Thursday, July 3, 2014

Chapter 5 - Sick of Everything: Part 3 - "Sick of Everything"

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Alfred did not continue at the girl’s gymnasium after his year of teaching there. He would not go to work as a chemical engineer. He also renewed his decision not to take any major role in administering the family properties. So what now for Alfred?

He decided to continue working in peripheral aspects of the family business, things like managing the apartment in Warsaw that didn’t take a lot of time and where Mama didn’t involve herself much. This included working at Rudnik—training horses in the summer and working to improve the farm equipment. (He designed a mechanical potato digger that he later sought to patent during his first years in the United States.) However, while Korzybski enjoyed aspects of living in the country, he liked living in the city more, appreciating the opportunities Warsaw provided. One of the opportunities he took there was to fulfill, to some degree, his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer.

Little documentation exists about Korzybski’s legal career. In the United States immediately after World War I, he described himself as a lawyer, as well as an engineer, in some letters and job applications (one for a job as an agent in the Department of Justice). Although he attended classes in Rome, there is no evidence he earned a law, or other, degree. So, in order to work as a lawyer in Poland, he would have had to apprentice himself to a lawyer there. Perhaps he did 

do this in a law office of a relative or friend. However, he may also have only worked for a lawyer without ever officially becoming one himself. Existing records showing his facility with legal documents and proceedings corroborate the view that he did have familiarity with legal work. A statement on an application in the U.S. would be difficult to check in chaotic, post-World War I Poland. Even if he had only worked as a legal assistant, Alfred would probably have been able to perform adequately if he had gotten hired in a law-related field, say as an investigator (once he had learned the specific, American, job-relevant laws and procedures). Alfred had a special interest in criminal behavior and law and his actual law-related work in Warsaw for an indeterminate period of time could have included working as an investigator, interviewing clients and witnesses, preparing documents, and assisting in courtroom presentations. He made little reference to this aspect of his life after the early 1920s.

A Young Man in Warsaw

In later years, discussing his life in Poland before World War I, he described himself as basically resigned and frustrated. Whatever he did didn’t quite seem to suit him. A need for solitude and a passion for learning kept him from spending his time drinking and partying with friends despite his earlier ‘wild’ reputation as the “Maladetto Pollaco”. That doesn’t mean he had no pleasures. He enjoyed his pet English bulldog Taft, named after the U.S. President of 1909–1913. He also kept fit with his athletic activities, which included daily bouts—which he kept up for years—of wrestling on his carpet with an expert professional wrestler, a butler of his, to whom he gave fencing lessons in return. Surely, he had girlfriends. Despite these diversions, Alfred did indeed feel himself “maladetto”, i.e., accursed, at least in one major sense. Full of creative energy, he couldn't find a way to express it as he wished. Feeling restricted by his education and family commitments, he was looking for something he couldn’t articulate but knew he hadn’t found. Still, he did feel grateful for the time he had available for study. He read widely in literature, history, and philosophy (9), etc. But reading in mathematics and physics took up much of his studies. Where did he focus his interest?

Like many of the details of his pre-World War I days in Poland, it’s hard to know. As a natural visualizer, he grew up loving geometry. His study of Euclid in school encouraged an early sense of reverence towards mathematics which he maintained throughout his life. As for many others before him, geometry—as an exemplar of mathematics as a whole—appeared to Korzybski as the ideal of rigorous thought. Introduced as a child by his father to four-dimensional geometry (an extension of euclidean geometry), he later said it took him three years to internalize non-euclidean geometry. When this happened is not clear, but it’s possible he had already begun to explore this area of mathematics in the pre-war period.

He explained why it took him three years. Although he was ready for new ways of thinking, his thorough euclidean training gave him some difficulties—as it did for many others—in absorbing the implications and, especially in getting the feel, of non-euclidean views. Euclid had for centuries been considered the model of rationality, his postulates constituting the ‘self-evident’ rules for the geometry of the world. The consequent development of alternative geometries provided a shock because the certainty with which people had considered Euclid and his postulates as the geometry was no longer acceptable. It was no longer the geometry but only a geometry.(10) Acceptance of this loss of certainty would come to play a large part in Korzybski’s later work.

Alfred also had an interest in symbolic or mathematical logic and the related area of mathematical foundations. After Leibniz’s initial forays, the modern study of these areas can be traced back to George Boole’s work in the mid-1800s. Prior to World War I, Korzybski knew about the more recent work of the Italian mathematical logician Giuseppe Peano. He probably also already had some familiarity with Georg Cantor’s related theory of sets and Cantor's discussion of infinity. However, in Poland before World War I, he didn't  have facility with English and didn’t know about the epoch-making work being done in England by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (the first volume of their Principia Mathematica was published in 1910). Korzybski’s intensive study of mathematical logic, including Russell and Whitehead’s work, didn’t begin until 1920, after he had met mathematician Cassius J. Keyser in New York City.(11)

Major revolutionary changes in physics were also occurring in the period just before World War I. Korzybski surely followed the general trend of this research. In 1900, Max Planck had formulated the notion of a quantum, or fundamental discrete unit of action, in the relationship between the energy and frequency of electromagnetic radiation emitted or absorbed from hot bodies. Planck’s work, along with Albert Einstein’s formulation of the photoelectric effect in 1905, provided the basis for further work in quantum theory, which would become one of the major areas of physics by the mid-1920s. Einstein’s formulation of the electrodynamics of light, also in 1905, introduced relativity as another major area of theoretical physics. In addition to these areas, research into radioactivity and the structure of the atom was changing previous notions of ‘solid’ matter. According to Korzybski he did not make any significant study of Einstein's work until after World War I.(12) Nonetheless, he  knew enough in the pre-war period to see major changes in the air, as profoundly challenging to the classical newtonian physics which he had mastered in school, as the non-euclidean geometries were to the classical view of mathematics. Korzybski was not alone in experiencing this time as an uncertain and puzzling one for the sciences.

Puzzlement also characterized Alfred’s views on pre-war Russian and Polish politics. His puzzlement was likely a function of the expectations generated by his political ideals. His life-long affinity in politics had probably become formed by this time and could generally be characterized as 
 ‘liberal’ (in the classical sense)—dedication to democratic ideals and constitutional representative government. Regarding economics, he may have had an an earlier student flirtation with socialism. In the pre-World War I years of Russian Poland, his  Polish nationalism may also have become connected for a time to some form of democratic socialism, which he then moved away from over the years. By the time of his early days in America, Alfred had many friends in socialist circles. He expressed sympathy for their ultimate aim for a better society, but questioned their methods. In later life, he became more ‘conservative’. But even then, although he favored private enterprise, he also didn’t necessarily reject government interventions in the economy, interventions the strictest “classical liberals” would have criticized.

The Tsarist government’s constitutional reforms of 1905 must have fed Alfred’s political hopes. These were soon brought low as the Russian government regressed towards absolutism in the years leading up to World War I. By the 1913 celebration of 300 years of Romanoff rule in Russia, it had become clear that the shifting of political power from the autocratic bureaucracy of the Tsar to a more democratic form would move only glacially at best.

In addition, by 1913 many people in Poland, including Alfred, were expecting a major war. The relatively late unification and industrialization of Germany (under Prussian leadership) in the last half of the 19th century had been accompanied by brief wars with France and Austria. These wars resulted in Germany’s acquisition of French territory and in a dominating role in its alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Germans had accomplished this with legendary Prussian efficiency. While the Russian government concerned itself with possible German expansion east, the French were equally concerned with Germany expanding westward and were eager to get back the former French areas of Alsace and Lorraine that Germany had acquired. Alliances between France, Russia and England and between Germany and Austria seemed to ensure that a conflict between any members of the two opposing sides would draw in the other members.

In Russian Poland, financier and railroad developer Jan Bloch had analyzed the consequences of technological advances upon warfare and, in a book published in 1898, predicted that a future war would involve massive firepower, defensive stalemates, and huge numbers of casualties and civilian losses. The future war’s outcome would depend on which nation's socio-economic fabric broke down first. Korzybski read Bloch's book. In addition, his contacts in the anti-Tsarist underground provided him with information that made war seem almost inevitable. If predictable, why couldn’t it be stopped?

Korzybski’s studies had led him to the conclusion that “all sciences need[ed] a thorough revision and elimination of childlike fallacies at the bottom.”(13) Why should politics, economics, etc. appear any different? Indeed, they didn’t—they seemed in worse shape than the so-called exact sciences. Korzybski’s dissatisfaction had become severe. “I was sick of everything, arithmetic, science, logic, politics…every goddamn thing...”(14) He had already attempted to clarify his confusions in writing but had ended up destroying his efforts. He felt he had no good “language to speak, therefore I could only express my private opinions for which I had no use.”(15)

Feeling “sick of everything” indicated a healthy attitude, given that the ‘civilized’ world actually did seem sick. The sickness had been festering under the surface for years. Its gross eruption in World War I—a war of a scale never before seen in history—would force Korzybski to put aside his more theoretical dissatisfactions with science, etc. On June 28, 1914, less than a week before Alfred’s 35th birthday, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary held the Serbian government responsible for the act, committed by Gavriel Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist student from Austrian-controlled Bosnia. On July 28, Alfred’s ‘acquaintance’, the Emperor Franz Josef, declared war on Slavic Serbia, Russia’s ally. Three days later, the Tsar ordered full mobilization of Russia’s military, and the next day, Germany, under the Tsar’s cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II, declared war on Russia. Two days later, August 3, Germany declared war on France and on August 4 invaded Belgium. Great Britain then declared war on Germany. The “Great War” had begun—the main players on each side chosen: Germany and Austria-Hungary (with the Ottoman Empire soon to enter with them) against France, Great Britain, and Russia. Alfred’s beloved Poland would become the Eastern battleground.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
9. ‘I was influenced by Fichte and Hegel. Spinoza did not influence me – he was not hard enough.' AK to Charlotte  Schuchardt, 5/31/1949. “Notes on Manhood of Humanity”. IGS Archives. 

10. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 86.

11. AK to Alexsander Wundheiler, 7/9/1934. AKDA 27.478. 

12. Ibid. 

13. AK to Arthur F. Bentley, 4/25/1932. AKDA 7.688. 

14. Korzybski 1947, p. 56. 

15. AK to Scudder Klyce, 3/12/1922. AKDA 8.431.

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