All posts by anomalogue

Voluminosity

When I first moved to Atlanta, I saw it primarily through the windsheilds of cars and windows of buildings.

During my brief but transformative residence in Toronto I learned to rely on my bicycle as my primary mode of transportation.

Returning to Atlanta, and experiencing it from my bicycle changed my conception of its space. What had been a network of linear tracks and decision-points, connecting interior with interior, was now revealed to be a wide-open terrain of free movement. The linear network was densely crisscrossed with shortcuts across alleyways, parking lots, lawns and wooded areas. Whatever path I chose was lined with sounds and smells and faces. Flowing with traffic was not enforced. I could notice, interact, stop, pull over, take in where I am.

But that isn’t the end of it. My new alertness to birds has lifted this free plane above the ground, and raised it up into the trees and over the buildings. It has also filled up the interstices of all possible paths, flowing into gullies, gardens, underbrush and hidden places. It turns out that Atlanta is a reverberant, living volume. I cannot tune it out, and I feel crazy.

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There are so many worlds in this world, populating it, radiating intelligence into it. Myriads within myriads — a zillion everythings.

Multipersonal perplexity

A.

Long ago, (perhaps informed by experiences sitting in meditation?) even before I began intensive philosophical study, I adopted a psychology of “subpersonalities“. I’ve talked about it dozens of ways, but the language orbits a single conviction: our personal subjects are microcosmic societies, composed of semi-independent intuitive units.

One of the main reasons I came to this belief was noticing that subjects do not always respect the borders of the individual. Pairs of people can form a sort of personality together, and this personality can leave bits of each person behind. Sometimes this new joint-personality can threaten existing ones, leading to jealousy and estrangement.

Taking-together the idea of subpersonalities and superpersonalities (“ubermenschen” wouldn’t be a bad German synonym) leaves our ordinary personal subjects in a strange position. We both comprehend subjects that are aspects of our selves, but we also are comprehended by subjects in whom we participate.

One of my most desperate insights — which I need to find a way to say clearly and persuasively — is that we are much better at thinking about what we comprehend as objects than we are at thinking what comprehends us as subjects in which we participate, but which transcend our comprehension. I believe we need to learn this participatory mode transcendent subjective thought so we can navigate difficult interpersonal and social situations we find ourselves in, and avoid the mistake (the deepest kind of category mistake) of translating these situations (literally “that in which we are situated”) into objectively comprehensible terms that make understanding impossible. We lack the enworldment to think or respond to such situations.

A subject can be smaller than, larger than, or the same size as a personal subject.

Subjectivity is scalar.

B.

Perplexity is another idea that has obsessed me since I underwent, navigated and overcame my own first perplexity, and experienced a deep and powerful epiphany — an epiphany about perplexities.

(To summarize: A perplexity is a subjective condition where our conceptions fail, and we cannot even conceive the problem, much less progress toward a solution. We instinctively fear and avoid perplexities, sensing them with feelings of apprehension at what resists comprehension, because perplexity is the dissolution of a subject.)

Emerging on the other side of my first overcome perplexity, I understood the positive, creative potential of perplexity. I realized (in the sense that it became real to me) that much of the worst pain and most egregious offense I’d sustained to that point in my life were, at least in part, perplexities that I had interpreted as externally inflicted — and that I had interpreted them that way because my objectivizing enworldment supported no other way of conceiving them.

This epiphany re-enworlded me in a way that I could discern when — or at least try to discern when — perplexities were contributing or amplifying distress in my life. When I later learned the word “metanoia” I recognized it as describing what happened to me. It happens to many people, and once you know it, you can feel it radiating from them. It is palpable.

This insight into the relationship between perplexity and epiphany is my philosopher’s stone, who transmutes leaden angst into golden insight.

The worst things that can happen to us can potentially be the best things that happen to us… if we have a sense of how to move about in the shadowy realms, where we say “here I don’t know my way about“.

Perplexity is the dissolution of subject — a sort of subjective death — that makes possible resolution of a new subject — a subjective rebirth: metanoia.

C.

If we believe that subjects can be larger than an individual subjectivity (so, for instance a marriage is a subject within which each spouse’s subject subsists)…

…and we also believe that when a subject undergoes perplexity that very deep conceptions lose their effectiveness and must be reconceived if the subject is to regain living wholeness…

…why would we suppose that only an individual person can be perplexed?

I believe that multipersonal perplexities are real.

It seems improbable that I never took-together scalar subjectivity and perplexity as the dissolution of subject, and never followed the pragmatic consequences of conceiving these ideas together, but doing so feels like… an epiphany.

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Just as a perplexity can grip a single personal subject, it can also grip a subject of two people, or three, or a dozen or multiple dozens. It can grip hundreds, thousands, millions, or multiple billions. Entire cultures can be perplexed.

Try to imagine a perplexed marriage; a perplexed friendship; a perplexed organization, a perplexed community; a perplexed academic subject.

(Thomas Kuhn imagined perplexed scientific communities.

Try to imagine a perplexed civilization.

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I mean “to to imagine” literally. Consider pausing and concretely trying to imagine what multipersonal perplexities might be like if encountered in real life.

Try to imagine a perplexed married couple.

Try to imagine a perplexed organization.

Try to imagine a perplexed community.

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If you tried to imagine these scenarios, reflect: Did you imagine being in the situation as a first-person participant, subjectively experiencing the perplexity from the inside? Or did you observe the situation from outside, as an third-person observer of other people embroiled in perplexity?

Can you evert the perspective, and imagine the same scenario, situated within it as an a first-person participant, and and situated outside it as a third-person observer?

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If you can, assume with me for a moment that collective perplexities really are possible, and consider a speculative scenario:

Party A and Party B have entered a collective perplexity.

Party A is the privileged party in these scenarios, blessed by me (the inventor of these scenarios and all the assumptions governing them) with true insights into “what is really going on”. It’s an invented scenario, so there can be a true truth here, if nowhere else.

Party B sees things differently (and, again, because this is my custom-made vanity scenario) incorrectly. Party B rejects the notion of perplexity and sees what is happening according to its own worldview, which has no perplexity concept. What Party A claims is perplexity, Party B perceives as needless conflict caused largely by Party A’s iffy (or worse) beliefs and actions.

So, Party A conceives what is happening as a collective perplexity, and attempts to engage Party B in a perplexity-resolving response — a transcendent sublation.

Consider a first variant of the scenario: Faction B wants to recover the collective mode of being that existed prior to the perplexity, and “turns around” and attempts to move back to how things were before the conflict began. How does this play out?

Now, consider a second variant: Faction B decides to bring an end to the conflict through breaking free of Faction B altogether. It secedes, or splits off, forms a new denomination, or resigns, or hits unfollow, or blocks or mutes, or divorces, or cuts off contact, or whatever separation mechanism makes sense for the kind of faction A and B are. How does this play out?

Now consider a third variant: Faction B decides to fight and dominate Faction B. It makes Faction A a deal it can’t refuse. Or it tries to use the justice to force its will. Or it tries to steal an election through various kinds of deceit and treachery. It tries to weaken, dissolve or destroy some institutions and strengthen, reinforce or build others in order to dominate faction A. How does this play out?

There is a fourth variant, but I don’t want to digress.

What is the ethical obligation of Party A and Party B in each of these variants? How does each see the other’s?

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I have been in deeply perplexed relationships where I was the only one who saw a perplexity, and so I could not win the cooperation required to resolve it. I could not resolve the perplexity of the relationship alone, so I had to resolve the perplexity in myself. This resolved perplexity, however, is not the shared perplexity. The shared perplexity is left unresolved, unasked and unanswered in a state of nothingness.

Over the years, I have gradually learned to avoid such perplexities, except where I sense a possibility of fruitful struggle. Most of the time, with most people, however, I keep things light and gloss over anything that might cause apprehension. I have learned to get along with most people most of the time, and that means keeping my active philosophy to myself.

I have also been in many superficially perplexed relationships, which, because they were superficial, could be collaboratively resolved. Design research has been my laboratory.

Once every decade or so, I get stuck in a situation — usually with a client with little hands-on design experience, but with much learned-about “design expertise” — who can neither cooperate nor resist the impulse to dominate the process, who makes resolution of the perplexity possible. And these leave me detaching from the shared perplexity and resolving a perplexity of my own, not the shared one.

(I feel every lost shared perplexity, whether deep or shallow, like an intellectual phantom limb. It is nothing — but nothingness feels terrible. I see no reason to pretend it doesn’t bother me, or that I can just unilaterally “forgive”, which an individual effort, without mutual reconciliation, which is a collaborative effort.)

I have also had one extremely deep shared perplexity resolve in a shared resolution.


“Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes”

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,
and forests made of mist. There were bridges
spanning the void, and that great gray blind lake
which hung above its distant bottom
like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.
And through the gentle, unresisting meadows
one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, —
but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.
Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached
back to the footsteps of those other two
who were to follow him, up the long path home.
But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,
or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.
He said to himself, they had to be behind him;
said it aloud and heard it fade away.
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,
a traveler’s hood above his shining eyes,
his slender staff held out in front of him,
and little wings fluttering at his ankles;
and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars –:
So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands
had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s
infinitely gentle touch of guidance
hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around –,
she could not understand, and softly answered
Who?

Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

Dematerializing

I read strangely.

When I read, I work hard at understanding the material, but I do not put much effort into retaining the material.

Rather, I use the effort to understand to repattern my conceptions.

As I read, I look for signs of textual attunement or misattunement. I pay close attention to when I am confused or perplexed, or when I am partially or superficial understanding, which means I am misunderstanding. Alert but easy following — fluent reception (influence?) of words into sentences into ideas — spontaneous, intuitive comprehension — these are all positive indications that I am becoming someone capable of understanding this material.

I also notice changes in my experience of the world. What odd details stand out to me as significant, or curious, or beautiful, or mysterious, or disturbing, or infuriating? And what is the overall tone of life?

Instead of trying to possess the material, I allow the material to transform me.

In this state, I write what I am moved to write. These are my own concepts in my own words, but they are formed and animated by conceptions from others, others who have taken a place in my soul. I am densely possessed.

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I know there are significant tradeoffs to my way of reading. I acquire no expertise. If someone asks me to summarize what I read, or to respond to some particular passage, I am likely to be at a loss. The material is not retained, only the conceptions that give the material meaning. The conceptions continue giving meaning, though, and what is given meaning is lived reality.

What is given this way, I never lose, because it is now part of me, and shows in the givenness of the world.

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When I am in my library, engaged in conversation with friends, they are sometimes confused or amused by my gesturing to various authors whose conceptions I feel animating my thoughts. I know exactly where each of them sits around me on my shelves, and who is helping me be myself at any moment. I am at home.

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Do I live in a wordworld? Most people who know me would think so.

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My Orthodox Christian friends tell me that they do not pray to icons, but rather pray through them.

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Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favourite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in colour. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.

…Now the man who first chose glass instead of clay or metal to hold his wine was a ‘modernist’ in the sense in which I am going to use that term. That is, the first thing he asked of his particular object was not ‘How should it look?’ but ‘What must it do?’ and to that extent all good typography is modernist.

Wine is so strange and potent a thing that it has been used in the central ritual of religion in one place and time, and attacked by a virago with a hatchet in another. There is only one thing in the world that is capable of stirring and altering men’s minds to the same extent, and that is the coherent expression of thought. That is man’s chief miracle, unique to man. There is no ‘explanation’ whatever of the fact that I can make arbitrary sounds which will lead a total stranger to think my own thought. It is sheer magic that I should be able to hold a one-sided conversation by means of black marks on paper with an unknown person half-way across the world. Talking, broadcasting, writing, and printing are all quite literally forms of thought transference, and it is the ability and eagerness to transfer and receive the contents of the mind that is almost alone responsible for human civilization.

If you agree with this, you will agree with my one main idea, i.e. that the most important thing about printing is that it conveys thought, ideas, images, from one mind to other minds. This statement is what you might call the front door of the science of typography. Within lie hundreds of rooms; but unless you start by assuming that printing is meant to convey specific and coherent ideas, it is very easy to find yourself in the wrong house altogether.

— Beatrice Warde, “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible”

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Printing should be invisible.

As should words, sentences, passages.

As should concepts and systems of concepts.

As should truth.

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If we love reality, or aspire to love reality, we will choose truths that reveal reality rather than represent it, explain it, model it, or otherwise eclipse it. Our truths will not be objects of contemplation. Our truths will be subjects who contemplate.

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“When a poet is not in love with reality his muse will consequently not be reality, and she will then bear him hollow-eyed and fragile-limbed children.” — Nietzsche

Wordworld

Living in a wordworld drives our attention on tracks to this and to that but not to the other.

The tracks may be intricately dense, but the spaces between the tracks are infinite.

No, I do not mean the spaces between one noticing and another, along our sporadically unconscious and conscious lines of thought.

No, I mean the atmospheric irrelevance, the unasked nothingness, where words have never carried us.

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

The roots of givenness

My family uses a haggadah from the Jewish Labor Committee. It gets overbearingly, even comically, socialist at many points, but we love it. Before blessing the wine, we read:

Consider the cup of wine which we are about to drink. Countless sets of hands played a role in bringing this wine to our seder: the entrepreneurs and farm-owners who decided to direct their energies and capital into the wine business, the workers who planted and pruned the vines, those who picked the grapes, the vintners who directed the fermentation of freshly-harvested fruits into wine, the janitors who kept the winery clean and sanitary, the truck drivers and loading dock workers who transported the finished product, the clerks at the wine shops, and the servers who bring the wine to our tables tonight.

*

Our world is a miracle of coordinated effort. If we don’t pay attention as consumers we can forget this and casually stop remembering that food doesn’t just grow on grocery shelves.

*

What you consume comes from somewhere, and you might be surprised how much effort and pain is invested in bringing you your pleasures.

*

This principle is true, also, for philosophical consumption.

The conceptions that inspire and delight you were brought forth from the chaos somehow, and this process is strenuous and often extremely painful.

By the time ideas arrive to you as a book or paper or article, it has been processed and ready for convenient consumption.

*

What a delightful, playful object a smartphone is!

How delightful it is to shop at Whole Foods and buy ingredients for our dinner party!

How delightful it is to read ideas, play with them, and to feel inspired to invent one’s own original ideas!

*

We steal gifts when we refuse gratitude — when we just help ourselves to things as if they are just there for the taking.

Our givens have roots.

We should notice when we start taking new givens — new technologies, new services, new inspiration — even new problems…

Those givens aren’t just anonymously deposited upon the earth by reality to be mindlessly consumed.

Look for sources for these good things, and rather than feeling the ache of guilt, try feeling gratitude for the pain someone bore so you didn’t have to.

Ignoring the pain, denying the pain, squinting at the pain, or worst of all, claiming that it all could have come to you without the pain — that is just stealing gifts.

*

I’ve heard that is is better to thank people for their forbearance instead of apologizing for your mistakes. The former produces entangling indebtedness — relationship. The latter, release from responsibility.

*

Then the Jewish Labor Committee Haggadah instructs us to say:

Just as we are dependent upon so many of God’s children, many of whom we will never know, all of God’s children deserve basic dignity, respect and sustenance. With this cup, we recognize and honor our interconnectedness with all people.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam borei p’ree hagafen

Blessed are you, Source of all Life, who creates fruit of the vine.

Amen.

Thank you.

Nourishment

Thought nourishes us to the extent that it helps us notice and make sense of the concrete specifics of our lives.

To the degree that our thinking is about other people’s thoughts, and their thoughts are also about other people’s thoughts, the nourishment of thought gets abstracted, processed out.

Most of the  information most of us consume — entertainment, news, editorial, chatter — provides only empty calories, heat without substance.

When we speak as identities we stop being concrete or particular and we lose our ability to nourish others.

When the personal is political we all starve.

Loss and honesty

Jan Zwicky:

Loss is perhaps the ultimate philosophical problem — and death, only incidentally and to the extent it is experienced as loss by those who remain alive. The great absolute architectonics of systematic thought are intended to secure the world against loss. Maturity is achieved when things are let go, left to be on their own, allowed their specificity — for when things become most fully themselves, they also become most fully losable. To abandon classical system is to accept, in the sense of comprehend, the ontological necessity of loss. The more precious a thing is, the greater becomes its power to hurt us by simply being absent. We end up ‘leaving each thing as it is’ in two senses of the word ‘leave’.

This is agonizingly true.

I have come to detest self-evasion: abandonment of our first-person post, and flying to the safety of third-person.

I reject treating our unique selves and the unique, irreplaceable, precious people and things we love as mere types or identities.

I refuse to generalize and depersonalize in order to distribute the weight of intense, focused caring out into out speculative views-from-everywhere-at-once, better known as views-from-nowhere, but which I prefer to call views-from-anywhere-but-I.

*

I really, really hate it when people smile down at me from the heights of their wise serenity and assure me that Jesus or the Buddha or Marx or Science or Nature or any other gnostic vendor has washed away all their pain.

As if pain were the mark of insufficient wisdom.

Here is what I want to say to say back:

“If you hurt, please don’t pretend you don’t hurt — that you’ve shed the pain you still plainly carry.

And cut the phony bravado — you are afraid to hurt.

But we are all afraid, and perhaps we ought to be afraid — not because the world is scary and fear is the most intelligent response — but because fear is the honest and decent response of anyone who still loves.

Don’t add the suffering of shame to your pain and your dread of pain. Bear it bravely and honestly.”

Honesty — most of all subjective honesty — unenforceable, voluntary, undisprovable honesty — this is what matters most to me.

Shame is the enemy of subjective honesty.

When I pick up the scent of subjective dishonesty or subjective insensitivity so out of touch with itself that no longer even knows if it is lying or not (only whether a claim is defensible or not), I can no longer do much but feel a sad distance — a distance that only polite kindness can traverse, from one me to another, through a we-less vacuum. You need people, even yourself, to be easy come, easy go.

*

Maybe someday some miraculous epiphany will enter my soul and remove all my pain.

But I promise, I will never, ever pretend to be there until I am actually there.

I will be proud of my subjective honesty until I find something better to be proud of.

*

This is a crucial passage. I love this book.

Filled with birdsong

I am back to actively conceiving chaos as too many simultaneous orders.

Those orders are there to be selected or filtered, recognized or discognized, to be systematized or articulated or relegated to background noise.

Every enworldment includes and excludes, project, rejects, models, compares.

*

Here is some chaos…

*

Weeks ago, I read a passage that referred to a nightingale’s song. I realized that I had no experience of that song to recall, and that this idea was incomplete. Sadly, all I could connect it to was a passage for Voegelin I read years ago and loved, but which did not move me to listen:

The nightingale still sings its heart-rending, throat-filled song against Death. The significance a musical composition has for me is determined by the degree to which it brings back again this sweet state of anguish between Death and Life.

I found a three-hour video of nightingale song and left it playing for two hours.

Now, I find I’ve lost my ability to tune our birdsong. It is constant and it fills the air with alien intelligence.

This reminds me of an old reflection on participating in Torah study:

In Torah Study, the personalities gathered in the room sparkle against the ground of the text. Insight by insight, the flat black sky deepens into limitless space as it fills up with stars.

Space flooded, saturated with radiant points of intelligibility.

(My friend Callen said that this dispersal of alien intelligence is what pulled him into obsessive birding. I connected this with the memory of an anole, emerald with alarm, skiddling across the road in front of my bike, and wondering about that anole’s intention and experience. Birds multiply these points of intention and experience, and scatter them into the depths of the air, audibly present or absent, whenever we listen out for them.)

This conception makes me feel the inconceivable potentiality of God much more immediately than other more traditional religious notions, but I feel sure that the faith behind this conception is the same — and I want it to be.

Why? I do not want to be alone, neither here nor now.

*

If you think yourself far enough into isolation, you will want to think yourself back to communion. Because you are human.

*

Human beings need to share faith. Sharing faith puts our roots in the soil.

We do not need to share beliefs.

A striving to agree on beliefs can break commonality of faith.

Worship is a matter of faith, and theology is a matter of beliefs.

Let’s stop calling religions “belief systems”.

Let’s stop theorizing about what theory can never comprehend.

Rather, let’s take our place in infinitude and see how much commonality we can radiate.

*

The glory of shared faith is the efflorescence of divergent ideas, ideas that can feel themselves emanating from something shared — in the overlapping harmonizing and intriguingly cacophonizing interpretations of something revered together as transcendent to any one mind.

*

I think I might leave my headphones at home next time I ride my bicycle, and instead bring binoculars.

*

Facts cannot nourish us. Facts about facts about facts positively starve us. Consumer politics, personal politics, the craving for political righteousness is soul pica.

This desperation to feel ourselves to be good people… why? For a time I tried not being a good person. I wanted others to stop finding it so easy to trust me. And I learned from that.

*

Peter Brook, via Jan Zwicky:

When Ted Hughes first came to Paris to a session of our work. we improvised for him on random syllables, then on a piece by Aeschylus. He at once began his own experiments, searching to create first of all roots of language and then what he described as “great blocks of sound.”

From here to Orghast was of course a long and intricate journey. But in taking on the incredible task of inventing a phonetic language, in an odd way Ted Hughes was doing what poets do all the time. Every poet works through several semi-conscious levels – let’s call them A to Z. At level Z energies are boiling mside hun, but they are completely out of the range of his perceptions. At level A they have been captured and shaped into a series of words on paper. In between, at levels from B to Y, the poet is half-hearing, half-makmg syllables that drop in and out of swirls of inner movement. Sometimes, he perceives these prewords and preconcepts as moving forms, sometmies as murmurs, as patterns of sound that are on the brink of words, sometimes as musical values that are becoming recognizable and precise. But in fact, they are not strangers to him — he lives with them all the time. The great originality and daring of Ted Hughes lay in working openly in an area that gained a control and freedom that makes the subsequent Orghast impossible to separate into sense and sound.

So many of us live here.

We can think in the nebulous reality of unformatted ideas.

We can also assemble formatted ideas into new shapes, and there is novelty here, too.

But I am both tormented and intrigued by the ideas that are unrecognized, because they haven’t even yet been cognized — inaccessible even to metaphor, because there is not yet a distinct This to liken to That.

*

We know cities by strands of road. Alongside the road are homes and buildings, each with an interior. My job has brought me to some interiors, where I have been taught new ways to understand by occupants of these secret spaces. I never once heard the birdsong in the yards, but now it is there.

*

There are worlds within the world
Within the world there are worlds

The situation is the universe of man
As the measure of all things
Understand that you are another world in miniature
And that in you there are the sun, the moon and also stars
Man as the messenger of being
By analogy flesh and bones of man derive from earth
His bloody from water, his breath from air
And body heat from fire.

*

The first time I sat in meditation, my mind was filled with random babble.

From time to time, a sound would snap into morphemic recognition, and then roll into a word, a thought, a memory, and then I was no longer observing my breath.

One faintly reminded me of some Star Trek and a vivid image of the U.S.S Enterprise flying through space jolted me back to attention,

*

Truth comes pre-formatted. Truth must be encased in the concepts and logic of the time.

If you do not adopt the format, your nonsense will fall on deaf ears and deafening arguments.

The format is the colosseum. Arm yourself, and prepare for battle. You will die by your confusion.

*

I really, really hate argument. I hate doing it. I hate reading it.

I want to live more “indexically”, as Garfinkel put it.

See?

*

Stop fighting. It is ok to have been wrong. We don’t have to be good. Share faith.

Taste in scales

Jan Zwicky speaks of resonant relationships among wholes. These wholes are not clarified through analysis, nor are they built up piece by piece through synthesis. In my preferred vocabulary, I would say that they are wholes conceived as given. Their meaning comes not from the atomic bits that compose them, but from the articulate whole that comprises them. The articulations that relationally differentiate participants-within-wholes interpenetrate and crisscross all that is, producing a complex field of possible likeness, each a resonance, a taken-together given.

In the past I have visualized the relationship of the synthesized truth with the conceived truth — of the composed world with the comprised world — of the systematized with the articulate — as an overlaid top-down and bottom-up triangle.

*

This week I have been revisiting an old theme connected with service design: altitude and granularity.

One of the formative intellectual developments of my generation was chaos theory. We came of age when computers became capable of visualizing fractal geometric figures, and when James Gleick’s Chaos was published. For many Gen-X nerds, nonlinearity, the butterfly effect, and scalar self-similarity became part of our basic conceptual equipment at the precise age when nerds self-equip.

So for me, with hours of playing with the Mandelbrot Set in my memory, zooming in and out and noting what wholes and parts come into prominence within a visual field as it is magnified or reduced, altitude and granularity are experience-near concepts and I see them everywhere in everything. And I am seeing them in Zwicky’s observations of resonance.

Every altitude of inquiry produces different salient conceptions.

Imagine specificity and generality of a subject presented in different kinds of text. Compare a detailed ethnomethodological study with a book about ethnomethodology, with a sociology textbook. Each looks upon its subject from a particular altitude, and handles ideas of particular types (a particular case, a specific method, a general field of inquiry), putting them into systematic or articulate relation, each with a certain grain and texture and tone.

I’ve found that my own mind responds well to some altitudes and granularities better than others. They are very precise — I like to understand things up-close and at an interpersonal level. Sweeping histories that do not anchor in individual experience feel unreal to me. But great social trends that can be shown in terms of artistic style are real. I can absorb an aesthetic style and sense the enworldment that produces it. But discussion of social forces and policy conflicts — again unreal. Grand military history — meaningless. Geography defined by ecosystems or by societies subsisting on various natural resources — nebulous and vacant. A survey of the world’s religions — now the entire world is colorfully mapped. Stories of particular people in particular places. Borges snd Casares made Argentina real for me; Ben Okri, Nigeria.

It seems nothing in the world is real to me unless it is refracted through another person’s lived experience. Only enworldments enworld my world.

If information is presented objectively, out of reference from some particular person’s enworldment, it means nothing to me. The only science I care about is the science a real human scientist did — Robert Boyle, Ben Franklin, Lois Pasteur — so, thank you, STS. I cannot see science apart from the stories of people in laboratories or observatories, or working at desks, interacting with equipment a\that provides them obscure clues in the form of messy data, which they, like me, struggle to bring into persuasive order. The persuasive order — the “science” — that is no foundation for making sense of this world we inhabit!

Years ago, Nietzsche consoled me by painting this portrait:

The truly efficient and successful scholars could one and all be described as ’employees’. When in their youth they had perfected their skills and crammed their memories, when hand and eye had acquired certainty, they were directed by an older scholar to a place in science where their qualities would be useful; later on, after they themselves had become accomplished enough to detect the gaps and faults in their science, they posted themselves of their own accord to where they were needed. These natures one and all exist for the sake of science: but there are rarer, rarely successful and wholly mature natures ‘for the sake of whom science exists’ — at least that is what they themselves think — : frequently unpleasant, frequently arrogant, frequently wrong-headed but almost always to a certain extent bewitching men. They are not employees, neither are they employers, they avail themselves of that which these have laboured to ascertain and do so with a certain princely composure and rarely with more than a modicum of praise: as though, indeed, those employees and employers belonged to a lower species of beings. And yet they possess precisely the same qualities as these employers and employees do, and sometimes even in an inferior state of development: they are, moreover, characterized by a narrow limitedness foreign to the former, on account of which it is impossible to appoint them to a post or see in them usable instruments — they can live only in their own atmosphere and on their own soil. This limitedness proffers them all of a science that ‘belongs to them’, that is to say all they can bear home with them to their atmosphere and dwelling; they fancy they are collecting together their scattered ‘property’. If they are prevented from constructing their own nest they perish like houseless birds; unfreedom is phthisis to them. If they cultivate individual regions of science in the way the others do, it is always only those regions where the fruit and seeds they themselves need will prosper; what is it to them if science as a whole has regions untilled and ill cultivated? They lack all impersonal interest in a problem; just as they themselves are personalities through and through, so all their insights and acquirements in the field of knowledge coalesce together into a personality, into a living multiplicity whose individual parts are dependent on one another, cleave to one another, are nourished by the same food, and as a whole possesses its own atmosphere and its own odour. — Natures such as this produce, with their personality-informed structures of knowledge, that illusion that a science (or even the whole of philosophy) is finished and has reached its goal; it is the life in their structure that performs this magic, which has at times been very fateful for science and misleading for those able and efficient workers of the spirit just described, though at other times, when aridity and exhaustion have reigned, it has acted as a balm and like the breath of a cool, refreshing oasis. — The name usually given to such men is philosophers.

The rough game

We have ideas we use for thinking, and we have ideas we think about.

We are normally only aware of the thoughts we think about. When someone asks us what our philosophy is, these are what we list. They are the objective content of our thinking.

But the ideas we use for thinking are far more consequential. It is with these ideas that we select what we think about, determine what makes sense and is true, relate the ideas we decide to integrate, and build out our sense of objective truth.

Let us call the ideas we think about and consider important and fundamental our “foreground philosophy”, and those ideas with which we think our foreground philosophy our “background philosophy”.

Most of us barely consider our background philosophy and focus exclusively on the foreground. We manipulate ideas, try out different ways to assemble and disassemble them and generally take our background philosophy as given.

Those who are aware of a background philosophy assume that our foreground philosophies in some way faithfully represent it, and don’t give the matter further thought. To think out the foreground philosophy is to bring one’s background philosophy to light, or bring it to the surface in the manner of depth psychology.

Very few of us suspect that a foreground philosophy differ drastically from its background philosophy, serving as a decoy or diversion, or as an attack-and-defense system to protect and preserve the background.

If we do become curious and venture to reflect on the background, we often make the mistake of the mirror-gazer who, seeing their own eye in the mirror, believes they now see how seeing happens. The foreground philosophy can see itself in the foreground, and believes it has looked into its background.

*

If we do manage to think ideas that affect our background philosophy it is a very different experience from playing with foreground philosophy ideas. It is perplexing and intensely uncomfortable.

It isn’t for everyone.

The stakes feel much higher than they do when playing with foreground philosophy.

For some it no longer feels like play. The consequences are too significant.

But for others, the high-stakes game of background philosophy is the only game consequential enough to inspire their full engagement.

*

Two passages from Nietzsche:

1.

In the writings of a hermit one always hears something of the echo of the wilderness, something of the murmuring tones and timid vigilance of solitude; in his strongest words, even in his cry itself, there sounds a new and more dangerous kind of silence, of concealment. He who has sat day and night, from year’s end to year’s end, alone with his soul in familiar discord and discourse, he who has become a cave-bear, or a treasure-seeker, or a treasure-guardian and dragon in his cave — it may be a labyrinth, but can also be a gold-mine — his ideas themselves eventually acquire a twilight-colour of their own, and an odor, as much of the depth as of the mold, something uncommunicative and repulsive, which blows chilly upon every passerby. The recluse does not believe that a philosopher — supposing that a philosopher has always in the first place been a recluse — ever expressed his actual and ultimate opinions in books: are not books written precisely to hide what is in us? — indeed, he will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he {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.

2.

The dangers for a philosopher’s development are indeed so manifold today that one may doubt whether this fruit can still ripen at all. The scope and the tower-building of the sciences has grown to be enormous, and with this also the probability that the philosopher grows weary while still learning or allows himself to be detained somewhere to become a “specialist” — so he never attains his proper level, the height for a comprehensive look, for looking around, for looking down. Or he attains it too late, when his best time and strength are spent — or impaired, coarsened, degenerated, so his view, his overall judgment does not mean much any more. It may be precisely the sensitivity of his intellectual conscience that leads him to delay somewhere along the way and to be late: he is afraid of the seduction to become a dilettante, a millipede, an insect with a thousand antennae {zum Tausendfuss und Tausend-Fuhlhorn}, he knows too well that whoever has lost his self-respect cannot command or lead in the realm of knowledge — unless he would like to become a great actor, a philosophical Cagliostro {Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (born Giuseppe Balsamo 1743-95): Italian alchemist and adventurer} and pied piper, in short, a seducer. This is in the end a question of taste, even if it were not a question of conscience. Add to this, by way of once more doubling the difficulties for a philosopher, that he demands of himself a judgment, a Yes or No, not about the sciences but about life and the values of life — that he is reluctant to come to believe that he has a right, or even a duty, to such a judgment, and must seek his way to this right and faith only from the most comprehensive — perhaps most disturbing and destructive — experiences, and frequently hesitates, doubts, and lapses into silence. Indeed, the crowd has for a long time misjudged and mistaken the philosopher, whether for a scientific man and ideal scholar or for a religiously elevated, desensualized, “desecularized” enthusiast and sot of God. And if a man is praised today for living “wisely” or “as a philosopher,” it hardly means more than “prudently and apart.” Wisdom — seems to the rabble a kind of escape, a means and a trick for getting well out of a wicked game. But the genuine philosopher — as it seems to us, my friends? — lives “unphilosophically” and “unwisely,” above all imprudently, and feels the burden and the duty of a hundred attempts and temptations of life — he risks himself constantly, he plays the rough game…

Consummated knowledge

A synthesis (syn- “together” + -tithenai “put”) is put-together piece by piece, expertly connected at each joint with logic.

The synthesis is placed before the mind, and the mind conceives it (con- “together” + -capere “take”). It is taken-together — conceived as a whole.

But the conceived whole still contains within itself the synthesis, which may be safely assumed and ignored. The whole can, in principle, be reopened, analyzed and seen to form a valid synthesis, or it can remain a closed unit — a given — represented by a concept.

In being simultaneously together-put and together-taken — both a conceived con- and synthesized sum- — the knowledge is consummated.

*

When a synthesis is unblessed by conception, the synthesis must remain either a certified truth claim, or a thinking process that must be consciously repeated to reaffirm the truth. The knowledge feels unnatural, mechanical and artificial in application.

Consummated knowledge feels natural and can be called second-natural.

Consummated knowledge is integrated into one’s own subjectivity, and becomes an extension of one’s own self. Consummated knowledge is faithful.

Synthesis stays external. It is a pile of objective ideas one thinks about and considers “true”. Synthetic knowledge might become engrained in habit and experienced as familiar, but it can never be seen in nature as a given,

*

Some rationalists are unable or unwilling to conceive a distinction between habitually-engrained and second-natural. They want to believe human nature is artificial and arbitrary. This is the mentality that assured us that our ears would learn to love serial music, that we would feel happy dwelling in cold, austere modern spaces. This is the mentality that wishes to reengineer language in order to remake our norms.

The only difference between artificiality and second-nature is time — and compulsion.

These rationalists fancy themselves more open and imaginative than those confined to the narrow convention of today’s taste. They are prophets who refuse to limit themselves to contemporary prejudices.

But what if today’s worst and most narrow prejudice is the malleability of human nature? That taste is a prejudice — but not rationalism, not unfettered imagination?

*

Consummation is the ideal of design. A great design is intuited on the whole, but the intuition provides insight into the design’s synthesized parts. Designers work hard keeping the system consummated so part and whole inter-illumine.

This consummation is also the ideal of philosophy. An enworldment is a conceptual-synthetic understanding of everything that permits us to feel the synthetic black-boxed truth sealed tidily inside wholes, which we could, but needn’t, open, analyze, inspect and reassemble, unless we are bothered by it, or truly curioys. Without being burdened and overwhelmed we can intuit an intelligibility of the world around us.

*

Or we can just break open every concept and leave the parts disassembled snd scattered. Every concept can be deconstructed, as we invariably find if we try.

The deconstructions do not necessarily destroy our faith in the concepts, but if the concepts are destructible, a deconstruction is the most effective means.

For this reason, we often deconstruct unwanted given truths with an intent to destroy. Once we have done it, we sometimes feel we have earned the right to call the former given a mere construct.

Do we, ourselves, stop seeing the given as true? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

We can also make new syntheses and put them into concept-like boxes and claim that we find these boxes intuitive.

Do we ourselves see these concept-like constructions as given truths? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

And many of us have grown so burdened with facts accepted from other experts that we no longer have any expectation of intuiting a given world. Nothing feels natural, and we congratulate ourselves on that fact. We tell ourselves and each other that we are better off relying on “System 2” artificial thinking-about as we bob about adrift in a meaningless universe. Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

Nobody can prove one way or another, so we think it is safe to lie if we wish — except this unprovable dishonesty is felt with immediacy. The dishonesty pervades a personality and gives it a coloration and odor. Though this profound dishonesty cannot be formally discredited, it is not believed, even by oneself. But nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

*

Lack of intellectual conscience is a liability to philosophical and design craft.

“Comanimity”

Last week I had a fascinating conversation with work friends about the different modes of agreement that happen in team collaboration, and it made me aware that we are lacking language for some very important social phenomena.

Most of the time when we think about agreement, we think in terms of unanimity. (unus “one” + animus “mind”). For very simple and general matters, this understanding of agreement works well.

But for extremely complex technical problems (where no single person’s expertise can cover all the technical workings of the solution of a problem), or extremely deep experiential problems (where no single person’s interpretative range can cover the full range of perspectives through which the solution to a problem will be experienced), unanimity is impossible.

We have developed means to deal with technical complexity. We simply separate ends and means, and seek agreement primarily on ends. The means are handled by departments that specialize in solving specific categories of technical problem. Much of modernity was learning to cope with technical complexity through sophisticated management techniques.

We have not, however, developed adequate means for dealing with deep experiential problems, where ends themselves differ, often irreconcilably, at least if unanimity remains the goal.

Here the pursuit of unanimity is not only futile, but socially disastrous.

Why is pursuit of unanimity is socially disastrous.? Because if we are called upon to produce good solutions for a plurality so diverse that no single person’s empathy can accommodate the range, any unanimity, however smart, sophisticated or benevolent must necessarily exclude a great number of perspectives, and risk alienating them.

What is needed in such cases is a different kind of agreement, which I will call comanimity.

In this kind of agreement, each party participates as an organ of a larger mind, too large to fully comprehend. (com– “together” + animus “mind”) In comanimity, we accept that the understanding in which we participate transcends our personal comprehension, but we don’t simply relegate the unknowns to irrelevance. Rather we cultivate responsiveness to the whole, so we can participate responsibly. We become a subject who participates in sustaining a real but only partially-known super-subject.

Comanimity is lived pluralism.

*

An example of comanimity is close marriages between spouses who are deeply different from one another. Each learns to love not only what is known and established in the other, but also learns to love responding to what is novel and surprising in the other — and even more importantly, learning the value of accommodating shocking or disturbing differences. This is where marriages deepen. Some marriages choose peace and polite distance, and stay in the realm of unanimity, but any marriage that pursues intimacy will learn the art of comanimity or end in divorce. My prejudices that comanimity is marriage’s second, and far more crucial consummation.

*

I think comanimity is only possible among willing participants and that this cannot be forced.

Most people are unwilling.

And the most unwilling of all are those who belong to a unanimous group that takes its unanimity as the Truth — at least until they stop getting their way… at which time another unanimous group takes over and imposes its Truth, and becomes even more unwilling to see validity beyond its limits.

I hope we can find the desire to transcend fragmented unanimities before it leads us into a civil war. But the grim lesson I’ve leaned, reading about the English and American civil wars, leads me to believe everyone will bet on winning until everyone loses.

Free

Anything of great importance is pristinely voluntary. We can conceive its truth or we can leave it unconceived and inconceivable. It is entirely our choice.

Even acknowledging the importance of importance is voluntary. Anyone who wishes, can see only unimportance.

We all have our reasons, and it is important to give each their own.

*

At first I expected every decent person to engage with me in philosophy.

Then I expected only my good friends to engage with me in philosophy.

Then I expected only my good philosophical friends to engage with me in philosophy.

I now expect only those who freely choose it to engage with me in philosophy.

Anyone who doesn’t want to is free not to.

I think I even feel this way, now.

Let’s see if it sticks.

Who goes first?

My Jewish friend sent me this text:

I’m fascinated with reconciliation. I still think the left cannot reconcile with the right… it has to come from the right. Or it won’t go anywhere, and the left’s best move is scorched earth.

My reply:

As you know, I often say “Jews go first,” When I say this, I say it with the profoundest respect: In a conflict of irreconcilable visions, it is the deeper and more mature soul who will summon the will and wisdom to initiate reconciliation. This is what made me want to be Jewish.

When thinking and envisioning ways our nation might come out of our crisis of contempt, until recently I assumed that it would be up to the Left to make the first move. This belief was founded on a sincere and chauvinistic prejudice that the Left was most qualified and capable of initiation, and that the Right was, in all innocence, unqualified and incapable.

But after repeated attempts to appeal to those I believed to be better Leftists, I have come to the dreadful realization that the Left is genuinely incapable of reflecting on and accepting its own role in this conflict.

The Left is so trapped inside its own sense of intellectual and moral superiority — and so terrified of moral responsibility — that it can no longer find the humility, faith and philosophical freedom to pursue the reestablishment of mutual respect. It thinks the worst wrong-doer is the one who must go first, accept blame, give an apology, and ask for forgiveness — and this attitude is a symptom of moral impoverishment that shows going first is out of the question.

So, sadly, yes — I agree with you: the Right must go first.

Or, at least, someone other than the Left.


Here is something I know:

Nobody will ever consent to be led by any person or group who seems to despise them, who sees them as contemptible. People seek leaders who demonstrate respect and signal good-will.

Putting ourselves under the rule of others who despise us feels existentially dangerous. And it is dangerous. At best a contemptuous ruler will administer with benevolent disrespect, imposing their own personal standards of benevolence on those who do not accept it; at worst they will tyrannize and control for their own self-gratification. But regardless of their benevolence or malevolence, they cannot be counted on to listen respectfully and respond responsibly. They will rule according to their own constricted omniscience, which to them, and them alone, seems self-evidently true and just.

Here is something else I know:

Any person or group who tolerates contempt in themselves — who is unwilling to do what it takes to overcome it — lacks the qualifications for leadership — or at least leadership in a liberal democracy. And anyone who prefers contempt — or, God forbid, cultivates contempt — must not only be barred from leadership, but must be gently constrained and prevented from harming others, however much they see themselves as heroes of history.

Any person fit to lead will do whatever it takes to overcome contempt. They will surrender their own treasured sense of intellectual and moral superiority to accomplish it. They will accept their own responsibility for whatever damage has been done — which does not mean assuming blame, but rather setting blame aside and responding where response is possible. They will willingly suffer dark nights of the soul traversing the shadowy underworld of perplexity, refusing to look back, in search of the exit at the other side, which is an entrance: an entrance into a new accommodating faith and enworldment great enough for all to share.

And this is what I know most of all:

In the pursuit of conciliation and community, metanoia is the supreme means. It promises resolutions currently inconceivable and incomprehensible, because reality is inexhaustibly surprising. We can come to conceive the inconceivable, comprehend the incomprehensible and resolve insoluble problems — if we are willing to open our hands, let our white-knuckled conceits of all-knowingness and self-righteousness slip through the fingers of our minds — so that something else, something better, something grander, can be given.

Metanoia is no end in itself. Anyone who knows its ways assumes an obligation to use it properly — and not to hedonistically abuse metanoia like a drug.

Knowing metanoia, but getting off on it, while refusing its conciliatory powers, is not only wrongheaded but wronghearted.

This wronghearted and wrongheaded wrongdoing can be overcome — but this overcoming must be desired, and that desire is hard to accept.

Gestalt : gesture

In Wisdom & Metaphor, Jan Zwicky’s playing of gesture against gestalt is characteristically precise, clear and beautiful. All the essential left-side passages of this book are spare (but never stark) — pristinely unornamented — not out of aversion to ornament, but because ornament is unnecessary. The beauty of this book is in this freedom for ornamental need.

If I am understanding Zwicky correctly, gestures relate to gestalts in the way I wanted to say that conceptions (as mindmoves) relate to concepts. Gestures and conceptions both spontaneously conceive meanings in wholes taken-together.

But it is so much prettier to say “gesture” instead of mindmove. And linking that to the gestalt taking-together (conceiving) is just perfect. And by perfect I don’t mean merely flawless. I mean it is deeply complete. This is where the advantage of being both poet and philosopher shows.

So, a gesture is a disciplined intuitive murmuration — intuitions flying in formation in response to realities — realities that can be understood as alike in their yielding meaning in the same gesture.

*

I’m concerned, but not devastated in the least, that I may longer have any need to write the book I intended to write. The greed driving my writing — my intense need to give these sacred ideas a perfect form befitting their value — is, at least for now, satiated. I cannot believe how much I love this book.

I still have some important new ideas to communicate, but those ideas are more profane and can be said in more relaxed language. And maybe the work I was doing can still be useful, by forming these beautiful poetic truths into beautiful intellectual equipment for doing practical work in this meaning-parched, contempt-convulsed, dirty, fragile, precious world.

Since you asked…

A friend of mine has a habit of sending me emails consisting of simple, beautiful questions.

Years ago he introduced me to Christopher Alexander. When Alexander died I sent him an email, and that started a discussion of Alexander’s later work. This was the context (at least for me) of his latest question-poem:

What is value? Can it be objective?

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Of course, I had to ruin the glorious simplicity by writing an encyclopedia of a response. The content is mostly the same stuff I am always going on and on about, but these questions inspired a different angle of expression.

But there is one new-ish move here, which might even be an insight: extending the complexity of Bergsonian time to both space (conceived in designerly contextual terms) and — best of all — to self. Just as Bergson conceived now, not as an instant-point, but as a flowing interaction of memories and anticipations, we can see the I, not as an ego-point, but as a subject-complex with flexibly mobile contours subsisting within any number of We’s. This polycentric-self idea may present an alternative to the individualist-collectivist continuum that for many seems the only conceivable possibility.

It all seemed worth posting, so here it is, in mildly edited form.


What is value? Can it be objective?

Christopher Alexander seems committed to objective value, if by objective you mean “inherent to objects” and not relative to a subject. My inclination is to see value as relational — a relation between valuer and valued. I know this is exactly the relativist conventional wisdom what Alexander is attempting to overcome — and I respect that — but I think the real goal here is aesthetic truthfulness (a species of intellectual conscience).

The trusty old Enlightenment method of logical coercion, though, is no match for the might of aesthetic bad faith. Someone who needs to lie about subjective values will become a true believer.

I think this is a religious matter, honestly. Subjective honesty is a virtue we have to cultivate in ourselves, and then we can recognize others who seem to respond to what we experience in similar ways. If discrepancies in response happen, it is more or less impossible to know if someone is subjectively dishonest, or having a strong, sincere idiosyncratic response — or has developed sensibilities beyond our own and are seeing beauty (or other subjective conceptions/perceptions) we haven’t learned to see, yet.

But if we want subjective truth, we’ll stay responsive to our own value-sense, while also looking for ways to transcend our current subjective limits (that is, we will entertain new ways of conceiving and perceiving and see what “takes”).

I think the best reason for this subjective self-transcendence is seeking more accommodating truth, supportive of community of subjective experience with others. Bigger, deeper, richer common sense.

Our We can be more than a mere aggregation of me’s and it’s (in orbit around one’s own I, even — no, especially — when we attempt to efface, factor out, or counter-balance that central I) but this requires a different good faith than the Enlightenment’s objective good faith.

The I won’t disappear. It can’t disappear because it doesn’t appear — any more than our own eyes appear in our vision. The I makes everything else appear. I manifests as a particular everything — what I’m calling enworldment.

We cannot decenter our own I no matter how we try, and when we attempt it, we only conceal its workings for ourselves and delude ourselves into universalizing our own current enworldment as the world per se. Decentering creates more monstrously self-idolizing self-centerings: misapotheosis.

What is needed now is polycentering. Let’s stop scolding our children and saying “you are not the center of the universe.” (When heard phenomenologically, this is manifest bullshit, because of fucking course every child is situated precisely at the center of the universe, and nowhere else, as every child knows!) What we should say is: “you are not the only center of the universe.”

The best alternative to egoist self-centeredness is not the self-decenteredness of altruism, but the self-polycenteredness of participation in community.

*

For some reason Bergson is in the air right now. Many of us are realizing or re-realizing that every instant of time is not an infinitesimal blip on a timeline, but a complex of recollections, concurrences and anticipations. And if we look around us into our environment, as designers, objects are not aggregates of infinitesimal particles, but are environed complexes of contexts, parts, wholes, ensembles. We need to grasp the fact that the I is exactly analogous, in this way, to space and time. An I subsists within a We of present people, memories of people, who I am to others, who they are to me, what I fear from them and for them, what I desire from them, and they from me — an I is a complex of freedom and response-ability. An I is not an ego-point, it is a subject-complex.

That asterisk-shaped continuum with I-Here-Now at the center does not meet at a point but, rather at a bright nebular heart streaming out into things, times, relationships — streaming out, and sometimes withdrawing back into itself to conserve itself, or to gather energy for more streaming-out, or to die as an insular speck.

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Again, I think value can exist in everything and ideally does exist in everything, but I’m a believer in value inhering not in the subjectivity of the valuer’s valuations or in the objectivity of the valued’s value, but rather in the relationship — in the consummation of valuing. It isn’t subjective or objective — it is “interjective”.

The value is there for us, as a self-evident universal given, if we enworld ourselves in a way that invites valuing relationships. Christians call this “entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Wisdom of obscurity

When fundamental conceptions are at stake in a disagreement, things get serious.

Then the discourse goes from normal discourse on established common ground to abnormal discourse where the ground itself is contested — and not only for that particular subject, but for one’s very subjectivity and for one’s enworldment.

Here our philosophical self-preservation instincts kick in. Those spiritual self-preservation instincts manifest as inner angst and outer moral indignation.

This kind of discourse the furthest thing from playful — unless we include under the heading of “play” contemptuous mockery, in which case,  the talk stops being discourse.

*

At certain depths of understanding, it is wise to stop talking and to turn to symbol, poetry, ritual — to the blessed ambiguity of non-explicit speech.

This is the practical wisdom of tradition.

*

Once traditions break down — once the traditional distancing formalities and taboos wear thin — once faiths are overexposed — everything gradually becomes symptomatic of bad faith.