From Emerson’s essay, “The American Scholar”:

If it were only for a vocabulary, the scholar would be covetous of action. Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town; in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day. This is the way to learn grammar. Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made.

If I hadn’t worked as a designer, and suffered and overcome so many perplexities in an effort to both do my design work, and to intuitively understand what I am doing, and hardest of all, to articulate my intuitive understanding, my philosophical work never would have traveled this trajectory and taken me where I now am.

If design hadn’t become so collaborative, and therefore so social, and therefore so political I never would have needed to philosophize about design. I could have just absorbed myself in wordless dialogue with my materials — in craft. But when your materials include people — as it turns out all design does, when understood properly — there is no way to avoid wordful dialogue.

And, my God! — when multiple dozens of people are directly involved in the process of collaboration, as they are in service design, you will find yourself in highly wordful meta-dialogue about dialogue (for instance the meaning of what research participants said in an interview, or whether multiple different interview participants were saying the same thing, and if so, in what sense was it the same, and why…). With each meta-level of conversations about conversations, of understandings of understandings, things get weirder and harder to navigate. This shadowy hades region — this Sartrean Hell that is other people thinking about other people thinking about other people — is the terrain I’ve learned to navigate. I’m a professional Hell sherpa.

Most people I know do not care to think about this region. If only they would suspend speculating on it, too. Because when I hear people talk about their own loves and hopes and commitments they all seem reasonable. But when they start talking about their enemies who oppose, obstruct or interfere with these good things, they sound like angry, egocentric children. And this is especially true of altruists whose loves and hopes and commitments are all about others they wish to help, who cannot imagine that these moral fantasies could ever be egocentric.

So for me “mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions” would be a final vocabulary useful for navigating the terrain of personal and social perplexity and to emerge on the other side with better enworldments.


One thought on “Vocabulary

  1. “I’m a professional Hell Sherpa.” Love it! Sometimes I get hijacked by the meter of your writings and have to read again for the content.

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