All posts by anomalogue

Two conceptions of transcendence

At points in the past I’ve divided the concept of transcendence into two poles, subscendent and superscendent, to designate those realities that we encounter as they emerge from within our own self, as if from behind or beneath, and those realities we encounter as they approach us and interact with us, as if from without or beyond.

Transcendence is the beneath and beyond of encounter. Encounter is the point of contact of what erupts from within and what irrupts from without.

Connecting this with Kantian language, the transcendental a priori categories that condition all knowledge are subscendent. The noumena are superscendent.

This conception differs from traditional and popular conceptions of transcendence, which view the material world as mundane and transcendence as super-mundane. The conception of transcendence presented here views only current understandings and experiences fully formatted by established conceptions as mundane, and the realities beyond these experiences, shaping these experiences, as transcendent.


What so many progressivists seem to miss is that categorical reductions — seeing individuals as examples of categories — is dehumanizing, whether that reduction is judged negatively or positively. It is not the value judgment that is the problem; it is the primacy of the general category over the particularity of the real person.

It is a refusal to transcend ones own mind and its contents, in order to experience the particular, unique, surprising qualities of the person: their personhood.


I am doing to start talking about racism in terms of disracism and euracism. Similarly, sexism can be divided into dissexism and eusexism.

I need a general term for this entire tendency to stop at the category and to react to a person only as a type. Typism? Eutypism, distypism?


An example of euracism: Yascha Mounk left Germany because Germans were forever falling over themselves to affirm him as a Jew, and this made him realize he would never be just a person, a German among Germans. He came to America to escape this.

Euracism is not “antiracism” at all. It is a racism that merely reverses judgment, while continuing to exempt itself from encountering the personhood of the person.

Genuine antiracism is just as opposed to euracism as disracism.

Genuine antiracism is pro-person.

Genuine antiracism is liberalism.


Is it possible that object-oriented ontology and speculative realism are popular for no other reason than that they lift the modern prohibition on metaphysics? That finally, there is a credible school of thought that isn’t entirely hostile to transcendence, so one can breathe a little beyondness without being sneered at?

Sure, it’s an imagined beyond, an immanent image that is entirely a product of self — but maybe it is a baby step toward relationship with beyond-as-such? (Or is it a defense against beyondness?)

In this it is similar to identitarianism which acknowledges an “other”, but one which is a figment of one’s own conceptualizing mind, a bit of one’s own self standing in for the real. But maybe it is a baby step toward real relationship with alterity? (Or is it a defense against alterity?)

Is an idol a baby step toward God? Or is it a defense against God? Is fundamentalism a baby step toward real religion? Or is it a defense against real religion?

These are just paraphrasings of the same question: fundamentalism is ideo-idolatry. Identitarianism is ideo-alterity. And OOO might fit in this series as ideo-realism. But my notion of OOO is likely only my own ideo-OOO, so I’m probably wrong about it.

You are spiritual and religious

Religion happens in communities; spirituality occurs in individuals.

Obnoxious speculation: There is no “spiritual, but not religious.” In such cases, the spiritual nonbeliever is simply unaware that they belong to a religious community, because the community anthropologically sees religion as the irrational faith systems that other people — uncivilized primitives and savages — believe.

Human beings cannot bear to be alone in their faith. We must share faith with others, or we suffer a kind of spiritual solitary confinement. Even the toughest individualist battle-hardened soldiers crack in solitary confinement.

Further that faith must invest existence with meaning. It must provide a sustaining why and life-shaping oughts, or indifference and depressed nihilism (as opposed to a nihilism of joyous destruction) will result.

The faith need not affirm any supernatural being to be a faith, if by “supernatural” we mean magical. But it must affirm reality beyond the individual’s comprehension* — it must have a transcendent vector, whether it is a transcendence of future knowledge, of experiences others have or will have that are inaccessible to us in this time, place or state, or of some Kantian/OOO in-itself noumena.

My assertion is that where our shared sense of transcendence is, there our religion is. We can call that transcendence God, or we can call it by some other name, Tao, Ein Sof, the Absolute, Ultimate Reality — but there must be some cleft between what we know and what really is on the other side of knowledge, lest we succumb to solipsism.**

The salient question is how effective the religion is in providing why and ought, not whether the religion exists or not. For most secular folks, scientific truths and future scientific discoveries perform the religious function — the foundational ethics and metaphysics upon which life is erected. Even when metaphysics are rejected in theory, in practice, physics still underpins and serves as the ground of all other truths. This is entirely legitimate, as is an unavoidable impulse to privilege this mode of description. I just happen to see this very privileging as religion caught in the act, not as any overcoming of religion. It is a good thing, made even better with self-awareness of itself.

  • Note: Ambiguity in our use of the concept of truth, might be a function of whether we treat the word truth as “truth as we know it now” or truth as the asymptotic ideal of knowledge as it conforms ever closer with to reality. Pragmatists reject not only the possibility of truth finally conforming to reality, but that there even is such a point of approach. The purpose of truth is not exclusively, and perhaps not even primarily, to mentally duplicate or model reality.

** Note: We should not, however, say with Bertrand Russell, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” It is a category mistake to call God a hypothesis. God is a designation for that which transcends but involves us, and unless one is a solipsist, this is no hypothesis, but a fundamental orientation. If I were not in a community of faith with my family within the Jewish tradition, I would choose a different word with fewer misleading connotations. But the name God links me to numerous people who share some, but not most of my basic conceptions. When I say “God” with them, and worship God with them, in the most important, most truth-transcending, ultimate sense, I mean exactly what they mean.

I share faith with many people with whom I share few beliefs.

Another account of design instrumentalism

I unofficially call the kind of thinking I do “design instrumentalism” after Dewey’s flavor of pragmatism, “instrumentalism”.

Crudely, “instrumentalism” means approaching ideas as tools used for understanding.

My spin on it is: ok, cool, if our philosophies are our tools for understanding, let’s be smart in how we construct and select these tools. Let’s use the best practices available to us, namely design methods. Let’s approach our philosophizing as designers. And as designers, let’s ask what functional and experiential needs we are addressing for the users of these tools.


For all our po-mo’ing, I think few of us realize just how fundamentally our philosophies shape our experience, and even how we assess our experiences. We still sort of slide an essential “me” beneath the experiencing, thinking, feeling and judging. We still identify ourselves with the thoughts we have about the thoughts and feelings we have about the thoughts and feelings we have. Even when we buddhistically rebuke ourselves for being mired in concepts and identifying with our thoughts, we’re still doing so as our concept-dominated selves.

The most self-congratulatory eastern-religion types I know, who scoff at concepts and dismiss philosophy as a silly waste of effort are precisely the ones most dominated and oppressed by concepts. As they apply the concept of transcending concept to the part of their conceptualizing mind they want to bully out of existence, they imagine themselves operating outside the realm of concept.

The same thing goes for the newest flavor of “enlightenment”, wokeness. The woke are deeply mistrustful of thinking and of the testimony of experience — but elevates above scrutiny the concepts and experiences active in making these judgments about other thoughts and experiences. This is how it is able to “project” its own self-delusion, its own oppressive aspirations, its own deployment of institutional and cultural prejudice on its enemies, without any consciousness that it is the very exemplar of what it hates. And it is only able to accomplish this where it holds near absolute institutional power and is able to bake its own class supremacist ideologies into institutional structures.

In both cases, we detach a bit of conceptualizing and elevate it above criticisms of conceptualizing and exempt it from principles generally applied to concept. But it is precisely this detached set of concept that always dominates our minds and shapes our sense of reality most totally. This operation is the furthest thing from  liberation from concepts. It is tyranny by a select set of privileged concepts over all other concepts.

It is only when these tyrannizing, consciousness-shaping conceptions are deposed and other conceptions are liberated to participate in enworldment that philosophizing begins to transform the self, to reshape experience and to transfigure the world even before it is materially changed. At this depth, philosophy resembles religion. Before that, “philosophy” is just speculation and syllogism on the surface of an inert soul: philosophy as superficial thinkers think they know it.


In my own experimental tinkering with my own conceptions, I’ve found that things change drastically when we reequip ourselves with new ideas. I don’t just recite syllogisms to myself and replace my spontaneous beliefs with newer, better ones.

If I manage find a conception I can truly adopt and use, the conception reconceptualizes my experience and radically changes it before I even think about it. And when I go to assess the new experience, I assess it with the very new concepts that reshaped the experience we judge.

Philosophies have innate prejudices toward themselves, and can only judge themselves. Trying to judge a philosophy from another philosophy is bootless.

Philosophies must be experientially compared.

To compare philosophies, I have to induce a mind shift analogous to seeing a autostereogram or making yourself see the spinning dancer illusion change from a clockwise to counterclockwise rotation.

I find redescription — a kind of philosophical method acting — to be the most efficient way to effect these shifts.

We must somehow compare philosophical experiences across time without access to both at the same time, somewhat in the back-and-forth manner of comparing fragrances…


In this self-hacking process, what I took for “I” or “me” was radically challenged by new philosophies. Essential characteristics of my personality turned out to be contingent and mutable.

And reflecting on the experience of before and after challenged my understanding of reality. Universal characteristics of reality turned out to be contingent and mutable.

My own philosophy was forced to expand to accommodate not only these profound surprises I’ve already experienced, but to resign itself to a reality that can profoundly surprise me at any moment, in inconceivable ways — to a qualitative infinity.

We do not have to hope for perpetual novelty. We have to learn to accept it and want it, because novelty is inevitable to an essentially limited being confronting limitless possibilities on all sides at all times. An even greater miracle is getting non-novelties to happen reliably. Slowing and modulating change without stopping it is the greater challenge. The gods of change and conservation need each other’s agonistic respectful challenge; without each other they become titans of mere chaos and petrification.


Getting back to the practicalities of design instrumentalism:

If we are having a shitty experience living as people in some of the most humane and prosperous conditions our species has ever seen — maybe we are miserable for reasons other than these conditions.

Maybe the problem is how we are conceptualizing our experience, and that is producing an experience of non-desirability (nihilism), and it also might be causing us to feel confused and burdened by our theories and unable to apply them (non-usability) and ultimately incapable of explaining what we experience and paralyzed (non-useful).

Because we are despondent, but lack intellectual capacity to account for why or to respond in any way that improves it, we take a naive realist approach and think an oppressive world must be what oppresses us! And this belief itself forecloses all further questions and instructs us to chase our tails even faster, to find the source of oppression.

I want us to see the possibility of designing ourselves better philosophies, and just that realization that this is something we can do and ought to do — is itself a better philosophy!


I’m adding something to this article that might seem arrogant to some people and silly to the rest: I see the kind of philosophy I do as performing many of the functions of religion, but without many of the magical notions most folks associate with religion. It certainly sits inside the same mystical “foundations” as many esoteric variety of religions, sharing a view of the human condition that situates human finitude within an infinite reality. But the stance I take is non-magical.

As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I believe our base-layer philosophies are the advanced technology religions have interpreted magically.

Transcendence and fruitionism

To live on terms with reality is to live on terms with transcendence.

What separates transcendent reality from immanent truth is conceivability.

If we can conceive what we encounter, we do conceive it, automatically and unconsciously. We spontaneously perceive what we encounter as something; we recognize it as something; we understand it by incorporating it into the conceptual system we use use to relate present experience to remembered and anticipated experiences. This conceptual system that interprets, interconnects and responds to experience is our philosophy. Using whatever philosophy we’ve developed or passively absorbed, we encounter transcendent reality and transform it into immanent truth.

With all useful things, the better it works, the less we notice it. To us, the world seems intrinsically intelligible, until something important comes along that isn’t intelligible.

When we encounter something real and important but unintelligible, it seems uncanny. It feels otherworldly, and often, dreadful. We feel apprehensive, because while we can apprehend our experience with the tips of our minds’ fingers, we cannot hold a form in our minds and comprehend it.

We must either comprehend it as intrinsically incomprehensible, and dismiss it as a literally otherworldly, as a mystery not for human minds to grasp, as something to which we non-relate as a purely transcendent otherness — or we must find some new way to conceive it, to enable us to relate to it in our human, knowing way.

To allow something (usually someone), transcendent (to us) to be become immanent (to us), we must extend philosophical hospitality, and invite the inconceivable into our midst.

But when we do this, when we acquire new conceptions for the sake of understanding some new particular thing, we frequently experience what religious people call transfiguration — the world as a whole is reconceived to accommodate this new understanding, and miraculously transforms in ways that are, in the most literal sense, inconceivable until it happens.

After it happens, radically new thoughts and perceptions irrupt into the world, half spontaneously, half actively.


This is why commitment to radical novelty and commitment to transcendence are identical.


Apprehend, comprehend, suprehend

To apprehend is to know-that.

To comprehend is to know-what.

When know-that stubbornly resists know-what, when we touch with the tips of our fingers something that cannot be grasped by the hand of our thought, we feel ourselves situated within something incomprehensible. We comprehend the fact that we are comprehended by something incomprehensible. The relation we take to that which comprehends us cannot be comprehension, but the eversion of comprehension, something which might be called suprehension.

When suprehending, we must situate ourselves and everything we comprehend and apprehend within a more-than-everything we will know primarily by radical surprise — by the irruptions into the little cognitive bubbles inside which we float within infinity, that can flood us with dread, love or both at any moment.

To suprehend is to know-why.


Wisdom is suprehension.


Each everything is a universe-size, lifetime-long oyster.

Outside the oyster’s outer shell is an infinite sea of water, salt and particles. The ocean knows the oyster as one of its myriad objects, one of its innumerable everythings — a convexity in an unbounded concavity.

The convex object in the ocean is, seen from the inside by the oyster, a concave habitat. Everything it knows, it knows from the inside of its shell.

The world the oyster knows is pearly lucre, a substance the oyster excretes so naturally it often is not aware of its origin. Anything from the ocean that enters the shell is either digested, or expelled or coated with lucre, so it cannot irritate the oyster’s delicate flesh.

The oyster’s inner-shell is also lucre.

It is essentially a mother-of-pearl bubble which the oyster has painted around its own space. It has coated the ocean itself with lucre, and this lucre bubble is now its universe — or at least that part of the universe it can apprehend.

Anything from the outside, anything indigestible that gets inside, is also painted with lucre, and is transformed into pearls.

The oyster is enworlded in pearl.

Above and around the oyster is a pearly dome, and inside the dome are scattered pearls of various size and luster. The oyster senses these pearls are of the same substance as its heaven.

The oyster continuously anoints its pearls and its dome with fresh lucre, to make the surfaces iridesce and glow, and to protect and honor something it loves and fears, its source and home, the very surrounding ground of existence.


I’ve written and rewritten this same idea for years, compulsively.

I need to sit down with everything I’ve secreted on this topic and change perspectives. I need to stop looking from the oyster’s perspective and start seeing it like a jeweler.

This could be a pretty book, if I can get all this language under control.

I want this idea to irridesce and glow.

As a 5w4…

To me, thought is intensely personal.

It is most personal where it is worst-equipped, where I lack symbols to aid my efforts to conceptualize my experiences, where I encounter incomprehensible singularities.

If I wish to understand one of these singularities, I am thrown back on my intuitions to conceive new ways to think, new fingers for comprehending what will otherwise slip away.

(Or I might contemplate it as an experience, inconceivable but distinct, and try to retain the impression so I can reimagine and reexperience it later.)

(Or I might merely apprehend it, and allow the experience to leave like a dream, leaving only a faint footprint in my memory. A scent, tone, color, texture or feeling might bring it back, and I might say “there it is again.” Otherwise, it is gone forever.)

(Or it might flow into oblivion, joining the unnoticed mass of my life, and be as if it never happened. It did happen, though. It was real, though, and remains real as something that was, an indelible bit of eternity.)


But back to what I do manage to comprehend, and the intellectual equipment by which I understand:

The curated accumulation of conceptions, my soul’s equipment, might not be my essential self, but they are more me than my body, or my relationships, or my home, or my belongings — but they are all me.

If someone receives one of these conceptions from me and accepts it as a gift — and this might mean the gift of a good problem or something worth fighting — this is everything to me, because this allows me to be who I am in the world, to the world, to feel that I exist.

No, I am not my ideas, but they are from me, of me, and they are that by which I am known.

If a person refuses my conceptions without understanding, or if receives them impersonally as something obvious, a truth that was just there all along to take, it makes me feel nonexistent, like I’ve never been born.


Hearing my ideas, hearing them as from me, is, for me, relationship.


Our souls stream out into the world and, there, weave together, in knots of enworldment. My own soul streams as new ways to think.

Philosophy is a hybrid system

Design produces hybrid systems — systems composed of interacting human and nonhuman elements.

If you remove the human elements, what remains is an engineered system.

The hybrid systems that philosophy produces are composed of interacting humans and symbols. The philosophy is not complete until it is used for understanding.


Cassirer’s interrupted project

I am going to quote several pages from Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms that are highly relevant to my own project. I am going to break it up with comments of my own:

The “revolution in the way of thinking” that Kant undertook within theoretical philosophy was based on the basic idea that the relationship between cognition and its object, which has generally been assumed, required a radical inversion. Instead of starting out from the object as the known and given, it was, rather, necessary to begin with the laws of cognition as what alone, in a primary sense, is truly accessible and certain; instead of determining the most general properties of being, in the sense of ontological metaphysics, we must, through an analysis of reason, ascertain the basic forms of judgment as the condition under which objectivity alone is positable, ascertained, and determined in its manifold branches. According to Kant, only this analysis can disclose the conditions on which all knowledge of being and the pure concept of being depend. However, as the correlate of the synthetic unity of the understanding itself, the object, which the transcendental analytics situates before us in this way, is a pure logically determined object. As a result, it does not designate all objectivity as such, but only that form of objective lawfulness that can be grasped and exhibited by the basic concepts of science, particularly the concepts and basic principles of mathematical physics. Thus, as soon as Kant progresses, in the totality of the three critiques, to develop the true “system of pure reason,” he already proves that this form of objectivity is too narrow. The mathematical natural-scientific being, in its idealistic version and interpretation, does not exhaust all reality, because it is by no means concerned with all the effectiveness and spontaneity of spirit. In the intelligible realm of freedom, whose basic law is developed by the critique of practical reason, in the realm of art and the realm of organic natural forms, as exhibited in the critique of aesthetics and teleological judgment, a new aspect of this reality emerges.

In other words, the technical realm of scientific objectivity is not the only manifestation of reason.

This gradual unfolding of the critical-idealistic concept of reality and the critical-idealistic concept of spirit belongs to the most distinctive features of Kantian thinking and is grounded in a kind of stylistic law of this thinking. The proper, concrete totality of spirit is not designated in a simple formula and given, as it were, ready-made from the beginning; rather, it develops and finds itself only in the continuous advancing progress of critical analysis. The ambit of spiritual being can be designated and determined only as a result of being pursued in this process. It lies in the nature of this process not only that its beginning and end are broken asunder but also that they must apparently conflict with each other; however, the conflict is none other than that between potency and act, between the mere logical “predisposition” of a concept and its complete development and impact. From the standpoint of the latter, the Copernican revolution, with which Kant began, takes on a new and wider sense. It no longer refers only to the logical function of judgment but extends, with equal justification and right, to every tendency and every principle of spiritual configuration.

So Kant’s proto-constructivism, founded on his famous table of categories of truth, is not the last word on reason, but only the starting point for a dialectic unfolding, which expands well beyond the domain of positivism, and (fruitfully) conflicts with it.

The crucial question always remains whether we seek to understand the function by the formation or the formation by the function, which we choose to “ground” the other. This question forms the spiritual bond that connects the most diverse problem domains with one another; it constitutes their inner methodological unity, without ever letting them lapse into a factual one-and-the-sameness. For the basic principle of critical thinking, the principle of the “primacy” of the function over the object, assumes in each special domain a new shape and demands a new and dependent grounding. Alongside the pure function of cognition, there stands the function of linguistic thinking, the function of mythical-religious thinking, and the function of artistic intuition, comprehended in such a way as that it is evident how in all of them a specific configuration, not so much of the world as rather toward the world, toward an objective interconnection of sense and an objective-intuitive whole that can be apprehended as such takes place.


With this, the critique of reason becomes a critique of culture. It seeks to understand and demonstrate how the content of culture, insofar as it is more than a merely individual content, insofar as it is grounded in a general principle of form, presupposes an original act of spirit. Herein the basic thesis of idealism finds its true and complete confirmation. As long as philosophical contemplation takes up the analysis of the pure form of cognition and limits itself to this task, the force of the naïve-realistic view of the world cannot be completely discredited. The object of cognition may in some way be after all determined and formed in and through cognition and its original law; however, beyond this relation, it must, nevertheless, also appear to be present and given as something independent of the basic categories of cognition.

This is why I picked up Cassirer. I knew he was a neokantian, and that his philosophy of symbol was intended to transcend logic and incorporate symbols of religion, art and other cultural forms. On that basis I suspected he would open up Kant’s table of categories, and find other principles of truth construction. Scientific objectivism is one key aspect of truth but it is neither adequate to account for all understanding, nor does it provide a grounding for reduction, unless we are simply uninterested in making the whole of experience “hang together” as a totality.

If, however, we begin not with the general concept of the world but rather from the general concept of culture, then the question immediately assumes a different shape. For the content of the concept of culture cannot be detached from the basic forms and tendencies of spiritual productivity: “being” is graspable here nowhere else than in “activity”.

In other words, it is only pragmatically (as opposed to ontologically) comprehensible. I’ve never thought of pragmatism as something opposed to ontology, or as a methodological alternative to ontology, but this morning I am seeing it that way. I think mine is a pragmatist metaphysics, interested less in what transcends us, than in how a finite being interacts with being understood as transcending its finitude, snd experiences such interactions. It is metaphysical because it concerns itself with transcendent being, but it chooses to not fruitlessly speculate on what is “behind the veil” but instead the properties of interactions that take place across the veil-line, especially the ones that surprise the anticipations, expectations and norms that comprise mundane existence.

Only insofar as there is a specific tendency of aesthetic fantasy and intuition is there a domain of aesthetic objects, and the same is valid for all of those other spiritual energies by virtue of which the form and outline of a specific domain of objects takes shape for us. Even religious consciousness, convinced as it is of the “reality”, the truth, of its object, transforms this reality into the lowest level, to the level of purely mythological thinking, into a simple tangible existence. At higher levels of contemplation, it is more or less clearly aware that it “has” its object only in that it relates to it in an absolutely distinctive way.

There it is again: “Higher levels of contemplation” (or at least folks who end up seeing religion from Cassirer’s standpoint) evolve from ontological to pragmatic metaphysics. We stop asking, “Does God exist?”, or even asking the better question “in what manner does God exist?”, and instead asking “how do I, a finite being, interact with being who I understand to be finite?” and “given this understanding, what are the practical implications for how I interact with fellow finite beings, who, after all, are finite parts of God’s infinitude and are the contact points — the very veil-line — between my finitude and God’s infinitude?”

The ultimate guarantee of this very objectivity is contained in a type of self-comportment, in the tendency that spirit gives to an intended objective. Philosophical thinking confronts all of these tendencies — not just with the intention to pursue each one of them separately or to survey them as a whole but also with the presupposition that it must be possible to refer them to a uniform focal point, to an ideal center. When regarded critically, however, this center can never be located in a given being, but only in a common task. Thus, with all their inner diversity, the different products of spiritual culture — language, scientific cognition, myth, art, and religion — become members of one large problem nexus: they become manifold approaches, all of which are oriented toward one goal: to transform the passive world of mere impressions, in which spirit at first seems imprisoned, into a world of pure spiritual expression.

In the margin of this last sentence, I wrote “interpression”, and though I still have not found my way into Whitehead (which is one of my unrealized ambitions!) I feel certain this coinage is Whiteheadian.

For just as the modern philosophy of language had established the concept of the inner form of language to secure the proper starting point for a philosophical consideration of language, so too it can be said that an analogous “inner form” of religion, myth, art, and scientific cognition is to be presupposed and sought. And this form would signify not simply the sum or subsequent combination of the individual appearances of these domains but also the conditioning law of their construction.

And this is why I’ve switched from reading Langer to reading Cassirer. Discursive versus presentational logic originated with Cassirer, or maybe with the Warburg Library.

Of course, in the end, there is no other way to assure ourselves of these laws than to demonstrate them in the appearances and “abstract” them from these appearances; however, at the same time, this very abstraction shows the laws to be a necessary and constitutive moment of the consistent content of the individuals.

I think there is another way. We can experiment with these forms in designerly ways. So I am pretty delighted that he did not consider this option, because this is exactly where I want to attempt to make a contribution.

In the course of its history, philosophy has remained more or less cognizant of the task of such an analysis and critique of the particular cultural forms; however, in most cases, it has taken up only part of this task and addressed it, to be sure, more in its negative than in its positive intention. The endeavor that went into this critique was often less about the presentation and grounding of the positive achievements of each individual form than it was about the defense of wrong claims. Since the days of the Greek Sophists, there has been a skeptical critique of language and a skeptical critique of myths and cognition. This essentially negative attitude becomes understandable if we consider that in fact every basic form of spirit, in that it appears and develops, is a unique endeavor to give itself not just in part but as a whole and consequently to claim for itself not a merely relative validity but rather an absolute validity. Not contenting itself with its special precinct, it seeks, rather, to imprint the distinctive stamp, with which it conducts itself, on the whole of being and spiritual life. The conflicts of culture and the antinomies of the concept of culture ensue from this striving for the unconditioned, which is inherent in every single tendency.

Cassirer was seen as excessively conciliatory, an accusation, I am proud to say, which has often be leveled at me. I think this kind of “excessive” liberalism is a consequence of genuine belief, a fully-internalized faith, in pluralism, one that is so serious it has come to understand and accept the importance of reductionism in normal thought, while refusing to accept it in oneself (or at least, not to tolerate it, once discovered).

Science originates in a form of contemplation that, before it could get going and assert itself, was everywhere compelled to establish those first combinations and separations of thinking that had found their earliest expression and sedimentation in language and in general linguistic concepts. However, in that it makes use of language as material and as a foundation, science at the same time necessarily proceeded beyond language. A new “logos,” which is guided and governed by a principle other than that of linguistic thinking, now emerges and forms itself ever-more clearly and independently. And measured by it, the formations of language now appear as restraints and limits that must gradually be overcome by the force and particular nature of the new principle. The critique of language and the linguistic thought-form becomes an integrated component of the advancement of scientific and philosophical thinking. And this typical course of development is repeated in the other domains. The individual-spiritual tendencies do not move peacefully side by side, seeking to complement one another; rather, each becomes what it is only by demonstrating its own peculiar force against the others and in a struggle with them.

Thus, agonism is a permanent condition of pluralism.

Reading Time of the Magicians, especially where Heidegger kicked Cassirer’s ass in public debate, I cannot help wondering, first, why we treat debates as decisive at all, especially when the debate is judged by students and fresh graduates with no life experience (such as the young Levinas, who ridiculed Cassirer’s performance at the time, and whose life was ruined by the ideology the wise and clever Heidegger chose to advocate!) — and finally, whether Heidegger’s path into the future wasn’t a wrong turn, based less on philosophical discernment, than on the illiberal taste of the Zeitgeist. Perhaps we should retrace our steps and see where Cassirer’s path might have led us.

Deep thoughts on depth

“Depth” can mean thoroughness. If you discuss or explore a matter “in depth”, you talk about it or look into it, in all its detail, to understand how the details hang together.

“Depth” can also mean foundationality, or (since I have a mild allergy to foundation metaphors) degree of structural dependence. A deep change alters a structure and effects a holistic change, altering the role of many details at once.

Notice that both of these senses of the word “depth” relates to the relationship between the most encompassing, pervasive structures and the most minute details ordered within the structure, and the difference in the sense of the word only pertains to whether the depth is approached bottom-up (detail-first) or top-down (structure-first).

In other words, depth seems to refer to holistic characteristics of a system, the ratio of expansiveness of scope of the whole to the fineness of granularity of parts.

I almost added density to this account of depth, meaning the density of application in relationship between whole and part. Between the encompassing structure and the ordered parts, how thoroughly have these particular relationships have been worked out, understood or established? How many parts are caught up in the structure and ordered and how much is left outside the order? But I had second thoughts, and I am still not sure.


Notice, I left ambiguous whether the system in question is mind or matter or a hybrid of both. It works equally well for both.


In my dual life of philosophy and design, I have in-depth experience with deep changes in philosophical thought and deep changes made to design systems. The similarities in what happens in each case across the two fields is part of what has brought me to think of philosophy as a design discipline, perhaps even the queen of the design disciplines.

Think about it, using this understanding of depth: Instead of thinking of philosophy as a search for a pre-existing truth (or even a fixed plurality of truths) — truth that there to be found or revealed — instead try thinking of philosophy as the instauration (interactive discovering/making, or to keep things simpler, crafting) of conception systems capable of literally making sense of the world. John Dewey called this philosophical approach Instrumentalism.)

Each conception system has its own tradeoffs and gains which make them work wonderfully in some contexts (for some people, in some times, in some places, for some uses), and poorly or disastrously in other contexts). Because of this context-dependence, it makes sense to understand this context deeply, to work within it as sensitively as possible, and to iteratively improve it over time. This is what design does: it creates systems that work well within particular human contexts.

Using these conceptions together — depth, instrumentalism and design — doesn’t this coronation idea (philosophy as queen of the design disciplines) make self-evident sense? But notice, this sense really is made.

In other words, doesn’t this conception-system produce an experience of self-evidence, and at a depth that ripples through just about everything, including your own memories, reordering part and whole…?

Cassirer and the Warburg Library

At night I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians. This section caught my attention, and did not help my insomnia one bit.

…Cassirer had recently discovered his true thinking space. In his case it was … the library of a private scholar of cultural science who had collected several tens of thousands of rare studies in intellectual and scientific history on his shelves, and organized them in a very idiosyncratic way. This was the library of Abraham (“Aby”) Moritz Warburg, the scion of one of the world’s most influential banking families, which Cassirer first entered in the winter of 1920 and which for the next ten years would be the site of inspiration for his work.

Some backstory from Wikipedia presents Warburg as an Esau figure, but cannier and nerdier: “Warburg grew up in a conservative Jewish home environment. Early on he demonstrated an unstable, unpredictable and volatile temperament. Warburg as a child reacted against the religious rituals which were punctiliously observed in his family, and rejected all career plans envisaged for him. He did not want to be a rabbi, as his grandmother wished, nor a doctor or lawyer. … Aby famously made a deal with his brother Max to forfeit his right, as the eldest son, to take over the family firm, in return for an undertaking on Max’s part to provide him with all the books he ever needed.”

Continuing with the book:

[Cassirer] was in shock: “I can never return to this place, or I will lose myself forever in this labyrinth,” Cassirer murmured after Dr. Fritz Saxl, head librarian of the Warburg collection, led him past the shelves and stacks, elegantly if very eccentrically arranged. The richness of this literature as well as the precious rarity of the volumes acquired from all over the world was one thing. But for Cassirer what was miraculous was the idea of this library itself, and the intellectual objective behind its compilation and organization.

In fact, the volumes were not ordered alphabetically — Warburg organized them instead according to a taxonomy of his own devising, based on what he called “good neighborliness.” This measure was in turn based on a special research program into the true nature of human culture, its distinguishing features, and the dynamics that had determined its development over millennia.

The whole collection was accordingly divided into four sections, each of which corresponded to a fundamental philosophical concept.

These were, and remain:


Warburg, as director of the library, had initially used the rubric “Orientation” to reflect the fact that the world is for us far from self-explanatory. We come into the world largely helpless, without instincts, and also, crucially, without bearings. Our basic need to orient ourselves in thought and action, in our entire relationship with the world, gives rise to what we call culture. This was already the point of departure for Kantian philosophy. Not only was this view expressly shared by Cassirer, but it represents the true foundation of his major work, still in its early stages. Under the rubric of Orientation, Warburg’s library variously included works of superstition, magic, religion, and science — considered central cultural products of our fundamental human need for orientation.

However, the sections labeled “Image,” “Word,” and “Action” according to Warburg’s system implicitly answer the question of the structural forms through which this orientation is achieved: through what Cassirer, in his system, calls “symbols” and “symbolic systems.”

Under “Image,” Warburg included works about “ornaments, prints, or painting.” Under “Word,” spells, prayers, epics, and imaginative literature. Under “Action,” Finally, books that investigated the human body itself as a medium of symbolic formation — treatises on festival and dance culture, on theater and erotica.

For that reason, on his first visit Cassirer had to overcome the uncanny and fantastical feeling that this library had been designed and organized precisely according to the strictures and emphases that had governed his own work since those fateful streetcar journeys of 1917: the arrangement of the Warburg Library corresponded exactly, in terms of both form and content, to his own philosophy of symbolic forms.

As if that weren’t enough, in one sense the library went a step further than the systematic architectural plan that was Cassirer’s work. Rather than proceed in a chronological fashion, according to the development of culture from its cultic beginnings in totem, rite, and myth through to the modern natural sciences in one continuous arc culminating in true knowledge of the world, what prevailed on the shelves of Warburg’s library was the internal organizational principle of “good neighborliness.” It saw works from a tremendous variety of disciplines and eras placed side by side in such a way as to suggest scarcely imaginable connections between them, potential similarities of approach, and lines of influence that seem inconceivable. Consequently, foundational works of chemistry rubbed shoulders with books on alchemy; studies in ancient haruspicy with books about astrology and modern algebra.

Warburg’s collection is founded on the idea of a continuous cultural non-simultaneity of the simultaneous, in which a great variety of approaches from a great variety of sources influence and also contradict one another. At the same time, his taxonomic system is based on the conviction that there is something like an unconscious cultural memory that lurks behind the various epochs and the objects of their scholars’ attention, with significant though subtle effect.

Symbols and people — and this was Warburg’s central idea — constantly educate one another, and the symbols with which we think, speak, curse, and pray, with which we make predictions, inquire, and research — in short, find our orientation in this world — are generally much older and in a sense wiser than we, the creatures who use these symbols only in our own time and appropriate them in line with our own interests. So much could be revealed, if only the innumerable tacit connections and alignments among these symbols could be given a voice.

From his first day in that library, Cassirer’s way of thinking grew closer to the ordering of its vision of culture. In small steps at Arst, but then continuously and with ever greater intensity. On Warburg’s shelves there were no clearly demarcated individual disciplines, areas of study, or even clearly defined realms of culture. It was a space completely free from taboo, and its arrangement encouraged the visitor to embark on a glorious search for ideas as yet unexplored—whether from the future, the present, or the past.

One last bit shows the ancestry of Susanne Langer’s insights. Saxl tells how he introduced Cassirer to the library: “I started in the second room, with the cabinet marked ‘Symbol,’ since I assumed that Cassirer would find it easier to approach the problem there. He immediately gave a start and explained to me that this was the problem that had long preoccupied him, and one on which he was currently working. But he was only familiar with a small part of the literature that we own on the concept of the symbol, and he knew nothing of its visual configuration (the visualization of symbols in gesture and art). [Langer!] Cassirer immediately understood and asked me to spend over an hour showing him how one shelf was lined up next to another, one thought next to another. It was lovely to guide a man of such substance for once.”

My heart is racing.

Redescription versus renarration

Often, when I try to talk about codesigning philosophies, people compare (or even equate) what I’m doing with the kind of thing therapists, new age counselors  and life coaches do, when they help people “tell themselves different stories”. Byron Katie is a notable example of this kind of “renarration” therapist.

This is a fair comparison. What I am doing is similar in some important ways. Both my approach and renarration is the basic concept of social constructionism applied to individual life. It is inspiring stuff. The promise of change, freedom and self-determination in social constructionism was one of the most intoxicating active ingredients in postmodern thought. It liberates us from having “hard truths” forced on us by convention or by aggressive, clever, fact-armed polemicists, who think that stripping a person of legitimate objections to their arguments is the same thing as persuasion. We’ve learned  that any truth, even a self-evident one, can, in principle, be interrogated and deconstructed to smithereens, clearing space for other truths. The process of deconstruction exposes the fact that they were constructed — by someone. So, why not construct our own custom truths? Renarration is individualized social constructionism, packaged for popular consumption.

None of this is wrong, even in popularized, vulgarized form. But I think it is not right enough.

It is not right enough in the way that it was right enough to claim that deposing Saddam Hussein would bring freedom to Iraq. Removing what is bad, unstable or oppressive is a necessary condition of replacing it with something better, but it is not sufficient. As some of us learned from the hard lesson of Iraq, something better must be constructed.

Further, the replacement must be constructed well and broadly accepted by the populace, or it will be factionalized, unstable and non-functional. It may even collapse and be reconquered by the old power. We cannot just go in, clear ground, and replace what was bad with something we imagine should be great.

Likewise, removing beliefs that feel bad does not ensure that anything will replace it, or that the old bad belief won’t come back and reassert itself. We have to make something that persuades us through and through — mind, heart and body.

As designers say, “We must make the right thing, and make the thing right.”

Enough Iraq analogies, though.

Here are the key differences between the approach where we tell ourselves different stories “renarration”, and the kind of philosophy codesign I’ve been experimenting with “collaborative redescription.”

I’ll argue/explain them more fully someday, but for now I’m just going to make a list, so I can finish this up and go ride my bike.

  1. Collaborative redescription is not therapy. It is not meant to heal psychological wounds or build senses of empowerment, or anything like that. It is a method for designing philosophies that work well for the purposes of the person using it. True “a point of view is worth 80 IQ points”, so there’s benefit to doing it, but it’s the benefit you get from doing something better, or getting better tools for a job.
  2. Collaborative redescription goes beyond beliefs. It is about changing conceptions that produce beliefs. But changing conceptions also changes how we perceive, how we respond, what and how we value, how we feel, how we experience life, where we detect patterns or analogies. Our inner dialogue or narration or our personal doctrine are just a tiny part of this, and they must be integral parts of our life experience, not words we recited in an effort to shout over unwanted perception, feelings, etc. When conceptions change, they holistically change the entire field of experience. They ripple through our being, reconfiguring — transfiguring, in fact — our existence in radically surprising ways. Descriptions give us a handy way of seeing conceptions, and redesciptions are an effective way to experiment with new conceptions, but the redescriptions are a means, not an end. Ideally, the redescriptions end up being superfluous, and can be discarded and forgotten. The conceptions remain and work wordlessly behind the scenes.
  3. Collaborative redescription takes adoption seriously. We cannot directly control our beliefs, and decide what we will believe or what we will disbelieve. All we can do is try on alternate ways of thinking to see if they produce persuasive beliefs, and investigate unwanted beliefs until they break down. The beliefs are believed or not, and trying to act otherwise is courting intellectual dishonesty, delusion and bullshit.
  4. Collaborative redescription is not centered on the self — not how one thinks of oneself, nor one’s own history, nor one’s relationships, nor one’s history of relationships. It is likely to affect these things, but it focuses on whatever indicates problems with how one conceptualizes, not with emotional needs or distress.
  5. Collaborative redescription is not self-discovery or self-empowerment. The insights aren’t supposed to come from within. They are ideas that are there prior to discovery. The main thing that will be discovered is what you find persuasive or not. None of the ideas might come from oneself. But all of them might. Both parties in the collaboration are doing their best to come up with something new that might work. It is about developing a personal philosophy that works, and it could come from anywhere. But it has to be adopted and used, and it should work well.

I haven’t even gotten into methods, so there may be more practical differences than the ones I’ve listed, but this should suffice to establish that collaborative redescription is not just a flavor of renarration.

But if you’ve actually read Byron Katie or Marianne Williamson or anyone who urges people to tell different stories, and what I’m saying seems off-the-mark, please let me know. I’ve know them mostly second-hand because theirs is a genre I don’t enjoy reading.

Casting about, meandering toward my book

Right now I am in a painful flitting-about, casting-about intellectual mode.

I was reading Garfinkel’s classic Studies in Ethnomethodology, which I am excited to say I was able to understand clearly this time. However, once I picked up the logic of the method, the technical details of his studies strained and eventually broke my patience. At least now I can add sociology to my “academic disaster averted” file, along with architecture, computer science, HCI and philosophy, as graduate degrees I would have never made it through.

I was originally reading Garfinkel because I started feeling the importance of indexicality in my own project of trying to redescribe philosophy not as a search for truth but as a process of conceptual adaptation of who we are to the conditions we find ourselves in — a process that is perhaps most fruitfully conceived as design and best approached with design practices. A central piece of this project is accounting for how we perceive elements (people, objects, locations, words, symbols) in our environment and spontaneously intuit their significance within their context. Ethnomethodology provides a sociological lens for seeing how this meaning-making/-conveyance happens in particular social settings, and offers a vision for how this happens in general.

My interest is focused on conceptions, which I define as “mind moves” of various kinds, the intellectual equivalent of learning a dance or a tennis swing, which once we acquire it, immediately becomes an extension of our mind, and intercepts our sense data and assigns it relevance, all without any explicit intention or verbalization. In fact, I think conceptions direct our verbalizations by exactly the same means that it directs our use of tools.

I see perception, intuition of whole-and-part, interaction, communication as guided by conceptions, any of which might be changed, and which, when changed, can alter the meaning and experience of everything — that is, transfigure it. I want to outline a philosophy of intentional, responsible transfiguration of the world around us, as we inhabit it, understand it, interact with it, and shape it, what I’m calling enworldment. I see it as a sober variety of existentialism, with the adolescent recklessness, self-absorption and melodrama that dogs existentialism matured out of it, tempered by a cultivated sensitivity and respect for transcendence.

My main text now is Susanne Langer’s Philosophy In a New Key, which I am rereading the first time in ten years. I recall the impression that her thinking was pretty close to my own, and affirmed many ideas that I’d acquired elsewhere, perhaps influenced by her (for instance, Geertz, whose quotes from her book inspired me to read her) but that the big novel takeaway for me was her insight that non-discursive language-defiant forms of knowledge can be embedded or performed in art and religion. This also is an attempt to reckon with conceptions, which Langer conceptualizes in terms of symbols.

But this time through, at this time in world history, I’m attuned to the presence of one of her influences, Ernst Cassirer. I know him best as a central figure in a book I bought years ago and never read, A Parting of the Ways. I’ve been poking around trying to get a sense of him, and he seems like a good hero for a person like me in times like these. In his time, the twilight of the Weimar republic, he was perceived as a hopelessly idealistic and out-of-touch liberal. At that moment, the world was dividing into extreme ideological factions, all of whom agreed on nothing except one thing: the irrelevance of liberalism. Liberal-democracy was regarded by all advanced intellects as a played-out failure, and all those who remained loyal to it were backwards. The future belonged to either Marxism or Fascism, and the only remaining question was which was destined to be on the right side of history.

I picked up A Parting of the Ways and sampled it to see if I ought to read it, and this passage jumped out at me:

Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant aimed to show that the Critique of Pure Reason does not present a theory of knowl­edge and, in particular, that it does not present a theory of mathematical natural scientific knowledge. The real contribution of the Critique is rather to work out, for the first time, the problem of the laying of the ground for metaphysics — to articulate, that is, the conditions of the possibility of metaphysics. On this reading, Kant argues (in remarkable agreement with the main argument of Being and Time) that metaphysics can only be grounded in a prior analysis of the nature of finite human reason. As finite, the human intellect (unlike the divine intellect) is necessarily dependent on sensible intuition. Moreover, and here is where the true radicalism of Heidegger’s interpretation emerges, Kant’s introduction of the so-called transcendental schematism of the understanding has the effect of dissolving both sensibility and the intellect (the understand­ing) in a “common root,” namely, the transcendental imagination, whose ultimate basis (again in remarkable agreement with the argument of Being and Time) is temporality. And this implies, finally, that the traditional basis of Western metaphysics in logos, Geist, or reason is definitively destroyed.

In the ensuing disputation Cassirer begins by announcing his agreement with Heidegger concerning the fundamental importance of the transcendental imagination — interpreted, however, in accordance with Cassirer’s own philosophy of symbolic forms, as pointing to the fact that the (finite) human being is to be defined as the “symbolic animal.” But Cassirer strongly objects to the idea that we as “symbolic animaIs” are thereby limited to the “arational” sphere of finitude. For Kant himself has shown how the finite human creature can nevertheless break free from finitude into the realm of objectively valid, necessary and eternal truths both in moral experience and in mathematical natural science. On this basis, Cassirer asks Heidegger whether he really wants to renounce such objectivity and to maintain instead that ail truth is relative to Dasein (the concrete finite human being). Heidegger, for his part, acknowledges the importance of this question, but he continues to reject the idea of any “breakthrough” into an essentially nonfinite realm. On the contrary, philosophy’s true mission — and our true freedom — consists precisely in renouncing such traditional illusions and holding fast to our essential finitude (our “hard fate”).

This put me on the edge of my chair. But I had questions about some of Kant’s terminology. What exactly is a “sensible intuition”? That led me to a paper by Marcus Willaschek, “The Sensibility of Human Intuition: Kant’s Causal Condition on Accounts of Representation”, and this slab of clarity, which I feel sure will allow me to make better use of Kantian language.

(SU1) Human beings can come to entertain mental representations in one of two
ways: either (a) as a result of an object’s causal impact on our minds (an affection of our “Gemüt”) or (b) as a result of some “spontaneous” activity of “uniting” various representations into a new one (cf. A 68, B 93).

(SU2) The capacity to come to represent something as a result of (SU1a) is a kind
of “receptivity” that Kant calls “ sensibility” (A 19, B 33).

(SU3) The capacity to come to represent something as a result of (SU1b) is a kind
of “spontaneity” called “understanding” (A 19, B 33).

(SU4) There are two basic kinds of “objective” representations (i.  e. represen­
tations that purport to represent objects other than a subjective state of mind), namely intuitions and concepts (A 19, B 33; cf. A 320, B 377).

(SU5) Intuitions are singular representations (that is, representations of par­
ticulars as such); through intuitions our minds do not refer to objects by means of general marks and therefore refer immediately (A 19, B 33).4
(SU6) Concepts are general representations (that is, they represent objects only
indirectly insofar as they exhibit “marks” potentially shared by other objects) (A 19, B 33).

(SU7) All intuitions in humans are sensible (A 51, B 75, cf. A 68, B 93); that is,
they arise from affections of our “sensibility” (A 19, B 33).5 Thus, human intuitions essentially involve a moment of passivity; through them, objects are “given” to us (A 19, B 33, cf. A 68, B 93).

(SU8) All concepts are intellectual; that is, with respect to concepts, our minds
are spontaneously active. Through them, objects are actively thought by us by uniting various representations of them under a common one (A 19, B 33, cf. A 68, B 93).

(SU9) Human cognition requires both intuitions and concepts (A 51, B 75). (Very
roughly, concepts provide cognition with a content that can be true or false and stand in rational relations; intuition provides the link to reality or, as Kant puts it in the Critique of Judgment, to “objects” corresponding to our concepts; cf. 5:401.)

Sensible intuitions are the stuff of indexicality, which are, in turn, the stuff of understanding — and all of these are constrained by conceivability — our reperoire of conceptions. I think Kant’s famous table was meant as an exhaustive inventory of possible conceptions, but my taste inclines me to treat the table as a beginning of an expanding set with no determinate limits.

So now I’m curious about Willaschek. I see he has a new book out, which looks interesting and useful: Kant on the Sources of Metaphysics: The Dialectic of Pure Reason. I’ve downloaded a copy to read, and I can already tell I’m going to need this in my library.

Anyway, anyone who has made it this far, can see why I am perpetually out of both time and money.

I hope this also sheds a little more light onto what I am hoping to get at in my Philosophy of Design of Philosophy book project. What I am after reading Langer, Cassirer and others, including maybe (but hopefully not!) Kant, is to offload the burden of arguing a theory of conceptualization and instead to build upon a platform of existing theory to advocate approaching philosophy as a design medium, to develop an outline for how it is done, and to describe first-person what can be expected practicing philosophical enworldment this way, because it is truly weirder than hell to go through and demands explanation.

iPad undo needs a redo

Back when the iPhone was released, shaking to undo was a pretty cool interaction.

True — it lacked cues to help users discover how to undo, and no alternative method for undo was available in some key apps (such as Mail), so this was never a perfect design, but it was usually ok.

But, where the original iPhone had a 3.5″ screen, weighed 4.8 ounces,  and had a generous bezel, my 12.9″ iPad weighs 2.4 pounds in a protective case and has an edge-to-edge screen, which means no space on the front for gripping it, and this changes the shake-undo experience

Undoing an action now requires a user to hold the tablet around the outer edges, while carefully avoiding the buttons. This is made harder because the edge to edge screen gives no orientation indication. Depending on which side is up, the buttons could be located on any of the four corners, usually exactly where one of my hands are when I try to shake it. Half the time the device turns off before I can get the undo to happen. Once I get my grip exactly right, I heave the iPad back and forth with a two-arm movement until the sensors register a shake. Sometimes there is a several seconds delay before the undo activates so this can take awhile. But sometimes it just doesn’t ever work, for unknown reasons.

There are other ways to undo actions, but most of them are only for typing, and these are available only in some apps.

It is sad to watch Apple degrade this way, version over version. Where the Macintosh UI matured and became more systematic over time, iOS has been declining for the last 10 years. Yet, Apple seems to be leaning toward making the Mac more iOS-like rather than the reverse.

Things do not look good. It feels like UI design and digital experiences in general have fallen back into the hands of technologists, and consumer expectations of digital design have fallen to lows not seen since the early 90s, with no Apple to serve as a shining counter-example to point the way out of it.