Saturday, April 18, 2015

Chapter 57 - "Release Of Atomic Energy": Part 2 - "Mathematics as a Way of Life"

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.

For several years, Korzybski had been corresponding with Jekuthiel Ginsburg, a mathematician at Yeshiva University in New York City. In 1932, with some mathematician friends, including Cassius Keyser, Ginsburg had founded the journal Scripta Mathematica, devoted to the history and philosophy of mathematics with an extra emphasis on humanistic and educational aspects of the discipline. Ginsburg had a special interest in conveying the excitement of mathematics to beginning students and non-mathematicians.(3) He was known for addressing such groups by asking each audience member to take an 81/2 by 11 inch piece of paper and use a scissors to cut a hole in it big enough to pass a piano through. (By the end of the session he would demonstrate how to do it.)(4) 

Scripta Mathematica became known for its articles geared to a general audience. Ginsburg had probably met Korzybski through Keyser, and in late 1944 invited Korzybski to lecture to the Friends of Scripta Mathematica group on January 31 and February 1 at the Horace Mann Auditorium at Columbia University’s Teachers College. For Korzybski, his two lectures on “Mathematics as a Way of Life” gave him an opportunity to return to some of the core issues which had originally inspired him. He gave a summary of his work geared to the group of mathematicians and mathematics educators and interested laypersons who attended. They received him with polite interest, even enthusiasm. 

One of those listeners, Edward Kasner—Keyser’s successor as Adrain Professor of Mathematics at Columbia—had long admired Korzybski and his work, starting with Manhood of Humanity. Kasner had already served for several years as an Honorary Trustee of the IGS. He considered Korzybski a “gifted” thinker of “keen intellect” and “broad humanitarian interest.”(5) Korzybski, in turn, had loved Kasner’s 1940 book Mathematics and the Imagination (written with James Newman), which he recommended highly to his seminar students.

I haven’t found any copies of Korzybski’s 1945 lectures but some notion of what he talked about can be gathered from a letter he wrote to Kasner several months later. Some people would continue to think Korzybski was advocating some complicated plan to get people to ‘talk in mathematical logic’, and thus to convert everyday speech into some kind of formal and esoteric jargon. But, as he wrote to Kasner, what Korzybski was proposing as ‘the mathematical way of life’ had little if anything to do with the formal side of mathematics:
In this connection I feel like quoting Herman Weyl from his ‘Mathematical Way of Thinking’ published in SCIENCE of November 15, 1940...: ‘Indeed, the first difficulty the man in the street encounters when he is taught to think mathematically is that he must learn to look things much more squarely in the face; his belief in words must be shattered; he must learn to think more concretely.’  
Here I would introduce a fundamental correction: Instead of saying ‘more concretely’ it should be said ‘in terms of facts’. This is a serious correction because our ‘feelings’, ‘imaginations’, etc., are matters of facts yet they hardly could be called ‘concrete’. (6)
For Korzybski, ‘thinking’ in terms of facts was closely connected with the human capacity to generate numbers. The modus operandi of the non-aristotelian orientation boiled down to practices as ‘simple’ as using the extensional devices which he had taken for the most part directly from mathematical notation. Their apparent simplicity was deceptive. Even for those who saw the mathematical connection, it was much more difficult to actually use these ‘simple’ devices in daily life—even for mathematicians.
...Hardly anybody could admire your work and the works of men like Einstein, Weyl, and others, more than I do. But, frankly speaking, these works do not give a modus operandi for how to bring about the wisdom you formulate on the level of elementary education. (7) 

A highlight of his Scripta lectures for Korzybski was seeing Keyser face to face after many years apart (although the two men had continued to correspond). In a letter to Keyser later that year, Korzybski wrote:
...Yes, dear Dear Old Man, years are going on, and you and I are still not going into the second childhood. We still are struggling, so far for the good.  
I hardly can tell you how I enjoyed seeing you in New York after years and years of absence. I must admit that I was amused when you were still shy of my hugging you and giving you a kiss. 
Hell with your shyness; any time I would see you I would hug you and kiss you and give you my love, no matter what kind of violet you will play. Tell your lady she should not be jealous, as I am only an old man. Give to her our best. (8) 

Korzybski remained in New York City to give a seminar at the New York University Faculty Club from February 3 to 14. It went very well. As he wrote to Kasner, “It was a fine and lovely group of around fifty-five students, mature, mostly professional. They were very receptive, and because of it, my delivery was unusually satisfactory, as I hear.”(9) Some of the participants had formed a New York Society for General Semantics. Eleanor Wolff and the other organizers of the group got Major Irving J. Lee, then in New York, to lecture to them after Korzybski left. A few months later, they sent $300, the receipts from Lee’s lecture course, as a contribution to the Institute.
February 1945, New York University, Korzybski and Kendig standing.
In the spring of 1945, world developments certainly seemed more promising than they had seemed in quite some time. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt had died on April 12, his worthy successor Harry S. Truman competently carried on the duties of a wartime president. By this time, the Nazi regime in Germany was finished. Hitler committed suicide at the end of April. Although the war with Japan was continuing, VE (Victory in Europe) Day was declared on May 8 with the unconditional surrender of Germany one day before. People were already being demobilized from the armed services.

Things were looking up for the IGS too, with increased demand for programs now that people were coming home from the war. The Institute was planning not only the second annual summer seminar-workshop, but also another introductory course by Chisholm, and in the late fall both an introductory and an advanced seminar with Korzybski in San Francisco, in addition to his regular Holiday Intensive. It looked as if, with the increased seminar income, the Institute would be able to squeak by for another year. (Although it would still not have enough money to get Korzybski off the treadmill of giving one seminar after another with little time for creative work or the development of the new programs he hoped for.)

Even with the war coming to an end, Korzybski did not seem exactly full of bubbly cheer. A good deal of his dampened mood may have resulted from accumulated fatigue and a sense of his own increasing physical limitations. On May 4, he wrote to Douglas Campbell,
As to my health, I just carry on, thoroughly paralyzed by lack of help. With Pearl ill, Ann [Cleveland] married, what is left here of the old staff are Kendig and Charlotte, and the rest are accidentals, mostly lousy and hard to get these days. I do not accomplish as much as I should. My war 1 hernia is bothering me more and more. I am too old to have an operation and the g.d. diaphragm trouble here and there affects my breathing and so eventually even my heart., which still is in very good shape. I am all right at the Institute and lecturing, but I have difficulties traveling or delivering lectures elsewhere. I may still survive for a while. (10) 

Alfred’s relationship with Mira seemed to have passed a milestone the previous year. Except for a brief flurry of upset then, regarding an autobiography she had written for Who’s Who, Alfred finally seemed to have come to grips with Mira’s gifts and the benign nature of her sometimes careless (to him) previous manner of public expression. By 1945, from the evidence of their ongoing correspondence, he had ended his recriminations. The two maintained a loving relationship until the end of his life. Having attended eight seminars and having steeped herself in reading and study for several years, Mira had come to a deeper appreciation of her own educational gaps and the true measure of Alfred’s achievements. She seemed at last to feel comfortable with a quiet role in the background of Alfred’s work. She read, attended lectures, sent him notes, and offered suggestions, which he often heeded. She could see he appreciated her intelligence, her dedicated personal application of extensional methodology, and her help. In turn, she also came to realize that ultimately, he had done his work and continued to do it—as he had told her—primarily for her sake. 

Alfred and Mira, circa 1945-1946

Now, Alfred had serious concerns about her health. In 1944, she had begun to have significant attacks of crippling pain in her arms, hands, knees, etc. It had hobbled her at times and though the attacks seemed to pass she had had to stop painting altogether. Both she and Alfred had concerns about the prognosis of what was diagnosed as “transient arthritis”. How were they going to pay for her care and possible treatments? Another worry developed at the beginning of the year—she had serious gum infections that required surgery, tooth extractions, and extensive denture work. At least she was now getting these problems dealt with.

Her physician had referred her to Dr. Dick, an arthritis specialist and director of medicine at nearby Billings Hospital, associated with the University of Chicago. Dick was interested in Mira’s case and found her such an observant and helpful patient that he offered her free treatment in exchange for her willingness to serve as a ‘guinea pig’. Dick arranged for the hospital to cover the cost of her treatments and even of her dental surgery. He had admitted her to the hospital for several weeks in April but finally released her at the beginning of May as her symptoms subsided and she felt antsy about getting back home.

When she collected her mail from the janitor of her building, she—and then Alfred—got shocking news. A letter from Walter Polakov postmarked May 2 from Washington, D.C. had the following short note inside: “Dearest Edgy and Alfred, Barbara shot herself on the 26th. Polly”. Walter wrote a more extensive note dated April 27:
Edgy dear: 
Yesterday at 1:07 p.m. Barbara committed suicide by blowing her brains out. I was serving dinner. She could no longer endure, I suppose, the memories of her youth and childhood as she turned out to be again an invalid. T.B. returned full blast under war conditions. I need not tell you more. You can understand the unsaid. I grew so much a part of her and she of me. Not a thought and emotion were separated. No action without mutual agreement.  
                                                                               Walter Polly
P.S. I am returning to Fairfax, Virginia (11)
What could either Alfred or Mira do to console their longtime friend? Not much. At least they had remained in contact with Walter and Barbara—however sporadically—over the last few years and they would continue to do so with Walter.

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. 
Chapter 57 – “Release of Atomic Energy”
3. Jekuthiel Ginsburg Obituary, 10/8/1957. New York Times. 

4. “Paper and Piano Puzzle Explained”, 10/10/1957. New York Times. 

5. Kasner, “Foreword” to the Second Edition of Manhood of Humanity, p. xv. 

6. AK to Edward Kasner, 5/15/1945. IGS Archives. 

7. Ibid. 

8. AK to Cassius Keyser, 9/22/1945. IGS Archives. 

9. AK to Edward Kasner, 5/15/1945. IGS Archives. 

10. AK to Douglas Campbell, 5/4/1945. IGS Archives. 

11. Walter Polakov to MEK, 4/27/1945. AK Archives, Box 22, Folder 3.

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