Category Archives: Philosophy

Liberal space, liberal annihilation

Liberalism opens cultural space for pluralism to fill.

Liberalism must never be allowed to become annihilation of all that might fill that open space.

If this latter happens — if all particular beliefs are corroded and eaten away by fanatical skepticism or battered with dogmatic anti-dogmatism — not only does liberalism become nihilistic — it becomes a nihilistic monism, antipluralism, illiberalism — a negation of itself into a something worse than anything it negates.

(So says an exnihilist, who wishes to tap the nothingness, and allow epiphanic somethingness to pour in.)

Witness

We are responsible for our operative faith — for the underpinning conceptions that shape our interpretations, animate our thoughts and direct our intentions — and to the degree we become capable of philosophical reflection we become more responsible.

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We are nihilists because we are afraid of the consequences of a meaningful world.

Can I prove this? No.

Can I doubt it? No.

Can you doubt it? That’s between you, yourself and your witness.

T. M. Krishna!

Sunday, Susan and I got to attend a lec-dem by the great Carnatic vocalist T. M. Krishna. We were especially excited that he was accompanied by violinist, Akkarai Subhalakshmi.

I was most excited about the musical performance part of the event, but it turns out the lecture part might have more lasting impact.

His lecture was about the history of raga forms, and his own views on the degradation of raga forms from an organic aesthetically-guided musicality to a synthetic computational model. The great loss, according to T. M. Krisha, is the ability to spontaneously feel the belonging of any part of the raga to whole. The synthetic ragas must mechanically repeat phrasings to maintain its re-cognitive character.

What shocked and excited me about what he was saying is that this precisely is a distinction I have been trying to make in my own philosophical work, distinguishing between synthetic ideas — which must be explicitly recalled and applied in constructing thoughts — versus conceptive ideas which work spontaneously and produce givens: givens of perception, of interpretation and of thought. The acquisition of a new conceptive capacity gives us new givens from nowhere, expanding our ontological range, thus enlarging our enworldment and enabling us to accommodate more truth.

I feel certain that my profound philosophical — or better, praxic — kinship with T. M. Krishna’s accounts for my instant love of his music. I conceive his music as an auditory embodiment of the very ideas that animate my thinking.

India is a living superset of every possible philosophical idea humanity will ever conceive, so I am overjoyed, but not at all surprised, to have reconceived an Indian enworldment..

I dug through T. M. Krishna’s book, A Southern Music and found some of the content from his lecture:

In the early eighteenth century, Venkatamakhin’s descendent Muddu Venkatamakhin decided to artificially create ragas for the remaining fifty-three of the seventy-two possible melas computed by his ancestor Venkatamakhin. He used the same method that had been used to create the raga deshisimharavam. This meant that all seventy-two melas were functional. The raganga raga needed to have only the seven svaras. It was around this time that arohana and avarohana came to be used to define the melodic structure of a raga. This created artificial janya ragas that were formulated from the non-functional melas. As these ragas had no aesthetic component to their identity, the simplest way to describe them was to mention the svaras that appeared in their arohana and avarohana. These svaras were after all based on the computed svarasthanas. This was another important marker in raga history. Even under the constructed melas, Muddu Venkatamakhin placed older, naturally evolved ragas. He not only gave names to all the fifty-three raganga ragas that he constructed, but also altered the names of older raganga ragas. This was done to accommodate the ingenious syllabo-numeric memory system that was evolved to identify the number of the mela from the name of the raganga raga, a system called the katapayadi samkhya.

As I move to the next major development, I must point out that the exercise of computation resulted in ragas being reinterpreted in terms of only the svaras they contained, rather than the aesthetic form of their melodic movements. This is also revealed in the use of arohana and avarohana as the defining characteristic of ragas. We must realize that once these systems came into practice, they were also being placed upon ragas that had evolved organically and were not determined by the arohana or avarohana. All ragas were being looked at through the prism of the arohana and avarohana, thus deconstructing their natural melodic features. …

Ragas that evolved from melodic phraseology developed through time and remained cohesively held together by the aesthetic cognition of unity. These ragas may have seven svaras or even less. They cannot be purely defined by the sequence of the svaras in the arohana or avarohana. Examples of this are surati, ritigaula, anandabhairavi, gaula and saveri. …

In the eighteenth century, we come across another treatise called Sangraha Chudamani (1750–1800). We know very little about the treatise or its author Govinda (not to be confused with Govinda Dikshita). This treatise completely sterilized the concept of raga and mela. Govinda combined the ideas of sampurna along with arohana and avarohana. In doing so, he decided that the ragas that held the name of the mela must have all the seven svaras in sequential order both in the arohana and avarohana. He also created a new term for the melakarta: meladhikara (the raga that has authority over the mela). Most ragas that evolved naturally did not have svaras in linear sequence and could not be meladhikaras. Only six older ragas were given the meladhikara status. Older natural ragas were listed within artificial melas whose meladhikara was a synthetic raga. The status of the raga that held the title for the mela had thus changed from being the most popular raga to the one that had authority over the mela…

With these conceptual changes to raga and the adaptation of many forms of contrived svara sequences as ragas, we are faced with an aesthetic challenge. Do all these different types of ragas have the abstract nature that is a creation of the raga’s musical heritage, phraseology and its psychological recognition? An aware listener can sense this by listening to just one phrase. In an artificial raga, the musician and the listener have to constantly connect with all the svaras present and their sequence. They cannot transcend this level of engagement and move to the real level of aesthetics of phrase forms. Why is such transcendence important?

Let me suggest an answer to that question. A raga belongs not to the literal but to the inferred. The inferred comes alive when the perceiver can be invited into the sound of the raga, which is born from every svara, every phrase, every phrase connection and the raga as a whole. This experience is only possible when the listener does not need to be reminded of the technical nature of the svara or its sequence. Synthetic ragas lack the abstractive nature both in form and in the way they can be received.

Selves and projects

If Cooper’s ideal Existentialist is right, that a life project invests an I with cohesive selfhood, it can be extrapolated that a shared life project invests a We with cohesive selfhood.

Pushing it further, a project that transcends the comprehension of I but offers it a participatory role, might intuitively convey belonging in a society, but do so without an explicitly defined project.

Every self is a society. It is selves and societies all the way down, sahib — and it is selves and societies all the way up. But are they cohesive, purposeful ones? Should they be?

Whyness

If, when asking “Why?” you require a response that begins with “Because”, you are committing a category mistake. Until you learn to ask differently, no response will satisfy you.

Justifications only link What and How to Why, it doesn’t yield Why. Why precedes justification — if it exists at all.

If you are asking “Why?”, this indicates that Why is absent.

Polycentric design praxis

Here is where I am right now: I want to integrate polycentric design practice (design for multiple interacting participants in a defined social system) with my philosophical project, which reconceives philosophy as a genre of design — a genre of polycentric design. This integration of practice and theory yields a polycentric design praxis.

This polycentric design praxis is, itself, a polycentric design “artifact”, a way of being-in-the-world: an enworldment.

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These two projects are already joined at the root.

A radical design solution, to the degree it is radical entails philosophical work. Such solutions reach beyond mere ingenuity, by reframing the problem it is meant to solve.

Moderately radical solutions may use metaphor to semantically remap the problem landscape and to find a new standpoint from which one can view the problem in a new perspective, and approach it from new angles. Essentially, metaphor puts existing conceptions to work in new contexts, not only for the designer, but also for the participant in the design. But repurposing of conceptions through metaphor is only one move available to designers and thinkers. Some claim it is the only one, but this claim says more about the limits of the claimant than the limits of possibility. Truly radical thinking involves finding new conceptive movements through direct and tacit interactions with reality — nonverbal intuitions. The wordbound are stopped short where language ends, equally unable to originate or understand what cannot be assembled from dictionary definitions. Much of value can be made inside these limits, but the most important advances in human being happen when linguistic limits are transcended, through religious or artistic activity. The words come later, and new metaphoric material for word-tinkerers. All that being said, though — metaphor does make a design more usable, and the most successful radical designs use metaphor or simple conceptual models to do the reconceptive work of innovation.

Any innovation rooted in reconceptions beyond the verbal will be perceived, not as design, but as art. Likewise, any intellectual innovation rooted in reconceptions beyond the verbal will be perceived, not as philosophy, but as religion. Untamed art (that is, art that cannot be explained) and genuine religion (that is, religion that does not explain) inflicts perplexity on wordworlders.

My philosophical faith was forged in design practice. My worst perplexities come from my worklife. I see them arising from the unique requirements to conceptually align with diverse people. I’ve come to understand (that is, to reconceive) the strange kinds of pain human-centered designers suffer as collective perplexities, very similar to those felt by scientists during scientific crises and to those experienced by philosophers who discover their radical differences. And, I should add, to a culture who has fractured and factionalized and cannot reconcile its difference, because both sides are indubitably right, morally and epistemically) and face existential threats from the other.

Cultivating a practice of moral-epistemic irony toward myself either gives me a uniquely helpful approach to diagnosing and treating such group perplexities, or it gives me a smug and alienated claim to superiority.

What a mess of a post. I’ll stop now.

Contrarian thoughts on the public

Based on my understanding of David Cooper’s characterization of Existentialism, I believe two of my strong convictions may be somewhat heterodox within Existentialism.

First, Existentialism should never seek to be a norm. I do not believe many members of the public ought to pursue the Existentialist ideal. Rather, I think most should play their public roles according to the ethnomethodical rules of their various social settings, as long as doing so allows them to live reasonably rational, effective, meaningful lives. If things are going well for a society, nobody should be condemned for identifying themselves with their social role. If the everyday enworldment of the public isn’t broken, everyone should be encouraged (though not required) to adopt it and live by it.

Second, existential responsibility is not only, or even primarily to oneself. Existentialists should not treat the public as a threat to evade. The public should be seen as its responsibility. If the popular, everyday enworldment of the public is broken — that is, if the life it affords is unreasonable irrational, ineffective or nihilistic — it is Existentialism’s responsibility — its very raison d’etre — to repair or redesign it.

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I continue to view philosophy as a sort of secular esoterism, responsible for maintaining, reforming or remaking the various exoteric enworldments available to the public. Most of these enworldments are small and local (to a social circle, an organization or even a gathering or project), but sometimes responsibilities expand to larger scales.

Call from the woods

I am reinspired by these words:

Permission to speak! — The demagogic character and the intention to appeal to the masses is at present common to all political parties: on account of this intention they are all compelled to transform their principles into great al fresco stupidities and thus to paint them on the wall. This is no longer alterable, indeed it would be pointless to raise so much as a finger against it; for in this domain there apply the words of Voltaire: quand la populace se mele de raisonner, tout est perdu. {“When the mob joins in and adds its voice, all is lost.”} Since this has happened one has to accommodate oneself when an earthquake has displaced the former boundaries and contours of the ground and altered the value of one’s property. Moreover, if the purpose of all politics really is to make life endurable for as many as possible, then these as-many-as-possible are entitled to determine what they understand by an endurable life; if they trust to their intellect also to discover the right means of attaining this goal, what good is there in doubting it? They want for once to forge for themselves their own fortunes and misfortunes; and if this feeling of self-determination, pride in the five or six ideas their head contains and brings forth, in fact renders their life so pleasant to them they are happy to bear the calamitous consequences of their narrow-mindedness, there is little to be objected to, always presupposing that this narrow-mindedness does not go so far as to demand that everything should become politics in this sense, that everyone should live and work according to such a standard. For a few must first of all be allowed, now more than ever, to refrain from politics and to step a little aside: they too are prompted to this by pleasure in self-determination; and there may also be a degree of pride attached to staying silent when too many, or even just many, are speaking. Then these few must be forgiven if they fail to take the happiness of the many, whether by the many one understands nations or social classes, so very seriously and are now and then guilty of an ironic posture; for their seriousness is located elsewhere, their happiness is something quite different, their goal is not to be encompassed by any clumsy hand that has only five fingers. Finally, from time to time there comes to them — what it will certainly be hardest to concede to them but must be conceded to them nonetheless — a moment when they emerge from their silent solitude and again try the power of their lungs: for then they call to one another like those gone astray in a wood in order to locate and encourage one another; whereby much becomes audible, to be sure, that sounds ill to ears for which it is not intended. — Soon afterwards, though, it is again still in the wood, so still that the buzzing, humming and fluttering of the countless insects that live in, above and beneath it can again clearly be heard.

Instaurationalism’s fork

Once we finally recognize the degree to which truth is instaurated through our own participation in our own local and contingent patch of reality, we are faced with a decision, which is an ultimate matter of faith:

  1. We can take this recognition of truth’s being as somehow absolute, or
  2. We can take this recognition of truth’s being as just the latest and greatest contingent truth.

What does this choice mean?

It is a question of life in the objective-all, or life from the subjective-here.

To put it Jewishly, it is a question of responding with keter or hineini.

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As so often happens, a methodological and ethical point, which I learned from the Christian Pragmatist C. S. Peirce, barges to mind:

“We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”

Can I actually, in good faith, doubt that my contingent belief in instaurationality (that truth is instaurated through participation in reality) is — both epistemologically and morally — right?

…But then, given this truth, even this very truth must be contingent…

But is this essentially a truth, an idea to be comprehended? Is it perhaps, rather, a self-situating, an orientation, an attitude — an intellective act that is not essentially comprehension, but something else? A new mode of participation…? Not an epistemic act but a moral act…?

Perhaps it is our own responsibility to embrace this one infinitesimally finite selfpoint — this hineini — this I — and to live it fully as our own situatedness within and toward the infinite One, Echad. This is my conviction.

To me, where I am now, a Jew, the alternative to being one is to attempt to embrace infinity, and, consequently to render ourselves zero.

One might see the attempt to embrace infinity by identifying ones own truth with Its truth — and consequently suffering self-annihilation — as an act of devotion or humility.

I, however, see this as the ultimate hubris — misapotheosis — an act of supreme irresponsibility. But maybe it really is apotheosis. Maybe it is anatta, nibbana.

We are in the realm of the tragic. Ambinity. One or Zero-Infinity?

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If I am not mistaken, this fork in the road is the where existentialism and postmodernism diverge.

Some take one, some take the other, and most balk.

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When I was in school, it seemed obvious that any quantity divided by infinity is zero. Clearly.

Why shouldn’t we just admit this fact? Why prohibit the operation?

As an adult, I now understand: because the subject we were studying was mathematics.

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Shanah Tovah.

Philosophy, speculative and praxic

A conception we use to pose a problem or question about something, or to propose a solution, answer or account, or to actually respond practically may be common to across the questioning, asserting or doing — or we might find the conception only works in one or another of these activities.

In the former case, where a single conception guides our asking, asserting and doing, the conception can be said to belong to a praxis.

In the latter case, we will stumble over separations between theory and practice, and conceptions are confined to mere practice or mere theory. Most philosophy pays nearly no attention to practice apart from being able to ask and assert in philosophical contexts, and this is why very few people see any value in philosophy.

I value philosophy if — and only if — the philosophy is an integral component of some praxis, which is the case for much of Pragmatism and Existentialism.

Maybe I can use this insight to pry some books out of my library.

Designerly exnihilism

Any experienced, philosophically-sensitive designer who reads the passage below will recognize how indebted design praxis is to Existentialist thought:

When we combine Heidegger’s explanation of the shift to the perspective of presence-at-hand with Sartre’s functionalist account of emotions, we obtain as a bonus an interesting explanation of our tendency to pit reason against passion. Examination of objects present-at-hand and indulgence in emotions like anger have the same origin — the recalcitrance of the world. Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world. The mistake of the dualist who seizes upon this and speaks of separate faculties or ‘parts of the soul’ is a failure to appreciate that, when things run smoothly, there can be no factoring out and isolation of the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.

The steepness of a hill is an undramatic example of something disclosed through mood. An important and distinctive feature of existentialist writings, however, is the demonstration that some moods and passions disclose matters of great moment. It is this which prompts one commentator to remark that the existentialists’ ‘phenomenology of the emotions … will prove to be one of their most valuable and lasting achievements’. An obvious instance is Angst, which is taken by several of our writers to intimate to us our radical freedom and individuality. I shall return to this and other examples including, by way of further initial illustration, the disclosive character imputed to sexual experience. ‘There is no doubt,’ writes Merleau-Ponty, ‘that we must recognize in modesty, desire and love in general a metaphysical significance.’ Shame and shamelessness, for example, together reveal the ‘ambiguous’ character of the body. In shame, it is revealed as an ‘object’, victim of the gaze and inspection of another. In shameless behaviour, a ‘subject’ — the dancing Salome, say — seeks to captivate another person, tum him into an ‘object’. More generally, Merleau-Ponty concludes, sexual experience is ‘an opportunity … of acquainting oneself with the human lot in its most general aspects of autonomy and dependence’.

Whether Merleau-Ponty’s particular suggestion is plausible does not matter for present purposes. What does matter is the plausibility, given the Existentialist’s view of our Being-in-the-world, of supposing that sexual and other feelings should have ‘metaphysical significance’. If our Being-in-the-world is an embodied engagement with a world that ‘opens’ itself to us through our concerns and projects, there can be no reason to think that it will be disclosed only when we take stock and reflect. On the contrary, unless its features are revealed in a more ‘proximal’ way, there would be nothing to take stock of and reflect upon. If so, it must be wrong to suppose that reason is the faculty which discovers how the world is and passion merely the arena in which our subjective reactions to this discovery are played out.

Above, I highlighted these sentences: “Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world.”

“Design” has always been a sharply ambiguous word, and the ambiguity has always split along these two strategies for coping with object-recalcitrance.

When engineers, and those who think in the manner of engineers (using the philosophy of technik) say the word “design”, the emphasis is usually on the practical aspects of objects.

But when “creatives” use the word “design”, the emphasis is on the passionate and magical. The goal is to use sensory and symbolic means to aesthetically and emotionally frame some artifact to crystalize within a user’s or customer’s worldview to stand apart (de-) as significant (-sign).

The trend in design is definitely toward a seamless de-severing of these two coping strategies, and instead coordinating them to return us to a smooth integration of “the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.”

But this very project of practical-magical integration requires designers to experiment with philosophy, and “frame” or “concept model” problems in multiple ways — not only to render problems more soluble on a practical level (as some designers think), but to invest the designed artifact with de-significance capable of crystallizing (or at its most magical, dissolving and recrystallizing) a person’s understanding around that artifact — and orienting them to that artifact conceptually, practically and axiosly. (I’m playing with back-forming “axiosly” from “axiology”, to mean pertaining to values. That it is uncomfortably close to the word “anxiously” is a feature, not a bug.)

The most powerful designs force rethinking of entire fields of life — for instance how iPhone put phone design in its own orbit by making it retroactively obvious that the iPhone approach is objectively the right way to design a phone.

(Rant: Upon seeing iPhone, most people were induced to reconceive what a phone can and ought to be. Seeing it, and grokking it, everyone’s understanding reshuffled to accommodate it. After the reconception and reshuffling, it no longer seemed to be an invention; it was a discovery, and iPhone was just a good execution of this newly discovered archetype. And you know, come to think of it, we all knew this truth all along. There was this precursor, and that one. Never mind that nobody did, really, or they would have tried harder to actualize it. But truth is, most people are too subjectively oblivious to catch what happened, and all that stands out to them are little objective novelties graspable by the grubby hands of IP law. Apple could only sue Google over design trifles like rounded-cornered rectangles and elastic scroll behaviors, because its primary innovation — the idea that demanded imagination, faith and perseverance to actualize — was too deep and too subjectively contagious to protect. How else can a phone be designed? It takes a Steve Jobs to hear that question as more than rhetorical and to venture an answer.)

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In my years of design, I have done numerous small, local philosophies and noticed that every really good design brief works like a spell on design teams to make perspective-shifting useful things. I call this philosophical craft “precision inspiration”.

And doing this work, day in and day out, has gradually shifted my own sense of truth, of reality, of practicality, of possibility — most of all of the permanent possibility of reconception of every thing and everything, which has cast a spell on me and made me an exnihilist.

Philosophy is designable. Philosophy-guided practice — praxis — is designable.

When we design praxis, we also redesign our overall experience of life — our enworldment.

My ambition is to be a praxis designer.

Design, existentialism, technocracy, etc.

If a philosophy is more a matter of questions than of answers — or to take this beyond mere language, that praxis is more a matter of problems than of responses — and I do see it this way — then the fact that the questions and problems that concern me most are all, without exception, existential ones — including this crucial distinction I am making this very moment between mind-bound philosophizing and full-being praxis.

Many of my responses to existential problems have come from pragmatism (for example instrumentalism). However, I have noticed where pragmatism departs from existentialism (for instance much of analytic philosophy) the questions it pragmatists concern itself with feel like idle conceptual play in the sandbox of language.

If the work done inside the philosophical sandbox does not persist beyond the conceptual playtime, and the relevance of the work does not extend into the world beyond the sandbox — in other words, if it neglects the practical dimension and falls short of full praxis — the work is not only unimportant, but straight up uninspiring. Yes, praxic work, like any kind of work, can, in its inspired moments, feel playful. But if the work is dropped when it starts feeling painful, not only will the work not get done, the play itself will be mediocre — mere speculative escapism.

While I will continue to use pragmatist tools, I’m seeing my project as existentialist. For that reason I’m kicking all talk of “design unstrumentalism”, “design pragmatism” and the like to the curb, and accepting the fact that I’m just another neo-existentialist. As I see it, I’m returning to existentialism gifts it contributed to design praxis, worn smooth and refined by use, and therefore, hopefully, in improved form.

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I think design praxis should merge more fully with existentialist praxis.

This means design praxis must fully liberate itself at last from the objectifying praxis of technik, which currently dominates not only technology, but the entire commercial world (still mostly managed as industry), the world of politics (technocracy), and even our culture (which objectifies unique persons as mere instantiations of identity).

I hear a lot of careerist-types, whose whole mission in life, it seems, is success and social prestige, sitting around casually raging about “dismantling the system”. I don’t take them even a little bit seriously, because they know who butters their bread, and they like butter a lot. They like butter, in fact, far more than justice. As long as they continue to loyally serve the system in action — which very much includes directing their angry justicy words toward non-problems (such as DEI), and impossibilities (like overthrowing Capital) — they’ll get all the butter they care to eat. Social justice, for most, is butter — a way to self-righteously get a leg up in the market. It is annoying, but luckily also funny to watch them scold everyone around them about their unconscious biases and motivated reasoning… in the name of justice. But now I’m digressing, again.

Say these people did manage to actually dismantle the system. What would replace it? Given their intellectual poverty, all these activists would be capable of would be to construct a new technik-dominated system, and probably one with all the worst vices of the current system, minus the war-honed technical competence of the New Deal, and omitting the redeeming vestiges of liberalism that make what we have today bearable.

We’d end up with another technocracy cobbled together by Dunning-Kruger-crippled social engineers.

It’s the philosophy, stupid.

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Yesterday a friend posted an article on LinkedIn, “Why Corporate America Broke Up With Design”, along with some comments. I left some comments of my own.

Here’s the thing: design is a praxis — meaning it is a philosophically-guided practice. Nearly all large organizations are dominated by industrial praxis. They appropriate the tools and techniques and jargon of design, but confine it to the philosophy of technik, which cannot accomodate it. 1) This severely limits what design is able to accomplish. 2) The philosophy of technik is the actual source of misery, commonly attributed to capitalism by pop leftists.

Unfortunately, it is taboo to talk philosophy in the workplace, but fact is, our culture badly overdue for a philosophical reform, and until it happens the angst and conflict afflicting our society will intensify.

and

If corporate America did break up with design, it would be the typical divorce scenario: some thirsty dude marries an idea of a woman and cannot bring himself to learn that she is a real person, with her own first-personhood, with important lessons to teach him — and not an ideal or a function that exists only to satisfy his own needs or desires.

and, finally

This article is severely marred by its click-bait title. The author talks about design evolving to “stakeholder centered design” (which, by the way is what service design is, and has been for decades) and concludes with “Companies may have no choice but to adopt a more expansive view of design.”

No kidding.

But this is the furthest thing from a breakup. It is a much-needed deepening and internalization of design in how organizations approach their business.

Eventually, if we are all lucky, organizational leaders will finally recognize their organization (not only what it makes) is itself essentially a design problem, comprising smaller design sub-problems, each comprising smaller engineering, operational, financial and executive sub-problems.

The corporate world still has things mostly backwards and inside out… but this seems to be slowly but steadily changing.

Arthur Koestler – “Some General Properties Of Self-Regulating Open Hierarchic Order”

The outline below is from Janus: A Summing Up.

1. The holon

1.1 The organism in its structural aspect is not an aggregation of elementary parts, and in its functional aspects not a chain of elementary units of behaviour.

1.2 The organism is to be regarded as a multi-levelled hierarchy of semi-autonomous sub-wholes, branching into sub-wholes of a lower order, and so on. Sub-wholes on any level of the hierarchy are referred to as holons.

1.3 Parts and wholes in an absolute sense do not exist in the domains of life. The concept of the holon is intended to reconcile the atomistic and holistic approaches.

1.4 Biological holons are self-regulating open systems which display both the autonomous properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts. This dichotomy is present on every level of every type of hierarchic organization, and is referred to as the “Janus phenomenon”.

1.5 More generally, the term “holon” may be applied to any stable biological or social sub-whole which displays rule-governed behaviour and/or structural Gestalt-constancy. Thus organelles and homologous organs are evolutionary holons; morphogenetic fields are ontogenetic holons; the ethologist’s “fixed action-patterns” and the sub-routines of acquired skills are behavioural holons; phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases are linguistic holons; individuals, families, tribes, nations are social holons.

2. Dissectibility

2.1 Hierarchies are “dissectible” into their constituent branches, on which the holons form the nodes; the branching lines represent the channels of communication and control.

2.2 The number of levels which a hierarchy comprises is a measure of its “depth”, and the number of holons on any given level is called its “span” (Herbert Simon).

3. Rules and strategies

3.1 Functional holons are governed by fixed sets of rules and display more or less flexible strategies.

3.2 The rules – referred to as the system’s canon – determine its invariant properties, its structural configuration and/or functional pattern.

3.3 While the canon defines the permissible steps in the holon’s activity, the strategic selection of the actual step among permissible choices is guided by the contingencies of the environment.

3.4 The canon determines the rules of the game, strategy decides the course of the game.

3.5 The evolutionary process plays variations on a limited number of canonical themes. The constraints imposed by the evolutionary canon are illustrated by the phenomena of homology, homeoplasy, parallelism, convergence and the loi du balancement (Geoffroy de St. Hilaire).

3.6 In ontogeny, the holons at successive levels represent successive stages in the development of tissues. At each step in the process of differentiation, the genetic canon imposes further constraints on the holon’s developmental potentials, but it retains sufficient flexibility to follow one or another alternative developmental pathway, within the range of its competence, guided by the contingencies of the environment.

3.7 Structurally, the mature organism is a hierarchy of parts within parts. Its “dissectibility” and the relative autonomy of its constituent holons are demonstrated by transplant surgery.

3.8 Functionally, the behaviour of organisms is governed by “rules of the game” which account for its coherence, stability and specific pattern.

3.9 Skills, whether inborn or acquired, are functional hierarchies, with sub-skills as holons, governed by sub-rules.

4. Integration and self-assertion

4.1 Every holon has the dual tendency to preserve and assert its individuality as a quasi-autonomous whole; and to function as an integrated part of an (existing or evolving) larger whole. This polarity between the Self-Assertive (S-A) and Integrative (INT) tendencies is inherent in the concept of hierarchic order; and a universal characteristic of life.

The S-A tendencies are the dynamic expression of the holon’s wholeness, the INT tendencies of its partness.

4.2 An analogous polarity is found in the interplay of cohesive and separative forces in stable inorganic systems, from atoms to galaxies.

4.3 The most general manifestation of the INT tendencies is the reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics in open systems feeding on negative entropy (Erwin Schroedinger), and the evolutionary trend towards “spontaneously developing states of greater heterogeneity and complexity” (C. J. Herrick).

4.4 Its specific manifestations on different levels range from the symbiosis of organelles and colonial animals, through the cohesive forces in herds and flocks, to the integrative bonds in insect states and Primate societies. The complementary manifestations of the S-A tendencies are competition, individualism, and the separative forces of tribalism, nationalism, etc.

4.5 In ontogeny, the polarity is reflected in the docility and determination of growing tissues.

4.6 In adult behaviour, the self-assertive tendency of functional holons is reflected in the stubbornness of instinct rituals (fixed action-patterns), of acquired habits (handwriting, spoken accent), and in the stereotyped routines of thought; the integrative tendency is reflected in flexible adaptations, improvisations, and creative acts which initiate new forms of behaviour.

4.7 Under conditions of stress, the S-A tendency is manifested in the aggressive-defensive, adrenergic type of emotions, the INT tendency in the self-transcending (participatory, identificatory) type of emotions.

4.8 In social behaviour, the canon of a social holon represents not only constraints imposed on its actions, but also embodies maxims of conduct, moral imperatives and systems of value.

5. Triggers and scanners

5.1 Output hierarchies generally operate on the trigger-release principle, where a relatively simple, implicit or coded signal releases complex, preset mechanisms.

5.2 In phylogeny, a favourable gene-mutation may, through homeorhesis (Conrad Waddington) affect the development of a whole organ in a harmonious way.

5.3 In ontogeny, chemical triggers (enzymes, inducers, hormones) release the genetic potentials of differentiating tissues.

5.4 In instinctive behaviour, sign-releasers of a simple kind trigger off Innate Releasive Mechanisms (Lorenz).

5.5 In the performance of learnt skills, including verbal skills, a generalized implicit command is spelled out in explicit terms on successive lower echelons which, once triggered into action, activate their sub-units in the appropriate strategic order, guided by feedbacks.

5.6 A holon on the n level of an output-hierarchy is represented on the (n + 1) level as a unit, and triggered into action as a unit. A holon, in other words, is a system of relata which is represented on the next higher level as a relatum.

5.7 In social hierarchies (military, administrative), the same principles apply.

5.8 Input hierarchies operate on the reverse principle; instead of triggers, they are equipped with “filter”-type devices (scanners, “resonators”, classifiers) which strip the input of noise, abstract and digest its relevant contents, according to that particular hierarchy’s criteria of relevance. “Filters” operate on every echelon through which the flow of information must pass on its ascent from periphery to centre, in social hierarchies and in the nervous system.

5.9 Triggers convert coded signals into complex output patterns. Filters convert complex input patterns into coded signals. The former may be compared to digital-to-analogue converters, the latter to analogue-to-digital converters (Miller, G. A., Galanter, E. and Pribram, K. H., Plans and the Structure of Behaviour, 1960).

5.10 In perceptual hierarchies, filtering devices range from habituation and the efferent control of receptors, through the constancy phenomena, to pattern-recognition in space or time, and to the decoding of linguistic and other forms of meaning.

5.11 Output hierarchies spell, concretize, particularize. Input hierarchies digest, abstract, generalize.

6. Arborization and reticulation

6.1 Hierarchies can be regarded as “vertically” arborizing structures whose branches interlock with those of other hierarchies at a multiplicity of levels and form “horizontal” networks: arborization and reticulation are complementary principles in the architecture of organisms and societies.

6.2 Conscious experience is enriched by the cooperation of several perceptual hierarchies in different sense-modalities, and within the same sense-modality.

6.3 Abstractive memories are stored in skeletonized form, stripped of irrelevant detail, according to the criteria of relevance of each perceptual hierarchy.

6.4 Vivid details of quasi-eidetic clarity are stored owing to their emotive relevance.

6.5 The impoverishment of experience in memory is counteracted to some extent by the cooperation in recall of different perceptual hierarchies with different criteria of relevance.

6.6 In sensory-motor coordination, local reflexes are short-cuts on the lowest level, like loops connecting traffic streams moving in opposite directions on a highway.

6.7 Skilled sensory-motor routines operate on higher levels through networks of proprioceptive and exteroceptive feedback loops within loops, which function as servo-mechanisms and keep the rider on his bicycle in a state of self-regulating, kinetic homeostasis.

6.8 While in S-R theory the contingencies of environment determine behaviour, in O.H.S. theory they merely guide, correct and stabilize pre-existing patterns of behaviour (P. Weiss).

6.9 While sensory feedbacks guide motor activities, perception in its turn is dependent on these activities, such as the various scanning motions of the eye, or the humming of a tune in aid of its auditory recall. The perceptual and motor hierarchies are so intimately co-operating on every level that to draw a categorical distinction between “stimuli” and “responses” becomes meaningless; they have become “aspects of feed-back loops” (Miller et al.).

6.10 Organisms and societies operate in a hierarchy of environments, from the local environment of each holon to the “total field”, which may include imaginary environments derived from extrapolation in space and time.

7. Regulation channels

7.1 The higher echelons in a hierarchy are not normally in direct communication with lowly ones, and vice versa; signals are transmitted through “regulation channels”, one step at a time.

7.2 The pseudo-explanations of verbal behaviour and other human skills as the manipulation of words, or the chaining of operants, leaves a void between the apex of the hierarchy and its terminal branches, between thinking and spelling.

7.3 The short-circuiting of intermediary levels by directing conscious attention at processes which otherwise function automatically, tends to cause disturbances ranging from awkwardness to psychosomatic disorders.

8. Mechanization and freedom

8.1 Holons on successively higher levels of the hierarchy show increasingly complex, more flexible and less predictable patterns of activity, while on successive lower levels we find increasingly mechanized, stereotyped and predictable patterns.

8.2 All skills, whether innate or acquired, tend with increasing practice to become automatized routines. This process can be described as the continual transformation of “mental” into “mechanical” activities.

8.3 Other things being equal, a monotonous environment facilitates mechanization.

8.4 Conversely, new or unexpected contingencies require decisions to be referred to higher levels of the hierarchy, an upward shift of controls from “mechanical” to “mindful” activities.

8.5 Each upward shift is reflected by a more vivid and precise consciousness of the ongoing activity; and, since the variety of alternative choices increases with the increasing complexity on higher levels, each upward shift is accompanied by the subjective experience of freedom of decision.

8.6 The hierarchic approach replaces dualistic theories by a serialistic hypothesis in which “mental” and “mechanical” appear as relative attributes of a unitary process, the dominance of one or the other depending on changes in the level of control of ongoing operations.

8.7 Consciousness appears as an emergent quality in phylogeny and ontogeny, which, from primitive beginnings, evolves towards more complex and precise states. It is the highest manifestation of the Integrative Tendency (4.3) to extract order out of disorder, and information out of noise.

8.8 The self can never be completely represented in its own awareness, nor can its actions be completely predicted by any conceivable information-processing device. Both attempts lead to infinite regress.

9. Equilibrium and disorder

9.1 An organism or society is said to be in dynamic equilibrium if the S.A. and INT tendencies of its holons counter-balance each other.

9.2 The term “equilibrium” in a hierarchic system does not refer to relations between parts on the same level, but to the relation between part and whole (the whole being represented by the agency which controls the part from the next higher level).

9.3 Organisms live by transactions with their environment. Under normal conditions, the stresses set up in the holons involved in the transaction are of a transitory nature, and equilibrium will be restored on its completion.

9.4 If the challenge to the organism exceeds a critical limit, the balance may be upset, the over-excited holon may tend to get out of control, and to assert itself to the detriment of the whole, or monopolize its functions – whether the holon be an organ, a cognitive structure (idee fixe), an individual, or a social group. The same may happen if the coordinate powers of the whole are so weakened that it is no longer able to control its parts (C. M. Child).

9.5 The opposite type of disorder occurs when the power of the whole over its parts erodes their autonomy and individuality. This may lead to a regression of the INT tendencies from mature forms of social integration to primitive forms of identification and to the quasi-hypnotic phenomena of group psychology.

9.6 The process of identification may arouse vicarious emotions of the aggressive type.

9.7 The rules of conduct of a social holon are not reducible to the rules of conduct of its members.

9.8 The egotism of the social holon feeds on the altruism of its members.

10. Regeneration

10.1 Critical challenges to an organism or society can produce degenerative or regenerative effects.

10.2 The regenerative potential of organisms and societies manifests itself in fluctuations from the highest level of integration down to earlier, more primitive levels, and up again to a new, modified pattern. Processes of this type seem to play a major part in biological and mental evolution, and are symbolized in the universal death-and-rebirth motive in mythology.

I love these Tractatus / Irreductions outline structured summaries. They are little aphorism systems, where each part is a perfect little holon gem within larger units of holons, and everything has a lovely object quality and a graceful participatory motion within the whole, a motion that conceptively clings when we look outward, away from the system.

( — Conceptive cling is the entire point of philosophy. We can and should choreograph these conceptive motions in a way that continues on past when we stop philosophizing — continuing on, spontaneously embracing elements of our experience, taking together as something — something we perceive, conceive and respond to without mediation of words. To conceptively choreograph our selves is to take responsibility for our existence, for our human being. To do this conceptive choreography with intention — tacking between inward and outward view, experimentally entertaining possibilities, comparing, selecting — this is approaching our enworldments as designers. This is a new variant of existentialism, impurified and improved in the crucible of polycentric design praxis. We selves are our conceptive dancing of mind and body. A good philosopher, like a good dancer, moves proprioceptively, feeling perfection and flaw in stepless flow. Reliance on reflection, whether in mirrors or language — these are crutches, marks of a hack. A thought is known through thinking it, not by grabbing it by the words. A good practical philosopher feels mind and body proprioceptively, married dance-partners, one in flesh. — )

But back to the structured summary form: It is Mozartian. It is classical. I might have to experiment with writing this way. It satisfies those fetishizing drives that animate my design activity, as a designer of products and as a designer of conceptions. (But weirdly, not yet as a designer of services!)

Design activism

All design praxis is guided by a glorious hybrid of existentialist and pragmatist ideas, interbred and naturally selected for maximum effectiveness. This is true for monocentric design disciplines (UX, CX, and all the other X-disciplines, where designers focus on the experience of a single person encountering a designed thing) — and it even more  true for polycentric design disciplines (where networks of people interact with one another and with things, each having an intentionally formed experience of that network and its constituent elements, some of whom are fellow persons). Today, service design is the most prominent example of polycentric design.* (See note below.)

Any design project potentially conveys this praxis (and a taste of its enworldment) to those who actively participate in the project, and for that reason all design projects are, to some degree, interesting to me.

But the design projects that are most fascinating are ones where the designed systems themselves (not only the designing of the system) serve the propagation of design praxis and designerly enworldment.

The latter is a kind of activism I find inspiring.

For this reason, I am prioritizing educational service design, in collaboration with my wife Susan.

My goal: I want people to approach all problems as polycentric design problems.

I want to do this by 1) clarifying, developing and articulating the tacit philosophy of polycentric design praxis, 2) by involving as many people as possible in doing and learning polycentric design, 3) encouraging design practitioners to use design praxis as their primary life praxis (most importantly in their political thinking!), and 4) by redesigning education to teach polycentric design praxis, and thereby conserve and perpetually reform liberal democracy.

*

“Everything is design. Design is everything.” — Paul Rand


  * Note: I believe the world is badly in need of other forms of polycentric design where interactions are less hierarchical, more equal, and where roles in a system are not clearly defined in consumer and provider terms, and less amenable to being characterized in terms of service. (Service designers might object and offer redescriptions of social systems using service logic, but to me — and, I hypothesize, most people outside the service design profession — this will feel like a reductionistic stretch. Polycentric design is designing for pluralism.

Ambinity point of eversal

“Hypertorus” has been my screen saver for most of the last twenty years. I first adopted it on a Windows 2000 laptop, and I’ve put significant effort into keeping it working on my Macs.

It has never ceased to disturb my comprehension in my favorite way.

*

In an eversing operation, there is an impossible zero point where the inner and outer, the outer and inner, are neither inner nor outer, or perhaps they are both at once. This is the state of ambinity.

In ambinity, something is simultaneously this, that, neither and both.

*

Between first-person and third-person is an ambinity point where second-person is activated.

I have a vague hunch that Existentialism and Pragmatism can be understood in everse relationship. I’ve had this same hunch about the relationship between Actor-Network Theory and Postphenomenology.

*

Another vague hunch: the ambinity point between first-person philosophies and third-person philosophies is the heart of design.

*

This is all spuriously intuitive, but this is my method. All my originality indulges spurious intuitions, follows them where they go, then — only afterwards! — tries to clearly account for what happened. I call it leap-and-creep.  Someday, maybe, I will attempt to account for the leap-and-creep method and maybe I’ll even spuriously justify it.