Category Archives: Philosophy

Eichmann and cliches

Following is a selection of comments Hannah Arendt made about cliches, culled from Eichmann in Jerusalem. The highlights are mine:

The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist –provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny. … It was funny when, during the cross-examination on the Sassen documents, conducted in German by the presiding judge, he used the phrase “kontra geben” (to give tit for tat), to indicate that he had resisted Sassen’s efforts to liven up his stories; Judge Landau, obviously ignorant of the mysteries of card games, did not understand, and Eichmann could not think of any other way to put it. Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school — it amounted to a mild case of aphasia — he apologized, saying, “Officialese is my only language.” But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. (Was it these clichés that the psychiatrists thought so “normal” and “desirable”?

To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” — except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.


Eichmann’s astounding willingness, in Argentina as well as in Jerusalem, to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich. ‘‘Of course” he had played a role in the extermination of the Jews; of course if he “had not transported them, they would not have been delivered to the butcher.” “What,” he asked, “is there to admit?” Now, he proceeded, he “would like to find peace with [his] former enemies”a sentiment he shared not only with Himmler… but also, unbelievably, with many ordinary Germans, who were heard to express themselves in exactly the same terms at the end of the war. This outrageous cliche was no longer issued to them from above, it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those cliches by which the people had lived for twelve years; and you could almost see what an “extraordinary sense of elation” it gave to the speaker the moment it popped out of his mouth.

Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences. His memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happened; in a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused: “What can you remember?” (if you don’t remember the discussions at the so-called Wannsee Conference, which dealt with the various methods of killing) and the answer, of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well, but that they did not necessarily coincide with the turning points in the story of Jewish extermination or, as a matter of fact, with the turning points in history. (He always had trouble remembering the exact date of the outbreak of the war or of the invasion of Russia.) But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of the sentences of his that at one time or another had served to give him a “sense of elation.”

Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judges tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with “elation,” and they were outraged as well as disconcerted when they learned that the accused had at his disposal a different elating cliche for each period of his life and each of his activities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.

These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial — less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, and to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar — which he obviously was not. … Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.


…As far as Eichmann was concerned, these were questions of changing moods, and as long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase to go with them, he was quite content, without ever becoming aware of anything like “inconsistencies.”


Justice, but not mercy, is a matter of judgment, and about nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge somebody else. What public opinion permits us to judge and even to condemn are trends, or whole groups of people — the larger the better — in short, something so general that distinctions can no longer be made, names no longer be named. Needless to add, this taboo applies doubly when the deeds or words of famous people or men in high position are being questioned. This is currently expressed in high-flown assertions that it is “superficial” to insist on details and to mention individuals, whereas it is the sign of sophistication to speak in generalities according to which all cats are gray and we are all equally guilty.

Another such escape from the area of ascertainable facts and personal responsibility are the countless theories, based on non-specific, abstract, hypothetical assumptions – from the Zeitgeist down to the Oedipus complex – which are so general that they explain and justify every event and every deed: no alternative to what actually happened is even considered and no person could have acted differently from the way he did act. Among the constructs that “explain” everything by obscuring all details, we find such notions as a “ghetto mentality” among European Jews; or the collective guilt of the German people, derived from an ad hoc interpretation of their history; or the equally absurd assertion of a kind of collective innocence of the Jewish people. All these clichés have in common that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them is devoid of all risk.


I remember back in the wake of 9/11, especially after the United States invaded Iraq, I was unnerved by the similarity in logic and speech pattern of supporters of the invasion, and those who didn’t quite support it but played devil’s advocate on why maybe we should be over there. I felt like I was hearing some other being speaking through the mouths of these people. They were some kind of  mouthpiece for a collective being. It gave me the deepest kind of creeps.

I feel the same way today both about Progressivists and QAnon types.

I think people who think primarily in words and spend a lot of time in their verbal representations of the world instead of in direct contact with with various realities are susceptible to this kind of semi-solipsistic mass-mind possession. The moving parts of these possessions are cliches, ready-made arguments and tokens, which are less abstractions from reality than they are tokens that stand in for intuited truths.

For me, the best kind of thinking and the best thoughts are responses to real situations, situations where our intuition has failed us and needs assistance. We experiment and reflect on our failures and successes until we  once again can get traction. The practical understanding developed through this process can be formulated in language and used to interpret and guide our future actions and be taught to others. This kind of intuition-rooted, practice-forged understanding works more like an interface with the world than a representation of it.

Susan and I have been collaborating on a way to talk about these different relationships with reality. We’ve been calling these two world-relationships “word world” versus “intuited world”.

The mean of liberty, equality, fraternity

This is an attempt to reframe my old “political gamut” liberty-equality diagram, with an added third dimension of fraternity (indispensable in an age of Post-Trump identitarian madness) in terms of the Aristotelian mean.

Liberty

  • Excess: absolute autonomy of individual (anarchy)
  • Deficit: absolute autocracy of collective (collectivism)
  • Mean: balance of civil rights and obligations (liberalism)

Equality

  • Excess: wealth/power/status ought to be distributed equally (equity)
  • Deficit: wealth/power/status ought to be distributed unequally (hierarchy)
  • Mean: wealth/power/status ought to be earned and maintained (opportunity)

Fraternity

  • Excess: membership in polity is exclusive (closed citizenship)
  • Deficit: membership in polity is all-inclusive (universalism)
  • Mean: membership in polity is conditional (open/permeable citizenship)

Cracked

Here are two Facebook posts I decided to suppress.

 


1.

I’ve cracked. I am done.

I am not longer pretending that progressivism is a respectable ideology.

I reject progressivism as a principled liberal.

Progressivism is not, as many confused people believe, liberalism gone too far, but rather abortive liberalism. It is a fundamentalist perversion of my liberal faith, far worse than straightforward rejection.

For the last ten years I’ve watched my formerly liberal allies degrade into craven identitarians. I don’t respect it and I can no longer pretend to respect it.

When you attach that inane preface “speaking as a…” I hear you speaking as a conformist to a contemptible ideology.

When you dole out different portions of dignity to different persons based on how you and your likeminded dittoheads categorize them, I witness the actions of an arrogant bigot, who doesn’t even know what equity even is.

And if you are among those who actually believe “the personal is political” you are no friend of mine. This is not because I reject you and your beliefs, but because anyone vacuous enough to operate under this principle is incapable of friendship. Listen: anyone with functioning intuition feels it viscerally when a person approaches them, not as a person, but as an instance of a category. It doesn’t matter one bit if that category is a good category or a bad one — it is dehumanizing.

I have no time for dehumanizing ideological operants. Be a fellow human, treat me as a fellow human, or go away.

This is where I stand on things. It is not negotiable. If you don’t like it, do us both a favor and speak up so we can stop wasting each other’s time and energy.

 


2.

Progressivists are constantly approaching me as a fellow progressivist. Of course, being a decent person, obviously I must be a progressivist.

On the contrary: because I am a decent person I am not a progressivist.

I am a liberal, and that is the very furthest thing from progressivist.

I do not admire or even respect progressivist activism. It is not compassionate and it is not countercultural. It is grotesque, callous and cowardly conformism. It cares only about its own ideological flourishing, not about human beings. If you are Jewish, this should be overwhelmingly obvious to you after the last three weeks.

If you happen to be a Progressivist, we can still be friends, as long as you can handle the fact that I cannot help but notice your family resemblance to other totalitarianisms. You’re no hero of history. Quite the opposite.

Intersubjective being

Ontologically, interpersonal relationships (marriages, friendship, social affiliations etc.) are neither objective, nor subjective, but, rather, intersubjective.

Some see these relationships as a social status assigned to a grouping of persons. When such assignments happen, of course, new being is established, not only social categories, but also legal entities. These are, in their way, real, but they do not exhaust the being of the relationship, and it can even be argued that they are not its primary meaning.

However, people who lack an ontological intersubjective category, tend to either see only the objective or subjective aspects of the relationship, or they make category mistakes about relationships.

For instance, they might see the essence of their marriage as their own subjective romantic feelings about the other. Or they might reduce it to their legal status as a married couple. Or they might see themselves as a social unit who appears together at functions. Or they might view it as part of their own identity. “I am a married person.” Or “I am so-and-so’s spouse.” Or they might see it as a practical arrangement. Or maybe it is a formal institution with rules and practices.

To see marriage as an intersubjective being is to understand oneself as a participating subject in a subject who emerges in the process of participation. It isn’t something already existent that each person is trying to figure out. It isn’t an image in two different persons’ minds. It is an emergent We who comes to some kind of existence through the participating subjects.

I want to argue that The same is true for normative concepts governing interpersonal relationships. In particular, I am talking about justice and fairness. These norms are not objective, not subjective, but intersubjective. There is no already existent ideal justice waiting to be seen or excavated by one party or another. It is also not a feeling that justice has been done by one party when the other disagrees. Justice emerges when justice is worked out among involved parties. Fairness is what comes into being when everyone works together to make things fair.

There is no perfect justice or perfect fairness, but this does not mean that justice and fairness do not exist at all, and that we cannot discern gross injustice from imperfect justice. But if we do not understand what kind of being justice is, we are unlikely to generate much real justice.

And same with relationships. When the majority of our population has no idea what an interpersonal relationship is, or how to participate in one, we are unlikely to even achieve imperfect relationships. People will think they have friends but will waste away from loneliness. We will suffer a loneliness epidemic.


I know vanishingly few people capable of thinking relationships or justice without making subjective or objective category mistakes. Of course, many people manage to participate in relationships and justice, anyway, despite their inability to speak or think about it. And the more intellectual a person is, the worse their chances are of living these realities.

Explaining antisemitism

I have several explanations for antisemitism.

I’ve heard that if you are trying to explain yourself, one explanation is more persuasive than several. But I am not trying to persuade. I am trying to understand, and I think there are multiple reinforcing factors.

The first explanation is based on Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. The Jewish people have a deep, intense enduring love for Adonai, for their tradition and for their homeland. Other groups have imitated these loves, and have claimed the relationship, the tradition and the land for themselves, to the exclusion of the Jewish people. But the Jewish people refuse to give these things up, so a scapegoat is needed. Every pogrom is a dark communion — a reenactment of the crucifixion.

The second explanation concerns love and dread, the compelling pull and the repulsive push of the transcendent. The Jewish people began as one more tribal sacrificial cult, but over many generations of stubborn refusal to die out, has iteratively rebirthed its own culture into something so sublimely transcendent that, now, very few people can enter and understand from it. Everything Jewish is haloed with a love-dread aura. It is alien and transcendent, but, worse, it has a strange attitude toward alienness and transcendence — it loves the stranger and welcomes the strange. Which makes Judaism both strange and meta-strange. Religiously sensitive non-Jews love-hate it. They can’t get it out of their heart. They cannot leave it alone, but nor can they grasp and accept it. They need to have it, or control it, or failing that kill it and keep it.

The third explanation is boring. Because the Jewish tradition values parenting and education, many Jews are smarter and better parented than their peers, and consequently excel, and become objects of envy, especially in times of rampant mediocrity and vanity. When a self-esteem pandemic hits, Jews make folks feel like something the cat dragged in. And, this might be a separate point, they make very poor objects of pity, because they just aren’t, as a group, pitiable. People addicted to compassionate condescension can’t do that with Jews, even when Jews are dramatically persecuted.

The fourth explanation is even more boring. Jewish culture values honesty and directness over saccharine softness. Jewish honesty runs confrontational, argumentative, brusque and sometimes flat-out harsh, and people get their precious feelings hurt. Envious and offended people get resentful, and resentment can infect whole generations.

The fifth explanation concerns the role of Jews in history. Primarily because of the first reason, the uneasy centrality of Jews in other peoples’ religions and hostility consequent to this centrality, for much of history Jews have been excluded from land-ownership and participation in reputable trades. They were forced into disgraceful trades like finance. Nobody likes their lender, so that has been a problem. But worse, Jewish financiers — all of whom spoke Hebrew and were therefore able to partner with Jews in other regions — were the financiers of the aristocrats who founded the modern European nation-states. The tradition of hostility of one’s own nation-state contains a thick red strand of Jewish international finance paranoia.

The sixth explanation is so obvious I almost hate to include it. Jews refuse to stop being Jewish. Many learn Hebrew and can speak to one another in a language unknown to suspicious folk who wonder what exactly is being said. And what is going on in those houses of worship? What is going on in their homes and the backrooms of their prosperous businesses? What are those weird people scheming about? Jews are conspicuously alien and for that reason inspire paranoia in the paranoid.

There’s probably more, but this list suffices to account for the phenomenon. And this same list also helps account for why Judaism is my religion.

Why Israel is necessary

You are not your brother’s keeper.

You say you are, but when the decisive moment comes, you will do the wrong thing. Remember sitting in the theater with sweet tears streaming down your face for the little girl in the red coat? “Oh, if I’d been there.” But then you watched another movie and cried over something else. It is so nice to cry. It is so fun to march and shout. It is so gratifying to grandstand with this demographic or that. Because you’re one of the good ones. You are an ally.

But I think on some level you know the truth: You are not a hero of history. You are too faint-hearted and cloudy-minded to stand alone on anything. You are a weather vane pointing whichever way your news entertainment media and your HR department happens to blow you. And if the wind stops blowing, you stop pointing.

You are not dependable. And that is why Israel is necessary.

Redrawing the knitbone

I’ve been playing around with the knitbone image again.

In case you’ve never been subjected to one of my rhapsodies on this topic, “knitbone” is a folk name for comfrey, a plant remarkable for the depth of its taproot.

A comfrey taproot can burrow a ten feet or more into the soil deep under the ground draws nutrients up to the surface.

Gardeners traditionally plant comfrey throughout their gardens. When comfrey drops its lush depth-nourished leaves into the soil, it fertilizes all the surrounding shallower-rooted plants.

The name “knitbone” comes from comfrey’s medicinal application. When pulverized and applied to a wound, it helps the body heal. It can help a bone knit itself back together.

I have emotional history with this plant. When Susan was pregnant with Zoe, we had an herb garden in our back yard. Our midwife was excited to learn that we were growing comfrey. She used it to make a knitbone poultice to help Susan recover from labor. We cared for this plant and received care from it.

Symbolically, knitbone attests to the nourishing power at the depths of understanding, and to the duty of those of us who work at the depths to bring what we find up to the light of everyday practicality.

Ex infinitio

Genesis does not begin with nothingness. Creation is not ex nihilo.

Genesis begins with more than everything. Creation is ex infinitio.

As with scripture, so it has been in that already-in-progress life inside which you awoke, from the chaos of infancy.


Somethingness — toomuchness — is primal. In the beginning is chaos.

Nothingness is abstract. It is an advanced abstraction that, once it possesses us, is thrust beneath the primordial toomuchness — an artificial ground, upon which we cannot stand, but within which we stiffen ourselves in epistemic rigor mortis.

Inside this self-inflicted vacuum we stiffly tumble end-over-end, nowhere, vacuous.


An infinite welter and waste is articulated by spirit.

Objects emerge from the encounter of subject and chaos.

Light against dark against mottled grays? Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa against a muddled mixture of suffering and comfort.

Division of this and that — always against the undivided all. Definition of this, in contrast that — both always against the irrelevant field of everything else.


We define against infinitude, but infinitude is so omnipresent we confuse it with nothingness itself. Just as you, sitting wherever you are, focusing on whatever focal object occupies your attention, define the object of your attention against everything else.


Every subject emerges in the midst of undifferentiated chaos.

You did. I did. Our infant subjects learned to recognize our first given objects.

When we learned new subjects, new given objects emerged. Our mathematical subject learned that one apple and one block shared a characteristic: one. And one block and another block shared something with one apple and another apple. From chaos came quantities of whatever.

We learned the subject of manners. We learned to say “please” when desire emerged and to say “thank you” when desire was gratified. We learned the subject of morality. Some actions were rewarded, some punished.

Every subject articulates new given objects. Those objects are articulated from chaos.


Then there is the sheer bullshit of social construction. You take a class on Derrida in college and get it in your head that you can invent reality. If you practice your bullshit invention long enough it will become familiar. If you force other people to adopt your bullshit long enough, they too, will see it as familiar.

What this does, of course, is alienate us from what we experience.

Soon, we are so alienated, we can see images of slaughtered and raped human beings and just view it all as political abstraction. It’s all just concept play.

We are like the little German boys who followed the first World War like a sporting event, described by Sebastian Haffner:

For a schoolboy in Berlin, the war was something very unreal; it was like a game. There were no air raids and no bombs. There were the wounded, but you saw them only at a distance, with picturesque bandages. One had relatives at the front, of course, and now and then one heard of a death. But being a child, one quickly got used to their absence, and the fact that this absence sometimes became irrevocable did not seem to matter. As to the real hardships and privations, they were of small account. Naturally, the food was poor. Later there was too little food, and our shoes had clattering wooden soles, our suits were turned, there were school collections for bones and cherry pits, and surprisingly frequent illnesses. I must admit, all that made little impression. Not that I bore it all “like a little hero.” It was just that there was nothing very special to bear. I thought as little about food as a soccer enthusiast at a cup final. The army bulletins interested me far more than the menu.

The analogy with the soccer fan can be carried further. In those childhood days, I was a war fan just as one is a soccer fan. I would be making myself out to be worse than I was if I were to claim to have been caught up by the hate propaganda that, from 1915 to 1918, sought to whip up the flagging enthusiasm of the first few months of the war. I hated the French, the English, and the Russians as little as the Portsmouth supporters detest Wolverhampton fans. Of course, I prayed for their defeat and humiliation, but only because these were the necessary counterparts of my side’s victory and triumph.

What counted was the fascination of the game of war, in which, according to certain mysterious rules, the numbers of prisoners taken, miles advanced, fortifications seized, and ships sunk played almost the same role as goals in soccer and points in boxing. I never wearied of keeping internal scorecards. I was a zealous reader of the army bulletins, which I would proceed to recalculate in my own fashion, according to my own mysterious, irrational rules: thus, for instance, ten Russian prisoners were equivalent to one English or French prisoner, and fifty airplanes to one cruiser. If there had been statistics of those killed, I would certainly not have hesitated to “recalculate” the dead. I would not have stopped to think what the objects of my arithmetic looked like in reality. It was a dark, mysterious game and its never-ending, wicked lure eclipsed everything else, making daily life seem trite. It was addictive, like roulette and opium. My friends and I played it all through the war: four long years, unpunished and undisturbed. It is this game, and not the harmless battle games we organized in streets and playgrounds nearby, that has left its dangerous mark on all of us.

It may not seem worthwhile to describe the obviously inadequate reactions of a child to the Great War at such great length. That would certainly be true if mine were an isolated case, but it was not. This, more or less, was the way an entire generation of Germans experienced the war in childhood or adolescence; and one should note that this is precisely the generation that is today preparing its repetition.

The force and influence of these experiences are not diminished by the fact that they were lived through by children or young boys. On the contrary, in its reactions the mass psyche greatly resembles the child psyche. One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses.

Real ideas must as a rule be simplified to the level of a child’s understanding if they are to arouse the masses to historic actions. A childish illusion, fixed in the minds of all children born in a certain decade and hammered home for four years, can easily reappear as a deadly serious political ideology twenty years later.

From 1914 to 1918 a generation of German schoolboys daily experienced war as a great, thrilling, enthralling game between nations, which provided far more excitement and emotional satisfaction than anything peace could offer; and that has now become the underlying vision of Nazism. That is where it draws its allure from: its simplicity, its appeal to the imagination, and its zest for action; but also its intolerance and its cruelty toward internal opponents. Anyone who does not join in the game is regarded not as an adversary but as a spoilsport. Ultimately that is also the source of Nazism’s belligerent attitude toward neighboring states. Other countries are not regarded as neighbors, but must be opponents, whether they like it or not. Otherwise the match would have to be called off!

Many things later bolstered Nazism and modified its character, but its roots lie here: in the experience of war — not by German soldiers at the front, but by German schoolboys at home. Indeed, the front-line generation has produced relatively few genuine Nazis and is better known for its “critics and carpers.” That is easy to understand. Men who have experienced the reality of war tend to view it differently. Granted, there are exceptions: the eternal warriors, who found their vocation in war, with all its terrors, and continue to do so; and the eternal failures, who welcome its horrors and its destruction as a revenge on a life that has proved too much for them. Göring perhaps belongs to the former type; Hitler certainly to the latter. The truly Nazi generation was formed by those born in the decade from 1900 to 1910, who experienced war as a great game and were untouched by its realities.

This was written before the Holocaust. Here is an account from Hannah Arendt on the moral reasoning of one of these boys, grown up into a nice abstract adult:

The member of the Nazi hierarchy most gifted at solving problems of conscience was Himmler. He coined slogans, like the famous watchword of the S.S., taken from a Hitler speech before the S.S. in 1931, “My Honor is my Loyalty” — catch phrases which Eichmann called “winged words” and the judges “empty talk”… Eichmann remembered only one of them and kept repeating it: “These are battles which future generations will not have to fight again,” alluding to the “battles” against women, children, old people, and other “useless mouths.” Other such phrases, taken from speeches Himmler made to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen and the Higher S.S. and Police Leaders, were: “To have stuck it out and, apart from exceptions caused by human weakness, to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.” Or: “The order to solve the Jewish question, this was the most frightening order an organization could ever receive.” Or: We realize that what we are expecting from you is “superhuman,” to be “superhumanly inhuman.” … What stuck in the minds of these men who had become murderers was simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique (“a great task that occurs once in two thousand years”), which must therefore be difficult to bear. … The troops of the Einsatzgruppen had been drafted from the Armed S.S., a military unit with hardly more crimes in its record than any ordinary unit of the German Army, and their commanders had been chosen by Heydrich from the S.S. elite with academic degrees. Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler — who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself — was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around; as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!


Life is to be lived in reality, and reality is given to us intuitively in myriad ways. If we receive it, our reflections on it will keep us in relationship with reality.

We can obscure replace reality with words. We can focus on words and play with them. It will all be quite amusing and pleasant. But we will alienate and we will be alienated.

Pluralist blip

Pluralists maintain principled awareness that there are multiple perspectives from which every event and every issue may be understood.

It seems that now, with the recent brutal pogrom in Israel that at least some of our elite institutions have recovered some momentary slight degree of pluralism. They can see multiple sides of this particular issue — where, in recent years many events seemed to have only one possible morally legitimate interpretation.

Police brutality had only one side. Compelled “Antiracist” indoctrination had only one side. Sexual harassment had only one side. Overturning Roe v Wade had only one side.

All organizations were required to take a stand! Silence is violence!

But apparently this slaughter in Israel — this has two sides — and now, suddenly, organizations must maintain moral neutrality and avoid stirring up unnecessary controversy.

As a Pluralist, I am faintly heartened to see organizations behave as they should have all along. *

As a Jew, I find it appalling that Progressivists are suddenly able to see both sides of this particular issue — an issue where, on one side Jewish babies were literally murdered and Jewish women literally, physically raped.


Note: I do not believe this abrupt embrace of institutional neutrality is a principled pluralist stand. I believe it is a purely pragmatic response to the fact that on this one issue, Progressivist opinion is divided. When Progressivists all agree on an issue, and only Liberals, Centrists and Conservatives dissent (civilly, quietly, politely), Progressivists are more than happy to take a univocal stand on issues. It is only when Progressivists are divided (and will dissent vocally, disruptively, coercively) that organizations exercise diplomatic neutrality.

It’s just an existential crisis

An existential crisis occurs when a person faces a truth that can neither be ignored nor considered.

The truth cannot be ignored because it has been noticed. Now that it has been noticed, it is re-noticed wherever it applies, and it is impossible to un-notice when this new truth obtrudes. It has become part of one’s spontaneous understanding of reality.

It cannot be considered because its implications threaten the integrity of one’s entire way of understanding the world. If one allows this truth to be true, all other truths will break down into… who knows what? This who-knows-what is literally inconceivable, as inconceivable as death. It is a kind of death — the death of our sense of everything as we know it, and the death of who we think we are.

That we can survive these crises, and not only remain ourself, but become our self — that self who is suffocating beneath the crushing weight of what we believe we must be …this is as inconceivable to the existentially threatened soul as the rest of the who-knows-what.

Those in the existential crisis feel unknowability as  dread. Like humidity, the dread pervades, soaks into and saturates everything. Dread condenses upon whatever threatens to bring the unwanted truth forth. Most of all it condenses upon those people who refuse to cooperate with the old sense of truth.

Wherever people feel compelled to suppress other people’s speech or even to control other people’s thoughts, you can be certain that they are attempting to suppress their own existential crisis.

They find compassionate, pious words for this suppression and its justification, but behind the piety is terror and willingness to impose terror.


An oppressive overclass who sees oppression everywhere but where it really is will require not only silence but perfect compliance to preserve its collective delusion and feeling of safety.

“I just can’t see why anyone would object to what I’m trying to do.”

It is true: you cannot see. You cannot allow yourself to see.

You would not survive it.


Soon enough, people will see. This can’t continue forever.

It will happen. It might require a catastrophe, but it will happen.

Then we will have something else to deal with: mass conversion.

A vulgar hoard of first-time metanoiacs will explode into the world and flood it with idiotic, presumptuous, omniscient joy.

Religious hysteria is next.

It will be terrible, and violent, but at least it will be joyous for a change.

Transcendental subject versus psychological subject

From Dan Zahavi’s Husserl’s Phenomenology, paydirt:

The relation between the transcendental subject and the empirical subject is not a relation between two different subjects, but between two different self-apprehensions, a primary and a secondary. The transcendental subject is the subject in its primary constitutive function. The empirical subject is the same subject, but now apprehended and interpreted as an object in the world, that is, as a constituted and mundanized entity.

It is in this context that Husserl calls attention to the fact that subjectivity can be thematized in two radically different ways, namely in a natural or psychological reflection on the one hand, and in a pure or transcendental reflection on the other. When I perform a psychological reflection, I am interpreting the act reflected upon as a psychical process, that is, a process occurring in a psycho-physical entity that exists in the world. This type of self-consciousness — which Husserl occasionally calls a mundane self-consciousness — is just as worldly an experience as, say, the experience of physical objects, and if one asks whether it can provide us with an adequate understanding of subjectivity, the answer is no. Natural reflection presents us with a constituted, objectified, and naturalized subject, but it does not provide us with an access to the constituting, transcendental dimension of subjectivity.

It is here that the pure or transcendental reflection is introduced, since its specific task is to thematize a subjectivity stripped from all contingent and transcendent relations and interpretations.

Husserl makes it clear, however, that this type of reflection is not immediately available, so the question remains: What method or procedure can make it available?

The obvious answer: Through the epoché. For, as Husserl emphasizes again and again (with an obvious jab at introspectionism), unless the way has first been cleared by the epoché, we will be dealing with an objectified and mundanized experience regardless of how intensively or how carefully and attentively one reflects. In contrast to the positive sciences, which can proceed directly to their different fields of research, the region that phenomenology is supposed to investigate is not immediately accessible. Prior to any concrete investigation it is necessary to employ a certain methodological reflection to escape the natural attitude. Only through a methodical suspension of all transcendent preconceptions, only through a radical turn toward that which in a strict sense is given from a first-person perspective, can transcendental analysis commence.

No amount of introspection of the objectified psychological subject will give us insight into the transcendental subject. Efforts to make changes to the objectified psychological subject leave the world-constituting transcendental subject unchanged.


People will happily work on their psychological subject, as long as their transcendental subject is left undetected and sovereign. Any line of thought that makes the transcendental subject conspicuous or challenges its absolute authority will induce profound angst.

Metasophic incompetence

Everyone knows everything — at least everything relevant — especially those who have given things very little thought.

If you happen to be one of the few who puts serious time and effort into earnest, deep and self-critical reflection, please keep in mind that those who focus on practical matters do not see this effort as yielding much value. They see how you waste your time splitting hairs on irrelevant and esoteric topics. You call that wise? It only proves that you lack their talent for discerning what matters most. Is it really so strange that they believe they know better than you?

Every horizon is the edge of the world.

Three modes of principledness

Being principled means that you prioritize certain moral values over your own immediate personal interests.

There are at least three motivational modes of principledness.

Let’s call the first altruistic, the second virtuous and the third magnanimous.

The altruistically motivated person treats principles as something beyond self, apart from one’s own being. He sets aside his selfish needs, in order to dedicate himself to something higher than himself.

The virtuously motivated person treats principles as qualifications of excellence. He follows principles to cultivate his best self.

The magnanimously motivated person treats principle as a condition for membership in higher-order selves. By committing to principles and being faithful to them, one enters into relationships with others who honor the same principles, and participates in transcendent selves, for example, a marriage or a friendship or a community of faith.


Identity comes from higher-order selves, within which we participate, to whom we belong.

What identitarians call “identity” is just social category. It is no wonder that identity is an issue for them. They do not know what identity is or how a sense of identity is developed. Everything they do to solve the problem exacerbates it.

Uniqueness, universality and the social region

What is unique to each of us is intimately connected with what is universal to all of us.

The connection is intimate but it runs a long and intricate circuit through everyday, practical life.

Let us call this intimate, intricate circuit the social region.

In good times, the social region mediates between uniqueness and universality and provides us roles and identities that do justice both to our uniqueness and to universality. Because it mediates uniqueness and universality, we find social existence tolerable and sometimes worthwhile.

In bad times, the social region imposes upon us roles and identities which suppress our uniqueness and eclipse our relation to universality. Social existence alienates us from ourselves, and from universality beyond socially given commonalities.

Cut off from our uniqueness, individuals are reducible to identity. Cut off from universality, reality is socially constructed.

Cut off from everything apart from social existence, tormented by their alienation, social activists work tirelessly deconstruct and reconstruct society, in order to win the recognition, power and resources to which those of their identity are entitled. They win and win and win. But with each victory they feel less and less victorious. And the social region, as it tries to do more and more of what it cannot do, becomes more and more alienated and alienating.


Arthur C. Clarke famously said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The supreme example of such a technology is religion.

And ironically, another example is… magic.

We do not even know what either of these technologies exist to do.

But we go on knowing, anyway, with “the sublime confidence of the ignorant.”*

This addled age is a cargo cult of history.


Credit to Freddy DeBoer for the hilarious expression: “the sublime confidence of the ignorant.”

This article, by the way, is about the unfounded belief that a normal, intact personality lurks beneath the outward personalities of the severely autistic.

This exhibits the same disastrous mental move I have observed in vulgar understandings of the subconscious. Somehow, fully-formed but unspoken beliefs lurk beneath the surface of consciousness, forever trying to bob up, despite our frantic efforts to push them back under, away from our awareness.

Both are the result of an incapacity to think subjectivity-first.

Supersubjectivity

Something incomprehensible is happening to us.

It is happening to all of us, all at once, and each of us, personally.

It is happening so rapidly, so pervasively and so totally that the change is, as yet, incomprehensible.

It is happening immanently, in every minute detail of our individual and collective lives, but it is obviously also happening transcendently: something portentous is going on elsewhere, beyond, and manifesting here, now, personally.

The whole itself is disturbed, and life is saturated with signs of the disturbance.

Some read the signs as the creaks and groans of decaying institutions, preceding total collapse. Some read them as clues of secret scheming of a malevolent totalitarian cabal, while others diagnose this reading as precisely the kind of paranoid theories concocted and propagated by totalitarian populists. Some read the signs as Gaia making final preparations to heal herself of the destructive parasite we have become. Some interpret these signs as an approaching futureshock of exponential proportion. A post-singularity artificial god will purge us from the planet. Some read the signs as the harvest of evil seeds planted centuries ago — a long overdue reckoning — a humanist ultio dei. Others see it all as prophesied trials and tribulations finally coming to pass.

Different faiths, different metaphysics, different elsewheres, different beyonds — different accounts, different explanations. But for all their differences, they all point to a common phenomenon: our shared sense that the fabric of reality is unraveling.

It manifests as uncanniness. We are all collectively and individually anxious about everything-all-at-once. Most of us fixate on one or several particular foci. But the themes and things upon which we focus our angst are just condensations of something in the air. That something defies focus. It demands something else.

The something-in-the-air that everything-all-at-once is not calling us to action.

It is calling us to a reorientation to subjectivity.

We can no longer be naively objective. Mere objectivity will no longer deliver us.

We must learn to comprehend our own subjectivity, and the supersubjectivities in which we participate.


Who are your supersubjects? Or rather, to which supersubjects do you belong?

And do your supersubjects answer to anyone higher than themselves?

Some do, some don’t.

Most don’t.

Remedial phenomenology

For the last couple of months I have been re-grounding myself in Husserl’s phenomenology. The work I am interested in doing is phenomenological, but it is not, itself, phenomenology. By returning to Husserl, I hope to arrive at the point of departure for my project. I am interested in approaching philosophy as a design discipline, both in the form of the philosophy (writing, visuals, practices designed to impart a particular faith) and in its substance (the life afforded by adoption of the faith). To make matters weirder, the faith itself is designerly. Obviously, it is a synthesis of philosophy, design and religion that profoundly scrambles the current meanings of philosophy, design and religion.

New working vocabulary

(This is another unpublished post from September 2023, written while I was studying Husserl. I think I just lost steam and forgot to finish it. It is still unfinished, but I think it is good enough and complete enough to publish as a work in progress. It has only been a few months but the vocabulary proposed here has been working.)


Short version:

Below is an attempt to differentiate and name some modes of intellection important to the field of design. My goal is to balance etymological groundedness, established use, and simplicity to design a system of labeled concepts useful for speaking precisely and clearly about intellection and intelligibility:

  • Intellection is a general term for any act of intelligence, regardless of mode.
  • Intelligibility is conduciveness to intellection.
  • Conception is a mode of intellection: a spontaneous taking-together of a gestalt given.
  • Construction is a mode of intellection: a putting-together of givens into a composite.
  • Synthesis is a mode of intellection: a simultaneous conception and construal, where a given is conceived and construed together spontaneously as an articulate whole.
  • Comprehension is a mode of intellection: a synthesis situated within and integrated with an all-embracing totality.
  • Deconstruction is anti-synthesis. It is a type of construal used to dissolve conceived wholes and render them mere constructs. If successful, deconstruction clears ground for alternate conceptions and syntheses.

Long version:

For the last fifteen years or so, when talking about modes of understanding, I have treated conception and synthesis as antithetical complements. Conception was the spontaneous taking of a given as a gestalt. Synthesis was a part-by-part putting together of a composite from multiple givens. Conception was holistic taking-together; synthesis was atomistic putting-together.

Lately, though, I have been considering reshuffling this language, and using “construction” in place of “synthesis”, and using “synthesis” more conventionally, to designate something conceived structurally, a simultaneous holistic and atomistic understanding.

Construction has an apt etymology, as well as mainstream currency and experience-nearness, which is to say, many people conceive its meaning.

We construct assertions, arguments, justifications, theories, taxonomies, systems. We call these constructed structures constructs.

Constructs, once constructed, are understood through construal. We trace the steps of the construction backwards and forward, and we examine the relationships between parts, in order to construe how the construct was constructed.

Understanding, however, is rooted in conception. The basic elements must be conceived, and the relationships linking the elements must also be conceived. Where conceptions are lacking, construals are unrooted, empty, “abstract”.

Sometimes a process of construal causes a construct to “click” as a gestalt conception. Suddenly, the whole and parts are conceived together as a structured whole.

This simultaneous understanding of whole and part together is synthesis. Conception and construal are “put together” as a single articulate understanding of a structure. Articulated means “jointed”. The whole is conceived as a gestalt of jointed parts, each also a gestalt.

Analysis is a process of breaking down something that is not (or not yet) understood synthetically into conceivable elements (spontaneously recognized parts) linked in conceivable ways (such as logic or causality). The process of analysis can sometimes force a rearticulation of reconceived parts within the whole. Sometimes these rearticulated parts can effect a reconception of the whole. (Analysis open to reconception of both part and whole within a synthesis is hermeneutics.)

The denser the conceptions within a structure, the more clearly it is understood. The denser the construals within a structure, the more thoroughly it is understood.

But often a construal doesn’t produce a synthesis. We understand that the construct can be construed if we go through the process of construing it, but the construal still must be performed each time the construct is to be understood. The structure is still experienced as a construct, understandable solely through construal. It is experience-distant — artificial — understood as a construct. The understanding might be thorough, but it is not clear.

Sometimes repetition of construals can gradually, through habit, develop conceptions. We learn to conceive familiar patterns, among parts and wholes, as gestalts. Through familiarization, we gradually synthesize new understandings, and new clarity. This, however, does not mean that familiarization will always produce synthesis. More often it does not, but instead produces burdensome artificiality and alienation from what is conceived as given.

(But the fantasy of familiarization is intoxicating to prometheans with dreams of reinventing humankind, and it seems that no number of catastrophic social experiments is sufficient to sober them up. The lessons learned from such bloody failures last as long as the generations who learned them the hard way.)

Comprehension is the impossible but worthy aspiration to synthesize all of reality as given to our experience. Everything we encounter is conceived as belonging to a whole and the relation between any two parts can be fluently construed within the whole. The effort to comprehend all inevitably shipwrecks on the limitations of one’s conceptions, as beautifully described by Thomas Kuhn.