Category Archives: Design Instrumentalism

Consummated knowledge

A synthesis (syn- “together” + -tithenai “put”) is put-together piece by piece, expertly connected at each joint with logic.

The synthesis is placed before the mind, and the mind conceives it (con- “together” + -capere “take”). It is taken-together — conceived as a whole.

But the conceived whole still contains within itself the synthesis, which may be safely assumed and ignored. The whole can, in principle, be reopened, analyzed and seen to form a valid synthesis, or it can remain a closed unit — a given — represented by a concept.

In being simultaneously together-put and together-taken — both a conceived con- and synthesized sum- — the knowledge is consummated.

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When a synthesis is unblessed by conception, the synthesis must remain either a certified truth claim, or a thinking process that must be consciously repeated to reaffirm the truth. The knowledge feels unnatural, mechanical and artificial in application.

Consummated knowledge feels natural and can be called second-natural.

Consummated knowledge is integrated into one’s own subjectivity, and becomes an extension of one’s own self. Consummated knowledge is faithful.

Synthesis stays external. It is a pile of objective ideas one thinks about and considers “true”. Synthetic knowledge might become engrained in habit and experienced as familiar, but it can never be seen in nature as a given,

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Some rationalists are unable or unwilling to conceive a distinction between habitually-engrained and second-natural. They want to believe human nature is artificial and arbitrary. This is the mentality that assured us that our ears would learn to love serial music, that we would feel happy dwelling in cold, austere modern spaces. This is the mentality that wishes to reengineer language in order to remake our norms.

The only difference between artificiality and second-nature is time — and compulsion.

These rationalists fancy themselves more open and imaginative than those confined to the narrow convention of today’s taste. They are prophets who refuse to limit themselves to contemporary prejudices.

But what if today’s worst and most narrow prejudice is the malleability of human nature? That taste is a prejudice — but not rationalism, not unfettered imagination?

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Consummation is the ideal of design. A great design is intuited on the whole, but the intuition provides insight into the design’s synthesized parts. Designers work hard keeping the system consummated so part and whole inter-illumine.

This consummation is also the ideal of philosophy. An enworldment is a conceptual-synthetic understanding of everything that permits us to feel the synthetic black-boxed truth sealed tidily inside wholes, which we could, but needn’t, open, analyze, inspect and reassemble, unless we are bothered by it, or truly curioys. Without being burdened and overwhelmed we can intuit an intelligibility of the world around us.

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Or we can just break open every concept and leave the parts disassembled snd scattered. Every concept can be deconstructed, as we invariably find if we try.

The deconstructions do not necessarily destroy our faith in the concepts, but if the concepts are destructible, a deconstruction is the most effective means.

For this reason, we often deconstruct unwanted given truths with an intent to destroy. Once we have done it, we sometimes feel we have earned the right to call the former given a mere construct.

Do we, ourselves, stop seeing the given as true? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

We can also make new syntheses and put them into concept-like boxes and claim that we find these boxes intuitive.

Do we ourselves see these concept-like constructions as given truths? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

And many of us have grown so burdened with facts accepted from other experts that we no longer have any expectation of intuiting a given world. Nothing feels natural, and we congratulate ourselves on that fact. We tell ourselves and each other that we are better off relying on “System 2” artificial thinking-about as we bob about adrift in a meaningless universe. Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

Nobody can prove one way or another, so we think it is safe to lie if we wish — except this unprovable dishonesty is felt with immediacy. The dishonesty pervades a personality and gives it a coloration and odor. Though this profound dishonesty cannot be formally discredited, it is not believed, even by oneself. But nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

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Lack of intellectual conscience is a liability to philosophical and design craft.

Since you asked…

A friend of mine has a habit of sending me emails consisting of simple, beautiful questions.

Years ago he introduced me to Christopher Alexander. When Alexander died I sent him an email, and that started a discussion of Alexander’s later work. This was the context (at least for me) of his latest question-poem:

What is value? Can it be objective?

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Of course, I had to ruin the glorious simplicity by writing an encyclopedia of a response. The content is mostly the same stuff I am always going on and on about, but these questions inspired a different angle of expression.

But there is one new-ish move here, which might even be an insight: extending the complexity of Bergsonian time to both space (conceived in designerly contextual terms) and — best of all — to self. Just as Bergson conceived now, not as an instant-point, but as a flowing interaction of memories and anticipations, we can see the I, not as an ego-point, but as a subject-complex with flexibly mobile contours subsisting within any number of We’s. This polycentric-self idea may present an alternative to the individualist-collectivist continuum that for many seems the only conceivable possibility.

It all seemed worth posting, so here it is, in mildly edited form.


What is value? Can it be objective?

Christopher Alexander seems committed to objective value, if by objective you mean “inherent to objects” and not relative to a subject. My inclination is to see value as relational — a relation between valuer and valued. I know this is exactly the relativist conventional wisdom what Alexander is attempting to overcome — and I respect that — but I think the real goal here is aesthetic truthfulness (a species of intellectual conscience).

The trusty old Enlightenment method of logical coercion, though, is no match for the might of aesthetic bad faith. Someone who needs to lie about subjective values will become a true believer.

I think this is a religious matter, honestly. Subjective honesty is a virtue we have to cultivate in ourselves, and then we can recognize others who seem to respond to what we experience in similar ways. If discrepancies in response happen, it is more or less impossible to know if someone is subjectively dishonest, or having a strong, sincere idiosyncratic response — or has developed sensibilities beyond our own and are seeing beauty (or other subjective conceptions/perceptions) we haven’t learned to see, yet.

But if we want subjective truth, we’ll stay responsive to our own value-sense, while also looking for ways to transcend our current subjective limits (that is, we will entertain new ways of conceiving and perceiving and see what “takes”).

I think the best reason for this subjective self-transcendence is seeking more accommodating truth, supportive of community of subjective experience with others. Bigger, deeper, richer common sense.

Our We can be more than a mere aggregation of me’s and it’s (in orbit around one’s own I, even — no, especially — when we attempt to efface, factor out, or counter-balance that central I) but this requires a different good faith than the Enlightenment’s objective good faith.

The I won’t disappear. It can’t disappear because it doesn’t appear — any more than our own eyes appear in our vision. The I makes everything else appear. I manifests as a particular everything — what I’m calling enworldment.

We cannot decenter our own I no matter how we try, and when we attempt it, we only conceal its workings for ourselves and delude ourselves into universalizing our own current enworldment as the world per se. Decentering creates more monstrously self-idolizing self-centerings: misapotheosis.

What is needed now is polycentering. Let’s stop scolding our children and saying “you are not the center of the universe.” (When heard phenomenologically, this is manifest bullshit, because of fucking course every child is situated precisely at the center of the universe, and nowhere else, as every child knows!) What we should say is: “you are not the only center of the universe.”

The best alternative to egoist self-centeredness is not the self-decenteredness of altruism, but the self-polycenteredness of participation in community.

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For some reason Bergson is in the air right now. Many of us are realizing or re-realizing that every instant of time is not an infinitesimal blip on a timeline, but a complex of recollections, concurrences and anticipations. And if we look around us into our environment, as designers, objects are not aggregates of infinitesimal particles, but are environed complexes of contexts, parts, wholes, ensembles. We need to grasp the fact that the I is exactly analogous, in this way, to space and time. An I subsists within a We of present people, memories of people, who I am to others, who they are to me, what I fear from them and for them, what I desire from them, and they from me — an I is a complex of freedom and response-ability. An I is not an ego-point, it is a subject-complex.

That asterisk-shaped continuum with I-Here-Now at the center does not meet at a point but, rather at a bright nebular heart streaming out into things, times, relationships — streaming out, and sometimes withdrawing back into itself to conserve itself, or to gather energy for more streaming-out, or to die as an insular speck.

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Again, I think value can exist in everything and ideally does exist in everything, but I’m a believer in value inhering not in the subjectivity of the valuer’s valuations or in the objectivity of the valued’s value, but rather in the relationship — in the consummation of valuing. It isn’t subjective or objective — it is “interjective”.

The value is there for us, as a self-evident universal given, if we enworld ourselves in a way that invites valuing relationships. Christians call this “entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Argyle

Today, I am recollecting and reflecting on the insights that originally inspired me to draw a diagram that I’ve called “the argyle”.

It was originally meant to show how conceptual wholes and synthesized parts can intersect to produce meaningful systems. In a meaningful system the conception of the system makes the synthesized parts feel necessary and given, because their relationships are pre-determined by the logic of the concept –“Of course it works this way! — but, also, the synthesis is rationally constructed, so even if the concept were missed, the system would make sense — “This is perfectly clear and logical!”.

A meaningful system is comprehended with intuition and reason, or with both together in concert. (I’ve also considered the idea of treating comprehension as being simultaneous inter-illuminating conception and synthesis — instead of as an umbrella term for either conception or synthesis.)


The reason I needed to create this framework was that I’ve found that certain very types of designers (and people doing the work of designers) tend to prioritize concept over synthesis or synthesis over concept to such a degree that they stop reinforcing one another. One one extreme we have the wild genius who conceives a vision of the whole and regards all logic as stultifying formalism that undermines the inspired spontaneity of creation. It does not have to make clear sense if hearts are stirred and wallets open wide. On the other extreme we have the logical organizer of elements who views with suspicion and impatience any delaying attempt to seek an overarching concept to guide the design. After all, logic can get down to work immediately and start making demonstrable progress toward the final goal. If the final output is uninspired and dry — so what? Can the system be figured out with minimal effort? Good enough.

Years later, out of exasperation and a weakness for potty-mouthed ridicule, I developed a second model to describe the failure of merging concept and synthesis — though somehow, until today, I managed to miss the opportunity to explicitly link this failure to synthesis and concept. Instead I linked it to inspired meaning versus practical details.

I called this “the bullshit-chickenshit model”.

Bullshit – Meaningful, inspiring ideas that seem to promise something, but that something can never be fulfilled through any practical action.

Chickenshit – Practical activity that seems like it ought to serve some meaningful purpose, but in reality is pointless busyness.

Bullshit is meaning without practice. Chickenshit is practice without meaning.

But, really, bullshit can be understood as unsynthesizable concept. The meaning is a feeling of vast promise that cannot be applied to any particular.

Chickenshit can be understood as inconceivable synthesis. It is a giant mechanism of logically conjoined pieces that never resolves into a meaningful whole.

Most of what we encounter in the world is pure bullshit and pure chickenshit, and this produces that one-two KO nihilistic punch in the face that sometimes makes us want to burn this whole madhouse down.

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Finally, I will accept the risk of being accused of bullshit by suggesting that the  Star of David can be viewed as a transcendent argyle, and the ultimate overcoming of bullshit and chickenshit . Even before I was Jewish I conceived it this way, and this insight contributed to my need to be Jewish.

Here, the overlap of concept and synthesis is maximized, and both the depth of concept and extent of the synthesis is felt to exceed the overlap. The meaning of the religious vision resonates in every practical detail of life, but also the doing of every day mundane life is sacralized in Tikkun Olam.

Sacred practicality is practical sacrality.

Practical sacrality is sacred practicality.

This is my own Jewish ideal, and I don’t think it is only mine.

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Postscript

The “skeleton” of the star — formed by connecting the opposing points of each of the overlapping triangles — eventually became the asterisk “star” in Geometric Meditations.

Random thoughts about theology, symbol and design

Imagine a religion where the congregation convenes and worships by expounding theology in explicit language — instead of worshiping in the beautiful but ambiguous symbolic language of ritual and prayer — with the intention of developing the clarity, depth and inspirational intensity of the theology to the furthest possible extent.

Imagine that, through this practice, the congregation does succeed in its collective goal. Imagine also, that this theological worship enables every member of the congregation to make personal progress, each at their own maximum pace, in their own theological understanding.

What happens?

I will tell you exactly what happens: With each personal epiphany, the congregation shatters and reshatters in protest and counter-protest.

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A clear theology is univocal. It conveys one specific belief.

But, ultimately, every one of us, being unique, has a unique relationship to the infinite. There are as many theologies as there are persons. The better the theology, the less it accommodates more than one theologian — and the less comprehensible it is to all others — and the more intensely it induces apprehension in the uncomprehending.

A religious symbology is polyvocal. The more radically polyvocal it is, the more universal its community. A symbology can be an expression of any number of beliefs of varying depth and clarity.

Even beliefs that clash and conflict when stated explicitly, when expressed in symbol, affirm a harmonious commonality of faith beneath the beliefs.

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Each religious symbol is a miracle of polysemy, a part of an even more miraculous polysemous symbol-system, the symbology of the religion. A change in any one symbol can crystallize a change throughout the system.

But these symbols are not external tokens that can be known through external manipulation.

One cannot understand a symbol as an object, grasped in the hand of the comprehending mind. Assembling and disassembling symbols like Lego blocks and combining them with pieces from other sets might give you some kind of knowledge about the pieces, and you might enjoy the experience of playing with them, but this comes at the cost of understanding their meaning of the symbol within the symbology that engendered it.

A symbology is not an object. A symbology is a subject.

To know a subject, we immerse in that subject, participating in its praxis until we have an epiphany — an epiphany that renders the subject clear — clear, invisible, imperceptible, transparent (trans- “through” + -parere “show oneself”) — so transparent that we experience the world itself through the subject, as made apparent by the subject, as given by the subject.

A subject is an enworldment.

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If we conceive religions in terms of belief content, this produces a different understanding than if we see religions more like languages that put communities in relation with each other, and with ultimate reality.

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Is a dictionary an inventory of every entity English-speakers believe exist? Isn’t that a notion we kicked to the curb when we rejected correspondence theories of truth? I’m curious: When we naively believed in correspondence theories of truth, and adhered to them, does that mean that this restricted our actual thinking and speech? Or did it mean we actually thought and spoke one way, but spoke about and thought about our speech and thought another?

Isn’t it possible that religious people participate in religion one way, but think about and speak about religion another? Likely, even?

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In usability testing, we watch people use an artifact. We don’t thrust the artifact before them, invite them to look at it and ask them for their opinion of it. We give them a task, and they try to use the artifact to accomplish it.

When we ask them about what they did, or why they did it, it doesn’t add up. They say it was easy, when the struggled. Or they make up reasons to explain things they were clearly doing instinctively, unconsciously. They are clearly confabulating.

Looking at a thing and looking through a thing is radically different.

But we keep on thinking: “No, I get the gist of it.”

No, you do not get the gist of it.

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The craft of research-informed design teaches us this over and over and over and over again not to trust our ability to see other perspectives from our own perspective.

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The strangest thing about being human is that we are free. We can spiral our finitude out into infinitude, or we can withdraw our finitude and close it into an impenetrable circle. Anything we prefer to regard as nonsense we can leave nonsensical. Nobody can compel us to pursue its sense, unless we want to. We are free to understand or refrain from understanding. We can, if we wish, even obliterate understanding through willful misunderstanding. Nobody can stop us, or even know for certain what we are doing.

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To say “the author is dead” is not a statement of fact, but a speech act that kills authors. And every day that we celebrate the author’s wake is a day that we, alone, are free to author our own life as we wish. Postmodernism was a disobligating liberation movement, and it succeeded. Nobody is the boss of me.

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To say “God is dead” is also a speech act that kills God.

But, to that I say: Happy Easter.

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There is wisdom in keeping our beliefs private and expressing what matters most symbolically.

Synesis and intellectual conscience

The Greek word synesis – literally, “togethering” – means understanding.

In synesis many forms of bringing together are brought together: bringing together one’s own various intuitions, which bring together various perceptions and ideas into understandings, which are then brought together with the rest of one’s understandings in a general understanding of everything. And once something is understood by one person, it can then be taught to other persons, in a fourth bringing together: shared understanding.

So synesis brings together many diverse kinds of bringing together: intuitive, phenomenal, philosophical, social.

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Many of us are spiritual individualists, whether we think of ourselves as religious worshipers or secular connoisseurs of awe. We work out our own respective salvations, hammer out our own views, in disregard of public chatter.

We undervalue synesis — or even defiantly devalue it on principle. “My relationship with the Universe/Cosmos/Divine is between me and the Universe/Cosmos/Divine, and is not the business of other people.”

This approach works only if we exclude other people from the infinite domain of Universe/Cosmos/Divine. And we can do it, if we choose to — but we do pay a price we might not notice, or at least not recognize as symptoms of our spiritual individualism.

However, when we conceive other people as fellow participants in the Universe/Cosmos/Divine — intrinsic to it and inseparable from it — we understand clearly that this principled spiritual exclusion of other people from our spirituality falsifies the very being of the Universe/Cosmos/Divine. With infinity, every exclusion is a disqualifying impurity.

And further, if we decide to be unsparingly honest with ourselves — if we allow the quiet voice of our intellectual conscience to be heard through the noise of our “narratives”, our explanations, our theorizing, our justifications, and all our other sundry various whistlings- in-the dark — if our standard becomes “do I really believe this?” instead of “can I defend this position?” or “can anyone really prove that I don’t really think or feel this way?” — in other words if we pursue truth, not proof — we must acknowledge the importance of other people and our need to share our world with them.

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We do not want to be alone.

Dishonesty isolates.

The dishonesty that isolates us most of all is that undisprovable inner dishonesty we cower in if we have been damaged by betrayal and spiritual coercion.

Then we are tempted to say, with Milton’s protagonist:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence…

We do not have to stay here.

We can reconceive things — re-conceive ourselves — and walk away from our self-isolating dishonesty. It is not exactly safe, but certainly not lethal, to care.

The universal design brief

It occurs to me this morning that Liz Sanders’s useful/usable/desirable framework is the heart of what could be thought of as a universal design brief.

  • Useful: The design satisfies functional needs.
  • Usable: The design minimizes functional obstacles.
  • Desirable: The design is valuable beyond its function.

The goal of design research is to particularize this brief. Useful how? Usable how? Desirable how?

For me, at least, the most striking thing about such a brief is how poorly language serves its purpose. Perhaps the widest and strangest gap between academic research and design research is the role language plays in the research, especially in its output. Where the end product of academic research is normally a written publication, design research aims at producing a concrete design that users actually experience as useful, usable and desirable. Whatever words produced on the way are only a means to this end, and often design researchers are wise to say as few words as possible, and instead simply influence (in-form?), as directly as possible, the shaping of the design.

Useful is the most linguistically accessible goal. Usefulness can be summarized in terms of explicit functional needs addressable by features. When people think about what is learned in design research, those few people with any inclination and ability to imagine anything distinct typically see a method for uncovering needs. Here words serve us well. We identify a list of “jobs to be done” by the design. Some of these jobs are functional, and others are emotional or social, but all can be stated in words.

This helps explain why “design thinking” focuses most on usefulness. For most people, especially the kind of professionals who get invited to design thinking workshops, thinking is done in words.

Beyond usefulness, however, words help less — or even start to mislead and impede. Beyond the talk of usefulness, where usability and desirability is developed, design craft takes over.

Usable is the goal of removing friction and barriers to use. This should not mean (but all too often does mean) friction and barriers to figuring out how to use something. Figuring out is friction.

The flooding of the design field with non-designers from other disciplines — people who love problem solving, but lack real love of designed artifacts — who don’t notice, appreciate or maybe don’t even expect intimacy with designed artifacts — has caused a serious degradation in our usability expectations. Most designers today stop short at verbal “figure-out-ability”, instead of seeking intuitive usability.

Intuitive usability seeks spontaneous conceiving of the What, How and Why of a system in pre-use encounter, and direct wordless, transparent interaction in use.

Certainly, helpful things can be said about how to make something more usable — general principles of usability do exist — but ultimately, if spontaneous conception and tacit transparency is sought, usability is something that develops experimentally and concretely through an iterative design process. Usability can be indicated and its effect can be described, but usability cannot be encapsulated in speech like usefulness can. Usability is designed into things.

Desirability is the hardest goal. Here we try to create something attractive or compelling in pre-use and intrinsically meaningful in use. We want users to respond favorably to the intrinsic qualities of the artifact when beheld from a distance (when it is present-at-hand) and to experience an unobtrusively noticeable, ambient positivity during use when the artifact is ready-to-hand. Here, the better the design, the more reliably words fail, except maybe poetic words. Desirability is not just associated emotions, and especially not emotional uses (that is only emotional usefulness). Desirability is the je ne sais quois goodness in a design — a quiddity or thusness that makes it, to some degree, lovable. We feel the desirability of things when we feel it, and those who really know the craft of design can produce it reliably, but nobody can say how. Design researchers can help inform this effort, but much of the help is showing, not telling.

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I guess I’m doing my usual beating-up-on-words thing again.

Why, though?

I think it is this: In a world that exalts language over craft, abstraction over concreteness, theory over practice — a world where craft must talk its way to the top or languish at the bottom under the micromanagement of talkers — where Thinkers reign over Doers, because obviously this is how things are — life itself is dictated by what is sayable.

Life devolves into features — heaps of What – and the quieter qualities of intuitiveness (How) and desirability (Why) fall by the wayside. What can’t be explicated, argued, listed on a PowerPoint slide drops away into ineffable oblivion.

Overall, life gets more and more useful… while growing less usable, less intuitive and less desirable. Life feels artificial, overwhelming and not worth the effort.

This artificiality seems to us to be the cost of progress. We see no alternative but returning to nature — retrogressing to simpler times.

But design offers an alternative to the A/B choice of progress into artificiality or return to nature.

Design offers second-naturalness.

But to get to an overall second-natural state we need to 1) raise our expectations of what we make for one another, and 2) kick our language supremacy and relearn reverence for craft. The more we can do this, the better chance we will have to instaurate a world that we experience as useful, usable and desirable.

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Polycentric design seeks usefulness, usability and desirability for a plurality of actors who interact with things and one another. It seeks systems of mutual benefit, which make the system itself manifestly beneficial.

Do we know how to think in a way that supports acting in a way — making in a way — that supports polycentric design?

Do we actually understand what it takes to accommodate pluralistic mutuality?

Don’t we all sort of assume that all people ought to share our ideals, and that if only they would, that we could finally make progress toward something better? Don’t we think their resistance to what we want is an illegitimate obstacle that ought not exist? And don’t they think that about us?

We don’t want to discuss what ought to go without saying. We are exasperated, offended! We need to move on, make progress.

In design — real design that doesn’t just think design, but does design — this ironing out of mutuality demands things of us that seem unreasonable. The politics of what constitutes progress is the hardest part of making progress! But we want to skip this part, and just make progress as we see it, accusing the other who wants to make a  progress toward another ideal (or away from something experienced as undesirable or wrong) as mere obstruction. So pluralism, like design,  must not just be thought, but done.

Design is the practice of pluralism. Doing design, doing pluralism, and being unable to escape its terrible demands has forced me out of my head, down into my arms, hands, legs and feet and deep into my own heart. I have been forced to move my body to unfamiliar places, so I can watch how people do things, so I can hear them talk about what they are doing, why they are doing and how they feel about it all, so I can soak up the je ne sais quois of how they decorate, equip and inhabit their environments — and this moves me. I have worked and struggled to come to agreements with my colleagues and clients on what we have learned and how it is significant, and this has rarely been easy. Frequently, we have had to wrestle with perplexity together, to develop tiny, local philosophies to make what we intuit intelligible, thinkable, discussable. This has forced me to learn apprehension tolerance, and the art of summoning goodwill in the midst of angst.

To do these things at commercial velocity, and to survive as the kind of person I want to be, I have had to rethink how I think, rework how I work, redesign how I design — re-enworld myself — over and over again, iteratively.

I am convinced that what prevents us from designing better is our way of thinking. Our manner of thinking, our expectations of thinking — undermines our doing, and our capacity for doing-with — deep forms of collaboration.

We need a philosophy of polycentric design. I’ve made a solid start in designing one. I believe if I can get others to adopt my prototype and collaborate on developing it further, this way of understanding, this designerly way of enworlding ourselves together, could help us align on the kind of progress we would like to make together so we can move past this current dangerous-feeling impasse.

Truth as antierror and antifalsity

“We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt…” — C. S. Peirce

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For the Boomers and for Gen X, that massive heap of post-everything glopped together as postmodernism was an exotic novelty that either liberated or infuriated depending on your temperament.

For Millennials, postmodernism was simply what was taught as current thinking, combined with Kahnemaniacal cognitive scientism, to produce a confused paradox — or is it an oxymoron — that fears cognitive distortion of… what, exactly? I have yet to hear anyone address the doublethink at the root of the Millennial generational faith.

For Gen Z, postmodernism is another conventionality to ridicule. When a Gen Zer says “That’s just a construct” they say it from a minimum of two  ironies layers if not more. For them there is nothing beneath the irony, to contrast with it, and there never has been. Postmodernism is all they know. They are thoroughgoingly faith-fluid.

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What we miss in the constructivist vision of truth and the deconstructionist vision of skepticism is two crucial questions.

The first is a question of practicality: Does reality cooperate with what we assert as true? We can claim all kinds of things, but our claims can be demonstrated to be wrong. They can also be demonstrated to be at least to some degree — but never conclusively — right.

The second is a question of intellectual conscience: Do we actually conceive a construction as true, and does a deconstruction cause us to conceive something as doubtful? Nobody can demonstrate sincerity of belief, disbelief or doubt, nor can they prove that a provisionally held assertion can never someday become sincerely believed. This hope is actually held by some, and for others is a ruse and a crutch.

How can discern the difference between actual and feigned belief — or sincere hope for future belief and willful delusion? Even if discernment were possible, how could we ever prove it? We cannot, so charlatans abound.

Where the first and second converge — where a truth is demonstrably true and conceived as true — this is where truth exists. It may not be a truth that satisfies a metaphysician’s fantasies, but it is a truth defined against demonstrable error and faithless falsity.

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I think younger generations are barely in touch with demonstrated truth, and entirely alienated from intellectual conscience. Everything is a construct and no construct has anything to recommend it over any other, except…

Taking my own best advice

I have been making myself observe my wordless responses to other people’s beliefs, apparent core conceptions, enworldments. I may feel impatience, or irritation, or futility, or sympathetic embarrassment, or fury — or best/worst of all, profound dread! — and I’m trying to see if I can trace these back to differences in conceptive taste or habits. “Why this tradeoff?” “Why did I choose differently?” “What is at stake in this choice?” “What does it reflect about my own root preferences?”

Inwardly observant; outwardly respectful.

Soulswarm

My soul is a swarm of intuitions.

This swarm knows how to fly in various formations to meet reality and respond to it. The intuitions know one another through these reality-responsive formations. Without reality’s mediation, without common objects, my intuitions would be unaware of the whole to which they belong.

No realities, no enworldment, no self. New realities, new enworldment, new selves.

My soul swarms with other souls. Some formations are made across souls, alighting upon and responding to reality. We understand together, share truth, share enworldment.

My soul has learned new formations, and new partial-formations, and these have changed how I enworld myself, and how it is to play my part within this world.

We are imprisoned within our selves only if we refuse to notice otherwise.

The reality of the world and each another is manifest if we accept it.

Self-respecting faith

I didn’t want to talk about souls in my book, but I am going to have to. The whole point of all of it is souls.

*

When we think, we construct logical syntheses, and offer them to the conceptive mind.

The conceptive mind may accept an offering as a whole, as second-natural — and take it together as a given.

The conceptive mind may reject the offering as a mere construct, as artificial — and regard it as a put-together claim.

It is true that a synthesis might, with time and practice, become habitual and what started artificial might become second-natural.

But it is also true that some syntheses stay artificial forever.

*

An overwhelming need to assert the truth of some synthetic claim — as often happens with religious dogmas or political ideologies — seduces a soul to dishonesty about how they experience truth, or to a permanent commitment to artificiality.

Let’s refer to such souls as synthetes — people who impose their synthetic truths on themselves, and almost always, eventually, on everyone around them.

The intense need of a synthete to believe certain sacred claims is produced by a faith, and a change of faith would relieve this need to believe. But a new enworldment entails the death of the existing enworldment — and nothing wants to die, least of all a faith. When a religious fundamentalist fears eternal death caused by sinful thoughts, or when a political ideologue claims that some language (really, some ideas) are a form of violence, this is the terror of a synthesis-armored faith facing its existential death. The conceptions it holds at bay — all the givens it must suppress, discredit, shout over, excommunicate, ostracize and deplatform — threaten to flood in and force reconception of everything and every thing.

If there is one thing a born-again fundamentalist rejects as a matter of faith, it is the fact of death and resurrection of soul. If there is one thing a political radical rejects on principle, it is revolution and liberation of mind.

Both types of synthetes want to dictate what is true, to limit questions to what its doctrine answers, and to produce a mirage of reality through artificial consensus by compelling all around them to support their unsupportable beliefs. They want the mechanical immortality of the belief system, the only form of duration their bad faiths can both conceive and accept.

*

Faiths believe, and are not themselves made out of beliefs.

Bad faiths also believe, but they believe they are made out of beliefs of their choosing. They think they can tell themselves the story they want to believe, and that saying they believe it makes it believed — if not now, eventually. So the synthete fantasy goes.

*

This does not mean our faith is fixed, or that we must take what is given as given.

We can change our faiths, and through our faiths, our enworldments.

But we cannot change through force of will. Precisely that element in our soul who calls itself I, the self who dictates belief, is the being who must change if we want new and better faith.

We must treat our whole souls — the entire intuitive swarm who is ourselves — especially wordless intuitions, who only feel, or respond, who are incessantly talked over and talked down — with perfect respect.

A new self-respecting soul self-organizes and emerges liberally and democratically from a liberated intuitive swarm who has learned mutual respect.

A self-respecting soul does not impose beliefs on itself, but offers possibilities as gifts which may be taken as given or politely refused. A self-respecting soul must not tell itself what to believe, but ask itself — its whole self — what is actually believed.

We must be brave and inventive in making gifts.

We must learn to do without beliefs until we are given one we can accept.

We are not who we think we are.

Polycentric virtues

Until quite recently, design has been monocentric.

All the various x-centric design disciplines were named after the single protagonist of the design. User-centered. Employee-centered. Customer-centered. Citizen-centered. In search of something more general and accommodating, most designers have settled on “human-centered’.

Human-centered design centers design on the experience of a person. While “human” can, of course, mean more than one person, in actual human-centered design practice — in the methods employed — it must be admitted that human meant one human. Designers nearly always focused all attention on the segments of people who might wind up a person at the center of their design, and they did this in order to ensure that it is useful, usable and desirable for whoever that might be.

Lately something new — much newer than it seems at first glance — has emerged: polycentric design.

In polycentric design multiple protagonists are simultaneously experientially centered. Multiple storylines — each an experience some person is having — weave together, converging and looping at points where people interact with one another, separating where people experience things alone. Polycentric design concerns itself with all the storylines equally, and attempts to make every point in this complex mesh of experiences useful, usable and desirable for everyone.

This new development in design began when human-centered design principles were applied to service design.

Even as far back as the early-90s (two decades before service design became human-centered) service design considered the entire service — not only the receiving of the service, but also the delivery and the support of the service — as a single designed system. The delivery and support of the service is not secondary to receiving the service, but of equal dignity and deserving equal focus.

So, when a human-centered design approach is applied to service design, then, the humans who are centered multiply. Any point in the experience where any person experiences anything in the receiving, delivering or supporting of the service — including where people experience interacting with one another — is framed as a design problem. It is a design problem part (a service moment) embedded within a design problem whole (the service) and the success of that moment and that whole is assessed by whether everyone valued what happened and feels that they participated in a win-win.

Designers debate whether service design is a species of human-centered design or vice versa. There is truth to all sides of the debate. I think they were both decisively transformed in the process and I like calling that transformation polycentric design.

*

Part of the reason I like to claim that polycentric design transcends both human-centered design (one person considered in first-person) and service design (originally multiple people considered in third-person) is that polycentricity challenges so many of our basic views outside of design — ideas bound up with what I believe are rapidly-obsoleting moral attitudes.

For instance, often we try to temper the natural egocentricity of children by telling them they are not the center of the universe. But why not instead tell them “you are not the only center of the universe“?

Or social activists will speak of decentering privileged groups. Why not instead extend centering to those who have been marginalized or excluded, and polycenter all people?

And consider altruism’s reflexive exaltation of martyrdom. Good people sacrifice their interests to the interests of others. But with polycentrism the selfless refrain of “not me, but you!” can be humanely transcended with an unselfish but also unselfless response: “not any one of us, but all of us.”

When we learn to think polycentrically, much more is possible than me getting my way, or you getting yours, or each of us compromising. We can rethink situations, we can philosophize pragmatically, and find entirely new ways to conceive what we face and find solutions preferable to all than the relatively impoverished conceptions we began with.

*

Oh, am I being an idealistic dreamer? Am I not tough enough for the hard truths of reality? for waging war for what matters?

I will argue the opposite.

I see tough-guy refusal to compromise, and resignation to the necessity of losers to produce winners as evidence of philosophical cowardice.

I see it as bullshit macho posturing of people who cannot handle the unknowability of the unknown and the dreadful apprehension one feels confronting what exceeds us and defies our language and even our thoughts.

(I overstate my position, in order to remind us that anything can be redescribed to look brave or cowardly, or realistic or delusional.)

*

What does it take to do polycentricity?

In individuals, it requires rare goodwill toward I-transcending We. It requires courage in the face of incomprehensibility — an ability to feel intense anxiety and antipathy, but not to obey it. It requires faith in the inconceivable becoming conceivable — so that our blindness to what might emerge if we approach problems in I-transcending We stops being evidence of impossibility.

And sadly it requires more that one person to possess polycentric virtues. In fact, it requires everyone involved in a polycentric situation (which is all situations) to commit to these virtues.

Most of all requires us to change our relationship to apprehension. Whatever we apprehend — a That we can touch with the tip of our mind — but which we cannot comprehend as a What we can grasp — makes us feel apprehensive.

When we take apprehension at face value, and conceive either the phenomena in question, or the other person forcing these phenomena to our attention — or both at once! — as signaling an offense or threat, we cannot entertain any important possibility that stands outside our comprehension.

And outside our comprehension is precisely where polycentric possibility stands!

*

For quite some time I’ve been arguing that it is helpful to reconceive philosophy as a design discipline.

More recently I’ve realized it might be even more helpful to reconceive philosophy as a polycentric design discipline.

Changed by writing

I can feel how this process of writing a book is changing me. It is changing how I think, feel and speak, which is strange because what I believe I’m doing is conveying a philosophy I’ve been using, more or less unchanged since at least 2014 and maybe as early as 2011 (basically, once Latour and ANT helped me transcend my natural ideocentric brain-in-a-vatism).

Yet, here I am, experiencing a real change in my enworldment, interspersed with intense apprehension — so clearly my code-freeze has thawed and substantial philosophical work (not just conveyance) is happening.

In some ways this process has been a recovery of simplicity that I’ve gradually lost over years of elaboration on my core philosophy. Perhaps I’ve suffered scope-creep trying to incorporate concepts from ANT and ethnomethodology into my repertoire. Some of this knowledge remains undigested synthesis, and has not really been conceived and fully integrated. (Nietzsche mocked this condition as “indigestion”.)

My earliest experiences of metanoia were simple and overwhelmingly powerful. They shifted — everted, in fact – my fundamental understanding of the world to one that was more intensely felt, more immediately intuited and more practical in orientation. These qualities map to Liz Sanders’s desirability, usability and usefulness, respectively, and I will develop this extensively in my book.

By contrast, the thoughts I had as a young man tended toward abstraction and uselessness. The thoughts were mostly aesthetic. My thinking produced works of art to contemplate and savor, not beautiful tools to carry out into the world and use to do things. In other words, my early thoughts focused exclusively on desirability. I used the concepts I’d passively acquired from school and work for usefulness. And usability was all on me. Complicated ideas would become usable with practice.

I was using philosophy exactly the way many people use religion. Weekdays are for usefulness. Weekends have one day set aside for profane desirability and another for sacred desirability. And on all seven days of the week, life is complicated. Learn what you can figure out, and trust experts for the rest.

This all changed for me starting in 2001, when I emerged from the worst depression of my life, able once again to see in color, furious with the work ethic that preferred death to professional disgrace. I decided that despair was something I owed nobody, and that I would reorganize my life around different, more immediate principles. I checked myself into a 10-day Vipassana meditation course, the fifth day of which was September 11, 2001. So, I missed the collective national trauma, the looping image of plane hitting the World Trade Centers, the bewildered phone calls where we worked out what to make of this. I sat in silence, working out what to make of it by myself, turning and turning and turning it, allowing my opinion to change, untethered by any stand-taking. When I came out of the course, there were flags everywhere – more flags, bigger flags, aggressive flags –suffocating flags. I never got back in joint with my people. What I chose to read in the years following made it much worse. Christopher Alexander set my mind on fire and made me feel the importance of design all seven days of the week, and along with Grant Peterson shifted and liberated my aesthetic ideals. Jane Jacobs gave me a whole new understanding of how cities work, and inspired Susan and me to move up to Toronto. And up there, I became so disgusted with my Canadian colleagues – their slavish obedience, their desire to be given a purpose by other people, their willingness to be pushed around and told what to think and feel, their appalling passionless passivity that I was moved to read Nietzsche, just to understand the “slave mentality”. Except… I was the slave. I decided to end that. And that is the point when I became feral. It tooks years to find any reason to cooperate with anyone. But thanks to the deep humane genius of American Pragmatism, I did, so here I am.

Anyway, I should probably edit out that digression, but I suppose I won’t.

So, I want to get back to some of that immediate, intuitive and meaningful simplicity of my earlier philosophical work. The requirement to find a red-thread to narratively and logically connect all my areas of interest, capable of relating ideas belonging to different times and regions of my thinking, has forced me to edit — to choose what is essential and central, and to omit what distracts or complicates it.

And I’m trying to control my linguistic palette, to limit my vocabulary and to discipline it, so that once someone understands the wacko way I’m using a word, they can count on it to keep that meaning. Years ago, usability god, Jakob Nielsen taught me “learn once, use often.” Having learned it, I use this principle often, and plan to use it in this book. But doing this requires a much deeper integration of concept and word than my sloppy self usually bothers with. I’ve lost weeks on dead-end or swamp-end attempts to nail down my words. I think I have it now, but I’ve thought I had it several times, only to excise major sections and move them into my scrapheap doc.

But the process has been worthwhile, and I think it is forcing new, deep integrations between older thoughts I’m trying to incorporate. This is like all design. The design is far, far more than the sum of the features. The parts and the whole develop together, and both change. I’m noticing I’m far more ready with words, now – more able to really nail explanations of ideas that I used to have to talk around indirectly.

Sorry for the rambling. I’m venting all my slop on this blog now, and reserving my hardass discipline for my book.

Design and behavior

I’ve gotten my overview of design instrumentalism as nailed-down as I can get it for now.

I’ve moved on to the design part of the book. This is what I worked on this morning.

Every organization depends on human behaviors for its continued existence and flourishing. An organization needs its members to behave in certain ways that support and sustain the organization, and to not behave in other ways that harm it. It also depends on behaviors of people externally associated with the organization. If the organization exists to serve other people, it needs those people to notice, accept and use its service. If it relies on external partners to supply it with needed materials, products and services, it needs them delivered reliably. Big changes in internal or external behaviors can put an organization in crisis.

Businesses are a common example. A business needs its employees to work effectively, efficiently and harmoniously to produce or deliver whatever product or service it offers its customers. It needs its customers to notice and choose its product or service, to keep choosing it, and to recommend the product to others. A business also has partners upon whom it relies to supply the business with needed materials, products and supporting services. If the behaviors of employees, customers or partners become erratic or interfere with the goals of the business, it must respond to the change or risk damage, decline and dissolution. It will work to restore the old behaviors, or it will try to produce new behaviors wherever and however it is able, to cope with the change, perhaps through reorganization, changes in marketing approach or formation of new partnerships.

When power is unequally distributed, behaviors are often controlled through coercive means. When employers hold most of the power and are aware that employees have limited employment options, they tend to demand more from them and manage their activities more closely. Likewise when employees hold power and are aware that employers are competing for employees with their skills, they become less tolerant of authoritarian management styles, and expect more benefits and amenities from their employers. The same is true with partners. If a partner is the only provider of a needed product or service, they will behave differently than if they are competing with others for the partnership.

But when power is more equally distributed, coercion gives way to persuasion. People give up on controlling one another’s behaviors and instead try to influence their decisions. When competition to persuade and influence becomes sufficiently fierce, design becomes important. Design is a symptom of equality and freedom.

This does not mean that design is essentially a behavior-influencing discipline. It does, however, mean that design is a behavior-influencing profession. It is the need for influencing behaviors that motivates organizations to employ designers and pay them money to do their strange kind of work.

Design work is strange because conditions of freedom have made it strange. Very early on its rapid evolution, the plans for industrial production of artifacts to be offered on the market – design’s initial purpose – became plans for more competitive products – products that customers would prefer to competing products. But what made a product preferable? Functional quality, of course, is always important, but constant improvement and technical innovation (plus, extinction of companies unable to keep up), soon brings products to rough functional parity. When functional quality stops driving preference, what makes one product preferable to another? A list of some of these more refined preferences shows hints of the future development of design: better aesthetic qualities (depending on individual taste, of course); more specialized functionality, optimized for particular uses (valued by some individual users and not others); better value trade-offs (striking different balances of cost, function and aesthetics, each appealing to different value priorities). 

With each ratcheting-up of competition, the definition of preferable is increasingly  relative to individual values, and the subject gains importance relative to the object. Every question must be qualified with “for whom?” And the answers, to be understood sufficiently that they can be applied to practical problems, are no longer straightforwardly factual, but require perspectival shifts into that of the people in question. For those who remain trapped in an objectivist outlook (still the majority of people), the shift seems mostly “subjective” – learning what the emotions a person feels, when they encounter various objects or events – cast in psychological terms, against a background of universal objective truth. But if the current trajectory holds, soon it will be impossible to ignore the truth that these emotional responses are only the emotive tip of a deeply objective iceberg, and that until the objectivity and emotion of a person’s response are comprehended together, the subject is most likely misunderstood in terms of one’s own subjectivity.

This is an important event in my life. Usually I write blog article that make it into my book. Today I wrote something for my book that I’m sharing as a blog article.

 

Conceiving inconceivability

Any form of participation in a whole experienced solely from within (in which the participant participates as a part) of which we have only partial knowledge is, in itself inconceivable. Withinness topologically thwarts comprehension.

We cannot conceive the whole, but we can conceive the fact that we are participants in it, and we can conceive many characteristics of our participation. For instance, we can conceive things we might do or think or feel in response to our immediate encounter with fellow participants or parts within the whole. We can conceive that the whole exists, that we are situated within it, that it environs us, and we can understand how we participate in that whole as a part of it, even if we do not comprehend the whole in the conceptual way we comprehend objects in our environment or other kinds of things we can wrap our minds around.

We might even try to map what we are able to conceive from within and try to make what we are within conceivable.

For instance, if we are trapped in a labyrinth, we might draw a maze map that represents, from the outside, the space we are inside, so we can better comprehend it as a whole instead of as a connected series of situations. We transpose the multiple interior positions to a single exterior form. We evert it, and what remains inside now views an exterior representation of its situation and mentally re-situates itself outside.

We might even get so absorbed in the maze  that we forgets that it we still located in some space within the labyrinth and not on some dot marked on the maze, in the same way as we forget that our brain is something known by the mind, not the other way around.

*

The first all-consuming perplexity I experienced reading Nietzsche resolved in an image of a mandala.

At the zenith of the mandala was a point I labeled “Solipse”. At the nadir was another point labeled “Eclipse”.

Next to Solipse I wrote “World-in-me” and drew a little circle with a dot at its center, with a caption “Ptolemy”.

Next to Eclipse I wrote “I-in-world” and drew another little circle with a dot on the periphery with a caption “Copernicus”.

In solipse, brains are found inside minds, along with every known thing. In eclipse, minds are produced from brains which exist at points in space.

This was the origin of my topological sense of understanding.

The perpendicular points between solipse and eclipse marked inflections between these two everted ways to situate self and world, moments where both situations become conceivable, perhaps together in ambinity, and for a time neither fully dominates, but co-exist in all-everting multistability.

From these two points we can see most clearly how the inside of an oyster shell is an everted pearl, Pandora’s box is everted Paradise, and Eden is the everted fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Here we can conceive both ultimate eversions simultaneously. We can use maps without forgetting where that map really is, but also move around in space and allow maps to deepen our understanding of our situation. Our minds are improved with knowledge of brains, but our knowledge of brains is improved knowing that all knowledge is mind-product.

Much later, moving along this wheel, at one of these ambinity points where inside and outside exist within one another, I intuited a beyondness of both, a ground of soliptic-ecliptic eversion that is both and neither. From that point on, I was religious.

*

At the beit din before I went into the mikvah a rabbi interrupted me in the middle of an answer to one of their questions, and asked “Do you even really believe in God?” I said, “Yes; but in a way that is extremely difficult to explain.” She said “Very Jewish. Fair enough.” Fifteen minutes later I emerged from the mikvah a Jew with a new Hebrew name, Nachshon, after the general of the tribe of Judah who, according to legend, waded into the chaotic turbulence of the Red Sea all the way up to his nostrils, just before Moses split the waters into two halves, permitting passage from one shore to the other. Adonai eloheinu; Adonai echad.

*

I need to think carefully how I might use the word “participate” in my topological conceptive vocabulary, which, as I mentioned yesterday, is built around con-capere words.

Participate shares the same root as concept, conception, conceive: capere “take”

part- “part” + –capere “take” – to part-take.

con- “together” + -capere “take” – to together-take.

 

 

We need speculative metaphysics because we need nouns

Ok, I just had a small, decent-quality tantrum into the margin of Guenon’s The Great Triad, which helps define my own perspective on religion against that of the Sophia Perennis:

The manifestation of the Buddha is therefore the ‘redescent from Heaven to Earth’, as the Emerald Tablet describes it; and the being who in this way ‘incorporates’ the celestial influences in his own nature and brings them into this world can justifiably be termed the representative of Heaven as far as the human realm is concerned. Certainly this is a concept far removed from the rationalised form of Buddhism with which Westerners have become familiarised through the work of Orientalists. It might well be that it corresponds to a ‘Mahayanist’ point of view, but that for us is not a valid objection because it seems clear that the ‘Hinayanist’ point of view which is commonly presented as ‘original’ (no doubt because it fits in all too well with certain preconceived ideas), is in reality simply the result of a process of degeneration.

I say “define against it”, but it is possible — maybe even likely — I’m defining my perspective within it. Philosophy is, after all, the perpetual humiliation, and it has gradually undone my monstrous arrogance and replaced it with a moderate arrogance, which today took the form of this comment written in the margin of the above passage:

What if Mahayana is the degeneration of Hinayana’s/Theravada’s phenomenology? — A strict phenomenology can degenerate into speculative metaphysics.

That last bit is central to my conception of “Design Instrumentalism”: the idea that faiths (systems of implicit generative conceptions) can be designed and outfitted with symbolic forms, which allows one to:

  • maintain a stable, enduring self,
  • while also opening and orienting one to one’s own subjective selfhood, toward objective reality and toward intersubjectivity,
  • and to interpret, interact with, and think about the world,
  • resulting in the development of effective belief systems (truth).

I call the full practical manifestation of a faith, an enworldment.

When a convert undergoes a profound conversion experience, the convert invariably reports (assuming the convert is a true Scotsman) that the world was reborn with them, or that it appears transfigured, that they have entered the Kingdom, or something similar suggesting a holistic change in their experience of the world. Everything changes all at once.

Not only everything changes; more-than-everything changes. One of the artifacts of a deep shift in enworldment is a changed sense of beyondness, extending past the world of immediate experience, and this beyondness is naturally viewed as the source or support of its very existence. This is the speculative metaphysics of an enworldment.

Phenomenology cultivates a sharp awareness of that line between phenomena (what is show to our experience) and the mind-independently-real thing-in-itself which we instinctively project beyond our experiences (as speculative metaphysics).

Phenomenology brackets all metaphysical projections and focuses strictly on phenomena. It doesn’t disbelieve or believe in metaphysics; it methodically suspends metaphysical interpretations in order to study experience.

My understanding of Buddhism, at least of Theravada Buddhism, which I studied closely and practiced intensively for almost a decade, is that Buddhism is a phenomenological religion, which focuses relentlessly on what is immediate and practical, and gently brackets standard doctrinal elements we might assume to be essential features of any religion.

The Dhammapada’s opening lines support this view:

All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with an impure mind one speaks or acts, suffering follows him in the same way as the wheel follows the foot of the drawer (of the chariot).

All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with a pure mind one speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his shadow that never leaves him.

But here is where my design experience kicks in, and causes me to both admire Theravada, while also seeing great practical wisdom in Mahayana.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from a life in design, it is this: Humans have a tough time living without speculative metaphysical beliefs. This is true even for — especially for? — those of us who imagine ourselves immune, and project elaborate “scientific” material underpinnings, such as brains, behinds our experience of I, now and here — or sociologies populated with mixtures of individual, collective and even ideological actors, that produced the world as we experience it.

Our brains seem wired to need nice solid nouns, to serve as the doers of verbs or as the substantial bearers of adjectives.

And you know what? As a designer, I don’t think we should have to do without speculative metaphysical beliefs. I believe that denying people metaphysical beliefs is asking too much of them. We humans need our nouns!

In my professional work as a designer, I put enormous effort into crafting “mental models”, which are, in effect, speculative metaphysical projections that help people conceive their experiences of what I am designing. It makes it an experience of a coherent “something” instead of a series of arbitrary events. Behind a designed experience, there is both a concept — what the designed thing is — and a brand — who is responsible for it. These provide solid grounding the why of the experience — the purpose and value of it — and provide some direction for the how, in the form of affordances — things with which a user can interact.

These mental models, these brands, these affordances, however, are never what they seem to be. They are “true fictions” which, when taken as given, are, for all practical purposes, true. These are, to put it in perennialist terms, upaya, skillful means

But designers cannot afford to be literal with their mental models. We must straddle logics, and be able to think from the perspective of an interacting user, but also work with engineers to craft the actual technical metaphysics (vis-a-vis the user) that are the real underpinnings of a system, which digital, mechanical, procedural, etc.

Every faith must function similarly. The faith must produce a holistic sense of I and world, that generates the relevant affordances that suggest appropriate actions, and it must provide us with an overarching sense of value and purpose in our lives.

And if it is a good faith, it will also have some awareness or at least some attitude of humility and respect, that suspects that metaphysical-reality-in-itself is mysterious and inexhaustibly surprising, so it does not confuse its speculative metaphysics with that deeply mysterious source of being that manifests itself in myriad ways, each with its own speculative metaphysical image…

The Buddha, I believe knew this deep reality, and managed to establish a faith tradition that functioned as much like designers as users.

*

So, my moderately arrogant (but apprehensive) hypothesis is that Guenon and the rest of the Sophia Perennis school project a thoroughly beautiful and true speculative metaphysics beyond their profound, clear and precise phenomenological understandings, but take it as more Absolute than I am ready to accept. (* see note below)

However, the closer I study Guenon, the more of what I take to be speculative metaphysics is subsumed by phenomenological description. I can very well imagine a day where I will understand that extremely sensitive and disciplined phenomenological description carries us much closer to the threshold of the Principle than I’ve suspected.


  • Note: My metaphysics is a radically indeterminate, inexhaustibly surprising beyond — an infinitude that we come to know through our finite interactions with it.

I believe morality is bound up with knowing that this beyond exists and that it obligates us to respond to it and relate to it, but part of our effort must be to treat it as a reality existing in part within, but also beyond the mind, and therefore only imperfectly conceptualized by the mind, lest we reduce transcendent reality to immanent speculation and succumb to ideo-idolatry and misapotheosis.

We know that the beyond is, and we know some important things about our relationship with the beyond, but we are limited in knowing what the beyond is. Or so it seems from where I currently stand.

Sketchy endeavor

I want to lay out a basic vocabulary for my project of approaching philosophy as a design discipline.

*

This is a very sketchy endeavor.

I’m presenting even the philosophy that justifies and encourages approaching philosophy this way as itself something I designed.

This philosophy makes no claims to truth, only to being one good way to understand experience — one that I recommend.

I recommend it on pragmatist grounds, as something good to believe.

It is no accident that it is good to believe because it teaches dissatisfaction with anything that isn’t good to believe, and it practices what it preaches. It iteratively investigates, questions, instaurates possibilities, tries them on, evaluates and compares — and continues iterating until whatever it comes up with is experienced as good.

Good is evaluated in a designerly way. What is evaluated is not (only) the object we experience. More important is the subject of the experience — what the subject experiences as a result of interacting with the object of the design. Liz Sanders provided the essential definition of good design — a good interaction is experienced as useful, usable and desirable. It is experienced as useful if it helps a user accomplish something the user is trying to do. It is experienced as usable if it allows the user to accomplish what they are trying to do with minimal effort, confusion and distraction. It is experienced as desirable if it contributes value of its own (joy, meaning or sense of relationship) to the experience.

Notice the essential relativity of these characteristics. No object in itself can be said to be useful, usable or desirable. Neither can an experience be useful, usable or desirable. No, only when some subject interacts with some object, can that object be experienced as useful, usable or desirable.

*

With philosophy, things get super-weird, and this weirdness has been perplexing me for a long time. Extracting myself from the perplexity has been slow and arduous.

The weirdness hits at three points — the subject of the philosophy, the object meant to be experienced as good, and the medium of philosophy itself that somehow effects this good experience.

You could, of course, conceive the subject of philosophy the person thinking about the words that articulate the philosophy, or the ideas, arguments or claims taken as the content of it, or maybe the method or approach taken in the doing of the philosophy. Any of these conceptions would be much easier, and if simply providing a crisp, clear answer to the question, or if simply enjoying the process of conceiving an answer, these conceptions might be advisable.

My purpose, however is different. My entire conception and experience of existence has been changed by reading, thinking and struggling with philosophy. This conception and experience did not only change while I was focusing on philosophy. The change endured and transfigured absolutely everything, all at once, and in ways I have found incredibly difficult to communicate.

Somehow, because of words I’ve read, my conceptions have changed in a way that has changed my subjectivity — and in a way that preceded bypassed and often defied language. These changes have usually been for the better, and when they haven’t, I’ve struggled with these worse subjective states, wrestled free, or critiqued them to smithereens, until they lost their hold on me and yielded to better subjective states. Across these changes, I’ve tried to retain knowledge of what happened, and what it implies about subjectivity, conceptions, truth and the nature of reality beyond our truth.

I want to account for this extremely strange possibility of subjective change and try to understand how much the changes be undergone in an intentional manner, so that people can make similar changes to themselves and improve their experience of reality.

I am only interested in philosophy primarily for its capacity to produce clearer, more cohesive and expansive conceptions of existence that allow us to understand, experience and respond to our situations effectively without the need to explicitly intercept and interpret them (in other words, think about them spontaneously and second-naturally) and finally to find existence valuable and inspiring.

Somehow, through some miraculous iterative bootstrapping, this iterative construing, evaluating, criticizing, scrapping, restarting process developed into the glorious circular but expanding logic of designing glorious circular, expanding, spiraling logics.

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Subjectivity is the totality of intuitions interacting within a psyche (or putting it in religious language, spirits interacting within a soul).

Subjectivities are multistable. They can stably self-organize in myriad ways as subjects, capable of effective response to various situations. Some of these subjects are acquired in study of academic subjects taught in school. The personal subject is the personality who modalizes these various acquired subjects and others, and remains a self throughout these modes. When we know another person, that person is learned more as a subject than as some object with known properties.

The goal of philosophy is producing a stable, dynamic, integration of intuitions.

Out of time. More later.

Faith as intuition system

Let’s define faith as an configuration of intuitive faculties (which I will simply call intuitions) within a psyche.

Different intuitions (again, the faculties, not their content) coordinate themselves societally, which produce a certain form of subjectivity, with its own ways of conceiving, perceiving, interpreting, inferring, responding, etc.

Subjectivity can be changed if these intuition systems are reordered.

Religious conversion occurs if an intuition system is radically reordered to a degree that the world itself seems transfigured.


There are at least three notable implications in this way of conceiving faith:

  1. Faith is not belief. Faith is that which does the believing, and it does far more than that. Faith enworlds.
  2. The unconscious is not submerged conscious content. It is the very working of faith to produce, and often re-produce, content. We don’t have suppressed thoughts. We have malfunctioning faiths that keep producing unwanted content.
  3. Because faiths are changeable, we are not stuck with them if they produce ugly, depressing beliefs, ineffective or destructive responses, or utter bewilderment toward our most pressing issues. If our life experience leaves us perplexed, faltering, indifferent or otherwise miserable, and all our attempts to redesign the world around fail for material or political reasons, we can also ask if maybe the problem isn’t with malfunctioning faiths. We can, if we wish, plough these bad faiths under, and try to instaurate better ones that provide us better options to enword ourselves better.

I’ve been arguing for some time that philosophy ought to be redescribed and reconceived as a design discipline, rather than as a search for truth, especially when truth is imagined to preexist out there, ready for excavation.

But, as with all words of a certain kind, philosophy is burdened with connotations that interfere with discussing it in new ways. Philosophy is about thought, ideas, arguments. Same with religion. Religion is about forcing ourselves to accept unprovable if not ludicrous superstitious speculations as true and momentously important. And forget design. Design is about making better things in the broadest sense, and when experiential language is introduced to suggest that the ultimate goal of design is not the objects it shapes, but the subjectivity resulting from interacting with it.

In each case, notice, the source of content is confused with its content.

Philosophy philosophizes philosophies. Design designs designs. Perception perceives perceptions. Intuition intuits intuitions. See the pattern? (I’m curious, though: why doesn’t faith have its verb form? Faith believes faiths?)

The problem here is not with the words.

The problem is at the faith-level.

An objectivist faith everts subjectivist faiths, turning container into contained, concavity into convexity, convexity into concavity, doer into done, intuition into intuition, design into designs, philosophy into philosophies.

Soul and the speaking self

Within the complex society that is your soul, who is responsible for what you do?

Ask your soul, and your speaking mind will speak up. It will talk your ear off about its actions and accomplishments. It will tell you about what its intentions were, how it pursued its intentions, why those intentions were the best intentions.

The speaking mind speaks very convincingly and authoritatively, and sounds for all the world as if it alone decided all these things and carried them out. It speaks so convincingly it believes itself entirely, and because it believes itself entirely, it speaks convincingly.

The speaking mind believes it represents the entire soul when it speaks on its behalf.

Sometimes it forgets it is not the whole soul, itself. It gets out of touch with the rest of the soul. It forgets that there is more to the world than words. It becomes isolated and insular.

The speaking mind can fall into a word world, an existence where only things that can be talked about are real, and anything that can’t be talked about is less than real.

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Obviously, if you pay close attention to your experience, there is more to a soul than the speaking mind. Besides the speaking mind’s speech, often obscured behind it, there exist myriad spirits, known by their movements and traces, which operate worldlessly and often escape the notice of the speaking mind, and if noticed, often leave the speaking mind speechless. The speaking mind might fumble for words, invent analogies or move it to poetry.

All too often, the speaking mind dismisses these signs, or relegates it to some dull and isolating category: just a reaction, just my imagination, just a feeling, just a passing mood, just a sense — it was nothing.

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Much of a soul, maybe most of it, is pure instinct, the movements in the soul and movements in the body that function silently and almost autonomously, in response to events around them, completely outside the jurisdiction of speech.

We may be tempted to exclude these tacit and unreflective instinctive movements from full citizenship in the soul. They are not soul, but just bodily reflexes. That is a mistake. They are simply the underclass of the soul. If they went of strike, the soul would lose most of its connection with the body and personhood would grind to a halt.

Then there are habits. These are acquired instincts, those aspects of ourself who run autonomously, as our second nature. Often here, too, we treat habits as unintelligent and simply mechanical. When habit leads a process, speaking mind says “my mind was on autopilot”.

Nietzsche said “Every habit makes our hand more witty and our wit less handy.” This demonstrates the alienation of habit from speech, and demonstration is how habit communicates its existence. The wit of the hand is evidenced in the subtle and unmechanical distinctions and decisions that guide its interactions with the world.

Closely related to instinct and habit is the vast and amorphous class of spirits we call intuition. The line between intuition and instinct and habit is faint and blurry.

Intuitions do most of our experiencing, recognizing, evaluating, connecting and responding.

I — my own speaking mind, that is — likes to divide them into three types: what-intuitions that recognize and relate entities, how-intuitions that act and interact, and why-intuitions that feel value in its many qualities.

The intuitions themselves have responded mostly approvingly to this classification, because they seem to use it in their cooperative activities. In other words, they — I — have adopted this framework and apply it themselves without any verbal bossing from my speaking mind. It is how I intuitively, second-naturally, perceive the world.

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As a designer, I seek intuitive connections. I want anything I make to link up directly with the tacit citizens of people’s souls, bypassing, as much as possible, the speaking mind. There are many good reasons for this:

  • We function most gracefully when we act wordlessly. When we are forced to verbalize it creates an unwieldy chain of command. The speaking mind introduces a bureaucratic stilted formality to doing that makes it look like the action is being remote-controlled, because that, in fact, is what is happening.
  • The speaking mind often has things it needs to do, and the requirement to issue verbal instructions to eyes and hands interrupts its own fluent speech.
  • When we support direct interactions between our intuitions and things we make, we are able to merge with things so they become an extension of ourselves. The guitar becomes part of our mysterious musical intention and our body and the music. The pen melds our creative, discerning, responding selves through our hands, onto the paper, into the image on the paper. And, I would like to suggest, our wordless understanding infuses itself into words, strung out into sentences, paragraphs, whole bodies of spoken and written thought.

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Is it possible there is no speaking mind at all, but only a posse of intuitions who have connected to certain words, ideas, concepts that allow them to conceive thoughts? These intuitions have exclusive language privileges?

What would happen if some Prometheus brought language to the wordless intuitions?

Design mindset exercises

I’m thinking about some possible exercises for cultivating a more designerly soul.

  • When asking questions throughout the day, notice whether the question was open- or close-ended.
  • Try to ask as many open-ended questions as possible.
  • Try to get someone to teach you a novel way of understanding something.
  • Test a belief about someone else by asking them to explain to you why they think or feel something, and notice where you were wrong about them.
  • See if you can entertain and feel the persuasive force of something you haven’t fully entertained before.
  • Notice when you agree or disagree with something you hear or read or see, and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Notice when you are feeling anxious or perplexed and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Try to catch yourself before you argue for or against some idea and see if instead you can offer your thinking as an alternative approach to the question at hand…
    …and then see if you can entertain each alternative way of thinking and compare them…
    …and compare them in terms of advantages and trade-offs (in understanding, effectiveness and spiritual tone) instead of in terms of true and false.
  • See if you can learn something new about someone just by observing them or their environment or something they are using.
  • See if you can notice where something was designed so well you might not have noticed it if you weren’t looking for it.
  • Look for an opportunity to reconcile with someone, and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Look for when you feel envy, and respond by complimenting the other, and sharing your envy with them…
    …and observe closely and fully what it feels like to give a deep, heartfelt and reluctant compliment.
  • Give credit; acknowledge contributions and influence as much as you can.
  • If you love people, try telling them so.

Engineering, monocentric design, polycentric design

All engineering is done for some human purpose, even when it does not focus on the people who will eventually use it. Every engineering problem is defined with an eventual use in mind. An engineer develops a system that solves the defined problem.

Once the engineered thing is used by someone, however this can be viewed as a larger system — a hybrid system composed of interacting human and non-human components. It is now a design.

It is the job of the designer to develop hybrid systems of interacting human and non-human elements.

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Let’s shift how we look at design, and view it in a cool, objective, impersonal and engineerish light. Imagine a person, who we’ll name “User”, interacting with an engineered artifact which we will call “widget”.

If User understands the widget and uses it to do something useful in a desirable way, User is likely to choose to stay engaged. The human and non-human components stay connected together, interacting systematically, and functioning together as intended. But if User finds the widget confusing, difficult, useless or unpleasant and chooses not to stay engaged, the hybrid system loses its human component, and falls apart as a design, even if that isolated widget functioned exactly as it was engineered to.

Designers talk a lot about experiences. Good experiences are ones that keep people engaged as participants in a hybrid system completed by their use. Bad experiences cause design system to lose their human parts and to break into unused engineered components.

For this reason, many designers say that their ultimate output is experiences. I would argue that these good experiences are the best means to another end: to keep the human part of hybrid systems engaged in willing participation in hybrid systems. (* See note below if you want some political provocation.)

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I came up with this way of seeing design and engineering when I was trying to explain to my engineer father why design research is so important. He was a ceramic engineering professor and taught classes on material science. He’d teach engineering students how various kinds of glass or other ceramics performed under different conditions so they would behave as expected when used in components of engineered systems.

I told my dad that design researchers were like material scientists for the human components of design systems, but much of what we needed to understand what was happening subjectively with them, as well as physically.

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To repeat: every engineered component is implicitly part of a larger design system.

This can be carried forward one more step:

Every design used by some individual person can be seen as a node in a larger polycentric design system — which happens, not in individual experience, but as a social system, among interacting persons, each having an experience of the interaction, each choosing to engage with or disengage from the system.

A monocentric design (focused on a single person) becomes part of a polycentric design system  when it shapes and colors how multiple persons interact with one another within a social system.

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People sometimes ask how user experience (UX), customer experience (CX) or employee experience design relates to service design.

UX, CX and other Xs  are monocentric design disciplines.

Service design is a polycentric design discipline.


Note: For political reasons, it has been unwise to express what designers do in this way, because it implies changes in method, organizational design and, possibly, reporting structure. Someday perhaps we’ll heed these implications. Engineering efforts should be informed, defined and directed by designers. But the industrial revolution is still not finished winding down, and we still live in an engineering age. Engineers and other STEM disciplines are thought to hold the answers to life’s problems. This exaltation of STEM is actually creating most of these problems, not solving them. And the identities of STEM practitioners has zero to do with it, either — the disciplines themselves methodologically exclude precisely the considerations that most need to be included and considered in resolving societal problems. If you are trying to solve the wrong problems, or if the problem is misframed, no amount of technical ingenuity will help. But this is a whole other diatribe.


Philosophy is a polycentric design discipline.