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General Semantics

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General Semantics is a school of thought founded by Alfred Korzybski in about 1933 in response to his observations that most people had difficulty defining human and social discussions and problems and could almost never predictably resolve them into elements that were responsive to successful intervention or correction.

In contrast, he noted that engineers could almost always successfully analyze a structural problem prospectively or a failure of structure retrospectively, and arrive at a solution which the engineers first of all could predict to work and secondly could observe to work. He found especially significant the fact that engineers had a language which helped them to do this: mathematics. Mathematics has such properties that it appears to mimic its referents and thereby simulate or emulate the behavior of the observed physical universe with some precision. This gives physical scientists and engineers a valuable tool.


Korzybski's work

Korzybski observed that the humanities lacked any parallel for mathematics in their languages. He set out to change that.

Alfred Korzybski's effort to introduce linguistic precision of a sort to the humanities resulted in General Semantics. In it, he attempted to make accurate observations with regard to the mechanisms of neural, biological, mental, and emotional interactions between man, other organisms, and the environment, and to describe these in terms which would admit themselves to prospective and retrospective rational analysis of human and social events to the same degree as the engineering disciplines.

Close examination of Korzybski's major work, Science and Sanity, reveals few detailed prescriptions for action. The most obvious one is to use the Structural Differential, a sort of pegboard model with tags hanging from it, as a tool to develop "consciousness of abstracting." That quality is illustrated by an example of a person who sits on a chair with a weak leg, which then collapses, causing "neural damage." The person perhaps took the appearance of a chair in front of him too literally, but should have noted that he saw only an image of a chair as produced by his eyes and brain. With the Structural Differential as a model for training, this person could ostensibly protect himself from the neural damage by remembering he saw only an image, and that the chair might even be missing parts not visible to his eye. One of the few other prescriptions that can be found in the book is to end every sentence with two periods, the extra one to remind one that things were left out. In other words, the world extends virtually forever, as symbolized by the large parabola with a broken edge at the top in the Structural Differential to indicate infinite prolongation. No sense data, no sentence (a creation that must essentially abstract from sense data) can fully describe a given situation and its ramifications. The extra period is a kind of cosmic etc.

Korzybski emphasized a concept he called time binding as a unique and desirable quality of humanity, distinguishing us from beasts. The idea is that humans preserve a growing body of knowledge that enables later generations to build on the expertise and lore of previous ones. This quality, being rather obvious, received perhaps more cachet than substance from Korzybski's attention.

Expressed simply, the essence of General Semantics is the claim that the structure of language distorts our perception of reality, a failing that could be remedied by insight into that process and also by the creation of language that structurally resembles reality. (To a greater extent than our current languages.)

General Semantics never caught on as a major school of thought within the humanities, although a number of Korzybski's followers do continue the effort to apply and advance upon the results he produced.

The map is not the territory

General Semantics teaches that all linguistic representations discard most of reality ("The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined.") and in particular that much "un-sanity" is caused by adherence to the Aristotelian representation of two-valued either-or logic, which Korzybski saw as built into Indo-European language structures. From this beginning, Korzybski developed a complex, controversial, jargon-riddled system of what he called mental hygiene intended to increase the student's effective intelligence. Techniques such as indexing with superscript numbers help in this task.

These ideas, retold in more accessible form by S. I. Hayakawa's Language In Thought And Action (1941), Stuart P. Chase 's The Tyranny of Words, and other secondary sources, achieved considerable initial success in the 1940s and early 1950s. During that period they entered the idiom of science fiction, notably through the works of A. E. van Vogt and Robert A. Heinlein. After 1955 they became popularly associated with scientology but continued to exert some influence in psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. The development of Neuro-linguistic programming owes debts to General Semantics.

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04