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Education: General Semantics

3 minute read

In a small office two blocks from the University of Chicago campus, shiny-pated. khaki-clad Count Alfred Korzybski toys with an odd little implement. He calls it the “structural differential.” It consists of a series of plates punched full of holes (see cut). Like scientists who make models of atomic structures, Count Alfred, who is head of the Institute of General Semantics, expects important developments from his implement. With it and the theory it illustrates, he hopes to wipe out mankind’s time-worn thinking habits, revolutionize its educational systems, create a sane new world. Last week he reported progress.

Polish-born Count Alfred, a U. S. resident since the War, during which he was on the Russian general staff, is the founder of the new science of General Semantics (lately popularized, superficially, by Stuart Chase). His Science and Sanity, published in 1933, is its most profound and practical textbook. A renowned engineer and mathematician, Korzybski is respected by scientists also for his contributions to psychiatry, psychology and other sciences.

Last July, with an endowment from Crane Co.’s Cornelius Crane, an amateur anthropologist, Count Alfred opened his institute in Chicago to teach General Semantics to educators and maladjusted people. Meanwhile, in about a dozen schools, colleges and hospitals, his students also had begun to teach the new science. Last week was published a collection of papers reporting their accomplishments:

After six weeks of training in General Semantics, 30 sophomores at Washington State Normal School in Ellensburg gained 36 points in intelligence scores.

Maladjusted students at University of Chicago and other patients, instructed in General Semantics, gained weight, got over insomnia, depression, hallucinations, delusions.

At McLean Hospital in Waverly. Mass., after other methods had failed, two young men who studied Science and Sanity were cured in four months of chronic alcoholism.

Theory of General Semantics is exceedingly complex (Korzybski calls it a “non-Aristotelian system”), but its method of instruction is simple. Chief instrument of training is the “structural differential.” By handling this implement, students (who call it “the semantic rosary”) learn graphically that there are different, “nonidentical” orders of meaning connected with each basic phenomenon. Thus, one plate in the implement represents a phenomenon (e.g., an apple), and the holes in it represent its infinite number of scientific characteristics, some perceptible to man, some unknown. Linked to that is a disc representing the physical, perceptible object, and to that in turn are linked labels which stand for verbal descriptions, inferences from the object.

This process of advancing from one order of meaning to another, Korzybski calls abstracting. Purpose of his instruction is to make individuals conscious of this process, teach them that a word or symbol is not identical with the object it represents, slow up their automatic, conditioned responses to symbols. The concept of “identity,” in Korzybski’s view, is responsible for mankind’s “false knowledge,” harmful nervous reactions (e.g., a child who hates all men because it is mistreated by its father).

“Mass unbalance, affecting in at least one case a whole large nation,” says he, “mass hysterias, panics, fears and what not, are becoming increasingly a greater neuro-semantic menace than any plague has been.” Whether General Semantics will become a cult such as technocracy, or will rank in historic importance with the work of Aristotle and Einstein, as not a few scientists believe, it is spreading rapidly in the U. S. Already 3,000 copies of Science and Sanity, an extraordinarily difficult book of 781 pages, have been sold.

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