Category Archives: Philosophy of Design of Philosophy

Relationships with ideas

One of the features of postphenomenology most potentially useful to design practice is its taxonomy of relations between users, technologies and the world. The information presented here comes from Robert Rosenberger’s and Peter-Paul Verbeek’s “Field Guide to Postphenomenology”, from Postphenomenological Investigations.

  1. Embodied relationship. According to the Field Guide when a technology is embodied, “a user’s experience is reshaped through the device, with the device itself in some ways taken into the user’s bodily awareness.” Heidegger’s “ready-to-hand” mode of encounter is a concept very close to embodied relationship, where a tool becomes transparent in use, leaving the activity’s object as the primary or exclusive focus. When we use a hammer, the focus of the activity is on the nail. When we use a pen, the pen disappears in the writing. (Interestingly/annoyingly, the paradigmatic example of this relation offered in the Field Guide is eyeglasses, which to me seems a distinctly different relation than that of a tool. Something that intercepts and modifies a sensory signal seems radically different from an implement that can, with sufficient skill and habit, become a transparent extension of one’s body. I assume this apparent conflation of unlike cases is meant to call attention to a less obvious but deeper and important similarity. I can tell this problem is going to bother me.
  2. Hermeneutic relationship. These are “technologies which are used through an act of perceiving and interpreting the device’s readout.” Where with embodied relationships, the user focuses on some aspect of the world through the device, with hermeneutic relationships the user focuses on the device itself. The example given here is a wristwatch, where the user reads the time from the watch face.
  3. Alterity relationship. Here the technology is interacted with in a manner similar to how we interact with a person. “The idea is that some forms of interface are devised speci?cally to mimic the shape of person-to-person interaction, and that sometimes we encounter a device as itself a presence with which we must interrelate.” The example is a dialogue box in an interaction with a computer application.
  4. Background relationship. These are technologies that are not directly used like tools but which function to modify the user’s environment. Air conditioning is the example given. Utilities like electricity, water and internet are other examples (or at least, I think they are).

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I am thinking about these relationships today, not only because they present some basic questions designers should think about when they are getting ready to design something, but also because these questions are relevant to my design instrumentalist project. If we (re)understand ideas to be essentially things we use to make sense of the world and interact with it and live within it effectively, what relationships with users, ideas and the world are possible, and how do we determine which relationship is best for specific ideas used for specific purposes in specific use contexts?

I believe that most of us, if we don’t think about it carefully, assume our we are in a hermeneutic relationship with ideas, where we look directly at the ideas and get a “readout” of the author’s meaning. But the books I most love to read also offer an ideas engaged in an embodied relationship of sorts. When we use these ideas we conceive the world through them in a way that reshapes our experience. And somewhere along the way I adopted a habit of expecting that reshaped experience to be useful, usable and desirable.

Misrelations

More and more, I see the answer of innumerable confusions and conundrums as a matter of prepositional category mistakes.

What do I mean by this? According to Oxford English Dictionary, a category mistake is “the error of assigning to something a quality or action that can properly be assigned to things only of another category, for example, treating abstract concepts as though they had a physical location.” A prepositional category mistake is a category mistake pertaining to relationships between one that explicitly or (more often) implicitly gets a relationship among entities wrong in a way that misleads thinking. The pragmatic consequences following from the relational conception lead to confusion, error or ineffectiveness.

For instance, we might confuse something we ought to experience from — a subjectivity — for an object of experience. (My example here is philosophy. We think a philosophy is a body of truth assertions which are there for us to examine and judge, when in fact the truth assertions are primarily a means for entering and inhabiting the philosophy — from which truths are asserted, examined and judged.)

Or we confuse something that we understand toward (something we orient ourselves toward that is in principle beyond knowledge, or something we can asymptoticly approach in increasing understanding but never reach) with something suited for comprehension as a direct object. (My example here is reality itself vis-a-vis our understanding.)

Or something that mediates an experience of some object as itself an object, instead of an experiencing through. (Here I’m thinking about user interfaces. Novices look at the interface and ask “does it make sense to me?” Experienced designers want to know if the work being done makes sense when performed using the interface, which is why usability testing is organized around the performance of tasks.)

Or we misconstrue a relationship within which partners function as participants within an enclosing whole which includes but exceeds either, snd view it only as an exchange between two self-contained peers. (My primary example here is marriage. The former is what I call actual marriage, but because few modern couples know how to use a participation-in-transcendence conception most enact something closer to what I would call “peers engaged in intimacy exchange”.)

These kinds of things are easy to get wrong. Our thinking is naturally (or deeply, culturally second-naturally) oriented toward objects. Relationships among objects are far more elusive, and we are often distracted by the things themselves when the real confusion is in the manner of togetherness in the things together.

I realize the examples I am providing are sup-optimal. I’ve jumped to the difficult relationships that motivate my thinking, when what is needed are simple, concrete examples that can be built upon.

For this, I plan to rely on a taxonomy developed by Don Ihde and the postphenomenologists: four basic forms of technological mediation: embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations. Both my philosophy and design practice are pressing me to finally commit these relationships to memory, so I will write up a succinct summary of these relationships in the next few days.

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I also realize “prepositional category mistake” is bad writing. I plan to call this kind of confusion misrelation. I’m over hideous philosophical language, and I plan to design more usable and desirable vocabulary for conveying my more useful, usable and desirable philosophy. The conceptions I take from phenomenology and other disciplines will all be sent to the gym and given makeovers.

And of course it will all be embodied in a well-designed, well-crafted book.

Useful, usable and desirable all the way down, sahib.

Mindmoves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How not to destroy an idea factory

No philosophy is infinitely durable and impervious to criticism.

We tend to dismiss or minimize critiques and arguments against our philosophies for as long as they remain useful to us overall, not only for providing clear and coherent understandings, but also for helping us respond practically and for feeling the value of life on the whole.

But most critiques and attacks on philosophies miss their mark, anyway, aiming only at the outputs of the philosophy — its truth claims, theories and arguments — not at the conceptions that produce them, which is a far more elusive target.

This kind of attack is like trying to destroy a car factory by blowing up all the cars as they come off the assembly line. But even bombing the factory itself is unlikely to be effective in the long-term, because factories are easily repaired or rebuilt. A far better mode of attack would be to investigate the factory’s production efficiency, manufacturing defects, etc. and show the inadequacy of its production. Or better, call into question the design of the cars, or question the value of manufacturing cars at all, making its purpose obsolete. Or question factory mass production, and undermine its conditions of production. Only radical measures will shut the factory down permanently, and prevent anyone from rebuilding it, because the need for the factory has been destroyed.

The goal is to motivate abandonment of what currently produces facts, arguments, responses, methods, desires, values, etc. and to persuade people to produce them in some other way. This is a tall order, because it is so much easier to repair, rebuild or even to rebuild a new system with a new blueprint.

Many, many people who have had their religious faiths demolished have built new secular belief factories on the site of their destroyed Christian faith factories, using the same blueprint as before, because this is how such things are built. Now the new factory cranks out new de-divinized models of the old faith — doctrines, moral rules, taboos, sins, confessions, devils, apocalypses, inquisitions, punishments, indulgences and so on — that function the same way as last year’s model, but which now run on new fuels, along slightly altered tracks. But to the constrained mind, the difference is total — the difference between a Prius and a Ford F-150!

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A few thoughts on demolition and reconstruction of philosophies:

  1. Any philosophy can be destroyed, if the need and desire to destroy it exists.
  2. The best reason to destroy a philosophy is dissatisfaction with its product; a philosophy that produces confusion, error and despair can be dismantled, and ought to be.
  3. The very worst philosophies will blame a confusing, paralyzing, hostile, doomed and worthless world for its own shoddy output, namely, that experience of the world.
  4. The fact that a philosophy can be destroyed is no argument against it; sufficient durability is sufficient.
  5. A destroyed philosophy is likely to be replaced with another exactly like it, built on its same pattern, unless great effort is put into rebuilding it on new principles and new values.
  6. A destroyed philosophy leaves one without a philosophy to serve its needs, which is intensely difficult and excruciatingly painful. One of the principle outputs of a philosophy is sanity, not to mention truth, motivation, competence and security. This is the primary reason so few truly new philosophies appear. It takes too much time to make something genuinely new, and that time is truly harrowing and dreadful.
  7. New philosophies are made with groping, intuitive experimentation and the products of old philosophies, most of which go entirely undetected.
  8. Gradual modifications of old philosophies are much easier, but even the tiniest modifications feel shockingly new, alien and portentous.

Conceiving a better world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repetition of conceptions

Quoted in Gabriele Tarde’s Laws of Repetition: “Scientific knowledge need not necessarily take its starting-point from the most minute hypothetical and unknown things. It begins wherever matter forms units of a like order which can be compared with and measured by one another, and wherever such units combine as units of a higher order and thus serve in themselves as a standard of comparison for the latter” (Von Naegeli. Address at the congress of German naturalists in 1877).

This is incredibly helpful for my own thinking. When we take some understanding that helped us make sense of X, and use it to make sense of Y, what exactly is repeated that makes it the same understanding or idea or conception?

To get very specific and concrete, when I first began to understand Nietzsche the conceptions I learned, which I found nearly impossible to articulate explicitly, helped me re-understand a great number of previously unrelated questions, confusions and mysteries that (at least prior to the understanding) seemed unrelated to the material Nietzsche was presenting. Reconceptions burst forth from nowhere and rippled through my memories, changing them. I knew it even prior to recollection. I could feel the change in my soul with an intuitive immediacy that defied language, but which could be used almost effortlessly. The changes even altered my perceptions of music, poetry and the world.

To me, it seemed like I’d just read something exciting that inspired new ideas. I would be forced to put the book down and think, talk or write. But sometimes these inspirations were related to problems Nietzsche had sketched out earlier in the book but left suspended, painfully unresolved. Often, the next day, when my inspiration subsided enough to permit further reading, I would read one of my own thoughts, printed out on the page. Nietzsche had implanted a thought in my head.

One other peculiar effect of these reconceptions was learning how many of my explosive new thoughts were rediscoveries of commonplace insights that I thought I understood well enough, but rejected as truisms, cliches or platitudes or nonsense. Think again. Things I’d heard recited myriad times suddenly had intense meaning, and I was the first to discover what was hidden in plain sight. It took dozens of humiliations to realize I was not the first to unlock the deeper significance of these words. In fact, I was the last. This insight was new only to me. But they could be known only through this strange kind of explosive, renewing reconception.

So, again: What was conveyed in this learning that resulted in new understanding? What was rippling through my psyche? What was I using to make new sense of memories and new experiences?

For now, let’s call these mysterious, indirectly known entities conceptions.

Why were these conceptions so easy to use, but so hard to talk about, much less encapsulate with explicit language?

How do we discover or invent — or instaurate — new conceptions? (Or, more often, rediscover, reinvent, reinstaurate conceptions that are new to us?)

What if all our understandings are just the workings of conceptions? And what if our overall understanding of everything in total is just interrelated conceptions working in concert, perhaps related and coordinated by yet other conceptions?

If we change our conceptions, what impact can this have on our most basic understandings of personhood and of the very nature of truth and reality?

When can we change our conceptions? When should we change them? When should we preserve or protect them?

And, finally, how do we decide together as a society which conceptions we ought to adopt and use in our lives together? Consider the complicating factor that it is up to our existing conceptions to make decisions about what conceptions should be changed to preserved…

Reconceiving conceptions, part 1

A note on word choice: I am experimenting with using the word “conception” in place of “concept”. A conception is a conceiving move that produces a concept. A concept can be one of any number of artifacts, all of which can be viewed as alike in that they are produced and reproduced (comprehended) by the same conception.

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If you think about it — and few of us do — thinking is an extremely mysterious activity.

Thinking is never more mysterious than at the edges of intelligibility, where, in order to think with any coherence, clarity or conviction, a thinker must first find new ways to make clear unified sense of material that is fragmentary, murky and perplexing. These new ways of making coherent sense are conceptions.

When one lacks conceptions needed for thinking, conceptions stand starkly absent. It is similar to how we suddenly become hyper-aware of our reliance on a humble body part, like a little toe, once it is injured or stops functioning, or how much we use a utility when service is interrupted, and we keep mindlessly flipping on light-switches even though the electricity is out.

It is when conceptions and thinking breaks down that we think about the activity thinking and experience how mysterious it is.

For normal people, the experience of grappling with inconceivability is relatively rare. Most things make sense most of the time — or at least most relevant things make sense. Of course, many things remain incomprehensible, inexplicable, irrational, confusing, frustrating, chaotic, crazy or mysterious — but these things tend to be pushed out to the margins. They are labeled “irrelevant” and ignored. Or they are labeled as “evil” or “delusional” and condemned or despised. Or they may be labeled “mysteries” and placed beyond human comprehension, for wonder, contemplation or worship. Generally, nothing short of catastrophe or crisis is sufficient to motivate a person to reconceive and understand something that defies comprehension.

Normally, normal people rely almost exclusively on ready-made conceptions to produce whatever thoughts they think, and to form whatever beliefs they hold. Infinitesimally few beliefs are produced by thinking. Nearly all beliefs are conceived automatically, in perception. Most conception occurs prior to thought, habitually and invisibly, in the continuous act of perception, where conceptions intercept and conceptually format sensations prior to any conscious thinking. When perceptions cohere autonomously in a form that lends itself to effortless intelligibility — self-evident truth — truth and reality are indistinguishable. This state of mind is called “naive realism.”

Is naive realism bad? Many will insist “yes” but this judgment is itself the product of conception — perhaps, ironically, a habitual and unconsidered conception of precisely the kind it disparages.

Naive realism can also be conceived as an ideal. This is what I intend to argue, and I intend to argue it from a highly abnormal angle: that of a design strategist.

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I mentioned that normal people normally do not think about thinking nor the conceptions they have at their disposal for perceiving and conceiving truth, and I referred to design strategists as abnormal in this respect.

Design strategists are forced to think about thinking, conceptions, perceptions all the time. A total breakdown of thought and attempts to resolve the breakdown and resume thought is just part of the work.

This is because design strategists are crisis agents. We are primarily hired to resolve crises, or to create crises in order to help organizations innovate, differentiate or disrupt their industries and throw their competitors into crisis, all for the sake of gaining competitive advantage.

Design strategists are professional crisis mongers. The most important component of such crisis mongering is design research, and the ideal outcome of design research is what I call “precision inspiration”.

Explaining strategic design research and precision inspiration provides context for understanding why strategic design demands thinking about thinking.

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The best way to explain design research is pragmatically, presenting it in terms of what it does. And since design research was formed in the crucible of business, let’s discuss what it does in terms of benefits, using the preferred genre of the business world, the sales pitch.

What are the benefits of design research?

First, and most obviously, design research informs decisions. It helps organizations identify opportunities for improvement. It helps them understand precisely what can and should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that efforts to improve things have their intended effect. And these improvements are not only for customers, but for all people involved in the organization — customers, employees, partners, leaders, investors and any other kind of stakeholder. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right”. Research improves the product of an organization.

Second, design research looks at opportunities through the lens of an organization’s capabilities, and especially those capabilities unique to the organization and therefore potentially differentiating. The improvements found are improvements only this organization is able to provide. Research differentiates the product of an organization. The product is not just better — it is uniquely better, and this organization is the only one able to provide it.

These first two benefits supply the “precision” part of precision inspiration. They focus effort on a sharply-defined problematic region, where potential value is most concentrated.

Third, design research provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. Morale-sapping doubts are answered, freeing participants to invest energy into the project, optimistic that their efforts will bear fruit. Design research helps organizations align and improves efficiency and effectiveness of production.

Fourth, design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which lays the political groundwork for the climax of this pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of conceptions enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and the limits our capacity to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new conceptions are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more conceptions must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of conceptions learned and to link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing conceptions, so in effect each team is forced to create a new conception-system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new conceptions cause novel possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo — possibilities were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas — even new goals, purposes, values — resulting from the acquisition of new conceptions is, in fact, precisely what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through precise understanding of specific people and and specific organizations) than ideas produced by the general truisms of industry conventional wisdom. Because industry conventional wisdom processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same old, same-old: safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

This new, previously inconceivable way of conceiving precisely what this organization can do for precisely these people the organization exists to serve, conceived in a way that makes this problem thinkable in a shared way for all people involved in the effort and aligns them in solving it is precision inspiration.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

Doing research in this way, day in, day out, year in, year out changes one’s conceptions of conceptions and forces us to rethink how thinking works. A life of producing myriad small, specialized philosophies for specific problems eventually produces a comprehensive general philosophy that expands far beyond the limits of business, or any compartmented life activity and changes one’s view of everything.

In other words, it becomes a fundamental philosophy: a philosophy of design of philosophy.

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To be continued… Design should be invisible, and so should be our conceptions!

Reconceiving concept

Concept. Con- + -cept. Together-take.

A concept takes together a multiplicity as a unit.

Concepts do not have form; concepts give form.

It is not possible to give an example of a concept. Concepts can only be demonstrated.

Most of what we say about concepts, and the way we use the term “concept” is pure category mistake, ontological confusion. We misunderstand the kind of thing a concept is, and the practical consequences proceeding from this misunderstanding generates profuse unintelligibility.

How do we acquire a concept? We follow what it does. We follow an argument, an analogy, a story, a pattern, a system, until we pick it up, and reproduce it in ourselves. We follow along, and then we get it. We are initiated into the concept and start using it.

Really well-conceived concepts become habits, and are no longer guided by language or by intention. They guide language and participate in our intentions. They become imperceptible extensions of our personal being, reflected in our experience of reality.

Concepts are intellectual concavities, and this is one reason why we so often resort to spatial metaphors when speaking of concepts. We enter concepts, inhabit them, and look out from them, perceive from them, understand from them, experience from them, respond from them. Concepts are not convex objects that we can grasp. Concepts are that by which we grasp.

Concepts comprehend. Concepts are not comprehended, though truths are comprehended when a concept is received or conceived.

Do we conceive an idea? I would prefer a more finely-articulated account, that includes invisible, silent, but crucially important moral deeds: We face an incomprehensible situation. We try to comprehend it, despite the fact that we have no plan, principles or precedents to help us comprehend it. We enter the void of inconceivability; we undergo perplexity. “We do not know how to move around” in perplexity. We cannot even state the problem we are trying to solve or the question we need to ask, much less answer it. So we grope. We follow faint hunches. We try, fail, try, fail. We follow our noses and our guts. We cannot say what or who guides us, but we are guided, very subtly. If we keep our heads — if we refuse to turn around and flee back to old, familiar, inadequate concepts — if we stay alert to inaudibly quiet voices speaking in native languages of our most private personhood, we somehow conceive a way to think the inconceivable, and a concept is born. The concept then comprehends the situation and generates an idea. But our coarse, public words leap to “I had an idea.”

Concepts are conceived, not comprehended. But often when we acquire a concept we re-conceive it and become able to comprehend that by which the concept was demonstrated, we bolt right on past the demonstration and enjoy having an effusion of ideas of our own, that, suddenly, miraculously, erupt — having been made possible through this new concept.

When we are taught a concept, often we only credit the teacher teaching us the content of the demonstration. We credit ourselves for the outpouring of new ideas, inspired by this little nugget of truth. We are inspired, become creative, and revel in our new powers of insights and invention.

The modest nugget of truth that conveys a concept through demonstration, initiates a learner into new possibilities of thought inconceivable prior to the insight, and inspires myriad acts of creativity — could this be the philosopher’s stone?

Until we acquire a concept, all ideas comprehended by the concept are incomprehensible, or even more often they are misunderstood — that is, they are grasped using concepts that comprehend its content in a different and conflicting way. Even meaningful artifacts, whose meaning is known, felt or otherwise accessed by way of an alien concept, are opaque until the concept is acquired.

Well-conceived concepts form systems of cooperating concepts. They function together, harmonize together, corroborate and reinforce one another, combine to make coherent sense of things. Such concept systems make “things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Concept systems, which use concepts to select and connect other concepts, are philosophies.

As with simpler concepts, philosophies cannot be given directly. They are always demonstrated. When a philosophy is demonstrated, it is necessarily demonstrated using content, but what animates the demonstration — the movements of concept — is the real substance of the philosophy. When the concepts are received the content of the philosophy is comprehended, and, more often than not, confused for the philosophy.

I learned to conceive concepts this way from Nietzsche. I would read his arguments and aphorisms, puzzle over them, turn them this way and that, entertain them, fight them, connect them in various ways, and generally struggle to make coherent sense of what he was saying. He would reduce me to despair, which would cling to my entire lived experience for days and weeks. The unresolved perplexities would pile up and intensify. Then he would resolve one of the perplexities with a tiny crystalline insight. This little seed of a clue would instantly resolve the problem perfectly, then explode beyond the problem, resolving myriad known and unknown perplexities, so rapidly and comprehensively it was nearly impossible to keep track of the knowledge that suddenly was just existent, appearing ex nihilo. Even well-understood knowledge would be blasted apart, evaporated and reconstituted in new significance. And the change went beyond knowledge, too, into capacities for understanding. Truths that had been incomprehensible just seconds before were now perfectly obvious.. I found myself inventing completely new ideas, brilliant ideas, inspired by earlier aphorisms or images. …But then I would read on, and there it would be, typed out, verbatim: one of my original thoughts. Nietzsche was somehow inducing these original thoughts, then proving that it was intentional, in some inconceivable way.

Two problems arose from this experience. The first was the hardest. I found my reconstituted philosophy disturbingly resistant to language. I was unable to convey what I knew, and even the things I knew in this new way were misunderstood entirely by the people around me. And worse, when I would try to convey what I understood, it inflicted terrible anxiety,. People wanted to not know what I so badly needed to say, and it was excruciating. I was intellectually imprisoned. I called it “solitary confinement in plain sight” The loneliness was crushing. But the second problem became the kernel of a more mature philosophy that wanted to understand and articulate how Nietzsche was able to write this way, and what it meant about the human condition and reality itself.

Eventually, after many reconceptions, a few very deep transformative ones, and many smaller localized ones, I began to think of concepts and philosophies as inexhaustible levers for changing our fundamental experience of life, and for opening new possibilities for materially changing the world in ways that might be wiser than if we immediately leap to fixing what seems obviously broken in obvious ways. And then I realized: this is what we always do when we design.

There is a crucially important step that occurs in human centered design after user research and before detailed design where we attempt to make sense of what we learn and put it into a form conducive to shaping and motivating design work. Traditionally, it has been called concept, but the word “concept” normally denotes an artifact, an object, a prototype, a model. The process of getting to that concept is often hellish, and often in proportion to the depth of the research. Teams are gripped in anxiety. I realized design concepts have exactly the characteristics I listed above. The “concept” demonstrates a concept so team members can pick it up and use it to guide their design work.

To be continued…

“Precision inspiration”

When people ask me what design research is, my favorite answer is “precision inspiration”.

I know this might seem slightly business romantic, but my meaning is exact, clear, concrete — even a bit technical.

*

I’ll start by explaining what research is pragmatically, in terms of what it does. And because I’m a business guy, I’ll explain what it does in terms of its benefits. In other words, I’ll start with a sales pitch.

First, design research helps inform decisions. It helps teams identify opportunities for improvements. It helps us understand what should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that the work has its intended effect. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right.” Research improves the product.

Second, design research also provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. And morale-sapping doubts about the project can be quelled, so participants can invest real energy into the project, in the expectation that their efforts will produce a positive outcome. Design research done well is organizational alignment magic. Research improves the efficiency of production.

Design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which gets us closer to the climax of my pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of concepts enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and our ability to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new concepts are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more concepts must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of concepts learned and link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing concepts, so in effect each team are forced to create a new concept system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo, that were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas resulting from the acquisition of new concepts is in fact what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through understanding users or customers) than ideas produced by industry conventional wisdom that, because it processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same-old, safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

 

Entertaining ontology designing

Follow up email to Nick on ontological designing:

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

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

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

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

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

Anne-Marie Willis’s “Ontological Designing”

Yesterday, Nick freaked me out about the existence of Anne-Marie Willis’s paper “Ontological Designing”. I was so distressed about possibly being scooped, and also about the state of my current project — a distress possibly biologically amplified by an infected eyelid — that I barely slept last night. I was dreaming about this stuff.

Today I got up, read most of the paper and sent Nick the reply below, which seems worth keeping.

Ok, this is not what I am doing, though it is the kind of ontological designing Willis describes here that informs my project.

This paper appears to be written from the perspective of a user contemplating designs-ready-made, not a design practitioner reflecting on design-in-the-making (to adapt Latour’s distinction).

The experiences that feed my thought (experiences I am undergoing, unfortunately, though quite conveniently, on this very project) are the reworkings of understanding induced by the breaking of individual interpretations and understandings upon an (as yet) inconceivable design problem.

In these situations, designers are forced to instaurate new local micro-philosophies that permit collaborators with incommensurable understandings to “align” their efforts to design equipment that can be readily recognized in a present-at-hand mode, adopted, and then used in a ready-to-hand mode. I think this microphilosophizing is an underrecognized gap both in design practice (which tends to focus its thinking on its tasks at hand, and rarely to macrophilosophize) and in philosophy (which rarely participates directly in the kinds of hellish rarefied design projects that inform my concerns).

My work is describing what happens if we apply the lessons of constant local microphilosophizing back to macrophilosophizing.

I think it is important because I’m seeing the same dynamics I see in my mini-hells unfolding in the larger world in our incapacity to align on what to do about — well — everything. The disgruntled tolerance for the postmodern condition and its refusal to macrophilosophize (due to the po-mo allergy to grand narratives) has contributed to a deep fracturing and factionalizing of our citizenry.

And you can see that this idea of designerly coevolution completely misses the central problem: How do we agree on what to do in the first place, in order to world our world into a state where maybe it can coevolve us back into a more livable, peaceful condition? Everyone is full of end-solutions, but at a loss to explain or even frame the problem of why we can’t get there, except to invent theories of viciousness about those who refuse to cooperate. We do not know how to think these kinds of conflicts, which are essentially just political crises — but I think I do have some clarifying insights, thanks to my occasional hell-immersions, and my funny habit of trying to feel better by understanding their hellishness and applying the resulting insights back to my own grand narrative, which I happen to think is better than the ones that developed in the vacuum of public intellectuals being to smart and stylish to perform their duties.

Differentiating enworldment design

Over the weekend Susan pressed me for details on how an enworldment can be intentionally changed. How does enworldment design differ from Stoicism’s mental toughening-up exercises, or new age self-helpers who advise us to tell ourselves a new story? It was helpful to be forced to get concrete, and to make some contrasts with transformational methods with which enworldment design might be compared or confused.

Difference 1. Enworldment design is morally unopinionated. It does not pursue any single ideal. It could be applied to help a person become more serene, openhearted, generous, evangelical, etc., or their opposites, or none of the above. The goal is a matter of the unique person and that person’s context.

Difference 2. Enworldment design is epistemologically open, but rigorous. There is no single truth to learn or discover, but a plurality of truth possibilities. These possible truths are multiple, overlapping and exacting, based on what concepts are adopted for developing truth. But this is not an arbitrary relativism, because, while there is no single truth, the possibility of untruth is pervasive and incessant — errors, mistakes, lies, etc. harm truths and make them fail in practice in various ways.

Difference 3. Enworldment design is not willfully imposed on the world, but is instaurated within the world, with the active participation with whatever worldly entities enworlded in the project. The world is taken as a collaborative partner, with its own complex and largely mysterious tendencies and constraints which are discovered in the course of design, which might even change the very goals of the design. When worldly entities cooperate with the enworldment, truth happens. When worldly entities balk, disappear or sabotage the enworldment, untruth happens. (This, by the way, is my ANTsy flavor of pragmatism.)

Difference 4. Enworldment depends on the destructive and reconstructive power of inquiry. Truth is not some objectlike, noumenal thing preexisting out there which we try to unearth by digging through the phenomenal bracket, until we can pull it out, clean it off, inspect it and have it as what it is and always was. That crude description is closer to (though still very far off the mark) reality, which can never be contained by truth. Truth is only the relationship a person has with reality, and those possibilities are myriad. And those possibilities are fragile. All it takes is looking harder, and truth will always break apart, clearing ground for something new. But if that clearing is investigated, harder and harder, something new is always there. Sometimes the new thing is worse than the old thing, but that, too, can be cleared and replaced. So, evaluation, rejection, restarting, discovering, experimentally developing, testing — this is how the work proceeds.

A corollary to difference 4: Because no truth can withstand scrutiny, the fact that a truth has not withstood it does not obligate us to abandon it. Instead, we should ask questions about tradeoffs. Does the critique render this truth useless, now?  Does it expose a flaw that would make it malfunction under certain circumstances? Was the truth durable enough for our purposes, and we just broke it for no good reason, like a kid taking apart a toy? Is there a tougher or more interoperable concept readily available we can swap out? A concept is an instrument that does some things well, and other things less well, not a mystical status of a belief. And just because you can break an instrument, doesn’t mean you should break it, so critique judiciously.

Difference 5. Truth possibilities are myriad, but so are truth impossibilities, which is why honesty and good craft are indispensable. As with all design, truth to materials is paramount. Self-delusion, wishful thinking, subjective fudging (overstraining and abusing the mind’s famous flexibility) are all vices that will compromise an enworldment’s integrity, and make it produce untruth instead of truths.

Oh no. Out of time. I’m just going to list the other points in raw form so I don’t forget them.

Difference 6. Enworldment design uses design methods. One of these methods is to take the experience of the design, rather than its artifact as the ultimate goal of the work. And good thing, too, because an enworldment’s artifact is arrangements of tacit processes to which direct access is impossible. The processes can be learned (and are learned in successful reading of philosophy or religious scripture), but what was learned appears only in how one behaves or speaks, never given explicitly.

Difference 7. Enworldments should be useful, usable and desirable.

Difference 8. Enworldments are separated by massive, intensely unpleasant vacuums of incapacity — perplexity, faltering and indifference. Crossing these gulfs of nothingness is what separates the men from the boys.

There’s so much more. I really have to stop now, though.

Justifying my frustrating ways

I’ve been a serious pain in the ass lately, even relative to my usual unspectacular behavior. I’m in a situation that has been extracting too many of the wrong things from me, too relentlessly, for too long, and it is undermining my mental health.

It’s all got me questioning myself, and my ability to get along with my fellow humans.

If only my philosophy were one that allowed me to dismiss these concerns. But I reject philosophies of contempt. And I’ve tried them all. They are too lonely, and I found the Sublime Solitude of the Profound Thinker to be a super-lame booby prize.

I’m feeling feel obligated to justify myself in multiple ways, even if I haven’t yet matured to a stage where I care if anyone actually buys my justifications. That would choke out out my remaining, already overburdened creativity, and I’m not doing it.

Anyway, below is one of my struggles. It’s pretty good.

*

I read philosophies in the way an industrial designer reads engineering literature.

Our industrial designer reads engineering books and papers to understand new materials he might use, or fabrication techniques that might open new possibilities of form or function. He might even dip into physics now and then to press past apparent limits. His fascination with shaping products invests materials and matter in general with significance, and this inspires his curiosity. But his urgency is a practical one: what can I do with this?

I am trying to justify my oddly arbitrary but intensely picky taste in reading, and, unfortunately in the kinds of work I can tolerate doing. For me, everything is driven by the design of enworldments, and most of all my personal enworldment, which is an enworldment within which enworldments are designable. I’m building a shop that makes parts for shops — shops that might even put my shop out of business.

So, no, I am not particularly interested in discovering unknown truths (not even fresh existential insights, which are my favorite ones). Nor am I motivated to acquire every formal technique for fabricating forceful, durable syllogisms (or even building a respectable baseline logical toolset, because logical welds seem brittler than rhetorical, poetic and especially heuristic joints, which have superior flex and tensility in many conditions.) And my deficiencies in adducing evidence to support my beliefs are worse than you suspect, however suspicious you are. You should not care what I think. I have not, and will never earn your respect, because I won’t do the boring legwork that requires.

You should respect only how I think and why I believe thinking that way is important, good and beautiful, and the ultimate way to show that respect is to try it out by climbing into it, and using it to generating some knowledge or judgments, and to experience how reality changes tone, significance and value while you do it.

I’m just rummaging for whatever is useful for my purposes.

Philosophical bug? Or feature?

I keep catching myself myself making an odd move when I read philosophical critiques of other philosophies, especially ones involving criticisms in the family of oversimplification, omission, or apparent blindspots.

I find myself protesting that what is being presented as a flaw seems to me a design device that helpfully bundles unmanageably complex phenomena as a simple data object or affordance.

These critics are doing that thing every design amateur does that drives professional designers insane, namely, treating every tradeoff as a disqualification of the design. When you realize that skillful designing is largely a matter of intentionally choosing optimal tradeoffs, perfectionists literally do not know what they are doing, and make design impossible.

To make these optimal tradeoffs, it is necessary to know what the design problem is: who will use it, for what purpose, under what conditions, where, when, and so on.

So, when critiquing a philosophy and calling it oversimplified, what I want to see is a tradeoff analysis. What does this simplification do in use? What class of problems are made harder by this simplification, and why is this an unwise tradeoff? Or better: when is it an unwise tradeoff?

Because, to say it once again: reality is infinitely complex. No concept, no concept system, not even the ideal set of every possible concept, is adequate to comprehend reality. The standard of truth implicit in omission critiques is an impossible standard. I prefer a humbler pragmatic standard of truth based on an absence of untruth, relative to the intended purpose of the truth claim. In other words, does this truth function as intended, or does it malfunction? Truth exists for the simple reason that falsehoods, errors and lies exist.

Enworldment design

Another way to think about enworldment within the larger context of philosophy would to be to draw another anomalous analogy between the domain of thought and the domain of engineering.

Some philosophy explores lines of thoughts out of sheer interest in the thought itself. Something about the ideal material fascinates the thinker. What can be done with this way of thinking? What can it be made to do? What can be made out of it? This is analogous to engineering — it is objective in the sense that the thinker is not inhabiting the thought or merged with it, but instead is absorbed in the activity of crafting, assembling, disassembling conceptual systems. This is philosophy in an engineering state of mind.

Enworldment is philosophy in a designerly mode. This is the mode of linking formal thoughts with the immersive experience of using them for one’s own understanding. Not as merely explaining or arguing — that is still a manipulation of objects external to self. Enworldment is using concepts for original and spontaneous understanding, where the understanding is built into how one conceives what one perceives, without any conscious figuring out or translation process.

Enworldment aims for the same goal as design — the extension of self through artifices. In enworldment we become conceptual cyborgs (thanks, Donna Haraway) through using concepts so perfectly designed that they are invisible (thanks, Beatrice Warde) and that produces a personal being-in-the-world existence that we understand intuitively and clearly, that helps us respond effectively to events in our lives, and that makes existence itself feel valuable and motivating, or as designers frame it, useful, usable and desirable (thanks, Liz Sanders).

I like to distinguish design from engineering by defining engineering as constructing purely impersonal systems — systems with components that function apart from personal participation. Once a system requires for its successful functioning a person who experience, responds and completes the system, the problem has expanded into a designed system. (Most engineering happens inside a usually unacknowledged design context, and most design depends on engineered subcomponents. This is why engineering ought to report up to designers.)

Enworldment is what happens when we pull together ingenious concepts and arguments developed through philosophical engineering type activities and assemble them into a habitat or a vehicle or workshop — something we can climb inside of and inhabit, which then becomes self-evident truth, and eventually indistinguishable from reality.

Beatrice Warde said “design should be in invisible.” By extension, the ultimate goal of enworldment design is naive realism.

Enworldment

I am contemplating a radical shift in language.

I’ve talked about “designing philosophies”, and observed that most of the time when we think about philosophy and design we almost automatically think about applying philosophical ideas to design practice, and rarely the reverse — applying design ideas and practices back to how we do philosophy.

But when we turn back to design these philosophies do this, I’m not sure it is helpful to think of what we are doing as a kind of philosophy (nor other handy words, like psychology or religion). We are definitely designing, but designing a very strange artifact in a very strange way which does something very strange to our experience of life. And further, philosophy is so obscenely freighted with history, crusted with connotation, and so professionalized and specialty factionalized — and I am so uncredentialed as a philosophical professional (or any kind of professional, for that matter), I might as well invent a new domain that I can survey and map out as I please.

So, I want to re-try out a re-new way of characterizing what I am proposing. Years ago I coined the term “enworldment” and started sporadically using it as an alternative term for worldview (which is too ocular and not interactive enough) and lifeworld (which seems too biologically interactive and downplays the conceptual too much for my taste).

Some things I like about the word “enworldment”:

  • It suggests a better locus for the activity of thought. Not inside my skull but outward into a world within which I am enmeshed.
  • I like this implication that the world neither contains us materially, not that we project it mentally, and that this world is neither an active medium that deterministically makes us into some kind of a self (aka identity), not a passive material upon which our agency can impose its will, but rather something we draw around ourselves and weave ourselves into, in how we think about it, in how we interact with it, and what we rearrange within it (aka, what we “make”).
  • I like that it is nearly synonymous with praxis, but freed from Marxian straightjacketing.
  • I like that it promises (or can promise) to do what religions do, but sans mumbo-jumbo. It could be argued — and I would be the last to argue back — that my own Judaism is no longer a religion, but instead, an enworldment. But, because it does everything I expect of a religion, including making intensely meaningful sense (albeit non-thaumaturgic sense) of religious texts and symbols, I observe Judaism (at least Reform Judaism). But the theories I consider respectable and useful smell pretty atheistic to most conventionally religious folks.

Out of time — I’ll write more later.

A possible outline for my book

A philosophy should be:

  • Understood as an instrument that is adopted and used (instrumentalism)
  • Expected to disappear in use and become a ready-to-mind producer of self-evident truths for its user
  • Designed with a subjective user experience (perceiving, understanding, anticipating, responding) as its primary purpose and mode of being, and its objective forms (presentation, argument, vocabulary, etc.) serving as a means to this subjective end
  • Evaluated as a designed experience according to its varying degrees of usefulness, usability and desirability
  • Understood to be used for specific purposes in specific contexts
  • Approached as potentially designable
  • Approached as briefable (framed as a formalized design problem)
  • Informed by design research
  • Developed using designerly instauration methods
  • Produced nonlinearly, through iterative rounds of testing, evaluation and redesign
  • Understood to be shaped by tradeoffs
  • Understood to serve as a mind-reality interface mediating interaction with transcendent realities
  • Understood as a system existing within larger ecosystems, with which it must cooperate
  • Understood to be designed using earlier generations of philosophical instruments

Instrumental-instaurationism?

Most “truth is a construct” type constructivists appear to have retained a vestigial correspondence theory of truth; that is, they take truth to be a little mental duplicate of, or model of or, in extreme cases, a substitute for, reality. Truth is true to the degree that it corresponds to reality. According to a correspondence-constructivist view, we are more or less free to reimagine the world we wish to live in, and this is what the world becomes for us.

My view is similar but differs in some consequential ways. I agree that truth is constructed, but my constructivism is modified by an instrumentalist theory of truth. I view truth as something produced by a repertoire of concepts we use to interpret and guide our interactions with reality. Truth is true to the degree that it helps us effectively interact with reality. According to my instrumental-constructivist view, there are ways we can modify the concepts we use to interpret, evaluate and respond to the world, and these can drastically change how we live and experience the world.

However, the changes rarely match what we imagine. We cannot start with an imagined ideal and then just build a worldview to spec. Why? The main reason is, according to this view, the world is very real and transcends our mental images, theories, models and plans, and when we act on it, reality acts back on us. Sometimes we can manage to get reality to cooperate with our hopes and expectations, but often does not, at least not on the first try. This this is especially true with that most special part of reality that is our fellow human beings. Humans are essentially surprising creatures.

This interactivity is a big reason I prefer, in place of constructivism, Étienne Souriau’s (or Bruno Latour’s?) term “instauration” which is a kind of interactive construction — a discovering-making — a term that any hands-on designer or craftsperson will instantly recognize as a better fit for how their constructions really happen.

Sadly, this change in language makes my view an “instrumental-instaurationist” one, which is so incredibly ugly the kidnappers responsible for abducting “pragmatism” might feel moved to euthanize the term out of pity. I’m going to refrain from naming it, and instead just call it a “philosophy of design of philosophy”.

Religious worldview

What makes a worldview religious? Here is a list of what I believe to be essential characteristics:

  • It is holistic. It effects near-total shifts in perspective, holistically changing the What, How and Why of existence.
  • It is transfigural. it spontaneously changes and seems to re-create both one’s self and the world — the visceral sense of who one is, who others are, what life is, what reality is and the relationship between self, other and everything.
  • It intensifies value. The shift in Why expands and/or deepens the value of life and reality itself.
  • It is transcendent. The worldview is oriented by realities that are understood to transcend comprehension.
  • It defies preconception.. The worldview is literally inconceivable until it happens.
  • It is second-natural. The worldview is not consciously used or applied; it spontaneously changes one’s experience of being prior to thinking. Insofar that one’s beliefs change, this is a byproduct of one’s faith, that tacit layer of understanding that shapes and moves thinking, speaking, feeling and doing.
  • It links us to a community. The worldview is capable of relating to others in a community who share our faith, even when our beliefs, thoughts and tastes differ. Something is shared, and this commonality is known to be real, even when it defies explication.

So far, so good. Now I will infuriate religious people by insisting that many allegedly essential characteristics of religion are dispensable.

  • It does not have to be theistic. A religious worldview can center around God, but God is only one way of conceiving transcendence.
  • It is not about believing. Beliefs about beings, deities, forces, events, theories might be a side-effect of a religious faith, but these are not the substance of religion, and all too often are counterfeits of religious faith.
  • It does not have to include magic. Adoption of magical or mystical beliefs or practices (rituals, sacrifices, prayers, observances) might be adopted as an expression or reinforcement of a religious faith, but these are also not the substance of religion, and all too often are counterfeits of religious life.
  • It is not a means to an end. Adopting religion in order to get something or accomplish something for oneself or the world — again, a goal of this kind can be a side-effect of religious faith, but more often, they are counterfeits.

I believe that many people who think they are religious are not, many people who think they are atheists are far more religious than they know, that many people who think they’ve overcome fundamentalism (which is counterfeit religion) still believe new secular content with the same fundamentalist faith, and that people need religion and are tormented by the wrongness of the world until they find it.