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General Semantics


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 also 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.

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.

More details

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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