Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"a poor but brilliant student of mathematics"

After he had been teaching at the Institute of General Semantics for a few years, people would tell Korzybski that he shouldn’t expend his valuable energy teaching ‘half rate’ people with too little money and only variable education, when he could be focusing on training professionals who would appreciate his work.

They also may have considered that he took too much time and energy dealing with visits or correspondence from strangers and those who weren’t bigwigs.

However, he simply couldn’t dismiss anyone who approached him with sincere interest since he had proposed a general method of evaluation. He didn’t consider it adequate if it couldn’t be applied by just about anyone in any human activity.

Korzybski had also become more conscious of the fact that well-educated professionals would not necessarily demonstrate more openness to his work. He had found enough of them who became inaccessible or even ‘enemies for life’ because he had touched some sensitive, fundamental, and often unconscious assumptions by which they had organized their lives. And among people whom some would consider ‘half-rates’, he had found some valuable individuals to cultivate. He carried out a voluminous personal correspondence with many of his seminar students (most of whom weren’t bigwigs) whom he wanted to write to him with news of their progress in their efforts to apply extensional methods to their lives.

His assistants Pearl Johnecheck or Charlotte Schuchardt or [Marjorie] Kendig could deal with some of the visits and unsolicited letters, not only from people he knew but also from strangers who wanted advice, help, or even an interview with him. But at times he would also personally respond to an unsolicited letter from a complete unknown.

A 17 year old boy named Walter Pitts, who hadn’t graduated from high school, wrote to him on January 10, 1941, requesting an interview. Pitts, a mathematical genius who would later become known as one of the originators of neural net theory and cybernetics, didn’t have money, but had read Science and Sanity and had come to feel that it had something in it for him:
January 10, 1941 
…Dear Count Korzybski:…I am a poor but brilliant student of mathematics, 17 years of age. Until a short time ago, I found the possibilities of my chosen field almost limitless;…recently the conviction has gradually formed itself in me that mathematics, alone or as an end in itself, is almost completely sterile. It may be compared to a wonderful language, which is nevertheless useless until one can say something in it…I have accordingly been seeking a way of relating my mathematics (and more generally logic, for I have also studied this, only to find it equally sterile and unpromising), firstly [to] the problems of contemporary science and society — and of less importance [to] the innumerable practical decisions which I, as an individual, am called upon to make in the course of my everyday life. Despite the inadequacies of most attempted solutions of the problem which I have so far examined, I am still convinced that there must be a way out. 
Some weeks ago I found a copy of Science and Sanity in the library. At first I was repelled by its apparent difficulty, but, haunted by a feeling that there was something in it for my problem, I continued reading. Slowly, I have come to appreciate the weight which can attach to a few pages of a work such as yours. Nevertheless, I have felt, and think you will agree, that with the best will in the world one cannot hope secure a complete understanding of this monumental work from reading [or even] re-reading it. 
Even so, I have already derived some aid toward bringing mathematics and the world together from your writings; and I am therefore reasonably certain that your system—or rather method— may prove the correct solution to my difficulties. There is, moreover, a possibility, although I am quite uncertain here, that your methods may prove of some value in respect of certain of my personal problems. 
I have been told that you are to give a series of seminars in the near future; but apart from the fact that I am undoubtedly not yet qualified to participate in these, it would not be possible for me to pay anything of the necessary fees. 
For this reason I should like very much to have a short conference with you if this is at all possible. I realize of course that I have no real right to ask this, since your full time is probably taken up by your students and your own research; perhaps, however, you may find something of interest or potentiality in the writer which would warrant this unusual favor. It is in that hope that I have written this letter. 
Yours sincerely,Walter Pitts 
[I.G.S. Archives]   
Korzybski dictated a reply to Charlotte Schuchardt on January 13:
Dear Mr. Pitts:
This is to acknowledge your letter of January 10. I am always eager to help young men who are interested in science and mathematics.  
I believe that you would be prepared to take a seminar, because after all, it is plain common sense. However, it would be wiser if you would see me personally first. I enclose a schedule of the seminars. You could eventually apply for a scholarship, which probably would be granted by the committee. 
If you wish to see me, telephone for an appointment to Miss Johnecheck.   
With best wishes, 
Yours cordially... 
[I.G.S. Archives]
I was unable to find any further correspondence but Pitts may indeed have had a meeting with Korzybski. (I found no record of him having ever attended a seminar). Pitts would meet the psychiatrist/neuroscientist Warren McCulloch in 1941 and begin to collaborate with him in a series of ground-breaking papers starting with their 1943 paper “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.”

Pitts’ interest in Science and Sanity remains one of the many intriguing links between Korzybski and some of the pioneers of cybernetics, neuroscience, and related studies.

Some web links I've found related to Walter Pitts:
VisiWiki entry on Walter Pitts

Philosophy of Mind Dictionary entry for Walter Pitts

Walter Pitts in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

Abstract of Science in Context journal article "From Logical Neurons to Poetic Embodiments of Mind: Warren S. McCulloch’s Project in Neuroscience" by Lily E. Kay

Pitts and “A Logical Calculus” a Synthese journal abstract (with link to complete article)

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