The Central Choice, as Explained in General Semantics


Recently I poured over a transcript of a recording of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics.  In the recording, he spoke a lot about extensionalization, which I characterize as becoming oriented to the non-verbal referents that words denote (that is, actual things).  Its contrast is intensionalization.  I characterize that as becoming oriented to the verbal referents the words denote (that is, other words).

Korzybski complained quite a bit about the intensional orientation that many people had, and he worked steadily at retraining people to develop more extensional orientations.  He seemed to feel that this was a central orientation in the development of a sane attitude.  While I won’t get into his argument right now, I’ll just say that there’s a ton of value that I’ve personally derived from becoming more extensional.  That is, instead of paying attention to words, I put more interest in the actual things they denote, and I start to see a) how people try to persuade me by using emotional or deluded language, and b) how I might believe in a reality that doesn’t actually exist.  With a big grain of salt, I start to take people’s use of language, say, to characterize others and their stories.  I tend toward a “show me” attitude.  I need a lot of evidence before I believe the simplest story or characterization.  I find that people spread a lot of bullshit, even without their knowing, and getting extensional has helped me become a better “bullshit detector.”

As I see it, intension is just one kind of extension.  “Extension” is the word used to denote the behavior of defining a word by pointing at its subject.  The extension of the word “zebra” is pointing at a zebra, or maybe a photograph of one.  “Intension” is a word used to denote the behavior of defining a word by listing properties.  The intension of the word “zebra” is something like “a horselike animal with black and white stripes.”  Note that the intension is other words.

What if you think of intension as just pointing at words?  Well, then intension becomes a special kind of extension: intension becomes extension when pointing specificially at words.  That is, I might point at actual things when I define a term, and thus provide an extension, but when I point specifically at words, I still provide an extension, just a special kind I call “intension.”

It might be a bit hard to wrap your head around the problems that come from intension.  But try this: Let’s take my name.  And let’s say you’re reading my name on a list, and there’s a checkmark on the list suggesting you need to talk to me about my membership status in your hypothetical organization.  So you say, “Ben Hauck.”  That’s a term.  You ask, “Where’s Ben Hauck?”  I don’t step forward from the crowd.  You ask again: “Where’s Ben Hauck?”  Someone in the group sees me from afar and says, “There he is!”  You ask, “Where?”  She says, “There!”  You say, “Point him out to me.” …

And so you’re looking for the extension of the term “Ben Hauck.”

… But say she points me out but you still don’t see me.  I disappear.  Wondering about my membership status, you ask, “Who is Ben Hauck?”  Another person speaks up: “He’s a member who joined in 2005 and he volunteers at our annual meetings.”

And so you get an intension of the term “Ben Hauck.”

The difference between extension and intension is the amount of characteristics associated with each referent.  When you point to me, I have a large amount of characteristics associated with me, and you see quite a number of them.  But when you point to words-about-me, I have a significantly smaller amount of characteristics associated with me.  If I’ve stepped out by this time and you never actually see me, I only seem to have a relatively small amount of characteristics associated with me.  The actual quantities of associated characteristics is of no matter.  What matters is that in terms of number of associated characteristics:

extension of a word > intension of a word

That inequality is a lot like saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  It says that the denotation of a word–“pointing at the actual referent”–conveys innumerably more characteristics about a person than a list of properties associated with that referent.  Another way to say this is that pointing at something better represents something than providing words about that thing.

When you’re asked to define words, what do you do?  Do you ever provide an extension?  If I ask you “What’s a Republican?,” I am essentially asking for a definition.  Do you ever point out people you call “Republican”?  Or do you simply list properties?  The thinking might go that when you provide intensions, you simplify reality, but you potentially over-simplify reality.  You present a words consisting of relatively few properties, but the actual world consists of indefinitely more.

I could define “Wal-Mart” as a department store … but what to make of it when there’s also a grocery store inside it?  If I pointed to Wal-Mart, you might see the number of different components it has, rather than over-simply defining it in words, which are perhaps always overly simply.

So what is the central choice?  The choice is to provide an extension or an intension when you’re asked, “What does that word mean?”  “What’s a terrorist?”  Well, I could give you an extension by pointing out individuals I apply the label to, or I could give you a list of properties of a terrorist, which probably would not cover the total list of individuals I apply the label to.  That is, characteristics would go ignored when I provide you with the intension of the word.

Extension essentially aims to point to actual reality, in order to circumvent delusional reality, a product in some respects of intension, which can construct an overly simple world in its innocence, and can construct a persuasive (or dissuasive) world in its malevolence.  In hopes of “seeing the truth” and “becoming saner,” the general-semantics advice is to become extensional.  “See what-is-going-on.”

From the neglect of the extensional orientation, a number of unsane problems thus follow, whether they be from the belief in delusion or the persuasion away from healthier choices.  Perhaps unsanity is not bad, or even desired, and for that, worry not about the extensional orientation.  But if unsanity is unwanted, a saner lifestyle appreciated, and a better harmony with actual reality desired, extensionalization may be just the ticket.

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