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.

Brochures, Collateral

While Executive Director for the Institute of General Semantics (2004-2007), I was responsible for creating the following brochures, marketing, and promotional materials: General Information Brochure, Trade Show Booth Graphic, Capital Campaign Brochure, Conference Announcement, a promotional Bookmark, and my farewell video.

General Information Brochure about the Institute

Download the PDF

Brochure 1st fold

Brochure Inside

Trade Show Booth Graphic

This graphic was used for the 10-ft wide, 7-ft tall mylar backdrop display used in booths at trade shows and conferences.

Trade Show Booth

Capital Campaign Brochure

Download the PDF

Capital Campaign Cover

International Conference Announcement

Download the 3-page PDF for the 2006 “Making Sense” international conference announcement.

Making Sense Conference

Bookmark with Quotations

Bookmark

“Work to Do” Farewell Video

Rock-Paper-Scissors: Words-Meanings-People

This presentation was created for the 5th Annual Denton (TX) Area Conference of the Texas Association for the Improvement of Reading in Denton, TX, on September 23, 2006.

Calling Out the Symbol Rulers

ETC Cover 62-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 62 No. 1, 2005)

Nothing illustrates the power of symbols and language quite like a presidential election. Of course, those of us who know a little bit of general semantics recognize that this ‘power’ lies not in the words and symbols themselves, but in the motivations, intentions, reactions, and evaluations of the individual human beings who speak, write, see, hear, and read the words and symbols.

Alfred Korzybski emphasized that we must vigilantly maintain an ongoing awareness that symbols (or “maps”) are not the things symbolized (or “territories”). He underscored the potential consequences of confusing symbols with their referents when he cautioned that, “Those who rule the symbols, rule us.” (1)

Who rules your symbols?

With this issue we introduce a new regular feature, “Calling Out the Symbol Rulers.” Each quarter we will highlight examples of how rulers rule by symbols, and how we let ourselves be ruled by symbols. This feature will succeed to the degree that you and other readers participate in the process by corresponding with us — we seek your responses, reactions, analyses, opinions, and examples you find pertinent to this topic.

Whom might we classify as potential symbol rulers? By our definition, just about anybody who participates in a communicative transaction could be considered a symbol ruler. We might start by carefully observing people of influence such as politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, bosses, parents, supervisors, coaches, advertisers, priests, preachers, rabbis, mullahs, commentators, columnists, reporters, etc. How do they generate, manipulate, frame, and convey their messages? What techniques do they employ to influence our judgments and decisions?

You might apply some of the principles of general semantics in your analyses:

  • Do they confuse facts with inferences, judgments, or beliefs? (And by what standard are facts differentiated from non-facts?)
  • Do they over-simplify complex issues into easy-to-understand but misleading either-or, black-or-white, right-or-wrong polarized choices?
  • Do they attempt to attribute only one cause to an event or one consequence of an action, rather than recognizing multiple causes and multiple consequences — some of which we may never know?
  • Do they generalize from one experience or one person’s anecdotal evidence as if that were the only possible or the ‘right’ universal experience?
  • Do they take responsibility for their own statements and judgments, recognizing what Wendell Johnson referred to as “to-me-ness,” or do they attempt to speak for a group or with the authority of a group?
  • To what degree are they saying something beyond the simple application of a label? (“All you need to know about him is that he’s a liberal!”)
  • Do they objectify high order abstractions such as truth, justice, moral values, security and speak about ‘them’ as if ‘they’ were ‘things,’ rather than inherently inexact, personalized, and even arbitrary notions?
  • Do they concentrate on similarities at the expense of ignoring differences, and vice-versa? Do they exhibit attitudes of allness (or none-ness)?
  • Do they fail to apply Korzybski’s extensional devices — specifically, indexing (Muslim Leader1 is not Muslim Leader2), dating (Senator Phlops views on de-regulation1980 may not represent the Senator’s views2005), and et cetera, (the et cetera, or etc., means that more can always be said; we can never know all there is to know about anything).

Remember … these same principles that you apply critically to others, you can apply to yourself. And we want to emphasize that in general semantics we are not so concerned with the words as we are with the underlying human thinking-feeling and evaluating processes, judgments, perspectives, etc., that are conveyed by the words.

          NOTE

  1. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.76.

De-Mythifying Meaning:

Proposal for the NCTE Annual Convention, November 18-21, 2004, Indianapolis Convention Center

Title: De-Mythifying ‘Meaning’

50-word Annotation:

Four educators apply principles of general semantics to debunk common myths regarding ‘meaning.’ Such ‘meaning myths’ inevitably lead to communication breakdowns, media manipulation, unrealistic expectations and slow self-development. Participants will takeaway practical methods to guide students toward more mature, responsible and self-aware attitudes about their own ‘meanings.’

500-word Description:

The American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce is credited with the observation that, “You don’t get meaning, you respond with meaning.” Nobel physicist P.W. Bridgman expressed the notion in more operational terms when he stated, “The true meaning of a term is to be found by observing what a man does with it, not by what he says about it.”

Nevertheless, in our popular culture, in our mass media, in our personal communications, and even in our classrooms, we continue to perpetuate unproductive and potentially harmful myths about ‘meaning’ such as:

  • the “single meaning myth” – that there is a single meaning, the meaning, rather than possible multiple meanings depending on context, circumstances, and the backgrounds of those involved.
  • the “impersonal myth” – that ‘meanings’ occur or exist apart from the individuals who generate ‘meanings,’ that “things mean” or “words mean” rather than “people mean.”
  • the “meaning = definition myth” – that a dictionary definition dictates how a term must be used and what it ought to ‘mean’ in the future, rather than noting how that term has been used in the past and how its current usage may be changing.
  • the “meaning is spoken myth” – that the significant ‘meanings’ we experience in life can be verbalized, that we can actually describe “how it feels.”

General Semantics, a system for evaluating our language and behaviors, provides practical methods to aid teachers and students debunk, or ‘de-mythify,’ these and other commonly held but unproductive and potentially harmful notions about ‘meaning.’ This panel offers presentations from four professionals representing the fields of journalism, theater arts, communications, and management. Each presenter has applied the principles of general semantics in his/her own classroom environments.

Each presentation will offer practical demonstrations and exercises that can be immediately applied in the classroom to help students learn:

  • They should expect to misunderstand others, and expect to be misunderstood by others; this “communicator beware” attitude will help avoid problems of presumed understanding due to an over-reliance on what the words ‘mean.’
  •  What words, or events, or other symbols ‘mean’ is a function of how each individual interacts with and responds to the word or event; each ‘meaning’ carries with it an aspect of “to-me-ness” determined by the individual.
  • How to become an informed consumer of mass media, to discern the ‘facts’ of a news report vs. the reporter’s own interpretation of what the story ‘means.’
  • How to avoid leaping to conclusions, or rushing to judgment, as to what another person ‘means’ by his/her statements, actions, attitudes, etc.
  • That we ought to temper the meanings that we generate or the judgments we make with some degree of tentativeness and uncertainty. We cannot know ‘all’ about another’s motivation or intent, just as reporters cannot convey ‘all’ the details of a story in a limited amount of space.

By learning these and other critical distinctions, students can develop their individual abilities to respond with ‘meaning’ in their daily lives, and respect the ‘meaningful’ responses of others.

Eating Menus

ETC Cover 61-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 61 No. 1, 2004)

This issue of ETC marks another transition in the organizational evolution of a discipline. Published from 1943-1948 by the Society for General Semantics, then from 1949-2003 by the International Society for General Semantics, ETC now falls under the stewardship of the Institute of General Semantics.

Twenty-seven years ago, this journal experienced a different type of transition. The late Neil Postman, remembered in the previous issue of ETC, began his 10-year editorship of this journal with a clearly articulated point of view in the first of his ‘themed’ issues, “The Roots of Fanaticism.”

He diagnosed that, in 1977, there existed a “state of mind which banishes reason and generates frenzy, [that] has accompanied mankind throughout our history and gives no sign that it is wearying of the journey.” He observed that this “state of mind” had produced “the odor of a kind of intellectual decadence that some of us have smelled before.”

Postman predicted that “the study of symbolic processes will be a pre-eminent intellectual enterprise for the remainder of this century.”

To whatever degree ‘we’ have, since 1977, engaged in “the study of symbolic processes,” it doesn’t appear to me that we’ve succeeded in diluting what Postman sniffed as the “odor of a kind of intellectual decadence.” Indeed, I contend that this ‘odor’ lingers, wafts and seeps even more persistently and pervasively in 2004 than in 1977.

Consider the issues that, on a given day, dominate our national interest as evidenced by newspapers, media talk shows, and the Internet. Many of these current (March 2004) issues represent deeply-rooted conflicts that concern “symbolic processes” and the “intellectual decadence” of rulers and/or the ruled, who lack the means to differentiate symbols as symbols, rather than things, values, or truths.

  • A piece of paper generated by a local government official that symbolizes a societal practice that, in English, we call marriage has become a touchstone issue for the 2004 elections, undoubtedly to affect every level of elected office.
  • The issuance of the piece of paper that, in English, we call a marriage certificate has become the object of a movement to generate another piece of paper that, in English, we refer to as an amendment, that will change another piece of paper that we, in English, call the Constitution of the United States of America. The intent of this amendment is to define exactly what marriage is, and by extension, what it most definitely is not.
  • The cultural buzz focuses on the recent release of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. This film presents his (Gibson’s) creative interpretation of the Apostles’ descriptions of their recollections of the events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. Much of the buzz deals not with the film as a film, but with Gibson’s motivations, with what some perceive as his anti-Semitic point of view, and with the question of “Truth” in his creative depiction—is it indeed “as it was”? (Except for the special effects, of course—I assume no actors actually suffered or were subjected to inhumane treatment during the filming.)
  • The French National Assembly has voted to ban clothing and jewelry that constitute “ostensibly” religious symbols from that nation’s public schools.
  • The ramifications of the “wardrobe malfunction” that revealed part of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime continue. Some major media conglomerates have taken actions to curtail or terminate indecent and obscene programming, even prior to governmental direction or market demands.

It seems to me, then, that our susceptibility to all things symbol-related, and our vulnerability to those who manipulate the symbols (and labels, words, morals, attitudes, beliefs, etc.) has not ameliorated significantly in the quarter century since Postman’s editorial. We still, as individuals, groups, and cultures, exhibit behaviors that amount to “eating the menu,” so to speak. We still confuse flags with freedoms, bumper stickers with beliefs, and appearances with ‘realities.’

So what, then, about the relevance of general semantics? Does our discipline bring anything to the table of “intellectual enterprise” for this 21st century? You may correctly presume that I, as the new Executive Director of this ‘new’ organization, would answer in the affirmative.

Twenty-seven years ago, Neil Postman wrote about the consequences of the “symbolic stench” (my term) that pollutes what passes for contemporary cultural, political, and social discourse. Alfred Korzybski warned us over seventy years ago that “who rules the symbols rules us.” The current ‘issues’ that exist on verbal and symbolic levels will divide us politically in this election year, even as our living existence is threatened on quite visible non-verbal levels in New York, Baghdad, Madrid and other cities inevitably to be named later.

Our challenge as students, practitioners, publishers and advocates of an extensional, scientific orientation is to forthrightly address the threats to sane, time-binding behavior as we can, using the methods and tools at our disposal.

Otherwise, we will continue to be fed menus, and eventually not object to the taste.