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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

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, though indirect, goal of design?

I am asking this way, not because of some compulsion for finding structural parallels, but because the problem of what a philosophy is and should do has been perplexing me. What is a philosophy? What is its nature? Is it the assertions? The logic? Is it a kind of thinking style?  When we apply the philosophy, or what is the nature of this “thing” that is applied?

It all becomes a little less perplexing (or gives me some degree of grip on the problem) when I compare it to other forms of design and make structured comparisons.

Even with the most concrete and tangible kinds of design, the ultimate intended effect is practical and experiential, and experiences are painfully indirect. The fact that designs in use disappear in the activity of using does not help matters at all.

Let’s start with some concrete examples, and see if they suggest new ways to think about philosophy. 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.