Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Chapter 61 - "I Don't Care A Damn About Those Yahoos...": Part 2 - Antics With 'Semantics'

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.

First, at the beginning of November, he, Charlotte and Kendig received what they all considered an outrageous mailing from the Society for General Semantics office, dated November 1. This included a new proposed Society Constitution and By-laws, which the Governing Board of the Society wanted members to approve or disapprove, sending in their ballots by November 15. The new by-laws, just approved by the Society Board, made only one mention of the Institute: “Article VII, Relationship to The Institute of General Semantics” stated “Financial contributions from Society funds shall be made to the Institute of General Semantics by two-thirds vote of the Governing Board.” This provision would mark a significant formal change in the relationship between the Institute and the Society and between the Institute and Society members, many of whom had joined the Society because they wanted to support Korzybski and the Institute. How could a regular voting member of the Society (basically anyone who had paid dues) be expected to necessarily know enough to make an informed vote on the proposed re-structuring, without a copy of the pre-existing constitution and by-laws, and in such little time? 

This bad news wasn’t completely surprising given the previous lack of responsiveness of Society leadership to efforts to improve coordination between the two organizations. Wendell Johnson, the President of the Society, had not informed Korzybski that this was in the works. As an added irritant, the brief time frame for voting gave Alfred, Charlotte, and Kendig very little chance to do anything that could have a palpable effect on the outcome of what they considered a very problematic vote.

On November 15, Korzybski, Charlotte and Kendig—as voting members of the Society—all X’d in their ballots at the line that said, “I disapprove the Constitution and By-Laws as submitted November 1, 1946.” Korzybski sent a protest telegram, and Charlotte and Kendig sent separate protests with their ballots, to the Society Board of Directors. None of them pulled any punches, as indicated by this paragraph from Kendig’s lengthy response:
I disapprove your methods of securing approval on two counts: Asking for a vote without documenting the content and intent of the proposed changes violates accepted parliamentary practice. More important, by ‘putting it over’ on the membership you violate the democratic spirit you profess—now and since the beginning—in running this membership association. The suppression of history by the ‘democratic and responsible leadership’ postulated distorts evaluations and rigs a ‘yes’ vote in good fascistic style. (2)
This surely must have stung Wendell Johnson when he read it. As President, he had presided over what had and hadn’t happened. To some extent, he did later acknowledge the problems that the Society reorganization posed for the Institute in his Editorial “Report of the Retiring President of the Society for General Semantics”, in the Spring 1947 Volume of ETC. But as far as the Institute was concerned, the damage had already been done. The new Society Constitution and By-laws overwhelmingly passed, just as Kendig had suggested it would, by a vote of 271 to 13. The Institute, in tenuous financial shape, was clearly going to have to restructure itself in order to survive. Still, Korzybski and his colleagues hoped the two organizations could find some way to cooperate more in the future “in setting up a mechanism of intercommunication, for consideration and evaluation of plans, policies and pronouncements before taking action.”(3) As Kendig had pointed out in her protest letter, “In the wider public relations aspects of the general semantics movement, the Institute and the Society are not and can not be separated in the ‘public mind’—identified as they are by the use of the term general semantics.”(4) 

Unfortunately, in the short run, Korzybski would soon feel the need to protest to the Society again—this time about the Society’s public representations of ‘general semantics’. Korzybski probably received the circular announcing the Society’s 1947 Chicago lecture series sometime at the beginning of January 1947, as he was finishing up his Holiday seminar. He had nothing to say about the six publicized lectures, planned from January 31 until April 4, which looked like an interesting mix of speakers and topics: Thurman Arnold on “Symbol and Reality in Public Affairs”, Wendell Johnson on “How to Become What We Might Have Been”, Irving Lee on “It’s Not Fun To Be Fooled”, S.I. Hayakawa on “The Semantics of Modern Art”, Anatol Rapoport on “Music and the Process of Abstraction”, and Hugh and Lillian Lieber on “The New Realism in Art and Science”. But Korzybski could not abide the way the circular depicted his work. Perhaps the most egregious distortion for him was in a boxed insert with the following text, that he considered a ‘masterpiece’ of confusion:
Semantics...The study of how people act, with and under the influence of words and other symbols.
General Semantics...A system for applying the findings of semantics to every-day life. (5)
These ‘definitions’, following the viewpoint Hayakawa had pushed for some time in ETC., now permeated the Society’s public portrayal of Korzybski’s work. Korzybski had had enough. The circular grossly and glibly misrepresented both the origin and scope of his formulations. He had certainly not based his work on the findings of any kind of ‘semantics’ commonly understood in relation to language and ‘meaning’. As he told Karl Poehlmann at the start of the year,
If I would have investigated language, ‘thinking’, I would have written a perfectly rotten book on ‘psychology’. ...The secret of my work is that I did not investigate ‘thinking’ or ‘speaking’. I investigated time-binding. (6) 
Certainly words and symbols had importance in this investigation, but as he later pointed out to Ken Keyes, “...we humans are human just because we can intercommunicate somehow, not only linguistically, and the future generations can benefit by the experience of the past generation.”(7) Not only linguistically. He repeated some version of this point in published writings, private letters, conversations, lectures, etc.; describing GS as a theory of evaluation “dealing with the inner life of the individual, on the silent levels.”(8) 

He felt he had some justification asking Hayakawa and others to stop promoting the confusion of ‘general semantics’ with ‘semantics’. His requests didn’t seem to matter. His choice of terminology in 1931, using ‘semantic’ as a synonym for ‘evaluational’ and ‘general semantics’ as the overarching name for his system, had now come back to haunt him.

In some distress, he spent at least a month working on a protest letter “To the Editor of ETC.”, carefully choosing each word about both the offending circular and his accumulated backlog of objections to ETC. editorial policy.(9)  He also referred to the Society’s uncooperative attitude in relation to the Institute, and the Society’s preemption of Institute functions without consulting him. So as to not appear as if he condoned serious distortions of his work, he also resigned as “Consulting Editor” of ETC., as did Kendig. He sent the letter in March, requesting that Hayakawa publish it in the next issue of the journal. Soon afterward, something else added fuel to Korzybski’s ire: a copy of a recently written article by Hayakawa distributed by the Society. The Encyclopedia Britannica had rejected as too technical Korzybski’s article on general semantics for their volume Ten Eventful Years. They eventually contacted Hayakawa who produced a piece “Semantics, General Semantics”—as usual not notifying or consulting with Korzybski, and as usual presenting ‘general semantics’ as a system of ‘semantics’, albeit in a category all its own as “the most ambitious and most controversial,...of all the systems of semantics.” Hayakawa published his Britannica piece as the lead article in the Spring 1947 issue of ETC. Korzybski was not happy.(10) 

His protest letter never got published in ETC. In the 1990s, it did become public as Appendix V (5), in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, along with other documents pertaining to the difficulties between the Institute and Society. In 1947, only a few individuals saw Korzybski’s letter, mainly trustees of the Institute and the leadership of the Society, which included Hayakawa and Rapoport. Wendell Johnson, as indicated by his subsequent editorial as the Society’s retiring President; Irving Lee, who became the Society President that summer; and Francis Chisholm, an Associate Editor of ETC., all sought to make peace with Korzybski. But appearing to defer to Hayakawa, more and more the dominant influence in the Society, the three men didn’t seem to fully get what bothered Korzybski. The issue boiled down to the integrity of his work and how it would get represented by those presumed by the public to know it. In July, Guthrie Janssen wrote to W. Benton Harrison,
...[M]any seem to feel AK’s reactions are based on some sort of personal pique against Hayakawa. Well, it just isn’t so. And that’s categorical. From what I have heard I am sure AK feels that with Hayakawa writing articles like this [the Britannica piece] his establishment as an ‘authority’ on GS will retard the advancement of the discipline for God knows how many years.” (11) 
As both Hayakawa and Rapoport later indicated, they seemed to consider Korzybski the main obstacle to the advancement of GS. But Korzybski’s desire to maintain standards in the presentation and development of his work didn’t mean he wanted unquestioning obedience to him as the ultimate authority, as the two men would at times insinuate. Ralph Hamilton would later observe,
Now and then someone would say “I agree with you,” or the Montessori method of teaching, or Einstein’s relativity, or whatever. And AK would say, with a dismissive wave of the hand, “Agree—not agree; that doesn’t matter. Observe; study the facts, and maybe you can make a new formulation, or verify an old one; and others can verify your work.” Sometimes the notion of doing original work on one’s own rather flummoxed the agree-er.” (12)
When Korzybski found a student doing original work that also represented his own work accurately, it delighted him. Harry Weinberg had returned to the Institute to attend Korzybski’s Holiday Seminar and had given a lecture there on the topic of a paper he wrote while on shipboard during his wartime Merchant Marine duty. Korzybski reviewed the paper, later published in the Spring 1947 ETC., and referred to it when he wrote this recommendation for Weinberg in April:
I consider Harry L. Weinberg one of the most gifted students I have had, with exceptional creative capacities and outstanding potentialities as a high-grade teacher...In his recent paper on General Semantics, ‘Some Functional Patterns on the Non-verbal Level’, . . he actually made some original contributions to my work...I can recommend him highly as an expounder of General Semantics and [modern] scientific method. (13)

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. 
2. M. Kendig Protest letter to SGS Board, 11/15/1946. AKDA, Scrapbook 41.577. 

3. Ibid. 

4. Ibid. 

5. From “New Viewpoints” circular in AKDA, IGS Scrapbook 5.78-8. See also Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 825. 

6. C. Schuchardt. “Some Notes Taken At An Interview January 4, 1947, A. Korzybski and K. Poehlmann”.IGS Archives. 

7. Korzybski 1947, p. 311. 

8. Korzybski, March 1947 “Protest Letter to the Editor of ETC ” in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, Appendix V (5), p. 818. 

9. Charlotte Schuchardt to MEK, 4/17/1947. AK Archives, Box 22, Folder 1. 

10. AK to C. B. Congdon, 5/9/1947. IGS Archives. 

11. Guthrie Janssen to W. Benton Harrison, Jr., 7/31/1947. Ralph Hamilton Papers. 

12. Ralph Hamilton to Bruce Kodish, 3/13/2007. Personal correspondence. 

13. Korzybski, qtd. from 1947 letter in Note on Levels of Knowing and Existence, in General Semantics Bulletin 38-39-40, p. 61. See also “Charlotte Schuchardt Read, “Harry L. Weinberg, Ph.D. 1913-1968” in General Semantics Bulletin 35, p. 64. 

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