Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Chapter 17 - Dear Dear Old Men: Part 4 - Jacques Loeb

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.

At the end of August, after having been in New York City only a few weeks, Alfred and Mira had moved from their first Greenwich Village apartment to another one nearby at 50 Washington Mews. After it became apparent that more work would have to be done on his book and that they were not going to leave immediately for Poland, they moved once again, in the beginning of October, to an apartment on 13 West 12th Street.(17) The new place became a source of ongoing troubles for them.

The previous tenant had left the place a mess and they had to wait an extra week while the manager of the building did what she could to clean it up. After they moved in they still found a mess: a filthy rug too disgusting to do anything about other than try to ignore it; ragged and dirty furniture which they dealt with by placing their own velvet covers on top; and a mattress blackened by bedbugs which they worked to clean as best they could. After they had gotten settled, they got robbed—the thief managing to gain entrance to the apartment with an extra key the owner of the building had failed to secure. The following May, after they had left and gone to California, the owner, a Mrs. Bonner, had the gall to have both her building manager and a lawyer write to them asking for extra money for cleaning, repairs, and lost items. Alfred fired back sharp letters—Mrs. Bonner actually owed them for their losses—and that apparently was the end of it.(18)

The bothersome apartment did not become the focus of their attention however. While Mira—looking for connections useful for her and Alfred—renewed acquaintances in the New York City art and social world, Alfred rallied his own tremendous enthusiasm and energy to promote the notion of time-binding and to try to get his book published. To some people he may have seemed like a “bull in the china shop of old theories.”(19) His liveliness, sometimes coming at “two hundred words a minute”(20), could overwhelm a listener (he gradually learned how to modulate this to some degree). Undoubtedly, some people got ‘turned off’ while others, like Keyser, felt charmed. Not surprisingly, soon after arriving in New York City, Korzybski had developed a circle of friends and associates interested in his work.

One of the people he became friendly with was biologist Jacques Loeb (1859-–1924). Indeed, Loeb became another “dear old man” who personally encouraged Alfred and whose work had a continuing influence on him. Born in Germany as Isaac Loeb, he had come to the U.S. in the 1890s, where he solidified his already growing reputation in the biological research world as a wide-ranging physiologist. By the time Korzybski met him, Loeb worked at the Rockefeller Institute in the Upper East Side of New York City, and was perhaps best-known to the general public for his successful efforts to artificially induce parthenogenesis (the development of a complete organism) from the unfertilized eggs of sea urchins, frogs, etc., some twenty years earlier. He had also done ground-breaking research on plant and animal tropisms and on the comparative physiology of the nervous system and comparative psychology. Utterly devoted to scientific research, in his earlier work Loeb had made himself a disciple of Ernst Mach and had developed an anti-metaphysical, engineering approach to his investigations. Loeb considered behavior as a legitimate part of physiological study, embraced the importance of studying the organism as a whole, and held a staunch belief in the unity of nature, which meant for him the necessity of demonstrating the physico-chemical nature of biological functions or, what he called in the title of his 1912 book of essays, The Mechanistic Conception of Life. He became a major advocate for that conception in the “mechanist-vitalist” debates, opposing those who believed a ‘vital’ element in life would always evade scientific explanations. Having suffered from antisemitism most of his life, he had also become an outspoken opponent of the biologically-based rationales for racism and discrimination becoming popular by the start of World War I. 

Jacques Loeb
By 1920, the time Korzybski met him, Loeb was studying the colloidal behavior of proteins, which he thought promised to reveal more of the underlying mechanisms of living phenomena. In 1922, the writer Paul DeKruif, a formally-trained bacteriologist who had worked as a junior colleague of Loeb’s at Rockefeller for a few years, wrote a portrait of Loeb which was published in Harpers, much to Loeb’s embarrassment. DeKruif, who later became famous for his 1926 book, The Microbe Hunters, collaborated with Sinclair Lewis in the writing of Lewis’s 1925 novel Arrowsmith, wherein the character Max Gottleib was modeled in large part upon Loeb.(21)

Alfred had first learned about Loeb from his friend Julian Grove-Korski, working at the Polish Consulate in New York, who recommended some of Loeb’s writings. Loeb’s approach supplied a clear, well-stated, scientifically-based rationale for some things Alfred had been groping to express in his writing, including one of Alfred’s main points: the zoological and mythological conceptions of humankind had harmful effects on the time-binding process, whilst his new definition enhanced it. Loeb’s work affirmed that life—including human consciousness and behavior—had to be understandable on a physiological and physico-chemical basis, and provided a plausible mechanism for how this harm or help might occur.

Loeb had written, “Since [Pavlov] and his pupils have succeeded in causing the secretion of saliva in the dog by means of optic and acoustic signals, it no longer seems strange to us that what the philosopher terms an “idea” is a process which can cause chemical changes in the body.”(22) In other words, correct or wrong ideas could promote or foul up the time-binding process in a directly physiological way.

Alfred expanded on this in a new Appendix II on “Biology and Time-Binding” begun at the end of the year. As he often did when trying to formulate more clearly, he drew a diagram—a spiral seemed quite fitting.(23) The “spiral theory” of time-binding became a major theme of his subsequent work. Korzybski considered culture, i.e.,‘thoughts’, ‘languages’,‘symbols’, ‘images’, etc., as the natural product of the “physico-chemical base...of the human time-binding energy” of individual nervous systems in association with one another. A ‘thought’ gets embodied in a language or some other symbolism. It represents a residual effect or product of time-binding. This effect provides a new incentive for action by modifying the physico-chemical base of the individual who created it or anyone else who interprets it. The physico-chemical base thus modified can produce a new ‘thought’ which may provide yet again some new incentive for action.

For Korzybski, this cyclical or spiral process of causality had serious implications for all aspects of human functioning:
…Every word has its energy and produces some physico-chemical effects in the time-binding apparatus in accord with the idea which we associate with the sound of the word. If we teach ideas which are untrue, then the physico-chemical effects produced are not proper—in other words the human mind does NOT WORK PROPERLY, that is, it does not work naturally or normally or true to the human dimension. There is every reason why the standards in our civilization are so low, because we have “poisoned,” in a literal sense of the word, our minds with the physico-chemical effects of wrong ideas. 
This correct natural approach to the “Time-binding” energies will make it obvious how unmeasured is the importance of the manner in which we handle this subtle mechanism, as the poisoning with wrong ideas or with careless or incorrect words does not in any way differ in consequences from poisoning with any other stupor-producing or wrongly stimulating poison. (24)

As he noted 13 years later in Science and Sanity, “Neural products are stored up or preserved in extra-neural form [various observable aspects of language, symbolism, media, culture, etc., e.g., books], and they can be put back in the nervous system as active neural processes”—for better and worse.(25) In his first book, he emphasized how this spiral process gives vital importance to how we define ourselves both as individuals and as members of the human race. As Korzybski only later realized, his “spiral theory” of time-binding required a nonlinear, ‘circular’ notion of causality, not well-formulated in 1920. (See Science and Sanity, p. 12.) His spiral theory preceded by some years the notion of negative feedback in control theory and cybernetics. (Indeed, control theory and cybernetics did not yet exist as discrete scientific disciplines.) When the notion of feedback began to be discussed in the late 1940s, Korzybski latched onto it at once.

By the middle of December 1920, Korzybski and Loeb had begun corresponding and had met. Loeb generously offered to look at the manuscript and helped Alfred with comments and support throughout its path to publication. Loeb also provided Alfred with names of people to contact for his trip to California the following year. And later, according to Alfred, Loeb’s encouragement more than anyone else’s got him to stay in the United States to do his work.

Their friendship and correspondence lasted until Loeb’s sudden death in Bermuda from a heart attack in early 1924. Ironically, Alfred—back in New York City by then and not knowing Loeb was away—had written to Loeb at his lab on the day of Loeb’s death, February 10. Alfred wanted to meet to discuss some important issues. Loeb’s secretary, still unaware of Loeb’s death the night before, wrote back on February 11 suggesting Alfred write another note to Loeb after March 1 when the biologist was expected home. Alfred attended the funeral and felt Loeb’s sudden death as a great blow. (26)

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.
17. AKDA 4.349.

18. AKDA 11.453-456.

19. “Korzybski: Pole, Artilleryman, Logician”, by R. H. Allen. Boston Evening Transcript, Saturday, Oct. 27, 1923. AKDA 2.667.

20. Cora L. Williams to AK, Sept. 24, 1921. AKDA 6.478.

21. See Pauly 1987.

22. Loeb 1912, p. 62.

23. Korzybski 1921, p.233.

24. Korzybski 1921, pp. 250–251.

25. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 291.

26. AK to R.D. Carmichael, 4/29/1924. AKDA 14.759; AK to William Morton Wheeler, 3/30/1924. AKDA 14.632.

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