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Removing Subjectivity

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Submitted By pmorton
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Removing Subjectivity: Wittgenstein, Carnap and Modernist Architecture.
Peter Morton

1. Introduction In this paper I want to address the coincidence of two powerful cultural forces of the early 20th century: modernist design in architecture and the philosophy of logical empiricism. This coincidence is most dramatically represented in the connection between two groups, who have each had powerful cultural influence in this century: The Bauhaus (1919 - 1933: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago) The “Vienna Circle” (1922 - 1938: Vienna, Amsterdam. The former became the premier school of modernist design, and contained as faculty many of the most influential artists, designers and architects of the century. The Vienna Circle was a group consisting mostly of non-philosophers, who met weekly for discussion of philosophical issues. These informal meetings brought about the birth of logical empiricism, a movement which set the agenda for philosophy in America after the second world war. Herbert Feigl, Otto Neurath and Rudolph Carnap, central participants in the Vienna Circle, gave public lectures at the Bauhaus beginning in summer of 1929, when the Bauhaus was in Dessau under the leadership in Hannes Meyer. Their influence was sufficiently strong that logical empiricist philosophy became part of the standard curriculum of the school. A second very clear connection between modernist architecture and logical empiricism is the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although Wittgenstein was not a licenced, practicing architect, he oversaw the construction of one of the most important examples of modernist architecture: the Kuntmanngasse, for his sister Margaret Wittgenstein-Stoneborough. In addition to these direct connections between philosophy and architecture, there are similarities of general aim and temperament in modernist architecture and logical empiricism. In both movements there is a strong commitment to the following broad ideals: 1. functionalism - the centrality of practical ends and empirical facts; 2. atomism - the analysis of complex structures into combinations of simple fixed units; 3. formalism - the emphasis of fixed rules and operations. (Colquhoun, 67-79)

One explanation for the connections between philosophy and architecture in the early part of the century is the existence of set of shared cultural forms: “a vocabulary and reservoir of images evolved that were shared by both the positivists and the Bauhausler” (Galison) However, the idea of a common shared goal obscures important distinctions between the aims and strategies of specific individuals. My purpose draw more precise connections between philosophy and architecture in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap.

2. The aesthetic problem.

The field of design had entered a crisis by the turn of the century through the development of industrial manufacturing and advances in constructional engineering. Forms and design principles that had formerly been the product of craftsmanship could now be reproduced by machine in quantity. Engineering principles freed the designer from traditional physical and material constraints. As a result, the domains of designer and craftsman were divided, and the designer was free to create objects and structures that had once been impossible. One product of these developments was a proliferation of highly ornamented, cheaply produced goods. Another product was the fact, deplored by traditional architects, that the most interesting structures of the time were examples of pure practical engineering, such as suspension bridges and the Eiffel Tower. At the same time as this evolution of design and production, Europe popular and high culture went through the most romantic and introspective period in its history. A couple of quotations from Peter Gay capture the idea: “The nineteenth century was intensely preoccupied with the self, to the point of neurosis.” “… so-called ordinary bourgeois massively joined the pilgrimage to the interior with their intimate diaries, confessional journals, and confidential correspondence, with their love-letters and religious ruminations. But it was necessarily the men of letters – and women – who laid out the agenda for the rest.”

The effect of excessive introspection and romanticism, combined with the ready availability of cheaply ornamented articles, is described by a contemporary as follows: Theirs were not living rooms, but pawn shops and curiosity shops … [There was] a craze for totally meaningless articles of decoration. … a craze for satin-like surfaces: for silk, satin and shining leather; for gilt frames, gilt stucco, and gilt edges; for tortoise shell, ivory and mother-of-pearl, as also for totally meaningless objects of decoration, such as Rococo mirrors in several pieces, multi-coloured Venetian glass, fat-bellied old German pots, a skin rug on the floor complete with terrifying jaws and in the hall a life-sized wooden Negro. Everything was mixed, too, without rhyme or reason. … The more twists and scrolls and arabesques there were in the designs, the louder and cruder the colour, the greater the success… Every material used tires to look like more than it is. Whitewashed tin masquerades as marble, paper mache as rosewood, plaster as gleaming alabaster, glass as costly onyx .. The butter knife is a Turkish dagger, the ashtray a Prussian helmet, the umbrella stand a knight in armour, and the thermometer a pistol. (in Janik and Toulmin, 97)

One response to this deep aesthetic problem was to attempt to create a new aesthetic, which would express the cultural forms of the machine age and restore the purity of form lost with the demise of craftsmanship. This is well represented by a quote from Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus: The coming age demands its own expression. Exactly moulded form leaving nothing to chance, clear contrasts, the ordering of elements, the joining of equal forms and the unity of form and colour will become the aesthetic armamentarium of the modern archictect as artist, corresponding to the energy and economy of modern life. (in Wijdewilde, 190)

A different response was to abandon the idea of artistic or aesthetic creation altogether, and replace it with the principles of efficiency and practical engineering. Here is Hannes Meyer’s description of housing design: Building is not an aesthetic process … the new house is a product of industry and as such it is the work of specialists: economists, statisticians, hygienists, climatologists, experts in norms, heating techniques… building is only organization: social, technical, economic, mental organization. (in Galison, 717)

Meyer's description of the elements of house design is also interesting: We determine the annual fluctuations in the temperature of the ground and from that calculate the heat loss of the floor and the resulting depth required for the foundation blocks. … We calculate the angle of the sun's incidence during the course of the year according to the latitude of the site. With that information we determine the size of the shadow cast by the house on the garden and the amount of sun admitted by the window into the bedroom. … We compare the heat conductivity of the outside walls with the humidity of the air outside the house. (in Galison, 740)

In the final section I will argue that these two responses to the aesthetic problem are supported by Wittgenstein’s and Carnap’s philosophy respectively. To see this, we need to review the central philosophical issues they address.

3. The philosophy of Carnap and Wittgenstein.

A problem of cultural renewal similar to that in aesthetics was recognized by philosophers at the turn of the century. Just as the 19th century saw an excess of romantic introspection, it also suffered from an excess of metaphysical speculation. The origins of this metaphysics lies mainly in the post-Enlightenment response to Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism. Following Kant a succession of metaphysical theories were devised, each of which attempted to describe the detailed structure of the ultimate reality behind our sensory apprehension of the physical world. Just as artists and designers attempted to reign in the romanticism of the previous century, many philosophers attempted to reform the field of metaphysics by the adoption of empiricism and scientism. The Vienna Circle was the most radical, and ultimately most influential, of these movements. The origins of logical empiricism lie in the philosophy of mathematics at the turn of the century, especially the work of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege. The fundamental idea introduced by this work is that solutions to philosophical problems are revealed through an examination of the logical structure of language (or, alternatively, that philosophical problems are problems concerning the logical structure of language.) A central element of the Frege’s work is the idea that properties and relations could be understood in the same way arithmetical functions. We can treat the expression “x is red” or “x is a sister of y” in precisely the same way that we treat the expressions “x > 10” and “x = y2.” There are, however, two central problems in making this idea work: First, what do we do about nonreferring names and descriptions, such as “Santa Claus” and “the present King of France?” Second, without some form of restriction on the objects that can be given as arguments for the functional expressions, we run into paradoxes. This particular problem, known as Russell’s Paradox, convinced Frege before his death that his life’s work was in ruins. The solution offered by Russell to the first problem was his famous “theory of definite descriptions.” The basic idea is that sentences containing names and definite descriptions (such as “the present King of France”) are not of the simple subject-predicate form suggested by their surface appearance. “The present King of France is bald” is really an abbreviation of the more complex sentence, “There exactly one person who is the present King of France, and that person is bald.” Presented in this form the sentence contains no nonreferring terms, and so is unproblematic. Russell’s solution to the second problem is his “theory of types.” The idea is that sets or classes are stratified into logical types: objects, classes of objects, classes of classes of objects, and so on forever. Then properties and relations belong only to a single given level. A sentence formed by using an argument belonging to a function of the wrong level produces nonsense. The theory of definite descriptions led to an extremely fertile philosophical idea, which is still the basis of analytic philosophy: The surface grammar of a sentence does not display, and in most cases deeply disguises, the logical structure of that sentence. (Think of the logical structure of a sentence as given by the logical combinations of simpler sentences that determine its truth or falsehood, or as given by the relations of logical inference it has to other sentences.) So the idea is that a central component in philosophical work (or, as the logical empiricists would have it, the only philosophical work) is the structural analysis of complex sentences into their logical components. This idea led in turn to logical atomism, the idea that every meaningful sentence can be uniquely analysed into a set of logically primitive sentences (bound together in specific logical relations such as “either .. or …” and “if … then …”. ) Wittgenstein believed that logical atomism actually contained a better solution to the logical paradoxes than Russell’s theory of types: If every meaningful sentence can be analysed into a set of logically primitive sentences (lpf’s), then the set of lpf’s, together with the set of possible logical combinations, would determine every possible meaningful sentence, (i.e., would determine everything that can be meaningfully said.) It would follow that the paradoxes are avoided because they could not be constructed from lpf’s. Moreover, Wittgenstein believed that this fact reveals the essential nature of logic. Logic, according to Wittgenstein, consists of nothing more than (a) the internal semantic structure of lpf’s, and (b) the ways of combining lpf’s into meaningful complexes. It follows from this idea that logic itself cannot be expressed in language, for anything we might use to represent a logical rule will either presuppose logic or will be meaningless. What we take to be rules of logic (such as “Either p or not-p”) are actually tautologies that they say nothing about the world. Yet while tautologies say nothing, in the sense that they are true no matter what the world might be like, they still show the structure of logic in their form. So, according to Wittgenstein, two points follow: (a) logic delimits the boundaries of what can be said, and (b) what can be said is shown in the logical form of meaningful sentences and tautologies. He says, “What can be shown cannot be said.” (T 4.1212) As an illustration, think here of the relationship between the numerical display of a calculator and the mechanism that operates the calculator. Language corresponds to the display, which represents numbers. Logic corresponds to the mechanism, which, while not represented on the display, is what make the representation possible. Rudolph Carnap was deeply impressed with the work of Wittgenstein, and he based his own work on the ideas of Wittgestein, Frege and Russell. (Carnap was himself a student of Frege.) Carnap accepted the principles of logical analysis, but he did not accept Wittgenstein’s view that the logical principles of language could not be represented in language. According to Carnap, logical rules are simply syntactic (or formal) rules. No one set of rules is superior to another. Each represents one way of correlating formal symbols (i.e., letters and numerals) with one another. Moreover, syntactic rules of a language can be stated clearly and fully in a meta-language, just as the grammar of German can be written in English. Butt here is no extra-linguistic standpoint from which all of language can be displayed. Recently there is a new understanding of Carnap’s philosophy put forward by Michael Friedman. If Friedman is correct, his interpretation also extends to Wittgenstein’s philosophy outlined above. According to Friedman, Carnap’s central goal is not what has traditionally been ascribed to him. Since the adoption of Carnap’s work by English-speaking philosophers he has been seen as a champion of radical empiricism: a reduction of all meaningful language into lpf’s that consist solely of descriptions of simple sensations. Friedman argues that Carnap’s actual intent is to show that all meaningful sentences can be analysed into lpf’s that consist solely of purely formal or structural relations. Structural relations are those that can be described in purely logical terms, without reference to the meaning of the relation itself or the identity of the terms so related. The structural properties of relations include, for a relation R: reflexivity (For any object a, aRa) symmetry (For any objects a and b, if aRb then bRa) transitivity (For any objects a,b and c, if aRb and bRc then aRc).

Carnap’s idea is that all of meaningful language consists of merely the assertion or denial of purely structural relations. Carnap’s early work, on this view, is an attempt to carry out such an analysis fully and rigourously. There textual evidence that Wittgenstein also subscribed to this project of structuralism. The idea of structuralism, then, is that all that can be meaningfully expressed in public language is limited to purely structural or logical relations. Any other meaning that might be attached to a word will be purely subjective, and hence completely private and inexpressible. (Think, for example, of how you would describe in literal terms what the colour red looks like to a person blind from birth.) This strategy (were it to work) satisfies the primary aim of the Vienna Circle: the elimination of all metaphysics. Philosophy will become the project of completing a full analysis of everything that is meaningful into its logical components. Everything will be stripped away from language except purely logical structure.

Architecture In the second section above I identified two responses on the part of architects and designers to the aesthetic problem of the 19th century. In this section I will make two claims:
1. The early philosophy of Wittgenstein led him to an aesthetic outlook, realized in the Kundemanngasse, that represents the first of these two responses to the modern dilemma of design.
1. Carnap’s adherence to very similar philosophical aims guided to his own alliance with Hannes Meyer in an embrace of the second of the two responses.

First, let’s look at Wittgestein. The distinction Wittgenstein draws between what can be said and what can only be shown extends far beyond his theory of logic. He says, for example, “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” (T 6.522) He also says, “It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are the same.)” (T 6.421) What cannot be said, but what is in some way an important aspect of life, is the combined domain of ethics-aesthetics. Of course, precisely because ethics-aesthetics cannot be put into words, Wittgenstein says little about it. Leaving ethics aside, I want to look at Wittgenstein’s aesthetics, as revealed in the Kundemanngasse. The simplest explanation of the connection between Wittgenstein’s philosophy and his aesthetics is to claim that Wittgenstein attempts to present a visual equivalent of logic. There are strong evidence for this idea: The Kundemanngasse is starkly simple in design, completely lacking in ornamentation, and more so than any other work of the same time period. Wittgenstein’s sister Hermine described the building as “Hausgewordene Logik” – “logic become a house.” But there is evidence that this simple explanation is wrong. Recently Paul Wijdeveld has carried out a detailed study of the aesthetic principles that Wittgenstein follows in the Kundemanngasse. Wijdeveld correlates this study with Wittgenstein’s scattered remarks about ethics-aesthetics and arrives at very different conclusions from a simple correlation of logic and aesthetics. According to Wijdeveld, Wittgenstein’s (unspoken) principles of design consist of the balancing of visual forces through the exploitation of assymetrical relationships between symmetrically ordered wall planes. Wijdeveld argues that Wittgenstein’s architecture is closest in its aims to (Baroque) classicism. The dominant feature of classicism is volumetric clarity and an emphasis on solidity and severity. Wittgenstein attempts a modern classicism, by adopting these features and giving them emphasis through the elimination of ornamentation and the use of modern construction techniques and materials. Moreover, what is completely surprising is Wijdevelde’s convincing argument that Wittgenstein pays no attention to functional aspects of design whatsoever. First, the shape and arrangement of living space follows strict rules of proportion, even when this is contrary to the practical layout of the plan. Second, there is no correlation at all between form and structure – between the spatial arrangement of lines and volumes and the structural elements of the building. But why would Wittgenstein adopt such a surprising approach, given a rejection of subjectivism? One answer is supplied by Wijdevelde. In many ways Wittgenstein agreed with the ethics and aesthetics of the architect and writer Adolf Loos, with whom he was well acquainted. Loos believed that the most important goal of design was cultural authenticity. The crime of the 19th century was it had lost all authenticity, and hadreplaced it with shabby and false ornamentation. It is clear that Wittgenstein shared this same outlook. Loos initially followed the goal of replacing the old “criminal” aesthetic with a new one, formed especially for the new era. Thus he adhered to the first of the two responses to the 19th century outlined in section 2. Loos’s way of accomplishing this goal was through simplicity of ornamentation and the reintroduction of classical forms. But later Loos abandoned classicism, and replaced it with his principle of “Raumplannung” or spatial design. The idea of Raumplannung was to design in three dimensions, from the inside of the building outward, using only the practical arrangement of rooms as the guiding principle. Yet if the Raumplannung approach is carried to its fullest, it reduces to the simple rejection of aesthetic principles and their replacement with functional and structural considerations. Ultimately Loos did not adhere strictly to the practical use of space, but instead used wall planes and windows to construct abstract compositions (described derisively by Wittgenstein’s architectural partner and Loos’s student as “ornamenting with unornamented planes.) According to Wijdevelde, Wittgenstein avoided the dilemma that Loos found himself in by attempting a return to pure classical principles of harmony. Wittgenstein describes aesthetic experience as the ability to see the world “sub species aeternitas”. He says, “The artistic miracle of the world is that it exists. That what exists, exists.” (NB, 86) (See here also the story of seeing a man doing ordinary things.) The ethical side of life is the acceptance of the world and one’s place in it: to fulfill one’s lot in life to the best of one’s ability. He says, “If suicide is allowed then everything is allowed. If anything is not allowed then suicide is not allowed. This throws a light on the nature of ethics, for suicide, so to speak, is the elementary sin.” (NB, 91) Wijdevelde argues that in the Kundemanngasse Wittgenstein attempts a purification of architecture through an attempt to create a pure classical harmony. In place of Loos’s functional Raumplannung Wittgenstein’s use of space is monumental, intended to create a spatial experience of lightness and volumetric clarity. The design of the Kundemanngasse was, for Wittgenstein, an ethical act. By contrast, Carnap drew no such distinction between what can be said and what can be shown. Since logic is, for Carnap, a set of syntactical rules governing the use of formal symbols, there is no mystical union of logic and the world. We are free to use whatever syntax we like, and there are many equally useful logical constructions, each of which describes the logical structure of the world in its own way. For Carnap, then, the elimination of subjectivity from language opens no doors to aesthetic or ethical principles. There is nothing to be “shown” in a Wittgensteinian sense. To be sure, the subjective aspect of experience exists – indeed, it is the basis for our knowledge of the world. But only its purely formal or structural elements are of concern to the philosopher or the designer. Hence, Carnap joins Meyer in an adherence to strictly practical and functional principles of design. Design is a science for Carnap, and its principles of those of efficiency and functionality. Thus, through their different philosophical perspectives on the shared goal of removing subjectivity from language, Wittgenstein and Carnap come to adhere to fundamentally opposing view on the nature and objectives of architecture and design.

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