Friday, May 29, 2015

Chapter 61 - "I Don't Care A Damn About Those Yahoos...": Part 4 - "The Most Appalling Scandal of the Year"

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.

Academics overly interested in conventional respectability would probably not find Korzybski easy to take. He had plenty of idiosyncrasies to sneer at, from his blunt manner of speech, to the khaki clothes he favored, to the rolls of toilet paper he unashamedly kept on his desk for nose blowing. Other things made him easily misunderstood, like his profound hearing loss, which made conversations with him difficult. Since he had only a degree in engineering, those inclined to do so could easily mistake his remarkable erudition in dozens of subjects as bogus, the profundity of his aims and broad scope of his concerns as arrogance, his claim to have formulated the first—as far as he knew—non-aristotelian system as ridiculous, and his claim to have developed a practical methodology that could help one understand and ameliorate “the quarrels between two lovers, two mathematicians, two nations, two economic systems., [etc.,]...”(21) as absurd. Careless interpretations of his lectures or writings might easily follow, confusing his taking of all human knowledge as “within his scope”—certainly legitimate for a worker in epistemology—with “taking all knowledge as within his competence,” which he never pretended.(22) Korzybski often said, “I say what I say. I do not say what I do not say.” He would also repeat that he ‘offered no panaceas’ but many people still came to the conclusion of one seminar student who commented, “You seem to say that every human problem can be solved by general semantics.” Korzybski replied “Every thing I say is limited, limited, limited!”—a statement (or something like it) he repeated often.(23) 

By 1947, one could clearly see the divide about Korzybski among academics, exemplified by varying reactions to a spring seminar he taught at Adams House, Harvard University from May 30 to June 7, sponsored by The Boston Society for General Semantics and the Semantics Workshops Associates, a GS-based, Boston consulting group. On the one hand, a number of faculty from Harvard and other universities who felt favorably inclined towards Korzybski’s work signed on as honorary sponsors, including: John B. Fox, Assistant Dean; F. J. Roethlisberger of the Business School; Ernest Hooton and Clyde Kluckhohn of the Department of Anthropology; Norman T. Newton, Professor of Landscape Architecture; Roscoe Pound, University Professor; Arthur Stone Dewing, Emeritus Professor of Finance; Joseph G. Brin, Professor of Speech Correction and Edward A. Post, Professor of English, both of Boston University; Dr. William Healy, Emeritus Director of the Judge Baker Guidance Center; Porter Sargent, Educational Advisor; and Professor Emeritus Alfred D. Sheffield of Wellesley College. Forty-two people registered for the seminar, about half of them Harvard students, graduates, or faculty. Among the rest, students or faculty from MIT, Boston University, Andover-Newton Theological School, and Radcliffe also attended. Two Harvard Assistant Deans, J. L. Rollins and John B. Fox, who had attended a seminar with Korzybski in 1939, hosted a supper for him at the Harvard Faculty Club before his evening lecture on June 5. Obviously, if the Boston-area can be taken as typical of other places, Korzybski didn’t lack serious academic support

On the other hand, there were also people at Harvard like philosopher/logician Willard Quine. On a conscious level, Quine seemed to have gained nothing from his seminar with Korzybski except contempt. On May 2, he ended a long letter to Rudolf Carnap with this comment:
...In closing let me try to be the first to pass along to you the most appalling scandal of the year. For a week at the end of this month Korzybski is to lecture at Harvard, in Harvard. The senior common room of Adams House will be his temple. He will put on his regulation 40-hour show.  
With best regards... (24)
The opinions of influential academics like Quine, however few, undoubtedly would shape how others viewed Korzybski. Korzybski, who eventually got wise to the extent of Quine’s hostility, didn’t seem to care—much. How much did it pay to worry about the yahoos?

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. 
21. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 761. 

22. Communication scholar Neil Postman—Editor of ETC. for 10 years from 1976 to 1986 (when it was still published by the ISGS, not the IGS)—made this claim years later in an error-ridden essay entitled “Alfred Korzybski” in his book Conscientious Objections: “Korzybski’s thought was grandiose in that he took all knowledge to be within his scope [p. 138]....[I]n taking all knowledge as within his competence, Korzybski’s reach exceeded his grasp [p. 145].” As with Hayakawa, many people presumed Postman to know a lot more about Korzybski and his work than he actually did. Unfortunately, like Hayakawa, Postman seemed to presume this too. 

23. Ralph Hamilton to Bruce Kodish, 11/17/2005. For examples of Korzybski’s “epistemodesty” see Korzybski 1994 (1933), pp. 10, 43–44, 142–144. 

24. Quine qtd. in Creath, p. 412.

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