Sunday, November 30, 2014

Chapter 31 - "The Tragedy Of My Work": Part 2 - On the Borderland

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.

There were other parts of ‘the tragedy of his work’. A significant part of the ‘tragedy’ lay in the very nature of the work itself. Starting from the notion of time-binding, he had staked out a limited, if broad, territory to study—the structure of human knowledge in relation to behavior. Moving epistemology from speculative philosophy into the realm of science, he had forthrightly outlined what the sciences and mathematics of the 1920s could contribute to the inquiry—knowledge about knowledge—and had sought to make it practical as well. His interdisciplinary discipline (the word “interdisciplinary” hadn’t been invented yet) (5), on the borderland between philosophy and many specific sciences, had no established name. He had given up “human engineering” and didn’t really like the term “humanology”. There were certainly no academic departments in it. And he hadn’t found any other “humanologists”. The people he considered scientific peers were not peers in his specific work. Who else in the mid-1920s was trying to make a methodological synthesis of the sciences of the time in order to establish an empirically up-to-date and applied epistemology as a foundation for a science of man? 

Psychiatry, the medical study of abnormal psychology, was important for this program. That’s why he had gone to St. Elizabeths. While there, he had solidified the link he had seen between the behavior of mathematicians and scientists when working at their best, and the so-called ‘insane’—extremes of behavior that many found odd to consider together.

Analysis of the methods and language used by each group had further exposed a partially hidden system of orientation that with few exceptions seemed to dominate the ‘thinking’ of mankind. Korzybski called it “aristotelianism”. This orientation of ‘aristotelian’ assumptions actually preceded Aristotle and involved various forms of confusion of orders of abstraction. The logic of Aristotle and his followers, when taken as expressing self-evident laws of thought and existence, simply formalized these assumptions. The assumptions had thereby become even more bound up as a system into the unconscious everyday speech/behavior patterns of most people, including scientists and mathematicians. Alfred was attempting to replace the aristotelian system (not the logic) with a more general alternative orientation—a new structure, a non-aristotelian system—that kept what remained useful of the old. Good luck!

Admittedly, every significant advance in the special sciences seemed to be moving in a non-aristotelian direction. But efforts in the various sciences remained mostly scattered. So although much of what Alfred had to say could be viewed as “old stuff”, what he considered original about his work was his effort to coordinate the scattered pieces of knowledge into an applied system. He had presented a program for a radically new vision for the sciences and life. He hoped it could help remove aristotelian blockages and accelerate advances in human knowledge and well-being. But if he was going to get other people to sign onto his program—other scientists in particular—he was going to have to flesh out his system in much more detail. Another part of the ‘tragedy’.

He already had too much material, and more was rolling in every day: for example, the newest work in quantum mechanics. He was going to have to make sure he grasped it all well enough to show how it touched his concerns. Until the book was published, he would often lament to his closest friends that he had tackled a job that seemed beyond the strength, brain, and knowledge of a single man.

He did feel most grateful to the mathematicians and scientists who had so far been willing to comment upon and criticize the parts of his writing that touched on their areas of expertise. As he continued to work on the book, he would depend even more on such expert peer review to make sure the material he used for his synthesis was up-to-date and accurate. What would continue to disappointed him was how few of these scientists and mathematicians seemed willing to commit themselves to express much of an overall opinion about his synthesis, let alone embrace his program. Nonetheless, he could understand. How could he blame anyone for not wanting to explore this scientific-philosophical borderland with him, along unfamiliar paths that had lots of ‘thorns’ and ‘prickles’? In the meantime, as a pioneer borderland explorer, he risked the possibility that both philosophers and scientists might just consider him an illegitimate interloper into their well-fenced, established domains.

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. Websters, p. 630. 

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