Architecture school theory: instrumentality

A repeated message in current architectural writing is to warn against ‘means-end thinking’, or ‘instrumental thinking’. For example, we might decide that we want to live in a home that has a constant temperature of 22 degrees centigrade, or that has a view to the south-east, or that has at least 120 square metres of area, and with these artificial ends in mind, we go about arranging them; we find the means, whatever and wherever those are in the world’s catalogue. And this—it’s said—is a bad way of doing things. The warning extends to architectural types; to think of whole buildings as objects serving our more abstract goals—a research facility, a learning resource centre, a shopping mall—is also to practice means-end thinking. The cost—it’s said—is twofold; the resulting construction will not be worthy of its inhabitants, and worse, through losing sight of our proper goal—to live well, and true to ourselves—we risk “spoliation” of our environment. Instead, architects should aim at a better rooted relationship with places, with people and with customs of inhabitation and practical purpose. Not housing, schools, factories, but dwellings, workshops and gathering places of the community. Not needs or targets met, but people addressed—so to speak—‘in their authentic being’ (my phrasing). Here’s an example of the message, from Dalibor Vesely:

“Architecture has probably never abandoned completely its humanistic role, though in modern times this role has mostly been improvised. That approach may no longer suffice in a changing world increasingly dominated by instrumentally oriented expectations. To preserve its primary identity and humanistic role in the future, architecture must establish credentials on the same level of intelligibility as instrumental thinking, while at the same time it must integrate and subordinate the instrumental knowledge and the technical potential of human beings to their praxis. This is, in essence, my aim in broad outline …” (Vesely, ‘Architecture in an Age of Divided Representation’ (2004), p. 5)

The terms ‘means-end thinking’ and ‘instrumental thinking’ shouldn’t be taken to say that it is wrong to have a goal in building; instead, the idea in play here is that when our goals become culturally disconnected—when we are tending to do things for the sake of doing them; ‘because we can’, rather than in response to a shared cultural practice that gives our goals meaning—then something has gone wrong. To try to bring some clarity to what is often an obscure topic, in what follows I’ll use ‘abstract goals’ or ‘abstract goal-setting’ to refer to what other writers seem to be getting at when they say ‘means-end thinking’ or ‘instrumental thinking’.

(1) The intellectual setting (in sketch form)

We got here, as I hinted at before, via the existentialist writing (although he is said to have rejected the label) of Heidegger. How? Heidegger’s core project (and for some, his main achievement) is to offer an alternative to the traditions of metaphysics. Most people—and, you’ll be reassured to learn, four out of five living philosophy specialists, by their own self-reports—believe that there is a world of things with independent existence outside of the mind that experiences and recognises these things: this is realism; the world is real. Most people, but not all people. There is an alternate view, which is that the things of experience are things of the mind, and we should be sceptical of the existence of, or at least of the appearance of, what some might take to be a mind-independent world. There are several variations of this line of thinking in philosophy, sometimes termed idealism, or anti-realism, depending on the version, and all of them tending to have a sophistication which I won’t try to address here.

And there are complications. We also like to predicate of objects that we encounter in experience; for example, we say “I see the roof is shiny” or “you’ll find the path is bumpy” in the confidence that many things are shiny or bumpy: that those things are alike in those ways; they have properties. There is then a range of views about what properties are. When we predicate, do we succeed in referring to anything besides the thing of which we predicate? If we do succeed in referring, is it to something somehow in the object (and only there), to something mental that groups objects together, or in referring do we call on something we might label a universal; something external to the mind, and whose location cannot be given?

Heidegger, in presenting his alternative, asks us to consider some ways in which we may encounter or make intelligible the things of the world. Things, says Heidegger, are encountered by us in the most basic way when we engage with them purposefully; he collectively terms things so engaged as ‘equipment’ and assigns to them a special kind of being he calls ‘readiness-to-hand’ (zuhandenheit). For examples, Heidegger determinedly points to everyday household things: when we use a hammer—when we engage purposively with a hammer—the hammer is equipment and has zuhandenheit. Many things, not just hammers, may have zuhandenheit; it is the character of our involvement with them that is key. (SZ ¶15) At other times we may regard things (and they may be the same things1) as having ‘presence-at-hand’ (vorhandenheit); such things are ‘in’ the world as the desk is—through Cartesian spatiality—in the room, and the room is in the university. (SZ ¶12) Despite our ability to give their location, there is, for Heidegger, a placelessness to things so considered. We still relate to these things that are only present-at-hand—indeed, to relate to things in this way is habitual, says Heidegger; it has come to be our default—but it involves a sort of reduction that leads to the deprecated abstract goal-setting. When we relate to things as present-at-hand, we are thinking of them in a detached way, in a way characteristic of theory or science. We are looking at things as objects, with ourselves as subjects. And when we do this—when we treat things as present-at-hand, as objects for our curiosity or exploitation—we achieve for ourselves only a less authentic way of being: full authenticity is only found in engagement; in proper, resolute, rooted connection with the ready-at-hand. As a metaphysical position, this is not realism—in this picture the existence of things is in certain ways conditional on our experiencing them—but it is not straightforwardly idealism either. Heidegger does not intend that the “‘world’ [becomes] something ‘subjective'” (SZ ¶14). Beyond our encounters with them, things retain what we might think of as a mind-independent—if unintelligible—mere occurrence. There exists, still, a “categorial aggregate” which Heidegger terms ‘Nature’: a “totality of … entities which can be present-at-hand” (SZ ¶14; my emphasis).

Zuhandenheit and vorhandenheit are not the only kinds of being in Heidegger’s scheme: more fundamental still, for Heidegger, is the being that you and I have: a kind of being for which being itself ‘is an issue’. This he calls Dasein, or ‘there-being’. My intent is not to present a full characterisation of Heidegger’s philosophy, which is complex, and builds progressively from starting concepts such as these; rather, it is to recognise the point of departure (another Heideggerism) from conventional ontologies. Nor is it my intent to force Heidegger into terms of a realism-idealism distinction; the key thing of note here is that Heidegger breaks—intentionally, very much so—with prior terms of philosophical debate.

The philosopher Rudolf Carnap, in a sharply critical essay of 1932 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’), argues for much tighter control of expression in philosophical writing than he sees in Heidegger (whom he names). For Carnap, a term such as being, in philosophical writing at least, is to be understood through its role as an ‘existence quantifier’; a thing x is (or is not)—this is the quantifier—and has property F (or does not have it). For example, something may have the property of being perceived (x is perceived), the property of being used (x is used), or the property of being self-aware (x is self-aware). Existence itself is not to be predicated of something; there are not kinds of existence. It’s not my intent to come to a judgement on this specifically, even though my sympathies are more with Carnap. For the main thrust of Carnap’s (contemporaneous) criticism is that Heidegger is overreaching:

“The metaphysician believes that he travels in territory in which truth and falsehood are at stake. In reality, however, he has not asserted anything, but only expressed something, like an artist. [But] Lyrical poets … do not try to refute in their poem the statements in a poem by some other lyrical poet.”

And I think the implication of egotism in Heidegger—extreme egotism, even—is right. Heidegger relentlessly presents himself as getting at something of crucial importance. His metaphysical picture is to give a foundation to all sciences: “basic concepts determine the way in which we get an understanding beforehand of the area of subject-matter underlying all the objects a science takes as its theme, and all positive investigation is guided by this understanding”. (SZ ¶3) Indeed, his metaphysics is meant to overturn wrong thinking generally, and restore that which we have lost sight of. In a jarring passage in ‘Being and Time’ he writes (my emphasis):

“It would be unintelligible for Being-in-the-world to remain totally veiled from view, especially since Dasein has at its disposal an understanding of its own Being, no matter how indefinitely this understanding may function. But no sooner was the ‘phenomenon of knowing the world’ grasped than it got interpreted in a ‘superficial’, formal manner. The evidence for this is the procedure (still customary today) of setting up knowing as a ‘relation between subject and Object’—a procedure in which there lurks as much ‘truth’ as vacuity. But subject and Object do not coincide with Dasein and the world.” (SZ ¶13)

The construction “no sooner was … than it got interpreted” (admittedly here in Macquarrie and Robinson’s translation) is crude; a table banging assertion about the history of human thought2 that stands in contrast to the initially attractive, mystery-unfolding aesthetic of ‘Being and Time’. A big mistake has been made, Heidegger says; it must not only be commented on, it must be reversed.

(2) Are there any reliable built examples?

We’ve looked briefly at the Heideggerian context for writers such as Vesely. We understand the message: that we should reduce our tendency to abstract goal-setting when we build. But we can ask: are there any buildings that show the way? Heidegger himself—after an interval that includes his own active involvement in German fascism3—gives an example:

“Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and which, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the “tree of the dead”—for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum—and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time. A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse.” (‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951))

In writing of “dwelling” and “[entering] in simple oneness into things” Heidegger is informed by his own metaphysic of zuhandenheit: rooted engagement; not our habitual placeless, subject-object, abstract goal-setting. We may doubt the accuracy of his description, so often quoted in theoretical architectural writing. It seems touristic, we may say. What are these houses really like? What has been left out? The phrase “by the dwelling of peasants” also strikes. Are these real people or archetypes? Who were they? How does he know of them? What does he know of them? What reports do we have of their thinking? Is the house itself taken to be evidence of that? If not, then what is?


Let’s say that such a house, either as Heidegger describes it, or as we might find one, represents the thinking of its builders. If this is right, then it seems as though to do as they did will be to be as they were. Yet to do as they did requires us to take note of features of the house; these gables, those windows, those beams, etc. But which features are the correct ones to take note of? Are we sure that none of what we see was put into place by deprecated modes of thinking? The history of Black Forest houses shows that earlier examples were built with living rooms facing the hillside, and not facing out, over the valley, as we might expect.4 At some time, a switch was made and later examples do have valley-facing living rooms. But why was this done? Can we be sure that no Black Forest farmers had the thought that it would be nice to look out at the valley, to observe it, and asked themselves what would have to happen to bring it about, whatever resource it might require, however unrooted the result might be? I suggest that we cannot.

Heidegger, of course, presents his example and immediately disavows it:

“Our reference to the Black Forest farm in no way means that we should or could go back to building such houses; rather, it illustrates by a dwelling that has been, how it was able to build.”

But does it illustrate? The farmhouse is a more complex affair than Heidegger’s hammer. We may think we understand the hammer easily enough, it seems a thing of few parts, and Heidegger is perhaps right to suggest that we tend not to reflect for long on its composition or its circumstances when we use it; instead, we likely just go about our simple everyday hammering. But the farmhouse demands—at least if we are, in sincerity, building with awareness of it—to be thought about, to be analysed, in its societal dimensions as well as in its constructional aspects. At the same time, and as just discussed, it is unsafe to assume that any of its features will guide us in the right way: there is too much historical obscurity to the farmhouse parts. But if the farmhouse does not reliably illustrate, it has no role to play. If we persist in wanting to go with Heidegger, we are pushed back to his base theory.

(3) A problem of individual innovation

Seeing difficulties with built examples, let’s say that we think of returning to Heidegger’s base theory. But can anyone really live by it? Does anyone “dwell”, or still use their “tools and frames as things”? How convincing, now that it comes down to it, are even Heidegger’s simple object examples? There is an invitation, issued very early in ‘Being and Time’, and for that reason at some risk of going unremarked, to treat the everyday—the things we usually do and say—as foundational, but what, really, makes up the everyday? Heidegger’s writing certainly evokes an everyday—affirmatively: field, farm and homestead, and also, with evident disdain, the modern converse: newspaper, train, factory and apartment—but he does not define the term ‘everyday’ by explicitly pointing to anything. The everyday, in Heidegger, is ‘a way to be’: it is for us to recognise, to admit to. We are to consider that which is ordinary for us; in particular (but not only) we are to consider that which has ‘phenomenal transparency’. When we use a hammer, we often don’t much notice the hammer itself; it becomes almost part of us. Similarly, we might take the train to work without much noticing the train. All of this, the stuff of our everyday coping, makes up what is to be called zuhanden. The scope of the ordinary extends to include people: for example, the customers we may serve; we may ask ourselves if our work product is fit for them. (Or at a slight remove, we may notice that our day to day world implies the presence of people; we may think that the train we are travelling in seems well suited for passengers in general.) These are Heidegger’s ‘Others’; that is, other people, but understood as only lightly differentiated from ourselves. There is then ‘the They’ (our conventional, mediocre, ‘levelled down’ shared culture). Sometimes things break; we then notice these things and cast around for ways to fix them, ‘lighting up the world’ in the process, says Heidegger. (SZ ¶16) (Such things are then ‘un-ready-to-hand’, a yet further category of being.) And sometimes we start to theorise about things (in a Heidegger example: ‘this hammer is heavy’). For Heidegger, such theoretical speculation, through forgetting the ‘place’ of what is zuhanden—through severing the traditional connections to the network of things that is our equipment—is automatically then the business of the vorhanden (present-at-hand) (SZ ¶69). This stipulation contributes to the completion of Heidegger’s ontology, in that we are given a rule for when a thing tends to pass over from one category of being to another. But this is also where I start to suspect that Heidegger’s distinctions within the everyday only imperfectly describe who we are, and will not do the job he intends. The scheme does not, I think, do justice to our routine creative practice, considered introspectively. Let’s call this a problem of individual innovation.

We clearly do create; all of us: the rooms in the farmhouse weren’t always on the valley side. In my experience even the everyday use of things may be exploratory, and in such exploration we may or may not care about place; the rootedness that Heidegger stresses. Creativity often imports from abroad; the far is just as good as the near. While creativity does not defer to context—the context is there to be taken or left—at the same time it is not anti-contextual. There is a non-cognitive aspect to all this: it is not always obvious how behaviour that tries things differently has gotten started. Perhaps we could include this other thing into affairs, in a way that has never been tried before, we may think, having already mentally visualised the other, unrelated thing. It is not a matter of fixing things: we are not just averting loss, or seeking continuity. And although creativity may be informed by theory, or involve some optimising activity, it is not itself theorising or optimising. Nor is creativity something we do resignedly, with “a pallid lack of mood” (SZ ¶71): it is creative, it is not everyday or inauthentic in this sense. Nor is creativity essentially to do with mastery; of resolute departure from something already established with us, or “something that has come down to us” (SZ ¶74): we are creative from childhood. So it is not authentic either. Creativity does not, I think, fit cleanly into the Heideggerian scheme. Yet creativity is, in the more conventional sense of ‘everyday’, an everyday human practice just as the use of things is, or the theory-minded consideration of objects is. It can be considered basic; part of who we are in our nature; something the phenomenological analytic should begin with. It looks to be, so to speak, ‘pre-authentic’. I think this is a problem for Heidegger, and a fortiori, a problem for those who claim that Heidegger is an important writer for planners and designers.

(4) A problem of specialisation

There is a second problem to do with innovation and change. Certainly Heidegger’s everyday is on the conventional side (indeed, our recognition of this is key to his scheme). Hammers are for hammering nails. Thread is for sewing. Leather is for leather clothing. Still, we may decide to set about changing things. And when we set about this change, we may do so with a compelling abstract goal. Why would we have such an abstract goal? Because for one, we are the people we are, and for two, we are members of a society.

It’s claimed by Heidegger (SZ ¶38) and others that no hierarchy is intended in Heidegger’s picture of authentic life; that it is not necessarily better to live in resolute, purposive engagement with our equipment, or worse to live in a state of ‘falling’, rehearsing the received views of the mediocre ‘the They’. But this cannot be taken seriously. The tenor of Heidegger’s output says the opposite. Indeed, the later Heidegger is very clear that when it comes to the use of technology in particular, our inauthentic practice of treating things of the world as standing-reserve—as resources to be ‘ordered’ or ‘set in order’ in service of abstracted goals—is deplorable. At the very least enough Heidegger-inspired writers—such as Vesely, quoted at the beginning of this piece—have taken a stance such that we must question the idea that there is no hierarchy in Heideggerian authenticity.

But what would happen if we took everything the Heideggerians say to heart? How would things turn out? Whatever the ethical basis of our actions, we often attach great significance to some of our work; we really believe in it. At the same time, we live in large, complex, societies in which it is difficult—and sometimes impossible—for any individual to have full sight of the interplay of production. We specialise, and in doing so our personal goals become somewhat simplified, and abstract. We will likely have very good sight of the challenges that are in front of us, and so we will aim to address them. At the same time, we may have poor sight of the means and ends of our actions; what we will draw on, and how the results of our efforts will fit. Nonetheless, we act. But it seems that this will lead to an attempt to order nature: the thing that Heidegger deplores. In acting in this way, as specialists, we will be directing the world’s stuff as a resource—in the process we might even become a sort of resource—and in doing so we will be acting inauthentically. Let’s call this a problem of specialisation: even if, as the Heideggerians say, it is desirable in principle for us as individuals to achieve authenticity in our life work—that is, we take on the appropriate degree of rootedness in our actions—in practice, since we are who we are, and we are acting within a collective, we often do not do so. Instead, we often adopt a more limited view of things; we become somewhat unrooted; we allow ourselves to be, so to speak, ‘part of something bigger’: indeed, we are drawn to this.

For example, the photovoltaic effect was demonstrated in the nineteenth century but was not developed into a practical technology until the 1950s. Even then, the solar cell was not used for power generation until it was fitted to a satellite several years later. The developers of orbital vehicles wanted a way to make electricity in space, and solar cells were available (alongside other technologies—i.e. resources—such as fuel cells and radioisotope generators). The idea to use photovoltaics as a renewable energy source, making a contribution to the elimination of carbon fuels, followed several years after that. In this history, the discoverer of the photovoltaic effect likely acted (arguendo, I do not know Edmond Becquerel’s real motives) out of a joy of discovery, and perhaps with a vague idea of amelioration. What we can say for sure is that Becquerel had no notion of global warming; his discovery of the photovoltaic effect did not in any sense arise from the goal (which might be an authentic goal) of securing our shared habitat.

Now it is true that Heidegger is admired for his environmentalism, something that came to the fore in his later writing. This admiration has grown over time as the significance and extent of global environmental damage has developed. Adorno, writing in the post-war period, before environmental concerns were widespread, identified a conservative or reactionary quality in Heidegger (‘The Jargon of Authenticity’ (1964)). For Adorno, the ‘aura’ that attaches to authenticity in Heidegger tends to mask its reactionary status; the way that it wants to keep everything the same.5 But sometimes, clearly, it may be better to ‘keep things the same’, as in the case of preserving the world’s ecosystems. However, Heidegger’s environmentalism is founded in his picture of authentic life: that we face problems with the environment is, at least up until now, because we live inauthentically. This is how our history has worked out for us, he says. This is how we have turned. It does not matter that we might still be able to fix it: it is not a matter of revising our use of technology. It is important to see here how thoroughgoing Heidegger’s attitude is. As Hubert Dreyfus points out (‘Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics’ (1993)) for Heidegger, the implementation of an inauthentic (i.e. technological) fix for environmental harm would be a yet worse outcome than the environmental harm itself. Dreyfus quotes Heidegger:

“What threatens man in his very nature is … that man, by the peaceful release, transformation, storage, and channeling of the energies of physical nature, could render the human condition … tolerable for everybody and happy in all respects.” (‘Poetry, Language, Thought’ (trans. 1971))

So is Heideggerian authenticity really the place on which we wish to found our environmentalism? Heideggerians insist that no Luddism is intended in their view of things; that it is only a matter of subordinating technology to the goals arising from lives authentically lived. But we start from where we are. There is real joy in discovery and speculative work. Even though discovery and speculation may create a resource, it seems perverse to insist that every Edmond Becquerel should direct his or her activities authentically; if we did insist on it, would we ever have the benefit of their activity? What the Heideggerians describe seems a poor fit for human motives as we find them. Would human affairs directed along their lines leave us with any technology to subordinate?

And indeed we have other ways to found our environmentalism or our other core aims. For example, if we see our environmentalism in terms of justice—that is, we face a task of resetting policy away from capture by certain interest groups—we will not need to go along with Heidegger. We will not need to see the problem in terms of our own supposed inauthenticity, and fear of being judged inauthentic will likely not stop us.


Some architectural writers seem to work backwards from ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’—finding the scene of a simple life presented there appealing—to Heidegger’s earlier writing. In working backwards, they first support his normative demands (i.e. we should reduce our tendency to pursue abstract goals), they assign to those demands significant weight ‘because Heidegger’ (i.e. they come from authority), and only perhaps as a last step (if at all) they internalise a Heideggerian metaphysics. This does not seem like a happy place to be. Resilience to the Heidegger mystique is best obtained from working forwards instead. Is Heidegger’s philosophical scheme convincing? Is it better than alternatives, or is it (as Carnap seems to think) only something between psychology and fiction? And if it is convincing, does it give weight to Heidegger’s normative demands? If so, what does this mean for building? Note that if you find his metaphysics unconvincing, or just of no moral consequence, it is still open to you, as a designer, to pursue something we could call a ‘mindfulness approach’, or even a ‘psychology of Heidegger’. In this, we would pay careful attention to things of the world on the grounds that our engagement in this frame of mind is sometimes good, happy and productive. And we can be in sympathy with Heidegger’s environmentalism. But contra Heidegger, we needn’t think that our mindfulness or our environmental respect signifies a great truth. Heidegger anticipates this refusal:

“… this characteristic [of zuhandenheit] is not to be understood as merely a way of taking [things], as if we were talking such ‘aspects’ into the ‘entities’ which we proximally encounter, or as if some world-stuff which is proximally present-at-hand in itself were ‘given subjective colouring’ …” (SZ ¶15)

We are not to give things subjective colouring, he says. But we can. This choice is open to us.

And we can even agree that our pursuit of abstract goals is sometimes unsatisfactory, and sometimes destructive. Here, though, I think more caution is needed since the stakes are higher. We do not live and work in a world made only by us, or even by those near to us; we live together with millions of people, all working in specialisms, generally working in good faith, and creatively. In this collective of societies it is not always possible to have full overview of any given chain of processes. Nonetheless, we do find that parts of this diversified output can be successfully—if sometimes unexpectedly—imported into building, or in service of the environment. For example, someone has researched how air leaks from buildings, making the task of heating them harder; it is hard to see the goal-setting that has been done here as other than desirable thinking, and perhaps, in this moment, the most desirable thinking. Beyond individual buildings, someone has researched the effects of certain approaches to urban planning, to transport planning, also with lessons for the way we build and for the environment. Even as we retain traditions—if we retain them—we may choose to modify them: rationally, imaginatively, instrumentally. Or we may choose to abandon them: again, rationally, imaginatively, instrumentally. Wherefore then a hierarchy of thinking?

1. Most writers seem to agree that one and the same thing may be both zuhanden and vorhanden. I’ve found one essay that argues against it.

2. As Macquarrie & Robinson’s translation notes laconically on page 133, the section of ‘Being and Time’ in which Heidegger intended to substantiate this “has never been published”.

3. Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was categorically established in 2014 with the publication of his private journals.

4. See Hermann Schilli, ‘Ländliche Haus- und Hofformen im alemannischen Gebiet Badens‘ (1951).

5. The French philosopher Emmanuel Faye goes further, and identifies Heidegger’s philosophy as fascistic both in its inspiration and in its working through (‘Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy’ (2009)). Faye repeatedly draws attention to ¶74 of ‘Being and Time’, which talks of an authentic collective Dasein, indifferent to both the past and “progress”, that will discover itself in a “moment of vision”.

2 thoughts on “Architecture school theory: instrumentality

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