5 – Who rules your symbols?

General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language-Behavior

General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language Behavior was developed and presented on the Canvas Network by Steve Stockdale, Mary Lahman, and Greg Thompson. It is reproduced here under terms of the Creative Commons Share Alike License as published on Canvas Network from 13 January – 24 February 2014.

Module Map – led by Steve Stockdale

Module 5 Pages

Orientations, Evaluations | Theories of Evaluation | Symbol Rulers | Implications for Education | Response Side Semantics
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources


To this point in the course, we’ve covered:

  • An introduction to the field of study called General Semantics, formulated by Alfred Korzybski. We discussed Korzybski’s motivation and approach to addressing the problem of why human behavior, in the form of societies and cultures, has not progressed or advanced at the pace of engineering, mathematics, and the sciences. We reviewed the foundational premises of GS using the map|territory analogy. We talked about the importance of acknowledging the role of the human nervous system in how we abstract and evaluate our experiences. We learned that in translating, or transforming, our non-verbal experiences into verbal behaviors, we can avoid symptoms that lead to mis-evaluations. In other words, we can make better maps (our language behaviors) that more appropriately reflect the territories of our experiences. (Week 1)
  • Structural DifferentialA framework for analyzing language behaviors from a GS perspective, developed by William Haney. Haney’s framework is based on recognizing contributing factors and applying correctives that result in more effective language behaviors. Mary Lahman led us through a “deep dive” into the Haney framework by focusing on two major topic areas: allness and bypassing. (Week 2)
  • Please note that the Haney framework can be applied to other GS topics in addition to allness and bypassing. In Mary’s e-textbook, Awareness and Action, she also devotes chapters to Inference-Observation Confusion (also referred to as the Fact-Inference distinction) and Differentiation Failures (including stereotyping, polarization, and frozen evalutions). If you haven’t already, I encourage you to download the pdf of Awareness and Action and review the entire book at your leisure. (Week 3)
  • The topic of the linguistic relativity hypothesis (LRH), as proposed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Greg Thompson invited us to view Lera Borditsky’s video presentation, “How Language Shapes Thought,” in which she shared results of her research that revealed surprising and fascinating insights into the language-and-thought habits and behaviors of cultures with which most of us are unfamiliar. From Greg’s explanations about LRH and its implications, as well as Bruce Kodish’s article, “What we do with language and what language does to us,” we got a feel for how similar are the core components of LRH and GS. (Week 4)

We ought to easily recognize, then, that ancient notions such as objective or absolute reality do not accurately reflect the limitations of our nervous systems as they interact with the outside world. Therefore language structures, patterns, or terms that rely on this false-to-fact notion that what I experience (or say) “is” the same as what exists “out there” in the world misrepresent, mislead, and misinform. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. — Edward Sapir (Carroll, 1956, p. 134) [emphasis added]

This Week

In this module, Who Rules Your Symbols? led by Steve Stockdale, we’re going to try and integrate what we’ve learned so far by discussing the implications of two statements from Science and Sanity.

Science and Sanity

The analysis of … living reactions is the sole object of general semantics … (Korzybski, 1994, p.xli)

The affairs of man are conducted by our own, man-made rules and according to man-made theories. Man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us. (Korzybski, 1994, p. 76) [emphasis added]

  • First, we want to discuss the results of the Point of View (or Orientation) Survey that some of you completed before we started Module 1. Go ahead and proceed to this Survey Results page to see how you compare with others in the class. Then return to this page to continue.
  • Next we’ll talk about how these orientations, or points of view, are related to our environments and shape (or are shaped by?) our evaluations, meanings, and values.
  • Then we’ll address factors related to how you evaluate your own evaluations.
  • To address the second quote on symbol-rulers, you’ll watch the online documentary, “The Persuaders” and consider the “tension” between the would-be symbol-rulers and you as an individual symbol-evaluator.
  • We’ll conclude the module with a Discussion assignment and a short essay assignment.


The objectives for Module 5 include:

  1. Gain an appreciation of the complex neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic environments that envelope your daily living.
  2. Understand the inter-related influences and implications of your orientation-environments, and evaluations-meanings-values.
  3. Recognize the extent to which others may attempt to “rule your symbols” and what defenses you may employ against such attempts.

Orientations and Environments – authored by Steve Stockdale

I’d like to return to one of the questions posed in the Point of View Survey explanation: how has one acquired this point of view (or orientation)?

Let’s consider that your general orientation (or point of view) constitutes a living reaction and is therefore worthy of analysis.

Here’s how I would analyze this question.

Environment and Orientation of a Plant

First, let’s take it out of the human realm and look at a plant.

[Aside: We seem better able to scientifically analyze plants and animals than we do ourselves or our fellow humans.]

A plant lives within a defined environment.

A plant grows as a function of different environmental factors or influences.

A plant grows as the result of internal processes that absorb or react to the environmental influences.

Tropism is a term that’s used to refer to the tendency of plants to respond according to the different types of environmental stimuli, such as water, gravity, wind, sunlight, etc.  For the purposes of this explanation, we can say that a plant orients itself as a result of the sum total of all these environmental factors (tropisms).

Environment and Orientation of a Human (in this case, me)

Now let’s jump to the human realm and consider the environments that influence us, specifically in the context of the orientation question … how has one (in this case, me) acquired his (my) orientation or world view?

Similar to plants, we live in environments that include a number of factors that can influence our growth and development. But different from plants, human growth and development depend on more than just our physical environment. Alfred Korzybski recognized the environments that are unique to humans and therefore critical to the human time-binding capacity — the neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic environments.

[General Semantics] recognizes neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environments as unavoidable conditioning environments, and considers ‘mental’ illness, science and mathematics as types of human reactions. We discover that all forms of human reactions involve some common mechanisms which work automatically for the benefit or detriment of humanity. (p. 297, CW, General Semantics, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Prevention, 1940)

If we stop to reflect, we must face the fact that every human being is born into a neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environment from which there is no escape. At present sciences are taking care of deadly environmental dangers such as plagues, epidemics, factory conditions where harmful chemicals are used which slowly kill off the workers, etc. But the academic linguists in their detachment and interest in abstract verbiage somehow disregard our neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environments as environment, and therefore do not (and, perhaps, could not) produce any constructive practical results in building up sanity in education, and so ultimately in human living. It is true that these academicians and verbalists would have to know more about living human reactions. They would have to study not only neurology, psychiatry, general semantics, verbalisms written or spoken in hospitals for the “mentally” ill, etc., but also the pathological reactions found in politicians, journalists, etc., and even in educators and scientists. (p. 365, CW, Foreward to LHIHA, 1941)

[Listing errors of omission] The disregard of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environments as an environment unique for our symbolic class of life. These are no more avoidable factors than air or water. They may have disastrous effects on us, and we know enough about environmental factors, for instance, in occupational diseases to understand the gravity of such disregard. (p. 379, CW, Foreward with M. Kendig to A Theory of Meaning Analyzed, GS Monographs, Number III, 1942, pp. vii-xvi.)

You can see that the number of potential neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic factors or influences are indefinitely-many.

While this slide emphasizes the symbolic influences, it’s important to not overlook the biological influences that certainly affect our neuro-semantic neuro-linguistic environments — specifically, our past experiences and genetic expressions.  The sum total of these neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic influences, comparable to the plant’s tropism effects, can be considered as our (or in this case, my) personal orientation.

And from this orientation, I evaluate, react, and behave, as reflected in my responses (or you could say my evaluations) to the statements on the Point of View survey.

Module 5 Pages

Orientations, Evaluations | Theories of Evaluation | Symbol Rulers | Implications for Education | Response Side Semantics
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources