S. I. Hayakawa

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The cultural accomplishment of the ages … come to us as free gifts from the dead. These gifts, which none of us has done anything to earn, offer us not only the opportunity for a richer life than our forebears enjoyed but also the opportunity to add to the sum total of human achievement by our own contributions, however small they may be.

Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa (July 18, 1906February 27, 1992) was a Canadian-born American academic and political figure. He was an English professor, served as president of San Francisco State University and then a United States Senator from California from 1977 to 1983.


Language in Thought and Action (1949)[edit]

What Animals Shall We Imitate?[edit]

  • People who think of themselves as tough-minded and realistic, among them influential political leaders and businessmen as well as go-getters and hustlers of smaller caliber, tend to take it for granted that human nature is selfish and that life is a struggle in which only the fittest may survive. According to this philosophy, the basic law by which man must live, in spite of his surface veneer of civilization, is the law of the jungle. The "fittest" are those who can bring to the struggle superior force, superior cunning, and superior ruthlessness.
    • p. 8


  • Indeed, most of the time when we are listening to the noises people make or looking at the black marks on paper that stand for such noises, we are drawing upon the experiences of others in order to make up for what we ourselves have missed. Obviously the more an individual can make use of the nervous systems of others to supplement his own, the easier it is for him to survive. And, of course, the more individuals there are in a group cooperating by making helpful noises at each other, the better it is for all -- within the limits, naturally, of the group's talents for social organization. [...] Societies, both animal and human, might almost be regarded as huge cooperative nervous system.
    • p. 11

The Pooling of Knowledge[edit]

  • A human being, then, is never dependent on his own experience alone for his information. Even in a primitive culture he can make use of the experience of his neighbors, friends, and relatives, which they communicate to him by means of language. Therefore, instead of remaining helpless because of the limitations of his own experience and knowledge, instead of having to discover what others have already discovered, instead of explporing the false traits they explored and repeating their errors, he can go on from where they left off. Language, that is to say, makes progress possible.
    • p. 12
  • Language, that is to say, is the indispensable mechanism of human life -- of life such as ours that is molded, guided, enriched, and made possible by the accumulation of the past experience of members of our own species. Dogs and cats and chimpanzees do not, so far as we can tell, increase their wisdom, their information, or their control over their environment from one generation to the next. But human beings do. The cultural accomplishment of the ages, the invention of cooking, [...] and the discovery of all the arts and sciences come to us as free gifts from the dead. These gifts, which none of us has done anything to earn, offer us not only the opportunity for a richer life than our forebears enjoyed but also the opportunity to add to the sum total of human achievement by our own contributions, however small they may be.
    • p. 13
  • To be able to read and write, therefore, is to learn to profit by and take part in the greatest of human achievements -- that which makes all other achievements possible --namely, the pooling of our experiences in great cooperative stores of knowledge, available [...] to all. From the warning cry of primitive man to the latest newsflash or scientific monograph, language is social. Cultural and intellectual cooperation is the great principle of human life.
    • p. 14
  • We live in a highly competitive society, each of us trying to outdo the other in wealth, in popularity or social prestige, in dress, in scholastic grades or golf scores. [...] One is often tempted to say that conflict, rather than cooperation, is the great governing principle of human life.
    • p. 14
  • But what such a philosophy overlooks is that, despite all the competition at the surface, there is a huge substratum of cooperation taken for granted that keeps the world going. [...] We may indeed as individuals compete for jobs, but our function in the job, once we get it, is to contribute at the right time and place to that innumerable series of cooperative acts that eventually result in automobiles being manufactured, in cakes appearing in pastry shops, in department stores being able to serve their customers, in the trains and airlines running as scheduled. And what is important for our purposes here is that all this coordination of effort necessary for the functioning of society is of necessity achieved by language or else it is not achieved at all.
    • pp. 14-15

The Niagara of Words[edit]

  • From the moment he switches on an early-morning news broadcast until he falls asleep at night over a novel or a magazine, he is, like all other people living in modern civilized conditions, swimming in words. Newspaper editors, politicians, salesmen, disc jockeys, columnists, luncheon club speakers, and clergymen; colleagues at work, friends, relatives, wife and children; market reports, direct-mail advertising, books, and billboards -- all are assailing him with words all day long. [...]
    • p. 15
  • Mr. Mets is representative not only of the general public, but also of many scientific workers, publicists, and writers. Like most people, he takes words as much for granted as the air he breathes, gives them about as much thought. [...] But Mr. Mets, like the rest of us, also adjusts himself automatically to changes in the verbal climate, from one type of discourse to another, from one set terms to another, from the listening habits of one kind of social occasion to those of another kind of social occasion, without conscious effort. He has yet, however, to acknowledge the effect of his verbal climate on his mental health and well-being.
    • p. 16
  • With words woven into almost every detail of his life, it seems amazing that Mr. Mets' thinking on the subject of language should be so limited.
    • p. 17
  • Whether he realizes it or not, however, Mr. Mets is affected every hour of his life not only by the words he hears and uses, but also by his unconscious assumptions about language. [...] Such unconscious assumptions determine the effect that words have on him -- which in turn determines the way he acts, whether wisely or foolishly. Words -- the way he uses them and the way he takes them when spoken by others -- largely shape his beliefs, his prejudices, his ideals, his aspirations. They constitute the moral and intellectual atmosphere in which he lives -- in short, his semantic environment.
    • p. 18
  • The relation between language and thought are discussed in Stuart Chase, Power of words (1954), especially Chapter 10; the important sourcebooks in this area are Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 4th ed. (1958), and John B. Carroll, ed., Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956).
    • p. 22

The Symbolic Process[edit]

  • The process by means of which human beings can arbitrarily make certan things stand for other things may be called the symbolic process. Whenever two or more human beings can communicate with each other, they can, by agreement, make anything stand for anything. For example, here are two symbols:
          X      Y
    We can agree to let X stand for buttons and Y for bows; then we can freely change our agreement and let X stand for [...] North Korea, and Y for South Korea. We are, as human beings, uniquely free to manufacture and manipulate and assign values to our symbols as we please. Indeed, we can go further by making symbols that stand for symbols. [...] This freedom to create symbols of any assigned value and to create symbols that stand for symbols is essential to what we call the symbolic process.
    • p. 24
  • All fashionable clothes, as Thorstein Veblen has pointed out in his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), are highly symbolic: materials, cut, and ornament are dictated only to a slight degree by consideration of warmth, comfort, or practicability. The more we dress up in fine clothes, the more we restrict our freedom of action. But by means of delicate embroideries, easily soiled fabrics, starched shirts, high heels, long and pointed fingernails. and other such sacrifices of comfort, the wealthy classes manage to symbolize, among other things, the fact that they don't have to work for a living.
    • pp. 24-25
  • We select our furniture to serve as visible symbols of our taste, wealth, and social position. We often choose our residences on the basis of a feeling that it "looks well" to have a "good address." We trade in perfectly good cars for later models, not always to get better transportation, but to give evidence to the community that we can afford it.2
    • p. 26
  •     2The writer once had an eight-year-old car in good running condition. A friend of his, a repairman who knew the condition of the car, kept urging him to make it for a new model. "But why?" the writer asked. "The old car's in fine shape still." The repairman answered scornfully, "Yeah, but what the hell. All you've got is transportation."
        Recently, the term "transportation car" has begun to appear in advertisements; for example, "'48 Dodge -- Runs perfectly good; transportation car. Leaving, must sell. $100." (Classified section of the Pali Press, Kailua Hawaii.) Apparently it means a car that has no symbolic or prestige value and is good only for getting you there and bringing you back -- a miserable kind of vehicle indeed!
    • Footnote, p. 26
  • Such complicated and apparently unnecessary behavior leads philosophers, both amateur and professional, to ask over and over again, "Why can't human beings live simply and naturally?" Often the complexity of human life makes us look enviously at the relative simplicity of such lives as dogs and cats lead. But the symbolic process, which makes possible the absurdities of human conduct, also makes possible language and therefore all the human achievements dependent upon language. The fact that more things can go wrong with motorcars than with wheelbarrows is no reason for going back to wheelbarrows. Similarly, the fact that the symbolic process makes complicated follies possible is no reason for wanting to return to a cat-and-dog existence. A better solution is to understand the symbolic process so that instead of being its victims we become, to some degree at least, its masters.
    • p. 26

Language as Symbolism[edit]

  • Of all forms of symbolism, language is the most highly developed, most subtle, and most complicated. It has been pointed out that human beings, by agreement, can make anything stand for anything. Now, human beings have agreed, in the course of centuries of mutual dependency, to let the various noises that they can produce [...] stand for specified happenings in their nervous systems. We call that system of agreements language. For example, we who speak English have been so trained that, when our nervous systems register the presence of a certain kind of animal, we may make the following noise: "That's a cat." Anyone hearing us expects to find that, by looking in the same direction, he will experience a similar event in his nervous system -- one that will lead him to make an almost identical noise. Again, we have been so trained that when we are conscious of wanting food, we make the noise "I'm hungry."
    • pp. 26-27
  • There is [...] no necessary connection between the symbol and that which is symbolized. Just as men can wear yachting costumes without ever having been near a yacht, so they can make the noise "I'm hungry" without being hungry. Furthermore, just as social rank can be symbolized by feathers in the hair, by tattooing on the breast, by gold ornaments on the watch chain, or by a thousand different devices according to the culture we live in, so the fact of being hungry can be symbolized by a thousand different noises according to the culture we live in: "J'ai faim," or "Es hungert mich," or "Ho appetito," or "Hara ga hetta," and so on.
    • p. 27
  • However obvious these facts may appear at first glance, they are actually not so obvious as they seem except when we take special pains to think about the subject. Symbols and things symbolized are independent of each other; nevertheless, we all have a way of feeling as if [...] there were necessary connections. For example, there is a vague sense we all have that foreign languages are inherently absurd; foreigners have such funny names for things, and why can't they call things by their right names? This feeling exhibits itself most strongly in those tourists who seem to believe that they can make the natives of any country understand English if they shout loud enough. Like the little boy who was reported to have said, "Pigs are called pigs because they are such dirty animals," they feel that the symbol is inherently connected in some way with the thing symbolized. Then there are the people who feel that since snakes are "nasty, slimy creatures" (incidentally, snakes are not slimy), the word "snake" is a nasty, slimy word.
    • p. 27

The Pitfalls of Drama[edit]

  • In the case of drama (stage, movies, television ), there appear to be people in almost every audience who never quite fully realize that a play is a set of fictional, symbolic representations. An actor is one who symbolizes other people, real or imagined. [...] Also some years ago it was reported that when Edward G. Robinson, who used to play gangster roles with extraordinary vividness, visited Chicago, local hoodlums would telephone him at his hotel to pay their professional respects.
    • pp. 27-28
  • One is reminded of the actor, playing the role of a villain in a traveling theatrical troupe, who, at a particularly tense moment in the play, was shot by an excited cowpuncher in the audience. But this kind of confusion does not seem to be confined to unsophisticated theatergoers. [...] Paul Muni, after playing the part of Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind, was invited to address the American Bar Association; Ralph Bellamy, after playing the role of Frankin D. Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello, was invited by several colleges to speak on Roosevelt. Also, there are those astonishing patriots who rushed to the recruiting offices to help defend the nation when, on October 30, 1938, the United States was "invaded" by an "army from Mars" in a radio dramatization.
    • p. 28

The Word Is Not the Thing[edit]

  • Citizens of a modern society need [...] more than that ordinary "common sense" which was defined by Stuart Chase as that which tells you that the world is flat. They need to be systematically aware of the powers and limitations of symbols, especially words, if they are to guard against being driven into complete bewilderment by the complexity of their semantic environment. The first of the principles governing symbols is this: The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for. (editor's link)

Maps and Territories[edit]

  • Now, to use the famous metaphor by Alfred Korzybski in his Science and Sanity (1933), this verbal world ought to stand in relation to the extensional world as a map does to the territory it is supposed to represent. If a child grows to adulthood with a verbal world in his head which corresponds fairly closely to the extensional world that he finds around him in his widening experience, he is in relatively small danger of being shocked or hurt by what he finds, because his verbal world has told him what, more or less, to expect. He is prepared for life. If, however, he grows up with a false map in his head [...] he will constantly be running into trouble, wasting his efforts, and acting like a fool. He will not be adjusted to the world as it is: he may, if the lack of adjustment is serious, end up in a mental hospital. (editor's link)
    • p. 31
  • We all inherit a great deal of useless knowledge, and a great deal of misinformation and error (maps that were formerly thought to be accurate), so that there is always a portion of what we have been told that must be discarded. But the cultural heritage of our civilization that is transmitted to us -- our socially pooled knowledge, both scientific and humane -- has been valued principally because we have believed that it gives us accurate maps of experience. The analogy of verbal words to maps is an important one [...]. It should be noticed at this point, however, that there are two ways of getting false maps of the world into our heads: first, by having them given to us; second, by creating them ourselves when we misread the true maps given to us.
    • p. 32

Bearing the Unbearable[edit]

  • A frustrated or unhappy animal can do relatively little about its tensions. A human being, however, with an extra dimension (the world of symbols) to move around in, not only undergoes experience, but he also symbolizes his experience to himself. Our states of tension--especially the unhappy tensions -- become tolerable as we manage to state what is wrong -- to get it said -- whether to a sympathetic friend, or on paper to a hypothetical sympathetic reader, or even to oneself. If our symbolizations are adequate and sufficiently skillful, our tensions are brought symbolically under control. To achieve this control, one may employ what Kenneth Burke has called "symbolic strategies" -- that is, ways of reclassifying our experiences so that they are "encompassed" and easier to bear. Whether by processes of "pouring out one's heart" or by "symbolic strategies" or by other means, we may employ symbolizations as mechanisms of relief when the pressures of a situation become intolerable.
    • p. 144-145

Giving Things Names[edit]

  • What we call things and where we draw the line between one class of things and another depend upon the interests we have and the purposes of the classification. For example, animals are classified in one way by the meat industry, in a different way by the leather industry, in another different way by the fur industry, and in a still different way by the biologist. None of these classifications is any more final than any of the others; each of them is useful for its purpose.
    • p. 209-210

External links[edit]

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