First introduced as a concept by engineer Alfred Korzybski in Science and Sanity in 1933, General Semantics is an attempt to define and describe the symbol-using capabilities and limitations of human beings, providing a framework for understanding the direction of collective human psychological and technological development, and describing ways in which humans can grow more aware of the assumptions and prejudices they bring to any problem or situation, including the corresponding ability to change those assumptions if necessary.
General Semantics describes humans as:
General Semantics is an attempt to apply the methods and principles of modern science to other areas of human experience, with the intention of raising the quality of life for all. It is not therefore a purely academic area of study, but rather a tool for the improvement of human life and understanding. With this in mind, Korzybski said:
...experience shows that when the methods of general semantics are applied, the results are usually beneficial, whether in law, medicine, business, etc., be they in family, national, or international fields. If they are not applied, but merely talked about, no results can be expected.
One of the most famous formulations of General Semantics is the phrase "The map is not the territory". This phrase is intended to illustrate the point that, though a system of symbols (such as religious iconography, for example) starts out life as a tool which helps human beings to understand and analyze certain forms of experience (in this case, religious experiences), there is an inherent tendency in humanity to begin to treat the symbol-system as if it were itself real. This leads to great confusion when the symbol-system encounters symbols or concepts which do not fall within its sphere of description (for example, the iconography of another religion). It may seem, to those who use the symbol-system to understand the world, as if the conflicting symbols or concepts are unreal or dangerous somehow. This particular misunderstanding may have led to a great proportion of wars throughout human history, particularly wars which are religiously or idealistically motivated.
General Semantics is a very complex and refined system with applications in many areas both academic and practical, and has had a major influence on the field of linguistics in particular. Many technological utopians, for example Buckminster Fuller and Robert Anton Wilson, refer extensively to Korzybski's discoveries in their attempts to describe ways to improve the quality of life for all human beings. All such attempts involve the assertion that human beings simply must come to understand their own thoughts, or it will be our symbols that manipulate us, rather than vice versa.
A wealth of information about General Semantics, and links to further information, can be found at the home page of the Institute of General Semantics: http://www.general-semantics.org/