Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Dadvice to Helen

Helen sent Susan and me a page from her Mussar book, and asked “What does this mean?”

For some reason (probably because I was reading Fishbane) I found this question inspiring, and gave a reply that I want to capture here:

First, understand, there won’t be a factual answer. It will be more a tilt of understanding.

The best thing is to struggle. Ask yourself some questions: “The vengeance was toward Egypt via the waters, not toward the waters per se. Gratitude prevented Moses from using waters as an instrument of vengeance. Where have I seen situations where gratitude impedes vengeance?”

Or “Is there always collateral damage in seeking vengeance? Where have I seen it? How can I link gratitude to choosing not to be violent?”

Or “If we have a deep feeling of all-encompassing gratitude, is vengeance even possible at all? Is violence? Is hatred? What happens to our moral and emotional disposition if gratitude dominates our moral disposition?”

That is how to wrangle with sacred texts and commentaries.

Does that help at all? You should spend around 10 minutes meditating in self-dialogue of this kind for every minute you spend reading. Maybe even start by writing yourself questions. The tilt in understanding actually happens in the thrust of questions you discover to ask yourself.

Every factual statement we hear gets its meaning from an implied question. Most misunderstandings can be reduced to hearing a statement as answering a question the statement was not meant to answer. In philosophy we are trying to acquire conceptions capable of posing unasked questions and producing novel answers.

 

The Click

Myriad ways to experience the world are possible, and these ways of seeing the world correspond with particular orderings of intuitive activity.

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Can you perceive this dancer to be spinning clockwise and then to be spinning counter-clockwise? Can you feel what kind of effort you are making? There may be inner-chatter associated with your effort, but if you pay close attention you’ll notice that the chatter is neither the effort itself, nor is it able to capture the effort in words. Something beyond language is happening.

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When we look at an optical illusion and we perceive it first one way, then another — what is going on there? This in not a primarily a linguistic phenomenon. There is an inner click, and our perception changes from one stable state to another.

When we read a text and we derive one meaning from it, but then later, another — is this really that different from the various gestalt modes of an optical illusion? And is the intellectual click that happens across the different readings really a linguistic phenomenon?

I would argue that both of these cases manifest a tacit shift in our intuitive order, which we experience most obviously as a change in experience of an intentional object (a visual field or a text) — but which also for the duration of the experience changes how it is to exist.

Like optical illusions, like texts with layered meanings, minds are multistable. And the various stabilities perceived or understood “out there” are actually the various stabilities “in here” doing the perceiving or conceiving in a particular mode of inner intuitive collaboration. This is what is at stake in all interpretation. We ourselves change in understanding. (A religious person might prefer saying it in different language: Our souls are transfigured by faith.)

Of course, we can also lose order. We can be of two minds on some matter, or we may be conflicted, confused or perplexed. These less-ordered or chaotic states also affect how it is to exist.

Confusion about what is going on in the world makes us feel confused in our own being. It is no accident that we say “I am confused” when we are unable to make sense of something.

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To get our intuitive mess back in order when we say “I am confused” or to break an intuitive order that says “I am miserable” or “The world is a vale of misery” we cannot just operate directly on our intuitions. Intuitions just aren’t of a nature where we can manipulate them like objects. (((Intuitions are subjects, each a sand-sized jewel in Indra’s Net, each a divine spark that beyonds All in its own partial way.)))

I would also argue that operating directly on the conclusions our intuitive orders produces willful delusions. We cannot just decide that “I am clear” or “I am happy” or “The world is a vale of happiness” and spontaneously see things that way, any more than we can look at an optical illusion and just assert that we see it as the gestalt we haven’t gotten to click yet.

We must approach our intuitive orders indirectly, through various intentional objects, and do intuitive experiments, trying to entertain it in a multiplicity of ways, until a gestalt shift occurs that changes what we experience on the whole and in part. I call these gestalts synesis.

When the click happens and we truly understand a situation differently, experience it differently, reach different conclusions and find ourselves feeling and responding differently — this is metanoia.

Metanoia is often translated as repentance, which is not altogether wrong, but it misses the spirit of the change. It is not about penitential emotions that motivate us to do better. It is about re-understanding things in such a way that makes the non-desirability of our old way clear, and causes a new way of understanding, behaving and existing to emerge that is experienced as preferable to the earlier way.

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When we try to change our lives, what we believe, how we behave, without making our intuitions click into a new order, we will speak and act in a way that is artificial. We must constantly micromanage ourselves, police ourselves, remain vigilant of ourselves. We must consciously “do the work” of enforcing the desired cognitions, conduct and speech, or our unconscious selves will horrify and shame us with its unwanted outputs.

If we change our lives through metanoia, the change is obviously different from what seemed natural to us before, but this new existence is second-natural. We spontaneously, intuitively (literally), effortlessly have a new and preferable outlook on things, and our souls somehow, mysteriously, feel better.

This year's winning illusion presents a simple shape rotating around a horizontal and vertical axis at the same time

Methodic wisdom

Susan and I have been debating what wisdom is. We each felt the other’s view was incomplete. I thought her conception was overlapping too much with prudence; she thought mine reduced wisdom with mere open-mindedness. (Actually, she was right.) As we turned the question and viewed it from multiple angles, it became clear, as is so often the case, that it was a matter of emphasis. She was emphasizing exercise of foresight and consideration — awareness of implications beyond the immediate desires and compulsions. I was emphasizing readiness for thought-defying shock — awareness that our awareness is always partial and situated within a much vaster and weirder context, only the minutest speck of which we are conceptually prepared to understand or even perceive. We’re slowly converging on an agreement. Here’s my latest attempt, written primarily for Susan’s review:

Wisdom is an attitude of mind that considers ramifying implications that transcend the immediate concern, in time, in space and in subjectivity — especially those nonobvious implications that unfold only in careful consideration and those that unfold in ways inconceivable until they unfold in reality and which will be understood as inevitable only in retrospect. Wisdom expects to be surprised, because wisdom knows the limitations of thought, and leaves room for irruptions of reality and the epiphanies they bring.


If we accept this definition of wisdom, that would make design practice a methodical form of wisdom — an alternative to speculative-thought-and-talk decision-making.

Design method directs us to go to the reality we plan to change, and encourages us to interact with it directly, in order to encounter some of the implications and ramifications of our proposed changes — many of which we otherwise would never consider.

Design is methodic wisdom.


Chief among design’s considerations are the subjective ones — the interpretive and experiential consequences of deep, hidden differences in subjectivity that must be learned before they can even be conceived. (* see note below.)

Subjective learning of new conceptions is a rigorous exercise of hermeneutic, intellectual and emotional empathy (which I prefer calling synesis). It can sometimes radically redefine the designer’s understanding of the design problem, by revealing it in a new subjective light with new practical consequences — metanoia.

This metanoia — this new, consequential reconception — simultaneously reframes the problem and opens space for novel solutions. Problems and solutions, questions and answers, possibilities and actualities burst forth together with new conceptions. And because the new conception has been learned from real people and refer to real contexts, the newly conceived solutions are far more relevant and on-the-mark. I like to call design metanoia “precision inspiration”.


(* Note: The whole field of thought around conception is grossly misunderstood. Until a conception is learned, all ideas that require it are either inconceivable — submerged in intellectual blindness, neither perceivable nor imaginable — or misunderstood by another conception that comprehends it in a wrong sense, and commits category mistakes. If the originating conception of a set of ideas is finally acquired, the new conception spontaneously reorders the understandings, both on the whole and in part, and there is an epiphany. If the reconception is a very deep one, upon which many other conceptions are rooted, and these have wide-ranging pragmatic consequences, it can seem that everything has changed all at once. The scales seem to have fallen from one’s eyes, one feels reborn as a new person, and it feels and if the entire world has transfigured itself. Until one has experienced something like this, all language associated with this kind of event sounds like magical hocus-pocus — but this is only a misconception of what remains inconceivable. The consequences of this hocus-pocus are just the copious category mistakes of the believing fundamentalist and the unbelieving antifundamentalist.)

Soul-shaping

 

A souls is a multistable dynamic intuitive system.

Insofar as it is a system that remains stable across changing conditions, a soul has a character, a personality of its own, enduring selfhood. To the degree a soul changes and adapts to conditions, a soul is responsive to the world.

At the extreme of selfhood is closed self, an intuitive system that no longer adapts or responds to the world, but instead uses the same intuitions the same way all the time. Only information it can comprehend is seriously entertained, and only conclusions that reinforce its workings are accepted. The soul maintains itself in a closed, circular state of autism.

At the extreme of responsiveness is the fragmentary self, an intuitive system that is so adaptive to its environment that it cannot find its own enduring selfhood within the changing configurations that its intuitions take as circumstances buffet it around. Its only hope for integrity come from the social environment. If the social environment gives it an identity and expects it to perform that identity, the soul responds obediently and then finds itself able to feel itself to be a self. But if the environment does not provide these reinforcements, the self is literally existentially threatened, and goes into a crisis. The soul has no internal means to maintain its own stable sense of self, and exists in a fragmentary state of borderline personality.

Under certain circumstances the closed selves and fragmentary selves can form an alliance. The closed selves adopt an ideology and ethical ruleset that, when performed, assigns stable identities to those who would otherwise live in fragmentary nothingness. The alliance requires strict adherence to roles and rules, and deviations from it, especially those which contradict the ideological conceptions and produce conditions that threaten its collective closed system, are treated as a collective existential threat. These alliances have low intolerance of stresses from beyond its ideological horizon, especially modes of conception incommensurable with the logic that holds its brittle system together.

When a person insists that selfhood is a superstructural artifact of social forces, that a person is reducible to the play of various identities, that social standpoints imprison us within limited understanding, beyond which there is blind belief in the testimony of others or disbelief and violence, this indicates participation in the closed alliance.

The overpowering need for selfhood in one particular conception, existentially threatened by rival theories or expressions of selfhood is the driving force behind all illiberalism.

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Liberal democracy requires selves of a different shape, neither closed circles, nor open fragments, but a synthesis of the two, which I symbolize as a spiral — multistable dynamic intuitive system that is stable but is, to a degree, open to realities that challenge its integrity. It does this by cultivating a dynamic stability that can shapeshift in response to different challenges of its understanding — that is, it can entertain multiple understandings, but which is ordered by a deeper integrity that sees multiplicity of understanding as intrinsic to the human condition.

This deeper integrity goes by the name pluralism.

Pluralism’s unique mode of understanding, which conceives inconceivability in a manner conducive to actually conceiving inconceivable truths, and in this, to continually reaffirm its own pluralistic integrity.

Not all citizens of a liberal democracy must be pluralists, but enough must participate in political and cultural life to prevent a closed alliance to form, and for illiberalism to drive pluralism underground.

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Hermeneutics is important in pluralism and in religion, because any deep act of understanding requires a soul to respond to a stable set of conceptions with a stability of its own, to re-form itself in an act of understanding. It must experiment with polysemic words and allow them to combine and crystalize in multiple ways, and then to respond selfully to these crystallization with its own intuitive order, and experience how it is to understand this text, this phenomenon, this design this way, and accordingly experience the world from this state.

Producing meaningful artifacts — whether objects, interactions, services, arguments, rituals, symbols — that order an understanding soul in a way that improves the experience of life is experience design at its profoundest level.

Intuitive multistability

Just as there are multistabilities of conception when understanding texts (hermeneutics) and multistabilities of perception while experiencing phenomena (postphenomenology), there are multistabilities in the self-organization of intuitions.

In my art pamphlet Geometric Meditations, I called the mysterious swarm of self-organizing intuitions behind the I “potential” — possible states of soul in various kinds and degrees of order.

Every experience — which is a mix of conceptions, perceptions and responses to what we conceive and perceive — engages some set of our intuitions and induces them to organize and cooperate. Some of these organized cooperations involve most or many of our intuitions and cause them to function as a unity. This makes us feel whole. Some exclude intuitions or even force their suppression. This makes us feel conflicted, divided or empty.

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Some of us have a flexible, modal, dynamic stability of soul. Different intuitions emerge and participate in various domains of activity. Most intuitions have a meaningful role to play, and none are entirely excluded. No intuitions are considered intolerably dangerous, and when possibilities and questions are sensed by one intuition, other intuitions participate from various angles, as the notion rises to conscious consideration and is turned in the mind.

Others of us have less flexible stabilities. One set of intuitions tris to stay in total control all the time. This intuitive gang collaborates to keep the other intuitions under their control. This is especially true of the darkest, most dangerous intuitions, which must be suppressed at all costs, along with their unwanted, harmful thoughts. If anything in the environment stimulates these marginalized intuitions they rise up and threaten the dominant order. This is experienced as an existential threat, and triggers a forcible inner crackdown by the offended dominant intuitions. They fear an uprising of the intuitive underclass and the change of mind it will bring, which signals the end of its reign. The soul must continue to believe their true beliefs and condemning all the lies it disbelieves, or that soul as it knows itself will cease to exist. It will lose its identity as a believer in some ideology or religion, a member of some special group or nation. It lives in a constant inner (and sometimes outer) police state to maintain its very existence as itself. And because it suppresses much of itself, it feels itself perpetually empty, dissatisfied, unfulfilled, persecuted, oppressed.

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All this brings me back, once again, to where my transfiguration started, reading Christopher Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building.

His idea of wholeness is bound up with how we dwell in spaces and how our “inner forces” are harmonized or conflicted by what our environment offers us.

A man is alive when he is wholehearted, true to himself, true to his own inner forces, and able to act freely according to the nature of the situations he is in.

To be happy, and to be alive, in this sense, are almost the same. Of course, a man who is alive, is not always happy in the sense of feeling pleasant; experiences of joy are balanced by experiences of sorrow. But the experiences are all deeply felt; and above all, the man is whole and conscious of being real.

To be alive in this sense, is not a matter of suppressing some forces or tendencies, at the expense of others; it is a state of being in which all forces which arise in a man can find expression; he lives in balance among the forces which arise in him; he is unique as the pattern of forces which arise is unique; he is at peace, since there are no disturbances created by underground forces which have no outlet; he is at one with himself and his surroundings.

This state cannot be reached merely by inner work.

There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need do only inner work, in order to be alive like this; that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself he need only change himself. This teaching has some value, since it is so easy for a man to imagine that his problems are caused by “others.” But it is a one-sided and mistaken view which also maintains the arrogance of the belief that the individual is self-sufficient and not dependent in any essential way on his surroundings.

The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.

Some kinds of physical and social circumstances help a person come to life. Others make it very difficult.

Nietzsche had a similar conception, a more vitalistic one centering on nourishment and starvation:

However far a man may go in self-knowledge, nothing however can be more incomplete than his image of the totality of drives which constitute his being. He can scarcely name even the cruder ones: their number and strength, their ebb and flood, their play and counterplay among one another, and above all the laws of their nutriment remain wholly unknown to him. This nutriment is therefore a work of chance: our daily experiences throw some prey in the way of now this, now that drive, and the drive seizes it eagerly; but the coming and going of these events as a whole stands in no rational relationship to the nutritional requirements of the totality of the drives: so that the outcome will always be twofold — the starvation and stunting of some and the overfeeding of others. Every moment of our lives sees some of the polyp-arms of our being grow and others of them wither, all according to the nutriment which the moment does or does not bear with it. Our experiences are, as already said, all in this sense means of nourishment, but the nourishment is scattered indiscriminately without distinguishing between the hungry and those already possessing a superfluity. And as a consequence of this chance nourishment of the parts, the whole, fully grown polyp will be something just as accidental as its growth has been. To express it more clearly: suppose a drive finds itself at the point at which it desires gratification — or exercise of its strength, or discharge of its strength, or the saturation of an emptiness — these are all metaphors –: it then regards every event of the day with a view to seeing how it can employ it for the attainment of its goal; whether a man is moving, or resting or angry or reading or speaking or fighting or rejoicing, the drive will in its thirst as it were taste every condition into which the man may enter, and as a rule will discover nothing for itself there and will have to wait and go on thirsting: in a little while it will grow faint, and after a couple of days or months of non-gratification it will wither away like a plant without rain. Perhaps this cruelty perpetrated by chance would be more vividly evident if all the drives were as much in earnest as is hunger, which is not content with dream food; but most of the drives, especially the so-called moral ones, do precisely this — if my supposition is allowed that the meaning and value of our dreams is precisely to compensate to some extent for the chance absence of ‘nourishment’ during the day. Why was the dream of yesterday full of tenderness and tears, that of the day before yesterday humorous and exuberant, an earlier dream adventurous and involved in a continuous gloomy searching? Why do I in this dream enjoy indescribable beauties of music, why do I in another soar and fly with the joy of an eagle up to distant mountain peaks? These inventions, which give scope and discharge to our drives to tenderness or humorousness or adventurousness or to our desire for music and mountains — and everyone will have his own more striking examples to hand — are interpretations of nervous stimuli we receive while we are asleep, very free, very arbitrary interpretations of the motions of the blood and intestines, of the pressure of the arm and the bedclothes, of the sounds made by church bells, weathercocks, night-revellers and other things of the kind. That this text, which is in general much the same on one night as on another, is commented on in such varying ways, that the inventive reasoning faculty imagines today a cause for the nervous stimuli so very different from the cause it imagined yesterday, though the stimuli are the same: the explanation of this is that today’s prompter of the reasoning faculty was different from yesterday’s — a different drive wanted to gratify itself, to be active, to exercise itself, to refresh itself, to discharge itself — today this drive was at high flood, yesterday it was a different drive that was in that condition. — Waking life does not have this freedom of interpretation possessed by the life of dreams, it is less inventive and unbridled — but do I have to add that when we are awake our drives likewise do nothing but interpret nervous stimuli and, according to their requirements, posit their ’causes’? that there is no essential difference between waking and dreaming? that when we compare very different stages of culture we even find that freedom of waking interpretation in the one is in no way inferior to the freedom exercised in the other while dreaming? that our moral judgments and evaluations too are only images and fantasies based on a physiological process unknown to us, a kind of acquired language for designating certain nervous stimuli? that all our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, but felt text? — Take some trifling experience. Suppose we were in the market place one day and we noticed someone laughing at us as we went by: this event will signify this or that to us according to whether this or that drive happens at that moment to be at its height in us — and it will be a quite different event according to the kind of person we are. One person will absorb it like a drop of rain, another will shake it from him like an insect, another will try to pick a quarrel, another will examine his clothing to see if there is anything about it that might give rise to laughter, another will be led to reflect on the nature of laughter as such, another will be glad to have involuntarily augmented the amount of cheerfulness and sunshine in the world — and in each case a drive has gratified itself, whether it be the drive to annoyance or to combativeness or to reflection or to benevolence. This drive seized the event as its prey: why precisely this one? Because, thirsty and hungry, it was lying in wait. — One day recently at eleven o’clock in the morning a man suddenly collapsed right in front of me as if struck by lightning, and all the women in the vicinity screamed aloud; I myself raised him to his feet and attended to him until he had recovered his speech — during this time not a muscle of my face moved and I felt nothing, neither fear nor sympathy, but I did what needed doing and went coolly on my way. Suppose someone had told me the day before that tomorrow at eleven o’clock in the morning a man would fall down beside me in this fashion — I would have suffered every kind of anticipatory torment, would have spent a sleepless night, and at the decisive moment instead of helping the man would perhaps have done what he did. For in the meantime all possible drives would have had time to imagine the experience and to comment on it. — What then are our experiences? Much more that which we put into them than that which they already contain! Or must we go so far as to say: in themselves they contain nothing? To experience is to invent? —

My own conception of these same prelinguistic forces or drives includes Alexander’s energetic and Nietzsche’s vitalistic characteristics but also emphasizes their organizational structure and how their concerted cooperation shapes, reinforces, weakens, threatens, destroys or restructures their organization and coordination.

I’ve entertained many words to denote these prelinguistic forces and drives, but I’m feeling broad inner-acceptance and thick resonance around the word intuition.

Detune to retune

Intelligence denotes understanding of finite entities in systematic combination.

Wisdom denotes understanding of infinity and infinity’s inner surface which we experience as radical surprise and its implication, the permanent potential for radical surprise.

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Intelligence comprehends finitude. Wisdom suprehends infinitude. Philosophy is intelligence in love with wisdom. Theology is wisdom in love with intelligence. This is how I’m seeing things today, reading Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement and attuning my intuitions to what he is saying. I’ve been reading him this week, partly in an effort to re-tune my soul, which has been sounding sour notes lately.

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A detuned soul is not necessarily regrettable.

Between any harmonious tuning and another is a stretch of disharmony.

Early in the re-tuning process, certain notes go off-key, and things are out of tune.

Soon, the key is lost entirely, and no key is discernible in the noise. There are only clashing resonances.

But then, after some more adjustment, a hint of key emerges from the dissonance.

Gradually, the notes converge into a harmonious state, into a new tuning, a new key.

A musical ensemble tunes its instruments together before rehearsing. A perfectly but differently tuned individual instrument will sound out of tune with the others.

Each instrument carries its tuning out of the rehearsal space after the performance.

Tuning is a concerted effort.

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If we immerse in art or reading or conversation, something of the experience clings. In some mysterious way, the experience continues to resonate in us.

A few times in my life, when I’ve read a certain kind of philosophy very deeply, a near-total shift has occurred that went beyond mood or coloring, and changed the resonance of existence itself, and it endured. Fishbane is making me wonder if these works were actually not philosophical, after all, but theological.

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My generation embraced deliberate cacophony in our popular music. We wanted instruments detuned, harmonics clashing and beating against each other, only occasionally lining up in sonic moires, and for any melodies to be submerged in thick noise, concealed, coverted. Anything sweet needed to be coated in thick layers of salt or bitterness. Strange tastes over simple ones.

It was almost as if we wanted to train our ears for hearing hints of emergent alternative harmonies. We wanted to acquire penetrating tastes: to taste through, into, across — vectorially.

Salmiac. Scotch. Puehr. Acquired tastes.

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Two quotes from Nietzsche, my first and deepest transfigurative read:

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).

and

One must learn to love. — This happens to us in music: first one must learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate and delimit it as a life in itself; then one needs effort and good will to stand it despite its strangeness; patience with its appearance and expression, and kindheartedness about its oddity. Finally comes a moment when we are used to it; when we expect it; when we sense that we’d miss it if it were missing; and now it continues relentlessly to compel and enchant us until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers, who no longer want anything better from the world than it and it again. But this happens to us not only in music: it is in just this way that we have learned to love everything we now love. We are always rewarded in the end for our good will, our patience, our fair-mindedness and gentleness with what is strange, as it gradually casts off its veil and presents itself as a new and indescribable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. Even he who loves himself will have learned it this way — there is no other way. Love, too, must be learned.”

Sacred Attunement

I’m still hopping around in my reading. I’m now intentionally trying to resolve this painful perplexity around the pre-verbal subject that’s been dogging me for the last several years. When we read or listen or learn and then suddenly, spontaneously see everything differently, detect different patterns and connections, think differently, speak and behave differently, what is going on there? How should we understand what happened? Can we intentionally change this way? How much and how?

Today and yesterday I read Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement, and a few dozens of pages in, it seems to offer some promising possibilities. Plus it reinforces why I came to Judaism in the first place.

The path to theology undertaken here is grounded in the forms of experience found in the natural world. In the course of time, these forms and their linguistic expressions weave a web of habitude; the raw and the real are stifled by routine. There is much to do, one thinks, and it is good to work in a settled sphere with established patterns. But the fissures happen in any case, and in unexpected ways; and then the human being is awakened, if only for the time being, to vaster dimensions of experience and the con­ tingencies of existence. These breakthroughs of consciousness may even transform one’s life; but they are not inherently theological. Their power is to remind the self that the “merely other” of everydayness is grounded in an Other of more exceeding depths and heights. But forgetting is the norm. And thus it is one of the chief virtues of artistic creativity to reformulate the sounds and sights of existence, and thereby create new openings in one’s or­ dinary perceptions. Hereby, the daily routine of life is more intentionally ruptured, and the shapes of perception are experienced as subtended by infinite possibilities—such that our everyday consciousness is experienced as shot through with traces of transcendence. Aesthetic experience gives us these moments of reborn mindfulness on occasion; whereas artists may live more continu­ously in these spaces of awareness, often disconnected from ordinary perceptions.

Theology does something more: it receives these perceptions of transcendence and tries to sustain (and even revive) them in the normal course of life. It does so not solely in terms of the experiences per se, but especially in terms of the duties these perceptions impose. The special sense of le transcendance immanente (in Jean Wahl’s phrase) thus sets the standards of spiritual truth and value, as distinct from l’immanence transcendente of ordinary perception. The result is a bimodal consciousness, whose reality and imperatives are variously formulated by different theological traditions. The lines of these perceptions of transcendence, shin­ing through the forms of worldly immanence, which so variously impress themselves on the human spirit, run outward infinitely. They gather nowhere and everywhere. Theology calls this unsay­able ground God. It is a word that focuses the mind and heart. But it is only a cipher for something more radically Other. This is the transcendence of transcendence. For if the first saves the phenomena, grounding them in something “More” (than mere human perceptions), the second saves God (both the word and the reality) from being delimited by human language and con­sciousness. These matters are central to this work.

…the study of scripture is a venerable spiritual discipline in Judaism that has produced (during more than two millennia) a multifaceted system of Bible interpretation. The results are now not simply received as so many solutions to the plain sense of the text, or to its legal, allegorical, or even mystical character. Rather, these types of interpretation are understood to foster diverse modes of attention to textual details, which in turn cultivate correlative forms of attention to the world and to divine reality. In this way, a network of correlations is proposed between forms of reading texts, by attunement to their nuances and meanings, and forms of reading external reality, by attunement to its manifold details and their significance; and between (both) these various forms and modalities of divine perception, by cultivating types of theological consciousness and attunement. Textual study thus becomes a discipline of ethical and spiritual self-­cultivation; and scripture is transformed thereby from an authoritative corpus of received laws, beliefs, and memories into an authorizing matrix for ongoing meditative reflection and reflective action.”

Three conceptions of justice

People say the word “justice” and unconsciously conflate multiple concepts that do not necessarily belong together. I’ll list a few.

The most common concept, in every sense of the word, is ensuring that whoever has been harmed by another is given the satisfaction of revenge. Sadistic pleasure is compensated with sadistic pleasure. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, dignity for dignity. Everyone gets the same chance to enjoy inflicting suffering on others, to humiliate others, to coerce others — and nobody gets an unfairly large portion in the delight of debasing, controlling and harming others.

A second concept of justice is upholding of law. When the law is inexorably enforced, it reinforces to everyone that the law is a reality, that all must follow it, and that all can count on the fact that it will be followed by others.

A third concept of justice is pluralistic. This justice understands that every subject acts by its own logic — even when it tries to live according to the law. The third justice tries to “do justice” to this logic and to understand why another person thinks, values and acts in the way they do — to get inside their judgment to understand how and why this judgment might deviate from the public judgment.

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When we say justice, it is helpful to know 1) which justice or justices we, ourselves, are pursuing, and 2) what justice means for the others involved in the adjudication.

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This thought is not mine. I am paraphrasing.

The Mercury Mikvah

Sometimes if I drink too much scotch I will announce the “I am never drinking ever again for a week.”

An ironic worldview permits statements like this. Why not admit that eternally-binding resolves, while being experienced in the moment as permanent, are, simultaneously, recognized in history/biography as temporary?

I will argue that this kind of ironizing is not only permissible but necessary and good, and supportive of a liberal, pluralistic society.

A pluralist experiences the self-evident truth and goodness of their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions against a deeper ground of myriad others who also experience their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions as self-evidently true and good.

Pluralism includes pluralism of scale. A historically conscious pluralist is aware that the plurality of worldviews exists not only individually, but collectively. It pertains not only to individuals, but to cultures, and to the deep interrelationships between individuals and cultures. Much of what was obviously and indubitably true and good in the past is now, to us, absurd, abhorrent and naive — and most of all to what seemed most certain and foundational. The same thing is certain to happen to our present shared convictions and foundational beliefs.

Pluralism includes pluralism of self in time. A self-aware, apperceptive pluralist will count among the myriad others their own past selves, and recall the fact, even if they cannot fully recall the experiences themselves (including the convictions and their attendant blindnesses, which, once unblinded cannot be re-blinded).

Pushing pluralism of self in time further, the most radical pluralist will count as crucially important their possible future selves. They will recall themselves prior to a past change, taking care to remember what that past self understood “everything” to include, along with the field of possibilities that followed from it. And they will recall the shock of epiphany, of change in worldview, of change in what seemed evident, relevant, possible and permanent. The experiential resources needed to anticipate future transformation are drawn indirectly (and negatively) from experiences of past transformations.

Pluralism is empathic. An empathic pluralist will strain to do full justice to their memories of the in-between of worldviews and stretch it out into its own story, in a progression of anxiety, to aversion, to panic, and finally to perplexity, where orientation, definition, method, logic and words fail. They will never forget why so few willingly immerse in this mercury mikvah — this expanse of the worldless-blinds, the liminal void, the rings of ego-solvent Hadean waters, the churning chrome of “seen” blindness — and why those facing it deserve understanding, if not compassion.

And finally, pluralism is reflexive, symmetric and demanding. A committed pluralist will know, with the intensest irony, that they, most of all, fear reentering liminal perplexity. Even with their experiences of before, during and blissful after, even with their firsthand evidence and insights — they will balk like everyone else when the time comes for them to follow their own advice. Those others — they are the ones who need to go in. But, the pluralist will also know, with all the irony they can intentionally summon, that they must keep going back in, and that their only claim to their own kind of truth and goodness is going back in, despite their already-knowing of everything worth knowing.

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My moral alchemy has its own weird metallurgy which transmutes silver, gold, mercury and iron(y).

Feeling, interpretation and reality

I showed this clip of Henry Thomas’s audition for E.T. to Susan yesterday. She says she hadn’t stopped thinking about it since, because it has raised important questions for her: Isn’t it strange and even disturbing that someone can have that much emotion about something that is purely imaginary? This raises further questions: How much of what we feel is directly caused by reality? How much comes from how we interpret reality? How much of it is a response to our own imaginations?

For Susan, this clip is a dramatic case study for exploring some basic questions important to both educators and religious people connected with cultivating ways of thinking, perceiving and acting in the world.

When she shared her reflections with me, my mind took it in a social-political direction: What does it mean to understand another person’s experiences? What elements in accounts of experiences can be reasonably debated? What norms ought to govern conversations about other people’s experiences and what they imply about truth and morality?

Some actual real-life examples:

  • Someone has a religious experience and undergoes a conversion. They see, hear and feel things that they know are real which suggest new truths to them that they consider indubitable and universal. How ought they relate their new truths to someone like myself, who has not experienced what they have? How should I respond to their truth claims, and the assertion that the claims are relevant to and in fact binding to me?
  • Someone is situated differently in society than I am, and has been from birth. They have been treated differently, learned (and absorbed) different beliefs about themselves, must behave differently to get along, and consequently have developed a very different worldview than mine — one that (according to this worldview) makes me unable to understand how they think and feel, implicates me as responsible for the state of society that has produced and continues to produce their situation. And further, the convergence of the essential unknowability of this alien worldview, my complicity in their suffering and my obligation to sacrifice to remedy this state of affairs produces a defensive reaction from people with my worldview. How should I address these claims? How do I respond to the claim that (according to this worldview) there is really only one acceptable response?
  • After a lengthy, arduous and painful struggle with a set of questions, I have a philosophical epiphany and undergo a conversion experience. Only personal struggle with the line of thought I followed will induce the conversion, and until the conversion is undergone, the conversion is impossible to understand at all. I feel isolated in this new worldview (it is like spiritual solitary confinement), and desperately need others in my life to understand it, but to do so requires inordinate amounts of time, energy and suffering. In this situation, what is reasonable to ask from loved ones, especially when they are unable to understand my distress?

 

My friend who shared this video with me got barraged  out of the blue with thoughts yesterday, as these questions coalesced in my head. We had debated the understandability of marginal perspectives, and the morality of listening versus arguing, and trusting versus challenging, and for me this video became a great reference point for the conversation. Here’s the spew, slightly cleaned up:

I can’t believe they were taking E.T. away from Henry Thomas!

Those emotions he was having were real.

And that means the thing he was having emotions about is also real, otherwise we are telling him that his emotions are not real and valid, right?

The only way I can know the truth about the reality he is having emotions about is to talk with him and let him explain it to me. Because i am not the one having those emotions, I have to listen to him about it and believe what he tells me. It is not my place to argue against experiences I don’t know.

Right?

That’s the logic of Progressivism.

There is a confusion between:

  1. the subjective experience (including the emotions),
  2. the interpretation that produces the subjective experience of the emotions, and
  3. the reality that is interpreted and becomes object of the subjective experience.

Progressivism blends these three things into a single unknowability that requires us to listen to the one and to believe what they tell us about a reality they are experiencing, about which they and have special and exclusive knowledge.

Not that there is not special and exclusive knowledge involved in the account. I cannot really know or dispute #1. There I must take someone’s word for it.

But I can, through active listening, come to understand #2. With effort and feedback, I can pick up their way of interpreting their experiences and apply it to make sense of phenomena (this is known as intellectual empathy), even if I cannot have exactly the same subjective experience they have. Further, I can compare this way of interpreting phenomena with alternative interpretations of the same phenomenon, and note the different implications and see where different emotions might occur. While interpretations are not really debatable, they are open to a gentle  form of challenge that far too few people know about: dialogue. I call it gentle because it requires voluntary mutual effort to achieve. (There’s another grisly alternative to interpretive change, which I will only mention but not discuss. Brainwashing can replace one interpretation with another.)

And #3 is entirely public and open to dispute, apart from all emotions. Claims about reality are about things we have in common. The fact that they are perceived, interpreted, experienced and produce knowledge through subjective experience (#1) does not make the reality itself subjective. The reality remains transcendent and open to a plurality of interpretations and subjective responses. It is here where debate is appropriate.

Only if we take it for granted that feelings and objects of feelings are inseparable can we conclude with progressivists that it is impossible to understand the experiences of other people. Only the feelings they have about those experiences are unknowable in principle.

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Many Progressivist who are parents harm their children irreparably though this same confusion. When their children throw tantrums, they fail to pick apart the validity of their emotions from their mode of interpretation and its fidelity to fact. Because the emotions must be honored, so does the childish worldview and the current understanding or misunderstanding of the state of affairs. This prevents children from growing up and learning to separate these three ontological layers, which is a condition of civilized adulthood. Or to put it in old-fashioned language, they spoil their children and make them into confused narcissistic permanent adolescents.

ANT, Postphenomenology and their mutant child, OOO

It seems obvious to me that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Postphenomenology are complementary lenses for understanding social situations.

ANT gives us the network viewed “objectively” outside-in, and Postphenomenology helps us understand inside-out how the nodes interpret inputs from the network and translate them into outputs.

An ANT practitioner will be the first to tell you that ANT is just one way an actor (a theorist) can interpret and translate the network into a coherent explanatory account — but one that mostly blackboxes how that network is experienced at any one point. The ANT account is one of many multistable descriptions that can be given.

A Postphenomenologist brackets the network in order to understand how certain nodes in the network interpret other nodes before acting within the network, on the network, thereby changing it.

ANT and Postphenomenology are each the everted perspective of the other. Each methodically excludes what the other describes, through blackboxing or bracketing, respectively. A cultural anthropologist might say ANT attempts a rigorously etic view of the actor-network, and Postphenomenology is the emic view of the actor-nodes within it.

To make a chaos theory analogy, ANT gives us a Mandelbrot Set view of a region of the complex plane, and Postphenomenology gives us Julia Sets of selected points within the region.

OOO is a peculiar cross-breeding of the two that focuses precisely on the actor-nodes in the network that resist emic understanding, and then marvels at the fact that they must have some sort of emicity that neither we (nor any other object) can get at. They seem to me to be a mystical branch of Process philosophy, given to authoring fanciful philosophical midrash where both physical and social sciences  fail.

To extend the chaos theory analogy, OOO enjoys boggling at how densely the points belonging to the Mandelbrot Set saturate the band of points along its psychedelically-enflamed perimeter, and at the impenetrable blankness of each and every one of them.

Right?

No?

Propaganda

Propaganda is popular news, in the same sense that romance novels and action films are popular art. By “popular” I mean they function comfortably within the worldview of the masses, and serve to reinforce commonly held beliefs, values, practices, assumptions, blindnesses and taboos.

We don’t realize it yet, but a lot of what today’s smart people think is serious literature is a combination of propaganda and popular art, basically popular fables, complete with a tidy moral at the end.

Topics and subjects

I wish I could send Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces back in time to my 33-year-old self. Based on one comment (which I still despise), I’ve had Campbell totally wrong, but this is unsurprising if you remember how etic reading-about/knowing-about is never the same as emic reading/knowing. The former is knowing about a topic, the latter is knowing a subject. Subject here is meant in every sense of the word. Objects are known. Subjects are known-from.

Reasons to love design research

Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.

These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.

Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:

  1. Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means  that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
  2. Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
  3. Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)

 

Facets of empathy

Working in design research, empathy is one of our primary tools. Reflective practitioners quickly learn where they and their teammates have strengths and weaknesses using empathy to produce understanding.

Continuing this week’s trend of identifying distinctions and creating categories, here’s a list of skills associated with what is commonly called “empathy” and what I prefer to call synesis, which is a form of interpersonal understanding that emphasizes worldviews as much as feelings and which sees understanding, not so much as a receptive act, but as an collaborative instauration (discovering-making) between persons (researcher and informant) within a situation.

  • Reception – detecting signals from an informant that something requires understanding that is not yet understood
  • Reaction – controlling one’s behaviors to permit or encourage signals to emerge
  • Perception – interpreting the signals and sensing what they signify from the perspective of the informant — feeling-with or seeing-with, using whatever immediate signals are available to the researcher
  • Constraint – suspending one’s own perspective in order to make space for the informant’s understanding
  • Response – interacting with the informant to spiral in on understanding whatever truth the informant is trying to convey
  • Immersion – developing a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview and “entertaining” it, or “trying it on” through detecting the validity in the informant’s truths
  • Application – using a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview to participate in understanding with the informant — to attempt understanding of the situation at hand and explaining it in the informant’s terms
  • Approval – iteratively testing applications of understanding with the informant, and continuing to test applications of the informant’s worldview until the explanations are accepted and confirmed by the informant
  • Conception – clarifying, articulating and internalizing the informant’s perspective in terms of other perspectives
  • Collaboration – dialogically working with researchers and informants to craft new concepts capable of earning approval from all persons involved

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From this, you can see why the emphasis on emotions — pathos — in the word “empathy” strikes me as impoverished. Synesis (together-being) is a far better word, especially when you take it in the two-fold sense I prefer:

  1. It is putting together the experiences of a situation so they make sense (understanding a situation)
  2. It is using the pursuit of understanding a situation to develop understanding between persons.

So, yes, sensing and feeling the emotions of other’s or intuitively grokking their mindset are crucial skills required for understanding, but empathy must not be confused with understanding. It is only a necessary starting point. Further effort and deeper insights are required to develop empathy into genuine understanding.

The pluralism of design instrumentalism

Because design instrumentalism views knowledge as a result of conceptualizations of perceptions of particular experiences — that is, as a product of one of myriad possible praxes capable of producing different and even conflicting truths — with a particular set of design tradeoffs — that is, with varying degrees of descriptive, predictive, prescriptive, logical, practical, valuative and social adequacy — and, further, because some designs truly are better than others — that is, they make fewer tradeoffs overall, or solve particular relevant problems far better than expected — faced with an stubborn and morally-charged controversy a design instrumentalist is more likely to attempt to resolve the impasse with intellectual reframing than direct argument for one or another position within the current conflict.

And intellectual reframing is just another word for philosophizing — finding our way out of the current conceptualizations that make agreement impossible, into that uncanny shadowy region where words provide little help, and tacit thought must grope its way by smell, touch and tone through perplexity from one end to the other, out into the new light, where new ways of understanding are possible, and different ideas with different tradeoffs, perhaps acceptable or even inspiring to a wider range of people, can be produced.

(There are some folks out there who are averse to such reframing and from inability or unwillingness cannot bring themselves to cooperate with it. In design workshops, I can spot them from across the room. They alternate between sitting and crossing their arms and leaning aggressively forward, pushing the obvious truth, insisting that people show how the idea or objection they are asserting is false. They are suspicious of reframing, seeing it as a last resort to use only after existing theories have been shown to be nonviable. They often see themselves as hard-nosed rationalists, proud to set aside personal feelings so that objective truth can be served. That people like this can also, with equal inflexible fervor adhere to magical religious beliefs appears as contradictory to some conceptions of religion, but not to mine: rigid rationalism paired with metaphysical otherworldism go together in certain souls like two wings on a bird. Through various wily tricks of the design trade I keep people like this separated from from where collaboration is trying to emerge, because they make conception of truly new ideas impossible.)

Design Instrumentalism

The best name for my approach to philosophy might be “design Instrumentalism”, a variant of John Dewey’s instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,

Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Design instrumentalism builds on Dewey’s instrumentalism by focusing on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and evaluated as designed products, using frameworks like Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable. These three evaluative considerations could be translated to the design of philosophies:

  • How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
  • How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
  • How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?

Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should be viewed less as collections of true beliefs, than as as fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention,  guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive practical worldview (a.k.a. praxis).

Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it is all solid and persuasive enough, and not in need of tedious rehashing. I’ll just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.

This is a good start of a list of pragmatic presuppositions. The list is still incomplete and will be supplemented with ideas drawn from sources, including phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics and material turn philosophies.

One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like every ambitious philosophy, multilayered. Design Instrumentalism is itself (a) a philosophical tool used to explore what it means that (b) philosophy is a philosophical tool for designing philosophical tools, which are (c) applied to practical living. So Design Instrumentalism might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers who enjoy doing philosophy (the tool designers), but it also focuses on the design of philosophies for non-philosophers with little interest in doing philosophy (the tool users) who need concepts for thinking about their lives in general and for focused “single-use” for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of particular design problems.

Doing just this kind of work (strategic designers call it “framing”) in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is what brought me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.