Korzybski - A Biography by Bruce Kodish

Reviewed by Steven Lewis, 2011

Bruce Kodish, a long-time student of General Semantics, has filled a conspicuous gap on the bookshelves with Korzybski -- A Biography, a 700 page investigation into the life of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of a general theory of human evaluation that integrated cutting-edge developments in psychiatry, biology, physics, and mathematics under the umbrella of "General Semantics." Korzybski, who died in 1950, was nearly as well known to scholars and college graduates as Einstein at the time of his death and his theories have spawned numerous books, including several best-sellers, as well as magazine and newpaper coverage and, more recently, websites. Nevertheless, the only 'authoritative' biographies produced were more like encyclopedia articles than detailed investigations. Meanwhile, we have seen published biographies of many of Korzybski's contemporaries, including E. T. Bell, Thurman Arnold, Jacques Loeb, as well as numerous biographies of Pavlov, Freud and Einstein. At last we have a detailed look at the daily life of Korzybski, semantic warts included, from an author who had access to Korzybski's personal correspondence and records.

The Kodish biography nearly rivals Korzybski's masterstroke Science and Sanity in length without the accompanying discourse on calculus and analytic geometry, salivating Pavlovian dogs, colloidal misbehavior or Einstein relativity. Instead, Kodish focuses more on Korzybski the person and his struggles to overcome the semantic wounds of his childhood and at the front lines in World War I to develop a teachable theory of human sanity. Kodish then follows Korzybski in his struggles to disseminate the fruits of his labors to the general public. The Korzybski who emerges from the Kodish biography is sincere, obsessive, very much in collaboration with the leading scientists of his day and in many ways a life-long victim of his early semantic (evaluational) environment. What Kodish reveals is that sanity is not something one can gain merely from researching a book. It also depends on the impact of one's semantic environment early in life and the semantic environment of the world in which one lives.

Korzybski made this explicit in Science and Sanity, as well as in his lectures. He repeatedly advised his audience that the author of a theory of sanity won't necessarily be seen as the sanest of the sane. We all carry the scars of our formative years and those who see the human potential must cope with the frustrations of attempting change in a world that resembles an insane asylum.

From Kodish we learn that Korzybski's Polish family was not close. He had little regard for his mother and his only sibling, a sister. He was born and raised in Poland in a Catholic, anti-semitic environment and his rabid anti-semitism persisted until work on his first book, Manhood of Humanity, was nearly completed. He was raised in a society where dueling for one's honor was still acceptable behavior. Even after arriving in America in 1917 he challenged a Canadian captain to a duel with "sword or pistol" as a result of a perceived verbal insult. Fortunately, the Captain apologized and the duel never took place. Obviously, Korzybski, age 38, was a long way evaluationally from Korzybski, age 50.

Kodish documents Korzybski's meeting his future wife, Mira Edgerly (1872-1954), a prominent portrait painter on ivory, and their hasty marriage two months later in 1919. Their marriage brought a valuable honorary title to Edgerly -- the "Countess Korzybska" -- in her quest for portrait commissions from the "filthy rich," as Korzybski called them. For Korzybski the marriage brought financial security, for his wife's services were in great demand in the 1920s. Her average yearly income through the 1920s was more than $100,000 in 2011 dollars (see Kodish page 317). It is doubtful that without her financial support Korzybski could have completed Science and Sanity.

Nevertheless, the Korzybskis spent nearly as much as they earned, and Korzybski wrote to his wife in 1928 to excoriate her on her lavish spending and their precarious financial situation. They often lived apart, as Mira roamed the country for commissions while her husband toured the country researching and lecturing on his developing theory of sanity. As the Great Depression set in, Mira's income withered and the pressures to complete Science and Sanity intensified. Korzybski, it appears, developed an alcohol problem, causing further dissension in their marriage. By 1936 the couple had for all practical purposes separated. Their separation may have been facilitated by Korzybski's growing interest in another woman, Marjorie Kendig (1892-1981), who was an early reader of Science and Sanity and who met Korzybski at his New York apartment in 1934. Her interest in Korzybski's work was both personal and professional, and Korzybski's concern for her health became a great annoyance to his wife.

Later that year Kendig became headmaster of a private girls' school in Kansas City -- Barstow -- and offered her school as an educational testing arena for Korzybski's methods. Korzybski spend two months in 1935 educating the staff in extensional methods, and student scores on standardized tests improved signficantly over the next two years, but there was much opposition to Kendig's attempts at reform and the board of trustees decided to remove Kendig as head of the school in 1937. The following year Korzybski received funding from Cornelius Vanderbilt Crane (1906-1963), plumbing fixture heir, to establish an institute in Chicago that would serve as a permanent home for his work. Korzybski hired Kendig to be the educational director of his institute. Athough his wife returned from South America to Chicago to be with her husband, he insisted that they live separately. In 1946, when the institute's building was sold amidst the post-World War 2 housing shortage, Korzybski moved the institute to Connecticut, but his wife remained in Chicago.

Kodish extensively documents Korzybski's collaborative efforts with the leading scientists of the day. He was by no means a lone ranger. The experts in diverse fields who Korzybski solicited for advice and who offered extensive input to Korzybski's developing theories include a scholarly "who's who" of the day, including Jacques Loeb, Cassius Jackson Keyser, Judson Herrick, G. Y Rainich, Walter Polakov, William Alanson White, Eric Temple Bell, Percy Bridgeman, Bronislaw Malinowski, William Ritter and many more.

The few readers of Book III of Science and Sanity know of the great admiration that Korzybski held for Albert Einstein for his incorporation of the unique perspective of the observer into his equations. Both were born in 1879 and raised in similar circumstances in eastern Europe. Both migrated to the United States to escape deplorable conditions in Europe. Both experienced great misunderstanding and opposition to their theories. In other ways, the two were quite different. Einstein's great work was finished by 1920 when Korzybski's great work was just beginning. Einstein could not accept the indeterminism of quantum mechanics ("God does not play dice with the universe.") that Korzybski readily grasped and expanded in his "general theory of indeterminism." Although Korzybski sent Einstein a copy of Science and Sanity and they exchanged pleasantries, there is no evidence that Einstein comprehended Korzybski's work. Kodish reports an anecdote from the 1950s that Einstein referred to Science and Sanity as "that crazy book." Einstein's approval was courted by many a scholar and crank, including Wilhelm Reich and Immanuel Velikovsky, and a similar epithet attributed to Einstein circulates regarding these and other authors, so the anecdote may be simply spurious, or it may have been a response to Stuart Chases's eclectic mixing of Korzybksi's with others' work in Tyranny of Words. Einstein was a supporter of Chase's work in economics. Einstein's own writings on relativity were regarded with so much disbelief, even contempt, by so many of his colleagues that he was denied a Nobel prize for his relativity theories. (Einstein's Nobel Prize was awarded in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect, not relativity.)

General Semantics was at its zenith when Korzybski died in 1950. His death, it appears, was precipitated by a meeting with David Bourland (1928-2000), future developer of e-prime, at which Korzybski was trying to dissuade the 21-year-old intern from marrying a woman nearly twice his age without consulting his parents. It was Korzybski's last advice to anyone, and Bourland ignored it. The marriage soon ended in divorce.

The death of Korzybski left a vacuum that has never been filled and his work was gradually dismembered and diluted into various elementalistic specialties. The major evaluational revolution that Korzybski had hoped to bring about has not occurred. No government, no League of Nations, no United Nations has taken up Korzybski's torch. The scholars who promised additions to the Non-Aristotelian library failed to deliver. Even the institutions that Korzybski helped found have withered.

Kodish's biography is not an attempt to teach General Semantics. Much of the science and symbolism in Science and Sanity will remain inaccessible to the many. But if you have been touched by Korzybski's magnificent obsession, even if through only the more earthly presentation of others, you will gain a deeper appreciation of Korzybski's remarkable struggles against seemingly insurmountable odds.

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