Intensional Orientation

(or living by the map in your head instead of what is actually going on)

We live in two different worlds – a world of real people, objects, and events, and a world of words and symbols. Too often we confuse the two worlds and we respond to words as if they were things. One of the most important principles of General Semantics is this : THE WORD IS NOT THE THING< THE MAP IS NOT THE TERRITORY> Of course we all know this. But the question is not whether or not we know this but whether or not we act as if we know this.

The tendency to respond to words and labels and in the process to neglect or give only secondary attention to the real world is called "intensional orientation" (the "s" in intensional is intentional). Extensional orientation is the other side of the coin ---- the tendency to give primary attention to the real world, and only then to use words to describe it.

Intensional orientation is seen when we act as if the words or labels are more important than the thing the words stand for. It is seen when we respond to the prestige of an artists’ or a composers’ name rather than to the actual painting or music. It is seen when we are taken in by the advertiser’s use of obscure medical terms which we know nothing about, but which sound impressive and fail to examine the product itself.

Intensional orientation is seen when we respond to words as if they were more than mere symbols of reality. In its extreme form it is seen in the person with an allergy who sneezes at a picture of hay or in the presence of paper flowers. In its more common form it is seen in the person who can’t stand talking about certain things whether they be rats, or plane crashes, or sex. It is seen in the person who purchases products according to the labels without any examination of the product itself. It is seen in persons who enjoy eating a particular food, but, when they hear it is rattlesnake meat or fried grasshopper or chocolate covered ants, refuse any more or throw up.

One of the goals of General Semantics training is to foster a more extensional attitude and approach – to encourage us to respond to things, not words, to the way things are and not to the way they are talked about.

Words are certainly useful guides, but they should not be responded to as more than that. Words and labels "stand for" or symbolize reality, but they are not the reality and should not be allowed to obscure or substitute for the reality itself.