1: What is General Semantics?

Course Home | 1: What is GS? | 2: Allness | 3: Bypassing | 4: Linguistic Relativity | 5: Symbol Rulers | 6: Review and Reflection

This course was developed and presented on the Canvas Network by Steve Stockdale, Mary Lahman, and Greg Thompson. It is reproduced here under terms of the Creative Commons Share Alike License as published on Canvas Network from 13 January – 24 February 2014.

Module Map

Artwork by Alice Webb

Artwork by Alice Webb Art

In this first module, we’ll provide a broad introduction to the field of study called General Semantics (GS). Steve is the lead instructor this week.

As depicted in the module list, this week we’re going to introduce you to GS in this sequence:


  • Point of View Survey — We begin with a 20-question Point of View survey. The survey results and significance will be presented and discussed in Week 5.
  • Defining and Describing General Semantics — Several different viewpoints on how to briefly characterize GS.
  • Basic Understandings — A first-pass explanation, to be developed further throughout the course.


  • Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) — A short biography of the man who “wrote the book” and (perhaps unfortunately) coined the label, “General Semantics.”
  • Korzybski’s Quest —Three questions guided Korzybski’s work.
  • Map|Territory: Foundational Premises —Three premises underlie the GS theory or methodology, each an aspect of the Map|Territory analogy.
  • Abstracting-Evaluating—Integral to General Semantics is an understanding of the neurological processes Korzybski termed abstracting (or evaluating). As we will see, while his label has not be embraced by the medical sciences, his description of the processes and their implications was on the mark.
  • Discussion Assignment — We’ll ask you to share your own example that illustrates the abstracting process, worth 30 points.
  • Two Worlds —A consequence of the brain’s abstracting process is the realization that we live in “two worlds.” As reflected in current neuroscience understanding, our brain actively mediates, or constructs, what we experience as the “real world.”
  • Language(s) as Map(s) — Some of the implications and consequences of the Map|Territory analogy relate to our language habits and bahaviors.
  • Consciousness of Abstracting — A comparison of behaviors that reflect a consciousness (or awareness) of one’s abstracting and evaluating processes, vs. unawareness.


  • A variety of demonstrations we hope will make the notions of abstracting and evaluating more meaningful, at least in terms of vision and hearing.


  • Review and Reflection — A summary of key takeaways and highlights of Module 1.
  • Optional Activities — Readings, viewings, and other activities that you may find beneficial and interesting.
  • Discussion — We ask you to participate in a Discussion and share your reactions to the material presented in this module, worth 50 points.
  • Quiz — We ask you to complete a 50-point Quiz which has been structured to facilitate and confirm learning, also worth 50 points.
  • References
  • Completion Checklist —To make sure you haven’t missed anything.

This module is designed to be completed in sequence. As you complete each page or activity, you’ll see navigation buttons at the bottom to either return to the Previous page or advance to the Next page. You can always skip around if you prefer or if you need to review specific pages.

At the bottom of most pages, you’ll see links for the Ongoing Course Discussion and Your Personal journal. We encourage you to regularly jot down notes and thoughts in your journal and participate in the ongoing course discussion. Your Personal Journal is worth a total of 20 points.

Module Learning Objectives

After successfully completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Summarize the story of Alfred Korzybski and he came to develop the discipline of General Semantics.
  • Explain the abstracting process and its significance.
  • Explain the significance of the map|territory distinction.
  • Identify key differences between facts (or descriptions of observations) and inferences (or opinions, judgments, assumptions).
  • Explain how Korzybski’s 1933 understanding of how the nervous system works has been validated by 21st-century neuroscience.
  • Demonstrate familiarity with the GS vocabulary.
  • Demonstrate self-awareness of ineffective, unproductive, or self-defeating language habits and behaviors.
  • Offer your own explanation in response to the question, “what is General Semantics about?”


Concerning Expectations

Please watch this 9-minute video that addresses a few items regarding expectations. (You can click on the “CC” on the video player control bar to see the closed captions.)

Below the video we will maintain an updated list of the countries represented in the course and the chart of enrollment growth.


Countries represented in the course

If yours isn’t listed, please let us know. Updated 20 January.

  1. Algeria
  2. Argentina
  3. Australia
  4. Bangladesh
  5. Belgium
  6. Brazil
  7. Burkina Faso
  8. Canada
  9. Chile
  10. China
  11. Colombia
  12. Croatia
  13. Czech Republic
  14. Dubai
  15. Ecuador
  16. Egypt
  17. France
  18. Germany
  19. Greece
  20. Grenada
  21. Hungary
  22. Iceland
  23. India
  24. Iran
  25. Ireland
  26. Italy
  27. Japan
  28. Jordan
  29. Kazakhstan
  30. Kuwait
  31. Latvia
  32. Lithuania
  33. Macedonia
  34. Malaysia
  35. Mexico
  36. Moldova
  37. Morocco
  38. Netherlands
  39. New Zealand
  40. Nicaragua
  41. Nigeria
  42. Norway
  43. Pakistan
  44. Paraguay
  45. Peru
  46. Philippines
  47. Poland
  48. Puerto Rico
  49. Romania
  50. Russia
  51. Saudi Arabia
  52. Serbia
  53. South Africa
  54. South Korea
  55. Spain
  56. Sweden
  57. Switzerland
  58. Tasmania
  59. Thailand
  60. Tunisia
  61. Turkey
  62. U.K. (England, Wales, and Scotland included)
  63. United Arab Emirates
  64. Uruguay
  65. U.S.
  66. Vanuatu
  67. Venezuela



Point of View Survey

mandoor.jpgThis survey contains 20 statements that you’ve probably heard. In fact, you’ve probably heard them a lot since most of them can be considered as aphorisms or cliches. For each of the statements, indicate to what degree you agree or disagree with the sentiment expressed. Go with your first impression. Once you’ve marked your response and advanced, you can’t go back.

Disregard the terminology used (“question” and “correct answer”) since this ungraded survey uses the same format as a quiz. There are no correct answers, but we had to identify “correct” answers in order to award points for completion.

The survey results will be aggregated at the class level and discussed during Week 5.

NOTE: These statements may not be recognized by students who are not so familiar with American culture. However, these kinds of aphorisms or cliches or truisms probably exist in all cultures. If you don’t recognize the significance of one of the statements, see if you can think of an appropriate substitute that you are familiar with.

Disagree No Opinion Agree Strong
1. You’re either for something or against it.
2. You can’t change human nature.
3. Everything happens for a reason.
4. The will of the majority should always be respected.
5. Expect a miracle.
6. Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus.
7. To thine own self be true.
8. It’s all good.
9. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
10. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
11. Clothes make the man.
12. Love the sinner, but hate the sin.
13. Everybody has one true soul mate.
14. Time heals all wounds.
15. In the end, people get what they deserve.
16. The pen is mightier than the sword.
17. It is what it is.
18. Image is everything.
19. You get what you expect.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Defining and Describing General Semantics

What is General Semantics?

You might think such a simple question would have a simple answer. Unfortunately, in this case there isn’t a simple answer. Just like there’s really no simple answer to the question, “What is chaos theory?”

In the course description there’s a phrase that could serve as a beginning definition of General Semantics:

General Semantics—the study of how we transform our life experiences into language and thought.

The definition I used in my eBook, Here’s Something About General Semantics (download the pdf), provides a broader view:

General Semantics deals with the process of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences. Our language-behaviors represent one aspect of these responses (Stockdale, 2009, p. 21).

Following are several different approaches to describe General Semantics. From these, you might begin to sketch a picture for yourself of what GS is about.


You can get an idea of the scope and domain of General Semantics from the titles of some of the prominent books in the field. (These are all listed in the Module 1 References.)

  • Science and Sanity (Korzybski)
  • Language Habits in Humans Affairs (Lee)
  • Language in Thought and Action (Hayakawa)
  • People in Quandaries (W. Johnson)
  • Your Most Enchanted Listener (W. Johnson)
  • The Art of Awareness (Bois)
  • Levels of Knowing and Existence (Weinberg)
  • Symbols, Status, and Personality (Hayakawa)
  • Drive Yourself Sane (Kodish & Kodish)
  • Communication and Organizational Behavior: Text and Cases (Haney)
  • The Speech Personality (Murray)
  • The Language of Wisdom and Folly (Lee)
  • The Tyranny of Words (Chase)
  • Making Sense (Potter)
  • Culture, Language and Behavior (Russell)
  • Mathsemantics (MacNeal)
  • Nothing Never Happens (K. Johnson and others)
  • Explorations in Awareness (Bois)

from Wendell Johnson

Wendell Johnson was one of the most important and distinguished of the “early adopters” of General Semantics. A clinical professor at the University of Iowa (see the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center), Johnson wrote two wonderful books centered around GS, People in Quandaries and Your Most Enchanted Listener. The following excerpt comes from his first lecture of the Fall 1956 semester, which was broadcast over the campus radio station and recorded.

[General Semantics is concerned with the role] … our use of words, designs — symbols of all kinds — tends to play in the development of our individual personalities, our institutions, and our human societies. So we shall be concerned in the course with the disorders of our symbolic processes, which is to say the language of maladjustment — the language which reflects maladjustment and which tends to produce maladjustment. We shall be even more concerned with the kinds of language which we are able to develop or cultivate which tend to be very effective, which tend to be conducive, to what we call “normal adjustment.”

… I do not mean by adjustment some kind of self-satisfaction, some sort of blind acceptance of things as they are, but something much, much more dynamic and helpful than that. I mean by adjustment, by healthful adjustment, something that we might call the “realization of our own individual potentials for development.” I don’t mean being like somebody else, like the average man, or like the mold, but being oneself as fully as possible.

Well, there is a way to use language which tends to encourage this sort of development. Then there is a way to use language — there are probably many, many ways to use language — which tend to make it difficult to develop one’s full potential, and so we will be concerned with these kinds of language. This means we’re going to be concerned with things like speaking, writing, listening, reading, designing, and figuring with the pictures we make in our heads. We’ll be concerned with the talking we do to ourselves that we recognize as thinking, and feeling, and imagining, and wishing, and regretting, and so forth.

We’re going to be concerned especially with the language we use for talking ourselves into trouble, and that which we use for talking ourselves out of trouble. We are going to be concerned with the language that is effective for the solving of problems and for the realization of potential selfdevelopment. We’re going to be especially concerned with language in its most effective forms for the purpose of solving problems. This means we will be especially interested in the language used by scientific research workers, and also by others — outstanding novelists, poets, any of the users of language who are very effective in the solving of human problems (Johnson, 1957).

from Irving J. Lee

Along with Wendell Johnson and S.I. Hayakawa, Irving J. Lee, professor of speech at Northwestern University, earned a place among the handful of most influential early proponents of General Semantics. The following 4:46 clip comes from a 1952 series of lectures on General Semantics called “Talking Sense” broadcast in Chicago as part of the “Of Men and Ideas” program.

Several excerpts from this series will be used througout the course. Note that some of Professor Lee’s terminology is a reflection of his time – e.g., “men” rather than “people” or “men and women” – but the content of his presentations remain relevant.

from Dr. Russell Meyers

Dr. Russell Meyers also taught at the University of Iowa, but in the medical school as a neurosurgeon. He held leadership positions in the two GS organizations in the 1940s and was a principle lecturer at Institute of General Semantics seminars throughout the 1950s.

There are two premises we must operate on whenever we try to communicate. First, we must expect to be misunderstood. Second, we must expect to misunderstand. This may seem “obvious” but too few human beings act as if it were true. We are striving to minimize misunderstanding, not to eliminate it. This is true not only of inter-personal but intra-personal communication.

Communication can be competent or incompetent; it can lead to improvement or to destruction.

General Semantics is less interested in answers to examination questions than in personal behavior in day-to-day situations. It grew out of a comparison of the kinds of behavior that have led to adaptation and the kinds that have led to mis-adaptation.

Most of GS is unspeakable. It must be experienced and practiced over a period of time. Concepts basic to General Semantics:

  • Scientific method (generalized)
  • Communication
  • Evaluation
  • Creativity

Alfred Korzybski compared the efficient communication behavior of scientists to the inefficient behavior of “mental” cases. He then took those kinds of adaptive behavior that could be identified and taught and generalized them for everyday use.

The aim of GS is robust psychological health, not merely correcting or preventing maladjustment (Meyers, 1957).

from J. Samuel Bois

In The Art of Awareness, J. Samuel Bois describes a hypothetical situation to illustrate the scope of what General Semantics is concerned with. I’ve paraphrased it.

Imagine a scene in a hospital examining room. There’s a doctor, a patient, and the patient’s wife. A lab technician knocks on the door and enters, carrying a medical folder with the patient’s charts. He hands the folder to the doctor, nods to the patient and the wife, and leaves the room. The doctor silently looks through the pages of the chart. She takes a deep breath, gathers herself, and turns to the husband to say, “The tests confirm that you’ve got cancer.”

From a strictly semantic standpoint, or in terms of how the word cancer is defined in a dictionary, there is probably little ambiguity or lack of understanding among the three participants in this imaginary scene. They each share a common understanding that cancer refers to a medical diagnosis of cellular growths that may, or may not, be treated in certain ways, that may result in certain health outcomes for the patient. However, the common understanding of the definition of what the word cancer refers to is not at all the same as the emotional and physiological response of each individual person in the room upon hearing the utterance, “you’ve got cancer.”

In other words, what hearing “you’ve got cancer” means to the doctor who articulates the words is something entirely different to what it means to the patient who hears the words. And what it means to the patient is something qualitatively different from his wife’s response.

According to Bois, the study and understanding of such individual in-the-moment reactions, or happenings-meanings, “is the field of General Semantics” (Bois, 1966, p. 32).

Alfred Korzybski

The analysis of … living reactions is the sole object of general semantics … (Korzybski, 1994, p. xli).

Throughout this module we will concentrate on the work of Alfred Korzybski and his development of General Semantics.


Used with permission of Institute of General Semantics

Basic Understandings of General Semantics

Since 1998, I’ve used a framework of five major topics as a way to structure a curriculum to introduce General Semantics. This page presents an high-level overview of the inter-related components that comprise the system or methodology of General Semantics, originated by Alfred Korzybski. These components will be expanded upon and developed further throughout the course, as suggested by the outward spiral in the image below.



Through our use of languages and symbol systems such as music, math, art, etc., we can facilitate learning among our fellow planet dwellers. But we also have access to the accumulated knowledge that has been learned, documented, improved upon, and passed along from generation to generation. This unique capability to transfer and build upon knowledge has resulted in ever-expanding human progress.

We can also, however, use such symbol systems to perpetuate atavistic feuds, myths, superstitions, prejudices, etc., that result in conflict, suffering and death. What accounts for the difference in our ability to progress technologically and inability to progress sociologically?

  • Only humans have demonstrated the capability to build on the knowledge of prior generations. Alfred Korzybski referred to this capability as time-binding. We ‘bind time’ when we use language and symbols to organize and pass along knowledge from one generation to the next, as well as within a generation.
  • Language serves as the primary tool that facilitates time-binding, and language is enabled and powered by the astounding capabilities of the human cortex.
  • Time-binding forms the basis for an ethical standard by which to evaluate human behavior: to what degree does the action or behavior promote, or retard, time-binding?
  • Acknowledging our time-binding inheritance dispels us of the ‘self-made’ notion and encourages us to ‘bind time’ for the benefit of those who follow.

Scientific Orientation

The methods of science that have resulted in four centuries of advancement in medicine, engineering, physics, etc., have application for us in our daily lives. From our day-to-day experiences, we gather information, form opinions and beliefs, gather more information, form more opinions and beliefs, etc. Does the information we gather from our daily experiences support our beliefs and opinions? Do we modify those beliefs and opinions when the ‘facts’ of our experiences warrant? Do we apply what we ‘know’ about ourselves and the world around us in our daily living?

  • Our ability to time-bind is most evident when we apply a scientific approach, method or attitude in our evaluations and judgments.
  • A scientific approach involves the process of continually testing assumptions and beliefs, gathering as many facts and as much data as possible, revising assumptions and beliefs as appropriate, and holding conclusions and judgments tentatively.
  • Hidden, or unstated assumptions guide our behavior to some degree; therefore we ought to make a special effort to become more aware of them.
  • Even if testing confirms the hypothesis, continue to make observations, collect data, and check to see if the hypothesis remains valid or should be revised.
  • We live in a process-oriented universe in which everything changes all the time. The changes may not be readily apparent to us if they occur on microscopic, or even sub-microscopic, levels.
  • We should remember that there is always more going on than we can sense or experience.


One test is worth a thousand expert opinions. — Anonymous



Our day-to-day experiences are partial and incomplete abstractions of all that we could possibly see, hear, touch, taste or smell. Therefore the opinions and beliefs (or evaluations) we derive from those experiences ought to be tempered with some degree of tentativeness, uncertainty, and to-me-ness.

  • As humans, we have limits as to what we can experience through our senses. Given these limitations, we can never experience ‘all’ of what’s ‘out there’ to experience. We abstract only a portion of what’s ‘out there.’
  • Our awareness of ‘what goes on’ outside of our skin, is not ‘what is going on;’ our awareness of our experience is not the silent, first-order, neurological experience.
  • Given our ever-changing environment (which includes ourselves, and our awareness of ourselves), we never experience the ‘same’ person, event, situation, ‘thing,’ experience, etc., more than once.
  • To the degree that our evaluative reactions and responses to all forms of stimuli are automatic, or conditioned, we copy animals, like Pavlov’s dog. To the degree that these evaluations are more controlled, delayed, or conditional to the given situation, we exhibit our uniquely-human capabilities.
  • We each experience ‘what’s out there’ uniquely, according to our individual sensory capabilities, integrating our past experiences and expectations. We ought to maintain an attitude of ‘to-me-ness’ in our evaluations of our own behavior, as well as in our evaluations of others’ behavior.
We see the world as ‘we’ are, not as ‘it’ is; because it is the I behind the ‘eye’ that does the seeing. — Anais Nin


We see what we see because we miss the finer details (Korzybski, 1994, p.376).



Verbal Awareness

Language facilitates time-binding, for advancing progress within societies and cultures, as well as enabling individuals to adjust, adapt, survive and thrive within an increasingly chaotic verbal environment. We are, for the most part, unaware of the effects of our verbal environment on how we react to our daily experiences. How often do we react to words, labels, symbols and signs as if they were the ‘real’ things represented? Do we use language, or are we used by language? Who rules our symbols?

  • We can think of language as the unique capability that allows humans to time-bind, or build our learning, from generation to generation, as well as within generations.
  • However, language has evolved with structural flaws in that much of the language we use does not properly reflect the structure of the world we experience ‘out there.’
  • Among the mistakes we perhaps unknowingly commit:
    • confusing the word or symbol with whatever the word or symbol stands for;
    • acting as if the meaning of the words we use is contained solely in the word, without considering the context and the individuals;
    • confusing facts with our inferences, assumptions, beliefs, etc.;
    • not accounting for the many “shades of gray,” simplistically looking at things as if they were black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, etc.;
    • using language to ‘separate’ that which in the actual world cannot be separated, such as space from time, mind from body, thinking from feeling.
  • Revising our language habits by using these devices will help us become more aware and more deliberate in our everyday talking and listening. These five techniques were advocated by Korzybski and referred to as the extensional devices:
    • indexing : Muslim(1) is not Muslim(2); Feminist(1) is not Feminist(2);. Remember to look for the differences even among a group or category that presume similarities.
    • dating : Steve(2013) is not Steve(1968); Steve’s-views-on-global-warming(2013) are not Steve’s-views-on-global-warming(1988). Remember that each person and each ‘thing’ we experience changes over time, even though the changes may not be apparent to us.
    • quotes : ‘truth’, ‘reality’, ‘mind’, ‘pure’. Use quotes around terms as a caution to indicate you’re aware that there is an opportunity for misunderstanding if the term is particularly subject to interpretation, or if you’re being sarcastic, ironic, or facetious.
    • hyphen : mind-body, thinking-feeling. Use to join terms that we can separate in language, but can’t actually separate in the ‘real’ world. Remember that we can talk in terms that don’t accurately reflect the world ‘out there.’
    • etc.: Remember that our knowledge and awareness of anything is limited. We can’t sense or experience or talk about all of something, so we should maintain an awareness of the etc., that “more could be said.”

Additional devices or techniques designed to address ineffective language habits include:

    • E-Prime: eliminate or reduce forms of the to be verbs (is, are, were, am, being, etc.). In particular, reduce those that we consider is of identity (ex. John is a liberal) and is of predication (ex. The rose is red.) Download and read To Be or Not To Be: E-Prime as a Tool for Critical Thinking (PDF, 12 pages) by D. David Bourland, Jr (Bourland, 2004).
    • English Minus Absolutisms (EMA): eliminate or reduce inappropriate generalizations or expressions that imply allness or absolute attitudes. Examples include: all, none, every, totally, absolutely, perfect, without a doubt, certain, completely. Download and read Allen Walker Read’s Language Revision by Deletion of Absolutisms (PDF, 7 pages) (Read, 2004).
    • To-me-ness: Used by Wendell Johnson as a convenience to convey a consciousness of projection, as otherwise expressed by phrases such as “it seems to me,” “apparently,” “from my point of view,” and “as I see it” (Johnson, 1946, p. 61).

Sensory Awareness

You could say that we live in two worlds: our verbal world of words (and thoughts, opinions, beliefs, doubts, etc.), and the non-verbal world of our actual sensory experiences. We experience the world on the non-verbal levels, but many times our verbal pre-occupations preclude us from appreciating what we experience on a moment-to-moment, here-and-now, non-verbal basis. To what degree do we project our verbal world of expectations onto our non-verbal sensory experiences? Do we experience ‘what is going on’ in the moment, or do we see what we’re looking for, or hear what we expect to hear? Are we aware of ourselves, our non-verbal experiencing, and our limitations?

  • We ‘experience’ our daily living on the silent, non-verbal levels; in other words, on a physiological-neurological level different from our verbal awareness.
  • Our ability to experience the world is relative, unique to our own individual sensing capabilities.
  • Our language habits can affect our physiological behavior; we can allow what we see, hear, say, etc., to affect our blood pressure, pulse, rate of breathing, etc.
  • As we become more aware of our own non-verbal behaviors, we can practice techniques to achieve greater degrees of relaxation, less stress, greater sense of our environment, etc.

Charlotte Schuchardt Read

Charlotte Schuchardt Read began working for Korzybski as his literary secretary in 1939. A dance student, she became increasingly interested in what Korzybski called semantic relaxation, a guided practice of silencing one’s inner dialogue and striving for silence on the objective level. Charlotte expanded Korzybski’s methods through her work with Charlotte Selver and the Sensory Awareness Foundation.

In this clip from a 1999 interview recording by the Sensory Awareness Foundation, Charlotte explains how the non-verbal, or sensory, practices are an integral part of General Semantics (Read, 1999).


Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)

Alfred Korzybski

Photo used with permission of Institute of General Semantics

Alfred Korzybski (pronounced kore-ZHIB-ski) was born in 1879 to a land-owning family in Poland. He was raised by servants from four different countries who spoke four different languages, growing up with a working knowledge of Polish, Russian, German, and French. In this type of multilingual environment, it came naturally to Korzybski to disassociate the word, or symbol, from the thing that the word or symbol represented.

As a student he studied engineering, mathematics, and chemistry. When the first World War erupted in 1914, he was enlisted into the Russian cavalry. Not only was he severely wounded, but he witnessed first hand the devastating effects of all the new weapons of war that debuted during this “war to end all wars” … airplanes, armored tanks, rapid-fire machine guns, poison gas.

He was sent to North America toward the end of the war when he could no longer serve on the battlefield. He supported artillery testing in Canada before transferring to the U.S. where he traveled the country speaking to groups and selling war bonds. After the war, he remained in the U.S. and married Mira Edgerly, a miniature portrait artist from Chicago.

He was haunted by his war experiences. As an engineer, he pondered this question: How is it that humans have progressed so far and so rapidly in engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, yet we still fight wars and kill each other? Or in his own words:

At present I am chiefly concerned to drive home the fact that it is the great disparity between the rapid progress of the natural and technological sciences on the one hand and the slow progress of the metaphysical, so-called social “sciences” on the other hand, that sooner or later so disturbs the equilibrium of human affairs as to result periodically in those social cataclysms which we call insurrections, revolutions, and wars (Korzybski, 1993, p. 22).


He devoted the rest of his life to this ‘fact,’ its implications, and consequences. In 1921 he published his first book, Manhood of Humanity: The Art and Science of Human Engineering. Then in 1933, he wrote the source book for the field of study we know as General Semantics—Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

Because our language-behaviors are so integral to human cooperation, as well as human conflict, much (not all) of Korzybski’s General Semantics directly addresses the role of language and language habits in human behavior.

Language Matters

To underscore how deeply language is ingrained as a human behavior, consider:

With language we can:

And with language we can also:

  • 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.
  • 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.

(Stockdale, 2009, p. 24)


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 (Lee, 1958, p.60).


Korzybski’s Quest

I think it’s helpful to consider Korzybski’s work from 1920 to 1950 in the context of three broad concerns that shaped the arc of his personal “quest” (my term, not his).

  1. What makes the human species human? In other words, what are the similarities among humans that differentiate us from other species, that distinguish the organism named Smith from his canine best friend named Fido?
  2. What accounts for the vast differences in behaviors that are exhibited among humans such that, within one generation, we can produce Gandhi, Hitler, Einstein, and Stalin?
  3. Is it possible to characterize these vast differences such that we can more rapidly increase behaviors that advance and progress humanity, while minimizing the atavistic behaviors that retard or regress humanity?
The task of engineering science is not only to know but to know how (Korzybski, 1993, p. 11).

1. What makes humans human? Time-binding

Alfred Korzybski’s education focused on the sciences, especially chemistry and engineering. He had a deep curiosity about how things worked. Therefore in considering this first question, Korzybski sought an operational definition of humans — not merely a verbal definition. What did humans do that was different from non-human forms of life?

Plants as Chemistry-binders

First Korzybski considered plants. What do plants do? Plants absorb, or bind, specific chemicals in their immediate environment — nutrients from the soil and water — and together with the effects of sunlight (for above-ground plants), reproduce cells and produce growth. Plant growth and reproduction are influenced by other environmental factors such as climate, gravity, and (of course) plant-eating animals and pollinating insects, just to name a few.

Korzybski therefore distinguished plants by their ability to bind together the elements of their environment within and to their own organisms in order to produce and sustain life. He referred to them as chemistry-binders.


Animals as Space-binders

Turning to the animal kingdom (including birds and fish), Korzybski determined that, operationally, what animals do includes everything that plants do with one crucial difference. Animals possess (to varying degrees) the ability to move about in their environment. If the source of its food or water depletes, an animal can move to another place. The ability to move about in space also provides animals with defensive, and offensive, capabilities in their relations with other animals.

Based on this defining characteristic of being able to move about throughout their spacial environment, Korzybski referred to animals as space-binders in that they ‘binded’ the spaces within their living territory.


Humans as Time-binders

MOH-cover-150.jpgIn assessing what humans do, over and above the capabilities of animals, Korzybski determined that the most critical difference is the ability to create, manipulate, record, and transform symbols. For him, however, the consequence of this uniquely-human capability was much more than just being able to think and communicate with symbols, words, signs, icons, etc.

Korzybski did not regard the human language capability itself as the defining characteristic of humans, but as the tool that enabled the capability that most differentiated humans from animals — the ability to transfer knowledge from human to human, within and across generations. Languages and other symbol systems, powered by the brain’s neo-cortex (Korzybski, 1993, p. 149) provide humans with the means to document experiences, observations, tips, descriptions, etc., which means that a child can pick up from where the parent leaves off. Knowledge among the human species can therefore accumulate and advance as a body, not simply as random lessons taught and learned by copying, mimicing, or experience.

As a plant binds its chemical environment to reproduce and grow, and as an animal binds space to survive, humans are able to bind time such that a school girl in 2014 can learn physics from Isaac Newton, dance to an 18th-century waltz, become entranced by the words of a sacred ancient text, and try to keep with Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings. Like the plants that ‘bind’ chemicals directly into the living cells of their own organisms, and the animals that ‘bind’ their movements within their environments, humans bind time by the activities and changes of their individual brains.

Korzybski coined the term time-binding to denote this defining capability of human time-binders, first described in his 1921 book, Manhood of Humanity. He wrote:

We know that time-binding capacity — the capacity for accumulating racial [of the human race] experience, enlarging it, and transmitting it for future expansion — is the peculiar power, the characteristic energy, the definitive nature, the defining mark, of man; … to make improvement — to do greater things by help of things already done — are of the very nature of the time-binding capacity which makes humans human (Korzybski, 1993, pp. 174-175).


All human achievements are cumulative; no one of us can claim any achievement exclusively as his own; we all must use consciously or unconsciously the achievements of others, some of them living but most of them dead (Korzybski, 1990a, p. 13).


 2. What accounts for the differences in human behavior? Evaluating

While Korzybski defined time-binding as a characteristic human capacity (or capability), he knew from first-hand experience in World War I that human behavior did not always result in “improvement” or “greater things.” Therefore he contemplated how it was that some humans sought to advance and progress “human weal” (Korzybski, 1993, p. 1) while others sought to murder, steal, and subjugate other humans for their own selfish weal.

As we will emphasize throughout the course, Korzybski drew a sharp distinction between what we experience in our lives, and our reactions to those experiences. What our nervous system can sense and experience is but an abstraction of the total possible experience, and our reactions to what happens are yet another abstraction.

Because people can expect to experience the ‘same’ event or situation differently, their reactions to the experience will inevitably be different. Influenced by his understanding of the tropism effect from biology (plant growth results from the effects of external stimulation from light, moisture, gravity, etc.), Korzybski initially coined the term semantic reaction to refer to the total response of a human to a meaningful event or experience. However, in his later work he came to use the more general evaluational reaction or simply evaluation to denote human behavioral reactions as the collective or cumulative impact of one’s abstractions. Evaluations would therefore include activities we label as judgments, conclusions, opinions, beliefs, ideologies, etc. Here is a table of terms that could be considered under the umbrella term of evaluating.

adapt administer advertise analyze
anticipate apply appraise argue
arrange articulate ask assemble
assess associate break down calculate
categorize change choose cite
classify collaborate combine compare
compile complete compose compute
conclude connect consider construct
contrast convert convince copy
correlate create criticize critique
debate decide deduce defend
define demonstrate describe design
determine develop devise diagram
differentiate discover discriminate discuss
dissect distinguish divide dramatize
duplicate editorialize employ enumerate
establish estimate examine experiment
explain express extend facilitate
find focus formulate generalize
grade group hypothesize identify
illustrate imagine indicate infer
integrate interpret intervene interview
invent judge justify label
list listen locate manage
manipulate match measure memorize
modify name negotiate observe
omit order organize outline
paint paraphrase persuade plan
point out practice predict prepare
prioritize produce propose question
quote rank rate read
rearrange recall recite recognize
recommend record reframe relate
reorganize report represent reproduce
research review revise schematize
select separate show simulate
sketch solve speculate state
structure subdivide substitute summarize
support survey tabulate teach
tell test trace transfer
transform translate validate visualize
weigh write

So in assessing the differences in human behaviors, Korzybski theorized that these differences were matters of evaluation, due to the different meanings that individuals attached to events and experiences, based on their own individual values.

In Week 5, we’ll address the “big picture” implications of his theories about the complex inter-relationships among evaluations, meanings, and values. Here are some examples that may give you a feel for what Korzybski was getting at:

  • The European Union is divided over the ongoing financial crises in Greece and other countries. Generalizing and simplifying … the citizens in Greece evaluate the crisis differently than German citizens because the austerity that is being forced on Greece means something very different to the Greek than it means to the German. The Greek and the German evaluate the situation differently because the situation means something different because they hold different values.
  • The Tea Party in the United States evaluates the significance of U.S. debt and government spending levels differently from other political groups because of the meaning that Tea Partiers give to government debt based on their values.
  • People around the world hold different evaluations about global warming/climate change based what the phenomenon means to them and what values they hold. To the citizen of the Maldives, the threat of rising oceans bears meaningful consequences because they value their way of life (not to mention their actual lives), so they evaluate the evidence and forecasts about global warming one way. The owner/operator/customers of a coal-burning electricity plant in the remote southwest U.S., they evalute the issue differently because their economic and political values are affected in different meaningful ways.
  • The ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan can be considered in terms of different evaluations based on conflicting values and meanings.

3. How to characterize a method or system that can be taught, learned, and applied?

Korzybski published his time-binding theory in Manhood of Humanity in 1921. Throughout the 1920s, he worked through the implications of his theory, including his detailed analysis and description of the abstracting process that produced individual evaluations.

ss-cover-150.jpgFor two years he observed patients at St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washinton, D.C. He carefully noted the language of the mentally ill, specifically how in many instances their language (maps) did not match the ‘real’ world (territory), which reflected pathological cases of misevaluation.

In contrast to the extremes of such inappropriate language behavior resulting from misevaluations, Korzybski studied the effective and productive language behaviors of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, artists, writers, etc. He worked diligently to analyze and understand the language behaviors at both ends of these two extremes. He specifically sought a way to articulate and communicate how a misevaluation differed operationally from an appropriate evaluation.

The result of Korzybski’s investigations and contemplations were published in 1933 in the source book for General Semantics, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. In it, Korzybski:

  1. describes the biological and neurological basis for his work,
  2. offers a detailed diagnosis of the many varieties of mistakes, errors, and misevaluations that humans consistently manifest,
  3. proffers prescriptions for recognizing, minimizing, and avoiding the causes of these misevaluations, and
  4. explains methods of teaching and learning these prescriptions.

For more on the life of Alfred Korzybski, check out Bruce Kodish’s thorough and worthwhile Korzybski: A Biography (link to Amazon.com listing).

Map|Territory: Foundational Premises

Base for The Map is Not the Territory

Artwork by Alice Webb Art

Alfred Korzybski used the Map|Territory analogy to illustrate three foundational premises of his General Semantics.

The Map|Territory Analogy

1. The map is not the territory.

A map depicts only limited aspects of the territory it represents or symbolizes. For a map to be useful, it must accurately reflect the relative structure or relationships of the key features of the territory. Similarly, our language behaviors can be thought of as maps of our actual life experiences. These verbal expressions of how and what we think, feel, react, judge, assume, etc., should be in accordance with the ‘territory’ of our lived experiences. And on a pre-verbal level, we can use the metaphor to remember that even our lived experiences — what we see, hear, feel, smell, taste, etc. — are neurological constructs (‘maps’) of whatever it is in the ‘real’ world outside ourselves that we are seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting.

Of course, “the map is not the territory!”

It’s rather easy to dismiss this statement of the obvious. Got it! Let’s move on.

But let’s not be so quick to take these six words for granted. Arguably, the whole of General Semantics derives from this six-word premise and the consequences which follow. So let’s spend a few minutes considering the implications for Korzybski’s General Semantics.

The map is not the territory. What does this mean to you? Perhaps something like …

  • The word is not the thing.
  • The symbol is not the thing symbolized.
  • The name is not the thing named.
  • The referent is not the thing referenced.

In other words, a particular type of distinction is expressed: one thing is not the same thing as another thing which the one thing is represented by. More generally, an abstraction is not that from which the abstraction is abstracted. The map (an abstraction) is not the territory ( whatever is not an abstraction; but hold that thought until the summary of this page).

In the four examples above, the abstractions are characterized in terms easily recognizable as abstract terms — words, symbols, names, referents.

However, in Korzybski’s General Semantics the pre-eminent, or foundational, map|territory distinction involves two seemingly non-abstract entities.

2. The map cannot show all of the territory.

Maps are limited in size and detail. They can only depict selected items of interest or importance. Similarly, our language behaviors — our talking, listening, writing, thinking — are limited and cannot include or comprehend all of whatever we are trying to describe or understand. And on a pre-verbal level, the maps of what we are seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling account for only a fraction of what exists in the territory of the ‘real’ world.

So in Korzybski’s term, we can think of a map as an abstraction of the territory it symbolizes; the words we use to express ourselves as an abstraction of the thoughts and feelings we experience; and even those thoughts and feelings as abstractions of whatever stimulates our sensory experiences with the ‘real’ world.

3. A map is self-reflexive and made by a map-maker.

Maps, like money, don’t grow on trees. They don’t spring forth from the earth or rain down from the heavens. Maps are constructed by their makers. A human being makes a map. An individual decides the purpose of the map, the size, the scale, the features to be included, how many copies will be made, who will use it, the colors, etc. In deciding all those details, the human map maker must also determine which features will not be included, which might be exaggerated or emphasized for importance, what descriptive annotations might be helpful. And if the map-maker were constructing a map of the territory which surrounded the map-maker herself, then a theoretically-complete map would include both the map itself and the map-maker.

In terms of our language behaviors, we can remember that whatever we “reduce to language,” or whatever thoughts and feelings we abstract from our experiences, are human constructions reflecting evaluations. We are making our own maps (evaluations) of our experiences, and we can also then evaluate our evaluations. In language, since we can almost endlessly talk about our talking, we are in a sense making maps of maps of maps, etc.

Two important characteristics of maps should be noticed. A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. If the map could be ideally correct, it would include, in a reduced scale, the map of the map; the map of the map, of the map; and so on, endlessly, a fact first noticed by [Josiah] Royce (Korzybski, 1994, p. 58).



Alfred Korzybski

Abstracting, in the context of Korzybski’s model, refers to physio-neurological processes that occur on non-verbal and verbal levels. From the world of energy stimulations that envelope us, our nervous systems abstract (or select, choose, pay attention to, etc.) only a fraction. From these partial, incomplete, and fleeting sensations, the nervous system must construct our conscious or aware experiences by matching patterns of stimuli with the brain’s ‘database’ of previous experiences.

Evaluating is used in much the same way as abstracting, although I consider it a higher-level, more generalized term in that we can cognitively evaluate the abstractions that result from our abstracting.

… we take for granted that all “perceptual processes” involve abstracting by our nervous system at different levels of complexity. Neurological evidence shows the selective character of the organism’s responses to total situations … that the mechanisms of “perception” lie in the ability of our nervous system to abstract and to project.


Abstracting by necessity involves evaluating, whether conscious or not, and so the process of abstracting may be considered as a process of evaluating stimuli, whether it be a “toothache,” “an attack of migraine,” or the reading of a “philosophical treatise.” A great many factors enter into “perceiving” … (Korzybski, 1990b, pp. 686-687).

Structural Differential

Structural Differential with LabelsAlfred Korzybski developed this diagram in the 1920’s as a means to visualize the abstracting process. Originally a three-dimensional, free-standing model (for which he applied for and received a U.S. patent; imagine a colander, or strainer, in place of the ragged parabola at the top), this printed version appeared in his source book for general semantics, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems.

The parabola represents an environment (the world around us) consisting of innumerable characteristics or events, depicted by the holes, or dots (activities, people, things, etc., including what occurs on microscopic and sub-microscopic levels (Event level).

Only some of these characteristics (the hanging strings) can be detected by human senses. Those which connect to the circle (Object level) represent a specific object sensed by a specific nervous system, which has abstracted a particular set of characteristics (those connective strings) from all possible characteristics occurring in the parabola.

These initial sensory data are further abstracted and transformed as the nervous system/brain recognizes and associates the data with a word or label. The tag below the circle represents the Descriptive (verbal) level of abstracting.

From the descriptive level, the verbal abstracting process proceeds with the Inference levels that can continue indefinitely (implied by the ragged bottom tag). In other words, from our descriptions of events we form inferences, assumptions, opinions, beliefs, etc., by generalizing this experience with our past experiences.

And we can continue, indefinitely, to form inferences from inferences, which may then be subsequently recalled in future experiences, noted by the arrow and dotted line to the right.

As we become aware of these sensory experiences, we can talk about them, describe them, express how we feel, what they mean, etc.

Throughout this abstracting process, we need to remember that what we talk about is not the same thing that our brain registers as an experience, which is also not the same as our initial sensing, which in turn is not the same as the actual stimulus or event.

Abstracting is something that your body-brain-nervous-system does continually, regardless of whether you’re aware of it.

The differential in structural differential refers to a functional difference between humans and animals. An animal’s ability to abstract, depicted by the circle to the left (“Fido”), is limited; a human can continue to abstract and make inferences indefinitely, whereas animals are limited in their abilities to make inferences.

The different levels that Korzybski defines in the model refer to aspects of the overall process which seem to consist of clearly differentiated orders, or types, of activity — from perception, to nervous system construction of the experience, to cognitive evaluation, to our response or reaction.

Here’s an edited video review of the Structural Differential as explained by Korzybski. (2:48)

Significance of Abstracting

Redrawn Differential”So what?” is a reasonable question to ask at this point. What practical difference can this differential make? Let’s look at an illustrated example using my own simplified version of Korzybski’s structural differential model.

E — The parabola represents the Event level, the “what is going on” (WIGO) in the world around us. Each dot, figure, and line stands for an aspect or characteristic of the sub-microscopic process level that comprises WIGO.

O — The circle labeled for Object represents a human nervous system (let’s assume mine) interacting with WIGO. Through my sensing organs and brain, I construct the sights, sounds, smells, etc., that result in my experiences. My experiences are incomplete and unique to my nervous system.

D — The first verbal level in the abstracting process is labeled as Descriptive. What I say, think, etc., at this level about my experience should be limited, as much as possible, to just the facts as I experienced them.

I — The I tags represent the multiple levels of Inferences I might construct from my experience. These inferences will determine what meaning or significance I draw from this experience. As indicated, I can generate as many inferences, beliefs, theories, judgments, conclusions, etc., as I might care to.

It’s important to remember how time, order, or sequence plays into this model. Each level of the abstracting process occurs in a given order, i.e.:

Something happens (Event);

I sense what happens (Object);

I recognize what happens (Description);

I generate meanings for what happens. (Inferences)

We can depict a succession of these abstracting processes over time, one after the other, for every moment of our lives. In this case, with successive abstracting processes, we can see how the inferences (or meanings) we generate from every experience can factor into later experiences.

Abstracting over time

In terms of differentiation, we should note that:

  1. What happens (Event) is NOT
  2. What I sense non-verbally within my nervous system (Object), which is NOT
  3. What I can describe verbally about my sensing (Description), which is NOT
  4. The meaning(s) I generate based on what happened; etc. (Inferences)

Similarly, our experience/inference/meaning at Time(3) is not the same experience/ inference/meaning at Time(1) but due to projection and memory, what we experience at Time(1) may well affect our Time(3) experience and what that experience means.

Example of the Abstracting Process

Let’s take a situation in which a friend — call her Emily — relates with some anger an experience she just had while driving to the store … “somebody cut me off!” We can use the Structural Differential to deconstruct her experience and emphasize the different ‘levels’ between what she experienced and what she evaluated.

Abstracting Example

Event — What is Going On? Street, traffic, trees, rain, wipers … plus microscopic and sub-microscopic particles and activities that we cannot observe, but which we infer based on current science.

Object — Emily’s eyes capture (some of the) reflected light from (some of the) images in her (limited) field of view; the light is transformed (abstracted) by her visual system into nervous system signals that travel to her brain; neurons in her brain process the electrical/chemical signals and cause her to see …

DescriptionI was driving about 25 miles per hour, perhaps 50 feet from the car ahead. A dark vehicle driven by a middle-aged man emerged from my right field of view. He was going faster than me. His car suddenly accelerated and veered into the lane directly in front of me, reducing my following distance to no more than 10 feet, which meant …

Inference(1)This guy’s a rude jerk because …

Inference(2)He cut me off and almost made me have a wreck!

Inference(x)I’m too upset to go to work. I need to go home and relax with my dog.

Can you see that “he cut me off” is not what happened? Can you see that Emily’s reaction to what happened is not the same as a description of what happened?

One of the powerful lessons of general semantics, illustrated by the use of this type of model to analyze the abstracting process, is that we can better train ourselves to respond conditionally to what happens to us.

We humans don’t have to react with a conditioned response like Pavlov’s dog, reacting to a substitute stimulus as if it were ‘real’ — but we often do.

Our language helps confuse us, because we tend to say things like, “Ooh, it made me so mad!” We allow the it — the event, the what happens, the stimulus — to determine our response. You need to remember that between the stimulus and your response, there is a YOU who, to some degree, can control your response:


Time(1) ——-> Time(2)——-> Time(3)

Again, ‘time’ is an important aspect of our conditional responses. Remember the old adage encouraging you to count to 10 before getting mad? There’s a lot of merit to be gained by practicing your ability to consciously — conditionally — delay your responses.

Summary of Abstracting


  • Abstracting refers to ongoing physio-neurological processes that occur on non-verbal levels.
  • We can verbally differentiate certain phases, or levels or orders, of the abstracting process to analyze our behaviors and reactions: EVENT is not OBJECT is not DESCRIPTION is not INFERENCE, etc.
  • We can acknowledge that our abstracting occurs at different times … we should expect different results, reactions, responses, etc., from different experiences occurring at different times.
  • We have human limitations that constrain all of our experiences — we never experience all of what happens.
  • Similarly, we can never say all or describe all about our experiences; more could always be said. Etc.
  • What we experience is, to some degree, a function of our past experiences (feedback, projection, etc.).
  • What we experience is a function of the unique capabilities and limitations of our own individual nervous system.
  • We should therefore expect not only to see things differently, we should expect to evaluate and react to things differently.
  • When we delay our responses and react conditionally, we tend to behave more sanely, more rationally, more appropriately to the facts of the situation and our experience.

When we react immediately — when our responses are conditioned and controlled by the stimulus (the ‘thing’) — we behave like Pavlov’s dog and subject ourselves to control by others. You can use this model and process whenever you want to analyze the behavior, responses, reactions, etc., of a particular individual in a specific situation. (Personally, I find this type of analysis works best when the particular individual happens to be my ownself.) Remember that the structural differential model, or any similar model, represents the process of abstracting. 4 Steps of Abstracting

The more you apply this process to analyze your own abstracting, evaluating, inference-making, belief-generating, etc.:

  • you will become more aware and conscious of your own abstracting;
  • you will better differentiate between: 1) what happens; 2) what you sense of what happens; 3) what you describe of what your senses sense; and 4) what you infer from what you’ve described;
  • you will respond more conditionally to what happens in your life;
  • you will experience less conditioned responses (less like Pavlov’s dog);
  • you will delay more of your responses, leap to fewer conclusions, snap to fewer judgments, and make fewer inappropriate assumptions;
  • you will ____________ (fill in your own benefit).

Here’s another clip of Irving J. Lee talking about abstracting and evaluating.

passbox.jpgYou’ve finished the article that explains the Structural Differential and the abstracting-evaluating process. In that article, I use the example of Emily and her “somebody cut me off” story to illustrate how her statement that somebody cut me off did not accurately map the territory of her actual experience while driving.

For 30 points, share a story from your own experiences, or make up a story, that could be used to illustrate the process by which we abstract from an event, to an experience, to a description, to inferences. Please keep your stories short, no more than 200 words.

After you’ve posted your story, feel free to comment on other stories.

Two Worlds

As a consequence of our abstracting-evaluating processes, you can say we live in two worlds — the world that exists out there beyond our skin, and the world in here within our skin. What each of us knows about the world out there is constructed by our in here nervous systems based on our individual sensory interactions with the world out there.

As early as the 1920s, Korzybski extended the mathematical and linguistic notions of abstraction to refer to the biological and neurological functions by which our senses-brains-nervous-systems abstract (or construct) our experience of the world “out there.”


In this video (created using silent movie footage and separate audio recording), Korzybski emphasized the role of abstraction in how our internal nervous system makes sense of our external world.

Although these recordings are from the1940s, Korzybski had worked through the premise and consequences of abstracting by 1923 (Korzybski, 1990, p. 33). In a series of lectures at Olivet College in 1937, Korzybski explained:

I showed you that disc that was made up of rotating blades—it was really rotating blades, not a disc. That disc did not actually exist. Your nervous system manufactured it inside your heads. This applies to all ‘matter.’ All you see is a nervous construct that you have made up. It is a process. Anything you see is made up of rotating electrons. What you feel is not what you see. It turns out that anything we can see is only a stimulus to our nervous system and therefore the ‘object’ we see had ‘reality’ only within us, although the outside electronic image has independent reality (Korzybski, 2002, p. 122).


And yet, the ‘fact’ that humans construct or abstract their experiences of the external world of ‘reality’ has still not been absorbed by most educated adults. As evidence, following are four attempts by 21st-century neuroscience authorites to educate the public about this specific distinction that Korzybski matter-of-factly recognized 90 years ago.

1) Christof Koch

Formerly the head of the Koch Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and currently the Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Christof Koch is the author of The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (Koch, 2004). In 2005, he delivered the the annual J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture in Los Alamos, NM, where he presented several visual demonstrations.

In the 2:27 clip below (which I have edited for instructional purposes; the effect is shown twice, then the audio is repeated a third time with on-screen captions) he illustrated the visual effect known as afterimage. Following the demonstration, he summarized the significance of the effect:

It belies the simple notion there’s a one-to-one relationship between the outside world and my inner mental experiences. … So clearly this naive, realistic view that there’s a world, there’s my head and this simple mapping, it can’t be true. (J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, 2005)


Koch later expands on this distinction between the “outer world” and our “inner mental experiences” and underscores the fact that our brains construct our perceptions:

Conscious perception is, in a sense, a con job of the brain. It suggests there’s a stable world out there and there’s a very simple relationship between what’s out there in the world and what’s inside our head but in fact it’s a very complicated relationship. It [conscious perception] is actively constructed by our brain. We’re now beginning to understand that what I see in my head is actually constructed by my head, by my neurons (J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, 2005).


2) Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins invented the Palm Pilot personal digital assistant (PDA), co-founded Palm Computing, and later founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute which became the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience (now associated with the University of California at Berkeley). In 2004, he co-authored with Sandra Blakeslee the best-selling book, On Intelligence (Hawkins & Blakeslee, 2004).

In 2009, he delivered the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture to the affluent, well-educated audience of Los Alamos, NM. His address was titled, “Why can’t a computer be more like a brain?” He ended his presentation with a question period. In response to the final question, Hawkins felt it necessary to reiterate this important, “hard to believe,” out there | in here distinction.

(referring to the continual firing of neurons in the cortex and the brain’s recognition of patterns) That is the currency of the brain. That’s it. That’s what your brain works on. And believe it or not, I said this in the beginning and I’ll say it again, your perception of the world is not … it’s really a fabrication of your model of the world. You don’t really see light or sound. You perceive it because your model says this is how the world is, and those patterns invoke the model. It’s hard to believe, but it really is true (J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, 2009).


Here’s the video clip (1:48).

In their book, Hawkins and Blakeslee expand on the point:

All our knowledge of the world is a model based on patterns. … This is not to say that the people or objects aren’t really there. They are really there. But our certainty of the world’s existence is based on the consistency of patterns and how we interpret them. There is no such thing as direct perception.


Can we trust that the world is as it seems? Yes. The world really does exist in an absolute form very close to how we perceive it. However, our brains can’t know about the absolute world directly.


The brain knows about the world through a set of senses, which can only detect parts of the absolute world. The senses create patterns that are sent to the cortex, and processed by the same cortical algorithms to create a model of the world. … Through these patterns the cortex constructs a model of the world that is close to the real thing, and then, remarkably, holds it in memory (Hawkins & Blakeslee, 2004, pp. 63-64).

3) Eric Kandel

Dr. Eric Kandel won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his study of memory. Beginning in the fall of 2009, he co-hosted a special series of interviews with Charlie Rose on the brain. As of October 2013, more than 25 episodes have aired ranging from the anatomy of the brain to consciousness to emotions to diseases to creativity. Here is a linked listing of all the episodes with video excerpts and synopses for each episode.

In the second episode of the series (Da Cunha, 2009b) that focused on the human visual system, Dr. Kandel felt this notion that the brain “re-constructs” (Kandel’s term) our sense of the world was worth emphasizing both at the beginning and end of the interview. Without using Korzybski’s terminology, Kandel2009 provides a succinct, updated description of abstracting1923. Here’s the 1:13 excerpt.

4) Stephen Macknik and Susanna Martinez-Conde

Neuroscience researchers and co-authors of Sleights of Mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions, put it this way:

The spooky truth is that your brain constructs reality, visual and otherwise. What you see, hear, feel, and think is based on what you expect to see, hear, feel, and think. In turn, your expectations are based on all your prior experiences and memories.

Magicians understand at a deeply intuitive level that you alone create your experiences of reality … they exploit the fact that your brain does a staggering amount of outright confabulation in order to construct the mental stimulation of reality known as “consciousness.” This is not to say that objective reality isn’t “out there” in a very real sense. But all you get to experience is a simulation. The fact that consciousness feels like a solid, robust, fact-rich transcript of reality is just one of the illusions your brain creates for itself. Think about it. The same neural machinery that interprets actual sensory inputs is also responsible for your dreams, delusions, and failings of memory. The real and the imagined share a physical source in your brain (Macknik & Martinez-Conde, 2010, pp. 8-9).

Catching up with Korzybski?

Even though Koch, Hawkins, Kandel, Macknik, and Martinez-Conde don’t refer to abstracting or evaluating, their descriptions of the process by which we create or re-construct our sense of the outside world validate Korzybski’s foundational premises. Amazingly, what Korzybski grasped almost instinctively or intuitively 90 years ago has been verified, confirmed, and now accepted by neuroscientists … and yet they themselves still feel it necessary to use phrases like:

  • “It’s hard to believe but it really is true.”
  • “We’re now beginning to understand that what I see in my head is actually constructed by my head, by my neurons.”
  • “It makes us realize how magical the brain is.”
  • “The spooky truth is that your brain constructs reality …”


A. We need to acknowledge and take into account the characteristics of these two worlds.


B. We need to understand that even our most basic sense experiences of the out-there world are created by our brains.


C. We need to maintain awareness, and take responsibility, for the neurological fact of this foundational distinction — what we experience in here is not what’s out there to be experienced.

In Korzybski’s terminology, we need to maintain a consciousness of abstracting, beginning with the understanding that everything we experience represents an abstraction of something else. In a very real sense, all we can ‘know’ are abstractions and associated neurological constructions.


… we used and still use a terminology of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, both extremely confusing, as the so-called ‘objective’ must be considered a construct made by our nervous system, and what we call ‘subjective’ may also be considered ‘objective’ for the same reasons (Korzybski, 1990c, p.650).


Language(s) as Map(s)

Artwork by Alice Webb

Artwork by Alice Webb Art

The Importance of Constructing Proper ‘Maps’

Humans can build on the knowledge of prior generations. Alfred Korzybski referred to this capability as time-binding. Language serves as the principle tool that facilitates time-binding. Language also serves as a guiding influence in shaping our world view and life experiences.

We can apply the map-territory analogy to evaluate our language habits and behaviors. As a map represents a territory, so our language symbolizes our thoughts, emotions, ideas, opinions, and experiences. To the degree that the maps we construct accurately portray the structural relationships of the territory, they serve us well.

If, however, the maps we construct inaccurately depict  the relationships among the territory of our experiences, they can result in trouble. To best serve our own time-binding interests, our verbal ‘maps’ ought to be congruent and consistent with the realities of our non-verbal ‘territories’.

On the previous page, we learned that current brain scientists agree that what we have naively believed were direct experiences of ‘reality’ we are instead experiences that we construct within each of our own brains, minds, and nervous systems.

How does this knowledge affect our language habits and behaviors?

We ought to easily recognize, then, that ancient notions such as objective or absolute reality do not accurately reflect the limitations of our nervous systems as they interact with the outside world. Therefore language structures, patterns, or terms that rely on this false-to-fact notion that what I experience (or say) “is” the same as what exists “out there” in the world misrepresent, mislead, and misinform. 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. — Edward Sapir (Carroll, 1956, p. 134)


Language Misbehaviors

No language is perfect. Every language, being man-made and not inherent or inerrant, has structural flaws and cannot properly reflect the structure of the world we uniquely sense and experience. If we accept the view that language(s) shape, influence, affect, etc., how a given culture constructs the ‘realities’ of that culture’s experiences, behavioral norms, world view, etc. (Ramachandran, Sapir, and others), then it behooves us as individuals and societies to acknowledge these flaws and revise our language habits and behaviors accordingly.

In addition to these structural flaws, individuals are prone to commit errors that result from lack of awareness of the abstracting/ evaluating process, conventional language habits and usages, or careless inattention.

Some of the symptoms of language misbehaviors include:

  1. We uncritically accept our perceptions of the world ‘out there’ as complete, accurate, and “the way it is.”
  2. We fail to consider the perceptions and perspectives of others who see “the way it is” differently than we do.
  3. We confuse the word itself with what the word stands for.
  4. We act as if words have ‘meanings’ on their own, without respect to individuals and context.
  5. We mistake or confuse facts with inferences, assumptions, beliefs, etc.
  6. We simplistically consider issues in terms of either-or, black or white, right or wrong, good or bad; we do not account for “shades of gray.”
  7. We tend to look for and recognize similarities more than differences, which results in mistaken generalizations, stereotypes, biases, etc.
  8. We forget or overlook the fact that every person and every thing changes over time.
  9. We use language to verbally ‘separate’ what cannot be separated in the real world (ex. mind from body, thoughts from feelings, style from content, form from function, “pure” reason or emotion, etc.).

Developing New Language Behaviors and Attitudes

Our language habits can affect our physiological behavior; we can allow what we see, hear, say, etc., to affect our blood pressure, pulse, rate of breathing, etc. As we become more aware of our verbal and non-verbal behaviors, we can practice techniques to achieve greater degrees of relaxation, less stress, greater sense of our environment, etc.

When we respond automatically, without exercising control over our response, we allow the stimulus to condition or determine our response. In other words, we behave more like Pavlov’s dog than an aware human being when we let someone or something “push our emotional hot buttons.”

Korzybski referred to two aspects of these behavioral implications of our internal language habits. He continually stressed the importance of what he called “cortico-thalamic” integration (Korzybski, 1994, p. xxvi). By this he meant that there needed to be a balanced integration of the new brain (the cortex) and the old or reptilian brain (which in the terminology of the time he referred to generally as the thalamus – what we now understand to be the amygdala). In other words, he described how, with proper awareness, one could use the capabilities of the cortex to temper, dampen, or even override the emotional or reactive responses of the thalamus/amygdala.

He emphasized that aware humans have the ability to respond conditionally to both non-verbal and symbolic stimuli. In other words, we have some degree of control over our response to a specific stimulus.

This is the gist of what current neuroscientists and psychologists now refer to with new terms, as evidenced in this excerpt of four clips from the PBS series “This Emotional Life” with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (Sweet & Gilbert, 2010).

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimation of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. — Marcus Aurelius

We cannot command the wind, but we can adjust our sails. — Anonymous


Our ability to achieve “maximum humanness” and evolve to our human potential is a function of how accurately our language behaviors (what we do) reflect and are consistent with what we know. Therefore can evaluate our language behaviors according to criteria such as how well we:

  • maintain an ongoing attitude of “to-me-ness;”
  • hold our opinions, judgments, beliefs, and assumptions with a degree of tentativeness and willingness to change if new information or experiences warrant;
  • live comfortably with uncertainty;
  • exercise a healthy degree of skepticism and inquisitiveness;
  • strive for more description and less opinion, as approriate to the occasion;
  • strive for more unique and personal observations in our pronouncements, and fewer cliches, stock phrases, aphorisms, and conventional wisdoms;
  • look for differences among similarities, as well as recognize similarities among differences, seeing both the forest and the trees, depending on the circumstances; and
  • maintain a deserved sense of humility and minimize know-it-all attitudes.

Consciousness of Abstracting

One of the expressed goals in General Semantics is what Korzybski referred to as “consciousness of abstracting.” In other words, the objective of learning anything is to apply it in some way to one’s own circumstances, and one way to apply GS is to maintain an ongoing awareness of the abstracting process.

That’s all well and good, but then one can ask, “what is it exactly that I’m supposed to be conscious or aware of?” After all, abstracting, as you may have observed thus far in the course, can be a rather … abstract … notion to grasp.

Therefore the following table may help summarize some of the key differences between maintaining an awareness of your own abstracting processes, compared to remaining unaware of abstracting.



Presumption of Allness, what is experienced or sensed is exactly what is there to be experienced. Aware of the abstracting process and limitations of the nervous system, recognition that one can never know or experience all about anything.
Conditioned responses, jump to conclusions, make snap judgments. Conditional responses, delayed reactions.
Bypassing – presuming that meanings are in words, that listeners presume speakers should use words the same way the listener uses them. Meanings are found in individuals and how they use words; ask what does the speaker mean? Definitions in dictionaries, meanings in people.
Two-valued, either-or, right-wrong, good-evil thinking. Multi-valued thinking, acknowledging shades of grey.
Talking is prone to absolutisms, certainty, closed-mindedness. Talking recognizes limitations of abstracting process, open-minded, tentative, acknowledges degrees of uncertainty.
Confusion between facts and inferences/observations, low standard for what is treated as fact. Prone to treat inference statements as if they were factual statements. Aware of differences between facts and inferences, sets a high bar for facts: 1) must have already occurred; 2) must be personally observed/experienced; 3) as close to certainty as humanly possible.
Assumptions are bad and should be avoided. Assumptions are inevitable and useful for time-binding, but need to be acknowledged and brought to awareness as much as possible.


Seeing (Visual Abstracting)

On this and the following pages, we present a variety of images, media files, and articles that illustrate different aspects of abstracting and evaluating.

Take care to note your reactions to the images and videos seen below in your Personal journal or in the Ongoing Course Discussion.

1. Visualizing Abstracting

Used/published with permission of the artist, Paul Dennithorne Johnston.


2. Benham Disc

This 3-minute video has no sound.


3. Vision Explained

From the Charlie Rose Brain Series (Da Cunha, 2009a), Dr. Eric Kandel and the panel explain how the visual system works, without using the word abstracting, but they summarize in detail the abstracting process that Korzybski articulated.

4. Vision Confusion

Also from the Charlie Rose Brain Series ((Da Cunha, 2009a), these examples illustrate how our eyes-brain-visual-system is not a perfect recorder of how we convert our “out there” sensations into “in here” sensory experiences.

In some cases, our brains have been trained to interpret certain visual stimuli in very specific, and sometimes misleading, ways. In other cases we can recognize certain images (such as faces) with very sketchy and ambiguous inputs.

In other words, the result of what we abstract is not the same as the object of what we are abstracting.


5. Seeing what’s not there

Too often we tend to think of the abstracting process only in terms of a reducing filter, selecting and rejecting the sensory stimuli. We forget or overlook a key part of the process – even at the neurological level, our brains have to make inferences and guesses as they try to make sense of what we sense. As demonstrated with the Benham disc, sometimes what the brain constructs and reports is only a rough approximation of the ‘territory.’

Here is another example. Can you count the black dots in this image?



Dimples and Bumps

As one illustration of these visual abstracing principles, look at the following image. This image includes what might be considered as “dimples” which appear to recede into the image, and “bumps” which appear to come out of the image. How many “dimples” and how many “bumps” do you see?


Now rotate it 180 degrees. How many “dimples” and how many “bumps” do you see from this perspective? (It’s the same image, just turned upside-down.)


Dimples and Bumps in the ‘Real World’

The two photographs below were grabbed from this story on CNET.com. Each depicts a satellite image as it was shown in the article, paired with the same photo rotated 180 degrees. What differences do you see, based on the orientation of the photo, with respect to relative height? Is the Citadel of Aleppo on a hill or in a crater? Is the Colorado River elevated above its surrounding terrain or at the bottom of a canyon?

Citadel of Aleppo, Syria


Colorado River, United States



Contribute to Ongoing Course Discussion      Add to your Personal Journal

Hearing (Auditory Abstracting)

Take care to note your reactions to what you hear below in your Personal journal or in the Ongoing Course Discussion.

1. Hearing Explained

From the Charlie Rose Brain Series (Da Cunha, 2013c), Dr. David Corey explains the hearing process. Again, he doesn’t use the term abstracting, but he describes the process that Korzybski highlighted 90 years ago.


2. A Listening Demonstration

This video illustrates that sometimes we need pointers to direct our sensing.

3.  My Tinnitus

mri-250.jpgAbout four years ago, experiencing the quiet and stillness of a full moon and late night in the high desert south of Santa Fe, NM, I noticed that it wasn’t quite as quiet as I expected. I was hearing something … something like a high-frequency buzzing in my left ear.

After extensive testing at the nearby veteran’s hospital (including an MRI), it was clear I was experiencing tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, a fairly common affliction associated with aging. My hearing wasn’t degraded in any way, it’s just that I have this continual whine in my left ear, predominantly, which isn’t really noticeable unless it’s quiet.

The medical community have a variety of theories about what causes tinnitus, but nothing conclusive. The only real treatment is to wear something that looks like a hearing aid that emits a masking tone (not dissimilar from noise-canceling headphones), but even that has mixed results.

It’s very strange. I hear something, but what I’m hearing isn’t “out there” … it’s something that my own brain is creating. And it’s not like hearing some other audible internal process like when your stomach growls, or … well, I won’t list other internal bodily processes that you hear on occasion. But it’s a very personal reminder to me that my brain is creating everything I experience – even when it’s self-created.


3 Buckets

Consider this demonstration in terms of differentiating between what happens on non-verbal levels as compared to what can be verbalized. What do the results of this activity suggest about verbal constructs such as absolute and relative?

If you have access to three buckets or large bowls, water and five minutes, you can gain some insights to the relative nature of your conditioning by doing this exercise.

Helping Hands and Buckets Put cold water in one bucket, or bowl, placed to your left, comfortably hot water in a bowl to your right, and lukewarm (“just right”) water in a middle bowl. Place your left hand in the cold water and your right hand in the comfortably hot water. Keep your hands submerged in the water for about a minute. Then raise both hands and place them in the middle bowl.

What do your senses tell you about the water temperature in the middle bowl?

You’re probably sharp enough to speculate what happens. (But go ahead and do it for yourself anyway.) Your left hand, conditioned by the cold water, tells you that the middle water is “warmer”; while your right hand, conditioned by the comfortably hot water tells you the middle water is “cooler.” You have only one stimulus – the middle bowl of water – but you have two different sensory responses. Which one is “right” or “true”?

Just like the left and right hands in the experiment, we are each ‘conditioned’ by our past. Each of us has lived through our own unique, no-two-the-same life experiences. To every new situation or experience, we bring our own unique perspectives and attitudes resulting from our past experiences. We therefore can’t help but experience each situation uniquely from anyone else. If we fail to recognize this – if we expect others to see or feel or smell or otherwise experience something exactly the same as we do – then we forget the lesson of the three water buckets:

This (warmer water to the left hand) is not that (cooler water to the right hand); or
This (high school experience of a student from Harwood Junior High) is not that (high school experience of a student from Euless Junior High);
This (what I find “pretty”) is not that (what you find “ugly”).
This (what I find “funny”) is not that (what you find “revolting”).
This (what I find “offensive”) is not that (what you find “satirical”).


In General Semantics, the behavior we label identification is normally to be avoided, or at least recognized. We talk about it as a misevaluation in that when we identify, we confuse or mistake our impression or reaction to something as the something itself. Put another way, we allow the stimulus to determine our response, without deliberately or conditionally evaluating the stimulus (like Pavlov’s dog). Examples of identification include:

  • Mistaking the word as the thing, or the map as the territory. With a map in hand, some people will presume the map is correct and the land around them “should” be like the map. An extreme example would be someone eating a menu because the pictures of the food look so tasty.
  • Have you ever been disappointed when you arrived at a hotel by your Deluxe accommodations?
  • I read a product review recently on Amazon.com recently in which an outraged reader wrote a negative review of a plastic product made by a company called Steelmaster. This, even though the reader acknowledged the product was described as being made of plastic.
  • Imagine someone who is allergic to something, like a flower. If you gave that person a very real-looking silk flower, and the person had an allergic reaction, that would be identification.
  • Someone who eats an unfamiliar food, then later has a rather upsetting reaction when informed what the food was, isn’t reacting to the food. The person is reacting to the sound of the name of the food. The verbalized name is associated (identified) with a previous or imagined terrible experience and that drives the reaction.

Can you recall or imagine other examples of identification? Feel free to share them in the Ongoing Course Discussion.

Phantom Limb Pain

Following, however, is an example of identification that resulted in a positive and therapeutic result for someone experiencing “phantom limb” pain. This features Dr. V.S. Ramachandran from the 2001 PBS documentary, “Secrets of the Mind.”


The Marshmallow Experiment

Dr. Walter Mischel’s famous “Marshmallow Experiment” relates to his study of children’s ability to delay gratification. However, one of the secondary findings, according to Mischel, is that this identification mechanism can be manipulated to increase, or decrease, a child’s ability to delay gratification.

In this clip from The Charlie Rose Brain Series, Dr. Mischel explains the experiment and its findings. The discussion about the experiment begins at the 2:00 point. The description of identification (he doesn’t use Korzybski’s term) begins at 7:40 mark.



Maps without Territories

In his Your Most Enchanted Listener (Johnson, 1956b), Wendell Johnson explores the special kind of talking we do with ourselves. He called this “inner speech” and observed that, “The worlds we manage to get inside our heads are mostly worlds of words.”

As we have emphasized throughout this first module, we can evaluate our language behaviors in the way we can judge the effectiveness of a map – do our behaviors properly and appropriately reflect the ‘territories’ of our lived experiences?

Johnson’s observation begs the question, what happens when all we put into our heads are words? When those words/maps have no corresponding experience/territory, what then?

The examples on this page illustrate that we are prone to certain kinds of evaluations and behaviors in the absence of any “out there” stimuli.

1. Higher levels of abstracting

From the PBS Series “The Human Spark” (Lipworth & Chedd, 2010) narrated by Alan Alda featuring Daniel Povinelli discussing differences between humans and chips to evaluate highly-abstract thoughts and concepts … like “heavy” and “light.”


2. Inventing the unobservable

From the same documentary, Povinelli discusses one difference between humans and chimps that may not always be productive. Can you think of some examples?



3. Attention hijacking

Daniel Goleman, in a radio interview with Diane Rehm on National Public Radio, describes one example of how we can let the words in our heads, in partnership with our brain’s older structures, create worlds of their own.

from the online transcript:

GOLEMAN: Well, here’s the problem. The way the brain was designed worked very well in ancient days when we lived in jungles, and we, you know, there was a Saber-tooth tiger and we had to have this radar for threats called the amygdala on watch all the time because you never know when that rustle in the leaves is going to mean you better run if you’re going to survive. Today that same brain mechanism is looking for threat constantly, and it reacts to symbolic threats as though they were real biological ones.

REHM: Give me an example.

GOLEMAN: For example, someone doesn’t answer your email. You’re expecting something right away and you start obsessing about it, and in fact you start to review everything that’s happened in the relationship for the last week and what you may have done wrong that made them mad at you. In other words, you make the assumption that there’s an emotional emergency and what happens is the amygdala can hijack your attention so that you’re thinking about that instead of, you know, the work you’re supposed to be doing or the person you’re with, whatever it is. But that’s the way our brain is wired.

Questions to ponder:

  1. Is there a difference between Goleman saying “the way the brain was designed,” as opposed to him saying, “the way the brain has evolved”?
  2. What are the limitations of using the metaphor that our brains are “wired”?
  3. Can you think of examples that illustrate this ability to create highly abstract evaluations can reflect both the best, and the worst, of human thinking?
  4. Do the above comments of Daniel Goleman support or refute the sentiments in the clips from This Emotional Life that you saw on the Language(s) as Map(s) page? (re-posted below)


What is a ‘weapon’? (the perils of zero-tolerance thinking)

Taylor Hess ExpulsionAs maps are not the same as territories, so are words not the same as the objects, things, or life events they represent. When we act as though the words have priority over the things the words stand for, we often cause problems for ourselves, or others.

In 2002, a 16-year-old high school honor student at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, TX, was expelled from school for a year and sentenced to the Tarrant County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program.

His offense? He had helped his parents move his grandmother’s belongings on a Sunday afternoon. The next Monday, while his pickup truck was parked in the school parking lot, a security guard found a bread knife in the bed of the truck.

Local newspapers reported that the school district administration insisted that the young student had been expelled for bringing a “weapon” onto campus. In the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School murders in Colorado, a Texas Education Code statute mandated a “zero tolerance” one-year expulsion from school. The law explicitly defined by statute what constituted a “weapon.” The bread knife, the common tableware type of knife, met the statute’s definition of a “weapon.” Therefore, by the school district’s interpretation of the state statute, the student “brought a weapon onto campus.”

Not only did the student bring a “weapon” (by definition) onto campus, but according to one school district official, by the very act of bringing the “weapon” onto campus (in the bed of his truck in the student parking lot), “I do feel he put students at risk, whether he knowingly did that or not.” Of course this benign bread knife, hiding in the bed of a pickup truck in the far reaches of the sophomore parking lot, posed a “threat” to campus students — by definition.

Perhaps so in the verbal world of carefully scripted legislated words written on papers collected in notebooks stacked on shelves in offices in the state capitol. But in the ‘real world’ of real weapons, real threats, and real harmful intentions, this benign bread knife posed no threat … other than to the future education and life for a 16-year-old honor student. Read the news account (pdf).

Questions to ponder:

  1. Do “zero-tolerance” laws and regulations serve a productive purpose in societies?
  2. In the case of a law such as this one, is it better to leave “weapon” undefined, or to explicitly define it as specifically and descriptively as possible?
  3. Do you agree with the evaluation of the school district official that Taylor, whether he intended to or not, did “put students at risk”?

Was Uncle Bruce a Nazi? (or, the meaning of symbols)

A second uncle of my great-grandfather became a graphic artist and moved to New York City as a young man. While perusing my family mementos, photos, and scrapbooks one day, I found a handmade Christmas card that “Uncle Bruce” mailed to my great-grandparents in 1924.


The card features a silhouette of a family in their decorated home, seen through the grill of a frosted window. Hanging in the window frame are several different seasonal ornaments and symbols. Featured prominently in the center of the window, I was taken aback to see an unmistakable … swastika!

Was Uncle Bruce a Nazi?

Rudyard Kipling Book CoverWell, no. After just a few minutes of online research, I discovered that, prior to Hitler’s German National Socialists party appropriating the swastika symbol for its own branding, the symbol had been used as an expressive symbol for good fortune, good luck, good wishes, etc., for centuries.

In fact, Rudyard Kipling featured the symbol prominently on the front covers and title pages of several early editions of his books, at least through the 1920s. Was Kipling a Nazi? Even before there were Nazis?

We need to remember that every symbol — every word, sign, icon, code, etc. — was created by humans. Just as there is no, to my knowledge, piece of music or art that spontaneously emanated with inherent (and inerrant) ‘meaning,’ there exists no symbol with inherent and inerrant ‘meaning.’ As the American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce is attributed with saying: You don’t get meaning; you respond with meaning.

SwastikWhile traveling in India in 2007, I learned there is a neighborhood known as “Swastik” in the ancient city of Ahmedabad, home of Gandhi’s Ashram. From a professor at a city university I heard a story that the swastika symbol, according to Indian tradition of more than three thousand years, depicted the life-sustaining image of a water wheel.

From my standpoint, I’m not particularly interested in where or when the symbol originated. I find it important to remember that the symbol we recognize and call a “swastika” can convey — or, perhaps more appropriately, can evoke — different meanings among different people in different contexts. The symbol itself carries no inherent meaning or sense of goodness or evil or luck.

As George Carlin said of “dirty words” … they’re innocent! It’s the people who use the words or symbols that you have to worry about (Carlin, 1990).

Questions to ponder:

  1. Can you think of any examples of words or symbols whose meanings have evolved over the years?
  2. Can you predict what current word or symbol usages might change over the next 20-30 years?

Driving with an old map


Map of St. LouisIn 1999, I drove from Texas to Chicago. While passing through St. Louis, I called some friends to meet for lunch. They gave me directions to a particular expressway intersection. I looked at my road atlas — the atlas I had owned for 20 years, the one that I’d used to drive all over the western United States.

The atlas of highway maps that had all kinds of notes and mileage and phone numbers scribbled on it.

The one I would never even think about leaving at home when I traveled.

But there was a problem. The expressway intersection to which I had been directed by my friends wasn’t on my map. One of the expressways did not exist when my map was published — it had only recently been constructed. My map was out of date. The freeway system (or territory) had changed, but my map hadn’t. I needed a new map if I wanted to meet my friends for lunch.

Too often we rely on static, outdated ‘maps’ that don’t fit the current situations, circumstances, conditions, or ever-changing ‘territories’ of our daily lives.

Questions to ponder:

  1. Do any of your ‘maps’ need to be updated?
  2. What kinds of attitudinal maps have you changed over the years?

Module Review and Reflection

Dare to be naive (Fuller, 1975, p. xix).

Foundational Premises of General Semantics


Any language, to be most effective, must incorporate what we know (from scientific investigations) about the world around us and what we understand about ourselves. Therefore it’s important to discern the world “out there” (beyond our skin) from the world “in here” (within our skin).

  • Our awareness of ‘what goes on’ outside of our skin is not the same as ‘what goes on.’
  • Our ability to experience the world is relative, unique to our own individual sensing capabilities (or sensory acuities), past experiences, and expectations.
  • Every person abstracts and evaluates their life experiences differently, based on their prior experiences, genetics, their their environments.
  • Our environment, the world around us (including ourselves), is ever-changing. We never experience the ‘same’ person, event, situation, or thing more than once.
  • We have limits (due to evolution, genes, physics, etc.) as to what we can experience.
  • We can never experience all of what’s to experience. We abstract only a portion of what we can sense. We experience incompletely on all levels (macroscopic, microscopic, sub-microscopic, cosmologic, etc.).
  • We sense and experience on silent, non-verbal levels, from which we speak, think, infer, etc.

What Happens ? What I Sense ? How I Respond ? “What It Means”

  • These facts lead to the inevitable conclusion that, for our language behaviors to be most effective, they must reflect our knowledge about ourselves and our world. We must apply all of our knowledge to our language habits, evaluations, and how we view ourselves in our world.


Scientific Orientation

I want to emphasize that the the system or methods of General Systems, including the language habits and behaviors which are espoused in this course, are not random tips, hints, secrets, or common sense aphorisms. These methods and recommendations flow from the premises and logical consequences that are consistent and integrated throughout General Semantics.  Again, we want to reiterate that GS begins with a scientific orientation.

The application of a scientific approach or method has proven to be the most effective problem-solving process yet created by humans. Therefore it makes sense to apply a scientific approach in our evaluations and judgments about ourselves and our experiences.

This means that we should continually test our assumptions and beliefs; continually gather new facts, data, and observations; revise our beliefs and assumptions as appropriate; and then hold our conclusions and judgments tentatively, in accordance with our own experiences, pending the possibility that new data, new experiences, might necessitate new theories or new assumptions to be tested.


Unstated or hidden assumptions of which we are unaware can often drive our behaviors and attitudes. One of the oft-repeated “conventional wisdoms” we hear is the admonition to avoid making assumptions. The joke goes, “You know what happens when you assume, right? You make an ASS out of U and ME!”

This aphorism is problematic from my GS perspective, in addition to just being lame humor. Making assumptions and inferences is not only unavoidable, but a vitally-important human capability. Some of our most intelligent and productive human behaviors depend on our ability to intuit, correlate with past experiences, match patterns, and dozens of other activities akin to “making assumptions.” In short, we cannot NOT make assumptions.

The key takeaway is here that rather than trying to avoid assumptions, we need to make a special effort to recognize and become more aware of our assumptions, inferences, beliefs, etc. An activity to highlight how much we unknowingly infer about simple situations is the uncritical inference test.

GS as an Overlay to Evaluating

General Semantics itself can be considered a special type of map.

As the man-made invention of latitude and longitude enabled predictable navigation across (and above) the earth possible, you can think of GS as providing an overlay to guide one’s evaluating processes.


Map of Latitudes and Longitudes provided by World Atlas with permission.



In other words, you can apply the GS principles to:

  1. making better verbal maps;
  2. evaluating the maps that others make;
  3. evaluating your own evaluations.

Neil Postman on Korzybski

Neil Postman held the position of Paulette Goddard Professor of Media Ecology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, and former Chair of the Department of Culture and Communication. He authored 17 books on education and culture, such as Amusing Ourselves to Death, Teaching as a Subversive Activity with co-author Charles Weingartener, and Conscientious Objections: Stirring up trouble about language, technology, and education.

Less well-known about Postman is that he edited the quarterly journal, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, from 1976-1986. During his tenure, I think it’s fair to say that his views about Korzybski changed. From an initial ambivalence about Korzybski, Postman came to appreciate and even admire him by the time he wrote the following.

postman-CO-cover-183.jpgLike psychoanalysis, general semantics lends itself, too easily, to the predilections and idiosyncrasies of its practitioners, and there has been no firm consensus about the path it should follow. Moreover, general semantics is not easy to fit into conventional academic territories. It is simply too broad in its scope to be contained within a single discipline, for it is part philosophy, part epistemology, part psychology, part linguistics, and several other “parts,” all of which when taken together comprise the university curriculum. In a world of specialists, general semantics appears too diffuse, too divergent, too holistic to suit the modern style of academic thought. In a word, to study and teach it is not likely to further one’s chances for tenure.

And yet, although [Alfred] Korzybski’s name is relatively obscure at the moment, his impact has been felt. Some of his terminology and many of his insights have found their way into semiotics, psycholinguistics, educational psychology, media studies, and, of course, semantics. Many people in the nonacademic world – in business, government, social work, psychotherapy – employ Korzybski’s methods with great effectiveness and freely acknowledge their debt to him. But beyond all this, it is indisputable that together with such figures as C .S. Pierce, William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and I.A. Richards, Alfred Korzybski helped to heighten our awareness of the role of language in making us what we are and in preventing us from becoming what we ought to be but are not yet (Postman, 1988, p. 146).

Steve Stockdale

This 6-minute excerpt is from a 56-minute lecture I presented at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2004 (Stockdale, 2004). Note: adjust your volume lower, this recording is pretty loud.


General Semantics



Optional Activities

monitor.jpgDepending on your interests and curiosities, you may find some of these additional readings, videos, and activities worth investigating.


Difference between Facts and Inteferences

This 27-minute lecture is one of six episodes of “Talking Sense,” a series presented by Northwestern University professor Irving J. Lee in 1952 on Chicago television. This lecture provides wonderful insight into Lee’s high standard for differentiating facts from inferences with several excellent examples.

2006 General Semantics Course Review

An edited 25-minute Powerpoint presentation by Steve Stockdale to review the Fall 2006 General Semantics course at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, Texas. The video summary, in three parts, was necessary after the final class of the semester was canceled due to inclement weather.

General Semantics Overview

Applications for Students

After You’ve Studied General Semantics

A General Semantics Perspective

This 9-minute narrated Powerpoint presentation by Steve Stockdale is excerpted from the 50-minute presentation, “Lay Off My Persuade Shoes (external link),” to the American Advertising Federation chapter in Amarillo, Texas, in 2009. The script follows the video.



Let’s look at the author of Perspective #2, Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski was born in 1879 to a land-owning family in Poland. He was raised by servants from four different countries who spoke four different languages. So he grew up with a working knowledge of Polish, Russian, German, and French. In this type of multi-lingual environment, it came naturally to Korzybski to disassociate the word, or symbol, from the thing that the word or symbol represented.

As a student he studied engineering, mathematics, and chemistry. When the first World War erupted in 1914, he was enlisted into the Russian cavalry. Not only was he severely wounded, but he witnessed first hand the devastating effects of all the new weapons of war that debuted during this “war to end all wars” … airplanes, armored tanks, rapid-fire machine guns, poison gas.

He was sent to North America toward the end of the war when he could no longer serve on the battlefield. He supported artillery testing in Canada before transferring to the U.S. where he traveled the country speaking to groups and selling war bonds. After the war, he remained in the U.S. and married a woman from Chicago.

He was haunted by his experiences during the war. As an engineer, he pondered this question: How is it that humans have progressed so far and so rapidly in engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, yet we still fight wars and kill each other?

He devoted the rest of his life obsessed with this problem. In 1921 he published his first book, Manhood of Humanity. Then in 1933, he wrote what became the source book for the field of study we know as General Semantics …. Science and Sanity.

general semantics definedNow, I realize that the focus of this presentation is not General Semantics. But since I’ve taught the subject for the past four years to “mass communications practitioners” I’d like to say a few words about it because it does represent a perspective that I think is important.

The definition I’ve come to use with my university students is this: General semantics deals with the study of how we perceive, construct, evaluate and then express our life experiences through our language-behaviors.

Note that I’ve connected language and behavior with a hyphen and refer to language-behavior. I think most people usually talk in terms of language AND behavior as though the two are separated and not associated. But in General Semantics we consider language as something that humans, something that you and I as individuals, do … it’s a part of our behavior just as much as our breathing, our eating, our laughing, our crying, our working or playing.

We do language. And because our language-behaviors are so integral to human cooperation, as well as human conflict, Korzybski spent his life observing, understanding, and documenting this process of perceiving, constructing, evaluating and then responding.

He developed a model or a diagram for visualizing and understanding what he referred to as the abstracting process. But as a way to introduce that, I want to first show you a similar model that you might already be familiar with.

I learned this as the “Information Theory” model. It’s simply a pyramid divided into four sections:
The largest section on the bottom is labeled “data”. Above that is a smaller section labeled “information.” Then a smaller section labeled “knowledge”, and then a top section labeled “wisdom.” (Sometimes the “wisdom” section isn’t included, and other labels could be substituted for it.)

But the point of the model is to show the relationships that: from much data, we derive (or to use Korzybski’s term, we abstract) usable information, from which we can further abstract what we call knowledge … and then wisdom.

So it’s as though we filter out the data that doesn’t concern us, we keep and use what does, and from that we construct “information” that we find meaningful. Then we further filter what we’ve labeled as information that results in what we label knowledge.

Here’s a quick example. Take everything that I’m saying as a part of this presentation, as well as every slide and media clip. Every word and every image can be considered a single item of data. As you observe and listen, some of the words and images will amount to nothing more than noise … but some of it (I hope, a lot of it) will register with you as something that’s relevant or meaningful as information. And when it’s over, perhaps you’ll say that you learned something and feel more knowledgeable.

Now let’s look at Korzybski’s model as similar to this Information model, after we’ve turned it upside down. Each level compares generally to its corresponding level in the Information model.

GS process of abstractingRemember that this GS model is diagramming or ‘mapping’ the process of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences.

The first step in this process of experiencing is that … well, there’s some kind of an experience. Something Happens. It’s important for us to realize and be aware that, as humans with finite sensory abilities, we cannot know or experience everything that happens. There are limits to what we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. So there’s a lot more that happens … there’s a lot a more DATA … than what we can experience.

Secondly, through our senses we interact with our environment. Within the limits of our sensing capabilities, we detect whatever is happening. But it’s important to remember that not only can we not sense everything, but what we do sense is to some degree unique to our individual sensory abilities. We each have a different sensory acuity when it comes to our vision, our hearing, our taste discrimination.

And it’s also important to remember that what we sense is not “what happened” … our sense experience is an imperfect abstraction of what happened that’s been filtered, you could say, or constructed by the nervous system.

The next part of the process, labeled as “evaluation,” represents the first verbal level in which we can describe, or cognitively recognize, what our senses tell us about the experience. But again, what we can say or think or write about the experience, is NOT the experience itself.

The fourth level then, after the descriptive phase, is labeled as “meaning” … what the experience means is something more or different than just how we describe it.

So to summarize this process of abstracting:

  • What we can sense is NOT what actually happens.
  • What we can describe is something other than what we actually sense.
  • What an experience means is something more than just what we can describe. What an experience means is the result of this filtering, or abstracting process in which each stage represents a different activity of a physiological process.

As an example, let’s consider again what’s going on in this room. The “goings on” or “things that are happening” are experienced by each one of you as different individuals. Each of you sees and hears what goes on slightly differently than anyone else.In the diagram, you see four individuals experiencing the same happening. But we start to see differences in their individual abstracting processes at the evaluation stage, or the third level of describing what they experienced. Let’s say they were each asked to write a simple report of “what happened” during today’s meeting.

Jane may give a detailed summation of each part of the meeting, as if she were preparing the minutes. John might comment only on the business that was conducted and simply state there followed a program. Elvis might describe what he selected from the lunch buffet in detail, skip over the business matters, and summarize points from my presentation. So each individual’s report might be colored or flavored differently.

But then in the final step of the process we can really see the differences between each our hypothetical observers. What they individually got out of this meeting, or what the meeting meant to them, varies a great deal.

In this case, “You” enjoyed it, without any reaction one way or the other. Jane, however, loved it. John didn’t really care for it and lost interest, but while his thoughts drifted to a problem he has at work he had a brainstorm he can’t wait to go back to implement. Elvis was left wondering about how any of this related to shoes.

So that’s a basic introduction to the abstracting process that’s central to the GS understanding of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences.

Historical Note on the Structural Differential

A mash-up by Steve Stockdale that adds images to audio excerpts from Alfred Korzybski’s recorded explanation of how he was inspired to create the structural differential as a means to visually represent the abstracting process.

On the “Power of Words”

Do Word Actually Possess Power? — Four short video clips that illustrate different considerations of the question.

The Tyranny of Categories

During their reporting on Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Weather Channel’s on-air presenters and remote reporters faced a peculiar linguistic dilemma.

They, and their viewing audience, have been trained to communicate about the power of a hurricane based on a system of five categories. The sole, and arbitrary, basis of the five categories is sustained wind velocity.

Watch what happens when Ike’s sustained winds persist at the 110 miles/hour (177 km/hour) reading, which happens to be the arbitrary dividing line between Category 2 and Category 3.

  • Does it really matter to the audience whether or not the storm is Category 2 or 3?
  • Does it matter to the hurricane?
  • Can you see how these human-created categories (or labels, genres, classes, etc.) can sometimes take on a life of their own in terms of how humans react to them?

You may want to turn your volume down for this one, it’s pretty loud.


Uncritical Inference Tests

These two uncriticial inference tests are based on the work of William V. Haney. Carefully read the brief story which follows. Assume that all of the information presented in the story is definitely accurate and true. Next, read the statements following the story. If the statement is definitely true based on the information presented in the story, check the TRUE column. If the statement is definitely false based on the information presented, mark it FALSE. If the true or false answer cannot be determined based on the information presented, check NOT SURE. You may refer back to the story whenever you wish. But you must answer the questions in order, and once answered, you can’t go back and make changes.

Stephanie’s CD (by Steve Stockdale)

Stephanie and her friend walked into the music store after lunch. Stephanie wanted to buy the new CD by the group, “No Girls Allowed”. There was only one other person in the store when Stephanie and her friend arrived. Stephanie asked, “How much is this CD?” Stephanie’s friend said, “Here, let me see it. I don’t think he heard you. This tag says it costs $11.99.”


1. Stephanie wanted to buy a CD.
2. Stephanie and her friend ate lunch together.
3. Stephanie owns a CD player.
4. There was only one boy in the store.
5. Two girls walked into a music store.
6. There are no boys in the “No Girls Allowed” group.
7. Stephanie and her friend are teenagers.
8. The store’s owner didn’t hear Stephanie because the music was too loud.
9. Stephanie had enough money to buy the CD.
10. The “No Girls Allowed” CD cost $11.99.
11. The owner of the store is a woman.
12. Stephanie wanted to buy a CD as a gift.
13. One of the CDs costs $11.99.
14. There were two boys in the store.
15. The clerk was hard of hearing.


Hospital Grand Opening (by Andrea Johnson)

It was the grand opening for Saudi Arabia-Mayo Hospital when AJ Jones entered the administration office. Jones walked from desk to desk pleasantly greeting the new employees.  One person sat at her desk with her back turned to Jones.  She didn’t acknowledge the greeting; in fact she kept her eyes cast downward.  Jones looked at her desk nameplate, which said “Raheena,” frowned and walked briskly out of the office.


1. Jones is the new hospital administrator.
2. Raheena doesn’t speak English.
3. The new hospital is connected to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
4. Jones greeted new employees as he walked from desk to desk.
5. AJ Jones entered the administrator’s office.
6. It was the grand opening for Saudi Arabia-Mayo Hospital.
7. Raheena hates Americans.
8. Raheena is shy and a little hard of hearing.
9. Raheena did not acknowledge Jones’s greeting.
10. Jones made an inference about the woman who did not acknowledge his greeting.

Pretty easy? Did you notice how you projected information into these simple stories that wasn’t stated as ‘fact’? In every encounter or situation we face, we bring our past experiences to it in the form of unstated, usually unconscious assumptions and premises. We draw inferences based on these assumptions about the situation as if they were fact. Many times we cause problems for ourselves and others when we confuse our inferences with the ‘facts’, and when we don’t recognize our projections as projections.

Review and Reflection

Now that you’ve been introduced to general semantics, participate in this Discussion topic. Provide a short answer (no more than 2 sentences) to these questions.

  1. What is the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned this week?
  2. What is the most significant or meaningful thing you will take away from this week’s material?
  3. What material or information are you skeptical about or just don’t accept as valid?
  4. After you post this reply, read the responses from your classmates and reply to at least two of them – one that you like or agree with, and another that you disagree with. Each comment should be limited to one complete sentence.

Module 1 Quiz

1. Which of the following statements is most relevant to General Semantics?

  1. The territory is always a figment of the map maker’s imagination.
  2. A map is not required to be structurally similar to the territory.
  3. A map cannot depict all of the territory.
  4. A map can be an exact replica of the territory.

2. Korzybski was inspired by his experiences in which war?

  1. Spanish Civil War
  2. Spanish American War
  3. World War II
  4. World War I

3. Which statement best reflects the notion of abstracting as Korzybski used the term?

  1. What we see is not all of what’s there to be seen.
  2. Our thoughts, words, and deeds are always different from what we intend.
  3. Everything is abstract, nothing is concrete.
  4. The world is an illusion; nothing is real, everything is imagined.

4. Which statement supports the contention that there is a difference between the “out there” world and our “in here” experience of that world?

  1. All of these statements support the contention.
  2. “The spooky truth is that your brain constructs reality, visual and otherwise.”
  3. “Your perception of the world is … really a fabrication of your model of the world.”
  4. “The eye is not a camera.”
  5. There is not a “one-to-one relationship between the outside world and my inner mental experiences.”

5. Which statement comes closest to expressing the gist of Korzybski’s theory of time-binding?

  1. Unbounded by time constraints, animals will eventually become symbol manipulators.
  2. Time is a man-made construct, but we have become bound by it.
  3. Because of our symbol manipulating capabilities, humans can build on the knowledge of previous generations.
  4. Time heals all wounds, so eventually time will address all human problems and conflicts.

6. Which of the following statements is most correct regarding the scientific method?

  1. Even if your test results support your hypothesis, that doesn’t mean the hypothesis is true or proved.
  2. If your test results support the hypothesis, by definition the hypothesis is true and becomes a fact.
  3. Even if your test results don’t support your hypothesis, you might still be able to design a better test that would support what you’re trying to prove.
  4. The most important aspect of an experiment is to believe strongly in your hypothesis.

7. The significance of recognizing that we live in a “process-oriented universe” is best stated by which of the following statements?

  1. Everything is changing all the time, even if we cannot see the changes, therefore we should hold our evaluations tentatively.
  2. The universe is predictable once humans use time-binding to discover all of the true processes that underlie the physical and metaphysical worlds we live in.
  3. Everything is changing all the time, even if we cannot see the changes, therefore we should cling tightly to our beliefs and never doubt our certainty.
  4. Everything we experience happens according to a pre-defined process, therefore there is no such thing as “free will.”

8. If you and I observe the same stimulus at the same time, what might account for any differences we report in our descriptions of the stimulus?

  1. We’re observing from different perspectives.
  2. We may have different sensory capabilities or acuities.
  3. Our prior experiences may lead to different observations and evaluations.
  4. All of these statements are correct.

9. The extensional device of indexing uses ______________ to remind us that _______________.

  1. subscripts or index numbers; individuals within a group, class, or label are each unique
  2. quote marks; we should be careful not to judge others prematurely
  3. quote marks; we should recognize that every label lies a little
  4. subscripts or index numbers; individuals within a group, class, or label are the same and indistinguishable from each other.

10. The extensional device of dating uses ______________ to remind us that _______________.

  1. etc.; it’s okay to change our minds over time
  2. dating: regardless of when their life experiences happen, time-binders will maintain unchanging beliefs and evaluations
  3. dates; we should strive to not change
  4. dates; the same person or thing will change over time

11. The extensional device of etc. uses ______________ to remind us that _______________.

  1. etc.; there is always more that could be said or experienced.
  2. subscripts; there are always other members of the group of category to consider.
  3. quote marks; we should be careful about ending a statement prematurely.
  4. dates; it’s okay to change your mind at a later time.

12. Why might you want to avoid using absolutisms?

  1. By definition, absolutisms are absolutely true in all cases so they should NOT be avoided.
  2. If you want your language to reflect the tentativeness and uncertainties that are inevitable aspects of your evaluating processes.
  3. We should always avoid using words that end in “ism”.
  4. Because the fewer words said, the better.

13. _____________ serves as the primary tool that enables _______________.

  1. E-prime; humans to avoid absolutisms
  2. Time-binding; humans to continually re-invent the wheel
  3. Language; time-binding
  4. Chemistry-binding; humans to move through space

14. Ricardo was supposed to pick up Suri at 8:00pm for dinner. By 8:20pm, the normally punctual Ricardo had still not arrived. Rather than become overly worried, angry, or upset with Ricardo’s tardiness, Suri patiently waits. From a GS-perspective, Suri’s evaluative response can be best attributed to her:

  1. consciousness of abstracting and limiting her inferences.
  2. passive personality and not wanting to let Ricardo know she was worried.
  3. date-timing her reaction and inferring that it’s not unusual for dates to be late.
  4. ambivalence about Ricardo because she didn’t care much for artists.

15. Recognizing that we each individually evaluate events from our own unique perspectives and according to our own personal histories and sensory abilities, can be referred to as:

  1. to-me-ness
  2. emotional intelligence
  3. individual truthiness
  4. theory of intensional relativity

16. We should avoid making assumptions, inferences, or judgments, because we all know what happens when you ASSUME anything.

  1. True
  2. False

17. “You’re either with us or against us” is an example of a multi-valued orientation.

  1. True
  2. False

18. Alfred Korzybski was a communist because he fought for Russia in World War I.

  1. True
  2. False

19. A primary objective of GS is that you should strive for absolute precision in your language behavior and always use the right word according to the most recent dictionary.

  1. True
  2. False

20. The best way to practice the principles of General Semantics is to concentrate on spotting errors in other people’s evaluations and language behavior.

  1. True
  2. False

Module 1 References

searchlight.jpgBois, J.S. (1957). Explorations in awareness. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Bois, J.S. (1966). The art of awareness. Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa.

Bontrager, O.R. (1957). Notes by Kenneth Johnson from the 1957 summer seminar-workshop. Institute of General Semantics Archives, Fort Worth, TX.

Bourland, D.D. (2004). To be or not to be: E-prime as a tool for critical thinking. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 61-4, 546-557.

Carlin, G. (1990). Doin’ It Again. HBO Comedy.

Carroll, J.B., ed. (1956). Language, thought and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Chase, S. (1938). The tyranny of words. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Crick, F. (1994). The astonishing hypothesis: The scientific search for the soul. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Da Cunha, C. (Director). (2009a)  Episode 1 of the Charlie Rose Brain Series: The Great Mysteries of the Brain. In Rose, C. ( Host and Executive Producer), & Vega, Y. (Executive Producer) The Charlie Rose Show. New York, NY. Charlie Rose LLC.

Da Cunha, C. (Director). (2009b)  Episode 2 of the Charlie Rose Brain Series: Visual Perception. In Rose, C. ( Host and Executive Producer), & Vega, Y. (Executive Producer) The Charlie Rose Show. New York, NY. Charlie Rose LLC.

Da Cunha, C. (Director). (2013c)  Episode 27 of the Charlie Rose Brain Series: The Acting Brain. In Rose, C. ( Host and Executive Producer), & Vega, Y. (Executive Producer) The Charlie Rose Show. New York, NY. Charlie Rose LLC.

Fairchild, D. (1938). The world was my garden: Travels of a plant explorer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Fuller, B. (1975). Synergetics. New York: MacMillan.

Haney, W.V. (1973). Communication and organizational behavior: Text and cases (3rd ed.). Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin, Inc.

Hawkins, J., & Blakeslee, S. (2004). On intelligence: How a new understanding of the brain will lead to the creation of truly intelligent machines. New York: Holt Paperbacks.

Hayakawa, S.I. (1949). Language in thought and action (2nd ed.). New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Hayakawa, S.I. (1963). Symbol, status and personality. New York: Harvest/HBJ.

J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee (Producer). (2005) Consciousness: a neurobiological approach (Christof Koch). Available from http://jromc.org

J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee (Producer). (2009) Why can’t a computer be more like a brain? (Jeff Hawkins). Available from http://jromc.org

Johnson, K.G., Senatore, J.J., Liebig, M.C., and Minor, G. (1974). Nothing never happens. Beverly Hills, CA: Glencoe Press.

Johnson, W. (1946). People in quandaries. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Johnson, W. (1956a). General Semantics course lecture, recording of radio broadcast by WSUI, Iowa City, IA. Institute of General Semantics Archives, Fort Worth, TX.

Johnson, W. (1956b). Your most enchanted listener. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Incorporated.

Koch, C. (2004). The Quest for consciousness: A neurobiological approach. Englewood, CO: Roberts & Company Publishers.

Kodish, B.I. (2011). Korzybski: A biography. Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing.

Kodish, S.P. & Kodish, B.I. (2001). Drive yourself sane: Using the uncommon sense of general semantics (2nd ed.). Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing.

Korzybski, A. (1990a). Fate and freedom. In Kendig, M. (Ed.) Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings 1920-1950 (p. 13 ). Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

Korzybski, A. (1990b). The role of language in the perceptual processes. In Kendig, M. (Ed.) Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings 1920-1950 (pp. 685-720). Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

Korzybski, A. (1990c). What I believe. In Kendig, M. (Ed.) Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings 1920-1950 (pp. 645-662). Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

Korzybski, A. (1990a). Article Title. In Kendig, M. (Ed.) Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings 1920-1950 (pp. ). Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

Korzybski, A. (1993). Manhood of humanity (2nd ed.). Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

Korzybski, A. (1994). Science and sanity: An introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics (5th ed.). Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

Korzybski, A. (2002). General semantics seminar 1937: Olivet College lectures (3rd ed.). Brooklyn, NY: Institute of General Semantics.

Lee, I.J. (1941). Language habits in human affairs. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Lee, I.J. (1952). Talking Sense video series. Purchased from Institute of General Semantics.

Lee, I.J. (1949). The language of wisdom and folly. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Lee, I.J. (1958). On language and general semantics. General Semantics Bulletin, 22-23, 59-60.

Lipworth, J. & Chedd, G. (Executive Producers). (2010). The human spark. Thirteen/WNET, New York.

MacNeal, E. (1994). Mathsemantics: Making numbers talk sense. New York: Viking.

Macknik, S.L. & Martinez-Conde, S. (2010). Sleights of Mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Maslow, A.H. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Meyers, R. (1957). Notes by Kenneth Johnson from the 1957 summer seminar-workshop. Institute of General Semantics Archives, Fort Worth, TX.

Murray, E. (1944). The speech personality. Chicago, IL: J.B. Lippincott Company.

Postman, N. (1988). Conscientious objections: Stirring up trouble about language, technology, and education. New York: Vintage Books.

Potter, R.R. (1974). Making sense: Exploring semantics and critical thinking. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Globe Book Company, Inc.

Ramachandran, V.S. (2004). A brief tour of human consciousness: From impostor poodles to purple numbers. New York: Pi Press.

Read, A.W. (2004). Language revision by deletion of absolutisms. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 61-4, 456-462.

Read, C.S. (1999). Video interviewed available from the Sensory Awareness Foundation.

Russell, C.G. (2004). Culture, language and behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics.

Stockdale, S.E. (2009). Here’s something about general semantics: A primer for making sense of your world. Santa Fe, NM: Steve Stockdale.

Stockdale, S.E. (2004, October). An overview of general semantics. Retrieved November, 2013, from

Sweet, J. & Gilbert, D. (Writers). (2010). In J. Sweet, S. Streeter and A. Bloom’s This emotional life. PBS NOVA.

Weinberg, H.L. (1991). Levels of knowing and existence (3rd printing). Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

More References and Resources

The following references and resources provide more opportunies to learn about General Semantics beyond this course.

Institute of General Semantics


Module Completion Checklist

checkbox.jpg Sorry, clicking in the box still doesn’t do anything — it’s just an image.
open-checkbox21.png 1.  Did you complete the Point of View Survey? (20 points)
open-checkbox21.png 2.  Did you complete all the assigned readings?
open-checkbox21.png 3.  Did you view all of the videos?
open-checkbox21.png 4.  Did you take a look at any of the Optional Activities?
open-checkbox21.png 5.  Did you contribute to your Personal Journal and the Ongoing Course Discussion?
open-checkbox21.png 6.  Did you contribute to the Abstracting-Evaluating Discussion assignment? (30 points)
open-checkbox21.png 7.  Did you contribute to the Module Discussion assignment? (50 points)
open-checkbox21.png 8.  Did you successfully complete the Module Quiz? (50 points)



You’re ready to move on to Module 2: Awareness and Action – Allness.