1933) noted that 'behaviorism' as practiced by 'psychologists' promoted our "measure by animalistic standards. ... This error is mainly due to the ignorance of mathematical method and the disregard of structural problems by those who deal with human affairs. ...what we call 'civilization' rests upon faulty generalizations taken from the lives of cows, horses, cats, dogs, pigs, etc., and self-imposed upon Smith and Brown." (1933:72-3). Korzybski (1933) noted further.
Later on he wrote, "the 'behaviorists' try to be ultra-'scientific', not realizing that their knowledge of scientific method and structure belongs somewhere in the sixteenth century." (1933:303) After several pages he followed with the statement, "Scientifically (1933), psycho-logics are impossible without the description of internal processes, and, therefore some 'introspection', so that United States Behaviourism becomes a very naive discipline. The behaviourists mean well, methodologically, without realizing fully what scientific methodology is." (1933:334). The reasons behind these statements will be explored further in Chapter Three, since they are basic to Korzybski's conception and exploration of meaning.
An important thing to consider here is that the non-elementalistic approach was not only a philosophical statement on science, but also a vital aspect of his theories regarding the psycho-semantic nature of language. That is, he did not limit the concept of non-elementalism to his methodology, but in fact saw it as a major subject of his study - a necessary revision that must be made to our everyday language.
I have quoted Korzybski's use of the term "psycho-logics" above and this reflects a basic feature of his approach. He, like Bloomfield, believed that 'mentalistic psychology' was untenable and unrealistic, yet he rejected 'behaviorist' or objective 'psychology' as well. On top of this were his criticisms of 'logic' as it existed at the time. He stated that "'Logic' is defined as the 'science of the laws of thought'." (1933:71).
So from Korzybski's perspective, 'logic' was in practice and definition an el (or elementalistic - structurally "false-to-facts") term, as was the term and discipline 'psychology' and its common practice. He proposed a new approach called psycho-logics. The object of study for a psycho-logician would be all forms of human behavior, although he stressed that "it is enough for our purpose to emphasize the two main omissions [from current psychology]; namely, the study of mathematics and the study of 'insanity'." (1933:71) For his own study of 'insanity' (he preferred the term unsanity which lent itself more easily to a scalar representation of sanity), Korzybski studied and worked under the psychiatrist William Alanson White for two years. White's greatest contribution to Korzybski's work was likely his notion of schizophrenia as a regressive psychosis; a reversion to infantile levels of thought and language which led Korzybski to consider mental maladjustment a result of psycho-semantic disturbances.
Korzybski's respect for mathematics was great. He saw it as the purest language with a more precise mapping of reality than natural languages. Mathematics provided a full exploration of structure and relations in that it essentially had no object of study. If properly applied to the study of humanity and language, he argued, mathematics would yield the greatest results. For his Mathematics, Korzybski was greatly influenced by Henri Poincaré; Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead; and an American with whom he formed a close friendship, Cassius J. Keyser.
Keyser was the closest person that the multiple-influenced Korzybski had to a "Weiss". Keyser was a well-known mathematical philosopher at Columbia University, to whom mathematics was "the science of the forms of thought as forms" (Paulson 1983:30). The reappraisal of mathematics by modern logic had shown that the "self-evident-truths" of classical mathematics were simply assumptions rather than transcendent truths." (Paulson 1983:31). This concept was impressed by Keyser upon Korzybski and was restated in Manhood of Humanity as, "Mathematics does not presume that its conclusions are true, but it does assert that its conclusions are correct." (Korzybski 1950:213).
An important implication of this statement is Keyser's theory of logical fate. The theory of logical fate stated that individual humans function, in activity, evaluation, etc., on the basis of basic assumptions or postulates. These assumptions may be known to the individual, but, in most cases are unexamined. It was Keyser's, and by extension Korzybski's, contention that an individual's fate was determined by unexamined relational structures of assumptions. Free will, he claimed, was possible through changing these basic assumptions. We can choose only our assumptions, the results followed by logical necessity, or "logical fate".
While Korzybski saw great value in the "mechanistic biology" of Loeb, he needed Keyser's theory to explain the value of ethics and to develop it scientifically. Regular mechanism, as proposed by Bloomfield, does not allow for a reasonable conception of human agency as we will see in Chapter Three. How does language work into this? Korzybski extended Keyser's theory to state explicitly that language, in its structure and practice, determined basic assumptions for individuals, usually at a level below awareness, as they became acculturated and adapted to their linguistic and social environment. The key to unlocking how this occurs was by unraveling structure in the nature of mathematical investigation, using as primary guides the works of Russell and Whitehead, and Poincaré. Paulson (1983) illustrates the development of this approach through a series of quotations from articles written by Korzybski in the mid-twenties.
So Korzybski's study of language was a structural one. However, it was by no means structuralist. That is, it did not follow the structuralist tradition of Saussure and should not be correlated with Bloomfield's structuralism. For one thing, Korzybski maintained a historical approach in his study of language. Also, Korzybski was concerned with the semantic structures, and the relations and order within those structures. This is in contrast to Bloomfield who was concerned with objective description of speech sounds and observable structure.
There are some loose ends in terms of how Korzybski's mathematical-structural approach reconciles with his empirical outlook, but these will be addressed in Chapter Three when I examine Korzybski's conception of meaning more thoroughly.
Korzybski's primary goal in his general semantics was to create a science of man while Bloomfield sought to study the speech act alone. Because Korzybski wanted to "increase human weal" his approach to language was necessarily prescriptive. For this reason alone general semantics is given little credit in modern day linguistics. However, the prescriptivism that is warned against in introductory linguistics texts is the school-marmish attitude of a "proper" grammar. Korzybski wanted to create a system of evaluating and a language that would help humans function better - recall that he was an engineer by training.
Thus, the aspect of his work which is usually focused on is the therapy, or semantic therapy, which both developed from and helped develop his theory. This pragmatic concern was developed by many of his followers into the so-called 'semantic hygiene' movement. However, Korzybski did not allow his pragmatism to preclude a well-defined theory, and it is his theory of meaning which will be assessed in Chapter Three.
At this point then, we have two scholars looking at language. Both are in the same period of world and scientific history, both are primarily empirical in outlook. Despite obvious similarities in their positivistic stances, the works that they produced and their theories of meaning are very different. The two scholars, in Language and Science and Sanity, examined human language. They did so from opposite directions, and, by doing so, achieved irreconcilable conceptions of meaning.
In Chapters Two and Three the implications of the primary goals of each scholar will become clear. Bloomfield wanted a rigorous, descriptive, and autonomous science. His theory of meaning is therefore tentative and limited in scope. Korzybski wanted to define a new way for humanity to interact: socially and with the environment. This made a theory of meaning primary.
Bloomfield began with the phoneme; Korzybski began with humanity.
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