Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)
How is it that humans have progressed so rapidly in science, mathematics, and engineering, yet we continue to exhibit behaviors that result in misunderstanding, suspicion, bigotry,hatred, and even violence in our dealings with other people and with other cultures?
— Alfred Korzybski
Alfred Korzybski pursued this question as an engineer, military officer, and extraordinary observer of human behavior. He survived the horrific battlegrounds of World War I and wondered why humans could progress and advance in some areas, but not in others. He theorized that the attitudes and methodologies responsible for advancements in engineering, the sciences, and mathematics could be applied to the daily affairs of individuals, and ultimately cultures. He called this new field “general semantics” and introduced it as a practical, teachable system in his 1933 book, Science and Sanity.
Below, find biographical information about Alfred Korzybksi including personal accounts, his oeuvre, his obituary, what others have said about him, as well as audio and video.
- Born 3 July 1879 in Warsaw, Poland.
- Died 1 March 1950 in Sharon, Connecticut.
- At outbreak of World War I (age 35), volunteered for service in the Second Russian Army; assigned to General Staff Intelligence Department.
- Sustained hip injury when his horse was shot out from under him, as well as surviving a leg wound and internal injuries.
- In December 1915, assigned to Camp Petawawa testing grounds in Canada to observe new artillery tests.
- After collapse of the Russian army and the revolution of 1917, joined the French-Polish army for the duration of the war. Also assisted the U.S. government by lecturing on behalf of the war effort to sell Liberty Bonds.
- In 1919, met and married Mira Edgerly, an accomplished portrait painter.
- In 1921, completed and published Manhood of Humanity.
- Devised the Structural Differential model (originally called the Anthropometer) and applied for U.S. patent in 1923.
- Presented and published Time-Binding: The General Theory in 1924 to the International Mathematical Congress in Toronto.
- Under guidance of Dr. William Alanson White, spent two years observing and studying mental illnesses and treatments at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
- Completed and published his second book in October 1933, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (originally titled Time-Binding, The General Theory: An Introduction to Humanology).
- From 1934-1937, traveled around the country giving public and private seminars based on the methodology of general semantics as formulated and discussed in Science and Sanity. Some of the more significant seminar venues included Harvard University, Williams College in California, Olivet College in Michigan, the Barstow School for Girls in Kansas City, and several conducted in Los Angeles.
- In August 1938, after securing initial funding from Cornelius Crane (Chicago) and Frances Stone Dewing (Massachusetts), founded the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago. He was assisted by M. Kendig who resigned as Headmistress of the Barstow School to move to Chicago and become the Institute’s first Education Director.
- Began regular schedule of delivering seminars at the Institute and various universities throughout the country.
- With the Institute, moved to Lakeville (Lime Rock), Connecticut, in April 1946 following the post-war housing shortage in Chicago.
- Continued his exhaustive schedule of seminars until his death on 1 March 1950.
- His final paper, “The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes” was published as a chapter in Perception: An Approach to Personality, edited by Robert R. Blake and Glenn V. Ramsey in 1951.
Accounts of Alfred Korzybski
Read “Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski: A Biographical Sketch” by Korzybski’s long-time literary secretary and executrix Charlotte Schuchardt Read.
Read “Alfred Korzybski: A Memoir” by Korzybski’s long-time associate and IGS Education Director M. Kendig.
The following are the published works of Alfred Korzybski:
- Manhood of Humanity
- Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics
- Olivet College Lectures
- Collected Writings
Kenneth S. Keyes, Jr. — a student of Alfred Korzybski and one might call a documentarian of the man — filmed Alfred Korzybski in 1944 at the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago, Illinois, and in 1947 in Warm Springs, Georgia (9:23).
A short video with Korzybski explaining the process of abstracting using his Structural Differential model (2:50).
A.H. KORZYBSKI, 70, SCIENTIST, IS DEAD
Founder of General Semantics Institute Saw Ideas Put to Use in Many Fields
SHARON, Conn., March 1 (AP) – Alfred Habdank Korzybski, scientist and author, an early authority on general semantics, died early today at Sharon Hospital at the age of 70. Death was due to a coronary thrombosis, with which he was stricken at his home in near-by Salisbury shortly after midnight.
Surviving is his widow, Mira Edgerly Korzybski of Chicago, a portrait painter, whom he married in 1919.
A pioneer in semantics, Mr. Korzybski founded a new school of psychological-philosophical semantics which he named general semantics. He had hundreds of followers throughout the world and was consulted by many scientists and scholars. Widely credited with having expanded semantics from its ordinary concern with only the meaning of words in a new system of understanding human behavior, Mr. Korzybski held the conviction that “in the old construction of language, you cannot talk sense.”
The scientist contended that because of Aristotelian thinking habits, which he thought outmoded, men did not properly evaluate the world they talked about and that, in consequence, words had lost their accuracy as expressions of ideas, if ever they had such accuracy. He explained that life was composed of non-verbal facts, each differing from another and each forever changing. Too often, he contended, men got the steps of their thought-speech processes confused, so that they spoke before observing and then reacted to their own remarks as if they were fact itself. As Mr. Korzybski explained it, general semantics had to do with living, thinking, speaking and the whole realm of human experience.
His theory was put to practical use in the fields of public, industrial and race relations and everywhere that misunderstanding among people is due to different values and structures of words.
In explaining simply what he meant by misleading words, Mr. Korzybski said that to say a rose “is” red is a delusion because the red color was only the vibration of light waves. In 1938 Mr. Korzybski found the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago. In 1946 he moved the institute, of which he was president and the director, to Lakeville, Conn.
His book, Manhood of Humanity – The Science and Art of Human Engineering, which appeared in 1921, caused a stir in the intellectual world, as did his second book, Science and Sanity, An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 1933.
Descended from a long line of engineers, mathematicians and philosophers, Mr. Korzybski, who was born in Poland, was a Count before his American naturalization. He attended the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute, managed his family’s estate and taught mathematics, physics, French and German in Warsaw before World War I. During that conflict he was twice wounded and served on the Russian General Staff before being sent to this country and Canada on a military mission.
In 1918 he was a recruiting officer in the United States and Canada for a Polish-French Army, and a war lecturer for our Government. Mr. Korzyski served, in 1920, with the Polish Commission to the League of Nations. He had lived in New York at one time.
Irving J. Lee
He deepened my awareness of the human relevance of all studies. He has too vividly shown that what men say and do is inevitably linked with what they see and with what they assume. Accompanying that insight is a new kind of respect for human potentiality.
J. Samuel Bois
… he turns your attention to something less tangible, something that you cannot compute additively, that you cannot demonstrate to others with a brilliant display of ‘whys’ and ‘therefores’. He makes you conscious of structure, relations and order. He helps you feel that you as a living-thinking-feeling-acting individual are a conscious node of interrelatedness in a universe that you eventually feel throbbing with you, through you, around you …
Douglas M. Kelley
He existed as a process and produced in his lifetime a number of ink marks presenting to some degree his basic formulations of the function of mankind. In this capacity, he was never surpassed. His time-binding theory and his subsequent development of General Semantics as a method for the achievement of its maximal function severed across old lines of thought as does a clean cleaver through moldy cheese. This cleavage has yielded a resultant new approach, which is only beginning to be felt in multiple scientific disciplines.
… [his] was not the sentimental approach, nor the metaphysical, which have had such a long vogue. Rather it was an engineering approach. He began with an ‘obvious’ fact, but one so large that it had mostly been taken for granted and never adequately explored before; namely, that humans represent a symbol-producing, symbol-using class of life. In other words, the arrangements by which we regulate our lives and the relationships among us are established through the functioning of our symbol systems. Man has created for himself an environment of symbols, and for better or for worse he has to live with them.