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Alfred Korzybski

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Alfred Korzybski

Alfred Korzybski
Born (1879-07-03)July 3, 1879
Warsaw, Vistula Country, Russian Empire
Died March 1, 1950(1950-03-01) (aged 70)
Lakeville, Connecticut, U.S.
Occupation Engineer, philosopher, mathematician

Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski (; July 3, 1879 – March 1, 1950) was a Polish-American independent scholar who developed a field called general semantics, which he viewed as both distinct from, and more encompassing than, the field of semantics. He argued that human knowledge of the world is limited both by the human nervous system and the languages humans have developed, and thus no one can have direct access to reality, given that the most we can know is that which is filtered through the brain's responses to reality. His best known dictum is "The map is not the territory".

Early life and career

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

Korzybski was born in Warsaw, Poland which at that time was part of the Russian Empire. He was part of an aristocratic Polish family whose members had worked as mathematicians, scientists, and engineers for generations. He learned the Polish language at home and the Russian language in schools; and having a French governess and a German governess, he became fluent in these four languages as a child.

Korzybski was educated at the Warsaw University of Technology in engineering. During the First World War Korzybski served as an intelligence officer in the Russian Army. After being wounded in a leg and suffering other injuries, he moved to North America in 1916 (first to Canada, then the United States) to coordinate the shipment of artillery to Russia. He also lectured to Polish-American audiences about the conflict, promoting the sale of war bonds. After the War, he decided to remain in the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1940. He met Mira Edgerly,[1] a painter of portraits on ivory, shortly after the Armistice, and married her in January 1919. Their marriage lasted until his death.

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 (humans perform time binding by the transmission of knowledge and abstractions through time which are accreted in cultures).

General semantics

Korzybski's work culminated in the initiation of a discipline that he named general semantics (GS). This should not be confused with semantics. The basic principles of general semantics, which include time-binding, are described in the publication Science and Sanity, published in 1933. In 1938 Korzybski founded the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago.[2] The post-World War II housing shortage in Chicago cost him the Institute's building lease, so in 1946, he moved the Institute to Lakeville, Connecticut, U.S., where he directed it until his death in 1950.

Korzybski maintained that humans are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems, and (2) the structure of their languages. Humans 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). These sometimes mislead us about what is the case. Our understanding sometimes lacks similarity of structure with what is actually happening.

He sought to train our awareness of abstracting, using techniques 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 the promotion of attitudes such as "I don't know; let's see," in order that we may better discover or reflect on its realities as revealed by modern science. Another technique involved becoming inwardly and outwardly quiet, an experience he termed, "silence on the objective levels".

"To be"

Many devotees and critics of Korzybski reduced his rather complex system to a simple matter of what he said about the verb form "is" of the more general verb "to be."[3] His system, however, is based primarily on such terminology as the different "orders of abstraction," and formulations such as "consciousness of abstracting." It is often said that Korzybski opposed the use of the verb "to be." This is a profound 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, "Elizabeth is a fool" (said of a person named "Elizabeth" who has done something that we regard as foolish). In Korzybski's system, one's assessment of Elizabeth belongs to a higher order of abstraction than Elizabeth herself. Korzybski's remedy was to deny identity; in this example, to be aware continually that "Elizabeth" is not what we call her. We find Elizabeth 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 by Korzybski's most famous premise, "the map is not the territory". Note that this premise uses the phrase "is not", a form of "to be"; this and many other examples show that he did not intend to abandon "to be" as such. In fact, he said explicitly 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 acceptable at times to use the faulty forms of the verb "to be," as long as one was aware of their structural limitations.


One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly 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 vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. "You see," 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."[4]

William Burroughs went to a Korzybski workshop in the Autumn of 1939. He was 25 years old, and paid $40. His fellow students—there were 38 in all—included young Samuel I. Hayakawa (later to become a Republican member of the U.S. Senate), Ralph Moriarty deBit (later to become the spiritual teacher Vitvan) and Wendell Johnson (founder of the Monster Study).[5]


Korzybski was well received in numerous disciplinary realms, as evidenced by the positive reactions from leading persons in the sciences and humanities in the 1940s and 1950s.[6]

As reported in the Third Edition of Science and Sanity, The U.S. Army in World War II used Korzybski's system to treat battle fatigue in Europe with the supervision of Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, who went on to become the psychiatrist in charge of recuperating the Jewish prisoners at Nuremberg.

Some of the General Semantics tradition was continued by Samuel I. Hayakawa, who had a dispute with Korzybski. When asked because of what, Hayakawa is said to have replied: "Words."

Scientists and physicists

Writers and artists

The general semantics concept "non-Aristotelian logic", influenced the science fiction of the most prolific, best selling, influential authors of the genre during its flowering and height. General semantics has helped guide the thinking of artists contemplating what to say to society, or how to study society, influencing a notable lyricist, a filmmaker, and other writers.

  • Isaac Asimov,[7] Science and Science Fiction author, professor of biochemistry
  • Robert A. Heinlein,[8] set the standard for scientific and engineering plausibility
    "You may not like [Korzybski] personally, but he's at least as great a man as Einstein - at least - because his field is broader. The same kind of work that Einstein did, the same kind of work, using the same methods; but in a much broader field, much more close to human relationships."[9][10]
  • William S. Burroughs, novelist, short story writer, essayist and spoken word performer
  • Frank Herbert, critically acclaimed, science fiction author of the best-selling science fiction novel of all time: Dune
  • L. Ron Hubbard, author; founder of both the Church of Scientology and of Dianetics
  • Robert Anton Wilson, polymath, author (The Illuminatus! Trilogy), philosopher, editor, playwright, poet, futurist, civil libertarian, (edu. in engineering, math, psychology), (See also Prometheus Rising.)
    "[Science and Sanity] got a lot of enthusiastic reviews from a lot of distinguished people. And it had a tremendous impact on all the social sciences for a while."[11]
  • Ken Keyes, Jr., sold or distributed millions of self-help books he wrote, organized lectures for his many students, spoke to dignitaries at political gatherings, and knew and moved among the self-help elite
  • A. E. van Vogt, regarded as one of the most popular and complex science fiction writers during its "Golden Age"
  • John W. Campbell, an influential science fiction writer who "shaped the Golden Age of Science Fiction"
  • Steve Allen, television personality, musician, composer, actor, comedian, and writer
  • Neil Postman, (1931 – 2003) author, media theorist and cultural critic
  • Tommy Hall, lyricist for the 13th Floor Elevators
  • Jan Bucquoy,[12] surrealist, anarchist, author, filmmaker, cartoon script-writer

Gurus, futurists and philosophers

These are the psychological, sociological, and knowledge-worker types.


  • "There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking."[19]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Alfred Korzybski, Selections from Science and Sanity, 2010.
  4. ^ R. Diekstra, Haarlemmer Dagblad, 1993, cited by L. Derks & J. Hollander, Essenties van NLP (Utrecht: Servire, 1996), p. 58.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Korzybski is mentioned in the 1940 short story "Blowups Happen" and the 1949 novella Gulf.
  9. ^ “The Institute of General Semantics” Retrieved on 2010–08–17
  10. ^ Stockdale Steve: “Heinlein and Ellis: converging competencies”, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Oct, 2007 Retrieved on 2010–08–17.
  11. ^ Robert Anton Wilson, minute 7
  12. ^ See the seventh part of the comics series Jaunes: Labyrinthe, with its explicit references to Korzybski's "the map is not the territory".
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Bandler, Richard & John Grinder (1975). The Structure of Magic I: A Book About Language and Therapy. Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behavior Books.
  18. ^ Unofficial biography of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
  19. ^ Wisdomquotes

Further reading

  • Kodish, Bruce. 2011. Korzybski: A Biography. Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9700664-0-4 softcover, 978-09700664-28 hardcover.
  • Kodish, Bruce and Susan Presby Kodish. 2011. Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Third Edition. Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9700664-1-1
  • Alfred Korzybski, Manhood of Humanity, foreword by Edward Kasner, notes by M. Kendig, Institute of General Semantics, 1950, hardcover, 2nd edition, 391 pages, ISBN 0-937298-00-X. (Copy of the first edition.)
  • 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. (Full text online.)
  • Alfred Korzybski, Collected Writings 1920-1950, Institute of General Semantics, 1990, hardcover, ISBN 0-685-40616-4
  • Montagu, M. F. A. (1953). Time-binding and the concept of culture. The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 77, No. 3 (Sep., 1953), pp. 148–155.
  • Murray, E. (1950). In memoriam: Alfred H. Korzybski. Sociometry, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Feb., 1950), pp. 76–77.

External links

  • Works by Alfred Korzybski at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Alfred Korzybski at Internet Archive
  • Alfred Korzybski and Gestalt Therapy Website
  • Australian General Semantics Society
  • Institute of General Semantics
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