Category Archives: Fruitionism

Art is enworldment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The purpose of art is enworldment.

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

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

From the Proceedings of the Fruitionist Society

Proceedings of the Fruitionist Society
Sunday, October 17, 2021.

Commenting on Francis Fukuyama quipping “liberalism can’t get you out of bed in the morning”:

I think liberal apologists are wrong that “liberalism can’t get you out of bed in the morning”

I’m frustrated that liberals are still reaching for the boring old practical arguments — more peace, more prosperity. These are all good things we value more when we stop having them. But what matters most is more personality. Liberalism protects personal uniqueness in the private realm. That is something that does get me out of bed every day. You can encounter a person’s unique strange center if you try to draw it out and you are willing to meet it with your own. Liberal conditions protect and affirm both the uniqueness of souls and their social emergence.

Part of the reason I respect conservatism is that these pro-soul conditions require social formalities — laws, etiquette, tradition. Anarchic chaos of complete unfettered freedom does not enable uniqueness of souls.

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Fruitionism — the commitment to radically new conceptions that generate and open us to many otherwise inconceivable possibilities — is crucial, because without this production of new conceptions and possibilities, politics devolves into zero sum squabbling over existing actualities. For one group to gain freedom, another group has to lose freedom. Fruitionism expands the possibility pie, and reveals new resources that can balance imbalances.

I believe the next phase of liberalism ought to be fruitionist liberalism.

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Growing up, my daughters were told by their mother “There is always a solution to the problem.” But that solution often cannot be found if the opposing parties in a conflict remain entrenched in their current conceptions.

There is an “opening of the hand” of comprehension — an ungrasping of what the conflict is, what you want, what the other wants, who the other even is — that must precede progress.

This opening of the hand, this preconciliation, can be felt directly, almost physically. You must want it, let the other know you want it, and invite this spirit into your midst.

I try to invite it by saying things like, “I care more about you, more than I care about what I think.” And “I won’t be satisfied with any solution, until you are also satisfied with it.” And “This is a painful process, but it is always like this if you are conceiving something genuinely new. These are the birth pangs of a breakthrough.”

This reconciliation requires mutuality. If one side cannot imagine they don’t already know, if they really only want to debate you into submission, if they delegitimize your understanding (by suspecting you of secret evil motives, as the right tends to do, or diagnosing your false consciousness, as the left habitually does), if they don’t know the difference between you and what they make of you (reducing you to a category, stereotype or identity) this cannot happen — at least not immediately.

It is far more fruitful to find people who disagree with you but who care about resolving it, or at least understanding the essence of the disagreement, and to than debating the pre-persuaded. It is all about producing living solidarity in the liberal middle, and enlarging that solidarity to the greatest possible extent, so that the extremes can do their extremism on the margins, mostly in private, harmlessly. They are not life-threatening to a healthy body politic.

H. L. Mencken on aristocracy in America

H. L. Mencken is a glorious weirdo. My best attempt to describe him would be “Mark Twain on a Nietzsche bender.” Here’s a sample of his personality:

“American Culture”

From THE NATIONAL LETTERS, PERJUDICES: SECOND SERIES, 1920, pp. 65–78. First printed in the Yale Review, June, 1920, pp. 804–17

The capital defect in the culture of These States is the lack of a civilized aristocracy, secure in its position, animated by an intelligent curiosity, skeptical of all facile generalizations, superior to the sentimentality of the mob, and delighting in the battle of ideas for its own sake. The word I use, despite the qualifying adjective, has got itself meanings, of course, that I by no means intend to convey. Any mention of an aristocracy, to a public fed upon democratic fustian, is bound to bring up images of stockbrokers’ wives lolling obscenely in opera boxes, or of haughty Englishmen slaughtering whole generations of grouse in an inordinate and incomprehensible manner, or of bogus counts coming over to work their magic upon the daughters of breakfast-food and bathtub kings. This misconception belongs to the general American tradition. Its depth and extent are constantly revealed by the naïve assumption that the so- called fashionable folk of the large cities—chiefly wealthy industrials in the interior-decorator and country-club stage of culture—constitute an aristocracy, and by the scarcely less remarkable assumption that the peerage of England is identical with the gentry—that is, that such men as Lord Northcliffe, Lord Riddel and even Lord Reading were English gentlemen.

Here, as always, the worshiper is the father of the gods, and no less when they are evil than when they are benign. The inferior man must find himself superiors, that he may marvel at his political equality with them, and in the absence of recognizable superiors de facto he creates superiors de jure. The sublime principle of one man, one vote must be translated into terms of dollars, diamonds, fashionable intelligence; the equality of all men before the law must have clear and dramatic proofs. Sometimes, perhaps, the thing goes further and is more subtle. The inferior man needs an aristocracy to demonstrate, not only his mere equality, but also his actual superiority. The society columns in the newspapers may have some such origin. They may visualize once more the accomplished journalist’s understanding of the mob mind that he plays upon so skillfully, as upon some immense and cacophonous organ, always going fortissimo. What the inferior man and his wife see in the sinister revels of those brummagem first families, I suspect, is often a massive witness to their own higher rectitude—in brief, to their former grasp upon the immutable axioms of Christian virtue, the one sound boast of the nether nine-tenths of humanity in every land under the cross.

But this bugaboo aristocracy is actually bogus, and the evidence of its bogusness lies in the fact that it is insecure. One gets into it only onerously, but out of it very easily. Entrance is elected by dint of a long and bitter struggle, and the chief incidents of that struggle are almost intolerable humiliations. The aspirant must school and steel himself to sniffs and sneers; he must see the door slammed upon him a hundred times before ever it is thrown open to him. To get in at all he must show a talent for abasement—and abasement makes him timorous. Worse, that timorousness is not cured when he succeeds at last. On the contrary, it is made even more tremulous, for what he faces within the gates is a scheme of things made up almost wholly of harsh and often unintelligible taboos, and the penalty for violating even the least of them is swift and disastrous. He must exhibit exactly the right social habits, appetites and prejudices, public and private. He must harbor exactly the right enthusiasms and indignations. He must harbor exactly the right enthusiasms and indignations. He must have a hearty taste for exactly the right sports and games. His attitude toward the fine arts must be properly tolerant and yet not a shade too eager. He must read and like exactly the right books, pamphlets and public journals. He must put up at the right hotels when he travels. His wife must patronize the right milliners. He himself must stick to the right haberdashery. He must live in the right neighborhood. He must even embrace the right doctrines of religion. It would ruin him, for all society column purposes, to move to Union Hill, N. J., or to drink coffee from his saucer, or to marry a chambermaid with a gold tooth, or to join the Seventh Day Adventists. Within the boundaries of his curious order he is worse fettered than a monk in a cell. Its obscure conception of propriety, its nebulous notion that this or that is honorable, hampers him in every direction, and very narrowly. What he resigns when he enters, even when he makes his first deprecating knock at the door, is every right to attack the ideas that happen to prevail within. Such as they are, he must accept them without question. And as they shift and change he must shift and change with them, silently and quickly.

Obviously, that order cannot constitute a genuine aristocracy, in any rational sense. A genuine aristocracy is grounded upon very much different principles. Its first and most salient character is its interior security, and the chief visible evidence of that security is the freedom that goes with it—not only freedom in act, the divine right of the aristocrat to do what he damn well pleases, so long as he does not violate the primary guarantees and obligations of his class, but also, and more importantly, freedom in thought, the liberty to try and err, the right to be his own man. It is the instinct of a true aristocracy, not to punish eccentricity by expulsion, but to throw a mantle of protection about it—to safeguard it from the suspicions and resentments of the lower orders. Those lower orders are inert, timid, inhospitable to ideas, hostile to changes, faithful to a few maudlin superstitions. All progress goes on on the higher levels. It is there that salient personalities, made secure by artificial immunities, may oscillate most widely from the normal track. It is within that entrenched fold, out of reach of the immemorial certainties of the mob, that extraordinary men of the lower orders may find their city of refuge, and breathe a clear air. This, indeed, is at once the hall-mark and the justification of a genuine aristocracy—that it is beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions. It is nothing if it is not autonomous, curious, venturesome, courageous, and everything if it is. It is the custodian of the qualities that make for change and experiment; it is the class that organizes danger to the service of the race; it pays for its high prerogatives by standing in the forefront of the fray.

No such aristocracy, it must be plain, is now on view in the United States. The makings of one were visible in the Virginia of the Eighteenth Century, but with Jefferson and Washington the promise died. In New England, it seems to me, there was never anything of the sort, either in being or in nascency: there was only a theocracy that degenerated very quickly into a plutocracy on the one hand and a caste of sterile pedants on the other—the passion for God splitting into a lust for dollars and a weakness for mere words. Despite the common notion to the contrary—a notion generated by confusing literacy with intelligence—the New England of the great days never showed any genuine enthusiasm for ideas. It began its history as a slaughterhouse of ideas, and it is today not easily distinguishable from a cold-storage plant. Its celebrated adventures in mysticism, once apparently so bold and significant, are now seen to have been little more than an elaborate hocus-pocus—respectable Unitarians shocking the peasantry and scaring the horned cattle in the fields by masquerading in the robes of Rosicrucians. The notions that it embraced in those austere and far-off days were stale, and when it had finished with them they were dead. So in politics. Since the Civil War it has produced fewer political ideas, as political ideas run in the Republic, than any average county in Kansas or Nebraska. Appomattox seemed to be a victory for New England idealism. It was actually a victory for the New England plutocracy, and that plutocracy has dominated thought above the Housatonic ever since. The sect of professional idealists has so far dwindled that it has ceased to be of any importance, even as an opposition. When the plutocracy is challenged now, it is challenged by the proletariat.

Well, what is on view in New England is on view in all other parts of the nation, sometimes with ameliorations, but usually with the colors merely exaggerated. What one beholds, sweeping the eye over the land, is a culture that, like the national literature, is in three layers—the plutocracy on top, a vast mass of undifferentiated human blanks bossed by demagogues at the bottom, and a forlorn intelligentsia gasping out a precarious life between. I need not set out at any length, I hope, the intellectual deficiencies of the plutocracy—its utter failure to show anything even remotely resembling the makings of an aristocracy. It is badly educated, it is stupid, it is full of low- caste superstitions and indignations, it is without decent traditions or informing vision; above all, it is extraordinarily lacking in the most elemental independence and courage. Out of this class comes the grotesque fashionable society of our big towns, already described. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority—moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear. Never does it function more revealingly than in the recurrent pogroms against radicalism, i.e., against humorless persons who, like Andrew Jackson, take the platitudes of democracy seriously. And what is the theory at the bottom of all these proceedings? So far as it can be reduced to comprehensible terms it is much less a theory than a fear—a shivering, idiotic, discreditable fear of a mere banshee—an overpowering, paralyzing dread that some extra-eloquent Red, permitted to emit his balderdash unwhipped, may eventually convert a couple of courageous men, and that the courageous men, filled with indignation against the plutocracy, may take to the highroad, burn down a nail-factory or two, and slit the throat of some virtuous profiteer.

Obviously, it is out of reason to look for any hospitality to ideas in a class so extravagantly fearful of even the most palpably absurd of them. Its philosophy is firmly grounded upon the thesis that the existing order must stand forever free from attack, and not only from attack, but also from mere academic criticism, and its ethics are as firmly grounded upon the thesis that every attempt at any such criticism is a proof of moral turpitude. Within its own ranks, protected by what may be regarded as the privilege of the order, there is nothing to take the place of this criticism. In other countries the plutocracy has often produced men of reflective and analytical habit, eager to rationalize its instincts and to bring it into some sort of relationship to the main streams of human thought. The case of David Ricardo at once comes to mind, and there have been many others: John Bright, Richard Cobden, George Grote. But in the United States no such phenomenon has been visible. Nor has the plutocracy ever fostered an inquiring spirit among its intellectual valets and footmen, which is to say, among the gentlemen who compose headlines and leading articles for its newspapers. What chiefly distinguishes the daily press of the United States from the press of all other countries pretending to culture is not its lack of truthfulness or even its lack of dignity and honor, for these deficiencies are common to newspapers everywhere, but its incurable fear of ideas, its constant effort to evade the discussion of fundamentals by translating all issues into a few elemental fears, its incessant reduction of all reflection to mere emotion. It is, in the true sense, never well-informed. It is seldom intelligent, save in the arts of the mob-master. It is never courageously honest. Held harshly to a rigid correctness of opinion, it sinks rapidly into formalism and feebleness. Its yellow section is perhaps its best section, for there the only vestige of the old free journalist survives. In the more respectable papers one finds only a timid and petulant animosity to all questioning of the existing order, however urbane and sincere—a pervasive and ill-concealed dread that the mob now heated up against the orthodox hobgoblins may suddenly begin to unearth hobgoblins of its own, and so run amok.

For it is upon the emotions of the mob, of course, that the whole comedy is played. Theoretically, the mob is the repository of all political wisdom and virtue; actually, it is the ultimate source of all political power. Even the plutocracy cannot make war upon it openly, or forget the least of its weaknesses. The business of keeping it in order must be done discreetly, warily, with delicate technique. In the main that business consists in keeping alive its deep-seated fears—of strange faces, of unfamiliar ideas, of unhackneyed gestures, of untested liberties and responsibilities. The one permanent emotion of the inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear—fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants beyond everything else is security. His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that it will protect him at all hazards, and not only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind—against the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based.

One thing I love about this essay is it illuminates how liberalism must protect all marginal persons from the tyranny of majority. Not only the downtrodden, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the uptrodden. Because the uptrodden freak class is the most reliably fertile ground for fruitionist epiphany.

If I taught design

If I were responsible for a design curriculum, the first year of study would be focused exclusively on usability.

Students would sit with people and watch them attempt to use various things. They would watch people use mobile apps, kitchen appliances, car dashboards, etc.

They would watch people trying to understand various media, starting with posters, fliers and short videos before progressing to art, literature and non-fiction, and see where they were able to sharpen or change their understandings in fruitful ways.

They would follow customers as they researched insurance policies, enrolled in them, then filed and received claims. Then they would follow the same processes from the employee side, observing actuaries, agents, CSRs, claim investigators and so on. Then they’d observe the leaders of these organizations to see how decisions were made that shape the employee’s responses to customer needs.

They would go into schools and watch what teachers do, not only in the classroom, but also late into the evenings and early in the mornings, all seven days of the week. And they would also watch school administrators hang out in meetings deciding what else to require teachers to do. And they would learn about the experiences of students from various backgrounds, in the classroom, around school and at home.

They would observe political institutions at the local, state and federal level, and see how laws and policies are hammered out. Then they would observe the implementation of these laws and policies, and compare intentions with actuality.

The second year would be redesigning these artifacts, experiences, interactions, processes and organizations — but solely in order to fix existing problems. No rethinking, only improving.

The third year would be dedicated to innovation — to understanding people, interacting groups, institutions and use contexts, and rethinking systems to make them work fundamentally differently, or to do entirely new things nobody has thought of.

The fourth year would develop the students’ sense of form, aesthetics and craft.

If, after making it through this demanding program, students felt willing and ready to bear the sacred responsibility of designing real products and services that real people will actually use, experience, or even adopt and incorporate into the fabric of their everyday lives, they will be required to earn an advanced degree and to go through rigorous examinations to ensure they can be entrusted to design and play a part in shaping our material and spiritual existence.

Faith and belief

Belief is the content of comprehension, those ideas our mind can grasp.

Faith is an attitude toward pure apprehension, encounters with that which our mind can touch, barely touch, fleetingly, but not grasp.

These incomprehensible apprehensions, which fill us with apprehension that something beyond our minds exists — something within which we subsist in our own existence — challenges the mundane world of our comprehension.

If our faith is one that condemns, ignores or demphasizes apprehension, we will have a faith in and of belief, and are at risk of succumbing to ideo-idolatry.

Philosophy as polycentric design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another account of design instrumentalism

I unofficially call the kind of thinking I do “design instrumentalism” after Dewey’s flavor of pragmatism, “instrumentalism”.

Crudely, “instrumentalism” means approaching ideas as tools used for understanding.

My spin on it is: ok, cool, if our philosophies are our tools for understanding, let’s be smart in how we construct and select these tools. Let’s use the best practices available to us, namely design methods. Let’s approach our philosophizing as designers. And as designers, let’s ask what functional and experiential needs we are addressing for the users of these tools.

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For all our po-mo’ing, I think few of us realize just how fundamentally our philosophies shape our experience, and even how we assess our experiences. We still sort of slide an essential “me” beneath the experiencing, thinking, feeling and judging. We still identify ourselves with the thoughts we have about the thoughts and feelings we have about the thoughts and feelings we have. Even when we buddhistically rebuke ourselves for being mired in concepts and identifying with our thoughts, we’re still doing so as our concept-dominated selves.

The most self-congratulatory eastern-religion types I know, who scoff at concepts and dismiss philosophy as a silly waste of effort are precisely the ones most dominated and oppressed by concepts. As they apply the concept of transcending concept to the part of their conceptualizing mind they want to bully out of existence, they imagine themselves operating outside the realm of concept.

The same thing goes for the newest flavor of “enlightenment”, wokeness. The woke are deeply mistrustful of thinking and of the testimony of experience — but elevates above scrutiny the concepts and experiences active in making these judgments about other thoughts and experiences. This is how it is able to “project” its own self-delusion, its own oppressive aspirations, its own deployment of institutional and cultural prejudice on its enemies, without any consciousness that it is the very exemplar of what it hates. And it is only able to accomplish this where it holds near absolute institutional power and is able to bake its own class supremacist ideologies into institutional structures.

In both cases, we detach a bit of conceptualizing and elevate it above criticisms of conceptualizing and exempt it from principles generally applied to concept. But it is precisely this detached set of concept that always dominates our minds and shapes our sense of reality most totally. This operation is the furthest thing from  liberation from concepts. It is tyranny by a select set of privileged concepts over all other concepts.

It is only when these tyrannizing, consciousness-shaping conceptions are deposed and other conceptions are liberated to participate in enworldment that philosophizing begins to transform the self, to reshape experience and to transfigure the world even before it is materially changed. At this depth, philosophy resembles religion. Before that, “philosophy” is just speculation and syllogism on the surface of an inert soul: philosophy as superficial thinkers think they know it.

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In my own experimental tinkering with my own conceptions, I’ve found that things change drastically when we reequip ourselves with new ideas. I don’t just recite syllogisms to myself and replace my spontaneous beliefs with newer, better ones.

If I manage find a conception I can truly adopt and use, the conception reconceptualizes my experience and radically changes it before I even think about it. And when I go to assess the new experience, I assess it with the very new concepts that reshaped the experience we judge.

Philosophies have innate prejudices toward themselves, and can only judge themselves. Trying to judge a philosophy from another philosophy is bootless.

Philosophies must be experientially compared.

To compare philosophies, I have to induce a mind shift analogous to seeing a autostereogram or making yourself see the spinning dancer illusion change from a clockwise to counterclockwise rotation.

I find redescription — a kind of philosophical method acting — to be the most efficient way to effect these shifts.

We must somehow compare philosophical experiences across time without access to both at the same time, somewhat in the back-and-forth manner of comparing fragrances…

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In this self-hacking process, what I took for “I” or “me” was radically challenged by new philosophies. Essential characteristics of my personality turned out to be contingent and mutable.

And reflecting on the experience of before and after challenged my understanding of reality. Universal characteristics of reality turned out to be contingent and mutable.

My own philosophy was forced to expand to accommodate not only these profound surprises I’ve already experienced, but to resign itself to a reality that can profoundly surprise me at any moment, in inconceivable ways — to a qualitative infinity.

We do not have to hope for perpetual novelty. We have to learn to accept it and want it, because novelty is inevitable to an essentially limited being confronting limitless possibilities on all sides at all times. An even greater miracle is getting non-novelties to happen reliably. Slowing and modulating change without stopping it is the greater challenge. The gods of change and conservation need each other’s agonistic respectful challenge; without each other they become titans of mere chaos and petrification.

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Getting back to the practicalities of design instrumentalism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcendence and fruitionism

To live on terms with reality is to live on terms with transcendence.

What separates transcendent reality from immanent truth is conceivability.

If we can conceive what we encounter, we do conceive it, automatically and unconsciously. We spontaneously perceive what we encounter as something; we recognize it as something; we understand it by incorporating it into the conceptual system we use use to relate present experience to remembered and anticipated experiences. This conceptual system that interprets, interconnects and responds to experience is our philosophy. Using whatever philosophy we’ve developed or passively absorbed, we encounter transcendent reality and transform it into immanent truth.

With all useful things, the better it works, the less we notice it. To us, the world seems intrinsically intelligible, until something important comes along that isn’t intelligible.

When we encounter something real and important but unintelligible, it seems uncanny. It feels otherworldly, and often, dreadful. We feel apprehensive, because while we can apprehend our experience with the tips of our minds’ fingers, we cannot hold a form in our minds and comprehend it.

We must either comprehend it as intrinsically incomprehensible, and dismiss it as a literally otherworldly, as a mystery not for human minds to grasp, as something to which we non-relate as a purely transcendent otherness — or we must find some new way to conceive it, to enable us to relate to it in our human, knowing way.

To allow something (usually someone), transcendent (to us) to be become immanent (to us), we must extend philosophical hospitality, and invite the inconceivable into our midst.

But when we do this, when we acquire new conceptions for the sake of understanding some new particular thing, we frequently experience what religious people call transfiguration — the world as a whole is reconceived to accommodate this new understanding, and miraculously transforms in ways that are, in the most literal sense, inconceivable until it happens.

After it happens, radically new thoughts and perceptions irrupt into the world, half spontaneously, half actively.

*

This is why commitment to radical novelty and commitment to transcendence are identical.

Suddenly

Cassirer’s interrupted project

I am going to quote several pages from Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms that are highly relevant to my own project. I am going to break it up with comments of my own:

The “revolution in the way of thinking” that Kant undertook within theoretical philosophy was based on the basic idea that the relationship between cognition and its object, which has generally been assumed, required a radical inversion. Instead of starting out from the object as the known and given, it was, rather, necessary to begin with the laws of cognition as what alone, in a primary sense, is truly accessible and certain; instead of determining the most general properties of being, in the sense of ontological metaphysics, we must, through an analysis of reason, ascertain the basic forms of judgment as the condition under which objectivity alone is positable, ascertained, and determined in its manifold branches. According to Kant, only this analysis can disclose the conditions on which all knowledge of being and the pure concept of being depend. However, as the correlate of the synthetic unity of the understanding itself, the object, which the transcendental analytics situates before us in this way, is a pure logically determined object. As a result, it does not designate all objectivity as such, but only that form of objective lawfulness that can be grasped and exhibited by the basic concepts of science, particularly the concepts and basic principles of mathematical physics. Thus, as soon as Kant progresses, in the totality of the three critiques, to develop the true “system of pure reason,” he already proves that this form of objectivity is too narrow. The mathematical natural-scientific being, in its idealistic version and interpretation, does not exhaust all reality, because it is by no means concerned with all the effectiveness and spontaneity of spirit. In the intelligible realm of freedom, whose basic law is developed by the critique of practical reason, in the realm of art and the realm of organic natural forms, as exhibited in the critique of aesthetics and teleological judgment, a new aspect of this reality emerges.

In other words, the technical realm of scientific objectivity is not the only manifestation of reason.

This gradual unfolding of the critical-idealistic concept of reality and the critical-idealistic concept of spirit belongs to the most distinctive features of Kantian thinking and is grounded in a kind of stylistic law of this thinking. The proper, concrete totality of spirit is not designated in a simple formula and given, as it were, ready-made from the beginning; rather, it develops and finds itself only in the continuous advancing progress of critical analysis. The ambit of spiritual being can be designated and determined only as a result of being pursued in this process. It lies in the nature of this process not only that its beginning and end are broken asunder but also that they must apparently conflict with each other; however, the conflict is none other than that between potency and act, between the mere logical “predisposition” of a concept and its complete development and impact. From the standpoint of the latter, the Copernican revolution, with which Kant began, takes on a new and wider sense. It no longer refers only to the logical function of judgment but extends, with equal justification and right, to every tendency and every principle of spiritual configuration.

So Kant’s proto-constructivism, founded on his famous table of categories of truth, is not the last word on reason, but only the starting point for a dialectic unfolding, which expands well beyond the domain of positivism, and (fruitfully) conflicts with it.

The crucial question always remains whether we seek to understand the function by the formation or the formation by the function, which we choose to “ground” the other. This question forms the spiritual bond that connects the most diverse problem domains with one another; it constitutes their inner methodological unity, without ever letting them lapse into a factual one-and-the-sameness. For the basic principle of critical thinking, the principle of the “primacy” of the function over the object, assumes in each special domain a new shape and demands a new and dependent grounding. Alongside the pure function of cognition, there stands the function of linguistic thinking, the function of mythical-religious thinking, and the function of artistic intuition, comprehended in such a way as that it is evident how in all of them a specific configuration, not so much of the world as rather toward the world, toward an objective interconnection of sense and an objective-intuitive whole that can be apprehended as such takes place.

Verwindung?

With this, the critique of reason becomes a critique of culture. It seeks to understand and demonstrate how the content of culture, insofar as it is more than a merely individual content, insofar as it is grounded in a general principle of form, presupposes an original act of spirit. Herein the basic thesis of idealism finds its true and complete confirmation. As long as philosophical contemplation takes up the analysis of the pure form of cognition and limits itself to this task, the force of the naïve-realistic view of the world cannot be completely discredited. The object of cognition may in some way be after all determined and formed in and through cognition and its original law; however, beyond this relation, it must, nevertheless, also appear to be present and given as something independent of the basic categories of cognition.

This is why I picked up Cassirer. I knew he was a neokantian, and that his philosophy of symbol was intended to transcend logic and incorporate symbols of religion, art and other cultural forms. On that basis I suspected he would open up Kant’s table of categories, and find other principles of truth construction. Scientific objectivism is one key aspect of truth but it is neither adequate to account for all understanding, nor does it provide a grounding for reduction, unless we are simply uninterested in making the whole of experience “hang together” as a totality.

If, however, we begin not with the general concept of the world but rather from the general concept of culture, then the question immediately assumes a different shape. For the content of the concept of culture cannot be detached from the basic forms and tendencies of spiritual productivity: “being” is graspable here nowhere else than in “activity”.

In other words, it is only pragmatically (as opposed to ontologically) comprehensible. I’ve never thought of pragmatism as something opposed to ontology, or as a methodological alternative to ontology, but this morning I am seeing it that way. I think mine is a pragmatist metaphysics, interested less in what transcends us, than in how a finite being interacts with being understood as transcending its finitude, snd experiences such interactions. It is metaphysical because it concerns itself with transcendent being, but it chooses to not fruitlessly speculate on what is “behind the veil” but instead the properties of interactions that take place across the veil-line, especially the ones that surprise the anticipations, expectations and norms that comprise mundane existence.

Only insofar as there is a specific tendency of aesthetic fantasy and intuition is there a domain of aesthetic objects, and the same is valid for all of those other spiritual energies by virtue of which the form and outline of a specific domain of objects takes shape for us. Even religious consciousness, convinced as it is of the “reality”, the truth, of its object, transforms this reality into the lowest level, to the level of purely mythological thinking, into a simple tangible existence. At higher levels of contemplation, it is more or less clearly aware that it “has” its object only in that it relates to it in an absolutely distinctive way.

There it is again: “Higher levels of contemplation” (or at least folks who end up seeing religion from Cassirer’s standpoint) evolve from ontological to pragmatic metaphysics. We stop asking, “Does God exist?”, or even asking the better question “in what manner does God exist?”, and instead asking “how do I, a finite being, interact with being who I understand to be finite?” and “given this understanding, what are the practical implications for how I interact with fellow finite beings, who, after all, are finite parts of God’s infinitude and are the contact points — the very veil-line — between my finitude and God’s infinitude?”

The ultimate guarantee of this very objectivity is contained in a type of self-comportment, in the tendency that spirit gives to an intended objective. Philosophical thinking confronts all of these tendencies — not just with the intention to pursue each one of them separately or to survey them as a whole but also with the presupposition that it must be possible to refer them to a uniform focal point, to an ideal center. When regarded critically, however, this center can never be located in a given being, but only in a common task. Thus, with all their inner diversity, the different products of spiritual culture — language, scientific cognition, myth, art, and religion — become members of one large problem nexus: they become manifold approaches, all of which are oriented toward one goal: to transform the passive world of mere impressions, in which spirit at first seems imprisoned, into a world of pure spiritual expression.

In the margin of this last sentence, I wrote “interpression”, and though I still have not found my way into Whitehead (which is one of my unrealized ambitions!) I feel certain this coinage is Whiteheadian.

For just as the modern philosophy of language had established the concept of the inner form of language to secure the proper starting point for a philosophical consideration of language, so too it can be said that an analogous “inner form” of religion, myth, art, and scientific cognition is to be presupposed and sought. And this form would signify not simply the sum or subsequent combination of the individual appearances of these domains but also the conditioning law of their construction.

And this is why I’ve switched from reading Langer to reading Cassirer. Discursive versus presentational logic originated with Cassirer, or maybe with the Warburg Library.

Of course, in the end, there is no other way to assure ourselves of these laws than to demonstrate them in the appearances and “abstract” them from these appearances; however, at the same time, this very abstraction shows the laws to be a necessary and constitutive moment of the consistent content of the individuals.

I think there is another way. We can experiment with these forms in designerly ways. So I am pretty delighted that he did not consider this option, because this is exactly where I want to attempt to make a contribution.

In the course of its history, philosophy has remained more or less cognizant of the task of such an analysis and critique of the particular cultural forms; however, in most cases, it has taken up only part of this task and addressed it, to be sure, more in its negative than in its positive intention. The endeavor that went into this critique was often less about the presentation and grounding of the positive achievements of each individual form than it was about the defense of wrong claims. Since the days of the Greek Sophists, there has been a skeptical critique of language and a skeptical critique of myths and cognition. This essentially negative attitude becomes understandable if we consider that in fact every basic form of spirit, in that it appears and develops, is a unique endeavor to give itself not just in part but as a whole and consequently to claim for itself not a merely relative validity but rather an absolute validity. Not contenting itself with its special precinct, it seeks, rather, to imprint the distinctive stamp, with which it conducts itself, on the whole of being and spiritual life. The conflicts of culture and the antinomies of the concept of culture ensue from this striving for the unconditioned, which is inherent in every single tendency.

Cassirer was seen as excessively conciliatory, an accusation, I am proud to say, which has often be leveled at me. I think this kind of “excessive” liberalism is a consequence of genuine belief, a fully-internalized faith, in pluralism, one that is so serious it has come to understand and accept the importance of reductionism in normal thought, while refusing to accept it in oneself (or at least, not to tolerate it, once discovered).

Science originates in a form of contemplation that, before it could get going and assert itself, was everywhere compelled to establish those first combinations and separations of thinking that had found their earliest expression and sedimentation in language and in general linguistic concepts. However, in that it makes use of language as material and as a foundation, science at the same time necessarily proceeded beyond language. A new “logos,” which is guided and governed by a principle other than that of linguistic thinking, now emerges and forms itself ever-more clearly and independently. And measured by it, the formations of language now appear as restraints and limits that must gradually be overcome by the force and particular nature of the new principle. The critique of language and the linguistic thought-form becomes an integrated component of the advancement of scientific and philosophical thinking. And this typical course of development is repeated in the other domains. The individual-spiritual tendencies do not move peacefully side by side, seeking to complement one another; rather, each becomes what it is only by demonstrating its own peculiar force against the others and in a struggle with them.

Thus, agonism is a permanent condition of pluralism.

Reading Time of the Magicians, especially where Heidegger kicked Cassirer’s ass in public debate, I cannot help wondering, first, why we treat debates as decisive at all, especially when the debate is judged by students and fresh graduates with no life experience (such as the young Levinas, who ridiculed Cassirer’s performance at the time, and whose life was ruined by the ideology the wise and clever Heidegger chose to advocate!) — and finally, whether Heidegger’s path into the future wasn’t a wrong turn, based less on philosophical discernment, than on the illiberal taste of the Zeitgeist. Perhaps we should retrace our steps and see where Cassirer’s path might have led us.

Casting about, meandering toward my book

Right now I am in a painful flitting-about, casting-about intellectual mode.

I was reading Garfinkel’s classic Studies in Ethnomethodology, which I am excited to say I was able to understand clearly this time. However, once I picked up the logic of the method, the technical details of his studies strained and eventually broke my patience. At least now I can add sociology to my “academic disaster averted” file, along with architecture, computer science, HCI and philosophy, as graduate degrees I would have never made it through.

I was originally reading Garfinkel because I started feeling the importance of indexicality in my own project of trying to redescribe philosophy not as a search for truth but as a process of conceptual adaptation of who we are to the conditions we find ourselves in — a process that is perhaps most fruitfully conceived as design and best approached with design practices. A central piece of this project is accounting for how we perceive elements (people, objects, locations, words, symbols) in our environment and spontaneously intuit their significance within their context. Ethnomethodology provides a sociological lens for seeing how this meaning-making/-conveyance happens in particular social settings, and offers a vision for how this happens in general.

My interest is focused on conceptions, which I define as “mind moves” of various kinds, the intellectual equivalent of learning a dance or a tennis swing, which once we acquire it, immediately becomes an extension of our mind, and intercepts our sense data and assigns it relevance, all without any explicit intention or verbalization. In fact, I think conceptions direct our verbalizations by exactly the same means that it directs our use of tools.

I see perception, intuition of whole-and-part, interaction, communication as guided by conceptions, any of which might be changed, and which, when changed, can alter the meaning and experience of everything — that is, transfigure it. I want to outline a philosophy of intentional, responsible transfiguration of the world around us, as we inhabit it, understand it, interact with it, and shape it, what I’m calling enworldment. I see it as a sober variety of existentialism, with the adolescent recklessness, self-absorption and melodrama that dogs existentialism matured out of it, tempered by a cultivated sensitivity and respect for transcendence.

My main text now is Susanne Langer’s Philosophy In a New Key, which I am rereading the first time in ten years. I recall the impression that her thinking was pretty close to my own, and affirmed many ideas that I’d acquired elsewhere, perhaps influenced by her (for instance, Geertz, whose quotes from her book inspired me to read her) but that the big novel takeaway for me was her insight that non-discursive language-defiant forms of knowledge can be embedded or performed in art and religion. This also is an attempt to reckon with conceptions, which Langer conceptualizes in terms of symbols.

But this time through, at this time in world history, I’m attuned to the presence of one of her influences, Ernst Cassirer. I know him best as a central figure in a book I bought years ago and never read, A Parting of the Ways. I’ve been poking around trying to get a sense of him, and he seems like a good hero for a person like me in times like these. In his time, the twilight of the Weimar republic, he was perceived as a hopelessly idealistic and out-of-touch liberal. At that moment, the world was dividing into extreme ideological factions, all of whom agreed on nothing except one thing: the irrelevance of liberalism. Liberal-democracy was regarded by all advanced intellects as a played-out failure, and all those who remained loyal to it were backwards. The future belonged to either Marxism or Fascism, and the only remaining question was which was destined to be on the right side of history.

I picked up A Parting of the Ways and sampled it to see if I ought to read it, and this passage jumped out at me:

Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant aimed to show that the Critique of Pure Reason does not present a theory of knowl­edge and, in particular, that it does not present a theory of mathematical natural scientific knowledge. The real contribution of the Critique is rather to work out, for the first time, the problem of the laying of the ground for metaphysics — to articulate, that is, the conditions of the possibility of metaphysics. On this reading, Kant argues (in remarkable agreement with the main argument of Being and Time) that metaphysics can only be grounded in a prior analysis of the nature of finite human reason. As finite, the human intellect (unlike the divine intellect) is necessarily dependent on sensible intuition. Moreover, and here is where the true radicalism of Heidegger’s interpretation emerges, Kant’s introduction of the so-called transcendental schematism of the understanding has the effect of dissolving both sensibility and the intellect (the understand­ing) in a “common root,” namely, the transcendental imagination, whose ultimate basis (again in remarkable agreement with the argument of Being and Time) is temporality. And this implies, finally, that the traditional basis of Western metaphysics in logos, Geist, or reason is definitively destroyed.

In the ensuing disputation Cassirer begins by announcing his agreement with Heidegger concerning the fundamental importance of the transcendental imagination — interpreted, however, in accordance with Cassirer’s own philosophy of symbolic forms, as pointing to the fact that the (finite) human being is to be defined as the “symbolic animal.” But Cassirer strongly objects to the idea that we as “symbolic animaIs” are thereby limited to the “arational” sphere of finitude. For Kant himself has shown how the finite human creature can nevertheless break free from finitude into the realm of objectively valid, necessary and eternal truths both in moral experience and in mathematical natural science. On this basis, Cassirer asks Heidegger whether he really wants to renounce such objectivity and to maintain instead that ail truth is relative to Dasein (the concrete finite human being). Heidegger, for his part, acknowledges the importance of this question, but he continues to reject the idea of any “breakthrough” into an essentially nonfinite realm. On the contrary, philosophy’s true mission — and our true freedom — consists precisely in renouncing such traditional illusions and holding fast to our essential finitude (our “hard fate”).

This put me on the edge of my chair. But I had questions about some of Kant’s terminology. What exactly is a “sensible intuition”? That led me to a paper by Marcus Willaschek, “The Sensibility of Human Intuition: Kant’s Causal Condition on Accounts of Representation”, and this slab of clarity, which I feel sure will allow me to make better use of Kantian language.

(SU1) Human beings can come to entertain mental representations in one of two
ways: either (a) as a result of an object’s causal impact on our minds (an affection of our “Gemüt”) or (b) as a result of some “spontaneous” activity of “uniting” various representations into a new one (cf. A 68, B 93).

(SU2) The capacity to come to represent something as a result of (SU1a) is a kind
of “receptivity” that Kant calls “ sensibility” (A 19, B 33).

(SU3) The capacity to come to represent something as a result of (SU1b) is a kind
of “spontaneity” called “understanding” (A 19, B 33).

(SU4) There are two basic kinds of “objective” representations (i.  e. represen­
tations that purport to represent objects other than a subjective state of mind), namely intuitions and concepts (A 19, B 33; cf. A 320, B 377).

(SU5) Intuitions are singular representations (that is, representations of par­
ticulars as such); through intuitions our minds do not refer to objects by means of general marks and therefore refer immediately (A 19, B 33).4
(SU6) Concepts are general representations (that is, they represent objects only
indirectly insofar as they exhibit “marks” potentially shared by other objects) (A 19, B 33).

(SU7) All intuitions in humans are sensible (A 51, B 75, cf. A 68, B 93); that is,
they arise from affections of our “sensibility” (A 19, B 33).5 Thus, human intuitions essentially involve a moment of passivity; through them, objects are “given” to us (A 19, B 33, cf. A 68, B 93).

(SU8) All concepts are intellectual; that is, with respect to concepts, our minds
are spontaneously active. Through them, objects are actively thought by us by uniting various representations of them under a common one (A 19, B 33, cf. A 68, B 93).

(SU9) Human cognition requires both intuitions and concepts (A 51, B 75). (Very
roughly, concepts provide cognition with a content that can be true or false and stand in rational relations; intuition provides the link to reality or, as Kant puts it in the Critique of Judgment, to “objects” corresponding to our concepts; cf. 5:401.)

Sensible intuitions are the stuff of indexicality, which are, in turn, the stuff of understanding — and all of these are constrained by conceivability — our reperoire of conceptions. I think Kant’s famous table was meant as an exhaustive inventory of possible conceptions, but my taste inclines me to treat the table as a beginning of an expanding set with no determinate limits.

So now I’m curious about Willaschek. I see he has a new book out, which looks interesting and useful: Kant on the Sources of Metaphysics: The Dialectic of Pure Reason. I’ve downloaded a copy to read, and I can already tell I’m going to need this in my library.

Anyway, anyone who has made it this far, can see why I am perpetually out of both time and money.

I hope this also sheds a little more light onto what I am hoping to get at in my Philosophy of Design of Philosophy book project. What I am after reading Langer, Cassirer and others, including maybe (but hopefully not!) Kant, is to offload the burden of arguing a theory of conceptualization and instead to build upon a platform of existing theory to advocate approaching philosophy as a design medium, to develop an outline for how it is done, and to describe first-person what can be expected practicing philosophical enworldment this way, because it is truly weirder than hell to go through and demands explanation.

Exnihilist manifesto

What is inconceivable to you is nothing to you.

Conception of the formerly inconceivable makes existence immerge from nothingness.

*

A witness of ex nihilo creation no longer trusts nothingness: infinity’s backglow betrays it.

Any apparent nothingness might be a blind-spot concealing a novel everythingness.

Witnessing ex nihilo creation transforms nihilists into exnihilists.

What is fruitfulness?

Nick was asked by an old colleague to provide a simple, universally applicable definition of fruitfulness.

Earlier, I would have pointed to Thomas Kuhn’s paper on theory choice, where fruitfulness, along with accuracy, consistency, scope and simplicity, was a characteristic that might make a theory more attractive to a scientist, depending (scandalously!) on that scientist’s taste in theories. About fruitfulness Kuhn said “a theory should be fruitful of new research findings: it should, that is, disclose new phenomena or previously unnoted relationships among those already known.” In a footnote he added “The last criterion, fruitfulness, deserves more emphasis than it has yet received. A scientist choosing between two theories ordinarily knows that his decision will have a bearing on his subsequent research career. Of course he is especially attracted by a theory that promises the concrete successes for which scientists are ordinarily rewarded.” He could have added the point that a fruitful theory is likely to win attention from other scientists seeking fertile ground for their own work, and consequently generating citations, the currency of academia.

But Nick uses the term “fruitful” in a distinctly different and more interesting sense. His usage goes beyond simply showing new phenomena or connections among known phenomena, or even pointing to new areas to research. What he means is close to what I’ve talked about in terms of conceiving what was, prior to the conception, inconceivable — a conception which frees insoluble problems to solve themselves.

Nick, however is less interested in the production of novel solutions, than he is in the discovery of novel problems. Of course, each novel problem has the potential to yield novel solutions. But, also, inside novel solutions are the seeds of an unforeseen novel problems. Fruitful production produces products that contain the seeds of future production. (No wonder we call fruit “produce”.) It is like Hegel turned inside-out, where instead of new ideas containing the seeds of their destruction converging to one Absolute, they instead contain the seeds of invention diverging to an infinite Plurality. Where Hegel sees decaying fruit, Nick sees another generation of sapling born to effloresce.

Since Nick gave the word “fruitful” this new tilt, Susan and I have both adopted it, and it has become a household term in our odd household.

Of course, I had to go on and name a philosophy whose aim is fruitfulness “fructivism” — a word with unavoidable phonetic associations with other reproductive language, which polite souls see as a drawback, but for me seals the deal.

So, given this conception of fruitfulness, how can we define fruitfulness simply, universally (meaning not only for philosophers or design innovators) and accessibly?

Yesterday, Nick and I collaborated on this problem. We worked iteratively, starting with the essential elements — conceptions, reconceptions, unforeseeability/surprise, novelty, an inexhaustible, perpetual process of production, creativity generativity — and we spiraled in on a two-word definition.

Spiral 1: The generation of new practical possibilities through reconception of a problem space.

Spiral 2: Creativity born of conception of what was inconceivable.

Spiral 3: Reconceptive creativity. Creative reconception.

Spiral 4: Generative reconception.

*

The more I think about fruitfulness and fructivism the more I realize that its significance exceeds its definition. At its unsayable core is a taste — a taste for inexhaustible possibility, for non-determination, for radical unpredictability, for freedom.

I feel certain the last two generations of Americans have been deprived of this feeling and are starving for it without even knowing it. A taste of it will go up like a spark in a granary.

Sophia contingens

I’m digging through old posts where I mentioned sophia, looking for a Nietzsche quote on taste, where he links taste to wisdom. One striking pattern: a great many of these posts were abandoned but kept private (as opposed to left in draft form, which is what I generally do with with writing I think is good, but is still too strange and vulnerable.) It appears the topic of sophia inspires me in difficult directions.

Since I appear not to have done it already,  below is a  quotation chord on wisdom and taste. These quotes are some of the principle sources for my central belief that philosophy can — and ought to be — regarded as a design discipline, whose purpose is existentialist (taking full responsibility for our own being and actions) and whose methods are pragmatist (that ideas are best understood in their uses, rather than in their definitions). A good philosophy — one that is useful, usable and desirable — helps produce an enworldment that helps reality seem understandable, manageable and worthwhile, and which, like any good tool, disappears in its ready-to-hand use, but is beautiful when contemplated as a present-at-hand artifact. A sense of reality that feels chaotic, irrational, doomed, hostile or depressing ought to be critiqued and dissolved in skeptic acid to clear ground for a redesign and consequent religious conversion. We do not have to inhabit a confusing, chaotic, hell, unless we cleave to naive and malfunctioning philosophies that tell us we must.

*

“Blessed are those who possess taste, even though it be bad taste! — And not only blessed: one can be wise, too, only by virtue of this quality; which is why the Greeks, who were very subtle in such things, designated the wise man with a word that signifies the man of taste, and called wisdom, artistic and practical as well as theoretical and intellectual, simply ‘taste’ (sophia).” — Nietzsche, Assorted Opinions and Maxims

*

“The sense of taste has, as the true mediating sense, often persuaded the other senses over to its own view of things and imposed upon them its laws and habits. One can obtain information about the subtlest mysteries of the arts at a meal-table: one has only to notice what tastes good, when it tastes good, what it tastes good after and for how long it tastes good.” — Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow

*

“Change in common taste is more important than that in opinions; opinions along with proofs, refutations, and the whole intellectual masquerade are only symptoms of a changed taste and most certainly not what they are so often taken to be, its causes. How does common taste change? Through individuals powerful, influential, and without any sense of shame — who announce and tyrannically enforce… the judgement of their taste and disgust: thus they put many under pressure, which gradually turns into a habit among even more and finally becomes a need of everyone. The reason why these individuals sense and ‘taste’ differently is usually found in a peculiarity of their lifestyle, nutrition, digestion… in short, in their physis {nature}: they have the courage to own up to their physis and to heed its demands down to its subtlest tones. Their aesthetic and moral judgements are such ‘subtlest tones’ of the physis. — Nietzsche, The Gay Science

*

“The word ‘taste’ has perhaps got too completely associated with arbitrary liking to express the nature of judgments of value. But if the word be used in the sense of an appreciation at once cultivated and active, one may say that the formation of taste is the chief matter wherever values enter in, whether intellectual, esthetic or moral. Relatively immediate judgments, which we call tact or to which we give the name of intuition, do not preclude reflective inquiry, but are the funded products of much thoughtful experience. Expertness of taste is at once the result and the reward of constant exercise of thinking. Instead of there being no disputing about tastes, they are the one thing worth disputing about, if by ‘dispute’ is signified discussion involving reflective inquiry. Taste, if we use the word in its best sense, is the outcome of experience brought cumulatively to bear on the intelligent appreciation of the real worth of likings and enjoyments. There is nothing in which a person so completely reveals himself as in the things which he judges enjoyable and desirable. Such judgments are the sole alternative to the domination of belief by impulse, chance, blind habit and self-interest. The formation of a cultivated and effectively operative good judgment or taste with respect to what is esthetically admirable, intellectually acceptable and morally approvable is the supreme task set to human beings by the incidents of experience.” — John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty

*

“One of the most gifted scientists I know, Dr. Jerry Edelman of Rockefeller University, who became a Nobel Laureate in his early thirties, told me that he is convinced that the instrument of discovery in science is not mathematics; it is taste. And what he meant was that there is an order to everything in life — an order to the universe, an order in our bodies, an order in the structure of all things. And what is taste but an intuitive sensing of that order which takes the innovative scientist beyond his knowledge to a new truth, a new frontier. That is why the breakthrough scientist is essentially a poet with an insight into what must be and the imagination to reach that new frontier with a theory, an idea.” — Bill Bernbach, legendary advertising man

*

“What, I ask to begin with, 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. If they had not been, I would have devoted far more space to them in my book, for I agree entirely with the traditional view that they play a vital role when scientists must choose between an established theory and an upstart competitor. Together with others of much the same sort, they provide the shared basis for theory choice.” — Thomas Kuhn, “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice”

*

“To be sure: among scholars who are really scientific men things may be different —  ‘better,’ if you like — , there you may really find something like a drive for knowledge, some small independent clockwork that, once well wound, works on vigorously without any essential participation from all the other drives of the scholar. The real ‘interests’ of the scholar therefore lie usually somewhere else, in his family, say, or in making money, or in politics; indeed, it is almost a matter of total indifference whether his little machine is placed at this or that spot in science, and whether the ‘promising’ young worker turns himself into a good philologist or an expert on fungi or a chemist: — it does not characterize him that he becomes this or that. In the philosopher conversely, there is nothing whatever that is impersonal; and above all his morality bears decided and decisive witness to who he is — that is, in what order of rank the innermost drives of his nature stand in relation to each other.” — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

*

“Consider how every individual is affected by an overall philosophical justification of his way of living and thinking — he experiences it as a sun that shines especially for him and bestows warmth, blessings, and fertility on him, it makes him independent of praise and blame, self-sufficient, rich, liberal with happiness and good will; incessantly it fashions evil into good, leads all energies to bloom and ripen, and does not permit the petty weeds of grief and chagrin to come up at all. In the end then one exclaims: Oh how I wish that many such new suns were yet to be created! Those who are evil or unhappy and the exceptional human being — all these should also have their philosophy, their good right, their sunshine! What is needful is not pity for them! — we must learn to abandon this arrogant fancy, however long humanity has hitherto spent learning and practicing it — what these people need is not confession, conjuring of souls, and forgiveness of sins! What is needful is a new justice! And a new watchword! And new philosophers! The moral earth, too, is round! The moral earth, too, has its antipodes! The antipodes, too, have the right to exist! There is yet another world to be discovered — and more than one! Embark, philosophers!” — Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Reconceiving conceptions, part 1

A note on word choice: I am experimenting with using the word “conception” in place of “concept”. A conception is a conceiving move that produces a concept. A concept can be one of any number of artifacts, all of which can be viewed as alike in that they are produced and reproduced (comprehended) by the same conception.

*

If you think about it — and few of us do — thinking is an extremely mysterious activity.

Thinking is never more mysterious than at the edges of intelligibility, where, in order to think with any coherence, clarity or conviction, a thinker must first find new ways to make clear unified sense of material that is fragmentary, murky and perplexing. These new ways of making coherent sense are conceptions.

When one lacks conceptions needed for thinking, conceptions stand starkly absent. It is similar to how we suddenly become hyper-aware of our reliance on a humble body part, like a little toe, once it is injured or stops functioning, or how much we use a utility when service is interrupted, and we keep mindlessly flipping on light-switches even though the electricity is out.

It is when conceptions and thinking breaks down that we think about the activity thinking and experience how mysterious it is.

For normal people, the experience of grappling with inconceivability is relatively rare. Most things make sense most of the time — or at least most relevant things make sense. Of course, many things remain incomprehensible, inexplicable, irrational, confusing, frustrating, chaotic, crazy or mysterious — but these things tend to be pushed out to the margins. They are labeled “irrelevant” and ignored. Or they are labeled as “evil” or “delusional” and condemned or despised. Or they may be labeled “mysteries” and placed beyond human comprehension, for wonder, contemplation or worship. Generally, nothing short of catastrophe or crisis is sufficient to motivate a person to reconceive and understand something that defies comprehension.

Normally, normal people rely almost exclusively on ready-made conceptions to produce whatever thoughts they think, and to form whatever beliefs they hold. Infinitesimally few beliefs are produced by thinking. Nearly all beliefs are conceived automatically, in perception. Most conception occurs prior to thought, habitually and invisibly, in the continuous act of perception, where conceptions intercept and conceptually format sensations prior to any conscious thinking. When perceptions cohere autonomously in a form that lends itself to effortless intelligibility — self-evident truth — truth and reality are indistinguishable. This state of mind is called “naive realism.”

Is naive realism bad? Many will insist “yes” but this judgment is itself the product of conception — perhaps, ironically, a habitual and unconsidered conception of precisely the kind it disparages.

Naive realism can also be conceived as an ideal. This is what I intend to argue, and I intend to argue it from a highly abnormal angle: that of a design strategist.

*

I mentioned that normal people normally do not think about thinking nor the conceptions they have at their disposal for perceiving and conceiving truth, and I referred to design strategists as abnormal in this respect.

Design strategists are forced to think about thinking, conceptions, perceptions all the time. A total breakdown of thought and attempts to resolve the breakdown and resume thought is just part of the work.

This is because design strategists are crisis agents. We are primarily hired to resolve crises, or to create crises in order to help organizations innovate, differentiate or disrupt their industries and throw their competitors into crisis, all for the sake of gaining competitive advantage.

Design strategists are professional crisis mongers. The most important component of such crisis mongering is design research, and the ideal outcome of design research is what I call “precision inspiration”.

Explaining strategic design research and precision inspiration provides context for understanding why strategic design demands thinking about thinking.

*

The best way to explain design research is pragmatically, presenting it in terms of what it does. And since design research was formed in the crucible of business, let’s discuss what it does in terms of benefits, using the preferred genre of the business world, the sales pitch.

What are the benefits of design research?

First, and most obviously, design research informs decisions. It helps organizations identify opportunities for improvement. It helps them understand precisely what can and should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that efforts to improve things have their intended effect. And these improvements are not only for customers, but for all people involved in the organization — customers, employees, partners, leaders, investors and any other kind of stakeholder. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right”. Research improves the product of an organization.

Second, design research looks at opportunities through the lens of an organization’s capabilities, and especially those capabilities unique to the organization and therefore potentially differentiating. The improvements found are improvements only this organization is able to provide. Research differentiates the product of an organization. The product is not just better — it is uniquely better, and this organization is the only one able to provide it.

These first two benefits supply the “precision” part of precision inspiration. They focus effort on a sharply-defined problematic region, where potential value is most concentrated.

Third, design research provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. Morale-sapping doubts are answered, freeing participants to invest energy into the project, optimistic that their efforts will bear fruit. Design research helps organizations align and improves efficiency and effectiveness of production.

Fourth, design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which lays the political groundwork for the climax of this pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of conceptions enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and the limits our capacity to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new conceptions are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more conceptions must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of conceptions learned and to link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing conceptions, so in effect each team is forced to create a new conception-system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new conceptions cause novel possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo — possibilities were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas — even new goals, purposes, values — resulting from the acquisition of new conceptions is, in fact, precisely what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through precise understanding of specific people and and specific organizations) than ideas produced by the general truisms of industry conventional wisdom. Because industry conventional wisdom processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same old, same-old: safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

This new, previously inconceivable way of conceiving precisely what this organization can do for precisely these people the organization exists to serve, conceived in a way that makes this problem thinkable in a shared way for all people involved in the effort and aligns them in solving it is precision inspiration.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

Doing research in this way, day in, day out, year in, year out changes one’s conceptions of conceptions and forces us to rethink how thinking works. A life of producing myriad small, specialized philosophies for specific problems eventually produces a comprehensive general philosophy that expands far beyond the limits of business, or any compartmented life activity and changes one’s view of everything.

In other words, it becomes a fundamental philosophy: a philosophy of design of philosophy.

*

To be continued… Design should be invisible, and so should be our conceptions!

Reconceiving concept

Concept. Con- + -cept. Together-take.

A concept takes together a multiplicity as a unit.

Concepts do not have form; concepts give form.

It is not possible to give an example of a concept. Concepts can only be demonstrated.

Most of what we say about concepts, and the way we use the term “concept” is pure category mistake, ontological confusion. We misunderstand the kind of thing a concept is, and the practical consequences proceeding from this misunderstanding generates profuse unintelligibility.

How do we acquire a concept? We follow what it does. We follow an argument, an analogy, a story, a pattern, a system, until we pick it up, and reproduce it in ourselves. We follow along, and then we get it. We are initiated into the concept and start using it.

Really well-conceived concepts become habits, and are no longer guided by language or by intention. They guide language and participate in our intentions. They become imperceptible extensions of our personal being, reflected in our experience of reality.

Concepts are intellectual concavities, and this is one reason why we so often resort to spatial metaphors when speaking of concepts. We enter concepts, inhabit them, and look out from them, perceive from them, understand from them, experience from them, respond from them. Concepts are not convex objects that we can grasp. Concepts are that by which we grasp.

Concepts comprehend. Concepts are not comprehended, though truths are comprehended when a concept is received or conceived.

Do we conceive an idea? I would prefer a more finely-articulated account, that includes invisible, silent, but crucially important moral deeds: We face an incomprehensible situation. We try to comprehend it, despite the fact that we have no plan, principles or precedents to help us comprehend it. We enter the void of inconceivability; we undergo perplexity. “We do not know how to move around” in perplexity. We cannot even state the problem we are trying to solve or the question we need to ask, much less answer it. So we grope. We follow faint hunches. We try, fail, try, fail. We follow our noses and our guts. We cannot say what or who guides us, but we are guided, very subtly. If we keep our heads — if we refuse to turn around and flee back to old, familiar, inadequate concepts — if we stay alert to inaudibly quiet voices speaking in native languages of our most private personhood, we somehow conceive a way to think the inconceivable, and a concept is born. The concept then comprehends the situation and generates an idea. But our coarse, public words leap to “I had an idea.”

Concepts are conceived, not comprehended. But often when we acquire a concept we re-conceive it and become able to comprehend that by which the concept was demonstrated, we bolt right on past the demonstration and enjoy having an effusion of ideas of our own, that, suddenly, miraculously, erupt — having been made possible through this new concept.

When we are taught a concept, often we only credit the teacher teaching us the content of the demonstration. We credit ourselves for the outpouring of new ideas, inspired by this little nugget of truth. We are inspired, become creative, and revel in our new powers of insights and invention.

The modest nugget of truth that conveys a concept through demonstration, initiates a learner into new possibilities of thought inconceivable prior to the insight, and inspires myriad acts of creativity — could this be the philosopher’s stone?

Until we acquire a concept, all ideas comprehended by the concept are incomprehensible, or even more often they are misunderstood — that is, they are grasped using concepts that comprehend its content in a different and conflicting way. Even meaningful artifacts, whose meaning is known, felt or otherwise accessed by way of an alien concept, are opaque until the concept is acquired.

Well-conceived concepts form systems of cooperating concepts. They function together, harmonize together, corroborate and reinforce one another, combine to make coherent sense of things. Such concept systems make “things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Concept systems, which use concepts to select and connect other concepts, are philosophies.

As with simpler concepts, philosophies cannot be given directly. They are always demonstrated. When a philosophy is demonstrated, it is necessarily demonstrated using content, but what animates the demonstration — the movements of concept — is the real substance of the philosophy. When the concepts are received the content of the philosophy is comprehended, and, more often than not, confused for the philosophy.

I learned to conceive concepts this way from Nietzsche. I would read his arguments and aphorisms, puzzle over them, turn them this way and that, entertain them, fight them, connect them in various ways, and generally struggle to make coherent sense of what he was saying. He would reduce me to despair, which would cling to my entire lived experience for days and weeks. The unresolved perplexities would pile up and intensify. Then he would resolve one of the perplexities with a tiny crystalline insight. This little seed of a clue would instantly resolve the problem perfectly, then explode beyond the problem, resolving myriad known and unknown perplexities, so rapidly and comprehensively it was nearly impossible to keep track of the knowledge that suddenly was just existent, appearing ex nihilo. Even well-understood knowledge would be blasted apart, evaporated and reconstituted in new significance. And the change went beyond knowledge, too, into capacities for understanding. Truths that had been incomprehensible just seconds before were now perfectly obvious.. I found myself inventing completely new ideas, brilliant ideas, inspired by earlier aphorisms or images. …But then I would read on, and there it would be, typed out, verbatim: one of my original thoughts. Nietzsche was somehow inducing these original thoughts, then proving that it was intentional, in some inconceivable way.

Two problems arose from this experience. The first was the hardest. I found my reconstituted philosophy disturbingly resistant to language. I was unable to convey what I knew, and even the things I knew in this new way were misunderstood entirely by the people around me. And worse, when I would try to convey what I understood, it inflicted terrible anxiety,. People wanted to not know what I so badly needed to say, and it was excruciating. I was intellectually imprisoned. I called it “solitary confinement in plain sight” The loneliness was crushing. But the second problem became the kernel of a more mature philosophy that wanted to understand and articulate how Nietzsche was able to write this way, and what it meant about the human condition and reality itself.

Eventually, after many reconceptions, a few very deep transformative ones, and many smaller localized ones, I began to think of concepts and philosophies as inexhaustible levers for changing our fundamental experience of life, and for opening new possibilities for materially changing the world in ways that might be wiser than if we immediately leap to fixing what seems obviously broken in obvious ways. And then I realized: this is what we always do when we design.

There is a crucially important step that occurs in human centered design after user research and before detailed design where we attempt to make sense of what we learn and put it into a form conducive to shaping and motivating design work. Traditionally, it has been called concept, but the word “concept” normally denotes an artifact, an object, a prototype, a model. The process of getting to that concept is often hellish, and often in proportion to the depth of the research. Teams are gripped in anxiety. I realized design concepts have exactly the characteristics I listed above. The “concept” demonstrates a concept so team members can pick it up and use it to guide their design work.

To be continued…

“Precision inspiration”

When people ask me what design research is, my favorite answer is “precision inspiration”.

I know this might seem slightly business romantic, but my meaning is exact, clear, concrete — even a bit technical.

*

I’ll start by explaining what research is pragmatically, in terms of what it does. And because I’m a business guy, I’ll explain what it does in terms of its benefits. In other words, I’ll start with a sales pitch.

First, design research helps inform decisions. It helps teams identify opportunities for improvements. It helps us understand what should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that the work has its intended effect. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right.” Research improves the product.

Second, design research also provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. And morale-sapping doubts about the project can be quelled, so participants can invest real energy into the project, in the expectation that their efforts will produce a positive outcome. Design research done well is organizational alignment magic. Research improves the efficiency of production.

Design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which gets us closer to the climax of my pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of conceptions enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and our ability to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new concepts are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more conceptions must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of concepts learned and link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing conceptions, so, in effect, teams are forced to create new conception systems — small, local philosophies tailored to a project — that makes problems intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo, that were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas resulting from the acquisition of new concepts is in fact what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through understanding users or customers) than ideas produced by industry conventional wisdom that, because it processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same-old, safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

 

Religious worldview

What makes a worldview religious? Here is a list of what I believe to be essential characteristics:

  • It is holistic. It effects near-total shifts in perspective, holistically changing the What, How and Why of existence.
  • It is transfigural. it spontaneously changes and seems to re-create both one’s self and the world — the visceral sense of who one is, who others are, what life is, what reality is and the relationship between self, other and everything.
  • It intensifies value. The shift in Why expands and/or deepens the value of life and reality itself.
  • It is transcendent. The worldview is oriented by realities that are understood to transcend comprehension.
  • It defies preconception.. The worldview is literally inconceivable until it happens.
  • It is second-natural. The worldview is not consciously used or applied; it spontaneously changes one’s experience of being prior to thinking. Insofar that one’s beliefs change, this is a byproduct of one’s faith, that tacit layer of understanding that shapes and moves thinking, speaking, feeling and doing.
  • It links us to a community. The worldview is capable of relating to others in a community who share our faith, even when our beliefs, thoughts and tastes differ. Something is shared, and this commonality is known to be real, even when it defies explication.

So far, so good. Now I will infuriate religious people by insisting that many allegedly essential characteristics of religion are dispensable.

  • It does not have to be theistic. A religious worldview can center around God, but God is only one way of conceiving transcendence.
  • It is not about believing. Beliefs about beings, deities, forces, events, theories might be a side-effect of a religious faith, but these are not the substance of religion, and all too often are counterfeits of religious faith.
  • It does not have to include magic. Adoption of magical or mystical beliefs or practices (rituals, sacrifices, prayers, observances) might be adopted as an expression or reinforcement of a religious faith, but these are also not the substance of religion, and all too often are counterfeits of religious life.
  • It is not a means to an end. Adopting religion in order to get something or accomplish something for oneself or the world — again, a goal of this kind can be a side-effect of religious faith, but more often, they are counterfeits.

I believe that many people who think they are religious are not, many people who think they are atheists are far more religious than they know, that many people who think they’ve overcome fundamentalism (which is counterfeit religion) still believe new secular content with the same fundamentalist faith, and that people need religion and are tormented by the wrongness of the world until they find it.

Fructivism

My friend Nick Gall hates being called a fructivist, but not only is he one, he was the first one, because he invented it.

Here’s my own sloppy definition of fructivism:

Fructivism is an ethic that prioritizes fruitfulness — the proliferation of creative possibilities — over more traditional virtues.

I needed to define fructivism because I need to use it to restate an old thought that can be said way more elegantly in fructivist language.

The best, most mutually satisfying act of listening is not an altruistic “I’m listening to you because I want you to feel listened to,” or “I’m listening to you because I want to understand who you are,” but rather a fructivist “I’m listening to you because I think there is creative potential in us putting our heads together.” That creative potential might be a new idea, or a new plan — or it might be the creation of a new, better relationship: a shared We.

The shared We, in which each person plays a constrained part within a transcendent whole, created through participation, especially through dialogue, is the fructivist analogue to altruistic care for an Other. According to this view, care for Other outside of actual personal relationship is more an affair of an isolated self with its own imagination (including an abstract sense of justice) than it is concern for any real, existing person. There is nothing wrong with imagined Others and abstract principles of justice, but they should not be confused with caring for people or with love.

Any man (or woman) who tells a woman (or man) that if she will be happier without him than with him, that she should leave, because he only wants her to be happy demonstrates that 1) he hasn’t figured out what love is, 2) probably doesn’t understand what a relationship is enough to cultivate one, and 3) does not value her enough to try even harder to create a more compelling We with her, and consequently, that she should leave and stop wasting her time living an affectionate coexistence with him. He might “love” her the same way he politically cares about Others while enjoying her or even being addicted to her physicality.

This same opposition explains why charity is humiliating to recipients, and often inspires antipathy instead of gratitude. Giving should be an investment in We, not a mere transfer of resources from a wealthy powerful person to a person so needy and weak the charitable giver doesn’t even want reciprocity or relationship. From a fructivist perspective, charity contains an overtone of rejection and an undertone of contempt.

Synesse revision

I largely rewrote the synesse entry in my Designerly virtues article. “Designerly virtues” is one of the most important things I’ve written this year, and it will be the kernel of Second Natural.

One other note: I think Design Instrumentalism is an updated form of existentialism — a pragmatic existentialism that uses design methods.

The new synesse entry: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

 

The earlier version was: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

Designerly virtues

In my decades of design work, collaborating with a wide variety of people from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds, personalities and workstyles, I’ve noticed that the attitudes most helpful for doing good design work are often reversals of conventional virtues.  I’ve developed a habit of humorously flouting these common virtues and valorizing their opposites.

Over time, this exaggerated oppositional attitude has become my own weird style of professionalism, and these inverted vices have become what I am calling designerly virtues. This post will be a first draft of a list of designerly virtues.

Cooriginality — Designers prize dialogical creativity over individual creativity. We are proud to have contributed to new ideas that pack more insight and expertise than can fit inside the mind of any one person. Cooriginality challenges the modern ideal of the self-sufficient lone genius, who hatches original ideas with no help from anyone.

Epistemic humility — Designers are so accustomed to being wrong, that they eventually become cheerful about the inevitability of being refuted, usually where they least expect it. This acceptance of inevitable error is the mark of experience, not pride that one’s theories will be proved correct. Epistemic humility challenges the desire to be the guy who’s alway one step ahead, who knew all along.

The following three virtues are probably components of epistemic humility, or examples of it:

  • Impertise — Impertise is the opposite of expertise. I guess I could have called it anti-expertise. It is a kind of receptive “beginner’s mind” attitude that constantly tries to perceive all possible novelty in what a more superficial expert glance might dismiss as a redundant, derivative reinvention of the wheel. An impert will try, and almost always find something unprecedented, significant and exciting, to inspire cooriginal creativity. Impertise complements the ideal of expertise, which surveys every situation, classifies it and prescribes a known solution, by adding a critical awareness of expertise’s current limits.
  • Blindsight — Everyone has blind spots. The most perverse characteristic of blind spots is they are blind most of all to themselves. Right this minute you have two blindspots in your field of vision where a optical nerve pokes through each of your retinas, and in each region your vision is interrupted? See it? No, you don’t. When we are blind, literally or metaphorically our vision continues, uninterrupted, right across what we are failing to see — the unknown unknowns — and nothing seems amiss. Blindsight is insight into how blindness really works, and abandonment of the effort to map our blindnesses and compensate with theoretical knowledge, because more often than not, our blindness conceals where we are most blind. Blindsight relies instead on one’s peers — especially the ones we conflict with most — to point out realities to which we are truly oblivious, and think simply do not exist. Blindsight challenges the ideal of corrected vision — the notion that through conscientious calculation, scrupulous adherence to technique and using un-distorting “lenses” we can adequately neutralize our worst subjective blindnesses, biases, and train ourselves to perceive more objectively and justly.
  • Receptivity to be taught — Everyone wants to be a teacher, but the best teachers have something to teach precisely because they have been receptive learners. This is very different from knowing how to inform oneself, which leaves the learner in control. To be taught is to submit to learning: to allow an other to control how the information is presented. Every subject of study has its own effective ways to present its own distinctive kind of knowledge. A math student who comes to a poetry class to interrogate the teacher on the theorems and proofs of verse creates needless obstacles. Human subjects share this characteristic with academic subjects: it is best to invite the teacher to teach, then hand over control. But this is a rare and difficult art especially for people who strongly prefer to play the role of the teacher. Receptivity to be taught complements the ideal of taking the role of teacher.

Phronesis — Phronesis is tacit know-how acquired through hands-on experience. Being tacit, phronesis doesn’t always lend itself to explicit language, but rather, demonstrates itself in practice. When people who understand theory very clearly and who can explain it eloquently, struggle to apply that theory effectively and to adjust their methods to fit contingencies, phronesis is what is lacking. Another reason phronesis is important is “intuitive” design harnesses existing or easily-acquired phronesis to enable users to skillfully interact with a system without having to explicitly figure out or memorize how. Phronesis complements theory with tacit skills that enable mastery of theoretical and physical systems as well as effective improvisation where explicit methods are not available.

Apprehension tolerance — Sartre was right when he said “hell is other people.” Trying to align with other people on how to think about phenomena with no pre-fab interpretation is an intensely anxious undertaking, and frankly, it freaks many people out. Experienced designers learn how to handle this apprehension, and in fact come to see in it a symptom of impending breakthrough, especially when breakthrough seems impossible. Apprehension is the birth pangs of profound insights. With practice we learn how to breathe, relax and deliver radically new ideas. Apprehension tolerance challenges the ideal of the peacemaker who steps in and defuses tension and conflict and restores harmony.

Principled disloyalty — Many designers are afraid to be excited or attached to new ideas, because these ideas might turn out to be wrong, infeasible or otherwise inadequate. But design is inspired and propelled by precisely this excitement and commitment. A good solution to this dilemma is to cultivate an equal and opposite proud and disciplined readiness to reject a beloved idea when it is time to say goodbye. The virtue of principled disloyalty challenges two ideals at once: 1) the passionate champion of the believed-in ideal, and 2) the objective detached rationalist who holds no strong position, out of fear of becoming a passionate champion.

Personal goodwill — Good designers must care more about their colleagues and the people they serve more than their own ideas, and must constantly reaffirm this commitment: “I care more about you and my relationship with you than I care about any of my ideas.” This kind of goodwill is absolutely necessary to do the deep, challenging and often painful work of design. The ideal of personal goodwill challenges the ideal of the true believer whose principles, creed, or ideals matter more than anything else in the world.

Pluralist comparison — There are many good solutions to any problem. Those who believe there is only one ideal solution will be tempted to cling to the first eureka. Sometimes that first solution turns out to be the best. But teams that keep going often find other solutions to consider, and sometimes they find those later solutions are far preferable to the first one. Pluralist comparison challenges the ideal of the discovery of the right solution that is searched for until it is found.

Tradeoff sense — Designers understand that perfection is always a function of certain kinds of partial attention, and that closer scrutiny always reveals unobtrusive trade-offs. The goal is not a solution without trade-offs, but rather a solution with tradeoffs so optimal that they go unnoticed when the solution is encountered in its intended context. Inexperienced and naive idealists often approach problems with impossible standards (and usually highly distorted criteria of perfection) — which lead not to the ideal solution but lackluster ones whose chief virtue is flawlessness according to one unexamined standard. Tradeoff sense challenges the ideal of perfectionism, and all the expectations of perfectionism, especially the belief that the right solution requires no tradeoffs, and everything that does is therefore not right.

Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First, empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

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This is my first list, and it might not be complete. It is a good start, though, and I am relieved to get it out of my head.