[Freeing the Mind][General Semantics][E-prime]

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General Semantics

In the 1930s a Polish Count, Alfred Korzybski, wrote a book called "Science and Sanity" which has had a tremendous influence on the Self Development movement ever since. It has been said that if Korzybski had had the communication skills of some of the great names of this century, such as Hubbard of Scientology, or Bandler and Grinder of NLP, then he would have been the great guru. Rather sad, in one way, is that few would pick up Science and Sanity to read, but would pick up many copies of his ideas.

What is the semantic response?

We ought to get clear what Korzybski meant by the semantic response, because this could cause some confusion. The word semantics in General Semantics refers to to our total response to thing-events- not just word meaning. To be frank, it is unfortunate that he used this expression in a special way. Indeed, later on he began to refer to our Evaluative Response rather than the semantic one.

By semantic response, or evaluative response he meant the total response - neurological, emotional, cognitive, semantic and behavioural - to the thing-event. So when people with hay fever start to have an attack when they see paper flowers, he would call the sneezing, runny nose and their mental interpretation, etc, their semantic response. When a person with a spider phobia is frightened by a spider, their semantic response is their nervous behaviour, the electricity in their nerves, the chemicals in their blood - everything they do in reacting to the spider!


This is my initial stuff on General Semantics mixed in with my interpretations. It is not meant to be an exposition of Korzybski, but is highly influenced by Science and Sanity.




  1. Abstraction

  2. Structural differential

  3. Non-identity

  4. Knowledge

  5. Time Binding

  6. Non-allness

  7. Non-elementalistic

  8. The problem

  9. Confusing levels of abstraction

  10. Confusing the object with the event

  11. Confusing the word (or our mental representation of something) with the thing-event itself.

  12. Intension

  13. Extension

  14. Multi-ordinality

  15. Projection

  16. Non-identity2

  17. Objectification

  18. Consciousness of Abstracting

  19. The Solution

  20. Indexes

  21. Chain-indexes

  22. Dates

  23. Et cetera

  24. Hyphens


The expression General Semantics was used by Alfred Korzybski to describe his new system. Semantics is the study of meaning. He called it General Semantics because he meant not only the linguistic definition or even our response, but our response to words and events in the fullest sense. According to Korzybski human ills were caused by a persisting primitive type of thinking which his system aimed to overcome.

Whorf-Sapier Hypothesis

Korzybski was influenced by the work of Whorf who maintained that the language of a culture determines how speakers of that language think and experience the world. This influenced Korzybski who believed that if our language was improved then we would improve ourselves and our society. He believed that the language of science and mathematics was a model for us to emulate.

If we learn certain words and certain grammatical constructions then we would think in a different way and experience the world differently. Eskimos have several words for snow, and Arabs many words for camel. Clearly vocabulary does reflect the world in which we find ourselves. A doctor who knew many words for illnesses would be a different type of doctor from one who did not know the names of illnesses. In the minimum, the one who knew the names of many illnesses would be more able to communicate and collect new information from others who also knew the names of the illnesses.


He saw the structure of experience as follows, as the structural differential:

Level of Abstraction (Arbitrary)


0 The thing-event  
1 The Perceivable Object - What it is possible to perceive.  
2 The Perceived Object - What is actually perceived  
3 Description The language - becoming more and more abstract.
4 Description of description (Label).
5 Description of description of description, Etc.


The above is the structural differential.

The thing-event is something we cannot know fully because it includes everything - the movement of the electrons, information which is outside the human spectrum of perception, etc. We can never know the thing-event. [Similarities with the cognitions of Eastern Mystics and Quantum Physics might suggest we can know more than we believe we can.] We abstract from the thing-event what we perceive to be the object (a person, thing or process). The thing-event occurs in three dimensions (at least) and thing-events can occur simultaneously. Two objects interact by exchanging, at least, electrons - something we cannot perceive. This level and the object level are levels of non-linearity. thing-events do not happen in some linear sequence but can occur at the same time. All interacting and inter-relating. Because language is linear, it can never fully capture the thing-event or the object. The thing-event is the unspeakable level. It is interesting that in Zen there is a saying: 'Those who know don't talk; those who talk don't know.' This has never prevented Zen masters from writing books, though!

We experience the object, which can be a person, thing-event or process, etc,  through our senses. We see, hear, feel, smell and taste. We can see light only within a certain range of frequencies - we cannot see ultraviolet light, for example. We can hear only a certain range of sounds - we cannot hear very low or very high frequencies. Similarly for the other senses we perceive only part of the thing-event. What we do perceive is the object. The object is an abstraction of the thing-event, because what we perceive is not the whole thing-event. The abstracting process begins here, at the unspeakable level.

Even at the object level we do not perceive everything. Some people are better or worse at perceiving colours, or hearing sounds. So some of us cannot perceive as much of the object as others. Even when our perception is not limited by our senses, we can fail to notice things about the object, which if we actually pay more attention, we would have noticed. For example, when looking at a new car we might fail to notice the scratch on the wing, until someone else points it out to us.

Further more, we might not notice parts of the object because of our position when we look at it. The top of a cup can appear as a line, an oval or a circle depending on our angle of view. We can never view in 3 dimensions, and because we see a cup as a 3 dimensional object, we must clearly be distorting our experience of it because the retina of the eye is flat, and can only take flat images! This point reminds us that there is nothing wrong with abstraction - seeing objects as 3 dimensional is very valuable, especially when driving - we are here pointing out that abstraction occurs. The image below illustrates this point well.


Oldyung.gif (8444 bytes) The picture on the left illustrates the object. In this case an illusory object because different people viewing it will see different pictures. Some see a pretty young woman, others an old woman. When I look at the picture, the images flip, so when I look at the young beauty for a while she transforms into the old woman, and vice versa! Some people can see other things in the picture. The point is that the picture is the same, it does not change, but our brains will take so much information from the picture to make a picture of our own. In this case, the mind gets confused because we believe there should be one picture only. The picture demonstrates that we abstract from what is there to form our own image. When different people see, for example an accident, they see different things, and report, sometimes, different happenings!

We cannot perceive the whole thing-event, and we abstract from the object to create our own response to the object, even before we use words!

When we describe the object at this level we use sensory based terms. We describe its shape, colour, texture, sound, smell, etc. Using sensory based language we use words at the most basic level to try to capture the experience of the object. We try to say what we have perceived rather than what we thought about the object. So we report a roughly circular red thing floating in the air.

Just as we fail to perceive the object completely, so we fail to describe it completely even at the sensory level and we have, therefore abstracted some information, perhaps the information we think is most important to us. Normally we would call the object a red balloon, which is an even more abstract description.

When we reach the level of language in this model we are capable of abstracting for ever. There is always something we can say about what we said about the object! And with each abstraction, we delete, distort and organise.

There is nothing wrong with abstracting. Indeed, it is part of enlightenment. What is wrong is when we get confused by our abstractions and confuse our words or other means of representation with the thing-event. This is the battle cry of General Semantics - The map is not the territory. Using the illusion above, we can say that we never see all there is in an object or situation, and it is always that possible we might abstract in a different way if we had more information (looked more closely) or organised our experience in a different way.

Let's go back to the balloon example. I described it as a roughly circular red thing floating in the air. However, this is an extremely abstract statement because an awful lot of information is left out. I did not say what kind of red the balloon was or whether it was of uniform colour. I didn't clearly specify its shape or mention its size. If I call it a balloon, then you might imagine a child's balloon size or think of a hot air balloon carrying people. Even if we leave out the abstraction in the description of the balloon, I did not say where I saw the balloon. Whether the sun was shining or not. The temperature, the presence or absence of others, etc. I did not mention how far away I was from the balloon, or the angle at which I observed it. I did not mention my state. If I said it was an ugly balloon, and I said I had a hangover at the time, you might evaluate the information differently from the report made when I was in a different state. So, the report of any thing-event is necessarily highly abstract even at the sensory level.

I can also abstract by moving up levels. For example, I could say:

Level of Abstraction (Arbitrary) Statement
1 I saw a red child's balloon floating in the air in the park last summer
2 I saw a balloon.
3 I saw something.
4 I had a sensory experience

Each level tells us less and less about the thing-event. It becomes more abstract.


The world is continually in a state of flux and change. Nothing remains the same. There aren't two truly identical thing-events in the world. At the thing-event level, electrons are continually leaving atoms in the thing-event and others are replacing them. Our brain cells are continually being replaced at the atomic level. Our bodies are not the same as they were even five minutes ago and they are probably totally different from what they were 7 years ago. We are not the same person we were as babies or even exactly the same person we were 5 minutes ago. Even two mass produced objects are not identical when examined scientifically.

Yet we tend to act and believe in identity. We say, 'She is a criminal' and assume that the person in themselves are identical with our meaning of the word criminal. If we say, 'He has AIDS', we tend to evaluate him in terms of everything we know and believe about AIDS. Korzybski believed that the verb 'to be' was the root cause of our tendency to identify instead of noting similarities and differences. Some have suggested that the verb to be and all its forms should not be used and they have invented a new language called E-prime which has rules to avoid the use of  'to be'.


According to Korzybski, knowledge consists structure. A structure is an organisation in which each part relates to other parts, and sequences occur in some order. Really to do anything we need to do things in the right order. When baking a cake, we wouldn't put the flour in the tin and bake it and then add the eggs and milk. The order would be wrong. Similarly, when building something, we have to do things in the right order and connect things to the right parts. In such examples it is easy to see the absurdity, but in life it is not so easy. In order to learn or know, we need to do things in the right sequence and relate things together appropriately. When we have the right relationships and the right order, then we have a mental structure which is knowledge.

Another way to understand structure is to consider the hoary old question: 'When I see the colour blue, how do I know you have the same sensation?' We can gather samples of blue, and ask the other to name them. We can carry out all sorts of test and we reach agreement on all of them. Structurally our response to colours appears to be the same, but we still don't know whether we have the same sensation. But for all practical purposes we do. If I present a sample of what I call blue, and you say it is pink, and whenever I say blue, or a shade of blue, you say pink or a shade of pink, I can deduce that we are responding to the same thing-event but we are calling it by different names. The structure is the same in both cases. The words we use are different.

I can say you unlock a door by putting this key in the keyhole and turning it anti-clockwise. This piece of knowledge covers the structure of unlocking the door, but it is a map and not an exact description, and even less the actual task. It is different from the actual task, but it maps it and covers its structure. It does not say anything about how far to put the key in or whether to wriggle it sometimes, etc. It covers the structure, but not the actual thing-event or object or process. However I might try to explain words how to unlock the door, I would not cover everything, and at a certain size of explanation, you might have to study for years to learn the whole process!

Time Binding

Time binding is the uniquely human method of transmitting experience and knowledge over time. We are influenced by the past and the future at the present time because we are related to these through time binding. Our own personal history affects us now and in the future because of time binding.


Because we never experience all of the thing-event or the object, and our words do not capture the whole of the object, the concept of non-allness reminds us that there is always more than we know.


Elementalistic expressions are ones that are taken out of context and their relationship with other thing-events has been omitted. If we cannot think of any real representation of a word, then we might consider this word as elementalistic, and it may not have any meaning. Non-elementalistic is related to non-identity. Whereas we have the concept of identity, where two things are made equal when they are merely similar, so we have the concept of elementalism wherein two things are separated when the should be kept together. The mind and the body might be wrongly separated when we say the one and the other are quite independent.

Because everything is related to everything else, it is wrong to artificially separate parts which belong together. For example, matter and energy; space and time; thought and emotion and behaviour. Elementalism is shown in some single words called nominalisations, that is, words like education, study, law enforcement, physics, etc. Education, for example, is about someone or something causing someone or something to learn something using some technique (this is a minimal description!) When we think about education, we can forget the students, teachers, methods of study, books, etc which are all related. Words like communication have the same effect of abstracting, and therefore deleting the communicators, about what they are communicating, through which channel, in which media, etc. Once again I want to stress that I don't think there is anything wrong with these words. What is wrong is that we forget that we are abstracting and therefore deleting!

The problem

Confusing levels of abstraction

Confusing the object with the thing-event

A friend might say or do something which makes us flip from believing them to be good to our believing them to be bad. A loved one might say something hurtful and we feel full of anger and hate towards that person. We might experience several of these experiences which make us view the other as an enemy. We are confusing the thing-event, the person as they really are with the object (or part of the object) which we are perceiving as bad. Similarly, a person who is not our friend can do something which causes us great pleasure and we can confuse this with the person as they really are. A shop assistant does something we don't like and we perceive her as unkind. Our pet rabbit bites us and we start to dislike it! We are confusing the object with the thing-event, or our perception of the object with the actual object.

Confusing the word (or our mental representation of something) with the thing-event itself.

We respond to thing-events, objects and words in a certain way to give them meaning. This is a total evaluative response, which includes feelings, attitudes, body positions and movements - the totality of our response to the thing-event or object. We can confuse the meaning we give to a word or a mental image with the actual object or current experience.

We take the word intension to refer to our total evaluative response to the word or image that comes from its definitions and associations. For example a dog can be defined as 'a four legged domestic pet which barks.' This can be considered the objective intension because most people in a given culture might accept it. One person's subjective intension might be 'a loyal friend.' Another's might be 'a frightening biting thing.' So when we say dog, for some people warm feelings are aroused, and for others fearful feelings. These feelings are aroused by the personal meaning of the word and not from an actual dog.

The extension here is taken to be the our perception of the object. So the object referred to as dog might be a small object that licks us and rubs against us, or a large object that is barking at us as it tries to bite us. The extensional meaning is what we get from our senses and the intensional meaning is what we get from the word itself and its meanings. Whether we should be looking to escape or to stroke should depend on the extensional meaning rather than the intensional one!

Having developed an intensional meaning for an object we tend to continue to use that meaning and we might continue to do so whatever the extensional meaning becomes. We continue to view someone as a friend even though we are getting reports that they are acting against us. We are sometimes very slow to review our evaluations even in the face of long term contradiction with the world of experience.

There are two errors here. One is that we continue with a general intensional meaning even when it does not work. For example, we want to be rich and famous, but we aren't but we do not review and re-evaluate our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviours We just continue on as before and hope or think the world is unfair. On the other hand, we get very angry with a loved one because we perceive something we don't like, and we do not perceive the whole situation such as they are unwell, tired, worried, or something. We can do this time and time again! We do not look and re-evaluate.


A multi-ordinal term is one that can be applied to statements containing that same term infinitely. A statement about a statement is a higher order of abstraction that the statement. For example:

Level of Abstraction Statement
1 I like to sing
2 I like my 'liking to sing' because it makes me happy.
3 I dislike my 'liking my liking to sing because it makes me happy' because it seems rather selfish to me.
4 I like my 'dislike of "my liking "'my liking to sing because it makes me happy"' because it seems rather selfish to me", because it makes me laugh.'
5 I like extremely liking my 'dislike of "my liking "'my liking to sing because it makes me happy"' because it seems rather selfish to me", because it makes me laugh', because it shows how crazy we are as humans!

The word like is used in a multi-ordinal way. Interestingly, most people cannot consciously take in embedded clauses like this to a level greater than 3. Some can manage 4, but beyond this most people get lost. This means that levels 4 and 5 are likely to incomprehensible. What is important here is that by thinking in this (and the unconscious mind has no such limitations) we can fail to understand some of our reactions. Multi-ordinality reminds us that there are special words which can lead us into confusing levels.

It is important to note that the example of multiordinality given above is rather logical and artificial. It illustrates the point. The table below illustrates how this might be obtained. The important thing is that it is not easy to determine that multi-ordinality is occurring from examining just one utterance. The following table, based on the one above is an example of extracting a multi-ordinality. The contradictions are in fact resolved by referring to the first diagram! Note that the first statement appears the same as the first statement in the above table, but I have labelled it here as level 5, and not level 1.

Level (Arbitrary) Person A (Answers the questions.) Person B (Asks the questions.)
5 I like singing What is it about singing that you like?
4 Singing shows how crazy we are as human beings. What is it about singing that shows we are crazy human beings?
3 (Looks down and appears sad.) I don't like singing. It's selfish. What is it about singing that is selfish?
2 Singing makes me happy. (Big smile.) What is it about singing that makes you happy?
1 (Eyes move around searchingly) Oh I don't know. Singing is great. I love to sing. (Big smile.) ?

Of course, when we make a higher order multi-ordinal statement, we do not (and perhaps cannot) express it in terms of all its levels. Person A say, 'I like singing.' But this is not the simple statement at level 1. If multi-ordinal words clearly indicated their level then they wouldn't be as insidious as they are!

The following are examples of multi-ordinal words:

love cause notion relation
agreement hate proposition yes
disagreement fear number no
effect fault true fact
difference structure abstract doubt
order reality evaluate question
enjoy reality certainty answer


Intensional meanings can persist because we tend to experience the world in terms of these meanings. When we suspect our spouse of infidelity, we might find all kinds of (false) evidence for this. We project meaning on the object and what might be rather insignificant might be made conclusive proof because of our projections on reality!





Habit Minimal perception Unawareness of Intensional meaning Response to intensional meaning
Projection Intensional Meaning Abstraction, organisation and distortion of perception to accord with intensional meaning Confirmation of false idea
Investigation Awareness of Intentional Meaning Careful observation with awareness of abstraction, distortion and organisation. Acceptance or rejection of intensional meaning.

Repetition of careful observation and clarification of intensional meaning. and this step of comparing the intensional meaning with the extensional meaning. (This step)


Although there are no two thing-events which are identical we act as if thing-events were identical. If we say John is a criminal and Mary is a criminal then we can conclude that John and Mary are both criminals and we react to them according to our intensional definition of criminal. Even though John might be a serial killer and Mary broke the speed limit (which is a criminal offence in the UK.) Quite clearly by assuming the identity of the word criminal and the person without taking into account the extensional meaning can lead us well astray!

Equally, a person is not the same person they were at a previous time. Saint Paul, as Saul, persecuted the Christians but later became one of their greatest saints. Clearly we would turn to Saint Paul for help and assistance in Christianity rather than Pontious Pilate who never actively persecuted them (Although he authorised the execution of Jesus, after symbolically washing his hands!) If we always assumed that Saul the Persecutor was the same as Paul, then we would be severely misled! Even in these extreme examples, we illustrate that even people are not identical with their previous selves!

We can summaries this by saying:

The object is not the same as the thing-event

Our perception of the object is not the same as the object

The words we use to describe the object, or our mental representation of it, are not the same as the object

Being able to talk or write about a subject is not the same as being able to do that subject.

The words a person utters are not the same as their actual feelings and thoughts.


This is the error whereby we identify or confuse:

  • Words with objects and feelings,
  • Memories and ideas with experiences which belong to the unspeakable level, or
  • Higher order abstractions with lower.

We forget that these are not identical and we lose the ability to evaluate properly. When we objectify we believe:

  • Our words cover the object completely (It is so and so),
  • Words have a value and certitude they do not have,
  • The meaning we ascribe to words is the meaning everyone ascribes to them,
  • Words have emotional objectivity and value,
  • Words have:
    • Permanence
    • One-value
    • Definiteness

When we objectify we respond to words with our full body, emotional, semantic reaction, rather than to ask for more details or clarification, in the knowledge that something is always left out of our evaluation.

Consciousness of Abstracting

This is defined, by Korzybski as 'awareness that in our process of abstracting we have left out characteristics.' It is the process of remembering the denial of identity and that characteristics have been left out. It involves using the structural differential to make us aware of the process.

The Solution

According to Korzybski, by becoming conscious of abstracting we can begin to create our own sanity. As one part of the solution Korzybski suggested certain extensional devices, that is ways of helping us become conscious of the abstraction process.

Wrong thinking not only brings about unhappiness, but also illness. He mentions the case of people with hay fever who begin to sniffle when they see paper roses. He says that this response is due to the meaning they give to the roses and they respond with their body to this meaning. The paper rose evokes the semantic or evaluative response which changes the body. The same phenomenon is noted with asthmatics.

Indexes are used to identify the specific object. An object is indexed when it is specifically identified. If we know two or more people called John and we hear that John got promoted, then we need to find out which John in particular the speaker is talking about. A rather academic way of doing this is to give each occurrence of the same word with a different referent a different number index. So we might refer to John1 and John2 to identify which one the communicator is writing or talking about.


Indexes differentiate two similar thing-events at two different times. So my matress1 is not the same as my matress2 after it has been in the attic with the dust and the spiders and it is not the same as my matress3 which has been in a damp cellar. The mattresses have a continuous existence but they are not the same in different circumstances. If at one time we had bad relationships, and later became good friends, you1 as a person I did not like and you2 now are not the same person, although you are both very similar in some respects!


The fact that a bee stung me 10 years ago does not mean that this bee is going to sting me now. This current bee is not the same bee as the one ten years ago, and the discomfort of being stung 10 years ago is not appropriate at this moment, it is in the past. If I were angry with you ten years ago, it doesn't mean that I am angry with you now.  By confusing thing-events in time we experience major inappropriate present time meanings.

Et cetera

The use of et cetera reminds us that whatever we experience is never the whole of what could be experienced or of what actually exists. The use of a mental et cetera when we experience something or recall something can remind us that there is more than we have taken in.


Are used to indicate that elementalistic terms are used and that they should be treated with caution.


Hyphens enable us to avoid elementalism by properly relating thing-events. thing-events are composed of matter and energy, and these are closely related so we might refer to matter-energy to draw this point out. Hyphens, therefore, remind us of the complexity of the world, and remind us to link together similar  ideas:

  • psycho-somatic
  • neuro-physics
  • bio-nutrition
  • neuro-communication
  • mind-body
  • space-time
  • matter-energy
  • Non-elementalistic
  • Non-allness

Similarity and Differences

Certain objects, whether they be people, thing-events, or processes are unique individuals and nothing is the same as anything else, yet some objects are similar to others, and other objects are different. Some are very similar, but never identical, and others are very different, but never totally different, because everything- is related to everything else. That is, they are both non-elemental and non-identical. By learning to recognise that everything is unique and individual, and that everything is part of the same interrelating thing-event, but not the same as this thing-event, we can learn to be more rational.

Present time

We are related to the future and to the past through time binding. But what happened in the past is not happening now. We can tend to live in the past, and we can tend to live in the future, but the only place we can really live is now, in the present.