Category Archives: Design Instrumentalism

Sketchy endeavor

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

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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.

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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.

Art is enworldment

Too many people think art is the production of interesting, pleasing or entertaining sounds, images, performances, etc. This mode of making produces sterile artistic product.

We have forgotten that real art founds whole new ways to exist in the world.

Art is not here to be looked at, listened to or experienced. Art is here to give us new ways to look from ourselves, listen to the world around us and experience reality.

Socially, the purpose of artists is to enlarge the world and make room for more kinds of life, more kinds of personhood.

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This helps explain why art is so often created by misfits.

The artist does not fit into the world as it is, so they have to enworld a bigger world capable of accommodate them, so it can welcome them home.

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The purpose of art is enworldment.

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This is true also for philosophy. Philosophy is not here to produce arguments for what is true, or contrive new explanations for this and that, or speculate on what might be the case. Philosophy is the design of new ways to conceive existence, to experience life, to relate to others, to respond to events and to make something new of oneself and reality.

  • I say “design” because philosophies are not only about experience but interaction —  much of it functional — among groups of people. There is a need for what Nick Gall calls (borrowing from software engineering) interoperability. In cases where the user of something might be very different from the creator, design methods for explicitly understanding  and accommodating difference  are indispensable. It is true that philosophy has been done by solitary artists communicating to the few capable of understanding them, but this is only an accident of history. When our ways of conceiving existence begin to threaten our continued existence, it might be time to revisit how we think about how we think about thinking.

Infining metaphysics

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

In this article on infinity, Levinas is quoted:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Philosophy as polycentric design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

*

Getting back to the practicalities of design instrumentalism:

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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.

*

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

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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”.