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The term general semantics originated with Alfred Korzybski in 1933 as the name for a general theory of evaluation, which in application turned out to be an empirical science, giving methods for general human adjustment in our private, public, and professional lives. His study has led ultimately to the formulation of a new system, with general semantics as its modus operandi.
This theory was first presented in his Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.
What Makes Humans Human?
After World War I Korzybski and others began to analyze the precipitating factors of such human disasters, realizing that some fundamental ideational revisions were due. In investigating the problems of 'human nature', he found it unavoidable to revise the old notions about humans, derived from primitives and codified by the ancient Greeks, and made a new, functional definition of 'man' from an engineering, historical, and epistemological point of view, with far-reaching implications. [For explanation of use of single quotes see below under Extensional Devices.]
It became necessary to investigate for the first time potentialities of humans, not blindly depending on static data of statistical records of past human performances, known today to be an unreliable or even fallacious method of approach.
This was the thesis of Korzybski's first book, Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering (1921).
He by-passed the mythological dogmas and enquired, What is the unique characteristic of humans which makes them human? He observed anew that each human generation has the potential capacity, unlike animals, to start where former generations left off. He analyzed the neurological and socio-cultural processes by which men can create, preserve, and transmit what they have learned individually to future generations. This unique neurological capacity he called time-binding.
The structure of our forms of representation (languages, etc.) was found to be of pivotal importance in the history of human cultures. With an engineering practical outlook, Korzybski had questioned: Why is it that structures built by engineers do not, as a rule collapse, or if they do, then the physico-mathematical or other evaluational errors are easily discovered; yet social, economic, political, etc., systems, also man-made, do sporadically collapse in the forms of wars, revolutions, financial depressions, unemployment, etc.? This led to the question: What is it that engineers do neurologically when they build bridges, etc.? The answer was: They use a special, narrow but 'perfect' language called mathematics, which is similar in structure to the facts they deal with, and which therefore yields predictable empirical results.
He then investigated what the builders of social, economic, political, and other insecure human structures do neurologically, and found that they employ languages (i.e., forms of representation) which are not similar in structure to the facts of science and life as known today. Consequently their results are unpredictable and disasters follow.
Though the main facts of history are known, solutions of human problems have been blocked by pre-scientific, mythological, metaphysical dogmas which have prevented and continue to prevent the possibility of tracing fundamental errors.
Origin of General Semantics.
Clearly a solution required the formulation of a general system, based on physico-mathematical methods of order, relation, etc., which would make possible proper evaluations and therefore predictability.
The first step was to revise the primitive outlook that regarded humans as merely biological organisms on the level of animals rather than as more complex psycho-biological organisms which produce their own socio-cultural environments, sciences, civilizations, etc. Even the most 'intelligent' ape never achieved that.
The next step was a methodological integration of what was already known, and the production of general teachable formulations to handle the increasingly numerous and complex factors in human psycho-biological inter-relationships today. To cope with such problems required a consideration of neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environments as environment.
The word semantics was introduced into linguistic literature by Michel Bréal, translated from the French in 1897. It is derived from the Greek semainein (to mean, to signify) and Bréal stressed meaning on the verbal level. Lady Welby, a contemporary, introduced a theory of Significs, a more organismal evaluation of Bréal's meaning.
Korzybski, in 1933, called his theory general semantics because it deals with the nervous reactions of the human organism-as-a-whole-in-environments, and is much more general and organismally fundamental than the meanings of words as such, or Significs.
It is called non-aristotelian because, although it includes the still prevailing aristotelian system as a special case, it is a wider, more general formulation to fit the world and 'human nature' as we know it today rather than as Aristotle knew it c. 350 BC.
The aristotelian assumptions influenced the euclidean system, and both underlie the later newtonian system. The first non-aristotelian system takes into account newly discovered complexities in all fields, and parallels and is interdependent methodologically with the new non-euclidean and non-newtonian developments in mathematics and mathematical physics, which made possible even the release of nuclear energy, as in the atomic bombs.
This revised and broadened general outlook makes necessary profound revisions in educational methods, requires de-departmentalization of education, etc., which could be accomplished only after the exact sciences and general human orientations had been unified through an adequate methodological synthesis. Such unification, since it was based on modern scientific methods (physico-mathematical) and the foundations of mathematics incorporated simple workable, elementary techniques which could be applied in any human endeavor, and even to the education of small children.
In the formulation of this synthesis it became obvious that to understand the working of the human nervous system as-a-whole, it was necessary to extract the method of nervous functioning as exemplified by (1) the best product of human behavior (mathematics, etc.), and (2) the worst (psychiatric disorders). It was found that at both extremes the psycho-logical mechanisms were similar, differing not in kind, but in degree, and that the reactions of most people are somewhere in between.
Space-Time Disorientation in Psychiatric Disorders.
General observations of daily human reactions demonstrate that many 'normal' persons are disoriented in space-time in varying degrees. Patients in psychiatric hospitals often show acute disorientations as to who, where, and when. In fact, across the world in such hospitals those are the first questions which are asked of the incoming patients, and their reactions to them are in many ways indicative of the seriousness of their illness. Even average 'normal' individuals often react as if certain situations, happenings, etc., here (say, Chicago) and now (say, 1947) are identical in value with certain incidents, situations, happenings, etc., that occurred somewhere else (say, Seattle) some years ago (say, 1926). Those persons remain unconscious of, and so unable to deal with, these fundamental differences in space-time their reactions continuing on the infantile level, and hence are necessarily maladjusted to their present status (of 1947).
Physicians familiar with general semantics have often treated such cases successfully, applying these new extensional methods in psycho-therapy to eliminate identification of the past with the present, etc., thus re-orienting the individual in space-time.
Many observations indicate that techniques for general orientation based on physico-mathematical space-time ordering, etc., simplify understanding of the most complex human problems. At the same time they point the way to neuro-preventive educational measures against serious socio-cultural maladjustments and indicate constructive possibilities for a new applied anthropology, and a new human ecology which takes into consideration our neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic environments as environment.
Space-Time Orientation in Mathematics.
The study of mathematics as a form of neuro-linguistic reactions led to a new definition of number in terms of human behavior and relations which applies equally to the verbal and non-verbal levels. This new definition clears up the problems of mathematical infinity, reveals the fictitious character of transfinite numbers, etc.
Until 1933 no definition of number had been produced which would explain the nature of number, measurement, etc., and would account for the unique validity and high degree of predictability of results arrived at through mathematical methods. The old definition of number in terms of class of classes gave results eventuallv in terms of class of classes, which explained nothing. The new definition of number as unique specific asymmetrical relations produced solutions in terms of those relations, giving structure. Since structure is known to be the only content of human knowledge, and since the non-aristotelian science of mathematics deals only with relation and so structure, the old mystery of why mathematics and measurement? is answered; the unique validity of mathematical methods is accounted for, whether applied to mathematics, other sciences, or human problems of living.
The premises of the non-aristotelian system can be given by the simple analogy of the relation of a map to the territory:
- A map is not the territory.
- A map does not represent all of a territory.
- A map is self-reflexive in the sense that an 'ideal' map would include a map of the map, etc., indefinitely.
Applied to daily life and language:
- A word is not what it represents.
- A word does not represent all of the 'facts', etc.
- Language is self-reflexive in the sense that in language we can speak about language.
Our habitual reactions today, however, are still based on primitive, pre-scientific, unconscious assumptions, which in action mostly violate the first two premises and disregard the third. Mathematics and general semantics are the only exceptions.
The third premise stemmed from the application to everyday life of the extremely important work of Bertrand Russell, who gave academic prominence to self-reflexiveness in his attempt to solve mathematical self-contradictions by his theory of mathematical types. We may speak (verbalize) about a proposition about all propositions, but in actuality we cannot make a proposition about all propositions, since in doing so we are in fact producing a new proposition, and thus we run into stultifying self-contradictions. Russell rightly called the products of these pathological verbal performances illegitimate totalities. By such unconscious over-generalizations we humans have been living, not very successfully.
Applied by Korzybski to our everyday lives, self-reflexiveness introduced neuro-linguistic factors important for human adjustment and maturity; i.e., the principles of different orders of abstractions, multiordinality, the circularity of human knowledge, second-order reactions, delay of reactions by space-time ordering, thalamo-cortical integration, etc.
Consciousness of Abstracting.
These principles in turn led to a general consciousness of abstracting as the necessary basis for the achievement of socio-cultural maturity. This produced, among others, means of eliminating active false knowledge, which is known to breed maladjustments. At the same time it was discovered that mere passive ignorance in humans often is impossible, but becomes active inferential knowledge, which may dogmatically ascribe some fictitious 'cause' for observed 'effects'the mechanism of primitive mythologies. Inferential knowledge, however, when consciously accepted as inferential, forms the hypothetical knowledge of modern science and ceases to be a dogma.
To achieve the coveted consciousness of abstracting, more appropriate evaluations, etc., techniques were taken directly from modern physico-mathematical methods, the use of which has been found empirically effective and of most serious preventive value, particularly on the level of children's education. Korzybski calls the following expediencies extensional devices:
- Indexes to train us in consciousness of differences in similarities, and similarities in differences, such as Smith1, Smith2, etc.
- Chain-indexes to indicate interconnections of happenings in space-time, where a 'cause' may have a multiplicity of 'effects', which in turn become 'causes', introducing also . environmental factors, etc. For instance, Chair1-1 [NOTE, read chair one one] in a dry attic as different from Chair1-2 in a damp cellar, or a single happening to an individual in childhood which may color his reactions (chain-reactions) for the rest of his life, etc. Chain-indexes also convey the mechanisms of chain-reactions, which operate generally in this world, life, and the immensely complex human socio-cultural environment, included.
- Dates to give a physico-mathematical orientation in a space-time world of processes.
- Et cetera (etc., which can be abbreviated to double punctuation, such as ., or .; or .:) to remind us permanently of the second premise not allto train us in a consciousness of characteristics left out; and to remind us indirectly of the first premise is notto develop flexibility and a greater degree of conditionality in our semantic reactions.
- Quotes to forewarn us that elementalistic or metaphysical terms are not to be trusted and that speculations based on them are misleading. [In this article single quotes are used for this purpose.]
- Hyphens to remind us of the complexities of interrelatedness in this world.
New Structural Implications of the Hyphen.
The hyphen, representing the new structural implications:
(1) In space-time revolutionized physics, transformed our whole world-outlook, and became the foundation of non-newtonian systems;
(2) In psycho-biological marks sharply the difference between animals and humans which became the basis of the present non-aristotelian system.
(3) In psycho-somatic is slowly transforming medical understanding, practice, etc.
(4) In socio-cultural indicates the need for a new applied anthropology, human ecology, etc.
(5) In neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic emphasizes that we are not dealing with mere verbalism but with living human reactions. Etc., etc.
Oblivious of the structural implications, departmentalized specialists still isolate themselves on either side of the hyphen, as if their specialties were actually separate entities. By eliminating the structural hyphen from such terms as psycho-biological (i.e., psychobiological) and psycho-somatic etc., the public is led to believe these issues are simple, while complexities today have increased beyond even professional understanding.
In certain of the sciences solutions have already been found (which led to the methodological problems generalized in the non-aristotelian revision) and indicated often by the hyphen, while in others the painful process of re-examination is still going on.
Physics, for example, has passed from the elementalistic, split, 'absolute space' and 'absolute time' formulations of Aristotle, Euclid, and Newton to the non-elementalistic integrated space-time of Einstein-Minkowski, and tremendous advances have followed. In medical science, however, consideration of psycho-biological and psycho-somatic problems is only just beginning, requiring a complete re-evaluation of existing disciplines.
The formulations in the first non-aristotelian system have crystallized the historical, scientific, and epistemological trends accumulating for over two thousand years, giving methods for teaching and general application, thus providing maximum effectiveness for the fuller development of human potentialities and so the maturity of mankind. Scientific method (1947) must be general and apply to any phase of life or science.
Only a few examples of the many different areas in which general semantics has already proved useful can be mentioned here.
(1) The foundations of mathematics and so methods of teaching have been revised.
(2) The U.S. Senate Naval Affairs Committee discussed the new methods in connection with: (a) the problem of national scientific research; (b) a scientific evaluation of the merger of the War and Navy departments; and (c) the training of naval officers, wherein Capt. J. A. Saunders (Ret.) urged that all Navy officers should be trained in the new methods.
Applications have also been made in:
(3) presentations and arguments in law courts;
(4) alleviation of combat exhaustion in the European theater of war, applied by Lt. Col. Douglas M. Kelley, M.C., to over 7,000 cases;
(5) diagnoses in psycho-somatic medicine, and as an aid in counseling and psychotherapy, individually or in groups;
(6) treatment of stuttering;
(7) helping reading difficulties;
(8) eliminating stage fright. Etc., etc.
Perhaps most importantly, applications have been made in the methods and contents of education on every level, from the nursery through college and university.
If this partial list seems formidable, it should be remembered that a scientific methodology for optimum usefulness must necessarily be universal in scope.
A. Korzybski, Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering (1921, 1947)
C. J. Keyser, Korzybski's Concept of Man, Mathematical Philosophy (1922, 1946)
A. Korzybski, Science and Sanity : An Introduction to Non-aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933, 1947)
S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Action (1939, 1941)
I. J. Lee, Language Habits in Human Affairs : An Introduction to General Semantics (1941, 1946)
M. Kendig, ed., Papers from the Second American Congress on General Semantics (1943)
E. Murray, The Speech Personality (1944)
W. B. Paul, F. Sorenson et E. Murray, A Functional Core for the Basic Communications Course, Quart. Jour. Speech (Apr. 1946)
W. Johnson, People in Quandaries : The Semantics of Personal Adjustment (1946)
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Alfred Korzybski came to America in December 1915. He wrote Manhood of Humanity in 1920 when he was 41 years old. It is, so far as I know, his first written work published or unpublished in any language. To me this has always seemed a very significant thing, related to creativeness, the relentless vigor, the simplicity of the man, the integrity, the depth, the practicality of his work and methods. Over the years as I observed him and his method of work — visualizing, concretizing, slowly slowly bring the most complex problems down to their structural essentials in terms of simple earthy examples — I could well believe his report: “From babyhood I was silent, I had nothing to say.” — that is, before he came to America, made English his language, formulated his functional definition of man in this book. All his life he looked wide-eyed at the world, he contemplated what he saw, he questioned, why, how. He seemed possessed by a passion for comprehension. he lived and studied men on the soil of Poland, in the cities of Europe, on the battlefields of the eastern front. He studied the history of men, in books and at the universities — the successes and the tragedies of man-mad civilizations. He questioned why so? — how could we do better in our time? He was a lover of life, of music, of the poetry of feeling. He loved mathematics, engineering. They fitted the life facts. When men used them they escaped from animal trial and error, they could predict outcomes, pass on their findings, progress in their control of non-human things. Why was this not so in human affairs?
The impact of his experience in World War I, of coming to live in this new country and this open society, of finding a new language which suited him for the formulation of his non-verbal ‘thinking’ — these among others were precipitants. His lifetime studies and questions fell into new focus. He saw the significance of the obvious and the implications of the obvious. He verbalized the obvious in his functional definition of man as a time-binding class of life: Not what man is. What men do, as an exponential function of time. He developed the implications of the obvious characteristic of man and of man’s unique environments of symbolism and valuations, in Time-binding: The General Theory (1924-1926), in his Science and Sanity (1933), and on through to the end of his life in his later writings, in his seminars, and in his work with students.
This book [Manhood of Humanity (1950)] book has been out of print for eleven years. In these years Korzybski did his major teaching at the Institute of General Semantics, and Science and Sanity has been increasingly read, viz. twelve hundred copies bought from 1933 to 1938; seventeen thousand since. Very many who have read Science and Sanity and who have studied general semantics with him at the Institute have, I suspect, never held a copy of Manhood of Humanity in their hands. Science and Sanity, or someone else’s writings about general semantics has been their first introduction to Korzybski, and many have little notion what the term time-binding and its implications represent. Some of these persons have expressed in diverse ways vague discontent, an uneasiness as if they were missing something methodologically in the socio-cultural import which they felt but could not find made explicit in Science and Sanity. Korzybski was himself so full of the significance of time-binding, of the social feelings engendered by this new “image of man”, I do not believe that he saw this need until quite recent years. Meantime, requests for re-publication of his first book have been mounting steadily. He was meditating on a new introduction for over three years, and he was still working on it when he died. As the “Editor’s Note” indicates, plans for publication had been completed and this Second Edition must appear without his introduction. Fortunately, Korzybski’s own recent paper, “What I Believe” (1948), summarizes his life’s work, emphasizing the central role of his time-binding definition of man. This paper and Professor Keyser’s chapter on “Korzybski’s Concept of Man” (1922) were already planned for inclusion. They serve now as introductions, retrospective and contemporary, to this book. The editor, my friend and colleague Charlotte Schuchardt, has asked me to add some prefatory words before the volume goes to press.