Remembering George Spencer-Brown

George Spencer-Brown’s The Laws of Form (1969) made a big impression of me when I encountered it a half-century ago.

What I got from the book on a first reading was the idea that the most elementary form of thought consists in drawing a distinction.

[A] distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example, in a plane space a circle draws a distinction.

In drawing a distinction, one also does several other things: one indicates the spaces, states, or contents on either side of the boundary, attributes different values to what is indicated, establishes the possibility of indicating the values by naming them, and establishes the possibility of crossing from one side of the boundary to the other.

Now, it is possible to draw a “first distinction” only because something is distinguishable. For example, the plane surface on which one draws a circle is itself already distinguished from other surfaces. Were it not, it would not be possible to isolate the surface on which one arranges a boundary, or to establish its value.

In other words, a distinction has always already been drawn.

At least, for we mortals. The very first distinction must have been drawn by God. And that is indeed what the Bible seems to indicate: “And God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning: a first day.” A distinction is drawn (“God separates”), values are attributed (“light” and “darkness”), values are named (“Day” and “Night”), and boundaries are crossed (“there was evening, and there was morning”). God creates by drawing distinctions. And as we were made in His image, so do we. Continue reading