Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Chapter 17 - Dear Dear Old Men: Part 3 - How to Read a Book

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.

Besides the manuscript of Keyser’s Mathematical Philosophy, which Alfred gobbled up with relish, Alfred read Keyser’s other published books. He then either bought or borrowed, and then read, Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica; Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics, The Problems of Philosophy, Our Knowledge of the External World, and Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy; Whitehead’s An Introduction to Mathematics, The Organization of Thought, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, and The Concept of Nature; and Henri Poincaré’s The Foundation of Science, a one volume compendium of three of Poincaré’s books, Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, and Science and Method. 

Poincaré’s style, even in translation, struck him as especially beautiful. In his notebook, Alfred copied a quote from Poincarés book: “To doubt everything and to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; each saves us from thinking.” (The Foundation of Science, p. 27).(13) In the clearest example in Korzybski’s writing of anything approaching plagiarism, Alfred paraphrased this as follows without attribution in his final published text: “There are two ways to slide easily through life: Namely, to believe everything, or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.” (Manhood of Humanity, p. 4). Ironically, this remains one of the most widely-cited ‘Korzybski quotes’. In his later writings, he became much more careful with quotes and attributions.

How could anyone get through the above list of books in the period of only a few months—while reading other books as well—in addition to revising a manuscript, looking for a publisher, carrying on a large and lively letter correspondence, and meeting friends and associates throughout the city on a-not-infrequent basis? Someone who did not know Korzybski’s reading habits might find it unbelievable. However, during his years as an independent scholar, Korzybski had honed a consistent approach to reading, allowing him to rather quickly absorb large amounts of material in new and difficult fields. He freely shared this reading method with his friends and students.

His main habit, acquired as a schoolboy, consisted of opening himself to the presentation of the speaker/writer—at the start—with a minimum of criticism. His main aim consisted of “try[ing] to get what they wanted to say, not what they say, but what they wanted to say.”(14) In a letter he wrote in 1927 to his student, psychiatrist Phillip Graven, he detailed the method itself:
...I found that it is extremely useful to read [a] book many time[s], it is better to read them as wholes so that the whole configuration works. But to do so we must have some special means or otherwise we never could go through for lack of time. I use such [a] method. In reading the first time I mark with black pencil key words so that one glance at one paragraph tells me all about it the most important word in the paragraph or two or three, or a name. With this ready and one quick but honest reading I never need to read the book so laboriously again unless I especially want some material. Whenever I find in my first reading something which I like or something I dislike I mark it also specially with black pencil. I never for myself make any writings in the books simply because they ALWAYS are confusing and formal. I usually find in my own as well as other markings that they express something premature. If on my second reading, which usually takes 2-3 hours for the second reading because I glance only through my pencil marks, I use next a blue pencil and again make independent marking, namely what at the second reading I like or dislike I mark again blue, on a third reading I rapidly turn over the pages and read only the blue marks and if interested I mark them again in red, next comes green etc.[,] each successive reading is more rapid. It [is] extremely useful to glance books over [,] all over rather often although use very little time on it. Then you will have boiled down a book to perhaps 20 minutes reading, but all the time turning the pages over you will deal with the whole[,] the whole configuration and context which always better explains the words of a writer. (15) 
Sample of  Korzybski's marking of Eddington's 1920 Space Time And Gravitation, 

The last two paragraphs of these last two pages of the book contain one Korzybski's favorite quotes, which he regularly read aloud to his seminar classes

A number of the books suggested by Keyser became the objects of multiple and deep re-readings over the next few years. But Alfred’s initial readings and his contact with Keyser had some more immediate results. They helped inspire him to edit much of his discussion of mathematics in his manuscript and put some of this material into what became a rewritten appendix in Manhood of Humanity (“Appendix I -– Mathematics and Time-Binding”) where he consolidated some of his ideas about the role of mathematics in time-binding. Written in an admittedly “suggestive form,” this material presaged his entire life work: “As a matter of fact, scientific psychology will very much need mathematics, but a special humanized mathematics. Can this be produced? It seems to me that it can.”(16)

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. 
13. “AK Personal Notebook...Early 1920s”. AKDA 37.778. 

14. Korzybski 1947, p. 43. 

15. AK to Phillip Graven, 12/1/1927. AKDA 19.675. 

16. Korzybski 1921. p. 211. 

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