Binary vs. gradual perspectives — from boundaries to centers

Humans like to put things in categories: something either belongs into a category, or it doesn’t. Yes or no. This binary perspective gets in the way when reading Alexander. Many of his ideas go beyond a simplistic binary view of “either, or”, and acknowledge that it is often fuzzy and blurry to put a thing into one category or another. However, there are still things we can clearly classify. Often they are those we can easily give a name.

That’s why Alexander introduces the concept of a center. To define what’s in and what isn’t in a category, you need a clear boundary. By introducing centers, Alexander shifts focus from a boundary to a strong center instead.

Somewhere in the periphery of that center there might still be a more or less clearly distinguishable boundary, but that is no longer important. What is important is that you can see the center clearly, whether or not a boundary is visible.

This turns the binary perspective into a gradual perspective. It turns a matter of either-or into a matter of degree. Something can be more or less clearly a center. Less clear means: harder to see, weak, latent centers. More clear means: easy to spot, strong, defining centers.

The gradual perspective also makes it possible to relate other entities to a center in a gradual way: an entity can be “closer” to a center, or more strongly connected, than another.

This resolves the need to pick a category from a limited set of options and introduces a fuzzy gray area between two obvious extremes. We no longer have to agree on the same thing. Instead, we can discuss to which degree something falls on a spectrum between two extremes. Which in turn means we can also be more flexible on the level of precision we require for agreement.

Properties of centers

Connection to cognitive science

This maps neatly to embodied schemas (kinesthetic image schemas) from cognitive science — fundamental building blocks of thought that shine through in language and have been extensively researched in linguistics.

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