Symposium introduction, by Carolyn Fahey

The premise for this symposium was brought about by mutual interest in a sustained and rigorous philosophy of architecture. This interest usually comes to architects as a result of the popular reference of philosophers’ work in architects’ own thinking and theorising about architecture. Some are interested in participating in this kind of activity and others are interested in understanding the basis for this kind of activity. For philosophers, I cannot speak, but it seems that their interest is first out of curiosity of the general subject of architecture. Once acquainted with contemporary discourse philosophers’ interest seems to focus on the curious use of other philosopher’s work which often leads to a pseudo-philosophy. In my own case, coming more from an architectural background than of a philosophic one, I seek to understand better the contemporary discourse and took the opportunity during my doctoral work to investigate the use of philosophical concepts in contemporary architecture discourse.

The intent of this symposium, provocatively entitled ‘straining pulp-theory from architecture discourse’ is not to dissuade architects from reading philosophy or otherwise allow the ideas of philosophers to permeate their work, but to dissuade architects from the irresponsible activity of theorising. I do not mean the kind of theory which is effectively thinking about, contemplating or speculating about architecture. I mean the kind of theory or theoretical construct whose epistemic basis is metaphysical, more simply, I mean metaphysical theory. I would argue, given the time and platform, that the philosophical form of metaphysically-based claims on architecture are unsound and can cause confusion. Basically, these concepts do not function as they are meant or intended to. This, I think we would all agree, is an irresponsible use of theory.

Taking this position as the case and noting that contemporary architecture discourse is saturated with metaphysically-based claims, what do we do? What is the way forward? Furthermore, how do we suggest a way forward without contradicting ourselves by putting forward yet another theory? I think there lies an answer to this question in Wittgenstein’s writing.

Wittgenstein was in his day and today an odd philosopher. Amongst the many oddities is the paradox of his writing: he wrote his work fundamentally in criticism of his work. Looking to Stanley Cavell, it is clearest why this is the case and why this is meaningful. For Cavell, that Wittgenstein wrote in criticism of his own writing was not some masochistic act whose psychology ought to be explained, but as a way of drawing people’s attention to the very paradox of philosophy itself. Cavell’s Wittgenstein reminds us that speaking about the world, does not replace the world nor does it stand in place of the world, consequentially requiring active investigation of the adequacy of our descriptions. With regards to architecture, this requires introspective investigation of the language used to describe architecture and building. Does, for instance, a description of the building as a ‘machine’, adequately describe the cultural understanding of the building in question? Not always, not never, but sometimes. As such, we must take seriously language’s use and vigilantly maintain it.

Taking this as the case, a mild-Wittgensteinian as myself, would not consider all theory problematic, but would require thorough analysis and understanding of its practical use and effects on architecture discourse and building practices – clearly a position that evokes the pragmatic veins of Wittgenstein. It would require thorough understanding of a theory’s use and limitations. For instance, understanding the limitations of conceiving a building as a machine and so on, reveals the limitations of this claim on architecture. Some might respond to the limitations of a Corbusian-esque theory of architecture by proposing the construction of another theory on utopic bases. Instead of teething through the problems of a theory in order to develop its discursive and practical value, or appealing to a range of useful theories to solve the problems of architecture, some might want to start anew preferring the latest utopic vision. Yet, Cavell’s reading would contest theory for theory’s sake, asking what problem is the theory in question meant to solve; what is its use?

Approaching any kind of resolution to this problem regarding the use of theory in architecture discourse and building practice demands both the advanced analytic skill-set of the trained philosopher as well as the building expertise of the architectural practitioner and educator (though it should be noted that this does not preclude architects from philosophical investigation). It demands, according to a Wittgensteinian reading, a grammatical investigation of the language-games comprising the architectural institution. It demands of us all, sustained and rigorous investigation of the adequacy of our language-use in describing architecture and the built environment. The investigation of language’s adequacy requires both an understanding of the phenomenon its use is meant to account for and an analysis of its use.

Harvard Citation Guide: Fahey, C. (2010) Symposium Introduction, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 16 June 2010, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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