Primal General Semantics

By Kryston, Vic | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Primal General Semantics


Kryston, Vic, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


The map can't ever give you a hint of how a pine forest smalls in spring, or how much effort or time it takes to climb up and down the mountains...Maps limit the imagination to fiat surfaces and dry streams.

What I Find most interesting about the above quote, recently written by a student in a freshmen composition course, is that she wrote it without ever having experienced writings or discussions by general semanticists.

I like to bring general semantics into my English class every now and then. I also like to keep my students writing, which is how I came to write, "The map is not the territory, the word is not the thing" on my board. My plan was to use the quote as a springboard for discussion, leading to a "teachable moment" during which I would help them rearrange their abstraction levels, or die trying.

"Please freewrite for about ten minutes in response to what this quote makes you think."

The first time I tried this, I did not expect a whole lot. I felt certain, though, that asking my students to freewrite first would make them more receptive to our discussion. We never got to the discussion. A fire drill interrupted us just as the students were finishing their freewrites. They handed them to me as they swept out the door, secure in their knowledge about the nearest fire exit on this particularly sweet spring afternoon.

Reading those freewrites revealed to me a confusion I had been making between "report" and "inference": people need instruction in general semantics before "knowing" general semantics. Sure seemed like a report to me! But then how did all of these great insights happen? How come so many of them described sophisticated general semantics principles if not always the using general semantics vocabulary?

We had not read Hayakawa, Korzybski, Lee, et al. But I kept getting responses such as:

"When you say the word "pencil" a very definite image comes to mind, but the word can not leave a mark on paper, and it doesn't snap when you hold it in your hands."

What a marvelous, extensional description of the difference between symbol/symbolized.

There seems to be something archerypal in the map/territory metaphor, something that touches us at a level modeled by Korzybski's structural differential. "We know more than we know we know," wrote Carl Jung. A prompt such as, "the map is not the territory..." somehow taps into that knowledge.

I am much heartened by this idea. It is a hopeful thing to think that since people come into the world hard wired for many things, why not hard wired for the underlying principles of a system such as general semantics? …

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