Sunday, January 24, 2010

Philosophy in Stone

The post on flying buttresses at "Ghulf Genes" has had me thinking of architecture as philosophical metaphor. Erwin Panofsky has a famous and beautiful little book called Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism in which he argues that Gothic architecture developed from the same underlying processes of thought that scholasticism did, in such a way that you can even find analogies to habits of scholastic disputation in the development of typical Gothic forms and devices. And Whewell's comment on Gothic architects, quoted in the previous post, says little about them that could not also be said about the great scholastic philosophers of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. They too inherited a legacy that was patchwork and confused; they too exhibited their philosophical genius in the search to find the principles unifying this complex background; they too "restored the reign of order" to an intellectual chaos; if it is taken metaphorically, they too can be said to have to accomplished this by focusing on the vertical; and few things characterize the rise of scholastic philosophy in the medieval university so well as saying that it involved "the formation of connexion; the establishment of arrangements which were fertile in beautiful and convenient combinations; reformation; selection of the good, rejection of the mere customary". What is an intellect, on the medieval view, but a city plot in which to build not just ordinary buildings but spiritual cathedrals?

One wonders if the strength and forcefulness of these analogies -- which increases rather decreases when one gets to details -- is a happy accident of history or if it's just an especially developed instance of an analogy or metaphor that might be developed in a looser way across the board. And if the latter, what features of our architecture might be correlated to features of our dominant philosophical approaches? What metaphor might our distinctive forms of architecture, things like skyscrapers and outlet malls, suggest for our philosophers? But as architectural monuments skyscrapers are tall and outlet malls are broad; they pale in importance and ubiquity beside the most distinctive and universal feature of modern architecture. And there is perhaps a metaphor there. For it has becomes fashionable in certain philosophical circles to say that one prefers desert landscapes in intellectual life. But it's clear enough that such people would be horrified by any intellectual system so baroque and bizarre as can be found in a real desert landscape, where extremes meet to create the weird, the dangerous, and the elaborately complex. Perhaps what they really mean is that they like the convenience and beauty of a parking lot.

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