Don Fagen, co-leader of the legendary Jazz-Rock group Steely Dan, has written about the influence that Korzybski's work had on him via his science fiction reading—A.E. Van Vogt, etc.—as a kid growing up in the Fifties. Interesting stuff! Here's the link:"The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci Fi"
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Korzybski felt a deep indebtedness to Bertrand Russell for his theoretical insights (for years he kept a small photographic portrait of Russell, along with one of Einstein, on his office wall). The two men carried on an intermittent correspondence for years, eventually meeting face-to-face in 1939 when Russell, in Chicago, came for a brief visit to the Institute of General Semantics to see Korzybski there.
Afterwards, although, their correspondence remained polite, Alfred gradually began to vent more of his frustrations to Russell (it would have been out of character for him not to speak bluntly and Russell had demonstrated that he hadn't bothered much with Korzybski's work). In a lengthy letter to Russell in 1946 (perhaps the last one he wrote to him), Korzybski said:
"Some of my students in London told me some amusing gossips that my Science and Sanity was so against your grain that you threw the book into the Atlantic. Should this be true, it would be sad news, because your great work in Mathematical Foundations is at the very core of a non-aristotelian revision...Well, my dear Russell, your bloody ‘types’ if translated…and applied in daily life do work…Your behavior and platonic verbal fictions, no matterhow clever, and ‘academic’, are read by few ‘intellectuals’, but they cannot be workable, and so cannot be applied in general education. Yet your ‘types’ gave a formulation in crisp terms. I worked it out in a language applicable to life, and when people are trained in it in childlike terms, which applied even to ‘mentally’ ill it works astonishingly…"(1)
In a short note Russell told Korzybski that he had heard the story too but assured him but that he had not thrown Science and Sanity into the Atlantic. (2)
1. A.K. to Russell, 7/27/1946. IGS Archives.
2. B. Russell to A.K., 8/9/. IGS Archives.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
At the end of his Introduction of Mathematical Philosophy (1919), Russell had presented no remedy for the misleading aspects of ordinary language other than to retreat into the use of logical symbolism. (1) Russell seemed to maintain this attitude throughout his life. Thus when he wasn’t ‘speaking mathematically’ he tended to fall into the ‘traps’ of ordinary language. On the other hand, Korzybski came to accept that language as behavior could be used with skill in order to formulate experience of the world in a different way. Mathematicians seemed notable to Korzybski for their creative use of symbolism and there existed no inherent reason that our everyday language could not be similarly amenable to purposeful change. Since Russell did not accept this, he never understood how Alfred made use of his (Russell’s) work to help people make their everyday language less misleading.
There we have the crux of Korzybski’s problems with Russell. The two men simply had their heads in different places. Korzybski ultimately made clear his rejection of Principia’s logicist program to derive mathematics from logic. On the contrary, he accepted that ‘logic’ derives from mathematics and indeed that all human knowledge and language has a mathematical structure. Methods and symbolism from the recognized discipline of mathematics (including mathematical logic) could be searched to yield baby-like ways to change the structure of ordinary language and experience. In Science and Sanity, he showed how Principia Mathematica’s theory of types fit into a broader theory of human evaluation, bringing Russell’s work down to earth. Russell, a brilliant but impractical theoretician, couldn’t do this, couldn’t recognize that Korzybski had done so, or even that it was possible. Philosopher Bryan Magee who got to know Russell toward the end of the great mathematical philosopher’s life, called him a genius for theory who “treated practical problems as if they were theoretical problems. In fact I do not think he could tell the difference.” (2) Korzybski, with a genius for the practical, even in relation to theoretical issues, didn’t have that problem.
1. Russell 1919, p. 205.
2. Bryan Magee, Confessions of A Philosopher (1997, 1999), p. 210.
Monday, August 9, 2010
Prior to its 1933 publication, Korzybski had sent him proofs of Science and Sanity. Russell cabled back to him “Your work is impressive and your erudition extraordinary. Have not had time for thorough reading but think well of parts read. Undoubtedly your theories demand serious consideration.” (1) This testimonial was important for Alfred although he had been disappointed that Russell had not been able to study the book more.
Subsequent correspondence years later makes clear that Russell never did take time for a thorough reading. In 1939 he wrote to Korzybski “I should like very much to know about the semantic definition of number that you mention [in a previous letter to Russell].” (2) If Russell had read with any care either the page proofs or the published copy of Science and Sanity that Korzybski sent to him, then he would not have missed Korzybski’s suggested improvement upon Russell’s definition of number, discussed in detail in Chapter XVIII of Science and Sanity and mentioned in various places throughout the book.
1. B. Russell to Alfred Korzybski (telegram), 4/7/1933. Alfred Korzybski Digital Archives 25.2551
2. B. Russell to Alfred Korzybski, 1/14/1939. Institute of General Semantics Archives.