Alfred Korzybski 1879-1950
(Full name Count Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski) Polish-born American linguist.
Korzybski was a founder of the general semantics movement in the United States, which sought to develop a linguistic system that would lead to a more precise use of language. Taking precepts from linguistics, philosophy, psychology, neurology, and sociology, Korzybski believed that understanding between groups and individuals could be reached by investing words with greater accuracy.
Korzybski was born in Warsaw, Poland, to Ladislas Habdank Korzybski and Countess Helena Rzewuska. He was educated at the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute, and also studied in Germany, Italy, and the United States. During World War I Korzybski served in the Polish Army and worked in the Russian General Staff Intelligence Department, for whom he travelled to the United States and Canada as an artillery expert. Around 1916 Korzybski emigrated to the United States, marrying the American portrait painter Mira Edgerly in 1919; he became a naturalized citizen in 1940. From 1920 until his death in 1950, Korzybski taught at several American universities. He published his most notable work, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, in 1933. The book quickly became the seminal handbook for the general semantics movement, leading Korzybski to found the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago, Illinois, in 1938. Korzybski and other general semanticists published much of their work in the journal ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, edited by Korzybski's close colleague, S. I. Hayakawa. After ideological differences led to a break with Hayakawa, Korzybski moved the Institute to Lakeville, Connecticut, in 1946. He died there four years later.
Korzybski's main tenets throughout his work are concerned with fostering communication between conflicting groups. He contended in his first published work, Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering, that mathematical philosophy can help us to discover the true essence of what human beings are, which can in turn lead to a scientifically sound system of ethics. In Science and Sanity Korzybski delineated his "non-Aristotelian" theory of semantics. According to Korzybski, Aristotelian thinking causes people to confuse words with the ideas they represent, fails to recognize differences between individuals and the various groups to which they may belong, and leads to a dichotomous value system that makes statements either right or wrong, good or bad. His solution was to train individuals to distinguish between the words they use and the idea or thing they mean to talk about. Korzybski believed this system would lead to greater understanding among groups and to the realization that every "fact" has indefinite levels of abstraction—what he called the "etc."—about which we can know very little.
Despite what many called an arrogant manner, Korzybski had the ability to inspire intellectual enthusiasm among numerous followers, who staunchly defended him and helped promote his theories. Detractors contended that the size and density of Science and Sanity were proof of the failure of Korzybski's theories about concision of language. The use of his principles in such varied fields as marital counseling, film-making, and horticulture led some critics to doubt the worth of much of his work. Korzybski's ideas continue to generate debate through the publication ETC.
Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering (nonfiction) 1921
Time-Binding: The General Theory (nonfiction) 1926
Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (nonfiction) 1933
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SOURCE: "The Science of Social Engineering," in The Yale Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, January, 1922, pp. 431-33.
[In the following essay, Petrunkevitch praises Korzybski's theory of "time-binding" as discussed in The Manhood of Humanity.]
Unlike practical discoveries in the field of applied science or industry, new conceptions in pure science and thought have innumerable forerunners whose chief work lies in preparing the human mind for the final reception of the great truth to be formulated by some genius. Neither new religions, nor philosophies, nor theories have ever been called into being without such preliminary work, and whenever a genius put forward some thought too early for the rest of the world to grasp it, such a thought invariably perished and had to be rediscovered centuries later. Yet the time comes when the world finally grasps a new truth, makes it part and parcel of its own method of thinking and wonders how people could have been so blind as not to have seen the plain truth before. Such a truth concerning the nature of human thought is now beginning slowly to dawn on the world and, when once clearly conceived, will profoundly change not only scientific conceptions of energy and its laws of preservation, but human relationships as well.
I do not want to convey the impression that the author of The Manhood of Humanity has spoken the word which will reverberate...
(The entire section is 1087 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Manhood of Humanity, in The Monist, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, October, 1922, pp. 637-40.
[In the following essay, Keyser quotes from various reviews of Korzybski's The Manhood of Humanity and commends Korzybski's analysis of what it is to be human.]
"In the name of all you hold dear, you must read this book; and then you must re-read it, and after that read it again and again, for it is not brewed in the vat of the soft best-sellers to be gulped down and forgotten, but it is hewn out of the granite, for the building of new eras."
It must not be supposed that those powerful words are an irresponsible utterance of an exicted enthusiast. Far from it. They were written by no less a person than Mr. H. L. Haywood, the sober-minded editor of The Builder, and may be found in the August number of that official organ of The National Masonic Research Society.
Indeed Haywood's estimate of the book does but confirm the judgment of many other competent critics including educators, engineers, logicians, mathematicians, biologists, psychologists, political philosophers, publicists, and other thinkers.
Let us hear a word from some of them.
"It is," writes Alleyne Ireland, "a contribution of the highest importance to the study of every problem in which human life is one of the factors."
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SOURCE: "The Nature of Discourse," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. X, No. 34, March 10, 1934, pp. 546-47.
[In the following review of Science and Sanity, Hook commends Korzybski's work in logic and mathematics, but considers the presentation of his material to be overbearing and repetitious.]
It is interesting to note that although philosophers have discoursed about all things, real and imaginary, the nature of discourse itself has received philosophical attention only during the last generation. It has become increasingly evident, however, that some of the great historic problems of metaphysics and logic have arisen primarily as a result of profound linguistic confusion. Clarification can only be achieved if we take the nature of discourse as the subject matter of discourse and ask under what conditions it is possible for discourse to render what is not discourse with a minimum of ambiguity and indeterminancy. Alfred Korzybski's book [Science and Sanity] is an attempt to answer this question with novelty, comprehensiveness, and as far as fundamentals go, with finality.
At the very outset I wish to make it clear that although the large claims which Mr. Korzybski enters in behalf of his work cannot be allowed, he has written one of the most suggestive books in the philosophy and methodology of the sciences which has appeared in recent years. The central problem...
(The entire section is 1902 words.)
SOURCE: "Modern Science and Non-Aristotelian Logic," in The Monist, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, July, 1936, pp. 299-317.
[In the following essay, Reiser discusses Korzybski's formula for replacing Aristotelian reasoning with a system that repudiates the notion of identity common to Western logic.]
It is generally recognized that we are living in a period of profound reorganization in human culture. There is a demand not only for practical readjustment in the social order, but there is now developing the belief that we need also a fundamental reconstruction of the theoretical foundations of science. A searching investigation would probably reveal that these two developments are not isolated manifestations, but phases of the same unitary phenomenon—the demand for a new mode of orientation.
The statement that we need a new mode of orientation to deal with the practical and theoretical difficulties which confront us is more radical than some might suppose. We are here referring not merely to the content of our "thoughts," but to the very forms themselves. So thoroughgoing is this proposed reconstruction that it reaches down into a critical examination of the "logical" and linguistic tools we employ in all our orientations. In other words, one of the reformations which is now being advocated as an essential part of the new methodology is that we develop a theory of coherence to take...
(The entire section is 5341 words.)
SOURCE: "The Diseases of Language," in Social Forces, Vol. 16, No. 2, December, 1937, pp. 291-93.
[In the following review of Science and Sanity, Lundberg praises Korzybski's theories, but offers reservations about the repetitious nature of the book.]
The most that a reviewer of a volume of such scope as [Science and Sanity] can legitimately undertake on his own responsibility is to estimate it as far as it touches the fields in which he considers himself qualified to judge critically. For other portions he must rely on the opinions of qualified authorities in the respective fields concerned. On the basis of such consideration it may be said that Korzybski has succeeded to a remarkable degree in satisfying the authorities in the various fields from which he draws his data. I base this statement not mainly on the formidable collection of possibly ex parte testimonials on the jacket, but on extended reviews by authorities of unquestioned standing, as well as on private discussion with such authorities. There remains the question of logic and scientific methods in the social sciences, which is the chief concern of the present review.
The main thesis of the volume may be briefly summarized as follows: It is known that primitive languages characteristically consist of a great number of names for individual things, i.e. they are "kind" languages with comparatively...
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SOURCE: "Korzybski's General Semantics," in Language and Philosophy: Studies in Method, Cornell, 1949, pp. 221-46.
[In the following excerpt, Black considers Korzybski as an innovative and influential thinker whose theories of semantics have the potential to improve the human condition.]
Ever since men began to reflect critically upon the quality of their thinking, they have been conscious of the imperfections of their language. The ambitious designs of science and philosophy must be executed with no better instruments of expression than the "perfected cries of monkeys and dogs"—to use the vivid phrase of Anatole France. And centuries of effort by distinguished scholars have been devoted to the cause of linguistic improvement.
Yet the results remain disappointing; and never before has so much attention been given to the criticism and reform of symbolism. The popular name for such studies in the science of meaning is semantics—a discipline to which Peirce, Mead, Karl Bifhler, C. K. Ogden, I. A. Richards, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, and Carnap, among others, have made noteworthy contributions.
None of these writers, however, has had so much popular influence as Count Alfred Korzybski, the remarkable man whose doctrines I wish to examine in this essay. (The label, "General Semantics," serves to distinguish his doctrines from those of the other...
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SOURCE: "Eminent Semanticists," in Power of Words, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1954, pp. 125-50.
[In the following excerpt, Chase combines a personal description of Korzybski with an assessment of his study of language.]
Alfred Korzybski, who died in 1950, was the originator of what he called "General Semantics," a discipline which took the study of language and meaning into some pretty deep mathematical and neurological waters. It is still early to tell whether his contribution was as epoch-making as some starry-eyed followers believe, but it was unquestionably an important addition to the whole subject of communication.…
I shall never cease to be grateful for the wholesome shock my nervous system received when I first read Korzybski's magnum opus, Science and Sanity. It forced me to realize some of the unconscious assumptions imbedded in the language which I as a writer had been calmly accepting. Nature, he said, does not work the way our language works; and he proceeded to give some suggestions for a closer relationship.
As I knew him in his later years—he was 70 when he died—he had the general aspect of an amiable Buddha, bald as a newel post, with kindly, intelligent eyes behind vast, round spectacles, and with a rich Polish accent. He wore as a kind of uniform a khaki shirt, open at the throat, which sometimes kept him out of hotel dining...
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SOURCE: "General Semantics, Etc.," in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Dover Publications, 1957, pp. 281-91.
[In the following excerpt, Gardner dismisses Korzybski's Science and Sanity as unoriginal and poorly written.]
Korzybski was born in 1879 in Warsaw. He had little formal education. During World War I, he served as a major in Russia's Polish Army, was badly wounded, and later sent to the United States as an artillery expert. He remained in the States, and for the next ten years drew on his personal fortune to write Science and Sanity, the 800-page Bible of general semantics. The book was published in 1933 by the Count's International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company. It is a poorly organized, verbose, philosophically naive, repetitious mish-mash of sound ideas borrowed from abler scientists and philosophers, mixed with neologisms, confused ideas, unconscious metaphysics, and highly dubious speculations about neurology and psychiatric therapy.
Allen Walker Read, in two scholarly articles on the history and various meanings of the word "semantics" (Trans/formation, Vol. 1, Numbers 1 and 2, 1950, 1951), disclosed that the word had not been used in the Count's original draft of Science and Sanity. Before the book was published, however, the word had been adopted by several Polish philosophers, and it was from them that Korzybski...
(The entire section is 2486 words.)
SOURCE: "What I Think Korzybski Thought—and What I Think about It," in ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, December, 1976, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 351-65.
[In the following essay, Rapoport reminisces about his first exposure to Korzybski's principles and remembers the author as an inept instructor and sloppy thinker.]
I first heard the word "semantics" when a classmate at the University of Chicago recited a satirical poem in a campus coffee shop. In the poem "semantics" rhymed with "antics," and it ended something like this:
"He could pass, were he but pinker
As, who knows, perhaps a thinker."
To which someone added, "as it is, he is a stinker." The epigram was aimed at Bertrand Russell, who had just given a lecture and shocked the left-wing students by advocating accommodation to Hitler's demands in preference to war. Aged 26, I was, I think, the oldest freshman at the University and abysmally ignorant.
The second time "semantics" appeared on my intellectual horizon was in 1942 in Montgomery, Alabama, soon after I was commissioned in the U.S. Air Force. People were talking about a book by an author said to be Japanese (Imagine!). I saw the book and the author's picture on the jacket, but didn't get around to reading it.
The third time was decisive. I was then in Nome, Alaska. Work came...
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SOURCE: "Time-Binding: To Build a Fire," in ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 46, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 194-96.
[In the following essay, French analyzes Korzybski's concept of time-binding and its role in the progress of human civilization.]
Perhaps we knew about fire before we even knew we were human. We were using fire to drive and trap animals and to roast meat 500,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Era. However, exactly when or how Homo Erectus discovered fire is unknown, although there are theories: A woman may have been chipping flakes from a piece of flint, and the sparks that flew from the blows ignited nearby leaves and twigs; then again, there may have been a lightning strike and a forest fire, and our man Grog took a burning branch home to light and warm the cave.
Of course, the generations of humans that came after the great discovery started out life with the knowledge of fire, a knowledge passed to them in childhood by their parents. Because it is in the nature of human beings to pass information from one generation to the next—to build on the achievements of past generations over time—there was no turning back to pre-fire days. Each generation added to the storehouse of knowledge about fire, until by the Neolithic Era, humans could produce fire at will, with such tools as the fire plow, the fire drill, and the bow drill.
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Acklom, George Moreby. "The Cleavage between Science and Human Activities." The New York Times (11 February 1934): 4, 14.
Discusses Korzybski's strategy to save civilization through mathematics and psychiatry.
Bois, J. Samuel. "Korzybski's Living Logic." Etc. 32, No. 2 (June 1975): 165-68.
Praises Korzybski's philosophy in a discussion of the evolution of human thought away from the subjective and toward the objective.
Boyd, Christopher. "Piaget and Korzybski: Parallels." Etc. 43, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 47-51.
Discusses Piaget's theory of child development in relation to Korzybski's principles of probability and identity.
Breitwieser, J. V. A review of The Manhood of Humanity. Journal of Philosophy XIX, No. 11 (25 May 1922): 301-3.
Mostly favorable review of The Manhood of Humanity that examines the nature of human intelligence and Korzybski's vision of a harmonious human civilization.
Brewer, Joseph. "A Reminiscence of Alfred Korzybski." Etc. 33, No. 4 (December 1976): 377-79.
A remembrance of friendship with Korzybski and his wife, Mira, including a description of the author's search for a publisher.
Exton, William Jr. "What 'Is' GS?" Etc. 37, No. 4 (Winter 1980): 340-46.
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