Friday, January 30, 2009

The Scientific Philosophy of General Semantics

Students of general semantics sometimes find themselves hesitating and stumbling when someone asks them "What is general semantics?" Here's a short piece I wrote for the opening pages of General Semantics Bulletin 71 (2004). It contains a number of ways for addressing the question that I think avoid oversimplifying the discipline and misleading the listener. The illustration just below, used for a short time as a poster by the Institute of General Semantics, accompanied my essay:

The Scientific Philosophy of General Semantics
General Semantics (GS) qualifies as an unusual, tough- to-‘pin down’, interdisciplinary field. “Is it a science or a philosophy?” Perhaps GS may best be seen as neither ‘science’ nor ‘philosophy’ but rather as both/and––a scientific philosophy applicable moreover to the life concerns of ‘the man and woman in the street’.

In the scientific realm, GS has elements which bring it within the larger field of the behavioral/social sciences. Here, the main accomplishment of Alfred Korzybski, the original formulator of GS, was theoretical: his integrative theory of human evaluation based on knowledge from a variety of fields. Formulated as a foundation for a new interdisciplinary science of humanity, GS suggests methodological guidelines for all (yes, all) areas of inquiry and has substantive implications for ongoing research on neuro-evaluative, neuro-linguistic factors in human behavior.

In addition to this, GS focuses on examining underlying assumptions in a way that many people would call “philosophical.” Korzybski did not find that term entirely congenial––chiefly because it had become associated with verbalistic speculations detached from scientific/mathematical knowledge and practical application. However, he did respect the work of some philosophers, especially some of those who worked in mathematical logic and the theory of knowledge or epistemology. Indeed, he viewed his own inquiry into “the structure of human knowledge”(1) as “an up-to-date epistemology.”(2) Korzybski pioneered in applying knowledge from mathematics, physics, biology, neuroscience, psychiatry, etc., to epistemological questions, and conversely, in applying an up-to-date, scientific epistemology to physics, biology, psychiatry, etc.––and especially to everyday life. He contended that factors of sanity exist within the work of mathematicians and scientists.

A great deal of wisdom was present in the culture when Korzybski formulated GS. Nonetheless, much of this wisdom did not get applied. To an appalling extent––despite the work of Korzybski and many others––it still doesn’t. With its emphasis on daily life application, the scientific philosophy of GS has preeminent value in providing specific methods for practicing a scientific attitude—an attitude of inquiry—for individuals, groups and organizations.

(1) Science and Sanity, p. 73
(2) Ibid. p. 554

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What Did Alfred Want?

Perhaps sometime soon I'll be able to link to a video of the presentation I gave at the November 2008 Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture Weekend Colloquium (boy, is that a mouthful!). In the meantime, here is a transcript of my talk. What worked as a relatively short, dynamic, and highly-entertaining oral presentation (if I do say so myself), may look a might lengthy in this blog format. I understand. I don't like reading long blogposts either. But there is a lot of material below about Korzybski and his work that you won't find anywhere else. So, dedicated Korzybski File fans, I believe it's worth your reading time:

What Did Alfred Want?:
A Biographer’s Notes on Korzybski’s Life and Work
By Bruce Kodish

Presented at the Institute of General Semantics Symposium 
“Creating The Future: Conscious Time-Binding For A Better Tomorrow,” 
at Fordham University, Saturday November 15, 2008

School was done. Vacation time had come. Fourteen-year-old Alfred Korzybski took the train from Warsaw. Young Alfred was traveling from his family’s home there to spend the summer at Rudnik, their country estate located in the gubernia (government district) of Piotrkow about 100 miles to the southwest. Although this was school vacation, Alfred didn’t expect to idle at Rudnik. He would have time, no doubt, for recreation but he also had plenty of work to look forward to and also, no doubt, what he ruefully referred to as “troubles.” As he later described himself, “I was a trouble shooter since [the age of] five. At home, servants, peasants, whenever we had troubles: [I heard] ‘Alfred, do it.’ And Alfred had to do the dirty work.” (1) When he arrived home that day, fourteen year old Alfred indeed had some “dirty work” to do:
I came to the station and a man was with horses and cart…to take me home. The moment I arrived home here burst [in] a peasant, ‘Master, master, save my wife’. What happened? She just had a child. And she had a hemorrhage. She’s bleeding white. I just came, a boy of fourteen—‘save her’. I knew nothing about that part of it, so I asked my mother, ‘What in hell can I do?’ To mama I didn’t say hell. I meant it probably, but I didn’t say it. ‘What shall I do?’ And my mother gave me orders, put pillows under her fanny, and put cotton in her. ...And I remember my doing that, putting her fanny up, and filling her with cotton. Of course, not knowing what I am doing. I did the best I could— successfully. It stopped the hemorrhage somehow. Helping nature, but all the time, remember, what happens, they ran to the boss and my mother didn’t want to be with them that way, so I had to do it.” (2)
Korzybski remained a practical troubleshooter all his life—although the scope of the troubles he would deal with came to embrace larger issues and more people than those on his family’s farm. Orson Welles once said, “There are never many—never enough of them—but there are men born into the world with a gaze fixed on the widest possible horizon, men who can see without strain beyond the most distant horizon into that unconquered country we call the future.” (3) Alfred Korzybski belonged in this company—which includes, of course, women as well as men.

I’ve entitled this talk, “What Did Alfred Want?” Having spent the last four years in the nearly singular pursuit of writing Korzybski’s biography, it seems to me that the questions “What did he want? and What did he fix his gaze on?, qualify as just about the most important questions that a biographer can ask about his subject. Indeed, “What does he or she want?” seems to me the primary question in understanding anyone’s life, including one’s own. The psychologist William McDougall, whom Korzybski met and briefly corresponded with, put it this way:
The most fundamental fact about human life is that from moment to moment each one of us is constantly engaged in striving to bring about, to realize, to make actual, that which he conceives is possible and desires to achieve, whether it is only the securing of his next meal, the control of his temper, or the realization of a great ideal. Man is fundamentally a purposive, striving creature. He…longs for what is not.” (4)
Korzybski also indicated the importance of this question. For instance, he taught that one of the keys to understanding an author was to get behind his words and to find out what he was trying to get across, what he wanted to accomplish in saying whatever he said.

This morning I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve discovered as I’ve tried to answer the question, “What Did Alfred Want?” In Korzybski’s case, he had his gaze fixed on something wide and far.

By the time he wrote his first book, Korzybski had fixed his gaze upon perhaps the ultimate human horizon—the potential of the human race—summarized in the term “time-binding.” Time-binding, for him, stood for the capacity which characterized the human class of life. As he presented it in his first book Manhood of Humanity (published in 1921), this capacity consists of the uniquely human ability to begin where another individual or generation left off and thus be able to build on previous efforts in order to make ‘progress’.

Formulated as a capacity or potential, time-binding is not ethically neutral. Rather, time-binding, as Korzybski formulated it, implies a normative judgment of behavior. It depicts humans not only in strictly ‘descriptive’ terms, i.e., as beings with highly developed, symbol-using nervous systems who communicate with others. The definition also implies an ‘ought’— a criterion of values—as well, and thus has strong ethical implications. (5) This value-laden aspect of the term may open up a formulational ‘can of worms’. (6)

But despite whatever problems the formulation may pose, all (legitimately all) of Korzybski’s subsequent work—which came to be called “general semantics”—involved his efforts to investigate and explain the mechanisms of time-binding. How did it work or not work? How could it be made to work better? It was his attempt to provide a foundation for a science of humanity, “a science and art of human engineering…of directing the energies and capacities of human beings to the advancement of human weal.” (7) He wanted to reduce the amount of preventable stupidity in science and life. He wanted to help as many people as possible to live up to their potential as time-binders. For Korzybski, science and mathematics provided some of the best examples he knew of time-binding behavior. We could also learn by contrasting this best in behavior with the worst, exemplified by people with the most serious psychiatric disturbances. For this reason, he spent two years studying abnormal behavior in the mid-1920s, at St. Elisabeths Hospital, the Federal Asylum for the Insane in Washington, D.C. He felt he could make a definite contribution by developing a teachable system that summarized the methodological wisdom he had gleaned from his studies in mathematics, the physico-mathematical sciences, psychiatry, and other fields. He once said that just as you can bring a horse to water but cannot make it drink, you can bring a boy to college but you cannot make him ‘think’. To increase the chance of doing that, you needed at least a method, a set of time-binding standards for human evaluation that could be taught—even to a child. This is what he offered with his work.

Korzybski was already 40 years old when he wrote the first draft of Manhood of Humanity. It seems clear that the notion of time-binding and the scientific-ethical project that—over the next 30 years—resulted from it, constituted the crystallization of deeply held values that Korzybski had already developed over his lifetime. In particular, Korzybski felt a strong sense of gratitude for what he had received from others. Even the peasants and servants on his parent’s farm had—through their labor— provided him with the gift of time that allowed him to pursue his early studies. Having received much, he showed an early tendency to give to others in return.

For example, as a young man returning to Poland at the turn of the Twentieth Century after a long sojourn in Italy, Alfred had the sudden sobering realization that his boyhood peasant playmate still could not read as an adult. Alfred soon started a school for the peasants on his family’s property, a short-lived project, that got him into trouble with the Tsarist government. (One of his father’s last gifts to him before dying was to keep him from getting sent to Siberia for this ‘crime’.) Korzybski demonstrated this kind of behavior his whole life. Seeming to go out of his way to help others was actually very much his way.

This attitude of appreciation for the time-binding gifts of others and the attendant desire to be of service to others characterized his life and seems to me essential for understanding why he did what he did. In addition, it provides the necessary ‘fuel’ for those of us who wish to become more conscious time-binders ourselves. We must study the past and develop a sense of gratitude, an ability to ongoingly acknowledge the time-binding gifts we have received from others—the quick and the dead. And we must ongoingly be aware that what we do, even from moment to moment, will be part of what the future inherits—our children and the children of others, their children and their children’s children, et cetera. Will what we do now provide them with a blessing or a curse?

Researching The Korzybski Biography
Working to answer the question, “What did Alfred Want?” for the Korzybski biography, I have had a great deal of time-binding assistance myself and feel most grateful for it. Korzybski left not only his published writings, but also a rich collection of archives and correspondence. An estimated 20,000 letters, scrapbook pages, and other documents from the years 1920-1938 were microfilmed under the direction of Charlotte Schuchardt Read. With the originals and one copy of the microfilms eventually given to Columbia University, the Institute of General Semantics kept another microfilm copy. These were eventually digitized by the former Executive Director of the Institute, Steve Stockdale and presented to me at the beginning of 2005—with the approval of the Institute Board of Trustees—for the purposes of my research.

Talk about the benefits of time-binding—I have probably read every one of those 20,000 or more pieces and have collated and annotated a large portion of the digital files they are contained on, all given to me on 2 DVDs that I could read on my laptop in my office at home. Before this digitization process, done only a few years ago, I would have had to camp out at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library or at the Institute archives looking at microfilms for several years straight. “Having a life” while writing this book has been difficult enough. There are also the Institute’s open files now at Read House in Ft. Worth, Texas, which go from around 1938 (the year of the founding of the Institute) to the time of Korzybski’s death in 1950—and beyond. These materials, plus Korzybski’s personal library (which includes books that he marked as he read them), plus the tapes and transcripts of many of Korzybski’s seminars, plus his 499-page unpublished memoir, among other things—provide a great deal of material for answering the question “What did Alfred want?” Korzybski often commented quite directly about what he did indeed want.

“I Am Selfish!”
I’d like to end with a story that Korzybski often told to his seminar students. This version, which he gave at his 1948-1949 Winter Intensive Seminar, explains in part why he did what he did:
…some friends gave a dinner for my wife and me, and they invited also an Oxford graduate,…very wealthy, educated, Oxford and so on. He was extremely British in what is definitely known—it is seldom believed in America but they believe in it—that’s the British theory of selfishness. And he was nagging me all through the dinner—I had of course to tell them some development in [my work]; naturally they all expected me to say something. Well, I did. He was nagging, interrupting, and I was trying to explain to him time-binding, how we are not like animals, every one for himself and all of that, but we are interdependent. We build upon the work of the dead, and we depend on the work of every one else in our civilization and so on. And I was telling how I worked to get my formulations, to deal with human messes all around.

Then he began to pick at me: ‘why was I so ‘altruistic’, doing all this work for my fellow men?’—I don’t know what not. ‘Oh, this ‘altruism’ would not work, there is no sense in it, a selfish outlook is the only workable one’, and so on and so on, picking at me with his theories about ‘selfishness’. And ultimately I got annoyed with that petty criticism, that picking at me. I just shut him up—successfully. I said, ‘You want me to be selfish? I am selfish! I work the way I work because I don’t want to live in a world made by men like you!’ That shut him up alright.

In a way—this is serious—remember there is no sense talking whether I am selfish or not, because that argument remains valid that I am say ‘altruistic’ because I eventually want a better world for me to live in. But you see the argument: ‘selfish’-‘unselfish’ is actually useless. It is a good place for quarreling. … (8)
To paraphrase a line from Josef Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “Mr. Korzybski, he dead.” There are more important questions than “What did Alfred want?” Those questions for each of us include: “What do I want?” “What do we want?” In my book, I have strived to show what Korzybski wanted and what he achieved through his lifelong efforts. I am bold enough to believe that the story of his life and work might help us to answer our own present questions, to widen and deepen the horizon of our own gazes, so that what we want is truly worthy of our selves as time-binders. I bid you adieu.


(1) Korzybski 1947, p. 385.

(2) Ibid., pp. 386–387.

(3) Welles in Kodar and Silovic.

(4) William McDougall, qtd. in Runkel, p. 32.

(5) “On this inherently human level of interdependence time-binding leads inevitably to feelings of responsibility, duty toward others and the future, and therefore to some type of ethics, morals, and similar social and/or socio-cultural reactions.” Korzybski in “What I Believe” (1949), Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, pp. 646–647.

(6) How do we determine whether the results of particular human efforts constitute ‘progress’ or not? Criminals in gangs seem to use their time-binding potential to cooperate and communicate with each other and learn from the experiences of other criminals and criminal gangs—sometimes for substantial benefits to themselves and fellow gang members while making things worse for the rest of us. For further exploration of this issue see French.

(7) Korzybski 1921, p. 1.

(8) This quote comes from the CD audio record of Korzybski’s 1948-1949 Winter Intensive Seminar (available for purchase from the Institute of General Semantics) combined with material (missing in the recording) from the unpublished transcript of the seminar.

French, Jim. 2004. “Editor’s Essay 2004 – The Extensional Definition of Time-Binding,” in General Semantics Bulletin 71: 8–9.

Kodar, Oja and Vassili Silovic. 1995. Orson Welles: The One Man Band, on Disc 2 of F for Fake: Criterion Collection, special edition DVD. New York: Criterion, 2005.

Korzybski, Alfred. 1949. “What I Believe” in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings: 1920–1950. Collected and arranged by M. Kendig. Final Editing and preparation by Charlotte Schuchardt Read with the assistance of Robert P. Pula. Brooklyn, NY: Institute of General Semantics, 1990.

———. 1947. Alfred Korzybski Biographical Material. Recorded by Kenneth Keyes (July 1947). Transcribed by Roberta Rymer Keyes. Indexed by Robert P. Pula. Unpublished.

———. 1921. Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company.

Runkel, Philip J. 2003. People As Living Things: The Psychology of Perceptual Control. Hayward, CA: Living Control Systems Publishing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"A Genius Or A Nut"

In 1937, Alfred Korzybski was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts near Harvard. From February 17 until March 20 of that year, he gave a seminar for a group largely composed of Boston-area academics at the Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. The Harvard Business School had become a center of human relations studies under the direction of Professors Elton Mayo and F. J. Roethlisberger. The two men had pioneered the study of motivating factors in worker’s behavior in their famous “Hawthorne Experiments," at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Illinois.

Roethlisberger, who attended the seminar along with Mayo, had previously read Science and Sanity:
[Korzybski’s book]…although difficult to read, seemed to me to be saying something important. What I think attracted my interest was the way he put epistemology to work, so to speak. Boiled down, his approach seemed to me to be applied epistemology.

At this time there was considerable interest in comparing the way a child thinks (Piaget) with the way a primitive thinks (Levy-Bruhl) and with the way a neurotic thinks (Freud). Only a genius or a nut would have tried to compare the way a mathematician thinks (Russell and Whitehead) and the way a neurotic thinks (psychiatry). Korzybski was such a man.

Because he took such an extreme position, which at that time did not fit well into any discipline, Korzybski never gained any academic post or much recognition. His field was neither strictly philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, semantics, psychiatry, nor mental health. It was a brilliant one-man synthesis of all these things which he called general semantics to differentiate it from ordinary semantics (e.g., Ogden and Richards, The Meaning of Meaning)…. [Roethlisberger 1977, The Elusive Phenomena: An Autobiographical Account of My Work in the Field of Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Business School, pp. 71–72]
“A genius or a nut?” From his account of that 1937 seminar, it seems that Roethlisberger may have considered Korzybski a little of both:
…There was no question he [Korzybski] was a bit of a “weirdie.” He had [L. J.] Henderson backed off the map in seeing to it that you got the point. He did this with the help of a cane, which he would use not only to point to his scribblings on the blackboard, but also to point to each member of the seminar. When this happened, the student (or disciple) was supposed to say, “Yes, Dear Count (or Master), I got the point,” and repeat literally word by word the point the Count had made. … As this was a teaching technique quite different from the lecture method at Harvard across the River or the case method at the Business School,…I was fascinated. Little did I realize then that I was to meet the Count’s technique again many years later with the learning machine. As one can see, Korzybski was ahead of his time, both in his subject matter and in his pedagogical methods. [Roethlisberger 1977, pp. 71–72]

Thursday, January 8, 2009

From the Stray Thought Bin

In the same way that everyone knows that a map is not the territory, there is no longer any antisemitism.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Message From The Past For New Year 2009!

Happy New Year 2009 To All Who Read This!

James Hinton, a far-seeing Englishman writing over 100 years ago had the following thought that seems appropriate to remember as we enter 2009 and wonder and worry about the personal and collective troubles we humans are facing. Wondering and worrying about the troubles of the human race is not a new occupation. Korzybski did it. And there were others who were doing it during his time and before his time and their wisdom seems worth remembering.
The "dark ages" of the intellectual life, and our time, which is the morally dark age, are like the chrysalis, which seems nearly dead. It lies smothered in a tomb made of stuff spun out of its own entrails and hardened into a concrete with rubbish gathered from the outside. But it is preparing to rise to a higher life. (qtd in Mary Everest Boole Collected Works, Vol. I, p.316)
Despite all our problems, let us look to the future with hope!