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Want to Learn Some Basics of General Semantics?

This section contains basic overviews of general semantics, its ideas, and its influence.


Frequently Asked Questions

"What is General Semantics?" - That question, as well as others, are frequently asked of those interested in the subject.  Below is a FAQ answering some popular questions about general semantics.

"What will general semantics do for me?"

If you learn some of the principles and then apply them, you might enjoy some of these noted benefits:

  • More effective, accurate, and discriminating communications with others, and with yourself.
  • More appropriate and desirable reactions, responses and adjustments to what happens.
  • A more accepting, empathetic, inquisitive, open-minded, and straightforward outlook that is less prone to prejudice, stereotyping, and dogmatic generalizations.
  • A greater degree of moment-to-moment awareness of your own, and others’, different perspectives.
  • A better understanding of the background assumptions we bring to a situation.
  • A willingness and an ability to make accurate observations and reports.
  • A willingness to continuously test, examine, evaluate, and change our assumptions and behavior based on our observations.

"Is it similar to any other disciplines or practices I might be familiar with?"

Because general semantics pertains to matters of general evaluation, one can make a case that it ‘belongs’ in any (or every) discipline. However, since it entered university classrooms in the 1930s, it has been taught primarily in the Departments of Speech, English, Language Arts, Communication or Journalism. It has roots in psychology, biology, mathematics, anthropology, sociology, education and other social science and scientific fields. If you are interested in self-improvement, self-help, critical thinking, critical inquiry, communication theory, educational psychology or even science fiction, you probably have run across some overlap with general semantics. Specifically, Korzybski’s general semantics was a significant influence in:

  • Dr. Albert Ellis’s Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) approach to psychotherapy;
  • Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) as first written about by Richard Bandler and John Grinder;
  • Speech and Language education through educators such as S.I. Hayakawa (San Francisco State), Wendell Johnson (U. of Iowa), Irving J. Lee (Northwestern), Elwood Murray (Denver U.), and dozens of their successors;
  • The science fiction writings of Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt.

"What is the difference between semantics and general semantics?"

Semantics typically refers to the field of study that is concerned primarily with how symbols (language) relate to their referents in the ‘real’ non-verbal world. Included in this study would be the consistency of words to referents as well as the logical validity of statements.

General semantics goes beyond semantics in that it includes the at-the-moment responses and interactions of the individual humans who participate in a communicative process. General semantics truly represents an interdisciplinary methodology that invokes not only semantics but linguistics, grammar, behavioral sciences, physiology, etc. Alfred Korzybski explained: “In revising semantics, I am adding the word General, and also have enlarged the meaning in the sense that it turns out to be a general theory of values; evaluation. … In our seminars we investigate the factors of evaluation.”

"What is general semantics?"

General semantics is a popular, practical discipline that applies modern scientific thinking toward the solution of personal and professional problems.

Through the application of general semantics ideas and principles, general semantics brings about clearer thinking, peaceful interaction, and greater sanity to one’s life. General semantics has served as the foundation for numerous approaches to human problems with its unique applications adapted from modern science.

General semantics was introduced by Alfred Korzybski in his 1933 book, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

Basic Understandings

What Are the Core Beliefs of General Semantics?

General semantics was founded on fundamental ideas stemming from scientific insights, synthesized by its founder Alfred Korzybski and extended by a number of his students.  Below is a list of basic understandings held by many of those who train in general semantics.

Time-Binding

  1. Only humans have demonstrated the capability to build on the knowledge of prior generations.  Alfred Korzybski referred to this capability as time-binding.
  2. Language serves as the principle tool that facilitates time-binding.
  3. Time-binding forms the basis for an ethical standard by which to evaluate human behavior; does the behavior advance time-binding and human progress based on what is known at the time, or does it deny time-binding?
  4. Acknowledging our time-binding inheritance dispels us of the “self-made” notion; as we understand how much we owe to others, we begin to understand our own limitations.

Scientific Approach

  1. Humankind’s ability to time-bind is most evident when we apply a scientific approach, method or attitude in our evaluations and judgments.
  2. A scientific approach involves the process of continually testing your assumptions and beliefs, gathering as many facts and as much data as possible, revising your assumptions and beliefs as appropriate, and holding your conclusions and judgments tentatively.
  3. Hidden, or unstated assumptions and “unknown unknown’s” guide our behavior to some degree; therefore we do well to acknowledge their influence and attempt to increase our awareness of them.
  4. We live in a process-oriented universe in which everything changes all the time. The changes may be readily apparent to us, or microscopic, or even sub-microscopic (inferred).
  5. Many times we are not concerned with the lack of apparent change. However, we invite trouble when we sometimes fail to account for change in people or things and act as if no change occurred.

Abstracting and Evaluating (Behavior Awareness)

  1. 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.
  2. As human organisms, 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.
  3. 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.
  4. To the degree that our reactions and responses to all forms of stimuli are automatic, or conditioned, we copy animals, like Pavlov’s dog. To the degree that our reactions and responses are more controlled, delayed, or conditional to the given situation, we exhibit our uniquely-human capabilities.
  5. We each experience “what’s out there” uniquely, according to our individual sensory capabilities, our past experiences and conditioning. We do well to maintain an attitude of “to-me-ness” in our evaluations of our own behavior, as well as in our evaluations of others’ behavior.

Verbal Awareness

  1. The language that we use can be considered as uniquely-human behavior which allows human to pass knowledge from generation to generation, as well as within generations.
  2. However, our 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’.
  3. Among the flaws or mistakes we perhaps unknowingly commit in our language use:
  4. confusing the word itself with what the word stands for;
  5. acting as if the meaning of the words we use is contained solely in the word, without considering the significance of the individuals speaking and hearing the word;
  6. confusing facts with our inferences, assumptions, beliefs, etc.;
  7. 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.;
  8. using language to ‘separate’ that which in the actual world cannot be separated, such as “space” from “time”, “mind” from “body”, etc.
  9. Korzybski proposed the use of several language habits he called “extensional devices” to help us become more aware of these language flaws in our everyday talking and listening, and thereby behave more responsibly:
  • Indexing — Muslim(1) is not Muslim(2) is not Muslim(3); respect differences
  • Dating — Bob Jones(2004) is not Bob Jones(1994)
  • Quotes — a caution that the term may be used in a peculiar or ‘not normal’ way
  • Etc. — a reminder than more could always be said, our knowledge is incomplete

Sensory Awareness (Nonverbal Awareness)

  1. We actually ‘experience’ our daily living on the silent, non-verbal levels; in other words, on a physiological-neurological level different from our verbal awareness.
  2. Our ability to experience the world outside our skins is relative, unique to our own individual organism’s capabilities.
  3. Our language habits can affect our organism’s behavior; we can allow what we see, hear, say, etc., to affect our blood pressure, pulse, rate of breathing, etc.
  4. 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.


Important Terms

What Does That Mean?

As with any field, general semantics has its own specialized terminology.  Some of the terms that commonly appear in general semantics and overviews of their meanings are in alphabetical order below.

Absolutistic Terms

Our language ought to reflect what we understand about the world and our experiences in that world, just as a map should be expected to accurately reflect the actual territory it depicts. If we acknowledge the limitations of our abstracting processes, that everything around us is in continual (if imperceptible) change, and that we can never know everything about anything, those limitations ought to be reflected in the language we use. Therefore we find relatively few instances to appropriately use absolutistic terms such as all, never, always, every, exact same, absolutely, exactly, certainly, etc.

Abstracting

Our awareness of an event or happening is not the same as the actual event or happening. Each nervous system abstracts a limited  number of characteristics about an event, from which that individual constructs what she senses and experiences. When she describes or talks about that experience, she continues to abstract by selecting certain aspects and ignoring others. Abstracting refers to this ongoing human process of selecting, rejecting, and constructing our own individual experiences from everything that goes on around us. In other words, what we sense is not the same as what happens, what we can describe is not the same as what we sense, and the significance we give to what happens is more than what we can merely describe.

Allness

An ‘allness’ attitude ignores the limitations of our abstracting processes.

Conditionality

If General Semantics can be described in one word, it might be conditionality. To the degree that our reactions and responses to all forms of stimuli are automatic, or conditioned, we copy animals, like Pavlov’s dog. To the degree that our reactions and responses are more controlled, delayed, or conditional to the given situation, we exhibit our uniquely-human capabilities.

Consciousness of Abstracting

The ongoing, continual awareness of our abstracting processes, and limitations, should result in attitudes and behaviors that are more appropriate to the situation.

Dating

Assigning dates to observations, events, people, and conclusions helps to remind us that no one ‘thing’ is ever the same twice, that change is continual. For example, Bob Jones(2004) is not the same as Bob Jones(1994), therefore his attitudes toward a particular issue or person might well be different as well.

Delayed Reaction

If we are conscious of our abstracting, and respond conditionally to our experiences, we should naturally be more deliberate in our reactions. Simply put, this is applying the aphorism of “count to ten” before you say or do something you might regret later.

Etc. (et cetera)

Given the limitations of our abstracting and evaluative processes, we can never “say all” or “know all” … more could always be said. Our knowledge is incomplete, we’ll never have “all the facts,” so it’s important to be aware of the et cetera.

Evaluate

In General Semantics, this term goes hand in hand with abstracting and is used in a much more general sense than conventional usage. In GS, it refers to the human neuro-physiological processes by which we experience, react to, and form judgments about the world around us. These evaluative processes produce our immediate, automatic reactions, as well as our more deliberate responses. They may take the form of behaviors we recognize as ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’, talking, deciding, judging, concluding, interpreting, describing, etc.

Extensional Orientation (vs. Intentional Orientation)

When we abstract and evaluate appropriate to the ‘facts’ of the situation, we exhibit a more extensional orientation. When we base our actions and attitudes more on preconceived opinions, ill-considered judgments, or prejudiced assumptions, we exhibit a more intensional orientation. An extensional attitude is one that is more ‘scientific’ (“I don’t know … let’s see!”), grounded in first-order observations with limited conclusions. An intensional attitude is one that is more dogmatic and unwilling to be questioned (“My mind is made up, I don’t care what the facts are.”) An extensional approach is more concerned with ‘facts’ and observations, whereas intensional approaches often rely on verbalizations. As the old aphorism goes, “One test is worth a thousand expert opinions.”

Facts (vs. Inferences, Assumptions, Beliefs, etc.)

Irving J. Lee (Northwestern University) defined a very high threshold for what he called a ‘fact’: 1)  it must be made after a public observation; 2) it must be confined to the actual observation and not go beyond the observation; and 3) it must be as close to certainty as humanly possible.  Other types of statements that do not meet this high threshold (inferences, assumptions, premises, beliefs, theories, etc.) can be made to sound like facts. But these types of non-facts can be stated with or without actual observations; they can speculate about current or future events; they can go beyond actual events by projecting intention, motivation, cause, etc.; and they involve degrees of probability (or argument). In other words, according to these definitions, ‘facts’ cannot be argued, whereas other types of statements lend themselves to argument and disagreement. Therefore it stands to reason that there is far more risk in treating an inference as if it were fact, rather than treating a ‘fact’ as if it were an inference.

Indexing

Similar to dating, the technique of indexing serves as a reminder to respect differences, that no two things are identical and that no word has the exact same meaning twice. For examples:  Muslim(1) is not Muslim(2) is not Muslim(3); democracy(here) is not democracy(there).

Identification

Perhaps the most critical term used by Korzybski in formulating General Semantics. When we are not aware of our abstracting process, we tend to confuse or identify one order of abstraction with another. Typically, we identify or equate our reactions (descriptions, feelings, thoughts, judgments, etc.) about an event with the event itself,  ignoring the role of our own nervous system in constructing our experience. For example, when we make a simple statement like “the rose is red,” we are projecting ‘red-ness’ as a quality or attribute that exists as a part of the rose. Instead, the ‘red-ness’ is created by the viewer’s own peculiar nervous system interaction with the object, light reflections, etc. Therefore a more accurate statement that avoids this identification would be, “the rose appears red to me.”

Ladder of Abstraction

In Language in Thought and Action, S.I. Hayakawa introduced the notion of an abstraction ladder. Though often confused with (and even mistakenly credited to) Korzybski’s formulation of the abstracting process, Hayakawa’s ladder metaphor simply depicts the verbal or linguistic process of hierarchical generalization. For example, at the bottom of the ‘ladder’ we can talk about a specific and unique ‘event’ we call “cow.” As we move up the ladder of abstraction, the same “cow” could be labeled as “livestock”, or “farm asset”, or even “wealth.” As the terms move up the ladder, the specific and unique characteristics (differences) are suppressed and similarities to other items or events is emphasized.

Quotes

Sometimes we use words in ways that are not intended to be literal, but ironic, sarcastic, or facetious. Or we want to flag certain words as “so-called” or that we’re using them in an unconventional or unusual sense. The use of quote marks around such words alerts the reader (or viewer-listener if “air quotes” are used) to be careful in reacting to or evaluating this particular usage.

Semantic Reaction

Another critical term formulated by Korzybski that is often misunderstood; it does not refer to “reactions to words.” Rather, Korzybski employed the term to refer to the total response of an individual to any event, activity, situation, or personal interaction. By “total response” we refer to our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, attitudes, etc.,  from our non-verbal sensory reactions to our cognitive awarenesses.

Structural DifferentialStructural Differential

Korzybski created a physical model (later redrawn as a diagram) to illustrate the structural differences between humans and animals in terms of their abilities to abstract; animals are limited in their ability to abstract, whereas humans can continue to infer about inferences indefinitely. The model provides a visual summary of the abstracting process.

Time-Binding

Only humans have demonstrated the capability to build on the accumulated knowledge of prior generations. Korzybski referred to this capability as time-binding and declared it as the primary difference between humans and animals. Language and the symbolizing capabilities to record, document, and transmit information serves as the principle tool that facilitates time-binding.

To-Me-Ness

Wendell Johnson in People in Quandaries refers to an attitude of “to-me-ness” as awareness that there is considerable individual variation in the way we sense, experience, react and symbolize. We each experience “what is going on” uniquely, according to our individual sensory capabilities, our past experiences and conditioning. We do well to maintain an attitude of “to-me-ness” in our evaluations of our own behavior, as well as in our evaluations of others’ behavior.

WIGO (What Is Going On)

J. Samuel Bois used this phrase to refer to the parabola of Korzybski’s Structural Differential model (the indefinite number of characteristics of a particular event or situation, some of which we may abstract but many of which we cannot).


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