In what style should we think?

25 March 2012


In what style should we think? It sounds like an odd question. I will attempt to make it sound like a reasonable one.

It would, of course, be preferable (or maybe I should say, “more natural”) to ask, “In what manner should we think?” or simply, “How should we think?” But I have formulated my question as I have in order to refer to Heinrich Hübsch’s essay, “In what style should we build?” (In welchem Style sollen wir bauen? 1828)

Building and thinking are both human activities, and thus both can be assimilated to the formulation of Weyl that I quoted in The Clausewitzean Conception of Civilization:

“The ultimate foundations and the ultimate meaning of mathematics remain an open problem; we do not know in what direction it will find its solution, nor even whether a final objective answer can be expected at all. ‘Mathematizing’ may well be a creative activity of man, like music, the products of which not only in form but also in substance are conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defy complete objective rationalization.”

Hermann Weyl, Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, Appendix A, “The Structure of Mathematics”

What Weyl here refers to as “mathematizing” can be generalized to human cognition generally speaking, and, if we like, we can generalize all the way to a comprehensive Cartesian conception of thought:

By the word ‘thought’, I mean everything which happens in us while we are conscious, in so far as there is consciousness of it in us. So in this context, thinking includes sensing as well as understanding, willing, and imagining. If I say, ‘I see therefore I am,’ or ‘I walk therefore I am,’ and mean by that the seeing or walking which is performed by the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain. After all, when I am asleep I can often think I am seeing or walking, but without opening my eyes or moving, — and perhaps even without my having any body at all. On the other hand, the conclusion is obviously certain if I mean the sensing itself, or the consciousness that I am seeing or walking, since the conclusion then refers to the mind. And it is only the mind which senses, or thinks about its seeing or walking.

Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, section 9

Do thinking and building have anything in common beyond both being human activities? Is there not something essentially constructive in both activities? (This question is surprisingly apt, because we need to understand what constructive thinking is, but I will return to that later.) Did not Kant refer to the “architectonic” of pure reason, and has it not become commonplace among contemporary cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind to speak of our “cognitive architecture.”

Just taking the term “constructive” in its naïve and intuitive signification, we know that thought is not always constructive. Indeed, it is often said that thought, and especially philosophical thought, must be analytical and critical. Critical thought is not always or invariably destructive, and most of us know the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Still, thought can be quite destructive. William of Ockham, for example, is often credited with bringing down the Scholastic philosophical synthesis that reached its apogee in Aquinas.

Similar observations can be made about the building trades. While we usually do not include demolition crews among the construction trades, there is a sense in which demolition and construction are both phases in the building process. Combat engineers must be equally trained in the building and demolition of bridges, for example, which demonstrates both the constructive and the destructive aspects of construction engineering.

Just as we have a choice not only what to build, but in what style we will build, so too we have a choice, not only in what we think, but also how we think. As a matter of historical fact, I think you will find that the thinking of most individuals is not much more than a reaction, or a reflex. People think in the way that comes naturally to them, and they do not realize that they are thinking in a certain style unless they pause to think about their thinking. Well, this would be one way to characterize philosophy: thinking about thinking.

The unthinking way in which most of us think has the consequence of fostering what may be called cognitive monoculture. Individuals rarely step outside the parameters of thought with which they are comfortable, and so they allow their thoughts to follow in the ruts and the grooves left by their ancestors, much as architects, for many generations, reiterated classical building styles for lack of imagination of anything different.

It is probably very nearly impossible that I should write about building and thinking without citing Heidegger, so here is my nearly obligatory Heidegger citation, which, despite my general dislike of Heideggerian thought, suits my purposes quite perfectly:

“We come to know what it means to think when we ourselves try to think. If the attempt is to be successful, we must be ready to learn thinking.”

Martin Heidegger, What is called thinking? Lecture I

I agree with this: a serious attempt at thinking entails that we come to know what it means to think, and moreover we must be ready to learn thinking, and not merely take it for granted. But I find that I do not agree with the very next paragraph in Heidegger:

“As soon as we allow ourselves to become involved in such learning, we have admitted that we are not yet capable of thinking.”

Martin Heidegger, What is called thinking? Lecture I

In fact, we are capable of thinking, though the problem is that we do not really know whether we are thinking well or thinking poorly. When we think about thinking, when we reflect on what we are doing when we are thinking, we will discover that we have been thinking in a particular style, even if we were not aware that we were doing so — much like the physician in Moliere who did not know that he had been speaking prose his entire life.

If we pay attention to our thinking, and think critically about our thinking, we stumble across a number of distinctions that we realize can be used to classify the style of thought in which we have been engaged: formal or informal, constructive or non-constructive, abstract or concrete, objective or subjective, theoretical or practical, a priori or a posteriori, empirical or rational. These distinction define styles of thought, and it is only in reflection that we realize that one or another of these terms has applied to our thought, and thus we have been thinking in this particular style.

Ideally one would be aware of how one was thinking, and be able to shift gears in the middle of thinking and adopt a different mode of thought as the need or desire arose. The value of knowing how one has been thinking, and realizing the unconscious distinctions one has been making, is that one is now in a position to provide counter-examples to one’s own thought, and one is therefore no longer strictly reliant upon the objections of others who think otherwise than ourselves.

The cognitive monoculture that we uncritically accept before we learn to reflect on our own thinking is more often than not borrowed from the world, and not the product of our own initiative. Are we living, intellectually, so to speak, in a structure built by others? If so, ought we to question or to accept that structure?

This is a theme to which Merleau-Ponty often returned:

“…it is by borrowing from the world structure that the universe of truth and of thought is constructed for us. When we want to express strongly the consciousness we have of a truth, we find nothing better than to invoke a topos noetos that would be common to minds or to men, as the sensible world is common to the sensible bodies. And this is not only an analogy: it is the same world that contains our bodies and our minds, provided that we understand by world not only the sum of things that fall or could fall under our eyes, but also the locus of their compossibility, the invariable style they observe, which connects our perspectives, permits transition from one to the other, and — whether in describing a detail of the landscape or in coming to agreement about an invisible truth — makes us feel we are two witnesses capable of hovering over the same true object, or at least of exchanging out situations relative to it, as we can exchange out standpoints in the visible world in the strict sense.”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible,

I trust Merleau-Ponty with this idea, but, to put it bluntly, there are many that I would not trust with this idea, since the idea that our cognitive architecture is borrowed from the world that we inhabit can be employed as a strategy to dilute and perhaps even to deny the individual. One could make the case on this basis that we are owned by the past, and certainly there are those who believe that inter-generational moral duties flow in only one direction, from the present to the past, but merely to formulate it in these terms suggests the possibility of inter-generational moral duties that flow from the past to the present.

Certainly by being born into the world we are born into a linguistic and intellectual context at the same time as we are born into an existential context, and this fact has profound consequences. As in the passage from Marx that I have quoted many times:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

Marx gives us a particular perspective on this idea, but we can turn it around and by reformulating Marx attain to a different perspective on the same idea. Marx takes the making of history to be a unidirectional process, but it goes both ways, men make history and history makes men:

“Men begin under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past, and make their own history as they please from what they select of the past. The past has not reality but that which men give to it.”

The circumstances transmitted to us from the past are not arbitrary; these circumstances are the sum total of the efforts of previous generations to re-make the world during their lives according to their vision. We live with the consequences of this vision. Moreover, the circumstances we then create are then transmitted to the past; this is our legacy, and future generations will do with it as they will.

The architect, too, begins with circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. For Hübsch this is the problem. Hübsch begins his brief treatise with a ringing assertion that architectural thought is dominated to an archaic paradigm:

“Painting and sculpture have long since abandoned the lifeless imitation of antiquity. Architecture has yet to come of age and continues to imitate the antique style. Although nearly everyone recognizes the inadequacy of that style in meeting today’s needs and is dissatisfied with the buildings recently erected in it, almost all architects still adhere to it.”

Heinrich Hübsch, In what style should we build? 1828

In the twenty-first century this is no longer true. Building has been substantially liberated from classical forms. In fact, since Hübsch’s time, a new classicism — international modern — rose, dominated for a short time, and now has been displaced by a bewildering plethora of styles, from an ornately decorative post-modernism to outlandish structures that would have been impossible without contemporary materials technology. There are, to be sure, architectural conventions that remain to be challenge, and in the sphere of urban planning these conventions can be quite rigid because they become embodied in legal codes.

For our time, the most forceful way to understand Hübsch’s question would be, “In what style should we build our cities?” Another way in which Hübsch’s question retains its poignant appeal is in the form that I suggested above: in what style should we think?

Are we intellectually owned by the past? Is there a moral obligation for us to think in the style of our grandfathers? A semi-humorous definition attributed to Benjamin Disraeli has it that, “A realist is a man who insists on making the same mistakes his grandfather did.” Are we obliged to be realists?

Here we see the clear connection between building and thinking. Just as we might think like our grandfathers, so too we might build like our grandfathers. This latter was the concern of Hübsch. That is to say, we can as well inhabit (and restore, and reconstruct) the intellectual constructions of our forefathers as well as the material constructions of our forefathers.

It would be entirely possible for us today to construct classical cities on the Greco-Roman model; it is even possible to imagine a traditional Roman house with hot and cold running water, electric kitchen appliances, and wired for WiFi. That is to say, we could have our modern conveniences and still continue to build as the past built. We could choose to literally inhabit the structure of the past, as civilization did in fact choose to do for almost a thousand years when classical cities were built to essentially the same plan throughout the ancient world. (See my remarks on this in The Iterative Conception of Civilization.)

A perfectly comfortable dwelling with modern plumbing and electrical appliances added. Why not? Why not build in the style of the past?

We can take the Middle Ages as the intellectual analogy for thinking that the modernized Roman house is for living: the role of intellectual authority in medieval thinking was unprecedented and unparalleled. If experience contradicted authority, so much the worse for experience. If a classical text stated that something was the case, and the world seemed at variance with the text, the world was assumed to be in error. As classical antiquity lived with the same buildings for a thousand years, so the Middle Ages lived with the same thoughts for a thousand years. There is no reason that we could not take medieval scholarship, as we might update a Roman house, and add a few modern conveniences — like names for chemical elements, etc. — and have this perfectly serviceable intellectual context as our own.

A perfectly comfortable way of thinking with a few modern ideas and distinctions added. Why not? Why not think in the style of the past?

Thus the two previous macro-historical stages of Western civilization prior to modernism — namely, classicism and medievalism — represent, respectively, the attempt to build in the style of the past and the attempt to think in the style of the past. It has been the rude character of modernism to focus on the future and to be dismissive of the past. While this attitude can be nihilistic, we can now clearly see how it came about: the other alternatives were tried and found wanting.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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