Manuals and Other Time-Binders


I recently wrote a few manuals to help document methods for an organization.  In essence, I wrote them describing what I do so that should I become incapacitated, there is instruction on what I did to help a successor along.

In describing these manuals, I described them as “time-binding manuals.”  While I was definitely referring to general semantics with the reference, the reference was a surprisingly natural thing to say when it came to describing these manuals.  In writing these manuals, I was helping bind the future who might inherit my work with the past–that is, me, now–who is doing the work.  The manuals were like glue–they did the binding of the two different generations.

Things like manuals and a number of different kinds of written works are time-binding tools.  They exist by design to help the future understand the past.  Alfred Korzybski coined the term “time-binding,” and expounded upon it in his 1921 book Manhood of Humanity.  He described time-binding as the characteristic that distinguishes man from animal.  According to Korzybski, animals don’t time-bind.  Have you ever seen a monkey’s manual or a cow’s guidebook?

But maybe we didn’t need Korzybski to coin the term.  Maybe it would eventually have been used by the manual-writer who needed to underline the purpose of writing the manual.  “The manual is a time-binding tool to help preserve organizational procedure.”  In such a sentence, the term “time-binding” doesn’t have a technical meaning–just an everday one.  Remarkable, huh?

But it took Korzybski to underline the importance of this characteristic to humanity.  Animals and plants just don’t seem to do this.  Because of time-binding, humans can pick up where others left off in their work.  Because of time-binding, we don’t have to relearn things after our predecessors’ deaths; we can read a little bit then skip much of the frustrations they encountered and jump to the successes.  Of course I’m talking in general, and there’s something to be said about the value of making mistakes.  But it is because of things like manuals, we don’t need to make wrong steps in order to find right steps.  We can jump right to right steps.

And animals don’t seem to have this kind of benefit.  Surely, there is some evolutionarily programmed behavior animals exhibit.  But animals don’t typically progress from generation to generation.  If they build a wasp’s nest, it doesn’t end up with a porch or garage complete with garage door opener. It stays a wasp’s nest and becomes a wasp’s nest every time.   The human builds huts, then houses, then houses with garages with garage door openers, then whatever is to come.  The hut becomes something next.

What is fundamental to a manual?  Instruction.  How is instruction conveyed?  By words.  Give a future reader a set of words, and you yield particular results in the future.  So, your choice of words in your instructions now can have cultural impacts later.  Choose your words wisely as you offer instruction in your manuals because you might inadvertently wire the future for failure over success.


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Holy Korzybski, Batman!


Perhaps you’re coming to my general semantics blog after seeing a link from my recent series of contributions to ETC: A Review of General Semantics.  If so, welcome!

Or if you aren’t aware of what I’m talking about, in ETC 68:2 (April 2011) I edited together a transcript from a recording of Alfred Korzybski I came across on a record series at the Institute of General Semantics.  It had not been released.  My friend Victoria Libertore voluntarily did the original transcription of the records, which I sent to her in MP3 files I created from the recordings.  From there, I polished the transcript, correcting words and punctuation to match more closely what is on the recordings.  Voila!  “New” Korzybski work!

In my general semantics blog, you’ll find some of my new essays on general semantics and my explorations of its ideas.  I’ve followed general semantics since 1994 or 1995 (I became a member of the International Society for General Semantics in 1995).  In recent months, I’ve explored the meaning of the term “general semantics,” which seems to get its profile from the title of the major work in the field, Korzybski’s Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.  I make a case that in the title, the phrase “General Semantics” actually means “General Implications.”  Therefore, the name of our field, “general semantics” doesn’t really mean much more than “general implications,” a fact that will lead you to asking the question, “General implications of what?”

I follow by arguing “General implications of adopting a non-aristotelian system.”  But finding “non-aristotelian system” a bit clunky in normal parlance, I opt for the term “modern scientific thinking.”  By that, I mean the thinking that scientists employ these days, especially in contrast to the “scientific” thinking that contemporaries of Aristotle or subsequent followers of his adopted.  To summarize Science and Sanity, it is a study on the general implications of adopting modern scientific thinking, particular when those adopting this kind of thinking are the unsane or insane.  The language component in general semantics is not all that remarkable in its advice: “Change your language to fit reality.”  It’s just that not all that many people who exhibit unsane or insane tendencies understand a modern scientific take on reality.  Thus, they operate delusionally.  So proposing that the unsane and insane look at what they’re saying and change what they’re saying to fit reality I suppose was pretty innovative at the time.  Given how some of my friends think, act, and stress, many people still don’t get or simply resist looking at their problems with revised, more scientificaly accurate language … so general semantics remains still pretty innovative!

In this general semantics blog, I also cover some communication theory as well as semantics (in contrast to general semantics).  Use the Search box at the top to cover specific topics, or use the tags found at the end of essays or in the flyout above to pull up essays on topics of interest.  I’m periodic in my writing in this blog on general semantics, and these last few months have been a little light as I cover other responsibilities in the field.  But I love writing here, and I hope to do some more for you, so subscribe via RSS if you won’t be checking back soon.  Thanks for stopping by, and read on!

Ben Hauck


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What We Call “Communication”: Notes on Reading Intentional and Unintentional Signals


Recently I was thinking about communication, and what gets called “communication.”  It seems to me that “communication” (the word) stands for the transmission of signals.  Something emits a signal, and something else reads the signal.  The signal has implications, and those implications are what is “read.”

Traditional communication goes like this: I write the following sentence in my blog:

I like to act.

It’s hard to count how many signals are given here, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say one signal–that I like to act.  So what I do is, I write it (I write this signal) in my blog.

Presuming you speak English, you detect that signal.  You do what we call “reading” of it.  “Reading” simply means that you have the ability to draw appropriate implications from the signal.  In this case, you draw that I like to act–that is, what is implied by the signal “I like to act” is that I like to act.  If you “read” that signal appropriately, we call that “communication.”  I’ve “communicated” with you.

Of course, if you read “I like to act” and conclude that I like to drive, or fight, or eat, then you’ve drawn an inappropriate implication from my signal, and we haven’t “communicated.”

Not all communication is verbal.  Of course you know that.  There are all sorts of body language that signal and imply.  The expression on my face, if you know how to read faces, implies my mood.  The yellow color of my skin implies, if you are medically inclined, jaundice.  My foul breath implies, yes, that I didn’t take care of my mouth recently.  Or it implies I don’t floss.  Or it implies–who knows–the point is that it signals, and hence can imply.

Here is where the differentiation between intentional and unintentional signals, and thence intentional and unintentional communication, come into play.  We signal intentionally, and when we do, we are aiming to communicate a specific implication.  When we signal unintentionally, we still communicate implications, but maybe we don’t want to do this.  Play poker?  In poker, we call them “tells.”  They give away information we don’t want others to know.  I just watched Fargo, and Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) offers a lot of intentional and perhaps more telling unintentional signals, which have definite implications.

So from the above perspective, the key terminology in communication is “signal,” “implication,” “transmission,” and “reading.”  We can also add in there the differentiators “intentional” and “unintentional.”

And those are my notes on reading intentional and unintentional signals.


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On Meaning: Verbal Implications vs. Non-Verbal Implications


At some point in your life, you may have wondered what “meaning” means.  Truth be told, it can mean a number of different things.  This post aims to help you understand some basic differences among the various meanings.


First of all, when talking about the word “meaning,” it is very helpful to throw the word “mean” out the window.  I prefer to use the word “imply.”  That is, when we refer to the meaning of something, we refer to what that thing implies.  We call that implied thing an “implication.”

Verbal Implications

Many times when we talk about the meaning of a word, we talk about verbal implications.  In layman’s terms, a verbal implication is another word, another phrase, a dictionary definition, etc., implied by the word.  So, for the word “human,” one possible verbal implication of that word is the phrase “featherless biped.”  (This is also called an intension of the word–with an s, not a t–but that word doesn’t invoke the notion of implication.)

Non-Verbal Implications

But not all words imply other words.  The meaning of a word can be non-verbal.  In fact, probably most meanings are non-verbal implications.  In layman’s terms, a non-verbal implication is anything implied by a word that is not other words.  For the word “human,” one possible non-verbal implication of that word is yourself, or me, or Aristotle, or Jackie Kennedy, or Barack Obama.

However, there are plenty of other kinds of non-verbal implications outside of representative examples for the word.  Another type of implication is a concept.  For the word “human,” the implication may be smart.  It may be polluter.  It may be subject to error.  Each of these are concepts that may be implied by the word “human.”  A concept, in layman’s terms, is a notion or thought implied by the word.

But even a feeling can be a non-verbal implication.  A feeling is something conceptually different from a concept, though at times they may be decidedly overlapping.  In layman’s terms, a feeling is a physical experience implied by a word.

This means that what Alfred Korzybski called “semantic reactions”–total-body responses to words, etc.–counts as non-verbal implications.  If I say the word “lemon,” and your mouth starts to water, your watering mouth is an implication of the word (a semantic reaction). That implication is non-verbal.

Non-Verbal Impliers

In truth, words aren’t the only initiators of meaning.  You can find meaning in non-verbal events (i.e., non-words) and thus experience implications.

If you think of, say, a tragic family event, this is a non-verbal event.  You will perhaps have thoughts and feelings related to the memory; these are non-verbal implications.  You might tear up; this is a non-verbal implication.  You might say “It was hell”; this is a verbal implication.

This is to say that both verbal and non-verbal impliers have implications, and that nearly anything you experience–fact or fiction–can have implications.  This is to say that nearly anything you experience can have a psycho-somatic effect on your body, even if it is just the submicroscopic level below your sensitivity.  You might never be aware of the implications of verbal and non-verbal events on your mind-body.


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