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Alfred Korzybski and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

Rational-Emotive-Behavior Therapy (REBT), previously called Rational-Emotive Therapy (RET), is an active-directive, philosophically- and empirically-based psychotherapy that focuses on resolving emotional and behavioral problems and disturbances and enhancing people's lives. It was originated in 1955 by psychologist Albert Ellis, who was inspired by various teachings of ancient Asian, Greek, and Roman philosophies. When he later learned of general semantics (GS), a non-Aristotelian educational discipline originated by Alfred Korzybski in 1933, he drew on that system of thought, as well.

Ellis refers to general semantics in many of his writings and lectures as an important influence on his thinking and practice. For example, in a speech titled "General Semantics and Rational-Emotive Therapy" that he presented at the Harvard Club in 1991, Ellis gave credit to Korzybski for predating him in observing that people act as "organisms-as-wholes-in-environments." (1) Ellis also acknowledged that Korzybski first formulated the REBT concept of secondary symptoms (such as anxiety about anxiety) through his description of second-order reactions. (2)

Ellis found Korzybski's view of human functioning similar to the ABC theory of REBT. In the ABC theory an activating event (A), leads to a belief or cognition (B), that produces a feeling or consequence (C). As some evidence for this, he notes that Korzybski states that when individuals "perceive" a happening or an event they "silently" or "nonverbally" react with evaluations about it and their "emotions" and "evaluations" are organismically together and react with their verbalizations, which quickly follow their silent-thinking level. (3) Ellis also observed that Korzybski was a supporter of George Santayana's notion that humans are much better at believing than seeing.

Science and Sanity

Ellis was impressed with the "revolutionary" title of Korzybski's magnum opus Science and Sanity, as Ellis also believed that the scientific method was a beneficial approach for realizing sound mental health, as it is (a) pragmatic and tries to make its theory consistent with the "facts" of "reality," (b) uses logic to check its hypotheses and rules out magic and casual jumping to conclusions, (c) is open-minded and non-dogmatic, and (d) is alternative seeking and non-absolutist. (4)

Unlike science, emotional disturbance and particularly severe neurosis tends to be replete with thinking that is unrealistic, illogical, dogmatic, devout, and rigid. Korzybski labeled such thinking "unsane." Ellis called it "psychologically dysfunctional." Given their similar conclusions on this subject and their mutual admiration for the efficacy of the scientific method in reducing unsound thinking, Ellis and Korzybski seem to be on the same page in concluding that the scientific method and non-neurotic sanity are related.

Ellis and Korzybski also share the opinion that human beings are not born and reared to defeat themselves. If that were the case, then individuals and the human race would quickly cease to exist. Rather, REBT and GS have as a basic premise the notion that people can, if they choose to, use scientific thinking to reduce their misperceptions, overgeneralizations, and poor judgments to more accurately perceive, accept, and live more contentedly with "reality."

REBT and GS similarly agree that the use of the scientific method to solve everyday problems can help individuals to become less disturbed and more functional, which can lead them to more fully employ their human potential for psychological and mental growth. Additionally, from a general semantics perspective, one might say such people are also in a better position to more fully employ their time-binding potential to pass along useful information to future generations.

The "Is of Identity" and the "Is of Predication"

GS warns against the use of the "is of identity" (e.g., "I am an American," "I am a lawyer," "I am a Christian"), as such usage can fool people into thinking that they have fully described a person when there is always more that can be said about any individual. Ellis agrees with this thesis and further contends that identification with any group or concept implies loss of oneself, what Helmuth Kaiser has labeled "neurotic fusion." Ellis specifically observes that while identifying with a group may give one a sense of belonging and security, it can also lead a person to become over-conforming and reduce a sense of personal identity. (5) To avert such problems, REBT tries to get individuals to understand that they choose to be in particular groups and do not have to be solely defined by those groups.

Korzybski would probably go along with this sort of reasoning by noting that people are neither only themselves nor only identified with a group. People tend to be both/and rather than either/or when it comes to such matters. More particularly, people are individuals in their own right but once they opt to become part of a group they are no longer responsible only to themselves but also to the group they choose to remain affiliated with.

GS also cautions against the use of the "is of predication" (he is good, she is bad, etc.), as such usage can lead people into erroneously believing that they are encapsulating the total essence of an individual or thing through descriptive adjectives. Through his awareness of the "is of predication," Ellis maintains he was able to stop having his clients use several kinds of overgeneralizations and instead tell themselves things like, "I am a person who does good things (e.g., helps others in trouble) but who also does many 'neutral' and 'bad' things (e.g., harms others). I am never really entirely 'good,' 'bad,' nor 'neutral.' Because I am, a human, much too complex and many-sided to perform only 'good' or 'bad' or 'neutral' behaviors." (6)

Because people are intricate and multi-faceted, REBT advises that it is not sensible for individuals to rate themselves, as such ratings--such as "I am good" or "I am bad"--cannot be true in every instance of behavior. Instead, Ellis suggests that people only evaluate what they do or what they do not do. Such evaluations can then be used to improve one's performance. (Korzybski would most likely argue against global self-ratings on the grounds that they are "allness statements" and so are incomplete, as there is always more that can be added to such reports. Describing oneself as a "good person, etc." or a "bad person, etc." is more in line with GS thinking.)

REBT uses various kinds of disputing to counter people's irrational beliefs. For example, Ellis notes that in instances when his clients would say, "Because I do many bad things, I am a bad person," he would reply,
 When you say you are a bad person for doing bad things, you are
 engaging in what Bertrand Russell called a category error. For the
 bad things you are doing are in one category and you, the doer of
 these things, are in a quite different category. You do all kinds of
 things, good, bad, and indifferent. So if you categorize these things
 as "good" or "bad," you jump to a different category when you call
 yourself, the doer, "good" or "bad." You are not what you do. So
 you'd better rate only the things you do and not identify them with
 your youness, which is quite a different category. (7)

Ellis got the idea for this kind of disputing from the twentieth-century philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell. Korzybski was also familiar with Russell and acknowledged him for his "epoch making work in his analysis of subject-predicate relations." (8) Apparently, Ellis, Korzybski, and Russell all labored at examining and illuminating the limitations of the "is of predication."

The Use of E-Prime

To encourage people to refrain from using the "is of identity" and the "is of predication," David Bourland, a disciple of GS and a person who studied under Korzybski, advocated and used what he labeled "E-Prime," the English language without any inclusion of various forms of the word "to be" or its various tenses. (9) Ellis supported the idea of using E-Prime, and though writing in E-Prime can be difficult and does not fully lead a writer and reader to avoid all semantic and linguistic errors, he composed some of REBT's most important works employing it. (10) REBT is the only form of therapy that has utilized E-Prime in some of its leading manuscripts.

Precise Thinking and Language

Korzybski was a pioneer in appreciating the importance of linguistic behavior in the formation of people's thoughts, feelings, and actions. He observed that if the words we tell ourselves more or less describe "what is going on in the world," then we have a better chance to adjust to real life conditions than if those words contradict the facts of a situation. Ellis had a like view, noting that his clients often habituated themselves to using inaccurate language, which then interfered with them accepting that they were largely responsible for their own dysfunctional thoughts, feelings, and actions. If they changed their erroneous language to statements that corresponded with what was actually happening in the world, Ellis argued, they would be able to think, feel, and behave more effectively. (11) He labeled the technique of getting clients to focus on using more precise language to accurately describe their situations "semantic precision."

The following example, in which Ellis is the therapist, shows the importance of using precise language to mitigate psychological dysfunction:
 ... when my clients say, "Joe lied to me and that made me furious,"
 I interrupt, "How could that, or Joe, get into your gut to make you
 furious?" "Oh, I see," they often reply. "Yes, Joe lied to me, and I
 chose to infuriate myself about his lying." "Yes," I say. "Isn't that
 a much more accurate description of what happened and how you chose
 to create your fury?" (12)

REBT emphasizes the importance of precise language to distinguish between preferences and demands. For example, an REBT client might tell his or her therapist, "I'm not getting the love I want Sally to give me, and that makes me feel like a loser." The therapist might then reply, "Do you only want Sally's love, or are you telling yourself that you need it? Does not getting Sally's love make you feel like a loser or is it what you are telling yourself about not getting that love that is causing you to feel this way? Why don't you tell yourself: I would prefer that Sally love me but if she doesn't it's not the biggest catastrophe in the world, it doesn't make me into a loser. The only person who can make me into a loser is me if I describe myself that way."

By showing people how to stop inserting overgeneralizations, "demandingness," improper labeling, and other unscientific verbalizations into their thinking and behaving, REBT is one of the few psychotherapeutic schools of thought that puts Korzybski's theory of language into actual practice.

Constructive Change

REBT maintains that human beings are active constructivists who can think about their thinking, realistically assess their unrealistic attitudes, dispute their irrational beliefs, and work hard to reconstruct their disordered thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and if they consistently work at reformulating their disturbed ideas and feelings they have a good chance of bringing about increased levels of happiness and involvement.

GS contains analogous notions. It stresses that people who use GS formulations can learn to think and communicate more clearly with themselves and with each other and thereby help themselves to effect positive change. Both GS and REBT share as a major goal helping humans to improve their intra-personal and interpersonal relationships.

Multi-valued Orientation

The general semantics term "multi-valued orientation" describes an orientation that takes into account the complex multidimensional verbal and non-verbal processes involved in human interacting. It is an orientation that stresses a "both-and" approach rather than an "either-or" method of solving problems. It is an orientation that REBT makes use of in helping people to overcome their psychological difficulties.

REBT maintains that thinking, feeling, and behaving are not separate, but that they significantly influence and affect each other. Because of such overlap, REBT holistically favors strong and direct cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods of showing people what they are doing to unnecessarily disturb themselves and what they can do to actively minimize their self-disturbance. In consonance with Korzybski's disavowal of either/or solutions to human problems, REBT does not endorse either thinking or emotive or behavioral methods of therapy. It employs all three kinds of therapy and, in line with the GS notion of "etcetera," REBT sometimes recommends combining psychotherapy and pharmacological treatment, environmental change, and other sorts of psychophysical techniques and strategies that may help clients.

Accurate Abstracting

Korzybski notes that general semantics "necessitates (for its users) 'thinking' in terms of 'facts," or visualizing processes, before making generalizations." (13) He also observes that while Aristotelian either-or language fosters our evaluating "by definition" or "intension," the GS "non-Aristotelian or physico-mathematical orientation" involves evaluation by "extension," taking into consideration the actual "facts" in the particular situation confronting us. (14)

REBT also advocates evaluating by extension (weighing facts first), though that particular term is not used. For instance, an REBT therapist might tell a therapy client who claims he or she is a failure, "When you say you are a failure what you are saying is that you fail in everything you do. Is that really the case? Is there no activity or action in which you are successful? Let's explore that hypothesis and if we discover something you do well at, you can't by definition be a failure."

REBT, like general semantics, tries to get people to examine the conscious underlying assumptions about the inferences they make. For example, Jack asks Jill to marry him. Jill refuses. Jack concludes (a) "I made a mistake in asking," (b) "Jill must not like me," (c) "I'm simply no good." An REBT therapist would attempt to get Jack to look at these assumptions to have him see that he was coming up with dubious overgeneralizations because (a) Jack was probably correct in asking Jill to marry him, as by so doing he gained useful information about her feelings for him; (b) there is no evidence that Jill hates him, only an indication that she does not want to marry him; and (c) Jill's refusal to marry Jack does not prove he is no good, only that he will not be heading to the altar with Jill at the present time.

REBT, like general semantics, also tries to get people to explore their unconscious underlying assumptions in the inferences they make. (For Korzybski, "making us conscious or our unconscious assumptions is essential.") (15) In the preceding example, the unconscious underlying assumption that Jack most likely has is the following "musturbatory" overgeneralization: "When I ask a woman to marry me she must absolutely grant my request--or else (a) I made a mistake in asking, (b) she must hate me, and (c) I am a bad person." An REBT therapist would attempt to get Jack to change this "must" assumption into an "I would prefer" assumption ("When I ask a woman to marry me I would prefer she grant my request") as one way to relieve his psychological distress.

In the Friday evening demonstrations of REBT that Ellis regularly conducted for the public at his institute in New York, Ellis used to jocularly caution that the practice of "musturbation" is not good for one's mental health. He sometimes labeled "must assumptions" as "should assumptions" and counseled that it is not helpful for individuals to "should on themselves." The purpose of this advice was to have people examine their premises and, if they were holding "must" or "should" assumptions, to think about the notion that such philosophic core beliefs were largely responsible for the anti-factual inferences they were making.


The theoretical underpinnings of REBT were influenced by GS formulations. Ellis observes that,
 This is hardly a coincidence, because I read Stuart Chase's The
 Tyranny of Words (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1938) and S. I.
 Hayakawa's Language in Action (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1943) in the
 1940's. In the 1950's, I finally read Korzybski's Science and Sanity
 (Englewood, NJ: International Non-Aristotelian Publishing Company,
 1933, 1958) and his essay, "The Role of Language in the Perceptual
 Processes" in Robert R. Blake and Glenn V. Ramsey, Perception: An
 Approach to Personality (New York: Ronald, 1951 ). (16)

Ellis also asserts that, "REBT and general semantics particularly go together because both disclose and actively dispute people's absolutist, one-sided, rigid, musturbatory thinking." (17)

Would Korzybski endorse REBT and place it above all other psychotherapies if he were alive today? In his 1991 talk on general semantics and rational emotive behavior therapy, Ellis answered that question this way, "Perhaps he would--and, quite likely, for one reason or another, he wouldn't. In keeping with his own extensional thinking, I guess he would agree with some of RET's theory and practice some of the time and under some conditions." (18)
 Ellis went on to say,

 Rational-emotive practice works quite well some of the time under
 some conditions with some people. It is not, and will never be, a
 panacea for all of all people's cognitive-emotive-behavioral
 problems. ... As Korzybski would probably have recommended and as I
 have previously noted, RET had better be integrated with the most
 useful of other therapies so that it becomes and remains effective
 with many (not all) people much (not all) of the time." (19)


(1.) Albert Ellis, "General Semantics and Rational-Emotive Therapy," General Semantics Bulletin 58 (1991), 14.

(2.) Ibid., 15.

(3.) Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (Lakeville, CT: The International Non-Aristotelian Publishing Co., 4th edition, 1958 [original work published 1933]), 172.

(4.) Ellis, "General Semantics and Rational-Emotive Therapy," 15.

(5.) Ibid., 20.

(6.) Ibid., 18.

(7.) Ibid., 19.

(8.) Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 181.

(9.) David Bourland coined the term E-Prime in a 1965 essay entitled "A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime" that was originally published in the General Semantics Bulletin 32-33 (1965/1966), 111-114.

(10.) Important REBT books written in E-Prime include Albert Ellis, How to Live with a Neurotic (North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire, 1975); and Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper, A New Guide to Rational Living (North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire, 1975).

(11.) Ellis, "General Semantics and Rational-Emotive Therapy," 22.

(12.) Ibid., 22.

(13.) Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 193.

(14.) Ibid., 194.

(15.) Ibid., 195.

(16.) Susan Presby Kodish and Bruce Kodish, Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics (Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing, revised 2nd edition, 2001), 13.

(17.) Ibid., 14.

(18.) Ellis, "General Semantics and Rational-Emotive Therapy," 25. A purely Korzybskian analysis of people's cognitive-emotional-behavioral problems can be found in Wendell Johnson's GS classic People in Quandaries (New York: Harper and Row, 1946).

(19.) Ibid., 25.

Martin H. Levinson is president of the Institute of General Semantics and the author of numerous articles and several books on general semantics and other subjects. His most recent book, The Levinson Report: Cutting Edge Satire for Geniuses Like You, is a collection of satirical essays and observations on contemporary culture and politics. Contact:
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Author:Levinson, Martin H.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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