On Structural Differential: A brief overview

Alfred Korzybski’s structural differential represents the process of abstraction that is occurring at any given moment as we perceive reality. Korzybski utilises the word “abstraction” because as we move from the event, or happening, up to the point that we can communicate it (to others, or to ourselves linguistically and form inferences) there is a chain of abstraction occurring. That is to say, that the word is not the thing it represents. Furthermore, our knowledge of anything should always be viewed as somewhat incomplete; there are many complex processes occurring that are beyond what we can actually perceive. Our perception involves the brain making a representation. The objects you perceive look how they do because of your nervous system; so there is no “true” way anything can appear, only your representation, how it appears to you (or to clarify, how it appears to a human nervous system). “Science and Sanity”(1933) is a unforgiving 900 pages, and not the easiest thing you’ll ever read, however Korzybski’s concepts are fascinating. Here is my own (crude!) guide to the structural differential.

This is my interpretation; I do not claim to be in anyway proficient at general semantics. I just wanted to share the viewpoint.

To fully appreciate this, try reading:

Korzybski, Alfred (1933) Science and Sanity: An introduction to non –Aristotelian systems and General Semantics, 5th Ed., Englewood, New Jersey, USA, The Institute of General Semantics.

Event process level (Reality)

Quantum processes* / Cellular & Molecular processes. With the correct instruments we can detect these processes, but our nervous systems without these instruments cannot. However these processes are occurring all the time. *Our present model dictates there is a limit to how much we can know at this level; as per Bohm’s interpretation; it is not inconceivable that there is a level beyond this (hidden variables).

Object level (experience)

This is what we perceive (abstract) through our nervous system. Note: This is still on a silent level; we have not “said” anything yet, internally or externally. We have abstracted from a previous level. External energies (quanta) to biological/neurological processes (e.g transduction) to the perception of the object itself.

Descriptive level:

An “Apple”; the word – apple. Linguistically, we have given a description to our perception; this in turn is a further level of abstraction. The word is not the same as the thing it describes.

Inference level (etc.)

We make inferences about objects / beliefs /events contained in the world. E.g “All apples taste sweet” or “I think all apples are horrible”. These inferences continue to form lower/higher inferences; E.g “People that eat apples are great to be around” based on anything we wish to consider true/false. Our inferences are infinite. These inferences connect back to the descriptive level, back to the objective level, back to the event level. We see then that all levels are contained in the event level. 

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Basil Hiley: interests and inspirations.

Basil Hiley, a British quantum physicist and professor emeritus at University of London; spent three decades working with David Bohm developing their interpretations of quantum mechanics. The body of their interpretation is best captured in The Undivided Universe; and Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate order.  What makes their work so fascinating is that they sought to bring together a unity between physics, philosophy and psychology. One of the key interpretations (and problems) of quantum mechanics is the inability to separate the observer from the observed; this is a profound result and holds implications for all elements of human “reality”.This was something that Hiley and Bohm realised, and this contributed to their theories on “implicate orders”. I caught up with Basil over email to see where his interests lie:

“With quantum phenomena one quickly learns that the key new qualitative feature is the impossibility of separating the observed from the observer, or at least his instruments.  The key new aspect for both Bohr and Bohm was then ‘unbroken wholeness’.  How do we proceed to develop a descriptive form with this basic notion in place?  Do we just rely on the mathematics as do 99% of physicists, or do we explore the possibility of new conceptual structures?  Bohm and I chose the latter.  That meant looking more widely than the discipline of physics itself for our inspiration.  How do you separate thought from the thinker?  Same question, different field.  Continental philosophy seemed to be calling.  One of the inspirations for Bohm was the writings of Hegel.  I got far more out of Fichte and Schelling.  Schelling talks about the ‘primordial whole’ and then looking for concepts of mechanics and organic life emerging from one and the same universal principle, which led him to the question of representing nature as a whole. For me quantum processes provide a link between the mechanical and the organic, where opposites transform from one to the other.  Mathematics is a way to discuss order be it mechanical or organic. It is about order transition, about processes, not necessarily about separate pre-existing objects in interaction.” -Basil Hiley

Fragmenting and separating elements of reality serves some purpose if we wish to understand elements from a mechanistic / deterministic / reductionist viewpoint. This however, does not give us a complete picture of reality. Imagine you found a television set, and you had never seen one before (I know,crazy!) you have no understanding what it does. You could smash it into a thousand pieces and see what the chemical signatures are, its atomic structure, but this doesn’t tell you anything about what the television does or why it is. This is like seeking out “parts” of reality and expecting that by somehow knowing what the parts are, we will understand how to reassemble to make and understand the whole. This does not mean that we shouldn’t search for these parts; but we should keep in mind that we are all part of an ongoing process that cannot be explained by fragmenting and reducing the parts; the whole must be viewed. You are not just the job you do, or just a son or daughter; or just another member of the public; you are part of an ongoing process that has been going on for a very long time.