General semantics

General semantics

The term General Semantics refers to a non-Aristotelian educational discipline created by Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) during the years 1919 to 1933. General Semantics stands distinct from semantics, a different subject. The name technically refers to the study of what Korzybski called "semantic reactions", or reactions of the whole human organism in its environment to some event — any event, not just perceiving a human-made symbol — in respect of that event's meaning. However, people most commonly use the name to mean the particular system of semantic reactions that Korzybski called the most useful for human survival, i.e. delayed reactions as opposed to "signal reactions" (immediate, unthinking ones).


Advocates of General Semantics view it as a form of mental hygiene that enables practitioners to avoid ideational traps built into natural language and "common sense" assumptions, thereby enabling practitioners to think more clearly and effectively. General Semantics thus shares some concerns with psychology but some do not consider it specifically as a therapeutic system, evaluating it as more focused on enhancing the abilities of normal individuals than curing pathology.

Korzybski described the central goal of General Semantics as developing in its practitioners what he called a "consciousness of abstracting", or an awareness of the map/territory distinction and of how information gets deleted/distorted in the linguistic and other representations we use. Korzybski considered sporadic and intellectual understanding of these concepts insufficient, rather that humans achieve full sanity only when the consciousness of abstracting becomes constant and a matter of reflex.

Many General Semantics practitioners view its techniques as a kind of self-defense kit against manipulative semantic distortions routinely promulgated by advertising, politics, and religion, as well as those found in self-deception.

Viewed philosophically, some consider General Semantics as a form of applied conceptualism that emphasizes the degree to which human experience gets filtered and mediated by contingent features of human sensory organs, the human nervous system, and human linguistic constructions.

The most important premise of General Semantics has been succinctly expressed as "The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined". [Hayakawa, S.I., "Language in Thought and Action", Harcourt, Brace and Company, (New York), 1949, p.31: "The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for."] While Aristotle wrote that a true definition gives the essence of the thing defined (in Greek "to ti ên einai", literally “the what it was to be”), General Semantics denies the possibility of describing such an essence. The non-Aristotelian nature of General Semantics represents an evolution in human evaluative orientation much as non-Euclidean geometry represents an evolution in mathematical representation of spacial relationships.

Other aspects of the system

There are more elements, but these three in particular stand out:

* "Time binding:" The human ability to pass information and knowledge between generations at an accelerating rate. Korzybski claimed this to be a unique capacity, separating us from other animals. Animals pass knowledge, but not at an exponential rate, i.e. each generation of animals does things pretty much in the same way as the previous generation. For example, at one time most human societies were hunter-gatherers, but now more advanced means of food production (growing, raising, or buying it) predominate. Excepting some insects (e.g. ants), other animals are still looking, i.e. they don't grow or raise food.

* "Silence on the objective levels:" As 'the word is not the thing it represents,' Korzybski stressed the nonverbal experiencing of our inner and outer environments. During these periods of training, one would become "outwardly and inwardly silent."

* The system advocates a general "orientation" by extension rather than intension, by relational facts rather than assumed properties, an "attitude," regardless of how expressed in "words," that, for example, George 'does things that seem foolish to me,' rather than that he "is" 'a fool.'

Much of General Semantics consists of training techniques and reminders intended to break mental habits that impede dealing with reality. Three of the most important reminders are expressed here by the shorthand "Null-A, Null-I, and Null-E".

* Null-A is non-Aristotelianism; General Semantics stresses that two-valued (Aristotelian) logics cannot adequately map the totality of human experience. (See also: Abductive reasoning)
* Null-I is non-Identity; General Semantics teaches that no two phenomena can ever be shown identical (if only because they may differ beyond the limits of measurement) and that it is more sane to think in terms of "sufficient similarity for the purposes of the analysis we are currently performing".
* Null-E is non-Euclideanism; General Semantics reminds us that the space we live in is not adequately described by Euclidean geometry.

The underlying purpose of these reminders is both to adjust our conceptual maps better to the territory of reality and to keep us reminded of the limitations of all maps. Non-Aristotelian, in this particular case, refers to the use of non-Aristotelian logic rather than the aforementioned philosophical disagreement. However, Korzybski saw these as linked. The complex nature of the objects we interact with means that reasoning from "essence" or definitions will often lead us astray. This creates uncertainty, which general semantics links to the use of non-Aristotelian logic.

Korzybski's books

Korzybski's first book, "Manhood of Humanity", published in 1921, introduced the notion of time-binding as the defining distinction between humans and other organisms. There, he used the imagery of dimension to spell out the unique niche humans occupy among organisms. The book became an immediate best-seller, and remained in that status for several years. He rejected explicitly the claim that we could consider a human as either a ‘monstrous hybrid’ of animal with some supernatural or immaterial ‘mind’, ‘soul’, or ‘spirit’, or simply as animal. In his defining of humans in terms of what they do rather than attempting to state what they are, he declared a fundamental revision of the 2,500-year old Western philosophic foundations of science, philosophy, and biology.

His major work was "Science and Sanity, an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics," published in 1933. A third book of his writings, "Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings 1920-1950", was published in 1990.


General Semantics is an educational discipline created by Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) during the years 1919 to 1933. His major work was "Science and Sanity, an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics," published in 1933. Korzybski's student S. I. Hayakawa further introduced the subject in "Language in Thought and Action" (1941). An earlier and less influential book in 1938 was "The Tyranny of Words," by Stuart Chase. A current book is "Drive Yourself Sane", by Susan and Bruce Kodish, published in 2000.

Two major groups were formed in the United States to promote the system: the Institute of General Semantics, in 1938, and the International Society for General Semantics, in 1943. In 2003, the two groups merged into one organization, now called the Institute of General Semantics, with headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. There are also a New York Society for General Semantics, a European Society for General Semantics, and an Australian Society for General Semantics.

During the period of the 1940s and 1950s, general semantics entered the idiom of science fiction, most notably through the works of A. E. van Vogt, "The World of Null-A" and its sequels, and Robert A. Heinlein, "Gulf". The ideas of General Semantics became a sufficiently important part of the shared intellectual toolkit of genre science fiction to merit parody by Damon Knight and others; they have since shown a tendency to reappear (often without attribution) in the work of more recent writers such as Samuel Delany, Suzette Haden Elgin and Robert Anton Wilson.

In 1952, General Semantics was pilloried in Martin Gardner's influential book, "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science". L. Ron Hubbard claimed that his work was based partly on general semantics, but the compliment was not returned. Writing in "Etc: A Review of General Semantics", in the fourth quarter of 1951, Hayakawa said, "The lure of the pseudo-scientific vocabulary and promises of Dianetics cannot but condemn thousands who are beginning to emerge from scientific illiteracy to a continuation of their susceptibility to word-magic and semantic hash." ["Dianetics: From Science-Fiction to Fiction-Science," pp.280-293.]

Under the supervision of psychiatrist Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, U.S. medics in World War II used General Semantics to treat over 7,000 cases of battlefield neuroses in the European theater. Kelley is quoted in the preface to the third edition of "Science and Sanity". The development of neuro-linguistic programming owes debts to general semantics.

General Semantics has continued to exert some influence in popular psychology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and education. Usually because of the efforts of individual teachers, such as Drs. Michael Wapner and Chris Aable at CSULA, it has been taught at various times and places in high schools and universities in the U.S.; but in general, the system has had no consistent home in academia.

Popular acceptance has likewise been very limited. As of 2005, the reputation of General Semantics has yet to recover from the damage Martin Gardner did to it.Fact|date=February 2007

Connections to other disciplines

General Semantics has important links with analytic philosophy and the philosophy of science; it could be characterized without too much distortion as applied analytic philosophy. The influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, and of early operationalists and pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce, is particularly clear in general semantics' foundational ideas. Korzybski himself acknowledged many of these influences.

Korzybski's concept of "silence on the objective level" and his insistence on consciousness of abstracting are parallel to some central ideas in Zen Buddhism. Korzybski is not recorded to have acknowledged any influence from this quarter, but he formulated General Semantics during the same years that the first popularizations of Zen were becoming part of the intellectual currency of educated English-speakers. On the other hand, later Zen-popularizer Alan Watts has been influenced by ideas from General Semantics.

Although he appears to have misunderstood or altered some of the basics of GS (General Semantics), [L. Ron Hubbard "The Anatomy of Thought", Data Series 1, Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter (HCO PL) of 26 April 1970: "As Alfred Korzybski studied under psychiatry and amongst the insane (his mentor was William Alanson White at Saint Elizabeth's Insane Asylum in Wash. D.C.) one can regard him mainly as the father of confusion." ] L. Ron Hubbard is widely thought to have used the theory in his creation of Dianetics; this in turn introduced General Semantics to a wider audience in the early 1950s, including popular science fiction writer A. E. van Vogt, personal growth theorist Harvey Jackins and his movement Re-evaluation Counseling and movements like Gestalt therapy. The founders of these movements did not themselves credit Korzybski for their ideas.

Albert Ellis, who developed Rational emotive behavior therapy, acknowledges influence from general semantics. The conceptually related cognitive therapy, developed by psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, formulates a program that could have been taken directly from the declared intentions of GS - cognitive therapy is rapidly developing into the most successful treatment of the more common psychological problems, thereby also validating the corresponding concepts of GS.Or|date=June 2008


Martin Gardner seems to suggest that proponents of general semantics violate their own rules about withholding judgement, following the scientific method, and replacing dogmatic belief with various degrees of probabilityFact|date=February 2007. Gardner also wrote of Korzybski that he "never tired of knocking over 'Aristotelian' habits of thought, in spite of the fact that what he called Aristotelian was a straw structure which bore almost no resemblance to the Greek philosopher's manner of thinking."

However, in the preface to the first edition of his book "Science and Sanity" - in 1933, more than twenty years before Gardner's criticism - Korzybski wrote the following: :"The system by which the white race lives, suffers, 'prospers', starves, and dies today is not in a strict sense an aristotelian system. Aristotle had far too much of the sense of actualities for that. It represents, however, a system formulated by those who, for nearly two thousand years since Aristotle, have controlled our knowledge and methods of orientations, and who, for purposes of their own, selected what today appears as the worst from Aristotle and the worst from Plato and, with their own additions, imposed this composite system upon us. In this they were greatly aided by the structure of language and psycho-logical habits, which from the primitive down to this very day have affected all of us consciously or unconsciously, and have introduced serious difficulties even in science and in mathematics."

The beginning of Chapter VII quotes A.N. Whitehead as saying,:"...the subject-predicate habits of thought...had been impressed on the European mind by the overemphasis on Aristotle's logic during the long medieval period. In reference to this twist of mind, probably Aristotle was not an Aristotelian."and:"The evil produced by the Aristotelian 'primary substance' is exactly this habit of metaphysical emphasis upon the 'subject-predicate' form of proposition."Korzybski goes on to say, in the third paragraph of that chapter, that Aristotle:"was not only a most gifted man, but who, also, because of the character of his work, has influenced perhaps the largest number of people ever influenced by a single man; and so his work has undergone a most marked elaboration. Because of this, his name, in this book, will usually stand for the body of doctrines known as aristotelianism...Some of the statements may not be true about the founder of the school; yet they remain true about the school."In the preface to the second edition, having compared his system to non-Newtonian physics and non-Euclidean geometry, Korzybski also writes::"I must stress that as the older systems are only special limitations of the new more general 'non' systems (see p.97), it would be incorrect to interpret a 'non' system as an 'anti' system."

In response to the charge of unscientific behavior, general-semanticists like Bruce Kodish and Kenneth G. Johnson point to various scientific studies that they say appear to support Korzybski's claims.

Martin Gardner and others cite an essay in Max Black's "Language and Philosophy" as the "definitive critique of general semantics". However, Kodish and others argue that Black's criticisms stem from misunderstandings of "Science and Sanity" (see references with external link to Kodish).

Black repeats the charge that Korzybski misrepresents Aristotle. He also seems to argue that Korzybski cannot prove the existence of an external world. A symbol of this external "event" or "scientific object" appears in the Structural Differential. Black views this as a contradiction, since Korzybski would say that our statements about this object derive in part from our nervous systems. Finally, Black claims "Korzybski holds the view that abstraction consists in 'leaving out details'," (p. 243) and says he ignores the brain's active role. Kodish replies that we have good reason to focus on this "leaving out", and that Black mistakes a practical concern for a definition.

Korzybski felt that his critics often confused their characterizations of what he said with what he said. His response to them was: "I said what I said. I did not say what I did not say."

ee also

;Related fields
* Cognitive science
* Cognitive therapy
* E-Prime
* Gestalt Therapy
* Language and thought
* Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
* Structural differential;Related subjects
* Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture
* Institute of General Semantics
* List of NLP topics
* Propaganda
* Sanity
* The map is not the territory
* Time- and space-bias;Related persons
* Marjorie Kendig
* Alfred Korzybski
* Elwood Murray
* Robert Pula



*Science and Sanity An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski, Preface by Robert P. Pula, Institute of General Semantics, 1994, hardcover, 5th edition, ISBN 0-937298-01-8 (An online version is available [ here] ).
*"The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes," Alfred Korzybski's 1950 article in "Perception: An Approach to Personality", edited by Robert R. Blake and Glenn V. Ramsey. Copyright 1951, The Ronald Press Company, New York. [ online here] .
*"Symbol, status, and personality" by S.I. Hayakawa, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963.
*"The tyranny of words" by Stuart Chase, 1938 (later reprints). Probably the first popularization of Korzybski, pre-dating Hayakawa's first edition of "Language in Action".
*"The art of awareness; a textbook on general semantics" by J. Samuel Bois, Dubuque, Iowa: W.C. Brown Co., 1966.
*"Crazy talk, stupid talk: how we defeat ourselves by the way we talk and what to do about it" by Neil Postman, Delacorte Press, 1976. All of Postman's books are informed by his study of General Semantics (Postman was editor of "ETC." from 1976 to 1986) but this book is his most explicit and detailed commentary on the use and misuse of language as a tool for thought.
* "Developing sanity in human affairs" edited by Susan Presby Kodish and Robert P. Holston, Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut, copyright 1998, Hofstra University. A collection of papers on the subject of general semantics.
*"Language in Thought and Action: Fifth Edition", S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa, Harcourt, ISBN 0-15-648240-1.
*"Language habits in human affairs; an introduction to General Semantics" by Irving J. Lee, Harper and Brothers, 1941. Still in print from the Institute of General Semantics. On a similar level to Hayakawa.
*"The language of wisdom and folly; background readings in semantics" edited by Irving J. Lee, Harper and Row, 1949. Was in print (ca. 2000) from the International Society of General Semantics -- now merged with the Institute of General Semantics. A selection of essays and short excerpts from different authors on linguistic themes emphasized by General Semantics -- without reference to Korzybski, except for an essay by him.
*"Mathsemantics: making numbers talk sense" by Edward MacNeal, HarperCollins, 1994. Penguin paperback 1995. Explicit General Semantics combined with numeracy education (along the lines of John Allen Paulos's books) and simple statistical and mathematical modelling, influenced by MacNeal's work as an airline transportation consultant. Discusses the fallacy of Single Instance thinking in statistical situations.
*"Operational philosophy: integrating knowledge and action" by Anatol Rapoport, New York: Wiley (1953,1965).
*"Semantics" by Anatol Rapoport, Crowell, 1975. Both general semantics along the lines of Hayakawa, Lee, and Postman and more technical (mathematical and philosophical) material. A valuable survey. Rapoport's autobiography "Certainties and Doubts : A Philosophy of Life" (Black Rose Books, 2000) gives some of the history of the General Semantics movement as he saw it.
*Hayakawa's critique of Dianetics [ here]
*The World of Null-A and The Pawns of Null-A (also published as The Players of Null-A) by A. E. van Vogt, science fiction novels which take a fanciful approach on how the non-Aristotelian discipline of general semantics might affect a society.
*Assignment in Eternity, (1942), specifically the story "Gulf," is a representative example of the influence of General Semantics in the work of Robert A. Heinlein. The "homo novi" or "supermen" of the story express recognizably Korzybskian ideas about the relationship between language and thought.
*"Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science." by Martin Gardner, New York: Dover Publications, 1957.
*A recent critique of Martin Gardner, [ "In the Name of Skepticism: Martin Gardner's Misrepresentations of General Semantics,"] by Bruce I. Kodish, appeared in "General Semantics Bulletin", Number 71, 2004, pp. 50-63.
*, by Harry L. Weinberg, Harper and Row, 1959, hardcover, 274 pages.
*ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, journal, Institute of General Semantics. See a compendium of ETC articles [ here] .
*"People in Quandaries: the semantics of personal adjustment" by Wendell Johnson, 1946 -- still in print from the Institute of General Semantics. Insightful book about the application of General Semantics to psychotherapy; was an acknowledged influence on Richard Bandler and John Grinder in their formulation of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
*"Your Most Enchanted Listener" by Wendell Johnson, Harper, 1956. Your most enchanted listener is yourself, of course. Similar material as in "People in Quandaries" but considerably briefer.
*Living With Change, Wendell Johnson, Harper Collins, 1972.
*"Language and Philosophy: Studies in Method", Max Black, Cornell UP, 1949.
*"Contra Max Black: An Examination of 'The Definitive Critique' of General-Semantics" by Bruce I. Kodish closely examines Black's writing on general semantics and is available in the articles section of
* [ Language Revision by Deletion of Absolutisms] , by Allen Walker Read, 1984.
* [ a bibliography of general semantics papers] .
* [ The Original Structural Differential] .
* [ The Structural Differential] .
* [ A Discussion of Korzybski's ethics, with emphasis on "time-binding"] .

Further reading

*"Trance-Formations: Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Structure of Hypnosis" by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, (1981). One of the important principles -- also widely used in political propaganda -- discussed in this book is that trance induction uses a language of pure process and lets the listener fill in all the "specific content" from their own personal experience. E.g. the hypnotist might say "imagine you are sitting in a very comfortable chair in a room painted your favorite color" but not "imagine you are sitting in a very comfortable chair in a room painted red, your favorite color" because then the listener might think "wait a second, red is not my favorite color."

*The work of the scholar of political communication Murray Edelman (1919-2001), starting with his seminal book "The Symbolic Uses of Politics" (1964), continuing with "Politics as symbolic action: mass arousal and quiescience" (1971), "Political Language: Words that succeed and policies that fail" (1977), "Constructing the Political Spectacle" (1988) and ending with his last book "The Politics of Misinformation" (2001) can be viewed as an exploration of the deliberate manipulation and obfuscation of the map-territory distinction for political purposes.

*"Logic and contemporary rhetoric: the use of reason in everyday life" by Howard Kahane (d. 2001). (Wadsworth: First edition 1971, sixth edition 1992, tenth edition 2005 with Nancy Cavender.) Highly readable guide to the rhetoric of clear thinking, frequently updated with examples of the opposite drawn from contemporary U.S. media sources.

*"Doing Physics : how physicists take hold of the world" by Martin H. Krieger, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. A "cultural phenomenology of doing physics." The General Semantics connection is the relation to Korzybski's original motivation of trying to identify key features of the successes of mathematics and the physical sciences that could be extended into everyday thinking and social organization.

*"Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, (1980).

*"Philosophy in the flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, (1997).

*"The Art of Asking Questions" by Stanley L. Payne, (1951) This book is a short handbook-style discussion of how the honest pollster should ask questions to find out what people actually think without leading them, but the same information could be used to slant a poll to get a predetermined answer. Payne notes that the effect of asking a question in different ways or in different contexts can be much larger than the effect of sampling bias, which is the error estimate usually given for a poll. E.g. (from the book) if you ask people "should government go into debt?" the majority will answer "No", but if you ask "Corporations have the right to issue bonds. Should governments also have the right to issue bonds?" the majority will answer "Yes".

Related academic articles

* Bramwell, R. D. (1981). The semantics of multiculturalism: a new element in curriculum. "Canadian Journal of Education", Vol. 6, No. 2 (1981), pp. 92-101.
* Clarke, R. A. (1948). General semantics in art education. "The School Review", Vol. 56, No. 10 (Dec., 1948), pp. 600-605.
* Chisholm, F. P. (1943). Some misconceptions about general semantics. "College English", Vol. 4, No. 7 (Apr., 1943), p. 412-416.
* Glicksberg, C. I. (1946) General semantics and the science of man. "The Scientific Monthly", Vol. 62, No. 5 (May, 1946), pp. 440-446.
* Hallie, P. P. (1952). A criticism of general semantics. "College English", Vol. 14, No. 1 (Oct., 1952), pp. 17-23.
* Hasselris, P. (1991). From Peral Harbor to Watergate to Kuwait: "Language in Thought and Action". "The English Journal", Vol. 80, No. 2 (Feb., 1991), pp. 28-35.
* Hayakawa, S. I. (1939). General semantics and propaganda. "The Public Opinion Quarterly", Vol. 3 No. 2 (Apr., 1939), pp. 197-208.
* Krohn, F. B. (1985). A general semantics approach to teaching business ethics. "Journal of Business Communication", Vol. 22, Issue 3 (Summer, 1985), pp 59-66.
* Maymi, P. (1956). General concepts or laws in translation. "The Modern Language Journal", Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan., 1956), pp. 13-21.
* O'Brien, P. M. (1972). The sesame land of general semantics. "The English Journal", Vol. 61, No. 2 (Feb., 1972), pp. 281-301.
* Rapaport, W. J. (1995). Understanding understanding: syntactic semantics and computational cognition. "Philosophical Perspectives", Vol. 9, AI, Connectionism and Philosophical Psychology (1995), pp. 49-88.
* Thorndike, E. L. (1946). The psychology of semantics. "The American Journal of Psychology", Vol. 59, No. 4 (Oct., 1946), pp. 613-632.
* Whitworth, R. (1991). A book for all occasions: activities for teaching general semantics. "The English Journal", Vol. 80, No. 2 (Feb., 1991), pp. 50-54.
* Youngren, W. H. (1968). General semantics and the science of meaning. "College English", Vol. 29, No. 4 (Jan., 1968), pp. 253-285.

External links

* [ Korzybski's General Semantics]
* [ New York Society for General Semantics]
* [ Institute of General Semantics]
* [ European Society For General Semantics]
* [ Australian Society for General Semantics]
* [ Coro Foundation] (Leadership training programs based on General Semantics. Notables include Gene Siskel, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congressman Jerry Lewis)
* [ Theoretical foundations of general semantics] Xenodochy
* [ General Semantics: A Tutorial]
* [ Dave's web site with the ETC magazine index]
* [ Europe]

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