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Fundamentals of design

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The subtitle of this book is misleading. 'A Philosophy of Design' sounds like something closed and complete, a personal statement or a fixed method. Actually, the word 'philosophy' refers not to a single system or point of view but to an open-ended exploration of big philosophical themes like nature, culture, logic, mathematics, time and progress; and the word 'design' means nothing less than what humankind does and how it relates to the world in which it finds itself.

All this is contained in a pocket-size collection of 22 short essays, without any intellectual pretensions or scholarly trappings. There is nothing difficult or obscure about these essays. They are as sharp and lucid as precious stones because they proceed not by argument but poetically, by metaphor, story telling and myth.

For example, take the essay called simply 'Pots'. Flusser uses the ceramic pot as a metaphor for the ancient Platonic idea of 'immutable forms'. Pots give form to what they contain, but sometimes they are empty and expectant, waiting to be used, to be applied to the world like the abstractions of philosophy, science and mathematics. But pots are also imitations of nature, of the cupping of hands and the weaving together of fingers to form a container. The habit of abstraction is now seen not as a mental but as a physical activity and a part of what it is to be human.

But Flusser goes further. There is an ethical, even a religious strand in his philosophising (though God, like the pot, is a metaphor.) In the computer age, our empty vessels have become more important than what they contain. We have started to ignore the given world and invent worlds of our own, worlds of pure form. We are pretending to be God and, as it says in the Bible, 'Like the potter's vessels shall the peoples be broken to pieces.'

Often, Flusser's metaphors, like so many philosophical images, are architectural. So, for example, houses and other walled enclosures stand for the fundamental ambiguity of nature and culture. Seen from the inside, walls are taken as given and natural, like the walls of a cave, but seen from the outside, they stand for culture. Therefore, 'We can do something the caveman could not do: develop a philosophy of culture.'

The analysis of words and their origins is an important tool for Flusser. The word theory comes from the Greek theoria, meaning pure perception, without direct involvement in what is perceived. This kind of seeing, says Flusser, is like the view through a window. 'Are experiments carried out through the window (i.e. in theory) valid? Or does one have to go out through the door to experience things?' The idea could not be simpler, and yet it encapsulates and questions a fundamental aspect of science and technology.

Vilem Flusser was born in Prague in 1920. In 1940 he fled from the Nazis and travelled to Brazil where he worked first as a factory manager and then as a university teacher before returning to Europe in 1972.

He died in 1991. Though he wrote many books of philosophy and art criticism, the short essay form seems to have been his metier. 70 of his essays survive in English, another 70 in German and 100 in Portuguese. Even allowing for some duplication, there are plenty more where these came from and another volume would be very welcome. Martin Pawley provides a justifiably enthusiastic introduction.

Colin Davies teaches at the University of North London

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