Tag Archives: Multidisciplinary

On Christopher Alexander

I spent some time digging into Christopher Alexander, one of the more influential architects of the 20th century.

I don’t have a natural interest in architecture, but I found his thinking to have wide ranging application – from software to biology to creativity. I later learned that his seminal book, A Pattern Language set the foundation for the first wiki (the tech behind Wikipedia), as well as the agile software development movement.

His thinking around value, quality, life, evolution, wholeness, and simplicity will stay with me for a long time to come. If you get some fraction of the value and joy out of reading this teacher’s reference guide as I did reading the books, I trust it to be a worthwhile use of your time

The Nature of Order: The Luminous Ground (Book 4)

Summary

  1. Quantum mechanics would not have been of more than academic interest to a few university professors if it were not for its immense field of practical applications, such as in electronics. Here, too, in the sphere of building, we have a practical aim. We wish to create living structure in the build world; we wish to apply this model of the universe in order to reproduce the phenomena that we are interested in.

Key Takeaways

  1. The “I” is that which connects all of us. It may occur in a leaf or in a picture, in a house, in a wave, even in a grain of sand, or in an ornament. It is not ego. It is not me. It is not individual at all, having to do with me, or you. It is humble and enormous; that thing in common which each of us has in us. It is the spirit which animates each living center. When I am building, I am searching for the “I” – the myself, lying within all things. It is that shining something which draws me on, which I feel in the bones of the world, which comes out of the earth and makes our existence luminous …I can feel it, nearly always, almost before I start. Or, rather, I do not usually let myself start until I can feel this thing.
    1. The life in a structure can be measured by the extent that it awakens this connection to the personal
  2. My hypothesis is that all value depends on a structure in which each center, the life of each center, approaches this simple, forgotten, remembered, unremembered “I”…that in the living work each center, in some degree, is a connection to this “I”, or self…that the living steel and concrete bridge is one in which each part is connected to this self, awakens it in us…that the living song is one in which each phrase, each note, is connected to this self, awakens it in us, reminds us of ourselves…I believe that the ultimate effort of all serious art is to make things which connect with this I of every person. This “I” , not normally available, is dredged up, forced to the light, forced into the light of the day, by the work of art…Effectively, what all this amounts to is that in the process of making things through living process, gradually I approach more and more closely knowledge of what is truly in my own heart…I learned to value only that which truly activates what is in my heart. I came to value those experiences which truly activates what is in my heart. I came to value those experiences which activate my heart as it really is. I sought, more and more, only those experiences which have the capacity, the depth, to activate the feeling that is my real feeling, in my true childish heart. And I learned, slowly, to make things which are of that nature
  3. Gradually, I began to recognize that in the midst of that cleverness, which I never truly understood anyway, the one thing I could trust was a small voice, a tiny soft-and-hard vulnerable feeling, recognizable, which was something I actually knew. Slowly that knowledge grew in me. It was the stuff which I was actually certain of – not because it aped what others had taught me, but because I knew it to be true of itself, in me
  4. Flaw of a mechanical world view is that it does not and cannot take into account our inner, subjective lives. Matter and mechanisms compared to actual experience. This is what Whitehead calls the bifurcation of nature and I believe we can again weave them together into a united, single picture
  5. One of the key questions I’m seeking to answer is “What is the life that we discern in these things?” The buildings that have life create relatedness between the person and the universe. This relatedness is primary, inherent and not there because of you. Centers are ‘beings’ – having life and related to you – becoming “I-like”. With practice, you can discern the things that have more life – those that are genuinely related to your self – and those which are less so typically found in innocence, playfulness, openness, coupled with iteration and unfolding
  6. 4 Propositions
    1. Each center is a focused zone of space which may be characterized by saying that, to some degree, space in that zone itself comes to life. Life is an attribute of space itself and increases in some measure according to the organization of the space. The degree of life of any given portion of space, thus appears like a color, or like an overall attribute – a quality which appears in the space itself, along with the structural organization that also signals its appearance
    2. To the degree a c enter is a living center, it is also a picture of the true self, and – very startlingly – has this character for all people, not just for any individual
    3. The structure-preserving transformations which continually modify one wholeness in space and replace it by another that preserves the structure of the first, slowly cause space to be filled with unfolded I-like centers
    4. Only a deliberate process of creating being-like (or self-like) centers in built structure throughout the world, encourages the world to become more alive
  7. The more life something has, the more it seems to internally glow
  8. The self exists ‘underneath’ all things and the greater the connection to this, the brighter a thing shines, the more life it has. It is luminous, connected directly to wholeness, to heaven, to “I”, to unity
  9. Color Properties
    1. Hierarchy of colors
    2. Colors create light together
    3. Contrast of dark and light
    4. Mutual embedding
    5. Boundaries and hairlines
    6. Sequence of linked color pairs
    7. Families of color
    8. Color variation
    9. Intensity and clarity of individual color
    10. Subdued brilliance
    11. Color depends on geometry
  10. A thing does not get its unity from being beautiful. The unity comes from the fact that the various centers are harmoniously connected, and that every center helps every other center. That is the great thing and it is this which causes real unity to exist. But above all, it comes from the fact that in the thing, throughout the thing, we see the I in every part, at every scale. We see only one I, the same I, shining out from every part.
  11. Making wholeness heals the maker – When you make a beautiful thing, the depth of the person within becomes more vivid, lives more intensely for a moment. In each of us, a person is existing or waiting to exist. This person – the most free version of that person – does exist, occasionally, for brief glimpses. When one of us becomes free, this latent person inside comes to the light of day, exists then for a few moments, more vividly, more intensely. People are deeply nourished by the process of creating wholeness because there is a direct connection between the living structure of the world and the achieved person-ness we experience in ourselves…Here we come to the core connection between the field of centers – the phenomenon of life in the physical world – and the process of human growth, self-knowledge, insight, and human discovery of the true self which resides in every person. They are profoundly linked. It means that at root, the process by which a person comes in touch with wholeness – as it is in the world and as it is in the world around them, and as it is inside themselves – the more, then, that person actually discovers the meaning of their own existence, sees himself accurately in relation to phenomena, and the more  that person becomes aware of the real structure which exists inside him and which links him to the universe.
  12. In order to create living structure, we need to please ourselves. And you need only please yourself. But you must please yourself truly. And to do that you must first discover your own true self, come close enough to it, and to listen to it, so that I can be pleased. It all comes down to self-awareness and authenticity
  13. The best things are always childlike, vulnerable. I move towards the vulnerable by asking what I would really like, if I were doing it for myself and only myself. Therefore, the fundamental question we have to ask as we produce order is: does it create feeling in me, does it make me feel more whole within myself, when I confront it? This childish level of awareness is not normally available to us. Indeed, paradoxically, it is only the awareness of order which can allow us to release ourselves enough to even get this level of awareness…What I have described in these 4 books is the structural part of what you need in order to reach this human childlike part of yourself. It works because living structure – what I call the field of centers – really is a mirror of the human heart. It is only knowledge of this structure, and the practice of making it, which gives you a key to unlock your own heart
  14. What pleasing yourself truly IS, is the process in which we create living structure…Creating living structure is to be attained, in the end, by the greatest and most sublime process which can happen: that each person lives, works, exists, in such a fashion that they truly please themselves
  15. It is worth really contemplating this fact. For when you finally realize that these two things, 1) pleasing yourself and 2) doing what is right is one and the same, you will not only feel free to do them, but you will also have reached a deeper level in your understanding. At that stage, you will finally understand how the oneness of some system in the universe is not only an abstract thing outside your own self but that it is also finally and truly personal, the most personal thing there is. All that I have written in these four books leads, in the end, to the core of what is most vulnerable, most personal in us.
  16. This brings me, then, to a last aspect of the process which produces life in things, a necessary state of mind. The core of this necessary state of mind is that you make each building in a way which is a gift to God. It belongs to God. It does not belong to you. It is made to serve God, to glorify God. It is not made to glorify you. Perhaps, if anything, it humbles you. Of course, I do not say this with any intention to suggest that this state of mind is specifically Christian…The essence of this state of mind is that the building must not shout. Emotionally, it must be completely quiet…The reason why I must try and make the building as a gift to God is that this state of mind is the only one which reliably keeps me concentrated on what is, and keeps me away from my own vainglorious and foolish thoughts
  17. The more any portion of space is unified, the more inseparable it becomes from all the rest. So, in the end, the intricacy and richness of a beautiful thing does not arise from the desire to make something rich or intricate, it only arises from the particular desire to make it perfectly one in itself, and with the world. It is perhaps surprising, but necessary to recognize, that I cannot make a thing which has this not-separateness, unless I honestly want it. That means I must give up my wish to draw attention to myself. I must honestly want the thing which I am making to become part of the greater world, inseparable from it. In order to see, or feel, or listen for the glimmers of the I, it is necessary to be in a very definite state of mind. I have to want to be not-separate…It requires definite intention to become one with the world
  18. This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become most individual, and most precious

What I got out of it

  1. A beautiful, thought provoking ending to what was a life changing series for me

The Nature of Order: A Vision of a Living World (Book 3)

Summary

  1. Architecture becomes living when non-mechanical, fluid, unique to its circumstances, responds to what is there rather than impose on what is there (similar to aikido), grow with nature, arise out of nature, looseness and symmetry. Deep feeling appears in these buildings, as it does in nature, because they emerge through subtle adaptation from the whole, and because at each stage of their unfolding they support the whole

Key Takeaways

  1. A proper environment makes you feel like you belong to it – a feeling of joy and connectedness that hinges on the sensation that we have the right to be there, that we belong to the world and it belongs to us. Only living process can generate belonging. When living processes are working well, our belonging comes about naturally
  2. Buildings should enliven the land they’re on
  3. Seek an interlocking of positive and negative space. What is most remarkable of all, is that the structure which is created by a feeling for centers and by a  conscious and deliberate aim towards the feeling of the whole, will often turn out to be an efficient structure…Apparently good engineering structure follows, directly or indirectly, from the use of living process
  4. Save 20% of building cost towards gardens and outside structures
  5. Shared vision not gotten through a meeting, but from talking to each person quietly, one at a time, drawing from each individual his, her, their most important feelings, and their most authentic visions
  6. In each case, the forms, because they are generated in time, not designed at the drawing board, display qualities of life, and do have life…One of the most fundamental aspects of a living world is that every part of it will be unique. If we learn to use a living process well, its most essential nature will be to create structures which are unique, because they are perfectly adapted to their local unique conditions
  7. In general, the geometry will be created by differentiation, not by addition or accretion, the parts given their dimensions by differentiating operations within the space of the land, or within the space of the room where the thing is being made
  8. City planning comes about as a sequence of adaptive acts, a result of unfolding in time. It unfolds directly from people’s ordinary instincts
  9. Close your eyes and dream up your idyllic space – ideal working conditions, natural centers, windows, entrance, main work surface, daylight, working chairs, computer setup, reclining chair, different chairs, thick walls, filing, desk lights, comfortable sofa
  10. Fine structure – every element has to have a living center, details that make it come to life. The field of centers is a convenient way of representing the substance of our minds. It is the substance itself which actually creates the field. Life will not exist in a building unless it exists in the actual physical fabric of the building, in all the details of the way the thing is made. The actual physical geometry of the foundation, walls, windows, roof edge, boards, tiles, plaster, paint work, moldings is itself crucial to the existence of life. The sensuous quality of the building comes from its detail; substance is fundamental to beauty. Wholeness will not exist in the large unless it also exists in the small…and for it to exist in the small, it must be made. The large scale order is absolutely interwoven and dependent on the tiniest details of the microstructure. The large scale order depends for its existence on the most subtle ordering of details at the smallest subatomic scale. And the same is true, and must be true, in architecture. If we are trying to construct a field of centers in a building, we must realize the field will not be whole, cannot even sustain itself as a structure, unless it is carried through from the larger scale structure to the fine structure. The macrostructure of the field is dependent on the microstructure of the field. If it is ignored or treated without respect, the larger field will fail
  11. Unfolding vs. construction / production – this must happen in the actual construction of the building, not only on paper. This is incredibly difficult to do in practise. Same is true for the details, the colors you use. If it is living, it will have its own, luminous, inner light
  12. In a building which has life, whatever is made is always the simplest thing consistent with its necessities of feeling and with the close and continuous attention to feeling while it evolves into form. This, I think, is the closest I can come to describing the core of architecture. When everything is going right, when the fundamental process is used well, what comes out is not only natural, not only simple, not only living structure. It has, too, an archetypal quality – something savage (wild, untamed)
  13. Each living structure has the minimal structure for its situation that carries weight of feeling, leading to a structure in which local symmetries are so densely packed that the highest possible density of local symmetries occurs, but without having an overall symmetry
  14. In the best cases, in the cases which have the most life, the building form will most often by interwoven in some fashion with nature itself. In the best cases, it will seem, almost indistinguishably, to be part of nature, thus forming a seamless whole. The clearest way I can say this, is to point out that it will – in this case – seem extremely ordinary. It will appear normal, and be normal

What I got out of it

  1. Pragmatic implications of Alexander’s ideas as it relates specifically to architecture and construction

The Nature of Order: The Process of Creating Life (Book 2)

Summary

  1. In book 2, the author defines conditions for a process to be living, capable of generating living structure rather than life destroying. It is all about the process – poor process, poor result. This awareness of continuous becoming is the most essential portion of the building process. It must unfold in such a way to allow wholeness to spring forth.

Key Takeaways

  • Real kindness is something quite different, something valuable in itself. It is a true process, not guided by the grasp for a goal, but guided by the minute to minute necessity of caring, dynamically, for the feelings and well-being of another. This is not trivial, but deep; sincerely related to human feeling; and not predictable in its end result, because the end result is not the goal. Unlike the goal-oriented picture, which is imposed intellectually on our substance as persons, real kindness is a process true to our essential human instinct and to our knowledge of what it means to be a person. But the machine-age view showed a process like kindness as being oriented toward a goal, just as every machine too has its purpose – its goal, what it is intended to produce.
    • Not just goal oriented, but process oriented
  • The wholeness is essentially preserved at each step, and the new structure is introduced in such a way that it maintains and extends – but almost never violates – the existing structure. It is globally structure-preserving. That is why the unfolding seems smooth
    • All about process – not just what we do, but how we do it. 9/10 of the beauty is from the process itself
  • Living process to be guided by feeling – adherence to the whole. If this were to be truly understood and followed, it would change nearly everything we know about modern society. This is a gargantuan shift, but humans and human nature are more in tune with feelings than with mathematics…The idea that feeling itself can become criterion and instrument – that what is done, no matter how large or how small, can become personal, connected to the personal self of all human beings – and that this process then opens the door to a new form of society. That is truly revolutionary. That can shake the world
  • You might say that this is all just common sense. I believe you would be right. But this common sense flies in the face of many processes which 20th century architecture and construction practice set in place. When we try to make a building in such a way that it gets its life, what we have done here is the most natural way to do it: we get one thing right at a time. We do what we know. We get things right as we come to understand them. That gets good results. Expressed in the language of this book, it is a process of unfolding in which centers are established, modified, improved, one at a time
  • This is a startling and new conception of ethics and aesthetics. It describes good structure as a structure which has unfolded “well,” through these transformations without violating the structure that exists. The structure we know as living structure, is just that kind of structure which has unfolded smoothly and naturally, arising step by step from what exists, preserving the structure of what exists, and allowing the “new” to grow in the most natural ways as a development from the structure of “what is.” This startling view provides us with a view of ethics and aesthetics that dignifies our respect for what exists and treasures that which grows from this respect. It views with disfavor only that which emerges arbitrarily, without respect for what exists, and provides a vision of the world as a horn of shimmering plenty in which the “new” ‘grows unceasingly from the structure that exists around us already. That this horn of plenty is inexhaustible, and that we may conceive an everlasting fountain of novelty without ever having to beat ourselves over the head for the sake of novelty per se – that may perhaps be one of the greatest potential legacies of this new view of the world
    • What is natural, of value, is that which unfolds naturally from the whole that exists
    • Do one small, good thing, then another, and another…
  • Growing bone adds material at the point where stress is greatest
  • Paying attention to the wholeness = love of life
  • By preserving structure, one always gets surprising results. The creative work is to illuminate, to reveal what is already there…but this takes depth of perception and love…certainly profound knowledge of the nature of space and its structure. To do it, successfully, we are called upon to make another crucial revision in our views about the nature of things: we have always assumed that the process of creation is a process which somehow inserts entirely new structure into the world…in the form of inventions, creations, and so on. Living process teaches us that wholeness is always formed by a special process in which new structure emerges directly out of existing structure, in a way which preserves the old structure, and therefore makes the new whole harmonious. Thus the process of making wholeness is not merely a process which forms centers or the field of centers in space…it is a process which gives special weight to the structure of things as they are. The enigma is that something new, unique, previously unseen – even innovative and astonishing – arises from the extent to which we are able to attend to what is there, and able to derive what is required from what is already there…and that all this, then, will lead to astonishing surprises. It is a process in which we most deeply express our reverence for what exists
  • When we published The Pattern Language for the Peruvian houses, people in Peru said that our pattern language and our houses we designed from the pattern language were a more accurate reflection of Peruvian reality than even the Peruvian architects had managed…The essential technique in the observation of centers, in any social situation, and in any culture, is to allow the feelings to generate themselves inside you. You have to say, “What would I do if I were one of the people living here, what would it be like for me?” thus inserting yourself into the situation and then using your own common sense and feelings as a measuring instrument

What I got out of it

  1. Always be structure-preserving, seeking to naturally unfold what is already there, keeping wholeness and life. This process is what creates beauty, harmony, balance, life

The Nature of Order: The Phenomenon of Life (Book 1)

Summary

  1. In these books, I have tried to show that there are shareable areas of human experience which lie beyond the areas presently touched by science. I have set myself the task of trying to raise these new matters – the deeper issues which mechanistic science has not so far dealt with – to the level of knowledge we are used to, from having a culture based on science…This is valuable because it is based on the same high standard as science, but in a new realm of social existence. We only allow ourselves to claim we know something if that “something” is shareable – in principle – even if it is in the realm we call feeling or experienced wholeness. That is the breakthrough I may perhaps have made. If I am right, the world of science has been extended. I have simply found a way of taking the scientific standard of shared knowledge based on common observation, and extended this idea so that it covers inner realities, not only outer ones

Key Takeaways

  1. In what follows I shall try to show that there is a way of understanding order which is general and does do justice to the nature of building and of architecture. It is a view which, I hope, is adequate to understanding the intuitions we have about beauty and the life of buildings. It is a view which tells us what it means for a building to be a great building, and when a building is working properly. It is, I believe, a common-sense and powerful view, with practical results. The life which appears is an attribute of space itself, life is structural
  2. One of my key claims is that all space and matter, organic or inorganic, has some degree of life in it, and that matter/space is more alive or less alive according to its structure and arrangement. Another claim is that all matter/space has some degree of “self” in it, and that this self, or anyway some aspect of the personal, is something which infuses all matter/space, and everything we know as matter but now think to be mechanical. If either of these claims comes, in future, to be considered true, that would radically change our picture of the universe. Indeed, one might then say that the universe as we have known it for the last 400 years, even in the exciting and fascinating versions of physics and cosmology which have come under discussion in recent decades, would then have to be replaced by a fundamentally different and more personal view of matter.
  1. I managed to identify 15 structural features which appear again and again in things which do have life…The 15 ways in which centers can help each other come to life. In effect, the 15 properties are the glue, through which space is able to be unified. The 15 properties provide the ways that centers can intensify each other. Through the intensity of centers, space becomes coherent. As it becomes coherent, it becomes alive. The 15 properties are the “ways” it comes to life
    • Levels of scale
    • Strong centers
    • Boundaries – help product and maintain the core (stability and coherence)
    • Alternating repetition
    • Positive Space
    • Good shape
    • Local symmetries
    • Deep interlock and ambiguity
    • Contrast
    • Gradients
    • Roughness
    • Echoes – designs which are deeply familiar, fractal, but we’re not quite sure why
    • The void – at the heart of perfect wholeness is a void, like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it…The calm is needed to alleviate the buzz
    • Simplicity and inner calm – Wholeness, life, has a way of being simple. In most cases, this simplicity shows itself in a geometrical simplicity and purity, which has a tangible geometrical form. It is a quality which is essential to the completion of the whole. It has to do with a certain slowness, majesty, quietness, which I think of as inner calm…The quality comes about when everything unnecessary is removed. All centers that are not actively supporting other centers are stripped out, cut out, excised. Wheat is left, when boiled away, is the structure in a state of inner calm. It is essential that the great beauty and intricacy of ornament go only just far enough to bring this calm into being, and not so far that it destroys it…Simplicity and inner calm is the Occam’s razor of any natural system: each configuration occurring in nature is the simplest one consistent with its conditions. The surface of a boiling fluid takes the shape which has least energy per unit mass. Many naturally occurring forms are given by minimum principles of this kind
  1. Life occurs to the degree that centers help each other and cement their wholeness: the helping between centers is caused by 15 properties, and on the recursive appearance of these properties among the centers from which wholeness is made
  2. 90% of what all humans feel are all the same, 10% is different
  1. Wholeness
    • Wholeness = local parts exist chiefly in the relation to the whole, and their behavior and character and structure are determined by the larger whole in which they exist and which they create…The whole, the wholeness as a structure, always comes first. Everything else follows from this wholeness, and from the centers and sub-centers which are induced within it. The wholeness is entirely distinct from the parts which appear in that wholeness. It is a field-like structure, a global, overall effect.
    • My argument is that the existence of wholeness is something real in the world, whether we choose to see it or pay attention to it, or not. It is a mathematical structure which exists in space. I believe that a holistic view of space – which shows how structure appears in space as a whole, as a result of local symmetries and centers – follows from careful observation of what exists
  1. The danger of over-education is that it tends to lead to a mechanistic mindset which diminishes the ability to see wholeness.
    • You don’t search for wholeness, it comes to you. The ability to see wholeness requires an unfocused view in which we do not select what we pay attention to or force attention in a certain mental direction. Instead we see, watch, drink in the configuration of the wholeness which we can see before us. Words, concepts, and knowledge all interfere with our ability to see wholeness as it is. To see wholeness accurately, we must not pick out those artificially highlighted centers which happen to have words as names, since these are often not the most salient wholes in the real wholeness. What we must do instead is to watch, quietly, receptively and in an unfocused state, for those centers which are most salient in the real configuration as it is
    • which we meet in the world, the more deeply it affects our own personal feeling
  1. The right kind of physical environment, when it has living structure, nourishes freedom of the spirit in human beings. In the wrong kind, lacking living structure, freedom of the spirit can be destroyed or weakened. If I am right, this will suggest that the character of the physical world has impact on possibly the most precious attribute of human existence. It is precisely life – the living structure of the environment – which has this effect. The best environment is one in which each person can become as alive as possible – that is as vibrant intellectually, physically, morally, and in which people can reach, as far as possible, their own potential as human beings. One may assume, too, that each person naturally does everything possible, to be alive. Freedom lies in the ability a person has to react appropriately to any given circumstance. The perfectly free human being is a person who, no matter what she or he encounters, can act appropriately
  1. There is, in effect, a stress reservoir in the body. The amount of stress being coped with fills this reservoir, to different levels at different times. But as the stress reaches the top of this reservoir, the organism’s ability to deal effectively with the stress decreases. This then gives rise to the “stress” as used in its popular meaning. The organism is overloaded…Perhaps the most important finding of modern research on stress is that this stress is cumulative, because it is all in one currency, so each seemingly disparate stress effects fills the same stress reservoir. Almost any unresolved problem, even when small, adds to the reservoir of stress, and can reduce a person’s ability to function well. So long as challenges faced are within the limits of the stress reservoir, a person is actively solving problems, and becomes more alive, more capable, more rewarded in the process of meeting the challenges.
    1. Thus life itself is a recursive effect which occurs in space. It can only be understood recursively as the mutual intensification of life by life. The field of centers, which intensifies centers by virtue of their pure geometry, then creates life through this helping action in the geometric field
  2. Mach’s Principle – behavior of any one particle is affected by the whole universe
    1. Dostoevsky had a similar belief where every human was responsible for every other human and their actions. It’s insane, but to me there also seems to be something disturbingly true about it
  3. Thus the bootstrap effect – the way that centers affect one another, and mutually intensify each other, conceived as the basic property of space and matter – may give us a coherent understanding of the way that life, a new and non-mechanical phenomenon, can be created within only so-called dead matter – the “awakening” of space
  4. Things tend to be “equal” unless there are particular forces making them unequal. In addition, the existence of local symmetries corresponds to the existence of minimum energy and least-action principles. Many – perhaps all – natural systems obtain their organization and energy from the interaction of opposites. We see this in a fundamental way with elementary particles and on a biological level we see it in the contrast of male and female which exists in almost every kind of organism. It appears in the cycle of day and night. It appears in the contrast of solid and liquid phase which provides the action and catalysis in chemical reactions. More informally, it exists in the contrast of dark and light in the surface of a butterfly, which attracts the mate

What I got out of it

  1. A beautiful and quite radical book discussing truth, value, quality, beauty, design. If he is correct in his ideas, it would change how we’d have to think about nearly everything, from architecture to philosophy

The Polymath by Waqas Ahmed

Summary

  1. The author lays out some historical examples of polymaths and some of the benefits to this approach to life. “Humans of exceptional versatility, who excel in multiple, seemingly unrelated fields. That’s the superficial definition. Put differently, polymaths are multi-dimensional minds that pursue optimal performance and self-actualisation in its most complete, rounded sense. Having such a mindset, they reject lifelong specialisation and instead tend to pursue various objectives that might seem disparate to the onlooker – simultaneously or in succession; via thought and/or action. The inimitable complexity of their minds and lives are what makes them uniquely human. As such, they have shaped our past and will own our future. This book explains how.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Leonardo’s mathematical polymathy was of a particular kind, but I do think it likely that most polymaths see more unity in their diversity than we can readily discern. They are better at seeing relationships, analogies, commonalities, affinities, relevancies, underlying causalities, structural unities.
  2. We are aware of the stigma that a polymath is a ‘jack of all trades and a master of none’. But there is an older expanded version, ‘A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often better than a master of one’. So many of the great innovations in the arts and sciences arose when outside wisdom was brought to bear on a discipline that had become complacent in its own criteria. Biology in the era of DNA was reformed by the arrival of physicists and chemists. Copernicus’s sixteenth-century revolution was driven as much by concepts of beauty as innovatory observation.
  3. In all cases the prerequisite, as mentioned earlier, is an ‘exceptional cross-domain versatility’, but the greatest, most influential, most self-actualised polymaths are essentially self-seeking, holistically minded, connection-forming humans characterized by a boundless curiosity, outstanding intelligence and wondrous creativity.
  4. Physician Sir William Osler said it was Imhotep who was the real ‘Father of Medicine … the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity’. Imhotep’s legacy in the medical profession can be seen in the origins of the Hippocratic oath (an oath taken by all physicians upon practising) in which it refers to Asclepius – the god that the Greeks associated with Imhotep – as a god to be sworn by.
  5. It is they – the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – who came to define the Greek philosophy we are so indebted to. During the Roman Era, the culture of otium (‘leisure time’ undertaken by politicians, lawyers, merchants and soldiers in order to pursue intellectual or artistic activities) gained currency and the development of a multifaceted lifestyle became the goal, especially amongst the elite.
  6. So a great leader is not merely a bold decision-maker, but a holistically informed decision-maker, one who is able to understand the significance of context and have a sense of perspective.
  7. Intellectual polymaths are either scholars that excel in multiple unrelated disciplines (multidisciplinary), or thinkers who synthesise seemingly disparate areas of knowledge in order to make a serious contribution to one of more of them (interdisciplinary). Interdisciplinary scholars thoroughly acquaint themselves with different disciplines (understanding how they fit into the puzzle) rather than necessarily making specific contributions to the understanding of each. That is, they synthesise in order to contextualise, and vice versa.
  8. Vincent of Beauvais produced the Speculum Maius (or ‘The Great Mirror’); the most widely read encyclopaedia in the Middle Ages. It was a compendium of all the knowledge of the Middle Ages in three parts: the Speculum Naturale (natural sciences), Speculum Doctrinale (practical knowledge) and Speculum Historiale (History of the known world).
    1. Interesting corollary to the three buckets framework
  9. Research at Bristol University by educational psychologists Shafi and Rose showed that many mature students did not feel that their initial education instilled any excitement or even understanding of education; they had to wait to experience ‘life’ before realising the value of education and consequently returning to it later in life. This clear disconnect between the student and the modern education system is a result of what Whitehead referred to as ‘inert ideas’ – compartmentalised, fragmented information thrown at students at school without any unifying framework. As a result, students are not only less able to make sense of how these fragments of knowledge transmitted to them in various classes are relevant to each other, but more importantly, how they are relevant to their own lives. There is simply no context and therefore no internalisation. This predicament continues to this day. Children are sitting in classrooms, listening to lectures and reading books wondering what relevance geometry or medieval history or plate tectonics has for them.
  10. Prior to the modern Western paradigm, other world views (such as the African Ubuntu philosophy – ‘I am because we are’) focused on the co-operative, cohesive side of man, which nineteenth-century Russian evolutionist Peter Kropotkin and more recently genome expert Matt Ridley confirmed is just as deep-rooted a part of human nature as individualistic selfishness might be. Polymaths were generally less driven by competition than by an inner drive to develop the ‘self’, and that too not necessarily vis-à-vis, or at the expense of another.
  11. Not only is specialisation becoming a redundant method of understanding truth, it is also a poor strategy for survival – whether for the individual, an organisation, a society or indeed an entire species. Simply put, then, Homo sapiens run the severe risk of perishing within the next two centuries unless the mind is reconditioned to allow for a vanguard of polymaths – if not an entire generation – to give humans a sense of purpose.
  12. We must all begin with an introspective journey to establish our individuality. In exploring your essential uniqueness (Einzigkeit), you have then to be willing to go against the grain – reject formal, traditional, official ways where necessary and be ready to suffer the consequences. The resultant marginalisation should drive you to become as self-sufficient as possible in all that you do. Then, and only then, will you be prepared to pursue your optimal self – an optimum set by none other than you. This inner journey must then convert to an outer one.
  13. To discover and to develop the Self is the primary aim of the polymath.
  14. British educationalist Ken Robinson insists that the focus of an individual should be on those areas where talent or capacity meets passion or desire; it is at this intersection, as proven time and time again, where success brews.
  15. Polymaths have always minimised their reliance on standard education systems for practical and intellectual knowledge. They have come in the form of freethinkers or ‘freedoers’. In fact, polymath and educationalist Hamlet Isakhanli highlighted ‘self-education, the lifelong desire to learn, a strong will and endurance’ as being the most important steps to becoming a polymath. It is not surprising then that most polymaths over history have been autodidacts.
  16. Polymaths like Alberti constantly strove to attain their optimal state of being. Optimality is the fullest realisation of one’s potential; it is different from pursuing an illusory ‘perfection’. Maslow said that ‘what a man can be, he must be’ and that one only attains a state of self-actualisation when ‘one becomes everything that one is capable of becoming’. For the great psychologist Carl Rogers, human optimality came from closing the gap of incongruence – between what a person is and could potentially be. According to Rogers, the ‘good life’ is lived by the ‘fully functioning person’:“This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
  17. As the Hawaiian proverb goes: ‘Not all knowledge is learned in one school’.
  18. E.O. Wilson suggests this as being the best methodology of uncovering reality: Only fluency across the [disciplinary] boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need … A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience among them.
  19. David E. Cooper highlights as the ‘syncretic’ attitude: the belief that ‘the way to truth is to gather together many, many perspectives, from which will emerge a common core, which is where “truth” lies’.
  20. Michel de Montagne said, ‘the only learning I look for is that which tells me how to know myself, and teaches me how to die well and to live well’.
  21. Ziauddin Sardar, a champion of critical thinking and himself a writer on many subjects, says such a method can allow any intelligent individual to penetrate so-called ‘specialist’ fields: Once the jargon, which is designed to mystify the outsiders, is stripped away one finds a methodology and a thought process which can be mastered by anyone who is determined to understand it. In this respect, the true intellectual is a polymath: his basic tool is a sharp mind and a transdisciplinary methodology which can lay bare any discipline, any subject, any segment of human knowledge.
  22. Jan Smuts, who in his book Holism and Evolution (1927) called for the unity of all things and knowledge. It alludes to what scientists, artists and philosophers have long considered to be a ‘vanishing point’ – a geometric notion with philosophical implications, where all of our particular areas of enquiry, knowledge and understanding eventually converge.
  23. Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves. – Nagarjuna, Buddhist philosopher (150–250)
  24. Love all things equally: the universe is One. – Hui Ssu
  25. Yet educational institutions have not progressed from their centuries-old role relating to the collation and distribution (transfer) of knowledge in order to teach how best to organise, understand and use it. Critical thinking is needed equally, if not more, today than in the past in order to discern what information is needed, when, to what extent and in what context.
  26. Urgently needed today is an education system which encourages curiosity (by encouraging autonomy), unity (by encouraging holistic, contextualised learning) and creativity (by not forcing monomathic specialisation upon the multitalented).
  27. Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena. – Václav Havel, Czech playwright and statesman
  28. Alexander von Humboldt, introduced the notion of Wissenschaft, which connotes the all-round development of the individual and the need to cultivate the whole personality rather than just the mind. The purpose of the university, Humboldt insisted, should therefore be to ‘lay open the whole body of knowledge and expound both the principles and foundations of all knowledge’. 
  29. Indeed, we are witnessing a global boom in e-learning: examples of popular platforms include W3Schools, Khan Academy, University of the People, Open University, Academic Earth, Luminosity Brain Training, Mind Gym, Gems Education, EdX, Sillshare, Udacity, Udemy, TeacherTube, MIT Opensource and CK-12. This is a promising trajectory, but one with two important limitations: first, it can never serve as an effective substitute for the physical exchange of ideas, and second, none of the platforms provide a unifying framework that connects different fields. Students are left to do the synthesis and integration on their own.
    1. That’s what we’re solving for!
  30. As they are displayed in listed form, the subjects seem as though they are separated and codified, but ideally they should be presented in a complete, connected form – like a cosmic constellation or a neural network – that properly illustrates the intrinsic connectivity of everything. The subjects are organised according to eight fundamental facets of the human condition: Nature, Society, Mind, Body, Survival, Work and Expression and Transcendence. There is no order or hierarchy as they too are interconnected and of equal importance to one another. The objective is to achieve perspective. This perspective can then allow the student to make a well-informed choice about what he or she feels they ought to focus on in future study.
    1. Interesting way to group disciplines of knowledge
  31. On acquiring each portion of knowledge, the student will be encouraged to reflect on a series of questions to the point that the necessary learning methods become instinctive: why is this important? How does it fit into my life? What’s its connection with everything else? What new insights does this give me? How can this enhance my life? How can I use this to help others? What might be worth further investigation? What could my potential contribution to the field be?

What I got out of it

  1. I didn’t get too much out of the various examples of polymaths throughout history, but I very much resonated with the author’s arguments for the benefits of aiming to become a polymath

On Physics

Below is a “teacher’s reference guide” for the ideas found within The Latticework’s Physics discipline.

The idea is to help keep these valuable ideas top of mind so that they can hopefully become second nature. It’s also a great exercise to distill some of these rather complex ideas into as simple (but no simpler!) a form factor as possible, getting to its true essence.