General Semantics & H.L. Gantt: How Productivity Engineering Overlaps with Alfred Korzybski’s Foundational Ideas


In the back of his first book Manhood of Humanity, Alfred Korzybski gives commendable credit to H.L. Gantt.  For example, on page 261, in the essay in Appendix III titled “Engineering and Time-Binding,” Korzybski writes:

We are the masters of our own destinies, the responsibility is ours to correct the mistakes of our ancestors and to establish a scientific philosophy, scientifically true laws, scientfically true ethics, and a scientific sociology, which will form one unified science of man and his function in the universe, a science which I propose to call “Human Engineering.” Gantt’s methods would be the first practical application toward this end.

Earlier in the essay Korzybski seems to clarify that his acquaintance with Gantt was post-mortem, though urgent.  (Update: See Note 1.)  Korzybski writes on page 256:

Upon the completion of this book I was astonished that there are such a small number of engineers who have the intuitive feeling of the greatness of the assets at their command and of the gravity of their liabilities concerning affairs of humanity.  I was eager to have my book read and analysed by a few leading engineers.  The late H. L. Gantt being no more with us, I then turned to Walter N. Polakov, Doctor of Engineering […]

These two names–Gantt and Polakov–are of interest, as the latter introduced me to the former, and when I read the former, his ideas resonated synchronously with a notion I’d had in my head only about an evening before.  Both Gantt’s and Polakov’s writings give tremendous perspective on Korzybski’s ideas in the journey toward founding general semantics, and they provide hearty evidence that in founding general semantics, Korzybski was aiming at human behaviors that were not subjectively bad, but bad relative to the goal of human productivity and human progress.  Therefore, as a field, general semantics is dedicated to human productivity and this goal explains much of the value system expressed in general semantics.


The synchronous notion I had was voiced around a sushi table of members of the New York Society for General Semantics this past month.  The topic had something to do with money, and the conversation triggered a thought I’d had of late that I’d not yet aired.  It was something like this:

It seems to me misguided to say that business is about money, that the goal of business is to make money.  Instead, it seems to me that the goal of business is to service, and money is compensation for service.  To teach or preach that the goal of business is to make money is to take one’s eye off the more important goal to service.

As support for this position, think of a new community just formed of a few people.  In this community, businesses form to provide service for the community.  They receive compensation for their service.  If they take a profit, this profit is intended for reinvestment in the business in order for the business to provide service better for the community.  When profit is not intended for reinvestment in the business and instead profit is intended to be pocketed by individuals at the business, we call this situation “greed.”  That is, greed is the saving of money against the purpose of investing in service.

To champion that business is about making money is to champion greed.  And to champion greed is to champion an antisocial attitude.  Businesses, by the story I give above, are designed to serve the society, so in this respect they are prosocial.  When they fail to provide service, and when they become strictly money-making operations, they cease to behave prosocially and start to become antisocial, because rather than contributing to the society, they are taking away from it.

This said, business is not about making money.  Business is about service.  Money is compensation for service.

My first experience of this attitude came years ago when I had my first major negative encounters with tech support that had been directed to India.  I was finding that in talking to these tech support people, I couldn’t express myself as I would to someone in my home city or country.  As a result, the tech support person in India couldn’t truly understand the problem I was having.  The person was not from New  York City so didn’t know what was going on in New York City.  The person didn’t understand my idioms and other kinds of expressions.  In transferring tech support jobs to India, because of the communication hurdles introduced, businesses were actually downgrading my tech support service.  The motive for these kinds of transfers, as explained in the news, was cost-savings.  But it was cost-savings that yielded depreciated service.  It was hard to believe that these cost-savings were for reinvestment in the business because if the business proclaims it is “about service,” the palpable depreciation of service would be reason to stop the international transfer of service.

In voicing my lobster-rollicking perspective, deep-seated I had some thought that it was a juvenile and overly simplistic take on business, that my idealized example was no reflection of how business may have evolved as a concept or should behave in a society.  But the next day I got to reading Gantt’s book Organizing for Work, which I’d downloaded in PDF form from Google Books for free for my Kindle.  I don’t recall where, but I’d read a reference to the book within general semantics literature, and it sounded like something I should read.  It was true: It was something I should have read.  About half of the book is of interest to the person interested in the business ideas I articulated, as well as the ideas Korzybski expressed in Manhood of Humanity.


At the time after World War I, there seems to have been a boom in thought about what the war taught.  In Organizing for Work, published in 1919, Gantt demonstrates how wealth means little and productivity means lots.  Gantt explains how a rich country may lose a war if it’s unable to produce.  As a simple example, say that you’re a rich country about to head into war, and you need 1 million bombs by next month.  If you do not have the factories that can produce your order, your wealth means next to nothing as you won’t possibly get your 1 million bombs by next month.  But now consider the flipside: If you have the factories that can produce your order, you can generate 1 million bombs by next month and apply those bombs toward war.  Your wealth aided in the endeavor, for sure, but it was not the more important factor.  The more important factor was your factories–that is, your ability to produce.

This is to say, the important factor is the service businesses provide.  If businesses have a lot of money but little ability to produce, their contribution to society is highly questionable.  And their existence, it would seem, is for the contribution to society.  Without a contribution to society, their very existence, it would seem, is highly questionable.

The above thoughts are more recollections and ideas gleaned from Gantt’s book more than a week later rather than direct quotations.  For those, we can look to a number of the beginning chapters of his short, well-written book.

Page v:

In order to resume our advance toward the development of an unconquerable democratic civilization, we must purge our economic system of all autocratic practices of whatever kind, and return to the democratic principle of rendering service, which was the basis of its wonderful growth.

By “autocratic practices,” he refers to monopolistic price-gouging, the Walmartization of business in a community.  We’ll understand his phrasing a bit better in just a bit.  But more to the honor of service, Gantt kicks off page 1 with:

Modern civilization is dependent for its existence absolutely upon the proper functioning of the industrial and business system.  If the industrial and business system fails to function properly in any important particular, such, for instance, as transportation, or the mining of coal, the large cities will in a short time run short of food, and industry throughout the country will be brought to a standstill for lack of power.

It is thus clearly seen that the maintenance of our modern civilization is dependent absolutely upon the service it gets from its industrial and business system.

In various other places Gantt stresses the prioritization of service.  But service over what?  We get an answer on pages 4-5:

Such was the normal and natural growth of business and industry which obtained its profits because of its superior service.  Toward the latter part of the nineteenth century it was discovered that a relatively small number of factories, or industrial units, had replaced the numerous mechanics with their little shops, such as the village shoemaker and the village wheelwright, who made shoes and wagons for the community, and that the community at large was dependent upon the relatively smaller number of larger establishments in each industry.

Under these conditions it was but natural that a new class of business man should arise who realized that if all the plants in any industry were combined under one control, the community would have to accept such service as it was willing to offer, and pay the price which it demanded.  In other words, it was clearly realized that if such combinations could be made to cover a large enough field, they would no longer need to serve the community but could force the community to do their bidding.  The Sherman Anti-Trust Law was the first attempt to curb this tendency.  It was, howerver, successful only to a very limited extent, for the idea that the profits of a business were justified only on account of the service it rendered was rapidly giving way to one in which profits took the first place and service the second.  This idea has grown so rapidly and has become so firmly imbedded in the mind of the business man of today, that it is inconceivable to many leader of big business that it is possible to operate a business system on the lines along which our present system grew up; namely, that its first aim should be to render service.

It is this conflict of ideals which is the source of the confusion into which the world now seems to be driving headlong.  The community needs service first, regardless of who gets the profits, because its life depends upon the service it gets.

Pardon the length of that quote, but it’s pretty powerful.  And scathing.  And it even explains why I don’t care about money so much.

Myself, I tend to put service over payment.  I webmaster for a number of people and organizations, and other than a few rare occasions when money was given to me without request, I expressly do not work for money in webmastering and do not accept it in webmastering.  I am providing a free service, and my service is not contigent on financial compensation.  I am compensated in what I learn from the experience, not in money.  I take an interest in what my service provides for the other person, or the community around the website I webmaster.  I put the community’s needs over my needs.  This is not to say I don’t look out for my needs–I’ll protect my time and energy when I need to–but in critical times, I may forego my needs for the needs of others.  I am prosocial in this respect, to the slight detriment of my selfishness.

But that would seem to be “bad business” according to the mindset that financially motivated businesspeople champion.  In that mindset, since business is “about making money,” there is no service if there is not money to be made in the service.  If the service serves the community or society in some way, it’s tough luck if there’s no money to be made in it because to these types of businesspeople, it’s not worth doing.  That is, if these businesspeople can’t pursue their greed, the business is not worth it to them.  “Fuck society.”

Of course, it’s not that simple or crude, but in some sense, it is that simple and crude.  And that’s also probably why my mindset of service is so confusing to people.  Several people in my life seem bewildered that I’d “volunteer” my time as I do to do something that seems to them should receive financial compensation.  In these endeavors, what is more important to me is that the job is done, and the job isn’t contingent on whether I’m paid or not.  Granted, I might have an arrangement wherein I get paid hourly so in these cases I may be disinclined to work if there’s not going to be compensation, but those arrangements might be said to be somewhat antisocial.  A more prosocial arrangement is compensation for service rendered.  It would be like compensating a worker for the number of widgets he produces, and/or compensating a worker for the number of bonus widgets he produces.  When the widgets are immaterial–such as the creation of copy, the development of strategy, the devising of implementation–compensation is harder to measure, but that’s a bit beside the point and not all that hard to address.  The point is that service is key, and it’s keyer than key; it’s not that making money is keyer than key.

I will probably touch more on Gantt in later posts because what brilliant clarity he shines on the evolution of general semantics is spectacular.  For now, I will move back to Korzybski.  H.L. Gantt was an engineer.  His steel was humans.  A lot of his focus in at least his later years seemed to be on productivity of the worker in the workplace.  He measured factory performance against factory targets and created charts for managers to quickly evaluate performance.  He asked questions about the cost to businesses of idleness of workers and idleness of machines.  He exalted the dimension of time, and he sought arrangements that maximized productivity.  I haven’t done a lot of research into Gantt yet, but this is what I understand to date.

His interests were a lot like Korzybski’s.  Korzybski was also an engineer.  His steel was humans.  Korzybski was interested in productivity, but that interest was largely left unsaid as he talked in terms of progress.  I offer this equation to correlate productivity and progress, Gantt and Koryzbski:

progress =
additional productivity over expected productivity =
additional productivity / expected productivity

That is, progress is a ratio in terms of productivity, and you have progress when you produce more than what you expect to produce.  Humanity, as Korzybski notes, progresses relative to animals.  Animals theoretically just produce.  Humans progress.  Humans’ capacity for progress comes from its ability to cooperate with dead humans in order to learn from their mistakes and not repeat the past mistakes in presentday production.  Animals can’t do that; they can’t cooperate with dead animals, and they are forced to make the same mistakes past animals made.  Korzybski called humans’ capacity “time-binding,” meaning the cooperation of humans from different time periods.  Animals did not have the time-binding capacity and merely had “space-binding” capacities–the capacity to cooperate with animals in the same space and time.

Korzybski regarded the observation of humans’ time-binding capacity as “scientific” because it was observable on a macroscopic scale.  Personally, I’ve long thought of Korzybski’s time-binding idea as more creative than scientific, but putting it in the frame of productivity engineering makes a helluva difference for me in seeing Korzybski’s point and agreeing to a large extent with his notion of it as a distinguishing factor of humanity.  While humans to me are still appropriately classified as animals, they are definitely a dramatically different sort of animal and, in engineering, they probably should not be strictly thought of as animals.  They aren’t your housepets, your buggy pullers, or your pest controllers.  They’re something less predictable and more capable.  As a species, they are tremendous relative to other animals.  They’re not just productive; humans are progressive.

Of the value system expressed in Manhood of Humanity and later in Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, cast against the screen of productivity engineering, these values are not simply Korzybski’s values but the values many an engineer would probably take in the endeavor to engineer a more productive human.  Korzybski’s approach in later years was to look at language (as well as thinking) to see how it influenced technological progress and advancement.  He saw in Einstein shifts in thinking and language that led to better understandings and gross technological progress.  He fascinated in those subtle shifts that yielded dramatic consequences.  And given his endeavor to afford progress, he touted them. 

Korzybski could have taught others to focus on other aspects that affected human progress, but it wasn’t his “calling”: His was to look at language and thinking.  And his criticism of language and criticism of thinking is not of a cantankerous, eccentric man but of a disciplined engineer troubled by the unnecessary blockades inhibiting progress toward building a more productive, a progressive, human being.


1. According to Alfred Korzybski biographer Bruce Kodish in an email to me dated 4/27/2010, Korzybski’s acquaintance with Gantt was not “post-mortem.” Bruce writes:

Korzybski met Gantt in 1919 before he wrote Manhood. Gantt was part of a whole [milieu] in NYC that Korz. was involved with after the war and that influenced Korzybski […]

I can’t verify this statement at the moment but I presume in writing a biography on Korzybski, Bruce has support for this claim and I trust his take.

See also: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

~ End Article and Begin Conversation ~

~ Now It's Your Turn ~

Feel free to use <strong>, <em>, and <a href="">


Search this Site




alfred-korzybski aristotelianism cassius-keyser concept conflict definition engineering extension extensional-orientation game-theory gantt-chart general-principle-of-uncertainty generic-terms goals human-engineering identity implication improv insane insanity intension is-of-identity language language-as-generic manhood-of-humanity marketing mathematical-philosophy meaning non-aristotelianism non-elementalism personal-engineering productivity sane sanity science science-and-sanity semantic-reaction semantics structural-differential thinking time-binding unsanity values walter-polakov ways-of-thinking