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Forward from the editor.


This forward from the editor first appeared in Volume Thirty Six, Number Three of ETC., Fall 1979. Postman's challenge to address "the issue" he presents is still relevant today.

This month there gathered at Columbia University an abstraction of general semanticists whose purpose was to discuss the subject of research. Because of the persuasive charm of Charlotte Read, who organized and chaired the conference, people came from all sections of the country, mostly at their own expense. As Mary Morain has already reported in the summer issue of Et cetera, all the participants interacted in a spirit of good cheer and easy camaraderie.

Yet, in spite of this, the conference was a success-which is to say, a genuine issue arose which has the potential of generating serious and constructive thought about general semantics. I say this immodestly since I was one of the people who raised the issue, and I did so for the same reason I accepted the editorship of Et cetera: I come not to praise general semantics but to help prevent it from being buried. The issue is this: When one considers what general semantics "research" consists of, one is immediately faced with a set of unresolved, questions, beginning with, What sort of enterprise is general semantics? and followed by, Is it a science, like biology or linguistics? Is it a therapy, like psychoanalysis or gestalt? Is it an educational discipline, like logic or grammar? Is it a religion, like Taoism or Zen?

I am, of course, well aware that Korzybski, like Marx and Freud, insisted that his work be seen as essentially scientific. But this does not necessarily mean that he was correct. After all, Mary Baker Eddy also thought her work to be rooted in science. On a higher plane, I am reminded of an instructive exchange of letters between Freud and Einstein. Freud had sent a copy of one of his works to Einstein, seeking his opinion of it. Einstein answered to the effect that, although the work had considerable merit, he was not qualified to judge of its scientific standing. To this Freud somewhat testily replied that, if its scientific status were left unjudged, he could not imagine what would be meritorious about the work. It is good science or it is nothing. But Freud was wrong. Psychoanalysis has not, as it has turned out, developed testable, falsifiable hypotheses and theories, which alone would have made it into good science. But it has nonetheless been useful -some would say, extraordinarily so--as an educational and therapeutic construct through which many people have been able to gain insight into themselves and others. Korzybski (and Freud) to the contrary notwithstanding, science is not the only pathway to sanity, and possibly not even the best to insight. Of Marx, it is sufficient to say that his "historical science" has turned out to be nothing of the sort; instead, it is a religion of global dimension, whose impact on the lives of millions of people has been formidable.

Which brings us back to Korzybski and general semantics. If general semantics is a science, then researchers ought to be spending their time identifying (or creating) its hypotheses and theories, and devising experiments to test them. (It was, incidentally, suggested at the Columbia conference that the statement, "no two events are identical," is a general semantics hypothesis. For what it is worth, I regard such a statement as roughly equivalent to the observation that "things fall down," which is to say, it is neither a hypothesis nor a theory.)

If general semantics is a therapy, researchers ought to be finding out what it claims to do, with whom, for what sorts of behavioral problems, and with what effect. If general semantics is an educational discipline, researchers ought to be engrossed in the question, What sort of difference does it make if one "knows" general semantics or does not "know" general semantics? (In this connection, we may draw some perverse comfort from the fact that no substantial evidence exists to document the claim that knowledge of either Aristotelian logic or formal grammar "improves the mind"-i.e., improves writing, speaking, listening, or reading. Yet belief in the educational value of these disciplines endures.)

And if general semantics is a religion, researchers ought to be engaged in writing its history, explaining its icons, and in general doing exegetical work on its sacred texts.

These alternatives, obviously, do not exhaust all the possibilities for example, that general semantics may be a philosophy, like existentialism. Neither do I say that general semantics cannot be more than one sort of thing-e.g., both a science and a therapy. The point I am making is that there does not appear to be a consensus about the matter. As a consequence, general semantics research is fragmented, idiosyncratic, and entirely lacking a programmatic context. This is a grave weakness, since without such a consensus and context, new questions and problems do not easily emerge, and young scholars are apt to keep themselves a safe distance from what they correctly perceive as muddy waters. Moreover, when a subject is in paradigmatic disarray, it tends to remain static and falls into repetitiveness. I do not have an "answer" to this issue, but raise it here in the hope that readers of Et cetera will, through correspondence and essays, address the matter, and with a measure of urgency.

Neil Postman (1931-2003) was an American critic and educator. Postman was the Paulette Goddard Chair of Media Ecology at New York University and chair of the Department of Culture and Communication. His pedagogical and scholarly interests included media and education, as can be seen in many of his seventeen books, including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Conscientious Objections (1988), Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992), and End of Education (1995). Postman was the editor of ETC from 1976-1986.
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Title Annotation:FROM THE VAULT
Author:Postman, Neil
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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