C. A. Hilgartner & Martha A. Bartter


"We go by hints and suggestions from uncertainty to uncertainty."



In an article first printed in 1940 in ASIA, the anthropologist Margaret Mead asks, "Is war a biological necessity, a sociological inevitability, or just a bad invention?" She answers that "warfare... is an invention like any other of the inventions in terms of which we order our lives" -- such as writing, marriage, cooking our food instead of eating it raw, trial by jury, or burial of the dead. She backs up her assertion with anthropological evidence, chiefly that "there are peoples even today who have no warfare1 .... Of these, the Eskimo are perhaps the most conspicuous example, but the Lepchas of Sikkim are an equally good one."


Mead goes on to ask what it means in practical terms to regard war as an invention. "Once an invention is known and accepted, men do not easily relinquish it." She points out that no movement which has insisted upon the mere abandonment of usable inventions has ever had much success. But with certain entrenched examples (such as chattel slavery, or trial by ordeal or combat), "the old method was replaced by a new social invention.... [A] poor invention will usually give place to a better invention." In order to come up with a new way of doing things, "The people must recognize the defects of the old invention, and some one must make a new one." She ends by asserting that "A form of behavior becomes out-of-date only when something else takes its place, and in order to invent forms of behavior which will make war obsolete, it is a first requirement to believe that an invention is possible."


Mead published that article in 1940 -- before the hydrogen bomb, before the atomic bomb, back when war seemed merely scary and horrible, instead of a certified pathway to species suicide. If she actually had a point, surely we would have done something with it long before now.


So obviously, Mead must have made a mistake. Her article expresses merely a pious hope. Everybody KNOWS that human nature is basically competetive and aggressive. As the best we can do, we can only try to find new and less socially destructive ways in which these biologically given aspects of man's nature can find expression. Furthermore, warfare OBVIOUSLY has a sociological component, built into the structure of the nation-state. Nations regard the resort to war as desirable and noble, or at the very least inevitable, whenever certain circumstances arise. What hope do we have of persuading them to abandon war altogether?


But Americans have a national reputation for ingenuity, and a sanguine belief in the possibility of inventions. Let's assume for the moment that Mead does have a point. Let's play with "What if ...?" questions for a while, and see what happens.


For example, what if the social institution of war follows from a set of "operating assumptions" which we had not previously noticed -- "operating assumptions" which function on several different levels: our relations with others, our relations with ourselves, and the relations between groups?




This guess rests on the assumption that humans operate from assumptions, whether we had noticed or not -- the surmise that what we DO functions as some kind of conclusion or "theorem." In other words, let us suppose that underlying anything we do, we have a complete set of lived premises (as opposed to abstract premises, that we only talk about).


The guess that humans operate from lived premises gives us a way to account for the difficulty that most people report when they set out to change their own behavior in any but superficial ways. Mostly, wanting, or deciding, to alter some aspect of one's pattern of living proves ineffective in the long run. In order to modify a behavior pattern, we must modify our assumptions. For example, as Alcoholics Anonymous points out, if you have become addicted to alcohol, merely to stop drinking alcohol does not restore you to health. In becoming addicted, you make self-defeating and self-destructive patterns the center of your whole way of life. Just stopping drinking alcohol will still leave you engaged in these patterns, and so you will continue progressively to damage yourself and everyone around you. The process of recovering from addiction requires that you disclose these self-destructive patterns, one after another, and replace them with self-affirming patterns. That requires changing your lived premises. Can't we assume that changing other lived premises would lead to equally powerful changes in behavior?


The tenacity of the social institution of war suggests that so far, we have not effectively altered the lived premises that lead us to engage in warfare. Perhaps we have not even disclosed them. If not, then we wouldn't even know which aspects of our living to consider rejecting or revising.


But what if the lived premises which underlie the social institution of war specifically prevent us from questioning our lived premises? What if that forms their central feature? For example, what if these premises consist precisely of the tenet that


"My picture of what's going on in and around me is a point-for-point perfect map of what's REALLY going on!"


If indeed my picture or map of what goes on in and around me corresponds point-for-point with what actually goes on, then my map confers absolute certainty. I won't need to waste time examining the territory, because after all, I have perfect information to guide myself by, without looking. Furthermore, questions concerning how I generated my (perfect) map, or when, or where, or for what purposes, don't make any difference in how I handle it, and in fact, won't even occur to me. After all, I already know what's REALLY going on.

I suggest that actions based on such premises show a self-defending structure. The "self" that gets "defended" here does not consist of my physical body, nor the integrity of my feelings, nor the viability of my inter-personal relationships, etc., but rather, consists of my PICTURES (and the lived premises which underlie them).


Now, if I encounter someone who lets on, accidentally or on purpose, that his map does not match mine point-for-point, I will regard that as disturbing. After all, we live in a world of chronic shortage: there's not enough to go around -- especially, not enough Truth. Since my map is RIGHT, yours either has to agree with mine or else it's WRONG. And if, when I mention this fact to you, you fail to agree immediately -- to bring your map into conformity with mine -- you leave me no choice but to defend my own Truths, and to discredit or suppress your mistaken Opinions -- perhaps, in the end, to discredit or suppress YOU. The means available to do that suppressing range from verbal put-downs to fisticuffs or murder. Thus self-defending lived theories lead to one possible pattern for social relations between individuals, namely, a pattern of hostility and conflict.

This pattern of hostility and conflict also describes one kind of relationship between an individual and himself, namely, the self-annihilating, self-defending pattern which therapists call repression. For instance, if I'm a male, and a properly aggressive one at that, then tenderness isn't my job -- maybe it's my wife's, but certainly not mine. To survive in this aggressive, dog-eat-dog world, I have to be tough. That's the way things REALLY ARE. And if there do exist parts of me that don't fit with my-official-picture-of-me (for example, such "soft" and "feminine" traits as a capacity for tenderness), they endanger the survival of that "me" -- so they better just keep out of sight! I will suppress them, and then "forget" that I have done so -- which constitutes repression. Tough, after all, is the way I REALLY AM!


This violent pattern characterizes not only the relations between individuals and between an individual and himself, but also the self-defending social relations between groups. As Americans, you and I may have certain differences of opinion which don't make any difference. Perhaps you vote a straight Republican ticket, whereas I vote Democratic. That doesn't really matter. However, as Americans, we solidly share all the views that do really matter. And those deviant views held by other countries are clearly wrong -- if not evil. If They can't see the way things REALLY ARE on the topics which do make a difference, that makes Them our enemies. And it is our job to discredit our enemies, to suppress them, and perhaps to defeat them in battle and dominate them thereafter.


In time of war we humans settle our crucial "differences" over "what really matters" by means of organized combat. In time of peace, we settle them by means other than combat. In human affairs, we cannot make sense of the construct of war without the construct of peace. Dictionaries define peace as "the absence of war." But the dictionaries do not point out what the terms war and peace have in common. Whenever we use these terms, we assume that "differences" inevitably do exist, and require "settling." Thus, in time of "peace" as well as of "war", we who participate in the various cultures that posit absolute certainty act out social patterns of institutionalized hostility and conflict between groups, as well as between individuals.



The self-defending pattern developed through these "What if" questions begins to sound familiar. It centers about "us vs. them" reasoning, involves dominance/submission struggles within the self and between individuals, and expects zero-sum ("I win/you lose") outcomes. I call this pattern power-struggle.


Many people seem to regard power-struggle as the central feature of human behavior, "built in" at biological and/or sociological levels. Mead shows, however, that this biological imperative -- if it exists -- does not HAVE to show up as organized war.


But what if people engage in power-struggle ONLY when they rely on lived premises based on the pretense to absolute certainty? What if the pattern of power-struggle HINGES on the pretense to absolute certainty?


Further than that, what if the pattern of power-struggle describes only a small fraction of the range of the actual behaviors which humans engage in? What if there already exists a larger pattern of behavior, common to all members of the species regardless of race, creed, nationality, economic class, etc.? If so, we appear so far not to have noticed it. Perhaps we will find evidence for it right under our noses.


For example, what if the ways that humans foster their young and transmit to them their accumulated knowledge; develop new discoveries or inventions and share them with their fellows; maintain social customs which encourage the maturing young to meet members of the opposite sex, to mate and to raise the new young; etc.; manifest this larger pattern? Virtually all peoples do just about all of this; and we generally measure the success of any group by how well they do it, and how good they seem to feel about it.


To this supposed larger pattern, apply some of the suppositions used to scrutinize the self-defending pattern of power-struggle. If what we DO follows from what we ASSUME, this larger pattern must stem from lived premises different from those which lead to self-defending behavior. Suppose that the central premise stands as a precise opposite to the one mentioned above, holding that


"My picture of what goes on in and around me DOES NOT and CANNOT provide a point-for-point perfect map -- of 'what's really going on,' or of anything else".


If indeed my pictures cannot provide absolute certainty, that plunges me into radical uncertainty. By what principle, then, can I tell what to do or to choose? How can I recognize opportunities or dangers? How can I find out what I need in order to survive, prosper and grow, and how can I obtain what it takes to satisfy my needs? How can I tell what to shun, and how can I manage actually to avoid what threatens and endangers me?


Well, what if that which I ALREADY DO precisely addresses these issues? What if generating pictures amounts to making predictions or guesses, which I then use to guide my further "doings" or "choosings"? In other words, what if every organism comes with a built-in procedure for handling radical uncertainty? For example, suppose that I recognize that seeing does not deliver "absolute certainties," but rather, that it delivers GUESSES, which I then use to direct what I do. Say that I want to cross a crowded restaurant to join my friends. I start by using my eyes, and making a set of guesses as to how and where to walk so as to get to my destination without bumping into people, tables, chairs, or whatever. I put my guesses to test in action, and I then judge them against the outcome of the situation. If it turns out that I crossed the room without mishap, the guesses with which I started out end up looking okay for my present purposes; but if I bumped into something or someone en route, then those guesses don't look so good, as judged by that criterion. I must discard them, perhaps apologize, guess again, and then try out the new set of guesses.


This supposition describes my activities in the terminology of the logic of science. I suggest that my actions in particular, and human behaving-and-experiencing in general, at least potentially show a self-correcting structure. Here, as before, the "self" that gets "corrected" consists not of body, feelings, relationships, etc., but primarily of my PICTURES (and the lived premises which underlie them).


What if the larger pattern of human behavior based on self-correcting applies broadly to many situations? What if it forms the center of the processes by which a newborn comes to breathe air, or a small child learns how to tie his own shoelaces? Maybe it manifests itself in the way a baby learns to talk. Perhaps it reveals itself in the change in the way a youngster sees herself-and-her-world when she reaches sexual maturity (so that her experience now includes sexual desire, and her world now contains possible sexual partners). Possibly, the process of writing a symphony or making a scientific discovery manifests this pattern to a high degree. Just maybe, it forms the central core of the survival-trick by which the human species gains its living in the natural world of living creatures.


In the broadest of terms, then, what if the self-correcting structure of my experiencing counter-balances the radical uncertainty of my existential situation? Granted, we humans remain forever in doubt about ourselves-and-our-surroundings. But in principle and in fact, it seems that we cannot do better than to guide ourselves by guesses which have survived testing.


I may from time to time encounter someone whose maps or pictures do not match mine. When I operate from the premises of this larger pattern, I will regard my own pictures as intrinsically inaccurate, incomplete, and self-referential, and so in need of supplementation. I will expect that you may know things from your point of view -- also inaccurate, incomplete, and self-referential, but different from my own -- which might prove useful, even life-saving, to me. This makes it more likely that I will see your concerns and endeavors as contributing to my welfare. Moreover, I may realize that if we combine what we know, perhaps we can together accomplish what neither of us could do alone. Hence I will remain willing to listen to your insights, and to share my own; and in general, to work together with you on joint projects, and to support you in your own endeavors. Self-correcting lived theories, then -- in contrast to self-defending theories -- yield inter-personal relations of cooperation, collaboration and mutual support. Furthermore, self-correcting proves contagious, more so than does self-defending: self-correcting in one person fosters self-correcting in others.


The self-correcting pattern also leads to wider possibilities for relations between groups -- possibilities that many people today may find difficult to imagine. For example, when I operate as part of a group which relies on the premises of the larger pattern, I will regard not only my own maps but also my group's shared viewpoint as intrinsically inaccurate, incomplete, and self-referential; and will see the viewpoint of your group -- unavoidably limited, but different from our own -- as potentially useful to me and to my group. With this regard will come respect, admiration and even awe at the fact of human differences, including group differences. Humans who share the self-correcting pattern will celebrate such diversity. And where it becomes important to resolve some particular dissonance (as between viewpoints or theories), we humans will resort to the procedure of self-correcting to do so -- will design and execute critical experiments framed to select between the rival viewpoints in question.


Finally, the self-correcting pattern gives an accounting for how the human species gains its living in the world of living systems -- and in the same breath, specifies what we DO that distinguishes us from other kinds of living systems. As Alfred Korzybski points out in Manhood of Humanity (1921)2, the fact that we humans accumulate human knowledge (in the form of guesses which have survived repeated testing), and that we do so at exponential rates, distinguishes us from all other species. Korzybski insists that this major difference warrants classifying humans as a separate class of living systems, which he calls a time-binding class of life.


Furthermore, as a consequence of getting born into a time-binding class of life, every human lives within a three-fold relation with the accumulated knowledge which makes up the time-binding heritage: He lives as


a) an heir of the entire time-binding heritage, recipient of the trial-and- failure, trial-and-success of all past generations;


b) an administrator, manager and executor of the heritage, with the opportunity to enhance it and to contribute to it directly through his own efforts; and


c) a trustee for the heritage, responsible to transmit it intact to all future generations of humans, born and unborn.


Thus, from the period when our earliest ancestors became generically human, we members of the human class of life have gained our living by cooperating to apply what we know, in the process coming to know more. Where Mead speaks of "social inventions" such as cooking our food instead of eating it raw, developing rituals and customs of marriage and of burying the dead, etc., she refers precisely to further applications of this long-term process of self-correcting. In the 1930's and 1940's, the cultural anthropologists came to designate this kind of cumulative long-term self-correcting as culture; a decade or so later, the evolutionary biologists came to call it psycho-social evolution.




When we restrict discussion of the procedure of self-correcting to the topic of what we humans more or less unawarely DO over long periods but don't TALK ABOUT, we describe the uniquely human pattern variously called time-binding or culture or psycho-social evolution. This we we cannot regard as new to the human species.


But when we extend the procedure to the levels of what we SAY as well as DO -- when we make self-correcting explicit and aware so we can deliberately use it, and can talk about it and make it a conscious main goal of the entire group, even of the whole human species -- then we provide opportunities not previously imaginable.


Explicit self-correcting amounts to a PROCESS rather than a "product." Anybody at all can do it, in his own living; and his accomplishments potentially affect the entire species.


Used as I have used it in this essay, the process of explicit self-correcting amounts to a new social invention -- an invention for deliberately and consciously generating social inventions.


But to put this new invention into action to make war obsolete will take two steps. First, a bunch of people will have to master explicit self-correcting deliberately, in their own living. Then these people will have to get together, and begin generating larger and larger social institutions systematically based on self-correcting and capable of replacing the social institutions based on self-defending, which hold the social institution of war in place. Since self-correcting fosters further self-correcting, that will make the new social inventions available to the rest of us.


Imagine what the institutions which we usually call "the family," "the school," "the corporation," "the bank," "the inn", "the hospital," "the government" or "the nation-state," etc., will look like when we consciously and systematically transform them so as to made them self-correcting. And imagine yourself as one of the people who, in our own living, will enact and inhabit these self-correcting institutions.


When I do this kind of imagining, I find that this sets the social institution of war -- or put more accurately, the paired ways of acting out institutionalized conflict which we call, respectively, "war" and "peace" -- into a new perspective.


These "What if ..." questions and their answers have turned up no evidence that shows warfare as a biological necessity or a sociological inevitability, or MAKES us regard it as such. The finding that certain peoples live free of organized group conflict suffices to rule out guesses of that sort. Furthermore, the finding that humans practice self-correcting, whether we talk about doing so or not, and that this practice specifies what we DO that distinguishes us from other living systems, makes the construct of determinism look inappropriate for describing human behaving-and-experiencing in the first place.


Warfare has remained widely entrenched for some 5,000 to 10,000 years. But what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the United States dropped atomic bombs on them in 1945 serves notice that, when we humans use cosmic forces such as atomic fission as the basis for our so-called "weapons of war," we leave the human race no place in the cosmos in which to hide. The subsequent development of thermonuclear "devices," intercontinental ballistic missiles, and other instruments of destruction has made it plain that further resort to "war" now provides a certified road to species suicide and extinction. By now, a great many people have become aware of the defects of this old social invention.


We have no problems defining, or visualizing, war. We do have problems with peace. Remember that the dictionary describes peace as "the absence of war," while the Pentagon considers it a state of "permanent pre-hostility." The two terms war and peace describe polar constructs, occupying opposite ends of a spectrum, where one term makes no sense without the real or implied existence of the other -- they alternate. And both terms assume a setting of "differences," which require "settling."


We can't get rid of war alone, without disposing of peace also. This may seem scary. But the process of explicit self-correcting may allow us to give both "war" and "peace" an honorable discharge, and retire them.


We can use the uniquely human trick of inventing new social institutions designed to fit contemporary conditions better, and substituting them for the older invention. Today we have the means to use explicit self-correcting to make our own living more and more to our own liking -- to develop our own preferences for how we want to live our lives, and to make of ourselves what we choose to make.

Let's do it!






1Mead defines the term warfare as "organized conflict between groups as groups, in which each group puts an army (even if the army is only fifteen Pygmies) into the field to fight and kill, if possible, some of the members of the army of the other group."



2Korzybski, Alfred (1921). Manhood of Humanity. New York: E. P. Dutton. Second edition (1950): International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Co. Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, Connecticut, distributors.