In what esteem is General Semantics held these days?

I recently got a copy of Language in Thought and Action (Third Edition) by Hayakawa and before getting too far into it, I want to know whether semanticists these days think the ideas contained therein are worth anyone’s time. If I find it interesting, would it be worthwhile from an intellectual perspective to seek out Korzybski’s own works? (That is, are the insights contained therein useful or just amusing?)

As a side note, what about Neuro-Linguistic Programming? It seems to be a simple bag of tricks to make someone more comfortable around you, but it’s been breathlessly hyped as this wonderful secret. Does it have any meaningful connection to GS? Is it a crock of shit?

Are GS and NLP both crocks of shit?

I don’t know the answer to your question, but I did read Science and Sanity and it’s quite a slog. I have not read Hayakawa’s books, but I understand they are a lot more accessible.

I thought General Semantics was a lefty in the Alliance for Progress League, at least until the CIA dropped out? IIRC, he had a decent heater, but couldn’t find the plate with his breaking stuff. Screwed up his shoulder, was supposed to have Tommy John surgery and maybe get a look from the Braves next spring…

This has to be the biggest non sequitur I’ve ever read in GQ.

This puts me in mind of what little I do know about GS, and why I’m so leery of it: Korzybski’s ‘unsanity’, his (apparent) idea that you could make yourself sane by rejecting two-valued logic, and the cloud of weirdos (including Hubbard, of Scamology fame) hanging around this field like a miasma of mosquitoes.

There doesn’t seem to be any general recognition of the usefulness of either General Semantics or Neurolinguistic Programming among scientists in related fields like linguistics or psychology. You would expect that if researchers in either GS or NLP had made interesting progress in explaining things that people in related fields would be willing to quote results from them. Instead, many people outside those fields dismiss them as being just a collection of obvious and unoriginal statements mixed with a lot of not particularly useful jargon.

There is at least one “serious” journal for General Semantics still in operation, because I know someone who writes for it. However, his articles are trying to create a new non-Einsteinian physics which is why I put serious into quotes. I know of no one outside the group of GS acolytes who consider him anything other than a crackpot scientifically.

Anyone who wants to mix GS or NLP or anything of the sort with physics is hereby referred to Alan Sokal’s groundbreaking article in the field, * Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity*.

I happen to know the graphic designer of the journal Social Text, so I was well aware of this when the brouhaha first occurred. But Sokal’s article really has no relevance, joke or not. The GS people aren’t slinging bullshit for the sake of it, as so many of Sokal’s targets were in reality doing. They are true believers. Whether this makes them more or less dangerous is hard to say.

For me, its main value was to inspire a couple of moderately interesting science fiction novels by A.E. Van Vogt, The Players of Null-A and I forgot the other title. I dug how the heroes of these tales got themselves out of dangerous scrapes and beat the bad guys by remembering to adjust their thinking to non-Aristotelian categories. Which is what the cryptic phrase “null-A” of the title refers to.

Robert Anton Wilson, who is a definitely interesting writer, also claims to have embraced GS, and to demonstrate it by writing an essay or two in “E-prime,” which means English without the verb be, without the use of be as a copula to equate two things, because according to GS all mental confusion results from saying that anything “is” something, because no two things are exactly alike, or something like that. So in E-prime you don’t say “A is B.” Only less definite shades of meaning, like “A seems like B to me” or “I find A as B.” But since Wilson hasn’t used E-prime in most of his writings, I’m skeptical about his claim to be a General Semanticist. It’s probably more like one among many new ways of using the brain that he has been experimenting with. I don’t go for GS myself, but the E-prime argument has reminded me to be more careful about assigning entities to categories; after all, that way lies prejudice, thinking that “all Armenians are no good,” to take a random example, or anything that denies the uniqueness of individuals.

I wonder if E-prime was influenced by the grammar of Korzybski’s native language Polish, which does not necessarily use the copula verb byc’. In normal Polish, instead of saying “A is B,” they can simply say “A B,” where the isness of the sentence is implicit.

That was the second in the series - the first is World of Null-A. Actually, I read Science and Sanity to see if it would help me figure out what was going on in those books.

It didn’t.

Who knows what the Social Text people really believe. I do believe that the GS crowd do. I know a first class mathematician who got started by reading Korzybski and, for all I know, still believes in it. But he wove it into his mathematics when he was young and no longer does. Over the years, his gods have included Mao and Enver Hoxha, so you can judge his judgment by that. Nonetheless his mathematics is first rate.

At any rate, I think GS is a crock, but then I believe that 90% of everything is.

Not to be nitpicky but it’s the Pawns of Null-A. One of my favorite old timey scifi novels.

It’s been released under both the titles The Players of Null A and The Pawns of Null A.

A link for people, like myself, who have no idea what the heck you were talking about.
General Semantics Wikipedia

My thoughts exactly, based on what I’ve read (and not read) in my own research. I was just wondering it there were anything to contradict that in respectable peer-reviewed journals. (You know, as opposed to the ones that try to use linguistics and psychology to disprove physics.)

Johanna: It seems GS is the Kevin Bacon of weird ideas in the latter 20th Century. :wink: I’ve heard of all of the people and ideas you’ve mentioned (well, I first heard of the ‘Null-A’ novels when I started researching GS) and I’ve read Illuminatus!, Robert Anton Wilson’s best-known head trip. I also came across E-Prime online about a decade ago and filed it away. I never made the connection between it and anything else. This is certainly an enlightening thread.

Mathochist: Heh. Sokal truly is outstanding in his field, isn’t he?

I bought General Semantics at 34. It split three-for-two when it hit 40, but sunk like a stone when its CEO was accused of shaking down other languages for grammar like a common thief.


I’ve had occasion to talk about NLP with several people - practitioners, teachers, therapists, researchers, psychologists, sceptics and so on. There is no scientific evidence to corroborate any of the major claims made within the ‘canonical’ texts of NLP. AFAIK the only ‘tenet’ of NLP that has been subjected to some sort of empirical testing was the claim that eye direction indicted memory retrieval or fabrication (ie whether someone was telling the truth or lying). The test found no evidene of any such correlation.

However, those who believe in NLP believe that it has demonstrable value regardless of this apparent lack of independent corroboration. I know at least two practising therapists who say that NLP works, and that’s the important thing. I personally believe that this raises many questions concerning what we mean when we say something ‘works’.

In many cases, the ‘proof’ that something (in this case NLP) actualy works comes from first-hand validation (we know the patient says she feels less ‘phobic’ because she tells us so). Unfortunately, first-hand validation is next-to-useless in some fields of study. For one thing, it’s notoriously unreliable (part of my job exploits the fact that people can be encouraged to come to firm conclusions that are false). What’s more, it’s ubiquitous: anyone who champions Therapy X based on first-hand validation has to face the fact that for every other type of therapy in the world that there has ever been, includng ones he or she thinks are nonsense, there is just as much first-hand validation.

My advice: caveat emptor.

To me, it raises questions as to what kinds of people we allow to be practicing therapists.

My paperback version of Players mentions that it is also called Pawns on the cover. I knew I should have mentioned that!

They used to do that all the time. I have a copy of Foundation called “The 1,000 Year Plan”, and a copy of Second Foundation called “The Man Who Upset the Universe.”

I’m curious to know what your job is.