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, and with these ends in mind, we go about arranging them; we find the means, whatever and wherever those are. 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 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, we risk “spoliation” of the environment. Instead, architects should aim at a simpler, more direct relationship with places, with people and with customs of inhabitation. Not housing, schools, factories, but dwellings, and gathering places of the community. Not needs 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)

We got here, as I hinted at before, via Heidegger. How? Heidegger’s core project is to induct readers into 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 can’t tackle 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 call a universal; something external to the mind, and whose location cannot be given?

Heidegger, by way of presenting his alternative approach, asks us to consider a (posited) difference between things existing—mere existence, we might say—and those same things* having a certain graspable or connectable kind of being. Things—for Heidegger—have this special kind of being only when experienced by us with purposive engagement; he collectively terms such things ‘equipment’ and describes the special kind of being as ‘readiness-to-hand’ (zuhandenheit). As 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) As a metaphysical position, this is not realism—in this picture the existence of things is in a certain way conditional on our experiencing them—but it is apparently not idealism either; things retain a mind-independent mere existence. To put this second point in Heidegger’s terms: beyond our engagement with them, things continue to have ‘presence-at-hand’ (vorhandenheit) as things ‘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 may still relate to these things that are only present-at-hand (and often do), but our doing so is a sort of reduction; we come to think of such things, in our detachment, as objects, and ourselves as subjects. And when we treat things as present-at-hand—more as objects of our ‘curiosity’ (another Heideggerian term of art) than anything else—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. 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 for the moment 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, or to place particular stress on a so-called ontological difference; 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 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. 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 thought** that stands in contrast to the generally 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.

And so we get to building. There is also wrong thinking—Heidegger comes to say after an interval that includes, shockingly, his own active involvement in German fascism***—in the way which we build. And there is a better way to build; it can be done, he says:

“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))

By “dwelling” and “[entering] in simple oneness into things” Heidegger intends his own metaphysic of zuhandenheit: rooted, purposive engagement, craft; not our habitual placeless, subject-object, means-end thinking. We may doubt the accuracy of Heidegger’s 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? But it’s the phrase “by the dwelling of peasants” that 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, is evidence of the thinking—of the way of being, to put it in Heidegger’s terms—of its builders. If this is right, then it seems as though to do as they did will be to be as they were, at least to a degree. 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 (the deprecated) means-end thinking? The history of Black Forest houses suggests that earlier examples were built with living rooms facing the hillside, and not facing out, over the valley, as we might expect. 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, whatever it might be, however unorthodox, to bring that about? 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.”

So what should we build? We stand (let’s assume it to be so) outside the craft tradition attributed to the Black Forest farmers. What is our own craft tradition supposed to consist of? We will know, Heidegger suggests, if we adopt his metaphysic of zuhandenheit. But note that when we do this the farmhouse—Heidegger’s example—has no role to play. It just does not reliably illustrate. We may think we understand (‘grasp’ might be more Heideggerian) 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 go about our simple everyday hammering with our simple everyday purpose of attaching something to something else, much as we always have done. (Although perhaps not necessarily.) The farmhouse is a more complex affair. It demands—at least if you are, in sincerity, building with awareness of it—to be thought about, to be analysed. At the same time, and as just discussed, it is unsafe to assume that any of its features will guide us in the Heideggerian way: there is too much historical obscurity to the farmhouse parts. If we persist with wanting to go the Heideggerian route, we are pushed back to his base theory.

But does anyone really live by Heidegger’s metaphysics? Can anyone? 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 his writing, and for that reason at risk of going unnoticed, to treat the everyday—simple practical activities and simple practical purposes—as foundational, but why or how should we so limit ourselves? What, really, is the everyday? Heidegger’s writing certainly evokes an everyday—affirmatively: field, farm and homestead, and also the converse: newspaper, train, factory and apartment—but he does not and perhaps cannot define the term ‘everyday’. Instead, the everyday, in Heidegger, is for us to recognise, to admit to. We are to consider that which is ordinary for us; the things in our lives that tend for us to have phenomenal transparency in use. When we use a hammer, we 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. Such things make up what is to be called zuhanden. 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 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 makes Heidegger’s metaphysics complete, in that it tells you when a thing passes over from one category of being to another. But this is also where I start to suspect that Heidegger’s distinctions cannot bear the weight that he places on them. The scheme simply does not do justice to our creative practice, considered introspectively. And we clearly do create; all of us: the rooms in the farmhouse weren’t always on the valley side. Now evidently creativity isn’t quite routine, even though we all do it. But nor is it a matter of fixing things; we are not just averting loss, or seeking continuity. And nor is it theorising. In my experience even the routine use of things may be exploratory, and in such exploration we may or may not care about place. Creativity often imports from abroad; the far is just as good as the near. 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. There is a non-cognitive aspect to all this. It is not always obvious how behaviour that tries things differently has gotten started. It is not always deliberately anti-contextual. Although it may be informed by theory, or involve some optimising activity: it is not itself theorising or optimising. Things here are at best unclear. Yet Heidegger asks us to adhere to base metaphysical categorisations through exactly this sort of consideration.

There is a second problem. Certainly Heidegger’s everyday, whether lived authentically or inauthentically, is on the dull side. Hammers are for hammering nails. Thread is for sewing. Leather is for leather clothing. We may not want to follow him in this. Our carrying on in our uses may at any given time be novel. We may pursue the unorthodox. And we may do so because we have an overriding instrumental purpose. Perhaps we have a motivating transformative social purpose that guides us. 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 ‘das Man’, utilising the world’s stock in service of our supposed ‘goals’. But this cannot be taken seriously. The tenor of Heidegger’s output says the opposite. At the very least enough Heidegger-inspired writers—such as Vesely, quoted at the beginning of this piece—have taken the opposite view for us to question the idea that there is no hierarchy in Heideggerian authenticity. And this is the problem: why should we treat instrumental purpose as lower status? It is not an ontological problem but an ethical one. We may attach very great significance to some of our purposes, to the extent that we feel unable to live properly unless we act in accordance with them. For example, we may believe very strongly in social equality, or in environmental sustainability.

Now it is also the case that Heidegger is admired for his environmentalism. 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 the authentically everyday in Heidegger tends to mask its reactionary status; the way that it wants to keep everything the same.**** 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 because we live inauthentically. This is just how our history has worked out for us—he says—as if in Hegelian mode. This is how we have turned. But is this really a good basis on which to found our environmentalism? If, instead, 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 want to go along with Heidegger at all. We will not see the problem in terms of our own supposed inauthenticity. We will have a goal, we will think instrumentally, and it will be very important for us.

Some architectural writers seem to work back from ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’—finding the scene of a simple life presented there appealing—to some of Heidegger’s other writing, coming to support his normative demand—i.e. we should reduce our tendency to means-end thinking—assigning that demand extra weight ‘because Heidegger’ (i.e. it comes from authority) and only perhaps as a last step (if at all) internalising 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 metaphysics convincing to you? Is it better than alternatives; is it worse, even, than the alternatives; is it—as Carnap seems to think—merely something between psychology and fiction? And if it is convincing, does it give any weight to Heidegger’s normative demand as applied generally? If so, what does this mean for building? Note also 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, as developed in his later writing. But contra Heidegger, we needn’t think that our mindfulness or our environmental respect signifies any 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 go further. We can agree with Heidegger that means-end thinking is often 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 by those near to us; we live in enormous societies with many people working in specialisms, working in good faith, and creatively. Some of this specialist output can be successfully—and 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 means-end thinking 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? It seems to me a stretch to demote all ‘means-end thinking’, and still more of a stretch to insist that we all pay attention to the phenomenologically-grounded tendencies of one writer. It depends on the means, and on the end.

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

**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”.

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

****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)).

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