April 7, 2006May 5, 2006Meeting Report

April 23, 2006

Jim French and Jeremy Klein

General Semantics

Jim French is Editor Emeritus of the General Semantics Bulletin, published annually by the Institute of General Semantics. Jeremy Klein is the former Editor-in-Chief of ETC.: Review of General Semantics, and President of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the International Society for General Semantics.

Jim talked for about fifty minutes on general semantics, giving the background of its creator, Alfred Korzybski, and discussing its general principles and how it came into being. Jerry then talked for about fifteen or twenty minutes on the history of the two General Semantics organizations. A fairly lively discussion followed. 

Jim French has kindly provided a synopsis of his talk, which appears below.

Report prepared by Bill Potts


Alfred Korzybski came from an aristocratic family whose members had worked as mathematicians, scientists, and engineers for generations. He learned four languages from childhood--Polish, Russian, French, and German--and later read Italian and some Spanish. His father was an engineer and instilled a scientific attitude in him. He loved mathematics and physics.

Korzybski was educated at the Warsaw Polytechnic where he studied Chemical Engineering. During the First World War Korzybski served as an intelligence officer in the Russian Army. After being wounded severely, he came to North America in 1916 (first to Canada, then the United States) to coordinate the shipment of artillery to the war front. There he learned yet another language, English. He also lectured to American audiences about the conflict, promoting the sale of war bonds. Following the war, he decided to remain in the United States. His first book, Manhood of Humanity, was published in 1921. In the book, he proposed a new theory of human nature called time-binding.

Time-binding is the human ability to pass information and knowledge between generations at an accelerating rate. Korzybski claimed this to be a unique capacity, separating us from animals. Animals pass knowledge, but not at an exponential rate, i.e., each generation of animals does things pretty much in the same way as the previous generation. For example, humans used to look for food, now we grow or raise it. Animals are still looking.

The basic principles of general semantics, which include time-binding, are outlined in Science and Sanity, published in 1933. In 1938 Korzybski founded the Institute of General Semantics and directed it until his death.

In simplified form, the "essence" of Korzybski's work was the claim that human beings are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems, and (2) the structure of their languages. Human beings cannot experience the world directly, but only through their "abstractions" (nonverbal impressions or "gleanings" derived from the nervous system, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language). Sometimes our perceptions and our languages actually mislead us as to the "facts" with which we must deal. Our understanding of what is going on sometimes lacks similarity of structure with what is actually going on. He stressed training in awareness of abstracting, using techniques that he had derived from his study of mathematics and science. He called this awareness, this goal of his system, "consciousness of abstracting." His system included modifying the way we approach the world, e.g., with an attitude of "I don't know; let's see," to better discover or reflect its realities as shown by modern science. One of these techniques involved becoming inwardly and outwardly quiet, an experience that he called, "silence on the objective levels." He developed a model of the abstracting process called the Structural Differential. There are three primary domains represented on the differential: the verbal, the nonverbal (conveyed by our senses), and the sub-microscopic.

Silence on the objective levels: As "the word is not the thing it represents," Korzybski stressed the nonverbal experiencing of our inner and outer environments. During these periods of training, one would become "outwardly and inwardly silent."

The system advocates a general orientation by extension rather than intension, by relational facts rather than assumed properties, an attitude, regardless of how expressed in words, that, for example, George "does things that seem foolish to me," rather than that he is "a fool."

The three major premises of the system are (1) the map is not the territory, (2) the map does not show all of the territory, and (3) the map is self-reflexive. We are the map-makers, but shouldn't confuse our maps with the territory, which always lies beyond us.

To sum up his writings: Korzybski's major work was Science and Sanity, an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, published in 1933. His first book, in which he defined time-binding and explained its ramifications, was Manhood of Humanity, published in 1921. A third book of his writings, Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings 1920-1950, was published in 1990.

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