Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)

“His time-binding theory and … General Semantics … severed across old lines of thought
as does a clean cleaver through moldy cheese.” – Douglas M. Kelley

Alfred Korzybski published Manhood of Humanity in 1921 and introduced his theory of time-binding. He classified humans as time-binders, primarily differentiated from lower forms of life by their unique capability to use language — and other symbol systems — to accumulate knowledge from generation to generation, such that the child can pick up where the parent left off.

Twelve years later came the book in which he provided a methodology for applying the consequences of time-binding, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. He and M. Kendig established The Institute of General Semantics as a non-profit organization in Chicago in 1938, aided by initial funding by Mr. Cornelius Crane. The Institute moved to Lakeville, Connecticut in 1946, and subsequently resided in Baltimore, MD, Englewood, NJ, Brooklyn, NY, and Fort Worth, TX.

While it would be a mistake to equate Korzybski (the man) with general semantics (the system of formulations), there is no denying the fact that Korzybski as formulator did do the formulating — and we have him to thank for that. Clearly, others since have made significant contributions to the field. What we view today as “general semantics” has a greater breadth — and perhaps, depth — than that which Korzybski left us in 1950.

Within the smallish body of persons who consider themselves as students of general semantics, there exist those at each end of the “blame-credit” spectrum — some believe Korzybski has been forgotten and left behind at the expense of successors who have (unsuccessfully) tried to ‘popularize’ his system for mass consumption. Others believe as strongly that Korzybski has been idolized and ‘worshipped’ at the expense of his own work, and the work of those who have attempted to extend GS.

Ultimately, he will be remembered — as will most of us — by what he wrote and said, and what others write and say about him.

(some of) What Korzybski Said

“What is General Semantics? Why GS? You should get from the beginning a type of reaction. One of the main points is how the reaction can be moulded. When we come to the problem of meaning, significance, etc., we are up against every kind of human difficulty.

“In revising semantics, I am adding the word General, and also have enlarged the meaning in the sense that it turns out to be a general theory of values; evaluation.

“In our seminars we investigate the factors of evaluation. If evaluation of any subject is correct, could you then have predictability? Have you a sort of feeling or orientation of what it would mean to you in your private life if you could predict that if you did so and so, such and such would happen? Don’t you begin to see that your future happiness depends on whether we can have predictability?

“When you calculate a bridge, you are actually talking to yourself about the bridge; you automatically get predictability about your bridge. Then our bridges do not collapse.

“Now, can we do something of that sort in ordinary life? This is a very serious thing, because if we can, then we will have great benefit. If so, we can handle our lives as well as we handle our bridges and sky scrapers. Why is it that our bridges do not collapse, but our private lives do? If we are not foolish about our bridges, why are we foolish about ourselves? The question is  — do we know how to handle our brains?”

“One of the main difficulties in applying General Semantics is that although the theoretical issues are very complex, the practical issues are childlike simple. People of your level are not willing to accept something which is too simple, because you fancy you are grown up. I am sorry, you are not grown up!” — seminar transcript, July, 1938

(some of) What Others Said About Him

“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. Accom-panying that insight is a new kind of respect for human potentiality.” — Irving J. Lee

“… 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 …” — Sam Bois

“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.”  — Douglas M. Kelley

“…[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.” — Guthrie Janssen