Thursday, March 19, 2009

Korzybski and Some Pragmatists

This blogpost will probably seem like it takes the long way around to get to the main point: Korzybski's relationship with so-called pragmatists like John Dewey and Charles S. Peirce, but here goes.

A while back my friend Lance Strate, Communication/Media Ecology Scholar and Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics asked in an email:
I was wondering if Korzybski had any contact or influence coming from the University of Chicago's famous school of sociology, Dewey, Veblen, especially George Herbert Mead and symbolic interaction, but most of all I was wondering if his Human Engineering was at all connected to the Human Ecology of Park, Burgess, et al (although it seems that the term human ecology was coined a bit earlier by the Scottish biologist and urban studies founder, Patrick Geddes).
Given that Korzybski founded the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago in 1938, had spent much time there previously, and lived and worked there until 1946, this question about these Chicago and other connections certainly seems like an interesting one to pursue. In the process of telling Lance that I didn't know of any significant influence either way, I put together the following. I guess the mention of Dewey started a train of association with various pragmatists with whom Korzybski did have some connection.

I emailed back:
There may have been some contacts that Korzybski had with some of the people at the U of Chi school of sociology (the Institute was in Chicago from 1938 until 1946). But I don't know of any significant influence that they had on AK's work. And his work, I would guess, had minimum influence on theirs. I haven't looked enough into Mead's and others work enough to know if they give any references to Korzybski.

AK did correspond with Arthur Bentley from 1932 until about 1935. Bentley, a polymathic political scientist who transcended disciplinary boundaries fairly often, later worked with John Dewey with whom he wrote the 1949 book Knowing And The Known, their take on a transactional epistemology/psychology. They referred to Korzybski in that book when talking about Bertrand Russell's
"...continual confounding of "symbol" and "entity."...Fusion of "symbol" and "entity" is what Russell demands, and confusion is what he gets. With an exhibit as prominent as this in the world, it is no wonder that Korzybski has felt it necessary to devote so much of his writings to the insistent declaration that the word is not the thing. His continued insistence upon this point will remain a useful public service until, at length the day comes when a thorough theory of the organization of behavioral word and cosmic fact has been constructed." (p. 220)
This was probably written by Bentley, not Dewey.

Dewey, apparently did not care too much for Korzybski's work. The two men may have met in the early 1920s and when Korzybski gave the 'famous' lecture (where he came up with the Structural Differential Diagram) at the New School for Social Research in May 1923, Dewey may have been in the audience. Korzybski mentioned Dewey's hostility towards his work, even then. Later in 1945, Dewey wrote to Ken Keyes, a student of Alfred's:
"I can take no interest in any scheme which at this
date and day limits itself at the outset by a strictly negative approach in its name" [John Dewey qtd. in letter of Ken Keyes to AK, 9/3/1945]
He was referring to Korzybski's "Non-Aristotelian" System. So Dewey seems to have made the same mistake that many people did, assuming that "Non" meant "Anti."

Keyes wrote about this to Korzybski, who replied to Keyes that Dewey should know better. In the same letter he referred to Charles Sanders Peirce as
"...a real and important pioneer who originated new trends in mathematics and mathematical logic, and with William James established 'pragmatism'. As to Dewey, his role in American Education has been quite detrimental. He is a good verbalist, a wise man, but certainly ignorant of science, and his influence on American education was to encourage 'philosophizing' to the detriment of scientific method. ...The relation of Dewey to Peirce and James was rather superficial, and as both Peirce and James are dead he goes by reflected glory of the two great pioneers. ...If you read the suggested book of Peirce [Chance, Love, and Logic] and some of the bibliography given there, you will better understand the greatness of Peirce, and you will get a glimpse of what a 'system' has to offer. Peirce in his lifetime was not popular, but today he is a foundation of the scientific progress we have achieved." [AK to Ken Keyes, 9/11/1945].
Although Chance, Love, and Logic came out in 1923, I don't know when AK first read it (it is listed in the 1933 bibliography of Science and Sanity). Peirce had no significant influence on the development of K's work, although he recognized Peirce's greatness as a Non-Aristotelian pioneer.

It's hard to say what influence Korzybski's work had on the people you mention. He seems to have come up with the term "human engineering" on his own, it's in the 1920 MS of Manhood of Humanity and of course in the final published 1921 version as well. That book, for its type, had a large public and a good amount of press coverage, and others may have picked up the term either from the book or from newspaper accounts, editorials, etc. Whether the people associated with the Chicago School of Sociology or with Human Ecology knew of or were influenced by Korzybski, I do not know. If you get any information on this I'd like to know.


Lance Strate said...

It's interesting to see the New School connection as well as the Chicago link, and that also suggests the possibility that there may be some influence in relation to Thorsten Veblen, who is best known for his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class and introduced the concept of the status symbol, and later wrote The Engineers and the Price System. Another context that might be significant was Dial magazine, published out of Greenwich Village, which Dewey and Veblen worked on, along with a young Lewis Mumford.

Bruce I. Kodish said...

Although I can't recall any bibliographic references that Korzybski made to Thorstein Veblen, I feel nigh sure that he must have read those works. A connecting link between Veblen and Korzybski— the engineers such as Walter Polakov, Charles Steinmetz, H.L. Gantt, and others who after WWI felt that engineers or at least an engineering mentality could take a leading role in reforming industrial society.

I'm not sure if Korzybski met Mumford. Haven't seen any correspondence. But in 1939, in seminars, Korzybski was referring to Mumford's book Men Must Act. Mumford answering Hitler's Mein Kampf tried to defend democracy as a way of life which presupposes intelligence of the masses. Korzybski approved and was trying to do his part to provide practical educational methods to develop intelligence or, I would say, wisdom of the masses. (He referred to Mumford's book in his 1941 "Introduction to the Second Edition" of Science and Sanity and had three of Mumford's books The Culture of Cities, Men Must Act, and Faith for Living, in the "Supplementary Bibliography to the Second Edition."