Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"A Genius Or A Nut"

In 1937, Alfred Korzybski was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts near Harvard. From February 17 until March 20 of that year, he gave a seminar for a group largely composed of Boston-area academics at the Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. The Harvard Business School had become a center of human relations studies under the direction of Professors Elton Mayo and F. J. Roethlisberger. The two men had pioneered the study of motivating factors in worker’s behavior in their famous “Hawthorne Experiments," at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Illinois.

Roethlisberger, who attended the seminar along with Mayo, had previously read Science and Sanity:
[Korzybski’s book]…although difficult to read, seemed to me to be saying something important. What I think attracted my interest was the way he put epistemology to work, so to speak. Boiled down, his approach seemed to me to be applied epistemology.

At this time there was considerable interest in comparing the way a child thinks (Piaget) with the way a primitive thinks (Levy-Bruhl) and with the way a neurotic thinks (Freud). Only a genius or a nut would have tried to compare the way a mathematician thinks (Russell and Whitehead) and the way a neurotic thinks (psychiatry). Korzybski was such a man.

Because he took such an extreme position, which at that time did not fit well into any discipline, Korzybski never gained any academic post or much recognition. His field was neither strictly philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, semantics, psychiatry, nor mental health. It was a brilliant one-man synthesis of all these things which he called general semantics to differentiate it from ordinary semantics (e.g., Ogden and Richards, The Meaning of Meaning)…. [Roethlisberger 1977, The Elusive Phenomena: An Autobiographical Account of My Work in the Field of Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Business School, pp. 71–72]
“A genius or a nut?” From his account of that 1937 seminar, it seems that Roethlisberger may have considered Korzybski a little of both:
…There was no question he [Korzybski] was a bit of a “weirdie.” He had [L. J.] Henderson backed off the map in seeing to it that you got the point. He did this with the help of a cane, which he would use not only to point to his scribblings on the blackboard, but also to point to each member of the seminar. When this happened, the student (or disciple) was supposed to say, “Yes, Dear Count (or Master), I got the point,” and repeat literally word by word the point the Count had made. … As this was a teaching technique quite different from the lecture method at Harvard across the River or the case method at the Business School,…I was fascinated. Little did I realize then that I was to meet the Count’s technique again many years later with the learning machine. As one can see, Korzybski was ahead of his time, both in his subject matter and in his pedagogical methods. [Roethlisberger 1977, pp. 71–72]

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