What is Radical General Semantics?


Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Magnolia Pictures, 2016

by Colin Campbell

In a review essay in the September 5th, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, professor Adam Kirsch poses a problem that is very similar in certain respects to the problem radical general semantics poses for us.[1] This is the problem of that much-used-and-abused signifier, ‘enlightenment.’ Alfred Korzybski, the founder of the greater general semantics movement, never described his goal as ‘enlightenment,’ perhaps for reasons like those that motivated T.W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer to write their great philosophical work Dialectic of Enlightenment. The term refers to the most advanced scientific and cultural processes and yet also to the most hideous products of civilization.

Conspiracy theories and fascist lies, marketed as the attainment of some secret knowledge of a non-duped minority, the ‘enlightened’, the Illuminati, etc., appear mythical enough to those who are ‘reasonable’ and can see how such dogmatic systems avoid confronting the immense uncertainty of knowledge discovered in the modern era. But by the same token, so do many ‘enlightened’ ideas about social justice, ethnic and sexual equality, etc. Not only are such ideas considered salutary; they are put forth as incontestable. Not only are they agreeable and acceptable, they must have dogmatic authority.  In North America at present, it seems we are beset not so much by liberalism and conservatism in their coherent articulations but by contradictory, categorical and dogmatic claims to ‘enlightenment.’ Kirsch helpfully intervenes with his sustained attention to David Hume and to his discovery of the fundamentally uncertain character of all human knowledge.

Indeed, as Kirsch concludes, ‘we are never quite as modern as we think.’ Radical general semantics could be described as modern in the sense that it aims to radicalize certain claims about knowledge characteristic of modernity. But it also goes beyond any purely ‘philosophical’ approach I have encountered in my twenty-odd years of post-graduate study and teaching. In its rejection of identity-thinking it goes further than Hume’s scepticism, deep into the territory of the process-thinking of Alfred North Whitehead, as well as anticipating and influencing the ideas of cybernetic thinkers like Gregory Bateson.[2]

Radical general semantics practitioners are not content to merely continue ‘living with the problems that these thinkers formulated and tried to solve.’ They do not merely observe the damaging and false split of mind and body that modern science has shown to be untenable, which nevertheless still prevails as ‘common sense’ at the highest levels of influence. Rather, radical general semantics involves training in a set of ‘devices’ aimed at facilitating a person’s capacity to positively alter prejudices, hatreds, addictions, and other damaging perceptual- linguistic habits based on self-confirming generalizations.

It does this without producing a ‘philosophy,’ if by ‘philosophy’ we mean a set of verbal formulations that would somehow explain the relation between verbal formulating (‘mind’) and the object-level of sense perception (which Korzybski liked to call ‘the unspeakable object level,’ with ambiguity intended). General semantics models rather than explaining the mind-body relation in its emblematic learning tool, the ‘structural differential.’[3] The difference between perception and linguistic generalization is mapped in mathematical as well as tangible terms in shapes (a parabola, a circle and some oblongs). The purpose of these devices is not to reduce the relation to an explanation but to live the relation more sanely.[4]

Kirsch concludes his philosophical review with a characteristically modern proposition:

Modern life, which we tend to think of as an accelerating series of gains in knowledge, wealth, and power over nature, is predicated on a loss: the loss of contact with the past. Depending on your point of view, this can be seen as either a disinheritance or an emancipation; much of modern politics is determined by which side you take on this question.

This proposition could be called modern and ‘enlightened’ in the sense in which Adorno and Horkheimer argued ‘enlightenment is totalitarian.’ For if it is posed monolithically – either modernity or tradition, either emancipation or disinheritance – the answer is clearly provided in advance. To be modern is to lose contact with the past, and so, since we feeble humans seem attached to the past like a child to some addictive game, we will never quite cut the cord. But we must try.[5] For if we remain on the side of disinherited, we remain on the side of those who deny the future in the name of the past.

The set of practices and ideas encompassed by radical general semantics could be called ‘post-modern’ in the sense that they deconstruct the forced choice between past and future. As early as 1920 Korzybski formulated his theory, yet to be widely appreciated, of humanity as a time-binding class of life. Unlike other animals we are our history, in the sense that we are cultural beings. Vegetative life binds chemicals into organs: one dimension. Animal life does this too, but animals also bind territorial space, a dimension beyond chemical structures in the body: two dimensions. Human life encompasses chemical- and space-binding within the larger structure of time-binding: three dimensions. Each stage (line, surface, volume) contains the previous one, indeed is formed by multiplying the previous one, but into a new dimension which qualitatively alters its nature. It is, so to speak, ‘an imaginative leap.’ The essence of humanity, as well as science, is not mere consumption and not mere control of territory but extension of the life of cultural memory and accumulated knowledge by the ‘imaginative leaps’ we can accomplish with our powerful verbal communication practices. The ‘lower’ functions are preserved within and provide the ‘substance’ of the higher, and yet the volume is qualitatively different from the surface. Korzybski often remarked that people tend to ‘copy animals in their semantic reactions’, meaning that they regress to territorial attitudes of animal righteousness. This, he insists, is to destroy the human birthright; that birthright is to transcend narrow, resentful territoriality in our binding of time through our diverse cultures.

Disinheritance of the whole legacy of our ancestors could never be emancipating, because all scientific knowledge is inherited from investigations of previous investigators. Humans have been time-binders from the beginning. Of course, rigid and dogmatic adherence to traditional forms is damaging, but the radical uprooting of people from any stable cultural matrix is perhaps even more damaging.[6] Neither path in isolation can lead to true ‘enlightenment.’

For radical general semanticists the overcoming of racism, sexism and other ‘traditional’ attitudes can only occur by way of working through the past; and in order to do this we need to embrace some of the the most radically modern of scientific discoveries: that ‘reality’ exists only for an observer; that all words are abstract maps of the objects or processes they describe; that ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are abstract partial descriptions of one whole mind-body process; that ‘past’ as well as ‘future’ are abstractions from the inconceivable flow of processes that we assume occur in the absence of an observer; that if humanity does not find a ‘common ground’ for agreement about some very pressing and present scientific, ethical, social and political problems soon, the standards of our civilization are going to degrade partially or entirely, gradually or quickly.

In correspondance with me as I prepared this essay, Gad Horowitz (University of Toronto, Professor Emeritus) compared his teaching of radical general semantics with the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, as explained by Roger Foster in his book Adorno, the Recovery of Experience (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007):

The philosopher Roger Foster says, writing about Theodor Adorno, our language pushes us to re-enact the ‘tacit assent to the priority of the general over the particular’ every time we speak or write.7 Foster suggests that it is as if Adorno wants us to append an ‘asterix’ (*) to every verbal formulation, to remind ourselves that, in Adorno’s words, ‘objects do not go into their concepts without remainder.’[8]

Well now, general semantics gives us SIX different types of asterix – the index, which points to the singularity of every ‘thing’, the chain index, to the embedded ness in context of every ‘thing’, the date, to the historicity of every ‘thing’, the etcetera, to the interminability of every ‘thing’, the quotes, which point to the relational nature of every ‘thing’, and the hyphen, to the in-separability in reality of ‘things’ which are separated by language.

And radical general semantics wants to teach these ‘devices’ to CHILDREN. Adorno is known only to a few philosophers.

Walter Benjamin, another traditionalist-modernist critic, wrote that not even the past will be safe if ‘the enemy’ wins. This is relatable to radical general semantics. But the common ground will not be found by more ‘blah-blah about trah-trah’ (as Korzybski liked to say of empty verbiage); it will be found and made by a concerted action of discourses-in-practices. Radical general semantics proposes a set of interlinked discourses-practices, as developed out of Korzybski’s work and other sources by Gad in a series of video lectures accessible at the radical general semantics website. (See also The Book of Radical General Semantics)


[1] “Are We Really So Modern?” enlightenment-by-anthony-gottlieb

[2] Apparently Etc., the journal of General Semantics, had over 10,000 subscribers by the early 1960s, and its practices were taught in colleges, high schools, study groups in many cities, a few mental institutions and even prisons such as Leavenworth.

[3] See Figure 1,  below

[4] The devices of radical general semantics are described in depth in The Book of Radical General Semantics (Gad Horowitz and Shannon Bell, eds., New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2016): 53-90

[5] “Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone,” as an old song, once central to a Clinton-family presidential election campaign, goes.

[6] Surely this radical uprooting is the very essence of the world depicted in Werner Herzog’s new film Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. But more broadly speaking the problem of the uprooting from the matrix of human kinship relations that has existed for most of human history (i.e. until about 10,000 years ago, when we find the first evidence of its supplanting by the originary formations of the State) has been treated in diverse ways in anthropology, in texts such as Eli Sagan’s At the Dawn of Tyranny, Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest and Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics. And the work of Dorothy Lee (Freedom and Culture) and Gregory Bateson (Naven and other notes on human social structure throughout his work) directly intersects with general semantics (both thinkers published in Etc.).

[7] Roger Foster, “Lingering with the Particular: Minima Moralia’s Critical Modernism,” in Telos 155 (Summer 2011), 83-103.

[8] T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 1999): 5


Figure 1: The Structural Differential

About the Author:

Colin Campbell is a sessional instructor at York University and OCADU (Ontario College of Art and Design University).  His current teaching and research involves critical theory, continental philosophy, classical studies, and cybernetics/systems science as well as general semantics.  He is currently completing a short monograph on the tragic spectacle of Guy Debord.