General Semantics Bill Sharp


Sat 21 Dec 2019, 3:20 pm

Bill Sharp on General Semantics =>



Some Key Tools

in General Semantics

We might think of the following as a “grammar” of general semantics.  Grammar is defined, as a noun, in these terms:  “the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics.”  It may also be defined as “a particular analysis of the system and structure of language or of a specific language.”  In this sense, although Korzybski did not say it in these terms, there are principles in general semantics that might be considered a grammar; one I would argue takes the subject to a new level.

General semantics is not “semantics,” the definition of words.  The most egregious setback in general semantics was the insistence of several of the most notable writers “about” general semantics, particularly Stuart Chase and S. I. Hayakawa,[1] that they were writing about “semantics.”  General semantics is about precise modeling and communication of experience.  Words and their exacting definition do matter but there is a great deal more to it than a good dictionary.

As you will see in previous posts, Korzybski founded general semantics on the scientific evidence of how the human nervous system responds to sensory stimulus.  Being human, we immediately begin to attach word labels to experience.  You can see this process in the description of the structural differential in another post. 

The problem in ordinary human experience, just as in scientific enquiry, is to accurately understand and describe the phenomena we experience.  Korzybski formulated a new system – of ideas, techniques, and a scientific discipline – for translating experience into coherent language.  This post will briefly introduce you to a number of these key formulations.


Confronted with an event, we become aware of a few of its characteristics that are stored in our memory (see “pencil” in Allness, below).  As we grow from infancy to maturity and develop our capacity for language and critical evaluation, we naturally categorize experiences into classes that share certain characteristics, for example:  Animal, vegetable, mineral.  The game of 21 questions nicely illustrates this process.

As we gain experience, and this continues through all phases of our active mental life, we both place experiences into already defined categories, such as: Animal: dog or cat, breed; and create new categories where we don’t find the existing ones convenient.  Each of these classes, and there is an exacting logical science for classification, is a level of abstraction.  As the class of objects grows, new subclasses, more abstract formulations, occur.  Carried far enough and we have, as in the field of natural history, the story of life on this planet and an array of scientific subjects, an encyclopedia of species, and specializations that fill a catalog.

The problem Korzybski identified with abstractions is that the further along the chain you go the greater the distance you get from the original, first order, experience.  Reality looses its concreteness and concreteness is the foundation of a sane, rational mind.  One major problem with this process is that we tend to think that the word represents the thing itself.  Ultimately you get into philosophical debates about whether categories, or forms, have independent existence and thus the mind-body split, the phenomena Korzybski called[2] “Aristotelianism.”  Aristotelianism he concluded was one of the major pathologies of modern life.  General semantics is largely about gaining a consciousness of abstraction, about a non-Aristotelian orientation to life and thus restoring a healthy state of mind.  Related to this pathology are allness, identification and elementalism.


Korzybski’s hallmark phrase is “The map is not the territory.”  Anyone who uses a map knows that regardless of how detailed, it still leaves out a lot of information.  GIS map overlays can provide awesome detail and online map services can provide street views but when you are standing on a spot on that map, or driving down the road seeking a destination, there is just a whole lot more to the story.

Allness refers to the knack of thinking you know more about a subject than you do or should:  “I know all about X.”  We, of course, never know everything about anything.  You can spend a lifetime continually learning about almost any subject.  We can’t become experts in every subject but it is necessary to be informed, to get beyond the surface of things, to be more than an opinionated bore.  True wisdom is understanding that there is yet much we don’t know.

Korzybski liked to illustrate this problem with a common pencil.  Pick one up and look closely at it.  Spend a full minute with it.  Unless you’ve done that before (and even if you have) you will see things you never noticed before. 

A pencil is obviously composed of a number of parts:  lead (it’s really a graphite composite), wood (or other materials), perhaps eraser and the ferrule that holds the eraser, paint, lettering, etc.  You will often notice a number of the pencil, usually 2, 2/12 or 3.  Some will have H or HB or other codes printed on them.  This describes the hardness of the pencil, that is, how dark or light it will write.

Most of these are school or office pencils that come in boxes at market, department and office supply stores.  There are pencils designed for all sorts of tasks.  In the art section or store there are a lot of different pencils.  There are also mechanical pencils.  There are even pencils without “lead.”

Going deeper there is the history of the pencil, design, manufacturing, materials, chemistry and engineering.  The naturalist Henry David Thoreau was a pencil maker and his improved design was a popular item in Boston stationary stores.  Korzybski liked to point out that there are microscopic and sub-microscopic qualities to every object.  Every pencil is essentially unique.  We will get to this idea below, but there is always an “etc.” in anything we describe[3].  


A Korzybskian formulation closely related to allness is identification, which is automatically and compulsively reacting to a new experience as if it were like earlier similar experiences and not in terms of the uniqueness of that experience itself.  A major cause of mental distress is the automatic response to an experience, that possibly caused pain or anxiety at an earlier time, as “Oh no, not again!”  We often hear Einstein’s definition of insanity:  “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 

The inability to differentiate experiences leaves us with a pre-programmed response to them.  That we fail once, or even a number of times, to solve a problem does not mean that we cannot solve the problem; its more a matter of being sure we are solving the right problem and asking the right question.  Failing to strive to do so insures failure and this is non-survivable.  Persistence, determination and resilience are admirable human qualities.  Korzybski’s non-identification represents a keen understanding that “this is not that,” and thus that each event must be addressed in its own terms.


The world we live in is a whole, organic system.  Elementalism is the process of breaking the world down into smaller and smaller parts until the parts no longer have an interrelationship.  This can be a powerful tool for problem solving but it is a two-edged sword.  It produces linear thinking and dualism.  Science itself was slipping into this habit of mechanistic thinking until relativity and quantum mechanics begin putting things back together.  The non-elementalism of general semantics puts the pieces back together and gives us a more comprehensive and more realistic framework for understanding life.  Korzybski’s general semantics was, in fact, a precursor and arguably largely defined the field of general systems theory that profoundly altered our understanding of and control over life[4].

Semantic Reaction

As stated, the human nervous system and language represent a highly integrated system.  Words have an emotional effect on us.  They can, according to how they are used, evoke many very strong emotions.  We can be moved to tears or laughter, love or hatred by words and symbols.  In Korzybski’s words, a semantic reaction is “the psycho-logical reaction of a given individual to words and language and other symbols and events in connection with their meanings, and the psycho-logical reactions, which become meanings and relational configurations the moment the given individual begins to analyze them or somebody else does that for him.”

Korzybski concluded that formal methods of treating language – linquistics, semantics, logic, etc. – do little to improve evaluation and reduce the negative effects of words.  We have to learn, as the old wisdom tells us, to pause, to count to ten, or, in his terms, delay reaction.  Delayed semantic reaction, he asserted, is a primary benefit of extensionalization.  The use of general semantics, and extensionalization in particular, automatically introduces delay in reactions, transforms “the animalistic (human pathological) signal reactions of low conditionality into human symbol reactions of full conditionality, by the stimulation of the cerebral cortex.” 

Extensional Devices

We now get to some of the core tools for overcoming the difficulties expressed above, tools that allow us to retain an objective orientation to experience, to life, and that which allow us to train ourselves to maintain calmness in our nervous system and rationality.  Through science, through general semantics, we have the tools to retain lucidity in a world William James defined as “One Big Buzzing Confusion.” 

We should note the difference between “extension” and “intension.”  The intensional orientation represents a preoccupation with words, with words defining words, with doctrines and beliefs.  Intensionalization is piling words on words.  It makes good fantasy but doesn’t make life workable.  Intensional definitions are generalized characteristics of a class of entities, not descriptive of the entities themselves.  A good example of intensional “madness” is our current political dialog.

Extensional definitions embrace the unique quality of the experience we are having.  Extension, said Korzybski, is consistent with the natural order of the nervous system.  Intensional definitions, he added, reverse the order, disrupt nervous function and endanger survival.  Extension separates and identifies specific instances and individuals and allow us to live more comfortably with the reality of the experience we are having; the problem we are trying to solve. 

The extensional devices consist of five simple and effective tools:  Indexes, dates, quotation marks, hyphens and Etc.


Indexing is a mathematical procedure for designating a series of terms, e.g., x1, x2, x3, … xn[5].  The index can be used for individuals, Smith1, Smith2, … , Smithn, but equally for objects, such as his pencils (pencil1, pencil2, …, penciln).  Korzybski explained:  “When I talk about humanity, I am always conscious that every member of our species is absolutely unique.”  It means that when we particularize, we no longer talk about humanity in general terms but rather about members of the human family we know, like Tom and Mary.”  We are thus conscious of what is actually going on and not some abstract quality that is merely coincidentally related to the current experience.


Dating an event reminds us that we cannot step into the same river twice.  Time is, ironically, a constant:  It represents constant change.  Korzybski repeatedly pointed to the importance of knowing when something occurred.  He made it very clear that the science of general semantics in Science and Sanity is “circa 1933.”  Dating is not only very specific in placing an object or event; it also implies the process of change.  It is good to know that an idea comes from a particular time but it is even better to understand that our perceptions and understanding of “meaning” is different now than then.  We all change our minds, we all learn, we know we progress through stages of maturation and that we get older; vast new knowledge and more powerful means for distributing knowledge are introduced every day. 

Statistical methods are powerful  and very useful but statistical statements can also be very counterproductive.  Not because of the mathematical procedure, but because of the use and implication, especially in the social sciences where results may be generalized that represent a virtually unique, not to be repeated, expression of a social phenomena[6].  Like the Aristotelian system, statistics can be harmful if its concepts are evaluated as static, universal, eternal, “true for all time,” and never tested against current reality, never developed, never updated.  Scientific knowledge itself, as exacting its method, is constantly changing and evolving.

Language, like space, is four-dimensional.  Scientifically, Korzybski asserted, “an event is described at every date”.  Dating is one of the essentials of “order.”  While it may or may not suggest causality, it does clearly indicate sequence.  It may imply tendency, thus making prediction about the future possible.  “By using our statements with dates,” Korzybski continued, “we deal with definite issues, on record, which we can study, analyze, evaluate.,[7]; and so we make our statements of an extensional character, with all cards on the table, so to say, at a given date.

Quotation Mark

Korzybski employed the quotation mark (in much the same manner as any writer) to bring attention to a word or phrase, perhaps to denote that the statement is someone else’s words, perhaps to indicate irony or double meaning.  To use a quotation, like with a citation, suggests a very special way of expressing what the author sought to say and to preserve the exact meaning of that expression.   Korzybski had, however, a very special use of quotation marks.  He sought to indicate that a term is an abstraction and that we need to be very sensitive to its multiordinal (see below) meanings.  He emphasized that quotation marks mean the term is “loaded.” 


The hyphen links words that should never be used separately but nonetheless typically are; with serious consequences.  Korzybski was very clear about the importance of eliminating such constructions as “mind and body,” “space and time.”  The Greeks did a thorough job, aided and abetted by the Scholastic and Enlightenment scholars such as Saint Thomas, Descartes, Kant, etc., in driving a conceptual and functional wedge between the mind and the body.  Newton did the same with space and time.  This is the ultimate application and consequence of elementalistic thinking. 

Einstein did the reverse:  He united space and time with a new, non-elementalistic, non-Newtonian, paradigm of physical reality:  Space – Time.  He said one simply could not deal with space independent of time.  The same understanding, Korzybski stressed, is required for mind – body.  In Korzybski’s own words:  “If we decide to face empirical reality boldly, we must accept the Einstein-Minkowski four-dimensional language, for ‘space’ and ‘time’ cannot be separated empirically, and so we must have a language of similar structure and consider the facts of the world as series of interrelated ordered events, to which as above explain, we must ascribe ‘structure’.”  Yes, we are careful to be sure we are thinking and talking about the event in front of us but we also have to be conscious of the interdependent, holistic, non-elementalistic reality of the empirical world.  The real world is about how things relate to each other.


Extensional punctuation refers to one particular device:  “etc.”  Korzybski wrote: “Ā-systems (Non-Aristotelian systems), being extensional, require the enumeration of long lists of names, which in principle cannot be exhausted”.  He also wrote: “I base the Ā-system on extensional methods which necessitate the introduction of a new punctuation indicating the ‘etc.’  As noted above, he advised the punctuation “.,” to end sentences as appropriate.  A period, he added, is a very poor way to end a sentence. 

We can clearly grasp the concept of etc. when, for example, we speak of a sequence, say of positive integers:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, … etc.  We learn early in our mathematics training to extend other sequences, say multiples of 3:  3, 6, 9, etc, or powers of 2:  2, 4, 8, 16, etc.  We could do that, for example, with the major cities in North America:  New York, Boston, Montreal, Chicago, Vancouver, San Francisco, etc.  We could list categories of cities in order of size, the ten largest, 25 largest, 100 largest, wealthiest, poorest, etc.  More specifically, Korzybski said (and this applies to all the topics in this post):  “… by assigning single values to the variable, we make propositions … and so investigation and agreement become possible, as we then have something definite to talk about …;”  and “… in doing this (assigning single values to the variables), our attitude has automatically changed to an extensional one.

The West Coast branch of general semantics published a journal (still in print) titled ETC.: A Review of General Semantics[8].

Multiordinal Terms

Multiordinality represents essentially a sixth extensional device.  Multiordinal (m. o.) terms have different meanings at different levels of abstraction.  Confusion of orders of abstraction consists of setting a fixed, ‘literal,’ and permanent value, on the term.  A m.o. term can have no general meaning apart from context.  Recognizing this fact we avoid identification and misinterpretation.  Multiordinal terms may be very specific within a context and in that context alone, it will be perfectly clear.  Multiordinality benefits us in a variety of ways including: a tremendous economy of time and effort, greater versatility in expression, avoiding confusion in meanings and giving us greater linguistic flexibility.

These advantages can be equally applied to all of the extensional devices.


The terms described above are key formulations in general semantics.  They are simple formulations; deceptively simple.  They are, however, not taught in schools and universities.  They are easy to learn, easy to apply; indeed common sense when you reflect upon them.  If you apply them you will soon gain a greatly expanded power of understanding.  Life will become more coherent and manageable.  You will be dealing with life as it unfolds, attuned to the experience you are having, capable of formulating problems and solving them in such a way as they produce results in the present moment. 

Try them one at a time and keep working through the list until they become habit.  Don’t bother telling your friends and colleagues that you are learning this new system; just do it until you are comfortable with it, until you know it works and wait for the time someone may benefit from them to share your experience of the success of these tools.

Note:  There will be a future follow-up article on extensionalization that will describe more of the neruo-psycho-logical qualities of language that are at the root of Korzybski’s system.

Copyright © 2015, William H. Sharp

[1] See my earlier posts and articles about Chase and Hayakawa and their negative impact on general semantics in Cory Anton and Lance Strate, Korzybski And.

[2] Korzybski created his own lexicon of terms that must be understood to make general semantics a practical subject.

[3] Henry Petroski wrote a 400 (plus) page book on The Pencil.

[4] Ecosystenm science was derived from general systems theory and a description of this field can be found at my blog post:

[5] The nth term is the theoretical final object of the series although it can be, like the grains of sand around all the oceans an unimaginably huge and indefinable number.

[6] Social sciences, which deal with highly volatile human behavior, are often criticized for lacking theoretical coherence, that is a model of generalization that provides real predictive power.

[7] Please note, this “.,” is the punctuation Korzybski used to indicate an “etc.”  See below.

[8] This publication, however, published mostly articles at best only tangentially related to general semantics and thus rarely represented the application of the terms herein described.

Posted 1st March 2015 by Bill Sharp


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Korzybski Institute for the Study of General Semantics








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