Category Archives: Design Instrumentalism

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 concepts 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 concepts 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 concepts, so in effect each team are forced to create a new concept 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 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.

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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.

What would a designed philosophy look like?

I’ve been bothered by a simple question: if philosophy is, as I believe, a design discipline, what is 1) its material, 2) its specifications (“deliverables”, the plan of the designed thing), 3) its artifact (the designed thing itself), and 4) its actualization (the actual using of the designed thing), the qualities of which are the ultimate, though indirect, goal of design?

I am asking this way, not because of some compulsion for finding structural parallels, but because the problem of what a philosophy is and should do has been perplexing me. What is a philosophy? What is its nature? Is it the assertions? The logic? Is it a kind of thinking style?  When we apply the philosophy, or what is the nature of this “thing” that is applied?

It all becomes a little less perplexing (or gives me some degree of grip on the problem) when I compare it to other forms of design and make structured comparisons.

Even with the most concrete and tangible kinds of design, the ultimate intended effect is practical and experiential, and experiences are painfully indirect. The fact that designs in use disappear in the activity of using does not help matters at all.

Let’s start with some concrete examples, and see if they suggest new ways to think about philosophy. I will answer the question with two design disciplines I know well, UX and service design.

With UX, 1) the material is digital media (screens and other interfaces, and the underlying systems which enable and constrain what is possible); 2) the specifications are process flows and screen schematics (wireframes); 3) the artifact is the software or site; and 4) the actualization is a good user experience — effortless, pleasant and fruitful interaction with the software.

With service design, 1) the material is the entire extended organization (including not only the whole organization, including employees, partners, physical and digital infrastructure, practices/processes, policies, etc., but every point where value is co-created by delivery of the service, that is, with customers and users of the service); 2) the specifications are moment architectures and service blueprints; 3) the artifact is the service in its various forms across delivery channels; 4) the actualization is a good service experience for every actor involved in delivering, supporting or receiving the service.

So, giving philosophy this same treatment, 1) the material of philosophy is language in the most general sense (including not only words but symbols of every kind); 2) the specifications are lessons in the most general sense (books, essays, lectures, conversations, arguments, models, paradigms); 3) the artifact is concepts (understood as thought-producing mental behaviors, which is confusing because these behaviors are impossible to state directly and factually, but must be demonstrated); 4) the actualization is a thoroughly second-natural way of understanding (meaning that it becomes spontaneous and transparent) some domain of life (or the entirety of life) in a way experienced as better. By better, I mean more comprehensible, more livable and more valuable. By better, I mean we are able to avoid feeling perplexed, bewildered or indifferent to our lives.

As with all design, the work must be done with the actualization in mind, which is why the process is one of iterative experiment with direct involvement with those who will finally actualize the design. This is why human-centered design practice, or, in the case of service design, polycentric design practice are not specialized types of design but, simply, design competence. The implications to the practice of philosophy are significant. Does this help explain why philosophers crave conversation? Is the attempt to persuade an informal kind of philosophy design practice?

This is a first crack, so everything is up for discussion.

Redemption by design

Rorty, being intensely Rorty:

…the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature. Monotheistic religion offers hope for redemption through entering into a new relation to a supremely powerful nonhuman person. Belief in the articles of a creed may be only incidental to such a relationship. For philosophy, however, beliefs are of the essence. Redemption by philosophy is through the acquisition of a set of beliefs that represent things in the one way they really are. Literature, finally, offers redemption through making the acquaintance of as great a variety of human beings as possible. Here again, as in religion, true belief may be of little importance.

And redemption by design is arranging the elements of life — people, things, ideas, etc. — in systems that allow them to cooperate for mutual benefit, however benefit is conceived by the cooperating agents.

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I would like to count among the number of cooperating agents, “infrapersons” — psychic components of personality whose dynamic relations produce myriad moods, feelings, experiential colorings. Different designs will engage different infrapersons. Writing with a Bic pen or a #2 Ticonderoga is a different experience because it engages different infrapersons than writing with a Pelikan Souveran M800 or a Rotring 600 pencil. Sitting in a cubicle under a cold fluorescent strobe suppresses elements of self that might come out when sitting under sparkling halogen in a studio space. We feel more “like ourselves” when more of our self — more of our own infrapersons — have an opportunity to emerge and participate in our living. An important task of designers is to acknowledge and serve neglected infrapersons. To the degree it accomplishes this, design generates excitement, newness and je ne sais quoi. Cynics might dismiss this as slaking appetites for pointless consumption, but this is an uncharitable view of the profound relationship people can have with things in the world. I view these proud “anti-materialism” sentiments as a leftist strain of “not of this world” puritanism.)

Design Pragmatism

DISCLAIMER: This post is a big mess (which is why it’s been hidden from November 2020 until today March 31, 2021), but it’s got a lot of good, useful stuff in it, so I’m making it public.

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In the winter of 2002, I developed a new life-changing habit. I began waking up early in the morning to drink tea and study philosophy before work. My family was living in Toronto at the time, and we loved exploring the diverse neighborhoods in the downtown area. On one of our excursions, we purchased some oolong tea, and the elaborate gear used to brew tea in the traditional gongfu way. We had a yixing teapot, special paired teacups (one for tasting the tea, and another for experiencing the aroma), a brewing platform for the teapot with a hidden water reservoir for the tea that is spilled and splashed when prepared in the gongfu way, tongs, scoops, canisters, carafes and cloths. My daughter Zoë, who was nine at the time, was enchanted by it all and started waking me up before dawn to make tea and talk about life. After she left for school, I read philosophy, starting with Nietzsche. The experience of reading philosophy first thing in the morning in a caffeinated state was inspiring, and it became the center of a new way of living.

When the habit was new, my work and my reading were compartmentalized. I was working as a user interface designer, and I didn’t like it. Most of the work was stressful and tedious. I did it for the paycheck. My thinking and reading time was an escape from work. If my work benefitted from anything I read, that was purely accidental. My reading choices were driven solely by what problems seemed interesting and important to me, and work was the furthest thing from either.

Gradually, however, my philosophical interests evolved in directions that happened to be useful. I moved from reading Nietzsche to studying phenomenology, hermeneutics and pragmatism. I found that these subjects helped me find better ways to think about and talk about how designers approach discovering, defining, exploring and resolving problems. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was rediscovering the sources of design thought, and haphazardly self-educating myself on the family of philosophies that contributed to the development of design methods. As my design practice became more theoretically lucid, I started enjoying design more, and taking it more seriously as a vocation.

Soon I was surprised to notice the influence flowing back from design to philosophy. I found myself applying concepts and language from the world of design to philosophical problems. I started asking the kinds of questions designers habitually ask about design proposals and applying them to philosophical ideas, and tried to clarify and resolve those questions using designerly approaches. Of course, I had always been sensitive to the physical form of the books I read, the quality of the typesetting and the style of the writing. What was new was asking these same questions about the philosophy itself — systems of ideas used in daily life to make sense of things and to produce thoughts.

It started with Liz Sanders’s useful/usable/desirable framework, a conceptual tool of such fundamental importance that some designers, including myself, use it to define the very purpose of design. The designer’s job is to ensure that whatever their team is making is useful, usable and desirable for its intended users. I noticed myself casually wondering: “How useful is this philosophy?” What is it meant to do for the one who learns to use it? Where is it helpful? And: “How usable is this philosophy?” With practice will it become intuitive, habitual and as invisible as Beatrice Ward’s crystal goblet? And: “How desirable is this philosophy?” Does it intensify my esteem for life? Or does the world feel bleak and pointless when experienced through this philosophy?

This led to a more conscious exploration of the similarities between design and philosophy, culminating in a question:

What if we approach philosophy as a design discipline?


In An Inquiry into Modes of Existence Bruno Latour raised a question: “To say of a thing that it is constructed is to introduce a value judgment, not only on the origin of the action… but on the quality of the construction … Constructed, yes, of course, but is it well constructed?”

Designers, of course, are concerned with quality of constructions, and specifically with constructions of the kind Latour calls “hybrid”, constructions constituted of beings of diverse kind, including humans and nonhumans. When designers set out to design something, one of the first things we do is study the contexts in which this designed thing will be experienced and used by people. A new design, if adopted, will be woven into this context, and will change it by becoming part of it. A well-constructed designed artifact (whether a physical or virtual object, an environment, a service, a process, a communication, or whatever) helps produce a well-constructed context, experienced as better by those who inhabit it.

By now, the idea that truth is constructed is not only well-known, it is a comic truism. My younger daughter Helen and her friends enjoy ironically dismissing random things by declaring them constructs. I tried out Latour’s concept of well-constructed constructs on her. “If truth is a construct, shouldn’t we pay attention to the craft quality of our truth constructions? Shouldn’t we use the best available design methods to ensure these constructions do what we need them to do, and do it well? This extends my earlier question. What if we approach philosophy as a design problem by using design methods to produce well-constructed philosophies that improve their social contexts?


It is hard to pin down what philosophy is, in order to even know what it is we are designing. It is important

Philosophy is the practice of thinking about thinking. It investigates how we think and how this affects what we think and how we act.

Two quotes encapsulate the purpose and method of philosophy, or at least the kind of philosophy I care about. The first is from Wilfrid Sellars: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” The second is from Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said something important about philosophy by observing what happens when philosophy stops functioning normally, and becomes problematic: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'”

 

  • Briefs
  • Models
  • Stories
  • Tradeoffs
  • Evaluation frameworks
  • Interviewing
  • Experiments
  • Altitudes
  • Hybrids
  • Interfaces
  • Comparisons
  • Apprehension
  • Invisibility (ready-to-hand / present-at-hand)
  • Alignment — winning cooperation
  • Adoption
  • Instrumentalism
  • Meliorism
  • Pluralism
  • Participation
  • Interaction
  • Cooperation (voluntary participation) avoiding coercion)
  • Participation
  • Eversion
  • Ethnomethodic Rules
  • Instauration
  • Misnorms
  • Extended existence
  • Wicked problems
  • Directional visions (north stars)
  • Triage
  • Adoption (as a substitute for progress)
  • Perceptual (categorial?) affordances
  • Multistability
  • Redescription
  • Fragilism – No truth can bear scrutiny. Looking closer is conceptual dynamite.

Philosophy adoption

Susan asked: how is the philosophy design you envision different from Kuhnian paradigm shifts? The answer she extracted from me gets to the heart of my project, and I will need to emphasize this point in Second Natural: The physical sciences, and the attitude toward truth inspired by the physical sciences places all emphasis on epistemic and practical knowing (“what” and “how”) and trades off moral (valuative) knowing (“why”), which becomes a sort of ethic of scientificality. “The truth hurts” and being scientific means embracing the pain of sacrificing all other values.

But if we accept that we live in a truly pluralistic reality, and embrace the consequence that no single philosophy is capable of accounting for reality without strategically excluding, distorting or underemphasizing some realities in favor of others, we are freed question this tradeoff. A new scientific paradigm may give physicists a new way to conceptualize some stubbornly puzzling corner of their field, but these advantages might not be worth what is given up for ordinary people whose conceptual needs differ from those of physicists.

Once we see concepts as tools for selective perception, categorization and reasoning which permit some kinds of response and suppress others, we are freed (to a degree) to think of philosophies, components of philosophies and philosophical implications as matters of adoption. We can say physics theories what the best atheists say of God: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” If our concerns do later come in contact with theological or scientific problems, we might have to rework our personal philosophies in order to faithfully contend with their claims. This is especially true if we wish to win the respect of those communities and persuade them to accept our own beliefs. But this is not all that different from the adoption of any other technology that integrates with its design context.

Genre Trouble

Thank you Richard Rorty:

“The more original a book or a kind of writing is, the more unprecedented, the less likely we are to have criteria in hand, and the less point there is in trying to assign it to a genre. We have to see whether we can find a use for it. If we can, then there will be time enough to stretch the borders of some genre or other far enough to slip it in, and to draw up criteria according to which it is a good kind of writing to have invented. Only metaphysicians think that our present genres and criteria exhaust the realm of possibility. Ironists continue to expand that realm.”

1) I love this quote. I have extreme trouble coloring inside the lines of preexisting genres, given the fact that my worldview is a synthesis of an esoteric and Nietzschean perversion of Pragmatism, a hall-of-mirrors reflective design practice, and an idiosyncratic take on religion bordering on universal heresy (which is why I’m Jewish). Consequently, I have little hope of (or interest in) writing a book that does not generate a genre. This is why I will need to continue to self-publish. I feel a combination of impatience and panic when it is suggested that I need to nail down my audience, as if they already exist, and write to them, for their sake.) Also, nobody is going to craft a book to my standards. I may need to buy letterpress and bookbinding equipment.

2) To find a use for a new kind of writing… The above passage was embedded in an extended pragmatic exploration of Derrida’s writing. Rorty suggested that we forget what Derrida was asserting, and instead ask: what was he doing with his writing? I like translating this to: Forget the content — what does his genre want to do, and why? He is doing something new with writing, and to allow it to do its new thing for us we have to release it from the purposes and rules governing the genre(s) of philosophy.

3) Point 2 is getting very close to my interests (which is hardly surprising given that Rorty is the proto- pragmatist pervert). To create a new kind of writing, then find a use for it — is very much, to my designerly eyes, like intellectual R&D. This follows the pattern of how many technologies are developed, especially very new and unfundable ones. Some playful or obsessive technologist in love with a problem or a material intuits a possibility and follows hunches to produce some ingenious invention. This invention inspires other similar types — lovers of engineering problems — to push it further, just to see what they can get it to do. Eventually, the inventing proliferates, refines and develops to the point where it attracts the attention of some practical mind who sees in this invention the key to solving some specific real-world problem. Now a technology is ready to cross the threshold between technology and product.

4) What kind of mind escorts a potentially useful technology through the journey that transforms it into a useful, usable and desirable product and out into the marketplace? Lots of people try to do this work. The ones who are best at shaping technologies into products (a.k.a. goods or services) that fit human needs, desires and life-practices are designers. Designers (whether they are called that or not) are the people who see human life as vast, complex, often messy, systems, and understand that products are subcomponents of these human systems. The success of a product hinges on how readily it integrates into these human systems. (Increasingly designers are considering more than end-user integration, and are getting involved in manufacturing, distribution, promotion, merchandising, purchase, use, service, disposal, recycling, etc.) Wherever human and nonhuman systems are meant to integrate, designers increase the chances the integration will succeed. Some designers see a technology and immediately grasp its product potential, others keep up with technologies of various kinds so when they are given a human problem they can play matchmaker between this problem and the solutions in their imaginations, still others start with a thorough understanding of people and their lives and learn to define these problems so they inspire solutions from more technological minds. The best designers do all three, and effectively straddle and blur (or, rather interweave and entangle) the lines between technological and human systems.

5) What if we view philosophy as it is done today as technological development? And applied philosophies as slightly more focused technologies carried a step closer to problem types? Is there not room for a discipline that uses design methods (especially HCD, human-centered design methods) to apply philosophical technologies to very particular cases. Such a discipline would research problematic situations and the people, things and contexts that constitute them, define problems to be solved with the help philosophical “technologies”, shape conceptual systems that resolve these problems and develop materials to help an organization adopt the improved, more useful, usable and desirable philosophy? What if we use deep HCD to throw organizational business-as-usual thinking into crisis, so that it clears the ground and opens it into perplexity (what Wittgenstein identified as the philosophical negative-space of “here I do not know how to move around”), upon which a new philosophy can be designed (“to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” as Sellars put it).

6) If I view my problem as a genre problem, I can say I want to write a book outlining a new discipline as the first (at least first self-conscious) product of this discipline. I want to design a philosophy of philosophy design. It will be erected on an assumed metaphysical foundation — a faith — that doing such a thing is not only permissible, but necessary. But, being a designed conceptual product, it will seek voluntary adoption instead of argumentative coercion. It will try to demonstrate that this discipline, viewed in this way, viewed from this carefully designed perspective will be a useful, usable and desirable way for certain kinds of people to live their lives and make their livings, and that (this will be secondary) that organizations that hire and support people who do this kind of work will help generate more usefulness, usability and desirability for its employees, partners and customers.

7) Whatever we call them — Organizational Philosophers? Concept Designers? POV Framers — they will be responsible for:

  • Understanding how different people involved in an organization or part of an organization (department, office, team, etc.) think;
  • How these ways of thinking converge, diverge, harmonize and conflict;
  • What tradeoffs each of these ways of thinking make in terms of what domains of knowledge they do a good job of comprehending and communicating, versus what they must deemphasize, ignore, suppress or neglect in order to have clarity?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of values — what values do they elevate and serve, and what must they deprioritize or sacrifice in order to focus their sense of purpose?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of method — what kinds of action does it guide effectively and what kinds of action does it misdirect, encumber or fail to support?
  • Analyzing what the organization wants to be and to accomplish, and determining what an organization’s thinking needs to help it comprehend, do and care about.
  • Leading the development of conceptual frameworks the organization can use to think together in order to better be and do what it aspires to.
  • Communicate and teach the new conceptual frameworks using various vehicles such as visual models, verbal and visual explanations, taxonomies, glossaries of shared vocabulary, reference materials and training programs.
  • Testing and iterating both the frameworks and the communication/teaching vehicles.
  • Socializing and encouraging adoption of concepts across the organization.

This is what I want to do with my life, and this book will be a justification, a description of how it should be thought about and done, and be a proof on concept of what the profession produces.

Now, this is just me writing about a possibility. I cannot guarantee it will stick, and I’m not even sure I didn’t just derail my original plan for Second Natural, but it is at least getting me closer to what my intuition seems to want me to talk about.

I did not start off meaning to write this post, but here we are.

This is why we read Richard Rorty.