What Is General Semantics?: A Recent Definition


Recently I wrote the essay below as a definition of general semantics.  It is informed by my readings of Alfred Korzybski’s contemporary intellectual influences like Walter Polakov and H.L. Gantt.  Reading them, I became much more attuned to the engineering roots that general semantics has, its productivity bent, as well as a clearer understanding of time-binding.

This definition doesn’t say “all” about general semantics, of course, but I feel it puts it in a perspective rarely understood or uttered.  That is, you don’t hear much about productivity in general semantics, but if you read Gantt, you hear how it’s a frame for much of the reasoning, especially when you translate Korzybski’s notion of progress into terms of productivity.  (I did that for you here.)

If you have an opinion of the definition below, or questions, or especially if it helped you to better understand general semantics, I hope you’ll post a comment below.  Cheers!

What Is General Semantics?

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a rut? Unable to progress? Does success continually elude you? Do you wish you had more options than what you see before you? Do you feel depressed, angry, or neurotic? Do you feel as if you’re born the way you are and can’t change?

Do you find yourself over and over again in arguments over words, opinions, perspectives, and facts? Do you wish you could reach agreements more regularly? Do you wish you were a better problem-solver? More creative? Do you wish you could speak better, write better, or communicate more effectively? Have you wanted to become more productive in your work? In your life? Do you aspire to be as good a person as you can be?

If you answered “Yes!” to any of these questions, general semantics is for you! General semantics examines your language and your thinking to see how they influence your productivity and overall success. If one statement could be said to characterize general semantics, it might be this: General semantics is like an owner’s manual for “how to use the brain.”


to General Semantics

General semantics is a field dedicated to maximizing individual and social excellence. It focuses on human productivity—that is, actions, accomplishments, and overall achievement—and the impact the primary behaviors of thinking and language have on productivity. In layman’s terms, general semantics looks at your goals, what you’re doing, and whether the way you think and talk is helping you achieve your goals.

Developed from an engineering perspective toward solving the problem of human conflict and advancing human prosperity, the theories associated with general semantics—made famous by renowned authors, thinkers, and leaders—conceptualize thinking and language in ways that enable individuals to achieve optimal performance, sanity, and happiness.

General semantics has influenced a great many figures in the fields of communication, business, psychology, law, academia, and self-help, as well as countless individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures around the world, enabling them to become more productive and functional in problematic areas of their work and lives.


of General Semantics

In 1933, Polish engineer Count Alfred Korzybski introduced the field of general semantics with the publication of his groundbreaking book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. By 1938 Korzybski had founded the Institute of General Semantics, attracting people from innumerable disciplines to hear his transformative teachings on current states of humanity and the roles thinking and language had on those states. Upon his death in 1950, Korzybski had published books and essays on topics related to language and behavior, mental illness and mental health, scientific and unscientific thinking, not to mention general semantics, and he had taught tens of thousands of students as a charismatic guest lecturer on campuses and in classes, seminars, and workshops.

General semantics gained fame from books like Stuart Chase’s popular The Tyranny of Words and S.I. Hayakawa’s Book of the Month Club title Language in Action, which drew substance from the unusual attention general semantics paid to language and its role in problem-causing and problem-solving. Writer A. E. van Vogt also popularized general semantics with his famous science-fiction novel The World of Null-A. After Korzybski’s death, general semantics remained in vogue, and fields like rational emotive behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, neuro-linguistic programming, and media ecology developed explicitly using general semantics concepts. Today, general semantics competes for attention with a number of different cognitive and academic disciplines, yet few disciplines have demonstrated as transformative a power as general semantics in changing and developing thinking in individuals’ pursuits of personal excellence.

Foundational Concepts

in General Semantics

Alfred Korzybski applied his engineering background to the problem of world war. As a soldier who was seriously wounded in World War I, he had a very personal experience of the problem. In the early years of developing what would become general semantics, Korzybski called what he was doing “human engineering.” Korzybski aimed to engineer humanity in a direction that would lead people out of such dire interpersonal relations that led to world war, and in the direction of more cooperative, constructive interpersonal relations.

An engineer must have a solid understanding of the capacities of his resources, and Korzybski understood that humans were his resource. Part of the problem Korzybski saw in re-engineering humanity was the predominant concepts of humanity in his day. Rather than accepting the popular zoological concept of humanity wherein humans were “simply animals,” or accepting the popular spiritual concept of humanity wherein humans were “part natural, part supernatural,” Korzybski needed a new concept of humanity that properly framed humanity for its engineering. He accepted a revolutionary concept of humanity: that of the human as a time-binder.

For Korzybski, time-binding referred to the unique capacity humans had to cooperate with humans from another time. The term “time-binding” specifically referred to the cooperation between humans from different time periods: people of different time periods worked together, “bound” through their cooperation. Korzybski pointed out that humans in the present time did not simply cooperate with themselves in order to produce. Rather, humans in the present time cooperated with humans from a past time in order to produce. By drawing on the lessons offered by humans from a past time, humans in the present time had the capacity to expedite production relative to humans of a past time, and thereby enable relative progress. Progression, thus, was a unique characteristic of humanity that differentiated humans from animals since animals could not cooperate with animals of a past time and expedite production. According to Korzybski, given their unique time-binding capacity, humans should not be thought of as animals in the endeavor to re-engineer humanity.

Using this concept of humanity, Korzybski had armament for engineering humankind away from the behaviors that led to world war. As time-binders, humans’ overall direction was made apparent: To produce in cooperation with the present and past generations, to aid the production of future generations. Endeavors that interfered with the productivity and progression of humanity were counterproductive to human nature. War, ineffective communication, unscientific thinking, and delusion became topics of interest to Korzybski as he endeavored to engineer a more productive human and humankind.

Key Concepts

in General Semantics

Time-binding was only background information when Korzybski founded the field of general semantics. In Science and Sanity, Korzybski took aim at some of the worst examples of human productivity and some of the best examples, for what lessons the best may teach the worst for the overall benefit of humanity. Specifically, Korzybski noted the language habits of scientists and mathematicians and how their language facilitated great technological advancement. Comparatively, Korzybski showed how unscientific and emotional language habits greatly impeded technological advancement. In light of this contrast, Korzybski introduced concepts that taught his students and readers groundbreaking ways of thinking, writing, and speaking that overrode unproductive and counterproductive thinking and enabled sanity, productivity, and eventually progress.

In order to make for a more productive humanity, Korzybski paid special attention to the use of language. Korzybski chose to refer to his discipline as “semantics” because it was a discussion of the content of our language (the physical objects to which we refer, the concepts in our heads, etc.), but he specifically referred to his discipline as “general semantics” because it was a discussion not just of the content of language but also its structure—the organization of language, not simply on the page but also, more importantly, in the mind. The word “semantics” refers to meaning or significance, and Korzybski made the astute observation that not only are words siginificant and meaningful in communication, but so is their organization (“structure”).

Given this observation, Korzybski championed what is perhaps his most quoted teaching: “The map is not the territory.” Korzybski promoted a perspective of seeing language as maplike. Much as a map is intended to accurately represent a territory, Korzybski’s perspective of language taught to create language that more accurately represented the territories it describes. To this point, many people do not use language in a way that accurately represents the territories it describes. People are often emotionally upset or distraught, they are deluded, they project upon reality, etc. Korzybski pointed out the role language had in the manifestation of these symptoms. He pointed out how often people communicate emotionally and exaggerate; how often they promote unscientific ideas or forward as knowledge information that can’t be truly known; how often they give inaccurate and untrue reports with their words. He also demonstrated with countless students how adjusting language habits to more accurately represent the territories they describe led to a sizeable reduction of distressing symptoms, if not a full eradication of the symptoms.

From this approach, Korzybski taught his readers and listeners what was known scientifically about the human nervous system and its capabilities and processes, and encouraged his readers and listeners to amend their false-to-fact beliefs hardened in how they spoke and how they wrote, primarily for the benefit of eliminating emotional distress but also for the greater aim of becoming productive again in work and life.

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