Anatol Rapoport

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Anatol Rapoport (May 22, 1911January 20, 2007) was a Russian-born American Jewish mathematical psychologist. He was one of the founders of the general systems theory. He also contributed to mathematical biology and to the mathematical modeling of social interaction and stochastic models of contagion.



  • The behavior of two individuals, consisting of effort which results in output, is considered to be determined by a satisfaction function which depends on remuneration (receiving part of the output) and on the effort expended. The total output of the two individuals is not additive, that is, together they produce in general more than separately. Each individual behaves in a way which he considers will maximize his satisfaction function. Conditions are deduced for a certain relative equilibrium and for the stability of this equilibrium, i.e., conditions under which it will not “pay” the individual to decrease his efforts. In the absence of such conditions "exploitation" occurs which may or may not lead to total parasitism.
    • Anatol Rapoport. "Mathematical theory of motivation interactions of two individuals," The Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics(1947) 9: 17-28, March 01, 1947
  • The first attempts to consider the behavior of so-called "random neural nets" in a systematic way have led to a series of problems concerned with relations between the "structure" and the "function" of such nets. The "structure" of a random net is not a clearly defined topological manifold such as could be used to describe a circuit with explicitly given connections. In a random neural net, one does not speak of "this" neuron synapsing on "that" one, but rather in terms of tendencies and probabilities associated with points or regions in the net.
    • Anatol Rapoport. "Cycle distributions in random nets." The bulletin of mathematical biophysics 10.3 (1948): 145-157.
  • Whether sociology can ever become a full-fledged "science" (a description of a class of events predictable on the basis of deductions from a constant rationale) depends on whether the terms which sociologists employ to describe events can be analyzed into quantifiable observables.
    • Anatol Rapoport, "Outline of a probabilistic approach to animal sociology: I." The Bulletin of mathematical biophysics 11.3 (1949): p 183


  • No map contains all the information about the territory it represents. The road map we get at the gasoline station may show all the roads in the state, but it will not as a rule show latitude and longitude. A physical map goes into details about the topography of a country but is indifferent to political boundaries. Furthermore, the scale of the map makes a big difference. The smaller the scale the less features will be shown.
    • Anatol Rapoport Science and the goals of man: a study in semantic orientation. Greenwood Press, 1950/1971. p. 85
  • A fundamental value in the scientific outlook is concern with the best available map of reality. The scientist will always seek a description of events which enables him to predict most by assuming least. He thus already prefers a particular form of behavior. If moralities are systems of preferences, here is at least one point at which science cannot be said to be completely without preferences. Science prefers good maps.
    • Anatol Rapoport Science and the goals of man: a study in semantic orientation. Greenwood Press, 1950/1971. p. 224; Partly cited in: Book review by Harold G. Wren, in Louisiana Law Review, Vol 13, nr 4, May 1953
  • [It is a] well-known fact that the likely contacts of two individuals who are closely acquainted tend to be more overlapping than those of two arbitrarily selected individuals
    • Anatol Rapoport (1954, p. 75); as quoted in: Samuel Leinhardt (1977) Social Networks: A Developing Paradigm, p. 350
  • It is misleading in a crucial way to view information as something that can be poured into an empty vessel, like a fluid or even energy.
    • Anatol Rapoport (1956) "The Promise and Pitfalls of Information Theory"; AS quoted in: Peter Corning (2010) Holistic Darwinism, p. 364
  • The transition from the concept of information in the technical (communication engineering) sense to the semantic (theory of meaning) sense was indeed difficult, if not impossible.
    • Anatol Rapoport (1956), as quoted in: Richard C. Huseman (1977) Readings in interpersonal & organizational communication. p. 35
  • The predictions of physical theories for the most part concern situations where initial conditions can be precisely specified. If such initial conditions are not found in nature, they can be arranged. Such arrangements are considerably easier to realize with inanimate than with animate matter, because the properties of animate matter are much more sensitive to being tampered with than inanimate matter. In particular, living tissue in vitro may behave quite differently than in situ. Controlled biological experiments are, of course, possible, but they are more difficult and their scope is more limited than that of physical experiments. For this reason, biology has had to depend to a greater extent than physics on theories of larger speculative scope, in which reasoning by imaginative analogy plays a more important role.
    • Anatol Rapoport (1956) "The Search for Simplicity"
  • A theorem is a proposition which is a strict logical consequence of certain definitions and other propositions

"What is Semantics?", 1950[edit]

Anatol Rapoport. "What is Semantics?" In: S. I. Hayakawa (ed.). Language, New York 1950, Harper & Brothers; Republished in: Et Cetera, (1951); American Scientist, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan. 1952), pp. 123-135; and General Systems 23 (1978): 159-164.

  • There are two suffixes in our language (and similar ones in other European languages) which suggest organized knowledge. One is the venerable, academic "ology," that reminds one of university curricula and scholarship. The other is the energetic and somewhat mysterious "ics," which has a connotative flavor of magic. Where "ology" suggests academic isolation (ichthyology, philology) "ics" suggests a method of attack on life's problems. It contains a faint throwback to the ancient dreams of the philosopher's stone and of "keys" to the riddles of the universe. Ancient words ending in "ics" are mathematics and metaphysics. Of more recent origin are economics, statistics, semantics, and cybernetics.
    • 1950, p. 12 (1952, p. 123) lead paragraph
  • Who Are the Semanticists? To answer this question, let us go to the writings of those who make frequent references to semantics or to equivalent terms which have to do with the study of meaning. We find that a number of prominent thinkers have occupied themselves with this study. In England these include Whitehead, Russell, Ogden, Richards, Ayer, and others; in Austria (later scattered, fleeing from fascism), a group of writers who called themselves the Vienna Circle, which included Carnap and Frank (now in in the United States), Wittgenstein (now in England), and Neurath (deceased); the United States is represented by Charles Morris, and Poland by Tarski and Korzybski (deceased), both of whom emigrated to the United States.
    • 1950, p. 12 (1952, p. 123)
  • For a general semanticist, communication is not merely words in proper order properly inflected (as for the grammarian) or assertions in proper relation to each other (as for the logician) or assertions in proper relation to referents (as for the semanticist), but all these together, with the chain of 'fact to nervous system to language to nervous system to action.
    • 1950, p. 14; as cited in: Adam Schaff (1962). Introduction to semantics, p. 105.
  • "What is good in Korzybski's work," they say, "is not new, and what is new is not good." On the other hand, many "Korzybski-ites" proclaim that Korzybski's work has "nothing to do" with semantics. They go so far as to say that the very term "general semantics" was an unfortunate choice; that had Korzybski known what confusion would arise between semantics and general semantics he would not have used it at all. Korzybski himself has maintained that while semantics belongs to the philosophy of language and perhaps to the theory of knowledge, general semantics belongs to empirical science: that it is the foundation of a science of man, the basis of the first "non-aristotelian system," which has had no predecessor and which no academic semanticist has ever achieved.
    • (1951, p. 14)
  • The accusations of cultism leveled against Korzybski's followers are not altogether unfounded. In the United States there is a large floating population of 'truthseekers'. Many of them lack the capacity of strenuous intellectual effort required in a fruitful pursuit of knowledge and wisdom; others lack the power of critical evaluation, which would enable them to tell the genuine from the false. Still others cannot be comfortable until they find a panacea to believe in. These people support 'movements' and cults. They are as likely to 'go for' Christian Science as for technocracy, for psychoanalysis as for theosophy, for the Great Books programme as for dianetics. And so inevitably one finds some of them among the adherents of general semantics ... Whether they were actually helped by general semantics or by other factors cannot be determined without sufficient controls. But they went about spreading the faith, thus giving a cultist flavour to the 'movement'.
  • If Korzybski cannot be said to have established an empirical science, what then has he done? He has pointed a way toward the establishment of such a science. He was a precursor of an intellectual revolution which is just now beginning and which promises to match that of the Renaissance. If Korzybski is seen in this role, then the question of his originality or erudition is not important. He might have something of a dilettante in him. He might have pretended to have more specialized knowledge than he actually had. Great portions of his outlook might be found in the works of more modest and more meticulous workers, That is not important. He was a man of vision and an apostle. Such men are all too rare in our age of specialization.


  • The outstanding feature of behavior is that it is often quite easy to recognize but extremely difficult or impossible to describe with precision.
    • Anatol Rapoport, "An Essay on Mind". Reprinted in Toward Definition of Mind (Jordan Ma Scher, editor). Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1962. p. 92
  • In the case of strategy and conscience, I am not sure. Here I believe, is essential incompatibility, not merely a result of misunderstanding. I do not believe one can bring both into focus. One cannot play chess if one becomes aware of the pieces as living souls and of the fact that the Whites and the Blacks have more in common with each other than with the players. Suddenly one loses all interest in who will be champion.
    • Anatol Rapoport, Strategy and Conscience. Harper & Row, 1964. p. 195
  • The military forces of the revolutionary adversary are diffuse. One is never sure whether one has destroyed them unless one is ready to destroy a large portion of the population, and this usually conflicts with the political aim of the war and hence also violates a fundamental Clausewitzian principle
    • Anatol Rapoport (1968), as quoted in: William John Thomas Mitchel (2011) Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. p. viii
  • There are different levels of organization in the occurrence of events. You cannot explain the events of one level in terms of the events of another. For example, you cannot explain life in terms of mechanical concepts, nor society in terms of individual psychology. Analysis can only take you down the scale of organization. It cannot reveal the workings of things on a higher level. To some extent the holistic philosophers are right.
    • Anatol Rapoport, General Systems, Vol. 14, (1969), p. 96; As cited in: Gordon Chen (1980) The General Theory of Systems Applied to Management and Organization, Volume 2, p. 590
  • It is one thing to say that the dwelling has symbolic and cosmological aspects... and another to say that it has been erected for ritual purposes and is neither shelter nor dwelling but a temple.
    • Anatol Rapoport (1969:40); As quoted in: Michael Parker Pearson, ‎Colin Richards (2003) Architecture and Order: Approaches to Social Space. p. 49 : Commented on the theory of religious origin
  • The "flow of information" through human communication channels is enormous. So far no theory exists, to our knowledge, which attributes any sort of unambiguous measure to this "flow".
    • Anatol Rapoport (1969) in: Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist. p. 139

Fights, games, and debates, (1960)[edit]

Anatol Rapoport. Fights, games, and debates. University of Michigan Press, 1960/1974.

  • It is the shortcomings of game theory (as originally formulated) which force the consideration of the role of ethics, of the dynamics of social structure, and of social structure and of individual psychology in situations of conflict.
    • p, vii (1974)
  • In a game, the potentialities and evaluations of alternative outcomes must be taken into account, if the reactions of the opponents to each other's moves are to moves are to be understood or described systematically.
    • p. 10
  • Conflict... is a theme that has occupied the thinking of man more than any other, save only God and love. In the vast output of discourse on the subject, conflict has been treated in every conceivable way. It has been treated descriptively, as in history and fiction; it has been treated in an aura of moral approval, as in epos; with implicit resignation, as in tragedy; with moral disapproval, as in pacifistic religions. There is a body of knowledge called military science, presumably concerned with strategies of armed conflict. There are innumerable handbooks, which teach how to play specific games of strategy. Psychoanalysts are investigating the genesis of "fight-like" situations within the individual, and social psychologists are doing the same on the level of groups and social classes.
    • p. 11
  • At present game theory has, in my opinion, two important uses, neither of them related to games nor to conflict directly. First, game theory stimulates us to think about conflict in a novel way. Second, game theory leads to some genuine impasses, that is, to situations where its axiomatic base is shown to be insufficient for dealing even theoretically with certain types of conflict situations... Thus, the impact is made on our thinking process themselves, rather than on the actual content of our knowledge.

"The Use and Misuse of Game Theory," 1962[edit]

Anatol Rapoport, "The Use and Misuse of Game Theory," Scientific American, December 1962, 108–18, 108.

  • We live in an age of belief-belief in the omnipotence of science. This belief is bolstered by the fact that the problems scientists are called on to solve are for the most part selected by the scientists themselves.
    • p. 108
  • A thorough understanding of game theory, should dim these greedy hopes. Knowledge of game theory does not make one a better card player, businessman or military strategist.
    • p. 108
  • Game theory applies to a very different type of conflict, now technically called a game. The well-known games such as poker, chess, ticktacktoe and so forth are games in the strict technical Bark and counterbark sense. But what makes parlor games games is not their entertainment value or detachment from real life.
    • p. 108
  • Although the drama of games of strategy is strongly linked with the psychological aspects of the conflict, game theory is not concerned with these aspects. Game theory, so to speak, plays the board. It is concerned only with the logical aspects of strategy.
    • p. 110
  • Whether game theory leads to clear-cut solutions, to vague solutions, or to impasses, it does achieve one thing. In bringing techniques of logical and mathematical analysis gives men an opportunity to bring conflicts up from the level of fights, where the intellect is beclouded by passions, to the level of games, where the intellect has a chance to operate.
    • p. 114

Prisoner's dilemma: A study in conflict and cooperation (1965)[edit]

Anatol Rapoport Prisoner's dilemma: A study in conflict and cooperation. co-authored by Albert S. Chammah. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1965.

  • Many psychologists, sociologists and especially anthropologists and psychiatrists raise serious objections against routine attempts to "extend the methods of the physical sciences" to the study of man. These objections cannot be dismissed simply on the grounds that they are not constructive; for inherent in the objections may well be a conviction that there can never be a "behavioral science" as scientists understand science. Whether there can be such a science or not will be decided neither by citing successful applications of "scientific method" to carefully circumscribed sectors of human behavior nor by pointing out what has not yet been done. Therefore on the question of whether a behavioral science can in principle be constructed, we shall take no sides. That some kinds of human behavior can be described and even predicted in terms of objectively verifiable and quantifiable data seems to us to have been established.
    • p. v
  • Crisis in its simplest terms is defined as an upset in a steady state... the habitual problem-solving activities are not adequate and do not rapidly lead to the previously achieved balance state.
    • p. 24
  • The usefulness of the models in constructing a testable theory of the process is severely limited by the quickly increasing number of parameters which must be estimated in order to compare the predictions of the models with empirical results.
    • p. 150
  • Our first objective in undertaking the experimental program described here has been to gain some understanding of what goes on in long sequences of plays of Prisoner's Dilemma. We have attempted to gain this understanding by postulating a system going through a sequence of states and by attempting to formulate some mathematical models from which the dynamics of the system could be deduced. Once such a model is found, its parameters, properly interpreted, become the key terms in the emerging psychological theory. This strategy can be deemed successful, if the parameters so discovered are independent of the process itself, if they suggest further investigation, and if the further investigations, in turn, lead to a more inclusive theory.
    • p. 185
  • (Game theory is) essentially a structural theory. It uncovers the logical structure of a great variety of conflict situations and describes this structure in mathematical terms. Sometimes the logical structure of a conflict situation admits rational decisions; sometimes it does not.
    • p. 196

"The Study of Conflict," 1968[edit]

Anatol Rapoport (1968) "The Study of Conflict," Can. Pap. in Peace Studies No. 1; As quoted in: Science for Peace in SfP Bulletin, June 1989.

  • We must admit that it is extremely difficult to formulate a theory sufficiently general to encompass all possible sufficient causes of wars. With regard to necessary causes, however,... it is weapons. Without weapons wars could not be fought. We are told that, deprived of weapons, people would still fight with sticks and stones. This, however, need not concern us. We are concerned not just with fighting but with the sort of mass insanity that can destroy the entire civilization, the product of millenia of accumulated effort, in a matter of hours. And this can be done only with real, up-to-date weapons, not sticks and stones.
  • [Education] seems to be the only hope: to spread enlightenment sufficiently wide so that people can no longer be manipulated to give consent to policies that will surely eventually lead to their own destruction.
  • The American Revolution was ignited by the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’, a slogan suggested by democratic ideals... Ought not the present day version of the old slogan be ‘No annihilation without representation?

1970s and later[edit]

  • To gain knowledge, we must learn to ask the right questions; and to get answers, we must act, not wait for answers to occur to us.
    • Anatol Rapoport, "Modern Systems Theory – An Outlook for Coping with Change", paper given in the 1970 John Umstead Distinguished Lectures at North Carolina Department of Mental Health, Research Division, on 5 February 1970, and appeared in Revue Francaise de Sociologie, October 1969, p. 16
  • Centralization of society's vital services in giant computer centers, reservoirs, nuclear power plants, air- traffic control centers, 100-story skyscrapers, and government compounds increases its vulnerability. ... choosing his targets, today's saboteur could pollute a city's water supply, dynamite power transmission towers, cripple an airport control center, destroy a corporate or government computer center.
    • Anatol Rapoport, as quoted in: Gerald McKnight (1973) Computer crime, p. 203
  • The outcome of a non-constant-sum game may be dictated by the individual rationality of the respective players without satisfying a criterion of collective rationality.
    • Anatol Rapoport. (1974). Game Theory as a Theory of Conflict Resolution p. 4
  • The purpose of formulating [a] conflict as a game is not that of resolving the conflict by 'solving the game.' It is that of displaying the structure of the conflict and thereby exposing features of it that may be concealed by rhetoric. In particular, appreciation of the peculiar structure of some of the so-called mixed—motive conflicts represented nonzero-sum games may change the conflicting parties' perception of their situation.
    • Anatol Rapoport, Conflict in man-made environment. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974; As cited in M.J. Apter, ‎J.H. Kerr, ‎S. Murgatroyd (1993) Advances in Reversal Theory. p. 63-64
  • In the US. Infantry Manual published during World War II, the soldier was told what to do if a live grenade fell into the trench where he and others were sitting: to wrap himself around the grenade so as to at least save the others. (If no one "volunteered," all would be killed, and there were only a few seconds to decide who would be the hero.)
    • Anatol Rapoport (1988), quoted in: William Poundstone (2011) Prisoner's Dilemma. p. 203

Quotes about Anatol Rapoport[edit]

  • Anatol Rapoport is a pioneer and lead-figure of the systems sciences, studies in conflict & cooperation, and peace research. He is professor emeritus of Psychology and Mathematics at the University of Toronto, Canada... Rapoport has spearheaded many scientific innovations, including the application of mathematical methods, first to Biology and later to the Social Sciences. Moreover, he is one of the rare thinkers who have contributed significantly to "marrying" philosophy and science. The originality and rigor of his thinking make his theoretical oeuvre extraordinarily resourceful, as well as unique in its ethical substance and esthetical appeal. Rapoport operates from a multidimensional background of experience and studies (see the following C.V.), embodying a deep humanistic commitment (cf. Rapoport 1994), and a profoundly systemic thinking.
  • The social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod's legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament) once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent's work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

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