Graham King

In a letter to Lewis Mumford, dated 30th December 1928,written from Scots College Montpellier, Patrick Geddes wrote: "I have given your name to Dr.J.H.Cousins, formerly of the Irish poets - now a theosophist, but the sanest and least critical of any I ever met. He is to be in N.Y. for some time - & is worth talking with: he gives me the impression of a live educator, bringing round his doctrinaires to common sense, yet without loss of idealism - indeed towards better direction of it".(Novak 1995)

Who was J.H.Cousins, and why was Patrick Geddes so impressed? Where and when did they meet? How relevant are their views today? . And why, while Geddes is still remembered as a famous international figure, an important force in town planning, and a passionate advocate of synthesis, does Cousins remain so little known? In fact they met in India in the 1920's where they both taught, finding a close affinity not only between their ideas on synthesis in thought and action, but also for the importance of eastern thought in their shared philosophies. In this essay I seek to explore their Indian credentials, compare and contrast their thinking, and assess its validity in terms of contemporary thought on synthesis and sustainable development and the need for integration in policy development and action.

Geddes' connections with India are well known. He visited four times between 1914 and 1924, staying for two and a half years between 1916 and 1919. Whilst there he surveyed countless cities and also crystallised his thoughts on synthesis as Professor of Civics and Sociology at Bombay University. Helen Meller, in her biography, (Meller 1995) records the enthusiastic address Geddes gave to the Madras Literary Society on the integration of culture, history and urban form of the Indian temple cities. Writing to the Maharaja of Kapurthala in 1917 he described how the transitions in an Indian city "form an inseparably interwoven structure", (not) "as an involved network of thoroughfares dividing masses of building blocks, but as a great chessboard on which the manifold game of life is in active progress"(Tyrwhitt 1947).

Cousins for his part came to India in 1915 from Ireland where with W.B. Yeats he was one of the pioneers of the Irish Literary and Dramatic Revival. In India he became Director of the School of Synthetical Study (Brahmaridya Ashrama) at Adyar, Madras from 1922 to 1928, later becoming Principal of Madnapalle College,where he wrote "Study in Synthesis" based on "a lifetime of thought, research and experience"(Cousins 1934). A footnote in that book refers to a Summer School in Madras in 1928,so it is likely that it was at one of these he crossed paths with Geddes who was frequently in Madras.

Geddes' interest in India had begun many years before. In Chicago in February 1900 he had met the famous Indian guru Swami Vivekanda. Philip Boardman records of this meeting with "the apostle of the Vedanta" how "the eastern discipline of body and mind made such a lasting impression on both Anna (Geddes' wife) and Patrick that they later handed on to their young children the simple Raja Yoga exercises for control of the inner nature" (Boardman 1978). Vivekananda was a charismatic figure seeking to build bridges between east and west. One of his disciples, an English woman known as Sister Nivedita, became a close friend, and wrote a book incorporating his ideas she entitled "The Web of Indian Life". Geddes also met the Swami again at the World Fair in Paris later that year.

The poet Rabindranath Tagore also became a lasting friend following their initial meeting at the Darjeeling Summer Meeting in 1917. Later they co-operated on plans for an International University in India "to bring East and West together for the benefit of humanity". In a letter to him Geddes proposed a three-fold approach to action reflecting the unity of life based on Dharma or Right Conduct (the social foundation integrating ethics with economics); Behaviour (individual Mind and Body, i.e. thought and feelings); and Life as practical activity. Other Indian contacts included Ghandi, the physicist J.C.Bose, various Maharajahs and, of course, the local people as he walked their dusty streets, courts and alleyways.

Geddes also met Annie Besant, then President of the Theosophical Society, and they visited the old temple-city of Conjeveram together. He had first met her in the 1870's when he was a student. Annie Besant had similar interests in a synthesis of eastern and western ideas and Cousins' book is dedicated to her in the following manner:

" to the individual synthesis of
intuition & action
thought & feeling
masculine & feminine
youth & age
east and west
past & future".

Geddes own cosmology can be expressed numerically in the following terms:

  • a unified "web of life" acknowledging the symbiotic nature of the living world based on the life-force (or elan vital of Henri Bergson)

  • a two-fold life process of action and re-action involving the organism and its environment (but similarly also between body and mind)
  • his triad of Folk-Work-Place paralleled by Organism-Function-Environment; also the Cosmosphere as the world of things(from solar systems to dewdrops),the Biosphere(realm of organisms),and the Sociosphere (kingdom of man)

  • his four chambers of the "ledger of life" expressed in his famous diagram (see Diagram 1) as a synthetical process encompassing Acts, Facts, Dreams and Deeds, emphasising especially relations between the objective out-world and the subjective in-world, and the active and the passive, each complementing the other.


While these ideas had been gestating for most of his academic life, drawing on a wealth of European sources and his own experience, their fusion with Indian thought is, I believe, revealed by Cousins' own cosmology, which not only parallels Geddes' approach, but also clearly reveals their indebtedness to oriental thinking:

  • First, Cousins' basic position was one of a unified world expressed in a text from the Upanishad: "they who see but One in all the changing manifoldness of this universe -- unto them belongs eternal Truth";
  • Secondly, he cited what William James called "the total pull and pressure of the cosmos",
    involving two main directions of movement, either towards disintegration or integration, or similarly towards analysis or synthesis, personalised in Hindu thought as Radha and Krishna (the dance of life);
  • Thirdly, Cousins acknowledged the cosmic trinity of substance (or matter), organisation (or pattern), and consciousness (or energy) which animates the world of which mankind is a part, giving examples from both the Hindu imagination and Buddhist philosophy;

Finally, Cousins' "organum of synthesis" was based on recognition of the four fundamental human capacities of: intuition, emotion, cognition and action, each with an in-turned (subjective) and out-turned (objective) aspect as represented in the diagrams shown here ( 2A,2B).


So for cognition we are able to differentiate between contemplation, whose expression is philosophy (essentially inwards) and observation whose expression is science (essentially outwards); and for emotion between religious aspiration (essentially inwards) and art as creative expression (essentially outwards). Cousins also illustrated how the intuition co-ordinates the human mental, emotional and physical attributes in similar fashion to Geddes' notion of "psychic co-ordination" (Geddes 1931). In this connection, while Cousins chose to identify his schema with the Hindu Gods Shiva and Shakti, Geddes preferred the Greek pantheon: "our diagram turns out to be that of Parnassus, the home of the nine Muses"(Geddes 1949).


The affinity with Geddes' thinking is clear as the diagrams illustrate. Both stress the importance of the objective and subjective realms; both stress the need to engage both the cognitive and the emotional capacities, although Geddes builds a far more complex and dynamic picture focussing on "place" as well as individual and collective endeavour (or civics). Both are deeply committed to the intuitive intelligence as part of a wider cosmic or spiritual power.

Although Geddes' biographer Helen Meller (Meller 1995) disparagingly dismisses his attempts at grand synthesis in the light of scientific advances, there are again contemporary thinkers grappling with the big picture. I have selected two with particular affinity to both Geddes and Cousins: Fritjof Capra and Ken Wilber.

In his book "The Tao of Physics", Capra also contrasts modern scientific thinking with Buddhist and Hindu philosophy which rather than separate the perceived world into separate objects, accepts the flux and fluidity of life, emphasising relationships and patterns: the primordial web of life symbolized by Indra's net. His subsequent book, actually entitled "The Web of Life", is sub-titled "a New Synthesis of Mind and Matter" and in it he sets out his own three-fold criteria of a living system, remarkably like that of Cousins, comprising:

  • a pattern of organisation (or form )
  • a structure or physical embodiment;
  • And a process (the flow of energy that
    animates, sustains and inter-penetrates both pattern and structure).

For Capra this holistic and ecological understanding, with cognition seen as the process of living, would enable us to better plan for sustainable communities, committed to inter-dependence, widespread involvement, support for natural systems, recycling and energy saving.

Wilber clearly echoes Geddes. His three-fold schema views evolution as the unfolding manifestation of spirit from matter (the cosmos), through life (the bio-sphere) to mind (or human consciousness). Following a trawl of the world's great cosmologies -- east and west -- he discovers "certain patterns repeating themselves in all three domains" (Wilber 1996).His basic premise is that all entities are both whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole, similar, say, to Christopher Alexander's pattern language for architecture or Geddes' reciprocal organisms. He calls these "holons".

Like Geddes and Cousins, Wilber uses a four- quartile diagram to present his general framework, as shown overleaf (Diagram 3). It too is based on recognising the objective and subjective realms of knowledge which he expands to accommodate the three languages we use in relating to the world -- I, We, and It. Empirical science essentially deals with objects, with "its"; morals and ethics concern "we" and our inter-subjective world; "I" involves art, aesthetics and self-expression. He sees the same distinctions in oriental traditions, with Buddha as the ultimate I, We as Sangha (or community), and the It as Dharma or objective fact or truth. Their disassociation, he believes, has led to what Lewis Mumford has described as "the disqualified universe" where analysis supplants synthesis and the subjective realm is squeezed out.

It was the core of Geddes' life's work in thought and action to restore that balance and ensure that things do connect. Today we call this "integration", expressed as joined-up government, the partnership principle, or sustainability appraisal. There are exhortations for policies to be "integrated and pursued simultaneously", as in the Welsh Assembly's Draft Planning Policy Guidance (Welsh Assembly 2001), and tool-kits such as "The Quality of Life Capital"( Countryside Agency 2001) offering a unified approach to evaluation which includes the qualitative and subjective aspects as well as those based on "hard" science. "Integration, integration, integration" is the contemporary mantra, but as Wilber reminds us, it needs to be accompanied by the counter movement of differentiation, by acknowledgement of distinctive differences.

Drawing directly on the Geddes legacy, Lewis Mumford recognised this in his book "The Culture of Cities", published in 1938 (Mumford 1938), when he warned of unity by suppression, through reduction to unnecessary simplicity, rather than unity by inclusion where "a multitude of different patterns become elements in a more complex configuration". In the same book he set out his "leading ideas" on the forthcoming "organic order":

  • respect for the primacy of life and nature (sustainability);
  • acknowledgement of autonomous but perpetually-related organisms (Wilber's holons);
  • for the planner and other professionals a new way of thinking which involves the "disappearance of the boundary walls between the inner and the outer, the conscious and the unconscious, the external and the internal environment".

Mumford was recognising the need for a shift from the command and control mentality to one of partnership and participation, with the planner as animateur, enabler, guide, mentor, and monitor, relating closely to all interests in the community, (Geddes' civics), and respecting natural limits (Geddes' bio-technics, our sustainability).

Whether or not Mumford met Dr.Cousins in New York, it is clear that through Mumford's contacts and correspondence with Geddes, whom he addressed as Master, the spirit of their thinking, despite strong objection from the scientific establishment, continued to gently ferment. Geddes' "bio-technics" became Mumford's "organic planning", which in turn, in the light of looming planetary disaster, became our "sustainable development", complete with social and economic dimensions, as Mumford and Geddes would have wished. Cousins' contribution surely lay in confirming for Geddes the need for the fullest development and integration of the individual human faculties as the basis for synergistic action.

Today, with the advent of sustainable development, as practitioners we are exploring new ways to connect our activities and take account of natural systems. Coastal zone management serves as a useful paradigm for illustrating this shift. The potential force of dynamic natural processes upon the often fragile and vulnerable nature of marine eco-systems requires a very special approach, one which also recognises the important impact of human activities. With the vagaries of climate change, and the growing frequency of extreme physical events, including widespread flooding, these concerns have now spread to urban and rural planning more generally. The social and economic dimension of urban regeneration and the problems of our rural areas are also demanding new forms of participation and new styles of partnership. In the field of transport, too, the call for integration for all modes in all circumstances is particularly strident, also encompassing traffic calming and mixed use development to reduce travel.

It is easy to pay lip service to such credos. Professional attitudes though do not shift so easily. Objectivity, consistency, impartiality, and professional attachment to time-honoured technical codes, can easily be defences against change when they deny imaginative and flexible responses to fresh circumstances.

Planning, therefore, needs to become more active-reactive rather than pro-active; a more responsive and flexible development control deserves a higher profile as it responds to the pressure of unpredictable events . There will continue to be a plethora of plans, formal and informal, but the emphasis of the planner's skill will shift to keener observation of the "organism", Geddes' "active sympathy" bearing upon the subject of scrutiny in all its richness and relatedness. Thinking-in-context will become as natural as breathing, breath, of course, being a core metaphor in oriental philosophy for the alert consciousness, as Geddes would have appreciated.

Sustainable development is sufficiently ambiguous to attract support from many camps. The danger is that a narrow focus on integration could become merely the one-dimensional technical application of the goals of secular humanism, the triumph of method. Geddes' more rounded concept of synthesis serves to remind us of the consequences if we ignore the other dimensions.


1.Boardman, Philip. 1978. The Worlds of Patrick Geddes. Routledge and Kegan Paul
2.Capra, Fritjof. 1995. The Tao of Physics. Harper Collins
3.Capra, Fritjof. 1996. The Web of Life. Harper Collins
4.Countryside Agency. 2001. The Quality of Life Capital
5.Cousins, James H. 1934. A Study in Synthesis. Ganesh & Co, Madras
6.Geddes, Patrick. 1949. Cities in Evolution. Williams and Norgate
7.Geddes, Patrick with Thomson J.A.. 1931 Life: Outlines of General Biology. Williams and Norgate
8.Meller, Helen. 1990. Patrick Geddes: Social Evolutionist and City Planner. Routledge
9.Mumford, Lewis. 1938. The Culture of Cities. Secker and Warburg
10.National Assembly of Wales. 2001. Draft Planning Policy Guidance
11.Novak, Frank G. Jr.(Ed). 1995. Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes: The Correspondence
12.Tyrwhitt, Jacqueline. 1947 Patrick Geddes in India.
13.Wilber, Ken. 1996 A Brief History of Everything. Newleaf