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.
Have I mentioned my belief that our worlds are constructed primarily of interactions? It was Bruno Latour who made this real to me about ten years ago, and this was my last really big philosophical breakthrough. I suppose I could call it my “interactive turn”.
Latour’s descriptions of the conduct of science, and of everything, in terms of networks of interacting human and nonhuman actors changed how I understood both subjectivity and objectivity, and finally broke down my ability to keep those two categories discrete.
We are constantly interacting with our environments in myriad ways — physically, socially, linguistically, reflectively — reactively, deliberately, creatively, imaginatively, prospectively, habitually, absently, selectively. What we make of what is going on, that is, how we conceive it, has everything to do with how we respond to it, and how it responds back challenges us to make sense of it.
We respond to “the same” reality as related to us by other trusted sources, as passed off to us rumors from sketchy sources, as experienced as a participant in a real-life situation, as conveyed to us by a member of our own community following methods of the community, as taught to us during decades of education, as reported to us by journalists on varying integrity and ideological agendas, and as recalled by our own memories formed from different stages of our lives — and our response assumes some common phenomenological intentional object, some metaphysical reality, some commonsensical state of affairs on the other side of our interactions. But this is constructed out of interactions with innumerable mediators — people, things, thoughts, words, intuitions — who are included within or ignored out of the situation as we conceive it.
We lose track of the specific interactions that have amounted to our most habitual conceptions — our syneses (our takings-together taken-together) — which shape our categories of things, our expected cause and effect sequences in time, of our social behaviors and how they will be embraced, tolerated or punished.
Science is one variety of these interactions, but one we tend to privilege and to habitually project behind the world as our most common metaphysics. But once I learned to see scientific activities, scientific reporting, scientific explaining and scientific believing as a social behavior useful for helping us interact with nonhuman actors with greater effectiveness, somehow the relieved by need to rely on the metaphysical image science projects. I can believe in the effectiveness of the interactions and remain loyal to the social order established by science to do its work without feeling obligated to use a scientifically explicable reality as the binding agent for all my other beliefs to keep them hanging together. I see many good reasons not to!
I hate to borrow techie terminology for philosophical purposes, and I hate it even more when the term has already been heavily appropriated and bastardized by non-techie types, but here it works so well I’m overriding taste.
I’ve been playing with the concept of deixis as a way of accounting for differences in metaphysical conception so deeply sedimented beneath our explicit beliefs and thoughts that we don’t even know how to discuss them, think them or even to frame questions about them.
The hypothesis is a simple one: infants are implicitly inducted into a metaphysics from their earliest moments of postnatal existence. The way the parents respond to the infant, speaking and interacting, orients the new person to the world in ways that prepare the mind for conceptualization and speech by establishing a pre-verbal ontology that I propose takes the form of categories of person — I, we, you, thou, y’all, it, those, them, and so on. The sequence in which these persons (the deictic structures) occur in relation to one another — which one precedes and becomes the “experience near” reference point for the next layer in the “stack” — has profound implications for the overall character of existence as full consciousness emerges and develops.
When someone else’s basic conception of reality seems absolutely bonkers to us, I suggest this might trace back to their deictic stack. Someone whose original sense of reality is a Thou is bound to have profoundly different intuitions from one whose first sense of reality is It. or I or We — or Them.
Years ago I heard it claimed that Asian parents interact with their babies differently from European parents. Where European parents hand a ball to their child, they say “ball”, which orients the interaction to 3rd person singular, Asian parents tend to say “thank you”, which orients the interaction within 1st person plural. These parenting practices might account for the deeper differences in sensibility across cultures.
I want to keep in keep in mind, too, that the differentiation of self from not-self might come down to resistance. That is, we experience objective reality most tangibly in what is objectionable — what stands out as unexpected or unwanted . This might mean that someone with a perfect mother might experience the reality of It long before the reality of Thou, precisely because Thou is so anticipative, accommodating, comforting that Thou does not stand out as other but remains submerged in subject. In such a case, the world of It might be the first resisting reality the infant encounters. Or a sibling intruding as Them or unskillfully or obtrusively interacting as a semi-accommodating Thou or We might come first.
I’m less interested here in establishing a a factual hypothesis than a way to frame the question of why we have such different basic conceptions of reality, and why are these intuitions so painfully difficult to think about and navigate? If we recognize that just as every explicit statement has its origin in indexicality (we know what a ball is because someone handed us a red ball and said “ball” or “red” or “thank you”), I think all our actions, utterances and thoughts refer back to an enworldment, and that one way to understand the character of the enworldment is to study its genesis as a sequence of original differentiations.
Now I’m sounding like Hegel. Maybe I’m just crossing Hegel with Piaget and multiplying them with James to produce a more pluralistic dialectic rooted in early childhood development. Dunno. But my mind keeps dragging me back to this idea. Also my own philosophical conversions have all taken the form of metaphysical replatforming (ugh) on different persons. With Nietzsche I refounded my 3rd person plural universe (scientistic, objective metaphysics, in which minds were an emergent property of brains) on a 1st person singular base (phenomenological, subject-first metaphysics, where whatever its ultimate nature, our mind conceives a brain and then conceives the brain as emergently generating mind, but, importantly, without in the least changing the fact that the mind came first). I called the first view “ecliptic” and described it as I-in-world, and the second “soliptic” / “world-in-me”. It is important to recognize that with this shift in perspective the thoughts themselves everted, and stopped being objective facts I thought about, and became the subjective process from which my thoughts came. Get where I’m coming from? It was a conversion experience that mapped to everything converts say, but it all happened without any supernatural processes an atheist would rule out. And I should know, because I would have ruled it out, too. Yet it was a religious conversion, and it left me religious (albeit in a way that really, really bothers theists who look too closely). Since then Jewish thinkers, culminating in Buber with his I-Thou dialogical thinking, have shifted me to 1st person plural via 2nd person singular, then again, via Latour into a thorough blurring of I-Thou-It that has led me to root metaphysics in a predifferentiated adeictic point beyond persons of any kind, but which must, to a finite person, must manifest, or (shit!!) incarnate in person form (whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd person). And now with all this three-person incarnating God talk I sound totally Christian. I do love Christianity, too. But I love it in a Jewish way, as a Jew.
Most “truth is a construct” type constructivists appear to have retained a vestigial correspondence theory of truth; that is, they take truth to be a little mental duplicate of, or model of or, in extreme cases, a substitute for, reality. Truth is true to the degree that it corresponds to reality. According to a correspondence-constructivist view, we are more or less free to reimagine the world we wish to live in, and this is what the world becomes for us.
My view is similar but differs in some consequential ways. I agree that truth is constructed, but my constructivism is modified by an instrumentalist theory of truth. I view truth as something produced by a repertoire of concepts we use to interpret and guide our interactions with reality. Truth is true to the degree that it helps us effectively interact with reality. According to my instrumental-constructivist view, there are ways we can modify the concepts we use to interpret, evaluate and respond to the world, and these can drastically change how we live and experience the world.
However, the changes rarely match what we imagine. We cannot start with an imagined ideal and then just build a worldview to spec. Why? The main reason is, according to this view, the world is very real and transcends our mental images, theories, models and plans, and when we act on it, reality acts back on us. Sometimes we can manage to get reality to cooperate with our hopes and expectations, but often does not, at least not on the first try. This this is especially true with that most special part of reality that is our fellow human beings. Humans are essentially surprising creatures.
This interactivity is a big reason I prefer, in place of constructivism, Étienne Souriau’s (or Bruno Latour’s?) term “instauration” which is a kind of interactive construction — a discovering-making — a term that any hands-on designer or craftsperson will instantly recognize as a better fit for how their constructions really happen.
Sadly, this change in language makes my view an “instrumental-instaurationist” one, which is so incredibly ugly the kidnappers responsible for abducting “pragmatism” might feel moved to euthanize the term out of pity. I’m going to refrain from naming it, and instead just call it a “philosophy of design of philosophy”.
As I’ve complained many times before, Richard Rorty’s theory of truth in Irony, Contingeny and Solidarity is radically logocentric.
Rorty sets up change of language, specifically in our choice and use of metaphors, as the driving force behind the evolution of truth. We perceive the history of our language games culminating in the language game we use today as progress toward knowledge of truth.
He contrasts this with an opposing conception of language as “a medium which is gradually taking on the true shape of the true world or the true self.”
The goal is to shed all external referees of truth, whether that arbiter is God, Nature, Logic or anything that stands outside humankind and imposes judgment, and to finally take responsible for our own truth, and also to claim our creative freedom to the fullest extent. We evolve our own language games by way of our own language games, and are limited only by what the players of the language game can and will do with their language.
To be fair, Rorty wrote a lot of books and essays, and I have only read some of it. I am aware he took science very seriously, and also that he also sometimes over-stated positions primarily for rhetorical reasons. I am assuming that what I have said above is not doing full justice to Rorty’s most carefully stated positions.
What I am more interested in here, is this: I am not aware of him ever taking a third position that is compatible with his project, but which can (maybe boringly) give the nonlinguistic world its due in our evolving conceptions of truth. I suspect he never considered it, and that if he had, he might have preferred it.
Rorty was incredibly smart, so I make this claim with shaking knees.
This third position, which I learned from Bruno Latour, refuses to treat the external world as one monolithic being capable of acting as a referee, but nonetheless treats it as something that does do quite a bit of “judging” of different sorts.
Latour’s external world is made of networks of human and non-human actors causing one another to act. He has described these networks in political terms. Human and non-human actors alike enlist one another, resist one another, combine forces and act as one, gain strength, lose strength, become weak, break apart and disintegrate. Human life is largely a matter of creating, extending and redirecting networks of heterogeneous beings. Among these beings are words (which exist within networks of words, called languages) which are connected to networks of objects, people, other words, etc.
Nature, then, is a category that refers to a loose collection of diverse actors in diverse networks. When we engage in science, what we are doing, in effect, is collaborating with non-human actors to understand how they act on other actors, and fit into actual or possible networks. This activity can be described as working to extend our democracy to non-human actors and find ways to involve them in the networks that constitute our lives. In this way, the myriad beings we include in “nature” do in fact interact directly with our language and help shape it, but without standing outside language as a model for the form language should take. Nature and words are strung together, woven together, act together. If the words we choose form shoddy networks with the entities they are suppose to interact with, “false”, “untrue” or “less true” are pretty good words to describe what is happening. A whole language that puts words into strong and extensive networks with one another, with people and nonhuman entities really can be judged as truer than one that creates networks that cannot extend without tapering or disintegrating.
No, with this third view, which can be called an “ontocratic theory of truth” does not survive as what we took it to be, but is does survive as something that connects human beings to a reality that extends beyond us and our words. And if we want our words to do more for us than to win agreement from other people, that is an extremely important capability.
It’s probably not enough for the staunchest anti-relativists, but it most certainly avoids many of the worst objections to relativism, at least the ones that bother me me most, while preserving the most important advantages of relativism, which is pluralism and pluralism’s creative freedom of thought.
It seems obvious to me that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Postphenomenology are complementary lenses for understanding social situations.
ANT gives us the network viewed “objectively” outside-in, and Postphenomenology helps us understand inside-out how the nodes interpret inputs from the network and translate them into outputs.
An ANT practitioner will be the first to tell you that ANT is just one way an actor (a theorist) can interpret and translate the network into a coherent explanatory account — but one that mostly blackboxes how that network is experienced at any one point. The ANT account is one of many multistable descriptions that can be given.
A Postphenomenologist brackets the network in order to understand how certain nodes in the network interpret other nodes before acting within the network, on the network, thereby changing it.
ANT and Postphenomenology are each the everted perspective of the other. Each methodically excludes what the other describes, through blackboxing or bracketing, respectively. A cultural anthropologist might say ANT attempts a rigorously etic view of the actor-network, and Postphenomenology is the emic view of the actor-nodes within it.
To make a chaos theory analogy, ANT gives us a Mandelbrot Set view of a region of the complex plane, and Postphenomenology gives us Julia Sets of selected points within the region.
OOO is a peculiar cross-breeding of the two that focuses precisely on the actor-nodes in the network that resist emic understanding, and then marvels at the fact that they must have some sort of emicity that neither we (nor any other object) can get at. They seem to me to be a mystical branch of Process philosophy, given to authoring fanciful philosophical midrash where both physical and social sciences fail.
To extend the chaos theory analogy, OOO enjoys boggling at how densely the points belonging to the Mandelbrot Set saturate the band of points along its psychedelically-enflamed perimeter, and at the impenetrable blankness of each and every one of them.
Now that I’ve gotten Geometric Meditations into a finished state I am starting to feel a compulsion to write a more accessible book about design, tentatively titled Philosophy of Design of Philosophy. I’m excited to be freed from the excessive formal constraints that made Geometric Meditations take so long to finish.
There are several key points I want to make.
This is an early sketch, but I think some of the ideas are interesting and consequential, and I think it will be fun to right. And my design approach will ensure that at least some people will find the book useful, usable and desirable.
The best name for my approach to philosophy might be “design Instrumentalism”, a variant of John Dewey’s instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,
Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.
Design instrumentalism builds on Dewey’s instrumentalism by focusing on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and evaluated as designed products, using frameworks like Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable. These three evaluative considerations could be translated to the design of philosophies:
Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should be viewed less as collections of true beliefs, than as as fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention, guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive practical worldview (a.k.a. praxis).
Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it is all solid and persuasive enough, and not in need of tedious rehashing. I’ll just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.
This is a good start of a list of pragmatic presuppositions. The list is still incomplete and will be supplemented with ideas drawn from sources, including phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics and material turn philosophies.
One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like every ambitious philosophy, multilayered. Design Instrumentalism is itself (a) a philosophical tool used to explore what it means that (b) philosophy is a philosophical tool for designing philosophical tools, which are (c) applied to practical living. So Design Instrumentalism might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers who enjoy doing philosophy (the tool designers), but it also focuses on the design of philosophies for non-philosophers with little interest in doing philosophy (the tool users) who need concepts for thinking about their lives in general and for focused “single-use” for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of particular design problems.
Doing just this kind of work (strategic designers call it “framing”) in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is what brought me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.
Reading Verbeek’s What Things Do, I’m reminded of Latour’s handy term “hybrid”, an entity that is neither purely subjective nor purely objective, but a fusion of both.
In Latour’s eye, the distinction between nature and society, or subject and object, which has seemed so self-evident since the Enlightenment, needs to be seen as a product of modernity that has far exceeded its expiration date. No other society makes this distinction in such a radical manner, and in ours it is more and more painfully obvious how poorly it allows us to comprehend what is happening in the world. The project of modernity, according to Latour, consists of the attempt to purify objects and subjects — we set objects on one side, subjects on the other, and draw a line between them. What is on the one side of the line is then material for scientists to investigate, with what is on the other side for the social scientists. … This purification and separation of subjects and objects, according to Latour, is coming to be less and less believable. Ever more entities arise that cannot be comfortably placed in this dichotomy. Latour calls these entities “hybrids.” The irony is that these hybrids thrive thanks to the modem purification: precisely because they don’t fit within the subject-object schema, we cannot recognize them and therefore they can proliferate at an astounding rate without anyone trying to stop or change them. But now, as their numbers become ever greater, it becomes more and more difficult to deny their existence. We are flooded with entities that straddle the boundary between humans and nonhumans…
Humans and nonhumans are just as bound up together in our culture as they are in others; therefore, Latour concludes, we need to study our technological culture similarly to the ways that anthropologists study other cultures. This means studying how the networks of relations between humans and nonhumans develop and unravel. In order to understand our culture, we must trace out both the process of purification and that of hybridization; we must understand how hybrids arise and why they are not seen as hybrids. In order to understand phenomena, they should be approached as black boxes that, when opened, will appear to contain myriad relations and activity.
If we grasp and internalize this understanding of hybrids, it becomes possible to compactly differentiate how designers approach their problems versus how engineers approach theirs — and why they so often marginalize designers and accidentally prevent designers from working in the way designers believe is best. Here it goes:
Designers develop hybrid systems. Engineers develop objective systems.
I’ve written two elaborations of this idea, material to supply the understanding that makes grokking the compact definition above possible. I’ll post both, because there’s no time this morning to combine them.
An engineering perspective treats design as a sub-discipline of engineering. Design adds an aesthetic (and among more enlightened engineers) and usable “presentation layer” to a functional objective system.
A design perspective ought to treat engineering as a sub-discipline of design. Once a hybrid subjective-objective system is developed through a design approach, objective sub-systems can be defined within the larger context of the hybrid system and built according to engineering methods. According to a design mindset, an engineered system is always and necessarily a subsystem belonging to a larger hybrid system that gives it its purpose and value.
The reason so few people see the obvious truth of the latter design perspective is that their vision is obstructed by a philosophical blockage. The hybrid system concept does not play nice with the modern subject-object schema. Designers learn, through the practical activity of design, to view problems in a new way that is incommensurable with modernity’s default philosophy (as described by Latour).
But designers are rarely philosophical, so the methods rarely progress to the point of praxis. Design language is all bound up with humans and the trappings of subjectivity (emotions, opinions, habits, etc.) on the side of who the design is for and the trappings of romanticism on the side of who does the designing (insight, inspiration, creativity, passion, etc.) Design practice is a jumble of “recipes” — procedures, jargon, styles and theater — a subterfuge to make design fit the preconceptions of folks who don’t quite get what designers are really up to. So design submits to modernist schema and goes to modernism’s special territory for people people, romanticism.
Designers consciously work on developing hybrid systems where subjective and objective elements relate and interact. In design, people and things are thought of together as a single system. And things are not only material objects; they can be ideas, habits, vocabularies, etc. Whatever makes a design work or not work, including the engineered elements, as well as all business, cultural, environmental considerations are part of a design problem. When a designer opens a black box of their own making, they will see subjects interacting with objects and subjects, and objects interacting with other objects and subjects.
Engineering, on the other hand, works inside the subject-object dichotomy, and works on problems of objective systems. As a matter of method, engineering purifies objects and arranges them in systems. When an engineer opens a black box of their own making they see objective components interacting and working as a system.
From the view of engineers, the interior of the black boxes they make are their concern, and the surface layer of the box — the point where subjectivity encounters engineering, is the concern of designers. Engineers build the black box; designers paint and sculpt it to make it appealing to people.
Could it be that OOO is an engineer’s philosophy? It seems somewhere between possible and likely.
Since good designers must develop knowledge of the engineering involved in their chosen medium, I probably need to learn to think OOO. Maybe I’ll glue it to my designer’s philosophy with ANT paste.
Well, I tried to write about my books and how I want to prune my library, and ended up writing a history of my interests. I know there are loose ends, but I am tired of writing, so blat, here it is:
I used to have strict criteria for book purchases. To earn a place on my shelf (singular) a book had to be either a reference or a landmark. In other words, I had to see it as persistently valuable in my future, or it had to be valuable in my past as something that influenced me. My library was personal.
Somewhere along the way my library became more general. References grew to include whatever I imagined to be the basic texts of whatever subject I cared about. Landmarks expanded to include any book that housed some striking quote that I wanted to bottle up and keep. How did this happen?
When Susan met me, I owned one book, Chaos, by James Gleick. This book is the landmark of landmarks. Reading it was a major life event for me. It introduced me to two of the most crucial concepts in my repertoire. 1) nonlinear processes, and 2) Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. I loved the philosophical fairytale of Benoit Mandelbrot discovering a radical new way of thinking, and then skipping from discipline to disciple, tossing out elegantly simple solutions to their their thorniest, nastiest, most intractable problems, simply by glancing at them through his magic intellectual lens. He’d give them the spoiler (“look at it like this, and you’ll probably discover this…”) and then leave the experts to do the tedious work of figuring out that he was exactly right. And I loved it that the simplest algorithmic processes can, if ouroborosed into a feedback loop, can produce utterly unpredictable outcomes. We can know the dynamic perfectly, and we can know the inputs feeding into the dynamic perfectly — but we are locked out of the outputs until the process is complete. And then factor in the truth that numbers, however precise, are only approximate templates overlaid upon phenomena! Nothing outside of a mathematician’s imagination is a rational quantity. And in nonlinear systems, every approximation, however minute, rapidly amplifies into total difference. I’d go into ecstasies intuiting a world of irrational quantities interacting in the most rational, orderly ways, producing infinite overlapping interfering butterfly effects, intimating a simultaneously knowable-in-principle, pristinely inaccessible-in-fact reality separated by a sheer membrane of truth-reality noncorrespondance. I used to sit with girls and spin out this vision of truth for them, serene in the belief I was seducing them. Because if this can’t make a girl fall in love, what can? I still hold it against womenkind that so few girls ever lost their minds over one of my rhapsodies. They were into other stuff, like being mistaken for a person capable of losing her mind over the beauty of a thought, or being someone who enchants nerds and compels them to rhapsodize seductively. There’s a reason for all of this, and it might be the most important reason in the world, though I must admit, it remains pristinely inaccessible to me and an inexhaustible source of dread-saturated fascination. (If you think this is misogyny, you don’t understand my religion. “Supposing truth is a woman — what then…?”)
After I got married, my book collection expanded, reflecting some new interests and enthusiasms: Buddhism, Borges, and stuff related to personality theory, which became my central obsession. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002 I also became a fan of Christopher Alexander’s psychology of architecture, and I had my first inklings of the importance of design. Incidentally, one of the books I acquired in this period was a bio of Alexander, characterizing his approach to architecture as a paradigm shift. This was my second brush with Kuhn.) Until 2003 my book collection still fit on a single shelf.
In the winter of 2003 in Toronto, Nietzsche happened to me. Reading him, fighting with him, and being destroyed by him, I experienced intellectual events that had properties of thought, but which could not be spoken about directly. It wasn’t like an ineffable emotion or something that couldn’t quite be captured in words. These were huge, simple but entirely unsayable truths. I needed concrete anchors — concepts, language, parables, myths, images, exemplars — anything that could collect, formalize, stabilize, contain or convey what I “knew”. This is when books became life-and-death emergencies for me, and sources of extreme pleasure. I couldn’t believe you could buy a copy of Chuang Tzu’s sayings for less than the cost of a new car. From 2003 to 2006 my shelf grew into a library. I accumulated any book that helped reinforced my intense but disturbingly incommunicable sense of truth — what I eventually realized was a faith.
But then the question of this inexplicable state of mind and its contents became a problem to me. What exactly is known? How is it known? Why think of it in terms of knowledge? If it cannot even be said, then how can it be called knowledge? And the isolation was unbearable. I was in a state I called “solitary confinement in plain sight” with in an overwhelming feeling of having something of infinite importance to get across, but I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on or to consider it important enough to look into. I got lots of excuses, arguments, rebuffs, cuttings-down-to-size, ridicule and promises to listen in some infinitely receding later, but I could not find any real company at all, anywhere. This was a problem I desperately needed to solve.
Richard J. Bernstein’s hermeneutic Pragmatism is what hoisted me out of this void and gave me back a habitable inhabited world, with his lauded but still-underrated classic Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Equipped with the language of pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology and post-empiricism (Kuhn, again) I could account for my own experiences and link them to other people’s analogous experiences. Not only that — he began my reconnection with design, which had become a meaningless but necessary source of rent, food and book money. I was able to reengage practical life. But Bernstein’s method was intensely interpersonal, an almost talmudic commentary on commentaries ringing a missing central common text.
Richard J. Bernstein’s bibliography, however, was the flashpoint for my out-of-control library. Each author became a new collection. Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and then eventually Latour, and then Harman and now Morton… etc. Geertz seeded an anthropology and sociology shelf, which is now a near-bursting book case. Hanna Arendt is a whole shelf, and spawned my collection of political books and my “CDC vault” of toxic ideologies. Gadamer and Heidegger were another space-consuming branch. Dewey, James and Peirce fill about three shelves. And Bernstein’s line of thinking led me directly to Buber, who also breathed fire into my interest in the research side of Human Centered Design (another half a case of books) and sparked a long process of conversion to Judaism (yet another half-case, and growing).
A bunch of these threads, or maybe all of them together drove me into Bruno Latour’s philosophy. Latour inflicted upon me a painful (and expensive) insight: Everything Is Important. Statistics, accounting, technologies, laws, bacteria, materials, roads. Therefore I must get books on everything, apparently. With this we finally ran out of room in my bookcases, them my library room, then our house. We had to get a storage space to cycle my out-of-season books into and out of again when I realize I must read that book right now. Susan just got a second space. I have books stacked up everywhere. I am a hoarder.
I am considering putting all these books back under review, and keeping only the books that fit those two original criteria. Is it a landmark for me? Is it a reference that I know I will use?
I cannot be everything, and I need to stop trying. I need things that help me stay me, and I need to shed the rest. Good design demands economy, tradeoffs, clarity of intent. I have a bad case of intellectual scope-creep. It is time to decide what is essential, and to prune away nonessentials so the rest can grow in a fuller way.
I have another half-written post I think I’ll finish now.
I’ve gotten sucked into Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects. I was reading Kaufmann’s book on Hegel, but after sampling few pages of this book on the recommendation of a friend Morton’s book felt “next”.
A few random notes:
This territory, settled first by Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and developed further by Speculative Realism, truly feels like where the philosophical action is. It is pro-science but anti-scientism, which matters quite a lot, given the left’s metastasis into an aggressively intensifying and spreading scientistic fundamentalism. It is built on the Pragmatist platform, as all good contemporary thinking is. It addresses our basic moral impulses along with our conceptions, and who cares about whatever doesn’t? This movement is for thinking folks beyond the academy. I have come to loathe the odor of papers meant to goose an academic’s scorecard. Back in the day I designed the interface for a system for capturing academic accomplishments for evaluation, so I know what drives ambitious edu professionals. Whoever let the MBAs into the dean’s office deserves to be shot.
This book definitely fits in the Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) genre. As a genre, OOO seems not only influenced by, but highly derivative of ANT, and especially Latour, in its delight in dizzyingly heterogeneous lists designed to inflict ontological whiplash, and its ironic oscillations between light whimsy and the heaviest dread. I am writing this post from Paris, and I have to wonder if this literary texture doesn’t have something to do with Latour’s Frenchness. If there is one thing the French are not, it is streamlined. OOO is an unstreamlined genre. OOO profuses.
I’m struggling for a style for my 4-page pamphlet, so I’m a little genre-sensitized right now. I crave severe streamlining, to the point of geometry. The reason for is that I want to provide a minimal skeleton or scaffolding for thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. Now, that I’m writing this, maybe my genre is the genre of design brief. This is consistent with one of my core themes, that philosophy is a species of design. If this is true, and I am no longer inclined to doubt this background faith or its implications, wouldn’t this kind of design, like all others, benefit from a design brief? Design is directed by an intuited problem. Normally a problem is implicitly and instinctually felt by isolated individuals (as inspiration), or no problem is felt (as feeling uninspired). If framed explicitly as a brief, inspiration is socialized and made available to groups of collaborators. Briefs themselves are designed things, and my favorite kind of design is brief design. (By the way, a couple of months ago I developed a simple method for co-designing briefs that feels extremely promising, and I need to write about that. Note to self.) I think this pamphlet might be a universal design brief for designing design briefs. Yeah, you know I’ll stack me some metas. This insight may be a breakthrough, or a yerba mate overdose, or both.
Another thing I’m noticing that I like about OOO is their metaphysical surveying work seems right on. The property lines they’ve drawn between being and alterity, knowledge and reality are very close to my own. The only conception of religion that has ever made sense to me is the cultivation of relationship between knowing self and the barely-known reality of which self is part. Speculative Realism seems built on this well-surveyed property, each herm in its proper place.
And if I am not mistaken, according to this survey, transcendental and transcendent are diametric opposites. In understanding, the transcendental is what we bring to the table of knowledge, and the transcendent is what not-we brings.
While I’m scanning passages from C. Robert Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy, here are two more that inspired me.
The first passage appeals to my designer consciousness:
Descartes was wrong in his basic dualism. The world is not composed of substances or of two kinds of substances. There is, however, what David Ray Griffin calls an “organizational duality.” Descartes was correct that rocks and chairs and other large physical objects do not have minds, while humans do. In Whiteheadian terms, rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them. In living organisms, however, there can be varying degrees to which the organism is structured to give rise to a single series of feelings that can function to direct the organism as a whole. We can see fairly clearly that at least higher animals like chimps and dogs have a psyche (mind or soul) chat is in many ways like our own. This psyche draws experience from the whole body (with varying degrees of directness and clarity), often crossing a threshold into some degree of consciousness, and is able in turn to use that awareness to direct the organism toward actions that help it to survive and achieve some enjoyment of life. The self, or soul, then is not something separate from the body. It arises out of the life of the body, especially the brain.
The mind/soul/psyche is the flow of the body’s experience. Yet your body produces a unique mind that is also able to have experiences reaching beyond those derived directly from the body. We can think about philosophy, love, mathematics, or death in abstract conceptual ways that are not merely physical perceptions. Without the body, there would be no such flow of experience, but with a properly organized body, there can be a flow of experience that moves beyond purely bodily sensation. Furthermore, your mind can clearly interact with your body so that you can move, play, eat, hug, and work. There is a kind of dualism here in that the mind is not only the body but it is, in Griffin’s phrase, a hierarchical dualism rather than a metaphysical one. There are not two kinds of substances — minds and bodies. There is one kind of reality — experience. But experience has both its physical and mental aspects.
To my ears, this is a beautiful dovetail joint waiting to be fitted to extended cognition. “Rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them” but if a human organizes those rocks in particular ways, for instance drilling and shaping them into abacus beads, or melting them down to manufacture silicon chips, those rocks can be channeled into extended cognitive systems which in a very real way become extensions of our individual and collective minds. It is ironic to me that even at this exact instance, in typing out this sentence, a thought is forming before my eyes with the help of rocks reorganized as silicon chips which are participating in the “having” of this very thought. And if anyone is reading this and understanding it, my thought, multi-encoded, transmitted, decoded and interpreted by your own intelligence — rocks have helped organize this event of understanding! Humans help organize more and more of the “inanimate” world into participants of experience.
And now we are wading out into the territory developed by Actor-Network Theory, which asks, expecting intricately branching detailed answers: How do humans and non-humans assemble themselves into societies? I think the commonality within these harmoniously similar thought programs is their common rootedness in Pragmatism. It is no accident that Richard J. Bernstein saw pragmatism as a constructive way out of the unbridled skeptical deconstruction of post-modernism, and that Whitehead, who acknowledged a debt to Pragmatism, is said to offer a constructive postmodernism.
The second passage appeals to my newly Jewish hermeneutic consciousness. This is a quote by Whitehead:
The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.
This, of course, is a description of the hermeneutic circle, the concept that we understand parts in terms of the concepts by which we understand them, but that our concepts are often modified (or replaced) in the effort to subsume recalcitrant parts. We tack between focusing on the details and (to the degree we are reflective) revisiting how we are conceptualizing those details. These are the two altitudes Whitehead mentions: an on-the-ground investigation of detail and a sky-view survey of how all those details fit together.
This is an ancient analogy. The Egyptians made the ibis, an animal with a head like a snake (the lowest animal) and the body of a bird (the highest animal) the animal of Thoth, their god of writing, the Egyptian analogue to Hermes. Nietzsche also used this image in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and that is where I first encountered it.
An eagle soared through the sky in wide circles, and on him there hung a serpent, not like prey but like a friend: for she kept herself wound around his neck. “These are my animals,” said Zarathustra and was happy in his heart. “The proudest animal under the sun and the wisest animal under the sun — they have gone out on a search. They want to determine whether Zarathustra is still alive. Verily, do I still live? I found life more dangerous among men than among animals; on dangerous paths walks Zarathustra. May my animals lead me!” When Zarathustra had said this he recalled the words of the saint in the forest, sighed, and spoke thus to his heart: “That I might be wiser! That I might be wise through and through like my serpent! But there I ask the impossible: so I ask my pride that it always go along with my wisdom. And when my wisdom leaves me one day — alas, it loves to fly away — let my pride then fly with my folly.”
And I have seen the Star of David as an image of the synthesis of atomistic ground-up and holistic sky-down understandings. And this is one reason I chose Nachshon (“snakebird”) as my Hebrew name when I converted to Judaism.
(Eventually, I’ll have to try to connect process thought with my extremely simplistic and possibly distorted understanding of chaos theory. Eventually.)
The book I have been reading for the last thirty or so mornings has been Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. I am currently reading the chapter on Isaac Luria, and it is sparking insights and connections with other things I’ve read, in particular with Bruno Latour’s philosophy of irreductionism.
Before I start quoting passages, I confess that I am doing what I always do: connecting mystical intuition of beyondness with mundane experiences of alterity (otherness) — including the experience of scientific inquiry on its outer edges — that region Thomas Kuhn famously labeled “crisis”, the phase of inquiry where the material, the symbolic, the logical/mathematical, the sociological, the psychological, the factual and the intuitive domains we ordinarily keep carefully compartmentalized blend together and interact unnervingly and chaotically. Boundaries redraw themselves and the terrain itself shifts with the lines. Smooth, solid ground of certainty becomes turbulent water which threatens to swallow and drown. New kinds of reality leap out of nowhere, revealing the fact that nothingness was concealing very real realities which had been staring directly into our eyes as we stared through them at objects we preferred seeing because we knew how to know them.
But I’ll let you judge for yourself whether I am abusing mysticism by shoehorning mystical answers into philosophical (philosophy of science) questions. Rather than pick through Scholem’s scholarly exposition in an attempt to summarize it all, I will instead quote from the overview of Luria’s life from Daniel Matt’s Essential Kabbalah:
…Luria wrote hardly anything. When asked by one of his disciples why he did not compose a book, Luria is reported to have said: “It is impossible, because all things are interrelated. I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed. How then shall I express what my soul has received? How can I set it down in a book?” We know of Luria’s teachings from his disciples’ writings, especially those of Hayyim Vital.
Luria pondered the question of beginnings. How did the process of emanation start? If Ein Sof [Divine Infinite] pervaded all space, how was there room for anything other than God to come into being? Elaborating on earlier formulations, Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence “from itself to itself,” withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation. According to some versions of Luria’s teaching, the purpose of the withdrawal was cathartic: to make room for the elimination of harsh judgment from Ein Sof.
Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly; but as the emanation proceeded, some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks, along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise, these sparks, to restore them to divinity. This process of tikkun (repair or mending) is accomplished through living a life of holiness. All human actions either promote or impede tikkun, thus hastening or delaying the arrival of the Messiah. In a sense, the Messiah is fashioned by our ethical and spiritual activity. Luria’s teaching resonates with one of Franz Kafka’s paradoxical sayings: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival.”
In particular I see a profound connecting between idea of divine sparks distributed throughout the world and the notion of forces and forms of resistance described in this gorgeous passage from Bruno Latour’s one purely philosophical work, Irreductions, included as an appendix to his sociological classic The Pasteurization of France.
…We should not decide apriori what the state of forces will be beforehand or what will count as a force. If the word “force” appears too mechanical or too bellicose, then we can talk of weakness. It is because we ignore what will resist and what will not resist that we have to touch and crumble, grope, caress, and bend, without knowing when what we touch will yield, strengthen, weaken, or uncoil like a spring. But since we all play with different fields of force and weakness, we do not know the state of force, and this ignorance may be the only thing we have in common.
One person, for instance, likes to play with wounds. He excels in following lacerations to the point where they resist and uses catgut under the microscope with all the skill at his command to sew the edges together. Another person likes the ordeal of battle. He never knows beforehand if the front will weaken or give way. He likes to reinforce it at a stroke by dispatching fresh troops. He likes to see his troops melt away before the guns and then see how they regroup in the shelter of a ditch to change their weakness into strength and turn the enemy column into a scattering rabble. This woman likes to study the feelings that she sees on the faces of the children whom she treats. She likes to use a word to soothe worries, a cuddle to settle fears that have gripped a mind. Sometimes the fear is so great that it overwhelms her and sets her pulse racing. She does not know whether she will get angry or hit the child. Then she says a few words that dispel the anguish and turn it into fits of laughter. This is how she gives sense to the words “resist” or “give way.” This is the material from which she learns the meaning of the word “reality.” Someone else might like to manipulate sentences: mounting words, assembling them, holding them together, watching them acquire meaning from their order or lose meaning because of a misplaced word. This is the material to which she attaches herself, and she likes nothing more than when the words start to knit themselves together so that it is no longer possible to add a word without resistance from all the others. Are words forces? Are they capable of fighting, revolting, betraying, playing, or killing? Yes indeed, like all materials, they may resist or give way. It is materials that divide us, not what we do with them. If you tell me what you feel when you wrestle with them, I will recognize you as an alter ego even if your interests are totally foreign to me.
One person, for example, likes white sauce in the way that the other loves sentences. He likes to watch the mixture of flour and butter changing as milk is carefully added to it. A satisfyingly smooth paste results, which flows in strips and can be poured onto grated cheese to make a sauce. He loves the excitement of judging whether the quantities are just right, whether the time of cooking is correct, whether the gas is properly adjusted. These forces are just as slippery, risky, and important as any others. The next person does not like cooking, which he finds uninteresting. More than anything else he loves to watch the resistance and the fate of cells in Agar gels. He likes the rapid movement when he sows invisible traces with a pipette in the Petri dishes. All his emotions are invested in the future of his colonies of cells. Will they grow? Will they perish? Everything depends on dishes 35 and 12, and his whole career is attached to the few mutants able to resist the dreadful ordeal to which they have been subjected. For him this is “matter,” this is where Jacob wrestles with the Angel. Everything else is unreal, since he sees others manipulate matter that he does not feel himself. Another researcher feels happy only when he can transform a perfect machine that seems immutable to everyone else into a disorderly association of forces with which he can play around. The wing of the aircraft is always in front of the aileron, but he renegotiates the obvious and moves the wing to the back. He spends years testing the solidity of the alliances that make his dreams impossible, dissociating allies from each other, one by one, in patience or anger. Another person enjoys only the gentle fear of trying to seduce a woman, the passionate instant between losing face, being slapped, finding himself trapped, or succeeding. He may waste weeks mapping the contours of a way to attain each woman. He prefers not to know what will happen, whether he will come unstuck, climb gently, fall back in good order, or reach the temple of his wishes.
So we do not value the same materials, but we like to do the same things with them — that is, to learn the meaning of strong and weak, real and unreal, associated or dissociated. We argue constantly with one another about the relative importance of these materials, their significance and their order of precedence, but we forget that they are the same size and that nothing is more complex, multiple, real, palpable, or interesting than anything else. This materialism will cause the pretty materialisms of the past to fade. With their layers of homogeneous matter and force, those past materialisms were so pure that they became almost immaterial.
No, we do not know what forces there are, nor their balance. We do not want to reduce anything to anything else. …
This text follows one path, however bizarre the consequences and contrary to custom. What happens when nothing is reduced to anything else? What happens when we suspend our knowledge of what a force is? What happens when we do not know how their way of relating to one another is changing? What happens when we give up this burden, this passion, this indignation, this obsession, this flame, this fury, this dazzling aim, this excess, this insane desire to reduce everything?
verb [with obj.]
“Now that we are no longer fooled by these maneuvers, we see spokesmen, whoever they may be, speaking on behalf of other actors, whatever they may be. We see them throwing their ranks of allies, some reluctant, some bellicose, into battle one after the other.” – Bruno Latour
If knowledge is representative, this sense of representation (4) should not be too closely equated with (3) depicting or (2) constituting. It is better to emphasize its affinity with (1) acting or speaking on behalf of a reality.
Knowledge represents reality by being its spokesman in deliberation, conveying the considerations relevant to that reality, and negotiating for where that reality will figure into whatever is being discussed. If a representative speaks well for a reality, the reality will cooperate and reinforce his claim of representing his constituency. If he misrepresents a reality, the reality will undermine and discredit his representation by refusing to cooperate as the representative promised it would.
Again: our knowledge does not depict reality or make little idea-models that correspond to a reality — with our knowledge we politically represent a reality and conveys what it does and will do with respect to a problem. We are standing in for a reality and representing it in its absence.
Of course, it pays to confer with any reality we are seeking to represent, and be good students of that reality so we can represent it ever more faithfully. When we are representing people we may have conversations with them. Or we may immerse in their lives, interact and participate so we can get first-hand first-person knowledge of what is going on. If we are representing non-human things we might have to watch, form hypotheses, interact, experiment, revise — again, so we can be taught by the reality how to represent it.
And, as Latour never tires of pointing out, every social situation is a heterogeneous collection of human and non-human actors.
Since design is nearly always intervening in some social situation in order to change it, what design researchers really do in the field is confer with the full social reality in order to understand it and fully represent it. And once hypothetical solutions are found, design researchers return to the social situation to confer with it about how it might react to them. Good designers are like good politicians — always shaking hands, knocking on doors, staying in touch, winning support.
Nothing is improved when we replace worldviews with wordworlds.
To paraphrase Bernadette from the Jerk, “It’s not [the meanings] I’ll miss. It’s the stuff!”
Our problem is not metaphysics. It is metaphysical reductionism. And specifically metaphysical reductionisms that allow us to be individually solipsistic with our eyes, or collectively solipsistic with our ears. If we get our hands involved and through interacting with the myriad beings around us, permit a fluid and indeterminately multidimensional metaphysic to stand beyond our capacity to conceptualize — one whose essence is to occasionally shock us — we’ll be better able to live in a real world.
I really cannot read more minds-in-vats. ANT has ruined me.
Had Hannah Arendt lived to read Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump: she would never have written this:
With the term vita activa, I propose to designate three fundamental human activities: labor, work, and action. They are fundamental because each corresponds to one of the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man.
Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. The human condition of labor is life itself.
Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever-recurring life cycle. Work provides an “artificial” world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings. Within its borders each individual life is housed, while this world itself is meant to outlast and transcend them all. The human condition of work is worldliness.
Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.
This last sentence is perfectly, elegantly wrong, and overcoming this belief is at the very heart of Design Thinking.
Intersubjectivity is conducted through the medium of things.
I and You runs a circuit through It.
Are things otherwise?: I is short-circuiting, again.
An indicator of a closed circuit: intense heat.
Circuit – ORIGIN late Middle English: via Old French from Latin circuitus, from circuire, variant of circumire ‘go around,’ from circum ‘around’ + ire ‘go.’
(It is interesting to think of the circuit as primarily the movement, not the substance that enables the movement.)
Laurie Anderson’s “Closed Circuit”