Sunday, February 15, 2015

Chapter 47 - One Weary Man: Part 3 - Olivet

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.

In April, Korzybski traveled to Olivet, Michigan. His friend Joseph Brewer, President of Olivet College, had asked him to return there to give an extended seminar, a series of fourteen, two-hour evening lectures from April 22 to June 18. As Brewer later noted, almost the entire school community of faculty and students had attended Korzybski’s previous two introductory lectures in 1935. “The reactions varied from anger through confusion to enthusiasm but there was no indifference. This acted as a sort of ferment in the institution...”(9) Brewer, who was developing a reputation as one of the most innovative small-college leaders in the United States, now wanted to add more korzybskian yeast. 

On April 19, about the time of Alfred’s arrival at Olivet, his friend William Morton Wheeler collapsed and died of a heart attack on a Cambridge subway platform. The 72- year-old entomologist and professor emeritus of zoology at Harvard, had felt enthusiastic about Korzybski’s work from the first time the two men met in 1923. Subsequently, Wheeler provided major help to Alfred in editing Science and Sanity. Although retired from teaching, just prior to his death he had continued to work at Harvard’s Biological Laboratories and Museum of Comparative Zoology. He had also continued to write and had gained broad respect as an exceptionally well-read and wide-ranging scientist-humanist. Alfred would miss his friendship and steadfast support. 

At Olivet, President Brewer had gotten funds from an anonymous donor to sponsor Alfred. Arrangements were made to transcribe the lectures and have them published. The lectures were open to all 35 of the faculty and all 265 students—although the students were limited to a first come, first serve basis. Between 75 and 100 people, mostly students, attended. Since he considered the effects of his lectures cumulative, Korzybski discouraged causal drop-ins and had attendance taken. Towards the middle of the seminar, he began offering interviews (as usual, on a voluntary basis) for interested group members who wanted to clear up confusions and get help making personal applications. The Olivet College Echo, the campus newspaper carried reports of the lectures for the general college community.

The transcript, under the title General Semantics, was edited by Korzybski and made available in a limited First Edition by the Olivet College Book Store, soon after the seminar in 1937.(10) Later plans to republish it were delayed during Korzybski’s lifetime. A Second Edition, published by the Institute of General Semantics, came out in 1964 under the title General Semantics Seminar 1937: Olivet College Lectures, with a Third Edition in 2002.

The Olivet College Lectures provides the closest impression so-far-in-print of how Korzybski talked while teaching. In his “Foreword to the Second Edition” Joseph Brewer noted,
Re-reading the Olivet Seminar now [1963], it is extraordinary to find how the rhythm, tone and flavor of Korzybski come through. To those who knew him, it is easy in going through this text to visualize his gestures and especially his mobile features, the quizzical expression succeeded by a warm, broad smile, his eyes shifting quickly from an amused twinkle to a penetrating intensity. (11) 

At this point in his teaching career, Korzybski had been giving seminars for two years. He had developed a facility for conveying his work in simple terms. As Homer J. Moore Jr., editor of the 2002 Third Edition, pointed out, “In this early presentation, [Korzybski] gives a complete outline of his system with the training methods needed to apply it.”(12) Brewer wrote that, 
Those who have attended later seminars [as Brewer did] will recognize the basic pattern that was set here. Korzybski sought constantly to refine and improve and enrich the presentation to make it more effective, and to adapt it to the particular group present, but the fundamental method and content are here.(13) 

Nonetheless, the presentation in the Olivet Lectures—like earlier seminars (notes and transcripts of which I have seen)—seems more linear than that of seminars Korzybski gave in subsequent years.The twenty-eight total hours, which his fourteen two-hour lecture periods gave him, afforded less time than he would have liked to elaborate stories, relate his own personal experiences, give examples from current events, make digressive ‘footnotes’, or do much in the way of demonstrations—although he did his best to include these aspects. He also couldn’t assume that many students had much familiarity with his work, which he could expect of later seminar students who had various popularizations or some of his own articles to read, if not Science and Sanity.

In the first lecture he noted the background of his work in mathematics and psychiatry, the importance of predictability, and the centrality of evaluation and values—the latter two forming the core subject matter of general semantics. GS was for use in solving life problems. He compared it to algebra. Reading a book on algebra was not enough to learn how to solve algebra problems; a technique had to be learned, and then applied. Similarly, with GS: “ is just like another kind of algebra; it exists and its only value is to help the solution of life’s problems. But, we have to have a technique. You must master the technique before you can apply it and solve the problems.” Nonetheless, Korzybski emphasized that he was not there to solve his students problems for them: “It is my business to give you a method to solve your own problems.”(14) 

Part of this orientation involved an attitude of minimum expectations, learning not to expect too much. (This did not mean not having goals or not working toward them.) In Science and Sanity, he had briefly noted the “semantic shocks” resulting from unjustified expectations (p. 472). Since then he had been elaborating an “extensional theory of happiness” or “happiness formula” that he presented at Olivet. From then on, this would become a permanent part of his seminar content.

He draw a small circle E1 on the blackboard to represent minimum (extensional) expectations. A middle-size circle labeled ‘F’ stood for facts—whatever happened irrespective of expectations. On the opposite side, an even larger circle E2 represented maximum (intensional) expectations.

Extensional Theory of Happiness

He advised his class to get in the habit of starting out with minimum (extensional) expectations E1, since maximum (intensional) expectations E2, when disappointed, led easily to cynicism, bitterness, and frustration, labeled E3:
...If you expect, say ‘nothing’, in the actual living, bumping against facts, impact with the environment, you will find the facts better than you expected. You will be encouraged. You will not be cynical; you will not be bitter; etc. Life then will be happier for you as living protoplasm reacting to the impact of the environment. Expect the minimum. That is [expectation1 (E1).] That is the new extensional infiinite-valued expectations based on maximum probability. (15) 

At Olivet, he also began to pull away from his previous informal usage of the term “semantics”—by itself—to refer to his work, declaring in the lectures, “the old semantics is now dead”(16) and more consistently referring to his work as general semantics (or simply as “G. S.”), a “general theory of values and evaluation”. In presentations over the next two years, he would move towards completely abandoning the shortcut use of ‘semantics’ to label his work. General Semantics—despite the suggestion of its name to many—wasn’t any kind of ‘semantics’ at all, as people usually interpreted the latter term.

Many Olivet students and faculty felt inspired and changed as a result of Korzybski’s lectures and interviews. For example, one of the main points he emphasized in his lectures (as he would continue to do) was the importance of people considering themselves in neurological terms in order to become more extensional about themselves. This might lead to a number of practical consequences such as the following: if right or left-handedness depended on some ‘innate’ structuring of an individual’s brain, naturally left-handed people should not continue trying to force themselves to write, etc., with their right hand just because they had been told to do so as children. Continuing to do so could create many difficulties in functioning. In personal conferences, Korzybski had advised a few such probable ‘lefties’ to try switching their handedness. They noticed remarkable changes in making the switch.

One young man reported on the vastly improved legibility of his writing, his greater ease in expressing himself, and a significant reduction in a stammering problem. These changes occurred within a few weeks of making the change. He did have an initial period of difficulty during the transition when he felt unable to exert much pressure while writing with his left hand. During this time, he noticed a great deal of tension in his right hand, which seemed to be reproducing the left hand’s writing motions. He also experienced strange sensations in his head, which passed after a few days.(17) Korzybski considered his ‘simple’ advice about laterality as part of his general-semantics instruction. (This wouldn’t make much sense to someone who viewed his work as mainly about words.)

Olivet College’s assistant librarian, Helen L. Evans, was also one of the ‘left-handers’ helped as a result of switching to her left hand (she eliminated a speech block). She got to know Korzybski fairly well during the time of the seminar, attending all of his lectures and helping him by serving as a chaperone during his interviews with the women students. She came to see him as a valued friend and corresponded with him afterwards.(18) 

A few days after the seminar ended in mid-June, Joseph Brewer sent a letter of appreciation on behalf of the Olivet Board of Trustees to Korzybski, who was staying in Chicago. Brewer soon followed this with a detailed personal letter reporting on the beneficial effects of the seminar on the college community as a whole and on various individual students and faculty participants. Both letters were published as addenda for the 1964 Second Edition of the Olivet Lectures.

Despite Korzybski’s general success at Olivet, there were grousers. Prior to the seminar, Olivet’s Registrar and Dean of Men—although he attested to having no personal complaints about Korzybski or his work—had objected to Brewer about Korzybski’s visit. The Dean, who had had to deal with various epidemics of campus rumors in the past, considered it “extraordinarily dangerous to harbour a person of the Count’s spectacular and compelling personality” which he felt might engender more rumors.(19) Brewer didn’t consider this a legitimate reason for not inviting Korzybski. What small community like the Olivet College campus wasn’t subject to a certain amount of gossip-mongering?

Indeed, hearsay about Korzybski may have been promoted by a faculty couple, a philosophy/psychology instructor and his wife, a drama teacher. The two harbored resentments against both Brewer and a number of their fellow faculty members. When Brewer terminated their contracts the following year, they filed a complaint with the American Association of University Professors. Their charges against Brewer and a number of Olivet teachers also included a number of accusations against Korzybski: his lectures were “virtually compulsory” (he took attendance) and were characterized by “gutter” language (he talked frankly about sex) and the violation of “all known forms of logic and clear discourse” (he discussed the limitations of the aristotelian orientation). The philosophy teacher attended only the first lecture while his wife wrote, “I had better use for my time than to listen to the lewd stories of a half-intoxicated man.” The two recounted stories that they said some students had told them about Korzybski’s inappropriate behavior. Brewer compiled a folder full of responses to these claims from a number of students, faculty, and administrators. They unanimously disputed every one of the couple’s allegations about Brewer, Korzybski, and others. Korzybski also responded with a 15-page letter, which must have taken him several days to write, refuting point-by-point the claims made against him. Neither the Olivet College Board of Trustees nor the American Association of University Professors found any basis for further investigation. The couple’s complaints were dismissed. Despite these problems, there is no indication Brewer ever regretted his decision to sponsor Korzybski. Indeed, Korzybski was welcomed back to Olivet. After giving another seminar at the Chicago Campus of Northwestern University from July 7 to August 20, he returned to the Olivet campus to use the library there and gave two lectures between September 20 and October 5. (20)

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. Brewer, “Forward to the Second Edition”, General Semantics Seminar 1937: The Olivet College Lectures, p. viii. 

10. Rough editing by Korzybski of the Olivet Lectures transcript consisted of about 200 hours of work, which still didn’t seem good enough for him [AK to Cornelius Crane, 7/11/1939. IGS Archives]. 

11. Korzybski 2002 (1937), p. viii. 

12. Homer J. Moore, Jr. in Korzybski 2002 (1937), p. iv. 13. Brewer in Korzybski 2002 (1937), p. viii.

14. Korzybski 2002 (1937), p. 5. 

15. Korzybski 2002 (1937), p. 89–93. In the original diagram, published in the First Edition of the Olivet Lectures, Korzybski used “E1” to label the smaller, minimum expectation circle, and “E2” to label the larger, maximum expectation one. This original labeling, which I’ve used in the diagram above, got reversed in later presentations of the diagram, and in subsequent editions of the book after his death. 

16. Korzybski 2002 (1937), p. 6. 

17. Ronald Leipholz “Report of the Change from Right-handedness to Left-handedness”, May 30, 1937. IGS Archives. See also “Addendum for 1964 Edition”, in Korzybski 2002 (1937) for Brewer’s report on the seminar’s effects on various Olivet students and faculty. 

18. Helen L. Evans to Joseph Brewer, 4/25/1938. IGS Archives. 

19. Olivet Dean of Men to Joseph Brewer, 1937. IGS Archives. 

20. Olivet College “Flory” Folder. IGS Archives.

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