Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Korzybski and Trigant Burrow – 'We are all insane and headed for worse'

In 1927, when psychiatrist Trigant Burrow (1875–1950) came out with his first book, The Social Basis of Consciousness, Korzybski had already begun corresponding with him. Alfred also corresponded with Burrow’s colleague, psychiatrist Hans Syz. Although Burrow had had an early interest in Freud’s work and psychoanalysis, he had been forming his own views outside of the main psychoanalytical circles. Beside his M.D., he had gotten a PhD in experimental psychology focused on the physiology of attention. His approach to therapy—he pioneered in group therapy and social psychiatry—developed out of his interest in the interactions among the physiological, phenomenological, interpersonal, and socio-cultural aspects of maladjustment. Burrow may have coined the word “neurodynamic” (he was one of the first to use the term) and went on to explore the role of attention and symbolism in neuroses. 

Burrow had independently gotten very close to a great deal of what Korzybski had formulated in his general theory. Korzybski sought to emphasize the commonality of their work. But Burrow’s understanding seemed intuitive, his language cloudy. Alfred had hopes that his own work could suggest ways to bring greater formulational clarity to Burrow’s efforts. Burrow didn’t see it that way. In his book, Science and Man’s Behavior, published posthumously Burrow wrote:
I would not make all this ado about the wide disparity between…[us], were not Korzybski so determined to proselytize me on the ground that “we are saying the same thing.” Perhaps we are. But do our organisms feel the same way?" (1)
Regarding Burrow, Korzybski in later years didn’t waver from the opinion that he expressed, with only slight exaggeration, to his friend Roy Haywood in early 1928, 
His [Burrow’s] main thesis is that we are all insane (neurotics), do not know it and are headed for worse. I quite agree with him. (2)

1. Burrow 1953, p. 295.

2. AK to H. L. Haywood, 1/2/1928. Alfred Korzybski Digital Archives 21.571.

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