Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Psycho-Logical Fate and Freedom

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Psycho-Logical Fate and Freedom

Article excerpt

ALFRED KORZYBSKI wanted a science of humanity. As the title and subtitle of his 1921 book indicate--Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering--this was not a disinterested, academic pursuit. Having suffered and seen the suffering of others on the battlefields of World War One, he felt a burning need to promote the growth of "Human Engineering ... the science and art of directing the energies and capacities of human beings to the advancement of human weal." (1) Without a purposeful, systematic, and cooperative effort to create such a science-art, he feared that the energies and capacities of human beings would more likely continue to advance human destructiveness and suffering. (Korzybski eventually abandoned the term "human engineering" and came up with the term general semantics (abbreviated as "GS") to label the methodological fruits of his efforts toward such a science-art.)

In Manhood, Korzybski sought to begin a solid foundation for the science of humanity by defining "Man" (used by him at that time as a neutral term for "human being"). He wanted a functional definition: What do humans do that distinguishes them from other forms of life? In answer, Korzybski defined humanity as the time-binding class of life. Humans have the ability to symbolically organize or "bind" their experience and to receive and transmit the products of this effort from one person, group, and generation to another. This gives us humans the potential to benefit from and build upon the experiences and work of those who come before us and to do so at an accelerating rate.

After the publication of Manhood, Korzybski sought to understand the underlying basis of time-binding, its mechanism--how does it work? In pursuit of this understanding he made an in-depth study of mathematical foundations and mathematical (symbolic) logic, physics, psychiatry, psychology, colloidal chemistry, neurology, anthropology, and other fields. In the span of two years, from early 1925 into 1927, he studied psychiatric patients at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., under the supervision of his friend, the distinguished psychiatrist William Alanson White, M.D., who headed that institution.

To understand how time-binding works, Korzybski considered it necessary to study its extremes. One end of the continuum of human time-binding behavior was represented by severe psychiatric cases--insanity. The other end was represented by scientists, mathematicians, and other inquirers when working at their best--sanity. To the so-called 'normal' person, hovering between the two extremes, he applied the label "unsane," a term suggested to him by psychiatrist Philip Graven.

Considering science and mathematics (including logic) in relation to psychiatric problems and daily life adjustment, as Korzybski did, seemed like a somewhat strange approach to many people (perhaps to some it still does). Writing about Korzybski's work, organizational management theorist F.J. Roethlesberger (who attended a seminar in the 1930s given by Korzybski) wrote:

   At this time there was considerable interest in comparing the way a
   child thinks (Piaget) with the way a primitive thinks (Levy-Bruhl)
   and with the way a neurotic thinks (Freud). Only a genius or a nut
   would have tried to compare the way a mathematician thinks (Russell
   and Whitehead) and the way a neurotic thinks (psychiatry). Korzybski
   was such a man. (2)

Korzybski's position may have seemed extreme to those who saw mathematics as dealing with some kind of extra-human, 'transcendental,' platonic realm. Even now (2005), this notion pervades much of the scientific-mathematical community. However, as far back as the 1920s Korzybski viewed mathematics as a language, a form of human behavior. He emphasized mathematics as a product created by and affecting human nervous systems, an exemplar of human time-binding effort.

A study of mathematics and those areas of science (e. …

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