Jan Meyer-Veden



by Jan Meyer-Veden, Februar 2002


"Eine unpassende Ausdrucksweise ist ein sicheres Mittel, in einer Verwirrung stecken zu bleiben; sie verriegelt gleichsam den Ausweg aus ihr."

("An inappropriate mode of expression is a reliable means to get stuck in confusion; it quasi blocks the way out.")

( Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen )


The ­ admittedly thankless ­ situation in which our very own pium desiderium supposedly stands, is not as new as it may appear at first, if one acknowledges the kind of "zeitgeisty" maladies we have to deal with: Self-reference, organised complexity, floating subject matter, self-affinity, and the like. Yet Friedrich Schleiermacher began his dialectic (dated 1814) with the statements: "Jede gemeinschaftliche Untersuchung leidet am Anfang durch die schwere Aufgabe, einen Anknüpfungspunkt zu finden. - Am meisten die gegenwärtige, weil der Gegenstand derselben gar nicht außerhalb der Untersuchung vorhanden ist, also beide eins und dasselbe sind." [1] ("Each joint examination suffers at the beginning by the difficult task to find a starting point () Most of all the current one, as its object does not at all exist outside of this examination, thus both are one and the same.") ­ Maybe Schleiermacher himself was surprised about the fact that in the end a considerable work about that object came into being, the dialectic. Even if he does not really identify the problem as a paradox, it bears certain features of paradox. But: a paradox is not solvable, there is no way out of it, and if it is indeed a true paradox, there is also no way around!

The emerging of a paradox therefore would be disastrous for a theory; as a result the theory would be suspended and it would miss its explanatory claims. The only system in which paradoxes can exist without causing such damage evidently is that of logic in its broadest sense. The reason for that lies in the fact that logical categories are static, since: "In der Logik darf keine Bewegung werden; () die Logik ist, und alles Logische ist bloß, und diese Ohnmacht ist eben der Übergang der Logik zum Werden, wo Dasein und Wirklichkeit hervortreten" [2] ("In the field of logic there must be no motion (...) logic and all that is logical simply is, and this powerlessness is just the transition of logic to "becoming", where existence and reality emerge.")

Without specifying the strange modus essendi of logic thoroughly, it still becomes rather clear, which hopeless mess of consequences will show up while insisting on altering logical terms into a category, whose essential attribute is the "becoming". In our imagination of the real world, steeped in time, genuine circularities cannot exist. Neither can they exist in theories, which refer to this world.

This distinction may seem pedantic, as we, also in the real world, have to face the impossibility of pulling ourselves out of the swamp by our own hair, vulgo, there is a colloquial use of the term paradox, which is evidently not without meaning. Who would doubt that!

And the lack of this rather literary concept of the paradox concerning rigour and consistency is generously compensated by the fact, that it also has got the nice feature to be quasi totally compostable, that ­ like the skin of a grain in humid soil ­ it decomposes under closer analysis, and that ­ while the sprout of the actually meant greens out of its rests ­ it even serves as a nutrient resource.

It shall be the immodest task of the present text to enlighten this picture and to enthrone a new constructive term in place of the little fitting word paradox, whereby I have to remark in my defence that I do not view any effort as overdone, which shall serve to escape from a paradox, which indeed is none.

A subtle but important distinction shall stand at the beginning of my attempt. It is located between that poor devil who is threatened with finding a wet grave in the swamp, and who is really not able to pull himself out of the swamp by his own hair (admittedly this is more of a physical problem and consequently does not have to be regarded as unsolvable), and the frog and the mouse from the fable, who fell into a pot of milk and were in deep distress, trying to save themselves from drowning in the milk. The mouse, probably the better-educated of the two, gave up ­ mindful of the proverb about the hair and the swamp, convinced of the futility of any rescue effort. The frog on the other hand, who did not know anything about this, just struggled and struggled and struggled, until the milk turned into butter and he was able to jump with a daring hop over the pot's rim! This fable nevertheless illustrates not only different approaches to handling apories, i.e. situations which range from undecidable up to hopeless, but it rather proves the inherent danger of misunderstanding confusion of reality and logic. But: the frog as a designer and design theoretician in one, who produces his own ground under his feethow far does this metaphor take us?

To illuminate this question we cannot avoid to carefully differentiate the terms we want to work with. Talking about uncertainty, of contingency, apory and the like, one may feel tempted to consider an exact distinction within the uncertain as impossible, since this category seems to share the vagueness of its content. But that is wrong! For the purpose of our inquiry we should succeed in distinguishing two manners of uncertainty. In the first place I'm talking about the uncertainty about something found or presumed, about relationships, which we do not realise, about reasons, which we do not understand, in short terms: the uncertainty of cognition of real structures and qualities. On the other hand there is a second kind of uncertainty, the one about the future. And, strictly speaking, this is the only uncertainty which can really be understood under this term, since in fact it is not possible to definitely know anything about the future, and knowledge as it is, is inseparably tied to things that already exist, or at least exist hypothetically, so that it seems necessary to replace the term of uncertainty, in the realm of the positive, with the term of "lack of understanding". In doing so, one already indicates the strategy to overcome this lack of understanding: Translating, interpreting, and explaining what is there with the aim of understanding it. The term "lack of understanding" actually implies that there is something, which can be understood in the first placethe possibility of understanding something in turn " setzt voraus, daß die Verstandeskategorie zugleich die Gegenstandstheorie ist." [3] ("assumes, that the category of understanding is at the same time the category of entities.")

Evolutionary Epistemology ­ as coined by Lorenz, Campbell, Vollmer, Riedl, among others ­ offers some information on the relationship between realizing and that, which is realized. This theory is based on the assumption that those features of our nervous system which we call intellect or mind have developed through the course of biological evolution ­ and as a result have developed in accordance with its laws ­ as well as all morphological differentiations have. This means that just as every successful adaptation of a species to certain environmental conditions (according to the principles of mutation and selection) can be perceived as a "picture" of these conditions ­ the adaptations provide information as to what conditions the organism adapted to ­ the structure of the human cognitive apparatus (i.e. of all physiological capabilities which tell us how the world around us is constituted) permits inferences to the structure of the real, objective problems which our cognitive system was designed to solve in the true teleonomic sense of the word. Thus, evolutionary development can be equated to gaining knowledge and understanding. But who or what gains knowledge here?

It is the genome, which tests its hypotheses (mutations) with the criteria of the milieu and either retains or abandons them (selection). This method "unterscheidet sich nur in einem Punkte (und nicht einmal in einem sehr wesentlichen) von derjenigen, die vom Menschen in seinem wissenschaftlichem Erkenntnisstreben angewandt wird. Das Genom lernt nur aus seinen Erfolgen, der forschende Mensch aber auch aus seinen Irrtümern." [4] ("differs in one point only (and this is actually not a very important one) from the one used by humans in their striving for scientific knowledge. The genome learns only from its successes, the exploring person also learns from his or her failures.") Lorenz uses the comparability we are talking about to construct three levels of gaining knowledge which have very similar structures. These are: 1. the genetic, 2. the individual, and 3. the cultural gaining of knowledge, the latter two of which are of interest to us here. But in further course of this demonstration, the genetic "understanding" of the world will come back to have its say, namely to examine whether there is a common principle to be recognised behind the generation of species on the one hand and the generation of artefacts on the other hand.

How then can one gain knowledge on a scientific or subjective level, how can the lack of understanding be removed? Prior to answering this question, it is necessary to explain several facts about the composition of the cognitive apparatus as well as the object of cognition, the world. This theme can, of course, not be developed to its whole extent and all its detailedness here. Therefore I try to display the information as compact and understandable as possible. As for the rest, I'd like to refer to the works of Riedl, especially the title "Strukturen der Komplexität" (structures of complexity).

The basic thought is the following: knowledge, resp. understanding, means the grasping of the relations of a given system with its respective subsystems and superior systems, in which it is embedded and from which it has developed. Concerning the object of knowledge, superior- and subsystems signify hierarchically layered systems of structures, which, top-down, predicate what the components of the discussed object are, and which, bottom-up, represent the superior systems in which the object itself is located, i.e. contained as a component. Example: Looking at a poodle, we find it being constructed of different body parts. Among others, it has four legs and any of those consists of fur, skin, muscles, tendons, bones etc., any given muscle of this leg presents itself to us as a combination of several muscle fibres, of which a certain fibre again consists of fibrils, which then consist of myosin molecules etc. This sequence can be continued down to the smallest building blocks of matter known to us, quantum particles. On the other hand, this particular poodle is a "king-poodle" and thus a domestic dog. In addition to its attribute of being a domestic dog, it is also a canine, which ­ as generally known ­ are counted among the mammals, thus our poodle is a mammal as well; accordingly it is also a vertebrate and a multi-cellular animal as well, etc.

On the part of the one who perceives we encounter a corresponding system, it's just that it is made up of general generic concepts instead of concrete structures. Using the example of the poodle this means: The poodle is not longer a poodle, but rather an individual of a species. This species, together with other related species, is subsumed in a genus. Different genera form a family. Different families form a phylum etc. Now this individual of a species is constructed from body parts, toothese in turn are made of muscles, muscle fibres, fibrils, molecules etc., but only the generic concepts belong to the perceiving individual. The concrete items, e.g. of a certain muscle, belong to the poodle. It is a mode of operation of our cognitive apparatus to classify its object of attention ­ following the principle of subsumption ­ into a hierarchy of generic concepts that can be understood. And as we have seen, a procedure like this is permissible, as the object for its part contains a hierarchic arrangement of attributes, which differentiate it as an object.

Considering all this, we can try to answer the following question: in what way does the scientific as well as the individual formation of such a scheme of subsumption work? At the beginning of course there is the lack of understanding about the nature of the respective object of attention. But it is possible to make a guess, a prejudice, or a hypothesis. But since there are two kinds of questions to be answered ­ namely: What does the object belong to? What is the object made out of? , and, since possible answers to either question can result from the answers to the other one ­ the starting situation in this case seems to be as paradox as generating foundations for a discipline by means of the discipline itself. It should become clear from the following that it is by no means a logical impossibility, a paradox, which is presented here, but rather a strategy for handling the lack of understanding, which has developed evolutionarily, taking into account the facts of the real world.

Using the example of the poodle, such a procedure would look like this: First we ask our perception a question that usually already contains a hypothesis, namely either in the direction of the superior system: Where does the animal belong to, is it possibly a canine? or, aiming at the subsystems: What is the animal made of, does it maybe possess four extremities? Let us suppose that we discover something like four extremities on the animal. Then we come a little bit closer to answering the question aimed at the superior systems, since some evidence points to the fact that we are dealing with a representative of the clade of vertebrates, to which the canines belong, as well. Now the next level of ascertainment follows: Let us formulate the hypothesis "It could be a canine." a little more generally and therefore ask: "Is it possibly a warm-blooded animal?" (after all, it could be an amphibian, too, thus a hematocryal), then we would have to examine the subsystems again, checking whether there is a clear indication for the animal being warm-blooded, e.g. a fur or feathers. If the animal now wears one of those, we could proceed in our examination. If the animal is naked, on the other hand, we would once again have to ask the question aimed at superior systems: "Is this animal possibly not warm-blooded or does it even belong to the whales?" This uncertainty could be eliminated by an examination of the subsystems for whale-typical features and so forth. In this way we circumvent the problem of only being able to understand a whole by its parts, whose nature yet manifests only in the knowledge of the whole by serial connection of circuits of hypotheses and their inspections, which oscillate between superior and subsystems, respectively. We unfold the supposedly existing vicious circle along the time axis and thus an event emerges, which Riedl vividly describes as an "iterative screw process".

I hope that I succeeded in clearly identifying the principle of such a process despite the brevity that is called for. From other fields ­ for example the humanities ­ this principle has been known for a long time and is termed "hermeneutics". Yet Riedl might be the first who pointed out the analogy of this principle pertaining to the methods of natural sciences, and in the workings of the cognitive apparatus inherent to us.

Before I deal with the impact of these relationships on the questions regarding the constitution of a design theory, there remains one more aspect of knowledge to be introduced. It is the question as to the cause of any given thing: According to Aristotle this question ­ quite like the cause itself ­ consists of four parts:

1. From what does a thing originate? (material cause, causa materialis)

2. By which power is it produced? (impulsive cause, causa efficiens)

3. What is the building plan from which it was produced? (form cause, causa formalis)

4. What is the purpose it was produced for? (purpose, cause, causa finalis)

The necessity of the first three causae conclusively applies to all fields of "becoming" and "creating" and merely the causa finalis cannot be shown on all levels of existence. So its meaning is suspended on the level of the inorganic, where it coincides with the causa formalis (for instance it is not meaningful to say, that the development of a mountain ridge is for the purpose of compensating the pressure between colliding tectonic plates. One would rather name the quality of this pressure, thus the laws of nature of tectonics, the gravitation etc. as the causa formalis, or its quantity as the driving force behind the ridge). On the level of the organic, the causa finalis can only be claimed if one quasi personifies the imperative of survival of the species and the maintenance of the overall system, so that a biologist's answer to the question: "Why do hedgehogs have stingers?" would of course be: "To be protected against enemies who otherwise would eat them." just as if the hedgehogs had consciously decided for a dress of stingers for this very purpose. Hartmann recognised this fact in writing: "Im Wesen des Zweckes gerade liegt es, daß er ein irgendwie Wertvolles oder Seinsollendes sein muß, wenn anders das Zweckverhältnis ein sinnvolles sein soll. In dieser Verbundenheit mit Werten kennen wir den Zweck dort, wo allein wir ihn wirklich aufzeigen können, in der Sphäre des menschlichen Tuns." [5]. ("It is in the nature of the purpose that it has to be a precious or wanted thing, if the relation of purpose is supposed to be something meaningful. In this attachment to values we recognise the purpose where only we can really show it: in the sphere of human activity.") And of all fields in this sphere it is the Arts where the causa finalis emerges in its most accurate meaning: The explanation "I made it this way because I wanted to!" is expression of the highest and purest grade of purposefulness, the end as a means to itself.

How different the causa finalis presents itself in the field of design! The free will of the designer is no longer the singular cause for the product to exist. It now represents to different extent the requirements of the client as well as the basic conditions to which the product must conform, and last but not least a little bit of "creative freedom".

And finally for the sciences: What purposes do their products serve? Or, to go even further: What are their products? Do the sciences ­ most prominently of all the natural sciences ­ practise "fact production" or even "knowledge creation" as Jonas proposes or do they just generate hypotheses whose common fate it is to be blown sky-high some day? I do believe that in the light of what I have developed so far, the latter probably is correct. Facts, even if they do exist, are not generated by science, but rather understood step by step. The whole process can consequently be named as one of understanding, an existing world with all its categories and relations is researched in this process and, bit by bit, translated into a language that can be understood, quite analogous to the translation of a book written in an unknown idiom by using the hermeneutic method. The production of hypotheses ­ without which one does not get along in this process ­ is rather to be understood as a side phenomenon; compared to objects of design or artefacts they almost appear as second-order products. In any case, equalising design and science in view of their productivity has to produce considerable confusion of a linguistic and categorical nature up to the statement of Glanville, who claimed that the sciences were merely "a specific field of design".

The actual difference between the "disciplines" of science and design, and the one relevant to discussing the respective relationships, comes to light by querying both disciplines as to what their respective object is. Following this path, it should become clear that the real world ­ as far as it is accessible to our cognition ­ is the object of the sciences. They are quasi inseparably bound to it, as the understanding of a linguistic phrase cannot be thought of as autonomous, that means independent of the existence of this phrase. The nature of science therefore consists of explaining its object, and its categorical association deals with the lack of understanding of what exists.

In contrast to that, design is concerned with problems of uncertainty in terms of the distinction made above. The object of this discipline therefore always deals with conjunctives, in other words: Design is the art of producing or designing something, which does not exist yet, but is supposed to exist in the future. Here the category with which design has to cope is shown: That which is ought to be (the deontic). "Ought to be" yet is an expression of the concept of purpose, which etymologically already is contained in the denomination "design" (ital. disegnare - intend, denominate).

At first glance the idea might occur, that science and design could be each other's reciprocal, one being the inversion of the other, as Schleiermacher presumed for the relation of both the art of speech and the art of understanding: "Die Zusammengehörigkeit der Hermeneutik und Rhetorik besteht darin, daß jeder Akt des Verstehens die Umkehrung eines Aktes des Redens ist, in dem in das Bewußtsein kommen muß, welches Denken der Rede zum Grunde gelegen." [6] ("The linkage of hermeneutics and rhetoric is based on the fact that each act of understanding is the inversion of an act of talking, in which one has to be aware of what are the latent thoughts behind what is being said.")

Could not design theory consequently be the science that allows detailed or even general understanding of design objects? But mind the step! Not only that: "Design products, due to the part the "genuine" causa finalis acts in their development, are colsely linked to the subjectivity of the designer (quasi-objects)", but rather, even worse: "A design product is ­ with the same justification ­ inseparably tied to the particular subjectivity of the actual designer. And without sufficient knowledge of the latter it is not possible to understand it." So this is where the claim of design theory to be a science in the above-mentioned sense finally fails, since even the combined power of all sciences which are concerned with the individuality of man (thus in the first place psychology, psychoanalysis and others) fail confronting the impossibility of clarifying the internal structure of the "black box" (which a designer would have to be perceived as) with regard to his or her particular product. And even if it should want to try this, the "science of design" would decompose into countless "sciences of individual cases of design", which would be good for nothing.

So, what remains after it has become clear that by the acting of the causa finalis a possibly insurmountable hiatus, a phase transition between the real world, accessible to the sciences, and the product of that process is created, and that an equation of science and design in view of their particular products ("knowledge creation") cannot be maintained, or is of a merely metaphorical nature?

In my opinion, two kinds of approaches are conceivable. One would understand "design theory" as a kind of historical, archiving discipline, collecting individual cases of design and arranging them, thus a morphology or taxonomy; however, it remains questionable what kind of information would be gained by doing so. The other one ­ likely more fruitful ­I do see in the reduction of the above mentioned claim of theory to a methodically oriented usage of the hermeneutic repertoire of principles for the design process, and, linked to that, for the creative handling of uncertainty. In addition to that, one has to search for a real inversion of the hermeneutic way. This can only be successfully done if our efforts are restrained to unity of "producer & product", in a way that they help the designer to learn to understand what his or her intentions are, or ­ to be precise ­ what his or her intentions were. Because the process we are talking about ends with a product, which finally can only, if at all, be understood by the designer. Such "regressive hermeneutics" would possess, different to the "progressive hermeneutics", about which Schleiermacher correctly writes:

"Das volle Geschäft der Hermeneutik ist als Kunstwerk zu betrachten, aber nicht, als ob die Ausführung in einem Kunstwerk endigte, sondern so, daß die Tätigkeit nur den Charakter der Kunst an sich trägt, weil mit den Regeln nicht auch die Anwendung gegeben ist, d.i. nicht mechanisiert werden kann." [7] ("The full business of hermeneutics is to be viewed as an art work, but not as if the realization would end in an artwork, but rather in this way, that the activity only bears the character of arts, because the execution is not completely determined by the rules, that means it can not be mechanized.") a generating character; instead of hypotheses on how something might be, there would occur wishes, intentions and imaginations on how something ought to be. And in their gradually advancing concretion and differentiation they would finally designate the reality of a final product from the immense number of possibilities initially existing. At this place I have to face the objection, that I would describe nothing else than the manner, in which every artist, workman or designer works! Indeed, this method corresponds with the more or less conscious proceeding in the making of design objects or artefacts, which is used automatically, due to the lack of options, while dealing with uncertainty. Yet I think I do not dare too much by claiming, firstly, that, dealing with design problems of a certain level of complexity, it is necessary to reflect the process in its advancing, and that this can only happen by consequently using the "regressive hermeneutics". Secondly, I claim, that the questions addressed to one's own creative intention in the advance of this process, should be kept open as long as possible. Decisions made by the designer in a hypothetic way are then accessible for eventual corrections, which may arise in the illumination by new or furthergoing questions. For instance, a decision in the direction of the superior systems could have consequences concerning the subsystems, which make a reorientation and ­differentiation of the original purpose unavoidable. Step by step the initial conjunctivistic aspect of the problem could be coped with by the application of an imperative, which intelligently co-develops. In addition to that, one would circumvent the danger of standing in one's own way by wrongly clinging onto insufficiently reflected conceptions of what the final product should be like.

If this should already be the dominant practise of successfully working designers, agencies and institutes, and if these thoughts ­ not realized by myself ­ should have prevailed in the doctrine of academies and universities for a long time, one can with good reason blame me for lack of originality; but in this case: felix culpa!




"Solang du Selbstgeworfnes fängst, ist alles

Geschicklichkeit und läßlicher Gewinn - ;

erst wenn du plötzlich Fänger wirst des Balles,

den eine ewige Mitspielerin

dir zuwarf, deiner Mitte, in genau

gekonntem Schwung, in einem jener Bögen

aus Gottes großem Brückenbau:

erst dann ist Fangen-können ein Vermögen,-

nicht deines, einer Welt."

R. M. Rilke







[ 1 ] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Dialektik, P.147, Suhrkamp, 2001

[ 2 ] Sören Kierkegaard, Der Begriff Angst, P.16, Rowohlt, 1960

[ 3 ] Nicolai Hartmann, Der Aufbau der realen Welt, P.7, Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1940

[ 4 ] Konrad Lorenz, Die Rückseite des Spiegels, P.40, Piper 1997

[ 5 ] Nicolai Hartmann, Der Aufbau der realen Welt, P.94, Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1940

[ 6 ] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Werkausgabe, P.141, Scientia Verlag, 1967