Words index  Vivian Cook

General semantics

One of the odd byways in the study of words is ‘general semantics’. This theory popular in the 1940s-1970s, claimed, quite reasonably, that the way we use language affects the way we deal with the world. An example from Benjamin Lee Whorf comes from his experience as a fire inspector; a fire in a factory happened because the day shift had an electric fire on the wall; the night shift thought it was a place for hanging their coats; so one day the nightshift left a coat hanging on their rack, the day shift turned on their fire and …. Whorf saw this has an effect of their language on their perception of the world, because of their incorrect naming of the object, there was a fire. It was the language that was the problem.

This kind of insight was systematised by Count Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, into a series of axioms such as ‘The map is not the territory’. This meant that language is not the same as the real world. An extreme example was the necessity in Japan at one stage to rescue any pictures of the emperor from a burning school, as if the picture were the man himself. The fact that we assert something does not make it true. Saying something does not create anything in the real world, only in our beliefs about the world. Slogans like ‘Peace in our time’, ‘education, education, education’, ‘weapons of mass destruction’ do not correspond to anything in the real world.

One of his other claims was that our thinking relies too much on two-valued logic, yes or no, which he called Aristotelian logic. An example is ‘You’re either with us or against us’, used to drum up support for anti-terrorist example, denying any other possibility, such as any challenge to the underlying premise, say the assumption of vast increases in terrorist activities in the past decade. Politics is dominated by the idea of either/or, left/right, capitalist/ communist, etc. Human beings would then prosper better if they tried not to reduce the world to pairs of opposites, good/evil etc, but saw it in all its complexity.

General semantics became a cult of its own and lost touch with any scientific views of language. A.E. van Vogt wrote science fiction books about superheroes who applied non-Aristotelian (null-A) logic to their problems, such as The World of Null-A with its hero is called Gilbert Gosseyn (go sane), though the ideas tended to be drowned by the action plots. One of the chief supporters of the theory, S.I. Hayakawa, was president of San Francisco State College during the riots of the early 1970s, hardly providing a practical demonstration of the theory in practice.

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