Introduce a Scholar: Alfred Korzybski


In chapter three of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff (2013) introduces Alfred Korzybski in a section entitled “Time Binding.”  Rushkoff identifies Korzybski as the founder of the Institute of General Semantics and explains that Korzybski wrote about “time binding” as taking experiences from one generation and passing them on through language and symbols. (p. 137)

present shock

For Rushkoff’s purposes, Korzybski’s ideas are important because Rushkoff is arguing that the technology that we use changes us, and that we should not allow the “pings” announcing new emails to pull us out of our physically present time and space, because emails have the ability to pile up and wait until we are ready to make time to respond.  (p. 73)  Rushkoff would argue that because our devices have the ability to bind time in a way that we could use to our advantage in order to spend more time in our “here and now,” we should utilize that power rather than fall slave to each and every “ping” we receive.

Alfred Korzybski was born July 3, 1879 in Warsaw, Poland, and is most famous for his second book, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, originally titled Time Binding, The General Theory: An Introduction to Humanology. (The Institute of General Semantics)  In it, Korzybski describes the time-binding concept that Rushkoff cites in Present Shock.  In another publication, “The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes,” published in 1951, Korzybski claims that “perception” is determined through language and senses.  Since I have a history of learning anecdotally, the example Korzybski gives at the beginning (1951) was most helpful:

Perhaps a story from the European underground under Hitler would be a good illustration. In a railroad compartment an American grandmother with her young and attractive granddaughter, a Romanian officer, and a Nazi officer were the only occupants. The train was passing through a dark tunnel, and all that was heard was a loud kiss and a vigorous slap. After the train emerged from the tunnel, nobody spoke, but the grandmother was saying to herself, “What a fine girl I have raised. She will take care of herself. I am proud of her.” The granddaughter was saying to herself, “Well, grandmother is old enough not to mind a little kiss. Besides, the fellows are nice. I am surprised what a hard wallop grandmother has.” The Nazi officer was meditating, “How clever those Romanians are! They steal a kiss and have the other fellow slapped.” The Romanian officer was chuckling to himself, “How smart I am! I kissed my own hand and slapped the Nazi.”

Obviously it was a problem of limited “perception,” where mainly “hearing” was involved, with different interpretations.

Other important points from that publication included less understandable pieces, like the following diagram about levels of verbalization:

korzybski process


The picture of Korzybski above comes from a brief video of him showing how a circle of blades that he spins is perceived as a disc when it’s spinning:


Alfred’s wife Mira Edgerly, a painter

Korzybski and I have something in common, because we both married artists (The Institute of General Semantics), but beyond that, I’m interested in his work because he expressed the very thing that I cherish language for: its ability to package up important information for passing from generation to generation.  I know Diane will have more to say about semantics than I do, but from what I do understand, the concept of words’ power is why I became interested in rhetoric in the first place.  In my 514 History of Critical Theories class, we have recently read about Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s cautioning that we ought not give too much credit to language, because it can’t actually save the world, but personally, I’ve always been partial to Tom Stoppard’s quote, “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.”  Korzybski’s work reinforces this concept of words and their capacity to carry messages into generations that follow, and that speaks to me.

Korzybski, A.  (1951).  “The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes.”  Retrieved from

Korzybski, A.  “The World is Not an Allusion.”  Retrieved from

On Alfred Korzybski.  The Institute of General Semantics.  Retrieved from

Rushkoff, D.  (2013).  Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.

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