Category Archives: Philosophy

Rorty therapy

To recover from a rough couple of weeks and, also, to clarify my thoughts on liberalism, I am rereading Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. I wish I still had the paperback I read the first time through, because I would like to see if I am underlining the same things. It feels very different to me reading this in the midst of a Trump presidency, a pandemic shutdown and an unprecedented intensification and expansion of progressivism.

So far, the one thing that is standing out to me, partly because of conversations I’ve been having with fellow-Rortian, Nick Gall, is a suspicion that I might have a slightly different conception of how language fits into human life than Rorty does. I want to try to nail down the difference as simply as possible so I can 1) confirm this difference actually exists, and 2) track the pragmatic consequences of the difference as I continue the book. This is especially important because my next book (or first book, if you do not consider a 9-page art pamphlet a proper book) is closely connected to this question.

So here is what I am seeing. While Rorty and I appear to share an instrumentalist view of language — that is, language ought to be viewed more like tools we use than as expressions of self or representations of world — Rorty appears to privilege language as uniquely constitutive of our human way of being, where I see language as one instrument of many (albeit, the most important one), and that interaction with all of these instruments together contributes much to our being. However even the sum of all instrumental relations falls well short of constituting the whole. Non-instrumental forms of relationship (for instance, those we have with loved ones) are as important as instrumental ones, and constitute much of what we often consider our moral character. If I were to reduce human being to one essential ingredient, I would prefer interaction to language.

No doubt, I will continue this line of thought as I read further.

God, I love Rorty. I am smarter and happier when I’m reading him.

1200 cubic centimeter universe

The supreme evil is solipsism.

To prefer one’s own imagined world to the transcendently real world —

To prefer one’s own categories to the real being of fellow-beings —

To prefer one’s own theorized dynamics to the actual doing of fellow beings —

To prefer one’s own moral formulae to the intrinsic value of fellow beings —

And to terrorize, dominate, suppress or punish the beings of the real world for non-compliance with one’s own imagined Truth —

All these are symptoms of misapotheosis.

*

Misapotheosis is confusing one’s own self with God — It is a hubris of simple ignorance — Of willful ignorance of transcendent being — Of contempt for all that defies one’s own mind-products — Of hatred of infinity and infinity’s dread — Of the dread of the indefinable.

A semblance of omniscience requires shrinking omni to the paltry 1200 cubic centimeters that fit inside a human skull.

*

Only with extreme and willful ignorance of the overwhelming majesty and richness of reality can we confuse ourselves for God and prefer our own tiny truth with the vastness of Reality.

To maintain such titanic hubris we need lots of help.

So we duplicate our little omniscience, pour it inside other skulls with a similar need to possess Truth.

This produces universality.

Everyone knows that this contained universe, reproduced inside likeminded skulls is universally true, because everyone who knows anything knows this.

And, also, we know exactly why those others who deny the truth cannot accept the truth.

We know the unbeliever’s conscious and unconscious ulterior motives — and that is a part of the truth we know. Everyone who knows anything knows this.

“What? You search? You would multiply yourself by ten, by a hundred? You seek followers?– Seek zeros! –“

*

If you can stand the humiliation of seeing yourself within an infinite perspective — as one unique spark in an infinite fire — you can participate in God instead of needing either to be God, or to deny God.

*

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other : ‘The world was created for me.’”

Man, I really hate Fundamentalism

Religion (when it is real religion) helps form an active, mutual relationship between a person and the infinite reality in whom each person participates as a unique, divine spark.

Fundamentalism (which is misunderstood as extreme religion, but which is failure of religion) severs relationship with infinite reality and replaces in with beliefs. The entirety of Fundamentalism’s metaphysics — “god”, types of people, categories, moral judgment — takes place inside the skull of the “believer”. Its heaven is imagined and the god who riles over this imagined kingdom is the believer. I call this misapotheosis: stupid confusion of oneself with God and confusion of Creation with the paltry product of one’s own creative imagination.

Fundamentalism places all emphasis of the factual content of its belief, so it sees no connection between itself and other denominations of Fundamentalism. What could be more opposite, Christianism and Progressivism? But each approaches belief the same way and approaches non-believers the same way. The faith is identical, and the differing content is a superficial difference.

Recovering “Christian” Fundamentalists are especially vulnerable to Progressivism. Fundamentalists rarely are able to recover real religious life. They wander through life god-gutted and empty, able only to stop the Fundamentalist habits, but unable to re-conceive religious life in order to live it. Then something like Progressivist Fundamentalism comes along and the sheer familiarity of it is seductive. Fundamentalism kicks back into motion with new omniscient fervor.

New drug, old habit.

I will say it again: the distance between Fundamentalisms is paper-thin. The distance between Fundamentalism (and its always-oppressive political agendas) and authentic religion (and its liberal agenda — yes liberal religion is the purest form!) is vast.

Susan’s hope, my hope

Susan keeps asking if there might be an upside to the wokeness convulsion our society is undergoing. She hopes it might inspire people to have conversations they might not have otherwise had and to develop real empathy. I’m pretty sure this hope is an expectation widely shared among progressives.

I think the entire project is deformed by a conceptual solipsism that obstructs engagement with actual individuals. Drawing on Buber’s distinction between the social and the interpersonal — the former being the gamelike, rule-bound, role-bound structured interactions among types, and the latter being the rule-transcending, role-transcending dialogical interaction between persons in pursuit of mutual discovery of the uniqueness concealed within one another.

What our current mood does — and this is my primary objection to it — is politicize the personal by hypersensitizing people to categories (roles) and to impose constantly shifting norms upon interactions (rules) which are treated not as innovations in etiquette, but as universal standards of decency, binding not only in present snd future, but also retroactively. The constant changing of the norms, paired with dire and shameful penalties for violating them, and the fact that changes in rules are enforced retroactively leaves people in such a state of horrible tension, self-consciousness and horror at being judged, that even natural behavior, much less the intimate trust and risk required by dialogue is made nearly impossible.

This blend of deeply uncomfortable emotions is misinterpreted as guilt, or as the necessary pain of transcendence. It is stamped out by same mold Christians use to produce repentance, and this is why many former Christian Fundamentalists have become sucked into Progressivist Fundamentalism: it uses the same intellectual muscle memory.

The “dominant” category is eager to demonstrate extreme submissiveness, and the other will rarely resist the temptation to hubristically inflate to enjoy unchallenged dominance.

It is fascinating how a generation who despises, above all, awkwardness and cringy behavior has managed to produce some of the most unbearable spectacles of obsequiousness this century has seen. Everywhere you look intensely nervous, over-friendly NPR-types frantically smile and build bridges of understanding with POC-types, hoping others see their inspiring act and choose to do likewise. They are so unaccustomed to contact with individual personalities, no doubt they believe in this playacting they met a real person and found a real friend. Given the kind of company they find at work and on social media it probably compares favorably. Clifford Geertz’s description of the Balinese concept of lek comes to mind.

So — returning to Susan’s hope — I think that hope is entirely to her credit, and no doubt, she will fulfill it in her own personal actions — but I think most people will simply use this moment to reinforce their Fundamentalist Progressivist ideologies. They will act out their prescribed roles and they will watch other social actors acting out their parts, and everything will conform to the image of the world-in-their-head.

And anyone who arouses doubt, undermines the faith or defies this image and the Truth Idol who rules over it will be punished as severely as possible.

*

But!

I actually have hopes of my own.

(Full disclosure: I am reading Yuval’s beautiful annotated translation of the introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

Though few people understand what philosophy is or what it does, what we are undergoing is a philosophical event.

We are witnessing a mass philosophical crisis and deep philosophical shift. It is nothing less than a mass conversion. The problem is: conversion to what…?

What this mass conversion experience might ultimately accomplish — whether the convert is woke or red-pilled — is to help people see for the first time how much metanoia can transfigure experience, and help them understand how much possibility is buried within the world.

This reality is infinite and positively impregnated with new ways to conceptualize, understand, experience and respond to life!

The trick here will be to pry open the closed circle of ideology and open it out into a spiral capable of revering what is beyond it. This will not be easy: Every new convert naturally views their finding of new truth as ripping aside the Veil of Illusion, revealing the True Truth  glimpsed only by an elect few, and so on.

Every new convert awakes into a dream of buddhahood. Every new convert experiences a glimpse of omniscience, sees the world anew through God’s own eyes and experiences the intoxication of intellectual hubris.

It is a long, slow, humbling process to recognize how common this kind of awakening is, and how rare it is for anyone to want to sober up from the thrilling solipsism of apotheosis. (I call this conversion hubris “misapotheosis“.)

The inflowing glory of conversion, however, is better seen as the effect of allowing a little more of divine reality to flood into our lives — along with the awareness that there is infinitely more, and that this can happen repeatedly if we know how to live by that truth.

There are so many days that have not yet broken. — Rig Veda, via Nietzsche

…And most importantly, we must understand the source of these new truths is the uniqueness of every being — not in its identity with other beings, except in its fundamental belonging to the overarching uniqueness constituted of uniqueness: Adonai Echad.

It is through each of us, in our uniqueness, collaborating with unique others, refracting our being through this strangely overlapping interlapping world of ours that raises our sparks and shows us the value of life.

Consider how every individual is affected by an overall philosophical justification of his way of living and thinking–he experiences it as a sun that shines especially for him and bestows warmth, blessings, and fertility on him, it makes him independent of praise and blame, self-sufficient, rich, liberal with happiness and good will; incessantly it fashions evil into good, leads all energies to bloom and ripen, and does not permit the petty weeds of grief and chagrin to come up at all. In the end then one exclaims: Oh how I wish that many such new suns were yet to be created! Those who are evil or unhappy and the exceptional human being–all these should also have their philosophy, their good right, their sunshine! What is needful is not pity for them!–we must learn to abandon this arrogant fancy, however long humanity has hitherto spent learning and practicing it–what these people need is not confession, conjuring of souls, and forgiveness of sins! What is needful is a new justice! And a new watchword! And new philosophers! The moral earth, too, is round! The moral earth, too, has its antipodes! The antipodes, too, have the right to exist! There is yet another world to be discovered–and more than one! Embark, philosophers! — Nietzsche

Amen.

Recognizing possibilities of transcendence

There are positive metaphysics which make assertions about reality beyond what can be experienced, and there are negative metaphysics which deny the possibility of making such assertions.

A person who has worked at thinking through problems that started out unthinkable — who had to begin with confronting unthinkability and overcoming it by finding new modes of thinking capable of rendering the unthinkable thinkable — will gradually come to see “beyond experience” differently.

Beyond experience stops being an object of thought, a truth, and rather becomes a zone of indeterminate possibility — with distinctive characteristics one can recognize and about which one can make positive assertions:

  • It compels: we are attracted to it by something within us to transcend our current way of thinking.
  • It repels: the exits from our limitations fill us with anxiety and engulf us in dread.
  • It demands intuition: It can be navigated only by a wordless intelligence that knows, does and values without any ability to explain or justify itself.
  • It demands sacrifice: how we used to think is the chief obstacle to the new way of thinking.
  • It demands rethinking: much of what we once knew will have to be understood anew (metanoia).
  • It generates rebirth: the rethinking changes one’s basic experience of everything, all at once.
  • It is fruitful: it produces new ideas, understandings, interconnections and possibilities that were imperceptible, and in fact, unthinkable prior to transcendence. (Added July 16, 2020. Thanks to Nick Gall.)
  • It increases truth: what came before was not false, but what comes after is more true.
  • It is radically unexpected: with each transcendence truths come into view that were literally unimaginable prior to transcendence.
  • It intensifies expectation: experiencing the radically unexpected assures us that the unimaginable is entirely possible.
  • It is ubiquitous: once we learn to recognize these characteristics, we start noticing them everywhere we look. Existence is pregnant with shocking possibility.

This is why I love philosophy.

This is why I have become religious.

Letter to an angry friend

One reason I have chosen to be Jewish is because the Jewish people has been on both sides of power so many times. This back-and-forth experience is instructive. The change from being dominated to being the dominator is a shock — the totality of being transfigures, apparently permanently. But then dominator becomes dominated, and, shockingly, the totality transfigures again.

If this keeps happening, and a people is miraculously able to survive it, it has a chance to start making connections between these two pseudo-omniscient states and working these insights into its tradition. From where I stand at this point in my life this is the kind of wisdom I care about most.

People often think the goal of spiritual pursuits is apotheosis. I see overcoming apotheosis as more difficult and valuable. Being of God, within God, toward God, without accidentally becoming God, or falling into Godless nihilism, or (as so often happens) doing both simultaneously, is devilishly difficult. 

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other : ‘The world was created for me.'”

Enworldments

I move around in a world of enworldments.

When I meet a person, their enworldment is what I am trying to intuit. When an artifact — object, environment, artwork, anything — attracts my attention, it is because it implies an enworldment with a person at its center.

At times I’ve wanted to call a particular enworldment an instance of “everything”. Applying the pragmatic maxim, roughly “the meaning of a belief is everything that follows from believing it”, an enworldment is the particular totality implied when a particular person says “everything”. Some people might prefer some related words: worldview, lifeworld, totality, philosophy, or, simply, world. I like enworldment because, for me, it implies an attempted embracing and gathering toward a creating/discovering instaurating center.

Some enworldments include within it an awareness and concern for the existence of fellow enworldments. An enworldment of this kind can be called pluralist.

Some pluralist enworldments hold pluralism itself as a supreme value, and wish to respect, cultivate and protect a plurality of pluralistic enworldments, as the very locus of value in the world. This kind of pluralism can be called liberalism.

Some liberal enworldments believe that even the most liberal, most pluralist enworldments contain partial incompatibilities and conflicts, and that entering these conflicts with fellow liberals is not only unavoidable, but valuable. This kind of liberalism can be called agonistic.

However, liberalism of even the most agonistic kind cannot be indiscriminately open to every enworldment. It cannot enter into and grasp from within every enworldment that presents itself, because some enworldments are explicitly opposed on principle to liberalism. Some others claim to be liberal, but function illiberally. While it is not necessary or even good  to reject an illiberal enworldment wholesale, it is necessary to isolate and reject illiberal elements within it. Unfortunately, challenging its illiberal elements threatens the enworldment as a whole, and will provoke its defense systems, which are themselves aggressively illiberal. Countermeasures progress from avoidance, to emotional, to social, to material and finally bodily tactics for protecting the illiberal ideology from what it correctly views as an existential threat.

But it is important to remember that the line between liberal and illiberal is not sharply or clearly drawn, and each liberal must use his own judgment to determine which enworldments to respect or even accept as collaborative partners, which to ignore, which to actively oppose as adversaries, and which to go to war with as true mortal enemies of liberalism. These boundaries are some of the most contentious controversies among agonistic adversaries. The cost of drawing them too hastily and too intolerantly is succumbing to illiberalism.  It is tempting to refuse to draw any lines at all, or automatically draw them as broadly as possible, and, in effect, to default to a tolerant acceptance of all views as valid, but this is a mistake. The risk cannot be avoided.

Liberal enworldments can flourish together; illiberal ones will dominate and suppress all others, liberal and illiberal, alike, often in the name of peace — a peace of utter dominance.

Hannah Arendt on who and what

Two quotes on who and what from Hannah Arendt:

No society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types. This necessary classification is the basis for all social discrimination, and discrimination, present opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, is no less a constituent element of the social realm than equality is a constituent element of the political. The point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is — as distinct from the question of who he is — which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless.

and

The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a “character” in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us. This frustration has the closest affinity with the well-known philosophic impossibility to arrive at a definition of man, all definitions being determinations or interpretations of what man is, of qualities, therefore, which he could possibly share with other living beings, whereas his specific difference would be found in a determination of what kind of a “who” he is.

 

 

My best voice

I believe I’m finding my best voice for this time. I have to say something, and I have to say it the right way.

A sample of this new voice, which I sent a friend of mine, explains why I need to speak up.

Who-respect vs what-respect

Respect is a universal need.

Everyone wants and needs respect.

We need self-respect, and we need respect from others. Many of us are too proudly individualistic to admit it that we need respect from others, but we absolutely need to be respected. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. It’s bad for everyone.

*

Some people have learned to view everything and everyone in terms of power, and this is unfortunate.

Seeing the world through the lens of power invites comparisons, confrontations, competitiveness, defensiveness. A powerful person threatens the power of another.

Respect is different. A respected, respectful person is no threat to anyone. A respectful person gives respect, wins respect and makes respect increase everywhere respect is exchanged.

People with healthy self-respect who are deeply respected by people around them are rarely ruthless power-seekers. But power-seekers often do disrespectful things to gain an advantage or defend a vulnerability, and are more often resented or feared rather than respected.

We are better off understanding each other as respect-seeking beings.

Seeing the world through the lens of respect-seeking makes us more respectful and more respectable.

*

The best kind of respect is who-respect: the respect for who we are as a person.

If we feel that we cannot be respected for who we are, we will seek what-respect: a respect for what category of person we think we are.

*

What-respect, however, cannot substitute for who-respect.

What-respect can alleviate social starvation, but not much more than that.

When our self-respect is mostly what-respect, and whatever respect we get from others is mostly what-respect, we cannot be satisfied with ourselves, with anyone we know or with the world. A diet of too much what-respect and too little who-respect leaves a soul irritable, anxious and resentful.

What-respect is empty calories for the soul.

*

The only thing worse than what-respect is what-disrespect, a withholding of all respect on the basis of what someone is said to be.

Sadly, what-disrespect functions like an appetite suppressant. If you are starving for respect and lose all hope that you will ever get it — or worse, if you have never experienced who-respect and are blind even to its possibility — disrespecting others can dull the pain and replace it with a hot rush of ecstasy. There is no nourishment in it, but at least you aren’t the only one starving, and it doesn’t feel nearly as bad.

*

Respect means caring what another person is seeing when they look back at you. Etymologically, it means back-look. When I look at you, I don’t only care what I see, I also care what you see looking back.

Respect is an empathic disposition to try to understand not only how you feel, or what you think, but also for why you think and feel what you do. It does not mean I have to uncritically accept everything you say. Respect is exchanged, and that means we must expect to have our thoughts and feelings respected. For some people an argument is one of the best opportunities to show respect.

*

When we meet someone for the first time, we start a delicate respect process.

No matter how much we regret the fact, a new person arrives packaged in whats. Some people try desperately to shut out these whats and whatever implications they carry for us. Many of us think this is the point where we battle our racism. We try to force ourselves to think all the right things and produce all the right gestures and we get all tight and tangled and calculated like an over-scripted politician. This is forced what-respect, and it interferes with the real goal: letting this new person be who they are. That won’t happen when you are too terrified to let them know who you are, because what you are trying to be is a good what. Just give up on the what, and ask questions until you can calm down enough to be who you are.

Even the kindest what-respect obstructs who-respect.

*

For heaven’s sake, don’t attempt to mirror the contempt you imagine this what you are attempting to think and do all the right things for. Seeking affirmation by producing what-disrespect is no way to exchange who-respect with another person.

And if this other person you are trying to know does seem to require you to what-disrespect yourself as a condition for approval, you are in a difficult situation. It is likely they are addicted to what-respect and what-disrespect and might know nothing else.

A moral genius might know how to summon up enough self-respecting humanity to overcome the dynamic. More of us will fuck it all up by giving them the self-denigration or self-abasement we think they want, or attempt to defend our own honor by confronting and insulting them, or if we are wise we get out of that situation and avoid further contact with them.

Nobody should ever demand anyone to compromise their self-respect.

*

There is lots more to say, but this hits the main points.

I’ve been looking for a better way to represent why I care so much about liberalism, and why I believe it must not continue to be confused with selfish individualism.

When I cast liberalism as about producing optimal conditions for who-respect I feel that I am getting very close to why it matters to me.

We can argue over what those conditions are. But before I will even have that argument with anyone, I first have to know they share my commitment to liberalism.

*

I don’t think I have said this even close to perfectly.

I am asking my best-spoken and most socially smart friends to rewrite whatever parts they think they can improve. If this turns out well, I might have to make a book.

OOO: why?

Wow, I’m two pages into Graham Harman’s Tool-Being, and I’m already exasperated with its uselessness. What could drive a person to embrace a philosophy whose focus is on precisely what is least relevant to human life? Yeah, yeah — the apeiron is radically mysterious — but wow, guys, what is fascinating and consequential about the hiddenness of material reality is how entities constantly emerge from it, seemingly ex nihilo, and form relationships with us, not the simple, blunt fact that infinitely more remains submerged in nothingness.

Like with the Mandelbrot Set, it’s’s the edge region that is most interesting. But OOO guys are interested only in the points in the M-Set that escape to infinity, because no matter high the values go, they can go even higher. “Dude, that’s a really big number. Pass me the bong.”

Object-oriented ontology should be called crypotonomenology. Where phenomenology brackets what is ultimately beyond our experience, in order to make clear sense of what is within our experience, OOO brackets everything within experience in order to savor how impossible it is to make sense of what is beyond our experience.

The politics of design

The biggest milestones in my design career as a designer have been changes in my attitude toward politics — that constant need to persuade other people, to overcome objections and obstacles, and to build alignment around decisions.

I’ll tidy this process up into a simple timeline:

  1. When I was first out of school, I resented politics: “I put a lot of effort into building my design judgment and skills, and you’ve hired me to apply them to solving this problem, so get out of my way and let me work.”
  2. This attitude evolved into a grudging acceptance of politics: “Politics suck but they are unavoidable, so deal with them, so you can do your job.”
  3. But slowly I began to see that design is largely political: “Politics are an uncomfortable but necessary aspect of design that are best mitigated through human-centered practices.”
  4. Now I see the most important part of my job as political: “Human-centered design is a massive opportunity to democratize the workplace.”

In an effort to work the democratic spirit into how teams work together, I’ve been working on a Design Collaborator’s Bill of Rights. Like all documents of this kind, they anticipate the need to assert rights when they are infringed. As I am usually in the role of team lead, this means I am the most likely to do that infringing. So, this is the document I am giving to my teams, in the case that I step on their toes and fail to lead the way I aspire to. Here is the list as it stands today:

  • The right to a brief: every team member has the right to request a clearly framed problem to solve autonomously (as opposed a specification to execute).
  • The right to clarity: every team member can request a detailed explanation for any aspect of the project, and keep requesting elucidation until the matter is completely understood.
  • The right to argue: every team member can dissent or raise concerns with decisions, and expect to have the concerns addressed.
  • The right to propose alternatives: every team member is free to conceive and communicate different approaches to solving problems.
  • The right to be heard: every team member’s voice will be actively welcomed in discussions, meaning that opportunities to enter the conversation will be offered and space to communicate without interruption will be protected.
  • The right to be fully understood: every team member can expect active listening from teammates, which means they will be heard out and interpreted until full comprehension is accomplished.
  • The right to have pre-articulate intuitions: every team member can expect to have pure (pre-articulate) intuitions respected as valid, and to be assisted in giving the intuition explicit, articulate form.
  • The right to learn: no team member is expected to have perfect knowledge, judgment, grace or foresight, as long as imperfections are detected, acknowledged and used for learning, growth and improvement.

In the spirit of democracy, I’ll now turn it over to you. How would you change this list? What would you change? What would you add? What would you remove?

Useful usable desirable

My next book, Philosophy of Design of Philosophy, is still forming in my head. I know what I want to convey, but the conceptual ingredients are evolving. Some new ingredients I’m entertaining are liminality, conceptual integrity and multistability. These new concepts will help me simplify my system and link my thinking to other bodies of work. But incorporating them requires some demolition and reconstruction work. I am also struggling with some perplexities regarding the precise relationship between engineering and design, a heavily contested, linguistically and conceptually confused strip of turf — a true liminal zone. Consequently, I am finding it hard to write short pieces, and I am abandoning most posts I start, because they immediately diverge and get out of control.

What I plan to write about is already a reality for me, and has been for some time: the subject of the book is my praxis, which I use not only in my professional design work, but also in my private practical and theoretical life. My friend Tim joked that I am a design-centered human, and that is entirely accurate. I have come to see everything in terms of design, including philosophy.

Yesterday I interviewed design research legend Liz Sanders on her useful-usable-desirable framework. I am planning to extract the content of the interview into a second letterpressed chapbook, honoring the core concept of human-centered design. Pending Liz’s approval, I plan to call it just Useful / Usable / Desirable.

This framework is profoundly important to me. It was through this framework that design took over my entire life.

At some point, which I can no longer remember, I caught myself thinking about philosophy in a new way, which I never consciously chose.

I was reading, and I suddenly realized I was evaluating what I was understanding in terms of its usefulness, usability and desirability. And I realized I had detected an unconscious habit I’d acquired long ago.

I want to clarify something. I was not evaluating the form, expression or presentation of the ideas (though these are also subject to the same criteria) — I was evaluating the effect of understanding the philosophy. And when it comes to philosophy, understanding does not primarily mean being able to explain the concepts. In philosophy, understanding means being able to enter the conceptual system and to understand from it. Philosophical understanding is an act of intellectual empathy.

I found myself asking: When I enter this philosophy and understand from it — when I view a philosophical worldview instrumentally and assess it as something that can be adopted, lived from and used I ask: Is it useful? Do I become better equipped to make sense of what is happening around me so I can respond more effectively? Is it usable? Does it make it easier to get clear on what is most relevant, and does this sense of relevance help me avoid becoming confused or overwhelmed or cause me to make mistakes? Is it desirable? What does it do to my overall sense of meaning? Does life seem valuable and worth the effort? Or does it make life seem ominous and dark, or worse, empty, pointless and not worth working to improve?

So, Liz’s framework is very likely to be the backbone of my next book. The useful/usable/desirable framework will not only provide a framework for evaluating and generating philosophical worldviews, but will also serve as an exemplar of a successfully designed philosophical worldview.

Foregrounds and backgrounds

I am looking in my anomawiki for a quote from Nietzsche about foreground and background philosophies. I am digging through one of the themes I’ve catalogued, “depth“, and noticing — somehow for the first time! — how many of these quotes involve water, and specifically cold water. Reading Nietzsche I slowly discovered a symbolic language — or did I invent it? — It is probably best to say that in experimental interaction with his corpus, I instaurated a certain symbolic language that invests Nietzschean passages with multiple layers of powerfully direct intuitive meaning. (These meanings have been so intense that at the peak of my early Nietzschean encounter, I sometimes got butterflies in my stomach in the evening anticipating waking up the next morning and reading him.) I’ve learned to interpret water as a symbol of chaos, not only in Nietzsche, but also in Jewish scripture, which is why my Hebrew name is Nachshon. Coldness is another symbol, signifying betrayal. Nietzsche speaks often of coldness at the depths and heights. When we immerse in chaos, when we undergo the deepest, most trophonian perplexities, we often find that our own value hierarchies get loosened and shaken up. And when we ascend so far that we can survey a more expansive whole, this can also effect an inner political shift. The valley is temperate and more stable, but Nietzsche’s preferred valleys were near cold lakes and icy peaks, to remind us of our tragic situation between beneath and beyond.

I did not mean to write this much about Nietzsche.

*

Here is the quote I was looking for:

The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he [the philosopher] came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

This passage implies that a person can always dig beneath and undermine his own philosophy if he chooses, and raises the question: why don’t we keep digging forever? What are the “stopping conditions”, to put it in wicked problem terms?

My own suspicious stopping point — (and yes, you should ask “why here?”) — is a metaphysics of radical surprise. Due to the relationship between truth and reality, truth is pluralism which “goes all the way down”, that reality is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Truth is the attempt of each center to make sense of the whole — a whole which is constituted entirely of centers. No center can embrace this infinite whole, so we radiate our being outward into the other centers, and they in turn radiate back. The interwoven radiating centers congeal into real situations and overlapping approximate truths, most of which have some validity, and all of which contain significant blindness toward what others know, and which necessarily make tradeoffs, only some of which we are aware. From time to time we are shocked out of our wits by the irruption of some reality for which we are unprepared, and often we have no idea how to make sense of it, unless we actively make that sense. This making of new sense is philosophy.

Some of us even go looking for shocks. We especially seek them when we are dissatisfied. And especially once we learn how easily apparently stable, unquestionable truths can be undermined, and once we learn to handle some of the unpleasant hazards of undermining and gain confidence in our ability to make new sense where we’ve loosened up and broken down old sense, undermining becomes a tool for overcoming some of life’s occasional horrors. In other words we are free to design philosophies that support a life we want. Like all design, philosophy functions in real contexts, must make optimal tradeoffs to meet requirements while respecting constraints, and they will succeed and fail in different ways to different degrees.

My background philosophy tells me that we can and should design our philosophies using all the best practices of human centered design. This is the best we can possibly do. The closest a human being can get to truth is to believe ideas that work well, meaning they help us do what we need to do, they prevent us from feeling perplexed, or getting confused or making mistakes, and they help us feel the value of our lives. (These, by the way are the criteria for good design laid down by Liz Sanders in the most influential paper no designer knows about.) None of these philosophies should be expected to hold up in every possible context and withstand every criticism, and if that becomes our primary goal, it is certain that this all-encompassing generality and well-armed defensibility will demand tradeoffs that will harm a person’s quality of life in innumerable ways. This deeper philosophy is pragmatist through and through, and draws on many strands of pragmatist thought including Actor-Network Theory. I call it design instrumentalism. It is never far from chaos, and dips in and out of perplexity as a matter of method. I can only handle it in small doses. As I was reminded this morning, Nietzsche said “I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out.

My foreground philosophy is what I designed for myself as my everyday conceptual models to shape and guide my understandings. I crystalized them in image and word in Geometric Meditations. The ideas might seem profound, but that is because of their careful design: this philosophy was designed to maintain value-stability ‘warmth” at depths of thought where a soul risks coming apart. That is not to say I do not believe them wholeheartedly, because I do, but I believe them with wholehearted irony, meaning that I see them as some among many ways to make sense. The conceptual models in Geometric meditations function as an interface I intentionally designed to shield me from the instability and complexity of design instrumentalism.

I am sure this has made sense to nobody, but I needed to think it through.

ANT, Postphenomenology and their mutant child, OOO

It seems obvious to me that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Postphenomenology are complementary lenses for understanding social situations.

ANT gives us the network viewed “objectively” outside-in, and Postphenomenology helps us understand inside-out how the nodes interpret inputs from the network and translate them into outputs.

An ANT practitioner will be the first to tell you that ANT is just one way an actor (a theorist) can interpret and translate the network into a coherent explanatory account — but one that mostly blackboxes how that network is experienced at any one point. The ANT account is one of many multistable descriptions that can be given.

A Postphenomenologist brackets the network in order to understand how certain nodes in the network interpret other nodes before acting within the network, on the network, thereby changing it.

ANT and Postphenomenology are each the everted perspective of the other. Each methodically excludes what the other describes, through blackboxing or bracketing, respectively. A cultural anthropologist might say ANT attempts a rigorously etic view of the actor-network, and Postphenomenology is the emic view of the actor-nodes within it.

To make a chaos theory analogy, ANT gives us a Mandelbrot Set view of a region of the complex plane, and Postphenomenology gives us Julia Sets of selected points within the region.

OOO is a peculiar cross-breeding of the two that focuses precisely on the actor-nodes in the network that resist emic understanding, and then marvels at the fact that they must have some sort of emicity that neither we (nor any other object) can get at. They seem to me to be a mystical branch of Process philosophy, given to authoring fanciful philosophical midrash where both physical and social sciences  fail.

To extend the chaos theory analogy, OOO enjoys boggling at how densely the points belonging to the Mandelbrot Set saturate the band of points along its psychedelically-enflamed perimeter, and at the impenetrable blankness of each and every one of them.

Right?

No?

Faith and belief-production

On Facebook Leafy said “My friend and I have been asking ourselves WHY people have so much contempt now for experts. … Stephen’s contribution is: Americans still fundamentally live in a culture informed by a team spirit that pits Science against Christianity, as if these things were part of the same sport. Even though many claim not to believe in God, we still tend to thus address all knowledge through the lens of authoritarianism, dogma, and faith. Since the development of the scientific method, modern science has always recognized that knowledge is a work in process, and that part of the Great Work is to prove ourselves wrong. But most Americans nevertheless now apprehend Science as substitute for Christianity, and blame it as if it were a bad religion with evil priests when it doesn’t immediately have all the right answers.”

I felt a need to clarify:

My point was that America still lives with unconscious habits of thought that form its beliefs, and that this is true not only for the right, but also for the left.
 
If your faith-habits lead you to reject explicit belief in, say, original sin, in invisible demonic forces, in metaphysical moralism, in the future coming of a kingdom of god, in a conversion that makes the scales fall from your eyes (so you can experience the true Truth), that the beliefs you claim are true change your moral status, etc., etc. etc., if your faith-habits remain the same as before, you’ll just trade out one believed-in entity for another, and they’ll perform very similar functions. The more ideologically-driven a person is the more conspicuous this becomes.
 
To root out not only the beliefs but the belief-producing faiths, you have have to examine the what, how and why of your thinking, iteratively design and try on new concepts and methods of thinking until something starts making new sense of our experience — and then the hard work starts of gradually rebuilding our habits around this new kind of conceiving, perceiving, thinking and responding. This is a much more arduous process than having a brilliant flash of insight into the true Truth that either wokes you or red-pills you, and knocks you right off your horse.
 
But our faith leads us to anticipate some great eureka that delivers us to righteousness. So if we happen to hear something that gives us a minute of conceptual coherence, we interpret it as finally seeing the light. Nope, it’s just the effect of ideological coherence when you’re not accustomed to it. Many other worldviews/lifeworlds are possible. And I promise, most of those many others will actually work better than the kind that bowls folks over who don’t think much about their thinking.
And then I added the following, because I just cannot resist beating two of my deadest horses 1) fundamentalism-is-a counterfeit-religion, and 2) scientistic-belief-is-a-form-of-fundamentalism:

…And further, [when someone rejects beliefs without rejecting the faith that produces and sustains them] because only the what of the belief has changed but the how of the believing is left untouched, most folks who “believe in science” do so in the same manner as those who “believe in Jesus”. In other words, they are scientistic, not scientific.

But to clarify, I do not consider scientistic thinking to be an infection of science with religious thinking. Believing in this manner ruins religious practice at least as much. “Believing in Jesus” with a faith that thinks that certain facts we can hold in our heads are like golden tickets that get you into the heavenly chocolate factory — that’s ideology, not religion. And the only thing it has to do with religion is that it body-snatches and reanimate religious symbols. It is a horrible shame that people equate fundamentalism with religion. Fundamentalism and religion couldn’t be more different.

Balking at the threshold

An idea I have repeated too much: We resist deep change, not because we love the old or hate the new, but because of the intolerable span of dread that separates the old from the new.

At the threshold of deep change, in the face of something so new that it requires a preliminary forgetting of the old before true understanding is possible, a soul will sometimes balk. What can this balking look like?

  • Allowing the message to be interrupted before it is complete
  • Avoidance or distraction, switching focus away from the message
  • Interpretation of the threshold anxiety as evidence of a real threat
  • Questioning motives of the messenger, or otherwise nullifying the validity of the message ad hominem
  • Investigating the causes of the message, rather than receiving its content
  • Subjecting the message to formal analysis before listening to its content
  • Creating conflict, and destroying the conditions for understanding
  • Attempting to silence the messenger
  • Ridiculing the message or the messenger
  • Postponement of hearing the message to a more suitable time
  • Repeating the old truth in place of hearing the new message
  • Asserting personal incapacity to understand the message
  • Accusing the new message of having no coherent meaning to understand
  • Shoehorning the new message into old frameworks, rendering the message incomprehensible
  • Reducing the new message to existing old ones and blurring and denying essential distinctions
  • Assuming a superior spiritual status, rendering this and all messages pointless
  • Dominating the conversation; interrogating instead of listening
  • Shifting focus from content of message to the form of the message (for instance critiquing it as rhetoric)
  • Deflection; treating the message as something to be heard by someone else
  • Assessing the effort required to understand as a bad investment of time and effort
  • Performing active listening, while not listening
  • Letting the messenger talk, but not allowing message to penetrate; moving to the next topic before understanding has occurred
  • Jumping to associated ideas before understanding happens
  • Exalting the form of the message itself as a counterfeit for understanding
  • Adoring the messenger in place of understanding the message
  • Hating the messenger in place of understanding the message
  • Flattering the messenger in place of understanding the message
  • Interpreting the message as non-comprehensible magical incantation
  • Experiencing the message aesthetically instead of understanding
  • Listening to the message but deferring understanding until later

In many myths (including the Easter myth, which is on my mind because today happens to be Easter) an uncanny zone (of time or space or state) separating the old and the new. Traversing that zone is requires considerable skill and (as Joseph Campbell pointed out) often spiritual assistance.

*

Incidentally, speaking of Easter — which for Christians marks the passing of an old dead faith and the rising of a new living one — this morning I am reading an interesting paper by Bruno Latour, where he relates an amusing Babel-like story:

Jesuits who had settled in China in the XVIIth century, write to Rome complaining about the fact that, under pressure from the Dominican friars, they are obliged to utter the formula of the consecration in Latin. In effect, when the priest says: ’’Hoc est enim corpus meus,” it presents to the ear of a Chinese : “Hocu ye-su-tu ye-nim co-lo-pu-su- me-um,” which, if the Jesuits did not provide a French translation of what the unfortunate Chinese hear at the moment of the transsubstantiation, could pass for a fairly good approximation, give or take a few consonants, of : “emanation, ancient, lord, office, rule, handsome, rest, each, road, flee, thing, meditate, greening, meadows”.

I am imagining a short story where the Chinese receive this string of words as a magical incantation — a Latour liturgy — a rite around which a new religious faith revolves. The rite and its commentary is recorded in a Chinese Newer Testament which relates the miraculous story of a series of wild historical accidents that generated the string of Holy Words, despite the conceits of silly Hebrews and Europeans who thought they understood the meanings, but which were only preparations for something far greater:

Emanation, Ancient Lord!
Office rule handsome!
Rest each road.
Flee thing — meditate!
Greening meadows.

Amen