Friday, September 5, 2014

Chapter 16 - "Binding Time": Part 7 - Forerunners

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.

Although what he expressed in his manuscript resulted from his own process of questioning, observation, and discovery, Korzybski would have been the first to admit that his notions were not entirely original. He had forerunners. 

First of all, he had been prepared for the formulation of time-binding by the very time and location of his birth. By 1879, even a Pole born in Warsaw was in a real sense born into exile. For Poland did not exist—except in the history, culture, language, and literature that ethnic Poles sought to preserve and carry on to their younger generation. Since the beginning of the 19th century, Poles had been emigrating in large numbers from the oppressive conditions of post-partition existence. To remain a Pole required conscious effort whether one remained in the former Polish lands or went abroad. The mere fact of Alfred’s beginning his life as a Pole seems likely to have sensitized him to the significance of preserving and transmitting a culture under difficult circumstances. In addition, Korzybski’s emphasis in Manhood on the value of a scientific-mathematical attitude to human affairs—leading to a “human engineering”—also seems like a natural outgrowth of his upbringing by an engineer father in the heyday of Polish positivist philosophy and its esteem of science.

A number of decades before Alfred’s birth, the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz had called Poland, “the Christ of the Nations.” Jesus, as we know, was a Jew. Poles had lived for hundreds of years in relative harmony among, what became for a time, the largest concentration of Jews in the world. The Jews, the people of Israel, had managed for millennia to preserve an independent social-cultural life and sense of peoplehood under the most trying conditions of oppression and exile from their ancient homeland. Does it take a great leap of imagination to consider that post-partition Poles, interested in preserving their unique culture and sense of nationhood, may have learned something from the example of the Jews in their midst? It would be surprising if Korzybski, who had a major life-long interest in Jews and Jewish themes, was not affected.

From ancient days, the Jewish tradition had certainly displayed a recognition of the phenomenon of time-binding. An important part of the Jewish tradition had always been its emphasis on the importance of tradition itself. The Hebrew word for tradition, masorah or masoret, originally had referred to a “bond” or “fetter”.(18)  The obligation for all Jews to study and transmit this tradition l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) as well as the mechanism for interpreting and applying it to new conditions (Talmudic discourse), remained accepted and important parts of the tradition. Acceptance of this tradition as the birthright of every Jew led to the high literacy rates among Jews compared to other groups.

Korzybski’s study of the humanist tradition of Europe, strongly represented in Poland, probably exerted a more direct effect on Alfred’s formulation of the time-binding notion. Renaissance thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1518) showed how one could acknowledge and learn from the past to develop one’s excellence in the present and in this way contribute to future generations. In his 1902 biographical novel, The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci (English translation 1928), Russian writer Dmitri Merejkowski described a passage from da Vinci’s notebooks:
Once, desiring to present the development of human spirit, he drew a row of cubes: the first, falling, knocks down the second; the second, a third, the third, a fourth, and so on, ad infinitum. Underneath he wrote: “One jolts the other.” And he also added: “The cubes designate the generations of mankind and the stages of its knowledge.” On another drawing he represented a plough, turning up the earth, with the inscription: “Persistent Rigour.” He believed that his turn, too, would come in the row of falling cubes,—that at some time or other men would respond to his summons also.(19)

Continuing the humanist theme of the human origins of human culture, Korzybski’s formulation of time-binding generalized his habit of reading a book by studying its author. Time-binding implied that any aspect of culture had an author—in fact multiple authors. In his later writing and teaching, Alfred would often emphasize art, mathematics, religion, science, etc., as “...manmade and nothing but.” This didn’t necessarily make them dependent on arbitrary foundations but, on the contrary, seemed to provide an approach for understanding, appropriating, and using them more effectively. And revising them when needed.

By the mid-1800s, the general notion of the process of transmission basic to time-binding had become widely accepted. George Boole, creator of the first system of mathematical logic, was able to clearly describe it in this passage from his address on “The Social Aspects of Intellectual Culture” to the Cuvierian Society, a science club in Cork, Ireland:
Each generation as it passes away bequeathes to its successor not only its material works in stone and marble, in brass and iron, but also the truths which it has won, and the ideas which it has learned to conceive; its art, literature, science, and, to some extent, its spirit and morality. This perpetual transmission of the light of knowledge and civilization has been compared to those torch races of antiquity in which a lighted brand was transmitted from one runner to another until it reached the final goal. Thus it has been said do generations succeed each other, borrowing and conveying light, receiving the principles of knowledge, testing their truth, enlarging their application, adding to their number, and then transmitting them forward to coming generations—Et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt [And like runners they pass on the torch of life]. [Boole was quoting a line from De Rerum Natura by the Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius who lived from 99 B.C.E.–55 B.C.E. Not surprisingly, Greek thinkers prior to Lucretius had also recognized aspects of the process of time-binding.] (20)

In his manuscript and book, Korzybski had observed that,
…in animal life time does not play the role it plays in human life. Animals are limited by death permanently. If animals make any progress from generation to generation, it is so small as to be negligible. A beaver, for example, is a remarkable builder of dams, but he does not progress in the way of inventions or further development. A beaver dam is always a beaver dam. (21)

At the time he wrote this, there is no indication that he was aware of Abraham Lincoln’s “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions” first delivered in 1858. In this lecture, Lincoln clearly pointed out the difference between humans and animals (also using the example of beavers) (22) and provided a brief history and discussion of the conditions of human progress as he saw it. Lincoln noted the importance that cooperation, the use of speech, and the inventions of writing and the printing press, had in the sharing and transmission of knowledge. He pointed out a given generation’s dependence on the discoveries and inventions of the past, including the discovery and invention of methods of discovery and invention. He also mentioned the accelerating aspect of the growth of human knowledge especially notable after the invention of the printing press: “…discoveries, inventions, and improvements followed rapidly and have been increasing their rapidity since.”(23)

Interest in the idea of “progress” had become widespread by the mid-19th Century due in part to the work of Auguste Comte, founder of the discipline of sociology and of “positive philosophy”. Korzybski’s distinction between the childhood and the manhood of humanity echoed Comte’s discussion of the three phases in the development of human knowledge: the Theological, the Metaphysical, and the Scientific or “Positive” stages. The flavor of optimism and sense of the inevitability of human progress expressed by Comte seem present in Manhood as well.

By the late 19th Century, in his work Progress and Poverty (a volume in Korzybski’s personal library), American political economist Henry George demonstrated a sense of both the transmission of culture and of progress, consistent with the notion of time-binding:
The narrow span of human life allows the individual to go but a short distance, but though each generation may do but little, yet generations, succeeding to the gain of their predecessors, may gradually elevate the status of mankind, as coral polyps, building one generation upon the work of the other, gradually elevate themselves from the bottom of the sea. (24)

Then in the first decade of the 20th Century, writer Henry Adams—noting the breathtaking changes brought on by expanding scientific knowledge and technological advances—had suggested a historical law of acceleration to account for them. Adams did not supply an actual equation, although he did suggest its exponential nature.

Clearly, the main factors that entered into Korzybski’s formulation of time-binding had been recognized by many others before him. Granted, he stood on their shoulders. Still Korzybski’s formulation of time-binding did do something new: It brought together the various related factors that others had previously noted, under one unifying, functional formulation and term. Making time-binding the distinguishing feature of the human class of life gave the phenomenon a greater significance. His attempt to quantify it with the equation PRT and his emphasis on the implications and applications of conscious time-binding for human welfare gave added value to the formulation. It seemed to him that his new definition, with these accompanying aspects, constituted a proper starting point for an applied science of humanity—a new art and science of human engineering.

For both him and Mira, the book provided a kind of ‘spiritual’ satisfaction as well. With the formulation of time-binding, he had found some resolution for the questions that had been plagueing him for so long. By helping people to become more conscious and better time-binders, he might be able to encourage the kind of culture that could prevent future, more devastating wars. In addition, despite some of the manuscript’s stylistic clumsiness, which he realized came in part from writing in a new language, he felt happy about his writing. In places he had managed to combine a degree of rigor with a simplicity of expression that pleased him.

The significance of Alfred’s book certainly struck Mira. Since they had met, she had felt that he had something to express to the world that reflected her deepest values. She had been encouraging and encouraging him to write. Sometime later in the year, she wrote him this note:
I have told you from the beginning — my dearest one — how I couldn’t “get through” to life — always cut off — always an individual — always an observing outsider — and do you know how I feel now — as if you and I had opened our veins and my blood is flowing into you and your blood into me — and you have made me a part of life, of humanity, in giving me this manuscript by which the ache of my heart to do something for humanity is satisfied. I am completely happy in being your wife... (25)
Mira's 1921 portrait of herself and Alfred

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. “Tradition”, in Wigodor, pp. 782-783. 

19. Merejkowski, p. 345. 

20. George Boole. Qtd. in McHale, p. 123. 

21. Korzybski 1921, p.111. 

22. “All creation is a mine, and every man, a miner…In the beginning, the mine was unopened, and the miner stood naked, and knowledgeless, upon it. Fishes, birds, beasts, and creeping things, are not miners, but feeders and lodgers, merely. Beavers build houses; but they build them in nowise differently, or better now, than they did, five thousand years ago. Ants, and honey-bees, provide food for winter; but just in the same way they did, when Solomon referred the sluggard to them as patterns of prudence. Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship. This improvement, he effects by Discoveries, and Inventions.” [Lincoln 1915. Aso available at]. Lincoln gave another version of this speech in February 1859 [Lincoln 1989, pp. 3-11]. Lincoln appeared devoted to this subject but the lecture was generally not considered a success [Holzer, pp. 19-20, 210]. 

23. Ibid. 

24. George, p. 507.

25. Note from MEK to AK, nd. AKDA 5.69-70.

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