Starting off with what is labelled as Neoplatonism there is Bill Hillier’s concept from Space is the Machine (Hillier 2007) and outlined in a paper from Space Syntax First International Symposium, London 1997:
Ideas we think with and ideas we think of
“Architects should perhaps not be too distressed that they have no adequate concepts to describe the relational properties of the things they create. No one else has them either. It is a general problem of culture. Looking back, we can see that the twentieth century cast a new light on this. All human activities through which culture is created have come to be seen as grounded in an interplay between concrete elements and abstract relations. The elements – words, columns, behaviours and so on – are present to conscious thought and are manipulated with deliberate forethought. The relational schemes through which we order and interpret elements – syntaxes, rule systems, semantic schemes – are handled unconsciously, and we deal with them without thinking of them. Concrete elements are the ideas with think of, relational schemes the ideas we think with. It is because this is so that the languages which we use to describe our cultural world become biased to the concrete contents of assemblages, which are their raw material, rather than to their relational contents, which are their essential nature. Elements are discursive: we can see them, name them and know how to talk about them. But relations are nondiscursive; we have no languages to describe them or conceptual schemes to analyse them. The interdependence of the discursive ideas we think of and the non -discursive ideas we think with is the fundamental condition of our cultural existence. Architecture and urbanism are the most omnipresent case of this duality, because buildings and cities are where we apply nondiscursive relational schemes to the real world in which we live, and so convert our milieu from materiality to culture.”
P r o f e s s o r B i l l H i l l i e r a n d D r J u l i e n n e H a n s o n • T h e R e a s o n i n g A r t or, The Need for an Analytical Theory of Architecture
The non-discursivity of configuration: ideas we think of and ideas we think with:
“The answer will take us to the centre of our argument: the non-discursivity of configuration. Non-discursivity means that we do not know how to talk about it. The difficulty of talking about spatial or formal configurations in architecture has always seemed a rather peripheral problem to architectural theory. I suggest it is the central problem, and part of a much more general problem in human affairs.
Let us begin to explore the intuitive aspects of the idea of configuration a little further. Consider the four groups of elements in figure 1.5. Each group is a different set of ‘things’, but placed in more or less the same overall ‘configuration’. The human mind has no difficulty in seeing that the configurations are the same, in spite of the differences in the constituent ‘things’, and this shows that we easily recognise a configuration, even where we have no way of giving it a name and thus assigning it to a category — although we might try to do so by making analogies with configurations for which names are already at hand, such as ‘L-shaped’, or ‘star-shaped’. However, the fact that our minds recognised configurations as being the same even when there is no name at hand to link them shows that our ability to recognise and understand configuration is prior to the assignment of names. Configuration seems in fact to be what the human mind is good at intuitively, but bad at analytically. We easily recognise configuration without conscious thought, and just as easily use configurations in everyday life without thinking of them, but we do not know what it is we recognise and we are not conscious of what it is we use and how we use it. We have no language for describing configurations, that is, we have no means of saying what it is we know. This problem is particularly salient in buildings and architecture, because both have the effect of imposing spatial and formal configuration on the world in which we live. But the problem is not confined to architecture. On the contrary it appears to be present to some degree in most cultural and social behaviours. In using language, for example, we are aware of words and believe that in speaking and hearing we are handling words. However, language only works because we are able to use the configurational aspects of language, that is, the syntactic and semantic rules which govern how words are to be assembled into meaningful complexes, in a way which makes their operation automatic and unconscious. In language we can therefore distinguish ideas we think of, that is, the words and what they represent, and ideas we think with, that is, syntactic and semantic rules which govern how we deploy words to create meaning. The words we think of seem to us like things, and are at the level of conscious thought. The hidden structures we think with have the nature of configurational rules, in that they tell us how things are to be assembled, and work below the level of consciousness. This ‘unconscious configurationality’ seems to prevail in all areas where we use rule systems to behave in ways which are recognisable as social. Behaviour at table, or the playing of games, appear to us as spatio-temporal events, but they are given order and purpose by the underlying
configurational ‘ideas-to-think-with’ through which these events are generated. We acknowledge the importance of this unseen configurationality labelling it as a form of knowledge. We talk about ‘knowing how to behave’, or ‘knowing a language’.
We can call this kind of knowledge ‘social knowledge’, and note that its purpose is to create, order and make intelligible the spatio-temporal events through which we recognise the presence of culture in everyday life. We must of course take care to distinguish social knowledge from forms of knowledge which we learn in schools and universities whose purpose is to understand the world rather than to behave in it, and which we might therefore call analytic, or scientific knowledge. In itself (though not necessarily in its consequences) analytic knowledge leaves the world as it is, since its purpose is to understand. Analytic knowledge is knowledge where we learn the abstract principles through which spatio-temporal phenomena are related — we might say the ‘configurationality’ — consciously. We are aware of the principles both when we acquire and when we use the knowledge. As a result, through the intermediary of the abstract, we grasp the concrete. In social knowledge, in contrast, knowledge of abstract configurationality is acquired through the process of creating and experiencing spatio-temporal events. Social knowledge works precisely because the abstract principles through which spatio-temporal phenomena are brought together into meaningful patterns are buried beneath habits of doing, and never need be brought to conscious attention.19 In spite of these functional differences, social knowledge and analytic knowledge are made up of the same elements: on the one hand, there is knowledge of spatio-temporal phenomena, on the other, there are abstract ‘configurational’ structures that link them together. But whereas in social knowledge the abstract ideas are held steady as ideas to think with in order to create spatio-temporal events in the real world, so that the abstract ideas become the normative bases of behaviour, in scientific knowledge, an attempt is made to hold spatio-temporal phenomena steady in order to bring the abstract structures through which we interpret them to the surface in order to examine them critically and, if necessary, to reconstitute them.
This can be usefully clarified by a diagram, see figure 1.6. The difference between the two forms of knowledge lies essentially in the degree to which abstract ideas are at the level of conscious thought and therefore at risk. The whole purpose of science is to put the abstract ‘ideas we think with’ in making sense of spatio-temporal events at risk. In social knowledge, the whole purpose of the ‘knowledge’ would be put at risk by bringing them to conscious thought since their function is to be used normatively to create society. However, it is clearly a possibility that the abstract structures of social knowledge could, as with science, themselves become the object of conscious thought. This, in a nutshell, is the programme of ‘structuralism’. The essence of the structuralist method is to ask: can we build a model of the abstract principles of a system (e.g. language) that ‘generates’ all and only the spatio-temporal events that can legitimately happen? Such a model would be a theory of the system. It would, for example, ‘explain’ our intuitive sense that some strings of words are meaningful sentences and others — most — are not. Structuralism is rather like taking the output of a computer as the phenomena to be explained, and trying to find out what programme could generate all and only these phenomena. Structuralism is an enquiry into the unconscious configurational bases of social knowledge, that is, it is an inquiry into the non-discursive dimensions of social and cultural behaviour.”
Hillier, B. (2007) Space is the machine, part one: theoretical preliminaries. In: Space is the machine: a configurational theory of architecture. (pp. 1-109). Space Syntax: London, UK.