Category Archives: Judaism

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.

*

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.

 

Theology opposed to mundane life and art

By Fishbane’s conception, what I do is not philosophy, but theology:

As with our lives in the natural world, theology is grounded in everyday reality — which includes both our normal experiences in time and space, and those caesural moments when something elemental breaks into consciousness. Moreover, as with the aesthetic imagination, theology is a symbolic form which takes our experiences in the natural world and reshapes them, so that their special qualities and depths may be brought to mind. We have noted that poetry in particular is a deliberate attempt to refocus our attention on daily happenings and their extraordinary dimensions or character. Theology tries to do this as well, but in an altogether unique and intensified manner.

I would put it this way. If in our ordinary experience caesural moments seem to happen against our will or expectation, and artwork tries, both willfully and expectantly, to create experiences of an elemental character, intentionally disrupting our normal habitude and common perceptions, theology tries to transform this perception of elementariness into a sustained way of life and thought. This does not mean living at some abnormal edge of experience, out of touch with our regular sense of things. It rather means taking a particular stand where the elemental and the everyday intersect. In ordinary life, the everyday is generally habitual, and when the elemental breaks through it overwhelms one totally; thus their crossing point is not so much an element of consciousness as the place of a radical opening of awareness. By contrast, the artwork tries to create a fabrication of the crossing point so that one may experience the sights and sounds of existence in a more primary way, and thus allow the elemental to cleanse our rudimentary perceptions for the sake of life. The artist therefore tries to jolt one into perceptions of the elemental so that it will challenge casual consciousness. Artwork is a response to ordinariness, and to the sealing of the abysses through routine mindlessness.

The ideal of theology is different. It tries to stand in the natural world where we live our everyday lives, and to experience all its happenings as points of crossing, where the elemental depths come to some phenomenal perception. Theology thus seeks to orient the self to a twofold dimension: to the numinous qualities of unsayable origin inhering in every moment of existence. So understood, all our worldly experiences are prismatic revelations of a deeper elementariness, the worldly shapes of primal forces received as sensations on our bodies and stimulations in our minds. It is thus through a wholly natural attitude toward the world that a deeper phenomenality is disclosed. A task of theology is therefore to attune the self to the unfolding occurrence of things in all their particularities and conjunctions, and help one remain steadfast at each new crossing point where raw elementariness, radically given, becomes human experience.

Theology is thus situated at the border of the known and unknown, of the manifest and the concealed. It is at this nexus that the self seeks God. For just here there is both a sense of happening and the excess of all happening, extending to the utmost depths of Being and beyond. Theology gathers the import of this awareness and attunes the heart to it, directing one’s attention beyond the perceived appearance of things to the intuited and imagined vastness of all existence, ever generated from the ultimate Source of all things (and actuality). This most primal Depth (beyond the Beyond of all conception), so infinitely disposing, is what we haltingly bring to mind by the word God. We thus gesture the thought-image of a supernal Font of Being; and with it also this more paradoxical, corollary notion: that if all existence is not God as such, it is also not other than God, Life of all life.

It was with such matters in mind that I spoke earlier of theology as a spiritual practice, whose principal task is to guide human thought and sensibility toward God. As the exercise of theological thinking unfolds, it directs the human spirit toward an increasingly focused awareness of God as the heart and breath of all existence, and tries to sustain that focus throughout the course of life. Put differently, theology seeks to cultivate an abiding consciousness of God’s informing presence in all the realities of existence, the infinite modalities of divine effectivity. Hence the world is both what we “take” it to be, in all the moments of ordinary experience, and what we must “untake” it to be, when we relate all things back to their ontological and primordial ground in God.

I have been trying for decades now to convince religious and mystical friends and acquaintances that my primary form of religious practice is thinking. This is inconceivable to many spiritual temperaments whose relationship to thought is different from mine. They conceive thought as something that stands apart from reality, and thinks about things, over and against. For such people, thinking as participation within reality is itself a remote idea that is hard to think about, and with such things we are often tempted to dismiss them as nonexistent. For someone whose existence is oriented to this mode of thinking, this kind of dismissal can feel personal, and when I was younger I did take spiritual anti-intellectualism, however benevolently intended, very personally, as the deepest inhospitality: “there is no room in my world for you, except as a deluded and arrogant fool.”

I’ve long since stopped trying to argue with inhospitality. The thoughts I love are ones who must be invited in and entertained as possible. They are not equipped with argumentative battering rams. They cannot debate their way into consideration. But when someone does invite these ideas into their souls, even as a guest whose stay is temporary, I feel grateful.

Fishbane also gives me a feeling of home. By giving voice to how I exist, proclaiming that this is a way to be — a good way — I feel enworlded with my own kind. I have a place here. I do not have to wander, homeless, seeking hospitality.

With a place of our own, a home, hospitality is something that we can give as well as receive.

Fishbane on metanoia

Michael Fishbane describes metanoia beautifully and precisely:

…But then it may happen that the thoughtless ordinariness of daily life is jolted and gives way to a more elemental specificity. Suddenly something occurs that claims us with an overwhelming intensity, and floods our sensibilities without any accompanying thoughts of its human meaning. Rather, the sense of rupture is all, and it seems as if primordial energies have burst from the depths and ripped the veil normally stretched over things, concealing them in blandness. Such moments may occur within the bounds of nature, as with the uprush of some overwhelming vista or sound; they may happen in the human world, as with the unsettling impact of sudden death or love; or they may happen through the creations of culture, as with the capacity of certain compositions to propel us to the edge of sensibility. We then shudder before what is given to us from the fullness of phenomenal existence, manifesting mysteries of the surge of things at the core of world-being. Just here is an absolute “somethingness,” pulsing in elemental specificity—for we suddenly sense the raw plenitude of existence; but here too, simultaneously, it seems, is a revelation of primordial “nothingness,” yawning like an “inconceivable chasm of invulnerable silence in which cataclysms of galaxies rave mute as amber”—for we also sense that the event is in excess of human meaning. In time we come back to our normal selves, and when we do we more knowingly confirm this happening and ourselves as well, answering the ever-present question “Where are you?” with the confession “Here I am—just here.” On such occasions, consequent to the restabilization of consciousness, a renewed subjectivity is aroused in us (the “here I am”), together with an awakened sense of the great immensity in which we are suffused, now experienced at a particular time and place (the “just here”).

These experiences may fundamentally change our lives; for though the primal depths may close over, and we return to more regular experiences of the world, the “sense of depth” may remain in mind. And if so, one is infused by an awareness of a twofold dimension to reality—the pervasive superflux of existence that underlies our lives, and its more delimited nature on the existential surface of things. Along with this dual sensibility may come an awareness of our role in circumscribing the boundless and naming what exceeds all terms. This hyperconsciousness need not put us at odds with things, for we are also natural beings, and adapting ourselves to the world of nature is part of our acculturated naturalness. But by becoming aware of this matter, we realize that the world is not just there as “a world,” fixed and final (like some substantial datum waiting to be disclosed), but is rather a happening, ever coming into actuality through human inventiveness; and that the self, for its part, is not just “a self,” fixed in nature and proclivity, but a self-consciousness, ever attuned to itself and its worldly involvements. In this way the eruptive, caesural event is kept in mind by a new attentiveness to the contingency of experience, and an attunement to the deeper nature of worldly existence. As this double dimension of existence is infixed in consciousness (as a bimodal mentalité ), our subjectivity and life-world are transformed.

It is the particular poignancy of the caesural moment that changes us and may induce a new mindfulness. For though the initial experiences silenced human expression, the sense of being overwhelmed by the event may give way to a sense of being claimed by it in a fundamental way. It is just that more conceptual (or self-conscious) sensibility which marks the moment with axial significance and calls the person to change their life. This is therefore not only a cognitive insight, through the perception of primordial forces underlying experience; it also carries a value component, through an awakening to the contingency of existence and the command to respond. When the precipitating moment is an elemental event of nature, such as an earthquake or flood, or the cycles of birth and death, and even when the occasion is a historical fact, such as some monstrous evil of deed or neglect, the charged moment palpably calls to our elemental nature and conscience, directing us to: Remember, Do Something, or Have Sympathy; and to the extent that one can fix these revelations in one’s mind through rituals of action and recollection, their moral charge remains, and the claim is continuous and does not fade. How we collect such events in our personal lives, and how we keep them alive, determines the nature of our character; and how a culture does this through education and the selection of events for public recollection affects the moral shape of society.

Sacred Attunement

I’m still hopping around in my reading. I’m now intentionally trying to resolve this painful perplexity around the pre-verbal subject that’s been dogging me for the last several years. When we read or listen or learn and then suddenly, spontaneously see everything differently, detect different patterns and connections, think differently, speak and behave differently, what is going on there? How should we understand what happened? Can we intentionally change this way? How much and how?

Today and yesterday I read Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement, and a few dozens of pages in, it seems to offer some promising possibilities. Plus it reinforces why I came to Judaism in the first place.

The path to theology undertaken here is grounded in the forms of experience found in the natural world. In the course of time, these forms and their linguistic expressions weave a web of habitude; the raw and the real are stifled by routine. There is much to do, one thinks, and it is good to work in a settled sphere with established patterns. But the fissures happen in any case, and in unexpected ways; and then the human being is awakened, if only for the time being, to vaster dimensions of experience and the con­ tingencies of existence. These breakthroughs of consciousness may even transform one’s life; but they are not inherently theological. Their power is to remind the self that the “merely other” of everydayness is grounded in an Other of more exceeding depths and heights. But forgetting is the norm. And thus it is one of the chief virtues of artistic creativity to reformulate the sounds and sights of existence, and thereby create new openings in one’s or­ dinary perceptions. Hereby, the daily routine of life is more intentionally ruptured, and the shapes of perception are experienced as subtended by infinite possibilities—such that our everyday consciousness is experienced as shot through with traces of transcendence. Aesthetic experience gives us these moments of reborn mindfulness on occasion; whereas artists may live more continu­ously in these spaces of awareness, often disconnected from ordinary perceptions.

Theology does something more: it receives these perceptions of transcendence and tries to sustain (and even revive) them in the normal course of life. It does so not solely in terms of the experiences per se, but especially in terms of the duties these perceptions impose. The special sense of le transcendance immanente (in Jean Wahl’s phrase) thus sets the standards of spiritual truth and value, as distinct from l’immanence transcendente of ordinary perception. The result is a bimodal consciousness, whose reality and imperatives are variously formulated by different theological traditions. The lines of these perceptions of transcendence, shin­ing through the forms of worldly immanence, which so variously impress themselves on the human spirit, run outward infinitely. They gather nowhere and everywhere. Theology calls this unsay­able ground God. It is a word that focuses the mind and heart. But it is only a cipher for something more radically Other. This is the transcendence of transcendence. For if the first saves the phenomena, grounding them in something “More” (than mere human perceptions), the second saves God (both the word and the reality) from being delimited by human language and con­sciousness. These matters are central to this work.

…the study of scripture is a venerable spiritual discipline in Judaism that has produced (during more than two millennia) a multifaceted system of Bible interpretation. The results are now not simply received as so many solutions to the plain sense of the text, or to its legal, allegorical, or even mystical character. Rather, these types of interpretation are understood to foster diverse modes of attention to textual details, which in turn cultivate correlative forms of attention to the world and to divine reality. In this way, a network of correlations is proposed between forms of reading texts, by attunement to their nuances and meanings, and forms of reading external reality, by attunement to its manifold details and their significance; and between (both) these various forms and modalities of divine perception, by cultivating types of theological consciousness and attunement. Textual study thus becomes a discipline of ethical and spiritual self-­cultivation; and scripture is transformed thereby from an authoritative corpus of received laws, beliefs, and memories into an authorizing matrix for ongoing meditative reflection and reflective action.”

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.

Infining metaphysics

I was just looking for a good name for my metaphysics, and I was entertaining the idea of an “infinite metaphysics” (infinity, of course, defined in its metaphysical qualitative sense of absolute undefinability, as opposed to the more common quantitative mathematical sense of interminability). I became curious if anyone has already used this term, which led me to Google, and then to Wikipedia, where I, once again encountered Levinas, whose metaphysics profoundly influenced my own.* (see note below.)

In this article on infinity, Levinas is quoted:

…infinity is produced in the relationship of the same with the other, and how the particular and the personal, which are unsurpassable, as it were magnetize the very field in which the production of infinity is enacted…

The idea of infinity is not an incidental notion forged by a subjectivity to reflect the case of an entity encountering on the outside nothing that limits it, overflowing every limit, and thereby infinite. The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity, for it is precisely in the disproportion between the idea of infinity and the infinity of which it is the idea that this exceeding of limits is produced. The idea of infinity is the mode of being, the infinition, of infinity… All knowing qua intentionality already presupposes the idea of infinity, which is preeminently non-adequation.

I realized I’d accidentally stolen Levinas’s term infinition, forgetting where I got it, and went on a search for where I’ve used it without attribution. That led me to this article from 2010, where I laid out my metaphysics — perhaps better than I have since.

I will likely lift this (sans the brand crap) for the book I am absolutely going to start writing — formally, as a book — by years end.

*

Since 2010, much of my effort has been diverted away from uncompromising development of my own personal philosophy, and toward getting along with and making clearer sense to the people around me. I’ve dedicated my professional life to applying my philosophy in design research, with the goal of understanding other people’s implicit philosophies, both in their convergence (alignment), divergence (misalignment), and conflict (incommensurability) and learning to synthesize incommensurable conceptions into new philosophies, designed for groups to adopt so they become able to communicate and collaborate.

I’ve gotten better at explaining what I do, and why I do it (guided by the example of that master of philosophical accessibility, Marty Neumeier), but sometimes I worry that I blunted my best personal thinking in the effort to gain influence among my design peers. I must confess, I read my 2010 article with a substantial amount of envy of my past self, and with dread that I have passed my peak.


  • Note on Levinas’s ethics: Unfortunately, along with his metaphysics, I contracted an infection of Levinas’s ethics, which Levinas saw as the very essence of his philosophy — but which I see as a key component of the current resentment revolution that threatens the future of Western civilization. I hypothesize that Levinas’s is an unbalanced ethic that ignores the finite nature and responsibility of persons. It is perhaps best described in Kabbalistic terms, as Chesed (love) untempered by Gevurah (judgment, aggression, limits). Without such tempering, Chesed leads a person into moral hubris where mortals — not just I but all — are pridefully expected to exhaust themselves like gods with infinite responsibility for myriad beings. This responsibility is discharged in outbursts of unrestrained, impatient, irritable Netzah-infused revolutionary sentiment, with no awareness, much less respect for the good is craves to guillotine. I know this feeling from the inside, and I reject it, not as as an unrealistic, idealistic excess, but as a titanic impulse, an isolated drive taken out of its divine society and set loose — in other words, an evil. Our culture has a strong prejudice that views Gevurah as evil, and deserving of eradication, even in micro-doses, and Chesed as essentially good, so unrestrained, limitless Chesed is the ideal good. The more love we can heap up, and the more we remove limits and let it flood the world, the better that love is. Kabbalists are wiser, and know that good is in the balance among divine virtues, and that vice is virtue out of balance.

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.

Deictic stack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conceptual conflict

My first vivid conceptual conflict was in my senior year of high school.

My art teacher had taught us that red, yellow and blue were the primary colors and that the reason our red and blue paints produced a placenta brown instead of purple was that no paint was perfect “spectrum red” and “spectrum blue”. Later, through experiment I found that a blue-green clashed with red far more jarringly than green (the supposed complement). Then I learned in physics class about additive and subtractive color worked and saw that the red-yellow-blue primaries were simply wrong.

When I tried to explain this to my art teacher she refused to listen, and just repeated her own color theory and insisted it was correct. She would not entertain my perspective, and it was obviously more important to her than my need to be understood, and that alienated me completely. I no longer respected or liked her, not because I decided to change my mind, but because that is what spontaneously happened and I did not know how to prevent it.

This has happened to me many times since. The felt suspicion that someone values a concept, theory or even a tacit philosophy more than their relationship with me is alienating. If I am stupid enough to press it hard enough and that feeling develops into a full-fledged certainty, that is the death of the relationship.

In working relationships, I often tell people explicitly: “I care more about you and our relationship than I care about anything I think.” I also try to keep things light with people I know cannot or will not be able to make philosophical shifts to make room for me. Often I don’t push against the suspicion, because the certainty is too painful for me.

But every 7-10 years I seem to wind up in a work situation where I fall under the power of someone who imposes a bad theory or philosophy on me that I cannot escape and I where no appeal is effective. The resulting claustrophobia, the feeling of asphyxiation, the panic paralysis and depression that results appears to be outside most people’s experience, and so it has no reality or rights. It is treated as oversensitivity or prima donna demandingness. I need protection, but I cannot get it. When I protect myself, I am condemned for it. I no longer apologize, or expect apologies.

I bought myself a talisman to honor this kind of pain.

A few notes about this form of pain:

  • The most concept-dominated people are sentimental, intuitive and non-intellectual, and fancy themselves the furthest thing from conceptual. It’s Dunning-Kruger.
  • The people who inflict the worst suffering for the sake of their own concept-loyalties are paradoxically precisely the people who fancy themselves highly empathic. They seem to know only an empathy of emotions, but not of values or intellect, and to dismiss whatever they do not know.
  • It seems that deep familiarity with concepts and how they work is the only way to have some semblance of control over them and freedom from them. Conceptually unreflective people only think they are non-conceptual because they are so dominated by their concepts that they treat reflection on them as taboo.
  • Fundamentalisms are the exalting of a theory “faith” over realities, even the realities these theories are meant to represent. They worship a concept of God at the expense of God. They love a concept of people at the expense of people. This includes, most of all, their children.
  • Politics today is dominated by of the most titanically concept-dominated, reality-excluding philosophies I’ve ever encountered, and my political anxieties are tied directly to this horror I’m describing.
  • I found this Nietzsche quote comforting: A Jew, on the other hand, in keeping with the characteristic occupations and the past of his people, is not at all used to being believed. Consider Jewish scholars in this light: they all have a high regard for logic, that is for compelling agreement by force of reasons; they know that with logic, they are bound to win even when faced with class and race prejudices, where people do not willingly believe them. For nothing is more democratic than logic: it knows no regard for persons and takes even the crooked nose for straight. (Incidentally, Europe owes the Jews no small thanks for making its people more logical, for cleanlier intellectual habits — none more so than the Germans, as a lamentably deraisonnable race that even today first needs to be given a good mental drubbing. Wherever Jews have gained influence, they have taught people to make finer distinctions, draw more rigorous conclusions, and to write more clearly and cleanly; their task was always ‘to make a people “listen to raison”.’)

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.

Please do not decenter yourself

Decentering one’s self or one’s identity as a response to one’s former egocentrism or ethnocentrism is just this year’s model of altruism.

Altruism is benevolence modeled on a stunted vision of individualism, which it tries to overcome by simply inverting it: Selfish people care about themselves at the expense of others, so unselfish people care about others at the expense of self.

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We’ve experienced the consequences of the altruistic ideal in design.

In the late 1990s and 2000s user experience design (UX) set out to help organizations stop being org-centric, and instead to be user-centric or customer-centric. Organizations who listened to us invested in research to find out what their customers wanted them to be and tried to become that. And everyone got told approximately the same thing, so wherever UX did its thing organizations started looking expertly, unobjectionably, and blandly alike. There was nothing wrong with the solutions — UX had seen to it that all flaws were removed — but there was nothing spectacularly right, either.

The solutions were well-informed, but poorly-inspired.

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I want to argue that an impoverished understanding of personhood is at the root of the uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable but bland products of UX.

But I want to take it further and claim something more general and consequential:

The impoverished understanding of personhood that belongs to altruistic ethics is responsible for uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable relationships incapable of sustaining personhood.

The high divorce rate, the empty depravity of hookups, the shallowness and fragility of friendship, the feeling of victimization and oppression that motivates so many young activists to hunt down and punish whoever is responsible for one’s own bad experience of life (and, it appears, one’s own self-contempt) — all these are caused by a theory and practice of personhood that can only produce empty relationships and selfless, decentered alienation.

This nothingness at the center where somethingness ought to be — nihility — is not neutral or numb or Buddhistically empty or void. On the contrary, nihility torments, aches, rings, glares, and stinks in its absence.

Our last two generations were aggressively indoctrinated in this decentering, altruistic ethic of goodness. They, in turn, are replicating it everywhere they can, motivated by intense resentment toward a world that has put them in this state. Or, as they prefer to put it, out of a selfless love for the oppressed, with whom they identify.

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I would propose as a replacement for this altruistic vision of personhood — self as an inert subjective object, a discrete, body-sized soul which moves around in space expending its limited resources caring for its own self or caring for other selves — with something radically different. I propose that we see selves as radiant centers, comprising smaller radiant centers, and contributing to larger radiant centers. A person is one unit of such centers, possessing a sort of center of gravity, based on the dynamic arrangement of centers at any given moment. Each of these centers, being radiant, extend in their being outward. In other words, they exist. Ex- “out” + -ist “be”.

But these radiant centers, with their own personal “I” center of gravity, also constitute larger units of being, and these larger units are relationships. These “we” relationships change the dynamics within the person, and brings that person to exist within the larger being, as a member of the relationship as well as remaining a person.

*

The meaning of love changes with this reconception of personhood. Love is not so much a love of the other as other, but as a fellow participant in a relationship that is the next scale upward of oneself, a larger self in whom one is a participant — a participant in something real and transcendent to self, within whom one subsists as oneself. In the altruist conception of love the other is the object of one’s love, “I”, the subject, love “you”, the direct object of the love. In this new understanding of love, love is an enclosing subject within which love happens between persons.

*

The meaning of empathy — another favorite word among altruists — changes with this reconception of personhood.

Empathy becomes a participant’s direct perception of the state of the larger beings of which it is a part. It is felt via the shifting dynamics of radiant centers within oneself in response to the changes of surrounding transcendent centers. Empathy is felt, but we lack language for its experiences — we have no “red”, “yellow”, “green” or “blue” — and so the speaking part of our mind (the only part of our mind the speaking mind acknowledges) refuses to acknowledge the reality known to empathy. Empathy is a sixth sense — a mode of perception, experienced with immediacy — and it is undeniably real to those who accept its reality.

Empathy is the furthest thing from intensely imagined feelings of others, or the reaction one has to stories of other people’s suffering. What is called empathy today is more often just emotions generated by vivid imaginations, the virtue of avid readers of sentimental fiction.

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A lot of pretty-sounding Jewish and Christian platitudes make very new sense when heard with ears that hear this way. In marriage we become one in flesh. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Christian idea that the Church is the bride of Christ. I even recognize this vision in Alain de Lille’s formula: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Seen this way, each center is one of infinite sparks of God, who approaches God by participating in ever-expanding nested scales of radiant being.

So, forget altruism. We do not give ourselves up in order to have the other. We give up the limits of our discrete, body-sized soul in order to participate in larger and larger personhood, and it is this alone that makes life lovable, because this participation as persons, in new, larger persons is what love is.

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By this logic:

  • We should stop telling our children “You are not the center of the universe.” Instead tell them “You are not the only center of the universe.”
  • We should stop doing user-centered or customer-centered, or any-centered design. A better ideal is polycentric design.
  • We should not decenter ourselves. We need our centers! We should polycenter ourselves.
  • We should absolutely not tell other people to decenter themselves. We may invite them to polycenter — as I am doing here, now.
  • We should not express love as “Not for me, but for you, alone.” We should instead express it as “Not for me, but for us, together.”
  • We should not treat gifts as transfers of ownership from giver to receiver. We should instead see gifts as investments what did belong to me, alone, now belongs to you as a member of we.
  • An identity should not be viewed as a classification that makes one person the same as another. Identity is identifying oneself as a member of a group, within whom one subsists. Identity is something we do, and it is not something another person can do to another — at least not respectfully.
  • We are never more self-centered in our small body-sized self than when we refuse to hear another perspective offered to us in good faith, but instead cling to our own omniscient already-knowing. Clinging to altruism does not make us less selfish, it destroys our selves, the very being who can love and be loved.

Transcending the axial religious worldview

Susan and I have been having very fruitful arguments over the universality of ethical principles. We’ve been spiraling in on what it is exactly that makes me actively pro-religion, but hostile — almost panicked — toward so much of conventional religious thought.

Below is an edited and slightly expanded version of a series of texts I sent her this morning.

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My concern is this: the worldview common to religions of the Axial/Ecumenic Age (which includes rabbinic Judaism) is a really well-crafted philosophy. It gives its adherents a well-balanced sense of clarity, ethical guidance and an intense influx of meaning.

The only real tradeoff (not experienced as a tradeoff at all by most religious people) is that this worldview is not acceptable or accessible for everyone. I’ve always been one of those people. So are the friends I most enjoy talking with.

Most of them are atheists because the conception of God and religiosity in general given in this worldview fails to resonate with any needs they feel, and the preliminary steps into the worldview offend their intellectual consciences. They haven’t found a conception of God that they can believe in, and they’ve seen many conceptions that repel them, so they do the only decent thing: they refrain from belief, or reject it and remain pessimistic that there’s any value to be found in it.

But for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to fully reject religion. I’ve kept digging into it, even when I’ve been disturbed by much of what I found. Through this process, I’ve discovered-learned-developed/instaurated an alternative religious worldview that is compatible with existing religious traditions (especially Judaism), but which has accomplished this by re-conceiving who God is, what religion is and does, what relationship is possible with a being who is essentially incomprehensible, and what it means to share a common faith (even when factual beliefs differ drastically).

I believe this new perspective on religion could address inarticulate needs many atheists have, and presents religion in a way that doesn’t interfere with their commitment to scientific rigor, avoids offending their sensitive and rigorous intellectual consciences, and can be authentically believed as true.

There is a conflict, however, when I try to share this newer worldview to people who have adopted the axial religious worldview, they hear it and say stuff like: “Sure, whatever, but that’s just philosophy.” Or “That’s just abstract thought, and I don’t feel God in it.” Even if they want to (which they rarely do), they cannot conceal their condescension.

My worldview is compatible with theirs, however — but to understand how, it is necessary to understand alterity (radical otherness) and grasp why the recognition they expect isn’t happening. Further, it is crucial to understand how this alterity is essential to a relationship with a God who is real, and not largely imaginary or conceptual. Any relationship with God must include awareness of God’s alterity and insights into what it is like to encounter it.

Religion is not only — even primarily — about being united in a common understanding and experience — it is about participating in an infinite being who is also largely alien to us and whose alterity arouses intense apprehension in our hearts, or to put it in more traditional religious language — who inspires dread as well as love.

Why do I think I have the right to make claims like this? When you are in a tiny minority, you don’t find commonality in the mainstream, and this is doubly so if the minority you belong to is not even acknowledged to exist at all. To overcome the isolation and loneliness of this condition, you have no choice but to learn to relate to otherness.

But if you are in a majority, the commonality you enjoy becomes so normal to you that you forget that it is not just a universal fabric of reality. And you are satisfied with that universality, even if you must exclude others to enjoy it fully. This complacence is impervious to argument. The only thing that overcomes it is courageous love.

(This is the line of thought that originally caused me to recognize and feel intense solidarity with other people with marginal experiences and perspectives,  and motivated me to understand the dynamics of power, knowledge and hegemony. This is why I have insight into the principles of critical theory that the progressivist upper class has appropriated in order to legitimize their hegemonic dominance. It is very devilishly clever. It connects with a very deep and important truth, but subverts it, perverts it, and transforms it into a tool for the most powerful to dominate, intimidate and humiliate the powerless in the name of justice.)

Reflection on reflection

When I, as a subject, look into a mirror I see me, as an object.

When I reflect on this experience, I realize that it is still my subjective I who sees: what stands out to me when I look at my objective me-image is quite different from what another person sees.

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The relationship between objectivity and subjectivity is best conceived topologically.

Objective understanding is subjectivity turned inside-out. The world I know is my own known world, overlapping all others, yet unique.

Subjective understanding is objectivity turned inside out. By understanding another person and looking out through this understanding, my own world changes. A shared world — a world that is ours — emerges.

Reflection is the topological operation of perspective eversion. It flips perspective inside-out, objectifying subjectivity and subjectifying objectivity.

*

When I understand a reality made out of unique points of subjectivity, each the object of all others, and some the fellow subjects of other subjects — a spark of God sees infinite fellow sparks of God.

It is not a matter of belief. It is matter of commitment to a way of knowing, a faith, a way to understand.

*

This is a good way to understand, so this is how I choose to understand. I could understand differently, of course, and understand in a way that undermines this way. That way could be undermined, too. But so what?

But why break something just because it is breakable? Since when does good necessarily mean indestructible? The things I love most in my life inspire me to care for them, protect them, cultivate them, renew them. Why should truth be any different?

If good does not mean indestructible, what does it mean?

Good means that it helps me make sense of what seems most relevant and it guides my actions in an effective way. Good also means that I don’t have to think about thinking. mMy thinking does not get in my way. My thinking functions invisibly, intuitively, naively, shaping my perceptions, focusing my attention, helping me detect meaningful connections and giving me words to communicate it all. But most of all good means it makes life itself seem valuable and worth great effort. Good overcomes nihilism without annihilating it.

The good news about destructibility, though, is if our faith is not good, and produces nihilism, confusion, dissipation, resentment, hopelessness, isolation, alienation, paranoia, anomie, and awkward theoretical contraptions that require distracting meta-thinking to operate and crank out truth assertions and supporting arguments  — we can always just interrogate the beliefs and theories of that faith into oblivion. No truth bears infinite scrutiny, and often a surprisingly slight amount of questioning does the trick. (This is why ideologies almost always prohibit questioning.)

The fragility of faith means we can always scrap  miserable visions of the world and redesign them to produce better lives, better worlds.

Genre Trouble

Thank you Richard Rorty:

“The more original a book or a kind of writing is, the more unprecedented, the less likely we are to have criteria in hand, and the less point there is in trying to assign it to a genre. We have to see whether we can find a use for it. If we can, then there will be time enough to stretch the borders of some genre or other far enough to slip it in, and to draw up criteria according to which it is a good kind of writing to have invented. Only metaphysicians think that our present genres and criteria exhaust the realm of possibility. Ironists continue to expand that realm.”

1) I love this quote. I have extreme trouble coloring inside the lines of preexisting genres, given the fact that my worldview is a synthesis of an esoteric and Nietzschean perversion of Pragmatism, a hall-of-mirrors reflective design practice, and an idiosyncratic take on religion bordering on universal heresy (which is why I’m Jewish). Consequently, I have little hope of (or interest in) writing a book that does not generate a genre. This is why I will need to continue to self-publish. I feel a combination of impatience and panic when it is suggested that I need to nail down my audience, as if they already exist, and write to them, for their sake.) Also, nobody is going to craft a book to my standards. I may need to buy letterpress and bookbinding equipment.

2) To find a use for a new kind of writing… The above passage was embedded in an extended pragmatic exploration of Derrida’s writing. Rorty suggested that we forget what Derrida was asserting, and instead ask: what was he doing with his writing? I like translating this to: Forget the content — what does his genre want to do, and why? He is doing something new with writing, and to allow it to do its new thing for us we have to release it from the purposes and rules governing the genre(s) of philosophy.

3) Point 2 is getting very close to my interests (which is hardly surprising given that Rorty is the proto- pragmatist pervert). To create a new kind of writing, then find a use for it — is very much, to my designerly eyes, like intellectual R&D. This follows the pattern of how many technologies are developed, especially very new and unfundable ones. Some playful or obsessive technologist in love with a problem or a material intuits a possibility and follows hunches to produce some ingenious invention. This invention inspires other similar types — lovers of engineering problems — to push it further, just to see what they can get it to do. Eventually, the inventing proliferates, refines and develops to the point where it attracts the attention of some practical mind who sees in this invention the key to solving some specific real-world problem. Now a technology is ready to cross the threshold between technology and product.

4) What kind of mind escorts a potentially useful technology through the journey that transforms it into a useful, usable and desirable product and out into the marketplace? Lots of people try to do this work. The ones who are best at shaping technologies into products (a.k.a. goods or services) that fit human needs, desires and life-practices are designers. Designers (whether they are called that or not) are the people who see human life as vast, complex, often messy, systems, and understand that products are subcomponents of these human systems. The success of a product hinges on how readily it integrates into these human systems. (Increasingly designers are considering more than end-user integration, and are getting involved in manufacturing, distribution, promotion, merchandising, purchase, use, service, disposal, recycling, etc.) Wherever human and nonhuman systems are meant to integrate, designers increase the chances the integration will succeed. Some designers see a technology and immediately grasp its product potential, others keep up with technologies of various kinds so when they are given a human problem they can play matchmaker between this problem and the solutions in their imaginations, still others start with a thorough understanding of people and their lives and learn to define these problems so they inspire solutions from more technological minds. The best designers do all three, and effectively straddle and blur (or, rather interweave and entangle) the lines between technological and human systems.

5) What if we view philosophy as it is done today as technological development? And applied philosophies as slightly more focused technologies carried a step closer to problem types? Is there not room for a discipline that uses design methods (especially HCD, human-centered design methods) to apply philosophical technologies to very particular cases. Such a discipline would research problematic situations and the people, things and contexts that constitute them, define problems to be solved with the help philosophical “technologies”, shape conceptual systems that resolve these problems and develop materials to help an organization adopt the improved, more useful, usable and desirable philosophy? What if we use deep HCD to throw organizational business-as-usual thinking into crisis, so that it clears the ground and opens it into perplexity (what Wittgenstein identified as the philosophical negative-space of “here I do not know how to move around”), upon which a new philosophy can be designed (“to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” as Sellars put it).

6) If I view my problem as a genre problem, I can say I want to write a book outlining a new discipline as the first (at least first self-conscious) product of this discipline. I want to design a philosophy of philosophy design. It will be erected on an assumed metaphysical foundation — a faith — that doing such a thing is not only permissible, but necessary. But, being a designed conceptual product, it will seek voluntary adoption instead of argumentative coercion. It will try to demonstrate that this discipline, viewed in this way, viewed from this carefully designed perspective will be a useful, usable and desirable way for certain kinds of people to live their lives and make their livings, and that (this will be secondary) that organizations that hire and support people who do this kind of work will help generate more usefulness, usability and desirability for its employees, partners and customers.

7) Whatever we call them — Organizational Philosophers? Concept Designers? POV Framers — they will be responsible for:

  • Understanding how different people involved in an organization or part of an organization (department, office, team, etc.) think;
  • How these ways of thinking converge, diverge, harmonize and conflict;
  • What tradeoffs each of these ways of thinking make in terms of what domains of knowledge they do a good job of comprehending and communicating, versus what they must deemphasize, ignore, suppress or neglect in order to have clarity?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of values — what values do they elevate and serve, and what must they deprioritize or sacrifice in order to focus their sense of purpose?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of method — what kinds of action does it guide effectively and what kinds of action does it misdirect, encumber or fail to support?
  • Analyzing what the organization wants to be and to accomplish, and determining what an organization’s thinking needs to help it comprehend, do and care about.
  • Leading the development of conceptual frameworks the organization can use to think together in order to better be and do what it aspires to.
  • Communicate and teach the new conceptual frameworks using various vehicles such as visual models, verbal and visual explanations, taxonomies, glossaries of shared vocabulary, reference materials and training programs.
  • Testing and iterating both the frameworks and the communication/teaching vehicles.
  • Socializing and encouraging adoption of concepts across the organization.

This is what I want to do with my life, and this book will be a justification, a description of how it should be thought about and done, and be a proof on concept of what the profession produces.

Now, this is just me writing about a possibility. I cannot guarantee it will stick, and I’m not even sure I didn’t just derail my original plan for Second Natural, but it is at least getting me closer to what my intuition seems to want me to talk about.

I did not start off meaning to write this post, but here we are.

This is why we read Richard Rorty.

The Mercury Mikvah

Sometimes if I drink too much scotch I will announce the “I am never drinking ever again for a week.”

An ironic worldview permits statements like this. Why not admit that eternally-binding resolves, while being experienced in the moment as permanent, are, simultaneously, recognized in history/biography as temporary?

I will argue that this kind of ironizing is not only permissible but necessary and good, and supportive of a liberal, pluralistic society.

A pluralist experiences the self-evident truth and goodness of their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions against a deeper ground of myriad others who also experience their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions as self-evidently true and good.

Pluralism includes pluralism of scale. A historically conscious pluralist is aware that the plurality of worldviews exists not only individually, but collectively. It pertains not only to individuals, but to cultures, and to the deep interrelationships between individuals and cultures. Much of what was obviously and indubitably true and good in the past is now, to us, absurd, abhorrent and naive — and most of all to what seemed most certain and foundational. The same thing is certain to happen to our present shared convictions and foundational beliefs.

Pluralism includes pluralism of self in time. A self-aware, apperceptive pluralist will count among the myriad others their own past selves, and recall the fact, even if they cannot fully recall the experiences themselves (including the convictions and their attendant blindnesses, which, once unblinded cannot be re-blinded).

Pushing pluralism of self in time further, the most radical pluralist will count as crucially important their possible future selves. They will recall themselves prior to a past change, taking care to remember what that past self understood “everything” to include, along with the field of possibilities that followed from it. And they will recall the shock of epiphany, of change in worldview, of change in what seemed evident, relevant, possible and permanent. The experiential resources needed to anticipate future transformation are drawn indirectly (and negatively) from experiences of past transformations.

Pluralism is empathic. An empathic pluralist will strain to do full justice to their memories of the in-between of worldviews and stretch it out into its own story, in a progression of anxiety, to aversion, to panic, and finally to perplexity, where orientation, definition, method, logic and words fail. They will never forget why so few willingly immerse in this mercury mikvah — this expanse of the worldless-blinds, the liminal void, the rings of ego-solvent Hadean waters, the churning chrome of “seen” blindness — and why those facing it deserve understanding, if not compassion.

And finally, pluralism is reflexive, symmetric and demanding. A committed pluralist will know, with the intensest irony, that they, most of all, fear reentering liminal perplexity. Even with their experiences of before, during and blissful after, even with their firsthand evidence and insights — they will balk like everyone else when the time comes for them to follow their own advice. Those others — they are the ones who need to go in. But, the pluralist will also know, with all the irony they can intentionally summon, that they must keep going back in, and that their only claim to their own kind of truth and goodness is going back in, despite their already-knowing of everything worth knowing.

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My moral alchemy has its own weird metallurgy which transmutes silver, gold, mercury and iron(y).

Susan’s hope, my hope

Susan keeps asking if there might be an upside to the wokeness convulsion our society is undergoing. She hopes it might inspire people to have conversations they might not have otherwise had and to develop real empathy. I’m pretty sure this hope is an expectation widely shared among progressives.

I think the entire project is deformed by a conceptual solipsism that obstructs engagement with actual individuals. Drawing on Buber’s distinction between the social and the interpersonal — the former being the gamelike, rule-bound, role-bound structured interactions among types, and the latter being the rule-transcending, role-transcending dialogical interaction between persons in pursuit of mutual discovery of the uniqueness concealed within one another.

What our current mood does — and this is my primary objection to it — is politicize the personal by hypersensitizing people to categories (roles) and to impose constantly shifting norms upon interactions (rules) which are treated not as innovations in etiquette, but as universal standards of decency, binding not only in present snd future, but also retroactively. The constant changing of the norms, paired with dire and shameful penalties for violating them, and the fact that changes in rules are enforced retroactively leaves people in such a state of horrible tension, self-consciousness and horror at being judged, that even natural behavior, much less the intimate trust and risk required by dialogue is made nearly impossible.

This blend of deeply uncomfortable emotions is misinterpreted as guilt, or as the necessary pain of transcendence. It is stamped out by same mold Christians use to produce repentance, and this is why many former Christian Fundamentalists have become sucked into Progressivist Fundamentalism: it uses the same intellectual muscle memory.

The “dominant” category is eager to demonstrate extreme submissiveness, and the other will rarely resist the temptation to hubristically inflate to enjoy unchallenged dominance.

It is fascinating how a generation who despises, above all, awkwardness and cringy behavior has managed to produce some of the most unbearable spectacles of obsequiousness this century has seen. Everywhere you look intensely nervous, over-friendly NPR-types frantically smile and build bridges of understanding with POC-types, hoping others see their inspiring act and choose to do likewise. They are so unaccustomed to contact with individual personalities, no doubt they believe in this playacting they met a real person and found a real friend. Given the kind of company they find at work and on social media it probably compares favorably. Clifford Geertz’s description of the Balinese concept of lek comes to mind.

So — returning to Susan’s hope — I think that hope is entirely to her credit, and no doubt, she will fulfill it in her own personal actions — but I think most people will simply use this moment to reinforce their Fundamentalist Progressivist ideologies. They will act out their prescribed roles and they will watch other social actors acting out their parts, and everything will conform to the image of the world-in-their-head.

And anyone who arouses doubt, undermines the faith or defies this image and the Truth Idol who rules over it will be punished as severely as possible.

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But!

I actually have hopes of my own.

(Full disclosure: I am reading Yuval’s beautiful annotated translation of the introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

Though few people understand what philosophy is or what it does, what we are undergoing is a philosophical event.

We are witnessing a mass philosophical crisis and deep philosophical shift. It is nothing less than a mass conversion. The problem is: conversion to what…?

What this mass conversion experience might ultimately accomplish — whether the convert is woke or red-pilled — is to help people see for the first time how much metanoia can transfigure experience, and help them understand how much possibility is buried within the world.

This reality is infinite and positively impregnated with new ways to conceptualize, understand, experience and respond to life!

The trick here will be to pry open the closed circle of ideology and open it out into a spiral capable of revering what is beyond it. This will not be easy: Every new convert naturally views their finding of new truth as ripping aside the Veil of Illusion, revealing the True Truth  glimpsed only by an elect few, and so on.

Every new convert awakes into a dream of buddhahood. Every new convert experiences a glimpse of omniscience, sees the world anew through God’s own eyes and experiences the intoxication of intellectual hubris.

It is a long, slow, humbling process to recognize how common this kind of awakening is, and how rare it is for anyone to want to sober up from the thrilling solipsism of apotheosis. (I call this conversion hubris “misapotheosis“.)

The inflowing glory of conversion, however, is better seen as the effect of allowing a little more of divine reality to flood into our lives — along with the awareness that there is infinitely more, and that this can happen repeatedly if we know how to live by that truth.

There are so many days that have not yet broken. — Rig Veda, via Nietzsche

…And most importantly, we must understand the source of these new truths is the uniqueness of every being — not in its identity with other beings, except in its fundamental belonging to the overarching uniqueness constituted of uniqueness: Adonai Echad.

It is through each of us, in our uniqueness, collaborating with unique others, refracting our being through this strangely overlapping interlapping world of ours that raises our sparks and shows us the value of life.

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

Amen.

Meditation on the ten-thousand everythings

….it was said that one god, Hermes Trismegistus, had dictated a variously estimited number of books (42, according to Clement of Alexandria; 20,000, according to Iamblichus; 36,525, according to the priests of Thoth, who is also Hermes), on whose pages all things were written. [Anomalogue: From what I’ve read, Hermes Trismegistus was not a god; the god Hermes is a different being.] Fragments of that illusory library, compiled or forged since the third century, form the so-called Hermetica. In one part of the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille — Alanus de Insulis — discovered this formula which future generations would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” — Borges, “Pascal’s Sphere”

The universe is made entirely of absolutely unique particles, each constituting the very center of the universe. Only from the vantage point of one of these myriad centers can any of the other myriad particles be understood as identical to any of the others.

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“The ten-thousand things” of the Tao Te Ching are also ten-thousand everythings.

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Myriad is a quantitative quality; it means uncountably many. Ten-thousand was traditionally used to represent myriad, but computers have rendered ten-thousand too puny, so now we say zillions or gazillions.

We should not confuse myriad with infinity. Infinity challenges reality at the definitional — de-finition — level, the category level, which alone makes quantity possible. Only a particular viewpoint can render unique things identical.

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Some spiritual people view Liberalism, the coalition of the unique, as shallow and dry, but this has more to do with the prejudices of conventional spirituality than with the depth or richness of Liberalism itself.

The deepest things are cloaked by myopia. Only looking deeply can reveal depth.

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