Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Chapter 2 - Young Alfred: Part 5 - A Practical Idealist

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

What actualities did a practical idealist like Wladyslaw Korzybski have to deal with on the farm? Rudnik had little naturally fertile land. With clay lying below the topsoil, water couldn’t adequately drain through. Instead it would sit above the clay layer and evaporate, making the soil cold and acidic. At the time, the standard and very costly method of draining such soil involved inserting baked clay tubes into the clay bottom. The clay tubes would absorb the water and allow it to drain through. Wladyslaw Korzybski had no special education in agriculture, but his engineering mentality found a better, less expensive solution. 

Taking advantage of the cheap labor available at Rudnik, he dug ditches into the clay layer and filled them with stones (Alfred sometimes supervised some of this stone-laying work). The elder Korzybski graded the ditches so that the underground water drained into a large, ten-feet-deep pond he had dug over an area of a city block, called “the bath”, which Alfred used for swimming. (Apparently, Alfred was the only one who would swim in the year-round icy cold water whose clay residue required taking a bath after going in “the bath”. He swam in it regularly every summer and became an expert swimmer.)

Eventually the spaces between the stones in the ditches would become clogged with clay. But such a ditch might drain for twenty years before needing to be redug. In the meantime, the dried-out soil turned warm and less acidic. Due to Wladyslaw Korzybski’s drainage method as well as his innovative use of contour ploughing to prevent soil erosion on its hillsides, the farm became fruitful. He wrote two books, one of which had the title Melioracje Rolne (Agricultural Amelioration). Both he and his work at Rudnik became internationally known.

As a small boy, Alfred spent a great deal of time traipsing after the men at work on the ditches. The unspoken lessons were invaluable for a scientist/engineer in the making. For one thing, Alfred could experience for himself the earthliness of any kind of measurement, along with the limitations of naked eye observation. “By the eye you cannot tell [whether or not the water would go down the hill], you simply have to measure with instruments.” He could see that, despite this, methods existed for getting reliable and accurate knowledge—knowledge for getting important things done. "I was witnessing...all the time a technician trying to find the measurements of the levels to get that goddamn water, that underground water away.”(18) Observing his father’s efforts to improve Rudnik, Alfred gained not only a life-long interest in the problems of soil conservation and farm production but more importantly he imbibed his father’s deep appreciation of mathematical and scientific knowledge (Wladyslaw's hobbies were mathematics and physics) and the importance of a hands-on approach to developing and applying it.

At the tender age of five, Alfred's father gave him a "feel of [the] differential calculus”.(19) It is not hard to imagine how work on the ditches may have played a part here. Given the young boy’s interest in the technicians’ efforts to measure the slopes of hillsides, I can imagine the elder Korzybski giving his son a simple spirit level, such as carpenters use, and showing him how to measure the grade of the slope along every few feet of a given span of hillside, then showing him how to record his measurements. Korzybski’s father then might show him how to use these results to map the slope on a piece of graph paper. Shortening the intervals of measurement would result in slightly altered, more precise curves. From here it would be a short step to ask the child to imagine the intervals getting smaller and smaller, closer and closer to one point on the slope. In this way, they would have reached the governing notion of the differential calculus—a method for determining the slope at any point along a curve. Once Alfred had learned about slope-finding on the actual slopes of hillsides, he would eventually be able to grasp that other aspects of the world involving measurable relationships could also be represented on graph paper as slopes with rates of change he could determine. Integral calculus, finding the area under a curve by summing up smaller increments of it, would follow. Whatever way he first got the feel of it, Alfred remained fascinated with the underlying notions of the calculus for the rest of his life.

In later life, one of Alfred’s pet phrases was, “I don’t know, let’s see.” Wladyslaw Korzybski may or may not have said this to his son. But he surely conveyed to Alfred his curiosity, respect for facts, and engineering attitude of practicality—“how can I make this work?” As an avid follower of the latest trends in physics and mathematics, Wladyslaw Korzybski also gave his son a feel for the newest (in the latter half of the 19th Century) scientific discoveries such as the electro-magnetic field theory of Maxwell and Hertz, and a feel for developments in mathematics such as non-euclidean geometry. The father’s enthusiasm caught something in the boy and Alfred often dreamt of becoming a mathematician or a physicist when he wasn’t considering becoming a lawyer.

Gradually as he mastered newtonian physics and euclidean geometry in school, Alfred found that discrepancies between these disciplines and the newer theories were chipping away at his sense of certainty in the solid foundations of science and mathematics. But whatever uncertainties developed, he had trouble putting his difficulties into words and found the situation deeply unsatisfying. Something one of his high school teachers had said to him in class stuck with him:

Here I [was] called to the blackboard. I [was] asked questions which I didn’t prepare…[The teacher was] a Pole, a professor of German, [who] talked to me in Russian. How do you like that? And he was a rough-neck. I disliked him. Everybody disliked him. So here is the conversation: He asked a question. I began to answer, to bluff through as best I could. And then he asked me in his deep basso, Did you learn your lesson? He answered for me in falsetto, Yes, sir, I did. Did you know it? Yes, sir. I, I know, but [I] cannot say. Sit down, damn fool! Or Ass, or whatever. And I got the lowest mark available and I learned that lesson that if we know something, we can say. And the fellow who cannot say, does not know. And if you can say any old rot, you don’t know either. So this lesson…is one of the outstanding lessons of my life. (20)
You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
18. Korzybski 1947, pp. 370-371. One can picture young Alfred, watching the workmen and starting to make crude measurements of his own. Years later, Korzybski penciled an asterisk in the page margin beside the following passage of his personal copy of A.S. Eddington’s 1920 book Space, Time and Gravitation: An Outline of the General Relativity Theory, where Eddington wrote: "But the relativist, in defining space as measured space, clearly recognizes that all measurement involves the use of material apparatus; the resulting geometry is specifically a study of the extensional relations of matter. He declines to consider anything more transcendental.” [Eddington 1920, p. 16] In the bottom margin below another asterisk, Korzybski expanded on Eddington’s point and his penciled note could well have been describing his experience as a boy at Rudnik: “When “Rel.” [the Relativist] becomes a psychobiologist he recognizes that this conclusion is merely an elaboration of primitive man and small child as they measure both space and time without appeal to either measuring rule or clock, but with their steps, arm movements, fingers, etc."

19. Korzybski 1947, p. 384. 

20. Korzybski 1947, p. 25.

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