Monday, August 9, 2010

"My Dear Russell": Korzybski and Bertrand Russell- Part I

Korzybski had started writing to Bertrand Russell in 1921 right after Manhood of Humanity was published, having sent Russell a copy of the book. He continued writing to Russell on an intermittent basis for many years to come. In his letters to Russell, Alfred—who in a way revered the mathematical logician—always expressed his gratitude to Russell for his work, especially the work in mathematical foundations. [Notice the portraits on the wall behind Korzybski in his Chicago office—Albert Einstein on the left, Bertrand Russell on the right.] Korzybski would send Russell materials and ask for his opinion. Eventually Russell responded, mostly to apologize for not replying to letters in a timely fashion or for not having time to study Korzybski’s work further.

Prior to its 1933 publication, Korzybski had sent him proofs of Science and Sanity. Russell cabled back to him “Your work is impressive and your erudition extraordinary. Have not had time for thorough reading but think well of parts read. Undoubtedly your theories demand serious consideration.” (1) This testimonial was important for Alfred although he had been disappointed that Russell had not been able to study the book more.

Subsequent correspondence years later makes clear that Russell never did take time for a thorough reading. In 1939 he wrote to Korzybski “I should like very much to know about the semantic definition of number that you mention [in a previous letter to Russell].” (2) If Russell had read with any care either the page proofs or the published copy of Science and Sanity that Korzybski sent to him, then he would not have missed Korzybski’s suggested improvement upon Russell’s definition of number, discussed in detail in Chapter XVIII of Science and Sanity and mentioned in various places throughout the book.

1. B. Russell to Alfred Korzybski (telegram), 4/7/1933. Alfred Korzybski Digital Archives 25.2551
2. B. Russell to Alfred Korzybski, 1/14/1939. Institute of General Semantics Archives.

1 comment:

Ben Hauck said...

Thanks for the perspective on the actual relationship of the two gentleman. I can't imagine Russell had that much time for a careful reading of Korzybski's work because of Russell's own deep and intense interests. I don't hold that against Russell and I hope that Korzybski had an understanding of Russell's presumed busyness.