Monday, September 8, 2014

Chapter 17 - Dear Dear Old Men: Part 2 - Cassius J. Keyser

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.

Cassius J. Keyser, Adrain Professor of Mathematics at Columbia University, turned out to be just the man Alfred needed. Keyser had an abiding interest in the human aspects of mathematics and its connections to every aspect of education and life. For Keyser, mathematics constituted the prototype of rigor and excellence for human thinking. He sought as a teacher and writer, “…to engage in a dignified popularization of mathematics and science, to humanize and democratize them, to make the orientation of mathematicians and scientists available to the ‘educated layman.’”(3) When he got Alfred’s manuscript, Keyser quickly recognized someone who shared his aims and, furthermore, someone with an urgency and ability to put them into practice. 

Keyser was born in 1862 in Rawson, Ohio in a log cabin. Young Cassius appeared to have learned a great deal about the practical aspects of life from his father, a farmer. He entered academia at an early age—by 1920 he had spent most of his working life as a teacher, first in public schools, and then in universities throughout the United States, while pursuing advanced studies. In 1901, he received his PhD in Mathematics at Columbia with a dissertation entitled The Plane Geometry of the Point in Space of Four Dimensions. Since then he had been on the Columbia Mathematics faculty, heading the department from 1910 to 1916. His students had included distinguished mathematicians such as E.T. Bell and Edward Kasner (both of whom later became friends with Korzybski), and Emil Post, a Polish-born Jew raised in the U.S. who had just gotten his PhD in 1920 on a topic inspired by a seminar he took with Keyser on Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s recently published, three-volume Principia Mathematica. Post—whose writing on incompleteness and undecidability in mathematical systems (unpublished) predated the work of both Godel and Turing—gave credit to Keyser for the truth-table methods he used in developing his work.

Keyser had already published a number of books of essays on what Korzybski would call “the human, civilizing, practical life, point of view”(4) of mathematics including: Science and Religion: The Rational and the Superrational, The New Infinity and the Old Theology, and The Human Worth of Rigorous Thinking. When he got Korzybski’s letter, he was in the midst of preparing the manuscript of a book he had been working on for a number of years, Mathematical Philosophy: A Study of Fate and Freedom, Lectures for Educated Laymen.

Something about Korzybski’s manuscript grabbed Keyser immediately. In a letter to George Brett of MacMillan Publishing Company written several weeks later, Keyser wrote about his first impressions:
I began the reading of it with indifference and misgiving. But it quickly aroused my interest, which grew deeper and deeper, and when I had finished reading I felt as I feel now, that the book is a timely one of great originality, great power and great importance.  
Physically it is small but spiritually—philosophically and scientifically—it is big, the biggest thing I believe in its fundamental conceptions, that our extraordinary times have evoked. As its ideas are reflected upon and developed (for they are here presented in the rough and raw) they will be found to penetrate every cardinal interest of human kind. (5)
Within two days Keyser finished his initial reading and wrote back to Korzybski to arrange a meeting. Both men quickly realized their shared aims and what they could do for each other. In the notions of “time-binding” and “human engineering” Keyser found a clarification of his own understanding of mathematics and science as human activities and a general program to apply this understanding to human concerns. He decided he would have to do some rewriting of his own work-in-progress in order to include the insights he was getting from Korzybski. Korzybski, in turn, had long felt but only recently begun to verbalize a view of the significance of a mathematical approach to thinking and living, already worked out in some detail by Keyser. Building on Keyser’s formulations, Alfred was later able to extend this view as he sought to understand the foundations of time-binding. Besides this, Keyser was able to suggest books for Alfred to read and people for him to meet. Through Keyser, Alfred became aware of a world of scientific, mathematical, philosophical, historical, and other formulators who had already worked on some of the areas he had stumbled upon more or less on his own.
Cassius J. Keyser
A look at Keyser’s particular and—in some people’s views—peculiar take on mathematics and the psychology of mathematics reveals some of the ground from which Korzybski further developed his work. For one thing, Keyser had reached the following conviction, based on long contemplation: “Logic is not a tool of mathematics—Logic is mathematics. All strictly mathematical propositions are propositions in logic and conversely.”(Keyser’s view of mathematics and logic as equivalent or coextensive should not be confused with Frege’s and Russell’s program of “logicism”, which sought to reduce all of mathematics to formal logic. Ultimately for him—and Korzybski—the field of mathematics was larger than, and included, formal logic.) (6) 

Mathematics, Keyser also held, could not be separated from psychology without impoverishing both mathematics and the understanding of human behavior. Instead, Keyser looked at mathematics, for him the prototype of rigorous thinking, as a form of mental phenomena “unsurpassed as means in the study of mind.”(7) In this, Keyser followed in the tradition of George Boole, whom Keyser considered to have started the modern revolution in mathematics with his Investigation of the Laws of Thought. In that book Boole had made clear, he intended his work to throw light on “the nature and constitution of the human mind.”(8) 

Subsequent mathematicians and logicians had focused on improving and refining Boole’s symbolical calculus, which later in the 20th century served as the basis of computer science. However, as Boole’s wife, Mary Everest Boole, wrote: “…nearly all the logicians and mathematicians ignored the statement that the book was meant to throw light on the nature of the human mind…”(9) Keyser appeared to be one of the few mathematicians in 1920 who continued to take seriously Boole’s opening statement from the Laws of Thought.

Keyser became Alfred’s mentor—if anyone could be called that—as Alfred developed his work. Both Alfred and Mira developed close friendships with Keyser and his wife Ella (and after she died in 1927, with Keyser’s second wife Sara). Within a year Keyser was beginning his letters, “Dear Korzybski,” which Alfred certainly preferred to “Dear Count” or “Dear Mr. Korzybski”. Alfred came to normally address Keyser in letters as “My dear dear old Man”, a greeting he reserved for Keyser. Until Keyser’s death at the age of 85 in 1947, he remained the man whose opinion mattered most to Korzybski.

After their first meeting, Keyser wrote a note to a former student of his, Arthur Harcourt, recommending the book—still entitled The Manhood of Humanity and Its Universal Language—for Harcourt’s publishing company, Harcourt, Brace and Howe. Korzybski sent Harcourt a copy of the manuscript along with Keyser’s note, but within a few weeks got back a rejection letter. The book did not fit Harcourt’s current publishing needs. Thus began the first round of queries to publishers. Alfred wrote to Open Court and MacMillan (where Keyser knew an editor), among other places. The chapter headings and Alfred’s accompanying explanation of the book seemed to elicit interest. But he had no takers. It was not really surprising, given his status as an untested new author writing in a new tongue for a general readership about the ‘esoteric’ subject of “human engineering or mathematical sociology” (as he was labeling it at the time).(10) 

When they first got to New York City, Alfred had thought he could get the publication of the book in English done quickly. He and Mira had originally planned to leave for Europe after only a couple weeks in the city. As reality began to sink in, they began to push back their departure time, first a couple of weeks, then another few weeks, then a month or two, etc. (This became a familiar pattern over the next few years.) Still, many people who heard about the book, saw the chapter headings, or who read a copy of the manuscript got excited about it. By the middle of September, Alfred and some friends met to consider starting a “Human Engineering Publishing Company” and getting out the book themselves. Keyser was encouraging but by then felt he had neither the time nor money to get involved. Nothing came out of the meeting and Alfred continued to contact people, make inquiries, and hope to find a publisher. He felt he had something good. But from his discussions and correspondence with Keyser and others, he also realized he would have to do some editing and rewriting to get the book into publishable shape.

As Keyser pointed out in a letter to Alfred at the start of October, despite the book’s “energy and pungence” the English needed polishing. Keyser apologized about his inability to do more to help.(11) Two months later Keyser, who had continued seeing and corresponding with Korzybski and wanted the book to succeed, offered some candid remarks on what he thought Alfred needed to do.(12) Among other things, he thought Alfred had obscured his central theme in a mass of unnecessary details. Besides that, Alfred had offered an appendix on mathematics which, among other things, went into some detail on the concept of the continuum. Keyser told him it contained insufficient explanatory detail for mathematicians to take it seriously and too much technical jargon and detail for laypeople to understand. Keyser had latched onto a central problem Alfred would confront throughout his career: how to communicate with the diverse audiences--—from educated laypeople to professional mathematicians and scientists—he felt he needed to address in order to promote the science and art of human engineering.

Keyser was also instrumental in helping Alfred update himself in the latest work in mathematics, mathematical logic, and physics. Since the start of the war, Korzybski had experienced a drought in his serious reading. He was now catching up with a vengeance. Before the war, Alfred had not had any awareness of the work on the foundations of mathematics being done by British writers such as Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and others. He had only been able to peripherally follow Einstein’s work on general relativity. Now, as quickly as he could, Alfred began to obtain and consume a number of seminal books in mathematics and mathematical physics suggested by Keyser.

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. 
3. Carter 1953, p. 134. 4. Korzybski 1921, p. 222. 

5. Cassius J. Keyser to George Brett, 9/21/20, AKDA 6.624-625. 

6. Keyser, “Mathematics as a Career”. In Mole Philosophy & Other Essays, p. 105. Although enthusiastic about Frege’s and Russell’s work, Keyser’s broader view of the unity of mathematics and logic (with mathematics as the overarching framework) was not refuted by the subsequent failure of their program. 

7. Keyser 2001 (1922) , p. 412. 

8. George Boole, p. 1. 9. Mary Everest Boole, “Indian Thought and Western Science in the Nineteenth Century: A Letter to Dr. Bose”, in Vol. 3, Collected Works, p. 952-953. Frege and Russell had helped popularize the notion of the separation of logic/mathematics from psychology. Mathematics, according to this fashionable view, did not reveal anything about human thinking. Following Frege, “psychologism” became a term of disapproval wielded against those like Keyser and Korzybski who did not accept that mathematics/logic was completely ‘objective’ and independent of human ‘minds’. 

 10. AK to C. J. Keyser, 8/8/1920. AKDA 4.539. 

11. C. J. Keyser to AK, 10/9/1920. AKDA 4.342-343. 

12. C. J. Keyser to AK, 12/3/1920. AKDA 4.754. 

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