Report on General Semantics Certificate Course-Chandigarh

Alfred Korzybski propounded General Semantics in his Manhood of Humanity and Science and Sanity. His experience as a World War I veteran created his interest in how better understanding and communication can improve human relations and avoid future confrontations. Korzybski’s focus ‘on language as the means of communication and negotiation’ was highlighted, elaborated, and discussed during the II General Semantics Certificate Course, conducted by the Forum of Contemporary Theory, Baroda, in collaboration with the Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh, from December 4th to December 6th, 2008. The course drew attention to the role of language and its limitation in our perception of the world. Language is a very complex system of symbols through which we evaluate our perceptions and communicate. However, it is this very system that also leads to misevaluation and misinterpretation; thus, paradoxically language evolved for effective communication may also lead to ambiguities in communication, which, according to Korzybski, often has catastrophic consequences.

The course was inaugurated with a welcome address by Aneel Raina, Professor and Head, Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh. P. C. Kar, Director, Centre for Contemporary Theory and General Semantics, welcomed the participants and familiarized them with the objectives of the course. Dr Kar, while elaborating the concepts of Time Binding and Delayed Response, highlighted the need to balance between ‘robust activism’ and ‘reflective thinking’. Dr. Deepti Gupta, Coordinator of the course, gave the introduction to the course and outlined the purpose and objective of the course. M.L. Raina, Professor Emeritus, Department of English, in his inaugural address, voiced the importance of General Semantics and its approach to effective communication. 

‘Know Thyself’ by Devkumar Trivedi highlighted the need to know our ‘body’ and how it functions. It is the instrument through which we operate and the better we know the process the more effective will be our working.  He explained how the initial experience is non-verbal and by the time it is verbalised it undergoes a significant transformation. Talking about map and reality, he outlined the ‘factual’ and ‘effectual’ aspect of experience. He defined General Semantics as the subject of convergence, a meeting point of various disciplines. His detailed introduction to Korzybski made the understanding of General Semantics clearer. The genesis of the discipline seems to be rooted in discovering why war? What causes it? Korzybski felt better communication would lead to improved relations.  Mr. Trivedi discussed the structure of our mind and how we acquire experience. He explained the process of abstraction and its importance in General Semantics, emphasising that the latter is about methodology and evaluation with an aim to improve relationships and not language. In his second lecture on “Evaluology,” Mr. Trivedi focused on how we need to evaluate and understand that our perceptions are limited. His idea is that it is important to keep in mind that our perceptions are partial affect our conclusions. He stressed on the need that there are no absolutes and phrases like, ‘as far as I know’; ‘Up to a point’, ‘to me’ etc., should be used more frequently, thus highlighting the importance of our limited perception. He discussed various tools to avoid absolutism like dating, indexing, hyphenating, etc, in addition to the ones he had discussed the previous day.

Lajwanti Chatani, Reader, Department of Political Science, The M. S. University of Baroda, delivered a lecture on ‘General Semantics: Some Reflections’, focusing on Korzybski’s ideas. According to her, humanity had advanced in science and other disciplines; however, human relationships and communication had not progressed in a similar manner, and unfortunately they continued to be guided by hate and suspicion. Echoing Korzybski’s system of avoiding misevaluation, Dr. Chatani explained that most conflicts originate due to misevaluation and if the latter is removed than the former would be taken care of. General Semantics is not about ‘what you think but how you think’. Highlighting the limitation of the ‘either-or’ way of looking things, using either inductive or deductive logic in language, we create parameters for misevaluation. She also stated that the ‘Particular’ can never represent the ‘whole’, there is never the correct sample, we do abstraction and abstraction can never be the whole. Abstracting makes us aware that there is no complete experience and that something is always left out. We must acknowledge that we will never grasp the whole experience and therefore refrain from drawing ‘absolute-singular’ responses.

In his lectures on “Understanding the Aristotelian” and “Understanding the Non-Aristotelian through Korzybski”, Dr. Pravesh Jung Golay, Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, India, explained Korzybski’s response to Aristotle. To explain the issues raised by Korzybski regarding Aristotle, Dr. Golay’s explained the Aristotelian philosophy in relation to our understanding of knowledge.  Taking the general form of a knowledge claim that X is Y and expounding on the two central notions, the structural element of knowledge and the notion of Nodes of this structure, he clarified the systems that Korzybski was going to challenge. He also explained how Korzybski saw the system of knowledge questioning the Aristotelian concept of essence and closed system of definition. In Korzybski’s view, Aristotle commits elementalistic fallacy, not taking into account that the organic whole can be talked about separately but cannot be separated.  He further questions Aristotle’s concept of perception, whereby perception is pure and the perceiver is passive. According to Korzybski, the notion of pure perception is a myth. Negating the notions of absolutism, it is highlighted that objectivity is not absolute. General Semantics highlights variety of meaning as opposed to the hierarchy of meaning.

In her lecture on “Is Map the Territory?”  Deepti Gupta, Professor, Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh enunciated the idea of map and territory.  She also discussed how General Semantics could be applied to various theoreticians like Bakhtin, Barthes, Saussure, Chomsky, and Firth, highlighting how map cannot be the territory and how different maps of the same territory may show different characteristics. She stressed on the importance of ‘mental hygiene’, WAC (writing across curriculum), CAC (communicating across curriculum) and Neurolinguistic Programming.

Besides the lectures by the resource persons, participants made critical interventions through their presentations and discussions on the subject matter of General Semantics as well as the issues raised by the resource faculty. General Semantics, for most of the participants, was a new area. The ideas of delayed response, indexing, dating etc if incorporated will go a long way in improving human relations. Most significantly, realizing and keeping in mind that there are various ways of looking at the same thing will cure the obstinacy people develop about their ways as the ‘only way’. The in-depth reading of General Semantics may enable us to question the very force of ‘generalizations’ in our everyday communication. The idea the map is not the territory and that the territory is not the journey is another valuable statement. Questioning the very basis of the Aristotelian model of knowledge and offering an alternative only highlights how any sort of absolutism is a myth.  The ideas introduced make us understand how their application will improve inter-personal relationships. However, a greater chance of bringing about some change if these ideas are introduced to far younger minds

Dr. Harpreet Gill, Lecturer, Department of English, MCM DAV College for Women, Chandigarh.