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I have attended meetings galore at which people told each other how valuable this discipline [general semantics] is, and how much the world needs it. Wars may, indeed, start in "the minds of men," but so do the small doings of the day. "Here is the means," we have said, "by which men may find adjustment, the freedom from those ways of evaluating which lead to trouble." I believed these things when others have said them - indeed, even when I said them. The warmth that goes with the force of common conviction is still very pleasant. When the going is rough, an evening with others suffused in the glow of you-know-what-words leaves me comforted. And if for a few moments one surrenders to hope, he may even be fooled into thinking that because we now know how people ought to "think" and "feel," they will immediately begin to.

But the power of this contagion is rather less on those who have not yet seen the vision. Sometimes personal persuasion does little. The sceptics become a little more sceptical. The unbelievers leave without even learning the names of the chief books. And those who have somehow become extensional in some areas of their work easily insist that they know all about it already.

Have we come to the point in the history of general semantics when we need new weapons? Up to now we have tried to capture assent by our own enthusiasm. Frequently that was all we needed. But with a certain kind of tough character that does not work. May I suggest that now we need something more than the logic of our own conclusions. Can we move from the grand generalizations to more immediately specific demonstrations? Can we find the means by which to overwhelm those who come into earshot with a barrage of data which may not be so readily dismissed?

My perspectives are, of course, affected by the university atmosphere in which I move. Occasionally one meets a colleague whose requests for "papers which report findings and achievements" are a not-so-polite form of dismissal. Frequently these requests grow out of what seems a genuine curiosity, a well-I'll-be-more-likely-to-face-up-to-your-stuff-if-you-really-show-me attitude. These are the people I should like to satisfy ...

We live in a truly productive and generative period in the world's history. If you would have any doubts about this, have a look at the program of the last annual meeting of any society. Or leaf through the pages of any university bulletin. Or just prowl around the periodical room of any good-sized library. Specialization has gone so far that he is indeed courageous who ventures critically beyond the confines of his own little well-worked area.

There are many people who in the face of this chaos of specialization have come to wonder whether these divergent efforts have anything in common. Is there any meeting point in methods or findings? Are there unifying factors which can be stated by which workers in different fields can come to feel that they are involved in a common venture? The system-builders are ever with us and sometimes their systems hold together only because they have arbitrarily excluded what couldn't be made to fit. There are those who feel that what William James did for psychology in 1890 Toynbee has not done for history and Sorokin has not done for sociology today. I am not here interested in the system-builders. I am concerned with something rather different: the effort to cut across the disciplines, to make intelligible the points at which the specialists converge. This question focuses my interest: is it possible to find any common ground by which workers in utterly different areas can define their procedures as well as pool their data? Let me take a small example. Korzybski has formulated the difference between an orientation based on verbal definitions and one based on ordering observations first, along with his analysis of the ease with which we identify the two or reverse the order. Now, then, where over the range of studies are there workers whose findings document or deny that formulation? In some very vagrant reading I have found both theoretical discussions and data on this theme in literature dealing with the following: social distance tests, allergy reactions, accident proneness, suggestion and hypnosis, counseling, curriculum-making, salesmanship, theoretical physics, theme-writing, the uses of audio-visual training aids, logical positivism, group dynamics, speech correction, perception, etc. And I am quite certain that this list could be extended further.

What I am after, then, is this: if a student is armed with one of the formulations of general semantics and if he sets out in quest of supporting or refuting data in disciplines now widely separated by departmental lines, will he uncover evidence of convergence or divergence? If, perchance, he should find that men now going their ways oblivious of their relationships with workers in other areas are in fact adventuring together, might we not make steps in the realization of the great dream of synthesis? Might we not, then, move to a new organon which will make unnecessary the regressions and retreats to doctrines which, though useful in the fifteenth century, are somewhat disorienting in the twentieth?


One of the most familiar experiences in American life is, as a customer, being thanked in a store as the clerk hands you your wrapped purchase and rings up the score in dollars and cents on the cash register. The customer who has received an item of value is thanked by the clerk who has received a symbol of value. This inverted situation is an example of the way we have so thoroughly adopted money as a value rather than as a medium of exchange.

Symbolic systems are devised or evolved for the purpose of facilitating human communication and interaction. Just as misconceptions of the relationship of words to their referents can result in frustration of the power to communicate, misunderstanding of the symbolic process of a money economy may result in the symbols serving to disrupt rather than to facilitate the exchange and distribution of goods and services. This can be very clearly observed in a study of the origin and establishment of the Lend-Lease policy.


Now in the earlier part of the 19th century, a great movement was begun toward the creation of one academic language for the nation. Scholars, in building the academic language, devised a more or less uniform technique of matching Chinese ideographs against Dutch scientific terms. But scientific terms, when thus transcribed in Chinese ideographs, evoke meanings which are slightly different from the original. A way out of this difficulty by giving strict definitions of scientific terms was not available then. It was then difficult to give strict operational definitions for these new scientific terms, because of the meager technological experience of feudal Japan. In observational science it was easier to do so, but in humanistic science it was almost impossible. Inadequacy shown in the Tokugawa scholars' interpretation of scientific terms has been gradually reduced in the fields of natural sciences by the subsequent enlargement of technological experience. But in the fields of humanistic studies this inadequacy still overshadows our thinking. Take the word "philosophy." In the 18th century it was phonetically transcribed as "hirosohi"; in the early 19th century it was transcribed as "study of principles"; in the middle of the 19th century it finally was given its present name, "exquisite study." And philosophy, due to its ideographs, even today attracts many more readers than the "dirty" sciences, simply because of its "exquisite" nature. Philosophy in present-day Japan differs greatly from western philosophy because of the peculiar associations evoked by Chinese ideographs which comprise the technical terms. This sort of difference, although very common, is not noticed by many people because the terms used for science are assumed to be exact equivalents in all languages.


The danger of stereotypes lies not in their existence, but in the fact that they become for all people some of the time and for some people all of the time substitutes for observation. The overcoming of this danger is described in the literature of general semantics as training in extensional orientation. This means training oneself not to guide oneself by verbal association patterns inside one's head, but by observation of the nonverbal realities of fact or of sensation before one acts or verbalizes. The person tending to stereotyped reactions is essentially word-minded, governed in his behavior by verbal and literary associations. The person not governed by his stereotypes is basically fact-minded, governed in his behavior and speech by the actualities before him and the actualities of his own deepest, subverbal feelings, rather than by patterns of symbolic association. The word-minded person, on meeting, let us say, "a politician," is immediately reminded of all that he has heard about "politicians," and reacts to his associations. The fact-minded, or extensionally oriented, person will look at this particular politician and react to the actualities of this politician's personality and peculiarities.


Scientific method is a complex series of feed-back operations between symbolic patterns and what they are meant to represent. Data from experiences is used to create, and later to change, certain symbolic structures and to make these as similar as possible to the structure of the experiences. Then, working the other way, experiences are arranged and are made to conform as closely as possible to the symbolic patterns. Data derived from these new experiences is now used to change the symbolic structures; the new set of symbols then "suggests" more experiences; and so on indefinitely. The symbols come to fit the experiences more closely, and the experiences arranged fit more closely the symbols. This description oversimplifies the process to its essentials, leaving out hypothesizing and predicting as such and the setting up of experiments and the using of various techniques of observing.

When there is more than one person working within a feedback situation, the need for communication is most obvious and seems to require, in its disorders, the therapy of (limited) semantics. It should be noted that our economic, industrial, and social institutions depend upon feed-back for survival; for what advertising campaign could continue without knowledge of results, what management could function effectively without knowing what came off the assembly line, and what army could carry out a war if the generals did not know the effect of their orders?


I believe myself that the artist and poet must seek willfully not to understand "reality," to create a mystery about what the culture calls reality, in order to recapture it. The child already lives in this mystery, and the artist must recapture something of the sense of the world that we attribute to the child. (It may not be so much mystery that the child feels, as an intense curiosity, as he faces all reality in a completely unstructured way. It looks like mystery to us, but perhaps the child has only a greater sense of reality than the adult.) The artist must, at any rate, recreate that sense of curiosity, wonder, which is so disturbing, emotional and creative a state.

Most of the surrealist poets create this sense of mystery to such a degree that the poetry can be grasped only by those few who have the gift of immediate insight into it. To have such insight Raymond says that the reader must be able to experience things in their "purely poetic, arbitrary, and new aspect," and must have an "exceptional plastic sensibility infused with the atmosphere of the epoch." And Raymond goes on to say, "this is completely different from the labor of progressive penetration that is required in order to understand Mallarme." He sees these poems as small elusive objects, hardly graspable before they are vanished. He speaks of them as "islets ... blots of poetry as it were on the page" ... "islets on the blank page, light as foam, as distinctive from language as a divine voice can be from all the noises of the earth." To my way of thinking, to grasp the meaning of such poems is not so very different from the child's grasp of the meaning of a word. It has no other meaning, it simply has to be grasped whole and complete in its context. And so the mystery grows less as one understands more "words," they begin to be no longer noises but meanings.


General semantics as a method, the non-aristotelian orientation as an aim, and all else in Korzybski's contributions flow from his central definition of man as time-binder. In defining sanity as that which promotes time-binding in the fullest sense, Korzybski offered a criterion by which both individual and cultural evaluations could be evaluated. In stating that science-at-its-best gives us a working demonstration of sanity, and in urging that saner evaluations can be taught, Korzybski opened up a challenging new field of practical inquiry into the methods and possibilities of the fuller application of the attitudes of science to all human experience.

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Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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