An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems (Oh Yeah, and General Semantics, Too!)


The field of general semantics is strangely named, and it’s been my quest for some time to “make sense” of it.  Not having had the privilege of studying under Alfred Korzybski, I couldn’t ask him what was in his head when he coined the term.  I’ve long heard that it was a regrettable coinage, but I’ve never been one to regret much.  I prefer to use the term “general semantics,” especially since it’s been around for so long and that’s how the field had been identified.  But that doesn’t stop my continued effort to understand what Korzybski meant when he used the term.

A few minutes ago I was working on the new online store for the Institute of General Semantics (I’m their webmaster).  I was looking at a copy of Edward MacNeal’s book Mathsemantics, typing up its book flaps for copy for the item in the new store.  The flap (from the 1994 hardcover) had an innocuous passage in it that suddenly got me thinking.  First, the passage:

Mathsemantics takes off from a quiz that was given to job applicants for the author’s consulting firm who described themselves as “good at numbers.”  Most of them, it turned out, weren’t in fact good at numbers, because they couldn’t draw conclusions about what the numbers meant.  The good news is that many people who think they’re terrible at numbers will find after reading this book that they aren’t so bad after all.  They’ll learn how to one-up the number crunchers.

The boldface was mine.  That part got me thinking: Is semantics to be construed as “the study of what things mean”?  Would mathsemantics be “the study of what numbers mean”?

Quickly I thought of general semantics.  I also thought of the title of Alfred Korzybski’s major work, which introduced the field: Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

That made me wonder if the term “general semantics” in the title is less the name of a field, but more a generic term relating to non-aristotelian systems.  (Huh?)  Let me rephrase:

Maybe general semantics is the study of what non-aristotelian systems mean?

That is, generally meanGeneral semantics: the study of what non-aristotelian systems generally mean . . .

I really like that.  Especially that general semantics is the study of what non-aristotelian systems mean.  The term “general semantics” is just a generic term, a simple phrase (nothing special) … that took on the name of the important field that I dedicate a lot of my time and energy to.  Being named with a generic term would be like biology being instead named “Study,” or engineering instead being named “Making,” or my being born and named “Man”: Generic terms standing for very specific fields and things.

That’s what happened to general semantics, I’m believing here … it got stuck with the generic name “General Semantics” when it was something more specific: that is, non-aristotelianism, i.e., non-aristotelian thinking.  It might as well have been named “General Implications”–such a name would have been as equally empty and vague as the name “General Semantics.”


What does that say, “the study of what non-aristotelian systems mean”?  Well, it says that the field, at its core, is first an elaboration of non-aristotelian systems.  In layspeak, it’s an elaboration of modern scientific thinking that rivals the old non- and pseudoscientific thinking, say, pre-Francis Bacon, Galileo, et al.  Non-aristotelian systems are pretty much The Scientific Method and all of its related thinking.  The field first outlines that kind of thinking–that particular “system of thinking.”

The field, second, is an elaboration of what those non-aristotelian systems mean.  That is, the field of general semantics is secondarily an elaboration of what it means if, say, Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy is true.  (“Well, all of our knowledge is uncertain then!”)  It’s an elaboration of what it means if, say, Aristotle’s law of identity is rejected.  (“Well, no two things are ever identical with themselves, so change is always happening!”)

Tertiarily, perhaps, the field is a threat to aristotelian systems and aristotelian ways of thinking.  In layspeak, all those unscientific, pseudoscientific, and related overly simplistic and flat-out incorrect ways of thinking, particularly about empirical reality, are invalidated in light of non-aristotelian systems.  The system of thinking peculiar to non-aristotelianism spells conflict with those who think like aristotelians.  “It ain’t gonna be safe anymo’ to employ aristotelian thinking.”


In light of the above, it would seem to me that general semantics as a field should be clarified as “general semantics of non-aristotelian systems,” where “general semantics” just means “general implications (i.e., meanings).”  The field’s name just means “the study of the general implications of non-aristotelian thinking.”  That is, it refers to “the study of what non-aristotelian thinking implies (in general).”

Or even more succintly, general semantics could be renamed.  What about “non-aristotelian thinking” or just “non-aristotelianism” in order to cut to the core of the field?  The “general semantics” parts of the field are just later explorations of what happens if and when we take a non-aristotelian frame of mind.  First, we teach what non-aristotelianism is, and second, we teach you the potential implications of thinking that way.

Remember: From the perspective herein, semantics, generically worded, is the study of what something means.  Lexical semantics would be the study of what words mean.  Gestural semantics would be the study of what gestures mean.  General semantics?  Not the study of what generalities mean, but more like a study of what something generally means.  The word “mean” in this context refers to implications rather than denotations (what something stands for) and rather than emotional significance (“That has a lot of meaning to me”).  “Means” means “implies.”  So, generically speaking, general semantics are just a study of what something generally implies, and thinking of Korzybski’s work specifically, general semantics specifically is the study of what non-aristotelian thinking implies.

And implication connects with logics.  I refer you to Alfred Koryzbksi’s pal, the mathematical cognoscente and philosopher Cassius Keyser, for explorations in logics.  Keyser is especially great when it comes to teaching implication.  He’s my mind porn.  His book Mathematical Philosophy is beautiful, as is his coverage of Korzybski’s early ideas with respect to time-binding.  In Mathematical Philosophy Keyser expertly teaches the reader about implication.

So I feel as if I solved a mystery today.  The field seems to have taken on the name “general semantics” (a generic term) when maybe it should have been called “non-aristotelianism” (the specific term the generic term relates to).  And that formula has been spelled out in the title of the field’s foundational book since practically the beginning.

“Duh, Ben!”

See also: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

~ End Article and Begin Conversation ~

~ Now It's Your Turn ~

Feel free to use <strong>, <em>, and <a href="">


Search this Site




alfred-korzybski aristotelianism cassius-keyser concept conflict definition engineering extension extensional-orientation game-theory gantt-chart general-principle-of-uncertainty generic-terms goals human-engineering identity implication improv insane insanity intension is-of-identity language language-as-generic manhood-of-humanity marketing mathematical-philosophy meaning non-aristotelianism non-elementalism personal-engineering productivity sane sanity science science-and-sanity semantic-reaction semantics structural-differential thinking time-binding unsanity values walter-polakov ways-of-thinking