Alfred Korzybski: A Memoir
by M. Kendig
Every scientific discovery is in a sense the autobiography of the man who made it.
Alfred Korzybski came to America in December 1915. He wrote Manhood of Humanity in 1920 when he was 41 years old. It is, so far as I know, his first written work published or unpublished in any language. To me this has always seemed a very significant thing, related to creativeness, the relentless vigor, the simplicity of the man, the integrity, the depth, the practicality of his work and methods. Over the years as I observed him and his method of work — visualizing, concretizing, slowly slowly bring the most complex problems down to their structural essentials in terms of simple earthy examples — I could well believe his report: “From babyhood I was silent, I had nothing to say.” — that is, before he came to America, made English his language, formulated his functional definition of man in this book. All his life he looked wide-eyed at the world, he contemplated what he saw, he questioned, why, how. He seemed possessed by a passion for comprehension. he lived and studied men on the soil of Poland, in the cities of Europe, on the battlefields of the eastern front. He studied the history of men, in books and at the universities — the successes and the tragedies of man-mad civilizations. He questioned why so? — how could we do better in our time? He was a lover of life, of music, of the poetry of feeling. He loved mathematics, engineering. They fitted the life facts. When men used them they escaped from animal trial and error, they could predict outcomes, pass on their findings, progress in their control of non-human things. Why was this not so in human affairs?
The impact of his experience in World War I, of coming to live in this new country and this open society, of finding a new language which suited him for the formulation of his non-verbal ‘thinking’ — these among others were precipitants. His lifetime studies and questions fell into new focus. He saw the significance of the obvious and the implications of the obvious. He verbalized the obvious in his functional definition of man as a time-binding class of life: Not what man is. What men do, as an exponential function of time. He developed the implications of the obvious characteristic of man and of man’s unique environments of symbolism and valuations, in Time-binding: The General Theory (1924-1926), in his Science and Sanity (1933), and on through to the end of his life in his later writings, in his seminars, and in his work with students.
This book [Manhood of Humanity (1950)] book has been out of print for eleven years. In these years Korzybski did his major teaching at the Institute of General Semantics, and Science and Sanity has been increasingly read, viz. twelve hundred copies bought from 1933 to 1938; seventeen thousand since. Very many who have read Science and Sanity and who have studied general semantics with him at the Institute have, I suspect, never held a copy of Manhood of Humanity in their hands. Science and Sanity, or someone else’s writings about general semantics has been their first introduction to Korzybski, and many have little notion what the term time-binding and its implications represent. Some of these persons have expressed in diverse ways vague discontent, an uneasiness as if they were missing something methodologically in the socio-cultural import which they felt but could not find made explicit in Science and Sanity. Korzybski was himself so full of the significance of time-binding, of the social feelings engendered by this new “image of man”, I do not believe that he saw this need until quite recent years. Meantime, requests for re-publication of his first book have been mounting steadily. He was meditating on a new introduction for over three years, and he was still working on it when he died. As the “Editor’s Note” indicates, plans for publication had been completed and this Second Edition must appear without his introduction. Fortunately, Korzybski’s own recent paper, “What I Believe” (1948), summarizes his life’s work, emphasizing the central role of his time-binding definition of man. This paper and Professor Keyser’s chapter on “Korzybski’s Concept of Man” (1922) were already planned for inclusion. They serve now as introductions, retrospective and contemporary, to this book. The editor, my friend and colleague Charlotte Schuchardt, has asked me to add some prefatory words before the volume goes to press.
I knew and worked with Alfred Korzybski for fifteen years, first at a school where I was principal and then at the Institute he founded and which I am now privileged to carry on. I studied with him intensively and used his methodology at the school. He re-educated me as an educator, and I gained insights into multiple aspects of his life, his feelings and his methods. I also observed most of the 1800 who studied general semantics with him at the Institute seminars. Over the years, I came to feel that Alfred Korzybski, his life, his writings, the work he did, were singularly indivisible. In this brief memoir, I feel impelled to communicate something of that unique human-being-life-work complex, and to record an approach I have found clarifying in ‘seeing’ his work as a whole. In writing it, I have a picture of the potential readers of this book and tend to see them mostly as people who have read Science and Sanity and other writings dealing with general semantics per se. To convey briefly something of what I would like to convey to these readers, I must use Korzybskian formulations and terminology without explanation. For this I ask indulgence from other readers of the book.
This seems to me important: Korzybski’s time-binding definition makes a sharp distinction between men and animals. But he emphasized the differences without dismissing the similarities (not either-or)-without, that is, breaking the continuity of a dimensional hierarchy of life. Viewed on a scale of increasing orders of complexity, amoeba(1) …… Smith(1)-in-western-civilizationtoday represent natural phenomena; differ not in kind but in degree of complexity, the number of factors to be taken account of. With the time-binding theory, he made man and the accomplishments of men, the successes and the tragedies of human histories and cultures comprehensible. He reduced human phenomena to something already known, evident. He satisfied the creative scientist’s striving for unification and simplification of premises (i.e. Mach’s principle of economy). He formulated a basic theory for the foundations of a natural science of man, encompassing not only man’s biological but his psycho-symbolic nature, and his accomplishments (e.g. mathematics, the exact sciences, the arts, ethics, etc.). As a new theory must, time-binding covered all the old assumptions, included and explained new or neglected factors, led to the discovery of new factors, and their incorporation into that theory. The skeptic will question this. He may say this “is not science”, but a “miracle creed”. Admittedly so — perhaps. The values of a scientific theory, it seems, can only be assayed by what comes out of it by the process of ‘methodo-logic’ development, and by empiric demonstration of workability of principles and methods derived from it.
The theory of time-binding led Korzybski, inevitably, to the formulation of a first non-aristotelian system on premises of great simplicity, and to the formulation of a modus operandi for that system. This body of coordinated assumptions, doctrines, principles, etc., and methodological procedures and techniques for changing the structure of our neuro-symbolic reactions to fit an assumptive world of dynamic processes, he called General Semantics. He described this whole discipline as an empirical natural science and the extensional method as a generalization of the physico-mathematical ‘way of thinking’ applicable in all human evaluations.
For the rest of his life Korzybski was concerned with testing out the human values of his formulations, his hypotheses. Would the practice of general semantics liberate human time-binding energies, lead to more adequate evaluations, greater predictability and so sanity-in the lives of individuals, in their conduct of human affairs, and so eventually in the effects of science on society, narrowing the gap between these rates of progress?
Twelve years of study went into the formulations before he was ready to publish Science and Sanity. He studied human evaluations in science and mathematics and in psychiatry, “at their best and at their worst” as he put it, from the standpoint of predictability and human survival. He wrote the first draft of Science and Sanity in 1927-28. Published it in 1933 after tirelessly checking the data necessary for his methodological synthesis of modern sciences and testing the structural implications of the terminology in which he cast his formulations. As Poincaré said, “All the scientist creates in a fact is the language in which he enunciates it.” The changes Korzybski made in the verbalization of his formulations from his first book to Science and Sanity make a fascinating study in development of linguistic rigor. He called this testing of the structural implications of terms (and formulations) his “linguistic conscience”. Few know that Korzybski originally intended to call his major work Time-Binding. He changed the title to Science and Sanity practically on the eve of publication, because he felt he should emphasize that interrelation. The verbal continuity between Manhood and Science and Sanity he preserved in the title of Part VII, ‘On the Mechanisms of Time-Binding.’ In those pages, 369-561, he expounds his non-aristotelian system and general semantics. Many readers have apparently missed this continuity.
In this book, and in his early papers outlining the general theory of time-binding, the reader familiar with Science and Sanity can see and trace back the process of methodo-logic development from 1921 to 1933. He can see how the non-aristotelian system and general semantics followed from the theory of time-binding as inevitably as theorems from geometric postulates.(Note 1) He will see how the Structural Differential, the principle of consciousness of abstracting, the extensional method and devices, etc., came out of the theory and the related investigations of the mechanisms of time-binding. He will see, among others, the beginnings of Korzybski’s formulation of neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environments as the unique inescapable environment conditioning the reactions of the human-organism-as-a-whole, in any culture at any time-an invariant relation. This formulation of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environments (and the neurological mechanisms involved) seems to me one of the great and most useful of Korzybski’s higher order generalizations directly derived from time-binding theory. It generalizes to a higher order the “psycho-cultural approach” (Lawrence K. Frank, et al). It has made the mechanisms of cultural conditioning and cultural continuity comprehensible to me and many other students. It will, I believe, eventually unify and simplify the premises of cultural anthropology, psychiatry, Pavlovian and Lewinian psychology, empiric social sciences, etc.
The reader who has studied Science and Sanity, trained his nervous system with the techniques of the non-aristotelian discipline of general semantics, applied it in his life and work, has made his own non-verbal demonstration of empiric workability. He can assay the values great or small to him of what came out of Korzybski’s time-binding theory and compare his evaluations with the reports of others who, with various degrees of competence, have applied it in many fields.(Note 2) The reader who has merely read Science and Sanity, who ‘knows’ it verbally, even if he can repeat verbatim all the principles and terminology, has slight criteria for his evaluations. He may or may not get insights from the reports of others, i.e. accept their evaluations as shown in practice. If he enjoys skepticism he can argue as endlessly about the validity of the reports as he can about Korzybski’s theories, in the abstract. The aristotelian tradition has trained him to do that: words and experience are equated in the tacit assumption that if he knows the words he knows ‘all’; any proposition can be proved or disproved by talking, etc., etc. If he is trained in some scientific specialty, where he can, or thinks he can, narrow his problems down so that he has only two variables to control, he may balk at ‘accepting’ the empiric value of anything that deals with the multiple variables of human life and cannot be fitted into his formula.
Some have dismissed Korzybski’s work as “nothing new”. Others consider it “too radical” (or too “unscientific”) for serious “scientific consideration”. Such receptions of the new and different are not rare in the history of science. For ‘philosophic’ or ‘scientific’ skeptics who wished to argue a priori about his work, Korzybski had a favorite expression, “Don’t talk. Do it.” (“It is strictly empirical.”) This epitomizes the non-verbal character of the working mechanisms of the discipline, its strength-and the difficulties he faced in his pioneering efforts.
“I don’t know, let’s see!” was another pet saying of his, when faced with something new. This was the attitude he, the engineer, took toward his formulations. That is, he was his own best skeptic-he knew, for example, the pitfalls of ‘logical’ consistency versus life reactions. He remained ‘the skeptic’ for many years until he saw (had empiric evidence which satisfied him[*]) that the formulations, the verbal and non-verbal techniques of the extensional method he expounded and demonstrated in his seminars on general semantics were teachable and workable-were, in fact, an appropriate scientific methodology for the time-binding theory and for general education toward realizing human time-binding potentialities.
Korzybski founded the Institute in June 1938. In September Chamberlain went to Munich. The words were “peace in our time” by “democratic appeasement”, and the facts were war and more dictatorships-as Korzybski sadly predicted in his seminar that autumn of ’38. His papers written during the next seven years record the impact on him, his reactions to World War II, in terms of his formulations and the direction his work was taking. Only those who knew and worked with him intimately know the depth of his social feelings, how he suffered in his whole person about the war. The daily chaos of today blunts our memories of what he-all of us have-lived through then.(Note 3)
He was 59 years old the summer he founded the Institute. The work he set himself to do there radically changed his life pattern. Behind him was a tremendous feat of physiological endurance, ‘mental’ power and vigor, the vast methodologic synthesis he had encompassed in Science and Sanity. The elegant simplicity of his formulations can be misleading in counting what they cost him as an organism. More feats of endurance were ahead of him. The new conditions were ill-suited to his make-up. Among others they deprived him of long periods of silence and isolation which were the sine qua non of his creative work, which he needed, craved as most of us do physical comforts. For the next eleven years he was surrounded by people and pressures. In the beginning he directed the Institute down to minutest details. He taught seminar courses and worked with individual students interminably. He carried on a mountainous correspondence. The number of papers he was able to write under the circumstances is remarkable to us who know the care he lavished on everything he wrote for publication. For many years he still hoped to write another book, incorporating the deductive presentation of the non-aristotelian system and general semantics which he made in his seminar courses. He was constantly harassed by our lack of money and security in carrying on the Institute and by the anomalies of a situation in which he could not approve or accept some well-intentioned suggestions and efforts made to help us gain acceptance and support. For example: Some wanted him to popularize his work, i.e. rewrite Science and Sanity for “the man in the street”, etc. Others wanted him to be less forthright in his presentations, to modify his theoretical position and so compromise with current academic and scientific orthodoxies to woo acceptance at the universities and support by the foundations. The price was too high for him to pay if it meant compromising the integrity of the discipline, and so eliminating the possibilities of demonstrating the human, scientific values of the general semantics methodology in clear-cut applications, and their eventual comparison with what was accomplished by prevailing methods. He had to continue to work beyond the institutional “safety zone”, although he was well aware of the disadvantages of doing so. Persons who themselves seemed unconcerned about the scientific integrity of the discipline, took easier paths and did not understand his position; labelled it ‘monomania’, ‘cultism’, ‘jealousy’, etc. This fretted and saddened him. To him, his position seemed as simple as saying, “Let’s stick to our premises. If we set out to solve a problem by non-euclidean geometry, we don’t switch to euclidean postulates. We would just make a mess. We have to have some honesty, stick to the method we start out with and then compare results. Which fits the facts best, which gives the most predictability in doing what we set out to do?”
The Institute was for Korzybski a training school and his research laboratory. He both taught and studied the students in his seminar courses. He was just as passionately absorbed in testing his work as he had been in formulating it. Each seminar meant 30 to 50 hours of vigorous lecturing, in some intensive courses eight hours a day. It meant hours of private work with each of the 40 to 50 students. He gave seminar after seminar, year after year. His endurance seemed endless. The results he saw in the lives and work of hundreds of these students and their reports to him over the years were not only his empiric evidence that his formulations did work. They were his chief source of happiness in the arduous Institute years.
He had his own peculiar style of lecturing, a nonlinear method of developing his exposition of non-aristotelian orientations by going round and round in widening circles, turning back to some example given at the beginning to illustrate a mechanism in his later lectures. He used shocking examples from his study in mental hospitals, from psychiatry, from his own experience with deeply maladjusted people, criminals, etc., to (as he called it) “get under the skins” of the class, to “shake them up”. He used examples from daily life, from the history of science, from mathematics. At times he was elegant, crisp, suave-at others, humorous and discursive. Often his face, his hands, conveyed as much as his words and diagrams. One educator said he was the “most powerful and effective teacher” he knew, “a master of pedagogy”. Another said he was “the worst, should study pedagogy”. People were seldom neutral about him, what he did, or how he did it. The more he shook their complacency, irritated them by “rubbing in” the method, the more they learned. He insisted that anyone who wished to, could enroll for a seminar. “Because a general method of evaluation,” he said, “has to work with anybody in any human activity or it’s no good.” Professors, doctors, psychiatrists, artists, researchers, young college students, businessmen, social workers, laborers, etc., all sat in the same classes. This may all sound chaotic; it was effective.
In private interviews he showed individuals how to apply the methodology in analyzing and re-evaluating their personal lives and problems; he taught them to question their rationalizations, etc., constantly. These personal applications, he contended, must come first. The student must rigorously and continuously apply the extensional method in his personal living. Only then would he have a sure basis for successful application in handling ‘impersonal’ problems-the human relations, the methodological problems in his work in any field, whether science, art, medicine, education, business, etc. A psychiatrist said, “Korzybski deals with, uncovers ‘the cultural unconscious’, makes it ‘conscious’.[**] In psychotherapy we do the ‘same’ with the personal unconscious which is only a special case of the cultural.” Some like to call the seminars a “school of wisdom”. “Maybe,” said Korzybski, “but wisdom is not enough. There’s been plenty of wisdom in this world for millenniums and what? Wisdom, alone, doesn’t work. You have to have a method for applying it continuously.”
A significantly large number of those who studied with Korzybski in some 56 seminars benefited, continue to benefit, from the training in various degrees. He had his failures. “Ten percent of every class,” he claimed, “got nothing out of it.” “Some became,” he said, “my enemies for life.” (When you touch the fundamental verbalisms around which an individual has organized his life pattern, it may be too disturbing for him to face.) Some ‘got it’ quickly and as easily fell back into old habits of thinking-feeling. They use the words but not the method. “They ‘refused’ to work at themselves,” he said. Some learned general semantics ‘intellectually’ (i.e. verbally, ‘cortically’), knew all the principles and terminology and techniques, but simply could not apply them, change their evaluations, their living reactions. Some ‘got it’ very slowly, over the years. It apparently had no effect on their lives, their work, and then-something happened. Because to me it shows many things, I want to quote a letter written to Korzybski in April 1950 by a research psychiatrist who had not heard of his death:
Dear Count Alfred:
I think I owe you a little apology, a vote of thanks, and an explanation. As you recall it was in the summer of 1939 that I first became aware of General Semantics. At that time your and my good friend Dr. _______ [deceased] … took me with him to your Seminar. I could ‘get’ the cortical aspect [verbal] but for some reason the thalamic portion [change in living, feeling] seemed to elude me. However in this last month something apparently has happened. I begin now for the first time to ‘feel’ that General Semantics has something I need and which can help. What the explanation is I do not know-all I can give you is the answer my small son (thirty-four months) gives me-when I ask him why he does this or that, he simply says, “Well I did it” … just to let you know that sometimes it takes a little while for things to sink in, I remain,
Korzybski held his last seminar December 27-January 4, 1950. That vast physiological endurance was running out. He no longer tramped up and down the platform waving his stick. His lecturing was as vigorous, his ‘thinking’ as creative as ever. In January and February he wrote his last scientific paper for the Clinical Psychology Symposium on Perception at the University of Texas.(Note 4)
The circumstances of his death, it so happened, were symbolic of his life and work. In working with students, he exhibited a tremendous power of caring about any individual bit of humanity before him. He was continuously aware that some infantile evaluation he might be struggling to change in an individual mirrored a symptom from the social syndrome. He spent the last few hours of his life at his desk working on such a problem. In his non-elementalistic orientation, the individual and society were split verbally only for convenience. Empirically, they could no more be split in the world of facts than space and time, psyche and soma, heredity and environment, etc. To him, no human problems were ‘insignificant’ problems. Thus the intensity, the warmth of his social feelings, the lavish extravagant ways he spent himself. He died March first at three o’clock in the morning. He had lived for 70 years, 7 months and 29 days.
In one way, we can say his work was ‘finished.’ In another hardly begun. For him it was finished in the sense that he had fulfilled the criteria he must have set himself after he had completed this book in 1921 from the point of view of theory, inductive and deductive methods, and empirical verification to a considerable degree (page xliv).
For us the work of the future calls for more cooperative endeavors. A methodological synthesis needed for progress of our knowledge of man-as-a-whole-in-his-environments, for its application in science and education, research and practice, has been elaborated in a single brain. Its use values have been demonstrated by Korzybski himself and by a substantial number of individuals trained in the non-aristotelian discipline. Together these persons represent a cross section of human activities and problems-theory and practice in the sciences and arts, education, industry, community life, etc. To date their efforts have a common characteristic. They have been undertaken by courageous individuals as individuals, developed in ways to meet individual situations. These individuals have been isolated from each other by geography and more intangible factors. Pioneering the discipline has, of necessity, been carried on in an amorphous atmosphere. To go forward we shall need to coalesce. We need not less spontaneity but more consensus on essentials, on directions. We need inter-discipline cooperation and some mechanism for working in groups. Fostering such development now becomes a function and aim of the Institute as the center for non-aristotelian training and work. Thus Korzybski’s time-binding efforts will live and grow.
In his life he wrote two books and 22 papers. (Note 5) Stood together they measure exactly 4 and 1/2 inches, in extra-neural space. At this date, I doubt that anyone would care to take the measure of Korzybski’s work, his influence and the extent of it in our time. Those who know these works might join me in saying: Seldom if ever in human history has so little represented so much for human understanding and progress.
The re-publication of this book with the inclusion of Professor Keyser’s early appreciation of the significance of time-binding and with three of Korzybski’s more recent papers may be the first step towards disentangling the values of his work as a scientific discipline from a web of narrow conceptions and mis-conceptions-fabricated from certain methodologic necessities, emphases, historic accidents in its development. Among others these have resulted in linking his name with language and communication to the exclusion of other aspects of his work in scientific and educational circles, and with the word ‘semantics’ as now popularly used. Such are some of the artificial obstructions. Added to the inherent difficulty of changing to new premises, non-aristotelian orientations, etc., they have retarded ‘seeing’ his work as-a-whole in proper perspective. As I sense it, the ‘climate of opinion’ in cultural anthropology, psycho-somatic medicine, the psychologies, the arts, etc., has changed slowly in the non-aristotelian direction towards non-elementalistic ‘concepts’ of man in society. By now it may be that some in these disciplines are ready to review Korzybski’s works as a whole, and accept his bold hypotheses and methodology for further verification. All his writings are now available, and students can trace the development of his thinking in historic sequence. The slender bulk of his works may encourage study or re-study-especially, I hope, by social scientists and educators.
In the paper which follows this memoir and which he wrote during 1947 and 1948, Korzybski has summarized his life’s work, his conclusions, his hopes, in a quite remarkable way. In these twelve pages we have what we may consider Korzybski’s ‘testament’-a bequest to workers concerned with human welfare in all the sciences and arts. I look upon it as a challenge and a program for future workers endowed with creative imagination who will take the foundations Korzybski has left us in time-binding, the non-aristotelian system and general semantics, re-formulate the theories and practices of their specialties, generalize them to a higher-order ‘science of science’-or, if you prefer, an inter-discipline discipline-to cover the whole of human life and the potentialities of time-binding. That is looking far far ahead-twenty-five, fifty years perhaps.
Reading this book for the first time seems to me an experience very much like getting a first clear look at human beings and human history after wearing glasses with distorting lenses all one’s life. One feels a release from unsuspected tensions. One has some hope. The audacity and simplicity of Korzybski’s approach that cut through ages-old problems to a fresh, new way of looking at ‘man’ seem more, not less, remarkable with the passage of time. We have learned so much about ‘man’ and ‘society’-and done so little with it-since he wrote. Ignore the allusions which date this book historically to the socio-economic-scientific contexts of the post-war world of 1920, and it might have been written last year. It is a trite and easy thing to say a man lived before his time. I believe, however, that only now after thirty years are we ready to take in the significance of his first book.
Institute of General Semantics
11 May 1950
Note 1: See Oliver L. Reiser, “Historical-Cultural Significance of Non-aristotelian Movement and the Methodological Contributions of Korzybski,” and “From Classical Physical to Modern Scientific Assumption,” Papers From the Second American Congress on General Semantics, M. Kendig, Editor (Chicago: Institute of General Semantics, 1943), pp. 3-10, pp. 69-78.
Note 2: See for example Papers From the Second American Congress on General Semantics, op. cit.; papers on the publication list of the Institute of General Semantics; other papers distributed to “Members of the Institute” and the recently inaugurated General Semantics Bulletin published for Members by the Institute.
Note 3: Some famous words of the fighting-war years bring them sharply back to me. I refer to the recording, “I Can Hear It Now”. In a half hour’s listening, the sensitive reader may re-live the background Korzybski did his work against in the first six years of the Institute. “I Can Hear It Now,” Volume 1, edited by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. Narrated by Edward R. Murrow (Columbia Masterworks).
[**] That is to say, changes unconscious assumptions about the world, about man, carried in the structure of language; attitudes, value judgments, ‘modes of thought’ learned from our neuor-linguistic and neuro-semantic environments.
Note 4: Presented by the Department of Psychology, University of Texas, under the direction of Dr. Robert R. Blake and Dr. Glenn V. Ramsey. To be published by Ronald Press, New York. Title of paper by Alfred Korzybski: “The Role of Language in Perception; a) The Effect on Perceptual Processes of the Language System b) Aristotelian and Non-aristotelian Language Systems.”
Copyright 1950, International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Co., Lakeville, Connecticut. This Memoir will appear in the Second Edition of Manhood of Humanity, to be published in July 1950.