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Non-identity principle
"Words, words, words."
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II Scene 2.

"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."
Rudyard Kipling, Speech, Feb. 1923.

"Words express neither objects nor ourselves."
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (17491832), German poet, dramatist. Sayings in Prose (posthumous).

"A map is not the territory it represents."
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, International non-Aristotelian Library (1933).


The non-identity principle is of a misleading simplicity: it establishes that two unspecified things cannot be identical in all aspects. There are inevitable differences that can be more or less difficult to detect.

A corollary of this principle is that the words we use to speak about a thing are not this thing: a map is not the territory it represents.

When we say "This is a pencil", we blur the differences between pencil1, that we can touch, feel, use, etc., and an unspecified pencil. Thus, the Aristotelian structure of our language encourages us to neglect differences. On the faith of the labels that we ascribe to objects, it is then easy for us to generalize, forgetting that this generalization concerns only labels, which are not the thing spoken about. We will call this semantic reaction 'identification'.

If we say, for example, «Man is an animal», the behaviour of animals can be considered as natural for man, implying the application of the so-called 'law of the jungle', 'law of the strongest' and individualism in human affairs.

How about the term 'dog'? The number of individuals with which any one is directly acquainted is, by necessity, limited, and usually is small. Let us imagine that someone had dealt only with good-natured 'dogs', and had never been bitten by any of them. Next he sees some animal; he says, 'This is a dog'; his associations (relations) do not suggest a bite; he approaches the animal and begins to play with him, and is bitten. Was the statement 'this is a dog' a safe statement? Obviously not. He approached the animal with semantic expectations and evaluation of his verbal definition, but was bitten by the non-verbal, un-speakable objective level, which has different characteristics.
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, p. 373, International non-Aristotelian Library (1933).

To fight back this orientation and restore the natural order of evaluation, general semantics proposes the Structural Differential, visualizing the distinction between orders of abstractions, and extensional devices:

 Typical errors about Non-Identity 

A first traditional error, made even by some people trained in general semantics is to quote the first premise as being "the map is not the territory." This statement is symmetrical: if the map is not the territory, then the territory is not the map. As that kind of relations is dealt with in the Aristotelian system, it is quite difficult to understand why such a symmetrical premise could be the foundation of a non-Aristotelian one. The correct premise is "a map is not the territory it represents". If the map represents the territory, the territory does not represent the map, an asymmetrical relation.

A second error made mostly by beginners, is to confuse "to identify (gs)" with "to recognize (traditional)." A good way to avoid that error is to substitute "identify" with "recognize" and see if your formulation is still valid. Of course, general semantics does not advocate that we should not recognize our usual objects as a way to sanity, quite the opposite: it would look like Alzheimer's disease. For details read the article Identification, in general semantics.

As a consequence of the above, some are tempted to speak of "bad identification" ("to identify (gs)") vs. "good identification" ("to recognize"). Once the above is understood, identification (gs) remains as an undesirable and avoidable feature of our semantic reactions.

Finally, some confuse (identify) two different meanings of "projection": one is projecting beliefs outside our skins, as for a paranoid person, or believing that the 'greenness' is inside the leaves for instance (a typical confusion of levels of abstracting, an identification in the vocabulary of general semantics), and the second is a survival mechanism of our nervous system, hardwired at early-age, which reconstructs four-dimensional space-time from our perceptions, a mechanism which is 'perfectly normal', even if it can have some limitations such as in the case of the so-called 'optical' illusions.


© ESGS, 2002.