Category Archives: Design Instrumentalism

Another account of design instrumentalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophies must be experientially compared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting back to the practicalities of design instrumentalism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophy is a hybrid system

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

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

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

 

Deep thoughts on depth

“Depth” can mean thoroughness. If you discuss or explore a matter “in depth”, you talk about it or look into it, in all its detail, to understand how the details hang together.

“Depth” can also mean foundationality, or (since I have a mild allergy to foundation metaphors) degree of structural dependence. A deep change alters a structure and effects a holistic change, altering the role of many details at once.

Notice that both of these senses of the word “depth” relates to the relationship between the most encompassing, pervasive structures and the most minute details ordered within the structure, and the difference in the sense of the word only pertains to whether the depth is approached bottom-up (detail-first) or top-down (structure-first).

In other words, depth seems to refer to holistic characteristics of a system, the ratio of expansiveness of scope of the whole to the fineness of granularity of parts.

I almost added density to this account of depth, meaning the density of application in relationship between whole and part. Between the encompassing structure and the ordered parts, how thoroughly have these particular relationships have been worked out, understood or established? How many parts are caught up in the structure and ordered and how much is left outside the order? But I had second thoughts, and I am still not sure.

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Notice, I left ambiguous whether the system in question is mind or matter or a hybrid of both. It works equally well for both.

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In my dual life of philosophy and design, I have in-depth experience with deep changes in philosophical thought and deep changes made to design systems. The similarities in what happens in each case across the two fields is part of what has brought me to think of philosophy as a design discipline, perhaps even the queen of the design disciplines.

Think about it, using this understanding of depth: Instead of thinking of philosophy as a search for a pre-existing truth (or even a fixed plurality of truths) — truth that there to be found or revealed — instead try thinking of philosophy as the instauration (interactive discovering/making, or to keep things simpler, crafting) of conception systems capable of literally making sense of the world. John Dewey called this philosophical approach Instrumentalism.)

Each conception system has its own tradeoffs and gains which make them work wonderfully in some contexts (for some people, in some times, in some places, for some uses), and poorly or disastrously in other contexts). Because of this context-dependence, it makes sense to understand this context deeply, to work within it as sensitively as possible, and to iteratively improve it over time. This is what design does: it creates systems that work well within particular human contexts.

Using these conceptions together — depth, instrumentalism and design — doesn’t this coronation idea (philosophy as queen of the design disciplines) make self-evident sense? But notice, this sense really is made.

In other words, doesn’t this conception-system produce an experience of self-evidence, and at a depth that ripples through just about everything, including your own memories, reordering part and whole…?

Anything can happen

A change in one of our comprehensive conceptions (a conception that holds together other conceptions) can change our overall all-at-once experience of the world.

Let’s be clear: this does not only change how we think about, talk about or respond to life: a comprehensive conception shift happens preconsciously and preverbally; it reshapes our perceptions; it reworks the gestalt sense of reality that invests everything with its own significance — what we sense, recognize, think about, interact with, dwell within.

We and our entire enworldment are transfigured. Every thing within everything has new significance and promise.

Scales, however, do not drop away. No pre-existent heaven is revealed. We are not made possessors of a hidden truth. Magic had absolutely nothing to do with it. No supernatural beings intervened or bestowed grace. Nothing happened that should offend an honest atheist.

But we do learn something miraculous from this experience, something that adds a new dimension to life: transfiguration is a permanent possibility. If this can happen, anything can happen.

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In my opinionated opinion, this, precisely is what the world has lost sight of.

We are trapped inside a constricted, bleak, angry but arrogant worldview that sees its only fascination and occupation in destruction of the world out there. Woody Allen’s paradoxical restaurant review applies to the whole world of todays unwitting nihilists: “The food is just awful, and the portions are too small.”

It occurs no none of them that perhaps they are not yet qualified to change the world for the better. Revolutionaries with a nihilist mindset will sometimes destroy the corrupt crust of convention expecting to find a Rousseauean Paradise beneath — but all they find  is long-denaturalized apes stripped of their second-natural humanizing artifice.

No, on the contrary: we have reconceptive work to do before we are qualified to change the world out there to make it more accommodating and human. But that work is good work, even before we roll up our sleeves to materially re-make the world.

Enworldment design (again!)

Enworldment is my preferred term for lifeworld. I think it’s prettier and it has some desirable overtones: enworldment sounds like something that we intentionally shape for ourselves, where one can easily imagine an amoeba inhabiting a lifeworld.

Enworldments are held together by conceptions. Conceptions manifest in a variety of ways — only one of which is language.

Language is undoubtedly one of the most important manifestations of conceptions. Language provides our best access to conceptions, our readiest way to share them and also our best means to change them — to interrogate them, weaken them, break them, and to find novel conceptions, entertain alternative ones, to evaluate them and to adopt new conceptions in place of old ones.

Because language is so closely connected with conception it is easily to reduce conceptions to language or reduce change of conceptions to a change of language. To to conflate or confuse conceptions with verbalized concepts is to commit a logocentric category mistake.

Why should anyone care about avoiding this mistake? Changes in conception have consequences that extend beyond language. For instance, changes in conception can affect perception, not only in how a perception is interpreted (such as learning to see an optical illusion) but even how it is experienced aesthetically (such as when we acquire a taste, or when our tastes change in response to changes in our lives).

This should not be surprising if you understand perception as sensory conception (sensorily taking-together). A painter’s or musician’s style manifests conceptions in visual or auditory form, and a style resonates with us when we receive it via analogous conceptions, or they intrigue or disturb us when we intuit a conception that we are on the edge of learning.

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From here I want to develop the idea that these conceptions we use to enworld ourselves and make sense of, interact with and to value some things at the expense of other things is not something we only do to enable us to change our world — though it does do that. The enworldment itself transfigures the world even before we apply it to our actions, in ways that make some better than others for different people in different contexts.

Relationships with ideas

One of the features of postphenomenology most potentially useful to design practice is its taxonomy of relations between users, technologies and the world. The information presented here comes from Robert Rosenberger’s and Peter-Paul Verbeek’s “Field Guide to Postphenomenology”, from Postphenomenological Investigations.

  1. Embodied relationship. According to the Field Guide when a technology is embodied, “a user’s experience is reshaped through the device, with the device itself in some ways taken into the user’s bodily awareness.” Heidegger’s “ready-to-hand” mode of encounter is a concept very close to embodied relationship, where a tool becomes transparent in use, leaving the activity’s object as the primary or exclusive focus. When we use a hammer, the focus of the activity is on the nail. When we use a pen, the pen disappears in the writing. (Interestingly/annoyingly, the paradigmatic example of this relation offered in the Field Guide is eyeglasses, which to me seems a distinctly different relation than that of a tool. Something that intercepts and modifies a sensory signal seems radically different from an implement that can, with sufficient skill and habit, become a transparent extension of one’s body. I assume this apparent conflation of unlike cases is meant to call attention to a less obvious but deeper and important similarity. I can tell this problem is going to bother me.
  2. Hermeneutic relationship. These are “technologies which are used through an act of perceiving and interpreting the device’s readout.” Where with embodied relationships, the user focuses on some aspect of the world through the device, with hermeneutic relationships the user focuses on the device itself. The example given here is a wristwatch, where the user reads the time from the watch face.
  3. Alterity relationship. Here the technology is interacted with in a manner similar to how we interact with a person. “The idea is that some forms of interface are devised speci?cally to mimic the shape of person-to-person interaction, and that sometimes we encounter a device as itself a presence with which we must interrelate.” The example is a dialogue box in an interaction with a computer application.
  4. Background relationship. These are technologies that are not directly used like tools but which function to modify the user’s environment. Air conditioning is the example given. Utilities like electricity, water and internet are other examples (or at least, I think they are).

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I am thinking about these relationships today, not only because they present some basic questions designers should think about when they are getting ready to design something, but also because these questions are relevant to my design instrumentalist project. If we (re)understand ideas to be essentially things we use to make sense of the world and interact with it and live within it effectively, what relationships with users, ideas and the world are possible, and how do we determine which relationship is best for specific ideas used for specific purposes in specific use contexts?

I believe that most of us, if we don’t think about it carefully, assume our we are in a hermeneutic relationship with ideas, where we look directly at the ideas and get a “readout” of the author’s meaning. But the books I most love to read also offer an ideas engaged in an embodied relationship of sorts. When we use these ideas we conceive the world through them in a way that reshapes our experience. And somewhere along the way I adopted a habit of expecting that reshaped experience to be useful, usable and desirable.

Reconceiving conceptions, part 1

A note on word choice: I am experimenting with using the word “conception” in place of “concept”. A conception is a conceiving move that produces a concept. A concept can be one of any number of artifacts, all of which can be viewed as alike in that they are produced and reproduced (comprehended) by the same conception.

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If you think about it — and few of us do — thinking is an extremely mysterious activity.

Thinking is never more mysterious than at the edges of intelligibility, where, in order to think with any coherence, clarity or conviction, a thinker must first find new ways to make clear unified sense of material that is fragmentary, murky and perplexing. These new ways of making coherent sense are conceptions.

When one lacks conceptions needed for thinking, conceptions stand starkly absent. It is similar to how we suddenly become hyper-aware of our reliance on a humble body part, like a little toe, once it is injured or stops functioning, or how much we use a utility when service is interrupted, and we keep mindlessly flipping on light-switches even though the electricity is out.

It is when conceptions and thinking breaks down that we think about the activity thinking and experience how mysterious it is.

For normal people, the experience of grappling with inconceivability is relatively rare. Most things make sense most of the time — or at least most relevant things make sense. Of course, many things remain incomprehensible, inexplicable, irrational, confusing, frustrating, chaotic, crazy or mysterious — but these things tend to be pushed out to the margins. They are labeled “irrelevant” and ignored. Or they are labeled as “evil” or “delusional” and condemned or despised. Or they may be labeled “mysteries” and placed beyond human comprehension, for wonder, contemplation or worship. Generally, nothing short of catastrophe or crisis is sufficient to motivate a person to reconceive and understand something that defies comprehension.

Normally, normal people rely almost exclusively on ready-made conceptions to produce whatever thoughts they think, and to form whatever beliefs they hold. Infinitesimally few beliefs are produced by thinking. Nearly all beliefs are conceived automatically, in perception. Most conception occurs prior to thought, habitually and invisibly, in the continuous act of perception, where conceptions intercept and conceptually format sensations prior to any conscious thinking. When perceptions cohere autonomously in a form that lends itself to effortless intelligibility — self-evident truth — truth and reality are indistinguishable. This state of mind is called “naive realism.”

Is naive realism bad? Many will insist “yes” but this judgment is itself the product of conception — perhaps, ironically, a habitual and unconsidered conception of precisely the kind it disparages.

Naive realism can also be conceived as an ideal. This is what I intend to argue, and I intend to argue it from a highly abnormal angle: that of a design strategist.

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I mentioned that normal people normally do not think about thinking nor the conceptions they have at their disposal for perceiving and conceiving truth, and I referred to design strategists as abnormal in this respect.

Design strategists are forced to think about thinking, conceptions, perceptions all the time. A total breakdown of thought and attempts to resolve the breakdown and resume thought is just part of the work.

This is because design strategists are crisis agents. We are primarily hired to resolve crises, or to create crises in order to help organizations innovate, differentiate or disrupt their industries and throw their competitors into crisis, all for the sake of gaining competitive advantage.

Design strategists are professional crisis mongers. The most important component of such crisis mongering is design research, and the ideal outcome of design research is what I call “precision inspiration”.

Explaining strategic design research and precision inspiration provides context for understanding why strategic design demands thinking about thinking.

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The best way to explain design research is pragmatically, presenting it in terms of what it does. And since design research was formed in the crucible of business, let’s discuss what it does in terms of benefits, using the preferred genre of the business world, the sales pitch.

What are the benefits of design research?

First, and most obviously, design research informs decisions. It helps organizations identify opportunities for improvement. It helps them understand precisely what can and should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that efforts to improve things have their intended effect. And these improvements are not only for customers, but for all people involved in the organization — customers, employees, partners, leaders, investors and any other kind of stakeholder. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right”. Research improves the product of an organization.

Second, design research looks at opportunities through the lens of an organization’s capabilities, and especially those capabilities unique to the organization and therefore potentially differentiating. The improvements found are improvements only this organization is able to provide. Research differentiates the product of an organization. The product is not just better — it is uniquely better, and this organization is the only one able to provide it.

These first two benefits supply the “precision” part of precision inspiration. They focus effort on a sharply-defined problematic region, where potential value is most concentrated.

Third, design research provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. Morale-sapping doubts are answered, freeing participants to invest energy into the project, optimistic that their efforts will bear fruit. Design research helps organizations align and improves efficiency and effectiveness of production.

Fourth, design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which lays the political groundwork for the climax of this pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of conceptions enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and the limits our capacity to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new conceptions are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more conceptions must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of conceptions learned and to link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing conceptions, so in effect each team is forced to create a new conception-system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new conceptions cause novel possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo — possibilities were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas — even new goals, purposes, values — resulting from the acquisition of new conceptions is, in fact, precisely what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through precise understanding of specific people and and specific organizations) than ideas produced by the general truisms of industry conventional wisdom. Because industry conventional wisdom processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same old, same-old: safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

This new, previously inconceivable way of conceiving precisely what this organization can do for precisely these people the organization exists to serve, conceived in a way that makes this problem thinkable in a shared way for all people involved in the effort and aligns them in solving it is precision inspiration.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

Doing research in this way, day in, day out, year in, year out changes one’s conceptions of conceptions and forces us to rethink how thinking works. A life of producing myriad small, specialized philosophies for specific problems eventually produces a comprehensive general philosophy that expands far beyond the limits of business, or any compartmented life activity and changes one’s view of everything.

In other words, it becomes a fundamental philosophy: a philosophy of design of philosophy.

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To be continued… Design should be invisible, and so should be our conceptions!

“Precision inspiration”

When people ask me what design research is, my favorite answer is “precision inspiration”.

I know this might seem slightly business romantic, but my meaning is exact, clear, concrete — even a bit technical.

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I’ll start by explaining what research is pragmatically, in terms of what it does. And because I’m a business guy, I’ll explain what it does in terms of its benefits. In other words, I’ll start with a sales pitch.

First, design research helps inform decisions. It helps teams identify opportunities for improvements. It helps us understand what should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that the work has its intended effect. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right.” Research improves the product.

Second, design research also provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. And morale-sapping doubts about the project can be quelled, so participants can invest real energy into the project, in the expectation that their efforts will produce a positive outcome. Design research done well is organizational alignment magic. Research improves the efficiency of production.

Design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which gets us closer to the climax of my pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of conceptions enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and our ability to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new concepts are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more conceptions must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of concepts learned and link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing conceptions, so, in effect, teams are forced to create new conception systems — small, local philosophies tailored to a project — that makes problems intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo, that were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas resulting from the acquisition of new concepts is in fact what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through understanding users or customers) than ideas produced by industry conventional wisdom that, because it processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same-old, safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

 

Anne-Marie Willis’s “Ontological Designing”

Yesterday, Nick freaked me out about the existence of Anne-Marie Willis’s paper “Ontological Designing”. I was so distressed about possibly being scooped, and also about the state of my current project — a distress possibly biologically amplified by an infected eyelid — that I barely slept last night. I was dreaming about this stuff.

Today I got up, read most of the paper and sent Nick the reply below, which seems worth keeping.

Ok, this is not what I am doing, though it is the kind of ontological designing Willis describes here that informs my project.

This paper appears to be written from the perspective of a user contemplating designs-ready-made, not a design practitioner reflecting on design-in-the-making (to adapt Latour’s distinction).

The experiences that feed my thought (experiences I am undergoing, unfortunately, though quite conveniently, on this very project) are the reworkings of understanding induced by the breaking of individual interpretations and understandings upon an (as yet) inconceivable design problem.

In these situations, designers are forced to instaurate new local micro-philosophies that permit collaborators with incommensurable understandings to “align” their efforts to design equipment that can be readily recognized in a present-at-hand mode, adopted, and then used in a ready-to-hand mode. I think this microphilosophizing is an underrecognized gap both in design practice (which tends to focus its thinking on its tasks at hand, and rarely to macrophilosophize) and in philosophy (which rarely participates directly in the kinds of hellish rarefied design projects that inform my concerns).

My work is describing what happens if we apply the lessons of constant local microphilosophizing back to macrophilosophizing.

I think it is important because I’m seeing the same dynamics I see in my mini-hells unfolding in the larger world in our incapacity to align on what to do about — well — everything. The disgruntled tolerance for the postmodern condition and its refusal to macrophilosophize (due to the po-mo allergy to grand narratives) has contributed to a deep fracturing and factionalizing of our citizenry.

And you can see that this idea of designerly coevolution completely misses the central problem: How do we agree on what to do in the first place, in order to world our world into a state where maybe it can coevolve us back into a more livable, peaceful condition? Everyone is full of end-solutions, but at a loss to explain or even frame the problem of why we can’t get there, except to invent theories of viciousness about those who refuse to cooperate. We do not know how to think these kinds of conflicts, which are essentially just political crises — but I think I do have some clarifying insights, thanks to my occasional hell-immersions, and my funny habit of trying to feel better by understanding their hellishness and applying the resulting insights back to my own grand narrative, which I happen to think is better than the ones that developed in the vacuum of public intellectuals being to smart and stylish to perform their duties.

Justifying my frustrating ways

I’ve been a serious pain in the ass lately, even relative to my usual unspectacular behavior. I’m in a situation that has been extracting too many of the wrong things from me, too relentlessly, for too long, and it is undermining my mental health.

It’s all got me questioning myself, and my ability to get along with my fellow humans.

If only my philosophy were one that allowed me to dismiss these concerns. But I reject philosophies of contempt. And I’ve tried them all. They are too lonely, and I found the Sublime Solitude of the Profound Thinker to be a super-lame booby prize.

I’m feeling feel obligated to justify myself in multiple ways, even if I haven’t yet matured to a stage where I care if anyone actually buys my justifications. That would choke out out my remaining, already overburdened creativity, and I’m not doing it.

Anyway, below is one of my struggles. It’s pretty good.

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I read philosophies in the way an industrial designer reads engineering literature.

Our industrial designer reads engineering books and papers to understand new materials he might use, or fabrication techniques that might open new possibilities of form or function. He might even dip into physics now and then to press past apparent limits. His fascination with shaping products invests materials and matter in general with significance, and this inspires his curiosity. But his urgency is a practical one: what can I do with this?

I am trying to justify my oddly arbitrary but intensely picky taste in reading, and, unfortunately in the kinds of work I can tolerate doing. For me, everything is driven by the design of enworldments, and most of all my personal enworldment, which is an enworldment within which enworldments are designable. I’m building a shop that makes parts for shops — shops that might even put my shop out of business.

So, no, I am not particularly interested in discovering unknown truths (not even fresh existential insights, which are my favorite ones). Nor am I motivated to acquire every formal technique for fabricating forceful, durable syllogisms (or even building a respectable baseline logical toolset, because logical welds seem brittler than rhetorical, poetic and especially heuristic joints, which have superior flex and tensility in many conditions.) And my deficiencies in adducing evidence to support my beliefs are worse than you suspect, however suspicious you are. You should not care what I think. I have not, and will never earn your respect, because I won’t do the boring legwork that requires.

You should respect only how I think and why I believe thinking that way is important, good and beautiful, and the ultimate way to show that respect is to try it out by climbing into it, and using it to generating some knowledge or judgments, and to experience how reality changes tone, significance and value while you do it.

I’m just rummaging for whatever is useful for my purposes.

Philosophical bug? Or feature?

I keep catching myself myself making an odd move when I read philosophical critiques of other philosophies, especially ones involving criticisms in the family of oversimplification, omission, or apparent blindspots.

I find myself protesting that what is being presented as a flaw seems to me a design device that helpfully bundles unmanageably complex phenomena as a simple data object or affordance.

These critics are doing that thing every design amateur does that drives professional designers insane, namely, treating every tradeoff as a disqualification of the design. When you realize that skillful designing is largely a matter of intentionally choosing optimal tradeoffs, perfectionists literally do not know what they are doing, and make design impossible.

To make these optimal tradeoffs, it is necessary to know what the design problem is: who will use it, for what purpose, under what conditions, where, when, and so on.

So, when critiquing a philosophy and calling it oversimplified, what I want to see is a tradeoff analysis. What does this simplification do in use? What class of problems are made harder by this simplification, and why is this an unwise tradeoff? Or better: when is it an unwise tradeoff?

Because, to say it once again: reality is infinitely complex. No concept, no concept system, not even the ideal set of every possible concept, is adequate to comprehend reality. The standard of truth implicit in omission critiques is an impossible standard. I prefer a humbler pragmatic standard of truth based on an absence of untruth, relative to the intended purpose of the truth claim. In other words, does this truth function as intended, or does it malfunction? Truth exists for the simple reason that falsehoods, errors and lies exist.

Instrumental-instaurationism?

Most “truth is a construct” type constructivists appear to have retained a vestigial correspondence theory of truth; that is, they take truth to be a little mental duplicate of, or model of or, in extreme cases, a substitute for, reality. Truth is true to the degree that it corresponds to reality. According to a correspondence-constructivist view, we are more or less free to reimagine the world we wish to live in, and this is what the world becomes for us.

My view is similar but differs in some consequential ways. I agree that truth is constructed, but my constructivism is modified by an instrumentalist theory of truth. I view truth as something produced by a repertoire of concepts we use to interpret and guide our interactions with reality. Truth is true to the degree that it helps us effectively interact with reality. According to my instrumental-constructivist view, there are ways we can modify the concepts we use to interpret, evaluate and respond to the world, and these can drastically change how we live and experience the world.

However, the changes rarely match what we imagine. We cannot start with an imagined ideal and then just build a worldview to spec. Why? The main reason is, according to this view, the world is very real and transcends our mental images, theories, models and plans, and when we act on it, reality acts back on us. Sometimes we can manage to get reality to cooperate with our hopes and expectations, but often does not, at least not on the first try. This this is especially true with that most special part of reality that is our fellow human beings. Humans are essentially surprising creatures.

This interactivity is a big reason I prefer, in place of constructivism, Étienne Souriau’s (or Bruno Latour’s?) term “instauration” which is a kind of interactive construction — a discovering-making — a term that any hands-on designer or craftsperson will instantly recognize as a better fit for how their constructions really happen.

Sadly, this change in language makes my view an “instrumental-instaurationist” one, which is so incredibly ugly the kidnappers responsible for abducting “pragmatism” might feel moved to euthanize the term out of pity. I’m going to refrain from naming it, and instead just call it a “philosophy of design of philosophy”.

Philosophy as design

[This is an older post that was saved as a draft, that I published for my index of Philosophy of Design of Philosophy posts. Unfortunately I lost the date when it was written. It was probably mid-2019.]

The idea that philosophies are systems of conceptual tools used for making sense of the world is not new. This idea was central to John Dewey’s brand of Pragmatism which he called “Instrumentalism”. Here the primary measure of a philosophy is not fidelity in representing some sort of pre-existent truth, but rather usefulness for living a particular kind of life.

And the idea that philosophies are not impersonal theories of truth but are made by and for a variety of specific types of people with specific value priorities and ideals which can differ quite drastically from type to type was one of Nietzsche’s core themes. Nietzsche’s measure of philosophy a emphasized its ability to invest life with desirability.

By now, anyone who works as a designer or with designers will have recognized Liz Sanders’s famous triad of good experience, Useful, Usable and Desirable.

This suggests the question of usability? Have any philosophers emphasized usability, or even given it much thought at all? I have found quite a few, actually, but their works  tend to be scholarly explanations of the work of other philosophers. It seems as if most philosophers are driven by a need to conceptualize something very difficult to explain, usually a perplexity that arose from reading other philosophers’ attempts to do the same. Maybe problems of that magnitude, ones that require a thinker’s entire effort to resolve, are so all-consuming they leave the thinker too exhausted to clearly communicate the resolution of the problem with those not already obsessed with it.

Synesse revision

I largely rewrote the synesse entry in my Designerly virtues article. “Designerly virtues” is one of the most important things I’ve written this year, and it will be the kernel of Second Natural.

One other note: I think Design Instrumentalism is an updated form of existentialism — a pragmatic existentialism that uses design methods.

The new synesse entry: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

 

The earlier version was: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

Designerly virtues

In my decades of design work, collaborating with a wide variety of people from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds, personalities and workstyles, I’ve noticed that the attitudes most helpful for doing good design work are often reversals of conventional virtues.  I’ve developed a habit of humorously flouting these common virtues and valorizing their opposites.

Over time, this exaggerated oppositional attitude has become my own weird style of professionalism, and these inverted vices have become what I am calling designerly virtues. This post will be a first draft of a list of designerly virtues.

Cooriginality — Designers prize dialogical creativity over individual creativity. We are proud to have contributed to new ideas that pack more insight and expertise than can fit inside the mind of any one person. Cooriginality challenges the modern ideal of the self-sufficient lone genius, who hatches original ideas with no help from anyone.

Epistemic humility — Designers are so accustomed to being wrong, that they eventually become cheerful about the inevitability of being refuted, usually where they least expect it. This acceptance of inevitable error is the mark of experience, not pride that one’s theories will be proved correct. Epistemic humility challenges the desire to be the guy who’s alway one step ahead, who knew all along.

The following three virtues are probably components of epistemic humility, or examples of it:

  • Impertise — Impertise is the opposite of expertise. I guess I could have called it anti-expertise. It is a kind of receptive “beginner’s mind” attitude that constantly tries to perceive all possible novelty in what a more superficial expert glance might dismiss as a redundant, derivative reinvention of the wheel. An impert will try, and almost always find something unprecedented, significant and exciting, to inspire cooriginal creativity. Impertise complements the ideal of expertise, which surveys every situation, classifies it and prescribes a known solution, by adding a critical awareness of expertise’s current limits.
  • Blindsight — Everyone has blind spots. The most perverse characteristic of blind spots is they are blind most of all to themselves. Right this minute you have two blindspots in your field of vision where a optical nerve pokes through each of your retinas, and in each region your vision is interrupted? See it? No, you don’t. When we are blind, literally or metaphorically our vision continues, uninterrupted, right across what we are failing to see — the unknown unknowns — and nothing seems amiss. Blindsight is insight into how blindness really works, and abandonment of the effort to map our blindnesses and compensate with theoretical knowledge, because more often than not, our blindness conceals where we are most blind. Blindsight relies instead on one’s peers — especially the ones we conflict with most — to point out realities to which we are truly oblivious, and think simply do not exist. Blindsight challenges the ideal of corrected vision — the notion that through conscientious calculation, scrupulous adherence to technique and using un-distorting “lenses” we can adequately neutralize our worst subjective blindnesses, biases, and train ourselves to perceive more objectively and justly.
  • Receptivity to be taught — Everyone wants to be a teacher, but the best teachers have something to teach precisely because they have been receptive learners. This is very different from knowing how to inform oneself, which leaves the learner in control. To be taught is to submit to learning: to allow an other to control how the information is presented. Every subject of study has its own effective ways to present its own distinctive kind of knowledge. A math student who comes to a poetry class to interrogate the teacher on the theorems and proofs of verse creates needless obstacles. Human subjects share this characteristic with academic subjects: it is best to invite the teacher to teach, then hand over control. But this is a rare and difficult art especially for people who strongly prefer to play the role of the teacher. Receptivity to be taught complements the ideal of taking the role of teacher.

Phronesis — Phronesis is tacit know-how acquired through hands-on experience. Being tacit, phronesis doesn’t always lend itself to explicit language, but rather, demonstrates itself in practice. When people who understand theory very clearly and who can explain it eloquently, struggle to apply that theory effectively and to adjust their methods to fit contingencies, phronesis is what is lacking. Another reason phronesis is important is “intuitive” design harnesses existing or easily-acquired phronesis to enable users to skillfully interact with a system without having to explicitly figure out or memorize how. Phronesis complements theory with tacit skills that enable mastery of theoretical and physical systems as well as effective improvisation where explicit methods are not available.

Apprehension tolerance — Sartre was right when he said “hell is other people.” Trying to align with other people on how to think about phenomena with no pre-fab interpretation is an intensely anxious undertaking, and frankly, it freaks many people out. Experienced designers learn how to handle this apprehension, and in fact come to see in it a symptom of impending breakthrough, especially when breakthrough seems impossible. Apprehension is the birth pangs of profound insights. With practice we learn how to breathe, relax and deliver radically new ideas. Apprehension tolerance challenges the ideal of the peacemaker who steps in and defuses tension and conflict and restores harmony.

Principled disloyalty — Many designers are afraid to be excited or attached to new ideas, because these ideas might turn out to be wrong, infeasible or otherwise inadequate. But design is inspired and propelled by precisely this excitement and commitment. A good solution to this dilemma is to cultivate an equal and opposite proud and disciplined readiness to reject a beloved idea when it is time to say goodbye. The virtue of principled disloyalty challenges two ideals at once: 1) the passionate champion of the believed-in ideal, and 2) the objective detached rationalist who holds no strong position, out of fear of becoming a passionate champion.

Personal goodwill — Good designers must care more about their colleagues and the people they serve more than their own ideas, and must constantly reaffirm this commitment: “I care more about you and my relationship with you than I care about any of my ideas.” This kind of goodwill is absolutely necessary to do the deep, challenging and often painful work of design. The ideal of personal goodwill challenges the ideal of the true believer whose principles, creed, or ideals matter more than anything else in the world.

Pluralist comparison — There are many good solutions to any problem. Those who believe there is only one ideal solution will be tempted to cling to the first eureka. Sometimes that first solution turns out to be the best. But teams that keep going often find other solutions to consider, and sometimes they find those later solutions are far preferable to the first one. Pluralist comparison challenges the ideal of the discovery of the right solution that is searched for until it is found.

Tradeoff sense — Designers understand that perfection is always a function of certain kinds of partial attention, and that closer scrutiny always reveals unobtrusive trade-offs. The goal is not a solution without trade-offs, but rather a solution with tradeoffs so optimal that they go unnoticed when the solution is encountered in its intended context. Inexperienced and naive idealists often approach problems with impossible standards (and usually highly distorted criteria of perfection) — which lead not to the ideal solution but lackluster ones whose chief virtue is flawlessness according to one unexamined standard. Tradeoff sense challenges the ideal of perfectionism, and all the expectations of perfectionism, especially the belief that the right solution requires no tradeoffs, and everything that does is therefore not right.

Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First, empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

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This is my first list, and it might not be complete. It is a good start, though, and I am relieved to get it out of my head.

 

The queen of design disciplines

When words mediate between our intentions and the doing of actions, this introduces a distancing layer and a feeling of artificiality. In order for an action to feel natural, language must not direct interpretation, or action.

This includes direct bodily actions. If we are thinking about what our body is doing or how it appears viewed from the outside, we will feel unnatural, or “self-conscious”. In dancing or in sports, it is important to make motions habitual. Reintroduction of directing language breaks the fluency and effectiveness of the movement.

It includes the using of tools. If we must think about how we are moving a tool it distracts from absorption in the task. Quality tools, physical or digital, allow users to direct focus on tasks while they are being performed without splitting attention between what is being done and how to do it. Such splitting of attention breaks the ready-to-hand transparency of the tool and makes flow states impossible, and the kind of output flow states enable. Every need to verbalize in tool use is an interruption of some magnitude and duration, and that interruption’s timing can be discreet or distracting.

This includes even the action of using language. If we are thinking about what we are saying while we are saying it, our language will be less natural and less spontaneously inventive. Language directed language has the same self-conscious stiltedness that self-conscious body movements have, even when a person is writing.

But I want to take this language-thinning ideal even further, into the realm of how we think and even how we perceive. I will argue that the very concepts we use are used best when they are not language-mediated, even if they are language-acquired (as are many body and tool-using skills. I will argue that when we present concepts through language, the concept itself is not linguistic, but can, among other things, tacitly direct language in fluent speech. The same concept, however, will direct our perception when we recognize a phenomenon as something, wordlessly anticipate what follows from it and spontaneously respond.

Our most wordless concepts are so deeply sedimented in our habits and experiences that we do not recognize that what seems most natural to us is second-natural. We are barely aware of how concepts focus our attention on some kinds of phenomena and not only neglect to perceive, but leave in blind, incomprehensible chaos whatever we lack concepts to understand or perceive. The concepts are not objective beliefs or even discrete attitudes, or anything that can be pointed to. Concepts exist behind objectivity and produce objectivity. Concepts are the very stuff of our subjectivity — what rings true, what feels intuitive, what can occur to us in vision or whim. When we say the word “everything”, the full pragmatic scope of what is included in everything is bounded by the concepts that enable conceivability and everything beyond lies dormant in pregnant blind inconceivability — void, ex nihilo, Ein Sof.

Concepts can be designed and redesigned.

A deep change in the design of one’s concepts can changes the entirety of one’s experience of the world, of life, of reality, of possibility, in myriad seemingly random details and all at one as a whole.

Concept design is a strange art, and I think it is what philosophy has become.

I want to argue that philosophy can and ought to be viewed as a design discipline, and should adopt many of the best practices and ideals — most of all, freedom, creativity and optimism.

 

Intentional extension

Reading Schutz’s observations of the “intentional gaze” I am realizing how important the concept of intentional mediation as a means to extend our intentionality (both active and receptive intention) is to my own thinking. This is the sentence that sparked it:

However, as I am always interpreting these perceptions as “body of another,” I am always interpreting them as something having an implicit reference to “consciousness of another.” Thus the bodily movements are perceived not only as physical events but also as a sign that the other person is having certain lived experiences which he is expressing through those movements. My intentional gaze is directed right through my perceptions of his bodily movements to his lived experiences lying behind them and signified by them signitive relation is essential to this mode of apprehending another’s lived experiences.

This concept of intentional gaze passing directly through a mediating phenomenon to an underlying reality (in a transparent and spontaneous act of interpretation) brings to mind a couple of seminal phenomenological example. The first is Merleau-Ponty’s blind man perceiving his path through his cane. The perception of the path passes transparently through the cane. The second is Heidegger’s concept of “ready-to-hand” where the intention passes from the body through the tool, and the tool becomes a transparent extension of the will.

Of course, as any praxis-aware designer knows, in tool use we are not simply acting on a passive object but interacting with some matter through the tool, in a complex feedback rhythm of acting and perceiving: crafting. (Crafting is the material form of instauration, the act of making-discovering. Crafting is discovering the possibilities of a material while also shaping the material in response to what is sensed as possible.) Most of our crafting is mediated through tools, through which we act upon an object and also through which we sometimes perceive the object and its possibilities.

So, between Heidegger’s will-extending hammer and Merleau-Ponty’s perception-extending blind man’s cane is a range of intention-extending instruments that mediate both action and perception.

And among these instruments is the most important instrument of all, concepts. Through concepts we perceive and respond to phenomena and, by extension, reality. (Thinking about concepts as transparent, mediating, intention-extending tools for forming perceptions, conceptions and consequent judgments, beliefs and actions — tools we can and should try out, compare and evaluate before adopting them is the subject of my next book, tentatively titled Second Natural.)

Obviously, seeing craft this way — and more generally, instauration — blurs the traditional boundaries between self and non-self, even beyond the blur generated by extended cognition, which is why I’ve called this “extended being”. But maybe calling it extended existence would be better.

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A couple of years ago, when I was reading postphenomenology, recalling the deep connections between phenomenology and existentialism, I wondered what the existential analogue of postphenomenology would look like. What could postexistentialism look like? If I weren’t all posted out, I might be tempted to call my design instrumentalism — this idea that we ought to treat our transparently intention-mediating concepts as designed artifacts that we can compare with alternatives, adopt, or modify or reject — as post existentialism. What could be a more radical form of self-determination and responsibility than to instaurate our concepts with intention?

The concept of concept

The word “concept” is ambiguous. In casual use we tend to treat a concept as the object of conception: an idea we can present to others. But we will also use it in ways that suggest a capacity to conceive. For instance, in math, a teacher will present a concept to a student in multiple ways until the student gets it, and everything snaps in place and becomes clear. What exactly does it mean that the student understands the concept?

The ambiguity can be resolved if we evert our understanding of concept — flip it inside out, reversing all subject-object, interior-exterior relationships. Instead of understanding concept primarily as an object of conception, concept is understood as the subject of conception.

(In other words, a concept is not conceived. A concept conceives. A concept may conceive an idea, or a judgment, or a relationship, or an argument, or a response. Even when we are understanding, we are conceiving — re-conceiving — an existing conception. When the eureka moment hits, what did not make sense suddenly does makes sense. When you repeat words that a moment ago were recited tentatively, you now state them confidently and fluently. The sentence that was a series of disconnected, isolated words is now infused with the coherence and lucidity of a concept — not only said, but meant.)

Even in the case of an object we call a “concept”, the real purpose of that object is to induce a subjective concept capable of “getting” the meaning of the object. It serves as an objective mold against which a subjective being can take shape.

*

A concept is that which makes the experiential flux significant in some distinct way.

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Concepts resist conception, in the same way that we cannot see sight or hold onto holding. Concepts are that by which a subject conceives an object, and experiences it as something with significance. Concepts produce objectivity, but are not themselves objects.

This is why concepts can only be defined pragmatically. A concept can only be understood in terms of what it does. Trying to understand a concept by what it is — defining it objectively — renders the very concept of concept unintelligible.

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Pragmatic definition itself provides a fine example of how concepts work.

To understand a meaning pragmatically requires use of a concept.

I can provide C. S. Peirce’s formulation of the pragmatic maxim: “In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception.”

Without the concept by which this maxim becomes comprehensible, the maxim remains meaningless. But once the concept that renders the pragmatic maxim comprehensible is acquired, the concept is available for use in conceiving and understanding pragmatically, without any explicit reference to the maxim which engendered the concept. The more it is used, the more concept is simply a second-natural, undetected act of understanding, indistinguishable from the conception, or from the truth the conception knows, or from reality.

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Acquisition of concepts changes one’s experience of reality, bringing possibilities into conception that were literally inconceivable a moment before. New concepts often effect re-conceptions of existing understandings, spontaneously changing their significance. They can also cause us to perceive new features of reality which were imperceptible or chaotic and vague.

We have many words for these new concept events. Some are inspirational, where new concepts reinforce and strengthen concepts we are already using. They may be epiphanic and reorder much of what we think we know, bringing things into clarity which had been opaque, murky or troubling. Some concepts strike depths of change that are literally inconceivable until the concept irrupts ex nihilo and transfigures literally everything. This is when we talk about conversion.

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By understanding the role concepts play in our relationship with reality, it becomes possible to discuss religious experience without recourse to magical or superstition, which many thinkers, including myself, find intellectually unacceptable, or to psychology, which many religious people, including myself, find reductive, demoralizing and patronizing.

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Can concepts be intentionally changed? Yes.

Does that mean we can start with an intended outcome, such as believing something we want to believe, or feeling some specific way about life that we want to feel, and develop concepts to make us think or feel this desired way? Mostly, no.

We can, however, observe the outcomes of our concepts, and work to discover or create, or discover-create (instaurate) concepts with better outcomes.

And we can even do so with constraints or requirements in mind. Whatever we develop, we might want it to help us feel the value of life more. We might want it to guide our actions more effectively. We might want it to help us explain what cries out for explanation, or to argue for what needs to be argued.

Understanding concepts liberates us from the obligation to passively accept what is presented as truth, simply because it is true. We can also ask: True, how? And we can also ask: True, how else?

Understanding concepts empowers us for pluralist existence.

Reconceiving the unconscious

Reading Schutz, and examining the structure of lived experience I am suspecting more and more that what we call “unconscious” and habitually conceptualize spatially as submerged beneath our awareness has been misconceived — or, to put it in more designerly language, is a conceptualization that introduces tradeoffs which might not be optimal for our purposes. And what is this purpose, I’d like to optimize for? I’ll try to pin it down: I think in popular thought (which is the thought that creates, re-creates and shapes society, through ethnomethods) we radically misunderstand the relationship between language and lived experience. We have a tendency to conflate consciousness and speech. If something resists language, and we find ourselves unable to capture it our memory with the help of words, that wordless memory of images, sounds, feelings, etc. seems to sink faster into oblivion, and to be harder to retrieve. My hunch is that words are nonverbal memory aids that condense experience from the mental environment. When we have words for what happens to us we are able to “objectify” what is going on, whether what is going on is “out there” in the world or “in here” in my memory. With language we produce sharper objectifications that go into our memories and we have mnemonic objects that will condense the sensory recollections when we wish to recall the experience later.

So in my model, the unconscious is just those mental activities that we have not articulated for objective knowing. But these are not autonomous demon-like beings who slip in the shadows and depths, who move us against our will when we ease our vigilance, hiding our under-selves from what our minds will tolerate. I see this as a nasty vestige of medieval religiosity — one that keeps popping up among people who fancy themselves secular, but whose minds still move in superstitious ruts.

I prefer to understand what we call the unconscious as that vast set of tacit perceptual, kinetic, feeling realities hiding in plain sight, but inaccessible to linguistic thought. They are there, real, tangible, important but we don’t have words for them so they evaporate like dreams after we experience them unless something happens to us that causes the vapor to condense again. One of the great benefits of words is they are reliable memory condensers.

Folks who “think visually” or who take their intuitions and mind motions seriously as real and significant prior to any ability to articulate or conceptualize or demonstrate or argue them have a capacity to create thoughts outside the dominant language games of the culture. I want to articulate some of these realities and make them more thinkable. But also, I want to banish the latter-day demons of the Freudish “unconscious” that seems to have reemerge to haunt our social and political anxieties.

I also find our beliefs about the role of language in our everyday behavior to mislead designers. If we believe users verbalize instructions to themselves that their bodies obey when using software, we stop trying to directly engage our hands. If we understand that language itself is an interface that we use to help us make sense of experience when other means fail, we create two layers of interface between users and their tools. A great user interface minimizes the requirement to verbalize, so tools become invisible, ready-to-hand extensions of the user’s will.

Try these ideas on with this line of thought. The political crisis we are in now, with deep roots in the American tradition, can be seen as starting with the rise of social media. Much of our social lives, and our lives in general, became heavily word-mediated. Normally, when people gather it is around experiences. Things are enjoyed together — food drink, music, art, laughter — and experiences unfold over the course of hours. Social media is fast language. TL;DR, scan, scroll, start, stop, scroll. Not only are people’s blah-blah flipped through like TV channels, but engagement is sporadic and flitting. Written literature has time to evoke, conjure, hint, suggest and condense memories and knowings. Fast language only recalls or refers. It is spastic and explicit. Expastic language could be a good word for fast language, dittos and hashtags. But things got worse when Covid put everyone in social isolation. Then the entire world had to be strained through screens. The realm of shared tacit realities constricted and the word-world expanded explosively. I think what we are seeing now is the opposite of an eruption of the unconscious. I think the sensible wisdom our tacit understandings were removed from the public setting, and brainless verbal logic took over and is running itself to its logical extremes inside s frictionless, gravityless vacuum of collective solipsism.

Philosophy as performing art

I have been struggling hellishly with the very simple, basic question: “What is a philosophy?” This is terribly important, because if I want to persuade people that philosophies (or worldviews, lifeworlds, enworldments or faiths) are designable things, and that they ought to be designed — and that is exactly my intention — I’d better be able to explain what it is we are designing.

But I have been unable to do it, which is perplexing, upsetting and exciting. This combo has a pavlovian effect on me, and I can’t leave it alone.

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Yesterday I had my weekly conversation with Nick Gall, and we had a fun argument over the significance of Golden Rule. The conversation started off rockily. It was clear that he and I were thinking about it very differently (“at cross-purposes”), in a way that went deeper than definitions or even values, into the how of the thinking. We eventually realized that he was thinking about the formula “Treat others as you would like to be treated” pragmatically but statically (maybe as a trained lawyer), as a proposition with bounded implications. I was thinking of it dynamically as a lived principle, with so that the proposition’s meaning deepens and self-transcends over time with successive recursions.

It was really tricky getting aligned on what we we talking about, and how we could approach the conversation in order to break the impasse. Three thing happened that made it work.

  1. We recognized that we were disagreeing not only on the object of the disagreement, but how the subject should be thought. (I’m using subject and object very deliberately.)
  2. The new way of thinking (the subject) needed to be followed to be understood. It was not a process at arriving at a conclusion, but more picking up a style or acquiring a sense of genre.
  3. The following of the thought required a kind of momentum and holistic grasping of the thinking as a single event. (This is different from following an argument, which consists of a series of discrete, linked accomplishments.) This explains why, if a passage is thorny, I have to work out the difficulties part by part, then reread the passage rapidly and smoothly before I understand the material.

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There is a kind of temporal holism in understanding. We see it in all performing arts — music, dance, cinema. Each moment of a performance must be experienced in flowing reference to what preceded it or the meaning gets lost.

I believe this is how philosophy works as well. Perhaps philosophy is more of a performing art than a plastic art.

Maybe this is where the appeal “stay with me” or “follow this line of thought” comes in. It means “grok this temporal whole.”

We can no more understand an interrupted, interrogated line of thought than we can hear interrupted phrases of a song as music. This is a thought I’ve had before, but the connection with this problem is new.