Feature Stories

R. Buckminster Fuller:
A 20th Century Philosopher

by Kirby Urner
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 Fuller.

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 overspecialize.

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 thing).

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 his student.

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 Cosmic Fishing.

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 algorithms.

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 syllabus.

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 "inter-geared" concepts.

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

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