Friday, June 6, 2014

Preface: Does Korzybski Matter?

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.

“Let me give you [some] advice when you read a book. Read not only what you read, but study the author.”—Alfred Korzybski (1)
On January 8, 2005, the San Francisco, a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine on a routine mission to Australia, was cruising 500 feet below the surface of the Pacific, 360 miles southeast of its home port of Guam. The sub’s navigational chart indicated clear passage with no obstacles. Nonetheless, the vessel collided with an undersea mountain. One sailor was killed, 60 were wounded—some seriously. The sub, its nuclear reactor undamaged, got back to Guam two days later. Its chart, prepared by the Defense Mapping Agency (now part of the Defense Department’s Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), had not been updated since 1989, although satellite data gathered in 1999 showed the mountain’s presence. Hindsight didn’t erase disaster. (2)

“A map is not the territory.” Alfred Korzybski’s often-repeated statement irritated some people in his day who considered the message trivial. Irritation may also have resulted from his insistence on the daily—indeed moment-to-moment—use of the principle. But remembering a map (or chart) is not the territory it represents (and that a map cannot cover all of the territory and remains subject to revision) obviously has continuing—sometimes life or death—relevance.

The relation of maps to territories was central to the life and work of Korzybski. And not only for navigation charts or road maps. He proposed that these kinds of literal maps and the processes by which they’re produced (or not produced) serve as models for broader processes of human awareness, perception, thinking, decision-making, language use, etc. As Robert P. Pula wrote,

By ‘maps’ [in the korzybskian sense] we should understand everything and anything that humans formulate…including (to take a few in alphabetical order), biology, Buddhism,Catholicism, chemistry, Evangelism, Freudianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Lutheranism, physics, Taoism, etc., etc., ...! (3)
Thus, anything proposed as knowedge—including whatever ‘ism’ one follows—has at best the usefulness but also the limitations of a map: “a map is not the territory”, etc. As a form of mapping, the process of gaining knowledge (performed by human nervous  systems) precludes the possibility of absolute certainty. Rather a generalized uncertainty rules: all statements only probable in various degrees. 

Korzybski determined that nihilistic despair over this was not called for. Indeed, if seen properly, knowledge and uncertainty are not incompatible qualities but necessary concomitants of a new orientation. Locally precise knowledge-at-a-date, which gives a degree of predictability, is still possible for definite and intelligent action in a given time and place. But accepting generalized uncertainty does mean that in the absence of absolute knowledge, absolute confidence in one's decisions is not called for either. In Korzybski’s view, knowledge and uncertainty belonged together. In addition, to live with both required courage—the courage to act despite imperfect knowledge and the courage to self-reflect and self-correct when needed, i.e., with frequency. The implications of this went well beyond scientific, academic interests. In particular, considering personal maladjustments in such terms revealed to him new and powerful possibilities and methods to promote sanity.

Alfred Korzybski was born into the waning Polish nobility living in the Russian-occupied sector of partitioned Poland in the latter half of the 19th century. “I was born silent", he said—an observer, looking around, wondering what was going on.
(4) From a very  early age, he found a natural role as a “troubleshooter”.(5) His engineer father conveyed to him a deep respect for mathematics and science and their practical application. (Alfred  later trained as an engineer himself.) He grew up as a Polish patriot under the hostile Tsarist dictatorship. Later in the Russian Army intelligence service, he saw first-hand the horrors of the Eastern Front of World War I. When he came to North America later in the war, he  had already spent half a lifetime observing the results of human folly (including his own). “I simply was getting sick and tired of human stupidity. That’s all that bothered me.”(6) 

Korzybski spent the remainder of his days in the nearly single-minded quest of a life-long dream: to promote human agreement by understanding and ameliorating human stupidity (preventable misevaluation) and its effects on human welfare. What was it about human beings that leads to such awesome progress in some areas (mathematics, science, and limited areas of technology) and to such awful poverty of results in others? Was there a way to prevent at least some of the individual unhappiness and societal problems he had witnessed? Was it possible to update our maps (in both the more limited and in the broader senses of the term), including our maps of ourselves, to avoid social ‘collisions’, i.e., unnecessary misunderstandings and conflicts with others? 

His experiences convinced him that humans must learn to improve their thinking abilities (which for Korzybski did not exist entirely separate from emotional life). The lack of a focused and systematic way to help people learn how to think distressed him. (“Where do we learn how to think? No where.”) (7) His knowledge of science and mathematics also convinced him he could draw out from these disciplines a method of thinking applicable to everyday language and living.

As a result Korzybski pursued an ‘odd’ research hypothesis : unacknowledged factors of personal and social adjustment (sanity) exist within the professional behavior—including the language—of scientists and mathematicians. He also realized scientists and mathematicians did not necessarily understand these factors or use them to their own best advantage  either in their labs or in their daily lives. Korzybski’s research led him to study not only the behavior of scientists and mathematicians but also of psychiatric patients. Relating these concerns—science and sanity—provided Korzybski with a unique angle of vision. For an engineer, a highly abstract theory was not sufficient. He wanted something practical as well. Without such an approach, he joked, “You can bring a horse to water, but cannot  force the horse to drink. You can send a boy to college, but you cannot teach the boy how to think. It cannot be done. Why? Lack of method.”(8)

He called the practical theory-method which he formulated, “general semantics”, applicable to the most deeply personal problems and to the most lofty philosophical and scientific ones. Once he had formulated the theory, he devoted his life to elaborating and testing it. Did it work? He was interested first and foremost with helping individuals, whom he referred to as Smith 1, Smith 2, Smith 3, etc. He saw himself as another Smith—perhaps Smith n—and, as he pointed out, the main “guinea pig” for his methods. His efforts to see if it worked brought him into personal contact with at least a couple thousand other ‘Smiths’, to whom he taught his methodology and how to apply it. (1800 people studied with Korzybski at Institute of General Semantics seminars from 1938 on. Korzybski had already been teaching for years before that.) (9) By the time of his death, he felt great confidence his system did work—for those willing to work at it.

More than half a century has now passed. There remains a lively, if still limited, audience for Korzybski’s writings. Detractors have called his work “highly dubious”. Others have viewed it as a useful public service, and some consider it a significant contribution to human civilization. In these first years of a new millennium—a time of terrorism—individual unhappiness/maladjustment and societal collisions of various sorts appear depressingly omnipresent and perhaps not unrelated. The life and work of Alfred Korzybski deserve attention.

For some readers, this book will be an introduction. Korzybskian echoes can be found in a variety of fields such as cognitive neuroscience, cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, communication, media ecology, medicine, organizational development, philosophical counseling and philosophy, etc. In spite of this, Korzybski’s cross-disciplinary work remains relatively unassimilated into standard academic fields and hard to accurately fit into familiar popular categories. Thus, Korzybski remains a relatively neglected and misunderstood figure. 

There are other folks who do ‘know’ something about Korzybski and/or general semantics. Some of these individuals may feel eager to learn more. For others, both Korzybski and his system are “dead issues” to be consigned to the trash bin of once popular and trivial trends that have come and gone along the fringes of intellectual history. There are also some people whose interest in general semantics has come and stayed. For these individuals—I count as one—Korzybski’s work is not pass√© and has provided a starting point for many fascinating and fruitful explorations of the world and self.

I did not know Alfred Korzybski personally (I was born two years after his death). However, as a result of my research for this book, as well as close contacts over many years with people who knew and worked with him, I have come to see him as a remarkably kind and well-balanced person, despite some hard edges and personal foibles. He did not seem to act from any hidden agenda, indeed he put off some people with his blunt directness. He was not interested in guru-worshiping followers; he sought out a remarkable set of well-grounded, independent individuals as his closest associates. He ‘practiced what he preached’, and indeed had many characteristics of the self-actualizing personality psychologist Abraham Maslow delineated in his work. There is little if anything in his life for a scandal-loving scribe or a salivating psycho-biographer to write about. It is quite possible some antagonistic readers may consider his work itself, despite my sympathetic portrayal, as evidence enough for Korzybski’s ‘nuttiness’. I can’t do anything about that.

Korzybski considered his life and work inseparable. Indeed, he considered the events of his life, in themselves, “nothing much to report”(10) He thought a biographer ought to cover them in relatively few pages and focus instead on his work—what he produced, recorded in his writings. I haven’t strictly taken that advice. Attention to his fascinating (to me) life enriches an understanding of his work. So in this book, I show the interplay of his life and work. I explore his lifetime mission—the amelioration of human stupidity, conflict, and misery through a scientific-philosophical reorientation of humanity, one individual at a time. What were the motivating forces which drove him to create what he did? Why did he and his work become the object of such widely and wildly different reactions by supporters and detractors? What relevance, if any, do Korzybski and his work have for us today? Does Korzybski still matter to 21st century culture and concerns? The following pages contain my affirmative answer. Here is my map of the life and work of Alfred Korzybski—a story of knowledge, uncertainty, and courage.(11) 

Bruce I. Kodish 

May 28, 2011

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.
1. Qtd. in Mordkowitz 1985, p. 58. 

2. See Drew. See also “Outdated charts may be blamed in sub crash”. Associated Press, Jan. 15, 2005. 

3. Pula 1994, p. xvii. 

4. Korzybski 1947, p. 408. This unpublished memoir of Korzybski provides a major source of information about his life and attitudes. 

5. Korzybski 1947, p. 23. 

6. Korzybski 1947, p. 420. 

7. Korzybski 1947, p. 29. 

8. Korzybski 1947, p. 31. 

9. See Kendig 1950, p. 4. 

10. Korzybski 1947, p. 482.

11. I took this configuration of terms from my mentor and friend the late Robert P. Pula, who used "Knowledge, Uncertainty, and Courage" as the summary title for one of his definitive articles about Korzybski's work. 

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