Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Korzybski's Formulation of "Time-Binding"

"Time-binding," the main formulation of what would become Alfred Korzybski’s first published book, Manhood of Humanity (1921), provided the basis of his remaining life-work. The notion had resulted from years of reading, contemplating and internal struggle. But it sprung to him 'as a whole' in a vision from his sleep in April 1920, while he and his wife Mira were staying at her sister's farm outside of Kansas City, Missouri (1)

For their room, Mira's sister Amy had given Alfred and Mira the large, glass-enclosed porch of the farmhouse. They had a double bed and a table with a typewriter where Alfred began to peck out in his two-fingered style a book he had contemplated writing to be based on the work of his friend Charles Ferguson, author of The Revolution Absolute. What came out had an entirely different character from what he had planned. As he described the process,
"I spit out everything I could in big generalities about god and the devil, the world, and what not, science and mathematics.” [He didn’t feel he was getting very far.—BIK] “What makes man think? What is the special characteristic of humanity? This bothered me and bothered me and the sight from the Woolworth building…(2)
…I was brooding about the role of plants in this world. What did they do? They synthesized the chemistry of the soil and air and sun (I didn’t have the term chemistry-binding then). ‘What is the role of a dog or a horse or a monkey? ‘Well, they eat.’ ‘What do they eat?’ Animals depend on eating [plants or other animals], drinking, and then trotting around. They begin where they began, they end where they end.’ I was sitting on Amy’s farm on the porch. At night one night I sat up in bed. I knew about plants, then animals. Animals – you can not deny them communication – ‘talking’. They can transmit nothing. I sat up in bed – ‘We can transmit from generation to generation’ [Italics mine – BIK] I solved this in sleep. I cried. I didn’t have the term ‘time-binding’ then. It took me a day about 2 or 3 – I had to have a label. Then I built up the terminology. We can transmit —whether we do or not — theories, religion, tabus — they cut their heads off in some tribes [a] method [of] stopping time-binding [that] is simple and effective. (3)

(1) Mira later gave a different time and place for his 'epiphany'. She recalled Alfred’s nighttime insight as coming after a two day-long tea-drinking discussion in Washington, D.C. soon after their marriage. [See Charlotte Schuchardt Read "Mira Edgerly Korzybska: A biographical sketch." 1955. General Semantics Bulletin 16 & 17. pp. 54-55.] While the insight may well have come after a marathon discussion/tussle with Mira (with lots of tea), evidence from Korzybski’s prior writings and letters, makes Alfred’s account here—that it happened in Missouri—more likely.
(2) Alfred Korzybski 1947 Autobiographical Statement (recorded and transcribed by Ken and Roberta Keyes),Unpublished. p. 215. Institute of General Semantics Archives.
(3) Manhood & Credo Notes by CS [Charlotte Schuchardt],” Unpublished. Institute of General Semantics Archives.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Korzybski Links

I have a Google alert set for new blogposts mentioning Korzybski and got two today worth mentioning:

One at Dedroidify gives a brief and well-done discussion of A.K.'s work including an anecdote about him and a package of biscuits that I've seen before on the 'web'. In all the years I spent working at the Institute of General Semantics I never heard that story there. I haven't seen any adequate documentation of the story either. But it sounds like something Korzybski might do. As an educator he very much did whatever he could (within the limits of the law and basic morality) to grab his students' attention. See Alfred Korzybski

Then Jason Godesky at The Anthropik Network features a blogpost article "E-Primitive: Rewilding the English Language" by Willem Larson that looks worthwhile for serious perusal. The article takes off from Korzybski's student Dave Bourland's E-Prime (which eschews all forms of the verb "to be") and presents "E-Primitive" some ways of languaging that recognize the process views of some so-called 'primitive' peoples. Worth a look. E-Primitive: Rewilding The English Language

Two excellent Korzybski sightings. Enjoy!

Friday, March 7, 2008

...and the vermin were humans...and the streetcar was a caterpillar

Alfred Korzybski, a battle-scarred veteran, had somehow survived the Great War (WW I) and sometime in 1919 or early 1920 found himself with his new wife, Mira, looking down on the streets of New York City from the top of the Woolworth Building, then the tallest skyscraper building in the world.

He had wondered for a large part of his life about two questions. First, what makes humans human? In other words, what makes us different from animals? Second, why do we make progress in some areas, like building bridges or skyscrapers, yet fail so miserably in others, like in how we build our societies, how we get along with one another, etc. Bridges and buildings (built by engineers applying science and mathematics) usually stand up reliably well. As for our societies, history seemed like a succession of war, revolution, war, revolution, war, revolution.... Somehow he felt that his questions were related and that answering them might help to change the quality of human life for the better.

As he looked down at the streets of Manhattan he pondered and, although his answers didn't come then, he experienced a kind of crystalized moment that brought him close to what would become the core insight of his life work—time-binding. As he said later:
...I was looking over New York. That enormous city, steaming, boiling with life...And I asked myself the question, how it happens, the physical side of it looking at the street, at Broadway. You saw vermin crawling, and the vermin were humans. They were so small because the height was so great, and a streetcar was a caterpillar. …Looking at that, I was much intrigued. I was fully aware that everyone of those little bits of humans there, everyone was full of joy, sorrows, and what not. And who did that tremendous thing called New York? That vermin did it. I didn’t get my answer there, but I was asking how humans, little things like that with such a wealth of personal life, how in the dickens can they do such a thing as New York, London, Paris, wars, revolutions, and what not?

The 1921 movie short Manhatta by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler from YouTube will give you a feel of what Korzybski saw from the top of the Woolworth Building. You'll see the city, steaming and boiling with life. Near the end of the movie you will see the little bits of humans...like vermin crawling...and the streetcars like caterpillars. And you may also ask yourself how in the dickens did those little bits of humans do New York...etc.?

Monday, March 3, 2008

"Be Conscious!"

Korzybski lived his own life intensely, "balls out," and he advised his students to do the same. He wanted them to stop dragging themselves through life, inattentively, passively, unconsciously. In one lecture he gave at the 1948-49 Winter Intensive Seminar (available on CD from the Institute of General Semantics) he drilled the point home:
...Do you know that with us humans, we have such a thing as consciousness—do you know that—do you understand the word 'conscious'? Are you fully conscious that you are conscious? No. Great many of us are just a flop—not conscious of anything [he purposely mumbled this to simulate the attitude of 'half-assed' awareness he was criticizing]. Well it isn't on the human level. Be conscious. If you want to relax, relax consciously. Otherwise — it means be conscious of your possibilities as well as your shortcomings, as well as taking care of the environment; because we are a product not only out of our own organismal possibilities but we are also connected with the environment. There is no way out — no way out; therefore let's not look for utopias. The secret of your own adjustment lies in you, nobody else. Not in a doctor or me. ...