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Some basic ideas of general semantics.



General semantics can be defined in many ways. But certainly there is emphasis upon applying modern concepts of science to our skills of processing experiences. Improved human relations and better mental health, as well as keener ability to evaluate any human concern, can be major effects of training in general semantics. A broader definition might be, "the study of how we perceive, make meaning of, articulate and communicate our experiences."

Some Principles

1. Our modern world of "reality" consists of processes, sequences of events, patterns of relationship in a context of change. This concept of the world is consistent with modern science and mathematics.

2. The language with which we think and communicate has grown out of a less modern concept of reality: i.e. a world consisting of entities, instances, identities, categories in a context of stasis and absolutes.

3. When our semantic habits are out-dated, not consistent with the world as we understand it today, we pre-judge, mis-evaluate, draw false inferences, jump to conclusions, mis-label and often fail to understand each other. Human alienation and conflict escalate.

4. Our semantic habits (including observing, feeling, labeling, generalizing, reasoning, speaking, etc.) can become a subject for study. With study and practice they can be corrected to fit more accurately our modern concepts of reality.

5. Improving our semantic habits requires fresh opportunities for observing what goes on inside and outside of our individual skins. These opportunities should preferably include much that is non-verbal: practice in perceiving; distinguishing between fact and inference; noting similarities and differences; observing the infinity of relationships and sequences, etc. Then we need opportunities for listening, intuiting, feeling, weighing, and observing our body functioning. There also should be practice in using more accurate expressions to describe and communicate our experiences.

6. With improved semantic habits should come a heightened awareness that all fields of study are fundamentally related and basically interesting. Awareness of the kinship of one person to another and of people to nature should bring with it a greater appreciation of human worth and the necessity for mutual cooperation.

Some Basic Points

1. Map-Territory Relations

When we apply a word to an object or event in nature, we are not designating what the thing is. The word we use is only a symbol, like a map which describes a territory. Just as no map can actually be the territory itself, no word can be the thing itself. Frequently, we react to words as if they were the thing itself. Words as symbols can produce lovely imagery and pleasant associations. Words can also be used as threats, taunts, weapons. As such, they are used to produce rage, fright, conflict, etc. Being able to distinguish between the word and the actual thing can prevent unnecessary hurt and precipitous actions.

2. Non-allness

Words cannot cover all there is to observe about an object or event. Like maps, words are abstractions; i.e. they reflect a selection of features. No one can say all there is to say about an orange or a pencil dot, much less a person. Since there is always more to be thought and said, an "etc." must be implied in our forms of expression. Furthermore, no word or lecture can cover all about any category. The words "woman," "pencil," "hot," "sun" can be applied to an enormous variety of actual processes. Grasping the concept of "non-allness" helps people keep an open mind. What we hear or read is not the final truth. Etc.

3. Consciousness of Abstracting and Labeling

What one person abstracts (selects, notices, highlights) from his or her environment may be quite different from what someone else abstracts; yet, both may use the same label. The label "listen" can mean to give attention. And, it can mean, "Obey me!" Thus, we must focus less upon what the word means and more upon what the person means. Our own words may need much clarification to prevent misinterpretation. We need practice in checking our perceptions and symbols against each other's meanings and realities.

4. Non-identity

No two things in nature are exactly alike, and therefore words can only be approximations of the unique things they represent. We can speak of "women," but certainly woman A is not woman B. American X is not American Y. We must be very careful about the conclusions we draw from our general terms and categories. For example, to know that a given person is male, Republican, and an auto mechanic will tell us little about others with the same categories. Very little can be assumed about how he will treat his children or even how he will vote in the next election.

5. Probability Thinking

Events in nature do not occur with complete regularity. For example, a cat has eaten fish five nights in a row. Can we know for sure she will want to eat fish on the sixth night? We must learn to think in terms of possibilities and probabilities rather than certainties.

6. Non-elementalism

Events or processes in nature come in many shades, quantities, intensities, etc. People are not either good or bad, right or wrong, stupid or smart, etc. We can never have enough words to accurately describe the infinite variety of possibilities. But we can learn to avoid either-or thinking and talking by employing certain corrections. Acknowledging shades of gray prevents dogmatism and stereotyping.

7. Process and Change: Dating

Nothing is exactly the same from one day to the next, or even one minute to the next. Johnny on Thursday is not the same boy he was on Wednesday. What we know about anything or anybody must be placed in the context of time; our ideas must remain open to the inevitable changes. We must learn to "date" our descriptions of people and events. For example, rather than saying, "Susan is a horrible person," we can say,"Susan behaved horribly yesterday when ...."

8. Process and Change: Indexing

No two objects, events, or people are identical. Moreover, the "same" objects, events, and people differ under different conditions and in different places. If John is aggressive with Billy, he may or may not be aggressive with George. Janet who is timid in the office may or may not be timid on the dance floor. We must learn to ask ourselves, "Whom am I talking about, under what conditions and circumstances?"

9. Non-absolutism of Values

Since values are "people-made," they can't be considered absolute. We evaluate things as good, bad, useful, cold, ugly, friendly, fun, etc. according to our own proclivities. Thus, what is "good" for one may not be "good" for another. Tastes, needs, preferences differ. Therefore, we must make our evaluation with an awareness of the "to me" quality. For example, instead of saying, "Jazz is great," we can say, "I love jazz." Or, "Sam looks handsome to me."

10. Infinity of Values

Things, events, people, behavior, etc. can be valued in a wide variety of gradations. But the limitations of our language frequently prevent us from making distinctions. For example, we say it is "wrong" to steal and "wrong" to chew gum in school, not distinguishing between degrees of wrongness. We can learn to distinguish between law and custom, role and tradition, morals and tastes, etc. Thus, we could help eliminate such thinking as, "Real boys don't cry," and substitute something like, "It is not the custom here for boys to cry."

11. Events Come in Sequences

Since events are preceded and followed by other events, what we happen to notice at any given moment has a history and a future. In order to observe accurately, we must try to recognize the sequence and talk about it accordingly. For example, the observation, "I suffer headaches" might become, "I suffer headaches after eating chocolate." The observation, "John didn't do any work today" becomes "John didn't do any work until he got the phone call he was waiting for."

12. Multiple Causation and Multiple Effects

Events usually do not have single causes. A burst of anger could be preceded by fright, frustration, pride, rage or all of these emotions. A particular event such as a conflict, a theft, a love affair, a threat of war can have many explanations. Thus, we must keep in mind the possibility of multiple determinants of events and multiple reactions to events. To look for "the" cause or "the" consequence reflects inaccurate thinking.

13. Interdependence of Events

The action of one thing will more or less affect the action of another. What happens to one member of a group will ultimately affect the rest. Analysis of one person's problem must include analysis of the whole organization. Grasping the concept of interdependence between people and the rest of nature ultimately leads to a sense of responsibility for preserving the ecosystem. Realizing the interdependence of people with each other leads to a sense of responsibility and cooperation.

14. Communication as Shared Understanding

The basic unit of communication is not the message but the understanding shared between communicator and receiver. Teachers tend to give a great deal of instruction on "the right way" to say things - in a vacuum. We must also emphasize that how a thing is said depends upon the person to whom it is said. We need to learn to size up our receivers, their comprehension, language skills, values, motives, etc. We need greater sensitivity in perceiving the effects of our communication. "Did she understand me or not?" "Does that frown mean she disagrees, or that she just doesn't understand?"

15. Time-binding

People are the only living creatures that can truly "bind time"; i.e. we can be aware of our own history, can record it, pass on our experience to others. Animals start over again with each generation. People can start where others leave off - providing we sense how we depend upon past efforts for our present status. Such a perspective on time leads to open-mindedness about the "nature of man." It counteracts the tendency to think in finalities. We can see our own organizations, our society as a whole, as in a stage of development rather than as completed "truths" about the way things are. Thinking such as, "Let's do it this way because that's the way we've always done it," is exposed for its limitations. Acknowledging our dependence upon past work can, however, result in greater appreciation of persons of different chronological ages and can keep us from unnecessarily repeating mistakes. And, we can choose to continue old ways, too.

16. Self-reflexiveness

Underlying all of the above points is the fact that people are capable of "self-reflexiveness." We can stand back and observe our own behavior, and observe ourselves observing. We can see that we ourselves, as observers, become an important part of the thing that we observe, that as perpetual map makers we have to include ourselves as part of the territory. Not only our actions create the territory, but our ways of mapping create the territory. Recognizing the degree to which we create our own realities by our actions and our processing of these actions, we are freed for ever increasing choice over personal and social realities. We need not be victims of conditioning from past upbringing or present media. We can delay our reactions, control our impulses, and choose our responses.

17. Here and Now Awareness

A corollary of human capacity for self-reflexiveness is our ability to distinguish between the present, past, and the future. However, much of our processing of events reflects a confusion of the three stages. Failure "to contact" is often the result. Reducing some of our sense of isolation from others depends upon our ability to speak to others in the present about the present, to live and communicate in the here and now. Much of our anxiety is the result of reacting to thoughts which pile up from the past or of assuming disasters for the future. Thus, any given communication becomes overloaded with multiple and perhaps irrelevant messages. Mastering here and now awareness can reduce much aggravation.


Rachel M. Lauer, Ph.D., is a founder-director of the Straus Thinking and Learning Center, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Pace University, New York City.
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Author:Lauer, Rachel M.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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