General Semantics Advanced Thinking
A System-Discipline Concerned with the Sanity of the Race & the Individual
On Conscious Abstracting and a Consciousness of Abstracting

by Milton Dawes

We learn to ‘think’ in certain ways.

From the moment we were born we are bombarded with words, and surrounded and influenced by particular cultural structures – diverse institutions, books, teachers, plays, television, radio, advertisements, parents, relatives, friends, acquaintances, employers, colleagues, and so on. We are taught and we learn very early to ‘think’ and talk particular ways, believe certain things, follow certain rules, and develop certain attitudes and approaches to living. (Let’s call this “culturally expected way of ‘thinking'” ” cewt” – pronounced “cute”.) Conditioned by ‘cewt’, we learn to like certain things and dislike other things; trust certain individuals and groups, and distrust some others, and so on. Our political, legal, legal, economic, education, and other social systems developed from and support a particular way of ‘thinking’. And in turn, these social systems for their own promotion and survival, are the chief means by which a particular way of ‘thinking’ is passed on from individual to individual, and from generation to generation. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. One advantage: maintaining the unity and continuity of a society. One disadvantage: resistance to change which often results in rebellions and revolutions.

Conditioned and surrounded by the structures built on, and built by a particular way of ‘thinking’, we are individually rewarded by following this way of looking at, ‘thinking’ about, talking or writing about, responding to, and doing things. Non-consciously accepting ‘cewt’, we relate to ourselves, others, and our world; and we live our lives, usually without a conscious awareness that we ‘think’ the way we ‘think’ and consequently behave the way we do. From our cultural conditioning we are not encouraged to consider that a particular way of ‘thinking’ is only one way of ‘thinking’ about things: We are not taught to seek understanding of other ways of ‘thinking’. We are not motivated to consider that in a changing, increasingly complex and highly interactive human world, a culturally expected way of ‘thinking’ based on many outdated ‘maps’ cannot always serve a society or a people well. Unfortunately we are usually not aware of our culturally learned ‘thinking’ and behavior until we are exposed to other ways when we visit other societies and other cultures.

Some characteristics of our habitual way of ‘thinking’.

Among the many features of our habitual and non-conscious way of ‘thinking’, talking about, relating to others and situations, include one-valued and two-valued either/or standards. Our one-valued evaluations revolve around what someone or something is, rather than how sh-e, it, behaves. We put emphasis on things and objects, rather than things-in-process, things-in-relationships, how things behave – and more importantly how we relate with things. We make decisions around a belief that “It must be so – what else could it be?” We ask “What does this mean?” We look for “the cause”-.we ask “Why?”- and conclude “Its because”: “This must mean so and so : This can only mean one thing : “The reason is”, and so on. We usually don’t ‘think’ in terms of many causes many effects; and that things don’t mean – we assign meanings. Based on our ‘cewt’ we tend to see things as “the same” instead of being “similar in some respects”. From our two-valued ‘thinking’ standard we ‘think’ in terms of good and bad, true and false, right and wrong, success and failure, etc. We rarely ask “Good for whom, good for what – and for how long?” We usually don’t ‘think’ in terms of “degrees of success or failure”. In our habitual way of ‘thinking’ we profess to be “objective observers” – things are what we say they are or define them to be: we usually forget the evaluator-interpreter – the subject behind the object. And we often forget that our emotions and our evaluations are intimately and inseparably related. From the above one can propose that our habitual way of ‘thinking” might be a source of many of our misunderstanding, disagreeableness and conflicts. (Note the terms mentioned provide clues to our way of ‘thinking’. They are not meant to suggest that if they are used the user is necessarily subscribing to ‘cewt’. And I am also not suggesting that one-valued, two-valued and other evaluation programs are not at ‘times’ appropriate evaluations.)

Science and mathematics as ‘thinking’ (evaluation) standards.

A great deal of our species and individual problems, wars, conflicts, violence, distress, psycho-physical damage to ourselves and so on, could be attributed (among other variables) to our lack of awareness of the way we usually ‘think’, ‘feel’, talk about, classify and define ourselves, others, things and situations. As an antidote to our ‘cewt’, habitual and automatic way of ‘thinking’, Alfred Korzybski after many years of research in human evaluation developed a system comprising evaluation standards which he called “general semantics”. Korzybski described general semantics as a “theory of sanity”, and “a theory of values”. General Semantics represents Korzybski’s generalizations of the method and approaches of science and mathematics. He theorized that if way and apply these approaches to our everyday living, we can achieve measures of success comparable to that achieved in science and mathematics. The methods of science and mathematics were chosen as evaluation standards based on the tremendous successes of scientists and mathematicians over the centuries, in helping us understand and make predictions about the dynamic structures of our world. General semantics constitute an interrelated set of principles that we can use to help us ‘think’ about how we ‘think’; and which we can also use as psycho-logical templates to structure our ‘thinking’ patterns.

We treat others according to the way we define them.

Our habitual and unexamined way of ‘thinking’ results in our treating others according to how we label, define and classify them. Our labels and definitions become more important behavioral guides than the person or thing we have labeled and classified – and this applies to ourselves. ( In general semantics this is called “intensional” ‘thinking’.) A label or classification covers an indefinitely large number of individual objects and tells us very little about a particular person, thing, or situation. Take any label: friend, liberal, black, white, homeless, handicapped, doctor, mechanic, car – ask yourself ” What does this label tell me about this particular person or thing?” From the importance we give to our labels we expect friend (1) to be and behave like friend (2); this liberal, this mechanic, and so on, to be like all those other liberals, mechanics, etc., – most of whom we have never met. Keep in ‘mind’ I am not saying labels are ‘bad’. I am proposing that a great deal of dissatisfaction in our relationships can be expected when we treat our labels and definitions with more respect than the individuals or situations they represent. A word we can take as a clue ( not a fact) that there might be some intensional ‘thinking’ taking place is the word “should”. “Should” often results from expectation – expectation which is often generated from a definition, a label, or a classification.


“Abstracting” and “consciousness of abstracting” are labels for two of the many psycho-logical guidelines we find in general semantics to help us ‘think’ about how we ‘think’. We can use these guidelines to minimize and sometimes avoid the many harmful effects that result from our culturally conditioned way of ‘thinking’, and also to improve the quality of our relationships and our living. In his major work Science and Sanity page 380 Alfred Korzybski wrote this about abstracting: “The structure of the nervous system is in ordered levels, and all levels go through the process of abstracting from the other levels…….. The characteristic activities of the nervous system, such as summarizing, integrating etc, are also included by implication”. “Abstracting” includes such processes as digesting, breathing, seeing, hearing, ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’, knowing, enjoying, hating, worrying, understanding, generalizing, theorizing, planning, deciding and so on. We self-reflexively abstract from what we see, hear, experience and so on, to what we understand and to what we believe. We self-reflexively abstract from our beliefs to what we expect, how we relate with others , how we behave and so on. In short, all our ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’, and related behaviors involve abstracting.

Our abstracting activities involve conscious and non-conscious selecting from a totality; the organismic processing of this selection based on memories, earlier beliefs, interests, fears, hopes, etc.; and the spin that emerges as present opinions, conclusions, dogmas, beliefs, knowledge, values, expectations, hopes, fears, and so on. We could say that “Present abstracting is a function of earlier abstractings”: This could explain some of the difficulties we have in changing the way we ‘think’, and ‘feel’ about things, and also in coming to see things in a different light.

Consciousness of abstracting.

The other psycho-logical tool “consciousness of abstracting” is defined in Science and Sanity as “Awareness that in our process of abstracting we have left out characteristics”. In applying consciousness of abstracting as an evaluation modifier, we evaluate our habitual way of ‘thinking’, talking and behaving using the principles of general semantics as our standard. And most importantly we recognize that this standard is not an absolute one – but also comes from our abstracting.

When we are aware that what we are aware of, what we are experiencing, is not all that could be experienced; and that what we know, believe, understand , remember, etc., is not all that we could know, believe, and so on – in that moment we are conscious of abstracting. When we are aware that what we say about someone, something, some situation, results from our nervous system’s processing of limited amount of information about that person, thing or situation, we are conscious of abstracting. When we are aware that our maps ( what we see, hear, know, believe, understand; our opinions, plans, expectations, and so on) are not the territories they are maps of, we are conscious of abstracting. When we are aware that words are not the thing-processes they represent, we are conscious of abstracting. From this non-all awareness we are less likely to be shocked when factors ignored left out come into play.

Paradigm shift in ‘thinking’.

If we want things to change in our lives, we have to change the ways we ‘think’ about things. Since most of our behavior is habitual and automatic, we have to work at developing consciousness of abstracting to help us ‘think’ about, and evaluate the way we ‘think’ and ‘feel’ about ourselves, others, things, and situations. With practice, a lot of practice, continuing practice, in applying the principles of general semantics, we can eventually develop more satisfying , more effective, less stress inducing, and a gentler way of living our lives. Since whatever we do; since the quality of our living – and all our living – depend on our abstracting, it seems reasonable to suggest that it might be worth our while to train ourselves to develop more consciousness that we abstract.

Here are some ways to get a ‘feel’ of the abstracting and consciousness of abstracting principles. Look very carefully at someone or something – then ask yourself this: “Have I seen all there is to see?” ‘Think’ of someone you have ‘known’ for several years and ask yourself this: “Do I know everything about this person?” Listen very attentively to what is called The news” then ask yourself “Does this represent all that’s going on?” Read what different critics write about a play or film: Listen to individuals talking about what they consider to be the ‘same’ thing – notice the differences in their stories.

Our nervous systems are limited. When we see something; when we ‘think’ about or have ‘feelings’ for someone or something; when we make plans; when we have expectations; when talk about something that happened and so on, we leave out factors and we put in some of our own. We cannot avoid doing this – but an awareness of our limitation can help us avoid unnecessary disagreements and conflicts.

Practicing consciousness of abstracting.

Have you ever been to one of those huge shopping centers with an enormous parking lot – and after shopping, discover that you have forgotten where you parked the car? If you remembered when parking the car to look for a location marker, this little effort could save you a lot of anguish and ‘time’ later on. How many ‘times’ have you found yourself searching for your reading glasses or car keys? An awareness that “I am parking the car; I am putting down these glasses or keys”, could make a big difference. To be aware that whatever we are ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’ saying, doing, and so on does not include all, we first have to be aware that we are so engaged. One way to develop consciousness of abstracting involves practicing “conscious abstracting”. Conscious abstracting involves doing whatever we happen to be doing, consciously, deliberately, attentively.

Practicing conscious abstracting.

Without conscious abstracting or abstracting consciously, we cannot go on to remember that our ‘thought’s ‘feelings’, plans, decisions, opinions, criticisms, expectations, and so on does not include all.

One of the simpler ways to practice conscious abstracting involves talking to oneself. Take a few minutes every now and again wherever you happen to be – walking, driving, meeting with friends, watching a game, in a meeting at work, writing a letter or report, etc: Talk to yourself about what you are seeing, hearing, ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’ doing, at that moment. Another experiment involves writing little memos to yourself related to “attentiveness”: Put them in a pocket or purse; on the door of the refrigerator – any place where from time to time you will come across these external reminders. Since most of our behaviors are habitual and automatic, practicing conscious abstracting can be an effective way to avoid or minimize many of the problems that result from our poor mapping of situations. A formula worth remembering is this one: Self-improvement is a function of self-correction – self correction is a function of self- awareness. Put another way: If we don’t know what we are doing or that we are doing, we cannot consciously do anything to stop, change or modify what we are doing.

The quality of our living depends on the quality of our abstracting.

Practicing conscious abstracting and consciousness of abstracting helps us to improve the quality of our abstractions and concomitantly the quality of our living. (Quality in terms of “accuracy of representation” and “map-territory consistence”.) The quality of our plans and decisions, and the degree of success we achieve in carrying them out depend on the quality of our abstractions. How well we manage our problems, how creative we are in finding solutions, depend on the information we have – including what we put in and what we ignore or leave out. The kinds of ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ that come up; how we weigh them in terms of their significance and importance depend on our abstractions. ( Keep in ‘mind’ that ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ also constitute abstractions. And that we build abstractions on earlier abstractions.) The quality of our communication with ourselves and with others; the way we treat ourselves and others, depend on the quality of our abstractions. How satisfied we are in our personal, professional and other relationships, depend on the quality of our abstractions. How well we manage our ‘times’ depend on what we know, fear, believe, and so on. And what we know, fear, believe, etc., constitute abstractions and depend on the quality of earlier abstractions. How successful we are in avoiding, minimizing, and managing stress in our relationship with ourselves and with others depend on the quality of our abstractions. The degree of our understanding of our increasingly complex and diverse human relationships; the meanings we give to our experiences; and our skill in meeting the challenges of such a world depend on the quality of our abstractions. Our ability to anticipate and manage change in a rapidly changing world depends on the quality of our abstractions. How satisfied we are in the way our lives are going depends on the quality of our abstractions.

When through abstracting consciously we become aware we are approaching a particular problem, task, or situation, in a particular way; and when through consciousness of abstracting we remind ourselves that this way is only one of many possible ways, we are likely to develop a more creative approach to our planning, our attempts to resolving problems, and to the important decisions we make. When we are aware that we don’t know, and will never know all about anyone or anything (including ourselves), we are likely to live a life of continuous wonder, curiosity, and openness to learning more about how our world and ourselves are structured – or to be more accurate – how we structure ourselves and our world. Since our whole existence depends on our abstractions, seeking to improve the quality of our abstractions could benefit not only ourselves but the species as a whole.

Consciousness of abstraction as a wedge of consciousness.

When we practice conscious abstracting and consciousness of abstracting, one of the things we discover is that these two psycho-logical tools work like wedges: They operate as go-betweens – psycho-logical interceptors and interrupters that we can activate to monitor, and when we find necessary, modify our culturally learned way of evaluating and responding to situations. Consciousness of abstracting and conscious abstracting are like roving reporters, ‘mind’-managers, internal supervisors, arbitrators, our own psycho-logical parents, allowing us to better observe and manage ourselves in demanding situations. If we want things to change in our lives, we have to change the way we ‘think’ about things, ourselves, others, and situations we find ourselves in. We have to become aware of the logic, the beliefs, and particular world view that structure our ‘thinking’. If we want things to change in our lives, we have to start with developing more critical awareness of what we are doing. Conscious abstracting and consciousness of abstracting provide us with the psycho-logical tools to start the job.

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