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.
Module 2 Pages
In Module 1 we addressed the question, “What is General Semantics?” During the next two weeks, we will focus on applying what we learned about GS to produce more effective language behaviors.
Mary will lead this module based on excerpts from her PDF textbook, Awareness and Action. These excerpts can be read within the Canvas pages so it’s not necessary to download the PDF textbook. Because minor changes have been made to accommodate the online format and module numbering, we prefer and recommend you read the pages from within Canvas to complete the assignments. But you are welcome to download and read the complete textbook.
As a communication studies professor who is also a parent, I often advise my children, “Change your perception and you change your world.” As a researcher with interests in general semantics and appreciative inquiry—a method for organizational change that involves stakeholders focusing on what is going well—I recently updated my advice to include, “Words create worlds so choose wisely” (Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010, p. 52). Regardless of the contexts in which we find ourselves, we might communicate more effectively if we explore our daily language behavior. A general semantics methodology provides the opportunity to do so.
I first learned about general semantics in a 1982 Language and Thought class taught by Paul Keller at Manchester. Professor Keller studied general semantics with Irving Lee at Northwestern University. Since 1996, I have taught a number of courses using books by William Haney (1992), Susan and Bruce Kodish (2001), and Steve Stockdale (2009a). I credit these authors for the various sections of Awareness and Action:
- Stockdale (2009a) outlined a “structured system of formulations” to explain general semantics, and I address two of its premises, “scientific orientation” and “time-binding,” in Chapter 1, leaving “abstraction,” “nonverbal awareness,” and “verbal awareness” for Chapter 2.
- Kodish and Kodish (2001) operationalized “nonverbal awareness” with student-friendly exercises that I include in Chapter 2.
- Haney (1992) explained “contributing factors” and “correctives” for patterns of miscommunication that occur when we are not aware of the abstraction process. I introduce several of these patterns in the following four chapters: Allness, Inference—Observation Confusion, Bypassing, and Differentiation Failures. For each pattern, I include case studies developed by former students.
In short,shows how general semantics can be used as a systematic inquiry into language behavior, followed by an application of these formulations. I use case studies to engage readers in all four phases of Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle:
- When discussing the abstractions of characters in the cases, we work with accommodative knowledge: the “transformation of the intuitive aspects of experience through active experimentation.”
- When applying the contributing factors needed to address characters’ faulty language behaviors, we develop divergent knowledge: the “transformation of the intuitive aspects of the experience through reflection.”
- When working together to evaluate how one corrective is better than another for each character in a case, we acquire assimilative knowledge by “deciding on the best solution.”
- When role playing a case with appropriate correctives for each character to address faulty language behaviors, we create convergent knowledge by presenting “an implementation plan” (as cited in Kreber, 2001, p. 224).
General semantics is not just a theory but a practical approach to delay the way that humans automatically respond: it is something we must do. The case studies approach ensures that we practice applying the formulations, taking action with our newfound awareness of faulty language behavior.
Module Learning Objectives
After successfully completing this module, students will be able to:
- Identify the GS premise that explains allness.
- Explain the contributing factors to allness.
- Use the structural differential to explain why we neglect to distinguish between a group and individuals within the group.
- Identify the correctives needed to combat allness.
- Explain why we are closed to new and different ideas as we grow older.
This week we will learn how the GS principle of allness applies to our language behaviors. You will:
- Read the excerpt from Chapter 3: Allness of Awareness and Action.
- Analyze character behaviors from a sample Case Study (Case 3.1).
- Participate in a Discussion related to allness.
- Choose one other Case Study for further analysis (from Cases 3.2, 3.3, or 3.4).
- Complete the module quiz.
Discovering It is not Possible to Know Everything about Anything
Allness occurs because we forget that we are abstracting, overlooking the premise that “a map cannot cover all of its territory, so any map is only a part of the territory.” Haney (1992) advocated for an awareness of abstraction to combat allness.
Use the following questions to guide your reading of the material below (excerpted from Chapter 3 of Allness in Awareness and Action, pp. 21-25).
- Compare and contrast allness and abstraction.
- Why don’t we remember that others abstract different details than we do?
- Use the structural differential to explain how it is possible to neglect to to distinguish between a group and individuals within the group.
- Why are we closed to new and different ideas as we grow older?
In Korzybski’s view, knowledge and uncertainty belong together . . . to live with both required courage—the courage to act despite imperfect knowledge and the courage to self-reflect and self-correct when needed, i.e., with frequency. —Bruce Kodish (2011, p. 8)
When prompted to think of a “know-it-all,” we often envision other people and rarely see how our language may appear indisputable to others. We might agree with Haney (1992) that is it impossible to “know and say everything about something” or that what we say “includes all that is important about the subject” (p. 321), but our language choices often include words of certainty, tones of finality, and absolutes (e.g., always, never, all, and none).
Haney (1992) named this pattern of miscommunication allness, defining it as follows: The attitude of those who are unaware that they are abstracting and thus assume that what they say or know is absolute, definitive, complete, certain, all-inclusive, positive, final—and all there is (or at least all there is that is important or relevant) to say or know about the subject (p. 323).
Even though we are now aware of how “we inescapably abstract,” reducing people, places, and things to one-word descriptors, how many of us will remember to introduce family members with more than a job title? Will we distinguish colleagues from their political and religious affiliations? We easily forget that we might be “focusing-on-some-details-while-neglecting-the-rest,” thus making it easier to act as if what we know is “all that we really need to know” (Haney, 1992, p. 323).
Allness occurs because we forget the general semantics premise that “a map cannot cover all of its territory, so any map is only part of the territory.” Korzybski (2000) demonstrated this principle by asking students to tell “‘everything’ or ‘all’ about the object [an apple] in question” (p. 471). When he had collected all of the students’ responses and exhausted their patience, he would cut the apple into pieces, eventually using a magnifying glass to demonstrate that “they did not tell us ‘all’ about the apple” (p. 472). For instance, how many of us know that when cutting an apple in half around the middle, we will discover a “star” formed by the core and seeds? As the following contributing factors to allness demonstrate, even if we monitor our language choices, we often act as if what we are saying, writing, or thinking includes all that is important about a subject, person, and event at that moment. The correctives will help us to remember that our maps (words) do not account for all of the territory—that is, all that is going on in the empirical world.
You may want to refer back to the Consciousness of Abstracting-Evaluating page in Module 1 to review allness in the context of other behaviors to be aware of.
CONTRIBUTING FACTORS: ALLNESS
One of the contributing factors to allness is an unawareness of abstraction that results in an assumption that we have covered it all. Kodish and Kodish (2011) explained why this unawareness might happen: “The scientific ‘object’ is not the ‘object’ as you or we experience it but seems to consist of events, processes, changing relations at the level of the very small, smaller than we can view even with a microscope” (p. 60). For instance, we might remember learning about the submicroscopic proton, electrons, and quarks in a high school classroom, but we rarely remember that language is an abstraction of an event, which, itself, is an abstraction of all that is happening in this submicroscopic world. To communicate more effectively with others, we must be conscious of how we abstract to delay acting on limited details gathered by our nervous systems.
We also abstract different details than others do, leading us to assume that what we know is what others know. How many of us have been guilty of arguing a point (e.g., who is to blame for a missing item) only to find out later that we did not know important details? Haney (1992) contended that the consequence of engaging in such behavior is “the rigid drawing of lines and unintelligent, destructive conflict” (p. 325). Perhaps we need to listen for understanding first. Covey (2004) argued for “seeking first to understand, then to be understood when we listen with the intent to understand others” (p. 153). Listening to understand means identifying “how” we abstracted different details, not who is right and who is to blame.
Another contributing factor of allness occurs when we act on the assumption that “our experience with one or a few members holds for all” (Haney, 1992, p. 327). We evaluate a group based on limited interactions with individuals from that group. That assumption has particularly dangerous consequences when we assign stereotypes to people solely on the basis of the political party or religious community with which they associate. We often forget to distinguish between the group and the individuals within that group. How many of your friends and family members who are registered Republicans or Democrats identify with all of the policies advocated by Republican or Democratic candidates?
Haney (1992) suggested that as we age, we may become “closed to the new or different” (p. 329). Even though we often accuse parents and grandparents of being closed-minded, this indifference is not just a problem for older generations. I often ask students to compare and contrast the insatiable curiosity of a kindergartner with the quiet classroom demeanor of a college student. Students suggest that they have often censored curiosity because of concern for peer and instructor evaluations. This high self-monitoring might keep them from learning new ideas.
Furthermore, Haney (1992) explained why people might be more afraid of change as they age:
As we grow older, more and more of what we learn is actually relearning. To learn something new or especially something different may require we relinquish something we already hold—that we discard certain accepted assumptions and cherished beliefs. This can be an unpleasant, uncomfortable experience. But some people find it a distinctly threatening state of affairs. And when we are threatened we often resort to some defense mechanism or another. Allness can be particularly effective bastion at such times. (p.330)
This rationale reminds us that we can delay “automatic” evaluation when encountering non-life-threatening situations. We need courage to do so.
Because we know it is impossible not to abstract, Haney (1992) argued that the “antidote for allness is not the avoidance but the awareness of abstracting” (p. 335). What follows are his suggestions for how to become more fully aware of the abstraction process.
1. Develop a Genuine Humility
When we remember that abstraction inhibits our ability to cover everything, we find it easier to be humble. Haney (1992) defined humility as “a deep conviction that you can never know or say everything about anything” (p. 335). I like the humor he provided to help us remember these limits:
Bailiff: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Witness: Look, if I knew the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—I would be God! (p. 335)
When I first learned about general semantics, Professor Keller suggested that we should expect to be proven wrong; as Haney (1992) cited Disraeli, “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great first step toward knowledge” (p. 335). Perhaps when we fully understand how little we really do know, we will be more curious and ask more clarifying questions.
2. Add (or at Least Silently Acknowledging) Etcetera
Korzybski (2000) named “etc.” as one of five extensional devices to achieve an extensional orientation. Haney (1992) summarized the use of etc. as follows: “When you see a period in my writing or hear one in my talking, please translate it as etcetera. It will remind both of us that I have not covered everything” (p. 337). Consequently, adding etc. to our thinking processes reminds us to be aware of abstraction. As rebuttals race through our minds, perhaps we can pause long enough to remember that there is more we might not know—the etcetera still waiting to be discovered.
Haney (1992) warned that, when talking, we should not “make a fetish of conspicuously ‘etcetering’ every statement” (p. 337), as doing so may lead others to evaluate us as lacking understanding or having adequate support for our conclusions. Adding etc. to our communication skill set is best tolerated, and perhaps most useful, when we apply it first to our thoughts. For example, we can think to ourselves, “There is more here than meets the eye,” using the familiar idiom to remind us to silently acknowledge the etcetera.
3. Ask Yourself, “Do I have an All-wall?”
In addition to realizing that abstraction inhibits our ability to cover everything, Haney (1992) proposed exploring how often we are closed to new and different ideas. For example, when we have a chance to hear a new perspective, do we listen carefully and then paraphrase what we hear? Many of us rarely paraphrase because we have been preparing rebuttals instead of listening. Morreale, Spitzberg, and Barge (2007) outlined various opportunities to withhold judgment during the three stages of the listening process:
- Receiving: postpone evaluation of the message
- Constructing meaning: set aside bias and prejudice
- Responding: clarify meaning by asking questions. (p. 149)
Monitoring how often we listen to new and differing viewpoints could help us to decide whether we have an “all-wall.” Similarly, asking a close friend and family member about how well we listen might provide invaluable insight. Who knows how much we will learn when we remember to postpone evaluation as we receive their messages and set aside bias when constructing meaning about our interactions.
Allness occurs because we forget that we are abstracting, overlooking the premise that “a map cannot cover all of its territory, so any map is only part of the territory.” Because we are unaware that we abstract, we do not remember that others abstract different details than we do. Furthermore, we neglect to distinguish between a group and the individuals within the group, and we often are closed to new and different ideas as we grow older.
Haney (1992) advocated for an awareness of abstraction to combat allness. If we develop a genuine humility that we cannot possibly know everything about anything, we will silently add etc. to our thinking and avoid acting as if we have an all-wall. Furthermore, when we delay evaluations of messages as we listen to others and ask others questions to clarify meaning, we are using specific behaviors that demonstrate an understanding of the general semantics premise that “a map cannot cover all its territory, so any map is only part of the territory.”
REFLECTION AND ACTION
1. Document your reflections on these questions in your Personal Journal:
- How might you teach the pitfalls of allness to a friend?
- Compare and contrast allness and abstraction.
- Which correctives for allness do you personally find most meaningful and relevant?
2. Throughout the week (and the duration of the course):
- Discuss the topic of allness with a friend or family member. Observe the course of the conversation in terms of their questions and reactions, as well as your explanations, examples, etc.
- Consciously apply at least one of the allness correctives during your regular day-to-day activities.
3. Share your insights and experiences with others in the course by participating in the Allness Review discussion.
Corey Anton’s Corollaries
Korzybski (2000) proposed a map–territory analogy to encourage daily exploration of verbal “maps” (words), noting that these maps do not accurately describe what is happening in the “territory” (empirical world): “A map is not the territory it represents” (p. 58). He used a familiar relationship, maps and territories, so that we would remember when the territory (reality) changes, we need to update the map (language). More recently, Corey Anton (n.d.) proposed that we are better served with the premise, “there is no not territory” (p. 11), because the territory (reality) consists of many maps. He argued, “Once we recognize how all maps, as part of the territory, are the means by which one part selectively releases and appropriates another part at different levels of abstraction, we no longer need to postulate that ‘reality’ lies somehow ‘behind’ and/or ‘beyond’ our experiences and/or language” (Anton, p. 11–12).
In his second book, Science and Sanity, published in 1933, Korzybski (2000) proposed his formulations as a non-Aristotelian system that promoted a “complete and conscious elimination of identification” (p. xcvii). For Korzybski, a “non-Aristotelian” orientation meant illuminating the limitations of Aristotle’s “law of identity,” or the “is of identity” (Pula, 2000, p. 21–22). He argued that even though people, places and things have specific characteristics, which Aristotle labeled as identity, these characteristics are constantly changing and are incomplete representations of the empirical world.
For example, I am a professor, but if that is all you say about me then you are leaving out other important roles in my life—friend, wife, counselor, mother, church member, sister, and many more. This illustration provides evidence of Korzybski’s (2000) second premise of general semantics: “No map represents all of ‘its’ presumed territory” (p. xvii). Recognizing that each one of us plays many roles during a lifetime, we begin to understand how one or two language labels are a static representation of a dynamic reality. Anton (n.d.) updated this premise of Korzybski’s as well, “Any map is only part of the territory” (p.11).
In the introduction to the second edition of Science and Sanity, published in 1941, Korzybski further delineated general semantics as “a new extensional discipline which explains and trains us how to use our nervous systems most efficiently” (p. xxxviii). In other words, if nature is constantly changing—and we know it is when we see flowers bloom from barren ground in the spring—then people’s nervous systems detect, or abstract, only a small percentage of these changes. Korzybski (2000) created a diagram of this abstraction process, called the “structural differential” (p. 471), providing a visual reminder of how we leave out many characteristics when we sense objects and events. We leave out even more details when we use language to explain what we sense.
The structural differential visually demonstrates how we omit numerous characteristics of an event, or reality, and continue to use those inaccurate descriptions to make more inferences. This diagram of the abstraction process depicts Korzybski’s (2000) third premise of general semantics: “Maps are self-reflexive” (p. xvii). In order to account for abstraction levels confusion within, as well as between levels, Anton (n.d.) reworked Korzybski’s third premise: “maps” is the word used to refer to parts of the territory becoming reflexive to other parts at different levels of abstraction (p. 11). For instance, if I state that “I am angry that I got angry,” then I am making an inference about my behavior, confusing levels of abstraction and leaving out important characteristics about what angered me today. Consequently, the ability to make maps of maps (the self-reflexive nature of maps) when the original map is inaccurate, may confuse how we interpret events and mask what we share that with others. Unfortunately, if my reasons for getting angry today include being passed over for a promotion because I am too old, then important conversations about age discrimination may not take place.
In the 1948 preface to the third edition of Science and Sanity, Korzybski stressed the need to apply general semantics formulations, arguing that “when the methods of general semantics are applied, the results are usually beneficial, whether in law, medicine, business, etc. . . . If they are not applied, but merely talked about, no results can be expected” (p. xxxi). Consequently, this course encourages action—applying language behavior correctives rooted in Anton’s (n.d.) new corollaries for general semantics premises:
- The map is not the territory, and there is no not territory.
- A map covers not all the territory, so any map is only part of the territory.
- Maps refer to parts of the territory becoming reflexive to other parts at different levels of abstraction. (p.11)