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What is general semantics? A personal view.

Sometimes when people ask "What is General Semantics?", I don't want to answer.

My reluctance to categorize general semantics arises from the general semantics principle of non-identity. This postulates that no two things are identical in all respects.

Suppose I say, "Pat is a politician." Such a sentence uses a form of "is" called the is-of-identity. It violates the non-identity principle. In effect, I've said, individual noun (Pat) equals class noun (politician), X is identical to Y, "Pat is identical to politician." This seems harmless, you say.

Not so!

Tunnel Vision

I've confused the specific with the general, confused things with words, and imposed linguistic limitations that do not reflect the rich diversity of a living human who has personality, hopes, habits, a certain physique, etc. I've reduced Pat to a label, politician. My self-imposed tunnel vision will prejudge and damage my relationship with Pat. By treating this individual as identical to a class, category, or group, I can't help but think and act as if all politicians are alike. If a particular politician has disappointed me, I will probably react badly to all.

Labels That Limit

Suppose we have a task to do, and we only have a screwdriver. We can say, "I can't do it, I only have a screwdriver." In practice, we can use a screwdriver to drive screws, to hammer, chisel, lever, wedge, garden, open cans, crack ice, stir liquids, etc. Similarly, we can use the numerous "tools" of general semantics to achieve diverse goals. Hence my reluctance to limit general semantics with is-of-identity labeling.

Yet to describe, we must focus, select, abstract. Incidentally, a key formulation of the system of general semantics says that we process information at biological and verbal levels by abstracting, by leaving things out.

We've chosen not to describe the system by means of the is-of-identity, by what it "is."

We can describe something by what it does.

Success and Survival

I think of general semantics as a system for making evaluations vital to success and survival. By evaluating, I mean our processing of perceptions and inferences as influenced by existing conscious and unconscious assumptions. Evaluations, not necessarily conscious ones, involve our thoughts, feelings, judgments, decisions, etc. Generally we do something as a result. Evaluating leads to appropriate or inappropriate action. We might describe general semantics as an integrated system for improving our thinking, evaluating, communicating, etc. Of course, in doing so we've only just begun.

Alfred Korzybski formulated general semantics in the first half of this century in his major work, Science and Sanity, and he continued to write and lecture about general semantics until his death in 1950. Numerous educators, writers, and editors have continued to develop and disseminate his work, including Irving J. Lee, Wendell Johnson, Harry Weinberg, Francis Chisholm, Kenneth Johnson, S. I. Hayakawa, Elwood Murray, Russell Joyner, Robert Pula, Anatol Rapoport, Mary Morain, D. David Bourland, Jr., Susan Presby Kodish, Bruce I. Kodish, Earl Hautala, Jeremy Klein, and Gregory Sawin.

Beyond Aristotle

Korzybski called general semantics a non-Aristotelian system because its many-valued logic goes beyond the two-valued, either-or logic attributed to Aristotle. Two-valued Aristotelian logic says either X is Y, or X is not Y; it offers no middle choices, and it often leads to either-or evaluating. Non-Aristotelian logic employs multiple values, a range of choices, more in keeping with the diversity of lived experience. It adheres to the principle of non-identity by allowing degrees of difference or similarity.

Separation of Word and Thing

Korzybski recognized that language and lived experience consist of two distinctly separate realms. He said "The word is not the thing," and "Whatever you might say the object 'is,' well, it is not." Such expressions remind us that the our verbal descriptions do not equal the external world, that words (maps) and lived experience (territory) do not constitute the same thing. Hence Korzybski's analogy, "The map is not the territory." In the system of general semantics, lived experience goes by several terms: territory, silent level, non-verbal level, "facts," un-speakable level, object level.

If you accept these two disparate realms, language on the one hand, and lived experience on the other, where does it lead you? Language can't replace or duplicate experience. Language can only point to, label, or describe experience.

We live in language as fish live in water. According to the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, our language colors our perceptions, our logic, our reasoning. We live through experience, but we also live very much through language. Our use of language makes us different from fish, or any other form of life. This difference led Korzybski to define humans in terms of function, what they do.


Korzybski asked, what do humans do that no other species does? Humans do language. Furthermore, using symbols, humans store experience-knowledge that others can later use, generally to their benefit. Thus, instead of choosing metaphysical or philosophical definitions, Korzybski assigned a functional definition to humankind. As Robert P. Pula wrote recently:

Rejecting both theological and zoological definitions, Korzybski adopted a natural science, operational approach and defined humans by what they can be observed doing which differentiates them from other classes of life; he defined them as the time-binding class of life, able to pass on knowledge from one generation to another over 'time.'

Derived from this definition, which evaluates humans as a naturally cooperative class of life (the mechanisms of time-binding are descriptively social, cooperative), Korzybski postulated time-binding 'ethics' - modes of behavior, choices appropriate to time-binding organisms.

Korzybski recognized that language (symbolizing in general) constitutes the basic tool of time-binding.... (1)

As far as we know, fish live quite happily without understanding theories about water. Our immersion in language seems as natural and invisible as a fish's liquid environment. But, unlike fish, we humans often encounter serious problems when we evaluate, communicate, etc. Our use of language can lead to great accomplishments and great joy, but it can also lead to extreme suffering and violence. Why do problems occur? Partly because we can construct "logically" consistent "worlds" in language that have little relation to experience, and then confuse such constructions with experience. We hear, "the economy is doing well," and base our spending decisions on this verbal statement. We say, "our brakes are safe" without checking the car. We create tautological or untestable verbal explanations. We make treaties and promises, but our acts do not reflect these contracts.

Korzybski's formulation of abstracting says that we obtain incomplete information. If we remain conscious of our abstracting, we can reduce delusions arising from confusion of our linguistically created "worlds" with the world of lived experience.


The term abstracting refers to a general-semantics formulation relating; to how we obtain and process knowledge. During abstracting, we process information by leaving things out. For example, if you look at one face in a crowd, you leave out the others, and you miss many characteristics of that face. Abstracting assists survival in many ways. At the biological level, our hearing responds only to certain frequencies. By further abstracting, we can attribute meaning to these vibrations in the air, while our connection to those vibrations becomes less direct. We abstract from the vast variety of electro-magnetic waves surrounding us in order to see, touch, smell, "make sense" of objects, of space, of light, of "hot" and "cold." Conversely, at the verbal level, we can move from the general to the particular, from dogs to Fido, from politicians as a group, to Pat the individual, who likes dogs, eats vegetarian food, and owns one old bicycle.

From Experience to Symbols

We abstract in stages, from sensory input to words, from experience to symbols, at each stage leaving something out, producing incomplete, but useful working knowledge. A diagram, the structural differential, helps us understand abstracting processes. (2)

A simplified flow chart of my abstracting relating to a "tree" might look something like this:


The down-arrows show the correct order of abstracting for healthy evaluating, from silent "facts" to descriptive words. The dotted-line "feedback loop" indicates that our inferences, evaluations, and language influence our perception.

Note that abstractions further removed from experience, we call "higher," although they appear lower on the chart.

As we abstract, we make inferences. We see the front of a house and infer that it has an interior. In this sense, we add something of our own, usually based on previous experience.


Because we abstract, we cannot say or know all about anything. Hence the general semantics principle of non-allness.

Consciousness of Context

From use to use, our words don't mean precisely the same thing. Our interpretation of words depends partly on their context. We assign different meanings in different contexts. Korzybski devised the formulation multiordinality to describe how we give words different meanings depending on their level of abstraction. For example, consider the phrase "The meaning of meaning has a different meaning depending on context." Here the word "meaning" refers to different, not the same, "meaning" in several ways. To complicate matters, the term "meaning" consists of a high abstraction, not something we can see or touch.

Korzybski advocated developing a continuing awareness that we abstract, so that we will recognize the incompleteness of knowledge, expect the unexpected, and thereby reduce stress and shocks to the nervous system. To help us develop consciousness of abstracting, so that we will remain connected to "facts," to the world of experience, he formulated some tools which he called the extensional devices.

"Facts" vs Words - Extensional vs Intensional

To avoid linguistically created delusions, we stay connected to the world of lived-experience. Korzybski called this extensional behavior.

We experience the world in at least two ways: (i) through our senses; (ii) through our language. Although we "live" in language, language does not duplicate or replace silent, unspeakable, lived-experience. The map is not the territory. When we recognize that the word is not the thing, that language does not equal what language represents, we make a profound epistemological statement about how we know what we know. In a sense, we put language in a secondary position. Things-events come first, or should I say our experience of things-events comes "first." We encounter language "later," and use it to describe, "store," and pass along experience.

Extensional Evaluation - "Facts" First

The term extensional refers to putting experience before language. When we sense, observe, and then describe, we evaluate extensionally. This Korzybski considered a healthy and sane way to go about making our evaluations of the world. To observe, test, sample, look, touch, etc., then describe.

Intensional Evaluation - "Facts" Last

If we put words before experience, we evaluate intensionally. This orientation Korzybski called "un-sane" because its linguistic delusions can seriously endanger our success or survival. For example, if we believe that we can create good health by saying "I'm healthy" and continuing with unhealthy habits, we have behaved intensionally. Similarly, if we think we can change something by changing its name or description, we've used intensional thinking. Consider how we use terms such as "downsizing" or "diet."

When we put words first, instead of facts first, we call this reversed order abstracting. We can describe "safe brakes" and then, because we have a description, we may think they exist on our car. We might represent such word-before-thing behavior by reading up, rather than down, on the flow chart on page 304. In contrast, general semantics seeks to follow the methods of science, observing before defining.

Using a scientific approach of observing, questioning, and re-checking "facts," we can reduce "un-sane" intensional evaluating, and encourage "sane" extensional evaluating. Hence the title of Korzybski's book, Science and Sanity.

We can use high abstractions without drifting off into in-tensional delusions. We use words such as beauty or bad, or theories such as general semantics, and these prove useful in certain contexts. We enjoy poetry: "...that which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet..." However, we recognize the multiordinality of terms, that we give a word diverse meanings depending on its relations with other words. Developing a keen awareness of the distinction between words that refer to things we can point to, and words that refer to theories, propositions, and high-level abstractions such as "truth," "meaning," or "credit," will help us think more critically and evaluate more effectively.

Un-sane Evaluating

Korzybski maintained that putting words ahead of facts caused much human misery, because it leads to dysfunctional, un-sane, evaluating and behavior. To achieve more sane behaviors, we must look first to experience.

Elementalism - Fracturing the Whole Experience

Our language habits encourage certain delusions. Using words, we can split apart that which one can not separate in experience. We can say "mind" or "body," but in practice we can't separate a mind from its body. This linguistic split Korzybski called elementalism. As a result of such verbal splits, we may seek or rely on things that don't exist.


The principle of non-elemantalism reminds us that we can't separate a mind from a body, thinking from feeling, living from environment, action from consequences, etc. It leads to some holistic: terms, such as mind-body, organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment, and semantic reaction. Semantic reaction refers to the whole response of an individual: a biological-emotional-verbal response which includes changes in adrenaline levels, muscle tension, digestive fluid, thoughts-feelings, as well as verbal utterances, all inseparable inside the skin.

Testing by Experience

We respond to our inferences and evaluations, we live holistically, non-elementally, all-of-a-piece, our experience a seamless flow. We then carve life up into separate bits words. We make many inferences about the existence of things. We create verbal theories, descriptions, value systems, etc., about economics, politics, society, gardening, dreams, driving, crime and punishment, etc. But such verbal constructions are not things-events. We must put our verbal inventions to the test of experience. We must ask, "Does the map fit the territory?"

Because we abstract from an "infinite" universe, we won't find a perfect fit. However, we often make maps that fit well enough for practical purposes. Korzybski's extensional devices enhance our mapping by keeping us grounded in experience.

Critical Evaluating with the Extensional Devices

To reduce stress and danger, and reach our goals, we must think and evaluate more critically. To accomplish this, we can use the extensional devices: dating, indexing, quotes, hyphens, and etc. / et cetera.


According to current scientific theory, everything changes at some level, from micro-changes at the cellular or atomic level, to macro-changes of the shifting earth and the expanding universe. We use the extensional device Dating to keep aware of change. San Francisco 1906 is not San Francisco 1989. Banana two weeks ago is not banana today. My friend John 1990 is not My friend John 1995.


Current scientific theory postulates that all things are unique in space-time. The principle of non-identity holds that no two things are identical in all respects. The extensional device of indexing reminds us of uniqueness by specifically tagging individual things or events with an index number. Not all dogs bite; [dog.sub.1] bites; [dog.sub.2] and [dog.sub.3] do not. [Behavior.sub.1] is not [behavior.sub.2]. [Car.sub.1] is not [car.sub.2]. You'll find examples of index numbers in use in daily living: serial numbers, license plates, social security numbers.


Quotes alert us to regard with caution terms such as "mind" or "truth." In general semantics, quotes also indicate when we have used an ordinary word, such as "abstracting," in a manner unique to the system.


We use hyphens to repair elementalism. They rejoin that which language has split apart, for example mind-body, or thinking-feeling, or organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment.

Etc. / Et cetera

Because we process knowledge by abstracting, we cannot say all about anything. We use etc. as a reminder of the general semantics principle of non-allness.

Using extensional devices as silent "tools," not necessarily speaking or writing them, will enhance critical thinking and evaluating by helping us stay with the specific here and now.


Now that we've discussed abstracting and related terms, we can look again at the is-of-identity. We understand how such use of "is" can give rise to verbal delusions by confusing levels of abstracting. As Irving Lee wrote:

... When the "is" leads to the identification of different levels of abstraction, implying in the utterance that one "thing" can exist as another .... "Man is an animal"; "Joe is a radical".... The "is" of identity serves to link two nouns, obscuring the differences between silent and verbal levels....

...Perhaps the "is" can be translated by "exist." The sentence would then read, "The word 'man' exists as the word 'animal.'" Put this way, we have an obviously impossible situation.(3)


Another mis-use of "is," the is-of-predication, gives rise to further confusion, particularly when it encourages us to project our own perceptions and evaluations onto the world "out there."

Here we make the assumption that characteristics exist in "things," whereas they are to be found only in the relation of an observer to what is observed. This "is" covers up the fact that impressions arise in us....(4)

When a form of the verb "to be" connects a noun and an adjective, we invariably express a false-to-fact relationship....

..."The leaf is green" implies that the green stands for some kind of objective existence in our world.... What does the "green" represent? ... the "is" form of the sentence reverses the facts, in so far as the "color" is attributed to the leaf rather than to processes in the nervous system of the observer.(5)


We can train ourselves to avoid the "is'es" of identity and predication by using E-Prime, a variant of English that simply eliminates all use of "is" and other "to be" verbs. Korzybski's student, D. David Bourland, Jr. developed this technique. (6)

When I have an important question or problem, I frame it in E-Prime. I find that when I can't say something is something, I have to think much more specifically about what I mean, and just how my words relate to experience, rather than to other words. Questions like "What is truth" become "What do we mean by the term 'truth'?" E-Prime often helps reduce my confusing of verbal categories, opinions, and judgments with experiential knowledge. Used in writing, it tightens style by eliminating the passive voice. Without passive verbs, the writer must think clearly about who or what performed the action. Bringing in the "role player" often proves useful in problem-solving, scientific writing, and program development, where we need to know what agents precipitate the action.


General semantics posits humans as immersed in two "worlds": firstly, the world of experience, in which we live, breath, feel, touch, taste, walk, undergo emotions, work, play, etc.; secondly, the realm of words, in which we evaluate, speak of, and record the first realm. One world does not equal the other, and to maintain our sanity we must maintain awareness of the differences between experience and language. If we live in language first, we may believe that labeling something means we know it, that re-classifying or re-naming something means we've changed it. We may ignore danger because our delusional descriptions have declared the situation safe. "This nuclear waste is permanently contained." "Your feelings never get hurt." "I'm always cool and rational." "Don't say it, you'll make it happen." "Pat is to blame." If we put experience first with an attitude of "let's see," we will improve our chances of success and survival though more appropriate evaluating.

General semantics theory offers formulations such as non-identity, abstracting, non-allness, non-elementalism. To bring theory into practice we use "tools" such as the extensional devices, and various forms of the structural differential diagram. In experience, we can't split theory from the practice. In general semantics, a combination of the two helps us distinguish between sense and nonsense, to stay with the observable, to avoid metaphysical, intensional, tautological answers that just explain words with other words.

Although general semantics provides tools I use for improved evaluating and communicating, I don't call myself a "semanticist." I use a screw driver, but I don't call myself a "screwdriverist." Avoiding the is-of-identity, I hesitate to say I am anything, and I feel less restricted by self-imposed labels as a result.

I've subtitled this article "A Personal View." Have I left out something important? Probably. According to the principle of non-allness, I can't say all about anything - especially in a few pages of my personal abstraction of general semantics which I arrived at by leaving things out, and adding inferences of my own.

Although we can't say it all, we can say that general semantics helps us cope more successfully with the differences between words, which tend to stay the same, and experience, which keeps on changing.


1. Robert P. Pula, Introduction to Science and Sanity, Fifth Edition. Englewood, NJ: Institute for General Semantics. 1994. P. xv.

2. For more on the structural differential, see Irving J. Lee, Language Habits in Human Affairs, Second Edition. Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics. 1994. Chapter 12.

3. Ibid., p. 229.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., pp. 243-244.

6. For more on E-Prime, see To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology, D. David Bourland, Jr., and Paul Dennithorne Johnston (Eds). San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics (now in Concord, CA). 1991.

Paul Dennithorne Johnston serves as executive director of the International Society for General Semantics.
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Author:Johnston, Paul Dennithorne
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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