Some Notes on "Language in Thought and Action" by S I Hayakawa and Son, 1990.
Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, NY.

by Charlie Notess, Loveland, CO

Last Updated: 8-26-2000

I wish to give much credit to S. I. Hayakawa for continuing to update and publish this book. I believe that every High School senior should read and understand the contents before graduating. Too many writers on current affairs discuss the polarization in our society, yet do not mention the ideas in this book as an important contributor to problems of polarization in our society

Robert MacNeil, in the introduction, wrote: "Hayakawa tells us how to use that which is most human in us - our talent for abstraction and awareness of language - to make us less belligerent, less fearful, more cooperative, more reasonable people."

Little children are often too specific in their definitions. A newspaper is what the newsboy delivers". A definition at too low a level of abstraction does not help us comprehend what the speaker means. Is it that newspaper that the news boy threw on the little boys driveway or is a news paper also what one finds in a news stand? On the other hand, dictionaries give definitions at high levels of abstraction.

Levels of Abstraction are presented on pages 85-95 in Hayakawa's book. Page 103 summarizes, with good examples how levels of abstraction or generalizations are used by bigots, some political candidates in the US, and the media, to mislead voters. The term Republican tells us very little about the actual candidate. Although many view all Republicans as conservatives, the term is too high a level of abstraction. A good example, of how meaningless the term is, is Colorado State congressman Bill Kaufman, a progressive Republican. As Hayakawa says, "The picture of reality created inside our heads by the lack of consciousness of the abstracting process is not at all.." the description of the real person, once we get to know him.

Some people spend a lot of time in the delusional world of prejudice and hatred based on levels of abstraction that are too high. Serbs, who under Tito, worked and socialized together with Muslim Bosnians, turned to distrusted all of them and killed them under the rule of Milosovic. Fear is a big part of such delusional actions.

On page 107, Hayakawa tells how, because he looks Oriental, "he is credited (or accused) of having an "Oriental mind." Since Buddha, Confucius and Mao Tse-tung... all have "Oriental minds", it is difficult to know whether to feel complimented or insulted". Shapely blonds and Blacks have similar problems that in many cases leads them to develop very insecure self images.

On page 129, he says some very important things about two valued orientations (you are wrong and I am right). Congress does not conduct much of its serious business on the floor in front of TV cameras. What is on TV is for the voters and constituents and is polarized into two value debates.

The Open and Closed mind is summarized on pages 131-3. Rokeach of Michigan State described how there are 4 options for how a listener might react to a speaker and his/her statement.

1. accept the speaker and accept the statement;
2. accept the speaker and reject the statement;
3. reject the speaker and accept the statement;
4. reject the speaker and reject the statement.

Open minded persons can react to all four options, whereas closed mind persons will react only to #1 & #4. The leader of the USSR, Lenin, only reacted to #1. If he trusted the speaker, but rejected his statement, he would view the speaker as unconsciously on the enemy side. If he distrusted the speaker, he rejected even statements with which he agreed. Thus Lenin would only listen to option #1. People with closed minds apparently feel threatened and are fearful. The are two-valued people, through and through.

Reasonably secure and well organized persons enjoy their belief system, but they are also open to information about views that they disbelieve. You can empathize with persons who believe in other political ideologies and/or who believe other religions.

Abstraction is illustrated on pages 175-6. There is a good example of how to escape from two-valued debate in thinking about social problems. We need to get beyond the narrow world of two-valued logic. It works for arithmetic and engineering, and it seems to attract viewers for TV shows, but it does not help in reaching consensus on social issues.


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