Transcending the axial religious worldview

Susan and I have been having very fruitful arguments over the universality of ethical principles. We’ve been spiraling in on what it is exactly that makes me actively pro-religion, but hostile — almost panicked — toward so much of conventional religious thought.

Below is an edited and slightly expanded version of a series of texts I sent her this morning.

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My concern is this: the worldview common to religions of the Axial/Ecumenic Age (which includes rabbinic Judaism) is a really well-crafted philosophy. It gives its adherents a well-balanced sense of clarity, ethical guidance and an intense influx of meaning.

The only real tradeoff (not experienced as a tradeoff at all by most religious people) is that this worldview is not acceptable or accessible for everyone. I’ve always been one of those people. So are the friends I most enjoy talking with.

Most of them are atheists because the conception of God and religiosity in general given in this worldview fails to resonate with any needs they feel, and the preliminary steps into the worldview offend their intellectual consciences. They haven’t found a conception of God that they can believe in, and they’ve seen many conceptions that repel them, so they do the only decent thing: they refrain from belief, or reject it and remain pessimistic that there’s any value to be found in it.

But for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to fully reject religion. I’ve kept digging into it, even when I’ve been disturbed by much of what I found. Through this process, I’ve discovered-learned-developed/instaurated an alternative religious worldview that is compatible with existing religious traditions (especially Judaism), but which has accomplished this by re-conceiving who God is, what religion is and does, what relationship is possible with a being who is essentially incomprehensible, and what it means to share a common faith (even when factual beliefs differ drastically).

I believe this new perspective on religion could address inarticulate needs many atheists have, and presents religion in a way that doesn’t interfere with their commitment to scientific rigor, avoids offending their sensitive and rigorous intellectual consciences, and can be authentically believed as true.

There is a conflict, however, when I try to share this newer worldview to people who have adopted the axial religious worldview, they hear it and say stuff like: “Sure, whatever, but that’s just philosophy.” Or “That’s just abstract thought, and I don’t feel God in it.” Even if they want to (which they rarely do), they cannot conceal their condescension.

My worldview is compatible with theirs, however — but to understand how, it is necessary to understand alterity (radical otherness) and grasp why the recognition they expect isn’t happening. Further, it is crucial to understand how this alterity is essential to a relationship with a God who is real, and not largely imaginary or conceptual. Any relationship with God must include awareness of God’s alterity and insights into what it is like to encounter it.

Religion is not only — even primarily — about being united in a common understanding and experience — it is about participating in an infinite being who is also largely alien to us and whose alterity arouses intense apprehension in our hearts, or to put it in more traditional religious language — who inspires dread as well as love.

Why do I think I have the right to make claims like this? When you are in a tiny minority, you don’t find commonality in the mainstream, and this is doubly so if the minority you belong to is not even acknowledged to exist at all. To overcome the isolation and loneliness of this condition, you have no choice but to learn to relate to otherness.

But if you are in a majority, the commonality you enjoy becomes so normal to you that you forget that it is not just a universal fabric of reality. And you are satisfied with that universality, even if you must exclude others to enjoy it fully. This complacence is impervious to argument. The only thing that overcomes it is courageous love.

(This is the line of thought that originally caused me to recognize and feel intense solidarity with other people with marginal experiences and perspectives,  and motivated me to understand the dynamics of power, knowledge and hegemony. This is why I have insight into the principles of critical theory that the progressivist upper class has appropriated in order to legitimize their hegemonic dominance. It is very devilishly clever. It connects with a very deep and important truth, but subverts it, perverts it, and transforms it into a tool for the most powerful to dominate, intimidate and humiliate the powerless in the name of justice.)

Conformist revolution

It is incredibly difficult for any one person to faithfully understand any other one person.

Things get harder for any group of people to agree on anything near a faithful understanding of one person, not least of which this entails the persons in the group understanding one another enough to agree.

It becomes easier if a group only attempts to understand the commonalities of persons in another group, which, of course means that the most elusive aspects that make persons within the group real persons, and not abstractions of people. This is how people are conceived in the public realm: impersonally.

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Existentialists spoke of people who wanted precisely to avoid faithful understandings of themselves, who wanted to deal with themselves impersonally. They perform the public abstraction of their self.

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In stable times conformists act out compliance. In stultifyingly stable times rebellion is a difficult, daring, necessary — and rare — act of defiant individuality.

In decadent times, the paradox of the conformist rebel appears. The conformist rebel imitates rebellious rebels from the past, and finds easy acceptance for doing so — receiving approval from authorities and peers, or even pats on the head or given special status, treats or rewards. The self-dissatisfied, self-alienated collectivity is trying to lose itself in its collective performance. When each player does their part the whole story feels like reality itself to all absorbed in the performance. When someone refuses to play along, the immersive illusion is threatened. One person bravely standing up to a majority that sees itself as taking a brave stand raises the question of who is courageous? Who is speaking their conscience and who is just going along with what everyone knows and how things are?

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If it is easy, it is not rebellion.

If there is no shame or doubt, there is nothing to be proud of.

If you are thanked, you are not doing the thankless work of independent thought.

The queen of design disciplines

When words mediate between our intentions and the doing of actions, this introduces a distancing layer and a feeling of artificiality. In order for an action to feel natural, language must not direct interpretation, or action.

This includes direct bodily actions. If we are thinking about what our body is doing or how it appears viewed from the outside, we will feel unnatural, or “self-conscious”. In dancing or in sports, it is important to make motions habitual. Reintroduction of directing language breaks the fluency and effectiveness of the movement.

It includes the using of tools. If we must think about how we are moving a tool it distracts from absorption in the task. Quality tools, physical or digital, allow users to direct focus on tasks while they are being performed without splitting attention between what is being done and how to do it. Such splitting of attention breaks the ready-to-hand transparency of the tool and makes flow states impossible, and the kind of output flow states enable. Every need to verbalize in tool use is an interruption of some magnitude and duration, and that interruption’s timing can be discreet or distracting.

This includes even the action of using language. If we are thinking about what we are saying while we are saying it, our language will be less natural and less spontaneously inventive. Language directed language has the same self-conscious stiltedness that self-conscious body movements have, even when a person is writing.

But I want to take this language-thinning ideal even further, into the realm of how we think and even how we perceive. I will argue that the very concepts we use are used best when they are not language-mediated, even if they are language-acquired (as are many body and tool-using skills. I will argue that when we present concepts through language, the concept itself is not linguistic, but can, among other things, tacitly direct language in fluent speech. The same concept, however, will direct our perception when we recognize a phenomenon as something, wordlessly anticipate what follows from it and spontaneously respond.

Our most wordless concepts are so deeply sedimented in our habits and experiences that we do not recognize that what seems most natural to us is second-natural. We are barely aware of how concepts focus our attention on some kinds of phenomena and not only neglect to perceive, but leave in blind, incomprehensible chaos whatever we lack concepts to understand or perceive. The concepts are not objective beliefs or even discrete attitudes, or anything that can be pointed to. Concepts exist behind objectivity and produce objectivity. Concepts are the very stuff of our subjectivity — what rings true, what feels intuitive, what can occur to us in vision or whim. When we say the word “everything”, the full pragmatic scope of what is included in everything is bounded by the concepts that enable conceivability and everything beyond lies dormant in pregnant blind inconceivability — void, ex nihilo, Ein Sof.

Concepts can be designed and redesigned.

A deep change in the design of one’s concepts can changes the entirety of one’s experience of the world, of life, of reality, of possibility, in myriad seemingly random details and all at one as a whole.

Concept design is a strange art, and I think it is what philosophy has become.

I want to argue that philosophy can and ought to be viewed as a design discipline, and should adopt many of the best practices and ideals — most of all, freedom, creativity and optimism.

 

Intentional extension

Reading Schutz’s observations of the “intentional gaze” I am realizing how important the concept of intentional mediation as a means to extend our intentionality (both active and receptive intention) is to my own thinking. This is the sentence that sparked it:

However, as I am always interpreting these perceptions as “body of another,” I am always interpreting them as something having an implicit reference to “consciousness of another.” Thus the bodily movements are perceived not only as physical events but also as a sign that the other person is having certain lived experiences which he is expressing through those movements. My intentional gaze is directed right through my perceptions of his bodily movements to his lived experiences lying behind them and signified by them signitive relation is essential to this mode of apprehending another’s lived experiences.

This concept of intentional gaze passing directly through a mediating phenomenon to an underlying reality (in a transparent and spontaneous act of interpretation) brings to mind a couple of seminal phenomenological example. The first is Merleau-Ponty’s blind man perceiving his path through his cane. The perception of the path passes transparently through the cane. The second is Heidegger’s concept of “ready-to-hand” where the intention passes from the body through the tool, and the tool becomes a transparent extension of the will.

Of course, as any praxis-aware designer knows, in tool use we are not simply acting on a passive object but interacting with some matter through the tool, in a complex feedback rhythm of acting and perceiving: crafting. (Crafting is the material form of instauration, the act of making-discovering. Crafting is discovering the possibilities of a material while also shaping the material in response to what is sensed as possible.) Most of our crafting is mediated through tools, through which we act upon an object and also through which we sometimes perceive the object and its possibilities.

So, between Heidegger’s will-extending hammer and Merleau-Ponty’s perception-extending blind man’s cane is a range of intention-extending instruments that mediate both action and perception.

And among these instruments is the most important instrument of all, concepts. Through concepts we perceive and respond to phenomena and, by extension, reality. (Thinking about concepts as transparent, mediating, intention-extending tools for forming perceptions, conceptions and consequent judgments, beliefs and actions — tools we can and should try out, compare and evaluate before adopting them is the subject of my next book, tentatively titled Second Natural.)

Obviously, seeing craft this way — and more generally, instauration — blurs the traditional boundaries between self and non-self, even beyond the blur generated by extended cognition, which is why I’ve called this “extended being”. But maybe calling it extended existence would be better.

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A couple of years ago, when I was reading postphenomenology, recalling the deep connections between phenomenology and existentialism, I wondered what the existential analogue of postphenomenology would look like. What could postexistentialism look like? If I weren’t all posted out, I might be tempted to call my design instrumentalism — this idea that we ought to treat our transparently intention-mediating concepts as designed artifacts that we can compare with alternatives, adopt, or modify or reject — as post existentialism. What could be a more radical form of self-determination and responsibility than to instaurate our concepts with intention?

The concept of concept

The word “concept” is ambiguous. In casual use we tend to treat a concept as the object of conception: an idea we can present to others. But we will also use it in ways that suggest a capacity to conceive. For instance, in math, a teacher will present a concept to a student in multiple ways until the student gets it, and everything snaps in place and becomes clear. What exactly does it mean that the student understands the concept?

The ambiguity can be resolved if we evert our understanding of concept — flip it inside out, reversing all subject-object, interior-exterior relationships. Instead of understanding concept primarily as an object of conception, concept is understood as the subject of conception.

(In other words, a concept is not conceived. A concept conceives. A concept may conceive an idea, or a judgment, or a relationship, or an argument, or a response. Even when we are understanding, we are conceiving — re-conceiving — an existing conception. When the eureka moment hits, what did not make sense suddenly does makes sense. When you repeat words that a moment ago were recited tentatively, you now state them confidently and fluently. The sentence that was a series of disconnected, isolated words is now infused with the coherence and lucidity of a concept — not only said, but meant.)

Even in the case of an object we call a “concept”, the real purpose of that object is to induce a subjective concept capable of “getting” the meaning of the object. It serves as an objective mold against which a subjective being can take shape.

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A concept is that which makes the experiential flux significant in some distinct way.

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Concepts resist conception, in the same way that we cannot see sight or hold onto holding. Concepts are that by which a subject conceives an object, and experiences it as something with significance. Concepts produce objectivity, but are not themselves objects.

This is why concepts can only be defined pragmatically. A concept can only be understood in terms of what it does. Trying to understand a concept by what it is — defining it objectively — renders the very concept of concept unintelligible.

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Pragmatic definition itself provides a fine example of how concepts work.

To understand a meaning pragmatically requires use of a concept.

I can provide C. S. Peirce’s formulation of the pragmatic maxim: “In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception.”

Without the concept by which this maxim becomes comprehensible, the maxim remains meaningless. But once the concept that renders the pragmatic maxim comprehensible is acquired, the concept is available for use in conceiving and understanding pragmatically, without any explicit reference to the maxim which engendered the concept. The more it is used, the more concept is simply a second-natural, undetected act of understanding, indistinguishable from the conception, or from the truth the conception knows, or from reality.

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Acquisition of concepts changes one’s experience of reality, bringing possibilities into conception that were literally inconceivable a moment before. New concepts often effect re-conceptions of existing understandings, spontaneously changing their significance. They can also cause us to perceive new features of reality which were imperceptible or chaotic and vague.

We have many words for these new concept events. Some are inspirational, where new concepts reinforce and strengthen concepts we are already using. They may be epiphanic and reorder much of what we think we know, bringing things into clarity which had been opaque, murky or troubling. Some concepts strike depths of change that are literally inconceivable until the concept irrupts ex nihilo and transfigures literally everything. This is when we talk about conversion.

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By understanding the role concepts play in our relationship with reality, it becomes possible to discuss religious experience without recourse to magical or superstition, which many thinkers, including myself, find intellectually unacceptable, or to psychology, which many religious people, including myself, find reductive, demoralizing and patronizing.

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Can concepts be intentionally changed? Yes.

Does that mean we can start with an intended outcome, such as believing something we want to believe, or feeling some specific way about life that we want to feel, and develop concepts to make us think or feel this desired way? Mostly, no.

We can, however, observe the outcomes of our concepts, and work to discover or create, or discover-create (instaurate) concepts with better outcomes.

And we can even do so with constraints or requirements in mind. Whatever we develop, we might want it to help us feel the value of life more. We might want it to guide our actions more effectively. We might want it to help us explain what cries out for explanation, or to argue for what needs to be argued.

Understanding concepts liberates us from the obligation to passively accept what is presented as truth, simply because it is true. We can also ask: True, how? And we can also ask: True, how else?

Understanding concepts empowers us for pluralist existence.

Report from holography camp

When I was a little nerd adolescent, I went to holography camp in a remote rural university village. Unfortunately, this village was full of attractive professor’s daughters who were so isolated from the rest of civilization they seemed unaware and unconcerned that we were nerds attending a holography camp. Consequently I learned more about the technical functioning of bra hooks than of lasers and holographic film.

But I did learn one fact about holograms that stuck with me, which is useful for designing metaphors. Every tiny cell on a plane of holographic film contains in its tiny cup-like parabolic interior an image of a whole environment as viewed from its own point on the film. Somehow when one beam of laser light is split into two beams, with one half of the beam illuminating an object and another projected directly on a sheet of holographic film,  the exposed film is imprinted with an interference pattern inside each of those cells. After the film is developed, each cell projects that interference pattern in a way that allows two different images to be seen by each of our eyes, creating a parallax effect — a perception of depth. That is everything I know about holography, plus several things I actually don’t really understand.  Maybe I should try building a metaphor on bra hooks, instead.

The concept: Every point in space, time and consciousness contains an overlapping image of the whole.

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Standing here, surveying the surrounding space, I understand the space as a field of virtual here-standpoints, each with its own surrounding space, which overlaps all other surrounding spaces. Pragmatically, “here” means all this, folded in implication, ready to unfold in action or explication.

And right now, reading Alfred Schutz, I understand time the same way. Every now is composed of complex tenses looking forward into the future and backward into the past at other virtual nows, each with its own past and future, which also be considered through nested verb tense modes. When we plan, at a virtual future now’s past in the mode of future perfect tense.

Repeat with the I, where every other self is understood as a virtual I, within which the actual and virtual time and space manifold repeats and overlaps.

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When I understand space, time and self in this enholistic — to distinguishing this subjective transcendental holism from the objective holism of systems thinkers, gestalt psychologists — I simply am religious.

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By the way, working on unhooking that bra strap has religious significance.

The sudden, intense, all-consuming awareness of the existence of a girl, as someone who looks back and perceives, thinks, feels and judges, is for many boys the first experience of transcendence. Because many people never experience any epiphanies of comparable intensity in any other sphere, romantic love has been  worshipped in popular culture.

Generational relationships to categories

When I was a young, pissed-off, alienated Gen-Xer (as if there was any other kind), we viewed categories with hostility. Not only did they never fit, they were rarely used with respectable intention.

When we saw someone approaching category in hand, things were not likely to go well. They’d clap the label on us, and proceed to deduce from it that we had characteristics a and b, that they could expect behaviors c and d, and — most importantly — demand that we perform duties x and y.

For most of us, there was only one category that fit us comfortably: none of the above. And these we couldn’t resist, which was all of them, we took it as a matter of course that they ranged from inadequate to ludicrous. We wanted to be unique. When we called each other freaks or weirdos, this was high praise!

Younger generations, however, seem to have much higher hopes for categories, and infinitely less regard for uniqueness. They seem to crave perfect categories, as an ideal self-description language. They seem to compelled to restlessly rework their categories and identity schemas, driven by a faith that with sufficient perfection these categories could somehow stand in for who they really are. They want their categories to function as a unique identifier, so anyone literate in identity could read the “speaking as a….” sequence and deduce the most important features of their selfhood from it.

But who could blame them, given how they were parented and educated? There is a huge downside to being the first digital-age baby boom.  They were born into a world where everything, including them, needs to be rapidly evaluated, scantron-style. They were groomed for mass processing. There were so many of these children to compare, to discipline, to train, to sort, to prepare for professional formatting, and there were relatively few adults left for parenting and education, seeing that tending children has been proven to be degrading, menial work that no truly talented, ambitious professional would choose. All the talented adults were off shoveling data from spreadsheet cell to spreadsheet cell, attending tedious depressing meetings, and making and selling disposable consumer products. Even before they were born, they were being IQ hacked in utero with Baby Einstein CDs. From the moment they were squeezed out of their moms, they were building resumes of impressive bullet points, learning “appropriate” behaviors, appealing to behavioral administrators to resolve every minor conflict, as they were rushed from milestone to milestone in their processing. And then social media hit, and even information was made tl;dr-proof. The bits got smaller and smaller, moved further and further from literature.

So, it is hardly surprising that younger generations cling to categories. Unique persons are utterly resistant to scanning. As far as their experience has taught them, category strings that can be decoded to produce a representation of who they are is the most reliable route to recognition. And so these categories are truly a matter of authentic being or oblivion.

I think this strategy cannot work. I think my old-fashioned existentialist disdain for categories as answers to the “who are you?” question is better. But the old answers and the old attitudes are not going to persuade anyone who has gone in for identitarianism.

We need a new, inspiring redescription of Liberalism, and I think it has to be rooted in a sort of category defiance. Liberalism is the coalition of the unique. What an exciting project, though!

Reflection on reflection

When I, as a subject, look into a mirror I see me, as an object.

When I reflect on this experience, I realize that it is still my subjective I who sees: what stands out to me when I look at my objective me-image is quite different from what another person sees.

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The relationship between objectivity and subjectivity is best conceived topologically.

Objective understanding is subjectivity turned inside-out. The world I know is my own known world, overlapping all others, yet unique.

Subjective understanding is objectivity turned inside out. By understanding another person and looking out through this understanding, my own world changes. A shared world — a world that is ours — emerges.

Reflection is the topological operation of perspective eversion. It flips perspective inside-out, objectifying subjectivity and subjectifying objectivity.

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When I understand a reality made out of unique points of subjectivity, each the object of all others, and some the fellow subjects of other subjects — a spark of God sees infinite fellow sparks of God.

It is not a matter of belief. It is matter of commitment to a way of knowing, a faith, a way to understand.

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This is a good way to understand, so this is how I choose to understand. I could understand differently, of course, and understand in a way that undermines this way. That way could be undermined, too. But so what?

But why break something just because it is breakable? Since when does good necessarily mean indestructible? The things I love most in my life inspire me to care for them, protect them, cultivate them, renew them. Why should truth be any different?

If good does not mean indestructible, what does it mean?

Good means that it helps me make sense of what seems most relevant and it guides my actions in an effective way. Good also means that I don’t have to think about thinking. mMy thinking does not get in my way. My thinking functions invisibly, intuitively, naively, shaping my perceptions, focusing my attention, helping me detect meaningful connections and giving me words to communicate it all. But most of all good means it makes life itself seem valuable and worth great effort. Good overcomes nihilism without annihilating it.

The good news about destructibility, though, is if our faith is not good, and produces nihilism, confusion, dissipation, resentment, hopelessness, isolation, alienation, paranoia, anomie, and awkward theoretical contraptions that require distracting meta-thinking to operate and crank out truth assertions and supporting arguments  — we can always just interrogate the beliefs and theories of that faith into oblivion. No truth bears infinite scrutiny, and often a surprisingly slight amount of questioning does the trick. (This is why ideologies almost always prohibit questioning.)

The fragility of faith means we can always scrap  miserable visions of the world and redesign them to produce better lives, better worlds.

More scholastoidal musings

Whatness is comprehended.

Thatness is apprehended.

  • Whoness apprehends.
  • Weness comprehends.

(The last two were experimental points. I am suggesting, if it isn’t obvious, that comprehending is an essentially social act, even if we do it solitarily. Comprehending is an act of lifeworld participation, the inhabiting of a shared intellectual environment, or what I’ve called “enworldment”. Any being we encounter that we apprehend as capable of apprehending, we experience as a “who” not a “what”, but we can only experience that being as a participant in we to the degree comprehension can be shared.)

Body : habitat :: organism : planet :: being : world

Scholastoidal definitions

Ok, this is going to be ridiculous, but I have some fundamental sorting to do. I need to clarify the relationships between thatness, whatness, whichness and whoness. Laugh away; I’m doing this.

The need for clarity began when I stumbled over this line in Schutz: “…in self-knowledge there is a sphere of absolute intimacy whose ‘being there’ (Dasein) is just as indubitable as it is closed to our inspection. The experiences peculiar to this sphere are simply inaccessible to memory, and this fact pertains to their mode of being: memory catches only the ‘that’ of these experiences.”

This is an important matter for me, because it touches on my recently-revived skepticism about how we conceive the unconscious, which ties into the ways language mediates our experiences, including that design-destroying assumption language does (and ought to) micromanage our actions. Extremely usable design makes objects second-natural extensions of our own selves. And my next book will argue that our very concepts ought to have this same quality in use: if you have to think about a concept when applying it, that’s a poorly-designed concept. A well-designed concept operates so invisibly that the thought thinks itself through the working of the concept. But I am digressing now, so I’ll get back to my sorting…

I believe thatness is raw apprehension, the registering of a particular entity as existent.

When we identify a particular existence as something, that identity is its whatness (or “quiddity”).

But even in identifying a that as some general what, the fact of its particular uniqueness remains as its thisness (or “haecceity”).

But all these -nesses are done by minds, and done in some particular way (as opposed to all other possible ways), and this capacity is whoness.

Who a person is, their very subjectivity, is their habits of attending (and neglecting) particular forms of thatness and their ways comprehending thatness as having some kind of general whatness and particular thisness.

When someone views themselves primarily as the comprehending what instead of the apprehending, comprehending who, that person becomes self-alienated in a state Sartre called “bad faith”. This is one primary reason I oppose identitarianism. Identitarianism produces a subjective vacuum where a self should be, and that vacuum suffers in a way it does not know how to conceptualize. Having no access to subjective understanding it seeks to explain its suffering objectively. The self is a suffering object made to suffer by other objects. No amount of objective action can relieve the agony of being trapped in this subjectivity-blindness, because the last place such people look for relief is in their own conceptions. To reach this way of thinking to others is to spread a fatal philosophical disease.

Yeah. I’ll never be a real Scholastic, but I’ll certainly raid it for parts.

Against bothsiderism

Bothsiderism is wrong. All intelligent people should reject it.

Why?

First, because “both” implies there are only two sides. I reject that there are only two sides in our current conflict (to which “bothsiderist” refers) or in most political conflicts.

With respect to understanding political situations I am a pluralist. Pluralists know that the very essence of a political situation is struggle among conflicting worldviews. Each worldview defines its own position, its own justification, and defines its enemies and speculates on their positions and motivations. These views of the situation never line up or harmonize with one another, and that’s precisely what makes it political. When trying to understand any political conflict I am an allsiderist, because that is what it takes to actually understand such situations.

Those most eager to accuse others of bothsiderism are something far worse than a bothsiderist. They are onesiderists. They have no serious doubts that their own theories about their enemies motivations are correct, and their enemies’ counter-theories are incorrect at best, and likely evil and/or insane. The other side has no valid point worth considering, or hearing, and suppressing their worldview is the best way to resolve the conflict. It is objectively clear there is only one true, good, just side in this conflict: mine.

With respect to picking sides among onesiderists I am a passionate neithersiderist. I see no reason to takes sides with onesiderists fighting against other onesiderists, and the fact each is completely unwilling to imagine that it is possible to be on neither side, nor that this alleged bothsiderism is tantamount to supporting their enemy.

I will go further and declare myself an anti-onesiderist. In fact, I reject the notion that ideological progressivists and the alt-righters are even two different things. They are one thing. They are a complementary pair that feed each other’s hatred and justify each other’s excesses, and combine to produce a single illiberal juggernaut bent on undermining and destroying our liberal institutions. Anyone who justifies their own rioting (as resistance to oppressors), their hatred (as righteous anger), their abuse (as speaking truth to power) and their bigotry (as a legitimate counterbalancing prejudice against the prejudiced), while seeing the rioting, hatred, abuse and bigotry of their enemies as beyond the pale, is themselves beyond the pale, not only for being rioting, hating, abusing bigots, but for being hypocrites. People have started rolling their eyes at accusations of hypocrisy, but eye-rolls are not arguments.

I long ago stopped seeing the political battle-line of our time drawn between left and right. We can quibble over economic policy later. We have bigger problems. The real battle-line today is perpendicular: we are now in a struggle between liberal and illiberal, or, to put it in the terms I’ve been using, allsiderists versus onesiderists.

Allsiderists try hard to be fair. They try to weigh different sides and assess tradeoffs. They do so because they want to get along with their fellow citizens. But onesiderism has advanced so far, become so aggressive, tribal, simplistic and destructive that it might be time to take forceful action and put down this double-insurrection.

Reconceiving the unconscious

Reading Schutz, and examining the structure of lived experience I am suspecting more and more that what we call “unconscious” and habitually conceptualize spatially as submerged beneath our awareness has been misconceived — or, to put it in more designerly language, is a conceptualization that introduces tradeoffs which might not be optimal for our purposes. And what is this purpose, I’d like to optimize for? I’ll try to pin it down: I think in popular thought (which is the thought that creates, re-creates and shapes society, through ethnomethods) we radically misunderstand the relationship between language and lived experience. We have a tendency to conflate consciousness and speech. If something resists language, and we find ourselves unable to capture it our memory with the help of words, that wordless memory of images, sounds, feelings, etc. seems to sink faster into oblivion, and to be harder to retrieve. My hunch is that words are nonverbal memory aids that condense experience from the mental environment. When we have words for what happens to us we are able to “objectify” what is going on, whether what is going on is “out there” in the world or “in here” in my memory. With language we produce sharper objectifications that go into our memories and we have mnemonic objects that will condense the sensory recollections when we wish to recall the experience later.

So in my model, the unconscious is just those mental activities that we have not articulated for objective knowing. But these are not autonomous demon-like beings who slip in the shadows and depths, who move us against our will when we ease our vigilance, hiding our under-selves from what our minds will tolerate. I see this as a nasty vestige of medieval religiosity — one that keeps popping up among people who fancy themselves secular, but whose minds still move in superstitious ruts.

I prefer to understand what we call the unconscious as that vast set of tacit perceptual, kinetic, feeling realities hiding in plain sight, but inaccessible to linguistic thought. They are there, real, tangible, important but we don’t have words for them so they evaporate like dreams after we experience them unless something happens to us that causes the vapor to condense again. One of the great benefits of words is they are reliable memory condensers.

Folks who “think visually” or who take their intuitions and mind motions seriously as real and significant prior to any ability to articulate or conceptualize or demonstrate or argue them have a capacity to create thoughts outside the dominant language games of the culture. I want to articulate some of these realities and make them more thinkable. But also, I want to banish the latter-day demons of the Freudish “unconscious” that seems to have reemerge to haunt our social and political anxieties.

I also find our beliefs about the role of language in our everyday behavior to mislead designers. If we believe users verbalize instructions to themselves that their bodies obey when using software, we stop trying to directly engage our hands. If we understand that language itself is an interface that we use to help us make sense of experience when other means fail, we create two layers of interface between users and their tools. A great user interface minimizes the requirement to verbalize, so tools become invisible, ready-to-hand extensions of the user’s will.

Try these ideas on with this line of thought. The political crisis we are in now, with deep roots in the American tradition, can be seen as starting with the rise of social media. Much of our social lives, and our lives in general, became heavily word-mediated. Normally, when people gather it is around experiences. Things are enjoyed together — food drink, music, art, laughter — and experiences unfold over the course of hours. Social media is fast language. TL;DR, scan, scroll, start, stop, scroll. Not only are people’s blah-blah flipped through like TV channels, but engagement is sporadic and flitting. Written literature has time to evoke, conjure, hint, suggest and condense memories and knowings. Fast language only recalls or refers. It is spastic and explicit. Expastic language could be a good word for fast language, dittos and hashtags. But things got worse when Covid put everyone in social isolation. Then the entire world had to be strained through screens. The realm of shared tacit realities constricted and the word-world expanded explosively. I think what we are seeing now is the opposite of an eruption of the unconscious. I think the sensible wisdom our tacit understandings were removed from the public setting, and brainless verbal logic took over and is running itself to its logical extremes inside s frictionless, gravityless vacuum of collective solipsism.

Political dyslexia

The terms “far-right” and “far-left” are being used far too frequently, casually, and imprecisely — and maybe completely incorrectly.

American conservatism is right, but has rarely gotten anywhere near far-right since the disgrace of Jim Crow. And America’s own New Deal reforms were nowhere near far-left either. I’ve seen Libertarianism called far-right, but it is right-of center at most, and it is arguable the exact center-point.

Here is how I view the range.

  • Far-right seeks inequality under the law. It works to establish formally ranked classes of people, each with different rights, duties and privileges.
  • Center seeks equality under the law. It acknowledges only one class of person: citizen.
  • Far-left seeks equity under the law. It works to give every citizen the same level of wealth and power, taking from those with more and giving to those with less.

Today’s Progressivism is a tricky case. It presents itself as left, and promises equity. However the equity it promises is not equity among every citizen as leftism normally does. It promises equity to protected categories of people viewed in aggregate. All protected groups will have an equal share in the highest classes. But this movement does not does not see inequality among classes as intrinsically problematic. It almost seems to view class inequality as just as long as every group has its share of the inequality. This acceptance of class inequality is more typical of the right. If you look at Progressivism through a more typical leftist lens and see it as a dominant ideology whose function is to establish, justify and preserve the hegemony of the professional class, collective equity is a legitimation strategy, not a program of substantial reform. This would help explain why Progressivism dominates nearly all mainstream institutions, including most Fortune 500 corporations, public education, popular entertainment, the popular press and popular culture in general. If Progressivism sought individual equity, it would threaten these institutions and would meet resistance from them.

If this is, in fact, the case, our nation is suffering from severe dyslexia.

Things are truly scrambled.

Philosophy as performing art

I have been struggling hellishly with the very simple, basic question: “What is a philosophy?” This is terribly important, because if I want to persuade people that philosophies (or worldviews, lifeworlds, enworldments or faiths) are designable things, and that they ought to be designed — and that is exactly my intention — I’d better be able to explain what it is we are designing.

But I have been unable to do it, which is perplexing, upsetting and exciting. This combo has a pavlovian effect on me, and I can’t leave it alone.

*

Yesterday I had my weekly conversation with Nick Gall, and we had a fun argument over the significance of Golden Rule. The conversation started off rockily. It was clear that he and I were thinking about it very differently (“at cross-purposes”), in a way that went deeper than definitions or even values, into the how of the thinking. We eventually realized that he was thinking about the formula “Treat others as you would like to be treated” pragmatically but statically (maybe as a trained lawyer), as a proposition with bounded implications. I was thinking of it dynamically as a lived principle, with so that the proposition’s meaning deepens and self-transcends over time with successive recursions.

It was really tricky getting aligned on what we we talking about, and how we could approach the conversation in order to break the impasse. Three thing happened that made it work.

  1. We recognized that we were disagreeing not only on the object of the disagreement, but how the subject should be thought. (I’m using subject and object very deliberately.)
  2. The new way of thinking (the subject) needed to be followed to be understood. It was not a process at arriving at a conclusion, but more picking up a style or acquiring a sense of genre.
  3. The following of the thought required a kind of momentum and holistic grasping of the thinking as a single event. (This is different from following an argument, which consists of a series of discrete, linked accomplishments.) This explains why, if a passage is thorny, I have to work out the difficulties part by part, then reread the passage rapidly and smoothly before I understand the material.

*

There is a kind of temporal holism in understanding. We see it in all performing arts — music, dance, cinema. Each moment of a performance must be experienced in flowing reference to what preceded it or the meaning gets lost.

I believe this is how philosophy works as well. Perhaps philosophy is more of a performing art than a plastic art.

Maybe this is where the appeal “stay with me” or “follow this line of thought” comes in. It means “grok this temporal whole.”

We can no more understand an interrupted, interrogated line of thought than we can hear interrupted phrases of a song as music. This is a thought I’ve had before, but the connection with this problem is new.

From-toward meetings

A great many realities that we encounter every day defy explicit speech. We might be tempted to call these realities “mysteries”. And, really, that is not the worst response; it is certainly preferable to denying their existence, or reducing them to terms more conducive to speech.

What kinds of realities am I talking about? I’ll try to list some: the sorts of unnamed feelings and moods that inspire poetry; movements in the soul of an intimate that we can sense with immediate certainty; a connection between two ideas whose existence and significance is somehow certain; dangers announced darkly by forebodings; all the varieties of beauty, especially the surprising ones; the independent existence of material objects apart from what we know of them; the words we feel emerging but hear for the first time as we say them; the logic of a perfect tool known by our bodies alone; a spirit we experience as charismatic; everything we point to and say “je ne sais quois!” Notice how this list is a chaotic mixture of experiences of external and internal objects — and often the meeting of something mysterious that seems to emerge from being one’s own soul to meet something that seems beyond it.

As a working designer, and a habitually reflective one, however, I feel a strong need to intellectually relate my thoughts to these realities in a way that does them justice but which makes them as intelligible as possible. I need this capability because the things I craft for other people are meant to induce this kind of ineffable behind-and-beyond or from-toward meeting. I would like life to be as saturated as possible with things with qualities that encourage this kind of meeting.

A lot of it, however, depends on the way we maintain our own souls. Some people live lives of a work-hard-play hard kind that dulls them and renders even the most sublime possibilities irrelevant or irritating — or worst of all unnoticed. Others, through talent, effort or both, are intensely alive to the essential from-towardness of life, and discover and actualize divinity in every person. We love these people when we meet them: we feel something of that potential in ourselves rising to the encounter.

I believe that how we think — the concepts we use to form our thoughts — plays a crucial role in the maintenance of our souls. Some repertoires of concepts open us up to ineffable realities and allow us to relate to them in surprising ways. Other concept repertoires compel us to abstract realities into categories conducive to theoretical manipulation which render them familiar, safe and already-known.

What is most at stake in here is our relations to fellow people. Of all the real beings a person can encounter, the most richly mysterious, most profoundly surprising ones are other people. A person can, with a few well-chosen words, transfigure the entire world and change its meaning without rearranging a thing, like a neutron bomb in reverse, saturating it with living significance. You cannot know who in your life packs this possibility, until you are ready to hear it.

But categories of person cannot do this. A person who views others as instances of categories will encounter only categories, never a person. Like King Midas, every living Who is comprehended into a cold, gold What by the grasping touch of the mind. And people who try to understand themselves by identifying the What or configuration of Whats that make them up are looking everywhere but where their self resides.

This appears to be the primary mode of thought most kids are taught today. Well-meaning adults attempt to give kids a sense of identity. What it accomplishes is sealing the young person inside a impermeable conceptual pouch. The kids learn to present themselves publicly as identity-laden personae, and perceive others as identity-laden personae, all governed by strict rules of etiquette, the violation of which is not merely impolite but depraved, violent, even evil.

And under these conditions they never have an opportunity to meet another uncategorized, uncategorizable being who draws out something unsuspected and divine from the depths of self — something that infuses reality with value and infinite potential. It is no wonder that so many people are casting about, looking for explanations for what has gone wrong, or what impending catastrophe awaits us.

Our very way of thinking produces abstractions and spiritual starvation, but we have absolutely no awareness that we have a way of thinking, or that this way of thinking can be changed.

We very badly need to change our way of thinking and relating to ineffable realities — (among whom are our very selves) — in a way that permits them to be real to us, and real in a way that challenges language… what do we call this?

Antibuddhism

It has been said that a soul is a society. Let’s assume this is true. It is true.

And let’s assume that every soul, being a society, has its own internal culture, its own internal political factions, its own internal injustice, and its own persecuted, marginalized parties longing from freedom and recognition.

Every association a soul makes with the external world affects its culture and politics. It empowers, liberates, suppresses, ostracizes or enslaves some soul-faction.

(There is such continuity between the internal and external world that ignoring the distinction has some analytical value. Even denying the existence of essential self can have merit.)

Relationships between people (or, rather, between soul-factions) can overpower those relationships that hold an individual’s soul together. When this happens, the term “individual” is exposed as inadequate. Love is the most conspicuous example of this kind of turmoil.

Being “one in flesh”, or, conversely, feeling “torn”, or having “two minds” has more literal truth to it than one suspects. It takes two to know that truth.

When a person’s internal society changes, that person’s external relationships must be renegotiated, most of all the more intimate ones. Deep internal change transforms an intimate into a stranger.

Jealously is an instinctual defense against estrangement.

Spiritual folks disparage jealousy as an illegitimate attempt to possess another person. Their understanding of possession is impoverished, the consequence of a desire to be invulnerable, to be “not of this world.” We are of this world, especially when we refuse to be.

There are relationships between people and objects that affect a person’s internal culture and politics. This is one reason that design is so important.

Despite what spiritual folks insist, we are as much our possessions as we are “ourselves”.

The world we inhabit holds us together. Our efforts to physically and socially shape our worlds are as important to soul-care as so-called inner work.

Religion is taking our finite place within infinity. Infinity is, from the perspective of finitude, inexhaustible surprise. Infinity literally, etymologically, sur-prises every finite being.

Religion should, especially in these times, attempt profound enworldment. Religion should be the furthest thing from “not of this world.” Spirituality — especially “spiritual-but-not-religious” spirituality — is how we try to get our mind to feel some specific divine way, maybe blissful? or peaceful? or ecstatic? or overwhelmed with awe? And typically, its method is aestheticized solipsism.

What is your paranoia type?

I formed a theory about the 2016 election. Who you voted for in 2016 was a function of you you hated more in grade-school: the bully or the tattletale.

This is also the key to understanding political paranoias: which of two dystopias are you are more afraid of? Are you more afraid of a hard totalitarianism perpetrated by brutes or a soft totalitarianism perpetrated by technocrats? Bullies with tactical weapons spilling blood in the streets, or tattletales with electronic surveillance and expertly administrated rehabilitation? I think the former are more terrifying if they prevail, but I think the latter is far more likely to succeed. Hopefully neither will.

Totalitarian misconceptions

I have not enjoyed my latest deep dive into totalitarian thought. It’s made me really crabby. Susan’s been hinting that maybe switching my morning reading would be a good idea. I’m going to record a few random impressions, just so I can see some output and make the ordeal feel less pointless.

  • Most of what we know and believe about totalitarianism comes to us via socialist, conservative and liberal propaganda, all of whom want to maximize the differences between themselves and the most despised totalitarian regimes (Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism) while emphasizing their affinity with their own opponents. So conservatives want to paint them as economically left-wing movements with strong family resemblances with our own progressivism, while progressives want to paint them as nationalist and capitalist to connect them with conservatism. Liberals primarily want to show totalitarianism as essentially illiberal, which, of course, is a correct analysis, but a pretty vapidly obvious one.
  • Totalitarianisms succeeded because they were unprecedented. There was nothing to compare them to, nor was there any reliable way to predict where they would go.
  • The main indicator of trouble was their violent rhetoric. But that was all-too-easily explained away, much as Communist or Antifa rhetoric is today by casual leftists.
  • Contrary to popular belief, racism is not an essential feature of totalitarianism. The Nazi obsession with race was regarded by Fascists as a fruitless distraction. Race was never an explicit theme in Stalinism.
  • There are clear lines of development from Marxism to both Fascism and Nazism. And Marxism was descended from Hegelian, transposed from an idealist metaphysics to a materialist one, and, as a loose consequence, from a contemplative movement to a practical one with revolutionary implications.
  • The primary difference between these and Bolshevism was not what we would identify as left-right today — neither a difference in economic theory or policy, nor different attitudes toward personal rights. It was primarily a difference between group identity: is the unit of loyalty class or nation? Fascism and Nazism were both nationalist forms of revolutionary socialism, where Bolshevism was an international revolutionary socialist movement.
  • The worst inheritance from Hegelianism is idolatry of history, the conceit that history contains a univocal truth that an initiate can learn and use to deduce all kinds of marvelous things. A materialist Hegelian acquires the ability to deduce the future based on an understanding of contemporary economic dynamics.
  • Mussolini was a vocal fan of William James. I think this is another of those idle dig from the conservatives trying to paint progressives as “smily face fascists”, but I’m bothered. Thanks a lot, Jonah Goldberg. I need to research this further and comb out exactly what was so appealing and useful about James to Mussolini. Goldberg seems to have a very shallow understanding of Pragmatism.
  • But! — this is ominous: George Santayana, who famously said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” also said “Of course I was never a Fascist in the sense of belonging to that Italian party, or to any nationalistic or religious party. But considered, as it is for a naturalist, a product of the generative order of society, a nationalist or religious institution will probably have its good sides, and be better perhaps than the alternative that presents itself at some moment in some place. That is what I thought, and still think, Mussolini’s dictatorship was for Italy in its home government. Compare with the disorderly socialism that preceded or the impotent party chaos that has followed it. . . . But Mussolini was personally a bad man and Italy a half-baked political unit; and the militant foreign policy adopted by Fascism was ruinous in its artificiality and folly. But internally, Italy was until the foreign militancy and mad alliances were adopted, a stronger, happier, and more united country than it is or had ever been. Dictatorships are surgical operations, but some diseases require them, only the surgeon must be an expert, not an adventurer.” And he said that in 1950.
  • I strongly suspect that totalitarianism as we (however insufficiently) know it is unlikely to happen again in a way we’d recognize at a glance. My own suspicion is that revolutions tend to be brutally illiberal, and are generated by technologically-driven economic and political change — rapid industrialization, the rise of mass media — changes that we have since absorbed and internalized. Whatever totalitarian threats we might face in the future are most likely to be driven by new technological innovations. My candidates are unsurprising: social media, phone cameras, mass surveillance and AI analysis of “big data”.
  • The current practice of pointing at phenotypical similarities between our and opponents’ behaviors and some Totalitarianism or another is a stupid intensification of conflict that ironically bears more resemblance to Totalitarianism (with its stark friend-enemy thinking, emergency-mongering, persecution/paranoia fantasies and, most of all, its hubristic compulsion to deduce the un-deducible) than the pointed-out similarities, which are superficial.