Category Archives: Philosophy of Design of Philosophy

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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

Susanne Langer on questions and conceptions

Susanne Langer calls conceptions “generative ideas”:

The limits of thought are not so much set from outside, by the fullness or poverty of experiences that meet the mind, as from within, by the power of conception, the wealth of formulative notions with which the mind meets experiences. Most new discoveries are suddenly-seen things that were always there. A new idea is a light that illuminates presences which simply had no form for us before the light fell on them. We turn the light here, there, and everywhere, and the limits of thought recede before it. A new science, a new art, or a young and vigorous system of philosophy, is generated by such a basic innovation. Such ideas as identity of matter and change of form, or as value, validity, virtue, or as outer world and inner consciousness, are not theories; they are the terms in which theories are conceived; they give rise to specific questions, and are articulated only in the form of these questions. Therefore one may call them generative ideas in the history of thought.

We recognize conceptions (or concepts or generative ideas — Langer appears to use these terms interchangeably) less by the answers they give, than by the questions they know how to ask, and these are deeply and emotionally bound up with our sense of reality:

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. If we are asked: “Who made the world?” we may answer: “God made it,” “Chance made it,” “Love and hate made it,” or what you will. We may be right or we may be wrong. But if we reply: “Nobody made it,” we will be accused of trying to be cryptic, smart, or “unsympathetic.” For in this last instance, we have only seemingly given an answer; in reality we have rejected the question. The questioner feels called upon to repeat his problem. “Then how did the world become as it is?” If now we answer: “It has not ‘become’ at all,” he will be really disturbed. This “answer” clearly repudiates the very framework of his thinking, the orientation of his mind, the basic assumptions he has always entertained as common-sense notions about things in general. Everything has become what it is; everything has a cause; every change must be to some end; the world is a thing, and must have been made by some agency, out of some original stuff, for some reason. These are natural ways of thinking. 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,” 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.

In philosophy this disposition of problems is the most important thing that a school, a movement, or an age contributes. This is the “genius” of a great philosophy; in its light, systems arise and rule and die. Therefore a philosophy is characterized more by the formulation of its problems than by its solution of them. Its answers establish an edifice of facts; but its questions make the frame in which its picture of facts is plotted. They make more than the frame; they give the angle of perspective, the palette, the style in which the picture is drawn — everything except the subject. In our questions lie our principles of analysis, and our answers may express whatever those principles are able to yield. 

There is a passage in Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, setting forth this predetermination of thought, which is at once its scaffolding and its limit. “When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch,” Professor Whitehead says, “do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.”

Some years ago, Professor C. D. Burns published an excellent little article called “The Sense of the Horizon,” in which he made a somewhat wider application of the same principle; for here he pointed out that every civilization has its limits of knowledge — of perceptions, reactions, feelings, and ideas. To quote his own words, “The experience of any moment has its horizon. Today’s experience, which is not tomorrow’s, has in it some hints and implications which are tomorrow on the horizon of today. Each man’s experience may be added to by the experience of other men, who are living in his day or have lived before; and so a common world of experience, larger than that of his own observation, can be lived in by each man. But however wide it may be, that common world also has its horizon; and on that horizon new experience is always appearing….” . . .

The formulation of experience which is contained within the intellectual horizon of an age and a society is determined, I believe, not so much by events and desires, as by the basic concepts at people’s disposal for analyzing and describing their adventures to their own understanding. Of course, such concepts arise as they are needed, to deal with political or domestic experience; but the same experiences could be seen in many different lights, so the light in which they do appear depends on the genius of a people as well as on the demands of the external occasion. 

This material is highly relevant to my own project of designing conception-systems.

  1. Conceptions are generative ideas and should not be confused with the content they generate.
  2. Conceptions generate worldviews, and are fundamental to how we see the world and ourselves situated within the world.
  3. Refusal to participate in the conceptions of a worldview (“rejecting its questions”) is offensive to its members. Putting it in ethnomethodology language, it is a form of ethnomethodic breach, and creates the same kind of confusion, discomfort and alienation typical of such breaches.

Later in the book, Langer also discusses the phenomenon of perplexity — of lacking all conception to filter and organize chaos — and of the apprehension perplexity induces in a person.

[Man] can adapt himself somehow to anything his imagination can cope with; but he cannot deal with Chaos. Because his characteristic function and highest asset is conception, his greatest fright is to meet what he cannot construe — the “uncanny,” as it is popularly called. It need not be a new object; we do meet new things, and “understand” them promptly, if tentatively, by the nearest analogy, when our minds are functioning freely; but under mental stress even perfectly familiar things may become suddenly disorganized and give us the horrors. Therefore our most important assets are always the symbols of our general orientation in nature, on the earth, in society, and in what we are doing: the symbols of our Weltanschauung [world view] and Lebensanschauung [life view]. Consequently, in a primitive society, a daily ritual is incorporated in common activities, in eating, washing, fire-making, etc., as well as in pure ceremonial; because the need of reasserting the tribal morale and recognizing its cosmic conditions is constantly felt. In Christian Europe the Church brought men daily (in some orders even hourly) to their knees, to enact if not to contemplate their assent to the ultimate concepts.

This brings me to a theory I’ve been developing about conspiracy theories. By this, I don’t mean the theories about conspiracies normal people may form. I mean those theories that function as central symbols to a certain conspiracy-oriented worldview. Conspiracy theorists are notorious for their compulsive need to discuss their theories, cornering people with no knowledge or interest in the material, forcing them to endure lectures or engage in one-sided debates. Why the drive to foist unwanted conversations on others? I believe these “conversations” function as rituals, and barely as personal interactions.

Interactive turn and its metaphysics

Have I mentioned my belief that our worlds are constructed primarily of interactions? It was Bruno Latour who made this real to me about ten years ago, and this was my last really big philosophical breakthrough. I suppose I could call it my “interactive turn”.

Latour’s descriptions of the conduct of science, and of everything, in terms of networks of interacting human and nonhuman actors changed how I understood both subjectivity and objectivity, and finally broke down my ability to keep those two categories discrete.

We are constantly interacting with our environments in myriad ways — physically, socially, linguistically, reflectively — reactively, deliberately, creatively, imaginatively, prospectively, habitually, absently, selectively. What we make of what is going on, that is, how we conceive it, has everything to do with how we respond to it, and how it responds back challenges us to make sense of it.

We respond to “the same” reality as related to us by other trusted sources, as passed off to us rumors from sketchy sources, as experienced as a participant in a real-life situation, as conveyed to us by a member of our own community following methods of the community, as taught to us during decades of education, as reported to us by journalists on varying integrity and ideological agendas, and as recalled by our own memories formed from different stages of our lives — and our response assumes some common phenomenological intentional object, some metaphysical reality, some commonsensical state of affairs on the other side of our interactions. But this is constructed out of interactions with innumerable mediators — people, things, thoughts, words, intuitions — who are included within or ignored out of the situation as we conceive it.

We lose track of the specific interactions that have amounted to our most habitual conceptions — our syneses (our takings-together taken-together) — which shape our categories of things, our expected cause and effect sequences in time, of our social behaviors and how they will be embraced, tolerated or punished.

Science is one variety of these interactions, but one we tend to privilege and to habitually project behind the world as our most common metaphysics. But once I learned to see scientific activities, scientific reporting, scientific explaining and scientific believing as a social behavior useful for helping us interact with nonhuman actors with greater effectiveness, somehow the relieved by need to rely on the metaphysical image science projects. I can believe in the effectiveness of the interactions and remain loyal to the social order established by science to do its work without feeling obligated to use a scientifically explicable reality as the binding agent for all my other beliefs to keep them hanging together. I see many good reasons not to!

Anything can happen

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Ass Festival

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Yea-Yuh and amen.

Enworldment design (again!)

Enworldment is my preferred term for lifeworld. I think it’s prettier and it has some desirable overtones: enworldment sounds like something that we intentionally shape for ourselves, where one can easily imagine an amoeba inhabiting a lifeworld.

Enworldments are held together by conceptions. Conceptions manifest in a variety of ways — only one of which is language.

Language is undoubtedly one of the most important manifestations of conceptions. Language provides our best access to conceptions, our readiest way to share them and also our best means to change them — to interrogate them, weaken them, break them, and to find novel conceptions, entertain alternative ones, to evaluate them and to adopt new conceptions in place of old ones.

Because language is so closely connected with conception it is easily to reduce conceptions to language or reduce change of conceptions to a change of language. To to conflate or confuse conceptions with verbalized concepts is to commit a logocentric category mistake.

Why should anyone care about avoiding this mistake? Changes in conception have consequences that extend beyond language. For instance, changes in conception can affect perception, not only in how a perception is interpreted (such as learning to see an optical illusion) but even how it is experienced aesthetically (such as when we acquire a taste, or when our tastes change in response to changes in our lives).

This should not be surprising if you understand perception as sensory conception (sensorily taking-together). A painter’s or musician’s style manifests conceptions in visual or auditory form, and a style resonates with us when we receive it via analogous conceptions, or they intrigue or disturb us when we intuit a conception that we are on the edge of learning.

*

From here I want to develop the idea that these conceptions we use to enworld ourselves and make sense of, interact with and to value some things at the expense of other things is not something we only do to enable us to change our world — though it does do that. The enworldment itself transfigures the world even before we apply it to our actions, in ways that make some better than others for different people in different contexts.

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).

*

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.