When You Hear the Term “General Semantics,” Think of Non-Aristotelian Thinking … Then Ask, “What’s That?” and Listen for the Answer


The title says it all.

My recent explorations of general semantics have led me to understand its name (“general semantics”) means “general implications.”

Tracing its name back to the title of Alfred Korzybski’s first book on the topic, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, I recently figured that the name de-emphasized a subject more primary to the field: non-aristotelian (systems of) thinking.

For a rough synonym of “non-aristotelian,” think “modern scientific.”  That is, non-aristotelian thinking is largely just modern scientific thinking, especially when it comes to thinking about empirical reality and what is possible that we can know about it.

The “general semantics” part of the title suggests that the field also covers the general implications of adopting non-aristotelian thinking.  That is, the field of general semantics defines the term “non-aristotelian thinking” (rather, “non-aristotelianism”) and posits the implications of adopting it.

With this in mind, it seems to me that teaching a course in general semantics is not a matter of teaching language.  Instead, it is a matter of teaching thinking, specifically thinking of the non-aristotelian variety.  That means teaching modern scientific ideas: principles like non-identity, non-elementalism, uncertainty, and related principles.

Modern scientific ideas recognize that there exists a non-verbal reality, and verbal reality is something we add on top of it (so to speak).  The map-territory analogy famous from general semantics is mostly just a tool for helping a student of general semantics understand the importance of non-verbal reality and that verbal reality is not the same thing as non-verbal reality.  For example, we may use two words to split something up (like “mind” and “body”), when there may be no empirical, “territorial” support for doing so, their being so intertwined empirically that a clean verbal split misrepresents the reality.

This is to say that language is indeed an important discussion in general semantics, but what’s more important is thinking.  Non-aristotelian thinking suggests changes in how we talk about things, and thus changes in both the kinds of words we use and how we use our words.  In short, if science is supposed to represent reality, then non-aristotelian thinking does too, and so should the language of the non-aristotelian.

Where the abstracting process so famously discussed in general semantics fits in is within the discussion of non-verbal reality (as distinct from verbal reality).  Discussion of the extensional orientation (as distinct from the intensional orientation) correlates with this discussion.

How I see them of late, intension is just a special case of extension: an extension of a term is any referent for it, and an intension of a term is a verbal referent specifically.  That is, an extension of the word “cow” is that creature I’m pointing at in the field, and an intension of the word “cow” is the phrase “a milk-producing mammal often consumed commercially by humans.”  Because the phrase is a verbal referent for the word “cow,” it’s an intension for the term.  Korzybski advocated an extensional orientation, which is essentially the same as advocating a non-verbal orientation.  He also advocated an orientation toward “facts,” as opposed to one “of definition,” which is also essentially the same correlation.

I have a feeling the above is a lot of big, alienating words.  It’s okay.  Within general semantics there are some peculiar words whose meanings can be a bit elusive at first, but study in the field suggests that, well, they’re quite easily understood.  While Korzybski might not have been the best teacher in the world, he was a pretty darn good one.  He coined some terms for ideas not really yet formulated.  There were probably better ways to put things in general semantics (something I aim to do for you), but part of the fun is in the discovery of how simple some of his ideas are.

Like “non-aristotelian systems.”  That term refers specifically to systems of thinking.  And that line of thinking is of the modern scientific variety.  When you hear about general semantics, don’t think about language change so much.  Instead, think of modern scientific thinking.  Then think of the implications in your life, in culture, and in humanity were you to adopt modern scientific thinking as your way of processing empirical reality, also known as “the world.”

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