An expose

of the cult of

General Semantics


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What is General Semantics?

General Semantics per the current edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica is, "a philosophy of language-meaning that was developed by Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), a Polish-American scholar, and furthered by S.I. Hayakawa, Wendell Johnson, and others; it is the study of language as a representation of reality..."

Actually, General Semantics is a number of different ideas. Like all general words, the term, "General Semantics," has more than one meaning. General Semantics is also the name given to a movement or cult that developed around the ideas of the founder, Korzybski.

Background of the Cult

This cultic aspect was there almost from the beginning. General Semantics was an intellectual fad in the late 1930's and '40's. It was accepted as a serious subject, even though based on pseudoscience, and taught in dozens of classrooms from high school to college. Today, this practice has nearly ceased. General Semantics was popularized by several books, written by such persons as Stuart Chase, S. I. Hayakawa, and Wendell Johnson. It was also popularized in novel form by the science fiction writer, A. E. van Vogt, starting with the first in a series of books, The World of Null-A, that was serialized in a SF magazine in 1945 and published in book form in 1948.

Basis of the Cult

The cult centers around an 800-page tome entitled Science and Sanity published in 1933. Even though General Semantics was supposedly a science, in the third edition of 1948, Korzybski wrote, "this third edition requires no revision of the text." This tells us much about the nature of the ideas presented as final dogma. The book was condemned almost immediately after its publication, as in a review in the Journal of Philosophy, February 1, 1934, where it's stated, "if his views were correct, science would come to an end."

Who said it's a cult?

Martin Gardner, one noted for his debunking of various pseudosciences and cults, studied briefly under Korzybski in Chicago in the 1940's. In one of his books, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, he devotes a chapter to General Semantics. Here's Gardner's opinion of Korzybski's book:

"...Science and Sanity, the 800-page Bible of general semantics ... is a poorly organized, verbose, philosophically naive, repetitious mish-mash of sound ideas borrowed from abler scientists and philosophers, mixed with neologisms, confused ideas, unconscious metaphysics, and highly dubious speculations about neurology and psychiatric therapy."
Fad and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952, revised 1957)

Still a cult today

For those who still doubt General Semantics is a cult today, click here.

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General Semantics Exposed