Category Archives: Philosophy

Please don’t disassemble my philosophy

I got curious about how many times on this site I’ve repeated my favorite Wittgenstein quote “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’” The answer is: a lot.

Too many times I’ve called this quote my favorite definition of philosophy, or my favorite articulation of philosophy’s purpose. But this is only true if we take philosophy to be the solving of philosophical problems. And while a lot of what we call philosophy is precisely this, I think it is not the best way to understand philosophy. The best philosophies are completely unproblematic and render our experiences of the world and our beliefs about the world unproblematic.

Wilfrid Sellars definition is much closer: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” When our philosophy fails to perform this function, we then have a philosophical problem, and no longer know our way about. Then we “do philosophy” in order to reestablish a persuasive understanding of how things hang together.

But it must be persuasive. For this, it is necessary that it be logically compelling, but this alone is not sufficient. It must somehow link up with out intuitions of the world, most of which are purely practical and tacit and derived from myriad interactions with the myriad beings of the world– people, things, environments, experiences, ideas — some successful, some unsuccessful. We know more than we know, and our persuasion is subject to these unknown knowns of that swarm of unknown knowers who are the citizens of our soul.

This background of practical activity, of response, of intuitive belief is what I call faith. Our faith is not static. It responds to the world and changes in response to what it undergoes and overcomes.

Each person’s faith responds to different things to different degrees. Some of us respond most to relationships. Some respond most to emotions. Some respond most to beauty. Some respond most to mystery. Some respond most to participation in rituals. Some respond most to practical problems. Some of us respond most to ideas.

Those of us who respond strongly to ideas find philosophy fascinating, inspiring and sometimes life-changing.

Many others want philosophy to work unobtrusively, like a household utility. If it is already working, they aren’t too happy to see someone try to fix what isn’t broken. I don’t know about you but if a neighbor comes over to my house and starts disassembling my old, rattly, but mostly-still-functioning air conditioner to see if he can get it to work better, I’m kicking him off my property.

It is more than reasonable to not want to examine our own beliefs. When time travel is invented, I’ll be heading back to 2003 to explain truth this to my self.

I’ll also tell myself to avoid the company of people who don’t know or don’t care about the verdicts of faith — only what can be argued or defended. Our faiths deserve respect, and we show respect by taking persuasion seriously, and not just hectoring faith with argument. Arguments should be offered, not imposed.

A case for business philosophy

I just found a post from a baker’s dozen years ago that does a good job of articulating my views on radical creativity, perplexity and philosophy. Confusingly, I called it “pro-lifer” probably a pun on being a lifer in the professional world. It is a bad title.

I like it, but I want to edit it and use some of it in this damn book I’ve been wanting to write. I’m trying again in April. So here it is in slightly edited form.


Sometimes, when we press ourselves to think through difficult problems, we come to a point where how we think imposes limits on what we can think.

A problem is recognized — felt — but when we try to think it out, we arrive at the edge of thinkability. We cannot resolve this problem with the intellectual moves that ordinarily work to resolve our problems.

If we are precise and honest with ourselves, we will realize something disturbing: at this point what we most painfully lack is not an answer, but a clear question. We cannot even articulate the problem.

Our minds do not know what to do with such a situation. We don’t even know how to talk about this experience. We are completely oriented by metaphors of objects existing positively in a negative space that’s given: and this space is reality itself.

But here, the very space for the problem is lacking. Our minds boggle at this, just as it boggles when we try to contemplate what stands beyond the limits of space, or what occurs beyond the limits of time. It is literally inconceivable.

Such situations are not uncommon, even in the intellectual flatlands of business. It might be helpful to develop some vocabulary for such situations:

  • An inarticulate problem that remains inarticulate because it stands outside the current limits of thinkability is a perplexity.
  • When we intuit that something problematic might conceal a perplexity and if we attempt to comprehend it we might get sucked into a perplexity and trapped there we feel apprehension. We are tempted to hold the problem at arm’s length, or ignore it, or treat it as a more familiar problem that we do know how to think and respond to.
  • The distinctive, painful feeling we are caught inside a perplexity is anxiety. This feeling is always intensely uncomfortable, but when it is accepted as the birth pangs of genuinely new idea it becomes a far more acceptable part of the labor and delivery of innovations.
  • The limits of thinkability in a particular approach to a problem is an intellectual horizon.
  • Perplexities are resolvable by the peculiar and perpetually misunderstood activity known as philosophy.

*

What? Philosophy useful in business?

Ask a dozen people to list the ten most useless things any person can do, and philosophy will top the list. When an exasperated project manager exclaims “We don’t have time to philosophize!” nobody questions the wisdom of such practical thinking.

However, it is precisely here, when a group faces situations it does not know how to think out — where people become most anxious and most impatient and most inclined to just pick something and go with it — that philosophy is most useful and is in fact the very cornerstone of eventual success.

According to Wittgenstein: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’” Is this not exactly when a company goes outside and hires someone to help it find its way out of a problem it doesn’t understand? When it doesn’t know its way about?

Yet, even consultancies — companies whose very purpose is to help other companies in this situation — are stuffed with anti-philosophical “pragmatists” whose life purpose is to simply get things done. Under the stress of anxiety such people reject the very thing that will bring them success. They stop thinking, stop listening and put their noses to the millstone.

This is how most of their projects go. Most of their projects turn out pretty unspectacular, but since they’ve never experienced a spectacular outcome, and because spectacular outcomes are uncommon, anyway, nobody blames them, nobody blames their client for their unspectacular, unlovable, unexceptional non-success, and nobody gets fired — so good enough. And emails go out calling the bunt a home run, and an assemblage of best practices an innovation, etc., etc. etc. and this is what makes corporations so damn corporate. They didn’t confront anxiety, and, so, realistically, this is the most that can be hoped for.

“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.” — Wittgenstein

*

The reason few companies innovate is not that they lack intelligence or ingenuity or ideas — it’s that they are organizationally unprepared to face the perplexities and the anxiety intrinsic to innovation.

They misdiagnose the painful feelings of things going right as something going dreadfully wrong, and inadvertently abort the innovation process.

*

Most people, most of the time will try to make the absence of a clear question go away by making up things that resemble answers, that seem more or less related to what the question could be or ought to be. As long as the answer fits the standards of the culture to which it is addressed (that is, it has a truthy mouth-feel) and does not offend or impinge on anyone (inconsequentiality is the surest strategy for accomplishing this), it is generally accepted as an answer.

Boring or anxious?

As we all know, “there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide people into two kinds and those who don’t.”

And as anyone who knows me knows, I’m of the former camp, though do I believe there are innumerable interesting or useful ways to bifurcate our species, so I can easily come across as the latter.

Today my favored bifurcation is 1) those who prefer anxiety to boredom, and 2) those who prefer boredom to anxiety.

In this bifurcation, too, I am of the former camp, though I can go on about anxiety so extensively, that I often seem to belong to the latter.

How to close the theory-practice gap

I have never once just thought up a truly new practice and then executed it afterwards.

Every new thing I’ve ever conceived emerged from intuitive, nonverbal doing — from groping in the dark, from muddling through, usually under conditions of considerable perplexity and stress.

Only after, if it worked, can I go back and reflect on what made it work, and produce a theory.

I’ve never seen things go the opposite direction.

As far as I know, the only way to close the theory-practice gap is to theorize from practice. And it is less like a closing of a gap than it is paving something substantial but rough and poorly lit.

There is only a gap if theory has been sketched into a vacuum. I don’t think those gaps ever close.

And trying to practice from theory leads to mechanical sterility. It leads to execution of memorized dance steps, or the recitation of syllables from an alien language.

Every important thing I’ve ever conceived has come came to me this way. And every important thing I’ve ever learned has come to me first as a new practical capacity, a new ability to perceive or respond first — tacit know-how — and only much later has it become something I can actually explain.

Maybe a Sartrean formula would be helpful: Practice precedes theory.

What emerges from practice-forged theory is praxis — articulate practice.


I am excited about design as an alternative mode of practical life.

It is a new living tradition, a way of working, self-consciously developed by many diverse practitioners, solving a vast and growing array of real-world problems in every conceivable material (matter, space, time, information, imagination, feeling), for (arguably) the last 60-so years.

It is a tradition that must be appropriated and internalized before it becomes productive in the head, hearts and hands of a participant.

It is the appropriate mode of practice for anyone who works in systems in which humans participate. If you think about it at any depth at all, this category embraces just about all human activity, most of all the governing of people at every scale.

Design is the way we should be approaching life together, but its methods and even more, its core sensibilities, its conceptive capacities, are still largely confined to specialists. In my own life, I’ve found that disciplining myself to behave as a designer has made intractable, incorrigible problems soluble.

Almost anything I do, I do better if I do it in a designerly way.

But what is this designerly way? It is not methods. It is what animates these methods. It is a faith.


More and more, I am realizing that the purpose of my life is to illuminate and activate the esoteric underpinnings of design practice.

Like all faiths, design has a visible outward form that can be looked at — an exoteric expression — and an inward, esoteric being that cannot be looked at, but rather is seen from.

The reason I have been so quiet lately is I am returning to the sophia perennis. I want to do for design what esoterists have done with traditional religions — illuminate their transcendent unity. To this end, I am focusing on the esoteric depths of my own faith, and studying Kabbalah.

But just to preemptively address on obvious and important objection:  I am not in the slightest interested in making design into a religion. I am just trying to invest our practical lives with religious energy. We cannot continue on with this vacuous, stressful, tedious slogging. Our oil-dependent economy depends even more on another rapidly depleting fuel source, will-power. Our will-power tanks have been sucked dry are emptied even of vapors.

We sit before our screens, commanding our hands to move and type out words, but they refuse to do what we say.

We need an alternative, renewable psychic energy source. But we cannot tap into this source as long as we continue to insist that all new sources conform to our current sacred theories of power. These theories possess us and will not release us until we pay the price of our redemption.

Polycentricity

Every citizen today seems to have a non-negotiable issue. “I will play by the liberal-democracy game on any issue except this one issue, which, to me, is more important than liberal-democracy itself.” Here, one is entitled — no, one is obligated! — to use force if persuasion fails.

But what if your fellow citizen takes precisely the opposite position as yours? This, in fact, is not hypothetical. Your non-negotiable opposes their non-negotiable.

You, however, actually know what is true and good. You can explain why your contemptible enemy is deluded and morally perverse.

Your enemy, however, also knows what is true and good and has explanations for your deluded and perverse morality.

What makes you so sure you are right about being right, when your enemy is wrong about being right? Is it your justification of your judgment? Well, that is only meta-judgment, and it is just as fallible as judgment.

For instance, you think you’ve addressed your biases? What if you are biased about your biases? You look for them some places and not others. Hell, some of your worst biases are against people who challenge your biases, but you give those prejudices pretty moral names.

Our very worst biases, our most incorrigibly vicious prejudices, live in the holy of holies, at the sacred center of our moralities.

And here is the root reason that you so sure of your rightness. It is nothing other than the fact that you are you. And this makes good sense. You were born into the center of the universe, and you have never left it. Never for one second has the universe not orbited about its heart, who is none other than you.

But you are not the only center of the universe. I, for instance, was born into the heart of the universe. My wife was, too, as were both of my daughters.

We are all centers of the universe.

Nobody has the right to ask another person to decenter themselves, no matter how brilliant our arguments and no matter how sound our theories. When we do so, we are invariably asking them to center ourselves as the true center of the universe, even if we pretend it is for other people. We want to impose our own morality, or own prejudices, our own biases, so we can better mistake them for Truth.

Instead, we can polycenter ourselves. In this act, we each go first and invite others to join us.

When we polycenter ourselves we acknowledge our fellow-centers by seeking to persuade and cultivating our own persuadability.

For us, the only non-negotiable is that everything must be negotiable.

The invitation looks and sounds like respect — gassho or dap or “shalom”or “namaste”, etc. It changes the air around you. We become who we are, organs of the distributed God.

Concept and synthesis

(Below is a post I wrote in June 2022. I didn’t publish it for some reason, but reading it now, it seems interesting enough to release.)


In December 2005, I posted a philosophical typology on LiveJournal:

A philosophical typology

  • What is its principle of organization? Is it systematic or organic? In other words, does articulation or construction predominate, and to what degree?

  • What is its scope? How much does it admit as relevant, and how much must it prune out as irrelevant, in order to close its horizon?

  • What is its range of action? Is it analytical (destructive), synthetic (constructive), or both?

  • What is its terminus of meaning? In other words, where does it ground its assertions? In the perceptions of primary experience, in the assumptions of science, or does it avoid grounding and merely posit in circles?

  • What is its attitude toward existence? Negating, neutral, affirming?

  • What kind of resolution to problems is sought? An articulation, a proof, an application, something else?

I look for some other qualities, too, but they are mostly just earmarks to help settle the questions listed above. The most important earmark: is the philosophy monodualist, and if so, what is the nature of the duality (or dualities) the philosophy selects as significant?

That is the earliest use of the concept-synthesis dichotomy I can find. It appears I was reading S. L. Frank at the time. I need to go back and see if I got it from him.

This dichotomy was a resolution of a perplexity at the heart of the worst design project (and the worst year) of my life. I found myself completely unable to talk about or argue for some existential necessities for doing design work — necessities that are apparently felt as real by some — but, for others, are not experienced at all. For them, talk about these necessities is talk about nothing, about imaginary nonsense. Sadly, these “others” seem to thrive in business and get promoted to positions of authority, especially in technology. For me, though, nothing is more real than these existential necessities. Being forced to work without it, in a milieu where they were not even real enough to deny, sucked me into the deepest, most hopeless state of despair I’ve ever felt.

Around 2011 I designed a framework to explain how design methods move teams from relative unclarity to greater clarity. It showed a kind of interplay between conceptual and synthetic development. Ever since, I’ve had reservations about some of the claims I made, especially concerning design methods and movements along the proposed path to clarity. But the framework remains as relevant now as it was then. In 2013, when I started a design studio with a friend, we named the company after the form of the path to clarity: Outspiral.

This framework was also inspired by despair — the second worst of my life. The theme here was a continuation of the first.

The Tool-Using Animal

Note: I wrote this post a few days ago, and sort of abandoned it. Then I had a conversation with my favorite expat gringoid, who said a bunch of stuff that I’d said in parallel in this post. I’m posting it now mainly for his amusement. It’s unfinished, but there’s some gold flakes mixed in with the silt, if you don’t mind doing some light sifting.


We humans are tool-using beings.

We are such profound tool-users that the boundary between our own being and the being of the tool is blurry. A good tool in use becomes an extension of our mind, our body, our attention, our intention. We do not know where we stop and where the tool begins. And the better the tool, the less we perceive it.

The very best tool, the one that extends us best, the one least distinguishable from our own being is language. Some of us identify with our language so thoroughly that when we have a question, and ask it and answer it with language, we think the language itself asked and answered it.

Most of our life is lived beneath language, beside language, and beyond language.

But to language all life is words, and it is language who says what is and is not real and true.

A bad tool, including bad language, requires us to use language in order to operate the tool. We have to ask ourselves questions and answer them before we can do the next step. Or we have to recall instructions to execute. It is this that makes a sharp boundary between me and the thing I am trying to use. But on this side of “me” is a set of language tools, that seem part of my own being. But they are not really me. They are only my favored tools — so favored that I forgot there is a self beneath them who could use other language and interact differently with the real beings around me, if only I could “open the hand of thought” and let these old interceding words drop away.

This is what we do when we meditate. We let being be. And we let language chatter alongside the being, or we let it stop chattering. We do not let language absorb our being, or we at least allow being to notice its accidental absorption. No, Language: Shhhh… the point of meditation is not (as you assume) to give us a nonverbal experience that we can know about. No, we cannot read books on meditation and get the same knowledge about meditation that we get from doing it. It is not for that.

But it cannot occur to our language-using being to stop using language to think about being. Language uses language to keep using language to use other language. Many of us — most of us — are trapped inside a linguistic machine that moves us more than we move it. When we try to understand ourselves we use words to think thoughts about the object of our thought, Me, what makes me identical to other subjective objects (“Others”) and what makes Me and Others identical to one another (“Identity”). The transcendental subject who uses and cannot stop using its words to do all its understanding cannot comprehend the word-using, word-used transcendental subject behind the word use, because understanding is its words.

If you know what I mean here, this will be, at best, a redescription of a truth you know well.

If you do not know what I mean here, this will be, at best, a redescription of a truth you understand differently and better. You prefer a third-person scientific mode of explaining mystical, existential truths, but beneath all the descriptions we refer to the same deeply mysterious object underpinning all reality. We are all referring to the same Tao, the same Ein Sof.

But this is not about referring — or not only about it. It isn’t even mainly about it.

It is about participating in what transcends our being and what transcends our language.

Pragmatic Opportunity Cost

I explained the Pragmatic Maxim to Susan this morning. I explained how Pragmatism provides an alternative to correspondence epistemologies. The meaning of any assertion or belief is the sum total of practical consequences of its being the case — the Golden Therefore — or as William James so crassly and Americanly put it, the pragmatic “cash value” of that truth. She thought for a second and asked whether for each assertion there was also a set of practical consequences left unconsidered.

She called it the Pragmatic Opportunity Cost.

Dang.

The servant of practice

The wisest thing Yogi Berra never said was “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”

Those who have pushed theory to its limits, and subjected all values to critical interrogation will tell you also that in theory there is no better or worse, beautiful or ugly, good or evil. Theory debunks them. They are social, psychological, philosophical phantasms, constructs, instruments of domination.

So it seems from inside what can be theorized about.

In practice, however, values are the very heart of the matter.

Theory is — and must always be — the servant of practice. When theory tries to usurp the place of practice, theory repeats Apollo’s rape of Daphne.


If you confine yourself only to what you can objectively conceptualize, explicate, reason out, argue and defend you’ll find it impossible to take many of the most important features of human life seriously.

You will gain a comprehensive objectivity at the cost of subjectivity.

But you will not even experience the loss, because, by this point, you will have come to consider subjectivity an epiphenomenon of objective processes, a species of object, an epiphenomenon of objective processes.

A subject, however, is not an object. Subject is, among many other things, objectivity.

To make an antithetical dichotomy of subject-object is to commit a category mistake.

Subject and object are not on the same order of being. Subject is the ground of object, the objectivity within which an object appears as an object among objects.

Subjectivity is our first-person participation in reality. The antithesis of subject, that against which it is defined, is not object, but rather transcendence.

The subject-object dichotomy is a nihilistic dead-end category mistake. The subject-transcendence (Within-I, beyond-I) dichotomy opens us to participation in the world among myriad objects.


Critical theory criticizes everything except theory as final arbiter of what is really real, what is apparently real and what is unreal.

But in practical life, theory plays a minor role.

Theory plays a major role only in the skull-sized kingdom of wordworld, down in the palace dungeon where the Grand Inquisitor does his work.


Nietzsche:

In the writings of a hermit one always hears something of the echo of the wilderness, something of the murmuring tones and timid vigilance of solitude; in his strongest words, even in his cry itself, there sounds a new and more dangerous kind of silence, of concealment. … The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he 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.

Nietzsche again:

Into your eyes I looked recently, O life! And into the unfathomable I then seemed to be sinking. But you pulled me out with a golden fishing rod; and you laughed mockingly when I called you unfathomable.

“Thus runs the speech of all fish,” you said; “what they do not fathom is unfathomable. But I am merely changeable and wild and a woman in every way, and not virtuous — even if you men call me profound, faithful, eternal, and mysterious. But you men always present us with your own virtues, O you virtuous men!”

Thus she laughed, the incredible one; but I never believe her and her laughter when she speaks ill of herself.

And when I talked in confidence with my wild wisdom she said to me in anger, “You will, you want, you love — that is the only reason why you praise life.” Then I almost answered wickedly and told the angry woman the truth; and there is no more wicked answer than telling one’s wisdom the truth.

For thus matters stand among the three of us: Deeply I love only life — and verily, most of all when I hate life. But that I am well disposed toward wisdom, and often too well, that is because she reminds me so much of life. She has her eyes, her laugh, and even her little golden fishing rod: is it my fault that the two look so similar?

And when life once asked me, “Who is this wisdom?” I answered fervently, “Oh yes, wisdom! One thirsts after her and is never satisfied; one looks through veils, one grabs through nets. Is she beautiful? How should I know? But even the oldest carps are baited with her. She is changeable and stubborn; often I have seen her bite her lip and comb her hair against the grain. Perhaps she is evil and false and a female in every way; but just when she speaks ill of herself she is most seductive.”

When I said this to life she laughed sarcastically and closed her eyes. “Of whom are you speaking?” she asked; “no doubt, of me. And even if you are right — should that be said to my face? But now speak of your wisdom too.”

Ah, and then you opened your eyes again, O beloved life. And again I seemed to myself to be sinking into the unfathomable.

Eichmann and cliches

Following is a selection of comments Hannah Arendt made about cliches, culled from Eichmann in Jerusalem. The highlights are mine:

The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist –provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny. … It was funny when, during the cross-examination on the Sassen documents, conducted in German by the presiding judge, he used the phrase “kontra geben” (to give tit for tat), to indicate that he had resisted Sassen’s efforts to liven up his stories; Judge Landau, obviously ignorant of the mysteries of card games, did not understand, and Eichmann could not think of any other way to put it. Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school — it amounted to a mild case of aphasia — he apologized, saying, “Officialese is my only language.” But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. (Was it these clichés that the psychiatrists thought so “normal” and “desirable”?

To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” — except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.


Eichmann’s astounding willingness, in Argentina as well as in Jerusalem, to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich. ‘‘Of course” he had played a role in the extermination of the Jews; of course if he “had not transported them, they would not have been delivered to the butcher.” “What,” he asked, “is there to admit?” Now, he proceeded, he “would like to find peace with [his] former enemies”a sentiment he shared not only with Himmler… but also, unbelievably, with many ordinary Germans, who were heard to express themselves in exactly the same terms at the end of the war. This outrageous cliche was no longer issued to them from above, it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those cliches by which the people had lived for twelve years; and you could almost see what an “extraordinary sense of elation” it gave to the speaker the moment it popped out of his mouth.

Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences. His memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happened; in a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused: “What can you remember?” (if you don’t remember the discussions at the so-called Wannsee Conference, which dealt with the various methods of killing) and the answer, of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well, but that they did not necessarily coincide with the turning points in the story of Jewish extermination or, as a matter of fact, with the turning points in history. (He always had trouble remembering the exact date of the outbreak of the war or of the invasion of Russia.) But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of the sentences of his that at one time or another had served to give him a “sense of elation.”

Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judges tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with “elation,” and they were outraged as well as disconcerted when they learned that the accused had at his disposal a different elating cliche for each period of his life and each of his activities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.

These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial — less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, and to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar — which he obviously was not. … Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.


…As far as Eichmann was concerned, these were questions of changing moods, and as long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase to go with them, he was quite content, without ever becoming aware of anything like “inconsistencies.”


Justice, but not mercy, is a matter of judgment, and about nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge somebody else. What public opinion permits us to judge and even to condemn are trends, or whole groups of people — the larger the better — in short, something so general that distinctions can no longer be made, names no longer be named. Needless to add, this taboo applies doubly when the deeds or words of famous people or men in high position are being questioned. This is currently expressed in high-flown assertions that it is “superficial” to insist on details and to mention individuals, whereas it is the sign of sophistication to speak in generalities according to which all cats are gray and we are all equally guilty.

Another such escape from the area of ascertainable facts and personal responsibility are the countless theories, based on non-specific, abstract, hypothetical assumptions – from the Zeitgeist down to the Oedipus complex – which are so general that they explain and justify every event and every deed: no alternative to what actually happened is even considered and no person could have acted differently from the way he did act. Among the constructs that “explain” everything by obscuring all details, we find such notions as a “ghetto mentality” among European Jews; or the collective guilt of the German people, derived from an ad hoc interpretation of their history; or the equally absurd assertion of a kind of collective innocence of the Jewish people. All these clichés have in common that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them is devoid of all risk.


I remember back in the wake of 9/11, especially after the United States invaded Iraq, I was unnerved by the similarity in logic and speech pattern of supporters of the invasion, and those who didn’t quite support it but played devil’s advocate on why maybe we should be over there. I felt like I was hearing some other being speaking through the mouths of these people. They were some kind of  mouthpiece for a collective being. It gave me the deepest kind of creeps.

I feel the same way today both about Progressivists and QAnon types.

I think people who think primarily in words and spend a lot of time in their verbal representations of the world instead of in direct contact with with various realities are susceptible to this kind of semi-solipsistic mass-mind possession. The moving parts of these possessions are cliches, ready-made arguments and tokens, which are less abstractions from reality than they are tokens that stand in for intuited truths.

For me, the best kind of thinking and the best thoughts are responses to real situations, situations where our intuition has failed us and needs assistance. We experiment and reflect on our failures and successes until we  once again can get traction. The practical understanding developed through this process can be formulated in language and used to interpret and guide our future actions and be taught to others. This kind of intuition-rooted, practice-forged understanding works more like an interface with the world than a representation of it.

Susan and I have been collaborating on a way to talk about these different relationships with reality. We’ve been calling these two world-relationships “word world” versus “intuited world”.

The mean of liberty, equality, fraternity

This is an attempt to reframe my old “political gamut” liberty-equality diagram, with an added third dimension of fraternity (indispensable in an age of Post-Trump identitarian madness) in terms of the Aristotelian mean.

Liberty

  • Excess: absolute autonomy of individual (anarchy)
  • Deficit: absolute autocracy of collective (collectivism)
  • Mean: balance of civil rights and obligations (liberalism)

Equality

  • Excess: wealth/power/status ought to be distributed equally (equity)
  • Deficit: wealth/power/status ought to be distributed unequally (hierarchy)
  • Mean: wealth/power/status ought to be earned and maintained (opportunity)

Fraternity

  • Excess: membership in polity is exclusive (closed citizenship)
  • Deficit: membership in polity is all-inclusive (universalism)
  • Mean: membership in polity is conditional (open/permeable citizenship)

Cracked

Here are two Facebook posts I decided to suppress.

 


1.

I’ve cracked. I am done.

I am not longer pretending that progressivism is a respectable ideology.

I reject progressivism as a principled liberal.

Progressivism is not, as many confused people believe, liberalism gone too far, but rather abortive liberalism. It is a fundamentalist perversion of my liberal faith, far worse than straightforward rejection.

For the last ten years I’ve watched my formerly liberal allies degrade into craven identitarians. I don’t respect it and I can no longer pretend to respect it.

When you attach that inane preface “speaking as a…” I hear you speaking as a conformist to a contemptible ideology.

When you dole out different portions of dignity to different persons based on how you and your likeminded dittoheads categorize them, I witness the actions of an arrogant bigot, who doesn’t even know what equity even is.

And if you are among those who actually believe “the personal is political” you are no friend of mine. This is not because I reject you and your beliefs, but because anyone vacuous enough to operate under this principle is incapable of friendship. Listen: anyone with functioning intuition feels it viscerally when a person approaches them, not as a person, but as an instance of a category. It doesn’t matter one bit if that category is a good category or a bad one — it is dehumanizing.

I have no time for dehumanizing ideological operants. Be a fellow human, treat me as a fellow human, or go away.

This is where I stand on things. It is not negotiable. If you don’t like it, do us both a favor and speak up so we can stop wasting each other’s time and energy.

 


2.

Progressivists are constantly approaching me as a fellow progressivist. Of course, being a decent person, obviously I must be a progressivist.

On the contrary: because I am a decent person I am not a progressivist.

I am a liberal, and that is the very furthest thing from progressivist.

I do not admire or even respect progressivist activism. It is not compassionate and it is not countercultural. It is grotesque, callous and cowardly conformism. It cares only about its own ideological flourishing, not about human beings. If you are Jewish, this should be overwhelmingly obvious to you after the last three weeks.

If you happen to be a Progressivist, we can still be friends, as long as you can handle the fact that I cannot help but notice your family resemblance to other totalitarianisms. You’re no hero of history. Quite the opposite.

Intersubjective being

Ontologically, interpersonal relationships (marriages, friendship, social affiliations etc.) are neither objective, nor subjective, but, rather, intersubjective.

Some see these relationships as a social status assigned to a grouping of persons. When such assignments happen, of course, new being is established, not only social categories, but also legal entities. These are, in their way, real, but they do not exhaust the being of the relationship, and it can even be argued that they are not its primary meaning.

However, people who lack an ontological intersubjective category, tend to either see only the objective or subjective aspects of the relationship, or they make category mistakes about relationships.

For instance, they might see the essence of their marriage as their own subjective romantic feelings about the other. Or they might reduce it to their legal status as a married couple. Or they might see themselves as a social unit who appears together at functions. Or they might view it as part of their own identity. “I am a married person.” Or “I am so-and-so’s spouse.” Or they might see it as a practical arrangement. Or maybe it is a formal institution with rules and practices.

To see marriage as an intersubjective being is to understand oneself as a participating subject in a subject who emerges in the process of participation. It isn’t something already existent that each person is trying to figure out. It isn’t an image in two different persons’ minds. It is an emergent We who comes to some kind of existence through the participating subjects.

I want to argue that The same is true for normative concepts governing interpersonal relationships. In particular, I am talking about justice and fairness. These norms are not objective, not subjective, but intersubjective. There is no already existent ideal justice waiting to be seen or excavated by one party or another. It is also not a feeling that justice has been done by one party when the other disagrees. Justice emerges when justice is worked out among involved parties. Fairness is what comes into being when everyone works together to make things fair.

There is no perfect justice or perfect fairness, but this does not mean that justice and fairness do not exist at all, and that we cannot discern gross injustice from imperfect justice. But if we do not understand what kind of being justice is, we are unlikely to generate much real justice.

And same with relationships. When the majority of our population has no idea what an interpersonal relationship is, or how to participate in one, we are unlikely to even achieve imperfect relationships. People will think they have friends but will waste away from loneliness. We will suffer a loneliness epidemic.


I know vanishingly few people capable of thinking relationships or justice without making subjective or objective category mistakes. Of course, many people manage to participate in relationships and justice, anyway, despite their inability to speak or think about it. And the more intellectual a person is, the worse their chances are of living these realities.

Explaining antisemitism

I have several explanations for antisemitism.

I’ve heard that if you are trying to explain yourself, one explanation is more persuasive than several. But I am not trying to persuade. I am trying to understand, and I think there are multiple reinforcing factors.

The first explanation is based on Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. The Jewish people have a deep, intense enduring love for Adonai, for their tradition and for their homeland. Other groups have imitated these loves, and have claimed the relationship, the tradition and the land for themselves, to the exclusion of the Jewish people. But the Jewish people refuse to give these things up, so a scapegoat is needed. Every pogrom is a dark communion — a reenactment of the crucifixion.

The second explanation concerns love and dread, the compelling pull and the repulsive push of the transcendent. The Jewish people began as one more tribal sacrificial cult, but over many generations of stubborn refusal to die out, has iteratively rebirthed its own culture into something so sublimely transcendent that, now, very few people can enter and understand from it. Everything Jewish is haloed with a love-dread aura. It is alien and transcendent, but, worse, it has a strange attitude toward alienness and transcendence — it loves the stranger and welcomes the strange. Which makes Judaism both strange and meta-strange. Religiously sensitive non-Jews love-hate it. They can’t get it out of their heart. They cannot leave it alone, but nor can they grasp and accept it. They need to have it, or control it, or failing that kill it and keep it.

The third explanation is boring. Because the Jewish tradition values parenting and education, many Jews are smarter and better parented than their peers, and consequently excel, and become objects of envy, especially in times of rampant mediocrity and vanity. When a self-esteem pandemic hits, Jews make folks feel like something the cat dragged in. And, this might be a separate point, they make very poor objects of pity, because they just aren’t, as a group, pitiable. People addicted to compassionate condescension can’t do that with Jews, even when Jews are dramatically persecuted.

The fourth explanation is even more boring. Jewish culture values honesty and directness over saccharine softness. Jewish honesty runs confrontational, argumentative, brusque and sometimes flat-out harsh, and people get their precious feelings hurt. Envious and offended people get resentful, and resentment can infect whole generations.

The fifth explanation concerns the role of Jews in history. Primarily because of the first reason, the uneasy centrality of Jews in other peoples’ religions and hostility consequent to this centrality, for much of history Jews have been excluded from land-ownership and participation in reputable trades. They were forced into disgraceful trades like finance. Nobody likes their lender, so that has been a problem. But worse, Jewish financiers — all of whom spoke Hebrew and were therefore able to partner with Jews in other regions — were the financiers of the aristocrats who founded the modern European nation-states. The tradition of hostility of one’s own nation-state contains a thick red strand of Jewish international finance paranoia.

The sixth explanation is so obvious I almost hate to include it. Jews refuse to stop being Jewish. Many learn Hebrew and can speak to one another in a language unknown to suspicious folk who wonder what exactly is being said. And what is going on in those houses of worship? What is going on in their homes and the backrooms of their prosperous businesses? What are those weird people scheming about? Jews are conspicuously alien and for that reason inspire paranoia in the paranoid.

There’s probably more, but this list suffices to account for the phenomenon. And this same list also helps account for why Judaism is my religion.

Why Israel is necessary

You are not your brother’s keeper.

You say you are, but when the decisive moment comes, you will do the wrong thing. Remember sitting in the theater with sweet tears streaming down your face for the little girl in the red coat? “Oh, if I’d been there.” But then you watched another movie and cried over something else. It is so nice to cry. It is so fun to march and shout. It is so gratifying to grandstand with this demographic or that. Because you’re one of the good ones. You are an ally.

But I think on some level you know the truth: You are not a hero of history. You are too faint-hearted and cloudy-minded to stand alone on anything. You are a weather vane pointing whichever way your news entertainment media and your HR department happens to blow you. And if the wind stops blowing, you stop pointing.

You are not dependable. And that is why Israel is necessary.

Redrawing the knitbone

I’ve been playing around with the knitbone image again.

In case you’ve never been subjected to one of my rhapsodies on this topic, “knitbone” is a folk name for comfrey, a plant remarkable for the depth of its taproot.

A comfrey taproot can burrow a ten feet or more into the soil deep under the ground draws nutrients up to the surface.

Gardeners traditionally plant comfrey throughout their gardens. When comfrey drops its lush depth-nourished leaves into the soil, it fertilizes all the surrounding shallower-rooted plants.

The name “knitbone” comes from comfrey’s medicinal application. When pulverized and applied to a wound, it helps the body heal. It can help a bone knit itself back together.

I have emotional history with this plant. When Susan was pregnant with Zoe, we had an herb garden in our back yard. Our midwife was excited to learn that we were growing comfrey. She used it to make a knitbone poultice to help Susan recover from labor. We cared for this plant and received care from it.

Symbolically, knitbone attests to the nourishing power at the depths of understanding, and to the duty of those of us who work at the depths to bring what we find up to the light of everyday practicality.

Ex infinitio

Genesis does not begin with nothingness. Creation is not ex nihilo.

Genesis begins with more than everything. Creation is ex infinitio.

As with scripture, so it has been in that already-in-progress life inside which you awoke, from the chaos of infancy.


Somethingness — toomuchness — is primal. In the beginning is chaos.

Nothingness is abstract. It is an advanced abstraction that, once it possesses us, is thrust beneath the primordial toomuchness — an artificial ground, upon which we cannot stand, but within which we stiffen ourselves in epistemic rigor mortis.

Inside this self-inflicted vacuum we stiffly tumble end-over-end, nowhere, vacuous.


An infinite welter and waste is articulated by spirit.

Objects emerge from the encounter of subject and chaos.

Light against dark against mottled grays? Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa against a muddled mixture of suffering and comfort.

Division of this and that — always against the undivided all. Definition of this, in contrast that — both always against the irrelevant field of everything else.


We define against infinitude, but infinitude is so omnipresent we confuse it with nothingness itself. Just as you, sitting wherever you are, focusing on whatever focal object occupies your attention, define the object of your attention against everything else.


Every subject emerges in the midst of undifferentiated chaos.

You did. I did. Our infant subjects learned to recognize our first given objects.

When we learned new subjects, new given objects emerged. Our mathematical subject learned that one apple and one block shared a characteristic: one. And one block and another block shared something with one apple and another apple. From chaos came quantities of whatever.

We learned the subject of manners. We learned to say “please” when desire emerged and to say “thank you” when desire was gratified. We learned the subject of morality. Some actions were rewarded, some punished.

Every subject articulates new given objects. Those objects are articulated from chaos.


Then there is the sheer bullshit of social construction. You take a class on Derrida in college and get it in your head that you can invent reality. If you practice your bullshit invention long enough it will become familiar. If you force other people to adopt your bullshit long enough, they too, will see it as familiar.

What this does, of course, is alienate us from what we experience.

Soon, we are so alienated, we can see images of slaughtered and raped human beings and just view it all as political abstraction. It’s all just concept play.

We are like the little German boys who followed the first World War like a sporting event, described by Sebastian Haffner:

For a schoolboy in Berlin, the war was something very unreal; it was like a game. There were no air raids and no bombs. There were the wounded, but you saw them only at a distance, with picturesque bandages. One had relatives at the front, of course, and now and then one heard of a death. But being a child, one quickly got used to their absence, and the fact that this absence sometimes became irrevocable did not seem to matter. As to the real hardships and privations, they were of small account. Naturally, the food was poor. Later there was too little food, and our shoes had clattering wooden soles, our suits were turned, there were school collections for bones and cherry pits, and surprisingly frequent illnesses. I must admit, all that made little impression. Not that I bore it all “like a little hero.” It was just that there was nothing very special to bear. I thought as little about food as a soccer enthusiast at a cup final. The army bulletins interested me far more than the menu.

The analogy with the soccer fan can be carried further. In those childhood days, I was a war fan just as one is a soccer fan. I would be making myself out to be worse than I was if I were to claim to have been caught up by the hate propaganda that, from 1915 to 1918, sought to whip up the flagging enthusiasm of the first few months of the war. I hated the French, the English, and the Russians as little as the Portsmouth supporters detest Wolverhampton fans. Of course, I prayed for their defeat and humiliation, but only because these were the necessary counterparts of my side’s victory and triumph.

What counted was the fascination of the game of war, in which, according to certain mysterious rules, the numbers of prisoners taken, miles advanced, fortifications seized, and ships sunk played almost the same role as goals in soccer and points in boxing. I never wearied of keeping internal scorecards. I was a zealous reader of the army bulletins, which I would proceed to recalculate in my own fashion, according to my own mysterious, irrational rules: thus, for instance, ten Russian prisoners were equivalent to one English or French prisoner, and fifty airplanes to one cruiser. If there had been statistics of those killed, I would certainly not have hesitated to “recalculate” the dead. I would not have stopped to think what the objects of my arithmetic looked like in reality. It was a dark, mysterious game and its never-ending, wicked lure eclipsed everything else, making daily life seem trite. It was addictive, like roulette and opium. My friends and I played it all through the war: four long years, unpunished and undisturbed. It is this game, and not the harmless battle games we organized in streets and playgrounds nearby, that has left its dangerous mark on all of us.

It may not seem worthwhile to describe the obviously inadequate reactions of a child to the Great War at such great length. That would certainly be true if mine were an isolated case, but it was not. This, more or less, was the way an entire generation of Germans experienced the war in childhood or adolescence; and one should note that this is precisely the generation that is today preparing its repetition.

The force and influence of these experiences are not diminished by the fact that they were lived through by children or young boys. On the contrary, in its reactions the mass psyche greatly resembles the child psyche. One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses.

Real ideas must as a rule be simplified to the level of a child’s understanding if they are to arouse the masses to historic actions. A childish illusion, fixed in the minds of all children born in a certain decade and hammered home for four years, can easily reappear as a deadly serious political ideology twenty years later.

From 1914 to 1918 a generation of German schoolboys daily experienced war as a great, thrilling, enthralling game between nations, which provided far more excitement and emotional satisfaction than anything peace could offer; and that has now become the underlying vision of Nazism. That is where it draws its allure from: its simplicity, its appeal to the imagination, and its zest for action; but also its intolerance and its cruelty toward internal opponents. Anyone who does not join in the game is regarded not as an adversary but as a spoilsport. Ultimately that is also the source of Nazism’s belligerent attitude toward neighboring states. Other countries are not regarded as neighbors, but must be opponents, whether they like it or not. Otherwise the match would have to be called off!

Many things later bolstered Nazism and modified its character, but its roots lie here: in the experience of war — not by German soldiers at the front, but by German schoolboys at home. Indeed, the front-line generation has produced relatively few genuine Nazis and is better known for its “critics and carpers.” That is easy to understand. Men who have experienced the reality of war tend to view it differently. Granted, there are exceptions: the eternal warriors, who found their vocation in war, with all its terrors, and continue to do so; and the eternal failures, who welcome its horrors and its destruction as a revenge on a life that has proved too much for them. Göring perhaps belongs to the former type; Hitler certainly to the latter. The truly Nazi generation was formed by those born in the decade from 1900 to 1910, who experienced war as a great game and were untouched by its realities.

This was written before the Holocaust. Here is an account from Hannah Arendt on the moral reasoning of one of these boys, grown up into a nice abstract adult:

The member of the Nazi hierarchy most gifted at solving problems of conscience was Himmler. He coined slogans, like the famous watchword of the S.S., taken from a Hitler speech before the S.S. in 1931, “My Honor is my Loyalty” — catch phrases which Eichmann called “winged words” and the judges “empty talk”… Eichmann remembered only one of them and kept repeating it: “These are battles which future generations will not have to fight again,” alluding to the “battles” against women, children, old people, and other “useless mouths.” Other such phrases, taken from speeches Himmler made to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen and the Higher S.S. and Police Leaders, were: “To have stuck it out and, apart from exceptions caused by human weakness, to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.” Or: “The order to solve the Jewish question, this was the most frightening order an organization could ever receive.” Or: We realize that what we are expecting from you is “superhuman,” to be “superhumanly inhuman.” … What stuck in the minds of these men who had become murderers was simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique (“a great task that occurs once in two thousand years”), which must therefore be difficult to bear. … The troops of the Einsatzgruppen had been drafted from the Armed S.S., a military unit with hardly more crimes in its record than any ordinary unit of the German Army, and their commanders had been chosen by Heydrich from the S.S. elite with academic degrees. Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler — who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself — was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around; as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!


Life is to be lived in reality, and reality is given to us intuitively in myriad ways. If we receive it, our reflections on it will keep us in relationship with reality.

We can obscure replace reality with words. We can focus on words and play with them. It will all be quite amusing and pleasant. But we will alienate and we will be alienated.

Pluralist blip

Pluralists maintain principled awareness that there are multiple perspectives from which every event and every issue may be understood.

It seems that now, with the recent brutal pogrom in Israel that at least some of our elite institutions have recovered some momentary slight degree of pluralism. They can see multiple sides of this particular issue — where, in recent years many events seemed to have only one possible morally legitimate interpretation.

Police brutality had only one side. Compelled “Antiracist” indoctrination had only one side. Sexual harassment had only one side. Overturning Roe v Wade had only one side.

All organizations were required to take a stand! Silence is violence!

But apparently this slaughter in Israel — this has two sides — and now, suddenly, organizations must maintain moral neutrality and avoid stirring up unnecessary controversy.

As a Pluralist, I am faintly heartened to see organizations behave as they should have all along. *

As a Jew, I find it appalling that Progressivists are suddenly able to see both sides of this particular issue — an issue where, on one side Jewish babies were literally murdered and Jewish women literally, physically raped.


Note: I do not believe this abrupt embrace of institutional neutrality is a principled pluralist stand. I believe it is a purely pragmatic response to the fact that on this one issue, Progressivist opinion is divided. When Progressivists all agree on an issue, and only Liberals, Centrists and Conservatives dissent (civilly, quietly, politely), Progressivists are more than happy to take a univocal stand on issues. It is only when Progressivists are divided (and will dissent vocally, disruptively, coercively) that organizations exercise diplomatic neutrality.