Can we talk about “feeling”…?
I shared this on the Building Beauty forum after the webinar session on 3rd December 2020, (recording here) as a reflection on many different responses to the question of how we integrate feeling into our professional practice. Slightly edited for privacy.
With a little bit of reflection after Thursday’s NoO webinar session, I want to express my feelings… so… right now, I’m feeling profoundly confused.
We lead into the discussion with a question about how each of us as creators in various disciplines use feeling in our daily practice.
This was such a great question and a very interesting discussion followed and lots of different people shared lots of different answers to that question.
Listening to all these different perspectives, I came to the following conclusion: When we talk about “feeling” in this course, we (still) all talk about different things. We might not be aware that we are talking about different things; after all, we’re all using the same word “feeling”. Many of these different things have little to do with what Alexander means by “feeling” in NoO.
Trying to disentangle this a bit further, let me try to describe the different things I believe were talked about yesterday:
- “Feeling” as experience of certain emotions
- “Feeling” as motivation, a driving force, something that propels us in a certain direction, without necessarily understanding where exactly we are going
- “Feeling” for an imaginary whole (was also described as “intuition” at some point); more than just motivation, as we do have a general understanding of where we are headed
- “Feeling” as a geometric property a center can have in various degrees, often characterized by the appearance of many or all of the fifteen properties; a good balance of local symmetries and asymmetries; a vivid connection to the Self; being in touch with the Ground
In my current understanding — and please do correct me, this is exactly why I’m writing this — most of these meanings have little to do with what Alexander talks about.
Let’s look at each of them in detail:
1. “Feeling” as experience of certain emotions
Alexander directly and specifically distances “feeling” from emotion, in several places, for instance in Book 1, chapter 7:
I believe the personal feeling I have touched on in this chapter, which is directly connected to order and life, is a mobilization in which my vulnerable inner self becomes connected to the world. It increases my feeling of connection and participation in all things. It is feeling, not emotion. It does not — directly — have to do with happiness, or sadness, or anger. Rather, it is the feeling of being part of the ocean, part of the sky, part of the asphalt on the road.
So while we certainly experience various emotions along the process of designing or building something, this is not what Alexander means and refers to when he uses the word “feeling”.
2. “Feeling” as motivation, a driving force, something that propels us in a certain direction, without necessarily understanding where exactly we are going
Several people brought this up yesterday.
I don’t know if and where Alexander talks about this in the parts I have read so far. There are some places, specifically in Book 2, where he gets close to describing the motivational aspect for sure, but I don’t think he ever, not even ambiguously, refers to that as “feeling”.
3. “Feeling” for an imaginary whole (was also described as “intuition” at some point); more than just motivation, as we do have a general understanding of where we are headed
This is what I believe Alexander describes in Book 2, chapter 14 (bold highlights mine):
In each of the examples I have given, the essence was that at each step of a living process one must be able to feel, ahead of time, the feeling which will later exist in the finished object, without yet knowing its form in detail.
We are able, somehow, to identify and carry in ourselves, this feeling which must be in the finished thing — and we can carry it in us eloquently enough, and specifically enough, so that as we move forward in the creative task, we can constantly check to see if the next action, the emerging form, this detail or that, does have that feeling and not some other.
The very specific nature of this feeling — when accurately experienced — can be remarkable. But it is very difficult to explain just what this feeling is like in character. It is not verbal, it is not visual, it is not auditory. Yet it is articulate and highly specific, very particular, unique each time that it occurs.
It is so articulate, and so specific, that it allows us to use it with great accuracy. When it is understood and felt clearly enough, it is so specific that it will allow me to consider 100 possible ways to make a roof, and reject them all, because they do not have this feeling, then to accept the 101st because it does have it.
Let’s get pedantic here, for sake of better understanding: Alexander technically — and I actually believe that he does this fully aware and intentionally (C’mon, he’s a trained mathematician!) — distinguishes between the action of feeling something and feeling as a property of the whole.
So in a way it would be correct to acknowledge that Alexander talks about feeling in this third sense in the books, but yet still distinguishes it from the property.
4. “Feeling” as a geometric property a center can have in various degrees, often characterized by the appearance of many or all of the fifteen properties; a good balance of local symmetries and asymmetries; a vivid connection to the Self; being in touch with the Ground
The weirdest meaning of them all, yet the only one that Alexander actually refers to by the word “feeling”?
Having just read Book 2, chapter 17 about simplicity, the balance between symmetries, and ultimately nothingness and the Ground, I have to come to the conclusion that when Alexander talks about “feeling” in NoO, he almost exclusively refers to this fourth meaning.
That also means that how I currently understand the Mirror-of-the-self test is as taking advantage of our innate ability to detect this property in a field of centers to bypass the intellectual hemisphere and feel the direct response to the balance of local symmetries and asymmetries in the field of centers we’re looking at. Both intellect and emotion are in our way of experiencing this kind of feeling and distract us. Hence a calm state of mind is necessary to even have a remote chance at using this skill effectively.
At this moment, this all seems sound and makes sense to me and I can’t quite find any contradictions or even ambiguities in what I have read so far. That means, the passages I have read and re-read so far where Alexander uses the word “feeling”, are congruent with the fourth meaning I described here. In fact, I found that Book 2, chapter 17 finally cleared up a lot of questions I had and helped me make connections I couldn’t make before about exactly my previously ambiguous understanding of it.
Yet, still, I am not sure if I am perhaps mislead and miss something here, because as interesting and inspiring our discussion yesterday was, it would mean we haven’t even touched on what Alexander actually talks about when he talks about “feeling”.
It seems this is one of the most prominent aspects of Alexander’s work — so trying to understand properly what he actually means by “feeling” should be worth having me make you read some extensive ramblings about dissecting the meaning of feeling here in this forum. :-)
Thanks for taking the time to read it. Perhaps it even helped you think a little clearer about this? Or did it just raise more questions? If so, please ask them.
Please tell me what I have misinterpreted, misunderstood, or overlooked. And please share how you understand all this, even if it’s totally different to what I just wrote. Thanks!