The Language of Beauty

Reality, as we understand it, is an intrinsic system made out of ideas. With our human capabilities we perceive these ideas only as parts of larger designs of reality as a whole; from the organic pattern of branches on a tree, down to the smallest string of DNA, storing the information that makes us into who we are. These ideas, organized in their respective pattern, manifest themselves in physical form. A chair, for instance, is both a physical object and something that is built on an abstract design to carry our weight. We can destroy it easily, but are equally able to re-construct a new chair, if we have access to the original design.

If we dedicate some time to study these various designs, starting with very simple objects such as tables, beds and desks, we find that there are both larger, general designs upon which these objects largely depend on to function, and smaller, more complex designs that either add to the basic functionality, or provide the objects with an aesthetic personality. Think of a rectangular table for example: if we want it stable, we need four legs and a plate on top. If we, however, make the table round, we can actually reduce the number of legs to three, and still preserve the basic stability. We can call this - legs and a plate on top - for the general design, because it's applicable to any table you'd imagine.

When we've found an overall functioning design, we're able to be more artistic and playful, to stylize the table according to aesthetic and personal taste. One might carve on the legs, baroque style, creating beautiful patterns, or split the plate in half, add two metal strips underneath each table end, and thereby make it possible to extend the Nature is full of instrinsic, beautiful patterns. table when necessary, by using an extra middle plate whose strips fit into the two table ends. The general design is still preserved but the interesting idea here is that as long we use the basic functionality, we are able to change smaller parts of the design as a whole.

The study of designs and structures is called structuralism. It holds that independent ideas don't carry any objective, intrinsic meaning unless placed within a larger structural framework. This is due to the very nature of ideas; their meaning isn't absolute, but changes depending on context. Take language as an example. Words like "idiot," "racism," and "anus" provoke different reactions from people, but their meaning can't be determined unless we know in which sentence(s) they appear. Those sentences, in turn, depend a lot upon conversation, which in turn depends on social surrounding, and so on. This could be said to be the diverging system behind reality: before us we have a certain number of keys on the piano, but thanks to an endless amount of mathematical combinations, we are able to play everything from "Für Elise" to the "Moonlight Sonata."

Opposed to the materialists, who see themselves blind on the physical shape of the object, the structuralist studies the actual design of that same object, and notes all the re-occurring structural patterns in the design. When independent ideas and patterns only gain significance when placed in a larger context, it means they become free variables, through which we are able to re-assemble and create an unlimited number of new designs, still resting upon the general functionality.

Our modern society operates contrary to this philosophy. Because people today lock themselves in absolute concepts of what is functional and beautiful, our buildings are uniform, our music is stereotypical, our literature is bleak and bitter, and our approach to life is that of a person who's given up. The fallacy of our time is an inability to see concepts as variables. We realize that death is real, but we're not brave enough to face that fact, so we come up with unrealistic ideas such as humanism, that says all individual lives are important and equal worth. That's over 6 billion lives taken out of context. The humanist doesn't define why all lives should be equal worth or why they're beyond criticism; the human life is seen as an absolute phenomenon, which means all ideas or decisions that will hurt, offend or kill one or several human lives, automatically are evil/wrong.

And through this circular argumentation, the modern individual locks himself into very general but static concepts of what we are able to do or think, and what we can't do or can't think. In reality, very few things are absolute. Christopher Alexander believes that truth and beauty are not static absolutes, but a language through which any idea or concept can be expressed. One man, who has discovered this, is Christopher Alexander. He's created a philosophy called "pattern language," which basically sums up what structuralism is based upon: truth and beauty are not static absolutes, but a language through which any idea or concept can be expressed:

The structure of life I have described in buildings -- the structure which I believe to be objective -- is deeply and inextricably connected with the human person, and with the innermost nature of human feeling. In this fourth volume I shall approach this topic of the inner feeling in a building, where there is a kind of personal thickness -- a source, or ground, something almost occult -- in which we find that the ultimate questions of architecture and art concern some connection of incalculable depth, between the made work (building, painting, ornament, street) and the inner "I" which each of us experiences.

What I call "the I" is that interior element in a work of art, which makes one feel related to it. 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 one of us has in us. It is the spirit which animates each living center.

I believe that the ultimate effort of all serious art, is to be making things which connect with this I of the person. This "I," not normally available, is dredged up, forced to the light, forced into the light of day, by the work of art.

My hypothesis is this. 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 living center really is a connection to this "I."

- Excerpt from Book 4 of the "Nature of Order"

By studying general designs in nature, Alexander looks for patterns which can be used in architecture, not just as aesthetic, but as foundation to houses, placement of windows, how to structure the garden etc. The "personal" nature in this work is to find designs that please the human nature and connects it to the world at large. Via the pattern language philosophy we discover new ways of furnishing and organizing both our homes and our lives, just by adapting our ideas to the context at hand. From an existentialist point of view, this makes perfect sense: we live under certain restrictions beyond our individual control, such as genetic make-up, social/cultural upbringing, or the fact that we all one day are going to die, but within these restrictions we find an almost unlimited amount of possibilities open before us. If we love life, we unlock the key to these possibilities, instead of hiding behind absolute principles like we do in the modern time.

The pattern language philosophy is nihilism. Like structuralism, it states that there are no objective truths in reality, but that truth is a subjective assessment of a phenomenon, to which we've applied a certain value or meaning. But because values and meanings are not objective, it doesn't automatically mean that they are "unreal" or don't serve a realistic function. Like all abstractions, some are realistic, and some are not. Nihilism is the tool by which we put the values up to test against reality. Pattern language is the language of life itself. This was the same idea Nietzsche had in mind when speaking of his "philosophical hammer;" we crush all values until only the realistic ones are left.

But most of all, pattern language is the language of life, because it understands the connection between our subjective mind and the physical system in which it operates. By studying the endless variation of different concepts and ideas, placed within a general context to support them, we construct beauty with our artistic senses. Sometimes this beauty is hard to define in practical terms; sometimes it's so obvious that hardly anyone can deny its very presence. Beautiful symphonies and beautiful architecture are built around certain structural concepts that please our human nature. We should therefore be ever grateful for those who are able to compose such structures and communicate a valuable meaning through them, for they celebrate the passion of being human, and the same time knowing we're all just a part of something much larger that transcends our own pitiful existence here on earth.

June 17, 2007

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