Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa

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(originally posted on 8/17/03, link fixed on 11/17/03) I found this book in a roundabout way. In Conscientious Objections, Neal Postman reviewed the book Science and Sanity, by Alfred Korzybski, calling it one of the most important books of the last century. Korzybski developed the field of general semantics, a system of thinking about language and thought. I was going to get it, but was a bit intimidated by the reviews at Amazon, many of which recommended Hayakawa’s book as an easier to read introduction to the field. So I got this book instead.

It’s amazing. It codifies a lot of my personal philosophy and attitudes in a more coherent manner. In particular, it focuses on several cognitive mistakes that drive me crazy, including the confusion of the map with the territory (or the generalization with the specific, or the word with the object), the perils of the two-valued orientation (which dominates news and other venues because of the ratings appeal of arguments – see Breaking the News, by James Fallows for a more thorough investigation), and the inability of some people to move up and down the abstraction ladder.

There were so many great ideas in this book that I wish everybody would read and live by the precepts in this book. I’m definitely interested in reading more on the subject of general semantics, and one of these days I may get around to tackling Science and Sanity. We’ll see.

Specific things that I took note of in the book include:

  • Hayakawa expresses the opinion that human culture is all about getting something for nothing. We are able to build upon the accomplishments of our ancestors through writing, through education and literacy. And language makes it all possible. Therefore, the study of language is vital to understanding the human race.
  • He also claims that because language and culture is what gives the human race our competitive advantage – we can learn during our lifetime, as opposed to an evolutionary timescale. In fact, he says “Cultural and intellectual cooperation is, or should be, the great principle of human life…It will be the basic assumption of this book that widespread intrasppecific cooperation through the use of language is the fundamental mechanism of human survival. A parallel assumption will be that when the use of language results, as it so often does, in the creation or aggravation of disagreements and conflicts, there is something linguistically wrong with the speaker, the listener, or both.” This is particularly interesting to me in light of another book I’m reading on the history of anarchism, a political philosophy which takes as its fundamental assumption that cooperation is the natural state of the human race.
  • Hayakawa talks about the use of symbols, and their power for constructing abstract pyramids of thought. However, he reminds us that at some point, language has to talk about something in the real world. We can talk about a generic cow all we want, but at some point, we need to point at Bessie as an example. In fact, if we can’t do that, then we are literally talking non-sense because it is unable to be verified by the senses. I’m not sure I entirely agree with him on this point, but it’s an interesting take. It makes more sense when applied to arguments – if the argument is about something which can not be measured, they are non-sense arguments, for they can never be resolved. They are based solely on our internal language structures, assumptions and classifications, none of which are “true” since they can’t be verified.
  • Interestingly, Hayakawa hypothesizes that this is why science has made such enormous amounts of progress – because scientists are not concerned with systems that are unverifiable. Systems are useful if they reflect results that can consistently be obtained through experiments. Systems that are un-useful are quickly disposed of. If social systems were judged by usefulness in obtaining results rather than by impossible-to-define scales such as good or evil, Hayakawa thinks that society would move forward more quickly.
  • Hayakawa explores several uses of language, including reporting facts, reporting emotions, and others. But the use I found interesting because I hadn’t thought about it was social cohesion – “The prevention of silence is itself an important function of speech.” This is his explanation of small talk. It’s communication with no semantic content for the sole purpose of enabling strangers to become more comfortable with each other, to find subjects they agree upon, which is why “we are careful to select subjects about which agreement is immediately possible” (such as the weather or sports). “With each new agreement, no matter how commonplace or obvious, the fear and suspicion of the stranger wears away, and the possibilty of friendship enlarges.” His final example is telling: “Let us suppose that we are on the roadside struggling with a flat tire. A friendly youth comes up and asks, “Got a flat tire?” If we insist upon interpreting his words literally, we will regard this as an extremely silly question and our answer may be, “Can’t you see I have, you dumb ox?” If we pay no attention to what the words say, however, and understand his meaning, we will return his gesture of friendly interest by showing equal friendliness, and in a short while he may be helping us to change the tire. In a similar way, many situations in life as well as in literature demand that we pay no attention to what the words say, since the meaning may often be a great deal more intelligent and intelligible then the surface sense of the words themselves.”
  • Hayakawa devotes a chapter to classification, which was interesting to me, as I’d previously read the book Sorting Things Out, by Bowker and Star, which goes more deeply into several of the issues that Hayakawa addresses. Most importantly, classifications are not a feature of nature – they can only be evaluated in terms of their usefulness for a specific purpose. Confusing the features of the specific object we are looking at with the features of the general class to which we are assigning them leads to some of the more egregious examples of non-sanity such as racism.
  • As far as the perils of the two-valued orientation, it’s very easy to get trapped into a situation where everything is treated as black or white, good or evil, etc. Hayakawa uses a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “You know that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was of the size of a pipestem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way – and the fools know it.” This is why it is often frustrating to argue with people who hold a bi-valued philosophy (“Republicans good, Democrats bad” “Abortion is murder” “Communists are evil”), because to such people there are no shades of gray. And you want to argue against their philosophy but get sucked into defending their opposite (democracy, pro-choice or whatever), just to prove the point. I’m still not sure how to deal with the situation – it really does depend on them being willing to listen and to accept input, and many of them aren’t programmed to. In some ways, this relates to Postman’s fear of our returning to a pre-literate culture, unable to distinguish between the image and the reality.

In the final chapter of the fifth edition, Rats and Men, Hayakawa describes an experiment by a Professor Maier of the University of Michigan, wherein neurosis is induced in rats. Rats are trained to jump towards one of two doors, where the left opens to show food behind it, and the right stays closed and bumps them into a net. Once they learn consistently to jump to the left door, the scientist started switching the doors randomly. Eventually, the rat “gives up and and refuses to jump at all. At this stage, Dr. Maier says “Many rats prefer to starve rather than make a choice.”” Next, the rats are forced to make a choice, being driven to jump by an electric shock or equivalent. The rats “settle down to a specific reaction…which they continue to execute regardless of consequences.” For instance, the rats will continue to jump left, even when the right door is left open with food clearly visible. They have lost the ability to learn, overloaded by an inability to cope.

Hayakawa believes that many of our institutions, both social and political, have induced this type of behavior in us. The arms race is an obvious example – in previous centuries, more weapons meant more protection and higher security. With nuclear arms, though, this equation quickly becomes meaningless because of the introduction of infinities. Yet, our governments still held onto the previous arms race metaphor. Our advantage over mice is that we can eventually cope. Hayakawa reminds us of this ability, and asks us to use it to reform our institutions’ collective insane behavior.