Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Korzybski's 'Respectability'

Some academics and others overly interested in conventional respectability would probably not find Korzybski easy to take. He had plenty of idiosyncrasies to sneer at, from his blunt manner of speech, to the khaki clothes he favored, to the rolls of toilet paper that he unashamedly kept on his desk for nose blowing. 

Other things made him easily misunderstood, like his profound hearing loss, which made conversations with him difficult. Since he had only a degree in engineering, those inclined to do so could easily mistake his remarkable erudition in dozens of subjects as bogus, the profundity of his aims and broad scope of his concerns as arrogance, his claim to have formulated the first—as far as he knew—non-aristotelian system as ridiculous, and his claim to have developed a practical methodology that could help one understand and ameliorate “the quarrels between two lovers, two mathematicians, two nations, two economic systems., [etc.]...”(1) as absurd. 

Careless interpretations of his lectures or writings might easily follow, confusing his taking of all human knowledge as “within his scope”—certainly legitimate for a worker in epistemology—with “taking all knowledge as within his competence,” which he never pretended. (2) 

Korzybski often said, “I say what I say. I do not say what I do not say.” He would also repeat that he ‘offered no panaceas’ but this didn’t stop the misinterpretations of some people who still came to the conclusion of one seminar student, “You seem to say that every human problem can be solved by general semantics.” Korzybski replied “Every thing I say is limited, limited, limited!”—a statement (or something like it) he repeated often. (3) 


1. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 761. 

2. Communication scholar Neil Postman—Editor of ETC. for 10 years from 1976 to 1986 (when it was still published by the ISGS)—made this claim years later in an error-ridden essay entitled “Alfred Korzybski” in his book Conscientious Objections: “Korzybski’s thought was grandiose in that he took all knowledge to be within his scope [p. 138]....[I]n taking all knowledge as within his competence, Korzybski’s reach exceeded his grasp [p. 145].” As with S. I. Hayakawa, many people presumed Postman to know a lot more about Korzybski and his work than he actually did. Unfortunately, like Hayakawa, Postman seemed to presume this too. 

3. Ralph Hamilton (who worked as an assistant to Korzybski from 1947 to 1949)  to Bruce Kodish, Nov.17, 2005. For examples of Korzybski’s “epistemodesty” see Korzybski 1994 (1933), pp. 10, 43–44, 142–144. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

From the Stray Thought Bin - "Purpose"

Like most people whose purpose it was to have no purpose, he was a rotten failure at it. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Quote of the Day- "Expect the Minimum"

"If you expect, say 'nothing', in the actual living, bumping against facts, impact with the environment, you will find the facts better than you expected. You will be encouraged. You will not be cynical; you will not be bitter, etc. Life then will be happier for you as living protoplasm reacting to the impact of the environment. Expect the minimum."* 
———Alfred Korzybski

*General Semantics Seminar 1937: Olivet College Lectures, Third Edition. p. 90