Category Archives: Philosophy

Philosophy as design

[This is an older post that was saved as a draft, that I published for my index of Philosophy of Design of Philosophy posts. Unfortunately I lost the date when it was written. It was probably mid-2019.]

The idea that philosophies are systems of conceptual tools used for making sense of the world is not new. This idea was central to John Dewey’s brand of Pragmatism which he called “Instrumentalism”. Here the primary measure of a philosophy is not fidelity in representing some sort of pre-existent truth, but rather usefulness for living a particular kind of life.

And the idea that philosophies are not impersonal theories of truth but are made by and for a variety of specific types of people with specific value priorities and ideals which can differ quite drastically from type to type was one of Nietzsche’s core themes. Nietzsche’s measure of philosophy a emphasized its ability to invest life with desirability.

By now, anyone who works as a designer or with designers will have recognized Liz Sanders’s famous triad of good experience, Useful, Usable and Desirable.

This suggests the question of usability? Have any philosophers emphasized usability, or even given it much thought at all? I have found quite a few, actually, but their works  tend to be scholarly explanations of the work of other philosophers. It seems as if most philosophers are driven by a need to conceptualize something very difficult to explain, usually a perplexity that arose from reading other philosophers’ attempts to do the same. Maybe problems of that magnitude, ones that require a thinker’s entire effort to resolve, are so all-consuming they leave the thinker too exhausted to clearly communicate the resolution of the problem with those not already obsessed with it.

From Irrational Man

William Barrett, Irrational Man:

If philosophers are really to deal with the problem of human existence—and no other professional group in society is likely to take over the job for them—they might very well begin by asking: How does philosophy itself exist at the present time? Or, more concretely: How do philosophers exist in the modern world? … Philosophers today exist in the Academy, as members of departments of philosophy in universities, as professional teachers of a more or less theoretical subject known as philosophy. This simple observation, baldly factual and almost statistical, does not seem to take us very deeply into the abstruse problem of existence; but every effort at understanding must take off from our actual situation, the point at which we stand. “Know thyself!” is the command Socrates issued to philosophers at the beginning (or very close to it) of all Western philosophy; and contemporary philosophers might start on the journey of self- knowledge by coming to terms with the somewhat grubby and uninspiring fact of the social status of philosophy as a profession. …

“Not enough has been made of this academic existence of the philosopher, though some contemporary Existentialists have directed searching comment upon it. The price one pays for having a profession is a déformation professionelle, as the French put it—a professional deformation. Doctors and engineers tend to see things from the viewpoint of their own specialty, and usually show a very marked blind spot to whatever falls outside this particular province. The more specialized a vision the sharper its focus; but also the more nearly total the blind spot toward all things that lie on the periphery of this focus. As a human being, functioning professionally within the Academy, the philosopher can hardly be expected to escape his own professional deformation, especially since it has become a law of modern society that man is assimilated more and more completely to his social function. And it is just here that a troublesome and profound ambiguity resides for the philosopher today. The profession of philosophy did not always have the narrow and specialized meaning it now has. In ancient Greece it had the very opposite: instead of a specialized theoretical discipline philosophy there was a concrete way of life, a total vision of man and the cosmos in the light of which the individual’s whole life was to be lived.”

So, what would be a better position in life for informing a total vision suitable for a broad range of human existences? I would say that being a human centered designer would rank near the top.

I’m reading Irrational  Man, because I’ve been working on redescribing my philosophy in more existentialist language. My project does draw heavily on pragmatist thought, but its ethical core is an existentialist one — but one tempered and matured by insights from distributed cognition, postphenomenology, the material turn in the social sciences as well as human-centered and emerging polycentric design practices.

Daybreak 165

“The chief moral commandments which a people is willing to be taught and have preached at it again and again are related to its chief failings, and thus it is never bored by them. The Greeks, who all too frequently failed to evidence moderation, cold courage, fair-mindedness or rationality in general, were glad to give ear to the four Socratic virtues — for they had such need of them and yet so little talent for them!”

This is definitely true of me and my designerly virtues. I’ve struggled my whole adult life to acquire these bits of discipline — while simultaneously taking care to not smother out the vicious intensity beneath these virtues that is the true power source of my productivity. Right now, I’m reading Nietzsche to counterbalance my virtues, and it is making me much harder to get along with.

Fructivism

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

Here’s my own sloppy definition of fructivism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shift

From Daybreak: “On the natural history of rights and duties. — Our duties — are the rights of others over us. How have they acquired such rights? By taking us to be capable of contracting and of requiting, by positing us as similar and equal to them, and as a consequence entrusting us with something, educating, reproving, supporting us. … If power-relationships undergo any material alteration, rights disappear and new ones are created — as is demonstrated in the continual disappearance and reformation of rights between nations. If our power is materially diminished, the feeling of those who have hitherto guaranteed our rights changes: they consider whether they can restore us to the full possession we formerly enjoyed — if they feel unable to do so, they henceforth deny our ‘rights’. Likewise, if our power is materially increased, the feeling of those who have hitherto recognised it but whose recognition is no longer needed changes: they no doubt attempt to suppress it to its former level, they will try to intervene and in doing so will allude to their ‘duty’ — but this is only a useless playing with words. Where rights prevail, a certain condition and degree of power is being maintained, a diminution and increment warded off. The rights of others constitute a concession on the part of our sense of power to the sense of power of those others. If our power appears to be deeply shaken and broken, our rights cease to exist: conversely, if we have grown very much more powerful, the rights of others, as we have previously conceded them, cease to exist for us. — The ‘man who wants to be fair’ is in constant need of the subtle tact of a balance: he must be able to assess degrees of power and rights, which, given the transitory nature of human things, will never stay in equilibrium for very long but will usually be rising or sinking: — being fair is consequently difficult and demands much practice and good will, and very much very good sense.”

This has been one of the central understandings that informs my politics — the one argument for equity that I find compelling. When any single political group becomes so powerful it no longer needs the other’s consent, or where it is do able to dominate it that it need not fear retaliation, it can dismiss that group’s protests and either dominate it or exclude it. All with the clearest conscience.

And the impotent fury of the powerless at the smug and ignorant moral self-satisfaction of the powerful is a truly dangerous force — especially if the powerful group (thinking inside its own logical bubble) overestimates its power and overplays its hand before the powerless group is truly helpless and unable to retaliate.

Anyone who sets aside the filters and logic of popular philosophy, and closely observes the relationship between power and truth will see something strange: first-person perspectives bend and warp around power without deciding to, or even noticing it is happening. The power-induced change in feelings and thoughts — even memories — are experienced as an epiphany or moment of clarity. “Now that I think about it, I see the truth, a truth that was there all along, I just never noticed…!”

I know a couple where one spouse took on a new energizing project, while the other was sinking into a debilitating depression. The energized spouse, looking through the lens of a new power balance, suddenly had insights about the depressed spouse and their years of marriage, and reassessed its value.

From the perspective of the old power balance, both would have recognized this shift as a betrayal of the worst kind, at exactly the moment when loyalty matters most.

But this is no longer the active perspective. The very standard of what is true, just and good changes with the change in power-relation. An epiphany occurs. The situation transfigures into a liberation story. …Or it transfigures for one side, the side with the power, the side who sees the truth. The other spouse is in no position to protest. The weak perspective can be disparaged and dismissed in the terms of the stronger one. And the weak perspective might even have to adopt the strong perspective if the relationship is to continue. This creates an illusion that there was really only one valid side to this conflict. The winners write history.

It is all unnervingly innocent, it happens constantly, and it is all concealed under language that artificially preserves an appearance of integrity and continuity.

And this story, writ large, is the story of our times.

Phronesis revision

I added a phronesis entry to Designerly virtues.

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

Synesse revision

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

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

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

 

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

Forgettings

If I didn’t already own a copy of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines, I’d have to buy it, if only to house this quote in my library:

As phenomena to be studied, discoveries are interesting, but forgettings are profound. Through the one, we explore and celebrate our insights, but through the other we discover our blindness. It is only through the encounter with a reality that we could not perceive that we see the limitations of our perception—and so begin the slow process of transcending them.

Esoterism practice

This morning, for no particular reason I’ve been poking around in Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing by Arthur M. Melzer

In addition to the various particular errors we may make regarding particular thinkers, there is also a common mistake that we commit again and again in our interpretation of all thinkers. We mistake the philosopher’s surface, exoteric teaching for his true one. And again, these surface teachings, however much they may vary from thinker to thinker, all have one essential thing in common: they are carefully designed to create the false appearance of conformity to the most powerful dogmas of the time, which it is too dangerous to question openly.

Therefore, the established custom of reading esoteric writers non-esoterically has a very precise and predictable efect on the practice of scholarship. It gives rise to a systematically recurring misimpression: everywhere we look, we see the dispiriting spectacle of the human mind vanquished by the hegemonic ideas of its times.

It appears that even our most celebrated geniuses—our Aristotles and Shakespeares—with all their extraordinary gifts and agonized eforts, always end up just confirming the myths of their particular “cave.” It is difficult to overstate the profound inluence of this recurring experience. It forms a crucial but unseen part of the intellectual background of our times, motivating the late modern or postmodern predisposition to the radical critique and disempowerment of reason. In the age of the forgetfulness of esotericism, it comes to seem obvious to everyone that the human mind is not free but wholly contextualized, culture-bound, socially determined. And if that is so, then all our truths are ultimately local, accidental, and temporary; our highest wisdom, only the hometown ethnocentrism polished up.

The awareness of esotericism, by contrast, reveals the falseness, the calculated insincerity of this ubiquitous facade of philosophical conformity—which now comes to sight as an ironic and artful act of resistance. Behind this defensive wall, sheltered and encouraged by it, thrives a secret underground of daring and dissent, a freewheeling speak-easy of the mind. But we, who should celebrate this, are somehow reluctant to believe it. Yet, as an old Ethiopian proverb observes, “When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply—and silently farts.” Every subject class has its silent arts of resistance—the philosophers too. For where force is lacking, fraud and secrecy are the primary agents of freedom. If modern scholars thought more like wily peasants, they would be less resistant to the essential truth that there is always more freedom in the world than the compliant surface of things would lead one to suppose. Thus, the true history of human reason is of necessity a secret history: when the practice of philosophic secrecy is once seen, then the faculty of human reason no longer appears quite as servile and culture-bound as it inevitably does to us.

In short, the ignorance of esotericism, by blinding us to the hidden world of freedom, keeps us in ignorance of ourselves—of the surprising power and independence of the human mind, of its unsuspected capacity to resist time and place.

I am wondering if I might, through the art of esoteric writing, be better able to speak the truth about the systematic oppression, alienation and marginalization of the most vulnerable members of our society — while avoiding persecution by those who enjoy grossly unfair privilege and power so ubiquitous it seems normal and natural?

Designerly virtues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

 

The Gay Science 320

“A: Do I quite understand you? You are in search of something? Where, in the midst of the present, actual world, is your niche and star? Where you can lay yourself in the sun, so that you also may have a surplus of well-being, that your existence may justify itself? Let everyone do that for himself — you seem to say — and let him put talk about generalities, concern for others and society, out of his mind!

B: I want more; I am no seeker. I want to create my own sun for myself.”

Foundations and landmarks

We seek common ground to serve as a foundation for establishing new agreements.

However, common ground has another equally important, but often neglected, function: providing landmarks needed for precise triangulation of subtle but consequential disagreements.

Without shared points of reference, it is impossible to trace perspectives back to their originating standpoints — which, for each of us, is the precise center of the universe.

Transcending the axial religious worldview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The queen of design disciplines

When words mediate between our intentions and the doing of actions, this introduces a distancing layer and a feeling of artificiality. In order for an action to feel natural, language must not direct interpretation, or action.

This includes direct bodily actions. If we are thinking about what our body is doing or how it appears viewed from the outside, we will feel unnatural, or “self-conscious”. In dancing or in sports, it is important to make motions habitual. Reintroduction of directing language breaks the fluency and effectiveness of the movement.

It includes the using of tools. If we must think about how we are moving a tool it distracts from absorption in the task. Quality tools, physical or digital, allow users to direct focus on tasks while they are being performed without splitting attention between what is being done and how to do it. Such splitting of attention breaks the ready-to-hand transparency of the tool and makes flow states impossible, and the kind of output flow states enable. Every need to verbalize in tool use is an interruption of some magnitude and duration, and that interruption’s timing can be discreet or distracting.

This includes even the action of using language. If we are thinking about what we are saying while we are saying it, our language will be less natural and less spontaneously inventive. Language directed language has the same self-conscious stiltedness that self-conscious body movements have, even when a person is writing.

But I want to take this language-thinning ideal even further, into the realm of how we think and even how we perceive. I will argue that the very concepts we use are used best when they are not language-mediated, even if they are language-acquired (as are many body and tool-using skills. I will argue that when we present concepts through language, the concept itself is not linguistic, but can, among other things, tacitly direct language in fluent speech. The same concept, however, will direct our perception when we recognize a phenomenon as something, wordlessly anticipate what follows from it and spontaneously respond.

Our most wordless concepts are so deeply sedimented in our habits and experiences that we do not recognize that what seems most natural to us is second-natural. We are barely aware of how concepts focus our attention on some kinds of phenomena and not only neglect to perceive, but leave in blind, incomprehensible chaos whatever we lack concepts to understand or perceive. The concepts are not objective beliefs or even discrete attitudes, or anything that can be pointed to. Concepts exist behind objectivity and produce objectivity. Concepts are the very stuff of our subjectivity — what rings true, what feels intuitive, what can occur to us in vision or whim. When we say the word “everything”, the full pragmatic scope of what is included in everything is bounded by the concepts that enable conceivability and everything beyond lies dormant in pregnant blind inconceivability — void, ex nihilo, Ein Sof.

Concepts can be designed and redesigned.

A deep change in the design of one’s concepts can changes the entirety of one’s experience of the world, of life, of reality, of possibility, in myriad seemingly random details and all at one as a whole.

Concept design is a strange art, and I think it is what philosophy has become.

I want to argue that philosophy can and ought to be viewed as a design discipline, and should adopt many of the best practices and ideals — most of all, freedom, creativity and optimism.

 

Intentional extension

Reading Schutz’s observations of the “intentional gaze” I am realizing how important the concept of intentional mediation as a means to extend our intentionality (both active and receptive intention) is to my own thinking. This is the sentence that sparked it:

However, as I am always interpreting these perceptions as “body of another,” I am always interpreting them as something having an implicit reference to “consciousness of another.” Thus the bodily movements are perceived not only as physical events but also as a sign that the other person is having certain lived experiences which he is expressing through those movements. My intentional gaze is directed right through my perceptions of his bodily movements to his lived experiences lying behind them and signified by them signitive relation is essential to this mode of apprehending another’s lived experiences.

This concept of intentional gaze passing directly through a mediating phenomenon to an underlying reality (in a transparent and spontaneous act of interpretation) brings to mind a couple of seminal phenomenological example. The first is Merleau-Ponty’s blind man perceiving his path through his cane. The perception of the path passes transparently through the cane. The second is Heidegger’s concept of “ready-to-hand” where the intention passes from the body through the tool, and the tool becomes a transparent extension of the will.

Of course, as any praxis-aware designer knows, in tool use we are not simply acting on a passive object but interacting with some matter through the tool, in a complex feedback rhythm of acting and perceiving: crafting. (Crafting is the material form of instauration, the act of making-discovering. Crafting is discovering the possibilities of a material while also shaping the material in response to what is sensed as possible.) Most of our crafting is mediated through tools, through which we act upon an object and also through which we sometimes perceive the object and its possibilities.

So, between Heidegger’s will-extending hammer and Merleau-Ponty’s perception-extending blind man’s cane is a range of intention-extending instruments that mediate both action and perception.

And among these instruments is the most important instrument of all, concepts. Through concepts we perceive and respond to phenomena and, by extension, reality. (Thinking about concepts as transparent, mediating, intention-extending tools for forming perceptions, conceptions and consequent judgments, beliefs and actions — tools we can and should try out, compare and evaluate before adopting them is the subject of my next book, tentatively titled Second Natural.)

Obviously, seeing craft this way — and more generally, instauration — blurs the traditional boundaries between self and non-self, even beyond the blur generated by extended cognition, which is why I’ve called this “extended being”. But maybe calling it extended existence would be better.

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A couple of years ago, when I was reading postphenomenology, recalling the deep connections between phenomenology and existentialism, I wondered what the existential analogue of postphenomenology would look like. What could postexistentialism look like? If I weren’t all posted out, I might be tempted to call my design instrumentalism — this idea that we ought to treat our transparently intention-mediating concepts as designed artifacts that we can compare with alternatives, adopt, or modify or reject — as post existentialism. What could be a more radical form of self-determination and responsibility than to instaurate our concepts with intention?

The concept of concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To understand a meaning pragmatically requires use of a concept.

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

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

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

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

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

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Can concepts be intentionally changed? Yes.

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

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

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

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

Understanding concepts empowers us for pluralist existence.

Report from holography camp

When I was a little nerd adolescent, I went to holography camp in a remote rural university village. Unfortunately, this village was full of attractive professor’s daughters who were so isolated from the rest of civilization they seemed unaware and unconcerned that we were nerds attending a holography camp. Consequently I learned more about the technical functioning of bra hooks than of lasers and holographic film.

But I did learn one fact about holograms that stuck with me, which is useful for designing metaphors. Every tiny cell on a plane of holographic film contains in its tiny cup-like parabolic interior an image of a whole environment as viewed from its own point on the film. Somehow when one beam of laser light is split into two beams, with one half of the beam illuminating an object and another projected directly on a sheet of holographic film,  the exposed film is imprinted with an interference pattern inside each of those cells. After the film is developed, each cell projects that interference pattern in a way that allows two different images to be seen by each of our eyes, creating a parallax effect — a perception of depth. That is everything I know about holography, plus several things I actually don’t really understand.  Maybe I should try building a metaphor on bra hooks, instead.

The concept: Every point in space, time and consciousness contains an overlapping image of the whole.

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Standing here, surveying the surrounding space, I understand the space as a field of virtual here-standpoints, each with its own surrounding space, which overlaps all other surrounding spaces. Pragmatically, “here” means all this, folded in implication, ready to unfold in action or explication.

And right now, reading Alfred Schutz, I understand time the same way. Every now is composed of complex tenses looking forward into the future and backward into the past at other virtual nows, each with its own past and future, which also be considered through nested verb tense modes. When we plan, at a virtual future now’s past in the mode of future perfect tense.

Repeat with the I, where every other self is understood as a virtual I, within which the actual and virtual time and space manifold repeats and overlaps.

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When I understand space, time and self in this enholistic — to distinguishing this subjective transcendental holism from the objective holism of systems thinkers, gestalt psychologists — I simply am religious.

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By the way, working on unhooking that bra strap has religious significance.

The sudden, intense, all-consuming awareness of the existence of a girl, as someone who looks back and perceives, thinks, feels and judges, is for many boys the first experience of transcendence. Because many people never experience any epiphanies of comparable intensity in any other sphere, romantic love has been  worshipped in popular culture.

More scholastoidal musings

Whatness is comprehended.

Thatness is apprehended.

  • Whoness apprehends.
  • Weness comprehends.

(The last two were experimental points. I am suggesting, if it isn’t obvious, that comprehending is an essentially social act, even if we do it solitarily. Comprehending is an act of lifeworld participation, the inhabiting of a shared intellectual environment, or what I’ve called “enworldment”. Any being we encounter that we apprehend as capable of apprehending, we experience as a “who” not a “what”, but we can only experience that being as a participant in we to the degree comprehension can be shared.)

Body : habitat :: organism : planet :: being : world

Scholastoidal definitions

Ok, this is going to be ridiculous, but I have some fundamental sorting to do. I need to clarify the relationships between thatness, whatness, whichness and whoness. Laugh away; I’m doing this.

The need for clarity began when I stumbled over this line in Schutz: “…in self-knowledge there is a sphere of absolute intimacy whose ‘being there’ (Dasein) is just as indubitable as it is closed to our inspection. The experiences peculiar to this sphere are simply inaccessible to memory, and this fact pertains to their mode of being: memory catches only the ‘that’ of these experiences.”

This is an important matter for me, because it touches on my recently-revived skepticism about how we conceive the unconscious, which ties into the ways language mediates our experiences, including that design-destroying assumption language does (and ought to) micromanage our actions. Extremely usable design makes objects second-natural extensions of our own selves. And my next book will argue that our very concepts ought to have this same quality in use: if you have to think about a concept when applying it, that’s a poorly-designed concept. A well-designed concept operates so invisibly that the thought thinks itself through the working of the concept. But I am digressing now, so I’ll get back to my sorting…

I believe thatness is raw apprehension, the registering of a particular entity as existent.

When we identify a particular existence as something, that identity is its whatness (or “quiddity”).

But even in identifying a that as some general what, the fact of its particular uniqueness remains as its thisness (or “haecceity”).

But all these -nesses are done by minds, and done in some particular way (as opposed to all other possible ways), and this capacity is whoness.

Who a person is, their very subjectivity, is their habits of attending (and neglecting) particular forms of thatness and their ways comprehending thatness as having some kind of general whatness and particular thisness.

When someone views themselves primarily as the comprehending what instead of the apprehending, comprehending who, that person becomes self-alienated in a state Sartre called “bad faith”. This is one primary reason I oppose identitarianism. Identitarianism produces a subjective vacuum where a self should be, and that vacuum suffers in a way it does not know how to conceptualize. Having no access to subjective understanding it seeks to explain its suffering objectively. The self is a suffering object made to suffer by other objects. No amount of objective action can relieve the agony of being trapped in this subjectivity-blindness, because the last place such people look for relief is in their own conceptions. To reach this way of thinking to others is to spread a fatal philosophical disease.

Yeah. I’ll never be a real Scholastic, but I’ll certainly raid it for parts.

Reconceiving the unconscious

Reading Schutz, and examining the structure of lived experience I am suspecting more and more that what we call “unconscious” and habitually conceptualize spatially as submerged beneath our awareness has been misconceived — or, to put it in more designerly language, is a conceptualization that introduces tradeoffs which might not be optimal for our purposes. And what is this purpose, I’d like to optimize for? I’ll try to pin it down: I think in popular thought (which is the thought that creates, re-creates and shapes society, through ethnomethods) we radically misunderstand the relationship between language and lived experience. We have a tendency to conflate consciousness and speech. If something resists language, and we find ourselves unable to capture it our memory with the help of words, that wordless memory of images, sounds, feelings, etc. seems to sink faster into oblivion, and to be harder to retrieve. My hunch is that words are nonverbal memory aids that condense experience from the mental environment. When we have words for what happens to us we are able to “objectify” what is going on, whether what is going on is “out there” in the world or “in here” in my memory. With language we produce sharper objectifications that go into our memories and we have mnemonic objects that will condense the sensory recollections when we wish to recall the experience later.

So in my model, the unconscious is just those mental activities that we have not articulated for objective knowing. But these are not autonomous demon-like beings who slip in the shadows and depths, who move us against our will when we ease our vigilance, hiding our under-selves from what our minds will tolerate. I see this as a nasty vestige of medieval religiosity — one that keeps popping up among people who fancy themselves secular, but whose minds still move in superstitious ruts.

I prefer to understand what we call the unconscious as that vast set of tacit perceptual, kinetic, feeling realities hiding in plain sight, but inaccessible to linguistic thought. They are there, real, tangible, important but we don’t have words for them so they evaporate like dreams after we experience them unless something happens to us that causes the vapor to condense again. One of the great benefits of words is they are reliable memory condensers.

Folks who “think visually” or who take their intuitions and mind motions seriously as real and significant prior to any ability to articulate or conceptualize or demonstrate or argue them have a capacity to create thoughts outside the dominant language games of the culture. I want to articulate some of these realities and make them more thinkable. But also, I want to banish the latter-day demons of the Freudish “unconscious” that seems to have reemerge to haunt our social and political anxieties.

I also find our beliefs about the role of language in our everyday behavior to mislead designers. If we believe users verbalize instructions to themselves that their bodies obey when using software, we stop trying to directly engage our hands. If we understand that language itself is an interface that we use to help us make sense of experience when other means fail, we create two layers of interface between users and their tools. A great user interface minimizes the requirement to verbalize, so tools become invisible, ready-to-hand extensions of the user’s will.

Try these ideas on with this line of thought. The political crisis we are in now, with deep roots in the American tradition, can be seen as starting with the rise of social media. Much of our social lives, and our lives in general, became heavily word-mediated. Normally, when people gather it is around experiences. Things are enjoyed together — food drink, music, art, laughter — and experiences unfold over the course of hours. Social media is fast language. TL;DR, scan, scroll, start, stop, scroll. Not only are people’s blah-blah flipped through like TV channels, but engagement is sporadic and flitting. Written literature has time to evoke, conjure, hint, suggest and condense memories and knowings. Fast language only recalls or refers. It is spastic and explicit. Expastic language could be a good word for fast language, dittos and hashtags. But things got worse when Covid put everyone in social isolation. Then the entire world had to be strained through screens. The realm of shared tacit realities constricted and the word-world expanded explosively. I think what we are seeing now is the opposite of an eruption of the unconscious. I think the sensible wisdom our tacit understandings were removed from the public setting, and brainless verbal logic took over and is running itself to its logical extremes inside s frictionless, gravityless vacuum of collective solipsism.