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General semantics as critical thinking: a personal view.

We are witnessing the growth of a remarkable consensus that the
achievement of basic literacy ... is not a sufficient goal....
[Elementary and secondary school] graduates must not only be literate;
they must also be competent thinkers. (1)

IN 1967, AT THE AGE OF 17, after a serious injury that resulted from my own carelessness, I began to realize that much of what happens in my life is not a matter of destiny or fate. I am largely responsible for my patterns of evaluation and behavior. Certainly I cannot control all the events in my life, but I believe that I can influence many of them.

The Professional Person

My injury required a long recuperation that allowed me to think deeply about how to improve my thinking so I could avoid unnecessary mishaps. I decided to develop a logic-oriented way of life that was based partly on the popular Star Trek character, Spock. (2) I called it my "professional person" idea after it occurred to me that birds are better at being birds than people are at being people. Birds generally live up to their potential by building proper nests, finding food, and caring for their chicks to promote survival of the species. However, many humans, despite their tremendous potential for constructive, cooperative, and survival-oriented behavior, seemed to be falling far short of living successfully as rational beings.


Seeking Rationality

The most important thing I did to cultivate this new orientation was to become aware of my own thinking and acting. I wanted to behave more intelligently, so I began to change my patterns of thought and action that seemed irrational, impulsive, and unlikely to bring good results. I tried to learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others. I did not want to aimlessly stumble into adulthood, which is the fate of many teenagers who become premature parents, victims of addiction, etc. I preferred to cultivate a safe, healthy, and happy lifestyle. I felt responsible for shaping myself into the kind of person I wanted to be. As much as possible, I wanted to select the direction my life would take in my journey into the future. For me, rationality was the key to achieving these goals. So, at age 17, I began to develop my own style of "critical thinking" for the sake of a better life. There are many different styles, but here is a general definition: Critical thinking is "responsible and reflective thinking that is focused upon deciding what to believe or do." (3) It also "provides standards and criteria for gaining, assessing, and using information." (4)

The Value of Critical Thinking

Why is critical thinking important? One answer is that citizens in a democracy need to be rational, educated people who are skillful decision makers when voting or serving on a jury. Sustaining and improving our democratic way of life requires that we be active and informed citizens. S.I. Hayakawa wrote that "the task of the citizen today, to an unprecedented degree, is to distinguish sense from nonsense, confronted as we are by the greatest deluge of words that human beings have ever faced." (5) Along similar lines, Piaget maintained that "... [one] goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered. The great danger today is of slogans, collective opinions, ready-made trends of thoughts. We have to be able to resist individually, to criticize, to distinguish between what is proven and what is not." (6)

Critical thinking is important for yet another reason. From childhood onward, life repeatedly challenges us to cope with situations and problems that are not identical to those we dealt with in the past. If life were just a series of the same problems emerging over and over, one could mindlessly apply old solutions that worked before. But in a complex world that is constantly changing, we don't have that luxury. To increase our coping ability we need critical thinking skills to cultivate flexibility and creativity in our decision making and problem solving.

General Semantics: A System of Methods

These answers are compatible with some goals of general semantics, but I believe it is much more than just another style of critical thinking. Charlotte Read described general semantics as "... a general theory of evaluation based on modern scientific knowledge and postulates.... The system, of which general semantics is the modus operandi, was called 'non-aristotelian,' as it includes and goes beyond the traditional 'aristotelian' ... It represents a methodological synthesis of intellectual trends in the Western world that evolved during the first quarter of the twentieth century and earlier. It has both theoretical and practical aspects." (7) J.S. Bois claimed that "general semantics ... attempts to organize, in a well-balanced system, the cumulative findings of the human sciences of our time and to derive from this system rules and procedures for self-management and mutual understanding." (8)

General semantics is a system of methods that we can use to improve our evaluating skills. As an analogy, consider that, for self-defense, a kung fu master has learned a system of blocks, punches, and kicks. If attacked, the master is likely to be more efficient and successful in dealing with the threat compared to someone without a system who knows how to throw only one punch.

The general semantics orientation should be thoroughly learned and internalized so that it will work automatically, like the kung fu master's system of self-defense. If attacked, his internalized system has prepared him to launch techniques to defend against various punches and kicks.

General semantics can help us to perceive, think, act, and react more intelligently and rationally in response to the stream of expected--and unexpected--events in our everyday lives.

My vision of a multiyear critical-thinking program for junior and senior high school would include general semantics, but this alone would not be sufficient. Developing listening skills would be part of the program as well.* (9) Logic and statistical thinking also would be included. Evaluating in degrees of probability, rather than in terms of certainty or impossibility, is fundamental for a critical thinker. H.G. Wells predicted that "statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write." (10) Chess also could be part of such a program. "Chess playing helps children learn cause and effect, sequencing, timing, organization, patience" (11); "in chess, they must not depend on fate, but on themselves.... It stimulates intelligence, intuition, memory, imagination." (12) Such a program also should include an introduction to scientific method. (13)

Of course, there are other subjects that would be quite appropriate, but I believe that general semantics, because of its fundamental nature and its wide-ranging applicability, should be part of a critical thinking program.

* Mary Wise, Executive Director, International Listening Association, Center for Information & Communication Sciences, Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306.


1. L.B. Resnick and L.E. Klopfer (eds.), Toward the Thinking Curriculum: Current Cognitive Research (1989 Yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) p.1.

2. G. Sawin, In Memoriam: Gene Roddenberry, ETC 48, no. 4 (Winter 1991-1992) pp.452-455.

3. S.P. Norris and R.H. Ennis, Evaluating Critical Thinking (Pacific Grove, CA, Midwest, 1989) p.1.

4. S.P. Norris, Can We Test Validly for Critical Thinking?, Educational Researcher 18, no. 9 (December 1989) p.23.

5. S.I Hayakawa, The Task of the Listener, in M. Morain (ed.), Bridging Worlds through General Semantics: Selections from ETC (1943-1983), (San Francisco, International Society for General Semantics, 1984) p.203.

6. R.E. Ripple and V.N. Rockcastle (eds.), Piaget Rediscovered (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University, 1964) p.5.

7. C.S. Read, General Semantics, in M. Morain (ed.), Bridging Worlds through General Semantics: Selections from ETC (1943-1983), p.63.

8. J.S. Bois, The Art of Awareness: A Textbook on General Semantics and Epistemics (Dubuque, IA, Wm. C. Brown Co., 3rd ed. 1978) pp.16-17.

9. Ibid., pp.290-91.

10. H.G. Wells, in S.K. Campbell, Flaws and Fallacies in Statistical Thinking (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974). I highly recommend this 200-page introductory statistics book. In addition to being a very entertaining and readable book, it provides much valuable and highly relevant advice for people to use in avoiding faulty reasoning and for making sense of many kinds of information. From the Preface: "I have long felt that the university student ... could benefit from a non-technical book written with a view to helping him increase his ability to judge the quality of statistical evidence, and in turn, to make better-informed decisions about many facets of everyday life."--Stephen K. Campbell, University of Denver.

11. Chess Life (March 1980) p.6.

12. Chess Life (June 1980) p.8.

13. T.M. Weiss, E.V. Moran, and E. Cottle, Education for Adaptation and Survival (San Francisco, International Society for General Semantics, 1975) p.xv.
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Author:Sawin, Gregory
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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