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Occam action

October 13, 2009

straight_razor_0098.mainWhen I’m in town, I like to have lunch at a little spot called Occam’s Cafe.

(to the tune of The Nearness of You):

It’s not the plain food that excites me

Nor low cost that delights me

Oh no,

It’s the words that they use.

On the wall of the cafe is my all time favourite pithy and apt translation of the phrase popularly attributed to William of Occam (c. 1288 – c. 1348):

“entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem”

This is often rendered into English as Occam’s Razor: when you have competing theories which predict the same outcome, the simplest one is the best. Occam’s Razor is most frequently used this way in the scientific method to prefer explanations with the fewest assumptions.

This is not the only translation; my rusty schoolgirl Latin concurs with  Wikipedia “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. The cafe owners, however, have lettered their side wall in glorious orange 300 point Helvetica:

“What can be done with less is done in vain with more.”

There are so many reasons to love this little aphorism. It applies to movement: a philosophical summary of the Feldenkrais Method, and to the essence of beautiful tango. It applies to architectural design, and design in any field for that matter. It applies to environmental sustainability. It applies to…etc etc – your suggestions welcome – .

What I like to ponder as I dip my buttered toast into my tomato soup is how difficult this desirable advice is for humans to follow. We do so like to complicate things. Back in the day when I taught architectural design I constantly counseled students to do less – although in those days I couched it in Mies Van Der Rohe’s dictum “Less is more”. And these days I encourage people to find ease of movement by learning to do less.

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