Thursday, May 29, 2008

Einlauf Soup

I got an email the other day from my good friend Clayton Mitchum. Clayton's not very familiar with the GS lingo but his story shows the difference between verbal 'meanings' or definition (more the subject of traditional 'semantics') versus non-verbal evaluation, i.e., 'semantic [evaluational] reaction' the subject of general semantics. We respond to words, symbols, indeed any events in terms of such organism-as-a-whole reactions. Clayton gave me permission to post his email here:
I was on the phone yesterday with your Mt. Lebanon classmate, Bill F. I think the last time you and I discussed Bill, we weren’t speaking, but now we are talking again. Anyway, he was asking about you and what you were doing, and I told him about your book and semantics. He then reminded me of a story I’d told him years ago – that’s the weird thing about Bill – he remembers everything from years ago, but he can’t remember what he did yesterday. I thought you might be interested in this.

My great-grandfather was a translator for the Prussian court. Not only was he present to translate at every discussion between visiting dignitaries speaking various languages, but also dignitaries who spoke the same language; i.e., German. He always told the family (he died before I was born) that there were probably more misunderstandings between folks speaking the same language than different ones, because of semantics. That example came driving home to Rosanne and me a few years ago.

Rosanne has a friend who grew up in East Germany – born and raised. They were in a German restaurant in Pittsburgh’s North Side (Max’s Allegheny Tavern) and when Frauke looked at the menu, she turned red as a stop sign and looked like she was going to pass out. Rosanne asked Frauke what was wrong, and she said, Einlauf soup is the matter. Rosanne asked, what’s the problem with Einlauf soup? Frauke replied that Einlauf meant enema where she came from! Why was Max’s serving enema soup, you might ask. The true definition of Einlauf means ‘something warm inside you’. I guess the semantics part of this is which end it goes in, depending on whether you’re from East or West Germany! So there’s an example of the semantics problem my great-granddad was talking about.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Forerunners to the Time-Binding Notion (Part II)

A number of decades before Alfred’s birth, the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz had called Poland, “the Christ of the Nations.” Jesus, as we know, was a Jew. Poles had lived for hundreds of years in relative harmony among, what became for a time, the largest concentration of Jews in the world. The Jews, the people of Israel, had managed for millennia to preserve an independent social-cultural life and sense of peoplehood under the most trying conditions of oppression and exile from their ancient homeland. Does it take a great leap of imagination to consider that post-partition Poles, interested in preserving their unique culture and sense of nationhood, may have learned something from the example of the Jews in their midst? It would be surprising if Korzybski, who had a major life-long interest, if not obsession, with Jews and Jewish themes, was not affected.

From ancient days, the Jewish tradition had certainly displayed an early recognition of the phenomenon that Korzybski labeled time-binding. An important part of the Jewish tradition had always been its emphasis on the importance of tradition itself. The Hebrew word for tradition, masorah or masoret, originally had referred to a “bond” or “fetter." The obligation for all Jews to study and transmit this tradition l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) as well as the mechanism for interpreting and applying it to new conditions (Talmudic discourse), remained accepted and important parts of the tradition. Acceptance of this tradition as the birthright of every Jew led to the high literacy rates among Jews compared to other groups.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Forerunners to the Time-Binding Notion (Part I)

Although they resulted from his own process of questioning, observation, and discovery, Korzybski would have been the first to admit that the ideas expressed in his manuscript were not entirely original. He had predecessors.

First of all, he had been prepared for the formulation of time-binding by the very time and location of his birth. By 1879, even a Pole born in Warsaw was in a real sense born into exile. For Poland did not exist—except in the history, culture, language, and literature that ethnic Poles sought to preserve and carry on to their younger generation. Since the beginning of the 19th Century, Poles had been emigrating in large numbers from the oppressive conditions of post-partition existence. To remain a Pole required conscious effort whether one remained in the former Polish lands or went abroad. The mere fact of Alfred’s beginning his life as a Pole seems likely to have sensitized him to the significance of preserving and transmitting a culture under difficult circumstances. In addition, Korzybski’s emphasis in Manhood on the value of a scientific-mathematical attitude to human affairs—leading to a “human engineering”—also seems like a natural outgrowth of his upbringing by an engineer father in the heyday of Polish positivist philosophy and its esteem of science.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Consequences of Time-Binding (Part II)

When he was writing his first book in 1920, Korzybski spent considerable effort elaborating on the economic implications of time-binding. In terms of time-binding, wealth consisted of
...those things––whether they be material commodities or forms of knowledge and understanding––that have been produced by the time-binding energies of humanity, and according to which nearly all the wealth of the world at any given time is the accumulated fruit of the toil of past generations—the living work of the dead. (1)
Economically, money represented but didn’t constitute wealth. Korzybski warned “against confusing the ‘making’ of money by hook or crook, by trick or trade, with the creating of wealth, by the product of labor.”(2)

Clearly, for Korzybski, knowledge constituted the basis of wealth. Later on in the 1930s, Austrian economist Freidrich Hayek—following in the free market tradition of Adam Smith—began to explore in depth the role of knowledge in human social-economic life. However, there is little visible indication that Hayek or his colleagues ever had any awareness of Korzybski’s earlier formulation of time-binding. Korzybski didn’t pursue any connection with Hayek’s work. Indeed, in 1920, Korzybski still seemed to tilt somewhat strongly toward socialistic views and denounced Adam Smith as an apostle of selfishness and greed (his animus against Smith got somewhat toned down in the journey from manuscript to published book.) After writing Manhood, Korzybski interests shifted from the political-economic applications of time-binding and he never made any major study of economics.

From his time-binding view of wealth, Korzybski criticized both capitalists and socialists in the pages of the book:
There are capitalists and capitalists; there are socialists and socialists. Among the capitalists there are those who want wealth––mainly the fruit of dead men’s toil—for themselves. Among the socialists there are those—the orthodox socialists—who seek to disperse it. The former do not perceive that the product of the labor of the dead is itself dead if not quickened by the energies of living men. The orthodox socialists do not perceive the tremendous benefits that accrue to mankind from the accumulation of wealth, if rightly used. (3)
He suggested that “ ‘capitalistic’ lust to keep for SELF and‘proletarian’ lust to get for SELF are both of them space-binding lust––animal lust––beneath the level of time-binding life.” (4)

Korzybski proposed that an alternative political-economic approach must result from a time-binding perspective. He did not elaborate its details, but at its base it would involve a political-economic order, neither ‘socialist’ nor ‘capitalist’ as many people understand those terms, but focused on cooperation which would benefit all humans.

In his related political-economic analysis of the causes of the First World War, Alfred placed major, but not sole, responsibility on Germany. He noted the Germans’ first rate ability to maintain group cohesion and apply their time-binding energies, i.e., scientific/technical prowess, in concerted mass effort toward narrow national aims. The Allies had barely won the war with great difficulty. Apropos German and other forms of nationalism, to the extent that members of different nations could not extend their views beyond their narrow group interests, further conflicts seemed inevitable.

(1). Manhood of Humanity (1921), p. 115.
(2). Ibid.
(3). Ibid, pp. 132-133.
(4). Ibid., p. 198.