Saturday, November 22, 2014

Chapter 30 - Saint Elizabeths: Part 4 - "What Is Reality?"

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.

His association with White at St. Elizabeths became probably the most important professional relationship Korzybski had—other than the one he had with Cassius Keyser. As with Keyser, Alfred held White in the highest esteem, considering him “extremely brilliant, very [well] read, very creative, very human, very warm, and very much interested in the future of psychiatry altogether.”(23) A busy man, he spent a great deal of his time in his office. Although he saw patients, he had delegated most of their care to his trusted assistant, Nolan D.C. Lewis. Not only was he administering St. Elizabeths, he was editing a journal and a monograph series, and researching and writing articles and books. During this period he also served as President of the American Psychiatric Association (1924-25) and acted as a professional consultant in criminal trials.
William Alanson White

Despite his busyness, White found time to spend with Korzybski. White guided Alfred in his first-hand study of psychiatry and in his theoretical studies of psycho-biological mechanisms. In turn, White—who had had earlier difficulties with physics and mathematics in school—recognized a need to learn from Korzybski the methodological underpinnings of the latest scientific advances. Korzybski recalled:
…we spent endless hours and he was actually tutoring me in psychiatry…I was reading endlessly psychiatric books. They had a large library in the hospital. It was at my disposal. So I was reading, reading. Once I was there I made good. And I was teaching --him [White] physico-mathematical stuff. I was teaching him what I knew and he was teaching me what he knew. So we were a beautiful team in this sense. (24) 

In White, Korzybski recognized a ‘natural’—an individual who, in many ways, professionally and personally, already exemplified the orientation he was trying to make more explicit in his writing. Korzybski could not have had a better teacher or student. Later on, he acknowledged his debt to White in Science and Sanity. In some of his later writings, White acknowledged Korzybski’s influence upon him (see the paper “The Language of Schizophrenia”, extensively quoted in Science and Sanity, pp. 185-187). Although it does not reference Korzybski, White’s 1936 book Twentieth Century Psychiatry, published one year before his death, applied a physico-mathematical perspective to psychiatry and seems permeated by Korzybski’s intellectual influence.

An excellent judge of men, White knew that Korzybski had many talents. As an effective administrator who knew how to delegate, White soon found a way to make official use of some of them—despite Korzybski’s indeterminate status at the hospital. Korzybski reported:
…[Dr. and Mrs. White] had all the time little receptions, guests from all over the world, important psychiatrists, neurologists, etc., visiting the hospital and of course, White was making little luncheons and what not. White didn’t speak any languages [except English] so usually when there was any party Mira [who had become friendly with Mrs. White] and I were not only invited but we had to take care of the guests. Mira took care of helping Mrs. White when we had plenty of people at a party in the evening, sandwiches, etc., someone has to supervise and the same with those foreign doctors, I had to just make the honors of the house. Of course, it was very pleasant, very flattering, etc., so our relationship was very, very warm and we spent endless hours in their home or they came to our home, or in his office we were talking shop,…(25) 

White allowed Korzybski to sit in at staff meetings when patient’s cases were discussed. Alfred recalled:
I attended practically every day what they call the staff conference. …They brought a patient and a given doctor who was in care of this case, reported on the case, said this case should have grand parole [permission to move around the hospital freely], should or should not be released, in front of the patient, or without the patient. Then the patient was shown, the presiding doctor asking questions, and then the conference decided what to do with the patient. This was standard routine and was very, very instructive for me. (26) 

At St. Elizabeths, Alfred also attended regular Washington Psychopathological Society meetings, over which Dr. White presided. (As a joke, they called themselves “the psychopaths”.) Psychiatrists came from all over the Washington-Baltimore area. Someone would present a paper and a discussion would follow. Chairman White would often ask Harry Stack Sullivan to criticize the paper—something Sullivan was perhaps too good at doing. According to one biographer, Sullivan’s “…angry comments, sarcasm, and scorching criticism of colleagues and students became legendary.”(27) Alfred observed such behavior at the meetings. Once a paper had been ‘torn apart’ by Sullivan, White would often ask Alfred ‘to put it together again’.

At one meeting, the psychiatrist who ran the women’s department at St. Elizabeths presented a paper dealing with one of the main problems of psychiatry—also at the heart of Korzybski’s work—the issue of adjustment to ‘fact’ and ‘reality’. After her presentation, Sullivan picked and tore away at it much too harshly from Korzybski’s point of view. The doctor, who by this time had burst into tears, exclaimed, “My god, if somebody could tell me what a fact or reality is!”At that point, Korzybski’s turn came ‘to put things together again’. He emphasized that whatever else the terms ‘reality’ and ‘fact’ represented, they existed first as words. Neither term could be given a specific meaning outside of a particular context, which had to include the level of abstraction of a particular statement containing the term. Thus, it was fruitless to get into a general theoretical, even metaphysical, argument of the type Sullivan seemed to be driving the group towards. At least some of people at the meeting probably had some familiarity with the Anthropometer. I can imagine Alfred using it there to help illustrate his point. At any rate, the woman was mollified although Sullivan appeared none too pleased.(28)

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. 
23. Korzybski 1947, p. 255. 

24. Korzybski 1947, pp. 255-256. 

25. Korzybski 1947, p. 255. 

26. Korzybski 1947, p. 244. 

27. Chapman, p. 55. 

28. Korzybski 1949, p. 382-383; Korzybski 1947, pp. 257-258.

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