Korzybski is a minor figure today—remembered, if at all, for his contribution to Neuro-Linguistic Programming—but his basic stance towards language has taken hold.
Whether you think this stance originated with Korzybski or not is somewhat irrelevant—it is difficult to show that, for example, Descartes or Nietzsche originated or “caused” an idea to come into existence; it is as much that a certain idea is in the air and that a figure acts as a lightning rod for its expression—so that people read a man’s work and think, “Yes, that’s what I’ve always thought, but I’ve never seen anyone say it—I’ve never seen it expressed.” That’s genius.
There’s some grounds to think that’s how it works, because, for example, Newton and Leibniz came up with the same idea, calculus, at the same time—so that there is a debate as to whom it “belongs to”. Perhaps it would be better to say that the “atmosphere” was ready for calculus—and two men condensed it (to mix metaphors) at that point; and a similar relationship exits between Wallace and Darwin (correspondents, like Newton and Leibniz, both credited with the same discovery).
So Korzybski is a figure who expresses his time—which is our time still, really—very well indeed. His ideas about langage can be explicated as follows:
Jack has stolen a pencil, a special novelty pencil given to another child at school as a birthday present. You say, “Jack, you are a bad boy! Bad! You’re a little thief!”.
Korzybski appears in a puff of non-Aristotelian logic and asks us to rephrase our statement as, “Jack has done a thing that is bad, he has stolen a single pencil—yet for most of the time he has been alive he has not stolen a pencil. Jack is not a ‘bad boy’, Jack is a boy who did a bad thing once. You cannot say someone is a thief from a single example, thievery is a pattern of behaviour—so Jack is not a thief.”
So the idea is that we are gerund-ing—adulting, as we say today. We are not “a thing”, “the thief”—Korzybski would say that is a delusion introduced through Aristotelian logic, or rather Aristotle’s logic as it was misunderstood for centuries. Life isn’t either-or, A or not-A, life is a process.
Now, this was all in the air at the time, as represented by several developments:
a. Heidegger was after a “God of Being”, a God of “to be” (a verbing God, Godd-ing not “a God”);
b. Whitehead spoke about process philosophy—the Great Chain of Being was broken, we no longer contemplated one static “perfect celestial sphere”, everything was “evolutionary” in the broadest sense;
c. Einsteinian physics revealed that the natural world wasn’t just billiard balls, but was probabilistic (Jack is a thief 0.02% the time, in non-Newtonian ethics; and, just like a neutron, we can’t say for sure what he’ll do next—whereas Newtonian ethics just follows the rigid law of the inverse square);
d. Zen began to interest people in the West, partly due to the developments above—and as cybernetics came in during the 1940s everything became about “process and nothingness”, Japanese paintings of “the Great Wave at Kanagawa”.
Korzybski’s ideas aren’t just ethical, although I’ve focused on the ethical implications for these purposes—trained as an engineer, Korzybski’s idea was very much in the American self-improvement tradition. So you don’t say, “I can’t play the piano. I’m useless.” You say, “I can play ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, and because I played it every day this week I played it with fewer mistakes this Monday.” Every day, in every way I am getting better and better (think yourself rich).
Korzybski called his doctrine “General Semantics” and it still exists to this day (though it’s not very popular)—and, of course, he managed to influence movements like Scientology along the way (what didn’t?). “Science” would be the operative word here—or, perhaps, engineering.
Korzybski’s idea is scientific: before you begin your experiment you need to get your terms clear—and you need to eliminate value-laden language, because there’s no such thing, not in the quantifiable sense, as a “good” or a “bad” spring (a “good” spring is a spring that functions as intended in my experiment to demonstrate Newton’s law of gravity—but because I call it “good” that’s not a comment about the spring’s “inherent” goodness, and I could as easily say “it’s a bona slinky” as a “good spring”).
If you apply these methods to your life—miracles will occur (not literal miracles, but miracles of the scientific variety). Korzybski has definitely influenced modern forms of psychotherapy, like the now-popular CBT, because one thing CBT therapists like to do is to get you to restate negative thoughts in a different way—in a Korzybskian way—so as to help you realise that you are dominated by a negative thought pattern, tyrannised by language (although this sounds beneficent, it has a dark side—as we shall see).
So Jack has stolen a pencil, but Jack isn’t “a thief”—Jack is a boy who stole a pencil once, most of the time he hasn’t stolen a pencil (we need more data). We wouldn’t want to call him “a thief”, says Korzybski, because, in a cybernetic feedback loop, as it would be eventually called, to call him “a thief” will make him think “I’m a thief, I’ve been told by an authority figure I’m a thief—since that is what I am, I will do more of that.” Hence we “make a thief” by our incautious and unscientific use of language, whereas if we hadn’t been so judgemental and used value-laden language we could have saved Jack from a life of crime.
You sometimes hear self-pitying criminals reflect this Korzybskian idea back at the media—perhaps because it’s something they picked up in the air themselves, in the popular kulchur. So Gaz, who is Baz’s cousin from the rough side of the Orchard Park estate, will say, “I don’t see why the fact I stabbed him—which literally only took one minute—should define my entire life.” Perhaps the social worker or CBT therapist would agree that he shouldn’t let it define his entire life, being only a minute—and so reducing his ability to rehabilitate and actualise his potential.
Yet, if you think about it, the argument is quantitative. What it says is “my life is 100,000s of minutes—and yet this 1 minute when I murdered someone defines my whole life; and why should it, in aggregate?”. Well, the 1 minute defines your whole life because of the quality of what happened in that 1 minute—which was a murder, which is generally considered to be the worst crime. So the idea is “democratic”, “100,000 minutes” are worth more than “1 minute”.
You could flip this round, of course; if you think people can redeem themselves, like a Russian prisoner who committed murder but then signs up to serve his country and is killed; perhaps the minute in which he is killed redeems the minute in which he murdered someone—it seems to have some equivalence, anyway. The concept is redemption—which is not present in Korzybskian thought, being based on values.
Of course, the Korzybskian view is quantitative because it is derived from engineering, from science. So, in this view, “I’m not a murderer, I’m someone who murdered someone once; and it only took 1 minute, whereas my whole life has 100,000s of minutes—so it shouldn’t define my entire life henceforward.”
This brings me to my second objection to this thought-mode: parsimony. Korzybski’s method is not parsimonious, it violates “Occam’s razor”. In reality, if you find Jack has stolen a pencil, why would say, “Jack, you are a person who has stolen a pencil. You have done a bad thing, but most of the time you don’t do bad things.”? Nobody would say that in reality, if you found a child stole a pencil you wouldn’t have the self-control to come out with that long mouthful. You’d just say, “Oh! You little thief!”.
I think you would be correct to say that, quite apart from the fact that I don’t believe almost anyone except a very few people have the patience and intelligence to come out with the Korzybskian formulation in ordinary life—you’d be correct not to use the formula because it’s just simpler and, even in scientific terms, the organism acts so as to conserve energy (fewer words = more efficient = saves energy).
It’s “wrong” to lie in scientific terms because it takes more energy to lie than to tell the truth, hence it is an inefficient use of energy—people often lie to avoid a punishment that will happen anyway (Jack with his pencil, perhaps), but all the lie does is defer the punishment (and so you waste energy trying to avoid what will catch up with you anyway—hence it’s inefficient and irrational to lie).
So Korzybski’s thought isn’t even rational and scientific—it isn’t energy efficient; and that suggests deviation from reality—it’s really impractical to try to think as if you’re formulating a scientific hypothesis all the time, and I don’t think most people could manage it (as it happens, CBT therapists talk to their clients about “your hypothesis” that something could happen, perhaps to reduce anxiety—again, reformulate your anxious thought as a hypothesis without value-laden language).
There is yet a further problem with Korzybski’s thought: an event is a pattern. Korzybski didn’t understand that, neither did Alan Watts when he said “a thief is someone who steals habitually, if you did it once you’re not a thief”. Yet an event is a pattern, if you see a single example what you have seen, in most cases, is a single “wave” in a larger pattern. So if you see someone do something, it is very likely that they’ve done it in the past and will do it again (if it’s the first time they’ve done it, it’s likely they’ll do it again as well).
So the idea that “the thief is made” and that if we alter the language we use when we capture him the first time then we can “stop the feedback loop” and prevent his behaviour from being “habitual” is fallacious. What you are more likely to have found is a thief by nature.
Korzybski’s ideas are democratic; so the idea is that anyone can be made or remade through language use—as in A Clockwork Orange—and, in consequence, nobody needs to be punished because they can be subject to scientific “behaviour modification” instead (we don’t stigmatise people here, we’re not judgemental—we’re scientific, values don’t come into this). It’s non-coercive and persuasive and it denies heredity—so it’s in line with progressive liberalism, the ideal with civilisation is to persuade people to change. The more you use persuasion, the more civilised you are.
Yet if you look at a figure like Prigozhin in Russia, he was put in prison as a young man for theft and for attempts to “induce adolescents into crime”. Today, he is still engaged in theft, as a mercenary, and in his efforts to recruit young Russian men for his mercenary outfit still wants to “induce adolescents into crime” (a mercenary is not a honourable occupation, it is tolerated banditry).
A Tsarist aristocrat might have said, “Prigozhin? Oh, you mean that thieving Jew?”—which would be almost in the spirit of Korzybski, because he used the gerund (yet not really—it’s still a curt and judgemental formulation). Yet, if we follow Korzybski, we would say, “Prigozhin was a man who, as a young man, committed theft and encouraged teenagers to steal—but for a significant proportion of his life he was a caterer and a chef, and today he is a mercenary; and a mercenary is not the same as a thief, being legal in Russia—so for most of his life Prigozhin has not been a thief nor has he corrupted the youth.”
Yet the leopard doesn’t change its spots—to use an unscientific formulation. What Korzybski demonstrates is the way progressive ideas (“the left”) are tied up with techno-science. It’s the application of methods from engineering and science to “human problems” that characterises the left—it’s why Neoreaction was never a right-wing movement, it just wanted “more science and technology, only done properly”.
Yet it is this worldview, where you go to problems in a “valueless” and “non-judgemental” way, like a physicist, that constitutes what the left is. You’re not allowed to say “he’s a thief” because that is an “unscientific, prejudiced statement, not grounded in replicable evidence”. This is despite the fact that common sense shows that you can look at a kid for three seconds and think “he’s a thug”—and you’re right, he’s a thug. Pattern recognition.
It’s the scientific view that makes you think “we can reprogram people”—if we can modify their language we can make them be whatever we wish. Note the connection, once again, to language modification and Orwellianism—Korzybski didn’t intend it to be so, but the implication from his theory is that “nigger” must be banned because the word itself creates social failure in black people.
This is the dark side to CBT—Orwell’s Big Brother is a natural outgrowth from Korzybski’s thought, for to achieve our civilised and persuasive non-coercive future we will alter the way you use language so as to become “engineers of the human soul”.
For example—you could make people put pronouns in their Twitter biography to foreground the implicit assumption that we have an “Aristotelian” sex divide, male-female, when really, in “non-Euclidean” terms, gender is a spectrum. The whole idea is very Korzybski—he was a non-binary thinker (beyond A and not-A) to the last—and to foreground your hidden assumptions through reformulated language is typical of scientific thought (that’s how we make breakthroughs, folks!).
Korzybski’s ideas also led him into dubious action—for example, he started a lecture and began to munch on some biscuits, told his student he was famished and just had to eat, and then offered the biscuits round. When a few students were happily munching away, Korzybski pulled back the cover on the packet to reveal the tasty treats were dog biscuits—the students had had a Scooby-Snack (“Yoinks!”). Several vomited or mock-vomited, I imagine—spat it out.
For Korzybski, this experiment proved the way language can trump reality—if you don’t know it’s labelled as a dog biscuit, it isn’t a dog biscuit. The implication—again Orwellian—is that things are what I call them. If I dress a black African from Cameroon, just arrived in Britain, in a Barbour jacket and a flat-cap and give him a shotgun and Labrador Retriever and call him “Nigel” then he *is* British (“Britishness”, as we should reformulate it, is an emergent process anyway); and, perhaps more typically, if you mistake a trans woman for a real woman for a moment then she *is* a real woman—because if you don’t know it’s a dog biscuit it isn’t…
Korzybski is best-remembered for his catchphrase “the map is not the territory”—I would say there’s some truth to that, in that it describes the divide between quality and quantity (between blueprint and motorcycle, as Pirsig might say—there is a question as to where “the motorcycle” as a whole is, and the way you cut it up with language is relevant because not all companies divide the parts in the same way; it depends when you *cut* the exhaust from the engine, for example—so where is “the motorcycle” if nobody can agree on what the parts that make it up are?).
However, Korzybski often seems to think that if you change the map, by fiat, you can change the territory—and that’s where he goes badly wrong.
I might cover a motorcycle with a filled-out shroud and say I have a pony under there, perhaps have a recording of pony sounds—yet it’s not a pony. You are familiar with concepts like tricks and illusions—that people can be deceived. Well, that’s all Korzybski did—and he made it look clever. I will go for the nightmare: you have sex with a woman and it turns out to be a trans person—for men like Korzybski the extreme dislocation you experience when “the dog biscuit” is revealed constitutes the thrill of discovery, just like science. It turns out sexual desire is not what you thought it was.
This can apply to other areas as well; hence “if you can’t tell it’s made from bugs, why do you think it isn’t real meat?”. Again, the dog biscuits. What this goes down to is that we have an intuition, a strong intuition, that there is a metaphysical substance to things beyond the words we use to describe them; and, of course, the scientific method denies there is any such structure, or, rather, that it has relevance for its purposes—after all, the scientific method cannot enquire into metaphysics itself, so it just presumes there’s no such “beyond” in order to achieve certain ends.
Further, I would say Korzybski’s dog biscuit denies quality—a dog biscuit is doubtless palatable and in some cases, such as a plane crash on a remote peak in the Andes, would be more palatable than at other times. Yet it has a quality that is different to a biscuit made for humans—I can eat it and find it palatable but when I find out it’s a dog biscuit some of the “unusual flavours” will suddenly make sense. Similarly, I might be able to sustain an erection and have sex with a trans person as a mechanical biological act, but if I perceived the truth certain elements of quality that seemed “off” would make sense (in a way that would be bound to disturb).
So all Korzybski’s “dog biscuit” experiment demonstrated is not that “language can remake reality at will” but rather that a biscuit has both a qualitative and a quantitative element—there’s the actual biscuit recipe optimised to give you a glossy coat (if you’re a dog), then there’s the way it’s sold (which, with a normal biscuit, may make you salivate before you taste it—the power of language).
Korzybski’s followers would say “it’s all language”, little Jack—every American—can remake themselves at will if they just use language in a scientific way. That is what happens if you are a positivist and apply science to human affairs—you remove all values and quality and think people are just lumps of quantitative flesh to be remade at will.
If you read Korzybski you find he is as wordy as his theories—it’s dense, discursive, and without a clear style. He likes to name-drop (“Wittgenstein”) for no reason—just to modify you through language, I suppose (high-status). When I read it I thought, “Phoney—fraud.” That view sticks.
Korzybski is not responsible for this prevalent view that language can change reality—he’s more symptomatic. Ideas like “language can change reality” are often attributed to “French postmodernists”—yet the whole sensibility predates postmodernism (which does suffer from these problems, true). The sensibility derives from the attempt to apply techno-science methods to everything—it’s not that the West has been “overrun by unscientific woo”. It’s not ju-ju that makes people say “don’t stigmatise him, don’t call him a thief”—it’s the actual scientific method, it’s the attempt to formulate a value-free hypothesis about a person’s behaviour.
Postmodernism is used as a scape-goat by people who are involved in techno-science because it seems more “artistic”—which must be the problem, you see, residual “religious ideas” in circulation not cauterised by Enlightenment rationalism. Yet the origin is the application of their own scientific method to society.
The reason this view is so prevalent—the reason why words like “nigger” are verboten, and why you have pronouns in your bio (nobody knew what a pronoun was until a decade ago)—is because everyone is trained to think primarily with the scientific method, even about social and individual problems; and so, as with the dog biscuits, we challenge your hidden assumptions about everything—it’s science, you see (overturns hidebound traditions, shows us counterintuitive results that improve our lives). We’re not trained in Korzybski’s thought, but we are trained in something very like it—Korzybski just applied his training as an engineer to personal and social problems, that’s all.
Korzybski was much-beloved by Robert Anton Wilson, sometime Playboy journalist and semi-occultist. Views like Korzybski’s are sometimes dismissed as “magical thinking” by Enlightenment partisans—yet Korzybski did not engage in true magical thought (which involves wordplay, puns, and rhyme), although there is a certain sympathy with the magical view “there’s no cause-and-effect relations”; the unus mundus is not “Aristotelian”; but, then again, it’s not “Korzybskian” either.
His thought-mode is called “magical” because when people who work in techno-science are confronted with the absurd results from their own ideas they deny that such irrational propositions could originate in techno-science. Yet it is precisely due to this mode of thought that people begin to think that if you call me “Sheila” that I’ll, iteratively, become a woman.
After you see the absurdities caused by techno-science in the personal and social realm, it begins to make you wonder if we weren’t better off imbuing the physical world with “personality”—that “earth, fire, air, and water” might not be more true than Einsteinian %%%s.