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Non-allness principle
"In so far as the statements of geometry speak about reality, they are not certain, and in so far as they are certain, they do not speak about reality."
Albert Einstein, Geometry and Experience, p. 3 (1941).

"Doubt is not a pleasant mental state, but certainty is a ridiculous one."
Voltaire, Letter to Frederick the Great, 1767.

"A religious creed differs from a scientific theory in claiming to embody eternal and absolutely certain truth, whereas science is always tentative, expecting that modification in its present theories will sooner or later be found necessary, and aware that its method is one which is logically incapable of arriving at a complete and final demonstration."
Bertrand Russell, Grounds of Conflict, Religion and Science, Oxford University Press (1935).

"The only certainty is that nothing is certain."
Pliny The Elder, Historia Naturalis, bk. 2, ch. 7.

"A map does not represent all the territory."
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, International non-Aristotelian Library (1933).


In general semantics training, the elimination of allness constitutes the first step, before even being able to proceed with the removal of identification.

The non-allness is closely related to consciousness of abstracting. On the Structural Differential, the non-allness is represented by the presence of 'holes' not connected at the next level, a direct consequence of the abstracting process. If you become aware of non-abstracted characteristics, it becomes impossible to believe that a formulation, or a set of formulations can completely represent the thing to which they refer.

Take a usual object, for example a pen, and try to describe it completely, i.e. until it becomes impossible to add only one additional assertion referring to this object. When you finish, ask yourself " Have I said all?" If you think you did, a general semantics seminar will provide you some surprises!

 Typical errors about Allness 

When one first realises that we are not able to say all about anything, the first step in removing identification from one's system of evaluation, this realisation can lead to the wrong feeling that we do not know what something 'is' anymore, while it means only that we cannot say what something is. This is false since we don't need words to know what things 'are', and even some terms are undefined, meaning that we know what they mean but cannot define them in simpler terms, at a given time (i.e. as the number of words and dictionary meanings is finite, there is a moment where no simpler terms can be found, given that defining in circle cannot explain the meanings of a term).

On the basis of this mistake, some criticise non-allness as a general principle, believing that it is self-contradictory and would require an overprecision that we are somehow unable to achieve. Quite the opposite in fact: by applying non-allness, we know that an attempt to say all about anything is doomed to fail, thus we have to remember that we did not say all and we don't try to achieve an impossible overprecision. This error is often made by the casual readers who confuse "general semantics" with "semantics" and those who believe general semantics is only about 'crisp' communication, thus falling in the very allness trap that we are supposed to avoid. Some 'crispness' in some aspects of communication is certainly to be recommended, but is certainly useless for others (poetry, love talk, etc.). Let's remember that general semantics as a general system applies to 'all' human activities, as the old Aristotelian system did.

Another far-fetched mistake, made by some 'postmodern' persons, is to compare non-allness to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and/or Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Those who use these theorems as 'supporting' general semantics usually cannot even state them correctly. These theorems have limited applications and work in a definite context. Taking them out of this context and pretending they can be applied to daily life is committing a blunder of the kind mentioned in Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures, Fashionable Nonsense.


© ESGS, 2002.