General Semantics: An Overview
by Milton Dawes
Every now and again, students of general semantics are asked: “What
is general semantics? The abstractions (selections) below represent an
overview. They do not answer the question as asked – It is translated
to:“What is general semantics about”.
The impact of Korzybski’s experience on the battlefields of the first
world war lead him to wonder ‘How come we humans became so advanced
in the fields of science, mathematics, and technology, yet continued to
behave so primitively with each other?’ He was very concerned with
the ever expanding gap between progress in these fields, and the quality
of our human relationships. Over a period of twelve years … “He
studied human evaluations in science and mathematics and psychiatry, ‘at
their best and at their worst’ as he put it, form the standpoint
of predictability and human survival”. (See
Manhood of Humanity, page xxiii)
From a functional ‘definition’ (not what mankind is, but what
mankind does), and a theory of mankind as a “time-binding class
of life” (presented in his first book
Manhood of Humanity), Korzybski formulated his Non-aristotelian system “general semantics”,
and published his second book
Science and Sanity. General Semantics represents a “way of thinking”, based on
the proposition that “science and mathematics represent human thinking
at its best”. And that we can make progress in our human relationships
through “conscious time-binding”, following the methods and
principles of a non-aristotelian system presented in
Science and Sanity, and
Manhood of Humanity.
General Semantics, a non-aristotelian system-discipline created by Alfred
Korzybski, emphasizes that “human beings constitute an interdependent
time-binding class of life, involving feelings of responsibility, duty
towards others, and the future”. As such, general semantics is concerned
with the quality of human relationships – intra-personal, social,
professional, interpersonal, national, international, environmental, etc.
General Semantics constitutes: a system-discipline concerned with the “sanity
of the human species” – leading to
“a general theory of psychotherapy”.
a system-discipline based on principles of non-identity, non-allness, non-elementalism,
a general principle of uncertainty, infinite valued maximum, probability, etc.
a system-discipline based on a “general theory of time-binding”
(a method for conscious improvement in any field of activity).
a system-discipline showing how we can develop time-binding intelligence,
become conscious time-binders …toward time-binding excellence.
a system-discipline offering “a general theory of values”.
a system-discipline offering a “non-elementalistic theory of meanings”.
a system-discipline proposing “a time-binding foundation” for
a system–discipline formulated as “a general theory of evaluation”—
with principles we can apply to help us use our intelligences more intelligently.
a system-discipline showing how “in modern scientific methods there
are factors of sanity to be tested empirically”. As such, general
semantics can be considered as “generalized science and mathematics”.
a system-discipline based on a proposition that “science, and mathematics
(especially the calculus) show the ‘human mind’ working at
it best “(in terms of predictability); and that “we can learn
from science and mathematics how this ‘human mind’ should
work, to be at its best”.
a system-discipline proposing that “structure is the only content
of knowledge”… a system-discipline proposing that “structure
is the only content of knowledge”… which, together with the
non-identity, and non-elementalism principles proposes a foundation for
an up-to-date epistemology.
a meta-critical evaluation system-discipline offering a theoretical foundation
for critical thinking, based on principles including “non-identity,
non-allness, non-elementalism, and consciousness of abstracting”.
a system-discipline offering principles and procedures as psychological
tools we can use to help us use our nervous systems more efficiently…a
way of minimizing ‘stress’, and enhancing our ‘spiritual’
and psycho-physiological wellbeing.
a system-discipline emphasizing a “non-elementalistic” organism-as-a-whole-in
environments approach, involving interconnectedness, interactivity, inter-relatedness,
a system-discipline with principles and procedures – tools we can
use to make improvements and progress in any field of activity, not a
haphazard affair, not depending solely on guess work, intuition, gut feelings,
trial and error, but based on time-binding, heuristic, (general semantics)
methods of approach – involving, creativity, co-operativeness, and
a system-discipline which emphasizes the importance of recognizing “powerful
relationships between language-thinking-attitude-and behavior” –
determinants of the kinds of organizations, institutions, fields of thinking-activities,
clarity of communication, and quality of relationships with ourselves
and with others.
a system-discipline with principles we can apply to help us become more
imaginative and creative individuals; and thinking about how we think
about things, become better (more effective, more efficient) planners,
problem-resolvers, decision makers, etc.
a system-discipline with principles we can apply to help us improve levels
of consciousness, labeled “empirical, intelligent, rational, rational
self-consciousness, and appropriation of rational self-consciousness”.
These involve sensing-experiencing, inquiry, understanding, reflection,
judgment, decision, responsibility, morality, and recognition of these
levels. (I top this off with consciousness of abstracting.) (See Bernard
Insight …A Study of Human Understanding)
an extensional system-discipline offering principles and procedures we
can use to become conscious of our abstracting (awareness that we do not
and cannot cover all in our thinking, understanding, explanations, knowledge,
etc.), and ‘better’ time-binding human ‘beings’.
Korzybski cautioned that we should not expect to get much benefit from
general semantics by just talking about it…We have to use the principle-tools
in our relationships (thoughts, feelings, attitudes, interactions, etc.)
with ourselves, others, and our environments. These principles are elaborated
on, and unfamiliar terms are broken down through lectures, demonstrations,
discussions, exercises, music, short films, etc., in The Institute of
General Semantics seminar-workshops.
The above does not cover all the characteristics of general semantics.
So in the spirit of “non-allness, “non-identity”, and
“consciousness of abstracting”, the reader is invited to add
to this list…and share.