'Theories' in Everyday Situations

By Dawes, Milton | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

'Theories' in Everyday Situations


Dawes, Milton, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Theories or doctrines are always linguistic. They formulate something which is going on inside our skin in relation to what is going on on the un-speakable levels, and which is not a theory. Theories are the rational means for a rational being to be as rational as he possibly can. As a fact of experience, the working of the human nervous system is such that we have theories. Such was the survival trend; and we must not only reconcile ourselves with this fact, but must also investigate the structure of theories.

- Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity

We couldn't stay alive without our 'theories'. In a world where we don't know all about anyone (including ourselves), or anything, we have to have 'theories' whether we are aware of our 'theorizings' or not. In some areas of human activities - especially science and mathematics, theories are explicitly formulated, as "theories." This exposure, this openness, makes it possible for a theory to be criticized, and if necessary, modified, or abandoned, based on related observations. As general semantics is based on a theory - that science and mathematics represent human evaluation at its best, in terms of predictability - and as we can study and apply the methods and approaches of these two disciplines to our everyday lives and expect degrees of success similar to those achieved by scientists and mathematicians - and as theories constitute fundamental characteristics of science and mathematics - students of general semantics might do well to pay more attention to 'theories' in our everyday living.

In Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (8th Edition) we find theory defined as: "A belief, policy, or procedure proposed or followed as the basis of action." And also this: "A plausible or scientifically accepted general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena."

Following these, let's 'think' of, let's 'theorize' that a 'theory' basically consists of an attempt to explain; a map, a generalization; a statement of relative invariance expressing a relationship that what we imagine, what we believe, what we 'think' we understand or know, what we say correspond in some ways to what is going on. And that whatever we do, we do based on a 'theory' whether explicitly formulated or not. And let's call those unstated 'theories' "organismal theories."

If we generalize these notions of theory, then the ways we 'think' about things, the ways we 'feel' about things, our personal beliefs, our religious beliefs, our knowledge, our generalizations, expectations, speculations, attitudes, prejudices, suggestions, explanations, assumptions, opinions, points of view, schools of philosophy, political systems, schools of psychology, laws, rules and regulations, plans, fears, wishes, hopes, criticisms, and so on, can all be 'thought' of in terms of 'theories'. (Note that Korzybski labeled his Non-Aristotelian system, general semantics, "A Theory of Values.") Even what we see, what we do, our approach to living, our "unconditional shoulds," the ways we interpret things, the meanings we give to our experiences, and so on, can be considered in terms of 'theories'.

"How," one might ask, "is what we see in any way related to 'theory', when it is right there before us?" Well, I invite you to consider this: When we see a person, thing, situation, etc., we don't see all that's going on. What we see can be considered a map, a gross representation, of whatever is going on. With further observations and investigations, we discover that there's more going on than what we originally observed. In this sense we could say, our first - and for that matter any future observations - could be considered as organismal unstated theories, that what is seen is what is there - all that's there. And when we fail to recognize that what we see is not all that's there, that what we see, is not all that could be seen, we identify the object with what we see. But an object is more than what is seen. …

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