General Semantics: The Study of How We Represent Our Experiences


“The map is not the territory,” Alfred Korzybski is presumed to have said.  Language–a primary subject in the field he founded called general semantics–is viewed like a map of a territory in general semantics.

What struck me yesterday is a wonder: Might Korzybski have been more specifically referring to symbols? That is, is he saying more that symbols are like maps as opposed to language is like a map?

Consider: We might agree that the function of a symbol is to represent something. When a symbol represents something empirical, it cannot represent everything about that empirical thing. For instance, take the symbol “Ben Hauck,” which represents me.  You don’t think of everything about me when you see or hear that symbol.  Instead, when you see or hear that symbol, you call to mind a relatively few characteristics related to me from the near infinitude of characteristics I possess.  Given that understanding, we see that symbols, perhaps without exception, represent relatively few characteristics of an empirical thing. That is, there are a great number of characteristics symbols don’t represent or that they leave out.

Now think of maps. Maps function similar to symbols. In fact, a map is composed of symbols. Maps might be considered “symbols par exemplar.”  By their nature, maps leave out details like blades of grass and trees, fish in rivers and cars rushing to work.  They only call to attention a relatively few characteristics.

The usefulness of thinking of symbols as maps is that it’s a very, very visual conceptualization of symbols. By maps being so visual a concept, a person can usually easily grasp the notion of symbols.

Furthermore, a secondary usefulness of the map analogy becomes apparent: The use of symbols carries with it an ethics.  Seeing symbols as maps circumscribes a particular ethics around the use of symbols: A right symbol represents, and a wrong symbol misrepresents.  By the map analogy, symbols should represent appropriately. If a bad map is one that misrepresents its territory, a bad symbol is the same–it misrepresents what it was chosen to represent. 

Presumably fire fighters have the grammatically incorrect word “flammable” on their fire trucks because the grammatically correct “inflammable” brings to mind for many people “resistant to flame”–the exact opposite characteristic the symbol is meant to represent. “Inflammable” might be said to be a bad symbol in that light, despite being grammatically correct.

General semantics looks at the symbols we use, the symbols we choose, and studies their use relative to our experiences. It studies our truths and our lies, our humble statements and our exaggerations, our journalism and our propaganda. It studies many sorts of representation.  It notes our chosen symbols and compares those symbols to our experiences. It sometimes offers criticism when there’s a considerable misrepresentation–or even just a small one.

As a standard of experience to measure representation, general semantics looks to science. For general semantics, science “tells it like it is”; science provides the best standard for what’s true about reality and our experience of it.  If for the scientist something is unknown, then for the everyday reporter, that something is unknown, too, and the everyday reporter can’t know more.  If the everyday reporter communicates in symbols that that something isn’t unknown, that he actually knows it, this everyday reporter would be misrepresenting experience, at least relative to the barometer of science.

Of note, much of science is probabilistic and technically unknown or can’t be proven (only evidenced), so nearly anytime this everyday reporter or you or I speak with certainty about something empirical, we misrepresent ourselves.  General semantics calls our attention to this, and as a result recommends operating using a general principle of uncertainty that guides us to speak more often probabilistically and less often with unflappable certitude.  But of course, science also provides us with a list of “facts” and if we speak outside those facts, we potentially speak in a misrepresentational way.  Science provides general semantics not only with a map of the territory, but also a mindset about the territory.

All this mindset really is, is a list of facts about our personal experience abilities.  It might be a fact that we can’t 100% know something.  Here, the territory is ourselves and our abilities; the map is “We can’t 100% know something”; this is also our mindset.  We’ve “set our minds” on this fact and operate from this setting.

And I come to this blog post after having it strike me yesterday that I might argue general semantics is the study of how we represent our experiences.  From that, the importance of the symbol came to mind, and the diminished importance of language followed.  Not that language is unimportant in general semantics, it’s just that symbols strike me as a bit more important.  Symbols include words, representational images, phrases, gestures, and so on.  Language might be thought of as merely a combination of symbols, used to communicate an idea more complex than a single symbol can communicate.  That is, language is a collection of maps much like the collection of maps you see inset in driving directions.  One symbol can represent reality; several symbols can represent a more complicated reality that a single symbol may not be able to.

Let’s go with this definition of general semantics and see where we go with it.

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