Contributions to General Semantics from Charles Morris: An Abstraction

Article excerpt

"When I asked Einstein whether he could generalize his theory of relativity to metaphysics," noted Charles Morris to me in a face-to-face interview on August 18, 1973, "Einstein reminded me he was but a physicist" (Fiordo, 1973). Pressured intellectually to entitle his philosophy, Morris--renowned for his semiotics and for his pragmatic philosophy, despite his early studies of psychiatry and Asian religion and philosophy--named his overall philosophy objective relativism. He was known for his affiliation with and support for the Unified Science Movement and the Encyclopedia of Unified Science. From his affinity for the unification of science--with an inarguable orientation toward the empirical balanced against the rational--he (Fiordo, 1977) endorsed scientific empiricism, which might be best viewed as a subcategory of his philosophy of objective relativism.

Consistent with general semantics, Morris (1970b) sets forth a philosophy with a methodology based on observation, science, and scientific method to deal with problems, the tracking of changes in problems, and solutions to problems. Additionally, he analyzes problems in the context of intact and interactive environments. Similar to sound medical and health education models, general semantics and Morris' philosophy offer ways to think sanely and clearly as well as to observe, record, and communicate precisely (Levin-son, 2002). Like Morris' pragmatic semiotic perspective, general semantics advances a "process-oriented, problem-solving system" that "helps individuals better evaluate and understand the world and therefore make more intelligent decisions" (Levinson, 2002, p.2).

Introduced by Korzybski (2000) and drawing from the ideas of such thinkers as Whitehead, Russell, and Einstein, general semantics became a "practical discipline, to be used by individuals, groups, and organizations to solve important problems," and it aimed to "use the scientific method to explore and understand the importance of language as a shaper of perceptions and thoughts." Korzybski maintained that his system of general semantics would assist humanity in avoiding future conflicts by helping people examine their "hidden assumptions and solve problems" (Levinson, 2002, p.2). By improving their understanding of human thought and evaluation processes through the principle of general semantics, individuals would live better lives and public officials would make saner decisions.

General semantics emphasizes "precision in description, understanding the differences between the general and the specific, becoming aware of the dangers of overgeneralization, and discovering hidden assumptions" about how humans think and act (Levinson, 2002, p.2). Among the tools it offers for using language with more precision, general semantics proposes extensional techniques such as indexing and dating. To map the influence of language on thought and action, it delivers such valuable principles as the process of abstraction with its many levels, along with the importance of distinguishing facts from inferences to avoid language misuse and judgments based on confusion. Abstraction is particularly significant because what someone "abstracts (selects, notices, highlights) from the world depends on a variety of factors" (p. 89) that include one's biology, temperament, intelligence, education, culture, and language.

That the philosophy of Morris contributes positively and favorably to general semantics will become clear as this discussion proceeds. Morris (1970b) reduces his philosophy of objective relativism to its lowest terms through this formulation: Whatever Alpha is in perspectival relation to Kappa depends in part on what Alpha is in perspectival relation to Omega. Explaining scientific empiricism, he aims to extend empirically grounded, evidence-based, and research-established science as far as scientific method, its technologies, and its advancements will allow. Only when scientific support, research based, is no longer available might scientists dare to become philosophers or metaphysicians. …