Alfred Korzybski

The Television & Movie Wiki: for TV, celebrities, and movies.

Image:Korzybski.jpg Alfred Korzybski was born on July 3, 1879 in Warsaw, Poland, and died on March 1, 1950 in Lakeville, Connecticut, USA. He came from an aristocratic family whose members had worked as mathematicians, scientists, and engineers for generations, and 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 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 semantics

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 be

It is often said that Korzybski opposed the use of the verb "to be," an unfortunate exaggeration. 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 dumb). 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. 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 shows that he did not intend to abandon the verb as such.

Anecdote about Korzybski

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 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).


Korzybski's work influenced Neuro-linguistic programming (especially the metamodel), Gestalt Therapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and individuals such as Albert Ellis, Gregory Bateson, Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler, Robert A. Heinlein, Robert Anton Wilson, and scientists such as William Alanson White (psychiatry), and W. Horsley Gantt (a student and colleague of Pavlov).


  • "The word is not the thing."
  • "Any organism must be treated as-a-whole; in other words, that an organism is not an algebraic sum, a linear function of its elements, but always more than that. It is seemingly little realized, at present, that this simple and innocent-looking statement involves a full structural revision of our language..."
  • "If we consider that all we deal with represents constantly changing sub-microscopic, interrelated processes which are not, and cannot be 'identical with themselves', the old dictum that 'everything is identical with itself' becomes in [today's understanding of the universe] a principle invariably false to facts." (Note: Korzybski used "1933" to specify the current understanding. This editor has subsituted the "more general" form: [today's understanding...])
  • "The only link between the verbal and objective world is exclusively structural, necessitating the conclusion that the only content of all 'knowledge' is structural. Now structure can be considered as a complex of relations, and ultimately as multi-dimensional order. From this point of view, all language can be considered as names for unspeakable entities on the objective level, be it things or feelings, or as names of relations. In fact... we find that an object represents an abstraction of a low order produced by our nervous system as the result of a sub-microscopic events acting as stimuli upon the nervous system."
  • "The map is not the territory ... The only usefulness of a map depends on similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map..."
  • "The main thesis of this non-Aristotelian system is that as yet we all (with extremely few exceptions) copy animals in our nervous processes, and that practically all human difficulties, mental ills ... have this ... component."
  • "Man's achievements rest upon the use of symbols.... we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us."
  • "If a psychiatric and scientific enquiry were to be made upon our rulers, mankind would be appalled at the disclosures."
  • "Bankers, priests, lawyers,... politicians, [and news media] constitute one class [of our rulers] and work together. They do not produce any values but manipulate the values produced by others, and often pass signs for no value at all. Scientists and teachers also comprise a ruling class. They produce the main values mankind has, but, at present, they do not realize this. They are, in the main, ruled by the cunning methods of the first class."
  • "Our rulers: politicians, 'diplomats', bankers, priests of every description, economists, lawyers, etc. and the majority of teachers ... ignorant of modern science, scientific methods, structural linguistic and semantic issues of [today] and ... historical and anthropological background, without which a sane orientation is impossible.... as long as such ignorance of our rulers prevails, no solution of our human problems is possible."
  • "There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking."
  • "God may forgive your sins, but your nervous system won't." (Korzybski states that it is not his quote in S&S)
  • "It is amusing to discover, in the twentieth century, that the quarrels between two lovers, two mathematicians, two nations, two economic systems, usually assumed insoluble in a finite period should exhibit one mechanism, the semantic mechanism of identification — the discovery of which makes universal agreement possible, in mathematics and in life"
  • "Any proposition containing the word 'is' creates a linguistical structural confusion which will eventually give birth to serious fallacies."
  • "If words are not things, or maps are not the actual territory, then, obviously, the only possible link between the objective world and the linguistic world is found in structure, and structure alone."
  • "Let us repeat the two crucial negative premises as established firmly by all human experience: (1) Words are not the things we are speaking about; and (2) There is no such thing as an object in absolute isolation."
  • "It is now no mystery that some quite influential 'philosophers' were 'mentally' ill."
  • "...a few philosophers really do important work. This applies to the so called 'critical philosophy' and to the theory of knowledge or epistemology. This class of workers I call epistemologists to avoid the disagreeable implications of the term 'philosopher'."
  • "In the rough, a symbol is a sign that stands for something... Before a noise, etc., may become a symbol, something must exist for the symbol to symbolize."
  • "Incorrect symbolism... is bound to undermine any possibility of our building a structurally human civilization."
  • "...the main achievement of Einstein was precisely in the fact that he refused to divide verbally time and space, which experimentally cannot be so divided."
  • "We should not be surprised that we find meaningless noises in the foundation of many old 'philosophies', and that from them arise most of the old 'philosophical' fights and arguments."
  • "...the analogy between the noises we make when these noises do not symbolize anything which exists, and the worthless checks we write when our bank balance is zero..."
  • "If, in spite of all contrary evidence, or the lack of positive evidence, [a person] holds persistently ... such affective beliefs is seriously ill, and, therefore, no amount of evidence can convince him."
  • "Thus, we see that one of the obvious origins of human disagreement lies in the use of noises for words."
  • "We read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use. The guessing and ascribing of fanciful, mostly primitive-assumed structure of the world is precisely what 'philosophy' and 'metaphysics' do. The empirical search for a world-structure and the building of new languages (theories) ... of similar structure ... is precisely what science does.... It develops in the natural order, while metaphysics of every description uses the reversed, and ultimately a pathological order."
  • [A Game:] "We begin by asking the meaning of every word uttered…Then we ask the meaning of the words used in the definitions and, and this process is continued for no more than ten or fifteen minutes until the victim begins to speak in circles..."
  • "...provided we could define all terms. But this is impossible... We thus see that all linguistic schemes, if analyzed far enough, would depend on undefined terms."
  • "It would be interesting to see the Behaviorists deny that the writing of a mathematical treatise, or of some new theory of quantum mechanics represents a form of human behavior which they should study. Some day they must face the fact that they have neglected to consider a great many forms of human behavior — the most characteristic forms at that — and that therefore, they could not produce an adequate theory of the nature of the 'human mind'."
  • "Aristotelian , Euclidian [line, space, length] and Newtonian [speed of light] systems... have a few unjustified infinities too many… when such an infinity is introduced into the denominator, it makes the whole expression vanish. In other words, faulty, insufficient observations leads to the introduction of ... fanciful "infinities".
  • "The Non-Aristotelian, Non-Euclidian, and Non-Newtonian trilogy is more general than Aristotelian, Euclidian, and Newtonian trilogy... because the older systems are just particular cases of the new Non-Aristotelian, Non-Euclidian, and Non-Newtonian trilogy."

See also

External links

Further Reading

  • Manhood of Humanity, Alfred Korzybski, forward by Edward Kasner, notes by M. Kendig, Institute of General Semantics, 1950, hardcover, 2nd edition, 391 pages, ISBN 093729800X
  • 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 0937298018
  • Alfred Korzybski: Collected Writings 1920-1950, Institute of General Semantics, 1990, hardcover, ISBN: 0685406164fr:Alfred Korzybski

nl:Alfred Korzybski

Personal tools