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About semantics

Oct 17, 1996 01:30 PM
by Bee Brown

As there has been a thread on theos-l regarding the use of language, I
thought this might be of interest. Bee Brown

 by Milton Dawes
Proposition 1
"Whenever we agree or disagree with someone--or, to be more specific, with
something--we have heard or read, we are to a great extent agreeing or
disagreeing with 'ourselves'." (I invite you to pause for a moment and take
special notice of your reactions to this proposition at this time.) This
proposition, at first hearing or reading, may seem to you to be a silly,
irresponsible, and totally unacceptable thing for anyone to suggest. And you
may also think that an idea such as this is designed simply to discourage
genuine criticisms, undermine self-confidence, and put a damper on debates,
discussions, and everyday conversations.  I doubt that any of this will
happen;but in any case, those are not my intentions. I am merely stating
what seems tome to be a valid proposition, based on my acceptance,
interpretations, and applications of some general semantics principles and
Proposition 2
The aim of Proposition 1 is mainly to provide supporting arguments for
Proposition 2. Proposition 2 states that "If we are concerned to improve our
relationships with our 'selves' and each other, and create healthier
environments in homes, in the places we work, and wherever we socialize, we
could start by becoming more alert to how we as individualscontribute to and
create the kinds of societies we live in, as a consequence of the ways we
interpret and give meanings to our experiences. And since language
constitutes a great deal of our thinking related to our everyday personal,
social and professional experiences and interactions, we could take more
responsibility for the ways we interpret, and the meanings we give to, what
we hear, read, see, experience, etc."
Specifically, we could take more responsibility for how we as individuals
interpret and give meanings to what our experts, gurus, scientists,
religious authorities, politicians, teachers, friends, reporters, writers,
relatives, and others say or write. For the kinds of values we hold, the
ways we relate to each other, and the kinds of societies we create for
ourselves and our children are, to a great extent, based on the ways we
interpret, and the meanings we give to, what we read and hear.
The Principle of Non-Identity
To return to Proposition 1: One of the general-semantics principles alluded
to earlier is the "principle of non-identity." This principle states that no
two things are identical, that no things are the same, that no two things
are similar in all respects. The principle of non-identity further states
that "In a world of change, growth, process, changing relationships. . . a
thing is not even identical with itself." Now if things are not identical
with themselves, if they are continuously changing ever so imperceptibly
from moment to moment--changing position, changing relationships, changing
internally, and so on--how can they ever be identical with each other? In
which instant, for example, could we look at the sweep hands of a watch and
say it is exactly such and such time?
The principle of non-identity is valid on both logical and empirical
grounds. If any two things were similar in all respects, then, by definition
and observation, they could not occupy or be seen to occupy two different
space-time positions. If two things were identical (similar in all
respects),we would not in any way be able to distinguish one from the other.
We would not be able to point to one and say, "There is this one," then
point to the other and say, "There is that one." To do that would be
tantamount to admitting that one could be distinguished from the other and
that they were seen in different places. But if each one occupied a
different place,then their positional and functional relationships with
other things would be different. So one could not honestly claim that they
were similar in all respects.
We are strongly inclined, each one of us, to ignore these inescapable
differences between the interpretations and meanings we give to what we hear
and read, and the words, intentions, expectations, and meanings of a speaker
or writer. If we accept the principle of non-identity, then the meanings and
interpretations of a listener or reader cannot be identical with--cannot be
the same as--the meanings of another individual, speaking or writing in a
different place and at a different time. We choose, interpret, and
understand words according to our individual life experiences-and we each
have different life experiences. Of course we do understand each other, to a
certain degree, and we can follow instructions reasonably closely. We are
able to communicate mainly because our meanings have overlapping features.
But except for those who claim to be mind-readers, our interpretations come
between what is said and heard and what is written and read. To be fair to a
speaker or writer, as listeners or readers, we should take some
responsibility for theinterpretations we make and the meanings we give to
what we hear or read.
The Principle of Non-Allness The principle of non-allness is another
general-semantics principle advanced in support of Proposition 1. Briefly
put, this principle states, "We cannot know, understand, become acquainted
with, all of--nor say, describe, imagine,.. . all about anything," and this
includes ourselves. The principle implies that, as interpreters, evaluators,
and assigners of meanings, we cannot be absolutely certain of every aspect
of our own evaluation processes;consequently, we cannot be sure of the
accuracy of our own interpretations, nor can we know all that's behind the
words of others. Accepting and remembering the principle of non-allness, we
have the responsibility at least to make allowances for the possibility of
errors, misevaluations, and misinterpretations. It is our responsibility to
remind ourselves that all was not said or written, and that all could not
have been said or written. It is our responsibility to remember that any
interpretation we make, any meaning we give to what we hear or read, is
based on very small samplings of whatever else could have been said or
written. And it is our responsibility to remind ourselves that our
agreements as well as disagreements are based on our evaluations of our
interpretations of these small samplings.
The General Principle of Uncertainty This principle is more general than
Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty. It states, "Living as we do, in a
dynamic world of change, growth, process, etc., and in a world where no two
things, situations, etc., are identical, the 'truth' value of the relatively
static and general statements we make should be evaluated in terms of
degrees of probability ranging from impossibility to certainty." As an
exercise, how, for instance, would you evaluate the truth value of the
following statements? (The first one was  seen in a bank.) "I pay back my
loan the way I want." "He is on the permanent staff."  "Till death do us
part." "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the
truth?"  "Your car will be ready tomorrow." "Five hundred dollars cash back."
If you refer to what was mentioned above regarding the principles of
non-identity and non-allness, you may notice that these two principles
(among others) 'make" a general principle of uncertainty inexorable. The
principle of non-identity implies that to understand anything there have to
besome prior interpretations. And, following this, we cannot be absolutely
sure that what we understand is precisely what was meant. The principle of
non-allness implies that all our understanding is based on limited analysis
of limited input of limited information. So we cannot be absolutely sure
that the way we have interpreted a statement precludes all other possible
interpretations. (The "allness"--that is, all our understanding--in the
above statement and implied in other general-semantics principles is not a
contradiction or paradox if one includes a date.)
The principle of uncertainty, together with those of non-identity and
non-allness, "suggest" that we develop in ourselves certain attitudes,
habits, orientations, approaches in our conversations, discussions,
listenings, and readings. Such a habitual approach would include the
following considerations. (1) We cannot not interpret, we cannot not make
assumptions. (2) We should expect some degree of inaccuracy in our
interpretations--based as they are on our individual experiences, standards,
assumptions, beliefs, and training. (3) We should acknowledge these
inaccuracies, assumptions, and uncertainties as unavoidable aspects of our
communication processes.
In support of this "uncertainty approach," we could change our agreement or
disagreement responses to something along the following lines:"As far as I
know; as much as I understand; based on the little information I have; not
knowing what was left out; realizing that I had to makea few guesses and
projections; I agree (or disagree) with my own interpretations of this that
I am hearing (or reading); furthermore, since I do not expect people to say
or write 'meanings' instead of'words,' I take responsibility for the
meanings I give to whatever I hear or read." (Remember, we are talking about
an attitude, so we don't have to actually say the above.)
The societies we have inherited, help to create, and to a great extent
support, do not usually encourage values pertaining to uncertainty and
probability. So it is understandable if at this point you find that your
thoughts include such words and phrases as ludicrous, idealistic, academic,
philosophical, nothing would ever get done. We have been conditioned to
believe, we are inclined to believe, and we have abundant evidence that
leads us to believe that a person with an uncertainty approach will be seen,
described, thought of, and treated something like this: "She or he is the
kind of person who is unsure of herself or himself; can't be relied upon; is
wimpish; splits hairs; lacks self-confidence; seems a weak character or a
fence sitter; cannot make decisions."
Despite our social and cultural conditionings, we can also consider the
following positive aspects of uncertainty. The principle of uncertainty is
not an absolute law of the universe, stating what must occur, what we must
do at every single instant of our existence. Without some degree of
certainty, there would be no science or mathematics as we know them. To
recognize a principle of uncertainty is to learn to live our lives with a
certain degree of uncertainty. In a world of change, process, and diversity,
to be always certain is to be at a disadvantage. Following a map of
certainty will sooner or later lead one up a path to increasing distress,
while being uncertain helps us to acknowledge errors and to seek
improvements. Being certain discourages creative approaches to solving
problems; it promotes intolerance, prejudices, conflicts, and violence.
Without doubts, there would be little advancement in knowledge. A
recognition of the possibility of uncertainty helps us to accept more
responsibility for our guesses, expectations, theories, and opinions. An
individual or society that has no doubts about its certainties will sooner
or later discover, to its dismay, that the world around it, and the people
it encounters, cannot always be relied upon to meet its expectations.
Words as Variables There are other general semantics premises and
formulations that could be cited in support of Proposition 1. For now, those
mentioned above will suffice.Let's return for a moment to Proposition 1:
"Whenever we agree or disagree with something we have heard or read, we are
to a great extent agreeing or disagreeing with ourselves." The "truth" value
of this proposition has very little to do with whether one person is right
and another wrong, or whether what is heard or read can be shown to be true
or false. The "truth" value of the proposition has to be evaluated in terms
of interpretations understandings, and meanings, not in terms of facts per se.
Apart from the premises referred to, Proposition 1 can be supported using
themathematical notion of "the variable." The variable has been defined as
"a symbol that can represent any one of a set of values." Words can be
considered as "semantic variables." In terms of process, time, space,
context, frame of reference, interpreters (anything, for that matter) can be
thought of in terms of variables. Any thing, situation, experience, or event
is usually given a wide variety of interpretation and meaning values. As an
unavoidable consequence of our unique life experiences, words mean different
things to each of us. If you can recall situations where you thought you
were misquoted or misunderstood, or followed directions to an unfamiliar
place, or struggled with an instruction manual, you will have a good
understanding of words as variables.
Interpreting: An Automatic process We are not usually aware that we give our
own meaning values to our experiences, or to what we hear or read. We make
interpretations and give meanings without being aware that we are doing so.
We are constantly making interpretations--it is an automatic process. Our
nervous systems seem to work more efficiently by not requiring us at
self-conscious levels to be constantly engaged in observing that we are
making interpretations. Try to imagine what it would be like if every time
we had an experience, or heard or read something, we immediately became
aware that we were in a process of interpreting! Thisawareness would now in
its turn become an experience to be interpreted. And this new awareness . .
. get the picture? This extreme, self-reflexive mode of interpreting our
experience of interpreting would probably put us in a trance-like state. It
would be very difficult to make decisions or act.
The complexities of modern living require us to become more mindful of the
fact that we interpret and give meanings. As diverse societies and cultures
come together; as individuals and groups speaking different languages meet,
intermix, and interact; as individuals with different training and skills
communicate and work with each other--their different meaning-based values
clash. Not unexpectedly, confusions, prejudices, tensions, and conflicts
tend to increase.
Increasing our awareness that things are not what we say they are, that the
meanings we give to our experiences and to situations we find ourselves in
are uniquely our meanings, that words mean different things to different
people,would do much to lower tensions, clarify differing viewpoints, and
improve the quality of our relationships with ourselves and each other.
No Direct Access to Meanings We have no direct way of knowing what others
mean by their words. We have no way of bypassing the intrusive, selective,
differentiating, integrating,representational processes of our nervous
systems. Nor do we presently have anyway of knowing how much, and to what
degree, we may or may not have added to, subtracted from, reconstructed,
reshaped, distorted, or created any such meaning. How can we know how much
our fears, hopes, expectations, prejudices, or values have contributed to
the particular ways we observe, think about, and respond to situations? If
we can't be sure that what we understand is what was meant, shouldn't we
take some responsibility for the meanings we give?
Exploring "Meaning"If we  are to take responsibility for the meanings we
give to what we read or experience, it would be helpful to do some
explorations into the realms of meaning. Such explorations would deepen our
understandings of meaning and sharpen our sensitivities to the importance of
meaning in diverse areas of our everyday living. What follows is a very
brief account of some of my explorations. The statements, however else they
may be interpreted, should not be taken as conclusions but rather as
propositions. They represent some aspects of what "meaning" means to me at
the time of writing.
Dictionaries give the "meanings" of words through references to other words.
But remembering the times we have felt hurt, angry, put down, encouraged, or
complimented by what someone said or wrote, we suspect that meanings have
more to do with our lives than merely with other words in adictionary.
"Meaning" is a high-order abstraction label for our attempts to build
bridges between what we know (or think we know) and what we know we don't
know--bridges between the data that come to us through our senses and
whatever else we suspect is going on in and around us.  Our unceasing and
pervasive search for meanings provides us with undeniable clues--messages
from"our-selves" to "our-selves"--that we do not know it all. Meaning
represents our search for patterns that would provide us with some sort of
continuity between events and our experiences, in different times and
different places.  Meaning has to do with our individual attempts to make
sense of what we experience going on in our inner and outer worlds. We look
for relationships, patterns, and connections to satisfy our need to know and
understand what's going on; we look for clues that will help us get along
better, obtain what we want, avoid problems, lessen stress, improve
performance, and make better plans and decisions.
Nothing in or of itself has meaning.  No thing, event, experience,
situation,or word is its own meaning.  Meanings cannot be divorced from
interpretations and interpreters.  The meaning or meanings of anything will
not be found in the thing.  The meaning of a sound, painting, piece of
music, dream, or statement will not be found in the sound, or music, or
statement.  If the meaning of a thing was a part of the thing, how would we
know where the "meaning"ended and the thing began?  "Meaning" refers to
processes in psycho-physiological environments.  Features of these
environments include curiosity, surprise, anger, prejudice, opinions,
beliefs, humor, fear, attitudes, values, and so on.  Meaning does not exist
in geographical environments as such; we cannot point to a meaning.
Each one of us creates our own meanings. And since each of us has our own
unique ways of seeing, experiencing, and thinking about things and
situations, no two of us will give the same meanings to situations we find
ourselves in or to words we have heard or read.  In view of all this, it
would seem more reasonable for us to ask, "What does this mean to me?" than
to ask,"What does this mean?" Because words do not have meanings in
themselves, we attempt to bridge the enormous gap between what we hear or
read and what is intended by a speaker or writer.  Frequently, we confuse
and identify what we feel and understand, generated by what we hear or read,
with whatever message a speaker or writer intended to convey.
In a world of infinite numbers of relationships, where everything (as far as
weknow) is dynamically interrelated with other things, a world where not all
of these relationships are known or can be known, human meanings (despite
our tendencies to hang onto the familiar and traditional) cannot be final or
complete.  As we get to know more about ourselves, our world, and
ourselves-in-our-world, what things mean to us changes.  As we see more,
hear more, travel to new places, meet and talk with people, and acquire
skills, the ways we "see" things change--despite our beliefs that we are
the"same" persons.
If we accept that situations, behaviors, or statements do not have meanings
in and of themselves, then we cannot reasonably and responsibly say that
anything is "meaningless." Saying that something is meaningless is another
way of saying that it does not mean anything to us at this time. We can, if
sufficiently motivated, make sense of and give meanings to anything we choose.
Because meaning has to do with our deep need to find continuity and
consistency in ourselves and in our worlds, the meanings we give are
interrelated, integrated, and coordinated. The meanings we give to our
experiences, or to what we hear or read, depend a great deal on the meanings
we have given both to other experiences and to other things we have heard
and read. This integration and consistency of meanings makes it extremely
difficult for us to change attitudes, prejudices, beliefs, values, and
behaviors, even when we realize that it is to our advantage to do so.
Recognizing that meaning is so vital in all areas of our lives, that things
are not what we or others say they mean, that we have the inalienable option
to change our interpretations as we please, could greatly increase our
levels of self-confidence and personal power. We could accelerate our
personal development, increase our intelligence, and improve our personal
and professional relationships by being more sensitive to , more sensible
about,and more responsible for the ways we interpret and the meanings we
give to our experiences and to what we hear or read. "Easier said than
done," you may be thinking. (Since I said it myself, I agree with me.) As
mentioned before, making interpretations and giving meanings are basically
automatic processes. But with some practice, we can become more aware of
these goings-on. It requires catching ourselves doing such things as
explaining, giving opinions, criticizing, expecting things to happen in
particular ways, and agreeing and disagreeing.
Meaning plays an enormous role in our lives. To repeat, meaning is not just
a matter of words. Our values, prejudices, beliefs, sciences, philosophies,
religions, and artistic activities are based on meanings. We live our lives
in terms of meanings. The kinds of societies we create and support develop
from the interpretations and meanings we give to our experiences, especially
to what we hear and read. "Meanings," to a great extent, direct our lives.
But since we are capable, to some degree, of recognizing, reviewing, and
modifying our interpretations, we can also direct our meanings to some extent.
The Guessing Game Let's return once again to Proposition 1: Whenever we
agree or disagreewith something we heard or read, we are to a great extent
agreeing or
disagreeing with ourselves. How do you now feel about Proposition 1? Do you
agree? If your answer is "Yes," here is another question. What are you
agreeing or disagreeing with--the words as you have read them or the words
as you now understand them? Suppose Proposition 1 were expressed in a
foreign language with words you could pronounce but did not understand.
Would you agree or disagree? If you are still puzzled, here is how I arrived
at Proposition1. When I read or listen to someone speaking, I am aware
(sometimes) that I do not and cannot know what message or messages the words
are intended to convey. I am aware (sometimes) that I do not know the
feelings, expectations, motives, or attitudes represented by the words. So I
make some guesses (without necessarily being aware that I am doing this). I
arrive at some understanding based on my past experiences as well as my
present beliefs and expectations. (This takes place at non-self- conscious
levels.) My agreement or disagreement expresses my evaluation of my
understanding. (This I am sometimes aware of.)
If you disagree with the communication processes as outlined above (as you
understand from the words), consider this: How comfortable would you be if
you knew that anyone could read your mind" and know exactly what you were
thinking or feeling? It certainly would be a different kind of world,"don't
you think?"
Taking Responsibility If we could read each other's minds directly and
completely, our human worlds would probably be healthier places. But as this
is not the case,we'll have to do the best with what we have. As far as we
know, our communication processes necessarily involve interpretations. Based
on our interpretations, we arrive at meanings. Our meanings are expressed
through our feelings, attitudes, prejudices, beliefs, values, etc. The kind
of society we help to create and support, our relationships, our social
institutions, and so on, all depend on our attitudes, beliefs, values, and
the like. We are not animals. We do not live our lives entirely according to
instinctive urges. Our societies are based on interpretations and meanings.
We have some measure of control over the ways we interpret things. With a
certain degree of alertness,we can recognize and, if necessary, review,
modify, and change our interpretations. We are self-reflexive beings. We
have the abilities to correct and improve our interpretations toward
probable higher "truth"values. It is easy for us to blame the politicians,
the system, the corporations, the media--anyone but ourselves--for our
social and other problems. We don't usually acknowledge the parts we
play--how we, through the meanings we give, contribute to the problems we
complain about. We could put much more effort into improving our thinking
toward becoming more critical thinkers and interpreters. Applying such
general-semantics principles as non-identity and non-allness could help us a
great deal to improve our thinking about our thinking. We need to ask
"our-selves" more often the question,"How do I know that what I believe is
so?" For our own well-being, we need to remind "our-selves" more often that
there are intrinsicdifferences between what we believe and what is going on.
Reprinted from the Spring and Fall 1991 issues of ETC: A Review of
GeneralSemantics. With permission.     Permission is hereby granted to share
electronic and hard copy versions of this text with individuals under
circumstances in which no direct payment is made by those to whom the text
is given for the text itself, the volume or other medium or online service
in which it is included, tuition or other payment for the course or seminar,
and so forth. This notice must remain a part of the text. Any other use is
reserved to the author and requires prior permission. For further
information, e-mail the ""Institute/a
or write: The Institute of General Semantics, 163 Engle Street, #4B,
Englewood, NJ 07631, USA.
Bee Brown
Member Theosophy NZ, TI.

Success is getting what you want.
Happiness is liking what you get.

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