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]

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