What is General Semantics?


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General semantics is a discipline and/or methodology intended to improve the ways people interact with their environment and with one another, especially through training in the critical use of words and other symbols.

The term general semantics was introduced by Alfred Korzybski in the book Science and Sanity (1933).

In his Handbook of Semiotics (1995), Winfried Nöth observes that "General Semantics is based on the assumption that historical languages are only inadequate tools for the cognition of reality, are misleading in verbal communication, and may have negative effects on our nervous systems."

The Difference Between Semantics and General Semantics

"General semantics provides a general theory of evaluation.

"We can consider what we mean when we refer to this system by comparing it with 'semantics' as people usually use the term. Semantics involves the study of language 'meanings.' For example, when we're interested in the word 'unicorn,' what dictionaries say it 'means' and its history of 'meanings,' and what it might refer to, we are involved in 'semantics.'

"General semantics involves such language concerns, but also involves much broader issues. Using general semantics, we're concerned with understanding how we evaluate, with the inner life of each individual, with how each of us experiences and makes sense of our experiences, with how we use language and how language 'uses' us. While we're interested in what the word 'unicorn' refers to and how a dictionary might define it, we have more interest in the person using the word, with the kind of evaluating that might lead people to look for unicorns in their back yards. Do they think that they have found some? Do they re-evaluate their search when they don't find any? Do they investigate how they came to be looking for unicorns? How are they experiencing the search? How do they talk about it? How are they experiencing the process of evaluating what has happened?

"General semantics involves an interrelated set of elements, which, taken together, can help us answer these and similar questions." (Susan Presby Kodish and Bruce I. Kodish, Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, 2nd ed. Extensional Publishing, 2001)

Korzybski on General Semantics

  • "General Semantics turned out to be an empirical natural science of non-elementalistic evaluation, which takes into account the living individual, not divorcing him from his reactions altogether, nor from his neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environments, but allocating him in a plenum of some values, no matter what." (Alfred Korzybski, preface to the third edition of Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 1947)
  • Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), the founder of general semantics, maintained that the structural assumptions implicit in language are of necessity reflected in behavior. . . . Korzybski believed that if, through general semantics, people generally could be trained in the orientations of science in the handling of all their problems (instead of just some of them), many social and personal problems now deemed to be insoluble would prove to be soluble. There is a messianic flavor to Korzybski's writings--a fact which led to the dismissal of his views in some academic circles." (S.I. Hayakawa, The Use and Misuse of Language. Harper & Row, 1962)

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