Thursday, January 22, 2015

Chapter 43 - 'Scientists Don't Read': Part 3 - Coghill

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’s relationship with biologist George Ellett Coghill (1872–1941) helped him put into perspective his efforts to connect with other scientists. For people like neuroscientist  C. Judson Herrick, who wrote a biography of Coghill, and evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, Coghill qualified as a major—though rather unacknowledged—scientific figure. Shortly after Coghill’s death, Huxley said, “His death is a devastating loss to science. In my opinion Coghill stood among the twenty outstanding biological scientists of our time, although so few people were cognizant of his work that perhaps not many others would agree with me.”(13)
George Ellett Coghill 
Korzybski had started to correspond with Coghill in 1933, after reading his book, Anatomy and the Problem of Behavior. To Korzybski, Coghill’s approach to biology ably embodied the dynamic, structural approach he had sought to lay bare in his non-aristotelian system. Coghill, then a primary researcher at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia, also served as President of the American Association of Anatomists and had spent a lifetime of teaching and research in zoology, embryology, histology, and anatomy. His pioneering studies on the relation of so-called ‘function’ and ‘structure’—which Coghill considered inseparable in living organisms—had focused on the embryology of behavior and associated bodily apparatus. Coghill had used the simplest research tools— a human hair at the end of a wood splinter—to tickle embryos of the amblystoma, a type of salamander, at different stages of development. Then he observed and described what they did and made generalizations about their development in relation to their behavior. Coghill tickled Korzybski too, who used a number of quotes from Coghill’s book in Science and Sanity.

Coghill had read most of 
Science and Sanity by January 1934 and wrote to Korzybski:
...At least I have read Science and Sanity as far as the mathematical part, which I am taking in small doses... 
It was a pleasure to follow your analysis and interpretation of the nature and problem of sanity. The presentation is clear and forceful. It should do a great deal of good—an inestimable amount if the book is sufficiently studied. It should be studied by all teachers of children, and all parents particularly.  
My own interpretation of the scientific method seems to me to be directly in line with your ideas of abstraction and identification; and my concept of the relational nature of scientific data seems to be an expression of Einsteinian relativity. In the reading of the book I could see why you liked the methodological part of my address before the Anatomists in Anatomy and the Problem of Behavior]. (14)  
Coghill clearly got what Korzybski had wanted to get across. Indeed, he already had a broadly, non-elementalistic viewpoint before he read Science and Sanity. Perhaps it had some connection with the fact that in his student days, he had enjoyed studying the calculus for fun. As a solitary researcher, Coghill had little day-to-day contact with other scientists, but he would do what he could to help promote Korzybski’s work including arranging a lecture for him at the Wistar Institute (which he managed to do in 1935). Korzybski, in turn, felt able to confide in the scientist. He wrote back to Coghill the next day:
I am struggling with enormous odds, scientific, commercial, religious (‘aristotelian’), etc., I knew that my path will be a thorny one, but I did not realize to what extent the scientific world having established for themselves a monopoly of ‘wisdom’ do not feel like their duty to be scientific in all concerns. As I see it we generally still depend on ‘philosophers’ to do the methodological work for us. I suggest that we abandon these hopes and do it ourselves. This is of extreme importance for education, as this is more transmittable than mere technicalities, as necessary as they are: besides it is more workable. (15) 
In the following month, Korzybski would further reveal to Coghill what he had begun to formulate as his problem with the ‘scientific community’ at large and, given that, where he wanted to help direct it if he could. He was asking Coghill for assistance:
...Methodology deals with general human orientations and so directly with life problems...Your great work differs so fundamentally from other similar works that I believe that the work as such would advance much further if all research men would be educated to its importance, and this can be done only in methodological papers. Assuming that you are interested in your work as work not as a personal issue (I am convinced of that), I am certain your work as work would benefit if you could or would educate methodologically large numbers of students...Under the present practice of science we are inefficient, we do not realize that some laboratory facts, no matter how important, are less important than new and reliable methodological papers which explain non-commercial and non-patented semantic [evaluational] processes by which you have achieved such important results. (16)
While Coghill wanted to help Korzybski, he had begun to suffer from serious heart troubles and furthermore was coming into a period of conflict with the administration of the Wistar Institute which forced him to retire at the end of 1935. Coghill couldn’t follow through with the kind of writing or teaching that Korzybski suggested for him to do. But as a particularly sympathetic reader, he did give valuable advice for promoting GS to scientists, which Korzybski ended up following.

Coghill wrote back to Korzybski on March 3: “...Your presentation of the problems you are facing have run back and forth through my mind in many ways. Whether the result will prove to be constructive remains to be seen.” He mentioned the possibility of writing a review for Science, although he didn’t think his present state of health, combined with his natural slowness in writing, would lead to his getting this done quickly. (It turned out he didn’t write the review.) Based on his observations of some fellow workers who were trying to read Science and Sanity, he told Korzybski:
...My impression is that the chief obstacle before the reader, particularly the experimental scientist, is the size of the book. I believe that relatively few experimentalists are great readers. Philosophers are; and they will probably read the book–for books are their bread of life. But when an experimentalist faces a book of nearly 800 pages he is likely to say to himself: “well, I would like to read that book: I must some time”, and he puts it back on the shelf with all good intentions but no results–probably ever.

I am of the opinion that your field of action now is to re-state parts of the book–not so much parts of the book as the ideas you have developed there–piece by piece, so to speak–and publish a series of articles in various magazines. In all these articles you would of course refer to the full treatment of the subject in S&S. By this means you could get your ideas instilled in the minds of readers and at the same time stimulate a desire to read more in the book itself.

In the same respect, other books of the non-A series should be relatively short...A series of short books along the lines which you have advertised, if written for particular classes of readers, –teachers in public schools– physicians– psychiatrists– etc. would I believe be read. S&S would stand as the opus magnum of the series, or the main source, and the smaller books would lead out into various fields of thought and practice with specific applications in each case.

To come back to my own situation– your book has been much help to me, and your evaluation of my work has been most stimulating. But my health is such now that I must watch my step...

I mention this personal side of my life so that you will not judge my slowness too harshly. (17)  
By June, 1934 Korzybski had concluded he was going to have to follow Coghill’s advice. He had just attended, as an invited guest, the Ninetieth Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New York City. Reginald St. Elmo Murray, M.D., a psychiatrist at the Veterans Hospital in Lyons, New Jersey, had gotten interested in his work and written a paper on it called “The Semantic Differential in Mental Hygiene”. As the title might suggest, Murray’s grasp of the book seemed rather limited. Despite at least one prior face-to-face meeting, back and forth correspondence, and some editing on Korzybski’s part, Murray presented ‘semantic’ reactions as responses to words only, a significant mistake that many others would make as well. From Korzybski’s point of view, Murray’s style of expression seemed rather florid and the paper came across more like a church sermon than a scientific talk.(18)  

Still, with considerable resistance from the psychiatry meeting organizers (who, given his status as a non-psychiatrist, seemed loath to give him any time on the program), Korzybski got 10 minutes to serve as a discussant for Murray’s paper. Before the meeting, Alfred wrote to many of his psychiatrist friends inviting them to come to the talk. The paper delivered on June 1, the last day of the meeting, drew a lot of interest, not only from the attending psychiatrists but also from the press. An Associated Press reporter wrote a piece about the presentation that included interview comments from Korzybski and had national distribution.

Korzybski appreciated the interest and the publicity but, as he told A. Ranger Tyler, he found the meeting depressing:
It seems that a fairly large number of psychiatrists are interested in my work, some of the really important very much so, but they are very slow. There were some really fine papers of an “inspiring” character for the profession, but these do not give workable means, and so they are quite useless for any immediate activities. My wife attended the meetings with me, she was quite happy because “every important paper went my way.” I was frankly very depressed, because out of a 20 year sentence (the average for all pioneers in human problems) I have served only six months, and so I will die before anything will happen if it goes this way. (19)  
Since the theory of sanity and mental hygiene had become so central to his work, he needed the cooperation of psychiatrists, who as a group seemed as reluctant to read the book as the experimentalists Coghill told him about. He decided to produce a brief outline of the initial remarks he had written for Murray’s paper. In the “Outline” he would distill the main points of Science and Sanity that most readers seemed to be missing, and with this perhaps entice others to open the book and read. He would either get it published as an article or print it himself as a pamphlet.(20) In any case, such a piece could help “to eliminate my wasting a life time of personal education of people by letters.”(21) He wrote to Coghill shortly after the psychiatric association conference, “My difficulties become clearer everyday and it seems that only lectures (which I cannot get) and articles (which nobody wants to print or read) would do.”(22)  

In this initial stage of figuring out how to promote his work, George Ellett Coghill’s support and advice seemed priceless. But Coghill was not going to be able to help with much else. He had a major physical collapse at the end of June 1934. He couldn’t even respond to letters from Korzybski until January 1935. In May of that year, he got Korzybski to lecture at the Wistar Institute. After Coghill was forced to retire from Wistar at the end of 1935, the two men stayed in touch. In 1939, Coghill agreed to serve as an Honorary Trustee of the Institute of General Semantics, a role he continued until his death in July 1941.

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. 
13. Julian Huxley, qtd. in Herrick 1949, p. 6.

14. G. E. Coghill to AK, 1/17/1934. AKDA 32.882. 

15. AK to G. E. Coghill, 1/18/1934. AKDA 32.878.

16. AK to G. E. Coghill, 2/21/1934. AKDA 32.889. 

17. G. E. Coghill to AK, 3/26/1934. AKDA 32.899. 

18. AK to David Fairchild, 8/16/1934. AKDA 25.126. 

19. AK to A. Ranger Tyler, 6/4/1934. AKDA 27.464. 

20. Korzybski presented “An Outline of General Semantics: The Application of Some Methods of Exact Sciences to the Solution of Human Problems and Educational Training for General Sanity” in 1935 at the First American Congress for General Semantics. He had it published in 1938 in General Semantics: Papers from the First American Congress for General Semantics, edited by Hansell Baugh. He later had it reprinted as a pamphlet sold by the Institute of General Semantics. It was later reprinted in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, pp. 189–224. 

21. AK to A. Ranger Tyler, 7/10/1934. AKDA 27.473. 

22. AK to G. E. Coghill, 6/10/1934. AKDA 32.871. 

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