Toward a new general system of evaluation
and predictability in solving human problems
Author of Manhood of Humanity and Science and Sanity
Paper from Alfred Korzybski: Collected Writings 1920-1950
© I.G.S. Englewood, New-Jersey
INSTITUTE OF GENERAL SEMANTICS
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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
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
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
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,
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
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.
PSYCHO-LOGICAL MECHANISMS IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR
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
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.
PREMISES OF GENERAL SEMANTICS.
The premises of the non-aristotelian system can be given by the simple
analogy of the relation of a map to the territory:
Applied to daily life and language:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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
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
- 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 all"—to train us in a consciousness of characteristics
left out; and to remind us indirectly of the first premise "is
not"—to 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
(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.,
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
APPLICATIONS OF THE FORMULATIONS
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
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
(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
If this partial list seems formidable, it should be remembered that a
scientific methodology for optimum usefulness must necessarily be universal
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
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