Architecture: the Normative Art

Architecture is the normative art.

To be normative is to occupy the “ought” side of David Hume’s is-ought divide.  A positivist, focusing on what is, has no rational method for arriving at what ought to be.  In ethics, for instance, the positivist can document the evidence for the existence of murder throughout human history but can they arrive, through purely descriptive and deductive means, to the conclusion that murder is unjustified?  What is justice?

To describe an “ought” is to architect.  Regardless of the problem domain and placing the concept of professionalism aside, the architect is the person who ultimately makes the very human decision of what to value and what is “good” in design.  Though the concept of architecture is, and should be, associated with the act of creation, adherence to ideals, models, standards and virtues have always been the defining aspect of architecture.

To live an ethical life the individual must relate to human ideals, virtues and associated (measurable) standards. It also requires the ethicist to have identified and communicated those virtues — usually by identifying standards which people can relate to — and to have defined principles and rules for adhering to those virtues. The ethicist, in human affairs, is a “cultural architect”.

Each of us in the United States are taught to value the virtues of our Constitution. We expect those in power to embody those virtues described within that document.  Our best measure of that embodiment is the degree to which we notice those in power upholding the principles and rules also described therein. We rightfully consider James Madison the “chief architect” of the United States since he was the critical agent who determined the virtues, or qualities, which would make a good country and then designed the legal structure (principle and rules) which would best institutionalize those virtues.  The U.S. Constitution is the architectural description for the United States.

The physicist Freeman Dyson once said,

The bottom line for mathematicians is that the architecture has to be right. In all the mathematics that I did, the essential point was to find the right architecture. It’s like building a bridge. Once the main lines of the structure are right, then the details miraculously fit. The problem is the overall design. [iWise,, retrieved 2011-06-01]

What did Freeman Dyson mean by “right”?  Mathematics is essentially a deductive/positivist/descriptive exercise.  I have seen some physicists waste their lives in cherished theory which “penciled”, “made sense”, “without mistake”, “was going to overturn Einstein” and all that, yet never predicted new phenomena let alone reproduced the values of known phenomena.  The problem with the life work of these people was never their math, which was deductively correct, but the initial set of axioms the they chose as valuable.  Freeman Dyson, in my opinion, was referring to the “right” choice of axiom and basic principle with regard to the “architecture” of a scientific theory that works.  Once must choose axioms which help the theorist conform to experimental reality, or not.  The choice of initial axiom is not a deductive exercise however, but an inductive choice of “ought”.  Those whose life’s work leads to naught chose wrong.  For Freeman Dyson’s part however he, along with Paul Dirac, Hans Bethe, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, Julian Schwinger, and Richard Feynman are properly known as the architects of quantum electrodynamics (QED).  They came to be the architects through their identification of axiom and principle which not only enabled the development of a cohesive set of mathematics, but also led them to conform, par excellence, to real world experiment.  In short, they identified the “oughts” of QED.  They chose well.

Regardless of the problem domain, the architect is always that person who breaches the is-ought divide.

Important update from Professor Dyson, here

Boiling the Ocean

My book will be a tour of both the most basic topics in I/T architecture and, simultaneously the most advanced.  I say “basic” because the philosophical underpinnings of any enterprise are the basic foundation upon which that enterprise rests.  These are topics every child should come to understand.  I say, “advanced” however, because these topics are tragically not taught and left for “advanced” studies.


As I move forward writing my book, I must work to avoid “boiling the ocean”.  I must winnow down my list of topics to what is relevant in architecture and justify why.  Of course, everything is relevant, eh?  (This will be one of my points.)