What Does “Aristotelian System” Mean in General Semantics?, or A Small Recommendation to Make General Semantics a Little Easier to Relate To


The title of Alfred Korzbyski’s 1933 work that introduces the field of general semantics is Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.  The term “non-aristotelian” is of interest in this blog post.  It is an important term within general semantics, and one which I feel is both obtuse and generally misinterpreted.  Herein I aim to clarify its meaning by recommending a different, more relatable term in place of “non-aristotelian,” as well as clean up some of the misinterpretation of the term that has happened for countless years.


In Science and Sanity, Korzybski prides what he dubs “an extensional orientation.”  By this phrase he means an orientation to reality that is fed by facts and the material world as opposed to simply fed by words.

Korzybski sees many people operating under an “intensional orientation”–being informed by words over facts and material findings.  For example, take the person who fears “The Axis of Evil”–the label U.S. President George W. Bush gave three countries.  Were this person to actually commune with the citizens of these countries, she would probably find people much less diabolical than the bushian label describes.  This is to say that her fear is brought about  unnecessarily by words (i.e., her intensional orientation), and reality would likely not be as generic and menacing as the label portends.

If that example of an intensional orientation doesn’t suffice, just imagine that situation from your life when you were victimized by another person that one time; perhaps you were told (words) that you could trust that person, leading you directly to trusting the person, with reality proving otherwise.  An extensional orientation, the one championed by Korzybski, would have directed you to be led by the facts and by reality, so suspicious behavior would potentially have led you to distrust the other person, and to squirrel out of your victimization.

Korzybski borrows the terms “intension” and “extension” from logic.  Both intension and extension have something to do with defining terms.  First, intension: Intension is like defining a human being with a list of properties.  Korzybski cites the “man is a featherless biped” as one example of an intension for a man, as well as “man is a rational animal.”  Intension basically shows all of the characteristics that meet the criterion for use of the word.  (“Featherless? And a biped?  Then we can call it ‘man.'”)

Contrast intension with extension: Extension is like defining a human being with a list of all the different things that qualify as “a human being.”  Unless you’re a computer reading this entry, you’re a human being, so am I (the writer of this post), and so are your friends, family, et al.  So for the extension of a human being, we have Ben Hauck, you (not your name, but you), that friend of yours, that friend, that friend also, your father, your mother, and many, many others.

To summarize the difference between the two terms, when you want to define any word, to give the intension you describe the characteristics of the thing the word represents, and to give the extension you point to all of the things the word represents.  Both have their places and benefits, but Korzybski sees a primitive need for use of extension by everyday people.  People in his time (c.1933, and arguably today, too) got caught up in words and the reality they construct while forgetting to look at the things they represented to see if reality agreed with verbal reality.  That is, people were eating up propaganda (which is suggested to be a road map) but failing to look at what was really going on (the territory the road map was allegedly representing).  Extensionalization–i.e., developing an extensional orientation–is simply training oneself in the habit of downplaying words, accounts, stories, etc., and instead looking at and revering the reality, the actuality, what-is-going-on, etc.


Having now clarified what “extensionalization” means within Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, we can apply his regard for the orientation to his use of the term “non-aristotelian” in general semantics.  Korzbyski provides in the “Introduction to the Second Edition” of Science and Sanity the extension of his term “non-aristotelian.”  Even better, at the same time he provides the extension of his term “aristotelian”!  Both definitions come in the form of a chart found on pages lii-liv.  (Click here to view the pages within Google Books.)  In the chart, Korzybski clearly and explicitly lists what kinds of orientations, attitudes, etc., are associated with the term “aristotelian,” and what kinds of orientations, attitudes, etc., are associated with the term “non-aristotelian.”

Korzybski sums up each side of the chart with two different terms, which I just found in composing this post, and which correlate almost exactly to the recommendation I want to make herein.  Korzybski sums up “aristotelian” as “antiquated.”  And he sums up “non-aristotelian” as “modern.”  Basically, “aristotelian” means “antiquated,” and so “an aristotelian orientation” means “having an antiquated orientation.”  “Non-aristotelian” means “modern,” so “a non-aristotelian orientation” means “having a modern orientation.”  Why are these equations helpful?  Because both “aristotelian” and “non-aristotelian” are obtuse words (not to mention varying in meaning from the contexts of logic to ethics to tragedy).  “Antiquated” and “modern” are also words everyday people can better relate to.  Furthermore, “antiquated” and “modern” are time words, and the terms “aristotelian” and “non-aristotelian” generally lack any time sense except implying the time of and after the famed Greek philosopher.  The time words suggest what’s outmoded and old, and what’s current and relevant, at least in terms of the different orientations.

The extension of the term “non-aristotelian” is given by the chart.  To characterize the items in that list, most of them are simply ways of thinking.  That is what is meant by the term “orientation”: a way of thinking.  To shift from an aristotelian orientation to a non-aristotelian orientation–or an aristotelian system to a non-aristotelian system–is to shift from thinking in one way to another way.  That shift specifically is the shift from the ways outlined in the left column of the chart to the ways outlined in the right column.

Given the extension of the term “non-aristotelian,” it should become rapidly clear that those writing about general semantics who equate aristotelianism with aristotelian logic are misguided.  “Aristotelian logic” tends to refer to the Laws of Thought attributed to Aristotle: The Law of Identity, the Law of Non-Contradiction, and the Law of the Excluded Middle.  While Korzybski does take on those laws, Korzybski targets many, many more old ways of thinking.  Furthermore, he groups at least one old way of thinking  under the term “aristotelian” even though that way of thinking wasn’t around when Aristotle was alive.  To that point, note that Korzybski refers to the Newtonian system as “aristotelian”–it was developed in the time of Sir Isaac Newton, not in the time of Aristotle.

This is to say that the term “aristotelian” is much broader than those people who equate it with aristotelian logic would imply.  As further support, take Korzybski’s own characterization on page 43 of Science and Sanity.  In this passage, Korzybski drives home not that he’s talking about aristotelian logic but instead about aristotelian science.

In the days of Aristotle, we knew extremely little of science in the 1933 sense.  Aristotle, in his writings, formulated for us a whole scientific program, which we followed until very lately.  […] Obviously, in 1933, with the overwhelming number of most diversified facts known to science, the question is no more to sketch a scientific program for the future, but to build a system which, at least in structure, is similar to the structure of the known facts from all branches of knowledge.

Feeding this insight back into the chart, “aristotelianism” refers to Aristotle’s program for knowing the world, and probably to ways of thinking that were born directly from Aristotle’s program.  “Non-aristotelianism” is any departure from Aristotle’s program.  Such departures aren’t necessarily against (“anti-“) aristotelianism; instead, they are simply just not (“non-“) aristotelian.

But a lot of the current scientific program (what you learned about the Scientfic Method in school, for example) presumably would take issue with Aristotle’s scientific program.  Therefore, non-aristotelian science is modern, and aristotelian science is antiquated.


Charles Eddington is the writer whose ideas got my wheels turning on this particular topic, and he inspired a different term than “antiquated.”  Recently I downloaded Eddington’s 1928 book titled The Nature of the Physical World, a collection of his 1927 Gifford Lectures.  (It is available for free download from the Internet Archive.)  I downloaded it for some reason I no longer recall, but it was likely because of some overlap with general semantics.

Early on, Eddington talks about “The Downfall of Classical Physics.”  He talks about old concepts of the atom and of space, and he talks about how new discoveries fed by scientific evidence were flipping some of the long-held assumptions about these topics.  “Classical” was the word that proved interesting to me.  In general semantics, might we use the word?  Might we use the word “classical” to refer to the old ways of thinking that no longer really work?  Might we call “aristotelianism,” “classicalism“?

The idea seemed great to me.  Dubbing the left column of the chart “classicalism” contrasted what I thought would be a constructive term for the right side of the chart: “modernism.”  That is, while Korzybski was talking about shifting our orientations from aristotelian to non-aristotelian, he was talking about shifting our orientations from classical to modern.  So many people are living in modern times using classical theories!  Square peg, round hole.

So there is my small recommendation to make general semantics a little easier to relate to: Refer to those ways of thinking associated with aristotelianism as “classicalism.”  Furthermore, refer to non-aristotelianism as “modernism.”  You can still use the terms “aristotelian” and “non-aristotelian” (and you probably will have to if you’re teaching Science and Sanity) but keep the terms “classicalism” and “modernism” close.  They may help your student understand you better, sooner, etc.  After all, it’s understandable why one would want to update from a classical way of thinking to a modern one!  It’s not necessarily understandable why one would want to update from an aristotelian way of thinking to a non-aristotelian one.

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