Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chapter 24 - A Visitor From Mars: Part 1 - Introduction

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 come to the Scripps Institution for Biological Research to confer with its founder and director, veteran biologist William Emerson Ritter. Ritter who had helped start the zoology department at Berkeley had become know for his detailed studies of marine life.(1) Nonetheless, he held a very broad view of biology which emphasized the unity of organisms and their relations to their environments. In the early 1900s he had begun trying to establish a marine biological laboratory somewhere along the California coast. After several attempts to do so, he built a lab in the boathouse of San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado with help from members of the city’s chamber of commerce. He soon ‘struck gold’: two of San Diego’s wealthiest residents, newspaper magnate E. W. Scripps and his older sister Ellen Scripps, provided funds for Ritter to realize his dream to create a multi-disciplinary marine biology station. In 1907, they purchased property in La Jolla, just north of San Diego, and in 1912 the Scripps Institution (in association with the University of California) was born. 
William Emerson Ritter
Ritter and Korzybski had been corresponding since their first meeting that summer in Berkeley. They were both eager for some face-to-face discussions. Ritter had become fascinated with Korzybski’s new approach to the study of Man, especially since he had been working on a book under the tentative title of “The Natural History of Intelligence.” (The book finally was published in 1927 with the title The Natural History of Our Conduct.) Ritter had a philosophical bent and a well-developed consciousness of the role of language in scientific formulating. An article of his in the Journal of Philosophy had been entitled “The Need of a New English Word to Express Relation.” In his book, The Unity of the Organism, he had stressed the need for biologists to go beyond what he called “elementalism,” the study of isolated parts. He believed, “The organism in its totality is as essential to an explanation of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism.”(2)  He called this approach “organismalism.”

Discussions with Korzybski at La Jolla helped Ritter gain more understanding of the relativity revolution in physics and see its broader implications for his holistic approach to biology. In a February 1922 letter to zoologist H. S. Jennings, Ritter noted his gratitude to Korzybski for helping him realize, “...For living nature...the space-time concept will prove finally to be the death of all elementalism, including atomism as this has come down to us from Greek speculation.”(3) Early on in their discussions, Ritter also realized that Korzybski’s insistence on saying “man is not an animal” was not a denial of Darwin but a logical point about a more useful classification of humankind within the biological world. Ritter considered their discussions about time-binding and evolution important enough to encourage Alfred to write an article for Science on the matter, which Alfred began to work on. As an upshot of their talks, Alfred also got Ritter to agree not to call ‘man’ an animal anymore. (Ritter slipped in subsequent writings, however.)

Alfred was also learning from Ritter. One of the main things was the new term “elementalism”—which became central to his subsequent formulating. Elementalistic terms/formulations treated as isolated and separate what might better be considered as related parts of larger wholes. But Alfred did not like “organismalism” as a term to describe terms/formulations which dealt with wholes and made explicit the relations of elements—the converse of elementalism. The term “organismalism” seemed too tied to biology. (Alfred would later come up with the term “non-elementalism,” which seemed more general.)
If—as Keyser would later write—“to be is to be related,”(4) then there existed a great need for developing a way of speaking that made dealing with relations and wholes more explicit. That was becoming more clear in Alfred’s studies in the foundations of mathematics. As Korzybski put it at this time, the elementalism Ritter talked about seemed associated with the old, Aristotelian, syllogistic logic. Seeing things in terms of mutually exclusive classes formalized the subject-predicate structure of everyday language and could distort an accurate, functional view of how things worked. In regards to understanding Man, the old definition of Man as Animal plus Spirit (M = A + S) seemed to him an example of this. Whatever actual qualities the elementalistic designations of ‘animal’ and ‘spirit’ may have stood for, this “plus,” elementalistic logic surely distorted the unified functioning of a human being. On the other hand, understanding Man as a time-binder, seemed to provide a much more fitting way of talking about Man, which did not break humans into elementalistic parts.

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. 
1. Ritter’s 1893 doctoral dissertation was entitled “On the Eyes, the Integumentary Sense Papillae, and the Integument of the San Diego Blind Fish”. Pauly 2000, p. 291. 

2. W. E. Ritter, The Unity of the Organism, Vol. I, p. 24. 

3. “Now, and particularly in the last year, has come some real, even though slight, understanding of relativity as interpreted by Einstein and its bearings on the problems of living nature. For what I have been able to get from this…I am much indebted to Count Alfred Korzybski, who, as you know, is spending some months with us here.” W.E. Ritter to H.S. Jennings, 2/23/1922. AKDA 6.160. 

4. Keyser 1927, p. 94. 

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