I've been riffing on E-Prime lately and thought I should provide a little more perspective before providing the ultimate refutation of it. (I know, I'm citing mostly Wikipedia in this post, but it's better than citing myself, I guess.)
Aparrently, E-Prime was developed by a student of Alfred Korzybski, D. David Bourland, Jr. (1928–2000), who "proposed E-Prime as an addition to Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics some years after Korzybski's death in 1950. Bourland, who had studied under Korzybski, coined the term in a 1965 essay entitled A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime (originally published in the General Semantics Bulletin). The essay quickly generated controversy within the General Semantics field, partly because practitioners of General Semantics sometimes saw Bourland as attacking the verb 'to be' as such, and not just certain usages."
According to the Wikientry on General Semantics,
Advocates of General Semantics view it as a form of mental hygiene that enables practitioners to avoid ideational traps built into natural language and "common sense" assumptions, thereby enabling practitioners to think more clearly and effectively. General Semantics thus shares some concerns with psychology but some do not consider it specifically as a therapeutic system, evaluating it as more focused on enhancing the abilities of normal individuals than curing pathology.
Korzybski described the central goal of General Semantics as developing in its practitioners what he called a "consciousness of abstracting," or an awareness of the map/territory distinction and of how information gets deleted/distorted in the linguistic and other representations we use. Korzybski considered sporadic and intellectual understanding of these concepts insufficient, rather that humans achieve full sanity only when the consciousness of abstracting becomes constant and a matter of reflex.
The same Wikientry elaborates on the main features of General Semantics:
Time binding: The human ability to pass information and knowledge between generations at an accelerating rate. Korzybski claimed this to be a unique capacity, separating us from other animals. Animals pass knowledge, but not at an exponential rate, that is to say, each generation of animals does things pretty much in the same way as the previous generation. For example, at one time most human societies were hunter-gatherers, but now more advanced means of food production (growing, raising, or buying) predominate. Excepting some insects (for example, ants), all other animals are still hunter-gatherer species, even though many have existed longer than the human species.
Silence on the objective levels: As 'the word is not the thing it represents,' Korzybski stressed the nonverbal experience of our inner and outer environments. During these periods of training, one would become "outwardly and inwardly silent."
The system advocates a general orientation by extension rather than intension, by relational facts rather than assumed properties, an attitude, regardless of how expressed in words, that, for example, George 'does things that seem foolish to me,' rather than that he is 'a fool.'
The entry then notes the 'ascetical' practice of General Semantics:
Much of General Semantics consists of training techniques and reminders intended to break mental habits that impede dealing with reality. Three of the most important reminders are expressed here by the shorthand "Null-A, Null-I, and Null-E".
Null-A is non-Aristotelianism; General Semantics stresses that two-valued (Aristotelian) logics cannot adequately map the totality of human experience. (See also: Abductive reasoning)
Null-I is non-Identity; General Semantics teaches that no two phenomena can ever be shown identical (if only because they may differ beyond the limits of measurement) and that it makes more sense to say that the seemingly-identical phenomena show "sufficient similarity for the purposes of the analysis we are currently performing".
Null-E is non-Euclideanism; General Semantics reminds us that the space we live in is not adequately described by Euclidean geometry.
The underlying purpose of these reminders is both to adjust our conceptual maps better to the territory of reality and to keep us reminded of the limitations of conceptual maps in general. Non-Aristotelian, in this particular case, refers to the use of non-Aristotelian logic rather than the aforementioned philosophical disagreement. However, Korzybski saw these as linked. The complex nature of the objects we interact with means that reasoning from "essence" or definitions will often lead us astray. This creates uncertainty, which general semantics links to the use of non-Aristotelian logic.
The entry then adds a proviso that "Non-Aristotelianism 'does not attack Aristotle,' and in fact does not necessarily concern the Greek philosopher himself. Within the preface to the first edition of his book Science and Sanity––in 1933––Korzybski wrote the following:
"The system by which the white race lives, suffers, 'prospers', starves, and dies today is not in a strict sense an aristotelian system. Aristotle had far too much of the sense of actualities for that. It represents, however, a system formulated by those who, for nearly two thousand years since Aristotle, have controlled our knowledge and methods of orientations, and who, for purposes of their own, selected what today appears as the worst from Aristotle and the worst from Plato and, with their own additions, imposed this composite system upon us. In this they were greatly aided by the structure of language and psycho-logical habits, which from the primitive down to this very day have affected all of us consciously or unconsciously, and have introduced serious difficulties even in science and in mathematics."
The Wikientry notes in its "Criticisms" section that "Martin Gardner wrote of Korzybski that he 'never tired of knocking over 'Aristotelian' habits of thought, in spite of the fact that what he called Aristotelian was a straw structure which bore almost no resemblance to the thought process of the Greek philosopher.'" It then reminds the reader that "the founder of general semantics originally 'took pains to point out' that Aristotle himself might not agree with any of the habits in question." These points are undocumented, so take them for what you will.
In any case, returning to the article on E-Prime, "Korzybski (1879–1950) had determined that two forms of the verb 'to be'—the 'is' of identity and the 'is' of predication—had structural problems. For example, the sentence 'The coat is red' has no observer, the sentence "We see the coat as red" (where "we" indicates observers) appears more specific in context as regards light waves and colour as determined by modern science, that is, colour results from a reaction in the human brain." The entry also notes that "Bourland and other advocates also suggest that use of E-Prime leads to a less dogmatic style of language that reduces the possibility of misunderstanding and for conflict." (Is that a fact?) The Wikientry then explains that
Alfred Korzybski criticized the use of the verb "to be", and stated that "any proposition containing the word 'is' [or its other conjugations 'are,' be' etc] creates a linguistic structural confusion which will eventually give birth to serious fallacies" However, he also justified the expression he coined — "the map is not the territory" — by saying that "the denial of identification (as in 'is not') has opposite neuro-linguistic effects on the brain from the assertion of identity (as in 'is')." Noam Chomsky, "[r]egarded as the father of modern linguistics", commented on Korzybski's "insight":Sometimes what we say can be misleading, sometimes not, depending on whether we are careful. If there's anything else [in Korzybski's work], I don't see it. That was the conclusion of my undergrad papers 60 years ago. Reading Korzybski extensively, I couldn't find anything that was not either trivial or false. As for neuro-linguistic effects on the brain, nothing was known when he wrote and very little of that is relevant now.
The Wikientry on Korzybski provides a useful caveat:
Many supporters and critics of Korzybski reduced his rather complex system to a simple matter of what he said about the verb 'to be.' His system, however, is based primarily on such terminology as the different 'orders of abstraction,' and formulations such as 'consciousness of abstracting.' It is often said that Korzybski opposed the use of the verb "to be," an unfortunate exaggeration…. He thought that certain uses of the verb "to be", called the "is of identity" and the "is of predication", were faulty in structure, e.g., a statement such as, "Joe is a fool" (said of a person named 'Joe' who has done something that we regard as foolish). In Korzybski's system, one's assessment of Joe belongs to a higher order of abstraction than Joe himself. Korzybski's remedy was to deny identity; in this example, to be continually aware that 'Joe' is not what we call him. We find Joe not in the verbal domain, the world of words, but the nonverbal domain (the two, he said, amount to different orders of abstraction). This was expressed in Korzybski's most famous premise, "the map is not the territory". Note that this premise uses the phrase "is not", a form of "to be"; this and many other examples show that he did not intend to abandon "to be" as such. In fact, he expressly said that there were no structural problems with the verb "to be" when used as an auxiliary verb or when used to state existence or location.
The E-Prime Wikientry notes that "James D. French, a computer programmer at the University of California, Berkeley, summarized ten arguments against E-Prime (in the context of General Semantics)," of which I shall cite only those I find most salient:
The context often ameliorates the possible harmful effects from the use of the is-of-identity and the is-of-predication, so it is not necessary to eliminate all such sentences. For example "George is a Judge" in response to a question of what he does for a living would not be a questionable statement.
To be statements do not only convey identity but also asymmetrical relations ("X is higher than Y"); negation ("A is not B"); location ("Berlin is in Germany"); auxiliary ("I am going to the store") etc., forms which would also have to be sacrificed.
Eliminating to be from English has little effect on eliminating identity. For example, a statement of apparently equal identification, "The silly ban on copula continues" can be made without the copula assuming an identity rather than asserting it, consequently hampering our awareness of it. …
A civilization advances when it can move from the idea of individual trees to that of forest. E-Prime tends to make the expression of higher orders of abstraction more difficult, e.g. a student is more likely to be described in E-Prime as "She attends classes at the university".
In a footnote for the E-Prime Wikientry, I discovered that E. W. Kellogg, in "Speaking in E-Prime: an experimental method for integrating General Semantics into daily life", argues that "if you saw a man, reeking of whisky, stagger down the street and then collapse, you might think (in ordinary English) "He is drunk." In E-Prime one would think instead "He acts drunk," or "He looks drunk," both of which statements obviously coming [sic] closer to an accurate description of the actual experience, and involving [sic] fewer covert assumptions than the English original.". But this is almost certainly incoherent. If "being drunk" is intrinsically unclear, as Kellogg suggests, then what do we mean by "He looks drunk"? It would be like objecting to the claim, "That guy over there is my brother" on the grounds that it's more accurate to say, "That guy over there looks like my brother." If "being drunk" has no content in its own right, how can we predicate "drunk" to the man in Kellogg's example? We would first have to know what "being drunk" is before we could decide "He looks drunk," in the same way that we'd first have to know what "the Eiffel Tower" is before could say "that radio tower looks like the Eiffel Tower."
This seems to be the crucial flaw in Korzybski's system, and with any anti-essentialist metaphysics. Consider the following from the Wikientry on General Semantics:
Korzybski's first book, Manhood of Humanity, published in 1921, introduced the notion of time-binding as the defining distinction between humans and other organisms. There, he used the imagery of dimension to spell out the unique niche humans occupy among organisms. The book became an immediate best-seller, and remained in that status for several years. He rejected explicitly the claim that we could consider a human as either a ‘monstrous hybrid’ of animal with some supernatural or immaterial ‘mind’, ‘soul’, or ‘spirit’, or simply as animal. In his defining of humans in terms of what they do rather than attempting to state what they are, he declared a fundamental revision of the 2,500-year old Western philosophic foundations of science, philosophy, and biology.
Note well, "In his defining of humans in terms of what they do…." This lapse indicates not only that "essence" (and therefore substantial finality) is inescapable for practicing scientists, which Étienne Gilson argues so deftly in From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, but also that Korzybski's "fundamental revision" of the Aristotelian anthropological legacy was very wide of the mark. Aristotle, after all, discerns essence not in pure definition, but in the very actions of a being. A thing's actions indicate its essence without exhausting it. Conversely, a thing's essence grounds its actions without deterministically forcing them out, on a concrete, existential level. Each action is a reduction of the being's material potency in relation to the perfect (but otherwise idealistically 'inert') finality of its essence. The point is that Aristotle, and classical hylomorphism generally, have always emphasized what creatures do in our grasping of their essence. This is why "If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck…" is a decent Aristotelian tagline. Even the austere definition of, say, a rabbit as "a mammal having two long ears and large hind feet" rests on a kind of act, insofar as the persistent having-of (or, teleological maintenance-of) those ears and feet is but a mode of the rabbit's one act of existence. An entity's natural action for Aristotle is the reduction of potency in the thing's essence, so that we can literally only know a thing's essence in its actions, a topic covered at great length in Gilson's Being and Some Philosophers. This is why in Aristotelian psychology, we only know our mind in the act of intellection, which stands in stark contrast to Descartes' doctrine that we have an immediate intuition of ourselves as an existent res cogitans ("thinking thing") apart from all sensible, material potency. We know ourselves in knowing things beyond ourselves; we don't know ourselves as principally knowing ourselves knowing ourselves.
Considering how prominent Korzybski once was and how pronounced his anti-essentialism is, I am disappointed to find no mention of Korzybski in David Oderberg's Real Essentialism. This is not a criticism of Oderberg, since his book already deals with enough strictly metaphysical and analytical arguments for and against essentialism. I first became aware of Korzybski while reading Walker Percy's Message in the Bottle (as he appears on page 193 and probably elsewhere). Hence, I can understand how Korzybski's anti-essentialism seems more properly to belong in (bio-)semiotics and cognitive neuroscience à la Konrad Lorenz, Jakob von Uexküll, Thomas Sebeok, and Gregory Bateson, as suggested by this essay, "Korzybski and Bateson: paradoxes in 'consciousness of abstracting'" by Corey Anton:
Korzybski's Science and Sanity (1933) discusses at length the non-identification between "words" and the "un-speakable objective level," and he succinctly summarizes his ideas with the pithy one-liner: "Whatever one might say something 'is,' it is not" (p. 409). In this very quotation Korzybski's actual utterance goes against his insights as he states them. By the syntax of the utterance he implies that the words "something" and "it" are not already something said. Korzybski undoubtedly would defend himself and say that this exactly is his point, as he sums it up elsewhere: "It is evident that every time we mistake the object for the event we are making a serious error, and if we further mistake the label for the object, and therefore for the event, our errors become more serious" (Korzybski, 1949, p. 245). Here we again find the same difficulties: he uses the words "object" and "event" to state his insights and thereby is forced to use the very resources that he calls into question.
Even so, according to a section of the Wikientry on General Semantics,
General Semantics has important links with analytic philosophy and the philosophy of science; it could be characterized without too much distortion as applied analytic philosophy. The influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, and of early operationalists and pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce, is particularly clear in the foundational ideas of General Semantics. Korzybski himself acknowledged many of these influences.
Plus, I glanced at small sections in Science and Sanity today and I have to say, it's a damn serious book (over 900 pages). Seeing as it managed to spawn the anti-existentialism of E-Prime, I think there may be a very real place for treating Korzybski's work as a nemesis with a lot of kick left in it as semiotic Thomism gathers momentum in our day.
But enough about Korzybski. This is my blog, damn it! (Er, this looks like my blog!) Now it's time for the ultimate refutation of E-Prime.
In my post yesterday, I joked that E-Prime is racist since it literally discriminates against the "I be, You be, He be, etc." that often shows up in "Black English" (or African American Vernacular English). While writing this post I came across the following corroborating statement in the E-Prime Wikientry: "Changes such as those proposed for E-Prime also might eliminate enough ways to express aspect in African American Vernacular English to prove unworkable if applied indiscriminately and pedantically to such language." (Have a look at the Tense and Aspect section in the Wikientry for Afro-American Vernacular English to see the conflict.) Well, here it is, the demise of E-Prime:
De La Soul's "I Am I Be"! Soul Force, beeyatch!
It's a joke, sure, but if you stop to ponder, the place of "be/am" in African American culture is peculiar, to say the least. I don't have the energy or time to do even a partially sufficient analysis, but the question is, "What does it show us about a group of people that "be" becomes a dominant syntactical form?" Is there anything more than just circumstance to the constant emphasis on "be-ing" in Black English? Consider the first line of my favorite book, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
If you haven't read Invisible Man––wait a minute, if you haven't read Invisible Man, stop reading my fluff and get on it!––you'll know that the themes of identity, recognition, and meaningful existence in American society for a black man suffuse the novel. Consider two other titles of African American novels by Richard Wright, a colleague and sometime friend of Ellison: Black Boy and Native Son. The titles are loaded with an implicit "copula", as in, "I am just a black boy," or "He is a real native son."
Now consider Booker T. Washington's opening words in Up From Slavery (1900):
I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time. As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post-office called Hale's Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859. I do not know the month or the day. The earliest impressions I can now recall are of the plantation and the slave quarters -- the latter being the part of the plantation where the slaves had their cabins.
The second word is a form of the copular be. The recollections after that are hampered by their lack of substance, by their predominantly hazy and phenomenal character. Washington's past is comprised of fragmented appearances which were forced upon him by the dominant racial class, yet he immediately asserts his own existence, his own historcal be-ing.
I don't think an exhaustive examination of African American literature and thought would find a conscious, shockingly frequent use of the copular be, but my hunch is that for black Americans historically, there is something very encouraging about the simple word "be," something simple and solid that feels like it might ground their contested and complex existence in a "white man's land." On the one hand, blacks have long known the insidious power of images as manipulated by the powerholders, and, on the other hand, instinctively resonate with the sheer goodness of existence as the primal gift of the Creator, whose essence is to be. As Ellison wrote, "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." His existence is rendered invisible because it is unwelcome in the phenomenal consciousness of the dominant society. Nonetheless, he says, "I am."
Nor should we forget the immense importance of Christianity in historical black consciousness. Is there not something almost diabolical about a language which is diametrically opposed to God's declaration, "I AM WHO I AM"? Historically, this is the God of black Americans––the God Who Be Who He Be! This is not a trivial consideration, either, when we recall that God's "I AM THAT I AM" is found in Exodus, which has been a foundational source of hope for black slaves and their ancestors. Whereas E-Prime would have us divert only to subjective experiences for the sake of operational precision, perhaps there is something defiant about the preponderance of "be" in Black English. "You're not really a human like us," slaveowners and slave traders often argued, "You just appear to be one. Leave the decision about who is and who is not a real person up to us."
Interestingly, this is the same logic behind pro-choice ideology, which insists that fetuses aren't really human persons, they just look that way. As soon as we grant that "a human fetus is a human person," though, the abortion debate becomes much less "complex." That's why The Is Of Personhood must not be applied to fetuses, lest the moral position of pro-choice advocates be seen for what it is: homicide.