Friday, October 22, 2010

"Count Korzybski"- A Note on the Polish Nobility

Alfred Korzybski was born into an aristocratic Polish family in 1879, a time when the power and prestige of the Polish nobility had already considerably faded. He acquired the title of "Count" ( from both his mother's and father's side. The Korzybski family in particular, part of the huge Habdank Skarbek clan, traced its noble lineage back to earliest days of the Polish nobility (or szlachta), before the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They remained one of the few families allowed to use the noble title after the Commonwealth was established.Although the szlachta were disappearing as a class by the time of Korzybski's birth, their culture had become inextricably linked with Polish national culture. The culture of the szlachta also left an enduring mark on Korzybski.

Nobility-related norms had gradually filtered into all levels of Polish society to become the basis of what historian Jan Szczepanski called the "traditional Polish personality ideal." Among other things, this ideal consisted of "readiness for the defense of the Catholic faith, readiness for the defense of the fatherland, a highly developed sense of personal dignity and honor, and full-blown individualism, an imposing mien, chivalry, intellectual brilliance, and dash." (1) So brought up in the late 19th Century among what was left of the Polish aristocracy (and from one of the most ancient families), it is not surprising that Korzybski's personal behavior as an adult reflected much of this ideal in action. (Although he had fairly early abandoned the Roman Catholic faith as a value worth defending.)

By the time he began his work in America, Korzybski had generalized the szlachta ethic: He had come to accept the potential 'nobility' of every human. And in tending to consider everyone as his 'noble' equal and himself as theirs, he also tended to treat everyone (whatever his or her credentials, rank, or fame) with equal respect—and equal directness. This appears to have bothered some individuals who seemed to have considered themselves deserving of special deference.

After he came to America, he did not insist on the title although he certainly did not eschew his lineage. Although some people used it as a term of respect when addressing him in letters or referring to his person, some critics found it a reason for suspicion . As Allen Walker Read, a close friend and student of his, noted:
"Being a 'foreigner' (I use quotation marks) also was a disadvantage to him, especially when he had the suspicious title of 'Count'. Lecturers from abroad, like the flamboyant Count Hermann Keyserling, had imposed themselves by self-promotion on American gullibility . Too many German Freiherren had paraded themselves as 'Counts'. (I may say, parenthetically, that Korzybski did not seek out the title 'Count', in spite of the standing of his family in the Polish aristocracy, but it was fostered by his wife, a talented American portrait painter, who believed it was useful to her to be called "Countess Korzybska .")" (2)
1. Jan Szczepanski. Polish Society, New York: Random House (1970), p. 167

2. Allen Walker Read. "Changing attitudes toward Korzybski’s General Semantics." The Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, 1983. General Semantics Bulletin 51 (1984), p. 16

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