Some "Biases" of General Semantics

MAR 13, 1978

Copyright 1978 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

The Institute of General Semantics is a non-profit corporation, the purposes of which revolve around general semantics. At this level of discourse, general semantics focuses on the interaction of linguistics and epistemology with a major interest in the correlation with the structure and functioning of the human nervous system.

The structure and functioning of the human nervous system serves as a model for a system of evaluation called non-Aristotelian. The structure of this system of evaluation presumes a metaphysics at once consistent with non-Euclidean geometries and relativistic physics, but radically discordant with the metaphysics underlying the structure of English.

The metaphysics behind English presumes that all things move together in time, that they "exist" at the same "time" in different places. It is presumed that we can "know" what is happening "at the same time" (now) in other places. In relativistic physics, it is known that what we know about another place, "now", happened some time ago "there". If an event is remote from me, it has remote components of both time and space. For me to know about the event, information, energy, etc., must be transmitted between that event and my here-now-knowing event. This transmission requires time to occur; information, energy, etc. travels at finite speeds. My knowing is, then, after the fact. Anything more "recent" becomes an "inference" or a "projection". An awareness of the time in information processing as well as the abstracting (in addition to entropy gains) in the process is certainly very different from the idea that one can know completely and instantaneously, "what is out there".

The reexamining of human activity from the perspective of a non-Aristotelian system of evaluation permits the (non-Aristotelian) conclusion that human beings differ significantly from animals on a scientific basis -- in their extended use of symbols. Korzybski called this mark of distinction by a process name, "time-binding". Similarly, the extended use of space (territory) by animals and energy (photosynthesis) by plants is called "space-binding" and "energy-binding".

Physicists and engineers "explain" the world in terms of mass (energy), length (space) and time in a multi-dimensional arrangement. It was only natural for Korzybski to use these terms to explain, as a process, the relations among human, animal, vegetable, and mineral.

The animal activity that predominately characterizes space-binding is "competition" for territory; the human activity that predominantly characterizes time-binding is the "cooperation" inherent in the conventions of symbol usage. Many "patrons" of general semantics, who do not all understand the (non-Newtonian) metaphysics of this (non-Aristotelian) system of evaluation, perpetrate the "Naturalistic Fallacy" (to go from "is" to "ought"). They moralize about cooperation and good feelings. In general semantics terms, the "Naturalistic Fallacy" is a confusion of orders of abstraction (the descriptive [more objective] and the prescriptive [more abstract and judgmental] levels). (1)

These patrons "know about" and support general semantics but do not "know" general semantics (the metaphysics or the system of evaluation). It is significant to note that by the 1920's, "science" was destroying the "God-given" difference between "Man/Woman" and "Animal" with the theory of evolution, and business justified "excesses" with an appeal to Social Darwinism. These were times when religious institutions were being threatened by "science" and when "man/woman" was being told that he/she was "nothing but" "an animal". In 1921, with the publication of Manhood of Humanity , Korzybski "rescued" science by showing a scientific distinction between "Man/Woman" and "Animal". He published The General Theory of Time-binding in 1924.

Between 1924 and 1931, Korzybski presented his work before several august bodies:

International Mathematical Congress
Society for Nervous and Mental Diseases
Washington Psychopathological Society
Congres des Mathematiciens des pays Slaves
First International Congress of Mental Health
American Mathematical Society
American Association for the Advancement of science

In 1933, in a greatly expanded volume entitled Science and Sanity , he referred to his work as "general semantics".

What does this mean? - - Korzybski was a Polish Mathematician, Engineer, and Scientist whose interest turned to Mental Health and for whom English was a second language. Bearing in mind the terminological precision of his training, let us conduct a review of the semantic environment of the event. Before Korzybski, Epistemology was (and still is to most epistemologists) one of the six divisions of philosophy. The word derives from the Greek "episteme" (knowledge) and "logos" (discourse) - discourses about knowledge or knowing about knowing. It is often defined as "how we know what we know". To Korzybski, the answer was obvious -- with our nervous system, including our senses and our brains. This realization made it possible to consider Epistemology a science instead of a division of philosophy. The human nervous system was already the province of neurology, however, the functioning of the human nervous system as it relates to "knowledge" becomes the domain of the new science of Epistemology. [What we know and how we know it is determined by the functioning of the human nervous system in an organism-in-the-environment-as-a-whole context.]

As a contribution from the dominant philosophy, Logical Positivism, Korzybski agreed that knowledge derived from our senses, that is, was empirical -- a natural and "obvious" conclusion for one so well versed in engineering and science. Knowledge, then, was the evaluation by our nervous system of our sensory experiences. A natural "flow" from the external stimulus through the nervous system took place where the representation changed from level to level. At some point in the process, "Knowledge" (its representation of the external environment) was transformed into language -- from neural representation to linguistic representation. At this, as yet unknown, point or process, the science of Epistemology leaves off and the science of linguistics begins. A major concern of Korzybski, and where he supplemented (and differed from) the Logical Positivists is in the realization that the transformation into linguistic representation is more accurately represented as the transformation into pre-existing linguistic structures. In what he referred to as the "circularity of knowledge" Korzybski indicated that our formulations, our "thoughts" and even our very "perceptions" were often influenced -- even determined -- by our pre-existing linguistic structures -- our daily habits. Studies of perception -- especially of perceptual illusions where what is perceived under one circumstance differs from what we expect to perceive under another circumstance -- and the work of Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Psychology, and the structural linguists seem to be focusing on the process where "knowledge" transforms from neural levels to semantic levels to linguistic levels of representation. Korzybski apparently felt this area significantly important to the understanding of Humanity and in dealing with the problem of mental health.

To return to the general purpose; in the phrase "Linguistic, Epistemologic, Scientific, Research -- ", these words were intended to be coordinate adjectives. In this precise sense, then, general semantics is the theory that explains the process in this interstitial area where Epistemology (the science) and Linguistics blend into each other. The term "general semantics" is also used to (loosely) refer to the process. The "process" is "it" or the territory for which the theory is a map. As such a map, the theory is very abstract. Intermediate and more detailed (and more objective) maps of that "process" must be constructed. In other words, the theory of general semantics must be explicitly expanded by descriptions or formulations which are more objective. The map must be made more accurate and detailed. Since research -- especially empirically based research -- often requires theories to be updated or revised, one major purpose of the Institute of General Semantics is to keep track of research which has a bearing on the theory and to update the theory as necessary. Additionally, the Institute promotes and actually conducts research concerning the relationship between the theory of general semantics and the process it represents or maps. Because of this process of updating, the theory of general semantics is considered an open system of modern applied Epistemology.

Thus far, I have written of "general semantics" as 1, a non-Aristotelian system of evaluation; 2, a non-Newtonian metaphysics; (2) 3, a theory about the functioning of the human nervous system; and 4, as used to refer to the process of evaluation by the human nervous system. Further, I have implicitly referred to the use of the term "general semantics" to indicate a morality of cooperation and as an answer to the "problem" of evolution.

As Korzybski studied the language and behavior of the "mentally ill", he found a disproportionate influence of that which he called the "circularity of knowledge". The "knowledge" of the mentally ill patients strongly influenced their evaluation, thoughts, and perceptions, sometimes to such a degree the individual was virtually "shut off" from "reality". By teaching the theory and reducing somewhat the apparent influence of this "circularity" aspect, some mental patients demonstrated "acceptable" behavior and speech. Not only did Korzybski feel that this supported his theory, but he surmised that many mentally ill patients could be effectively helped by teaching "general semantics" to them. -- It is important to note that "teaching" here includes the level and depth of instruction required for the patients (or students) to internalize the ("correct") process. -- From this we get general semantics the therapy (psycholinguistic therapy).

Korzybski felt that the traditional "body" and "mind" metaphysics of conventional religions and daily life orientations severely handicapped "ordinary" people in understanding themselves or in understanding the world of science. He labeled this dualistic split "unsane" (as distinguished from sane and insane). The general semantics term "elementalism" -- to verbally split what cannot, "in reality" or non-verbally, be split -- refers to this splitting (of "body" and "mind"). By teaching the theory of general semantics to "ordinary" people, Korzybski apparently felt that this handicap could be overcome and these people could "graduate" from a general condition of "unsanity" to sanity in their evaluational processes.

Another major purpose of the Institute of General Semantics is to conduct courses in the "methodology" of general semantics in order to help people learn to evaluate and formulate in accordance with the system of evaluation, the metaphysics, and the theory. Because general semantics provides a "superior" method of evaluating, general semanticists naturally desire to help others to use their knowledge (to enhance time-binding). The "bias" of the system favors cooperation, sharing knowledge, teaching general semantics, etc. As such, the discipline is making a very positive statement (by action) of what "ought" to be. Since cooperation and time-binding both deal with how people interact with each other, this aspect of general semantics makes prescriptions on social relationships, the very province of morality and ethics. If an individual chooses to not cooperate or to not pass on or receive knowledge, and thereby to negate time-binding, he is said to "copy animals"! When the linguistic bias of a discipline denies the status of humanity to a person who does not follow its description, that is a very strong prescription or a covert bias. (No one wants to be labeled a copier of animals in his nervous system.) Moreover, to label people who do not use the methodology in evaluation as "unsane" brings another tremendously weighted word as a prescriptive bias. When a discipline starts to "prescribe" or to deal with the "Ought", it begins to "encroach" on the territory of Philosophy, in particular, Ethics or Morality. This adds "general semantics the Philosophy" to the growing list.

To learn general semantics at various levels, including "internalization", poses special instructional problems. The specialized terms must be learned, and when to use them must be recognized before rather than after a possible use. Equally important, when not to use them must also be learned. Specialized gestures are also dealt with. Examples of the underlying knowledge of physics, biology, etc. must also be "covered". Teaching at more than one level requires special methodologies; what is taught, when, and how. To accomplish this education a methodology has evolved. The methodology is certainly a different aspect from the theory or from the process. In fact, the methodology is developed using the theory in order to enhance the ability of the individual to evaluate in consonance with the theory (more "circularity of knowledge"?). One important component of the methodology, which is derived from the knowledge of abstracting by the neuro-semantic system, is used to try to enhance "Consciousness of abstracting". This device is the idea of "unconscious" assumption. Various "exercises" are undergone in which one has an opportunity to learn of an unconscious assumption (which is conscious to someone else). In brief, general semantics the Methodology consists of a set of terms, conventions for their usage, a set of non-verbal teachings, conventions for their usage, methods for internalizing "correct" usages, and a gestalt formed of the synthetic integration of the foregoing, etc.

The unprincipled proliferation of activities, attitudes, and applications in the name of general semantics has "turned off" many would-be supporters, researchers, and other patrons. Korzybski committed what in science is an unpardonable sin. He chose to teach his theory as the "natural" order of evaluation. Admittedly, only "half" the theory was considered "natural", the abstraction aspect. When he taught the theory from the point of view that we should try to improve our "natural" order of evaluating by developing extensional orientation, that we should try to avoid strongly intensional orientation, he began to deviate from accepted "Science". His teaching accepted the theory as "Truth" and then taught how to "improve" our functioning; a, "as if" the theory is true; and b, "as if" the extensional orientation is preferred. Today, I believe an imbalance in which either extensional or intensional orientation greatly outweighs the other is associated with "gross coping failures". Advances in artificial intelligence have required a coordinated balancing of what is called "top-down" processing (intensional) and "bottom up" processing (extensional) modes of operation. When Korzybski began to teach extensional orientation as the "natural" order of evaluation, he began to deviate from the scientific, objective, descriptive process and began to step outside the realm of science. What can be reasonably assumed is that changing knowledge requires a slight overbalancing of intensional (what was known) by extensional (to take in new data in order to change the "known beliefs or knowledge"). The idea or notion that "extensional" is preferred can be attributed to the influence of the Logical Positivists -- whose contention is that the only valid knowledge is that which comes from our senses (is extensional). When Korzybski stepped across the border from science to philosophy, his work, as a scientific theory, became "contaminated". Philosophy, ethics, etc. are not science, and moreover, many scientists dismiss them as irrelevant. Korzybski "should" have scrupulously avoided any association with individuals who would inject the "good" and "bad" aspects of morality and ethics and the "ought" and "ought not" aspects of philosophy into the growing discipline of "general semantics". Of course, that "should" is only the bias of science. Korzybski became "unscientific"; however, "in good conscience" (get it?). His motive was, as he saw it, the betterment of Mankind.



1. As I understand it, "Naturalistic Fallacy" is the term used to refer to a certain process. In that process, a study or report or theory about man publishes a description of what was found. That is, a study which "discovers a fundamental nature" of Man is published and gains acceptance. Individuals use that study to help other people (teach-learn) to "become the way the study reported" "faster" or "more efficiently". What the study reported as a description ("is") of man becomes a social prescription that is an ideal to aspire to, a political and social end to be pursued ("ought"). Marx's socialism, as a description ("is") -- an economic theory -- of man, rapidly became a major political ideology (a prescription or ought). Why the term "naturalistic", I can only guess at this stage. Kohlberg uses it in one of his articles. My guess is that the scientists or "naturalists" tend to get blamed for a view of what man "is". I think also of the "nature of man". If the purpose of education is to prepare man for life, what better way than to "help him learn his nature"? (I do not agree.) The elementalistic view that we "know reality" presents each new study as if it were "reality" -- the absolute and final truth. Consciousness of abstracting would prevent this fallacy by helping (a person) to recognize that the "is" is not "it", in other words, to recognize the "map" character of knowledge. (Back to the document)

2. The strict usage of the terms requires that the nature of the world be referred to as "metaphysics"; Newtonian and relativistic (non-Newtonian) are different "metaphysical" views of the world. The distinction between "Euclidean" and "non-Euclidean" explicitly refers to space (physics) considerations [geometry]. Style of evaluation is referred to with "Aristotelian" or "Meta-logical" (A, non-Aristotelian). In addition, Aristotle's metaphysics consisted of Teleological matter influenced by formal cause (form [essence]), efficient or moving cause (means), material cause (matter), and final cause (purpose or agent), a metaphysics which had long since been replaced with a series of different metaphysics cumulating in Newton's "action at a distance" or "simultaneity". (Back to the document)

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics
This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2009/11/16 at 00:27 and has been accessed 10217 times at 39 hits per month.