Monday, October 13, 2014

Chapter 24 - A Visitor From Mars: Part 2 - Among the Scientists

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.

Before Alfred had come to Scripps Institute he had had contact with individual scientists and scientific workers like Keyser, Loeb, Polakov, Steinmetz, and Wolf, among others. In San Francisco and Berkeley, the circle had expanded. At La Jolla, he extended his contacts even further throughout the U.S. scientific community. 

Partly, he was reaping the fruits of previous efforts: book publicity, word of mouth from readers of Manhood of Humanity and from people who had attended his lectures (and those of Polakov and Keyser), book reviews, and the large number of contacts and correspondents he had begun to accumulate. Partly, it was also due to his being at La Jolla, a prestigious research center, where he could meet and mingle with the resident and visiting scientists, as a fellow scientific worker. Partly, it was due to the efforts of Ritter himself.

Since the summer, Ritter had been writing enthusiastically about Korzybski to others, including E. W. Scripps who, with his sister, had become one of the great benefactors of early 20th century American science. Although Scripps had hoped to meet Alfred, he had already left the San Diego area for the winter and was yachting off the Florida coast when Alfred arrived. The curmudgeonly Scripps—who referred to himself as a “damned old crank”(5)—had had a long-time interest in “what kind of thing this damned human animal is, anyway.”(6) He read Manhood of Humanity with interest and liked parts of it. In letters to Ritter, he acknowledged the kind of exponential process in human history Korzybski had depicted. But Scripps didn’t allow himself to express too much enthusiasm. Korzybski must be wrong about human beings’ abilities to think rationally since, after all, people could believe in irrational things. As a self-declared pessimist about the human race, he rejected Korzybski’s vision of human potential. (7)

Although Scripps was away, Alfred did meet Scripps’ sister, Ellen. The elderly Miss Scripps seemed charmed enough by Alfred to invite him to speak at the La Jolla Community House in early December. Two months later, Alfred wrote to Keyser, “Miss Scripps had a very bad accident and broke her hip, she is about 80 so the thing is serious, and her brother has come from Florida, we probably will meet him…”(8) However, I have found nothing in Korzybski’s records indicating the two men ever met face to face.

Ritter and E. W. Scripps had been instrumental in founding the Science Service in 1920 in association with the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Scripps provided an endowment and Ritter provided leadership as its President. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Science Service initially published a bulletin providing science stories to subscribing newspapers. When Korzybski arrived in La Jolla, they were getting ready to start the Science Service News-Letter, a science journal for general readers, finally launched in March 1922 and still in print as Science News.(9) 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the new director of the Science Service, polymathic chemist and writer Edwin E. Slossen, soon became interested in Korzybski’s work. Slossen worked for a literary journal The Independent and The Weekly Review and in an article, published in the February 25, 1922 edition of that magazine, he wrote a respectful review of Manhood, “Is There a Law of Human Progress?: Speculations on the Acceleration of Scientific Knowledge.”(10) 
E. E. Slossen and wife May Slossen, 1927

As a result of such writings as well as Ritter’s and others’ communications about him, Alfred’s name was becoming more widely known among scientists. For example, L. O. Howard, an entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the President of the AAAS, mentioned Korzybski’s work at the Association’s conference in his end-of-year presidential address which was published in the December 30 issue of Science. Korzybski felt most grateful for Howard’s complementary words and began corresponding with him.

Alfred was also making connections locally around La Jolla. He was meeting and talking with the resident scientists at Scripps soon after his arrival. He also gave a lecture there within the first few weeks. Some no doubt were puzzled by his presence. Others found him a positive stimulus. Alfred became especially friendly with George McEwen, a physicist and applied mathematician, who had been recruited by Ritter a number of years before and who at the time was researching ocean currents. He had a long subsequent career at Scripps Institute and the University of California as a professor of physical oceanography. Something in Korzybski’s (and Keyser’s) approach to mathematics resonated with him and after Keyser’s book came out in 1922, McEwen collaborated with Alfred in an effort to write a joint review of it for Science.

With its growing reputation, Scripps Institute had an influx of scientific visitors during Alfred’s time there. One of these was University of Chicago developmental biologist Charles M. Childs. After meeting Childs at La Jolla, Alfred studied his books and corresponded with him for a number of years, later acknowledging the great influence Childs’ work had on him. To Alfred, Childs expressed a sensibility in his language— as did Loeb, Einstein, and others—with a consciousness of relations (avoiding elementalistic splits), characteristic of the time-binding attitude Alfred was trying to understand and make more explicit.

Along this line, his exposure to Childs’ work enhanced his awareness of the biological aspects of time-binding: we ‘think’ with the whole of our beings as organisms. In his letters, Alfred was beginning to refer to his own approach towards mathematics as physiological. Dealing explicitly with mathematics, and other forms of time-binding, as physiological, i.e., the behavior of organisms with nervous systems, may have struck some people as weird. But Korzybski would only increase his insistence on the importance of realizing that ‘thinking’ does not occur in a timeless, fleshless void. If relativity had abolished infinite speeds in physics, then the speed of ‘thought’ was not infinite either. The physiological gradients in primitive organisms that Childs described as time-related processes, appeared as the precursors of more elaborate nervous systems. To Alfred it made perfect sense to try to understand how organisms (including symbol-manipulating humans) gained knowledge of their environments in terms of natural processes. He had already touched on this, especially in the biology appendix of Manhood, and would elaborate it further in his subsequent work.

The time-dependent character of ‘thought’ became clear to Alfred at a gathering he attended at Scripps. Someone there had an I.Q. test that people took as a kind of party-game. Those whom Alfred regarded as the most gifted did the worst on the test. They spent the most time considering the ambiguities of the questions and attempting to understand the possible situations behind the words, and so could not respond as quickly as others with the ‘correct’ answers. ‘Thought’, taken as broadly as possible, clearly was a process. Alfred found it interesting that standard forms of logic and commonplace, even scientific, language seemed to obscure the factor of time as a consideration in thinking about thinking or thinking about anything else for that matter. In his copy of George Boole’s The Laws of Thought, he had underlined some telling phrases from the following passage:
It may indeed be said, that in ordinary reasoning we are often quite unconscious of this notion of time involved in the very language we are using. But the remark, however just, only serves to show that we commonly reason by the aid of words and the forms of a well-constructed language, without attending to the ulterior grounds upon which those very forms have been established...(11)  

While resident at the Scripps Institute, Alfred was also meeting people and giving talks in nearby San Diego. During the summer he had exchanged letters with Dr. Edward L. Hardy. Hardy, a scholar of English Literature, teacher, and educational administrator, had become President of the San Diego Normal School in 1910. In 1921, the school was reconfigured as San Diego State Teachers College (it is now known as San Diego State University). Hardy, who remained President there until 1935, became enthusiastic about time-binding after reading Manhood of Humanity. At the end of November, Alfred spoke at a gathering of teachers at Hardy’s home in San Diego. The two men maintained a friendly relationship and correspondence for years afterwards, with Hardy helping Alfred to edit Science and Sanity.

By the end of November, Alfred and Mira had not seen each other for several weeks. In the beginning of December, Alfred went to Los Angeles for a few days to spend some time with her. Mira had been staying at the Ambassador Hotel, but was hoping to make contacts and perhaps find some people whose portraits she could paint in Pasadena. The two attended a dinner with some people from California Institute of Technology (Caltech), including physicist Robert Millikan, Chairman of the Caltech Executive Council (effectively President of the school), and astronomer George Hale. Alfred provided an after-dinner speech and had meetings with both men, who seemed genuinely interested in his work.

Back in San Diego, Alfred delivered two lectures in early December. One was at the monthly meeting of the San Diego Chapter of the American Association of Engineers. A few days later, with Ritter introducing him, he gave the presentation Miss Scripps had invited him to give at the La Jolla Community House. Alfred recognized his audiences liked what he had to say. But neither his lectures nor Mira’s painting commissions were progressing as they wanted. There was a great deal of interest but not much, if any, money. They decided to extend their stay in Southern California a little longer. Mira would try her luck in Pasadena. She relocated to the Vista del Arroyo Hotel there. In January she would come down to stay with Alfred and perhaps find some portrait work among San Diego socialites.

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. 
5. Scripps qtd. in Pauly 2000, pp. 204. 

6. Ibid., p. 206. 

7. “…I am bound to believe that man is mythological (perhaps mystical) and at the same time brutally beast. Thus with a sad heart I am prevented from receiving to myself an offering of hope. Perhaps Korzybski is but another of those dreamers of which his race [the Slavs] has been so prolific.” E. W. Scripps to W. E. Ritter, 8/29/1921. AKDA 6.206. Ritter shared this correspondence with Korzybski. Alfred appeared amused by Scripps’ concern with the question “What is a dollar?” and by Scripps’ efforts to convince Ritter that he (Scripps) had already come up with many of the ideas in Manhood.

8. AK to C.J. Keyser, 2/2/1922. AKDA 8.570. 

9. Pauly 2000, pp. 210-211. See also “Smithsonian Institution Archives, Finding Aids to Personal Papers and Special Collections: Record Unit 7091, Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Historical Note” at (accessed 1/17/2011); now (2014) at

10. Edwin E. Slossen, “Is There a Law of Human Progress?: Speculations on the Acceleration of Scientific Knowledge”. The Independent and Weekly Review, 2/25/1922. AKDA 3.80. [Alfred and Mira later became friends with Slossen, meeting him in person. They corresponded with him until Slossen's death in 1929.]

11. George Boole, p. 173.

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