Difficulties in Alexander’s proposed conquest

If Alexander is right in The Nature of Order, what do we do about it? His examples of good design (except for some wonderful images from Matisse) are almost all from the vernacular, often from times and places like the European middle ages when artists were anonymous because even high art was vernacular. He’s not impressed by individual genius, and trots out a Michelangelo facade (p. 218) only to complain that it is a “hopeless hodgepodge.” That suggests limits on what talent and conscious effort can do for us.

The point of his concentration on the vernacular, it seems, is that he wants to retrieve the benefits of tradition, the emergence through endless experience and winnowing of functional and satisfying patterns in all aspects of life, in an age that has become radically antitraditional. A general problem with such an effort is that understanding the benefits of one way of being doesn’t tell us how to get them again when that way has disappeared. Hegel discusses the issue and is pessimistic:

“Philosophy … always comes on the scene too late … When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old … it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” [Preface, Philosophy of Right]

Translated into the vernacular: we get old too soon and smart too late.

One motive for the inquiries that led to The Nature of Order, it seems, was a concern that people followed the recipes in A Pattern Language but all the same came up with bad designs. To remedy matters it appeared that a higher level of abstraction, refinement and synthesis was required. Still, good design can’t be made scientific on any reasonable extension of what science is. If it could then academic art would be a glorious success. It follows that while Alexander’s 15 points are extremely powerful they don’t capture the most basic things any more than his 250 patterns did. He says as much:

“These things, the patterns, the properties, may play a role in my being able to create life in things. They actually do play a role. But they are far from certain … the life is really the primary thing, and the properties are really secondary.” [p. 425]

The continuing need for something transcending every system of rules and concepts is, I think, the basis of his ultimate recourse to religious categories. He tries to limit that recourse, referring occasionally to God but in general preferring more impersonal East Asian concepts, which seem less of an extension to the scientifically respectable concepts with which he would like to start. He also refers occasionally to Sufi or mystical strains of Islam, and favors Islamic art, which in contrast to Christian art cannot refer directly to the absolutely transcendent Muslim God and so perhaps shares the same impersonal quality.

I suppose one question I have about his project is the extent to which he’ll be able to carry it out without breaking more radically with the scientific understanding of things or at least going much farther beyond it. That understanding is extremely powerful, and it’s tended to be rather imperialistic, so a minimal break may not be possible.

He recognizes that a rebirth of good design (more generally, of the ability to deal intelligently with issues of value as such) requires a change in fundamental concepts. As the Hegel quote suggests, it’ll also require a radical change in way of life. Understanding what went wrong and changing our theories won’t be enough when good design is not simply a matter of the understanding. On the face of it, retrieval of what tradition gives us will require a rebirth of tradition itself, which will require acceptance of the goodness and authority of reality, and willingness to attend to its implicit patterns and wait for them to manifest themselves without forcing our own views on the matter. A conception of the transcendent that appears devised as a minimal add-on to scientific materialism doesn’t seem likely to do the job. Still, I haven’t seen what all he has to say. No doubt more will become apparent in volumes 2, 3 and 4.

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