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Goethe's extensional orientation.

"The clash between a verbal orientation as opposed to a fact, event, or
happening orientation is certainly one of the perennial themes in
Goethe's masterpiece Faust."

MANY GENERAL SEMANTICS EDUCATORS and practitioners stress the importance of developing an extensional orientation, in which we look at what happens first, before we focus on the words or language that describe it. General semantics refers to our consciously abstracting in this order as following the natural order of abstraction.

Joseph DeVito, in his audio cassette introduction to general semantics, suggests, "If I had to sum up in one sentence the nature and purpose of general semantics, I'd say that general semantics seeks to foster a more extensional orientation--an outlook, a point of view, a perspective, an awareness of things, facts, and operations, and the way they are related to nature--instead of the way they are talked about." In a subsequent lesson, DeVito defined Extensional Orientation as "the tendency to first observe the reality and then to use language which accurately describes it," distinguishing it from Intensional Orientation--or the tendency to become absorbed with the words used and to subsequently neglect the real world which the words describe.

Dr. Sanford I. Berman noted that one type of misevaluation directly connected to Intensional Orientation consists of vertical identification, or reacting to words as if they were the nonverbal things.

Susan Kodish, in her Glossary of General Semantics, makes the following distinction:
Extensional Orientation: an attitude towards living which involves
orienting ourselves primarily to non-verbal happenings and 'facts';
includes the ability to use intensional approaches when appropriate.
(p. 169)

Intensional Orientation: living life primarily according to higher-order
verbal definitions, without reference to lower-order verbal and non-
verbal experiences. (p. 170)

Note that from time to time, we may find it appropriate to use an intensional approach, for example, when searching for salad dressing or laundry soap by using the labels we see in a supermarket.

Alexander Pope in his Essay on Literary Criticism complained about a writer who tends to obscure sensory detail by relying exclusively upon higher-order verbal definitions or descriptions:
 Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
 Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found. (p. 177)

The clash between a verbal orientation as opposed to a fact, event, or happening orientation is certainly one of the perennial themes in Goethe's masterpiece Faust. In Night, a memorable soliloquy in the first part of the tragedy, the burned-out college professor, Heinrich Faust, laments about the futility of his intensionally-oriented academic career, which has led him to immerse himself in multiple worlds of words:
 I have, alas, studied philosophy,
 Jurisprudence and medicine, too,
 And, worst of all, theology
 With keen endeavor, through and through--
 And here I am, for all my lore,
 The wretched fool I was before.
 Called Master of arts, and doctor to boot,
 For ten years almost I confute
 And up and down, wherever it goes,
 I drag my students by the nose,
 And see that for all our science and art
 We can know nothing. (p. 444)

The venerable Dr. Faust feels that his orientation to endless pools of words has somehow deprived him of the reality of the world of process. He continues:
 That I need not with work and woe
 Go on to say what I do not know;
 That I might see what secret force
 Hides in the world and rules its course.
 Envisage the creative blazes
 Instead of rummaging in phrases. (p. 444)

Faust realizes that the maps provided by other scholars have not given him access to what he intuitively knows as the process level of reality, the starting point for an extensional orientation. As Faust waxes increasingly more despondent, his graduate assistant Wagner interrupts his concentration, providing yet another confrontation between intensional (words before life facts) and extensional orientation (life facts before words). Wagner asks Faust for the verbal formula to become persuasive, to which Faust (from the standpoint of Goethe's German romanticism) replies:
 What you don't feel, you will not grasp by art,
 Unless it wells out of your soul
 And with sheer pleasure takes control,
 Compelling every listener's heart. (p.448)

Wagner, still enamored by the classical rhetorical formulas, replies, "Yet much depends on the delivery; I still lack much; don't you agree?" (p.448)

To this, Faust chides:
 All that makes sense you can explain
 Without the tricks of any school.
 If you have anything to say,
 Why juggle words for a display? (p.448)

Wagner, of course, misses the point of Faust's admonition, and laments that it will take more than a lifetime to read all the scholarly works that he fancies would fill his mind. Faust retorts:
 Parchment--is that the sacred fount
 From which you drink to still your thirst forever?
 If your refreshment does not mount
 From your own soul, you gain it never. (p.448)

Like his contemporaneous Romanticist colleagues, Goethe feels that inspiration cannot be derived from reading other people's manuscripts, but must be generated anew, as the artist (with extensional orientation) becomes inspired with actual events--rather than relying on maps, which may be old, outdated, and inaccurate.

Another student-teacher interchange, demonstrating a clash between extensional orientation (life facts before words) and intensional orientation (words before life facts) involves Mephistopheles, disguised as Faust, who counsels a young freshman student who wishes to enroll in the university. Goethe uses this portion to satirize pedantry in education, a sterile system that discouraged any attempt at independent thinking. Mephistopheles, disguised as Faust, encourages the student to ignore the interconnectedness of the life process and instead elementalistically analyze and divide what should be studied as an interconnected system. The intensional naming of the parts substitutes for understanding the dynamic process which constitutes more than the sum of the individual parts:
 Mephistopheles (disguised as Faust)
 Who would study and describe the living, starts,
 By driving the spirit out of the parts:
 In the palm of his hand he holds all the sections,
 Lacks nothing but the spirit's connections. (p.477)

Again Mephistopheles, disguised as Faust, instructs the student to embrace verbal labels instead of observable events as he encourages him to study metaphysics:
 Mephistopheles (disguised as Faust)
 Then without further circumvention,
 Give metaphysics your attention.
 There seek profoundly to attain
 What does not fit the human brain;
 Whether you do or do not understand,
 An impressive word is always at hand. (p.477)

When the young student expresses disdain for the law profession, Mephistopheles, disguised as Faust, satirizes the intensional orientation of jurisprudence:
 Mephistopheles (disguised as Faust)
 The laws and statutes of a nation
 Are an inherited disease,
 From generation to generation
 And place to place they drag on by degrees
 Wisdom becomes nonsense; kindness, oppression.
 To be a grandson is a curse. (p. 478)

When the student expresses a desire to study theology, Mephistopheles, again disguised as Faust, convinces him to become intensionally oriented, valuing the word over the event or life fact--if one indeed can be found:
 Mephistopheles (still disguised as Faust)
 Here too, it would be best you heard
 One only and staked all upon your master's word.
 Yes, stick to words at any rate;
 There never was a sure gate
 Into the temple, Certainty. (p.478)

The student seems incredulous that he should not demand a concrete referent behind the word.
 Yet some idea there must be.

 All right. But do not plague yourself too anxiously;
 For just where no ideas are
 The proper word is never far,
 With words a dispute can be won,
 With words a system can be spun,
 In words one can believe unshaken,
 And from a word no tittle can be taken. (p.478)

In the section of the play labeled Witch's Kitchen, Dr. Faust, wary of word magic associated with the black arts, complains to Mephistopheles about what he feels to be meaningless verbal mumbo jumbo:
 Faust [to Mephistopheles]
 No, tell me why these crazy antics?
 The mad ado, the gestures that are frantic,
 The most insipid cheat--this stuff
 I've known and hated long enough.

 Relax! It's fun--a little play;
 Don't be so serious, so sedate! (p.491)

As Faust becomes more incensed about the verbal trickery, Mephistopheles sarcastically explains the pragmatic value of intensional orientation:
 This art is old and new, forsooth:
 It was the custom in all ages
 To spread illusion and not truth
 With Three in One and One in Three
 They teach it twittering like birds;
 With fools there is no intervening.
 Men usually believe, if only they hear words,
 That there must also be some sort of meaning. (p.492)

Goethe, through the sarcastic words of Mephistopheles, seems to be castigating scholars, philosophers, and theologians who think that words themselves will relate a vague idea to real life.

The Victorian philosopher Carlyle in his Sartor Resartus had a similar comment about the potency of names:
 Notable enough too, here as elsewhere, wilt thou find the potency of
 Names; which indeed are but one kind of such custom-woven, wonder-
 hiding Garments. Witchcraft, and all manner of spectre work, and
 Demonology, we have now named Madness and Diseases of the Nerves.
 Seldom reflecting that still the new question comes upon us: what is
 madness, what are Nerves? (p. 108)

Consider the premature sense of relief and closure we feel when hearing a physician pronounce the magic suffix "itis" as in arthritis, bursitis, or tendonitis. We feel that we now "know" the problem and that something has been resolved. Yet Karl Menninger described modern psychological labels such as "manic-depressive" and "obsessive-compulsive" as diagnostic name calling.

In the section titled Garden, Mephistopheles attempts to convince a woman that her husband was unfaithful and is now deceased, in order to flirt with her. When Faust refuses to corroborate Mephistopheles' lie, Mephistopheles reminds the venerable professor how he had deceived his students through misapplied intensional orientation:
 Oh, holy man!
 Is this the first time in your life that you
 Have testified what is not true?
 Of God and all the world, and every single part,
 Of man and all that stirs inside his head and heart
 You gave your definitions with power and finesse,
 With brazen cheek and haughty breath.
 And if you stop to think, I guess,
 You know as much of that, you must confess,
 As you know now of Mr. Schwerdtlein's death. (p. 503)

When words have clear, discoverable referents in the process level of reality, to enter the intensional portal isn't necessarily harmful to us. When words lack such referents, we need to apply Ludwig Wittgenstein's sage admonition at the end of his Tractatus, "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent."



Berman, Sanford I. How to Think, Communicate, and Behave Intelligently: An Introduction to General Semantics. San Diego: Educational Cassettes, 1974. (Vertical identification consists of confusing orders of abstractions, confusing the verbal label with the object of perception, or reacting to words as if they were things, or confusing facts with inferences. To succumb to vertical identification one would identify vertically or confuse the two orders of abstraction.)

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus, in Prose of the Victorian Period. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.

DeVito, Joseph. General Semantics: Guide and Workbook. Deland, FL: Everett Edwards, 1971.

Goethe, Wolfgang Von. Faust in Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Seventh Edition, Volume 2, edited by Sarah Lawall. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Kodish, Susan Presby and Bruce I. Kodish. Drive Yourself Sane! Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics Englewood, New Jersey: Institute of General Semantics, 1993.

Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. In Criticism: The Major Texts, edited by Walter Jackson Bate. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.


* Dr. David Maas, Education Editor of ETC, is a Professor of English at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and the author of many ETC articles.
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Title Annotation:Education
Author:Maas, David F.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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