General Semantics

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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.

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 sanity only when consciousness of abstracting becomes constant and a matter of reflex.

Many General Semantics practitioners view its techniques as a kind of self-defense kit against manipulative semantic distortions routinely promulgated by advertising, politics, and religion.

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."


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. It is said 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.
  • 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.

Korzybski's books

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 1940's and 1950's, general semantics entered the idiom of science fiction, most notably through the works of A. E. van Vogt (who used them in a trivial and sensationalizing way) and Robert A. Heinlein (who actually understood them). 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 United States; 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. Matters have not been helped by the fact that most General Semantics advocates, like Korzybski himself, have never learned how to write both precisely and clearly. Thus, the value in General Semantics tends to be obscured beneath clouds of jargon-filled pedantry.

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.

See also


External links

fr:Sémantique générale nl:Algemene semantiek simple:General semantics

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