Heraclitus? or Xenophanes?
Copyright 1993 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

JAN 04, 1993

I have often heard Heraclitus of Ephesus touted as the first general semanticist.   As reason the touters cite his theory of flux or "constant change" as expressed by fragment 21: "You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on."(1)   Heraclitus lived from about 525 bc until after 475 bc. (2)

But an earlier philosopher had views even more in accord with modern general semantics.   Xenophanes of Colophon, reportedly born before 590 bc, and who lived past 92 (until after 498 bc), in fragment 34 "states that men can have no certain knowledge, only opinion. . . . Xenophanes did believe (fragment 18) that, by searching, men can improve their understanding, but he implies that this will always fall short of knowledge."(3)  One translation of fragment 34 goes: "Even if a man should chance to say the complete truth, he cannot know that it is the truth."(4)

[The Greeks] were also quite conscious of the need for verification. This they expressed by saying that every hypothesis must 'save the appearances' (. . .); in other words, that it must do justice to all the observed facts. * That is the method of science, as we understand it still.

* This requirement of Greek scientific method is often ignored, but Milton's Raphael knows all about it. See Paradise Lost, viii. 8I: 'how build, unbuild, contrive To save appearances.' [Sic.](5)

This foreshadowed the modern scientific and general semantics view of knowledge -- we can hope for, at best, a not yet disconfirmed model.  It also supports the view that we can improve the model by "searching" (empirical testing).  Xenophanes descended from the Milesian school of Ionia founded by Thales, best known for predicting the eclipse of 585 bc (reported to have stopped a battle).  Heraclitus of Ephesus differed geographically, but held similar views to the Milesians.

If we want to say that any one of these early philosophers should be called "the father of general semantics", we should chose Xenophanes.  The view that we can't know what's going on (WIGO) -- that we can only have an understanding based upon a model, a model subject to disconfirmation -- forms a much greater aspect of general semantics than the view expressed by the currently not yet disconfirmed model (and not so current belief) -- that all things are in constant change.  In other words, one particular tenant of our current model, which we describe as a part of the content of general semantics, asserts a belief in "constant change".  Xenophanes gave us a way to view the world, a way of viewing much like general semantics; but Heraclitus only gave us something for that viewing process to believe -- a particular view not yet disconfirmed (after 25 centuries).

Korzybski was well versed in the classics and the philosophers, as is evident by his frequent quotations. I would not be surprised if he had known about Xenophanes.

Ralph E. Kenyon Jr.
White Oaks Road
Williamstown, MA 01267


  1. Philip Wheelwright, Heraclitus, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1959, p. 29.
  2. Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy, The Riverside Press, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1957, p. 17.
  3. G. B. Kerferd, Xenophanes of Colophon, in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York, MacMillan, 1967, vol. 8, p. 353.
  4. John Burnet, Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato, Macmillan, London, (1914), St Martin's Press edition, New York, 1968, p. 28.
  5. John Burnet, Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato, St. Martin's Press, MacMillian, New York, 1968 (Originally published in 1914), p. 9.

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 12619 times at 60 hits per month.