Thinking inside the box

Posted on July 18th, 2016 by Julian Baggini

The Crick Centre has launched a major research and public engagement project exploring the planned restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster: Designing for Democracy. In the latest in our Designing for Democracy blog series our Philosopher in Residence, Julian Baggini, links Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, design and parliament.

Jeremy Bentham’s famous Panopticon is a good place to start when thinking about how to deal with the crumbling palace of Westminster. This is not because a prison is an apt starting point for a discussion on how to house MPs. Rather, Bentham’s Panopticon stands out in the history of political thought as a rare example of a theoretician paying close attention to details of architecture. Many have emphasised the importance of certain institutions, such as parliaments and courts of justice, but exactly how they should be built has generally been seen as a matter of irrelevant detail.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Image via Wikimedia Commons

As is often the case, theoreticians ignore what practitioners know to be important. Rulers have often given a lot of thought to where and how their centres of power are built. The Forbidden City in Beijing, for example, was constructed in the fifteenth century as the centre of Ming dynasty control. Its enclosed space is designed to keep the ruling elite entirely separate from the rest of the population. The public were not even allowed access to nearby Jingshan Hill, since that would have enabled them to see into the city.

When Bentham designed his Panopticon he illustrated one important reason why architecture needed to be brought into theory. The principle of the Panopticon is that the inmates would be observable 24 hours a day but would not know whether they were actually being watched at any given time. Bentham’s insight that this would change the behaviour of the prisoners was a striking realisation that physical surroundings can change the way we think.

No one in Bentham’s time knew enough about psychology to notice the wider implications of this. It seems that the Panopticon was seen as a particularly ingenious and idiosyncratic example of environment affecting thought. Now, however, we know much more about how the way we think is affected by all sorts of environmental cues. For instance, there has been a lot of research about how the size and shape of tables, and how people arrange themselves around them, affects how negotiations proceed.

Philosophers and political theorists of the past have been far too unaware of this. They have generally worked on the assumption that thinking and debate are entirely intellectual matters and that the physical spaces in which such discussion take place are irrelevant. We now know this to be naïve. Knowing that, we must take very seriously the idea that how we deal with the dilapidated Palace of Westminster is not simply an issue of sound financial management. The choices we make will affect how governance is done.

Consider just some of the things that we have very strong evidence from experimental psychology will affect how MPs make decisions. Before they even arrive, whether they see only the affluence and vibrancy of Westminster or will more of the environs of the losers will affect what is most salient in their minds as they ponder the state of the nation. In the chamber, they will be more adversarial is they are arranged facing each other across the floor rather than in a continuous circle. They will be more aware of the eyes of the nation watching them is there is a visible and large public gallery rather than a small one above their eye lines. They will make better decisions if there are facilities to keep them properly fed and watered rather than leaving them to sustain themselves on grabbed snacks. In a restored but unchanged palace they will feel the weight of history on them, but will be less cognisant of the demands of today and the call of the future. If the spaces outside the chamber are conducive to informal encounters there will be collaboration than if MPs end up spending most of their time in isolation, only meeting others in formal settings. In addition, the lighting, acoustics and even colour schemes of the work spaces are sure to affect how people work. The corporate world understands the basic principles behind all this, which is why so much thought has gone into the HQs of behemoths like Google and Facebook. The political world ought catch up.

US Secretary of State John Kerry at Facebook Headquarters. Image via US Department of State via Wikimedia Commons

Some might still be sceptical that any of these factors will really make a difference. At the end of the day, surely the design that passes will be that which has been decided on close deliberation is the best for the country. But that “surely” needs to be questioned. We know too much about the non-rational influences on how we think to accept the intellectual common sense that at the end of day, we can count on our capacities to reason to overcome any biases provoked by our environment. We should be way past the myth of the mind as pure intellect. Cognition is not only embodied, it is also located in a physical environment. To ignore that in the context of the people making the important decisions of the day would be a criminal act worthy of punishment in the Panopticon.



Julian Baggini is the Philosopher-in-Residence at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understading of Politics. He is the founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and is the author, co-author or editor of over 20 books including The Virtues of the Table, The Ego TrickWelcome to Everytown and, most recently, Freedom Regained (all Granta). Julian has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, as well as for the think tanks The Institute of Public Policy Research, Demos and Counterpoint, and has a PhD on the philosophy of personal identity . He has also appeared as a character in two Alexander McCall-Smith novels.

For more information, please visit Julian’s website Microphilosophy.


  • This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre; the Designing for Democracy project; or the Understanding Politics blog series.
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