Semantics is a branch of linguistics concerned with the meaning dimension of language—the meanings of words and sentences. General Semantics also deals with meaning but in a very different way. In fact, the name “General Semantics” has proved problematic because it’s so easily confused with linguistic “semantics.” General Semantics really goes much beyond the study of meaning and encompasses a way of looking at language and a way of thinking about language and about things.
General Semantics (often abbreviated, capitalized, and referred to simply as GS) is the study among the relationships of language, thought, and behavior. It was developed by Alfred Korzybski and presented in his Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), an extremely difficult book to read. Korzybski used his knowledge of engineering and mathematics to explain this study which made his formulations difficult to understand for those without this background. Yet, a number of prominent people, some from communication and some from the sciences as well as some popular writers, quickly saw the value in this study and, fortunately, wrote simpler explanations of Korzybski’s formulations. These included Stuart Chase’s The Power of Words, Wendell Johnson’s People in Quandaries, S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action, Irving Lee’s Language Habits in Human Affairs, Harry Weinberg’s Levels of Knowing and Existence (with whom I had the privilege of taking courses at Temple University), and J. S. Bois’ The Art of Awareness and Explorations in Awareness. And just about every book by Albert Ellis incorporates the principles of General Semantics. If you pick up any one of these books, you’ll be amazed at the insights and new perspectives they give you. Harry Maynard, one of the great popularizers of General Semantics, once told me that General Semantics gave him an enormous intellectual advantage in his field (advertising and public relations); it taught him to look at things in different ways and to see what others didn’t. I feel the same way; if I have had any intellectual advantage it was due not only to my formal education (which was excellent) but largely to my application of General Semantics thinking to communication.
Unfortunately, there were many critics who vehemently denounced this study of language without understanding the foundations of General Semantics or its values. And, as a result, the study never had the impact in the academy that it should have had. Yet, and this is the surprisingly thing, many of its formulations—which were original to General Semantics—have been incorporated into the study of communication as well as other areas. In fact, even the critics make use of these insights without knowing, perhaps, that they came from General Semantics theory.
The Institute of General Semantics (www.generalsemantics.org) notes that General Semantics can help you integrate your four worlds: (1) the world that is out there, the world as it exists in constant process, the world as science tells us it exists; (2) the world within your skin, your nervous system and senses; (3) the world of “not words,” the world you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch; and (4) the world of words, of symbols, labels, assumptions and the like.
Here are just a few of the principles of General Semantics (for more, see the Institute’s website):
• The world in which you live is constantly changing and yet your language is relatively static. If your language, the way you talk about the world and its people, is to reflect accurately this constantly changing world, then it too must change. When your evaluations remain static even as the world changes, you’re in trouble. And so General Semanticists recommend dating your statements and your evaluations: Iraq2003 is not Iraq2007 and will not be the same as Iraq2010 (the dates are better written as subscripts). And, YOUyesterday, YOUtoday, and YOUtomorrow are different in some ways and you need to take these differences into consideration when you make evaluations, whether of yourself or of others.
• The world that you perceive is not the world that is out there; what you perceive through your senses is only a small part of what is. You never see all, nor can you ever say all about anything. What you perceive (of a thing or a person) is actually an abstraction of what is; your perception is limited to what your senses pick up. Some people are very perceptive and see a great deal; others are less perceptive and see a great deal less. But, all people see only a small portion of what is. When you assume that you know all or have said all, you’re not reflecting the world that science says exists. And so General Semanticists recommend that you add an implicit or even explicit etc. at the ends of your sentences to remind yourself that there is always more to be said, more to be learned, more perspectives and viewpoints to be considered.
In teaching General Semantics, one of the activities I used [btw, I put some of these exercises in a workbook, General Semantics: Guide and Workbook, I did years ago and that is long out of print but may be available in some libraries] was to give each student a small stone and ask them to examine it as closely as they could. After a minute or so, they would put the stone down and say they were finished; they knew all they could about the stone. But, I’d persist and urge them to continue examining the stone. I did this for at least 20 minutes—that’s a long time to examine a small piece of rock. Not surprisingly, by the end of the 20 minutes, they had come to realize that they still didn’t know all that could be learned about the stone. And people are a lot more complex. Yet—and this is the crucial part—we often make judgments about people after the first few seconds and certainly within the first four minutes. One of the many problems that this creates is that this judgment (that is made on the basis of this extremely short time) will function as a filter through which further information about this person will be perceived, given meaning, and modified. And, to make matters just a little bit worse, this judgment will prove extremely resistant to change.
Some 20 years after using that exercise, btw, I ran into a former student who became an artist and within the first two minutes of our discussion he mentioned the exercise with the stone and how it taught him a unique perspective for viewing art in general and his own art work in particular.
• Because you perceive the world through your own psychological and physiological makeup, each person sees the world differently. To assume that all people see things similarly or as you do, is simply absurd and is contradicted by everyday experience. This principle is especially important in relationship communication where, often at least, couples just don’t understand why and often resent it when the other person sees things differently. But, such differences are inevitable and the task in relationship communication is to appreciate, understand, and empathize with the (always different and always changing) perceptions of your partner or friend or family member. Without recognizing this, communication becomes virtually impossible.
• The words you use to describe the world are not the world; the map is not the territory, the word is not the thing. As Weinberg put it, “Whatever you say it is, it isn’t.” The word (what you say) is different from the thing (what science says is “out there”). At the extreme, you see this confusion of words and things in the allergic person who sneezes at the sight of paper flowers. More commonly it can be seen when people assume that what they call themselves or what others call them (slow, nerdy, passionate, disorganized) is what they are. What you are called and what you are, are two entirely different things. This doesn’t mean that the way in which something is talked about doesn’t influence perceptions; it certainly does. But, it does so through the person—as I. A. Richards’ triangle of meaning [kind of] illustrates. You are the one who gives meaning and credence to the words you use to describe yourself or to the words that others use to describe you.
• Everything is unique; there are no two things that are exactly alike—even snowflakes are different from each other. When things are covered by the same label, however, many assume that they are therefore similar or even identical. But, they aren’t. Each Iraqi, American, Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Canadian—and we could continue indefinitely—is unique. The fact that you have general labels that can be used to refer to the group does not mean that the members of that group are the same. As you know from members of your own groups—whatever they may be—no one is identical to you. You know you’re unique but sometimes (perhaps) may forget that every other person is also unique and different from any others—even those covered by the same label. And so, General Semanticists make use of the index (which, like the date, is best written as a subscript): politician1 is not politician2, professor1is not professor2, and on and on. This tendency to ignore differences among those covered by the same label is at the heart of the process of stereotyping (an earlier ABCD word, posted 10/4/07). If you recognize the uniqueness of each person or each idea, it would be impossible to stereotype. As General Semanticists are fond of saying, “the more you discriminate among, the less you discriminate against.”
This emphasis on uniqueness does not deny that many people share many qualities and it is these qualities that we try to capture when we talk about gender and cultural differences. So, while every man is different from every other man, men seem to have certain qualities in common. Similarly, every women is different from every other woman but women also seem to have certain qualities in common. As a result, we can talk about male-female differences (and, of course, similarities). And we use this same assumption when we talk about such cultural differences as individualism and collectivism, high and low power distance cultures, and high and low tolerance for ambiguity. Members of certain cultures have gross similarities which we can capture with such terms as individualism and collectivism but within the group of individualists, for example, there are variations and differences. And the same is true for all cultural labeling. So, we need to keep in mind both similarities and differences—especially when talking about gender and culture. Overemphasizing one and ignoring the other is likely to lead to a variety of misevaluations and errors of judgment.
• Language makes it easy for you to talk in extremes: black and white, good and evil, moral and immoral. As a result, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people, things, and ideas are between these extremes. This tendency to polarize, as you can imagine, can create problems, pitting us against them, the good against the bad.
One of the exercises I use--and it’s in most of my books—is to ask students to identify the opposites of such words as good, birth, up, healthy, sane, and rich. Of course, bad, death, down, ill (or unhealthy), insane, and poor come quickly to mind. And there is great similarity in the students’ responses. Now, however, try to identify the middle area—the area between good and bad, birth and death, healthy and unhealthy, sane and insane, and rich and poor. This takes a lot more thought; it will actually take you a longer time to identify the middle terms than it took you to identify the opposites. And, if you do this with other people, you’ll likely see that there are more differences in the responses of middle terms than in the responses of opposites. This is just a simple demonstration to increase awareness that it’s easier to think and talk in terms of opposites than to think and talk about the middle. And yet, the vast majority of people are not at the extremes; they’re between the extremes. The implication is simple; we need to be careful when using opposites and we need to develop the ability to talk about the middle.
There’s actually a lot more to be said about General Semantics and I hope to do that in subsequent posts. For now, if you want to learn more about General Semantics pick up one of the books mentioned here, search the Internet, or (and I think this is the best first step) visit the Institute of General Semantics website (www.generalsemantics.org).