On “Concept Theory” as Another Name for General Semantics


Concept theory. How does that ring?

The idea came from the prior post, when I was writing about game theory and the influence general semantics may have had on it. I got to thinking, What’s a theory? And specifically, what’s game theory?

The answer to those questions wasn’t as interesting to me as what happened after I asked those questions. After I asked those questions, I realized that the impact of game theory was more in its applications than in its theory. Sure, it’s theoretical development is of interest, though that’s a bit over my head (at least the mathematical symbolism). What is more of interest is the lessons the theory offers: solutions to zero-sum games, how cooperation may emerge amongst selfish yet rational players, etc.

And then I thought of general semantics and its somewhat confounding name. What would general semantics be like if it were marketed more like game theory? That is, what if general semantics were called “____ theory”? With what would we fill that blank?

I thought immediately of the word “concept.” And that we might be inclined to call general semantics “concept theory.”

While the word “concept” was a thorn in the side of Alfred Korzybski (the founder of general semantics), it was in his later writings and teachings and not in his earlier works. In his earlier works, he uses the word “concept” rather normally. According to Bruce Kodish in an informal email he wrote me (see here),

Korzybski objected to [the word “concept”] because it, like ‘idea’ had the baggage of years of philosophical discussions where both terms had become disembodied, detached from what he considered the rather important notion that ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ are generated by human nervous systems.

After years of following Korzybski’s guidance to use the word “formulation” instead of the word “concept,” I started to question the disgruntlement Korzybski had with the word. As a teacher, I started to see the high value and teaching power the word “concept” had, and the relative weakness my teaching had without it. Soon after this personal discovery, I was reborn in my use of the word.

In addition, I started to understand general semantics anew. I started to see it as analyzing concepts people bring to mind. I started to see definitions as concepts. Abstractions as concepts. Object-level perceptions as concepts. Words, language, terms, you name it: Concepts. And it seemed that a lot of what Korzybski was doing was calling out old concepts with problematic consequences (especially relative to the notion of making for a better society) and advocating newer, better, more effective concepts with less problematic consequences (again, relative to the notion of making for a better society).

Korzybski’s Manhood of Humanity? His talk of a new definition of man? A new concept. To supplant the old concepts. Korzybski’s Science and Sanity? What would abstractions be? Concepts. In fact, concepts by nature are abstract relative to actual events; my concept of an apple consists of far fewer characteristics than an actual apple. Korzybski’s calling them “abstractions” may have been a bit jumping over an elephant and naming the elephant by its skin texture. That is, Korzybski might have made his teaching a slight bit more mysterious by referring to concepts by one characteristic of them (i.e., that they’re abstract). For controversial comparison, a similar problem would be shown in calling me “a whity,” skipping over my humanity and referring to me by my skin color. Less controversial, the problem might be shown in calling a piece of candy “a sweet.” Naming a thing by its characteristic and thus failing to name the thing.

Consciousness of abstracting–one of Korzybski’s biggest pieces of advice–would be “consciousness of orders of abstract concepts.” That is, the abstracting process is one of generating concepts that are more and more abstract, concepts that consist of fewer and fewer characteristics relative to the actual event they name. Given the prior paragraph, the word “abstraction” is a higher-order abstraction than the word “concept.” “Concept” demonstrates a lower order of abstraction since it is closer to the object level and “abstract” is but a characteristic of a concept.

There is plenty more to say about this, but the thought is that general semantics could possibly be renamed “concept theory” because in his writing, Korzybski essentially offers concepts about conceptualization, just as game theory offers concepts about games. And the power of general semantics, as with the power of game theory, lies more in its applications. So applied concept theory would be things like rational emotive behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, any pursuit of sanity, English grammar class, anything that takes from Korzybski to reconceptualize an endeavor, heck, even Scientology (which co-opted some of Korzybski’s ideas for its own purposes, perhaps sadly).

What Korzybski offers with his “concept theory” to the biggest benefit of humanity is this: We have a choice in our concepts. We are not stuck with the past’s concepts of man and humanity, the past’s concepts about what is scientifically true, the past’s concepts of conflict or how to improvise a scene in a performance. We probably aren’t bound or enslaved to any concept. Instead, we have options on how to conceptualize almost any situation we find ourselves in.

I realized this in writing the prior post on game theory. I realized that we have options in how we conceptualize conflict–that we don’t have to see it as a boxing match, and that, if our interests are in creating a better, less barbaric society, we probably don’t conceptualize conflict as a boxing match. And how we choose to conceptualize something, be it conflict or the day ahead, can have an effect on the achievement of our goals (i.e., our success). If I want to get out of a parking ticket, it is probably a good idea not to conceptualize the traffic cop as the Antichrist. If I want to find a lifelong mate, it is probably a good idea not to conceptualize all potential partners as out to get me. Etc.

What do you think of “concept theory” as another name for general semantics? Share your thoughts below.

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