Researching General Semantics

March 14, 1980

This year, I believe it is safe to say, we were left somewhat dissatisfied by the panel dealing with the question of research in general semantics. I believe we were treated to an example of the result of a failure to use the very formulations taught by general semantics. The panel was charged with exploring the question: "How do we know when we are doing research in general semantics?" The panel put the cart before the horse by discussing (arguing, baiting, etc.) whether 'general semantics' was 'researchable' without first describing, in other terms, what they (the panel) intended by the key terms in the question. It is not my intent here to regress, but to continue with what I think will provide a more satisfactory answer (at least for the present).

I. First, let me apply one of the basic formulations of general semantics to the question. Let us "index" the question by talking about 'researching-1', 'researching-2', etc. and 'general semantics-1', 'general semantics-2', etc. By starting out with this formulation we can hope to 'narrow' the universe of discourse to manageable proportions. In other terms, I intend to differentiate both 'research' and 'general semantics' into various commonly discussed areas. Let me list some of the common ways in which the term 'research' is used. Each of these areas can be called a 'meaning' for the terms.

  1. The most prestigious kind of research is the so-called 'hard science' 'physical' research, using controlled experiments.
  2. Another 'hard science' technique can be exemplified by some of the experiments performed in behavioral research. Something is being measured and this measure is compared to a predicted value.
  3. A third type of research involves collecting data (from sources which cannot be readily controlled) and performing analysis of the data to determine or discover structure.
  4. A fourth type of research involves surveying records to find data to be analyzed as in the previous example. In this case, the data are collected from records rather than directly from the sources.
  5. Another method involves searching literature to locate reports of experiments, surveys, etc. as well as to locate and examine other writings about the subject of the research.
  6. Additionally, the 'speculative', 'think-tank' type of research involves stimulating new ways of looking at old data in order to discover previously unperceived relations. Such speculations can serve as the basis to design an experiment or a survey.
  7. Etc.

Leaving this indexing and turning to 'general semantics' poses a more formidable problem. Almost no one ever answers the question "What is general semantics?" In order to begin the indexing of general semantics, I have chosen to look at what may reasonably be considered the most abstract and succinctly stated version ever written by Alfred Korzybski, the opening statement in the articles of incorporation for The Institute of General Semantics. That characterization can serve as the nucleus to relate the other indexed characterizations.

I quote as follows:

" promote and conduct Linguistic, Epistemologic, Scientific Research and Education." ,

Korzybski, I infer, was interested in the problem of the ages - the question of Epistemology, "How do we know what we know?", he perceived, surmised, etc., an immediate and obvious answer--With 'our' nervous systems, which includes 'our' senses and 'our' brains, etc. In analysis of the problem he saw that 'characteristics' in the environment were 'represented' [transduced] incompletely, and with some 'error', by the senses into nervous system impulses. Neurology taught that these nerve impulses stimulated more impulses, in 'chain reactions', eventually leading to continuous and varying volleys of impulses within the brain. Part of the 'context' of these volleys included people talking. In some manner, representations in the form of nerve impulses were transformed into representations in the form of terms. That is, in the process of 'knowing', information / knowledge undergoes a transformation / conversion from neurological processes into linguistic processes. Science, then (and to a great extent now also) had no explanations for how this transformation occurred. (at least no explanation with explicit structure.)

Neurology, however was not the only area of science involved. The specializations involved included organic and inorganic chemistry, anthropology, history, lexicography, anatomy, physiology, colloidal chemistry, basic physics, etc., etc. Concise (and necessarily abstract) representation results in the 'all inconclusive' term "scientific". The scientific answer to how linguistics and meaning relate to the structure and functioning of the human nervous system serves as a new theory of knowledge. This interpretation extends classical epistemology by the addition of another theory of knowledge--this time, based upon the structure of the human nervous system--a 'scientific epistemology'.

  1. I will refer to this theory of knowledge based upon the scientific examination of the structure and function of the human nervous system as the first indexing of 'general semantics-1'.
  2. Even a superficial understanding of the structural differential may serve to permit the recognition of its function as an abstract "map" of this theory of knowing. As such, it provides what could be called general semantics-2 -- a theory of the structure and functioning of the human nervous system, in the organism (person), in the environment (culture).
  3. The lack of complete representation of the event level by the object level dictated a constant alertness to new information / knowledge. The awareness of this structure and a constant vigilance or alertness to guard against behaving in a manner different from that described as 'proper' by the system can be called "extensional orientation". Consciousness of this process of abstracting, potentially enabling one to remain sensitive to the possibility of error and thereby function 'better', can be called general semantics-3 -- extensional orientation and alertness to guard against 'unconscious' (and hence irresponsible and uncontrolled) abstracting and assuming. The intent is to assist people, because of the structure and functioning of the language / nervous system, to function 'better'.
  4. This leads naturally to another indexing, general semantics-4, methodology and principles in teaching (in particular, the system of methods and formulations associated with general semantics). The principles of general semantics, namely the differentiation between verbal and non-verbal levels as well as the formulation of 'non-elementalism', suggest that 'learning' isn't 'really' learning unless evidence of 'internalization' is demonstrated in behavior.
  5. Somewhat related to this is the formulation of 'time-binding' and the characterization of 'Man / Woman' as a time-binder. With the description of cooperation as the major activity of the time-binding class of life, a 'morality' of 'good-feelings' and 'cooperation' can characterize general semantics-5.
  6. A closer analysis of the process as 'mapped' by the structural differential suggests a 'system of evaluation'. It was just such a consideration that prompted Korzybski to formulate general semantics as a new system of evaluation. With the lack of either-or or 'absolutes' in the system, he saw a structural similarity to the Euclidean / non-Euclidean distinction in geometry and the differentiation between Newtonian and relativistic mechanics. He called the system "non-Aristotelian" in asserting its relation to Aristotle's classical 'laws of thought'. I will call general semantics-6 a non-Aristotelian system of evaluation.
  7. In acknowledgement of the dependency of these formulational structures on time-binding, general semantics may also be called a non-Newtonian Weltanschauung (general semantics-7).
  8. Etc., Etc.

So far, I have indexed researching to 6 and general semantics to 7. As a start, this provides 6 times 7 or 42 distinct approaches to 'researching general seman-tics'. Several of these, however, 'are not researchable'. For example, a system of evaluation may be compared to other systems of evaluation when used to evaluate 'the same item'. To date, however, I do not know of proven formal representation of the 'system of evaluation'. C. A. Hilgartner of Rochester, New York is working on such a formal language representation or interpretation of general semantics. Hilgartner is being published, so research-5 (searching the literature) into general semantics-6 (non-Aristotelian systems of evaluation) is possible. On the other hand, Controlled experiments (research-1 and research-2) may reasonably investigate the structure and function of the human nervous system (general semantics-2) however are infeasible as applied to the other indexings of general semantics (general semantics-1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.) Undoubtedly, several other combinations aren't 'appropriate' for research either, including items in the etc.'s indicated.

II. A more important consideration is indicated by considering that Aristotelian, Newtonian and Euclidean frames of references are included in the framework of general semantics as special cases or approximations. One consequence of this inclusion is the need to differentiate between the areas of research which are relevant to general semantics, but can be included in the special case or approximation and research which cannot be accomplished without extensions which constitute general semantics. Some research is 'necessary' to general semantics, but is not 'sufficient' to be labeled 'general semantics research'. On April 29, 1978, Professor Elwood Murray characterized the non-separable sub-parts necessary and sufficient for general semantics as a gestalt or synergistic structure as "multi-level, multi-dimensional, multi-causal." Research which is sufficient to be general semantics research requires all three formulations in its characterization. Two are not sufficient. This is not to say that vast areas of research, which cannot be labeled 'general semantics research', are not of interest to general semanticists. On the contrary, a great many areas of research are 'necessary' to general semantics and should be observed, reported on and interpreted in the light of general semantics principles and predictions. We should not, however, 'call' this related and necessary research 'general semantics research'. Bridge and building builders do not need non-Newtonian (relativistic) mechanics. Newtonian mechanics is adequate to their purposes. Non-Newtonian mechanics is required only where great precision is necessary; for example, in celestial navigation for the astronauts. Similarly, only where great precision, multi-levels, multi-dimensional and multi-causal structures are needed is non-Aristotelian evaluation required -- for less precision, Aristotelian systems of evaluation will sometimes be adequate. This is not to say that we can 'drop' our non-Aristotelian 'awareness'.

In summary, we must be prepared to provide 'structure' for what we intend by the terms "general semantics" and "research". We know when we are doing research in general semantics only when the research is both necessary and sufficient for general semantics, when the major perspectives of general semantics are required for the formulations involved in the research and when all three of "multi-dimensional, multi-level and multi-causal" are required for the formulations of the research. Research is not 'general semantics research' just because someone put that label on it.

This paper was prepared as a result of my dissatisfaction with the panel discussion on Formal Standards in Research and Teaching general semantics that I had previously participated on in 1979. It was published in the General Semantic Bulletin in 1983.

Address comments to

This page is maintained by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr. and has been accessed 101 times.

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics
This Site's General Semantics Home Page