What’s the Difference between Unsanity and Insanity?: Clarifying the Concepts


People find my general semantics blog looking for distinctions between insanity and unsanity, or looking for understandings of what it is like to be insane.  These visits are generally welcome, and I hope you take an interest in the perspectives contained in this blog.

First off, what’s general semantics?  General semantics looks into the sanity of humankind.  At its base, it looks at different kinds of interactions–from sane interactions to unsane interactions.  It then makes recommendations to its readers and students in order to transform unsane interactions into sane interactions.  Why should one care?  Because unsane interactions are exasperatingly frustrating and oftentimes dire, impeding the ability to get things accomplished in one’s life with as little stress as possible.  Sane interactions, on the other hand, lack a lot of the frustration and stress, and they enable the participants in the interaction to more readily accomplish what they are trying to accomplish.

That is, if you find yourself “always in arguments with family and friends,” you’re having a lot of unsane interactions, and general semantics is probably going to help you out a ton.

In a post titled “The Difference between Unsane and Insane Is That Unsane Doesn’t Necessarily Get You into Trouble” I wrote earlier this year, I first treated the distinction between unsane and insane.  Alfred Korzybski talks a lot about unsanity and a little less about insanity in his groundbreaking book titled Science and Sanity, but he never really defines the terms “unsane” or “insane” clearly (from what I could tell).  You get the sense that insane is something more dire and profound than unsane, and that the term “unsane” can be reserved for a lot of people.  More specifically, you get the sense that we all exhibit at least some unsane behavior, some sane behavior, and possibly even some insane behavior, even if we don’t think of ourselves in the least bit not-sane.

Today, in thinking again about the difference between unsanity and insanity, I have a bit more clarity on the uses of the terms and what they might imply.  I offer for you in this post some aid in distinguishing meanings of the two terms in hopes of understanding how to apply them.


First, let’s look at opposites.  The opposite of “unsane” is “sane.”  The opposite of “insane” is also “sane.”  This does not mean that “unsane” and “insane” are synonyms.  Instead, “unsane” and “insane” are slightly different ways of thinking about sanity.

(If that confuses you, ask yourself what is the opposite of “straight.”  In one way of thinking, the opposite of “straight” is “crooked.”  In another sense, the opposite of “straight” is “gay.”  Does that mean that “crooked” and “gay” are synonyms?  Hardly.  Instead, there are different concepts of “straight.”  That is, we conceive “straight” in different ways; we have variation in how we conceive the idea “straight” in our minds.  The different opposites prove we have different concepts of “straight.”)

What might those different concepts of sanity be?  The prefixes “un-” and “in-” may offer some insight, but also the contexts in which the words occur also aid our understanding.

We get the sense from reading Science and Sanity that unsanity is a less sharp or profound experience than insanity, meaning that “unsane” has a less profound meaning than “insane.”  So, the prefix “un-” in this case, rather than meaning simply “not,” possibly means “less than.”  If so, “unsane” would mean “less than sane.”  And if “unsane” means “less than sane,” anyone who is unsane is anywhere from a little bit away from being sane to being far away from being sane.  “Unsane” is a term of magnitude.  The concept of unsanity is like a our concept of weight: You can step on a scale and it tells you your weight.  You might step on a scale and have it tell you the magnitude of your unsanity.  It could be zero; it could be 250; it could be a ton!

“Insane” has a sharper, more profound meaning in Science and Sanity, and in reading it, insanity sounds like a more definite experience than one of more or less sanity.  “Insane” seems reserved for people like schizophrenics, whose delusions tend to lead to their diagnoses.  (I need to double-check that this tends to be where “insane” shows up in the book.)  While insane people might still exhibit sane behavior, they are not usually categorized as sane people; that is, “insane” is more of a categorical term, one that has little gray area.  The prefix “in-” in this case then, rather than simply meaning “not,” possibly means “clearly not.”  If so, “insane” would mean “clearly not sane.”  And if “insane” means “clearly not sane,” anyone who is insane exhibits profound qualities distinctly different from those people typically categorized as “sane.”

Those qualities probably vary with social circle or society.  For example, in my society, if you talk to a person outloud who is obviously not there, and you do that on the subway, you’re probably going to be thought of as “insane” because of the unspoken ethic that “sane people don’t do that.”  However, the moment I realize you’re acting and rehearsing a monologue (albeit on the subway), I might take you out of that category and see you as “sane,” … though I might consider you “weird” or “crazy” instead!

In sum, it would seem to me that “unsane” means “less than sane” and “insane” means “clearly not sane.”  Putting these two concepts together, you realize that someone could be “unsane but not insane” or even “unsane and insane.”  It really depends on what constitutes “sane.”  You might start to realize that to categorize someone as “unsane” and/or “insane” depends on a clarified meaning of the word “sane.”  Clarified concepts of sanity would be the measures both for unsanity and for insanity.


General semantics has some say on what constitues sanity, but the picture is not entirely clear, nor it is entirely consistent with, say, legal concepts of sanity.  From what I’ve gleaned from years of study of general semantics, I summarize the general semantics concept of sanity vs. unsanity in this way:

“Sanity is believing fact over fancy.  Unsanity is believing fancy over fact.”

Here, “fancy” essentially refers to fiction–any kind of fictitious belief.  Believing that Gary Coleman (who is deceased and not the U.S. President) is in fact the President of the United States would be a fictitious belief, i.e., fancy.  More subtly, believing in “The Secret” (roughly, “if you say it, it will become true”) is fancy, too.  Believing in it would constitute an amount of unsanity.  Believing in something more factual (for example, “if you say it, you may potentiate a commitment to act to make it happen”) would constitute a fact in all likelihood, and with that belief, an amount of sanity.

So how does one determine a fact?  Within general semantics, the go-to is science: If it is consistent with science (scientific thinking, scientific understanding, scientific findings, etc.), then it probably can be considered factual.  Essentially, a lot of “bullshit” that people claim as true isn’t scientifically consistent, and as a result is fiction and fancy.  People say understandable-sounding things like “All businesses are out to make money,” which isn’t accurate if you can’t investigate all businesses, and becomes bullshit the moment you find just one business that is not out to make money.  You turn a fanciful statement like “All businesses are out to make money” more factual when you say something like “I believe all businesses are out to make money,” or “Some businesses are out to make money,” or “It would seem to me that many businesses are out to make money.”  In each case, the statements are measureable (more or less) and potentially verifiable via scientific examination.

So the determinant of sanity vs. unsanity is scientific consistency, especially when it comes to the claims we make.  If we make a lot of unscientific claims, claims that can’t be verified by science, etc., then we probably exhibit a lot of unsanity.  However, if we amend those statements and make them more consistent with the facts we gain from science, then we start to exhibit sanity.


The determinant of sanity vs. insanity is less clear in general semantics.  I pull more from life experience than from general semantics my understanding of insanity.

Since “insane” is a categorical term in my opinion, it helps to understand some of the qualities that one might exhibit that trigger that term.  These qualities, as I said, are socially determined, so in one society what qualities constitute “insane” might not be regarded as “insane” qualities in another society.

In general, from my experience, doing anything that will lead to one’s violent demise seems to constitute “insane.”  Similarly, doing anything that will lead to one’s immediate incarceration seems to constitute “insane.”  Putting those two ideas together, maybe what constitutes “insane” is doing anything that will decidely limit your freedom.  Scaling a skyscaper without permits or safety equipment might seem “insane” because it could lead to arrest or a fall that would inevitably mean death or disability.  It becomes “sane” (perhaps) if you do it with permits and safety equipment.  (We’re obviously talking about opinions here; “sane” vs. “insane” is not a factual discussion.)

Another sense of the word “insane” is “losing control of one’s thinking,” implying that “sane” means “in control of one’s thinking.”  Stress and the emotion that comes with it may pressure thinking ability.  Thinking ability might be so overwhelmed by stress and emotion that the thinker may lose the ability to control his thinking, making the thinker more reactive.  Unsanity could play a factor in insanity in this way: Fanciful beliefs that are inconsistent with reality or the scientific understanding of it might cause stress and emotion that overwhelm the thinker’s ability to think scientifically and factually, causing the loss of control of thinking that triggers the label “insane.”  “I’m going insane” is a cry, maybe, that the thinker can’t cope with the stimulus he’s getting, the result of an overwhelmed system founded in scientifically inconsistent beliefs.

For fear of losing you, suffice it to say that I probably can’t provide for you a surefire determinant for insanity.  Instead, I can say that what constitutes “sane” vs. “insane” is socially determined, so if you’re feeling insane, that may or may not be socially true, but the evaluation is social, not empirical.  At least in my opinion.  It’s not that you are or are not insane; it would be that you’re socially seen as or as not insane.  Get me?


I hope I’ve basically answered your question with respect to the difference between unsanity and insanity.  I should point out that it’s not really the difference between the two.  Herein, I’ve really pointed out a difference between the two.  Another person may point out another difference.  Heck, I might point out another difference in a future post!

If you have questions, feel free to follow up with a comment.

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