Korzybski's Use of the Terms
"Semantic Reactions" and "Evaluations"

Written 1997 and revised 2003 by Steven Lewis

Korzybski labelled his system "General Semantics" to reflect his focus on the "semantic reaction," which he defined as human evaluational responses to verbal and nonverbal stimuli in connection with their personal meanings. Translated into the prevailing vernacular, Korzybski's use of the term "semantic reactions" is akin to "thinking-feeling reactions," where "emotions" and "intellect" are not sharply divided but interact in complex ways. In a similar vein Korzybski inserted a hyphen in "psycho-logical" to emphasize his holistic ("non-elementalistic" or "extensional") treatment of "thinking" and "feeling." His training program in consciousness of abstracting, including delayed reactions, was an attempt to develop a more productive interaction between our "emotions" and "intellect" -- to develop extensional semantic reactions.

However, Korzybski lived long enough to regret some of these labelling decisions. The popular notion of "semantics" as "the definitions or meanings of words" frequently led to narrow interpretations of Korzybski's work, such as the "abuse and proper use of language," even by some of his colleagues (see his 1947 protest letter to S. I. Hayakawa of the International Society for General Semantics on page 813 of the Collected Writings).

Korzybski wrote in his letter to Hayakawa that he selected the term "semantic" to honor the related work of those who had preceded him. His work, however, went beyond verbal definitions and meanings so he labelled his work "GENERAL Semantics" -- to go beyond traditional semantics. Korzybski did not produce a theory of the proper definitions or use of terms, but a theory of proper evaluation based on generalized science-mathematical methods.

Korzybski's attempt to honor his predecessors, nevertheless, led many a popular writer astray. Korzybski's struggle against these misrepresentations of his work became apparent within a few years after the first publication of Science and Sanity as he increasingly replaced "semantic" with "evaluational" to make the point that his was a theory of proper evaluations of nonverbal as well as verbal stimuli based on consciousness of abstracting and not merely the proper uses and meanings of words and language.

Quoting Korzybski (1939):

"I introduced the term General Semantics to indicate a general theory of values, a GENERAL THEORY OF EVALUATION of facts, relations, 'feelings', etc, not of meanings by mere verbal definition.... In General Semantics we are interested in ACTUAL EVALUATION REACTIONS, and not only what we say about them." (Collected Writings, p273)

Quoting Korzybski (1948):

"I use 'semantic' there [in Science and Sanity] only as an adjective with other words, in the sense of 'evaluational', such as 'semantic aphasia', 'semantic blockage', 'semantic reactions', etc. I selected the term 'General Semantics' for an empirical natural science of non-elementalistic EVALUATION, a theory of VALUES." (Collected Writings, p619, 1948)

Korzybski's interest in semantic reactions centered on their adaptability for promoting human understanding and survival. For example, two people who encounter a lost wallet may have different semantic reactions. One may seek to return it intact to the owner while the other may take the cash and trash the wallet. A Korzybskian analysis would focus on the evaluative aspects of these different semantic reactions. Which reaction is the more responsible? In which semantic environment do we want to live? Often Korzybski placed "evaluational" in parentheses after his use of "semantic" to indicate his primary interest.

Quoting Korzybski (1946):

"From an engineering point of view, in the sense that theories should be WORKABLE and TEACHABLE, giving SIMPLE TECHNIQUES, a GENERAL theory of non-elementalistic EVALUATION, called GENERAL SEMANTICS was formulated by Alfred Korzybski in 1933.... Today, the simple 'organism-as-a-whole' principle is antiquated, since we deal actually only with an organism-as-a-whole-IN-AN-ENVIRONMENT, and on human levels, this must include the neuro-semantic (evaluational) and neuro-linguistic environments ...." (Collected Writings, p575)

Quoting Korzybski (1935):

"General Semantics is described as a General Theory of Values, and every psycho-logical reaction (semantic reaction) turns out to be an evaluating reaction of a non-elementalistic character which does not involve the splitting of semantic reaction into 'intellect' and 'emotions'.... By using the term EVALUATION as a fundamental term, we bridge methodologically and linguistically the exact sciences with other sciences, psychiatry included." (Collected Writings, p227)

Korzybski's use of "evaluation" and "theory of values" went beyond judgments of right from wrong, good from bad, to include the degrees of freedom in our reactions. If our semantic reactions are rigid and unyielding in the face of contrary evidence or changed circumstances then we have too few values in our reactions. We would be unable to adjust to a changing, complex ("infinite-valued") world. We are taught, for example, to stop our vehicles at traffic lights and wait for the light to change before proceeding. These rules help reduce the numbers of accidents. But if you're driving a heart attack victim to an emergency room, patiently waiting for a light to change when there is no other traffic would be an inappropriate semantic response that could cost the heart attack victim his life.

Quoting Korzybski (1938):

"We emphasize the fact that verbalism, as mere verbalism, remains elementalistic, while the LIVING, EVALUATING REACTIONS of Smith1, Smith2, etc., are disregarded. Not so if we take into consideration a GENERAL THEORY OF EVALUATION which deals with the non-elementalistic living semantic (evaluating) reactions of actual Smith1, Smith2, etc.... So called 'emotions' and other psycho-logical processes as well, are similarly nothing but a process of EVALUATION." (Collected Writings, 1938)

The focus of Korzybski's General Semantics was on the evaluative aspects of our semantic ("thinking-feeling") reactions. However, Korzybski recognized organismal evaluations that were not semantic in nature. For example:

Quoting Korzybski (1935):

"... the amoeba will exhibit similar reactions to artificial stimulations without food-value. Thus the amoeba as a living bit of protoplasm has organismally identified an artificial, valueless as food, laboratory stimulus with 'reality'. Thus although the reaction was there, THE EVALUATION was improper ...." (Collected Writings, p205)

Nevertheless, Korzybski was most interested in evaluations of a psycho-logical nature -- especially those that involve acquired meanings -- the semantic reactions.

Quoting Korzybski (1937):

"Hunger would be an organic evaluation but in my work I am not so much interested in organic evaluation as in psycho-logical evaluation on the physico-mathematical bases which are in turn based on evaluation." (GS Seminar 1937 p5)

Quoting Korzybski (1940):

"In general semantics we introduce a GENERAL THEORY OF EVALUATION having very little to do with the meaning of words by verbal definitions. It is important to notice the term 'evaluation' implies a special structure in that it applies to both 'emotion' and 'intellect' and even organismal evaluations such as 'senses,' pain, pleasure, blushing, smiling, etc." (Collected Writings, p298)

Quoting Korzybski (1937):

"I will speak all through the seminars about the importance of using this term evaluation; there are endless problems involved in it.... When we deal with a general theory of evaluation we are dealing at once with EVERY PSYCHO-LOGICAL and sometimes even organic reactions in yourself." (GS Seminar 1937 p3)

Korzybski used the term "evaluation" in a general physiological sense to include even the basic sensory abstractions of organisms. He used "semantic reactions" to label uniquely human "thought-feeling reactions" affected by acquired meanings, including consciousness of abstracting. Amoeba may evaluate environmental stimuli, but amoeba are not capable of exploiting a diverse range of acquired experiences (meanings) that allow for a more diverse and critical interpretation of environmental stimuli.

Meanings arise with more complex organisms and culminate in the semantic reactions of humans. Dogs and chimpanzees may acquire meanings and learn from their experiences. Civilization, however, was produced only by the more diverse and flexible meanings capable of the human nervous system. Not only can humans acquire meanings and learn, they can re-evaluate their responses and experiences; in effect, evaluate their evaluations indefinitely, leading to what is called introspection, self-reflexiveness, consciousness of abstracting, time-binding ... thereby giving us more opportunities to adapt to our changing environments as well as adapt our environments to us. Korzybski's theory of general semantics points the way to helping us better understand and use these often misused and misunderstood human capabilities.

Quoting Korzybski (1948):

"With a time-binding consciousness, our criteria of values, and so behavior, are based on the study of human potentialities, not on statistical averages on the level of homo homini lupus drawn from primitive and/or unsane semantic (evaluational) reactions which are on record." (Collected Writings, p647)

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