Friday, February 26, 2010

Korzybski - Cold Warrior

While working on his “Author’s Note” for Selections from Science and Sanity in February 1948, Korzybski had time to read the galley proofs of an article, “Dialectical Materialism and General Semantics” by Anatol Rapoport, to be published in the upcoming Winter 1948 issue of ETC. (1) Rapoport had joined the American Communist Party in the late 1930s, although he had quit in the early 1940s at the start of World War Two. Rapoport discussed his party membership in his memoir years later. (2)

The ETC. article showed that Rapoport, though no longer a Communist party member, had remained a Soviet fellow-traveler; although at the beginning of 1948 he seemed to be having second thoughts. The import of the article was to show how “the general semanticist of today can trace his philosophical geneology both to the dialectical materialist, Engels, and to the ‘empiro-criticist’, Mach.” He wrote that,
"Stalin has shown a semantic awareness to a far greater extent than his colleagues. He has also definitely stated that in his opinion the East-West conflict is not inevitable.”
Rapoport protested the behavior of Western nations toward the Soviet Union, writing that
"The Soviet Union has sinned less than she has been sinned against.”
“One can always convince oneself of the visciousness of a dog by beating it.”
Although Rapoport appeared to have some criticism of Marxist orthodoxy, he also wrote as if it could somehow be reformed by an infusion of general semantics:
“…I invite our friends the dialectical materialists to make a more careful study of general semantics and recognize in it not a negation but a generalization of their venerable doctrine.”
Korzybski had to respond—given his ongoing distaste for dictatorships in general and more specifically his distaste for Communism, Lenin, Stalin, et al, and the Soviet system in general. Korzybski had just been reading about the persecution of Russian geneticists by Stalin's 'Tsar' for Soviet Biology, Lysenko. The persecution of biological science in the Soviet Union corroborated Korzybski's views about the incompatability of dictatorship with time-binding and its expression in science. He sent a letter to Rapoport on February 6 giving his honest opinion of the piece, in a detailed 9-page analysis, notable not so much for its frankness (not a surprise in a letter from Korzybski to anyone), but in its civility and gentleness—given his strong objections to much of Rapoport’s piece. (3) He had no problem getting linked with Mach, but otherwise he took strong exception to Rapoport’s geneology:
If I may be frank, since childhood I rebelled against the ‘facts’ of our civilization’ but I never had any use for DM [Dialectical Materialism], as I judge by ‘facts’. To link my work with DM is not only false to fact but genuinely harmful to my work; [p. 2]….All through the article you emphasize the worthlessness and even harm, through obstructionism, of DM. Your criticism is very fundamental; yet somehow you do not bother to take a stand in so many words. I frankly admit, and I congratulate you, that your criticism of DM is destructive to DM; but please do not link GS with DM; it has nothing to do with, and in fact is a protest against DM. [p. 4]
As for Stalin,
I wonder if you are not flattering our friend Stalin. Somehow through years of study and reading, my picture of Stalin is that he is an extremely ignorant man, a thoroughgoing opportunist, shrewd, ruthless, but extremely practical and in a way common-sense, quite willing to prostitute himself verbally if something is to be gained. Varga, a historian of Marxism and officially a Communist, and Litvinov, among others, were dismissed and officially disgraced (Varga very recently) just because they believed, and still believe, the the conflict between the East and West is not inevitable.
In early 1948, as historian, Eric F. Goldman noted in his book The Crucial Decade – And After: America, 1945-1960,
“…a communist coup sucked Czechoslovakia under the iron curtain…. throughout the [U.S] war fears ran rampant.” [p. 77-78]
The soon-to-be-implemented Marshall Plan, then getting debated in Congress, provided hope of bolstering the economies of war-torn countries in Europe and elsewhere and thus inoculating them against Soviet expansionism. Meanwhile, the U.S. government had already provided military aid to Greece and Turkey to counter just that eventuality. Concern had also begun to grow in the U.S. about homegrown Communists and their possible disloyalty and subversion.

Rapoport, who had kept quiet about his own prior affiliations with the American Communist Party, seemed concerned and, in his article, decried the
...“rigid either-or orientations” and “obsolete maps” of “people who make laws and pronouncements on morals, who write advertising copy and conduct investigations of un-American activities and secure bases in Turkey for the explicitly stated purpose of bombing Russian cities.
The lifelong ‘peace’ advocate, couldn’t have felt happy reading Korzybski’s response to this:
You certainly are right about polemics. What you have to say about American military bases is only partially true. Extensionally, when the Communists get the atomic bomb they will carry on a war of extermination because for them it will be a ‘holy war’, probably combined with a bacteriological war. As the problems stand today, a third world war is unavoidable, probably, and the only way to prevent it is to be armed to the teeth, with billions of dollars to us taxpayers. Still worse, from a strictly military point of view — and I speak as a soldier — to survive, we will have to attack; so we must have bases, not to bomb Russian cities but to prevent bombing of American cities. [p. 3]
The term “Cold War” had recently come into popular usage, and the policy of “containment” against the Soviet Union—including a build-up of U.S. and allied military strength—had begun to get formulated. In line with such policy, Korzybski—who had spoken out in the early 1930s against Nazism, would certainly qualify, from the evidence of this letter and other writings, as an anti-Communist “cold warrior" par excellence.

(1) Rapoport, Anatol. 1948. “Dialectical materialism and general semantics.” ETC.: A Review of General Semantics. Vol. V, No. 2 (Winter 1948), pp. 81–104. Presented before the University of Chicago Chapter of the Society for General Semantics, Dec. 3., 1947.

(2) Rapoport, Anatol. 2000. Certainties and doubts: A philosophy of life. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

(3) Letter, Alfred Korzybski to Anatol Rapoport, February 6, 1948. Institute of General Semantics Archives.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

From The Stray Thought Bin - 'Higher Learning'

You know you've finally entered Graduate School for the Study of Human Folly when you concern yourself with studying your own.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

More Mideast Map-Territory Misfits

Every school boy and girl knows that a map is not the territory. Yeah right! (said in sarcasm)

Barry Rubin notes quite otherwise:When It Comes To Analyzing The Middle East, We LIve In The Age Of Idiocy

Bertrand S. Frohman’s Brief Psychotherapy

After years of preparation, psychiatrist Bertrand S. Frohman’s Brief Psychotherapy: A Handbook for Physicians on the Clinical Aspects of Neuroses, finally came out in January 1948. Frohman sent a signed book at once to Korzybski, who had helped with editing. Korzybski read and reread it—as indicated by the markings in his copy. He wrote his kudos to the book’s publishers, Lea and Febiger and, on February 18, to Frohman:
I am deeply grateful to you for your inscribed copy. As I said to the publishers, that such a book was a dream of mine which has just materialized. I know it’s a strong statement, but just the same it’s true, and I hardly can fully express my gratitude to you. …I intend to make your book an obligatory textbook for all my students and I feel it should have a world-wide distribution and eventual translation into a number of languages.
Korzybski meant every word of this. He gave copies inscribed by him with marked enthusiasm to his Institute of General Semantics colleagues Charlotte Schuchardt and M. Kendig and to his wife Mira, writing in Mira’s book:
“Dearest – The first textbook of Sanity from professional point of view based on GS – to the ‘Mother of future civilizations’ yours as ever March 1948 Alfred.”
Korzybski wanted to do whatever he could to promote Frohman’s book and followed through by stocking it for sale on the Institute’s publication list and by getting advertising circulars from the publisher for the Institute to distribute. The publisher sent 2000 advertising circulars, with a special added text in the upper left corner, written in consultation with Frohman:
“This new text utilizes General Semantics, the Non-Aristotelian system of orientation, formulated by Alfred Korzybski. The application of General Semantics to problems of personal maladjustment is described in a special section.”
Korzybski also worked on a review of the book but never completed it; had he lived longer he probably would have done so.

The two men found each others’ work compatible for good reasons. Frohman, to begin with an extremely extensional human being and physician, found in Korzybski’s work a conscious approach to his ‘natural’ mode of evaluating. (He is still known today, as perhaps the first person, in the early 1930s, to apply the term “bruxism” to tooth grinding and to explain it as a stress-anxiety symptom.) Korzybski provided a basic language for what Frohman had already been doing. And Frohman’s work exemplified for Korzybski the application of his extensional methods to psychiatry, an application that he had long hoped to see in book form.

Penelope Pearl [later Russianoff], the daughter of Korzybski’s friend Raymond Pearl and a clinical psychologist, attended several seminars with Korzybski and also saw Frohman for personal help. In her 1988 book When Am I Going To Be Happy: How To Break The Emotional Bad Habits That Make You Miserable (dedicated to Korzybski, among others), she described Frohman’s extensional approach to get her “off my tall kick” the “crippling” obsessive self-consciousness she had developed growing up as an especially tall female (“by age fourteen, I was six-foot-two and weighed under one hundred pounds.”):
One day Frohman said to me: “Every time I ask you something, you manage to turn it around into something wrong with you. Your height. Your personality. Your intelligence. It’s as though you’re driving along at night and your headlights are supposed to be shining on the highway so you can see where you’re going. Instead, you’ve got them pointing backward so that they are blinding you. You can’t see anything but your own failings. You don’t see anything else that’s going on around you. You don’t really see other people. You’re so absorbed in what a man might think about your height that you don’t give yourself the right to judge him. It’s highly possible he’s not perfect. What is it that you might not like about him? Turn those headlights around so that you can see something besides yourself.
Flash of insight! Suddenly I had this vivid image of myself careening along a highway in a blinding glare of self-absorption. Bertrand Frohman’s words were literally a turning point in my life. I turned the lights around and instantly saw with crystal clarity exactly where I was. … I woke up the next morning and said to myself: “All right. I’m not a cuddly little blond and I never will be. So I’m going to start living my life as what I am. I am going to stop rejecting myself.”…My new attitude must have communicated itself. After a lifetime of rejections by men, actual or self-inflicted, I started dating fairly often and also began making a number of just plain friends, who coincidentally happened to be men. [Russianoff, p. 51-52]
Frohman definitely seemed like a person after Korzybski’s heart. Penelope Russianoff described his “very direct way of dealing with the issue of motivation.”
Psychiatrists do not ordinarily make house calls, But, as Frohman once explained it to me, a bedridden woman had pleaded with him to come to see her. As soon as he entered her bedroom, she handed him a box of matches. “Open it,” she said. He did, and inside he found a dozen or so burnt match sticks. “Every one of those,” she announced defiantly, “stands for a therapist who failed me.” Frohman took out one of the unused matches. He lit it, blew it out, put it back in the box, and said, “That’ll be one hundred dollars.” Sometimes we have to be jolted into knowing whether we want to change or keep on clinging to our negativity. [Russianoff, p. 61]
Although not now well-known, Brief Psychotherapy notably appears as one of the earliest books in the fields of brief and ‘cognitive’ psychotherapy. Sixty-one years later, the book remains highly readable for its down-to-earth language, large number of interesting case studies, and the remarkable extent to which Frohman, both explicitly in the GS section and implicitly throughout the book, utilized Korzybski’s insights to discuss the psycho-somatic issues and adjustment problems that general medical doctors, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists frequently confront. Well received when it came out, the book went into a second printing only a few months after first appearing. Tragically, Frohman developed serious health problems over the next two years and died in December 1949, in his late fifties. Given his talent, his enthusiasm for Korzybski’s work and Korzybski’s enthusiasm for his, he seemed likely to have become well-known promoting his korzybskian-influenced approach to brief psychotherapy. Instead, memory of both him and his book sank into obscurity.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Progress Report on Korzybski Biography (Feb. 2010)

For those who have waited patiently for the Korzybski biography, it is coming. Soon.

I have done the research for and have outlined the last chapter, covering the years 1948, 1949 and 1950, up to Korzybski's death on March first of that final year. I'm in the midst of writing now, and indeed hope to keep what I'm doing to one chapter. Korzybski remained busy till the end and 'died with his boots on' as befits an old horseman and cavalry man. So I have a lot of material to condense and organize into a reasonably readable and I hope exciting narrative, that stays true to the man and his work. I'll let you know when I finish the manuscript. I'll still have a lot of work to do afterwards, but I can see the end of my long, long journey of writing. I did not know what I was getting myself into. Phew!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Korzybski and Gödel

Alfred Korzybski gave a two-lecture series on “Mathematical Method As A Way Of Life” for The Society of Friends of Scripta Mathematica and The Yeshiva Institute of Mathematics at the Horace Mann Auditorium of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City, on the evenings of November 3 and November 10 in 1947. The first lecture had the title “On the Structure of Mathematics and Human Evaluation” and the next one “General Semantics as Applied Physico-Mathematical Method.” These lectures would constitute Korzybski’s last major venture specifically addressing a mainly mathematically-oriented audience.

Given his abiding interest in the foundation of mathematics, mathematical logic, etc., it seems disappointing that Korzybski didn’t have anything to say here—nor anywhere else—about logician Kurt Gödel’s theorems of mathematical incompleteness.[1] In work first published in 1931, Gödel had rigorously shown that “Any formal system strong enough to contain arithmetic could never prove its own consistency.”[2] In other words, such a system will contain “undecidable” statements. Furthermore, “If a system of mathematics does not lead into contradiction, then this fact cannot be demonstrated with the procedures of that system.”[3] To do so with such an “incomplete” system, one needed to go ‘up a level’ to a more comprehensive system of axioms which in turn would contain more undecidable statements.

The implications of these notions for working mathematicians and others still get debated in 2010. Nonetheless, I can't easily dismiss the opinions of physicists Tony Rothman and George Sudarshan, who could write in 1998:
"Briefly put, Kurt Gödel proved mathematically that any consistent mathematical system must contain statements that are impossible to prove within that system. In that Gödel’s theorum puts an absolute limit on the effectiveness of mathematics, it is one of the most powerful statements of epistemology." [4]
Korzybski, though not a mathematical logician, got the quarterly journal of the Association for Symbolic Logic and recommended it to his students, so it seems possible that he had at least heard of Gödel’s work, the importance of which by this time had begun to get recognition in the mathematical logic community and among other mathematicians. Korzybski’s friend, E.T. Bell, for example, had given prominent mention to Gödel in his book The Development of Mathematics (published in 1940 with a second edition in 1945), noting in part that
“…Godel constructed a true theorem such that a formal proof of it leads to a contradiction. Undecidable statements exist: within the system certain assertions can be neither proved nor disproved." [5]
This, unlike others of Bell’s books, was not in Korzybski’s personal library but he may have read it.

The implications of Gödelian incompleteness on Korzybski’s formulations about mathematics, and the implications of Korzybski’s work for Gödel’s, both remain to be explored. Gödel’s use of what Korzybski would call “self-reflexiveness” in his proofs showed an area of connection. On the face of it, Gödelian incompleteness seems to corroborate Korzybski’s uncertaintist stance, extending it with rigour into formal systems of mathematics. Gödelian incompleteness also seems to at least require reconsideration of Korzybski long-held view, which he repeated in his second Scripta talk, that “Mathematical abstractions [dealing with fictitious entities and having no physical content] have [by postulation] all characteristics included [unlike physical or daily-life abstractions], and deduction may work there absolutely.”[6]

And contemplating the picture of the emaciated Gödel in 1978, curled up in fetal position in a hospital room, dying from starvation because he believed that someone was poisoning his food [7]; Korzybski's words from his final Scripta lecture on November 10, 1947, seem to apply:
…do not have a criticism, so to say, about my work, that ‘Korzybski fancies that humans are like geometry; there is a difference between geometry and a human being.’ I didn’t find it that way, because I have found that humans, even ‘insane’ are extremely logical provided you trace their premises, except their premises have no realization in actuality. So that’s the main point, not a problem of logic. From some premises, some consequences follow… [8]
1. I conclude this based on an examination of his notes from the first lecture and a transcript of the second as well as from a rather thorough scouring of his other writings and correspondence, published and unpublished.

2. Reuben Hersh, 1997. What Is Mathematics, Really?, New York: Oxford University Press., p. 160

3. Reuben Hersh, What Is Mathematics, Really?, p. 161

4. Rothman and Sudarshan, 1998. Doubt and Certainty. Reading, MA; Helix Books., p. 41]

5. Bell, p. 576

6. Korzybski, “General Semantics As Applied Physico-Mathematical Method,” Transcription of a tape recording of Scripta Mathematica lecture, Nov. 10, 1947. Copyright 1954.

7. See Rebecca Goldstein, 2005. Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. New York: W. W. Norton.

8. Korzybski, “General Semantics As Applied Physico-Mathematical Method,” Transcription of a tape recording of Scripta Mathematica lecture, Nov. 10, 1947. Copyright 1954.