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Repositioning general semantics.

This paper presents fourteen steps leading to five specific suggestions on how we can usefully reposition general semantics.

Before starting on that, however, I must first fend off a comfortable, possibly even a cherished identification. In our jargon we'd express this identification as "[gs.sub.1] is [gs.sub.2]."

By "[gs.sub.1]" I mean the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski as embodied primarily in his magnum opus, Science and Sanity (S&S). (1) Therefore, by "[gs.sub.1]" I mean "[gs.sub.S&S]," or "[gs.sub.AK]," or in ordinary English, Korzybski's general semantics. We might also call it [gs.sub.1933], the year Science and Sanity appeared. Korzybski might have preferred the date subscript; by my tally he conditioned his statements in S&S with the date "1933" at least 126 times.

By "[gs.sub.2]" I mean the field of general semantics, a much larger collection of studies, outlooks, and activity than [gs.sub.1]. (2) To be current we could call this "[gs.sub.field, 1996]," or in ordinary English, the field of general semantics today.

Now clearly, to those of us who label ourselves as general semanticists, [gs.sub.1] is not [gs.sub.2], Korzybski's 1933 general semantics is not the field of general semantics today. Nevertheless, stating it so baldly may start to make us a little uneasy.

Perhaps this will help. This paper isn't about repositioning [gs.sub.1], Korzybski's 1933 general semantics. That's for historians. This piece is about repositioning [gs.sub.2], the field of general semantics today.

Knowledge Today

[Science.sub.1996] isn't [science.sub.1993]. [Science.sub.1996] has orbiting telescopes, the Internet, and DNA analysis. Advances in evolutionary research, genetics, neurophysiology, linguistics, and child psychology now permit us, I believe, to state the following with reasonable assurance.

1. Human neurophysiological structures and functions evolved in the usual way.

Put more picturesquely, our brain-wiring reflects the best unplanned survival technology of half a million years ago, not counting the more ancient prehominid and premammalian parts.

2. Many human behaviors derive from biological blueprints encoded in our genes, and these include the way we structure language.

Perhaps the clearest example regarding language structure shows up in the transition from pidgins to creoles. Pidgins are simplified languages that result from adult efforts to communicate with those who speak a different tongue. Creoles are the languages that emerge from children brought up in pidgins. (3)

Pidgins lack grammatical complexity. They may use rich metaphors, from the courtly description of Prince Philip as "fella belong Mrs. Queen" (4) to the surprisingly acute description of ashes as "shit belong fire." (5) But syntactically - in how they relate words and phrases to each other - pidgins remain simple.

However, raise young children exclusively in a pidgin and they turn it into a bona fide language with a complex syntax. It's hard to explain that transformation without reference to some kind of "innate" linguistic ability.

3. It appears, therefore, that many unsound semantic habits which [GS.sub.1933] attributed mainly to linguistic conditioning can now be explained in part as built in by evolution.

For example, it may once have seemed that children were naturally extensional until misled by language, but now the opposite appears to be true. Child psychologists have found that young children project many untutored beliefs onto events. Thus children are natural animists; they believe that moving objects are alive and endowed with purpose. (6) "Why," they ask on a night walk through the woods, "is the moon following me?"

Children routinely commit the semantic error we call identification; they believe that a thing and its name are necessarily linked, that the name of the sun, for example, is in the sun, an essential part of it. (7) But they also think clocks run on their own time, they confuse height with age, and they confuse speed with overtaking, as in a foot race. (8)

Now, linguistic conditioning in the form of repeated use of the "is of identity" makes a plausible explanation for the error of identification. But linguistic conditioning works less well as an explanation for animism, and not at all for the child's beliefs regarding time, height, and speed. The simpler explanation for all these findings is that they are innate.

4. We may then conclude that unsound language structure and language use, or some good parts thereof, reflect neurophysiological processes selected by evolution and transmitted genetically.

5. Thus, some presently unsound language structures and practices derive from once-useful semantic functions.

If it strikes us as odd that evolution produces unsound results, we need think only of our troublesome backbones and appendixes, or of the disappearance of dinosaurs and trilobites. "Unsound" here doesn't mean unsound at the outset. It means unsound eventually within a revised body plan or environment.

A transportation engineer confusing speed with overtaking would commit an obviously absurd error. But it's not difficult to imagine that view contributing to survival in a predaceous world. So would regarding whatever moves as alive and purposeful. So, too, would treating the beast you see as really being there, and reacting to its alarm-call "name" as you would the beast itself. I suspect most doubters with delayed reactions got eaten while young, and thereby deprived the genes prompting such behaviors of their chance to get passed along.

6. And therefore, every child today starts life with outdated semantic functions.

By "semantic functions" I mean to include everything involved in any kind of meaning whatsoever, including perceiving, constructing, interpreting, learning, deciding, behaving, imagining, and their underlying neurophysiological structures and processes, all of it.

7. Children outgrow the outdated semantic functions to some degree, but we don't know exactly how.

For example, the studies of Piaget and his followers provide an invaluable record of how children's beliefs and semantic abilities change as they mature. However, these studies don't yet separate clearly the changes governed by gene-driven maturation from those prompted by social, linguistic, and other experience.

8. Nobody knows the extent to which training can overcome our outmoded, innate semantic functions.

Indeed, we don't even have a good provisional catalog of the innate semantic functions to be overcome. Piaget's focus was on what happened in children up to about age 10, not on what could or should be done about it. Korzybski's focus was on what should be done about particular unsound adult semantic habits fostered by language. Unfortunately, their followers have tended to maintain the original paths; none has put the two approaches together. Thus nobody knows the true extent to which troublesome innate-human-semantic-functions could be improved by general semantics or other training.

English and Math

Let's now look at our two most important languages.

9. English is our most important general-purpose language; math, our most important limited-purpose one. Children acquire English easily, math with difficulty. This supports the idea that English is more "natural" than math.

Even so, English is not truly "natural." Poets, logicians, grammarians, philosophers, scientists, and editors have "improved" languages as far back as we have records. These changes automatically entered English as it emerged from earlier tongues. English, therefore, was never a natural language in the sense of reflecting only patterns wired into the brain.

[Math.sub.1996] differs enormously from [math.sub.500BC] because of discoveries traceable to particular mathematicians. (9) This traceability confirms that math is not a natural language so much as a gradually and painstakingly constructed one.

The fact that nobody becomes fluent in math without instruction shows that math fluency doesn't result automatically from gene-driven maturation. The fact that some people become math-fluent shows that we're not forever limited to the natural side of a general language. The fact that many people with long exposure to math still don't become math-fluent means that escaping those limitations is not easy.

10. Math and the "natural" part of English follow different logics.

For one example, math groups things in terms of classes based on common attributes, but young children group the things they feel go together into "collective objects." (10) Given tokens of a man, a child, a cat, and a horse, they put the cat with the child, and the horse with the man, because "children play with cats" and "men ride horses." Given squares and triangles, they place the triangles (which they call "roofs") above the squares and call them "houses."

Next, math favors a fixed one-word-one-clear-meaning vocabulary, which seems to reflect an inherited drive to identify word and thing. English favors a fluid one-word-multiple-meanings vocabulary obtained through metaphorical shifts. Thus, our innate wiring permits the word "over" to start out meaning simply "above," as in "the picture is over the mantle"; then to mean "covering," as in "there's grass over that part of the field"; then "from one side to the other of," as in "he flew over the field"; then "beyond," as in "she lives over the river"; and then "completed," as in "the play is over." (11)

Next, take the singular-plural distinction over which English makes a big fuss. English inverts "Three boats are our fleet" into "Our fleet is three boats." Math makes no such distinction; it just inverts "3b = f" into "f = 3b."

As a final example of math and English following different logics, note that English accepts "a dozen birds" but not "a twelve birds," "a few birds" but not "a many birds," "a hundred birds" but not "a ninety birds," and "many a bird" but not "few a bird." Math finds no sense in such variations.

11. Using English and math together inevitably runs the risk of putting the different logics of math and the natural side of English in conflict.

Because conflicting linguistic demands can make us acutely uncomfortable, English-math conflicts cry out for resolution. Most people resolve them by forgoing math; some mathematicians, by slurring over English idiom.

12. Contrary to most opinion, math habits are not necessarily better than general-language habits. (13) Thus more math training alone won't overcome our outmoded, innate semantic functions.

As noted in item #10, math categorizes in ways that run (a) counter to naturally occurring holistic associations, and math favors a fixed one-word-one-clear-meaning vocabulary, which seems (b) to reflect an inherited drive to identify word and thing. Poincare remarked that "Math is the art of giving the same name to different things," a practice (c) that, less artfully performed, supports religious, racial, ethnic, gender, and other prejudices. Clearly, then, a mathematical outlook can both disrupt useful inborn semantic habits (a) and help perpetuate harmful ones (b and c).

At the immediately practical level of my aviation work, analysts thinking mathematically measure airline service by counting schedules and comparing elapsed flight times. Analysts using the innate collective-object approach look for a convenient morning departure, preferably a nonstop jet, or the closest to that they can find, and then for a good return service. The mathematical approach happens to lead up a dead end; and the natural-language approach, to powerful insights. (14)

13. Thus, although we can't rely completely on either math or English, both are amazing languages with powers that we don't yet fully grasp.

Decision Making

These thirteen points relating evolution to semantic processes, English, and math also apply to decision making. Korzybski didn't study decision making as such. He said that "'morality', 'ethics'," and the like would follow automatically from general-semantics training. (15) I believe we've relied too much on that presumption.

For example, as I argued in another paper at the international conference, the split between "action" and "consequences" that permits us to highlight either and downplay the other, is clearly our most consequential (both for good and bad) elementalism. We need to use the term "alternaquence" and to add the "and then?" to our set of extensional devices. Yet, twelve years after my first article devoted exclusively to this matter (17), and several later efforts (18), few have responded. This continued failure to pay attention to the action-consequence elementalism certainly doesn't do much to support a belief that 'ethics' and the like automatically follow [gs.sub.1933] training. Perhaps the fact that the conference committee unanimously invited me to readdress the topic heralds a change.

Need for General Semantics

Anyway, before suggesting how we might reposition general semantics I must explore one last question.

14. Why do we need general semantics in the first place? Won't other disciplines do? Here's my answer, in ten quick unnumbered reasons:

* We need general semantics because how we think and talk about things obviously makes a difference.

* We need general semantics because inborn semantic processes are a jumble of views that apparently improved humanity's survival in a world of saber-toothed tigers, but that are now out-of-date.

* We need general semantics because each new child starts with the old outlooks, so that without semantic training, we won't stand still; we'll slip backwards.

* We need general semantics because adulthood doesn't guarantee sound semantic habits.

* We need general semantics because both English and math perpetuate parts of the outmoded views.

* We need general semantics because no other discipline has undertaken to look at this matter whole.

* We need general semantics to counteract the laissez-faire attitude of linguists who believe that because language reflects innate functions sanctioned by evolution it should be left alone. (19)

* We need general semantics to counteract the laissez-faire attitude of people who'd rather not think about how they think.

* We need general semantics to counteract the conventional attitudes of educators who urge us to do better at both math and English without realizing that the tensions between the two languages can only be resolved by rising to a new level of language instruction.

* Finally, we need general semantics because nobody has yet found a better avenue for updating brain function than through language. Maybe someday we'll rely on gene therapy and brain surgery, but our best tool today is language.

Repositioning GS

Now, here come this paper's most important points, the ones I promised at the start, the five specific suggestions on how we can usefully reposition general semantics.

1. We should reposition general semantics as a necessarily continuing update.

This means we don't have final answers, we keep learning, our message is not just [gs.sub.1] or [gs.sub.2], but [gs.sub.3], [gs.sub.4], and then too many changes to label. I suspect that otherwise the world-in-flux we champion will simply leave gs behind as another proposed improvement in human functioning that has seen its day.

2. We should reposition general semantics by reinforcing the 'general" part.

This means dealing explicitly with all known kinds of human semantic processes, whether innate, learned, carried by general-language structure, fostered by math, or happening to reach us in some other way.

Reinforcing the "general" also means looking at least a few hundred thousand years before Aristotelian formulations, rather than cleaving to Korzybski's too [narrow.sub.1996], although [justifiable.sub.1933], approach. (20)

3. We should specifically reposition general semantics as an aid to cognitive development rather than as a language reform.

This means recasting language as the prime perpetuator and amplifier of semantic processes rather than their cause.

I'm not suggesting that we abandon our efforts regarding linguistic structure. I wouldn't want, for example, to do without the extensional devices. I welcome the E-prime proposal, even though I'm not ready to jettison the verb "to be." (21) (I don't know enough about the proposal's practicality and its effects on laws and contracts, for example, and more fundamentally, about its eliminating identification and other unsound semantic habits.)

Regardless of how our efforts to reform language may turn out, note that even with a fully restructured general language and universal adult consciousness of abstraction, each new child will still need help in modifying such other inborn semantic habits as the beliefs that height reflects age, clocks run on their own time, and everything happens for a purpose.

4. We should reposition general semantics to show that both general language and math perpetuate inadequate semantic habits, rather than succumbing to the bias that ordinary English is inferior to math. (22)

5. We should reposition general semantics as a prime source of information on human semantic-process updating.

General semantics is one of many disciplines devoted to studying and improving human behaviors. We need to relate it better to the others to act effectively as a semantic-process-updating-generalist.

Korzybski was aware of the possibility of much of what I've said here. For example, he pointed out that "in general, identification or confusion of orders of abstractions are semantically natural for the infant" and that the child must pass through "semantic stages." (23) However, there was insufficient evidence in 1933 to blame evolution and neural maturation for semantic problems. Behaviorism held sway. The study of interior cognitive states was shunned. It was difficult enough back then even to recognize semantic problems in language.

In closing, I must note that some general semanticists, like Rachel Lauer at Pace, and Bob Holston at Hofstra, have their own way of repositioning our field, perhaps to reflect Bois's epistemics, (24) or critical thinking, (25) or other outlooks. I believe we are big enough to provide room for these and other approaches within the framework I've just presented.


1. Alfred Korzybski. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 5th ed. (Englewood, N.J.: Institute of General Semantics, 1994).

2. See, for example, the book list of the Institute of General Semantics, the communication resource guide of the International Society for General Semantics, and recent editions of ETC.: A Review of General Semantics and the General Semantics Bulletin.

3. Dan Isaac Slobin. Psycholinguistics. 2nd ed. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Fores-man, 1979.

4. Steven Pinker. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: William Morrow, 1994.

5. Paul Dickson. Words: A Connoisseur's Collection of Old and New, Weird and Wonderful, Useful and Outlandish Words. New York: Delacorte, 1982.

6. Jean Piaget. The Language and Thought of the Child. Translated by Marjorie Gabain. 2nd ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1932.

7. Jean Piaget, Language and Thought.

8. Jean Piaget. The Child's Conception of Time. Translated by A. J. Pomerans. New York: Ballantine, 1971.

9. Carl B. Boyer. A History of Mathematics. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley, 1991. William Dunham. Journey through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics. New York: Wiley, 1990.

10. Barbel Inhelder & Jean Piaget, The Early Growth of Logic in the Child: Classification and Seriation. Translated by E. A. Lunzer & D. Papert. New York: Norton, 1969.

11. George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

12. Comments on the difficulty of expressing oneself well in ordinary English appear in Notices of the American Mathematical Society and other mathematical journals sufficiently often to show that mathematicians are aware of some kind of disability. John Allen Paulos, whose grasp of English idiom seems secure, nevertheless wrote, "I have a difficult time writing at extended length about anything" (Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, New York: Hill and Wang, 1988).

13. See Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Edward MacNeal, "Looking Ahead: Why the Real Lesson of Vietnam Eludes Robert McNamara," ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 52, no. 3 (Fall 1995).

14. Edward MacNeal. The Semantics of Air Passenger Transportation. Norfolk, Va.: Norfolk Port and Industrial Authority, 1981.

15. Korzybski, Science and Sanity, xliii.

16. "The Most Consequential Elementalism," delivered also at Hofstra University on November 2, 1995, and to be published in due course in a volume of selected conference papers; meanwhile available gratis from the author.

17. Edward MacNeal, "The Flaw," ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 41, no. 3 (Fall 1984).

18. Edward MacNeal, "When Does Consciousness of Abstracting Matter the Most?" ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 43, no. 1 (Spring 1986), and "MacNeal's Master Atlas of Decision Making," ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 44, no. 3 through vol. 46, no. 4 (Fall 1987-Winter 1989).

19. See, for example, Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct.

20. Korzybski, Science and Sanity, passim.

21. See D. David Bourland, Jr., and Paul Dennithorne Johnston, eds., To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology (San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics, 1991) and its sequel with added editor Jeremy Klein, More E-Prime: To Be or Not II (Concord, Calif., 1994).

22. Edward MacNeal. Mathsemantics: Making Numbers Talk Sense. New York: Viking, 1994. See also note 13.

23. Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 513, emphasis in the original.

24. J. Samuel Bois. Breeds of Men: Toward the Adulthood of Humankind. New York: Harper, 1969. Portions were first published in somewhat different form with the subtitle Post-Korzybskian General Semantics.

25. Dr. Holston's position at Hofstra is director of the Center for General Semantics & Critical Thinking.

Decision theorist, author, and aviation analyst, Edward MacNeal is a contributing editor of ETC. His mathsemantic-monitor series now numbers ten articles.
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Author:MacNeal, Edward
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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