instrumentalism, n.:  the pragmatic theory of John Dewey (1859-1952) that thought exists as an instrument of adjustment to the environment; especially that terms of thought and meaning are relative to the function they perform and that their validity or truth is determined by their efficacy. [OED]

the invention of barbed wire enabled the fencing of the North American Midwest; this technology allowed for fences to be constructed without using large amounts of timber, enabling a radical shift in settlement patterns, changing the plains from free-range ranches to fenced farms.

According to Robert Dewey [no relation], John Dewey’s instrumentalist theory of knowledge holds that “the activities of thinking and knowing occur when an organism experiences conflict within a specific situation.”  As such, ideas are something of an action plan which themselves function as instruments by seeking to resolve or negotiate contingencies.

Instrumentalism does not imply that speculations, fictions, and critique have no place, but rather that a spectator position which assumes a world that can be observed through the senses and then conceptualized and rationalized is not valid.  John Dewey was interested in undoing the spectator theory of knowledge.  He vociferously argued for grappling with situations as a full participant, rather than spectator, and for engaging the medium at hand through intentional experimentation.  For Dewey, ideas are “instruments used by [people] to guide them in reorganizing their environment and initiating new lines of action.”  As a consequence, the object of knowledge is the future- consequences and possibilities- rather than rationalizing the observed past.

landscape instrumentalism, n. [a provisional definition]; a theory of landscape stating that a focus on instrumentality- the functioning of instruments themselves- as a material practice in the design process offers the capacity for generating new forms, programs, and landscape types.  In this theory instruments are understood to include tools, the human body and cognitive process.

While far from identical, the notion of landscape instrumentalism shares a lineage with the instrumentalism of American pragmatist John Dewey.  His conception of thinking as an instrumental process builds on David Nye’s assertion that using tools and composing a narrative are similar processes.  Applied more broadly to include not only cognitive thought but also tools and techniques [technology], the concept of landscape instrumentalism reinforces Walter Benjamin’s insight that “technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relations between nature and man.”  The techniques, instruments and ideas that construe a technology mediate the confrontation between organisms and aspects of the environment in a specific situation and allow for modes of resistance or lines of reorganization to be constructed or attempted through experimentation/implementation.

With an emphasis on engaged experimentation, an instrumental theory of landscape brings to the front the following:  “if that is the answer, what was the question?”


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