Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Art, Life. and Reality: General Semantics and Definitions

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Art, Life. and Reality: General Semantics and Definitions

Article excerpt

Bill Petkanas (*)

AT THE HEART of teaching general semantics is the irksome question of the relationship between language and reality. Almost a century ago, Bertrand Russell asked, "... if the reality is not what appears, have we any means of knowing whether there is any reality at all? And if so, have we any means of finding out what it is like?" (1912, p.16). For many people, this question arises somewhere around the sophomore year of college and nags at us ever after. First we realize that individual experiences are relative; there is no way to check on the internal sensations of another person, leaving us to doubt whether there is any consistency of perception in the universe of observers.

Harry Weinberg points Out in Levels of Knowing and Existence the difficulties of describing the experience of the color "red" to a colorblind person. Even if the experience of red were explainable, we can not verify that it is the same for sighted people (1959, p.36). And even when we seem to agree on "reality," the meanings of words are forever slippery and ambiguous no matter how precise we try to make them. S. Morris Engel cites many wonderful examples of deliberate and inadvertent ambiguity leading to comic effect, such as "slow children crossing" and the like (1994, p.25). As S. I. Hayakawa put in, "Everyone, of course, who has ever given any thought to the meanings of words has noticed that they are always shifting and changing in meaning." (1978, p.54)

Confusion gets somewhat more serious, although usually still harmless, in intercultural transactions. It might cause simple embarrassment, as in referring to putting something in my "pants pocket" in England, where "trousers" is meant (and the word "pants" is generally reserved for "underwear"). Or less amusing, as in an argument Irving Lee once described between an American who suggested "tabling" a motion (not discussing) to a British associate, to whom "tabling" meant to "put on the table" (have a discussion) (1941, p.11).

Of course, we can achieve misunderstanding without the burden of a transatlantic crossing. As Ellen Langer puts it, "once we become mindfully aware of views other than our own, we start to realize there are as many different views as there are observers." (1989, p.68) And confusion is aided by numbers. The odds are against us understanding each other, as William Lutz points Out in The New Double Speak. There are over 14,000 meanings available for the most frequently used 500 words in English (1996, p.38). Even an average of 28 meanings per word would not be enough to adequately define anything, although it is plenty enough to keep us confused. As Korzybski explains about the notion of non-allness, it is impossible to define anything completely, from the macroscopic world to the microscopic details. About his writing implement, well known to students of general semantics, he said, "we may describe a pencil or 'define' a pencil in as great detail as we please, yet it is impossible to include all the characteris tics which we may discover in this actual objective pencil." (1948, p.41). He is right in two ways: the limits of observation, language, and time for one, and the idea that upon observation, his pencil would mutate into the "infinite" pencils of "infinite" observers' perceptions. Precise, immutable definition is made impossible by the conspiracy between the non-allness of description and what Wendell Johnson called "horizontal non-identity," the idea that infinite differences exist even among the "same" things (1946, p.179).

None of this stops people from acting as if they know what words mean, however. Worse, they will often insist that they can prove it one way or another. Stuart Chase warns us that we should be on guard when someone offers a "self-evident truth." An utterance is highly suspect when it begins with any form of the expression, "everybody knows ... " or "it's a well known fact that ... " (1956, p. …

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