“Personal Engineering” as Another Name for General Semantics


The other day the thought came to mind:

What if it were called “personal engineering”?

General semantics that is.  Recall that the founder of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski, referred to his work in his first book Manhood of Humanity as “human engineering.”  That term came from his own work as an engineer as well as his dedication to improving humanity away from the destructive direction of war.  Yet the term “human engineering” fell to the side when Korzybski introduced a more focused endeavor he called “general semantics,” which wasn’t so bad considering that the term “human engineering” might nowadays evoke images of test tubes or genetic manipulation.

But the term “human engineering” provides a better description for what Korzybski aimed to do than the term “general semantics.”  As I understand the term in the last few weeks, the term “general semantics” means something like this: It is the study of the meanings not just of words, but of something more general also.  That is, it is the study of the meanings of words, and meanings of the organization of words.  It is the study of the meanings of language and also the study of the meanings communicated by the structure of language.  And even more generally than the purely linguistic, general semantics is the study of the meanings of words, and the meanings of concepts, the meanings of events, … the  meanings of anything, really.

I came to this understanding slowly after reading up on Leon Chwistek, a mathematician from whose work Korzybski purportedly pulled the term “semantic.”  From what I can tell, Chwistek introduced Korzybski to the notion of ordinal difference between concepts having the same name.  Basically, if I have this in any way correct, Chwistek talked of the conceptual side of language structure and referred to his discussion as “semantic.”  For Chwistek, it seemed to me, the word “semantic” meant not just the meaning of words but the meaning of the structure of words, especially how we structure words in our heads.

It may take you another read to follow that passage because for some reason, when talking of meaning, things get confusing.  And I haven’t read Chwistek directly as that would require some translation, so I may be way off.  (But if I am way off, at least reading about Chwistek was inspiring!)

The name “general semantics,” in my opinion, refers to the specific interest Korzybski had in human engineering.  In engineering humanity away from war and onward to progress and prosperity, Korzybski studied the role language played in that engineering.  More specifically, he focused on what people gleaned from particular language–both the content (words) and structure (punctuation, etc.).  He wondered, If either were changed, would such changes yield a resolution of war and the invitation of progress and prosperity?

A little ludicrous-sounding to suggest that by changing one comma, interplanetary war would stop and the Invention to Top All Inventions would be produced.  But the power of Korzybski’s observations are felt on the personal level.  That is, Korzybski aims to get you to change your language–both your content (words) and structure (punctuation, etc.).  But more importantly, he aims to get you to change your thinking.  His linguistic manipulation basically forces a consciousness of your thought habits and a responsibility over them, so that you carefully consider what you’re saying and communicating and can decide if you want to forward, say, something that is not scientifically knowable.  Korzybski noted the presence of old metaphysics embedded in the structure of language.  And he made it your responsibility to stop talking in the old metaphysical way (with his guidance, of course).  Else, you’d be damned to continue the problems you repeatedly have.

So, given the application you need to do in the engineering of your life, it seemed to me that “personal engineering” would be a nicer, less lofty-sounding, less-creepy-in-some-contexts term for the field of general semantics, were it to be renamed.  In general semantics, you’re engineering yourself.  The mass effect of others’ engineering themselves is human engineering.

Plus, the term “personal engineering” clues the student into the aims of the field better than the term “general semantics” does.  “General semantics” suggests merely the focus but eliminates the aim.  When you study general semantics, you like it, but you also can go, “So what?”  The term “personal engineering” answers the “So what?” question:

General semantics, in order for personal engineering.

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