Alfred Korzybski introduced general semantics in his 1933 magnum opus, Science and Sanity. As the title indicates, general semantics is dedicated to the spread and enhancement of sanity, both individually and collectively. As the title also indicates, Korzybski drew on scientific method as the basis of his system, which he characterized as non-aristotelian, because he recognized the logical and psychological problems associated with longstanding forms of thought and language use.
But what, exactly, is sanity? Or more appropriately, what does the term sanity refer to, and how has it been used and misused? The root meaning, derived from the Latin, is associated with health, the same root as sanitary, sanitize, and sanitation, and the same connotation as the saying, being of sound mind and body. It follows that sanity is associated with the concept of mental health.
Sanity is also closely associated with rationality, and mental health with adjustment to reality. In the judicial system, sanity is associated with the ability to understand the consequences of our actions. For Freud and his followers in the psychoanalytic tradition, sanity means being free from or cured of mental illness.
Others view sanity as a social construct that varies from culture to culture, rather than an objective phenomenon. Thomas Szasz famously argued that the concept of sanity is closely associated with social control in his 1961 book, The Myth of Mental Illness.
And while sanity, as a label, is most often applied to individuals, for Gregory Bateson and others who followed his cybernetic, systems-oriented approach, sanity resides in the relationship between individuals, including families and other groups. For Erich Fromm and others, entire societies may be diagnosed as sane or insane, and by extension we could do so for the human race as a whole.
In taking up the question of, what is sanity?, our panel will consider whether there is such a thing or phenomenon as sanity, whether it is possible to identify an objective form of thought and behavior that can be judged as sane, and if so, how are we to recognize it? Is it simply the absence of mental illness or emotional distress, or is there the positive presence of something more? Is sanity something we have, something we are, or something we do?
Further, what is meant by the term sanity, how has the term been used, and what are the appropriate and inappropriate contexts for its use? Also, who uses the term, who ought to use the term, what role does power, be it professional and institutional, political, or symbolic, play in the use of the term?
And, by and large, are we, as individuals in our contemporary culture, still sane, and what can we conclude about the relatively sanity of the groups that we are a part of? Is society as a whole sane by definition, or by diagnosis? Have there been societies in the past that have gone insane? And as a society, do we still have our own sanity? Or have we lost it?
The participants on this program, held on December 19, 2018, were:
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, mindfulness teacher and relationship coach. A longtime student of Eastern spirituality, mindfulness practices form the ground of her work. She is the author of The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World (Sounds True Publishing), Inviting a Monkey to Tea: Befriending Your Mind and Discovering Lasting Contentment (Hohm Press), and Getting Out of Your Own Way: Unlocking Your True Performance Potential (Luminous Press), and a regular blogger for Psychology Today and Huffington Post.
Lori Ramos earned her PhD in Media Ecology from New York University. Her early research and scholarship explored the role of media in shaping conceptions of and attitudes toward literacy. More recently, her interests in communication have evolved to include psychotherapy. She has received an MSW from Fordham University with a focus on clinical social work and also completed EMDR training for trauma therapy. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at William Paterson University in New Jersey and a staff therapist at Blanton-Peale Institute and Counseling Center in New York City.
Frederick J. Wertz is Professor of Psychology at Fordham University and Interim Dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, winner of the 2014 Rollo May Award for independent and outstanding pursuit of new frontiers in humanistic psychology by the APA's Society for Humanistic Psychology. He is co-author of Five Ways of Doing Qualitative Analysis (Guilford Press), editor of The Humanistic Movement (Gardner Press), and co-editor of Advances in Qualitative Psychology (Swets & Zeitlenger), and Carl Jung in the Academy and Beyond: The Fordham Lectures of 1912 (The Spring Press).
The panel was moderated by NYSGS President Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University.
It was a healthy and lucid discussion!