Typical Errors About General Semantics

José Klingbeil
(French version)

Copyright © 2002 José Klingbeil. The author hereby grants permission to use this article in electronic form only, in part or in whole, to any person or institution for educational purposes, provided no charge is made for such use.

This article is built upon elements from each of the corresponding pages of the ESGS website. Errors about various formulations of general semantics are listed here in alphabetical order for ease of use.

Allness (Non-)
Aristotelian System (Limits of the)
Consciousness of Abstracting
Delayed Reaction
Elementalism (Non-)
General Semantics
Identity (Non-)
Intensional and Extensional
Structural Differential
Undefined Terms


For students beginning in general semantics, it is usual to confuse "abstracting" with "leaving out characteristics." "Abstracting" in general semantics also includes "adding characteristics not present at the previous levels." This adding of characteristics may be due to some prejudices or bias, but can also be 'physically' rooted in the structure of our brain, by genetic or educative necessity. Occidental perspective, for example, is a trained habit for people living in houses with rectangular rooms and rectangular windows. It is neither 'good' nor 'bad' to use occidental perspective, just useful in some cases and useless or dangerous in some few others.

Another error is to consider that abstracting in higher order is 'bad' (resp. 'good') while lower orders are 'good' (resp. 'bad'). There is no moral judgment attached to the level at which one abstracts. For example, today's science represents our highest levels of abstractions. This error was that of one of the first popularisers of the work of Korzybski, Stuart Chase, in his book The Tyranny of Words. A way to abstract in higher orders is to use category-words. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. We use category-words routinely in science and general semantics, and build new words of that kind when useful. Modern languages usually include some easy ways to do that. The danger in these words does not come from the fact that they represent categories but from failing to discriminate between the category and an actual object it represents, in other words in the confusion of levels of abstracting (identification).

Finally, an error frequently made by beginners in general semantics is to believe that animals (other than Man) cannot abstract in higher orders at all. We all know how smart some animals can be and there is no doubt that, in order to behave as they do, they must have abstractions of some kind. But what we know is that this abstraction process stops somewhere, while a man can potentially continue the process of abstracting indefinitely, stopping when he pleases. And above all that, a man can be conscious that he abstracts.


When one first realises that we are not able to say all about anything, the first step in removing identification from one's system of evaluation, this realisation can lead to the wrong feeling that we do not know what something 'is' anymore, while it means only that we cannot say what something is. This is false since we don't need words to know what things 'are', and even some terms are undefined, meaning that we know what they mean but cannot define them in simpler terms, at a given time (i.e. as the number of words and dictionary meanings is finite, there is a moment where no simpler terms can be found, given that defining in circle cannot explain the meanings of a term).

On the basis of this mistake, some criticise non-allness as a general principle, believing that it is self-contradictory and would require an overprecision that we are somehow unable to achieve. Quite the opposite, in fact: by applying non-allness, we know that an attempt to say all about anything is doomed to fail, thus we have to remember that we did not say all and we don't try to achieve an impossible overprecision. This error is often made by the casual readers who confuse "general semantics" with "semantics" and those who believe general semantics is only about 'crisp' communication, thus falling in the very allness trap that we are supposed to avoid. Some 'crispness' in some aspects of communication is certainly to be recommended, but is certainly useless for others (poetry, love talk, etc.). Let's remember that general semantics as a general system applies to 'all' human activities, as the old Aristotelian system did.

Another far-fetched mistake, made by some 'postmodern' persons, is to compare non-allness to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and/or Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Those who use these theorems as 'supporting' general semantics usually cannot even state them correctly. These theorems have limited applications and work in a definite context. Taking them out of this context and pretending they can be applied to daily life is committing a blunder of the kind mentioned in Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures, Fashionable Nonsense.

Limits of the Aristotelian System

The first usual mistake is to believe that non-Aristotelian systems, such as general semantics, are anti-Aristotelian. Non-Aristotelian systems are not anti-systems, just as non-Euclidean and non-Newtonian systems are not anti-Euclidean and anti-Newtonian. On the contrary, they include the older system as a special case. This means that every conclusion reached using the Aristotelian system is also likely to be reached using non-Aristotelian system. But the non-Aristotelian system will allow more options. Computers and their binary logic are quite 'compatible' with general semantics, as is any development based on binary Aristotelian 'logic'. But general semantics will not limit us to binary logic, allowing logics with higher numbers of possibilities, ultimately including probabilities and fuzzy logic.

A second error made by beginners is to consider "Aristotelian" as 'bad'. From the above, we know that everything that can be considered as Aristotelian is also non-Aristotelian. In science; we do not always use the newest system to reach a conclusion; we sometimes use an older one that is most easy to apply and that we know will yield a result correct enough (remember that overprecision is a failure to apply non-allness). For example, Newton's laws are applicable to predict the position of most planets, except for Mercury due to its relatively high speed.

Consciousness of Abstracting

There is no typical error about consciousness of abstracting, since it seems so mysterious to most people. Once we have grasped the general semantics meaning of "abstracting", consciousness of abstracting is not very difficult to grasp, verbally at least. What is more difficult is getting that consciousness of abstracting on non-verbal levels. It requires some years of training, using extensional devices, the SD, etc.

What consciousness of abstracting is not: abstracting consciously, a kind of superpower, a kind of introspection, etc.

Delayed Reaction

Most errors consist in confusing delayed reactions with traditional wisdoms, such as "think twice", "count ten", etc. This is quite ridiculous since even animals have delayed reactions, while they could not easily apply "count ten." A cat that would not dash from afar to catch a bird, but instead duck and come forward slowly until he is within catching range, has successfully delayed his instinctive reaction at the sight of the bird.

Another striking example was shown in a recent scientific experiment about gambling. The findings suggested that in many situations our brains rush to judgement. This shows the inability of thalamus alone (and in this case anterior cingulate cortex) to evaluate correctly the situation. Of course, a delay in the reaction could help the cortex make more correct calculations and, by feedback, correct the erroneous evaluation.


One of the worst blunders about non-elementalism is to apply allness to it: the fact that some issues such as body-mind problems cannot be dealt with by elementalistic means does not mean all sharp distinctions have to be blurred or that none of the various aspects are legitimate. The problem of elementalism vs. non-elementalism is analogous to a coin: everyone can see that the coin has two faces, called "head" and "tails". It is perfectly legitimate to speak of "head and tails" if you want to toss a coin for, let's say, take a difficult decision. It becomes somewhat illegitimate if someone asks you "give me the tail part, but without the head part."

"Organism-as-a-whole" is a formulation that neither excludes consideration of specialised body parts like liver or kidney separately from the 'mind', nor considering 'emotions' separately from 'thinking,' as aspects of a whole. But nevertheless, influence of 'mind' on health, shown in various scientific experiments (placebo effect, for example), cannot be accounted for by the old religious elementalism (i.e. 'body'+'mind'), thus requiring non-el formulations.

Analysis, breaking down a 'big' problem into bits 'small' enough to deal with, widely used in mathematics and a powerful tool to deal with real-life problems, has nothing to do with elementalism, of course. For example, it is not possible to analyse placebo effect by studying effects on the 'mind' and effects on the 'body'. But it is possible to do it by studying 'body-mind'.

Elementalism is not 'bad' per se, just as the Aristotelian system, Newton's laws, Euclidean geometry or a gun are not 'bad'. What is 'bad' is to use them when they are not the appropriate tools to solve a problem.

General Semantics

Some people have pretended that general semantics and Scientology are 'related'. Most of them state such nonsense based on the fact that the science-fiction writer A. E. Van Vogt has 'proselytised' both disciplines. Some even profess that general semantics and Scientology "share many premises" although no one we know of has ever pointed to one of them. Here are some of the many differences:

Scientology General semantics
Based on blind faith, as a 'religion' Based on modern science, supports 'critical thinking' (extensionality)
Based on body and mind elementalism Cautions against elementalism, bringing psychosomatic integration
Tendency to split 'personality' Integrating 'personality'
Pathologically reversed order of evaluation Natural order of evaluation
Influencing toward un-sanity Influencing toward sanity
Adjusting empirical facts to verbal patterns Adjusting verbal patterns to empirical facts
Non-similarity of structure between language and facts Similarity of structure between language and facts
Profitable business Strictly not-for-profit, as far as the official organizations are concerned
Opposes to psychiatry and psycho-therapy Based on psycho-therapy (Korzybski studied the 'mentally' ill for two years in a psychiatric hospital before he wrote Science and Sanity)
Aristotelian-based and uses identity and allness unmercifully Based on the premises of non-identity and non-allness
Full of science-fiction like fantasies originating from Lafayette Ron Hubbard's imagination (or nightmares) Based of well-known scientific data
Lafayette Ron Hubbard had no scientific background but pretended to be a mathematician, a physicist, etc. Korzybski officially graduated as a chemistry engineer


Another error, rarely made, is the belief that general semantics is having a 'semantic rigor' or even worse, 'spelling rigor'. Any error in grammar or spelling error is thus seen as a proof of disrespect to the discipline. General semantics has little to do with semantics and even less with spelling, of course.


A first traditional error, made even by some people trained in general semantics is to quote the first premise as being "the map is not the territory." This statement is symmetrical: if the map is not the territory, then the territory is not the map. As that kind of relations is dealt with in the Aristotelian system, it is quite difficult to understand why such a symmetrical premise could be the foundation of a non-Aristotelian one. The correct premise is "a map is not the territory it represents". If the map represents the territory, the territory does not represent the map, an asymmetrical relation.

A second error, made mostly by beginners, is to confuse "to identify (gs)" with "to recognise (traditional)." A good way to avoid that error is to substitute "identify" with "recognise" and see if your formulation is still valid. Of course, general semantics does not advocate that we should not recognise our usual objects as a way to sanity, quite the opposite: it would look like Alzheimer's disease. For details read the article Identification, in general semantics.

As a consequence of the above, some are tempted to speak of "bad identification" ("to identify (gs)") vs. "good identification" ("to recognise"). Once the above is understood, identification (gs) remains as an undesirable and avoidable feature of our semantic reactions.

Finally, some confuse (identify) two different meanings of "projection": one is projecting beliefs outside our skins, as for a paranoid person, or believing that the 'greenness' is inside the leaves for instance (a typical confusion of levels of abstracting, an identification in the vocabulary of general semantics), and the second is a survival mechanism of our nervous system, hardwired at early-age, which reconstructs four-dimensional space-time from our perceptions, a mechanism which is 'perfectly normal', even if it can have some limitations such as in the case of the so-called 'optical' illusions.


The most usual error about inferences is to believe "observation is good, inference is bad." Stuart Chase has made this error in his popularisation of general semantics, The Tyranny of Words. As stated in the introduction of our tests, "A sane judgement requires a careful distinction between two kind of ideas that we have on the external world. They are named observations and inferences." What we say here is that we need to discriminate the two, not that one is 'bad' and the other 'good'. A person cannot survive long or even avoid making inferences of some kind. It is also clear that even observation involve some inferencing, at least from the event level (remember for example that what we see in three dimensions is an interpretation of two 'flat' images on our retinas). For more details, read Inference Tests and GS.

Intensional and Extensional

The most usual error can be stated as "intensional is bad, extensional is good." As with observations and inferences, both are useful and needed. It happens that, with the Aristotelian system, we are more trained in intensional orientation than in extensional orientation. The practice of general semantics and extensional devices should balance that tendency and train us more in the extensional orientation.

Another rare blunder is to consider that "intensional is inside my head, extensional is outside my head," as if what happen inside one's head was only 'abstract.' Of course it is not and we have some vivid PET imagery to prove it. These errors were made in a notorious French book listed in the French bibliography.


The worst blunder that one can make about "multiordinal" is to confuse it with "multi-meaning." If that were true, there would be little use of such a new term. Yet, a professor of Philosophy, Joseph D. Foster, has made that blunder. Most general words have more than one definition, as one can tell by reading a dictionary. But when we speak of a multiordinal term, we consider a single dictionary definition of the term, which applies to all levels. Its meaning should change for us with the level and not its dictionary definition. For example, if someone hates chocolate because it does not taste good for him, and some other hates chocolate because it makes him put weight, we are not speaking about the same "hate," although the definitions for the two can be 'identical' ("a strong dislike"). These are examples of the 'same' word applied at two different levels. Considering that process, it seems evident that it cannot be applied to general words for ordinary objects ("table", "chair", "computer", "dog") and, as a consequence, these cannot be multiordinal. A multiordinal term is, by operational necessity, abstract.

Structural Differential

The SD is perhaps one of the devices that seem to have given a lot of troubles to the general semantics community. Some wanted to improve it, only to run into inconsistencies. The most famous example is "Hayakawa's ladder." This distortion of the SD completely destroys one of its most important features, the relation between the higher order abstractions and the event, that which accounts for consciousness of abstracting. It also reifies the levels of abstracting and does not show the differences between the event and object levels and the following ones as all are represented by one ladder step.

Another model, Bourland's ZEOS shows some misunderstanding of the term "abstracting" and proceeds to 'add' what was already included. It also shows misunderstanding of what the event level is and misrepresents it. Korzybski called the event "the scientific object," i.e. what science talks about.

Many blunders have been made about the 'arrow' that connects the highest abstractions with the event, such as a kind of "bio-feedback" to the lower centres of the brain. The correct answer is in Science and Sanity: science (highest abstractions at a given date) speaks about this event level to which no one has a 'direct' access (since perception occurs at object level). Besides, science is the only way by which we might be conscious of the existence of that level. Thus, Korzybski pegged the highest abstractions to the event level, or drew a long arrow that goes from the highest abstractions to the event level.

Another blunder is to confuse the term "object" with a physical object. In the case of the SD, "object" refers to a construct inside our brains from our perceptions, not to the physical object that could be referred on the SD at the event level. The SD levels beyond and including object level describe something happening inside our heads. Event level can be anything happening, 'inside' and 'outside' having no meaning at this level. This formulation is even better conveyed by Henri Landier's poem. A consequence of that stratification is that a feeling, such as hunger for example, belongs on the SD to the same level as any other observation of events outside our skins. In other words "hunger" is as objective as "blue." There, we see that the SD doesn't treat differently something that happens inside or outside our skins: the SD is a non-elementalistic tool.

Some criticised the SD because it did not mention 'ideas'. Although Korzybski addressed that in another presentation of the SD in his booklet The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes, there is no necessity to do so. Except for the first and basic event level, all other levels can be considered as multiple without any change in the usefulness of the SD. In other words, it is only useful, for our purpose in general semantics (which is not any kind of neuroscience), to use one object and some small number of labels (usually considering three of the latter is enough, provided we are conscious that the chain of labels can be arbitrarily long).


Some beginners in general semantics believe that time-binding is a characteristic of men as individuals. In fact, there is no such capability in any one person. The definition of time-binding itself implies communication between at least two individuals, thus it is not applicable to a single person cut-off from his human environments. We can speak of the temperature of an object but we cannot speak of the temperature of its individual atoms. The functions of the brain used for time-binding are known: memory, language, 'logical' skills, manual skills, etc.

Now, the worst known misinterpretation of Korzybski's formulation of time-binding is to believe that time-binding is equivalent to that religious 'God-like' origin of Man in the monotheist religions. First, because of what have been said above (time-binding applies to a human group and not to individuals), and second because time-binding is not a 'plus' affair: Man is not "an animal + time-binding". And as Darwin said, "the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is one of degree and not of kind."

Some may be tempted to blur differences between time-binders and space-binders by mentioning many experiences with space-binders who can use language to some extent (such as dolphins, killer whales, higher apes, chimpanzees and even parrots), can be taught to communicate to some extent with humans, etc. Considering that left to themselves, the knowledge they have acquired with humans would be soon lost, their rate of progress (linked directly with time-binding ability) is infinitesimal compared with humans'. So that it can be totally neglected under current circumstances. This is not to advocate or justify any kind of non-humane treatment of space-binders, of course, quite the opposite since they are part of our environment.

Finally, time-binding is not about 'being nice' to people, despite what some people who advocate that general semantics is a kind of 'self-help' psychotherapy seem to believe. But anyway, 'being nice' is not harmful under usual circumstances, is it?

Undefined Terms

Mostly accustomed to dictionaries, people are convinced that one can define circularly. This is a fallacy of Circular Definition, known even in traditional Aristotelian 'logic'. It is apparent if you try for example to explain the verb "to trade" to a foreigner. To define that term, you use the verb "to exchange" that the foreigner does not know either. Then, you proceed by explaining "to exchange" using "to trade." Do you think the foreigner will understand either word after that? One can also try to explain "white color" to a born-blind person. It is quite impossible to learn a language from scratch, based only on word definitions, as all parents know when they have to point silently to objects/images for their children. One must first know some basic words, which do not need definition, which we understand somehow but cannot define at a given time, the undefined terms. These undefined terms do vary during a person's life, mostly due to education in a very general sense. One conjecture made by Korzybski about these terms is that they are all multiordinal (the converse not being true, i.e. a multiordinal term might not be undefined).