All posts by anomalogue

Interactive turn and its metaphysics

Have I mentioned my belief that our worlds are constructed primarily of interactions? It was Bruno Latour who made this real to me about ten years ago, and this was my last really big philosophical breakthrough. I suppose I could call it my “interactive turn”.

Latour’s descriptions of the conduct of science, and of everything, in terms of networks of interacting human and nonhuman actors changed how I understood both subjectivity and objectivity, and finally broke down my ability to keep those two categories discrete.

We are constantly interacting with our environments in myriad ways — physically, socially, linguistically, reflectively — reactively, deliberately, creatively, imaginatively, prospectively, habitually, absently, selectively. What we make of what is going on, that is, how we conceive it, has everything to do with how we respond to it, and how it responds back challenges us to make sense of it.

We respond to “the same” reality as related to us by other trusted sources, as passed off to us rumors from sketchy sources, as experienced as a participant in a real-life situation, as conveyed to us by a member of our own community following methods of the community, as taught to us during decades of education, as reported to us by journalists on varying integrity and ideological agendas, and as recalled by our own memories formed from different stages of our lives — and our response assumes some common phenomenological intentional object, some metaphysical reality, some commonsensical state of affairs on the other side of our interactions. But this is constructed out of interactions with innumerable mediators — people, things, thoughts, words, intuitions — who are included within or ignored out of the situation as we conceive it.

We lose track of the specific interactions that have amounted to our most habitual conceptions — our syneses (our takings-together taken-together) — which shape our categories of things, our expected cause and effect sequences in time, of our social behaviors and how they will be embraced, tolerated or punished.

Science is one variety of these interactions, but one we tend to privilege and to habitually project behind the world as our most common metaphysics. But once I learned to see scientific activities, scientific reporting, scientific explaining and scientific believing as a social behavior useful for helping us interact with nonhuman actors with greater effectiveness, somehow the relieved by need to rely on the metaphysical image science projects. I can believe in the effectiveness of the interactions and remain loyal to the social order established by science to do its work without feeling obligated to use a scientifically explicable reality as the binding agent for all my other beliefs to keep them hanging together. I see many good reasons not to!

Guenon on Chinese coins

From Rene Guenon’s The Great Triad:

It is also said that Heaven, which envelops and embraces all things, presents a ‘ventral’ — that is to say inward — face to the Cosmos while the Earth that supports all things presents a ‘ dorsal’ or outward face.  This can be easily grasped by simply looking at the diagram below, in which Heaven and Earth are respectively represented by a concentric circle and a square.

It will be observed that this diagram reproduces the shape of Chinese coins, which also happens originally to have been the shape of certain ritual tablets. The part that the characters are inscribed on — that is, the solid area between the circular outline and the square empty space in the centre — clearly corresponds to the Cosmos comprising the ‘ten thousand beings’. The fact that this area is bounded by two voids is a symbolic expression of the fact that what is not between Heaven and Earth is for that very reason not a part of manifestation.

Everso

My friend nick sent me an image of an everting sphere.

Note how the sphere becomes a torus midway through the eversion.

Note how we human beings are such that we can view reality from an inner first-person and outer third-person and experiences at once a metaphysical behind and a metaphysical beyond.

Recall that the Chinese coin was understood to be the negative space of Tao, the inner square, yin, the outer infinity, yang — but it is obvious these two are one and the same from everywhere beyond the coin.

In the creation myth this everting sphere just spawned, human being, human existence exists everywhere that the infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and periphery is nowhere forms a torus at mid-eversion, creating a unique everything, a soul, a person.


I wonder if I could make a book on images of eversions and the torus. I would make a chapbook, a second signature, to Geometric Meditations, and it would be called Everso.

Here’s the material I have so far, starting, of course with a dedication to the gorging torus, who I am now wondering is more complicated than I thought only days ago



Ouroboros,
Gorging torus,
Rolled up like an egg
Before us.


Definition of evert:

I have needed the word “evert” many times, but had to resort to flipping, reversing, inverting, turning… inside-out.

Evert – verb [with obj.]

Turn (a structure or organ) outward or inside out.

DERIVATIVES

eversible – adjective.
eversion –  noun

ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘upset, overthrow’): from Latin evertere, from e- (variant of ex-) ‘out’ + vertere ‘to turn.’

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Now I can say things like:

  • Everything in the world is the world everted.
  • A comedy is an everted tragedy. A tragedy is an everted comedy.
  • A pearl is an everted oyster shell. An oyster coats the ocean with mother-of-pearl. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is slimy oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it isn’t with mother-of-pearl. It is as if the flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — “father-of-pearl”.
  • Imagine Pandora’s box as a pearl everting to an all-ensconcing shell as Pandora opened it, and Eden as an all-ensconcing shell everted to a pearl upon Adam’s eviction.
  • An object is an everted subject.

 


In the end:

In the end,
the trees will grow like snakes,
splitting and sloughing bark,
bending in coils of green heartwood;
and the snakes will grow like trees,
depositing skin under skin,
and in their turgid leather casings,
they will lie about on the ground
like broken branches.


Shells and Pearls (a collection of previous pearl posts):

An oyster coats the ocean with an inner-shell made of mother-of-pearl lined. Anything from the outside that gets inside is coated, too. A pearl is an everted oyster shell, and an everted pearl is a shell’s inner lining. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is delicate oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it is not with mother-of-pearl. It is as if this flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — father-of-pearl.

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Irridescent Irritants

Minds secrete knowing like mother-of-pearl, coating irritant reality with lustrous likeness.

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Nacre

You are absurd. You defy comprehension.

That is, you defy my way of understanding. I cannot continue to understand my world as I understand it and understand you.

That is, you do not fit inside my soul.

I am faced with the most fundamental moral choice: Do I break open my soul? or do I bury you in mother-of-pearl?

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Father-of-Pearl

(A meditation on Levinas’s use of the term “exception” in Otherwise Than Being.)

We make category mistakes when attempting to understand metaphysics, conceiving what must be exceived.

Positive metaphysics are objectionable, in the most etymologically literal way, when they try to conceptualize what can only be exceptualized, to objectify that to which we are subject, to comprehend what comprehends — in order to achieve certainty about what is radically surprising.

In my own religious life, this category mistake is made tacitly at the practical and moral level, and then, consequentially, explicitly and consciously. Just as the retinas of our eyes see things upside-down, our mind’s eye sees things inside-out. We naturally confuse insidedness and outsidedness. By this view, human nature is less perverse than it is everse.

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Imagine, with as much topological precision as you can muster, expulsion from Eden as belonging-at-home flipped inside-out.

That galut in the pit of your gut: everted Eden?

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A garden is an everted fruit, and a fruit, an everted garden.

The nacre inner lining of a shell is an everted pearl, and a pearl, an everted nacre lining.

The exception is the everted conception, and the conception, the everted exception.

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Nacre

Pearls are inside-out oyster shells. Or are oyster shells inside-out pearls?

The oyster coats its world with layers of iridescent calcium. With the same substance it protects itself from the dangers concaving in from the outside and the irritants convexing it from the inside.

 

The politics of personal lives

Another excerpt from Sebastian Haffner’s, Defying Hitler, explains why a first-person account of what it was like to be an ordinary person during a moment in history is valuable, and perhaps more valuable than the usual third-person epic historical survey:

What is history, and where does it take place?

If you read ordinary history books — which, it is often overlooked, contain only the scheme of events, not the events themselves — you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be “at the helm of the ship of state” and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history. According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game among Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game, who may be pushed forward or left standing, sacrificed or captured, but whose lives, for what they are worth, take place in a totally different world, unrelated to what is happening on the chessboard, of which they are quite unaware.

It may seem a paradox, but it is nonetheless the simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large. It is characteristic of these decisions that they do not manifest themselves as mass movements or demonstrations. Mass assemblies are quite incapable of independent action. Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals.

This is not an airy, abstract historical construction, but indisputably real and tangible. For instance, what was it that caused Germany to lose the Great War in 1918 and the Allies to win it? An advance in the leadership skills of Foch and Haig, or a decline in Ludendorff’s? Not at all. It was the fact that the “German soldier,” that is, the majority of an anonymous mass of 10 million individuals, was no longer willing, as he had been until then, to risk his life in any attack, or to hold his position to the last man. Where did this change of attitude take place? Certainly not in large, mutinous assemblies of German soldiers, but unnoticed and unchecked in each individual soldier’s breast. Most of them would probably not have been able to describe this complicated and historically important internal process and would merely have used the single expletive “Shit!” If you had interviewed the more articulate soldiers, you would have found a whole skein of random, private (and probably uninteresting and unimportant) reasons, feelings, and experiences, a combination of letters from home, relations with the sergeant, opinions about the quality of the food, and thoughts on the prospects and meaning of the war and (since every German is something of a philosopher) about the meaning and value of life. It is not my purpose here to analyze the inner process that brought the Great War to an end, but it would be interesting for those who wish to reconstruct this event, or others like it, to do so.

Mine is a different topic, although the mental processes it involves are similar. They may perhaps be of greater consequence, interest, and importance: namely, the psychological developments, reactions, and changes that took place simultaneously in the mass of the German population, which made Hitler’s Third Reich possible and today form its unseen basis.

There is an unsolved riddle in the history of the creation of the Third Reich. I think it is much more interesting than the question of who set fire to the Reichstag. It is the question “What became of the Germans?” Even on March 5, 1933, a majority of them voted against Hitler. What happened to that majority? Did they die? Did they disappear from the face of the earth? Did they become Nazis at this late stage? How was it possible that there was not the slightest visible reaction from them?

Most of my readers will have met one or more Germans in the past, and most of them will have looked on their German acquaintances as normal, friendly, civilized people like anyone else — apart from the usual national idiosyncrasies. When they hear the speeches coming from Germany today (and become aware of the foulness of the deeds emanating from there), most of these people will think of their acquaintances and be aghast. They will ask, “What’s wrong with them? Don’t they see what’s happening to them — and what is happening in their name? Do they approve of it? What kind of people are they? What are we to think of them?”

Indeed, behind these questions there are some very peculiar, very revealing mental processes and experiences, whose historical significance cannot yet be fully gauged. These are what I want to write about. You cannot come to grips with them if you do not track them down to the place where they happen: the private lives, emotions, and thoughts of individual Germans. They happen there all the more since, having cleared the sphere of politics of all opposition, the conquering, ravenous state has moved into formerly private spaces in order to clear these, too, of any resistance or recalcitrance and to subjugate the individual. There, in private, the fight is taking place in Germany. You will search for it in vain in the political landscape, even with the most powerful telescope. Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks, whom he loves, what he does in his spare time, whose company he seeks, whether he smiles or frowns, what he reads, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance. That may sound grotesque, but it is the truth.

That is why I think that by telling my seemingly private, insignificant story I am writing real history, perhaps even the history of the future. It actually makes me happy that in my own person I do not have a particularly important, outstanding subject to describe. If I were more important I would be less typical. That is also why I hope my intimate chronicle will find favor in the eyes of the serious reader, who has no time to waste, and reads a book for the information it contains and its usefulness.

Some descriptions of what drove Haffner to leave Germany:

The world I had lived in dissolved and disappeared. Every day another piece vanished quietly, without ado. Every day one looked around and something else had gone and left no trace. I have never since had such a strange experience. It was as if the ground on which one stood was continually trickling away from under one’s feet, or rather as if the air one breathed was steadily, inexorably being sucked away.

What was happening openly and clearly in public was almost the least of it. Yes, political parties disappeared or were dissolved; first those of the left, then also those of the right; I had not been a member of any of them. The men who had been the focus of attention, whose books one had read, whose speeches we had discussed, disappeared into exile or the concentration camps; occasionally one heard that one or another had “committed suicide while being arrested” or been “shot while attempting to escape.” At some point in the summer the newspapers carried a list of thirty or forty names of famous scientists or writers; they had been proscribed, declared to be traitors to the people and deprived of their citizenship.

More unnerving was the disappearance of a number of quite harmless people, who had in one way or another been part of daily life. The radio announcer whose voice one had heard every day, who had almost become an old acquaintance, had been sent to a concentration camp, and woe betide you if you mentioned his name. The familiar actors and actresses who had been a feature of our lives disappeared from one day to the next. Charming Miss Carola Neher was suddenly a traitor to the people; brilliant young Hans Otto, who had been the rising star of the previous season, lay crumpled in the yard of an SS barracks — yes, Hans Otto, whose name had been on everyone’s lips, who had been talked about at every soiree, had been hailed as the “new Matkowski” that the German stage had so long been waiting for. He had “thrown himself out of a fourth-floor window in a moment when the guards had been distracted,” they said. A famous cartoonist, whose harmless drawings had brought laughter to the whole of Berlin every week, committed suicide, as did the master of ceremonies of a well-known cabaret. Others just vanished. One did not know whether they were dead, incarcerated, or had gone abroad — they were just missing.

The symbolic burning of the books in April had been an affair of the press, but the disappearance of books from the bookshops and libraries was uncanny. Contemporary German literature, whatever its merits, had simply been erased. Books of the last season that one had not bought by April became unobtainable. A few authors, tolerated for some unknown reason, remained like individual ninepins in the wreckage. Otherwise you could get only the classics — and a dreadful, embarrassingly bad literature of blood and soil, which suddenly sprang up. Readers — always a minority in Germany, and as they were daily told, an unimportant one at that — were deprived of their world overnight. Further, since they had quickly learned that those who were robbed might also be punished, they felt intimidated and pushed their copies of Heinrich Mann and Feuchtwanger into the back rows of their bookshelves; and if they dared to talk about the newest Joseph Roth or Jakob Wassermann they put their heads together and whispered like conspirators.

Many journals and newspapers disappeared from the kiosks — but what happened to those that continued in circulation was much more disturbing. You could not quite recognize them anymore. In a way a newspaper is like an old acquaintance: you instinctively know how it will react to certain events, what it will say about them and how it will express its views. If it suddenly says the opposite of what it said yesterday, denies its own past, distorting its features, you cannot avoid feeling that you are in a madhouse. That happened. Old-established democratic broadsheets such as the Berliner Tageblatt or the Vossische Zeitung changed into Nazi organs from one day to the next. In their customary, measured, educated style they said exactly the same things that were spewed out by the Angriff or the Völkischer Beobachter, newspapers that had always supported the Nazis. Later, one became accustomed to this and picked up occasional hints by reading between the lines of the articles on the arts pages. The political pages always kept strictly to the party line.

To some extent, the editorial staff had been replaced; but frequently this straightforward explanation was not accurate. For instance, there was an intellectual journal called Die Tat (Action), whose content lived up to its name. In the final years before 1933 it had been widely read. It was edited by a group of intelligent, radical young people. With a certain elegance they indulged in the long historical view of the changing times. It was, of course, far too distinguished, cultured, and profound to support any particular political party — least of all the Nazis. As late as February its editorials brushed them off as an obviously ephemeral phenomenon. Its editor in chief had gone too far. He lost his job and only just managed to save his neck (today he is allowed to write light novels). The rest of the editorial staff remained in post, but as a matter of course became Nazis without the least detriment to their elegant style and historical perspective — they had always been Nazis, naturally; indeed better, more genuinely and more profoundly so than the Nazis themselves. It was wonderful to behold: the paper had the same typography, the same name — but without batting an eyelid it had become a thoroughgoing, smart Nazi organ. Was it a sudden conversion or just cynicism? Or had Messrs. Fried, Eschmann, Wirsing, etc. always been Nazis at heart? Probably they did not know themselves. Anyway, I soon abandoned the question. I was nauseated and wearied, and contented myself with taking leave of one more newspaper.

All the same, the temptation to seal oneself off was a sufficiently important aspect of the period for me to devote some space to it. It has its part to play in the psychopathological process that has unfolded in the cases of millions of Germans since 1933. After all, to a normal onlooker most Germans today exhibit the symptoms of lunacy or at the very least severe hysteria. If you want to understand how this came about, you have to take the trouble to place yourself in the peculiar position in which non-Nazi Germans — and that was still the majority — found themselves in 1933, and try to understand the bizarre, perverse conflicts they faced.

The plight of non-Nazi Germans in the summer of 1933 was certainly one of the most difficult a person can find himself in: a condition in which one is hopelessly, utterly overwhelmed, accompanied by the shock of having been caught completely off balance. We were in the Nazis’ hands for good or ill. All lines of defense had fallen, any collective resistance had become impossible. Individual resistance was only a form of suicide. We were pursued into the farthest corners of our private lives; in all areas of life there was rout, panic, and flight. No one could tell where it would end. At the same time we were called upon, not to surrender, but to renege. Just a little pact with the devil — and you were no longer one of the captured quarry. Instead you were one of the victorious hunters.

That was the simplest and crudest temptation. Many succumbed to it. Later they often found that the price to be paid was higher than they had thought and that they were no match for the real Nazis. There are many thousands of them today in Germany, Nazis with a bad conscience. People who wear their Nazi badges like Macbeth wore his royal robes, who, in for a penny, in for a pound, now find their consciences shouldering one burden after another, who search in vain for a way out, drink and take sleeping pills, no longer dare to think, and do not know whether they should rather pray for the end of the Nazi era — their own era! — or dread it. When that end comes they will certainly not admit to having been the culprits. In the meantime, however, they are the nightmare of the world. It is impossible to assess what these people might still be capable of in their moral and psychological derangement. Their history has yet to be written.

Private life and liberalism

Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of the rise of Nazism in Germany, Defying Hitler, offers some fascinating insights into the role of development of private life in maintaining a liberal democracy:

After 1926 or thereabouts there was almost nothing worth discussing anymore. The newspapers had to find their headlines in foreign countries.

In Germany all was quiet, all was orderly; events took a tranquil course. There were occasional changes of government. Sometimes the parties of the right were in power and sometimes those of the left. It made no great difference. The foreign minister was always Gustav Stresemann. That meant peace, no risk of a crisis, and business as usual.

Money came into the country, the currency maintained its value, and business was good. The older generation began to retrieve its store of experience from the attic, burnish it bright, and show it off, as if it had never been invalidated. The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries. The public sector required only competent officials, and the private sector only hardworking businessmen. There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal- mindedness, good wages, good food, and a little political boredom.

Everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own tastes, and to find their own paths to happiness.

Now something strange happened — and with this I believe I am about to reveal one of the most fundamental political events of our time, something that was not reported in any newspaper: by and large that invitation was declined. It was not what was wanted. A whole generation was, it seemed, at a loss as to how to cope with the offer of an unfettered private life.

A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions, for love and hate, joy and sorrow, but also all their sensations and thrills — accompanied though they might be by poverty, hunger, death, chaos, and peril. Now that these deliveries suddenly ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful, and worthwhile, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of the political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk. In the end they waited eagerly for the first disturbance, the first setback or incident, so that they could put this period of peace behind them and set out on some new collective adventure.

To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. They began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

I have already remarked in passing that the capacity for individual life and happiness is, in any case, less developed among the Germans than among other peoples. Later, in France and England, I observed with astonishment and envy, but also learned to appreciate, what a wealth of simple joy and what an inexhaustible source of lifelong pleasure the Frenchman finds in eating and drinking, intellectual debate, and the artistic pursuit of love; and the Englishman in the cultivation of gardens, the companionship of animals, and the sports and hobbies he pursues with such childlike gravity. The average German knows nothing of the sort. Only a certain cultured class — not particularly small, but a minority, of course — used to find, and still finds, similar sustenance and pleasure in books and music, in independent thought and the creation of a personal “philosophy.” For this class the ideals and joys of life were the exchange of ideas, a contemplative conversation over a glass of wine, a few faithfully and rather sentimentally maintained and nurtured friendships, and, last but not least, an intense, intimate family life.

Almost all of this had fallen into ruin and decay in the decade from 1914 to 1924 and the younger generation had grown up without fixed customs and traditions.

Outside this cultured class, the great danger of life in Germany has always been emptiness and boredom (with the exception perhaps of certain geographical border regions such as Bavaria and the Rhineland, where a whiff of the south, some romance, and a sense of humor enter the picture).

The menace of monotony hangs, as it has always hung, over the great plains of northern and eastern Germany, with their colorless towns and their all too industrious, efficient, and conscientious businesses and organizations. With it comes a horror vacui and the yearning for “salvation”: through alcohol, through superstition, or, best of all, through a vast, overpowering, cheap mass intoxication.

The basic fact that in Germany only a minority (not necessarily from the aristocracy or the moneyed class) understands anything of life and knows how to lead it — a fact that, incidentally, makes the country inherently unsuitable for democratic government — had been dangerously exacerbated by the events of the years from 1914 to 1924. The older generation had become uncertain and timid in its ideals and convictions and began to focus on “youth,” with thoughts of abdication, flattery, and high expectations. Young people themselves were familiar with nothing but political clamor, sensation, anarchy, and the dangerous lure of irresponsible numbers games. They were only waiting to put what they had witnessed into practice themselves, but on a far larger scale. Meanwhile, they viewed private life as “boring,” “bourgeois,” and “old-fashioned.” The masses, too, were accustomed to all the varied sensations of disorder. Moreover, they had become weak and doubtful about their most recent great superstition: the creed, celebrated with pedantic, orthodox fervor, of the magical powers of the omniscient Saint Marx and the inevitability of the automatic course of history prophesied by him.

If you need inspiration for kicking your news/politics addiction, and using that time and energy instead to cultivate your own private life, your own individual personality, your own close relationships with other individuals, I hope this helps.

Perhaps that slogan “the personal is political” can be appropriated by liberals and put to good use: For the sake of politics, develop as a person first.

Gorging ouroboros chord

If you understand what you are trying to say, that is prose. If you are trying to understand something you are moved to say, that is poetry.

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Most of the time I am not a poetic person. I have, however, been in states of mind where I’ve written poems. Some of them have bothered me for decades.

Four of these poems were visual. They were simple diagrams that gave me the exit to perplexities I’d entered. A perplexity can be described as an urgently unaskable question or problem. Not only the resolution, but the problem itself is inconceivable, despite the fact that it is felt with overwhelming intensity. Normally, perplexities are resolved with words, but each of these four diagrams were visual resolutions of perplexities. The words came after the diagrams did the essential work.

In early 2020, just before the pandemic struck, I printed these four diagrams along with poetic meditations and prose commentary.

One diagram I considered, but excluded, is one I call “gorging ouroboros”.

Part of the reason I excluded the gorging ouroboros is I see it as a negative “apotropaic” image, maybe a visual warning. Over the years, the danger has come into clearer focus. I associate it with a kind of ideological feedback loop, where we are consumed with thinking thoughts about our thoughts and feeling feelings about our own feelings — but these thoughts and feelings are unaware of how much they begin and end within the self, and how thick, and ever thickening, how insular and ever insulating these self-reflexive layers have grown against transcendent reality.

I also wrote a poem that corresponds with the visual, but it appears I have never actually put them together into a single chord, which is strange, because they are obviously pointing to the same notion.

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In the end,
the trees will grow like snakes,
splitting and sloughing bark,
bending in coils of green heartwood;
and the snakes will grow like trees,
depositing skin under skin,
and in their turgid leather casings,
they will lie about on the ground
like broken branches.

Anything can happen

A change in one of our comprehensive conceptions (a conception that holds together other conceptions) can change our overall all-at-once experience of the world.

Let’s be clear: this does not only change how we think about, talk about or respond to life: a comprehensive conception shift happens preconsciously and preverbally; it reshapes our perceptions; it reworks the gestalt sense of reality that invests everything with its own significance — what we sense, recognize, think about, interact with, dwell within.

We and our entire enworldment are transfigured. Every thing within everything has new significance and promise.

Scales, however, do not drop away. No pre-existent heaven is revealed. We are not made possessors of a hidden truth. Magic had absolutely nothing to do with it. No supernatural beings intervened or bestowed grace. Nothing happened that should offend an honest atheist.

But we do learn something miraculous from this experience, something that adds a new dimension to life: transfiguration is a permanent possibility. If this can happen, anything can happen.

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In my opinionated opinion, this, precisely is what the world has lost sight of.

We are trapped inside a constricted, bleak, angry but arrogant worldview that sees its only fascination and occupation in destruction of the world out there. Woody Allen’s paradoxical restaurant review applies to the whole world of todays unwitting nihilists: “The food is just awful, and the portions are too small.”

It occurs no none of them that perhaps they are not yet qualified to change the world for the better. Revolutionaries with a nihilist mindset will sometimes destroy the corrupt crust of convention expecting to find a Rousseauean Paradise beneath — but all they find  is long-denaturalized apes stripped of their second-natural humanizing artifice.

No, on the contrary: we have reconceptive work to do before we are qualified to change the world out there to make it more accommodating and human. But that work is good work, even before we roll up our sleeves to materially re-make the world.

Am I King Midas?

The story of King Midas is a parable of an unwise man given the power to change the world to make it conform to his ideal.

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Winston Churchill never sounded more Marxist than when he said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

What kind of building should be entrusted with shaping a future architect?

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The strategy of changing our lives, our life experience and our very selves by changing the world around us is somewhere in the vicinity of the heart of leftist thinking.

To the degree one is a leftist (or progressivist), one will see suffering and dissatisfaction as something which comes from without, and which is best remedied through outward action. The world is adjusted to standards set by the self.

To the degree one is a rightist (or conservative), one will see suffering and dissatisfaction as something that is part of the very essence of existence, and which is therefore remedied through inner work. The self is adjusted to standards set by the world.

Of course, the world shapes us into the selves who, in turn, want to shape the world. And the world has been shaped by selves who were, in turn, shaped by the world. So say those of us who want to take responsibility for the standards we adopt, those standards by which we reciprocally, iteratively, shape ourselves and our worlds.

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Every one of us who aspires to change the world has a terrifying question to ask, the the more we need to ask it, the less likely it is to occur to us to ask it: Given the scope, depth and density of my understanding of the world, should I be trusted — should I trust myself? —  with shaping it to my ideal?

Contemplate Wikipedia’s definition of the Dunning-Kruger effect “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a hypothetical cognitive bias stating that people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability.”

Of course, as any good progressivist will tell you, there is no “the world”. Each person inhabits some “lived experience” largely determined by their position within society. So, which parts of the world have shaped us, our desires, our ideals, our standards? Is one of them better suited to the task of re-shaping the world?

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Years ago I went to a design event. We were all given self assessments on our own mastery of various elements of design practice. The young designers right out of school scored much higher than the experienced designers, confirming their suspicion: “Those old designers don’t know any more about design than we young designers do.”

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But, of course, the world can dominate and break us. We can betray ourselves and become  complacent and bitter. We can succumb to resentment of those who have not been broken — those who have not given up hope, who still have the will to fight. And these will look at the young and see the future: “Those young idealists think they will change the world, but reality will catch up with them, and they will end up like the rest of us.”

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Even the smartest expert, even the smartest group of like-minded experts, has knowledge of a tiny, selective speck of reality. It takes diverse minds with a diverse range of expertise to produce an adequate knowledge of human life. And the further we get from the reality we “know” –the lesson-the-ground, hands-on experience we have of what we know — the less problematic our knowledge seems.

To cultivate awareness of the limits of our knowledge, to learn to detect the mind’s own devices for forgetting its finitude by bounding itself within a tidy horizon of relevance and painting over its ignorance and blindness with the concealing paint of nothingness, to know that we do not know not only with our minds, but with our hearts and our bodies, and most of all when we vehemently disagree — these bring us to pluralism.

Pluralism is a modest term for an old honorific that has become preposterous and fallen out of use.

Ass Festival

Here is a three-note chord of Nietzsche quotes, followed by some intensely Nietzschean reflections on Rorty.

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“Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that the philosopher came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.”

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“There is a point in every philosophy when the philosopher’s “conviction” steps onto the stage — or to use the language of an ancient Mystery: ‘The ass entered / beautiful and most brave.'”

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“It was ever in the desert that the truthful have dwelt, the free spirits, as masters of the desert; but in the cities dwell the well-fed, famous wise men — the beasts of burden. For, as asses, they always pull the people’s cart. Not that I am angry with them for that: but for me they remain such as serve and work in a harness, even when they shine in harnesses of gold. And often they have been good servants, worthy of praise.”

*

If, in pursuit of truth, you track it into the driest, harshest regions of the desert, you might emerge with a conviction that truth is best used for pulling little carts.

But does every car need to haul the same burdens over the same terrain from the same origin to the same destination for the same purpose?

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Rorty says: “We can, of course, stick with Kant and insist that Darwin, like Newton, is merely a story about phenomena, and that transcendental stories have precedence over empirical stories. But the hundred-odd years spent absorbing and improving on Darwin’s empirical story have, I suspect and hope, made us unable to take transcendental stories seriously. In the course of those years we have gradually substituted a making a better future — a utopian, democratic, society — for ourselves, for the attempt to see ourselves from outside of time and history. Pan-relationalism is one expression of that shift. The willingness to see philosophy as helping us to change ourselves rather than to know ourselves is another.”

My response to Rorty is that Pragmatism taken to its extreme pan-relationalist point suggests that we approach philosophy as a design discipline, concerned not only with what allows us to reconcile what seemed true and valuable in the past and what seems true and promising in the present, but with what situates us in reality and orients us toward it in a way that helps us live a life that we experience as good.

My question is this: If as pan-relationalists, we are truly, wholeheartedly, wholemindedly, wholebodiedly able to conceive of ourselves as transcendental beings — each of us entrusted with one of the myriad center-points of the infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere — where objectivity is viewed as a product of subjectivity, the brain produced by mind — and if by doing so we manage to maintain communication and communion with our fellow humans, interact with the world effectively to cope with it, predict it, shape it, but also find ourselves more able to love being alive, to love others, to love reality as a whole — what is to be gained by refusing this pleasure? Why kill God if God lives for us, and nothing — not even truth — can compel us to? And isn’t this what pan-relationalism gives us? Are we afraid, perhaps, to give up our last shred of compelled belief, and to enworld ourselves in a world that shows us our value?

Why can’t a pan-relationalist, seeing myriad possible ways to use tools and language to enworld oneself, not place pan-relationalism in the background, like a deep heaven populated by innumerable stars, and go into orbit around a sun of his own choosing? Why stay out in the vacuum of space, unless you actually like it out there? A cozy, habitable planet has as much right to call itself “space” as those colder, emptier and more common expanses that seem so strange and remote to children of Mother Earth.

So I will now trot my conviction onto stage, beautiful and most brave, and let it bray: “If your philosophy works, if it makes the world not only intelligible and practicable but also profoundly desirable, and you manage to adopt that philosophy with all your heart soul and strength, so that doubts do not trouble you, there is no philosophical reason to abandon it.”

Yea-Yuh and amen.

Spoken artifacts

This morning I was finishing up reading Rorty’s electrifyingly provocative essay on pan-relationalism while sporadically talking with Susan about how she’s feeling stuck in her current project.

As always happens when I read Rorty, I’ve been thinking about words as one kind of artifact that humans devise and use, but which, to us humans (especially to Rorty!) seems somehow more fundamental and unique to who we are than all those other non-linguistic artifacts we make and use.

I suggested to Susan that she could try prototyping her idea. Then I realized people never understand what I mean when I say prototype. They imagine something much more finished, where in design a prototype is the fastest and cheapest way to get an idea out of one’s head and into form where it can be interacted with, so designers can learn from the externalized interaction and further develop the idea. To give her an idea of exactly how crude, I showed her the classic IDEO example.

Suddenly, I understood something new.

Language is a prototyping tool.

When we propose, suggest, speculate, plan we are prototyping possibilities using spoken artifact that we and others imagine, consider, try out, or try on. They, in turn, can descriptively manipulate our prototype, and present it back to us in modified form. Conversation of this kind is collaborative language prototyping.

Of course, language is not always the best prototyping material. As an idea progresses toward concrete actualization, it becomes more and more risky relying on what we learn from our spoken artifacts (unless, of course, the ultimate artifact is itself linguistic). The lessons gleaned from the verbal artifact may not apply as expected to the material artifact that is our “final product”. But this is true of any prototype. Proper use of a prototype always relies on interpretation, analogy and imagination. Failure to see the intended analogy between the prototype and the intended final artifact is similar to missing the intended meaning of a sentence.

This is why, after talking out an idea, then drawing it or acting it out, it prototypes are developed iteratively, in increasing levels of fidelity that successively approach the final product — but the whole time designers rely on language to prototype potential variants, before committing more resources. “Talk is cheap.” And this is what makes it such a great prototyping material!

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For me, talking, imagining, drawing, crafting are all products of nonverbal intention — intuition.

Yes, these things are tough to talk about clearly, and if talking as clearly as possible is your goal, maybe you’ll want to deemphasize the role of tacit intention in your descriptions of how humans think, perceive, value and behave.

But if you are a designer, and your goal is to produce artifacts (including verbal artifacts!) that people find desirable, useful and usable and you discover that usability in particular requires a direct coupling between intention and action without intervention of language, you’ll find conflations of intention and language counterproductive, and clarity gained in confusing the two to be more of a vice than a virtue.

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I seriously want to make a linocut print of the IDEO prototype.

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I wrote something last week in an email that I want to glue to this line of thought.

…I have a redescription of panrelationalism to try out on you — one that does more justice to tacit knowledge. I’m happy to call “tacit knowledge” an ability and not a form of knowledge, as long as we distinguish ability from instinct or reflex by specifying that an ability is an intentional act situated within a pragmatic network of consequential (often unstated) beliefs. 

I see language use as a special case of ability, the ability to use a certain set of words — but that the ability to wordlessly do something with an intent — “intentional attitude” should take the place of the “sentential attitude.” A sentential attitude is one variety of intentional attitude, an intention to speak. 

We do not have to form a sentence to have an intention, but every sentence is directed by an intention, which is why we discover the ending of sentences as we utter the last word of it. We are using a tacit ability as we interact with an already-said sentence and available vocabulary for extending it, guided by a tacit intuition of what we want to say, in the very act of speaking. 

If we replace every linguistic term with an intentional one, and understand that language is a special case of intention, I’m a panrelationalist. I’ll even extend an olive branch and admit that our linguistic genius can, in principle, speak any intention. 

But the tradeoffs involved in allowing words to metonymically stand in for intentions is unacceptable for this designer, since good design is so closely bound up with wordless intentional actions. The metonymy erases a crucial distinction designers need to make. But also, there’s a fine line between metonymy and conflation, and I think philosophy is best served when we split hairs when we can show that there is a difference there that makes a difference. I think the “good design” difference is only the tip of the iceberg of reconceiving and potentially redescribing how minds use language and other tools.

Enworldment design (again!)

Enworldment is my preferred term for lifeworld. I think it’s prettier and it has some desirable overtones: enworldment sounds like something that we intentionally shape for ourselves, where one can easily imagine an amoeba inhabiting a lifeworld.

Enworldments are held together by conceptions. Conceptions manifest in a variety of ways — only one of which is language.

Language is undoubtedly one of the most important manifestations of conceptions. Language provides our best access to conceptions, our readiest way to share them and also our best means to change them — to interrogate them, weaken them, break them, and to find novel conceptions, entertain alternative ones, to evaluate them and to adopt new conceptions in place of old ones.

Because language is so closely connected with conception it is easily to reduce conceptions to language or reduce change of conceptions to a change of language. To to conflate or confuse conceptions with verbalized concepts is to commit a logocentric category mistake.

Why should anyone care about avoiding this mistake? Changes in conception have consequences that extend beyond language. For instance, changes in conception can affect perception, not only in how a perception is interpreted (such as learning to see an optical illusion) but even how it is experienced aesthetically (such as when we acquire a taste, or when our tastes change in response to changes in our lives).

This should not be surprising if you understand perception as sensory conception (sensorily taking-together). A painter’s or musician’s style manifests conceptions in visual or auditory form, and a style resonates with us when we receive it via analogous conceptions, or they intrigue or disturb us when we intuit a conception that we are on the edge of learning.

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From here I want to develop the idea that these conceptions we use to enworld ourselves and make sense of, interact with and to value some things at the expense of other things is not something we only do to enable us to change our world — though it does do that. The enworldment itself transfigures the world even before we apply it to our actions, in ways that make some better than others for different people in different contexts.

Irony

I think irony may be the ability to transpose first and third person perspectives, so we can experience our first person tragic situation as a third person comic one, or, less commonly, to enter a third person comedy and experience it as first person tragic. But it might be that irony is established on the transpositionability of perspectives, so that comedy, tragedy and irony all come into existence simultaneously as a trinity.

If this is true, irony can be seen as the cornerstone of Christian theology, the origin of the Cartesian split and the necessary condition of pluralism.

The first will be last

Who gets to decide who is stronger, weaker, aggressor and victim? The strongest.

To the degree being seen as weak is advantageous and valuable, the strongest will claim that status for itself. It will defend its claim. And when it speaks truth to power, it will respond with overwhelming force if its  powerful oppressors respond with insolent back talk.

The first will be last, and if try to stop them you will be crushed like an ant.

Is it 2005, again?

Somewhere around 2005 people in the habit of condemning their fellow citizens as “traitors” for questioning the Iraq invasion started sobering up, and in various ways tried to distance themselves from what they could now see was unfounded certainty about matters of moral intensity. But right up until that point, there was no question: They were on the right side of history.

From this experience I took one big, important lesson: Certainty that you are on the right side of history is the furthest thing from evidence that history will agree with you.

(It feels a little like 2005 to me right now.)

Deictic stack

I hate to borrow techie terminology for philosophical purposes, and I hate it even more when the term has already been heavily appropriated and bastardized by non-techie types, but here it works so well I’m overriding taste.

I’ve been playing with the concept of deixis as a way of accounting for differences in metaphysical conception so deeply sedimented beneath our explicit beliefs and thoughts that we don’t even know how to discuss them, think them or even to frame questions about them.

The hypothesis is a simple one: infants are implicitly inducted into a metaphysics from their earliest moments of postnatal existence. The way the parents respond to the infant, speaking and interacting, orients the new person to the world in ways that prepare the mind for conceptualization and speech by establishing a pre-verbal ontology that I propose takes the form of categories of person — I, we, you, thou, y’all, it, those, them, and so on. The sequence in which these persons (the deictic structures) occur in relation to one another — which one precedes and becomes the “experience near” reference point for the next layer in the “stack” — has profound implications for the overall character of existence as full consciousness emerges and develops.

When someone else’s basic conception of reality seems absolutely bonkers to us, I suggest this might trace back to their deictic stack. Someone whose original sense of reality is a Thou is bound to have profoundly different intuitions from one whose first sense of reality is It. or I or We — or Them.

Years ago I heard it claimed that Asian parents interact with their babies differently from European parents. Where European parents hand a ball to their child, they say “ball”, which orients the interaction to 3rd person singular, Asian parents tend to say “thank you”, which orients the interaction within 1st person plural. These parenting practices might account for the deeper differences in sensibility across cultures.

I want to keep in keep in mind, too, that the differentiation of self from not-self might come down to resistance. That is, we experience objective reality most tangibly in what is objectionable — what stands out as unexpected or unwanted . This might mean that someone with a perfect mother might experience the reality of It long before the reality of Thou, precisely because Thou is so anticipative, accommodating, comforting that Thou does not stand out as other but remains submerged in subject. In such a case, the world of It might be the first resisting reality the infant encounters. Or a sibling intruding as Them or unskillfully or obtrusively interacting as a semi-accommodating Thou or We might come first.

I’m less interested here in establishing a a factual hypothesis than a way to frame the question of why we have such different basic conceptions of reality, and why are these intuitions so painfully difficult to think about and navigate? If we recognize that just as every explicit statement has its origin in indexicality (we know what a ball is because someone handed us a red ball and said “ball” or “red” or “thank you”), I think all our actions, utterances and thoughts refer back to an enworldment, and that one way to understand the character of the enworldment is to study its genesis as a sequence of original differentiations.

Now I’m sounding like Hegel. Maybe I’m just crossing Hegel with Piaget and multiplying them with James to produce a more pluralistic dialectic rooted in early childhood development. Dunno. But my mind keeps dragging me back to this idea. Also my own philosophical conversions have all taken the form of metaphysical replatforming (ugh) on different persons. With Nietzsche I refounded my 3rd person plural universe (scientistic, objective metaphysics, in which minds were an emergent property of brains) on a 1st person singular base (phenomenological, subject-first metaphysics, where whatever its ultimate nature, our mind conceives a brain and then conceives the brain as emergently generating mind, but, importantly, without in the least changing the fact that the mind came first). I called the first view “ecliptic” and described it as I-in-world, and the second “soliptic” / “world-in-me”. It is important to recognize that with this shift in perspective the thoughts themselves everted, and stopped being objective facts I thought about, and became the subjective process from which my thoughts came. Get where I’m coming from? It was a conversion experience that mapped to everything converts say, but it all happened without any supernatural processes an atheist would rule out. And I should know, because I would have ruled it out, too. Yet it was a religious conversion, and it left me religious (albeit in a way that really, really bothers theists who look too closely). Since then Jewish thinkers, culminating in Buber with his I-Thou dialogical thinking, have shifted me to 1st person plural via 2nd person singular, then again, via Latour into a thorough blurring of I-Thou-It that has led me to root metaphysics in a predifferentiated adeictic point beyond persons of any kind, but which must, to a finite person, must manifest, or (shit!!) incarnate in person form (whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd person). And now with all this three-person incarnating God talk I sound totally Christian. I do love Christianity, too. But I love it in a Jewish way, as a Jew.

Well-tempered descriptions

Ebony and ivory
live together in imperfect harmony
Side by side on a well-tempered keyboard.

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Wikipedia says this about musical temperament:

In musical tuning, a temperament is a tuning system that slightly compromises the pure intervals of just intonation to meet other requirements. … Temperament is especially important for keyboard instruments, which typically allow a player to play only the pitches assigned to the various keys, and lack any way to alter pitch of a note in performance. Historically, the use of just intonation, Pythagorean tuning and meantone temperament meant that such instruments could sound “in tune” in one key, or some keys, but would then have more dissonance in other keys.

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Not only musical tuning but ideology can be well-tempered and made to harmonize (albeit imperfectly) with other worldviews — if it will compromise slightly.

A principled refusal to compromise on ideals means that one’s own worldview enjoys perfect self-consistency, but any other ideal will produce beliefs that clash with it and produce sour notes.

Is it a coincidence that well-tempered tuning makes just intonation less pure in order to allow different otherwise incompatible keys to coexist?

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A well-tempered social description is one that makes slight adjustments to a shared story to allow it to be compatible with multiple perspective.

To those who seek perfectly just intonation within one “correct” key, well-tempered tuning looks ungainly, ugly, arbitrary and flawed. But when you look at the problem of tuning pluralistically and ask how multiple keys can exist on a single instrument, the small compromises made for the sake of many keys appears grandly perfect and ideological perfection looks narrow and monotonous.

 

 

Metaphysical deixis

I need to look into whether metaphysicians think in terms of deixis. The idea is that even when we speak in the most explicit way about the most mundane matters, and the local deixis of the utterance is utterly fixed there is an implicit deixis beneath that pertains to the interrelations of all particular realities to ultimate reality. I’m calling this metaphysical deixis. I’ll try to sketch out what I’m trying to get at.

Most of us (at least those who belong to the professional class) adhere — often uncritically to an ontology that is metaphysically founded on the third-person singular. Let’s call this metaphysical stance “atomistic objectivity”. Atomic objects (“that”, 3rd person singular) combine into atomic systems (“those”, 3rd person plural). From this emerges consciousness (“I”, 1st person singular) who form relationships with others (“you”, 2nd person singular) to produce relationships — (“we”, 1st person plural) and society (“y’all”, 2nd person plural). 3s, 3p, 1s, 2s, 1p, 2p.

Traditional western religious people tend to root their metaphysics in a very different ultimate. The ultimate being is God (2nd person singular), who created the universe (3rd person plural) and everything in it (3rd person singular), before creating each of us (1st person singular), and all of us (1st person plural) and the people outside our faith (2nd person plural). 2s, 3p, 3s, 1s, 1p, 2p. It would be interesting to look into whether the current progressivist metaphysics is the same sequence, but reversed.

Solipsists try to build out their metaphysics on the 1st person singular, proceeding from 1s to 3s to 3p, etc.

 

Three conceptions of justice

People say the word “justice” and unconsciously conflate multiple concepts that do not necessarily belong together. I’ll list a few.

The most common concept, in every sense of the word, is ensuring that whoever has been harmed by another is given the satisfaction of revenge. Sadistic pleasure is compensated with sadistic pleasure. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, dignity for dignity. Everyone gets the same chance to enjoy inflicting suffering on others, to humiliate others, to coerce others — and nobody gets an unfairly large portion in the delight of debasing, controlling and harming others.

A second concept of justice is upholding of law. When the law is inexorably enforced, it reinforces to everyone that the law is a reality, that all must follow it, and that all can count on the fact that it will be followed by others.

A third concept of justice is pluralistic. This justice understands that every subject acts by its own logic — even when it tries to live according to the law. The third justice tries to “do justice” to this logic and to understand why another person thinks, values and acts in the way they do — to get inside their judgment to understand how and why this judgment might deviate from the public judgment.

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When we say justice, it is helpful to know 1) which justice or justices we, ourselves, are pursuing, and 2) what justice means for the others involved in the adjudication.

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This thought is not mine. I am paraphrasing.