Australian General Semantics Society Inc.




Seminar Summary - 15th September 2013


A Multiple-Topic Seminar!
     Today we had 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 had 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.

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"!

Preliminary ... Catching Up

We were pleased to meet again, as we have done for over 20 years, to share experiences and insights from our lives, with a general semantics focus.  Our pleasure was dimished by the illness of our host cat "Charlie", who is suspected to be suffering from heart and/or cancer aliments, with quite a poor prognosis.

Part-1 Semiotics

Definition: Semiotics is the study of human use of signs.

Definition: Signs in everyday life such as, road signs, pub signs and maps.
Also drawings, paintings and photographs, and it includes words, sounds and 'body language'.

Three parts of semiotics:

    syntactics (or syntax): the formal or structural relations between signs

    semantics: the relationship of signs to what they stand for

    pragmatics: the relation of signs to interpreters

Another view of this is how people use signs:

    syntactic: recognition of the sign (in relation to other signs);

    semantic: comprehension of the intended meaning of the sign;

    pragmatic: interpretation of the sign in terms of relevance, agreement, behavioural change, etc.

Saussure gives a two-part model of the sign:

a 'signifier' -
       the form which the sign takes
       (e.g. sound, shape or word such as the word open on a sign in a shop window)

the 'signified' -
       the concept it represents (e.g. the shop is open for business)

The same signifier (the word 'open') could stand for a different signified (and thus be a different sign) if it were on a push-button inside a lift ('push to open door').

For Saussure, both the signifier and the signified were purely 'psychological'.

Semioticians emphasise that there is no necessary, intrinsic, direct or inevitable relationship between the signifier and the signified. I.e. the relationship is arbitrary. 'Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign by someone'

Saussure saw language as 'a form, not a substance'. For instance ...
      * If chess pieces made of ivory are substituted for pieces made of wood,
         the change makes no difference to the game. 
      * The Canberra to Sydney train is referred to as 'the same train',
        even though the combinations of locomotive, carriages and personnel may change.
      * Similarly, a street which is completely rebuilt can still be called 'the same street'.
But GS non identity still applies. So two non identical things can still be given the same name because to the user the difference does not make a difference for the use the sign is put to.

Pierce’s 3 part model:

    The Representamen:
           the form which the sign takes (not necessarily material) i.e. the signifier or sign;

   An Interpretant:
           not an interpreter but rather the sense made of the sign by a person

    An Object:
           to which the sign refers.

Quiz question: Which relates to the semiotic triangle of Ogden and Richards ..
       (a) symbol,
       (b) thought or reference, or
       (c) referent ?

Three types of sign

Symbol/symbolic: the signifier does not resemble the signified but is completely arbitrary or purely conventional: e.g. languages, which includes: alphabetical letters, punctuation marks, words, phrases and sentences. Also numbers, equations, Morse code, traffic lights and national flags. And the structural differential.

Icon/iconic: the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified (i.e. it looks, sounds, feels, tastes or smells like it) and it may possess some of its qualities like a similar structure: e.g. a portrait, a cartoon, a scale-model, sound effects in a radio or film soundtrack, imitative gestures.

Index/indexical: the signifier is not totally arbitrary but is directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified - this relation can be observed or inferred: e.g. natural signs like: smoke, thunder, footprints in wet sand; medical symptoms like: pain, a rash, fast pulse-rate; measuring instruments like: a weather vane, thermometer, clock, spirit-level; signals like: a knock on a door, a phone ringing; recordings like: a photograph, a film, video or television shot, an audio-recorded voice, etc.


Which category does the voice heard on a phone go into?
For all three, does the “the map is not the territory” apply? Does smoke=fire?

We debated this last question and Pauline looked up “smoke” on the internet and found:

“smoke” :
    Noun - a visible suspension of carbon or other particles in air, typically from a burning substance.         Verb - to emit smoke: "heat the oil until it just smokes"; "huddled around a smoking fire".

Also found on the internet another definition of smoke:
   Smoke is a collection of airborne solid and liquid particulates and gases emitted
   when a material undergoes combustion or pyrolysis, ….
   It is commonly an unwanted by-product of fires (e.g. stoves, candles, oil lamps, and fireplaces).

More on these methods of producing smoke:

Combustion or burning is the sequence of exothermic chemical reactions between a fuel and an oxidant accompanied by the production of heat and conversion of chemical species. The release of heat can produce light in the form of either glowing or a flame

Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen (or any halogen).

So, depending on one’s definition of “smoke” led to opinions for and against this question of whether we can have smoke without fire or not.

Evidence indicates a tendency for linguistic signs to evolve from indexical and iconic forms towards symbolic forms. I.e. to become more arbitrary.

Relation of words to reality

Some believe that 'Words are only Names for Things', a stance involving the assumption that 'things' necessarily exist independently of language prior to them being 'labelled' with words. I.e. if you have a word then there must be a thing it relates to. According to this position there is a one-to-one correspondence between word and referent (sometimes called language-world isomorphism), and language is simply an item-by-item naming of things in the world. The group agreed this was not true.

Within the lexicon of a language, most of the words are 'lexical words' (or nouns) which refer to 'things', but most of these things are abstract concepts rather than specific physical objects in the world. Only 'proper nouns' have specific referents in the everyday world, and only some of these refer to a unique entity e.g. Sydney. Hence the useful GS formulation of indexing. City1 is not city2.

The less naive realists might note at this point that words do not necessarily name only physical things which exist in an objective material world but may also label imaginary things and also concepts, e.g. unicorns.

Languages differ in how they categorise the world - the signs in one language do not neatly correspond to those in another. Within a language, many words may refer to 'the same thing' but reflect different evaluations of it (one person's 'hovel' is another person's 'home' or another person’s ‘mansion’). Furthermore, what is signified by a word is subject to historical change. For example, ' town' used to be used as meaning an isolated farm building and is now use to mean something like but larger than a village and smaller than a city.

According to the Whorfian stance, the signified (the concept) is an arbitrary product of our culture's 'way of seeing'.

Peirce adopted from logic the notion of 'modality' to refer to the truth value of a sign, acknowledging three kinds: actuality (e.g. true & false), (logical) necessity (e.g. validity) and (hypothetical) possibility.

A researcher showed children a simple line drawing featuring a group of children sitting in a circle with a gap in their midst. He asked them to add to this gap a drawing of their own, and when they concentrated on the central region of the drawing, many of them tried to pick up the pencil which was depicted in the top right-hand corner of the drawing! I.e. they unconsciously accept the terms in which reality was constructed within the medium.

Whilst in a conscious comparison of a photographic image with a cartoon image of the same thing, the photograph is likely to be judged as more 'realistic'…. People can identify an image as a hand when it is drawn as a cartoon more quickly than when they are shown a photograph of a hand. This underlines the importance of perceptual codes in constructing reality.

We looked at a painting of a pipe.

If it were a language lesson or a child's 'reading book', we might expect to see the words 'This is a pipe'. To depict a pipe and then provide a label which insists that 'this is not a pipe', illustrated non identity of map with the territory it represents, e.g. this [image of a pipe] is not a pipe.

The semiotics text talked about Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), the founder of a movement known as 'General Semantics', declared that 'the map is not the territory' and that 'the word is not the thing'.

The confusion of the representation with the thing represented is a feature of schizophrenia and psychosis.

It then presented Hayakawa’s formulations as though they were Korzybski’s.

Denotation, Connotation and Myth

'Denotation' tends to be used as the definitional, 'literal', 'obvious' or 'common-sense' meaning of a sign. In the case of linguistic signs, the denotative meaning is what the dictionary attempts to provide.

The term 'connotation' is used to refer to the socio-cultural and 'personal' associations (ideological, emotional etc.) of the sign, e.g. a car can connote virility or freedom.

Fiske warns that "it is often easy to read connotative values as denotative facts".

Related to connotation is myth. We usually associate myths with classical fables about the exploits of Greek gods and heroes. But semiotics uses it in another sense.

Signs and codes are generated by myths and in turn serve to maintain them. Myths can be seen as extended metaphors. Like metaphors, myths help us to make sense of our experiences within a culture. They express and serve to organize shared ways of conceptualizing something within a culture.

For example, the myth of objectivism which is dominant and pervasive in Western culture - a myth which allies itself with scientific truth, rationality, accuracy, fairness and impartiality and which is reflected in the discourse of science, law, government, journalism, morality, business, economics and scholarship. Myths can function to hide the ideological function of signs and codes. The power of such myths is that they 'go without saying' and so appear not to need to be deciphered, interpreted or demystified.

Probably the most well-known example of the cultural diversity of verbal and conceptual categories is that Eskimos have dozens of words for 'snow' - Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Communication model of encoding=> transmission=> decoding

In the context of semiotics, 'decoding' involves not simply basic recognition and comprehension of what a text 'says' but also the interpretation and evaluation of its meaning with reference to relevant codes.

We related this to the abstracting process: In interpretation, there are seven ways we distort reality:
    * over generalising,
    * either/or distortion,
    * filtering,
    * mind reading,
    * personalising,
    * fortune telling and
    * emotional reasoning.

The five ways we mis-evaluate:
    * Demanding (moralising & musterbation),
    * Catastrophising (Awfulising & I can’t stand it itis), and
    * Personalising.

So all these can distort communication.

Conversation maxims of quality, quantity, relevance and manner.

  • Quality: speakers should be truthful.
       They should not say what they think is false, or make statements for which they have no evidence.

  • Quantity: a contribution should be as informative as is required for the conversation to proceed.
       It should be neither too little, nor too much.

  • Relevance: speakers' contributions should relate clearly to the purpose of the exchange.

  • Manner: speakers' contributions should be perspicuous:
       clear, orderly and brief, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.

Part-2 Our Lives' Transitions (Continued)

Life is a series of frequent changes.
Some changes are welcomed; others range from inconvenient to catastrophic.

Examples of changes: marriage, retirement and moving to a new culture

There is a difference between changes and transitions. Change is situational; transition is psychological. It's not the events outside us that make the transition; it's the inner-reorientation and meaning-redefinition we make to incorporate those changes.

It's not what happens, but what one chooses to think about it (i.e. how we evaluate it), that affects one's feelings and behaviours.

For example:

When accepting a new job, or moving to a different home, too often we rush to make a new beginning. We plunge into the new situation only to find ourselves frustrated, lonely, tired, resentful, or preoccupied with unfinished business from the past. We move to something different but our minds are filled with old information: where our favourite gas station was, when the pub was open, and how to stay close to our best friend who no longer lives a short distance away.

People who have unresolved transitions have at least three choices:

1. Do nothing and continue to hold onto unpleasant, negative feelings.
2. Squarely face the old business and take care of unresolved feelings and needs.
3. Relate old experiences to similar present experiences.

Happiness for transitions

One can use the Happiness Formula of Korzybski to help cope with transitions. Modify one’s expectation to the extensional minimum.

For example, two Aussie women received silver medals at the previous Olympics: 
   * One expected no medal and was ecstatic at receiving a silver medal.
   * One expected gold and was distraught at receiving only a silver medal.
Same event in the world but different expectations.

Other GS formulations useful for transitions

What do you mean? How do you know? in relation to something about transitions. For example, our meanings of 'retirement' can be clarified by indexing.

Viewpoints: Fact-inference confusion of mind reading. Demanding evaluations. Identification.

Mind reading: predicting you know that another person is thinking.

Identification can also make one get stuck. Gaven told us the story about the person who identified himself as an engineer. Another identified himself as a GS teacher. Instead if we have the P2 of non identification and we have the theory that these are just roles we play then when we transition, we can easily move onto other roles.

Role identification can also lead to shock. “I can only do this role.” Or “that role is the only worthwhile one.”

Transitions involving loss: the grief cycle.

   1) Shock stage: Initial paralysis at hearing the bad news or realising there might be a loss.
   2) Denial stage: Trying to avoid the inevitable. E.g. Denying that there is a loss.
   3) Anger stage: Frustrated out pouring of bottled-up emotion.
   4) Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out. I.e. still trying to find a perfect solution.
   5) Depression stage: Final realization of the inevitable. No perfect solution is available.
   6) Testing stage: Seeking realistic solutions.
   7) Acceptance stage: Finally finding a realistic way forward.

Some get stuck in a stage regarding a required change in diet.    Tthey want to stay on the old "see food and eat it" diet. Or they want the ideal solution of little effort and still keeping their weight down. Or they don’t want to give up the old lifestyle.

We considered problems people have with the cycle: Getting stuck at one stage, such as denial.

Going in cycles. This happens when they go too fast and don’t resolve things at a stage before they move onto the next one.

What do you do when the problem cannot be solved?   Solve another problem. Solve for a higher level goal.

Type I and II errors with example of skills meeting task.

Type I error: believing something is true when it isn’t.
E.g. believing one can do a particular task when one cannot do it due to no longer having the skills.

Type II error: believing something is false when it isn’t.
E.g. believing someone cannot do a particular task, when they do have some skills in that area.

One needs to know this in choosing how to best cope with the transition.

Transition shock

Shock due to change. Avoid shock by reducing surprises with good predictions. Also expectation control.

Also avoid projecting, remember viewpoint, use consciousness of abstracting, avoid “either/or” distortion, perfectionism and identification.

A less than expected result gives rise to the emotion of disappointment. If something happens that is not at all expected, it is a surprise. And this can lead to a shock. E.g. being told that you haven’t been a good teacher for the last 10 years.

Quotes from “Science and Sanity” about how to lessen shock:

“Consciousness of abstracting makes the attitude behind formal reasoning infinite-valued and probable, so that semantic disturbances and shocks in life are avoided” (p.276 S&S).

“Consequently, when the unexpected happens, we are saved from painful and harmful semantic shocks” (p417 S&S)

“In the rough, again, the extrovert projects all that is going on within himself upon the outside world, and believes that his personal projections have some kind of non-personal objective existence, and so-have 'the same' validity and value for other observers. As a result, quite naturally, the extrovert is due to receive a great many unpleasant shocks, for the other observer does not necessarily observe or 'perceive' in the external events the characteristics which the first observer 'finds'.”  (P.174 S&S)

Transition to marriage example:

Should a women say that she will submit to her husband as suggested by the Anglican church?

Peter Jensen, one of the churches spokesmen, justified this by saying “A woman is a woman and a man is a man.”

The group recognised this as a case of identification.

Korzybski’s viewpoint on marriage transition:

“When Smith1 marries Smith2, they mostly do so by a kind of definition. They have certain notions as to what 'man', 'woman', and 'marriage' 'are' by definition. They actually go through the performance and find that the Smith1 and his wife, Smith2, have unexpected likes, dislikes, and particularities—in general, characteristic and semantic reactions not included in their definition of the terms 'man', 'woman', 'husband', 'wife', or 'marriage'. Characteristics 'left out' in the definitions make their appearance. 'Disappointments' accumulate, and a more or less unhappy life begins.

The above analysis applies to all phases of human life, and appears entirety general because of the structure of 'human knowledge'. Characteristics are discovered when it is too late. The not knowing or the forgetting of the relations explained above does the semantic havoc. On verbal, 'definitional', or doctrinal semantic grounds, we expect something else than what the experiences of life give us. The non-fulfilment of expectation produces a serious affective and semantic shock. If such shocks are repeated again and again, they disorganize the normal working of the nervous system, and often lead to pathological states.” (P 415 S&S).

Notes from psychology about Transitions and Change

From the research on how resilient people successfully manage transitions, we can arrive at some practical conclusions.

  • Develop supportive relationships at work and home. People with good friends experience fewer of the negative effects of high stress levels. They also remain healthier, are more successful and live longer.
  • Examine your work. Think about what you like. Bring the ideas and habits that worked well for you in the past to a new job. Avoid ruts you fell into. Change what you can and accept what you cannot change.
  • Take good care of yourself. Eat a balanced diet. Exercise. Get plenty of rest.
  • Be open and flexible. Most people are eager to settle into comfortable routines. Know that your present routine is only temporary. You may not be able to predict change, but knowing that change can happen at any time helps you accept and adjust when it does occur. Most life transitions are slow processes that take time.
  • Keep your "sunny side" up. Concentrate on the good things in life. Don't dwell on negative thoughts. A positive attitude helps you feel good about yourself and the life you live, and goes a long way towards improving your health.
  • Take control of your life. What can you do now to help you through a difficult transition in your future? Practice finding the good in each of life's transitions. It's not what happens to you that causes you to respond the way you do, but how you choose to react to what happens. Take charge of your thoughts and actions and you will be able to control better how you respond.

Part-3 Negotiating

In memory of Gerard Nierenberg, we intended a brief introduction to his ideas about negotiating, from his books "Fundamentals of Negotiating" and "The Art of Creating Thinking". 

Alas, we didn't get onto this, but - ah well - we can negotiate to do it another time ...


Next Meeting:

Sat 12th October 2013

Time Binding
Your questions about how can you bind time will be answered!
The basic GS principles behind this formulation,
practical and written exercises and more will be explored.

Led by our multi-functional Hostess, Society Secretary and Presenter, Pauline
and a cast of the thousands who went before her (from whom she is time-binding.)

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 17/09/2013)

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