They're Stealing Our General Semantics!

Article excerpt

PETER CHRISTOPHER*

I discovered general semantics over thirty years ago. I've studied it, trained in it and attempted to apply it ever since. I value g.s. for its practical, mundane usefulness. I tend to find discussions of the academic and theoretical aspects of general semantics very interesting, but sometimes hard to connect with what goes on in my life. In this column, I'd like to explore some of the ways that g.s. can work for each of us, in our 'everyday' lives. - PC

HAS THIS happened to you? You read an article about psychology, self-improvement, or contemporary management theories and encounter a term or a concept or an orientation that resembles the general semantics formulations developed by Alfred Korzybski more than 65 years ago.

Hardly anyone nowadays seems to give Korzybski any credit, either. I wonder how many of these writers, teachers, therapists, etc., at some point, have read some part of Science and Sanity? I wonder how many took a course with someone who had read something by Korzybski or by one of his students, such as Irving Lee or Wendell Johnson? And how many people, over the decades, have read 'popularizations' of g.s.? Details of those kinds of "unmindful time-binding" sometimes seem readily forgotten.

What should we do? These 'outsiders' have swiped our stuff! Here we sit, keeping the lamp burning, guarding the 'real' general semantics, while people Out There keep adopting and adapting and interpreting and modifying and reshaping and co-opting and Messing With Our Stuff!

I've heard people complaining about this 'co-opting' of general semantics. I used to have a reaction like that myself, sometimes. I didn't like that. I got to wondering How well does that orientation, the attitude that "they stole our stuff," work for us as individuals, and as organizations, involved with general semantics?

Let's consider this for a moment. Here we have a system/ discipline/orientation which emphasizes what Korzybski called the "dynamic, ever-changing" process of what goes on. It specifically allows room for "non-allness" and an "infinite number of characteristics and attitudes." It emphasizes the "self-reflexiveness of language," and "multiordinal mechanisms and terms." It also has something to say about "adjusting verbal patterns to empirical facts."

Presciently (as usual), Korzybski said: "The present nonaristotelian system is far from perfect. Such a work as this has, of necessity, to be altered with the years .... We ought not to be surprised if such a pioneering enquiry proves to need many corrections and elaborations in the future." (1 ) I figure he should know.

General semantics formulations and orientations seem to have permeated our society. Law professor and ISGS Director Nicholas Johnson observes that "General semantics has for years been noted for its multi-disciplinary utility. Few, if any, sets of techniques or insights are as applicable to so many endeavors: from anthropology to zoology, from musicology to management, from poetry to psychiatry." (2)

Many of those employing some general semantics formulations know their origin. Many may not. Nonetheless, gs. 'works' for them. Whether or not Korzybski and other g.s. pioneers get the credit, non-aristotelian orientations continue to proliferate -labeled as 'general semantics' or something else.

Doesn't it make good sense to acknowledge the accuracy of Johnson's description, accept it, and promulgate it?

When we formally recognize the pervasive influence and power of non-aristotelian orientations and general semantics, we can evaluate our way to a more 'realistic' position: An awareness of the fluid, dynamic, relational (but not subordinate) connections between g.s. and those other 'separate' and more specialized fields of study.

I've got a suggestion. Let's re-evaluate our symbolic processes. Let's turn the semantic tables. Let's co-opt the 'coopters'. …