Probably the only book on set theory ever to make it into The Whole Earth Catalog was G. Spencer-Brown's 1969 classic The Laws of Form. I loved the way it began — with utter confidence in the profundity of simplicity: 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 begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance.
I'm not a trained mathematician and couldn't make use of most of the book, but the vivid image of the human mind "drawing" distinctions has stayed with me. All thought begins when we draw a distinction, it seems. Deep thinkers and problem solvers of all types use the divide and conquer principle to break down the world into parts which separately are simpler to understand than the whole.
The human mind, being "object-oriented," groups similar objects into classes, and similar classes into higher taxons. Bifurcation is in the world, after all, and not just in our minds. But often analysis begins with a distinction which turns out to have been useful to organize one's observations but is not actually a reflection of how nature works. This collecting and sorting — sometimes called the "natural history" phase of science — leaves us with two-toed sloths in the west wing of our museum and the three-toes in the east. Wouldn't it be smarter if we arranged our collections according to their evolutionary relationships rather than superficial distinctions?
I don't have to tell you that psychologists are the most guilty of drawing "distinctions without a difference." Why else would Gore Vidal have said that "psychiatry lies somewhere between astrology and phrenology on the scale of human gullibility." Just look at the history of characterology, which has happily generated as many 3-type systems as 2-type. Jung, for example, made his great leap forward when he posited introverted versus extroverted types. But then he made up subtypes of them, then subtypes of subtypes. Like unicorns, these sub-subs are both clearly defined and nowhere found. I never met a Jungian psychotherapist who used these categories to understand his patients. As Paul explained it to me one memorably sunny day, "Jung found the key to human personality — and then he fucked it up."
In this monograph, Paul claims, like Jung, that there are subtypes of the basic feminine and masculine types, which he calls subjective and objective. The words "subjective" and "objective" seemed suspiciously like new ways of talking about femininity and masculinity, and this new wrinkle immediately helped us to organize people into a more graduated continuum:
People at the Center liked these new terms because they helped to more precisely describe the people they were dealing with on a scale we all understood.
There are important implications in this thesis, however, that some of us felt created more problems than they solved. Since we took it for granted that each type mates only with its counterpart, for example, this now meant that — for those of us without a significant other — only one person in four who came down to the Center could be taken seriously as potential lovers. In some way, this had to be nonsense.
As Paul thought about it in the succeeding months and years, he came to feel that this essay had been his foray into the world of distinctions without a difference. You can always find ways to categorize people, but which of these categories are driven by character type and which by random fluctuations in a population? Maybe he was simply too eager to produce new information for all the young people at the Center that he had so much love for to consume.
What do I think? I still find myself putting people into subjective and objective categories when I'm trying to figure them out. But then, I also liked it better when sloths had wings.
Opening passage: Inner identity rests on the ability to store either pleasurable tension or enjoyable energy within the personality. The individual who stores tension is psychologically feminine because submissive tendencies can be relied on to deepen his capacity for accepting tension in a pleasurable and constructive way. The individual who accumulates energy is psychologically masculine because dominant tendencies can be relied on to keep his energy level high in an enjoyable and constructive fashion