Alfred Korzybski

Alfred Korzybski (July 3, 1879 - March 1, 1950), born in Warsaw, Poland, came from a family which had worked as mathematicians, scientists, and engineers for generations, and he chose to train as an engineer.

During the First World War Korzybski served as an intelligence officer in the Russian Army. After being wounded in his leg and suffering other injuries, he came to North America to coordinate the shipment of artillery to the war front. He also lectured to Polish-American audiences about the conflict, promoting the sale of war bonds. Following the war, he decided to remain in the United States. His first book, Manhood of Humanity was published in 1921. In the book, he proposed and explained in detail a new theory of humankind: mankind as a time-binding class of life. (This theory has gained new heft with the recent publication of Not By Genes Alone, a book that details the impact of culture on evolution.)

Korzybski's work culminated in the founding of a discipline that he called general semantics (GS). As Korzybski explicitly said, GS should not be confused with semantics, a different subject. The basic principles of general semantics are outlined in Science and Sanity, published in 1933. General semantics included time-binding as one of its formulations. In 1938 Korzybski founded the Institute of General Semantics and directed it until his death in 1950. In simplified form, the 'essence' of Korzybski's work was the claim that human beings are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems, and (2) the structure of their languages. Human beings cannot experience the world directly, but only through their "abstractions" (nonverbal impressions or 'gleanings' derived from the nervous sytem, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language). Sometimes our perceptions and our languages actually mislead us as to the 'facts' with which we must deal. Our understanding of what is going on sometimes lacks similarity of structure with what is actually going on. He stressed training in awareness of abstracting, using techniques that he had derived from his study of mathematics and science. He called this awareness, this goal of his system, "consciousness of abstracting." His system included modifying the way we approach the world (including the way we talk about it in language) to better reflect its realities as shown by science. One of these techniques involved becoming inwardly and outwardly quiet, an experience that he called, "silence on the objective levels."

It is often said that Korzybski opposed the use of the verb "to be," an unfortunate exaggeration. He thought that certain uses of the verb "to be," called the "is of identity" and the "is of predication," were faulty in structure, e.g., a statement such as "Joe is a fool" (said of a person named 'Joe' who has done something that we regard as dumb). Korzybski's remedy was to deny identity; in this example, to be continually aware that 'Joe' is not what we call him. We find Joe not in the verbal domain, the world of words, but the nonverbal domain. This was expressed in Korzybski's most famous premise, "the map is not the territory." Note that "the map is not the territory," uses the phrase 'is not,' a form of the verb "to be." This example shows that he did not intend to abandon the verb as such.

One of the techniques of general semantics is to reword sentences such as "Joe is a fool," to create a better structural fit with the particular facts, e.g., "Joe's behavior today seems foolish to me." This avoids identifying the label "a fool" with its subject. Another technique is simply to put quotes as a warning device around the word 'is,' e.g., "Joe 'is' a fool," to alert ourselves to the structural problems with the statement. In speaking, this is expressed with a slight movement of the fingers, indicating quotes. To prevent cluttering a long essay with too many quotes, some general semanticists use them in just a few 'is' of identity or predication sentences to remind the reader of the structural issues involved. The unwritten agreement between the writer and the reader to not always use quotes (or to not always reword a sentence) is called the semantic bargain. Other general semanticists don't bother with quotes at all, or the alternative of rewording 'is' of identity statements. They rely instead on the reader's awareness that "the map is not the territory," and on the reader's training in 'silence on the objective levels,' to prevent identification. That's their version of the semantic bargain.

In the 1960's, David Bourland, who had been a student of Korzybski's, criticized him for having used the verb "to be" in Science and Sanity, and coined and promoted E-Prime: the use of the English language without any form of the verb "to be," a suggestion he had picked up from a now-forgotten person who had written a letter to Korzybski's Institute.

Korzybski's work influenced Neuro-linguistic programming (especially the metamodel) and Gestalt Therapy, and individuals such as Gregory Bateson, Alvin Toffler, Robert Heinlein, and scientists such as William Alanson White (psychiatry), and W. Horsley Gantt (a student and colleague of Pavlov).

Further Reading

  • Manhood of Humanity, Alfred Korzybski, forward by Edward Kasner, notes by M. Kendig, Institute of General Semantics, 1950, hardcover, 2nd edition, 391 pages, ISBN 093729800X
  • Science and Sanity An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski, Preface by Robert P. Pula, Institute of General Semantics, 1994, hardcover, 5th edition, ISBN 0937298018

External links

  • [1] ( Institute of General Semantics
  • [2] ( "Alfred Korzybski and Gestalt Therapy"fr:Alfred Korzybski

nl:Alfred Korzybski


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