Alfred Korzybski

Polish-American scholar and philosopher (1879–1950)
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Alfred Korzybski (3 July 18791 March 1950) was a Polish engineer, mathematician, and philosopher, most famous for creating the theory of General Semantics.

To regard human beings as tools — as instruments — for the use of other human beings is not only unscientific but it is repugnant, stupid and short sighted.



Manhood of Humanity (1921)


Alfred Korzybski (1921), Manhood of Humanity : The Science and Art of Human Engineering, New York : E. P. Dutton & Company.

  • Let us imagine that the aboriginal-original human specimen was one of two brother apes, A and B; they were alike in every respect; both were animal space-binders; but something strange happened to B; he became the first time-binder, a human. … He had thus a new faculty, he belonged to a new dimension; but, of course, he did not realize it; and because he had this new capacity he was able to analyze his brother "A"; he observed "A is my brother; he is an animal; but he is my brother; therefore, I AM AN ANIMAL." This fatal first conclusion, reached by false analogy, by neglecting a fact, has been the chief source of human woe for half a million years and it still survives. … He [then] said to himself, "If I am an animal there is also in me something higher, a spark of some thing supernatural."
    • p. 67. Chapter: What is Man?
  • Humans can be literally poisoned by false ideas and false teachings. Many people have a just horror at the thought of putting poison into tea or coffee, but seem unable to realize that, when they teach false ideas and false doctrines, they are poisoning the time-binding capacity of their fellow men and women. One has to stop and think! There is nothing mystical about the fact that ideas and words are energies which powerfully affect the physico-chemical base of our time-binding activities. Humans are thus made untrue to "human nature." … The conception of man as a mixture of animal and supernatural has for ages kept human beings under the deadly spell of the suggestion that, animal selfishness and animal greediness are their essential character, and the spell has operated to suppress their REAL HUMAN NATURE and to prevent it from expressing itself naturally and freely.
    • p. 71. Chapter: What is Man?
  • To regard human beings as tools — as instruments — for the use of other human beings is not only unscientific but it is repugnant, stupid and short sighted. Tools are made by man but have not the autonomy of their maker — they have not man's time-binding capacity for initiation, for self-direction, and self-improvement.
    • p. 133. Chapter: Capitalistic Era.

Science and Sanity (1933)

Say whatever you choose about the object, and whatever you might say is not it.

Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity. 1933; Lancaster (Penn.) 1941.

  • There is a fundamental confusion between the notion of the older 'semantics' as connected with a theory of verbal 'meaning' and words defined by words, and the present theory of 'general semantics' where we deal only with neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic living reactions of Smith, Smith, etc., as their reactions to neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic environments as environments.
  • 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.
    • p. 20.
  • "Say whatever you choose about the object, and whatever you might say is not it." Or, in other wordsː "Whatever you might say the object "is", well it is not." This negative statement is final, because it is negative.
    • p. 35.
  • The map is not the territory … The only usefulness of a map depends on similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map...
    • Edition:Institute of General Semantics, 1995, p. 58.
  • 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...
    • p. 64.
  • 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.
    • p. 73.
  • 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.
    • p. 76.
  • The word is not the thing.
    • p. 222.

Quotes about Alfred Korzybski

  • "What is good in Korzybski's work," they say, "is not new, and what is new is not good." On the other hand, many "Korzybski-ites" proclaim that Korzybski's work has "nothing to do" with semantics. They go so far as to say that the very term "general semantics" was an unfortunate choice; that had Korzybski known what confusion would arise between semantics and general semantics he would not have used it at all. Korzybski himself has maintained that while semantics belongs to the philosophy of language and perhaps to the theory of knowledge, general semantics belongs to empirical science: that it is the foundation of a science of man, the basis of the first "non-aristotelian system," which has had no predecessor and which no academic semanticist has ever achieved.
  • Korzybski's book Science and Sanity is quite useless as a source of information about general semantics. It is embarrassingly vague and dilettantish, and greatly oversized at that (nearly 800 pages). I can, however, recommend three excellent articles from the collection Language, Meaning and Maturity, New York 1954, which includes selected papers chosen first of all from the periodical ETC for the period 1943-53. I mean the above mentioned work by Anatol Rapoport, "What Is Semantics?" and two works by S. I. Hayakawa: "Semantics. General Semantics and Related Disciplines" and "What Is Meant by Aristotelian Structure of Language?"
    • Adam Schaff (1962). Introduction to semantics, p. 91-92, footnote 4.
  • Scientific language, which Korzybski used as his model of sane language, is almost exclusively extensional and denotative, or at least tries to be. The language of the mentally ill, most obviously "un-sane," is almost totally intensional and connotative. This is the language that does not correspond to anything "out there," and this is, in fact, how and perhaps even why the user is mentally ill. Korzybski's concern with keeping the conscious "connection" or correspondence between language and verifiable referents is, for all practical purposes, paralleled by the process of psychotherapy. In this process, which is largely "just talk," the purpose is to foster closer and more accurate correspondence between the patient's language and externally verifiable meanings.
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