A Celebration of Scholarship

Engaging in the Lifelong Search for Truth, Beauty and Justice

The 2015 President’s Lecture by Associate Professor of Philosophy Ken Palko 


A Notre Dame College faculty member has discovered a physical manifestation of an epistemological leap in philosophical thought.

Ken Palko, associate professor of philosophy at the College, links immaterial to material—philosophy to architecture—in the account of a little-known but “highly significant” European theorist who designed and built a house in the 1920s. Palko presented his original research at Notre Dame’s 2015 President’s Lecture.

According to Palko, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s construction project was intended to evidence the prevalent belief, and his own personal philosophy, at the time that mathematical logic is absolute truth. But when Wittgenstein failed to produce a structure that met his exacting requirements of mathematical precision, he altered his epistemology accordingly.

Later Wittgenstein would claim that understanding reality and aesthetics, even ethics and ultimately God, is based not in calculations and equations but rather in use as meaning.

Wittgenstein’s new insights evolved the discipline of philosophy, according to Palko, and fueled a growing transition in the field from long-standing mathematical logic to the advent of early relativism.

“Wittgenstein’s house stands as an important building not for what it accomplishes, but rather for what it fails to accomplish,” Palko wrote in his submission for the President’s Lecture.

The House

From 1926-1928, Wittgenstein conceived and oversaw construction of a home in Vienna, Austria, for his sister with “rigorous precision,” according to Palko. But the numbers would not measure up exactly in reality as they did on paper—or in Wittgenstein’s mind.

Wittgenstein designed the house to exact mathematical specifications, and he meticulously measured with a ruler each completed element against those calculations. But the physical never was equivalent to the philosophical.

According to Palko, Wittgenstein had custom radiators returned and rebuilt five times because they were not exact. The last versions to be replaced were only off by half of a millimeter.

In one room the measure from floor to ceiling was not consistent, so Wittgenstein had the ceiling torn out and recreated. The measure was only off by 3 millimeters.

Then three window panes were off by 3 centimeters, but his sister, who held the purse strings, finally forbade him to replace anything else.

“The entire building process literally defeats him and his logic,” Palko said. “He acknowledges that mathematical analytical order will not accomplish all that he thought it would.”


The Link

While Wittgenstein’s house may have led to a crisis of faith for its architect, Palko contends that it re-established a recorded history of collaboration across thought and temporal space.

Palko cites other examples of the relationship between philosophy and architecture that transcend recorded history: from the ancient Greeks building the Parthenon, a building that captures the essences of western culture and philosophy, to Gothic cathedrals that stand as visible representations to the medieval mind reaching for its creator to the “ever grander” sport stadiums and financial office towers of the present.

“To build requires the immaterial be transformed into the material; abstract ideas become physical structures,” Palko’s abstract states. “An epistemological leap across a metaphysical divide is made when man thinks (the philosopher) and builds (the architect).”

Wittgenstein’s logical, mathematical order defined perfection in his Tractatus, the first of two books published during his lifetime, according to Palko. But by the time Wittgenstein wrote his second, Philosophical Investigations—nearly a decade after building the house—he had abandoned fact and precision and was bordering on relativism.

“This house is the defining moment in his life. It gets him thinking differently about the world,” Palko said.

The Philosopher

According to Palko, Wittgenstein never earned a bachelor’s degree but taught philosophy at Cambridge University. He made his students come to his campus apartment for lectures and lessons rather than meet in a classroom—and he refused to let them take notes.

“He is the type of person who was not interested in achieving fame as an academic,” Palko said. “He is living philosophy.”

Wittgenstein later tended gardens at a monastery, but, according to Palko, even the monks did not want the philosopher around because he challenged their thinking.

So his sister offered Wittgenstein the job of architect for her new home. According to Palko, Wittgenstein used the project as a laboratory to test his philosophical beliefs. He tried to apply his abstract theories of mathematical logic to the practical, physical world of construction.

“But if your abstract theories break down, where does that leave your understanding of the world?” Palko asked. “This house challenges him. It forces him to rethink his understanding.”


The Faculty Member

Palko has his own story about how physical space altered his personal philosophy.

The Notre Dame faculty member started out as a student of architecture. During his third year pursuing the major as an undergraduate at Kent State University, Palko said he conceived a house with a load-bearing wall that was a 15- by 30-foot sheet of clear glass. No panes. No sash.

His professor explained to Palko that structure would require custom orders and cost millions of dollars just for that glass wall. He told Palko he would never be able to build that house.

“Yes, I can. It’s already built,” Palko replied. “It’s built in my mind.”

His professor then told him he was not an architect. He was a philosopher.

Palko eventually changed his major—but to economics. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Kent. Then he went on to earn his master’s degree in philosophy at Cleveland State University.

“Architecture changes the landscape of thought and experience, how you are moving through the world,” Palko said. “Space can reshape thinking.”

The Lecture

The Notre Dame President’s Lecture was instituted in 2008 as an ongoing, formal venue for the College’s faculty to share their scholarly activity with one another and the Notre Dame community.

Palko’s research and presentation were selected in a peer-review process from a pool of proposals submitted by faculty members at the College. A committee of professors from area colleges and universities named the winner and two runners-up, who present at the annual Faculty Research Symposium.

As the winner of the President’s Lecture competition, Palko received a $1,000 honorarium to present the speech. He donated it back to the College and asked the money be designated for the Honors Scholars Program he helps lead.

E.g., 06/18/19
E.g., 06/18/19