General Semantics Advanced Thinking
A System-Discipline Concerned with the Sanity of the Race & the Individual
Theories in Everyday Situations

by Milton Dawes

We couldn’t stay alive without our ‘theories’. In a world where we don’t know all about anyone (including ourselves), or anything, we have to have ‘theories’ whether we are aware of our ‘theorizing’ or not. In some areas of human activities – especially science and mathematics, theories are explicitly formulated, as “theories”. This exposure, this openness, makes it possible for a theory to be criticized, and if necessary, modified, or abandoned, based on related observations. The discipline of General Semantics is based on a theory that science and mathematics represent human evaluation at its best, in terms of predictability; and that we can study and apply the methods and approaches of these two disciplines to our everyday lives – and expect degrees of success, similar to those achieved by scientists and mathematicians. As theories constitute fundamental characteristics of science and mathematics, students of general semantics might do well to pay more attention to ‘theories’ in our everyday living.

In Webster’s New Collegiate we find “theory”: a belief, policy, or procedure proposed or followed as the basis for action. And this: a plausible or scientifically accepted general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena. Following these, let’s ‘think’ of, let’s ‘theorize’, that a ‘theory’ basically constitutes “An attempt to explain; a map, a generalization; a guide; a premise of relative invariance, expressing the following relationship; ” What we imagine, what we believe, what we ‘think’ we understand or know, what we say, and so on, correspond, in some ways, to what is going on”. And whatever we do, we do, based on a ‘theory’, whether this is explicitly formulated, or not”. Let’s call those unstated ‘theories’ “organismal ‘theories'”.

If we generalize these notions of theory , then the ways we ‘think’ about things; the ways we ‘feel’ about things, our personal beliefs, our religious beliefs, our knowledge, our generalizations, expectations, speculations, attitudes, prejudices, suggestions, explanations, assumptions, opinions, points of view, schools of philosophy, political systems, schools of psychology, laws, rules and regulations, plans, fears, wishes, hopes, criticisms, marriages, friendships, and so on, can all be ‘thought’ of in terms of ‘theories’. (Note that Korzybski labeled his Non-Aristotelian system, general semantics “A Theory of Values”). What we see, our approach to living, our unconditional shoulds, the ways we interpret things, the meanings we give to our experiences, and so on, can be considered in terms of ‘theories’.

“How”, you might ask, “is what we see, in any way related to ‘theory’, when it is right there before us?” Well, I invite you to consider this: When we see a person, thing, situation, etc., we don’t see all that’s going on. What we see, can be considered a map, a gross representation, of whatever is going on. With further observations and investigations, we discover that there are more goings on, than what we originally observed. In this sense we could say, our first – and for that matter any future observations – can be considered as “organismal unstated ‘theories'”, that what is seen, is what is there – and all that’s there.

When we fail to recognize that what we see, is not all that’s there; that what we see, is not all that could be seen; we identify the object or happening, with what we see. And we get phrases like “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. But an object is more than what is seen. And there’s more going on than we will ever see or know. And let’s not forget that we act in terms of what we see. What we do, and how we do what we do, is based on our organismal theories. But “what else” is there, does not go away just because we did not see it; and shocks, disappointments, frustrations etc., follow. Now I am not saying that we can ever know all that’s there. But knowing that we don’t know; being conscious that we abstract; reminding ourselves that our actions are based on organismal theories; and working at ways to reveal our unstated ‘theories’ to ourselves, can make living, less stressful, calmer, gentler (a ‘theory’). As Korzybski put it (Science and Sanity page 690) “The layman should realize that his world-outlook’ appears as full of assumptions as any scientific one, except that his assumptions are not conscious (“usually conscious” – writer’s addition) and (“so” – writer’s addition) cannot be verified, whereas most of the scientific assumptions are conscious and are continually verified”.

Significant differences between these everyday “what I am referring to as “generalizations of scientific theories” , and scientific theories, include these factors : In science, theories are formulated from a great deal of information, gathered from analyses of careful observations; theories are explicitly formulated as theories. This is worth emphasizing. In the field of science, present day scientists do not say “This is so”, “This is the truth” – S-he in formulating a theory as theory, is making an explicit proposal that the theory adequately explains the facts (as presently interpreted). In science, ideally, theories are deliberately formulated in unambiguous terms. (This minimizes quibbling, and unnecessary arguments as to what the creator of the theory proposes to explain). In science, theories are put to the test – and they are eventually modified, updated, improved, abandoned, if what is expected from the theory is not corroborated by observations. (Scientists, behaving as scientists, usually do not fight each other over acceptance of their theories: theories are critically reviewed by others in the field).

In science, theories bridge the gap between what’s going on in our imaginations, and what’s going on elsewhere – an extensional “let’s look for correspondence and structural similarities, between what we propose, and what we observe, approach” to understanding ourselves as we relate to and experience happenings. Scientific theories are not presently considered as the final word – no matter how long they have been around. And they don’t usually get useless, and are not abandoned, because of age. More often, scientific theories improve with age. They explain more, and more accurately – newer theories often include older theories as special cases. In science, the corroboration of a theory with observations, is not taken as “proof” that things are so, that the theory explains all. The scientist as scientist, does not identify his-her theory, with the happenings s-he sets out to explain. A heuristic time-binding approach works in the sense that theories help the scientist to formulate better theories.

Let’s compare some of the above to our everyday ‘theorizing’. In our everyday attempts to make sense of things, to give meanings, to explain, to understand, to bridge the gap between what we claim to know, and what we know we don’t know, etc., we usually do not ‘think’ that whatever we happen to be doing involves some ‘theory’, or that we are ‘theorizing’. We scarcely ‘think’ of our explanations, beliefs, the meanings we give to our experiences, our opinions, criticisms, conclusions, our ideas of morality, and so on, as ‘theories’: So in our everyday actions-‘theorizings’, we seldom ‘think’ of putting our ‘theories’ to the test. What we are more likely to do is become more verbal, and more defensive when asked “How do you know?” We look for support from others. We work at convincing others of the ‘truth’ and rightness of our ‘theories’. We form alliances, and get violent in our determination to hang on to our opinion-feelings-theories’. We more often become very creative in finding ways to interpret and use new factors – not to re-view our ‘theories’ – but as further ‘proof’ that we were right. And not ‘theorizing’ that others ‘theorize’, we don’t usually use the factors in their ‘theories’ to help us fine tune our own. We are more likely to view the theories’ of others as refutation of our own; and in turn, more likely to (based on an unrecognized theory’ of “allness”; and not in appreciation of the time-binding opportunity), reject other ‘theories’ wholesale.

In everyday situations, a great deal of our allness and identifying behaviors can be attributed to our not recognizing how much of our communication, our relationships, our very existence, depend on our organismal ‘theories’. When we consciously theorize’, we are recognizing that we don’t know all that’s going on: This awareness can contribute to more openness to the ideas, opinions, speculations, and theories’ of other abstractors. It can also contribute to much creativity in interpretation. Here’s a little game you can amuse yourself with. You can also play it with friends.(The person – or the group – who comes up with the most theories’ related to a chosen topic, in a certain time, wins the game). Teachers can play it in the classroom as an exercise to broaden students’ conversational, and conflict management skills; as part of training for science, and so on. There are no limits to the varieties of topics you can choose. Here’s an example of a ‘theory’ game you can play with yourself. You telephone a friend. After seven rings or so, and no response, you hang up. See how many ‘theories’ you can come up with as explanations for not getting a response.

If we don’t know we are doing something, we can’t self-consciously do anything about it; we cannot make corrections; we cannot make significant improvements. So as a species, and as individuals, not being aware of our dogmas, beliefs, myths, knowledge, ideals, etc., as uncertainties, as ‘theories’, we often get disagreeable, and hate each other; and we fuss and fight personal and national wars; we build walls, we shoot down, we persecute anyone trying to escape our particular political, religious, and other ‘theories’ ; we torture and put others with differing ‘theories’, in prisons, and gas chambers, and so on, in defense of our personal, group, tribal, and societal ‘theories’. In our everyday behaviors, our ‘theories’ remain “intensional” when higher priority is given to the ‘theory’, than to what the ‘theory’ attempts to explain: What’s going on in our imagination and verbally formulated as opinions, beliefs, etc. is considered more important than what’s going on outside of our heads.

Unlike the situation in science, our ‘theories’ are often more valuable to us than what these ‘theories’ are supposed to be about. We don’t usually easily let go of our ‘theories’. But this is to be expected: As mentioned before, we live our lives according to, and guided by, our ‘theories’. And many of us would prefer to die, rather than review some of our more strongly held beliefs as theories’. Unfortunately for us, we often don’t even see many of our beliefs as beliefs, but as facts. “When we don’t recognize this, we fail to recognize how much of our problems start with us and the ways we ‘look’ at, ‘think’ about, and ‘theorize’ about, things.”

As mentioned before, an aspect of the theory of general semantics can be formulated as follows: Science and mathematics represent human evaluation at its best, in terms of predictability. The methods of science and mathematics can be studied, taught, learned, and applied to our everyday situations. If we study and apply these methods – when applicable – to our everyday situations, we are likely to achieve measures of success, in our relationships with ourselves, with others, with what’s going on around us, similar to those achieved in science and mathematics. As individuals, we can put this theory to the test for ourselves.

There are nations based on religious ‘theories’ (my theory); others based on ‘theories ‘labeled’ “communism” ; others based on ‘theories’ labeled “capitalism”, and so on. Wouldn’t it be nice if just one nation set out to educate itself in terms of general semantics theory – A theory of values, of non-allness, non-identity, and non-elementalism, etc. – or even come to recognize that the particular economic-political-social system adhered to, qualifies as ‘theory’? I ‘theorize-suggest, that if we develop more understanding and appreciation of scientific theories; and become more conscious of our own behaviors as ‘theorizings’, we would, as in science, be more open to other possibilities; become more careful and critical observers and more critical thinkers-evaluators. I ‘theorize’ that we would learn and understand much more about ourselves-in-our worlds, and much more about others in their worlds, and consequently get along, much better with each other, than we have been doing over these centuries. I ‘theorize’ that we would find our living, a “continuous creative non-allness learning experience”. And that we would give more importance to what we observe-theorize going on, than to what we say-‘think’, believe-theorize about what’s going on. I ‘theorize’, that if we approach our life situations as a ‘laboratory’; and our actions as ‘experiments’ based on ‘theories’, that we would differentiate more between what we think-feel and say, and what’s going on. We might become better managers of our lives. We might develop the “art of gentle living” with ourselves, with others, and with the trees, animals, rivers, lakes, and seas.

Can you imagine some of the possible changes in a society if we formulated our laws as theories? And set a date for reviewing the effects they had on the society – instead of piling up laws, upon laws, upon laws? Many individuals who commit murder are given paroles and the chance for paroles: couldn’t we at least ‘parole’ some of our laws? Aren’t many of our laws outdated and in need of review? Don’t we also deserve a second chance from many of our laws?

In terms of individuals’ behavior: Theorize what might happen if those who ‘knew’ abortion was sin, considered their ‘knowledge’ as ‘theory’. Do you ‘think’ there might be less bombing of clinics, and shooting of doctors and nurses? Or consider the potentials for accelerating improvements in our formal education systems, if experts’ in education treated their particular viewpoints on education as theory.

There are innumerable ways for us to practice recognizing our organismal theorizings’. Here are a few. The next time you are at an intersection and the light changes to green on your side, try to remember that if you simply press on the gas, without checking the traffic to your right and to your left, you are assuming-‘theorizing’ that it is safe to proceed, and that the light is red on the other side; you are ‘theorizing’ that a driver has seen the change of light; that the vehicle’s brakes are working properly, and so on. Recognizing this ‘theory’ could be a life saver. The next time you buy something based on a sign saying “25% off”, remind yourself that that purchase was based on an assumption-‘theory’ related to the descriptive accuracy of the sign.

As an experiment, and for practice, the reader is invited to formulate ‘theories’ related to our everyday behaviors, some of which were mentioned earlier on. For instance: A theory related to marriage could be formulated along these lines: Partners getting married ‘theorize’ (most times not knowingly), that the good times each had with the other when they were dating and not living together, will persist when they start to live together. The next time you hear someone say, “What this means is”; or “It’s because”; or “What’s going on here is”; or ask “What’s the meaning of this?” or “Why?”, remind yourself that you are listening to ‘theories’ – no matter how much of an expert or authority, someone claims to be. Now this is not to suggest that we disregard whatever is being said. After all, what else do we have but our ‘theories’ about what’s going on: And our theories (like this one), about our ‘theories? To paraphrase Einstein “The world we have created, is a product of our ‘theorizing”. But too many of us don’t ‘know’ that yet: One of these days – probably; and hopefully…

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