Message from the Dr. Sanford I Berman Chair in General Semantics

My name is Michael Cole. I am a Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Human Development and the first holder of the Berman chair at UCSD. The Chair was created through the generosity of Sanford I. Berman  Dr. Berman  studied General Semantics with Dr. Irving J. Lee, who played a central role in introducing Korzybsky's ideas to American academia,  has maintained a life-long interest in General Semantics, and has also endowed chairs at San Diego State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to promote research and teaching in this area. The purpose of this note is to explain briefly how I conceive of my goals in fulfilling this important responsibility.

Some Quick Links:

Full Berman Interview
Berman's Outline of G.S. COHI 100 Powerpoint

For three decades I have devoted myself to assisting in the building of a Communication Department at UCSD and the discipline of Communication as a new, trans-disciplinary, academic undertaking. I came to this task from a background in the study of culture and human development that drew its theoretical roots from a combination of Russian semiotic/psychological theories of development, the ideas of American pragmatists such as John Dewey, and the work of cultural anthropologists concerned with the relations between language, thought, and culture.

It is against this background that I have organized my work as Berman chair. I take it as my responsibility to seek to promote dialogue between the ideas developed by the adherents of General Semantics and those that animate the discipline of Communication.

As documented in several histories of the field, the intellectual origins of the discipline of Communication can be traced to the beginnings of the 20th century when many intermingled social and technological changes brought about new modes of human life. Human experience of time and space were being reorganized by the advent of the telegraph, radio, and telephone; human abilities to travel at high speeds, to create vast surplus crops, mass-produced goods, and weapons of great destructive power fueled imaginings of new utopias and dystopias.

World War I provided an especially acute stimulus to the development of Communication as a discipline, a stimulus that carried over in the years leading up to World War II. The ways that new forms of communication entered into the war effort, through propaganda, the spread of radio as a technology for coordinating large masses of people, and increasing ability to influence large masses of geographically dispersed people in a short time (among others) gave rise, in many parts of the world, and from many disciplinary perspectives, intense interest in the processes of human communication. (List a few: language-- Saussure, Sapir, Whorf, political science Lippman and Dewey-- take from my paper and add). It was in precisely these same circumstances that Count Alfred Korzybski proposed his ambitious approach to language, thought, and communication in a book, aptly titled, Science and Sanity. Appalled by the carnage of World War I (during which he was seriously wounded), Korzybski sought to found a science of human life that could save human beings from their weaknesses and make them masters of their own fates.

During the decades between 1930 and 1960, owing in no small part to the accelerating inventions of new modes of communication, including television and the digital computer (which we now see converging in new and unexpected ways with "old" media such as telephones and motion pictures, not to mention books and spoken language), Communication gradually began to emerge from the periphery of separate disciplines within Academia to become institutionalized in academic departments around the world. At first this movement was sporadic and halting. Its relationship to the growing military and economic power of the United States, as well as the emergence of new media conglomerates and expanding consumer media markets, prompted many intellectuals to reflect on Communication as a potential discipline for addressing a new series of intellectual questions.

Gradually,  departments of rhetoric, journalism, film studies, linguistics, psychology, drama, and many other allied intellectual enterprises merged, first into pairs and triads of constituent concerns, but increasingly into more and more comprehensive Departments of Communication.

General Semantics was very much part of this history at the beginning, when Dr. Berman studied under Irving J. Lee at Northwestern. For a number of reasons to be explored on this web page, General Semantics did not become generally accepted within the new discipline of Communication, even at Northwestern. Nevertheless, it continued to develop the vision of its founder in disparate parts of many universities, in clinics, and in literature. It maintains its own society with its own journal and currently, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of Dr. Sanford Berman, is becoming institutionalized within departments of Communication in various University settings.

In the following section you will first encounter a summary of major ideas of General Semantics that have strong resonances, many misunderstood or overlooked, between the ideas of Korzybski and his followers on the one hand, and the pioneers and current practitioners of the academic study of Communication on the other. This presentation will be followed by an examination of selected aspects of General Semantics that have evoked controversy and sometimes the disapproval of many Communication scholars. Dubbed, "Disputed Territories," this section of the webpage is intended to be an ongoing "work in progress" to be added to and amended as our research progresses. What we offer at present is a preliminary discussion of, and links to, publications that take up what seem to be productive points of contention.

At UCSD, as in General Semantics, there is a strong belief that theory and practice are, and should be mingled for the benefit of both. The third section of the web page is devoted to a discussion of the ways in which General Semantics and Communication have provided the starting point for original work that seeks to understand how the principles derived from theoretical considerations play out in different domains of social practice.


General Semantics is a theory of language and meaning that shares a great deal of methodological and theoretical positions with the contemporary study of human communication. In this brief, multimedia primer, we propose an outline of these basic concepts and modes of inquiry by a set of strategies: 1/ By drawing on the work of Dr. Berman and an interview conducted with him by Dr. Dan Hallin; 2/ By making liaisons between the core curricular of the Department of Communication at UCSD and General Semantics; 3/ Indicating the variety of disciplines outside of Communication, and the variety of approaches outside of it, that share common interests.

General Semantics posits a fundamental distinction between the sensory world of experience and the verbal world of symbols and language. In basic terms, it posits a continually changing world - one of process, flux, or becoming - much of which is inaccessible to direct observation or experience. What we do experience is therefore partial and incomplete, and human beings are characterized by an inescapable existential uncertainty about the world they live in. Much of what human beings understand about the world is an "abstraction" from what is there in reality; as an abstraction, much is left out of the representations human beings make about the world, representations / abstractions that operate for them as "common sense" information.

These abstractions differ from person to person based on their particular experiences, their backgrounds, capabilities, interests, biases, etc. General Semantics, in its pedagogical mode, aims to raise consciousness of this abstracting process, to teach people how to become more tolerant and accepting of the limitations and potentialities in themselves and others brought about by the process of abstracting. A consciousness of abstracing is more, however, than a form of mental hygiene - it constitutes, perhaps, a more general form of critical inquiry into the nature of language, mediation, perception, and action. Consequently, General Semantics can be understood, historically, within the tradition of critical theory, as a rigorous intellectual orientation and mode of inquiry that has serious grounding - even if today, in many academic circles, that grounding is not well known. Abstraction is a kind of evaluation, in the sense that it picks out certain features of the world or of experience as of interest. The attempt to understand this distinction in a "scientific" fashion is meant to provide a basis for evaluating and modifying attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of those being trained in General Semantics.

1. A Theory of Experience, Language, and Meaning

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

A. Experience, Language and Semantic Environment

General Semantics argues that a reflection on the Nature of Language is incomplete and errant unless it is accompanied by a problematization of the world within which language operates to mediate the relations of human beings with each other and the physical world. The problem of the "meaning" of words is therefore not dissociable from either the context in which words are used or the condition of the subject who speaks them. Moreover, General Semantics takes seriously the non-communicative order of the world and of the subject as conditions of speech and interaction. Thus, in order to understand the relation of language to individual human thought and behavior, or perhaps the relationship between cultural variability and linguistic heterogeneity, it is necessary to take account of the multi-valence, multi-ordinal conditions by which human beings experience the world. That language is already a set of presuppositions about the world; and that thought and language are co-constitutive of individual action and behavior - these are conditions of a human being's experience of the world prior to their ability to speak about the world. In short, General Semantics - as part of a period of flourishing new thought in the human sciences - proposes like its intellectual kin to order the study of human experience within a paradigm of communication by reflecting on the nature of language. General Sematnics as a mode of general inquiry can be understood, we think, as both a reflection on, and pragmatic encounter with, the problem of language in human societies. This interconnectedness indicates its relationship with some of its most important intellectual allies: pragmatism, social constructionism, structuralism, phenomenology, semiotics, and others.

General Semantics advances two negative premises that condition, and therefore organize the study of, human experience and communication. First: "words" are not the things we are speaking about (i.e., they "are" not the phenomena of objective existence, of the world out there). Whence Korzybski's famous dictum: the map is not the territory, the word is not the thing defined. Second: "there is no such thing as an object in absolute isolation," in the sense that objects are phenomena of reality connected to events, forces, mechanisms, and networks. Consequently, their meaning or definition is never independent of this radical interconnectedness; meaning exists "in between," not "within;" in the relation, not the isolated object/word. These ideas are central to some of the other critical moves made by General Semantics with regard to "meaning:" that meaning is inseparable from difference (as opposed to identity), movement (as opposed to stability), and singularity (as opposed to some thing's classificatory properties).1 Crucially, this negative premise indicates the radical heterogeneity of the world and of human beings: all phenomena, like all human begins, must be understood and judge by first supposing that there is nothing else uniquely like him, her, the object, or the event. This radical heterogeneity is inspired by the "new physics" of the early 20th century, about which more will be said below. In any case, as to the problem of language, the critical move is that whereas before language may have occupied a privileged position in the study of human nature and the world, it now takes on a new relation: "we have a world of uniqueness that is mapped by a language of categories."2 From this point on, General Semantics can be understood as the translation of these premises "into positive language," from which "can be built an A-prime system."

B. Structure and Rationality: the mode of the relation between worlds

The "world of uniqueness" introduced above refers one of the two worlds, understood by General Semantics, to exist in parallel: the objective world of reality and the human, largely verbal, world of abstraction. Koryzbski understood the objective world of reality, as has already been said, under the "new physics" of the early 20th century, a physics inspired by the novelty and pervasiveness of new communication technologies. New collective experiences of space and time - of what Einstein called "the oneness of space-time" - were developed against the Newtonian tradition (and what Korzybski generally referred to as elementalism) and in relation to the new Quantum Mechanics. This new paradigm of dynamic, perpetually moving, space-time collapsing forces was also introduced into biology,4 chemistry, and other natural sciences. The Natural world was now a process of continuous movement, governed by laws of motion in structures that had hitherto never been conceived: feedback, folds, compressions, extensions, etc. For Korzybski, this world also organized the sensorial backdrop, the objective world, against which human mental life and language operated to produce stable forms and patterns.

The human world - largely "mental" and "verbal" - is first organized, by humans, as a sensorial relation to the Natural world. The "sensorium" - the central nervous system of the human body - a is the lowest discrimination and abstraction system of the human being. These "silent" levels - important to Koryzybski for reasons that will be explained below - a mediate the relation between the objective world and higher order abstractions characterized by language, thought, and higher mental faculties. General Semantics often refers to these distinct levels as different orders of sensing, perceiving, and abstracting which, interestingly, function to produce difference. Interestingly, a principle function of the multi-ordinal, mutli-level theoretical approach in General Semantics is to produce differences between orders of abstraction that must be reconciled with each other. Abstractions are representations of the world that, in relation to each other or with reality produce differences - a distance, separation, bare similitude, etc - that must be reconciled in order for thought or action to follow. It is interesting to read, for example, Science & Sanity with a mind to these metaphors of vision and difference: the visible, the hidden, the revealed, the staged, etc. These metaphors, we would argue, also make central another principal tenet of General Semantics: that all knowledge and experience is subjective, in the sense that there is a point-of-view, a history, and experience that is singular to the individual. The world of abstractions is not only a game of vision, it is also a game of observing, being observed, and observation. Whence the important to relation to some major thinkers in Communication, among whom one famous figure said that, in a manner to describe some of the new dilemmas of communication systems in society, that the world outside is not the same as the pictures in our heads.

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

What principle or unit of analysis, in General Semantics, grounds the concept of mediation that binds the objective world of reality and the verbal world of human abstraction, reasoning, thought, and the organization of behavior? What mediates the relation between the dynamic, natural world of quantum forces world and the "linguistic world?" According to Korzybski, both worlds are characterized by their structure, and it is "structure, and structure alone" that is their "only possible link."6 By structure is meant, of course, that product of that 20th century encounter of linguistics and meaning characterized by the study of phonology: that meaning is a function of the relations between terms, and that the variability of meanings across contexts (this could be societies) is also a function of the variability in the relations between terms. Korzybski applies the terms structure to his two worlds: "The only usefulness of a map or a language," states Korzybski, "depends on the similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map-languages."7 Similarity between the structure of our language (or tools, an example of which is maps) and the structure of the world indicates that there is a "rationality" in our language or our maps that allows for a rational being to have a rational (sane) relation to the world.8 "In structure we find the mystery of rationality, and adjustment; we also find that the whole content of knowledge is exclusively structural."

We are now in a better position to understand the meaning of the liaison made by Korzybski between science and sanity. If the objective world of reality and the abstracted verbal world of men share a feature, it is their structure-ness, their rational-ability - which is to say, a feature shared by each allowing them to be ordered together by the scientific method. In a parallel, reversing motion, Korzybski and General Semantics will broaden the scientific method into a form of self-reflexivity, personal ethic, and internal dialogue - which is the source of its often remarked upon therapeutic aspirations. Generally speaking, however, General Semantics will try to become a mode of problematization for the human "sciences" that have, crucially, become increasingly intertwined with the ascendancy of communication phenomena in human societies. This communication is at least two-fold: the communication with others is grounded in a communication with one-self; in both cases, the relations are mediated by a "semantic environment." From these considerations derived Korzybki's project to provide an "operational definition of Man." In its more pragmatic dimensions, this "operational definition" will have its articulation in "extensional devices" - tools or artifacts (e.g., maps and words) that produce a relation to the extensional (i.e., objective) world. Such a definition allows individuals to momentarily stabilize and align their subjective experience in relation to the generalizations of high predictive value, perpetual observation, description, and experimentation. We will see that such an alignment has its own "process" and, interestingly, its own notion of "fact." As will be explained below, this liaison of science and sanity will operate at the center of defining what is "common" to (between) individuals, how this common is a function of their communication and, finally, how conflicts (internal and external) arise. How "facts" are common to "us" in a communicative society is not self-evident; the answer provided by General Semantics is quite suggestive; facts are dominant in General Semantics' therapeutic modes. Before we can move to that issue, however, we must discuss what General Semantics means by the "semantic environment."

C. The Semantic Environment

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

There is an "importance to the semantic environment." But what is it? What is the proper view we should have of this environment? General Semantics defines the semantic environment in two ways. First, by distinguishing two kinds of "reactions," only one of which (semantic reactions) belong to the semantic environment; the other (conditional reactions) belong to the objective reality of the physical world. Second, Korsybski and others have fleshed out what they understand to be the structural conditions of the semantic environment - the relation between ecology and organism particular to the mental and "semantic" lives of human beings.

A conditional reaction - such as those studied by Pavlovian psychology - includes those kinds of reactions to the environment that are not subject to change by various orders of abstractions. Thus they are not merely "physical" conditionings. They are, rather, reactions of the organism that are not, by their Nature, subject to the manipulation by human beings of space and time - they are not, in short, either time-binded or time-bindable reactions. Reactions of a conditional kind are distinct from those of a semantic kind insofar as the latter are the products of a consciousness of abstraction; their distance from, and relation to, the objective world characterize the semantic, but not conditional, reactions. Signal (conditional) reactions are immediate, overly quick, impulsive reactions. In the world of language and speech, conditional reactions are reactions based on the assumption that the words we speak have an inherent meaning; they are "signal" in the sense that the behaviors they produce conform, in a totally uncritical and un-distanced way, to routines or habits that might be considered expected whenever a term is used.

Semantic, "symbol," reactions are paused, delayed, observed and analyzed before behaved. They can be ordered, roughly, into a method of scientific inquiry (as described above) of an individual reaction symbolically will evidence distinctions between factual statements and inferential statements. A semantic reaction is, in short, a particular human faculty (akin to willing, representing, etc) possible in a "semantic environment." The singular importance of positing a "semantic environment" is two-fold: 1/ to order a space of meaning, language, and experience that allows for critical reflection and judgment as modes for the actualization of behavior; 2/ to make available for critical interrogation those means and phenomena that organize, produce, manipulate, and consume (or "read") human communication. There are two critical conditions of the semantic environment that make for the particularity of the "semantic reaction" as a human faculty. The first follows from the fact that, while the objective world of events and forces is constantly changing, the human world of language requires "stable crystallizations" in order for men to judge and act. This is another way to understand the basic idea that humans live in a world of partial information where existential uncertainty is the norm. This circumstance gives rise to the peculiar problem of judging - judging is necessary for action because a human being's capacity to think (language) is conditioned on his subjective distance from the world. The ruse of grammar, so to speak, hides our own presuppositions about the world in the illusion of a perspective-less language. Korzybski often extended his famous dictum ("the name is not the thing defined") in perpetuity: it is impossible to name the process, make lasting conventions on events, or describe the flux of change in the real world. Second, the semantic environment is a space for the ordering of similarity and difference - a semantic reaction is a judgment and action based on the relations between things in the world. The semantic reaction is a reaction based on an illumination of the references, relations, and linkages between "things" and "objects" and "events" in a radically heterogeneous environment. It is a faculty that belongs to an order of things where everything happens only once; where the meaning of things is inexhaustable; where things have their meaning only in relation to other things; etc, etc.

D. Language, language usage, and the limits of knowledge.

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

One interesting line of development in General Semantics argues that the limits of knowledge and representation are co-extensive with the limits of action. Stated differently, an "operational definition" of man means that the conditions for the limits of knowledge are identical to those of the faculty of semantic reaction. In General Semantics, platitudes such as "it is impossible to know everything" or "it is impossible to fully speak about anything" are developed, in short, as limits on communication. The constraints imposed by a semantic environment are the same that make semantic reactions possible.

According to Korzybski, there are two categories of words: 1/ descriptive, "functional" words. 2/ inferential words, "which involve assumptions or inferences." Words and symbols "serve as forms of representation and belong to a different universe - the universe of 'discourse' - since they are not the un-speakable levels we are speaking about." They are "high order" abstractions, not low order abstractions given to us by "lower nerves centers." (254, S&S)

E. A reduction of the principal problem: the 'is' of identity.

The central criticism directed by General Semantics against most theories of language and meaning, and in particular against what it terms most metaphysical or Aristotelian epistemological systems, is what it calls the "is" of identity. Metaphysical systems argue that an invisible, immaterial order of forces, essential properties, qualities, and characteristics organize the material world, including human beings (who have souls), entailing that any scientific system can, if it properly takes hold of this system, describe the material, physical world phenomena and human beings. Against this position, General Semantics argues that there is no singular, essential meaning to these objects. Unlike phenomenology, however, General Semantics does not collapse the distinction into, for example, the reductive method of describing appearances, becoming, etc. Rather, it posits that an objective reality exists in its vast spatial and temporal heterogeneity - the objective world at one particular moment in one particular place is never the same as in another moment or particular space. While the objective world is constantly shifting, the "verbal world" (which we can call the world of cultural production - of the uniquely human world of fabrication, tool use, etc) can shift and remain the same. Humans are "time-binding" creatures insofar as what they produce - "culture" - persists through time. However, to maintain a one-to-one relationship between a somewhat enduring cultural world and a constantly-in-flux objective world can lead, in the parlance of General Semantics, to serious semantic disturbances - that is, a non-alignment between the structure of the world and the structure of our language (or culture).

It is this situation that produces the categorical error of the "is" of identity. General Semantics is not against all uses of the verb 'is', nor is it against its use in description. However, it is against the subject-predicate form of the verb "is" when its use seeks to ascribe an essential quality to some object, phenomena or thing in reality. More specifically, it is against uses of the verb "is" when it is used to affirm prior inferences about the world to new events, happenings, and phenomena. General Semantics, in other words, is against the facile routinization of thought and the habitual ascription of meanings to novel experiences - and language is a principle medium for such routinization and habitualization. "The 'is' of identity," says Korzybski, "forces us into semantic disturbances of wrong evaluation." (409) Because humans are abstracting creatures - they generate orders and orders of abstractions of things, from the most general to the most specific - the "is" of identity fallacy operates in confusion of orders: "If we are not conscious of abstracting, we must identify - in other words, whenever we confuse the different orders of abstractions, unavoidable if we use the 'is' of identity, we duplicate or copy the animal way of 'thinking,' with similar 'emotional' responses." (410)

F. Abstractions: Low to High Order Abstractions

One of the basic principles of General Semantics is that human beings cannot, or at least should not (if they are to remain critical), act on inferences as if they were fact. Inferences and assumptions are here understood as the uncritical use of a word, or tool; or its treatment as if it were an accurate representation of the objective world. The General Semanticist must be able to distinguish assumptions and descriptions from the reality of the objective world. At the same time, the General Semanticist must be able to translate back his or her higher order abstractions onto the objective level of existence, for that is where "our actual lives are lived entirely." (S&S 35) The "verbal levels are auxiliary, and effective only if they are translated back into first order un-speakable effects, such as an object, an action, a 'feeling,' all on the silent and un-speakable objective levels." (S&S, @@) Achieving this "silence on the objective levels" by re-training our semantic reactions is a decidedly positive achievement in General Semantics; it denotes action derived from judgment about the reality of the world.

People can produce any number of orders of abstraction; they are infinite in their possibilities, in the same way that terms are infinite-valued and the way objective reality is radically heterogeneous, both spatially and temporally. "Man can abstract in infinitely different orders," says Korzybski, and the function of pausing, reflecting, and become self-reflexive is precisely to take account of these orders. (S&S, 439) Just as there are an infinite number of possible abstractions, so the terms that constitute our language are multi-ordinal - they "mean" differently as a function of the context of abstraction and the term's relation to other terms on that level. Since people are not accustomed to grasping the multi-ordinality of terms, General Semantics also has a definite pragmatic (this could also be called "mental hygiene") purpose: to propose a critical point of view - this is the flip side of "is" identifications.

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Generally speaking, General Semantics demarcates three levels of abstraction. First-order abstractions included what is seen, experienced, felt, and emoted at the lowest level: the un-speakable, the objective level, which is also the space of human behavior. Second-order abstractions are those that belong to the descriptive level of language, or a series of descriptions. Third order abstractions are those on which we can reach a conclusion and form a judgment about the facts of the first order that have been translated into second order abstractions; third-level abstractions are those were inferences and assumptions are formed. We have a whole complex of orders of abstraction. Korzybski believed that a "semantic blockage" is produced when we "confuse these orders" and apply, for example, our inferences and conclusions (third order abstractions) to describe new happenings (i.e., when we use third or abstractions to produce second-order abstractions). It is not a good idea to engage in the "reading of inferences into descriptions." (S&S, 445) These three levels of abstraction are interesting insofar as - from the point of view of the study of communication - they separate "experience," "representation," and "judgment." These three distinctions entail that thinking and acting are precisely the practice and process of placing these faculties into relation across these three levels of abstraction.

In General Semantics, there is a whole, extended reflection on the problem of "definition." The issues being raised by General Semantics go beyond the problem of erroneously assigning "fixed" meanings to words. Rather, scholars working in the General Semantics tradition seem to be addressing the broader problem of how to understand the work of "words" in modern social, public, and cultural relations and subjective experiences. All definitions condition certain possibilities of semantic reactions - of judging and behavior. To be conscious of abstracting is to understand that the particular kinds of agreements, conventions, and definitions embodied in communication condition the kinds of semantic reactions an organism can have. In short, General Semantics is concerned with the relation of communication to human conflict, to the necessity of sustaining relations with others, of maintaining social structures and public institutions, and of fostering a critical relationship with the world. We also note that, just as there are presuppositions to the "meanings" we attribute to words, so are there "expectations" about the behavior of others with respect to the order of things in the world.

2. Korzybski and Communicative Societies

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

General Semantics matured in an intellectual environment marked by a period of human conflict that was increasingly organized by the entry of communicative technologies into the calamities of human affairs. The sources of conflict (war, injustice, etc); the means by which conflicts were waged; the ends of conflict, and their resolution - these became, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, increasingly organize by new media of communication and new phenomena in human affairs. Systems of control, institutions and organizations of management, offices of research and propaganda, newspapers and radios all began to mediate, with greater reach, not simply the frequency and intensity of human conflicts, but their quality and their conditions. It is in this regard that General Semantics can be read with some interest on the question of "misunderstandings." For at its heart the problem is not simply one of not understanding the "meaning" of what someone is saying to your or vice versa - at its heart there is a recognition that conflict, violence, falls from grace, or the termination of relations between individuals, groups and societies is at stake.

General Semantics provides a useful way to come to grips with the new paradigms of human relations and human interaction that have resulted as the forms of communication and mediation between individuals, groups and societies has expanded in the last few centuries. While traditionally considered a critical reflection on the nature of language as a principal medium of human interactions, General Semantics also recognizes that language is inadequate to mediate many new forms of interaction and that, moreover, other kinds of media and tools also regulate the relations of individuals. The "theory" of action implicit in General Semantics (it is currently under-developed) proposes, in line with many of its intellectual kin of the early 20th century, new concepts that undermine the traditional "linear" model of action (that there is an actor, and action, and something acted upon with an effect). Thus concepts such as feedback (the actor, in acting, also acts on himself), action-network (actions extend beyond the scope of immediate interactions), and action-contingency (actions are dependent on certain functional arrangements to be possible) - these are concepts that order the effects of individual actions within the institutions, organizations, relations, and technologies increasingly governed by new communication media. This is particularly interesting when Korzybski and General Semantics consider such phenomena as public opinion, which they can describe as having its own space-time dynamics of expansion, modes of persuasion, and technics of distribution or reproduction, etc. In short, within a new social order of relations, institutions, and forms of government, General Semantics was part of a more general intellectual movement that tried to develop new concepts by which to understand the modes of communication - indeed the fact of communication - in societies where media and "communicativity" had expanded beyond the ken of any preceding order of society or corresponding academic theorizing.

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

It is precisely within new paradigms of "communicativity" (our term) that we might also understand what Korzybski and General Semantics means, at least in one important register, by three of its distinct terms: facts, inferences, assumptions. At first blush, these terms are distinguished by their temporality; but this temporality - or temporal ordering - has critical implications for the nature of common life, public life, and conflict / peace in human interactions. First, assumptions come from prior knowledge and are not equivalent to experience. Experience refers to the singularity and novelty of the moment, within the momentary discriminations of an event. Vis-a-vis experience, assumptions operate, at best, as heuristics and first-order approximations - they are those stable, "crystallized terms and tools that have worked for prior experiences, but are inappropriate to a new semantic situation. Second, a statement of inference unfolds in the moment -any number of them can be made about any thing, and the claims made by inferences oftentimes extend beyond the relative position of the subject who makes them. You can expect disagreement "if only inferential statements can be made in situation." Third, facts are made after an observation, are limited in number, subjectively confined, and close to "certainty" - that is, facts are in the first instance the application of the scientific method to subjective experience that can then be brought to bear in our communication with others. Presuming that others have done the same, it will be much easier to find agreement between the shared experiences of individuals. Two things are interesting to notice in this regard. First, General Semantics makes it clear that not all contexts, not all environments, are conducive for the production of inferences, assumptions, or especially facts. An attention to the conditions under which individuals encounter, meet, and interact with each other is as critical to the quality of their interaction as is the interaction itself. The second interesting development is that a fact unfolds first in the relation between oneself and the world / environment / context, and then it assumes a status whereby it becomes material for what is common between individuals. Facts are not only statements of "truth," they are, more specifically, the products of a dialogue with oneself in relation to the world amenable to agreements and conventions with others who, because they are engaging in a similar process, are common with us. This development of the "category" of facts is quite intriguing. It undoubtedly bears some resemblance to the facts we refer to when we speak of "common sense." But it is also an intellectual response to the "fact" that "events" have completely new space-time dynamics in modern societies; we are still mystified by the fact that events space and time, "reality," nevertheless exist for each of us on different orders of space-time experience. To order "facts" first within a self-reflexive mode of production and interaction is to begin to make sense of the strange conditions under which human beings live together in modern societies.

Although there is no explicit "ethics" developed in General Semantics, an ethics of communication ordered around "facts" is implicit; it revolves around the principal that individuals are always "becoming." An ethics of interaction goes hand it hand with the ethics of person-to-self and person-to-world relations. And this ethics is what might be called an ethics of "encounter," which we find in many philosophers, including Hegel, which stipulates not only that others are "becoming," but also that others must be acknowledged, received, accepted, and recognized. The imperative, under these conditions, is to maintain the relation with others; hence General Semantics' insistence on the importance of small talk: to maintain a speaking relation is to maintain an ethical relation, since to maintain any relation at all is to avoid conflictual relations and misunderstandings. Of course, this requires one to remember that "words don't mean, people mean," or that they are always meaning-making-doing. Operating on "vague definitions" makes mutuality and mutual ends impossible to produce; to rely heavily on perspective-less speech is a form of blackmail. To keep speaking and reciprocating - to maintain a relation with the other - is, as functional systems theory would develop it, a central mode of actions that has as its effect to maintain a social institution.

3. The Future Requires New Maps

The above is a preliminary sketch of a broader program with at least two goals: first, to develop the belief that the central problems and question posed by General Semantics extends beyond its unfortunate and undeserved reputation as a "mere" reflection on language or, worse, a pop-philosophical tradition with an overtly pedestrian program for social change and individual mental health. We view General Semantics as a an interesting and provocative tradition of intellectual pursuit that, within a specific historical and cultural environment, confronted many new social, political, and economic conditions that remain of central concern to the discipline of Communication to this day. Many venerable, lauded traditions of social inquiry originate in this same period, in dialogue with General Semantics, also attempting to grasp the meaning of communication technologies in modernity. Second, we strongly believe - and will undertake to map out explicitly - the relationship between General Semantics as an intellectual discipline and the development, particularly after the Second World War, of Communication as a discipline. We welcome contributions to this discussion; please address your contributions to Michael Cole (

To be continued...

About Sanford I. Berman:

Dr. Sanford I. Berman is a lecturer on Communication and General Semantics Consultant to business and industry. He was an instructor of Public Speaking and Psychology of Persuasion at the Illinois Institute of Technology, lecturer on General Semantics and Communication at Northwestern University, and lecturer on "Communication Skills in Management" at the Management Development Seminar at the University of Chicago.

He has studied with the famous semanticist Professor S. I. Hayakawa and was assistant to the late Professor Irving J. Lee at Northwestern University. He received his Bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota, Master's degree from Teacher's College, Columbia University and Doctor of Philosophy from Northwestern University. Dr. Berman has lectured to thousands of people in national and international conventions and was the early morning lecturer to 5,000 safety directors at the 1962 National Safety Congress. He is one of the most popular lecturers on Communication and General Semantics in the country.

He has written four booklets, "Understanding and Being Misunderstood, "Why do we jump to Conclusions?" "How to Lessen Misunderstandings," and "The Closed Mind." He has written numerous articles on topics of General Semantics and recorded more than 140 taped lectures on the topic.

Dr. Berman is the Executive Director of the International Communication Institute and has been a lecturer on Effective Communication at the University of California Extension in San Diego.