Category Archives: Ethics

Militant pluralism

When I was agnostic, religious believers and atheistic nonbelievers would sometimes accuse me of being noncommittal.

Eventually, I found my stance: devout agnosticism.

My devout agnosticism was not on the same plane as factual conviction. It was a commitment to epistemological integrity — and that commitment was every bit as passionate as any atheistic or theistic belief. People find it difficult to imagine that anyone could feel deeply about something as abstract as epistemology, but this incomprehension does not make it any less so. (This passionate commitment, by the way, led me beyond the shallow for-and-against of the debate to an understanding that would have remained inconceivable to me if I had prematurely taken a side.

This experience, in combination with many others, have strengthened my commitment to thinking beyond simple for-against binary antitheticals.

Now I find myself in the same position regarding abortion.

Since the overturning of Roe v Wade in June, several women have engaged me in conversation on this subject, only to inform me, after realizing that my own views differ slightly from theirs, that my opinion on the abortion issue is irrelevant and unwanted. They all say the same thing (in the same words): “they are not ready” to hear any opposing view, because they are still too angry.

But they are especially not ready to hear my particular view, which is, to them, the kind of abstract theoretical opining a person not directly affected by the decision would have. They find it difficult to imagine that I could feel deeply about a position so abstract and “academic” as mine, but (as with my agnosticism) but I do feel very strongly on this matter, and their incomprehension does not make it any less so.

My position is that we must engage our political opponents as adversaries who seek different ends than us within our liberal democratic order, and not enemies who pose an existential threat. To maintain this, it is crucially important to try to see the validity of their positions, however vehemently we disagree with them. Those of us who believe in a woman’s right to make their choice whether or not to abort should work to understand abortion opponents’ various framings of the issue — some of which are, indeed, fundamentalist and others of which are, indeed, cynically partisan — but others of which are motivated by humane concerns, and others of which are focused on protecting our liberal democratic institutions. But you can never understand this if you attribute to them contemptible or insidious motives, declare them existential enemies and refuse to hear what they say. And it is even worse if you coercively silence them or terrorize them into keeping their beliefs to themselves. Our adversaries are not our enemies, and if they sometimes get their way at the expense of us getting ours, this does not constitute an existential threat. But seeing every deep disagreement as a threat, paradoxically is. Turning every disagreement into a literal life-threatening emergency is. It is to our own advantage to understand the full validity of our adversaries’ positions, because this helps us see that they are not monsters, not enemies.

This is the position I have stated, and which my angry female friends have told me they are “not ready” to hear and which apparently “causes hurt” when I state them.

One woman told me it would even be better if I just took the opposing view, because at least it would signal concrete involvement. It is the theoretical stance of the dis-involved that infuriates.

They are perfectly free to postpone the conversation until they cool down and feel ready to discuss it.

What they are not free to do is try to prevent me from stating my opinion, if they are stating theirs, and especially not if the claim is that my opinions cause them emotional distress. Their attempts — increasingly successful — to socially control whose opinions can be voiced and whose must be suppressed is causing me emotional distress. So now what?

*

What I want people to understand is this: There are four sides to this conflict: their side, my side, what they think my side is, and what I think their side is.

For these righteously angry women, however, it appears (to me) there are only two sides: their side and what they think my side is.

It is those two missing sides — precisely the part that is not inside their own heads — that they are “not ready” for — and this is the crux of the matter.

They are never ready to hear those missing sides.

Sacrosanct fury over bodily autonomy and their status as citizens is only the latest excuse for a deeply habitual contempt for whatever transcends their own limited perspective. This time it is too infuriating. Other times they feel endangered. Or they imagine slippery slopes to extremism and violence. Or they see the preservation of an oppressive status quo. Or they attribute hate.

There are always pressing reasons why their own view — the two sides in their own heads — is the only one taken as real.

And it is this refusal to acknowledge the limits of their own perspectives, their refusal to respect other perspectives, and their readiness to use social terror to force others to pretend to agree with their perspective that is my passionate concern.

In other words, it is their antipluralism that offends me.

I hold pluralism sacred. And when pluralism is suppressed, especially in organizations I love, I feel offense and visceral fury.

And the very claim that my offense and fury is less important, or less legitimate, or less deeply felt than the fury of a woman denied the right to abort a fetus — this exemplifies my point.

This, my angry female friend, is not for you to decide.

Does pointing this fact out “cause hurt”?

Your emotional bullying also “causes hurt”. And although you seem incapable of understanding it, this hurt matters every bit as much as yours does.

But you don’t have to understand it. I will demonstrate it to you by meeting your offense, your fury, your force, your eagerness to confront and create conflict — with my own. And in my prolonged, pressurized self-constraint, I have grown immensely furious, and ready to fight back. I have decided that this is a hill I will proudly die on.

But I will not do as you wish and meet you on your level, and oppose you with a simplistic For that mirrors your simplistic Against.

I do not need your understanding and stamp of approval of my position to fight you. I am coming back at you from beyond your understanding.

I’m done holding my tongue for the sake of keeping the peace. This silence preserves your delusions of unanimity, and encourages your aggression. As you so often say: Silence is violence.

*

My new stance is militant pluralism.

I will tactfully advocate pluralism. If pluralism is forcibly suppressed, I will use whatever counter-force I have at my disposal to re-impose pluralism.

And also know: if you use coercive force to suppress pluralism, you are not a mere adversary, but an enemy: an existential threat to what I care most deeply about.

*

Progressivists, I am finished indulging your collective political narcissism.

You don’t get to decide whose indignation is righteous and whose is “fragility”.

You don’t get to decide whose bigotry is antiracist activism and whose is white supremacy.

You don’t get to decide what identities are real and which are not, which are powerful, which are not — and you do not get to assign those identities and deduce who someone is from them.

You don’t get to decide who is and is not privileged.

You don’t get to decide why people really think what they think, act as they act, or vote as they vote.

And you don’t get to decide what this abortion debate is about, and who has a right to an opinion and who doesn’t.

This is a liberal democracy and we come to these decisions together.

Anyone who does not know this is an enemy of liberal democracy, even if they’ve deluded themselves into believing they are its saviors.

*

Does all this still strike you as abstract, academic, detached, cold? Do you still doubt the sincerity, intensity, validity or courage of my conviction?

Then try me.

Progressive meditations

Here is a question every privilege-checking progressive “ally” of less privileged people should ask themselves:

Do you really believe you get more power and privilege from your racial, sexual or gender identities — or any intersectional combination of them — than you get from your class identity?

Class identity, of course, includes educational pedigree, social connections and behavioral class signifiers (manners, vocabulary, cultural know-how, and so on).

Another way to approach this question is to ask yourself: Would you be as willing and eager to check your class privilege as you have been to renounce your race privilege?

Ask yourself: do you really think these class signifiers your own class accepts as matter-of-fact qualifications — for knowing truer truths, judging more justly and basically calling the shots on all important matters — are somehow objectively valid — and not just the standard features of every dominant ideology?

Do you really, fully understand that a great many European colonists really wanted to bring Christian salvation to the savages of the Americas? Do you understand that conservatives truly do want to save the lives of fetuses? …In precisely the same way, progressives really do want to protect vulnerable populations?

The notion held by progressives that somehow their own sincere motives differ from those of others — that their sincere altruism differs from the delusional altruism of these others — is the furthest thing from a differentiator. This is the essential commonality of every ideologue.

If you think having the immense unilateral power required to offer these protections to vulnerable groups is just a means to an end — that is only how it looks from the inside. From outside it looks like the protection is justificatory means to the end of possessing overwhelming power.

I don’t want to hear your answers. This is between you and your own conscience. I’m sure you can make arguments proving whatever you want. I just want you to ask yourself these questions, listen to your own answers and really notice if you believe yourself. 

Decency demands it.

You won’t hear me

I keep trying, with increasing desperation, to say the same thing.

But it is exactly the ones I most need to hear it who never will hear it.

And what I want to say is: “You won’t hear me.

Sometimes people need to not hear you.

Their world depends on it.

*

Does it seem improbable to you that a person would murder to avoid feeling like a murderer?

*

Once I realize a person needs to not understand my core truth — needs to not understand me — friendship ends, even if it takes time for that truth to fully dawn.

People who are incapable of understanding can be dear friends… if I believe that they would understand if they could. They might not be able to share doctrine, but they can share faith, and faith matters most.

*

The powerful get to dictate truth, including, most of all, who is — and who is not — powerful.

Second verse, same as the first

We apprehend that something is, but we may not comprehend what it is.

“Apprehending that” establishes something’s existence.

“Comprehending what” establishes its conceptual relations within our understanding.

Sometimes (often, in fact) we apprehend something, but we cannot immediately comprehend it. We either ignore it as irrelevant, gloss over it, or are forced to figure out what it is. Sometimes, after a little effort, we recognize what it is, either with a word, or, failing that, with an analogy that has not yet been assigned a word: “this is, in some sense, like that.” Sometimes this recognition clicks, and we begin to experience it as a given what that thing is. Sometimes the recognition does not click, but we have no better option than to manually recall what we made of it, and hope the recall eventually becomes habitual.

In other words, there is spontaneous whatness, and there is artificial whatness.

In some cases, we can apprehend that something exists, or comprehend what it is, but still have no univocal sense of its meaning (in the valuative sense — moral or aesthetic), either because there is no distinct meaning or because we sense conflicting meanings. We have to reflect on it, turn it and its context around in our minds, and work out how we ought to feel. Sometimes a sense of moral clarity comes to us, but often it doesn’t.

In other words, there is spontaneous whyness, and there is artificial whyness.

We also might apprehend that something exists, or even comprehend what it is, but be unprepared to respond to it practically. We can talk about it, but cannot interact with it effectively. We are forced to think it out, devise a plan and execute the plan before we know what to do.

In other words, there is spontaneous howness, and there is artificial howness.

Perhaps the reverse of these cases is more interesting: sometimes we might lack comprehension, but still somehow still sense the value of something only apprehended. We might even respond practically — pre-verbally — to a realy that is apprehended but which remains uncomprehended.

Does that seem impossible? Do you believe a thing must be comprehended before value can be felt or response is possible? If you believe this, I accept that this is true — for you. I have no doubt this is true for a great portion of modern human beings. I won’t even rule out the possibility this is the case for the majority of educated people living in this era. For this type, reality is intercepted and linguified prior to feeling value or responding practically. And when we do something often we get better and better at it. We begin to think we can train ourselves to understand the world the way we want to, to train our feelings to find goodness or beauty where we want it there to be value, and to train our behaviors to automatically respond as we want them to.

To us, this imposition of artificiality might be acceptable to people accustomed to constantly instructing themselves with words, verbalizing whatever they see, arriving at conclusions using syllogisms or frameworks, and calculate valuations in units of currency. But those of us who value in minimizing linguistic mediation between ourselves and the world, see this aggressive linguification and retraining of our What, Why and How — with little or no concern for the fact that they feel artificial or false to us — seems nothing less than an existential threat. It is social engineering on the micro-scale, and not outside and (hopefully) at a distance, like the grand social engineering of the twentieth century, but in the intimate domain of the personal soul.

And like the old “macro” social engineering projects, this micro social engineering preys on insensitivity to experience and gross over-reliance on verbalized thought. Macro-social engineering believed it would, using iron and concrete, intentionally construct a better society to replace the inadequate one that organically developed unintentionally, or more accurately developed through non-centralized, uncoordinated, distributed intentions. “Oh, you think it is ugly? It is only new and unfamiliar.” They said this about building projects, and they said this about serial music. Both produced blight. Today’s micro social engineering wants to replace inadequately-accommodating concepts and language with new truth constructions with better intentions. “Oh, this seems ungainly and false to you? It is only new and unfamiliar.” I have little doubt that entrusting the construction of truth to overconfident, ambitious wordworlders will produce intellectual and cultural blight. Of course, exactly this kind of person will make relativistic objections: Who are you to judge matters of taste? And indeed, to those without taste, taste is arbitrary. But this does not make taste arbitrary, it only disqualifies them from speaking credibly about taste — at least to others who actually have taste and know better.

*

But isn’t this… conservative? How can we make progress as a society if we must stick to what seems natural and familiar to us?

It seems obvious that what is most familiar to us feels natural to us. Social constructivists (or at least the vulgar majority of them) will insist that these things seem natural only because they have become familiar. But this neglects the possibility that perhaps they became familiar precisely because they naturally and spontaneously appealed to people from the start. And because they felt natural soon after being adopted.

This is why I keep bringing things back to design. Design, or at least good design, aims at intuitiveness, which simply means for non-verbalized cognitive processes. We want the whatness, whyness and howness to be spontaneously understood, and to require the least possible amount of verbal assistance or figuring out.

Familiarity is a key factor in such designs. A mostly-unfamiliar design will require too much adjustment. But the innovations introduced into mostly-familiar designs are not all equal. Some are confusing, or ugly, or hard to interact with, where others, after a moment of adjustment, are experienced as clarifying, or beautiful, meaningful or delightful, or effortless to use — and it is these designs that are adopted and then seem retroactively inevitable.

But our verbal minds and its logic and frameworks do not decide what does or does not make sense or have positive value or affords an effortless interaction. It can only speculate about what might work, and use these speculations to prototype artifacts which are then offered to people’s whatness, whyness and howness intuitions. The intuitions accept them or reject them, and good designers honor this acceptance and rejection over their linguified reason.

Good designers are not really conservatives, but they are even less social constructivists. They seek a better second-naturalness — something that people willingly choose over what was familiar.

The only places where inadequate familiarity (bad conservatism) or ungainly social constructivism (bad progressivism) prevails is where voluntary adoption is not an issue because the adopters lack choice. They cannot escape the situation or have nowhere to go. Or at least the bad conservatives or bad progressivists believe they lack options and must comply.

Where rough equality and free choice exist, design prevails.

*

When I philosophize, I think things out. I try different interpretations, different analyses, different syntheses, different articulations. The ideas I devise I then offer to my intuition. If they click, I then try to use these ideas to make intuitive sense of things that matter to me, that seem to require understanding. I see how these ideas perform: do they clarify the matter? help me feel its various values? help me respond more effectively?

As with all other design, there is a strange ambiguity between the designed artifact as an object, the subjective using of the artifact, and the new sense of objectivity as given through the artifact’s mediation. To offer a tangible example, when we use a new digital tool, we are aware of the tool itself, we are also aware that we are using it in some particular way that is patly novel, and we find that what we are using the tool to perceive or act upon (for instance, images we view or images we edit) are understood somewhat differently. All these ambiguities are what designers mean when we say we are designing an experience, as opposed to merely the artifact.

With philosophy, there is language and there are concepts. But there is also a using of these words and concepts, and this using can be effective or ineffective. The using of the words and concepts, once acquired, is applicable even outside of the philosophical artifact itself. It “clings” like the mood of a novel, except it produces intuitive understandings — What, Why and How of various kinds and relations. I’ve called these “conceptive capacities”. New conceptive capacities are what “inspire us” and what “gives us ideas”. Perhaps this very line of thought I’m sketching inspires you and gives you ideas. This line of thought also has given me a world of ideas and thst world is what my book is about. I’ve called this book Second Natural and also Enworldment — the former, because the very goal is to produce a second natural truth that we truly believe, and the latter because radically new second natural truth produces a very different overall understanding of the world and of everything. Which reminds me of an old abandoned third title: The Ten Thousand Everythings, so named because every person is the center of an enworldment, even if, to us, they seem to be a thing belonging to our own enworldment.

Respect requires us to approach all other persons as the center of an enworldment. Our dignity is injured if we are not treated as such.

Yet, tragically, the more brilliant we are, the better informed we are, the more certain we are of our own benevolence and righteousness — and, yes, the more powerful we are — the more likely we are to disrespect those who differ from us, and the more ready we are to injure their dignity by forcing upon them our own self-evidently superior enworldment — which, to them, feels artificial, tyrannical, hubristic and profoundly dehumanizing.

The paradox of contempt

When we are treated with contempt by someone we respect (or would otherwise respect) we instinctively want our indignation acknowledged by the one who treated us contemptuously.

But the very contempt that caused the initial indignation also prevents the acknowledgment of the indignation. We seek healing precisely where the injury happens and will never stop happening.

The interpersonal pain I have found hardest to overcome has this form.

The political pain I am experiencing now has this form. I cannot be heard.

*

It is difficult to prevent indignation from festering into resentment.

Perhaps I have failed.

Golden Means

It is interesting that the Golden Mean can refer either to the Aristotelian Mean or to the Golden Ratio.

The Aristotelian Mean situates virtue in the middle or a moral continuum with deficiency at one extreme and excess at the other. For instance the virtue of courage is found between the deficient state of cowardice and the excessive state of rashness.

A similar idea is present in the Kabbalistic Sefirot, where attribute of God are presented in complex balance with one another. For instance Gevurah, “severity” is balanced with Chesed “love”. If these two attributes fall out of balanced relation they cease to be Gevurah and Chesed but instead degenerate into hatred or sentimentality.

In some forms of Chassidism, the mean between Chesed and Gevurah is not precisely at the mid-point. The ideal is to lean toward Chesed. It seems the same idea could be applied to courage, that perhaps the ideal is tilted toward rashness.

A crazy part of me wants to suggest the ideal point is not at the 50% point, but in fact at the 61.8033988749894…% point.

*

I would like to propose that the virtue of responsibility falls between limitless obligation and limitless freedom.

But it is interesting to ask: in this virtue mean which extreme would be the deficiency, and which the excess? Is excess taking for oneself too much freedom? Or is excess taking on too much obligation? If there is a preferable tilt, which way does it go?

Milosz on Ketman

I have been reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. According to Wikipedia:

The Captive Mind was written soon after the author’s defection from Stalinist Poland in 1951. In it, Milosz drew upon his experiences as an illegal author during the Nazi Occupation and of being a member of the ruling class of the postwar People’s Republic of Poland. The book attempts to explain the allure of Stalinism to intellectuals, its adherents’ thought processes, and the existence of both dissent and collaboration within the postwar Soviet Bloc. Milosz described that he wrote the book “under great inner conflict”.

Like many, I am most fascinated by his description of a phenomenon he calls ketman.

Ketman is a strategy for coping with ideological oppression. I would characterize ketman as a practice of method acting ideological conformity, while carefully maintaining an inner intellectual life partially or wholly in conflict with the ideology.

Milosz watched the intellectuals around him — at least the ones with active aesthetic or intellectual intuitions — cope with the spiritual impossibilities of totalitarian Soviet domination by adopting varieties of ketman, each of which he describes at some length. Below is the beginning and end of his chapter on ketman, but skipping his typology.

Officially, contradictions do not exist in the minds of the citizens in the people’s democracies [Soviet Bloc states]. Nobody dares to reveal them publicly. And yet the question of how to deal with them is posed in real life. More than others, the members of the intellectual elite are aware of this problem. They solve it by becoming actors.

It is hard to define the type of relationship that prevails between people in the East otherwise than as acting, with the exception that one does not perform on a theater stage but in the street, office, factory, meeting hall, or even the room one lives in. Such acting is a highly developed craft that places a premium upon mental alertness. Before it leaves the lips, every word must be evaluated as to its consequences. A smile that appears at the wrong moment, a glance that is not all it should be can occasion dangerous suspicions and accusations. Even one’s gestures, tone of voice, or preference for certain kinds of neckties are interpreted as signs of one’s political tendencies.

A visitor from the Imperium [the Soviet Bloc] is shocked on coming to the West. In his contacts with others, beginning with porters or taxi drivers, he encounters no resistance. The people he meets are completely relaxed. They lack that internal concentration which betrays itself in a lowered head or in restlessly moving eyes. They say whatever words come to their tongues; they laugh aloud. Is it possible that human relations can be so direct?

Acting in daily life differs from acting in the theater in that everyone plays to everyone else, and everyone is fully aware that this is so. The fact that a man acts is not to his prejudice, is no proof of unorthodoxy. But he must act well, for his ability to enter into his role skillfully proves that he has built his characterization upon an adequate foundation. If he makes a passionate speech against the West, he demonstrates that he has at least 10 percent of the hatred he so loudly proclaims. If he condemns Western culture lukewarmly, then he must be attached to it in reality. Of course, all human behavior contains a significant amount of acting. A man reacts to his environment and is molded by it even in his gestures. Nevertheless, what we find in the people’s democracies is a conscious mass play rather than automatic imitation. Conscious acting, if one practices it long enough, develops those traits which one uses most in one’s role, just as a man who became a runner because he had good legs develops his legs even more in training. After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans. To identify one’s self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one’s vigilance. Proper reflexes at the proper moment become truly automatic.

Ketman as a social institution is not entirely de­void of advantages. In order to evaluate them, one need only look at life in the West. Westerners, and especially Western intellectuals, suffer from a special variety of taedium vitae; their emotional and intel­lectual life is too dispersed. Everything they think and feel evaporates like steam in an open expanse. Freedom is a burden to them. No conclusions they arrive at are binding: it may be so, then again it may not. The result is a constant uneasiness. The happiest of them seem to be those who become Communists. They live within a wall which they batter themselves against, but which provides them with a resistance that helps them define themselves. Steam that once evaporated into the air becomes a force under pres­sure. An even greater energy is generated in those who must hide their Communist convictions, that is, who must practice Ketman, a custom which is, after all, not unknown in the countries of the West.

In short, Ketman means self-realization against something. He who practices Ketman sufers because of the obstacles he meets; but if these obstacles were suddenly to be removed, he would find himself in a void which might perhaps prove much more painful. Internal revolt is sometimes essential to spiritual health, and can create a particular form of happiness. What can be said openly is often much less interesting than the emotional magic of defending one’s private sanctuary. For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectals accept this necessity with masochistic pleasure.

He who practices Ketman lies. But would he be less dishonest if he could speak the truth? A painter who tries to smuggle illicit (“metaphysical”) delight in the beauty of the world into his picture of life on a collective farm would be lost if he were given complete freedom, for the beauty of the world seems greater to him the less free he is to depict it. A poet muses over what he would write if he were not bound by his political responsibilities, but could he realize his visions if he were at liberty to do so? Ketman brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.

Who knows whether it is not in man’s lack of an interal core that the mysterious success ot the New Faith and its charm for the intellectual lie? By subjecting man to pressure, the New Faith creates this core, or in any case the feeling that it exists. Fear of freedom is nothing more than fear of the void. “There is nothing in man,” said a friend of mine, a dialectician. “He will never extract anything out of himself, because there is nothing there. You can’t leave the people and write in a wilderness. Remember that man is a function of social forces. Whoever wants to be alone will perish.” This is probably true, but I doubt if it can be called anything more than the law of our times. Feeling that there was nothing in him, Dante could not have written his Divine Comedy or Montaigne his Essays, nor could Chardin have painted a single still-life. Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything, even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone. As long a he believes this, there is little one can reproach in hs behavior. Perhaps it is better for him to breed a full­-grown Ketman, to submit to pressure and thus feel that he is, than to take a chance on the wisdom of past ages which maintains that man is a creature of God.

But suppose one should try to live without Ketman, to challenge fate, to say: “If I lose, I shall not pity myself.” Suppose one can live without outside pressure, suppose one can create one’s own inner tension — then it is not true that there is nothing in man. To take this risk would be an act of faith.

Proclass chord

The following quotation chord sounds the root notes of my antipathy toward the dominant ideology of the professional-progressivist class. Two of the three authors are left-liberals.

1.

Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country:

The academic, cultural Left approves — in a rather distant and lofty way — of the activities of… reformists. But it retains a conviction… that the system, and not just the laws, must be changed. Reformism is not good enough. Because the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names. The concern to do what the Sixties called “naming the system” takes precedence over reforming the laws.

“The system” is sometimes identified as “late capitalism,” but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decision-making. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements — a way of thinking which is, supposedly, at the root of both selfishness and sadism. This way of thinking is sometimes called “Cold War ideology,” sometimes “technocratic rationality,” and sometimes “phallogocentrism” (the cultural Left comes up with fresh sobriquets every year). It is a mind-set nurtured by the patriarchal and capitalist institutions of the industrial West, and its bad effects are most clearly visible in the United States.

To subvert this way of thinking. the academic Left believes, we must teach Americans to recognize otherness. To this end, leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led Stefan Collini to remark that in the United States, though not in Britain. the term “cultural studies” means victim studies.” Cellini’s choice of phrase has been resented, but he was making a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather from a sense of what America needed in order to make itself a better place. The principal motive behind the new directions taken in scholarship in the United States since the Sixties has been the urge to do something for people who have been humiliated — to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable.

Whereas the top-down initiatives of the Old Left had tried to help people who were humiliated by poverty and unemployment, or by what Richard Sennett has called the “hidden injuries of class, ” the top-down initiatives of the post-Sixties left have been directed toward people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status. Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer­park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not “other” in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.

This cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addition to being centers of genuinely original scholarship, the new academic programs have done what they were, semi­ consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society. Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as “politically correct” has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our country’s laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous.

2.

Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible:

Living in the world of Surkov and the political technologists, I find myself increasingly confused. Recently my salary almost doubled. On top of directing shows for TNT, I have been doing some work for a new media house called SNOB, which encompasses TV channels and magazines and a gated online community for the country’s most brilliant minds. It is meant to foster a new type of “global Russian,” a new class who will fight for all things Western and liberal in the country. It is financed by one of Russia’s richest men, the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who also owns the Brooklyn Nets. I have been hired as a “consultant” for one of SNOB’s TV channels. I write interminable notes and strategies and flowcharts, though nothing ever seems to happen. But I get paid. And the offices, where I drop in several times a week to talk about “unique selling points” and “high production values,” are like some sort of hipster fantasy: set in a converted factory, the open brickwork left untouched, the huge arches of the giant windows preserved, with edit suites and open plan offices built in delicately. The employees are the children of Soviet intelligentsia, with perfect English and vocal in their criticism of the regime. The deputy editor is a well-known American Russian activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and her articles in glossy Western magazines attack the President vociferously. But for all the opposition posturing of SNOB, it’s also clear there is no way a project so high profile could have been created without the Kremlin’s blessing. Is this not just the sort of “managed” opposition the Kremlin is very comfortable with? On the one hand allowing liberals to feel they have a free voice and a home (and a paycheck), on the other helping the Kremlin define the “opposition” as hipster Muscovites, out of touch with “ordinary” Russians, obsessed with “marginal” issues such as gay rights (in a homophobic country). The very name of the project, “SNOB,” though meant ironically, already defines us as a potential object of hate. And for all the anti-Kremlin rants on SNOB, we never actually do any real investigative journalism, find out any hard facts about money stolen from the state budget: in twenty-first-century Russia you are allowed to say anything you want as long as you don’t follow the corruption trail. After work I sit with my colleagues, drinking and talking: Are we the opposition? Are we helping Russia become a freer place? Or are we actually a Kremlin project strengthening the President? Actually doing damage to the cause of liberty? Or are we both? A card to be played?

3.

Another from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country:

It is as if, sometime around 1980, the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and into the suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them. They decided that although social mobility had been appropriate for their parents, it was not to be allowed to the next generation. These suburbanites seem to see nothing wrong with belonging to a hereditary caste, and have initiated what Robert Reich (in his book The Work of Nations) calls “the secession of the successful.”

Sometime in the Seventies, American middle-class idealism went into a stall. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, the Democratic Party has survived by distancing itself from the unions and from any mention of redistribution, and moving into a sterile vacuum called the “center.” The party no longer has a visible, noisy left wing — a wing with which the intellectuals can identify and on which the unions can rely for support. It is as if the distribution of income and wealth had become too scary a topic for any American politician — much less any sitting president — ever to mention. Politicians fear that mentioning it would lose them votes among the only Americans who can be relied on to go to the polls: the suburbanites. So the choice between the two major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence.

If the formation of hereditary castes continues unimpeded, and if the pressures of globalization create such castes not only in the United States but in all the old democracies, we shall end up in an Orwellian world. In such a world, there may be no supemational analogue of Big Brother, or any official creed analogous to Ingsoc. But there will be an analogue of the Inner Party — namely, the international, cosmopolitan super-rich. They will make all the important decisions. The analogue of Orwell’s Outer Party will be educated, comfortably off, cosmopolitan professionals — Lind’s “overclass,” the people like you and me.

The job of people like us will be to make sure that the decisions made by the Inner Party are carried out smoothly and efficiently. It will be in the interest of the international super­-rich to keep our class relatively prosperous and happy. For they need people who can pretend to be the political class of each of the individual nation-states. For the sake of keeping the proles quiet, the super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians, of both the Left and the Right, to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere — to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world’s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores. If the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events, including the occasional brief and bloody war, the super-rich will have little to fear.

Contemplation of this possible world invites two responses from the Left. The first is to insist that the inequalities between nations need to be mitigated — and, in particular, that the Northern Hemisphere must share its wealth with the Southern. The second is to insist that the primary responsibility of each democratic nation-state is to its own least advantaged citizens. These two responses obviously conflict with each other. In particular, the first response suggests that the old democracies should open their borders, whereas the second suggests that they should close them.

The first response comes naturally to academic leftists, who have always been internationally minded. The second response comes naturally to members of trade unions, and to the marginally employed people who can most easily be recruited into right-wing populist movements. Union members in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better standard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for American workers. It would be no wonder if they saw the American leftist intelligentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders — as sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well insulated, at least in the short run, from the effects of globalization. To make things worse, we often seem more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our fellow citizens.

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

4.

Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal!:

Our story begins in the smoking aftermath of the 1968 election, with its sharp disagreements over the Vietnam War, its riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago, and with a result that Democrats at the time took to be a disastrous omen: their candidate for the presidency, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, lost to Richard Nixon. Soul-searching commenced immediately.

There was one bright spot in the Democrats’ 1968 effort, however. Organized labor, which was the party’s biggest constituency back then, had mobilized millions of working-class voters with an enormous campaign of voter registration, pamphlet-printing, and phone-banking. So vast were their efforts that some observers at the time credited labor with almost winning for Humphrey an election that everyone believed to be lost.

Labor’s reward was as follows: by the time of the 1972 presidential contest, the Democratic Party had effectively kicked the unions out of their organization. Democratic candidates still wanted the votes of working people, of course, as well as their donations and their get-out-the-vote efforts. But between ’68 and ’72, unions lost their position as the premier interest group in the Democratic coalition. This was the result of a series of reforms authored by the so-called McGovern Commission, which changed the Democratic party’s presidential nominating system and, along the way, changed the party itself.

Most of the reforms the McGovern Commission called for were clearly healthful. For example, it dethroned state and local machines and replaced them with open primaries, a big step in the right direction. The Commission also mandated that delegations to its 1972 convention conform to certain demographic parameters — that they contain predetermined percentages of women, minorities, and young people. As it went about reforming the party, however, the Commission overlooked one important group: it did nothing to ensure representation for working-class people.

The labor leaders who, up till then, had held such enormous sway over the Democratic Party could see what was happening. After decades of toil on behalf of liberalism, “they were being taken for granted,” is how the journalist Theodore White summarized their attitude. “Said Al Barkan, director of the AFL/CIO’s political arm, COPE, early in 1972 as he examined the scenario about to unfold: ‘We aren’t going to let these Harvard-Berkeley Camelots take over our party.’”

But take it over they did. The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another — in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals. Byron Shafer, a political scientist who has studied the 1972 reforms in great detail, leaves no doubt about the class component of the change: “Before reform, there was an American party system in which one party, the Republicans, was primarily responsive to white-collar constituencies and in which another, the Democrats, was primarily responsive to blue-collar constituencies. After reform, there were two parties each responsive to quite different white-collar coalitions, while the old blue-collar majority within the Democratic party was forced to try to squeeze back into the party once identified predominantly with its needs.”

Years ago, when I first became interested in politics, I assumed that this well-known and much-discussed result must have been an unintended effect of an otherwise noble reform effort. It just had to have been an accident. I remember reading about the McGovern Commission in my dilapidated digs on the South Side of Chicago and thinking that no left party in the world would deliberately close the door on the working class. Especially not after workers’ organizations had done so much for the party’s flat-footed nominee. Besides, it all worked out so very, very badly for the Democrats. Neglecting workers was the opening that allowed Republicans to reach out to blue-collar voters with their arsenal of culture-war fantasies. No serious left politician would make a blunder like that on purpose.

But they did, reader. Leading Democrats actually chose to reach out to the affluent and to turn their backs on workers. We know this because they wrote about it, not secretly — as in the infamous “Powell Memo” of 1971, in which the future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell plotted a conservative political awakening — but openly, in tones of proud idealism, calling forthrightly for reorienting the Democratic Party around the desires of the professional class.

I am referring to a book called Changing Sources of Power, a 1971 manifesto by lobbyist and Democratic strategist Frederick Dutton, who was one of the guiding forces on the McGovern Commission. Taken along with the Republican Powell Memo, it gives us the plans of the two big party organizations as the country entered upon the disastrous period that would give us Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Gingrich, and the rest. Where Powell was an arch-conservative, however, Dutton was a forthright liberal. Where Powell showed a certain cunning in his expressed desire to reverse the flow of history, Dutton’s tone is one of credulity toward the inflated sense of world-historical importance that surrounded the youth culture of those days. In the book’s preface, for example, he actually writes this: “Never has the future been so fundamentally affected by so many current developments.”

Dutton’s argument was simple: America having become a land of universal and soaring affluence, all that traditional Democratic stuff about forgotten men and workers’ rights was now as relevant as a stack of Victrola discs. And young people, meaning white, upper-middle-class college kids — oh, these young people were so wise and so virtuous and even so holy that when contemplating them Dutton could scarcely restrain himself. They were “aristocrats — en masse,” the Democratic grandee wrote (quoting Paul Goodman); they meant to “rescue the individual from a mass society,” to “recover the human condition from technological domination,” to “refurbish and reinvigorate individuality.” Better: the young were so noble and so enlightened that they had basically transcended the realm of the physical. “They define the good life not in terms of material thresholds or ‘index economics,’ as the New Deal, Great Society, and most economic conservatives have done,” Dutton marveled, “but as ‘the fulfilled life’ in a more intangible and personal sense.”

 

Multipersonal perplexity

A.

Long ago, (perhaps informed by experiences sitting in meditation?) even before I began intensive philosophical study, I adopted a psychology of “subpersonalities“. I’ve talked about it dozens of ways, but the language orbits a single conviction: our personal subjects are microcosmic societies, composed of semi-independent intuitive units.

One of the main reasons I came to this belief was noticing that subjects do not always respect the borders of the individual. Pairs of people can form a sort of personality together, and this personality can leave bits of each person behind. Sometimes this new joint-personality can threaten existing ones, leading to jealousy and estrangement.

Taking-together the idea of subpersonalities and superpersonalities (“ubermenschen” wouldn’t be a bad German synonym) leaves our ordinary personal subjects in a strange position. We both comprehend subjects that are aspects of our selves, but we also are comprehended by subjects in whom we participate.

One of my most desperate insights — which I need to find a way to say clearly and persuasively — is that we are much better at thinking about what we comprehend as objects than we are at thinking what comprehends us as subjects in which we participate, but which transcend our comprehension. I believe we need to learn this participatory mode transcendent subjective thought so we can navigate difficult interpersonal and social situations we find ourselves in, and avoid the mistake (the deepest kind of category mistake) of translating these situations (literally “that in which we are situated”) into objectively comprehensible terms that make understanding impossible. We lack the enworldment to think or respond to such situations.

A subject can be smaller than, larger than, or the same size as a personal subject.

Subjectivity is scalar.

B.

Perplexity is another idea that has obsessed me since I underwent, navigated and overcame my own first perplexity, and experienced a deep and powerful epiphany — an epiphany about perplexities.

(To summarize: A perplexity is a subjective condition where our conceptions fail, and we cannot even conceive the problem, much less progress toward a solution. We instinctively fear and avoid perplexities, sensing them with feelings of apprehension at what resists comprehension, because perplexity is the dissolution of a subject.)

Emerging on the other side of my first overcome perplexity, I understood the positive, creative potential of perplexity. I realized (in the sense that it became real to me) that much of the worst pain and most egregious offense I’d sustained to that point in my life were, at least in part, perplexities that I had interpreted as externally inflicted — and that I had interpreted them that way because my objectivizing enworldment supported no other way of conceiving them.

This epiphany re-enworlded me in a way that I could discern when — or at least try to discern when — perplexities were contributing or amplifying distress in my life. When I later learned the word “metanoia” I recognized it as describing what happened to me. It happens to many people, and once you know it, you can feel it radiating from them. It is palpable.

This insight into the relationship between perplexity and epiphany is my philosopher’s stone, who transmutes leaden angst into golden insight.

The worst things that can happen to us can potentially be the best things that happen to us… if we have a sense of how to move about in the shadowy realms, where we say “here I don’t know my way about“.

Perplexity is the dissolution of subject — a sort of subjective death — that makes possible resolution of a new subject — a subjective rebirth: metanoia.

C.

If we believe that subjects can be larger than an individual subjectivity (so, for instance a marriage is a subject within which each spouse’s subject subsists)…

…and we also believe that when a subject undergoes perplexity that very deep conceptions lose their effectiveness and must be reconceived if the subject is to regain living wholeness…

…why would we suppose that only an individual person can be perplexed?

I believe that multipersonal perplexities are real.

It seems improbable that I never took-together scalar subjectivity and perplexity as the dissolution of subject, and never followed the pragmatic consequences of conceiving these ideas together, but doing so feels like… an epiphany.

*

Just as a perplexity can grip a single personal subject, it can also grip a subject of two people, or three, or a dozen or multiple dozens. It can grip hundreds, thousands, millions, or multiple billions. Entire cultures can be perplexed.

Try to imagine a perplexed marriage; a perplexed friendship; a perplexed organization, a perplexed community; a perplexed academic subject.

(Thomas Kuhn imagined perplexed scientific communities.

Try to imagine a perplexed civilization.

*

I mean “to to imagine” literally. Consider pausing and concretely trying to imagine what multipersonal perplexities might be like if encountered in real life.

Try to imagine a perplexed married couple.

Try to imagine a perplexed organization.

Try to imagine a perplexed community.

*

*

*

If you tried to imagine these scenarios, reflect: Did you imagine being in the situation as a first-person participant, subjectively experiencing the perplexity from the inside? Or did you observe the situation from outside, as an third-person observer of other people embroiled in perplexity?

Can you evert the perspective, and imagine the same scenario, situated within it as an a first-person participant, and and situated outside it as a third-person observer?

*

*

*

If you can, assume with me for a moment that collective perplexities really are possible, and consider a speculative scenario:

Party A and Party B have entered a collective perplexity.

Party A is the privileged party in these scenarios, blessed by me (the inventor of these scenarios and all the assumptions governing them) with true insights into “what is really going on”. It’s an invented scenario, so there can be a true truth here, if nowhere else.

Party B sees things differently (and, again, because this is my custom-made vanity scenario) incorrectly. Party B rejects the notion of perplexity and sees what is happening according to its own worldview, which has no perplexity concept. What Party A claims is perplexity, Party B perceives as needless conflict caused largely by Party A’s iffy (or worse) beliefs and actions.

So, Party A conceives what is happening as a collective perplexity, and attempts to engage Party B in a perplexity-resolving response — a transcendent sublation.

Consider a first variant of the scenario: Faction B wants to recover the collective mode of being that existed prior to the perplexity, and “turns around” and attempts to move back to how things were before the conflict began. How does this play out?

Now, consider a second variant: Faction B decides to bring an end to the conflict through breaking free of Faction B altogether. It secedes, or splits off, forms a new denomination, or resigns, or hits unfollow, or blocks or mutes, or divorces, or cuts off contact, or whatever separation mechanism makes sense for the kind of faction A and B are. How does this play out?

Now consider a third variant: Faction B decides to fight and dominate Faction B. It makes Faction A a deal it can’t refuse. Or it tries to use the justice to force its will. Or it tries to steal an election through various kinds of deceit and treachery. It tries to weaken, dissolve or destroy some institutions and strengthen, reinforce or build others in order to dominate faction A. How does this play out?

There is a fourth variant, but I don’t want to digress.

What is the ethical obligation of Party A and Party B in each of these variants? How does each see the other’s?

*

I have been in deeply perplexed relationships where I was the only one who saw a perplexity, and so I could not win the cooperation required to resolve it. I could not resolve the perplexity of the relationship alone, so I had to resolve the perplexity in myself. This resolved perplexity, however, is not the shared perplexity. The shared perplexity is left unresolved, unasked and unanswered in a state of nothingness.

Over the years, I have gradually learned to avoid such perplexities, except where I sense a possibility of fruitful struggle. Most of the time, with most people, however, I keep things light and gloss over anything that might cause apprehension. I have learned to get along with most people most of the time, and that means keeping my active philosophy to myself.

I have also been in many superficially perplexed relationships, which, because they were superficial, could be collaboratively resolved. Design research has been my laboratory.

Once every decade or so, I get stuck in a situation — usually with a client with little hands-on design experience, but with much learned-about “design expertise” — who can neither cooperate nor resist the impulse to dominate the process, who makes resolution of the perplexity possible. And these leave me detaching from the shared perplexity and resolving a perplexity of my own, not the shared one.

(I feel every lost shared perplexity, whether deep or shallow, like an intellectual phantom limb. It is nothing — but nothingness feels terrible. I see no reason to pretend it doesn’t bother me, or that I can just unilaterally “forgive”, which an individual effort, without mutual reconciliation, which is a collaborative effort.)

I have also had one extremely deep shared perplexity resolve in a shared resolution.


“Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes”

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,
and forests made of mist. There were bridges
spanning the void, and that great gray blind lake
which hung above its distant bottom
like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.
And through the gentle, unresisting meadows
one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, —
but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.
Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached
back to the footsteps of those other two
who were to follow him, up the long path home.
But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,
or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.
He said to himself, they had to be behind him;
said it aloud and heard it fade away.
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,
a traveler’s hood above his shining eyes,
his slender staff held out in front of him,
and little wings fluttering at his ankles;
and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars –:
So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands
had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s
infinitely gentle touch of guidance
hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around –,
she could not understand, and softly answered
Who?

Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

Loss and honesty

Jan Zwicky:

Loss is perhaps the ultimate philosophical problem — and death, only incidentally and to the extent it is experienced as loss by those who remain alive. The great absolute architectonics of systematic thought are intended to secure the world against loss. Maturity is achieved when things are let go, left to be on their own, allowed their specificity — for when things become most fully themselves, they also become most fully losable. To abandon classical system is to accept, in the sense of comprehend, the ontological necessity of loss. The more precious a thing is, the greater becomes its power to hurt us by simply being absent. We end up ‘leaving each thing as it is’ in two senses of the word ‘leave’.

This is agonizingly true.

I have come to detest self-evasion: abandonment of our first-person post, and flying to the safety of third-person.

I reject treating our unique selves and the unique, irreplaceable, precious people and things we love as mere types or identities.

I refuse to generalize and depersonalize in order to distribute the weight of intense, focused caring out into out speculative views-from-everywhere-at-once, better known as views-from-nowhere, but which I prefer to call views-from-anywhere-but-I.

*

I really, really hate it when people smile down at me from the heights of their wise serenity and assure me that Jesus or the Buddha or Marx or Science or Nature or any other gnostic vendor has washed away all their pain.

As if pain were the mark of insufficient wisdom.

Here is what I want to say to say back:

“If you hurt, please don’t pretend you don’t hurt — that you’ve shed the pain you still plainly carry.

And cut the phony bravado — you are afraid to hurt.

But we are all afraid, and perhaps we ought to be afraid — not because the world is scary and fear is the most intelligent response — but because fear is the honest and decent response of anyone who still loves.

Don’t add the suffering of shame to your pain and your dread of pain. Bear it bravely and honestly.”

Honesty — most of all subjective honesty — unenforceable, voluntary, undisprovable honesty — this is what matters most to me.

Shame is the enemy of subjective honesty.

When I pick up the scent of subjective dishonesty or subjective insensitivity so out of touch with itself that no longer even knows if it is lying or not (only whether a claim is defensible or not), I can no longer do much but feel a sad distance — a distance that only polite kindness can traverse, from one me to another, through a we-less vacuum. You need people, even yourself, to be easy come, easy go.

*

Maybe someday some miraculous epiphany will enter my soul and remove all my pain.

But I promise, I will never, ever pretend to be there until I am actually there.

I will be proud of my subjective honesty until I find something better to be proud of.

*

This is a crucial passage. I love this book.

Consummated knowledge

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

“Comanimity”

Last week I had a fascinating conversation with work friends about the different modes of agreement that happen in team collaboration, and it made me aware that we are lacking language for some very important social phenomena.

Most of the time when we think about agreement, we think in terms of unanimity. (unus “one” + animus “mind”). For very simple and general matters, this understanding of agreement works well.

But for extremely complex technical problems (where no single person’s expertise can cover all the technical workings of the solution of a problem), or extremely deep experiential problems (where no single person’s interpretative range can cover the full range of perspectives through which the solution to a problem will be experienced), unanimity is impossible.

We have developed means to deal with technical complexity. We simply separate ends and means, and seek agreement primarily on ends. The means are handled by departments that specialize in solving specific categories of technical problem. Much of modernity was learning to cope with technical complexity through sophisticated management techniques.

We have not, however, developed adequate means for dealing with deep experiential problems, where ends themselves differ, often irreconcilably, at least if unanimity remains the goal.

Here the pursuit of unanimity is not only futile, but socially disastrous.

Why is pursuit of unanimity is socially disastrous.? Because if we are called upon to produce good solutions for a plurality so diverse that no single person’s empathy can accommodate the range, any unanimity, however smart, sophisticated or benevolent must necessarily exclude a great number of perspectives, and risk alienating them.

What is needed in such cases is a different kind of agreement, which I will call comanimity.

In this kind of agreement, each party participates as an organ of a larger mind, too large to fully comprehend. (com– “together” + animus “mind”) In comanimity, we accept that the understanding in which we participate transcends our personal comprehension, but we don’t simply relegate the unknowns to irrelevance. Rather we cultivate responsiveness to the whole, so we can participate responsibly. We become a subject who participates in sustaining a real but only partially-known super-subject.

Comanimity is lived pluralism.

*

An example of comanimity is close marriages between spouses who are deeply different from one another. Each learns to love not only what is known and established in the other, but also learns to love responding to what is novel and surprising in the other — and even more importantly, learning the value of accommodating shocking or disturbing differences. This is where marriages deepen. Some marriages choose peace and polite distance, and stay in the realm of unanimity, but any marriage that pursues intimacy will learn the art of comanimity or end in divorce. My prejudices that comanimity is marriage’s second, and far more crucial consummation.

*

I think comanimity is only possible among willing participants and that this cannot be forced.

Most people are unwilling.

And the most unwilling of all are those who belong to a unanimous group that takes its unanimity as the Truth — at least until they stop getting their way… at which time another unanimous group takes over and imposes its Truth, and becomes even more unwilling to see validity beyond its limits.

I hope we can find the desire to transcend fragmented unanimities before it leads us into a civil war. But the grim lesson I’ve leaned, reading about the English and American civil wars, leads me to believe everyone will bet on winning until everyone loses.

Free

Anything of great importance is pristinely voluntary. We can conceive its truth or we can leave it unconceived and inconceivable. It is entirely our choice.

Even acknowledging the importance of importance is voluntary. Anyone who wishes, can see only unimportance.

We all have our reasons, and it is important to give each their own.

*

At first I expected every decent person to engage with me in philosophy.

Then I expected only my good friends to engage with me in philosophy.

Then I expected only my good philosophical friends to engage with me in philosophy.

I now expect only those who freely choose it to engage with me in philosophy.

Anyone who doesn’t want to is free not to.

I think I even feel this way, now.

Let’s see if it sticks.

Who goes first?

My Jewish friend sent me this text:

I’m fascinated with reconciliation. I still think the left cannot reconcile with the right… it has to come from the right. Or it won’t go anywhere, and the left’s best move is scorched earth.

My reply:

As you know, I often say “Jews go first,” When I say this, I say it with the profoundest respect: In a conflict of irreconcilable visions, it is the deeper and more mature soul who will summon the will and wisdom to initiate reconciliation. This is what made me want to be Jewish.

When thinking and envisioning ways our nation might come out of our crisis of contempt, until recently I assumed that it would be up to the Left to make the first move. This belief was founded on a sincere and chauvinistic prejudice that the Left was most qualified and capable of initiation, and that the Right was, in all innocence, unqualified and incapable.

But after repeated attempts to appeal to those I believed to be better Leftists, I have come to the dreadful realization that the Left is genuinely incapable of reflecting on and accepting its own role in this conflict.

The Left is so trapped inside its own sense of intellectual and moral superiority — and so terrified of moral responsibility — that it can no longer find the humility, faith and philosophical freedom to pursue the reestablishment of mutual respect. It thinks the worst wrong-doer is the one who must go first, accept blame, give an apology, and ask for forgiveness — and this attitude is a symptom of moral impoverishment that shows going first is out of the question.

So, sadly, yes — I agree with you: the Right must go first.

Or, at least, someone other than the Left.


Here is something I know:

Nobody will ever consent to be led by any person or group who seems to despise them, who sees them as contemptible. People seek leaders who demonstrate respect and signal good-will.

Putting ourselves under the rule of others who despise us feels existentially dangerous. And it is dangerous. At best a contemptuous ruler will administer with benevolent disrespect, imposing their own personal standards of benevolence on those who do not accept it; at worst they will tyrannize and control for their own self-gratification. But regardless of their benevolence or malevolence, they cannot be counted on to listen respectfully and respond responsibly. They will rule according to their own constricted omniscience, which to them, and them alone, seems self-evidently true and just.

Here is something else I know:

Any person or group who tolerates contempt in themselves — who is unwilling to do what it takes to overcome it — lacks the qualifications for leadership — or at least leadership in a liberal democracy. And anyone who prefers contempt — or, God forbid, cultivates contempt — must not only be barred from leadership, but must be gently constrained and prevented from harming others, however much they see themselves as heroes of history.

Any person fit to lead will do whatever it takes to overcome contempt. They will surrender their own treasured sense of intellectual and moral superiority to accomplish it. They will accept their own responsibility for whatever damage has been done — which does not mean assuming blame, but rather setting blame aside and responding where response is possible. They will willingly suffer dark nights of the soul traversing the shadowy underworld of perplexity, refusing to look back, in search of the exit at the other side, which is an entrance: an entrance into a new accommodating faith and enworldment great enough for all to share.

And this is what I know most of all:

In the pursuit of conciliation and community, metanoia is the supreme means. It promises resolutions currently inconceivable and incomprehensible, because reality is inexhaustibly surprising. We can come to conceive the inconceivable, comprehend the incomprehensible and resolve insoluble problems — if we are willing to open our hands, let our white-knuckled conceits of all-knowingness and self-righteousness slip through the fingers of our minds — so that something else, something better, something grander, can be given.

Metanoia is no end in itself. Anyone who knows its ways assumes an obligation to use it properly — and not to hedonistically abuse metanoia like a drug.

Knowing metanoia, but getting off on it, while refusing its conciliatory powers, is not only wrongheaded but wronghearted.

This wronghearted and wrongheaded wrongdoing can be overcome — but this overcoming must be desired, and that desire is hard to accept.

Since you asked…

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

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

What is value? Can it be objective?

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

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

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

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


What is value? Can it be objective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Truth as antierror and antifalsity

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Taking my own best advice

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

Inwardly observant; outwardly respectful.

Pro-establishment and anti-establishment authoritarians

Groups seeking total authority cannot often directly impose their vision. They face opposition that must be weakened and dissolved. An important part of this dissolution process is making the population doubt everything that might undermine or challenge the authoritarian’s replacement order.

What is the target of this doubt? It depends on whether the authoritarian employs a pro-establishment or anti-establishment strategy.

For pro-establishment authoritarians the target is all individual judgment that might question or defy institutionally established truth.

For anti-establishment authoritarians the target is institutionally established truth that discredit truths developed around a kernel of specific individual intuitions.

The pro-establishment authoritarian will deploy institutional power to attack the legitimacy of intuition, intuitive sense of truth and personal conscience by emphasizing the unreliability and deceptiveness of individual judgment. To be certain that we are not forming wrong beliefs with cumulatively catastrophic results, we must suspend our highly-fallible individual judgment and go with the superior judgment of authorities. It might be a religious priest class combatting the influence of demons and heretics, or it might be a scientistic expert class discrediting naive “system 1” common sense notions, and replacing them with carefully-constructed counter-intuitive “system 2” truth. In both cases, the individual is made to doubt all personal conceptions of truth and instead to adopt official doctrines of elites. And yes, these doctrines feel stilted, artificial and counter-intuitive — but one is to trust them even more because they feel wrong, because intuitiveness is a symptom of seductive error and succumbing to sin, motivated reason, bourgeois values, etc. The faith of the pro-establishment authoritarian says: “adhere to this truth because it is absurd!” Trust the institutions!

The anti-establishment authoritarian, on the the other hand, confronts and defies institutional authority with claims of gnosis, of insights and practices that go deeper than reason into the heart of metaphysics. This strategy exalts individual intuition — or at least those intuitions that resonate with and reinforce the universalized intuitions of the gnostic leaders of the movement. According to the anti-establishment faith, these intuitions that have been long suppressed and persecuted by the existing Establishment, which has been corrupted or which was corrupt from the start. Institutions must be discredited top to bottom — their purpose, their truth claims, their practices — their legitimacy. This is why revolutionary right-wing movements (as opposed to right-wing conservative movements who are pro-establishment) so often combine esoteric, mystical and romantic belief systems with extreme skepticism buttressed with conspiracy theories that habituate one’s mind to automatically intuit all competing accounts as doubtful. Anti-establishment authoritarians instinctively, intuitively gravitate to whatever clears the ground for their own authority. It starts with “Question everything!”, proceeds to “we think with our blood!” or “trust your feelings!” and continues that way until some new Establishment can be founded, at which time the movement goes pro-establishment, while their formerly pro-establishment authoritarian enemies go anti-establishment.

In times like these, when the pro-establishment authoritarians and anti-establishment authoritarians change strategies en masse, when post-modern radical skeptics start demanding trust of institutions, and the God & Country types learn to despise and distrust their own national authorities — it is hard to get our bearings. Who is the oppressor, and who is the oppressed? Who has the power, and who is subjected to it? Who is conventional, and who is radical? Who is the elitist, and who is the anti-elitist? How do we distinguish righteous anger from elitist rage, righteous offense from elitist fragility, counterbalancing from gratuitous vengeful humiliation?

Who decides? How is it decided?

Generally, it takes a bloodbath to re-teach all the assorted pro- and anti-establishments omniscients the wisdom of liberal-democratic institutions.

Polycentric virtues

Until quite recently, design has been monocentric.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

I will argue the opposite.

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

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

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

*

What does it take to do polycentricity?

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

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

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

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

And outside our comprehension is precisely where polycentric possibility stands!

*

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

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

Embracing abnormality

A friend of mine sent me an online autism test and asked me what my thoughts on it were. It inspired a pretty decent email:

Here’s where my mind went: I want a test to measure organizational autism. Back in the early 00s I used to say that UX is a cure for corporate autism, until I got worried that might upset someone. But it is true! We impose rules on organizations that require a level of explicitness that cause them to become mind-blind behaviorists. These rules are important, of course, but they come with tradeoffs that we should be aware of and weigh against the benefits.

And I guess that brings me to a second thought: I think we have become too quick to diagnose difference. We live in really strange times, where we’ve forgotten that normal isn’t necessarily good and abnormal isn’t necessarily bad. When I was a kid I was into punk rock, and we thought abnormal was the greatest thing ever. I’m pretty sure a lot of what I was into was aestheticized autism, OCD, and other quirks, all of which were mined and made beautiful or at least intriguing. If you ever want to watch a touching story of redemption, watch End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, and get ready to cry.

Everything on this Earth is tradeoffs — every room in this palace of life is furnished differently — there is no single standard of goodness. I think some of what is plotted on the autism spectrum I’d prefer to call an inflexibly quirky personality, not a disorder. And when inflexible quirks are put to work generating technical or artistic innovations, that becomes a feature of a personality, not a bug.

So, that challenges my first thought. Cure for corporate autism? Maybe some organizations ought to be aspie. Some people ought to be aspie. Therapists and designers can help individuals or organizations make tradeoffs toward empathy, where “get organized” self-help books (like Checklist Manifesto) or OE/Six Sigma consultants can help people make tradeoffs toward more autistic virtues. So that’s another thing.

I guess I want to relativize mental health and most other social norms so people aren’t so freaked out and obsessed with being called normal. I want us to get back to the Gen-X perversity of treasuring precisely our abnormalities.