You've probably never heard of Alfred Korzybski, but he was famous in the mid-20th century. He didn't just invent a whole new science, he also had a huge influence on Robert A. Heinlein and a ton of other important science fiction authors. Author Lee Konstantinou brings us the strange tale of Count Korzybski.
L. Ron Hubbard once supposedly bet Robert A. Heinlein that he could make more money by founding a religion than Heinlein could by writing a work of science fiction. Heinlein responded by writing his classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Hubbard, meanwhile, created Dianetics and Scientology.
Though the story is probably false, Hubbard's religious doctrines do bear a remarkable resemblance to aspects of Heinlein's novel. Both Hubbard and Heinlein were fixated on the divergent relationship between words and things. Both assumed that language could, on the one hand, tyrannize us and, on the other, become the means of acquiring tremendous individual power.
This intellectual confluence was no coincidence. Both Golden Age science fiction writers derived some of their most strongly held views from the same source: the polymath Polish "Count," Alfred Korzybski.
Today, Korzybski is either forgotten or regarded as a crank, but at midcentury he was famous. Korzybski inspired a legion of students, and the meta-science of "General Semantics" that he created affected disciplines as diverse as literary criticism, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and cybernetics.
But his most powerful effect might have been on John W. Campbell's Golden Age. Indeed, Korzybski is probably the most important influence on science fiction you've never heard of.
Alfred Korzybski was a Polish aristocrat who came to North America near the end of World War I after being injured in the war. Trained as an engineer, he created a philosophy he called General Semantics (not to be confused with semantics as a linguistic discipline). General Semantics was part of a much larger philosophical effort, early in the twentieth century, to create a logically ideal language and a contribution to intellectual debates about the so-called "meaning of meaning."
Attempting to build on the work of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, Korzbyski tried to explain, among other things, why humans were uniquely prone to self-slaughter. He hoped, quixotically, that his meta-linguistic system might save us from our own worst tendencies.
He developed his ideas across two books, Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering (1921) and Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), and through the Institute for General Semantics, which he founded in 1938. The core claim of General Semantics is that the world is not identical to our abstract descriptions of it. Korzybski coined the well-known slogan, "The map is not the territory," to sum up this idea.
Manhood of Humanity argued that humans are creatures that have the peculiar capacity to engage in a process called "time-binding," that is, the limitless ability to transmit and abstract knowledge across generations. Time-binding is what, Korzybski thought, distinguishes humans from other animals.
Science and Sanity incorporated the concept of time-binding into a broader theory of human cognition, which tried to explain how empirical phenomenon move through different layers of mental abstraction. Korzybski thought that language and neurology fundamentally limited human understanding, a claim that resembled the more famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Moreover, he argued, we often mistake linguistic abstractions of the world for the world itself. "The word is not the thing," he wrote.
We mistake words for things because Aristotelian concepts have conditioned our thinking. When we use the word "cat," for instance, most of us supposedly take for granted that the word "cat" wholly describes the creature under discussion. But language necessarily, Korzybski emphasized, abstracts from the empirical world. (He called this doctrine "non-allness.") The cat is never only a cat. At best, language can create an incomplete, albeit useful, map of our environment.
To defeat our Aristotelian habits of mind, to help humankind achieve what he called "sanity," Korzybski created a mental and spiritual training regime. He recommended that we achieve a "consciousness of abstracting," an awareness of our own process of abstracting the world, in order to gain a better understanding of what he called "silence on the objective level," the fundamentally non-linguistic nature of reality. Korzybski advised that we engage in a "semantic pause" when confronted with a novel stimulus, a sort of neurocognitive Time Out.
In June 1939, Robert A. Heinlein, and his second wife Leslyn, attended a lecture by Korzybski at a local chapter of the Institute of General Semantics in Los Angeles. The young writer was already a fan of Korzybski's ideas — and had first encountered General Semantics in Stuart Chase's The Tyranny of Words (1938). In the system of General Semantics, Heinlein found not only a usable account of how language related to empirical reality, but also a personal methodology for self-improvement. He saw General Semantics as giving him, Heinlein's biographer writes, "the fundamentals of a technology of language, which means a technology of how human beings think."
In a 1941 Worldcon talk entitled "The Discovery of the Future," Heinlein discussed his admiration for Korzybski at some length. In this talk, Heinlein suggested that the "strongest factor" in science fiction — that is, the reason SF fans love the genre — is because it allows readers to engage in "time-binding." Heinlein subtly redefines Korzybski's concept of time-binding to mean the human capacity to reconstruct the past and imagine the future via reading and writing. The very act of writing science fiction, he thought, was an example of future-oriented time-binding.
As the world consumed itself in global war, science fiction might help fans cultivate an orientation toward life that can "be used to protect [their] sanity." Heinlein called this the "scientific method," which he defined as "the ability to look at what goes on around you . . . listen to what you hear . . . observe . . . note facts, suspend your judgment . . . and make your own predictions." The 1941 talk concludes by describing Korzybski as "at least as great a man as Einstein — at least — because his field is broader."
Korzbyski's ideas also appear throughout Heinlein's fiction. Dr. Lentz, a psychiatrist character in "Blowups Happen," a short story Heinlein first published in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction, is described as a Korzybski student. An expert in the "theory of abstraction and calculus of statement," Lentz promotes the view that "the human mind can think only in terms of symbols." The psychiatrist is brought into a nuclear power plant to relieve the tension that afflicts its workers. The story was written before any actual nuclear plants were built, and Heinlein imagined that such facilities would necessarily be highly unstable, creating unbearable stress for those who manned them.
Beyond "Blowups Happen," Heinlein mentions Korzybski by name throughout his fiction, in "Gulf" (1949), "Coventry" (1940), The Number of the Beast (1980), To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987),and other stories. Associating Korzybski's idea with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Heinlein also arguably incorporated General Semantics into his most famous novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.
In a fantastic extension of the thesis of linguistic relativity, the novel suggests that language might be the ultimate limiting factor to realizing our human potential. The Martian language gives humans who learn it new psychic powers. Indeed, through his exposure to Martian culture, Valentine Michael Smith becomes more than human — or, more precisely, more human than most self-described humans.
Hubbard learned about General Semantics from Heinlein. When Hubbard's second wife Sara read portions of Korzybski's writings to him, Lawrence Wright reports, Hubbard saw how General Semantics could become "the basis for a system of psychology, if not for a whole religion."
Adherents of General Semantics insist that Hubbard's knowledge of the meta-science was far from systematic, hoping to distance Korzybski from what they view as the pseudo-scientific claims of Scientology. Nonetheless, Hubbard cited Korzybski favorably, and General Semantics shaped the early development of Scientology, specifically the science of Dianetics (which predated Scientology).
Dianetics promised to eliminate "reactive mind engrams" (traumatic memories and negative emotions trapped in the unconscious) that caused human dysfunction. Hubbard claimed you could eliminate harmful engrams via a regime of linguistic deconditioning, a process he called "auditing," and that you should aspire to become a "clear." Hubbard claimed, in his very first article on Dianetics, "Terra Incognita: The Mind," that his new psychological system was "a member of that class of sciences to which belong General Semantics and Cybernetics and, as a matter of fact, forms a bridge between the two."
Hubbard claimed that "the problem of the human mind was a problem in engineering and that all knowledge would surrender to an engineering approach." Like General Semantics, therefore, Dianetics aspired to be both a self-help philosophy and a science of mind. In early writings and lectures, Hubbard mentions Korzybski frequently, admitting that Dianetics and General Semantics go "hand in hand" because "the reform of language and how to think, how to look at things, how to differentiate — all of these things are of vast importance to a clear." The two systems, though different, ought to be "a working team."
Many advocates of General Semantics were, to say the least, unwilling to accept Hubbard's invitation to walk hand in hand. One of Korzybski's major followers, S. I. Hayakawa — who would go on to become a U.S. Senator — attacked Hubbard's bestselling Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) as little more than "fictional science." Given that Hubbard published an important article on Dianetics in John W. Campbell's Astounding, and given that Campbell himself became an advocate of Dianetics, this may not entirely be an insult.
Perhaps the most devoted Golden Age adherent of General Semantics was the Canadian science fiction writer A. E. van Vogt. One of the most important writers of the Campbell era, van Vogt was intensely interested in meta-disciplines, that is, in universal systems that might help him make sense of reality-as-a-whole.
His desire for a total, interdisciplinary perspective on existence is already apparent in the stories that were eventually collected in The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950), in which van Vogt invented a meta-science called "Nexialism," "the science of joining in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields."
Van Vogt, not surprisingly, was attracted to General Semantics, which promised the universal meta-perspective that he sought. He based his Null-A trilogy directly on General Semantics. As it turned out, The World of Null-A (1948; originally The World of Ā) was the first modern science fiction novel published as a hardcover by a mainstream publisher. It was a bestseller and introduced Korzybski's ideas to a wide new audience.
The World of Null-A imagines a future where General Semantics has become the basis for human political and social organization. In the novel, the term "Null-A" refers to non-Aristotelian thought, that is, Korzybski's thesis that Aristotelian categories were poorly equipped for objectively capturing the complexity of non-linguistic reality. In 2560 A.D., a great computer called the Games Machine has come to rule the Earth. Created by the governing Institute for General Semantics, the Machine puts candidates through a rigorous assessment in order to select those who will be allowed to emigrate to Venus. Venus has become a semi-Utopian anarchist society, based of course on Korzybski's precepts.
The novel follows the semi-incoherent adventures of Gilbert Gosseyn (Go-Sane!). Early in the games, Gosseyn discovers that he has had a set of false memories implanted into him. Cartoonish villains eventually capture and kill him, and he reawakens in a cloned body on Venus. After returning to Earth, he discovers and must defeat a convoluted galactic conspiracy directed against the solar system and the Null-A philosophy. It's a hot mess of a novel. Korzybski read van Vogt's novel and, like lots of readers, found it compelling but also deeply confusing.
The World of Null-A's relationship to General Semantics was also not entirely clear. Like Heinlein and Hubbard, Van Vogt didn't merely reproduce Korzybski's ideas, but developed them in idiosyncratic ways. Van Vogt's novel suggests, like Stranger in a Strange Land, that one might be able to gain special mental powers — telepathy, telekinesis — through rigorous semantic training.
Damon Knight famously trashed The World of Null-A, calling van Vogt "a pygmy using a giant typewriter." Van Vogt took this criticism to heart and significantly revised the novel. Nonetheless, he wrote in the introduction to the 1970 edition of his book: "I'm making this defense of the book, and revising it, because General Semantics is a worthwhile subject, with meaningful implications, not only in 2560 A.D . . . but here and now." He republished the novel, in part, to further the mission of General Semantics, to which he remained devoted throughout the 1960s.
From General Semantics, it was a short leap to Dianetics. Van Vogt became an early adherent of Dianetics and underwent intensive auditing. He was involved with running the short-lived Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Los Angeles, though he never became a full-blown Scientologist. Frederic Pohl suggested that van Vogt's involvement in Dianetics dampened his capacity to write, triggering a long period of literary fallowness.
When van Vogt finally returned to writing science fiction, his star had faded, but he had had a huge impact on younger writers, especially Philip K. Dick. In Trillion Year Spree (1986), Brian W. Aldiss described van Vogt as "Dick's father-figure," and Thomas M. Disch once quipped that Dick's "Solar Lottery is van Vogt's best novel."
I've only been able to broadly sketched Korzybski's ideas and his considerable influence on science fiction. Many other Golden Age writers, such as H. Beam Piper and Reginald Bretnor, incorporated Korzybski into their fiction. And his influence stretches well beyond the conventional boundaries of the Golden Age.
Frank Herbert, for instance, ghostwrote a nationally syndicated column on General Semantics, under Hayakawa's byline, while writing Dune (1965). Korzybski's ideas are visible in Herbert's depiction of the Bene Gesserit's mental and physical training regime. As Roger Lockhurst argues in his book Science Fiction, Herbert's assimilation of Korzybski put him "in direct lineal descent from Campbellian SF," which Lockhurst takes as reason to challenge any simpleminded distinction between the Golden Age and the New Wave.
More broadly, the idea that the structure of language might have a profound effect on how we experience (or fail to experience) reality has a long pedigree in science fiction. Versions of this idea appear in a range of stories: in Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 (1966); in the famous Star Trek: TNG episode "Darmok" (1991); in Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life" (1998); and in China Miéville's Embassytown (2011).
All told, Korzybski deserves a more prominent place in our histories of science fiction. Once you know to look for him, you'll find the Polish count — and those he influenced — everywhere. He was an inadvertent giant of the Golden Age.
Lee Konstantinou is author of the novel Pop Apocalypse and a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park.This io9 Flashback originally appeared in 2011.