The Semiotic Aspect of Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics

By Read, Allen Walker | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July-October 2017 | Go to article overview

The Semiotic Aspect of Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics


Read, Allen Walker, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


In 1933, Alfred Korzybski published a book of 798 pages entitled Science and Sanity, setting forth a methodological system, both theoretical and practical, dealing with all of human life. As a "system builder," he had trouble finding a good name for his work. His favorite for a long time had been "science of man," but he settled upon "general semantics," in order to emphasize the evaluational aspect of his outlook. He was drawing upon the Greek verb "to mean," as used by Polish logicians, and he was not aware that this would confuse speakers of English, for whom the word semantics refers to the senses of words and their changes. This confusion has hampered the acceptance of Korzybski's work.

Korzybski's system is based upon a set of assumptions that are in accord with the orientation of modern science. Chief of these is that we live in a dynamic, changing, process world. This supports a Heraclitean rather than an Aristotelian outlook.

The effect of this outlook on attitudes toward language is especially drastic. The very words we use cannot yield us certitude. Leonard Bloomfield expressed the finding of modern linguistics when he said: "Every utterance of a speech-form involves a minute semantic innovation." (1) In my own words, we are obliged to accept as true the following statement: No word ever has the same meaning twice. As Korzybski stated this principle, "We see that a large majority of the terms we use are names for infinite-valued stages of processes with a changing content. When such terms are used, they generally carry different or many contents." (2) The very words we use are shifting and ever-changing.

Does this outlook plunge us into "meaninglessness?" But that word may entrap us. Korzybski wrestled with this problem in the following passage:

The problems of meaninglessness... establish a most important semantic
issue; namely, that what is "meaningless" in a given context on one
level of analysis, may become full of sinister meanings on another
level when it becomes a symbol for a semantic disturbance. (3)

During the time that Korzybski worked out his system, in the late 1920s, up to his publishing date of 1933, the word semiotics was not yet in vogue. It was brought into use about that time in writings of Charles Morris, who got it from the newly printed works of Charles S. Peirce. Korzybski would have found great inspiration in Peirce, but unfortunately he knew only one of his works, the Chance, Love, and Logic of 1923. From it he quoted this passage:

It is terrible to see how a single unclear idea, a single formula
without meaning, lurking in a young man's head, will sometimes act like
an obstruction of inert matter in an artery, hindering the nutrition of
the brain, and condemning its victim to pine away in the fullness of
his intellectual vigor and in the midst of intellectual plenty. (4)

Even without the word semiotics, Korzybski drew heavily upon such principles. He made the following outstanding statement: "Man's achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us." (5) He emphasized how the manipulation of symbols governs our lives. On a later page he continued: "When we say 'our rulers,' we mean those who are engaged in the manipulation of symbols. There is no escape from the fact that they do, and that they always will, rule mankind, because we constitute a symbolic class of life, and we cannot cease from being so, except by regressing to the animal level." (6)

He recognized that symbols have to be evaluated carefully. This is closely related to the issue of sanity referred to in his title, Science and Sanity. He made the following exposition of the evaluation of symbols:

A symbol may stand for: 1.) Events outside our skin, or inside our skin
in the fields belonging to physics, chemistry, physiology, [etc. … 

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