Category Archives: Existentialism

How to close the theory-practice gap

I have never once just thought up a truly new practice and then executed it afterwards.

Every new thing I’ve ever conceived emerged from intuitive, nonverbal doing — from groping in the dark, from muddling through, usually under conditions of considerable perplexity and stress.

Only after, if it worked, can I go back and reflect on what made it work, and produce a theory.

I’ve never seen things go the opposite direction.

As far as I know, the only way to close the theory-practice gap is to theorize from practice. And it is less like a closing of a gap than it is paving something substantial but rough and poorly lit.

There is only a gap if theory has been sketched into a vacuum. I don’t think those gaps ever close.

And trying to practice from theory leads to mechanical sterility. It leads to execution of memorized dance steps, or the recitation of syllables from an alien language.

Every important thing I’ve ever conceived has come came to me this way. And every important thing I’ve ever learned has come to me first as a new practical capacity, a new ability to perceive or respond first — tacit know-how — and only much later has it become something I can actually explain.

Maybe a Sartrean formula would be helpful: Practice precedes theory.

What emerges from practice-forged theory is praxis — articulate practice.

I am excited about design as an alternative mode of practical life.

It is a new living tradition, a way of working, self-consciously developed by many diverse practitioners, solving a vast and growing array of real-world problems in every conceivable material (matter, space, time, information, imagination, feeling), for (arguably) the last 60-so years.

It is a tradition that must be appropriated and internalized before it becomes productive in the head, hearts and hands of a participant.

It is the appropriate mode of practice for anyone who works in systems in which humans participate. If you think about it at any depth at all, this category embraces just about all human activity, most of all the governing of people at every scale.

Design is the way we should be approaching life together, but its methods and even more, its core sensibilities, its conceptive capacities, are still largely confined to specialists. In my own life, I’ve found that disciplining myself to behave as a designer has made intractable, incorrigible problems soluble.

Almost anything I do, I do better if I do it in a designerly way.

But what is this designerly way? It is not methods. It is what animates these methods. It is a faith.

More and more, I am realizing that the purpose of my life is to illuminate and activate the esoteric underpinnings of design practice.

Like all faiths, design has a visible outward form that can be looked at — an exoteric expression — and an inward, esoteric being that cannot be looked at, but rather is seen from.

The reason I have been so quiet lately is I am returning to the sophia perennis. I want to do for design what esoterists have done with traditional religions — illuminate their transcendent unity. To this end, I am focusing on the esoteric depths of my own faith, and studying Kabbalah.

But just to preemptively address on obvious and important objection:  I am not in the slightest interested in making design into a religion. I am just trying to invest our practical lives with religious energy. We cannot continue on with this vacuous, stressful, tedious slogging. Our oil-dependent economy depends even more on another rapidly depleting fuel source, will-power. Our will-power tanks have been sucked dry are emptied even of vapors.

We sit before our screens, commanding our hands to move and type out words, but they refuse to do what we say.

We need an alternative, renewable psychic energy source. But we cannot tap into this source as long as we continue to insist that all new sources conform to our current sacred theories of power. These theories possess us and will not release us until we pay the price of our redemption.

Love versus alienation

Valentin Tomberg:

…To feel something as real in the measure of its full reality is to love. It is love which awakens us to the reality of ourselves, to the reality of others, to the reality of the world and to the reality of God. In so far as we love ourselves, we feel real. And we do not love — or we do not love as much as ourselves — other beings, who seem to us to be less real.

And what is the sense of unreality — of ourselves, of others, of the world, of God? That is alienation.

I could have sworn I wrote this already, but I can’t find it…

In Existentialism: A Reconstruction, David Cooper states that the entire purpose of existentialism is to overcome alienation. He identifies three kinds of alienation:

  • Alienation from one’s own self
  • Alienation from other people
  • Alienation from the world

And I add a fourth category of alienation:

  • Alienation from God (or, if you prefer, alienation from what is beyond our experience, but which involves and obligates us)

I believe all religion is essentially existentialist. But not all existentialism is religion, and this is a function of whether this last fourth category is included or excluded from the goal of one’s existentialism.

Ethnomethods enworld

Everything is ethnomethod. Not only human behavior, but human-shaped environments. And not only these, but the language we use for discussing the human world. But it extends even further. How we use language in general — this, too, is ethnomethod.

And most people go on applying these ethnomethods in the private spaces within their ethos, where strictly speaking, this is not necessary. We normally think and behave socially even in our homes, among our intimates, and even within the radical privacy of our own minds. We internalize the social.

Some people, however, choose to establish an asocial private realm where they think or behave in ways that are incompatible with public societies. These private thoughts and actions are not ethnomethods, but they are living kernels with the potential to become ethnomethods, were they to be adopted by a group (to make sense to/of each other).

Some people, at their own peril, try to carry these protoethnomethods into the social world, and these incompatible actions clash with the established ethnomethods and are, in effect, breaching experiments.

People can, intentionally or accidentally, transform themselves into continuous breaching experiments.

Philosophies are conceptive ethnomethods or protoethnomethods.

Doing philosophy is performing conceptive breaching experiments upon oneself, and then developing new conceptive protoethnomethods to replace or, better, to subsume one’s existing (proto)ethnomethods.

Of course, ethnomethodology was developed from pragmatism. So why bother reconceiving or redescribing pragmatism in terms of the ethnomethodology derived from it?

Ethnomethodology extended pragmatism beyond the space of explicit reasons into the space of tacit conception and response. This realm of tacit conception and response, it turns out (or at least, so it seems to me) to effect not only life outside of our reasoning but also reasoning itself.

What results from changing the (proto)ethnomethods we use for thinking and speaking in a way that also changes the ethnomethods of making sense of the world and making sense in the world is a change that goes beyond changes in the content of our thoughts but changes how we spontaneously conceive and respond to reality. It changes our very enworldment.

With full awareness that I am breaching our current ethnomethods governing use of religious conceptions and language, I will say that the goal of religion has been is to shift from one enworldment to another enworldment — one that converts find less alienated and alienating, and more fulfilling than the old one.

A convert is likely to speak in terms of truth and falsehood. I believe speaking in terms of more or less fitting and preferable enworldments might help us understand religion more pluralistically. More ambitiously, I hope that enworldment language and conceptions might help secular people see how religion is a respectable option for people who wish to live better lives.


The use of philosophical means to develop better, more preferable enworldments is my core interest. This is where my interest in design, philosophy and religion intersect.

You are normal and ok

The more radical changes a person has undergone, the less that person will take seriously the claims others make of having reached a final conclusive truth.

Every radical change of understanding re-presents the world in light of a new truth. These truths seem conclusive and final. This characteristic of apparent finality, however, is not in any way evidence of actual finality. Apparent finality, if treated as only apparently final, can give way to new truths that appear equally final.

If an apparently final truth does, in fact, become actually final — that is, if a person or group of people refuses to allow more radical changes to happen — this is due to the fact that radical truths are not only theoretical, but also perceptual, practical and moral.

Radical truths are less matters of thought content than they are enworldments.

Enworldments penetrate beneath language, into that dark wordless ground in which language is rooted, from which words grow, and without which words lose meaning and wither into abstraction and nonsense. Enworldments provide the very givens of our experience.

Enworldments project fields of relevance that determine what in our daily life we notice and what we ignore, the degree and kind of relevance we perceive in what we do notice. Enworldments give us the givens of perception.

Enworldments also project fields of intelligibility that determine both the spontaneous connections we intuit in our present and past experiences, as well as the kinds of connections it occurs to us to make if we attempt to consciously think some matter through. Enworldments give us the givens of understanding.

Enworldments also project fields of possibility that determine our actions, both the spontaneous reactions we have before before thinking, intentional responses we think through, plan out and execute and habits we cultivate. Enworldments give us the givens of action.

Perhaps most importantly, enworldments project fields of value that determine what is moral or immoral, virtuous or vicious, attractive or repulsive, good or bad. Values may be what we spontaneously experience, and they may also be codified rules for calculating or assigning values. These values determine where we scrutinize, challenge or attack a value as an illusion, delusion, bias or distortion and where we embrace a value as given and defend it as self-evident truth. Enworldments give us givens of morality.

Values are the primary guardians of enworldments, protecting them from entertaining irrelevant data, from uncharitable or skeptical interrogation, from potentially undermining experimentation. These challenges are bad and should not be suffered or tolerated.

Morality is what preserves and stabilizes the other givens and allows an enworldment to endure. If one wishes to radically change, it is primarily the morality of that enworldment that must be overcome.

This is why Nietzsche was an immoralist. He sought new ideals, new enworldments, new human ideals — ones that we believe from the heart and not just from ethical algorithms and societal conformism.

Earlier, I mentioned that “values may be what we spontaneously experience, and they may also be codified rules for calculating or assigning values.” Codified rules can harmonize with and reinforce spontaneously felt values. Or they can clash and contradict. When this happens we are at a fork in the road. We can ignore taboos and prohibitions against questioning moral fundamentals, and investigate matters to see if we can resolve the contradiction.

Or we can reject codified morality in favor of felt values.

Most of us, however, cleave to codified morality. We train ourselves to mistrust, disregard and repress our spontaneous, felt valuations. We affirm only what we are supposed to affirm and condemn what we are supposed to condemn — even with respect to our own personal moral responses. Perhaps we see our own subjectivity as manipulated and corrupted and in need of rational corrections.

If we do this too much, eventually our value-sense weakens and numbs until we no longer feel it. Many of us become ethical automatons, alienated from our feeling selves, no longer able to exercise personal judgment. We become dependent on analysis provided by others, and we lack all inner resistance to arbitrary valuations. We see something ugly, or hateful, or vicious and we can without much difficulty assign it the opposite value.

It is only superficial truths that are concerned primarily with how we think and speak. They stay obediently within an enworldment, and work within its givens — especially its perceptual and moral givens. Superficial truths can be delightful to play with, they can be daring, transgressive and fanciful in the ways interesting games must be if they are to be absorbing, and they can turn up useful cognitive instruments, but they are inconsequential to our fundamental experiences.

I find that play tedious and at odds with my project, which is to overcome intellectual and moral dishonesty and the self-alienation it causes. Far too many people are obedient to moral ideals they must lie and labor over, with greater and greater difficulty. And now the lies are so fragile that the liars require cooperation from everyone to maintain them to keep unwanted feelings fully repressed.

For people in this state, honesty is an existential threat.

But they are too afraid to break taboos and ask themselves the kinds of questions that can restore harmony between our felt and codified values.

The only solution they can conceive is to control external reality and to prohibit all honest expression so dishonesty becomes internalized through habit, and our new contrived “truth” seems equal to the faint repressed memories of spontaneous given truths.

We Americans just cannot kick our puritan addictions, can we? We finally free ourselves of our need to assert the existence of a thoroughly unbelievable “god”, only to enslave ourselves to other equally unbelievable nonsense. We seem unable to make peace with truth.

But know this: You do not have to believe what you cannot believe.

You are allowed to ask questions, even taboo questions,

If that feels unsafe to you, you are right. It is unsafe. Most people like to feel comfortable, to feel like good people, to frolic in the playground of permissible rebellion. The majority of people choose to keep on lying and lying.

So, if you are a liar, that is ok. It is normal.

If you need to celebrate your lying as virtuous, that is also ok. It is normal.

If you need to call the most dramatically abnormal abnormalities normal, that is ok. It has become normal.

But some of us think being normal is beneath our dignity, and choose abnormality. We do not want to be ok. We ask prohibited questions and produce incomprehensible answers.

That incomprehensibility is fortuitous for all you liars. It doesn’t make any sense. It needs to not make sense. You are in a safe space, a place of its own, a collective enworldment set adrift from anything immediate.

Buber on misapotheosis

Martin Buber, in his Introduction to Pointing the Way makes an extremely important distinction between two forms of religiosity:

In this selection of my essays from the years 1909 to 1954, I have, with one exception, included only those that, in the main, I can also stand behind today.

The one exception is ‘The Teaching of the Tao,’ the treatise which introduced my 1909 translation of selected Talks and Parables of Chuang-tzu. I have included this essay because, in connection with the development of my thought, it seems to me too important to be withheld from the reader in this collection. But I ask him while reading it to bear in mind that this small work belongs to a stage that I had to pass through before I could enter into an independent relationship with being. One may call it the ‘mystical’ phase if one understands as mystic the belief in a unification of the self with the all-self, attainable by man in levels or intervals of his earthly life. Underlying this belief, when it appears in its true form, is usually a genuine ‘ecstatic’ experience. But it is the experience of an exclusive and all-absorbing unity of his own self. This self is then so uniquely manifest, and it appears then so uniquely existent, that the individual loses the knowledge, ‘This is my self, distinguished and separate from every other self’. He loses the sure knowledge of the principium individuationis, and understands this precious experience of his unity as the experience of the unity.

When this man returns into life in the world and with the world, he is naturally inclined from then on to regard everyday life as an obscuring of the true life. Instead of bringing into unity his whole existence as he lives it day by day, from the hours of blissful exaltation unto those of hardship and of sickness, instead of living this existence as unity, he constantly flees from it into the experience of unity, into the detached feeling of unity of being, elevated above life. But he thereby turns away from his existence as a man, the existence into which he has been set, through conception and birth, for life and death in this unique personal form. Now he no longer stands in the dual basic attitude that is destined to him as a man: carrying being in his person, wishing to complete it, and ever again going forth to meet worldly and above-worldly being over against him, wishing to be a helper to it. Rather in the ‘lower’ periods he regards everything as preparation for the ‘higher.’ But in these ‘higher hours’ he no longer knows anything over against him: the great dialogue between I and Thou is silent; nothing else exists than his self, which he experiences as the self. That is certainly an exalted form of being untrue but it is still being untrue. Being true to the being in which and before which I am placed is the one thing that is needful.

I recognized this and what follows from it five years after setting down this small work. It took another five years for this recognition to ripen to expression. The readers for whom I hope are those who see my way as one, parallel to their own way towards true existence.

I’ve called the confusion of the unified self with the All-Self misapotheosis.

I do not believe that Taoism is a religion of misapotheosis, but I do think that the shift from an ecliptic mode of existence to an authentically existential one does lead one through a “soliptic” mode — an philosophically-induced autism — that frees a soul from onerous conceptual obligations and liberates it to reconceive existence in a more spontaneously intuitive mode.

This soliptic state produces so much pleasure it tempts a soul to a life of permanent alienated bliss, defended by an attitude of “contemptus mundi” toward whatever threatens to re-obligate it. Many spiritual people are imprisoned by this liberation and never escape it.

Knowing from a distance

My life as a design researcher goes like this, over and over: My client hires us to do design research. The organization is full of smart people who know the organization’s business inside and out. They believe they know roughly what is happening with their customers and their employees. Mostly they just want us to fill in some knowledge gaps. So we go out and interact with real people in their homes and workplaces. There we learn that the situation is quite different from what the client thought, that the problem has been misframed, and that the most important insights aren’t located in the knowledge gaps, but rather where nobody thought to look.

It’s not like this every time. Some organizations understand people better than others. But it is like this often enough that I am highly skeptical of claims to know from a distance. It is hard enough even to know close-up!

And when people seem unaware of the difficulties of distant knowledge and have too much confidence in their ability to piece things together based on sifting hearsay, I suspect they lack the kind of healthy relationship with reality that allows us to know truth.