Essay on General Semantics and the Notion of Implication Coming to ETC 70:3!


I’m really excited that ideas developed in this blog will be appearing in essay form in Volume 70, Issue 3, of ETC: A Review of General Semantics!

If you have any questions about the essay, please post a comment below and I’ll follow up.


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Sanity as an Emotion


Related to my prior post, in thinking recently about the documentary Pina, I’ve been talking to a new friend about the purposes of performance, theater, art, and the like.  For me I had thought the main purpose was something like “to communicate a story,” which was not really my original thought but something I thought I had learned last year from others.  That purpose was one that was somewhat eye-opening, yet somewhat disappointing.

My friend made the point that for her, the purpose was not “to communicate a story,” but “to communicate an emotion.”  She is an opera singer; I, an actor.  It was really interesting to me to hear this purpose, and I found myself in surprising agreement with her perspective.

I got to thinking about general semantics some time after the discussion.  I’ve never really gotten a handle on how sanity fits in with general semantics.  I mean, I’ve understood that it’s related, and that studying and practicing general semantics seemed to help (me) toward feeling saner as I moved about in this life, body, and world.  But what “was” sanity exactly to general semantics?

I would like to submit the opinion that sanity constitutes an emotion.  Now, I don’t mean that sanity is an emotion in any kind of identification sense.  Instead, “emotion” is just the category into which sanity seems to fall within the field of general semantics.  If general semantics were seen as an art, and if the purpose of art is to communicate emotion, and if sanity were seen as an emotion, then it seems to me that general semantics is an art aimed at communicating the emotion of sanity.  In other words, if you involved yourself in general semantics, if it were effective then you would experience the emotion of sanity.

Now, what does sanity feel like?  From my anecdotal experience, it is something along the lines of feeling (more) adjusted and correspondent with reality.  Maybe more specifically, it’s not so much correspondent with reality but correspondent with actuality.  That is, reality is what our senses perceive; actuality is what is actually going on no matter what our senses perceive.  Reality is much like the product or even symptom of two things coming together: our senses and actuality.

I think within general semantics sanity is measured as being aligned with reality, actuality, or perhaps most accurately, our best scientific guesses about what actuality “is.”  So sanity in general semantics is a state of mind more than a behavior.  Sanity in general semantics less seems to have to do with behaviors we colloquially call “insane” or “crazy” like having homicidal, sociopathic, or suicidal tendencies, though sanity in the general semantics sense may thwart some of these tendencies if they are founded in maladjustments to reality/actuality.

So, putting this together with the notion of general semantics as a system of thinking, we might come up with the following thesis:

The current world is rife with emotion.  One type of emotion seems to be causing many people harm to themselves and their environments: the emotion of unsanity.  Many people feel “crazy,” “unsane,” even “insane,” and pine for a better way to cope with their realities.  These people pine to feel “sane.”  And insofar as sanity is a feeling, then sanity is also an emotion.  What methods might work in making people feel sane?

Well, perhaps the methods of artists, in their professional desires to communicate emotion, might have insight.  If we were to see Alfred Korzybski as an artist, we might look to his systems of thinking and measure his abilities during his performances at helping people toward feeling sane.  We might give significant credit to his particular systems of thinking — his artistic definitions — in their abilities to bring about the emotion of sanity: “the map is not the territory,” “the word is not the thing,” “structure is the only content of knowledge,” etc.  And so we arrive at Korzybski’s “general semantics” as one method for bringing about the emotion of sanity.

Something like that.


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General Semantics as a System of Thinking


I admit: I’ve had considerable difficulty embracing general semantics as what some call “a system.”  The difficulty stems from not being able to point at a system to know what the word “system” represents.

However, I was watching the documentary Pina last night and it got me thinking about what a system might actually constitute.  In the documentary about acclaimed dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, you have in Pina someone with a distinctive view of movement and dance and what it should accomplish.  And you have in Pina a leader whom others adored and followed.

The leader-follower aspect of the Pina dynamic is not the interesting point but the supplemental point: That she had followers implies to a particular degree that she had an appreciable perspective.  And it is that individuated perspective that seems to be what makes the Pina “system” so notable.

What makes up a perspective?  Certainly standing in one place in a room affords a perspective different from another person occupying a different place in the room.  But more so, what makes up a perspective are the frames the person puts around that perspective.  Someone’s “perspective” is not just the vantage point but also the eyeglasses and their respective filters.

If I look at you and say, “You are a woman,” I have thus framed you as “a woman.”  But as a frame, that is neither right nor wrong — it is simply interesting.  Someone else make look at you and say, “You are a human being.”  Another might say, “You are white.”  Another might say, “You are fat.”  Someone might say all of these things.  These are frames around the perspective — frames that consolidate the experience — frames that say, in effect, “Hey, look at this aspect in this particular way.”

Now, I’m not a huge fan of the word “frame” but that hopefully got you to understand my point.  My point more so is to look at the distinct frames that can be had: I can see you as a woman; as a human being; as white; as fat; as something else entirely.

I’ll make the case that a system is any set of these kinds of frames.  More specifically, given a particular kind of experience — a particular something– a system is one specific way of looking at that experience, that something.  In short, a system is a frame.  And here is where I segue into general semantics.

To me, as I sit her typing this, general semantics would constitute a system because of its specific ways of looking at things.  Notably, it looks at language, and it frames language as “a map.”  That is, in general semantics is a specific way of looking at language (the particular something), and that specific way is as a map.  Another way general semantics is a system in its specific way at looking at reality; it sees reality as the non-verbal level, as a process, as a happening, as “What Is Going On (WIGO),” and other related concepts.  Reality is the particular kind of experience, the particular something, and “WIGO” is the frame, the specific way we see it, in the system known as general semantics.

Now, for me, the word “system” implies not just a specific way of seeing a particular thing but also many of the implications that go along with seeing the particular thing in that way.  So, for example, if I see language as a map, then that implies that language is intended (at least in part) as a guide, a pointer, and that it should have correspondence with the territory it apparently represents.  If we saw language using a different system — say, one that saw language as music — the implications are quite different: the implication might be that language should sound beautiful, and perhaps the ugly words and sounds should be eliminated or are not language.

These are some raw ideas I wanted to get down.  If you have a perspective on this, feel free to share below.  Thanks for reading.


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What Are the Implications?


I’m going to give you some sentences.  You tell me what they imply.

Barack Obama will win a second term as U.S. President.

I have cancer.

I’m a Vegan.

4 out of 5 dentists would recommend sugarless gum to patients who chew gum.

Osama bin Laden has been killed.

Osama bin Laden has been murdered.

The U.S. murdered Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. killed Osama bin Laden.

The Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden.

Smoking causes cancer.

Smoking causes coughing.

These are just a random smattering of statements that came to mind.  Now the question for you is, What did they imply to you?

Write some of the implications you experienced in the comment box below.  Then read on …


If you can read English, in all likelihood a number of implications came to mind.  Some of those implications may have been about the events referred to.  Other implications may have been about the speaker of the statements.

The point is, language implies things.

Now compare the implications you experienced with the implications another person experienced.  Or better yet, compare your implications with what the speaker of these statements tried to imply.

What implications you have to language may differ from what another person has, and those implications may different from what the speaker intended.

How does this overlap with general semantics?  The field of general semantics is about adopting modern scientific thinking–and the implications of such an adoption.  There are a number of implications in taking on this “non-aristotelian” mindset (as it’s called in general semantics).  One is that pseudoscientific language people use in their personal and professional lives should be revised to more scientific language.  With the revision of that language comes different implications.  That is, what comes to others’ minds when you shift to scientific language is different.

While you might not be able to completely control the implications of your speech, you should be able to influence the resulting implications.  For example, if you say “I have a cat” when you actually have a dog, that statement is not going to imply a dog.  But if you revise to the more scientific “I have a dog” when you actually have a dog, that statement is going to imply a dog.

For what it’s worth, take a look over others’ implications in the comment box.


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