Category Archives: Fructivism

Transcending the axial religious worldview

Susan and I have been having very fruitful arguments over the universality of ethical principles. We’ve been spiraling in on what it is exactly that makes me actively pro-religion, but hostile — almost panicked — toward so much of conventional religious thought.

Below is an edited and slightly expanded version of a series of texts I sent her this morning.


My concern is this: the worldview common to religions of the Axial/Ecumenic Age (which includes rabbinic Judaism) is a really well-crafted philosophy. It gives its adherents a well-balanced sense of clarity, ethical guidance and an intense influx of meaning.

The only real tradeoff (not experienced as a tradeoff at all by most religious people) is that this worldview is not acceptable or accessible for everyone. I’ve always been one of those people. So are the friends I most enjoy talking with.

Most of them are atheists because the conception of God and religiosity in general given in this worldview fails to resonate with any needs they feel, and the preliminary steps into the worldview offend their intellectual consciences. They haven’t found a conception of God that they can believe in, and they’ve seen many conceptions that repel them, so they do the only decent thing: they refrain from belief, or reject it and remain pessimistic that there’s any value to be found in it.

But for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to fully reject religion. I’ve kept digging into it, even when I’ve been disturbed by much of what I found. Through this process, I’ve discovered-learned-developed/instaurated an alternative religious worldview that is compatible with existing religious traditions (especially Judaism), but which has accomplished this by re-conceiving who God is, what religion is and does, what relationship is possible with a being who is essentially incomprehensible, and what it means to share a common faith (even when factual beliefs differ drastically).

I believe this new perspective on religion could address inarticulate needs many atheists have, and presents religion in a way that doesn’t interfere with their commitment to scientific rigor, avoids offending their sensitive and rigorous intellectual consciences, and can be authentically believed as true.

There is a conflict, however, when I try to share this newer worldview to people who have adopted the axial religious worldview, they hear it and say stuff like: “Sure, whatever, but that’s just philosophy.” Or “That’s just abstract thought, and I don’t feel God in it.” Even if they want to (which they rarely do), they cannot conceal their condescension.

My worldview is compatible with theirs, however — but to understand how, it is necessary to understand alterity (radical otherness) and grasp why the recognition they expect isn’t happening. Further, it is crucial to understand how this alterity is essential to a relationship with a God who is real, and not largely imaginary or conceptual. Any relationship with God must include awareness of God’s alterity and insights into what it is like to encounter it.

Religion is not only — even primarily — about being united in a common understanding and experience — it is about participating in an infinite being who is also largely alien to us and whose alterity arouses intense apprehension in our hearts, or to put it in more traditional religious language — who inspires dread as well as love.

Why do I think I have the right to make claims like this? When you are in a tiny minority, you don’t find commonality in the mainstream, and this is doubly so if the minority you belong to is not even acknowledged to exist at all. To overcome the isolation and loneliness of this condition, you have no choice but to learn to relate to otherness.

But if you are in a majority, the commonality you enjoy becomes so normal to you that you forget that it is not just a universal fabric of reality. And you are satisfied with that universality, even if you must exclude others to enjoy it fully. This complacence is impervious to argument. The only thing that overcomes it is courageous love.

(This is the line of thought that originally caused me to recognize and feel intense solidarity with other people with marginal experiences and perspectives,  and motivated me to understand the dynamics of power, knowledge and hegemony. This is why I have insight into the principles of critical theory that the progressivist upper class has appropriated in order to legitimize their hegemonic dominance. It is very devilishly clever. It connects with a very deep and important truth, but subverts it, perverts it, and transforms it into a tool for the most powerful to dominate, intimidate and humiliate the powerless in the name of justice.)

The concept of concept

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

To understand a meaning pragmatically requires use of a concept.

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

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


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

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


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


Can concepts be intentionally changed? Yes.

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

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

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

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

Understanding concepts empowers us for pluralist existence.

What would a designed philosophy look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My primary tradeoffs

To me, preserving fidelity to reality (as I experience it) is more important than coherence, consistency or completeness of any explanation. I will make pronounced tradeoffs, and leave explanations in extreme states of disrepair to preserve this fidelity, especially to the subtle signals of my genuine conviction.

Three quotes form a chord that reinforces this commitment.

The two principles of the new life. — First principle: life should be ordered on the basis of what is most certain and most demonstrable, not as hitherto on that of what is most remote, indefinite and no more than a cloud on the horizon. Second principle: the order of succession of what is closest and most immediate, less close and less immediate, certain and less certain, should be firmly established before one orders one’s life and gives it a definitive direction.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“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… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” – Charles Peirce

What… are the characteristics of a good scientific theory? Among a number of quite usual answers I select five, not because they are exhaustive, but because they are individually important and collectively sufficiently varied to indicate what is at stake. First, a theory should be accurate: within its domain, that is, consequences deducible from a theory should be in demonstrated agreement with the results of existing experiments and observations. Second, a theory should be consistent, not only internally or with itself, but also with other currently accepted theories applicable to related aspects of nature. Third, it should have broad scope: in particular, a theory’s consequences should extend far beyond the particular observations, laws, or subtheories it was initially designed to explain. Fourth, and closely related, it should be simple, bringing order to phenomena that in its absence would be individually isolated and, as a set, confused. Fifth — a somewhat less standard item, but one of special importance to actual scientific decisions — a theory should be fruitful of new research findings: it should, that is, disclose new phenomena or previously unnoted relationships among those already known. These five characteristics — accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness — are all standard criteria for evaluating the adequacy of a theory.” – Thomas Kuhn

Stuff I’m going to write

I think my “Coalition of the Unique” post might be the core of a Liberal Manifesto chapbook.

Susan’s and my strategy has shifted over the last several months. Rather than attacking illiberalism, we’ve chosen instead to find more beautiful reconceptions and redescriptions of Liberalism to help people understand and to feel why Liberalism is precious and worth protecting, conserving and progressing.

I also still need to finish my Liz Sanders Useful Usable Desirable chapbook. Maybe I’ll print them together in one run.

And Second-Natural is also starting to take shape. It argues multiple interlocking points, and I will probably write it as independent mutually reinforcing essays.

  1. Human beings have coevolved with our tools and built environments and our languages for so long, we have become naturally artificial. Whatever vestiges of pure nature we have left in us emerges in rare moments, usually (but not always) when we are at our very worst. We may long to be natural, feel natural, be in nature, or return to nature, but we are hundreds of millennia beyond that possibility. If we wanted to remain natural, we should have thought of that before we developed the capacity to think.
  2. Maybe what we long for is not exactly to be natural. The antitheses natural and artificial exclude the most desirable quality, second-natural, which is artificial naturalness. Second-naturalness is the true goal of design. If an action is second-natural it is done intuitively, with wordless intelligence. And any thing, any tool, we make that is used second-naturally becomes an extension of our selves. Artificial-feeling things never feel like extensions of our selves.
  3. One of our most second-natural tools is language. Second-naturalness in language use is fluency. That fluency can become so second-natural we lose the subtle distinction between our intuitive intentions and the words that give them form. It can begin to seem as though our intellectual intentions are essentially linguistic — that the language itself is thinking through our speech. I want to argue that language use is a special case of tool use. An artist can pick up a pen and start drawing a picture without consciously thinking about moving their hand or directing the pen, ink or paper. Most of the time there are no words.  No imagined final product is necessary. Ideally the artist becomes absorbed in the image. Language works exactly the same way. When we speak naturally, the words flow toward an intended meaning which emerges in the speech. We do not necessarily know how a sentence will end when we start it, but the saying is guided by an intuition which is not itself verbal, an intuition of what the sentence is trying to become.
  4. Activities feel artificial when we must continue to use our language fluency to verbally direct what is not second-natural. This is why a language-learner must begin to think in a language. An internal translation process keeps the second language artificial. But when we think about designing the things we use in our lives, often we are content with assuming an internal translation. Because we think our thought, maybe even our essential self, is linguistic it seems inevitable that we’ll be using language to tell our brains and our hands what to do. Consequently, most of the things we make feel artificial. We fail to design them for second-naturalness, for fluency. Our lives feel artificial because our philosophy of design is logocentric.
  5. A primary goal of design should be to thin the layers of language between intention and outcome. What is meant by a layer? What I do not mean is removing some linguistic veil of of illusion that separates us from some realm of metaphysical truth. All I mean is to minimize or eliminate the need for verbalized instructions to ourselves in our daily activity. And especially instructions for instructing ourselves. If we are using word processing software and we are trying to think about the sequence of actions required to, say, spell check a word in the document that has been marked misspelled, but we are unable to get the word selected in order to see the correct spelling options, we are now unable to stay absorbed in the sentence we were trying to write. We now have the words of the sentence we are typing, words instructing ourselves to try different options to select the word, verbalized questions regarding why the function is not working as expected, not to mention expletives. It is like operating a robot arm to operate multiple other robot arms. I believe these accumulating layers of verbalization are contributing to our increasing sense that something is going wrong with our lives.
  6. Because our logocentric philosophies assume the presence of language is inevitable in every detail of our lives, it doesn’t occur to us to challenge it. We are suffering from a thickening layer of words, insulating us from direct interaction with real entities that surround us. But we do not even know that this philosophy is interfering with seeing the problem. Our popular philosophy is so established in our own thinking — it is so second-natural to us, we cannot conceive of the possibility of changing it. When we think of philosophical thought, we automatically assume that we will be thinking about it, using the popular philosophy we already have.  We assume it will feel artificial. We have no expectation that a new philosophy can ever become second-natural to us. And this is not helped in the least by the fact that philosophers generally do not think of philosophies as something which ought to be designed for use, much less in a designerly way using designerly methods, and even more rarely, with the goal of second-naturalness.
  7. Philosophy should be understood as a design discipline. It should be directed by the things designers are directed by. Where are people encountering problems that might be the result of how they are conceived and thought about, or at least might be alleviated by thinking about them in new ways? Where is our thinking misdirecting or misguiding or misnorming our actions? It should make use of some of the methods of design, many of which are themselves philosophical praxes: interviewing, observing, opportunity definition, problem definition/briefing,  codesigning, modeling, visualizing, prototyping, iterative testing and most of all radical self-transcendent collaboration. Philosophy should adopt some key design concepts, for instance wicked problems, tradeoffs, divergent/convergent thinking, sensitivity to context, primacy of interactions. And perhaps most importantly, philosophy should push pragmatism to its logical next step. William James (I think) said that “truth is what is better to think.”. Philosophy should get more specific about what it means for a thought to be better or worse, by taking cues from one of the fundamental guiding frameworks of design, namely Liz Sanders’s Useful/Usable/Desirable. I’m tentatively calling this Design Instrumentalism.
  8. What does it mean for a philosophy to be useful, usable and desirable? A normal first inclination is to subject the presentation of the philosophy to these standards by asking questions like “Will this book teach me something useful? Is it written clearly and straightforwardly so I don’t have to struggle to understand it? Is it an engaging read, or is it a boring slog? These are all important questions, but I mean more than that. I want to ask these questions about the philosophy itself — about the ability of this philosophy to become second-natural in everyday constant use, after It is adopted as how one thinks, long after the book is put back on the shelf and the words are mostly forgotten. How does this philosophy work as a mind-reality interface? “Does it effectively guide and support my actions (or does it lead me to do things that interfere with my intentions? Does it allow me to think clearly and act intuitively without having to laboriously puzzle things out first? Does it force me to use language that feels abstract or theoretical to get to a conclusion? Does my life feel purposeful and valuable and worth effort?” If the answer to any of these is no, or even a weak yes, the philosophy design process should continue.
  9. Some other practical observations from my life of philosophical designing and designerly philosophizing deserve mention. Understanding anxiety and perplexity is crucial. To conceive something new, it is necessary to suspend or reject older ways of conceiving, or allow new data which defies conceptualization and full or clear comprehension to remain perplexing. All too often we misread anxiety as a signal that we are on the wrong track, and interpret perplexity (a state of intellectual disorder so thorough that the problem cannot be stated despite the fact that it is inflicting intense distress) as an emergency to end by any means possible as quickly as possible. Anxiety is the sign we are in the right path, and the right path is the one that goes directly into perplexity, through it and out on the other side, where we have found new ways to conceive truth. Another observation: wherever we see monolithic beings, we are generally getting lazy with our categories and reifying pluralities into singularities. This applies to our own souls. But I would like to take a few potshots at Richard Rorty‘s logocentrism here. He seems to think that if Nature does not exist as some humanity transcending monolithic authority, it can be sidelined from our humans-only conversation club. That redescription of truth underemphasizes the role real nonhuman beings play in shaping our truth. Nature isn’t one thing with one truth for us to discover, sure, but the myriad entities who we’ve assigned to nature do have natures that we interact with. These entities will cooperate with us if we interact with them one way, and will rebel against us if we treat them other ways. Our philosophies need to be designed to help us win the cooperation of nonhuman entities, and this is a huge factor determining the degree of truth in even our most universally-held beliefs. If we all agree something false is the truth, we’re all going to stop believing it when nonhuman entities register their dissent by scuttling our intentions.
  10. Finally, I want to suggest some ways philosophy and design can learn from one another how to converse across difference. All too often we debate before debate is really possible. In design we ask one another to try on possible ways of approaching problems, and we try thinking out problems using different logics. We draw what we are thinking when words fail us, as they frequently do. We are happy to play with possibilities, even when we are not fully conscious of what is directing our play, because often such play is fruitful. This is what it takes to get an infant concept viable enough to stand up to interrogation, argument or debate. Design teams dread having that guy in the room who only knows how to argue, and who kills all possibility of intellectual creativity with his still, narrow logic. But this is how all too many philosophers are: argumentative logicians. Hopefully, better designed philosophies can help guide better ways to craft, compare and iterate philosophies.

Update 9-15-20: I’m also being asked to write a book on Service Design research, so that’s another item on the list.

Recognizing possibilities of transcendence

There are positive metaphysics which make assertions about reality beyond what can be experienced, and there are negative metaphysics which deny the possibility of making such assertions.

A person who has worked at thinking through problems that started out unthinkable — who had to begin with confronting unthinkability and overcoming it by finding new modes of thinking capable of rendering the unthinkable thinkable — will gradually come to see “beyond experience” differently.

Beyond experience stops being an object of thought, a truth, and rather becomes a zone of indeterminate possibility — with distinctive characteristics one can recognize and about which one can make positive assertions:

  • It compels: we are attracted to it by something within us to transcend our current way of thinking.
  • It repels: the exits from our limitations fill us with anxiety and engulf us in dread.
  • It demands intuition: It can be navigated only by a wordless intelligence that knows, does and values without any ability to explain or justify itself.
  • It demands sacrifice: how we used to think is the chief obstacle to the new way of thinking.
  • It demands rethinking: much of what we once knew will have to be understood anew (metanoia).
  • It generates rebirth: the rethinking changes one’s basic experience of everything, all at once.
  • It is fruitful: it produces new ideas, understandings, interconnections and possibilities that were imperceptible, and in fact, unthinkable prior to transcendence. (Added July 16, 2020. Thanks to Nick Gall.)
  • It increases truth: what came before was not false, but what comes after is more true.
  • It is radically unexpected: with each transcendence truths come into view that were literally unimaginable prior to transcendence.
  • It intensifies expectation: experiencing the radically unexpected assures us that the unimaginable is entirely possible.
  • It is ubiquitous: once we learn to recognize these characteristics, we start noticing them everywhere we look. Existence is pregnant with shocking possibility.

This is why I love philosophy.

This is why I have become religious.

Next book: Philosophy of Design of Philosophy

Now that I’ve gotten Geometric Meditations into a finished state I am starting to feel a compulsion to write a more accessible book about design, tentatively titled Philosophy of Design of Philosophy. I’m excited to be freed from the excessive formal constraints that made Geometric Meditations take so long to finish.

There are several key points I want to make.

  1. Design needs to be rethought, along with its relationship with engineering. I propose re-defining design as “the intentional development of hybrid systems composed of interacting human and non-human elements.” Most importantly the human elements of the system should include the people for whom the system is intended, treated as an intrinsic part of the designed system, and interior to it — not exterior users of a system designed to be used by them. Follow this link to see a visualization comparing the “conventional” and “hybrid systems” view.
  2. We find it difficult to define design, and distinguish design from other creative activities (like art and engineering) because we think in a way that obscures the question. In particular, the way we think about making tools and using tools has gradually become inadequate for dealing with the world as it has evolved. Our working philosophies have grown obsolete, and their very obsolescence makes us look for solutions every but philosophy.
  3. Philosophies are essentially tools we use for living lives in an infinitely complex radically pluralistic reality. Every philosophy has advantages and trade-offs, meaning they make it easy, even automatic, to have some kinds of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and responses, and nearly impossible to think, feel, perceive and respond in other ways — and these other ways might be the key to confronting what are perceived, conceived and felt to be insoluble problems. Designers will recognize in this description characteristics common to all design problems, and that is my intention. The design field has developed effective techniques for dealing with problems of this kind. I propose we approach philosophy as design problems, using design methodologies to interrogate problematic situations we face to uncover and frame the most fruitful problems, to develop holistic approaches to thinking them that permit solutions to these problems, to iteratively experiment with and improve our practical thinking. I call this understanding and approach to philosophy “design instrumentalism”. We need to design philosophies that help us design better lives for ourselves, and this book will hopefully contribute to this project.
  4. Part of the reason we need to take design much more seriously is that who we are is changed by what we design. Indirectly, when we design things we use, we design ourselves. And this is because human being is extended being. To be a human being means to have one’s own being stream out into the world in every direction. Despite what spiritual conventional wisdom tells us, in some very important ways we are our possessions, we belong to where we live and we are our egos. But what we are can be released, transformed, improved or degraded based on what we do with ourselves: our environments, our physical tools, our conceptual/mental tools, our life practices, etc. This part of the book draws on extended cognition, cyborg theory, ANT, postphenomenology crossbred with existentialism, but I plan to be atrociously unscholarly, synthetic and magisterial in my approach and keep external references to a minimum. The goal here is to reframe human existence in a way that liberates us from the subject-object and self-other dichotomies that dominate the working philosophies that unconsciously shape our conscious thoughts. (The pre-conscious “how” of our thinking produces the “what” of our thoughts. I may have to also take some potshots at pop-psychologism that views the unconscious as sneaky little mind forces that lurk about behind the scenes motivating us this way or biasing us that way. Where most folks see secularized demons, I see poorly designed conceptual systems, a.k.a. philosophies.)
  5. The process of being human is a nonlinear (iterative feedback) process of co-evolution. As we change the world, the world changes us. This process has brought us to a perilous point where we must choose our next step very carefully.

This is an early sketch, but I think some of the ideas are interesting and consequential, and I think it will be fun to right. And my design approach will ensure that at least some people will find the book useful, usable and desirable.

A Jew trapped in a Gentile’s biography

Two details from a passage in Martin Buber’s Between Man and Man have stayed with me over the years.

My friendship with one now dead arose in an incident that may be described, if you will, as a broken-off conversation. The date is Easter 1914. Some men from different European peoples had met in an undefined presentiment of the catastrophe, in order to make preparations for an attempt to establish a supra-national authority. The conversations were marked by that unreserve, whose substance and fruitfulness I have scarcely ever experienced so strongly. It had such an effect on all who took part that the fictitious fell away and every word was an actuality. Then as we discussed the composition of the larger circle from which public initiative should proceed (it was decided that it should meet in August of the same year) one of us, a man of passionate concentration and judicial power of love, raised the consideration that too many Jews had been nominated, so that several countries would be represented in unseemly proportion by their Jews. Though similar reflections were not foreign to my own mind, since I hold that Jewry can gain an effective and more than merely stimulating share in the building of a steadfast world of peace only in its own community and not in scattered members, they seemed to me, expressed in this way, to be tainted in their justice. Obstinate Jew that I am, I protested against the protest. I no longer know how from that I came to speak of Jesus and to say that we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him. “In a way that remains inaccessible to you” — so I directly addressed the former clergyman. He stood up, I too stood, we looked into the heart of one another’s eyes. “It is gone,” he said, and before everyone we gave one another the kiss of brotherhood.

The discussion of the situation between Jews and Christians had been transformed into a bond between the Christian and the Jew. In this transformation dialogue was fulfilled. Opinions were gone, in a bodily way the factual took place.

The first striking detail is the indication of a palpable shift of relationship that both parties feel with immediacy. “It is gone.” I believe this kind of shift is not just an experience, but an experience of something real: the essential reality of all sacred being. Without this immediate mutual knowing, there is no marriage, no friendship, no conversation, no reconciliation, no sacrament.

The second striking detail is bothersome to me. It is the claim that “Jews know Jesus from within, in the impulse and stirrings of his Jewish being,” in a way that is “inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him.” At first glance, this appears to be an essentialist (congenialist?) “it takes one to know one” argument.  I have a strong aversion to this kind of thinking.

But rereading it, the point can be interpreted in a non-essentialist way. The point is less about being non-Jewish, than with having a submissive relationship to Jesus, which would be an un-Jewish attitude — a distancing, dehumanizing and objectifying I-it mode. To relate to Jesus in a more mutual and intimate fellow-person I-Thou mode invites Buber’s impulses and stirrings of Jewish being to stir and impel.

Precisely this impulse toward I-Thou is what I feel in my own being when I read my Jewish heroes, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Richard J. Bernstein, Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Husserl, Walter Benjamin, Jonathan Haidt and even the great aspie Ludwig Wittgenstein. And Jesus of Nazareth, too, of course.

It is this feeling that makes me say that “I am a Jew trapped in a Gentile’s biography.”

This and the fact that I look so Jewish that nearly everyone who meets me assumes I am Jewish, especially other Jews.

And another clue: when my mother and uncle told me that they found evidence that we have Jewish ancestry, and that it appeared to go straight up the matrilineal line I lost my mind with happiness.

This is obviously far too important a matter to leave to my Great Great Great Grandmother Anna Maria Scheidegger’s mother (Elisabeth Sigerist?) and her mother’s mother back in Switzerland or Alsace.

Anomalogues, cont.

Science : engineering :: philosophy : design


Like science, philosophy seeks truth, which means finding intelligible patterns in reality as we live it.

Like religion, philosophy is guided by intellectual aesthetics. If we are truthful with ourselves, we do not love truth on the strength of its truthfulness. We have a taste for certain problems, questions, resolutions and facts, rooted in nature, nurture and circumstance. When we see truth in a way congenial to our tastes, life is more alive to us.

Not that everyone has taste. Some have bad taste, and even more have weak taste. Philistinism extends to taste in truth.


Some useful objects in our lives do not resonate with our tastes, and nobody expects them to. Such objects are hidden from our experience or we simply pay no attention to them. These objects can be engineered without any reference to human sensibilities, according to the facts uncovered by science.

Other useful objects in our lives do matter to us, and we want them to resonate with our tastes. These objects are designed, as well as engineered. The truth that guides the design of the objects must take account of science but will also include and understanding of the user’s sensibilities. Such an understanding is a philosophical truth: a fusion of truth and taste.

In my view (especially after reading Leviathan and the Air-Pump) scientific truths are engineered, where philosophical truths are actually designed.

Here’s the question that interests me right now: how would one do user-centered design of a philosophy? In my opinion, this is what brand strategy wants to become: a philosophy of an organization which enables it to function according to a particular intellectual and artistic taste. When the functional and aesthetic are treated as two separate realms, the aesthetic takes on a Sunday-religious character — an occasional emotional/moral edification added to workaday functional genericism. But when the aesthetic and functional form an organic whole that permeates everything an organization does.

But standing behind (or above or beneath) a designed philosophy is another philosophy which holds to an ontology and epistemology that permits a philosophy to be designed by giving reality and truth latitude for choice. And this meta-philosophy is Pragmatism.



I need to study Kuhn’s work on theory choice in science. Everyone who has looked into the matter closely has found that there is an element of taste even in scientific practice. Here’s the theory choice considerations Kuhn identified:

Accurate – empirically adequate with experimentation and observation.

Consistent – internally consistent, but also externally consistent with other theories.

Broad Scope – a theory’s consequences should extend beyond that which it was initially designed to explain.

Simple – the simplest explanation, principally similar to Occam’s Razor.

Fruitful – a theory should disclose new phenomena or new relationships among phenomena.


Impractical idealism vs practical realism

Impractical idealism and practical realism: another of those mutually supportive antitheses united against an inconceivable possibility of a practical ideal that creates a new reality.

Impractical idealism plays the Alan Colmes to practical realism’s Sean Hannity, proving the suspicion that new ideals are essentially impractical and unrealistic because those who conceive them are unconcerned with what is possible and what is currently the case.

Practical realism sets itself up as the only possible alternative to such silliness, becoming the tough-minded champions of preservation of what has been established, or of expertly playing an absurd game one is powerless to change, or of making the humblest progress possible, and rejoicing in the very humbleness of the world’s possibilities.

And practical realism presents such a depressing image of smug complacence that anyone with a soul is repulsed. Faced with a choice between the practical realist’s mediocrity and sheer fantasy will choose fantasy and be tempted to make a display of principled quixotism or of making the most ludicrous truth-claims or obvious evasions.

Anyone intent on doing something new must not ally with either of these camps. We cannot be stupidly emotional and lose our concern for where we are, how we can move beyond it and what we can expect from our destination. But if we fail, we should not become champions of mediocrity invested in the belief that real change is impossible. Such stances are adopted by those fear that the impossibility of change lies not in the world but in their own impotence, and so they dedicate themselves to creating a world where nobody can succeed. And that is a shame because it is exactly those who are tempted to crush hopes who could help others bring hopes to fruition if they were willing to play their proper part, which is execution.


A word about execution.

Notice, every organization is run by people known as executives.

By definition, the executive role executes. “1. a person with senior managerial responsibility in a business organization; 2. the person or branch of a government responsible for putting policies or laws into effect.”

But execute what? That is where everything falls apart.

It is not enough for executives to know how to execute. They are also expected to come up with the plan. And just having a plan is not enough. It has to be an inspiring plan.

Executives are expected to have vision.

But is this a realistic expectation? — In fact it is a prime example of an impractical reality that most people stubbornly cling to.

Executives nearly never have vision – at least not one of their own. Executives are much less concerned with changing reality, after all, this reality already put them in a sunny corner office on the top floor of a skyscraper. What’s not to like?

What executives really want is something to execute. Any plan that will enable them to show off their powers of execution will do. A sprinkle of innovation is enough, if it produces the quantitative evidence of  executive awesomeness.

But no executive will admit this. Why? Because execution is only glamorous if what is executed is a vision.

But nobody wants to execute someone else’s idea. That feels like being a servant.

So executives present themselves as visionaries who happen to be able to get things done.

But what an executive calls “vision” is rarely vision. Sometimes it’s a goal. Sometimes it is ambition that galvanizes the whole company. Or electrifying enthusiasm. Usually, it’s just a plan. Whatever it is, it is draped with vague superlatives, buzzwords and snazzy graphics and presented as the vision. Look closer, though, and you will see practical realism candy-coated with impractical idealism.

If you want to know why corporations are so abysmally dull this is why: executives would rather do without meaning than to accept meaning from anyone besides themselves.



We cannot directly control our perceptions. We can partly control our attention.

Perceiving is passive; attending is active.


Relevance does not actually belong to perception. It belongs to attention.

We do not perceive irrelevance in another person’s argument, but, rather, refuse to attend to the argument in a way that reveals its relevance.


A permanent couch potato, who sits in one spot as if chained in place, cannot tell the difference between the arrangement of his room, and the view from where he sits. To him, they’re the same thing. If he wants a different view, the room must be rearranged.


“Sitting still is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only peripatetic thoughts have any value.” — Twilight of the Idols


There’s a distinct feeling associated with dropping intellectual resistance and opening. It is an event that exists independently of agreement, though agreement depends on it entirely. Until agreement begins to form, however, this opening is entirely formless.

It feels exactly like forgiveness.


Martin Buber, from Between Man and Man:

My friendship with one now dead arose in an incident that may be described, if you will, as a broken-off conversation. The date is Easter 1914. Some men from different European peoples had met in an undefined presentiment of the catastrophe, in order to make preparations for an attempt to establish a supra-national authority. The conversations were marked by that unreserve, whose substance and fruitfulness I have scarcely ever experienced so strongly. It had such an effect on all who took part that the fictitious fell away and every word was an actuality. Then as we discussed the composition of the larger circle from which public initiative should proceed (it was decided that it should meet in August of the same year) one of us, a man of passionate concentration and judicial power of love, raised the consideration that too many Jews had been nominated, so that several countries would be represented in unseemly proportion by their Jews. Though similar reflections were not foreign to my own mind, since I hold that Jewry can gain an effective and more than merely stimulating share in the building of a steadfast world of peace only in its own community and not in scattered members, they seemed to me, expressed in this way, to be tainted in their justice. Obstinate Jew that I am, I protested against the protest. I no longer know how from that I came to speak of Jesus and to say that we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him. “In a way that remains inaccessible to you” — so I directly addressed the former clergyman. He stood up, I too stood, we looked into the heart of one another’s eyes. “It is gone, ” he said, and before everyone we gave one another the kiss of brotherhood.

On precision inspiration

Design researchers are look for two things: 1) precision inspiration (ideas capable of stimulate great quantities of viable concepts), and 2) criteria for assessing the viability of concepts.


What is inspiration? Inspiration is what happens when a person’s perspective is shifted and suddenly — miraculously — inconceivable ideas become conceivable, freeing insoluble problems to solve themselves.


The most reliable source of inspiration is other people.

When one person allows another person to inspire him, he becomes far more capable of inspiring the other.

The exchange of inspiration is the finest, most welcome bond.


Imagine a brand based on the exchange of inspiration carried out through the medium of design.


Kuhn’s criteria for theory-choice:

Accurate – empirically adequate with experimentation and observation.

Consistent – internally consistent, but also externally consistent with other theories.

Broad Scope – a theory’s consequences should extend beyond that which it was initially designed to explain.

Simple – the simplest explanation, principally similar to Occam’s Razor.

Fruitful – a theory should disclose new phenomena or new relationships among phenomena.

But as Mitch Hedberg said, “There’s more to it than that!” Here are some additions, and I believe there are even more:

Meaningful – the theory’s compatibility with the theorist’s grounding orientation to life.

Contiguous – the theory’s capacity to integrate with an existing body of theory.

Intelligible – the theory situates the theorist in a world whose relevant features are intelligible.

Congenial – a theory should employ the theorist’s cognitive natural/acquired intellectual strengths.

Social – a theory’s reinforcing affirmation by a community with whom the theorist identifies, or, antithetically, it’s reinforcing rejection by a community against whom the theorist has defined himself.

Applicable – the existence of opportunities to use the theory practically and to develop the tacit intellectual practices (know-how) inherent in all practical application of theory

Concrete – the number of concrete examples available to 1) explicit demonstrate how the theory is practically applied and 2) to demonstrate its applicability

Spontaneous – a theory’s ability to shed conscious interpretation and to disappear into the phenomena themselves.

Inconceivable dimension

Last week I had an unusual number of conversations with artists about the nature of art. I want to try to summarize what I understand about the being of a (romantic) artist, based on what I took from these conversations.

For a variety of reason, artists today are necessarily romantic artists. Romantic artists attempt to create outside of what already is, as opposed to affirming or revitalizing the culture to which they belong as members. There is no vital high culture left to preserve in our time. Even so-called conservatives invent by reanimating formal corpses with newish notions through the black magic of revisionism.There is just flat, sea-level philistinism: discrete, mutually exclusive working hard and playing hard. Nobody’s going to exert for anything that won’t earn him a dollar.

Romantic artists are cultural mutants. They have mutated individuality; they developed differently as individuals and have a different conception of what individuality is. They do individualism differently. Certainly this mutated individuality/individualism can give them a conspicuously different appearance (which is all most people perceive) but the more essential difference is imperceptible: Artists inhabit mutated worlds. And they inhabit these worlds partially or entirely alone.

So far, what I’ve described includes romantic artists, but it also includes visionaries of all kinds. A romantic artist is a visionary who responds to his vision by creating cultural artifacts that affirm and reinforce his vision. This occurs both through the practice of creative activity (by which he lives differently), and through the artifact (by which he establishes a more meaningfully-orienting environment). What is lacking at the start, — with genuine romantic artists, invariably — which philistines are incapable of imagining, is what it is like to be the solitary member of a culture. Cultures are shared. An unshared culture is a psychic vacuum, and that vacuum is the profoundest loneliness, which crushes proportionally to its difference, and threatens the survival of the mutant. Very, very few cultural mutants survive, much less reproduce their vision, much less change the nature of human-being.

Regarding mere survival: everything that threatens the continuous activity of the artist (that is imposes displacing, depressing and exhausting alien tasks) or imposes environmental disorientation on the artist threatens his particular cultural existence, if not his biological existence. And since an artist identifies more with his particular cultural existence than even with his biological being, this threat reaches beyond individual death to the extinction of one’s own species.

I am assuming what I mean by “inhabiting a world” (as opposed to perceiving the world) is pretty obvious to anyone for whom this line of thought is relevant. In case it isn’t, here is a mythical evolutionary analogy. Imagine the first appearance of eyes in an eyeless species. That first eyed mutant probably looked pretty strange, not that anything else was around to see it. But what was much stranger was what happened to its existence as a result of the acquisition of the faculty of sight. This organism lived a visual existence in a visible world unlike that of anything that preceded it. Its world deepened in an extra inconceivable dimension.

* Adolescent rant…

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