Tuesday, October 7, 2008

One Single Architect

At the beginning of Part Two of Desccartes' "Discourse on the Method of rightly conducting one's reason and seeking the truth in the sciences" ("Discourse on Method" for short) he lays out an argument that a building constructed by one architect or a city laid out by the singular vision of one singular designer is far superior to on assembled from a hodgepodge of different designers or architects (CSM I 116, AT 11-12). What Descartes is after with these arguments is to contend that a philosophical system is better when one starts from scratch and builds it all oneself. Descartes is responding to Scholastic tradition, which approached philosophizing with a build-on-your-predecessors approach, in which argument from authority is an important part of their argumentation style. Descartes thinks his predecessors are unreliable, and so he wants to start over from the beginning. And he uses this argument as a further justification. The overall thrust of this section is that the guiding mind of one architect, whether it be an architect of buildings or of philosophical systems, is superior.

The problem is that empirical evidence doesn't bear Descartes' argument out. Let's take buildings for example. Let's compare some museums (and we'll try to make the comparisons fair, so we're comparing apples with apples): the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a single building that's been expanded through numerous additions so that it's the work of a hodgepodge of architects vs. The Guggenheim Museum in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, of a piece and definitely representing one vision. You may have your preferences between the two, but neither is clearly superior. Or, if you compare the Louvre versus the Gehry Guggenheim in Bilbao it again is inconclusive. But let's look at more mundane examples of urban design: urban housing projects in the US vs. squatter communities in Brazil, India and Turkey. We're comparing apples with apples here: two communities from relatively equal socioeconomic classes. But the squatter communities are far superior: bustling, growing, rich with business and innovation, with a promising future. As opposed to American urban housing projects, which are crime-ridden dens of poverty, drugs and despair. Despite that these housing projects are in a far wealthier economy than the economies of Brazil, India and Turkey. Let's look at other examples. How about literature. Epic poetry: the Homeric epics, compiled by Homer from extant myths in a bardic tradition, and later refined through generations of spoken performance, vs. Virgil's Aeneid, written by Virgil, co-opting some Roman legends, but adding many stories of his own. To me, there's no comparison; Homer is far better, but maybe some would disagree. Or let's take movies: Casablanca, an extremely collaborative film with many contributors vs. The Clockwork Orange or Raging Bull, both considerably less collaborative (films are almost inevitably collaborative, considering the complexity of creating them). With films it's easy to come up with tons of exceptional highly collaborative films, but good examples of less collaborative films are fewer. But the real killer is when we try to look at scientific theories: science thrives by accumulation and the body of knowledge in any field is the work of many minor researchers and theorists alongside a handful of great ones. Maybe a nice unified set of theories, like Freudian psychology for example, has aesthetic appeal, but it can hardly compare in therapeutic success, explanatory power and predictive accuracy with the hodgepodge of psychological theories that now define contemporary psychology.

The reason the hodgepodge constructions are superior is because there is a selection and elimination process going on. The bad are weeded out, and that which is retained is retained because it is better. If one lives in a city with lots of old and new architecture, one can't help notice that the older architecture is better. This is not because people built things better back then. It's because the stuff that's still around is the stuff worth keeping. The shabby wooden hovels that most people used to live in have been weeded out, so that only the nice stone and brick houses that are sturdily constructed with lots of detail work are retained. Over time a city or any sort of work begins to accumulate the worthwhile stuff and thereby improves. The best of them are retained, and over time these hodgepodge works will supersede even the best designed works. So, despite what Descartes' says, we should be wary of the visionary architects of the future bearing grand plans.

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