General Semantics as a System of Thinking


I admit: I’ve had considerable difficulty embracing general semantics as what some call “a system.”  The difficulty stems from not being able to point at a system to know what the word “system” represents.

However, I was watching the documentary Pina last night and it got me thinking about what a system might actually constitute.  In the documentary about acclaimed dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, you have in Pina someone with a distinctive view of movement and dance and what it should accomplish.  And you have in Pina a leader whom others adored and followed.

The leader-follower aspect of the Pina dynamic is not the interesting point but the supplemental point: That she had followers implies to a particular degree that she had an appreciable perspective.  And it is that individuated perspective that seems to be what makes the Pina “system” so notable.

What makes up a perspective?  Certainly standing in one place in a room affords a perspective different from another person occupying a different place in the room.  But more so, what makes up a perspective are the frames the person puts around that perspective.  Someone’s “perspective” is not just the vantage point but also the eyeglasses and their respective filters.

If I look at you and say, “You are a woman,” I have thus framed you as “a woman.”  But as a frame, that is neither right nor wrong — it is simply interesting.  Someone else make look at you and say, “You are a human being.”  Another might say, “You are white.”  Another might say, “You are fat.”  Someone might say all of these things.  These are frames around the perspective — frames that consolidate the experience — frames that say, in effect, “Hey, look at this aspect in this particular way.”

Now, I’m not a huge fan of the word “frame” but that hopefully got you to understand my point.  My point more so is to look at the distinct frames that can be had: I can see you as a woman; as a human being; as white; as fat; as something else entirely.

I’ll make the case that a system is any set of these kinds of frames.  More specifically, given a particular kind of experience — a particular something– a system is one specific way of looking at that experience, that something.  In short, a system is a frame.  And here is where I segue into general semantics.

To me, as I sit her typing this, general semantics would constitute a system because of its specific ways of looking at things.  Notably, it looks at language, and it frames language as “a map.”  That is, in general semantics is a specific way of looking at language (the particular something), and that specific way is as a map.  Another way general semantics is a system in its specific way at looking at reality; it sees reality as the non-verbal level, as a process, as a happening, as “What Is Going On (WIGO),” and other related concepts.  Reality is the particular kind of experience, the particular something, and “WIGO” is the frame, the specific way we see it, in the system known as general semantics.

Now, for me, the word “system” implies not just a specific way of seeing a particular thing but also many of the implications that go along with seeing the particular thing in that way.  So, for example, if I see language as a map, then that implies that language is intended (at least in part) as a guide, a pointer, and that it should have correspondence with the territory it apparently represents.  If we saw language using a different system — say, one that saw language as music — the implications are quite different: the implication might be that language should sound beautiful, and perhaps the ugly words and sounds should be eliminated or are not language.

These are some raw ideas I wanted to get down.  If you have a perspective on this, feel free to share below.  Thanks for reading.

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