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General Semantics Certificate Course

A Report

A focus of knowledge production and exchange ought to contribute in some way to the amelioration of conflicts in our collective and individual lives. Language is one such medium through which we as social beings attempt to resolve conflicts and contradictions. General Semantics is a ‘new’ area of knowledge the main concern of which is to deploy language as an instrument for reducing human conflict. In an attempt to understand this new area, the Forum on Contemporary Theory organized a national workshop on “Cognitive Skills for the 21st Century” during 4th and 6th November, 2007 at Baroda. The immensely gratifying response at this workshop motivated the Forum to further the impact of General Semantics in other places in the country. With a rather generous support from Shri Balvantbhai Parekh, Chairman, Pidilite Industries, Mumbai, and also as part of its on-going commitment to the field of General Semantics, the Forum on Contemporary Theory in association with the Department of English, University of Mumbai, conducted its 1st General Semantics Certificate Course during May 5th and 10th 2008 at Mumbai. The course was attended by a number of students and teachers from and around Mumbai. Prafulla C. Kar, Director, Centre for Contemporary Theory and General Semantics, introduced the rationale and theme of the course. The introductory remarks by Shri Balvantbhai Parekh ended on a relevant point – the importance of holistic thinking, of regarding the self as a whole and not in terms of a split between the mind and the body.

The resource persons at the course included Deepa Misra (Department of English, CHM College, Ulhasnagar, Thane); Devkumar Trivedi; Prafulla C. Kar (Director, Centre for Contemporary Theory and General Semantics); Lajwanti Chatani (Department of Political Science, M. S. University of Baroda, Vadodara); Pravesh Jung Golay (Department of Philosophy, Pune University, Pune); Pramod K. Pandey (Department of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi); and Soni Wadhwa (Department of Mass Communication, Wilson College, Mumbai).

 

The course began with Devkumar Trivedi’s session titled “Me Many Multiple” with a strong emphasis on spontaneity and language. Referring to the different styles of reading and ways of comprehending, Mr. Trivedi put forth the idea that new ways should expunge our colored prejudices of reading and comprehension, and in turn, our daily interactions. He stressed on the significance of the praxis of language as suggested by Alfred Korzybski in his concepts of ‘indexing and hyphenating’ as workable solutions to contemporary conflicts emerging out of the existing language structure.

 

In her talk, Deepa Misra cautioned that language structures can enslave rather than empower in many ways. She focused on Korzybski’s notion of structural-differential and the idea that thinking happens at two levels – silent and verbal. By focusing on the nature and relevance of e-prime language techniques suggested by Korzybski she stressed on the need to move from a language-centered reality to an object-centered reality which would avoid (un)certainty within the existing language systems. Dr. Misra, by employing several illustrations, demonstrated how e-prime language techniques do mitigate the possibility of conflict and confusion.

 

Through her talk,  “General Semantics: Some Reflections” Lajwanti Chatani touched upon some basic concepts of General Semantics by looking at the presupposition that developments in natural sciences are responsible for giving human beings a better life. The problem pertaining to behavior and conflict, she pointed out, is essentially a problem of modernity. General Semantics is a way of introspection and understanding how to use rationality to achieve a conflict-free society. However, the pragmatics behind the possibility of such an approach remains debatable. She explained Korzybski’s identification of human beings as symbolic beings who attach value to symbols by abstracting and carrying culture, which also constitutes the cause of conflict and difference. Dr. Chatani opined that language, as a carrier of culture too, plays a major role in causing conflicts. The underlying argument of General Semantics then, as she argued, is that we have to indulge in careful abstractions. General Semantics, therefore, in a manner similar to feminism, is an interesting praxis since it allows for the recognition of difference and debunks established norm. 

 

The sessions by Soni Wadhwa focused on General Semantics and its possible bearings on the media and the notion of the self. She focused on several examples from media texts to show how the linguistic and semantic structures of language used therein reveal certain assumptions about our lives, commodities and people around us. She problematized the concept of the self vis-ŕ-vis General Semantics – reflecting how texts like self-help books assume certain things about the self and construct a whole new set of diagnosed problems and therefore solutions around them.

 

Drawing from the linguistics’ perspective, Pramod K Pandey dealt with language vis-ŕ-vis real life situations and its impact on everyday life. Misevaluation, he noted, occurs due to overgeneralization, dichotomous reasoning, ‘should’ statements, and disqualifying deletions. Thinking patterns, in terms of seeing different things in the light of their similarities or differences, according to him, needed to be recognized as potential sites for contributing to team work and for avoiding conflicts. General Semantics, he argued, recognizes and accommodates the potential of these thinking patterns and suggests ways to enhance the possibilities of engaging with a given situation. Dr. Pandey suggested that General Semantics needs to be seen as a prolegomenon to theory, and not as a fully developed theory.

 

Pravesh Jung Golay engaged with General Semantics at a theoretical level by explaining it withi the framework of the Aristotelian and Non-Aristotelian systems of logic. He demonstrated how General Semantics needs to be seen as a post-war reflection on development which has of course been a concern for various other approaches as well. Dr. Golay pointed out that non-Aristotelian systems in the twenty-first century engage with some of the same age-old pertinent questions about the relationship between language and reality. He elaborated on the implications of a language mirrored reality which is subject to constant change. He explicated Korzybski’s concern regarding the premises that justify the acceptance of a non-Aristotelian system wherein Korzybski holds the idea that his system is not anti-Aristotelian; it is in tune with time-binding and indexing and highlights differences in the contexts of relative truth. With Korzybski, language does not become chaotic – it only goes on to accommodate the contingency of the situation. Dr. Golay also dealt with the issue that General Semantics tends to invoke two extreme responses – either it is perceived to be akin to spirituality or it is seen to be “nothing new”. The pressing question here is: how do we bring about the transformation from a rigid, definable world to a world that is understood (in language) partially?

 

Prafulla C. Kar spoke about the map/territory collapse where he explained the importance of General Semantics in the light of philosophical/literary musings over space and representation. For him, General Semantics is not a cult, but a process of intervention. It is a critical response to the certainty of modernism – a response which is based on a more careful interpretative and relative mode of understanding. It is not that the territory cannot be mapped but that the map cannot comprehend the complexity of the territory.

 

 

The lectures as well as the presentations by the participants stirred a lot of enthusiasm about the subject among the participants. The critical interventions of the participants enabled to reflect upon the intellectual standpoints that General Semantics leads to. The presentations by the participants touched upon diverse perspectives and ways that borrow a lot from General Semantics as a basic methodology – from language to politics, management to media, journalism and advertising ethics. Some papers focused on tracing parallels for General Semantics in Indian philosophical traditions. A few other papers were critical of General Semantics as a possible approach towards language.