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General Semantics: Defining Defintion

Here is Part 2 of my amazing and insightful series on General Semantics.

Intensional and Extensional Definition

The other day I went to visit my good friend Catchy. We sat around his dorm room, trading discoveries and philosophies when I further explained General Semantics to him and a hapless girl who probably thinks I'm slightly insane since I couldn't adequately articulate myself.

I used Count Korzybski's example of the pencil to illustrate my case. We call a pencil a pencil because it has qualities that we, over time and through the consensus of others, have agreed to define as a pencil. What is a pencil? It's a long, slender wooden tool with a graphite stem running through the middle which is used to write with. And what is a long, slender tool that is used for writing? A pencil. This is an example of an intensional definition.

An intensional definition is describing a word with other words, leaving out an objective or "concrete" referent. To quote Hayakawa, it is like describing something while closing your eyes. Now, if we took the object in space-time, the pencil in question and gave a list of every pencil that ever existed and does exist in the entire world and compared it against that list, would be an extensional definition. Its like pointing at an object without abstracting it with words.

Now, what relevance has this to anything? A common question with a simple enough answer. The extensional orientation - a way of thinking extensionally - allows us to be as much as in touch with reality as possible, before we abstract and leave out facts, lower-level abstractions and non-verbal experiences. To rely on out-dated maps without exploring the territory that it no longer accurately describes would be folly - wouldn't you agree?

Science and Sanity An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski, Institute of General Semantics, 1950, 4th edition
Language in Thought and Action: Fourth Edition, Samuel I. Hayakawa , Harcourt, 1972.
"Goethe's Extensional Orientation" in ETC.; A Review of General Semantics by David F. Maas, July 1, 2004.

Next week: The multi-ordinal orientation


General Semantics: Introductory

Here's the first in a series of what I hope will be weekly explorations of General Semantics, to both satisfy my own readings on the subject and hopefully to pique the interests of others into this fascinating and life-changing area of intellectual discipline.

General Semantics: An Introduction
General Semantics was first formulated into a logical, empirical system by Count Alfred Korzybski in 1921 with the publication of his treatise The Manhood of Humanity. This tract contended that humans are the only species capable of time-binding; that humanity is currently the only species on Planet Earth that increases its knowledge over time and posesses methods of passing this knowledge to future generations. His masterwork that built the structure of General Semantics, his non-Aristotlean system that coined the phrase "the map is not the territory" was published in 1933, entitled Science and Sanity. General Semantics has served as the basis for nearly all contemporary psycho-logical therapies and personal development programs such as Rational Emotive/Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Gestalt Therapy and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. (The ties that bind GS and REBT are well pronounced - the New York General Semantics Society regularly meets at the Albert Ellis Institute!)

"Whatever something is, it is not!"
Korzybski's basic premise was thus - that the word uttered is not the object spoken about; the symbol is not the thing symbolized; and most importantly, the map (our thoughts, words and inferences) is not the territory (reality) it stands for. Maps almost always tend to leave out information and are only used as guides to the actual territory. Search for your current location on Google Maps to really test it for yourself!

For example, the word "chair" cannot be sat on - we may sit on the object we affix the word "chair" to, but the sound we make for it is not the object described. This is denying the "is" of identity. If we say "the chair is red", we presuppose that the redness is inherent in the chair, when it only appears to be red at that current location and time. It is not red on the inside nor has it always been red and it would be irrational to assume it always will be.
Since atoms are constantly moving at a microscopic level, our speech leaves out changes from second to second, minute to minute. So we cannot definitively and accurately describe the "whole" chair at any location in space-time. The previous sentence presupposes there is an elemental chair to which I am referring, which of course there isn't! I have simply used your referential index of all the previous "chairs" you have encountered to illustrate a point.

The non-elemental chair can also be abstracted further, leaving out even more details. A chair can be described with sounds as a piece of furniture, which can be abstracted further as an object, or even into the purely abstract "goods." Succinctly put - the thing is not the concept.

The system is designed to deny the essence of an object - that a purely empirical and extensional orientation towards events and objects must be achieved for us to recognize the limitations of perceptions or our "maps" of reality.

Next week: Intensional and extensional definitions and the extensional orientation

Science and Sanity An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski, Institute of General Semantics,
1950, 4th edition
Language in Thought and Action: Fourth Edition, Samuel I. Hayakawa , Harcourt, 1972.

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