Category Archives: Philosophy

Philosophical arrogance

Philosophy is a seriously annoying pursuit. You put in many hours every day for years on end to understand things more comprehensively and clearly. And after you’ve done this work, and have developed an understanding that’s a clear and comprehensive enough to be worth sharing, those you’d like to share it with see it as arrogant that you might think your understanding is any clearer or comprehensive than the one they’ve casually picked up and adopted, and never given much thought to.

Whine, whine, whine.

Conceiving inconceivability

Any form of participation in a whole experienced solely from within (in which the participant participates as a part) of which we have only partial knowledge is, in itself inconceivable. Withinness topologically thwarts comprehension.

We cannot conceive the whole, but we can conceive the fact that we are participants in it, and we can conceive many characteristics of our participation. For instance, we can conceive things we might do or think or feel in response to our immediate encounter with fellow participants or parts within the whole. We can conceive that the whole exists, that we are situated within it, that it environs us, and we can understand how we participate in that whole as a part of it, even if we do not comprehend the whole in the conceptual way we comprehend objects in our environment or other kinds of things we can wrap our minds around.

We might even try to map what we are able to conceive from within and try to make what we are within conceivable.

For instance, if we are trapped in a labyrinth, we might draw a maze map that represents, from the outside, the space we are inside, so we can better comprehend it as a whole instead of as a connected series of situations. We transpose the multiple interior positions to a single exterior form. We evert it, and what remains inside now views an exterior representation of its situation and mentally re-situates itself outside.

We might even get so absorbed in the maze  that we forgets that it we still located in some space within the labyrinth and not on some dot marked on the maze, in the same way as we forget that our brain is something known by the mind, not the other way around.

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The first all-consuming perplexity I experienced reading Nietzsche resolved in an image of a mandala.

At the zenith of the mandala was a point I labeled “Solipse”. At the nadir was another point labeled “Eclipse”.

Next to Solipse I wrote “World-in-me” and drew a little circle with a dot at its center, with a caption “Ptolemy”.

Next to Eclipse I wrote “I-in-world” and drew another little circle with a dot on the periphery with a caption “Copernicus”.

In solipse, brains are found inside minds, along with every known thing. In eclipse, minds are produced from brains which exist at points in space.

This was the origin of my topological sense of understanding.

The perpendicular points between solipse and eclipse marked inflections between these two everted ways to situate self and world, moments where both situations become conceivable, perhaps together in ambinity, and for a time neither fully dominates, but co-exist in all-everting multistability.

From these two points we can see most clearly how the inside of an oyster shell is an everted pearl, Pandora’s box is everted Paradise, and Eden is the everted fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Here we can conceive both ultimate eversions simultaneously. We can use maps without forgetting where that map really is, but also move around in space and allow maps to deepen our understanding of our situation. Our minds are improved with knowledge of brains, but our knowledge of brains is improved knowing that all knowledge is mind-product.

Much later, moving along this wheel, at one of these ambinity points where inside and outside exist within one another, I intuited a beyondness of both, a ground of soliptic-ecliptic eversion that is both and neither. From that point on, I was religious.

*

At the beit din before I went into the mikvah a rabbi interrupted me in the middle of an answer to one of their questions, and asked “Do you even really believe in God?” I said, “Yes; but in a way that is extremely difficult to explain.” She said “Very Jewish. Fair enough.” Fifteen minutes later I emerged from the mikvah a Jew with a new Hebrew name, Nachshon, after the general of the tribe of Judah who, according to legend, waded into the chaotic turbulence of the Red Sea all the way up to his nostrils, just before Moses split the waters into two halves, permitting passage from one shore to the other. Adonai eloheinu; Adonai echad.

*

I need to think carefully how I might use the word “participate” in my topological conceptive vocabulary, which, as I mentioned yesterday, is built around con-capere words.

Participate shares the same root as concept, conception, conceive: capere “take”

part- “part” + –capere “take” – to part-take.

con- “together” + -capere “take” – to together-take.

 

 

Conceptive vocabulary

I am designing a vocabulary for discussing how understanding works, with special emphasis on the relationship between existing understandings, failures of understanding, (also known as perplexities), and extremely novel understandings (also known as epiphanies).

All my subjects of interest — design, philosophy and religion — are urgently concerned with epiphanies. But each is concerned with epiphanies for different reasons, pays attention to different aspects of epiphanies and consequently uses different language to talk about epiphanies.

Of course these are three vast subjects each filled with diverse and conflicting views and goals, but they do have common family resemblances, and I will venture to make some generalizations about the role epiphanies play in each, to show what I, personally, have taken from my encounters.

In design, there are two places where epiphanies occur, first, in the effort to understand the people for whom we design and how this helps us conceive our design problem, and, second, in determining a solution to the design problem. Often the social nature of design is both the source of trouble, but also the impetus required to reach novel ways of seeing. A concept capable of synthesizing complicated, heterogeneous data and considerations into a single elegant unity capable of being understandable, inspiring and useful to a large number of collaborators — while still doing full justice to the reality being conceptualized — is beyond the capacity of any one mind, who will almost always trade off certain important consideration in the effort to resolve the problem. But all minds looking in their own partial and particular way will check the hasty trade-offs of individuals and force effort along channels nobody would ever go if working alone – to the dismay of all involved, but to the benefit of the solution that is eventually conceived. Epiphanies in design research are usually called insights and epiphanies in solution development are called innovations. And for designers, the emphasis is usually on what techniques can be used to get the deepest insights to produce the most “impactful” and differentiating innovations, less on the particular solution (which is more a proof-point of the method’s and/or practitioner’s  effectiveness) or on the theory of what an epiphany is, or how it happens or what it is like to make it happen). Intellectual designers are most often methods geeks.

In philosophy (or at least the variety I read which tends to sit in the region between existentialism and pragmatism) is absorbed in its thought content. It struggles with assertions, arguments, metaphors, definitions, logic and struggles to resolve whatever is bothering it. In this strenuous effort, philosophers occasionally have exciting breakthroughs that allow them to rethink these assertions, arguments, metaphors, definitions and logic — or to find new ways to defend their old ones against those seeking to rethink them. Usually, the emphasis leans strongly toward the objects of thought, not the subject having the thought, so most epiphanies are characterized as new concepts or fruitful new approaches to thinking about concepts. But unlike design, there is nearly no emphasis on methods. Philosophy specifically scents out places where effective methods either break down or have never existed. Wittgenstein said it best: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about'”, that is, in perplexities. Finding that way about – making a perplexity intelligible – often arrives in an epiphany. This is the part of philosophy so indispensable to understanding epiphanies: they are reliably found in the urgent struggle with perplexing content. But if a philosopher is transformed in the struggle with perplexity or in the epiphany that resolves it, this in normally excluded from the philosophy itself, unless the philosopher is some weirdo outlier like Nietzsche.

Finally, we have religion. I won’t even try to generalize about religion, because it is entirely about effecting personal transformations, using ideas and myriad other symbolic forms, that in turn effect transformations of how religion is conceived. But these transformations are brought about through epiphanies of varying depths. The deepest epiphanies are called various things in different traditions — metanoia, nibbana, enlightenment, satori, liberation, rebirth, etc. — and fundamentally change our relationship with the infinite ground of being in ways all agree are impossible to talk about in straightforward terms. So with religion, epiphanies make use of and produce ideas, and also use techniques that induce epiphanies, but the real purpose of it all is self-transformation.

All three of these epiphanic subjects bring something important to the understanding of the general phenomenon of epiphanies. Design brings an understanding of methods and conditions useful for generating epiphanies, and specifically ones that appeal to a range of people. It also, for those alert to it, provides first-hand experience with social situations where an epiphany is urgently needed but remains inconceivable until the moment it arrives. Philosophy shows how struggling with perplexing material is fertile ground for inducing epiphanies. Religion brings the subject of epiphany into the picture, showing how epiphanies and self-transformation go together and enable new and inconceivable kinds of understanding as well as new experiences of the world and new relationships with what transcends our understanding.

Once I put together these pieces and saw them all as facets of the same phenomenon, I began to notice their features in one another.

In design, those conditions that produce epiphanies are also the ones that induce perplexities. The perplexities are hidden or downplayed by people who want to market design as an inspiring creative activity, and sometimes it is even techniqued out of existence, using mechanical processes that yield very defensible but very uninspiring facts about users, or which use careful organization of features and content as compensation for a unifying concept. But the most inspired design is simple and radical, and this inevitably involves navigating perplexity with the antimethods of philosophy. And people are transformed by this process when it is done successfully, both individually and as groups.

With philosophy, design provides interesting insights into how philosophy pervades everyday life and might improve it at the level of how we think. Watching teams struggle to make sense of a practical perplexity until an epiphany delivers a way to think and “move around” in the problem, and watching how team members clash and “storm” until an epiphany allows them to “norm” around a common understanding of the problem, so they can then collaboratively “perform” raises the epic question of whether many other irresolvable problems aren’t really undiagnosed philosophical problems. Religion’s self-reflective focus contributes to philosophy by asking questions about how the condition of one’s subjectivity contributes to what material is unintelligible, and whether the epiphanies of philosophy don’t operate on the subject as well as on the understanding of the material. It certainly does seem to be the case, if one is open to it, that a philosophical epiphany does enable a subject to conceive and perceive new truths in reality.

Finally, with religion, both design and philosophy supply mundane examples of epiphany and conversion experiences that challenge some of the traditional imagery associated with religion that are off-putting to many secular modern people. We get a chance to see minor world transfiguration, death-and-rebirths, dark nights of the soul, we even get to hold hands and walk on top of chaos without sinking and drowning in it. These experiences provide new access to religious modes of understanding, without flattening, disenchanting or diminishing what makes religion so important to so many people by reducing it to merely sociological, psychological, aesthetic, ethical or political terms. Instead it expands the other fields and invests them with some of the sacred dignity of religion.

*

So, believe it or not, all that was background for what I really want to discuss, which, if you can remember back to the beginning, concerns the design of a vocabulary that can be used 1) to bring out these features of epiphany, perplexity and  everyday relatively untroubled understanding across all three domains equally well, 2) in a way that emphasizes their commonality over their differences and, hopefully, 3) enriches the sense of what’s going on with epiphany, perplexity and understanding in each of them. I can attest that it has for me, but this is my baby, and I’ve been told more than once that my baby looks far prettier to me than to others.

So the vocabulary is built around a simple subject, verb, object sentence: Conceptions conceive concepts.

Concept designates any particular way of taking-together of anything as a unity.

Conceiving designates an act of taking-together as a unity.

Conception designates a subjective capacity to take-together in some particular way.

It’s exactly the same relationship between any faculty, the use of the faculty and its object. Sight sees object. Without sight, there is no seeing visible objects even if they are there for others to see. Hearing hears sounds. Without a sense of hearing, no sound is heard even if a sound is there for others to hear. Without the appropriate conception, a concept is not conceived, even if it is there for others to conceive.

What makes conceptions fascinating is that they can be acquired, where sensory faculties cannot. Nobody has ever made a blind man see, but people have helped people without a particular key conception acquire it, enabling them to conceive what was inconceivable, which is experienced a lot like being blind but suddenly living in a world of sights. New conceptions make new realities appear from nothingness, ex nihilo.

All these words are based on the same root words. Con- together + -capere ‘take’. We could say a together-takability takes-together together-takings, but that would definitely earn me postmortem exile to whatever infernal ring of hell Heidegger is broiling in, and I’d hate to have to listen to that blowhard antisemite eternally trying, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, each time more opaquely than the last, to match the brilliance of Being and Time. “Conceptions conceive concepts” already has me on the watch list, and I’ll be lucky to clear purgatory within a billion years.

The big question is whether we need this word “conception”. What is it for? Why can’t we do without it. My short answer is that when we try to do without it, we end up using it anyway but in sneakier, less graceful forms.

Let’s run through how the language is used:

When we encounter something we do not understand, this is because we can’t conceptualize it. It is a jumble of elements without form. It is chaos. Usually, we just filter chaos out as noise, nonsense or something for someone else to deal with. We do this all the time, and we’re used to doing it. We don’t understand but it’s irrelevant.

Sometimes the right concept is just elusive, and if we give the matter a little thought we figure it out. We try understanding a few ways (that is we try some concepts that seem applicable) and then it comes to us what is going on. The concept was there in our heads and was lurking in the problem, we just didn’t match it up quickly. In some intuitive way we sensed we had what it took to make sense of it. Both the problem and the solution were conceivable. Other times the problem is just complex and requires coordinated use of concepts. We tinker, piece together the solution, then see a concept in the whole that unites the concepts into a clear, coherent system. We built up to the concept bit by bit, then recognize a concept in the form of the whole. Or sometimes someone explains the situation or makes an analogy that brings the right concept to mind and they show us the answer. None of these situations are ones where this vocabulary is terribly useful. These are conventional ah-ha moments.

But sometimes we are faced with something we don’t understand, and we cannot avoid trying to understand it. It might be something that’s gotten under our skin, and we don’t know what to do with it. Or external circumstances might force it upon us. We have to make sense of it, but there is no sense to make. We struggle and struggle, fruitlessly. We try out every angle we know, every problem-solving move in our repertoire, but nothing works. We still can’t even say what the problem is, much less make progress solving the unintelligible the mess we are facing. We’re banging our head against an unyielding wall. This is a perplexity. We get desperate, and experiment more and more wildly, grope in the dark, thrash about. We obsess, and turn the problematic aspects and salient features of the perplexity about in our heads and see if they form any kind of constellation.

What is going on here, in my parlance, is that we lack a conception that makes the problem conceivable and conducive to conceptualization (that is . Why don’t we just say we lack the concept needed to conceive the problem and solution? We could, but what if what is perplexing us is a concept? What if we are wrestling with a concept that someone we trust  told us makes perfect sense, but we’re at a total loss to understand it ourselves? We lack a concept to understand the concept?

Then you might ask whether we might use the word understanding, instead. We lack the understanding of the concept. But then, if we lack  understanding of a perplexity, doesn’t this mean we lack an understood concept to use to resolve the perplexity and render it intelligible?

My language works far better. A conception is what is lacking — a conceptive capacity to conceive — to abstract an intelligible concept from the chaotic content which permits that content to be comprehended conceptually.

And that same conception is at work when the epiphany regarding the perplexity also conceives the concept in many other places, sometimes in forms that are not immediately recognizably the same. The truths just appear from nowhere. If we do recognize the same concept at work we might show it by making an analogy. This analogy will make sense to anyone who has the conception, and will be perplexing to anyone who lacks it. They’ll literally have no conception, and it will be inconceivable how the two examples are analogous.

Again we can say someone who understands the concept, can “get” the analogy, but all you’re doing now is smuggling a more ungainly synonym for conception back into the formula. You haven’t gotten by with a different structure, you’ve just swapped words (and in my opinion, downgraded them) without gaining anything. “An analogy makes sense to anyone who understands the concept, but will perplex anyone who does not.” There is always a capacity to conceive, understand, whatever, and where the capacity is lacking, the conception or understanding fails to happen.

I’m also going to develop this notion of conception, conceiving and concepts into a redescription of subjectivity and objectivity.

I’m going to treat understanding a subject as developing a capacity to conceive objectivity in a particular way. And I’m going to point out that this is as true for a personal subject as an academic subject. If I understand my wife, Susan, that means that I can conceive the way she conceives and be able to construe the objective truth she will see in most situations. Likewise, if I understand calculus, I learn to conceive a domain of math problems and to understand  how it makes objective sense of the world in one particular way. In a situation calling for calculus, I’ll see the applications for using calculus concepts even before I’m consciously remembering formulas.

But all too often we confuse our own objective truths pertaining to Susan’s subjectivity, generating all kinds of metadata about what she does and says, or what her motivations might be, or monitoring her brain activity and claiming this is understanding her. This definitely produces some kinds of truth, but it is not understanding Susan.* We are trying to form concepts referring to Susan’s mind, when we need to be adopting conceptions with which we can conceive the conceptual world Susan inhabits, enabling us to redescribe things as she does, and to perform actions she will perceive as wonderful.

All this is what people very crudely indicate when they talk about empathy, but what they end up focusing on is trying to figure out what feelings the other person is probably having and then having their own feelings about those feelings, because feelings are subjective. It’s hopelessly misconceived, and I plan to set things right.

We’re always concept-mongering when we ought to be figuring out and adopting conceptions, and we rely too heavily on the conceptions we already have, even when there are clear signs they are inadequate.

Speaking of inadequate conceptions, I’m starting to crap out after almost 12 hours of writing, so I’ll stop now.

 


  • By the way, speaking of understandings about things, my knowledge of chaos theory is a great example of understanding things about a subject, without understanding the subject. Thanks to James Gleick, I know about the history of chaos theory and some of its heroes, and I have a smattering of knowledge from the field, but I am not even close to understanding chaos theory as a subject. I’d also argue most Nietzsche scholars only understand things about Nietzsche and things he wrote from the conceptions of other philosophies, but have not even once conceived and experienced the world from the conceptions of his philosophy.

Ideological conversion versus metanoia

Susan just read the latest rewrite of  the introduction of my book, and made a remarkable observation about ideologies. Her response was to this passage:

Unfortunately, the progress I made understanding texts with obscure meanings was gained at the expense of the understandability of my own thoughts, which were becoming obscure and poetic. I found that my most significant insights, the ones most central to the metanoia, were almost impossible to speak about directly and explicitly. They were expressed most naturally in practical responses to concrete problems, in how I framed problems and how I thought them through. If I tried to talk about these insights directly, I was at a loss for words and was forced to resort to analogies or images. Whatever it was that I had learned from Nietzsche, it was not primarily new thought content, but something else that took years to pin down with language.

Susan pointed out that where my metanoia experience opened me up to new insights that I could not directly express with language, the people she knows who have experienced ideological conversions seem to undergo precisely the opposite: they are given language to account for their (mostly negative) experiences and these accounts close them to new insights.

Types of rigor

Design research is tormented by rigor anxiety. There is a sense that design research is a bastard child of the social sciences; that what we do is a sloppy approximation of what anthropologists, behavioral scientists, social or cognitive psychologists do correctly. We feel that maybe because we must work so rapidly or with limited resources, we sort of do things a slightly wrong way. Or maybe our design educations omitted some technical know-how or esoteric theoretical knowledge that real social scientists have.

This anxiety is compounded by a phobia of bias and a fetishization of anti-bias techniques purported to neutralize or counter-balance these biases. Scientific techniques are understood to be our best hope for undoing these subjective biases that distort objectivity, by selectively noticing, ignoring and twisting what we think we perceive to play nice with our own preconceptions, preferences and cognitive predispositions.

I’d like to challenge this view — or at least the social-scientistic remedy part — and to point out that  differences in purpose, funding and  form of output make academic social science and design research as different as they are alike, and that each genre of research achieves rigor in its own way.

I’m already getting bored with this post, so I’ll make it really damn quick.

Most academic social science work is done with the goal of contributing new knowledge to the field. The work’s ultimate form of output is a paper published in some kind of juried academic journal. The key success indicator is how many other social scientists find the paper valuable enough that they cite it in their published papers. But in order for any of this to happen, the knowledge must be defensible, if not unassailable. Otherwise, the paper is less likely to be selected and published. If it is published, it will meet even more challenges, as other academics test it and attempt to discredit it with their own critiques or research. It is a high-stakes game, and the game is played in single-shots. An academic must be rigorous to make the work stand, and also to show that the work deserves attention, so it makes a lot of sense to take time, do everything possible to remove doubts,  uncertainties and soft spots vulnerable to attack.

Let’s call this kind of rigor “single-shot rigor”.

Designers on the other hand, are often forced to show results days into their research. Stakeholder are impatient to see progress and evidence that the work will produce value. Others in the organization clamor to get something useful as early as possible. Directional truth is sometimes very useful, especially when an organization’s general direction is in question. For design researchers, usefulness is most important, and unassailability is valuable only to the point where the research will be assailed at that particular point in its lifestyle. But that point is not single-shot. There will be more points, not only in the research, but also in whatever work the research informs. Everything is, as designers say, “wet clay”, moldable and adaptable, open to further learning as it is applied. (To extend this clay analogy, academic social sciences fire their work in the kiln of publication, and if it is pressed too far, it shatters.) Only when the final product is released, and this is true only for some kinds of products (like material products), most stay pliable after release (like software and services).

But also, because design research is fast and relatively cheap, it can be done iteratively, with each cycle informing different stages of the design’s development, each building on and stress-testing the previous iterations. This means that any misunderstanding or oversight in one cycle of research will be discovered in a future cycle. For instance, if a need of a user or customer is misinterpreted during foundational research (research used to help teams understand the people and contexts where a design intervention might be useful), when the insights from  foundational research are applied in the design of generative research (research used to produce innovative concepts for design interventions) or evaluative research (research used to assess the usefulness and desirability of design interventions) omissions and misconceptions will be brought to light. Through successive cycles of learning and application, each cycle slightly less open-ended and formally exact than the last, the research gets more and more complete, specific and certain.

So, let’s call design research’s rigor “iterative rigor”.

Given infinite time and resources, perhaps one-shot rigor could have some value of a certain kind, but that time and those resources might be more wisely used adding more iterations. But also — especially in early stages of design research where research is used to inspire intuitive leaps into unknown possibilities — premature rigor can introduce trade-offs against innovation by closing off  the intuitive hunches, reckless speculation and informed imagination that make it possible.  Here, trading off possible opportunities for certainty is unwise.

 

Attitudes toward otherness

Susan and I worked out a schema of attitudes toward otherness:

  1. Violence – active, suppressive hostility toward otherness (“This person must be silenced by any means necessary.”)
  2. Contempt – passive, disengaged hostility toward otherness (“This person deserves to dismissed and disregarded.”)
  3. Tolerance – passive, disengaged acceptance of otherness (“Everyone has their own thing, their own opinion.”)
  4. Respect – active, engaged consideration of otherness across individuality (“This person’s opinion is relevant and deserves a response.”)
  5. Relationship – active, engaging of otherness within commonality (“I want to maintain mutual understanding with my friend.”)
  6. Love – active affirmation of inexhaustible otherness within commonality — embrace of otherness, per se (“I will never finish knowing this person, thank God.”)

K’an enworldment

Yang Earth is inclined to understand truth Earth-upward.

Yang Heaven is inclined to understand truth Heaven-downward.

Yang Man is inclined to understand truth Man-outward.

*

My pragmatic phenomenological re-interpretation of Guenon is a yang Man interpretation of a yang Heaven truth.

Before you listen to me, though, be sure to consult the I Ching, and see what it has to say about the trigram, K’an, the Abysmal, the world viewed from yang Man.

Defining eversals

Two common words I use in a very precise, but unusual sense, are apprehension and surprise. What I mean by them is clearer when they are defined against their opposites.

I define apprehension against comprehension. Where comprehension provides a convex form around which one can cognitively grasp (com- “together” + -prehend “hold”) a concept (con- “together” + -cept “together”), apprehension defies grasp (ap- “toward” + -prehend “hold” despite the fact that cognition can feel the reality of what remains ungraspable. It is analogous to touching the inner surface of a concave surface with one’s fingertips, feeling for nonexistent edges around which one can secure a grip. Apprehending but not comprehending makes us aware of a boundary between comprehensibility and (as yet) incomprehensible reality, and this awareness induces apprehension, anxiety in the face of an inconceivable beyond. The relationship is that of eversion, of flipping inside out. Apprehension is everted comprehension.

I define surprise against comprise. When we comprehend something objectively the contents of the comprehension is all the beliefs the understanding comprises (and if you are a pragmatist, all the implications of these beliefs). (“-prise” and “-prehend” are both forms of the same Latin root, “-prehendere, “to hold”.) Surprise is that which is not comprehended which surrounds the comprehension with what was not grasped, due to its being beyond or over what is held, (sur- “beyond”/”over” + -prise “hold”), and which therefore is in a position to irrupt into what was comprehended and potentially to disrupt it. Here, also, is a relationship of eversion. It resembles the old “Russian reversal” joke: in Soviet Russia surprise comprises you.

Both of these words reflect a basic topological structure of my conceptions of subjectivity and objectivity. That is, they are eversions of one another. Every subjectivity comprises an objectivity derived from its interactions with its environing reality. But on the other side of these interactions, transcendent to its subjectivity and objectivity is a fellow subjectivity with an objectivity of its own which will both harmonize with and clash against the objectivity of other subjectivities. To make matters more complex, to the degree subjectivities manage to harmonize and share objectivity they form new, more expansive subjectivities. I participates within a transcendent We, without experiencing the kind of apprehension or surprise that signals transcendent otherness, radical alterity.

Without this subjective-objective topology, my ideas can only be partially comprehended — and largely only apprehended.

I think my next book will need to be another chapbook, I’ve been calling “the pearl book”. It might also be called Everso, every possible pun intended.

We need speculative metaphysics because we need nouns

Ok, I just had a small, decent-quality tantrum into the margin of Guenon’s The Great Triad, which helps define my own perspective on religion against that of the Sophia Perennis:

The manifestation of the Buddha is therefore the ‘redescent from Heaven to Earth’, as the Emerald Tablet describes it; and the being who in this way ‘incorporates’ the celestial influences in his own nature and brings them into this world can justifiably be termed the representative of Heaven as far as the human realm is concerned. Certainly this is a concept far removed from the rationalised form of Buddhism with which Westerners have become familiarised through the work of Orientalists. It might well be that it corresponds to a ‘Mahayanist’ point of view, but that for us is not a valid objection because it seems clear that the ‘Hinayanist’ point of view which is commonly presented as ‘original’ (no doubt because it fits in all too well with certain preconceived ideas), is in reality simply the result of a process of degeneration.

I say “define against it”, but it is possible — maybe even likely — I’m defining my perspective within it. Philosophy is, after all, the perpetual humiliation, and it has gradually undone my monstrous arrogance and replaced it with a moderate arrogance, which today took the form of this comment written in the margin of the above passage:

What if Mahayana is the degeneration of Hinayana’s/Theravada’s phenomenology? — A strict phenomenology can degenerate into speculative metaphysics.

That last bit is central to my conception of “Design Instrumentalism”: the idea that faiths (systems of implicit generative conceptions) can be designed and outfitted with symbolic forms, which allows one to:

  • maintain a stable, enduring self,
  • while also opening and orienting one to one’s own subjective selfhood, toward objective reality and toward intersubjectivity,
  • and to interpret, interact with, and think about the world,
  • resulting in the development of effective belief systems (truth).

I call the full practical manifestation of a faith, an enworldment.

When a convert undergoes a profound conversion experience, the convert invariably reports (assuming the convert is a true Scotsman) that the world was reborn with them, or that it appears transfigured, that they have entered the Kingdom, or something similar suggesting a holistic change in their experience of the world. Everything changes all at once.

Not only everything changes; more-than-everything changes. One of the artifacts of a deep shift in enworldment is a changed sense of beyondness, extending past the world of immediate experience, and this beyondness is naturally viewed as the source or support of its very existence. This is the speculative metaphysics of an enworldment.

Phenomenology cultivates a sharp awareness of that line between phenomena (what is show to our experience) and the mind-independently-real thing-in-itself which we instinctively project beyond our experiences (as speculative metaphysics).

Phenomenology brackets all metaphysical projections and focuses strictly on phenomena. It doesn’t disbelieve or believe in metaphysics; it methodically suspends metaphysical interpretations in order to study experience.

My understanding of Buddhism, at least of Theravada Buddhism, which I studied closely and practiced intensively for almost a decade, is that Buddhism is a phenomenological religion, which focuses relentlessly on what is immediate and practical, and gently brackets standard doctrinal elements we might assume to be essential features of any religion.

The Dhammapada’s opening lines support this view:

All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with an impure mind one speaks or acts, suffering follows him in the same way as the wheel follows the foot of the drawer (of the chariot).

All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with a pure mind one speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his shadow that never leaves him.

But here is where my design experience kicks in, and causes me to both admire Theravada, while also seeing great practical wisdom in Mahayana.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from a life in design, it is this: Humans have a tough time living without speculative metaphysical beliefs. This is true even for — especially for? — those of us who imagine ourselves immune, and project elaborate “scientific” material underpinnings, such as brains, behinds our experience of I, now and here — or sociologies populated with mixtures of individual, collective and even ideological actors, that produced the world as we experience it.

Our brains seem wired to need nice solid nouns, to serve as the doers of verbs or as the substantial bearers of adjectives.

And you know what? As a designer, I don’t think we should have to do without speculative metaphysical beliefs. I believe that denying people metaphysical beliefs is asking too much of them. We humans need our nouns!

In my professional work as a designer, I put enormous effort into crafting “mental models”, which are, in effect, speculative metaphysical projections that help people conceive their experiences of what I am designing. It makes it an experience of a coherent “something” instead of a series of arbitrary events. Behind a designed experience, there is both a concept — what the designed thing is — and a brand — who is responsible for it. These provide solid grounding the why of the experience — the purpose and value of it — and provide some direction for the how, in the form of affordances — things with which a user can interact.

These mental models, these brands, these affordances, however, are never what they seem to be. They are “true fictions” which, when taken as given, are, for all practical purposes, true. These are, to put it in perennialist terms, upaya, skillful means

But designers cannot afford to be literal with their mental models. We must straddle logics, and be able to think from the perspective of an interacting user, but also work with engineers to craft the actual technical metaphysics (vis-a-vis the user) that are the real underpinnings of a system, which digital, mechanical, procedural, etc.

Every faith must function similarly. The faith must produce a holistic sense of I and world, that generates the relevant affordances that suggest appropriate actions, and it must provide us with an overarching sense of value and purpose in our lives.

And if it is a good faith, it will also have some awareness or at least some attitude of humility and respect, that suspects that metaphysical-reality-in-itself is mysterious and inexhaustibly surprising, so it does not confuse its speculative metaphysics with that deeply mysterious source of being that manifests itself in myriad ways, each with its own speculative metaphysical image…

The Buddha, I believe knew this deep reality, and managed to establish a faith tradition that functioned as much like designers as users.

*

So, my moderately arrogant (but apprehensive) hypothesis is that Guenon and the rest of the Sophia Perennis school project a thoroughly beautiful and true speculative metaphysics beyond their profound, clear and precise phenomenological understandings, but take it as more Absolute than I am ready to accept. (* see note below)

However, the closer I study Guenon, the more of what I take to be speculative metaphysics is subsumed by phenomenological description. I can very well imagine a day where I will understand that extremely sensitive and disciplined phenomenological description carries us much closer to the threshold of the Principle than I’ve suspected.


  • Note: My metaphysics is a radically indeterminate, inexhaustibly surprising beyond — an infinitude that we come to know through our finite interactions with it.

I believe morality is bound up with knowing that this beyond exists and that it obligates us to respond to it and relate to it, but part of our effort must be to treat it as a reality existing in part within, but also beyond the mind, and therefore only imperfectly conceptualized by the mind, lest we reduce transcendent reality to immanent speculation and succumb to ideo-idolatry and misapotheosis.

We know that the beyond is, and we know some important things about our relationship with the beyond, but we are limited in knowing what the beyond is. Or so it seems from where I currently stand.

Lesser mysteries

From my phenomenological, hermeneutical and pragmatic inclinations and self-education, I cannot help but read Renee Guenon (and to a degree, Frithjof Schuon) critically, as conveying extremely sharp, clear and, above all, grounding insights into the human condition — that is the condition of finitude within and toward infinitude — but proceeding from these to unwarrantedly objective speculations about the structure of what extends beyond what can be objectively known.

Having ridden this planet around the sun more than fifty times — which, believe it, or not, continues to surprise even after twenty or even thirty rides, and not in ways you might derive from the first thirty — and having been spiritually humiliated out of (I hope) most of my youthful hubris, I’m saying this not only tentatively, not only cautiously, but with acute, apprehensive modestly.

When I say “I cannot help but” I say it with anxious awareness that this might very well situate my stage of understanding to someone who has transcended it — but also, to those who most definitely have not.

Such is the nature of transcendent insight: those who know can’t tell and those who can tell don’t know nearly as much as they believe. When evaluating claims to transcendent knowledge, one crucial thing I look for is signs of awareness of this “horizonal” condition. If you have been given a divine gift of unshakable certainty, I will suspect, perhaps wrongly, you are still in the early and paved stages of your journey. The first appearance of new-to-me always is always new-to-the-world, most of all with the most commonplace wisdom.

So, here it is, laid out flat for convenient scrutinty: The same human tendency that compels us to ground our subjectivity in an objective world, to attribute mind to the functioning of a brain, makes metaphysicians ground our subjectivity in a positive metaphysics. Or, to put it in Guenon’s language, from where I stand I see the Lesser Mysteries (of “true man”) as greater than the Greater Mysteries (of “transcendent man”).

There.

Hineini.

I must really be where I really am if I wish to really go to other real places.

*

If you know better, please speak up.

Bias biases

TLDR: We are most biased in where we see bias.

*

We can certainly work to overcome our biases, once we notice them.

But what about our biases toward where to look for bias? We can only notice biases where we direct our attention.

And what about those intense and stubborn biases that we take for moral insights? We affirm some moral claims as really important and really moral, while dismissing others as irrelevant or immoral — and this guides the positions we take in controversies. We call it taking a stand, but, we just taking the side toward which we are more subjectively biased.

If we decide to justify our moral biases using objective arguments, the criteria we reach for are — guess what? — those toward which we are biased. But of course, we give our biases fancy objective-sounding names. We pick the most relevant, salient or reasonable criteria.

And why these criteria? Everyone agrees they are the right criteria, except those other deluded fools — against whom we are biased.

So, sorry, sahib! It’s bias all the way down, even in what we regard as bias.

The deeper you go, the less likely you’ll be to identify and counterbalance your biases, and where you are most biased, in the abysmally ignorant depths, you will refuse to counterbalance them — on principle.

The best we can do is be fully self-aware, as opposed to partially self-aware enough to pretend that our highly biased counter-biasing calculations have privileged us with moral objectivity.

Apprehension toward transcendence

To have a positive relationship with transcendence means approaching reality as something that essentially exceeds understanding. Whatever understanding we do have is unavoidably partial, and closer to zero than infinity.

Around the inside edge of our understanding, in the liminal region between comprehension and total mystery, we can touch, but not grasp truth. Toward whatever we encounter in this liminal region we feel apprehension.

For those with a positive relationship with transcendence, apprehension is conceived as part of one’s relationship with transcendence, unavoidable, meaningful and good, despite being painful.

—-

People out of relationship with transcendence — that is, those who are alienated from what is beyond their understanding — approach reality as essentially understandable. Whatever defies understanding as not real. While gaps in knowledge are acknowledged, gaps in understanding are not understood.

The liminal region on the inside edge of understanding has no positive value, and is experienced as mere anxiety with no positive value, something to be avoided or eliminated. This anxiety can be attributed to many things, but often it is interpreted as threat or malevolence detected in objects of apprehension.

—-

A person is a strange being, a third-person object among objects, a first-person subject to oneself, and a second-person fellow-subject to other persons.

Our subjectivity is, to an extent rarely appreciated, our relationship to all of reality, first-, second-, and third-person, and to that of reality which transcends us.

This relationship-to-everything constitutes who we are to ourselves and who we are to other subjects.

If our relationship to transcendence differs greatly from others who try (successfully or unsuccessfully) to relate to us, we ourselves can become, vis a vis the other person, part of transcendent reality, and we can become partially incomprehensible and a source of apprehension.

If the other has a positive relationship with transcendence, they are more likely to recognize this transcendence for what it is and respond accordingly, with the hope of reaching understanding, or with uncomprehending respect.

But if the other is averse to transcendence, and cannot conceive of the existence of anything beyond understanding, the response may be contemptuous or hostile.

—-

It can be incredibly hard to discern apprehension from malevolence, and often it is a practical impossibility. This is part of the human condition. It is also difficult to communicate when one is only misunderstood, not malevolent.

Fictive Midas

I want to define and describe a human type. It is a personality frequently found in the creative classes, especially among writers, but it is also common in religious communities and ideological movements. I am calling this type the Fictive Midas.

*

Everything a Fictive Midas touches turns to fiction.

The Fictive Midas inhabits a memoir, an unfolding story toward which they are both intimate and dissociated — intimate because it is their own creation about themselves; dissociated because they a character in this story they are telling, while also existing in the background as the one telling it.

This dissociative intimacy pervades their lives, inner and outer.

The inner life of imagination, ideas and emotions, of course, predominates.

For them, there is nothing peculiar about it, because this is the only existence they know. But for those around them, especially people attuned to the self-transcendent reality of other people, a Fictive Midas is unnerving, and the closer they believe themselves to be with them, the more disturbing they become.

This is because, to the Fictive Midas, the outer life is important mainly as source material for their inner lives, and other people are part of the outer world. This causes them to relate to people and things with disturbing disregard, the kind of disregard authors have toward the suffering of the characters they invent.

*

A friend of a Fictive Midas might from time to time get the feeling that they are not actually fully real to them. Nor is the Fictive Midas really present in the relationship.

There is an alienating barrier — a membrane that separates self from self, and keeps each respective Me in strict parallel, precluding any participation in mutuality, in shared being, in any We. In relations involving a perceptive Fictive Midas, this membrane might develop increasing precision, nuance, even insight — but this is only advanced character development, not interpersonal intimacy. Whatever closeness there seems to be is only a closeness of resemblance between the Fictive Midas’s rendered character and the real person sealed outside. The membrane is impermeable.

This truth hard to conceptualize, and can cause pain and anxiety in those who mistake a Fictive Midas for a friend.

And it only gets worse once the alienating membrane is noticed. Anyone who presses against it too hard or tries to puncture it, by appealing to the Fictive Midas’s humanity will find themselves repelled and expelled as a nobody. The character and the person peel apart, and the Fictive Midas keeps the fiction and discards the person, letting the reality drop over the horizon into the outer void. The Fictive Midas is uncannily unconcerned, incurious, almost hostilely indifferent to the divergences between the person and the character. The person finally knows — feels in their soul — the fact that they do not and never did exist to this stranger.

*

Ruthless people are said to leave a trail of blood. Heartbreakers leave trails of tears. Fictive Midases leave trails of emptiness.

Susan says we call it “ghosting” when a person exits a relationship without resolving it and providing any closure, because we are haunted by the absence. The absence is peculiarly present, much in the way the recently deceased are with us after they die.

Those of us who experience the world pluralistically — that is, those of us who feel that their sense of truth is only part of the bigger story and who want to complete our understandings of important things with the perspectives of others — experience the void created by Fictive Midases intensely painful, an aching phantom limb that cannot be treated, because it is a nonexistence, despite being a real part of us.

Pluralists tend to seek reconciliation with others as a means to reestablishment of shared friendship, or failing that, closure, so the relationship can lie peacefully in its grave.

The Fictive Midas, however has no such need, not because they feel none of the pain we feel, but because this pain is all they know. They dwell among their fictional characters, experience their fictional satisfactions and gratification, nurse their fictional grudges, all the while starving of loneliness, isolation and unreality.

Like Midas, they hoard their treasures, and deprive themselves of all nourishment and love.

Only their pain is something that intrudes from outside themselves, oppresses them from without, despite their attempts to defend themselves against it. But no matter how much they keep the cause of their pain — other people — outside, and the source of their happiness — their truth — inside, somehow the loneliness, alienation and envy gets inside and torments them, anyway.

*

It is tempting, when one is written off by a Fictive Midas or written out of their story when the story undergoes a heavy edit or rewrite, to retaliate and return the treatment — to write them out or write them off — and to make up a story where we have done this successfully and no longer care about them or what they did to us.

But this is only to become infected with fiction, and to succumb to the Fictive Midas’s condition ourselves.

And if we are honest, isn’t it true that we would never have fallen into a Fictive Midas’s snare, or worse, stayed there, if we weren’t already doing some significant fictionalizing ourselves? If not, why didn’t we notice the relationship we imagined ourselves to be in was largely imaginary?

It is better to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the voids, while maintaining hope that reconciliation or closure might actually happen someday, if they find their way out of their isolating enworldment.

Meanwhile we can be more alert, and more aware of the reality of others, and more dedicated to reality, however elusive, so we can cultivate real mutual relationships with people capable of mutuality.

*

I have invented the abstract type of the Fictive Midas as a therapeutic effigy — a theoretic fiction of my own — as a general phenomenon onto which I can shift the weight of loss. I’m not going to reduce any person to this type, but I will regret the fact that this type can overtake a person and obscure and their personhood. It is a regrettable syndrome, not an archetype that manifests through regrettable people.

Fictive Midas is the superset containing not only my estranged friends, but the pandemic of ideologies sweeping the world, of epic stories where fictional identities oppress other fictional identities but then rise up and stage a revolution.

*

I believe John Milton knew this type:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since hee
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields

Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Nonlinear Golden Rule

If we imagine the Golden Rule not as a flat, linear formula, but a generative iterative process which produces multiple depths or meta-layers of itself — GR1, GR2, GR3, etc. — I find that it trends toward an asymptotic point, GRx, but a point of generality and universality, so general it is practically void, so universal it is boundless. It is nothing more than “Treat real beings as real”. Real, as opposed to what? As opposed to mere extensions of one’s own being.

The formula of the Golden Rule is do to others as you would have done to you. (I think everything that follows also applies to the Silver Rule variant, “do not do to others what you do not want done to you,” but I can’t/won’t math, and that extends to formal logic.)

The first iteration, GR1, has us concretely treat others as we concretely wish to be treated, in accordance with our own personal preferences. But it is immediately obvious that this amounts to an imposition of one person’s taste upon another, and we would not want that done to us, so we must iterate again, this time more responsively to the other, as we would wish if the other were us, as GR requires.

The second iteration, GR2, has us do to the other according to their own preference.

But, now, perhaps the context is not fitting for the action at all, however much it would be preferred were the context right. Or perhaps another action is needed at this time, in this context.

So, GR3 indicates asking what this person prefers at this time in this context.

But does the person even want our involvement in this situation…? How should we even find out? Some might appreciate being noticed and want to be asked, others might want to be noticed but resent needing to be asked, others might hate even being noticed. We must respond the best we can.

Notice, in this GR series, the trajectory moves away from us treating the other as a duplicate of our own self, and involves more and more understanding and responding to them as real and different from ourselves. But what precisely, does this entail? What is the output of the application?

I would argue that here we apply one of my favorite insights from Richard Rorty, that sometimes progress is best viewed as movement away from something undesirable, rather than movement toward some known, desirable, pre-defined destination. The Golden Rule cannot give us any pat readout of an answer regarding what to do, but it can direct us away from what not to do (GR0 or GR1) and set us on a trajectory that to me seems unattainably, but absolutely good, non-relativistically in principle, but thoroughly relativistically in practice.

Good means trying with all our heart, soul and strength to approach GRx in our dealings with all beings in our complex, entangled lives — a universal, boundless, empty — but all-consuming, endless task.

*

I’ll also point out that if the Golden Rule is a nonlinear process, it should be expected to share characteristics of other nonlinear processes, most importantly, sensitivity to initial conditions (aka “the butterfly effect”), which entail radical unpredictability of outcome by means of linear formulae. The peculiar thing about the Mandelbrot Set is that each infinitely divisible point in the complex plane produces unique but similar and orderly behaviors, even points separated by an infinitely infinitesimal degree.

Pragmatic presequence

I just connected two of my favorite ideas, the hermeneutic priority of the question, and the pragmatic maxim.

Both are attempts to account for meanings of ideas.

The principle of the hermeneutic priority of the question sees understanding an idea as a matter of hearing it as a response to an implied or explicit question. If a reader hears the idea as the response to the question intended by one expressing the idea, the idea is understood, or at least it is not misunderstood.

The pragmatic maxim (originally conceived by C. S. Peirce) sees the meaning of an idea as the consequences that follow from the idea if it is believed to be true — the “cash value” of the idea. (One wonderful application of the pragmatic maxim is religious. Stop asking whether God exists or not, and instead ask what follows from your belief or disbelief in God. Therefores are far more clarifying than definitions!)

These two ideas snap together with irresistible elegance, as the complementary upstream and downstream of meaning — the pragmatic presequence and consequence of ideas.

To fully understand the meaning of any idea, first, conceive it as a response to the question or problem that actually engendered it, then develop the consequences that follow from it.

Subjective disposition

If, from our very earliest moments, we learn to conceive ourselves as beings who exist in space, an object among objects, within a world held in common — and then later to understand subjectivity as a way to account for differences in how we apparently experience this shared space-bound, object-filled reality we inhabit together, our basic disposition will be objective.

Is this the natural human intellect, or is it cultural? I don’t know, but I can say that this was the disposition I had when I emerged from the oblivion of early childhood, and it seems to be, if not universal, common to most people around me.

When I was very young, Unless I was confronted with evidence to the contrary, I assumed people experienced things the way I did. When they didn’t, this seemed to require explanation. Of course, every child learns the fundamental fact of subjectivity, that I have my experiences and others have theirs. I can feel pain or pleasure, when others do not, and vice versa. To recognize that an something painless or even pleasurable to me might be painful to another is less obvious. And to suspect that that the pain another is attempting to express or describe might be of a kind unlike any pain I’ve known is far from obvious.

But all of these ways of conceiving subjectivity, as means to explain difference in a common objective field, belongs to what I’m calling an objective disposition.

*

Somewhere in my early 30s I shifted my disposition to a subjective one — or rather, I began to — because the first event in the shift was a second objectivity.

I want to clarify what I mean here by shift, because this shift was not only a change in ideas, or assessment of what ideas were true or false, better or worse, more or less compelling or more or less useful for my purposes.

The shift in disposition arose from a mixture of interrogating my basic understandings and values, and experimentally entertaining new understandings and values, but did not consist essentially of new ideas or ideals. Something else happened, and it could not be communicated in any direct way. It could only be indicated or expressed, not explained. All I could say about the change itself was that it defied speech, that it changed literally everything and that I could not imagine a supernatural event more surprising or momentous than this.

Strangely, what I was able to talk about was the objective world as it reemerged in a very new way — what Richard Rorty calls redescription. This new world demanded redescription.

Later, the need to bridge this new objectivity and my own experience of it with the understandings of others around me, especially those closest to me, became urgent. As I reflected on the relationship between subjectivity and the multiple objectivities that had seemed true to me, and in fact, in both cases were indistinguishable from reality itself, I shifted from a second objectivity to what I am calling a subjective disposition, which sees all objectivity as arising from subjectivity.

I stopped feeling the need to root my metaphysical accounts in a shared objective, spatial world containing objects and subjects, as the primary setting of reality, and everted the relationship so that space, time, objects and fellow subjects were contained within subjects who have the strange ability to interact and even to commune into larger subjectivities and to individuate into smaller ones. Where consistent commonalities of experience occur across subjectivities, objectivity emerges, expands, stabilizes and establishes itself so firmly it becomes possible to evert truth so fully that subjectivity seems to be an epiphenomenon of objectivity.

*

So, now, I’ll ask you: Was this a religious conversion?

When I read accounts of religious people, I believe I know exactly what they are talking about.

However, if you were to ask a typical smart atheist to make a list of all the stuff they do not believe, I would probably share most of their disbeliefs (if not all of them).

So, I had a strange shift in pretty much everything all at once, and reached for the concepts available around me to make sense of it. Had I experienced the same thing a thousand years ago, I would have had different concepts around me. Perhaps I would have made sense of it with angels and demons and netherworlds, instead of subjects and objects and redescriptions.