Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics

Module 1 Pages

What is GS? | Alfred Korzybski | Consciousness of Abstracting | Language | In Their Words
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources

Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) – authored by Steve Stockdale

Alfred Korzybski
Used with permission of the Institute of General Semantics

Alfred Korzybski (pronounced kore-ZHIB-ski) was born in 1879 to a land-owning family in Poland. He was raised by servants from four different countries who spoke four different languages, growing up with a working knowledge of Polish, Russian, German, and French. In this type of multilingual environment, it came naturally to Korzybski to disassociate the word, or symbol, from the thing that the word or symbol represented.

As a student he studied engineering, mathematics, and chemistry. When the first World War erupted in 1914, he was enlisted into the Russian cavalry. Not only was he severely wounded, but he witnessed first hand the devastating effects of all the new weapons of war that debuted during this “war to end all wars” … airplanes, armored tanks, rapid-fire machine guns, poison gas.

He was sent to North America toward the end of the war when he could no longer serve on the battlefield. He supported artillery testing in Canada before transferring to the U.S. where he traveled the country speaking to groups and selling war bonds. After the war, he remained in the U.S. and married Mira Edgerly, a miniature portrait artist from Chicago.

He was haunted by his war experiences. As an engineer, he pondered this question: How is it that humans have progressed so far and so rapidly in engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, yet we still fight wars and kill each other? Or in his own words:

At present I am chiefly concerned to drive home the fact that it is the great disparity between the rapid progress of the natural and technological sciences on the one hand and the slow progress of the metaphysical, so-called social “sciences” on the other hand, that sooner or later so disturbs the equilibrium of human affairs as to result periodically in those social cataclysms which we call insurrections, revolutions, and wars (Korzybski, 1993, p. 22).

He devoted the rest of his life to this ‘fact,’ its implications, and consequences. In 1921 he published his first book, Manhood of Humanity: The Art and Science of Human Engineering. Then in 1933, he wrote the source book for the field of study we know as General Semantics—Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

Because our language-behaviors are so integral to human cooperation, as well as human conflict, much (not all) of Korzybski’s General Semantics directly addresses the role of language and language habits in human behavior.

Language plays a tremendous role in human affairs. It serves as a means of cooperation and as a weapon of conflict. With it, men can solve problems, erect the towering structures of science and poetry — and talk themselves into insanity and social confusion (Lee, 1958, p.60).

Korzybski’s Quest – authored by Steve Stockdale

I think it’s helpful to consider Korzybski’s work from 1920 to 1950 in the context of three broad concerns that shaped the arc of his personal “quest” (my term, not his).

  1. What makes the human species human? In other words, what are the similarities among humans that differentiate us from other species, that distinguish the organism named Smith from his canine best friend named Fido?
  2. What accounts for the vast differences in behaviors that are exhibited among humans such that, within one generation, we can produce Gandhi, Hitler, Einstein, and Stalin?
  3. Is it possible to characterize these vast differences such that we can more rapidly increase behaviors that advance and progress humanity, while minimizing the atavistic behaviors that retard or regress humanity?

The task of engineering science is not only to know but to know how (Korzybski, 1993, p. 11).

1. What makes humans human? Time-binding

Alfred Korzybski’s education focused on the sciences, especially chemistry and engineering. He had a deep curiosity about how things worked. Therefore in considering this first question, Korzybski sought an operational definition of humans — not merely a verbal definition. What did humans do that was different from non-human forms of life?

Plants as Chemistry-binders

First Korzybski considered plants. What do plants do? Plants absorb, or bind, specific chemicals in their immediate environment — nutrients from the soil and water — and together with the effects of sunlight (for above-ground plants), reproduce cells and produce growth. Plant growth and reproduction are influenced by other environmental factors such as climate, gravity, and (of course) plant-eating animals and pollinating insects, just to name a few.

Korzybski therefore distinguished plants by their ability to bind together the elements of their environment within and to their own organisms in order to produce and sustain life. He referred to them as chemistry-binders.

Chemistry Binders

Animals as Space-binders

Turning to the animal kingdom (including birds and fish), Korzybski determined that, operationally, what animals do includes everything that plants do with one crucial difference. Animals possess (to varying degrees) the ability to move about in their environment. If the source of its food or water depletes, an animal can move to another place. The ability to move about in space also provides animals with defensive, and offensive, capabilities in their relations with other animals.

Based on this defining characteristic of being able to move about throughout their spacial environment, Korzybski referred to animals as space-binders in that they ‘binded’ the spaces within their living territory.

Space Binders

Humans as Time-binders

Manhood of Humanity

In assessing what humans do, over and above the capabilities of animals, Korzybski determined that the most critical difference is the ability to create, manipulate, record, and transform symbols. For him, however, the consequence of this uniquely-human capability was much more than just being able to think and communicate with symbols, words, signs, icons, etc.

Korzybski did not regard the human language capability itself as the defining characteristic of humans, but as the tool that enabled the capability that most differentiated humans from animals — the ability to transfer knowledge from human to human, within and across generations. Languages and other symbol systems, powered by the brain’s neocortex (Korzybski, 1993, p. 149) provide humans with the means to document experiences, observations, tips, descriptions, etc., which means that a child can pick up from where the parent leaves off. Knowledge among the human species can therefore accumulate and advance as a body, not simply as random lessons taught and learned by copying, mimicing, or experience.

As a plant binds its chemical environment to reproduce and grow, and as an animal binds space to survive, humans are able to bind time such that a school girl in 2014 can learn physics from Isaac Newton, dance to an 18th-century waltz, become entranced by the words of a sacred ancient text, and try to keep with Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings. Like the plants that ‘bind’ chemicals directly into the living cells of their own organisms, and the animals that ‘bind’ their movements within their environments, humans bind time by the activities and changes of their individual brains.

Korzybski coined the term time-binding to denote this defining capability of human time-binders, first described in his 1921 book, Manhood of Humanity. He wrote:

We know that time-binding capacity — the capacity for accumulating racial [of the human race] experience, enlarging it, and transmitting it for future expansion — is the peculiar power, the characteristic energy, the definitive nature, the defining mark, of man; … to make improvement — to do greater things by help of things already done — are of the very nature of the time-binding capacity which makes humans human (Korzybski, 1993, pp. 174-175).

All human achievements are cumulative; no one of us can claim any achievement exclusively as his own; we all must use consciously or unconsciously the achievements of others, some of them living but most of them dead (Korzybski, 1990a, p. 13).

Time Binders

 2. What accounts for the differences in human behavior? Evaluating

While Korzybski defined time-binding as a characteristic human capacity (or capability), he knew from first-hand experience in World War I that human behavior did not always result in “improvement” or “greater things.” Therefore he contemplated how it was that some humans sought to advance and progress “human weal” (Korzybski, 1993, p. 1) while others sought to murder, steal, and subjugate other humans for their own selfish weal.

As we will emphasize throughout the course, Korzybski drew a sharp distinction between what we experience in our lives, and our reactions to those experiences. What our nervous system can sense and experience is but an abstraction of the total possible experience, and our reactions to what happens are yet another abstraction.

Because people can expect to experience the ‘same’ event or situation differently, their reactions to the experience will inevitably be different. Influenced by his understanding of the tropism effect from biology (plant growth results from the effects of external stimulation from light, moisture, gravity, etc.), Korzybski initially coined the term semantic reaction to refer to the total response of a human to a meaningful event or experience. However, in his later work he came to use the more general evaluational reaction or simply evaluation to denote human behavioral reactions as the collective or cumulative impact of one’s abstractions. Evaluations (as a noun) would therefore include activities (nouns) with labels such as judgments, conclusions, opinions, beliefs, ideologies, etc. We use nouns such as these to designate the results of the evaluative processes.

But if we instead think of the verb forms that denote acts of evaluating, the generalized nature of what Korzybski called evaluations becomes more apparent. Here is a partial list of verbs that could be considered under the umbrella term of evaluating. You can likely think of more. The key is that in every case, from a GS perspective, the action/verb necessarily involves this unique-to-humans capability to evaluate their experiences.

adapt, administer, advertise, analyze, anticipate, apply, appraise, argue, arrange, articulate, ask, assemble, assess, associate, break down, calculate, categorize, change, choose, cite, classify, collaborate, combine, compare, compile, complete, compose, compute, conclude, connect, consider, construct, contrast, convert, convince, copy, correlate, create, criticize, critique, debate, decide, deduce, defend, define, demonstrate, describe, design, determine, develop, devise, diagram, differentiate,

discover, discriminate, discuss, dissect, distinguish, divide, dramatize, duplicate, editorialize, employ, enumerate, establish, estimate, examine, experiment, explain, express, extend, facilitate, find, focus, formulate, generalize, grade, group, hypothesize, identify, illustrate, imagine, indicate, infer, integrate, interpret, intervene, interview, invent, judge, justify, label, list, listen, locate, manage, manipulate, match, measure, memorize, modify, name, negotiate, observe, omit, order,

organize, outline, paint, paraphrase, persuade, plan, point out, practice, predict, prepare, prioritize, produce, propose, question, quote, rank, rate, read, rearrange, recall, recite, recognize, recommend, record, reframe, relate, reorganize, report, represent, reproduce, research, review, revise, schematize, select, separate, show, simulate, sketch, solve, speculate, state, structure, subdivide, substitute, summarize, support, survey, tabulate, teach, tell, test, trace, transfer, transform, translate, validate, visualize, weigh, write

So in assessing the differences in human behaviors, Korzybski theorized that these differences were matters of evaluation, due to the different meanings that individuals attached to events and experiences, based on their own individual values.

In Week 5, we’ll address the “big picture” implications of his theories about the complex inter-relationships among evaluations, meanings, and values. Here are some examples that may give you a feel for what Korzybski was getting at:

  • The European Union is divided over the ongoing financial crises in Greece and other countries. Generalizing and simplifying … the citizens in Greece evaluate the crisis differently than German citizens because the austerity that is being forced on Greece means something very different to the Greek than it means to the German. The Greek and the German evaluate the situation differently because the situation means something different because they hold different values.
  • The Tea Party in the United States evaluates the significance of U.S. debt and government spending levels differently from other political groups because of the meaning that Tea Partiers give to government debt based on their values.
  • People around the world hold different evaluations about global warming/climate change based what the phenomenon means to them and what values they hold. To the citizen of the Maldives, the threat of rising oceans bears meaningful consequences because they value their way of life (not to mention their actual lives), so they evaluate the evidence and forecasts about global warming one way. The owner/operator/customers of a coal-burning electricity plant in the remote southwest U.S., they evalute the issue differently because their economic and political values are affected in different meaningful ways.
  • The ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan can be considered in terms of different evaluations based on conflicting values and meanings.

3. How to characterize a method or system that can be taught, learned, and applied?

Korzybski published his time-binding theory in Manhood of Humanity in 1921. Throughout the 1920s, he worked through the implications of his theory, including his detailed analysis and description of the abstracting process that produced individual evaluations.

For two years he observed patients at St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washinton, D.C. He carefully noted the language of the mentally ill, specifically how in many instances their language (maps) did not match the ‘real’ world (territory), which reflected pathological cases of misevaluation.

Science and Sanity

In contrast to the extremes of such inappropriate language behavior resulting from misevaluations, Korzybski studied the effective and productive language behaviors of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, artists, writers, etc. He worked diligently to analyze and understand the language behaviors at both ends of these two extremes. He specifically sought a way to articulate and communicate how a misevaluation differed operationally from an appropriate evaluation.

The result of Korzybski’s investigations and contemplations were published in 1933 in the source book for General Semantics, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. In it, Korzybski:

  1. describes the biological and neurological basis for his work,
  2. offers a detailed diagnosis of the many varieties of mistakes, errors, and misevaluations that humans consistently manifest,
  3. proffers prescriptions for recognizing, minimizing, and avoiding the causes of these misevaluations, and
  4. explains methods of teaching and learning these prescriptions.

Map|Territory: Foundational Premises – authored by Steve Stockdale

Foundational Base - Map not Territory

Alfred Korzybski used the Map|Territory analogy to illustrate three foundational premises of his General Semantics.

The Map|Territory Analogy

1. The map is not the territory.

A map depicts only limited aspects of the territory it represents or symbolizes. For a map to be useful, it must accurately reflect the relative structure or relationships of the key features of the territory. Similarly, our language behaviors can be thought of as maps of our actual life experiences. These verbal expressions of how and what we think, feel, react, judge, assume, etc., should be in accordance with the ‘territory’ of our lived experiences. And on a pre-verbal level, we can use the metaphor to remember that even our lived experiences — what we see, hear, feel, smell, taste, etc. — are neurological constructs (‘maps’) of whatever it is in the ‘real’ world outside ourselves that we are seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting.

Of course, “the map is not the territory!”

It’s rather easy to dismiss this statement of the obvious. Got it! Let’s move on.

But let’s not be so quick to take these six words for granted. Arguably, the whole of General Semantics derives from this six-word premise and the consequences which follow. So let’s spend a few minutes considering the implications for Korzybski’s General Semantics.

The map is not the territory. What does this mean to you? Perhaps something like …

  • The word is not the thing.
  • The symbol is not the thing symbolized.
  • The name is not the thing named.
  • The referent is not the thing referenced.

In other words, a particular type of distinction is expressed: one thing is not the same thing as another thing which the one thing is represented by. More generally, an abstraction is not that from which the abstraction is abstracted. The map (an abstraction) is not the territory ( whatever is not an abstraction; but hold that thought until the summary of this page).

In the four examples above, the abstractions are characterized in terms easily recognizable as abstract terms — words, symbols, names, referents.

However, in Korzybski’s General Semantics the pre-eminent, or foundational, map|territory distinction involves two seemingly non-abstract entities.

2. The map cannot show all of the territory.

Maps are limited in size and detail. They can only depict selected items of interest or importance. Similarly, our language behaviors — our talking, listening, writing, thinking — are limited and cannot include or comprehend all of whatever we are trying to describe or understand. And on a pre-verbal level, the maps of what we are seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling account for only a fraction of what exists in the territory of the ‘real’ world.

So in Korzybski’s term, we can think of a map as an abstraction of the territory it symbolizes; the words we use to express ourselves as an abstraction of the thoughts and feelings we experience; and even those thoughts and feelings as abstractions of whatever stimulates our sensory experiences with the ‘real’ world.

3. A map is self-reflexive and made by a map-maker.

Maps, like money, don’t grow on trees. They don’t spring forth from the earth or rain down from the heavens. Maps are constructed by their makers. A human being makes a map. An individual decides the purpose of the map, the size, the scale, the features to be included, how many copies will be made, who will use it, the colors, etc. In deciding all those details, the human map maker must also determine which features will not be included, which might be exaggerated or emphasized for importance, what descriptive annotations might be helpful. And if the map-maker were constructing a map of the territory which surrounded the map-maker herself, then a theoretically-complete map would include both the map itself and the map-maker.

In terms of our language behaviors, we can remember that whatever we “reduce to language,” or whatever thoughts and feelings we abstract from our experiences, are human constructions reflecting evaluations. We are making our own maps (evaluations) of our experiences, and we can also then evaluate our evaluations. In language, since we can almost endlessly talk about our talking, we are in a sense making maps of maps of maps, etc.

Two important characteristics of maps should be noticed. A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. If the map could be ideally correct, it would include, in a reduced scale, the map of the map; the map of the map, of the map; and so on, endlessly, a fact first noticed by [Josiah] Royce (Korzybski, 1994, p. 58).

Abstracting-Evaluating – authored by Steve Stockdale

Alfred Korzybski

Abstracting, in the context of Korzybski’s model, refers to physio-neurological processes that occur on non-verbal and verbal levels. From the world of energy stimulations that envelope us, our nervous systems abstract (or select, choose, pay attention to, etc.) only a fraction. From these partial, incomplete, and fleeting sensations, the nervous system must construct our conscious or aware experiences by matching patterns of stimuli with the brain’s ‘database’ of previous experiences.

Evaluating is used in much the same way as abstracting, although I consider it a higher-level, more generalized term in that we can cognitively evaluate the abstractions that result from our abstracting.

… we take for granted that all “perceptual processes” involve abstracting by our nervous system at different levels of complexity. Neurological evidence shows the selective character of the organism’s responses to total situations … that the mechanisms of “perception” lie in the ability of our nervous system to abstract and to project.

Abstracting by necessity involves evaluating, whether conscious or not, and so the process of abstracting may be considered as a process of evaluating stimuli, whether it be a “toothache,” “an attack of migraine,” or the reading of a “philosophical treatise.” A great many factors enter into “perceiving” … (Korzybski, 1990b, pp. 686-687).

Structural Differential

Structural Differential Model

Alfred Korzybski developed this diagram in the 1920’s as a means to visualize the abstracting process. Originally a three-dimensional, free-standing model (for which he applied for and received a U.S. patent; imagine a colander, or strainer, in place of the ragged parabola at the top), this printed version appeared in his source book for general semantics, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems.

The parabola represents an environment (the world around us) consisting of innumerable characteristics or events, depicted by the holes, or dots (activities, people, things, etc., including what occurs on microscopic and sub-microscopic levels (Event level).

Only some of these characteristics (the hanging strings) can be detected by human senses. Those which connect to the circle (Object level) represent a specific object sensed by a specific nervous system, which has abstracted a particular set of characteristics (those connective strings) from all possible characteristics occurring in the parabola.

These initial sensory data are further abstracted and transformed as the nervous system/brain recognizes and associates the data with a word or label. The tag below the circle represents the Descriptive (verbal) level of abstracting.

From the descriptive level, the verbal abstracting process proceeds with the Inference levels that can continue indefinitely (implied by the ragged bottom tag). In other words, from our descriptions of events we form inferences, assumptions, opinions, beliefs, etc., by generalizing this experience with our past experiences.

And we can continue, indefinitely, to form inferences from inferences, which may then be subsequently recalled in future experiences, noted by the arrow and dotted line to the right.

As we become aware of these sensory experiences, we can talk about them, describe them, express how we feel, what they mean, etc.

Throughout this abstracting process, we need to remember that what we talk about is not the same thing that our brain registers as an experience, which is also not the same as our initial sensing, which in turn is not the same as the actual stimulus or event.

Abstracting is something that your body-brain-nervous-system does continually, regardless of whether you’re aware of it.

The differential in structural differential refers to a functional difference between humans and animals. An animal’s ability to abstract, depicted by the circle to the left (“Fido”), is limited; a human can continue to abstract and make inferences indefinitely, whereas animals are limited in their abilities to make inferences.

The different levels that Korzybski defines in the model refer to aspects of the overall process which seem to consist of clearly differentiated orders, or types, of activity — from perception, to nervous system construction of the experience, to cognitive evaluation, to our response or reaction.

Here’s an edited video review of the Structural Differential as explained by Korzybski. (2:48)

Significance of Abstracting

Stockdale's Redrawn Model

”So what?” is a reasonable question to ask at this point. What practical difference can this differential make? Let’s look at an illustrated example using my own simplified version of Korzybski’s structural differential model.

E — The parabola represents the Event level, the “what is going on” (WIGO) in the world around us. Each dot, figure, and line stands for an aspect or characteristic of the sub-microscopic process level that comprises WIGO.

O — The circle labeled for Object represents a human nervous system (let’s assume mine) interacting with WIGO. Through my sensing organs and brain, I construct the sights, sounds, smells, etc., that result in my experiences. My experiences are incomplete and unique to my nervous system.

D — The first verbal level in the abstracting process is labeled as Descriptive. What I say, think, etc., at this level about my experience should be limited, as much as possible, to just the facts as I experienced them.

I — The I tags represent the multiple levels of Inferences I might construct from my experience. These inferences will determine what meaning or significance I draw from this experience. As indicated, I can generate as many inferences, beliefs, theories, judgments, conclusions, etc., as I might care to.

It’s important to remember how time, order, or sequence plays into this model. Each level of the abstracting process occurs in a given order, i.e.:

Something happens (Event);

I sense what happens (Object);

I recognize what happens (Description);

I generate meanings for what happens. (Inferences)


We can depict a succession of these abstracting processes over time, one after the other, for every moment of our lives. In this case, with successive abstracting processes, we can see how the inferences (or meanings) we generate from every experience can factor into later experiences.

Abstracting over time

In terms of differentiation, we should note that:

  1. What happens (Event) is NOT
  2. What I sense non-verbally within my nervous system (Object), which is NOT
  3. What I can describe verbally about my sensing (Description), which is NOT
  4. The meaning(s) I generate based on what happened; etc. (Inferences)

Similarly, our experience/inference/meaning at Time(3) is not the same experience/ inference/meaning at Time(1) but due to projection and memory, what we experience at Time(1) may well affect our Time(3) experience and what that experience means.

Example of the Abstracting Process

Let’s take a situation in which a friend — call her Emily — relates with some anger an experience she just had while driving to the store … “somebody cut me off!” We can use the Structural Differential to deconstruct her experience and emphasize the different ‘levels’ between what she experienced and what she evaluated.

Abstracting example

Event — What is Going On? Street, traffic, trees, rain, wipers … plus microscopic and sub-microscopic particles and activities that we cannot observe, but which we infer based on current science.

Object — Emily’s eyes capture (some of the) reflected light from (some of the) images in her (limited) field of view; the light is transformed (abstracted) by her visual system into nervous system signals that travel to her brain; neurons in her brain process the electrical/chemical signals and cause her to see …

DescriptionI was driving about 25 miles per hour, perhaps 50 feet from the car ahead. A dark vehicle driven by a middle-aged man emerged from my right field of view. He was going faster than me. His car suddenly accelerated and veered into the lane directly in front of me, reducing my following distance to no more than 10 feet, which meant …

Inference(1)This guy’s a rude jerk because …

Inference(2)He cut me off and almost made me have a wreck!

Inference(x)I’m too upset to go to work. I need to go home and relax with my dog.

Can you see that “he cut me off” is not what happened? Can you see that Emily’s reaction to what happened is not the same as a description of what happened?

One of the powerful lessons of general semantics, illustrated by the use of this type of model to analyze the abstracting process, is that we can better train ourselves to respond conditionally to what happens to us.

We humans don’t have to react with a conditioned response like Pavlov’s dog, reacting to a substitute stimulus as if it were ‘real’ — but we often do.

Our language helps confuse us, because we tend to say things like, “Ooh, it made me so mad!” We allow the it — the event, the what happens, the stimulus — to determine our response. You need to remember that between the stimulus and your response, there is a YOU who, to some degree, can control your response:


Time(1) ——-> Time(2)——-> Time(3)

Again, ‘time’ is an important aspect of our conditional responses. Remember the old adage encouraging you to count to 10 before getting mad? There’s a lot of merit to be gained by practicing your ability to consciously — conditionally — delay your responses.

Summary of Abstracting

Verbal/Non-Verbal Abstracting
Verbal/Non-Verbal Abstracting
  • Abstracting refers to ongoing physio-neurological processes that occur on non-verbal levels.
  • We can verbally differentiate certain phases, or levels or orders, of the abstracting process to analyze our behaviors and reactions: EVENT is not OBJECT is not DESCRIPTION is not INFERENCE, etc.
  • We can acknowledge that our abstracting occurs at different times … we should expect different results, reactions, responses, etc., from different experiences occurring at different times.
  • We have human limitations that constrain all of our experiences — we never experience all of what happens.
  • Similarly, we can never say all or describe all about our experiences; more could always be said. Etc.
  • What we experience is, to some degree, a function of our past experiences (feedback, projection, etc.).
  • What we experience is a function of the unique capabilities and limitations of our own individual nervous system.
  • We should therefore expect not only to see things differently, we should expect to evaluate and react to things differently.
  • When we delay our responses and react conditionally, we tend to behave more sanely, more rationally, more appropriately to the facts of the situation and our experience.

When we react immediately — when our responses are conditioned and controlled by the stimulus (the ‘thing’) — we behave like Pavlov’s dog and subject ourselves to control by others. You can use this model and process whenever you want to analyze the behavior, responses, reactions, etc., of a particular individual in a specific situation. (Personally, I find this type of analysis works best when the particular individual happens to be my ownself.) Remember that the structural differential model, or any similar model, represents the process of abstracting.

The more you apply this process to analyze your own abstracting, evaluating, inference-making, belief-generating, etc.:

  • you will become more aware and conscious of your own abstracting;
  • you will better differentiate between: 1) what happens; 2) what you sense of what happens; 3) what you describe of what your senses sense; and 4) what you infer from what you’ve described;
  • you will respond more conditionally to what happens in your life;
  • you will experience less conditioned responses (less like Pavlov’s dog);
  • you will delay more of your responses, leap to fewer conclusions, snap to fewer judgments, and make fewer inappropriate assumptions;
  • you will ____________ (fill in your own benefit).

Here’s another clip of Irving J. Lee talking about abstracting and evaluating.


You’ve finished the article that explains the Structural Differential and the abstracting-evaluating process. In that article, I use the example of Emily and her “somebody cut me off” story to illustrate how her statement that somebody cut me off did not accurately map the territory of her actual experience while driving.

For 30 points, share a story from your own experiences, or make up a story, that could be used to illustrate the process by which we abstract from an event, to an experience, to a description, to inferences. Please keep your stories short, no more than 200 words.

After you’ve posted your story, feel free to comment on other stories.

Two Worlds – authored by Steve Stockdale

As a consequence of our abstracting-evaluating processes, you can say we live in two worlds — the world that exists out there beyond our skin, and the world in here within our skin. What each of us knows about the world out there is constructed by our in here nervous systems based on our individual sensory interactions with the world out there.

As early as the 1920s, Korzybski extended the mathematical and linguistic notions of abstraction to refer to the biological and neurological functions by which our senses-brains-nervous-systems abstract (or construct) our experience of the world “out there.”

Worlds "Out There" and "In Here"
2 Worlds: “Out There” and “In Here”


A. We need to acknowledge and take into account the characteristics of these two worlds.

2 Worlds Characteristics
Characteristics of the 2 Worlds: Out There | In Here

B. We need to understand that even our most basic sense experiences of the out-there world are created by our brains.

World In Here: Vision
What We See: “In Here” vs. “Out There”

C. We need to maintain awareness, and take responsibility, for the neurological fact of this foundational distinction — what we experience in here is not what’s out there to be experienced.

In Korzybski’s terminology, we need to maintain a consciousness of abstracting, beginning with the understanding that everything we experience represents an abstraction of something else. In a very real sense, all we can ‘know’ are abstractions and associated neurological constructions.

This Is NotThat: Our “In Here” World is NOT the World “Out There”

… we used and still use a terminology of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, both extremely confusing, as the so-called ‘objective’ must be considered a construct made by our nervous system, and what we call ‘subjective’ may also be considered ‘objective’ for the same reasons (Korzybski, 1990c, p.650).

Identification – authored by Steve Stockdale

In General Semantics, the behavior we label identification is normally to be avoided, or at least recognized. We talk about it as a misevaluation in that when we identify, we confuse or mistake our impression or reaction to something as the something itself. Put another way, we allow the stimulus to determine our response, without deliberately or conditionally evaluating the stimulus (like Pavlov’s dog). Examples of identification include:

  • Mistaking the word as the thing, or the map as the territory. With a map in hand, some people will presume the map is correct and the land around them “should” be like the map. An extreme example would be someone eating a menu because the pictures of the food look so tasty.
  • Have you ever been disappointed when you arrived at a hotel by your Deluxe accommodations?
  • I read a product review recently on recently in which an outraged reader wrote a negative review of a plastic product made by a company called Steelmaster. This, even though the reader acknowledged the product was described as being made of plastic.
  • Imagine someone who is allergic to something, like a flower. If you gave that person a very real-looking silk flower, and the person had an allergic reaction, that would be identification.
  • Someone who eats an unfamiliar food, then later has a rather upsetting reaction when informed what the food was, isn’t reacting to the food. The person is reacting to the sound of the name of the food. The verbalized name is associated (identified) with a previous or imagined terrible experience and that drives the reaction.

Can you recall or imagine other examples of identification? Feel free to share them in the Ongoing Course Discussion.

Phantom Limb Pain

Following, however, is an example of identification that resulted in a positive and therapeutic result for someone experiencing “phantom limb” pain. This features Dr. V.S. Ramachandran from the 2001 PBS documentary, “Secrets of the Mind.”

The Marshmallow Experiment

Dr. Walter Mischel’s famous “Marshmallow Experiment” relates to his study of children’s ability to delay gratification. However, one of the secondary findings, according to Mischel, is that this identification mechanism can be manipulated to increase, or decrease, a child’s ability to delay gratification.

In this clip from The Charlie Rose Brain Series, Dr. Mischel explains the experiment and its findings. The discussion about the experiment begins at the 2:00 point. The description of identification (he doesn’t use Korzybski’s term) begins at 7:40 mark.

Module 1 Pages

What is GS? | Alfred Korzybski | Consciousness of Abstracting | Language | In Their Words
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources