Category Archives: Philosophy

Objective reuleaux

The overlapping region of the trefoil venn diagram of what-is/how-can/why-ought (from my chapbook) forms a reuleau — a confluence of intuitions where people are most likely to feel an urgent need to establish public, objective truth.

In this objective rouleau, we feel that a matter is important, that we can and should respond to it practically, and that, in order to do so, we will need to clearly understand it — to conceptualize, speak, reason and argue about what it is, how it functions, how we can respond to it, why it is important, and so on.

This intuiting, responding, articulating, valuing activity creates the kind of densely tangled, knotted and enmeshed reflextive activity that tends to solidify our ideas (like the knitting of bone cells) and makes them not only seem true but to become socially true through being performed as true, and act-ual.

(For all you reckless flakes, I woke up from a dream last night with this thought in my head. Woo-oo-oo!)

Interactive turn?

In Ken Burn’s documentary The Vietnam War, James Willbanks deadpans a striking insight : “The problem with the war, as it often is, are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what is important, you make what you can count important.”

Of course, any person who has had mid-managerial responsibilities will recognize the truth of this quote. In any complex organization quantification is so important that, for a variety of good and bad reasons, anything that resists or defies quantification is taken as less real than things that are readily quantified.

To the degree control is imposed from a distance, quantitative considerations will predominate.


In my experience, Willbanks’s principle pertains just as much to qualitative explication. If we can’t talk about what is important, we make what we can talk about important.

We see it in how consumers make purchasing decisions, especially when they are thinking about a purchase at a distance, out of contact with the thing under consideration. When we directly encounter a designed thing and interact with it, we experience it differently, know it differently and think about it in different terms than when we look at pictures of it, read about it and compare specifications. As with management it is a matter of proximity. Distance abstracts, and what tends to get abstracted out most are precisely the unique je ne sais quoi qualities that belong to the best design. I believe the fetishization of digital devices — the obsessive looking at, reading about and spec-comparison of objects — over the direct perceiving of, trying out of, interaction with them has corrupted marketing and caused companies to abandon designing wonderful experiences, and instead to create photogenic eye-candy with impressive specifications.

We also see it in our relationships with people. Whether we like them or dislike them, people we interact with every day, are experienced differently from people we know only distantly. As we distance ourselves, spatially or relationally, we know them more and more abstractly, and they become more identical to others of their identity. We know a person we meet, or better, are close to. We only know stereotypes of identities we read about, talk about and look at from a distance. The more we only read about people or events, or present ourselves to be read about or looked at, instead of participating in real relationships with real people the less we know them — and about the diversity of human nature in general. We lose our feel for humanity outside our narrow circle.

The same goes for situations. If we only know other places, other conditions, or other types of situations by reading about them, instead of at immersing in them and participating in them we gain a strange kind of abstracted account of what does go on, or what we imagine (based on what we’ve experienced) what probably must be going on there. We have no sense at all what it is like to be there, which is not primarily what can be said about it, especially by others we are most inclined to interact with, namely people who have similar experiences and use the same abstractions we habitually use. Reading too much news and directly experiencing too few of the realities the news reports on or opines about, mis-trains our feel for human events. Conversely, participating in events on the rough ground of reality in the fog of unfolding events, forming our own understanding of what is happening, and then reading how others interpret and abstract them can restore some reality to our sense of truth.

These are some reasons I’ve come to prefer an epistemologies of direct interaction over epistemologies of sensing from a distance, or worse, epistemologies of talking-about. I guess I’m advocating an interactive turn.


In philosophy, if our beliefs can be stated clearly and argued cogently, we tend to take them for true, regardless of whether these beliefs link up with real actions and experiences. And conversely, when clear speech and cogent argument is difficult, we will sometimes abandon more tacit intuitions of truth or ignore problems we feel, but cannot pose. If we cannot explicate it, prove it or defend it, we prefer to ignore its possibility.

I have a suspicion that a strong drive to explicate an explicable world accounts for much of the aversion to metaphysics and its fixation on language we find in certain strains of contemporary philosophy. “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence.” Must? According to…?

And I think the ignoring of these tacit intuitions (rather than accepting them as real and attempting to articulate them) has reduced philosophy to formalism and argument and made philosophy abandon its social purpose — making the not-yet-conceivable conceivable — and expanding our intellectual repertoires so we can talk about what is most important for us to share: those apprehensions we cannot yet comprehend. When we limit ourselves to speaking clearly about things we can speak clearly about, and we prohibit speech in places where “here I do not know how to move around”, we doom philosophy to irrelevance and humanity to philistine constriction.


Thinkers who believe arguments can do more than I think they can — that we can argue how reality must necessarily be, therefore it is that — bring an insult to mind: “scholastic”. Too many thusses, musts and therefores, or when a syllogism stretches past three pages and I start feeling antsy, that thinker risks being dismissed as scholastic.


Lately Nick Gall has been speaking approvingly of Quentin Meillassoux, and I decided to just take a peek at After Finitude, just to see what’s going on there. Meillassoux has been lumped with the Object-Oriented Ontology folks, who I’ve derided pretty savagely, albeit nervously — but (from what I’m gathering) he is slightly outside OOO and elevated slightly above them, a peer-guru in the mold of Wittgenstein’s relationship to the Vienna Circle, maybe. So, Meillassoux is a thinker I’ve been casually intending to investigate for quite a while, and I’ve had his book sitting on my shelf for ten years, looking at me, and insinuating that I might have a book hoarding problem.

So — so far, AF is thrilling, as, well, af. When I reported this to Nick, he advised me to read a paper Meillassoux delivered in 2012 before continuing AF, in order to benefit from some clarifications to ideas some critics found confusing in the book.

This paper is also thrilling, and it inspired me to pose some questions to Nick. I occurred to me that our conversation might be interesting to the other reader of this blog, (Nick is at least half my readership, and often all of it.) so I’m posting the email here:

Yeah, you are right, this paper is incredible. Meillassoux is a miracle of clarity. He is totally accounting for how I think to my own satisfaction, so I’m electrified imagining how he intends to tear it down! This is philosophy at its very best. 

It is all inducing some exciting questions:

Is our Taoist metaphysical stance a subjectalism? I’m speculating nothing at all about the absolute apart from its capacity to surprise, as well, of course, as its capacity to fall into sufficient regularity as to permit intelligibility. I’m leaving indeterminate its nature-in-itself, assuming our general categories of ideality/materiality/temporality/extensivity are as much products of human thought as their particulars.

Also, is Whitehead a subjectalist?

Infining metaphysics

I was just looking for a good name for my metaphysics, and I was entertaining the idea of an “infinite metaphysics” (infinity, of course, defined in its metaphysical qualitative sense of absolute undefinability, as opposed to the more common quantitative mathematical sense of interminability). I became curious if anyone has already used this term, which led me to Google, and then to Wikipedia, where I, once again encountered Levinas, whose metaphysics profoundly influenced my own.* (see note below.)

In this article on infinity, Levinas is quoted:

…infinity is produced in the relationship of the same with the other, and how the particular and the personal, which are unsurpassable, as it were magnetize the very field in which the production of infinity is enacted…

The idea of infinity is not an incidental notion forged by a subjectivity to reflect the case of an entity encountering on the outside nothing that limits it, overflowing every limit, and thereby infinite. The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity, for it is precisely in the disproportion between the idea of infinity and the infinity of which it is the idea that this exceeding of limits is produced. The idea of infinity is the mode of being, the infinition, of infinity… All knowing qua intentionality already presupposes the idea of infinity, which is preeminently non-adequation.

I realized I’d accidentally stolen Levinas’s term infinition, forgetting where I got it, and went on a search for where I’ve used it without attribution. That led me to this article from 2010, where I laid out my metaphysics — perhaps better than I have since.

I will likely lift this (sans the brand crap) for the book I am absolutely going to start writing — formally, as a book — by years end.


Since 2010, much of my effort has been diverted away from uncompromising development of my own personal philosophy, and toward getting along with and making clearer sense to the people around me. I’ve dedicated my professional life to applying my philosophy in design research, with the goal of understanding other people’s implicit philosophies, both in their convergence (alignment), divergence (misalignment), and conflict (incommensurability) and learning to synthesize incommensurable conceptions into new philosophies, designed for groups to adopt so they become able to communicate and collaborate.

I’ve gotten better at explaining what I do, and why I do it (guided by the example of that master of philosophical accessibility, Marty Neumeier), but sometimes I worry that I blunted my best personal thinking in the effort to gain influence among my design peers. I must confess, I read my 2010 article with a substantial amount of envy of my past self, and with dread that I have passed my peak.

  • Note on Levinas’s ethics: Unfortunately, along with his metaphysics, I contracted an infection of Levinas’s ethics, which Levinas saw as the very essence of his philosophy — but which I see as a key component of the current resentment revolution that threatens the future of Western civilization. I hypothesize that Levinas’s is an unbalanced ethic that ignores the finite nature and responsibility of persons. It is perhaps best described in Kabbalistic terms, as Chesed (love) untempered by Gevurah (judgment, aggression, limits). Without such tempering, Chesed leads a person into moral hubris where mortals — not just I but all — are pridefully expected to exhaust themselves like gods with infinite responsibility for myriad beings. This responsibility is discharged in outbursts of unrestrained, impatient, irritable Netzah-infused revolutionary sentiment, with no awareness, much less respect for the good is craves to guillotine. I know this feeling from the inside, and I reject it, not as as an unrealistic, idealistic excess, but as a titanic impulse, an isolated drive taken out of its divine society and set loose — in other words, an evil. Our culture has a strong prejudice that views Gevurah as evil, and deserving of eradication, even in micro-doses, and Chesed as essentially good, so unrestrained, limitless Chesed is the ideal good. The more love we can heap up, and the more we remove limits and let it flood the world, the better that love is. Kabbalists are wiser, and know that good is in the balance among divine virtues, and that vice is virtue out of balance.

Philosophy as polycentric design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two conceptions of transcendence

At points in the past I’ve divided the concept of transcendence into two poles, subscendent and superscendent, to designate those realities that we encounter as they emerge from within our own self, as if from behind or beneath, and those realities we encounter as they approach us and interact with us, as if from without or beyond.

Transcendence is the beneath and beyond of encounter. Encounter is the point of contact of what erupts from within and what irrupts from without.

Connecting this with Kantian language, the transcendental a priori categories that condition all knowledge are subscendent. The noumena are superscendent.

This conception differs from traditional and popular conceptions of transcendence, which view the material world as mundane and transcendence as super-mundane. The conception of transcendence presented here views only current understandings and experiences fully formatted by established conceptions as mundane, and the realities beyond these experiences, shaping these experiences, as transcendent.


What so many progressivists seem to miss is that categorical reductions — seeing individuals as examples of categories — is dehumanizing, whether that reduction is judged negatively or positively. It is not the value judgment that is the problem; it is the primacy of the general category over the particularity of the real person.

It is a refusal to transcend ones own mind and its contents, in order to experience the particular, unique, surprising qualities of the person: their personhood.


I am doing to start talking about racism in terms of disracism and euracism. Similarly, sexism can be divided into dissexism and eusexism.

I need a general term for this entire tendency to stop at the category and to react to a person only as a type. Typism? Eutypism, distypism?


An example of euracism: Yascha Mounk left Germany because Germans were forever falling over themselves to affirm him as a Jew, and this made him realize he would never be just a person, a German among Germans. He came to America to escape this.

Euracism is not “antiracism” at all. It is a racism that merely reverses judgment, while continuing to exempt itself from encountering the personhood of the person.

Genuine antiracism is just as opposed to euracism as disracism.

Genuine antiracism is pro-person.

Genuine antiracism is liberalism.


Is it possible that object-oriented ontology and speculative realism are popular for no other reason than that they lift the modern prohibition on metaphysics? That finally, there is a credible school of thought that isn’t entirely hostile to transcendence, so one can breathe a little beyondness without being sneered at?

Sure, it’s an imagined beyond, an immanent image that is entirely a product of self — but maybe it is a baby step toward relationship with beyond-as-such? (Or is it a defense against beyondness?)

In this it is similar to identitarianism which acknowledges an “other”, but one which is a figment of one’s own conceptualizing mind, a bit of one’s own self standing in for the real. But maybe it is a baby step toward real relationship with alterity? (Or is it a defense against alterity?)

Is an idol a baby step toward God? Or is it a defense against God? Is fundamentalism a baby step toward real religion? Or is it a defense against real religion?

These are just paraphrasings of the same question: fundamentalism is ideo-idolatry. Identitarianism is ideo-alterity. And OOO might fit in this series as ideo-realism. But my notion of OOO is likely only my own ideo-OOO, so I’m probably wrong about it.

You are spiritual and religious

Religion happens in communities; spirituality occurs in individuals.

Obnoxious speculation: There is no “spiritual, but not religious.” In such cases, the spiritual nonbeliever is simply unaware that they belong to a religious community, because the community anthropologically sees religion as the irrational faith systems that other people — uncivilized primitives and savages — believe.

Human beings cannot bear to be alone in their faith. We must share faith with others, or we suffer a kind of spiritual solitary confinement. Even the toughest individualist battle-hardened soldiers crack in solitary confinement.

Further that faith must invest existence with meaning. It must provide a sustaining why and life-shaping oughts, or indifference and depressed nihilism (as opposed to a nihilism of joyous destruction) will result.

The faith need not affirm any supernatural being to be a faith, if by “supernatural” we mean magical. But it must affirm reality beyond the individual’s comprehension* — it must have a transcendent vector, whether it is a transcendence of future knowledge, of experiences others have or will have that are inaccessible to us in this time, place or state, or of some Kantian/OOO in-itself noumena.

My assertion is that where our shared sense of transcendence is, there our religion is. We can call that transcendence God, or we can call it by some other name, Tao, Ein Sof, the Absolute, Ultimate Reality — but there must be some cleft between what we know and what really is on the other side of knowledge, lest we succumb to solipsism.**

The salient question is how effective the religion is in providing why and ought, not whether the religion exists or not. For most secular folks, scientific truths and future scientific discoveries perform the religious function — the foundational ethics and metaphysics upon which life is erected. Even when metaphysics are rejected in theory, in practice, physics still underpins and serves as the ground of all other truths. This is entirely legitimate, as is an unavoidable impulse to privilege this mode of description. I just happen to see this very privileging as religion caught in the act, not as any overcoming of religion. It is a good thing, made even better with self-awareness of itself.

  • Note: Ambiguity in our use of the concept of truth, might be a function of whether we treat the word truth as “truth as we know it now” or truth as the asymptotic ideal of knowledge as it conforms ever closer with to reality. Pragmatists reject not only the possibility of truth finally conforming to reality, but that there even is such a point of approach. The purpose of truth is not exclusively, and perhaps not even primarily, to mentally duplicate or model reality.

** Note: We should not, however, say with Bertrand Russell, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” It is a category mistake to call God a hypothesis. God is a designation for that which transcends but involves us, and unless one is a solipsist, this is no hypothesis, but a fundamental orientation. If I were not in a community of faith with my family within the Jewish tradition, I would choose a different word with fewer misleading connotations. But the name God links me to numerous people who share some, but not most of my basic conceptions. When I say “God” with them, and worship God with them, in the most important, most truth-transcending, ultimate sense, I mean exactly what they mean.

I share faith with many people with whom I share few beliefs.

Another account of design instrumentalism

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Philosophies must be experientially compared.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Getting back to the practicalities of design instrumentalism:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Transcendence and fruitionism

To live on terms with reality is to live on terms with transcendence.

What separates transcendent reality from immanent truth is conceivability.

If we can conceive what we encounter, we do conceive it, automatically and unconsciously. We spontaneously perceive what we encounter as something; we recognize it as something; we understand it by incorporating it into the conceptual system we use use to relate present experience to remembered and anticipated experiences. This conceptual system that interprets, interconnects and responds to experience is our philosophy. Using whatever philosophy we’ve developed or passively absorbed, we encounter transcendent reality and transform it into immanent truth.

With all useful things, the better it works, the less we notice it. To us, the world seems intrinsically intelligible, until something important comes along that isn’t intelligible.

When we encounter something real and important but unintelligible, it seems uncanny. It feels otherworldly, and often, dreadful. We feel apprehensive, because while we can apprehend our experience with the tips of our minds’ fingers, we cannot hold a form in our minds and comprehend it.

We must either comprehend it as intrinsically incomprehensible, and dismiss it as a literally otherworldly, as a mystery not for human minds to grasp, as something to which we non-relate as a purely transcendent otherness — or we must find some new way to conceive it, to enable us to relate to it in our human, knowing way.

To allow something (usually someone), transcendent (to us) to be become immanent (to us), we must extend philosophical hospitality, and invite the inconceivable into our midst.

But when we do this, when we acquire new conceptions for the sake of understanding some new particular thing, we frequently experience what religious people call transfiguration — the world as a whole is reconceived to accommodate this new understanding, and miraculously transforms in ways that are, in the most literal sense, inconceivable until it happens.

After it happens, radically new thoughts and perceptions irrupt into the world, half spontaneously, half actively.


This is why commitment to radical novelty and commitment to transcendence are identical.


Apprehend, comprehend, suprehend

To apprehend is to know-that.

To comprehend is to know-what.

When know-that stubbornly resists know-what, when we touch with the tips of our fingers something that cannot be grasped by the hand of our thought, we feel ourselves situated within something incomprehensible. We comprehend the fact that we are comprehended by something incomprehensible. The relation we take to that which comprehends us cannot be comprehension, but the eversion of comprehension, something which might be called suprehension.

When suprehending, we must situate ourselves and everything we comprehend and apprehend within a more-than-everything we will know primarily by radical surprise — by the irruptions into the little cognitive bubbles inside which we float within infinity, that can flood us with dread, love or both at any moment.

To suprehend is to know-why.


Wisdom is suprehension.


Each everything is a universe-size, lifetime-long oyster.

Outside the oyster’s outer shell is an infinite sea of water, salt and particles. The ocean knows the oyster as one of its myriad objects, one of its innumerable everythings — a convexity in an unbounded concavity.

The convex object in the ocean is, seen from the inside by the oyster, a concave habitat. Everything it knows, it knows from the inside of its shell.

The world the oyster knows is pearly lucre, a substance the oyster excretes so naturally it often is not aware of its origin. Anything from the ocean that enters the shell is either digested, or expelled or coated with lucre, so it cannot irritate the oyster’s delicate flesh.

The oyster’s inner-shell is also lucre.

It is essentially a mother-of-pearl bubble which the oyster has painted around its own space. It has coated the ocean itself with lucre, and this lucre bubble is now its universe — or at least that part of the universe it can apprehend.

Anything from the outside, anything indigestible that gets inside, is also painted with lucre, and is transformed into pearls.

The oyster is enworlded in pearl.

Above and around the oyster is a pearly dome, and inside the dome are scattered pearls of various size and luster. The oyster senses these pearls are of the same substance as its heaven.

The oyster continuously anoints its pearls and its dome with fresh lucre, to make the surfaces iridesce and glow, and to protect and honor something it loves and fears, its source and home, the very surrounding ground of existence.


I’ve written and rewritten this same idea for years, compulsively.

I need to sit down with everything I’ve secreted on this topic and change perspectives. I need to stop looking from the oyster’s perspective and start seeing it like a jeweler.

This could be a pretty book, if I can get all this language under control.

I want this idea to irridesce and glow.

As a 5w4…

To me, thought is intensely personal.

It is most personal where it is worst-equipped, where I lack symbols to aid my efforts to conceptualize my experiences, where I encounter incomprehensible singularities.

If I wish to understand one of these singularities, I am thrown back on my intuitions to conceive new ways to think, new fingers for comprehending what will otherwise slip away.

(Or I might contemplate it as an experience, inconceivable but distinct, and try to retain the impression so I can reimagine and reexperience it later.)

(Or I might merely apprehend it, and allow the experience to leave like a dream, leaving only a faint footprint in my memory. A scent, tone, color, texture or feeling might bring it back, and I might say “there it is again.” Otherwise, it is gone forever.)

(Or it might flow into oblivion, joining the unnoticed mass of my life, and be as if it never happened. It did happen, though. It was real, though, and remains real as something that was, an indelible bit of eternity.)


But back to what I do manage to comprehend, and the intellectual equipment by which I understand:

The curated accumulation of conceptions, my soul’s equipment, might not be my essential self, but they are more me than my body, or my relationships, or my home, or my belongings — but they are all me.

If someone receives one of these conceptions from me and accepts it as a gift — and this might mean the gift of a good problem or something worth fighting — this is everything to me, because this allows me to be who I am in the world, to the world, to feel that I exist.

No, I am not my ideas, but they are from me, of me, and they are that by which I am known.

If a person refuses my conceptions without understanding, or if receives them impersonally as something obvious, a truth that was just there all along to take, it makes me feel nonexistent, like I’ve never been born.


Hearing my ideas, hearing them as from me, is, for me, relationship.


Our souls stream out into the world and, there, weave together, in knots of enworldment. My own soul streams as new ways to think.

Philosophy is a hybrid system

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

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

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


Cassirer’s interrupted project

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, agonism is a permanent condition of pluralism.

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