Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, was born on July 3rd, 1879, in Warsaw, Poland, and died on March 1st, 1950, while at work in what was then the headquarters of the Institute of General Semantics, in Lakeville, Connecticut. He introduced his general theory of time-binding in his first book, Manhood of Humanity, in 1921, and the discipline of general semantics in his magnum opus, Science and Sanity, published in 1933.
Korzybski famously was motivated by his experiences serving as a soldier during the First World War, and the need to promote peace and prevent military conflict. He was further moved to develop and promote general semantics by the horror of the Second World War, and the threat of the atomic bomb in its aftermath.
Following World War One, concern over mass communication, propaganda, and the manipulation of public opinion was widespread. The use and misuse of language and symbols to influence thought and action led to a number of efforts to educate the public and provide ways of resisting the assault on attitudes and behavior, including general semantics.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a shock to the international system, especially as it led to the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. Communism, as an international movement, represented a direct challenge to western capitalism, one that also represented a challenge to western democracy, and expanded into eastern Europe and the far east at the end of World War Two.
The stock market crash of 1929 led to the period known as the Great Depression, an unprecedented financial crisis that called into question the economic basis of liberal democracy. While recovery began in 1933, the same year as the publication of Science and Sanity, the depression persisted into the 1940s in the United States, and even longer in Europe.
The rise of fascism in Europe represented yet another challenge to Enlightenment rationalism and political systems based on republican government and rule of law. Benito Mussolini's rise to power in Italy during the 1920s was followed by Nazism and Adolf Hitler's ascension in Germany during the 1930s. Similar developments occurred in Hungary and Romania, and in milder form in Yugoslavia, Greece, Lithuania, and Korzybski's native land, Poland. Fascist movements attempted takeovers in many other nations, and the Spanish Civil War that began in 1936 ended in 1939 with the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which persisted well into the postwar period.
Nazism in particular brought the problem of stereotyping and scapegoating into sharp relief, with their racial theories that resulted in the Holocaust. Discrimination and persecution may have been more extreme under fascist and communist systems, but was hardly absent in the west. Racism and religious persecution was very much a part of American history and reality, including the legacy of slavery in the form of Jim Crow and separate-but-equal, the establishment of Japanese internment camps on the west coast from 1942 to 1945, and more subtle forms of exclusion on account of ethnicity, faith, or creed. Political repression and fear mongering in the wake of the Second World War took the form of McCarthyism, with accusations of treason and subversion, and the practice of blacklisting in Hollywood, academia, and government.
All this and more serves as a reminder that the development of general semantics took place during tumultuous times, and was a response to a time of great conflict and tragedy. And we look back on the founder of general semantics as an exceptional individual, not perfect by any means, but a thoughtful, caring, and inspired human being.
As we presently find ourselves in troubled times on multiple fronts, it is worth trying to put ourselves in the shoes of significant thinkers such as Alfred Korzybski, and speculate and extrapolate on what he might say about current events, were he still alive today. To that end, on February 19, 2020, a panel of general semanticists was brough together to address the question, "What would Korzybski say?" The panelists were
Martin H. Levinson, President of the Institute of General Semantics, Treasurer of the New York Society for General Semantics
Jacqueline Rudig, Treasurer of the Institute of General Semantics, and Secretary of the Board of Directors of the New York Society for General Semantics
Teresa Manzella, member of the Board of Directors of the New York Society for General Semantics
Michael Plugh, member of the Board of Directors of the New York Society for General Semantics and Assistant Professor of Communication at Manhattan College
Thom Gencarelli, member of the Board of Directors of the New York Society for General Semantics, Trustee of the Institute of General Semantics, and Professor of Communication at Manhattan College
and the panel was moderated by Lance Strate, President of the New York Society for General Semantics, Trustee of the Institute of General Semantics, and Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.
It was a probing and provocative discussion!