Sunday, October 5, 2008

Thoughts About Time-Binding 1

So, back in the merry merry month of May I posted a post about being appointed Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics, and promised to post more about general semantics soon, but never got around to it (although subsequent posts have touched upon the topic). So, now the time has come.

For starters, I thought I'd go over the first book published by the founder of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski, Manhood of Humanity (available for purchase through the Institute of General Semantics and by the way, do check out our newly revised website and discussion forums, if you haven't already). Originally published in 1921 by E. P. Dutton & Company, a second edition was put out by the Institute in 1950, the year that Korzybski passed away.

At the time that he wrote Manhood of Humanity, Korzybski had not yet developed what he described as the non-Aristotelian system of general semantics. But this book introduces the foundation of general semantics, Korzybski's notion of time-binding. The concept is well known to those well versed in general semantics, as Korzybski posits three classes of life, plants which are chemistry-binding (using photosynthesis to absorb energy from the sun), animals which are space-binding (able to move around freely through space), and human beings which are time-binding (able to retain and preserve knowledge over time and pass it down from one generation to the next).

Korzybski presents the three classes as three dimensions. Plants being chemistry-binders are one-dimensional, while animals are two-dimensional because they eat the plants (to this can be added the more recent understanding that animals also use the sun to manufacture vitamin D) thereby partaking of the benefits of chemistry-binding, while adding on the ability to engage in space-binding. And human beings, as a species, are three-dimensional because we are animals who also engage in time-binding.

Albert Einstein's influence is reflected here, as Korzybski is thinking about dimensions of space and time, and positing a general theory of time binding. He also draws on physics and his own background in engineering in referring to time-binding as a source of energy. Chemistry-binding obviously captures solar energy in the form of chemical energy, space-binding transforms it into kinetic and potential energy, and time-binding too is a source of energy. Here is quote to that effect from Appendix I of Manhood of Humanity, entitled "Mathematics and Time-Binding":

In this book a new and experimental fact has been disclosed and analysed. It is the fact that humanity is a time-binding class of life where the time-binding capacity or the time-binding ENERGY is the highest function of humanity, including all the so-called mental, spiritual, will, etc., powers. In using the words mental, spiritual, and will powers, I deliberately accept and use them in the popular, ordinary sense without further analysing them. (p. 211)
Korzybski goes on to touch upon different notions of time related to physics, biology, and mind:

Once the word and concept Time enters, the ground for analysis and reasoning at once becomes very slippery. Mathematicians, physicists, etc., may feel that the expression is just a “well adapted one,” and they may not be very much inclined to look closer into it or attentively to analyse it. Theologians and metaphysicians probably will speculate a great deal about it vaguely, with undefined terms and incoherent ideas with incoherent results; which will not lead us toward a scientific or true solution, but will keep us away from the discovery of truth.
In the meantime two facts remain facts: namely, mathematicians and physicists have almost all agreed with Minkowski “that space by itself and time by itself, are mere shadows, and only a kind of blend of the two exists in its own right.” The other fact—psychological fact—is that time exists psychologically by itself, undefined and not understood. One chief difficulty is always that humans have to sit in judgment upon their own case. The psychological time as such, is our own human time; scientific time as such, is also our own human time. Which one of them is the best concept—which one more nearly corresponds to the truth about “time”? What is time (if any) anyway? Until now we have gone from “Cosmos” to “Bios,” from “Bios” to “Logos,” now we are confronted with the fact that “Logos”—Intelligence—and Time-binding are dangerously near to akin to each other, or may be identical. Do we in this way approach or go back to “Cosmos”? Such are the crucial questions which arise out of this new concept of Man. One fact must be borne in mind, that “the principles of dynamics appeared first to us, as experimental truths; but we have been obliged to use them as definitions. It is by definition that force is equal to the product of mass by acceleration, or that action is equal to reaction.” (The Foundation of Science, by Henri Poincaré); and mathematics also has its whole foundation in a few axioms, “self evident,” but psychological facts. It must be noted that the time-binding energy—the higher or highest energies of man (one of its branches anyway, for sake of discrimination let us call it “M”) when it works properly, that is, mathematically, does not work psychologically but works ABSTRACTLY: the higher the abstraction the less there is of the psychological element and the more there is, so to say, of the pure, impersonal time-binding energy (M). The definition of a man as a time-binder—a definition based on facts—suggests many reflections. One of them is the possibility that one of the functions of the time-binding energy in its pure form, in the highest abstraction (M), works automatically—machine-like, as it were, shaping correctly the product of its activity, but whether truly is another matter. Mathematics does not presume that its conclusions are true, but it does assert that its conclusions are correct; that is the inestimable value of mathematics. This becomes a very comprehensive fact if we approach and analyse the mathematical processes as some branch (M) of the time-binding process, which they are; then this process at once becomes impersonal and cosmic, because of the time-binding involved in it, no matter what time is (if there is such a thing as time). (pp. 211-213)
An interesting passage, I particularly like his use of the triad of Cosmos, Bios, and Logos. But the bottom line is that time-binding is what makes us human, it is the essence of the distinctively human intelligence, according to Korzybski:

Keeping in mind both conceptions of time, the scientific time and the psychological time, we may see that the human capacity of “Time-binding” is a very practical one and that this time-binding faculty is a functional name and definition for what we broadly mean by human “intelligence”; which makes it obvious that time (in any understanding of the term) is somehow very closely related to intelligence—the mental and spiritual activities of man. All we know about “time” will explain to us a great deal about Man, and all we know about Man will explain to us a great deal about time, if we consider facts alone. (p. 217)

Korzybski would later identify our capacity for language and symbolic communication as the basis of our ability to bind time, and this also coincides with the anthropological view that it is culture that distinguishes our species from other forms of animal life. From a contemporary point of view, the distinctions he draws between animal and human beings are drawn too sharply, there is too much of a binary opposition between nature and culture in Korzybski's writings, but that was typical of his time, and the overall point that he is making about the human race remains true.

Put in more ecological terms, time is our environment, and our species has a unique ability to navigate and manipulate our temporal environment.

Well, that's good for a start, I'll write more on this topic another time...

1 comment:

Bruce Kodish said...

A very nice depiction of time-binding with intriguing quotes from the appendices of Manhood of Humanity . These contain many rich, suggestive passages like the ones you highlighted. Unfortunately, there are many people, I think, who read the book and neglect these parts.

Korzybski wrote Manhood of Humanity before he had the mastery of English and linguistic rigor that he developed later on. Mathematician Cassius J. Keyser edited the book and much of the its prose style also comes from him.

I have devoted a fairly large portion of my blog space on Korzybski Files to time-binding, since it constitutes the basis from which Korzybski developed general semantics.

Those of your readers interested in tracing the history of Korzybski's development of the formulation of time-binding can see Time-Binding: Overview and Review