Tyranny of Words

The Tyranny of Words, by Stuart Chase, was published in 1938 – five years after Korzybski’s Science and Sanity – making it the first popularisation of General Semantics (that we know about). Chase, like RAW, seemed a generalist among specialists – he’s been described as a “social theorist” and “economist”, but apparently he didn’t regard himself as a semanticist:

‘I took general semantics in the same way as I took Veblen, cultural anthropology, John Maynard Keynes, group dynamics, and cybernetics – as a discipline which would throw more light on human relations generally, and on communication in particular.’ – Stuart Chase*

Chase – also like RAW – makes subtle and illustrative use of Percy Bridgman’s ‘operationalism’ (see the ‘Fore-Words’ to Wilson’s Quantum Psychology for a brief overview of operationalism – Bridgman was a Nobel prize-winning physicist and an admirer of Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, and Korzybski reportedly read and admired Bridgman’s The Logic of Modern Physics).

Chase appears to have influenced some well-known people. Sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein became a serious student of General Semantics after coming to it via The Tyranny of Words. George Orwell commented somewhat negatively on a view he attributed – not quite correctly – to “Stuart Chase and others”, that “all abstract words are meaningless”. Even Richard Nixon cited Chase (as a “leading consumer advocate” in a message to Congress).

I ordered a copy of The Tyranny of Words from the UK’s lending library system, years ago, and it impressed me enough that I scanned large sections of it and converted to text with OCR software.

After my previous RAW semantics post about group generalisations in politics, I thought it’d be worth providing some excerpts from Chase’s book here, since he deals at length with “high-order abstractions” (such as big abstract nouns) and the typically – and seriously – darkening and degrading effect they have when (mis)used in politics, economics, etc.

Excerpts (in blue) from The Tyranny of Words:


What a remarkable term is ‘business’, especially in America! How is business? – not your business, but business-in-general. Statisticians toil over composite graphs and charts to answer this mythological question. If there is no such entity as ‘business’ – and by now we know there is not – it seems a little superfluous to be constantly taking its temperature. Business says. Business speaks. Business recovers its voice. Business views with alarm. Business is jubilant when the Supreme Court votes down the NRA. Business is sick. Business is terrible. Business runs through a cycle – charming image. […]

A business executive with whom I am associated asked me the other day, ‘What will be the reaction of the public to the new laws for retail price maintenance?’ […] There is no ‘public’ which is a useful concept in the premises. Calling it ‘John Q. Public’ does not help. Between us, we had to break down ‘public’ into a series of interested groups – New York retailers, retailers in the West, jobbing houses, customers of various kinds – before we could know what we were talking about and arrive at a valid decision.

Formal economics wanders in a veritable jungle of abstract terms. Here is a sample of the flora:

capital; capitalism
wages; the iron law of wages
purchasing power
production; distribution
interest; the long-term interest rate
profit the profit system
money: the gold standard
credit; debt; savings; securities
inflation; deflation; reflation
value; wealth
the law of diminishing returns
the entrepreneur
the economic man
free competition; the free market
the law of supply and demand
cost; income
price levels
marginal utility
monopoly; the trusts
individualism; business
socialism; public ownership
the consumer; the producer
the standard of living


Some of these terms are useful short cuts provided one does not objectify them. But if one employs them without being conscious of abstracting, they acquire a fictitious existence. Some have no discoverable referents. ‘Value’, for instance, is as elusive as ‘the Omnipotent’. Some have referents very difficult to locate: ‘capitalism’, ‘individualism’, ‘inflation’, ‘credit’, ‘money’, ‘business’. Some have referents easier to locate, provided one makes the rare effort to find them.

Following Bridgman, we might prepare a list of meaningless questions in economics:

1. Does capital produce wealth?
2. Is the consumer more important than the producer?
3. What is a reasonable profit?
4. Is man by nature co-operative or competitive?
5. Is fascism a kind of capitalism?
6. What is a classless society?
7. What is the American standard of living?
8. Are capital and labour partners?
9. Are we headed for inflation?
10. Is decentralization better than centralization?

These questions are either completely meaningless, or meaningless as they stand. Given a position in time and space with further description of the terms employed, qualified answers might be found for some. For instance, Margaret Mead studied a tribe in New Guinea where habits of co-operation were very strong. A hundred miles over the mountains she studied another tribe where competition was so ferocious that it threatened survival. On the basis of these observations we might venture a qualified answer to question 4. For question 8, one can say that capital and labour are partners in the same sense that Castor and Pollux are brothers – mythological matters both.

Korzybski observes that any study to become a science must begin with the lowest abstractions available, which means descriptions of happenings on the level of sense impressions. Economic literature usually reverses this procedure, starting with high-order terms and working down. Thus you will find in Chapter I of Dr. Blank’s Principles of Economics elaborate definitions of ‘land’, ‘labour’, ‘capital’, ‘wealth’, ‘profit’, ‘money’, ‘credit’, ‘property’, ‘marginal utility’. As any two economists have great difficulty in agreeing upon the precise meaning of these terms, the treatise begins with shaky assumptions. Worse follows when the shaky assumptions are woven into elaborate systems by deductive logic. The best fun which a professor of economics apparently gets out of his academic life is to demolish the theories of his confrères. […]

To extend agreement and make the study of economics conform to the scientific method, it is necessary to lay aside abstract definitions and apply the operational approach, What is Rufus1 doing on his farm? What is Roy1 doing at his factory bench? What is Junius1 doing in his bank? (A bank studied on the basis of what is going on inside without recourse to abstractions like ‘credit’, ‘liquidity’, ‘soundness’, is a pretty whimsical thing.) What is Sylvia1 doing at her desk? Observe and record what a great number of men and women are actually doing in furnishing themselves and the community with food, clothing, and shelter. Then proceed to inferences. Then proceed to general rules governing economic behaviour – if any can be found. Then check the rules with more first-hand observation. Never forget Adam1 acting, the date at which he acts, the place where he acts. […]

Inferences drawn by Adam Smith about the England of 1770, or by Karl Marx about the England, France and Germany of the 1850’s, are obviously worthless for the America of today. […]

The Wealth of Nations was published in the same year that Watt made a steam engine which would really work – the same year, incidentally, that the American Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed. The classicists were much influenced by notions about science, but they did not adopt the scientific method. They tried to erect economic laws like Newton’s laws of gravitation, but they did not copy Newton’s operational technique. It was like a little boy making himself a choo-choo after seeing a locomotive.

Editorial writers today are still infatuated with these ‘laws’ of a make-believe science. They pull them out of their heads with pontifical finality whenever reformers or Congressmen propose a measure which editors do not like. ‘Economic law cannot so cavalierly be set aside,’ they say. ‘We cannot circumvent the law of supply and demand any more than we can circumvent the law of gravitation.’ ‘Only crackpots would seek to outwit the immutable principles of economics.’

Classical economics not only was largely innocent of the scientific method; it also became a kind of theology selling indulgences to businessmen. As factories expanded after Watt’s steam engine, a philosophy was needed to give respectability and prestige to the rising class of manufacturers. The philosophy was first identified with the ‘natural laws’ of Newton. Then it twined itself like a boa constrictor (yes, I am conscious of abstracting) around Darwin’s hypothesis of the ‘survival of the fittest’. What a handout! The greatest good for the greatest number, so ran the dogma, arises from the unimpeded competitive activities of enlightened self-interest. The faster the stragglers are bankrupted and undone, the stronger the economic frame. What appears as competitive anarchy is not really anarchy at all, but a beneficent system of control by natural forces. The big fish eats the little fish, the strong businessman eats the weak. It is all very gratifying and lovely, and as remote from reality as the labours of Hercules.

In 1798, Malthus published his famous essay on population, one of the grandest examples of extrapolation on record. The essay was in part designed to answer William Godwin’s argument to the effect that mankind could achieve happiness through the use of reason. Malthus wanted to scotch the dangerous idea that happiness was in prospect for the mass of the people. (The principle of ‘original sin’ again). So by study of the exceedingly unreliable statistics of the time, he laid down two postulates: first, that population tends to grow at a geometrical rate; second that the food supply tends to grow at an arithmetical rate. The population of England was then 7,000,000; in a hundred years if the curve was followed it would be, he said, 112,000,000. If food was sufficient for the 7,000,000 in 1800, by 1900 the supply would expand to feed only 35,000,000 – ‘which would leave a population of 77,000,000 totally unprovided for.’

This fantastic hypothesis was then solemnly applied to the problem of poverty. As population was destined to leap ahead of food supply, restrained only by pestilence, war, and famine, it followed that measures to improve the living-standards of the mass of the people were futile. ‘It is, undoubtedly, a most disheartening reflection, that the great obstacle in the way of any extraordinary improvement in society, is of a nature that we can never hope to overcome.’ That stopped the fellow Godwin in his tracks. The essay was also used for decades as conclusive proof that reform laws were pernicious. In the second edition of his essay, in 1803, Malthus relented to the point where a new element was introduced into his equations. It the poor would employ ‘moral restraint’ in their procreational activities, they might possibly gain a notch or two on the food supply. It was very cheering news to the well-to-do. The poor had themselves to blame for their poverty and even if moral restraint was widely practised, poverty was largely inevitable anyhow.

* Stuart Chase quoted in an article by Robert Wanderer, in ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, March 1972

I originally posted a whole chapter of The Tyranny of Words to my Anxiety Culture site – it’s still available here.

2 thoughts on “Tyranny of Words

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  1. Some trivia I forgot* to mention: Robert A. Heinlein was reportedly introduced to General Semantics via Chase’s The Tyranny of Words. During the 30s/40s Heinlein became a serious student of GS.

    * I’ve now included a mention of this in the post.


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