Identification, in general semantics

José Klingbeil
(French version)

Copyright © 1997 José Klingbeil. The author hereby grants permission to use this article in electronic form only, in part or in whole, to any person or institution for educational purposes, provided no charge is made for such use.

Considering the recent discussions on the Internet, I deem necessary to bring some light on the term "identification" and to distinguish between its uses in general semantics and its uses in usual language.

In the latter, the term "identification" is used with the meaning of recognise (a person, an object, etc.). It is clear that there is no special problem in this meaning: we recognise every day persons and objects around us (except if we are a victim of Alzheimer's disease). We do that nearly all the time and unconsciously, with a speed that upset every scientists in Artificial Intelligence, who work at trying to imitate this function with computers. Our brain's structure is specially adapted to this fundamental function, with its parallel-tasking abilities. It is also clear that general semantics does not advocate that we eliminate this function of our brains: this would lead us directly to a 'mental' hospital ahead of schedule, if there were a schedule for that.

What does Korzybski states, then, when he writes in Science and Sanity:

Korzybski states that identification has a systematically harmful character and that it must be completely eliminated in any -system (not only general semantics but also mathematics, physics, etc.). The above quote from page 198 is very significant on this point.

What can the term "identification" mean, for Korzybski ? An answer to this question is given by a thorough reading of Science and Sanity.

Actually, in a nearly systematic manner, Korzybski links the word "identification" with the expression "confusion of orders of abstractions". It is difficult to quote all occurrences of these terms in Science and Sanity—they are among the most widely used in this book—but here are some examples anyway::


It seems reasonable for me to state that Korzybski indifferently uses the two expressions "identification" and "confusion of orders of abstractions" and reminds it all the way through a more-than-800-pages book. In one case, he gives a name to a neuro-semantic disturbance ("identification"), basis of many 'mental' disturbances, and in the other, he describes an underlying process, systematic to this disturbance ("confusion of orders of abstractions").

It is easy to change from one expression to the other in the following way: when I confuse, at the object level (first level of abstraction) pencil1 with pencil2, for example, I neglect the fact that the events are different, that the atoms they are made of are different, etc. In other words, I confuse the event level with the object level. It is then a confusion of orders of abstractions. This formulation is valid for any level and consequently, identification always implies a confusion of orders of abstractions.

Conversely, if I confuse the event level with the object level, every time I shall not be able to perceive a difference between two objects (at first level of abstracting), I will identify them: the two objects will be the 'same' to me and I will react to the second as if it was the other: in other words, I shall identify. There, again, this formulation is independent of the level of abstracting.

The use of the Structural Differential allows a simple visualisation of this, I thus recommend that you use it.

To get back to the common meanings of "identification", we see that there are some similarities with the technical general semantics term, but also many differences. To such a point that I consider that the neuro-semantic disturbance revealed in gs is not a pathological distortion of the usual function but a relic of an infantile semantic reaction, which could not be completely eliminated in adulthood. For that reason, I recommend using rather the expression "confusion of orders of abstractions", instead of "identification", which can be confusing for people untrained in gs.