General Semantics Is Not a Town, But Defining It Promotes Colonization!


In today’s news is a gem of a map-territory story, titled “Vermont towns finally settle colonial map boundaries.”  It kicks off with this lesson, bolding mine:

ST. GEORGE, Vt. – A Colonial-era boundary dispute between two Vermont towns that were never exactly sure where one ended and the other began is finally going to be settled.

But it was old maps, not GPS or Google Earth, that ultimately found the common ground for the towns of St. George and neighboring Shelburne. The process has pointed up the art of trying to read the minds of the original surveyors and land granters to establish where the lines were drawn.

“It’s a matter of ‘let’s get this defined,'” said Phil Gingraw, chairman of the St. George Select Board. “Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, people would not really have cared. Today, I think, things have changed a lot, and that’s why we need definition.

In this story we have conflicting concepts.  We have a conflict between the concept of St. George and the concept of Shelburne.  In this world, there can be no overlap or “common ground” between the two concepts, which essentially creates the conflict between the concepts.  The two towns pine for definition in order to remove the conflict.

Definition is mostly just conceptual clarification.  Usually when one defines something, he lays out other concepts that are used to help another person envision the thing-needing-better-definition1.  Mapmaking helps to conceptualize the difference between St. George and Shelburne.  Surveying helps even more, especially where there are specific conceptual gray areas.

Definition also helps to distinguish one thing from another thing.  When it’s clearly defined what’s St. George and what’s Shelburne, there is no more trouble distinguishing between the two towns.


My interest in defining general semantics is similar to the process of mapmaking and surveying.  In crafting a defintion of general semantics in recent years, I’ve aimed to create concepts that clarify general semantics.  I’ve also aimed to distinguish general semantics from other endeavors.

This pursuit has meant a war against vague definitions, abstract definitions, and definitions that don’t distinguish general semantics from other fields.  The value of this pursuit is that the territory of general semantics becomes clarified.  Granted, general semantics is not a town, nor does it require no overlap with other fields, but defining it is like defining colonial America with maps–defining general semantics sets it apart from other fields and domains.

Shelburne Town Manager Paul Bohne said the issue was never particularly contentious, but it did need to be settled.

It’s been fascinating to get into the history and go back to Benning Wentworth and what was in his head,” Bohne said. “When all was said and done, he had given the same land to different towns.”

And so with general semantics and my interest in Alfred Korzybski’s original concepts regarding general semantics: It’s fascinating to try to figure out what was in his head.

For me, conceptualization gets contentious, though, when an organization charged with promoting general semantics tries to move forward in that task.  “How are we defining general semantics?” “How are we conceptualizing it?”  “If I set out in this direction, am I still in the town known as General Semantics, or have I left it?”

If I define general semantics as St. George, I abide by its laws and pay its taxes.  If I define general semantics as Shelburne, I abide by its laws and pays its taxes.  Each way I define it, I advertise to its people.  If I live precariously between the two, by what laws do I abide, what taxes do I pay, and to whom do I advertise?

“You can go to the store and for a couple of hundred dollars buy a GPS that will tell you you’re within a few feet of a location,” said Gingraw. “If you buy an expensive one, you can be within millimeters. That’s what people want, a firm definition of where their property is and what’s theirs and what’s not theirs.

And people want to know not just what’s theirs and what’s not, but what something is and what’s not.

The whole notion Korzybski later introduced regarded as “the is of identity” is perhaps the most pernicious foil for defining general semantics.  Some people in general semantics take issue with making statements about what general semantics “is,” thinking that doing so violates a key principle.  I disagree.  And if I didn’t disagree, we’d just keep perpectuating a foggy notion of general semantics.

As a metaphor for understanding how silly it is to fear the is of identity to the degree that it impedes the definition of general semantics, it would be like living the rule that you shouldn’t make assumptions.  Whenever you make any kind of assumption, you keep yourself from doing so.  Say you’re standing next to your son.  “Are you my son?” “What about now?” “What about now??”  It’s a little silly and majorly problematic to continue not assuming, though the point about not assuming is taken if it’s not applied extensively.

So forego absolute application of vehemence toward the is of identity.  Foregoing the hangup promotes the definition of general semantics.  With a definition, the field can become a township, in which people can settle, and grow, and progress, and prosper.

Fields start with seeds.  Definitions are like seeds.


1. This is known in historical semantics as “the definiendum.” Historical semantics deals with the meanings (definitions) of terms over time, and is a field different from general semantics. In this post, I’m talking about something slightly different than the definition of terms: I’m talking about the definition of concepts. Actually, there’s little difference in my mind (a term is like a label for a mental concept), but I just want to point out that “definiendum” technically refers to words and phrases rather than concepts or actual objects.

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