Australian General Semantics Society Inc.




Seminar Summary - 17th August 2013


"Popularising General Semantics"
S.I. Hayakawa's book "Language in Thought and Action" was widely read and debated.
Can we popularise GS without losing the essence and genius
of Alfred Korzybski's groundwork?

Led by Robert James.

Preliminary ... Catching Up

We were pleased to welcome some "returning" and "new" participant Albert, as well as the "old faithfuls".  It's "always" envigorating to meet people encountering the discipline anew, to see what draws them, and how we can bring GS as a useful and exciting study.
WritingThis is a "living document", subject to ongoing evolution as recollections re-emerge from our memories of the event, and are re-evaluated in light of ongoing experience and reflection.  It will never be "the full truth and nothing but the truth", or "a map that expresses everyone's notion of the territory"!

We considered some of the vexing issues surrounding the evolution of general semantics from Alfred Korzybski's seminal work "Science and Sanity", through various authors and practitioners, to the present day.

We should probably not be surprised that "General Semantics" (ie the specific body of thought, systematic study and practice of the discipline, as initiated by Alfred Korzybski) should be characterised by dissention over the scope, interpretation and "purity of doctrine" as perceived by various teachers, writers and practitioners.  Just think of the history of religions, political movements, and ideologically-motivated organisations!

"Popularising General Semantics".

Synchronicity –

A synchronicity became evident when the opportunity arose for us to run a stall at an "open day" at the University of Western Sydney (UWS) "Student Services Fair".  Our very-own Gabriel Donleavy is the UWS Professor of Accounting.  It's just three days after our "Popularising" seminar - how about that ... ?

Some don't even like the word "popularising", so (as usual) the very language we use here was a subject of discussion!

Because of the "serious and committed" nature of our discussions at these seminars, it was decided to set homework assignments two weeks ahead and one week ahead of the seminar, thus:

Homework Assignment two weeks ahead:

Three questions (not very original for us) to think about prior to the seminar:

1. As a "conversation in the lift" (what our US cousins call an "elevator conversation"), over an interval
    of 60 seconds, how would you answer the question "What is GS? (sic)", from someone who
    overheard you mentioning the term?

2. If that person became so excited by your reply that they (ie he or she) invited you "to coffee"
    for 30 minutes, what sort of things would you say to illuminate the topic.

3. How can we practise this process to become confident and fluent,
    before the UWS event on Tuesday week?

Thanks for your attention to this little challenge!
(PS: Why do I say "(sic)" in the first question?)

*** * ***

Homework Assignment one week ahead:

A few more questions for you to consider, s'il vous plait:

1. What central message is carried by "contemporary" writers like Bruce K. in "Dare to Enquire"
     that is unique to GS?

2. Consider a "SWOT analysis" on the process of promoting "popular" works like this,
    and creating others:
         a. Strengths,
         b. Weaknesses,
         c. Opportunities and
         d. Costs ... of this approach.

3. As well as, or instead of, the above, what's the prospect of promoting "serious and committed" study
    of "S&S" -
         a. by individuals (eg by making it more available in libraries),
         b. in structured programmes (eg in universities, study groups etc),
         c. by other means (eg social media) ... ?

*** * ***

The homework was well attempted (by some), and elicited some thoughtful responses, eg:

Consideration of the Homework questions

On the question of "What is GS?"

Some comments:

"Improving your sane behaviour."

"Non-Aristotelian rather than just Aristotelian responses."

"If words were like a belt, then GS can ensure that the belt will fit your waist."

"An understanding of how words impact on our thoughts and feelings."

"A rational thinking discipline, with a particular emphasis on not jumping to conclusions."

"Using words precisely, in a way that people can understand, agreeing on how we communicate."

"Studies how symbolism (particularly language) influences our thoughts and actions."

On the question of "having 30 minutes to present GS"

"Explore the other person's interests, then relate the formulations."

"Pull the other one."

"Play it by ear – Consider eg indexation, levels of abstraction, not overselling it!"

"Describe the Structural Differential, "sanity for survival", past, present and anticipated future.

"Discuss "How I got into GS", map-territory, extensional devices, levels of abstraction, uncertainty, happiness formulation, everyday life stuff, jumping to conclusions."

On the question of "Practising the introduction process"

"Observe functioning of the formulations in our everyday life."

On the question of "The central, unique message of GS"

"Time binding!"

On the question of a "SWOT analysis"

In relation to considering the merits of "popularising GS", we considered issues of

    * Strengths:
        eg: Popularising the study of GS may bring not only an increased number of people
        "into the fold", but would likely attract some thoughtful, constructive people who could
        add to the pleasure and benefit of our GS study process, and to greater benefits to our

    * Weaknesses / Costs:
        eg: It will consume time and effort, increase divisions in the GS community, and distract
        us from intended directions.

    * Opportunities:
        eg: Engagement in outreaches like the planned UWS Student Fair Day on Tuesday will
        bring us more in contact with the wider community and increase GS awareness.

    * Threats:
         eg: "Popularising" may -
          * consume our limited resources,
          * distract us "from the straight and narrow",
          * attract people and attention that are not in the best interests of the discipline, and
          * dilute our rigorous, intentional studies.

Statement by Milton Dawes

Our friend Milton Dawes expressed regret at being unable to join us for these discussions, but offered the following comments:

First Korzybski as far as I understand g.s, does not offer "truths": He offered some principles and a method to be applied, and 'heuristically' evaluated.

"Science And Sanity: An introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics", first published in October 1933, was intended to be a text book showing how in modern scientific methods we can find factors of sanity, to be tested empirically." (Science And Sanity, page x.) (Note "tested empirically" and contrast with the notion of "truth").

On page v there is this: "I must stress that I give no panaceas, but experience shows that when the methods of general semantics are applied, the results are usually beneficial, whether in law, business, etc., education on all levels, or personal inter-relationships, be they in family, national or international fields. If they are not applied, but merely talked about, no results can be expected."

I would like to suggest that if the principles and methods of general semantics are regarded, seen, and/or interpreted, as "the Master's truths" this will very likely severely hamper the understanding of the system: a system that recommends the methods and approach of science and mathematics as worthwhile models for studying and applying towards improving our usual ways of evaluating and behaving. The notion of "maps, theories, and a heuristic approach" is very applicable here ... Apply the methods and approach and see if they work. This, for me is very far from suggesting "truths".

Hayakawa will definitely be found easier reading than "Science and Sanity". But "Science and Sanity" was written as a textbook. It takes a great deal of study. This was one reason the Institute was created. It was intended that those whom had the time and interest to read the book, and do lots of studies; and also had the skills to do this - would facilitate seminars to help those who did not have the time and interest to read "Science and Sanity".

Too many, I think, having read Hayakawa's books, believe they are being exposed to the broader range of general semantics. If you happen to have a copy of Bruce Kodish's book "Korzybski, A Biography", and look up "Hayakawa" in the index, you will find pages offering a good outline of some factors contributing to Korzybski's dislike of the popularization ... mainly that Hayakawa presented his abstractions as g.s. and not abstractions ignoring the larger issues addressed.

The principles of general semantics can be presented to those interested ... if one has done enough work to find exercises, metaphors, analogies, stories, etc., that can help to illustrate the principles. Over the years I have found that not many have that skill to translate principles (involving words) to exercises and analogies, and so on, that will help others have experiences they can relate to the principles. All g.s principles can be experienced. But lectures, and talks, have to be complemented with exercises that can touch one's thinking-feeling centers ("Organism-as-a-whole" principle). Words for many are not enough.

Some comments by Bruce Kodish

Another friend, GS stalwart, author and teacher, Milton Dawes, was interested in our exploration of this issues.  He wrote to us as follows:

Issues such as "Popularising General Semantics" would be discussed much more usefully if people knew more of the history, etc. of general-semantics and how it took off in Korzybski's lifetime.

Of course there is the question: whose GS was/is/will-be getting popularised?

The question of whose GS began as an issue in Korzybski's lifetime, with his sad and debilitating conflict with Hayakawa over that very question.

As I show in my book "Korzybski: A Biography" it plagued Korzybski's final years.

I for one am not interested in Hayakawa's semantics which has come for many to be equivalent to 'general semantics'.

For that reason, I'm not even keen on promoting "GS" or "general semantics". I'm interested in popularising Korzybski's non-aristotelian system and extensional method of evaluation. How we evaluate, how we misevaluate, how we can learn to re-evaluate, etc.

From Bruce Kodish's "Korzybski - A Biography"

(P.17) Towards the end of Alfred Korzybski's life, both the Society (based in San Francisco and Steve Hayakawa has become thorns in his side , drawing the interested public and their funds away from the Institute functions and at times, in his opinion, seriously misrepresenting his work in the name of popularisation.  Korzybski had worked at remaining cordial to Hayakawa and others at the Society, while vigorously protesting their attempts to change his formulations to supposedly make his work more popularly accessible.  Not only did these attempts seems unnecessary, but he felt that they also wore away at the foundations of the discipline that he started.

(P. 270) There was much contenton about the advantages of turning the Anthropometer (Structural Differential) upside down so that higher levels of abstraction would, indeed, be above the lower levels.  The "higher levels" could just as well be labelled "deeper levels".  However, Korzybski insisted on the current configuration whereby the "label must hang onto the object".  This issues became a major bone of contention between Korzybski and Hayakawa.

(P. 444) Hayakawa reported on his first meeting with Korzybski: "So you are Hayakawa!  You have been lecturing on general semantics at the University of Michigan  and you don't know a goddam thing about it!"  I couldn't take offense at this greeting, it was warmly meant ...

(P. 454) Major academic interpreters and popularisers of Korzybski's work include Sam Hayakawa, Wendelle Johnson, Irving J. Lee and Elwood Murray. These all attended the 1939 August Intensive Seminar.  It has been suggested that Hayakawa did not engage very seriously with Korzybski or the seminar material at this time.

(P. 505) Korzybski, as Consulting Editor, assisted the Society for General Semantics and Hayakawa in producing its new publication "ETC.: A Review of General Semantics".  At this time, there was increasing interest in general semantics, or "semantics", not all of it enthusiastic.

Bruce Kodish writes of the history of Alfred Korzybski and general semantics in general, in his substantial publication "Korzybski - A Biography" (Extensional Publishing, Pasadena, California 2011).  You can easily purchase copies of this from the usual sources.

Some Key GS Writers and Teachers:

We considered the works of various key figures in the development of GS as a discipline, not just Alfred Korzybski and S.I. Hayakawa, but many others including Charlotte Schurbert Reid, Albert Ellis, Bruce and Susan Kodish, Milton Dawes, Gregg Hoffmann, Stuart Chase and Marty Levinson, etc.

Here are a few "random comments" on the subject:

Charlott Schurbert Reid:
     " … We should have trained a few people thoroughly … rather than "popularising".

Gerald Haslam (on Hayakawa):
     "We should not turn GS over to unscholarly approaches … "

Many people claimed that SIH helped them use language more effectively. They did not necessarily refer to "GS".

Why is it called "general semantics" (with or without the capitals!) ?

Hayakawa was not a language scholar or theorist, but an amateur dialectologist, a gifted writer – " … poked his fingers into the ribs of convention … " He was always respectful of Korzybski, but had personality clashes. He never fancied himself as a theorist. He said the "The Structural Differential could go in any direction … ".

S.H. described "Science and Sanity" as "a formidable tome … utterly terrifying ... a mish-mash … turgid and wordy … ".  He said that AK's seminars "did not observe jurisdictional boundaries – covered many subjects … "

Hayakawa's "Language .. " was "the first text book ever to become a best-seller" (in 1941). He enjoyed celebrity status everywhere except where he most wanted it – He would have exchanged all his honours for a tenured position at a prestigious institution."
Had very few published reviews of his books, but many invitations for oral presentations.
He was a spokesman for many progressive causes, not a lightweight!
But "Wasted six years of my life in the US Senate"

His courses in English Departments trained people as teachers and writers, not the sciences. They emphasises the applications such as indexing and dating etc.

Korzybski trivialises Hayakawa's contribution, but H. did emphasise applications.

"Korzybski – a Biography" (by Bruce Kodish):
   Emphasises the tension and conflict over this issue in the later part of Korzybski's life.

Gerald Haslam's address at AKML 2012: "GS Lite: A Consideration of S. I. Hayakawa"

We watched / listened to Gerald Haslam's talk on Hayakawa (at which I was present) in New York last year, and discussed the value and limitations of his work. Bruce Kodish's writings in his "AK Biography" were part of our deliberations.

Preparation for the UWS Student Services Fair Day on Tuesday

We made up our collection of bunting, banners, books and brochures, and agreed on the transport arrangements etc.

Thanks to Prof. Gabriel D. (UWS) for presenting us with this opportunity for "popularising GS".


Next Meeting:

Sun 15th September 2013

A Multiple-Topic Seminar!
     Today we will have a delicious selection of short introductory topics:

GS and Semiotics
     Introducing semiotics
     and relating the two disciplines,
     showing how one can learn from both.

Improving our Lives' Transitions (part II)
     How can GS principles assist
     in managing the transitions in our lives?

     In memory of Gerard Nierenberg, we will have a brief introduction to his ideas about negotiating.
     From his book “Fundamentals of Negotiating”
     and “The Art of Creative Thinking”.

Led by our most distinguished teacher: Mr David Hewson.

10:30am - 4:30pm at Bonnet Bay, Sydney, Australia.

Writing Disclaimer: This "summary" is a collection of notes derived from our discussion by a number of means.  It is by no means a scholarly dissertation on the subject as presented.  It does not purport to be the "policy of AGS".  Comment and criticism (constructive or otherwise) is welcome.  If anyone has been misquoted, copyrights infringed or confidences betrayed, please Contact us.


(Updated by RJ 09/09/2013)

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