Friday, November 28, 2008

G.S. in Six Words

There's a book whose title explains what's in it: Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.

I thought I'd give this six-word treatment a try to describe Korzybski's work:
"Map not territory, simple—not easy."
As Gregory Bateson pointed out, every schoolboy 'knows' that a map is not the territory it represents, doesn't represent all of the territory, etc. Yet application of this understanding remains rather more difficult than many people imagine. The news is full of stories illustrating map-territory, model-actuality, word-thing, etc., confusions.

I found an interesting blogpost here by 'The Climateer' on the current financial mess we are in: After The Crash: How Software Models Doomed The Market The writer references Korzybski. Click on the link to the post where he discusses G.S. [General Semantics] in more detail here: Modeling:The Map Is Not The Territory. Nassim Taleb has made similar points (quoting Korzybski—without attribution) about the folly of economists taking their models too seriously.

Map not territory, simple—not easy!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dr. Jay Katz – Z"L

Reading today's obituary page of The New York Times (which we have delivered every morning out here in Pasadena), I saw that Jay Katz died on Monday. As I read the obit, I didn't realize at first that they were referring to the Jay Katz whose book I had read some time ago and so much appreciated.

I have devoted this blog to Korzybski, his work, and related matters. The work of Jay Katz, a humane and extensional physician, definitely qualifies as one of those related matters. I read his book 'The Silent World of Doctor and Patient' years ago, have it on my book shelf, and recommend it to everyone interested in general semantics and clear, sane evaluating in relation to medical issues.

As a young German Jew, he escaped from Nazi Germany just before World War II. After he became a physician, he eventually focused on psychiatry and medical ethics. He was a working doctor and a working ethicist and he knew what he was talking about, i.e., he didn't indulge in idle, detached 'philosophical' chatter but engaged the most serious issues of medicine and life with the most serious of concerns. He was one of the physicians appointed to the federal panel to investigate the 1932 Tuskeegee Syphilis Study, done by the U.S. Public Health Service. When the panel's report came out describing the Tuskeegee experiments as "ethically unjustified," that wasn't good enough for Jay Katz. (The Tuskeegee researchers had purposely withheld treatment to 400 black men infected with syphilis.) Katz issued his own statement saying that the infected men had been "exploited, manipulated, and deceived." Jay Katz had 'guts'.

He believed that people's capacity for autonomy and self-determination were not unlimited but that physicians and researchers ought to do what they could to respect that capacity and encourage it. And they could do so through the medium of their conversations with their patients. If that isn't a worthy topic for general-semantics students to explore, I don't know what is.

Read the obituary Dr. Jay Katz, 86, Dies; Explorer of Ethics Issues. Read his book The Silent World of Doctor and Patient

Post-IGS Symposium Quick Update

I got back home from New York City on Tuesday. Exhausted. Full of hope and new ideas. My research at the Korzybski archives at Columbia University went very well. Douglas Rushkoff gave a very interesting Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture. The weekend symposium that followed, at Fordham University-Lincoln Center, sponsored by the Institute of General Semantics, exceeded my expectations. Some fantastic speakers presented (you can still download the well-worth-a-look program). I saw many old friends and made a number of new ones. With Lance Strate, Bill Petkanas and others now involved the Institute is in very good hands.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

2008 Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture and Symposium

On Thursday I'm off to New York City to participate in the Weekend Symposium following the Friday Evening Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture given by Douglas Rushkoff. Rushkoff's lecture entitled Playing the Future: Towards a Creative Society. follows a sumptuous—I hope—dinner at the Princeton Club. I'm looking forward to it. I expect to see some old friends that I haven't seen in awhile—and meet some new ones.

I'll also use the trip to do some research at Columbia University's Butler Library Rare Book & Archives Collection, which holds materials related to both Alfred Korzybski and his wife Mira Edgerly Korzybska.

The symposium, entitled Creating the Future: Conscious Time-Binding for a Better Tomorrow, promises a fascinatingly full two days on Saturday and Sunday, with a number of interesting speakers including (I humbly assert) myself. I'll be giving a presentation on Saturday at 12:30 just before lunch on "What Did Alfred Want? A Biographer's Notes on Korzybski's Life and Work." The symposium is free so if you're in the area of the McNally Auditorium at Fordham University, Lincoln Center in Manhattan, I'll be delighted to see you. The Saturday morning festivities start at 9 a.m.

Lance Strate, Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics, has posted a program for the weekend on his blog (Link under Blog listings on Right). I'm sure I'll have at least a few things to say about the weekend's events after I get back next Tuesday. Until then, I apologize for the spareness of this week's blog. I've been somewhat busy preparing.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with a statement from Alexis Carrel which Korzybski was fond of quoting at the end of his seminars (along with some quotes from others). The theme of the AKML weekend is related to creativity and I think Carrel indicated something that creativity sometimes requires:
To progress again, man must remake himself. And he cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Airport Security And Other Predictably Irrational Things

Dan Ariely studies human evaluative behavior-decisionmaking. Basically, that's what Korzybski focused on as well.

Ariely calls what he does 'behavioral economics'. You can understand the core of Korzybski's work—called 'general semantics'— a lot better by seeing its closeness to behavioral economics, for example, than by viewing it as some kind of 'philosophy' of 'language'. If you do the latter, you probably put a terribly unfortunate limit on your ability to perceive the scope of Korzybski's work.

But one of the many ways that people get misled (alot of what Ariely studies) is by how they interpret words, in their own 'habitual' fashion which may not have much to do with the writer's/speaker's (in this case Korzybski's) intentions. Thus, when many people see or hear the word 'semantics' in 'general semantics', they interpret this as having to do with the 'meanings' of words and/or language. Korzybski emphasized (more and more frequently as time went on) that 'general semantics' referred to a general theory of evaluation. 'Semantic' reactions, 'semantic' environments, 'semantic' factors, as he said many times, equated with evaluation, evaluational reactions, evaluational environments, and evaluational factors. Evaluation as he discussed it covered 'thinking' and 'feeling', on verbal and non-verbal levels. His study in evaluation, human values, human behavior extended beyond concerns about 'language', although surely the study of 'language structure' and language-related behavior had an important role to play in his work.

If any of you students of 'general semantics' out there find this confusing—Good! The following Youtube video is for you. Ariely's amusing behavioral economics piece on optical 'illusions', human perception, decision-making, mis-evaluation could serve just as well as an excellent GS teaching-demonstration.

Now if you wondered when I would ever get to the topic of airport security—here it is. Ariely shows how some of the people of the T.S.A. (the U.S. Transportation Safety Administration) at our airports are working to keep us 'safe' when we fly. I feel so relieved. Enjoy!