A Failure to Communicate



"Korzybski believed that the ability to communicate is the essence of being human. He advanced his belief by contrasting what he regarded as the distinctiveness of plants, animals, and people. Vegetation has the capacity to transform energy from the sun into an organic chemical nutrient. Because plants can photosynthesize, he labeled them "chemical binders." Animals can improve their situation by moving from place to place. Since they are not planted in one spot, he called them "space binders."

Human beings have an additional capacity to use symbols to pass on the accumulated experience of the past. We can tell our sons and daughters how to grow food, which snakes are poisonous, and the best way to find a job. Since language has a high value for survival, Korzybski saw a moral imperative for human beings to exercise their language ability and referred to us as "time binders." Communication is a solemn obligation; we ought to do it well. According to Korzybski, we don’t.

He and his followers picture us spinning enormous webs of words and then getting caught in our own symbolic nets. It’s not that we’re careless, irresponsible, or mean. Rather, the very structure of language leads us astray. As the fox in Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince warns, "Words are the source of misunderstandings."  Not only do we possess a unique capability to bind time, we’re also the only creatures who can talk ourselves into trouble.

Wendell Johnson said that many men and women do just that. He surveyed people in all sorts of quandaries and concluded that, despite the diversity of their maladjustments, they shared a common inability to articulate their situations clearly. Is it possible, Johnson wondered, that the tyranny of words is responsible for their emotional distress–that language is the "crazy-making" agent? Korzybski believed so. The title of his epic tome, Science and Sanity, reflects his thesis that a careful, scientific use of language will guard against the confusion and unreality that words tend to produce. He agreed with the Sapir- Whorf hypothesis that language molds our thoughts.

English teachers often remind us that dictionaries don’t tell us how words should be used; dictionaries merely reflect how words are used. Traditional semantics focuses on the is rather than the ought. General semantics departs from this descriptive stance by urging us to alter the structure of language so that our word usage matches the clarity of scientific inquiry in mapping out reality. This quest is not so much a theory as it is a methodology to ensure that language more clearly mimics reality or a perspective to show the limitation of words."

These are things I have thought about tonight….

The Little Prince


"The Little Prince" is still the most widely translated book in the French language.  Vastly different from Saint-Exupery’s other writings, this story of wisdom and wonder is cleverly disguised as a children’s book.  It’s not a book to be described, but experienced on many levels.  Part of the appeal of the book is in its charming watercolors executed by the author.  Among its many themes are the importance of love and friendship, the ignorance of "grownups" who do not understand the difference between "matters of importance" and trivialities, mission, duty, and the fragility of joy.  Written in New York, the book is filled with ironic jibes at American culture and its hurried, materialistic society.  German philosopher Martin Heidegger regarded "The Little Prince" as one of the great existentialist books of the century. "Life is a comedy for him who thinks, and a tragedy for him who feels," wrote Jonathan Swift.  Saint- Exupery was both a thinker and a feeler, so he was full of both humor and sadness, as was "The Little Prince."

Perhaps one of the most valuable interpretations of "The Little Prince" is to apply it to your inner life. This is a book to savor.  Read it over and over.  It’s bound to incite you to write, so you may want to think about stopping for freewrites.  You may find the tale sufficiently haunting to engage in some spiritual searching of your own.  Can you see sheep through the walls of boxes?  Have you ever been stranded in your own inner desert?  Can you live with the uncertainty and tension of opposing forces?  And despite sorrow and longing, can you find laughter in the stars?  Ellen Moore

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