Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Science and Sanity at 80

This month, October 2013, marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics

When the book finally came out on October 10, 1933, the U.S. was in the first year of F.D.R.'s first administration. Despite whatever lift people's spirits may have had from the president's multiordinalinaugural day reassurance in March that they had nothing to fear but fear itself, from his "New Deal" plans, and from the much anticipated ending of alcohol prohibition; the U.S. still seemed sunk in the depths of the Great Depression. Internationally, news didn't seem so good to Korzybski either: Hitler had become the Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi Party had begun to consolidate its tyrannical control there. Along with Stalin, ensconced in Soviet Russia, and the Japanese Empire spreading itself across East Asia, the world didn't seem like such a happy place. To Korzybski, with what he called his "theory of sanity", it seemed like as good a time as any to offer his own infusion of sanity, as much as the world could take.

It was no easy task. He had begun writing what would become Science and Sanity in 1921, just after the publication of his first book, Manhood of Humanity. It had taken 12  demanding years devoted to writing and research. By 1932 with the book mainly done, Korzybski and his wife Mira turned down a few publishers willing to publish the book if Korzybski could guarantee the production cost by means of advanced sales. Under such terms the book could sell for as much as $10 retail (over $100 in today's money), a price that surely would have put off most potential readers during a major economic depression. Instead, the Korzybskis started The International Non-Aristotelian Library and Publishing Company (INALPCO), financed primarily through Mira's work painting portraits on ivory for "the rotten rich" (as they sometimes referred to her  wealthy clients). As self-publishers they could offer the book for a more reasonable "educational discount" price of $5.50, when ordered directly from their printer/distributor, Science Press. 

With the Korzybskis' considerable expenses in getting the book published (they remained in debt for a few years afterwards), the book's price certainly wasn't intended to make them rich. But Korzybski offered his "educational discount" to make the book as accessible and as available as possible to his main audience: the 'average intelligent layman'. And he never wavered from his view that the work that his book introduced, perplexingly labeled "general semantics", was not intended mainly for academic and scientific/technical specialists, but for that average intelligent man, woman, and even child, on the street. For years, he had paid membership dues to a British group, The World Association for Adult Education whose motto seemed just in line with his own efforts: "The multitude of the wise is the welfare of the world." 

Until his death 17 years later, Korzybski developed the implications of his work, promoting research, refining his insights, and reaching thousands of students individually and in group seminars, mainly through the auspices of the Institute of General Semantics which he founded in Chicago as a non-profit educational organization in 1938 with a few of his close students, his most serious "co-workers" as he liked to call them. 

By the time of his death on March 1, 1950, he had already  made a notable cultural impact in the U.S. and elsewhere, reaching perhaps the high point of critical appreciation of his work. Numerous popularizations of his work had already appeared. By 1949, one year before his death, he had begun receiving serious academic recognition at such places as Yale University, where he was invited by faculty there to conduct a seminar and lecture; the Cooper Union, where he addressed an audience of about 800 people on "Time-Binding: The Foundation for General Semantics"; the University of Denver where he taught a seminar before attending the "Third American Congress on General Semantics", sponsored by that university; and the University of Texas where he was the only independent, non-academic scholar invited to present a paper as part of a symposium on perception, along with a panel of some of the best and brightest figures in the behavioral/social sciences of that period. (Korzybski died while completing the editing and his  personal secretary and literary assistant, Charlotte Schuchardt, went to Texas alone to present his final paper, "The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes".)

Since his death, Korzybski's bright light has slowly faded. With the hindsight of 80 years since Science and Sanity's publication, what Korzybski actually taught has gotten somewhat obscured by the perpetuation of the errors made by a torrent of inept but influential critics, like Martin Gardner. Perhaps even more damagingly, it has gotten obscured by 'followers' like S. I. Hayakawa whose light and popular writing on 'semantics' showed ainadequate grasp of Korzybski's work, focusing mainly on Hayakawa's limited applications to language teaching, just one aspect of Korzybski's substantial, deep, and multi-faceted general theory of human evaluation. Depending on inadequate accounts as well as simply through the passage of time, Korzybski's work has thus become widely unread and, where acknowledged, often misread and superficially understood. 

But if you hear the siren call to plumb the depths of Korzybski's system of applied epistemology and his foundational framework for human knowledge and personal and social sanity, there is no substitute to reading Science and Sanity, now in its Fifth Edition. (Don't forget Manhood of Humanity and Collected Writings either!) Don't get put off by the size of the book or mathematical formulas within. Those of you who hear the call, may actually find Science and Sanity—and his other works—as I do: compellingly written with a rare combination of clarity, rigor, wit, and usefulness for living. 

And finally a shameless plug.  If you do feel that you need to ease into Korzybski's own writing with some introductory reading first, Drive Yourself Sane, written by myself and my wife Susan and now in its Third Edition, does present Korzybski's system in a brief, but accurate and comprehensive manner. Following that, there exists no better source than my own Korzybski: A Biography if you wish to follow Korzybski's own advice that "...when you read a book. Read not only what you read, but study the author." Korzybski: A Biography captures the adventure of his extraordinary life while tracing in detail the development of his work. Then, you'll definitely be ready to tackle Science and Sanity, and the rest of his work as well.  

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