The Structural Differential Diagram: Part I. (General Semantics Basics)

By Sawin, Gregory | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Structural Differential Diagram: Part I. (General Semantics Basics)

Sawin, Gregory, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics



In 1921, Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-American trained in mathematics and engineering, published Manhood of Humanity. In this book he held that humanity is a class of life distinctly different from animals because only humans can pass on recorded knowledge from one generation to the next. The younger, new generation starts where the older, previous generation left off--the next generation does not need to "reinvent the wheel." (1, pp.109-111 & 186) The previous generation gives to the new generation its accumulated knowledge as well as its material goods. This is how civilizations develop. (1, pp.104-106) S. I. Hayakawa defined civilization as a complicated and widespread network of cooperation between people. (2, p. 12) Around the world, humanity has found that the needs for food, shelter, safety, etc., have been more adequately met through cooperation than through the "every man for himself approach to survival. Hayakawa pointed out that "[This cooperation] ... necessary for the functioning of society is of necessity achieved by language or else it is not achieved at all." (2, p. 12)

Concerning this aspect of human life, Korzybski wrote:

... human beings possess a most remarkable capacity which is entirely peculiar to them--I mean the capacity to summarize, digest and appropriate the labors and experiences of the past; I mean the capacity to use the fruits of past labors and experiences as intellectual or spiritual capital for developments in the present; I mean the capacity to employ as instruments of increasing power the accumulated achievements of the all-precious lives of the past generations spent in trial and error, trial and success; I mean the capacity of human beings to conduct their lives in the ever increasing light of inherited wisdom; I mean the capacity in virtue of which man is at once the heritor of the by-gone ages and the trustee of posterity. And because humanity is just this magnificent natural agency by which the past lives in the present and the present for the future, I define HUMANITY ... to be the TIME-BINDING CLASS OF LIFE. (1, pp.59-60)

General Semantics

In 1933, Korzybski published his major work, Science and Sanity (3), in which he explained the principles of general semantics. He emphasized that "general semantics is not any 'philosophy,' or 'psychology,' or 'logic,' in the ordinary sense.... It trains us [in] how to use our nervous systems most efficiently.... The separate issues involved are not entirely new; their methodological formulation as a system which is workable, teachable and so elementary that it can be applied by children, is entirely new." (3, p.xxvi-xxvii) Korzybski also said, "I must stress that I give no panaceas, but experience shows that when the methods of general semantics are applied, the results are usually beneficial, whether in law, medicine, business, etc., education on all levels, or personal inter-relationships, be they in family, national, or international fields. If they are not applied, but merely talked about, no results can be expected." (3, p.xix)

By studying general semantics, we can become more aware of how we perceive the world, how we think, and how we use language in our decision making. This awareness begins to develop after we realize that we obtain knowledge by "abstracting." Korzybski described abstracting as a multilevel process: from a low level of making some sense of the world through sensory perception to higher levels that involve thinking and communicating. By applying general semantics, we can become more observant; more skillful listeners, thinkers, and communicators; and more successful in working with other people--all for the sake of improving our quality of life.

In early 1923, Korzybski created the structural differential diagram to illustrate how our nervous systems perceive and evaluate experiences in daily life.

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The Structural Differential Diagram: Part I. (General Semantics Basics)


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