Hilgartner's Violations

Copyright 1988 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

OCT 21, 1988

A close look at Hilgartner's proposed new formal language discloses a significant incompatibility with general semantics. (1) I shall discuss two objections which concern themselves with the rationale behind the structure of the language.

In A New Formalized Language, Hilgartner wants to use Korzybski's three undefined terms, 'structure', 'order', and 'relation'. He also wants to use one insight from Bourland's E' and avoid the is of identity.

Andy's basic insight seems to me to be a perception of the communication process as a transacting between an organism and its environment which takes place in a context, and during the process of transacting, the organism selects some things to communicate about while ignoring others. Using the perspective of Gestalt Psychology, Andy has characterized these latter two aspects in terms of the gestalt notion of figure and background. When we consider the general semantics formulations of 'multi-meaning' and 'organism-in-the-environment-as-a-whole' we see that there is nothing new to this perception.

In designing a language one must describe the syntax so that one can decide which syntax to allow and which syntax not to allow. In other words, we must be able to tell which sentences in the language are syntactically correct (well formed) and which ones are not acceptable.

Now, in "A New Formalized Language", Andy has said that each correct sentence must satisfy four requirements.

1. Every well formed sentence must have four components.

2. Each of the elements: structure, order and relation must be represented in the sentence. [It is a logical consequence of the above that one element must be represented twice.]

3. The "word order" of the sentence must be such that whichever of the three elements is represented twice must be centered in the sentence.

4. Every sentence must have terms which represent each of the four aspects: organism, environment, figure, and background.

Naively, this sounds like a good insight, but a close look reveals problems with the rationale for two of these components.

We all know that we cannot say "all" about anything. But the gestalt notion of figure and background has something selected as the figure, and "all" the rest left to the background. The requirement that a language component pick out and refer to this "all that is being left to the background" seems to violate the general semantics principle that we cannot say all about anything.

The moment some term is chosen to pick out what is being backgrounded, it can only pick out something from that background1 and leave the rest of the background1 as a new background2, That which was the figure from background1 becomes part of the background2.

Since what is the background is "all" that is not the figure, we cannot say what that is without violating the general semantics principle "You cannot say 'all' about anything." We could of course use the phrase "everything that is not figure" and, with a wave of our hand, include implicitly "all" that is not figure, but I don't think this adds to the communication. Since the "figure" is mentioned in this last interpretation of the background term it turns out to be a redundant way of focusing on the figure, and then adding a 'not' to re-direct the attention, but not specifically.

With this interpretation of the background term, the sentence mentions the figure twice (once in the figure term and once in the background term) and does not mention anything in the background at all. If the function of the background term is neither to pick something which is not the figure (and thus change the figure) nor a backhanded and redundant way of indicating what the figure term already indicates, what, then, is the function of the background term? The addition of a term which has no function, or duplicates the function off another term is pure noise.

The same argument applies to the environment term. We cannot pick out "all" of what is not the organism. Since the environment is "all" that is not the organism, no term or statement can say what that is without violating the general semantics principle that "one cannot say 'all' about anything". Again, does the environment term pick out something that is not the organism? (And thereby, select a new focus, thus relegating the organism to the background of this new focus.) Or, does it intensify focus on the organism by trying to indicate "all" that is not the organism. Clearly, we cannot do that without violating the general semantics notion that "one cannot say 'all' about anything". Again, it seems that the environment term is redundant, and serves no distinct function, and is therefore more noise.

Some features that Hilgartner tried to put into his "language" seemed at first, from a general semantics perspectives, like sound insights, but a closer look disclosed problems. The proposed structure required violating a fundamental general semantics principle. (One which we cannot violate!)


Notes & References

1. Hilgartner, C. A., A New Formalized Language Based on Entirely Non-traditional Premises (unpublished). Back to the document


Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

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