General Semantics: “The Study of the Ethical Use of Language”


Recently over the General Semantics Listserv (subscribe here), Bob Schaffer passed along a defintion of general semantics he heard about the field founded by Alfred Korzybski in 1933.

Bob writes:

I have always liked the first definition that I was ever given (some fifty plus years ago):

GS is the study of the ethical use of language.

I know GSers see this as incomplete and flawed, but I think it says something simple and direct that is appropriate for use in an elevator (especially in an elevator in a two story building).

I might typically balk at the use of the word “ethics” given its hazy meaning, but a recent use of the word in my own book on improv helped me to better understand how to use the term and what it refers to.

In my book, I talk about basic long-form improv principles, loosely referred to as “rules.” When improvisers take foot on the long-form improv stage, typically they agree to accept particular ways of improvising. These basic “rules” are widely considered “right,” whereas their opposites are widely considered “wrong.”

For example, there is the principle of endowing: On the improv stage, you endow your partner. There is also the principle of yes-anding: You accept whatever endowments you receive from your partner, plus you add your own endowments. To go against these by forcing your partner to endow the scene or by rejecting your partner’s endowments, you go against the basic “rules” of long-form improv.

I refer to these “rules” and a few others as “the ethics of long-form improv.” “Ethics” in this context means “the instructions accepted as ‘right.'” “Ethics” is a shorthand word indicating that there is a right way to do something within the perspective or within the context.

Note, though, that the word “ethics” doesn’t explicitly indicate what is considered right; instead, it indicates that something is presumed to be right. With respect to the general semantics definition that Bob Schaffer forwarded on the General Semantics Listserv, defining general semantics as “the study of the ethical use of language” forwards a notion that there is a right way to use language. But that “right way” is left out of the definition. What might be that “right way” to use language?

I quickly think of the map-territory analogy. A lot of discussion in general semantics revolves around the structurally correct use of language. This simply means that if you think of language like a map, and the events it describes like a territory, language should match events accurately. Where language is mismatched to the events it describes, there is a misuse of language and potentially an unethical use of language.

Granted, naïve use of language is different from inimical use of language, so your errs might not equate to a lapse of ethics. That is, you might not know that your language does not accurately describe events, nor might you mistakenly represent events with your language in a cruel way. That we can say there is an ethics in general semantics, we can lay down a direction for the use of language to which to aspire. When we want to evaluate our own language use, we can compare it with the standards that general semantics lays out.

And these standards aren’t hodgepodge. In many respects, they simply mirror the practices of scientists, mathematicians, and their respective mindsets and principles. They use language on the whole in this “ethical” way, intending to describe their worlds in accurate terms.

General semantics as the study of the ethical use of language means that general semantics looks at what we say and what we write and compares it to scientifically accurate statements and mathematically accurate statements, offering criticism where what we say and what we write drift from these standards. The presumption in general semantics is that by aligning what we say and write with these standards, we gradually become less delusional, awaken to the reality before us, and move from relative unsanity to relative sanity.

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