Alfred Korzybski shows how words make your world
August 9, 2014 | 12:25 pm
Thanks to Andrei Burke for reminding me of the very fascinating thought of the Polish-American philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who was one of the key advocates of the dictum that words create the world – in other words, languages and the conceptual systems associated with them are so important in structuring what we experience as reality, that they essentially create our worlds. In his celebrated short explanation on video, available here, he demonstrates his view that the world as we see it is not an illusion – as some idealist philosophers or Buddhist thinkers maintain – but an abstraction, several orders removed from the underlying reality itself by our physiological and linguistic processes.
Naturally, this kind of thinking, which Korzybski formulated in his philosophy of general semantics, is likely to appeal to writers. Korzybski also advocated its application as a form of conceptual therapy to move humans towards greater sanity, which proved just as appealing, especially in the intellectual atmosphere of the 1930s. Sometime followers included the young William Burroughs – himself the apostle of the “language virus” and some very personal thinking about humanity’s linguistic dependence – Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and unfortunately, L. Ron Hubbard and A.E. van Vogt, who together took up Korzybski’s philosophy as a kind of precursor of dianetics and Scientology.
Such later outgrowths shouldn’t necessarily distract from the original interest of Korzybski’s thought, which he got across through some striking demonstrations, something he had a flair for. In one, quoted in the Wikipedia article on Korzybski, he offered lecture attendees cookies – only to reveal, immediately after his students had taken the bait, a bag labeled “dog cookies” – all to demonstrate, as he said, that “people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.”