The General Semantic 'Ethic' of Cooperation

FEB 10, 1986

Copyright 1986 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

There has developed an 'ethic' of cooperation within the community of general semantics. They reason that, because man 'is' (is described as) a time-binding class of life, and that cooperation enhances time-binding, it follows that competition, which enhances space-binding, diminishes time-binding, and is therefore to be eschewed.

This reasoning is simplistic and fails to understand that the space-binding and time-binding dimensions are independent. The view is essentially 'one-dimensional' in that the dimension of time-binding is 'aligned' with the 'reverse' of the dimension of space-binding, so that 'more' time-binding happens coincidentally with 'less' space-binding and conversely. This 'one-dimensional' view is not consistent with a close examination of general semantics.

The dimensions of energy-binding, space-binding, and time-binding are not a classification scheme whereby something fits into one of them and not the others; it is a dimensional ordering where something has some (greater or lesser) degree of each dimension.

Plants predominate on the energy-binding dimension, but as they grow, they compete for space, albeit rather slowly, and so engage in a limited degree of space-binding; the mechanism of evolution allows 'communication' over time about successful survival mechanisms, so there is even a very limited and special kind of time-binding (which we and animals also share).

Animals predominate on the space-binding dimension, but many species must 'learn' adult behavior patterns by observing and copying the parents' and other adults' patterns of behavior. In this sense, a limited form of time-binding takes place. Animals also control the use of chemical energy in the storage of fat during prosperous times to be used during lean times. Some species collect food and store hoards for lean times. In both these senses they engage in energy-binding also. In collecting hoards, their space-binding activity greatly enhances their energy-binding capability. In learning adult behavior, their time-binding behavior is greatly enhanced over that of plants.

Humans predominate on the time-binding dimension with their use of symbols and writing, but they also compete singly and in groups for space and territory as do the animals which are predominately space-binders. In fact, our ability to compete for space is greatly enhanced by our time-binding activities. The space-binding activity of humans is much more complex than that of the animals as a direct result of time-binding. Like the animals, we also store chemical energy in prosperous times for use in lean times; we also stockpile supplies of energy as a direct result of our time-binding activities. Humans' energy-binding and space-binding activities greatly exceeds that of plants and animals because both are enhanced by time-binding.

It is a mistake to deny to humans the dimension of space-binding by eschewing competition; the mistake is based upon the error of perceiving the three dimensions, energy-binding, space-binding, and time-binding, as a classification scheme rather than multi-dimensionally.

Three dimensional manBecause the dimensions of space-binding and time-binding are independent, it is possible to have 'the same degree' of time-binding with 'more' space-binding as with 'less' space-binding. Price fixing and monopolies are examples of time-binding with little space-binding (competition), while the 'healthy competition' (space-binding) of the marketplace produces lower prices and better products for all. Limiting space-binding activities can produce less desirable conditions.

It is in the nature of humankind to be multi-dimensional; the so-called 'ethic' of cooperation mistakenly fostered by general semanticists would deny humans their true multi-dimensionality.

There is more than just the failure to apprehend the full dimensionality in this 'ethic'; the ethic commits a fallacy which the teachings of general semantics contraindicate. Describing man as a "time-binder" is one thing. Evaluating that description as "fact" as opposed to a theory is another thing. To prescribe that man 'ought' to behave in a certain way as a consequence of the evaluation is yet another thing. To abstract from the description of man to a prescription to behave in accord with that description identifies across orders of abstracting. The description is not fact; it is only a theory, yet the ethic would have man behave according to a limited abstraction from the description. The fallacy is to go from 'is' (description) to 'ought' (prescription).

The ethic promoting cooperation and eschewing competition might be justifiable on some grounds, but it is not justifiable simply because man is described as a time-binder.


Ralph E. Kenyon Jr.
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Williamstown, MA 01267

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics
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