Overweening Generalist

Friday, June 3, 2016

Why Korzybski Waned: Some Educated Guesses

As I meditate - even ruminate, at times - on the quandary of climate change, income inequality, the Supreme Court's tragically stupid ruling that money "is" speech, that Trump or Hillary will probably be the next POTUS, etc, lately I've been thinking that, were Korzybski's "General Semantics" (from now on: "GS") taught in schools, or talked about on teevee or lauded in pop kulch, we couldn't possibly "be" in the mess we seem to be in now. I recently re-read Ezra Pound's 1937 essay "On the Immediate Need of Confucius" and thought, "We need Korzybski immediately."

And GS had its moment in Unistat education (c.1938-55 or so); now it's apparently thought of as something from the "fringe." While I constantly re-read the Ur-Text of GS, Korzybski's Science and Sanity, and can always "see" something sort of "wild" in the text, I think it's one of the great underrated books of all time.

I will try to provide a brief, necessarily idiosyncratic and truncated sketch of GS's marginalization. The following ideas, while numbered, represent no particular hierarchy:

1. The late media theorist Neil Postman (d:2003), who was a great student of Korzybski's writings, gave two reasons why Korzybski had fallen out of favor:

"Many academicians do not care for Korzybski - in part because he was not careful, and in part, because they have no patience for genius." - originally in Postman's "autobibliography" in his own book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, but my immediate source is "Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk - Redux," by Martin Levinson, PhD, in Etc: A Review of General Semantics, vol.63, number1, January 2006, pp.67-76

Brief comment by OG: Yes, Korzybski seems at times not-careful (ask me about the jazz irony sometime, for example); also: he clearly seems like an overpowering generalist-genius to me. If academicians have no patience for such a cat, my current main interpretation is that specialization has so manically taken over academe, and someone who writes about - on many pages all-at-once - neurobiology/philosophy/mathematics/biology/anthropology/physics/psychology and chemistry: can't possibly be taken seriously. I see AK's synthesis of what was known by 1933 as astounding.

2. Korzybski was a Polish count, polyglot, and not a bona fide academic, under Western standards. Hence, he was often seen as a cranky weirdo by academics. Not one of "us." Tries to cover too much. Too esoteric and generalistic. Now: many writers in different fields loved Korzybski and wrote interpretations (abstractions?) of his work. One of the earliest popularizers of AK's work was by Stuart Chase, whose Tyranny of Words (1938) was a best-seller. Chase was an MIT social theorist and advisor to FDR.

Brief comment: While Woody Allen's joke about the intellectual class being like the Mafia - "they only kill their own" - is one of my favorites, this seems like an exception.

3. By the late 1950s/early 1960s, AK and his GS was seen by the "responsible" intellectuals as allied with the outre and growing culture later known as "the counterculture." William S. Burroughs studied under AK briefly, and used ideas about GS in a science fiction-y way. (By extension, Allen Ginsberg was influenced by WSB's interest in Korzybski, and so Ginsberg was obviously influenced by GS too. When mentioning Ginsberg in this context, it seems Alan Watts's AK influence need be added.) Indeed, for a while, GS was seen as synonymous with science fiction-thought, with Heinlein being an exponent of AK. A.E. Van Vogt wrote SF novels trying to popularize his interpretations of GS. (Sorry about the initial-stew here!)

4. AK and his GS have gradually become "infected" (my word) by its association with Scientology. Perhaps the richest irony here: an adequate understanding of GS would reveal that a mere association of one group with another does not mean that one groups's idea "infected" the following group. The notion that previously-created knowledge is utilized by many subsequent groups, for their own ends, still seems a pillar of sophisticated thought.

In Lawrence Wright's riveting book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (2013), while science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard was formulating his new religion, Jack Parsons's ex-mistress, Sara Elizabeth "Betty" Northrup, read to Hubbard from Korzybski; and Hubbard, "immediately grasped the ideas as the basis for a system of psychology, if not for a whole religion." (p.60) A further taste:

"Korzybski pointed out that words are not the things they describe, in the same way that a map is not the territory is represents. Language shapes thinking, creating mental habits, which can stand in the way of sanity by preserving delusions. Korzybski argued that emotional disturbances, learning disorders, and many psychosomatic illnesses - including heart problems, skin diseases, sexual disorders, migraines, alcoholism, arthritis, even dental cavities - could be remedied by semantic training, much as Hubbard would claim for his own work. He cited Korzybski frequently, although he admitted that he could never get through the texts themselves. 'Bob Heinlein sat down one time and talked for ten whole minutes on the subject of Korzybski to me and it was very clever,' he later related. 'I know quite a bit about Korzybski's works.'" (p.60)

Comment: There's no doubt Science and Sanity influenced Dianetics. I feel quite confident that Korzybski (who died in 1950) would disavow such a thing. Is it the fault of a writer if a later writer takes their work and uses it toward entirely different ends? Nietzsche's sister played her brother's work into the proto-Nazi's thought. I also have no doubt Nietzsche would have been appalled by Alfred Rosenberg's use of his thought, not to mention Hitler's bad reading in Mein Kampf. I will not comment on the parade of Christian fascists we've seen in the grand historical sweep.

5. As Unistat gradually took on the character of the National Security State after 1947, there slowly grew an apparatus of apologists for the State (of which I prefer Chomsky's term "commissar class"), and some of these intellectuals appointed themselves as "debunkers" of challenges to scientific orthodoxy. Darkly ironic, and seemingly at odds with the spirit of scientific investigation itself, probably the most famous and enduring Official Debunker was Martin Gardner, a brilliant writer who seemed polymathic in a way that mirrored Korzybski. However, in his enormously influential book Fads and Fallacies In the Name of Science (1952), Gardner lumped Korzybski in with flying saucer fanatics, psionics, the Bates theory of eyesight, Atlantis, Bridey Murphy...and L. Ron Hubbard. The zeitgeist and Gardner's formidable writing chops cannot be overestimated here. The chapter, "General Semantics, Etc," gives (to my eyes) a bad-faith ad hominem reading of Science and Sanity. While prefacing that he thinks Korzybski's bad book is not as bad as previously-discussed pillories of Wilhelm Reich and Hubbard (separate chapters are devoted to taking down those guys too), Gardner writes of Korzybski's magnum opus:

"It is a poorly organized, verbose, philosophically naive, repetitious mish-mash of sound ideas borrowed from abler scientists and philosophers, mixed with neologisms, confused ideas, unconscious metaphysics, and highly dubious speculations about neurology and psychiatric therapy." (p.281)

At the same time, Gardner - who for some reason links Korzybski with Jacob L. Moreno, the Rumanian who invented psychodrama - says Korzybski "may or may not have considerable scientific merit." Then he gets down to debunking. If Korzybski ever had a good idea, it was not a new idea. usw.

Comment: At the risk of taking 10,000 words to debunk this debunker, I would merely aver that Korzybski's psychology of perception and individual/societal "making sense" of phenomena is still on very strong ground, and that Gardner should have at least acknowledged this and written, "It seems to me that..." (It is a poorly organized, verbose, philosophically naive...etc). I charge Gardner with ad hominem, but he's canny about it. It seems mean-spirited and underhanded to me, with lots of appeals to authority and almost zero charity. See for yourself: Chapter 23, pp.281-291.

6. Many years ago I was sitting in a very large room on the 5th floor of the hall of justice in Long Beach, California, waiting to see if I would be impanelled on an actual jury. I was reading Korzybski or another book on GS. An older lady stopped and took note: "You're reading General Semantics! I used to teach that." I asked what ever happened to it? How come I wasn't taught it? She said "The business community hated it." She also said she thought the local churches and politicians didn't like it, either. I remember saying this reminded me of Socrates getting busted for "corrupting the youth" of Athens. I recall the older lady saying it was sort of like that, yea.

Comment: I mean this as an endorsement of Korzybski.

                                   A Chomsky diagram: how will this tell you how
                                   "the death tax" really works?

7. In 1957, Noam Chomsky broke radically with a long historic tradition in linguistics, publishing a thin book titled Syntactic Structures. It was so obscure at the time the only place he could publish it was at The Hague. In what myself and many others take to be a prime example of "physics envy" in areas of the academy that were not physics, this book gradually achieved academic cult-status, filled with abstruse diagrams of transformations of sentence structures, as an attempt to get to the "deep structure" (still a potent metaphor, with legs!) of English. The goal was audacious: scrap the entire history of empirical linguistics and, using the latest mathematics and following a Cartesian philosophical rationalism, to eventually show that human language contains Universal Grammar that only humans are endowed with, by...well, not the Creator-creator. Not evolution, either. Oh, he'd deal with that some other day.

Comment: This may be the most underrated reason why Korzybski is now seen as a fringe figure: Chomsky's linguistic work, which now looked as important and impressive as physics diagrams on a blackboard as scribbled by Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, or Feynman, was too seductive to not jump on board if you were an academic who wanted in on the Newest Abstruse Theory. Or: a new, possibly more-encompassing language paradigm, which, if legit, was a real winner. Couple this with Chomsky's tireless humanistic ethics against the State, war, inequality, official lies, Behaviorism, and most of his fellow intellectuals' overweening ambition to serve the State: you have the conscience of the entire Intellectual Class residing in one man's thought. I think Chomsky's odd non-charismatic charisma helped his linguistic program, which was doomed, probably from its inception, to never be able to account for the most important aspect of language: semantics. Intellectual attention space is limited. Chomsky's language ideas and his background as a properly trained academic seemed more impressive. Hence, GS waned. Unistat culture suffered. I now see Chomsky's linguistic gains, over 60 years, to be quite modest considering the declared ambitious grasp in scope. It was a bifuration point, culturally, and to our detriment and for complex reasons, it went the other way...

8. "Popularizations" are not serious reading. This, in the age of Specialization, seems gospel in Academe. Now not only AK but his popularizers are seen as not only "wrong" because non-Chomskyan, but debased, because for the masses. I have on my shelves GS-popularizations such as People In Quandaries by Wendell Johnson; Levels of Knowing and Existence by Harry L. Weinberg; The Language of Wisdom and Folly, by Irving J. Lee; Mathsemantics: Making Numbers Talk Sense, by Edward MacNeal. Oh, and Samuel Hayakawa's Language In Thought and Action, which has proven to be the most famous of GS popularizers. (More about this last book and author below.)

Comment: All of these books consist for me as guides to what might have been. Korzybski's work was so fecund that none of these books are alike. Just one irony among many I could point out here: In Chomsky's Understanding Power, he extolls 1930s leftist intellectuals for popularizing difficult subjects! (see pp.331-333) For more irony, see pp.37-44, where Noam - not doing linguistics but championing human freedom against the State and its violence, gives one example after another of how the State uses Orwellian language against the masses, who are defenseless unless they somehow learn one or another form of "intellectual self-defense," none of which could possibly include GS because that approach is "all wrong."(<----I read an email from Noam forwarded to me by a friend who asked what Chomsky thought of GS)

Popularizations are not to be taken seriously, but we want the public to understand the increasingly opaque world. So: popularizations are no good unless they're good. Since 1930: it looks to me like the Commissar Class doesn't really care if a small minority of the population reads something very truthful about power. As long as more than a "few" don't catch on?

9. In what functions as an update on Gardner, Steven Pinker's popular book The Language Instinct (1994) has an entire chapter showing why Korzybski/GS/Sapir-Whorf "are" all wrong. Pinker has picked up the Chomsky linguistic model and assumed the role of Public Intellectual. When I read his chapter, "Mentalese" from TLI, I get the feeling Pinker has never actually read Korzybski. I emailed him; Pinker never wrote back. In my opinion Pinker contributes to the enormous disservice to the public by making fun of the previous model of how language works. (See The Language Instinct, pp. 55-82 and see what you think?)

10. Regarding S. I. Hayakawa, the most popular popularizer of Korzybski: it's pretty complicated. Because Hayakawa was teaching mostly writers and humanities types, his biographer, Gerald Haslam, has called Hayakawa's GS "General Semantics Lite." Language In Thought and Action is a delightful read, and will make you "smarter" right away. However, if you decide then to look at his source - Science and Sanity - you will probably be STUNNED by all the math and science.

In Robert Anton Wilson's book The Illuminati Papers, there's a page of Erisiana that may seen obscure now. On p.92 (I have the olde And/Or Press issue), there's a jokey-ornate form letter from, among other "groups," the American Anarchist Association. The letter is addressed to someone named S.I. Hayakawa, and cautions the recipient to read another person with the same name, because the other Hayakawa was evidently a sane reader of GS who knew and wrote about  Korzybski well. The recipient of the letter would benefit, because "He might also teach you something about neurosemantic relaxation. In the last photograph We saw of you confronting the dissidents, your entire face, shoulders, and body showed rigidity, neurosemantic 'closedness,' and the general nonverbal message, 'Don't talk to me; my mind is made up.' General Semantics might teach you how to grow out of this infantile and primitive attitudinal set and function as a time-binding and open personality. Please get in touch with the other Dr. Hayakawa an give this a try." - signed by "Theophobia the Elder," a Robert Anton Wilson pseudonym within the Discordian religion.

Some background HERE.

Here's his biographer, Haslam, giving a talk to General Semantics Symposium.

A defense of Hayakawa by his son: Let's remember that S.I. Hayakawa1 is not the same as S.I. Hayakawa2, who isn't the same as S.I. Hayakawa3, etc.

Comment: Hayakawa famously slept in the California Senate. As Haslam notes, it's ironic that this is all people remember about Hayakawa (who was Marshall McLuhan's paperboy in Canada when he was very young!); it seems very unfortunate that his semantic reactions at SF State during the anarchic late 1960s has been used to denigrate GS.

11. Robert Anton Wilson - who turned me on to Korzybski - told interviewer Charles Platt in the early 1980s that there were "defects" in his [Korzybski's- OG] system, but his body of work is something "everybody should grapple with." RAW told me he thought Korzybski could be personally abrasive, and that may be why he fell out of favor. (I forget where I read that some of Korzybski's students said he could be "blasphemously cheerful.") There's an idea that runs through a lot of RAW's heavily-influenced-by-Korzybski oeuvre: that there is a semantic unconscious - which Pound called  paideuma - in which it is taboo to know how power, sex and knowledge "really work." In my opinion, this may be the deepest "reason" why Korzybski waned.

                                           बॉबी कैम्पबेल द्वारा कलाकृति


Eric Wagner said...

Great post. I will comment more in a few days. Due to my obsessions with Wilson and Heinlein, AK seems like common sense to me.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of AK. And RAW. From whom I got my introduction to AK and GS.

But I'm also enthusiastically voting for Donald Trump.

n=1...But perhaps your meliorist premise -- Just a little more knowledge , Just a little more of the right sort of education; Just a little more tinkering -- is not in fact the cure for humanity's ills that so many think it is.

chas said...

Thanks for this--ultimately I think the heavy hitters "are" 6 and 11. for whatever that "is" worth.

Gardener chapter 23--haha!

I'd like to give my son't future 7th grade teacher a book that might perhaps turn him on to GS, in the hope that he might put a bit of meat into his curriculum, so to speak. Any recommendations?

Eric Wagner said...

I used Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction in my critical thinking class last semester. Many times reading the book I thought of Korzybski, and I found it interesting that Culler never mentioned him. Culler also had somewhat negative things to say about the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. Following Wilson, I tend to think of it as the Korzybski-Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. I talk about Korzybski with all of my classes. I don't have the enthusiasm for him or for E-Prime which I once had. I do find it interesting how many people interested in Bob Wilson seem to have little interest in E-Prime.

michael said...

@Chas- I tend to agree about #6 and #11.

I thought about your idea for a book recommendation all day. You probably don't want to hand the 7th grade teacher _Science and Sanity_. I'd like to think you could and it would revolutionize the teacher's thought, but my intuition says another "old" book would be the 5th ed. of Hayakawa, which was edited by his son. The prose flows in _Language In Thought and Action_.

In the past 25 years or so, there have been a lot of technical books that are on academic or small presses that emphasize some isolated areas of GS. The "broad" range of GS tends to not be named "General Semantics" now. Two of the most active writers/thinkers/movers in GS, Lance Strate and Corey Anton, have moved GS more toward "Media Ecology," fusing Korzybski's work with anthropology, Canadian media theory, and philosophical pragmatism.

Re: "Media Ecology": Rushkoff gave the annual Korzybski Memorial talk a few years ago, as RAW had in 1997. (Btw: check out the list of people who've given this lecture; if Gardner is right and the ill-educated crank Korzybski deserved to be lumped in with Bridey Murphy, look at all the losers who fell for it!: http://www.generalsemantics.org/our-offerings/programming-classes/alfred-korzybski-memorial-lecture-series/

I'd like to solicit other readers of this blog about this: what book might be a good one for Chas to give to his son's future 7th grade teacher?

michael said...


I read that Culler book. As far as very many academics know, Berlin and Kay had "disproved" Sapir-Whorf long ago. They should read Lakoff and Boroditsky. (I recently wrote Lera Boroditsky a letter imploring her to write a book for the intelligent non-academics.)

I still think a lot about E-Prime, even if I don't use it often. Over time, I see it in two main ways: ethically, do I really want to be saying something really "is" something else here? Am I making a claim about "being" without inserting uncertainty or contingency?

Secondly, according to a diffuse theory of the generation of creative work, I see E-Prime as a tool of constraint; the idea is that in any area in which you want to produce creative work, you should be aware of the already-imposed constraints, and then: add more constraint of your own.

Before I wrote the bit on the waning of AK, I re-read Gardner's and Pinker's chapters and noted the non-E-Prime sentences...just for kicks. And insight.

michael said...

Re: Chas's solicitation for advice on getting a 7th grade teacher to read GS: I asked a friend about this today and he said he wasn't sure which book, but that whatever it was, if the teacher is under 40 yrs old, frame the contents as "the best way to hack language."

chas said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Michael. Are you familiar with Bruce Modish's Drive Yourself Sane? I like that language hacking idea--and now i guess I'll have to look into media ecology!

michael said...

Chas- Yes. I read that when it came out. It's quite accessible. I LOVE Kodish's bio of Korzybski, which functions - to me - as an example of a damned fine book that was self-published.

I forget what the entire context was, but Kodish had written something somewhere about protecting Israel and who cares about the Palestinians (something like that), and RAW had read that, and when he'd heard the title of Kodish's new book, he said "He should drive himself sane."

Kodish and RAW - IIRC - had an alliance based on Korzybski, but after that: nada. RAW isn't mentioned in Kodish's 700 page bio of Korzybski.

mrken said...

Wow. It's all a bit heavy for me. However, I'd like to read it some day. I mean if I can. Seems fine to now get K's book, and then maybe the others.

chas said...

Michael--Do you have a recommendation for Lakoff--"the one you gotta read"?

Adrian Reynolds said...

GS had something of an impact on NLP, about which much the same criticisms can be made - it tackles too damn much, in a non-academic fashion. Which is part of its charm and power, for those of us who have explored beneath the marketing hooey.

The soundbite that tends to reach most NLPers is 'the map is not the territory'. I have met very very few NLPers who have read Korzybski. Which is sad and kind of comical. They appreciate the concept that a thing is not how it is described, yet content themselves with a t-shirt version of Korzkbski rather than actually read him.

michael said...

@mrken: I'm not sure which book or which "K" you mean...probably Korzybski. (I mentioned Bruce Kodish above.)

Most people find Science and Sanity a fairly tough slog, but who knows. Perhaps read Korzysbki's earlier Manhood of Humanity to get the feel for what he was after re: humans as "time-binders."

Hayakawa read S&S after being very impressed with Stuart Chase's The Tyranny of Words (still in print).

From Language And Action, the bio of Hayakawa from 2011 by Gerald Haslam:

"Certainly Hayakawa's life was changed by reading The Tyranny of Words. {He} was so impressed with the concepts Chase explored that he decided to tackle Science and Sanity right away. On March 23 he wrote to Marge, "Korzybski's Science and Sanity came today...it's the toughest-looking book in all the books I own...There are some 800 pages in it." Two days later he again wrote to her, "Korzybski's Science and Sanity is a perfectly amazing book." (p.99)

If you like Robert Anton Wilson, you've probably already encountered most of the basic concepts in Korzybski's work. Good luck in your reading experiments!

michael said...


Yea: go back to _Metaphors We Live By_, which Lakoff co-wrote with Mark Johnson. I still find every page mildly psychedelic. He's only built from there, and his body of work since 1979 (when they wrote Metaphors We Live By) astounds me: he's used his neurolinguistic embodied cognition and metaphor stuff to write fascinating books on why math works, on anthropology and cultural categorizations reified, on politics, and on poetry and literary expression.

Dude's mind is pretty astonishing. He is an academic, so: not many jokes.

michael said...

@Adrian Reynolds-

I agree about everything you wrote.

Bandler contacted Robert Anton Wilson, who had been seriously reading and studying and implementing Korzybski since 1948, and told RAW he wanted him to teach NLP seminars. RAW said he knew nothing about NLP, and Bandler said, "Oh yes you do. You've been doing it for years." That's how influential GS has been on NLP.

In later years, RAW became familiar with other aspects of NLP and incorporated them in his own writings on how hypnosis and "magick" works. His explanations about the Meta-Model and the Milton Model I find fascinating.

RAW had always argued it's not enough to read something and say inwardly, "This makes sense. It's probably right..." You had to incorporate it in your life, test it, like a scientist. This led to a deeper level of "knowing."

What are the differences between listening very closely to NLP lectures and then trying the stuff out, vs. reading about the theories about why NLP works?

Thanks for chiming in!

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

Re: Reason #1 -- also see the book Profscam by Charlie Sykes,
Re: Reason #2 I think it can be added that it's inconvenient to read someone whose primary language is not English--Korzybski had many agonizing struggles over what word-choice to publish, as detalied in Kodish's biography. Never underestimate inconvenience as the determining cause of a behavior.
Re: Reason #7 - This is just the 50-years-later version of Reason #1, no?

michael said...

Tom- I think #7 is a lot like #1, but what I think I was trying to get at was Chomsky's (mostly bogus) revolution in Linguistics massively shifted academic attention away from how language is actually used and how it affects the perception of "reality" and toward a formalist, dematerialized, highly technical concentration on syntax rather than semantics and meaning and everyday usage.

Eric Wagner said...

I know I have lost my evangelical zeal for Korzybski and E-Prime. I still talk about Korzybski in my classes and sometimes include a question about him on tests, and I still use E-Prime most of the time, but I feel like more of a Cosmic Schmuck all the time, and I don't have the certainty I once had that Kozybski really had key answers for humanity's challenges.

michael said...


One of the main nuanced takes of reading Korzybski and RAW's reading of Korzysbski: no one has the answers, so being "evangelical" seems to miss the point. Also, "allness" (in "answers") had to qualify as self-referential (among many other "things"), so we should ought not take Korzysbki or RAW as having all the answers.

Rather, for Korzybski: our thinking and acting will become LESS BAD?

I see very many problems with E-Prime, but it seems very valuable to me still. I think we all need to negotiate with this anthropotechnic on our own terms, in the domains in which we think it appropriate and make it work for us in what we're trying to do.

Let's not look for ultimate answers but seek more to de-bug our communications and hope for some delight and enlightenment?

Eric Wagner said...

I never thought RAW or Korzybski had all the answers, but I thought they had a lot of them. I do suffer from a bit of Kinbotism.