Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reflections on E-Prime: A Follow-up to Shakespeare In E-Prime

My good friend, Devkumar Trivedi of the Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences in India, sent me this email in response to my last post putting Hamlet's soliloquy in E-Prime. E-Prime (E') was formulated by Korzybski's student David Bourland who advocated eliminating all forms of the verb "to be" from the English language.

Dev writes:
Hi Bruce,

1     What a telling and hilarious spoof on proponents of E-prime !
2     The structures of ordinary English as taught/learnt in many countries are embedded deeply in neural network of most students by the age of fifteen years, generally a long time before they ever even hear anything of GS. The challenge is to unlearn the structures, which is not easy.
3     Hence, awareness to understand the adverse impact of the identificatory and opinionating 'is' , and to contain the degree of damage by misevaluation appears a more feasible approach. In history attempts have been made by reformers to change spellings etc. [ G.B. Shaw even created a fund for it ], but language meanders autonomously, disregarding reverence and obedience to creative writers as well as scholars. You know the spelling of fish given by Shaw ?; Ghuitio.
He wanted to demonstrate the phonetic anarchy of spellings. Did not succeed. How much more difficult to change the very structure of language, to 'standardize' it and teach from nursery classes upwards !
4     Shakespeare in E-prime appears contrived, constricted and convoluted. Oh the economy beauty and simplicity of 'is' !
       Warm wishing,      Dev

N.B. The methodology of skits, singing, dancing etc., I fully endorse and actually follow in my workshops. Nobody likes to see the visage of a funeral facing teacher !
I replied as follows with these reflections on E-Prime:
Hi Dev,
I agree with your sentiments about E-prime ponderousness.
 I knew Dave Bourland. He seemed the epitome of the courtly gentleman and I liked him personally, but he held onto his contentions about E-Prime with the tenacity of a bulldog biting a burglar. 

Bob Pula once told me (and wrote about somewhere) about seeing Dave Bourland at an IGS sponsored event, where Dave introduced his new wife on the order of 'Bob, this constitutes my wife, Karen.' Bourland denied he said this. But I believe Bob.  

I have come to see 'identification' as a default stage of evaluative development. 

Absence of 'is' does not at all guarantee non-identifiying consciousness of abstracting. 

Whatever I say is in the 'is' is not in it. 

E-Prime works when it does because it tends to force the user to reword in more actional, descriptive language.

Useful but not the panacea that Bourland and others seemed and seem to want to make it. 

The possibility of identifying remains as long as we have language with subjects, verbs, and objects—forms which appear as the one set of solid universals that exist in all languages (cf. Gregory Sampson). 

Rejecting totally and for good, all forms of the verb "to be" seems uncalled for (too radical a reform in English where  'Is' exists as partly as a kind of generic all-purpose verb and verb helper). 

Very useful as a way to shorten lengthy ponderous expositions like this email is in danger of becoming. 

When I use, 'is' I often put quotes around it (sometimes with my toes so nobody sees—seriously, I do) which affords me the opportunity to distance myself and question for a moment as to whether I might be identifying. 

The 'is of identity' that Korzybski advised eschewing? Aristotle's "A is A" as an orientation. 

So 'is" and "to be" forms only constitute 'ises of identity" when the person using the words is actually identifying. 

Again, whatever I say is in the 'is' is not in it. 

The words mark potential identifications and are actually for that reason useful to retain in the language as visible indicators of possible problems. 

Otherwise, the identifications just get buried in other usages which may not appear so obvious.   

Thank you, "Is".  

Well, enough of that for now. 
Warm best regards,...
But please, experiment rewording with E-Prime, by all means. It is not a cure-all but if it helps you to become more conscious of what you say and what you 'mean', well, all to the good. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Shakespeare Recast in E-Prime

I dug this out of some 'ancient' notebooks of mine, from the first general-semantics seminar-workshop I ever attended—a two-week one back in 1979. The Institute of General Semantics had a long tradition of a mid-seminar party on Saturday night, where participants and staff would put on some kind of 'behavioral performance'. Everyone could do something. Skits, songs and other musical performances, dramatic presentations, etc., all provided ample opportunity to play on themes and issues related to what we were studying in this intensive course in 'general-semantics': the endlessly fascinating topic of evaluation and mis-evaluation in human behavior—not only in others' behavior, but in our own as well. The talent displayed in the shows I saw over the years awed me. In this one, besides some wonderful playing of his original piano compositions, lead lecturer Robert P. Pula, presented this recasting of Hamlet's soliloquy in his friend David Bourland's E-Prime, a program for eliminating all forms of the verb "to be" from written and spoken English. Bob didn't qualify as a major fan of this approach and decided to give it a little poke with this performance piece which, I recall, he hammed up wonderfully, lots of laughs. His friend Andy Hilgartner's suggestion to verbalize some nouns also came in for some good-natured ribbing. After the show, I asked Bob for his index card notes and tucked them away in my notebook, till now. So now here, published for the first time: Shakespeare's Soliloquy for Hamlet Recast in David Bourland's E-Prime by Robert P. Pula, with the assistance Stuart A. Mayper (1979) and a little editing from me (2013):  
"Existing or not existing. That constitutes the questioning. Whether we postulate the greater nobility of tolerating in our neuro-linguistic systems the slings and arrows of what we perceive as outrageous fortunes or to take arms, legs, thoraxes, et cetera, against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die, to sleep no more and by a sleeping to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh seems heir to: I formulate this as a consummation devoutly wished. Sleeping, perchance dreaming, ay, that constitutes the rubbing—for in that death sleeping what dreamings may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. The respect that makes calamity of so long living consists in that. Who would seminars bear, grunting and sweating under a weary life but that fear of something after death, that undiscovered country from whose Bourland no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bearing familiar illings than flying to others not known. Thus consciousness of abstracting doth make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution sicklies o'er with the pale castings of semantic reactions, and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regarding, their currents turn away and lose the naming, action."  

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Symbolic Form of Life: Korzybski and Cassirer

In Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski memorably wrote: 
The affairs of man [humankind] are conducted by our own, man-made rules and according to man-made theories. Man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic [evaluational] class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us. (Science And Sanity, Fifth Ed., p. 76)
Independently of Korzybski, philosopher Ernst Cassirer also saw the defining importance of symbolism in understanding human life. Cassirer published the three volumes of his work, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, in 1923-1929, a few years after Korzybski’s Manhood of Humanity. In a later work, An Essay on Man, Cassirer—apparently unaffected by Korzybski's work, although the two men had corresponded—wrote the following:
Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives so to speak, in a new dimension of reality.…Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum. By so doing we can designate his specific difference, and we can understand the new way open to man––the way to civilization. (pp. 24-26)
Korzybski, who had carefully read Cassirer’s work, would differ from Cassirer in this way: he insisted from the time of his 1921 work Manhood of Humanity onwards, that this new psycho-biological way open to humanity, took humanity out of animal existence and merited its placement into an entirely new taxonomic "kingdom" of life—as time-binders. "Man", he repeated often, "is not an animal!"   

In spite of this difference, not so little to Korzybski,  he dedicated his book Science and Sanity to the works of Cassirer (1), among others, which “greatly influenced my enquiry.” Such scholarly acknowledgement was typical of Korzybski. 

Also typically of Korzybski (trained as an engineer), he formulated the symbolic mechanism in terms of time-binding, in order to provide a practical way to apply Cassirer’s and others’ insights about human culture to living life—your life. In 1925 he wrote to Cassirer, then still in Germany,  
As a engineer I am trying to formulate modes of action but this involves a host of theoretical issues, some as yet unresolved, and until the scientists scrutinize the theoretical issues, it will never become a mode of action. It seems to me that the conditions of the world are deeply upset mostly [due] to the exposure (destructive) of old doctrines, which were false and at present a lack of a general theory of human action... (Korzybski to Cassirer, April 28, 1925)
(1). Cassirer's books, Substance and Function and Einstein's Theory of Relativity, published in one volume in English by Open Court in 1923, affirmed Korzybski's general view of epistemology, and of all Cassirer's writings probably had the deepest effect on Korzybski.