“What Is General Semantics?”
That question, as well as others, are frequently asked of those interested in the subject. Below is a FAQ answering some popular questions about general semantics.
General semantics is a popular, practical discipline that applies modern scientific thinking toward the solution of personal and professional problems.
Through the application of general semantics ideas and principles, general semantics brings about clearer thinking, peaceful interaction, and greater sanity to one’s life. General semantics has served as the foundation for numerous approaches to human problems with its unique applications adapted from modern science.
General semantics was introduced by Alfred Korzybski in his 1933 book, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.
Semantics typically refers to the field of study that is concerned primarily with how symbols (language) relate to their referents in the ‘real’ non-verbal world. Included in this study would be the consistency of words to referents as well as the logical validity of statements.
General semantics goes beyond semantics in that it includes the at-the-moment responses and interactions of the individual humans who participate in a communicative process. General semantics truly represents an interdisciplinary methodology that invokes not only semantics but linguistics, grammar, behavioral sciences, physiology, etc. Alfred Korzybski explained: “In revising semantics, I am adding the word General, and also have enlarged the meaning in the sense that it turns out to be a general theory of values; evaluation. … In our seminars we investigate the factors of evaluation.”
Because general semantics pertains to matters of general evaluation, one can make a case that it ‘belongs’ in any (or every) discipline. However, since it entered university classrooms in the 1930s, it has been taught primarily in the Departments of Speech, English, Language Arts, Communication or Journalism. It has roots in psychology, biology, mathematics, anthropology, sociology, education and other social science and scientific fields. If you are interested in self-improvement, self-help, critical thinking, critical inquiry, communication theory, educational psychology or even science fiction, you probably have run across some overlap with general semantics. Specifically, Korzybski’s general semantics was a significant influence in:
- Dr. Albert Ellis’s Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) approach to psychotherapy;
- Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) as first written about by Richard Bandler and John Grinder;
- Speech and Language education through educators such as S.I. Hayakawa (San Francisco State), Wendell Johnson (U. of Iowa), Irving J. Lee (Northwestern), Elwood Murray (Denver U.), and dozens of their successors;
- The science fiction writings of Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt.
If you learn some of the principles and then apply them, you might enjoy some of these noted benefits:
- More effective, accurate, and discriminating communications with others, and with yourself.
- More appropriate and desirable reactions, responses and adjustments to what happens.
- A more accepting, empathetic, inquisitive, open-minded, and straightforward outlook that is less prone to prejudice, stereotyping, and dogmatic generalizations.
- A greater degree of moment-to-moment awareness of your own, and others’, different perspectives.
- A better understanding of the background assumptions we bring to a situation.
- A willingness and an ability to make accurate observations and reports.
- A willingness to continuously test, examine, evaluate, and change our assumptions and behavior based on our observations.