General Semantics

Alfred Korzybski, with his subject General Semantics, introduced a bunch of principles that are conducive to the whole systems view.

Korzybski wrote a book in 1933 called "Science and Sanity - an introduction to non-aristotelean systems and general semantics", which was his main work. It is an 800 page tome that is today almost unreadable for non-academics, so I'll present just a few simple ideas from it.

"Non-Aristotelean" puts these principles in contrast to the logic of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher. In this context, Aristotle represents the black and white look. The idea that things just ARE a certain way and you can describe them in some finite and satisfactory way. And the concept that ideas are either right or wrong.

The physics of Newton follows similar models. The world is considered a collection of finite, separate phenomena that can be studied in isolation from anything else. Therefore Newton also represents Aristotelean logic.

In the beginning of the 20th century the old science started to fall apart, thanks in part to relativity theory and quantum physics. You could no longer regard physical objects and phenomena as unchangable, finite constructs that could be studied in isolation. Things were found to be much more interdependent and fluid than earlier assumed.

General Semantics, as a Non-Aristotelean system, provides a system of logic and of studying man's relation to his world, to accompany the new, more wholistic and fluid, models of science.

If one has to draw out the single most important statement of General Semantics, it would invariably be:


The world is what it is. We can make all kinds of maps and models of how the world works, and some of them can be very useful, and we can talk about them with great benefit. But the models and maps and any words one can put together can never do more than approximate the actual world or the actual phenomena being examined. The actual territory is beyond verbal description.

As humans we make abstractions all the time. An "abstraction", as used here, is that one simplifies, condenses, or symbolizes what is going on in order to better talk about it or think about it.

For example, if I walk down the street, I might experience an event taking place. My perceptions in themselves constitute an abstraction. Different people will experience the event differently, depending on where they perceive it from and how their perceptions work, and it will never be more than a portion of what went on, passed through certain filters of perception. So, I will record certain sights, sounds, feelings and so forth, which will form my representation of the event. I might then start describing what I experienced and that will abstract it further. I could say "I saw two cars, a blue Ford going west and a green Honda going east, and the blue car was going to turn left, but then the green car swerved out of its way and hit it". My description might give somebody else an idea of what went on, but really it is a very imprecise approximation of what I actually perceived, which is again an imprecise approximation of what actually went on. The next day I might create a further abstraction by simply saying that I saw "an accident".

If somebody took my verbal description of an accident as WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED, then all kinds of mistakes might come out of that. But if one always realizes that it is only a map, and that different maps might be drawn for the same territory, then it becomes much easier to reconcile differences.

Whatever one can say about something isn't it. Whatever you can say about a pencil is NOT a pencil. The pencil is what it is, something fundamentally unspeakable. If that is recognized then language and models are of couse very useful in daily life.

Another key contribution by Korzybski is:


Aristotelean logic was two-valued logic. That means that any proposition is either "right" or "wrong". This goes together with "elementalism" which is the placing of sharp divisions between things. For example, to talk about 'emotion' and 'intellect' as being fundamentally different and separate things.

Korzybski's logic is infinite-valued and non-elementalistic. The "non-elementalistic" means that he does not believe in finite identifications of what things ARE, or sharp divisions between what different things ARE.

Infinite-valued means that any proposition is best examined in degrees of qualities or probabilities.

For example, if I want to choose between going to the movies or staying home, I can add up the different factors involved. If I go to the movies I might experience something new, and looking in the paper I might add up the probability for seeing a good movie. But also I have to go out in the traffic, which is a bit of a drag, and I have to spend some money which I have a limited amount of. If I stay home, I save time and money, and there is a probability that I can relax more, but I might also get bored. Adding up all these factors as to how probable it is that they are pleasurable, easy, economical, new, or whatever my criteria are, would add up to a decision taken based on infinity-valued logic.

No answer, model, action, or person is simply "right" or "wrong". There are always many factors involved. Some pull in one direction, some pull in another. One would look at all those factors, look at their relationships, and add up the maximum probability for whatever one is looking for, and make one's choice based on that.

This infinity-valued principle applies in many different areas. For example, Korzybski talks about the "multi-ordinality" of terms. That means that words don't just have one right meaning. Words and symbols have different meanings to different people, and different meanings in different contexts. A word or sentence in itself doesn't necessarily say anything finite, unless you find out what it is linked up with.

Korzybski also talks about infinity-valued causality. That is, we can't just finitely say that one specific thing is causing another. Any event has many "causes" and many "effects". We have to take it all into consideration if we will claim to examine the whole situation.

What Korzybski envisioned with General Semantics was that people could be trained in relating to the world in more fluid infinity-valued ways so that we can avoid all the human aberrations and misunderstandings that come out of taking limited maps too seriously.

Most disagreements, arguments, fights, and wars come out of the failure to recognize all factors, all views, and from relying on maps of reality that don't correspond to what is actually going on. People argue based on their own maps and fail to realize that others use different maps. When that gets cleared up and together we look at reality, then most conflicts evaporate.


The human mind includes mechanisms that are part of the problem. Korzybski talks about 'semantic reactions' which is when one reacts based on the consciously or sub-consciously perceived "meaning" of an event, rather than based on the event itself.

For example, Joe comes home from work and gives his wife flowers and she gets angry with him. She might assume that he gives her flowers because he has something to hide and it really means that he is having an affair, and she gets mad because of that. Maybe Joe just wanted to be nice, or there was a sale on flowers.

Semantic reactions sometimes make it difficult to have rational and constructive interactions between people.

Training oneself to recognize and overcome semantic reactions in oneself and others, could form the basis of more sane interactions and activities between people.

Alfred Korzybski: "Science and Sanity - an introduction to non-aristotelean systems and general semantics". Institute of General Semantics, 1412 Texas Street, P.O. Box 1565, Fort Worth, TX 76101-1565, 817.886.3746

Institute of General Semantics

General Semantics at Wikipedia.

Drive yourself sane by Bruce Kodish

General Semantics by Ralph Kenyon