Science and Sanity - Alfred Korzybski

The fantastic science fiction adventures described in "The World of Null-A" and "The Pawns of Null-A" made me wonder if there really was any such thing as "General semantics". Was this "science" just a product of A. E. van Vogt's vivid imagination. Some of the chapters started with anonymous quotes from purported authorities, such as "B. R", "A. K.", "C. J. K.". Had they all been made up? Could "B. R." be Bertrand Russell? And what about the "Semantic Institute" at "Korzybski Square"?

Alfred Korzybski.
Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)

In the mid-1950s it was not as easy to dig out obscure information as it is today, with the omnipresent Web and its search engines. I went to the central public library in Stockholm, but as far as I can recall, there was nothing to be found under the heading of "General semantics". But there was an index card system where authors were listed alphabetically. I looked up "Korzybski", and - lo and behold! - there was an author of that name. He had written a book called "Science and Sanity". I could not find it on the shelves, however, so I asked a librarian to make a reservation for me when it was returned. It turned out that nobody had borrowed the book. Instead it was kept along with other obscure books in a storage compartment behind the area that was accessible to the public. The librarian took me there and dug out the book, a hefty tome of some 800 pages. I felt pretty foolish as the librarian gave me a quizzical look. What could an adolescent schoolboy possibly want from this dusty volume?

By the way, a few years earlier during a visit to the local public library, I was indignant to find a Swedish science fiction book written by Vladimir Semitjov: "430 million km in outer space" ("43,000,000 mil i världsrymden") on a shelf behind the librarian's desk under the heading of "Crazies" ("Galningar"). As the space age dawned and interplanetary probes became a reality, I often recalled that incident. - Many years later, an aunt of mine, who was a librarian, laughed heartily when I told her the story. She told me that the term "Galningar" was used for books that had been misplaced on the shelves. It had nothing to do with their content.

The book turned out to be a heavy read, due to its high level of abstraction and unusual terminology, in addition to my own limitations with regard to the English language. But at the same time I found it quite fascinating, with its abundance of ideas. (Unexpectedly - at least to me - the complete book is now available on the web.)

The central themes of the book are the enormous influence that language itself has on our thinking, the dangers that are inherent in the process of abstraction that underlies language, and the need to be fully aware of them: "The map is not the territory." The book makes a distinction between the "Non-Aristotelian" discipline of "General Semantics" and the two-valued logic of Aristotle with its insistence that statements are either true or false. In particular, it warns us from using the little word "is" of identification without realising how it can constrain our view of the world. Many times when we say "is", we should really think "has" (the property of, or the attribute, at this point in time), or "exhibits some of the characteristics of", and add "etc." in order to remind ourselves that the statement is not exhaustive, and may not even be valid tomorrow.

The term "General Semantics" is used to widen the scope of semantics so that it does not just deal with the lexical meaning of words and symbols, but also with our reactions to them. - A man unexpectedly brings flowers to his wife, as a symbol of his love. But she may be wondering if instead it is a sign of his bad conscience. Not only her interpretation, but also the emotions it evokes, are seen as legitimate subjects for study under the heading of "General Semantics".

"Science and Sanity" has been acclaimed by many intelligent readers, but it has also been denounced as a mish-mash of unoriginal observations presented as science. To my mind, it does not matter very much whether Korzybski's work is based on original research or is just a compilation of previous contributions. I believe that his world view, despite some exaggerations and a tendency to self-aggrandizement, is basically sound, has turned out to be influential, and is largely compatible with modern scientific thought.

By all accounts Korzybski had a strong and colorful personality. He was a Polish count, born in 1879. He received an engineering education in Warsaw, fought with the Russian army in WW I, was injured and sent to North America in late 1915 to co-ordinate the shipment of war supplies to Russia. After the war he decided to stay in the United States. He wrote several books. "Science and Sanity" was published in 1933. He founded the Institute of General Semantics in 1938 and directed it until his death in 1950. - See also this biography.

Anatol Rapoport.
Anatol Rapoport

At the Institute he gathered a group of disciples, some of whom turned out to be very talented. Shortly after I read "Science and Sanity", I enjoyed two rather more accessible books. One was by Samuel Hayakawa: "Language in Thought and Action". The other was by Anatol Rapoport: "Science and the Goals of Man". Both men had distinguished careers. Hayakawa became a U. S. Senator for California, and Rapoport a pioneering professor of mathematics, applying it to biology and to the theory of social conflicts. Their books in turn encouraged me to take an interest in the philosophical foundations of science: some of the works of Bertrand Russell, A. N. Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; and in logical positivism and empiricism in general.

Samuel Hayakawa.
Samuel Hayakawa

Hayakawa's recollections in interview form ("oral history") of his time with Korzybski are illuminating and amusing. Apparently, Korzybski and Hayakawa had a good relationship, but Hayakawa characterised himself as a "disobedient son", adding that Korzybski wanted "faithful, nonargumentative, pious disciples, spreading the word of Korzybski".

Today the teachings of "Science and Sanity" seem as relevant as when they were written, especially in the light of our present tendency to attach labels to persons, and groups of persons, whom we like or dislike, and to see the world in terms of black and white: "Terrorist", "Unbeliever", etc. The map is not the territory!

Further reading

  1. Reader reviews of "Science and Sanity" at Amazon. (Scroll down to "Spotlight Reviews").
  2. The home page of the Institute of General Semantics.
  3. "Dare to Inquire: Demarginalizing General Semantics" by Bruce Kodish. An article written in 2003. It examines Martin Gardner's attacks on "General Semantics" and finds them unjustified.

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    Last edited or checked January 7, 2010.  

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