Alfred Korzybski Essay - Critical Essays

Korzybski, Alfred

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Alexander Petrunkevitch (essay date 1922)

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 throughout the thinking world. He, too, is only a forerunner, though he brings us considerably nearer the goal. His theories revolve around the idea that man is neither an animal nor a creature endowed with a spirit, but alone belongs to the "time-binding" class. By this he means that man has "the capacity to summarize, digest, and appropriate the labors and experiences of the past… "; and he contrasts man with animals as representatives of the "space-binding" class. Now this thought in itself would not be anything new, were it not for the elucidation of its meaning given by Korzybski. For he shows that not only do we learn from the experiences of the past, not only do we make use of things done before us and of wealth accumulated, but that in all our calculations of work done by ourselves, of wealth accumulated by us, of production based on our possession of knowledge, an inalienable element has been persistently overlooked, an element which he terms the "dead men's work." That work represents energy which may be and is being made use of in our daily life, but as yet has not been taken into account by any scientific thinker or student of human affairs. Like a true engineer Korzybski is not interested in...

(The entire section is 1087 words.)

Cassius J. Keyser (essay date 1922)

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...

(The entire section is 2002 words.)

Sidney Hook (essay date 1934)

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...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)

Oliver L. Reiser (essay date 1936)

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...

(The entire section is 5341 words.)

George A. Lundberg (essay date 1937)

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...

(The entire section is 1572 words.)

Max Black (essay date 1949)

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...

(The entire section is 7847 words.)

Stuart Chase (essay date 1953)

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...

(The entire section is 7689 words.)

Martin Gardner (essay date 1957)

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...

(The entire section is 2486 words.)

Anatol Rapoport (essay date 1976)

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."

...

(The entire section is 6411 words.)

James D. French (essay date 1989)

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,...

(The entire section is 1226 words.)