Category Archives: Philosophy

Sketchy endeavor

I want to lay out a basic vocabulary for my project of approaching philosophy as a design discipline.

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This is a very sketchy endeavor.

I’m presenting even the philosophy that justifies and encourages approaching philosophy this way as itself something I designed.

This philosophy makes no claims to truth, only to being one good way to understand experience — one that I recommend.

I recommend it on pragmatist grounds, as something good to believe.

It is no accident that it is good to believe because it teaches dissatisfaction with anything that isn’t good to believe, and it practices what it preaches. It iteratively investigates, questions, instaurates possibilities, tries them on, evaluates and compares — and continues iterating until whatever it comes up with is experienced as good.

Good is evaluated in a designerly way. What is evaluated is not (only) the object we experience. More important is the subject of the experience — what the subject experiences as a result of interacting with the object of the design. Liz Sanders provided the essential definition of good design — a good interaction is experienced as useful, usable and desirable. It is experienced as useful if it helps a user accomplish something the user is trying to do. It is experienced as usable if it allows the user to accomplish what they are trying to do with minimal effort, confusion and distraction. It is experienced as desirable if it contributes value of its own (joy, meaning or sense of relationship) to the experience.

Notice the essential relativity of these characteristics. No object in itself can be said to be useful, usable or desirable. Neither can an experience be useful, usable or desirable. No, only when some subject interacts with some object, can that object be experienced as useful, usable or desirable.

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With philosophy, things get super-weird, and this weirdness has been perplexing me for a long time. Extracting myself from the perplexity has been slow and arduous.

The weirdness hits at three points — the subject of the philosophy, the object meant to be experienced as good, and the medium of philosophy itself that somehow effects this good experience.

You could, of course, conceive the subject of philosophy the person thinking about the words that articulate the philosophy, or the ideas, arguments or claims taken as the content of it, or maybe the method or approach taken in the doing of the philosophy. Any of these conceptions would be much easier, and if simply providing a crisp, clear answer to the question, or if simply enjoying the process of conceiving an answer, these conceptions might be advisable.

My purpose, however is different. My entire conception and experience of existence has been changed by reading, thinking and struggling with philosophy. This conception and experience did not only change while I was focusing on philosophy. The change endured and transfigured absolutely everything, all at once, and in ways I have found incredibly difficult to communicate.

Somehow, because of words I’ve read, my conceptions have changed in a way that has changed my subjectivity — and in a way that preceded bypassed and often defied language. These changes have usually been for the better, and when they haven’t, I’ve struggled with these worse subjective states, wrestled free, or critiqued them to smithereens, until they lost their hold on me and yielded to better subjective states. Across these changes, I’ve tried to retain knowledge of what happened, and what it implies about subjectivity, conceptions, truth and the nature of reality beyond our truth.

I want to account for this extremely strange possibility of subjective change and try to understand how much the changes be undergone in an intentional manner, so that people can make similar changes to themselves and improve their experience of reality.

I am only interested in philosophy primarily for its capacity to produce clearer, more cohesive and expansive conceptions of existence that allow us to understand, experience and respond to our situations effectively without the need to explicitly intercept and interpret them (in other words, think about them spontaneously and second-naturally) and finally to find existence valuable and inspiring.

Somehow, through some miraculous iterative bootstrapping, this iterative construing, evaluating, criticizing, scrapping, restarting process developed into the glorious circular but expanding logic of designing glorious circular, expanding, spiraling logics.

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Subjectivity is the totality of intuitions interacting within a psyche (or putting it in religious language, spirits interacting within a soul).

Subjectivities are multistable. They can stably self-organize in myriad ways as subjects, capable of effective response to various situations. Some of these subjects are acquired in study of academic subjects taught in school. The personal subject is the personality who modalizes these various acquired subjects and others, and remains a self throughout these modes. When we know another person, that person is learned more as a subject than as some object with known properties.

The goal of philosophy is producing a stable, dynamic, integration of intuitions.

Out of time. More later.

Intuitive multistability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This state cannot be reached merely by inner work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detune to retune

Intelligence denotes understanding of finite entities in systematic combination.

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

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

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A detuned soul is not necessarily regrettable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuning is a concerted effort.

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

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

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

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

Salmiac. Scotch. Puehr. Acquired tastes.

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

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

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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.”

Faith as intuition system

Let’s define faith as an configuration of intuitive faculties (which I will simply call intuitions) within a psyche.

Different intuitions (again, the faculties, not their content) coordinate themselves societally, which produce a certain form of subjectivity, with its own ways of conceiving, perceiving, interpreting, inferring, responding, etc.

Subjectivity can be changed if these intuition systems are reordered.

Religious conversion occurs if an intuition system is radically reordered to a degree that the world itself seems transfigured.


There are at least three notable implications in this way of conceiving faith:

  1. Faith is not belief. Faith is that which does the believing, and it does far more than that. Faith enworlds.
  2. The unconscious is not submerged conscious content. It is the very working of faith to produce, and often re-produce, content. We don’t have suppressed thoughts. We have malfunctioning faiths that keep producing unwanted content.
  3. Because faiths are changeable, we are not stuck with them if they produce ugly, depressing beliefs, ineffective or destructive responses, or utter bewilderment toward our most pressing issues. If our life experience leaves us perplexed, faltering, indifferent or otherwise miserable, and all our attempts to redesign the world around fail for material or political reasons, we can also ask if maybe the problem isn’t with malfunctioning faiths. We can, if we wish, plough these bad faiths under, and try to instaurate better ones that provide us better options to enword ourselves better.

I’ve been arguing for some time that philosophy ought to be redescribed and reconceived as a design discipline, rather than as a search for truth, especially when truth is imagined to preexist out there, ready for excavation.

But, as with all words of a certain kind, philosophy is burdened with connotations that interfere with discussing it in new ways. Philosophy is about thought, ideas, arguments. Same with religion. Religion is about forcing ourselves to accept unprovable if not ludicrous superstitious speculations as true and momentously important. And forget design. Design is about making better things in the broadest sense, and when experiential language is introduced to suggest that the ultimate goal of design is not the objects it shapes, but the subjectivity resulting from interacting with it.

In each case, notice, the source of content is confused with its content.

Philosophy philosophizes philosophies. Design designs designs. Perception perceives perceptions. Intuition intuits intuitions. See the pattern? (I’m curious, though: why doesn’t faith have its verb form? Faith believes faiths?)

The problem here is not with the words.

The problem is at the faith-level.

An objectivist faith everts subjectivist faiths, turning container into contained, concavity into convexity, convexity into concavity, doer into done, intuition into intuition, design into designs, philosophy into philosophies.

Soul and the speaking self

Within the complex society that is your soul, who is responsible for what you do?

Ask your soul, and your speaking mind will speak up. It will talk your ear off about its actions and accomplishments. It will tell you about what its intentions were, how it pursued its intentions, why those intentions were the best intentions.

The speaking mind speaks very convincingly and authoritatively, and sounds for all the world as if it alone decided all these things and carried them out. It speaks so convincingly it believes itself entirely, and because it believes itself entirely, it speaks convincingly.

The speaking mind believes it represents the entire soul when it speaks on its behalf.

Sometimes it forgets it is not the whole soul, itself. It gets out of touch with the rest of the soul. It forgets that there is more to the world than words. It becomes isolated and insular.

The speaking mind can fall into a word world, an existence where only things that can be talked about are real, and anything that can’t be talked about is less than real.

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Obviously, if you pay close attention to your experience, there is more to a soul than the speaking mind. Besides the speaking mind’s speech, often obscured behind it, there exist myriad spirits, known by their movements and traces, which operate worldlessly and often escape the notice of the speaking mind, and if noticed, often leave the speaking mind speechless. The speaking mind might fumble for words, invent analogies or move it to poetry.

All too often, the speaking mind dismisses these signs, or relegates it to some dull and isolating category: just a reaction, just my imagination, just a feeling, just a passing mood, just a sense — it was nothing.

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Much of a soul, maybe most of it, is pure instinct, the movements in the soul and movements in the body that function silently and almost autonomously, in response to events around them, completely outside the jurisdiction of speech.

We may be tempted to exclude these tacit and unreflective instinctive movements from full citizenship in the soul. They are not soul, but just bodily reflexes. That is a mistake. They are simply the underclass of the soul. If they went of strike, the soul would lose most of its connection with the body and personhood would grind to a halt.

Then there are habits. These are acquired instincts, those aspects of ourself who run autonomously, as our second nature. Often here, too, we treat habits as unintelligent and simply mechanical. When habit leads a process, speaking mind says “my mind was on autopilot”.

Nietzsche said “Every habit makes our hand more witty and our wit less handy.” This demonstrates the alienation of habit from speech, and demonstration is how habit communicates its existence. The wit of the hand is evidenced in the subtle and unmechanical distinctions and decisions that guide its interactions with the world.

Closely related to instinct and habit is the vast and amorphous class of spirits we call intuition. The line between intuition and instinct and habit is faint and blurry.

Intuitions do most of our experiencing, recognizing, evaluating, connecting and responding.

I — my own speaking mind, that is — likes to divide them into three types: what-intuitions that recognize and relate entities, how-intuitions that act and interact, and why-intuitions that feel value in its many qualities.

The intuitions themselves have responded mostly approvingly to this classification, because they seem to use it in their cooperative activities. In other words, they — I — have adopted this framework and apply it themselves without any verbal bossing from my speaking mind. It is how I intuitively, second-naturally, perceive the world.

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As a designer, I seek intuitive connections. I want anything I make to link up directly with the tacit citizens of people’s souls, bypassing, as much as possible, the speaking mind. There are many good reasons for this:

  • We function most gracefully when we act wordlessly. When we are forced to verbalize it creates an unwieldy chain of command. The speaking mind introduces a bureaucratic stilted formality to doing that makes it look like the action is being remote-controlled, because that, in fact, is what is happening.
  • The speaking mind often has things it needs to do, and the requirement to issue verbal instructions to eyes and hands interrupts its own fluent speech.
  • When we support direct interactions between our intuitions and things we make, we are able to merge with things so they become an extension of ourselves. The guitar becomes part of our mysterious musical intention and our body and the music. The pen melds our creative, discerning, responding selves through our hands, onto the paper, into the image on the paper. And, I would like to suggest, our wordless understanding infuses itself into words, strung out into sentences, paragraphs, whole bodies of spoken and written thought.

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Is it possible there is no speaking mind at all, but only a posse of intuitions who have connected to certain words, ideas, concepts that allow them to conceive thoughts? These intuitions have exclusive language privileges?

What would happen if some Prometheus brought language to the wordless intuitions?

Design mindset exercises

I’m thinking about some possible exercises for cultivating a more designerly soul.

  • When asking questions throughout the day, notice whether the question was open- or close-ended.
  • Try to ask as many open-ended questions as possible.
  • Try to get someone to teach you a novel way of understanding something.
  • Test a belief about someone else by asking them to explain to you why they think or feel something, and notice where you were wrong about them.
  • See if you can entertain and feel the persuasive force of something you haven’t fully entertained before.
  • Notice when you agree or disagree with something you hear or read or see, and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Notice when you are feeling anxious or perplexed and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Try to catch yourself before you argue for or against some idea and see if instead you can offer your thinking as an alternative approach to the question at hand…
    …and then see if you can entertain each alternative way of thinking and compare them…
    …and compare them in terms of advantages and trade-offs (in understanding, effectiveness and spiritual tone) instead of in terms of true and false.
  • See if you can learn something new about someone just by observing them or their environment or something they are using.
  • See if you can notice where something was designed so well you might not have noticed it if you weren’t looking for it.
  • Look for an opportunity to reconcile with someone, and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Look for when you feel envy, and respond by complimenting the other, and sharing your envy with them…
    …and observe closely and fully what it feels like to give a deep, heartfelt and reluctant compliment.
  • Give credit; acknowledge contributions and influence as much as you can.
  • If you love people, try telling them so.

Living designally

Premise: If everyone conducted themselves as designers, not only at work, but all the time, most of our biggest interpersonal and social problems could be resolved.

For instance, my advice to designers I know who have been caught in conflicts, especially in political debates that have devolved into fights, is “stop thinking about politics politically, and instead think about politics designally.” —

Concretely, this might mean

  • Try interviewing the other person until you can think in their own logic.
  • Propose alternative accounts to compare, focusing on relative advantages and tradeoffs, not what which explanation is right or wrong.
  • Assure the other person that no solution will be good enough for you until it is also good enough for them.
  • Affirm to the other person that they matter far more to you than any idea or belief.

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What if we began to think of design less as a skillset, or even as an approach to making, solving or resolving, and instead thought of it more as a spiritual discipline? A way to live, to exist, to be — a way that can be cultivated?

*

Much of traditional religion involves spiritual exercise, intended to cultivate a state of soul conducive to relationship to our transcendent ground. We learn to control ourselves, to accept ourselves, to accept our responsibility, to concentrate our minds, to notice what is within and without and the connections between, to open the hand of thought, to forgive and reconcile, to let down our guard, to feel gratitude for what is far too easy to take as given fact (as opposed to graciously accepting as given gift), to ask for the return of ourselves to ourselves, to feel an urgent hope for the wellbeing of others, to accept whatever happens with grace and strength, to love more readily, expansively, thoroughly — and far more than this.

Religion at its very best is supposed to be an intensive cultivation of self-toward-Allness, and one that does not attempt to exclude that most bothersome but important part of Allness, the people around us. If we cannot be religious with others, we may have spiritual experiences, but they are experiences, not that relationship with all-inclusive Allness that religion pursues so imperfectly but intently.

A great many people have been wounded by flawed religion, and by the antireligion fundamentalism that worships what it imagines to be an ultimate being of some kind, and hates every appearance of real Allness that contradicts it.

This is a weird kind of self-worship, imagination-worship, ideo-idolatry I call misapotheosis. It is a failure to distinguish the self’s imagination from what transcends imagination, and consequently to learn the difficult lesson that while all of us are of All, and in All, none of us are All. Our ideas about others are the furthest thing from other: our ideas about others are part of ourselves. Our ideas about God, about Reality, about History — these are only ourselves.

The religiously wounded cannot engage in religion as it has been presented to them, nor do they find it easy to engage in other religions without unconsciously engaging it as a good version of what hurt them so much in their earlier life. And when they do this, they accidentally inflict the same harm on others with their new true convictions. A great many of today’s most impassioned red-pilled or woke activists are little more than transcriptions of Christian fundamentalism doing the same old battle against Satan, only now it is the Satan of international conspiracy, or the Satan of Those Who Hate Our Freedoms, or the or the Satan of Those Who Oppress Our Identity, or the Satan of climate change, or the Satan of Whiteness, or the Satan of patriarchy, or the Satan of Libtards, or the Satan of Communism, or the Satan of Capitalism, or whatever evil they can agree on with others to hate.

Any Satan will do if you can’t find a credible All/God to love. If you can’t share a love, you’ll almost certainly share a hate. We humans cannot bear to be alone, and we will find whatever we can to feel together. Love is harder, so it is less common.

*

Somehow, though, design gives us a way out of this pattern. It gives us a manageably tiny mustard-seed of a problem to resolve together, along with the beautiful gift of no easy way to escape the necessity of really resolving it.

To succeed we must win the participation of those around us. To do that we must be deeply attuned to the who situation we are confronting, much of which transcends not only our knowledge, but even our logic. This includes not only the materials and the facts of the case at hand, but also the myriad ways others perceive the same situation, interpret it, construe what follows from it, imagines what out to be done.

In design, we must exist as ourselves toward who we are not and what we are not, with a full understanding of that strange relationship each of us has and an I toward All. The strangest part of this relationship is how inconceivable ideas can be learned from others, bringing into sudden existence, out of nothing, new possibilities in a flood of world-transfiguring inspiration.

*

Sure, we can describe it all in flat matter-of-fact language. We can make it no big deal. Yeah, yeah, we need to get aligned around a vision and a plan for getting there. Yep, maybe if we reframe the problem, we can find a solution people will get on board with. Let’s use empathy so we can find out what other people need and want.

Fact is, though, doing these things successfully requires a deep mindset shift. Everyone must make this shift for it to work. One belligerent debater or cynic in the room can break the dynamic. But if everyone makes the shift together something happens, and the productive output of the shift might not be nearly as important as the occurance of the shift itself.

As Rorty said, “Anything can be made to look good or bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being redescribed.”

I want to redescribe this shift into this designerly mindset as essentially religious. (Or not!)

And I want to see if I can stay in this mindset all the time and make it essentially who I am.

Engineering, monocentric design, polycentric design

All engineering is done for some human purpose, even when it does not focus on the people who will eventually use it. Every engineering problem is defined with an eventual use in mind. An engineer develops a system that solves the defined problem.

Once the engineered thing is used by someone, however this can be viewed as a larger system — a hybrid system composed of interacting human and non-human components. It is now a design.

It is the job of the designer to develop hybrid systems of interacting human and non-human elements.

*

Let’s shift how we look at design, and view it in a cool, objective, impersonal and engineerish light. Imagine a person, who we’ll name “User”, interacting with an engineered artifact which we will call “widget”.

If User understands the widget and uses it to do something useful in a desirable way, User is likely to choose to stay engaged. The human and non-human components stay connected together, interacting systematically, and functioning together as intended. But if User finds the widget confusing, difficult, useless or unpleasant and chooses not to stay engaged, the hybrid system loses its human component, and falls apart as a design, even if that isolated widget functioned exactly as it was engineered to.

Designers talk a lot about experiences. Good experiences are ones that keep people engaged as participants in a hybrid system completed by their use. Bad experiences cause design system to lose their human parts and to break into unused engineered components.

For this reason, many designers say that their ultimate output is experiences. I would argue that these good experiences are the best means to another end: to keep the human part of hybrid systems engaged in willing participation in hybrid systems. (* See note below if you want some political provocation.)

*

I came up with this way of seeing design and engineering when I was trying to explain to my engineer father why design research is so important. He was a ceramic engineering professor and taught classes on material science. He’d teach engineering students how various kinds of glass or other ceramics performed under different conditions so they would behave as expected when used in components of engineered systems.

I told my dad that design researchers were like material scientists for the human components of design systems, but much of what we needed to understand what was happening subjectively with them, as well as physically.

*

To repeat: every engineered component is implicitly part of a larger design system.

This can be carried forward one more step:

Every design used by some individual person can be seen as a node in a larger polycentric design system — which happens, not in individual experience, but as a social system, among interacting persons, each having an experience of the interaction, each choosing to engage with or disengage from the system.

A monocentric design (focused on a single person) becomes part of a polycentric design system  when it shapes and colors how multiple persons interact with one another within a social system.

*

People sometimes ask how user experience (UX), customer experience (CX) or employee experience design relates to service design.

UX, CX and other Xs  are monocentric design disciplines.

Service design is a polycentric design discipline.


Note: For political reasons, it has been unwise to express what designers do in this way, because it implies changes in method, organizational design and, possibly, reporting structure. Someday perhaps we’ll heed these implications. Engineering efforts should be informed, defined and directed by designers. But the industrial revolution is still not finished winding down, and we still live in an engineering age. Engineers and other STEM disciplines are thought to hold the answers to life’s problems. This exaltation of STEM is actually creating most of these problems, not solving them. And the identities of STEM practitioners has zero to do with it, either — the disciplines themselves methodologically exclude precisely the considerations that most need to be included and considered in resolving societal problems. If you are trying to solve the wrong problems, or if the problem is misframed, no amount of technical ingenuity will help. But this is a whole other diatribe.


Philosophy is a polycentric design discipline.

Art is enworldment

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

The purpose of art is enworldment.

*

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

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

From the Proceedings of the Fruitionist Society

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

H. L. Mencken on aristocracy in America

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

“American Culture”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I taught design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objective reuleaux

The overlapping region of the trefoil venn diagram of what-is/how-can/why-ought (from my chapbook) forms a reuleau — a confluence of intuitions where people are most likely to feel an urgent need to establish public, objective truth.

In this objective rouleau, we feel that a matter is important, that we can and should respond to it practically, and that, in order to do so, we will need to clearly understand it — to conceptualize, speak, reason and argue about what it is, how it functions, how we can respond to it, why it is important, and so on.

This intuiting, responding, articulating, valuing activity creates the kind of densely tangled, knotted and enmeshed reflextive activity that tends to solidify our ideas (like the knitting of bone cells) and makes them not only seem true but to become socially true through being performed as true, and act-ual.

(For all you reckless flakes, I woke up from a dream last night with this thought in my head. Woo-oo-oo!)

Interactive turn?

In Ken Burn’s documentary The Vietnam War, James Willbanks deadpans a striking insight : “The problem with the war, as it often is, are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what is important, you make what you can count important.”

Of course, any person who has had mid-managerial responsibilities will recognize the truth of this quote. In any complex organization quantification is so important that, for a variety of good and bad reasons, anything that resists or defies quantification is taken as less real than things that are readily quantified.

To the degree control is imposed from a distance, quantitative considerations will predominate.

*

In my experience, Willbanks’s principle pertains just as much to qualitative explication. If we can’t talk about what is important, we make what we can talk about important.

We see it in how consumers make purchasing decisions, especially when they are thinking about a purchase at a distance, out of contact with the thing under consideration. When we directly encounter a designed thing and interact with it, we experience it differently, know it differently and think about it in different terms than when we look at pictures of it, read about it and compare specifications. As with management it is a matter of proximity. Distance abstracts, and what tends to get abstracted out most are precisely the unique je ne sais quoi qualities that belong to the best design. I believe the fetishization of digital devices — the obsessive looking at, reading about and spec-comparison of objects — over the direct perceiving of, trying out of, interaction with them has corrupted marketing and caused companies to abandon designing wonderful experiences, and instead to create photogenic eye-candy with impressive specifications.

We also see it in our relationships with people. Whether we like them or dislike them, people we interact with every day, are experienced differently from people we know only distantly. As we distance ourselves, spatially or relationally, we know them more and more abstractly, and they become more identical to others of their identity. We know a person we meet, or better, are close to. We only know stereotypes of identities we read about, talk about and look at from a distance. The more we only read about people or events, or present ourselves to be read about or looked at, instead of participating in real relationships with real people the less we know them — and about the diversity of human nature in general. We lose our feel for humanity outside our narrow circle.

The same goes for situations. If we only know other places, other conditions, or other types of situations by reading about them, instead of at immersing in them and participating in them we gain a strange kind of abstracted account of what does go on, or what we imagine (based on what we’ve experienced) what probably must be going on there. We have no sense at all what it is like to be there, which is not primarily what can be said about it, especially by others we are most inclined to interact with, namely people who have similar experiences and use the same abstractions we habitually use. Reading too much news and directly experiencing too few of the realities the news reports on or opines about, mis-trains our feel for human events. Conversely, participating in events on the rough ground of reality in the fog of unfolding events, forming our own understanding of what is happening, and then reading how others interpret and abstract them can restore some reality to our sense of truth.

These are some reasons I’ve come to prefer an epistemologies of direct interaction over epistemologies of sensing from a distance, or worse, epistemologies of talking-about. I guess I’m advocating an interactive turn.

*

In philosophy, if our beliefs can be stated clearly and argued cogently, we tend to take them for true, regardless of whether these beliefs link up with real actions and experiences. And conversely, when clear speech and cogent argument is difficult, we will sometimes abandon more tacit intuitions of truth or ignore problems we feel, but cannot pose. If we cannot explicate it, prove it or defend it, we prefer to ignore its possibility.

I have a suspicion that a strong drive to explicate an explicable world accounts for much of the aversion to metaphysics and its fixation on language we find in certain strains of contemporary philosophy. “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence.” Must? According to…?

And I think the ignoring of these tacit intuitions (rather than accepting them as real and attempting to articulate them) has reduced philosophy to formalism and argument and made philosophy abandon its social purpose — making the not-yet-conceivable conceivable — and expanding our intellectual repertoires so we can talk about what is most important for us to share: those apprehensions we cannot yet comprehend. When we limit ourselves to speaking clearly about things we can speak clearly about, and we prohibit speech in places where “here I do not know how to move around”, we doom philosophy to irrelevance and humanity to philistine constriction.

Faith and belief

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

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

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

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

Thus-musty

Thinkers who believe arguments can do more than I think they can — that we can argue how reality must necessarily be, therefore it is that — bring an insult to mind: “scholastic”. Too many thusses, musts and therefores, or when a syllogism stretches past three pages and I start feeling antsy, that thinker risks being dismissed as scholastic.