General Semantics

General semantics is an educational discipline created by Alfred Korzybski primarily in the years 1919 to 1933. As he often said, general semantics (GS) is distinct from semantics, a different subject. GS is based on the notion that certain personal techniques of evaluation derived from factors underlying the methods of modern science (and scientific knowledge of the world and ourselves), can enhance our ability to evaluate and respond to the world as we experience it.

The three major premises of the system are (1) the map is not the territory [our impressions of things, whether felt in our bodies as sensations, or expressed by the words we use to describe them, are not the things themselves], 2) the map does not show all of the territory, [our reactions (sensations or words) in response to things inevitably miss or leave out a lot of what is actually going on], and (3) the map is self-reflexive [our reactions to anything can prompt further reactions, nonverbal or verbal, which in turn become part of the territory of our experience, complicating everything].

The goal of the system is continual consciousness of these limitations and the need to routinely check our impressions with what is actually going on in the world, which is not identical with what we might always think, or say. He called that goal, "consciousness of abstracting," because everything we know (and can know) is an abstraction from what is going on, and our abstractions are not it (the world, or the universe).

Korzybski's major work was Science and Sanity, an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Because much of general semantics is science-related or derived, there is much discussion of the findings of modern science, from Einstein on (to 1933), and their weighty implications as guides for a new orientation. Korzybski stressed nonverbal thinking, what he called "silence on the objective levels," as the first step in learning his system; and some have noted parallels between GS and certain systems of Eastern thought, such as Zen, though clearly Korzybski was not acquainted with such systems.

In his first book, Manhood of Humanity, Korzybski had defined time-binding (a theory which became one of the elements of general semantics) as a unique and desirable quality of humanity, sharply distinguishing us from the beasts. Humans preserve an ever-growing body of knowledge and information that enables later generations to build on the expertise and lore of previous ones. Hence, humans "bind time" (or have the potential at least to bind time) over the generations. This 1921 book, popular at first but dismissed in later years, may gain new interest and respect with the recent publication in December, 2004 of Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, based fundamentally on the same premise as Korzybski’s.

Partly because Korzybski relegated much of philosophy (but not epistemology) to “a pathological field belonging to psychiatry,” his work generated strong opposition from certain philosophers and logicians, most notably Max Black, Willard Quine, and Martin Gardner, who wrote stinging criticisms. Gardner described Science and Sanity as a “mish-mash,” in his influential book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, in 1950. But outside of the fields of philosophy and logic, attitudes toward Korzybski’s book were more mixed, and less universally negative, especially among scientists, mathematicians, and neurologists. W. Horsley Gantt (who had worked as a colleague with Pavlov in St. Petersburg), E. T. Bell and Cassius Keyser (prominent mathematicians), and Dr. Russell Meyers, the noted neurologist, were all strong supporters of Korzybski. Meyers once described Science and Sanity as, “the most profound, insightful, and globally significant book I have ever read.”

Largely because of the influential opposition it generated, general semantics never caught on as a major school of thought within the humanities or sciences, although a number of Korzybski's followers continued the effort to apply and advance upon the results he produced, with mixed results. Most notable of these 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. 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 and Robert A. Heinlein. After 1955 it became popularly and erroneously associated with Scientology [primarily because of Gardner], despite the fact that two of the earliest and strongest criticisms of Scientology had appeared in GS publications. General semantics continued to exert some influence in psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. The development of Neuro-linguistic programming owes debts to general semantics.

See also

External links


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


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