General Semantics vs. Scientology

The following article from General Semantics came to my attention earlier this evening.  The article including copyright notice follows in its entirety.  I am awating verification of the information from the copyright holder and will provide any update if available.

I am fulling willing to admit that I do not understand most of what is written here without further research into the topics.  The opinions and statements belong to the copyright holder and not to the owner of this blog.

At the bottom of the article is a link to the forum where this topic can be discussed.  I am looking forward to a civil discourse of the matter.

General Semantics vs. Scientology

José Klingbeil
(French version)

Copyright © 2002 José Klingbeil. The author hereby grants permission to use this article in electronic form only, in part or in whole, to any person or institution for educational purposes, provided no charge is made for such use.

I - The first-level links

1 - Alfred E. Van Vogt

Many of those who got interested in general semantics were attracted by it after reading the Null-A series by A. E. Van Vogt (AEVV). These novels had such an impact on their readers that general semantics soon became a fad among some Sci-Fi writers and fans, during the 50's of last century. At that time, the anti-science movement was not as strong as today and 'scientific progress' was positively loaded, from an 'emotional' point of view. Then, AEVV became interested in another discipline, Dianetics, invented by one of his colleagues, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (LRH). Dianetics later evolved, mainly for financial motives, into the Church of Scientology. So that we have a first link between general semantics and Scientology: they were both proselytised by AEVV. It must be granted that the link between the two is weak: after all, AEVV was no scientist, so he could not easily tell the difference between a scientifically based discipline (general semantics) and a pseudoscientific discipline (Dianetics). As stated by Eric S. Raymond (ESR):

"The Null-A novels, which actually used GS only in a rather superficial way, encouraged naive adherents to believe that GS held out the promise of turning man into SUPERMAN merely by teaching non-Aristotelian (null-A) habits of thought."
— Eric Steven Raymond, from
Comments on SF Encyclopedia.

2 - Lafayette Ronald Hubbard

At the time he wrote his first book, LRH acknowledged some of the works that had influenced him. There is indeed one reference to Korzybski (AK) in this book. In his later works, LRH never acknowledged anyone else for the 'ideas' he expressed. As stated by Eric S. Raymond, "The GS content had been entirely discarded from Scientology by 1960;" granted it ever existed. So we have a second link between general semantics and Scientology: LRH claimed that his works were partly based on general semantics. Now, that link is also weak, because anyone can claim, "My works are based on science," and so claim all pseudoscientific cults. Such a claim must be evaluated extensionally before it is accepted as true. Such an extensional evaluation is given below.

3 - Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner gave another link in his In the Name of Science (New York, Putnam, 1952) where he debunked both general semantics and Dianetics, but for totally different reasons. Here is the link mentioned by Gardner:


"The most prominent convert to dianetics from the ranks of medical men has been Dr. Joseph Augustus Winter. He was a general practitioner in St. Joe, Michigan, when John Campbell, Jr. introduced him in 1949, by correspondence, to Hubbard. Winter had previously been interested in Count Alfred Korzybski's methods of treating neurotics by teaching them general semantics, and like so many other members of the semantics movement, he found dianetics even more intriguing."
— Martin Gardner, In the Name of Science, Putnam, New York, 1952.


I am curious to know how many is "so many other members of the semantics movement" but as there is little chance of an answer from Gardner, I will just notice that Winter had at best three years training in general semantics when he 'converted' to Dianetics, which is to say very little for such a discipline. At worse, Gardner's link is a post hoc fallacy, combined with a fallacy of argument by innuendo (i.e. suggesting that general semantics is pseudoscience 'because' some converted from the former to the latter). As will be shown below, belief in the premises of general semantics is quite incompatible with belief in those of Dianetics/Scientology.

4 - Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa

Finally, we have the point of view of the general semantics officials themselves. Did AK ever acknowledge a link between general semantics and Dianetics (having died in 1950, he could not have evaluated Scientology, the offspring of Dianetics)? No trace of that anywhere in the records of the Institute of General Semantics. Indeed, a prominent member of the International Society for General Semantics and former US senator, Samuel I. Hayakawa, viewed Dianetics in a rather negative way:


"The lure of the pseudoscientific vocabulary and promises of dianetics cannot but condemn thousands who are beginning to emerge from scientific illiteracy to a continuation of their susceptibility to word-magic and semantic hash."
— S. I. Hayakawa, "Dianetics: From Science-fiction to Fiction-science," pp.280-293, Etc: A Review of General Semantics vol 8:4 (1951).


This link is strong and negative, in that general semantics officials do not acknowledge any significant similarity between the two disciplines. Quite the opposite in fact: Dianetics is exposed, by one of the prominent members of a general semantics organisation, as a pseudoscience one year before Gardner did it, in 1952.

II - The second-level links

After some research on the Internet, it seems that 'all' opinions linking general semantics and Scientology are based on the above links. In other words they constitute some kind of second-level (or third-level, etc.) links, based on the first-level ones. Here are some of the most well known references.

Jon Atack

An ex-member of the Church of Scientology himself, Jon Atack has an extensive documentation about the cult:


"The notion that this [reactive] mind thinks in identities comes from Korzybski's General Semantics. Initially, before deciding that he was the sole source of Dianetics and Scientology (3), Hubbard acknowledged his debt to these thinkers (4)."
— Jon Atack, from
Hubbard and the Occult.


Here Jon Atack repeats, as hearsay, what he read from LRH, having probably no direct knowledge of general semantics. No such formulation as the "reactive mind" exist in general semantics and AK would never have used the elementalistic term "think" without scare quotes. My hypothesis is that LRH 'acknowledged' his debt only to attract those who 'fell' for general semantics, such as AEVV. Jon Atack says that LRH later dropped these claims, which confirms ESR's assertion that "The GS content had been entirely discarded from Scientology by 1960;". There again, granted it ever existed, since the claim remains unsupported. Nevertheless, Jon Atack makes various claims of the sort in his publications:


"Hubbard also drew upon Korzybski's General Semantics"
— Jon Atack, from
Hubbard and Hypnosis.


Again, no justification is given. Jon Atack is again repeating hearsay.


"However, Hubbard was also to deny Freud: "As a matter of fact, to Breuer's first belief in the subject of mental catharsis and to Korzybski belong the only acknowledgments that Dianetics really would care to make. Because both General Semantics and Breuer furnished some data. Sigmund Freud is not in there ... But Breuer was pretty right. It was Breuer's theory that full recall equalled full sanity ... The jump is from Spencer to Breuer to Korzybski to Dianetics. (32). [Research and Discovery, vol.1, p.440-441]"
— Jon Atack, from
Possible Origins of Dianetics and Scientology.


There again, Jon Atack quotes LRH, who was still acknowledging AK for something he does not mention. As we have seen above, the so-called "reactive mind" is certainly not a formulation borrowed from general semantics.


"Hubbard added to Freud's therapy Korzybski's theory of identification (the "reactive mind" thinks in identities, the "analytical mind" in similarities and differences. Hubbard attributes this to Korzybski in Scientology 8-8008, on p.44), and the notions of natal and prenatal memory."
— Jon Atack, from
Possible Origins of Dianetics and Scientology.


None of what is said in this quote can reasonably originate from general semantics. "Identification" is a technical term in gs, but the AK's "theory of identification," if such a theory ever existed, is not about any "reactive mind," "analytical mind," etc. Jon Atack just repeats LRH's claims.


"The notion of the misunderstood word derives from Korzybski: "General Semantics was of use to Dianetics. I started going back looking for the first time a word had appeared ... There might be some misdefinitions ... General Semantics is definitely of use in the definition of a word. (54). [R&D vol1, p.440]"
— Jon Atack, from
Possible Origins of Dianetics and Scientology.


Again, none of what is said in this quote can reasonably originate from general semantics. At best this could come from some semantic theory. Jon Atack just repeats LRH's claims.

Cyril Volper

"The twenty-four Logics are adaptations of Alfred Korzybski's "General Semantics" and contain a curious mixture of Aristotelian and what Korzybski called "non-Aristotelian" logic. Hubbard appears to have read Korzybski's 800-page "Science and Sanity" and to have taken the most sweeping and simply stated "Logical Facts" therefrom. A major factor in Scientology, which gives it the appearance of a technology, is the aspect of relativism derived directly from "General Semantics" and called by Hubbard "Gradient Scales". In Hubbard's Gradient Scales, human characteristics are given arbitrary values in relation to each other as can be seen from the brief example of the Tone Scale given in the last chapter."
— Cyril Volper, from
The Mind Benders, Scientology - Chapter 2.


As for Jon Atack's claims, and although it is presented as factual, nothing of what is expressed in this quote can be reasonably related to general semantics. For AK, non-Aristotelian logic was the infinite-valued logic of probability, which included as a special case binary logic. The relativism of AK consisted in stating that two individuals would see the 'same' event differently, and say nothing related to any "Gradient Scales."


"Korzybski's theory of logic says thought arrives at incorrect answers by considering there to be only the alternatives of Black or White, Good or Bad, Right or Wrong (claimed to be Aristotelian!) and he propounds a theory of semantic usage which would precisely indicate the shadings of greyness, the degree of goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness."
— Cyril Volper, from
The Mind Benders, Scientology - Chapter 2.


Again if binary logic was called Aristotelian in AK's works, there was no "theory of semantic usage" and AK never spoke about "shades of greyness," something that would neglect the various levels, so important to general semantics. I can only suppose that this was LRH's interpretation that Volper projected onto AK, probably without any direct knowledge of AK's work.


The Scientological adaptation of this theory shows typical Hubbardian enthusiasm by taking the Gradient Scales to absolute points. The Tone Scale is extended from the known levels of Fear (1.0), Anger (1.5), Boredom (2.5), Enthusiasm (4.0), to take but a few of the arbitrary values, and extends it to Serenity of Beingness (40.0) and states this to be an attainable absolute. Hubbard also states Tone 40.0 to be such an exalted state as to be unreal within the physical universe, e.g. the player in the game of life would have such superior abilities as to be unable to play."
— Cyril Volper, from
The Mind Benders, Scientology - Chapter 2.


What we have there 'is' pure pseudoscience crap. At least, nothing is attributed to general semantics in this paragraph.

Eric Steven Raymond

ESR gives two entries with "general semantics" as the header, the first one being notes on the next one (as stated by ESR):  


There are significant errors and omissions in this entry. [...] The influence of GS on Dianetics is not probable but certain. My grandfather was an early student of GS who flirted with Dianetics and knew L. Ron Hubbard slightly. What he told me is backed up by documentary evidence; Hubbard latched onto some GS ideas during the '40s and folded them into Dianetics and what became later Scientology. The GS content had been entirely discarded from Scientology by 1960; my personal suspicion is that Hubbard didn't want anything in the system that might actually teach his victims how to think effectively.
— Eric Steven Raymond, from Comments on SF Encyclopedia.


ESR speaks about his grandfather, who knew LRH "slightly," but fails to explain how his grandfather's knowledge of LRH gave him the "certainty" that general semantics influenced Dianetics. This is at best an acknowledgement of hearsay of what LRH had written (the famous documentary evidence). And anyway, ESR acknowledges that the gs content had been discarded from Scientology by 1960, because LRH didn't want to "teach his victims how to think effectively." So that, if general semantics influenced Dianetics, it was rather in a 'good' way but that 'good ' was later discarded. What we have here is, at best, a second-level link, probably based on Hubbard's doubtful claims. Then, we have the "general semantics" entry itself:


GENERAL SEMANTICS (proposed entry)
A quasi-philosophical movement founded in Chicago in 1938 by Count Alfred Korzybski ("AK"), whose "Science And Sanity'' (1933) was the foundation text of the movement. GS teaches that all linguistic representations discard most of reality ("The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined.'') and in particular that much un-sanity is caused by adherence to the Aristotelian representation of two-valued either-or logic, which Korzybski saw as being built into Indo-European language structures. From this simple beginning, [...] Korzybski developed a complex, controversial, jargon-riddled system of what he called "mental hygiene'' intended to increase the student's effective intelligence. These ideas, retailed in more accessible form by Samuel Hayakawa's "Language In Thought And Action'' (1941), Stuart P. Chase's "The Tyranny of Words'', and other secondary sources, achieved surprising success in the 1940s and early 1950s and influenced many SF writers of the period (including L. Ron HUBBARD, who coopted some GS themes into DIANETICS). [...] After 1955 GS itself entered a period of decline, becoming popularly associated with SCIENTOLOGY and widely dismissed as PSEUDO-SCIENCE.
— Eric Steven Raymond, from
Comments on SF Encyclopedia.


When he asserts that "GS teaches that all linguistic representations discard most of reality", ESR probably refers to the second premise of general semantics "a map does not cover all the territory," a misquote. He repeats his claim about the cooptation of some "GS themes" into Dianetics, but still does not state which ones. Then, general semantics became, according to ESR, "popularly associated" with Scientology. That could be an appeal to popularity (ad populum fallacy). And it was "widely dismissed as pseudo-science," (by how many and who made that statistics?) perhaps through a fallacy of guilt by association, or more probably because of Gardner's book, which is packed with misinterpretations of AK's work as ESR points out:


"Gardner's Fads and Fallacies is generally IMO an excellent book, but his section on Korzybski was a poorly researched hatchet job."
— Eric Steven Raymond, from
Comments on SF Encyclopedia.

Other links

There are a few other links one can easily find searching the Internet. Most are based on Jon Atack's and Cyril Volper's second-level links, that is to say they are third and even fourth level links. Some are personal opinions without any apparent support, such as Ralph E. Kenyon Jr's:


"General semantics and Scientology share a number of premises, but the separation of 'body-mind' is not one of them."


Kenyon claims a positive link but fails to support it, by stating instead one of the many differences ! He goes on with an 'explanation':


"The difference in only one premis[e] yields Euclidean "flat" space versus non-Euclidean "curved" space - two entirely different entities"


This way, Ralph E. Kenyon Jr adds a fallacy of false analogy to his long list, by implying that there is only a difference of one premise between general semantics and Scientology, although he acknowledges that this difference could lead to vast differences (but anyway Euclidean geometry is still mathematical science, as is non-Euclidean geometry). As shown below, there are many more differences and the result is that we depart from science, to enter the pseudoscience and quackery of Scientology.

III - Direct evidence

Let's try to find some similarities between general semantics and Scientology, as direct evidence and objective basis of what LRH claims. The term "identification" is used in both disciplines. Here is the Scientologist definition as given in their Glossary of Scientology and Dianetics Terms:


A=A=A=A: anything equals anything equals anything. This is the way the reactive mind thinks, irrationally identifying thoughts, people, objects, experiences, statements, etc., with one another where little or no similarity actually exists. Everything is everything else. Mr. X looks at a horse knows it’s a house knows it’s a schoolteacher. So when he sees a horse he is respectful.


In general semantics the definition of identification is a "confusion of orders of abstractions", confusing a word with what it represents, etc. Confusing a horse with a house and a house with a schoolteacher, is a fallacy of too broad definition. LRH probably missed the point and 'borrowed' a word without understanding its meaning in general semantics. Another similarity is the use of a "psychogalvanometer". In Scientology, it is called E-meter and is defined in the Glossary of Scientology and Dianetics Terms as:


E-meter: the Hubbard Electrometer is a religious artifact used in the Church confessional. It, in itself does nothing, and is used by ministers only, to assist parishioners in locating areas of spiritual distress or travail. The E-meter is not intended or effective for diagnosis, treatment or prevention of any disease. It passes a tiny current through the preclear's body. This current is influenced by the mental masses, pictures, circuits and machinery. When the unclear pre-clear thinks of something, these mental items shift and this registers on the meter.


In general semantics the psychogalvanometer is introduced by AK in Science and Sanity, p. 119:


It is a well-established experimental fact that all nervous and 'mental' activities are connected with, or actually generate, electrical currents, which of late are scrupulously studied by the aid of an instrument called the psychogalvanometer.21 It is not suggested that electrical currents are the only ones which are involved.


In other words, the 'psychogalvanometer' is used to measure electrical currents and nothing else, just as it can be used in any scientific electrical experiment. This has no relation with the religious use or any hidden and doubtful 'psychotherapeutic' use (despite the denial in the Scientological definition). More generally, some have used a 'psychogalvanometer' during general semantics seminars to demonstrate non-elementalism of body-mind: transpiration influences the conductivity of the body and this effect is measured by the device, just as a kind of very limited and primitive 'lie detector.' Finally, Scientology uses another word that AK used: "sanity." Here is the definition from the Glossary of Scientology and Dianetics Terms:


sanity: the ability to recognize differences, similarities and identities. The legal definition of sanity is the “ability to tell right from wrong.” The better one can tell differences, the more rational he is. The less one can tell differences, no matter how minute, and know the WIDTH of those differences and the closer one comes to thinking in identities (A=A), the less sane he is. See also A=A=A=A.


It is quite certain that someone who confuses a horse with a house with a schoolteacher is less than sane or very short-sighted, at best. Based on the definition of identification in Scientology, it inherits from its too broad definition. "Recognize identities" is meaningless in general semantics, since one of its premises is that no two things are identical in all respects so that there is nothing to be recognised. In general semantics, the less one confuses orders of abstractions, the saner. But while Korzybski devoted his work to the avoidance of these confusions, Scientology fosters these confusions, the first of which is the body and mind elementalism (reifying these two words is an identification). In other words, there is a vague similarity in the definition of sanity, but Scientology does not apply the definition it preaches. That is the only direct evidence of similarities between the two disciplines. At best, these are inconclusive. Now, let's take a look at the differences without which this study would not be 'complete.' The following list is not a closed one.


Scientology General semantics

Based on blind faith, as a 'religion'

Based on modern science, supports 'critical thinking' (extensionality)

Based on body and mind elementalism

Cautions against elementalism, bringing psychosomatic integration