The Mechanics Of Meaning

1st April 2014
Odette Power

Living in London highlights the value of sharing a common language. Here, every day, many different cultures meet and work together using English to communicate. The accents and choice of phrases differ, but we get by. However we often fail to convey our meaning accurately. For example, when it comes to personal relationships we often only open our mouths to change feet!

When we tackle problems as a group at work and aim to collaboratively design solutions things get messy fast. Try to notice how much time is wasted on misunderstandings – people talking past each other, violently agreeing, arguing about irrelevant details – the next time you are in a meeting.

There is a better way. The field of General Semantics has some useful tools which can help us transfer our fully intended meaning to each other. The mechanics of meaning is strongly linked to how our brains work and the private context of our experiences of the public, physical world.

Why choose such a dull name as General Semantics? The founder, Alfred Korzybski, wanted to distinguish the field from that of the field of Semantics. He believed that the sense-making applies to a wider area than the meaning of words and symbols. There is a more general application here, such as people’s personal lives and everyday situations. Ironically, like him, we often struggle to find the right words when naming things, the words seem so vanilla and ambiguous.

Korzybski founded General Semantics in 1920. In my opinion, one of his works, Science and Sanity (1933) is a red pill book. Several other authors have taken up reinterpreting and expanding some concepts, such as C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards with their book The Meaning of Meaning (1923) or Stuart Chase in his book The Tyranny of Words (1966). Korzybski has built on what Charles Peirce and Ludwig Wittgenstein did.

Standing on the shoulders of giants, we see even further than they. Building on other people’s work we express our uniquely human ability. Korzybski called this concept “time-binding” – cross-generational learning using symbolic communication. Past achievements continue on in the present for others to use. Our works outlive us.

If we accept this statement as true, what have we done that others can possibly build on? Now that’s a haunting question. Some more musings on meaning should follow over the next few months.

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