Evolution of Normative Theory

  1. Logic of Natural Evolution
  2. Logic of Deliberate Development
  3. Self-correction of normative science
  4. Revolutions in normative sciences
En Español  In
Finnish   Contents

Logic of Natural Evolution

To help understanding the role of theory of practice in the doings of a modern profession, we start by taking a brief historical look at the traditional way of professional activity without the help from any explicit theory.

Experience Man has always been compelled to adapt his activity and his belongings to the changing requirements of the environment. We may well assume that in the earliest times, these changes were made almost instinctively. Moreover, as most people lived in families and tribes, the younger members of the community had access to an abundant source of experience: the tacit wisdom stored in the memories of their elders and accumulated in the models of design of all the products which followed tradition (fig. on the right).

Tradition was often quite rigid, and people were reluctant to diverge from it when making new products. A diversion could only be made if people felt strong enough need for it. Christopher Alexander gives a beautiful description of how tradition could be developed (1964 p.46):

"Form-builders will only introduce changes under strong compulsion where there are powerful (and obvious) irritations in the existing forms which demand correction ... Adaptation depends on the simple fact that the process toward equilibrium is irreversible. Misfit provides an incentive to change; good fit provides none. In theory the process is eventually bound to reach the equilibrium of well-fitting forms. ...
However, for the fit to occur in practice, one vital condition must be satisfied. It must have time to happen. The process must be able to achieve its equilibrium before the next culture change upsets it again."

The development of tradition is normally incremental: it mainly consists of just small diversions from the original model. After a tentative change is made, the result will be scrutinized and judged either better or worse than the original. If it is not deemed satisfactory, new attempts are made until a good "fit" is found. The method is called iteration (lat. iterum, "anew").

IterationThe iterative method has a few weaknesses. While iteration usually leads to a better solution, it may nevertheless fail to find the best alternative of all.
An example of this is illustrated in the figure on the left: if the iteration process is started at option A, it will eventually lead to alternative C. This is however only a partial optimum: while it is certainly better than the neighbours, it is far from the absolute optimum S, which is radically different and could never have been found by iteration only. Indeed, it is a fact that the old unconscious and iterative way along which tradition developed, hardly ever gave rise to principally new solutions. Obviously, if you consider only alternatives that do not differ much from the old one you never invent something radically new.

Another weakness of the iteration method is that it can effectively optimize only one feature of the object at a time. If you have several alternatives which diverge from the old model, and from each other, in more than one respect, you will find it impossible to compare and rank order them with the iterative method. Iteration works well if the differences between alternatives concern no more than one property of the objects, otherwise it may lead in the wrong direction.

Successful development of tradition is thus possible only if three conditions are met:

These conditions are seldom fulfilled in modern society, consequently the average craftsman can seldom use tradition as a basis when designing a new product. As a contrast, a professional designer sometimes can still exploit the traditions of his profession. The reason is that a modern, schooled designer is used to theoretical thinking and thus can assess which elements of tradition are obsolete and which are still serviceable when designing a new product.

Imitation An amusing account of exemplar-based education in the traditional method of "masters and apprentices" is given by Yona Friedman, 1975, figure on the left:

"Learning is dispensed by "masters," who have their own special tricks [of trade] which are usually impossible to communicate. Even though they can use them, they can't teach them. Masters are surrounded, therefore, by apprentices who do their best to imitate their master's working style, hoping by one means or another to pick up his "touch."
I call such disciplines the prenticeable disciplines."

Logic of Deliberate Development

As a contrast to the traditional method, Friedman explains the method of "scientific education", figure on the right:

"But there are other disciplines, for the most part called sciences, in which ... schools operate according to an arsenal of rules, which are available to the public... Anybody who reads and understands these rules can apply them himself, without having to imitate the masters; and once he understands them, he can communicate them to anyone else. They are stated in such a way that in any instance it is clear whether they apply or not.
I call these the teachable disciplines."

The modern innovators can base their designs not only on earlier products and on the experiences from their use, but also on something very powerful: theoretical models of the products. Models can provide grounds for completely new solutions, grounds for evaluating them and for developing them until a variant which fulfils all the simultaneous requirements is found (fig. on the left).

Constructing a theoretical model for a practical product or its use is often difficult enough, and it was probably seldom done during the era of traditional craftsmen. However, in modern society there are specialists in the making and use of theoretical models: researchers. When such specialists are invited to take part in the process, it means starting a deliberate development project which calls for special methods.

The idea of inviting academic researchers to assist in industrial development is relatively new. Before the industrial revolution, most research was done in universities, and their researchers were not really interested in the development of practical activities. These latter were classified as part of the management of industry and crafts, which activities were often considered less intellectual and less valuable than "pure" thinking and erudition. This order of values was a legacy dating back to antiquity, when industry and all practical work was delegated to slaves and servants.

In antiquity, few classical philosophers had anything to say on how to develop a practical skill. Aristotle, however, made a passing remark in which he classified sciences into two groups: higher theoretical sciences which search for the truth; and practical sciences which aim at helping and steering man's activities. Examples of the latter were ethics, politics and economy. It is quite astounding that neither Aristotle nor any other known philosopher in antiquity said a word on the thriving practical sciences such as the medicine of Hippocrates, the physics of Archimedes, or the construction science of Vitruve. Some of these practical scientists were, however, able to write theoretical treatises of their science with distinctly normative content, which can be seen, for example, in Vitruve's preface to Book I which was dedicated to the emperor Augustus:

"I have drawn up definite rules to enable you [Caesar] to have personal knowledge of the quality both of existing buildings and of those which are yet to be constructed."

Even without any help from academic philosophy, the skills and traditions of the various handicrafts gradually improved during the Middle Ages. The handicraft arts became organized into the various guilds, and most of these wanted to keep the accumulated skill and tradition as precious secrets of the guild. Because few masters were able to read or write, the knowledge was mostly conserved as tacit know how, and most of it has now vanished. Anyhow, the masters knew the value of tradition well, and knew also their own authority as keepers of the knowledge of tradition. It is apparent in the speech of architect Jean Mignot arriving in the year 1400 to teach the unfortunate masons of the Milan cathedral, whose vaults were about to collapse:

Ars sine scientia nihil est. "Skill without knowledge is nothing worth."

When written theory now and then was published, the opening words very often indicated the normative purpose. A few examples are cited on the page Theory of Architecture.

Many books were - or declared to be - simply intended to document the already existing collective professional tradition. Hippocrates unpretentiously named his book "On Ancient Medicine" though it seems to contain his own observations, too. The 15C. master mason Hanns Schmuttermayer likewise testified in his guide of designing the decorative pinnacles of cathedrals, picture on the right:

"These are no inventions of my own, but they are all created by greater, famous masters..."

However, from the Renaissance on the world was changing so fast that mere traditions could not meet the needs of professionals or their customers. New research, direct from contemporary empiria, was called for. Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626) and Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642) were the first to seriously contemplate the logic of the "practical sciences". Eventually it became clear that research could help us to reach goals of two types:

From the findings of descriptive research we cannot directly proceed to normative recommendations. "From what is, cannot be deduced what should be" says the axiom sometimes called "Hume's Guillotine". (David Hume, 1711 - 1776.) Between description and norm we need an intermediate phase of human evaluation which may lead to different conclusions depending on who makes the assessment.

It took quite a long time before philosophers were able to clarify the logical relation between descriptive and normative science. Auguste Comte (1798 - 1857) combined the various goals of science in one sentence: savoir pour prévoir pour pouvoir - knowledge helps us to predict and thus to influence. Many philosophers wanted to see research projects as links in a chain where information flows gradually from basic research to practical application. This chain would consist of three types of research projects:

  1. basic research which gathers knowledge without aiming at any practical goals (e.g. in medicine: studying a disease without aiming at curing it)
  2. applied research would show which useful "applications" are possible (e.g. trying to find cures for a disease, based on the knowledge gathered about it)
  3. development would spur "applications" in the real world (e.g. by starting the industrial production of a healing drug).

Project of Basic ResearchProject of Applied ResearchProject of Development

However, modern empirical study of what really happens between researchers, financiers and industry co-operating in development has shown that that such chains starting at basic research and ending at application are not at all common in real life. Factually, most technological developments originate not in basic research but in the practical (or assumed) needs of customers, or sometimes in an innovation made in the workshop. After this incentive, the theoretical aspects may then be investigated, clarified, or refined by researchers, but this happens only when industrial management deems it necessary.

Is there any model, then, typical of modern industrial development? Many researchers have hoped to find it by studying the flagship of modern progress, technology. In 1965, de Solla Price published his paper, Is Technology Historically Independent of Science? In 1966, several famous philosophers united in writing Towards a Philosophy of Technology; 1969 Herbert A. Simon wrote an important book, The Sciences of the Artificial. After that, research and seminar reports have appeared at least annually, and today the logic in the development of modern engineering science is well documented.

Above was given a short account of the principal philosophical deliberations that have provided the basis of the present site of arteology. Gathering the material for this site and finding a suitable structure for it took several years, which process is documented on the page How "Arteology" was born.

It seems today that the traditional division between basic research, applied research, and development, can give no fertile basis for the study of professions and industrial production. On this site we instead use another division of research activities which is based on the principal goals of research projects:

Theory of practice

Self-correction of normative science

An important factor in the evolution of a branch of science is its ability to respond to the requirements of society, in other words how accurately the internal system of science can detect external needs and problems and steer its own activity accordingly. Both in descriptive and normative research there are mechanisms for this task, but they work quite differently.

The traditional self-corrective procedure of descriptive science is based on verification, the mutual peer criticism of all published descriptive research findings, as is explained in Assessing Theoretical Output.

As a contrast to descriptive science, in normative studies the principal assessment criterion is the utility of the findings. The close contact with practice helps in directing research into those topics that the community regards as important, and it also tests the utility of each research project (see Evaluating Normative Proposals) and the results that are achieved when applying the findings into practice. The evaluation comes normally from the industry, but it could be collected from the great public, too. Utility includes here all the desirable attributes of activities or products like usability, beauty, message, as well their ecological and economic values. More exactly, it is not the attributes themselves but how they are evaluated by people in society, that gives the decisive verdict in the assessment of design theories. The criterion of utility becomes very pronounced in those research projects which are financed directly by the industry.

It should be noted that verification and utility appraisal are by no means mutually exclusive. In an descriptive study it is possible to use utility testing of targets and/or findings beside the normal testing by verification. If the utility appraisal is done early in the project, in its project planning stage, it can guide the objectives of the study and its whole content into a direction more acceptable to the world outside the scientific community.

Revolutions in normative sciences

A fine example of revolutions in normative sciences is design theory, especially the history of European architecture. Its theories as well as its styles are well documented from antiquity until our time (cf. Theory of Architecture).

In design theory small and large revolutions have long been frequent, and each of them have caused a visible change in the prevailing style of design. Human societies change continually, the utility value of any design theory varies in time and it is normal that after major social changes in society also the prevailing paradigms of design lose their charms and people begin to long for a change in the trend of design. It is possible that even the principal goal of design will be changed, which will at once be mirrored in subsequent products as a set of new features, a new style of design.

Dominant goal of
architecture and
of its theory:
Founder of
the paradigm
of theory:
Style of
Utility, firmity
and beauty
Vitruve Doric, Ionian and
Corinthian styles
Religious salvation (No theory has survived to us) The Gothic style
The Vitruvian goals
were revived
L.B.Alberti Renaissance,
baroque, rococo,
neoclassical style
Individualism Viollet-le-Duc l'Art Nouveau and
other personal
styles like Gaudi's
Utility Le Corbusier Functionalism
of building
F.W.Taylor No-name cheap
element building
The table on the right shows six consecutive periods of European architecture which are characterized by changes of paradigm, in theory as well as in style. Both the architectural styles and the dominant design theories of these periods are incompatible with other periods (excepting that renaissance adopted some of the theories of antiquity). All five paradigm changes have been caused by fundamental shifts in people's prevailing preferences regarding the goals of building.

Though the table above is showing not less than five revolutions in architectural theory, we must take into account that the documented time span is quite long - two millennia. That is equal to one revolution per each 400 years, in fact quite a moderate pace as compared to the theory of telephony, which has accomplished a thorough revolution in a time span of just a century.

In free arts such as literature and pictorial arts, styles and fashions change even more often than once in 100 years, and it often happens without corresponding theoretical changes. Sometimes a theoretical justification for a new style comes afterwards. While in technology there can be no design without theory - in other words new theory must always precede new design - in free arts theory is not indispensable. A work of art or a simple industrial product can be designed in hours, while research takes months, therefore it is normal that researchers cannot at once produce the new theory that would be needed to base new designs on.

In the absence of updated normative theory, an artist more talented than others can succeed creating intuitively a new work of art or a product that fulfills the new demands. This work then becomes the exemplar that defines the new fashion of design, at least for some time ahead, until a design theory based on new research eventually appears.

Development of art

In the diagram above, red dots mark the exemplars that show the way for the normal and conventional works that follow (black dots), and these in turn indicate the general trend of design and in time also the main line of theory. As the diagram shows, the exemplars are often a little bit, but not too much, off the main road of development. Besides, there are usually a few extremist artists and their works (blue dots) that fail in getting understanding and approval, and who thus remain as historical curiosities. (If you want to make this kind of study, you can select for the dimension x in the diagram any characteristic of the products that you think is important in the change of styles that you are studying.)

Note that when we study development of science in a very long perspective, there is no absolute contrast between normal science and scientific revolution. Both of them mean revision of theory, the difference being that the latter revision is quicker and deeper. Evolution in sciences can be likened to the perpetual geological movement of continents - it goes on peacefully if it can do so without obstruction, but if a stubborn rock should hinder it for a time, pressure will be gathered which someday will discharge as an earthquake.

If we now look at the present situation in arteology it seems that there is not much reason to expect other than peaceful evolution in the foreseeable future. Althoug society now evolves rapidly and all the time creates new requirements and new styles for products, there is so much research going on in every field of production that any new problem resulting from changes outside the design profession has good chances to get appropriate attention at once. Unsolved problems will thus not likely get accumulated into a bundle that only could be rectified with a full-scale revolution. The situation will not be as difficult as it was in Alberti's or Viollet-le-Duc's time (see above), who were forced to make a revolution in the theory of architecture because they had too many problems to solve at once, being the first pioneers in their field with no competent research during several generations.

One more factor that helps to keep a revolution away is that there is now quite good coherence between the separate fields of research in arteology, which helps in solving the inevitable controversies between personal values of people and between their preferences concerning products. Coherence is provided by the following common elements:

Types of
Approach of study:
Works of art x xx xx ... ... x
Clothes xx xx xx x x xx
Furniture xx xx x x x xx
Buildings xx x x xx x xx
etc. ... ... ... ... ... ...
These goal-specific theories serve as connecting links all over the field of arteology which would otherwise become severely split into hundreds of product-specific sub-theories which take as their object only a specific type of product, let it be clothing, furniture, buildings or whatever. These goal-specific theories thus take care of the coherence of arteology.

The most important goal-specific theories concern the usability, beauty, meaning, safety, ecology, and economy of products. Lively research continues on each of them, which quite probably will result in a steady growth of theory with no great need for scientific revolutions in near future.

Another factor that helps keeping problems away is our excellent world-wide information system which swiftly disseminates all advancements in research.

En Español  In
Finnish   Contents

August 3, 2007.
Comments to the author:

Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi