virus: General Semantics

Sat, 06 Mar 1999 20:17:14 -0800

Here are a couple of excerpts from an introduction to Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics. I'm posting it to the list in the hopes that the reader will pick out a parrallel to my criticism of a narrow and univocal definition of faith, but I think that anyone on the list who isn't familiar with Korzybski's General Semantics (as I wasn't until last night) will be glad they took the time to add a famaliarity with the concepts to their memetic toolbox.

First a list of types (dare I say "levels?") of language use and analysis:

Grammar deals with word-to-word relations. It embodies rules about how to put words together into sentences, and it is not concerned with how sentences are related to each other or how sentences are related to facts.

Logic goes further. To a logician, sentences are assertions and he is interested in relations between assertions ("if this is true, then that is true"). But for the logician words need not have any meaning except as defined by other words, and the assertion need not have any relations to the world of fact.

Semantics goes further than logic - to the semanticist, words and assertions have meaning only if they are related operationally to referents in the world of nature. The semanticist defines not only validity (as the logician does) but also 'truth'.

General semantics goes furthest -- it deals not only with words, assertions, and their referents in nature but also with their effects on human behavior. For a 'general semanticist', communication is not merely words in proper order properly inflected (as for the grammarian) or assertions in proper relation to each other (as for the logician) or assertions in proper relation to referents (as for the semanticist), but all these, together with the reactions of the nervous systems of the human beings involved in the communication.

This second excerpt is a list of distortions that the assumptions of Aristotelean "either/or" logic inherent in our language produce in our perceptions of the world.

  1. We live in a world of process, change and dynamic structure, yet we map it with static words. The same word may stand for a person or thing or activity year after year, while what it stands for may change, grow and transform. We do not name the process, the development, the flux -- we speak in static terms and learn to perceive and think that way. Bernard Shaw remarked that "the only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measure anew each time he sees me, whilst all the rest go on with their old measurements and expect them to fit me."
  2. In life there is 'non-identity' -- no two things are identical. Yet our verbal maps consist largely of categorical labels, which stress similarities and allow us to neglect differences. Terms like 'trade union' obscure the fact that trade union(1) is not trade union(2). We live in a world of uniqueness that is mapped by a language of categories -- and some of us suffer from hardening of the categories!
  3. The world is frequently about 'gradations', about probabilities and about degrees of intensity. But our Aristotelian, two-valued logic leads us into evaluating in terms of polar opposites, of "either-or" structures. Thus we have for/against, in/out, win/lose, etc. -- exclusive positions that lead to many problems.
  4. In the world there are 'fields of influence' and inter-relationships. Language, however, encourages us to make statements in isolation -- for example, to think and speak of the reason or the cause, when there are often many interacting factors. Our subject-predicate forms may also mislead by implying one-way action only, e.g., "I hate him" does not suggest that the hating may also be doing something to me.
  5. The world is complex but our language leads us to 'split' with words what exists 'as-a-whole'. As Benjamin Lee Whorf wrote, "We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages ... the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds -- and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances...." (3)

The article itself is, as far as I can tell, a pretty good introduction to Korzybski's body of work. You can find the article at: