Alfred Korzybski

Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski ([kɔˈʐɨpski]; 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".

Alfred Korzybski
Alfred Korzybski
Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski

July 3, 1879
DiedMarch 1, 1950 (aged 70)
Alma materWarsaw University of Technology
Spouse(s)Mira Edgerly
Scientific career
FieldsEngineer, philosopher, mathematician

Early life and career

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

Born in Warsaw, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, Korzybski belonged to 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 and German governess, he became fluent in four languages as a child.

Korzybski studied engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology. During the First World War (1914-1918) 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 to 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 1918 Armistice; They married in January 1919; the marriage lasted until his death.

E. P. Dutton published Korzybski's first book, Manhood of Humanity, in 1921. In this work 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 become 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 truth. 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 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." The contention that Korzybski opposed the use of the verb "to be" would be a profound 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, "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 disciplines, as evidenced by the positive reactions from leading figures in the sciences and humanities in the 1940s and 1950s.[6]

As reported in the third edition of Science and Sanity, in World War II the US Army used Korzybski's system to treat battle fatigue in Europe, under the supervision of Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, who went on to become the psychiatrist in charge of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.

Some of the General Semantics tradition was continued by Samuel I. Hayakawa.

See also


  1. ^ Don Shelton (1954-07-13). "20C - American Miniature Portraits: Korzybska, Mira Edgerly - portrait of three sisters or a triptych?". Retrieved 2016-06-28.
  2. ^ "The Institute of General Semantics » History". Retrieved 2016-06-28.
  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. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 7, 2011. Retrieved December 21, 2011.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ "Notable Individuals Influenced by General Semantics". The Institute of General Semantics.

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

1950 in philosophy

1950 in philosophy

Beyond Culture

Beyond Culture is a 1976 book by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall.

Gad Horowitz

Gad Horowitz (born 1936) is a Canadian political scientist. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

General semantics

General semantics is a self improvement and therapy program begun in the 1920s that seeks to regulate human mental habits and behaviors. After partial launches under the names human engineering and humanology, Polish-American originator Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) fully launched the program as general semantics in 1933 with the publication of Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

In Science and Sanity, general semantics is presented as both a theoretical and a practical system whose adoption can reliably alter human behavior in the direction of greater sanity. In the 1947 preface to the third edition of Science and Sanity, Korzybski wrote: "We need not blind ourselves with the old dogma that 'human nature cannot be changed', for we find that it can be changed." However, in the opinion of a majority of psychiatrists, the tenets and practices of general semantics are not an effective way of treating patients with psychological or mental illnesses. While Korzybski considered his program to be empirically based and to strictly follow the scientific method, general semantics has been described as veering into the domain of pseudoscience.Starting around 1940, university English professor S. I. Hayakawa (1906–1992), speech professor Wendell Johnson, speech professor Irving J. Lee, and others assembled elements of general semantics into a package suitable for incorporation into mainstream communications curricula. The Institute of General Semantics, which Korzybski and co-workers founded in 1938, continues today. General semantics as a movement has waned considerably since the 1950s, although many of its ideas live on in other movements, such as neuro-linguistic programming and rational emotive behavior therapy.

Institute of General Semantics

The Institute of General Semantics (IGS) is a not-for-profit corporation established in 1938 by Alfred Korzybski, to support research and publication on the topic of General Semantics. The Institute publishes Korzybski's writings, including the seminal text Science & Sanity, and books by other authors who have studied or taught general semantics, such as Robert Pula, Irving J. Lee, Wendell Johnson, and Stuart Chase. Every year since 1952, it has sponsored the Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, with presenters from a broad range of disciplines, from science to medicine to entertainment, including names like actor Steve Allen, psychologist Albert Ellis, scientist and visionary R. Buckminster Fuller, linguist Allen Walker Read, and philosopher F. S. C. Northrop. The Institute offers periodic seminars, workshops and conferences and is headquartered in New York City.

The IGS is closely affiliated with GS groups around the globe, including the Australian General Semantics Society.

The Institute of General Semantics publishes:

ETC: A Review of General Semantics, a quarterly journal printed since 1943, distributed to IGS members and subscribed to by over 350 libraries around the world.

Numerous books, CDs and DVDs on general semantics.

Ken Keyes Jr.

Ken Keyes Jr. (January 19, 1921 – December 20, 1995) was an American personal growth author and lecturer, and the creator of the Living Love method, a self-help system. Keyes wrote fifteen books on personal growth and social consciousness issues, representing about four million copies distributed overall.

Levels of Knowing and Existence

Levels of Knowing and Existence: Studies in General Semantics (Harper and Row 1959) is a textbook written by Professor Harry L. Weinberg that provides a broad overview of general semantics in language accessible to the layman.

Map–territory relation

The map–territory relation describes the relationship between an object and a representation of that object, as in the relation between a geographical territory and a map of it. Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that "the map is not the territory" and that "the word is not the thing", encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself. The relationship has also been expressed in other terms, such as Alan Watts's "The menu is not the meal."

Marjorie Kendig

Marjorie Kendig Gates (1892–1981), best known as M . Kendig, was an American administrator, director of the Institute of General Semantics from 1950 until 1965, and co-worker of Alfred Korzybski, who developed the theory of general semantics. She completed Korzybski's collected writings after his death in 1950.

Marjorie Kendig was one of the founders of the Institute of General Semantics in 1938 in Chicago. According to Read (1976), Kendig had "great ability as an administrator to organize, to plan, to budget, to assist in innumerable ways in launching it as the Educational Director, made it possible for Korzybski to carry out his work as lecturer and writer. He was able to give many seminars throughout the year at this new center for his work, and also wrote quite prolifically. Miss Kendig's efforts and know-how were crucial in establishing and developing the program of the Institute, and even more crucial in carrying it on after Korzybski's death in 1950."As Education Director for the Institute of General Semantics from its inception in 1938, Kendig began publication of the General Semantics Bulletin in 1949. The Bulletin is considered the Institute's annual 'yearbook.' Jointly with Elwood Murray she programmed the 1942 and 1950 congresses in general semantics held at University of Denver. In the late 1950s she was among the first members of the Society for General Systems Research.

Null-A Three

Null-A Three, usually written Ā Three, is a 1985 science fiction novel by A. E. van Vogt. It incorporates concepts from the General semantics of Alfred Korzybski and refers to non-Aristotelian logic.

The novel is a continuation of the adventures of Gilbert Gosseyn from The World of Null-A (1945) and The Pawns of Null-A (1948).

Process philosophy

Process philosophy — also ontology of becoming, processism, or philosophy of organism — identifies metaphysical reality with change. In opposition to the classical model of change as illusory (as argued by Parmenides) or accidental (as argued by Aristotle), process philosophy regards change as the cornerstone of reality—the cornerstone of being thought of as becoming.

Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, philosophers have posited true reality as "timeless", based on permanent substances, while processes are denied or subordinated to timeless substances. If Socrates changes, becoming sick, Socrates is still the same (the substance of Socrates being the same), and change (his sickness) only glides over his substance: change is accidental, whereas the substance is essential. Therefore, classic ontology denies any full reality to change, which is conceived as only accidental and not essential. This classical ontology is what made knowledge and a theory of knowledge possible, as it was thought that a science of something in becoming was an impossible feat to achieve.Philosophers who appeal to process rather than substance include Heraclitus, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, Alfred Korzybski, R. G. Collingwood, Alan Watts, Robert M. Pirsig, Charles Hartshorne, Arran Gare, Nicholas Rescher, Colin Wilson, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze. In physics, Ilya Prigogine distinguishes between the "physics of being" and the "physics of becoming". Process philosophy covers not just scientific intuitions and experiences, but can be used as a conceptual bridge to facilitate discussions among religion, philosophy, and science.Process philosophy is sometimes classified as closer to Continental philosophy than analytic philosophy, because it is usually only taught in Continental departments. However, other sources state that process philosophy should be placed somewhere in the middle between the poles of analytic versus Continental methods in contemporary philosophy.

Sanford I. Berman

Dr. Sanford I. Berman (aka Dr. Michael Dean) was a philanthropist, real estate investor, professional hypnotist, and board member of the Institute of General Semantics. As of the year 2000, Berman had given more than a million dollars to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD); San Diego State University (SDSU); and University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Berman endowed the Sanford I. Berman Institute for Effective Communication and General Semantics at SDSU in 1997, the Sanford I. Berman Chair in Language and Human Communication at UCSD in 1998, the Dr. Sanford I. Berman Professorship of Public Discourse and General Semantics at UNLV in 1999, and UNLV's Sanford I. Berman Debate Forum.Books by Berman include Words, Meanings and People, The Closed Mind, How to Lessen Misunderstandings, and Why Do We Jump to Conclusions?. Berman acted as editor for Logic and General Semantics and with Irving Lee Language Habits in Human Affairs. He has also created over 100 audio tapes on motivation and general semantics.


Sanity (from Latin: sānitās) refers to the soundness, rationality and health of the human mind, as opposed to insanity. A person is sane if he/she is rational. In modern society, the term has become exclusively synonymous with compos mentis (Latin: compos, having mastery of, and Latin: mentis, mind), in contrast with non compos mentis, or insane, meaning troubled conscience. A sane mind is nowadays considered healthy both from its analytical - once called rational - and emotional aspects. Furthermore, according to Chesterton, sanity involves wholeness, whereas insanity implies narrowness and brokenness.

Science of Survival

Science of Survival is a 1951 book by L. Ron Hubbard, extending his earlier writings on Dianetics. Its original subtitle was "simplified, faster dianetic techniques", although more recent editions have the subtitle "Prediction of human behavior". It is one of the canonical texts of Scientology.The title of Science of Survival alludes to Science and Sanity, a highly popular work by Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics. Hubbard acknowledged Korzybski's contributions in the book.It has remained perpetually in print over the years, and is currently published by Bridge Publications, Inc.Science of Survival was the follow-up to Hubbard's best-selling Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. It expanded significantly on Dianetics, setting out what Hubbard called the "dynamics of behaviour" and provided descriptions of new techniques of Dianetics processing that Hubbard described as being faster and simpler than those that he had advanced previously. In the book, Hubbard introduced two concepts that were later to become key elements of Scientology: theta and the tone scale. He also endorsed the concept of past lives.

Sharon, Connecticut

Sharon is a town located in Litchfield County, Connecticut, in the northwest corner of the state. It is bounded on the north by Salisbury, on the east by the Housatonic River, on the south by Kent, and on the west by Dutchess County, New York. At the time of the 2010 census, the town had a total population of 2,782, roughly a third more than it had had 230 years earlier. The ZIP code for Sharon is 06069. The urban center of the town is the Sharon census-designated place, with a population of 729 at the 2010 census.

Structural differential

The structural differential is a physical chart or three-dimensional model illustrating the abstracting processes of the human nervous system. In one form, it appears as a pegboard with tags. Created by Alfred Korzybski, and awarded a U.S. patent on May 26, 1925, it is used as a training device in general semantics. The device is intended to show that human "knowledge" of, or acquaintance with, anything is partial—not total.

The Pawns of Null-A

The Pawns of Null-A is a 1956 science fiction novel by A. E. van Vogt originally published as a four-part serial in Astounding Stories from October 1948 to January 1949 as The Players of Null-A. It incorporates concepts from the General semantics of Alfred Korzybski and refers to non-Aristotelian logic. It was published in the UK with the original name.

The novel is a continuation of the story of Gilbert Gosseyn from The World of Null-A, expanding on the galactic events which drove the interplanetary invasion of the earlier story.

The World of Null-A

The World of Null-A, sometimes written The World of Ā, is a 1948 science fiction novel by Canadian American writer A. E. van Vogt. It was originally published as a three-part serial in 1945 in Astounding Stories. It incorporates concepts from the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski. The name Ā refers to non-Aristotelian logic.

Time binding

Time binding can refer to

human progress as seen from the perspective of general semantics, an educational discipline created by Alfred Korzybski in the 1930s

time bind, a sociological concept relevant to family and labor, introduced by Arlie Russell Hochschild in the 1990s

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