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General Semantics

Page history last edited by Jeff Martinek 13 years, 11 months ago


“General Semantics is the study of the relation between language, ‘thought,’ and behavior: between how we talk, therefore how we ‘think,’ and therefore how we act.” --George Doris




General Semantics is a doctrine and educational discipline founded by Count Alfred Korzybski; (1879-1950) intended to improve habits of response of human beings to their environment and one another especially by training in the more critical use of words and other symbols. General semantics is distinguished from “semantics” (the study of meaning in language) by its much broader concern with all human responses to both internal and external stimuli, and by its claims to be a specifically modern discipline dedicated to “updating” basic notions of human behavior, response, and signification for a post-Newtonian world in which dualistic thinking can no longer be maintained. General Semantics includes both a large and ambitious body of theory which claims to synthesize modern breakthroughs in physics, anthropology, psychology, linguistics and other fields, and a set of therapeutic practices for bringing “sanity” to human thought, speech, and interaction. Although it has been widely influential in fields as disparate as media theory and cognitive therapy and has had many respected proponents over the years, General Semantics has never been fully accepted as a mainstream scientific, philosophical, or academic discipline.




General Semantics is almost entirely the creation of one man, Alfred Korzybski. Born in the part of the Russian empire that is now Poland in 1879, Korzybski (who always claimed the title “Count,” due to his aristocratic heritage) grew up speaking four languages and trained as an engineer at the Warsaw Institute of Technology. After being wounded while serving in the Russian army during World War I and witnessing the unprecedented carnage and suffering it wrought, Korzybski emigrated to the US in 1916, determined to investigate why modern scientific and technical knowledge had not been able to prevent such disasters. Once in his adopted country he began a lifelong effort to apply the insights of modern science and technology to problems of human understanding, response, and communication. In his his first book, The Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering (published in 1921), Korzybski introduced the concept of mankind as a “time-binding” species, which uses the power of symbolization to learn from the experience of previous generations. In this, Korzybski claimed to have overcome the ancient body/soul dualism, which forced people to choose between defining man biologically as just another type of mammal or metaphysically, as an essentially spiritual being. Other major works followed soon after, including Time-Binding: The General Theory (1926) and his magnum opus, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), in which he christened his new discipline “General Semantics.”


The Institute for General Semantics was founded in Chicago in 1938 as a permanent center for research, teaching, and the publication and dissemination of Korzybski's work. During World War II, the U.S. Army used techniques derived from General Semantics to treat over 7,000 cases of battlefield neuroses [1]. Kozybski's work became more widely known in the late 40's and 50's, especially through the popular works of Stuart Chaase, Korzybski's most prominent disciple S.I. Hayakawa, and science fiction authors A.E. Van Vogt and Robert Heinlein.


General Semantics suffered serious blows to its credibility soon after Korzybski's death in 1950 when it was attacked as a “cult” and a “pseudo-science” in Martin Gardner's bestselling book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Around the same time, the science fiction author turned religious visionary L. Ron Hubbard connected General Semantics with his practice of “Dianetics,” further associating Korzybski's work with the “cult” charge.


In the years since Korzybski's death, General Semantics has remained on the margins of mainstream academia, although it has continued to influence fields such as media theory, education, psychology and has remained accessible mostly thanks to Hayakawa's perennially popular text, Language in Thought and Action (now in its fifth edition, with over 1,000,000 copies sold over almost 70 years).



General Semantics begins where the ancient philosopher Heraclitus left off: with a vision of the universe as constant change, a ceaseless, infinite process of simultaneous, subatomic “events” which only appear as solid objects when filtered through the perceptual and cognitive apparatuses of sentient beings. This is in marked contrast to the “dualist” tradition that Korzybski identifies with the ancient philosopher Aristotle, which treats, for instance “the mind and the body” as two separate things, rather than as aspects of the same continuum. Central to General Semantics is the notion of abstracting as an active, inevitable process of human cognition which selects, omits, and organizes “the details of reality so that we experience the world as patterned and coherent” [2]. For Korzybski, the abstracting power of symbols is the key to their capacity to activate the “time-binding” potential of the human species (plants are “energy-binders” and non-human animals are “space-binders”). Because a given symbol reduces the infinite detail of the universe down to a manageable package, it can transmit its selected, concentrated, organized details from human mind to human mind, across both space and time. Such transmission allows precious knowledge to be pooled, analyzed, reorganized, improved, and used as a scaffolding for future knowledge.

Time binding


“... man improves, animals do not; man progresses, animals do not; man invents more and more complicated tools, animals do not; man is a creator of material and spiritual wealth, animals are not; man is a builder of civilization, animals are not.”—Korzybski, Manhood of Humanity, p. 186.


But it is this very capacity for abstracting that is mankind's Achilles heel as well as its claim to glory, for the abstracting process leads us further and further away from the material (or in Korzybski's language “extensional”) world and towards the conceptual (or “intensional”) realm. High order abstractions like “justice” “beauty” “evolution” and “energy” are necessary for sophisticated thinking and complex operations, but can create confusion, conflict, and even insanity, when they are not recognized and treated as the abstractions they are. Thus Korzybski identifies “consciousness of abstracting” as one of the hallmarks of rigorous scientific/technical thinking. Scientists (in their role as scientists at least) tend to be more aware of the level of abstraction their thought and language is operating on. This is partially due to the modern scientific use of numbers mathematical symbols whenever possible.


“General semantics provides a method of studying the part language plays in human affairs. The physical scientist is able to use words so accurately that they enable him to build bridges and erect giant superstructures. Perhaps the scientist’s use of words may provide a clue to help the teacher, the pupil, or anyone evaluate his own language habits. Can we learn to use language more efficiently and accurately to achieve understanding and agreement?” --Catherine Minteer, Words and What They Do To You


Korzybski created an odd (“comical,” some would say) model to explain his concept of abstracting called “The Structural Differential.” At the top of model is the “Event (Process) Level” -- the subatomic world of constant change and motion that we never experience first hand. At the next level (the silent “Object Level”) we perceive something but have no words or concepts for it. Next comes the “Descriptive Level” in which “things” come with specific names, like my dog “Spot.” Beyond that is the “Inference Level 1,” where we “generalize that certain things shaped similarly but looking somewhat different are all called” dogs. There are an infinite number of additional inference levels (marked as the “Et Cetera” continuum) where we make additional inferences based on earlier inferences. [See chapter 7 of Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics by Susan and Bruce Kodish for clear and thorough discussion of the Structural Differential][3].



Korzybski made study of the structural differential central to all training in General Semantics. Later, S.I. Hayakawa simplified the model and relabeled it “The Ladder of Abstraction” in his influential book Language in Thought and Action[4]:



In both cases, the models are intended to serve as visual reminders of the basic tenet of General Semantics, often formulated in the phrases “the word is not the thing” and “the map is not the territory.” To thoroughly internalize these ideas is to be constantly conscious of the abstracting process and how it can cause us to “identify” (conflate) different levels of abstraction to our cognitive and emotional detriment. For example, if we are not aware that the word “patriotism” is a very high level abstraction which is based on chains of inferences which are different for different minds, we may think that "patriotism" is as simple to identify and define as a unique physical object like “this pencil that I'm holding in my hand right now.” When we make this mistake, we may be too quick to attribute malice, treachery, or insanity to others who do not define this high level abstraction the same way we do.


Indeed, the tendency to mistake words for things (or “verbalism”) is perhaps the most perennial flaw in the history of human thought. For instance, because the so-called “properties” of an object can be spoken of separately (say the color and shape of a ball), some philosophers concluded that “properties” are separate “things” that are added to some other basic thing called “the object.” Similarly, because we have words for both “body” and “mind,” philosophers and theologians for centuries treated the two as fundamentally separate, often with tragic results for the body. In modern times, Einstein showed that the concepts of “space” and “time” could not be treated as entirely separate, and thus posited a “space-time” continuum to go along with the “body-mind” continuum of modern psychology. One of the techniques used by General Semantics is to employ such hyphenated terms to repair the split in our thinking caused by the fact that words for reality can be split, but reality itself cannot. Other techniques used by General Semantics include indexing (marking the differences between individual cases so as not to conflate person1, person2, etc. into “all people”) and dating (including dates which allow us to see how individual entities can change over time, for instance, that "The United States [1802]" is not the same as "The United States [2007].")


Korzybski also recommended severely restricting usage of the verb “to be,” especially when used in statements of identity and predication. For instance, sentences like “John is a bum” attribute an identity between John and an abstract concept, which is loaded with questionable inferences and may even be fundamentally mistaken. Korzybski points out that such sentences ought to be reformulated to more accurately reflect the fact that the speaker is talking about his or her own perceptions rather than describing something essential about John. For instance: “John's behavior and dress remind me of a bum.” The movement to purge English usage, as much as possible, of these two uses of the verb “to be” has come to be known as the “E Prime” movement.


Criticisms of General Semantics


Because of his unconventional approach, the broad sweep of his ideas, and "outsider" status in regards to mainstream philosophy, Alfred Korzybski has sometimes been viewed as a crank or pseudo-scientist. His Institute for General Semantics, with its initiatory training methods, specialized language, weird models, etc. has been compared to a cult. Martin Gardner's 1952 best-seller, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which lumped General Semantics in with such outre movements as Dianetics and Scientology, was particularly damaging. But Neil Postman (a one-time editor of ETC: The Journal of General Semantics) has defended Korzybski (while acknowledging some of his errors, flaws, and personal vanities) as “one of our century's extraordinary [intellectual] synthesizers” and compared him to such modern-age intellectual trailblazers as “Freud, George Herbert Mead, Bertrand Russell, Edward Sapir, John Dewey, and Albert Einstein.” [Postman] More recently, Bruce Kodish, one of the leading contemporary exponents of General Semantics has published an extensive answer to Gardner's charges in the paper “In The Name of Skepticism: Martin Gardner's Misrepresentations of General Semantics.” [5] Kodish musters impressive support for his claims that Gardner wrote from personal animus, made obvious and absurd errors, and ignored Korzybski's subtle refinements (especially in regards to the difference between Aristotle the man and the “school of Aristotle” that later became intellectually dominant in the West) as well as Korzybski's acknowledgments of intellectual predecessors and inspirations.


Implications For Media Ecology


Media Ecology as a discipline has been closely tied to the General Semantics movements and its followers. Neil Postman, one of the coiners of the term "Media Ecology," was for many years associated with the General Semantics Institute and served as editor of its official journal, ETC. S.I. Hayakawa's popular textbook on General Semantics, Language in Thought and Action, contains a wealth of material about what he terms the "semantic environment." This idea of the "semantic environment" is a crucial forerunner of the concept of the "media environment" which is the favored metaphor of Media Ecologists. Finally, Korzybski's claims regarding man as a "time-binder" appears to have had an influence on the Time and Space Theory elaborated first by Harold Innis∞ and more recently by James Carey.



[1] "General Semantics" Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 01 April, 2008 10:55 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Feb. 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_semantics>.

[2] Postman, Neil. “Alfred Korzybski.” Conscientious Objections. New York: Vintage Books, 1978

[3] Kodish, Susan and Bruce Kodish. Drive Yourself Sane: Using The Uncommon Sense of General Semantics. Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing, 2001

[4] Hayakawa, S.I. Language in Thought and Action New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovice, 1972.

[7] Kodish, Bruce. “In The Name of Skepticism: Martin Gardner's Misrepresentations of General Semantics” General Semantics Bulletin. Vol 71, 2004.



Hayakawa, S.I. "Language and Survival"

Hayakawa, S.I. "Symbols"

Korzybski, Alfred.  Manhood of Humanity

Korzybski, Alfred.  Science and Sanity:  An Introdution to Non-Aristotelian Systems

Korzybski, Alfred.  Time-binding:  The General Theory

External Links


Institute of General Semantics Website

What is General Semantics? by Ralph E. Kenyon

Wikipedia Entry on General Semantics

General Semantics: A Tutorial

Introduction to Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski

"What I Believe" by Alfred Korzybski

"Exploring Time-Binding Formulations with William Wordsworth" by David Maas

“New Theory of Man”: Count Korzybski Offers Time-binding as the Key" The New York Times, 1921

Alfred Kozybski's Obituary, New York Times, 1950

On Time-Binding as An Agent of Peace by Nan Bialek

ETC: A Journal of General Semantics (selected online articles)

Changing Reputations:  Demarginalizing General Semantics - by Bruce Kodish


Original Author:  Jeff Martinek








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