George Boole

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The general laws of Nature are not, for the most part, immediate objects of perception. …They are in all cases, and in the strictest sense of the term, probable conclusions. (1854)

George Boole (2 November 18158 December 1864) was an English mathematician, logician and philosopher. As the inventor of Boolean logic, which is the basis of modern digital computer logic, he is regarded in hindsight as one of the founders of the field of computer science.



  • You will feel interested to know the fate of my mathematical speculations in Cambridge. One of the papers is already printed in the Mathematical Journal. Another, which I sent a short time ago, has been very favourably received, and will shortly be printed together with one I had previously sent.
    • George Boole in letter to a friend, 1840, cited in: R. H. Hutton, "Professor Boole," in: Henry Allon The British Quarterly Review. (1866), p. 147; Cited in Des MacHale. George Boole: his life and work, Boole Press, 1985. p. 52
  • Some months ago I took the liberty of troubling you for a reference to Laplace. In your reply for which it still remains to me to thank you, you were pleased to express an interest in the subject of investigation alluded to in my letter. I have now drawn up a paper embodying the principal results of the inquiry which I have had some thoughts of laying before the Royal Society. Before taking a step of this nature I am however anxious to have the opinion of a more competent judge as to its propriety. Knowing that you have written much on kindred subjects, shall I presume too far on your courtesy in applying to you a second time?
  • Mr. Gregory: Late Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and author of the -well-known Examples. Few in so short a life have done so much for science. The high sense which I entertain of his merits as a mathematician, is mingled with feelings of gratitude for much valuable assistance rendered to me in my earlier essays.
  • I have spoken of the advantages of leisure and opportunity for improvement, as of a right to which you were entitled. I must now remind you that every right involves a responsibility. The greater our freedom from external restrictions, the more do we become the rightful subjects of the moral law within us. The less our accountability to man, the greater our accountability to a higher power. Such a thing as irresponsible right has no existence in this world. Even in the formation of opinion, which is of all things the freest from human control, and for which something like irresponsible right has been claimed, we are deeply answerable for the use we make of our reason, our means of information, and our various opportunities of arriving at a correct judgment. It is true, that so long as we observe the established rules of society, we are not to be called upon before any human court to answer for the application of our leisure; but so much the more are we bound by a higher than human law to redeem to the full our opportunities. Tho application of this general truth to the circumstances of your present position is obvious. A limited portion of leisure in the evening of each day is allotted to you, and it is incumbent upon you to consider how you may best employ it.'
    • George Boole, "Right Use of Leisure," cited in: James Hogg Titan Hogg's weekly instructor, (1847) p. 250 : Address on the Right Use of Leisure to the members of tho Lincoln Early Closing Association.
  • The last subject to which I am desirous to direct your attention as to a means of self-improvement, is that of philanthropic exertion for the good of others. I allude here more particularly to the efforts which you may be able to make for the benefit of those whose social position is inferior to your own. It is my deliberate conviction, founded on long and anxious consideration of the subject, that not only might great positive good be effected by an association of earnest young men, working together under judicious arrangements for this common end, but that its reflected advantages would overpay the toil of effort, and more than indemnify the cost of personal sacrifice. And how wide a field is now open before you! It would be unjust to pass over unnoticed the shining examples of virtues, that are found among tho poor and indigent There are dwellings so consecrated by patience, by self-denial, by filial piety, that it is not in the power of any physical deprivation to render them otherwise than happy. But sometimes in close contiguity with these, what a deep contrast of guilt and woe! On the darker features of the prospect we would not dwell, and that they are less prominent here than in larger cities we would with gratitude acknowledge; but we cannot shut our eyes to their existence. We cannot put out of sight that improvidence that never looks beyond the present hour; that insensibility that deadens the heart to the claims of duty and affection; or that recklessness which in the pursuit of some short-lived gratification, sets all regard for consequences aside. Evils such as these, although they may present themselves in any class of society, and under every variety of circumstances, are undoubtedly fostered by that ignorance to which the condition of poverty is most exposed; and of which it has been truly said, that it is the night of the spirit,—and a night without moon and without stars. It is to associated efforts for its removal, and for the raising of the physical condition of its subjects, that philanthropy must henceforth direct her regards. And is not such an object great 1 Are not such efforts personally elevating and ennobling? Would that some part of the youthful energy of this present assembly might thus expend itself in labours of benevolence! Would that we could all feel the deep weight and truth of the Divine sentiment that " No man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.

The Mathematical Analysis of Logic, 1847[edit]

George Boole, The Mathematical Analysis of Logic, Philosophical Library, 1847 - 82 pages

  • In presenting this Work to public notice, I deem it not irrelevant to observe, that speculations similar to those which it records have, at different periods, occupied my thoughts. In the spring of the present year my attention was directed to the question then moved between Sir W. Hamilton and Professor De Morgan; and I was induced by the interest which it inspired, to resume the almost-forgotten thread of former inquiries. It appeared to me that, although Logic might be viewed with reference to the idea of quantity, it had also another and a deeper system of relations. If it was lawful to regard it from without, as connecting itself through the medium of Number with the intuitions of Space and Time, it was lawful also to regard it from within, as based upon facts of another order which have their abode in the constitution of the Mind. The results of this view, and of the inquiries which it suggested, are embodied in the following Treatise.
  • THEY who are acquainted with the present state of the theory of Symbolical Algebra, are aware, that the validity of the processes of analysis does not depend upon the interpretation of the symbols which are employed, but solely upon the laws of their combination. Every system of interpretation which does not affect the truth of the relations supposed, is equally admissible, and it is thus that the same process may, under one scheme of interpretation, represent the solution of a question on the properties of numbers, under another, that of a geometrical problem, and under a third, that of a problem of dynamics or optics. This principle is indeed of fundamental importance ; and it may with safety be affirmed, that the recent advances of pure analysis have been much assisted by the influence which it has exerted in directing the current of investigation.
    • p. ii: Lead paragraph of the Introduction
  • That to the existing forms of Analysis a quantitative interpretation is assigned, is the result of the circumstances by which those forms were determined, and is not to be construed into a universal condition of Analysis. It is upon the foundation of this general principle, that I purpose to establish the Calculus of Logic, and that I claim for it a place among the acknowledged forms of Mathematical Analysis, regardless that in its object and in its instruments it must at present stand alone.
    • p. iii
  • A successful attempt to express logical propositions by symbols, the laws of whose combinations should be founded upon the laws of the mental processes which they represent, would, so far, be a step towards a philosophical language.
    • p. 5


  • I am now about to set seriously to work upon preparing for the press an account of my theory of Logic and Probabilities which in its present state I look upon as the most valuable if not the only valuable contribution that I have made or am likely to make to Science and the thing by which I would desire if at all to be remembered hereafter.
  • The scepticism of the ancient world left no department of human belief unassailed. It took its chief stand upon the conflicting nature of the impressions of the senses, but threw the dark shade of uncertainty over the most settled convictions of the mind; over men's belief in an external world, over their consciousness of their own existence. But this form of doubt was not destined to endure. Science, in removing the contradictions of sense, and establishing the consistent uniformity of natural law, took away the main pillars of its support. The spirit, however, and the mental habits of which it was the roduct, still survive; but not among the votaries of science. For I cannot but regard it as the same spirit which, with whatever profession of zeal, and for whatever ends of supposed piety or obedience, strives to subvertthe natural evidences of morals, - the existence of a Supreme Intelligent Cause. There is a scepticism which repudiates all belief; there is also a scepticism which seeks to escape from itself by a total abnegation of the understanding, and which, in the pride of its new-found security, would recklessly destroy every internal ground of humant trust and hope... Now to this, as to a former development of the sceptical spirit, Science stands in implied but real antagonism.
    • George Boole (1851), "The Claims of Science, especially as founded in its relation to Human Nature". Published in Boole, GeorgeStudies in Logic and Probability. 2002. p. 201-202
  • I am fully assured, that no general method for the solution of questions in the theory of probabilities can be established which does not explicitly recognize, not only the special numerical bases of the science, but also those universal laws of thought which are the basis of all reasoning, and which, whatever they may be as to their essence, are at least mathematical as to their form.
  • Perhaps it is in the thought that there does exist an Intelligence and Will superior to our own,—that the evolution of the destinies of our species is not solely the product either of human waywardness or of human wisdom; perhaps, I say, it is in this thought, that the conception of humanity attains its truest dignity. When, therefore, I use this term, I would be understood to mean by it the human race, viewed in that mutual connexion and dependence which has been established, as I firmly believe, for the accomplishment of a purpose of the Divine mind... One eminent instance of that connexion and dependence to which I have referred is to be seen in the progression of the arts and sciences. Each generation as it passes away bequeaths to its successor not only its material works in stone and marble, in brass and iron, but also the truths which it has won, and the ideas which it has learned to conceive; its art, literature, science, and, to some extent, its spirit and morality. This perpetual transmission of the light of knowledge and civilisation has been compared to those torch-races of antiquity in which a lighted brand was transmitted from one runner to another until it reached the final goal. Thus, it has been said, do generations succeed each other, borrowing and conveying light, receiving the principles of knowledge, testing their truth, enlarging their application, adding to their number, and then transmitting them forward to coming generations
    • George Boole (1854), "Address at Cork" as cited in: R. H. Hutton, "Professor Boole," (1866), p. 165; Also cited in: Boole, George. Studies in Logic and Probability. 2002. Courier Dover Publications. p. 451

An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854)[edit]

The knowledge of the laws of the mind does not require as its basis any extensive collection of observations. The general truth is seen in the particular instance, and it is not confirmed by the repetition of instances. (1854)

George Boole, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854)

  • The following work is not a republication of a former treatise by the Author, entitled, "The Mathematical Analysis of Logic." Its earlier portion is indeed devoted to the same object, and it begins by establishing the same system of fundamental laws, but its methods are more general, and its range of applications far wider. It exhibits the results, matured by some years of study and reflection, of a principle of investigation relating to the intellectual operations, the previous exposition of which was written within a few weeks after its idea had been conceived.
    • p. i; Preface, lead paragraph
  • The design of the following treatise is to investigate the fundamental laws of those operations of the mind by which reasoning is performed; to give expression to them in the symbolical language of a Calculus, and upon this foundation to establish the science of Logic and construct its method ; to make that method itself the basis of a general method for the application of the mathematical doctrine of Probabilities ; and, finally, to collect from the various elements of truth brought to view in the course of these inquiries some probable intimations concerning the nature and constitution of the human mind.
    • p. 1; Ch. 1. Nature And Design Of This Work, lead paragraph
  • [Boole's apparent goal was to] unfold the secret laws and relations of those high faculties of thought by which all beyond the merely perceptive knowledge of the world and of ourselves is attained or matured, is a object which does not stand in need of commendation to a rational mind.
    • p. 3: as cited in: John Cohen (1966) A new introduction to psychology. p. 121
  • The general laws of Nature are not, for the most part, immediate objects of perception. They are either inductive inferences from a large body of facts, the common truth in which they express, or, in their origin at least, physical hypotheses of a causal nature serving to explain phenomena with undeviating precision, and to enable us to predict new combinations of them. They are in all cases, and in the strictest sense of the term, probable conclusions, approaching, indeed, ever and ever nearer to certainty, as they receive more and more of the confirmation of experience. But of the character of probability, in the strict and proper sense of that term, they are never wholly divested. On the other hand, the knowledge of the laws of the mind does not require as its basis any extensive collection of observations. The general truth is seen in the particular instance, and it is not confirmed by the repetition of instances.
    • p. 4; Ch. 1. Nature And Design Of This Work
  • There is not only a close analogy between the operations of the mind in general reasoning and its operations in the particular science of Algebra, but there is to a considerable extent an exact agreement in the laws by which the two classes of operations are conducted.
    • p. 6; As cited in: Leandro N. De Castro, Fernando J. Von Zuben, Recent Developments in Biologically Inspired Computing, Idea Group Inc (IGI), 2005 p. 236
  • It is not of the essence of mathematics to be conversant with the ideas of number and quantity.
  • That logic, as a science, is susceptible of very wide applications is admitted; but it is equally certain that its ultimate forms and processes are mathematical.
    • p. 12; Cited in: William Stanley Jevons (1887) The Principles of Science: : A Treatise on Logic and Scientific Method. p. 155
  • To deduce the laws of the symbols of Logic from a consideration of those operations of the mind which are implied in the strict use of language as an instrument of reasoning.
    • p. 42
  • That axiom of Metaphysicians which is termed the principle of contradiction and which affirms that it is impossible for anything to possess a quality, and in the same time not to possess it, is a consequence of the fundamental law of thought, whose expression is x²=x.
  • The above interpretation has been introduced, not on account of its immediate value in the present system, but as an illustration of a significant fact in the philosophy of the intellectual powers, viz., that what has commonly been regarded as the fundamental axiom of metaphysics is but the consequence of a law of thought, mathematical in its form.
    • p. 50
  • Let us conceive, then, of an algebra in which the symbols x, y z etc. admit indifferently of the values 0 and 1, and of these values alone The laws, the axioms, and the processes, of such an Algebra will be identical in their whole extend with the laws, the axioms, and the processes of an Algebra of Logic. Difference of interpretation will alone divide them. Upon this principle the method of the following work is established.
  • Let x represent an act of the mind by which we fix our regard upon that portion of time for which the proposition X is true ; and let this meaning be understood when it is asserted that x denote the time for which the proposition X is true. (. . .) We shall term x the representative symbol of the proposition X.
    • p. 165; As cited in: James Joseph Sylvester, ‎James Whitbread Lee Glaisher (1910) The Quarterly Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics. p. 350
  • It is not possible, I think, to rise from the perusal of the arguments of Clark and Spinoza without a deep conviction of the futility of all endeavors to establish, entirely à priori, the existence of an Infinite Being, His attributes, and His relation to the universe. The fundamental principle of all such speculations, viz. that whatever we can clearly conceive, must exist, fails to accomplish its end, even when its truth is admitted. For how shall the finite comprehend the infinite? Yet must the possibility of such conception be granted, and in something more than the sense of a mere withdrawal of the limits of phænomal existence, before any solid ground can be established for the knowledge, à priori, of things infinite and eternal.
    • pp. 216-217: Ch. 13. Clarke and Spinoza
  • To infer the existence of an intelligent cause from the teeming evidences of surrounding design, to rise to the conception of a moral Governor of the world, from the study of the constitution and the moral provisions of our own nature; - these, though but the feeble steps of an understanding limited in its faculties and its materials of knowledge, are of more avail than the ambitious attempt to arrive at a certainty unattainable on the ground of natural religion. And as these were the most ancient, so are they still the most solid foundations, Revelation being set apart, of the belief that the course of this world is not abandoned to chance and inexorable fate.
    • p. 217: Ch. 13. Clarke and Spinoza : Concluding remarks of the chapter
    • Also found in Boole, George (1851). The claims of science, especially as founded in its relations to human nature; a lecture, Volume 15. p. 24
  • A distinguished writer (Siméon Denis Poisson) has thus stated the fundamental definitions of the science:
"The probability of an event is the reason we have to believe that it has taken place, or that it will take place."
"The measure of the probability of an event is the ratio of the number of cases favourable to that event, to the total number of cases favourable or contrary, and all equally possible" (equally like to happen).
From these definitions it follows that the word probability, in its mathematical acceptation, has reference to the state of our knowledge of the circumstances under which an event may happen or fail. With the degree of information which we possess concerning the circumstances of an event, the reason we have to think that it will occur, or, to use a single term, our expectation of it, will vary.
    • p. 243-4; As cited in: "George Boole (1815–64)" in: Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations, Edited by W. F. Bynum and Roy Porter, January 2006
  • Probability is expectation founded upon partial knowledge. A perfect acquaintance with all the circumstances affecting the occurrence of an event would change expectation into certainty, and leave neither room nor demand for a theory of probabilities.
    • p. 244; Cited in: Michael J. Katz (1986) Templets and the Explanation of Complex Patterns, p. 123
  • It has been said, that the principle involved in the above and in similar applications is that of the equal distribution of our knowledge, or rather of our ignorance the assigning to different states of things of which we know nothing, and upon the very ground that we know nothing, equal degrees of probability. I apprehend, however, that this is an arbitrary method of procedure. Instances may occur, and one such has been adduced, in which different hypotheses lead to the same final conclusion.
    • p. 370
  • The principles of the theory of probabilities [cannot] serve to guide us in the election of... [scientific] hypotheses.
    • p. 375, as cited in: Lev D. Beklemishev (2000) Provability, Computability and Reflection, p. 432

A treatise on differential equations (1859)[edit]

George Boole (1859) A treatise on differential equations, Macmillan and co., 501 pages

  • I have endeavoured, in the following treatise, to convey as complete an account of the present state of knowledge on the subject of Differential Equations, as was consistent with the idea of a work intended, primarily, for elementary instruction. It was my object, first of all, to meet the wants of those who had no previous acquaintance with the subject, but I also desired not quite to disappoint others who might seek for more v advanced information. These distinct, but not inconsistent - aims determined the plan of composition.
    • p. v; Lead paragraph of the preface
  • I presume that few who have paid any attention to the history of the Mathematical Analysis, will doubt that it has been developed in a certain order, or that that order has been, to a great extent, necessary -- being determined, either by steps of logical deduction, or by the successive introduction of new ideas and conceptions, when the time for their evolution had arrived.
  • Of the many forms of false culture, a premature converse with abstractions is perhaps the most likely to prove fatal to the growth of a masculine vigour of intellect.

Attributed from posthumous publications[edit]

  • That language is an instrument of human reason, and not merely a medium for the expression of thought, is a truth generally admitted.
  • A studious person may neglect his business for the sake of books; but if he does this, it is not his books that are to blame, but his want of principle of of firmness.
    • Attributed to George Boole : Des MacHale (1985) George Boole: his life and work. p. 5
  • No matter how correct a mathematical theorem may appear to be, one ought never to be satisfied that there was not something imperfect about it until it gives the impression of also being beautiful.
    • Attributed to George Boole in: Des MacHale (1993) Comic sections: the book of mathematical jokes, humour, and wisdom. p, 107

Quotes about George Boole[edit]

  • George Boole took up Leibniz's idea, and wrote a book he called The Laws of Thought. The laws he formulated are now called Boolean algebra... Boole seems to have had a grandiose vision about the applicability of his algebraic methods to practical problems—his book makes it clear that he hoped these laws would be used to settle practical questions. William Stanley Jevons heard of Boole's work, and undertook to build a machine to make calculations in Boolean algebra. He successfully designed and built... the Logical Piano... the first machine to do mechanical inference.
    • Michael J. Beeson, "The Mechanization of Mathematics," in Alan Turing: Life and Legacy of a Great Thinker (2004)
  • Mathematics had never had more than a secondary interest for him ; and even logic he cared for chiefly as a means of clearing the ground of doctrines imagined to be proved, by showing that the evidence on which they were supposed to rest had no tendency to prove them. But he had been endeavouring to give a more active and positive help than this to the cause of what he deemed pure religion. That he was doing nothing in this way was a sore distress to him.
    • Mary Everest Boole, ‎Eleanor Meredith Cobham (1931) Mary Everest Boole, Collected Works. p. 40
  • My husband told me that when he was a lad of seventeen a thought struck him suddenly, which became the foundation of all his future discoveries. It was a flash of psychological insight into the conditions under which a mind most readily accumulates knowledge.
    • Mary Everest Boole, "Indian Thought and Western Science." in: Mary Everest Boole, Collected Works. (1931) p. 947; Cited in: Oliver Leslie Reiser (1942) A New Earth and a New Humanity. p. 186
  • George afterwards learned, to his great joy, that the same conception of the basis of Logic was held by Leibnitz, the contemporary of Newton. De Morgan, of course, understood the formula in its true sense; he was Boole's collaborator all along. Herbert Spencer, Jowett, and Leslie Ellis understood, I feel sure; and a few others, but nearly all the logicians and mathematicians ignored the statement that the book was meant to throw light on the nature of the human mind; and treated the formula entirely as a wonderful new method of reducing to logical order masses of evidence about external fact.
    • Mary Everest Boole, "Indian Thought and Western Science." in: Mary Everest Boole, Collected Works. (1931) p. 952
  • We believe that to the great body of the reading public the name of George Boole first became known, if indeed it has yet become known, through the announcement of his death; the announcement being accompanied in a few of the papers by a brief sketch of his life and works. Boole's researches were not of a nature to be appreciated by the multitude, and he never condescended to those arts by which less gifted men have won for themselves while living a more splendid reputation. When a great politician dies, or any man who has filled a large space in the public mind, and made a noise in the world, the newspapers long ring with the event. But it is otherwise with the great thinker, the mathematician or the philosopher, who has laboured silently and in comparative seclusion, to extend the boundaries of human knowledge. When such a man is removed by death there are public journals, even among those professedly devoted to literature and science, which can dismiss the event with a few faint and cold remarks.* But time rectifies all that. It is found sooner or later that no reputation, however brilliant, is permanent or durable which does not rest on useful discoveries and real contributions to our knowledge.
  • Dr. George Boole, author of The Laws of Thought had introduced himself in the year 1842 to Mr. De Morgan by a letter on the Differential and Integral Calculus then recently published. His character and pursuits were in many points like those of the author who found great pleasure in his correspondence and friendship. ...In 1847, his attention having been drawn to the subject by the publication of Mr. De Morgan's Formal Logic, he published the Mathematical Analysis of Logic and in the following year communicated... a paper on the Calculus of Logic. His great work, An Investigation into the Laws of Thought... was a development of the principle laid down in the Calculus...
    • Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan, Memoir of Augustus De Morgan (1882) Section VII. From 1846-1855 (Ref. note: The Calculus of Logic. Cambridge and Dublin Math. Jour., Vol. III., 1848)
  • Boole literally transformed logic into a type of algebra (which came to be known as Boolean algebra) and extended the analysis of logic even to probabilistic reasoning. ...Boole managed to mathematically tame the logical connectives and, or, if...then, and not, which are currently at the very core of computer operations and various switching circuits. Consequently, he is regarded by many as one of the "prophets" who brought about the digital age. Still, due to its pioneering nature, Boole's algebra was not perfect. First, Boole made his writings somewhat ambiguous and difficult to comprehend by using a notation that was too close to that of ordinary algebra. Second, Boole confused the distinction between propositions (e.g., "Aristotle is mortal"), propositional functions or predicates (e.g., "x is mortal"), and quantified statements (e.g., for all x, x is mortal"). Finally, Frege and Russell were later to claim that algebra stems from logic. One could argue, therefore, that it made more sense to construct algebra on the basis of logic rather than the other way around.
  • Frege's development began with... "an epoch-making little book" called Begriffsschrift, translated as Concept Script or Conceptual Notation... Just as Aristotle's Prior Analytics is the foundation of traditional or syllogistic logic—the logic of the categorical three-term syllogism, Frege's Begriffsschrift is the keystone of modern or mathematical logic.
    • Michael Losonsky, Linguistic Turns in Modern Philosophy (2006) pp. 148-149.
  • All relations are either qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative relations can be considered by themselves without regard to quantity. The algebra of such enquiries may be called logical algebra, of which a fine example is given by Boole.
    Quantitative relations may also be considered by themselves without regard to quality. They belong to arithmetic, and the corresponding algebra is the common or arithmetical algebra.
    In all other algebras both relations must be combined, and the algebra must conform to the character of the relations.

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