Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Chapter 23 - Strange Footprints: Part 5 (c) - Bertrand Russell - "My Dear Russell"

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.

Korzybski had started writing to Russell right after Manhood was published, having sent Russell a copy of the book. He continued writing to Russell on an intermittent basis as his work developed. In his letters to him, Alfred always expressed his gratitude to Russell for the work in mathematical foundations. He would send Russell materials and ask for his opinion. Eventually Russell would respond, mostly to apologize for not replying to letters in a timely fashion or for not having time to study Korzybski’s work further.

Prior to its 1933 publication, Korzybski had sent him proofs of Science and Sanity. Russell cabled back to him, “Your work is impressive and your erudition extraordinary. Have not had time for thorough reading but think well of parts read. Undoubtedly your theories demand serious consideration.”(10) This testimonial was important for Alfred although he had been disappointed that Russell had not studied the book more. As subsequent correspondence years later makes clear, Russell never did take time for a thorough reading.(11) At the end of his Introduction of Mathematical Philosophy (1919), Russell had presented no remedy for the misleading aspects of ordinary language other than to retreat into the use of logical symbolism.(12) Russell seemed to maintain this attitude throughout his life. Thus when he wasn’t ‘speaking mathematically’ he tended to fall into the ‘traps’ of ordinary language. On the other hand, Korzybski came to accept language as behavior to be used with skill in order to formulate experience of the world in a different way. Mathematicians were notable for their creative use of symbolism and there existed no inherent reason our everyday language could not be similarly amenable to purposeful change. Since Russell did not accept this, he never understood how Alfred made use of his (Russell’s) work to help people make their everyday language less misleading.

There we have the crux of Korzybski’s problems with Russell. The two men simply had their heads in different places. Korzybski ultimately made clear his rejection of Principia’s logicist program to derive mathematics from logic. On the contrary, he postulated that ‘logic’ derives from mathematics, and that all human knowledge and language has a mathematical structure as well. Methods and symbolism from the recognized discipline of mathematics (including mathematical logic) could be searched to yield baby-like ways to change the structure of ordinary language and experience. In Science and Sanity, he attempted to show how the theory of types yielded to a broader theory of human evaluation, bringing Russell’s work down to earth. Russell, a brilliant but impractical theoretician, didn’t seem to recognize the desirability or even the possibilty of doing so and therefore didn’t seem capable of recognizing the efforts of Korzybski, who had a genius for the practical, even in relation to theoretical issues.(13) 

This ultimately led to some irritation on Korzybski’s part. (It would become a familiar feeling, as well, in relation to a number of other mathematicians and scientists whom he found wouldn’t read or listen, and who would dismiss his methods as ‘trivial’ or ‘worthless’ without giving them a genuine try.) Nonetheless, Korzybski felt a deep indebtedness to Russell for his theoretical insights (for years he kept a small photographic portrait of Russell, along with one of Einstein, on his office wall). The two men carried on an intermittent correspondence for years, eventually meeting face-to-face in 1939 when Russell, in Chicago, came for a brief visit to the Institute of General Semantics to see Korzybski there.

Afterwards, although, their correspondence remained polite, Alfred gradually began to vent more of his frustrations to Russell (it would have been out of character for him not to speak bluntly). In a lengthy letter to Russell in 1946 (perhaps the last one he wrote to him), Korzybski said:
Some of my students in London told me some amusing gossips that my Science and Sanity was so against your grain that you threw the book into the Atlantic. Should this be true, it would be sad news, because your great work in Mathematical Foundations is at the very core of a non-aristotelian revision...Well, my dear Russell, your bloody ‘types’ if translated…and applied in daily life do work…Your behavior and platonic verbal fictions, no matter how clever, and ‘academic’, are read by few ‘intellectuals’, but they cannot be workable, and so cannot be applied in general education. Yet your ‘types’ gave a formulation in crisp terms. I worked it out in a language applicable to life, and when people are trained in it in childlike terms, which applied even to ‘mentally’ ill it works astonishingly…(14)

In a short note, Russell told Korzybski he had heard the story too, but assured him that he had not thrown Science and Sanity into the Atlantic.(15) 

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. 
10. B. Russell to AK (Telegram), 4/7/33. AKDA 25.551. 

11. In 1939 Russell wrote to Korzybski “I should like very much to know about the semantic definition of number that you mention [in a previous letter to Russell].” If Russell had read with any care either the page proofs or the published copy of Science and Sanity that Korzybski sent to him, then he would not have missed Korzybski’s suggested improvement upon Russell’s definition of number, discussed in detail in Chapter XVIII of Science and Sanity and mentioned in various places throughout the book. B. Russell to AK, 1/14/1939. IGS Archives. 

12. Russell 1919, p. 205. 

13. Philosopher Bryan Magee who got to know Russell toward the end of the great mathematical philosopher’s life, called him a genius for theory who “treated practical problems as if they were theoretical problems. In fact I do not think he could tell the difference.” Magee 1999 (1997), p. 210. 

14. AK to Russell, 7/27/1946. IGS Archives. 

15. B. Russell to AK, 8/9/[1946] IGS Archives. 

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