General semantics

When perusing through Helsinki’s second best used book store this summer, I picked up slim paperback called The Use and Misuse of Language, edited by S. I. Hayakawa. Paging through it quickly, I assumed it was about English usage and grammar. When I started reading it today, I was surprized to discover it’s about general semantics.

General semantics, a field I have never heard of before—and which may not be a proper scientific field at all nowadays (the book was published in 1962)—was developed by a Polish engineer named Albert Korzybski (1879-1950). Korzybski’s idea of general semantics is that language has a direct connection to how people think (a commonly accepted principle of neurolinguistics) and can be used to make people, uh, more sane.

Just into the first article, “What Is Semantics?”, by Anatol Rapoport, I find myself making connections to ideas that have been bouncing in my head. About misattributed meaning (words equated with what they represent), class and member relationships (a class cannot be a member of itself, an algorithm cannot generate an algorithm), multi-layered descriptive languages (a map of a map).

What always strikes me is how closely related computer science is to cognitive psychology and neurolinguistics. They share many approaches and models of describing basic structures. The fields are related, of course, through many junctures. Cognitive sciences sprung from the same multidisciplinary loins as computer sciences. And of course there’s symbolic logic underlying all formalist languages, human or programmatic. And then there’s the intersection of information theory and [traditional] semantics.

I’m thinking about all that interesting stuff: AI, XML, the semantic Web, high-level programming languages, digital signal processing, object oriented programming, Java’s error handling. The Talmud, Popper’s three worlds, communication, media culture, social reality, Matrix’s pop philosophy (particularly Reloaded’s obtuse references to worlds within worlds, and the uncaught error which “gets passed on to each higher level”, or so I suspect)...

Anyway, I’m getting carried away here. General semantics sounded to me a lot like NLP, and a quick Google search confirmed that yes, NLP does, indeed, incorporate Korzybski’s thinking.

The meaninglessness of the world (of existence, of life—oh, angst-full me) is something I keep returning to, and I enjoyed how concisely it is stated in the foreword:

“The intellectually naive often objectify language as if it were something ‘out there,’ to be examined independently of speakers or hearers. But language, to be language, must have meaning, and meanings are not ‘out there.’ Meanings are semantic reactions that take place in people.”


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