About General Semantics

individual being supportedThisIsNotThat is based on the principles of General Semantics (GS). GS can be considered an inter-disciplinary discipline for evaluating and adjusting to what happens in your life. General Semantics deals with the processes involved as we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences. Our language-behaviors represent one aspect of these responses.

Generalizing What We’ve Learned

What if we could generalize the “best practices” to be learned from what the most effective:
conference meeting

  • doctors do when they diagnose a patient’s symptoms?
  • attorneys do when they cross-examine a witness to uncover the facts?
  • scientists do in their laboratories when they experiment?
  • police detectives do when they gather evidence at a crime scene?
  • engineers do when they must design solutions to new problems?
  • journalists do when they report a story?
  • artists, writers, and composers do when they express their creativity?

balancing

    1. We would increase our understanding and awareness of the role of language and symbols play in our verbal and non-verbal behaviors.
    2. We would limit the undesirable behaviors we are prone to exhibit, such as:
      • jumping to conclusions
      • holding unrealistic expectations
      • not recognizing the hidden assumptions and premises upon which we unknowingly act
      • making broad generalizations and promoting stereotypes
      • confusing our own inferences, opinions and beliefs as facts or ‘truths’
      • resisting change or failing to adapt to change
      • engaging in and perpetuating language habits that are more medieval than modern
      • responding to labels and categories rather than specific individuals and events
      • feeling ‘victimized’ by those who push our buttons, condition our wants, and propagandize our political sensibilities

juggling

  • We would increase those productive behaviors such as:
    • thinking-feeling-acting in the here-and-now, moment-to-moments of daily living rather than re-living the past or dreading the future
    • appreciating and promoting individuality and diversity
    • thinking, speaking, and listening more deliberately, critically, and productively
    • more effectively solving problems, resolving conflicts, and maintaining relationships
    • integrating and building upon all our sources of knowledge, and sharing that knowledge (in other words, “time-binding”)

 

The self explorer, whether he wants to or not, becomes an explorer of everything else. — Elias Canetti

Worlds of Differences

General Semantics helps you differentiate, and integrate, what we might think of as four different ‘worlds’:

  • the world ‘out there’, beyond your skin, that’s always changing, in perpetual process
  • the world ‘in here’, inside your skin, your nervous system and senses, through which you (only partially) experience the world ‘out there’
  • the world that’s not words, the sensory or non-verbal world that you see, hear, taste, smell and touch
  • the world of words, your verbal world of names, symbols, labels, opinions, assumptions, categories, values, beliefs, etc.

In our verbal world of words, we integrate what we ‘know’ about the world ‘out there’, the world ‘in here’ and the world that’s not words. This is not that.

All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions. — Leonardo da Vinci

Alfred Korzybski and Science and Sanity

Alfred Korzybski

General semantics, formulated by Alfred Korzybski in his 1933 book, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems, is based on underlying premises, some of which include:

  • We live in a continually-changing, process-oriented world, much of which we have no means of directly observing or experiencing.
  • What we do experience is therefore partial and incomplete; we abstract only a small portion of what’s there – and there is always more.
  • Different people abstract differently from their own individual experiences, based on their backgrounds, capabilities, interests, biases, etc.
  • As we become more conscious of this abstracting process, we learn how to become more tolerant and accepting of our own – and others – limitations and potentialities.
  • We recognize the distinctions between the sensory or non-verbal world in which we sense and experience, and our verbal world in which we use symbols and language to talk about our experiences.
  • The methods of a scientific approach provide us with a basis for evaluating and modifying our attitudes, behaviors and beliefs.

If you deliberately apply these principles, the potential consequences include:

  • More effective, discriminating communications with others, and with yourself
  • More appropriate, and desirable, reactions, responses and adjustments to the inevitable “accidents waiting to happen” in your four ‘worlds’
  • A more tolerant, inquisitive, open-minded, “matter-of-fact” outlook that is less prone to prejudice, stereotyping, and dogmatic generalizations
  • A greater degree of moment-to-moment awareness of your own, and others’, different perspectives.

How we use language determines the way we evaluate our relationship with ourselves, others, and our world. Many human problems can be traced to our ignorance of the ways we use language and the ways language influences us. — Alfred Korzybski

Language Matters

Logo
untangle the tangled webs you verbally weave

With language we can …

  • speak, write, read, and listen
  • think and express our feelings
  • analyze and solve problems
  • establish rules, regulations, laws, policies, procedures, ordinances, and standards
  • reach compromises, agreements, settlements, resolutions and contracts
  • understand, to be understood, and to pass on our understandings to others
  • dream, imagine, contemplate, cogitate, deliberate, create, innovate and ponder

and … with language we can also …

  • mislead, misinform, and misunderstand
  • deny, suppress, inhibit, prohibit and limit what others do and say
  • rule, dictate, terrorize, intimidate, indoctrinate and alienate
  • generalize, categorize, stereotype, pigeonhole and profile
  • lie, cheat, steal, quibble, libel, slander, sue and defraud
  • perpetuate myths, superstitions, prejudices, feuds, and atavistic traditions
  • create and exacerbate fear, anxiety, regret, guilt, jealousy, paranoia, suspicion, and hate.

“Language plays a tremendous role in human affairs. It serves as a means of cooperation and as a weapon of conflict. With it, men can solve problems, erect the towering structures of science and poetry— and talk themselves into insanity and social confusion.” — Irving J. Lee

Some Assumptions

  • Our language ought to reflect what we collectively know and understand about our common world.
  • A ‘scientific attitude’ is required for effective and productive thinking, communicating, and relating:Observe – Assume – Test – Revise (repeat)
  • We each experience our common world uniquely, partially, and with limitations. We each see the world with a sense of “to-me-ness.” There’s always more to observe, more to say, more to understand.
  • It’s important that we look for similarities among differences, and that we look for differences among apparent similarities.
  • Who rules our symbols, rules us. – Alfred Korzybski

Potential Benefits of Application

  1. Greater awareness of what goes on in your life.
  2. More appropriate responses, evaluations and adjustments to what goes on in your life.
  3. More effective, discriminating communications with others, and with yourself.
  4. A more tolerant, inquisitive and “matter-of-fact” outlook that’s less prone to prejudices, stereotypes and dogmatic generalizations.
  5. A sharpened ability to differentiate facts from non-facts, and to avoid misunderstanding and confusion.
  6. The ability to look at situations and problems from different perspectives.
  7. More realistic expectations, fewer unexpected surprises.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. — Marcel Proust

Review

Listen to this interview for American Airlines SkyRadio inflight entertainment:

American Airlines SkyRadio
 

Watch this 7-minute overview from a lecture given at University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2004.

“If your language is confused, your intellect, if not your whole character, will almost certainly correspond.” — Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Here’s Something About General Semantics

Cover TitleHere’s Something About General Semantics:
A Primer for Making Sense of Your World

by Steve Stockdale

Available in eBook format (PDF) for immediate FREE download. ISBN 978-0-9824645-0-2; 290 pages.

Accessible, well-written introduction to GS principles, plus more! Written from 13 years teaching experience. Filled with examples, demonstrations, and explanations; over 50 illustrations.
Includes articles from the GS journal (ETC) and newspaper columns. Thirteen pages of Notes and Sources; Index of 270 names. Links to over 150 online video clips. Appropriate for all learners and teachers, middle grades through university. Learn how language and other symbols influence how you perceive your world,
how you respond to your perceptions, and how you think-and-talk about your responses.

The world in which we live is a world of differences. When we disregard differences, we generalize. When we generalize inappropriately, we stereotype, forming biases and prejudices. Troubles inevitably follow. We need to learn how to more critically differentiate, or discern, between what happens in our lives, how we respond, and how we think-and-talk. This book explains and applies the principles of General Semantics to promote an ongoing awareness of differences that make a difference. The book advocates an informed, open, and tolerant world view, deliberately derived from what we currently know from integrating the sciences, arts, and humanities … without deference to dogmas, traditions, or what passes for culturally-dependent “common sense.”

The book consists of a 4 MB PDF file. You will need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader software. You cannot edit or copy the file other than for your own personal use. You can print the file or selected pages from the file.

Directions:

  • Right-click the link here to save the file on your computer, or left-click to open the file within your browser and then save to your computer.
  • A convenient hyperlinked version of the Contents for this eBook can be accessed using the Acrobat Reader’s Bookmarks feature, located in the left panel in most Reader configurations.
  • The “Find” search feature within the Acrobat Reader (or equivalent) performs a text-searchable function for the book.

What’s in the Book?

Preface: Something About This Book

  • How I Learned About General Semantics
  • Why GS is “quest-worthy”
  • How GS is consistent with current neuroscience understanding
  • Benefits of GS as reported by university students

Part 1 Introductions to General Semantics

  • Introduction
  • A Structured System of Formulations
  • Some Questions and Answers About GS
  • A Tutorial
  • Two Video Reviews
  • Seven Stories to Illustrate Some GS Principles

Part 2 Explanations and Descriptions

  • Report from an 8-Day Seminar-Workshop
  • My ME Model
  • Report from a Weekend Seminar
  • About “Mindfulness” and GS
  • The Girl and the Match
  • Other Descriptions of General Semantics
  • An Explanation of the Structural Differential
  • 13 Symptoms of Language Misbehaviors
  • A GS Perspective

Part 3 Extensions and Applications

  • Toward an Informed World View
  • Eating Menus
  • Calling Out the Symbol Rulers
  • Words by Other Names
  • Response Side Semantics
  • Semantic Pollution Fouling the Airwaves
  • How Do You Play the Game?
  • But What If …?
  • A Fence Sieve Language
  • Why Make a Federal Case Out of Bad Words?
  • How to Size Your (Thinking) Box
  • The Bridge at Neverwas

Part 4 Some History

  • General Semantics Across the Curriculum
  • Snooping Around the Time-Binding Attic
  • Heinlein and Ellis: Converging Competencies

SUPPLEMENTARIES

  • Full Transcript, “Lay Off of My PERSUADE Shoes”
  • Bib-Vid-liography: Some Resources
  • An Essay on Levels of Abstractions

NOTES AND SOURCES

INDEX OF NAMES

Student Reactions

Following are end-of-semester comments written by students in my General Semantics for Mass Communications Practitioners class, 2005-2008.

General semantics is by far the most relevant class I have taken toward my B.S. in Communication Studies. No other class has provoked the amount of interest and relevancy in the scope of human interaction, both interpersonally and worldly. Understanding abstraction and evaluation has been far more beneficial in comprehending human interaction than studying Maslow or Skinner.


In a way, GS is a way of life. I realize now that there are so many things in general semantics that I can use on a daily basis. The presentations in class also proved that GS can relate to so many things that only a fool could argue that it is not applicable to us.


So far in my college years I have had three classes that have molded the future me. My world religion class influenced the way I perceive religion, my communication graphics class influenced the way I perceive my visual surroundings, my general semantics class influenced me in my understanding all these and realizing there is always more that meets the eye.


I still plan to work in the communications field one day, and what I will take from this discipline into that career is, most basically, a heightened sense of awareness of both the words I choose to use and the words used by those with whom I am assigned to communicate. An awareness that the same word can mean different things to those two parties. An awareness that I can never know all about anything — and neither can anyone else. An awareness that each issue has more than one side and more than one possible solution, that no issue is black and white. An awareness that true objectivity is unattainable and that bias must therefore be examined in all communication.


I wish I had been taught earlier about some of the general semantics principles, such as to recognize that the word is not the thing and that what we see is only a fraction of what is happening “out there” (and that what other people — namely parents, teachers, news anchors, reporters, movie directors, politicians, ministers, anyone who seems to be “all-knowing” or speak about “irrefutable truths” — see and share is only a fraction of all that occurs).


This course has given me a new lens to view life through, and has expanded what, in sociology, is called my cultural capital. Just as I have been able to relate what I learned in sociology to just about every course I have taken since then, I know that I will be able to apply general semantics principles to courses I have yet to take. I feel that I will be less susceptible to misinformation and miscommunication because I often ask myself questions such as “So what?” and challenge myself to look more skeptically at what is presented as fact.


This class was so much different from any class I’ve taken in college thus far. In my opinion, it was a class teaching us HOW to think, rather than WHAT to think.


There is one aspect of GS that discourages me. It seems as though GS could benefit society, or even the world. Now I know that we have only discussed the tip of the iceberg, but wouldn’t we be better off if our schools actively taught this subject? Why is this a secret? Just look at the greatest problem in our world to-day, Iraq. If either side employed some of the approaches of GS, perhaps there would be a possibility of resolution. It would be naive, in my opinion, to think that GS could create a society without problems, but it could help.

GS Videos: Topical Excerpts

These videos were created to illustrate specific topics covered in class. *Some content may be considered objectionable and inappropriate for younger viewers.*

The Power (?) of Words (6:10)

Winner or Loser? (3:30)

Language, Symbols, and Meanings (10:30)

Perspectives about Race (2:57)

The Tyranny of Categories (5:34)

Perspectives from Herbie Hancock’s “Possibilities” (10:41)

Prejudice & Obscenity (13:44)

GS Videos: Class Reviews

*Some content may be considered objectionable and inappropriate for younger viewers.*

Fall 2008 Semester, Review of Classes 1-8 (4:11)

Fall 2008 Semester, Review of Classes 9-14 (4:30)

Spring 2008 Semester Review of over 70 video clips shown in class (31:00)

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)

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.
  5. Toffler, Alvin. (1991) “The Relevance of General Semantics.” Thinking CreAtically, Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Maslow, A.H. (1954) Motivation and Personality, p. 205. Harper & Brothers, New York.