Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Extensional Orientation and the Energy Problem

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Extensional Orientation and the Energy Problem

Article excerpt

LANGUAGE HABITS can outlast the circumstances that produce them. This can impede adaptation to changed circumstances. When homo sapiens was a much less numerous species and when our ability to exploit the resources upon which our lives depend was much less developed than today, word-maps arose that now obstruct recognition of the way we have painted ourselves into a corner. Mankind has an urgent need to grasp the serious discrepancy between certain obsolete language habits and the true characteristics of the situation they misrepresent just as truly, however, there is a need to avoid the opposite error. We must not suppose that all would be well for mankind if we could just learn to say the right words to each other. That misconception, too, has obscured for some of our contemporaries the situation actually facing mankind today. It is folly to suppose that Charles Reich's "Consciousness III" (13) or some other purely mental reorganization will suffice to achieve revolutionary improvement of man's lot in this world. The task of general semantics is a delicate one; it must focus on the power of language to shape perception and behavior, but it must avoid an obsessive supposition that linguistic factors are exclusive determinants of human experience.

The reason our use of language is such a fundamental fact about our species is that it gives us a more intricate capacity than any other species has for sharing the facilities of each other's nervous systems and for evolving and using a cultural heritage, or what Korzybski called "time binding." (7) This capacity is what has enabled man to elaborate his intraspecific division of labor (and thus his power to transform the world) beyond anything achieved by any other single species--and almost beyond the most complex interspecific webs of symbiosis observed in nature. The most sophisticated students of general semantics have understood this and have not dealt merely with the pitfalls of verbalization.

Semantic failures do occur, but they are best seen as malfunctions--a form of social pathology whose causes, consequences, and varying incidence merit serious study. But when general semantics is pursued with a cult-like interest, there often develops a more supercilious attitude toward language, implicit in the apparent belief of some that word-maps are inherently dysfunctional, that all words always deceive.

In an age of increasingly pressing ecological constraints, Homo sapiens is ill-served (and so is general semantics) by supposing that the fallibility of word-maps implies that any choice among them is purely and inevitably arbitrary (and that the territory mapped out is therefore essentially fictitious). Yet that solipsistic sort of philosophy seems alarmingly fashionable among university students in the 1970s. It is one expression, perhaps, of an anti-intellectualism fostered partly by the social disillusionment of the Vietnam War years and, more subtly, by the discovery of facts we are reluctant to face about man's relation to the biosphere.

Nature's Dictionary

When we come to grief from following an obsolete word-map, it is more rational to seek an updated word-map than to over-generalize and deplore the apparent futility of word-mapping. When we say language habits can become obsolete, we must remember that obsolescence is a relation, and relations can exist only between two (or more) entities. Thus a word-map can be obsolete only in relation to some specifiable territory having specifiable features. It is as important to study the changed circumstances constituting the territory as to study the social history of the word-map that has lost whatever correspondence it once had with reality.

Both sides of the relation are considered in the following suggestive statement: "Words like limitless, inexhaustible, and boundless figure prominently in the present debate about the earth and its resources. …

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