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Primal general semantics.

The map can't ever give you a hint of how a pine forest smalls in spring, or how much effort or time it takes to climb up and down the mountains...Maps limit the imagination to fiat surfaces and dry streams.

What I Find most interesting about the above quote, recently written by a student in a freshmen composition course, is that she wrote it without ever having experienced writings or discussions by general semanticists.

I like to bring general semantics into my English class every now and then. I also like to keep my students writing, which is how I came to write, "The map is not the territory, the word is not the thing" on my board. My plan was to use the quote as a springboard for discussion, leading to a "teachable moment" during which I would help them rearrange their abstraction levels, or die trying.

"Please freewrite for about ten minutes in response to what this quote makes you think."

The first time I tried this, I did not expect a whole lot. I felt certain, though, that asking my students to freewrite first would make them more receptive to our discussion. We never got to the discussion. A fire drill interrupted us just as the students were finishing their freewrites. They handed them to me as they swept out the door, secure in their knowledge about the nearest fire exit on this particularly sweet spring afternoon.

Reading those freewrites revealed to me a confusion I had been making between "report" and "inference": people need instruction in general semantics before "knowing" general semantics. Sure seemed like a report to me! But then how did all of these great insights happen? How come so many of them described sophisticated general semantics principles if not always the using general semantics vocabulary?

We had not read Hayakawa, Korzybski, Lee, et al. But I kept getting responses such as:

"When you say the word "pencil" a very definite image comes to mind, but the word can not leave a mark on paper, and it doesn't snap when you hold it in your hands."

What a marvelous, extensional description of the difference between symbol/symbolized.

There seems to be something archerypal in the map/territory metaphor, something that touches us at a level modeled by Korzybski's structural differential. "We know more than we know we know," wrote Carl Jung. A prompt such as, "the map is not the territory..." somehow taps into that knowledge.

I am much heartened by this idea. It is a hopeful thing to think that since people come into the world hard wired for many things, why not hard wired for the underlying principles of a system such as general semantics?

I have tried the experiment often. I particularly like using the quote as a way to discuss poetry with my all-too-literal-minded students. One student responded to the quote with a poem of his own:

Not ever can a poet or crafty tome maker cue up better reality than: nose to rose, intake scent of God's touch in nature Of course, by writing this I am doing it! this map, that word is not ever the thing. Yet, a word is a thing. Or, is it not? Paradox, Conundrum, Irony Please knock on the door again I did not hear you the first time.

We seem to have an innate tendency to push ourselves into what Korzybski called "sanity," which tendency can happily respond to a friendly nudge or two. In my experience, the act of writing goes a long way to clarify and bring to the surface our ability to differentiate between map and territory.

If you teach - doesn't really matter what, all things lead to the "cosmic abstraction" anyway - you might like to try the experiment. Write the phrase on the board, or on a handout, or insert it as an extra credit, or weave it into your class in any way that makes sense to you. Then invite, demand, order, require, or ask them politely to write a freewrite in response. By "freewriting" I mean writing freely, without worrying about spelling or grammar or being good or, worse yet, being "correct." For this exercise it is important that people feel as relaxed as possible. Worrying about the "right" way to write does not relax people; do you remember the first time or two that you tried to sound eloquent in E-Prime?

If you do not teach, try the exercise out on friends or colleagues.

Not all of their responses will bring forth grand, "semantically appropriate" comments. But I suspect, that you will find, as I did, a general thread of insight woven into their responses.

Reading them can make you feel good about the human race again. As did this young man's words:

...the words you set down do not have to mean what they say...writing a poem cannot be like following a map. Feelings and ideas go off of the main roads, and head for the swamp or maybe the mountains or even the pasture where the flowers grow wild. Wherever your heart goes, let your mind follow and let the ink flow....

Vic Kryston lives in Lovettsville, Virginia. He teaches writing at Northern Viginia Community College. Vic co-authored the ISGS sponsored TV series, "Know What I Mean."
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Author:Kryston, Vic
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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