The Semantic Man

by namespace1 min read22nd Nov 20184 comments


General Semantics

Irving Lee discusses the goals of General Semantics, one of the historical movements that underlies intellectual currents expressed here now on LessWrong.

I want to speak very briefly to you. There is one small notion that I should like to talk about rather briefly. It was in 1946, I remember almost the time of year. I had just taken off that Air Force uniform and had managed to persuade Alfred Korzybski to let me pose some questions to him. I had a number of things that bothered me. I had read that “blue peril” and there were paragraphs in it that made no sense even after the fifteenth reading, and I wanted the opportunity to confront him with these paragraphs. I wanted to say: “Now, Alfred, what did you mean when you said this?” And he very kindly agreed to submit to some such questioning, over a period of several afternoons, and I think Miss Kendig may remember some of them. And at one of these sessions, I said, “Now, Alfred, you have been thinking about this stuff for a very long time. Can you tell me, in a nutshell, what are you trying to do? What is the objective of all this reading and studying and talking and sweating that you go through day after day, year after year? What are you after?” And, you know, I never could call on him in those sessions without being forced to take notes. If I came without a pencil and paper, he invariably found a pad and pencil, and “take some notes” was the continuous refrain. Well, I have gone over those notes many times and in answer to that question, this is almost a verbatim account of what he said when I asked him, “Alfred, what are you trying to do, in a nutshell?”


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I'm reminded of Heinlein (who refers to General Semantics several times in his stories):

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Funny: all the given examples of qualities that the perfect man shouldn't have, like the mail lady and the rabbit girl and the fireman, come across as much more alive and fun to hang out with than the perfect man himself. Personally I'd rather be the fireman :-)

THE MAIDEN. You havnt told me how I shew my age. That is what I want to know. As a matter of fact I am older than this boy here: older than he thinks. How did you find that out?

THE ANCIENT. Easily enough. You are ceasing to pretend that these childish games--this dancing and singing and mating--do not become tiresome and unsatisfying after a while. And you no longer care to pretend that you are younger than you are. These are the signs of adolescence. And then, see these fantastic rags with which you have draped yourself. [He takes up a piece of her draperies in his hand]. It is rather badly worn here. Why do you not get a new one?

THE MAIDEN. Oh, I did not notice it. Besides, it is too much trouble. Clothes are a nuisance. I think I shall do without them some day, as you ancients do.

THE ANCIENT. Signs of maturity. Soon you will give up all these toys and games and sweets.

THE YOUTH. What! And be as miserable as you?

THE ANCIENT. Infant: one moment of the ecstasy of life as we live it would strike you dead. [He stalks gravely out through the grove].

An excellent concept. I hope we get a chance to share the specifics of just how we make that man.