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General Semantics as source material in the works of Robert A. Heinlein.

Many people have come to be aware of General Semantics (GS) through the works of several science fiction authors, notably, The "Null-A" works of A.E. van Vogt, the fiction of Robert Heinlein, the much lesser known H. Beam Piper, (1) and others. This paper will examine Heinlein with respect to his uses of themes related to GS. They permeate nearly all his vast number of works. I have counted and documented in excess of 200 references in his canon extending nearly 50 years. This paper consists of two highly modified chapters from my forthcoming book, Heinlein & Korzybski: Maps of General Semantics.

I wish to emphasize here that all the places where I say, "Heinlein says" in his fiction are not to imply that these were his actual beliefs or opinions. Heinlein was a storyteller and used all the tools available to him to tell stories.

The first section will introduce Heinlein to those who are unfamiliar with him and his works. The second section will present a section of text from one of his stories and will show how it represents GS, and sometimes, misrepresents GS, presumably, for fictional purposes.

I began the research into this subject when I started thinking about a quote that was found paraphrased variously in several of his works. Namely, "No thought is possible without symbols." As a linguist, this struck me as being totally wrong and he explicitly attributed it to Korzybski. I had attempted to read Science and Sanity many years ago, but had never been able to finish it. At this point I began to read not only Science and Sanity but also everything of Korzybski and other works related to GS trying to discover whether or not this claim was true. I also began to re-read Heinlein's entire canon to see what else he had to say about GS. The final conclusion that I came to was that this claim was strictly a Heinlein invention and, moreover, one in which he even contradicted himself in numerous places, in different works, sometimes even within the same story as is shown in the analysis of "Gulf in the second section. It was the vast number of references in his canon, which changed my focus in writing a short article to that of writing a book on the subject.

Note: the phrases in brackets "[]" at the beginning of paragraphs are intended to show what aspects of GS are demonstrated in the following text.

Heinlein, a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, after being invalided from the Navy because of tuberculosis, tried several professions without much success and eventually turned his hand to writing. His first published work was the short story "Life-Line" in 1939. During the pre-war years, he quickly became the leading figure in the world of pulp science-fiction. In 1941, he was Guest of Honor at the World Science Convention in Denver Colorado at which time he made the speech in this section. (2) He was very prolific during the pre-war years, writing under his own name and several pseudonyms.

After the war, he attempted and succeeded in branching out from the pulp market, publishing a number of stories in the Slicks, including The Saturday Evening Post and started a long relationship with Scribner's, publishing a book each year aimed at the boys market. His entire body of work, and, especially his so-called juveniles inspired a generation of readers to seek careers in science and engineering and directly influencing humanity's beginning steps into space exploration.

In recognition of his meritorious service to the Nation and mankind in advocating and promoting the exploration of space, he received, posthumously from Congress, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Distinguished Public Service Medal. Through dozens of superbly written novels and essays and his epoch-making movie "Destination Moon," he helped inspire the Nation to take its first step into space and onto the Moon. Even after his death, his books live on as testimony to a man of purpose and vision, a man dedicated to encouraging others to dream, explore, and achieve. (3)

He was technical director on the movie Destination Moon, for which he co-wrote the script, loosely based on his first "juvenile." This became the first film to accurately portray space travel.

His final novel offered to Scribner's was the controversial Starship Troopers. Scribner's refused to publish it. Heinlein broke the Scribner's connection and took the book to G.P. Putnam's and won his second Hugo with it. It still generates enormous interest and debate to this day more than half a century after its first publication.

At the 1941 WorldCon convention, he spoke of Korzybski and GS:
  I saved for the last on that list of the books that have greatly
  affected me, that to my mind are key books, of the stuff I've plowed
  through, a book which should head the list on the must list. I wish
  that everyone could read the book. There aren't many copies of it,
  and everyone can't, nor could everyone read this particular book. All
  of you could--you've got the imagination for it. It's Science and
  Sanity by Count Alfred Korzybski, one of the greatest Polish
  mathematicians when he went into the subject of symbology and started
  finding out what made us tick, and then worked up in strictly
  experimental and observational form from the preliminary work of E.
  T. Bell.

  A rigor of epistemology based on E.T. Bell [break in transcript
  here--some words lost] ... symbology of epistemology. The book
  refers to the subject of semantics. I know from conversation
  with a lot of you that the words epistemology and semantics are
  not unfamiliar to you. But because they may be unfamiliar to some,
  I'm going to stop and give definitions of those words.

  Semantics is simply a study of the symbols we use to communicate.
  General Semantics is an extension of that study to investigate how
  we evaluate the use of those symbols. Epistemology is the study of
  how we know what we know. Maybe that doesn't sound exciting. It is
  exciting, it's very exciting. To be able to delve back into your own
  mind and investigate what it is you know, what it is you can know,
  and what it is that you cannot possibly know, is, from a standpoint
  of intellectual adventure, I think, possibly the greatest adventure
  that a person can indulge in. Beats spaceships.

  Incidentally, any of you who are going to be in Denver in the next
  five or six weeks will have an opportunity, one of the last
  opportunities, to hear Alfred Korzybski speak in person. He will be
  here at a meeting (similar to this) of semanticians from all over the
  world; McLean from Los Angeles, and Johnson from Iowa, and Reisser
  from Mills College and Kendig and probably Hayakawa from up in
  Canada--the leading semanticians of the world--to hear
  Korzybski speak. (4)

  It is much better to hear him speak than it is to read his books. He's
  limited by the fact that he's got to stick to the typewriter,
  to the printed word,

  but when he talks, when he talks, it's another matter! He gestures,
  he's not tied down with his hands to the desk the way I am, he walks,
  stumps all around the stage, and waves his hands, and when he's
  putting quotation marks on a word, he puts them on ... [illustrates,
  audience laughs]. And you really gather what he means. Incidentally,
  he looks like Conan Doyle's description of Professor Challenger if
  Professor Challenger had shaved his beard. Dynamic character.

  You may not like him personally, but he's at least as great a man as
  Einstein, at least, because his field is broader. The same kind of
  work that Einstein did, the same kind of work using the same methods,
  but in a much broader field, much closer to human relationships. I
  hope that some of you will be able to hear him [Kondo, Robert A.
  Heinlein, Requiem and Tributes to The Grand Master, pp. 221-222].

Heinlein's first introduction to GS was through Stuart Chase's book The Tyranny of Words [Gladstone, "Words, Words, Words: Robert Heinlein and General Semantics"]. He subsequently read Science and Sanity and met S.I. Hayakawa, an early proponent of GS and author of Language in Thought and Action, a very popular book on the subject. This book became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and introduced many people to GS. However, some consider it a somewhat misleading and watered-down version of GS [Kodish, "In The Name of Skepticism: Martin Gardner's Misrepresentations of General Semantics"].

Heinlein was very impressed by him [Schulman, The Robert Heinlein Interview and Other Heinleiniana, p. 156]. He appears in fictional form in a story in Heinlein's Expanded Universe, where he is referred to only as "Uncle Sam," and references are made to his famous Tam O'Shanter and other distinguishing characteristics [Kondo, Robert A. Heinlein, Requiem and Tributes to The Grand Master, pp. 577- 579]. (5)

Even though Korzybski always insisted on keeping the two fields, GS and "semantics" distinct and separate, Heinlein did not. There is no use of the actual terms "General Semantics" in any of his works. When any specific reference is made at all, he always uses the single term "semantics." As seen in the above quote, he considered GS to be an "extension" of "semantics." It seems likely that Heinlein picked up much of his terminology and usage from his earlier readings in The Meaning of Meaning by Ogden and Richards and possibly from Hayakawa as he, Hayakawa, also continued to combine the two terms [Kodish].

Heinlein became a member of the Institute of General Semantics and attended, along with his second wife Leslyn, at least two of Korzybski's seminars in GS in Chicago in 1939 and 1940 [Gladstone] and a local one in Los Angeles in 1939. At one point, he wrote in his correspondence, published in Grumbles From The Grave, that he thought seriously on writing a book on General Semantics [Heinlein, Grumbles From The Grave, p. 12]. (He mentions in this reference having attended five GS seminars. Two of these were probably local ones, which may not have involved Korzybski himself.) [Stockdale, private correspondence].

Heinlein made use of an extended GS "thalamo-cortical" pause in dealing with the war news after Pearl Harbor.

Letter to John W. Campbell on December 21, 1941
  In re-mental-ostrichism and boycotting the war news: A long time ago
  I learned that it was necessary to my own mental health to insulate
  myself emotionally from everything I could not help and to restrict
  my worrying to things I could help. But wars have a tremendous
  emotional impact and I have a one-track mind. In 1939 and 1940 I
  deliberately took the war news about a month late, via Time magazine,
  in order to dilute the emotional impact. Otherwise I would not have
  been able to concentrate on fiction writing at all. Emotional
  detachment is rather hard for me to achieve, so I cultivate it by
  various dodges whenever the situation is one over which I have no
  control [Heinlein, Grumbles From The Grave, p. 29].

Heinlein's Correspondence with John W. Campbell

Heinlein had an extensive correspondence with John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, (hereinafter ASF), magazine started in 1939, before the publication of his first story and continuing through the 1950s.

These letters present us with somewhat of a puzzle. In them, Heinlein continued to praise GS and recommend it to Campbell. He even offered to write a popular article based on GS for ASF's readers. He explained as much as he could to Campbell about GS and noted that he put in as much in his fiction as he could about GS to encourage the reader's interest in it, but noted that it was almost impossible to get it across to even an intelligent reader because of the ingrained habits and structure of language, which was used in discussing the subject [RAH-JWC 4/9/1941]. In another letter later that year, he stated, "My references to semantics have been intended to stimulate rather than instruct" [RAH-JWC 9/28/1941].

In the April letter, he stated that he felt that all the available material presented problems to the beginning learner. Chase, The Tyranny of Words, he considered a "shoddy pamphlet" written by a man with "no grasp of mathematics nor epistemology"; Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, he considered "superficial"; Wendell Johnson, (not named, but presumably People in Quandries), he said was "too specialized" and "assumed that the reader is already correctly oriented"; and Korzybski himself, Science and Sanity, he said was "repetitious and almost unreadable."

The characterization of S&S is somewhat at odds with the praise that he heaped on it later that year at Worldcon, although he did say there that "not everyone could read it," and listed "imagination" as a requirement.

More troubling than these, however, are comments that he made in a letter much later. Unlike John Campbell, Heinlein did not become enamored of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics. He did, however, agree with him in his assessment about orthodox psychotherapy. "Those think doctors couldn't find their bums with both hands."

It was at this point that he said:
  "Korzybski was damn near as bad as the rest. He made some very sound
  contributions to symbology and some very shrewd quesses as to the
  possible effects of inadequate symbology--a lot of the rest of his
  system was pure bushwah and I got into some horrid arguments with him
  over it ..."

What are we to make of this comment, which appears to be not only in conflict with most everything else he said about GS but also seems to have had no effect whatsoever on his GS usage in his works even after that date?


"Gulf," copyrighted in 1949, came about as a request from the editor of the pulp science-fiction magazine Astounding, John W. Campbell, to "fulfill" the "prophecy" of a fan who had written a spoof letter commenting on stories, which had appeared in November 1949 issue of Astounding (This letter appeared in the 1948 issue). Among the stories mentioned was "Gulf" by Anson MacDonald, an early pseudonym of Heinlein's. After agreeing to Campbell's request, Heinlein, in a brainstorming session with his wife Virginia, first came up with the idea of a story based on a human child raised by Martians [Heinlein, Grumbles From The Grave, p. 52]. But he realized that it would take far more than just a short story to tell that one fully and so after writing up his notes on this Mowgli takeoff, and putting them aside, he wrote "Gulf" using the second of the two ideas developed at that time, "what is a superman?"

Even though numerous GS references are found in the majority of his works, "Gulf" is possibly the densest and richest of all Heinlein's fiction utilizing such references as major plot elements, with the exception of For Us, The Living, and Stranger In A Strange Land itself the result of the original idea for "Gulf."
  As I stated earlier, my original desire was to find out indeed if
  Korzybski had been the source of the notion Heinlein mentioned not
  only in "Gulf" but also in "Blowups Happen" and Between Planets to
  the effect that 'thinking' could only be done using "symbols." The
  quote in "Gulf" was: Even before World War II Alfred Korzybski had
  shown that human thought was performed, when done efficiently, only
  in symbols; the notion of "pure" thought free of abstracted speech
  symbols, was merely fantasy. The brain was so constructed as to work
  without symbols only on the animal level; to speak of "reasoning"
  without symbols was to speak nonsense [Heinlein, "Gulf", p. 56].

Actually, I found nothing to indicate that Korzybski claimed or "proved" any such thing. As part of GS, he defined the concept of "multiordinality" of terms, i.e., the different meanings of a term due to its application at different levels of abstraction. Applying this term to this quote, we find that Korzybski differentiated two types of "thinking" as shown below: "non-verbal" or "objective level" thinking versus "verbal level thinking." (He first labels nonverbal "thinking" as "contemplating" and later as "thinking.")
  There is a tremendous difference between "thinking" in verbal terms,
  and "contemplating," inwardly silent, on nonverbal levels, and then
  searching for the proper structure of language to fit the supposedly
  discovered structure of the silent processes that modern science
  tries to find. If we "think" verbally, we act as biased observers and
  project onto the silent levels the structure of the language we use,
  so remaining in our rut of old orientations which make keen, unbiased
  observations ("perceptions"?) and creative work well-nigh impossible.
  In contrast, when we "think" without words, or in pictures or
  visualizations (which involve structure and, therefore, relations),
  we may discover new aspects and relations on silent levels, and so
  may formulate important theoretical results in the general search for
  a similarity of structure between the two levels, silent and verbal.
  Practically all important advances are made in that way [Korzybski,
  "The Role of Language In The Perceptual Processes", p. 20].

Note specifically that Korzybski explicitly used the phrase "'think' without words."

Heinlein appears to misunderstand, overlook, or simply ignore for fictional purposes, Korzybski's observation that both man and animals "think" with "abstractions" on the nonverbal levels and animals do so even to a limited extent on the verbal levels, as shown by the Structural Differential, but that man differs from animals by his ability to go beyond the limited abstractive ability of animals and is able to abstract higher and higher verbal levels without limit and, most importantly, can preserve those "thoughts" in forms "outside the body," in writing or in speaking.

Korzybski's notion of "efficiency," which Heinlein referred to had nothing to do with the differences in the capabilities between man and animal, but in the fact that language, the means of time-binding with its verbal abstractions, can either match the true structure of reality and be efficient or fail to match and be not just inefficient, but wrong!

In this quote, Korzybski, like B.L Whorf [Whorf, "Science and Linguistics"], directly states that high-level verbal abstractions can influence the low-level abstractions and consequently the way the world is perceived.

From the quote above:
  If we "think" verbally, we act as biased observers and project onto
  the silent levels the structure of the language we use, so remaining
  in our rut of old orientations which make keen, unbiased observations
  ("perceptions"?) and creative work well-nigh impossible.

  Thus, it becomes imperative for "efficiency" to create languages with
  Structures, which do not force us to "act as biased observers and
  project onto the silent levels [that incorrect] structure."

Regardless of what he said above, Heinlein did reflect this last point in "Gulf":
  [Relations, Non-elementalism, Multi-Valued Logic, Aristotelian,

  A symbolic structure, invented instead of accepted without question,
  can be made similar in structure to the real-world to which it
  refers. The structure of Speedtalk [see discussion below] did not
  contain the hidden errors of English; it was structured as much like
  the real world as the New Men could make it. For example, it did not
  contain the unreal distinction between nouns and verbs found in most
  other languages. The world--the continuum known to science and
  including all human activity--does not contain "noun things" and
  "verb things"; it contains space-time events and relationships
  between them. The advantage for achieving truth, or something more
  nearly like truth, was similar to the advantage of keeping account
  books in Arabic numerals rather than Roman.

  All other languages made scientific, multi-valued logic almost
  impossible to achieve; in Speedtalk it was as difficult not to be
  logical. Compare the pellucid Boolean logic with the obscurities of
  the Aristotelian logic it supplanted.

  Paradoxes are verbal, do not exist in the real world--and Speedtalk
  did not have such built into it. Who shaves the Spanish Barber?
  Answer: follow him around and see. In the syntax of Speedtalk the
  paradox of the Spanish Barber could not even be expressed, save as a
  self-evident error [Heinlein, "Gulf", p. 53].

In this quote, we also find another principles of GS, namely that of the subject of "multi-valued" logic. The Polish mathematician Lukasiewicz had gone beyond the strict Aristotelian logic of two-valued either-or, yes-no, true-false logic and had created a three-valued logic [Lukasiewicz, "Probabilistic and Truth-Functional Many-Valued Logic Programming"]. Other mathematicians, especially Tarski, following him developed not only multi-valued logics but also potentially, infinite-valued logics. It was partially this that caused Korzybski to term his system, non-Aristotelian. In doing so, he treated classic Aristotelian logic as a special case of multivalued logics.

The phrase from the quoted section above about "space-time events and relationships between them" forms the basis of Korzybski's meaning of the term "structure." Korzybski maintained that the only "knowledge" that we have is in the "abstractions" that we make from direct perception of the world "outside-our-skin" and the inferences as to the structure, (relations), of that world that we make based on those abstractions (especially correct inferences, which are found by utilizing correctly the scientific method):

I repeat here Korzybski's statement on this subject:
  As words are not the things we are talking about, the only possible
  link between the objective world and the verbal world is structural.
  If the two structures are similar, then the empirical world becomes
  intelligible to us--we 'understand', we can adjust ourselves,. If we
  carry out verbal experiments and predict, these predictions are
  verified empirically. If the two structures are not similar, then our
  predictions are not verified--we do not 'know', we do not
  'understand', the given problems are 'unintelligible' to us., we do
  not know what to do to adjust ourselves [Korzybski, "The Role of
  Language in the Perceptual Process", p. 5].

In this connection, Heinlein also, in the same section referring to "space-time events" as opposed to "noun things" and "verb things," relates the reader to the GS concept that the subject-predicate form of language is inherently poorly structured to correctly correspond to reality [Korzybski, "Science and Sanity: An Introduction to the Second Edition", p. xliv].

When I spoke above about the distinction between animals and man, I was indirectly referring to Korzybski's main term that he used for this distinction--namely, time-binding [Korzybski, Manhood of Humanity, p. 4]. Because of the ability to abstract indefinitely from nonverbal levels by virtue of symbols to any number of verbal levels and record those abstractions outside the body, language becomes the means for man to pass on accumulated knowledge from one generation to the next or to one another. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find this quote in "Gulf":

  The arrangement, classification, and accessibility of knowledge
  remains in all ages the most pressing problem. With the New Men,
  complete and organized memory licked most of the problem and rendered
  record keeping, most reading and writing--and most especially the
  time-destroying trouble of rereading--unnecessary. The autoscriber
  gadget, combined with a "librarian" machine that could "hear" that
  portion of Speedtalk built into it as a filing system, covered most
  of the rest of the problem. New Men were not cluttered with endless
  bits of paper. They never wrote memoranda [Heinlein, "Gulf", p. 59].

This was New Man's recognition of time-binding and the use of a fictional methodology to accomplish it.

"Gulf" does highlight a definite difference between Heinlein and Korzybski. Korzybski contends that the principles of GS are available to all men, even more so to children who have not been subjected to as much "semantic distortion" as have their elders [Korzybski, "Science and Sanity: An Introduction to the Second Edition", p. 254]. Real non-fictional GS excludes, of course, the fictional abilities to use Speedtalk [see discussion below] and telepathy.

Heinlein, on the other hand, posits "better thinking" only for "New Man" and, in addition, replaces "language" with "thought" as the manlanimal differential.

[Keys: Time-Binding, Semantics, Semantic Reactions, Relations, Thinking]

"You show disturbing symptoms of being homo novis, Joe, in a sloppy, ignorant, untrained fashion. Not likely, but you just might be one of the breed. Now--what is man? What is the one thing he can do better than animals which is so strong a survival factor that it outweighs all the things that animals of one sort or another can do much better than he can?"

"He can think."

"I fed you that answer; no prize for it Okay, you pass yourself off a man; let's see you do something. What is the one possible conceivable factor--or factors, if you prefer--which the hypothetical superman could have, by mutation or magic or any means, and which could be added to this advantage which man already has and which has enabled him to dominate this planet against the unceasing opposition of a million other species of fauna? Some factor that would make the domination of man by his successor, as inevitable as your domination over a hound dog? Think, Joe. What is the necessary direction of evolution to the next dominant species?"

[Some passages here are excerpted and discussed below]

"To be able to think better," Gilead answered almost instantly [Heinlein "Gulf", pp. 44-45].

Since, in Heinlein's view, speech equals thought, he introduces the notion of Speedtalk to enable New Man to think better. Speedtalk is GS only to the extent that it is a language based on correctly "mapping" verbal symbols to the structure or reality.
  Long before, Ogden and Richards had shown that eight hundred and
  fifty words were sufficient vocabulary to express anything that could
  be expressed by "normal" human vocabularies, with the aid of a
  handful of special words--a hundred odd--for each special field, such
  as horse racing or ballistics [Ogden, Basic English: A General
  Introduction with Rules and Grammar]. About the same time,
  phoneticians had analyzed all human tongues into about a hundred-odd
  sounds, represented by the letters of a general phonetic alphabet. On
  these two propositions, Speedtalk was based.

  To be sure, the phonetic alphabet was much less in number than the
  words in Basic English. But the letters representing sound in the
  phonetic alphabet were each capable of variation several different
  ways--length, stress, pitch, rising, falling. The more trained an ear
  was the larger the number of possible variations; there was no limit
  to variations, but, without much refinement of accepted phonetic
  practice, it was possible to establish a one-to-one relationship with
  Basic English so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire
  word in a "normal" language, one Speedtalk word was equal to an
  entire sentence. The language consequently was learned by letter
  units rather than by word units--but each word was spoken and
  listened to as a single structured gestalt.

  But Speedtalk was not "shorthand" Basic English. "Normal" languages,
  having their roots in days of superstition and ignorance, have in
  them inherently and unescapably wrong structures of mistaken ideas
  about the universe. One can think logically in English only by
  extreme effort, so bad it is as a mental tool. For example, the verb
  "to be" in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every single one
  of which is false-to-fact [Heinlein, "Gulf", pp. 52-53].

Note that Heinlein continues with substituting Korzybski's time-binding with thinking. When it comes to telepathy, another power of New Man, we find further indications of this notion of thought equaling speech.
  At telepathy, he was erratic to exasperation. He called the Rhine
  cards once without a miss, then had poor scores for three weeks. More
  highly structured communication seemed quite beyond him, until one
  day without apparent cause but during an attempt to call the cards by
  telepathy, he found himself hooked in with Weems for all of ten
  seconds--time enough for a thousand words by Speedtalk standards.

  --it comes out as speech]

  --why not? thought is speech [Heinlein, "Gulf", p. 57].

Since thought equals speech and Speedtalk reduces the time necessary to produce speech Heinlein reached the following conclusion:
  Living time, is not calendar time; a man's life is the thought, that
  flows through his brain. Any man capable of learning Speedtalk had an
  association time at least three times as fast as an ordinary man.
  Speedtalk itself enabled him to manipulate symbols approximately
  seven times as fast as English symbols could be manipulated. Seven
  times three is twenty-one; a new man had an effective life time of at
  least sixteen hundred years, reckoned in flow of ideas [Heinlein,
  "Gulf", p. 56].

In the earlier speech on "thinking better," I excerpted several paragraphs. These paragraphs combined with this quote immediately above itself show the first possible contradiction, in my opinion, to Heinlein's claim of no thought without symbols:
  [Semantic Reactions, Abstractions, Thinking]

  Gilead engaged in contemplation for what was for him a long time.

  There were so many lovely attributes that a man might have: to be
  able to see both like a telescope and microscope, to see the insides
  of things, to see throughout the spectrum, to have hearing of the
  same order, to be immune to disease, to grow a new arm or leg, to fly
  through the air without bothering with silly gadgets like helicopters
  or jets, to walk unharmed the ocean bottom, to work without tiring--

  Yet the eagle could fly and he was nearly extinct, even though his
  eyesight was better than man's. A dog has better smell and hearing;
  seals swim better, balance better, and furthermore can store oxygen.
  Rats can survive where men would starve or die of hardship; they are
  smart and pesky hard to kill. Rats could--

  Wait! Could tougher, smarter rats displace man? No, it just wasn't in
  them; too small a brain.

  Gilead answered almost instantly [Heinlein, "Gulf", pp. 44-45].

The contradiction comes from the fact that the very first quote stated that "thinking could only be done in symbols" and, later much emphasis is placed on the savings of time due to the compression of thought brought about by Speedtalk.

Note two things: at the beginning of the passage is stated, "Gilead engaged in contemplation for what was for him a long time" and at the end, "Gilead answered almost instantly."

It appears here that Gilead is "contemplating" and responding with virtually no hesitation even before he has learned anything of Speedtalk.

A similar occurrence of this occurs early in the story
  He felt a hand fumbling at the grip of his travel bag.

  He repressed a reflex to defend the bag and looked the speaker over.
  At first glance he seemed an under-sized adolescent in a smart
  uniform and a pillbox cap. Further inspection showed premature
  wrinkles and the features of a man at least forty. The eyes were
  glazed. A pituitary case, he thought to himself, and on the hop as
  well. "New Age Hotel," the runner repeated. "Best mechanos in town,
  chief. There's a discount if you're just down from the moon."

  Captain Gilead, when in town as Captain Gilead, always stayed at the
  old Savoy. But the notion of going to the New Age appealed to him; in
  that incredibly huge, busy, and ultramodern hostelry he might remain
  unnoticed until he had had time to do what had to be done.

  He disliked mightily the idea of letting go his bag. Nevertheless it
  would be out of character not to let the runner carry the bag; it
  would call attention to himself--and the bag. He decided that this
  unhealthy runt could not outrun him even if he himself were on
  crutches; it would suffice to keep an eye on the bag.

  "Lead on, comrade," he answered heartily, surrendering the bag. There
  had been no hesitation [italics mine] at all; he had let go the bag
  even as the hotel runner reached for it [Heinlein, "Gulf", p. 8].

If we look at Korzybski's differentiation above the two types of "thinking," we see that these passages contradict totally the original claim of no "thought without symbols." We have to assume that Gilead's "contemplation" in these two situations was really done on the "unspeakable level" without any symbols, even though Heinlein is forced in a written medium to present them here as being in "symbols." The only textual evidence for this comes from the phrase, "He repressed a reflex to defend the bag" and from the use of the term "contemplation" to describe it. This from a GS perspective would be an example of the so-called thalamo-cortical integration, a significant part of GS theory [Korzybski, "Science and Sanity: An Introduction to the Second Edition", p. lx].

Following this line of reasoning, we see in "nonverbal thinking" as opposed to "verbal thinking" a difference in speed between these two "methods of thought." Thus, "no hesitation" versus the concern with the speed of thought in "symbols" might occur because "verbal thought" is definitely linear, whereas "nonverbal" thought might possibly be carried out in many parallel threads. This is strictly a speculation on my part.

I would like to note at this time that my original question was simply, did this concept of thinking only in symbols come from Korzybski? After just a preliminary study, I came to the conclusion that this was strictly a Heinlein invention, most likely for fictional purposes only. As support for this conclusion, there are later references in other works where he appears to hold precisely the opposite viewpoint. And it appears here that he is not consistent on the claim even in one of the very stories in which he makes it.

In addition, I would like to repeat that Heinlein generally, in his fiction, conflated the terms "semantics" and "General Semantics" into the single term "semantics," which he used throughout all his works. He partially differentiated the two in his 1941 WorldCon Guest of Honor Speech
  Semantics is simply a study of the symbols we use to communicate.
  General Semantics is an extension of that study to investigate how we
  evaluate the use of those symbols [Kondo, Robert A. Heinlein, Requiem
  and Tributes to The Grand Master, p. 221].

Heinlein mentions Ogden and Richard's Basic English in a number of other works also. In "Gulf," the significance is on the fact that Speedtalk is "Basic" only to the extent that it starts with a vocabulary of 800 words or so, but is not "Basic English." Instead, it is the "reality" structured language of GS mentioned above.

Before leaving the discussion of "Gulf," I would like to deviate slightly from purely GS aspects and comment on some other aspects of the Speedtalk language, which, however, do impact the "thought as speech" usage that Heinlein was describing.

From a Linguistics viewpoint, the compression of "thought" by using Speedtalk that Heinlein posits is strictly impossible. Phonemes are the means by which meaning is differentiated. A phoneme is made up of clusters of similar phonetic units, none of which by themselves can change the meaning of the phoneme [Bloomfield, Language, pp. 74-92]. The phonetic units which Heinlein speaks of arc precisely what allows Speed-talk to have 800 or more "words." Not only do languages have limited numbers of phonemes, but the representation of "words" by single phonemes, (not phonetic units), would produce totally unpronounceable clusters of consonantal phonemes and indistinguishable clusters of vowel phonemes.


While Drake emphasizes only Heinlein's use of real GS principles, for a complete record, it is necessary to note that he often used incorrect or extrapolated principles of GS or purely fictional principles which are not those of GS, presumably, to tell a better story. Among these were the following:

(1)"No thoughts without symbols." (6)

(2) Telepathy on both verbal levels as well as on the "unspeakable levels." (7)

(3) Word magic: using "structurally correct language" to manipulate events or objects. However, one might consider this similar to the speculation in note 1.

(4) Confusion between animallman thinking not based on their ability to create differing levels of abstraction.

Examining all his works, does in fact, lead me to the conclusion that he was correct in his letter to John Campbell where he stated, "My references to [General] semantics have been intended to stimulate rather than instruct."


(1.) van Vogt's works used GS as the main theme of the books cited below with the strictly science fictional capability of teleportation based on the premise that the user could force a 20-decimal "identity" between his representations of the two locations, allowing him to move between the two. As a speculation, we might consider that his "representation" or objective level object matched a feature of the "true" structure of the universe that could be taken advantage of.

In Piper's Murder In The Gun Room, the detective protagonist explains how he uses GS to solve crimes. Another character, who is a thinly disguised version of Piper himself, explains how he uses it in writing his stories. Other Piper works have numerable references to GS, especially relating to "high-level abstractions."

(2.) 1941 Worldcon Guest of Honor Speech.

(3.) Citation accompanying Distinguished Public Service medal awarded posthumously by the NASA to Robert Anson Heinlein, 1988.

(4.) This was the second American Congress on General Semantics. Korzybski, along with some of the others that Heinlein mentioned, were all speakers at this conference.

(5.) In addition to having Hayakawa appear in one of his stories, he also paid homage to Korzybski himself in "Blowups Happen" in the person of the character Lentz and in the character Groot in "Pied Piper". [Gifford, Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion, p. 150]

(6.) There are some passages in Heinlein's works [Stranger In A Strange Land, pp. 278-279], which allow one to reconcile his "No thoughts without symbols" stance by asserting that he is referring to "thinking" only on the verbal levels. This reconciliation is made possible by his claim that "any verbalizing race" will create words to represent thoughts that they have. It is fair to say, however, that most of the references imply the opposite.

(7.) In "Lost Legacy," Heinlein has an example of "thought" being projected telepathically on the unspeakable level.

Works Cited

Bloomfield, Leonard. Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1933.

Drake, H.L. "Semantics and Science Fiction of Robert Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt," in General Semantics Bulletin, Vol. 41, p. 132.

Gifford, James. Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion. Sacramento, California: Nitrosyncretic Press, 2000.

Gladstone, Kate. "Words, Words, Words: Robert Heinlein and General Semantics," in The Heinlein Journal, Issue No. 11, July 2002.

Heinlein, Robert A. Discovery of the Future. Chicago, IL: World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), 1941.

--. Expanded Universe. New York: Ace Books, 1980.

--. Grumbles From The Grave. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Hardcover, Edited by Virginia, Heinlein, 1990.

--. "Gulf," in Assignment in Eternity. New York: New American Library, 1953.

--. "Lost Legacy," in Assignment in Eternity. New York: New American Library, 1953.

--. Stranger In A Strange Land. New York: The Uncut Version, Ace Books, 1991.

James, Robert, and Patterson William H., Jr. The Letters of Robert A. Heinlein, Volume 1: "Correspondence of John W. Campbell, Jr., and Robert A. Heinlein", Heinlein Prize Trust. Forthcoming.

Kodish, Bruce. "Demarginalizing General Semantics", in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 2004.

Kondo, Yoji. Robert A. Heinlein, Requiem and Tributes to The Grand Master. New York: Tor, 1992.

Korzybski, Alfred. Manhood of Humanity, Second Edition. Engelwood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics, 1950. (Original work published 1921)

--. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Fifth Edition. Engelwood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics, 1994. (original work published 1933)

--. "The Role of Language In The Perceptual Processes," in Alfred Korzybski, Collected Writings 1920-1950, Collected and Edited by M. Kendig. Engelwood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics.

Lukasiewicz, T. Probabilistic and Truth-Functional Many- Valued Logic Programming. Germany: University of GieBen.

Ogden, C.K., 1930. Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar, London: Paul Treber & Co., Ltd. (1930, 1940).

Ogden, C.K. and Richards, LA. The Meaning of Meaning. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

Piper, H. Beam. Murder in the Gun Room, New York: Knopf, 1953.

Schulman, J. Neil. The Robert Heinlein Interview and Other Heinleiniana. Mill Valley, CA: Pulpless.Com, 1999.

van Vogt, A.E. "The World of Null-A," in Astounding Science Fiction, 1945. New York: Book version Simon & Schuster, 1948.

van Vogt, A.E. "The Players of Null-A," in Astounding Science Fiction, 1948. New York: Paperback Berkeley Publishing, 1970.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. "Science and Linguistics," in Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, edited by John Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956.

David E. Wright, Sr., has a BA in German, MA in Linguistics, and an MS in Computer Science. He is now retired and devotes his time in studying and writing. He has published severalseveial articles in The Heinlein Journal and two previous articles in ETC. He lives in Northwest Georgia with his wife Jennelou.
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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