R. Buckminster Fuller:
by Kirby Urner
A 20th Century Philosopher
Originally posted: May 11, 1998
Last updated: June 19, 2000
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
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
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
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,
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 (1005.50-56).
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
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." (
251.50) Philosphers tend to be put off by the geometry and
engineering content, which appears non-germane to their
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 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 and Grunch of Giants as
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 and 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
Eden Project in Cornwall, UK likewise uses a pillow design for
next-generation domes. In June of 1999, Joachim Krausse and
Claude Lichtenstein unveiled their traveling exhibit of Fuller's
works at the
Museum of Design in Zurich (other stops include London and
Japan), 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
Finally, Fuller's concentric
hierarchy, a system of nested polyhedra centered around a
unit-volume tetrahedron, which lives at the syntropic 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
For further reading:
Synergetics on the
maintained by Kirby Urner