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Non-elementalism
"The whole is more than the sum of its parts."
Aristotle, Metaphysica, 10f-1045a

During centuries, it was regarded as obvious that 'space,' 'time' and 'matter' had an objective existence. Until 19th century, physicists tried to clutch to these 'ideas', although negative experiments accumulated.

Then, Einstein broke the taboo by establishing equivalence of 'matter' and energy, with his famous formula E=mc2. Furthermore, 'space' and 'time' disappeared for a combination of both, in agreement with the experimental results of the time (1905-1920).

Korzybski was strongly influenced by the considerable progress of physics at that time. He understood that this revolution was due to a profound change of premises and methodology.

One important lesson to draw from these new formulations is that it is very risky to separate verbally what cannot be separated empirically. It appears difficult to show any 'space', 'time' or 'matter', without showing the two other elements altogether.

Korzybski baptised "elementalistic" (el) these words that separate what cannot be separated empirically. Conversely, he baptised "non-elementalistic" (non-el) those that restored the union, broken at verbal levels. Thus "space-time", "psycho-somatic", "evaluation", "semantic reaction", etc., are non-el, whereas "space", "time", "body", "spirit", "feeling", "reasoning", "emotion", "logic", etc., are el.

The main tools of general semantics dealing with this problem are the hyphen and the scare quotes.

 Typical errors about Non-Elementalism 

One of the worst blunders about non-elementalism is to apply allness to it: the fact that some issues such as body-mind problems cannot be dealt with by elementalistic means does not mean all sharp distinctions have to be blurred or that none of the various aspects are legitimate. The problem of elementalism vs. non-elementalism is analogous to a coin: everyone can see that the coin has two faces, called "head" and "tails". It is perfectly legitimate to speak of "head and tails" if you want to toss a coin for, let's say, take a difficult decision. It becomes somewhat illegitimate if someone asks you "give me the tail part, but without the head part."

"Organism-as-a-whole" is a formulation that neither excludes consideration of specialised body parts like liver or kidney separately from the 'mind', nor considering 'emotions' separately from 'thinking,' as aspects of a whole. But nevertheless, influence of 'mind' on health, shown in various scientific experiments (placebo effect, for example), cannot be accounted for by the old religious elementalism (i.e. 'body'+'mind'), thus requiring non-el formulations.

Analysis, breaking down a 'big' problem into bits 'small' enough to deal with, widely used in mathematics and a powerful tool to deal with real-life problems, has nothing to do with elementalism, of course. For example, it is not possible to analyse placebo effect by studying effects on the 'mind' and effects on the 'body'. But it is possible to do it by studying 'body-mind'.

Elementalism is not 'bad' per se, just as the Aristotelian system, Newton's laws, Euclidean geometry or a gun are not 'bad'. What is 'bad' is to use them when they are not the appropriate tools to solve a problem.


© ESGS, 2002.