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After Count Alfred

Posted Oct 02 2008 6:16pm

There is an anecdote about Alfred Korzybski that goes as follows: Giving a lecture to a group of students, Korzybski stopped the lesson and took a box of biscuits from his briefcase. He said that he was hungry and offered to share the biscuits with the attentive students sitting in the front row. Some of the students took him up on the offer and began to chew on the biscuits along with their lecturer. Alfred_korzybski When asked, the students agreed that the biscuits were tasty. It was at this point that Korzybski tore off the white paper covering the box containing the biscuits to reveal the picture of a dog's head and the title on the box: Dog Cookies. The students who had eaten the biscuits were appalled and two of them ran out of the lecture hall to the washroom to throw up. Korzybski then reportedly said, "You see, ladies and gentlemen. I have just demonstrated that people don't just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter."

A Polish count by birth, Alfred Korzybski came to North American in 1916 and later became an American citizen. His first book, Manhood of Humanity, was published in 1921 and introduced readers to what would later be known as the General Semantics movement. Korzybski had a lifelong fascination with the intricacies of human language and the ideological traps that humans fall into with respect to natural language and "common sense" assumptions about the reality around us. He recognized that human beings were limited by their own physical limitations, i.e., the range of their senses, and the structure imposed by language. Two of his most famous sayings: "The word is not the thing" and "The map is not the territory" helped to highlight the human tendency to be bogged down in semantic representations of reality rather than the reality itself. In particular, Korzybski railed against what he termed "Aristotelian" modes of thinking based on Aristotle's logical premises (or more accurately, the overly rigid application of simplistic logical constructs to structure reality). He considered all human knowledge to be based on assumptions which need to be continually revised as circumstances change. Korzybski favoured multi-valued logic systems linked to probability theory and the use of scientific induction to determine truth. He also recognized the human capacity for time-binding (passing information from one generation to the next) which largely separated humans from the other animals.

Korzybski went on to found the Institute of General Semantics in 1938 and, by the time of his death in 1950, his influence on science and literature had become immense. Korzybski's admirers included Gregory Bateson, R. Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler, William Burroughs, Robert Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt. As he had written at length on the therapeutic applications of General Semantics, it was only natural that later psychotherapists would draw heavily on Korzybski's writings. Albert Ellis freely recognized Korzybski's influence in the development of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy as did Frederick Perls and Paul Goodman with respect to Gestalt Therapy. Many other pioneers of cognitive psychotherapy drew on Alfred Korzybski's work as well.

Ironically, one of Korzybski's most influential students was L. Ron Hubbard who drew heavily on Korzybski's writings for his own seminal classic Dianetics published in 1950 (some would say to the point of plagiarism). While Hubbard acknowledged Korzbyski's writings in the introduction to his early classic, any pretense at following his logical principles had been completely abandoned by the time Scientology was introduced.

Perhaps it's just as well that Count Alfred never lived to see that.

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