The fantastic science fiction adventures described in "The
World of Null-A" and "The Pawns of Null-A" made me wonder if
there really was any such thing as "General semantics". Was this
"science" just a product of A. E. van Vogt's vivid imagination.
Some of the chapters started with anonymous quotes from purported
authorities, such as "B. R", "A. K.", "C. J. K.".
Had they all been made up? Could "B. R." be Bertrand Russell?
And what about the "Semantic Institute" at "Korzybski
Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)
In the mid-1950s it was not as easy to dig out obscure information
as it is today, with the omnipresent Web and its search engines.
I went to the central public library in Stockholm, but as far as
I can recall, there was nothing to be found under the heading of
"General semantics". But there was an index card system where authors
were listed alphabetically. I looked up "Korzybski", and - lo and
behold! - there was an author of that name. He had written a book
called "Science and Sanity". I could not find it on the shelves,
however, so I asked a librarian to make a reservation for me when
it was returned. It turned out that nobody had borrowed the book.
Instead it was kept along with other obscure books in a storage
compartment behind the area that was accessible to the public. The
librarian took me there and dug out the book, a hefty tome of some
800 pages. I felt pretty foolish as the librarian gave me a quizzical
look. What could an adolescent schoolboy possibly want from this
By the way, a few years earlier during a visit to
the local public library, I was indignant to find a Swedish science
fiction book written by Vladimir Semitjov: "430 million km in
outer space" ("43,000,000 mil i världsrymden") on
a shelf behind the librarian's desk under the heading of "Crazies"
("Galningar"). As the space age dawned and interplanetary probes
became a reality, I often recalled that incident. - Many years later,
an aunt of mine, who was a librarian, laughed heartily when I told
her the story. She told me that the term "Galningar" was used for
books that had been misplaced on the shelves. It had nothing to
do with their content.
The book turned out to be a heavy read, due to its high level of
abstraction and unusual terminology, in addition to my own limitations
with regard to the English language. But at the same time I found
it quite fascinating, with its abundance of ideas. (Unexpectedly
- at least to me - the complete
book is now available on the web.)
The central themes of the book are the enormous influence that
language itself has on our thinking, the dangers that are inherent
in the process of abstraction that underlies language, and the need
to be fully aware of them: "The map is not the territory." The book
makes a distinction between the "Non-Aristotelian" discipline of
"General Semantics" and the two-valued logic of Aristotle with its
insistence that statements are either true or false. In particular,
it warns us from using the little word "is" of identification without
realising how it can constrain our view of the world. Many times
when we say "is", we should really think "has" (the property of,
or the attribute, at this point in time), or "exhibits some of the
characteristics of", and add "etc." in order to remind ourselves
that the statement is not exhaustive, and may not even be valid
The term "General Semantics" is used to widen the scope of semantics
so that it does not just deal with the lexical meaning of words
and symbols, but also with our reactions to them. -
A man unexpectedly brings flowers to his wife, as a symbol of his
love. But she may be wondering if instead it is a sign of his bad
conscience. Not only her interpretation, but also the emotions it
evokes, are seen as legitimate subjects for study under the heading
of "General Semantics".
"Science and Sanity" has been acclaimed by many intelligent
readers, but it has also been denounced as a mish-mash of unoriginal
observations presented as science. To my mind, it does not matter
very much whether Korzybski's work is based on original research
or is just a compilation of previous contributions. I believe that
his world view, despite some exaggerations and a tendency to self-aggrandizement,
is basically sound, has turned out to be influential, and is largely
compatible with modern scientific thought.
By all accounts Korzybski had a strong and colorful personality.
He was a Polish count, born in 1879. He received an engineering
education in Warsaw, fought with the Russian army in WW I, was injured
and sent to North America in late 1915 to co-ordinate the shipment
of war supplies to Russia. After the war he decided to stay in the
United States. He wrote several books. "Science and Sanity"
was published in 1933. He founded the Institute of General Semantics
in 1938 and directed it until his death in 1950. - See also this
At the Institute he gathered a group of disciples, some of whom
turned out to be very talented. Shortly after I read "Science
and Sanity", I enjoyed two rather more accessible books. One
was by Samuel Hayakawa: "Language
in Thought and Action". The other was by Anatol Rapoport:
"Science and the Goals of Man". Both men had distinguished
became a U. S. Senator for California, and Rapoport
a pioneering professor of mathematics, applying it to biology and
to the theory of social conflicts. Their books in turn encouraged
me to take an interest in the philosophical foundations of science:
some of the works of Bertrand Russell, A. N. Whitehead, and Ludwig
Wittgenstein; and in logical positivism and empiricism in general.
recollections in interview form ("oral history") of his time
with Korzybski are illuminating and amusing. Apparently, Korzybski
and Hayakawa had a good relationship, but Hayakawa characterised
himself as a "disobedient son", adding that Korzybski wanted "faithful,
nonargumentative, pious disciples, spreading the word of Korzybski".
Today the teachings of "Science and Sanity" seem as relevant
as when they were written, especially in the light of our present
tendency to attach labels to persons, and groups of persons, whom
we like or dislike, and to see the world in terms of black and white:
"Terrorist", "Unbeliever", etc. The map is not the territory!
- Reader reviews
of "Science and Sanity" at Amazon. (Scroll
down to "Spotlight Reviews").
- The home page of the Institute
of General Semantics.
- "Dare to Inquire: Demarginalizing
General Semantics" by Bruce Kodish. An article written
in 2003. It examines Martin Gardner's attacks on "General
Semantics" and finds them unjustified.