On the subject of subjects

I have been thinking a lot about “background philosophies”, the ideas we think with, and “foreground philosophies”, the ideas we think about.

I have equated background philosophies with subjects.

Whether it is a personal subject, or an academic subject, it does not matter. My thought has brought me to an understanding of subjects that on principle blurs that distinction into irrelevance.

Subjects are the ideas we think with, by which a certain objectivity can be experienced as objectively true.

I call these subjects, which are modes of objectivities, “enworldments”, and this is probably a much better term than “background philosophy”, because the minute you say “philosophy” there is an expectation that it is made out of concepts that can be objectively presented, talked about, compared combined and manipulated. But an enworldment is made of inter-related conceptions that are known solely by their effect: conceiving, or experiencing meaning of some specific kind. We come to understand a subject by comprehending its objects of knowledge (its concepts) but what is also acquired is the form of objectivity essential to that specific subject.

A discussion of subjects of various kinds might be helpful. Follow my line of thought and see if you pick up the sense of what I am saying.

When we were young, we learned subjects in school which taught us to understand, think and respond mathematically, historically, literarily and so on, each subject in s different way. Many (most?) people — even some teachers, unfortunately — casually see academic subjects as collections of conceptual content, and forget how, until the subject is actually understood — until the student acquires the conceptions required to conceive the concepts and take it all together as meaningful — the material is just an overwhelming heap of pointless, anxiety-inflicting chaos.

It is a mystery how the conception comes to existence in a student, but good teachers learn to make these epiphanies happen in the minds of individual students. The lightbulb turns on, and the student gets it. The bad teachers we remember from our childhoods (Susan assures me there are very few of them today), shared the popular misconception that their subject is the sum of its conceptual material and just drilled the objective information into the children’s head without also teaching the subject that gives the objective content meaning.

In my marriage, I have learned to understand, think and respond Susanly. I was bad at it for many years, and just couldn’t understand why she said, did and felt the way she did. She seemed bonkers, and I did infuriating things. Eventually, I realized I had to let her teach me her subject, and luckily for me, she is a pedagogical genius and did a great job. Now, not only does she make good sense to me, but I rely on what she taught me in my own thinking — including these thoughts you are reading right now.

My profession, research-informed design, constantly requires me to learn new subjects. I ask people to teach me their subject so I can to understand, think and respond to them with design interventions that fit their enworldments and the practical conditions of their lives (“the design context”). Novice designers often see research as gathering data — facts about behaviors, thoughts, emotions people feel — and they work rigorously to set their own subjectivity aside so they can analyze and synthesize the data objectively and say true things about the data we gathered. This rigorous work is helpful in ways, but not as a means to generate understanding. The subject is learned in the interviews. The rigorously analyzed objective data helps us test whether we really learned and understand the subject or if we are fudging by, using the wrong subject (our own!) to misunderstand the material.


So we have two modes of intellectual activity: one where an enworldment, subject, is primarily in play, and another where objects of knowledge are primarily in play.

I say “primarily” because subjects and objects are involved in every case.

But that primary makes all the difference in the quality of the play.


All this was recap, meant to set the stage for this newish idea:

Today, I am wondering if the difference between a religious mode of intellectual work and a philosophical mode isn’t this:

  • a religious mode focuses on the thinking (living) subject, and
  • a philosophical mode focuses on the thought object.

Most religious people seem to find practical — ethical, emotional and symbolic –activity (ritual) most effective for working on the thinking, living, existing subject. Intellectually working on the thinking, living subject seems almost a contradiction — and to be frank about it, in most cases it probably is a contradiction.

If we continue with the logic of this experimental distinction, defining philosophy as focusing on thought objects, philosophizing about religion would be an escape from religion. The thinking subject focuses on objective religious content, manipulating concepts as ideas exterior to oneself. Based on my sparse reading of theology, I believe much theology has been precisely this: an objectivizing escape from subjective entanglement with what is thought about. For instance, we think about God, in what manner God might or might not exist, what arguments support or weaken various ways of believing in different God-concepts. Or we might skim religious texts and scoop useful concepts out of various religions and integrate them with our own conceptual systems to show how religious systems all, more or less, agree — and not only with each other, but with how we understand things to be.

But it is also possible to think religiously — to think in a manner that is meant to change our own subjectivity. This mode of thought also thinks about religious idea, and it superficially resembles philosophical thinking about religion — but the attitude, focus and goal is profoundly different: it seeks to illuminate the ideas thought with to understand the religious ideas thought about. It is sensitive to the subject, the enworldment, and tries to modify itself to conceive religious material in new ways that induces change both to one’s own subject, its objectivity and the objective sense of the material.

Religious intellectual work pays close attention to the experience of thinking and notices not only the concepts and the concept system, but one’s own response to it — what happens inside one’s own heart, gut, hands, etc. when thinking it — and these responses guide the work just as much as the material, just as a talented teacher pays as much attention to her student’s face, tone, body language as to what the student says when quizzed on the material.

The guiding faith here is that there is something important to understand in the material — (or if you subscribe to the perennialist conception of esoterism, many overlaid successively esoteric understandings of the material) — that may be actualized if one finds the subjectivity to re-conceive it.

Understanding is the spur to bring us to ever more accommodating understandings of a multistable symbol system, and having faith in a religion is actively believing that, for this sacred symbology, each successive understanding will bring us to a new understanding which, once we arrive, we will experience as better than the last. The last understanding is not revealed to be wrong, but it is now understood how it could be even more true. Presumably, this kind of reconception can happen again and again, even when we are most sure we have arrived at the ultimate understanding. This is because we cannot conceive of a better understanding until we actually conceive it.

I do believe that perennialism is right that there is infinite, successive multistability in sacred symbologies. Where I disagree with perennialism is believing that revelation of such symbologies came to an end a thousand years ago.

I believe art can instaurate new infinite symbologies, if artists adopt religious ways of working, and stop pastiching around with old and novel forms.


“Religious intellectual work pays close attention to the experience of thinking and notices not only the concepts and the concept system, but one’s own response to it.” So, what are these responses we should pay attention to, and how should we respond to these responses?

I will make a brief list of the ones I consider most important for reading and navigating the waters. This is not an exhaustive list of everything helpful to know to navigate perplexity, but is is a good start. I have also made a list of designerly virtues and another of rights we can extend to collaborators in perplexing situations that are relevant to this subject.

  • Apprehension: This is the disturbing sense that something is wrong with an idea. One can sense that it is important in some unknown way, but also that it won’t yield to full comprehension. It compels and repels. It can be touched with the fingertips of thought, but it cannot be grasped. We are tempted to push it away as confusion, as something for someone else to understand, or something slightly dangerous to understand which might seduce us to delusion. If it compels us more that repels us, it will draw us into perplexity. Apprehension is the feeling of impending perplexity.
    – Practical advice: If you want to do original work, don’t follow your bliss; follow your apprehension.
  • Questionlessness: We stop knowing what the problem is. We cannot explain what is wrong. If a group is perplexed, nobody even knows where the disagreement is. Nobody can agree on what is relevant or not. There is only a churn of chaotic semi-ignorant talking past each other.
    – Practical advice: Learn to see that framing a problem or posing a question is a major accomplishment, a fruit of conception. It is in fact much harder to clarify a question than to answer it. Answering is the inspiring, fun, playful part. Getting to where the question can be asked — especially asked inspiringly — is sheer hell. (See angst/dread below.)
  • Techlessness: We are now in a space where technique and expertise is not only useless, but harmful. The more we try to use concepts that helped us in the past the more we fail, or succeed in a way that we can feel is failing to do justice to the situation. People who believe there always must be a technique for doing anything will be tempted to make do with whatever seems the best technique available. They will solve a problem for sure, but not the one at hand.
    – Practical advice: Try every technique, but stay sensitive to when they are inadequate for the situation. Improvisation, experimentation, trial and groping by the faintest of intuitions will eventually yield new techniques and expertise, but this will come late in the process, not early when we are most desperate for technical guidance.
  • Angst/dread: This is a feeling of helpless distress, and it is caused by perplexity — lacking a conception needed to make any sense of a situation. What is crucial to know about perplexity is it is a subjective state, and affects one’s entire enworldment. It has no object and it is caused by no object, even if thinking about an object or objects of thought induced the subjective state. If we only know how to think about objects, we will not only be perplexed, we will be doubly-perplexed (“metaperplexed”, ugh) — perplexed by being perplexed — and worse, we will misinterpret it objectively by blaming various objects for the pain, such as bad actors, devils, social phenomena, secret conspiracies, wicked behaviors, insensitivity, oppression — whatever image bears our ideal of evil, that is the object causing the angst or dread. And this objectifying response intensifies and prolongs the perplexity and multiplies the pain attending it.
    – Practical advice: Do not take objectifications at face value. Look beneath objects of angst and across them and instead of taking them literally, or grasping them as causes, view them as symptoms of subjectivity. And they are not symptoms of a disease, either. They are birth pangs of an emerging subject.
  • New significance: Things begin to stand out in our experience as significant. They may be positive or negative in tone. Words, images, sounds, tones, moods begin to recur and attract our attention or trigger feelings. New tastes reveal new experiences of beauty or weaken old tastes. Since reading Jan Zwicky I have lost my ability to tune out birdsong, and I know this means something is happening. I do not know what, but I suspect it might lead me where I need to go if I read it right.
    – Practical advise: Notice what you notice, and take note.
  • New associations: Heterogenous things feel connected. The feeling that they are connected long precedes explanation how or why.
    – Practical advice: Hold on to associations and do not try to explain them immediately. Do not reject them if they are inexplicable, but instead value them even more. These takings-together may be embryonic conceptions, and might lead to entirely new modes of explanation.
  • Poetic eruptions: Moments of inspiration hit and guide our behaviors, without our conscious direction, though we are highly conscious of what is happening.
    – Practical advice: If you are moved to write, write what comes. Do not filter any of it by what you can justify or even understand. Let it emerge to be understood later. Bob Dylan, a master of this practice, said: “At dawn my lover comes to me and tell me of her dreams, with no attempt to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means. At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true. And there are no truths outside the gates of Eden.”
  • Epiphany: Conception happens. A flash of insight hits, some object of understanding stands out clearly. It might be words, a metaphor, a sense of resolve, a vision, a distinct feeling, a melodic line — I believe epiphany can take any form. Mine always arrive visually and structurally as simple geometric shapes or diagrams. But the object is only the core of a subject, and that subject ripples out through our understanding of everything. We can feel the transfiguration of our enworldment before we know what objective truths changed for us. We discover them everywhere, and sometimes we discover that people around us already knew them and were trying to show them to us, but we could not yet conceive what they were showing.
    – Practical advice: When we have an epiphany, we might only be learning a conception someone else has been trying to share with us. For them, that epiphany might have been the result of long, painful work that you did not have to do, because you were given it — as a gift. The objective form your epiphany takes might differ from theirs, but this does not change the fact that you were given the conception that engendered your object. Reducing the accomplishment to the generation of the objective concept, without acknowledging the subjective conception that engendered it — a much, much harder-won, painfully-won accomplishment — is stealing the gift of epiphany.
  • Gratitude: If we learn to notice how subjects and objectivity works, we begin to understand how much we are given and how valuable it is. Then gratitude isn’t obligation, or something you have to make yourself feel. Gratitude just happens constantly. And we are substantially, subjectively connected by this gratitude, this sacred, entangling exchange of gifts. These gifts, this gratitude, this dense entangling, this unaccountable exchange — it creates We.
    – Practical advice: Desire indebtedness — look for it, notice it. Honor the entanglements of indebtedness with gratitude. It means we are not alone, and do not have to be.


God is not an object with an existence or non-existence.

God is an infinite subject we will never stop learning and relearning. God is the Subject of subjects.

I am entirely unable to not believe this, and that is why I am religious.


I think philosophical thoughts religiously.

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