02/2002 – Alfred Korzybski

PGF honors Alfred Korzybski as its person of the month for February 2002. Korzybski’s work in the area of semantics and language are pioneering even today. PGF recognizes his work as fostering mutual understanding and encouraging the breakdown of barriers between people through language.

Mr. Korzybski’s Biography

Alfred Korzybski was born on July 3, 1879, in Warsaw, Poland to wealthy, aristocratic parents. By his teenage years he could speak four languages — Polish, Russian, French and German. He managed his father’s farm before attending the Polytechnic Institute at Warsaw to study chemical engineering.

At the outbreak of World War I, when Korzybski was 35, he volunteered for service in the Second Russian Army, where he served as a battlefield intelligence officer. He was injured three times during the war: he dislocated his left hip when his horse was shot and fell on him; later he was shot in the knee; finally, he injured himself as he attempted to clear a cannon that was obstructing a muddy road.

In December 1915 he was sent to Canada and the United States as an artillery expert for the Russian Army. Once in Canada he began studying English, which became his favorite language and the one in which he would write his major works.

In 1917 Korzybski moved to New York to supervise the shipping of ammunition to Russia. When the Russian Army collapsed later that year, he stayed in the United States to continue war efforts on behalf of the French and Polish armies.

Soon the United States Government hired him to travel the U.S. as a war lecturer to encourage sale of Liberty bonds.

Shortly after the Armistice, Korzybski met Mira Edgerly, an American of wide fame as a portrait painter on ivory. They were married two months later, in January 1919.

His experiences during the war led Korzybski to ask what the differences were between humans and animals. He concluded that animals were mere hunters and gatherers or “space-binders” in their pursuit of food, whereas humans practiced agriculture or were “time-binders,” capable of learning from experience and passing what was learned to succeeding generations. Korzybski felt that teaching humans animalistic or mythological theories about human nature helped create such episodes as the recent war.

He published his ideas in 1921 as “Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering.” The first printing of the book sold out in 6 weeks.

Korzbyski continued his research into the mechanisms of time-binding, and attempted a synthesis of the sciences from the standpoint of a theory of human evaluation. He included the field of psychiatry in his study, and worked closely for 2 years with William Alanson White, director of the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

From 1928 until 1933 Korzybski spent most of his time writing what was to become his most famous book, “Time-Binding: The General Theory.” At the last minute, however, he changed the name to “Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.” The new title, Korzybski felt, made clearer the results of his research. Bridges rarely collapse, Korzybski noted, because of the power of scientific methods and mathematical languages that are used to produce them. His book explored means of transferring this predictability of science-mathematical methods to the everyday evaluation habits of ordinary people.

“Science and Sanity” contended that humans progressed (“time-binding”) largely as a result of our more flexible nervous systems capable of symbolism. Language allowed us to summarize or generalize our experiences and pass them on to others, saving others from having to make the same mistakes or reinvent what had already been discovered.

This linguistic generalizing ability of humans, Korzybski contended, accounted for our amazing progress over animals, but the misuse of this mechanism accounted for many of our problems as well.

Korzybski suggested humans needed to be properly trained in the use of language to prevent misevaluation of non-verbal realities. He formulated his law of non-identity, also called the law of individuality, which states that no two persons, or situations, or stages of processes are the same in all details. Korzybski noted that we have fewer words and ideas than unique situations, and this tends to lead to the identification (“confusion”) of two or more situations. For example, the word “apple” is commonly applied to millions of different objects, to the ‘same’ object at different times, to scientific events on submicroscopic levels, to objects of everyday experience, to our mental images, to illustrations, and even to the combined letters a-p-p-l-e.

Korzybski developed a training program to teach people how to burst through their language habits to appreciate the unique characteristics of their daily experiences. His goal was to help people evaluate less by the implications of their everyday language (by intension) and more by the unique facts of a situation (by extension).

Korzybski advocated the application of a few mathematical devices to our daily language, such as indexes (apple1, apple2, apple3 …) and dates (US1930, US1940 …) to encourage a more factual orientation among language users. He also encourage the use of more actional, relational terms. Instead of saying what something “is” we describe what it does or how it relates to a greater whole. He also developed visual tools to teach humans to differentiate between non-verbal and verbal levels, descriptive and inferential levels, et cetera.

Korzybski felt that to break away from the limitations of one’s daily language we needed new ways of ‘thinking.’ He advocated ‘thinking’ on silent levels in terms of visual images, and he developed many visual aids for his theories including the Structural Differential, which in its most detailed form was a ‘3-dimensional’ model of the differences between the orders of abstraction. Differences between the orders of abstraction include differences between verbal and non-verbal levels, between descriptions and inferences, between descriptions(2) about descriptions(1), between inferences(2) from inferences(1), between affect(2) about affect(1), between what we see and the external stimuli themselves, between my abstractions and your abstractions, et cetera.

Korzybski’s devices were designed to encourage people to delay their immediate reactions while they searched for the unique characteristics of a situation and alternative interpretations. He was trying to link science-mathematical methods with sanity.

Following publication of his book in October, 1933, Korzybski set out to conduct seminars throughout the country on his theory of proper human evaluation, which he called General Semantics. In 1938 he and several of his followers founded the Institute of General Semantics near the University of Chicago campus to serve as a means to promote the new discipline. During World War II he helped S.I. Hayakawa and others establish what is now called the International Society for General Semantics. His book went through three editions during his lifetime, and he helped organize several congresses that brought together scholars interested in his work.

Korzybski died suddenly of a heart attack on 1 March 1950 at the age of 70. In reporting his death, The American Journal of Psychiatry (May 1950) stated, “The death of this great teacher … deepens appreciation of his essential contribution to human understanding, on an individual, widely social, or international scale.”

This biography was written by Steven Lewis using information provided in part from a larger biography written by Korzybski’s co-worker, M. Kendig, and printed in the third issue of the General Semantics Bulletin, Spring 1950.

Alfred Korzybski’s writings:

  • Manhood of Humanity, 1921, 2nd edition 1950, lviii + 326 pages.
  • Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 1933, 5th edition 1994, c + 806 pages.
  • General Semantics Seminar Given at Olivet College, 1937, 2nd edition 1964, viii + 96 pages.
  • Collected Writings: 1920-1950, 1st edition, 1990. Edited by M. Kendig. xxv + 915 pages. (Includes all of Korzybski’s journal articles and some correspondence.)

For more information about Alfred Korzybski please visit the Institute of General Semantics.

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