General Semantics

By Alan Nicoll

This brief note tells what I know about General Semantics. It was posted on the Yahoo! A. E. van Vogt club site recently. Van used General Semantics concepts in his Null-A novels.

Here is the unedited post:

I can tell you a little about General Semantics. It's a term that strictly applies to the theories and works of Alfred Korzybski, and not to semantics in general, though it's sometimes used that way.

Science and Sanity is Korzybski's most ambitious and most famous work. I think it originally came out in the 1930s, maybe even earlier. I read part of this a few decades ago; it's very tough going, and some of it will seem nonsensical to most readers. I particularly remember Korzybski's claims for the importance of the "structural differential," a device or object that is supposed to teach children about G.S. I don't recall having heard anything more about this object outside of the book itself, and I think a lot of people would find it completely preposterous. I wasn't quite that rejecting of it, and given my later understanding of Montessori's methods, I'm not sure Korzybski was absolutely wrong.

S. I. Hayakawa is doubtless the most well-known figure in G.S. after Korzybski. He wrote the popular book Language in Thought and Action, which focuses on the semantics aspect of G.S. I think Wendell Phillips's book, People in Quandaries (sp?), is also based on G.S.

Korzybski claimed to be a Polish count. He and Science and Sanity are much quoted and cited.

I think it is sometimes claimed that what's new about G.S. isn't any good, and what's good isn't new. There may be a large grain of truth to this charge, but I think G.S. has done much to popularize superior thinking habits. There was a Non-Aristotelian Society in existence a while back, and they may still be in operation. I never joined because it was too expensive for my lifestyle. They (or someone) published a magazine, titled Etc., which Hayakawa edited for a while. Don't know whether they're still in existence.

I think there's a link in our list that relates to G.S. If you want to pursue the subject, that might be a good place to start, or do a search on any of the terms or names I've mentioned here. I haven't done any research for this note, being too lazy, so I apologize for its inadequacies.

Institute of General Semantics
Al's Van Vogt Page