Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Quotes from Time-Binding: The General Theory 1924

In Korzybski's 1924 and 1926 Time-Binding lectures he first set forth the theory that later became known as 'general semantics'. He had each lecture printed when he first delivered it. Later, in 1949, the Institute of General Semantics published them together in one booklet which remained on the Institute publication list for many years. Later, they were both included in Korzybski's Collected Writings. They are well worth reading, indeed remain necessary reading for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of Korzybski's work. As a 'teaser' I'm including a few quotes here from the 1924 paper, that I have underlined in my copy of the Collected Writings[Available from the Institute of General Semantics]. The quotes show the vigor of expression—more typical than not—of Korzybski's prose:
All human knowledge is conditioned and limited, at present, by the properties of light and human symbolism.

The theory of relativity has established another fact, that all we know and may know is a "joint phenomenon" of the observer and the observed.

Man to be a man and think as a man must be a relativist, which is an inevitable consequence of the application of correct symbolism to facts. He knows that he does not know, but may know indefinitely more, that his knowledge is only limited by his own ingenuity and nothing else.

Gross empiricism is a delusion, and he who professes it as a creed is probably more mistaken than the old metaphysicians were.

A "knowing class of life" begins with "knowing," therefore, scientific method and science is not a luxury for the privileged few; it is the very thing which differentiates "Smith's" "thinking" from Fido's "thinking." The consciousness of abstracting which is so fundamental for man, is the awareness of a faculty, and in this special case we can use this faculty only when we are aware that we have it.

He who accepts uncritically the vocabulary made by X, accepts unwillingly and unbeknowingly X's metaphysics. This fact is of very great importance. If we accept the vocabulary made by X and the metaphysics made by Y, we are lost in inconsistency, the world is an ugly mess, unknown and unknowable.

We see that, as the structure of the atom is reflected in a grandiose manner in the structure of the universe, so is the structure of the knowledge of the individual man reflected in the collective knowledge of mankind called science, and vice versa.

Man is ultimately a doctrinal being. Even our language has its silent doctrines, and no activity of man is free from some doctrines, so that the kind of metaphysics a man has, is not of indifference to his world outlook and his behavior.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Korzybski's Trouble-Shooting Life

Korzybski took hardly a day off; then only, it seems, when forced by exhaustion or illness. He was mainly speaking for himself, when he told Ken Keyes in 1947 that,
"We just work and work and work. No rest for the wicked, Saturday or Sunday….We have some years ago discovered that once a week we simply have to take one day off completely. Simply we are dull the next week, and unfortunately as far as I am concerned, it turns out that I never have a Saturday or Sunday. When the weekend comes, then I have to start on something else to work, but occasionally I am just dead. Naturally." [Keyes Document, pp. 420-421]
Such devotion to work in his later years was not anything new, of course. He had always devoted himself with extra measure to whatever task he had set before him. And from his childhood on the farm at Rudnik when he was told “Alfred, do it!” and began to sort out troubles there among the peasants, soldier workers, horses, etc.; he functioned as a trouble-shooter.

His engineer father had given Alfred—5 or 6 years old— ‘the feel of the calculus’, a sense of the world as a dynamic net of relationships, fascinating to explore, at least partly understandable, and—however imperfectly—changeable for the better. Well before engineering school, he learned an engineer’s way of approaching troubles: to observe and study, figure out possible mechanisms, fiddle around to see what worked to get desired changes—and continue to observe, figure and fiddle along the way as conditions changed and you refined your methods. Continuing to develop his trouble-shooting skills, he had gotten through engineering school at Warsaw Polytechnic; and traveled in Europe; then managed his family’s properties; all the while studying on his own and contemplating the state of science, technology and the society around him in the Poland of Tsarist Russia.

By the time World War I broke out, he had gotten rather good at trouble-shooting. The ‘Great War’ would give him a lot more practice; first on the Eastern Front gathering wartime intelligence for the Russian Army; then in Canada and the U.S. working at Camp Petawawa, and in shipyard and factory, and traveling and speaking for the Polish-French Army and the U.S. Fuel Administration. Marrying portrait painter Mira Edgerly, another ‘work-a-holic’, and inspired by her idealistic devotion to spreading the golden rule; he’d decided that human stupidity (which he wasn’t exempt from himself) had entered significantly into the troubles he’d observed and experienced, including the waste of the war that sickened the both of them. Mira’s idealism needed grounding to bring her vision of peace into practice. From an engineering, trouble-shooting point-of-view, Alfred considered that this required understanding the nature and possibilities of human intelligence—the dynamics of human stupidity and human achievement. Digging to the core of this, he finally wrote Manhood of Humanity in white heat.

We humans needed to understand ourselves as time-binders, whose accumulative capacity to benefit from and build upon the experiences of others could be quashed or encouraged, held back or set free. His subsequent 12-year effort to explain the mechanisms of time-binding—culminating in Science and Sanity— aimed at a practical goal: to develop teachable methods to nurture time-binding to help people solve their practical problems—not just their scientific and professional ones, but their personal ones as well. Indeed, his research in the mid-1920s at St. Elisabeths, the Federal Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, D.C., and his study of psychiatry and the continuum of ‘insane’ to ‘unsane’ to ‘sane’ behavior, highlighted for him the prime importance of dealing with this personal aspect.

After publishing Science and Sanity, when he began to teach what he had developed, eventually founding the Institute of General Semantics; he remained in the trouble-shooting business, working with individual students. He described this work in terms of translation:
“…you have personal difficulties….And what I do I translate…your life history which I supposedly know into the new terms, but I date, I index and date.” [Keyes Document 1947, pp. 419-420]
It seemed all so simple but in practice oh so difficult. If he got satisfaction from his seemingly endless work, it also had its dark, unhappy aspects:
"I went through life watching the human immaturity, the human stupidity. And I am still doing that. Of course in a way, it’s a peaceful occupation, in a way. From another point of view, it’s a sad one. If things don’t look cheerful [it’s] just because I deal with human stupidity, lack of sanity, which does not mean insanity. We are dealing with problems which are on the borderline of the change of the tempo of one phase of human civilization to another. And I was the observer and from observation I got formulation how to handle that increasingly impossible situation." [Keyes Document 1947, p. 420]

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

From The Stray Thought Bin - 'Certainty'

Second-order certainty of uncertainty seems most certain. I'm fairly certain of that.

'Breaking Through'

In August 1947, the Institute of General Semantics had just become a membership organization and Alfred Korzybski sent a letter to new members. It nicely summed up what he wanted to accomplish with his work. His simple words can still serve as useful guidance for those of us who wish to continue upon the path he pioneered:
Dear Students and Friends:

In 1941 I wrote in my introduction to the Second Edition of SCIENCE AND SANITY: ‘Present day scientific researches and historical world developments show there is not doubt that the old aristotelian epoch of human evolution is dying. The terrors and horrors we are witnessing in the East and the West are the death-bed agonies of that passing epoch. …A non-aristotelian re-orientation is inevitable; the only problem today is when, and at what cost.’

‘Young birds,’ wrote Tolstoy, ‘..know very well when there is no longer room for them in the eggs’, nor ‘…can the fledgling be made to re-enter its shell.’ It often happens that the beak of the little bird is too soft or the shell is too hard, and the result is a rotten egg, utilized sometimes in political debates.

Whitehead said, more abstractly, ‘A civilization which cannot burst through its current abstractions is doomed to sterility after a very limited period of progress. …almost any idea which jogs you out of your current abstractions may be better than nothing.’

Our human shell of habits and prejudices is very hard and our old aristotelian beaks are not strong enough for us to emerge to mature and fuller life. In my work I tried to forge a method to break through the confining shell, but one man’s effort is not enough. My co-workers and I need your help, now.

We live in a period of socio-cultural spasms, and we as individuals must unite in a concerted effort toward more maturity, to bring about the eventual ‘manhood of humanity’.

August, 1947 Warmly, yours as ever
A Korzybski
(Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings: 1920–1950, p. 585)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ben Hauck's Off The Map

My friend Ben Hauck, has just started a new GS-related weblog called "Off The Map." I wish him the best in constructive formulating. Speaking of formulating, he has some interesting formulations about the terms, 'formulating' and 'concept' in the course of which he quotes me. Here's the link: "What's the Big Deal About the word "concept"? A Big Deal No Longer Check out Ben's site. I've got a permanent link to it on my Blog-Link LIst on the right and will make sure to have a look on a regular basis.

Jacque Fresco on GS and the Future of Education

Interesting reference to GS on a Website about something called "The Venus Project" put together by Jacque Fresco, a social visionary who wrote a book a long time ago with Ken Keyes, Jr., a former student of Alfred Korzybski. Fresco wrote:
"Education should be more than the presentation of many facts to be memorized by students. The first aspects of an innovative education should have an emphasis on communication and the ability to resolve and avoid conflicts. This can be accomplished though an exposure to general semantics."
You can read the rest here: Jaque Fresco on the Future of Education

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Korzybski and the Battle of Los Angeles

In 1942, Alfred Korzybski traveled from Chicago to began a three-weekend seminar in Los Angeles on February 14. Befor the trip, he had written to Institute of General Semantics benefactor Cornelius Crane saying, “I am personally convinced that for nuisance sake Los Angeles will be bombed.” Indeed, he arrived there just in time to experience the most remarkable episode of ‘bombing’ on U.S. soil in the Second World War.

He and the Institute's Associate Director M. Kendig had gotten to the city by train several days before. He hadn’t felt enthusiastic about coming. Increasingly affected by his war injuries, traveling had become more bothersome. And although financially the Institute would come out slightly ahead, the considerable expenses and the time away from home, made him wonder about the worthwhileness of the trip. But the group of Los Angeles students, who organized this weekend series and another intensive in March, had been insistent. (Another group of students in San Francisco had organized a two-weekend seminar in Berkeley in April to follow.) Things seemed to be going well enough, though with the lectures and the personal interviews and whatever other appointments he had, he felt extremely pressed for time—in other words, not so different from his usual slave-driving of himself.

He had a suite at the Wilshire Arms Hotel, the site of the seminar. Alfred had the parlor that served as his bedroom and office with a bed in the wall and a table for his desk. The actual bedroom had two beds for Kendig, and for Charlotte Schuchardt who’d be coming out in a few weeks to replace Kendig as his assistant for the seminar. With a dinette and small kitchen, he found the place comfortable enough. He felt happy to have a small electric heater for his room to supplement the room heat. (He tended to get cramps in his legs if he didn’t stay warm enough and it could get surprisingly chilly in Southern California at this time of year.) With the lecture room in the hotel, he felt grateful that he didn’t have to commute elsewhere to teach since he tended to get breathless—apparently related to his ‘busted gut’, i.e., hernia—when he walked too much or got otherwise overexerted.

With a great deal of ongoing Institute business to take care of, Kendig returned to Chicago a few days after Charlotte’s arrival on February 26. Charlotte just missed by a day the ‘Battle of Los Angeles’, which had begun and ended on the morning of February 25.

A few days before, a Japanese submarine had surfaced off shore from Santa Barbara and shelled an oil facility there, about 100 miles along the coast north of Los Angeles. Although only minor damage occurred, Southern California—which had oil depots, airplane factories, and shipping facilities galore—had gone on alert. Then, in the early morning hours of February 25, something or things happened in the sky. Who and how many saw whatever happened does not seem clear. Police had reports of from one to 100 unidentified objects—Japanese aircraft?—flying along the coast from Santa Monica to Long Beach. Sirens blared to signal a blackout. Anti-aircraft batteries began firing (over 1,400 rounds) into the sky at the invaders. The ruckus likely awakened Korzybski in his downtown Los Angeles hotel room. Perhaps, he looked outside to see the ‘light’ show as did many people in Los Angeles.

Before the alert was over, five hours later, according to a newspaper account “Thirty persons, twenty of whom were Japanese, were arrested; two persons were killed in traffic accidents during the blackout and at least two houses were damaged by shells which had failed to explode in the air. Shrapnel which fell like hail in some sections broke windows and caused other minor damage.” Nonetheless, if there had been Japanese planes—if there had been any planes at all—they didn’t seem to have dropped any bombs.

No one in authority seemed to know what happened—or rather ‘everyone’ in authority seemed to be saying that different things had happened. While Henry Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of War, praised the successful defense of Los Angeles by local military and civilian defense, Navy Secretary Frank Knox declared that the whole thing had resulted from “a false alarm”. Korzybski seemed confident, based on reports from one of his students involved in Los Angeles area civil defense, that the Japanese Imperial Air force had made its presence known. But after the war, the Japanese denied any wartime mission at this time to Southern California. One thing seemed clear, a little over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, people had gotten very nervous. And shooting into the sky at unidentified flying objects and having different authorities giving different stories, were not going to do much to reduce the nervousness or to improve wartime morale.

Monday, March 1, 2010

60th Anniversary of Korzybski's Death

Today, March 1, 2010 marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Korzybski— as Sam Bois said, one of 'les grands coeurs' or 'great hearts' of civilization.

He died early in the morning of March 1, having collapsed on the evening of the day before while working at his desk. The details of his death, of considerable interest, take up much of the first chapter of my biography of him, a chapter which covers the last day of his life. In general terms, his associate, M. Kendig, wrote soon after his death about what happened:
The circumstances of his death, it so happened, were symbolic of his life and work. In working with students, he exhibited a tremendous power of caring about any individual bit of humanity before him. He was continuously aware that some infantile evaluation he might be struggling to change in an individual mirrored a symptom from the social syndrome. He spent the last few hours of his life at his desk working on such a problem. (1)
Finding out the details of what happened took a bit of detective work on my part. I uncovered a dramatic story. But I'm not going to tell it here. You'll have to read the book.

In the meantime, let's drink a toast to the memory of Alfred Korzybski. May his memory endure and the work he began continue and prosper.

(1) Kendig, M. "A Memoir: Alfred Korzybski & His Work" General Semantics Bulletin 3 (1950), Institute of General Semantics. pp.3-11. Reprinted in Manhood of Humanity, Second Edition.