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General Semantics is an educational discipline created by Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) during the years 1919 to 1933. General Semantics is distinct from semantics, a different subject. The name technically refers to the study of what Korzybski called "semantic reactions", or reactions of the whole human organism in its environment to some event — any event, not just perceiving a human-made symbol — in respect of that event's meaning. However, people most commonly use the name to mean the particular system of semantic reactions that Korzybski called the most useful for human survival.
Advocates of General Semantics view it as a form of mental hygiene that enables practitioners to avoid ideational traps built into natural language and "common sense" assumptions, thereby enabling practitioners to think more clearly and effectively. General Semantics thus shares some concerns with psychology but is not precisely a therapeutic system, being in general more focused on enhancing the abilities of normal individuals than curing pathology.
According to Alfred Korzybski himself, the central goal of General Semantics is to develop in its practitioners what he called "consciousness of abstracting", that is an awareness of the map/territory distinction and of how much of reality is thrown away by the linguistic and other representations we use. General Semantics teaches that it is not sufficient to understand this sporadically and intellectually, but rather that we achieve full sanity only when consciousness of abstracting becomes constant and a matter of reflex.
Philosophically, General Semantics is a form of applied conceptualism that emphasizes the degree to which human experience is filtered and mediated by contingent features of human sensory organs, the human nervous system, and human linguistic constructions.
The most important premise of General Semantics has been succinctly expressed as "The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined." While Aristotle wrote that a true definition gives the essence of the thing defined (in Greek to ti ên einai, literally “the what it was to be”), general semantics denies the possibility of finding such an essence.
Other aspects of the system
There are more elements, but these three in particular stand out:
- Time-binding: The human ability to pass information and knowledge between generations at an accelerating rate. Korzybski claimed this to be a unique capacity, separating us from animals. Animals pass knowledge, but not at an exponential rate, i.e., each generation of animals does things pretty much in the same way as the previous generation. For example, humans used to look for food, now we grow or raise it. Animals are still looking.
- Silence on the objective levels: As 'the word is not the thing it represents,' Korzybski stressed the nonverbal experiencing of our inner and outer environments. During these periods of training, one would become "outwardly and inwardly silent."
- The system advocates a general orientation by extension rather than intension, by relational facts rather than assumed properties, an attitude, regardless of how expressed in words, that, for example, George 'does things that seem foolish to me,' rather than that he is 'a fool.'
Much of General Semantics consists of training techniques and reminders intended to break mental habits that impede dealing with reality. Three of the most important reminders are expressed by the shorthand "Null-A, Null-I, and Null-E".
- Null-A is non-Aristotelianism; General Semantics stresses that reality is not adequately mapped by two-valued (Aristotelian) logics. (See also: Abductive reasoning)
- Null-I is non-Identity; General Semantics teaches that no two phenomena can ever be shown identical (if only because they may differ beyond the limits of measurement) and that it is more sane to think in terms of "sufficient similarity for the purposes of the analysis we are currently performing".
- Null-E is non-Euclideanism; General Semantics reminds us that the space we live in is not adequately described by Euclidean geometry.
The underlying purpose of these reminders is both to adjust our conceptual maps better to the territory of reality and to keep us reminded of the limitations of all maps. Non-Aristotelian, in this particular case, refers to the use of non-Aristotelian logic rather than the aforementioned philosophical disagreement. However, Korzybski saw these as linked. The complex nature of the objects we interact with means that reasoning from "essence" or definitions will often lead us astray. This creates uncertainty, which general semantics links to the use of non-Aristotelian logic.
Korzybski's major work was Science and Sanity, an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, published in 1933. His first book, in which he defined time-binding and explained its ramifications, was Manhood of Humanity, published in 1921. A third book of his writings, Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings 1920-1950, was published in 1990.
Korzybski's most well-known student was S. I. Hayakawa, who wrote Language in Thought and Action (1941), which became an alternative Book-of-the-Month Club selection. An earlier and less influential book in 1938 was The Tyranny of Words, by Stuart Chase. A current book is Drive Yourself Sane, by Susan and Bruce Kodish, published in 2000.
Two major groups were formed in the United States to promote the system: the Institute of General Semantics, in 1938, and the International Society for General Semantics, in 1943. In 2003, the two groups merged into one organization, now called the Institute of General Semantics, with headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. There is also a European Society for General Semantics, and an Australian Society for General Semantics.
During the period of the 1940s and 1950s, general semantics entered the idiom of science fiction, most notably through the works of A. E. van Vogt and Robert A. Heinlein. The ideas of General Semantics became a sufficiently important part of the shared intellectual toolkit of genre science fiction to merit parody by Damon Knight and others; they have since shown a tendency to reappear (often without attribution) in the work of more recent writers such as Samuel Delany and Suzette Haden Elgin.
In 1952, General Semantics was pilloried in Martin Gardner's influential book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. L. Ron Hubbard claimed that his work was based partly on general semantics, but the compliment was not returned. Writing in Etc: A Review of General Semantics, in the fourth quarter of 1951, Hayakawa said, "The lure of the pseudo-scientific vocabulary and promises of Dianetics cannot but condemn thousands who are beginning to emerge from scientific illiteracy to a continuation of their susceptibility to word-magic and semantic hash." ("Dianetics: From Science-Fiction to Fiction-Science," pp.280-293.)
Under the supervision of psychiatrist Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, U.S. medics in World War II used General Semantics to treat over 7,000 cases of battlefield neuroses in the European theater. Kelley is quoted in the preface to the third edition of Science and Sanity. The development of neuro-linguistic programming owes debts to general semantics.
General Semantics has continued to exert some influence in popular psychology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and education. Usually because of the efforts of individual teachers, it has been taught at various times and places (sometimes under other names) in high schools and universities in the U.S.; but in general, the system has had no consistent home in academia.
Popular acceptance has likewise been very limited. As of 2005, the reputation of General Semantics has yet to recover from the damage Martin Gardner and L. Ron Hubbard did to it.
Connections to other disciplines
General Semantics has important links with analytic philosophy and the philosophy of science; it could be characterized without too much distortion as applied analytic philosophy. The influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, and of early operationalists and pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce, is particularly clear in general semantics' foundational ideas. Korzybski himself acknowledged many of these influences.
Korzybski's concept of "silence on the objective level" and his insistence on consciousness of abstracting are parallel to some central ideas in Zen Buddhism. Korzybski is not recorded to have acknowledged any influence from this quarter, but he formulated General Semantics during the same years that the first popularizations of Zen were becoming part of the intellectual currency of educated English-speakers.
Martin Gardner seems to suggest that proponents of general semantics violate their own rules about withholding judgement, following the scientific method and replacing dogmatic belief with various degrees of probability. Gardner also wrote of Korzybski that he "never tired of knocking over 'Aristotelian' habits of thought, in spite of the fact that what he called Aristotelian was a straw structure which bore almost no resemblance to the Greek philosopher's manner of thinking."
In the preface to the first edition of his book Science and Sanity - in 1933, more than twenty years before Gardner's criticism - Korzybski wrote the following:
- "The system by which the white race lives, suffers, 'prospers', starves, and dies today is not in a strict sense an aristotelian system. Aristotle had far too much of the sense of actualities for that. It represents, however, a system formulated by those who, for nearly two thousand years since Aristotle, have controlled our knowledge and methods of orientations, and who, for purposes of their own, selected what today appears as the worst from Aristotle and the worst from Plato and, with their own additions, imposed this composite system upon us. In this they were greatly aided by the structure of language and psycho-logical habits, which from the primitive down to this very day have affected all of us consciously or unconsciously, and have introduced serious difficulties even in science and in mathematics."
The beginning of Chapter VII quotes A.N. Whitehead as saying,
- ...the subject-predicate habits of thought...had been impressed on the European mind by the overemphasis on Aristotle's logic during the long medieval period. In reference to this twist of mind, probably Aristotle was not an Aristotelian.
- The evil produced by the Aristotelian 'primary substance' is exactly this habit of metaphysical emphasis upon the 'subject-predicate' form of proposition.
Korzybski goes on to say, in the third paragraph of that chapter, that Aristotle
- was not only a most gifted man, but who, also, because of the character of his work, has influenced perhaps the largest number of people ever influenced by a single man; and so his work has undergone a most marked elaboration. Because of this, his name, in this book, will usually stand for the body of doctrines known as aristotelianism...Some of the statements may not be true about the founder of the school; yet they remain true about the school.
In the preface to the second edition, having compared his system to non-Newtonian physics and non-Euclidean geometry, Korzybski also writes:
- I must stress that as the older systems are only special limitations of the new more general 'non' systems (see p.97), it would be incorrect to interpret a 'non' system as an 'anti' system.
In response to the charge of unscientific behavior, general-semanticists like Bruce Kodish and Kenneth G. Johnson point to various scientific studies that they say appear to support Korzybski's claims.
Martin Gardner and others cite an essay in Max Black's Language and Philosophy as the "definitive critique of general semantics". However, Kodish and others argue that Black's criticisms stem from misunderstandings of Science and Sanity (see references).
Korzybski's views on what he called "neurolinguistics" did, however, generate support among certain prominent neurologists early in the 20th century, such as Russell Meyers (b. 1904) and C. Judson Herrick (1866-1960), as well as the behaviorist scientist W. Horsley Gantt (1892-1980), who described Korzybki's behaviorist discussion of conditional reflexes as "profound and accurate." Korzybski felt that his critics often confused their characterizations of what he said with what he said. His E-prime response to them was: "I said what I said. I did not say what I did not say."
- The map is not the territory
- Alfred Korzybski
- Institute of General Semantics
- Robert Pula
- Structural differential
- Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture
- Cognitive science
- Language and thought
- List of NLP topics
- Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
- Gestalt Therapy
- Cognitive therapy
- Cognitive activism
- Science and Sanity An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski, Preface by Robert P. Pula, Institute of General Semantics, 1994, hardcover, 5th edition, ISBN 0937298018 (An online version is available here.)
- "The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes," Alfred Korzybski's 1950 article in Perception: An Approach to Personality, edited by Robert R. Blake and Glenn V. Ramsey. Copyright 1951, The Ronald Press Company, New York. online here
- The art of awareness; a textbook on general semantics by J. Samuel Bois, Dubuque, Iowa: W.C. Brown Co., 1966.
- Language in Thought and Action: Fifth Edition, S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa, Harcourt, ISBN 0156482401
- Symbol, status, and personality by S.I. Hayakawa, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963.
- Language habits in human affairs; an introduction to General Semantics by Irving J. Lee, Harper and Brothers, 1941. Still in print from the Institute of General Semantics. On a similar level to Hayakawa.
- The language of wisdom and folly; background readings in semantics edited by Irving J. Lee, Harper and Row, 1949. Was in print (ca. 2000) from the International Society of General Semantics -- now merged with the Institute of General Semantics. A selection of essays and short excerpts from different authors on linguistic themes emphasized by General Semantics -- without reference to Korzybski, except for an essay by him.
- Mathsemantics: making numbers talk sense by Edward MacNeal, HarperCollins, 1994. Penguin paperback 1995. Explicit General Semantics combined with numeracy education (along the lines of John Allen Paulos's books) and simple statistical and mathematical modelling, influenced by MacNeal's work as an airline transportation consultant. Discusses the fallacy of Single Instance thinking in statistical situations.
- Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk: how we defeat ourselves by the way we talk and what to do about it by Neil Postman, Delacorte Press, 1976. Very well-written, unfortunately out of print.
- Operational philosophy: integrating knowledge and action by Anatol Rapoport, New York: Wiley (1953,1965).
- Semantics by Anatol Rapoport, Crowell, 1975. Both general semantics along the lines of Hayakawa, Lee, and Postman and more technical (mathematical and philosophical) material. A valuable survey. Rapoport's autobiography Certainties and Doubts : A Philosophy of Life (Black Rose Books, 2000) gives some of the history of the General Semantics movement as he saw it.
- Hayakawa's critique of Dianetics here
- The World of Null-A and The Pawns of Null-A (also published as The Players of Null-A) by A. E. van Vogt, science fiction novels which take a fanciful approach on how the non-Aristotelian discipline of general semantics might affect a society.
- Assignment in Eternity (1942) is a representative example of the influence of General Semantics in the work of Robert A. Heinlein. The homo novi or "supermen" of the story express recognizably Korzybskian ideas about the relationship between language and thought.
- Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. by Martin Gardner, New York: Dover Publications, 1957.
- A recent critique of Martin Gardner, "In the Name of Skepticism: Martin Gardner's Misrepresentations of General Semantics," by Bruce I. Kodish, appeared in General Semantics Bulletin, Number 71, 2004, pp. 50-63.
- Levels of Knowing and Existence: Studies in General Semantics, by Harry L. Weinberg, Harper and Row, 1959, hardcover, 274 pages.
- ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, journal, Institute of General Semantics. See a compendium of ETC articles here.
- People in Quandries: the semantics of personal adjustment by Wendell Johnson, 1946 -- still in print from the Institute of General Semantics. Insightful book about the application of General Semantics to psychotherapy; was an acknowledged influence on Richard Bandler and John Grinder in their formulation of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
- Your Most Enchanted Listener by Wendell Johnson, Harper, 1956. Your most enchanted listener is yourself, of course. Similar material as in People in Quandries but considerably briefer.
- Living With Change, Wendell Johnson, Harper Collins, 1972
- Contra Max Black: An Examination of 'The Definitive Critique' of General-Semantics, by Bruce I Kodish, 1998
- Language Revision by Deletion of Absolutisms, by Allen Walker Read, 1984
- a bibliography of general semantics papers
- The Original Structural Differential
- The Structural Differential
- A Discussion of Korzybski's ethics, with emphasis on time-binding
- Trance-Formations: Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Structure of Hypnosis by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, (1981). One of the important principles -- also widely used in political propaganda -- discussed in this book is that trance induction uses a language of pure process and lets the listener fill in all the specific content from their own personal experience. E.g. the hypnotist might say "imagine you are sitting in a very comfortable chair in a room painted your favorite color" but not "imagine you are sitting in a very comfortable chair in a room painted red, your favorite color" because then the listener might think "wait a second, red is not my favorite color."
- The work of the scholar of political communication Murray Edelman (1919-2001), starting with his seminal book The Symbolic Uses of Politics (1964), continuing with Politics as symbolic action: mass arousal and quiescience (1971), Political Language: Words that succeed and policies that fail (1977), Constructing the Political Spectacle (1988) and ending with his last book The Politics of Misinformation (2001) can be viewed as an exploration of the deliberate manipulation and obfuscation of the map-territory distinction for political purposes.
- Logic and contemporary rhetoric: the use of reason in everyday life by Howard Kahane (d. 2001). (Wadsworth: First edition 1971, sixth edition 1992, tenth edition 2005 with Nancy Cavender.) Highly readable guide to the rhetoric of clear thinking, frequently updated with examples of the opposite drawn from contemporary U.S. media sources.
- Doing Physics : how physicists take hold of the world by Martin H. Krieger, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. A "cultural phenomenology of doing physics." The General Semantics connection is the relation to Korzybski's original motivation of trying to identify key features of the successes of mathematics and the physical sciences that could be extended into everyday thinking and social organization.
- Philosophy in the flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, (1997).
- The Art of Asking Questions by Stanley L. Payne, (1951) This book is a short handbook-style discussion of how the honest pollster should ask questions to find out what people actually think without leading them, but the same information could be used to slant a poll to get a predetermined answer. Payne notes that the effect of asking a question in different ways or in different contexts can be much larger than the effect of sampling bias, which is the error estimate usually given for a poll. E.g. (from the book) if you ask people "should government go into debt?" the majority will answer "No", but if you ask "Corporations have the right to issue bonds. Should governments also have the right to issue bonds?" the majority will answer "Yes".
- An expose of the cult of General Semantics
- Korzybski's General Semantics
- Institute of General Semantics
- European Society For General Semantics
- Australian Society for General Semantics -- link currently not working from here, but site can be accessed via a search engine such as Google for the exact name.
- Coro Foundation (Leadership training programs based on General Semantics. Notables include the late Gene Siskel, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congressman Jerry Lewis)
- Theoretical foundations of general semantics
- General Semantics: A Tutorial
- Dave's Web Site
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