Time-binding - the general notion


Korzybski characterized mankind as a time-binding class of life because, he claimed, "knowledge" increased as an exponential rate though the use of language passing messages from generation to generation. (Manhood of Humanity, p.20, Science and Sanity, p. 364)

Korzybski was flat wrong on this point. It is not "knowledge" that is passed from generation to generation but "information". "Knowledge" is the ability to use information, and that must be learned anew by members of each generation. (note 2012)

"Information", however, does not differentiate between "good" and "bad", between "correct" and "wrong", between "true" and "false". In the context of time-binding and exponential growth, "information" includes misinformation, false theories, speculations, fiction, and anything that can be expressed in symbols. The exponential growth includes all the trash, wrong information, and everything else that has been expressed. It's possible to see individuals holding and using theories that have been disconfirmed, but continue to be passed from generation to generation.

What is "time-binding"?

Such a definition was given in my Manhood of Humanity to the effect that man differs from the animals in the capacity of each human generation to begin where the former generation left off. This capacity I called the time-binding function. (S&S, 539)

Here's my simple abstract definition.

Korzybski defines time binding in Manhood of Humanity.

This higher energy-which is commonly called the mental or spiritual power of man-is time-binding because it makes past achievements live in the present and present activities in time-to-come . It is an energy that initiates; it is an energy that creates; it is an energy that can understand the past and foretell the future-it is both historian and prophet; it is an energy that loads abstract time-the vehicle of events-with an ever-increasing burden of intellectual achievements, of spiritual wealth, destined for the civilization of posterity. And what is the natural law of the increase? What is the natural law of human advancements in all great matters of human concern? The question is of utmost importance both theoretically and practically, for the law-whatever it be-is a natural law-a law of human nature-a law of the time-binding energy of man. What is the law? We have already noted the law of arithmetical progression and the law of geometric progression; we have seen the immense difference between them; and we have seen that the natural law of human progress in each and every cardinal matter is a law like that of a rapidly increasing geometric progression. In other words, the natural law of human progress-the natural law of amelioration in human affairs-the fundamental law of human nature-the basic law of the time-binding energy peculiar to man-is a Logarithmic law-a law of logarithmic increase. (MoH,90)

The Naturalistic Fallacy again: 

And so I repeat that the world will have uninterrupted, peaceful progress when and only when the so-called social "sciences"-the life-regulating "sciences" of ethics, law, philosophy, economics, religion, politics, and government-are technologized; when and only when they are made genuinely scientific in spirit and method; for then and only then will they advance, like the natural, mathematical and technological sciences, in conformity to the fundamental exponential law of the time-binding nature of man; then and then only, by the equal pace of progress in all cardinal matters, the equilibrium of social institutions will remain stable and social cataclysms cease. (MoH,92)

Time-binding neutral on good/bad:

The world to-day is full of controversy about wealth, capital, and money, and because humanity, through its peculiar time-binding power, binds this element "time" in an ever larger and larger degree, the controversy becomes more and more acute. Civilization as a process is the process of binding time; progress is made by the fact that each generation adds to the material and spiritual wealth which it inherits. Past achievements-the fruit of bygone time-thus live in the present, are augmented in the present, and transmitted to the future; the process goes on; time, the essential element, is so involved that, though it increases arithmetically, its fruit, civilization, advances geometrically. (MoH,106)

(1) The intellectuals are the men and women who possess the knowledge produced by the labor of by-gone generations but do not possess the material wealth thus produced. In mastering and using this inheritance of knowledge, they are exercising their time-binding energies and making the labor of the dead live in the present and for the future. (MoH, 109)

We know that time-binding capacity-the capacity for accumulating racial experience, enlarging it, and transmitting it for future expansion.... (MoH, 175)

In the human class of life, we find a new factor, non-existent in any other form of life; namely, that we have a capacity to collect all known experiences of different individuals. Such a capacity increases enormously the number of observations a single individual can handle, and so our acquaintance with the world around, and in, us becomes much more refined and exact. This capacity, which I call the time-binding capacity, is only possible because, in distinction from the animals, we have evolved, or perfected, extra-neural means by which, without altering our nervous system, we can refine its operation and expand its scope. Our scientific instruments record what ordinarily we cannot see, hear,. Our neural verbal [centers] allow us to exchange and accumulate experiences, although no one could live through all of them; and they would be soon forgotten if we had no neural and extraneural means to record them. (S&S, 376)

In this case, it has brought us to a new sharp distinction between 'man' and 'animal'. The number of orders of abstractions an 'animal' can produce is limited. The number of orders of abstractions a 'man' can produce is, in principle, unlimited. Here is found the fundamental mechanism of the 'time-binding' power which characterizes man, and which allows him, in principle, to gather the experiences of all past generations. A higher order abstraction, let us say, of the n+1 order, is made as a response to the, stimulus of abstractions of the nth order . Among 'humans' the abstractions of high orders produced by others, as well as those produced by oneself are stimuli to abstracting in still higher orders. Thus, in principle, we start where the former generation left off. (S&S, 394)

Further investigation into the mechanism of the time-binding function revealed that its most important characteristic is found in its peculiar stratification into many orders of abstractions. (S&S, 503)


Einstein's theory was the application of modern scientific methods to the universe, man excluded. The present inquiry includes man in the field of modern science.
The theory presented here is broader than Einstein's .It may be proved that the whole of the theory of relativity can be deduced from the application of correct symbolism to facts; so that the general theory of Time-binding includes the general theory of relativity as a particular case . (TBTGT, p.5.)

The general theory of time-binding applies to the mechanisms of the growth of information (and the ability to use that information - "knowledge") available to each new generation of humans.  It is a "category mistake" to suggest that the general theory of relativity, a particular theory developed at a particular time, by a particular person, is "included" in the theory of time-binding.  The time-binding theory holds that such pieces of new information abstracted by a person are symbolically encoded in our written symbols and then available to succeeding generations to use.  The theory of relativity is an example of learning within one generation. It is the passing on of that information/knowledge by external symbolic means that constitutes what Korzybski means by time-binding.

Most, not all, of the details of this general theory are vaguely known; it seems that the main novelty consists in the building up of an autonomous system. (p.6)

Autonomous system?  As of 1924, there were no "autonomous systems", aside from human beings and other animals.  It's a stretch to classify cities, states, and countries as "autonomous", as they all depend on and are guided by the action of human beings. Computers were not yet invented. There were no robots, except in the imagination.  The general theory of time-binding cannot be, even today, an autonomous system.

The scientific revolution started with Geometry, and, in a deeper sense, it is carried on by Geometry. (p. 6.)

This is false.  Science first started with the Ancient Greeks, over 2500 years ago.  It was suppressed by the rise of power of the Christian Religions for over a thousand years. Science began to return to power with Roger Bacon, a Franciscan Monk. In 1268, in Opus Miaus, Bacon wrote:

There are two modes of knowledge, through argument and experience. "Argument" brings conclusions and compels us to concede them, but it does not cause certainty nor remove doubt in order that the mind may remain at rest in truth, unless this is provided by experience.

Empirical science gradually disentangled itself from philosophy with Francis Bacon in 1620.  The "revolution" in geometry was simply the discovery of a proof that the Euclidean fifth postulate was independent of the first four.  This gave rise to several forms of geometry, each depending on a different fifth postulate. Now geometry could describe space curved in various ways.  Physicists and Astronomers suddenly acquired new tools as a result. (Such has always been the case with the toys of mathematicians.  Not long after a new toy is devised [or is that discovered?], somebody finds a way to use it.)  Popper (1959) showed that we can prove a theory false, but we cannot show one to be "true". Kuhn (1962) showed that the scientific picture of the universe undergoes sudden shifts.

"If we 'think' verbally, we act as biased observers and project onto the silent levels the structure of the language we use, so remaining in our rut of old orientations which makes keen, unbiased observations ('perceptions'?) and creative work well-nigh impossible." AK 1948

The trapezoidal window experiment shows that even at the silent level the structures of our past experiences has us "remaining in our rut of old orientations". Other research has shown that we see what we expect to see far more often than we see what "is there". So the problem is not a function of our language habits alone; it is a function of our habits of seeing, hearing, doing, expecting, etc. The deleterious effect of our cognition occurs essentially at all levels of abstraction, not just verbal. Linguistic devices won't help solve the non-verbal levels; for that we need to develop non-verbal methods of getting past our habits of seeing. The other side of this coin is that our habits of seeing non-verbally have developed through our evolution to promote survival. We learned to ignore what is contextually irrelevant to our survival and reproduction


Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2013/06/02 at 15:28 and has been accessed 13318 times at 125 hits per month.