What is "knowledge" (a la Korzybksi)?

We can approach this with a somewhat simple paraphrase (at the summary), but preparing the reader to understand what I mean by that simple paraphrase suggests some preliminaries. If you disagree with any part of the summary read the part between here and there. If you agree with the summary, you can skip the stuff in between.

General semantics has been defined at seminars and in other contexts as "modern open applied epistemology". Epistemology is sometimes defined as how we know what we know.

Korzybski's answer to the question, "how do we know what we know" is rather straight forward and simple. We know what we know through the process of abstracting using our brains and nervous systems.

The product of that process, within nervous systems and as extended into linguistic and verbal levels, is knowledge. At a low level of description the only commonality to all levels is "structure", albeit different "structure" at each level. This definition of knowledge is a completely new "dictionary definition" that is not to be confused with any others that went before, and is not to be confused with such terms as "truth" (which can be defined a la Tarski), beliefs, ideas, etc.. In general, the products of the abstraction processes are maps. Internal non-verbal maps, external verbal maps, abstract theories (also maps), etc..

Traditional uses of the term "knowledge" tends to imply "valid" maps of territories. Korzybski reserved this criteria to mathematics, which he described as similar in structure to its territory.

"Open" means continually validating the maps generated by maintaining an extensional orientation and consciousness of the abstracting process.

"Modern" means using the latest maps generated.

"Applied" means using the most current maps of the process itself, and attempting to develop and use processes consistent with the maps, not only in science, but also in personal evaluating.

Putting "modern" and "open" together means "scientific", because science is continually validating and updating itself.

The traditional concept of "true" is not operative in the general semantics paradigm. Each of us abstracts to our own maps, and we use those maps as predictors of what we expect to find. When our predictions fail enough, we revise the associated map, but we can never expect that a map can reach a point where we expect that it will never need revision again. At verbal levels external to us, we agree on (and argue about) various maps. Some of us are accepted as authorities, to which the others defer, on particular maps. Such maps we evaluate as having structure "similar to" a hypothesized "structure of reality".

Under some "old" definitions of "knowledge" we might call these "authoritative maps" "knowledge".

One philosophical definition can be paraphrased: knowledge entails truth - if we know something then it cannot be false. This very "strong" definition of knowledge is simply not operative in Korzybski's paradigm, but it tends to color our everyday use of know, and it seems to creep in frequently behind the attitudes of general semanticist in discussions. But there is no way to discover this kind of "knowledge" within Korzybski's paradigm.

For Korzybski (as I understand it, and as I condense it),

We know with our brains and our nervous systems by abstracting from our senses.

What we know is the product of that process - maps at various levels of abstraction.

The veracity of this "knowledge" is determined by a combination of our openness to revision and the process of testing the maps by applying or using them. Maps which have survived a lot of testing are deemed to have structure more similar to "the territory" than maps which have not survived or have not been subject to much testing.


Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2009/11/16 at 00:26 and has been accessed 11802 times at 55 hits per month.