On Teaching General Semantics … Comparatively


Considering my recent post addressing the question of what “aristotelian system” means in general semantics, my answer has a number of implications for the design of a general semantics curriculum. Here is one preliminary thought for the teacher of general semantics …

The study of general semantics is comparative. That is, it is best taught when its teachings are taught in comparison with the teachings that were generally taught prior to its founding. As implied in the recent post, general semantics is to be thought of as modernism (i.e., modern scientific thinking and orientation). Its contrast is classicalism, that antiquated form of scientific orientation and thinking associated with Aristotle but attributable to Aristotle, Newton, Euclid, et al. But there’s more to classicalism than just Aristotle and those dead guys!

Classicalism may also be associated and should be associated with language, especially language of a time earlier than ours, language whose developers are largely anonymous to us. As Alfred Korzybski points out, within the languages we inherit as children and as a culture, there are particular metaphysics espoused unconsciously, programmed into the language. For example, our language usually dices up reality into more or less discrete entities (words represent those reality nuggets), which leads us to believe that reality is just as discrete and partitioned. However, modern scientific thinking is quite contrary to this belief programmed into language, and the classicalism programmed into language makes conversion to modern scientific thinking sometimes an uphill battle, though a winnable one.

A lesson in general semantics not only teaches the thinking that came from Aristotle and others and how that thinking is not scientifically modern, but also teaches the thinking that comes programmed with language and how that thinking is not scientifically modern.

The general encouragement in general semantics, then, is to get students to slowly update their thinking from the old, easy, outmoded, antiquated ways taught and espoused by Aristotle, et al., as well as the antiquated thinking embedded in much of our language, to thinking that is more modern. We’re largely talking about thinking related to the material world. That is, when we’re talking about everyday things, everyday events, scientific thinking is in play, and antiquated thinking will probably fail the accounting of the material world. Accounting the material world requires much more modern thinking than what most people’s language and juvenile thinking will allow.

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