General Semantics

General Semantics is a school of thought founded by Alfred Korzybski in about 1933 in response to his observations that most people had difficulty defining human and social discussions and problems and could almost never predictably resolve them into elements that were responsive to successful intervention or correction.

In contrast, he noted that engineers could almost always successfully analyze a structural problem prospectively or a failure of structure retrospectively, and arrive at a solution which the engineers first of all could predict to work and secondly could observe to work. He found especially significant the fact that engineers had a language which helped them to do this, in mathematics. Mathematics has such properties that it appears to mimic its referents and thereby simulate or emulate the behavior of the observed physical universe with some precision. This gives physical scientists and engineers a valuable tool.

Korzybski also observed that the humanities lacked any parallel for mathematics in their languages. He set out to change that.

Alfred Korzybski's effort to introduce linguistic precision of a sort to the humanities resulted in General Semantics. In it, he attempted to make accurate observations with regard to the mechanisms of neural, biological, mental, and emotional interactions between man, other organisms, and the environment, and to describe these in terms which would admit themselves to prospective and retrospective rational analysis of human and social events to the same degree as the engineering disciplines.

Expressed simply, and thus inadequately, the essence of general semantics is the idea that the structure of language distorts our perception of reality, a failing that could be remedied by insight into that process and also by the creation of language that is structured in the same way reality is.

General Semantics never caught on as a major school of thought within the humanities, but a tenacious and growing band of followers continues the effort today to apply and advance upon the results which Korzybski produced.

One novel idea from General Semantics concerns the role of magic in popular culture, especially notable in the use of incantations as political and advertising slogans.

More details:

General Semantics teaches that all linguistic representations discard most of reality ("The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined.") and in particular that much "un-sanity" is caused by adherence to the Aristotelian representation of two-valued either-or logic, which Korzybski saw as being built into Indo-European language structures. From this simple beginning, with which many 20th-century analytical philosophers including their dean Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) would find it hard to differ, Korzybski developed a complex, controversial, jargon-riddled system of what he called ''mental hygiene'' intended to increase the student's effective intelligence. Techniques such as indexing with superscript numbers help in this task.

These ideas, retold in more accessible form by Samuel Hayakawa's Language In Thought And Action (1941), Stuart P. Chase's The Tyranny of Words, and other secondary sources, achieved considerable initial success in the 1940s and early 1950s. During that period they entered the idiom of science fiction, notably through the works of A.E. van Vogt and Robert A. Heinlein. After 1955 they became popularly (and unfairly) associated with scientology but continued to exert considerable influence in psychology, anthropology and linguistics (notably, the development of Neuro-Linguistic Programming shows very obvious debts to General Semantics).

Further Reading

  • 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
  • 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 thought of General Semantics might affect a society.
  • 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, International Society for General Semantics.
  • Living With Change, Wendell Johnson, Harper Collins, 1972

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