Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski was a Polish American scholar credited to have developed the field of general semantics. General Semantics, which is distinct from the field of semantics, is a program that seeks to regulate the evaluative operations performed in the human brain. Korzybski, who had always been interested in studying the complexities of the human brain, was of the view that human knowledge is not only limited by the human nervous system, but also by the languages developed by the humans, and thus no human being can have access to the absolute reality. An engineer by profession, he was a keen observer of human behavior. What he found the most intriguing about human nature was the fact that in spite of the advancements man has made in the fields of mathematics, science and technology, human beings still are unable to comprehend how their own brains functioned. Thus he took to studying human behavior in detail and his works culminated in the development of what came to be known as general semantics. This field soon gained recognition as a science and was taught in colleges and universities as a part of their courses. He is best known for the dictum, "the map is not the territory", indicating that an actual object is different from its representation.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on July 3, 1879, in Warsaw, Poland, into an aristocratic family which had produced several mathematicians, scientists and engineers for generations.
His parents were very wealthy and they ensured that he got the best education. He learnt Polish at home, Russian at school, and French and German from his governesses. By the time he was a teenager he was fluent in all the four of these languages.
He managed his father’s farm for sometime before entering the Warsaw University of Technology to study engineering.
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When the World War I broke out he volunteered for service in the Second Russian Army where he served as an intelligence officer in the General Staff Intelligence Department.
During his service he sustained a hip injury when his horse was shot out from under him. He also badly wounded his leg and suffered from internal injuries.
He was assigned to Camp Petawawa testing grounds in Canada in December 1915 to observe new artillery tests. Then he moved to the United States to coordinate the shipment of artillery to Russia. Over there he also assisted the United States government by promoting the sale of war bonds.
After the revolution of 1917 and the collapse of the Russian army, he joined the French-Polish army.
He decided to stay in the United States after the war. The war experiences had a profound impact on him. He wondered why human beings engaged in such bloodshed and meaningless violence. This led him to compare human behavior with that of animals and he studied the differences between the two.
His friends, the biologist Jacques Loeb and mathematician Cassius Jackson Keyser were impressed by his ideas and encouraged him to publish his findings. Motivated, Korzybski published his work ‘Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering’ in 1921.
His first book was a success and he continued his research. By now his areas of research included the field of psychiatry and he spent two years studying with William Alanson White, the superintendent of the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
In 1923, he applied for U.S. patent for the Structural Differential model he had devised. Over the past few years, he had also been working on a concept he called “Time-binding”. He published ‘Time-Binding: The General Theory’ in 1924 and presented it to the International Mathematical Congress in Toronto.
His book, ‘Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics’ was published in October 1933.
By now he had gained much in popularity and traveled around the country from 1934–37, lecturing and giving seminars based on the methodology of ‘General Semantics’ which he had discussed in the book ‘Science and Sanity’.
He secured initial funding from Cornelius Crane (Chicago) and Frances Stone Dewing (Massachusetts) and founded the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago in 1938. M. Kendig became the Institute’s first Education Director.
After the World War II he moved the institute to Lakeville, Connecticut, in 1946 and directed it till his death. His final paper, ‘The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes’ was published as a chapter in ‘Perception: An Approach to Personality’ in 1951.
He is best known for developing the field of general semantics which is a philosophical approach to language. It seeks to explore the relationship between the form of language and its use, and attempts to regulate human’s capacity to express ideas.
Personal Life & legacy
He met Mira Edgerly, an accomplished portrait painter, during the late 1910s and married her in 1919. This union lasted until his death.
He had always been an active man and his hectic schedule began to take a toll on his health during the later years. He died due to coronary thrombosis on March 1, 1950.