We need speculative metaphysics because we need nouns

Ok, I just had a small, decent-quality tantrum into the margin of Guenon’s The Great Triad, which helps define my own perspective on religion against that of the Sophia Perennis:

The manifestation of the Buddha is therefore the ‘redescent from Heaven to Earth’, as the Emerald Tablet describes it; and the being who in this way ‘incorporates’ the celestial influences in his own nature and brings them into this world can justifiably be termed the representative of Heaven as far as the human realm is concerned. Certainly this is a concept far removed from the rationalised form of Buddhism with which Westerners have become familiarised through the work of Orientalists. It might well be that it corresponds to a ‘Mahayanist’ point of view, but that for us is not a valid objection because it seems clear that the ‘Hinayanist’ point of view which is commonly presented as ‘original’ (no doubt because it fits in all too well with certain preconceived ideas), is in reality simply the result of a process of degeneration.

I say “define against it”, but it is possible — maybe even likely — I’m defining my perspective within it. Philosophy is, after all, the perpetual humiliation, and it has gradually undone my monstrous arrogance and replaced it with a moderate arrogance, which today took the form of this comment written in the margin of the above passage:

What if Mahayana is the degeneration of Hinayana’s/Theravada’s phenomenology? — A strict phenomenology can degenerate into speculative metaphysics.

That last bit is central to my conception of “Design Instrumentalism”: the idea that faiths (systems of implicit generative conceptions) can be designed and outfitted with symbolic forms, which allows one to:

  • maintain a stable, enduring self,
  • while also opening and orienting one to one’s own subjective selfhood, toward objective reality and toward intersubjectivity,
  • and to interpret, interact with, and think about the world,
  • resulting in the development of effective belief systems (truth).

I call the full practical manifestation of a faith, an enworldment.

When a convert undergoes a profound conversion experience, the convert invariably reports (assuming the convert is a true Scotsman) that the world was reborn with them, or that it appears transfigured, that they have entered the Kingdom, or something similar suggesting a holistic change in their experience of the world. Everything changes all at once.

Not only everything changes; more-than-everything changes. One of the artifacts of a deep shift in enworldment is a changed sense of beyondness, extending past the world of immediate experience, and this beyondness is naturally viewed as the source or support of its very existence. This is the speculative metaphysics of an enworldment.

Phenomenology cultivates a sharp awareness of that line between phenomena (what is show to our experience) and the mind-independently-real thing-in-itself which we instinctively project beyond our experiences (as speculative metaphysics).

Phenomenology brackets all metaphysical projections and focuses strictly on phenomena. It doesn’t disbelieve or believe in metaphysics; it methodically suspends metaphysical interpretations in order to study experience.

My understanding of Buddhism, at least of Theravada Buddhism, which I studied closely and practiced intensively for almost a decade, is that Buddhism is a phenomenological religion, which focuses relentlessly on what is immediate and practical, and gently brackets standard doctrinal elements we might assume to be essential features of any religion.

The Dhammapada’s opening lines support this view:

All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with an impure mind one speaks or acts, suffering follows him in the same way as the wheel follows the foot of the drawer (of the chariot).

All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with a pure mind one speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his shadow that never leaves him.

But here is where my design experience kicks in, and causes me to both admire Theravada, while also seeing great practical wisdom in Mahayana.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from a life in design, it is this: Humans have a tough time living without speculative metaphysical beliefs. This is true even for — especially for? — those of us who imagine ourselves immune, and project elaborate “scientific” material underpinnings, such as brains, behinds our experience of I, now and here — or sociologies populated with mixtures of individual, collective and even ideological actors, that produced the world as we experience it.

Our brains seem wired to need nice solid nouns, to serve as the doers of verbs or as the substantial bearers of adjectives.

And you know what? As a designer, I don’t think we should have to do without speculative metaphysical beliefs. I believe that denying people metaphysical beliefs is asking too much of them. We humans need our nouns!

In my professional work as a designer, I put enormous effort into crafting “mental models”, which are, in effect, speculative metaphysical projections that help people conceive their experiences of what I am designing. It makes it an experience of a coherent “something” instead of a series of arbitrary events. Behind a designed experience, there is both a concept — what the designed thing is — and a brand — who is responsible for it. These provide solid grounding the why of the experience — the purpose and value of it — and provide some direction for the how, in the form of affordances — things with which a user can interact.

These mental models, these brands, these affordances, however, are never what they seem to be. They are “true fictions” which, when taken as given, are, for all practical purposes, true. These are, to put it in perennialist terms, upaya, skillful means

But designers cannot afford to be literal with their mental models. We must straddle logics, and be able to think from the perspective of an interacting user, but also work with engineers to craft the actual technical metaphysics (vis-a-vis the user) that are the real underpinnings of a system, which digital, mechanical, procedural, etc.

Every faith must function similarly. The faith must produce a holistic sense of I and world, that generates the relevant affordances that suggest appropriate actions, and it must provide us with an overarching sense of value and purpose in our lives.

And if it is a good faith, it will also have some awareness or at least some attitude of humility and respect, that suspects that metaphysical-reality-in-itself is mysterious and inexhaustibly surprising, so it does not confuse its speculative metaphysics with that deeply mysterious source of being that manifests itself in myriad ways, each with its own speculative metaphysical image…

The Buddha, I believe knew this deep reality, and managed to establish a faith tradition that functioned as much like designers as users.


So, my moderately arrogant (but apprehensive) hypothesis is that Guenon and the rest of the Sophia Perennis school project a thoroughly beautiful and true speculative metaphysics beyond their profound, clear and precise phenomenological understandings, but take it as more Absolute than I am ready to accept. (* see note below)

However, the closer I study Guenon, the more of what I take to be speculative metaphysics is subsumed by phenomenological description. I can very well imagine a day where I will understand that extremely sensitive and disciplined phenomenological description carries us much closer to the threshold of the Principle than I’ve suspected.

  • Note: My metaphysics is a radically indeterminate, inexhaustibly surprising beyond — an infinitude that we come to know through our finite interactions with it.

I believe morality is bound up with knowing that this beyond exists and that it obligates us to respond to it and relate to it, but part of our effort must be to treat it as a reality existing in part within, but also beyond the mind, and therefore only imperfectly conceptualized by the mind, lest we reduce transcendent reality to immanent speculation and succumb to ideo-idolatry and misapotheosis.

We know that the beyond is, and we know some important things about our relationship with the beyond, but we are limited in knowing what the beyond is. Or so it seems from where I currently stand.

Leave a Reply