November 18th, 2008

As our capitalistic–democratic systems fail, perhaps it is time for humanity to grow up. … From the SynEARTH Archives.


Childhood of Humanity

Alfred Korzybski

THE conclusion of the World War is the closing of the period of the childhood of humanity. This childhood, as any childhood, can be characterized as devoid of any real understanding of values, as is that of a child who uses a priceless chronometer to crack nuts.

This childhood has been unduly long, but happily we are near to the end of it, for humanity, shaken by this war, is coming to its senses and must soon enter its manhood, a period of great achievements and rewards in the new and real sense of values dawning upon us.

The sacred dead will not have died for naught; the “red wine of youth,” the wanton waste of life, has shown us the price of life, and we will have to keep our oath to make the future worthy of their sweat and blood.

Early ideas are not necessarily true ideas.

There are different kinds of interpretations of history and different schools of philosophy. All of them have contributed something to human progress, but none of them has been able to give the world a basic philosophy embracing the whole progress of science and establishing the life of man upon the abiding foundation of Fact.

Our life is bound to develop according to evident or else concealed laws of nature. The evident laws of nature were the inspiration of genuine science in its cradle; and their interpretations or misinterpretations have from the earliest times formed systems of law, of ethics, and of philosophy.

Human intellect, be it that of an individual or that of the race, forms conclusions which have to be often revised before they correspond approximately to facts. What we call progress consists in coordinating ideas with realities. The World War has taught something to everybody. It was indeed a great reality; it accustomed us to think in terms of reality and not in those of phantom speculation. Some unmistakable truths were revealed. Facts and force were the things that counted. Power had to be produced to destroy hostile power; it was found that the old political and economic systems were not adequate to the task put upon them. The world had to create new economic conditions; it was obliged to supplement the old systems with special boards for food, coal, railroads, shipping, labor, etc. The World War emergency compelled the nations to organize for producing greater power in order to conquer power already great.

If there is anything which this war has proved, it is the fact that the most important asset a nation or an individual can have, is the ability “to do things.”

“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow . . .,” that is too true; they blow and they are strong and red. But the purpose of this writing is not the celebration of poetry, but the elucidation and right use of facts.

Normally, thousands of rabbits and guinea pigs are used and killed, in scientific laboratories, for experiments which yield great and tangible benefits to humanity. This war butchered millions of people and ruined the health and lives of tens of millions. Is this climax of the pre-war civilization to be passed unnoticed, except for the poetry and the manuring of the battle fields, that the “poppies blow”stronger and better fed? Or is the death of ten men on the battle field to be of as much worth in knowledge gained as is the life of one rabbit killed for experiment ? Is the great sacrifice worth analysing ? There can be only one answer-yes. But, if truth be desired, the analysis must be scientific.

In science, “opinions”are tolerated when and only when facts are lacking. In this case, we have all the facts necessary. We have only to collect them and analyse them, rejecting mere “opinions” as cheap and unworthy. Such as understand this lesson will know how to act for the benefit of all.

At present the future of mankind is dark. “Stop, look, and listen”-the prudent caution at railroad crossings-must be amended to read “stop, look, listen, and THINK”; not for the saving of a few lives in railroad accidents, but for the preservation of the life of humanity. Living organisms, of the lower and simpler types, in which the differentiation and the integration of the vital organs have not been carried far, can move about for a considerable time after being deprived of the appliances by which the life force is accumulated and transferred, but higher organisms are instantly killed by the removal of such appliances, or even by the injury of minor parts of them; even more easily destroyed are the more advanced and complicated social organizations.

The first question is: what are to be the scientific methods that will eliminate diverse opinions and creeds from an analysis of facts and ensure correct deductions based upon them ? A short survey of facts concerning civilization will help to point the way.

Humanity, in its cradle, did not have science; it had only the faculties of observation and speculation. In the early days there was much speculative thinking, but it was without any sufficient basis of facts. Theology and philosophy flourished; their speculations were often very clever, but all their primitive notions about facts-such as the structure of the heavens, the form of the earth, mechanical principles, meteorological or physiological phenomena-were almost all of them wrong.

What is history? What is its significance for humanity? Dr. J. H. Robinson gives us a precise answer: “Man’s abject dependence on the past gives rise to the continuity of history. Our convictions, opinions, prejudices, intellectual tastes; our knowledge, our methods of learning and of applying for information we owe, with slight exceptions, to the past-often to the remote past. History is an expansion of memory, and like memory it alone can explain the present and in this lies its most unmistakable value.”

The savage regards every striking phenomenon or group of phenomena as caused by some personal agent, and from remotest antiquity the mode of thinking has changed only as fast as the relations among phenomena have been established.

Human nature was always asking
“why” ? and not being able to answer why, they found their answer through another factor “who.” The unknown was called, Gods or God. But with the progress of science the
“why” became more and more evident, and the question came to be “how.” From the early days of humanity, dogmatic theology, law, ethics, and science in its infancy, were the monopolies of one class and the source of their power.

The first to break this power were the exact sciences. They progressed too rapidly to be bound and limited by obscure old writings and prejudices; life and realities were their domain. Science brushed aside all sophistry and became a reality. Ethics is too fundamentally important a factor in civilization to depend upon a theological or a legal excuse; ethics must conform to the natural laws of human nature.

Laws, legal ideas, date from the beginning of civilization. Legal speculation was wonderfully developed in parallel lines with theology and philosophy before the natural and exact sciences came into existence. Law was always made by the few and in general for the purpose of preserving the
“existing order,” or for the reestablishment of the old order and the punishment of the offenders against it.

Dogmatic theology is, by its very nature, unchangeable. The same can be said in regard to the spirit of the law. Law was and is to protect the past and present status of society and, by its very essence, must be very conservative, if not reactionary. Theology and law are both of them static by their nature.

Philosophy, law and ethics, to be effective in a dynamic world must be dynamic; they must be made vital enough to keep pace with the progress of life and science. In recent civilization ethics, because controlled by theology and law, which are static, could not duly influence the dynamic, revolutionary progress of technic and the steadily changing conditions of life; and so we witness a tremendous downfall of morals in politics and business. Life progresses faster than our ideas, and so medieval ideas, methods and judgments are constantly applied to the conditions and problems of modern life. This discrepancy between facts and ideas is greatly responsible for the dividing of modern society into different warring classes, which do not understand each other. Medieval legalism and medieval morals- the basis of the old social structure-being by their nature conservative, reactionary, opposed to change, and thus becoming more and more unable to support the mighty social burden of the modern world, must be adjudged responsible in a large measure for the circumstances which made the World War inevitable.

Under the flash of explosives some of the workings of those antiquated ideas were exposed or crushed. The World War has profoundly changed economic conditions and made it necessary to erect new standards of values. We are forced to realize that evolution by transformation is a cosmic process and that reaction, though it may retard it, can not entirely stop it.

The idea that organic species are results of special creation has no scientific standard whatever. There is not one fact tending to prove special or separate creation; the evidence, which is overwhelming, is all of it on the other side. The hypothesis of special creation is a mere fossil of the past. Evolution is the only theory which is in harmony with facts and with all branches of science; life is dynamic, not static.

Philosophy, as defined by Fichte, is the “science of sciences.” Its aim was to solve the problems of the world. In the past, when all exact sciences were in their infancy, philosophy had to be purely speculative, with little or no regard to realities. But if we regard philosophy as a Mother science, divided into many branches, we find that those branches have grown so large and various, that the Mother science looks like a hen with her little ducklings paddling in a pond, far beyond her reach; she is unable to follow her growing hatchlings. In the meantime, the progress of life and science goes on, irrespective of the cackling of metaphysics. Philosophy does not fulfill her initial aim to bring the results of experimental and exact sciences together and to solve world problems. Through endless, scientific specialization scientific branches multiply, and for want of coordination the great world-problems suffer. This failure of philosophy to fulfill her boasted mission of scientific coordination is responsible for the chaos in the world of general thought. The world has no collective or organized higher ideals and aims, nor even fixed general purposes. Life is an accidental game of private or collective ambitions and greeds.

Systematic study of chemical and physical phenomena has been carried on for many generations and these two sciences now include: (1) knowledge of an enormous number of facts; (2) a large body of natural laws; (3) many fertile working hypotheses respecting the causes and regularities of natural phenomena; and finally (4) many helpful theories held subject to correction by further testing of the hypotheses giving rise to them. When a subject is spoken of as a science, it is understood to include all of the above mentioned parts. Facts alone do not constitute a science any more than a pile of stones constitutes a house, not even do facts and laws alone; there must be facts, hypotheses, theories and laws before the subject is entitled to the rank of a science.

The primal function of a science is to enable us to anticipate the future in the field to which it relates.

Judged by this standard, neither philosophy nor its kindred-the so-called social sciences-have in the past been very effective. There was, for example, no official warning of the coming of the World War-the greatest of catastrophies. The future was not anticipated because political philosophers did not possess the necessary basis of knowledge. To be just we must admit that philosophy has been but little aided financially because it is commonly regarded as unnecessary. The technical branches of science have been strongly backed and generally supported by those to whom they have brought direct profit; and so they have had better opportunities for development.

Ethics in the stifling grip of myth and legalism is not convincing enough to exercise controlling influence. Such is the situation in which we find ourselves. Being still in our childhood and thinking like savages, we looked upon the World War as a personal creation of a “war-lord,”because those interested in it told us so. We neglected to use our common sense and look deeper into its origins; to perform for ourselves the duty which political philosophy did not perform for us-the duty of thinking in terms of facts and not in terms of metaphysical speculations. Knowledge of facts would have told us that the war lords were only the representatives of the ruling classes. A system of social and economic order built exclusively on selfishness, greed, “survival of the fittest,” and ruthless competition, must cease to exist, or exist by means of war. The representatives of this system determined to continue to exist, and so war was the consequence. The ruling classes carried the whole system under which they lived to its logical conclusion and natural issue, which is “grab what you can.” This motto is not peculiar to any one country; it is the motto of our whole civilization and is the inevitable outcome of our stupid philosophy regarding the characteristic nature of man and the proper potentialities of human life. Where are we to find the true doctrines ? Where the true philosophy? If we go back over the history of civilization, we find that in all “sciences,”except the exact ones, private opinions and theories have shaped our beliefs, colored our mental processes and controlled our destinies; we see, for example, pessimism opposed to optimism, materialism to spiritualism, realism to idealism, capitalism to socialism, and so on endlessly. Each of the disputatious systems has a large number of followers and each faction looks upon the others as deprived of truth, common sense and knowledge. All of them play with the words “natural law” which they ignorantly presume to have as the basis and content of their own particular doctrine.

It is the same in the realm of religions; there are approximately 291 million Confucianists, or Taoists, 761 million Roman Catholics, 211 million Mohammedans, 209 million Hindus, 177 million Protestants, 157 million Animists, 137 million Buddhists, 115 million Orthodox Christians-to speak only of the most important religions. Each group, and they are rather large groups, believes its theory or its faith to be infallible and all the others to be false.

Bacon seems a bit remote, but the idols and medieval fetishes which he so masterfully describes are equally venerated to-day.

(Novum Organum by Francis Bacon.)

34. “Four species of idols beset the human mind, to which (for distinction’s sake) we have assigned names, calling the first Idols of the Tribe, the second Idols of the Den, the third Idols of the Market, the fourth Idols of the Theatre.

40. “The information of notions and axioms on the foundation of true induction is the only fitting remedy by which we can ward off and expel these idols. It is, however, of great service to point them out; for the doctrine of idols bears the same relation to the interpretation of nature as that of the confutation of sophisms does to common logic.

41. “The idols of the tribe are inherent in human nature and the very tribe or race of man; for man’s sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things; on the contrary, all the perceptions both of the senses and the mind bear reference to man and not to the Universe, and the human mind resembles these uneven mirrors which impart their own properties to different objects, from which rays are emitted and distort and disfigure them.

42. “The idols of the den are those of each individual; for everybody (in addition to the errors common to the race of man) has his own individual den or cavern, which intercepts and corrupts the light of nature, either from his own peculiar and singular disposition, or from his education and intercourse with others, or from his reading, and the authority acquired by those whom he reverences and admires, or from the different impressions produced on the mind, as it happens to be preoccupied and predisposed, or equable and tranquil, and the like; so that the spirit of man (according to its several dispositions), is variable, confused, and, as it were, actuated by chance; and Heraclitus said well that men search for knowledge in lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.

43. “There are also idols formed by the reciprocal intercourse and society of man with man, which we call idols of the market, from the commerce and association of men with each other; for men converse by means of language, but words are formed at the will of the generality, and there arises from a bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the mind. Nor can the definitions and explanations with which learned men are wont to guard and protect themselves in some instances afford a complete remedy-words still manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and innumerable controversies and fallacies.

44. “Lastly, there are idols which have crept into men’s minds from the various dogmas of peculiar systems of philosophy, and also from the perverted rules of demonstration, and these we denominate idols of the theatre: for we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictitious and theatrical worlds. Nor do we speak only of the present systems, or of the philosophy and sects of the ancients, since numerous other plays of a similar nature can be still composed and made to agree with each other, the causes of the most opposite errors being generally the same. Nor, again, do we allude merely to general systems, but also to many elements and axioms of sciences which have become inveterate by tradition, implicit credence, and neglect.”

Metaphysical speculation and its swarming progeny of blind and selfish political philosophies, private opinions, private “truths,” and private doctrines, sectarian opinions, sectarian “truths” and sectarian doctrines, querulous, confused and blind-such is characteristic of the childhood of humanity. The period of humanity’s manhood will, I doubt not, be a scientific period-a period that will witness the gradual extension of scientific method to all the interests of mankind-a period in which man will discover the essential nature of man and establish, at length, the science and art of directing human energies and human capacities to the advancement of human weal in accordance with the laws of human nature.


Read more from Alfred Korzybski’s Manhood of Humanity

Read More on Ortegrity and on Sociocracy  Read a  Synergic Version of Robert’s Rules of Order

Read the Synergic Future Series: 1) Beyond Property 2) Redefining Wealth 3) Synergic Wealth 4) Synergic Wealth II: Deepening Our Understanding 5) Trustegrities — Protecting the Future and 6) Synergic Guardians — Protecting the Future.

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