Category Archives: Phenomenology

Esoteric ranting at work

Since 2020, and expecially since October 7th, 2023, I have been feeling a level of betrayal and grief I’ve never experienced before. Something vast and horrible is happening, but those perpetrating it — as always — see themselves as saving the world.

I just had what I think is a pretty eloquent outburst on Slack, at least by Slack standards. It started as a conversation about brand and design materials, but immediately veered into dark depths. Obviously it is ridiculous to talk this way at work, but I do believe I have — and not for the first time — become careericidal and unconcerned with what happens to me.


Here’s the lightly edited and redacted transcript. I’m S, A is Arjun, P is Parc:

S: Brand is a phantom intentional object of an organization.

S: Everything we experience directly and indirectly causes an idea of some “thing” to congeal in people’s minds, with which we have some kind of relationship, now and potentially

S: The reason brand is so seductive and magical seeming is 1) they are ideas of something that transcends the person perceiving and conceiving it… but 2) the specific way we must think in order to make clear sense of brands is outside most people’s philosophical range

P: So the material of brand design is what? Ascribed meaning?

S: I love this question!

S: This is where it is so terribly important to be clear on (to use the popular formula) “when we talk about materials, what are we talking about”?

S: I’d say that intentional object — and ascribed meanings — is NOT the material of branding. It is an outcome of it.

S: The material is that which we directly shape in order to get to that meaning or intentional object

S: Intentional object is a phenomenological concept. Not sure if y’all are familiar with it, or not.

S: So, everything a person experiences has an object of that experience. When we see, there is what is seen: an object of sight. When we hear we hear a sound. Same with thought. We think thoughts, and the thoughts — the content — is the intentional object of the thinking.

S: To put it simply: there is no perception, conception, or experience that isn’t a perception, conception or experiece of something. That something is the intentional object.

S: People who finally “get” phenomenology sometimes report a deep disorientation, like a religious conversion. Husserl talks about this in his last book.

S: To actually inhabit life phenomenologically changes literally everything all at once.

S: People resist it.

A: I think there is overlap with Advaita.

S: It is the same

A: Oh then I am familiar. Swami Sarvapriyananda talked about when he was in ATL. I will share a good talk for others to hear an example from him.

S: That’s why I take religion so seriously.

S: Religious people understand the world phenomenologically.

S: So, to finish my TED talk here — our metaphysics is our ultimate intentional object — the object of all our experiences combined which gives us the world as we know it.

S: Common sense is our everyday life as the intentional object of our living.

S: Brands are the intentional object of an organization in the minds (and bodies) of those who encounter them.

S: And like all intentional objects, they don’t match what we experience when we inspect them close up. Nothing ever does.

S: Branding is an organization’s attempt to manage that intentional object.

S: Dig, daddy-o?

A: I think similar to what we were chatting about the other day. You can influence how a moment is experienced via the materials – but that still leaves open for debate things like touchpoints – there is both an absolute form and an experienced form. Are those materials?

S: If you examine your ideas of things, they will not bear much scrutiny at all. The more distant the phenomenon, the more we ourselves fill in gaps and try to make them into other, more familiar things

S: Reality and phenomenon are nowhere near alike. Knowing this as mere fact does zero to help us overcome it.

S: To think you are no longer naive realist because you’re aware of naive realism makes you an even worse naive realist. To think you have overcome bias because you are aware of some of your biases and corrected for them leaves your deepest biases unchecked.

S: To be able to empathize with others only where your own group says empathy is needed, and to feel free to diagnose and condemn wherever your own group claims that’s a good thing to do — that is not empathy at all, but exercise of an ideology.

S: I believe the only thing that will help the world come out of its tribal prejudices and hate is not imposing ideological prescriptions (which are themselves tribal) but to go radically phenomenological

A: I think similar to what we were chatting about the other day. You can influence how a moment is experienced via the materials – but that still leaves open for debate things like touchpoints – there is both an absolute form and an experienced form. Are those materials?

S: I know what you mean. But there is no absolute form. There are forms we all can align around more easily.

S: If we want to bring Advaita into it, we could frame this in terms of prakriti and purusha. In fact, I do. Prakriti and purusha are not really different in absolute terms. They are aspects of a single reality, unified beyond our usual conception of things. It is a relative dualism, not an absolute one. Am I getting this right? I’ve only read a few books on Advaita, by one author who was actually a Sufi.

S: And he was claiming a transcendent unity of all esoteric traditions, so that his sufism was an expression of the same inexpressible truth as advaita, taoism, kabbalah, christian mysticism, etc. He may have mangled or force-fit it

S: These universal “givens” of experience — those experiences we can assume to hold in common with all other people — those are what I tend to want to call materials.

S: Those things that we ourselves make of what we are given, our interpretations, our understandings, etc… those i want to separate from materials. Those are the experiential outcomes that we try, through materials, to inspire, induce, convey, etc.

S: Frankly, I only care about design because it is such a wonderful way to engage this kind of truth. When design does not put me in touch with it, I become bored, miserable and totally unmotivated.

S: So thanks for allowing me a few seconds of pleasure. They’re further and further apart all the time in this weird political climate of pervasive political and religious fundamentalism.

S: People confuse religion with fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is what happens to religion when it falls under the control of people who cannot or will not understand phenomenologically. The blind lead the blind. Fundamentalism is not religion taken to extremes — it is extremism caused by an appropriation of religious symbols by people who confuse their own tribal beliefs for the Transcendent.

I bet your mother would know EXACTLY what I’m saying here and would agree with it.

S: Wisdom is awareness of what is unknown and unknowable and living in relation to it. But it takes time, horrible mistakes and pain to develop this awareness. It takes years and years, and up to that point, you are the smartest, most self-aware, most moral kind of person who ever existed. Afterwards, you’re none of these things, but at least you’re wiser. “Sadder and wiser.” They go together.

S: Please be sure to include that last bit in what you send to your mother.

Ex infinitio

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

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

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


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

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

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


An infinite welter and waste is articulated by spirit.

Objects emerge from the encounter of subject and chaos.

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

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


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


Every subject emerges in the midst of undifferentiated chaos.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

New working vocabulary

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


Short version:

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

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

Long version:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural as opposed to what?

I’ve used the word “natural” to four very different ways, and each is defined against a different opposite. These are each

The first two are the boring obvious ones.

  • Natural versus manmade. Is it from the wilderness, or is it from our own hands?
  • Natural versus supernatural. Does it obey the laws of nature, or does it follow the laws of something or someone beyond nature? Note: I understand there are less vulgar notions of supernatural, but for the present purposes, let’s use the vulgar sense.

The second two (to me, anyway) are more interesting.

  • Natural versus unnatural. Does something subjectively feel as though it spontaneously participates in nature or does it seem alienated from it and at odds with it? This could be subdivided into any number of categories, depending on the perceived location of the unnaturalness. For example, it could be one’s own self (“this action feels unnatural”) or in a perceived or conceived object (“that light looks unnatural”).
  • Natural versus phenomenological. Am I regarding some phenomenon in solely terms of the object given to my perception or conception, or am I understanding the phenomenon also as a subjective act of perceiving or conceiving some given object? And I will always add: and if conceived differently, will reveal a different given object.

These latter two are at the heart of my philosophical design work.

Can phenomenological freedom be used skillfully to suspend one natural way of perceiving in order to reconceive reality (or nature, if you prefer) in another way — a way that is shockingly unfamiliar, yet just as natural as the old one. A new comprehensive praxic gestalt clicks into place, replacing the old “everything” gestalt.

This is a non-supernatural account of metanoia, and it suggests that philosophies rooted in phenomenological reflective practice can be a kind of genuine religious practice. If one is willing to pay the necessary exorbitant price, one can radically reconfigure one’s own subjectivity, objectivity and subject-object relations.

For a long time I was planning to call my perpetually unwritten book on this subject Second-Natural. I was also playing with another title The Ten Thousand Everythings.

Now I am leaning toward calling it Enworldment.

Phenomenological prayer

Reality is an articulate whole we inhabit.

Reality is myriad interacting things among us.

Reality is participation with our fellow inhabitants.

We participate in realities beyond our comprehension.

Interacting things unite and divide.

The whole can rearticulate in shocking ways.

Reality is not what we think it is.

Things can be otherwise.

We are not who we think we are.

Since you asked…

A friend of mine has a habit of sending me emails consisting of simple, beautiful questions.

Years ago he introduced me to Christopher Alexander. When Alexander died I sent him an email, and that started a discussion of Alexander’s later work. This was the context (at least for me) of his latest question-poem:

What is value? Can it be objective?

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Of course, I had to ruin the glorious simplicity by writing an encyclopedia of a response. The content is mostly the same stuff I am always going on and on about, but these questions inspired a different angle of expression.

But there is one new-ish move here, which might even be an insight: extending the complexity of Bergsonian time to both space (conceived in designerly contextual terms) and — best of all — to self. Just as Bergson conceived now, not as an instant-point, but as a flowing interaction of memories and anticipations, we can see the I, not as an ego-point, but as a subject-complex with flexibly mobile contours subsisting within any number of We’s. This polycentric-self idea may present an alternative to the individualist-collectivist continuum that for many seems the only conceivable possibility.

It all seemed worth posting, so here it is, in mildly edited form.


What is value? Can it be objective?

Christopher Alexander seems committed to objective value, if by objective you mean “inherent to objects” and not relative to a subject. My inclination is to see value as relational — a relation between valuer and valued. I know this is exactly the relativist conventional wisdom what Alexander is attempting to overcome — and I respect that — but I think the real goal here is aesthetic truthfulness (a species of intellectual conscience).

The trusty old Enlightenment method of logical coercion, though, is no match for the might of aesthetic bad faith. Someone who needs to lie about subjective values will become a true believer.

I think this is a religious matter, honestly. Subjective honesty is a virtue we have to cultivate in ourselves, and then we can recognize others who seem to respond to what we experience in similar ways. If discrepancies in response happen, it is more or less impossible to know if someone is subjectively dishonest, or having a strong, sincere idiosyncratic response — or has developed sensibilities beyond our own and are seeing beauty (or other subjective conceptions/perceptions) we haven’t learned to see, yet.

But if we want subjective truth, we’ll stay responsive to our own value-sense, while also looking for ways to transcend our current subjective limits (that is, we will entertain new ways of conceiving and perceiving and see what “takes”).

I think the best reason for this subjective self-transcendence is seeking more accommodating truth, supportive of community of subjective experience with others. Bigger, deeper, richer common sense.

Our We can be more than a mere aggregation of me’s and it’s (in orbit around one’s own I, even — no, especially — when we attempt to efface, factor out, or counter-balance that central I) but this requires a different good faith than the Enlightenment’s objective good faith.

The I won’t disappear. It can’t disappear because it doesn’t appear — any more than our own eyes appear in our vision. The I makes everything else appear. I manifests as a particular everything — what I’m calling enworldment.

We cannot decenter our own I no matter how we try, and when we attempt it, we only conceal its workings for ourselves and delude ourselves into universalizing our own current enworldment as the world per se. Decentering creates more monstrously self-idolizing self-centerings: misapotheosis.

What is needed now is polycentering. Let’s stop scolding our children and saying “you are not the center of the universe.” (When heard phenomenologically, this is manifest bullshit, because of fucking course every child is situated precisely at the center of the universe, and nowhere else, as every child knows!) What we should say is: “you are not the only center of the universe.”

The best alternative to egoist self-centeredness is not the self-decenteredness of altruism, but the self-polycenteredness of participation in community.

*

For some reason Bergson is in the air right now. Many of us are realizing or re-realizing that every instant of time is not an infinitesimal blip on a timeline, but a complex of recollections, concurrences and anticipations. And if we look around us into our environment, as designers, objects are not aggregates of infinitesimal particles, but are environed complexes of contexts, parts, wholes, ensembles. We need to grasp the fact that the I is exactly analogous, in this way, to space and time. An I subsists within a We of present people, memories of people, who I am to others, who they are to me, what I fear from them and for them, what I desire from them, and they from me — an I is a complex of freedom and response-ability. An I is not an ego-point, it is a subject-complex.

That asterisk-shaped continuum with I-Here-Now at the center does not meet at a point but, rather at a bright nebular heart streaming out into things, times, relationships — streaming out, and sometimes withdrawing back into itself to conserve itself, or to gather energy for more streaming-out, or to die as an insular speck.

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Again, I think value can exist in everything and ideally does exist in everything, but I’m a believer in value inhering not in the subjectivity of the valuer’s valuations or in the objectivity of the valued’s value, but rather in the relationship — in the consummation of valuing. It isn’t subjective or objective — it is “interjective”.

The value is there for us, as a self-evident universal given, if we enworld ourselves in a way that invites valuing relationships. Christians call this “entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

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.

Interactive turn and its metaphysics

Have I mentioned my belief that our worlds are constructed primarily of interactions? It was Bruno Latour who made this real to me about ten years ago, and this was my last really big philosophical breakthrough. I suppose I could call it my “interactive turn”.

Latour’s descriptions of the conduct of science, and of everything, in terms of networks of interacting human and nonhuman actors changed how I understood both subjectivity and objectivity, and finally broke down my ability to keep those two categories discrete.

We are constantly interacting with our environments in myriad ways — physically, socially, linguistically, reflectively — reactively, deliberately, creatively, imaginatively, prospectively, habitually, absently, selectively. What we make of what is going on, that is, how we conceive it, has everything to do with how we respond to it, and how it responds back challenges us to make sense of it.

We respond to “the same” reality as related to us by other trusted sources, as passed off to us rumors from sketchy sources, as experienced as a participant in a real-life situation, as conveyed to us by a member of our own community following methods of the community, as taught to us during decades of education, as reported to us by journalists on varying integrity and ideological agendas, and as recalled by our own memories formed from different stages of our lives — and our response assumes some common phenomenological intentional object, some metaphysical reality, some commonsensical state of affairs on the other side of our interactions. But this is constructed out of interactions with innumerable mediators — people, things, thoughts, words, intuitions — who are included within or ignored out of the situation as we conceive it.

We lose track of the specific interactions that have amounted to our most habitual conceptions — our syneses (our takings-together taken-together) — which shape our categories of things, our expected cause and effect sequences in time, of our social behaviors and how they will be embraced, tolerated or punished.

Science is one variety of these interactions, but one we tend to privilege and to habitually project behind the world as our most common metaphysics. But once I learned to see scientific activities, scientific reporting, scientific explaining and scientific believing as a social behavior useful for helping us interact with nonhuman actors with greater effectiveness, somehow the relieved by need to rely on the metaphysical image science projects. I can believe in the effectiveness of the interactions and remain loyal to the social order established by science to do its work without feeling obligated to use a scientifically explicable reality as the binding agent for all my other beliefs to keep them hanging together. I see many good reasons not to!

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?

Curriculum

I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite this scattered in my curriculum or quite this solid in my own philosophy. Mostly I am jumping around trying to connect my philosophy of design with like-minded thinkers and practitioners. I want to try to organize the leads and strands, so I can keep track of it (or maybe just note my intentions, in case I later want to map out what turned out to go somewhere, versus a dead-end or a road not taken).

Most material-turn thinkers seem to find the metaphysics of A. N. Whitehead to be compatible and supportive of their work, so I definitely want to dig further into his thinking, most likely continuing to use Stenger’s Thinking With Whitehead as a guide.

Stenger and many others refer to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, so when I spotted an episode on them in the completely fantastic podcast “Philosophize This!” (so fantastic, in fact, that I joined Patreon, just to help fund it) I decided to listen. So far, I’m finding their last collaboration What Is Philosophy? to be very close to my views on what philosophy is/ought to be and do. I anticipate finishing this one, before tackling Stengers.

I’m also bumping into Gregory Bateson quite a bit these days. I ran into a reference to him in The Design Philosophy Reader (would also like to finish this this summer, or at least this year, since I’ve decided to root my own philosophy in the bizarre and intensely uncomfortable experiences that permeate a life of strategic human-centered design) — and again in an article on futures literacy, which I plan to finish reading this week.

Last weekend I finished an intriguing paper Latour wrote (translated by Graham Harman — more on him later) on Souriau, which convinced me that I will have to read The Different Modes of Existence soon, which might help me actually understand Latour’s own magnum opus An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.

Regarding Harman, I’ll probably make myself read his introduction to Object-Oriented Ontology, if only to eliminate OOO as a possible area of study. OOO is the one material-turn philosophy that seems almost preposterously wrong-headed, and it is also the hottest philosophical movement in the world right now, embraced by many brilliant people — so what am I supposed to do with that? As I’ve said before, philosophy is a schooling in humiliation, and my reaction to OOO — especially its self-evident foolishness — shows signs that I am failing to understand it. I continue to cautiously reject OOO until I can pin down precisely where it is failing, or until I convert and realize it was right all along. (Until then, however, I believe OOO’s entire trajectory is determined by a fundamental moral confusion endemic to the progressivist regions of today’s popular philosophy, namely, a passionate belief in selfless altruism. I deny not only that it is possible, but that selfless altruism is even a good unattainable ideal. I think the notion of selfless altruism is a result of a conceptual failure and pursuit of the ideal has disastrous moral consequences: it produces an incapacity to develop real relationships with real others, an incapacity to find genuine value in one’s life, and most of all an incurable moral irritability saturated with ressentiment. OOO wants us to try to leave our persons behind in order imagine our(not)selves into the undetectedly withdrawn life of noumena, like inhabitants of Calvino’s imaginary city of Baucis.

Vastly better, in my opinion, generally but especially for the purposes of human-centered design, is postphenomenology. I’ve read part of Robert Rosenberger’s collection Postphenomenological Investigations (Langsdorf’s essay is what reignited my interest in Whitehead as the material-turn metaphysician of choice) and I definitely need to finish it. I’ve already read Verbeek’s What Things Do. I’ll likely read Moralizing Technology next, and then start reading the works of Don Idhe (the founder of postphenomenology) from latest to when he turned his attention to human-technology relationships.

And, speaking of Verbeek — His attacks on Jaspers’s views on technology got me interested in Jaspers work, and strangely, led me into an existential detour earlier this year. I still intend to read (at least) his three-volume Philosophy (which I got scanned and OCRed, so I can read it on my iPad.) Also, Jaspers concept of the Axial Age, has intersected with an obsessive intuition I’m harboring that “we have come to the end of this kind of vision of Heaven”, and might now be starting to move beyond the 2,500-year-old understanding of religion which is so predominant and ubiquitous that we find it difficult to imagine that religion could be anything else. Not to propagate posts in this post-post moment, but I am interested in what post-Axial religious praxis can look like (which would include material-turn ontology set in a panentheistic metaphysics) and I’ve even managed to find a book on it, which, I, alas, also must read, and which threatens to barge in at the front of my reading queue. And of course there’s a whole world of Process Theology out there, based on Whitehead’s thought, which might, for all I know, already be exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve read one book on Jewish process theology, which did not connect with me much, but I don’t think it exhausted the possibilities.

I have a lot of reading ahead of me. I’d love to turn the work into a publicly-acknowledged post-grad academic degree of some kind, but what department in what university would ever award it?

Design Instrumentalism

The best name for my approach to philosophy might be “design Instrumentalism”, a variant of John Dewey’s instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,

Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Design instrumentalism builds on Dewey’s instrumentalism by focusing on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and evaluated as designed products, using frameworks like Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable. These three evaluative considerations could be translated to the design of philosophies:

  • How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
  • How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
  • How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?

Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should be viewed less as collections of true beliefs, than as as fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention,  guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive practical worldview (a.k.a. praxis).

Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it is all solid and persuasive enough, and not in need of tedious rehashing. I’ll just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.

This is a good start of a list of pragmatic presuppositions. The list is still incomplete and will be supplemented with ideas drawn from sources, including phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics and material turn philosophies.

One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like every ambitious philosophy, multilayered. Design Instrumentalism is itself (a) a philosophical tool used to explore what it means that (b) philosophy is a philosophical tool for designing philosophical tools, which are (c) applied to practical living. So Design Instrumentalism might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers who enjoy doing philosophy (the tool designers), but it also focuses on the design of philosophies for non-philosophers with little interest in doing philosophy (the tool users) who need concepts for thinking about their lives in general and for focused “single-use” for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of particular design problems.

Doing just this kind of work (strategic designers call it “framing”) in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is what brought me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.

An autobibliobiography

Well, I tried to write about my books and how I want to prune my library, and ended up writing a history of my interests. I know there are loose ends, but I am tired of writing, so blat, here it is:

I used to have strict criteria for book purchases. To earn a place on my shelf (singular) a book had to be either a reference or a landmark. In other words, I had to see it as persistently valuable in my future, or it had to be valuable in my past as something that influenced me. My library was personal.

Somewhere along the way my library became more general. References grew to include whatever I imagined to be the basic texts of whatever subject I cared about. Landmarks expanded to include any book that housed some striking quote that I wanted to bottle up and keep. How did this happen?

When Susan met me, I owned one book, Chaos, by James Gleick. This book is the landmark of landmarks. Reading it was a major life event for me. It introduced me to two of the most crucial concepts in my repertoire. 1) nonlinear processes, and 2) Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. I loved the philosophical fairytale of Benoit Mandelbrot discovering a radical new way of thinking, and then skipping from discipline to disciple, tossing out elegantly simple solutions to their their thorniest, nastiest, most intractable problems, simply by glancing at them through his magic intellectual lens. He’d give them the spoiler (“look at it like this, and you’ll probably discover this…”) and then leave the experts to do the tedious work of figuring out that he was exactly right. And I loved it that the simplest algorithmic processes can, if ouroborosed into a feedback loop, can produce utterly unpredictable outcomes. We can know the dynamic perfectly, and we can know the inputs feeding into the dynamic perfectly — but we are locked out of the outputs until the process is complete. And then factor in the truth that numbers, however precise, are only approximate templates overlaid upon phenomena! Nothing outside of a mathematician’s imagination is a rational quantity. And in nonlinear systems, every approximation, however minute, rapidly amplifies into total difference. I’d go into ecstasies intuiting a world of irrational quantities interacting in the most rational, orderly ways, producing infinite overlapping interfering butterfly effects, intimating a simultaneously knowable-in-principle, pristinely inaccessible-in-fact reality separated by a sheer membrane of truth-reality noncorrespondance. I used to sit with girls and spin out this vision of truth for them, serene in the belief I was seducing them. Because if this can’t make a girl fall in love, what can? I still hold it against womenkind that so few girls ever lost their minds over one of my rhapsodies. They were into other stuff, like being mistaken for a person capable of losing her mind over the beauty of a thought, or being someone who enchants nerds and compels them to rhapsodize seductively. There’s a reason for all of this, and it might be the most important reason in the world, though I must admit, it remains pristinely inaccessible to me and an inexhaustible source of dread-saturated fascination. (If you think this is misogyny, you don’t understand my religion. “Supposing truth is a woman — what then…?”)

After I got married, my book collection expanded, reflecting some new interests and enthusiasms: Buddhism, Borges, and stuff related to personality theory, which became my central obsession. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002 I also became a fan of Christopher Alexander’s psychology of architecture, and I had my first inklings of the importance of design. Incidentally, one of the books I acquired in this period was a bio of Alexander, characterizing his approach to architecture as a paradigm shift. This was my second brush with Kuhn.) Until 2003 my book collection still fit on a single shelf.

In the winter of 2003 in Toronto, Nietzsche happened to me. Reading him, fighting with him, and being destroyed by him, I experienced intellectual events that had properties of thought, but which could not be spoken about directly. It wasn’t like an ineffable emotion or something that couldn’t quite be captured in words. These were huge, simple but entirely unsayable truths. I needed concrete anchors — concepts, language, parables, myths, images, exemplars — anything that could collect, formalize, stabilize, contain or convey what I “knew”. This is when books became life-and-death emergencies for me, and sources of extreme pleasure. I couldn’t believe you could buy a copy of Chuang Tzu’s sayings for less than the cost of a new car. From 2003 to 2006 my shelf grew into a library. I accumulated any book that helped reinforced my intense but disturbingly incommunicable sense of truth — what I eventually realized was a faith.

But then the question of this inexplicable state of mind and its contents became a problem to me. What exactly is known? How is it known? Why think of it in terms of knowledge? If it cannot even be said, then how can it be called knowledge? And the isolation was unbearable. I was in a state I called “solitary confinement in plain sight” with in an overwhelming feeling of having something of infinite importance to get across, but I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on or to consider it important enough to look into. I got lots of excuses, arguments, rebuffs, cuttings-down-to-size, ridicule and promises to listen in some infinitely receding later, but I could not find any real company at all, anywhere. This was a problem I desperately needed to solve.

Richard J. Bernstein’s hermeneutic Pragmatism is what hoisted me out of this void and gave me back a habitable inhabited world, with his lauded but still-underrated classic Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Equipped with the language of pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology and post-empiricism (Kuhn, again) I could account for my own experiences and link them to other people’s analogous experiences. Not only that — he began my reconnection with design, which had become a meaningless but necessary source of rent, food and book money. I was able to reengage practical life. But Bernstein’s method was intensely interpersonal, an almost talmudic commentary on commentaries ringing a missing central common text.

Richard J. Bernstein’s bibliography, however, was the flashpoint for my out-of-control library. Each author became a new collection. Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and then eventually Latour, and then Harman and now Morton… etc. Geertz seeded an anthropology and sociology shelf, which is now a near-bursting book case. Hanna Arendt is a whole shelf, and spawned my collection of political books and my “CDC vault” of toxic ideologies. Gadamer and Heidegger were another space-consuming branch. Dewey, James and Peirce fill about three shelves. And Bernstein’s line of thinking led me directly to Buber, who also breathed fire into my interest in the research side of Human Centered Design (another half a case of books) and sparked a long process of conversion to Judaism (yet another half-case, and growing).

A bunch of these threads, or maybe all of them together drove me into Bruno Latour’s philosophy. Latour inflicted upon me a painful (and expensive) insight: Everything Is Important. Statistics, accounting, technologies, laws, bacteria, materials, roads. Therefore I must get books on everything, apparently. With this we finally ran out of room in my bookcases, them my library room, then our house. We had to get a storage space to cycle my out-of-season books into and out of again when I realize I must read that book right now. Susan just got a second space. I have books stacked up everywhere. I am a hoarder.

I am considering putting all these books back under review, and keeping only the books that fit those two original criteria. Is it a landmark for me? Is it a reference that I know I will use?

I cannot be everything, and I need to stop trying. I need things that help me stay me, and I need to shed the rest. Good design demands economy, tradeoffs, clarity of intent. I have a bad case of intellectual scope-creep. It is time to decide what is essential, and to prune away nonessentials so the rest can grow in a fuller way.

I have another half-written post I think I’ll finish now.

Fighting words from Latour

From Reassembling the Social:

…Sociology has been embarrassed … by the prejudice that there exists a privileged locus in the social domain where action is ‘concrete’: ‘parole’ more than ‘langue’, ‘event’ more than ‘structure’, ‘micro’ more than ‘macro’, ‘individual’ more than ‘masses’, ‘interaction’ more than ‘society’, or, on the contrary, ‘classes’ more than ‘individual’, ‘meaning’ more than ‘force’, ‘practice’ more than ‘theory’, ‘corporate bodies’ more than ‘persons’, and so on. But if action is dislocal, it does not pertain to any specific site; it is distributed, variegated, multiple, dislocated and remains a puzzle for the analysts as well as for the actors.

This point will help to not confuse ANT with one of the many polemical movements that have appealed to the ‘concreteness’ of the human individual with its meaningful, interacting, and intentional action against the cold, anonymous, and abstract effects of the ‘determination by social structures’, or that has ignored the meaningful lived world of individual humans for a ‘cold anonymous technical manipulation’ by matter. Most often inspired by phenomenology, these reform movements have inherited all its defects: they are unable to imagine a metaphysics in which there would be other real agencies than those with intentional humans, or worse, they oppose human action with the mere ‘material effect’ of natural objects which, as they say, have ‘no agency’ but only ‘behavior’. But an ‘interpretative’ sociology is just as much a sociology of the social than any of the ‘objectivist’ or ‘positivist’ versions it wishes to replace. It believes that certain types of agencies — persons, intention, feeling, work, face-to-face interaction — will automatically bring life, richness, and ‘humanity’.

Iridescent irritants

Some random notes on the inner topology of oysters…

*

A pearl is an inside-out oyster shell.

*

An oyster coats the ocean with mother-of-pearl.

Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean.

Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is slimy oyster-flesh, ceaselessly coating everything it isn’t with mother-of-pearl.

It is as if the flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — “father-of-pearl”.

*

Every pearl is an iridescent tomb with an irritant sealed inside. We love the luster of the outer coat, but inside is what was once known as filth.

*

We could also think of the oyster shell as the fortress walls and the pearl as a prison cell.

*

We make pearls of what is Other, then love what we’ve made of the Other, which is ourselves.

*

We love our misunderstandings. We never cut into what we love with critique. Inside is just a grain or a fragment, of interest only to other grains and fragments.

*

Sometimes an alien bit of beyond gets inside one’s horizon, but it can always be explained.

*

Imagine Pandora’s box as a pearl turned outside-side in upon its being opened, and Eden as an oyster’s interior turned inside-out into a pearl with Adam’s eviction.

Subject-object

Our minds grasp only that which is objective in form. What concerns us most, though, is subjective in form. This fundamental agony of being is the root of the best and worst religion.

*

An object is that which exists side-by-side among other entities.

A subject is one who participates in a whole that wholly includes and exceeds himself.

*

A person: a subject and object, who relates as an object or subject to objects and subjects.

*

Both the objective and the subjective are violently reducible to the the terms of the other. One can inhabit a radically subjective world of extensionless phenomena. One can also inhabit a radically objective world as a being with emergent consciousness. Why, though?

Chord: Nietzsche’s practical metaphysics

The circle must be closed. — He who has followed a philosophy or a species of thought to the end of its course and then around the end will grasp from his inner experience why the masters and teachers who came afterwards turned away from it, often with an expression of deprecation. For, though the circle has to be circumscribed, the individual, even the greatest, sits firmly on his point of the periphery with an inexorable expression of obstinacy, as though the circle ought never to be closed.

*

Doubt as sin. — Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned!

*

A few rungs down. — One level of education, itself a very high one, has been reached when man gets beyond superstitious and religious concepts and fears and, for example, no longer believes in the heavenly angels or original sin, and has stopped talking about the soul’s salvation. Once he is at this level of liberation, he must still make a last intense effort to overcome metaphysics. Then, however, a retrograde movement is necessary: he must understand both the historical and the psychological justification in metaphysical ideas. He must recognize how mankind’s greatest advancement came from them and how, if one did not take this retrograde step, one would rob himself of mankind’s finest accomplishments to date.

With regard to philosophical metaphysics, I now see a number of people who have arrived at the negative goal (that all positive metaphysics is an error), but only a few who climb back down a few rungs. For one should look out over the last rung of the ladder, but not want to stand on it. Those who are most enlightened can go only as far as to free themselves of metaphysics and look back on it with superiority, while here, as in the hippodrome, it is necessary to take a turn at the end of the track.

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One should not be deceived: great spirits are skeptics… Strength, freedom which is born of the strength and overstrength of the spirit, proves itself by skepticism. Men of conviction are not worthy of the least consideration in fundamental questions of value and disvalue. Convictions are prisons. Such men do not look far enough, they do not look beneath themselves: but to be permitted to join in the discussion of value and disvalue, one must see five hundred convictions beneath oneself — behind oneself … A spirit who wants great things, who also wants the means to them, is necessarily a skeptic. Freedom from all kinds of convictions, to be able to see freely, is part of strength … Great passion, the ground and the power of his existence, even more enlightened, even more despotic than he is himself, employs his whole intellect; it makes him unhesitating; it gives him courage even for unholy means; under certain circumstances it does not begrudge him convictions. Conviction as a means: many things are attained only by means of a conviction. Great passion uses and uses up convictions, it does not succumb to them — it knows itself sovereign…