GS Class Presentations

This page includes seven different topics from my GS for Mass Communications Practitioners course at TCU in Fort Worth, TX, from 2005-2008:

  • Fundamental Principles of General Semantics
  • Basic Understandings
  • Does Perception = Reality?
  • PR or Propaganda?
  • Genres and Categories
  • Preparation for the F Word Film
  • Last Class Review

Fundamental Principles

Basic Understandings

Does Perception = Reality?

PR or Propaganda?

Genres and Categories

Preparation for the F Word Film

Last Class Review

TCU, Spring 2008

Teaching

GS for Mass Communications Practitioners

Catalog Description: The application of the principles of General Semantics — how language affects the communication process — to the practice of journalism, advertising, and public relations.

Syllabus

Overview

General Semantics (GS) deals with how we perceive, construct, evaluate and then express our life experiences through our language-behaviors. This course provides an introduction to the discipline, focusing on practical applications for mass communications professionals.

Course Objectives

Students will:

  • Demonstrate a working knowledge of the basic terms, formulations, and system of General Semantics.
  • Relate the principles of GS to their chosen professional fields.
  • Apply the methods of GS to their own individual evaluating, behavior, and self-awareness.
  • Critically evaluate various aspects of the mass communications processes and outputs.
  • Practice and demonstrate the skills and knowledge associated with their chosen professional fields (journalism, advertising, public relations, etc.).
  • Research and report on topics of interest using the analytical and communication techniques of General Semantics.

eCollege and Email

The resources and capabilities of eCollege will be used for important class communications, announcements, assignments, and posting grades. Critical functions and capabilities of the eCollege class shell will be covered in class, but you are expected to be proficient in using eCollege capabilities. For help with eCollege, please see: www.elearning.tcu.edu/helpdesk/default.asp and http://www.elearning.tcu.edu/resources/. Email will also be an important communication means for this course. Your official TCU student email address will be used for all course notifications.

Fall 2008 Schedule

The content for this course is somewhat fluid and may be determined based on current events, student interests, etc. Therefore I reserve the right to adjust the sequencing of the material based on the needs of the class. It is not anticipated that the dates for quizzes, projects, reports, and presentations will change. However, should they become necessary or desirable, changes to the Course Outline, or any other part of this syllabus, will be communicated to the class as soon as possible via eCollege Announcement.

Grades and Assignments

The grading philosophy for this course is that you earn points for completing assignments. Except as noted, the assignments are not “graded” other than to make sure the stated requirements are satisfied. The intent is to reward accomplishment of assigned tasks; in other words, you will determine your grade based on how much you choose to accomplish.

You will participate in two different Groups throughout the semester. You will be expected to participate in and contribute to each Group activity. You may lose points if, in my judgment, you fail to appropriately participate and contribute.

This course is worth a total of 1,000 points:

  • 930 points are required for an A
  • 840 points are required for a B
  • 750 points are required for a C
  • 660 points are required for a D

Assignments are divided into four types:

  1. Individual Assignments (625 points)
  2. Group 1 Assignments (125 points)
  3. Group 2 Assignments (150 points)
  4. Quizzes (100 points)

1) Individual Assignments (625 points)

Attendance — 232 points. There is no primary textbook for this course. Some supplementary articles will be assigned throughout the course to reinforce material covered in class, but the primary source for course content will be class presentations, lectures, and discussion. Therefore attendance in this course is very important. Each class is worth 8 points. If you attend the class, you earn the points; if you don’t attend the class, you don’t earn the points. If you miss class due to an official university absence or if you have an extenuating circumstance as determined by the instructor, you may complete make-up assignments for no more than two absences.

Journals — 168 points. You are expected to complete one journal entry after each class (except the final class, 28 total) throughout the semester using the eCollege Journal tool. An entry for each class is required, regardless of attendance. Your class notes may be included in your journal, but the intent of the assignment is to write about more than just your class notes. Each journal entry should be at least 300 words and provide a summary of what you felt were the most important points covered in that class, or how something from the class applies to something that happens outside of class. This is an opportunity for you to reinforce what you are learning in class and relate class material to your own ‘real world.’ Each of the 28 entries is worth 6 points. Entries for each Tuesday/Thursday class must be completed by the following Monday to earn maximum points. Journal entries will not be scored qualitatively, but entries shorter than 300 words or entries submitted after the Monday they are due will receive only 3 points each.

Online Discussion — 40 points. You have the opportunity to participate in a general online threaded discussion forum in eCollege. A maximum of eight (8) points may be earned for each three-week period in which you materially contribute to the general discussion. In this context, “materially contribute” means that you, during each three-week period, offer at least four comments that begin or propel a threaded discussion by expressing a well-stated opinion, observation, insight, or respectful argument.

Definition Task — 40 points (*a, *m). Two 20-point tasks related to definitions will be assigned. Details will be provided in class.

Current Event Task — 25 points (*f). You will be required to complete one assignment regarding a current event. Details will be provided in class.

Book Report — 75 points (*h). Select a book from the list of approved books, read it, and submit a 2,000-word book report that relates the contents of the book to material covered in the course.

Individual Report/Evaluation for Group 2 Project — 45 points (*l). Details will be provided in class.

2) Group 1 Assignments (125 points)

Time-binding Timeline Task — 25 points (*b). Details will be provided in class.

Process Diagram Task — 25 points (*c). Details will be provided in class.

“100 Greatest Discoveries” Project — 75 points (*d). Each group will be assigned one of the eight subject areas for the Discovery Channel’s series featuring Bill Nye. Each group will be tasked to study the content of its respective video (approximately 45 minutes) and prepare a report to the class, according to the requirements to be provided in class. Depending on performance, your Group may receive 75, 68, or 60 points.

3) Group 2 Assignments (150 points)

Project Plan — 25 points (*g). Details will be provided in class.

Dialogue Presentations (pairs) — 25 points (*i). Details will be provided in class.

Video Series Project — 100 points (*k). Each group will be assigned a major topic that includes a series of videos. Each group will be tasked to study the content of its respective video topic and prepare a report to the class, according to the requirements to be provided in class. Depending on performance, your Group may receive 100, 90, or 80 points.

4) Quizzes (100 points)

Two Quizzes (50 points each, *e, *j) will be given and may consist of multiple choice, true/false, short answer/essay questions, or other activities to be graded individually.

Attendance

  • In-class lectures, presentations, and discussion will constitute the major source of learning opportunities. These learning opportunities simply cannot be made up. Therefore class attendance is extremely important. Attendance will be taken.
  • Late work due to unofficial absences will be accepted within one week of the assigned date and automatically penalized by a 20% reduction in possible points earned.
  • Graded work missed due to an official university absence may be made up with no penalty provided the make-up work is completed within one week of your return. It is your responsibility to notify me immediately of an official absence and to initiate any make-up work.

Quiz 1, 75 points

Match each statement to the GS term that best fits. You may feel that some of the terms apply to more than one statement. But you are encouraged to read over all the terms and matches in order to select the most appropriate term for each statement. (1 points each, 10 points total)

  1. “I hit the gas as soon as the light turned green. I never checked the cross traffic.”
  2. “He said he hated Pittsburgh. But he was only there for a day. He couldn’t have seen or experienced very much, so his assessment was based on limited observations.”
  3. “You either love me or you don’t. There’s no in between.”
  4. “I liked the movie until that guy fell through the ice and drowned in that icy water. I got so chilled I had to go outside to warm up.”
  5. “I just know he’s going to be late since he’s never been here before.”
  6. “I couldn’t believe she sent me that rude email. I’m not going to reply to it until tomorrow … maybe I’ll feel differently then.”
  7. “He used to be a radical socialist in college, but now he’s married with kids and a Bush conservative.”
  8. “Just because he’s Muslim doesn’t mean he wouldn’t make a good coach.”
  9. “I believe the prices at Tom Thumb are higher than at Albertson’s. I’m going to come up with a list of the items I usually buy and do a price check at each store to see if I’m right.”
  10. “I’m never going back there. There was absolutely nothing I liked about any part of that city.
  1. ____ inference
  2. ____ scientific attitude
  3. ____ delayed reaction
  4. ____ dating
  5. ____ indexing
  6. ____ identification
  7. ____ two-valued orientation
  8. ____ consciousness of abstracting
  9. ____ signal reaction
  10. ____ absolutism

MULTIPLE CHOICE (2 points each, 20 points total):

11.  Which is the most appropriate statement about general semantics?

  1. it’s just about the study of words
  2. it’s about choosing the right words to describe the objective world of reality
  3. it’s about evaluating the assumptions underlying language and symbols
  4. all of the above

12. Which is the most appropriate statement about the world ‘out there’?

  1. with more precise language we can accurately describe the objective world
  2. we can talk about general experiences that everybody should feel
  3. we can only talk about the world-to-me or the world-to-you
  4. we must talk objectively because there is only one world ‘out there’

13. What is significant about a statement such as “The rose is red”?

  1. it implies that red exists as a property in the rose
  2. it projects the reactions of the observer’s nervous system into the world ‘out there’
  3. it suggests that everybody should see the rose as the same color
  4. all of the above

14. Which of the following statements does not apply to a statement of fact?

  1. only a limited number of factual statements can be made
  2. a statement of fact can only be made after an observation or experience
  3. a statement of fact is open to interpretation and can be endlessly argued
  4. a statement of fact represents a high degree of probability, is close to certainty

15. Which of the following statements about assumptions and inferences is most correct?

  1. we must not make assumptions and inferences
  2. we must make assumptions and inferences
  3. they can only be made before an observation or experience
  4. there is a big difference between an assumption and an inference

16. An alternative to using polarizing (either-or, right-wrong, good-bad) language is:

  1. to eliminate all forms of the verb “to be”
  2. to take care to avoid making assumptions
  3. to talk in terms of degrees, with possibilities in between the extremes
  4. avoid subject-predicate constructions

17. Exactly, perfectly, and without a doubt are examples of:

  1. low-level abstractions
  2. absolutistic terms
  3. symbol reactions
  4. multiordinal terms

18. Which activity is part of  what we refer to as “abstracting” in general semantics?

  1. to select
  2. to construct
  3. to leave out
  4. all of the above

19. According to Edward Sapir, which statement about language is correct?

  1. the objective world of reality creates the language we use
  2. a single universal language is the only hope for avoiding future conflicts
  3. the language we grow up with predisposes us to certain choices of interpretation
  4. there is a direct correlation between the size of vocabulary and cultural progress

20. Which of the following statements is most accurate?

  1. words change faster than the world changes
  2. the world changes faster than words change
  3. the survival of a civilization depends upon its people being able to avoid change
  4. our senses are unlimited

The Structural Differential

Give a short explanation or description of the four components of the abstracting process noted below. (1 points each, 5 points total)

Structural Differential Diagram

Final Exam

 

Video

This video provides a review of the Spring 2008 semester, compiling over 70 different clips from videos shown during class to reinforce GS principles and formulations. Informative, educational, and entertaining.  *Some content may be considered objectionable and inappropriate for younger viewers.* (31:00)

Major sources of the clips used include:

      • “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”
      • “The Colbert Report”
      • PBS: “Eyes on the Prize”
      • “The N Word: Divided We Stand”
      • “F**k: A Documentary”
      • PBS Frontline: “The Persuaders”
      • Independent Lens: “The Paper”
      • “Toxic Sludge is Good for You”
      • “The Brain: Evolution and Perception”
      • Blue Man Group: “Inside the Tube”
      • Herbie Hancock’s “Possibilities”

GS Videos: Created

Videos Created for General Semantics Classes

Fall 2006 Semester Review, Part 1 of 3 (7:08)

Fall 2006 Semester Review, Part 2 of 3 (13:23)

Fall 2006 Semester Review, Part 1 of 3 (4:16)

Alfred Korzybski Explains the Structural Differential (2:48)

Alfred Korzybski and his Fan Disk (3:04)

A Listening Exercise (5:20)

Are Words Obscene? (4:39)

A New Sort of Man: Balvant K. Parekh

ETC Cover 65-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Volume 65 No. 1, January 2008. Prepared for a presentation to the National Workshop on General Semantics, Vadodara, India.)

Irving J. Lee related a conversation he had with Alfred Korzybski in which Lee asked, “Now, Alfred, you have been thinking about this stuff for a very long time. Can you tell me, in a nutshell, what are you trying to do? What is the objective of all this reading and studying and talking and sweating that you go through day after day, year after year? What are you after?”

Korzybski replied to Lee, “Irving, we are trying to produce a new sort of man.” (1)

Lee goes on to describe how Korzybski attempted to describe this new sort of man in the pages of Science and Sanity. During the course of a speech he gave in 1951, Lee outlined a profile of this new sort of man that included traits and characteristics such as:

  • Competence, not merely in terms of knowledge, but in the application of his knowledge.
  • Curiosity about the world and the people around him.
  • Productive and efficient memory in terms of remembering the important and the significant, but forgetting the unpleasant, the petty, and the trivial.
  • Highly discriminating awareness of differences, nuances, and subtleties; he would never “suffer from the blindness that obliterates uniqueness.”
  • Integrative personality in a holistic sense; he would know and do, diagnose and prescribe, think and feel and act. He will embody both “rugged individualism” and cooperative altruism.
  • Unapologetic sincerity in his beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes toward those things he deemed to be relevant and significant, with an equal ability to disassociate himself from that which he determined to be unimportant and trifling.
  • Constant awareness that his beliefs, no matter how sincere or deeply-held, are beliefs and therefore not final Truth or Knowledge; he would not shirk from exploring what lies beyond his beliefs.
  • Patience in great reserves.
  • Sociability and friendliness without pretention.
  • Clarity and precision in his speaking, with confidence and without apology.
  • Persistence and perseverance in his endeavors, while taking care to pick his battles carefully and admitting, but ‘dating,’ his setbacks and defeats.
  • “Ruthless realism” to the maximum degree possible.
  • Cooperation, inventiveness, or steadfast determination, depending on the circumstances but always acting toward resolution and accomplishment.
  • Alertness to “the possibilities and potentialities of the human being,” while still recognizing the practical limitations of humanness: “Limitation of aims is the mother of wisdom and the secret of achievement,” (Goethe) and “Knowledge of the possible is the beginning of happiness.” (Santayana)

In the person of Mr. Balvant K. Parekh, Lee and Korzybski would surely have found a fellow traveler of this new sort. To support this evaluation, to publicly recognize his contributions as Time-Binder, and to illustrate the transcultural applicability of Korzybski’s system of extensional orientation (i.e., general semantics), we are pleased to present portraits of Mr. Parekh sketched in two parts.

The first part, “Felicitations” (or celebrations of an accomplishment) includes four excerpts from a book of well-wishes presented to Mr. Parekh on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1999. These four short and very personal comments about Mr. Parekh, sampled from over one hundred published, portray representational images of him by his daughter, granddaughter, personal assistant, and recipient of his philanthropy.

The second part, “Selections from Gamta no kariye Gulal,” offers more impressionistic insights about Mr. Parekh. These statements, quotes, and articles from his own compilations of material published in his own journal, beginning in 2003, reveal much about the interests, passions, and character of this new sort of man. The title of the journal, Gamta no kariye Gulal, translates into English as, “If you get what you like, do not keep it; rather, share it.”

I hope that as you learn more about this new sort of man, you might benefit from his new sort of time-binding.

 

The Bridge at Neverwas

(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Volume 65 No. 1, January 2008. Prepared for a presentation to the National Workshop on General Semantics, Vadodara, India.)

Neverwas BridgeOnce upon a time there was a beautiful land known as Neverwas. The people who settled in Neverwas loved it, for it provided everything they needed to live and prosper. There were fertile fields for farming, mountains for mining and timber, and a broad river with crystal clear water that ran through the land. To the west, on the other side of the mountains, a natural harbor invited access to the vast ocean. To the east, as far as anyone could see, a great golden plain extended into the rising sun.

The Neverwas-ites felt truly blessed, except for one flaw in their near-paradise. The mighty river, which in many ways represented the life force of the people and the land, divided Neverwas into two distinct lands: the mountains with the mines and timber sat west of the river, with the ocean still further west; the great fertile farmland and endless plains lay to the east of the river. The people of Neverwas could only cross the broad river twice a year when the river flow slowed enough to allow them to guide their flat-bottomed barges with long poles.

Over the years, the people of Neverwas adapted to the challenges resulting from the river divide. The people on the east side of the river learned to farm and irrigate the vast fields. They grew a healthy variety of food crops, and also cotton for making clothes. On their side of the river, they built great mills powered by the river flow and processed their grains into flour and meal. The people on the east side became experts in growing and processing the crops that their fertile fields produced.

The people on the west side of the river learned to mine the mountain ore and forge metal tools and utensils. The trees from the mountain forests provided plentiful wood for building shelters and eventually boats. They learned how to harness the power of the river to mill the lumber. They became expert builders and designers, making use of their never-ending supply of timber and ore to engineer new tools, devices, and structures. Some of the westsiders became sailors, and over the years they learned to venture out well beyond the Neverwas harbor.

And twice a year, every year, the people on both sides of the river devoted themselves to crossing the river and exchanging food, cloth, timber, tools, utensils — all the goods that had to be traded in order for people on both sides of the river to live and prosper.

Over the years, all the people in Neverwas spent their nights gazing into the brilliant sky above. The Neverwas-ites on the east side observed the changing shapes and patterns of the moon and stars. Over the years, they noticed how the landscape of the sky was arranged when certain events occurred in their land. When they experienced great joy upon the births of new babies, they looked to the sky; when their crop harvests were bountiful, when the river brought them many fish, whenever good fortune embraced them. But they also looked to the sky when they experienced great suffering during plagues, droughts, floods, and other tragedies. Over the years, they began to see connections between what occurred in the sky and what resulted on the land. They wove wonderful stories about the creatures and characters they saw in the sky, and passed these stories down from generation to generation.

Like their neighbors to the east, the people who lived west of the river developed a fascination with the sky. Over the years, they too carefully watched the movement of the moon and stars. They learned how to predict when certain formations would appear, and where in the sky they would appear. As their sailors began to sail farther away from Neverwas, they observed that the position of the sky landscapes changed.

Over the years, they charted the sky formations, noting the dates, times, and locations of the moon and the brightest stars. They used their knowledge of mathematics to calculate and predict their location based on the position of the moon and stars. They eventually learned how to navigate the vast ocean by using the sky landscape to guide them.

Over the years, the council leaders of Neverwas met together to talk about how they could make life better for people on both sides of the river. Every year, the leaders from both sides discussed how wonderful it would be if they could cross the river throughout the year, rather than just twice a year using the pole-driven flat-bottomed barges. Every year, the leaders would speculate how wonderful it would be if there was a bridge at Neverwas. But the people on the east side of the river knew nothing about designing or building bridges, and the people on the west side of the river, including their best engineers, had no idea how they could build a bridge that would span the broad expanse of the river.

One year, the west side sailors returned from a long trip across the ocean with exciting news for the engineers. They had visited a faraway land and observed the largest and stoutest bridge they had ever seen! This great bridge spanned a river even broader than the Neverwas river, according to the sailors. The engineers were skeptical. How was that possible? They had to see it for themselves. They pooled their resources and selected their three most trusted engineers to sail on the next boat out to see this great bridge.

Months later, the boat carrying the engineers returned to Neverwas. The engineers literally sprang from the boat deck onto the dock, so eager were they to get started on their own bridge. For they had indeed seen the great foreign bridge! It did exist, and the engineers brought back detailed sketches of the bridge’s ingenious design. The engineers and the mathematicians immediately set about reproducing the structural calculations to design a bridge for the river at Neverwas.

Word spread quickly on both sides of the river about the prospects for the long awaited bridge. It was finally going to happen! The farmers and the mill operators on the east side of the river started looking for new land to acquire to grow more crops and mill more grain as they anticipated great riches from increased trade to the west side and beyond. The loggers and the builders on the west side began stockpiling building materials as they anticipated a great building boom on the east side, thanks to the easy transport the bridge would bring.

For one long year, everyone in Neverwas waited for the engineers to finish the designs for the bridge. The people on both sides of the river elected representatives to a new council, specially formed to oversee the bridge project. On the day that the new council was briefed on the project plans, there were great celebrations all across the land.

But the celebrations were brief. For the engineers from the west side had devised a plan for the bridge that the eastside council could not accept. The problem was not in the design or the structure or the cost of the bridge, but its location.

The plans specified that the bridge was to be built at the place where the river was narrowest and straightest. The west side engineer explained that this was the only feasible place where the bridge could be built for three reasons:

  1. As the location where the river was most narrow, there was more margin for error that the supporting structures on each side of the river could bear the weight of the wide span.
  2. As the location where the river ran most straight, there was less risk to the supporting structures due to erosion or flood.
  3. Due to the mountains on the west side of the river, the chosen location was the only place where there was adequate access to build a roadway that could connect to the bridge on the west side.

But the leader of the eastside council strongly objected to this location. It was simply not possible to build the bridge at this spot, he exclaimed, for three reasons:

  1. Three hundred years before, there had been a great drought on the east side of the river. The great drought was broken only after the eastsiders had gathered at this very spot to prayerfully appeal to the stars above. Every year since, the eastsiders held a festival to celebrate and to appeal to the stars that there would never again be such a devastating drought. The bridge simply could not be built on this sacred site.
  2. Their best and most revered sky readers had revealed that the stars in the heavens favored a site three miles up river, near a hill on which the eastsiders had always gathered to gaze up at the night sky.
  3. The eastside mill operators and farmers also supported the same site three miles up river, where the river happened to run the fastest and widest. But it also happened that three large mills were already planned to be built there, and the site bordered the farms of the two wealthiest and most powerful farmers in Neverwas.

For five long years, the Neverwas westsiders and eastsiders argued about where the bridge might be built. For every location the westside engineers considered workable, the eastsiders objected. For every location offered by the eastsiders, the engineers’ calculations showed it to be unworkable.

And so it happened that one spring, there was an abundance of rain and the river swelled and was in danger of flooding both sides of Neverwas. The eastsiders gathered on their sacred spot, now threatened by the rapidly rising water, at the very spot the bridge had been proposed. They prayed and appealed to the stars in the heavens for the rains to stop.

Despite their appeals and prayers, the storms grew even stronger. The river rose rapidly, flooding the farmers’ fields to the east. There were terrible lightning strikes over the mountains, causing devastating fires to the timber structures in the villages. Before the rains eventually doused the fires, many of the buildings on the west side burned to the ground.

One of the buildings that burned was where all of the plans, sketches, and designs for the bridge were stored. And that is the story of how the bridge at Neverwas never was built.

General Semantics in India – 2007

BK Parekh and Andrea Johnson Andrea Johnson and Steve Stockdale

(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Volume 65 No. 1, January 2008.)

Thanks to underwriting from Mr. Balvant K. Parekh, Chairman of Pidilite Industries Ltd, IGS Board President Andrea Johnson and I spent more than two weeks in India to introduce General Semantics. We gave seminars and workshops at seven different venues in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Anand, and Vadodara, to a total audience of about 350 individuals.

Mr. Parekh speaking at the Centre for Contemporary Theory in Baroda, November 2007

The following are some key points regarding our host in India, Mr. Parekh, and the circumstances of his invitation to us.

His motivation to organize this trip to “bring general semantics to India” came from reading the 2006 General Semantics Bulletin and noting that he was the only IGS member in India.

His initial invitation asked for one person. He agreed to our counter-proposal to send two persons, with me traveling at my own expense.

He came to general semantics about 25 years through reading ETC: A Review of General Semantics. Much of his extensive knowledge and understanding of GS, which he demonstrated privately and during his remarks at each of the venues, came from reading articles in ETC.

A native of Gujarat, Mr. Parekh has long lived according to the Gujarati tradition: “If you get what you like; do not keep it, rather share it.” So inspired, in 2003 he began compiling and publishing his own aperiodic “journal” similar to ETC in which he collected interesting articles, stories, quotations, etc. To date he’s published seven issues and sent approximately 1200 copies of each issue to a distribution list of friends, family, colleagues, and anyone who requests a copy. Every issue has a section dedicated to General Semantics in which he’s reprinted 4-5 articles from ETC. Perhaps a dozen people who attended the 3-day workshop in Baroda mentioned to us that they learned of GS for the first time through Mr. Parekh’s free journal.

The company he founded, Pidilite Industries, Ltd, is ranked by the Economic Times of India as the 131st largest public company in India, with annual sales of over $350M. Their core business is adhesives, developing the “Elmer’s glue” of India, as well as an entire line of industrial bonding materials. His daughter Kalpana proudly related that, although he didn’t have a chemical background, he mixed the first batch of Fevicol (their brand name) in their home bathtub. He then saw to it that his one younger brother and one son earned graduate degrees in Chemical Engineering (from the U. of Wisconsin in Madison). They and most of the family’s sons continue to manage and direct the affairs of the diversified company.

Mr. Parekh developed Parkinson’s seven years ago. He’s done a lot of personal research about the disease and has access to the very best medical attention, so he and his family are optimistic about his condition and prognosis. Andrea and I had little trouble understanding his bright, enthusiastic English.

He was treated as something like a “revered godfather” everywhere we went. Several people went to lengths to explain what a wonderful, caring, and benevolent “philanthropist” he was. Among them:

  • The youngest daughter of his nephew and niece (now 10) was born deaf. Diagnosed early, she underwent a successful cochlear implant when she was 18 months old in the U.S. Mr. Narendra Parekh (and the family) not only paid for the surgery and almost a year’s stay in the U.S., but he also has funded a private hearing institute in Mumbai for research, study, and investigation into making implants more affordable for Indian citizens.
  • He donated funds to build an entire 3-4 floor academic building in Ahmedabad at the Gujurati Sahitya Parishad, and insisted that his name not be used.
  • He funded the establishment of a Center for the Popularization of Science named Indian planetary Society at Mumbai.
  • He funded the Center for Contemporary Theory in Baroda, which hosted our 3-day workshop.
  • Pidilite is one of the leading-edge companies in terms of valuing employees. It was pointed out by several people that few companies provided the benefits that Pidilite offered, including onsite swimming pool and fitness facilities for all employees.

He and his staff arranged for us to speak at seven different venues to a total audience of about 350 people. At each venue, Mr. Parekh (presumably) arranged for tea, snacks, and either lunch or dinner to be served to all attendees, including a very nice buffet dinner at a fine hotel in Baroda on the second night of the workshop. The venues included:

  • Mumbai University, faculty and students from departments of History, Political Science, Sociology, Philosophy, Literature, Linguistics.
  • Pidilite Industries, directors, mangers, employees, and family members.
  • Indian Institute of Technology (Mumbai), faculty and students.
  • Bhavans Culture Center (Mumbai), local authors, poets, artists, and cultural leaders.
  • Gujarati Sahitya Parishad (Ahmedabad), faculty and students.
  • H.M. Patel Institute of English, SardarPatelUniversity (Anand), faculty and students.
  • Center for Contemporary Theory (Baroda), Twelfth National Workshop (3 days); 68 registered, 59 attended from as far away as New Delhi, Chennai, and Kashmir (over a 20-hour train ride) with participants paying their own expenses.

Mr. Parekh, with my permission, arranged to make copies of Ken Johnson’s General Semantics: An Outline Survey and provided a copy to everyone at each of the venues. Additionally, for the Baroda workshop, Prof. Prafulla Kar (workshop organizer) published bound volumes of the eleven articles I suggested as pre-reading for the participants and distributed it to all registrants about six weeks before the workshop.

One young philosophy student at the Baroda workshop cornered me at the first break, almost breathless with questions. He brought his copy of the Outline Survey and showed me page after page of highlighted text, pencil markings in the margins. He had clearly studied it extensively, and he ‘got it.’ On the third day, he gave a 15-20 minute presentation that’s probably the best explication I’ve ever heard (including from Pula, et al) regarding the implications and consequences of AK’s non-A orientation from a logical and philosophical standpoint.

Through the Pidilite Marketing/Communications manager, Mr. Parekh arranged extended interviews for us with reporters from four newspapers: The Hindustan Times (me, Andrea was sick); the local Gujarati-language newspaper (Andrea and me); The Times of India (Andrea, I was sick); and The Economic Times of India (Andrea, I was sick). The reporter for the Hindustan Times attended the entire presentation I gave at the Bhavans Culture Center and even asked questions before the group.

Mr. Parekh is obviously passionate about a lot of things, and general semantics is just one. He is also quite familiar with Dr. Albert Ellis and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and was very pleased to receive the October issue of ETC while we were there. At each of the venues we spoke (for either 2- or 4-hour programs), we found the audiences prepared, engaged, genuinely interested, and in some cases almost ‘absorbent’ like sponges. Those who confessed knowing something about GS knew so only through the efforts of Mr. Parekh. They obviously put a lot of credence in the fact that this was something that he thought was important.

Mr. Parekh has a broader vision for general semantics in India. I committed to him that I would do everything I can to assist him, and to the limited degree I could speak on behalf of the Institute, that the Institute would support him. He and Professor Kar have already held follow-up meetings to plan the next steps for GS in India. Professor Kar and his Centre for Contemporary Theory will serve as the focal point for coordinating general semantics activities with universities throughout India and the U.S.

Heinlein and Ellis: Converging Competencies

ETC 64-4 Cover(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 64 No. 4, October 2007)

On July 7, 2007, the Heinlein Centennial was held in Kansas City to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of acclaimed “Grand Master” science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is generally acknowledged as one of the four great American science fiction writers, along with Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. Among his most notable books are Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Time Enough for Love.

On July 24, 2007, Dr. Albert Ellis died at age 93 in New York City. His front-page obituary in the New York Times referred to him as “one of the most influential and provocative figures in modern psychology.” He originated the field of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and authored more than 70 books, including Overcoming Procrastination, How to Live With a Neurotic, A Guide to Rational Living, and How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything — Yes, Anything.

These two accomplished and celebrated men would seem to have little in common — one a Midwesterner, Naval Academy graduate, futurist, with an almost cult-like following of fans; the other a New Yorker who was referred to as “the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy,” known for his blue language and results-oriented approach to talk therapy.

And yet Robert Heinlein and Albert Ellis shared a common perspective, or point of view, that developed from the same source — Alfred Korzybski and general semantics. Heinlein came to general semantics through Stuart Chase’s The Tyranny of Words (1938) and attended two seminars with Korzybski in 1939 and 1940. In a speech in 1941, Heinlein made the seemingly outlandish assertion that Korzybski was “at least as great a man as Einstein” based on his “monumental piece of work,” Science and Sanity.

Ellis, so far as we know, never met Korzybski but credited him (and general semantics) as a major influence in his development of REBT, using descriptors such as brilliant¸ masterpiece, and pioneer.

I attended the Heinlein Centennial in Kansas City. One of the panel sessions I attended was on “The Competent Man.” I learned this was a theme of Heinlein’s that recurred throughout his novels. An oft-repeated quote from Heinlein’s novel Time Enough for Love concerns competency as a general trait:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I had the privilege to hear Dr. Ellis speak on one memorable occasion a few years ago. In recalling that talk and in reviewing several of his writings, it seems to me that “competency” was also a recurring theme in his work, specifically as it related to cognitive competency.

As the lives and contributions of these two great men — Robert A. Heinlein and Dr. Albert Ellis, just seven years apart in age — shared the news pages in the same recent month, we choose to devote this special section of ETC to them.

The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.  Albert Ellis

I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.  Robert A. Heinlein

What We Could Become

I have read only enough of Heinlein’s writings to have a minimally-informed appreciation of his work. But I know something about the field of general semantics, which certainly influenced Heinlein’s point of view during his early years as a writer and is unmistakably reflected in character and plot development throughout his work.

In the July 2002 Heinlein Journal, Kate Gladstone provided some details from the Institute’s archives regarding Heinlein’s attendance at two seminars with Alfred Korzybski in 1939 and 1940. (1) From my standpoint, the most interesting piece of Heinlein memorabilia found in the archives is an original transcript of Heinlein’s Guest of Honor speech to the 3rd World Science Fiction Convention held in Denver in July 1941. The transcript was sent to the Institute by Heinlein’s wife at the time, Leslyn. He titled his address, “The Discovery of the Future,” published in 1992 in Yoji Kondo’s collection of Heinlein’s writings, Requiem. As he concluded his Denver speech, Heinlein offered this testimony to Alfred Korzybski and general semantics:

I save for the last on that list of the books that have greatly affected me, that to my mind are the key books, of the stuff I’ve piled through, a book that should head the list on the Must List. I wish that, I wish that everyone could read the book – it’s just a wish, there aren’t that many copies of it, everyone can’t, nor could everyone read this particular book. All of you could, you’ve got the imagination for it. It’s Science and Sanity by Count Alfred Korzybski, one of the greatest Polish mathematicians when he went into the subject of symbology and started finding out what made us tick, and then worked up in strictly experimental and observational form from the preliminary works of E.T. Bell.

A rigor of epistemology based on E.T. Bell (break in transcript here – some words lost) … symbology of epistemology. Book refers to the subject of semantics. I know from conversation with a lot of you that the words epistemology and semantics are not unfamiliar to you. But because they may be unfamiliar to some, I’m going to stop and make definitions of these words.

Semantics is simply a study of the symbols we use to communicate. General Semantics is an extension of that study to investigate how we evaluate in the use of these symbols. Epistemology is a study of how we know what we know. Maybe that doesn’t sound exciting. It is exciting, it’s very exciting. To be able to delve back into your own mind and investigate what it is you know, what it is you can know and what it is that you cannot possibly know is, from a standpoint of intellectual adventure, I think possibly the greatest adventure that a person can indulge in. Beats spaceships.

Incidentally, any of you who are going to be in Denver in the next 5 or 6 weeks will have an opportunity, one of the last opportunities, to hear Alfred Korzybski speak in person. (2) He will be here at a meeting similar to this at a meeting of semanticians from all over the world – oh, McLean from Los Angeles, and Johnson from Iowa and Reiser from Mills College and Kendig and probably Hayakawa from up in Canada – the leading semanticians of the world – to hear Alfred Korzybski speak. I think starting Aug. 9, isn’t it, Missy? The early part of August. It’ll be in the newspapers in any case. And it’s much better to hear him speak than it is to read his books. He’s limited by the fact that he’s got to stick to the typewriter, to the printed word; but when he talks – when he talks it’s another matter! He gestures, he’s not tied down with his hands to the desk the way I am; he walks, stumps all around the state, and waves his hands; (audience laughs) … and you really gather what he means. Incidentally – he looks like A. Conan Doyle’s description of Prof. Challenger if Prof. Challenger had shaved his beard. Dynamic character. You may not like him personally, but he’s at least as great a man as Einstein – at least – because his field is broader. The same kind of work that Einstein did, the same kind of work, using the same methods; but in a much broader field, much more close to human relationships. I hope that some of you will be able to hear him. I said that this will be one of the last chances, because the old man’s well over 70 now; as he puts it, “I vill coagulate someday, I vill someday soon, I vill coagulate” – which is the term he uses for dying. (3) He speaks in terms of colloidal chemistry. Properly, it’s appropriate. He won’t last much longer, in the meantime he’s done a monumental piece of work. He has worked out in methodology the same sort of important work that HG Wells did in the matter of description; and the two together are giants in our intellectual horizon, our intellectual matrix today, that stick up over the rest like the Empire State Bldg. (4)

Heinlein wasn’t the only futurist who expressed admiration for Korzybski’s general semantics.

  • A.E. Van Vogt’s series of Null-A novels was rooted in general semantics and provided many serious students their first exposure to the subject.
  • Aldous Huxley (Brave New World): “A man who knows that there have been many cultures, and that each culture claims to be the best and truest of all, will find it hard to take too seriously the boastings and dogmatizings of his own tradition. Similarly, a man who knows how symbols are related to experience, and who practices the kind of linguistic self-control taught by the exponents of General Semantics, is unlikely to take too seriously the absurd or dangerous nonsense that, within every culture, passes for philosophy, practical wisdom and political argument.” (5)
  • Alvin Toffler (Future Shock and The Third Wave) “… all of the questions that are raised by Science and Sanity are inherent or should be inherent in the work of any thinking writer or communicator.” (6)
  • Robert Anton Wilson (Prometheus Rising, The Illuminatus Trilogy, and Schrodinger’s Cat) “All the events in the world that are going on I tend to see through a Korzybskian grid. He made a bigger impression on me than just about any writer I ever read.” (7)

I must admit that I’ve never been a big science fiction fan. My naïve impression has been that most futurists or science fiction writers tend to focus on imagining how future technologies, alternative life-forms, or distant universes will be invented, evolved, or discovered.

However, among the authors who claim Korzybski as an influence, I find a common interest in describing or developing human capabilities to their potentials. They seem to delve into positive speculations about what we as humans could become, were we to actually manifest the extensional orientation of perceiving, evaluating, and behaving as prescribed in Science and Sanity. Of course, the rocket ships and aliens are still featured aspects, but there is, to my limited reading, an attempt to imbue their characters with an abundance, or absence, of defining characteristics that can be related back to Korzybski’s “semantic man.” I’d like to give you the briefest of introductions to the subject by discussing just four of what might be referred to as fundamental premises of general semantics.

1. The first premise is that our human abilities to perceive and sense what goes on in our continually-changing environments are limited and differentiated. As members of the human species, our abilities to see, hear, taste, touch, and feel are limited. For example, we know that there are limits to the frequencies humans can hear. We know that humans can’t see certain wavelengths of light. We can extend our sensing capabilities through the use of tools and instruments, such as microscopes, telescopes, microphones, amplifiers, etc. Although we as humans share these general sensing potentials, we vary in terms of our actual individual capabilities. We each have a different combination of visual, auditory, and other sensory acuities. Therefore, presented with the ‘same’ event or stimulus, we will each perceive the event or stimulus according to the limits of our senses and nervous system processing. We will each abstract something different, to some degree, than anyone else and we will then individually construct our experience, awareness, and ‘meaning’ of the stimulus.

2. A second fundamental premise upon which general semantics is based may be best stated by quoting from the linguistic anthropologist Edward Sapir:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (8)

In other words, the culture and language in which we are raised will shape or influence how we construct the ‘realities’ of our experiences, given the peculiarities of that culture and language. This has become known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Similarly, Korzybski posited in Science and Sanity:

… every language having a structure, by the very nature of language, reflects in its own structure that of the world as assumed by those who evolved the language. In other words, we read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use. (9)

We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of semantic reaction and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us. (10)

3. Another fundamental premise of general semantics is that humans have the ability to respond conditionally to verbal and non-verbal stimuli. In his famous experiments, Dr. Ivan Pavlov trained his dog to manifest a conditioned response behavior. By ringing a bell at the same time he fed the dog, Pavlov conditioned the dog to associate, or identify, the sound of the bell with the food. When the dog heard the bell, it expected food and began salivating in anticipation. Therefore the dog’s behavioral response (the salivating) resulted directly from the stimulus of the bell; when Pavlov rang the bell, the dog salivated. Humans, however, have the ability to respond more appropriately in less conditioned ways — conditionally  rather than conditioned. We may talk in terms such as “he really pushed my buttons,” but in most cases we have some degree of control over our responsive behaviors, regardless of which button is pushed. If we don’t exercise that control, if we immediately react without pause and without regarding the situation and the consequences, then we can rightly be accused of exhibiting more animalistic, rather than more human, behaviors.

4. The fourth premise I would mention in this condensed introduction is related to perhaps the most familiar metaphor associated with Korzybski — the map is not the territory. Our ability to achieve “maximum humanness” and evolve to our individual potentials is at least partially a function of how accurately our language behaviors reflect and are consistent with what we ‘know’ about our world. In other words, our verbal ‘maps’ ought to be congruent with and structurally similar to the facts of our non-verbal ‘territories.’ The world of words we put inside our heads ought to be related to and similar with the world of non-words in which we live.

Abraham Maslow, in his study of what he called self-actualizing behaviors, wrote of individuals whose internal ‘maps’were in synch with their external ‘territories’:

One particularly impressive and instructive aspect of this superior relation with reality…was [their ability to] …distinguish far more easily than most the fresh, concrete, and ideographic from the generic, abstract, and rubricized. The consequence is that they live more in the real world of nature than in the man-made mass of concepts, abstractions, expectations, beliefs, and stereotypes that most people confuse with the world. They are therefore far more apt to perceive what is there rather than their own wishes, hopes, fears, anxieties, their own theories and beliefs or those of their cultural group. (11)

Please note that these four premises do not constitute all of the premises of general semantics. Some might claim that these do not even constitute premises as much as they represent derived extrapolations from other, more fundamental, premises. But in the context of this Heinlein Centennial, I hope they provide a basis for re-examining Heinlein’s work — particularly his characters — from a general semantics perspective. I suspect that, in addition to his “discovering the future” of interplanetary travel and intergalactic communities, Heinlein has revealed through his fictional characters what we, the readers, might one day become.

And that, to quote the Grand Master, “beats spaceships.”

NOTES

  1. www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/history/GeneralSemanticsInfo.html
  2. Heinlein refers to the Second American Congress on General Semantics held at Denver University in August 1941.
  3. In 1941, Korzybski was only 61 years old. He died in 1950 at age 70.
  4. Heinlein, Robert A. (1941) “The Discovery of the Future.” Speech delivered as Guest of Honor to the 3rd World Science Fiction Convention, Denver, CO. July 4, 1941. Recorded on discs by Walter J. Daugherty. Transcripted by Assorted Services. Presented by Forrest J. Ackerman. A Novacious Publication.
  5. Huxley, Aldous. (1963) “Culture and the Individual.” Playboy Magazine, November 1963.
  6. Toffler, Alvin. (1991) “The Relevance of General Semantics.” Thinking CreAtically, Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  7. Wilson, Robert Anton. (2001) “The Map Is Not the Territory: The Future Is Not the Past.” Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, 1997. The General Semantics Bulletin Numbers 65-68.
  8. Whorf, Benjamin Lee. (1956) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf edited by John B. Carroll, p. 134. The M.I.T. Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Reprinted from Language, Culture, and Personality, Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir, edited by Leslie Spier, Sapir Memorial Publication Fund, Menasha, Wisconsin, 1941.
  9. Korzybski, Alfred. (1933) Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.59-60, Fifth Edition (1994). Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  10. Korzybski, Alfred. (1933) Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.90, Fifth Edition (1994). Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  11. Maslow, A.H. (1954) Motivation and Personality, p. 205. Harper & Brothers, New York.

What we could become

ETC 64-4 CoverBased on speaking notes prepared for a panel discussion on General Semantics at the Heinlein Centennial held in Kansas City, MO, July 7, 2007, celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein. (Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 64 No. 4, October 2007.)

I have read only enough of Heinlein’s writings to have a minimally-informed appreciation of his work. But I know something about the field of general semantics, which certainly influenced Heinlein’s point of view during his early years as a writer and is unmistakably reflected in character and plot development throughout his work.

The July 2002 article by Kate Gladstone in The Heinlein Journal provided some details from the Institute’s archives regarding Heinlein’s attendance at two seminars with Alfred Korzybski in 1939 and 1940.

From my standpoint, the most interesting piece of Heinlein memorabilia found in the archives is an original transcript of Heinlein’s Guest of Honor speech to the 3rd World Science Fiction Convention held in Denver in July 1941. The transcript was sent to the Institute by Heinlein’s wife at the time, Leslyn. He titled his address, “The Discovery of the Future,” published in 1992 in Yoji Kondo’s collection of Heinlein’s writings, Requiem.

As he concluded his Denver speech, Heinlein offered this testimony to Alfred Korzybski and general semantics:

I save for the last on that list of the books that have greatly affected me, that to my mind are the key books, of the stuff I’ve piled through, a book that should head the list on the Must List. I wish that, I wish that everyone could read the book – it’s just a wish, there aren’t that many copies of it, everyone can’t, nor could everyone read this particular book. All of you could, you’ve got the imagination for it. It’s Science and Sanity by Count Alfred Korzybski, one of the greatest Polish mathematicians when he went into the subject of symbology and started finding out what made us tick, and then worked up in strictly experimental and observational form from the preliminary works of E.T. Bell.

A rigor of epistemology based on E.T. Bell (break in transcript here – some words lost) … symbology of epistemology. Book refers to the subject of semantics. I know from conversation with a lot of you that the words epistemology and semantics are not unfamiliar to you. But because they may be unfamiliar to some, I’m going to stop and make definitions of these words.

Semantics is simply a study of the symbols we use to communicate. General Semantics is an extension of that study to investigate how we evaluate in the use of these symbols. Epistemology is a study of how we know what we know. Maybe that doesn’t sound exciting. It is exciting, it’s very exciting. To be able to delve back into your own mind and investigate what it is you know, what it is you can know and what it is that you cannot possibly know is, from a standpoint of intellectual adventure, I think possibly the greatest adventure that a person can indulge in. Beats spaceships.

Incidentally, any of you who are going to be in Denver in the next 5 or 6 weeks will have an opportunity, one of the last opportunities, to hear Alfred Korzybski speak in person. (1) He will be here at a meeting similar to this at a meeting of semanticians from all over the world – oh, McLean from Los Angeles, and Johnson from Iowa and Reiser from Mills College and Kendig and probably Hayakawa from up in Canada – the leading semanticians of the world – to hear Alfred Korzybski speak. I think starting Aug. 9, isn’t it Missy? The early part of August. It’ll be in the newspapers in any case. And it’s much better to hear him speak than it is to read his books. He’s limited by the fact that he’s got to stick to the typewriter, to the printed word; but when he talks – when he talks it’s another matter! He gestures, he’s not tied down with his hands to the desk the way I am; he walks, stumps all around the state, and waves his hands; (audience laughs) … and you really gather what he means. Incidentally – he looks like A. Conan Doyle’s description of Prof. Challenger if Prof. Challenger had shaved his beard. Dynamic character. You may not like him personally, but he’s at least as great a man as Einstein – at least – because his field is broader. The same kind of work that Einstein did, the same kind of work, using the same methods; but in a much broader field, much more close to human relationships. I hope that some of you will be able to hear him. I said that this will be one of the last chances, because the old man’s well over 70 now; as he puts it, “I vill coagulate someday, I vill someday soon, I vill coagulate” – which is the term he uses for dying. (2) He speaks in terms of colloidal chemistry. Properly, it’s appropriate. He won’t last much longer, in the meantime he’s done a monumental piece of work. He has worked out in methodology the same sort of important work that HG Wells did in the matter of description; and the two together are giants in our intellectual horizon, our intellectual matrix today, that stick up over the rest like the Empire State Bldg. (3)

Heinlein wasn’t the only futurist who expressed admiration for Korzybski’s general semantics.

  • A.E. Van Vogt’s series of Null-A novels was rooted in general semantics and provided many serious students their first exposure to the subject.
  • Aldous Huxley (Brave New World): “A man who knows that there have been many cultures, and that each culture claims to be the best and truest of all, will find it hard to take too seriously the boastings and dogmatizings of his own tradition. Similarly, a man who knows how symbols are related to experience, and who practices the kind of linguistic self-control taught by the exponents of General Semantics, is unlikely to take too seriously the absurd or dangerous nonsense that, within every culture, passes for philosophy, practical wisdom and political argument.”(4)
  • Alvin Toffler (Future Shock and The Third Wave) “… all of the questions that are raised by Science and Sanity are inherent or should be inherent in the work of any thinking writer or communicator.”(5)
  • Robert Anton Wilson (Prometheus Rising, The Illuminatus Trilogy, and Schrodinger’s Cat) “All the events in the world that are going on I tend to see through a Korzybskian grid. He made a bigger impression on me than just about any writer I ever read.”(6)

I must admit that I’ve never been a big science fiction fan. My naïve impression has been that most futurists or science fiction writers tend to focus on imagining how future technologies, alternative life-forms, or distant universes will be invented, evolved, or discovered.

However, among the authors who claim Korzybski as an influence, I find a common interest in describing or developing human capabilities to their potentials. They seem to delve into positive speculations about what we as humans could become, were we to actually manifest the extensional orientation of perceiving, evaluating, and behaving as prescribed in Science and Sanity. Of course, the rocket ships and aliens are still featured aspects, but there is, to my limited reading, an attempt to imbue their characters with an abundance, or absence, of defining characteristics that can be related back to Korzybski’s “semantic man.”

Recognizing that many, if not most, of you know little about the specifics of general semantics, I’d like to give you the briefest of introductions to the subject by discussing just four of what might be referred to as fundamental premises of general semantics.

The first premise is that our human abilities to perceive and sense what goes on in our continually-changing environments are limited and differentiated. As members of the human species, our abilities to see, hear, taste, touch, and feel are limited. For example, we know that there are limits to the frequencies humans can hear. We know that humans can’t see certain wavelengths of light. We can extend our sensing capabilities through the use of tools and instruments, such as microscopes, telescopes, microphones, amplifiers, etc. Although we as humans share these general sensing potentials, we vary in terms of our actual individual capabilities. We each have a different combination of visual, auditory, and other sensory acuities. Therefore, presented with the ‘same’ event or stimulus, we will each perceive the event or stimulus according to the limits of our senses and nervous system processing. We will each abstract something different, to some degree, than anyone else and we will then individually construct our experience, awareness, and ‘meaning’ of the stimulus.

A second fundamental premise upon which general semantics is based may be best stated by quoting from the linguistic anthropologist Edward Sapir:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (7)

In other words, the culture and language in which we are raised will shape or influence how we construct the ‘realities’ of our experiences, given the peculiarities of that culture and language. This has become known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Similarly, Korzybski posited in Science and Sanity:

… every language having a structure, by the very nature of language, reflects in its own structure that of the world as assumed by those who evolved the language. In other words, we read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use. (8)

We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of semantic reaction and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us. (9)

Another fundamental premise of general semantics is that humans have the ability to respond conditionally to verbal and non-verbal stimuli. In his famous experiments, Dr. Ivan Pavlov trained his dog to manifest a conditioned response behavior. By ringing a bell at the same time he fed the dog, Pavlov conditioned the dog to associate, or identify, the sound of the bell with the food. When the dog heard the bell, it expected food and began salivating in anticipation. Therefore the dog’s behavioral response (the salivating) resulted directly from the stimulus of the bell; when Pavlov rang the bell, the dog salivated. Humans, however, have the ability to respond more appropriately in less conditioned ways — conditionally rather than conditioned. We may talk in terms such as “he really pushed my buttons,” but in most cases we have some degree of control over our responsive behaviors, regardless of which button is pushed. If we don’t exercise that control, if we immediately react without pause and without regarding the situation and the consequences, then we can rightly be accused of exhibiting more animalistic, rather than more human, behaviors.

The fourth premise I would mention in this condensed introduction is related to perhaps the most familiar metaphor associated with Korzybski — the map is not the territory. Our ability to achieve “maximum humanness” and evolve to our individual potentials is at least partially a function of how accurately our language behaviors reflect and are consistent with what we ‘know’ about our world. In other words, our verbal ‘maps’ ought to be congruent with and structurally similar to the facts of our non-verbal ‘territories.’ The world of words we put inside our heads ought to be related to and similar with the world of non-words in which we live.

Abraham Maslow, in his study of what he called self-actualizing behaviors, wrote of individuals whose internal ‘maps’ were in synch with their external ‘territories’:

One particularly impressive and instructive aspect of this superior relation with reality…was [their ability to] …distinguish far more easily than most the fresh, concrete, and ideographic from the generic, abstract, and rubricized. The consequence is that they live more in the real world of nature than in the man-made mass of concepts, abstractions, expectations, beliefs, and stereotypes that most people confuse with the world. They are therefore far more apt to perceive what is there rather than their own wishes, hopes, fears, anxieties, their own theories and beliefs or those of their cultural group. (10)

Please note that these four premises do not constitute all of the premises of general semantics. Some might claim that these do not even constitute premises as much as they represent derived extrapolations from other, more fundamental, premises. But in the context of this Heinlein Centennial, I hope they provide a basis for re-examining Heinlein’s work — particularly his characters — from a general semantics perspective. I suspect that, in addition to his “discovering the future” of interplanetary travel and intergalactic communities, Heinlein has revealed through his fictional characters what we, the readers, might one day become.

And that, to quote the Grand Master, “beats spaceships.”

NOTES

  1. Heinlein refers to the Second American Congress on General Semantics held at Denver University in August 1941.
  2. In 1941, Korzybski was only 61 years old. He died in 1950 at age 70.
  3. Heinlein, Robert A. (1941) “The Discovery of the Future.” Speech delivered as Guest of Honor to the 3rd World Science Fiction Convention, Denver, CO. July 4, 1941. Recorded on discs by Walter J. Daugherty. Transcripted by Assorted Services. Presented by Forrest J. Ackerman. A Novacious Publication.
  4. Huxley, Aldous. (1963) “Culture and the Individual.” Playboy Magazine, November 1963.
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