General Semantics

as seen by Ralph Kenyon
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My general orientation focuses on what could be called the theoretical foundations of general semantics.

Korzybski's frequent quotations from all the major philosophers, together with his emphasis on mathematics (my first love), the methods of science, and his other attributions to great philosophers and scientists, all pointed directly to philosophy in general, to epistemology and metaphysics in particular, and specifically to the philosophy of science, as the primary source knowledge of general semantics. As a direct result of my exposure to general semantics, in conjunction with my own extensive mathematics, physics, engineering, military, and computer science backgrounds, I went into the study of philosophy with the explicit purpose of clarifying the theoretical foundations of general semantics.

Many self-avowed general semanticists lack the necessary technical background knowledge.

In my personal experience, a great many of the participants at seminars that I attended lacked the science, mathematics, and logic education and backgrounds necessary to appreciate these foundational areas of general semantics - areas that Korzybski emphasized frequently.  Some of these individuals have gone on to become significant participants in the overall administration of the organizations presenting themselves as "official" organs of general semantics in our culture. These developments are actually a natural consequence of the theory as applied to organizations. Abstraction also occurs from generation to generation in organizations. This directly contributes to the evolution of the purposes and aims of the organizations. The results are that the attention and focus on reviewing and revising the theoretical foundations is falling by the wayside as organizations and individuals concentrate on applying a limited abstraction of relatively static principles, behaviors, and methods, resulting in a degeneration into a major emphasis on justification of the chosen behavioral prescriptions by referring to the original writings of Korzybski himself.

General semantics, as any other symbolic environment, has its benefits and its difficulties.

The major focus of many self-avowed general semanticists today seems to me to be aimed at applying a relatively few static extractions related to prescriptions for how to behave.  Unfortunately, this emphasis seems to be at the expense of an adequate understanding of the reasoning behind the prescriptions for these behaviors.  As a result, the "practice" of general semantics falls largely into the category of self-improvement programs.  As a testimonial, I met one couple at a seminar who stated that they had been to all the major seminars of this nature, including Primal Scream, EST, various yoga and meditation seminars, etc., etc.  Their evaluation of the general semantics seminar was stated, "General semantics has it all!  It's the best."  Unfortunately, this same couple skipped most of the theoretical lecture portions of the general semantics seminars - lectures at which Stuart Mayper presented the mathematical backgrounds of relativity, the logical backgrounds of Popper's philosophy of science and the principle of falsification, and other theoretical background information.

General semantics must be applied to itself.

The failure to update general semantics contributes directly to its lack of acceptability in modern scientific, philosophical, and educational circles.  The loss of expertise in the theoretical foundations contributes directly to the view that general semantics is becoming a cult of practitioners who continually cite "chapter and verse" from Korzybski's original writings. As Korzybski himself frequently emphasized, general semantics must be continually re-evaluated and updated in the light of new knowledge.  Its very foundations must be subject to the same critical review and testing that all scientific knowledge continually gets as new discoveries are made.  So, among these pages, you will find a fresh viewpoint - one that critically applies general semantics to itself.  Included among my comments and discussions, I will not hesitate to point out fallacies, fads, flaws, and failures that have come to weigh down the continued progress and development of general semantics.

Bearing in mind the foregoing caveat, please proceed to my perspective on general semantics, and do not hesitate to send me your comments and feedback.

So, with that in mind, what "is" general semantics?

General Semantics is perhaps best classified as a personal growth system providing tools to help us "better" integrate with our advanced symbolic and technological environment through updated understanding and use of the methods and findings of science. General Semantics - names a discipline based on learning and using the scientific method in our daily lives in the context of a classification system that distinguishes among plants, animals, and humans using the dimensions of energy, distance, and time. As any discipline does, it has its beliefs, value, ethics, and behavioral prescriptions. 

In up-to-date terms, General Semantics uses the study of and practical application of a particular epistemology, namely a theory of knowledge based upon a particular model of the multi-level structure and functioning of human information processing, including neurological levels through linguistic levels, in its context - people living in a society in a world (organism-in-its-environment-as-a-whole) - as the method for achieving its ethical ends. For its ethical ends, General Semantics, after providing its method of distinguishing among plants, animals, and human, "commands" that humans not behave as animals do (in its model), and General Semantics further "commands" that we seek to maximize the use of only valid scientific method tools of mathematics and logic for reasoning and deciding our day-to-day behavior, in particular, the dictates of empiricism - parochially named "extensional orientation" - to test any guesses, surmises, theories, etc. in the pursuit of cooperative social interaction. In the prescribed model of "knowing" the primary process is abstracting from one level to another with an awareness of the process (consciousness of abstracting). In a "nutshell", General Semantics "is" empiricism writ large - applied rigorously in everyday life - with an added commandment - that we cooperate.

Most of the remainder of this site deals principally with the theoretical aspects of General Semantics, which I refer to as "general semantics" (in lower case).  (2009-03-01)

As a theory, general semantics "is" a forerunner of evolutionary epistemology.  It predates evolutionary epistemology and could be called "neo-"logical positivism.  (Charlotte Read pointed out that while general semantics is similar to logical positivism, it also differs in some respects.)  Stuart Mayper identified Popper's Philosophy of Science as best illustrating the methodological approach espoused by general semantics. 

In up-to-date terms, general semantics uses the study of and practical application of a particular epistemology - namely a theory of knowledge based upon a particular model of the multi-level structure and functioning of human information processing, including neurological levels through linguistic levels, in its context - people living in a society in a world (organism-in-its-environment-as-a-whole).  In this model the primary process is abstracting from one level to another with an awareness of the process (consciousness of abstracting).

For one, somewhat detailed, description, see my early paper What is General Semantics.

Many general semanticists use differing descriptions.  Here are some:

  1. Linguistic, Epistemologic, Scientific Research and Education.
    (This is quoted from the articles of incorporation of The Institute of General Semantics.)
    Elements are:
    1. Language
    2. Theory of knowledge.
    3. Scientific research
    4. Education (applying the theory).
    5. Training in the use of techniques approved by the theory.
  2. modern open applied epistemology
    (This is from definitions given at Institute of General Semantics seminar-laboratory workshops)
    The key elements in this regard are:
    1. Modern - current scientific knowledge
    2. Open - testing and being prepared for revision
    3. Applied - use in everyday life
    4. Epistemology - the theory of knowledge / philosophy of science
  3. multi-level, multi-dimensional, multi-causal world view.
    1. multi-level
    2. multi-dimensional
      1. Energy-binding
      2. Space-binding
      3. Time-binding
    3. multi-causal
  4. Non-Newtonian, Non-Euclidean, Non-Aristotelian, Non-Linear
    1. Non-Newtonian or relativistic mechanics
    2. Non-Euclidean or curved space
    3. Non-Aristotelian or multi-valued and probability logics
    4. Non-Linear or exponential growth
  5. A non-Aristotelian system of evaluating.
    1. Non-Aristotelian by virtue of using multi- and "infinity-" (probability) valued logics
      (as opposed to logic based solely on two values "True" and "False").
  6. Extensional orientation.
    extensional devices
    1. etc
    2. hyphen
  7. Consciousness of abstracting
  8. Semantic reactions
  9. Multi-meaning
    1. different dictionary definitions
    2. the same dictionary definition in different contexts
    3. the same dictionary definition in the same context in different persons

The theory of knowledge held by general semantics

  1. All knowledge is in the form of maps - including non-verbal as well as verbal maps.  This includes "maps" that are "inside the skin".  "Map" is a very general term.  Maps are to be distinguished from "territories", an equally general term. It can be said that the only thing that all maps have in common is "structure", hence the statement, "Structure is the only content of knowledge" is often quoted.  While all maps are structures, not all structures are maps.
  2. Maps are produced by the process of abstracting, whether in the nervous system or at verbal levels. Maps are the result of abstracting from territories. It is viewed that "good" knowledge consists of maps which have "similarity of structure" with their represented territories.
  3. The basic principles of consciousness of abstracting are the caveats (often called the ABC's of general semantics):
    1. The map is not the territory.
    2. The map doesn't cover all the territory.
    3. The map reflects the map maker. (see The "C" of general semantics.)
  4. Although not stated, the purpose of maps is to permit successful navigation of the appropriate territories, whether it is finding one's way around in a grocery store or solving complex engineering problems, etc..
  5. Maps must be tested "empirically".  One must constantly strive to corroborate and update the maps one uses, to the extent of developing an extensional orientation and using extensional devices to reduce the likelihood of error. Popper's Philosophy of Science best illustrates the methodological view espoused by General Semantics as a discipline.
  6. It is not possible to find out when a map is "correct", but it is possible to find out when a map is "wrong". Maps that survive many attempts to prove them wrong are presumed to have a greater degree of similarity of structure with their territories.

The world view of general semantics

General semantics views the world as multi-dimensional, multi-causal, and multi-level, and that organisms can never be isolated from their environments. The primary dimensions are energy, space, and time.  Living organisms can be classified according to which type of binding they predominately do.  Plants bind energy.  Animals, through their territoriality and mobility, bind space.  Humans, through their use of language and planning bind time.  No events occur in isolation, and organisms cannot be separated from their environments, so many factors affect both, such that there is normally no single cause for something. As maps are of territories, and each map can be the territory for a new map, events can be viewed from many levels (of abstracting).  Any organism, person, group, etc., can be viewed from many levels, but can only be known about by the process of abstracting, so cannot be viewed apart from its environment.  I use the run-on phrase "organism-in-its-environment-as-a-whole" as opposed to the often cited phrase "organism-as-a-whole-in-its-environment".

The application of general semantics

The primary application of general semantics is in training individuals to view their environments using the general semantics world view, to think in terms of levels of abstraction, to use the extensional devices, to become aware of making assumptions, to extensionally check them out, and to be prepared for them to be wrong.

General semantics is not any "philosophy," or "psychology," or "logic," in the
ordinary sense. It is a new extensional discipline which explains and trains us how to
use our nervous systems most efficiently. Alfred Korzybski

The claim of general semantics is, that by applying its methods, disagreement will be reduced, some psychological disorders can be overcome, and reasoning will be improved.

A (very) few quotes from Alfred Korzybski

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2013-06-12 at 00:38 and has been accessed 121010 times at 603 hits per month.