Albert Schweitzer and Alfred Korzybski: Twentieth-Century Champions of Humanity

By Levinson, Martin H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Albert Schweitzer and Alfred Korzybski: Twentieth-Century Champions of Humanity


Levinson, Martin H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) and Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) were European-born contemporaries with powerful and wide-ranging intellects who devoted themselves to alleviating human suffering and advancing human welfare. Both men believed in a unity of idealism and realism and both practiced what they preached.

Schweitzer, like Korzybski, was a polymath. He not only studied but mastered philosophy, music, theology, and medicine. He also became the world's authority on Bach and organ building. At the age of thirty, he went to medical school and devoted the majority of his life to relieving the suffering of the people of Central Africa while still staying current on the affairs of the world, providing commentary on ethics, war, nuclear weapons, and environmental degradation. In 1952, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Korzybski studied engineering, mathematics, and philosophy. As a child he was fluent in four languages. In 1933, he published his magnum opus, Science and Sanity, which details the basic formulations of general semantics (GS), a non-Aristotelian system for improved human evaluation. His system has had significant influence in helping people to become more effective, accurate, and discriminating in their communications with others and with themselves. GS has also had a positive impact on disciplines such as Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), Media Ecology, and speech and language education.

Schweitzer and Korzybski were deeply affected by World War I. Schweitzer lost his mother in the conflict and was a prisoner of war. During the time he stayed in prison camps he worked on The Philosophy of Civilization which was published in two parts in 1923. In that book he presents his "Reverence for Life" philosophy, which will be discussed in more detail later in this article.

Korzybski served in the Russian army during World War I. Wounded several times on the battlefield, he intensely felt the distress of others in the hostilities. War assignments eventually took him to the United States where he learned English and published Manhood of Humanity (1921), a book that discusses what makes humans human and his theory of "time-binding."

Schweitzer's Philosophy of Civilization

"I want to be the pioneer of a new Renaissance. I want to throw faith in a new humanity, like a burning torch into our dark times."

From the preface to Civilization and Ethics (1923)

Schweitzer defines civilization as the quest for spiritual and material progress in all spheres of life, accompanied by the ethical development of individuals and humankind. (1) He observed that the Roman Stoics (e.g., Seneca. Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius) set a baseline for such ethical development in that they advised being present in the world and facing one's problems. Schweitzer believed theirs was a more constructive and humane approach to life than the pessimistic view of philosophers like Schopenhauer and certain religions which harp on a negation of the world and passively submitting to fate.

Like former ETC editor and NYU Professor Neil Postman, Schweitzer was partial to the eighteenth century Enlightenment values of reason and concern for civilization. He argued that those ideals became moribund in the nineteenth century, as people became lost in the nonessential, conforming to a mind-numbing compliance with machine-age living conditions. Such circumstances made it difficult for a system of morality to progress.

In 1923, Schweitzer put forth his system of ethics and comprehensive worldview in The Philosophy of Civilization. In that book he discusses his "Reverence for Life" philosophy, which involves the notion that one can achieve spiritual harmony in life by accepting reality, working to the best of one's ability, and being ethical.

Schweitzer's Reverence for Life Philosophy begins with the idea that all life, including that of plants and animals, is precious. …

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