General Semantics

Tools and Techniques of General Semantics
Teaching and Practice of General Semantics
Typical errors about General Semantics


In the 30's, during the American great depression and on the verge of World War II, scientific conditions (non-Euclidean mathematics, Einstein's relativity, etc.) were such that the Aristotelian system clearly showed its limits. Observing the ailments of this epoch (between 1920 and 1933), Korzybski could formulate the goals of a non-Aristotelian system.


Korzybski began to notice that men were clearly different from animals with what he called his "time-binding" faculty. During many years, between 1924 and 1933, he investigated the processes that rooted this unique faculty. In 1933, he had discovered the key mechanisms and formulated them in his Science and Sanity.

At the root of the system, is the realisation of the non-identity principle, illustrated by his famous formulation "Whatever you may say something is, it is not!"
Then, he rejected Aristotle's principles of contradiction ("Nothing can be and not be") and of the excluded third ("Everything must either be or not be") and introduces that of non-allness.
He also established the existence of a characteristic of languages he called self-reflexiveness, potential source of verbal paradoxes and misunderstandings, and showed how to avoid its traps with some simple tools.
The recent (1930) developments of physics and biology inspired him the formulation of the principle of non-elementalism.


General semantics vocabulary has a great importance for the mastery of the system. Not to make one feel he belongs to an 'elite' but rather because fundamental principles underlie this vocabulary. How is it possible, for instance, to speak of psycho-somatic phenomena if we continue to separate in our language 'body' and 'mind'? How to speak of Einstein's relativity if we verbally separate 'space', 'time' and 'matter'?
The principle of non-elementalism demanding that we reject those ancient terms, Korzybski created new ones. A
semantic reaction thus indicates a global reaction of an organism to stimuli, including the part related with the meanings that this organism would assign to words. Thus, evaluation will replace the old words 'feelings', 'emotions', 'thoughts', etc.
The principle of non-identity and self-reflexiveness allowed Korzybski to establish multiordinality of terms, existence of undefined terms and orders of abstractions, allowing in particular to differentiate silent levels, observations and inferences and to deal with many verbal paradoxes without some such restrictive devices as Whitehead and Russell's "Theory of Types".
Some tools, of mathematical origin, were used by Korzybski to facilitate the elimination of allness. With this goal, he introduced in the language of General Semantics the words intensional and extensional.

 Tools and techniques of General Semantics 

To integrate those principles and reach the capacity that Korzybski called consciousness of abstracting, he imagined a number of tools and techniques.
Practice of the Structural Differential allows restoring the natural order of evaluation.
Using extensional devices helps to eliminate allness; and delayed reactions help to avoid 'emotional' shocks related with wrong evaluations.
An exercise will allow you to test your own capacity to differentiate observations and inferences.

 Teaching and Practice of General Semantics 

In United States, general semantics is 60 years old and it is taught in some schools and universities. The Institute of General Semantics (IGS) organise each year some week-end seminars and an advanced training seminars of 5 days, for those who are looking for teacher's certification in general semantics. An annual lecture (AKML), given by a 'famous' lecturer, is organised at the end of the year.

The International Society for General Semantics (ISGS) publishes, for its members, a quarterly brochure called "ETC..." including papers concerning directly or indirectly general semantics and its applications for professional activities or personal development.

The mastery of general semantics demanding several years of practice, the existence of an association devoted to that purpose is indispensable. So, come and join us.

 Typical errors about 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

Etc. For more details about this pseudo-link, see General Semantics vs. Scientology.

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.

© ESGS, 2002.