Monday, January 19, 2015

Chapter 42 - Reviewing Reviews: Part 3 - Some 'Philosophers' Respond

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.

Throughout 1934, Science and Sanity continued to generate much interest. Alfred and Mira were filling the pages of their scrapbook with clippings of new reviews (as well as other articles and materials related to Alfred and his work). Only a few reviews seemed downright dismal. Two of the worst came from one man, Ernest Nagel—a student of John Dewey and a respected Columbia University philosopher of science. In the February issue of The Journal of Philosophy, Nagel panned the book. In a shorter review note for the August 1 New Republic, Nagel wrote “Writing as much as Mr. Korzybski does, he is bound to say good things occasionally. But most of the book consists of irrelevant material taken from mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and psychiatry.” It bothered Korzybski that what Nagel seemed to disagree with were Nagel’s own misrepresentations. How could Nagel have possibly come to the conclusion, as he wrote in the February review, that Korzybski believed “..hypotheses contrary to the fact are meaningless (e.g., p. 168)”? Huh? Such a misleading account of his work could do real harm. How many people would accept Nagel’s judgment and as a result not bother to take Korzybski seriously? Alfred wrote a protest letter to the New Republic, but in the October 24 issue the editor chose instead to print rejoinders to Nagel by Polakov and Robert H. Allen, a journalist whom Alfred knew. In his reply to these, written from Warsaw and published at the end of the year, Nagel wrote: 

...While I respect very highly the men who endorse “Science and Sanity,” I must differ with them in their evaluation of it; moreover, I am not convinced that they have all undergone the same labor with the book that I is my considered opinion that “Science and Sanity” has no merit whatsoever,...16
Perhaps the only serious review rivaling Nagel’s in nastiness was published in the July 21, 1934 Journal of the American Medical Association. Like Nagel, the anonymous reviewer—possibly Morris Fishbein, the Journal’s editor—considered the book worthless. The review began disparagingly, “In spite of its title, this book is neither scientific nor sane; it is merely ponderous.” It continued with various misstatements about the book such as “It is the first volume of a series of books dealing with non-Aristotelian logic” [a fairly common error about Korzybski’s work] and “Since he points out that mental adjustment is a purely linguistic matter [he most definitely had not pointed that out!], the author would seem to be well adjusted, but to the psychiatrist there seems to be little of value in the book.” Korzybski wrote to Fishbein protesting the misrepresentation and prejudicial remarks. Many psychiatrists were finding a great deal of value in his work. The April Psychiatric Quarterly had called Science and Sanity “a source book of ideas and inspiration.” Dr. William A. White, although too busy as usual, had already written a friendly, if superficial, review published in the July issue of Mental Hygiene. (The book would later receive positive reviews in a number of psychiatric journals.) A paper on Korzybski’s work had just been respectfully presented more than a month before at the 90th Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New York City. Other psychiatrists, besides Graven, were becoming students of his work. Fishbein wrote back refusing to make any correction and the two men carried on an unpleasant correspondence until October when Korzybski seems to have given up.

However much he felt irritated about the Nagel and JAMA reviews, Sidney Hook’s more positive treatment of Science and Sanity in the March 10, 1934 Saturday Review of Literature may have bothered him more. He had started to correspond with Hook in the middle of 1933 and had initially seemed willing to consider Hook, a student of Dewey who taught at New York University, as one of those ‘philosophers’ doing valuable work in epistemology. But Hook, though more friendly, treated Korzybski’s work much as Nagel and the JAMA had—as a work of ‘philosophy’ or ‘logic’—and missed its applied, experimental nature. Restating Korzybski’s views in elementalistic, ‘philosophical’ language, Hook distorted them. Like Nagel, he had read the book and continued to ‘hum his own humming’ as Korzybski sometimes characterized poor readers or listeners who jumped to and stuck to their own incorrect conclusions about what a writer or speaker said. Korzybski had repeatedly referred to semantic [evaluational] reactions as non-verbal in nature—psycho-logical, organismal responses to words, symbols, and other events. Korzybski apparently hadn’t repeated this often enough for Hook to get it—for in his review Hook identified semantic reactions with language. Nonetheless, this didn’t stop him from criticizing Korzybski for his “repetitiousness”. Not understanding what Korzybski meant by identification as an organismal response, Hook had no trouble declaring that John Dewey— in his work on ‘logic’—had actually already “worked out” Korzybski’s “fundamental position”. According to Hook, still a Marxist in 1933, “Social and economic problems have no more to do with the interpretation of the law of identity than “the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la.” ”(17) Decently enough, Hook had sent a copy of the review to Korzybski about a month before it was printed. Korzybski quickly wrote back and cordially attempted to correct the misinterpretations. But subsequently, the final published piece gives no indication that Hook re-evaluated what he wrote in response to Korzybski’s suggestions. Writing to Tyler on March 16, Korzybski located part of the problem in Hook’s approach to reading, an approach common to many readers, not only ‘philosophers’:
...Physiological mechanisms require relaxation before they may work, and reading at first critically inhibits responses. I had a real body-blow. Sidney Hook a very gifted, learned, honest, etc., ‘philosopher’ wrote a review of my book for the Saturday Review of Literature, the review is very friendly etc., but...he has missed the whole thing because as a philosopher he starts to read critically, and this inhibits the working. And so it goes. (18) 

Despite Korzybski’s general feelings about academic ‘philosophy’ he was not badly treated by all ‘philosophical’ reviewers. For example, the October 1934 edition of The Personalist had a brief, intelligent overview of the book by H. B. Alexander, a wide-ranging humanist professor who had made forays into lexicography and anthropology and helped found Scripps College, an innovative school for women in Southern California. Alexander commended Korzybski’s “critical language consciousness and conscience” which came “from a ‘semantics’ deeper-set than any verbal contrivance of experience.” Korzybski wrote to him to thank him for the kind review.

Though he didn’t write a review, another ‘philosopher’, Oliver Leslie Reiser became a supporter of Korzybski’s work and helped publicize it at the end of 1934. Reiser had studied and taught both psychology and philosophy at Ohio State University before becoming a professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He seemed ready for Korzybski when they first became acquainted—probably sometime in 1930 after Korzybski read an article by Reiser and sent him a complimentary note. The two men corresponded for several years before the publication of Science and Sanity. In a May 1933 letter to Alfred, whom he addressed as “Count Korzybski” he said “There was a time when I depended [on] the tradition[al] (aristotelian) “laws of thought” (e.g. in my ‘Humanistic Logic’) but in recent years I have moved away from this position.”(18b) Clearly, general semantics had ‘grabbed’ him and he came to see Korzybski as a possible herald of a new era of human ‘thought’.
Oliver L. Reiser 
Korzybski Scrapbook, AKDA 2.735
During those first years of their relationship, Reiser seemed to be emerging consciously as a non-aristotelian epistemologist. While Science and Sanity was being prepared for publication, Reiser agreed to have his name announced as the prospective author of From Primitive Religious To Modern Scientific Structural Assumptions, one of the ‘Volumes In Preparation’ mentioned in Science and Sanity. Over the next year, Reiser studied Science and Sanity, sent Alfred copies of his published papers, and the two men corresponded with more frequency. Korzybski could still see some ‘shades’ of elementalism and identification in Reiser’s formulating. But he respected the 39-year old ‘philosopher’, whom he saw as good non-aristotelian material and bluntly asked Reiser in a June 29, 1934 letter:
Why do you insist in printing all the stuff you have ever written instead of tackling a fundamental analysis of so called ‘fundamentals’ and do some constructive real work? I have read everything you have written and frankly consider that you are a most gifted and informed man for a ‘philosopher’, but why in the Dickens do you bicker with ‘philosophers’ for ‘philosophers’ instead of applying your great gifts and knowledge to human orientations and methods and disregard professional ‘philosophers’ as everybody else does. (19) 

Reiser told Korzybski that he was finding it somewhat difficult to leave behind these trappings of the culture of academic ‘philosophy’. Nonetheless he was working at it and presented one result of his efforts at the 94th Annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, held in Pittsburgh at the end of December 1934. His paper, entitled “Modern Logic and Non-Aristotelian Logics”, discussed general semantics in the context of various developments in logic, although he did explicitly note, “Korzybski’s system should not be described as a non-Aristotelian logic. All existent logics, Korzybski argues, are elementalistic...The science of the adjustment of man to his environment is a psycho-logic, and this should be a non-Aristotelian system rather than a logic.”(20) 

Reiser’s paper, one among some 1,500 talks given, drew remarkable attention from the press. It was not only mentioned but written about at length in articles around the U.S. Watson Davis, the Director of the Science Service and editor of the nationally-distributed Science News Letter (which also had a press service) had written an article devoted to Reiser’s presentation and on the “new mode of thinking” of Korzybski and others. Davis’s article, dated December 28, was picked up by papers like the Buffalo, New York News and Buffalo Evening News, the Houston,Texas Press, and The Washington Daily News. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Bulletin Index (“Pittsburgh’s weekly newsmagazine”) had separate stories on Reiser’s talk. The notion of non-identity especially seemed to grab reporters. This headline for the Davis article appeared in one paper:“Einstein Theory” of Logic Offered: That a Thing Is Not Always Itself.(21) As a follow-up, in its January 12, 1935 edition, Watson’s weekly Science News Letter printed another article on Reiser’s talk, “New Mode of Thought Urged To Replace Aristotle”. Reiser had definitely made a big publicity splash for Korzybski and himself. Afterwards, Alfred asked Reiser to submit a paper for the upcoming First American Congress for General Semantics which Reiser did, entitled “A Non-Aristotelian System and General Semantics”.

The two men remained in contact for many years. Reiser, now neglected as a ‘philosopher’, taught at the University of Pittsburgh and published many articles and books until his death in 1974. He would write some excellent things related to general semantics in the course of his career, including the 1940 book, The Promise of Scientific Humanism and the 1958 The Integration of Human Knowledge. In his 1989 book Logic and General Semantics: Writings of Oliver L. Reiser and Others, Sanford Berman commented that Reiser, in the 1940 book, “presented the most complete analysis of Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian logic and thought ever written by a student of general semantics.”(22) Robert Pula recommended Reiser’s writings with some qualification, noting “...a residual mystical inclination, some unconscious identifying, hankering after ‘absolutes’, etc.”(23) in Reiser’s 1958 book.

Korzybski certainly noted this tendency over the years. In early 1935, soon after Reiser’s success at the AAAS meeting, Korzybski wrote to him, “You see for many reasons I do not deal with ‘philosophers’, and you are the only one in the ‘sem. family’. There is endless work to be done by a man like you, but this work to be effective must be RADICAL with no compromise.”(24) 

Reiser never seemed to become radical enough for Korzybski. He continued writing about Korzybski’s work in terms of ‘logic’, ‘semantics’, and ‘philosophy’, as those terms were commonly and elementalistically employed. In subsequent years, Korzybski spoke bluntly to his friend the ‘philosopher’ whom he didn’t want to see “flounder in a rarified atmosphere of verbalism which has nothing to do with so-called realities.”(25)

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. 
16. See Ernest Nagel. “Review of Science and Sanity”, Journal of Philosophy, February 11, 1933. AKDA 2.692; “Review of Science and Sanity”, The New Republic, August 1, 1934, AKDA 2.719; and “Mr. Nagel Answers”, The New Republic, December 26, 1934, AKDA 2.719. 

17. Hook, “The Nature of Discourse”, Saturday Review of Literature, 3/10/1934. AKDA 2.695. 

18. AK to A. Ranger Tyler, 3/16/1934. AKDA 27.392.

18b. O.L. Reiser to AK, 5/29/1933. AKDA 33.362. 19. AK to O.L. Reiser, 6/29/1934. AKDA 33.378.

20. O.L. Reiser. “Modern Logic and Non-Aristotelian Logics”, AKDA 33.399. 

21. “Einstein Theory” of Logic Offered: That a Thing Is Not Always Itself’. Houston, Tex. Press, 12/28/1934. AKDA 2.735. 

22. Berman, p. ix. 

23. Pula 1996 “General Semantics Seminar-Workshop Bibliography. Revised, Updated and Annotated”.

24. AK to O.L. Reiser.1/10/1935. AKDA 33.385. 

25. AK to O. L. Reiser, n.d. [1948 or 1949]. Ralph Hamilton Papers.

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