Category Archives: Philosophy

Design is human-centered design

The introduction of human-centered methods to design did not just improve design methods. It didn’t simply improve the quality of design work.

The introduction of design research — the essence of human-centeredness — fundamentally transformed design.

It radically differentiated what engineers always meant by design from what designers mean by it — and what we all now implicitly mean when we speak of design.

A similar essential change might be in store for design as we move from design intended for solo use, centered on one person at a time to design meant to mediate interactions between multiple persons, each of whom is part of the other’s experience.

For years now I’ve experienced philosophy as a kind of design. I don’t mean that the theoretical concept occurred to me. I mean I noticed that I had already for some time been evaluating philosophies as designed artifacts. And I don’t only mean that I was assessing the objective content of the philosophies as well-designed or poorly-designed. More importantly, I was noticing how I responded to the world itself mediated by the philosophies I internalized as I read them. The medium of philosophy is its message, not the content of propositions or arguments. I treated the philosophy as an invisible mediation of my experience of life, which got worse or better, based on the deep design of the philosophy.

I call this understanding of philosophy design instrumentalism.

I now believe philosophy should be a kind of polycentric design.

We must design philosophies for interoperability within culture, or we are committing design malpractice.

Agonism overview

From Chantal Mouffe’s Agonistics:

Let me briefly recall the argument I elaborated in The Democratic Paradox. I asserted that when we acknowledge the dimension of ‘the political’, we begin to realize that one of the main challenges for pluralist liberal democratic politics consists in trying to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations. In my view, the fundamental question is not how to arrive at a consensus reached without exclusion, because this would require the construction of an ‘us’ that would not have a corresponding ‘them’. This is impossible because, as I have just noted, the very condition for the constitution of an ‘us’ is the demarcation of a ‘them’. The crucial issue then is how to establish this us/them distinction, which is constitutive of politics, in a way that is compatible with the recognition of pluralism.

Conflict in liberal democratic societies cannot and should not be eradicated, since the specificity of pluralist democracy is precisely the recognition and the legitimation of conflict. What liberal democratic politics requires is that the others are not seen as enemies to be destroyed, but as adversaries whose ideas might be fought, even fiercely, but whose right to defend those ideas is not to be questioned. To put it in another way, what is important is that conflict does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies) but the form of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries).

For the agonistic perspective, the central category of democratic politics is the category of the ‘adversary’, the opponent with whom one shares a common allegiance to the democratic principles of ‘liberty and equality for all’, while disagreeing about their interpretation. Adversaries fight against each other because they want their interpretation of the principles to become hegemonic, but they do not put into question the legitimacy of their opponent’s right to fight for the victory of their position. This confrontation between adversaries is what constitutes the ‘agonistic struggle’ that is the very condition of a vibrant democracy.

A well-functioning democracy calls for a confrontation of democratic political positions. If this is missing, there is always the danger that this democratic confrontation will be replaced by a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values or essentialist forms of identifications. Too much emphasis on consensus, together with aversion towards confrontations, leads to apathy and to a disaffection with political participation. This is why a liberal democratic society requires a debate about possible alternatives. It must provide political forms of identifications around clearly differentiated democratic positions.

While consensus is no doubt necessary, it must be accompanied by dissent. Consensus is needed on the institutions that are constitutive of liberal democracy and on the ethico-political values that should inform political association. But there will always be disagreement concerning the meaning of those values and the way they should be implemented. This consensus will therefore always be a ‘conflictual consensus’.

In a pluralist democracy, disagreements about how to interpret the shared ethico-political principles are not only legitimate but also necessary. They allow for different forms of citizenship identification and are the stuff of democratic politics. When the agonistic dynamics of pluralism are hindered because of a lack of democratic forms of identifications, then passions cannot be given a democratic outlet. The ground is therefore laid for various forms of politics articulated around essentialist identities of a nationalist, religious or ethnic type, and for the multiplication of confrontations over non-negotiable moral values, with all the manifestations of violence that such confrontations entail.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding, let me stress once again that this notion of ‘the adversary’ needs to be distinguished sharply from the understanding of that term found in liberal discourse. According to the understanding of ‘adversary’ proposed here, and contrary to the liberal view, the presence of antagonism is not eliminated, but ‘sublimated’. In fact, what liberals call an ‘adversary’ is merely a ‘competitor’. Liberal theorists envisage the field of politics as a neutral terrain in which different groups compete to occupy the positions of power, their objective being to dislodge others in order to occupy their place, without putting into question the dominant hegemony and profoundly transforming the relations of power. It is simply a competition among elites.

In an agonistic politics, however, the antagonistic dimension is always present, since what is at stake is the struggle between opposing hegemonic projects which can never be reconciled rationally, one of them needing to be defeated. It is a real confrontation, but one that is played out under conditions regulated by a set of democratic procedures accepted by the adversaries.

I contend that it is only when we acknowledge ‘the political’ in its antagonistic dimension that can we pose the central question for democratic politics. This question, pace liberal theorists, is not how to negotiate a compromise among competing interests, nor is it how to reach a ‘rational’, i.e. fully inclusive, consensus without any exclusion. Despite what many liberals want to believe, the specificity of democratic politics is not the overcoming of the we/they opposition, but the different way in which it is established. The prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions or to relegate them to the private sphere in order to establish a rational consensus in the public sphere. Rather, it is to ‘sublimate’ those passions by mobilizing them towards democratic designs, by creating collective forms of identification around democratic objectives.

Pragmatic metaphysics, continued

I’m having a fruitful conversation with Digitalap3 in response to yesterday’s post, Pragmatic metaphysics. It inspired one possible answer to the question I posed: What pragmatic difference is there between pantheism and panentheism?

I think the “difference that makes a difference” (to put it in Rortian terms) may be that pantheism sees nature as a stable, intelligible order, and panentheism does not.

Pantheism conceives both nature and God to be available to us through reason. We can expect linear progress in knowing more and more deeply and thoroughly.

Panentheism, on the other hand, expects deep, epiphanic disruptions to our understanding. Reason is always tentative, and its stability is never long assured.

By this understanding, Thomas Kuhn’s innovation was the introduction of a panentheistic conception of science!

I’ve said before that mine is a metaphysics of surprise. Maybe this gets at it:

Pantheism is a metaphysics of radical reason.
Panentheism is a metaphysics of radical surprise.

Pragmatic metaphysics

Obviously, we cannot conceive something inconceivable prior to acquiring the capacity to conceive it.

But so what? Some realities are inconceivable. Some realities are incomprehensible. Why should we care? Is it such a problem that some things elude our understanding?

It would not matter if it were not for this truth: the as-yet-inconceivable attracts our attention and energy, and gives our lives purpose. The problem is not that we should already conceive or comprehend what we do not yet understand, but a living, active relationship with being who is beyond our understanding is a fundamental condition of a meaningful, fulfilling life. Understanding is a valuable by-product of such a participation in transcendent being.

This is where the Pragmatic Maxim is indispensable.

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

When we reach toward the inconceivable or incomprehensible, we cannot grip the “object” of our awareness (the ungrippable reality beyond our reach) but we can, in fact, work out some of the consequences of this incapacity, as well as some of the consequences of the possibility of acquiring a new capacity to comprehend what has been, so far, incomprehensible.

Strange. I wrote the passage above two days ago. Today, I was looking for an old post and stumbled upon exactly this same thought, which I’d forgotten.

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 (like each of us) interacts with being understood as transcending its finitude, and how such interactions are experienced. 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.

A sliver of givens

What gives my thinking its unusual tone, which some might correctly recognize as religious, is a conviction at the root of my meta-understanding of understanding: We are able to experience, intuit and know only a small sliver of reality, because we lack the subjective capacity to receive any but a small sliver of givens.

Wherever we lack capacity for a given, we are oblivious.

I have termed enception any capacity to take as given some particular category of given.

Because I live in a practical world, in which I get things done with others, I have adopted a safe-for-work term for enception: sensibility.

We have five senses that allow us to perceptively intuit realities in our environment, and we have a great many more sensibilities that allow us to conceptively intuit many more realities of inter-connection among our experiences, memories, anticipations, beliefs and inchoate gists.

To put it in Kantian language, an enception is any transcendental faculty for intuiting some specific kind of reality.

It is important to note that the percepts and concepts we intuit are quite different from the connections we make manually in argument or causal explanation. Constructed/contrued truth is not the same as intuited truth. Intuition and construction complement each other. We need perception, conception and construction. Based on which enceptions we activate and cultivate and which we neglect or suppress, different realities will be intuited directly or construed indirectly.

Perceptive designers might recognize this distinction in their design work. Designers make tradeoffs between what elements in an artifact a user will wordlessly recognize and interact with, which elements require some degree of figuring out, and which elements will become focal objects of the experience.

The reason I keep insisting that philosophy can and ought to be regarded as a design discipline is once a thinker recognizes the role enceptions play in everyday understanding — in what stands out as self-evident and relevant — one realizes this is the deepest realm of personal responsibility.

If we do not take this responsibility and simply prescribe to what those around us prescribe to, we risk becoming participants in collective sociopathy.

The reason I read philosophy is to cultivate new enceptions.

Pragmatic panentheism

When I trace out the pragmatic consequences of panentheism they weave themselves into something I recognize as resembling the reality in which I participate.

Panentheists seem, on the whole, to be a pretty unaggressive lot. We don’t like to prescribe doctrines. I am starting to believe, however, that unexamined metaphysical assumptions are behind much human misconduct. I have developed a strong metaphysical preference, not only for myself, but for others. In other words, it is no longer a matter of personal taste, but of morality.

I might write a Borgesian book review of the nonexistent title, Panentheist Pragmatic.

Trouble, divergence, alignment, diversity

In my field of human centered design, it is understood that before any group of people can collaborate effectively on anything, they must first align on the problem and then align on the solution.

What does this mean? Aligning on a problem means to share a conception of the problem — to think about it in roughly the same way. It is important to note here that until a problem is conceived, it is not even a problem — it is a troublesome situation.

And troublesome situations have the potential to be problematized in divergent ways implying diverging paths to a solutions. More often than not, groups confronting troublesome situations problematize the trouble in divergent ways, compounding the trouble, because now stubborn, troublesome people appear to block the way to a solution.

This happens for at least three big reasons.

Big Reason Number One is personality. Individual persons with different temperaments, sensibilities and capabilities understand and perceive the world differently in both subtle and dramatic ways, and notice different aspect of situations.

Big Reason Number Two is discipline. When people from different backgrounds confront a troublesome situation, they tend to notice very different features of the problem. Specifically, the notice symptoms of problems they specialize in solving. Different disciplines conceive problems in different and incompatible ways, and this is one factor that causes departmental strife in organizations.

Big Reason Number Three is the lived experience of incomplete information. Divergence of understanding is exacerbated by incomplete data. Given a smattering of facts, our habitual way of understandings (the combo of personality and expertise) fills in data gaps to complete the picture and perceive a gestalt truth. And we all have access to different smatterings and experience the smatterings in different sequences. Our early impressions condition our later ones. Being humans, a species with a need to form understandings, who prefer misunderstanding to an absence of understanding (perplexity), we immediately begin noticing whatever reinforces that sense, and tune out what threatens it. So the specific drib-and-drab sequence of data can play a role in shaping our impressions. The earliest dribs and drabs have “first mover advantage” in gestalt formation.

These three big reasons are not even exhaustive. It’s no wonder organizations are full divergent perspectives and controversy. (Contra– “against” + -versus “turned”). Generally, these circumstantial impressions and expert diagnoses of troublesome situations are not entirely wrong. Some are likely truer than others, but it is hard to determine which is truer than which. And it is somewhere between possible and likely that none are true enough for the purposes of solving the problem. As a matter of method, we designers assume none are right enough. (And if it does turn out that a preexisting truth turns out to be true enough, now we can support that truth with data and align the organization to it.)

Our job as design researchers is to go out and investigate real-life examples of the troublesome situation and expose ourselves to the profusion of data that only real life itself can offer. We see what emerges as important when we allow people to show us their situations and teach i\us how it seems to them.

This gives us a new, relevant conception of the problem rooted in the people we intend to serve with our design solutions.

Once an organization shares a common conception of the problem, they are better able to conceive solutions that they can align around.

And further evaluative research — getting feedback on prototypes of candidate solutions — allows teams to align around solutions that people consistently respond to favorably.

Aligned implementation teams can collaborate effectively on working out the solution in detail.

So, as I hope you can see, the designer’s task is largely a political one of cultivating alignment through collaborative research, modeling, ideation and craft.

I am unable to believe that this is not generally a better way to live.

When I am at my best, I conduct my life in a designerly way in accordance with my designerly faith.

My praxic taste

Reading Fritz Perls, I’m struck by some common principles between Gestalt Therapy and ethnomethodology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT), two of my favorite (closely associated) flavors of sociology. What interests me about the similarities is that it indicates something about my own intellectual taste, or maybe my metaphysical orientation.

These ideas fill my heart with Yes! and inspire my to underline passages and draw big stars out in the margin. I am not even sure these are two distinct principles, but rather a single two-in one principle.

  1. Do not start with a pre-existing interpretive schema, but instead, follow the phenomenon wherever it takes you. Allow the interpretation to follow from the following. The interpretive schema is what is most in question, and it is the destination of the research, not the point of departure.
  2. Do not impose your own interpretation on the subject matter, but allow the subjects involved in it to teach you their way of interpreting what is happening. Assume interpretive competence and respect it. The researcher does not know better.

The highest principle of social learning:

Follow the subject matter and allow its truth to emerge.

And another is like it:

Respect your subjects as interpretive equals.

Beautiful instruments

I love beautiful instruments.

These are useful tools — like pens, bicycles, guitars, blades, bags, digital devices, user interfaces — designed so well that they disappear in use, becoming extensions of our own being. They are, in Heidegger’s words, ready-to-hand.

But when we shift our awareness to present-at-hand, and contemplate them as objects, we find them aesthetically resonant. They reinforce our sense of value and meaning.

I love beautiful instrumental language. The words are transparent in use, spontaneously conveying meaning without obtrusion, distraction, obfuscation or distortion. When we participate in reality, doing and speaking, the words are part of reality and participate in its realness.

But when we attend to the words themselves, hearing them, seeing them on a page, experiencing them objectively, they are beautiful. The form of the language reinforces our sense of value and meaning.

The words extend our subjectivity and become part of us, but they are also objects that help us feel who we are, and what we care about.

Words, like selves, have subjectivity and objectivity, concavity and convexity, are ready-to-hand or present-at-hand depending on how we let them be for us.

When I sit in my library, among my books, I feel profoundly at home.

I love when people visit and talk with me in this beloved space, lined with books filled with the words of people I love, people I have done my best to incarnate and make immortal through my own share of moral life.

Philosophy is useful poetry.

“Why philosophize? To capture reality!”

Some closely connected thoughts that speak directly to my own current concerns.

From Eric Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections:

The motivations of my work, which culminates in a philosophy of history, are simple. They arise from the political situation.

Anybody with an informed and reflective mind who lives in the twentieth century since the end of the First World War, as I did, finds himself hemmed in, if not oppressed, from all sides by a flood of ideological language — meaning thereby language symbols that pretend to be concepts but in fact are unanalyzed topoi or topics. Moreover, anybody who is exposed to this dominant climate of opinion has to cope with the problem that language is a social phenomenon. He cannot deal with the users of ideological language as partners in a discussion, but he has to make them the object of investigation. There is no community of language with the representatives of the dominant ideologies. Hence, the community of language that he himself wants to use in order to criticize the users of ideological language must first be discovered and, if necessary, established.

The peculiar situation just characterized is not the fate of the philosopher for the first time in history. More than once in history, language has been degraded and corrupted to such a degree that it no longer can be used for expressing the truth of existence.

This was the situation, for instance, of Sir Francis Bacon when he wrote his Novum Organum. Bacon classified the unanalyzed topics current in his time as “idols”: the idols of the cave, the idols of the marketplace, the idols of pseudo theoretical speculation. In resistance to the dominance of idols — i.e., of language symbols that have lost their contact with reality — one has to rediscover the experiences of reality as well as the language that will adequately express them. The situation today is not very different.

Voegelin wrote these words in 1973. They are probably always true to some degree. But I find them more true today than any other moment in my life. More and more of my peers are “representatives of the dominant ideologies” and this makes it impossible to share a community of language with them. Their worlds are stocked with ideological objects that eclipse and replace rather than articulate what is given.

This bit is especially relevant: “In resistance to the dominance of idols — i.e., of language symbols that have lost their contact with reality — one has to rediscover the experiences of reality as well as the language that will adequately express them.”

This concern for maintaining contact with reality, resonates powerfully with the book I am currently reading, Fritz Perls’s classic Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality.

…All contact is creative and dynamic. It cannot be routine, stereotyped, or merely conservative because it must cope with the novel, for only the novel is nourishing. … On the other hand, contact cannot passively accept or merely adjust to the novelty, because the novelty must be assimilated. All contact is creative adjustment of the organism and environment. Aware response in the field (as both orientation and manipulation) is the agency of growth in the field. Growth is the function of the contact-boundary in the organism/environment field; it is by means of creative adjustment, change, and growth that the complicated organic unities live on in the larger unity of the field.

We may then define: psychology is the study of creative adjustments. Its theme is the ever-renewed transition between novelty and routine, resulting in assimilation and growth.

Correspondingly, abnormal psychology is the study of the interruption, inhibition, or other accidents in the course of creative adjustment. We shall, for instance, consider anxiety, the pervasive factor in neurosis, as the result of the interruption of the excitement of creative growth (with accompanying breathlessness); and we shall analyze the various neurotic “characters” as stereotyped patterns limiting the flexible process of creatively addressing the novel. Further, since the real is progressively given in contact, in the creative adjustment of organism and environment, when this is inhibited by the neurotic, his world is “out of touch” and therefore progressively hallucinatory, projected, blacked out, or otherwise unreal.

Creativity and adjustment are polar, they are mutually necessary. Spontaneity is the seizing on, and glowing and growing with, what is interesting and nourishing in the environment. (Unfortunately, the “adjustment” of much psychotherapy, the “conformity to the reality-principle,” is the swallowing of a stereotype.)


But just as in our culture as a whole there has grown up a symbolic culture devoid of contact or affect, isolated from animal satisfaction and spontaneous social invention, so in each self, when the growth of the original interpersonal relations has been disturbed and the conflicts not fought through but pacified in a premature truce incorporating alien standards, there is formed a “verbalizing” personality, a speech that is insensitive, prosy, affectless, monotonous, stereotyped in content, inflexible in rhetorical attitude, mechanical in syntax, meaningless. This is the reaction to or identification with an accepted alien and unassimilated speech. And if we concentrate awareness on these “mere” habits of speech, we meet extraordinary evasions, making of alibis, and finally acute anxiety — much more than the protestations and apologies accompanying the revealing of important “moral” lapses. For to call attention to speech (or to clothes) is indeed a personal affront.

But the difficulty is that, disgusted with the customary empty symbolizing and verbalizing, recent philosophers of language set up astringent norms of speech that are even more stereotyped and affectless; and some psychotherapists give up in despair and try to by-pass speaking altogether, as if only inner silence and non-verbal behavior were potentially healthy. But the contrary of neurotic verbalizing is various and creative speech; it is neither scientific semantics nor silence; it is poetry.

It seems to me that Voegelin and Perls are largely concerned with the same phenomena at different scales: the tendency for language to create objects of thought that purport to represent real objects (gestalts that we spontaneously experience as given in contact with the world around us) but which somehow become substitutes for reality and cause the thinking subject to lose contact with reality.

This concern, of course, is at the heart of design research as I understand it. Our job as researchers is not only to help organizations gather data they lack. It is to help organizations recover fuller contact with reality beyond their own walls.

Most large organizations squint out at the world through data peepholes, custom-drilled to perceive what they assume is relevant. From this data, they construct abstract models and theories about what is going on. The numbers and models and theories become the objects of preoccupation for these organizations — far more real than what they are meant to represent. When organizations find they are unable to use these abstract objects to produce the numbers they are commanded to produce, occasionally someone within the organization is wise enough to suggest leaving the building and making contact with the reality behind the abstractions. And generally, we find that the abstractions themselves need reworking. This abstraction design is foundational to all other design, and this is the part of the work I love. If I am required to design without this preliminary, I am deprived of ground upon which to build — or even stand.

Wrongheaded anti-Islamophobia

Post-9/11, I was on the side of the anti-Islamophobes.

My argument was, and still is, that peaceful and liberal Muslims should not be forced into the same category with violent, theocratic, totalitarian Islamists.

Islamophobes ignorantly and unfairly suspected all Muslims of being covert violent, theocratic, totalitarian Islamists. because the category “Muslim” was more immediately real to them than actual, living Muslims in all their variety.

Essentially, I was making a “not all Muslims” argument. I suppose some bigot could have invented a “not all Muslims” meme and ridiculed me for being a decent liberal who points out the inadequacies of stereotypes, but that kind of nonsense only works on fellow bigots.

But to condemn openly violent, theocratic, totalitarian Islamists is not Islamophobia. Far from it. When we condemn them, we do not condemn them as Muslims, but as violent, theocratic, totalitarians.

And to excuse or celebrate openly violent, theocratic, totalitarian Islamists is not anti-Islamophobia. It is betraying liberalism 1) by supporting its enemies, and 2) by indulging in eubigotry, which is every bit as dehumanizing as dysbigotry.

In bigotry — whether negative dysbigotry or positive eubigotry — we reduce a person to our own mental category and our beliefs about what categorization means, and allow our own understanding to eclipse who they are and how they understand themselves. We do not afford them the dignity of transcendent reality. We approach them in the attitude of I-It as objects, not in the attitude of I-Thou as fellow subjects capable of joining us in first-person plural.

On the subject of gestalts

Common sense is constituted of gestalts. It is shared gestalts that transmit being across scales.

If I experience some entity (of whatever kind), with my conceptual mind, participating body, and feeling viscera, as a unity, I become a unity in experiencing it fully. In experiencing the entity’s objective unity as real, I experience my own unified subjective reality, first-person singular.

And if I, as a unity, experience this entity with another person, who also, as a unity, experiences the entity, and we experience it together, we together become a subjective unity. We have a shared experience of reality and we are first-person plural.

I’ve stopped trying to be sane, so I see this new first person plural subject as essentially the same as the first person singular. Just as groups can align or conflict, a single self can align or conflict. An individual person can be self-estranged into dissociated “dividual” bits of clashing consciousness who cannot make up our minds, or are of two (or more) minds, or seized with inward conflict or chaos. And this state varies by context. In some situations we are divided against ourselves, and feel estranged not only from the context — where we are, who we are with, what we are doing — but within ourselves. In other contexts we feel at home and at peace with ourselves.

This is why I am always saying that a personal subject and an academic subject are a subject in the same sense of the word. Each is a system of gestalt-capacities that unifies itself around some particular subject-matter. An academic subject is a subject state attuned to make some particular kind of sense of some particular unities within reality. A personal subject that knows an academic subject becomes a participant in the academic subject when attuning to its gestalts with others with the same attunement.

The word I have used for a gestalt-capacity is enception. I’ve also used the word sensibility (ability to make a particular kind of sense) and arcanum to mean the same thing. If we apply enceptions (especially with others) to make a spontaneously experienced common sense, this application is what I’ve called synesis. And objective reality as given to any particular subject is what I have referred to as an enworldment. (This has also been called lifeworld by Husserl and his followers. I just like enworldment better.)

Endemic to this problem space is a confusion between subject and object. We tend to conflate subject-matter with subject, when, often subject-matter is only that by which a subject is acquired. The object is the means by which the subject is induced and animated. Doctrine is the means by which faith is summoned to life.

We can perceive or conceive gestalts of actual entities — systems that function as a unit.

But we can also perceive or conceive gestalts that seem to — but do in any way — function as a unit. We reify ideas corresponding to nothing beyond themselves, sometimes affording them agency they simply do not have.

Ideologies are the subject-matter of collective subjects who experience common social gestalts.

Ideologies can be in touch with reality (as Fritz Perls say) — that is, perceive, conceive and respond to actual entities that function systemic units. Such ideologies are in contact with reality. Liberal ideologies acknowledge that multiple gestalt systems can contact reality in divergent ways, and experience reality differently, producing different conceptions of what is true. That is, they are pluralistic. But some ideologies that are in contact with reality are not pluralist, and this can cause problems.

Other ideologies are driven by a compulsive need to form its kinds of gestalts, whether or not those gestalts correspond or not to any actual entities. These ideologies fall out of contact with reality, to some degree. Such ideologies can become aggressive and destructive in their effort to force reality into conformity to their gestalt schemas. They are sustained largely by social conformity, so nonconformity is experienced as an existential threat.

Whenever I seem to attack groups or members of groups, I attack them as subjects, and usually ideological subjects. I tend to attack non-pluralist ideologies, regardless of their degree of contact with reality.

My own passionate conviction is that the fullest degree of contact with the reality of other subjects brings us into contact with the ultimate reality of pluralism.

Yes, I am, in fact, moving toward a correspondence theory of truth! But it is a pluralist correspondence. This is new for me. Cool!

Misnorms abound

A few times I’ve watched right-wing friends take a sudden and obsessive interest in a scientific controversy.

Two big ones are climate change and covid. They decide to do their own research, and dive into the literature. By “dive”, I mean they will read one papers or maybe two, and massive heaps of skeptical articles about those papers.

Then, having done their own research, they will confidently announce that this body of work is irregular, suspicious, and clearly unscientific.

My response to them is something like this: “How do you know what is scientific? To what are you comparing this work? Can you show me some examples of work you’ve examined that does conform to your understanding of scientific norms?” Invariably, the answer is “no” but never confessed directly but, rather thickly coated in longwinded, convoluted, hydra head-sprouting reasons why it doesn’t matter.

If I were a better person, I’d leave it there. But I am not a better person, and I turn nasty and sarcastic, and make accusations: “You have absolutely no interest at all in science, and you never followed any scientific program until this one, which is an object of political obsession. So why are you so confident that you even know what is normal in science?” … “You’re a classic case of Dunning-Kruger.”

And please understand, I don’t make this attack merely skeptically. I have a much better idea than they do what science looks like close-up. For one thing, I’ve studied norms of scientific practice. And, further, when I was young I worked in a laboratory. While I was there I made the same mistake my right-wing friends make. My laboratory was obviously the sketchiest, most reckless laboratory in the world. But after reading up on the matter, it turns out it was all pretty damn normal. It was my own imagined norms that were sketchy and reckless.

You might wonder why was I reading about science and what scientific practice looks like when observed close-up.

The main reason was that my own profession, human-centered design, suffers from the same problem. All too often, non-designers expect design to happen in some vaguely methodical, unmessy way that has little to do with how design work gets done — and they get extremely uptight and resistant when they witness real design work close-up. This causes endless problems, especially when we need them to participate in design processes, as happens on almost all service design projects,

I made up a name for this kind of ignorant, semi-fantastical notion of how something probably, vaguely, ought to happen. I call them “misnorms”.

Lately, I’ve found a new and especially vicious form of misnorm, this time among progressives. It infects even reasonable people, and especially compassionate, reasonable people. They all judge Israel’s war in Gaza by misnorms of war.

They have never looked at war close-up. They do not know what lawful, responsible conduct of war is and how it compares to actual genocide. They hear “proportional response” and think they get the gist of what that means. They think they can plug war statistics into a spreadsheet and make objective moral calculations. And they haven’t looked into the realities of war in any detail at all. They know it mainly through video clips of WWII or the Vietnam War or Desert Storm, all of which were controlled or supervised by the United States military. This war is the first one filmed on camera phones and controlled by a government other than the USA.

We think this war is different and worse than all other wars, when in fact this war is just filmed differently and for different purposes to serve the interests of different group. Some of these interests are those of foreign powers. (Hamas cannot annihilate Israel through military force. But it can through manipulation of gullible, sentimental, and self-loathing Western elites.) Others are domestic power interests — namely, those of our own professional class, aka yours. Some of them are petty careerist interests (like playing nice with Hamas in order to continue enjoying the same access to Gaza as one’s rival reporters). Some are commercial. (Subscription journalism must supply the kind of morally-gratifying product that its consumers demand. They’re not paying to have their views challenged.)

It would be different if they were pacifists and unconditionally condemned all war. But they don’t. These people, according to themselves, are radicals. These are not limp-dick liberals. Radicals believe in violent revolution. As long as an underdog is doing the killing, and those killed are categorizable as powerful oppressors, it’s all perfectly fine. Punch up as savagely, sadistically and hatefully all you want. (This is the sacred double-standard of Progressivism, which applies to all groups except Progressivists themselves, who not only morally permitted but morally obligated to punch down with devastating force in defense of all the defenseless. If you are a Progressivist, you don’t even need to be warned not to reflect on this condition. You feel it in your gut that, I don’t know… there’s just something wrong with this criticism.)

Fact is: War is hell. It always is. We have always been shielded from the worst of it. Now we are being shown the worst of it on purpose. No population is ever fully responsible for what its government does, but in modern warfare the population suffers the consequences. There are always significant innocent or even dissident casualties. To require political unanimity as a condition for military attack means an end to all war. Again, pacifism is fine. But to support terrorism against innocent civilians — or to claim no civilian of an “occupying” or “colonizing” power can ever be innocent is blatant hypocrisy. Proportional response is not a matter of casualty count. It is a matter of military value of targets relative to civilian casualties. Hamas intentionally conducts its war in a way that kills as many of its own people as possible when Israel make proportional responses. Don’t use words if you don’t fucking know what they mean.

Until Progressives make some minimal attempt to understand norms of war, their opinions on the normality or abnormality of this particular war are as ignorant and worthless as the QAnon opinions on science. And I am unwilling to discuss worthless opinions with ignorant blowhards.

And the same goes for political norms. I’m not listening to another ignorant right-wing or left-wing opinion on what is a normal liberal-democratic view and what is “hard right” or a obviously a nefarious left-wing conspiracy (‘coz how else can you explain it?). People toss around accusations of nazism and fascism without ever having bothered to inform themselves on the history or beliefs of real right-wing authoritarians. Gists do not work, and they are just artifacts of simplistic ideological misnorms.

. . .

I will, however, continue to discuss these matters with people who have informed themselves, and are able to bring new disruptive facts or perspectives to the table. This kind of informed argument can actually change my mind.

And I will also converse with people who are curious, who are aware of how much they do not know, and who might change their minds or even form an initial opinion.

Basically, if the possibility of changing minds exists, I’m ready to talk.

Designing our world(s)

Most of our personal being is bound up in wordless, intuitive participation. Our easiest words are part of our social participation. Explicit thought enters the scene mostly where intuitive participation fails.

We see this very vividly in the field of design. When we craft an artifact that really works, people take the artifact up into their intuitive social participation and act through it use it without fully perceiving it or thinking about it.

So, if explicit thought is primarily a response to intuition failure, why would we imagine it desirable, or even possible to dismantle a functioning organically developed system, and replace it with an explicitly thought out, manually constructed social order? This is like trying to grow a body from wound tissue and scars.

Here it is time to trot out the finest quote Yogi Berry never uttered, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” We imagine we can engineer a better world, until we are faced with the urgent need to actually do it.

God forbid we are ever faced with a dismantled, or otherwise destroyed social order. Then we will realize that most of the kinds of people who have strong political opinions do not even understand what a political problem essentially is, namely a problem of e pluribus unum — a problem of aligning a diverse plurality around a unified understanding and course of action.

Technocrats think politics is figuring out what ought to be done and then doing it. Dissent and resistance, to them, is an obstacle to political problem-solving. They may be top-notch policy engineers, but as politicians, they very literally do not know what they are doing.

Take it from a designer, if your job is to persuade and inspire and win broad-based assent — that requires serious, arduous learning.

You must learn how people experience their lives, what is on their minds, what is important to them, what disturbs them, what they fear and what they hope for. You must know what a person’s world is like. Where do they live? Where do they work? With what people do they interact everyday? What tools do they use? By what media is the wider world beyond their environment given? How is their time spent? Where do they have control of things? Where are things out of control? Where do they feel controlled? Where do they feel empowered and respected? Where do they feel oppressed and humiliated? What do they experience as beautiful and good? What do they experience and ugly and bad?

We could call this a “worldview”, and many people do, but it is more than a view, both literally and metaphorically. It is a kind of involvement and a participation. Some have called it “lifeworld”, but, at least to my ears, this seems too biological, too passively received, too uncreative. People shape and reshape their physical and social environments, and they shape and reshape their understandings of reality. Received learning can change understandings, but so can one’s own trials, errors and successes. And only some of the understandings are explicit. Many more understanding are entirely intuitive, habitual and tacit. These understandings live in our bodies and souls, and never concern our heads. By this understanding, selves are not body-shaped. Selves stream out into the world through tendrils of action, influence, perception, communication, concern and they weave together into complex and sometimes chaotic meshes of being. The word I like best to designate this inseparable person-context hybrid is “enworldment”.

Even in simple design problems, this never involves fewer than two enworldments. There is always an enworldment of the provider of a design and the enworldment of the recipient, and normally there are many more than two.

When we finally understand an enworldment we can speak into it with respect and generosity. We are better able to persuade and win assent. In fact, we can invite people to collaborate with us to actively shape whatever solution we seek to win assent for. This is politics.

When I talk with young designers about politics, I recommend that they stop thinking about politics in the way they were taught to think politically, and instead to approach politics as a designer.

I cannot emphasize this enough: if you find yourself slapping your forehead and asking “how can those people believe this?” Or if you find yourself exasperatedly exclaiming “I just don’t understand why those people feel this way…” or do this action, or care about this thing or that, or have this or that passionate aversion… Understand that you are confessing ignorance!

People who are very, very clever and who made high marks in school and who are accustomed to understanding things effortlessly it is easy to succumb to a foolishness that afflicts smart people: the fallacy of argument from incredulity, which assumes that what is beyond their comprehension is incomprehensible nonsense. Instead of seeking comprehension, it diagnoses why someone espouses nonsense or delusion.

Who in their right mind would ever consent to be led by people who disrespect them, refuse to hear them and understand them?

We must relearn how to learn! And we must relearn how to respect others. Our liberal democracy depends on it.

Hebrew heart

Apparently, I never posted on something very important I learned in Torah study several years ago.

For ancient Hebrews, the heart did not signify what we assume it does, reading it today. We assume the heart is what feels. But for them, the heart was not the seat of emotion. The soul — nephesh, the breath — was what feels emotions. The heart — levav — was the seat of understanding.

So when Pharaoh was said to be heard of heart, this did not mean he was unfeeling. It meant that he was unable to conceive things in any way except his. He had hardness of understanding, and this inability to understand made him unable to empathize.

Hermeneutic sclerosis

The chief affliction of ideologues is something I’m calling hermeneutic sclerosis, a hardening of interpretive schema. An ideologue has lost control of her gestalt formations, and her world of meanings becomes fixed and inflexible.

This matter is on my mind today because I just finished Nellie Bowles’s The Morning After the Revolution, a tour of the excesses of the world since 2020. This book casts harsh light on how both “antiracism” and in trans activism employ the same move to resolve deep conflicts within its own ideals.

Both movements appear entirely unable to avoid stereotyped understandings of the world. “Antiracists” and trans activists view black people and women in especially stereotyped ways, which, by normal standards necessarily result in bigotry. But progressivism condemns bigotry. Fortunately, according to itself, bigotry is only problematic if that bigotry involves an oppressor identity imposing negative stereotypes on an oppressed identity. The reverse case — bigotry against an oppressor — is not only permissible bigotry, but a laudable form of activism, which helps to re-balance the cultural prestige books by humiliating oppressor identities who have become too uppity, and puts them in their proper place. After enough humiliating oppression at the hands of the oppressed, equality will be restored, and no further humiliation of anyone will be required. But until then it is important to express generalized hatred of masculinity and whiteness and heteronormativity. (And now, of course, Israel.)

(How the oppressed are able to impose their will so effortlessly and why oppressors are powerless to stop the humiliation is a question progressivists work tirelessly to avoid asking. If your ideology is against power per se, and believes the that true sources of an oppressor’s power and even their true identity must be unnamed and concealed, discovering that you, yourself, possess overwhelming societal power and that you are very much viewed as the oppressor class by an underclass who resents you, not because they are vicious bigots, but simply because they resent you, their oppressor — to see this clearly for once, would spell total moral collapse. So, they employ a combo punch of argument from incredulity and argumentum ad hominem: “La la la la la! I don’t understand how anyone could possibly reject our gospel of social justice! Those who reject it must be dupes of foreign propaganda! They be in denial and unconsciously want to preserve their own power! La la la la! They must be totalitarians who want to abuse their voices and votes to subvert Our Democracy! La la la la!”)

The redefinition of bigotry to encourage categorical hatred against oppressor groups, is fortunate, for it affords a possibility for escaping damning labels like “racist” or “sexist” or “transphobe”, even when escape from seeing in stereotype is impossible.

Or perhaps this redefinition was established out of the necessity of breaking out of this otherwise impossible condition.

Either way, here is the move: The progressivist gives up on the hopeless project of willful refusal to acknowledge their authentic stereotyped perceptions, and gives over to them entirely. But they reverse the value judgments of each stereotyped perception. What, before, was assigned a negative value and called vice is now reversed into a positive value and celebrated as virtue. And what was extolled as virtue is reversed and condemned or mocked as vice.

The activist who sees exclusively in racist stereotypes find liberation in reversed valuation, pretending that what was bad is good, and what was good is bad.

The chapter on Tema Okun is revealing:

Born in 1952, the daughter of a well-known progressive professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tema rebelled against what she saw as an overly intellectual family life.

She went to Oberlin and majored in physical education. “I knew it would freak my father out if I was a P.E. major, because it was anti-intellectual. So those three things kind of converged, and I became a P.E. major,” she said of the choice. She started a graduate degree in sports medicine at Chapel Hill but failed the training exam and never finished her degree. (Later, she went on to complete a PhD at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, with a thesis titled “The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know.”)

After a breakup, she moved to Seattle, worked as an aquatic and fitness director for a local YMCA, and got into the clogging scene, joining a group called the Duwamps Cloggers. She started working in the anti-racism world, and she liked it, eventually partnering with anti-racist educator Kenneth Jones.

When they worked together, Tema was often in charge of details like plane reservations. Kenneth didn’t care much about details. She would get upset and feel resentment, creating what she described as a relationship of “belovedness and tension.”

But Tema always stayed a little different from the others in that alphabet soup. They were all too focused on formal nonprofit structures and minutiae, she thought. They were focused on just what was right in front of them.

Tema was having a spiritual experience. One night, after a frustrating day seeing a lot of bad white behavior, Tema sat down and something “came through her.”

“I operated mostly as a vessel and the words came through me rather than from me,” she wrote in 2021, in a self-published retrospective about the list. “The original article was my one and only experience of producing something that came through me.”

The document was so simple. The list was so clear. It did not ask those white women to learn about Puerto Rican political figures. It did not tell them to phone bank and mail letters to their congressmen or get on a plane. It told them to release their perfectionism. It told them that urgency itself was white supremacy.

Under Tema, the anti-racism movement could shift from a political movement grounded in facts to an emotional and spiritual one. The battle did not need to be about structural realities and governments. It could be about ourselves. Objectivity — facts — it’s all racist. Whiteness is a virus that kills.

“The purpose of white supremacy and racism is to disconnect us from each other,” Tema said one day during a talk with a reverend. “To disconnect each of us from spirit, source, creativity or whatever you name the energy that connects all of us. White supremacy and racism are designed to disconnect us from the earth, the water, the wind, the sky, the sun.”

The goal of Tema’s work is not necessarily to raise up black and brown people but to take down the white supremacist system. It is not to add more diverse faces at the boardroom table but to dismantle the table.

“The underlying assumption is that this white world is the default world, the normal world that we should all aspire to,” is how she put it to a crowd at a conference once. “This white world is in deep trouble. What we need is an entirely new table or perhaps no table at all.”

This is what made Tema different from the rest of those Bay Area anti-racists. It’s why it was so powerful.

“An assumption of racial equity work in the past was that racial justice was to the benefit of people of color, and we’re going to lift people of color into the white world, and that’s the goal,” Tema says, in a keynote address to a data science conference called JupyterCon. “And what I see changing, which is really, really critical, is that more and more white people understanding that that’s not the goal. This is not about simply including people into the white world. It’s about questioning the world.” She has a lean face and long gray hair. She speaks slowly, carefully. Sometimes she holds her hands together as if in prayer.

Whiteness, to Tema, is like the serpent. She calls it a “constant invitation” that has to be turned down.

She often talks about anti-racism in openly religious terms.

And the new anti-racism has been embraced by a liberal Christian world that articulates whiteness as a sort of satanic possession — an original sin. The anti-racist movement grew, and the scenes were familiar Christian scenes. In June 2020, white police and activists in Cary, North Carolina, washed the feet of black protestors and asked for forgiveness.

Some anti-racist training programs are semireligious organizations, sometimes explicitly. One diversity training program with four locations around the country was called Crossroads Ministry. They’ve since rebranded as Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training.

Tema makes appearances to religious bodies. She appeared with the Reverend Tami Forte Logan, a preacher with the African

Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The event is put on by Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. The event began with the audience being asked to breathe deeply together.

In the recording, Tema comes on in a purple blouse, a gray sweater over it. There’s children’s artwork behind her. The room is dark but she is lit, which is how she styles most of her appearances.

The Reverend Tami, who is black and younger than Tema, says when white people are exhibiting the traits of whiteness, they seem crazed.

“From the outside looking in, I’ve observed that often unfortunately it almost looks like a possession, like something just takes over white people,” the reverend says.

Also there is Pastor Marcia, who is white and with Grace Church. She agrees.

“What is it that makes whiteness so seductive?” Pastor Marcia says. “It internalizes itself in white bodies but also black, indigenous, and brown bodies. It gets into our cells. It changes the way our bodies work. What is it about this that is so seductive that we literally eat it and drink it and let it seep into our bones?”

Whiteness seeps inside her. She’s drawn to it, and she hates it.

When someone gives in to that temptation for whiteness, they die, Tema says. Anyone can drink of whiteness. Anyone can die of it.

“People from different ethnic communities that end up giving up their ethnicity in order to join whiteness, it is death. It is completely death and the actual suicide, addiction, depression, all those rates are much higher in the white community, and I think there’s a direct connection,” Tema said. “We have this sense that we are involved with something that is so wrong and bad.”

Freedom from the traits of whiteness is the goal. Freedom from the urgency, freedom from the written word, freedom from perfectionism. These are white values, and we can be better and happier without them.

“This isn’t about helping others,” Tema says. “It’s about how my life, my happiness, my belonging depends on helping to enact racial justice in our world.” Pastor Marcia agrees.

“Tema, I want to say hallelujah,” Pastor Marcia says. “I see white people being set free from their own bondage.”

The chapter on trans activism does the exact same move with female stereotypes.

My own diagnosis of this painful and pain-inflicting condition is to “flip the script” as some new agers like to say, and claim that the problem is one of far too much reliance on emotions. Progressivists try to achieve with pure willful emotional manipulation what can only be achieved with thought — specifically philosophical thought — thought with provides us new modes of interpretation, and with these new modes of interpretation, now experiential givens with new valuative valences.

This is why I’ve coined this term hermeneutic sclerosis, or if you want to avoid being a presumptuous blowhard, “interpretive hardening” or hardening of the understanding. Today’s huge-hearted, hot-blooded political sentimentalists are so sure that thinking is a cold, logic-bound, argumentative, aggressive force (something belonging to the world of those detestable creeps, the white men) that they subscribe to a notion of justice that knows only compassion, forgiveness and forbearing and excludes all rational judgment, limits, discipline.

We can see this very clearly in Brene Brown’s mangling of the definition of empathy. Empathy has (until its recent ideological capture, deformation and fetishization) meant the effort to understand the experiences of another person when such understanding is not immediately accessible. It is a function of coordinated thought and feeling. Sympathy is spontaneous feeling-with another person.

But in Brene Brown’s hands, “empathy” means double-plus sympathy. It means really, really feeling in an involved way instead of not really feeling in a distant, uninvolved, phony way.

There is no trace of hermeneutical thinking in Brown’s definition. And most young people I’ve talked to about it see no problem, because they share her prejudiced blindness toward thought, and fail to recognize thought’s indispensable role in human understanding and justice.

They have no method of understanding the experiences of other people except to listen carefully to their testimony, paying very close attention to the emotions they report having, to assign truth status to that testimony and to have the most intense and expansive emotions of their own about the fact that the other had such feelings.

“Empathy” among progressivists is not empathy. It is a mixture of political sympathy — the natural feeling-with their like-minded ideologues, usually of resentment, rage and hatred — plus imaginative pathos of the kind people enjoy when reading a novel. It is, again, an exercise of hypertrophied sentimentality and atrophied intellect that knows only one mode of interpretation, the unbiased, objective one that all benevolent, intelligent and educated people agree is the truth.

Until this prejudice against philosophical hermeneutic genuinely empathetic thinking is overcome, I fear things will get worse and worse, stupider and stupider and more and more evil.

Not all leftists

Expressing disdain toward another person’s indignation will never reduce that indignation. And if we’re honest, we’ll admit it isn’t meant to. It is meant to add insult to injury. It says “I can injure your pride with impunity, and ridicule your protests with impunity. I do not have to care what you think or feel, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

The “not all men” meme is an example of such disdain. The “white fragility” diagnosis of attempted arguments to “antiracist” doctrine is another. These are not arguments. They are speech acts that demonstrate profound disrespect and refusal to respond to appeals to reason.

When progressivism passes out of favor, which this is happening very rapidly — and when more moderate and reasonable leftists try to dissociate themselves from the excesses they tolerated, downplayed or ignored — and when they find their attempts at reason summarily rejected with “not all liberals” or “woke fragility”, I hope at least a few decent souls will remember that I tried to warn them.

If you want to make appeals to liberal principles, you must also honor liberal appeals when they are made to you.

Everybody is a liberal when they are weak. But when they are strong enough to oppress, they suddenly become critiques of liberalism and see it as an impediment to progress.

In the next few years, the left is going to lose power. It has been contemptuous and abusive to ordinary Americans and proven itself unfit for leadership in a liberal-democratic society. And the right, which has been championing liberal values for the last decade will throw off its sheep’s clothing and show its true wolfish, illiberal nature.

And when chastened leftists try to protest and appeal to liberal principles, I’m going to remind them that they renounced those principles.

I wish people would just stop pretending to be principled. I can count the number of principled people I know on my two hands.

You can be unprincipled and good, at least to some small degree.

And good to a small degree is good enough.

Trying to be more moral than you really are does more damage than good.