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George Spencer-Brown’s Vita

• George Spencer-Brown worked with Bertrand Russell in

Foundations of Mathematics from 1960 onwards. He is the part-
editor of material for Russell’s Autobiography.
• He worked with Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Foundations of
Philosophy in 1950-51.
• He worked with J D Boyd in experiments in the special senses, and
with D T Harris in the medical uses of hypnosis. With the Royal
Navy, he undertook successful trials of hypnosis for dentistry and
the retraining of wounded personnel. Laurelled chess master and
chemist, race car driver (member of the Institute of Advanced
Motorists since 1962), and expert pilot with the Royal Air-
force.Published in statistics, probability, psychical research, logic,
and poetry. Worked with Winston Churchill’s advisor Lord Cherwell
on Goldbach’sConjecture and other advanced mathematical
problems from 1954 until his death in 1957. He is custodian or
Lord Cherwell’s unpublished mathematical papers and
• Chief Logic Designer for MullardEquipment Ltd., 1959-61,
consultant from 61 on. Advisor to British Rail, 1963-64. Inventor of
the first modular lift and elevator control units, British Patent
George Spencer-Brown’s Vita
• Senior Lecturer in Formal Mathematics with the University of London Department of
Extramural Studies, 1963-1968. Work in military Communications for U K Government
1965-66. Manager, Development Division International Publishing Corporation Ltd,
1966-68. Worked in Computer Science and Number Theory with J C P Miller 1963
onwards. In collaboration with him and with D J Spencer-Brown discovered new
primality tests and factoring methods. Member of the Department of Pure
Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics in the University of Cambridge since 1969.
Life Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society.
• Visiting Professor of Mathematics in the University of Western Australia 1976. Visiting
Professor, Department of Computer Science, Stanford University, 1977. Consultant to
Xerox Palo Alto Research Corporation 1977-78. Stanford and Palo Alto lectures The
Four-color Map Theorem as a Problem in Formal Quaternions 1977-78. Visiting
Professor of Pure Mathematics in the Department of Computer Science, University of
Maryland, 1980-81. Seconded to Federal Naval Research Laboratory, Washington D C,
as adviser in Military Communications. Contributions include new discoveries in
optics, and in coding and code-breaking.
• Washington lectures 1980-81: What is Mathematics, Formal Arithmetics of the Second
Order, and Cast and Formation Properties of Maps.
• Practiced full-time as a professional psychotherapist 1968-69. Successfully
implemented hypnosis and sleep-learning techniques to enhance performance in
sporting and other competitive activities. Specialist in the training and education of
gifted and super-intelligent children. Continues to practice world-wide on a part-time
• Publications: Probability and Scientific Inference, London 1957, 1058; Laws of Form,
London 1969, 1971, New York 1972, 1973, 1977, 1979 (writing as G Spencer-Brown);
Twenty-Three Degrees of Paradise (verse), Cambridge, 1970; Only Two Can Play This
Game(a comparison of western and eastern modes of thought and methods in the
arts, philosophy, religion, and the sciences), Cambridge 1971, New York 1972, 1973,
1974 (writing as James Keys).
From Laws of Form

First Paragraph
The theme of this book is that a universe comes
into being when a space is severed or taken apart.
The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from
an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in a
plane. By tracing the way we represent such a
severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an
accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny,
the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical,
physical, and biological science, and can being to see
how the familiar laws of our own experience follow
inexorably from the original act of severance. The act
is itself already remembered, even if unconsciously, as
our first attempt to distinguish different things in a
world where, in the first place, the boundaries can be
drawn anywhere we please. At this stage the universe
NOTE: Paragraph 2
Although all forms, and thus all
universes, are possible, and any
particular form is mutable, it
becomes evident that the laws
relating such forms are the same in
any universe. It is this sameness,
the idea that we can find a reality
independent of how the universe
actually appears, that lends such
fascination to the study of
NOTE: Paragraph 2
That mathematics, in common with
other art forms, can lead us beyond
ordinary existence, and can show us
something of the structure in which
all creation hangs together , is no
new idea. But mathematical texts
generally begin the story somewhere
in the middle, leaving the reader to
pick up the threads as best he can.
Here the story is traced from the

We take as given the idea of

distinction and the idea of indication,
and that we cannot make an
indication without drawing a
distinction. We take, therefore, the
form of distinction for the form.

Distinction is perfect continence.

That is to say, 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
Once a distinction is drawn, the spaces,
states, or contents on each side of the
boundary, being distinct, can be indicated.
There can be no distinction without
motive, and there can be no motive unless
contents are seen to differ in value.
If a content is of value, a name can be
taken to indicate this value.
Thus the calling of the name can be
Axiom 1. The law of
The value of a call made again is
the value of the call.

That is to say, if a name is called

and then is called again, the value
indicated by the two calls taken
together is the value indicated by one
of them.
That is to say, for any name, to
recall is to call.
Equally, if the content is of value, a
motive or an intention or instruction to
Axiom 2. The law of
The value of a crossing made again
is not the value of the crossing.

That is to say, if it is intended to

cross a boundary and then it is
intended to cross it again, the value
indicated by the two intentions taken
together is the value indicated by none
of them.

That is to say, for any boundary, to

recross is not to cross.

Draw a distinction.


Call it the first distinction.

Call the space in which it is drawn the space severed or cloven by the
Call the parts of the spaces shaped by the severance or cleft the sides
of the distinction or, alternatively, the spaces, states, or contents distinguished
by the distinction.

Let any mark, token, or sign be taken in any way with or with regard to
the distinction as a signal.
Call the use of any signal its intent.

Let a state distinguished by the

distinction be marked with a mark

of distinction.

Let the state be known by the


Call the state the marked state.


Call the space cloven by any

distinction, together with the entire content
of the space, the form of the distinction.
Call the form of the first distinction the


Let there be a form distinct from the

Let the mark of distinction be copied
out of the form into such another form.
Call any such copy of the mark a token
of the mark.
Let any token of the mark be called as

Call the form of a number of tokens considered with regard to one another
(that is to say, considered in the same form) an arrangement.


Call any arrangement intended as an indicator an expression.


Call a state indicated by an expression the value of the expression.


Call the expressions of the same value equivalent.

Let a sign

of equivalence be written between equivalent expressions.

Now, by axiom 1,

Call the state not marked with the mark

the unmarked state.
Let each token of the mark be seen to
cleave the space into which it is copied. That is
to say, let each token be a distinction in its own
Call the concave side of a taken its inside.
Let any token be intended as an
instruction to cross the boundary of the first
Let the crossing be from the state
indicated on the inside of the token.
Let the crossing be to the state indicated
by the token.
Let a space with no token indicate the
unmarked state.
Now, by axiom 2,
The Primary Arithmetic (Ch.
George Spencer-Brown continues in successive chapters
of Laws of Form to use the notion of distinction and form
developed in chapters 1 and 2 given in these excerpts, to
develop the primitive notion of calculation needed to
develop the primary arithmetic, which is non-numerical,
called the calculus of indications, dealing with the two
initials of number (Axiom 1: the law of calling; condensation
and confirmation) and order (Axiom 2: the law of crossing;
cancellation and confirmation*).

“Call the calculus limited to the forms generated from

direct consequences of these initials the primary

* The respective operations of condensation and

confirmation are complimentary and inverse operations
with regard to the direction of the law of calling, as
The Primary Algebra (Ch. 6)
At the beginning of the fourth chapter “The Primary
Arithmetic”, after an image of the initials of the calculus of
indications, he explains that the general patterns distinguished
therein are called Theorems. After a number of such theorems
and some more canons are given expression in that chapter, we
are able to see the generalities of it such that we can take tokens
of variable form to indicate expressions in the primary arithmetic,
which leads to a new calculus, taken out of the first, called the
primary algebra, in the fifth chapter “A Calculus Taken Out of the
Calculus”. Tokens of constant form are in the Laws of Form
distinctions, which indicate the first distinction.

There are two initials of the primary algebra, given at the

beginning of the sixth chapter, “The Primary Algebra”. They are
position and transposition. And just as in the Primary Arithmetic,
there is a beautiful economy of operations pertaining to the
initials: Position means “take out” one way, and “put in” the
other. Transposition means collect and distribute, again, in
reverse directions. He then states,
Theorems of the Second
Order (Ch. 7)
“The key is to see that the
crossed part of the expression at
A number of Theorems (10-15) every even depth is identical with
are developed, building on pervious the whole expression, which can
forms (definition, axioms, canons, thus be regarded as re-entering its
arithmetic initials, algebraic initials, own inner space at any even
theorems, rules, consequences, and depth.”
expressions of completeness).

Re-uniting the Two Orders He then introduces the

(Ch. 8) Imaginary state, involving an infinite
expression and the fact of the ninth
Here he introduces Theorem Canon, the Rule of Demonstration (A
16, “The bridge”, and the eighth demonstration rests in a finite
Canon, “Principle of transmission”. number of steps), it seems to me,
although he makes no explicit
reference to that Canon under the
Equations of the Second introduction of the Imaginary
Degree (Ch. 11) state, it is implied by the order of
the work.

Here he introduces “Re-entry” The next section is called Time,

(i.e., of the form into itself). Re- and has a graphic of a circle and a
entry is a very popular notion in the shaded region outside the circle to
interpretation of Laws of Form. indicate a higher-dimensional
Here is the explanation of Re-entry: (second-degree) frame of reference
Since we do not wish, if we can avoid it, to leave the form, the
state we envisage is not in space, but in time. (It being possible to
enter a state of time without leaving the state of space in which
one is already lodged.
If we consider the speed at which the representation of value
travels through the space of the expression to be constant, then
the frequency of its oscillation is determined by the length of the
tunnel. Alternatively, if we consider this length to be constant, the
frequency of the oscillation is determined by the speed of its
transmission through space.
We see that once we give the transmission of an indication of
value a speed, we must also give it a direction, so that it becomes
a velocity. For if we did not, there would be nothing to stop the
propagation proceeding as represented to t4 (say) and then
continuing towards the representation shown in t3 in stead of that
shown in t5.
We shall call an expression containing a variable v
alternatively a function of v. We thus see expressions of value or
functions of variables, according to from which point of view we
regard them.
Oscillator function

From Note 2 in the Notes section of the book:

Where Wittgenstein says

whereof one cannot speak,

thereof one must remain silent

he seems to be considering descriptive speech only. He notes elsewhere

that the mathematician, descriptively speaking, says nothing. The same may
be said of the composer, who, if he were to attempt a description (i.e., a
limitation), of the set of ecstasies apparent through (i.e., unlimited by) his
composition, would fail miserably and necessarily. But neither the composer
nor the mathematician must , for this reason, be silent.

He goes on to quote Russell from the introduction of the Tractatus, and

suggests Russell’s suggested loophole out of the hierarchy of language, is the
injunctive faculty of language (from the primal injunction of construction: Draw
a distinction.)

“We see now that the first distinction, the mark, and the observer are
not only inter-changable, but, in the form, identical.”

In a fourth preface to Laws of Form, Spencer-Brown continues on this point,

stating that the thirdnessis essential. He calls it triplicity. In his book Only Two
Can Play This Game, he explains that these three are none other than the Holy
Trinity! They are:
In Appendix 2, “The calculus interpreted for
logic”, he says:

“…All forms of primitive implication

become redundant, since both they and
their derivations are easily constructed
from, or tested by reduction to, a single
cross. For example, everything in pp 98-126
or Principia mathematica can be rewritten
without formal loss in one symbol

provided, at this stage, the formalities of

calculation and interpretation are implicitly
understood, as indeed they are in Principa.
Although some 1500 symbols to a page, this
represents a reduction of the mathematical
noise-level by a factor of more than 40000.
George Spencer-Brown

Dr. John Cunningham Lilly
George Spencer-Brown
and Second-Order
Dr. Heinz von Foerster
Louis Kauffman
William Bricken
Humberto Maturana
Francisco Varela
Randall Wittaker
Niklas Luhmann
Alan Watts
Francis Heylighen
Thomas McFarlane, CIIS
Dirk Baecker
Wittgenstein and Russell
Laws of Form

"To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew

and practiced, requires years of contemplation.  Not
activity.  Not reasoning.  Not calculating.  Not busy
behavior of any kind.  Not reading.  Not talking.  Not
making an effort.  Not thinking.  Simply bearing in
mind what it is one needs to know.  And yet those with
the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not
only offered practically no guidance on how to do so,
they are actively discouraged and have to set about it
in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently
engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with
the deadening personal opinions which are being
continually thrust upon them."
-G. Spencer Brown, from Laws of Form