Alfred Korzybski Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.