Monday, March 24, 2014

From the Korzybski Files Vaults: "What 'Is' General-Semantics? by Robert P. Pula

Robert P. Pula, my teacher, co-worker and dear friend probably qualifies as the most important post-Korzybski scholar and teacher of GS I have known. Here is a brief (three-page) handout, undated but probably from some time in the 1970s, where he succinctly answers the question, "What  'is' General-Semantics?" Worth your time to download and study.

"What 'Is' General Semantics?"

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Semiotics Pioneer, Charles Morris, Describes 'General Semantics'

"The work of A. Korzybski and his followers, psycho-biological in orientation, has largely been devoted to the therapy of the individual, aiming to protect the individual against exploitation by others and by himself." 
— Charles Morris, in Signs, Language and Behavior (1946)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

From the Stray Thought Bin - Watch Your 'Philosophizing'




If you want to go higher and higher,

with your head floating up in the clouds,


Head_in_the_Clouds_by_AndrewDickman
http://fc07.deviantart.net/fs5/i/2004/340/1/f/Head_in_the_Clouds_by_AndrewDickman.jpg


make sure that your legs are well-tethered,

to keep both your feet on the ground.  










Thursday, January 16, 2014

Looking Out My Window - The Transparency Illusion

Looking out through a window (or making a 'window frame' with your hands), notice what you see through it. Now, look at the window. What do you see of the window itself? What is on the window (smudges, reflections, glare, distortions, et cetera)? Also notice some of what gets blocked out from your view through the window. Now return to look out through the window again. As you look onto the scene, can you extend your awareness to include the window as well? Can you stay aware of what is not within your view? 

Looking through my window, it can seem easy to forget, and it sometimes takes some time to realize, that I am looking through a window. It may take some effort to look at a window I am looking through and to figure out how it may be influencing what I see. 


Each one of us is looking at the world through windows, literal windows, and metaphorical ones: the 'windows' of our 'senses', the 'windows' of our language, the 'windows' of the family and the culture we were born into, the 'windows' of our profession, the 'windows' of the doctrines we hold so dear, et cetera. Windows that we do not see. 

Neurocognitive linguist Sydney Lamb calls this the transparency illusion
"A window or a pair of glasses functions best when it is as invisible as possible. The person who wants to study windows must therefore make a special effort to look at the window rather than through it." (Pathways of the brain: The neurocognitive basis of Language. Benjamins, 1999, p. )
And though we may not be able to remove all of the 'windows' or 'glasses' we look through, many of us could use a radical new prescription. 








Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Orphans and the Inheritance: Using the Gifts of the Past

Korzybski provided us with a most precious legacy: a framework of knowledge about human knowledge, a pathway and discipline for becoming more conscious of our consciousness in useful ways for our individual development and social advancement.

However, we must provide the proper receptacle for that inheritance, as we must provide for any gift of knowledge. This gets to an important aspect of time-binding, the potential we have as humans, the capacity we have—which may or may not operate—to benefit from and apply to the present what others have learned in the past. 

Some insight into this comes from an analysis of a saying in the Jewish Pirkei Avot: "Apply yourself to the study of the Torah, for it is not your inheritance." This appears problematic and has required explanation as it seems to contradict this passage in the Hebrew Bible: "Torah is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob." (Deut. 33:4)

A contradiction? 

In Talmudic discourse, " [Rabbi] Beis Yisrael offers a different explanation. Torah knowledge itself is an inheritance of the Jewish nation. However, one must apply himself to study the Torah, for it, [the necessary preparation one needs to acquire that precious heritage] is not yours by inheritance—one must exert himself in the preparation. This is analogous to a group of orphans who were to receive a large inheritance from their father, consisting of money and precious gems. The executor of the estate instructed them to bring luggage to carry away their shares. "What!", they exclaimed, "Such a magnificent estate and we must bring suitcases? Aren't there any among the items left to us by our father?" "No", answered the executor, "your father bequeathed you a fantastic fortune, but he didn't leave you even one basket or piece of luggage. That you must provide yourself." (Artscroll Pirkei Avot, p. 114)

This, as I hope you can see, does not just apply to Jewish Torah teachings, but to any important learning from others both living and dead. Korzybski, and others pursuing his work, have provided us with a most precious legacy. However, we must provide the proper receptacle. Without study and application—work—we cannot benefit from that inheritance. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

"General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language Behavior"


My friend Steve Stockdale, former Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics (2004 through 2007) has been involved in developing this online course: "General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language Behavior" For that reason alone, I feel confident in recommending it to anyone who wants to try an online course and would like a structured introduction to the subject.

I say this despite my qualms about the course's focus on language behavior here, which I consider too narrow and therefore potentially confusing if you want to develop a comprehensive understanding of Korzybski's work.  Because I see GS as a value-infused, applied study of human evaluation/epistemology (how we know what we know) and a non-aristotelian foundation for the human sciences, I would not describe 'general semantics' as this course description does.

I have come to this view, because such a focus on 'language' by people like S. I. Hayakawa, has historically misled students into neglecting a great deal of Korzybski's work that doesn't fit into the 'language studies' box. However, the radically inter-disciplinary nature of 'general semantics' has traditionally made it difficult to classify it in terms of traditional academic boxes. So here we are. It's an old story.

That said, we surely can't leave 'language' out of the picture. As Korzybskian scholar and former Executive Editor of the General Semantics Bulletin, Jim French has written: "As a field of study, general semantics is not predominantly about language but (one might say) about neuro-evaluating; and yet language and how we use it play a prominent role in apprehending and using the discipline." ("Editor's Essay 2001, General Semantics Bulletin, 65-68, p. 8-10)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

More Radical General Semantics in India: Report on the General Semantics VII National Workshop - The Spirit of Democratic Citizenship


A report from my friends, respected political scientists Gad Horowitz and Shannon Bell of radicalgeneralsemantics.net, on their recent visit to India teaching on behalf of the Balvant K. Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences. I'm happy to have had some responsibility for getting them over there from their base in Toronto, Canada; I recommended Gad as a wonderful korzybskian resource when I went to India earlier this year, to present at the General Semantics VI National Workshop in Jaipur and other venues, including an Advanced National Workshop on General Semantics:

The Event of Radical General Semantics 2013 
in Baroda, Rajkot and Mumbai
by Shannon Bell
Gad Horowitz’s lecture “Levinas: A New Ethical Orientation,” the third in the Balvant Parekh Distinguished Lecture Series, set the tone for the four day General Semantics VII National Workshop: The Spirit of Democratic Citizenship (Radical General Semantics) Department of English & CLS, Saurashtra University, Rajkot November 13-16.  The following quote from Gad’s Levinas lecture provides an ethical imperative directing the skills and techniques of General Semantics: “The plea of the other COMPELS a response, not politically, rationally, or with force but ethically; there is no way of not responding. Obligation happens here together with every kind and degree of response. It is only in responding to the other that I am constituted as a responsible human agent, no matter to what degree I assume my responsibility.”

Gad began the Rajkot workshop: “I would like to begin by invoking the names of Mahatma Gandhi, who attended high school in this city, Shri Balvant Parekh, the great patron of general-semantics in India, and Alfred Korzybski, the founder of the general-semantics movement.”

He immediately set out what he means by coupling radical with general semantics: “GENERAL-SEMANTICS is not just one ‘human science’ among others. It was founded as a movement aimed at advancing human civilization by way of a radical transformation of its basic grammatical-cognitive-affective structures, which is why I teach it as ‘radical-general-semantics’. It is not merely one critical theory among others but a set of PRACTICES, of the kind that Michel Foucault called ‘practices of the self,’ which can and should be learned and internalized to some extent, ‘neuro-semantically,’ by every human being beginning in childhood.”

The format we followed for each of the four days was first viewing one of the eight video lectures by Gad (there are 22); the video was shown for 15-20 minutes, then I as manager of radicalgeneralsemantics.net, workshop resource person and videographer, would recapitulate central points, ask questions to which Gad himself would respond, followed by interaction from participants. Then again 20 minutes of video followed by the same process. We viewed two video lectures per day covering the following themes: event, object, label levels, structural differential, spiral circularity of human thought, non-elementalism; the devices of general semantics—index, multi-ordinal index, date, chain index, etc., quotes and hyphens—and levels of self.  What impressed me as moderator was the sophisticated placing of English Literature and Indian Philosophy into the large frame of General Semantics by several of the workshop’s senior participants; this included using the event, object, label levels and devices of General Semantics in literary textual analysis.  On day two we assigned the task of focusing attention on a natural object and describing it carefully in sensory-specific language, for example, the description of a so-called “banana” might begin with the words “a yellow elongated object turned up at both sides something like a crescent.” Among the participant’s numerous responses shared the next day was the beautiful description of a pear from Yann Martel's novel Beatrice and Virgil read out by Dr. Ravisinh Zala from the Department of English & CLS.

To ensure that the first-time practitioners of General Semantics were understanding the formulations, we began each morning session with written questions from the participants; the questions ranged from defining such terms as intensional, extensional, non-aristotelian, silent level practice, semantic blocks to questions of a more philosophical nature, such as, ‘what is meant by the “spirit of democratic citizenship”’ and questions of a more practical nature, such as, ‘how will silent practice help in a student’s study life, particularly in reading?’

Saurashtra University lived up to its well-deserved reputation for hospitality complete with the excellent catering service of Parthil Caterers, a tour of Rajkot that included Alfred High School which Mohandas Gandhi attended and the Rama Krishna Temple, a closing dinner on the rooftop terrace of Hotel Sarovar Portico, and a wonderful lunch just for Gad and me at the home of the Head of the Department of English, Dr. Kamal Mehta and Madame Mehta on our last day in Rajkot.

Our two-day General Semantics workshop at the Sir JJ School of Art (November 18 and 19) with the students in Ms. Snehal Tambulwadikar’s class “Art History and Aesthetics” was equally invigorating for us. Here we were teaching General Semantics to newcomers to the field who also happened to be artists. Art was placed in the context of General Semantics and what a perfect context in which to do so – a studio surrounded by forty-some paintings produced by the students attending.

On Day 1, after a superb introduction to General Semantics presented by Dr. Deepa Mishra, Director of a Nodal Centre for General Semantics, Smt CHM College, Gad offered an overview of the main points of General Semantics—structural differential, silent practice, the devices. Several of the art students participated very actively; reference was made to their paintings in the context of the structural differential and object and label levels.

Day 2 began with Gad linking the skills and techniques of General Semantics with Miksang Contemplative Photography http://www.miksang.org/m/index.html and the work of the American artist Charles Biederman, himself a student of General Semantics, http://www.charlesbiederman.net as foreground to Shannon Bell’s work on Shooting Theory. Shannon showed six of the twelve films she has made bringing together digital video technology and print textual philosophy/ theory through imaging philosophical/theoretical concepts. The films shown were Edmund Husserl Blind Residuum Caves https://vimeo.com/21341729,  George Bataille and Simone Weil – Beautiful Waste: Dead Sea Sinkholes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDtr_8n54Cg, Emmanuel Levinas – Shooting the Elemental https://vimeo.com/42109865, Walter Benjamin – Flâneuring Ancient Arcade Ruins https://vimeo.com/46174007, Martin Heidegger – Flashes of Perception https://vimeo.com/71183979, and Samuel Mallin – The Sinuous Turn https://vimeo.com/77701915 . Shannon located imaging theoretical concepts in the broader General Semantics framework of just seeing (pure object level) and seeing as (the level of labeled experience).

We were very pleased to have in attendance at the workshop Sir JJ Dean Vishwanath D. Sabale, Dr. S. Kahn - Director of a Nodal Centre for General Semantics and Ms. Kavita Nimbalkar - Administrator of Corporate Social Responsibilities for Pidilite Industries Ltd.

Aside from the dynamic JJ School of Art workshop, other highlights in Mumbai included the Grand Hotel (where we stayed) view of the industrial port, attempting to drive to Juhu Beach precisely at the time of the sunset water puja just after Diwali and then a walk on Juhu Beach the following day (thanks to Pidilite’s generous hospitality we has the pleasure of being driven here and there by Gajendra by far the best driver in Mumbai), a trip to the Gateway of India during a Jain festival, passing through the crowd to make our offering at the Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Mandir Ganesh Temple, skywalking on the Bandra skywalk, repeated trips on the Sea Link, lunch at Café Madras (don’t leave Mumbai without eating at Café Madras) and then on our final day a visit  with Dr. Prafulla Kar to Pidilite Corporate Office to meet and have lunch with Shri Balavant Parekh’s two sons—Madhukar and Ajay Parekh—and Balavant Parekh’s brother Narendrakumar Parekh.  Our discussion touched on Radical General Semantics (Gad had sent his introduction to the Rajkot workshop to the Parekh’s before our meeting); vibrant reminisces of their father and brother’s involvement with General Semantics, their respective experiences attending University of Wisconsin-Madison and Berkley University and ours teaching at University of Toronto and York University; we met many of the staff and had the pleasure of being part of the weekly birthday lunch in which whoever of the 1000 employees has a birthday that week is invited to lunch with the CEOs. We have a copy signed by all three Parekh’s of the Felicitation Volume, Behind the Curtain, presented to Shri Balavant Parehk on the occassion of his 75th year. Of all the essays documenting a life of endeavor, mindfulness and generosity the most precious to me is “He Has Very Deep Interests in Many Subjects” by Kanta Parekh (his wife).  She jokingly calls him “over-wise” due to his interest and expertise in many subjects – “Psychology, Politics, Science, Gujarati literature, Medicines, etc.” (278)

Walking with Dr. Kar and Gad in The Hanging Gardens and overlooking Marine Drive and the Queen’s Necklace from Kamala Nehru Park shortly before leaving Mumbai, I wondered if Balavant Parekh use to walk here when he was poor and starting out and also when he became one of India’s leading industrialists and philanthropists. He did. One of the essays in Behind the Curtain writes about the older Parekh spending time walking and talking with leading Gujarati and Indian poets in the Hanging Gardens. After all, as Gad said in the Rajkot workshop as he directed us to walking as a silent practice: ‘walking is a sacred obligation’.











Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reflections on E-Prime: A Follow-up to Shakespeare In E-Prime

My good friend, Devkumar Trivedi of the Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences in India, sent me this email in response to my last post putting Hamlet's soliloquy in E-Prime. E-Prime (E') was formulated by Korzybski's student David Bourland who advocated eliminating all forms of the verb "to be" from the English language.

Dev writes:
Hi Bruce,

1     What a telling and hilarious spoof on proponents of E-prime !
2     The structures of ordinary English as taught/learnt in many countries are embedded deeply in neural network of most students by the age of fifteen years, generally a long time before they ever even hear anything of GS. The challenge is to unlearn the structures, which is not easy.
3     Hence, awareness to understand the adverse impact of the identificatory and opinionating 'is' , and to contain the degree of damage by misevaluation appears a more feasible approach. In history attempts have been made by reformers to change spellings etc. [ G.B. Shaw even created a fund for it ], but language meanders autonomously, disregarding reverence and obedience to creative writers as well as scholars. You know the spelling of fish given by Shaw ?; Ghuitio.
He wanted to demonstrate the phonetic anarchy of spellings. Did not succeed. How much more difficult to change the very structure of language, to 'standardize' it and teach from nursery classes upwards !
4     Shakespeare in E-prime appears contrived, constricted and convoluted. Oh the economy beauty and simplicity of 'is' !
       
       Warm wishing,      Dev

N.B. The methodology of skits, singing, dancing etc., I fully endorse and actually follow in my workshops. Nobody likes to see the visage of a funeral facing teacher !
I replied as follows with these reflections on E-Prime:
Hi Dev,
I agree with your sentiments about E-prime ponderousness.
 I knew Dave Bourland. He seemed the epitome of the courtly gentleman and I liked him personally, but he held onto his contentions about E-Prime with the tenacity of a bulldog biting a burglar. 

Bob Pula once told me (and wrote about somewhere) about seeing Dave Bourland at an IGS sponsored event, where Dave introduced his new wife on the order of 'Bob, this constitutes my wife, Karen.' Bourland denied he said this. But I believe Bob.  

I have come to see 'identification' as a default stage of evaluative development. 

Absence of 'is' does not at all guarantee non-identifiying consciousness of abstracting. 

Whatever I say is in the 'is' is not in it. 

E-Prime works when it does because it tends to force the user to reword in more actional, descriptive language.

Useful but not the panacea that Bourland and others seemed and seem to want to make it. 

The possibility of identifying remains as long as we have language with subjects, verbs, and objects—forms which appear as the one set of solid universals that exist in all languages (cf. Gregory Sampson). 

Rejecting totally and for good, all forms of the verb "to be" seems uncalled for (too radical a reform in English where  'Is' exists as partly as a kind of generic all-purpose verb and verb helper). 

Very useful as a way to shorten lengthy ponderous expositions like this email is in danger of becoming. 

When I use, 'is' I often put quotes around it (sometimes with my toes so nobody sees—seriously, I do) which affords me the opportunity to distance myself and question for a moment as to whether I might be identifying. 

The 'is of identity' that Korzybski advised eschewing? Aristotle's "A is A" as an orientation. 

So 'is" and "to be" forms only constitute 'ises of identity" when the person using the words is actually identifying. 

Again, whatever I say is in the 'is' is not in it. 

The words mark potential identifications and are actually for that reason useful to retain in the language as visible indicators of possible problems. 

Otherwise, the identifications just get buried in other usages which may not appear so obvious.   

Thank you, "Is".  

Well, enough of that for now. 
Warm best regards,...
But please, experiment rewording with E-Prime, by all means. It is not a cure-all but if it helps you to become more conscious of what you say and what you 'mean', well, all to the good. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Shakespeare Recast in E-Prime


I dug this out of some 'ancient' notebooks of mine, from the first general-semantics seminar-workshop I ever attended—a two-week one back in 1979. The Institute of General Semantics had a long tradition of a mid-seminar party on Saturday night, where participants and staff would put on some kind of 'behavioral performance'. Everyone could do something. Skits, songs and other musical performances, dramatic presentations, etc., all provided ample opportunity to play on themes and issues related to what we were studying in this intensive course in 'general-semantics': the endlessly fascinating topic of evaluation and mis-evaluation in human behavior—not only in others' behavior, but in our own as well. The talent displayed in the shows I saw over the years awed me. In this one, besides some wonderful playing of his original piano compositions, lead lecturer Robert P. Pula, presented this recasting of Hamlet's soliloquy in his friend David Bourland's E-Prime, a program for eliminating all forms of the verb "to be" from written and spoken English. Bob didn't qualify as a major fan of this approach and decided to give it a little poke with this performance piece which, I recall, he hammed up wonderfully, lots of laughs. His friend Andy Hilgartner's suggestion to verbalize some nouns also came in for some good-natured ribbing. After the show, I asked Bob for his index card notes and tucked them away in my notebook, till now. So now here, published for the first time: Shakespeare's Soliloquy for Hamlet Recast in David Bourland's E-Prime by Robert P. Pula, with the assistance Stuart A. Mayper (1979) and a little editing from me (2013):  
"Existing or not existing. That constitutes the questioning. Whether we postulate the greater nobility of tolerating in our neuro-linguistic systems the slings and arrows of what we perceive as outrageous fortunes or to take arms, legs, thoraxes, et cetera, against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die, to sleep no more and by a sleeping to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh seems heir to: I formulate this as a consummation devoutly wished. Sleeping, perchance dreaming, ay, that constitutes the rubbing—for in that death sleeping what dreamings may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. The respect that makes calamity of so long living consists in that. Who would seminars bear, grunting and sweating under a weary life but that fear of something after death, that undiscovered country from whose Bourland no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bearing familiar illings than flying to others not known. Thus consciousness of abstracting doth make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution sicklies o'er with the pale castings of semantic reactions, and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regarding, their currents turn away and lose the naming, action."  

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Symbolic Form of Life: Korzybski and Cassirer


In Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski memorably wrote: 
"The affairs of man [humankind] are conducted by our own, man-made rules and according to man-made theories. Man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic [evaluational] class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us." (S&S, Fifth Ed., p. 76)
Independently of Korzybski, philosopher Ernst Cassirer also saw the defining importance of symbolism in understanding human life. Cassirer published the three volumes of his work, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, in 1923-1929, a few years after Korzybski’s Manhood of Humanity. In a later work, An Essay on Man, Cassirer—apparently unaffected by Korzybski's work, although the two men had corresponded—wrote the following:
"Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives so to speak, in a new dimension of reality.…Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum. By so doing we can designate his specific difference, and we can understand the new way open to man––the way to civilization." (pp. 24-26)
Korzybski, who had carefully read Cassirer’s work, would differ from Cassirer in this way: he insisted from the time of his 1921 work Manhood of Humanity onwards, that this new psycho-biological way open to humanity, took humanity out of animal existence and merited its placement into an entirely new taxonomic "kingdom" of life—as time-binders. "Man", he repeated often, "is not an animal!"   

In spite of this difference, not so little to Korzybski,  he dedicated his book Science and Sanity to the works of Cassirer (1), among others, which “greatly influenced my enquiry.” Such scholarly acknowledgement was typical of Korzybski. 

Also typically of Korzybski (trained as an engineer), he formulated the symbolic mechanism in terms of time-binding, in order to provide a practical way to apply Cassirer’s and others’ insights about human culture to living life—your life. In 1925 he wrote to Cassirer, then still in Germany,  
"As a engineer I am trying to formulate modes of action but this involves a host of theoretical issues, some as yet unresolved, and until the scientists scrutinize the theoretical issues, it will never become a mode of action. It seems to me that the conditions of the world are deeply upset mostly [due] to the exposure (destructive) of old doctrines, which were false and at present a lack of a general theory of human action..." (Korzybski to Cassirer, April 28, 1925)
Notes
(1). Cassirer's books, Substance and Function and Einstein's Theory of Relativity, published in one volume in English by Open Court in 1923, affirmed Korzybski's general view of epistemology, and of all Cassirer's writings probably had the deepest effect on Korzybski. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Charlotte Schuchardt Read on "Living In An 'As If' World: Some Reflections on 'The Map Is Not The Territory"


My friend and mentor Charlotte Schuchardt Read, Alfred Korzybski's personal secretary and literary assistant, once suggested:
“In learning to feel the deeper significance of the map-territory premise we can: 
1. Be more awake to our own personal role in making our maps.
2. Increase our ability to make needed revisions as we check with the territory. 
3. Realize, through continual experiencing, that we each live in our “as if” world, and develop awareness of this. 
4. Gain greater appreciation of the other person’s world and his/her way of expressing it. 
5. If the temptation arises to say ‘This is nothing new,’ we can say ‘This can be a new experience, newly experienced today.’ 
Perhaps it would be useful to state the premise as: ‘The territory is not the map.’ Would this make a difference? I don’t know. 
Many questions arise as we progress toward a more unified view of our universe and our place in it. The multiordinal map-territory analogy can remain a helpful guide, provided we are aware of Korzybski’s third premise: The map is self-reflexive—the mapmaker is in the map—and provided we remember that the premises, like all premises, are only maps.”*
*Charlotte Read, “Living in an ‘as if’ World: Some Reflections on ‘The Map Is Not the Territory’ ” in Developing Sanity in Human Affairs (Contributions to the Study of Mass Media and Communications, Number 54), Ed. Susan Presby Kodish and Robert P. Holston. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, p. 75

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Abstracting in Philosophy, Science and Everyday Life


The central korzybskian notion of abstracting resonates with the work of Kant, Schopenhauer and other philosophers who had previously explored this epistemological territory. 

For example, Schopenhauer, who built upon Kant’s work, very much seemed to be talking about abstracting when he wrote:
‘The world is my idea’ [This has also been translated as ‘The world is my representation’]: this is a truth which holds good for everything that lives and knows, though only man can bring it into reflected, abstract consciousness. If he really does this, philosophical discretion has evolved in him. It then becomes clear to him, and certain, that he knows not a sun, and not an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world which surrounds him exists only as an idea – that is, only in relation to something else, the one who conceives the idea, which is himself." (1)
What, then, makes Korzybski's model of abstracting special?: it brings previous philosophical discussion about epistemology (how we know what we 'think' we know) into a scientific, naturalistic framework, one that is workable both for further research and application in everyday life. My korzybskian transformation of the passage from Schopenhauer reads:
Anything I experience or know about the ‘world’ consists of my abstractions: this truth, as far as I know, holds good for everything that lives and knows, though only a human can bring it into reflected consciousness. If one really does know this, philosophical-scientific-mathematical discretion (consciousness of abstracting) has evolved. It then becomes clear, and as ‘certain’ as anything, that one knows not a ‘sun’, and not an ‘earth’, but only the result of one’s eye-brain-nervous-system transactions with a ‘sun’ and hand-brain-nervous-system transactions with an ‘earth’. Each one of us participates in the ‘world’ as an integral part of it. The ‘world’ (which includes what is called “the body”) exists—as each of us experiences and knows itonly in terms of abstractions at various levels. These abstractions exist only in relation to something else, the one who abstracts, oneself.
This notion of abstracting provides a key for Korzybski’s critique of aristotelianism in philosophy, science and everyday life. (2)

1. The World As Will and Idea. Abridged in One Volume. Ed. & Trans., Berman & Berman. London: Everyman. 



Thursday, October 24, 2013

Quote of the Day – "Thinking"


"Thinking gives people headaches and if persisted in may cause them to change their opinions. So it simply isn't done, you know." 
— Rudyard Kipling

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Science and Sanity at 80

This month, October 2013, marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics

When the book finally came out on October 10, 1933, the U.S. was in the first year of F.D.R.'s first administration. Despite whatever lift people's spirits may have had from the president's multiordinalinaugural day reassurance in March that they had nothing to fear but fear itself, from his "New Deal" plans, and from the much anticipated ending of alcohol prohibition; the U.S. still seemed sunk in the depths of the Great Depression. Internationally, news didn't seem so good to Korzybski either: Hitler had become the Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi Party had begun to consolidate its tyrannical control there. Along with Stalin, ensconced in Soviet Russia, and the Japanese Empire spreading itself across East Asia, the world didn't seem like such a happy place. To Korzybski, with what he called his "theory of sanity", it seemed like as good a time as any to offer his own infusion of sanity, as much as the world could take.

It was no easy task. He had begun writing what would become Science and Sanity in 1921, just after the publication of his first book, Manhood of Humanity. It had taken 12  demanding years devoted to writing and research. By 1932 with the book mainly done, Korzybski and his wife Mira turned down a few publishers willing to publish the book if Korzybski could guarantee the production cost by means of advanced sales. Under such terms the book could sell for as much as $10 retail (over $100 in today's money), a price that surely would have put off most potential readers during a major economic depression. Instead, the Korzybskis started The International Non-Aristotelian Library and Publishing Company (INALPCO), financed primarily through Mira's work painting portraits on ivory for "the rotten rich" (as they sometimes referred to her  wealthy clients). As self-publishers they could offer the book for a more reasonable "educational discount" price of $5.50, when ordered directly from their printer/distributor, Science Press. 

With the Korzybskis' considerable expenses in getting the book published (they remained in debt for a few years afterwards), the book's price certainly wasn't intended to make them rich. But Korzybski offered his "educational discount" to make the book as accessible and as available as possible to his main audience: the 'average intelligent layman'. And he never wavered from his view that the work that his book introduced, perplexingly labeled "general semantics", was not intended mainly for academic and scientific/technical specialists, but for that average intelligent man, woman, and even child, on the street. For years, he had paid membership dues to a British group, The World Association for Adult Education whose motto seemed just in line with his own efforts: "The multitude of the wise is the welfare of the world." 

Until his death 17 years later, Korzybski developed the implications of his work, promoting research, refining his insights, and reaching thousands of students individually and in group seminars, mainly through the auspices of the Institute of General Semantics which he founded in Chicago as a non-profit educational organization in 1938 with a few of his close students, his most serious "co-workers" as he liked to call them. 

By the time of his death on March 1, 1950, he had already  made a notable cultural impact in the U.S. and elsewhere, reaching perhaps the high point of critical appreciation of his work. Numerous popularizations of his work had already appeared. By 1949, one year before his death, he had begun receiving serious academic recognition at such places as Yale University, where he was invited by faculty there to conduct a seminar and lecture; the Cooper Union, where he addressed an audience of about 800 people on "Time-Binding: The Foundation for General Semantics"; the University of Denver where he taught a seminar before attending the "Third American Congress on General Semantics", sponsored by that university; and the University of Texas where he was the only independent, non-academic scholar invited to present a paper as part of a symposium on perception, along with a panel of some of the best and brightest figures in the behavioral/social sciences of that period. (Korzybski died while completing the editing and his  personal secretary and literary assistant, Charlotte Schuchardt, went to Texas alone to present his final paper, "The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes".)

Since his death, Korzybski's bright light has slowly faded. With the hindsight of 80 years since Science and Sanity's publication, what Korzybski actually taught has gotten somewhat obscured by the perpetuation of the errors made by a torrent of inept but influential critics, like Martin Gardner. Perhaps even more damagingly, it has gotten obscured by 'followers' like S. I. Hayakawa whose light and popular writing on 'semantics' showed ainadequate grasp of Korzybski's work, focusing mainly on Hayakawa's limited applications to language teaching, just one aspect of Korzybski's substantial, deep, and multi-faceted general theory of human evaluation. Depending on inadequate accounts as well as simply through the passage of time, Korzybski's work has thus become widely unread and, where acknowledged, often misread and superficially understood. 

But if you hear the siren call to plumb the depths of Korzybski's system of applied epistemology and his foundational framework for human knowledge and personal and social sanity, there is no substitute to reading Science and Sanity, now in its Fifth Edition. (Don't forget Manhood of Humanity and Collected Writings either!) Don't get put off by the size of the book or mathematical formulas within. Those of you who hear the call, may actually find Science and Sanity—and his other works—as I do: compellingly written with a rare combination of clarity, rigor, wit, and usefulness for living. 

And finally a shameless plug.  If you do feel that you need to ease into Korzybski's own writing with some introductory reading first, Drive Yourself Sane, written by myself and my wife Susan and now in its Third Edition, does present Korzybski's system in a brief, but accurate and comprehensive manner. Following that, there exists no better source than my own Korzybski: A Biography if you wish to follow Korzybski's own advice that "...when you read a book. Read not only what you read, but study the author." Korzybski: A Biography captures the adventure of his extraordinary life while tracing in detail the development of his work. Then, you'll definitely be ready to tackle Science and Sanity, and the rest of his work as well.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"When I Told Her She Was Sexy..." – A Poem by Kenneth G. Johnson

When I Told Her She Was Sexy...
by Kenneth G. Johnson*

"You're projecting," she said, 
Her face turning red, 
"The sexiness you see 
is all in your head." 

"You're right!" I agreed
With the lovely objector,
"But I like the way
You run my projector." 


*The late Kenneth G. Johnson—Professor, Department of Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—authored the popular General Semantics: An Outline Survey, among other works. Ken remains one of the most important of the scholar-teachers of korzybskian GS at the Institute of General Semantics after Korzybski's death. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Authoritarian" – A Poem by Kenneth G. Johnson

Authoritarian
by Kenneth G. Johnson*

A perfect world 
This would be
If everyone 
Would be like me. 

Or better than
The way I am, 
The way I like 
To think I am. 



*The late Kenneth G. Johnson—Professor, Department of Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—authored the popular General Semantics: An Outline Survey, among other works. Ken remains one of the most important of the scholar-teachers of korzybskian GS at the Institute of General Semantics after Korzybski's death.