Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver

A Language Deeper than Words

Conversations with Jeffrey Mordkowitz and Martha Santer on General Semantics and Sensory Awareness.

Edited by Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt, May 2016.

In many of her workshops Charlotte Selver mentioned the work of Alfred Korzybski, General Semantics, to underscore the importance of how we speak about our experience/from experience, and how we listen to others. Charlotte would tell us about this Polish count’s experience of the devastations of war which led him to wonder “why must there be war?” to which, according to Charlotte, he found a compelling answer: “Because people don’t listen to each other.”

She would then often attempt to explain “how it comes to the word,” as she put it, from what Korzybski called “silent levels” of experiencing. I was always intrigued by her elaborations but I could never quite grasp what was really meant by General Semantics and how it was applied.

Charlotte Selver was introduced to General Semantics in the 1950s after the long-time secretary and executrix of Korzybski’s literary estate, Charlotte Schuchardt Read (1909 - 2002) began to study with her. Before long, Sensory Awareness became an integral part of General Semantics workshops, and Charlotte Selver repeatedly gave workshops for the Institute of General Semantics. In turn, Charlotte Read became one of the foremost representatives of Sensory Awareness in New York City and often substituted for Charlotte in her absence.

"Words don't live in corpses.
Words only exist where life exists" 
Jeffrey Mordkowitz

In the past year I sat down three times with Jeffrey Mordkowitz to speak about General Semantics and its connection with Sensory Awareness. For two of these conversations we were joined by Jeffrey’s wife, Martha Santer, who’s succinct contributions helped me a great deal in grasping the meaning of Jeffrey’s thorough and passionate elaborations. Jeffrey is a past president and executive director of the Institute of General Semantics, and Martha is a past executive secretary. In the spirit of General Semantics I will add that this is, of course, only a small aspect of who they are.

The following brief excerpts from some six hours of conversations around the kitchen table of their Brooklyn apartment are by no means an introduction to the complex work of General Semantics – many of its key tenets have been left out, such as “Time-Binding”, the human ability to accumulate knowledge and skills and pass them on down through the generations – but it may whet your appetite to learn more about a body of work that was of some considerable importance in the refinement of Charlotte Selver’s work from the 1950s onward.*

Jefferey Mordkowitz: “Charlotte Selver’s aim was to improve people’s lives so they would do something to bring about change in the world. I strongly believe that she wanted people to not just keep it to themselves. She didn’t get upset that often but at times she would get upset and lecture us in her way: "Why do you think I am doing this work? It’s not to make you feel better. You need to do something with this. You have a responsibility, it’s not just personal work.” She never said what, she said only, “you’ll know what to do at the time.

Alfred Korzybski’s work also starts with the individual and points to something greater, namely social sanity and – eventually, after some generations – worldwide sanity through the ability to understand the neurolinguistic, the physiological basis of language.”

Martha Santer: General Semantics is a field that was developed by Alfred Korzybski (1879 - 1950) because he wanted, after his experience as a Polish officer in WWI, to make people more rational and avoid war. He used science and math as well as philosophy and rational thought to show how the neurological system gets stimulated by something that happens but – instead of reacting immediately – responses can be changed. Korzybski was very interested in getting people to not react with war or bigotry and violence, triggered by their nervous system, but to consider what countless possibilities there are.

When I worked for the Institute people would ask: "What do you mean by General Semantics?" And, trying to think of the simplest way to get it across, I would say, “the word is not the object” or “the map is not the territory.”

Specifics help us communicate. They help us to know each other better. A current example is Donald Trump running for president. These wide open generalities, such as “let’s make America great again”. What does that mean to people who where middle class but no longer are? Are they thinking, “let’s get back to where we can expect things to get better and better, and Trump can do it, because he is a business man?” But what has Trump said about his exact policies of how to make that happen? One has to make assumptions like, “he had successful businesses” or “his name is on things, so he must be successful”. Also, he is deliberately divisive by making general statements like, “don’t let any Muslims into the country”. What about the Muslims who live here? What about freedom of religion? People are making assumptions based on a few words. He is triggering and stimulating reactions.

Jeffrey: Korzybski spent years seeing the horrors of what people can do to each other. So he asked himself, why do they do it? Why on one hand can people do such wonderful things like build bridges and buildings that won’t collapse? [Korzybski was originally an engineer by trade] Languages that engineers and mathematicians use work well. But social structures are not created correctly; political systems are not created correctly, there’s something wrong with the way people interact, with the languages people use. The languages that politicians use, leaders, lead to death and destruction, over and over again. Because they use words and language by habit, neurolinguistic habits of which they are not aware. They speak in familiar terms and do not understand that every individual has individual experiences, and the terms describe their own experiences based on their own life. They don’t ask how you see it. They don’t get down to that level because they figure everybody sees what they see.

Korzybski hoped that his work would help prevent these disasters. General Semantics was built as a preventative set of tools that people could use to become conscious of abstracting, to learn about how their nervous system works, how language exists as part of their nervous system, how not to misuse your nervous system – to see if the map they’re using has any similarity with the territory. He realized that through lack of consciousness of abstracting people use one set of maps, one set of language, while other people may use language that sounds like the same map but they are talking about different territories. They don’t make a distinction between the map and the territory. For them the language is the object. They don’t differentiate, they are not conscious of abstracting, of these different levels.

The World is NOT an Illusion
Short film on “Abstracting” with Alfred Korzybski.
(YouTube video source) 

If I had to choose one key term and throw the rest of them away, I would choose “consciousness of abstracting”. What we see, what we smell, what we taste, what we hear, and what we touch, represents a re-creation of our nervous system. It’s not the world itself. These objects represent an abstraction. We abstract from outside of our nervous system and each of our various senses gives us a piece of the world that we eventually put together. So everyone has their own view of the world. I cannot know what you see when you see this. Your brain forms an image, which we call an object. We look around the room, we see a first level of abstraction, we see objects, we do not see the scientific objects [atoms, quarks, etc.] which we infer. On the next level of abstraction, we have a word, or a label, a set of meanings. If we can get that across, we can prevent a lot of shocks, a lot of hurts, a lot of surprises. Korzybski’s work is not therapy but I definitely would consider it preventive.

Stefan: Can you explain what you mean by infer?

Jeffrey: We infer through extra sensory investigation, which enhances our own nervous system. A microscope, a telescope, books, math, etc. For thousands of years people inferred that the earth is flat because the earth looks flat. Eventually they invented these triangulation devices that measured the horizon at night versus some of the fixed, bright stars, and they also noticed the ship masts sinking on the horizon. But the ships didn’t disappear from the face of the earth. Why was the ship mast going down? If the earth was flat and the ship was sailing away, why was the ship mast sinking? That didn’t register with the flat earth. From that they inferred that the earth must be round.

Stefan: How do you approach these issues in General Semantics?

Jeffrey: Language lives neuro-physiologically. But if people don’t experience it as that, we can’t work with them. First we need to have what we call “non-verbal awareness”. If people walk around with their heads and nothing below it, we can’t teach them. If they don’t experience it in their hands, in their feet, in their lungs, in their breathing, and it returns to the head and they speak about it, we can’t reach them. We need people to start experiencing their whole selfs. That brings in Charlotte Selver’s work and Charlotte Read’s work.

Korzybski was an excellent horse person, he used to break in very nasty horses and he knew to gain horses’ confidence with a light touch and that touch interaction, silent interaction, was extremely important for two nervous systems to get into sync. So, by accident, in a seminar – he was very happy with somebody’s progress and he just, in a happy sort of way, put his arm around somebody and patted them lightly, he could see their whole posture change and their standing change and it reminded him of things he had done with horses. He had a sensitivity of knowing the power of contact, and communication, and touch.

After that he had very small beginnings of what he would call “neuro-evaluational-relaxation”, where he invented lifting people’s arms or shaking people’s muscles loose to prepare them for listening, and he found that to be very successful. When he looked over his audience he could tell rather quickly who had come there to not listen and who was open to listening. And then, after a few years, Charlotte Read showed up, a dancer and also a woman who studied science, and she took that neuro-evaluational-relaxation further and started studying it very closely. I don’t know the year but she came across Charlotte Selver**, and she started working with her. From 1933 until when she translated Charlotte Selver’s work sometime in the mid 50s they were experimenting with students. Every year was a little bit different, hands on, seeing what was better, what was worse. And then it really took off once they met Charlotte Selver.

Once people start waking up, we introduce their evaluations and ask: how does the language reverberate throughout their entire selves? And it does.We talk about “evaluational reactions”, reactions that people have when they experience something – eating an apple, or looking at a happy dog, or seeing a dog get hit by a car – everything triggers some sort of evaluational reaction. But almost non of our students come with any sort of awareness of experiencing an evaluation. They have some cognitive evaluation, words leading to other words. But do they experience their words leading to a faster heart beat? It happens, but do they experience that?

Stefan: Say a bit more about evaluational reactions, what does it mean?

Jeffrey : If I took your recorder [moves the machine with which the interview is being recorded], your reaction to that I would call an evaluational reaction. I don’t know what you experienced. It wasn’t nothing.

Stefan: It was very much something because I knew it would interfere with the recording. I could feel it in here [points to chest]. It was the perfect thing to move.

Jeffrey: How you respond to the meanings, the multiple meanings, not to the dictionary definition of voice recorder, that’s an evaluational reaction. Words do not exist in corpses. Words only exist where life exists. Words only exist where living brains and blood and cells exist. We call it a reaction. Something happens and you react, you respond to it in whatever way your entire life prepared you for. My wife will have had a different evaluational reaction to moving that voice recorder.

Stefan: And by evaluate you mean how I evaluate something in this very moment as an experience of the whole person, not thinking only.

Jeffrey: No! And thinking is part of it. Part of the evaluation may eventually end up in talking about it.
Korzybski’s work has an ethic. The population alive now created virtually nothing. We inherited everything. If people become conscious of abstracting, a time-binding ethic will lead them, we hope, to choose what’s beneficial for most people and to stop fighting over resources that they inherited, and that they didn’t create.

*In the spirit of Korzybski’s work I want to emphasize that this is a heavily edited text based on three conversation that took place over a period of about a year. What we can’t see are the people who spoke these words, their facial expressions, their gestures. We can’t hear their voices which carry emotions and bring the words to life, we don’t see the room in which the conversations took place, etc., etc. Just as the map is not the territory, this piece is not the conversation but it is a carefully crafted representation of aspects of the conversation which I decided to share with you based on my understanding of the conversation and many other considerations. Martha or Jeffrey, whom I have not consulted for the editing, would no doubt have done it differently. You, the reader, are bringing these printed words back to life in your very own way and – through your own “evaluational reactions” – you are giving them meanings based on your own life experience.

** 1953, according to Charlotte Read (my interview with her, ca. 2001).

Recommended resources:

Jeffrey Mordkowitz’s web site,

The Institute of General Semantics,

Book recommendation: Susan Presby Kodish and Bruce Kodish: Drive Yourself Sane / Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Extensional Publishing, 2011.

Short film on “abstracting” with Alfred Korzybski: The World is NOT an Illusion:


Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project
Pathways of Sensory Awareness LLC
PO Box 185, Hancock, NH 03449, USA / Tel.: (603) 525-7289