Saturday, May 12, 2012

Philosophy, Principles versus Rules

Principles of geometry used in composition, sketch by Baldassare Peruzzi
The age old debate amongst classical artists is whether or not philosophy is important to the artist as a means to creating his art.  The argument roughly is that "I am an artist, not a philosopher, so I just have to create beauty, not understand why."  To a certain extent this is true, however one must rely on something to produce an art.

In order to produce a desired effect, a desired end, one has only two choices to achieve that end, one either comes to understand the principles which operate to produce that end, or one relies on the application of a set of rules to produce that end.

The former is akin to the practice of ethics, where one seeks to understand the principles of justice, temperance and the other virtues, to put them into practice in an infinite number of circumstances.   The intention is to grasp a universal principle, which when properly understood can be applied in each particular circumstance in a way proper to that circumstance.

The alternative is the application of rules.  Rules as such are not universal, they don't refer to every circumstance but to particular circumstances, and in art are the creation of particular forms.   Rules are created according to principles, and for the greater part of circumstances they serve to produce the same effects as the application of principles.  One applies the rules, and for the greatest part of the time, they produce the exact end which you intend from the beginning.

However rules do from time to time, by an absolute rigid application, produce the opposite intended end.  The rule is not flexible as it applies absolute to particular circumstance, whereas principles applied seeking the ultimate end, allow for more flexibility, that is "breaking the rules"

When one unmoors oneself from the application of principles, the only alternative is to use rules to create the end.  If one seeks however to unmoor themselves from the application of rules, they must return to the principles to produce the end.  If however one is unmoored both from rule and from principle then the end of the artist is only randomly produced, the artist is left to pick and choose willy-nilly from any number of alternatives, and only by chance would ever produce his end.


  1. I wonder if rules, because they only demand obedience and not understanding, lead to disobedience when the intellect demands understanding and only gets a rule. Like the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Does understanding principles inspire more obedience?

  2. I'd say that obedience to rule is only necessary with the ignorance of the principle. When the principle is known, one is indeed more free, but would choose something that the rule would probably have prescribed anyway, but not necessarily in the exact manner the rule might be thought.

  3. If one plays or even compose music, he must know & obey the rules of harmonic tonalities and expression, rhythm, pitch, modulations and additional sopphistication. Are knowledge and obedience here in opposition excuding each other?
    In modern architecture, these “complementaries” are viewed as almost irreconciliable contrasts. One main reason is that modernists have lost the feeling that harmony & beauty always requires the balance between unity & diversity – already since approx. 1830.
    The means that organize the contrasts of unity on one hand and diversity on the other are overall use of harmonizing patterns, including proportion, closedness of space, harmony of colour & light, fittingness to the matter, etc. Since 35 years I researched on proportion of traditional architecture (large database, several thousand CAD proportion analyses, etc), I am always astonished that the majority of architects seems to have a very restricted (or modest) knowledge of proportion and means harmonizing order with unity. Proportion, fittingness to matters etc was learned from earliest practical years by the builders of the past.
    Knowing the simple techniques of simple geometrical proportion indeed offered them aand still offers by modern digital means the use of proportion as a very effective design-guiding tool. “If one knows these little techniques, then much that looks ever so marvelous, is merely a child’s play,” (Goethe, Italian Journey, Dec 7, 1787). (Dr Joachim Langhein, Heidelberg, Germany,

  4. Beautiful. Thanks, T.