Publication 4670

Schiltz M. (2009) Space is the place: The laws of form and social systems. In: Clarke B. & Hansen M. (eds.) Emergence and embodiment: New essays on second-order systems theory. Duke University Press, Durham: 157–178. Fulltext at
Excerpt: The single most striking characteristic of George Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form is the variety of misunderstandings concerning its reception. Its basic idea is actually quite easy: “form” or “something” is identical to the difference it makes (with anything else) and (thus) eventually different from itself. All “something” or “form” or “being” is explained as the residual of a more fundamental level of operations (namely, the construction of difference), including the “calculus of indications” explaining the very Laws of Form. Due to its constructivist nature, the calculus has enjoyed admiration from a variety of people, some of whom are regarded of major importance in their respective scientific disciplines. After a meeting with Spencer Brown in 1965, the philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell congratulated the young and unknown mathematician for the power and simplicity of this calculus with its extraordinary notation. In 1969, shortly after the publication of LoF ‘s first edition, the father of neocybernetics, Heinz von Foerster, enthusiastically described it as a book that “should be in the hands of all young people.” In the cybernetic tradition, by the way, LoF ‘s resonance is undiminished. The international journal Cybernetics and Human Knowing published a Charles Sanders Peirce and George Spencer Brown double issue in 2001; there exist two extensive Web sites with LoF material and new Spencer Brown mathematical work (see “Spencer Brown–related sources” in the notes below); and a revised English edition of LoF is forthcoming. One would conclude that LoF is very much alive indeed. But as noted above, appraisal for the calculus is certainly not univocal. There exist (some very advanced) criticisms of the calculus. Some authors regard it as misconstrued from its very beginning: for Cull and Frank, the Laws of Form is no more than the Flaws of Form. The greater bulk of disapproving comments is, however, less than a spelled-out, intricate argument. In general, it aims at the status of LoF within the mathematical tradition and rejects it as a mere variant of Boolean algebra, simply using a new notation. Nil novum sub sole, so to speak. Whatever be the case, LoF ‘s thinking, especially where it concerns its far-reaching constructivist implications, has clearly not yet been well established. Spencer Brown’s (promising) claims notwithstanding, the context of his work, its notation, and its exotic vocabulary need a great deal of clarification.

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