Thuistezien 170 — 07.02.2021

R. John Williams
Laws of Form 2019

In this talk on George Spencer Brown’s 1969 book ‘Laws of Form’ R. John Williams explains how an obscure book on logic and mathematics managed to receive a spiritual following. In the time the book came out there were hot spots of the Human Potential Movement in the United States that introduced the publication to its curriculum. The Human Potential Movement sprung out of the counterculture in the 1960’s and emphasised introspection, experimental therapies and retreats in an often spiritual sense.

One of the first reviews of ‘Laws of Form’ from this time: ‘Jesus Christ. I’m not ready to review this book. Who the hell is? It merely starts over, remakes logic and mathematics from a different beginning, from the Tao’s beginning of the prime distinction. It’s too simple to grasp. All I can make is the notes at the end of the book, and they keep raising the hair on my head. The book is pure revolution.’

This review already demonstrates several elements to Laws of Form. Firstly, it has been notoriously difficult for publishers to find fit reviewers for the text. Yet, the few that did captivated the likes of philosopher Alan Watts to have apparently jumped on a plane after reading a review by Heinz von Foerster to meet him. Shortly after, the ‘American University of Masters’ was founded in 1972 which would serve as the site for Spencer Brown’s ceremonial visits.
Secondly, the (unintentional) wordings of the initial reviewer of Jesus Christ and the Tao Te Ching in practically the same breath associates the text with cosmic implications. ‘Laws of Form’ is said to announce itself as more than an exercise in logic or the principles of mathematics. Just like a Genesis, the theme of the book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart – the distinction being at the heart of existence. If this is where consciousness is conceived, what could this mean for drawing near it or even changing consciousness?

This leads to the third exemplary element in the review, namely where introducing division would logically be a precursor for growth and a method for revolutionary practices. Williams describes how Spencer Brown struggled with psychological demons, paranoia or even megalomania, and that it might have been through psychotherapy that he developed his core ideas of ‘Laws of Form’. His psychologist was R. D. Laing, who was famous for therapeutic experiments such as ‘rebirthing’ exercises. So in a sense, the birth of ‘Laws of Form’ happened through personal spiritual insights and growth, and due to its publication inspired others to such journeys, i.e. Ram Dass and other 1970’s luminaries and gurus. Spencer Brown was probably not up to the task of becoming the spiritual guru that people in the United States were anticipating him to live up to. In this talk you can actually hear the voice behind the logic: shy and stuttering, but not inarticulate. From floating tanks to cult movies such as ‘Altered States’, to ‘musical phrases’ and science fiction novels, it could certainly be called revolutionary.

R. John Williams is Associate Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. He is the author of ‘The Buddhain the Machine: Art, Technology, and The Meeting of East and West’ (Yale University Press, 2014), and is currently at work on a new book on philosophies of time and technologies of modern spirituality.

Text: Yael Keijzer