General Semantics: A General Theory of Evaluation

Article excerpt

"Human evaluational (or semantic) reactions provide the basic unit of study for general semantics."


Some people think of general semantics (GS) as being "just about words," but in fact it involves much more. Although concern with words and language remains a vital part of general semantics, that is only "the tip of the iceberg." The below-the-surface part of the "iceberg" focuses on the non-verbal world--what goes on in ourselves and our universe before we use words to describe it, think about it, etc. With general semantics we explore relations between the non-verbal and the verbal, including our verbal and non-verbal transactions--how we evaluate.

"Evaluation" implies both 'intellectual' and 'emotional' factors as inseparable aspects of human behavior. Even mathematics and science, as forms of human behavior, have 'emotional' content. (Want to see some passionate discussions?--go to a convention of mathematicians and scientists.) The practical study of human evaluation in science and in daily life defines the field of general semantics.

In Manhood of Humanity Korzybski called this field, with its basis in time-binding, "human engineering," Later, he called it "humanology." However, due to his focus on evaluation, by the time of Science and Sanity's publication in 1933 he had renamed his system of formulations "general semantics"--two words used as a unified term. He subtitled the book An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

Supporters and critics alike have continually confused Korzybski's use of "semantic(s)" in "general semantics" with other uses of the word which refer to linguistic 'meaning,' the history of words, etc. To say that "something is a matter of semantics" implies 'just a quibble' about words. Because of this confusion, labeling his system "general semantics" may constitute Korzybski's biggest error.

Even a quibble about 'words' involves much more than words, much more than isolated verbal consequences. The term 'semantic(s)' as used in "general semantics," "semantic reactions," etc., functions as a synonym for evaluation(al). Thus general semantics constitutes a general theory of evaluation, such evaluation involving people's inseparable thinking-feelings in a particular context.

I find it useful to contrast "evaluation, evaluational" as used in GS with the current use of the terms "cognition, cognitive" in the field of Cognitive Science. The common, habitual interpretation of 'cognition' tends to separate 'intellectual' from 'emotional' factors. Such a separation is explicitly denied in GS.

GS constitutes an applied general theory of human evaluation and awareness. In ways that may seem odd to conventional views of mathematics and science, GS looks at the meeting point of scientific-mathematical methods and daily life. This provides ways for us humans to more fully develop our critical and creative potentialities and to cooperate to achieve optimal time-binding.

"The Astonishing Hypothesis"

Human evaluational (or semantic) reactions provide the basic unit of study for general semantics. Evaluational reactions involve neurologically based responses of an organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment (you, me, every living individual on the planet) to words, symbols, and other events in terms of their 'meanings,' significances, etc., to each of us.

'Meanings' or significances in this sense are not merely verbal. Words and symbols considered as products of human behavior inevitably occur in association with what J. S. Bois called "happening-meanings"--organic, neural processes which correlate with language symbols but do not themselves qualify as what people normally refer to as 'language'. (1) Rather, these happening-meanings consist of neurological reactions which include so-called 'intellectual,' 'emotional,' 'physiological,' and 'physico-chemical' aspects, etc., inseparable from one another. …


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