Thursday, May 7, 2015

Chapter 59 - A Matter Of Character: Part 3 - A Matter of Character

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.

Before anything else, the methodology had to be applied by people to themselves. Korzybski’s concern for people found particular expression in his extensive and painstaking individual work with his students to help them do just that.

Each student presented a different set of difficulties for him to troubleshoot. He was not always the stern taskmaster that he may have seemed with Richard McClaughry. Each student (including the ‘same’ student at different times) required a different approach in order to help them extensionalize, i.e., face facts and find options, in a way he felt they could handle. He found the work absorbing. But although he worked at minimizing his expectations about what he could accomplish, his individual work with students took a toll on his organism-as-a-whole. Especially after the block of interviews he would do after a seminar, he typically felt exhausted. Nonetheless, he had to teach in his personal way if he was going to continue working, and to get others to carry on with his work, in the way he intended. It was a matter of character.

Indeed, the rhetorical question to McClaughry—“What good is ability without character?”—had great significance for Korzybski. Not just incidentally, the question sounds ‘aristotelian’. Years before, Korzybski had read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and had noted connections with his own aims and work. The Greek term ethikos translates roughly as ‘character’. Aristotle’s work, supposedly written for his son Nichomachus, consisted of a treatise on personal character development in terms of virtue or human excellence—a notion that he had carried forth from an earlier stream of ‘thought’ in classical Greek culture. Aristotle’s book in turn had a profound effect on later formulators, perhaps in a round-about way on Korzybski too. However non-aristotelian his applied epistemology, Korzybski could definitely be called ‘aristotelian’ in this sense—his deep concern with developing human excellence, both personal and group, in terms of what seemed to him most characteristic of human life, time-binding. *
*Conversely, Aristotle's notion of human nature ('man is a rational animal', etc.), though not equivalent to Korzybski's, still showed prefigurings of time-binding, as Korzybski noted in the margins of his copy of Nichomachean Ethics—along with instances of Aristotle's elementalism, etc.

Early in February 1946, Korzybski described the aim of his work to Irving J. Lee, talking very much in terms of the by-now-ancient sense of character, virtue, and human excellence. Lee’s private seminar—a refresher with Korzybski—took place over a period of more than a week, soon after Lee’s return from military service. Altogether, the two men spent nine sessions together (two to three hours each time), so that Lee could catch up with developments in Korzybski’s work that he had missed while he was away, e.g., the newest ‘baby-like’ extensional device, chain-indexes. Lee later spoke about how Korzybski related the core of his work to character development:
...At one of these sessions, I said, “Now, Alfred, you have been thinking about this stuff for a very long time. Can you tell me, in a nutshell, what are you trying to do? What is the objective of all this reading and studying and talking and sweating that you go through day after day, year after year? What are you after?” 
...I never could call on him in those sessions without being forced to take notes. If I came without a pencil and paper, he invariably found a pad and pencil, and “take some notes” was the continuous refrain. Well, I have gone over those notes many times and in answer to that question, this is almost a verbatim account of what he said when I asked him, “Alfred, what are you trying to do, in a nutshell?” 
...He said, “Irving, we are trying to produce a new sort of man...A man who will have no new virtues, but we will know how to describe him and, maybe, we will know how to create him...”. (Korzybski told Lee that he had already basically described the 'new sort of man' in Science and Sanity). (8)
More than 2000 years had passed since Aristotle. Perhaps Korzybski’s new man would have no new virtues, but based on the understanding of humans as time-binders and more recent knowledge of how we know what we say we know, the old virtues would need re-formulating in order to be described in terms of a broader—and epistemologically non-aristotelian—approach.

Korzybski himself never made a formal analysis of Nichomachean Ethics, but a non-essentialist, non-elementalistic approach seemed to require ‘fuzzifying’— even dissolving—the apparently distinct boundaries among the virtues delineated as ideals in Aristotle’s book: the boundaries between the intellectual virtues corresponding to various theoretical realms (‘intuition’, ‘philosophy’, science and mathematics); the rigid boundaries between the various forms of theoretical knowledge (no longer ‘unchanging truths’) and contingent practical knowledge; and the boundaries between various forms of practical knowledge. Theoretical knowledge could be seen as a development of everyday ‘common sense’. And simple (but not necessarily easy) lessons of practical wisdom could be extracted—as Korzybski did—from a study of physico-mathematical methods. The walls between the other intellectual virtues and productive—i.e., engineering/technical—knowledge would also have to be bridged or fall away. Reviewed from such a ‘non-aristotelian’, non-elementalistic perspective, Aristotle’s intellectual virtues represented not entirely separate realms, but rather different aspects or stages in a unified process of abstracting (in the korzybskian sense of that term).

Furthermore, since the process of abstracting necessarily involved evaluating, no human abstracting process could be said to exist entirely separately from factors of value, emotions, personal character, etc. In this way, the so-called moral virtues had as much relevance to science and other intellectual endeavors as to the rest of human life. Conversely, one would need various kinds of intellectual excellence, good sense—i.e. sound evaluation—to do ‘good’. So the elementalistic walls between Aristotle’s types of intellectual virtue and his types of moral virtue would have to come down too. From a korzybskian point of view you could still read Nichomachean Ethics with profit, but you would have to put in a lot of quotes, hyphens, etc.

For Korzybski, as much as for Aristotle, the personal character development he sought to spark in his students had to involve a student’s conscious cultivation of new habits in the desired direction. This required persistent effort. Korzybski knew this not only from his experience with students, but also from his experience of working on himself. “I am the same kind of moron as the rest of you,” Alfred told Charlotte Schuchardt, who by this time was managing the Institute office and had become his confidential secretary, editorial advisor and—beside Kendig—his more or less indispensable right-hand woman. “[I]t’s the method that does the work, for me as well as for you.”(9) But the method wouldn’t work without the student supplying the sweat.

The sweating might start with preliminary reading: Science and Sanity, or at least Francis Chisholm’s Introductory Lectures on General Semantics or Lee’s Language Habits in Human Affairs. Then, attending 30 to 40 hours of Korzybski’s lectures—along with additional workshop experiences or presentations from others—provided an experience far richer than anything a student could hope to get through reading the books alone. For those who chose to put themselves on ‘the firing line’, the two to four hours of personal interview with Korzybski could give them an extra boost of motivation and a useful new tack on how to apply the general extensional methods to their own particular problems. Some students might be in for rough times and unpleasant surprises. As a student continued working, barriers awaited to emerge. But, as Korzybski indicated to Richard McClaughry, he considered his job that of helping students to face facts and learn how to continue facing facts about their lives. And as he told McClaughry, his students were not paying him to make them like it. (He realized that if he was doing his job adequately, some of his students would probably not like him, either).

Both Aristotle and Korzybski would agree about this: intellectual interest and assent were not enough to cultivate the virtues they espoused. Aristotle, long before, had noted:
We are right then in saying, that these virtues are formed in a man by his doing the actions; but no one, if he should leave them undone, would be even in the way to become a good man. Yet people in general do not perform these actions, but taking refuge in talk they flatter themselves they are philosophising, and that they will so be good men: acting in truth very like those sick people who listen to the doctor with great attention but do nothing that he tells them: just as these then cannot be well bodily under such a course of treatment, so neither can those be mentally by philosophising. (10)
Practical wisdom had to be applied—not just talked about.

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. 
8. See “The Semantic Man: An address delivered by Irving J. Lee at the first conference on General Semantics, Chicago, Ill.”, 6/22/1951. Unpublished. (Thanks to Sanford I. Berman for providing me with a copy of this paper.) See Sanford I. Berman, “Irving J. Lee: ‘The Semantic Man’ ”, in General Semantics Bulletin 18 & 19, 1955, pp. 22-25. Also see Steve Stockdale “Snooping Around the Time-Binding Attic, Part 2, in ETC. A Review of General Semantics, Fall 2002, pp. 338-339. 

9. C.S. Read. “Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski: A Biographical Sketch. p. 9. 

10. Nichomachean Ethics, D.P. Chase, translation. Book II, Section IV, p. 32.

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