Alfred Korzybski and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

By Levinson, Martin H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Alfred Korzybski and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy


Levinson, Martin H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Rational-Emotive-Behavior Therapy (REBT), previously called Rational-Emotive Therapy (RET), is an active-directive, philosophically- and empirically-based psychotherapy that focuses on resolving emotional and behavioral problems and disturbances and enhancing people's lives. It was originated in 1955 by psychologist Albert Ellis, who was inspired by various teachings of ancient Asian, Greek, and Roman philosophies. When he later learned of general semantics (GS), a non-Aristotelian educational discipline originated by Alfred Korzybski in 1933, he drew on that system of thought, as well.

Ellis refers to general semantics in many of his writings and lectures as an important influence on his thinking and practice. For example, in a speech titled "General Semantics and Rational-Emotive Therapy" that he presented at the Harvard Club in 1991, Ellis gave credit to Korzybski for predating him in observing that people act as "organisms-as-wholes-in-environments." (1) Ellis also acknowledged that Korzybski first formulated the REBT concept of secondary symptoms (such as anxiety about anxiety) through his description of second-order reactions. (2)

Ellis found Korzybski's view of human functioning similar to the ABC theory of REBT. In the ABC theory an activating event (A), leads to a belief or cognition (B), that produces a feeling or consequence (C). As some evidence for this, he notes that Korzybski states that when individuals "perceive" a happening or an event they "silently" or "nonverbally" react with evaluations about it and their "emotions" and "evaluations" are organismically together and react with their verbalizations, which quickly follow their silent-thinking level. (3) Ellis also observed that Korzybski was a supporter of George Santayana's notion that humans are much better at believing than seeing.

Science and Sanity

Ellis was impressed with the "revolutionary" title of Korzybski's magnum opus Science and Sanity, as Ellis also believed that the scientific method was a beneficial approach for realizing sound mental health, as it is (a) pragmatic and tries to make its theory consistent with the "facts" of "reality," (b) uses logic to check its hypotheses and rules out magic and casual jumping to conclusions, (c) is open-minded and non-dogmatic, and (d) is alternative seeking and non-absolutist. (4)

Unlike science, emotional disturbance and particularly severe neurosis tends to be replete with thinking that is unrealistic, illogical, dogmatic, devout, and rigid. Korzybski labeled such thinking "unsane." Ellis called it "psychologically dysfunctional." Given their similar conclusions on this subject and their mutual admiration for the efficacy of the scientific method in reducing unsound thinking, Ellis and Korzybski seem to be on the same page in concluding that the scientific method and non-neurotic sanity are related.

Ellis and Korzybski also share the opinion that human beings are not born and reared to defeat themselves. If that were the case, then individuals and the human race would quickly cease to exist. Rather, REBT and GS have as a basic premise the notion that people can, if they choose to, use scientific thinking to reduce their misperceptions, overgeneralizations, and poor judgments to more accurately perceive, accept, and live more contentedly with "reality."

REBT and GS similarly agree that the use of the scientific method to solve everyday problems can help individuals to become less disturbed and more functional, which can lead them to more fully employ their human potential for psychological and mental growth. Additionally, from a general semantics perspective, one might say such people are also in a better position to more fully employ their time-binding potential to pass along useful information to future generations.

The "Is of Identity" and the "Is of Predication"

GS warns against the use of the "is of identity" (e. …

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