"What is general semantics?"

FEB 21, 1983

Copyright 1983 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

This paper attempts to deal with a frequently asked question, "What is general semantics?". The question may be asked from many points of view. These points of view may include:

  1. The casual question of one who never heard of general semantics.
  2. The perplexed question of a novice student of general semantics.
  3. The thoughtful question of an expert in the field.
  4. and many others. (etc.)

Having been a student of general semantics since 1973, I have encountered very little explicit agreement among general semanticists regarding this question. Common responses can be paraphrased: "The question is no good because it asks for an identification." or "It depends upon who asks whom." I have encountered other answers which can best be classified as non sequitur. If we consider the public relations aspect of our activities, such answers do much to turn away possible students of general semantics. One way to improve the attitudes of other people about general semantics is to have a relatively simple, "agreed upon", answer to question 1.

In view of "the word is not the thing", the answer can have more that one representation. These statements provide alternative formulations, at a number of levels of abstraction in order of increasing precision.

  1. General semantics is a new way of looking at life.
  2. General semantics is a completely new way of thinking and behaving.
  3. General semantics represents a new Weltanschauung.
  4. General semantics instantiates a new paradigm.

Korzybski did not have the powerful and precise model of a "paradigm shift" to use as an analogy in formulating or communicating general semantics. With the terminological distinctions available today (1983), we can characterize general semantics far more precisely that ever before. Although I will explicitly discuss only the most precise of these formulations, my comments are applicable to the first three answers as well.

Because general semantics is a new paradigm, it cannot be held up and easily shown from within the old paradigm. Paradigm shifts present the most difficult learning problems. This difficulty is primarily because communication, which is necessary in learning the new paradigm, must initially be framed within the old paradigm. A lot of effort is required to build a conceptual bridge from the old paradigm to the new paradigm (general semantics). Many people are not willing to invest the needed effort. There are some stepping-stones which can form foundation points for building the bridge. These stepping stones include the methods of science and the way human beings understand their world, from non-verbal perception thru and including language.


If general semantics is a new paradigm, then what is its most significant structure? How can general semantics best be characterized? What is fundamental to this new paradigm? Two things provide the base. The first of these is the method by which the human entity receives and processes information, from the non-verbal sensing thru and including the highly verbal thinking and talking. The other basis is the methods of science, including the way knowledge grows and the process of revising theories.

In summarizing the first process, general semantics emphasizes the abstracting of information (selecting some and discarding the rest), transducing that information (for example, changing from the physical vibrations of sound in air to the electro-chemical impulses in nerves) and the "model" or "map" character of the information. As we process information (perceptions, words, etc.), we convert the raw data into our own internal form of representation (models). In the conversion process, we fit the information into our pre-conceived notions and develop hypotheses to account for the data. A similar process (forming hypotheses, or building models) happens even at the most nonverbal levels of nervous system processing. General semantics regards this characteristic "model-making" structure of our nervous systems as fundamentally important and implies that an awareness of this process must be considered in our daily activities as well as in the organizing philosophy of our world view.

Secondly, the study of Science reveals that growth of scientific knowledge and theory follows a pattern similar to the method by which the human entity receives and processes information. Information is collected, some kept and some discarded, and attempted to be fit into the current scientific theories (models). Information which doesn't fit is used to construct a new theory and a test is devised to check out the new theory (model, hypothesis, etc.). New theories can replace old, be discarded, or be neither confirmed nor denied.1


If these two different structures form the bases (basis) of general semantics, how can we characterize the apex itself? What abstraction common to both human information processing and the growth of scientific knowledge leads us to the heights of a new paradigm?

Because of the vast complexities in both human information processing and the body of scientific theories and knowledge, many levels of organization are possible. By comparing these two processes, it is possible to see a common underlying structure. This structure has evolved in humans because it has survival value. The same underlying structure has provided Science with tremendous power and clarity. Alfred Korzybski characterized this common underlying structure as a new system of evaluating.

The standard system of evaluating in use was derived primarily from the so-called Aristotle's laws of thought and the associated mathematical logic. The new system of evaluating is quite different from the Aristotelian system and is called non-Aristotelian. In attempting to bridge the gap from the old to the new paradigm, analogies are used from major paradigm shifts in physics and geometry. The changes are from Newtonian to relativistic theories in physics, and from Euclidean to non-Euclidean geometries. In both cases the old paradigm can be shown to be limited, special cases of the new paradigm. The new system has a structure which is derived from the way our nervous systems work and the way the body of science works in adding new theories and knowledge. Alfred Korzybski created a device called the Structural Differential to illustrate the new, non-Aristotelian system of evaluating.


So, if general semantics is a new paradigm, what of it? By looking at "the world" through the perspective of general semantics, how will our view be different? What will be changed? How much will our daily assumptions need to be changed? What beliefs will be changed?

There are many consequences of a new way of looking at the world. Old views or conventional beliefs may change when one looks through the new world view. In general semantics there are several such changes to belief systems.

When one looks at the human organism in the context of this system of evaluating, it is immediately apparent that the major difference between the other animals and people is the use of language and symbols, and the ramifications of using symbols. In the use of symbols, cooperation is fundamental and essential. (We must cooperate in the use of symbols even to communicate our differences.) Also, through language (symbols), people have better access to the past, and better ability to project (plan for) the future. We expend most of our effort in organizing time. Because of this characterization (cooperative symbol users), it is often concluded that our "nature" is to cooperate. Many general semanticists expound the virtues of cooperation and thereby generate an implicit morality or ethic of cooperation. The argument can be stated, "We are cooperative symbol users, so we "should" attempt to cooperate "better"."2 If persons fail to cooperate and to effectively communicate, those persons lose the fundamental characteristic or nature which distinguishes them from the other animals. Uncooperative behavior is judged as "animalistic" or less than human -- a powerful bias.

By noticing the fundamental difference between our verbal models and the territory those verbal models are intended to represent, we notice that things which can be verbally split apart cannot be non-verbally split. I can talk about my hand or my foot, neither of which can be separated from me (without great pain.) More problematical, my maleness, or whiteness, etc. cannot be separated from me. Similarly, the "body" and the "mind" also cannot be non-verbally split. General semantics devises the use of the hyphen to re-unite (verbally) 'body' and 'mind' into 'body-mind'. Similarly, 'think-feel' reunites affect and cognition--which are often dealt with separately. The Thomists and many philosophers believe that there exists a separate reality, the domain of essences, where such things as the absolute "chairness" concept exists, and that our minds deal with that reality, while our bodies live in the more familiar reality. This classical "body/mind" problem of philosophy is viewed differently by general semantics. The natural abstracting process in the non-Aristotelian system of evaluating permits us to make higher and higher abstractions, until we reach a "highest" level. "Chairness" could be such a highest level. We don't need a separate "reality" of essences to explain what our naturally evolved, built-in, non-Aristotelian system of evaluating produces effortlessly. The Thomists and others attributed that domain of essences to a separate reality, one where our minds existed and also where the Gods existed. General semantics does not attribute a separate reality to essences. General semantics attributes our appreciation of essences as a natural ability of our nervous system to perform abstractions. We attribute such essences to the processes of our nervous system and not to any separate reality. The realm of essences existing as a separate reality becomes an extraneous postulate which is no longer needed to account for our observations. General semantics simply discards that realm of essences as unnecessary.

Of course, since the "gods" live in that "reality of essences", when we discard the notion of that second reality, we also discard the gods. That much of a paradigm shift is not acceptable to most people. Other devices must be created to preserve the gods under the world view of general semantics. Such devices are contrived, however, and really represent vestiges of the old paradigm. Because of this consequence of the new paradigm, there is much resistance to its acceptance. Many general semanticists stop short of changing their beliefs to be fully in accord with the new paradigm.


What is general semantics? General semantics is a new paradigm. A synthesis of the methods of science and the functioning of the human nervous system yields a new, non-Aristotelian, system of evaluating. Just as Euclidean geometry is a special case of non-Euclidean geometries and Newtonian physics is a special case of relativistic physics, the standard system of evaluating is a special case of general semantics; general semantics is fundamentally more general. As with any new paradigm, belief systems and values may change when viewed thru the perspective of general semantics.


1. To illustrate model building, consider the case of two people walking and holding hands. The model must explain why one person's hand is on top (in front of) the other person's hand. Anne, a friend of mine, and I were holding hands while walking and considered this very question. We noticed that my hand was on top of Anne's and decided to devise a model to account for this. Our first hypotheses or tentative model was that whoever was on the right side would have the upper hand. (I was on the right side at this time.) We exchanged sides and discovered that the most comfortable arrangement was with my hand on top of hers. This observation was contrary to the prediction made by the first model--that the person who was on the right would put their hand on top. Because the prediction was wrong, the model was disconfirmed. Since my hand had been on top both times, we began looking for a difference between Anne and me which might account for the observations. We noticed that I was taller than Anne and developed a second model. The new model stated that taller persons would normally place their hands on top (in front) of shorter person's hands. To test this new theory, we found a curb. When Anne walked on top of the curb and I walked in the gutter, she was now relatively taller than me. We found that the most comfortable arrangement was now with her hand on top (in front) of mine. The new model was not disconfirmed; it accounted for the observations, and satisfied the prediction. Of course, each new model is often inadequate to account for new observations. Further experimentation suggested a new variable which better accounted for whose hand felt more comfortable on top. Since, however, our scientific models are at best only conditionally held and subject to future disconfirmation and replacement, I won't disclose the new variable at this time. If you are left in a state in which your current model (taller person has upper hand) does account for the observations, but feel that there is a better model yet to be formulated, you will have achieved the perspective from which to view ALL our models. My phrase is "conditionally or tentatively entertained". We work on the basis of our "not yet disconfirmed models." Back to document

2. In my experience, many general semanticists subscribe to a "cooperation and good-feelings" orientation to other people. This was especially apparent at some seminar-workshops when the emphasis on facilitating communication focused in the interpersonal and emotional arena. Also, Lawrence Kohlberg characterized the "Naturalistic fallacy" as the tendency of people to accept a model and then take that model as a prescription for behavior--"To go from 'is' to 'ought'...". A description (is) becomes a prescription (ought). In general semantics, this tendency changes the descriptive model, cooperative symbol user, into a prescription for behavior (cooperate). Back to document

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

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