Tuesday, March 31, 2009

General Semantics Glossary - Abstracting

Abstracting; Abstracting Process: how our nervous systems map or construct our experiences from the submicroscopic world and represent them in words and other symbols; provides our only way of gathering and representing information.(1)

(1) from Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Revised Second Edition.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"a poor but brilliant student of mathematics"

After he had been teaching at the Institute of General Semantics for a few years, people would tell Korzybski that he shouldn’t expend his valuable energy teaching ‘half rate’ people with too little money and only variable education, when he could be focusing on training professionals who would appreciate his work.

They also may have considered that he took too much time and energy dealing with visits or correspondence from strangers and those who weren’t bigwigs.

However, he simply couldn’t dismiss anyone who approached him with sincere interest since he had proposed a general method of evaluation. He didn’t consider it adequate if it couldn’t be applied by just about anyone in any human activity.

Korzybski had also become more conscious of the fact that well-educated professionals would not necessarily demonstrate more openness to his work. He had found enough of them who became inaccessible or even ‘enemies for life’ because he had touched some sensitive, fundamental, and often unconscious assumptions by which they had organized their lives. And among people whom some would consider ‘half-rates’, he had found some valuable individuals to cultivate. He carried out a voluminous personal correspondence with many of his seminar students (most of whom weren’t bigwigs) whom he wanted to write to him with news of their progress in their efforts to apply extensional methods to their lives.

His assistants Pearl Johnecheck or Charlotte Schuchardt or [Marjorie] Kendig could deal with some of the visits and unsolicited letters, not only from people he knew but also from strangers who wanted advice, help, or even an interview with him. But at times he would also personally respond to an unsolicited letter from a complete unknown.

A 17 year old boy named Walter Pitts, who hadn’t graduated from high school, wrote to him on January 10, 1941, requesting an interview. Pitts, a mathematical genius who would later become known as one of the originators of neural net theory and cybernetics, didn’t have money, but had read Science and Sanity and had come to feel that it had something in it for him:
January 10, 1941 
…Dear Count Korzybski:…I am a poor but brilliant student of mathematics, 17 years of age. Until a short time ago, I found the possibilities of my chosen field almost limitless;…recently the conviction has gradually formed itself in me that mathematics, alone or as an end in itself, is almost completely sterile. It may be compared to a wonderful language, which is nevertheless useless until one can say something in it…I have accordingly been seeking a way of relating my mathematics (and more generally logic, for I have also studied this, only to find it equally sterile and unpromising), firstly [to] the problems of contemporary science and society — and of less importance [to] the innumerable practical decisions which I, as an individual, am called upon to make in the course of my everyday life. Despite the inadequacies of most attempted solutions of the problem which I have so far examined, I am still convinced that there must be a way out. 
Some weeks ago I found a copy of Science and Sanity in the library. At first I was repelled by its apparent difficulty, but, haunted by a feeling that there was something in it for my problem, I continued reading. Slowly, I have come to appreciate the weight which can attach to a few pages of a work such as yours. Nevertheless, I have felt, and think you will agree, that with the best will in the world one cannot hope secure a complete understanding of this monumental work from reading [or even] re-reading it. 
Even so, I have already derived some aid toward bringing mathematics and the world together from your writings; and I am therefore reasonably certain that your system—or rather method— may prove the correct solution to my difficulties. There is, moreover, a possibility, although I am quite uncertain here, that your methods may prove of some value in respect of certain of my personal problems. 
I have been told that you are to give a series of seminars in the near future; but apart from the fact that I am undoubtedly not yet qualified to participate in these, it would not be possible for me to pay anything of the necessary fees. 
For this reason I should like very much to have a short conference with you if this is at all possible. I realize of course that I have no real right to ask this, since your full time is probably taken up by your students and your own research; perhaps, however, you may find something of interest or potentiality in the writer which would warrant this unusual favor. It is in that hope that I have written this letter. 
Yours sincerely,Walter Pitts 
[I.G.S. Archives]   
Korzybski dictated a reply to Charlotte Schuchardt on January 13:
Dear Mr. Pitts:
This is to acknowledge your letter of January 10. I am always eager to help young men who are interested in science and mathematics.  
I believe that you would be prepared to take a seminar, because after all, it is plain common sense. However, it would be wiser if you would see me personally first. I enclose a schedule of the seminars. You could eventually apply for a scholarship, which probably would be granted by the committee. 
If you wish to see me, telephone for an appointment to Miss Johnecheck.   
With best wishes, 
Yours cordially... 
[I.G.S. Archives]
I was unable to find any further correspondence but Pitts may indeed have had a meeting with Korzybski. (I found no record of him having ever attended a seminar). Pitts would meet the psychiatrist/neuroscientist Warren McCulloch in 1941 and begin to collaborate with him in a series of ground-breaking papers starting with their 1943 paper “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.”

Pitts’ interest in Science and Sanity remains one of the many intriguing links between Korzybski and some of the pioneers of cybernetics, neuroscience, and related studies.

Some web links I've found related to Walter Pitts:
VisiWiki entry on Walter Pitts

Philosophy of Mind Dictionary entry for Walter Pitts

Walter Pitts in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

Abstract of Science in Context journal article "From Logical Neurons to Poetic Embodiments of Mind: Warren S. McCulloch’s Project in Neuroscience" by Lily E. Kay

Pitts and “A Logical Calculus” a Synthese journal abstract (with link to complete article)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Korzybski and Some Pragmatists

This blogpost will probably seem like it takes the long way around to get to the main point: Korzybski's relationship with so-called pragmatists like John Dewey and Charles S. Peirce, but here goes.

A while back my friend Lance Strate, Communication/Media Ecology Scholar and Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics asked in an email:
I was wondering if Korzybski had any contact or influence coming from the University of Chicago's famous school of sociology, Dewey, Veblen, especially George Herbert Mead and symbolic interaction, but most of all I was wondering if his Human Engineering was at all connected to the Human Ecology of Park, Burgess, et al (although it seems that the term human ecology was coined a bit earlier by the Scottish biologist and urban studies founder, Patrick Geddes).
Given that Korzybski founded the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago in 1938, had spent much time there previously, and lived and worked there until 1946, this question about these Chicago and other connections certainly seems like an interesting one to pursue. In the process of telling Lance that I didn't know of any significant influence either way, I put together the following. I guess the mention of Dewey started a train of association with various pragmatists with whom Korzybski did have some connection.

I emailed back:
There may have been some contacts that Korzybski had with some of the people at the U of Chi school of sociology (the Institute was in Chicago from 1938 until 1946). But I don't know of any significant influence that they had on AK's work. And his work, I would guess, had minimum influence on theirs. I haven't looked enough into Mead's and others work enough to know if they give any references to Korzybski.

AK did correspond with Arthur Bentley from 1932 until about 1935. Bentley, a polymathic political scientist who transcended disciplinary boundaries fairly often, later worked with John Dewey with whom he wrote the 1949 book Knowing And The Known, their take on a transactional epistemology/psychology. They referred to Korzybski in that book when talking about Bertrand Russell's
"...continual confounding of "symbol" and "entity."...Fusion of "symbol" and "entity" is what Russell demands, and confusion is what he gets. With an exhibit as prominent as this in the world, it is no wonder that Korzybski has felt it necessary to devote so much of his writings to the insistent declaration that the word is not the thing. His continued insistence upon this point will remain a useful public service until, at length the day comes when a thorough theory of the organization of behavioral word and cosmic fact has been constructed." (p. 220)
This was probably written by Bentley, not Dewey.

Dewey, apparently did not care too much for Korzybski's work. The two men may have met in the early 1920s and when Korzybski gave the 'famous' lecture (where he came up with the Structural Differential Diagram) at the New School for Social Research in May 1923, Dewey may have been in the audience. Korzybski mentioned Dewey's hostility towards his work, even then. Later in 1945, Dewey wrote to Ken Keyes, a student of Alfred's:
"I can take no interest in any scheme which at this
date and day limits itself at the outset by a strictly negative approach in its name" [John Dewey qtd. in letter of Ken Keyes to AK, 9/3/1945]
He was referring to Korzybski's "Non-Aristotelian" System. So Dewey seems to have made the same mistake that many people did, assuming that "Non" meant "Anti."

Keyes wrote about this to Korzybski, who replied to Keyes that Dewey should know better. In the same letter he referred to Charles Sanders Peirce as
"...a real and important pioneer who originated new trends in mathematics and mathematical logic, and with William James established 'pragmatism'. As to Dewey, his role in American Education has been quite detrimental. He is a good verbalist, a wise man, but certainly ignorant of science, and his influence on American education was to encourage 'philosophizing' to the detriment of scientific method. ...The relation of Dewey to Peirce and James was rather superficial, and as both Peirce and James are dead he goes by reflected glory of the two great pioneers. ...If you read the suggested book of Peirce [Chance, Love, and Logic] and some of the bibliography given there, you will better understand the greatness of Peirce, and you will get a glimpse of what a 'system' has to offer. Peirce in his lifetime was not popular, but today he is a foundation of the scientific progress we have achieved." [AK to Ken Keyes, 9/11/1945].
Although Chance, Love, and Logic came out in 1923, I don't know when AK first read it (it is listed in the 1933 bibliography of Science and Sanity). Peirce had no significant influence on the development of K's work, although he recognized Peirce's greatness as a Non-Aristotelian pioneer.

It's hard to say what influence Korzybski's work had on the people you mention. He seems to have come up with the term "human engineering" on his own, it's in the 1920 MS of Manhood of Humanity and of course in the final published 1921 version as well. That book, for its type, had a large public and a good amount of press coverage, and others may have picked up the term either from the book or from newspaper accounts, editorials, etc. Whether the people associated with the Chicago School of Sociology or with Human Ecology knew of or were influenced by Korzybski, I do not know. If you get any information on this I'd like to know.

Friday, March 13, 2009

H. Beam Piper

H. Beam Piper remains one of the lesser known science fiction writers. In my opinion, he also qualifies as one of the great ones. And from the evidence of his writings, his study of Korzybski's work influenced him profoundly. I judge that Piper had a much better grasp of Korzybski's work than either Heinlein or Van Vogt, who also made use of it.

Piper had an interesting but tragic life which John F. Carr writes about in H. Beam Piper: A Biography

Piper began to publish stories in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction magazine in the late 1940s, at the tail-end of what has been called the "Golden Age of Science Fiction." Piper committed suicide in the early 1960s. That's the tragic part. I have liked just about every story of his that I've read.

Murder in the Gunroom (1953) remains his only detective novel. It features a private eye, Jeff Rand, who has seriously studied Korzybski's work:
"That sounds like Korzybski," Pierre said, as they turned onto Route 19 in the village and headed east. "You've read Science and Sanity?"

Rand nodded. "Yes. I first read it in the 1933 edition, back about 1936; I've been rereading it every couple of years since. The principles of General Semantics come in very handy in my business, especially in criminal-investigation work, like this. A consciousness of abstracting, a realization that we can only know something about a thin film of events on the surface of any given situation, and a habit of thinking structurally and of individual things, instead of verbally and of categories, saves a lot of blind-alley chasing. And they suggest a great many more avenues of investigation than would be evident to one whose thinking is limited by intensional, verbal, categories."
Murder in the Gunroom, like many if not all of Piper's works, has gone into what is called "the public domain" and is available free as text at: Murder in the Gunroom-Project Gutenberg and as an audiobook at Murder in the Gunroom-Librivox

I'm going to go now and listen to the audiobook.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Passion of Knowledge

Lothar Bickel, a student of Constantin Brunner (1) wrote the following to end his wonderful book The Unity of Body and Mind. I think he was describing his teacher and himself. But the quote describes, in general terms, a central aspect of what drove Alfred Korzybski as well.
Our convictions…are, in general easily overthrown and they hold their ground only when they correspond to those vague judgments of our interests that are carried along by our drives and feelings.

The situation is different for the few whose lives are dependent upon the affirmation and negation of cognition, whose existence is centered in the ebb and tide of cognitive processes as vitally and genuinely as it is in that of feeling and volition. Their insights and judgments are powerful existential forces that can well compare with those of common drives and affects. Those men who come upon important truths of science or philosophy have no need of injecting in them the power and strength of repressed emotions in order to make them the most vital concern of their inward lives. From the very beginning the warmest blood of their lives pulsates for their truth which becomes their strongest passion from the very time it first takes root in them. This passion for truth also accounts for the stamp and fortitude of their characters. Self-acquired insights are genuine activities of life-maintainance, and as such they become motions or forces especially in those individuals whose lust for life (“the essence of man itself”) cannot do without knowledge. These few will find in knowledge the fulfillment of their existence. (2)
(1) You can find a Brunner link in the right sidebar of this blog under "Web Page Links."

(2) Lothar Bickel, The Unity of Body and Mind pp. 164-165.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

William Burroughs and Korzybski

The eclectic mix of students likely to attend an Institute of General Semantics seminar given by Alfred Korzybski might include artists, businessmen, college professors, college students, engineers, doctors, housewives, lawyers, psychiatrists, salesmen, scientists, secretaries, writers, and an occasional mystic. In that regard, the 1939 August Intensive—which ran from August 25 to September 2 (the personal interviews continued until September 6)—had a typical group. However, a number of notable participants also made it one of the more remarkable groups in the history of Korzybski’s Institute seminars. (Not that the 'notable' participants necessarily seemed 'notable' at the time.)

One of these was twenty-five year old William Seward Burroughs II from Clayton, Missouri, grandson to the inventor of the Burroughs Adding Machine, who labeled himself as a “student” on his seminar registration form. One of the future creators of what became known as the Beat movement of mid-Twentieth Century American literature, he had graduated from Harvard in 1936 with an English degree. Since then he had studied anthropology and hoboed around America and Europe. He had already read Science and Sanity and noted on his registration form that he was interested in the “interrelations of language and cultures.” While in Chicago, he stayed at the Y.M.C.A. He had perfect attendance at the thirty-five hour seminar. I have not found any correspondence between the two men but Korzybski and his work undoubtedly had a significant impact on Burroughs. Many years later in 1974 at an interview he said that at the seminar he “…was very impressed by what [Korzybski] had to say. I still am. I think that everyone, everyone, particularly all students should read Korzybski. [It would] save them an awful lot of time.” (1)

For more information on William Burroughs, you might want to check out www.nakedlunch.org which some Burroughs fans have put together as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of his most well-known novel.

(1) William Burroughs. Press Conference at Berkeley Museum of Art, November 12, 1974. Internet Archive audio. http://www.archive.org/details/BurroughsPressConf