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Eissler, K. (1943). General Semantics, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Prevention: Alfred Korzybski. Amer. J. of Psychiatry, XCVIII, 1941, pp. 203–214.. Psychoanal Q., 12:299-301.
Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing: General Semantics, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Prevention: Alfred Korzybski. Amer. J. of Psychiatry, XCVIII, 1941, pp. 203–214.

(1943). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 12:299-301

General Semantics, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Prevention: Alfred Korzybski. Amer. J. of Psychiatry, XCVIII, 1941, pp. 203–214.

Kurt Eissler

No one will doubt that as yet psychiatric research is not based on as well defined principles and terminology as the exact sciences. Attempts to clarify psychiatry in its theoretical and practical aspects by the use of a purified terminology and by the evolvement of a scientific foundation which will liberate it from possible metaphysical ties should thus be welcomed by everyone interested in its progress. The author, director of the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago, gives a summary of his attempts in this direction. His contribution, however, does not move towards this goal, but rather tends to confuse the issues.

Two different aspects of his paper merit attention. One is a general revision of scientific thinking, a critique of Aristotelian logic; the other is the application of this position to psychiatry and psychotherapy. As to the first aspect, the author mainly expounds the principles of modern positivism, and the representatives of this school of philosophy will have to decide how much he contributes to the furtherance of modern epistomology or how much he simply advertizes modern terms.

The second aspect, however, concerning the technique of psychotherapy and the concepts of personality, deserves our full attention. Although general semantics is not a medical science and the author is 'not directly interested in the health, as such, of the students', his method of teaching general semantics 'can be applied to a great many life situations, particularly those involving fears, inferiority feelings, frustration, etc., and nervous tics… As a rule, in the middle of the seminar course, without ever mentioning those tics, with the acquiring of nervous balance, they disappear.' Furthermore, the author's methods apply to 'some heart, digestive, respiratory or "sex" disorders, chronic

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joint diseases, arthritis, dental caries, migraines, some skin diseases, alcoholism'.

The main source of maladjustment in the individual and of the turmoil in the world at large is Aristotelian thinking in definitions by 'intension', which cover similarities, whereas the correct way of thinking is in definitions by 'extension', which cover similarities and differences. If a person learns to think in 'extensional definitions' he undergoes a very wholesome change. He not only straightens out his personal problems, but his thalamus will be greatly benefited. 'The thalamus has no linquistic centers and so will not be affected directly by the old language of intensional structure, but it can be affected by extensional methods and extensional structure of language because thalamic factors are introduced.'

The author illustrates these assertions by showing how the process of extensionalization cures cases of hate: 'Some persons are so overwhelmed by hate that they have no affective energy left for positive feelings, and together with other symptoms the picture may resemble strikingly "dementia præcox" cases.' In most cases the author knows 'directly or indirectly' that this hate aims at a member of the family, e.g., the mother. 'But "mother" is a generalization, and so by intension the hate is generalized to "all mothers", which leaves the student lifeless…' The first step towards mental health appears to be a seminar in extensionalization. Next, the student is trained 'in indexing in his private life, in this case allocating his hate. We do not tell him "love your mama"; just the opposite, we allocate his hate and encourage hate for "that woman who bore him", a definite individual such as Smith.' The more he hates the real mother 'the better he gets, and positive feelings toward other people and himself appear'. The next step aims at eliminating 'this individualized hate by using dates'. 'If the student began to hate his "mother" (Smith 11920) twenty years ago, both the student and the "mother" were then entirely different persons… It is poor evaluation to generalize and project the hate of twenty years ago on today's changed conditions (Smith 11920 is not Smith 11940).'

This example is instructive, because it demonstrates the author's method of intellectualizing the patient's conflict, thus doing what most patients, for well known reasons, urge the analyst to do. Furthermore, it shows a superficial and distorted aping of some psychoanalytic findings, such as the uncovering of unconscious affects, the reference of affects to persons of infantile importance, the displacement of affects and the recovery of infantile memories. It is of historical interest to note that traces of psychoanalysis can be found even in this mixture of intellectualizing and systematizing procedures and of magical devices such as 'using a slight gesture of the hands to indicate absolute individuals in space-time, orders of abstractions, etc., involving thus the kinesthetic sense…'

At one point the author criticizes Freud: 'An illustration may be helpful, showing the harmful effect of some verbalization. Thus Freud uncritically picked the term "libido", and to his own detriment and the rest of the white race, spent a lifetime explaining that his "libido" is not "libidinous". Similarly, Freud ascribed one undifferentiated "sex" to infants, which revolted public opinion. If Freud had used the extensional devices, he would not have gotten into such difficulties. He would not have used the word "sex" without indexes,

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dates and quotes, and he would have explained that an infant has a sensitive organ which could be labelled "S10", at birth, "S21" at the age of one, "S32" at the age of two, etc., which are obviously different, although covered by the one abstract definitional "sex", and obvious only by the extensional techniques.'

Korzybski believes that the present crisis of our culture is referable to a wrong use of language. He appeals to psychiatrists to urge 'that governments should officially employ experts in neuropsychiatry, anthropology and general semantics to guide mankind toward sanity'. For the sake of these governments it would have been helpful had the author made obvious by extensional techniques (Smith 11942; Brown 11942) which psychiatrists he had in mind for these appointments. 'Sick Hitler' and 'humanly ignorant Mussolinis, Stalins and Mikadoes' will readily find and have found psychiatrists to prove that their governmental systems initiated new eras of security, vigor and health.

The author's paper is an illustration of a mechanism frequently found in individuals and groups, namely the reappearance of that against which the defense was directed in the defense itself. He tries to fight against the magic of words, and the upshot of his fight is a naïve belief in the miraculous effect of a new terminology.

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Article Citation

Eissler, K. (1943). General Semantics, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Prevention. Psychoanal. Q., 12:299-301

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