One of the basic principles of General Semantics is that human beings cannot, or at least should not (if they are to remain critical), act on inferences as if they were fact. Inferences and assumptions are here understood as the uncritical use of a word, or tool; or its treatment as if it were an accurate representation of the objective world. The General Semanticist must be able to distinguish assumptions and descriptions from the reality of the objective world. At the same time, the General Semanticist must be able to translate back his or her higher order abstractions onto the objective level of existence, for that is where "our actual lives are lived entirely." (S&S 35) The "verbal levels are auxiliary, and effective only if they are translated back into first order un-speakable effects, such as an object, an action, a 'feeling,' all on the silent and un-speakable objective levels." (S&S, @@) Achieving this "silence on the objective levels" by re-training our semantic reactions is a decidedly positive achievement in General Semantics; it denotes action derived from judgment about the reality of the world.
People can produce any number of orders of abstraction; they are infinite in their possibilities, in the same way that terms are infinite-valued and the way objective reality is radically heterogeneous, both spatially and temporally. "Man can abstract in infinitely different orders," says Korzybski, and the function of pausing, reflecting, and become self-reflexive is precisely to take account of these orders. (S&S, 439) Just as there are an infinite number of possible abstractions, so the terms that constitute our language are multi-ordinal - they "mean" differently as a function of the context of abstraction and the term's relation to other terms on that level. Since people are not accustomed to grasping the multi-ordinality of terms, General Semantics also has a definite pragmatic (this could also be called "mental hygiene") purpose: to propose a critical point of view - this is the flip side of "is" identifications.
Generally speaking, General Semantics demarcates three levels of abstraction. First-order abstractions included what is seen, experienced, felt, and emoted at the lowest level: the un-speakable, the objective level, which is also the space of human behavior. Second-order abstractions are those that belong to the descriptive level of language, or a series of descriptions. Third order abstractions are those on which we can reach a conclusion and form a judgment about the facts of the first order that have been translated into second order abstractions; third-level abstractions are those where inferences and assumptions are formed. We have a whole complex of orders of abstraction. Korzybski believed that a "semantic blockage" is produced when we "confuse these orders" and apply, for example, our inferences and conclusions (third order abstractions) to describe new happenings (i.e., when we use third order abstractions to produce second-order abstractions). It is not a good idea to engage in the "reading of inferences into descriptions." (S&S, 445) These three levels of abstraction are interesting insofar as - from the point of view of the study of communication - they separate "experience," "representation," and "judgment." These three distinctions entail that thinking and acting are precisely the practice and process of placing these faculties into relation across these three levels of abstraction.
In General Semantics, there is a whole, extended reflection on the problem of "definition." The issues being raised by General Semantics go beyond the problem of erroneously assigning "fixed" meanings to words. Rather, scholars working in the General Semantics tradition address the broader problem of how to understand the work of "words" in modern social, public, and cultural relations and subjective experiences. All definitions condition certain possibilities of semantic reactions - of judging and behavior. To be conscious of abstracting is to understand that the particular kinds of agreements, conventions, and definitions embodied in communication condition the kinds of semantic reactions an organism can have. In short, General Semantics is concerned with the relation of communication to human conflict, to the necessity of sustaining relations with others, of maintaining social structures and public institutions, and of fostering a critical relationship with the world. We also note that, just as there are presuppositions to the "meanings" we attribute to words, so are there "expectations" about the behavior of others with respect to the order of things in the world.