Category Archives: Philosophy of Design of Philosophy

Sketchy endeavor

I want to lay out a basic vocabulary for my project of approaching philosophy as a design discipline.

*

This is a very sketchy endeavor.

I’m presenting even the philosophy that justifies and encourages approaching philosophy this way as itself something I designed.

This philosophy makes no claims to truth, only to being one good way to understand experience — one that I recommend.

I recommend it on pragmatist grounds, as something good to believe.

It is no accident that it is good to believe because it teaches dissatisfaction with anything that isn’t good to believe, and it practices what it preaches. It iteratively investigates, questions, instaurates possibilities, tries them on, evaluates and compares — and continues iterating until whatever it comes up with is experienced as good.

Good is evaluated in a designerly way. What is evaluated is not (only) the object we experience. More important is the subject of the experience — what the subject experiences as a result of interacting with the object of the design. Liz Sanders provided the essential definition of good design — a good interaction is experienced as useful, usable and desirable. It is experienced as useful if it helps a user accomplish something the user is trying to do. It is experienced as usable if it allows the user to accomplish what they are trying to do with minimal effort, confusion and distraction. It is experienced as desirable if it contributes value of its own (joy, meaning or sense of relationship) to the experience.

Notice the essential relativity of these characteristics. No object in itself can be said to be useful, usable or desirable. Neither can an experience be useful, usable or desirable. No, only when some subject interacts with some object, can that object be experienced as useful, usable or desirable.

*

With philosophy, things get super-weird, and this weirdness has been perplexing me for a long time. Extracting myself from the perplexity has been slow and arduous.

The weirdness hits at three points — the subject of the philosophy, the object meant to be experienced as good, and the medium of philosophy itself that somehow effects this good experience.

You could, of course, conceive the subject of philosophy the person thinking about the words that articulate the philosophy, or the ideas, arguments or claims taken as the content of it, or maybe the method or approach taken in the doing of the philosophy. Any of these conceptions would be much easier, and if simply providing a crisp, clear answer to the question, or if simply enjoying the process of conceiving an answer, these conceptions might be advisable.

My purpose, however is different. My entire conception and experience of existence has been changed by reading, thinking and struggling with philosophy. This conception and experience did not only change while I was focusing on philosophy. The change endured and transfigured absolutely everything, all at once, and in ways I have found incredibly difficult to communicate.

Somehow, because of words I’ve read, my conceptions have changed in a way that has changed my subjectivity — and in a way that preceded bypassed and often defied language. These changes have usually been for the better, and when they haven’t, I’ve struggled with these worse subjective states, wrestled free, or critiqued them to smithereens, until they lost their hold on me and yielded to better subjective states. Across these changes, I’ve tried to retain knowledge of what happened, and what it implies about subjectivity, conceptions, truth and the nature of reality beyond our truth.

I want to account for this extremely strange possibility of subjective change and try to understand how much the changes be undergone in an intentional manner, so that people can make similar changes to themselves and improve their experience of reality.

I am only interested in philosophy primarily for its capacity to produce clearer, more cohesive and expansive conceptions of existence that allow us to understand, experience and respond to our situations effectively without the need to explicitly intercept and interpret them (in other words, think about them spontaneously and second-naturally) and finally to find existence valuable and inspiring.

Somehow, through some miraculous iterative bootstrapping, this iterative construing, evaluating, criticizing, scrapping, restarting process developed into the glorious circular but expanding logic of designing glorious circular, expanding, spiraling logics.

*

Subjectivity is the totality of intuitions interacting within a psyche (or putting it in religious language, spirits interacting within a soul).

Subjectivities are multistable. They can stably self-organize in myriad ways as subjects, capable of effective response to various situations. Some of these subjects are acquired in study of academic subjects taught in school. The personal subject is the personality who modalizes these various acquired subjects and others, and remains a self throughout these modes. When we know another person, that person is learned more as a subject than as some object with known properties.

The goal of philosophy is producing a stable, dynamic, integration of intuitions.

Out of time. More later.

Intuitive multistability

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

This state cannot be reached merely by inner work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith as intuition system

Let’s define faith as an configuration of intuitive faculties (which I will simply call intuitions) within a psyche.

Different intuitions (again, the faculties, not their content) coordinate themselves societally, which produce a certain form of subjectivity, with its own ways of conceiving, perceiving, interpreting, inferring, responding, etc.

Subjectivity can be changed if these intuition systems are reordered.

Religious conversion occurs if an intuition system is radically reordered to a degree that the world itself seems transfigured.


There are at least three notable implications in this way of conceiving faith:

  1. Faith is not belief. Faith is that which does the believing, and it does far more than that. Faith enworlds.
  2. The unconscious is not submerged conscious content. It is the very working of faith to produce, and often re-produce, content. We don’t have suppressed thoughts. We have malfunctioning faiths that keep producing unwanted content.
  3. Because faiths are changeable, we are not stuck with them if they produce ugly, depressing beliefs, ineffective or destructive responses, or utter bewilderment toward our most pressing issues. If our life experience leaves us perplexed, faltering, indifferent or otherwise miserable, and all our attempts to redesign the world around fail for material or political reasons, we can also ask if maybe the problem isn’t with malfunctioning faiths. We can, if we wish, plough these bad faiths under, and try to instaurate better ones that provide us better options to enword ourselves better.

I’ve been arguing for some time that philosophy ought to be redescribed and reconceived as a design discipline, rather than as a search for truth, especially when truth is imagined to preexist out there, ready for excavation.

But, as with all words of a certain kind, philosophy is burdened with connotations that interfere with discussing it in new ways. Philosophy is about thought, ideas, arguments. Same with religion. Religion is about forcing ourselves to accept unprovable if not ludicrous superstitious speculations as true and momentously important. And forget design. Design is about making better things in the broadest sense, and when experiential language is introduced to suggest that the ultimate goal of design is not the objects it shapes, but the subjectivity resulting from interacting with it.

In each case, notice, the source of content is confused with its content.

Philosophy philosophizes philosophies. Design designs designs. Perception perceives perceptions. Intuition intuits intuitions. See the pattern? (I’m curious, though: why doesn’t faith have its verb form? Faith believes faiths?)

The problem here is not with the words.

The problem is at the faith-level.

An objectivist faith everts subjectivist faiths, turning container into contained, concavity into convexity, convexity into concavity, doer into done, intuition into intuition, design into designs, philosophy into philosophies.

Soul and the speaking self

Within the complex society that is your soul, who is responsible for what you do?

Ask your soul, and your speaking mind will speak up. It will talk your ear off about its actions and accomplishments. It will tell you about what its intentions were, how it pursued its intentions, why those intentions were the best intentions.

The speaking mind speaks very convincingly and authoritatively, and sounds for all the world as if it alone decided all these things and carried them out. It speaks so convincingly it believes itself entirely, and because it believes itself entirely, it speaks convincingly.

The speaking mind believes it represents the entire soul when it speaks on its behalf.

Sometimes it forgets it is not the whole soul, itself. It gets out of touch with the rest of the soul. It forgets that there is more to the world than words. It becomes isolated and insular.

The speaking mind can fall into a word world, an existence where only things that can be talked about are real, and anything that can’t be talked about is less than real.

*

Obviously, if you pay close attention to your experience, there is more to a soul than the speaking mind. Besides the speaking mind’s speech, often obscured behind it, there exist myriad spirits, known by their movements and traces, which operate worldlessly and often escape the notice of the speaking mind, and if noticed, often leave the speaking mind speechless. The speaking mind might fumble for words, invent analogies or move it to poetry.

All too often, the speaking mind dismisses these signs, or relegates it to some dull and isolating category: just a reaction, just my imagination, just a feeling, just a passing mood, just a sense — it was nothing.

*

Much of a soul, maybe most of it, is pure instinct, the movements in the soul and movements in the body that function silently and almost autonomously, in response to events around them, completely outside the jurisdiction of speech.

We may be tempted to exclude these tacit and unreflective instinctive movements from full citizenship in the soul. They are not soul, but just bodily reflexes. That is a mistake. They are simply the underclass of the soul. If they went of strike, the soul would lose most of its connection with the body and personhood would grind to a halt.

Then there are habits. These are acquired instincts, those aspects of ourself who run autonomously, as our second nature. Often here, too, we treat habits as unintelligent and simply mechanical. When habit leads a process, speaking mind says “my mind was on autopilot”.

Nietzsche said “Every habit makes our hand more witty and our wit less handy.” This demonstrates the alienation of habit from speech, and demonstration is how habit communicates its existence. The wit of the hand is evidenced in the subtle and unmechanical distinctions and decisions that guide its interactions with the world.

Closely related to instinct and habit is the vast and amorphous class of spirits we call intuition. The line between intuition and instinct and habit is faint and blurry.

Intuitions do most of our experiencing, recognizing, evaluating, connecting and responding.

I — my own speaking mind, that is — likes to divide them into three types: what-intuitions that recognize and relate entities, how-intuitions that act and interact, and why-intuitions that feel value in its many qualities.

The intuitions themselves have responded mostly approvingly to this classification, because they seem to use it in their cooperative activities. In other words, they — I — have adopted this framework and apply it themselves without any verbal bossing from my speaking mind. It is how I intuitively, second-naturally, perceive the world.

*

As a designer, I seek intuitive connections. I want anything I make to link up directly with the tacit citizens of people’s souls, bypassing, as much as possible, the speaking mind. There are many good reasons for this:

  • We function most gracefully when we act wordlessly. When we are forced to verbalize it creates an unwieldy chain of command. The speaking mind introduces a bureaucratic stilted formality to doing that makes it look like the action is being remote-controlled, because that, in fact, is what is happening.
  • The speaking mind often has things it needs to do, and the requirement to issue verbal instructions to eyes and hands interrupts its own fluent speech.
  • When we support direct interactions between our intuitions and things we make, we are able to merge with things so they become an extension of ourselves. The guitar becomes part of our mysterious musical intention and our body and the music. The pen melds our creative, discerning, responding selves through our hands, onto the paper, into the image on the paper. And, I would like to suggest, our wordless understanding infuses itself into words, strung out into sentences, paragraphs, whole bodies of spoken and written thought.

*

Is it possible there is no speaking mind at all, but only a posse of intuitions who have connected to certain words, ideas, concepts that allow them to conceive thoughts? These intuitions have exclusive language privileges?

What would happen if some Prometheus brought language to the wordless intuitions?

Design mindset exercises

I’m thinking about some possible exercises for cultivating a more designerly soul.

  • When asking questions throughout the day, notice whether the question was open- or close-ended.
  • Try to ask as many open-ended questions as possible.
  • Try to get someone to teach you a novel way of understanding something.
  • Test a belief about someone else by asking them to explain to you why they think or feel something, and notice where you were wrong about them.
  • See if you can entertain and feel the persuasive force of something you haven’t fully entertained before.
  • Notice when you agree or disagree with something you hear or read or see, and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Notice when you are feeling anxious or perplexed and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Try to catch yourself before you argue for or against some idea and see if instead you can offer your thinking as an alternative approach to the question at hand…
    …and then see if you can entertain each alternative way of thinking and compare them…
    …and compare them in terms of advantages and trade-offs (in understanding, effectiveness and spiritual tone) instead of in terms of true and false.
  • See if you can learn something new about someone just by observing them or their environment or something they are using.
  • See if you can notice where something was designed so well you might not have noticed it if you weren’t looking for it.
  • Look for an opportunity to reconcile with someone, and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Look for when you feel envy, and respond by complimenting the other, and sharing your envy with them…
    …and observe closely and fully what it feels like to give a deep, heartfelt and reluctant compliment.
  • Give credit; acknowledge contributions and influence as much as you can.
  • If you love people, try telling them so.

Living designally

Premise: If everyone conducted themselves as designers, not only at work, but all the time, most of our biggest interpersonal and social problems could be resolved.

For instance, my advice to designers I know who have been caught in conflicts, especially in political debates that have devolved into fights, is “stop thinking about politics politically, and instead think about politics designally.” —

Concretely, this might mean

  • Try interviewing the other person until you can think in their own logic.
  • Propose alternative accounts to compare, focusing on relative advantages and tradeoffs, not what which explanation is right or wrong.
  • Assure the other person that no solution will be good enough for you until it is also good enough for them.
  • Affirm to the other person that they matter far more to you than any idea or belief.

*

What if we began to think of design less as a skillset, or even as an approach to making, solving or resolving, and instead thought of it more as a spiritual discipline? A way to live, to exist, to be — a way that can be cultivated?

*

Much of traditional religion involves spiritual exercise, intended to cultivate a state of soul conducive to relationship to our transcendent ground. We learn to control ourselves, to accept ourselves, to accept our responsibility, to concentrate our minds, to notice what is within and without and the connections between, to open the hand of thought, to forgive and reconcile, to let down our guard, to feel gratitude for what is far too easy to take as given fact (as opposed to graciously accepting as given gift), to ask for the return of ourselves to ourselves, to feel an urgent hope for the wellbeing of others, to accept whatever happens with grace and strength, to love more readily, expansively, thoroughly — and far more than this.

Religion at its very best is supposed to be an intensive cultivation of self-toward-Allness, and one that does not attempt to exclude that most bothersome but important part of Allness, the people around us. If we cannot be religious with others, we may have spiritual experiences, but they are experiences, not that relationship with all-inclusive Allness that religion pursues so imperfectly but intently.

A great many people have been wounded by flawed religion, and by the antireligion fundamentalism that worships what it imagines to be an ultimate being of some kind, and hates every appearance of real Allness that contradicts it.

This is a weird kind of self-worship, imagination-worship, ideo-idolatry I call misapotheosis. It is a failure to distinguish the self’s imagination from what transcends imagination, and consequently to learn the difficult lesson that while all of us are of All, and in All, none of us are All. Our ideas about others are the furthest thing from other: our ideas about others are part of ourselves. Our ideas about God, about Reality, about History — these are only ourselves.

The religiously wounded cannot engage in religion as it has been presented to them, nor do they find it easy to engage in other religions without unconsciously engaging it as a good version of what hurt them so much in their earlier life. And when they do this, they accidentally inflict the same harm on others with their new true convictions. A great many of today’s most impassioned red-pilled or woke activists are little more than transcriptions of Christian fundamentalism doing the same old battle against Satan, only now it is the Satan of international conspiracy, or the Satan of Those Who Hate Our Freedoms, or the or the Satan of Those Who Oppress Our Identity, or the Satan of climate change, or the Satan of Whiteness, or the Satan of patriarchy, or the Satan of Libtards, or the Satan of Communism, or the Satan of Capitalism, or whatever evil they can agree on with others to hate.

Any Satan will do if you can’t find a credible All/God to love. If you can’t share a love, you’ll almost certainly share a hate. We humans cannot bear to be alone, and we will find whatever we can to feel together. Love is harder, so it is less common.

*

Somehow, though, design gives us a way out of this pattern. It gives us a manageably tiny mustard-seed of a problem to resolve together, along with the beautiful gift of no easy way to escape the necessity of really resolving it.

To succeed we must win the participation of those around us. To do that we must be deeply attuned to the who situation we are confronting, much of which transcends not only our knowledge, but even our logic. This includes not only the materials and the facts of the case at hand, but also the myriad ways others perceive the same situation, interpret it, construe what follows from it, imagines what out to be done.

In design, we must exist as ourselves toward who we are not and what we are not, with a full understanding of that strange relationship each of us has and an I toward All. The strangest part of this relationship is how inconceivable ideas can be learned from others, bringing into sudden existence, out of nothing, new possibilities in a flood of world-transfiguring inspiration.

*

Sure, we can describe it all in flat matter-of-fact language. We can make it no big deal. Yeah, yeah, we need to get aligned around a vision and a plan for getting there. Yep, maybe if we reframe the problem, we can find a solution people will get on board with. Let’s use empathy so we can find out what other people need and want.

Fact is, though, doing these things successfully requires a deep mindset shift. Everyone must make this shift for it to work. One belligerent debater or cynic in the room can break the dynamic. But if everyone makes the shift together something happens, and the productive output of the shift might not be nearly as important as the occurance of the shift itself.

As Rorty said, “Anything can be made to look good or bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being redescribed.”

I want to redescribe this shift into this designerly mindset as essentially religious. (Or not!)

And I want to see if I can stay in this mindset all the time and make it essentially who I am.

Engineering, monocentric design, polycentric design

All engineering is done for some human purpose, even when it does not focus on the people who will eventually use it. Every engineering problem is defined with an eventual use in mind. An engineer develops a system that solves the defined problem.

Once the engineered thing is used by someone, however this can be viewed as a larger system — a hybrid system composed of interacting human and non-human components. It is now a design.

It is the job of the designer to develop hybrid systems of interacting human and non-human elements.

*

Let’s shift how we look at design, and view it in a cool, objective, impersonal and engineerish light. Imagine a person, who we’ll name “User”, interacting with an engineered artifact which we will call “widget”.

If User understands the widget and uses it to do something useful in a desirable way, User is likely to choose to stay engaged. The human and non-human components stay connected together, interacting systematically, and functioning together as intended. But if User finds the widget confusing, difficult, useless or unpleasant and chooses not to stay engaged, the hybrid system loses its human component, and falls apart as a design, even if that isolated widget functioned exactly as it was engineered to.

Designers talk a lot about experiences. Good experiences are ones that keep people engaged as participants in a hybrid system completed by their use. Bad experiences cause design system to lose their human parts and to break into unused engineered components.

For this reason, many designers say that their ultimate output is experiences. I would argue that these good experiences are the best means to another end: to keep the human part of hybrid systems engaged in willing participation in hybrid systems. (* See note below if you want some political provocation.)

*

I came up with this way of seeing design and engineering when I was trying to explain to my engineer father why design research is so important. He was a ceramic engineering professor and taught classes on material science. He’d teach engineering students how various kinds of glass or other ceramics performed under different conditions so they would behave as expected when used in components of engineered systems.

I told my dad that design researchers were like material scientists for the human components of design systems, but much of what we needed to understand what was happening subjectively with them, as well as physically.

*

To repeat: every engineered component is implicitly part of a larger design system.

This can be carried forward one more step:

Every design used by some individual person can be seen as a node in a larger polycentric design system — which happens, not in individual experience, but as a social system, among interacting persons, each having an experience of the interaction, each choosing to engage with or disengage from the system.

A monocentric design (focused on a single person) becomes part of a polycentric design system  when it shapes and colors how multiple persons interact with one another within a social system.

*

People sometimes ask how user experience (UX), customer experience (CX) or employee experience design relates to service design.

UX, CX and other Xs  are monocentric design disciplines.

Service design is a polycentric design discipline.


Note: For political reasons, it has been unwise to express what designers do in this way, because it implies changes in method, organizational design and, possibly, reporting structure. Someday perhaps we’ll heed these implications. Engineering efforts should be informed, defined and directed by designers. But the industrial revolution is still not finished winding down, and we still live in an engineering age. Engineers and other STEM disciplines are thought to hold the answers to life’s problems. This exaltation of STEM is actually creating most of these problems, not solving them. And the identities of STEM practitioners has zero to do with it, either — the disciplines themselves methodologically exclude precisely the considerations that most need to be included and considered in resolving societal problems. If you are trying to solve the wrong problems, or if the problem is misframed, no amount of technical ingenuity will help. But this is a whole other diatribe.


Philosophy is a polycentric design discipline.

Art is enworldment

Too many people think art is the production of interesting, pleasing or entertaining sounds, images, performances, etc. This mode of making produces sterile artistic product.

We have forgotten that real art founds whole new ways to exist in the world.

Art is not here to be looked at, listened to or experienced. Art is here to give us new ways to look from ourselves, listen to the world around us and experience reality.

Socially, the purpose of artists is to enlarge the world and make room for more kinds of life, more kinds of personhood.

*

This helps explain why art is so often created by misfits.

The artist does not fit into the world as it is, so they have to enworld a bigger world capable of accommodate them, so it can welcome them home.

*

The purpose of art is enworldment.

*

This is true also for philosophy. Philosophy is not here to produce arguments for what is true, or contrive new explanations for this and that, or speculate on what might be the case. Philosophy is the design of new ways to conceive existence, to experience life, to relate to others, to respond to events and to make something new of oneself and reality.

  • I say “design” because philosophies are not only about experience but interaction —  much of it functional — among groups of people. There is a need for what Nick Gall calls (borrowing from software engineering) interoperability. In cases where the user of something might be very different from the creator, design methods for explicitly understanding  and accommodating difference  are indispensable. It is true that philosophy has been done by solitary artists communicating to the few capable of understanding them, but this is only an accident of history. When our ways of conceiving existence begin to threaten our continued existence, it might be time to revisit how we think about how we think about thinking.

If I taught design

If I were responsible for a design curriculum, the first year of study would be focused exclusively on usability.

Students would sit with people and watch them attempt to use various things. They would watch people use mobile apps, kitchen appliances, car dashboards, etc.

They would watch people trying to understand various media, starting with posters, fliers and short videos before progressing to art, literature and non-fiction, and see where they were able to sharpen or change their understandings in fruitful ways.

They would follow customers as they researched insurance policies, enrolled in them, then filed and received claims. Then they would follow the same processes from the employee side, observing actuaries, agents, CSRs, claim investigators and so on. Then they’d observe the leaders of these organizations to see how decisions were made that shape the employee’s responses to customer needs.

They would go into schools and watch what teachers do, not only in the classroom, but also late into the evenings and early in the mornings, all seven days of the week. And they would also watch school administrators hang out in meetings deciding what else to require teachers to do. And they would learn about the experiences of students from various backgrounds, in the classroom, around school and at home.

They would observe political institutions at the local, state and federal level, and see how laws and policies are hammered out. Then they would observe the implementation of these laws and policies, and compare intentions with actuality.

The second year would be redesigning these artifacts, experiences, interactions, processes and organizations — but solely in order to fix existing problems. No rethinking, only improving.

The third year would be dedicated to innovation — to understanding people, interacting groups, institutions and use contexts, and rethinking systems to make them work fundamentally differently, or to do entirely new things nobody has thought of.

The fourth year would develop the students’ sense of form, aesthetics and craft.

If, after making it through this demanding program, students felt willing and ready to bear the sacred responsibility of designing real products and services that real people will actually use, experience, or even adopt and incorporate into the fabric of their everyday lives, they will be required to earn an advanced degree and to go through rigorous examinations to ensure they can be entrusted to design and play a part in shaping our material and spiritual existence.

Philosophy as polycentric design

Peter Gordon’s electrifying introduction Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: has sparked some insights. I’ll quote the core passage, with comments and responses:

History has not been kind to Cassirer, but we should ask ourselves if his criticism was so wide of the mark. It was Cassirer, after all, who grasped the philosophical implications of the natural sciences and especially modern mathematics and physics, whereas Heidegger betrayed the superfciality of his thinking on all such matters when he declared that “science does not think.” Today when so many of our contemporary problems confront us with the need to move beyond the unfortunate divide between the natural sciences and the humanities, Cassirer’s philosophy may offer greater promise. All the same, Heidegger may have been right to suggest that the old dogma of transcendental humanism could not be sustained without a covert appeal to metaphysics. Cassirer occasionally reads as if he meant to give up on metaphysics to develop a kind of phenomenology without foundationalism. But most of these gestures are only half- convincing. The urgent point of dispute at Davos remained unsolved: can there be objectivity without metaphysics?

This compulsion to overcome metaphysics has, for me, become problematic. How was this collective decision to reject metaphysics made? Was it even argued, or was it just collectively decided as a fashion?

What tradeoffs have we been making for collectively adopting this stance?

One solution was developed by philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas, who delivered a lecture in Hamburg in 1995 on the dual occasion of the rededication of the Warburg Library and the “ftieth anniversary of Cassirer’s death. Habermas expressed in his lecture great admiration for Cassirer and extoled him as a champion of democracy and Enlightenment at a moment in German history when such champions were all too few. But he also suggested that The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms did not succeed in liberating itself from the conventional paradigm of a “philosophy of consciousness.” For Habermas, the philosophy of consciousness is the name for any philosophical doctrine that describes meaning from the isolated perspective of a transcendental subject who comes to know the world primarily through representations. Over the course of the twentieth century, many philosophers have come to see this paradigm as antiquated and indefensible, chie!y because it relies on a crypto-metaphysical conception of a transcendental subject who stands beyond its own field of operation.

Full disclosure: I believe my own philosophy, despite being antifoundationalist and concerned as much (or more) with immediate, preverbal interpretations and interactions as it is with representations, is, essentially, a “philosophy of consciousness”, but that not only is this not undesirable, I think it is good and important, given the purpose of my thinking, which is the systematic design of conception systems.

It serves as the grounds of meaning but can give no account of its own genesis. Habermas tries to resolve this dilemma without following the path of metaphysical skeptics such as Heidegger and Foucault.

Good! The academic canonization of these two deeply illiberal men has been ruinous. I will even argue that the youthful judges of the Davos debate were, themselves, caught up in the same illiberal mood that plunged Germany and the USSR into totalitarianism, and judged the debate by this same illiberal logic. The world, including its intellectuals were in an illiberal mood, and it was that mood, not reason, that judged the debate.

Instead, he understands objective meaning as the shared creation of an irreducible plurality of subjects who build up the world through intersubjective communication and praxis. This solution helps to secure the objectivity of our language and our moral-political commitments even though it is an objectivity that has dispensed with the need for metaphysical grounds. This ideal of an intersubjectively validated objectivity derives originally from the German idealists, but one can glimpse in Cassirer’s thinking a certain anticipation of Habermas’ solution.

This! We are having exactly this same debate in the world of service design. In fact we were debating it as my company just last week: Is service design (SD) a flavor of human-centered design (HCD), or is HCD a sub-discipline of SD?

My argument is that HCD is evolving from an essentially monocentric discipline focusing on the experiences of isolated individuals to a polycentric discipline, focusing on interactions among multiple actors, each of whom is having an experience. (Services are only one species of polycentric experience, and I think treating services as the overarching category is reductive and unhelpful.)

Much of what I do as a service designer is design philosophies that can support collaboration among interacting collaborators from varying discipline and responsibility levels within organizations. And it is precisely in this space among intellectually diverse people that philosophical (hermeneutical, dialectical) abilities are needed.

Thinking of philosophy not only as a design discipline but as a polycentric design discipline feels explosively fruitful.

The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is an ambivalent work that sits at the boundary between two epochs in the history of philosophy. It points in the direction of a post-metaphysical theory of the symbolic without wholly liberating itself from the older paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness. We can occasionally glimpse its author as he struggles to overcome his own philosophical inheritance, even if its authority remains too strong. This may help to explain the strange feeling of untimeliness that seems to emanate from the pages of this unusual work. Cassirer himself was a man between epochs, a contemporary of Einstein who could effortlessly call to mind lines of poetry from Schiller and Goethe. Though unashamed of his origins, he was indifferent to the claims of nation and tribe; he saw in Judaism only one source for the rational universalism that was the common inheritance of all cultures. A humanist philosopher in an age of extremes, he was in many ways the supreme representative of a world in eclipse.

Although he was fortunate enough to escape the European catastrophe, he did not live long enough to see the new world that would emerge from the ruins. Whether he could have felt at home in this new age of specialization is doubtful. Erudition today is a rare commodity, and it has become just one commodity among others. For good or for ill, philosophers these days no longer have the habit of quoting Goethe. But if we look past these marks of old-world erudition, we may yet find that The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms can come alive with new insights that even its author may never have anticipated. No genuine work of philosophy belongs only to the past.

Of course, I myself feel situated at a moment in history where liberalism is colliding with a collective illiberal mood, so Cassirer is becoming a heroic figure for me.

Another account of design instrumentalism

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Philosophies must be experientially compared.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

Getting back to the practicalities of design instrumentalism:

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Philosophy is a hybrid system

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

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

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

 

Cassirer’s interrupted project

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verwindung?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, agonism is a permanent condition of pluralism.

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

Deep thoughts on depth

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Redescription versus renarration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough Iraq analogies, though.

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

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

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

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

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

Casting about, meandering toward my book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conceptions and concepts

I’m noticing that I am using the terms “concept” and “conception’ very differently from how Langer uses them.

In my way of thinking and talking about them, conception is a conceiving move — and what is conceived through the conception is a concept. When a student is presented with a new kind of math problem and does not “get it”, in my terminology what the child lacks is a particular conception that makes it possible to get the concept.

From my perspective, Langer looks at it inside-out. For her concepts are the essential structure of meaning (which I agree with), but then makes conceptions the messier particulars that form around the structure and flesh it out as a particular object. She first makes the distinction in a footnote: “I have called the terms of our thinking conceptions, not concepts. Concepts are abstract forms embodied in conceptions; their bare presentation may be approximated by so-called ‘abstract thought,’ but in ordinary mental life they no more figure as naked factors than skeletons are seen walking the street. Concepts, like decent living skeletons, are always embodied — sometimes rather too much.”

A few pages later, while discussing how abstracted or stylized images can be recognized as representing a real object, she elaborates.

That which all adequate conceptions of an object must have in common, is the concept of the object. The same concept is embodied in a multitude of conceptions. It is a form that appears in all versions of thought or imagery that can connote the object in question, a form clothed in different integuments of sensation for every different mind. Probably no two people see anything just alike. Their sense organs differ, their attention and imagery and feelings differ so that they cannot be supposed to have identical impressions. But if their respective conceptions of a thing (or event, or person, etc.) embody the same concept, they will understand each other.

A concept is all that a symbol really conveys. But just as quickly as the concept is symbolized to us, our own imagination dresses it up in a private, personal conception, which we can distinguish from the communicable public concept only by a process of abstraction.

I’m still pretty early in the book, and I havent read it in 10 years, and last time I read it I was less sensitized to this distinction, so I am not sure whether I will adopt her terms or stick to mine. But I do have two questions forming in my mind:

  1. Will she discuss acquisition of capacities for using new concepts and the experiences we have struggling to understand concepts we are not yet equipped to conceive? Or, failing to recognize the failure and simply misunderstanding? Or the experience of suddenly acquiring a new concept and having the uncanny experience of instantaneously re-understanding the world as a whole (which I connect with conversion and transfiguration)? These are crucial questions for me, and the word “conception” does a lot of work in my way of accounting for these experiences.

  2. Is the formal concept hidden within the messy flesh of objects a vestige of Platonic form? It seems that making concepts the outcome of a conceiving operation rather than a recognition of pre-existent underlying structure might be a cleaner break with Platonism (as well as correlationism), and make Langer’s thinking play nicer with Pragmatism.

A good use for leading questions

In the field of design research, leading questions are generally considered undesirable and are carefully avoided, especially in foundational research (where the design team is trying to develop a basic understanding of some domain of actors, their goals, behaviors, attitudes, contexts, etc.), and in generative research (where the team looks for opportunities to introduce improvements to the actors’ situations).

Researchers try instead to ask open-ended questions, which tend to have the form of a request — for a story, a description, an opinion a lesson, etc..

Leading questions, and even more neutrally-stated closed-ended questions, tend to direct the research participant toward responses anticipated by the researcher.

The greatest value of foundational and generative interviews, however, is often in the unanticipated responses — ones that never would have occurred to the researcher or to anyone else on the design team, had the research not been conducted.

These responses are surprising precisely because they are answers to surprising questions — questions that nobody knew to ask, but which the open-ended question coaxed into the open. These questions point to different conceptions our participants use to make sense of their worlds, conceptions that give things distinctly different patterns of significance and relevance, and which make the difference between designs that hit home and designs that seem off-the-mark.

When designers think with the conceptions used by their users — or even better, on revelatory improvements to their conceptions — the design concepts make immediate and profound sense to the users. Ideally, users experience it as: “They get me!”

But if closed-ended questions are asked (questions that imply a limited set of answers), or worse, if leading questions are asked (questions that point to a narrow range of desired answers) the participants will use their social competence to answer the question ask, according to its implied conceptions. The researchers get their answers — but those answers conceal something more valuable: the key to how the participant thinks, their own conceptions, which is the entrance to their worldview.

I am currently rereading Susanne Langer for the first time in 11 years, and I am realizing just how much I gained from reading her:

The “technique,” or treatment, of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given. … Such implicit “ways” are not avowed by the average man, but simply followed. He is not conscious of assuming any basic principles. They are what a German would call his “Weltanschauung” [worldview], his attitude of mind, rather than specific articles of faith. They constitute his outlook; they are deeper than facts he may note or propositions he may moot… But, though they are not stated, they find expression in the forms of his questions. A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete its sense. In this way the intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.

But what is really inspiring this line of thought is something subtler I am picking up in Langer’s words, a fascinating use of “leading questions’. The first example is example: “The concepts that preoccupied them had no application in those realms, and therefore did not give rise to new, interesting, leading questions about social or moral affairs.” The second example really drives it home:

The rise of technology is the best possible proof that the basic concepts of physical science, which have ruled our thinking for nearly two centuries, are essentially sound. They have begotten knowledge, practice, and systematic understanding; no wonder they have given us a very confident and definite Weltanschauung. They have delivered all physical nature into our hands. But strangely enough, the so-called “mental sciences” have gained very little from the great adventure. One attempt after another has failed to apply the concept of causality to logic and aesthetics, or even sociology and psychology. Causes and effects could be found, of course, and could be correlated, tabulated, and studied; but even in psychology, where the study of stimulus and reaction has been carried to elaborate lengths, no true science has resulted. No prospects of really great achievement have opened before us in the laboratory. If we follow the methods of natural science our psychology tends to run into physiology, histology, and genetics; we move further and further away from those problems which we ought to be approaching. That signifies that the generative idea which gave rise to physics and chemistry and all their progeny — technology, medicine, biology — does not contain any vivifying concept for the humanistic sciences. The physicist’s scheme, so faithfully emulated by generations of psychologists, epistemologists, and aestheticians, is probably blocking their progress, defeating possible insights by its prejudicial force. The scheme is not false — it is perfectly reasonable — but it is bootless for the study of mental phenomena. It does not engender leading questions and excite a constructive imagination, as it does in physical researches. Instead of a method, it inspires a militant methodology.

Leading questions are ones that contain a conception — a generative idea! The reason we ask open-ended questions in design research, and avoid our own closed-ended or leading questions, is to make it possible to uncover better leading questions — ones that are either familiarly relevant or inspiringly novel to our users!

The goal of design research is to upgrade our leading questions. These new leading questions are then posed as opportunity formulas (such as “how might we?” questions) or as design briefs that conceptualize a problem in a way that generates solutions compatible with how the research participants conceive their worlds. As John Dewey put it, “A problem well put is a problem half solved.”

I enjoy calling what I do “precision inspiration“. Precision inspiration replaces stale, lifeless, irrelevant questions with novel, living, relevant questions, which activate new and better conceptions capable of imagining and producing novel, relevant, exciting solutions.