R. Buckminster Fuller:
by Kirby Urner
A 20th Century Philosopher
Originally posted: May 11, 1998
Last updated: September 26, 1999
R. Buckminster Fuller (b. July 12, 1895, d. July 1, 1983) is perhaps most easily pigeon-holed as
the last of the New England Transcendentalists, although Fuller
himself always resisted being pigeon-holed.
His philosophy is centered around the human potential to
overcome whatever "reflex conditioning" might have entrapped
our humanity in counterproductive scenarios. His focus on
"intuition" as coming from the mind, which is beyond the realm
of brain-banked experiences, is what most clearly puts him in
the transcendentalist tradition, along with a host of New England
mannerisms and a life-long base of operations on Bear Island in
Maine -- now his grave site and that of his wife, Anne Hewlett
Also, his great aunt, Margaret Fuller Osoli (1810-1850), was
one of the first to publish the writings of Emerson and Thoreau
in her magazine The Dial and her writings made an impact on
the young Fuller early in his intellectual career.
Although the family had a four-generation tradition of sending
its sons to Harvard, Fuller was too much the wild romantic to
settle in and was expelled for treating an entire New York
dance troupe to champagne on his own tab. The family sentenced
him to hard labor in a Canadian cotton mill, where he sobered
up quite a bit, but he still didn't like Harvard upon giving
it a second try and was again expelled. He later returned to
Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry (1962).
Given his nautical background as a boy messing about with boats
around Bear Island, Fuller was attracted to the navy, and
managed to achieve a command with family assistance (1917). His
marriage to Anne Hewlett was in grand military style. His
native genius as an inventive soul was recognized (he developed
a winch for rescuing pilots downed over water) and this led to
an appointment at the Annapolis Naval Academy (1918).
At Annapolis, under the tutelage of retired admirals, Fuller
felt very much at home, and began to germinate his "Great Pirates"
narrative, wherein the big picture thinking then offered to young
officers was a culmination of a long tradition of "thinking
globally, acting locally" on the part of high seas figures,
many of them pirates, and many of them lost to history because
operating invisibly, over the horizon from those who kept the
historical accounts (mostly landlubbers).
A few years after his honorable discharge, Fuller attempted to
make money using his father-in-law's invention, a morterless brick
building system, but failed in this enterprise (1926). This
failure, which led to joblessness in Chicago, coupled with the
trauma of losing his first child Alexandra to prolonged illness
in 1922, pushed Fuller to the brink in 1927. He considered suicide
but, as he put it, resolved to commit 'egocide' instead, and turn
the rest of his life into an experiment about what kind of positive
difference the 'little individual' could make on the world stage.
He called himself 'Guinea Pig B' (B for Bucky) and resolved to
do his own thinking, starting over from scratch. Hugh Kenner
likens this to Descartes' resolve to shut himself in a room until
he'd discerned God's truth -- a kind of archetypal commitment to
a solitary journey.
In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969) he refined his
Great Pirates narrative to account for what he considered a
chief element of the human predicament -- overspecialization.
At one time, the story goes, the grand strategist pirates had
instituted strict compartmentalization as a way of keeping their
own grip on power, keeping those under them partly in the dark and
informed only on a "need to know" basis. The big picture was
only for an elite inner circle. But as legions of specialists
pioneered technologies operating in hitherto unsuspected regions of the
frequency spectrum, the strategic frontier moved outside the scope directly
accessible to the naked human senses. The once-comprehensivist
bosses lost experiential contact with the new realities and with their passing
came a loss of any anchoring comprehensivist viewpoint in a curriculum
now continuing on "auto pilot" to further subdivide and
Synergetics and Synergetics 2 (1975, 1979) subtitled 'explorations in the
geometry of thinking' encapsulated Fuller's attempt to restore the
possibility of a comprehensivist viewpoint within a dangerously
overspecializing curriculum -- the kind of thing any would-be
great pirates of the future would need to read. Synergetics,
short for synergetic-energetic geometry, systematizes its
concepts around a core polarity variously labeled as:
synergy vs. energy
growth vs. decay
tension vs. compression
syntropy vs. entropy
gravity vs. radiation.
These paired tendencies 'always and only co-occur' and do not
come across as moral catagories in any primary sense, nor
should Synergetics be regarded as a theological work, despite
its transcendentalist proclivities. The ethical direction in
synergetics is towards "omnieconomical design" with nature's
"technologies" setting the standard. Our humanly contrived
inventions work to approach nature's ideals and as we become
more adept at using basic principles to best advantage, our
designs accomplish more with less physical time/energy
expenditures -- a long term trend Fuller labeled "ephemeralization"
(historian Arnold Toynbee used "etherealization" to mean the same
The implosive or structuring tendency (e.g. syntropy) has an
edge in the grand scheme of things, however, as it operates
"circumferentially" in an embracing, constrictive capacity,
whereas the explosive or destructuring tendency (e.g.
radiation) broadcasts outwardly in all directions from some
center. The same amount of force organized circumferentially
is more effective, because the network collaborates with
itself, with all members drawing towards the same focus.
Radial energies seek individual freedoms without regard for a
whole and in physical terms reach a top speed en vacuo of
186,000 miles per second, the normal state for unfettered
energy of zero rest mass.
'Tensegrity' or 'tensional integrity' provides a unifying
context for this central polarity. In tensegrity structures,
all the compression elements become islanded entities, not
touching one another, yet contributing to the overall shape.
Tension wires, which tend towards increasing invisibility with
slenderness, run between the compression elements, playing the
role of an implosive, syntropic, gravitational force.
In the language of synergetics, the compression islands are the
linear semi-metaphorical verities, local and partial attempts
to capture truth, with a sense of the whole emerging thanks to
the invisible cohering power of the mind, which is attuned to
the exceptionless principles running through all the
brain-sorted special case events.
It was over this concept of 'tensegrity' that early divisions
over the issue of Fuller's character and integrity came to the
foreground. Ken Snelson, a star pupil at Black Mountain
College (1948), at first enchanted by Bucky's spell, became
highly disillusioned when it appeared that Fuller planned to
abscond with the "tensegrity" idea without properly crediting
Fuller's reputation for egomania and improperly seizing upon
others' ideas as his own may be traced to this Fuller-Snelson
split, and led many to question whether the geodesic dome,
widely credited to Fuller (who took out a number of patents
around the idea) was another case in point. Walter Bauresfeld
had hit on the same strategy in 1922, for use in constructing
planetaria. Alexander Graham Bell had also made extensive use
of the octet truss circa 1907, another one of Fuller's key
concepts (also patented).
Fuller's own archives, maintained since his death in 1983 by
the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) and his estate (EBF),
details his side of the story and he seems to have died with a
clear conscience regarding these matters -- realizing they
would remain bones of contention.
His collaboration with Werner Erhard (late 1970s on), a
self-styled "est Trainer" who shared his home-grown philosophy
of the mind using a hard-hitting seminar format, marked another
chapter fraught with controversy. Fuller, as per usual, took
pains to fully document the relationship for his Chronofile (an
exhaustive record of the Guinea Pig B experiment), making it
especially clear that Erhard's group in no way ever funded or
underwrote any of his activities. On the contrary, Fuller
wanted to be seen as giving Erhard, many years his junior, a
welcome boost from an independent platform.
Fuller's contribution has for the most part not penetrated to
academia's required reading syllabi within any department as of
this writing (May, 1998), in part because Fuller himself
remained largely aloof to speciation within the university
system, and therefore was never embraced by any professional
peer group, except by architects. Given its non-acceptance
within academia, Synergetics eventually went out of print,
which proved a blessing as it allowed Robert Gray, with the
estate's permission, to put both volumes in interleaved format,
as per Applewhite's numbering scheme, on the World Wide Web.
One might argue the architects had little choice but to
recognize Fuller, given the dramatic visibility of the geodesic
domes. However, with the realization that the Bauersfeld domes
were also geodesic, the move to disown Fuller, by casting him
as a mere "popularizer" even with regard to his best known
invention, was seen by some as a kind of poetic justice, apt punishment
for his failing to sufficiently credit his contemporaries.
Mathematicians have tended to dismiss synergetic geometry as
trivial or insufficiently analytical even though Synergetics is
dedicated to H.S.M. Coxeter, perhaps this century's greatest
geometer. Coxeter himself remains ambivalent about Synergetics,
more for philosophical reasons than because of anything strictly
to do with geometry.
Philosophers have not accepted Synergetics as a work in their
domain at all, despite Fuller's own claim to have accomplished
"the integration of geometry and philosophy in a single
conceptual system providing a common language and accounting
for both the physical and metaphysical." Philosphers tend to be put off by the geometry and engineering content,
which appears non-germane to their discipline.
Fuller's commitment to evolving a comprehensivist, philosophical
language goes against the grain of late 20th century academic
thinking. Synergetics might have fared better in a Renaissance
environment, as a form of Neo-Platonism for example, and before
"natural philosophy" had been carved up into so many subdisciplines.
However, a recent issue of Architecture New York (ANY #17) devoted
entirely to Fuller's legacy suggests his philosophy may be a source
of creative ferment in new Continental brews (i.e. in European,
romance language schools of thought).
Although not embraced by academia, Fuller did attract some
loyal and long term collaborators to his save-the-world crusade
-- his book Utopia or Oblivion (1969) spells out what he
considered to be the only options.
His closest collaborator on the Synergetics volumes, E.J.
Applewhite, had joined Fuller shortly after a stint in the
Navy, to assist with personnel and logistics around the DDU
(dymaxion deployment unit) in Wichita, Kansas (1945). Ed later
joined the CIA (1947), rising to the position of deputy
inspector general before retiring under DCI Richard Helms during
president Johnson's term -- well before the Nixon-ordered purge of
Ivy Leaguers, about which Nixon had a complex (Ed was from Yale).
Ed and his wife June, whom he met in the agency, settled in a
Georgetown apartment, which became a new base of operations for
working with Fuller, on the Synergetics volumes especially.
Applewhite's wryly humorous Cosmic Fishing (1977) details the
process of coaching Fuller through this very busy period and
struggling with Macmillan to keep the ball rolling.
Hugh Kenner, James Joyce scholar, professor of literature, and
erstwhile columnist for Byte magazine, was another key player
in Bucky's universe. Kenner wrote Geodesic Math and How to
Use It (1976) one of the first and most thoughtful 'how to'
books for early dome pioneers, and a biography Bucky (1973).
Kenner also gave Fuller some airplay in The Pound Era (1973),
his narrative account and weaving together of poetic threads in
the 20th century. Kenner also wrote the intro to Applewhite's
Post-synergetics, Fuller produced Critical Path (1981) and
its short sequel Grunch of Giants (1983) as culminating volumes
designed to show how a new chapter of human history might take off with
the application of "design science" to human affairs. True
to form, he attached some degree of teleological inevitability to these
developments, provided humanity managed to not blow itself up before
it attained a new level of maturity. Cosmography (1992) was published
posthumously, with final editing by Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Fuller's adjuvant
(catalyst) on Critical Path as well.
Fuller had a lot of faith in the young to eventually come to
grips with their situation aboard Spaceship Earth (his coin) and
saw his role as one of providing big picture viewpoints with a
minimum of misinformation -- a self-perception many of his critics
consider ironic in light of the off-beat speculation and analysis
contained in these later works. Col. L. Fletcher Prouty
cites Critical Path as an "important book," considers Fuller a discerning
writer, but then Prouty was the career Washington insider upon whom the shadowy
"Man X" in Oliver Stone's movie JFK was modeled. President
Ronald Reagan awarded Fuller a Medal of Freedom in 1983, capping a long series
of prizes and honorary degrees.
Some efforts are being made to link to synergetics from more
established philosophy of mathematics syllabi, by way of Ludwig
Wittgenstein's investigations in particular. Fuller's
"operational mathematics", inspired by P.W. Bridgman,
synchronizes well with Wittgenstein's "meaning through use"
doctrine. Key terms in synergetics (e.g. "dimension" and "4D")
gain their meaning through the usage patterns containing them,
giving the work as a whole the appearance of a gear-works or
machine -- a "tautology" in the sense that "it works" (or
doesn't, according to critics).
To the list of aforementioned polar pairs, we might add the
sense vs. nonsense dichotomy as used in Wittgenstein's
Tractatus, and come to understand "tensegrity" as a metaphor
for "the world" (more customary in philosophical circles than
Fuller's "Universe"). Kirby Urner (the author of this account)
has been spearheading these efforts to dovetail synergetics
with a more mainstream style of philosophy via his growing body
of writings on the World Wide Web.
Fuller's apolitical approach to grand strategizing, which
features his own nationless world projection as a game board,
has been continued by the World Game Institute (WGI), among
other entities, under the leadership of Medard Gabel. The WGI
gymnasium-sized map has been upgraded using imagery provided
by Tony DeVarco of WorldSat, and using Robert Gray's computer
Peter Meisen's group (GENI) has continued lobbying to have
more critical gaps closed in the global electrical grid, and
organized a centennial event around Fuller and design science
in San Diego (1995) which brought together a lot of key
players continuing the work (Tony Gwilliam, Amy Edmondson,
Don Richter, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Bonnie and Tony DeVarco,
Harold Kroto, Robert Snyder and Allegra Fuller Snyder...).
Jay Baldwin, co-founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, recently
authored Bucky Works (1996), which details some of his ongoing
projects around the Garden of Eden dome and its skin of argon-filled
translucent pillows, made of Tefzel (a DuPont product). In June of 1999,
Joachim Krausse and Claude Lichtenstein unveiled their traveling exhibit
of Fuller's works at the Museum
of Design in Zurich, and released a companion volume Your Private
Sky (524 pages). This retrospective draws extensively from the Chronofile,
which was aquired from Fuller's estate by Stanford
University later this same year.
A burgeoning network of interlinked websites,
plus a growing interest in 'tensegrity' in academic circles, as evidenced
by a cover story in Scientific American (January, 1998) and a
feature on "Mathematics and Tensegrity" in The American
Scientist (March-April 1998), suggests that a Fuller-invested curriculum
is very much alive and growing. Arthur Loeb at Harvard, contributor
to Synergetics (intro and addendum) and his pupil Amy Edmondson,
author of A Fuller Explanation (1987) have likewise helped connect
a somewhat dense and difficult philosophy to a more mainstream and interdisciplinary
Finally, Fuller's "concentric hierarchy", a system of nested
polyhedra centered around a unit-volume tetrahedron, which
lives at the core of Fuller's metaphoric language of synergetics, has
gained a following among some classroom teachers, who find it an easy
on-ramp for kids wanting to explore spatial geometry. The concentric
hierarchy fits into a sphere packing environment and associated lattice
dubbed the "isotropic vector matrix" by Fuller (equivalent to
the octet truss) and successfully streamlines and systematizes a lot of
The "skeleton key" to all of these aspects of the ongoing work
is a centralizing philosophy, synergetics. As our western
calendars roll over to mark a new millenium, perhaps we will
use the occasion to make a fresh beginning, in part by
exploring more deeply and appreciatively what this pioneering
20th century conceptual engineer has helped to set in motion
on behalf of his fellow beings.
Synergetics on the Web
maintained by Kirby Urner