Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Chapter 43 - 'Scientists Don't Read': Part 1 - Introduction

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.

Korzybski saw himself as a scientific worker and, despite the radical nature of his work as a gadfly in scientific borderland, he experienced remarkable acceptance by the scientific community at large throughout his career. Even before publication of Science and Sanity, he had gotten a good sense of this. A significant number of respectable scientists and mathematicians had helped him with the research and editing. It gratified him that these (mainly) men—with whatever corrections they’d suggested—found acceptable his treatment of their particular specialties. And just before the book came out, he got another significant confirmation of his status in the scientific community.

At the end of August 1933, he received an envelope from the Washington, D.C.–based AAAS. Very busy with the final production of the book, he had allowed the unopened envelope, which he assumed might be a bill about overdue membership fees, to get buried on his desktop among other papers and mail. When he finally got around to opening the letter he was surprised to see an official notification: “I have the honor to inform you that you have been elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Respectfully yours, Henry B. Ward, Permanent Secretary.” The 'back of the membership card, included the definition of “Fellowship” from the “(Bylaws of the AAAS, Art. II)”: “Section 4. All members who are professionally engaged in scientific work, or who have advanced science by research, may be elected by the Council to be fellows on nomination or on their own application.” Replying to Henry Ward, Korzybski expressed his “deep appreciation for this honour.” The life-long honor might serve a useful purpose as well, if it helped him in his quest to find more scientists willing to cooperate with him.(1) 

Notification of Korzybski's Election as a AAAS Fellow,
AKDA 2.679
If enough scientists got inspired to jump into the non-aristotelian trenches, a great deal could be accomplished. For one thing the social sciences might move considerably forward. But even in the so-called physico-mathematical sciences, progress often seemed inhibited because of inadequately addressed linguistic, epistemological issues. Perhaps, as he suggested in the book, applying his methods could even help resolve such impasses as the esoteric controversy about the status of transfinite numbers in mathematics, to pick only one example. He believed that a consciously non-elementalistic, non-aristotelian revision—a methodological unification—of the sciences could result in unexpected breakthroughs through cross-fertilization of disciplines formerly seen as disconnected.

For such a non-aristotelian revision of the sciences and life to happen, polite interest or even general agreement would not suffice. A large enough number of individual scientists would need to get interested enough to study and apply what he was advocating and, as he realized even in 1933/34, they would first of all have to adopt and integrate it, to some degree, into their personal lives.* That requirement would always remain a snag—perhaps the snag—for many scientists, as well as others, trying to make sense of Korzybski’s work. 
* If you have trouble distinguishing between orders of abstractions (in other words, lack consciousness of abstracting) in your personal life, how can you possibly become optimally conscious of abstracting in your profession? 

Some scientists would respond as Max Born did, after Korzybski had sent him a letter early in 1933 asking for permission to quote from his writings. Alfred briefly explained the subject of his book and offered to send Born a copy when it came out.(2) Born—friendly, though interestingly ‘closed’, considering his role as one of the founders of quantum physics—wrote back in German:
I thank you for your nice letter and am glad that you have drawn inspirations from my book about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Indeed I really am interested in epistemology but absolutely cannot understand what this has to do with sanity (mental health). I’m afraid that we will not be able to communicate with each other over this point. Because I am very concerned with not drawing more conclusions from insights into physics than it is absolutely certain. The application for medical problems seems to me too bold. (3)

Nonetheless, other scientists found Korzybski’s work initially appealing. Visiting Baltimore and Washington in the first part of November, some weeks after the book was published, Alfred had a chance to gauge the response of many of his scientist friends, some of whom had at least read his manuscript or parts of it and consequently had received complimentary copies. While he found a great deal of interest, he ruefully noted that despite the fact many hadn’t read the completed book, they seemed to think they ‘knew all about it’.

There were also a few men like the Harvard zoologist William Morton Wheeler who had already written to Alfred in late October to say he was reading the book and had realized he missed a great deal of value while correcting the proofs—having lost the trend of the reasoning while editing Korzybski’s English. As he was getting “a better understanding of the [non-] A system”, it was now making a “profound impression” on him. Wheeler also reported that two of his colleagues at the Harvard Biological Institute and the Comparative Zoology Museum, G.H. Parker and T. Barbour had bought Science and Sanity and were taking their copies to bed with them.(4) 

Later in November, Alfred (with Mira) went to Boston to see Wheeler and Bridgman and to meet with a number of other Harvard scientists. After he returned, he wrote about his trip to Keyser:
Dear Dear Old Man,  
Please excuse the delay in answering your dear old letter of Nov. 16 but I was lecturing at Harvard and came home only yesterday home [sic]. It seems the lectures were a success. I [had] a large and very mixed audience at a biological seminary [probably arranged by Wheeler at the Biological Institute] in which many specialists attended. I had a two hour lecture at the home of [E.V.] Huntington [where Alfred and Mira stayed as guests] with Birkhoff and also E.B. [Edwin Bidwell] Wilson, [Harlow] Shapley, [L.J.] Henderson, etc., two two-hours lectures at the psychopathic hospital to doctors, one to the astronomical group at the home of Shapley, and one to neurologists at the home of a prof. of physiology and anatomy. One never knows but it seems that all these specialists have been genuinely electrified. I gave hell to Birkhoff and Veblen (at the Nat. Academy dinner), and I think I got under their skin a little. We had a very nice and long dinner with Sheffer. I saw Whitehead twice and he was kind enough to invite us to his seminar. [Korzybski had already sent an extra copy of Science and Sanity to Huntington, who had delivered it to Whitehead’s home.] I attended also one lecture of Sheffer. I was amazed that both lectures were aiming the same direction. 
The widespread interest among these scientific workers encouraged him:
As a rule I am not optimistic about my lectures, but this time I believe that I really made good. I had other important conferences with [Henry] Murray (Clinic of abnormal Psychology) and anthropologists and physiologists, and we fell on each others’ necks, it looks really that perhaps my work may have after all some value. It is so peculiar that discussing the problems from so many angles with specialists all of them should find an advance in their fields.
But he also experienced some shocks or at least frustrations at Harvard. Whitehead, for example, seemed deeply concerned with the kinds of problems Korzybski had dealt with in his book. In his seminar, as Alfred wrote to Keyser, “Whitehead said “Identity is a horrible idea, no one seems to know what it means”.” Had Whitehead even glanced at the preface of Science and Sanity? Alfred commented:
The trouble with Whitehead is that he has no use for anthropology and psychiatry, otherwise he would know that ‘identity’ represents a misevaluation which makes the optimum adjustment impossible. 
...With Whitehead of course there is no discussion, he listens very attentively and sympathetically but he will not read. Personally to me this is a drama, but this cannot be helped. He told me that Wheeler ‘knows more about philosophy and logic than the whole department’. I utilized this and Wheeler promised to convey to Whitehead many points of my work. (5)

Another jolt for Alfred involved his friend Percy Bridgman, who hadn’t done more than glance at the book and seemed unlikely to read the whole thing. Since he had read parts of the manuscript, he seemed to assume he already understood Korzybski’s work and it was becoming more and more apparent to Alfred that he didn’t. Alfred’s meeting with the physiologists and neurologists also left him surprised and dismayed at what he perceived as their generally antiquated outlook.(6) 

After he got home Alfred also wrote to mathematician E. B. Wilson, who had attended the talk Alfred gave at Huntington’s home. The letter explained his work a bit more and asked for Wilson’s help in trying to get Alfred’s message across to scientists. Could Wilson write an endorsement statement for him for the foundations or perhaps even write a review for a scientific journal? Wilson replied several weeks later saying that despite his interest in the talk, he could make neither heads nor tails of Korzybski’s aim or message. He had also spent a few hours with Science and Sanity but, as he wrote to Korzybski, “I do not find your book intelligible any more than I found your talk intelligible.”(7) Wilson admitted that he thought the fault was probably in him but until he had more time to adequately study Korzybski’s work he could not say anything about it. Korzybski found Wilson’s response worrisome but expressed his gratitude to Wilson for his honesty and hoped he would continue to reserve judgment until he had further time to study and apply the material in the book.

Around this time, Korzybski got some other more annoying reactions. He had written to some book clubs to explore the possibility of them carrying his book. Not surprisingly, Science and Sanity seemed too specialized a volume for Book of the Month Club. But it just seemed wrong for the Scientific Book Club editor to reject it as over the heads of the majority of his members without having a look at the book itself.(8)

The wildly varying reactions to his work would continue to bother Korzybski. On the one hand, he had received enough positive responses from people like Keyser, Wheeler, and Dr. Wilmer, the famous Johns Hopkins ophthalmologist, to reassure him of the value of pursuing his plan to get scientists behind him. On the other hand, he felt bewildered by either the lack of interest, the lack of comprehension, or the closed-minded dismissal by a number of others. If he could only get Einstein, one of his great inspirations, on his side.

Notes 
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. 
1. AK to Henry Ward, 9/24/1933. AKDA 24.160. 

2. AK to Max Born, 2/24/1933. AKDA 35.121. 

3. Max Born to AK, 3/7/1933. AKDA 25.383. Translated by Max Sandor. 

4. William Morton Wheeler to AK, 10/30/1933. AKDA 34.197. 

5. AK to C. J. Keyser. 11/26/1933. AKDA 26.278. 

6. AK to C. J. Keyser, 12/16/1933. 26.306. 

7. E. B. Wilson to AK, 12/16/1933. AKDA 34.355. 

8. Kirtley F. Mather to AK, 9/19/1933. AKDA 34.248.




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