Levels or perspectives on the use of language.

APR 01, 1997

Copyright 1997 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

Diagrams copyright 1993, by Ralph Kenyon

I often answer the question "What is general semantics?" by placing it in a context with other perspectives on the use of language.  I describe four perspectives or levels ordered by increasing complexity.  These levels are (1) grammar, (2) logic, (3) semantics, and (4) general semantics.  I use a modified outline similar to that presented by Bob Pula at Institute seminars. Bob abstracted his material from Anatol Rappaport.

In the time since I was first exposed to these ideas, my understanding has matured, and in 1993 I developed some visual imagery to accompany the textual material. In what follows, my terse description of each level is accompanied by an illustration of the structure, as I see it, of the notions being presented.  I include Anatol Rappaport's original text as well as Bob Pula's abstraction, and I include some additional discussion.   At level 4, the description of the general semantics perspective, I differ somewhat because I have found succinct descriptions that can be expressed by a structure that is more parallel to the first three levels.  My extrapolation provides parallelism through all four levels.  Here, then, are four separate descriptions together with a visual image of structure for each of the four levels.

1. Grammar Relations - words to words in sentences.

Grammar deals only with word-to-word relations. It teaches how to put words together into a sentence.  It is not interested in how sentences are related to each other or how they are related to facts.(1)

-- grammar: word to word relationships (structure)
basic unit: sentence(2)

Grammar relations For the grammarian, a sentence has a structure with parts (words) related to each other by a certain order.  Different parts, for example, subject and predicate, are identified by some method and exist in some relation to each other.  For example, in 'Socrates is mortal.', 'Socrates' is the subject and 'is mortal' is the predicate.

2. Logic Relations - subjects and predicates in arguments.

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 assertions need not have any relation to the world of fact. (1)

-- logic: statement to statement relationships (structure)
basic unit: paragraph(2)

Logic relations.For the logician, an argument (paragraph) has a structure with (premises and conclusion) propositions (sentences) related to each other by a certain order.  Each proposition sentence consists of a subject term and a predicate term.  A subject term in one premise (sentence) must also be a predicate term in at least one other premise.  The relationship between these parts in the argument (paragraph) as a whole determines whether the argument is "valid". Consider a classic syllogism for example:

All men are mortal. Major premise
Socrates is a man. Minor premise
Socrates is mortal. Conclusion

The logician uses the structure the grammarian is interested in, but he puts more sentences together into a paragraph and adds his own structure to the paragraph.

3. Semantics Relations - words to referents in indications.

The semanticist goes further than the logician.  To him words and assertions have meaning only if they are related operationally to referents.  The semanticist defines not only validity (as the logician does) but also truth. (1)

-- semantics: word/statement to referent relationships (structures)
straddles the verbal/non-verbal domains; these relationships usually formulated in formal-technical, often mathematical, language(2)

Semantic relations.For the semanticist, grammar and logic, sentences and arguments, are all very interesting, but he is more interested in how these words function so that people can talk about things; he is interested in what words and sentences refer to.  The semanticist wants to see something non-verbal, even if only a drawing, that the words refer to.   Much more discussion of this point really isn't necessary because I can't hold something up for you to see or feel.  I can perhaps refer with these words to your non-verbal touch sensations and visual sensations as you hold and read this paper (or browse with the keyboard and look at the computer screen), but I can't say the experiences themselves.  We might say that the semanticists is chiefly concerned with how words are used to refer to things.

4. General Semantic Relations - semantic reactions to events in time-binding. Semantic reactions - grammar, logic, and semantics - of nervous systems while making and using cognitive maps.

The general semanticist goes the furthest. He 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 each other (as for the logician) or assertions in proper relation to referent (as for the semanticist), but all these together, with the chain of "fact to nervous system to language to nervous system to action".(1)

-- general-semantics: Language-nervous system (organism-as-a-whole-non-verbal levels-human behavior relationships (again, structures) (2)

Each discipline listed above incorporates the concerns of its predecessor (as listed).(2)

The general semanticist talks about how people in general and individuals in particular react or respond to words, arguments, things, other people, events, etc, in terms of making sense of their experiences (semantic reactions).  The general semanticist is concerned with his present theory that people construct their understanding (which he calls maps) of their experiences (which he calls territories) through a process which includes abstracting, assuming, and corroboration or disconfirmation and how awareness of this process (consciousness of abstracting) can be used to increase its effectiveness.  In addition, the general semanticist emphasizes the symbolic and linguistic activities of mankind as a species, particularly in communicating through time using language.

Thus, Korzybski's principles have a close relation to semantic principles.  It follows that the whole Korzybskian system is an outgrowth of semantics. But the korzybskian system goes much further.  When its implications are worked out, it will be as far removed from semantics as semantics is from logic, and as logic is from grammar. (1)

General semantic relations

In summary, we looked at four perspectives on the use of language.

level perspective objects evaluation basic unit
1 grammar words syntax sentence
2 logic propositions validity argument
3 semantics word and referent functionality indication
4 general semantics semantic reactions effectiveness cognitive mapping

The grammarian interests himself in the syntax of relations among words in the basic unit of a sentence.  In addition, the logician interests himself in the validity of relations among sentences (subjects and predicates) of propositions in the basic unit of a paragraph.   Beyond these, the semanticist interests himself in the functional meaning of relations among words and sentences and their referents in the basic unit of performing indications.  Further more, the general semanticist interests himself in the effectiveness relations among semantic reactions in the basic unit of making and using cognitive maps in dealing with life situations, particularly those involving inter- and intra-personal symbolic communicating.


  1. Anatol Rapaport, What Is Semantics? in The Use and Misuse of Language, edited by S. I. Hayakawa, Fawcett Publications, Greenwich, Connecticut, (1962) (back)
  2. Bob Pula, "Four Selected Ways to Examine Language", from his "Notes from an Institute of General Semantics Summer Seminar-Workshop". (back)

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

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