Elementalism was the term used by Alfred Korzybski that refers to a tendency to verbally split things that can not be split physically or empirically. Common examples are space and time, body and mind, nature and nurture. In other words, if something can not be split in the non-verbal, observable world it is an example of elementalism and is therefore mere verbalism. The map (language, concepts, etc.) is not the territory (non-elementalistic, observable, etc.)

Korzybski suggests the following thought experiment for anybody wishing to gain an experiential understanding of this phenomenon.

We begin by asking the 'meaning' of every word uttered, being satisfied for this purpose with the roughest definitions, and this process is continued usually for no more than ten to fifteen minutes, until the victim begins to speak in circles--as, for instance, defining 'space' by 'length' and 'length' by 'space'. When this stage is reached we have come to the undefined terms of a given individual. If we still press, no matter how gently, for definitions, a most interesting fact occurs. Sooner or later, signs of affective disturbances appear. Often the face reddens; there is a bodily restlessness; sweat appears--symptoms quite similar to those seen in a schoolboy who has forgotten his lesson, which he 'knows but cannot tell'....Here we have reached the bottom and the foundation of all non-elementalistic meanings--the meanings of undefined terms, which we 'know' somehow, but cannot tell.
Korzybski goes on to say that this unspeakable level is responsible for the fact that many scientists have reported having a "feeling" or a "hunch" that led to their discoveries. This "feeling" or "hunch" being an affective, non-elementalistic phenomenon that the scientist is later able to verbalize only after performing experiments, making theories, etc.

Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics by Alfred Korzybski

El`e*men"tal*ism (?), a.

The theory that the heathen divinities originated in the personification of elemental powers.


© Webster 1913.

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