Essentialism and Architecture, by Carolyn Fahey and Commentator

Over the summer I presented a paper entitled, ‘Understanding Architecture as Anti-Essential’ at the 32nd International Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg, Austria (the village neighbours Trattenbach where Wittgenstein once worked as a school teacher). Apparently by googling my name one of our blog’s commentators found the title of this piece and made this comment via email :

“architecture is essentially anti-essential. Any attempt to search for Truth, which essentialism would require us to do, would be to say that architecture existed solely in the realm of human construction (language) and not as a negotiation between the natural and human dimensions.”

To which I responded:

“I do not think there can be an essence of nothing. It seems to go against the very definition of the word essence. Additionally, I do not think of humans as outside of nature and would argue that architecture is an abstract construction as opposed to some tangible and objectively identifiable object of some kind.”

The commentator responded saying:

“In terms of anti-essentialism (a bit of a silly word but all we have at the moment to go with) I believe you are thinking about it in essentialist terms, as in binary absolutes (this or that). But the reference to language and nature isn’t positioning them as opposites but to say that one is not really involved in the other. So we attempt to construct language in order to define absolute truths (essences) that exist outside of that dialogue (i.e. in the natural word that human’s cannot directly change or affect through words).

In my view and position, architecture has a particular language and is abstract as the relationship between terms rather than being the thing in itself. I agree with you on this, but I don’t think it is quite as abstract as I think you are positioning it. There is the danger of mistaking two subjects when they get very close together and share aspects of the same language – we have that issue, I believe, with the discipline of architecture and the practice of architecture, the first which is the vehicle for the first but not the ‘thing itself’.”

In this comment there seems to be many points made. I will list them as I see them:

  • binary absolutes: To be honest, I am not sure that I understand fully this reference. Assuming that I do understand correctly, I would say that understanding architecture as anti-essentialist merely means understanding the localised limitations of ones knowledge of building and its cultural relevance. Taking this on, means that what is outside of that either does not exist or is outside one’s purview. If this is the case, there is nothing to be concerned about beyond this localised notion which seems then to mean that there cannot be anything of which we should identify as being our concern, whether of 1 or 0. Hence, we cannot even concern ourselves with what is not part of our understanding and therefore there cannot be an essence of what we cannot know.
  • language and nature are not involved with one another: I think language and nature are irreducibly related. Of course it is often the perception that language serves to represent nature, but it does have a nature if you will of its own at times. Further to this, that we separate the mind from the body, or the human from nature, or the thought from practice, is something I view as a remnant of Cartesianism. Wittgenstein’s work, for instance, was in part aiming to contend with this paradigm often thought of as arising out of Cartesianism.
  • language is used to construct essences which represent something in nature: I agree that language is used to further clarify essences, but a Wittgensteinian would say that to some degree or in many cases there is no need to use language to define this said essence as our knowledge of it is already known and that using language to represent it or define it as it were only serves to confuse and muddle what already exists. So my position would be that language is not merely or only used to construct essences. It serves other purposes.
  • contends with the position that architecture is not a thing: I think that in taking on the view that architecture is not a thing, is not problematic in so far as one is careful to recognise that we still have building as something tangible which sits in front of us.

Although this is a lengthy response, it is clear that I only briefly touched on some of the issues our commentator raises. Yet, as the purpose of this blog is to open these sorts of discussions to a wider audience, at this point I would like to invite others to participate. Interested to know what others might think.

Carolyn Fahey & Commentator

Newcastle University & [n/a]

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

One thought on “Essentialism and Architecture, by Carolyn Fahey and Commentator

  1. This “there cannot be an essence of what we cannot know” is a familiar understanding to me, from an architectural seminar.

    In some way it is as though the involvement of language with nature is what makes architecture metaphysical, besides pragma. So it is as if there is a dualism between pragma and metaphysics that is not a dualism between language and nature, or not oppositionally.

    I suppose an architect would say that architecture is not metaphysical, or not in an extraordinary sense. Maybe this is what is meant by “binary absolutes”; there must be a contingency where metaphysics is involved afterall. In that way I may agree that the comments stating anti-essentialism may have been premature.

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