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Book Review: Design And Truth by Robert Grudin

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Design And Truth is a soon-to-be released book by philosopher Robert Grudin, from Yale University Press. Best known for his seminal 1982 book, Time And The Art Of Living, Grudin has continued to publish books every few years, and each work has both expanded and expounded upon ground he has staked out. This latest offering is no exception to that trend.

The book is divided into two major sections, which are then broken down into individual chapters. The sections are 'Homage To Rikyu: Design, Truth And Power,' and 'Homage To Vasari: Design, Knowledge And Energy.' The first half basically is a history of the power of design, as well as an explanation and extrapolation on its nature and essential qualities. The second half is forward-looking, wherein Grudin lays out more of a vision and delves into how design can be used as a tool for the improvement of the species and its culture. There are, philosophically speaking, a few points I disagree with — mostly the equation of design with truth, and extrapolations upon that — but as a whole, it’s hard to argue with Grudin’s reading of both human history’s dance with design in politics, war, and architecture. Even better is that he never resorts to abstruseness and, instead, often engages in interesting secular homiletics, like:

I have a theory about social class that goes like this: No matter how much money you make, you are upper class if you spend less than you earn, and you are lower class if you spend more than you earn. And if you spend exactly what you earn, give or take a hundred bucks or so a month, then you are the anxious class.

These turns dissuade casual readers from tuning out and relates things on a level many can relate to – their family or job or current financial situation. His prescriptions and proscriptions are likely to cause greater debate, however.

The book never gives in to the didacticism that often chokes many books of philosophy. However, it does not dumb things down. In fact, there is only a single list in the book worth mentioning, and that is Grudin’s list of qualities that define good design:

– Is in accord with nature and human nature
– Is in harmony with its immediate environment
– Conveys a sense of beauty
– Gives pleasure to use
– Is not unreasonably expensive
– Is sustainable
– Offers no unnecessary difficulties or dangers

– Allows its user to perform optimally in engaging reality
– Can be delivered, installed and repaired conveniently

In comment of this list, Grudin writes: ‘No other priorities should be considered until all of these have been met, and priorities that threaten these are probably bad priorities in the first place.’ And, as mentioned re: his takes on the ‘big things,’ it’s hard to argue with this list’s claims. Grudin’s book also benefits from something that is almost always overlooked in critiques of philosophy and science: it is well written. And by that I do not mean merely that Grudin is a good letter writer, schooled in the basics of grammar, but that he knows how to cultivate a narrative and develop characterizations of real people. In this regard, his writing style harkens me back to that of Daniel J. Boorstin, who was able to impart almost a novelistic immediacy to whatever historical events he was describing; even those as well known as the voyages of discovery of Christopher Columbus and the early European adventurers in the New World. While Grudin’s historic figures (such as the designer of the World Trade Center, Minoru Yamasaki) are less well known, and he does not go as in depth into their existences, one does get a sense of the personal in the book, and the personages named — be they well known or obscure — do come alive, thus making the book far more than the usual tedium of a typical philosophy book.

This seems right in keeping with what I would term Grudin’s ‘practical philosophy.’ His is not a set of ideas to be set upon a bookshelf, dusted off every few years, read, preened over, then put back. No, his ideas surround the reader in almost every aspect of their lives – careers, entertainment, family life, etc. Early on in the book he makes this claim: ‘However grand their aspirations, they wait upon the will of people in power. And power, which can ratify the truth of good design, can, conversely, debase design into a fabric of lies.’ What strikes one about the statement is how radically different it is from such Western ideals as free will and will to power.

That’s not to say that I, however, agree with all of Grudin’s claims. Like many critics of the arts, who conflate the quality of art with some quality of truthfulness, Grudin likewise correlates the quality of design with truthfulness. Instead, he should have used the term ‘reality,’ not truthfulness, for reality can have multiple truths that conform to a certain aspect of it, but no grand, overriding truth to the totality of the thing. Also, truth can have degrees of relativity, whereas reality is black and white. Truth also implies a volitional act. A thing is either real or not, illusory or not. And this initial conflation of terms, that appears early on in Design And Truth tends to boomerang, and come back and haunt some of Grudin’s later posits, derived from that initial conflation. But, unlike many critics of modern art, Grudin is grounded in a good deal of critical reality, and takes a good and informed swipe at much of modern art when he rips into the work of the avant garde exhibition artist Christo, calling his work a ‘massive multiplication of banalities’ and ‘void of essential significance,’ and that he is more concerned with advertising himself than communicating something at a higher level, which is the very purpose of art. It is a verb, first, not a noun. The art in something is how it conveys a message.

On a less philosophic plane, however, I also have a disagreement with Grudin’s holding up of Google as an example of a good corporation. Yes, they may not be befouling the environment like ExxonMobil, and they may not have been founded on the dubious grounds Microsoft was, and they may not be the biggest single driver of economic exploitation, domestically and globally, that Walmart is, but this does not make them a sterling example of corporate do-goodism

Having said that, Grudin is usually spot on when it comes to identifying important points of his argument that few writers are capable of – he rarely falls back on the expected rhetorical tropes and traps of the standard dialectics most philosophy books employ. For example, in one of his best moments of clarity ever written in a book with philosophic concerns, but prosaic subject matter, Grudin gives perhaps the best example of unintended consequences in print: ‘Osama bin Laden confused sanctity with slaughter, and the Port Authority managers believed that bigger was better and put thousands of lives at risk for the sake of more rental space. That ignorance and greed on this scale were allowed to determine our history does America no credit.’

And while Grudin is certainly a political liberal, he is not a partisan bloviator. He begins a rip on modern Left Wing Academia by not nuking its many flaws wholesale, but digging a pointed shiv into its underbelly, then letting it bleed itself quickly. Here is his initial thrust:

Humanism gets a bad press these days. Marxists call it a bourgeois fantasy. Postmodernists decry it as a ruling-class dinosaur. Fundamentalists curse it as the work of the devil. Admittedly, to visit an American university campus is to find a humanism that has been ruthlessly overspecialized and overcommercialized – it is little more than a ghost of an idea.

These sorts of tacks are far more effective in conveying points in bite-sized morsels, rather than overwhelming readers with monolithic tracts that, almost by their nature, turn laymen off to not only the individual concerns of the moment, but to philosophy, in general.

It is these qualities that make Design And Truth a very good book; not quite as ‘important’ as his classic Time And The Art Of Living, but just as rewarding intellectually. It proves that the Golden Age of science and philosophic writing may not have yet crested. Get it, read it, and indulge the times.

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