Category Archives: Geometric Meditations

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.”

Argyle

Today, I am recollecting and reflecting on the insights that originally inspired me to draw a diagram that I’ve called “the argyle”.

It was originally meant to show how conceptual wholes and synthesized parts can intersect to produce meaningful systems. In a meaningful system the conception of the system makes the synthesized parts feel necessary and given, because their relationships are pre-determined by the logic of the concept –“Of course it works this way! — but, also, the synthesis is rationally constructed, so even if the concept were missed, the system would make sense — “This is perfectly clear and logical!”.

A meaningful system is comprehended with intuition and reason, or with both together in concert. (I’ve also considered the idea of treating comprehension as being simultaneous inter-illuminating conception and synthesis — instead of as an umbrella term for either conception or synthesis.)


The reason I needed to create this framework was that I’ve found that certain very types of designers (and people doing the work of designers) tend to prioritize concept over synthesis or synthesis over concept to such a degree that they stop reinforcing one another. One one extreme we have the wild genius who conceives a vision of the whole and regards all logic as stultifying formalism that undermines the inspired spontaneity of creation. It does not have to make clear sense if hearts are stirred and wallets open wide. On the other extreme we have the logical organizer of elements who views with suspicion and impatience any delaying attempt to seek an overarching concept to guide the design. After all, logic can get down to work immediately and start making demonstrable progress toward the final goal. If the final output is uninspired and dry — so what? Can the system be figured out with minimal effort? Good enough.

Years later, out of exasperation and a weakness for potty-mouthed ridicule, I developed a second model to describe the failure of merging concept and synthesis — though somehow, until today, I managed to miss the opportunity to explicitly link this failure to synthesis and concept. Instead I linked it to inspired meaning versus practical details.

I called this “the bullshit-chickenshit model”.

Bullshit – Meaningful, inspiring ideas that seem to promise something, but that something can never be fulfilled through any practical action.

Chickenshit – Practical activity that seems like it ought to serve some meaningful purpose, but in reality is pointless busyness.

Bullshit is meaning without practice. Chickenshit is practice without meaning.

But, really, bullshit can be understood as unsynthesizable concept. The meaning is a feeling of vast promise that cannot be applied to any particular.

Chickenshit can be understood as inconceivable synthesis. It is a giant mechanism of logically conjoined pieces that never resolves into a meaningful whole.

Most of what we encounter in the world is pure bullshit and pure chickenshit, and this produces that one-two KO nihilistic punch in the face that sometimes makes us want to burn this whole madhouse down.

*

Finally, I will accept the risk of being accused of bullshit by suggesting that the  Star of David can be viewed as a transcendent argyle, and the ultimate overcoming of bullshit and chickenshit . Even before I was Jewish I conceived it this way, and this insight contributed to my need to be Jewish.

Here, the overlap of concept and synthesis is maximized, and both the depth of concept and extent of the synthesis is felt to exceed the overlap. The meaning of the religious vision resonates in every practical detail of life, but also the doing of every day mundane life is sacralized in Tikkun Olam.

Sacred practicality is practical sacrality.

Practical sacrality is sacred practicality.

This is my own Jewish ideal, and I don’t think it is only mine.

*

Postscript

The “skeleton” of the star — formed by connecting the opposing points of each of the overlapping triangles — eventually became the asterisk “star” in Geometric Meditations.

Duende

Around 2005 Susan get into flamenco, and learned the word duende. She talked about duende as a real thing, and she got me thinking about it and writing about it, too. A few excerpts from that time — I time when I’d forgotten decency and hadn’t yet remembered it:

“Duende”
8/18/2005

Susan’s main measure of things: How much duende?

warpspasm sent me a link to Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement”.

Another:

“Bands, ranked by duende”
8/20/2005

My ranking of bands based on how much duende was in them at their peak:

1) The Pixies, from Come On, Pilgrim, to Surfer Rosa (the most duende-possessed album of all time), to Doolittle. To my knowledge no recordings have ever managed to combine torment and manic pleasure at this intensity, in such perfect balance.

2) The Rolling Stones, on Beggars Banquet. The darkness slightly outweighs the exuberant innocence, so the balance tilts toward evil, which, of course, was intentional, but the tension in the contrast is enormous, and ambiguity still rules.

3) Bob Dylan, on Bringin’ it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. It’s one long jeering indictment of all that has no reason to exist. It’s not nice at all, in fact it’s outright malicious, but it’s all for the best. Dylan isn’t afraid of anyone’s hurt feelings.

4) Johnny Cash.

5) The Beatles’ middle period, from Revolver, where the balance between the darkness and lightness is nearly perfect and at its most intense, but oscillates from moment to moment, and progresses toward greater simultaneity without ever quite reaching it (Paul vs John, oil vs water) and at the expense of intensity, through Sgt. Pepper’s, to the under-rated, happy-ominous masterpiece Magical Mystery Tour. Yellow Submarine has a few perfect moments, too. (Everything past that was infected by the denim sound of the wrong drugs in the wrong quantities for too long, which foreshadowed the pus-weeping of the laxest 70s, epitomized by Carly Simon, James Taylor and Cat Stevens, all of whom have zero duende and are loved for that reason.)

6) The entire 60’s Garage Punk phenomenon. Every one of these bands was possessed by duende, raped by it, knocked up, and forced to have its baby in the form of exactly one perfect song. The used-up victims were then discarded– dumped into the suburbs to wonder for the rest of their lives what the fuck happened to them.

7) Susan swears both the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk have it, and that seems plausible to me. They’re energetic and not altogether benevolent. They want you to have a good time but they can’t resist their compulsion to beat the shit out of your brain with intolerable noise when you get too relaxed.

*

Now, I’m reading Jan Zwicky’s reflections on duende, and I am seeing duende in a clearer, more Judeochristian light.

*

Duende is the moving simultaneity of love and dread.

Polycentric virtues

Until quite recently, design has been monocentric.

All the various x-centric design disciplines were named after the single protagonist of the design. User-centered. Employee-centered. Customer-centered. Citizen-centered. In search of something more general and accommodating, most designers have settled on “human-centered’.

Human-centered design centers design on the experience of a person. While “human” can, of course, mean more than one person, in actual human-centered design practice — in the methods employed — it must be admitted that human meant one human. Designers nearly always focused all attention on the segments of people who might wind up a person at the center of their design, and they did this in order to ensure that it is useful, usable and desirable for whoever that might be.

Lately something new — much newer than it seems at first glance — has emerged: polycentric design.

In polycentric design multiple protagonists are simultaneously experientially centered. Multiple storylines — each an experience some person is having — weave together, converging and looping at points where people interact with one another, separating where people experience things alone. Polycentric design concerns itself with all the storylines equally, and attempts to make every point in this complex mesh of experiences useful, usable and desirable for everyone.

This new development in design began when human-centered design principles were applied to service design.

Even as far back as the early-90s (two decades before service design became human-centered) service design considered the entire service — not only the receiving of the service, but also the delivery and the support of the service — as a single designed system. The delivery and support of the service is not secondary to receiving the service, but of equal dignity and deserving equal focus.

So, when a human-centered design approach is applied to service design, then, the humans who are centered multiply. Any point in the experience where any person experiences anything in the receiving, delivering or supporting of the service — including where people experience interacting with one another — is framed as a design problem. It is a design problem part (a service moment) embedded within a design problem whole (the service) and the success of that moment and that whole is assessed by whether everyone valued what happened and feels that they participated in a win-win.

Designers debate whether service design is a species of human-centered design or vice versa. There is truth to all sides of the debate. I think they were both decisively transformed in the process and I like calling that transformation polycentric design.

*

Part of the reason I like to claim that polycentric design transcends both human-centered design (one person considered in first-person) and service design (originally multiple people considered in third-person) is that polycentricity challenges so many of our basic views outside of design — ideas bound up with what I believe are rapidly-obsoleting moral attitudes.

For instance, often we try to temper the natural egocentricity of children by telling them they are not the center of the universe. But why not instead tell them “you are not the only center of the universe“?

Or social activists will speak of decentering privileged groups. Why not instead extend centering to those who have been marginalized or excluded, and polycenter all people?

And consider altruism’s reflexive exaltation of martyrdom. Good people sacrifice their interests to the interests of others. But with polycentrism the selfless refrain of “not me, but you!” can be humanely transcended with an unselfish but also unselfless response: “not any one of us, but all of us.”

When we learn to think polycentrically, much more is possible than me getting my way, or you getting yours, or each of us compromising. We can rethink situations, we can philosophize pragmatically, and find entirely new ways to conceive what we face and find solutions preferable to all than the relatively impoverished conceptions we began with.

*

Oh, am I being an idealistic dreamer? Am I not tough enough for the hard truths of reality? for waging war for what matters?

I will argue the opposite.

I see tough-guy refusal to compromise, and resignation to the necessity of losers to produce winners as evidence of philosophical cowardice.

I see it as bullshit macho posturing of people who cannot handle the unknowability of the unknown and the dreadful apprehension one feels confronting what exceeds us and defies our language and even our thoughts.

(I overstate my position, in order to remind us that anything can be redescribed to look brave or cowardly, or realistic or delusional.)

*

What does it take to do polycentricity?

In individuals, it requires rare goodwill toward I-transcending We. It requires courage in the face of incomprehensibility — an ability to feel intense anxiety and antipathy, but not to obey it. It requires faith in the inconceivable becoming conceivable — so that our blindness to what might emerge if we approach problems in I-transcending We stops being evidence of impossibility.

And sadly it requires more that one person to possess polycentric virtues. In fact, it requires everyone involved in a polycentric situation (which is all situations) to commit to these virtues.

Most of all requires us to change our relationship to apprehension. Whatever we apprehend — a That we can touch with the tip of our mind — but which we cannot comprehend as a What we can grasp — makes us feel apprehensive.

When we take apprehension at face value, and conceive either the phenomena in question, or the other person forcing these phenomena to our attention — or both at once! — as signaling an offense or threat, we cannot entertain any important possibility that stands outside our comprehension.

And outside our comprehension is precisely where polycentric possibility stands!

*

For quite some time I’ve been arguing that it is helpful to reconceive philosophy as a design discipline.

More recently I’ve realized it might be even more helpful to reconceive philosophy as a polycentric design discipline.

K’an enworldment

Yang Earth is inclined to understand truth Earth-upward.

Yang Heaven is inclined to understand truth Heaven-downward.

Yang Man is inclined to understand truth Man-outward.

*

My pragmatic phenomenological re-interpretation of Guenon is a yang Man interpretation of a yang Heaven truth.

Before you listen to me, though, be sure to consult the I Ching, and see what it has to say about the trigram, K’an, the Abysmal, the world viewed from yang Man.

Methodic wisdom

Susan and I have been debating what wisdom is. We each felt the other’s view was incomplete. I thought her conception was overlapping too much with prudence; she thought mine reduced wisdom with mere open-mindedness. (Actually, she was right.) As we turned the question and viewed it from multiple angles, it became clear, as is so often the case, that it was a matter of emphasis. She was emphasizing exercise of foresight and consideration — awareness of implications beyond the immediate desires and compulsions. I was emphasizing readiness for thought-defying shock — awareness that our awareness is always partial and situated within a much vaster and weirder context, only the minutest speck of which we are conceptually prepared to understand or even perceive. We’re slowly converging on an agreement. Here’s my latest attempt, written primarily for Susan’s review:

Wisdom is an attitude of mind that considers ramifying implications that transcend the immediate concern, in time, in space and in subjectivity — especially those nonobvious implications that unfold only in careful consideration and those that unfold in ways inconceivable until they unfold in reality and which will be understood as inevitable only in retrospect. Wisdom expects to be surprised, because wisdom knows the limitations of thought, and leaves room for irruptions of reality and the epiphanies they bring.


If we accept this definition of wisdom, that would make design practice a methodical form of wisdom — an alternative to speculative-thought-and-talk decision-making.

Design method directs us to go to the reality we plan to change, and encourages us to interact with it directly, in order to encounter some of the implications and ramifications of our proposed changes — many of which we otherwise would never consider.

Design is methodic wisdom.


Chief among design’s considerations are the subjective ones — the interpretive and experiential consequences of deep, hidden differences in subjectivity that must be learned before they can even be conceived. (* see note below.)

Subjective learning of new conceptions is a rigorous exercise of hermeneutic, intellectual and emotional empathy (which I prefer calling synesis). It can sometimes radically redefine the designer’s understanding of the design problem, by revealing it in a new subjective light with new practical consequences — metanoia.

This metanoia — this new, consequential reconception — simultaneously reframes the problem and opens space for novel solutions. Problems and solutions, questions and answers, possibilities and actualities burst forth together with new conceptions. And because the new conception has been learned from real people and refer to real contexts, the newly conceived solutions are far more relevant and on-the-mark. I like to call design metanoia “precision inspiration”.


(* Note: The whole field of thought around conception is grossly misunderstood. Until a conception is learned, all ideas that require it are either inconceivable — submerged in intellectual blindness, neither perceivable nor imaginable — or misunderstood by another conception that comprehends it in a wrong sense, and commits category mistakes. If the originating conception of a set of ideas is finally acquired, the new conception spontaneously reorders the understandings, both on the whole and in part, and there is an epiphany. If the reconception is a very deep one, upon which many other conceptions are rooted, and these have wide-ranging pragmatic consequences, it can seem that everything has changed all at once. The scales seem to have fallen from one’s eyes, one feels reborn as a new person, and it feels and if the entire world has transfigured itself. Until one has experienced something like this, all language associated with this kind of event sounds like magical hocus-pocus — but this is only a misconception of what remains inconceivable. The consequences of this hocus-pocus are just the copious category mistakes of the believing fundamentalist and the unbelieving antifundamentalist.)

Soul-shaping

 

A souls is a multistable dynamic intuitive system.

Insofar as it is a system that remains stable across changing conditions, a soul has a character, a personality of its own, enduring selfhood. To the degree a soul changes and adapts to conditions, a soul is responsive to the world.

At the extreme of selfhood is closed self, an intuitive system that no longer adapts or responds to the world, but instead uses the same intuitions the same way all the time. Only information it can comprehend is seriously entertained, and only conclusions that reinforce its workings are accepted. The soul maintains itself in a closed, circular state of autism.

At the extreme of responsiveness is the fragmentary self, an intuitive system that is so adaptive to its environment that it cannot find its own enduring selfhood within the changing configurations that its intuitions take as circumstances buffet it around. Its only hope for integrity come from the social environment. If the social environment gives it an identity and expects it to perform that identity, the soul responds obediently and then finds itself able to feel itself to be a self. But if the environment does not provide these reinforcements, the self is literally existentially threatened, and goes into a crisis. The soul has no internal means to maintain its own stable sense of self, and exists in a fragmentary state of borderline personality.

Under certain circumstances the closed selves and fragmentary selves can form an alliance. The closed selves adopt an ideology and ethical ruleset that, when performed, assigns stable identities to those who would otherwise live in fragmentary nothingness. The alliance requires strict adherence to roles and rules, and deviations from it, especially those which contradict the ideological conceptions and produce conditions that threaten its collective closed system, are treated as a collective existential threat. These alliances have low intolerance of stresses from beyond its ideological horizon, especially modes of conception incommensurable with the logic that holds its brittle system together.

When a person insists that selfhood is a superstructural artifact of social forces, that a person is reducible to the play of various identities, that social standpoints imprison us within limited understanding, beyond which there is blind belief in the testimony of others or disbelief and violence, this indicates participation in the closed alliance.

The overpowering need for selfhood in one particular conception, existentially threatened by rival theories or expressions of selfhood is the driving force behind all illiberalism.

*

Liberal democracy requires selves of a different shape, neither closed circles, nor open fragments, but a synthesis of the two, which I symbolize as a spiral — multistable dynamic intuitive system that is stable but is, to a degree, open to realities that challenge its integrity. It does this by cultivating a dynamic stability that can shapeshift in response to different challenges of its understanding — that is, it can entertain multiple understandings, but which is ordered by a deeper integrity that sees multiplicity of understanding as intrinsic to the human condition.

This deeper integrity goes by the name pluralism.

Pluralism’s unique mode of understanding, which conceives inconceivability in a manner conducive to actually conceiving inconceivable truths, and in this, to continually reaffirm its own pluralistic integrity.

Not all citizens of a liberal democracy must be pluralists, but enough must participate in political and cultural life to prevent a closed alliance to form, and for illiberalism to drive pluralism underground.

*

Hermeneutics is important in pluralism and in religion, because any deep act of understanding requires a soul to respond to a stable set of conceptions with a stability of its own, to re-form itself in an act of understanding. It must experiment with polysemic words and allow them to combine and crystalize in multiple ways, and then to respond selfully to these crystallization with its own intuitive order, and experience how it is to understand this text, this phenomenon, this design this way, and accordingly experience the world from this state.

Producing meaningful artifacts — whether objects, interactions, services, arguments, rituals, symbols — that order an understanding soul in a way that improves the experience of life is experience design at its profoundest level.

Intuitive multistability

Just as there are multistabilities of conception when understanding texts (hermeneutics) and multistabilities of perception while experiencing phenomena (postphenomenology), there are multistabilities in the self-organization of intuitions.

In my art pamphlet Geometric Meditations, I called the mysterious swarm of self-organizing intuitions behind the I “potential” — possible states of soul in various kinds and degrees of order.

Every experience — which is a mix of conceptions, perceptions and responses to what we conceive and perceive — engages some set of our intuitions and induces them to organize and cooperate. Some of these organized cooperations involve most or many of our intuitions and cause them to function as a unity. This makes us feel whole. Some exclude intuitions or even force their suppression. This makes us feel conflicted, divided or empty.

*

Some of us have a flexible, modal, dynamic stability of soul. Different intuitions emerge and participate in various domains of activity. Most intuitions have a meaningful role to play, and none are entirely excluded. No intuitions are considered intolerably dangerous, and when possibilities and questions are sensed by one intuition, other intuitions participate from various angles, as the notion rises to conscious consideration and is turned in the mind.

Others of us have less flexible stabilities. One set of intuitions tris to stay in total control all the time. This intuitive gang collaborates to keep the other intuitions under their control. This is especially true of the darkest, most dangerous intuitions, which must be suppressed at all costs, along with their unwanted, harmful thoughts. If anything in the environment stimulates these marginalized intuitions they rise up and threaten the dominant order. This is experienced as an existential threat, and triggers a forcible inner crackdown by the offended dominant intuitions. They fear an uprising of the intuitive underclass and the change of mind it will bring, which signals the end of its reign. The soul must continue to believe their true beliefs and condemning all the lies it disbelieves, or that soul as it knows itself will cease to exist. It will lose its identity as a believer in some ideology or religion, a member of some special group or nation. It lives in a constant inner (and sometimes outer) police state to maintain its very existence as itself. And because it suppresses much of itself, it feels itself perpetually empty, dissatisfied, unfulfilled, persecuted, oppressed.

*

All this brings me back, once again, to where my transfiguration started, reading Christopher Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building.

His idea of wholeness is bound up with how we dwell in spaces and how our “inner forces” are harmonized or conflicted by what our environment offers us.

A man is alive when he is wholehearted, true to himself, true to his own inner forces, and able to act freely according to the nature of the situations he is in.

To be happy, and to be alive, in this sense, are almost the same. Of course, a man who is alive, is not always happy in the sense of feeling pleasant; experiences of joy are balanced by experiences of sorrow. But the experiences are all deeply felt; and above all, the man is whole and conscious of being real.

To be alive in this sense, is not a matter of suppressing some forces or tendencies, at the expense of others; it is a state of being in which all forces which arise in a man can find expression; he lives in balance among the forces which arise in him; he is unique as the pattern of forces which arise is unique; he is at peace, since there are no disturbances created by underground forces which have no outlet; he is at one with himself and his surroundings.

This state cannot be reached merely by inner work.

There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need do only inner work, in order to be alive like this; that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself he need only change himself. This teaching has some value, since it is so easy for a man to imagine that his problems are caused by “others.” But it is a one-sided and mistaken view which also maintains the arrogance of the belief that the individual is self-sufficient and not dependent in any essential way on his surroundings.

The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.

Some kinds of physical and social circumstances help a person come to life. Others make it very difficult.

Nietzsche had a similar conception, a more vitalistic one centering on nourishment and starvation:

However far a man may go in self-knowledge, nothing however can be more incomplete than his image of the totality of drives which constitute his being. He can scarcely name even the cruder ones: their number and strength, their ebb and flood, their play and counterplay among one another, and above all the laws of their nutriment remain wholly unknown to him. This nutriment is therefore a work of chance: our daily experiences throw some prey in the way of now this, now that drive, and the drive seizes it eagerly; but the coming and going of these events as a whole stands in no rational relationship to the nutritional requirements of the totality of the drives: so that the outcome will always be twofold — the starvation and stunting of some and the overfeeding of others. Every moment of our lives sees some of the polyp-arms of our being grow and others of them wither, all according to the nutriment which the moment does or does not bear with it. Our experiences are, as already said, all in this sense means of nourishment, but the nourishment is scattered indiscriminately without distinguishing between the hungry and those already possessing a superfluity. And as a consequence of this chance nourishment of the parts, the whole, fully grown polyp will be something just as accidental as its growth has been. To express it more clearly: suppose a drive finds itself at the point at which it desires gratification — or exercise of its strength, or discharge of its strength, or the saturation of an emptiness — these are all metaphors –: it then regards every event of the day with a view to seeing how it can employ it for the attainment of its goal; whether a man is moving, or resting or angry or reading or speaking or fighting or rejoicing, the drive will in its thirst as it were taste every condition into which the man may enter, and as a rule will discover nothing for itself there and will have to wait and go on thirsting: in a little while it will grow faint, and after a couple of days or months of non-gratification it will wither away like a plant without rain. Perhaps this cruelty perpetrated by chance would be more vividly evident if all the drives were as much in earnest as is hunger, which is not content with dream food; but most of the drives, especially the so-called moral ones, do precisely this — if my supposition is allowed that the meaning and value of our dreams is precisely to compensate to some extent for the chance absence of ‘nourishment’ during the day. Why was the dream of yesterday full of tenderness and tears, that of the day before yesterday humorous and exuberant, an earlier dream adventurous and involved in a continuous gloomy searching? Why do I in this dream enjoy indescribable beauties of music, why do I in another soar and fly with the joy of an eagle up to distant mountain peaks? These inventions, which give scope and discharge to our drives to tenderness or humorousness or adventurousness or to our desire for music and mountains — and everyone will have his own more striking examples to hand — are interpretations of nervous stimuli we receive while we are asleep, very free, very arbitrary interpretations of the motions of the blood and intestines, of the pressure of the arm and the bedclothes, of the sounds made by church bells, weathercocks, night-revellers and other things of the kind. That this text, which is in general much the same on one night as on another, is commented on in such varying ways, that the inventive reasoning faculty imagines today a cause for the nervous stimuli so very different from the cause it imagined yesterday, though the stimuli are the same: the explanation of this is that today’s prompter of the reasoning faculty was different from yesterday’s — a different drive wanted to gratify itself, to be active, to exercise itself, to refresh itself, to discharge itself — today this drive was at high flood, yesterday it was a different drive that was in that condition. — Waking life does not have this freedom of interpretation possessed by the life of dreams, it is less inventive and unbridled — but do I have to add that when we are awake our drives likewise do nothing but interpret nervous stimuli and, according to their requirements, posit their ’causes’? that there is no essential difference between waking and dreaming? that when we compare very different stages of culture we even find that freedom of waking interpretation in the one is in no way inferior to the freedom exercised in the other while dreaming? that our moral judgments and evaluations too are only images and fantasies based on a physiological process unknown to us, a kind of acquired language for designating certain nervous stimuli? that all our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, but felt text? — Take some trifling experience. Suppose we were in the market place one day and we noticed someone laughing at us as we went by: this event will signify this or that to us according to whether this or that drive happens at that moment to be at its height in us — and it will be a quite different event according to the kind of person we are. One person will absorb it like a drop of rain, another will shake it from him like an insect, another will try to pick a quarrel, another will examine his clothing to see if there is anything about it that might give rise to laughter, another will be led to reflect on the nature of laughter as such, another will be glad to have involuntarily augmented the amount of cheerfulness and sunshine in the world — and in each case a drive has gratified itself, whether it be the drive to annoyance or to combativeness or to reflection or to benevolence. This drive seized the event as its prey: why precisely this one? Because, thirsty and hungry, it was lying in wait. — One day recently at eleven o’clock in the morning a man suddenly collapsed right in front of me as if struck by lightning, and all the women in the vicinity screamed aloud; I myself raised him to his feet and attended to him until he had recovered his speech — during this time not a muscle of my face moved and I felt nothing, neither fear nor sympathy, but I did what needed doing and went coolly on my way. Suppose someone had told me the day before that tomorrow at eleven o’clock in the morning a man would fall down beside me in this fashion — I would have suffered every kind of anticipatory torment, would have spent a sleepless night, and at the decisive moment instead of helping the man would perhaps have done what he did. For in the meantime all possible drives would have had time to imagine the experience and to comment on it. — What then are our experiences? Much more that which we put into them than that which they already contain! Or must we go so far as to say: in themselves they contain nothing? To experience is to invent? —

My own conception of these same prelinguistic forces or drives includes Alexander’s energetic and Nietzsche’s vitalistic characteristics but also emphasizes their organizational structure and how their concerted cooperation shapes, reinforces, weakens, threatens, destroys or restructures their organization and coordination.

I’ve entertained many words to denote these prelinguistic forces and drives, but I’m feeling broad inner-acceptance and thick resonance around the word intuition.

Detune to retune

Intelligence denotes understanding of finite entities in systematic combination.

Wisdom denotes understanding of infinity and infinity’s inner surface which we experience as radical surprise and its implication, the permanent potential for radical surprise.

*

Intelligence comprehends finitude. Wisdom suprehends infinitude. Philosophy is intelligence in love with wisdom. Theology is wisdom in love with intelligence. This is how I’m seeing things today, reading Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement and attuning my intuitions to what he is saying. I’ve been reading him this week, partly in an effort to re-tune my soul, which has been sounding sour notes lately.

*

A detuned soul is not necessarily regrettable.

Between any harmonious tuning and another is a stretch of disharmony.

Early in the re-tuning process, certain notes go off-key, and things are out of tune.

Soon, the key is lost entirely, and no key is discernible in the noise. There are only clashing resonances.

But then, after some more adjustment, a hint of key emerges from the dissonance.

Gradually, the notes converge into a harmonious state, into a new tuning, a new key.

A musical ensemble tunes its instruments together before rehearsing. A perfectly but differently tuned individual instrument will sound out of tune with the others.

Each instrument carries its tuning out of the rehearsal space after the performance.

Tuning is a concerted effort.

*

If we immerse in art or reading or conversation, something of the experience clings. In some mysterious way, the experience continues to resonate in us.

A few times in my life, when I’ve read a certain kind of philosophy very deeply, a near-total shift has occurred that went beyond mood or coloring, and changed the resonance of existence itself, and it endured. Fishbane is making me wonder if these works were actually not philosophical, after all, but theological.

*

My generation embraced deliberate cacophony in our popular music. We wanted instruments detuned, harmonics clashing and beating against each other, only occasionally lining up in sonic moires, and for any melodies to be submerged in thick noise, concealed, coverted. Anything sweet needed to be coated in thick layers of salt or bitterness. Strange tastes over simple ones.

It was almost as if we wanted to train our ears for hearing hints of emergent alternative harmonies. We wanted to acquire penetrating tastes: to taste through, into, across — vectorially.

Salmiac. Scotch. Puehr. Acquired tastes.

*

Two quotes from Nietzsche, my first and deepest transfigurative read:

Blessed are those who possess taste, even though it be bad taste! — And not only blessed: one can be wise, too, only by virtue of this quality; which is why the Greeks, who were very subtle in such things, designated the wise man with a word that signifies the man of taste, and called wisdom, artistic and practical as well as theoretical and intellectual, simply ‘taste’ (sophia).

and

One must learn to love. — This happens to us in music: first one must learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate and delimit it as a life in itself; then one needs effort and good will to stand it despite its strangeness; patience with its appearance and expression, and kindheartedness about its oddity. Finally comes a moment when we are used to it; when we expect it; when we sense that we’d miss it if it were missing; and now it continues relentlessly to compel and enchant us until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers, who no longer want anything better from the world than it and it again. But this happens to us not only in music: it is in just this way that we have learned to love everything we now love. We are always rewarded in the end for our good will, our patience, our fair-mindedness and gentleness with what is strange, as it gradually casts off its veil and presents itself as a new and indescribable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. Even he who loves himself will have learned it this way — there is no other way. Love, too, must be learned.”

Objective reuleaux

The overlapping region of the trefoil venn diagram of what-is/how-can/why-ought (from my chapbook) forms a reuleau — a confluence of intuitions where people are most likely to feel an urgent need to establish public, objective truth.

In this objective rouleau, we feel that a matter is important, that we can and should respond to it practically, and that, in order to do so, we will need to clearly understand it — to conceptualize, speak, reason and argue about what it is, how it functions, how we can respond to it, why it is important, and so on.

This intuiting, responding, articulating, valuing activity creates the kind of densely tangled, knotted and enmeshed reflextive activity that tends to solidify our ideas (like the knitting of bone cells) and makes them not only seem true but to become socially true through being performed as true, and act-ual.

(For all you reckless flakes, I woke up from a dream last night with this thought in my head. Woo-oo-oo!)

Faith and belief

Belief is the content of comprehension, those ideas our mind can grasp.

Faith is an attitude toward pure apprehension, encounters with that which our mind can touch, barely touch, fleetingly, but not grasp.

These incomprehensible apprehensions, which fill us with apprehension that something beyond our minds exists — something within which we subsist in our own existence — challenges the mundane world of our comprehension.

If our faith is one that condemns, ignores or demphasizes apprehension, we will have a faith in and of belief, and are at risk of succumbing to ideo-idolatry.

Anything can happen

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Ass Festival

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Yea-Yuh and amen.

What, How, Why

Is it too much of a simplification to say that philosophy is not primarily what we think, but how we think — and that a faith is not what we believe but how we believe — and these thought- and belief-producing processes are the invisible workings of a society-of-self in its efforts to form relationships among itself and to the world, producing an enworldment? The enworldment is the theoretical, practical and moral sense of reality — the unique what, how and why of our own existence — that situates us within the world as part of it.

Mindmoves

Perhaps the reason few people love reading philosophy is that they have no idea how to read it correctly, and this is because people have no idea what philosophy is or what it is supposed to do. They are unaware of the role their own philosophy plays in their knowledge and its limits, or even that they have and use any philosophy at all, much less that they could change their philosophy and, along with it, their experience of reality.

What philosophical reading does is equip us with new ways to know, and these ways to know should be regarded as something like mental motions one learns to perform. As many philosophers have observed, philosophy is very much like dance — series of mental actions performed with fluidity and rapidity so it is experienced as a dynamic whole, not a series of discrete parts. The essence of both dance and philosophy is fluid motion.

It would be even more accurate to compare philosophy with martial arts, because the motions of philosophy are responses to entities and events outside one’s own control and anticipation, and while the motions are experienced, interaction, not experience is primary.

How is a series of mental actions learned, and in what ways, and why on earth would anyone care about learning it? Let’s start with the process and end with the benefits.

It begins with puzzling out passages. A reader works through a passage, trying out different meanings of words in every combination until they snap into coherent sense as a whole. Normally, reading is a simple linear process where each word is taken in the most usual sense and added to a steadily growing accumulation of factual completeness. People in the habit of reading and listening only within the limits of the popular philosophy expect all communication to work this way.

But philosophical reading requires polysemic vigilance — constant awareness of multiple possible meanings of words, and that a shift of meaning in one word (or larger unit of meaning) can recrystallize the meaning of the whole — that the snapping often occurs later in the passage than most readers expect. The meaning of a passage might not resolve until the very end, and even that resolution might need to be undone in service of understanding the whole to which that passage belongs. This is the interpretive element of philosophical reading — hermeneutics — where a reader tries to understand the intended meaning of the passage by selecting the optimal meaning of each word and phrase that reconciles parts (words) within a whole (the intended meaning. (And, yes, of course there is an intended meaning, even if that intended meaning is infinitely elusive. “Death of the author” is really the death of all philosophies except the one imposed by the willful reader.)

Once the meaning is figured out, in each of the parts, and as a whole, the meaning can be experienced as a dynamic whole. This is where dance and martial arts analogies are helpful. The working out of meanings of words can be compared to learning the proper form of each move, and unlearning the old habitual one. Knowing how each proper form fits in a sequence gives a comprehension of an objective whole — a system — viewed from without. The whole is not subjectively understood, however, until the forms flow into one another as a single fluid motion. It starts slowly and haltingly, then speeds up and smooths out, and eventually becomes a single unit of meaning, experienced spontaneously, from within, subjectively. Generally, when I read a passage, I rehearse it a few times, then finally perform it for myself smoothly to experience its spontaneous meaning in motion.

This is one good reason for binge reading authors. Once a reader locks into an author’s vocabulary, speech rhythms, and characteristic mindmoves it becomes easier and easier to read them linearly — to sightread them, to use a musical metaphor. There is less puzzling out, and more fluid, spontaneous following.

But something else happens in this process — and it is here that the real value of philosophical reading is discovered: once mindmoves are learned they can be detached from the original material and used for on other material or for other purposes. They can even be detached from the original vocabulary — and even from language altogether. The deepest philosophical shifts alter perception and taste.

And once a mindmove is detached and used again and again for myriad purposes, and made habitual it becomes invisible. In fact it joins one’s soul, and allows the soul’s myriad members to move in a coordinated way in response to reality. The better designed the philosophy is, the more quickly and completely invisible it becomes, disappearing in acts of understanding, response and valuing.

*

This morning I was talking to Susan about strategies of changing one’s beliefs.

The usual strategy is to decide to stop believing painful beliefs and to replace them with more affirmative ones.

I argue this is a bad strategy. Setting aside the crucial problem of honesty toward oneself and the consequences of willful self-delusion, this exhibits deep misunderstanding of how beliefs form. Such an approach treats only the objects of knowledge (the content), not the subject of knowledge, which is the philosophy in the background dancing out the beliefs.

Change the mindmoves that constitute the subject, and the objectivity changes on its own, along with its objects — naturally, honestly, inwardly and expansively, far beyond the bounds of the troublesome thoughts.

This is the deepest understanding of subjectivity. Subjectivity is the sum of mindmoves that produce some kind of objectivity. This is why we call an academic discipline a subject, but also a person a subject: both are repertoires of mindmoves that generate objective truth and the way we experience it and respond to it.

Sophia contingens

I’m digging through old posts where I mentioned sophia, looking for a Nietzsche quote on taste, where he links taste to wisdom. One striking pattern: a great many of these posts were abandoned but kept private (as opposed to left in draft form, which is what I generally do with with writing I think is good, but is still too strange and vulnerable.) It appears the topic of sophia inspires me in difficult directions.

Since I appear not to have done it already,  below is a  quotation chord on wisdom and taste. These quotes are some of the principle sources for my central belief that philosophy can — and ought to be — regarded as a design discipline, whose purpose is existentialist (taking full responsibility for our own being and actions) and whose methods are pragmatist (that ideas are best understood in their uses, rather than in their definitions). A good philosophy — one that is useful, usable and desirable — helps produce an enworldment that helps reality seem understandable, manageable and worthwhile, and which, like any good tool, disappears in its ready-to-hand use, but is beautiful when contemplated as a present-at-hand artifact. A sense of reality that feels chaotic, irrational, doomed, hostile or depressing ought to be critiqued and dissolved in skeptic acid to clear ground for a redesign and consequent religious conversion. We do not have to inhabit a confusing, chaotic, hell, unless we cleave to naive and malfunctioning philosophies that tell us we must.

*

“Blessed are those who possess taste, even though it be bad taste! — And not only blessed: one can be wise, too, only by virtue of this quality; which is why the Greeks, who were very subtle in such things, designated the wise man with a word that signifies the man of taste, and called wisdom, artistic and practical as well as theoretical and intellectual, simply ‘taste’ (sophia).” — Nietzsche, Assorted Opinions and Maxims

*

“The sense of taste has, as the true mediating sense, often persuaded the other senses over to its own view of things and imposed upon them its laws and habits. One can obtain information about the subtlest mysteries of the arts at a meal-table: one has only to notice what tastes good, when it tastes good, what it tastes good after and for how long it tastes good.” — Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow

*

“Change in common taste is more important than that in opinions; opinions along with proofs, refutations, and the whole intellectual masquerade are only symptoms of a changed taste and most certainly not what they are so often taken to be, its causes. How does common taste change? Through individuals powerful, influential, and without any sense of shame — who announce and tyrannically enforce… the judgement of their taste and disgust: thus they put many under pressure, which gradually turns into a habit among even more and finally becomes a need of everyone. The reason why these individuals sense and ‘taste’ differently is usually found in a peculiarity of their lifestyle, nutrition, digestion… in short, in their physis {nature}: they have the courage to own up to their physis and to heed its demands down to its subtlest tones. Their aesthetic and moral judgements are such ‘subtlest tones’ of the physis. — Nietzsche, The Gay Science

*

“The word ‘taste’ has perhaps got too completely associated with arbitrary liking to express the nature of judgments of value. But if the word be used in the sense of an appreciation at once cultivated and active, one may say that the formation of taste is the chief matter wherever values enter in, whether intellectual, esthetic or moral. Relatively immediate judgments, which we call tact or to which we give the name of intuition, do not preclude reflective inquiry, but are the funded products of much thoughtful experience. Expertness of taste is at once the result and the reward of constant exercise of thinking. Instead of there being no disputing about tastes, they are the one thing worth disputing about, if by ‘dispute’ is signified discussion involving reflective inquiry. Taste, if we use the word in its best sense, is the outcome of experience brought cumulatively to bear on the intelligent appreciation of the real worth of likings and enjoyments. There is nothing in which a person so completely reveals himself as in the things which he judges enjoyable and desirable. Such judgments are the sole alternative to the domination of belief by impulse, chance, blind habit and self-interest. The formation of a cultivated and effectively operative good judgment or taste with respect to what is esthetically admirable, intellectually acceptable and morally approvable is the supreme task set to human beings by the incidents of experience.” — John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty

*

“One of the most gifted scientists I know, Dr. Jerry Edelman of Rockefeller University, who became a Nobel Laureate in his early thirties, told me that he is convinced that the instrument of discovery in science is not mathematics; it is taste. And what he meant was that there is an order to everything in life — an order to the universe, an order in our bodies, an order in the structure of all things. And what is taste but an intuitive sensing of that order which takes the innovative scientist beyond his knowledge to a new truth, a new frontier. That is why the breakthrough scientist is essentially a poet with an insight into what must be and the imagination to reach that new frontier with a theory, an idea.” — Bill Bernbach, legendary advertising man

*

“What, I ask to begin with, are the characteristics of a good scientific theory? Among a number of quite usual answers I select five, not because they are exhaustive, but because they are individually important and collectively sufficiently varied to indicate what is at stake. First, a theory should be accurate: within its domain, that is, consequences deducible from a theory should be in demonstrated agreement with the results of existing experiments and observations. Second, a theory should be consistent, not only internally or with itself, but also with other currently accepted theories applicable to related aspects of nature. Third, it should have broad scope: in particular, a theory’s consequences should extend far beyond the particular observations, laws, or subtheories it was initially designed to explain. Fourth, and closely related, it should be simple, bringing order to phenomena that in its absence would be individually isolated and, as a set, confused. Fifth — a somewhat less standard item, but one of special importance to actual scientific decisions — a theory should be fruitful of new research findings: it should, that is, disclose new phenomena or previously unnoted relationships among those already known. These five characteristics — accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness — are all standard criteria for evaluating the adequacy of a theory. If they had not been, I would have devoted far more space to them in my book, for I agree entirely with the traditional view that they play a vital role when scientists must choose between an established theory and an upstart competitor. Together with others of much the same sort, they provide the shared basis for theory choice.” — Thomas Kuhn, “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice”

*

“To be sure: among scholars who are really scientific men things may be different —  ‘better,’ if you like — , there you may really find something like a drive for knowledge, some small independent clockwork that, once well wound, works on vigorously without any essential participation from all the other drives of the scholar. The real ‘interests’ of the scholar therefore lie usually somewhere else, in his family, say, or in making money, or in politics; indeed, it is almost a matter of total indifference whether his little machine is placed at this or that spot in science, and whether the ‘promising’ young worker turns himself into a good philologist or an expert on fungi or a chemist: — it does not characterize him that he becomes this or that. In the philosopher conversely, there is nothing whatever that is impersonal; and above all his morality bears decided and decisive witness to who he is — that is, in what order of rank the innermost drives of his nature stand in relation to each other.” — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

*

“Consider how every individual is affected by an overall philosophical justification of his way of living and thinking — he experiences it as a sun that shines especially for him and bestows warmth, blessings, and fertility on him, it makes him independent of praise and blame, self-sufficient, rich, liberal with happiness and good will; incessantly it fashions evil into good, leads all energies to bloom and ripen, and does not permit the petty weeds of grief and chagrin to come up at all. In the end then one exclaims: Oh how I wish that many such new suns were yet to be created! Those who are evil or unhappy and the exceptional human being — all these should also have their philosophy, their good right, their sunshine! What is needful is not pity for them! — we must learn to abandon this arrogant fancy, however long humanity has hitherto spent learning and practicing it — what these people need is not confession, conjuring of souls, and forgiveness of sins! What is needful is a new justice! And a new watchword! And new philosophers! The moral earth, too, is round! The moral earth, too, has its antipodes! The antipodes, too, have the right to exist! There is yet another world to be discovered — and more than one! Embark, philosophers!” — Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Conceiving a better world

A philosophy is the total repertoire of moves a mind knows how to make in its efforts to make theoretical, practical and moral sense of the world, to enworld itself.

A well-designed philosophy choreographs these moves into some kind of cohesive and enduring whole that renders life itself intelligible, manageable and valuable. In other words we have a sense of what is true, possible and good for us in the world.

To do philosophy is essentially attempting to acquire new moves, usually by way of tackling a perplexity that feels relevant or urgent but which resists thought. We move guided only by intuition in a region of inconceivability (“here I do not know how to move around”) in order to conceive a new way to navigate it.

The moves themselves are not directly perceived or grasped, because these moves are, themselves, perceiving and grasping. To try to understand them is like trying to see sight or hear hearing. We know what they are by what they do.

Imagine if we humans could acquire new organs of perception that allowed us to experience new, previously undetected phenomena in the world around us.

The miracle of philosophy is that we can, and routinely do, acquire new faculties of conception that allow us to experience new, previously undetected truths, possibilities and value in reality.

And these faculties engage intuitions in ourselves that we frequently dismiss, deemphasize, marginalize, suppress or even oppress. We have no idea what to do with them, so we neglect them, ignore them, push them out, relegate them to insignificant noise.

In a very importance sense, when we learn what to make of our world, we simultaneously learn what to make of ourselves. When make new sense of the world, we make new sense of ourselves, too. The reverse is true as well: when we make something new of ourselves by welcoming marginalized, suppressed intuitions and integrating them into our philosophies, new possibilities of the world open up for us: new things we can understand, new things we can do and make and say, and new things that can matter to us because they are good, beautiful or momentous.

Likewise, if our world feels bad to us, if it is chaotic, irrational, unmanageable, doomed, evil, oppressive or worthless philosophy gives us a completely new response. The unphilosophical mind takes (with its limited repertoire of conceptions) its ugly perception and interpretation of the world as a direct perception of an ugly reality, and selects from the handful of possible responses its limited repertoire of conceptions can imagine, and these responses are saturated with valuations tinged and constricted by its limited repertoire of values.

The philosophical mind, knowing the degree to which our experience of reality is conditioned by philosophy, knows that philosophical inquiry can call any belief into doubt if it examines it with sufficient intensity. Skepticism is a universal philosophy solvent, that can be used to break down any understanding and dissolve it into perplexity. Perplexity clears ground for new philosophy.

Between the destructive power of skeptical critique and the constructive power of philosophizing, we have much more space for changing our shared world than most of us realize.

Entertaining ontology designing

Follow up email to Nick on ontological designing:

Ok, I’m starting to like this paper, and I’m re-considering my initial resistance to situating myself within this school of thought. Her third sphere of ontological designing, “ontological designing of systems of thought, of habits of mind,” is exactly what I am proposing, and I do accept all her emphasis on coevolution (“While we as humans design buildings, they also design us.”) as true and relevant. 

I think the difference between my view and Willis’s is I believe that it is our personal responsibility to assert our own enworlding intuitions and thoughts against simply being passively enthinged by what surrounds us. Just as existentialism grew out of Heideggerian ontology, I am “existentializing” ontological designing by looking at personal self-responsibility within a context that accepts all the same truths Willis presents here. 

The core measure of self-responsibility is the quality of one’s own “enworldment experience”. Is the world clear, maneuverable and valuable to you, or is it murky, paralyzing, and worthless/doomed? In other words, did you design your enworldment for usability, usefulness, and desirability, or did you passively or prematurely accept an enworldment that falls short (or worse, a social enthingment)?

My passionate belief is that we absolutely must start with what is experience-near (our own lives, our own active philosophies), physically-proximate (our own tools and places) and socially-connected (our actual relationships, especially our most dialogical ones) and gradually spiral outward to enclose widening peripheries. To believe we must fix what’s way out there, everywhere — the environment, society, politics, other people’s beliefs — is ontological designing’s version of existential bad faith, an attempt to evade self-determination with attempts at other-determination.

Please notice my language improvements. Heidegger’s hideous language has got to go. Everyone seems to want to preserve his terms, but this is the awkward language of discovery. It’s been nearly a century and its time to refine. There will be no “worlding” or “thinking” on my watch. Enworldment, and enthingment is vastly better, aesthetically and descriptively.

Kant’s questions

In Critique of Pure Reason Kant famously listed his primary questions:

All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the three following questions:

  1. What can I know?
  2. What ought I do?
  3. What may I hope?

I find it odd that Kant took such a moralistic angle on his actions and hopes. Why are they framed in terms of ought and may, when they could have been more neutral questions of pure capability? Why not ask what can I do? What can I hope?

I’m sensitive to these kinds of relationships, especially in the ways they can get confused when combined — most of all when that sneaky and garrulous character, the what, starts insinuating himself in questions where he might not be as helpful as he claims to be. The what is pretty glib — a lot of talk, and little action.

In my little 9-page chapbook (which outlines the basic forms of my own enworldment) I permute intuition and object and identified nine combinations. But each of these combinations can themselves be the objects of other intuitions, and those complex combination can also be objects, and so on.

  • Intuiting-what knows the what of is, as fact.
  • Intuiting-what knows the what of can, as method.
  • Intuiting-what knows the what of ought, as ideal.
  • Intuiting-how does the how of can, as ability.
  • Intuiting-how does the how of ought, as grace.
  • Intuiting-how does the how of is, as technique.
  • Intuiting-why cares the why of ought, as value.
  • Intuiting-why cares the why of is, as taste.
  • Intuiting-why cares the why of can, as purpose.