Thursday, February 5, 2015

Chapter 45 - Seminars: Part 4 - Laboratory Work

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.

The group format of the seminar allowed Korzybski to introduce his work to more than one person at a time. It also allowed students, often 40 or 50 per class, to observe and interact with and so to learn from each other. But the intellectual, i.e. verbal, understanding of general semantics that could be gained from seminar lectures was not enough. Individual students typically needed individualized help to apply the extensional method to their personal lives—what Korzybski referred to as the “laboratory work”. (5)

From his first seminar in Chicago, Korzybski offered this “laboratory work”—in personal interviews—to all of his seminar students. He came to see the personal interview as a necessary part of his teaching. As the process for the interviews evolved, a student would provide a written history of him/herself and whatever he/she wanted to work on. Reading this statement let Korzybski begin to visualize the person’s life situation, which included how the person talked about things. Then in one or more sessions, Korzybski would work to help the student extensionalize his problems and himself.

Throughout his life, Korzybski had worked as a translator. The interviews seemed much like a job of translation: how to translate his student’s personal problems from intension (verbal definitions in which they had gotten ‘stuck’) to extension (‘facts’). Sometimes another form of representation could help someone change his/her approach to a situation. For example, to someone who had a rough time with “Papa” and “Mama”, Korzybski might suggest referring to them instead in the third person, as “Mr. and Mrs. Jones”, or, when addressing them directly, to do so by first name, e.g., “Richard and Darlene”—with the parent’s permission, of course. So ‘simple’ a change could often make a significant difference in a habitually sticky relationship between an adult child and his or her parents.
Intensional Smith1
Watercolor and Ink drawing for Korzybski by A.B. Stewart, 1940 
Extensional Smith2
Watercolor and Ink drawing for Korzybski by A.B. Stewart, 1940 
'A Chairy Tale' of Intensional Smith1 Versus Extensional Smith2

Using the extensional devices provided a major way to translate a problem situation—to newly represent it—in extensional terms. Korzybski would tell seminar classes about former students he had helped in this way (leaving out identifying information). There was, for example, the case of “the boy out the window”. One of Korzybski’s early, seminar students had related that, as a five-year-old boy, he had been picked up by his nanny—who supposedly loved him—when she couldn’t get him to stop crying. She held him out of the fifth-floor window and told him she would drop him if he didn’t stop. He stopped. This single occurrence appeared to have shaped his whole life into adulthood. He had troubles with anxiety, with trusting people, with women, etc. In the interview sessions, Korzybski worked with him on dating and indexing. “It took me a long time to make him date his experience. Date the experience, yet what happened twenty-three, [twenty-]four years ago, is not what happened today.”(6) The man had to ‘sweat’—practicing for about two years—but eventually he no longer suffered from the anxiety that had plagued him most of his life. He was not “the boy out the window” anymore. 

Students needed to do more than make a superficial change of words; ‘words’ in isolation were not enough. The associated neuro-semantic (evaluational) reactions were not verbal. To challenge the unspoken assumptions behind problems, new assumptions, new behavior, feelings and experience had to arise as well. Korzybski might do something as simple as getting a student to actually pinch his finger. Saying “I am pinching my finger” was not the same as pinching his finger. A student had to pinch his finger to experience this. Students had to remind themselves of the un-speakable level often. He wanted them to handle the structural differential, to keep it in sight, and to point to it and use it to make sense of a situation or problem. He wanted them to use their hands to make kinesthetic gestures for the devices whenever possible. If the hands weren’t available for doing single quotes, you could use your toes. As Korzybski roughly formulated it, these methods bridged the predominantly verbal ‘cortical’ region of the brain with the ‘thalamic’—the pre-verbal, lower-order-of-abstraction, ‘sensory’-‘emotional’ region where people lived, suffered, and could experience deep change. He had tested everything on himself.

To demonstrate a point to a student, he might ask her to play with a simple toy like the spinner sparkler one could buy at Woolworths. (Korzybski would end up with a collection of these in his desk drawer.) Held in the hand, you made the toy’s little wheel spin by pumping a spring-loaded slider at the base. The wheel might make sparks but the main point for Korzybski was that by cutting or replacing the wheel to make a fan-shape, you could spin it and see ‘a disk where there is no disk’. Campbell had used one of these with a priest who heard voices. The priest was taken with the realization that he could perceive something that ‘wasn’t there’—that just as his nervous system had constructed the ‘disk’, it had constructed the voices as well. He played with the device quite often. His auditory hallucinations eventually stopped. 

"The world is not an illusion."
Korzybski explains more about abstracting and 'the disk where there is no disk'.
Produced by Steve Stockdale

Korzybski’s job, as he saw it, required ‘holding up a mirror’ to his students so they could honestly look at themselves and their reactions. Such self-reflexiveness could apply in the most literal sense. For example, if he saw a deadness in the facial expression of a student, he might ask him or her to practice actually holding up a mirror to look at themselves.

Personal interviews for students were included in the tuition fee. Initially, even after the founding of the Institute of General Semantics, Korzybski tried to see everyone that he could and scheduled the interviews concurrently with his course of lectures. Eventually as the exhausting—for him—character of the interviews became more apparent, he had them scheduled to begin only after he had completed the lectures. He stressed the optional nature of the interviews as well. He found those claiming to be satisfied with their lives might be less likely to come or, if they did, less likely to seriously use it to apply general semantics to personal issues. More’s the pity. Korzybski didn’t consider it likely that anyone—even a well-trained mathematician or mathematical physicist—could master a general extensional approach to life unless he had first worked to apply it to himself. If a student felt he didn’t have any significant personal problems to work on, one couldn’t justifiably conclude he didn’t have any.

Korzybski would later estimate that about “Ten percent of every class got nothing out of it. Some became my enemies for life.” As Kendig phrased it, “When you touch the fundamental verbalisms around which an individual has organized his life pattern, it may be too disturbing for him to face.”
Some ‘got it’ quickly and as easily fell back into old habits of thinking-feeling. They use the words but not the method. ‘They “refused” to work at themselves, he said. Some learned general semantics ‘intellectually’ (i.e., verbally, ‘cortically’) knew all the principles and terminology and techniques, but simply could not apply them, change their evaluations, their living reactions. Some ‘got it’ very slowly, over the years. It apparently had no effect on their lives, their work, and then—something happened. (7)
As to how slowly this ‘something’ might happen, Kendig quoted a letter that research psychiatrist Charles J. Katz wrote to Korzybski in April 1950 (not having heard yet of his death on March 1 of that year):
Dear Count Alfred : 
I think I owe you a little apology, a vote of thanks, and an explanation. As you recall it was in the summer of 1939 that I first became aware of General Semantics. At that time your and my good friend Dr. ___ [deceased] . . . took me with him to your Seminar. I could ‘get’ the cortical aspect [verbal] but for some reason the thalamic portion [change in living, feeling] seemed to elude me. However in this last month something apparently has happened. I begin now for the first time to ‘feel’ that general semantics has something I need and which can help. What the explanation is I do not know—all I can give you is the answer my small son (thirty-four months) gives me—when I ask him why he does this or that, he simply says, ‘Well I did it’... just to let you know that sometimes it takes a little while for things to sink in, I remain, 
Semantically yours (8)

From the time he began teaching until the end of his life, the personal interviews with students took a tremendous toll on Korzybski’s time and energy. They took up not only the hours of interview time—often with a large portion of a seminar’s participants—but the hours of personal follow-up as well. He encouraged his students to write to him in detail to let him know how they were doing. He, in turn, would respond to these letters with his detailed analysis, advice, and encouragement. (Korzybski’s large correspondence with students, their letters to him, as well as their autobiographical statements, were destroyed or returned to the students soon after his death. A small number of letters were retained in the Institute files with students’ permission, their names cut out from the letters.) After the founding of the Institute of General Semantics, a number of the Institute trustees tried to convince Korzybski to stop providing interviews. Korzybski refused. Although he readily admitted their taxing nature, he felt compelled to provide a laboratory wherein he could help his students learn to apply what he taught—the main point, after all.

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. Korzybski 1947, p. 327. 

6. Korzybski 1947, p. 405. 

7. Kendig 1950, p. xxxii-xxxiii. 

8. Charles J. Katz, M.D. to AK, 4/4/1950. IGS Archives, quoted in Kendig 1950, pp. xxxiii–xxxiv.

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