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Introduction to "difficulties in learning to apply general semantics".

In June 2010, my visit to the Institute of General Semantics in Fort Worth, Texas, uncovered a three-album vinyl recording titled Difficulties in Learning to Apply General Semantics. According to the labels, the recording was of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of both general semantics and the Institute. After purchasing a record player that converts vinyl audio to MP3 files, I made digital copies of the original material, gave them to a colleague with professional transcription ability, and had her make a basic transcript of the lecture. Over numerous listenings of the approximately 45-minute recording, I carefully edited the transcript into what is now presented to you: a "new" lecture by Alfred Korzybski, heretofore unpublished and widely unknown to the general-semantics community.

In the opening by Korzybski's editorial secretary Charlotte Schuchardt, we learn that the recording occurred in late 1947 after the Institute had resettled in Connecticut, and it was apparently made in thef presence of Korzybski's student Kenneth Keyes, Jr., who is not audible on the recording. Instead of being continuous, the recording is punctuated by a handful of mechanical stops that leave the throughline of Korzybski's lecture unaffected. Korzybski's pace, however--which is incredibly slow--obscures his throughline, especially if you are attuned to interpreting short, quick sound bites. The transcript that follows this introduction aims to distill Korzybski's lecture from the recording to communicate concisely his elongated teachings.

Transcription and Time-Binding

If you have never prepared a transcript before, you may not be aware of the artistic decisions with which you are faced. You are presented with a territory (a soundscape), and you are challenged to provide a map of this territory in written words, punctuation, typeface, and notations. Sometimes the territory is of questionable importance, such as when a child's passing voice is heard in the background of the recording. Sometimes the territory is confoundingly indistinct, such as when Korzybski's exact English expression is unintelligible under his thick Polish accent. Sometimes the territory is open to interpretation, such as when a statement by Korzybski could be punctuated effectively in several different ways, or when his exact point is rendered vague by the lack of imagery, film, etc., that might aid a more informed interpretation of his speech. While the territory of this recording is largely important, distinct, and unambiguous, parcels of sound within its soundscape resist a straightforward, uncontroversial transcription.

Deciding importance, deciphering the unintelligible, and resolving ambiguity are obstacles for the mapmaker of a soundscape. When you encounter each of these obstacles, you are forced to make choices about how you will represent them (or not) within your transcript. Immediately, you realize the burden of responsibility you have in representing these sounds for others. Your map inevitably guides your audience's understanding of the soundscape, and one ill-placed comma or one disregarded noise could spell generations of misinterpretation if its passage is later quoted. After all, in transcribing for publication, you are involved intimately with Korzybski's notion of time-binding: You are learning now from a lecture recorded back then, and you are passing now the artifacts of the lecture to others in the future--both the immediate readers privy to your initial publication and later readers who uncover your publication generations from now.

Guiding Editorial Principles for the Transcript

To guard against misinterpretation of Korzybski in the recording and to communicate more concisely the teachings Korzybski presents in it, I feel it imperative to disclose my guiding editorial principles in polishing the transcript. There are, indeed, noticeable differences between my transcript and the actual recording, and these differences result clearly from the application of my editorial principles. However, these edits are in place to aid the literary consumption and general readability of Korzybski's lecture. An exact transcript of the recording--including disfluencies like coughs, ums, and the like--would not aid readability, and instead it would make gleaning Korzybski's throughline a tedious affair.

Therefore, I have not created an exact transcript; instead, I have created one that aims to import Korzybski's throughline as I understand it, as a student of the recording and as a student of general semantics. Suffice it to say, though, that this transcript serves as a nearly exact transcript of the recording, and very little material has been altered or left out excluding acoustics that do not aid the import of his throughline. Numerous notations should help you understand my artistic decisions, as should these guiding editorial principles:

1. Omit minor speech disfluencies, ambient sounds, and recording stops. The recording is not unusual in that the lecture includes the speaker's cough, several urns, and a number of false starts of sentences. I have chosen to omit these disfluencies because their inclusion contributes nothing of value to Korzybski's lecture and would muddle his message. The recording is unusual in that it includes a range of amusing atmospheric sounds. In addition to the child's voice and other noises, there is what sounds like the lighting of matches presumably for Korzybski's cigarettes. There is also the sudden emergence of cheery jazz music in the background of Korzybski's lecture. (It's unclear to me if the jazz plays in Korzybski's vicinity or is the accidental residue of another recording.) I have elected to omit reference to these ambient sounds in the transcript. Also, a number of times the recording stops, and then it starts again. None of these stoppages seems to reflect a loss of Korzybski's general train of thought; therefore, stoppages are not noted in the transcript.

2. Preserve Korzybski's grammar except where it makes a statement unclear. I wanted to preserve Korzybski's "voice" as much as possible in the transcript. Therefore, I have chosen, say, not to emend his inappropriate use of a singular noun where a plural noun is preferred and not to rephrase his occasionally winding sentences. However, in the few places where he drops words or uses inappropriate prepositions that complicate the reading of his lecture, I have made additions.

3. Put editorial additions in brackets. Additions to the transcript not occurring in the recording are in brackets. For example, this (and this) would be original material [but this would be my addition]. Occasionally, brackets offer a word different from what Korzybski uses in the original audio, because, say, Korzybski uses an improper preposition in conveying his message, and retaining the improper preposition would make his message needlessly confusing. I notate most brackets to explain my additions; if the brackets are without notation, the additions are simply for reading clarity. Bracketed comments in italics are to be read like stage directions in a script; they characterize Korzybski's attitude in the recording where his words alone don't convey his attitude. For example, [Chuckles.].

4. Use parentheses and dashes to break up convoluted original material. Korzybski's lecture sounds impromptu, so it is not surprising that he occasionally diverges from his immediate points to make parenthetical statements. To track his greater points and keep them readable, I have broken up parts of many sentences with parentheses and/or dashes. Usually parentheses indicate a point of less emphasis than the current throughline (like a side note). Usually dashes indicate a point of equal or greater emphasis than the current throughline--a clarification, a rewording, etc. My use of either parentheses or dashes, however, indicates ultimately what I feel best conveys the point Korzybski is trying to make at the given moment. That is, in the end, their use is artistic on my part, and a different editor might punctuate Korzybski's sentences differently.

5. Use straightforward transcription quotation marks (as opposed to korzybskian single quotes). In the recording, Korzybski provides no special intonation for words and phrases that he often single-quotes in his book Science and Sanity. It is of my stylistic opinion that single quotes (as advocated by Korzybski as "an extensional device") more obfuscate a writer's message than clarify it, particularly for a reader unversed in general semantics. For that reason, I have chosen to use a more standard, American quotation style in polishing this transcript. Doing so seems to me to create a more accurate map of the soundscape, leaving out guesswork on whether Korzybski would have wanted to apply single quotes around particular words or phrases in this publication. Double quotes are used in the transcript in standard ways: to indicate direct quotations and sayings, to denote actual words and phrases (for example, the phrase "for example"), or to offer unacceptable terminology in summation of accepted terminology (so-called "scare quotes," for example). Single quotes ("like 'these'") only appear in their standard way: to signal nested quotations.

6. Use italics to represent emphasized speech, to distinguish book titles and Latin, and to clarify Korzybski's points. The use of italics is fairly standard in the transcript. I usually use italics when it sounds as if Korzybski is adding emphasis to a particular word. Admittedly this practice is imprecise, given the difficulty in deciphering Korzybski's emphasis amidst his already emphatic style of speech. I also use italics to distinguish book titles and the term "et cetera"; these italics are not meant to communicate emphasis by the speaker. Lastly, I use italics, albeit rarely, to emphasize words and phrases that communicate Korzybski's point in given moments, even though he may not have provided corresponding vocal emphasis. In these instances, their use is artistic to ensure that Korzybski's points in the given moments aren't lost amidst the surrounding verbiage.

7. Break up passages into paragraphs and sections to improve the readability of the transcript and to clarify Korzybski's points. Obviously, paragraphs do not exist inside a soundscape; they are representational decisions. I have chosen to add paragraph breaks in places where acoustic cues from Korzybski aren't always given. In these cases, readability is often a factor, with the paragraph breaks improving the structure and clarity of Korzybski's presumed points. Section breaks (denoted by triple asterisks) are also representational decisions, and they aim to group larger points Korzybski makes, whether or not he cues the transitions. Again, these choices are made to improve the readability of the transcript. Ultimately, I defer to the recording for the best representation of Korzybski's sectioning of thought.

Deciphering Korzybski's Throughline

Despite these editorial principles aimed at making Korzybski's communication more concise, it may take several readings of the transcript of Difficulties in Learning to Apply General Semantics before you get his main points.

During much of the recording, Korzybski refers to nervous canalization and its electro-colloidal roots. These microscopic notions manifest macroscopically as habits of both speech and behavior, which at times lead to blatant psycho-logical disturbance and "'mental' illness." Korzybski emphasizes "work" as the proper antidote against these disturbing manifestations, in order to "recanalize" the nervous system and its corresponding electrocolloidal chemistry. In particular, Korzybski emphasizes work, at becoming extensionalized (i.e., putting more value in the non-verbal than the verbal) and work at lowering expectations from being maximal as means to defeat disturbance. The influence of Pavlov is powerfully noted throughout much of the lecture; it is Pavlov's work in classical conditioning that gives Korzybski faith in the ability of human beings to recondition their unsound habits. It would seem from listening to this lecture that disinterest in doing work on themselves is one major difficulty students have in learning to apply general semantics.

Another major difficulty in learning to apply general semantics appears to be the desire for general-semantics students, readers, writers, et al., to translate into "ordinary" language the teachings of general semantics. That ordinary language fundamentally misrepresents general-semantics lessons is Korzybski's basic message throughout the latter portion of the recording, an opinion bolstered by Leibniz's own disparagement of ordinary language. Korzybski suggests that non-verbal contemplation of general semantics affords a better understanding of it than a translation of its ideas into "popular" language does. He explains that use of his famed "extensional devices" better represents general-semantics ideas where they need to be understood or conveyed. (Korzybski's extensional devices are simple linguistic techniques that revise language to improve its structure and function, as well as heighten thalamic stimulation.) It would seem that to Korzybski, until ordinary language is foregone and extensional language is embraced, students will continue to have difficulty in learning to apply general semantics.


I hope you'll treasure this "new" lecture by Alfred Korzybski and reignite your interest in his teachings and work. As you read the transcript, keep in mind the famous korzybskian principle, "The map is not the territory." While the transcript may represent very well what Korzybski said, know that the actual recording presents countless more details, so the transcript is decidedly different from the recording. Never should the two be confused as the same or identical. The transcript is a map of one person's making, and more maps could be made by others of the recording's soundscape.

With that principle in mind, please enjoy Difficulties in Learning to Apply General Semantics.


I thank Victoria Libertore for her voluntary assistance in creating the original transcript from the recording, which saved me precious time in launching this project. I also thank scholar Bruce Kodish, who lent knowledgeable perspective on Korzybski and a critical ear in finalizing the transcript for publication. Korzybski's student David Linwood, then Levine, took time and energy in searching for a possible photograph of Kenneth Keyes with Korzybski to tie in with this project, attempts for which I am grateful. Lastly, I also thank the Board of Trustees of the Institute of General Semantics for providing the opportunity to visit the Institute and preserve these recordings.

Ben Hauck serves as trustee and webmaster for the Institute of General Semantics and works as an actor in New York City. Follow his general semantics blog at
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Author:Hauck, Ben
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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