General Semantics Perspective
Let’s look at the author of Perspective #2, Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski was born in 1879 to a land-owning family in Poland. He was raised by servants from four different countries who spoke four different languages. So he grew up with a working knowledge of Polish, Russian, German, and French. In this type of multi-lingual environment, it came naturally to Korzybski to disassociate the word, or symbol, from the thing that the word or symbol represented.
As a student he studied engineering, mathematics, and chemistry. When the first World War erupted in 1914, he was enlisted into the Russian cavalry. Not only was he severely wounded, but he witnessed first hand the devastating effects of all the new weapons of war that debuted during this “war to end all wars” … airplanes, armored tanks, rapid-fire machine guns, poison gas.
He was sent to North America toward the end of the war when he could no longer serve on the battlefield. He supported artillery testing in Canada before transferring to the U.S. where he traveled the country speaking to groups and selling war bonds. After the war, he remained in the U.S. and married a woman from Chicago.
He was haunted by his experiences during the war. As an engineer, he pondered this question: How is it that humans have progressed so far and so rapidly in engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, yet we still fight wars and kill each other?
He devoted the rest of his life obsessed with this problem. In 1921 he published his first book, Manhood of Humanity. Then in 1933, he wrote what became the source book for the field of study we know as General Semantics …. Science and Sanity.
Now, I realize that the focus of this presentation is not General Semantics. But since I’ve taught the subject for the past four years to “mass communications practitioners” I’d like to say a few words about it because it does represent a perspective that I think is important.
The definition I’ve come to use with my university students is this: General semantics deals with the study of how we perceive, construct, evaluate and then express our life experiences through our language-behaviors.
Note that I’ve connected language and behavior with a hyphen and refer to language-behavior. I think most people usually talk in terms of language AND behavior as though the two are separated and not associated. But in General Semantics we consider language as something that humans, something that you and I as individuals, do … it’s a part of our behavior just as much as our breathing, our eating, our laughing, our crying, our working or playing.
We do language. And because our language-behaviors are so integral to human cooperation, as well as human conflict, Korzybski spent his life observing, understanding, and documenting this process of perceiving, constructing, evaluating and then responding.
He developed a model or a diagram for visualizing and understanding what he referred to as the abstracting process. But as a way to introduce that, I want to first show you a similar model that you might already be familiar with.
I learned this as the “Information Theory” model. It’s simply a pyramid divided into four sections:
The largest section on the bottom is labeled “data”. Above that is a smaller section labeled “information.” Then a smaller section labeled “knowledge”, and then a top section labeled “wisdom.” (Sometimes the “wisdom” section isn’t included, and other labels could be substituted for it.)
But the point of the model is to show the relationships that: from much data, we derive (or to use Korzybski’s term, we abstract) usable information, from which we can further abstract what we call knowledge … and then wisdom.
So it’s as though we filter out the data that doesn’t concern us, we keep and use what does, and from that we construct “information” that we find meaningful. Then we further filter what we’ve labeled as information that results in what we label knowledge.
Here’s a quick example. Take everything that I’m saying as a part of this presentation, as well as every slide and media clip. Every word and every image can be considered a single item of data. As you observe and listen, some of the words and images will amount to nothing more than noise … but some of it (I hope, a lot of it) will register with you as something that’s relevant or meaningful as information. And when it’s over, perhaps you’ll say that you learned something and feel more knowledgeable.
Now let’s look at Korzybski’s model as similar to this Information model, after we’ve turned it upside down. Each level compares generally to its corresponding level in the Information model.
Remember that this GS model is diagramming or ‘mapping’ the process of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences.
The first step in this process of experiencing is that … well, there’s some kind of an experience. Something Happens. It’s important for us to realize and be aware that, as humans with finite sensory abilities, we cannot know or experience everything that happens. There are limits to what we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. So there’s a lot more that happens … there’s a lot a more DATA … than what we can experience.
Secondly, through our senses we interact with our environment. Within the limits of our sensing capabilities, we detect whatever is happening. But it’s important to remember that not only can we not sense everything, but what we do sense is to some degree unique to our individual sensory abilities. We each have a different sensory acuity when it comes to our vision, our hearing, our taste discrimination.
And it’s also important to remember that what we sense is not “what happened” … our sense experience is an imperfect abstraction of what happened that’s been filtered, you could say, or constructed by the nervous system.
The next part of the process, labeled as “evaluation,” represents the first verbal level in which we can describe, or cognitively recognize, what our senses tell us about the experience. But again, what we can say or think or write about the experience, is NOT the experience itself.
The fourth level then, after the descriptive phase, is labeled as “meaning” … what the experience means is something more or different than just how we describe it.
So to summarize this process of abstracting:
- What we can sense is NOT what actually happens.
- What we can describe is something other than what we actually sense.
- What an experience means is something more than just what we can describe. What an experience means is the result of this filtering, or abstracting process in which each stage represents a different activity of a physiological process.
As an example, let’s consider again what’s going on in this room. The “goings on” or “things that are happening” are experienced by each one of you as different individuals. Each of you sees and hears what goes on slightly differently than anyone else.In the diagram, you see four individuals experiencing the same happening. But we start to see differences in their individual abstracting processes at the evaluation stage, or the third level of describing what they experienced. Let’s say they were each asked to write a simple report of “what happened” during today’s meeting.
Jane may give a detailed summation of each part of the meeting, as if she were preparing the minutes. John might comment only on the business that was conducted and simply state there followed a program. Elvis might describe what he selected from the lunch buffet in detail, skip over the business matters, and summarize points from my presentation. So each individual’s report might be colored or flavored differently.
But then in the final step of the process we can really see the differences between each our hypothetical observers. What they individually got out of this meeting, or what the meeting meant to them, varies a great deal.
In this case, “You” enjoyed it, without any reaction one way or the other. Jane, however, loved it. John didn’t really care for it and lost interest, but while his thoughts drifted to a problem he has at work he had a brainstorm he can’t wait to go back to implement. Elvis was left wondering about how any of this related to shoes.
So that’s a basic introduction to the abstracting process that’s central to the GS understanding of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences.
Now let’s learn a little about that first perspective.