Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Chapter 48 - The Institute Of General Semantics: Part 2 - The Tyranny of Words

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.

To say the least, Korzybski’s time in Cambridge had not turned out very well. Still, he was not leaving Cambridge with a complete sense of failure. Although he had lost a number of long-time friends and boosters in 1937—including Cora L. Williams, who died in December—he had also found new friends and supporters in Cambridge, even as he was preparing to leave. One new friend, Porter Edward Sargent—a Boston-area writer and the publisher of the well-known Handbook of Private Schools—had read Science and Sanity, become very enthusiastic, and introduced Korzybski to Harvard anthropologist Ernest Hooten. In a letter to Kendig on January 28, Sargent wrote: 
Hooten...has had two sessions this week of three hours with Korzybski, has devoted his leisure time to reading the book, and in a recent address at the Harvard Club talked Korzybski in the aftermath of his address. (3) 
People were also getting excited about Stuart Chase’s book,  The Tyranny of Words , just published in January. Chase, by then a popular non-fiction writer and social critic, had decided to examine his tools—i.e., words. By studying ‘semantics’, he hoped to learn “how words behave, and why [verbal] meaning is so often frustrated.”(4)  Chase had become aware of Korzybski’s work as early as 1935 and had studied it, as well as the writings of Malinowski, Ogden and Richards, P.W. Bridgman, and others. In 1937 Chase began corresponding with Kendig, Korzybski, and Walter Polakov; the latter had guided Chase through Science and Sanity. Chase’s resulting book emphasized the commonalities amongst the various formulators he had investigated. Without question The Tyranny of Words drew a lot of interest to the works of these men. But whatever use the book may have served as a simple introduction to their writings, Chase’s melding of their different approaches obscured the uniqueness of the individual formulators. Chase’s purposeful neglect of the “subjective”, psycho-logical, inner life of the individual—as if this could be neatly separated from the “objective relationships between the individual and the outside world”—especially shortchanged Korzybski. (5) Chase’s treatment of general semantics contained a number of other subtle and not-so-subtle misrepresentations. (An early reviewer, Henry Hazlitt, who had not read Science and Sanity, argued that Chase misinterpreted the other formulators as well.) (6) 

In late 1937, when Polakov saw excerpts in The New Republic from the soon-to-be-published book, he wrote to Alfred: “[Chase] must be spanked.”(7) He felt bothered by, among other things, what he saw as Chase’s apparent animosity towards higher-order abstractions. As Korzybski had emphasized repeatedly—apparently not enough—science is not possible without them. Once the book was released, Walter wanted to give it a favorable review but felt he couldn’t since, in his opinion, it didn’t do justice to Korzybski. He wanted Alfred’s opinion on the matter.(8) Alfred replied that, given his limitations, Chase hadn’t done such a bad job: “I sincerely suggest do not give Hell to Chase, neither try to explain your semantics [in any possible review]. I suggest praise his book, although you may suggest he did not go far enough.”(9) As Korzybski told his first Institute of General Semantics seminar class later that year: “[The Tyranny of Words] is a fine first attempt [at popularization]. Not sharp; not good enough. Superficial, but the best there is, just the same.”(10) (Korzybski may have been too generous in his assessment of the benign impact of the book, since many of its readers appeared to incorrectly conclude that it accurately represented Korzybski’s work.)
Stuart Chase
At the start of 1938, The Tyranny of Words—the first popular book dealing in a significant way with Korzybski’s work—had no competition. Widely publicized and reviewed, its publication marked the beginning of a new level of public recognition for Korzybski. The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, a widely-recognized index of ‘popular’ magazines in the U.S. and Canada, provides a rough indication of popular print media attention to a topic. Korzybski had received a surprising amount of newspaper and magazine coverage over the years. However, prior to 1938, the Reader’s Guide had only one reference to him or his work—his 1929 Science obituary of Vasiliev (in Volume VIII, published in 1932). With Volume XI, covering the period from July 1937 to June 1939, things changed. There were five articles directly related to The Tyranny of Words listed under “Stuart Chase”. Most of the articles listed under “Semantics” (used for the first time as a heading) also related to Chase’s book. Many of these articles at least mentioned Korzybski. Another article was listed under the heading “Korzybski”. “General Semantics” was not used as a heading at all. Over the remainder of Korzybski’s life, subsequent editions of the Reader’s Guide (published every few years) would index a respectable number of articles directly related to his work (listed mainly under “Semantics” or his name—never as “General Semantics”).

As the year began, Alfred got more good news. George Houck from The Science Press wrote to tell him that out of the 2000 originally-bound copies of Science and Sanity only about 240 copies remained.(11) The Science Press awaited instruction from him as to when to bind the 1000 additional books they held in storage. He told Houck to hold off until they were down to 100 copies. Science and Sanity may not have qualified as a bestseller but it was selling.(12)

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. 
3. Porter Sargent to Kendig, 1/29/1938. AKDA 42.75. 

4. Chase 1938, p. 7. 

5. Chase 1938, p. vii. 

6. Hazlitt, “On the Importance of Meanings: Stuart Chase Attempts to Popularize Recent Studies in the Relationship of Words, Thoughts and Things”. New York Times Book Review, 1/23/1938. AKDA 2.863–864.

7. Walter Polakov to AK, 11/29/1937. IGS Archives. 

8. Walter Polakov to AK, 1/5/1938. IGS Archives. 

9. AK to Walter Polakov, 1/15/1938. IGS Archives. 

10. Korzybski, “Transcript of July, 1938 IGS Summer Seminar”, p. 65. Unpublished. IGS Archives. 

11. G. M. Houck to AK, 1/27/1938. AKDA 35.290. 

12. AK to G. M. Houck, 1/30/1938. AKDA 35.289.

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