The Laws of Thought

Image of George Boole


George Boole’s book concerning the laws of thought was published in 1844 and many have observed that the first inklings of the computer are to be found within its pages. In essence Boole observed that in algebraic terms every set has something in common with “the empty set”–a neat, paratactic formalism that later became known as “Boolean Algebra”.

I remember taking a course on Boolean Algebra as a college sophomore and in that same semester I read and re-read James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake and somewhere in the midst of that concantenation of steam and mechanics I rose up and stopped being an indifferent youth. I saw that James Joyce was the counter-punch to Boole’s idea and I sensed that Boole’s thinking, if reduced to a social value, represented a narrowing of symbolic values–what I would later understand as the birth of statistics and the associated insurance industries and government sanctioned intelligence tests and so forth.

When you’re 19 years old and wildly myopic and you’ve discovered that the ticking relays of Big Brother are traceable to the prior century you look for people with whom you can talk about the matter. I found a guy I’ll call “Lars” because he looked like a Swede, tall, pale, vaguely blond, always wearing a shabby, wool overcoat. Lars liked to talk about ideas so we’d drink coffee and carry on until the small hours of the morning discussing the 19 century intersections of industrial and social institutions and the emergence of writers like Baudelaire and Whitman. I loved talking about ideas so much that I didn’t notice that Lars was a malcontent. He was actually a kind of Nazi. He had German war trinkets in his dorm room and he even had a Luger in his desk. This was sufficiently disturbing to me that I began to avoid old Lars outside of the classes we took together. I saw that disliking the associated modern industrial applications of statistics in the development of a social order was not the same thing as a fidelity to reactionary nihilism. George Boole indeed! George Boole with his empty set balancing a proposition–dogs and men both experience fear. Dogs and men know no fear at all. And all those ticking relays.

1844 was the year in which Samuel Morse sent the first electrical telegram from the U.S. Capitol to a district railway office in Baltimore, Maryland saying “What Hath God Wrought?” Tick tick tick with the relays.

1844 was the year in which Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx met for the first time in Paris.

In 1844 Gustav Erik Pasch invents the safety match. Charles Goodyear vulcanized rubber. Britain produces three million tons of iron.

All the seeds of world war one are planted.

And Friedrich Nietzsche was born that year.

Tick tick tick go the relays.

And so reading George Boole was a bit like sitting on the dark side of a railroad car. I decided to change my seat. Avoid Lars. Read books. Read books.



0 thoughts on “The Laws of Thought

  1. I loved this post. I’ve always been fascinated by those “relays,” too. Do you recall the PBS series “Connections”? Late 70s, early 80s, I think. The host, James Burke, found “connections” throughout history and showed them up to the (at the time) present. Thanks for awakening that memory, Steve, and for giving me something to ponder. You’re always good at that. You must be a teacher or something … ;o)


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