Berman Lecture

Speaking notes (not a transcript) and videos from the first annual Berman Lecture at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, endowed by a gift from Dr. Sanford I. Berman.

Calling Out the Symbol Rulers

Introduction (5:34)

[flowplayer src=’′ width=580 height=436 splash=’’]

Some Benefits of General Semantics (4:22)

[flowplayer src=’′ width=580 height=436 splash=’’]

Application of Knowledge (3:19)

[flowplayer src=’′ width=580 height=436 splash=’’]

Calling Out the Symbol Rulers (42:53)

[flowplayer src=’′ width=580 height=436 splash=’’]

1. About General Semantics

About general semantics, from our Capital Campaign Brochure, statement from Charles Russell, retired management consultant, professor and academic adviser at the University of Toledo:

I have enjoyed introducing General Semantics to hundreds of students who frequently asked, “Why have I just now learned the most significant things in my life?”

So how is it that general semantics can be labeled as significant and even most significant?

I think it relates to something from the Spanish philosopher and educator Jose Ortega y Gasset in his 1930 collection of essays titled, The Mission of the University, stated that one of the purposes of the University was to teach people to live “at the height of the times.”

General Semantics increases our understanding and awareness of the role that our language and other symbolizing behaviors play in the “heights” that we can achieve.

There are many ways to define General Semantics and to describe what it’s about. I’ll say that we can describe GS as dealing with how effectively we manage our symbolizing processes. In other words, how well we:

  • Perceive what is going on, our experiences are incomplete.
  • Integrate our perceptions of what goes on with our past experiences.
  • Create and generate ‘meanings’ that result in our actions, language, attitudes, etc.

Leonard da Vinci: All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.

Charles Sanders Peirce: We don’t get meaning, we respond with meaning.

When we are conscious of this process, when we’re practicing the methodologies that general semantics advocates, we have a greater chance of living “at the height of the times” in that:

  1. We’re less prone to hold unrealistics expectations,
  2. Less prone to jump to conclusions,
  3. Less prone to perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes,
  4. Less prone to mistake our own opinions and beliefs as ‘facts’ or ‘truths’,
  5. Less prone to respond automatically to symbols and labels.

On the positive side, when we’re most effectively aware and living near the “height of the times” we tend to:

  1. think-feel-and-act in the here-and-now, in the moment-to-moments of daily living rather than re-living the past or dreading the future [anybody “here” but not really … “here”? okay to daydream, let your mind wander];
  2. think, speak, write, read and listen more deliberately, more discriminatingly, and more productively;
  3. more effectively analyze and solve problems, resolve conflicts and maintain relationships;
  4. feel free to ‘be ourselves,’ to promote individuality and appreciate diversity;
  5. more accurately and more productively integrate and build upon all of our knowledge and share that knowledge with others (“time-binding”).

General Semantics isn’t just about “knowing” things, but it’s about how we apply what we know. GS is always asking, “So What?” How does it matter? What difference does that knowledge make? Is it a difference that makes a difference?

There are three quotes that underscore different aspects of ‘knowledge’ or ‘knowing’:

Old Persian proverb: “He who learns and learns and yet does not what he knows, is one who plows and plows yet never sows.” — do we apply what we ‘know’?

American Psychiatrist William Alanson White: “The trouble with people isn’t so much with their ignorance as it is with their knowing so many things that are not so.” — how much of what we think we know, isn’t really so?

Mark Twain: “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stovelid. She will never again sit on a hot stovelid, and that is well. But she will also never again sit on a cold one.” — do we recognize the limits of what we ‘know’ from our own experiences?

General Semantics advocates what we can call a ‘scientific orientation’, it’s based on scientific thinking rather than we can call “pre-scientific thinking.” Not just a collection of principles or concepts but an integrated system or methodology for how one views the world.

Continuum of how to view the world, spectrum of orientations …

Example: Astronomy vs. Astrology, two sides of the river valley … Mercury in Retrograde …. Galileo … persistence of astrology

For those of us who study and practice general semantics, it’s very important to understand this symbolization process, of how we perceive what we experience, how we integrate our experiences, and how we generate ‘meaning’ from our perceptions and experiences.

It’s so important that Alfred Korzybski stated in Science and Sanity that: “Those who rule the symbols, rule us.”

So … who’s ruling your symbols? Let’s talk about that.

2. Calling Out the Symbol Rulers

We typically think of a “symbol” as simply something that stands for something else. But in a more general sense we can talk about our thinking and our communicating as the symbolic manifestation of our what’s going on in our brains. I want to talk not just about “symbols” but how we as individuals use symbols, how we respond to symbols, how we get meaning from symbols, and how it might be possible that we end up getting “ruled” by symbols.

    Bombarded from infancy with symbols – words, numbers, figures, colors, etc. from:

  • Parents, siblings, friends
  • Teachers
  • Preachers, priests, rabbis, Imams, clerics CONDITIONED
  • Doctors, lawyers, politicians
  • Advertisers, reporters, broadcasters
  • Musicians, artists, writers, poets, actors

Each affected differently, each form our own unique neural networks, each develops our own unqiue way of viewing the world based on our value system of symbols, meanings, etc. We each have our own unique orientation …. (degrees of disagreement à agreement)

  1. You’re either with us or against us.
  2. You can’t change human nature.
  3. Everything happens for a reason.
  4. Clothes make the man.
  5. Nice guys finish last.
  6. In the end, we all get what we deserve.
  7. You get what you expect.
  8. There’s nothing new under the sun.
  9. Time heals all wounds.
  10. Everybody has a right to his/her own opinion.

You bring this orientation into each new life experience and you perceive, integrate and evaluate your experiences as a function of this orientation. We determine what’s important, what we choose to pay attention to, what we allow things to mean.


  • Stacy, social club bias, now President of Women’s Club Council and Class Favorite
  • Dating: “I’ll be glad to get my Passat back. I just hate these loaner cars.”
  • Other examples of “status symbols” … to some degree, every symbol serves as a status symbol or some type of significance — clothes, cars, neighborhoods, music

In GS we have a term: “Identification”: responding to symbols AS IF we were responding to the ‘thing’ the symbol stands for; in other words, when we fool ourselves or allow ourselves to be fooled by symbols … not just verbally fooled, but fooled on neurological, physiological levels:

  • food biases, how many don’t like certain foods that you’ve never tried?
  • Reacting to a food after you’ve been told what it was?
  • Stacy, three years old reacting to the Golden Arches
  • My “Sixth Sense” movie experience, experiencing chills upon seeing the thermostat
  • My allergies, Paper Rose anecdote
  • Mandalay Bay roulette, 11 Black in a row, 23 of 28 black spins

Other examples of symbols that ‘mean’ something, in which we easily presume something based on the symbol:

  • Degrees
  • Credentials: Liz Phair, “Rock Me”, you’re potential without credentials
  • Job titles
  • Brands
  • Flags
  • Medals
  • Concepts such as “freedom” “equality” “justice” “liberty”
  • “marriage” (“sancitity of the institution” must be “protected”

Consequences of how symbols are used and abused:

Taylor Hess … “weapon” …. “threaten” …. “zero tolerance”

Jack Beers … six-tenths of a second

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad – who fact checks the fact checkers?

So the question is, who rules your symbols? Do you rule your own symbols, do you form your own judgments and opinions and beliefs about your experiences? Or are your symbols ruled by others, are your opinions shaped by others or determined by the past? Do you believe what you see … or do you see what you believe?


Anecdote about Hemingway in the early 60s, Postman/Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity: “In order to be a great writer, a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

Was he talking about being able to detect the crap that was going on around him … or the crap that he himself was writing?

In a way you can think of general semantics as an all-purpose “crap detector”, remember that it’s always more effective when used by yourself on yourself in your own symbolizing efforts.

Close with quote from ART, Yasmina Reza:

If I’m who I am because I’m who I am and you’re who you are because you are who you are, then I’m who I am and you’re who you are. If, on the other hand, I’m who I am because you’re who you are, and if you’re who you are because I’m who I am, then I’m not who I am and you’re not who you are.

I submit that it’s near to impossible to be yourself, for yourself, if you don’t rule your own symbols. So I’m calling you out here to become your own symbol ruler, and I wish you success in learning how to live at the height of these times, and all times in the future.

Thank you.