Australian General Semantics Society Inc.




Seminar Summary - 16th February 2014


"Basic General Semantics Formulations"

Presented by Mr David Hewson

An introduction to some of the basic problems general semantics seals with, and the formulations that Alfred Korzybski created to help people cope with them.  This includes applications of Korzybski's Happiness Formula and his extensional devices.

General Semantics aims to
* reduce conflict,
* produce more realistic expectations,
* increase your proportion of sane behaviour,
* reduce your proportion of unsane behaviour,
* improve your knowledge of how the world works, and
* produce greater agreement between people, et

We came to this seminar to learn better strategies for changing our behaviour


An introduction to some of the basic problems general semantics deals with and the formulations that Korzybski created to help people cope with them. This will include applications of Korzybski’s happiness formulation and his extensional devices.

After catching up on our news we watched the AGS President participate in a show on TVS

Defining GS (general semantics).

Two types of definition: Intensional and extensional.

An intensional definition gives the meaning of a term by specifying all the properties required to come to that definition, that is, the necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to the set being defined.

For example, an intensional definition of bachelor is 'unmarried man'. Being an unmarried man is an essential property of something referred to as a bachelor. It is a necessary condition: one cannot be a bachelor without being an unmarried man. It is also a sufficient condition: any unmarried man is a bachelor.

An extensional definition, defines by listing everything that falls under that definition — an extensional definition of bachelor would be a listing of all the unmarried men, e.g. in this group Laurie and myself. [Source Wikipedia.]

Korzybski promoted the use of extensional definitions. The book: “Women, Fire and Dangerous Things” by George Lakoff shows more recent research about the problems associated with intensional definitions.

Intensional definitions of GS:

Korzybski says:

“ Now, in GS …; it exists and its only value is to help the solution of life’s problems. But we have to have a technique. You must master the technique before you can apply it and solve the problems. My only aim is to help you solve your own problems. … It is not my business to solve your problems. It is my business to give you a method to solve your own problems. …

What is it all about? The term semantics is not new. It comes from a Greek word meaning “significance”, “value”, “meaning”. … I call this new discipline General Semantics to make a difference from the old use. The science of GS is the science of values – evaluation…. I want you to realize that whenever you like something or when you dislike something, you love or hate, etc; what are you inwardly doing? Evaluating!”

“The aim of education is not to produce a mere technician out of you, but to produce a happy adjusted human … being.”

Science & Sanity p24 “Some extraordinary parrot could be taught to repeat all the verbal 'wisdom' of the world; but, if he survived at all, he would be just a parrot. The repeated noises would not have affected his first order effects—his affects—these noises would 'mean' nothing to him.”

An extensional definition of GS can be given by showing a list of GS books or all the formulations it talks about.

(Too many to list here but some are given below)

Problems GS deals with:

Absolutism / dogmatism, lack of adjustment (e.g. shock and culture shock), misuse of Aristotle’s laws (e.g. identification which leads to sexism, racism, etc), canalization/habit, lack of conditionality, lack of conscious abstracting, static maps, expectation and shock / unhappiness, insanity & unsanity, infantilism, fact-inference confusion, pessimism, projection, signal reactions, etc.

We talked about three types of equivalence relations: identification, equality and equivalence.

1) Equal to: two things are equal if there are no properties that we can use to distinguish between them, except that they are not identical.

2) Identical to: absolutely the same in ALL respects. So if a copy is made of your body, exactly the same structure but different molecules it would be equal to but not identical to you since it is in a different space. E.g. "identical twins" have equal DNA but are not identical. A thing is identical only to itself.

3) Equivalence: Two things can be equivalent to each other in some respect (i.e. on one attribute) without being equal to each other (equivalent in all respects). E.g. two people can score the same in a test. then one could say they have equivalent knowledge, in terms of what was tested. But their knowledge may not be equal.

Some mistake Aristotle’s law: A=A as identification rather than equality or equivalence.

We talked about the structural differential which Korzybski used to show how the human abstracting process works. It also compares how we abstract to how dogs/animals abstract. Korzybski talked about the limitations of applying Pavlov’s work with dogs to humans.

We do not evaluate reality. Instead we evaluate our interpretation of our perception of reality. This can lead to distortion, deletion and overgeneralisation.

Ways we distort our interpretations: Filtering, either/or distortions, over generalising, emotional reasoning, personalising, fortune telling & mind reading, etc. E.g. “I know what Pauline is going to say.” Is an example of mind reading.

If we are conscious of these abstracting processes, we have a better chance of dealing with them appropriately.

Korzybski made up some extensional devices (indexing, dating, etc, quotes and hyphens) to help people with some of these problems.

Index and dating helps one avoid the Aristotelian forms of identification. I.e. instead of A=A we have: A1 <> A2 and A1994 <> A2014

For example city1 (Rio) is not city2 (Sydney). And if you expect them to be the same then you are more likely to experience culture shock. City1998 is not city2014. So if you go back to one’s old city one should expect changes.

Illusion of static maps e.g. the saying “there is nothing new under the sun” fails to take dating into account. E.g. “once a communist always a communist”. And the saying about nothing new under the sun, even taken literally is wrong as every day the Earth leaks a significant amount of hydrogen and a small amount of helium into space. It also collects mass from micro meteors. So the Earth is always changing what it’s made up of. People just do not notice change. This may happen because the changes are slow, as shown in a study which said half the landscape changes in 9,000 years. So if we live to just 90 years then we do not notice much of this change. The saying “You cannot step into the same river twice.” portrays the idea of change.

Illusion of identity talks about a person’s attributes being the same as their map’s attributes. E.g. person1=person2 just because they have the same label. So “he is a communist” means he has the same attributes as any communist. This of course is not true as a Maoist is not a Stalinist is not a Leninist is not a Marxist, etc.

The formulation of Etc helps avoid dogmatism. It brings in the GS formulation of “The map is not all of the territory” and hence there is an element of uncertainty when using maps because of the parts left out.

Quotes remind one of dangerous words, e.g. 'mind', 'think', 'always', etc.

Hyphens convert elementalisms to non-elementalistic terms. An elementalism is a distortion that verbally splits what cannot be split in reality and the projecting of this back onto the world. Examples: space-time replaces space and time ( you cannot be in a space e.g. Sydney, without being there at some time. But one can talk about the space by itself without mentioning the time), velocity instead of speed and direction ( a change in speed needs a force and so does a change in direction), and one cannot have a process without something to be in process (e.g. a flame needs a candle and cannot continue without it).

We related the extensional devices to some of the problems they help deal with:

1) Indexing
       a) Identification problems like sexism (e.g. the glass ceiling), racism, static maps.
       b) Statement of inference confused with a statement of fact.
       c) Canalization and habit.
          See de Bono's "Mechanism of Mind" for more on habitual processes in the brain.
          Lack of conditionality, i.e. we want our semantic reactions to be more flexible and more conditional.
       d) Abstracting not conscious
       e) Overgeneralising the animal psychology
             1930's of Pavlov about dogs and Skinner about pigeons to man.
             I.e. organism1 is not organism2.

2) Dating
       a) Coping with static maps or thinking as though the map is identical to the territory.
       b) Habits that work well at one time may not work well at others, e.g. a "see food" diet in your sixties.

3) Etc
       a) Absolutism and dogmatism,
       b) Abstracting unconsciously,
       c) Allness orientation.

4) Quotes
       a) Dangerous words get indicated with quotes, to denote a qualification,
       b) They can also show up projections where we project our evaluation out onto "reality".

5) Hyphens
      Elementalisms such as:
        * direction & speed (replaced with velocity),
        * space & time (replaced with space-time),
        * substance & process of say observed and observation process
           (e.g. replaced with observer-observed),
        * emotion & reason (replaced with rational-emotive as in REBT by Ellis and Harper).

Then we reviewed Korzybski’s happiness formula.

Korzybski’s extensional theory of happiness

“Bypassing” is the term we use to talk about miscommunication due to different meanings attributed to a word. GS disagrees with the “container myth of meaning” where each word has a set meaning only modified by context. Instead we say that meaning is not in the word but in how people use the word. So expect to misunderstand and to be misunderstood. In the happiness formula the word “expectation” is used. It does NOT mean: wants, wishes, dreams, hopes, goals, etc. Korzybski uses “expectation” in the sense of what range of outcomes do we think are most likely to happen, i.e. our prediction of what will happen.

Korzybski recommends having "minimal" extensional expectations for maximum happiness.

Expectations1 = Intensional maximum expectations based on two valued Aristotelian certainty. Facts are worse than expected result. Hence disappointment, frustration, etc.

Expectations2 = Extensional minimum expectations based on minimum of maximum probability. Facts are better than expected results. Hence and interest in life, cheerfulness, happiness, etc.

Expectations3 = Intensional minimum expectations based on two valued Aristotelian certainty. Expectations are so low that you don’t try. Therefore, facts are roughly what was expected result but one’s evaluation is low. A self fulfilling prophecy. Hence bitter, cynical, etc.

So try to have Expectations2 which is the minimum of the "maximal" probability of the range of results you predict will most likely happen. For example if Laurie throws a ball 10 times and gets the following results 5 m (twice), 6 m (5 times) and 7 m (3 times) then the extensional minimum is 5 m. An intensional minimum is 0 m (he cannot throw a ball at all) and an intensional maximum could be the world record of say 40 m.

Modern research on expectations support Korzybski’s theory. For example: children playing with half broken toys after being in an empty room were happy. (Low expectations.) But other children playing with half broken toys after playing with unbroken toys were unhappy. (Higher expectations.)

An example from the summer Olympics where an Australian Olympic athlete who expected gold but got silver was unhappy. Whereas another an Australian Olympic athlete who expected no medal but got silver was very happy. Same result, different expectations and hence different happiness outcomes.

From business we have the saying : “Exceed your customer’s expectations” which uses this formulation to some degree.

The Rational Emotive Therapy approach (RET also uses these formulations:

Get happier (or at least less unhappy) by removing the following 3 main expectations that are too high:

  * I expect that I will perform well and win others approval all the time and never make mistakes: 
        * I expect too much from myself
        * We talked about perfectionism.
  * I expect others to perform well, especially in treating me fairly and considerately and not doing things
     that I find frustrating. I.e. I expect too much from others.
  * I expect life to always give me what I want. I expect too much from life.

Next Meeting:

March 2014
No seminar this month -
It's Gavan's Birthday frolics month!

Sunday 6 April 2014
Professor Gabriel Donleavy will explain why most philosophers say that it is illogical to argue from any description to any prescription or vice versa.
Puttnam and others have alleged this is false.
We look at the arguments through a GS lens.

Presented by Prof. Gabriel Donleavy

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"!

~ Good luck! ~


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 16/02/2014)

For details of our discussion meetings and seminars, locations and membership, Contact AGS
Web site by RLJamez