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.

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