The Difference between Unsane and Insane Is That Unsane Doesn’t Necessarily Get You into Trouble


As you may know, unsanity is a popular topic in general semantics. It is distinguished in some way or another from insanity, but it’s not quite clear how the two concepts are distinguished in general semantics. In this post, I’d like to make a stab at distinguishing the two concepts.

For an updated perspective on this topic, click here for a post from December 4th, 2010.

In the last year, I’ve stumbled upon an understanding of unsanity by relating it to sanity. In general semantics, you are probably familiar with the adage “The map is not the territory.” That adage can be viewed as a metaphor for understanding speech and its relationship with physical reality. This adage also forwards a useful concept of sanity, and by default, a useful concept of unsanity.

Actual physical reality be thought of as a territory.  Most speech (both written and spoken) is like a map of this territory–a map of actual physical reality. Putting these two notions together, sanity can be understood as having your speech in synch with actual physical reality.

“The Earth is fairly round.”

Unsanity can be thought of as not having your speech in synch with actual physical reality.

“The Earth is flat.”

What is implied by the statement that unsanity is not having your speech in synch with actual physical reality is that your speech forwards a delusional view of actual physical reality.

A way I like to put this is that unsanity is being fueled by fancy (rather than fact), and sanity is being fueled by fact (rather than fancy).

Now, insanity (with an i) is different than unsanity (with a u).  “Insanity” and “unsanity” are not synonymous terms, nor should they be.  In general semantics, insanity seems to be seen as something more problematic than unsanity.  Here is where I take a stab at the differences between the two concepts.

Much of my current understanding of insanity comes from listening to people use the word “insane” or “crazy.”  I have a pretty zany sense of humor, and it’s not uncommon for me to be affectionately called “insane” or “crazy.”  (There is also a conceptual difference between “insane” and “crazy” but I’ll leave that for another post.1)  In thinking about what I’m doing and what elicits the comment “You’re insane!,” it strikes me that the general thread running through my behavior that leads a person to say that is that I’m doing something that could get me into trouble.  That is, insanity is behaving in a way that can cause oneself trouble.  If I do something that could get me in trouble, someone might be inclined to call me “insane.”

For example, it might be insane for me to play on railroad tracks.  It might be insane for me to drink bleach.  It might be insane for me to say something rude to another actor.  It might be insane for me to write a threatening letter.  Etc.  These actions aren’t truly insane, but instead they are judged by another person as insane.  There may actually be nothing all that troubling about the actions, because I might be quite safe in doing them.  (Think: Is a trapeze artist insane if he has a net?  He might not be thought of as behaving in a way that is going to cause him trouble because he is protected …)

So, with this understanding that insanity is behaving in a way that causes onseself trouble, let’s compare it with unsanity, believing in fancy over fact, i.e., having one’s speech out of synch with actual physical reality.

Already you can see a very big difference.  Unsanity has to do with conceptualization of reality.  Insanity has to do with goal-directed behavior.  Insanity in some sense is doing that which will interfere with the achievement of one’s goals rather than aiding one’s own pursuit.  It is practially goal-opposing behavior.  Unsanity has to do with reporting reality in a way that is inaccurate.

Given this, you may see how unsanity can lead to insanity.  If I conceptualize the railroad tracks as safe to play on, I might get myself into trouble.  If I conceptualize a net as secure when I do trapeze work, I might get myself into trouble.

I can’t say that at press I’m 100% behind these concepts of unsanity and insanity, but I’m liking the distinction so far.  For example, as mentioned in prior posts, definition has to do with conceptualization, and it is goal-directed behavior, so unsanity can be seen as behavior and, at that, trouble-inducing.  I’m okay for now for some overlap in the concepts, but generally speaking they are quite distinct.

If you have thoughts or your own distinction, please comment below.


1. As for “crazy,” to give you a tease, it has more in my mind to do with unsanity than insanity.  “Crazy” seems to me to deal more with how one organizes reality–that is, it has more to do with conceptualization than goal-opposing behavior.

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