José Klingbeil
(French version)

Copyright © José Klingbeil. The author hereby grants permission to use this article in electronic form only, in part or in whole, to any person or institution for educational purposes, provided no charge is made for such use.

Alfred Korzybski and his work

Alfred Korzybski was born in Warsaw (Poland) on July 3, 1879. There, he studied chemistry engineering at the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute. Later, he studied in Germany and in Italy, especially in Rome where he stayed more than one year. These studies gave him a great fluency in various languages.

When World War I began, he volunteered in the 2nd Russian Army, where he was wounded. He was then attached to the Headquarters, in the Intelligence Service. Sent to Canada and U.S.A. as an expert of artillery of the Russian army, he became a recruiting officer for the French-Polish army in the U.S.A, after the 1917 Soviet Revolution.

At the end of hostilities, deeply moved by the terrible experiences of the war, he decided to settle in the United States. In 1921, he published his first book, Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering [E. P. Dutton, New York, U.S.A.]. During the twelve following years, Korzybski worked to develop his theories. This period ended in 1933 with the publication of Science and Sanity: An Introduction to non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics [International non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company, New York, U.S.A.]. General semantics were born. This monumental work is his masterpiece and the reference book of the discipline.

From then on to the end of his life, Korzybski worked to develop and teach general semantics. In 1937, he gave a seminar in Olivet College, whose transcription is published in 1939. In 1938, he created the Institute of General Semantics (IGS), in Chicago [today located in Englewood, New Jersey]. He spent the following years giving seminars, organizing conventions and developing applications of general semantics in various fields of knowledge.

In 1945, the science-fiction author A. E. Van Vogt, very impressed by his reading of Science and Sanity, published in episodes, in the science-fiction magazine Astounding, what will become in 1948 the first novel of the null-A series: World of Null-A. In this novel, the hero called Gilbert Gosseyn (“go sane”: in reference to Korzybski's “sanity”) lives in a world where general semantics became the selection criterion for Humanity. The best-trained individuals are sent on the planet Venus (at the time, space probes Pioneer 12, 13 and Magellan had not determined what kind of 'hell' this planet could be), anarchical world where the chosen ones worked together without the need of any government system or police. This novel and its fantastic success draw public attention on Korzybski's work and his Institute. This book will have a continuation - Players of Null-A - and lately an end: Null-A Three.

Toward the end of his life, Korzybski published some important texts, briefly summing up the discipline and its last developments. Among these, the article General Semantics, published in the American People's Encyclopaedia, a 'credo' for an international conference What I Believe and The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes, published in the book Perception: An Approach to Personality.

Alfred Korzybski died in Sharon, Connecticut, in 1950. In paper form, his writings would occupy less than 30 centimetres on a shelf. Yet, as M. Kendig, director of the Institute of General Semantics, said in her preface to the second edition of Manhood of Humanity: “Seldom if ever in human history has so little represented so much for human understanding and progress”

The Institute of General Semantics and the European Society for General Semantics

The Institute of General Semantics continues its activities, under the direction of M. Kendig, and then of Charlotte Schuchardt Read who was Korzybski's assistant. The teaching of the discipline reaches the American universities, thanks to some professors and writers such as Wendell Johnson, Irving J. Lee, Harry Weinberg and S. I. Hayakawa. Some of the formulations of the general semantics sink in, losing their origin in the process. In 1943, an association-the International Society for General Semantics-is created on the west coast of United States, in San Francisco, and publishes many popularisation books.

In 1990, the IGS publishes a volume, including all of Korzybski's papers and articles and a part of his voluminous correspondence, with the title Alfred Korzybski: Collected Writings, 1920-1950. This work completes Korzybski's books, Manhood of Humanity and Science and Sanity, and gives extensive information on the genesis and development of the discipline, from 1920 to 1950.

In 1996, following the development of the Internet in Europe, a group of people create the European Society for General Semantics (or ESGS), with the important project of translating Science and Sanity in French, a project several times started by isolated people, but that was led never to term. Indeed, the considerable task (more than 800 pages) and difficulties of translation, due to the necessity of a great rigor, required a group work, greatly facilitated by cheap computer communications and media that were not available until the very last years. The objective of the ESGS is to encourage studies and to teach general semantics practice in European countries.

General semantics and its influence

The term of “general semantics”, chosen by Korzybski to designate this new non-Aristotelian system, gives focus on the importance of languages and their structures. Korzybski specially demonstrated that Aristotle's supposition concerning the universality of the subject-predicate form was false: formulations expressing asymmetric relations (“greater than”, “smaller than”, “before”, “after”, etc.) resisted such decomposition. These asymmetric relations thus became a starting point for the new system and explained the importance that Korzybski gave to sciences (non-Euclidean mathematics and non-Newtonian physics) in his discipline.

In the same way, a number of disciplines, and notably sciences themselves, began to investigate the implications of the structures-and the limits that they sometimes impose to our ways of 'thinking', perceptions and visualization possibilities-of their specific language. Thus, appeared meta-mathematics. Epistemology developed in a spectacular way: we are very fond of the 'philosophical' implications of new scientific theories and some hoaxes, as the “Sokal affair”, will generate a very long controversy.

However, the term of “general semantics” does not give a faithful account of the extent of the system developed by Korzybski. It includes as a particular case the Aristotelian system (that's why it is not an anti-Aristotelian system), in the same way that Einstein's theories account for Newton's results when the relative speeds are negligible compared to the speed of light. Contrary to what its name could suggest to the occasional reader, general semantics is not a branch of the semantics, neither a generalization of this discipline. Its objectives are at least as broad as those of the Aristotelian system, while taking into account the teachings of modern sciences.

With such a wide range of applications, it seems natural that general semantics would have a considerable influence. Beyond the direct line, through the Institute of General Semantics and its affiliated associations, it influenced numerous disciplines, sometimes explicitly, sometimes more implicitly. We (nearly) all know “A map is not the territory it represents” (often wrongly quoted as “The map is not the territory”), but how many know that this formulation is one of the three fundamental premises of general semantics?

Beyond this simple formula and at the basis of the system there is a functional definition of Man. Before Korzybski, 'metaphysicians', 'philosophers', 'psychologists', etc., used to say what Man was (an animal, an animal more something of 'divine', a 'god' less something, etc.). Korzybski, rejecting these attitudes, tried to say what men did. He thus named “time-binding” this specific human capacity, that every human generation can (roughly) potentially start where the previous generation stopped, a capacity that spare our children from reinventing fire, wheel, computers, etc. Although rarely made explicitly, this formulation was adopted in a number of fields of knowledge (epistemology, sociology, 'psychology', etc.). Man's functional definition appeared for the first time in 1921, in Manhood of Humanity, and is at the origin of the long studies that were successfully completed in 1933, with the publication of Science and Sanity. It is probably one of the fundamental contributions of Korzybski and general semantics to human knowledge.

Another of these contributions is the discovery of identification (confusion of orders of abstractions) as a psychopathological factor. Most of the present 'psychological' treatments are based, explicitly or not, on the elimination of this factor from the semantic reactions of the patient. Again, these contributions are sometimes explicitly recognised by certain schools, such the Palo Alto school, founded by Don Jackson and Gregory Bateson.

But there are many other less-known contributions. The use of scare quotes to signal doubtful terms has now passed into body language: some people will raise hands and move their indexes of their hands, drawing quotes in the air. The use of the hyphen, to build new words integrating various aspects of their elementary components, also invaded our vocabulary (such as in “space-time”, “psycho-somatic”, “neuro-linguistic”, etc.). Let's also mention the 'discovery' and importance of silent levels (un-speakable), the visualization of the system with the Structural Differential, orders and levels of abstractions, extensional orientation, consciousness of abstracting, etc.

About this book...

You will find in this book two of the last papers of Korzybski-General Semantics, published in the American People's Encyclopaedia, and The Rôle of Language in the Perceptual Processes. You will also find here the preface to the first edition of Science and Sanity. The two first are excellent presentations of the discipline, in different forms, the first one being a descriptive article written for an encyclopaedia, the other throwing some light on the influence of the structure of language on our perceptions. The preface of Science and Sanity will allow you to evaluate the aims of the complete work.