by Susan & Bruce Kodish

Born into the noble class in Poland in 1879, Alfred Korzybski grew up on his family's estate, considered a model farm, and in Warsaw where his family owned an apartment building. As a child he quietly observed what went on around him, and learned to get the feel of the calculus and the latest developments in mathematics and science from his engineer father. He also grew up with several languages (Polish, Russian, French and German), and later learned others; this gave him an early grasp of his later formulation, "the map is not the territory", "the word is not the thing". 

Alfred Korzybski in his Chicago Office, 1944 1

Alfred Korzybski in his Chicago Office, 1944 1

He trained as a chemical engineer. With no schooling in Latin and Greek, he found that regulations prevented him from formally pursuing interests in law, mathematics and physics. However, he read constantly in these subjects and in philosophy, history, literature, etc. He taught several subjects in a Polish school, traveled as a scholar through Europe, and worked to help educate the peasants employed on his family farm as a way of expressing his strong negative evaluations of injustices done them by Czarist policies.  

He volunteered for service in the Second Russian Army, at the age of 35, when World War I started. In the cavalry, he worked in military intelligence, suffered several war injuries and deeply felt the suffering of others in the war.

War assignments took him to Canada as an artillery expert, and to the United States, where he chose to stay. He learned English, developing a considerable command of this new language in a short time. He continued his efforts to help the Allies, joined the French-Polish Army and lectured for the United States government, while he intensified his pondering about how such destruction and social collapse could happen.

In 1919, he married Mira Edgerly, an American portrait painter. She recognized in him the characteristic concern for people and their plight which threaded through his early experiences and led him later to formulate general semantics. As she said, "I had never met anyone with such a capacity to care for humanity-as-a-whole, as few men are capable of caring for one woman." 2

As he pondered questions raised by his experiences, he began to formulate his answer to what makes humans human, the notion of time-binding. He presented this theory in Manhood of Humanity, published in 1921. The mathematician Cassius Keyser, deeply impressed by this work, helped Korzybski edit it.

Korzybski devoted the next twelve years to studying how humans 'bind time'. He studied the newest developments in mathematical foundations, mathematics, physics, anthropology, biology, colloidal chemistry, neurology, etc., evaluating how mathematicians and scientists evaluate when they do their work. He studied at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, D.C., where psychiatrist William Alanson White, M.D., guided and collaborated with Korzybski as he evaluated how psychiatric patients evaluate.

He contrasted the evaluating styles of mathematicians/scientists (when doing their work) and psychiatric patients, which he considered the best and worst of human evaluating. The conclusions he drew provided much of the basis for general semantics.

He created the structural differential model and wrote and presented several papers on his work as it developed. In 1933, he published his major work, Science and Sanity, a record of his developing understandings and the formulation of his non-aristotelian system. Shortly before publishing his book he decided to call his theory "general semantics".

He then concerned himself with the question, "Does it work?" Did the application of his methods influence the evaluations and behavior of human beings? The remainder of his life was devoted to writing about, teaching and evaluating the effects of general semantics.

First in Chicago and later in Connecticut, before and after the founding of the Institute of General Semantics (I.G.S.) in 1938, he worked days, evenings, weekends and holidays. He developed intense relationships with his students, "on whom he poured his energies hour after hour, as if it were of utmost importance for each individual to understand, to feel the weight of the world problems, the human values, he dealt with..." 3

Under severe financial pressures, he continued his work and became a United States citizen in 1940. By the early forties his formulations had begun to penetrate into many fields. College courses were taught by his students; research into the efficacy of general semantics was done. These studies, as well as the experiences of psychiatrists using general semantics to help soldiers in World War II, supported the value of his methods.

In the late forties, he devoted much effort to studying, in historical perspective, dictatorships in general, and the evaluations of the people of the U.S.S.R. in particular. Consciousness of the mechanisms of evaluating remained a primary focus.

In his later years, he was slowed down by the fatigue engendered by his constant work and the results of his war injuries. He continued to teach and write to the end, which came suddenly on March 1, 1950, as a result of a mesenteric (abdominal artery) thrombosis. 4

While Korzybski found many indications that his methods of extensionalizing and consciousness of abstracting can improve our abilities to understand ourselves and others, he remained aware of

...the limitations of his work, of himself as an individual, and of all humans. His theory of time-binding laid the embracing foundations for the study and realization of the potentialities of humans... He had a deep reverence for the methods of mathematics and the exact sciences, as expressions of human behavior in our general search for the structure of the unknown. He had a strong social feeling of responsibility in a personal, and a historical sense. 5


1. Alfred Korzybski, Collected Writings, p. 482. The sign on Korzybski's blackboard reads as follows:

When a private at Randolph Field comes to a noncom with a complaint, he is handed a mourning-bordered card which says: "Your trials and tribulations have broken my heart. They are unique. I have never heard of anything like them before. As proof of my sympathy, I give you this card which entitles you to one hour of condolence. "

2. Ibid., p. 742. The material in this section is abstracted from the essay, "ALFRED HABDANK SKARBEK KORZYBSKI: A Biographical Sketch" by Charlotte Schuchardt Read. In Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings 1920-1950 . Collected and Arranged by M. Kendig, pp. 737-748.

3. Ibid., p. 745.

4. M. Kendig Memorandum, "Circumstances of A.K.'s Death," 27 March, 1950. I.G.S. Archives.

5. C. S. Read., p. 748.

Copyright © 2007, Susan and Bruce Kodish. 
Used with permission and slightly revised from the book 
Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics. Revised Second Edition. Extensional Publishing, 2001.

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