Thursday, November 13, 2014

Chapter 28 - Advancing Human Engineering: Part 3 - Time-Binding: The General Theory

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.

Alfred replied immediately to the invitation to the International Mathematical Congress in Toronto. He would present one substantial paper and began working on it at once. Since this would be his first-ever presentation at an official scientific forum, he especially wanted to have maximum impact. Although he had been struggling with the book, what he had already outlined and written for it provided what he would submit for the August Congress. His immediate goal was to organize this material into suitable shape and send his abstract to the conference organizers as soon as possible. Here is the abstract he sent on June 5 (14):  
Korzybski, A.: Time-Binding: The General Theory.
Dependence of human knowledge on the properties of light and sound (speech). Importance of correct symbolism and its conditions.“Organism as a whole” and “joint phenomenon”—two fundamental principles. Applications. The Anthropometer. The mechanism of time-binding. Confusion of types and orders. The problem of meaning, its solution. Geometrical structure of all human knowledge. Consequences. Theory of universal agreement. Its effect upon educational and scientific methods and the revision of doctrines in general. The connection between correct symbolism, postulational methods, “Doctrinal Function” (Keyser), and modern physico-mathematical developments. Deductive “natural” and “social” sciences. The deductive sciences of Man. (15) 

Alfred left for the Midwest a few days later, first stopping in Urbana where he spent a couple of days with Carmichael to talk about Library of Human Engineering business. He arrived in Chicago on June 10. He and Mira hadn’t seen each other for more than three months. She was finishing up her work in Chicago; he would help her wrap up her business and get things packed. In addition, he would contact some noteworthy and influential people interested in his work, whom Mira had met. Among those eager to meet him was George Lytton, Vice President and Manager of Henry C. Lytton and Sons, a major clothing store in Chicago. The Lytton Building, also known as “the Hub” had become a Chicago landmark. While in Chicago, Mira and Alfred socialized with Lytton, his wife, and G.H. Sturtevant, a friend of Lytton, associated with a large building supplies firm in Chicago. Lytton and Sturtevant were so taken with Korzybski’s ideas, they got together to pay for a special suitcase/trunk for Alfred’s deluxe display Anthropometer.(16) Unfortunately, Lytton died unexpectedly in 1933 and so was unable to help Alfred later on when he needed financial backing for his work.

Mira also helped arrange a talk Alfred gave to the University of Chicago Philosophy Club on June 18. The president of the club, graduate student Charles W. Morris, would go on to become well known in American philosophy as one of the founders of semiotics, the theory of signs. He had liked Manhood of Humanity and continued to have good things to say about Korzybski later on in his career. Alfred invited his friend E. T. Bell to attend the lecture. Bell, then a University of Washington mathematician, was teaching in Chicago for the summer. Bell had gotten his PhD at Columbia under Keyser, had been impressed with Manhood of Humanity when it first came out, and had been corresponding with Korzybski for about a year and a half. This was the first face-to-face meeting for the two friends. Also attending Alfred’s talk was the Harvard logician, C. I. Lewis, with whom Alfred would continue to correspond.

Alfred’s and Mira’s time together in Chicago was darkened by their worry over the fate of their dear friend Keyser. Keyser, whose health had been iffy for some time, sent Alfred and Mira a brief note saying he was having abdominal surgery on June 16. Alfred had already lost one close mentor, Jacques Loeb, earlier in the year, which may have increased his anxiety since he and Mira were even closer to both Doctor and Mrs. Keyser. When the date came, they telegrammed Mrs. Keyser and the hospital to express their best wishes and check on Keyser’s status. Keyser would experience a siege of medical troubles over the next two months including a blood clot in his leg and a second abdominal surgery. Having a rather hearty constitution, he survived but would require a rather long convalescence. One thing for sure, he wouldn’t be going to the Toronto conference with Alfred.(17) Primarily because they wanted see the Keysers, Alfred and Mira felt anxious to get back to New York City and left Chicago the last week in June.

Alfred and Mira had a month to get ready for the Mathematical Congress, which they planned to attend together. After that, their plans were unclear. If he could get the book completed quickly enough, they had a chance to get to Poland reasonably soon. Meanwhile, Alfred put the finishing touches on his paper and hired a printer to print 1000 copies in the form of a 40 page booklet with a cover. He wanted a few hundred to distribute at the Congress. In addition, even though he paid for the printing himself, he got Macrae’s permission to put Dutton’s imprint on the title page. Dutton agree to keep a few copies in stock on sale for $2.00, an exorbitant price, which Alfred felt would discourage sales but still keep something available for purchase by the scientifically interested until his book came out. Alfred also had enough copies left over to send to those whom he wanted to have it. He had previously applied for a copyright for the diagram of the Anthropometer and he made sure to copyright the booklet which, with the patent he hoped to be granted soon, would confirm the Anthropometer as his intellectual property.

As he said later, if he had died immediately after writing his 1924 paper, discerning readers could find in it the rough skeleton of his entire work. Time-Binding: The General Theory [1924] began with a bold statement: “ALL HUMAN knowledge is conditioned and limited, at present, by the properties of light and human symbolism.”(18) Alfred’s “inquiry into the structure of human knowledge and symbolism”(19) introduced the Anthropometer to the world and also provided some fresh formulating about logical destiny. One of the main points he sought to get across: “...all human knowledge is geometrical [mathematical or postulational] in structure...”(20), involving undefined terms (postulates), “theorums” (vocabulary), and metaphysics. Thus, every word contained a world. Once one got down to the level of undefined terms, the basic philosophy or ‘metaphysics of the maker of the vocabulary’ would be revealed. In everyday life, most of us were ‘slaves’ to the makers of our vocabularies, while the power to examine ones assumptions and revise them (the postulational attitude) provided a way to master one’s logical destiny:
He who accepts uncritically the vocabulary made by X, accepts unwillingly and unbeknowingly X’s metaphysics. This fact is of very great importance. If we accept the vocabulary made by X and the metaphysics made by Y, we are lost in inconsistency, the world is an ugly mess, unknown and unknowable. (21)
Korzybski’s treatment of mathematics as a language and a form of human behavior had led him to make a startling connection of his work with psychiatry, which he now ventured to put in print. Issues of scientific controversy, personal problems and unhappiness, and even insanity showed a single mechanism at work:
The geometrical structure of human knowledge shows that man is extremely logical, if we grant him his conscious and unconscious premises (language). Whoever has any doubts about all of the mentioned issues should visit an asylum, where he would see the working of this general theory in its nakedness. In daily life and in semi-insane cases the issues are veiled by customs, habits, overlapping vocabularies, and other doctrinal complications. It is known that “insane” people are extremely logical. In many instances “insanity”is cured by making the unconscious premises conscious. (22)
Having by this time read a great deal in the psychiatric literature and having made some initial forays into preventive education with the Anthropometer, Alfred felt confident enough to make the following claim:
Psychiatry, as yet, has no preventive methods. The Anthropometer is such a preventive educational method against many cases of insanity and different unbalanced states, due to inherited or inhibited false doctrines. (23)
Alfred’s forays into preventive education had so far included work using the Anthropometer with himself, with friends like the Fairchilds and Roy Haywood discussing personal problems (nothing very heavy), and with someone he had encountered earlier in the year. A wealthy woman in Chicago who had read Manhood of Humanity several times, had gone out of her way to find Mira when she learned Korzybski’s wife was in town. The woman became fascinated by Mira’s discussion of the Anthropometer and came to New York City specifically to see Alfred and learn more about it. In deference to Mira, Alfred agreed to meet the woman. They met three times, once at a tea party, once for a personal interview with Alfred where he explained the Anthropometer to her in greater detail, then in an extraordinary final session where the lady unburdened herself to Alfred with her story of personal tragedy and unhappy family life. When the woman returned to Chicago she saw Mira, told her about the meetings with Alfred and, as Mira wrote to Alfred, reported “a complete solution of her troubles in the ‘bug’, and that her whole life has been adjusted.”(24)  

The implications of his work seemed wide-ranging and startling. It was also clear the paper was going to ‘turn off’ some readers who could easily object to the torrent of formulations relating areas which many, if not most, people hadn’t previously seen as related—such as mathematics and psychiatry. The content was certainly not conventional. But there was nothing Alfred could do about that. Alfred felt convinced that “Man is ultimately a doctrinal being. Even our language has its silent doctrines, and no activity of man is free from some doctrines, so that the kind of metaphysics a man has, is not of indifference to his world outlook and his behavior.”(25)  If so, then the examination of doctrines and their connection with human behavior, which Alfred was engaged in, would involve every field of human endeavor, mathematics and psychiatry included. Indeed, those fields would be able to ‘throw light’ on each other.

The Anthropometer showed that human beings constituted “a knowing class of life”. For Korzybski, this appeared a matter of urgency:
A “knowing class of life” begins with “knowing,” therefore scientific method and science is not a luxury for the privileged few; it is the very thing which differentiates “Smith’s” “thinking” from Fido’s “thinking.” The consciousness of abstracting which is so fundamental for man, is the awareness of a faculty, and in this special case we can use this faculty only when we are aware that we have it. (26) 
For Korzybski, the “scientific temper” consisted first and foremost in the ability to examine and revise one’s doctrines when necessary. With the greatest urgency, he felt his work had the potential to bring the scientific temper to the masses.

His urgency about “universal agreement” may have gotten Alfred into trouble. The dream of universal agreement had long figured in his formulating and he gave it special prominence in this paper. Indeed, around this time he submitted a version of the paper to a essay contest on world peace with the title “Universal Agreement: The General Theory”. For a long time before 1924, and for a significant time afterwards, Alfred seemed convinced universal peace was possible, if universal agreement could be achieved. Universal agreement in turn depended on rigorous demonstration, definition, and correct symbolism—provided for by his theory.

Alfred’s emphasis on universality was not surprising given his view of knowledge. Although he was calling himself a “relativist” in 1924, he was not a relativist in the way many people understood and still understand that term. He emphasized the relativity of all observers in the abstracting process as a necessary starting point in the quest for invariant formulations true for all observers.(27) Universal agreement would be the necessary end point (the limit) of an indefinite process of scientific inquiry. And because Korzybski accepted the notion—going back at least to Socrates—that “wisdom carries its ethics with it”(28), universal peace would tend to follow.

The conclusion teetered on sloppy symbolism. ‘Agreement’ constituted one of the verbal variables Korzybski had written about. The term needed to be defined and specified according to time and place. Perhaps okay as an ideal, universal agreement otherwise smacked of absolutism—an illegitimate totality. Alfred’s discussion of it put off some people who otherwise might have sympathized with his work.

For example, Korzybski had sent British physicist and philosopher of science Norman Campbell a copy of the Time-Binding booklet and Campbell wrote back early the following year. While Campbell was interested in Korzybski’s work, he strongly disagreed about the possibility of universal agreement, except in what he called “the subject matter of science.” In other areas of life, i.e. art, politics, religion, etc., agreement to disagree seemed to Campbell the best result possible.(29)

Alfred’s hazy discussion of universal agreement had not helped to get Campbell’s agreement. Yet Alfred would continue to write about “universal agreement” for some time, mentioning it in two places in Science and Sanity in 1933, even though it didn’t figure there as a significant part of his system. Gradually, his usage of it dwindled during the 1930s, and in the last decade of his life and work, he avoided using the terms “universal” and “agreement” together in his writings. Surely his work on logical destiny and abstracting indicated some of the main sources of human disagreement and provided methods people could apply to increase the likelihood of sometimes coming to an agreement about a specific issue at a particular time and place. But as the Nazi and Communist menaces became clearer in the 1930s and 1940s, Korzybski seemed to agree that universal agreement at a given date (unless it was agreement to disagree) might be neither necessary nor desirable.

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. 
14. AK to John L. Synge, 6/5/1924. AKDA 15.157.

15. Qtd. in Abstracts, the International Mathematical Congress, Toronto, Canada, Aug. 11-16, 1924. AKDA 3.247 

16. AK to R.E. Sturtevant, 8/2/1924. AKDA 15.283. 

17. AK to R.D.Carmichael, 8/3/1924. AKDA 15.287. 

18. “Time-Binding: The General Theory (First Paper)” in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 59. 19. Ibid. 

20. Ibid., p. 74. 21. Ibid., p. 75. Interestingly, Korzybski’s emphasis in this paper on what he called “undefined terms” was later taken up by J.L. Synge, the secretary of the Mathematics Congress, who saw Korzybski’s paper, and may have attended his talk. Synge, who had a long and distinguished career afterwards as an applied mathematician, invented a game called “Vish” based on the ‘vicious circle’ which results from attempting to define every term one uses. Eventually as Korzybski pointed out you will reach the level of undefined terms, where the words start ‘doubling back’ on themselves. As Synge put it “In defining some word [with other words], you are bound to use a word whose final definition you are seeking.” [J. L. Synge, Science: Sense and Nonsense, p. 23] 

22. “Time-Binding: The General Theory (First Paper)” in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 75-76. 

23. Ibid., p. 76. 

24. AK to R.D.Carmichael, 5/3/1924. AKDA 13.751. 

25. “Time-Binding: The General Theory (First Paper)” in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 77. 

26. Ibid., p. 72. 

27. AK to T. Percy Nunn, 8/27/1924. AKDA 15.378. 

28. AK Notebooks circa 1920. AKDA 37.774. 

29. Norman Campbell wrote to Korzybski:
…I was much interested in your work, and your main ideas are certainly striking and original. But I fear I am rather a sceptic of very wide-sweeping generalizations and am not quite the right person to appreciate their value fully. It seems to me in particular that your conception of “universal agreement” is radically different from mine. I think that universal agreement is possible in only a very narrow range of human affairs, those namely which form the subject matter of science. Outside that range, in everything which concerns art or politics or religion or indeed the daily life of mankind, I am much more impressed by the diversity than the similarity of human nature. It seems to me that the solution of human antagonisms (which are the source of most of the evils of this world) will come when it is recognized that on very many things we must agree to differ and come to some practical compromise on our differences. An attempt to discover laws in what is essentially irregular is, in my opinion, the main fallacy in most philosophies. I fear therefore that though I shall always read your writings with interest and enjoyment, we can neither of us look to the other for support in our particular outlook.” [Norman R. Campbell to AK, 2/14/25. AKDA 17.78.] 

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