What Is General Semantics? A Personal View

By Johnston, Paul Dennithorne | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

What Is General Semantics? A Personal View


Johnston, Paul Dennithorne, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Sometimes when people ask "What is General Semantics?", I don't want to answer.

My reluctance to categorize general semantics arises from the general semantics principle of non-identity. This postulates that no two things are identical in all respects.

Suppose I say, "Pat is a politician." Such a sentence uses a form of "is" called the is-of-identity. It violates the non-identity principle. In effect, I've said, individual noun (Pat) equals class noun (politician), X is identical to Y, "Pat is identical to politician." This seems harmless, you say.

Not so!

Tunnel Vision

I've confused the specific with the general, confused things with words, and imposed linguistic limitations that do not reflect the rich diversity of a living human who has personality, hopes, habits, a certain physique, etc. I've reduced Pat to a label, politician. My self-imposed tunnel vision will prejudge and damage my relationship with Pat. By treating this individual as identical to a class, category, or group, I can't help but think and act as if all politicians are alike. If a particular politician has disappointed me, I will probably react badly to all.

Labels That Limit

Suppose we have a task to do, and we only have a screwdriver. We can say, "I can't do it, I only have a screwdriver." In practice, we can use a screwdriver to drive screws, to hammer, chisel, lever, wedge, garden, open cans, crack ice, stir liquids, etc. Similarly, we can use the numerous "tools" of general semantics to achieve diverse goals. Hence my reluctance to limit general semantics with is-of-identity labeling.

Yet to describe, we must focus, select, abstract. Incidentally, a key formulation of the system of general semantics says that we process information at biological and verbal levels by abstracting, by leaving things out.

We've chosen not to describe the system by means of the is-of-identity, by what it "is."

We can describe something by what it does.

Success and Survival

I think of general semantics as a system for making evaluations vital to success and survival. By evaluating, I mean our processing of perceptions and inferences as influenced by existing conscious and unconscious assumptions. Evaluations, not necessarily conscious ones, involve our thoughts, feelings, judgments, decisions, etc. Generally we do something as a result. Evaluating leads to appropriate or inappropriate action. We might describe general semantics as an integrated system for improving our thinking, evaluating, communicating, etc. Of course, in doing so we've only just begun.

Alfred Korzybski formulated general semantics in the first half of this century in his major work, Science and Sanity, and he continued to write and lecture about general semantics until his death in 1950. Numerous educators, writers, and editors have continued to develop and disseminate his work, including Irving J. Lee, Wendell Johnson, Harry Weinberg, Francis Chisholm, Kenneth Johnson, S. I. Hayakawa, Elwood Murray, Russell Joyner, Robert Pula, Anatol Rapoport, Mary Morain, D. David Bourland, Jr., Susan Presby Kodish, Bruce I. Kodish, Earl Hautala, Jeremy Klein, and Gregory Sawin.

Beyond Aristotle

Korzybski called general semantics a non-Aristotelian system because its many-valued logic goes beyond the two-valued, either-or logic attributed to Aristotle. Two-valued Aristotelian logic says either X is Y, or X is not Y; it offers no middle choices, and it often leads to either-or evaluating. Non-Aristotelian logic employs multiple values, a range of choices, more in keeping with the diversity of lived experience. It adheres to the principle of non-identity by allowing degrees of difference or similarity.

Separation of Word and Thing

Korzybski recognized that language and lived experience consist of two distinctly separate realms. He said "The word is not the thing," and "Whatever you might say the object 'is,' well, it is not. …

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