Monday, January 12, 2015

Chapter 41 - What Had Alfred Wrought?: Part 3 - "Nothing So Practical"

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.

Korzybski accepted what psychologist Kurt Lewin would later write: “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”(7) From the time that he had called his work “human engineering”, he had aimed it towards practicality. His general theory of evaluation (“general semantics”), as the “modus operandi” of the non-aristotelian system, provided an applied epistemology, a generalized practical method for dealing with problems in science and life. 

"Human Engineering"
Some people seemed to conclude that Korzybski’s reach had exceeded his grasp. While writing the book he had often wondered so himself—one of the reasons he had sought out some of the best mathematicians and scientists of the day to critique what he had written. He had certainly taken on an ambitious project. Abstracting through the ‘lenses’ of “time-binding”, “abstracting”, etc., he had formulated one very simple and very general mechanism—“identification”—behind “the quarrels between two lovers, two mathematicians, two nations, two economic systems ., [etc.,]”(8), and a general method for dealing with them.

Leibniz, in expressing his dreams of ‘universal agreement’, etc., had imagined the possibility of somehow algebraizing ‘thought’: with a ‘perfect’ language, involving some kind of impersonal, formulaic, and step-by-step procedure (an algorithm), people could sit down and say “Let us calculate” in order to settle a dispute or work out a problem. But Korzybski, in pursuit of Leibniz’s dreams, had produced something different.

Rather than a ‘logical’ algorithm, the ‘methods’ he produced that embodied his theory (involving the Structural Differential and other techniques and devices) seemed closer to a set of psycho-logical heuristics—behavioral guidelines to get more extensional and to reach agreement with others at a particular time and place. Even in mathematics, you couldn’t have a ‘perfect language’—at least one inherently free of all ambiguity—as Leibniz seemed to suggest. Considering any language as a joint product of abstracting human nervous systems, each individual would inevitably abstract differently and give different values to words and other symbols. Even in mathematics, agreement had to be worked at by people in a given context.(9) Korzybski’s approach to agreement and method—non-formulaic and personal—reflected this.

To follow his heuristic approach, you would have to internalize a set of standards and use them to self-reflexively inquire into your own reactions (linguistic or not) and those of others—i.e., ‘put them up’ on the Structural Differential. From there, new possibilities could emerge for modifying your reactions and adjusting to the reactions of others.

Despite the fact that Korzybski would sometimes describe his work in terms of ‘mathematical’, ‘physico-mathematical’, or ‘scientific’ method, he wasn’t teaching mathematics or science per se. (Perhaps talking about a generalized scientific attitude or approach might have seemed clearer.) What he taught boiled down to an extensional orientation or attitude, how to habitually orient yourself towards ‘facts’. It wasn’t limited to mathematicians and scientists although perhaps they demonstrated aspects of it especially clearly when working at their best. At any rate, with his system and methodology he believed an extensional attitude no longer had to be ‘caught’ by means of haphazard, unconscious learning. It could be taught. He liked to joke that as a very unreasonable fellow he felt educators should be educated and ‘scientists’ should actually behave scientifically. An extensional orientation, learned explicitly, could even help ‘scientists’ behave more ‘scientifically’ in their work. And a ‘scientist’ no longer had an excuse for compartmentalizing himself, leaving extensional behavior in his laboratory or office when he hung up his white coat and became a ‘man in the street’. In this sense of ‘scientific method’, scientists and ordinary people could learn to apply it in their daily lives.(9a)

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. 
7. Lewin 1951, p. 169. 

8. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 761.

9. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 134.

9a. Perhaps "engineering method" might serve as a less misleading label than "scientific method" for Korzybski's ultimately practical methodology. 

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