Category Archives: Judaism

I, Thou, We

We is an immanent-transcendent hybrid.

In any We there is immanent I and transcendent Thou. Each participates in the We and collaboratively brings it to life.

Both individualism and collectivism misses part of the picture and in practice alienates self from other, or the self from self.

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Most marriages are either two legally-joined selves who remain alienated from each other, or one self-alienated self wholly dedicated to another self. And most people believe these are the only two options. Love can’t happen where there is only fairness or altruism.

Consequently, many are wedded, but few are married.

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It is a theological mistake to treat God as as a Thou. God is All, and therefore Thou — but not only Thou.

Distributed divinity

My theology is one of distributed divinity.

Every person is a swarm of divine sparks of intuition seeking pluralistic unity in a self — I. Every self seeks pluralistic unity with other selves — We. And each We seeks ever greater scales of pluralistic unity — We expanding toward and beyond the bounds of universality.

This my understanding of the meaning of the “raising the sparks” at the heart of Kabbalah.

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Distributed divinity is politically enacted through distributed judgment in all its various forms (liberal-democratic, economic, cultural, etc.)

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Any group who aspires to centralize judgment around its own ideological convictions of what is true and just suffers from collective hubris.

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I believe with the Greeks that tragedy is the fate of hubris.

I understand comedy and tragedy to be a matter of perspective.

Tragedy is hubris experienced from a first-person perspective (I or we).

Comedy is hubris witnessed from a third-person perspective (he, she or they).

Whether something feels playful and comic or serious and tragic has everything to do with whether it pertains to you as a first-person being or whether you detach yourself and view it from a third-person vantage.

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Staying aloof, refusing to engage in the first-person, and viewing what others take seriously as comic — these are all ways to savor power and invulnerability.

This is why we mock enemies with a smile.

A smirk of this kind says “I don’t have to take you seriously”.

A punch in the face says “Yes you do.”

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Revolutions are what happen when words stop working.

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Especially right now, decent people must do their part to make words work.

To make words work, we must really listen to reason, which means seeking the validity of other views, not dismissing, condemning or mocking them.

We must seek persuasion, and settle for nothing less. We must approach others as equals, and try earnestly to persuade them, while remaining open to being persuaded ourselves. This is entirely different from convincing ourselves that we are right by making arguments that demonstrate to our own satisfaction the superiority of our own view. It is also different from polemically bludgeoning another person until they surrender just to make the bludgeoning end.

And when seeking to persuade, never forget that nobody is fooled by feigned listening. Forced politeness is never mistaken for real respect. If you can’t find it in yourself to respect the other, don’t talk to them, because it will make things immeasurably worse. The use of pretend listening and faked respect as rhetorical tools — liberal “dialoguing” of the Al Gore variety has insulted and alienated at least two generations of conservatives, and it must stop or progress will continue to reverse.

Reason only works when it is underwritten with authentic respect and equality.

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If you can’t see how you can possibly be wrong — if you can’t understand how someone could believe what they do — if you cannot imagine changing you mind on on some moral matter — none of these are evidence of anything other than a personal incapacity — an incapacity that can be overcome through dialogue.

We never see how wrong we are — or how much more right we can be — until the very instant an epiphany hits and we suddenly and spontaneously conceive an insight that, just a moment before, was inconceivable.

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Faith in dialogue has superseded my commitment to all other particular beliefs.

My Judaism is existential.

Golden Means

It is interesting that the Golden Mean can refer either to the Aristotelian Mean or to the Golden Ratio.

The Aristotelian Mean situates virtue in the middle or a moral continuum with deficiency at one extreme and excess at the other. For instance the virtue of courage is found between the deficient state of cowardice and the excessive state of rashness.

A similar idea is present in the Kabbalistic Sefirot, where attribute of God are presented in complex balance with one another. For instance Gevurah, “severity” is balanced with Chesed “love”. If these two attributes fall out of balanced relation they cease to be Gevurah and Chesed but instead degenerate into hatred or sentimentality.

In some forms of Chassidism, the mean between Chesed and Gevurah is not precisely at the mid-point. The ideal is to lean toward Chesed. It seems the same idea could be applied to courage, that perhaps the ideal is tilted toward rashness.

A crazy part of me wants to suggest the ideal point is not at the 50% point, but in fact at the 61.8033988749894…% point.

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I would like to propose that the virtue of responsibility falls between limitless obligation and limitless freedom.

But it is interesting to ask: in this virtue mean which extreme would be the deficiency, and which the excess? Is excess taking for oneself too much freedom? Or is excess taking on too much obligation? If there is a preferable tilt, which way does it go?

Enceptive-synthetic

Conceptive understanding is a matter of presequence: given some particular fact, to what questions can it be understood to be an answer? This is hermeneutic meaning.

Synthetic understanding is a matter of consequence: given some particular fact, what facts follow, logically and or causally? This is pragmatic meaning.

But “what follows” is determined by (enabled and limited by) what questions we can meaningfully ask. Conceptive understanding is what makes live questions live, what animates our asking, what invests a search with urgency.

The primary and universal givens and questions of mundane human life — practical questions concerning other people, faces, animals, natural and artificial objects, dwellings, terrains, emotions, dispositions, intentions, and so on — are universal because all people are concerned with them. Upon these, questions of biological functioning hang. “What is this?” “What can I do with it?” “Is it dangerous?” “Can I use it?” “Can I eat it?” “Should I get away from it?” “Should I approach it?” “Can I break it into pieces?” “Can I make something out of it?”

From these primary givens all manner of complex synthetic understandings can be built up. These ramifying, interconnected syntheses form systems.

Sometimes synthetic systems will “click” and a gestalt will emerge from a system. One suddenly intuits the system as a whole. Or, better, one intuits a whole together with its parts, as an articulated whole. In such cases we develop a complementary mutually-reinforcing conceptive-synthetic understanding.

(Philosophers, especially, love conceptive-synthetic understandings, though they rarely foreground this taste and instead simply look through it at their various objects of thought. But this is how conceptive understandings essentially are: they are not themselves objects of thought, but instead mediate our thinking and produce some sense of objectivity. This makes them impossible to think about if we expect all thinkable entities to be mental objects. Synthetic understanding, failing to find graspable elements to connect, makes an objection: “This does not compute.”)

Conceptive understandings are not necessarily limited to synthesized gestalts — or at least, they don’t have to be, unless we intentionally limit them. To liberate themselves from irrational notions, many rationalists discipline their thinking to fully accept as true only synthesis-vetted conceptions, and to tune out or psychologically compartmentalize the many other conceptions — such as mental, emotional, verbal and imaginative associations, aesthetic perceptions, superstitions, fantasies, etc. — that happen constantly during any ordinary day. We select some conceptions to take seriously and integrate into our sense of truth, and bracket innumerable others that interfere with our systematic understanding of truth built up from primary givens.

My belief is that there is another unacknowledged ground of truth that complements primary givens, with a conceptive understanding of the ultimate whole. But, being conceptive, it shares that unnerving refusal to be an object of thought, and instead mediates our sense of “everything”. I have called this “enception” — that whole from which all conceptive understandings are articulations. I believe it is precisely from our enception that all conceptive understandings derive their meaning, their life, their urgency, their animation. And so, if we only permit truth in the form of synthesis of primary conceptions, our overall sense of meaning in life can become attenuated or even cut off and starved.

I believe all healthy religious life attempts to discipline thought and action to articulate one’s enception in such a way that one’s sense of truth is animated by it. Ideally, because I am both philosophically religious and religiously philosophical, I want the synthetic truths I build up from primary givens to mirror, as exactly as possible, the gestalt givens that I spontaneously recognize in the world around me.

Or to say it better; I want my angels to ascend all the way from Earth and to descend all the way from Heaven on the same ladder.

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Let’s call the state of full enceptive-synthetic correspondence synesis.

I learned this word from Richard J. Bernstein who died on July 4th this year. May his memory be an ever-expanding, ever-deepening, ever-intensifying blessing.

The roots of givenness

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

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

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

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

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This principle is true, also, for philosophical consumption.

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

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

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What a delightful, playful object a smartphone is!

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

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

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

Our givens have roots.

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

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

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

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

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

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Then the Jewish Labor Committee Haggadah instructs us to say:

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

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

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

Amen.

Thank you.

Who goes first?

My Jewish friend sent me this text:

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

My reply:

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

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

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

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

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

Or, at least, someone other than the Left.


Here is something I know:

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

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

Here is something else I know:

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

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

And this is what I know most of all:

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Nietzsche vs liberal theology

Thinking about religion in an appreciatively or tolerant way from a standpoint that sees itself as having overcome the need for religious belief is the furthest thing from understanding religion.

This religion-appreciating standpoint — which sees intense awe or the excitement of discovery as a genuine substitute for religious feeling and the gestalt shifts resulting from extraordinary science or abnormal discourse as metanoia — believes it pays religion a compliment when it maps isolated bits to scripture to its discoveries.

It is the furthest thing because, at bottom, it is a benevolent nullification of religion as even requiring strong disagreement. Religion need not be attacked or suppressed, when it can be analyzed, disassembled and reintegrated into less fanatical, less absolutist, less violence-inclined worldviews.

Why shouldn’t these worldviews be seen as just as religious as any of the older religious faiths? Who gets to define what is and is not a religion?

I grew up with this antifaith.

My whole life I’ve tried to overcome this religion-tolerant religiosity.

I really may have failed to overcome it.

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And if my thought-dreams
Could be seen
They’d probably put my head
In a guillotine.
But it’s alright, Ma,
It’s life,
And life
Only.

— Bob Dylan

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Early in his career, Nietzsche published a series of essays collected under the title Untimely Meditations. In one of these essays he attacked the liberal theologian David Strauss as a founder of a Christianoid religion safe for — even useful to — “cultural philistines”.

It’s a painful read, because young Nietzsche hadn’t found his voice yet, and this voice is one of unsubtle, unconstrained romantic fury. But the overtness of the anger is also revealing, and it renders visible much of what older Nietzsche learned to hint at from a higher and cooler altitude, resulting in vastly better style.

In this book, he lashes out at a type who resists, as if on principle — but what Nietzsche claims is the instinct of a temperament — what I would call a fully successful enworldment — that is a way of life animated (in the most literal sense of the word) by a unifying conception.

I use the word conception in a sense defined against another term, synthesis. Conception is a mode of comprehension that spontaneously and transparently takes-together experience as givens that, for all the world, seem given by reality itself, even though it is an artifact of relationship between self and reality. Synthesis is a mode of comprehension that consciously puts-together ideas into truth assertions.

My take on Nietzsche’s rage toward Strauss (who is only a stand-in for the cultural philistine type), is that Nietzsche expects far more from culture than cultural philistines will allow. The cultural philistine, according to my interpretation of Nietzsche, is a person occupied with culture (religion, art, philosophy) but from a perspective that forbids authentic participation in culture. Instead culture is taken as collections of artifacts which are somehow valuable and edifying apart from the naivety of the conditions that engendered them. The philistine enworldment that takes them up trusts only syntheses — an external putting-together of these meaningful artifacts, so they are objective possessions of the intellect, not dismemberments of potentially possessing enworldments.

To put it in Kahnemanese, a philistine trusts exclusively in System 2, and treats all System 1 as something to debunk and neutralize. But cultures (if you believe Nietzsche, and my own odd Nietzscheanism) are System 1 enworldments: passionate, committal, participatory, intuitively-immediate enworldments.

At a young age, Nietzsche, I believe, in his philological work took some of these cultural dismemberments and managed to re-membered them in a fuller and more possessing context. In other words, he re-enworlded himself with some ancient faith. This is what forced him out of the university. Because the modern university is itself an enworldment — a sort of oversubject that places academic subjects in mutual relation with one another — and in Nietzsche’s day, that oversubject was Germany’s philistine anticulture, and it needed the services of cultural philistines, not professors whose allegiance in their subject exceeded their allegiance to the universality of the university.

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Today, in the United States of America we are tolerant of religions, as long as the members of the religion keep their priorities straight. Their allegiance to their nation must be higher than their allegiance to their religious faith. If they take their religious faith to be higher, and they allow what (they think) God commands to have priority over what the government commands, they are dangerous fanatics.

And I agree!

But I agree as a religious person who thinks liberalism is not a condition to be imposed by religion — but as a condition religion itself imposes… or at least ought to.

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Many believers would dispute that I am religious.

Cultural philistines would probably find my religion unacceptable, because I sincerely, helplessly, actually believe the things I have come to believe. I can no longer place them against a 3rd-person impersonality, nor can I temper my faith with irony, however much I try.

Some Jews have told me I am a Jew. I’ll go with that.

Random thoughts about theology, symbol and design

Imagine a religion where the congregation convenes and worships by expounding theology in explicit language — instead of worshiping in the beautiful but ambiguous symbolic language of ritual and prayer — with the intention of developing the clarity, depth and inspirational intensity of the theology to the furthest possible extent.

Imagine that, through this practice, the congregation does succeed in its collective goal. Imagine also, that this theological worship enables every member of the congregation to make personal progress, each at their own maximum pace, in their own theological understanding.

What happens?

I will tell you exactly what happens: With each personal epiphany, the congregation shatters and reshatters in protest and counter-protest.

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A clear theology is univocal. It conveys one specific belief.

But, ultimately, every one of us, being unique, has a unique relationship to the infinite. There are as many theologies as there are persons. The better the theology, the less it accommodates more than one theologian — and the less comprehensible it is to all others — and the more intensely it induces apprehension in the uncomprehending.

A religious symbology is polyvocal. The more radically polyvocal it is, the more universal its community. A symbology can be an expression of any number of beliefs of varying depth and clarity.

Even beliefs that clash and conflict when stated explicitly, when expressed in symbol, affirm a harmonious commonality of faith beneath the beliefs.

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Each religious symbol is a miracle of polysemy, a part of an even more miraculous polysemous symbol-system, the symbology of the religion. A change in any one symbol can crystallize a change throughout the system.

But these symbols are not external tokens that can be known through external manipulation.

One cannot understand a symbol as an object, grasped in the hand of the comprehending mind. Assembling and disassembling symbols like Lego blocks and combining them with pieces from other sets might give you some kind of knowledge about the pieces, and you might enjoy the experience of playing with them, but this comes at the cost of understanding their meaning of the symbol within the symbology that engendered it.

A symbology is not an object. A symbology is a subject.

To know a subject, we immerse in that subject, participating in its praxis until we have an epiphany — an epiphany that renders the subject clear — clear, invisible, imperceptible, transparent (trans- “through” + -parere “show oneself”) — so transparent that we experience the world itself through the subject, as made apparent by the subject, as given by the subject.

A subject is an enworldment.

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If we conceive religions in terms of belief content, this produces a different understanding than if we see religions more like languages that put communities in relation with each other, and with ultimate reality.

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Is a dictionary an inventory of every entity English-speakers believe exist? Isn’t that a notion we kicked to the curb when we rejected correspondence theories of truth? I’m curious: When we naively believed in correspondence theories of truth, and adhered to them, does that mean that this restricted our actual thinking and speech? Or did it mean we actually thought and spoke one way, but spoke about and thought about our speech and thought another?

Isn’t it possible that religious people participate in religion one way, but think about and speak about religion another? Likely, even?

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In usability testing, we watch people use an artifact. We don’t thrust the artifact before them, invite them to look at it and ask them for their opinion of it. We give them a task, and they try to use the artifact to accomplish it.

When we ask them about what they did, or why they did it, it doesn’t add up. They say it was easy, when the struggled. Or they make up reasons to explain things they were clearly doing instinctively, unconsciously. They are clearly confabulating.

Looking at a thing and looking through a thing is radically different.

But we keep on thinking: “No, I get the gist of it.”

No, you do not get the gist of it.

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The craft of research-informed design teaches us this over and over and over and over again not to trust our ability to see other perspectives from our own perspective.

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The strangest thing about being human is that we are free. We can spiral our finitude out into infinitude, or we can withdraw our finitude and close it into an impenetrable circle. Anything we prefer to regard as nonsense we can leave nonsensical. Nobody can compel us to pursue its sense, unless we want to. We are free to understand or refrain from understanding. We can, if we wish, even obliterate understanding through willful misunderstanding. Nobody can stop us, or even know for certain what we are doing.

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To say “the author is dead” is not a statement of fact, but a speech act that kills authors. And every day that we celebrate the author’s wake is a day that we, alone, are free to author our own life as we wish. Postmodernism was a disobligating liberation movement, and it succeeded. Nobody is the boss of me.

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To say “God is dead” is also a speech act that kills God.

But, to that I say: Happy Easter.

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There is wisdom in keeping our beliefs private and expressing what matters most symbolically.

Synesis and intellectual conscience

The Greek word synesis – literally, “togethering” – means understanding.

In synesis many forms of bringing together are brought together: bringing together one’s own various intuitions, which bring together various perceptions and ideas into understandings, which are then brought together with the rest of one’s understandings in a general understanding of everything. And once something is understood by one person, it can then be taught to other persons, in a fourth bringing together: shared understanding.

So synesis brings together many diverse kinds of bringing together: intuitive, phenomenal, philosophical, social.

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Many of us are spiritual individualists, whether we think of ourselves as religious worshipers or secular connoisseurs of awe. We work out our own respective salvations, hammer out our own views, in disregard of public chatter.

We undervalue synesis — or even defiantly devalue it on principle. “My relationship with the Universe/Cosmos/Divine is between me and the Universe/Cosmos/Divine, and is not the business of other people.”

This approach works only if we exclude other people from the infinite domain of Universe/Cosmos/Divine. And we can do it, if we choose to — but we do pay a price we might not notice, or at least not recognize as symptoms of our spiritual individualism.

However, when we conceive other people as fellow participants in the Universe/Cosmos/Divine — intrinsic to it and inseparable from it — we understand clearly that this principled spiritual exclusion of other people from our spirituality falsifies the very being of the Universe/Cosmos/Divine. With infinity, every exclusion is a disqualifying impurity.

And further, if we decide to be unsparingly honest with ourselves — if we allow the quiet voice of our intellectual conscience to be heard through the noise of our “narratives”, our explanations, our theorizing, our justifications, and all our other sundry various whistlings- in-the dark — if our standard becomes “do I really believe this?” instead of “can I defend this position?” or “can anyone really prove that I don’t really think or feel this way?” — in other words if we pursue truth, not proof — we must acknowledge the importance of other people and our need to share our world with them.

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We do not want to be alone.

Dishonesty isolates.

The dishonesty that isolates us most of all is that undisprovable inner dishonesty we cower in if we have been damaged by betrayal and spiritual coercion.

Then we are tempted to say, with Milton’s protagonist:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence…

We do not have to stay here.

We can reconceive things — re-conceive ourselves — and walk away from our self-isolating dishonesty. It is not exactly safe, but certainly not lethal, to care.

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.

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

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Duende is the moving simultaneity of love and dread.

List of disbeliefs

If an atheist were to make an exhaustive list of all their disbeliefs, they would likely match the items on my own disbelief list.

Yet, I am not an atheist.

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I share the disbeliefs of atheists, but I share the faith of the religious.

I respect the former, but the latter is more important.

If atheists were able to focus less on the objects of religious belief, and more on the religious subject, they might make progress toward understanding religion. But this is where objective thought hits its limits, and that limit is the uncrossable horizon where there be dragons — irrationality.

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Arthur C. Clarke is famous for saying “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Religion is such a technology.

Accommodations

We casually imagine our souls to be human-shaped. They are not. They vary in shape, scope and density. They are universe-shaped. Our souls are what we mean when we say “everything” and that is why they vary in size.

This is what we mean when we speak of great souls and small souls.

What can your soul accommodate?

Try to conceive an infinitely accommodating soul.

Apprehension toward transcendence

To have a positive relationship with transcendence means approaching reality as something that essentially exceeds understanding. Whatever understanding we do have is unavoidably partial, and closer to zero than infinity.

Around the inside edge of our understanding, in the liminal region between comprehension and total mystery, we can touch, but not grasp truth. Toward whatever we encounter in this liminal region we feel apprehension.

For those with a positive relationship with transcendence, apprehension is conceived as part of one’s relationship with transcendence, unavoidable, meaningful and good, despite being painful.

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People out of relationship with transcendence — that is, those who are alienated from what is beyond their understanding — approach reality as essentially understandable. Whatever defies understanding as not real. While gaps in knowledge are acknowledged, gaps in understanding are not understood.

The liminal region on the inside edge of understanding has no positive value, and is experienced as mere anxiety with no positive value, something to be avoided or eliminated. This anxiety can be attributed to many things, but often it is interpreted as threat or malevolence detected in objects of apprehension.

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A person is a strange being, a third-person object among objects, a first-person subject to oneself, and a second-person fellow-subject to other persons.

Our subjectivity is, to an extent rarely appreciated, our relationship to all of reality, first-, second-, and third-person, and to that of reality which transcends us.

This relationship-to-everything constitutes who we are to ourselves and who we are to other subjects.

If our relationship to transcendence differs greatly from others who try (successfully or unsuccessfully) to relate to us, we ourselves can become, vis a vis the other person, part of transcendent reality, and we can become partially incomprehensible and a source of apprehension.

If the other has a positive relationship with transcendence, they are more likely to recognize this transcendence for what it is and respond accordingly, with the hope of reaching understanding, or with uncomprehending respect.

But if the other is averse to transcendence, and cannot conceive of the existence of anything beyond understanding, the response may be contemptuous or hostile.

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It can be incredibly hard to discern apprehension from malevolence, and often it is a practical impossibility. This is part of the human condition. It is also difficult to communicate when one is only misunderstood, not malevolent.

Nonlinear Golden Rule

If we imagine the Golden Rule not as a flat, linear formula, but a generative iterative process which produces multiple depths or meta-layers of itself — GR1, GR2, GR3, etc. — I find that it trends toward an asymptotic point, GRx, but a point of generality and universality, so general it is practically void, so universal it is boundless. It is nothing more than “Treat real beings as real”. Real, as opposed to what? As opposed to mere extensions of one’s own being.

The formula of the Golden Rule is do to others as you would have done to you. (I think everything that follows also applies to the Silver Rule variant, “do not do to others what you do not want done to you,” but I can’t/won’t math, and that extends to formal logic.)

The first iteration, GR1, has us concretely treat others as we concretely wish to be treated, in accordance with our own personal preferences. But it is immediately obvious that this amounts to an imposition of one person’s taste upon another, and we would not want that done to us, so we must iterate again, this time more responsively to the other, as we would wish if the other were us, as GR requires.

The second iteration, GR2, has us do to the other according to their own preference.

But, now, perhaps the context is not fitting for the action at all, however much it would be preferred were the context right. Or perhaps another action is needed at this time, in this context.

So, GR3 indicates asking what this person prefers at this time in this context.

But does the person even want our involvement in this situation…? How should we even find out? Some might appreciate being noticed and want to be asked, others might want to be noticed but resent needing to be asked, others might hate even being noticed. We must respond the best we can.

Notice, in this GR series, the trajectory moves away from us treating the other as a duplicate of our own self, and involves more and more understanding and responding to them as real and different from ourselves. But what precisely, does this entail? What is the output of the application?

I would argue that here we apply one of my favorite insights from Richard Rorty, that sometimes progress is best viewed as movement away from something undesirable, rather than movement toward some known, desirable, pre-defined destination. The Golden Rule cannot give us any pat readout of an answer regarding what to do, but it can direct us away from what not to do (GR0 or GR1) and set us on a trajectory that to me seems unattainably, but absolutely good, non-relativistically in principle, but thoroughly relativistically in practice.

Good means trying with all our heart, soul and strength to approach GRx in our dealings with all beings in our complex, entangled lives — a universal, boundless, empty — but all-consuming, endless task.

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I’ll also point out that if the Golden Rule is a nonlinear process, it should be expected to share characteristics of other nonlinear processes, most importantly, sensitivity to initial conditions (aka “the butterfly effect”), which entail radical unpredictability of outcome by means of linear formulae. The peculiar thing about the Mandelbrot Set is that each infinitely divisible point in the complex plane produces unique but similar and orderly behaviors, even points separated by an infinitely infinitesimal degree.

Dadvice to Helen

Helen sent Susan and me a page from her Mussar book, and asked “What does this mean?”

For some reason (probably because I was reading Fishbane) I found this question inspiring, and gave a reply that I want to capture here:

First, understand, there won’t be a factual answer. It will be more a tilt of understanding.

The best thing is to struggle. Ask yourself some questions: “The vengeance was toward Egypt via the waters, not toward the waters per se. Gratitude prevented Moses from using waters as an instrument of vengeance. Where have I seen situations where gratitude impedes vengeance?”

Or “Is there always collateral damage in seeking vengeance? Where have I seen it? How can I link gratitude to choosing not to be violent?”

Or “If we have a deep feeling of all-encompassing gratitude, is vengeance even possible at all? Is violence? Is hatred? What happens to our moral and emotional disposition if gratitude dominates our moral disposition?”

That is how to wrangle with sacred texts and commentaries.

Does that help at all? You should spend around 10 minutes meditating in self-dialogue of this kind for every minute you spend reading. Maybe even start by writing yourself questions. The tilt in understanding actually happens in the thrust of questions you discover to ask yourself.

Every factual statement we hear gets its meaning from an implied question. Most misunderstandings can be reduced to hearing a statement as answering a question the statement was not meant to answer. In philosophy we are trying to acquire conceptions capable of posing unasked questions and producing novel answers.