Great summary of A. James Gregor’s Totalitarianism and Political Religion

Dennis B. Mulcare’s Amazon review of A. James Gregor‘s Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History is such a thorough and clear a summary of the book, I’ve decided to post it here:

Note that the subtitle of this book, “An Intellectual History”, indicates that the scholarly evolution and consolidation of ideas and strategies integral to totalitarianism are the major focus of this book. This perspective contrasts with a necessarily selective recounting of persons, events, and outcomes in the large that typify history books in general. To me, the author’s focus is a big plus: more direct and immediate engagement of the origins, motivations, and rationales regarding historical happenings versus third-party recapitulations, reconstructions, and/or interpretations of those happenings. In “Totalitarianism and Political Religion” then, far more coverage is accorded to the seminal thinkers and energizing concepts behind 20th century totalitarian ideologies than to the historical figures, activities, and outcomes involved in their actualizations.

As the central concept of this book, a political religion is a faith-based political movement that embodies an institutionalized belief system. In its essence and organization, it sacralizes a profane base of power, thereby undergirding a system of coercive governance. During the early twentieth century, moreover, each of the three full-fledged totalitarian governments enlisted a customized political religion to motivate and control its population. In my understanding, the following elements in concert characterize or explicate the concepts and modus operandi common to the three aforementioned regimes:

1. Totalitarianism is a class of ideologies that seeks to control all aspects of life, commerce, and governance within a country or politically organized unit. Its doctrine and rationale are captured in an ideology, which typically relies on a political religion for its realization and dynamism.

2. An ideology is an all-encompassing doctrine that purports to explain the essence and workings of the world, and to prescribe or to proscribe the behavior of the humans within a polity. In all, an ideology is a closed worldview that claims to be secular in nature and to have an infallible basis grounded in science.

3. The ideologies of Leninism, Fascism, and Nazism were intellectually fully developed prior to their respective articulations and implementations by Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Largely, this book describes the historical trajectory of the intellectual evolution of each of these three “-isms”.

4. Sacralization is the ascription to a profane concept or object of the attributes that are normally properties or practices of traditional transcendent religions. The intent is to co-opt the natural religious tendencies if not the spiritual fervor of humans for purposes of the regime.

5. Instances of political religions examined in this book are: History as religion – per Engels & Marx; Revolution as religion – per Lenin; State as religion – per Mussolini; and Race as religion – per Hitler. All four cases in their particular manifestations share the salient characteristics of a generic political religion.

6. The de facto if implicit centrality of political religions in the above ideologies belies their claims of secular nature. Similarly, their emphatic normative prescriptions/proscriptions wholly discredit their scientific pretenses. In all cases, the various ideologies are based on faith, and not on empirical evidence or logical arguments.

7. Ultimately, the realization of a totalitarian ideology is seen to depend on a combination of: societal predispositions and circumstances; fanatical commitment to seeking power; technological resources to promote/enforce the ideological doctrine; and a suitable political religion. The latter serves to resonate with a society’s extant predispositions, to activate/sustain ideological doctrine, and to exploit the spiritual proclivities of humans in general.

For me, this book provided several novel and powerful insights, as well as learned exemplifications of some notions I had already possessed. New insights included: the seeming universal recognition among political theorists of the innate and persistent spiritual core of humans; and the force and persistence of ideas over their application, and hence the dominance of thinkers over practical or worldly political leaders (not that thinkers and leaders are mutually exclusive categories). Reinforced or exemplified notions were: the fanatical compulsion of certain activists to force their presumptuous, fatuous visions of worldly salvation on hapless populations; and the recurring reliance upon emotional appeals to engender and maintain popular support for a regime or its agenda.

Although the subject of this book would seem to be rather specialized, I believe that its treatment by the author possesses genuine appeal for many serious readers. In focusing on intellectual history, moreover, this book addresses a topic meriting broader interest, and in so doing fathoming WHY certain things can have happened as they did. Of lesser relative interest, to me at least, are general historical accounts describing factually or speculatively WHAT ostensibly did happen. Such a tradeoff reduces to addressing the core essence of a generic matter versus engaging the broader particularities of instances thereof. The former option, coupled with the author’s thoughtful and revealing exposition of a very important topic, underlies my high regard for “Totalitarianism and Political Religion”.

What would a designed philosophy look like?

I’ve been bothered by a simple question: if philosophy is, as I believe, a design discipline, what is 1) its material, 2) its specifications (“deliverables”, the plan of the designed thing), 3) its artifact (the designed thing itself), and 4) its actualization (the actual using of the designed thing), the qualities of which are the ultimate, but indirect, goal of design work?

I am asking this way, not because of some compulsion for finding structural parallels (and it is fair to suspect me of such things!), but because the problem became less bothersome when I saw parallels. Ultimately, as with every other kind of design, the ultimate intended effect of philosophy is practical and experiential, and experiences are painfully indirect. The practical, experiential, indirect nature of philosophy was what set me down this path of inquiry.

To get things as concrete as possible I will answer the question with two design disciplines I know well, UX and service design.

With UX, 1) the material is digital media (screens and other interfaces, and the underlying systems which enable and constrain what is possible); 2) the specifications are process flows and screen schematics (wireframes); 3) the artifact is the software or site; and 4) the actualization is a good user experience — effortless, pleasant and fruitful interaction with the software.

With service design, 1) the material is the entire extended organization (including not only the whole organization, including employees, partners, physical and digital infrastructure, practices/processes, policies, etc., but every point where value is co-created by delivery of the service, that is, with customers and users of the service); 2) the specifications are moment architectures and service blueprints; 3) the artifact is the service in its various forms across delivery channels; 4) the actualization is a good service experience for every actor involved in delivering, supporting or receiving the service.

So, giving philosophy this same treatment, 1) the material of philosophy is language in the most general sense (including not only words but symbols of every kind); 2) the specifications are lessons in the most general sense (books, essays, lectures, conversations, arguments, models, paradigms); 3) the artifact is concepts (understood as thought-producing mental behaviors, which is confusing because these behaviors are impossible to state directly and factually, but must be demonstrated); 4) the actualization is a thoroughly second-natural way of understanding (meaning that it becomes spontaneous and transparent) some domain of life (or the entirety of life) in a way experienced as better. By better, I mean more comprehensible, more livable and more valuable. By better, I mean we are able to avoid feeling perplexed, bewildered or indifferent to our lives.

As with all design, the work must be done with the actualization in mind, which is why the process is one of iterative experiment with direct involvement with those who will finally actualize the design. This is why human-centered design practice, or, in the case of service design, polycentric design practice are not specialized types of design but, simply, design competence. The implications to the practice of philosophy are significant. Does this help explain why philosophers crave conversation? Is the attempt to persuade an informal kind of philosophy design practice?

This is a first crack, so everything is up for discussion.

A word on extremism

An ideology that views certain traits or tendencies even in a weak, attenuated form, even in the form of a private belief,  as violent extremism in embryo — and therefore deserving preemptive attack as if it were already violent — is itself an actualized extremist ideology.

Such ideologies call many things “violent”: harboring detestable beliefs attitudes or feelings; tolerating detestable beliefs, attitudes or feelings; using words it doesn’t like; using words it does like but using them improperly; refraining from doing and saying what it believes ought to be done or said (aka “silence”); and, increasingly, failing to cooperate with attempts to expurgate unconscious beliefs and biases lurking undetected in one’s soul. A typical example of this use of the word “violence”:

“There’s this anxiety over saying the wrong thing,” says deandre miles-hercules, a PhD linguistics student who focuses on sociocultural linguistic research on race, gender, and sexuality. “And so instead of maybe doing a little research, understanding the history and the different semantic valences of a particular term to decide for yourself, or to understand the appropriateness of a use in a particular context, people generally go, ‘Tell me the word, and I will use the word.’ They’re not interested in learning things about the history of the term, or the context in which it’s appropriate.”

But miles-hercules argues that while people may not intend harm when they use identity labels inaccurately, their inaccuracy is still harmful. “People tune in to this, ‘What is the word? Do I call you African American? Do I call you Black? What is the word that people are preferring these days? I know I can’t call you Negro anymore! So just tell me the word so I can use it and we can go on from there,’” they say. “But that lacks in nuance. And that lack of nuance is a violence.”

Does it occur to miles-hercules that forcing a non-linguist to do research on other people’s latest linguistic research and understanding its theory and practice in order to acquire the skills to satisfy the requirements of one particular school of linguists (and whatever form of “accountability” or “consequences” is deemed appropriate by this group if their requirements are not met) — is itself violent? Are such questions ever asked?

Where do beliefs like these lead — beliefs which do not hesitate to take real social, physical, technological, economic and legislative action, to prevent others from doing the same in the future?

Recall the progression from 1) being expected to conceal one’s own thoughts, 2) to being required (usually by people with power)  to act according to ideological dictates, 3) to being required to make modifications to one’s own soul, even at the unconscious level — again by people with power.

The sphere of control an ideology of this kind claims has no logical limits.

It is time to call it what it is. It is a strain of totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism and Political Religion

I think A. James Gregor’s  Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History will be the next book I read.

(Of course, I will set aside my strong disagreement on the characterization these movements as religious in nature. As so often happens, it appears Gregor confuses religion with that ubiquitous antireligion which often goes by the name “fundamentalism”, mistakenly viewed as religious extremism. I will never stop arguing that fundamentalism is the furthest thing from an extreme form of religion. Rather, fundamentalism is extreme misconception of religion — one that drives its adherents to extremes of persecution of whatever transcends its mental possessions, its mental idols. Authentic religion assists one to seek relationship with what transcends one’s own mental possessions — most of all idols. But I am digressing into what will surely become a tantrum if I don’t stop now.)

Here is the introduction to the book.

The twentieth was perhaps the most destructive century in human history. Certainly, more lives and property were consumed through willful human agency during those years than in any other comparable period of time. Human beings killed each other, and destroyed things, with such serious application that the entire century bore a nightmare quality. Millions upon millions perished. Entire cities disappeared — and whole continents seemed shaken. At the end, millions of broken human beings returned to shattered homes — and only few really could remember what it had been all about. We were told it was all madness — as though that might serve as explanation. In fact, the tragedy deserves more of an accounting than that.

Surely it was a time of madness, but the unnumbered dead of the past century deserve something more than that simple affirmation. The work before the reader attempts to provide something of an interpretive story of that doleful time — its beliefs, its passions, and its temper. Amid all the other factors that contributed to the tragedy, there was a kind of creedal ferocity that made every exchange a matter of existential importance. The twentieth century was host to systems of doctrinal conviction that made unorthodox belief a capital affront, made conflict mortal, and all enterprise sacrificial. Such belief systems were predicated on moral persuasions so intense and inflexible that they could tolerate only an absolute unanimity of opinion within their sphere of influence. Nor was unanimity expected only in opinions held. Entire categories of human beings — conceived somehow “alien” — were condemned to destruction because of some indelible deficiency — membership in some offending economic class, or as product of a blighted biological provenance. Communities so circumstanced became jealous of their homogeneity, their infrangible unity. In such an environment, thought became “ideological,” so that any opposition, no matter how temporary or trivial, appeared to threaten the extirpation of a faith, an insult to an entire manner of life.

The century saw the emergence of governments that charged themselves with the responsibility of governing lives in such fashion as to leave little to personal choice. Life was seen as willing service, implicit duty, spontaneous sacrifice, and selfless toil — and politics the infallible guide to it all. There were special books, written by special authors — that were to be venerated. There were Leaders, chosen by God or History — or both as one — who were Saviors, and Prophets, and All Seeing Sages. There were unitary political parties that were repositories of impeccable truth, sure science, and intuitive verities. There were guardians of it all — “vanguards,” and “hierarchies,” and “central committees,” all equipped with answers to all the questions that have puzzled human beings since the beginnings of consciousness. And there were “New Men” who would people a redeemed creation.

In war and peace these political systems demanded more of their subjects than any other system of government in human memory. In war, there was a ferocity and an ardor rarely experienced. Millions gave themselves over to combat without reserve. Whole populations continued to fight when everything was lost. We have identified those systems so typified by a variety of names — as “dictatorships,” as “despotisms,” as “totalitarianisms,” and sometimes, when passions somewhat abated, as “administered societies.” Whatever the names given, there was something in such systems that was unique — that sometimes did not register among those who saw in them something “regenerative.” That something was alive with a kind of fervor we have almost always identified with religion, spontaneous or institutional.

That is what this work has chosen to address: that clutch of ideas, identified as “political religion” that animates the systems considered. The presence of a political religion among all the other variables that shape events explains neither the history of those systems nor that of the twentieth century. The argument here is that the discussion of the role of political religion in such systems contributes to our general understanding of the complex period under consideration. The twentieth century was the product of so many contributing factors that no single insight could pretend to account for it all. The contention here is that a collection of beliefs, that share properties with the religions with which we have been familiar, operated in the twentieth century to make the contest of ideas and the challenge of arms more ferocious and destructive than they might otherwise have been.

We shall be concerned here with the history of such ideas. It cannot be an exhaustive history. That would exceed both the capacity of the author and the patience of the reader. Neither can it be a “true” account of the ideas of any of the authors to whom reference is made. It is not at all clear what the “truth” of any of the ideas of a political theorist might be — so many of their ideas defy any known process of confirmation. At best, what is attempted is to show that revolutionary leaders have referred to the work of political theorists and have drawn from that work certain implications. It is left to others to attempt to explain how and why ideas make human beings behave as they do — or in what circumstances such ideas become effective.

The work before the reader will attempt to deliver an account of the ideas that inspired many in the twentieth century, convincing them to live, to labor, to sacrifice, to obey, and to fight and die in their service. It will attempt to give dimension to the terrible tragedy of the twentieth century. It will be an account of secular faiths, bearing many names. It will speak of Marxism-Leninisms, of Fascism, and of National Socialism. Many have dealt with these ideologies as having the qualities of religion. It is hoped that this work contributes something to that important discussion.


Redemption by design

Rorty, being intensely Rorty:

…the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature. Monotheistic religion offers hope for redemption through entering into a new relation to a supremely powerful nonhuman person. Belief in the articles of a creed may be only incidental to such a relationship. For philosophy, however, beliefs are of the essence. Redemption by philosophy is through the acquisition of a set of beliefs that represent things in the one way they really are. Literature, finally, offers redemption through making the acquaintance of as great a variety of human beings as possible. Here again, as in religion, true belief may be of little importance.

And redemption by design is arranging the elements of life — people, things, ideas, etc. — in systems that allow them to cooperate for mutual benefit, however benefit is conceived by the cooperating agents.


I would like to count among the number of cooperating agents, “infrapersons” — psychic components of personality whose dynamic relations produce myriad moods, feelings, experiential colorings. Different designs will engage different infrapersons. Writing with a Bic pen or a #2 Ticonderoga is a different experience because it engages different infrapersons than writing with a Pelikan Souveran M800 or a Rotring 600 pencil. Sitting in a cubicle under a cold fluorescent strobe suppresses elements of self that might come out when sitting under sparkling halogen in a studio space. We feel more “like ourselves” when more of our self — more of our own infrapersons — have an opportunity to emerge and participate in our living. An important task of designers is to acknowledge and serve neglected infrapersons. To the degree it accomplishes this, design generates excitement, newness and je ne sais quoi. Cynics might dismiss this as slaking appetites for pointless consumption, but this is an uncharitable view of the profound relationship people can have with things in the world. I view these proud “anti-materialism” sentiments as a leftist strain of “not of this world” puritanism.)

Philosophical images

Ancient Greece gave us the concept of philosopher-king.

The classical 18th century contributed the image of the philosophe, the philosopher-liberal.

The romantic 19th century created the ideal philosopher-poet.

The rationalist 20th century specified many species and sub-species of philosopher-specialist, each with its own technical vocabulary, incomprehensible outside its own specialized discourse.

I hope the 21st century will instaurate a great variety of philosopher-designers.

Szymborska, “A Word on Statistics”

“A Word on Statistics”
by Wislawa Szymborska

Out of every hundred people,
those who always know better:

Unsure of every step:
almost all the rest.

Ready to help,
if it doesn’t take long:

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four – well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

when forced by circumstances:
it’s better not to know,
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life except things:
thirty (though I would like to be wrong).

Balled up in pain
and without a flashlight in the dark:
eighty-three, sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few, thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:

Worthy of empathy:

one hundred out of one hundred
a figure that has never varied yet.

Moral meta-judgments

I have (in agonistic dialogue with Nick Gall) found a way to distinguish a relative value from a universal moral principle in pragmatic terms. What, precisely, is the difference that makes a difference if we believe in universal moral principles?

My short answer is that if we believe a universal moral principle applies to a judgment, we assign moral value to agreeing with the judgment.

If we believe our judgment is a relative value judgment, we do not assign moral value to agreeing with it.


I initially framed this as a thought experiment. Imagine Witness A who witnesses an act committed by Actor B, and later reflects on the act with Co-witness C.

Witness A judges Actor B’s act as abhorrent. Co-witness C judges it as okay.

If Witness A understands her judgment as one of relative value, she will still see actor B’s behavior as bad, but will view Co-witness C’s judgment as merely different from her own.

However, if Witness A understands her judgment as one of universal morality, she will judge actor B’s behavior as bad, and meta-judge Co-witness C’s judgment as also bad.


The universality of a universal moral principle applies less to the object of judgment than to the judging subject. What is universal is the meta-judgment, the belief that here all competent judges should agree.


Now, of course, what I am saying sets up an infinite regression. But now I’ll get all tricky and say that willingness to keep regressing is also a sign of holding universal moral principles, and refusal to even begin, makes one a value relativist.

We can also do the Rortian move and break apart our naive moral realist reaction from our account of why we are having the reaction. (“I, for one, will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice, even though I know they are just socially-contingent feelings.”) This move seems aimed primarily at weakening our meta-judgments. (“Because my emotions are socially contingent, it is acceptable for you to not share them.”)

The move could be made to work not only on our judgments, but also our meta-judgments (and our meta-meta-judgments). (“I will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice and also tolerance of injustice, even though they just my socially-contingent feelings.”) But now what does this line of thought do?

So far, I cannot see any pragmatic consequence for this move unless it nullifies our meta-judgments. All I can come up with we might adopt this strategy for the sake of conceptual coherence — keeping our understanding of how things hang together hanging together better.

For me, this move is an unacceptable tradeoff — of sincerity for theoretical coherence. I am unable to avoid having negative judgments of nonjudgmental attitudes toward certain clear cut cases of viciousness. However much I call them epiphenomenal, I believe these judgments and meta-judgments are valid, and act on their validity.

I can’t say way — not yet, anyway —but this prioritization of sincerity over coherence strikes me as being a matter of relative values, of philosophical taste. I do not expect everyone to prioritize sincerity over coherence, and I do not meta-judge those with different priorities.

Philosophy adoption

Susan asked: how is the philosophy design you envision different from Kuhnian paradigm shifts? The answer she extracted from me gets to the heart of my project, and I will need to emphasize this point in Second Natural: The physical sciences, and the attitude toward truth inspired by the physical sciences places all emphasis on epistemic and practical knowing (“what” and “how”) and trades off moral (valuative) knowing (“why”), which becomes a sort of ethic of scientificality. “The truth hurts” and being scientific means embracing the pain of sacrificing all other values.

But if we accept that we live in a truly pluralistic reality, and embrace the consequence that no single philosophy is capable of accounting for reality without strategically excluding, distorting or underemphasizing some realities in favor of others, we are freed question this tradeoff. A new scientific paradigm may give physicists a new way to conceptualize some stubbornly puzzling corner of their field, but these advantages might not be worth what is given up for ordinary people whose conceptual needs differ from those of physicists.

Once we see concepts as tools for selective perception, categorization and reasoning which permit some kinds of response and suppress others, we are freed (to a degree) to think of philosophies, components of philosophies and philosophical implications as matters of adoption. We can say physics theories what the best atheists say of God: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” If our concerns do later come in contact with theological or scientific problems, we might have to rework our personal philosophies in order to faithfully contend with their claims. This is especially true if we wish to win the respect of those communities and persuade them to accept our own beliefs. But this is not all that different from the adoption of any other technology that integrates with its design context.

Approaching the designerly

In the 20th Century everyone aspired to be scientific. Unfortunately, the image of science and scientific knowledge was distorted by rationalist fantasies, and attempts at scientific practice were encumbered — and, in fact, sterilized — by misnorms.

In the 21st Century we we are off to a good start, aspiring to be designerly. However the image of design is also distorted and many key design practices are either omitted or falsified. Too much emphasis is placed on “creativity” and too little on the social conditions productive of (and produced by) effective design collaboration. Design practice is still a romantic antithesis to 20th Century misconceptions of science and engineering — which bog design down with the same sterilizing burdens that has plagued scientism.

What is needed is a better synthesis of science/technology/engineering and design that supports a more productive (or should I say “serviceable”?) redrawing of the definitional boundaries, divisions of labor and collaboration, and organizational relationships between the disciplines associated with deploying technology for human purposes.

My primary tradeoffs

To me, preserving fidelity to reality (as I experience it) is more important than coherence, consistency or completeness of any explanation. I will make pronounced tradeoffs, and leave explanations in extreme states of disrepair to preserve this fidelity, especially to the subtle signals of my genuine conviction.

Three quotes form a chord that reinforces this commitment.

The two principles of the new life. — First principle: life should be ordered on the basis of what is most certain and most demonstrable, not as hitherto on that of what is most remote, indefinite and no more than a cloud on the horizon. Second principle: the order of succession of what is closest and most immediate, less close and less immediate, certain and less certain, should be firmly established before one orders one’s life and gives it a definitive direction.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” – Charles Peirce

What… are the characteristics of a good scientific theory? Among a number of quite usual answers I select five, not because they are exhaustive, but because they are individually important and collectively sufficiently varied to indicate what is at stake. First, a theory should be accurate: within its domain, that is, consequences deducible from a theory should be in demonstrated agreement with the results of existing experiments and observations. Second, a theory should be consistent, not only internally or with itself, but also with other currently accepted theories applicable to related aspects of nature. Third, it should have broad scope: in particular, a theory’s consequences should extend far beyond the particular observations, laws, or subtheories it was initially designed to explain. Fourth, and closely related, it should be simple, bringing order to phenomena that in its absence would be individually isolated and, as a set, confused. Fifth — a somewhat less standard item, but one of special importance to actual scientific decisions — a theory should be fruitful of new research findings: it should, that is, disclose new phenomena or previously unnoted relationships among those already known. These five characteristics — accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness — are all standard criteria for evaluating the adequacy of a theory.” – Thomas Kuhn

Service design research FAQ

When you work on a project with Harmonic it is very likely you will have the opportunity to participate in design research. This is something many people have never done before. We find that some people are either curious or anxious about what they can expect.

The following is a list of questions I’ve been asked more than a few times, and the answers I’ve given that seem to help people new to service design research feel informed and prepared, expressed in my own voice. Some of my fellow Harmonicas have expressed concern over how some of my answers are worded, so please know that anything here that strikes you as overstated or impolitic has likely been left in despite the advice of my colleagues.

Why are we doing so much research?

Short answer: Understanding the people involved in the service is, by far, the most important thing a team can do to ensure the success of a service.

Services are provided by people, for people. If you understand the people who receive the service, provide the service, and support the service behind the scenes (what we call in general terms the “actors” in a service) our chances of designing a service people value is far more likely. Our goal is to design services that people find useful, convenient and emotionally satisfying — the kinds of experiences that generate brand loyalty.

But people are surprising. Often what we think we know about them (even what we think we know about people in general) is wrong, and in ways that obscure real opportunities to improve their lives. Having a unique understanding of people gives a team access to new perspectives, new ways of thinking about serving them and can drive innovation and differentiation that is not only different but remarkable and relevant. (We call this “precision inspiration”.)

What kinds of research do you do?

To put it in the simplest terms, we think of our research in terms of foundational research (which helps us understand the actors who receive the service and those who provide and support it, which includes their needs, attitudes, behavior, contexts and worldviews), generative research (which helps us discover opportunities and conceive new ideas for improving service experiences), and evaluative research (which helps us see what ideas are most valuable to actors and how they can be made even more valuable). All these methods are qualitative, which means they are conducted with small numbers of people with a goal of gaining deep insights into not only what they do, and how they do it, but why they think, feel and behave the way they do. Most of the research we do contains elements of foundational, generative and evaluative research, but toward the beginning of most projects, the emphasis is on foundational and generative research, so most of what will be discussed here will focus on these.

Why do we need to do research with our own front-line employees?

Often when a company’s services fall short, it has little to do with the competence or attitudes of the employees who deliver the service. It has much more to do with how employees are evaluated or compensated, policies that limit what they can do for customers, or require them to do things customers don’t want. Or employees lack information needed to help. Or the systems they use get in their ways. Or employees are starting from behind, trying to salvage an already damaged experience, and (in extreme cases) numbed from constant exposure to customer anger. In other words, often a bad experience is not the employees’ fault, or anyone’s fault. The service has just organically evolved into something that isn’t working out for everyone.

And more often than not, no one person understands every factor that is contributing to the problem. The people on the front line who know the problems well are not always in a position to change the situation. And the people with the power to make changes are often far from the sites where the service is delivered and are operating with incomplete and sometimes incorrect information.

We do research with employees to help understand the big service delivery system, so we can find ways to make everyones’ lives easier. And we try to talk with them in ways that encourage them to tell us the full, unfiltered truth as they experience it, which is why we favor individual sessions, or sessions with small teams who collaborate together, especially when we are talking with front-line employees. We can only get the full truth if they are relaxed enough to speak freely and naturally.

How do we decide who we are going to talk with?

In order to ensure we are designing a service that works for everyone, we talk with a representative cross-section of people who use or might use the service we are designing. We are interested in both what they have in common, but also any important differences that might need to be considered.

Using what we learn from members of the client team, stakeholders we interview and available existing research we study, we list all the factors that might change the needs or attitudes or use contexts of the people involved in the service. These are developed into criteria we will use to determine the kinds of people we need to talk to.

Then we develop quotas for each of the criteria. We try to get at least three participants who have each of the criteria we identify, so we can get a sense of how that factor might affect the service. We try to get three because this is the minimum number where we can tell the difference between idiosyncratic answers and typical ones.

These quotas are used to recruit our research participants.

Why do we call them “participants”?

We call the people we invite to our sessions “participants” because they play such an active role in the session. Participant might even be an understatement. Effectively, we are asking them to play the role of teacher, and to help us understand who they are, what their life is like, and what they need and want in a service. We do design activities meant to help them do this teaching, but these are tools to aid the collaborative process of generating understanding.

Aren’t your sample sizes awfully small?

Typically, we will talk with twelve to twenty-four customers and with the same number of employees. To a person accustomed to marketing research, yes, this looks like a puny sample. The small samples make more sense, though, when you realize that what we are after is not only answers to questions — questions we think are the right ones to ask — but an understanding of how people see the world. This can sometimes help us see new non-obvious questions or even help us see that we have been asking the wrong questions!

The kind of research we do, especially early in the process, is designed to help people teach us about their lives, their needs, their way seeing the world, the significance of the service and its context to what they care about. This is very different from surveying them or asking them a list of questions. Imagine if you were learning a new subject at school, but instead of allowing the teacher to explain the subject to you, trying instead to survey the teacher to get the factual data you think you need to pass your tests. To allow someone to teach it is important to allow them to present information in their own way to convey the material in its own terms. (I like to believe we use the word “subject” to refer both to academic subjects and human subjects because we come to understand them by allowing ourselves to be taught.)

Instead of asking our participants a long list of question invite people to tell us stories, to help us understand how they see the world, to help them communicate what is most relevant to them, and in general to help us understand what questions we should ask them to learn what we need to know to design the best service for them.

By the time we are done with the first round of research, we have the information needed to design much better quantitative research. If you start with quantitative research, you’ll have a bigger sample, but you risk having statistically significant answers to insignificant, irrelevant questions.

How do we decide what we will do in the sessions?

We start our process by identifying the research objective: what does the research need to do in order to support the design? This is often mostly a re-statement of the project goal. We need to inform the design of the service by understanding all the people involved in it, their lives and how they might engage the service.

Then we identify areas of inquiry. In order to achieve the research objective, what will we need to learn about. Areas of inquiry are not questions — they are topics the team will ask to be taught about in various ways.

Once the areas of inquiry are defined and agreed upon, the team designs the research approach. It will include interview questions and interactive exercises designed to give the research participant opportunities to learn about the areas of opportunity.

The team then writes up a research protocol (sometimes called a “research guide”) and designs the materials used in the session.

It is important to note that the protocol is not a script. Some parts of it might be read like a script at some points, but the facilitator will use the protocol loosely to pace the session and to ensure the areas of inquiry are covered. But it is only a guide, and facilitators will often deviate from it. The goal of a session is to get the participant to teach, and that means keeping it conversational and giving the participant enough space to tell us things we might not have anticipated. Our sessions are designed for uncovering the unexpected — because this is where the biggest opportunities come to light.

Who from my organization should attend sessions?

Ideally, everyone would attend. Realistically, at least one person from any department or role that will be involved in shaping or delivering the service based on the research should be involved in the research.

We recommend this for two reasons. First, different roles notices different things in the sessions, and interprets them in different ways. Having a wide range of disciplinary lenses present in the sessions enriches the team’s understanding of what it hears.

Second, service design touches many roles throughout the organization. We believe people have a right to help shape their own futures. But pragmatically, it is a great way to build alignment, credibility, ownership and enthusiasm for initiatives if respected members of the teams who will contribute to the service were directly involved in shaping the service, and can explain why the service was designed the way it is.

What do I need to do to prepare for a session?

Generally, very little preparation work is needed. If you are observing a session the team will give you everything you need to know before the session. Often the team will schedule an orientation session to help everyone understand the purpose of the research and the flow of the session. Anyone who is playing an active support role will get additional training. Prior to each session the facilitator will remind everyone of what they need to know.

Generally, for in-person field research, everyone involved in a session will be given all the equipment they need. If the session is remote, you’ll want to bring a notebook and something to write with. We ask that you do not use your laptop for note-taking when conducting an in-person session.

What are the sessions like?

Typically sessions last ninety minutes, and are followed by a debrief that lasts between thirty minutes to an hour. Please plan to attend the debrief for your session, because this is a very important part of our process.

Normally, the session starts with an overview. The facilitator thanks the participant and explains the purpose of the session. The people attending the session are quickly introduced. Then the facilitator gives an overview of the session and sets the participant at ease by telling them that we are here to learn from them, that there are no wrong answers, that it is okay if they don’t remember everything and most of all to please tell us the full unfiltered truth about their experiences, and to not worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. We will sometimes joke with them and generally do whatever it takes to make them feel comfortable and ready to converse naturally with us. We answer whatever questions they have and make sure they have filled in the required release forms, understand the compensation and give us permission to record.

Then we usually start with an interview, leading with some easy warm up questions. We learn about who they are. We will sometimes ask them their opinion on something tangential and fun to answer. Where do they like to eat, or what is their current favorite service? Then we get background on how they use the service, what they value about it, how it compares to other services, etc. We also sometimes touch on their current brand perceptions.

Then we shift into a more interactive mode, and do some collaboration. Almost always will ask them to tell us stories that help us understand their needs, while we visually capture the story, step by step. We are interested in hearing about their whole experiences, not only the part where they might use the service. And we ask them to tell us not only what they did, but how they felt, what they were expecting, what they were thinking about, what they wanted to accomplish. We also might visualize their service ecosystem, inventorying the people, places, tools, and related services that make up their lives. Frequently the team will design other interactive exercises to help us get at needs, behaviors, attitudes and preferences.

Another activity we often do is show prototypes to participants and ask them to respond. By prototype, we mean any kind of artifact that allows the participant to imagine what it would be like to engage the service. It might be storyboards or screens, or we might ask them to act out service scenarios with us.

If all goes well, the facilitator will build enough rapport with the participant loosens up and feels free to express their feelings in their natural voice. We like to get these moments on video so we can show them to people who were not in the session. We want to help everyone in an organization relate to the humanity of their customers and the people who serve them, and to see the human impacts of decisions.

How do these sessions differ from pre-Covid times?

Online sessions are very similar to in-person. The big difference is how the activities are done. In-person, we are handing our participants the pen and asking them to interact with the materials. This is more difficult remotely. We are often using virtual surfaces, electronic sticky notes, and doing some of the interactions for the participants under their direction.

The dynamics are also a little different, especially for customers. When we do in-person session we often visit them in their homes, offices — in their spaces. We work hard to make them comfortable, but sometimes it takes a few minutes for them to get used to us being there. It seems to be a little easier to adjust to a video conference. The downside is there is a connection made in person, and insight you get from being in their space that doesn’t happen with the same intensity in a remote session.

The biggest positive tradeoffs are probably geographic flexibility and the simplification of logistics. With remote sessions it becomes affordable to recruit participants from many diverse regions instead of limiting sessions to a small set of locations. In-person sessions require a lot of coordination of people traveling to the market where the research is being conducted and ensuring they have transportation to and from the session location. Remote sessions remove most of this complexity.

Once Covid is overcome we return to relative normalcy, some of the methods developed to cope with the pandemic will stay in our toolbox and continue to be used to fit client needs and make optimal tradeoffs.

What am I supposed to do in a session?

There are multiple roles in a session. Generally, one person facilitates and one or more people assist. When we do sessions in-person we normally limit the number of people in the session to three, not counting the participant. Participants are not used to research, and they can get stage-fright if too many people are staring at them. With remote sessions it is possible, though not desirable, to have more attendees.

If you are assisting with the research, you will get special instructions and training from the team on how to use the research tools. With remote sessions we sometimes ask for help operating our virtual whiteboards. With in-person sessions we sometimes need assistance with organizing materials or operating cameras. It is never terribly complicated, and you will never be put in any situations for which you were not prepared.

The primary thing to keep in mind is that we are trying to create a conversational dynamic. This requires some conditions that we do our best to set up and maintain. What we do not want to happen is for the session to feel or look like a meeting where multiple people are talking together, and this tends to be the default unless steps are taken to prevent it. When the session is in-person, we usually try to arrange ourselves so the facilitator and participant are facing each other and others present sit to the side out of the direct line of sight. With remote sessions, we often ask everyone to turn off their cameras and microphones except the facilitator, until it is time to open the session up for questions.

Taking notes is very important. Write down anything that speaks to the areas of inquiry, strikes you as relevant to how the service should be designed, or surprises you. And if the participant says any great quotes, capture as much of it as you can, or at least jot down some of the key words and roughly what time it was said so we can find it in the transcript later.

Your notes will be useful during the debrief.

What should I know about asking questions?

During the session, try to hold your questions or comments until the facilitator prompts participants. It can be helpful to write questions down as they occur to you.

Sometimes the facilitator has a specific way to ask the question in mind. And sometimes the facilitator will leave more silence after a question than is comfortable. Trust the facilitator, and resist the urge to jump in and clarify questions, or to try to help the participant answer or break awkward silences. It’s hard to do, but it is important.

When the floor is opened for questions, try to ask open-ended questions. The trick is to start the questions the right way. Starting with “Can you talk to us about…” or “Please tell us about when…” almost always finish well. Sentences that start with “Do you…” or “Would you…” are risky. If you notice your question has devolved into a multiple-choice and you are finding yourself stringing together a bunch of “or” options, your question is on the wrong track.

The good news is you can always interrupt yourself and say “Actually, let me try asking this question another way.”

What am I supposed to do in a debrief?

After the session ends, the team will reconvene for a debrief. This is one of the most important activities we do during field research. The purpose is to capture what was learned in the session while it is fresh in everyones’ mind.

The debrief facilitator interviews the team on each area of inquiry, documenting what was learned in a format that makes it easy to compare findings between different participants.

Often there are disagreements or differing interpretations of what was said, and this is good. The discussions around differing understandings are central to the process and helps the extended team align on what has been learned.

One thing to keep in mind: A debrief is not meant to be an exhaustive compiling of everyone’s notes in a single document. The debrief is meant to be a summary of what the group learned. Someone not in the session should be able to pick up a debrief and learn who was interviewed and how much was learned from that participant about each of the areas of inquiry. The debriefs are a powerful tool the team will use during analysis.

How do we make sense of what we hear?

When the field research is done, the team analyzes the debrief forms and the outputs from the activities, supported by video footage and/or transcripts of the session.

The analysis is done partly in collaboration with the people who helped do the research. Sometimes we will conduct an internal team interview to outline the high level findings of the research. We then use the debriefs and transcripts to guide discussions and exercises to find patterns and themes in what we learned.

We will also compare the stories we heard and look for commonalities and variants which are documented in an experience map which visually documents the experience customers and others are having receiving and delivering the experience.

When possible somewhere toward the middle of research analysis the team will invite employees of the organization into the analysis process. We call this Research Open Studio. We show people our raw research materials, including the stories we gathered, and selected footage from the sessions. We share the findings in their current rough state, along with the questions we are asking ourselves, and bring them into our conversation so they can share the thought process and the excitement of discovery.

When do we get a readout?

Often within a few days of completing the research the team will send out an informal top-line summary of findings, and sometimes will include links to the debriefs. But the full presentation of what the team has learned usually comes at the beginning of the next workshop, when the research is digested and interpreted to identify opportunities to improve or even reinvent the service and to generate new ideas.

What do we do with what we learn?

The research outputs are designed for multiple purposes. First, they are designed to communicate what was learned as clearly and compellingly as possible, and to help the organization align around a single version of the truth created by the extended team.

The second purpose of the research outputs is to serve as workshop tools, to help with opportunity identification and prioritization, idea generation, concept assessment and concept prioritization. The experience maps, the themes we identify and the other artifacts generated during research analysis become ideation canvases workshop participants use to think about experiences from a customer’s or front-liner’s perspective.

Am I going to love research and want to be involved in it as much as possible in the future?


Ingredients of political evil

  1. The incapacity to reason from any perspective but my own is ideological narrowness.
  2. The need to explain the complexity of life by reducing them to simple concepts is intellectual stuntedness.
  3. To undermine beliefs, judgments, feelings or actions of others using theories which I do not accept when used to cast doubt on my own beliefs, judgments, feelings or actions is intellectual hypocrisy.
  4. To judge others by different standards than those by which I judge myself is moral hypocrisy.
  5. Indifference to pain except that which I and my kind feel is empathy failure.
  6. The desire to make myself feel better by making another person feel worse is sadism.
  7. To listen only to those who agree with me, and to revile anyone who disagrees with me is tribalism.
  8. To attribute concealed malevolent motives to others despite their claims to believe and intend the opposite is paranoia.
  9. To see myself as exceptional, endowed with exceptional abilities, and entitled to exceptional treatment is hubris.
  10. To believe my own faith is ultimate and that there is nothing I can learn from my enemies is spiritual blindness.

These are all the ingredients of political evil I can think of.

My cultural assimilation

When I entered the work world, I had to abandon many of the cultural habits I’d acquired as a youth growing up weird in rural and semi-urban South Carolina.

Many of us in my social circle had developed a sort of subversive irony and had woven it into our personal styles, manners and subcultural customs. In everything we did and said, we signaled “I only work here.” If we were made to put on a suit and act straight, we wanted our act to be unconvincing: “This not me.”

We saw everyone who tried to assimilate and achieve as sell-out phonies, and any adoption of any externally imposed etiquette or shared efforts was beneath our dignity. We were proud to not belong.

After years of professional cultural assimilation, looking back I realize most of this worldview was just a punk-mutated form of standard working class attitudes — devices used to insulate and protect an individual’s dignity from the degradation of low-paying, low-autonomy jobs. My own family history straddles classes, and I believe a got a pretty strong dose of working class attitude as a kid, enough that I found well-adjusted, classier kids uninteresting and unfit for friendship.

Basically, in becoming professional, first through incredibly awkward attempts at code-switching, then later through genuine internalization I learned a couple of really important things I never could have learned without undergoing this incredibly uncomfortable, occasionally depressing, ordeal.

1) We cannot thrive in institutions we secretly despise. If we withhold ourselves, preserve our alienation, participate with reluctance and wear our membership like a mask, instead of figuring out some mode where we can be who we really are within the necessary constraints of social existence, our withholding is palpable to peers and leaders. If you are half-in and half-out, whether you know it or not, everyone around you feels it and knows it with immediate, intuitive certainty. And committed members of an organization will not — and should not — give you responsibility they know you will not own.

2) There is profound wisdom in professionalism. What seems like arbitrary etiquette that only signals in-group from out-group is in fact an organic social technology that permits members of organizations to function effectively and gracefully as collaborators, while protecting everyone from potentially conflicting personal idiosyncrasies. We suppress at work whatever is not needed to get the job done, not because it is essentially unacceptable and unworthy, but because it is sacred, unique and vulnerable and requiring the protection of privacy. Those things we keep to ourselves at work — or at least, in wiser times, used to keep to ourselves — politics, religion, controversial opinions — are the very things that might conflict, cause friction and drive unnecessary wedges between people who need to get along and work together.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be at least somewhat initiated into the professional world. If I’d chosen a counter-cultural life outside of business I may have clung to my romantic ideal of proud and principled alienation from the superficialities of professional life.

I am even more grateful I was not indoctrinated to believe that my childhood culture determined my essential identity  and defined who I am and who I must forever commit to being, lest I become a sell-out phony and a betrayer of my culture.

If I had been taught this, and learned to believe it with all my heart, I would have been left on the margins, locked out by my own refusal just to open the door and walk in. This would have been a disservice, a miseducation — a passing down of a self-defeating tradition.

We are not who we are because of culture, nor are we who we are despite culture. We discover who we are by collaborating with culture, experimenting with who we can be, and maturing into well-socialized but authentic individuals.

Genre Trouble

Thank you Richard Rorty:

“The more original a book or a kind of writing is, the more unprecedented, the less likely we are to have criteria in hand, and the less point there is in trying to assign it to a genre. We have to see whether we can find a use for it. If we can, then there will be time enough to stretch the borders of some genre or other far enough to slip it in, and to draw up criteria according to which it is a good kind of writing to have invented. Only metaphysicians think that our present genres and criteria exhaust the realm of possibility. Ironists continue to expand that realm.”

1) I love this quote. I have extreme trouble coloring inside the lines of preexisting genres, given the fact that my worldview is a synthesis of an esoteric and Nietzschean perversion of Pragmatism, a hall-of-mirrors reflective design practice, and an idiosyncratic take on religion bordering on universal heresy (which is why I’m Jewish). Consequently, I have little hope of (or interest in) writing a book that does not generate a genre. This is why I will need to continue to self-publish. I feel a combination of impatience and panic when it is suggested that I need to nail down my audience, as if they already exist, and write to them, for their sake.) Also, nobody is going to craft a book to my standards. I may need to buy letterpress and bookbinding equipment.

2) To find a use for a new kind of writing… The above passage was embedded in an extended pragmatic exploration of Derrida’s writing. Rorty suggested that we forget what Derrida was asserting, and instead ask: what was he doing with his writing? I like translating this to: Forget the content — what does his genre want to do, and why? He is doing something new with writing, and to allow it to do its new thing for us we have to release it from the purposes and rules governing the genre(s) of philosophy.

3) Point 2 is getting very close to my interests (which is hardly surprising given that Rorty is the proto- pragmatist pervert). To create a new kind of writing, then find a use for it — is very much, to my designerly eyes, like intellectual R&D. This follows the pattern of how many technologies are developed, especially very new and unfundable ones. Some playful or obsessive technologist in love with a problem or a material intuits a possibility and follows hunches to produce some ingenious invention. This invention inspires other similar types — lovers of engineering problems — to push it further, just to see what they can get it to do. Eventually, the inventing proliferates, refines and develops to the point where it attracts the attention of some practical mind who sees in this invention the key to solving some specific real-world problem. Now a technology is ready to cross the threshold between technology and product.

4) What kind of mind escorts a potentially useful technology through the journey that transforms it into a useful, usable and desirable product and out into the marketplace? Lots of people try to do this work. The ones who are best at shaping technologies into products (a.k.a. goods or services) that fit human needs, desires and life-practices are designers. Designers (whether they are called that or not) are the people who see human life as vast, complex, often messy, systems, and understand that products are subcomponents of these human systems. The success of a product hinges on how readily it integrates into these human systems. (Increasingly designers are considering more than end-user integration, and are getting involved in manufacturing, distribution, promotion, merchandising, purchase, use, service, disposal, recycling, etc.) Wherever human and nonhuman systems are meant to integrate, designers increase the chances the integration will succeed. Some designers see a technology and immediately grasp its product potential, others keep up with technologies of various kinds so when they are given a human problem they can play matchmaker between this problem and the solutions in their imaginations, still others start with a thorough understanding of people and their lives and learn to define these problems so they inspire solutions from more technological minds. The best designers do all three, and effectively straddle and blur (or, rather interweave and entangle) the lines between technological and human systems.

5) What if we view philosophy as it is done today as technological development? And applied philosophies as slightly more focused technologies carried a step closer to problem types? Is there not room for a discipline that uses design methods (especially HCD, human-centered design methods) to apply philosophical technologies to very particular cases. Such a discipline would research problematic situations and the people, things and contexts that constitute them, define problems to be solved with the help philosophical “technologies”, shape conceptual systems that resolve these problems and develop materials to help an organization adopt the improved, more useful, usable and desirable philosophy? What if we use deep HCD to throw organizational business-as-usual thinking into crisis, so that it clears the ground and opens it into perplexity (what Wittgenstein identified as the philosophical negative-space of “here I do not know how to move around”), upon which a new philosophy can be designed (“to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” as Sellars put it).

6) If I view my problem as a genre problem, I can say I want to write a book outlining a new discipline as the first (at least first self-conscious) product of this discipline. I want to design a philosophy of philosophy design. It will be erected on an assumed metaphysical foundation — a faith — that doing such a thing is not only permissible, but necessary. But, being a designed conceptual product, it will seek voluntary adoption instead of argumentative coercion. It will try to demonstrate that this discipline, viewed in this way, viewed from this carefully designed perspective will be a useful, usable and desirable way for certain kinds of people to live their lives and make their livings, and that (this will be secondary) that organizations that hire and support people who do this kind of work will help generate more usefulness, usability and desirability for its employees, partners and customers.

7) Whatever we call them — Organizational Philosophers? Concept Designers? POV Framers — they will be responsible for:

  • Understanding how different people involved in an organization or part of an organization (department, office, team, etc.) think;
  • How these ways of thinking converge, diverge, harmonize and conflict;
  • What tradeoffs each of these ways of thinking make in terms of what domains of knowledge they do a good job of comprehending and communicating, versus what they must deemphasize, ignore, suppress or neglect in order to have clarity?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of values — what values do they elevate and serve, and what must they deprioritize or sacrifice in order to focus their sense of purpose?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of method — what kinds of action does it guide effectively and what kinds of action does it misdirect, encumber or fail to support?
  • Analyzing what the organization wants to be and to accomplish, and determining what an organization’s thinking needs to help it comprehend, do and care about.
  • Leading the development of conceptual frameworks the organization can use to think together in order to better be and do what it aspires to.
  • Communicate and teach the new conceptual frameworks using various vehicles such as visual models, verbal and visual explanations, taxonomies, glossaries of shared vocabulary, reference materials and training programs.
  • Testing and iterating both the frameworks and the communication/teaching vehicles.
  • Socializing and encouraging adoption of concepts across the organization.

This is what I want to do with my life, and this book will be a justification, a description of how it should be thought about and done, and be a proof on concept of what the profession produces.

Now, this is just me writing about a possibility. I cannot guarantee it will stick, and I’m not even sure I didn’t just derail my original plan for Second Natural, but it is at least getting me closer to what my intuition seems to want me to talk about.

I did not start off meaning to write this post, but here we are.

This is why we read Richard Rorty.

Fake etymologies

In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Rorty repeatedly busts Heidegger for inventing fake etymologies. The accusation extends beyond the incorrectness of the claims — the very impulse to excavate more primordial and immediate meanings is impugned.

This is fascinating to me because I wholeheartedly share Heidegger’s love of etymologies, and Heidegger is a nasty enough son-of-a-bitch that if I agree with him on anything, I feel a strong need to lab-test, analyze and inspect that agreement very closely.

Of course, as I’ve said many times over the years, it only takes a trace of poison to turn something wholesome lethal, so I am unwilling to reject everything an evil genius says, just because it was said by an evil genius. In fact, that wholesale impulse is one of the more toxic substances I see in the poisoned minds around me. But that doesn’t mean I’m ingesting anything Heidegger says casually.

(If you can’t tell, I understand evil to be a function of one’s philosophy. I see evil as a kind of philosophical disease, not as an essential characteristic of any soul. Evil is curable. The treatment is metanoia. Metanoia, like many treatments, tastes nasty on the tongue. But so do many toxins, so how do we discern?)

For the record, I see the toxicity of Heidegger primarily in his hubristic concept of the They, which obligated him to despise everyone but his own hand-selected authorities. I ate this poison years ago, and it caused me some very serious and pleasurable problems, before I managed to expel it.

I’m also worried about another idea, espoused in both Heidegger and fellow Nazi and mystic, Eugen Herrigel, author of Zen in the Art of Archery, one that is even more important to me than etymologophelia, the ideal of tacit use and ontic fusion (my term) with equipment and environment. Heidegger called it ready-to-hand, and argued that this tacit ready-to-hand being, where a tool, such as a hammer, and a whole working environment, such as a workshop, becomes an organic extension of one’s own activity and one’s own being (as opposed to discrete objects which stand apart from us present-at-hand, which is an exceptional state caused by malfunction or a conscious effort to observe. This idea of ontic fusion is both profoundly important to me as a designer and a prime suspect in my ongoing investigation of totalitarian ideologies. My suspicion is that this desire to fuse with our worlds easily metastasizes into a desire to take ourselves — the bundle of intuitions that constitute our soul — into the soul of the world itself.

Is there a way to wordlessly fuse with our own world, while maintaining a pluralistic attitude toward reality, and especially toward those ornery bits of the world we call our neighbors? That’s one of the core problems in my next book.


I had a eureka moment earlier today. I should use the word “apprehension” instead of angst, anxiety or perplexity. The word is etymologically perfect, derived from from ad- towards + prehendere lay hold of. It is what we feel prior to comprehension, com- together + prehendere lay hold of. It is what we experience before we can say “hence…” and well before the idea is ready to hand. (Sadly, “hence”is less etymologically cooperative, having nothing at all to do with –hendere. And the word “hand” also refuses to play the -hendere game I want it to.) Then I thought “huh, that was too easy. Is this something I thought before — maybe even recently? I need to put these idea out before my memory is completely gone.

I do sort of want to write a chapbook called Apprehension now, though. I also need to do one called Eversion. I need a damn printing press.

Esoteric and exoteric philosophy

Once we learn to disbelieve in positive metaphysics and to think in terms other than presence, and we recognize that no Rortian “final vocabulary” is final, and we give up on the project of remaking society to conform our own private ideal, it seems to me this constitutes a wonderful philosophical craftsman’s philosophy to be applied in making useful, usable and desirable philosophies for nonphilosophers. These latter philosophies might use positive metaphysics, presence, codified moralities, and any number of apparitional apparatus to help give the philosophy the sort of form required for optimal use.

In a sense, philosopher’s philosophies and nonphilosopher’s philosophies divide into something analogous to what in traditional religions (or at least modern traditionalist theories of religion) call esoteric and exoteric. Esoteric religion is for those who dedicate their entire existence to religious pursuit, in coming to terms with a soul’s relationship with the Absolute, including the myriad illusory appearances that mediate that relationship. The exoteric philosophies cannot be said to be false, because they are not matters of fact; they are matters of interpretation. They make intentional tradeoffs toward wholesome value and action, at the expense of depth and precision of understanding.

All esoterisms cheerfully qualify the exoterisms they offer with disclaimers. “This is just a device for indicating a truth, not truth itself”, etc., but such qualifications are comprehensible only in light of esoteric insight. Exoteric qualifications function more as depth charges that sink with the seeker and detonate at the proper depth, simultaneously authenticating the teacher’s teaching, and destroying the exoteric construct the point it becomes an obstacle to further progress.


On one hand, living in a bigger city exposes you to lots of types of people. You get used to seeing a wide range of diverse races, cultures and ways of life around you all the time, and it takes a lot to freak you out.

But on the other hand, living in a smaller town you learn to have real relationships with people you would normally ignore or avoid if you had more choices. You just can’t be that selective about who you associate with. You have to figure out how to (more or less) get along with who is there, and so you learn to deal with diverse personalities. Differences of opinion (albeit in a narrower range) don’t freak you out.

Each produces its own kind of liberalism — and its own kind of provincialism.
Ideally, you grow up in a small town and move to a big city and then you are perfect and wonderful in every possible way.