Language in Thought and Action

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 13, 2010 in Reviews

I’ve been reading Hayakawa’s classic Language in Thought and Action, which is a beautifully written self-defense book against bewitchment by language. Its program of General Semantics was apparently quite influential on Eliezer Yudkowsky of Less Wrong (“the map is not the territory,” etc.). It also heavily influenced two popular pseudo-sciences: Dianetics and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

Some of General Semantics is uncontroversial, but it has lots of problems, as outlined in Gardner’s Fads and Fallcies (which calls it a “cult”) and, more briefly and recently, in The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Roughly: General Semantics is verificationist, suffers the same problems as logical positivism did, and does not avail itself of the resources of the neo-verificationism of Michael Dummett.

Language in Thought and Action has sold over a million copies, and I don’t know of another popular book focused on linguistic self-defense (except for another General Semantics book, Drive Yourself Sane).

The best I can recommend are the chapters on language in logic textbooks, and also philosophy of language textbooks like Lycan’s Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction or the more polemical Language and Reality by naturalists Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny.

Can anyone recommend a good popular-level book of self-defense against bewitchment by words like Language in Thought and Action, but grounded in a more credible theory of semantics? (If not, I may have to write exactly that, one day!)

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Young December 13, 2010 at 4:27 pm

If you want to do language you first need to understand the mind. The way to do that is to read “rediscovery of the Mind” By John Searle (he is the most clear and the easiest to read). Then read one of the many anthologies in philosphy of mind. Ignore daniel dennet and you will be ok. NLP is a pack of lies.


Luke Muehlhauser December 13, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Because philosophy of mind/cognitive science is such a fast-moving field, I fear Searle’s book is outdated.


D'Gisraeli December 14, 2010 at 5:22 am

Incidentally I’m finishing this book right now.
Lots of cons, but many insights too. The influence logical positivism is clearly seen. Tho, I still find the book very useful from many aspects.


D'Gisraeli December 14, 2010 at 7:27 am

Concerning future reading, check out “Meaning and Argument”


Luke Muehlhauser December 14, 2010 at 8:34 am


The one by Ernest Lepore?


D'Gisraeli December 14, 2010 at 10:59 am

Yes, Maybe useful.
A probably more relevant & fresh book (2010);

I never seen any thing as focused as Language in Thought and Action on argument.


Luke Muehlhauser December 14, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Thanks again.


JS Allen December 15, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Aren’t you thinking of Korzybski? Korzybski is where I first discovered “map is not the territory” and general semantics, in a used book I got from a library book sale when I was 12.


Luke Muehlhauser December 15, 2010 at 8:42 pm


Yeah. Hayakawa dude was Korzybski’s student and popularizer. Language in Thought and Action is a course in Korzybski’s General Semantics.


JS Allen December 15, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Oh, got it. The link to the book seems broken for me in Google Chrome so I was going from memory.

The idea of “linguistic self-defense” is pretty much self-help, so it’s asking too much to demand scientific rigor, IMO. It’s all folk psychology, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Aristotle and Cicero are still valuable resources on the topic today, and nobody would say that they had a refined understanding of neurobiology of consciousness. The Paul Graham post you linked to recently was pretty good, and equally completely ungrounded in concrete science or philosophy.

At that same library book sale I mentioned, I picked up Fritz Perl’s book covering Gestalt Therapy (I don’t remember the title, but it’s the primary book on the topic). He also beats on the map/territory distinction, and found some great applications. The truth is, philosophy of perception abandoned gestalt interpretation long ago, as did any scientists of consciousness. We think that the gestalt interpretation is not physically accurate, but that has absolutely zero relation to the techniques’ effectiveness. And, while NLP is a lot of snake oil, there is a lot of value in the early writings on Virginia Satir (Gestalt therapist), and Milton Erickson. NLP’s meta model is a useful framework for detecting and correcting linguistic problems — they admit that it’s an arbitrary and unscientific framework, but it’s useful.

Heck, even Wayne Dyer’s “Pulling Your Own Strings” has a fairly useful list of linguistic tricks that people play on each other, and on themselves. He even has some hilariously sociopathic practice exercises you can do to rid yourself of the linguistic bewitchments. It’s been 20 years since I’ve read any of these, but I’m pretty sure my memory serves.

Of course, many of the classics on propaganda, persuasion, behavioral psychology, etc. overlap with linguistics. And one can glean lots of techniques from the deconstructionists. I really enjoyed Ecco’s writings on Semiotics.


JS Allen December 16, 2010 at 8:27 pm

BTW, this recent Robin Hanson post makes an interesting point; current theories need to be taken with just as much salt as in the past.


Pleaides357 April 10, 2011 at 10:05 am

Thank you, I’ve been following a trail begun by a mention of Korzybski’s book to Hayakawa’s (trying to determine the best to start with)… thank you all for the recommendations above. Always fascinated by the workings of consciousness.
JS Allen, thank you for comments on NLP and Dyer… I’ve been involved with various healing groups for years and have finally made myself a voluntary outcast for finding (humorous) fault most of it (“The Secret” was the end).
I’d never heard the term “linguist bewitchment”, but I watch in horror as many I know fall under the spell of media and promotional influence. I thought there was something wrong with me for seeing it as a problem. I hope to find through reading that I am just seeing through… and learn how to understand and work in a world that seems increasingly “under the influence”
Can anyone recommend the best book to begin for someone who had not taken courses in the subject?


Tom January 28, 2012 at 7:18 am

Regarding snake oil and linguistic bewitchment, I have recently been intrigued by medical studies on the undeniable effectiveness of placebos. Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard has spent the last 40 years studying what he calls “The Relaxation Response” or “The Placebo Response” (as opposed to the placebo effect). He reports in his latest book (the title escapes me) the results of a study he just completed (2008 or 09) in which untrained beginners in basic meditation techniques (he describes them exactly but, as with the title of the book, I can’t recall right now) were able in just six or eight weeks to change the expression of approximately 500 genes related to immune function and response! Also, there are studies being done where doctors are giving patients placebo pills, telling the patients they are placebo pills, the bottles SAY they are placebos and the people’s various conditions are improving to a statistically significant degree.

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

So what does all that mean? Does anything have a meaning before we observe it? Is light a wave or a particle? Is the homeless guy I gave a ride to the other day relating to me or to someone who exists in his head?

O.K., that one was easy. He was talking to the guy in his head.

Do any of us know what anything “is”? Does it matter? Sigh.

To rephrase Jack Nicholson as “The Joker”: I don’t know if it’s true, but I know what works for me.”

The challenge each of us faces is not the BIG Questions about Ultimate Reality. The challenge is, how will you construct the Matrix of your own mind? Do you want to divorce yourself from your fellow humans and create a world only you know and experience, like my homeless passenger? Or do you want to effectively connect with others through a shared and sharing of physical reality?

Hey! This is America, man. You are free to do either one or any combination of the two; or the three, four, five or X ideas that are out there.

You can be a Cafeteria Catholic or a Chinese Menu Atheist Philosopher and nobody can stop you. The only question I think is important (unfortunately) echoes Dr. Phil’s catchphrase:

How’s that working for you?

My only piece of real advice? Don’t take it too seriously. It’s all just mental masturbation anyway. That is, unless you believe in an afterlife with a Judgment Day. Otherwise, accept the empirical truth and laugh: None of us gets out of here alive.


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