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People in Quandaries: sixty years later.

WENDELL JOHNSON worked tirelessly through his life to create understanding of the processes of language and speech production. He developed a university-level course on general semantics, and it became one of the most popular courses at the University of Iowa, where he was a professor. He wrote more than 150 articles and nearly as many clinical and theoretical papers on the subject of language. And he published ten communications-related books, including People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment (1946)--which was a best seller for several years.

I was introduced to People in Quandaries in 1979, in an adult education course taught by IGS trustee Harry Maynard titled "How to Improve Your Thinking and Communicating Ability" (the course really should have been called "General Semantics 101"). Maynard assigned several chapters in the book over the length of the semester, but I found Johnson's ideas and writing style so compelling that I finished the text in the first month of the term. In the remaining weeks, Johnson's clear and engaging critiques on the usefulness of general semantics to solve problems of everyday living motivated me to read other GS classics, like Language Habits in Human Affairs (1941) and Language in Thought and Action (1949). I was determined to learn as much as I could about general semantics.

I recently reread People in Quandaries and found, sixty years after it was originally published, its advice and relevance for solving personal problems still superb. I was moved by the profundity of Johnson's thoughts, the elegance of his writing, and the excellent examples he used to illustrate the practicality of general semantics for everyday life. I hope when you finish this brief overview of some of the key points in People in Quandaries, you will come to the same positive conclusions as I did regarding this admirable work. (The subheads that follow, and quoted remarks, are from People in Quandaries--the subheads are chapter titles from the book.)

A Brief Overview of People in Quandaries


"This is a book about the problems we have in trying to live with ourselves and with each other. These problems, together with ways of dealing with them, are discussed from the point of view of general semantics. This point of view emphasizes those aspects of the scientific method that are useful in daily living."

Verbal Cocoons

Wendell Johnson was a counselor and teacher who spent much of his energy helping individuals to overcome their personal maladjustments. He observed such maladjustments often developed in people who are "frustrated and distraught idealists." They suffer from, what he termed, the IFD disease--failure to achieve high goals or ideals (the "I"), leads to frustration (the "F"), and after sufficient repetition to demoralization and depression (the "D").

Johnson found the ideals of "maladjusted individuals" problematic in three important respects: (i) these ideals are mathematically unlikely to be reached (e.g., the woman who wants to be a movie star in feature films; the man who wants to make a million dollars a year by the time he is 25), (ii) the ideals are very highly valued, so that one is devastated when they are not achieved (e.g., failing to become a member of a sorority or to make partner in a law firm), and (iii) they involve words with no external referents, or means of measurement--they are vague (e.g., the person who wants to be "successful," "wealthy," "beautiful," "popular," "famous," or "powerful.")

Because maladjusted people are idealists, they subject themselves more or less continuously to the experience of "failure" and so develop feelings of inferiority. "... these people have not learned the simple fact that there is no failure in nature. Failure is a matter of evaluation. Failure is the felt difference between what you expect and what you get."

Johnson maintains that the personal quandaries we experience are like verbal cocoons in which we elaborately encase ourselves, and from which we do not tend to hatch. "The particular structure of these cocoons appears to be determined in great measure by the structure of the society in which they are formed--and the structure of this society has been and continues to be determined significantly by the structure of the language which we so unconsciously acquire and so unreflectively employ. Simply by using that language and by living in terms of the basic orientation which it represents and fosters, we tend to cultivate the idealism and so to suffer from the frustration and demoralization which are so conspicuous in the lives of people in quandaries."

Maladjusted people are often unable to clearly describe what their problem is. Some talk a great deal, with an impressive verbal output, but never get outside their verbal circles. Others say very little, because they do not know how to express what they think and feel. Whatever the case, a general characteristic of maladjusted people is they have difficulty in specifying questions in such a way as to produce answers that would be relaxing, satisfying, and "adjustive."

An important characteristic of maladjusted people is they ask vague questions. Such questions cannot be answered with precision because the terminology of the question determines the terminology of the answer. Johnson further says that, "The particular questions we ask ourselves determine the kinds of answers we get, and the answers we get make of our lives, in large measure, the sort of lives they are." To improve the kinds of answers we get, and so improve our quality of life, Johnson recommends learning general semantics.

Never the Same River

The philosopher Heraclitus asserted, over two thousand years ago, that one cannot step in the same river twice. In saying this he was going beyond the assertion that no two things are exactly alike, to the idea that no one thing is ever twice the same. He was expressing a process-character view of reality, which is a foundational idea to science and general semantics.

Although change is a fact of life, many people resist it. A key reason for this is that our culture teaches us to heed and respect similarities over differences. This tends to produce sweeping generalizations such as "you can't change human nature," "like father, like son," "you get what you pay for," etc. Exceptions get swept under the rug with reference to the misunderstood proclamation that 'exceptions prove the rule.' People gravitate to evidence that backs up their generalizations.

But, "Once we begin to look for differences instead of similarities, it is practically impossible not to get new ideas. For the habit of asking 'How do these things differ?' or 'How might this be different?' is one of the basic techniques of originality and creativeness. And it is just such a habit that is required for optimal adjustment to a reality of process, change, flux with its consequently incessantly occurring differences."

The scientific method, a policy of subjecting "the word" to the test of experience and revising it accordingly, is an excellent technique to detect differences in things. That was shown in 1514, when Galileo climbed to the top of the leaning tower of Pisa and performed one of the first deliberately executed scientific experiments, in which he demonstrated that a heavy cannon ball drops no faster than a lighter one. Since then science has led the way to immense technological progress in our ever-changing world.

General semantics may be regarded as a systematic attempt to formulate the general method of science in such a manner that it might be applied not only in the arena of professional science and technology, but generally in daily life. "It belongs, thus, in a tradition of Galileo and Newton and Maxwell, of Darwin and Pasteur and Pavlov, of Peirce and Russell and Einstein--of Heraclitus--the tradition of breaking traditions as a changing reality and changing humanity require."

Science and Personality

"Calling it (the general method of science) common sense might be a mistake. It is simple sense, but it may not be very common. It tends to be very obvious--once stated or demonstrated. It is so obvious that one has to be extremely careful not to ignore it. Scarcely anything is more difficult to learn than something that is obvious. It is very much like trying to learn nothing at all, and it requires tremendous alertness to learn nothing. For example, most people, according to experienced swimming teachers, find it very difficult to learn how to float--apparently because there is nothing to learn. You don't do anything in order to float. What you have to learn is to do nothing that would keep you from floating. Learning general semantics--learning, that is, how to be scientific in the sense in which we are using the term--is very much like that."

"In addition to the unlearning or forgetting that is usually required of the student of general semantics, or of scientific method, there is demanded of him, as we have indicated, much learning of the obvious. There are two common reactions that we tend to make to whatever we label as obvious. The first is that we feel we have always known it, since it is difficult to believe that we could have overlooked it. The second is that we feel that it must be not important, because it is so easy to 'understand.' In either case we tend to brush it aside, to spend any if little time pondering over it, and so we miss its implications."

Science and Tomorrow

The following observation has even more relevance today than when Johnson made it sixty years ago. "Between nations and groups of nations, within nations, and within individuals in every quarter of the globe there is going on a tremendous and turbulent conflict. New ideals, new beliefs, new methods and ways of life are challenging old ideals and beliefs, old methods and ways of life. The old is prescientific and authoritarian; the new is scientific (and characterized by inquiry into the attributes of people and things)."

Although Johnson wasn't around to testify at the recent Supreme Court nomination hearings, he observes, from a scientific point of view, that you can't separate individuals charged with making legal interpretations from their statements about them. "The scientifically oriented person understands that what the Judge calls the voice of The Law is simply the Judge's own interpretation of the facts of the case at hand and of statements that other men have made ... the scientist, conscious of projection in himself and in others, realizes that the voice of the Judge is indeed the voice of the Judge himself."

When it comes to the subject of effective living, as we predict, so we adjust to reality. "(But) false knowledge and false assumptions make for false predictions.... Errors in prediction frequently incur physical injury, sometimes death. In the social realm they occasionally lead to depressions, widespread unemployment, international frictions, and wars." To counter prediction-error, Johnson recommends using a scientific orientation, as the making of accurate forecasts is a recognized objective of the scientific approach.

The World of Not-Words

"In a basic sense a fact is an observation. An observation is the act of an individual. So it is that a fact is a personal affair ... that is why a fact (considered as a personal observation) is necessarily incomplete: The individual who observes it is limited in observational capacity. And that, in part, is why a fact changes: The individual who observes it is himself changing continuously, and so he observes differently from time to time."

Like facts, word definitions are also inevitably incomplete. "People who are accustomed to look in the dictionary for the meanings of words proceed under a great delusion if they suppose that what they find in a dictionary is a word's full meaning. What they find is that the dictionary definition of a word consists of other words. Moreover, a dictionary is a closed system. In it, not only is a word defined in other words, but these, in their turn, are also defined in other words--and if you follow far enough this trail of definitions of words, you find that it is a trail that goes in a great circle, so that finally you make the enlightening discovery that the words are defined by each other."

The World of Words

"One of the advantages of writing over speaking lies, as a matter of fact, in the increased awareness of language that writing involves. At least, language that is written is not so likely to be forgotten, and it is not so likely to be uncritically accepted, as is language 'writ in the water' of speech. Certain primitive societies have managed to achieve rudimentary forms of culture and to survive for centuries without written language, but no advanced civilization was possible until the invention of writing and other methods of making more or less permanent records of symbolization, such as painting, geometry, and other mathematics, etc. Professor John Dewey once declared that the invention of symbols was the outstanding event in human history."

"The crucial point to be considered in a study of language behavior is the relationship between language and reality, between words and not-words. Except as we understand this relationship, we run the grave risk of straining the delicate connection between words and facts, of permitting our words to go wild, and so of creating for ourselves fabrications of fantasy and delusion ... It is also to be recognized that by far the greater part of what we communicate to others in the form of language is not words about facts in a direct sense; rather it is predominantly made up of words about words. Firsthand reports of direct experience comprise a relatively small proportion of the speech of most of us."

The words we use can fool us. "Because the words we speak today are quite the same as the ones we spoke yesterday, we tend to create the illusion that what we speak about is also quite the same. It can be serious enough when change takes us by surprise; what is even more serious is to have change escape our notice entirely. That is the condition of persistent delusion."

The Process of Abstracting

Professor R.D. Carmichael pointed out that the universe, as known to us, is a joint phenomenon between the observer and the observed. "Translated into the language of general semantics, this statement says that the process of abstracting is personal, private, and projective. The moment you say of any word or statement, that it constitutes an abstract, you imply that it is abstracted from something by someone. The words 'by someone' represent the fact that an abstract is personal or private.... And if abstracting is a personal process it must also be projective."

"In science as general method, at is best, the process of abstracting is cleared of semantic blockages and proceeds freely. Under such conditions it is self-corrective.... Any theory, assumption, belief, opinion, etc., is automatically referred back to reality to be tested against relevant observations and experience, and to be corrected accordingly. In this sense, any scientific theory contains the seeds of its own revision. That is why scientists are 'always changing their minds.' A scientific 'truth' is always tentative, subject to change in accordance with the further observations to which it invariably directs us."

The Language of Maladjustment

"It is worth special comment that, while it is probably widely recognized that people who talk very little are likely to be not altogether well adjusted, it is not so generally understood that glibness is quite as significant in this respect.... The very fact that in our culture a high value is placed on 'the gift of gab' accounts, in no small part, for the nervous striving for volubility which some persons exhibit. It accounts for the tendency of other individuals to lose confidence in their ability to speak acceptably and so become relatively quiet.... In this connection, it is of more than minor interest that often one of the most noticeable effects of the study of general semantics is to be seen in a tendency to delay one's verbal reactions, and to talk less, more slowly, with less agitation and more accuracy--and so with greater self-assurance and effectiveness."

Human maladjustment is fostered by certain types of language rigidity. Content rigidity is to be seen in the range and variability of topics that one speaks about; formal rigidity in the degree of monotony of sentence form, style, word usage, etc.; and evaluational rigidity in the persistence of verbally expressed beliefs. Johnson offers the following as an example of evaluational rigidity.

"It has been reported of a certain British colonial governor in Africa that he had been having great difficulty keeping the natives under control. One day, however, a friend visited him, sized up the situation and made a suggestion. With the governor's consent he ordered from London a generous supply of large pictures of Queen Victoria. When they arrived he placed them on the walls in all the native huts. The governor's difficulties ended as if by magic; the natives became very subservient. Bewildered, the governor asked his friend, 'Why on earth do these natives respond this way to a picture of Queen Victoria?' But his friend replied, 'Picture of Queen Victoria? Oh, no. To these natives it isn't a picture of Queen Victoria. It is Queen Victoria!'"

Language as Technique

"Man has been called the talking animal. Man is not the same as an animal, of course, precisely because he does talk. Animals have their problems and their tragedies, but man seems to be the only creature who can talk himself into difficulties that would otherwise not exist."

One of those difficulties is coming up with a useful definition of "intelligence." "Alfred Binet, the creator of the modern intelligence test, stressed the significance of self-criticism in his attempts to define intelligence. The extent and the effectiveness of one's self-critical tendencies are to be seen particularly in the questions one asks, especially the questions one asks concerning the validity and the significance of one's own beliefs and attitudes."

People in quandaries often have difficulty asking cogent questions. They also frequently exhibit other kinds of linguistic awkwardness. Johnson states, "The verbal ineptitude of people in quandaries is to be observed in extremes of verbal output; in dead-level abstracting; and in the elementalism, the absolutism, and the either-orishness of the structure of the language they employ. With a fair amount of practice one can become reasonably skilled in observing these characteristics of language behavior in oneself and in others. The ability to recognize them gives one a measure of control over them, and a degree of insight into the basic mechanisms of adequate evaluation."

Our Common Maladjustments

Johnson believes that aggression is in large measure a form of learned behavior. "This means it is not something to be taken for granted as a fixed item in human nature. It is learned, as most other behavior is learned, simply to the extent that it gets results--and to the extent that the individual recognizes no more effective means whereby he might obtain the same or more desirable results. It is this latter consideration that is crucial, from a general semantics point of view. For there are more effective means than maladjusted aggression to get more desirable results than it produces."

Mature individuals, and societies, do not instinctively resort to aggression to bring about the outcomes they want, and that is a good thing because impulsive aggression tends to produce negative consequences for all concerned. Surely, for the good of humankind and the survival of our species, it is important for people to behave in a mature manner. Johnson says this about achieving maturity: "For the normal adult the melody of childhood may linger on, but the song has ended; he does not permit the memory of early fears and affections to determine unduly his present conduct. He views his childhood as history, and he recognizes that evaluations and reactions adequate for him as an adult were neither necessary nor possible at the age of four. Growing up and achieving maturity for the individual is what the process of time-binding is for the (human) race. It is a matter of starting each new day not where yesterday began but where it ended."

And So, Forth

"It is the distinctive contribution of general semantics that it formulates the method of science in a way that makes reasonably clear the possibilities of its application to our personal and social problems. It presents this method, in fact, as a design for living in the every day sense of the word. It attempts to cut through the bewildering overgrowth of elaborate theory and technicality, and so reveal the heartening simplicity of the few notions, principles, and techniques that make up the fundamentals of science."

Johnson further states, "... there is something almost bold in the proposition that the method of science not only provides a means of investigating personality, but also represents in itself the pattern of behavior that constitutes normal personality. That is the fundamental proposition of this book, and of general semantics. The method of science is the method of sanity."


* Martin H. Levinson, PhD. author of many ETC articles, recently retired as director of PROJECT SHARE, a New York City school-based drug prevention program. Dr. Levinson also writes the ETC "Books" feature.
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Author:Levinson, Martin H.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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