General Semantics Defined, Socially


Last night’s post was about sane interactions, and how I got to wondering whether Alfred Korzybski’s famous field general semantics might have more of a social interest in sanity than an individual one.  That is, does Korzybski interest himself in your sanity for the greater goal that he’s trying to build a saner humankind?

I think there’s something to that.  In his first work, Manhood of Humanity, Korzybski talks about humans as distinct from animals and plants.  He notes that past generations of humans pass information to future generations of humans.  He isn’t talking so much about, say, your deceased grandfather writing you a letter for you to open in 2015.  Korzybski is focused on the macro scale.  He’s focused on humankinds-of-old cooperating with humankinds-of-now and -of-the-future.  The book’s title includes the word “humanity”; the title of the book isn’t Manhood of You.

His next book, Science and Sanity, is cited as an exploration of this mechanism, this passing of information from one generation to the next.  In Manhood he called this mechanism “time-binding,” and Science and Sanity is supposed to be an exploration of its workings.  So in that sense, Science and Sanity would also be interested in humankind a bit more than just-you.

Now, back Manhood of Humanity.  To my recollection (and my recollection may be mistaken), Korzybski doesn’t talk about sanity in Manhood.  The topic is implied in the disdain he expresses for world war.  Korzybski implicitly encourages a saner humankind in the book.  He sees a generally broken humanity at the time of its writing, one that needs to be “re-engineered” in order to work better and to make progress in its work.  Insane intereactions complicate and/or limit productivity.

It is in Science and Sanity where Korzybski explicitly talks of sanity.  (Note the title of his book!)  The thinking I believe he had was this: Re-engineering humanity in order to make it saner requires the re-engineerings of many different individuals to make them saner. So to speak, you can’t operate on a population; you have to operate on patients.

Korzybski then turns his focus on language, and language’s intimate role in the time-binding mechanism.  At the same time he focuses on thinking, and its role in the time-binding process and its intimate relationship with language.  (The relationship is so intimate, perhaps it should be called “language-thinking”–hyphenated, to show their extensional connection and character, to show that it is nearly impossible to distinguish the two empirically, etc.)  And eventually he arrives at particular lessons to the reader (“you”) for making changes that would effect saner interactions.  Korzybski spends a lot of time at war with the “unsane”; that is, the not-sane.  Perhaps it is unsane individuals who lead to insane interactions?


Now onto general semantics defined socially.  Here are a few attempts at defining and clarifying general semantics while focusing less on its individual relevance and more on its humankind relevance.  That is, these definitions show what general semantics means to society and/or humanity.

General semantics is a field interested in the development of sane interactions.

General semantics is the study of sane interactions.

General semantics studies the roles thinking and language play in sane and insane interactions.

General semantics aims to improve social interactions to bring about a saner society.

General semantics studies interactions and makes recommendations to make them saner and more productive.

Nothing too mind-blowing here.  These definitions are simple, as full well they should be.  But they are unique from many general semantics definitions I’ve seen in that they are less focused on the relevance of general semantics to you and more on the relevance of general semantics to society.  And that’s a potentially inspiring kind of definition.  Many people want to change society.  General semantics provides means and methods for gradually doing so.  I myself am able to manage and effect my social interactions from unsettling insane ones to more constructive, saner ones with the lessons learned from general semantics.  I make for a better, more comfortable world immediately around me with general semantics. It really is wonderful stuff.

If you’d like to learn more, visit the website for the Institute of General Semantics at

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