Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Hebrew heart

Apparently, I never posted on something very important I learned in Torah study several years ago.

For ancient Hebrews, the heart did not signify what we assume it does, reading it today. We assume the heart is what feels. But for them, the heart was not the seat of emotion. The soul — nephesh, the breath — was what feels emotions. The heart — levav — was the seat of understanding.

So when Pharaoh was said to be heard of heart, this did not mean he was unfeeling. It meant that he was unable to conceive things in any way except his. He had hardness of understanding, and this inability to understand made him unable to empathize.

Hermeneutic sclerosis

The chief affliction of ideologues is something I’m calling hermeneutic sclerosis, a hardening of interpretive schema. An ideologue has lost control of her gestalt formations, and her world of meanings becomes fixed and inflexible.

This matter is on my mind today because I just finished Nellie Bowles’s The Morning After the Revolution, a tour of the excesses of the world since 2020. This book casts harsh light on how both “antiracism” and in trans activism employ the same move to resolve deep conflicts within its own ideals.

Both movements appear entirely unable to avoid stereotyped understandings of the world. “Antiracists” and trans activists view black people and women in especially stereotyped ways, which, by normal standards necessarily result in bigotry. But progressivism condemns bigotry. Fortunately, according to itself, bigotry is only problematic if that bigotry involves an oppressor identity imposing negative stereotypes on an oppressed identity. The reverse case — bigotry against an oppressor — is not only permissible bigotry, but a laudable form of activism, which helps to re-balance the cultural prestige books by humiliating oppressor identities who have become too uppity, and puts them in their proper place. After enough humiliating oppression at the hands of the oppressed, equality will be restored, and no further humiliation of anyone will be required. But until then it is important to express generalized hatred of masculinity and whiteness and heteronormativity. (And now, of course, Israel.)

(How the oppressed are able to impose their will so effortlessly and why oppressors are powerless to stop the humiliation is a question progressivists work tirelessly to avoid asking. If your ideology is against power per se, and believes the that true sources of an oppressor’s power and even their true identity must be unnamed and concealed, discovering that you, yourself, possess overwhelming societal power and that you are very much viewed as the oppressor class by an underclass who resents you, not because they are vicious bigots, but simply because they resent you, their oppressor — to see this clearly for once, would spell total moral collapse. So, they employ a combo punch of argument from incredulity and argumentum ad hominem: “La la la la la! I don’t understand how anyone could possibly reject our gospel of social justice! Those who reject it must be dupes of foreign propaganda! They be in denial and unconsciously want to preserve their own power! La la la la! They must be totalitarians who want to abuse their voices and votes to subvert Our Democracy! La la la la!”)

The redefinition of bigotry to encourage categorical hatred against oppressor groups, is fortunate, for it affords a possibility for escaping damning labels like “racist” or “sexist” or “transphobe”, even when escape from seeing in stereotype is impossible.

Or perhaps this redefinition was established out of the necessity of breaking out of this otherwise impossible condition.

Either way, here is the move: The progressivist gives up on the hopeless project of willful refusal to acknowledge their authentic stereotyped perceptions, and gives over to them entirely. But they reverse the value judgments of each stereotyped perception. What, before, was assigned a negative value and called vice is now reversed into a positive value and celebrated as virtue. And what was extolled as virtue is reversed and condemned or mocked as vice.

The activist who sees exclusively in racist stereotypes find liberation in reversed valuation, pretending that what was bad is good, and what was good is bad.

The chapter on Tema Okun is revealing:

Born in 1952, the daughter of a well-known progressive professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tema rebelled against what she saw as an overly intellectual family life.

She went to Oberlin and majored in physical education. “I knew it would freak my father out if I was a P.E. major, because it was anti-intellectual. So those three things kind of converged, and I became a P.E. major,” she said of the choice. She started a graduate degree in sports medicine at Chapel Hill but failed the training exam and never finished her degree. (Later, she went on to complete a PhD at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, with a thesis titled “The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know.”)

After a breakup, she moved to Seattle, worked as an aquatic and fitness director for a local YMCA, and got into the clogging scene, joining a group called the Duwamps Cloggers. She started working in the anti-racism world, and she liked it, eventually partnering with anti-racist educator Kenneth Jones.

When they worked together, Tema was often in charge of details like plane reservations. Kenneth didn’t care much about details. She would get upset and feel resentment, creating what she described as a relationship of “belovedness and tension.”

But Tema always stayed a little different from the others in that alphabet soup. They were all too focused on formal nonprofit structures and minutiae, she thought. They were focused on just what was right in front of them.

Tema was having a spiritual experience. One night, after a frustrating day seeing a lot of bad white behavior, Tema sat down and something “came through her.”

“I operated mostly as a vessel and the words came through me rather than from me,” she wrote in 2021, in a self-published retrospective about the list. “The original article was my one and only experience of producing something that came through me.”

The document was so simple. The list was so clear. It did not ask those white women to learn about Puerto Rican political figures. It did not tell them to phone bank and mail letters to their congressmen or get on a plane. It told them to release their perfectionism. It told them that urgency itself was white supremacy.

Under Tema, the anti-racism movement could shift from a political movement grounded in facts to an emotional and spiritual one. The battle did not need to be about structural realities and governments. It could be about ourselves. Objectivity — facts — it’s all racist. Whiteness is a virus that kills.

“The purpose of white supremacy and racism is to disconnect us from each other,” Tema said one day during a talk with a reverend. “To disconnect each of us from spirit, source, creativity or whatever you name the energy that connects all of us. White supremacy and racism are designed to disconnect us from the earth, the water, the wind, the sky, the sun.”

The goal of Tema’s work is not necessarily to raise up black and brown people but to take down the white supremacist system. It is not to add more diverse faces at the boardroom table but to dismantle the table.

“The underlying assumption is that this white world is the default world, the normal world that we should all aspire to,” is how she put it to a crowd at a conference once. “This white world is in deep trouble. What we need is an entirely new table or perhaps no table at all.”

This is what made Tema different from the rest of those Bay Area anti-racists. It’s why it was so powerful.

“An assumption of racial equity work in the past was that racial justice was to the benefit of people of color, and we’re going to lift people of color into the white world, and that’s the goal,” Tema says, in a keynote address to a data science conference called JupyterCon. “And what I see changing, which is really, really critical, is that more and more white people understanding that that’s not the goal. This is not about simply including people into the white world. It’s about questioning the world.” She has a lean face and long gray hair. She speaks slowly, carefully. Sometimes she holds her hands together as if in prayer.

Whiteness, to Tema, is like the serpent. She calls it a “constant invitation” that has to be turned down.

She often talks about anti-racism in openly religious terms.

And the new anti-racism has been embraced by a liberal Christian world that articulates whiteness as a sort of satanic possession — an original sin. The anti-racist movement grew, and the scenes were familiar Christian scenes. In June 2020, white police and activists in Cary, North Carolina, washed the feet of black protestors and asked for forgiveness.

Some anti-racist training programs are semireligious organizations, sometimes explicitly. One diversity training program with four locations around the country was called Crossroads Ministry. They’ve since rebranded as Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training.

Tema makes appearances to religious bodies. She appeared with the Reverend Tami Forte Logan, a preacher with the African

Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The event is put on by Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. The event began with the audience being asked to breathe deeply together.

In the recording, Tema comes on in a purple blouse, a gray sweater over it. There’s children’s artwork behind her. The room is dark but she is lit, which is how she styles most of her appearances.

The Reverend Tami, who is black and younger than Tema, says when white people are exhibiting the traits of whiteness, they seem crazed.

“From the outside looking in, I’ve observed that often unfortunately it almost looks like a possession, like something just takes over white people,” the reverend says.

Also there is Pastor Marcia, who is white and with Grace Church. She agrees.

“What is it that makes whiteness so seductive?” Pastor Marcia says. “It internalizes itself in white bodies but also black, indigenous, and brown bodies. It gets into our cells. It changes the way our bodies work. What is it about this that is so seductive that we literally eat it and drink it and let it seep into our bones?”

Whiteness seeps inside her. She’s drawn to it, and she hates it.

When someone gives in to that temptation for whiteness, they die, Tema says. Anyone can drink of whiteness. Anyone can die of it.

“People from different ethnic communities that end up giving up their ethnicity in order to join whiteness, it is death. It is completely death and the actual suicide, addiction, depression, all those rates are much higher in the white community, and I think there’s a direct connection,” Tema said. “We have this sense that we are involved with something that is so wrong and bad.”

Freedom from the traits of whiteness is the goal. Freedom from the urgency, freedom from the written word, freedom from perfectionism. These are white values, and we can be better and happier without them.

“This isn’t about helping others,” Tema says. “It’s about how my life, my happiness, my belonging depends on helping to enact racial justice in our world.” Pastor Marcia agrees.

“Tema, I want to say hallelujah,” Pastor Marcia says. “I see white people being set free from their own bondage.”

The chapter on trans activism does the exact same move with female stereotypes.

My own diagnosis of this painful and pain-inflicting condition is to “flip the script” as some new agers like to say, and claim that the problem is one of far too much reliance on emotions. Progressivists try to achieve with pure willful emotional manipulation what can only be achieved with thought — specifically philosophical thought — thought with provides us new modes of interpretation, and with these new modes of interpretation, now experiential givens with new valuative valences.

This is why I’ve coined this term hermeneutic sclerosis, or if you want to avoid being a presumptuous blowhard, “interpretive hardening” or hardening of the understanding. Today’s huge-hearted, hot-blooded political sentimentalists are so sure that thinking is a cold, logic-bound, argumentative, aggressive force (something belonging to the world of those detestable creeps, the white men) that they subscribe to a notion of justice that knows only compassion, forgiveness and forbearing and excludes all rational judgment, limits, discipline.


We can see this very clearly in Brene Brown’s mangling of the definition of empathy. Empathy has (until its recent ideological capture, deformation and fetishization) meant the effort to understand the experiences of another person when such understanding is not immediately accessible. It is a function of coordinated thought and feeling. Sympathy is spontaneous feeling-with another person.

But in Brene Brown’s hands, “empathy” means double-plus sympathy. It means really, really feeling in an involved way instead of not really feeling in a distant, uninvolved, phony way.

There is no trace of hermeneutical thinking in Brown’s definition. And most young people I’ve talked to about it see no problem, because they share her prejudiced blindness toward thought, and fail to recognize thought’s indispensable role in human understanding and justice.

They have no method of understanding the experiences of other people except to listen carefully to their testimony, paying very close attention to the emotions they report having, to assign truth status to that testimony and to have the most intense and expansive emotions of their own about the fact that the other had such feelings.


“Empathy” among progressivists is not empathy. It is a mixture of political sympathy — the natural feeling-with their like-minded ideologues, usually of resentment, rage and hatred — plus imaginative pathos of the kind people enjoy when reading a novel. It is, again, an exercise of hypertrophied sentimentality and atrophied intellect that knows only one mode of interpretation, the unbiased, objective one that all benevolent, intelligent and educated people agree is the truth.

Until this prejudice against philosophical hermeneutic genuinely empathetic thinking is overcome, I fear things will get worse and worse, stupider and stupider and more and more evil.

Moral nonlinearity

My generation was shaped decisively by chaos theory. James Gleick’s bestseller Chaos: Making a New Science was, for many of us, not merely an introduction to, but rather, an initiation into a radically new approach to understanding order.

Chaos theory shows how even the most strictly determinate process can be radically unpredictable, if that process has the form of an iterative feedback loop. Most processes (even processes as simple as an object sliding across ice) can be reframed as nonlinear processes, and when seen this way, much that was once factored out as incidental noise turned out to essential signal.

When I first read the book, back when it was still actually on the NYT bestseller list, I was scientistic to the core. I was a hard determinist, in fact. The notion that I could have both the perfect, rational order of determinism, and also enjoy pristine, virgin unpredictability was exhilarating. I didn’t even know I wanted this radical unpredictability until I was given it, and was shocked by my own joy in receiving it. Radical order and radical unpredictability!

By this principle things will happen the way they happen, proceeding with invariable necessity, and they cannot unfold otherwise, but there is no way at all for us to get ahead of the process and see where it is going. We can only enact or follow the process, and see where it goes.

Since then, I have applied this pattern of radically-rational-yet-radically-unpredictable feedback processes to many phenomena outside of the domain of math — and many of these processes are core to my personal mission.

Design, of course, is famously iterative. And it is also notoriously unpredictable. We must constantly console nervous manager-types who need to know what we are going to learn before we learn it and what we are going to invent before we invent it. We have to tell them: trust the process. The process is a nonlinear one, and part of its rigor is refusing to draw conclusions using straight euclidean rulers. We must participate in the nonlinear process of learning-making-learning-making… and eventually, something will crystallize.

Hermeneutics is also famously nonlinear. The hermeneutic circle describes the interplay of whole and part, with the whole being your own understanding — an understanding that gives significance to parts, yet the parts constitute this whole. Learning is the development of a whole from parts that either support or extend or undermine or even break the whole into which parts are integrated.

Now, today, I am thinking of moral principles as nonlinear.

All too often, without even noticing, we assume that morality will be a linear rule. We wonder what we should do in x-situation. We apply a moral rule to the problem, get a decision, then execute the decision.

I originally applied this line of thought to the Golden Rule.

If you approach the Golden Rule linearly and assume the proper procedure is to feed the question into the Golden Rule Machine and see what answer it spits out, the Golden Rule will appear manifestly dumb. But if, rather than accepting that first answer, we instead iteratively receive it as a question to be fed back into the Golden Rule, things get more interesting. With each cycle, the output become more intuitively right, and not as an asymptotic approach to a predictable point. Outputs bounce around chaotically. For instance, the process almost immediately stops being one that occurs within one’s own mind, but expands beyond the skull to include those who are or might be affected by the decision. If someone is going to do something that affects you, don’t you want them to involve you? According to the Golden Rule you should do likewise.

This means even if we accept a the most rigorously rational morality it does not follow that this gives us the ability to unilaterally calculate what is moral. Morality is not a code of determinate rules, but a process we must follow — and it is a collaborative process we must follow with others.

Linearity — physical, cognitive, moral — is strictly for limited circumstances, one person or a few, within a limited context within a limited span of future time.

Beyond these narrow bound is radical order and radical surprise. So let us say amen.

Lesser mysteries

From my phenomenological, hermeneutical and pragmatic inclinations and self-education, I cannot help but read Renee Guenon (and to a degree, Frithjof Schuon) critically, as conveying extremely sharp, clear and, above all, grounding insights into the human condition — that is the condition of finitude within and toward infinitude — but proceeding from these to unwarrantedly objective speculations about the structure of what extends beyond what can be objectively known.

Having ridden this planet around the sun more than fifty times — which, believe it, or not, continues to surprise even after twenty or even thirty rides, and not in ways you might derive from the first thirty — and having been spiritually humiliated out of (I hope) most of my youthful hubris, I’m saying this not only tentatively, not only cautiously, but with acute, apprehensive modestly.

When I say “I cannot help but” I say it with anxious awareness that this might very well situate my stage of understanding to someone who has transcended it — but also, to those who most definitely have not.

Such is the nature of transcendent insight: those who know can’t tell and those who can tell don’t know nearly as much as they believe. When evaluating claims to transcendent knowledge, one crucial thing I look for is signs of awareness of this “horizonal” condition. If you have been given a divine gift of unshakable certainty, I will suspect, perhaps wrongly, you are still in the early and paved stages of your journey. The first appearance of new-to-me always is always new-to-the-world, most of all with the most commonplace wisdom.

So, here it is, laid out flat for convenient scrutinty: The same human tendency that compels us to ground our subjectivity in an objective world, to attribute mind to the functioning of a brain, makes metaphysicians ground our subjectivity in a positive metaphysics. Or, to put it in Guenon’s language, from where I stand I see the Lesser Mysteries (of “true man”) as greater than the Greater Mysteries (of “transcendent man”).

There.

Hineini.

I must really be where I really am if I wish to really go to other real places.

*

If you know better, please speak up.

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.

*

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.

*

When we look at an optical illusion and we perceive it first one way, then another — what is going on there? This is not 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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.