Design as the third discipline?

Design studies and objects

In the new-realist philosophical sphere I've been following a bit lately (as an admitted outsider), not many people like the view that reality is made up of the natural world on the one hand, and the world of human experience on the other. The former would be full of facts, substances, and physical causation, which science investigates; and the latter would be full of subjective experience, ethics, justice, and politics, which the humanities investigate. Bruno Latour, for example, points out the uneasy place technological artifacts and other "hybrid objects" find in such a split, as one reason to think that the split never really existed. (The proposition that only one of these areas exists, because the other can be reduced to it, either via scientific reductionism in the one direction, or social construction in the other, is even less popular 'round these parts.)

The field of design also takes technological artifacts as a main problem of the old two-way split, but rather than using them to do away with the split, posits the artificially created world as a third field of study, sitting alongside the sciences and humanities. (Note that design in this meaning isn't exclusively aesthetic design, but includes architecture, some kinds of engineering, etc.)

One argument is that, unlike science, design has to take into account that it has choices to make: it isn't merely uncovering natural facts that already exist, but is creating artifacts. But unlike the humanities, it has to take into account that artifacts are made of real stuff, which has properties and constraints: you have to build a bridge out of stone, or steel, or wood; and sometimes that stuff revolts, and your bridge collapses.

Putting it this way still reaffirms a human/world split, setting design up as what happens at the interface, where humans make things out of stuff to serve their subjective human needs: a third approach to the same two sectors of reality, sometimes even explicitly conceived as a conversation between them. But that does open up an interesting field filled with objects being created and combined, being put in new situations, interacting with humans and with each other—and doesn't a priori rule out almost anything from the list of things that exist and can be discussed. That might actually make it a reasonably good starting point for someone of the object-oriented persuasion, even if it admittedly doesn't cover the full range of what that philosophy aims to do.

I recently ran across a quite explicit statement of this third-field view, in Nigel Cross's book Designerly Ways of Knowing (p. 18), which draws in part on late-1970s writings by Bruce Archer and others (thanks to Adam Smith for bringing this book to my attention):

If we contrast the sciences, the humanities, and design under each aspect, we may become clearer of what we mean by design, and what is particular to it.

The phenomenon of study in each culture is

The appropriate methods in each culture are

The values of each culture are

Read from the perspective of someone interested in realist trends in the humanities, this might seem like a bit of a provocation. I get the impression that Cross intends it to be a fair summary, though, not an attack on either the sciences or the humanities. It's probably not an unfair summary of a large part of each field, either: the stuff listed under design is something science and the humanities mostly really don't do.

Those with an interest in A.N. Whitehead may find it interesting that Cross cites Whitehead as a precursor and inspiration, quoting Whitehead's essay "Technical Education and Its Relation to Science and Literature" (1917; collected in Aims of Education) for its three-approaches-to-knowledge view:

There are three main roads along which we can proceed with good hope of advancing towards the best balance of intellect and character: these are the way of literary culture, the way of scientific culture, the way of technical culture.

Whitehead's main interest here is elevating the status of technical education (in which he includes crafts, machine-shop work, engineering, invention, etc.) to a top-level kind of education as important as literary or scientific education, rather than merely, as some would have it, "a maimed alternative to the perfect Platonic culture … a defective training unfortunately made necessary by cramped conditions of life". He particularly likes its propensity for banging thought up against materials: by having students design and build things, "technical education gives theory, and a shrewd insight as to where theory fails".


Responses: Ian Bogost wonders why design, rather than engineering or craft, should be the third discipline dealing with the artificial world. In the comments there, Tim Morton points out that aesthetics was traditionally a third field; and Carl DiSalvo points to Herbert Simon's The Sciences of the Artificial, as well as several journal articles by Richard Buchanan, for further discussion of design's role as a third field. Elsewhere, Robert Jackson draws an interesting connection to the work of Bernard Stiegler (which I haven't read) on technics, which focuses on the "organised inorganic matter" of the artificial world as a mode of existence that's neither nature nor culture. Jackson also discusses the role art might play, since it's also, at times, been seen as the third discipline.