Alfred Korzybski
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Alfred Korzybsky

The map is not the territory

Alfred Korzybski, the son of Ladislas Korzybski and Helena Rzewuska, was born on July 3, 1879, in Poland. He was a man of many fields of profession. He is an engineer, a mathematician and a proficient linguist. The world remembers him for developing the theory of general references which argues that human knowledge of the world is limited both by the human nervous system and by the structure of language. Like Gautama Buddha, the prince of Kapilavastu, Korzybski was the son of a nobleman and it is interesting that the same questions that troubled Buddha disturbed Korzybski. He was gripped by the sufferings on the battlefield with death and pain.

Alfred Korzybski

He pondered over the thousands of years of human tragedy by the continually recurring wars and the accompanying agony which like Buddha raised the same questions: Why? What is wrong? How can this be prevented?

Incidentally, Gautama’s first philosophical questions were ‘sorrow’, ‘cause of sorrow’ ‘removal of sorrow’ and ‘way leading to the removal of sorrow’.

Korzybski made a path breaking observation about human beings with the comparison to other living objects like to plants and animals. These objects live in the present but “Humans have the capacity to transmit from one generation to generation. One generation or one person can begin where the other left off”.

He published his first book on Manhood of Humanity, in 1921. The book has been described as “The best book of the century, the most useful, the most significant mathematical theory which may revolutionize world thought in every field”. Solely this victim of war demanded nothing less than a revision of the roots of our ways of thinking about us.

Manhood for Humanity

In his paper “Fate and Freedom” he wrote, “I propose to analyze the principles on which the foundation of the Science and Art of Human Engineering must rest if we are ever to have such Science and Art. It must be mathematical in spirit and in method and if we do not possess methods to apply mathematical thinking to human affairs such methods must be discovered.

Alfred Korzybski must be credited as the primary thinker behind the Gestalt‘s “principle of the now” and its focus on experience and the precision of language. In fact the precision of language can be directly traced to the “principles of general references” of Korzybski who believed that human beings are limited in what they know. This limitation comes from the structure of the nervous system and the structure of the languages. Human beings cannot experience the world directly but only through their “abstractions”. Such abstractions actually mislead us as to the “facts” with which we must deal. He stressed training in awareness of abstracting using  techniques that he had derived from his study of mathematics and science. He called this awareness, this goal of his system, “consciousness of abstracting“.

This Polish-American scientist and philosopher, Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory”.  Summarizing his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski remarked that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confusion of models of reality with reality itself.

The world is not an illusion. It is what it is. Exclude what we abstract from it.

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