Synesis and perplexity

Learning is never just a passive transmission of truths from one mind to another. Learning is an integration of new knowledge into an existing body of knowledge.

All this knowledge, old and new, is held together with intuitive knowing — pre-verbal relating, responding or feeling — of various kinds. This intuitive holding-together is what is meant when we say we understand something. Behind every understanding is a complex coordination of intuitions — an intuitive concerting that makes sense of something. And behind that is intuitive holding-together of understandings that situates and relates each bit of knowledge within our overall sense of the world.


The Greeks, with staggering elegance, called understanding synesis.

Synesis means, simply, “bring together”. Synesis is a bringing together one’s own various intuitions, in order to bring together various ideas and perceptions into something understood, which is then brought together with the rest of one’s understandings, one’s holistic understanding of everything. And once something is understood by one person, it can then be taught to other persons, and then there is a fourth bringing together: shared understanding. So synesis brings together many diverse kinds of bringing together: intuitive, phenomenal, conceptual, social.


Sometimes people must come together to develop an understanding where understanding does not yet exist.

There is a problematic situation that is understood only partially, vaguely and inadequately — or that is understood in conflicting ways — or, far more rarely, is perplexing to everyone involved. Nobody can even agree on what the problem is, or what the questions are that need answering.

These problematic situations are uncannily challenging. The more the situation is examined and analyzed, the less clear it becomes. People begin to see and feel the contradictions in their own positions. Superficial and vague opinions fall apart and dissolve into incoherence.

The problematic situation becomes a full perplexity: a failure of understanding so total that articulating the problem or asking questions is impossible.

Perplexities generate intense anxiety. It is the anxiety we all felt as students struggling to understand a math problem, or trying to get the meaning of a poem or text passage we find opaque. It is the feeling we have when someone corners us and overwhelms us with details on topics we know nothing about, and they refuse to let us disengage. Perhaps you feel some anxiety right now.

In perplexity we are confronted with a demand to understand something that defies all understanding.

If we can avoid confronting a perplexity, we will. We will ignore it, or get by with a vague gist, or we will dismiss what perplexes us as nonsense, or as something for someone else to figure out, something that is not for us.

If we cannot ignore, evade or escape the perplexity, and are forced to confront and enter it, the anxiety can bloom into intense negative feelings. We might feel hostility toward the situation and the people involved in it, especially those who seem responsible for inflicting the anxiety. We might see them as hostile, aggressive, maybe even vicious, malicious or even evil. If we respond accordingly, we might be vicious, malicious or evil, ourselves, but with just cause, of course.

But the anxiety is not about any thing or person. Anxiety is something we go into, something we are in, something that grips us, and which then infuses everything around us, even our memories and prospects. It is like depression.

Referring to anxiety (or perplexity) as “something” is not exactly right. Anxiety is not really a thing. It is, in fact, an everything. It is our own self in a certain mode of existence, refracted through every particular of our existence.

When we in a state of perplexity we become anxiety, because anxiety is the experience of perplexity, and in it our enworldment, the world as it is for us, becomes anxious, on the whole and in detail.


Why does perplexity cause anxiety?

Generations of existentialists have taught us that anxiety is caused by nothingness, and most of all by our own eventual nothingness: death.

No being wants to die. Every synesis is also a being, and does not want to die.

Perplexity is synetic nothingness, in every dimension. It is the nothingness of shared understanding, social alienation. It is the nothingness of significance in a mass of incomprehensible data, chaos. It is the nothingness of our own intuitive coherence, nihilism, self-alienation. It is an ontological migraine. It is drowning in blindness and nullity. It is selfhood’s death, even when one knows the body will live on.

When perplexity happens, a synesis will need to come apart, essentially to die, so it can be brought back together in a form capable of making sense of what confronts it.

It is rare for one’s deepest synesis to be threatened in this way. But areas of understanding, even relatively minor subjects, say our understanding of an academic subject, or an understanding of another person’s subjectivity, or a problem we encounter at work, can throw us into crises.


When synesis is allowed to come apart and then is brought back together as a new synesis capable of ordering what was chaos, to conceive ideas that were inconceivable, to speak where speech was impossible, even to perceive what was imperceptible — and, further, is able to do so in a way that can be shared with other people who, before, were unable before to establish a shared understanding — something else happens, too — something unprovable, difficult to speak about, but absolutely palpable: more of one’s own self is brought together in the new understanding.

It as if silent, intuitive aspects of our inner selves — marginal, suppressed bits of potential within us — alienated spirits — are invited to participate in this new, more expansive understanding, and to become full citizens of ourselves.

We feel more whole, and we feel more connected to others, and to our own world, and to the greater reality. And, if we are open to it, we feel an embeddedness within a vast, incomprehensible reservoir of infinite potential, which exceeds, envelops, sustains and conceives reality.


Once we enter perplexity, how do we bring together a new synesis?

It is a how, and one that cannot be said or foreseen, only done through its own synesse. It is done using words, but much of it happens prior to language. It is done by groping, feeling, smelling, intuiting.

“Here I do not know how to move around.”

2 thoughts on “Synesis and perplexity

  1. Why are you trying to move around? Where are you trying to get to? Do you have a goal or purpose or end in mind in moving around?

    You mention “problem”/”problem situation” seven times, so it seems as if the primary purpose of synessing a new synesis (am I using your terminology right?) is to solve problems. So perhaps the answer to why one is trying to move around is to get to a good solution to a problem (situation). Is that fair?

    I ask all this to see if I can better ‘hang together’ your thoughts on synesis/synesse/problem-solving with my thoughts on teleontology (how our goals shape our ontologies). In the framework I am developing, goals are the ultimate source of the kinds of problem situations that produce perplexity. It is when one changes one’s goals or when two or more people have conflicting goals that perplexity can arise. This is because our existing synesises (is this the correct pluralization?) are shaped by our existing set of goals/ends/purposes. When we change our goals, this can disrupt our existing synesises.

    One also sees how goals focus or restrict the scope of our work to create a new synesis in collaborative design work. As you point out, the goal is not to have everyone come out completely understanding every aspect of one another. The goal is just enough understanding/new synesis to solve the chosen problem situation. That’s the ‘precision’ part of ‘precision inspiration’, it seems to me: a precise focus on a problem situation, which entails a precise goal–solving the problem.

    So one of my main takeaway’s from this great post is fruitful question for myself (and perhaps for you): What is the relationship/interaction between conflicting goals/purposes/ends and going from one synesis to another through synesse?

    1. Nick, this might help you see why I’m so fixed on preverbal / tacit intuitions. I say problematic situation because one of the most painful things about perplexing problematic situations is that you can’t even say what the problem is. Sometimes you can’t even locate what’s making it so painful. Getting the dreadful mess into a well-framed problem all parties can align to might be more than half of the effort (the half that design research accomplishes).

      Then you have a goal, and that goal is far more likely to be the right one to reshape the reality in a favorable way for those we are designing for. That’s the precision: the inspiration inspires ideas focused on the actual problem, not what people speculate the problem is, or, worse, not on any real sense of problem, but rather just ideas for stuff that could be made.

      So for me, fruitionism’s value is not novelty per se, but rather the promise of more expansive accommodating ways to understand and to respond to the world.

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