Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Nothing Twice"

In Science and Sanity, Korzybski stated one of the basic postulates of general semantics, non-identity, thusly:
"We must be aware continuously that in life on the un-speakable level we deal only with absolute individuals, be they objects, situations, or s.r [semantic (evaluational) reactions]." (p. 396, 5th Ed.)
I found a lovely poem "Nothing Twice" by his fellow Pole Wislawa Szymborska who gives the notion of non-identity her poetic turn. The first verse:
Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.
A link to the rest of the poem—"Nothing Twice"

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

General Semantics Glossary - Converging Inferences

Converging Inferences: multiple inferences about a situation which lead to a similar conclusion, or set of conclusions; increases the probable accuracy of those conclusions [given the soundness of the contributing inferences].

(1) from Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Revised Second Edition.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tribute To A Noble Pole - Jan Karski Corner

The New York Times reports on the dedication yesterday of Jan Karski Corner in New York City. It is a place that I plan to visit the next time I get to NYC to do honor to a hero of civilization and a noble Pole. Jan Karski Corner

As reported in the Times:
The southeast corner of Madison Avenue and East 37th Street, in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, was given the honorary designation of Jan Karski Corner on Thursday, in memory of the Polish liaison officer who infiltrated the Warsaw ghetto and a German concentration camp and carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to Western leaders.

A monument to Mr. Karski, showing him seated on a bench, holding a cane and with a chess board nearby, was erected at the same intersection in November 2007, outside the Polish Consulate. Mr. Karski, who later became a professor of history at Georgetown University, died in 2000 at the age of 86. The new street sign in his honor stands outside the De Lamar mansion, the consul’s residence.
Karski, at the risk of his own life, was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and a German Death Camp and then made his way to England and the U.S in 1942 to tell what he witnessed of the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis. As an agent of the Polish-Government-in-Exile, he tried to convince the leaders of the countries allied against Germany to do something to save the Jews as well as others being mass-murdered by the Germans. Korzybski was in contact with Polish-emigre groups in the U.S. and knew quite early what was going on, as did many Poles living in the West. He undoubtedly felt proud of the Polish resistance to Germany and of Polish assistance to the Jews, and felt disgust at the vast indifference and inaction in the West.

I've talked to many people—who should know better—who talk as if the Poles at that time were the greatest Jew-haters in Europe. Certainly there were lots of Polish antisemites. But there were antisemites all over Europe and elsewhere. And the Poles as a whole were not the worst. The death camps in Poland were run by Germans not Poles. The Germans also murdered about 3 million ethnic Poles. There was not a Nazi-occupied country in Europe that suffered more than Poland and whose non-Jewish citizens did more for the Jews in their midst—although it certainly wasn't enough. The role of Polish soldiers fighting throughout other theatres of the war for the Allied cause also makes a remarkable and unparalleled story, quite in keeping with the Polish tradition in support of liberty. As an old Polish saying goes—"For your freedom and ours."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Plato and the Art of Reading the Haggada

My media-ecology antennae were out when I saw this Passover-related article on the balance of literacy and orality ( written and oral tradition) in Judaism.

Plato and the Art of Reading the Haggada

Monday, April 13, 2009

General Semantics Glossary - Consciousness of Abstracting

Consciousness of Abstracting: basic goal of general semantics; using our human ability to function with awareness of how we get information and use language; improves how we function individually, in groups, and as cultures. (1)

(1) from Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Revised Second Edition.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Beware Of The Fire Of The Sages

From Passover (starting tonight) to Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year), Jews traditionally read a chapter of the Pirkei Avot ("The Ethics of the Fathers"), every Sabbath. The Pirkei Avot mostly consists of one tractate of the Talmud. It's the part of the Talmud that even relatively unlearned Jews like myself seem likely to have read—a book full of practical and moral teachings.

I was dipping into it recently and read a bit that reminded me of Korzybski. Korzybski, a man full of practical and moral teachings, seems more and more to fit the classical curmudgeon mold, the more I learn about him. He had some very hard edges at times with people whom he clearly wanted to teach and help. It put off some of them, I'm nigh sure. Perhaps that hardness comes closer to what one should expect from a teacher like him and not a gentle Mr. or Dr. Feel-Good that some would prefer. The road to becoming wiser, even with help, may inevitably involve bumps and bruises. And our teachers along the way may not seem as nice as we would like—though no excuses for unnecessary cruelty or the foibles of the great. As Rabbi Eliezer said in the Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2),
... You should warm yourself opposite the fire of the Sages, but be cautious that you not be burned by their glowing coals. For their bite is the bite of a fox. Their sting is the sting of a scorpion. Their hiss is the hiss of a serpent. And all their words are coals of fire.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

General Semantics Glossary - Aristotelian Orientation

Aristotelian Orientation: a pre-modern-scientific system of making sense of experiences and using language, systematized by Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) and his followers; still widely used today. (1)

(1) from Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Revised Second Edition.

Quote Of The Day - Fools and Sages

"A complete fool is better than a half-sage."
— Jewish saying

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Korzybski and the Parable of the Flappers

In 1941, Korzybski was trying to get out the Second Edition of Science and Sanity. The First Edition, published in October 1933, had sold out by the end of 1939. Various problems and delays had occurred since then and Institute of General Semantics now had a large number of back orders to fill.

Korzybski had been working on the “Introduction To The Second Edition,” since sometime in mid-1940. After multiple drafts and much serious editing he had sent it off to the printer, Science Press, late that year. By February 1941, he had received the publisher’s proofs of the "Introduction" and had started another round of editing. (He would finish the "Introduction" in March although further correction of proofs would continue afterwards). He was also working on the “Supplementary Bibliography of the Second Edition,” the new book jacket and was editing the proofs of the rest of the new front and back matter. This included a new page of the volumes of the International Non-aristotelian Library. The books there included one already published (Science and Sanity), those in preparation (including the upcoming Lee and Hayakawa books, Language Habits In Human Affairs and Language In Action, respectively) and the revised list of books whose authors would “be announced later.” Of the fifty-seven titles listed on that page only the three noted above ever got published. (Korzybski could be called na├»ve but he believed in aiming high.)

He had also selected a new opening epigraph for the book to replace the ‘Fable of the Amoeba’ from The Meaning of Meaning by Ogden and Richards that he had used in the First Edition. This new epigraph, to be placed after the dedication page, expressed even better than the previous one the central message of Korzybski's book. It consisted of several related passages from Chapter II of Part III of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. It described Gulliver’s visit to the flying island of Laputa and his experience with some of its more well-to-do inhabitants. 
A Laputian Gentleman Taking A Walk

Below I've included the complete quote that Korzybski abstracted:
"At my alighting, I was surrounded with a crowd of people; but those who stood nearest seemed to be of better quality. They beheld me with all the marks and circumstances of wonder, neither, indeed, was I much in their debt ; having never, till then, seen a race of mortals so singular in their shapes, habits, and countenances. Their heads were all reclined either to the right or the left ; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith. Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars, interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsicords, and many other instruments of music, unknown to us in Europe. I observed, here and there, many in the habit of servants, with a blown bladder fastened like a flail to the end of a short stick, which they carried in their hands. In each bladder was a small quantity of dried pease, or little pebbles (as I was afterwards informed). With these bladders they now and then flapped the mouths and ears of those who stood near them, of which practice I could not then conceive the meaning ; it seems, the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing; for which reason, those persons, who are able to afford it always keep a flapper (the original is climenole) in their family, as one of their domestics, nor ever walk abroad, or make visits, without him. And the business of this officer is, when two or three more persons are in company, gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresseth himself. This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and, upon occasion, to give him a soft flap on his eyes, because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post; and in the streets, of jostling others, or being jostled himself, into the kennel.   
It was necessary to give the reader this information, without which he would be at the same loss with me, to understand the proceedings of these people, as they conducted me up the stairs to the top of the island, and from thence to the royal palace. While we were ascending, they forgot several times what they were about, and left me to myself, till their memories were again roused by their flappers; for they appeared altogether unmoved by the sight of my foreign habit and countenance, and by the shouts of the vulgar, whose thoughts and minds were more disengaged.  
. . . And although they are dextrous enough upon a piece of paper in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider, yet, in the common actions and behaviour of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music. They are very bad reasoners, and vehemently given to opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right opinion, which is seldom their case. Imagination, fancy, and invention they are wholly strangers to, nor have any words in their language by which those ideas can be expressed; the whole compass of their thoughts and mind being shut up within the two forementioned sciences ."
JONATHAN SWIFT (Gulliver's Travels, A Voyage to Laputa)