Category Archives: Philosophy

Relationships with ideas

One of the features of postphenomenology most potentially useful to design practice is its taxonomy of relations between users, technologies and the world. The information presented here comes from Robert Rosenberger’s and Peter-Paul Verbeek’s “Field Guide to Postphenomenology”, from Postphenomenological Investigations.

  1. Embodied relationship. According to the Field Guide when a technology is embodied, “a user’s experience is reshaped through the device, with the device itself in some ways taken into the user’s bodily awareness.” Heidegger’s “ready-to-hand” mode of encounter is a concept very close to embodied relationship, where a tool becomes transparent in use, leaving the activity’s object as the primary or exclusive focus. When we use a hammer, the focus of the activity is on the nail. When we use a pen, the pen disappears in the writing. (Interestingly/annoyingly, the paradigmatic example of this relation offered in the Field Guide is eyeglasses, which to me seems a distinctly different relation than that of a tool. Something that intercepts and modifies a sensory signal seems radically different from an implement that can, with sufficient skill and habit, become a transparent extension of one’s body. I assume this apparent conflation of unlike cases is meant to call attention to a less obvious but deeper and important similarity. I can tell this problem is going to bother me.
  2. Hermeneutic relationship. These are “technologies which are used through an act of perceiving and interpreting the device’s readout.” Where with embodied relationships, the user focuses on some aspect of the world through the device, with hermeneutic relationships the user focuses on the device itself. The example given here is a wristwatch, where the user reads the time from the watch face.
  3. Alterity relationship. Here the technology is interacted with in a manner similar to how we interact with a person. “The idea is that some forms of interface are devised speci?cally to mimic the shape of person-to-person interaction, and that sometimes we encounter a device as itself a presence with which we must interrelate.” The example is a dialogue box in an interaction with a computer application.
  4. Background relationship. These are technologies that are not directly used like tools but which function to modify the user’s environment. Air conditioning is the example given. Utilities like electricity, water and internet are other examples (or at least, I think they are).

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I am thinking about these relationships today, not only because they present some basic questions designers should think about when they are getting ready to design something, but also because these questions are relevant to my design instrumentalist project. If we (re)understand ideas to be essentially things we use to make sense of the world and interact with it and live within it effectively, what relationships with users, ideas and the world are possible, and how do we determine which relationship is best for specific ideas used for specific purposes in specific use contexts?

I believe that most of us, if we don’t think about it carefully, assume our we are in a hermeneutic relationship with ideas, where we look directly at the ideas and get a “readout” of the author’s meaning. But the books I most love to read also offer an ideas engaged in an embodied relationship of sorts. When we use these ideas we conceive the world through them in a way that reshapes our experience. And somewhere along the way I adopted a habit of expecting that reshaped experience to be useful, usable and desirable.

Misrelations

More and more, I see the answer of innumerable confusions and conundrums as a matter of prepositional category mistakes.

What do I mean by this? According to Oxford English Dictionary, a category mistake is “the error of assigning to something a quality or action that can properly be assigned to things only of another category, for example, treating abstract concepts as though they had a physical location.” A prepositional category mistake is a category mistake pertaining to relationships between one that explicitly or (more often) implicitly gets a relationship among entities wrong in a way that misleads thinking. The pragmatic consequences following from the relational conception lead to confusion, error or ineffectiveness.

For instance, we might confuse something we ought to experience from — a subjectivity — for an object of experience. (My example here is philosophy. We think a philosophy is a body of truth assertions which are there for us to examine and judge, when in fact the truth assertions are primarily a means for entering and inhabiting the philosophy — from which truths are asserted, examined and judged.)

Or we confuse something that we understand toward (something we orient ourselves toward that is in principle beyond knowledge, or something we can asymptoticly approach in increasing understanding but never reach) with something suited for comprehension as a direct object. (My example here is reality itself vis-a-vis our understanding.)

Or something that mediates an experience of some object as itself an object, instead of an experiencing through. (Here I’m thinking about user interfaces. Novices look at the interface and ask “does it make sense to me?” Experienced designers want to know if the work being done makes sense when performed using the interface, which is why usability testing is organized around the performance of tasks.)

Or we misconstrue a relationship within which partners function as participants within an enclosing whole which includes but exceeds either, snd view it only as an exchange between two self-contained peers. (My primary example here is marriage. The former is what I call actual marriage, but because few modern couples know how to use a participation-in-transcendence conception most enact something closer to what I would call “peers engaged in intimacy exchange”.)

These kinds of things are easy to get wrong. Our thinking is naturally (or deeply, culturally second-naturally) oriented toward objects. Relationships among objects are far more elusive, and we are often distracted by the things themselves when the real confusion is in the manner of togetherness in the things together.

I realize the examples I am providing are sup-optimal. I’ve jumped to the difficult relationships that motivate my thinking, when what is needed are simple, concrete examples that can be built upon.

For this, I plan to rely on a taxonomy developed by Don Ihde and the postphenomenologists: four basic forms of technological mediation: embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations. Both my philosophy and design practice are pressing me to finally commit these relationships to memory, so I will write up a succinct summary of these relationships in the next few days.

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I also realize “prepositional category mistake” is bad writing. I plan to call this kind of confusion misrelation. I’m over hideous philosophical language, and I plan to design more usable and desirable vocabulary for conveying my more useful, usable and desirable philosophy. The conceptions I take from phenomenology and other disciplines will all be sent to the gym and given makeovers.

And of course it will all be embodied in a well-designed, well-crafted book.

Useful, usable and desirable all the way down, sahib.

Subject rights, object rights

I was just talking to a friend of mine about pronouns and why language is so important to many people.

There is no doubt that language is political and has real social and material consequences. Therefore, nobody should ever blame anyone for critiquing language and arguing for change. It is also entirely fair to suspect anyone who says “sticks and stones” and denies these truths of lacking the experience of social vulnerability and powerlessness.

Arguing for change can mean many different things. It can mean anything from publicizing a personal choice to adopt more inclusive language, to advocating new standards of etiquette in one’s own social sphere, to codifying new linguistic practices within institutions who decide to do so, to using economic means to pressure individuals or organizations to comply with reformed language standards, to passing laws regulating language and punishing noncompliance. In other words, one can act interpersonally, socially, institutionally, economically or legislatively to make what one considers good or necessary changes to language.

As we move across this scale from personal to collective we should bear in mind something that is perhaps overemphasized among conservatives and underemphasized among progressives: the rights of the speakers, thinkers, judgers to speak, think and judge according to their own ideas, beliefs and consciences.

The rights of those who are spoken about, thought about, perceived and judged — the objects of language, thought, judgment, etc. — must be weighed against the rights of the subjects doing the speaking, thinking, judging, etc.

To put the problem simply, Person A thinks about, speaks about or expresses a judgment about Person B, whose rights prevail?

You cannot prevent Person A from oppressing Person B with beliefs that condemn and invalidate her very existence — beliefs which, if shared by society as a whole would make Person B’s life unlivable, without condemning, invalidating Person’s A’s existence. An argument can be made that Person A is intolerant, hateful and dangerous, and should be suppressed or contained to — but can’t it also be argued that a readiness to impose one’s own beliefs and morals on the rest of society and to forcibly suppress and punish those who disagree is also intolerant, dangerous and requiring suppression to protect dissidents? The point is not that one side is obviously right or wrong, but that looking at the full problem from multiple angles makes the question messier, makes it less obvious what ought to be done, and makes it easier to respect opposing views.

Object rights (the rights of those about whom we think speak) and subject rights (the rights of each person to speak their own truth) are in tension must be considered together and weighed together if we wish to do full justice to the problem.

Further we should not make the mistake of neglecting the more modest social actions an activist can take — conversation, etiquette, shaping of local social settings. Enforced conformity under threat of punishments ought to be a last resort, done reluctantly, under the most dire circumstances. It is not a small thing to force another person to conform to your own will and conscience, against their own will and conscience. We might be able to succeed here and there, but when we do, we have disrespected and violated the other person’s judgment and personal autonomy. We have (whether justified or not) insulted and oppressed them and likely made an enemy.

Persuasion does the opposite: by appealing to another person’s reason and moral sense and making arguments to them we show the greatest respect and produce solidarity in difference.

Producing solidarity in difference through respectful attempts to persuade — to say Thou to our adversaries, who share with us a commitment to appeals to reason and mutual acknowledgment of one’s subject and object rights — is the heart of liberalism, perhaps the most miraculous invention of humankind, so far.

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If your reaction to this is “no, I do know what is true and right, and I intend to do whatever it takes to make my views prevail”, I would suggest that you do not really ultimately belong to a marginal or vulnerable group, even if that is how you identify. If you were, in fact, powerless and vulnerable you would have little hope of success using force. Your real political body believes itself capable of imposing its will on the unwilling. As you so often point out to others, it is true: we are often oblivious of our own power and privilege, and power often conceals itself in the truths and morals it imposes.

Ipseity, alterity and love

Our knowledge of otherness is part of our ipseity, not of our alterity.

Alterity is not a matter of knowledge, but of a stance, an attitude: an expectation of surprise.

Once a surprise is experienced, remembered and understood, it is now part of us, but the source of the surprise remains surprising.

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Ipseity comprises all our knowledge.

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To love an other — and love is specifically a relationship we form with others — is to form a being that both involves and exceeds oneself, within which one is a participant. We are no longer only ourselves; we participate in and subsist within a greater being.

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Love is our smallest greatness.

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Ironically, to “other” an other is to deprive the other of otherness: to subsume alterity in ipseity.

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We can other with hate, or with indifference, or with what is mistaken for love.

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The beloved is the familiar and surprising other within a greater being who comprises us, a being brought into existence by the ongoing act of loving.

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Some philosophies preclude love. They arrest love’s progress at selfish lust or selfless altruism.

Love requires a modestly great self, a selfhood that transcends the limits of ego, and gives itself over to We with no diminishment of I.

Reciprocities

Why is it that reading Nietzsche always sends me back into working in my wiki?

I just made a new theme: Reciprocity.

  • And under that page I created three headings:
    • Of help
    • Of harm
    • Of love

    I will offer a chord of quotes to indicate the theme that unites these three reciprocities.

    Of help:

    • “Pity is the most agreeable feeling among those who have little pride and no prospects of great conquests: for them easy prey — and that is what all who suffer are — is enchanting.”
    • “If he did not have the compensation of gratitude, the man of power would have appeared unpowerful and thenceforth counted as such. That is why every community of the good, that is to say originally the powerful, places gratitude among its first duties. Swift suggested that men are grateful in the same degree as they are revengeful.

    Of harm:

    • “Benefiting and hurting others are ways of exercising one’s power upon others — that is all one desires in such cases! One hurts those whom one wants to feel one’s power; for pain is a much more efficient means to that end than pleasure: — pain always raises the question about its origin while pleasure is inclined to stop with itself without looking back. … Certainly the state in which we hurt others is rarely as agreeable, in an unadulterated way, as that in which we benefit others, — it is a sign that we are still lacking power, or it shows a sense of frustration in the face of this poverty; it is accompanied by new dangers and uncertainties for what power we do possess, and clouds our horizon with the prospect of revenge, scorn, punishment, and failure. It is only for the most irritable and covetous devotees of the feeling of power that it is perhaps more pleasurable to imprint the seal of power on a recalcitrant brow — those for whom the sight of those who are already subjected (the objects of benevolence) is a burden and boredom. What is decisive is how one is accustomed to spice one’s life; it is a matter of taste whether one prefers the slow or the sudden, the assured or the dangerous and audacious increase of power, — one seeks this or that spice depending on one’s temperament.

    Of love:

    • “The cure for love is still in most cases that ancient radical medicine: love in return.”

    One more quote by Mary Davis, from the foreward of Maus’s The Gift is illuminating: “Charity is meant to be a free gift, a voluntary, unrequited surrender of resources. Though we laud charity as a Christian virtue we know that it wounds. I worked for some years in a charitable foundation that annually was required to give away large sums as the condition of tax exemption. Newcomers to the office quickly learnt that the recipient does not like the giver, however cheerful he be. This book explains the lack of gratitude by saying that the foundations should not confuse their donations with gifts. It is not merely that there are no free gifts in a particular place, Melanesia or Chicago for instance; it is that the whole idea of a free gift is based on a misunderstanding. There should not be any free gifts. What is wrong with the so-called free gift is the donor’s intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient. Refusing requital puts the act of giving outside any mutual ties. Once given, the free gift entails no further claims from the recipient. The public is not deceived by free gift vouchers. For all the ongoing commitment the free-gift gesture has created. it might just as well never have happened. According to Marcel Mauss that is what is wrong with the free gift. A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.”

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    All this is why I have come to a place in my life where I only like interacting with equals, as equals, and this is why I remain specifically a left liberal: Rough equality is the necessary condition for liberalism. But where equality is pre-defined and imposed by one group upon another non-consenting group, there is already an equality-precluding power imbalance. Where equality prevails, any attempt to unilaterally referee justice, truth, morality, etc. must be viewed as delusional hubristic and futile. If this attempt is not, in fact, futile, the attempt to position oneself as an advocate of equality is delusional. And this is why I continue to insist “wokism” is a right-wing movement: it seeks radical inequality of classes, and justifies its lust for power with a mission of defending vulnerable identities, not only from genuine persecution, but also from hurt feelings.

    Real equality is a perpetual negotiation, perpetual conflict held in bounds by mutual dependence: agonistic pluralism. In such struggles, nobody gets a “safe space” from the anxious experience of having cherished beliefs challenged. And frankly, that is what “being triggered” is: it is the experience of existential dread we feel when fundamental concepts are challenged from a source beyond those beliefs.

    The more ideological we are the less we can distinguish our fundamental concepts from reality itself, and the more we confuse our experience of dread from a real threat of violence. Ironically, this ideological stance is the actual origin of real violence, since it views its extreme self-defense and just punishments of what feels threatening and is believed to be threatening with real threats, counterbalances theorized institutional bias with real institutionalized counter-biases, suspected hate with real, felt hate, theoretical violence with actual physical violence, and so on.

    The feeling that we are entitled to feel safe from our own perceptions and our beliefs about other people’s beliefs — freedom from feeling “triggered” — is a symptom of having too much power while needing the justifications of powerlessness in order to exercise it.

    Mindmoves

    Perhaps the reason few people love reading philosophy is that they have no idea how to read it correctly, and this is because people have no idea what philosophy is or what it is supposed to do. They are unaware of the role their own philosophy plays in their knowledge and its limits, or even that they have and use any philosophy at all, much less that they could change their philosophy and, along with it, their experience of reality.

    What philosophical reading does is equip us with new ways to know, and these ways to know should be regarded as something like mental motions one learns to perform. As many philosophers have observed, philosophy is very much like dance — series of mental actions performed with fluidity and rapidity so it is experienced as a dynamic whole, not a series of discrete parts. The essence of both dance and philosophy is fluid motion.

    It would be even more accurate to compare philosophy with martial arts, because the motions of philosophy are responses to entities and events outside one’s own control and anticipation, and while the motions are experienced, interaction, not experience is primary.

    How is a series of mental actions learned, and in what ways, and why on earth would anyone care about learning it? Let’s start with the process and end with the benefits.

    It begins with puzzling out passages. A reader works through a passage, trying out different meanings of words in every combination until they snap into coherent sense as a whole. Normally, reading is a simple linear process where each word is taken in the most usual sense and added to a steadily growing accumulation of factual completeness. People in the habit of reading and listening only within the limits of the popular philosophy expect all communication to work this way.

    But philosophical reading requires polysemic vigilance — constant awareness of multiple possible meanings of words, and that a shift of meaning in one word (or larger unit of meaning) can recrystallize the meaning of the whole — that the snapping often occurs later in the passage than most readers expect. The meaning of a passage might not resolve until the very end, and even that resolution might need to be undone in service of understanding the whole to which that passage belongs. This is the interpretive element of philosophical reading — hermeneutics — where a reader tries to understand the intended meaning of the passage by selecting the optimal meaning of each word and phrase that reconciles parts (words) within a whole (the intended meaning. (And, yes, of course there is an intended meaning, even if that intended meaning is infinitely elusive. “Death of the author” is really the death of all philosophies except the one imposed by the willful reader.)

    Once the meaning is figured out, in each of the parts, and as a whole, the meaning can be experienced as a dynamic whole. This is where dance and martial arts analogies are helpful. The working out of meanings of words can be compared to learning the proper form of each move, and unlearning the old habitual one. Knowing how each proper form fits in a sequence gives a comprehension of an objective whole — a system — viewed from without. The whole is not subjectively understood, however, until the forms flow into one another as a single fluid motion. It starts slowly and haltingly, then speeds up and smooths out, and eventually becomes a single unit of meaning, experienced spontaneously, from within, subjectively. Generally, when I read a passage, I rehearse it a few times, then finally perform it for myself smoothly to experience its spontaneous meaning in motion.

    This is one good reason for binge reading authors. Once a reader locks into an author’s vocabulary, speech rhythms, and characteristic mindmoves it becomes easier and easier to read them linearly — to sightread them, to use a musical metaphor. There is less puzzling out, and more fluid, spontaneous following.

    But something else happens in this process — and it is here that the real value of philosophical reading is discovered: once mindmoves are learned they can be detached from the original material and used for on other material or for other purposes. They can even be detached from the original vocabulary — and even from language altogether. The deepest philosophical shifts alter perception and taste.

    And once a mindmove is detached and used again and again for myriad purposes, and made habitual it becomes invisible. In fact it joins one’s soul, and allows the soul’s myriad members to move in a coordinated way in response to reality. The better designed the philosophy is, the more quickly and completely invisible it becomes, disappearing in acts of understanding, response and valuing.

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    This morning I was talking to Susan about strategies of changing one’s beliefs.

    The usual strategy is to decide to stop believing painful beliefs and to replace them with more affirmative ones.

    I argue this is a bad strategy. Setting aside the crucial problem of honesty toward oneself and the consequences of willful self-delusion, this exhibits deep misunderstanding of how beliefs form. Such an approach treats only the objects of knowledge (the content), not the subject of knowledge, which is the philosophy in the background dancing out the beliefs.

    Change the mindmoves that constitute the subject, and the objectivity changes on its own, along with its objects — naturally, honestly, inwardly and expansively, far beyond the bounds of the troublesome thoughts.

    This is the deepest understanding of subjectivity. Subjectivity is the sum of mindmoves that produce some kind of objectivity. This is why we call an academic discipline a subject, but also a person a subject: both are repertoires of mindmoves that generate objective truth and the way we experience it and respond to it.

    Conceptual conflict

    My first vivid conceptual conflict was in my senior year of high school.

    My art teacher had taught us that red, yellow and blue were the primary colors and that the reason our red and blue paints produced a placenta brown instead of purple was that no paint was perfect “spectrum red” and “spectrum blue”. Later, through experiment I found that a blue-green clashed with red far more jarringly than green (the supposed complement). Then I learned in physics class about additive and subtractive color worked and saw that the red-yellow-blue primaries were simply wrong.

    When I tried to explain this to my art teacher she refused to listen, and just repeated her own color theory and insisted it was correct. She would not entertain my perspective, and it was obviously more important to her than my need to be understood, and that alienated me completely. I no longer respected or liked her, not because I decided to change my mind, but because that is what spontaneously happened and I did not know how to prevent it.

    This has happened to me many times since. The felt suspicion that someone values a concept, theory or even a tacit philosophy more than their relationship with me is alienating. If I am stupid enough to press it hard enough and that feeling develops into a full-fledged certainty, that is the death of the relationship.

    In working relationships, I often tell people explicitly: “I care more about you and our relationship than I care about anything I think.” I also try to keep things light with people I know cannot or will not be able to make philosophical shifts to make room for me. Often I don’t push against the suspicion, because the certainty is too painful for me.

    But every 7-10 years I seem to wind up in a work situation where I fall under the power of someone who imposes a bad theory or philosophy on me that I cannot escape and I where no appeal is effective. The resulting claustrophobia, the feeling of asphyxiation, the panic paralysis and depression that results appears to be outside most people’s experience, and so it has no reality or rights. It is treated as oversensitivity or prima donna demandingness. I need protection, but I cannot get it. When I protect myself, I am condemned for it. I no longer apologize, or expect apologies.

    I bought myself a talisman to honor this kind of pain.

    A few notes about this form of pain:

    • The most concept-dominated people are sentimental, intuitive and non-intellectual, and fancy themselves the furthest thing from conceptual. It’s Dunning-Kruger.
    • The people who inflict the worst suffering for the sake of their own concept-loyalties are paradoxically precisely the people who fancy themselves highly empathic. They seem to know only an empathy of emotions, but not of values or intellect, and to dismiss whatever they do not know.
    • It seems that deep familiarity with concepts and how they work is the only way to have some semblance of control over them and freedom from them. Conceptually unreflective people only think they are non-conceptual because they are so dominated by their concepts that they treat reflection on them as taboo.
    • Fundamentalisms are the exalting of a theory “faith” over realities, even the realities these theories are meant to represent. They worship a concept of God at the expense of God. They love a concept of people at the expense of people. This includes, most of all, their children.
    • Politics today is dominated by of the most titanically concept-dominated, reality-excluding philosophies I’ve ever encountered, and my political anxieties are tied directly to this horror I’m describing.
    • I found this Nietzsche quote comforting: A Jew, on the other hand, in keeping with the characteristic occupations and the past of his people, is not at all used to being believed. Consider Jewish scholars in this light: they all have a high regard for logic, that is for compelling agreement by force of reasons; they know that with logic, they are bound to win even when faced with class and race prejudices, where people do not willingly believe them. For nothing is more democratic than logic: it knows no regard for persons and takes even the crooked nose for straight. (Incidentally, Europe owes the Jews no small thanks for making its people more logical, for cleanlier intellectual habits — none more so than the Germans, as a lamentably deraisonnable race that even today first needs to be given a good mental drubbing. Wherever Jews have gained influence, they have taught people to make finer distinctions, draw more rigorous conclusions, and to write more clearly and cleanly; their task was always ‘to make a people “listen to raison”.’)

    Weird kid

    My whole life, from earliest childhood on, I’ve formed strong attachments with objects and been fascinated with their aesthetic and symbolic qualities. Some of my earliest memories are vivid experiences with details of objects. The cozy orange glow of vacuum tubes and the curved reflections on brushed aluminum knobs of my father’s Heathkit stereo, the bright red nose and green lederhosen of a German pull-string jumping-jack toy, the green luminescence of glow-in-the dark tokens from a Casper the Friendly Ghost game, magenta Light-Brite pegs, an intense purple metallic paint on a metal toy airplane that pooled and deepened in the indented details, a clear purple plastic yo-yo. I’d attach to objects and use them as talismans to secure myself wherever I went. I had a plastic Porky Pig in 1st grade that I carried with me and found reassuring. Even into college I had a leather jacket I always wore. My record collection played a similar role, and now my books. My house is filled with items magical relational properties. Books, pens, bags, bicycles, even software tools form connections with me, and sometimes weaken or break those connections. Apple and Adobe have changed their product strategies over the years, and I experience the resulting misconceived redesigns as signs of betrayal.

    I think this sense of connection with things is what drives my design.

    But when designs do not have or seek this kind of personal connection, I am bored. There is nothing for me in problems of usefulness and usability but no aspiration of desirability.

    Expathy?

    One of my more unfortunate habits: whenever the bad design of some misconceived and malformed product, service or state of affairs pisses me off I imagine the meeting that produced it. Then I imagine all the little philosophies each participant brought into the room and used for misunderstanding and talking past (or over) all the others.

    Bad design is, for me, not only intrinsically frustrating and aesthetically offensive, but politically and philosophically infuriating.

    I need a name for a sixth-sense, analogous to empathy, but whose object is artificial objects. I feel the generative philosophies behind artifacts.

    Similarly, I sense the enworldment to which a thing belongs. This can be the enworldment that produced the artifact, or it can be the enworldment that is improved by it. The best case is an artifact that is uniquely suited to perfect an enworldment in an unexpected and clarifying way. An ideal gift is physical philosophy.

    You and whose army?

    Our sense of entitlement grows with our power.

    Those without any power have no rights and expect nothing.

    Those of equal power respect one another’s rights and the rights become more finely granulated and observed more exactly the more equality is achieved.

    Those with overwhelming power are free to imagine what they wish about the powerless, and the powerless are expected to complete the illusion by conforming to their expectations. And the most important conformity of all is worldview: those without power and rights have least of all the right to deny truth and justice.

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    Whoever feels entitled to control the contents of another person’s mind imagines themselves to have the power to succeed, correctly or incorrectly, consciously or unconsciously.

    It is not uncommon to delude oneself on the source of that power. Most conquerors of the New World acted under Christ’s power and authority, with a little extra assistance from sponsoring monarchs and investors. Anywhere the righteous exercise power under the authority of an abstract ideal — whether of God, of truth, of justice, of progress, of the market’s will — it pays to follow the advice of Deep Throat: Follow the money. Or say what children say on the playground when threatened: “you and whose army?” You’ll either call their bluff or learn exactly whose army underwrites their threats — in the name of the abstraction which is the source and justification of its power.

    How not to destroy an idea factory

    No philosophy is infinitely durable and impervious to criticism.

    We tend to dismiss or minimize critiques and arguments against our philosophies for as long as they remain useful to us overall, not only for providing clear and coherent understandings, but also for helping us respond practically and for feeling the value of life on the whole.

    But most critiques and attacks on philosophies miss their mark, anyway, aiming only at the outputs of the philosophy — its truth claims, theories and arguments — not at the conceptions that produce them, which is a far more elusive target.

    This kind of attack is like trying to destroy a car factory by blowing up all the cars as they come off the assembly line. But even bombing the factory itself is unlikely to be effective in the long-term, because factories are easily repaired or rebuilt. A far better mode of attack would be to investigate the factory’s production efficiency, manufacturing defects, etc. and show the inadequacy of its production. Or better, call into question the design of the cars, or question the value of manufacturing cars at all, making its purpose obsolete. Or question factory mass production, and undermine its conditions of production. Only radical measures will shut the factory down permanently, and prevent anyone from rebuilding it, because the need for the factory has been destroyed.

    The goal is to motivate abandonment of what currently produces facts, arguments, responses, methods, desires, values, etc. and to persuade people to produce them in some other way. This is a tall order, because it is so much easier to repair, rebuild or even to rebuild a new system with a new blueprint.

    Many, many people who have had their religious faiths demolished have built new secular belief factories on the site of their destroyed Christian faith factories, using the same blueprint as before, because this is how such things are built. Now the new factory cranks out new de-divinized models of the old faith — doctrines, moral rules, taboos, sins, confessions, devils, apocalypses, inquisitions, punishments, indulgences and so on — that function the same way as last year’s model, but which now run on new fuels, along slightly altered tracks. But to the constrained mind, the difference is total — the difference between a Prius and a Ford F-150!

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    A few thoughts on demolition and reconstruction of philosophies:

    1. Any philosophy can be destroyed, if the need and desire to destroy it exists.
    2. The best reason to destroy a philosophy is dissatisfaction with its product; a philosophy that produces confusion, error and despair can be dismantled, and ought to be.
    3. The very worst philosophies will blame a confusing, paralyzing, hostile, doomed and worthless world for its own shoddy output, namely, that experience of the world.
    4. The fact that a philosophy can be destroyed is no argument against it; sufficient durability is sufficient.
    5. A destroyed philosophy is likely to be replaced with another exactly like it, built on its same pattern, unless great effort is put into rebuilding it on new principles and new values.
    6. A destroyed philosophy leaves one without a philosophy to serve its needs, which is intensely difficult and excruciatingly painful. One of the principle outputs of a philosophy is sanity, not to mention truth, motivation, competence and security. This is the primary reason so few truly new philosophies appear. It takes too much time to make something genuinely new, and that time is truly harrowing and dreadful.
    7. New philosophies are made with groping, intuitive experimentation and the products of old philosophies, most of which go entirely undetected.
    8. Gradual modifications of old philosophies are much easier, but even the tiniest modifications feel shockingly new, alien and portentous.

    Soul

    We are collections of potentials, known and unknown: spirits. We are spiritually composite, a society of spirits living on the land of a body.

    One’s soul is a spiritual society.

    One’s ethic is the soul’s government.

    One’s style is the soul’s culture.

    One’s inner life is the soul’s politics. Some of us are liberal democracies, e pluribus unum; some are dictatorships of self-discipline; some are theocratic police states; some are anarchies of decadence; and a great many of us are human civil wars.

    Conceiving a better world

    A philosophy is the total repertoire of moves a mind knows how to make in its efforts to make theoretical, practical and moral sense of the world, to enworld itself.

    A well-designed philosophy choreographs these moves into some kind of cohesive and enduring whole that renders life itself intelligible, manageable and valuable. In other words we have a sense of what is true, possible and good for us in the world.

    To do philosophy is essentially attempting to acquire new moves, usually by way of tackling a perplexity that feels relevant or urgent but which resists thought. We move guided only by intuition in a region of inconceivability (“here I do not know how to move around”) in order to conceive a new way to navigate it.

    The moves themselves are not directly perceived or grasped, because these moves are, themselves, perceiving and grasping. To try to understand them is like trying to see sight or hear hearing. We know what they are by what they do.

    Imagine if we humans could acquire new organs of perception that allowed us to experience new, previously undetected phenomena in the world around us.

    The miracle of philosophy is that we can, and routinely do, acquire new faculties of conception that allow us to experience new, previously undetected truths, possibilities and value in reality.

    And these faculties engage intuitions in ourselves that we frequently dismiss, deemphasize, marginalize, suppress or even oppress. We have no idea what to do with them, so we neglect them, ignore them, push them out, relegate them to insignificant noise.

    In a very importance sense, when we learn what to make of our world, we simultaneously learn what to make of ourselves. When make new sense of the world, we make new sense of ourselves, too. The reverse is true as well: when we make something new of ourselves by welcoming marginalized, suppressed intuitions and integrating them into our philosophies, new possibilities of the world open up for us: new things we can understand, new things we can do and make and say, and new things that can matter to us because they are good, beautiful or momentous.

    Likewise, if our world feels bad to us, if it is chaotic, irrational, unmanageable, doomed, evil, oppressive or worthless philosophy gives us a completely new response. The unphilosophical mind takes (with its limited repertoire of conceptions) its ugly perception and interpretation of the world as a direct perception of an ugly reality, and selects from the handful of possible responses its limited repertoire of conceptions can imagine, and these responses are saturated with valuations tinged and constricted by its limited repertoire of values.

    The philosophical mind, knowing the degree to which our experience of reality is conditioned by philosophy, knows that philosophical inquiry can call any belief into doubt if it examines it with sufficient intensity. Skepticism is a universal philosophy solvent, that can be used to break down any understanding and dissolve it into perplexity. Perplexity clears ground for new philosophy.

    Between the destructive power of skeptical critique and the constructive power of philosophizing, we have much more space for changing our shared world than most of us realize.

    Please do not decenter yourself

    Decentering one’s self or one’s identity as a response to one’s former egocentrism or ethnocentrism is just this year’s model of altruism.

    Altruism is benevolence modeled on a stunted vision of individualism, which it tries to overcome by simply inverting it: Selfish people care about themselves at the expense of others, so unselfish people care about others at the expense of self.

    *

    We’ve experienced the consequences of the altruistic ideal in design.

    In the late 1990s and 2000s user experience design (UX) set out to help organizations stop being org-centric, and instead to be user-centric or customer-centric. Organizations who listened to us invested in research to find out what their customers wanted them to be and tried to become that. And everyone got told approximately the same thing, so wherever UX did its thing organizations started looking expertly, unobjectionably, and blandly alike. There was nothing wrong with the solutions — UX had seen to it that all flaws were removed — but there was nothing spectacularly right, either.

    The solutions were well-informed, but poorly-inspired.

    *

    I want to argue that an impoverished understanding of personhood is at the root of the uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable but bland products of UX.

    But I want to take it further and claim something more general and consequential:

    The impoverished understanding of personhood that belongs to altruistic ethics is responsible for uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable relationships incapable of sustaining personhood.

    The high divorce rate, the empty depravity of hookups, the shallowness and fragility of friendship, the feeling of victimization and oppression that motivates so many young activists to hunt down and punish whoever is responsible for one’s own bad experience of life (and, it appears, one’s own self-contempt) — all these are caused by a theory and practice of personhood that can only produce empty relationships and selfless, decentered alienation.

    This nothingness at the center where somethingness ought to be — nihility — is not neutral or numb or Buddhistically empty or void. On the contrary, nihility torments, aches, rings, glares, and stinks in its absence.

    Our last two generations were aggressively indoctrinated in this decentering, altruistic ethic of goodness. They, in turn, are replicating it everywhere they can, motivated by intense resentment toward a world that has put them in this state. Or, as they prefer to put it, out of a selfless love for the oppressed, with whom they identify.

    *

    I would propose as a replacement for this altruistic vision of personhood — self as an inert subjective object, a discrete, body-sized soul which moves around in space expending its limited resources caring for its own self or caring for other selves — with something radically different. I propose that we see selves as radiant centers, comprising smaller radiant centers, and contributing to larger radiant centers. A person is one unit of such centers, possessing a sort of center of gravity, based on the dynamic arrangement of centers at any given moment. Each of these centers, being radiant, extend in their being outward. In other words, they exist. Ex- “out” + -ist “be”.

    But these radiant centers, with their own personal “I” center of gravity, also constitute larger units of being, and these larger units are relationships. These “we” relationships change the dynamics within the person, and brings that person to exist within the larger being, as a member of the relationship as well as remaining a person.

    *

    The meaning of love changes with this reconception of personhood. Love is not so much a love of the other as other, but as a fellow participant in a relationship that is the next scale upward of oneself, a larger self in whom one is a participant — a participant in something real and transcendent to self, within whom one subsists as oneself. In the altruist conception of love the other is the object of one’s love, “I”, the subject, love “you”, the direct object of the love. In this new understanding of love, love is an enclosing subject within which love happens between persons.

    *

    The meaning of empathy — another favorite word among altruists — changes with this reconception of personhood.

    Empathy becomes a participant’s direct perception of the state of the larger beings of which it is a part. It is felt via the shifting dynamics of radiant centers within oneself in response to the changes of surrounding transcendent centers. Empathy is felt, but we lack language for its experiences — we have no “red”, “yellow”, “green” or “blue” — and so the speaking part of our mind (the only part of our mind the speaking mind acknowledges) refuses to acknowledge the reality known to empathy. Empathy is a sixth sense — a mode of perception, experienced with immediacy — and it is undeniably real to those who accept its reality.

    Empathy is the furthest thing from intensely imagined feelings of others, or the reaction one has to stories of other people’s suffering. What is called empathy today is more often just emotions generated by vivid imaginations, the virtue of avid readers of sentimental fiction.

    *

    A lot of pretty-sounding Jewish and Christian platitudes make very new sense when heard with ears that hear this way. In marriage we become one in flesh. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Christian idea that the Church is the bride of Christ. I even recognize this vision in Alain de Lille’s formula: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Seen this way, each center is one of infinite sparks of God, who approaches God by participating in ever-expanding nested scales of radiant being.

    So, forget altruism. We do not give ourselves up in order to have the other. We give up the limits of our discrete, body-sized soul in order to participate in larger and larger personhood, and it is this alone that makes life lovable, because this participation as persons, in new, larger persons is what love is.

    *

    By this logic:

    • We should stop telling our children “You are not the center of the universe.” Instead tell them “You are not the only center of the universe.”
    • We should stop doing user-centered or customer-centered, or any-centered design. A better ideal is polycentric design.
    • We should not decenter ourselves. We need our centers! We should polycenter ourselves.
    • We should absolutely not tell other people to decenter themselves. We may invite them to polycenter — as I am doing here, now.
    • We should not express love as “Not for me, but for you, alone.” We should instead express it as “Not for me, but for us, together.”
    • We should not treat gifts as transfers of ownership from giver to receiver. We should instead see gifts as investments what did belong to me, alone, now belongs to you as a member of we.
    • An identity should not be viewed as a classification that makes one person the same as another. Identity is identifying oneself as a member of a group, within whom one subsists. Identity is something we do, and it is not something another person can do to another — at least not respectfully.
    • We are never more self-centered in our small body-sized self than when we refuse to hear another perspective offered to us in good faith, but instead cling to our own omniscient already-knowing. Clinging to altruism does not make us less selfish, it destroys our selves, the very being who can love and be loved.

    Following a reconception

    Conceptions are holistic. They exist in potential as wholes. But conceptions manifest serially.

    Conceptions are acquired by following a series of mental movements, and the very moving is the knowing. Conceptions are demonstrated by the one conveying them, and imitated by the one receiving them.

    *

    Follow what I’m saying and see if you pick up what I mean.

    First, step by step, recited, slowly.

    Then, step by step, remembered, faster.

    Then step by step verbally guided, but fluidly.

    Then performed fluidly, silently, intuitively.

    Then performed as habit, done effortlessly.

    Then done automatically, second-naturally.

    Finally, forgotten into reality itself, a part of oneself and one’s world: enworldment.

    *

    Movements of conception can be embodied in dances, languages, arguments, stories, verses, visual sequences, melodies, rituals, customs, practices, collages.

    Anything that can be followed, then reproduced, has within it a conception that makes it knowable.

    *

    Philosophy has been compared to dance.

    Philosophies are designed, but not like machines made of parts.

    Philosophies are designed like choreographies for different genres of improvised music.

    *

    Every reconception is a conception.

    *

    Repetition of conceptions

    Quoted in Gabriele Tarde’s Laws of Repetition: “Scientific knowledge need not necessarily take its starting-point from the most minute hypothetical and unknown things. It begins wherever matter forms units of a like order which can be compared with and measured by one another, and wherever such units combine as units of a higher order and thus serve in themselves as a standard of comparison for the latter” (Von Naegeli. Address at the congress of German naturalists in 1877).

    This is incredibly helpful for my own thinking. When we take some understanding that helped us make sense of X, and use it to make sense of Y, what exactly is repeated that makes it the same understanding or idea or conception?

    To get very specific and concrete, when I first began to understand Nietzsche the conceptions I learned, which I found nearly impossible to articulate explicitly, helped me re-understand a great number of previously unrelated questions, confusions and mysteries that (at least prior to the understanding) seemed unrelated to the material Nietzsche was presenting. Reconceptions burst forth from nowhere and rippled through my memories, changing them. I knew it even prior to recollection. I could feel the change in my soul with an intuitive immediacy that defied language, but which could be used almost effortlessly. The changes even altered my perceptions of music, poetry and the world.

    To me, it seemed like I’d just read something exciting that inspired new ideas. I would be forced to put the book down and think, talk or write. But sometimes these inspirations were related to problems Nietzsche had sketched out earlier in the book but left suspended, painfully unresolved. Often, the next day, when my inspiration subsided enough to permit further reading, I would read one of my own thoughts, printed out on the page. Nietzsche had implanted a thought in my head.

    One other peculiar effect of these reconceptions was learning how many of my explosive new thoughts were rediscoveries of commonplace insights that I thought I understood well enough, but rejected as truisms, cliches or platitudes or nonsense. Think again. Things I’d heard recited myriad times suddenly had intense meaning, and I was the first to discover what was hidden in plain sight. It took dozens of humiliations to realize I was not the first to unlock the deeper significance of these words. In fact, I was the last. This insight was new only to me. But they could be known only through this strange kind of explosive, renewing reconception.

    So, again: What was conveyed in this learning that resulted in new understanding? What was rippling through my psyche? What was I using to make new sense of memories and new experiences?

    For now, let’s call these mysterious, indirectly known entities conceptions.

    Why were these conceptions so easy to use, but so hard to talk about, much less encapsulate with explicit language?

    How do we discover or invent — or instaurate — new conceptions? (Or, more often, rediscover, reinvent, reinstaurate conceptions that are new to us?)

    What if all our understandings are just the workings of conceptions? And what if our overall understanding of everything in total is just interrelated conceptions working in concert, perhaps related and coordinated by yet other conceptions?

    If we change our conceptions, what impact can this have on our most basic understandings of personhood and of the very nature of truth and reality?

    When can we change our conceptions? When should we change them? When should we preserve or protect them?

    And, finally, how do we decide together as a society which conceptions we ought to adopt and use in our lives together? Consider the complicating factor that it is up to our existing conceptions to make decisions about what conceptions should be changed to preserved…

    Neologisms vs unusual uses of familiar words

    “In fact, when a philosopher needs a word to express a new generalisation, he must choose between two things; he must choose a neologism, if he is put to it, or he must decide, and this is unquestionably better, to stretch the meaning of some old term.” — Gabriel Tarde

    If I didn’t already own Laws of Imitation, I’d have to buy it just to have this quote in physical form. I face this dilemma all the time when trying to say something new. Both objections, to neologisms and to unusual uses of familiar terms, are standard features of philosophical defense mechanisms, whose purpose is to disqualify speech capable of undermining its conceptions.

    Reconceiving conceptions, part 1

    A note on word choice: I am experimenting with using the word “conception” in place of “concept”. A conception is a conceiving move that produces a concept. A concept can be one of any number of artifacts, all of which can be viewed as alike in that they are produced and reproduced (comprehended) by the same conception.

    *

    If you think about it — and few of us do — thinking is an extremely mysterious activity.

    Thinking is never more mysterious than at the edges of intelligibility, where, in order to think with any coherence, clarity or conviction, a thinker must first find new ways to make clear unified sense of material that is fragmentary, murky and perplexing. These new ways of making coherent sense are conceptions.

    When one lacks conceptions needed for thinking, conceptions stand starkly absent. It is similar to how we suddenly become hyper-aware of our reliance on a humble body part, like a little toe, once it is injured or stops functioning, or how much we use a utility when service is interrupted, and we keep mindlessly flipping on light-switches even though the electricity is out.

    It is when conceptions and thinking breaks down that we think about the activity thinking and experience how mysterious it is.

    For normal people, the experience of grappling with inconceivability is relatively rare. Most things make sense most of the time — or at least most relevant things make sense. Of course, many things remain incomprehensible, inexplicable, irrational, confusing, frustrating, chaotic, crazy or mysterious — but these things tend to be pushed out to the margins. They are labeled “irrelevant” and ignored. Or they are labeled as “evil” or “delusional” and condemned or despised. Or they may be labeled “mysteries” and placed beyond human comprehension, for wonder, contemplation or worship. Generally, nothing short of catastrophe or crisis is sufficient to motivate a person to reconceive and understand something that defies comprehension.

    Normally, normal people rely almost exclusively on ready-made conceptions to produce whatever thoughts they think, and to form whatever beliefs they hold. Infinitesimally few beliefs are produced by thinking. Nearly all beliefs are conceived automatically, in perception. Most conception occurs prior to thought, habitually and invisibly, in the continuous act of perception, where conceptions intercept and conceptually format sensations prior to any conscious thinking. When perceptions cohere autonomously in a form that lends itself to effortless intelligibility — self-evident truth — truth and reality are indistinguishable. This state of mind is called “naive realism.”

    Is naive realism bad? Many will insist “yes” but this judgment is itself the product of conception — perhaps, ironically, a habitual and unconsidered conception of precisely the kind it disparages.

    Naive realism can also be conceived as an ideal. This is what I intend to argue, and I intend to argue it from a highly abnormal angle: that of a design strategist.

    *

    I mentioned that normal people normally do not think about thinking nor the conceptions they have at their disposal for perceiving and conceiving truth, and I referred to design strategists as abnormal in this respect.

    Design strategists are forced to think about thinking, conceptions, perceptions all the time. A total breakdown of thought and attempts to resolve the breakdown and resume thought is just part of the work.

    This is because design strategists are crisis agents. We are primarily hired to resolve crises, or to create crises in order to help organizations innovate, differentiate or disrupt their industries and throw their competitors into crisis, all for the sake of gaining competitive advantage.

    Design strategists are professional crisis mongers. The most important component of such crisis mongering is design research, and the ideal outcome of design research is what I call “precision inspiration”.

    Explaining strategic design research and precision inspiration provides context for understanding why strategic design demands thinking about thinking.

    *

    The best way to explain design research is pragmatically, presenting it in terms of what it does. And since design research was formed in the crucible of business, let’s discuss what it does in terms of benefits, using the preferred genre of the business world, the sales pitch.

    What are the benefits of design research?

    First, and most obviously, design research informs decisions. It helps organizations identify opportunities for improvement. It helps them understand precisely what can and should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that efforts to improve things have their intended effect. And these improvements are not only for customers, but for all people involved in the organization — customers, employees, partners, leaders, investors and any other kind of stakeholder. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right”. Research improves the product of an organization.

    Second, design research looks at opportunities through the lens of an organization’s capabilities, and especially those capabilities unique to the organization and therefore potentially differentiating. The improvements found are improvements only this organization is able to provide. Research differentiates the product of an organization. The product is not just better — it is uniquely better, and this organization is the only one able to provide it.

    These first two benefits supply the “precision” part of precision inspiration. They focus effort on a sharply-defined problematic region, where potential value is most concentrated.

    Third, design research provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. Morale-sapping doubts are answered, freeing participants to invest energy into the project, optimistic that their efforts will bear fruit. Design research helps organizations align and improves efficiency and effectiveness of production.

    Fourth, design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which lays the political groundwork for the climax of this pitch, the inspiration part.

    The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of conceptions enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and the limits our capacity to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new conceptions are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more conceptions must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of conceptions learned and to link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing conceptions, so in effect each team is forced to create a new conception-system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble.

    This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new conceptions cause novel possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo — possibilities were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas — even new goals, purposes, values — resulting from the acquisition of new conceptions is, in fact, precisely what inspiration is.

    The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through precise understanding of specific people and and specific organizations) than ideas produced by the general truisms of industry conventional wisdom. Because industry conventional wisdom processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same old, same-old: safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

    This new, previously inconceivable way of conceiving precisely what this organization can do for precisely these people the organization exists to serve, conceived in a way that makes this problem thinkable in a shared way for all people involved in the effort and aligns them in solving it is precision inspiration.

    Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

    Doing research in this way, day in, day out, year in, year out changes one’s conceptions of conceptions and forces us to rethink how thinking works. A life of producing myriad small, specialized philosophies for specific problems eventually produces a comprehensive general philosophy that expands far beyond the limits of business, or any compartmented life activity and changes one’s view of everything.

    In other words, it becomes a fundamental philosophy: a philosophy of design of philosophy.

    *

    To be continued… Design should be invisible, and so should be our conceptions!