The Function of Reason and the Recovery of an Earthly Architecture

Click here to view this essay at the publisher’s website, FunctionLab.

The Function of Reason and the Recovery of an Earthly Architecture

By Matthew David Segall, PhD
June 2016

“[The] relatedness between us and the world…which begins to exist wherever there is living structure is as important in the sphere of building as it is in the sphere of nature…[Our]…daily proximity with so many non-living structures—freeways, motels, traffic lights, office buildings—dominates our awareness, [cauterizing our] capacity to enter into this relatedness, to see it and feel it…[It] is the presence of living structure in our built world that decides the extent of our relatedness with earth.”

-Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, Vol. 4: The Luminous Ground, 57.

The function of Reason, according to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “is to promote the art of life.”[1] In the context of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, Reason is no longer a uniquely human capacity to survey and judge the world as if from above the world.[2] Rather, Reason is implicated in the world-process and is a factor in the evolution of all life on earth. The involvement of Reason in the world-process would seem to conflict with Darwin’s doctrine of evolution by natural selection, a theory summed up by the phrase “the survival of the fittest.” Organisms, so the theory goes, battle for position in a fixed environment with limited resources, and those organisms that happen to be most fit survive in greater numbers. Whitehead does not mean to contradict this theory of the origin of species. On the contrary, he celebrates it as “one of the great generalizations of science.”[3] The effect of the struggle for existence “stares us in the face.”[4] He only means to warn against the theory’s over-application.[5]

Unlike the methods of the specialized sciences, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme attempts to interpret all the evidence.[6] The evidence includes the upward trend of evolution: more complex organisms have evolved from less complex organisms. The doctrine of the survival of the fittest cannot account for this trend, since it is often the case that the most complex animals are deficient in survival power. “In fact,” writes Whitehead, “life itself is comparatively deficient in survival value. The art of persistence is to be dead.”[7] Living organisms did not appear on the earth because they were better at surviving than the rocks around them. To account for the urge of life toward complexity—that is, life’s tendency to increase the qualitative intensity of its existence—it is necessary to acknowledge an additional factor in evolution. In its human form, this factor is called “consciousness.” Moderns are discouraged from attributing consciousness to the non-human world. To do so is considered childish and regressive, a relapse into primitive animism. Whitehead invites us to consider the possibility that human consciousness is not a chance anomaly alone in the cosmos, but the most complex expression of an originally unconscious urge of life operative in lesser degrees throughout the physical universe.[8]

It is evident that the more complex organisms have not evolved simply by adapting themselves to the environment. Instead, according to Whitehead, “the upward trend has been accompanied by a growth of the converse relation. Animals have progressively undertaken the task of adapting the environment to themselves.”[9] The primary evolutionary function of Reason is thus to set to work transforming the environment so as to promote the art of life. In the case of human organisms, this task takes form through our building practices. Human architecture is one of the most advanced arts yet invented by earthly life. For much of our species’ history, architecture has functioned to shelter and enhance our various cultural activities so as to afford us not only more safety from untamed nature, but more social cohesion and religious awe. Structures were built for the purpose of facilitating human flourishing. But in the modern age, with the shift out of the ancient world-picture into the mechanistic view of the cosmos, a new approach to architecture has taken hold of our building practices. Because our modern imaginations have lost the ability to perceive the life animating the earth and wider cosmos, our built environment has been designed without life in mind. As the architect Christopher Alexander warns us in the epigraph that opens this essay, the more we deaden our environment by surrounding ourselves with non-living structures, the less capable we become of perceiving our relationship to the living earth. Worse, the more these dead structures are allowed to proliferate across the planet, the less life it is able to sustain.

The skyscraper is the structure most emblematic of the modern world-picture.[10] Architect Cass Gilbert described their main rationale: “The skyscraper is a machine that makes the land pay.”[11] The function of the skyscraper is not to facilitate human flourishing, but to accumulate capitalist profits. Built of glass and steel, their structure is generally a standardized, repetitive series of floors designed to reach the maximal height with a minimum of materials. They are an expression of modern humanity’s technological power and dominance over nature. Indeed, no other built environment compares to the skyscraper in its ability to alienate its inhabitants from the life of the earth. Rather than dwelling on their alienating consequences, 20th century architects and their financiers understood these mammoth structures in terms of the Darwinian doctrine of the survival of the fittest. The taller the building, the more successful the builders. From their perch in the clouds, businessmen look out, godlike, upon the world below, which from that height resembles a game of Monopoly. In Whitehead’s terms, the skyscraper embodies Reason in its function as “[the director] of the attack on the environment.”[12]

Nikos A. Salingaros, a close collaborator of Alexanders’, argues that industrialization ushered in a new method of building focused on copying form rather than generating form, the latter having been the norm in vernacular architecture for thousands of years. Industrial design therefore ignored local needs, conditions, and complexities to focus instead on the mass production and “monotonous alignment of identical copies”:

Monotony in our environment has profound consequences on our psyche. A worldview that exalts visual monotony has taken over an earlier environment shaped by the variety of natural forms. If industrial production tied to economic growth and prosperity necessarily generates monotony, then design variety is sure to be considered a drag on the operation of our economy.[13]

Organic form, while it also follows design templates (e.g., statistically lawful physical norms, DNA, etc.), never produces exact copies. Nature brings forth its forms anew with each generation, only succumbing to the “life-tedium” of repetition when the “urge toward novel contrast” has been thwarted.[14] The organic world evolves not to secure efficient survival power (the inorganic world is far more efficient in this respect), but to intensify its capacity for novel organization and experience.

As Whitehead describes it, the industrial age coincided with the canalization of the 17th century scientific outlook “content to limit itself within the bounds of a successful method.”[15] Metaphysical speculation beyond the mechanical lawfulness of measurable material objects was forbidden. Modern industrial architects were thus driven to continue their work “in the secure daylight of traditional practical activity.”[16] The practical function of Reason thus overshadowed its speculative function. Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to think differently, a call to adventure beyond the steel glass boxes of modern industrial consciousness, beyond even the projected screens of postmodern electronic consciousness. Whitehead’s heresy is to re-assert the speculative function of Reason in an effort to awaken us not only from the monotony of the modern world-picture, but also from the nihilism of our postmodern rejection of all world-pictures. His efforts are not merely speculative, since they also have a pragmatic aim: to prevent our nascent planetary civilization from burying itself beneath the smoldering rubble of fallen skyscrapers.[17] Another world is possible, a world wherein evolution entails the enhancement of earthly life, rather than the attempt to escape from earth in shining elevators to the Sun.


Speculative Reason is no less heliocentric, but rather than attempting to “secure daylight” from darkness, its pragmatic attitude leads it to seek a mode of existence in concert with what Whitehead calls “The Way of Rhythm” pervading all life and indeed the physical universe itself.[18] On planet earth, there is no escape from the tidal rhythm of day and night: the daylight washes in, and then recedes revealing the subtler light of the Moon and other stars. The speculative philosopher is tasked with rescuing the facts as they are for the whole of our experience of life from the facts as they appear under the bright noon light of a work day:

[We] view the sky at noon on a fine day. It is blue, flooded by the light of the sun. The direct fact of observation is the sun as the sole origin of light, and the bare heavens. Conceive the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden on the first day of human life. They watch the sunset, the stars appear:–‘And, Lo!, creation widened to man’s view.’ The excess of light discloses facts and also conceals them.[19]

Speculative Reason thus avoids the deadening monotone of modern industrial consciousness. It is “a tropism to the to the beckoning light—the sun passing toward the finality of things, and to the sun arising from their origin. The speculative Reason turns east and west, to the source and to the end, alike hidden below the rim of the world.”[20]

Alexander leans on Whitehead’s new world-picture to argue “that we will not have a proper grasp of the universe and our place in it, until the self which we experience in ourselves, and the machinelike character of matter we see outside ourselves, can be united in a single picture.”[21] Our grasp of the evolution of the cosmos and of life on earth must make room for more than the collisions of material surfaces: it must include the creative interiors of things, that is, their life. Only then can we truly understand the relational patterns of wholeness that these living creatures enact in their collective bid for freedom: whether it be the atoms of hydrogen and helium that coalesced to generate the first stars, the proteins and nucleic acids that coalesced to generate the first cells, or the hunter-gatherers who coalesced to generate Gobekli Tepe, the earliest known human temple structure built approximately 12,000 years ago in modern day southeastern Turkey. If we fail to adapt our methods so as to include our experience of living process, our own and the earth’s, then we will continue to build dead structures, further deadening our souls and their earthly habitat. It is a vicious cycle of self-amplifying self-destruction. It is practical Reason run wild, undermining its own basis of survival by forgetting that no final separation exists between an organism and its environment. The life of our own body “is part of the external world, continuous with it…, just as much part of nature as anything else there—a river, or a mountain, or a cloud.”[22]


What would it mean to build with the earth, rather than against it and beyond it? It would mean entering into conversation with the river, the mountain, and the wind before breaking ground in the rush to build a towering monument to solitary power that is deaf and dumb to the life processes of its environment. It would mean building ecologically at an earthly pace for the purpose of human flourishing, rather than mechanically at an industrial scale for the sake of economic mastery. Unfortunately, even today, a hundred years after Whitehead’s writing, our theory of political economy remains “under a cloud,” since “it limits its view to the ‘economic man,’”[23]—the individual worker-consumer monetarily isolated from family and community, psychologically alienated from their own labor and physically dispossessed of the very ground upon which they walk. The built environment of our civilization’s great cities reflects the economic values of the industrial growth society, values ignorant of the need all species have of remaining in intimate relationship with their earthly habitats. For now, according to Alexander, “Whitehead’s rift remains.”[24]

Though still drowned out by the cacophonous light of electrified cities, increasingly lucid intimations of a new world-picture continue to flicker on in the night sky above us. It is possible that these lights will constellate into a new cosmological vision to guide our planetary civilization through the coming ecological bottleneck, and that this realization will come with such a sudden “shock” that it will “[transmit itself] through the whole sociological structure of technical methods and of institutions” within the span of a single generation.[25] If human beings are to survive—and, more importantly, if we are to thrive—we must become aware, upon considering the evolutionary history of the earth, that “the struggle for existence gives no hint why there should be cities.”[26] We must become aware that some “counter-agency” to entropy in the universe and in ourselves is the only factor that could explain the evolutionary emergence of novel complexities like stars and cells, temples and cities. Only with this awareness of the cosmic extent of our own creativity can we “convert the decay of [our present] order into the birth of its successor.”[27] Today, the function of Reason must become the recovery of an earthly architecture: in all our building we must promote and exemplify the art of life. The other option is extinction.


[1] The Function of Reason, 4.

[2] The Function of Reason, 9-10.

[3] The Function of Reason, 6.

[4] The Function of Reason, 4.

[5] The Function of Reason, 5.

[6] “…the trained body of physiologists under the influence of the ideas germane to their successful methodology entirely ignore the whole mass of adverse evidence. We have here a colossal example of anti-empirical dogmatism arising from a successful methodology. Evidence which lies outside the method simply does not count…The brilliant success of this method is admitted. But you cannot limit a problem by reason of a method of attack” (The Function of Reason, 15).

[7] The Function of Reason, 4.

[8] The Function of Reason, 24-25.

[9] The Function of Reason, 7.

[10] See “The End of Tall Buildings,” By James Howard Kunstler and Nikos A. Salingaros. Accessed 6/4/2016:

[11] Sharon Irish. “A ‘Machine That Makes the Land Pay’: The West Street Building in New York.” Technology and Culture 30 (April 1989): 376-397.

[12] The Function of Reason, 8.

[13] “The 21st Century Needs Its Own Paradigm Shift in Architecture,” Nov. 2, 2015. Accessed 6/5/2016:

[14] The Function of Reason, 20.

[15] The Function of Reason, 65-66.

[16] The Function of Reason, 66.

[17] “It has been urged in these pages that there is no true stability. What looks like stability is a relatively slow process of atrophied decay. The stable universe is slipping away from under us” (The Function of Reason, 82).

[18] The Function of Reason, 21.

[19] Adventures of Ideas, 155.

[20] The Function of Reason, 65.

[21] The Luminous Ground, 13.

[22] Modes of Thought, 21.

[23] The Function of Reason, 75.

[24] The Luminous Ground, 17.

[25] The Function of Reason, 87.

[26] The Function of Reason, 89.

[27] The Function of Reason, 90.

Metaphor and the Allure of Objects

I’ve just finished Harman‘s chapters on Metaphor and Humor in Guerrilla Metaphysics. He explores the meaning-making capacities of language and laughter in the hopes that they might help account for how objects are capable of interaction despite their infinite concealment from one another. Through his explorations into Ortega y Gasset‘s ontology of metaphor and Bergson‘s account of humor, Harman develops the concept of allure, which functions as a sort of atom-smasher to reveal the molten core of objects, what he calls their style. Harman marks a difference between normal experience, wherein we habitually assume that an object can be defined by the sum of its properties, and the experience of allurement, wherein “a special sort of interference occurs in the usual relation between a concealed sensual object and its visual symptoms” (p. 150).

In the case of the construction of a metaphor, normal experience leads us to assume that saying “the sky is an ocean” really only means that the sky has qualities (blueness, vastness, etc.) similar to the ocean. But, suggests Harman, this is to reduce a metaphor to a simile, when in reality, what fascinates us about an especially beautiful metaphor is that it brings to our attention a connection between things that are supposed to be separate.

“The result, says Ortega,

“is the annihilation of what both objects are as practical images. When they collide with one another their hard carapaces crack and the internal matter, in a molten state, acquires the softness of plasm, ready to receive a new form and structure” (quoted on p. 107).

In this way, metaphor allows us to allude to the elusive inner core of things, their “I,” as Ortega puts it (which reminds me of how Christopher Alexander describes the I-beings that manifest in certain architectural forms). But the poet cannot actually produce an identity between such things as oceans and skies. The poet is “an audacious liar who claims absolute identity” between different objects, when what has actually been produced is an identification of our feeling for the style of the ocean and the style of the sky. The style or image I have of the sky forms a distinct unity in my experience, as does my image of the ocean. Through the surprise of the metaphor, both these images take on a new formation in my imagination.

“The [ocean] is not only an image sparkling with diverse features, but also a murky underground unity for me, and not just in its inner executant self. And it is from this strange concealed integrity of individual images that metaphor draws its power–not from the genuine reality of each thing, which language is powerless to unveil” (p. 108).

What Harman seems to be saying here, with both his style of writing and the content of his argument, is that an object-oriented view of the world demands a more imaginative view of language that takes metaphor seriously as a form of expression whose meaning cannot be conveyed literally. It is impossible to exhaust the significance of the identification between the ocean and the sky by cataloging the many properties they may share. Something exceeds every attempted reduction of this identification to a list of similar qualities, preserving a good metaphor’s ability to “dig underground into the cryptic life of things” (p. 122).

In short, philosophies of human access seem to have been shackled by simile, comparing properties instead of forging new objects; the return to speculative realism is made possible by the ontologization of metaphor. Normal perception is pushed to the point of a paradigm shift (see p. 152) by alluring objects that forever recede from their appearances. What really makes the concept of allure interesting is Harman’s demand that we

“globalize the rift between a thing and its features, no longer placing it under quarantine at the unique fissure where human meets world, but allowing it to spread throughout the cosmos to account for all interactions, including inanimate ones” (p. 152).

I’ll have to read on to better understand the implications of this more-than-human allure between objects.

Christopher Alexander’s Science of Imagination

I’m six chapters into The Luminous Ground, and Christopher Alexander has already convinced me that living architecture has the potential to profoundly alter the way we relate to the universe. A building composed of what Alexander calls “living centers” literally opens a window to a deeper dimension of reality. We do not see these openings with our eyes, though certain geometric patterns and the proper play of light and color may evoke them. In truth, living centers require a form of supersensory perception: we feel them in our hearts, but they exist also in their own right as features of the world no less real than we are. This is why the feeling is one of sublime relationship–of a universal bond almost beyond description because it touches the very core of our own identity. These centers, like us, are “I-beings” which tunnel into space-time through forms of matter that are especially receptive to their spiritual light. Their source is a unified plenum of God-like substance that Alexander believes underlies the physical world at every point in space.

As a philosopher and aspiring poet, my role is to conceive new forms of language that transform the way we perceive the world. Alexander’s insights are best expressed by the silent majesty of the buildings themselves, by being actually present in, for example, Chartres cathedral (his favorite example of living architecture) so as to feel the light that pours out of every shape. But even Alexander cannot avoid trying to articulate his insights. It is the only way to share what he has perceived. And share he must, because the modern world has almost entirely lost touch with the living dimension of the universe.

Our senses have been dulled and our hearts made hard by the march of economic efficiency. Feelings are no longer taken seriously within our positivistic worldview where the only facts are what can be measured objectively (by math or money), and so human well-being is not factored into technology or building design. Modern people have become conditioned to view the universe as basically dead, made of empty homogenous space and inert matter governed by mechanical laws. This is the world we live in even before we have a chance to reflect upon it. Given such a cosmology, it is no surprise that we’ve made such progress transforming the once beautiful earth into an industrial hell. It is that much harder to convince ourselves otherwise now that most of us live in huge cities surrounded by dehumanizing machines. Those of us working to build (whether architecturally or philosophically) a new imaginal background for our civilization are met either with outright derision from those scientists whose cultural authority depends upon the mechanistic world-picture, or with patronizing smiles from post-modernists who believe such metaphysical pursuits are but the romantic vestige of a bygone era when humanity still believed it could participate in the truth of things themselves. It seems we’re trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy, unable to break free of the disenchanted world we’ve created for ourselves.

I believe there is hope, as more people are beginning to wake up to the possibility of another world. Alexander’s vision of a luminous ground underlying the physical world, breathing life into its various forms, is evidence that a new organ of perception is growing within the human heart. This supersensory organ perceives not the reflection of light off colored surfaces, but the emanation of love from transphysical beings. The spatiotemporal effect of these “I-beings”–for though they are transphysical, they are not separate from matter, but rather provide the formative forces necessary for its organized manifestation–is beauty.

File:Chartres - cathédrale - ND de la belle verrière.JPG

Rudolf Steiner predicted in the 1920s that more people would begin to acquire this sort of inner vision, or clairvoyance, in the coming century. He lectured extensively about the need for a science of the imagination, and Alexander’s pattern language derived from 30 years of architectural observation is exactly that (see my essay on Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin for another example). Steiner developed a more complex understanding of supersensory realities that includes four enveloping layers: physical, etheric, astral, and the spirit or ‘I’ from which everything else proceeds. Alexander seems to lump the latter three together into a single plenum of “God-stuff,” which isn’t entirely misleading since reality is best understood as a seamless whole. But Steiner’s fourfold description provides for a more richly textured ontology. According to Steiner, it takes a highly developed imagination to perceive the etheric realm, while the astral and spiritual dimensions require cultivating organs of inspiration and intuition, respectively. He suggests that a long process of consciousness evolution will be required for most of us to develop these abilities, but that the task of our age in particular is to cultivate the imaginal sense that will allow us to feel the life hidden just behind the sensory world. The easiest way to begin to perceive the etheric realm is to feel its activity within ourselves. It brings the physical body to life by organizing it such that the ‘I’ can penetrate into space-time.

Alexander describes this wonderfully:

“In a human body, which is at least in part a structure of matter alone, the experience of ‘I’ or ‘self’ arises. In spite of various sociological attempts at explanation, this everyday experience of our own selves is not yet understood in a satisfactory way by physics. But it would be relatively easy to understand if we postulate the plenum of I, universal and general, linked to matter, and if it were a fact that the matter in a body, once organized, is able to make direct connection with this I. We would then experience the bridge or tunnel to the I as our own self, not realizing that it is in fact merely one bridge, of a million similar bridges, between the matter in different beings and the I. That is to say, in such a conception of the I which one of us experiences as his own self is not a private and individual thing, as most of us imagine it to be, but a partial connection of our own physical matter (my body) to this very great, and single, plenum of I-stuff” (p. 149).

Recognizing that our most immediate sense of being who we are is not, as we tend to believe, an isolated chemical event within the skull, but an effect of our participation in the universal Self is the first step towards taking the love we feel for one another and for the beauty of the living world seriously. These are not just subjective feelings, but evidence of the very Ground of reality itself.

“The Luminous Ground” by Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander is an architect, but in order to build living structures resonant with human feeling, he had also to become a cosmologist.

“A person who adheres to classical 19th- or 20th-century beliefs about matter,” writes Alexander,

“will not be able, fully, to accept the revisions in building practice that I have proposed, because the revisions will remain, for that person, too disturbingly inconsistent with that picture of the world…Unless our world-picture itself is changed and replaced by a new picture, more consistent with the felt reality of life in buildings and in our surroundings, the idea of life in buildings itself will not be enough to accomplish change” (p. 10).

In his book, The Luminous Ground, volume 4 of 4 in a series entitled The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Alexander attempts to re-imagine the mechanistic worldview informing the common sense of almost all modern, industrial people. He does so for the most practical of reasons: so that our civilization can once again generate architectural forms that human beings can relate to. The culprit, he believes, responsible for a century or two of unlivable architectural design is our inadequate (though admittedly fascinating and wonderful) scientific world-picture.

“In order to creat this effective scientific world-picture,” he writes,

“we had to use a device: the intellectual device of treating entities in nature as if they were inert, as if they were lumps of geometrical substance, without feeling, without life–in effect, merely mechanical elements in a larger machine” (p. 13).

This picture of the universe forces us into what A. N. Whitehead referred to as a bifurcated conception of nature. On the one hand, there is the world that physics models, full of the blind pushing and pulling of colorless, soundless, odorless and fundamentally meaningless bits of matter. On the other hand, as Alexander puts it, there is the world we actually experience. In this world, we taste, we feel, we love; in short, we are conscious beings who care about our existence. Like Whitehead, Alexander is convinced that no truly livable world, much less a method for constructing living buildings, will be possible until this bifurcation is overturned and the material and the personal are harmoniously united in a single cosmology.

“It is this ongoing rift between the mechanical-material picture of the world (which we accept as true) and our intuitions about self and spirit (which are intuitively clear but scientifically vague) that has destroyed our architecture. It is destroying us, too. It has destroyed our sense of self-worth…It has destroyed us and our architecture, ultimately, by forcing a collapse of meaning” (p. 18).

I am only just beginning to read Alexander’s architectural protest for a re-enchanted cosmology, but I’ve already detected strong correlations with Rudolf Steiner and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (both of whom he mentions in footnotes). Alexander’s experience after decades of building have taught him that matter and space-time are not neutral and inert, as the models of physics would lead us to believe, but in some sense alive–even conscious–and that their vitality depends upon the presence of certain organic patterns that human beings can recognize and recreate. Recognizing the reality of these patterns requires that we come to take our feelings seriously, instead of rejecting them as merely subjective projections onto an otherwise valueless objective world. By ignoring the testimony of feeling, science has blinded itself to an entire dimension of the universe. The results have been catastrophic, not only for architectural design, but for human consciousness itself.

I’ll have more to say in the next few weeks as I get deeper into Alexander’s text… (See Alexander’s Science of the Imagination)