“Why philosophize? To capture reality!”

Some closely connected thoughts that speak directly to my own current concerns.

From Eric Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections:

The motivations of my work, which culminates in a philosophy of history, are simple. They arise from the political situation.

Anybody with an informed and reflective mind who lives in the twentieth century since the end of the First World War, as I did, finds himself hemmed in, if not oppressed, from all sides by a flood of ideological language — meaning thereby language symbols that pretend to be concepts but in fact are unanalyzed topoi or topics. Moreover, anybody who is exposed to this dominant climate of opinion has to cope with the problem that language is a social phenomenon. He cannot deal with the users of ideological language as partners in a discussion, but he has to make them the object of investigation. There is no community of language with the representatives of the dominant ideologies. Hence, the community of language that he himself wants to use in order to criticize the users of ideological language must first be discovered and, if necessary, established.

The peculiar situation just characterized is not the fate of the philosopher for the first time in history. More than once in history, language has been degraded and corrupted to such a degree that it no longer can be used for expressing the truth of existence.

This was the situation, for instance, of Sir Francis Bacon when he wrote his Novum Organum. Bacon classified the unanalyzed topics current in his time as “idols”: the idols of the cave, the idols of the marketplace, the idols of pseudo theoretical speculation. In resistance to the dominance of idols — i.e., of language symbols that have lost their contact with reality — one has to rediscover the experiences of reality as well as the language that will adequately express them. The situation today is not very different.

Voegelin wrote these words in 1973. They are probably always true to some degree. But I find them more true today than any other moment in my life. More and more of my peers are “representatives of the dominant ideologies” and this makes it impossible to share a community of language with them. Their worlds are stocked with ideological objects that eclipse and replace rather than articulate what is given.

This bit is especially relevant: “In resistance to the dominance of idols — i.e., of language symbols that have lost their contact with reality — one has to rediscover the experiences of reality as well as the language that will adequately express them.”

This concern for maintaining contact with reality, resonates powerfully with the book I am currently reading, Fritz Perls’s classic Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality.

…All contact is creative and dynamic. It cannot be routine, stereotyped, or merely conservative because it must cope with the novel, for only the novel is nourishing. … On the other hand, contact cannot passively accept or merely adjust to the novelty, because the novelty must be assimilated. All contact is creative adjustment of the organism and environment. Aware response in the field (as both orientation and manipulation) is the agency of growth in the field. Growth is the function of the contact-boundary in the organism/environment field; it is by means of creative adjustment, change, and growth that the complicated organic unities live on in the larger unity of the field.

We may then define: psychology is the study of creative adjustments. Its theme is the ever-renewed transition between novelty and routine, resulting in assimilation and growth.

Correspondingly, abnormal psychology is the study of the interruption, inhibition, or other accidents in the course of creative adjustment. We shall, for instance, consider anxiety, the pervasive factor in neurosis, as the result of the interruption of the excitement of creative growth (with accompanying breathlessness); and we shall analyze the various neurotic “characters” as stereotyped patterns limiting the flexible process of creatively addressing the novel. Further, since the real is progressively given in contact, in the creative adjustment of organism and environment, when this is inhibited by the neurotic, his world is “out of touch” and therefore progressively hallucinatory, projected, blacked out, or otherwise unreal.

Creativity and adjustment are polar, they are mutually necessary. Spontaneity is the seizing on, and glowing and growing with, what is interesting and nourishing in the environment. (Unfortunately, the “adjustment” of much psychotherapy, the “conformity to the reality-principle,” is the swallowing of a stereotype.)


But just as in our culture as a whole there has grown up a symbolic culture devoid of contact or affect, isolated from animal satisfaction and spontaneous social invention, so in each self, when the growth of the original interpersonal relations has been disturbed and the conflicts not fought through but pacified in a premature truce incorporating alien standards, there is formed a “verbalizing” personality, a speech that is insensitive, prosy, affectless, monotonous, stereotyped in content, inflexible in rhetorical attitude, mechanical in syntax, meaningless. This is the reaction to or identification with an accepted alien and unassimilated speech. And if we concentrate awareness on these “mere” habits of speech, we meet extraordinary evasions, making of alibis, and finally acute anxiety — much more than the protestations and apologies accompanying the revealing of important “moral” lapses. For to call attention to speech (or to clothes) is indeed a personal affront.

But the difficulty is that, disgusted with the customary empty symbolizing and verbalizing, recent philosophers of language set up astringent norms of speech that are even more stereotyped and affectless; and some psychotherapists give up in despair and try to by-pass speaking altogether, as if only inner silence and non-verbal behavior were potentially healthy. But the contrary of neurotic verbalizing is various and creative speech; it is neither scientific semantics nor silence; it is poetry.

It seems to me that Voegelin and Perls are largely concerned with the same phenomena at different scales: the tendency for language to create objects of thought that purport to represent real objects (gestalts that we spontaneously experience as given in contact with the world around us) but which somehow become substitutes for reality and cause the thinking subject to lose contact with reality.

This concern, of course, is at the heart of design research as I understand it. Our job as researchers is not only to help organizations gather data they lack. It is to help organizations recover fuller contact with reality beyond their own walls.

Most large organizations squint out at the world through data peepholes, custom-drilled to perceive what they assume is relevant. From this data, they construct abstract models and theories about what is going on. The numbers and models and theories become the objects of preoccupation for these organizations — far more real than what they are meant to represent. When organizations find they are unable to use these abstract objects to produce the numbers they are commanded to produce, occasionally someone within the organization is wise enough to suggest leaving the building and making contact with the reality behind the abstractions. And generally, we find that the abstractions themselves need reworking. This abstraction design is foundational to all other design, and this is the part of the work I love. If I am required to design without this preliminary, I am deprived of ground upon which to build — or even stand.

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