Synonym Trees and Korzybski’s Structural Differential, or A Generic Term Represents a Number of Subjects


I explained in the previous post that a generic term represents far fewer characteristics than what its subject actually has.  As explained in this post, a generic term also represents a great number of subjects.  This kind of stratefication of connection between subjects and the words used to represent them leads to the kind of imagery seen in Alfred Korzybski’s model, the Structural Differential.

A generic term, by definition, represents a great number of subjects.  Take for instance the generic term “thinking.”  The word “thinking” stands for a lot of different mental behaviors.  It stands for pondering, dreaming, and hoping.  It stands for postulating, hypothesizing, and theorizing.  It stands for calculating, strategizing, and concentrating.  It stands for searching.  It stands for ruminating.  It stands for a great number of other mental behaviors.

That is, thinking is not some separate kind of mental behavior.  Instead, it is a generic term (“thinking”) that stands for a great number of other mental behaviors.  You won’t find thinking.  Instead, you might find a number of behaviors we call “thinking.”

The stratefication comes when you think of a generic term like an umbrella, one which covers a great number of more specific terms.  It’s hard to represent in text what I mean, but hopefully you’ll see what I’m getting at below:

“t h i n k i n g”
/                     |                     \ *
pondering theorizing concentrating **

* (and so on with these branches)
** (and so on with these behaviors represented by the generic word “thinking”)

 There is a stratefication represented in the diagram–a hierarchy of sorts–wherein there are a lot of different behaviors listed on the bottom, and one word used to represent them all on top.

What draws each of these behaviors together under a single word may be arbitrary, but usually it’s at least one characteristic, maybe a cluster of characteristics, that do so.  In this case, the characteristic (or characteristics, depending on how you see this point) is that each of these processes take place centrally in the brain.  Because they all share this characteristic, we call them “thinking.”  Punching is not listed under “thinking,” nor is “gorilla” nor “Scent of a Woman“–these don’t share the “thinking” characteristic.  They’re each different things altogether.  So we don’t call them “thinking.”

Our diagram above has the word “thinking” pointing to actual behaviors.  (You might not see that, but it’s what I intended.)  But, of course, we can just stay verbal with our diagram, too.  In order to do so, we would have to put the lower tier of words into quotation  marks.  This would distinguish them specifically as words.  This would also make a synonym tree:

“t h i n k i n g”
/                     |                     \ *
“pondering” “theorizing” “concentrating” **

What is the difference between the two diagrams?  In the first, a generic term represents a number of things (behaviors).  In the second, a generic term represents a number of specific terms.  That is, the first has non-verbal referents, and the second has verbal referents.  In some sense, the second tree is a special case of the first tree–it is the case where the non-verbal referents are, well, verbal.  Thesauri list verbal referents for generic terms.  Picture books are probably a good representative for lists of non-verbal referents for generic terms.  “[See photo.] This is a zebra.”

So if synonyms only deal with words, then what would I call the first kind of tree, the non-verbal tree?  Maybe a synothing tree.

But who cares really.  What’s more important is to notice the stratefication, and that generic terms represent great numbers of subjects, and that generic terms refer to other things–they aren’t the things themselves.  (That is, you won’t find thinking, but you might find pondering.)  This all meshed together nicely with Alfred Korzybski’s Structural Differential, which he outlines in his major work, Science and Sanity (currently for sale on the IGS website).

In this video, Korzybski describes the Structural Differential:

What Korzybski doesn’t describe in the video is that you can invert the Structural Differential.  By doing so, you get the synothing tree I outline up top.  Each label could be thought of as a generic term.  The labels more closely tied to the object level are more specific terms (“pondering,” “theorizing,” etc.)  The object level would be non-verbal referents (pondering, theorizing, etc., i.e., the words without the quotes).  The labels farther away from the object level are more generic terms.

Here’re some examples of Structural Differential chains employing my notion of generic terms:

Object Level // 1st Label // 2nd Label // 3rd Label // etc.
a snake // “snake” // “reptile” // “animal” // “lifeform” // etc.

Object Level // 1st Label // 2nd Label // 3rd Label // etc.
Ben Hauck // “Ben Hauck” // “actor” // “freeloader” // etc.

Based on the second example, you can see where biases might show up inside one person’s scheme of generic terms (i.e., someone’s personal genus structure).  Someone appears to see actors as a specific kind of freeloader!

In general semantics, each label is regarded as an abstraction.  I’m arguing instead to call them generic terms.  While it’s true to refer to them as abstractions, I feel that doing so is more confusing than to call them generic terms.  Maybe better put: It’s less confusing to call them generic terms first, and see them as abstractions (“distortions”) later, as demonstrated in my second chain where there is an obvious distortion.  Putting the Structural Differential in terms of generic terms has helped me to better understand the higher levels of labels in the diagram.

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