What Is General Semantics?

Emily Daw

General semantics is a system of personal growth and development based on non-essentialist, non-Aristotelian logical frameworks. The term general semantics comes from Polish-American writer and philosopher Alfred Korzybski's book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. This work integrates philosophy, mathematics and science in an attempt to explain human experiences and interactions with reality.

Aristotle classified statements into two discrete categories, true or false, providing no middle ground.
Aristotle classified statements into two discrete categories, true or false, providing no middle ground.

Some confusion may arise from the use of the word semantics. In linguistics, semantics is the relationship between words and their meanings. General semantics does not simply mean "the practice of semantics in general," but refers instead to a particular set of philosophical concepts.

The key idea of general semantics is that descriptions of reality do not accurately or adequately match up to reality itself. A common phrase used to express this idea is, "The map is not the territory." In other words, humans are bound by abstractions both in the way they perceive an event and in the way they describe an event.

For example, suppose a person witnesses a robbery. He or she might attempt to describe the crime later by saying that a short man in a black ski mask held up the clerk at gunpoint. This description, however, is filled with abstract perceptions: to a particularly short person, the man might have seemed to be of average height. The description also cannot contain every detail of the event even as the person perceived it.

Even further, a person hearing this description might not fully understand the event even as well as it is described. This leads to what Korzybski calls "semantic reactions," which are reactions to the perception of someone else's verbalization of an event, rather than to the event itself. According to general semantics, these reactions are at the heart of most human conflicts. Understanding events themselves as closely as possible by acknowledging the limitations of human communication reduces purely semantic reactions, and therefore miscommunications.

On a more academic level, understanding the shortcomings of language is part of non-Aristotelian logic. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle classified statements into two discrete categories — true and false — with no middle ground or degrees of rightness or wrongness. According to Korzybski and other non-Aristotelian thinkers, however, statements can be true or false on a sliding scale: the statement "the man was tall" might be only partially true.

This type of thinking also does away with simple cause-effect relationships. Each event has many causes and many results. People can attempt to verbalize those causes, but the reality is not the same as any individual person's verbalization of it. The notion of cause-and-effect in general semantics is further complicated by its use of Einstein's theory of special relativity, which disrupts common ideas of time moving in a straight line.

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