can’t see the forest for the trees

We analyze and parse, and collect data, and manipulate it but can never seem to make judgments based on it.  My design students today spend weeks and reams of paper and blood and sweat collecting, analyzing, charting, but never never make summary statements about their work.  There is always a huge gap left between early research analysis and the design work they take on later in their semesters.  The analysis operates as a mere pretext and the design work is developed from a position of unhinged bliss.

It appears we operate by a technocracy that allows us to float untethered from the implications of real research.   Is this why we ask so few questions and put our heads down and work:  to avoid having to react directly to what our research is telling us and to continue generating fantasies?

Here is the quotation from Geography of Nowhere:

The intellectual position of Jackson, Venturi, and Lewis vis-a-vis the American landscape illustrates how the discontinuities of our everyday surroundings are mirrored by the discontinuities of the university.  Viewing a landscape full of totem objects designed to convince us that we live in a thing called a community – ‘colonial’ houses, Red Barn hamburger joints – the academics declare that these objects may be minutely observed without considering their value in relation to other things – for instance, to some notion of what makes a community authentic or false, good or bad.  Their position is an outgrowth of technocratic view that believes only in measuring and quantifying.  Perhaps those in the arts and humanities take refued in this position out of a sense of inferiority toward those in the sciences.  By turning the arts and humanities into pseudosciences, the ideas they contain assume a false empirical authority.  And when the arts and humanities no longer deal with questions of value, of what constitutes a life worth living, they give up altogether the responsibility for making value judgments.

Thus, a Jacksonian student of landscape can observe a Red Barn hamburger joint, he can remark on its architectural resemblance to certain farm structures of the past, measure its dimensions, figure out the materials that went into building it, record the square footage of its parking lot, count the number of cars that come and go, the length of time that each customer lingers inside, the average sum spent on a meal, the temperature of the iceberg lettuce in its bin in the salad bar – all down to the last infinitesimal detail – and never arrive at the conclusion that the Red Barn is an ignoble piece of shit that degrades the community.

–James Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere

continental abyss

This is from Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction which describes the differences and similarities between continental and British – also called analytic – systems of thought.

I’m just back from a trip to London and Paris and found the two cities to be radically different; I am convinced the forms of the cities derive directly from their philosophies.

Critchley seems to be saying – you know I don’t really know! – that there is a gap – a gaping one – between merely finding solutions – as Thatcher seems prone to do in the excerpt below – and finding a way toward a well lived life.  The British tradition tends to separate these ideas – with ultimately reductive results, whereas the Continental joins them in a kind of enriching critique of life.

Here is Simon Critchley –

On 5 October 1999, when pressed for her current views on the prospect of a European union, Margaret Thatcher remarked, ‘All the problems in my lifetime have come from Continental Europe, all the solutions have come from the English-speaking world.’  Despite its evident falsehood, this statement expresses a deep truth:  namely, that for many inhabitants of the English-speaking world, and indeed for some living outside it, there is a real divide between their world and the societies, languages, political systems, traditions, and geography of Continental Europe.  British politics, especially but by no means exclusively on the right, is defined in terms of the distinction between ‘Europhobes’ and ‘Europhiles,’ known to their opponents as ‘Eurosceptics’ and ‘Eurofanatics’ respectively.  That is, there is a cultural distinction, some would say a divide – perhaps even an abyss – between the ‘Continental’ and whatever opposes it, what Baroness Thatcher, in tones deliberately reminiscent of Winston Churchill, calls ‘the English-speaking world.’


There is a gap in much philosophy between theoretical questions of how one knows what one knows, and more practical or existential questions of what it might mean to lead a good or fulfilled life.


the cultural life in the English-speaking world is marked by a divide between science, on the one hand, and literature and humane understanding on the other.