Pages Navigation Menu

Course Profile: General Semantics MOOC

Instructor Steve Stockdale at New Mexico State University discusses the upcoming Introduction to General Semantics MOOC, hosted on, which starts January 13.

General Semantics MOOC

Paul Keller via Flickr

Editor’s note: Thank you to Class Central for developing and providing this article.


What is General Semantics?

General Semantics is an over-arching field that tries to integrate: a) what we know about ourselves, b) what we know about the world around us, and c) what that tells us about how we need to be evaluating our experiences. So it includes the physical sciences as well as what’s going on inside of ourselves from a physiological and neurological standpoint. The goal is to derive a pattern of behavior that’s consistent with what we know about how the brain works and how the world around us works. We have imperfect sense organs, and what we think we see is really more of an inference. We are continually going through an assembly process in terms of understanding the world.

General Semantics provides a way to construct your own worldview from an empirical basis, and be aware of our biases. The way we make sense of our experiences is through language, and in order to make our language meaningful, we need to understand some of its limitations. Some people repeat aphorisms mindlessly like “It was just meant to be” or “There is a reason for everything” without having any defensible or deliberate basis. What is important is not only what you believe, but why you believe it. In this way General Semantics is like critical thinking, and can almost be seen as a vaccine to modern day advertising and public relations.


How did General Semantics start and why haven’t I heard about it before?

General Semantics was first developed by Alfred Koryzbski, a Polish immigrant to the United States, who published Science and Sanity in 1933. He is famous for saying “The map is not the territory”, referring to how language serves as a map of the territory of our experiences. General Semantics was best popularized by S. I. Hayakawa (past President of San Francisco State University and ex-U.S. Senator), who wrote Language in Thought and Action, probably the most widely read textbook on General Semantics.

Education and pretty much all intellectual pursuits have become so specialized that there is really no room for a discipline like General Semantics in many universities. However, it is being taught in some Communication programs and Schools of Journalism. There is also a bias towards the notion that everything can be researched and can be tested empirically. But, for example, if educational research is so great, why are our schools in such bad shape? The reason is that when your subjects are humans, there are so many variables, you can’t isolate them. General Semantics tries to integrate this human element into our understanding of the world.


Who is the target audience for this course?

This course would appeal most to academics, communications professionals or people involved in journalism. But broadly speaking, anybody who continually asks “why” could benefit from this, because it has to do with thinking better. It could be directly applicable to the work of doctors, lawyers, teachers, salespeople, etc.


Can you give examples of something concrete people will get out of the course?

An example is how people think about language. Image a situation where there is a doctor, a patient and a lab technician in a room. The lab technician hands a report to the doctor and the doctor says to the patient, “You have cancer.” Now you can’t understand this fully just by looking at the definition of the sentence, “You have cancer.” It obviously means something vastly different to the patient than it does to the doctor, than it does to the lab technician. So the goal is to try to get ourselves to think in this more personalized way. Many times, especially in politics, for example, people are reacting just to the words rather than what other people mean by those words.

Another concrete example is we emphasize delayed reactions, for example counting to ten when you get emotional. You are basically trying to train the new part of your brain (the cortex) to temper the older part of your brain by becoming aware of your emotions and then thinking your way through them.


Can you tell a little about yourself and the other instructors?

I was a Trustee and then Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics from 1996-2007. I taught “General Semantics for Mass Communications Practitioners” as an adjunct in the Schieffer School of Journalism at TCU (Texas Christian University). Now I am Director of IT at the New Mexico State University, Grants Community College Campus. Professor Mary Lahman teaches in the Communication Studies department at Manchester University in Indiana, and Greg Thompson did a postdoc focused on General Semantics at U.C. San Diego. He’s now at BYU (Brigham Young University), and his interest in GS is from a cultural anthropology perspective.


How did you select your MOOC platform from which to organize your MOOC?

We use Canvas (owned by Instructure, which hosts at our university, so I was familiar with it. I attended a summer conference hosted by Instructure and they were encouraging people to offer courses on the platform. Mary contacted me in July with a question regarding her general semantics course. I mentioned the MOOC possibility to her and she was all for it, as was Greg. We put together the proposal, submitted it, had a screening interview and got approved. Instructure has been very helpful thus far in setting up the course. I’m not sure what their business plan is since they aren’t charging anything to host the courses. Being a major educational technology company, I think they were quick to see Coursera, Udacity, etc. offering these MOOC courses, and probably thought, “Hey we’re in online education so we need to jump in to this.” From my standpoint, I think it’s got great potential for the future of education. We’re really looking forward to the experience.


Charlie Chung (4 Posts)

My background is in software and management consulting, throughout which I've developed various internal and external training courses. My interests are in cognitive psychology, pedagogy, and lifelong learning. Currently, I'm Chief Course Curator at Class Central, a comprehensive MOOC directory provider, and an advisor to several edtech ventures.

One Comment

  1. Check out the linguistics MOOCs on the VLC. The Nature of meaning was successfully offered last fall.