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Alfred Korzybski

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Alfred Korzybski

Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski was born on July 3, 1879 in Warsaw, Poland, and died on March 1, 1950, in Lakeville, Connecticut, USA. He is probably best-remembered for developing the theory of general semantics.

Early life and careerEdit

Herb Abdank

Alfred Korzybski's family coat-of-arms (Habdank).

He came from an aristocratic family whose members had worked as mathematicians, scientists, and engineers for generations. He learned Polish at home and Russian in the schools; and having a French governess and a German governess, he became fluent in four languages as a child. As an adult, he chose to train as an engineer.

Korzybski was educated at the Warsaw University of Technology. During the First World War Korzybski served as an military intelligence officer in the Russian Army. After being wounded in his leg and suffering other injuries, he came to North America in 1916 (first to Canada, then the United States) to coordinate the shipment of artillery to the war front. He also lectured to Polish-American audiences about the conflict, promoting the sale of war bonds. Following the war, he decided to remain in the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1940. His first book, Manhood of Humanity was published in 1921. In the book, he proposed and explained in detail a new theory of humankind: mankind as a time-binding class of life.

General semanticsEdit

Korzybski's work culminated in the founding of a discipline that he called general semantics (GS). As Korzybski explicitly said, GS should not be confused with semantics, a different subject. The basic principles of general semantics, which include time-binding, are outlined in Science and Sanity, published in 1933. In 1938 Korzybski founded the Institute of General Semantics and directed it until his death.

In simplified form, the "essence" of Korzybski's work was the claim that human beings are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems, and (2) the structure of their languages. Human beings cannot experience the world directly, but only through their "abstractions" (nonverbal impressions or "gleanings" derived from the nervous system, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language). Sometimes our perceptions and our languages actually mislead us as to the "facts" with which we must deal. Our understanding of what is going on sometimes lacks similarity of structure with what is actually going on. He stressed training in awareness of abstracting, using techniques that he had derived from his study of mathematics and science. He called this awareness, this goal of his system, "consciousness of abstracting." His system included modifying the way we approach the world, e.g., with an attitude of "I don't know; let's see," to better discover or reflect its realities as shown by modern science. One of these techniques involved becoming inwardly and outwardly quiet, an experience that he called, "silence on the objective levels."

Korzybski and to beEdit

Many supporters and critics of Korzybski reduced his rather complex system to a simple matter of what he said about the verb 'to be.' His system however, is based primarily on such terminology as the different 'orders of abstraction,' and formulations such as 'consciousness of abstracting.' It is also often said that Korzybski actually opposed the use of the verb "to be," an unfortunate exaggeration (see 'Criticisms' below). He thought that certain uses of the verb "to be," called the "is of identity" and the "is of predication," were faulty in structure, e.g., a statement such as, "Joe is a fool" (said of a person named 'Joe' who has done something that we regard as foolish). In Korzybski's system, one's assessment of Joe belongs to a higher order of abstraction than Joe himself. Korzybski's remedy was to deny identity; in this example, to be continually aware that 'Joe' is not what we call him. We find Joe not in the verbal domain, the world of words, but the nonverbal domain (the two, he said, amount to different orders of abstraction). This was expressed in Korzybski's most famous premise, "the map is not the territory." Note that "the map is not the territory," uses the phrase "is not", a form of the verb "to be." This example (one of many) shows that he did not intend to abandon the verb as such. In fact, he expressly said that there were no structural problems with the verb 'to be' when used as an auxiliary verb or when used to state existence or location. It was even 'OK' sometimes to use the faulty forms of the verb 'to be,' as long as one was aware of their structural limitations.

Anecdote about KorzybskiEdit

One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he suddenly interrupted the lesson in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. "Nice biscuit, don't you think", said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog's head and the words "Dog Cookies". The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to throw up, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. "You see, ladies and gentlemen", Korzybski remarked, "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." Apparently his prank aimed to illustrate how some human suffering originates from the confusion or conflation of linguistic representations of reality and reality itself. (Source: R. Diekstra, Haarlemmer Dagblad, 1993, cited by L. Derks & J. Hollander, Essenties van NLP (Utrecht: Servire, 1996), p. 58).

Criticisms Edit

See the criticism section of the main General Semantics article


Korzybski's work influenced Gestalt Therapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, and Neuro-linguistic programming (especially the Meta model). As reported in the Third Edition of Science and Sanity, The U.S. Army in World War II used his system to treat battle fatigue in Europe under the supervision of Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, who also became the psychiatrist in charge of the Nazi prizoners at Nuremberg. Other individuals influenced by Korzybski include Kenneth Burke, William S. Burroughs, Frank Herbert, Albert Ellis, Gregory Bateson, Buckminster Fuller, Douglas Engelbart, Alvin Toffler, Robert A. Heinlein, and scientists such as William Alanson White (psychiatry), physicist P. W. Bridgman, and researcher W. Horsley Gantt (a former student and colleague of Pavlov).

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Manhood of Humanity, Alfred Korzybski, forward by Edward Kasner, notes by M. Kendig, Institute of General Semantics, 1950, hardcover, 2nd edition, 391 pages, ISBN 0-937298-00-X
  • Science and Sanity An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski, Preface by Robert P. Pula, Institute of General Semantics, 1994, hardcover, 5th edition, ISBN 0-937298-01-8
  • Alfred Korzybski: Collected Writings 1920-1950, Institute of General Semantics, 1990, hardcover, ISBN 0-685-40616-4

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