Category Archives: Phenomenology

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…

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A pearl is an inside-out oyster shell.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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!

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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…

Samsara

The modern confusion of objective knowledge with knowledge in general causes us to reject knowledge we cannot account for in objective terms. Or worse, it leads us to reject knowledge in general in order to legitimize our non-objective sense of life, which we cannot recognize as knowledge.

What is needed is not a choice of one or the other, but a way to relate objective knowledge to its non-objective counterpart, and this means relating to it and through it until one finally apprehends its ground by way of comprehension of its forms.

This does not happen on the terms of objectivity. There is a rejection of a kind in regard to objective knowledge, but what is rejected is not objectivity, but its apparent fundamental nature.

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(The question must be answered empirically, but the answer won’t be empirical.)

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The world is not a deception. The deception lies in what the world is taken to be. If the world is taken at face value, acceptance or rejection of what has been taken is equally meaningless: one has been taken.

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Scientism — science as metaphysic — is a species of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the locked foyer of genuine religion. The solution is not to annihilate the foyer door, but to unlock it. To unlock it we have to look in our hands and recognize the key as a key.

Hegel on practical transcendence

Hegel’s introduction to Phenomenology of Mind contains a description of what I have been calling practical transcendence:

This dialectic process which consciousness executes on itself — on its knowledge as well as on its object — in the sense that out of it the new and true object arises, is precisely, what is termed Experience. In this connection, there is a moment in the process just mentioned which should be brought into more decided prominence, and by which a new light is cast on the scientific aspect of the following exposition. Consciousness knows something; this something is the essence or is per se. This object, however, is also the per se, the inherent reality, for consciousness. Hence comes ambiguity of this truth. Consciousness, as we see, has now two objects: one is the first per se, the second is the existence for consciousness of this per se. The last object appears at first sight to be merely the reflection of consciousness into itself, i.e. an idea not of an object, but solely of its knowledge of that first object. But, as was already indicated, by that very process the first object is altered; it ceases to be what is per se, and becomes consciously something which is per se only for consciousness. Consequently, then, what this real per se is for consciousness is truth: which, however, means that this is the essential reality, or the object which consciousness has. This new object contains the nothingness of the first; the new object is the experience concerning that first object.

In this treatment of the course of experience, there is an element in virtue of which it does not seem to be in agreement with what is ordinarily understood by experience. The transition from the first object and the knowledge of it to the other object, in regard to which we say we have had experience, was so stated that the knowledge of the first object, the existence for consciousness of the first ens per se, is itself to be the second object. But it usually seems that we learn by experience the untruth of our first notion by appealing to some other object which we may happen to find casually and externally; so that, in general, what we have is merely the bare and simple apprehension of what is in and for itself. On the view above given, however, the new object is seen to have come about by a transformation or conversion of consciousness itself. This way of looking at the matter is our doing, what we contribute; by its means the series of experiences through which consciousness passes is lifted into a scientifically constituted sequence, but this does not exist for the consciousness we contemplate and consider. We have here, however, the same sort of circumstance, again, of which we spoke a short time ago when dealing with the relation of this exposition to scepticism, viz. that the result which at any time comes about in the case of an untrue mode of knowledge cannot possibly collapse into an empty nothing, but must necessarily be taken as the negation of that of which it is a result — a result which contains what truth the preceding mode of knowledge has in it. In the present instance the position takes this form: since what at first appeared as object is reduced, when it passes into consciousness, to what knowledge takes it to be, and the implicit nature, the real in itself, becomes what this entity per se, is for consciousness; this latter is the new object, whereupon there appears also a new mode or embodiment of consciousness, of which the essence is something other than that of the preceding mode. It is this circumstance which carries forward the whole succession of the modes or attitudes of consciousness in their own necessity. It is only this necessity, this origination of the new object — which offers itself to consciousness without consciousness knowing how it comes by it — that to us, who watch the process, is to be seen going on, so to say, behind its back. Thereby there enters into its process a moment of being per se, or of being for us, which is not expressly presented to that consciousness which is in the grip of experience itself. The content, however, of what we see arising, exists for it, and we lay hold of and comprehend merely its formal character, i.e. its bare origination; for it, what has thus arisen has merely the character of object, while, for us, it appears at the same time as a process and coming into being.

 

Notes on emic versus etic

In “‘From the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding” Clifford Geertz outlines a fundamental concept of anthropology:

The formulations have been various: “inside” versus “outside,” or “first person” versus “third person” descriptions; “phenomenological” versus “objectivist,” or “cognitive” versus “behavioral” theories; or, perhaps most commonly, “emic” versus “etic” analyses, this last deriving from the distinction in linguistics between phonemics and phonetics — phonemics classifying sounds according to their internal function in language, phonetics classifying them according to their acoustic properties as such.

Some thoughts:

  1. The precise meaning of the suffix “-icity” (at least when applied to existential terms) has been unclear to me. The problem has been in that no-man’s-land between registering the presence of light anxiety and actually doing something to relieve it. I know what each -icity word means (facticity, historicity, scientificity, etc.), I just wouldn’t have been able to explain to someone else what it means. The resolution turns out to be fairly simple. The suffix -icity indicates the root is to be considered from an emic perspective. X-icity mean X considered as an interiorized existential condition (which conditions exteriorized facts), rather than as a simple exteriorized fact. (Example: History is the record of past events. Historicity is being inside history as a participant, where each historic moment is understood to have its distinctive way of seeing history, and based on this historic vision, making new history. This condition affects an entire sense of reality, holistically.)
  2. Holism is a quality of the emic, and atomism is a quality of the etic. According to the hermeneutical circle, there is never an etic fact (a part) that is not articulated from an emic whole (a fore-understanding).
  3. Only the etic is quantifiable. The emic as such is discussable strictly in qualitative terms. The emic, however, since it generates an etic vision of reality (in phenomenological terms, its intentionality) will produce quantifiable entities. Attempting to grasp the emic in etic terms (such as statistics) is the factual and moral mistake of behaviorism.
  4. Epistemology knows only the etic. Mysticism and poetry tends to treat the etic primarily as a vehicle for indicating an emic vision. Phenomenology understands the etic in terms of the emic. Hermeneutics understands the interplay between etic and emic and attempts to navigate by etic triangulation other emic visions. Pragmatism might be applied hermeneutics to cultural ends. (Despite the name, pragmatism is much stranger than many showier forms of philosophy. Ever notice how the serious druggies try to look as normal as possible?)
  5. Buber’s I-Thou relationships regards the other as essentially emic. In I-it the other is regarded as essentially etic.
  6. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the practice of listening. It’s not primarily a matter of being considerate and letting the other talk (though that’s certainly a part of it). Real listening requires the entire battery of philosophies I listed above. Listening is inviting the other’s emic vision. One must allow the other to say what he is trying to say and to hear it without trying to force it into one’s own emic schema by stripping out its emic structure (that is, pattern of significance), retaining only its etic content. Then the listener must attempt to apply that structure concretely to his own experience in an attempt to show the other his understanding of what he has heard, and he must be open to the possibility that he has misunderstood. This restatement stage of listening, though, can be non-receptive and aggressive and be used to channel the speaker away from his emic vision toward the vision of the listener. (This is the hardest part of interviews: not asking leading questions or offering leading restatements that derail and rechannel, distort or otherwise damage the emic vision of the interviewee.)
  7. Subjectivity properly understood is emic, but it is so commonly misunderstood to be some kind of interior dimension of a more solid/concrete/real etic world that “subjectivity” has become ruined for all practical communicate purposes. On the contrary, it is the etic that is interior to the emic. The emic “interiority” of each other in our environment is in fact partially shares but largely transcends our own emic and etic vision.

Tree cross (alt palette)

Compare and contrast

Have you ever been in a deep, inspired conversion with a friend and noticed that you were waiting with your friend to hear what you would say next? Did the world change for you? Did it wear off?

Have you ever been absorbed in a book and had difficulty adjusting back to the normal world?

Have you ever remembered a happy time and found it impossible to believe you were happy?

Have you ever spoken to a friend and realized they were no longer your friend? By this I do not mean that the person no longer considers you a friend – I mean the one who was your friend no longer exists behind this familiar face speaking in this unfamiliar voice.

We have ways of accounting for these experiences. We account for them to one another, and we accept these accounts.

These ways  of accounting for experience are not the only ways, however. In past centuries things were understood differently and consequently experienced differently. Even at this moment, experience may be understood and experienced radically differently by the people around you. They share your environment. When they speak they use the same words. They work with you, maybe collaborate closely with you. Nonetheless, they may dwell in a very different world than the one you know.

Perhaps our way of accounting for experience conceals and protects us from the depth of the difference.

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OPTIONAL ETYMOLOGICAL PLAY
(Feel free to skip this part.)

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Subject – ORIGIN Latin subjectus ‘brought under,’ past participle of subicere, from sub– ‘under’ + jacere ‘throw.’ Senses relating to philosophy, logic, and grammar are derived ultimately from Aristotle’s use of to hupokeimenon meaning material from which things are made and subject of attributes and predicates. Hupokeimenon means ‘that which lies underneath’.

Object – ORIGIN medieval Latin objectum ‘thing presented to the mind,’ neuter past participle (used as a noun) of Latin obicere, from ob– ‘toward, against, in the way of’ + jacere ‘to throw’.

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An interesting fact: In most traditions Heaven is considered masculine, and Earth is considered feminine.

‘Heaven covers, Earth supports’

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Matter – ORIGIN Middle English : via Old French from Latin materia ‘timber, substance,’ also ‘subject of discourse,’ from mater ‘mother.’

Substance – ORIGIN Latin substantia ‘being, essence,’ from substant– ‘standing firm,’ from the verb substare, sub– ‘under’ + stare ‘to stand.’

Understand?

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Check this out:

Contrast – ORIGIN Late 17th cent. as a term in fine art, in the sense of juxtapose so as to bring out differences in form and color): from French contraste (noun), contraster (verb), via Italian from medieval Latin contrastare, from Latin contra– ‘against’ + stare ‘stand.’)

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Try this on:

Subject (throw under) : Object (throw against)
=
Substance (stand under) : Contrast (stand against) ?

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Creepy, related words:

Succubus – A female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men. ORIGIN late Middle English : from medieval Latin succubus ‘prostitute,’ from succubare, from sub– ‘under’ + cubare ‘to lie.’

Incubus – A male demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women. ORIGIN Middle English : late Latin form of Latin incubo ‘nightmare,’ from incubare ‘lie on’ (see incubate).

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End of ETYMOLOGICAL PLAY

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A person would be blind to his own subjectivity if it weren’t for contrasting subjectivities.

There are two sources of contrasting subjectivity which when taken together, one reveal what subjectivity essentially is: 1) other people; 2) changes to one’s own subjectivity.

What constitutes contrasting subjectivity?

1) With other people, subjective contrast manifests when I and another subjectivity, share an experience and respond differently to it. In response, I act and speak in one way, the other acts and speaks another way. It is clear that we are encountering something analogous, but also different in important ways. What is comparable we take for objective, what contrasts we take for subjective.

2) Something similar goes on in how we account for changes to our own subjectivity. We encounter some object or situation that we have identified as identical, but at different times, and we have a different response. We act differently and we find ourselves saying different things about it. Again, what is comparable we take for objective, what contrasts we take for subjective.

My question is whether these two experiences don’t inter-illuminate. Would the subjective experience of others mean something different if we had no experience of individual subjective change, for instance if we had no mood shifts or we somehow failed to notice them? And if we were unaware of other subjective responses (for reasons of psychological impairment, or lack of interest or mistrust) would our own subjective changes have the same meaning? As I ask this, I find myself answering affirmatively: the inter-illumination, the parallax, the dialogue between intersubjectivity and change in subjectivity point to the essence of subjectivity.

But now look what we are doing here, right now. I am talking to you about my own experiences of comparing and contrasting my subjectivity intersubjectively and temporally – you who have had similar experiences, or maybe your experiences have differed in some way. Look at us comparing and contrasting our experiences of comparing and contrasting comparisons and contrasts…

The form is self-similar: dialogue within dialogue within dialogue. Dialogue, “with-logos”.

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We know other subjectivities through dialogue, because dialogue directly changes one’s own subjectivity, and that change is manifested by the 10,000 things of the world. Dialogue is direct intersubjective encounter, mediated by the world.  Synesis – the Greek word for understanding (literally “togetherness”) –  is seeing the togetherness of the world together. Synesis is in the parallax between your eyes, the sterophonicity between your ears, in the objectifying that arises in the between-ness of your senses, between the voices conversing in your head about objects and experiences, spoken in your native language and in images and raw analogies. This complex, changing dynamically stable togetherness, which each of us abbreviates as self, and calls “I” or “me”, speaks to other selves and interacts with them as if they were simple, and often as if they were objects. Sometimes the self mistakes itself for an object, something that is primarily a thing or an image. It is hard to know one’s self.

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According to the book of Genesis, on the sixth day, after creating our world, speaking it into existence:

God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

The book of John describes it differently, but compatibly:

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

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Many people think of the universe as physical. A person is a physical being somehow invested with subjectivity. Subjectivity is inexplicable, and explained through our most mysterious physical forces.

Many others think of the universe as spiritual. A person is a spiritual being somehow in the midst of a world we take for physical. Of these, some think of the individual as the ultimate subjective unit. Others think of their nation or religion or church or race or party as the ultimate subjective unit. These perspectives are solipsistic, the former is a solipsistic individual, the latter is a solipsistic collective.

Others think of the universe as spiritual, but that subjective being is elastic and variable and conducted by communication.

Christian cred

Think about these statements:

“Bear with me.”
“Please hear me out.”
“It will all make sense in the end.”

Why are these requests necessary? When are they made?

To what feeling in the listener is the speaker responding?

What kind of appeal is being made? Do we owe it to another to give him a full hearing?

When is the appeal denied? Is it a matter of credibility?

What is the experience of denial?

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To read the Synoptic Gospels of the New Testament is to experience the most pluralistic religious vision ever recorded, from the most accutely and radically pluralistic people who ever lived. In what other scripture is the same story is recounted three different times from the point of view of three different people? It would have been easier and more obvious to collapse them into one univocal account, but instead the three experiences, three meaningful visions were presented together in a three-in-one synopsis – syn– (together) –opsis (seeing). [* See note 1 below]

I like to think of pluralism as a kind of parallax vision, that allows us to see hyper-dimensionally. With one eye you see a flat picture. With two eyes working in concert we see depth. Our so-called “inner eye” draws out the dimension of meaning. With a pluralistic synopsis we see meaning together – we share meaning and have community. We gain understanding, which the Greeks called synesis.

*

By the time Jesus began teaching his distinctively Jewish universal vision of life, the Jewish tradition had survived and overcome numerous cultural crises. They had dominated and been subjugated, had won their home and lost it. They knew belonging and alienation, and they knew both sides of power.

Most importantly they knew that knowledge of experience means to know an experience from the inside. Experiencing is inseparable from that which is experienced, and this means, to use a common visual analogy, that  experience is inseparable from its vision, as how the world looks from that experience. (One of my favorite Jewish thinkers, Edmund Husserl called this “intentionality”: seeing and seen are inseparable, as are hearing and sound, feeling and sensation, etc. [* See note 2 below].)

The Jews knew better than anyone that power is something that can be seen, but even more, it is a way of seeing – of life and the world as a whole. Power has its own kind of vision. When an emperor sees himself, or his court, or a rival power, or he looks upon a conquered enemy or slave, that emperor sees something radically different than the slave regarding the same situation. Power is something different, powerlessness is different. A palace, a body, a tree, a poem… everything is the same in a sense, but things are deeply different. The same goes for a stranger, expat, wanderer, outcast or outcaste.

Out of necessity, the Jews had to develop a way of preserving themselves as a tradition within these conditions. That meant living on a line between provoking attacks from the outside and simply dissolving from cultural self-indifference or self-disgust. They had to internalize their strength. They had to find dignity in their vulnerability to escape the indignity of weakness.

There was no way such a response to such a universal problem was going to stay contained within a small ethnic tradition forever. Whether it was Jesus or Paul, somehow the radical insights of Judaism went universal.

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A series of words derived from the Latin word credere, “believe, trust”:

  • Credit
  • Credential
  • Credence
  • Creed
  • Credo

A series of words derived from the Old English word agan, “believe, trust.” :

  • Own
  • Owe
  • Ought (originally past tense of “owe”)

A series of words derived from Latin auditor, from audire, “to hear”:

  • Audit
  • Audition
  • Auditorium
  • Auditory
  • Audio

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An example of divergent accounts from two of the Synoptic Gospels (which some scholars believe were adapted from yet another lost Gospel, “Q”, possibly a compendium of sayings similar to the (in)famous Gospel of Thomas).

These two passages are taken from Jesus’s famous Lord’s Prayer, his instructions on how to pray.

Matthew 6:12: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Luke 11:4: “And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.”

In Matthew 6:12, the Greek word used was opheilema. [* See note 3 below.]

In Luke 11:4, the Greek word was hamartia, which means literally “missing the mark”.

*

Out of time. Darn. I’ll finish this post if there’s any interest. [* See note 4 below.]

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* NOTE 1:  To call the New Testament inconsistent as some atheists do is to miss the point. To argue over which meaning is the right meaning as the fundamentalists do is to betray the point. To behave as though a plurality of possible meaning implies that all meanings are equivalent and that it is meaningless to discuss them… to go skeptical on that basis, and to ask cynically, rhetorically “what is truth?”… to wash one’s hands of the responsibility to engage dialogically in pursuit of understanding… that’s complicity in the conflict.

* NOTE 2:  Intentionality in Husserl’s sense is a core religious insight, expressed in a variety of forms, from the Jewish Star of David, to the Chinese yin-within-yang and yang-within-yin, to the Greek Janusian herms (with Hermes’s head fused to the head of a goddess, often Aphrodite), to the Hermetic hermaphroditic Androgyne, male on the right, female on the left, sun on the right, moon on the left. Listen for the inside-outside symbolic structure and you’ll find it everywhere. This capacity to hear and understand the form-language of symbol is what I believe is meant by “having ears that hear.”

* NOTE 3: Opheilema seemed like it might have a connection with the name “Ophelia” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I looked it up on Wikipedia to see if there was an etymological connection. According to Wikipedia, “the name ‘Ophelia’ itself was either uncommon or nonexistent; the only known prior text to use the name (as “Ofalia”) is Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia.” It seems fairly obvious the name is a combination of opheilema and philia, love – “love debt” – love unrequited.)

* NOTE 4: Etymology of “interest”: ORIGIN late Middle English (originally as interess): from Anglo-Norman French interesse, from Latin interesse ‘differ, be important,’ from inter– ‘between’ + esse ‘be.’ The -t was added partly by association with Old French interest ‘damage, loss,’ apparently from Latin interest ‘it is important.’ Also influenced by medieval Latin interesse ‘compensation for a debtor’s defaulting.’

Parallax and intentionality

I had been using the metaphor of parallax for a couple of years before Zizek’s Parallax View came out. The entire book turned out to be structured around the parallax metaphor and he used it essentially the same way. At that point in my life I was inclined to interpret that kind of coincidence as either an inevitable rediscovery of core esoteric truths or as some sort of synchronicity.

Once I learned about the connection between Hegel and Marxism, though, I realized parallax is one of the most univeral and obvious examples of the dialectic form (thesis-antithesis-synthesis). If the dialectic form is a pre-existing cultural entity – and not a minor or obscure one, either – it is possible that the “rediscovery” of it was a lot more guided than it seemed to me at the time. I may not have been taught it explicity, but it is not difficult to see how it could be absorbed passively.

*

The key to understanding passive cultural absorption is realizing objective conceptual thinking is only one of several forms of understanding a mind has available to it for interrelating and unifying the multifarious parts and aspects of its experience.

Naive thinkers are marked as such by their incapacity to distinguish the objective form of thought (which is ontological) from the objective being of a thing “thought about”. This observation is itself not “objective”: it exists as what I have been calling an intellectual move, or “the dance”. It’s the fundamental insight of late Wittgenstein and the Pragmatists.

Maybe I picked up the the Pragmatist dance from following along, trying to understand – trying to think-with a philosophical author, as opposed to thinking-about the apparent subject matter presented by the author in my own way, by my own pre-existing habitual moves. Maybe having been raised Unitarian-Universalist, which was a major tributary of Pragmatism, made me receptive to thinking in that way. Maybe there was a temperamental predisposition. At any rate, later, when I learned the counts and the names of the steps and the history of the dance’s invention and development, it was a factual consummation of something super-factual.

It gave objective form to a transmissible form of essentially subjective truth. It made it easier to share. Before, I’d have to demonstrate it, or indicate it with strange analogies.

*

I had this thought last week and forgot to write it down:

Can we learn essentially subjective (that is, existential) truths from other subjectivities, or are we limited to objectivity – learning objective facts about subjectivity from one another?

Are we subjectively inert, sealed inside our own temperaments, and our own experiences?

Another big question: If we can learn essentially subjective truths from one another, is that best achieved through talking about subjectivity – through psychologizing? A theme I’ve encountered repeatedly among thinkers working from the Pragmatist and the Phenomenological traditions is intentionality: that there is no such thing as thinking without an object of thought. Thinking divorced from intentionality is nonsense.

Perhaps sharing a problem with another subjectivity, a problem that involves coming to a deep understanding for the sake of being able to collaborate on solving the problem is a more direct route to subjective learning than psychologizing.

I’ve even wondered if psychologizing isn’t ultimately a defence against sharing psychology – a counterfeit intimacy used as a block against authentic intimacy with the other – a sterile mutual self-exploration where shared experience is founded on sameness. Otherness is distant, sealed on the far side of an experiential membrane – never pursued, never approached, never welcomed. The radical other is an object of fascination, or fear, or mystification to be contemplated or classified but never touched.

*

I see art as essentially bound up with subjective sharing.

Lesser art depends on recognition. It calls out to those who already know. Art decays into nostalgia and then pastiche.

Great art makes new knowers.

Philosophy is thought-art.