Part II of a Nurturing Potential series

There are two ways of getting false maps of the world into our heads: first, by having them given to us; second, by creating them ourselves when we misread the true maps given to us."(1)


[Illustration by Albert Saunders from An ABC of NLP]



Count Alfred Korzybski, a Polish mathematician living in the United States, wrote Science and Sanity (1933) and must thereby accept responsibility for introducing us to the clich[2] "The map is not the territory" and the study of "semantics".


The essence of Korzybski's statement is that we need to avoid confusing the label given to an object with the non-verbal object itself.  Unless we do so we are giving a counterfeit validity to the word as possessing significance in its own right.  This is bad enough when applied to simple objects such as dogs or desks.  For example, I might speak of a dog with the mental image of a friendly and adoring Pekingese; on hearing the word dog, you might produce a mental image of a rabid pit bull terrier.  Both are "dogs".  Yet I am speaking of peace and harmony, while you are being fed a message of terror and conflict.  Or in using the word "desk", I may be referring to a flat surface for writing or reading; you, as a chorister, may be thinking of a choir-stall. 


And these are examples of confusion over simple nouns.  How much more confusing might it be - indeed, how much more confusing it is - when we expand comprehension and understanding from dogs and desks to abstractions such as freedom, justice, beliefs, god . . .   Small wonder that bodies such as the United Nations Security Council find it so difficult to reach agreement.


Stuart Chase has written[3]: ". . . when we hear words on the level of ideas and generalizations, we cheer loudly, we grow angry, and we storm the barricades - and often we do not know what the other man is saying.  When a Russian speaks to an Englishman unacquainted with Slavic, nothing comes through.  The Britisher [sic] shrugs his shoulders and both comprehend that communication is nil.  When an Englishman speaks to an Englishman about ideas - political, economic, social - the communication is often equally blank, but the hearer thinks he understands, and sometimes proceeds to riotous action."


Korzybski wrote (op cit): "The only possible link between the objective world and the verbal world is structural.  If the two structures are similar, then the empirical world becomes intelligible to us - we understand, can adjust ourselves . . .  If the two structures are not similar . . . we do not 'know', we do not 'understand', the given problems are 'unintelligible' to us . . .  we do not know how to adjust ourselves".


Five "warning signals" to be used in our communication were proposed by Korzybski:

1.  The addition of a mental "Etc." to remind us of characteristics left out.  This keeps us alert and enquiring in decision-making.  We do not need much reminding to identify missing characteristics, for example, in a salesman's pitch, or a sales leaflet, when considering a purchase.  We regularly need such reminders, however, when considering the statements of a political party, or statements the Chancellor of the Exchequer might make in presenting his budget forecasts.  In NLP terms, this helps us to avoid deletions.

2.  Index number to break up false identifications.  Thus, while we readily acknowledge and understand that Charles I was not Charles II, we may have more difficulty in recognizing that Dog I is not Dog II.  In terms of transformational grammar, or NLP, this helps to avoid generalizations.

3.  Adding dates help to remind us that objects are in a constant state of change; that today's object is not necessarily identical with that of yesterday.  That's the way it was does not necessarily mean that's the way it is.

4.  To remind us that events are connected and Nature is all of a piece, we could use hyphens, and at the same time help to avoid "distortions", mistaking verbal categories for the real thing.  Korzybski gave the example of body-mind in place of body and mind.

5.  Using quotation marks, either in writing or mentally, serves to remind us that a term we are using is high up the abstractions ladder.  They also help to identify differences in meaning between different users or readers of the words or phrases.


Here are some Korzybski quotes with reference to his five warning signals:

The map is not the territory. [Quotes]

A fact is not an inference; an inference is not a value judgement.  [Quotes]

There are no abstract qualities outside our heads.  [Quotes]

No two events in nature are identical.  [Index numbers]

Nature works in dynamic processes.  [Dates and Hyphens]

Events have unlimited characteristics.  [Etc.]

A word is not a thing, but an artificial symbol. [Quotes]



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(1) Language in Thought and Action - S.I. Hayakawa (1949)


[2] The word clich is nowadays interpreted as a hackneyed phrase and - by extension - anything that is hackneyed.  But what is hackneyed, is what has stood the test of time.  It would be unfortunate if we were to ignore the truth behind the statement simply because of over-familiarity with the words themselves.  Sam Goldwyn is purported to have said "Let's have some new clichs".  To Russell Davies is credited: "Any story that begins with a cancerous giraffe stamping on the genitals of its keeper must surely be marked high for clich-avoidance."  And Winston Churchill denied having said of Anthony Eden (reported in the Daily Mirror): "As far as I can see, you have used every clich except 'God is Love' and 'Please adjust your dress before leaving."


[3] Power of Words - Stuart Chase (1955)


Recommended reading:


Language in Thought and Action - S.I. Hayakawa

Language and Mind.  Noam Chomsky

The Meaning of Meaning.  C.K. Ogden and L.A. Richards.

Usage and Abusage.  Eric Partridge.

Science and Sanity.  Alfred Korzybski.  

The Tyranny of Words - Stuart Chase