Friday, January 30, 2009

The Scientific Philosophy of General Semantics

Students of general semantics sometimes find themselves hesitating and stumbling when someone asks them "What is general semantics?" Here's a short piece I wrote for the opening pages of General Semantics Bulletin 71 (2004). It contains a number of ways for addressing the question that I think avoid oversimplifying the discipline and misleading the listener. The illustration just below, used for a short time as a poster by the Institute of General Semantics, accompanied my essay:

The Scientific Philosophy of General Semantics
General Semantics (GS) qualifies as an unusual, tough- to-‘pin down’, interdisciplinary field. “Is it a science or a philosophy?” Perhaps GS may best be seen as neither ‘science’ nor ‘philosophy’ but rather as both/and––a scientific philosophy applicable moreover to the life concerns of ‘the man and woman in the street’.

In the scientific realm, GS has elements which bring it within the larger field of the behavioral/social sciences. Here, the main accomplishment of Alfred Korzybski, the original formulator of GS, was theoretical: his integrative theory of human evaluation based on knowledge from a variety of fields. Formulated as a foundation for a new interdisciplinary science of humanity, GS suggests methodological guidelines for all (yes, all) areas of inquiry and has substantive implications for ongoing research on neuro-evaluative, neuro-linguistic factors in human behavior.

In addition to this, GS focuses on examining underlying assumptions in a way that many people would call “philosophical.” Korzybski did not find that term entirely congenial––chiefly because it had become associated with verbalistic speculations detached from scientific/mathematical knowledge and practical application. However, he did respect the work of some philosophers, especially some of those who worked in mathematical logic and the theory of knowledge or epistemology. Indeed, he viewed his own inquiry into “the structure of human knowledge”(1) as “an up-to-date epistemology.”(2) Korzybski pioneered in applying knowledge from mathematics, physics, biology, neuroscience, psychiatry, etc., to epistemological questions, and conversely, in applying an up-to-date, scientific epistemology to physics, biology, psychiatry, etc.––and especially to everyday life. He contended that factors of sanity exist within the work of mathematicians and scientists.

A great deal of wisdom was present in the culture when Korzybski formulated GS. Nonetheless, much of this wisdom did not get applied. To an appalling extent––despite the work of Korzybski and many others––it still doesn’t. With its emphasis on daily life application, the scientific philosophy of GS has preeminent value in providing specific methods for practicing a scientific attitude—an attitude of inquiry—for individuals, groups and organizations.

(1) Science and Sanity, p. 73
(2) Ibid. p. 554

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