Friday, November 21, 2014

Chapter 30 - Saint Elizabeths: Part 3 - The 'Logic' of 'Insanity'

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.

Soon after Alfred arrived at Government Hospital for the Insane, he met the doctor who ran the women’s department—a friend of Dr. White. She was interested in having Alfred study the women confined in the hospital. He wanted to study them too since he felt curious about differences between disturbances in men and women. Each unit of the hospital typically had a room where he could read patients’ charts and then have conversations with them. Any female patient he intended to interview was accompanied by a female nurse acting as a chaperone, as much for his sake as the patient’s. He soon confirmed the wisdom of this precaution:
It was impossible. Perfectly impossible. What can you do with a patient, for instance, the first thing they do…they hold up their skirt. Immediately. What to do. You can do nothing about that. Of course, I was always with a nurse, and the nurse pulled the skirt down. That’s not a solution. How can I talk with a patient who behaves that way? (14)
As a result, Alfred decided he was not going to have private interviews with female patients at St. Elizabeths.

Of course, he knew he also had to be careful with the male patients for reasons of his physical safety. When he went into a room to have a conversation with a psychotic man, he would have a guard nearby. In addition, as an experienced ex-fencer, he remained acutely aware of body language and the distance between himself and whomever he was talking with. He knew there could be a great element of unpredictability in a patient’s reactions, even to the most innocent-seeming remarks or gestures. Surprises could happen that he might have to respond to quickly. He would later tell students of his, working with severely disturbed people, to remember to keep their distance.

Alfred had one of his most interesting patient interviews in the St. Elizabeths receiving ward. Alfred got permission to speak with a just-admitted mathematics teacher. The two men talked for a couple of hours; that is, the patient mostly talked and Alfred listened. What fascinated Alfred more than anything else was the sense he’d found his own ‘insane’ double, in whom the mechanism of logical fate seemed clearly evident:
He was so clear-cut about everything he had to say except that he was ‘insane’ and except that everything he said had nothing to do with so-called ‘reality’. But his manner, being a mathematician, his exposition to me of his ‘insane’ ideas were a shock to me. I could recognize myself, in my method of representation, in that insane person. (15) 
Alfred was not the first person to see a kind of ‘logic’ in insanity. Clifford Beers, founder of the Mental Hygiene movement in America, had written earlier about a period of his own mental illness:
Most sane people think that no insane person can reason logically. But this is not so. Upon unreasonable premises I made most reasonable deductions, and that at the time when my mind was in its most disturbed condition...During the seven hundred and ninety-eight days of depression I drew countless incorrect deductions. But, such as they were, they were deductions, and essentially the mental process was not other than that which takes place in a well-ordered mind. (16) 
Alfred encountered other patients who confirmed Beers’ point for him. One fellow he met had “grand parole”, permission to freely move around the hospital. As Korzybski later recalled,
[The man appeared]…quite harmless. One year he was Julius Caesar. Another year he was Napoleon, and it was a habit to address him, “Your majesty”…Whenever doctors came to America, they had to visit St. Elizabeths Hospital. It was really, and justly so, a showplace. So a visitor came, and the doctor and I were showing him the place…that fellow [the visitor] came the year before. I did not know that. And he remembered that patient as Napoleon…and he met the same fellow who he remembered, but by this time [the patient] was Julius Caesar. And he said to the patient, “I believe I met you before, your majesty. But you were then Napoleon, now you are Julius Caesar. How come?” You know what the patient said? “Oh yes, this was by my other mother.” 
To Korzybski, this answer seemed “perfectly logical” however out of touch with life facts.(17) Indeed, a detachment from facts and a preference for verbalism seemed starkly evident in just about every hospital resident he saw. There was the patient born in Washington D.C., who had never left the city and who had elaborated a fictional family history based on the word “Washington”. His father ‘became’ governor of Washington state, his brother the mayor of Seattle, and his own place of birth the state of Washington. The word had become the thing for him.

After a short time at the hospital, Alfred refined his notion of the continuum of time-binding, in terms of sanity and logical fate. A mathematician, insofar as he functioned adequately as a mathematician, didn’t accept his premises as true. At best, he only considered them correct. Following up on correct premises, he abided by them—one of the main reasons why mathematics had turned out so useful for science. It allowed theories about the world to be worked out with exactness so testable predictions could be made. The theories could then be revised if necessary. If a person could function that way in the rest of his life—Korzybski didn’t think that most mathematicians or scientists necessarily did—he could be considered well-adjusted or sane. An ‘insane’ person believed in foolish premises and abided by them with absolute conviction resulting in little or no revision and poor adaptation to life. (Alfred thought this might explain why some extremely fine mathematicians could go insane—they could carry out the implications of foolish premises better than just about anyone else.) A so-called ‘normal’ person might accept foolish premises as true but often didn’t abide by them. This led to better, though in the long run inadequate, adaptation to life.(18)

After more psychiatrists knew about Alfred’s analysis of behavior in terms of logical fate, confusion of levels of abstraction, etc., he got used to hearing the criticism that “Korzybski fancies that a human being is a piece of euclidean geometry.” Alfred sometimes replied, with tongue only partly in cheek, that “It is even worse than euclidean geometry.” At St. Elizabeths he saw patients acting “like automatons, following their delusions…their premises… and they walk[ed] and react[ed] like automatons. We do the same thing except that we [so-called ‘normals’] are slightly more flexible. The mechanism is the same.”(19)  

On one hand it seemed hopeful to see sanity as a continuum varying as a matter of degrees among individuals. Perhaps it was possible—even with some institutionalized patients—to use the methods Alfred was developing to help people become aware of and revise their faulty premises. In this way, they could move, if only a little further, along the road to greater sanity. On the other hand, it could seem disquieting to consider sanity as a relative quality. Who then could be considered completely sane? Many so-called ‘normal’ people certainly didn’t seem to be moving along the road to greater sanity. Indeed, Alfred had seen many ‘automatons’ not confined to mental hospitals. Out on the streets and in their homes; working in offices, universities, government departments; leading governments; etc., they followed their delusional premises and conveyed them—sometimes with verve and great skill—to others.

Sometime in the next few years, Philip Graven would supply Alfred with a word for the vast middle group of so-called ‘normal’ people—the “un-sane”. Alfred eventually concluded that most of us could be considered un-sane to some degree. Sanity, adequate adjustment to life facts (which included one’s own potential), seemed like an art that required taking unceasing aim at a perpetually moving target. But it was important to aim. If science and mathematics, as forms of human behavior and language, provided superior means for adjustment to facts, then why couldn’t they be generalized to help aim oneself towards greater sanity? Korzybski didn’t expect that his connecting of “physico-mathematical methods” to psychiatry would make his next book popular. Either subject area could put off a huge portion of potential readers. Linked together, the two subjects seemed likely to drive off even more. So be it. The more patients he saw, the clearer the connection became for him.

For example, by 1925 a mental status examination had become a standard part of the hospital admitting procedure. Not uncommonly, some severely disturbed people had trouble answering questions like, “What is your name?”, “Who are you?”, “Where are you?”, or “What day is today?” A patient might not be able to recall his name, or not know the exact city, place, day or even year. Instead he might provide vague generalities as answers. The doctor might write in the chart, “Disoriented in space and time” (Alfred would say “space-time”). Korzybski saw that, in a less obvious way, an un-sanely behaving ‘normal’ might also have some form of space-time disorientation which led him or her to confuse orders of abstraction: one individual/situation at one time and place incompletely specified would get mixed-up with another individual/situation or with itself at another time and place. How many kinds of ‘normal’ disturbances and misevaluations involved some such form of space-time disorientation?

In relativity physics, an event was not adequately specified until its space-time coordinates were given and the observational frame of reference noted. This physico-mathematical technique based on space-time ordering could be applied to life. Alfred might have remembered his own jumpiness after he first arrived in New York at the end of 1915. He had felt tension as if he was expecting artillery shells to burst near his hotel room. He had ‘cured’ himself by reminding himself that his hotel room in New York City in December 1915 was not an Eastern Front battlefield in 1914.

Korzybski’s advocacy of physico-mathematical methods may have seemed novel to psychiatrists, but his view on sanity as a continuum was not at odds with psychiatric thinking—at least the thinking of some of the psychiatrists he met while at St. Elizabeths. One of them was Harry Stack Sullivan, a brilliant but temperamental doctor, who had worked at St. Elizabeths several years before and had then moved to the Shepherd and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore. Sullivan had written a recent paper on the “Peculiarity of Thought in Schizophrenia” and had attended Korzybski’s June lecture with interest. The two men exchanged papers and began to correspond. Sullivan, relatively untrammeled by the growing orthodoxy of Freudian psychoanalysis, went on in the 1930s and 1940s to develop “interpersonal psychotherapy”, one of the first of the non-psychoanalytic forms of psychotherapy in America.

Sullivan became known for his “one genus postulate”, first stated in print in 1938: “We are all much more simply human than otherwise.” Sullivan’s postulate emphasized that, ...all the things observed in the persons whom we call psychiatrically ill are present to lesser extents in the persons whom we call emotionally healthy.”(20) As far back as 1917, Dr. White had likewise noted that, “Because of the preponderance of similarities between ourselves and others we must be prepared to see ourselves in those others, to look in the phenomena we are studying for reflections of ourselves.”(21) In 1933, he stated his own “one-genus postulate” in the clearest of terms: “The difference between the so-called insane person or the criminal on the one hand and the so-called sane or normal person on the other is only a difference in quantity, a difference in the strength or weakness and the balanced relations of the various tendencies and stimuli with which he has to deal.”(22) Korzybski would probably have added, ‘and what a difference even a little difference can sometimes make’.

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. Korzybski 1947, p. 237. 

15. Korzybski 1949 (“1948-1949 Holiday Seminar”), p. 111. 

16. Beers, p. 54. 

17. Korzybski 1947, p. 240-–241.

18. AK to C. J. Keyser, 7/11/1925. AKDA 16.638. 

19. Korzybski 1949 (“1948-1949 Holiday Seminar”), p. 2.

20. Chapman, pp. 140-141. 

21. W. A. White 1917, p. 30. 

22. Qtd. in Perry, p. 184, from W. A. White, Crimes and Criminals (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1933), p. 31. 

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