Alfred Korzybski

By Postman, Neil | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Alfred Korzybski


Postman, Neil, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


In 1976, I was appointed editor of ETC: The Journal of General Semantics. For ten years, I served in that capacity, and with each passing year, my respect for Alfred Korzybski increased and my respect for those academics who kept themselves and their students ignorant of his work decreased. I here pay my respects to a unique explorer, and by implication mean to express my disdain for those language educators who steep their students in irrelevancies and who believe that William Safire and Edwin Newman have something important to say about language.

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BECAUSE HE DID NOT have time to read every new book in his field, the great Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski used a simple and efficient method of deciding which ones were worth his attention: Upon receiving a new book, he immediately checked the index to see if his name was cited, and how often. The more "Malinowski," the more compelling the book. No "Malinowski," and he doubted that the subject of the book was anthropology at all. Considering his role in inventing the field, Malinowski was more realistic than egotistic, and one can think of half a dozen twentieth-century scholars who, were they alive today, would be entitled to employ the same method: Freud, George Herbert Mead, Bertrand Russell, Edward Sapir, John Dewey, Einstein--to name those who come at once to mind. Their names dominate the indexes of books in their fields, and justly so.

The name of Malinowski's countryman Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, ought to be on this list, but sadly and deplorably is not. I have, for the record, checked the indexes of fifty recent books claiming to be about the subject of language and meaning. Using the Malinowski method, Korzybski would find only four of them worth his attention. The others, he might say, are scarcely about language and meaning at all. This state of affairs--this neglect of the work of one of our century's extraordinary synthesizers--accounts in part for the limited range and depth of the field of semantics as it is practiced today, and almost wholly for its lack of usefulness.

Something needs to be done about this, which is why I hope to hold your attention long enough to recount Korzybski's vast and original contribution to an understanding of the symbolic process, most particularly in his landmark book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

Except for the fact that he was born in Poland in 1879, not much is known about Korzybski's early years. He claimed to be of royal ancestry and referred to himself as Count Alfred Korzybski, which did not endear him to academics--some of whom used this against him as evidence of the bogusness of his ideas. Nonetheless, from all accounts, Korzybski's bearing was distinctly imperial, an effect sharply heightened by his marble-bald head, his accent, and something in his countenance that approximated a sneer of cold command. According to the recollections of those who knew him, the total impression of his physical presence was similar to that conveyed by, say, the later Erich von Stroheim. To complete the picture, Korzybski also had a pronounced limp, a legacy from a wound he received while serving as an artillery officer in World War I.

His wound was not his only legacy from the Great War. The carnage and horror he witnessed left him haunted by a question of singular importance. Korzybski, who was trained in mathematics and engineering, wondered why scientists could have such astonishing successes in discovering the mysteries of nature while, at the same time, the non-scientific community experienced appalling failure in its efforts to solve psychological, social, and political problems. Scientists signify their triumphs by almost daily announcements of new theories, new discoveries, new pathways to knowledge. The rest of us announce our failures by warring against ourselves and others. …

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