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Module 1: What is General Semantics?

General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language-Behavior
General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language Behavior 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.

Before you begin Module 1, please take just a few minutes to complete the “Point of View” survey. Note your answers and then when we get to Module 5, we’ll review the results.

Module Map – led by Steve Stockdale

Module 1 Pages

What is GS? | Alfred Korzybski | Consciousness of Abstracting | Language | In Their Words
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources


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

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?”

Key Topics for Module 1

  1. Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) — A short biography of the man who “wrote the book” and (perhaps unfortunately) coined the label, “General Semantics.”
  2. Korzybski’s Quest —Three questions guided Korzybski’s work.
  3. Map|Territory: Foundational Premises —Three premises underlie the GS theory or methodology, each an aspect of the Map|Territory analogy.
  4. 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.
  5. Discussion Assignment — We’ll ask you to share your own example that illustrates the abstracting process, worth 30 points.
  6. 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.”
  7. Language(s) as Map(s) — Some of the implications and consequences of the Map|Territory analogy relate to our language habits and bahaviors.
  8. Consciousness of Abstracting — A comparison of behaviors that reflect a consciousness (or awareness) of one’s abstracting and evaluating processes, vs. unawareness.

Before you get started with the Module 1 material, please take the Point of View Survey to establish your responses at the beginning of the course. The results will then be discussed in Module 5.

Defining and Describing General Semantics – authored by Steve Stockdale

You might think such a simple question as “what is General Semantics?” 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.

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

GS Overview

Used with permission of Institute of General Semantics

Basic Understandings of General Semantics – authored by Steve Stockdale

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.
GS Spiral

Time-binding

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.
Scientific Method
One Portrayal of the Scientific Method

One test is worth a thousand expert opinions. — Anonymous

Abstracting-Evaluating

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/Non-Verbal Abstracting
Verbal/Non-Verbal Abstracting

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 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).


Module 1 Pages

What is GS? | Alfred Korzybski | Consciousness of Abstracting | Language | In Their Words
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources