Alfred Korzybski – Science and Sanity

Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)

Allen Ginsberg in 1981 at Naropa continues from here

AG: Another book that Burroughs laid on us for our education was Korzybski’s Science and Sanity  Has anybody ever heard of that, or know about it?  It’s the basic text of general semantics – Alfred Korzybski – K-O-R-Z-Y-B-S-K-I – Alfred – under whom Burroughs had studied at the University of Chicago in the Thirties or early Forties.  It’s a big, huge, thick book with lots of mathematical or practical stuff in it.  Formulas.

But the main idea is that the difference between a word and a thing the word represents – the word and its referent.  And most theological and metaphysical and philosophical and ethic and moral and aesthetic arguments and political arguments are based on the confusion of the words and the things they represent – like the big example is “Who is a Jew?”  And then all the Jews argue, you’re not a Jew unless you’re circumsized, or you’re not a Jew unless you’re really in Israel, or you’re not really a Jew unless you’re born of a mother who’s Jewish, or your father isn’t enough, or it is enough.  And people argue as if the word “Jew” had a meaning in itself that was self-defined, and as if one side could be right or another side could be wrong, whereas it’s only a three-letter word.  It means whatever you mutually decide to make use of the word for.  So it’s not anything you can argue over.  You might argue over “Who shall we apply the word ‘Jew’ to?” or “What shall we apply the word ‘beauty’ to?” but you can’t argue over “What is beauty?” because it’s just a word.  You could discuss.  We might use the word “beauty” to discuss that moment when you’re walking in a crowd and everything is in eternity, maybe.  And somebody else might say “Well, I don’t want to include that one.  I’d rather have beauty mean just something that’s man-made and is an artifact.”  Then you could discuss, “Well, which shall we use it for?”  Or if we don’t use “beauty” for the crowd scene, if you just use it for the artifact, what word shall we use for the crowd scene?  In other words, words are just whatever we present them as – they don’t have an intrinsic (meaning).  That’s why there’s this big argument, “What is God?”   because nobody realizes it’s a three-letter word.  And people can actually argue over it to a point of death.  God is what I think and God is what you think.

The famous example of that is the goose in the bottle.  Everybody knows that?

Student:  No.
Student(2):  No.
Student (3):  Uh-uh.

AG:  Well, those who know it, won’t tell.  If you have a full-grown goose living and healthy in a bottle with a narrow neck, big enough to enclose the goose – a great big bottle but it’s got a very narrow neck, tiny neck like that -how do you get the goose out of the bottle without bruising the goose or killing the goose, obviously, or slicing it up?

Student:  Break the bottle.

AG:  And without breaking the bottle.  How do you get the goose out of the bottle without breaking the bottle or damaging the bottle, or cutting the bottle and then sealing it up again?  Anybody got any idea?

Student:  Ask whoever put the goose in the bottle.

AG:  Well, he might not give you an answer.  You got to get it out yourself.  You don’t have any idea?  You’re smiling like Mona Lisa.  Well, the traditional thing – it’s out.  Same way you put it in, with words.  You put it in with words, you can take it out with words.  So everybody takes it on a very literal level and thinks that it’s a real goose and a real bottle and gets stumped.  When obviously it’s a mental construction.  That’s conceptual construction.  “All concepts as to the existence of the self, as well as all concepts as to the non-existence of the self, as well as all concepts as to existence of a supreme self, as well as all concepts as to the non-existence of a supreme self, are equally arbitrary, being only conceptions.”  [Editorial note – note Allen has changed the word “conceptions” throughout to “concepts” (except for the final usage)].  So conceptually we put a goose in the bottle and in a way nobody was smart enough to recognize that it was only a conception and you could put it in same way you got it out, except you said, “Ask the guy who put it in” which was close, but didn’t dare to get it out by yourself.  You were close but….

Student:  I’m not embarrassed.
AG:  Pardon me?
Student:  I’m not embarrassed.

AG:  No, no, not necessarily embarrassing.  But most political arguments are like that -“Who owns Israel?  Who owns the Holy Land?”  It’s about at that level – the goose and the bottle.  And once you formulate a question like that, it’s the formulation that’s the question – the question is the formulation and not anything outside of the question.  There may be another question like “Can you let me live on the same street?  Will you let me?  Will you actually let me live on the same street?”  But as far as who “owns” the Holy Land, it’s like a word that has no reference.  What does “owns” mean?

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately eighteen-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-four-and-a-quarter minutes in

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.