Category Archives: Pragmatism

“Comanimity”

Last week I had a fascinating conversation with work friends about the different modes of agreement that happen in team collaboration, and it made me aware that we are lacking language for some very important social phenomena.

Most of the time when we think about agreement, we think in terms of unanimity. (unus “one” + animus “mind”). For very simple and general matters, this understanding of agreement works well.

But for extremely complex technical problems (where no single person’s expertise can cover all the technical workings of the solution of a problem), or extremely deep experiential problems (where no single person’s interpretative range can cover the full range of perspectives through which the solution to a problem will be experienced), unanimity is impossible.

We have developed means to deal with technical complexity. We simply separate ends and means, and seek agreement primarily on ends. The means are handled by departments that specialize in solving specific categories of technical problem. Much of modernity was learning to cope with technical complexity through sophisticated management techniques.

We have not, however, developed adequate means for dealing with deep experiential problems, where ends themselves differ, often irreconcilably, at least if unanimity remains the goal.

Here the pursuit of unanimity is not only futile, but socially disastrous.

Why is pursuit of unanimity is socially disastrous.? Because if we are called upon to produce good solutions for a plurality so diverse that no single person’s empathy can accommodate the range, any unanimity, however smart, sophisticated or benevolent must necessarily exclude a great number of perspectives, and risk alienating them.

What is needed in such cases is a different kind of agreement, which I will call comanimity.

In this kind of agreement, each party participates as an organ of a larger mind, too large to fully comprehend. (com– “together” + animus “mind”) In comanimity, we accept that the understanding in which we participate transcends our personal comprehension, but we don’t simply relegate the unknowns to irrelevance. Rather we cultivate responsiveness to the whole, so we can participate responsibly. We become a subject who participates in sustaining a real but only partially-known super-subject.

Comanimity is lived pluralism.

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An example of comanimity is close marriages between spouses who are deeply different from one another. Each learns to love not only what is known and established in the other, but also learns to love responding to what is novel and surprising in the other — and even more importantly, learning the value of accommodating shocking or disturbing differences. This is where marriages deepen. Some marriages choose peace and polite distance, and stay in the realm of unanimity, but any marriage that pursues intimacy will learn the art of comanimity or end in divorce. My prejudices that comanimity is marriage’s second, and far more crucial consummation.

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I think comanimity is only possible among willing participants and that this cannot be forced.

Most people are unwilling.

And the most unwilling of all are those who belong to a unanimous group that takes its unanimity as the Truth — at least until they stop getting their way… at which time another unanimous group takes over and imposes its Truth, and becomes even more unwilling to see validity beyond its limits.

I hope we can find the desire to transcend fragmented unanimities before it leads us into a civil war. But the grim lesson I’ve leaned, reading about the English and American civil wars, leads me to believe everyone will bet on winning until everyone loses.

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.

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If you know better, please speak up.

Methodic wisdom

Susan and I have been debating what wisdom is. We each felt the other’s view was incomplete. I thought her conception was overlapping too much with prudence; she thought mine reduced wisdom with mere open-mindedness. (Actually, she was right.) As we turned the question and viewed it from multiple angles, it became clear, as is so often the case, that it was a matter of emphasis. She was emphasizing exercise of foresight and consideration — awareness of implications beyond the immediate desires and compulsions. I was emphasizing readiness for thought-defying shock — awareness that our awareness is always partial and situated within a much vaster and weirder context, only the minutest speck of which we are conceptually prepared to understand or even perceive. We’re slowly converging on an agreement. Here’s my latest attempt, written primarily for Susan’s review:

Wisdom is an attitude of mind that considers ramifying implications that transcend the immediate concern, in time, in space and in subjectivity — especially those nonobvious implications that unfold only in careful consideration and those that unfold in ways inconceivable until they unfold in reality and which will be understood as inevitable only in retrospect. Wisdom expects to be surprised, because wisdom knows the limitations of thought, and leaves room for irruptions of reality and the epiphanies they bring.


If we accept this definition of wisdom, that would make design practice a methodical form of wisdom — an alternative to speculative-thought-and-talk decision-making.

Design method directs us to go to the reality we plan to change, and encourages us to interact with it directly, in order to encounter some of the implications and ramifications of our proposed changes — many of which we otherwise would never consider.

Design is methodic wisdom.


Chief among design’s considerations are the subjective ones — the interpretive and experiential consequences of deep, hidden differences in subjectivity that must be learned before they can even be conceived. (* see note below.)

Subjective learning of new conceptions is a rigorous exercise of hermeneutic, intellectual and emotional empathy (which I prefer calling synesis). It can sometimes radically redefine the designer’s understanding of the design problem, by revealing it in a new subjective light with new practical consequences — metanoia.

This metanoia — this new, consequential reconception — simultaneously reframes the problem and opens space for novel solutions. Problems and solutions, questions and answers, possibilities and actualities burst forth together with new conceptions. And because the new conception has been learned from real people and refer to real contexts, the newly conceived solutions are far more relevant and on-the-mark. I like to call design metanoia “precision inspiration”.


(* Note: The whole field of thought around conception is grossly misunderstood. Until a conception is learned, all ideas that require it are either inconceivable — submerged in intellectual blindness, neither perceivable nor imaginable — or misunderstood by another conception that comprehends it in a wrong sense, and commits category mistakes. If the originating conception of a set of ideas is finally acquired, the new conception spontaneously reorders the understandings, both on the whole and in part, and there is an epiphany. If the reconception is a very deep one, upon which many other conceptions are rooted, and these have wide-ranging pragmatic consequences, it can seem that everything has changed all at once. The scales seem to have fallen from one’s eyes, one feels reborn as a new person, and it feels and if the entire world has transfigured itself. Until one has experienced something like this, all language associated with this kind of event sounds like magical hocus-pocus — but this is only a misconception of what remains inconceivable. The consequences of this hocus-pocus are just the copious category mistakes of the believing fundamentalist and the unbelieving antifundamentalist.)

The pragmatic consequences of the Pragmatic Maxim

The amazing thing about Pragmatism is how simple it is in its core. 

The entire Pragmatism philosophy in all its pluralistic blooming, buzzing varieties, as well as pragmatist approaches to myriad other disciplines — is just the working out of the practical consequences of this conception of meaning, encapsulated in the Pragmatic Maxim

In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception.

These are holy words. 

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!

John Dewey on class supremacy

From Human Nature and Conduct:

We are forced therefore to consider the nature and origin of that control of human nature with which morals has been occupied. And the fact which is forced upon us when we raise this question is the existence of classes. Control has been vested in an oligarchy. Indifference to regulation has grown in the gap which separates the ruled from the rulers. Parents, priests, chiefs, social censors have supplied aims, aims which were foreign to those upon whom they were imposed, to the young, laymen, ordinary folk; a few have given and administered rule, and the mass have in a passable fashion and with reluctance obeyed. Everybody knows that good children are those who make as little trouble as possible for their elders, and since most of them cause a good deal of annoyance they must be naughty by nature. Generally speaking, good people have been those who did what they were told to do, and lack of eager compliance is a sign of something wrong in their nature.

But no matter how much men in authority have turned moral rules into an agency of class supremacy, any theory which attributes the origin of rule to deliberate design is false. To take advantage of conditions after they have come into existence is one thing; to create them for the sake of an advantage to accrue is quite another thing. We must go back to the bare fact of social division into superior and inferior.

The concept of concept

The word “concept” is ambiguous. In casual use we tend to treat a concept as the object of conception: an idea we can present to others. But we will also use it in ways that suggest a capacity to conceive. For instance, in math, a teacher will present a concept to a student in multiple ways until the student gets it, and everything snaps in place and becomes clear. What exactly does it mean that the student understands the concept?

The ambiguity can be resolved if we evert our understanding of concept — flip it inside out, reversing all subject-object, interior-exterior relationships. Instead of understanding concept primarily as an object of conception, concept is understood as the subject of conception.

(In other words, a concept is not conceived. A concept conceives. A concept may conceive an idea, or a judgment, or a relationship, or an argument, or a response. Even when we are understanding, we are conceiving — re-conceiving — an existing conception. When the eureka moment hits, what did not make sense suddenly does makes sense. When you repeat words that a moment ago were recited tentatively, you now state them confidently and fluently. The sentence that was a series of disconnected, isolated words is now infused with the coherence and lucidity of a concept — not only said, but meant.)

Even in the case of an object we call a “concept”, the real purpose of that object is to induce a subjective concept capable of “getting” the meaning of the object. It serves as an objective mold against which a subjective being can take shape.

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A concept is that which makes the experiential flux significant in some distinct way.

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Concepts resist conception, in the same way that we cannot see sight or hold onto holding. Concepts are that by which a subject conceives an object, and experiences it as something with significance. Concepts produce objectivity, but are not themselves objects.

This is why concepts can only be defined pragmatically. A concept can only be understood in terms of what it does. Trying to understand a concept by what it is — defining it objectively — renders the very concept of concept unintelligible.

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Pragmatic definition itself provides a fine example of how concepts work.

To understand a meaning pragmatically requires use of a concept.

I can provide C. S. Peirce’s formulation of the pragmatic maxim: “In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception.”

Without the concept by which this maxim becomes comprehensible, the maxim remains meaningless. But once the concept that renders the pragmatic maxim comprehensible is acquired, the concept is available for use in conceiving and understanding pragmatically, without any explicit reference to the maxim which engendered the concept. The more it is used, the more concept is simply a second-natural, undetected act of understanding, indistinguishable from the conception, or from the truth the conception knows, or from reality.

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Acquisition of concepts changes one’s experience of reality, bringing possibilities into conception that were literally inconceivable a moment before. New concepts often effect re-conceptions of existing understandings, spontaneously changing their significance. They can also cause us to perceive new features of reality which were imperceptible or chaotic and vague.

We have many words for these new concept events. Some are inspirational, where new concepts reinforce and strengthen concepts we are already using. They may be epiphanic and reorder much of what we think we know, bringing things into clarity which had been opaque, murky or troubling. Some concepts strike depths of change that are literally inconceivable until the concept irrupts ex nihilo and transfigures literally everything. This is when we talk about conversion.

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By understanding the role concepts play in our relationship with reality, it becomes possible to discuss religious experience without recourse to magical or superstition, which many thinkers, including myself, find intellectually unacceptable, or to psychology, which many religious people, including myself, find reductive, demoralizing and patronizing.

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Can concepts be intentionally changed? Yes.

Does that mean we can start with an intended outcome, such as believing something we want to believe, or feeling some specific way about life that we want to feel, and develop concepts to make us think or feel this desired way? Mostly, no.

We can, however, observe the outcomes of our concepts, and work to discover or create, or discover-create (instaurate) concepts with better outcomes.

And we can even do so with constraints or requirements in mind. Whatever we develop, we might want it to help us feel the value of life more. We might want it to guide our actions more effectively. We might want it to help us explain what cries out for explanation, or to argue for what needs to be argued.

Understanding concepts liberates us from the obligation to passively accept what is presented as truth, simply because it is true. We can also ask: True, how? And we can also ask: True, how else?

Understanding concepts empowers us for pluralist existence.

Redemption by design

Rorty, being intensely Rorty:

…the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature. Monotheistic religion offers hope for redemption through entering into a new relation to a supremely powerful nonhuman person. Belief in the articles of a creed may be only incidental to such a relationship. For philosophy, however, beliefs are of the essence. Redemption by philosophy is through the acquisition of a set of beliefs that represent things in the one way they really are. Literature, finally, offers redemption through making the acquaintance of as great a variety of human beings as possible. Here again, as in religion, true belief may be of little importance.

And redemption by design is arranging the elements of life — people, things, ideas, etc. — in systems that allow them to cooperate for mutual benefit, however benefit is conceived by the cooperating agents.

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I would like to count among the number of cooperating agents, “infrapersons” — psychic components of personality whose dynamic relations produce myriad moods, feelings, experiential colorings. Different designs will engage different infrapersons. Writing with a Bic pen or a #2 Ticonderoga is a different experience because it engages different infrapersons than writing with a Pelikan Souveran M800 or a Rotring 600 pencil. Sitting in a cubicle under a cold fluorescent strobe suppresses elements of self that might come out when sitting under sparkling halogen in a studio space. We feel more “like ourselves” when more of our self — more of our own infrapersons — have an opportunity to emerge and participate in our living. An important task of designers is to acknowledge and serve neglected infrapersons. To the degree it accomplishes this, design generates excitement, newness and je ne sais quoi. Cynics might dismiss this as slaking appetites for pointless consumption, but this is an uncharitable view of the profound relationship people can have with things in the world. I view these proud “anti-materialism” sentiments as a leftist strain of “not of this world” puritanism.)

Moral meta-judgments

I have (in agonistic dialogue with Nick Gall) found a way to distinguish a relative value from a universal moral principle in pragmatic terms. What, precisely, is the difference that makes a difference if we believe in universal moral principles?

My short answer is that if we believe a universal moral principle applies to a judgment, we assign moral value to agreeing with the judgment.

If we believe our judgment is a relative value judgment, we do not assign moral value to agreeing with it.

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I initially framed this as a thought experiment. Imagine Witness A who witnesses an act committed by Actor B, and later reflects on the act with Co-witness C.

Witness A judges Actor B’s act as abhorrent. Co-witness C judges it as okay.

If Witness A understands her judgment as one of relative value, she will still see actor B’s behavior as bad, but will view Co-witness C’s judgment as merely different from her own.

However, if Witness A understands her judgment as one of universal morality, she will judge actor B’s behavior as bad, and meta-judge Co-witness C’s judgment as also bad.

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The universality of a universal moral principle applies less to the object of judgment than to the judging subject. What is universal is the meta-judgment, the belief that here all competent judges should agree.

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Now, of course, what I am saying sets up an infinite regression. But now I’ll get all tricky and say that willingness to keep regressing is also a sign of holding universal moral principles, and refusal to even begin, makes one a value relativist.

We can also do the Rortian move and break apart our naive moral realist reaction from our account of why we are having the reaction. (“I, for one, will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice, even though I know they are just socially-contingent feelings.”) This move seems aimed primarily at weakening our meta-judgments. (“Because my emotions are socially contingent, it is acceptable for you to not share them.”)

The move could be made to work not only on our judgments, but also our meta-judgments (and our meta-meta-judgments). (“I will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice and also tolerance of injustice, even though they just my socially-contingent feelings.”) But now what does this line of thought do?

So far, I cannot see any pragmatic consequence for this move unless it nullifies our meta-judgments. All I can come up with we might adopt this strategy for the sake of conceptual coherence — keeping our understanding of how things hang together hanging together better.

For me, this move is an unacceptable tradeoff — of sincerity for theoretical coherence. I am unable to avoid having negative judgments of nonjudgmental attitudes toward certain clear cut cases of viciousness. However much I call them epiphenomenal, I believe these judgments and meta-judgments are valid, and act on their validity.

I can’t say way — not yet, anyway —but this prioritization of sincerity over coherence strikes me as being a matter of relative values, of philosophical taste. I do not expect everyone to prioritize sincerity over coherence, and I do not meta-judge those with different priorities.

Genre Trouble

Thank you Richard Rorty:

“The more original a book or a kind of writing is, the more unprecedented, the less likely we are to have criteria in hand, and the less point there is in trying to assign it to a genre. We have to see whether we can find a use for it. If we can, then there will be time enough to stretch the borders of some genre or other far enough to slip it in, and to draw up criteria according to which it is a good kind of writing to have invented. Only metaphysicians think that our present genres and criteria exhaust the realm of possibility. Ironists continue to expand that realm.”

1) I love this quote. I have extreme trouble coloring inside the lines of preexisting genres, given the fact that my worldview is a synthesis of an esoteric and Nietzschean perversion of Pragmatism, a hall-of-mirrors reflective design practice, and an idiosyncratic take on religion bordering on universal heresy (which is why I’m Jewish). Consequently, I have little hope of (or interest in) writing a book that does not generate a genre. This is why I will need to continue to self-publish. I feel a combination of impatience and panic when it is suggested that I need to nail down my audience, as if they already exist, and write to them, for their sake.) Also, nobody is going to craft a book to my standards. I may need to buy letterpress and bookbinding equipment.

2) To find a use for a new kind of writing… The above passage was embedded in an extended pragmatic exploration of Derrida’s writing. Rorty suggested that we forget what Derrida was asserting, and instead ask: what was he doing with his writing? I like translating this to: Forget the content — what does his genre want to do, and why? He is doing something new with writing, and to allow it to do its new thing for us we have to release it from the purposes and rules governing the genre(s) of philosophy.

3) Point 2 is getting very close to my interests (which is hardly surprising given that Rorty is the proto- pragmatist pervert). To create a new kind of writing, then find a use for it — is very much, to my designerly eyes, like intellectual R&D. This follows the pattern of how many technologies are developed, especially very new and unfundable ones. Some playful or obsessive technologist in love with a problem or a material intuits a possibility and follows hunches to produce some ingenious invention. This invention inspires other similar types — lovers of engineering problems — to push it further, just to see what they can get it to do. Eventually, the inventing proliferates, refines and develops to the point where it attracts the attention of some practical mind who sees in this invention the key to solving some specific real-world problem. Now a technology is ready to cross the threshold between technology and product.

4) What kind of mind escorts a potentially useful technology through the journey that transforms it into a useful, usable and desirable product and out into the marketplace? Lots of people try to do this work. The ones who are best at shaping technologies into products (a.k.a. goods or services) that fit human needs, desires and life-practices are designers. Designers (whether they are called that or not) are the people who see human life as vast, complex, often messy, systems, and understand that products are subcomponents of these human systems. The success of a product hinges on how readily it integrates into these human systems. (Increasingly designers are considering more than end-user integration, and are getting involved in manufacturing, distribution, promotion, merchandising, purchase, use, service, disposal, recycling, etc.) Wherever human and nonhuman systems are meant to integrate, designers increase the chances the integration will succeed. Some designers see a technology and immediately grasp its product potential, others keep up with technologies of various kinds so when they are given a human problem they can play matchmaker between this problem and the solutions in their imaginations, still others start with a thorough understanding of people and their lives and learn to define these problems so they inspire solutions from more technological minds. The best designers do all three, and effectively straddle and blur (or, rather interweave and entangle) the lines between technological and human systems.

5) What if we view philosophy as it is done today as technological development? And applied philosophies as slightly more focused technologies carried a step closer to problem types? Is there not room for a discipline that uses design methods (especially HCD, human-centered design methods) to apply philosophical technologies to very particular cases. Such a discipline would research problematic situations and the people, things and contexts that constitute them, define problems to be solved with the help philosophical “technologies”, shape conceptual systems that resolve these problems and develop materials to help an organization adopt the improved, more useful, usable and desirable philosophy? What if we use deep HCD to throw organizational business-as-usual thinking into crisis, so that it clears the ground and opens it into perplexity (what Wittgenstein identified as the philosophical negative-space of “here I do not know how to move around”), upon which a new philosophy can be designed (“to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” as Sellars put it).

6) If I view my problem as a genre problem, I can say I want to write a book outlining a new discipline as the first (at least first self-conscious) product of this discipline. I want to design a philosophy of philosophy design. It will be erected on an assumed metaphysical foundation — a faith — that doing such a thing is not only permissible, but necessary. But, being a designed conceptual product, it will seek voluntary adoption instead of argumentative coercion. It will try to demonstrate that this discipline, viewed in this way, viewed from this carefully designed perspective will be a useful, usable and desirable way for certain kinds of people to live their lives and make their livings, and that (this will be secondary) that organizations that hire and support people who do this kind of work will help generate more usefulness, usability and desirability for its employees, partners and customers.

7) Whatever we call them — Organizational Philosophers? Concept Designers? POV Framers — they will be responsible for:

  • Understanding how different people involved in an organization or part of an organization (department, office, team, etc.) think;
  • How these ways of thinking converge, diverge, harmonize and conflict;
  • What tradeoffs each of these ways of thinking make in terms of what domains of knowledge they do a good job of comprehending and communicating, versus what they must deemphasize, ignore, suppress or neglect in order to have clarity?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of values — what values do they elevate and serve, and what must they deprioritize or sacrifice in order to focus their sense of purpose?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of method — what kinds of action does it guide effectively and what kinds of action does it misdirect, encumber or fail to support?
  • Analyzing what the organization wants to be and to accomplish, and determining what an organization’s thinking needs to help it comprehend, do and care about.
  • Leading the development of conceptual frameworks the organization can use to think together in order to better be and do what it aspires to.
  • Communicate and teach the new conceptual frameworks using various vehicles such as visual models, verbal and visual explanations, taxonomies, glossaries of shared vocabulary, reference materials and training programs.
  • Testing and iterating both the frameworks and the communication/teaching vehicles.
  • Socializing and encouraging adoption of concepts across the organization.

This is what I want to do with my life, and this book will be a justification, a description of how it should be thought about and done, and be a proof on concept of what the profession produces.

Now, this is just me writing about a possibility. I cannot guarantee it will stick, and I’m not even sure I didn’t just derail my original plan for Second Natural, but it is at least getting me closer to what my intuition seems to want me to talk about.

I did not start off meaning to write this post, but here we are.

This is why we read Richard Rorty.

Ontocracy

As I’ve complained many times before, Richard Rorty’s theory of truth in Irony, Contingeny and Solidarity is radically logocentric.

Rorty sets up change of language, specifically in our choice and use of metaphors, as the driving force behind the evolution of truth. We perceive the history of our language games culminating in the language game we use today as progress toward knowledge of truth.

He contrasts this with an opposing conception of language as “a medium which is gradually taking on the true shape of the true world or the true self.”

The goal is to shed all external referees of truth, whether that arbiter is God, Nature, Logic or anything that stands outside humankind and imposes judgment, and to finally take responsible for our own truth, and also to claim our creative freedom to the fullest extent. We evolve our own language games by way of our own language games, and are limited only by what the players of the language game can and will do with their language.

To be fair, Rorty wrote a lot of books and essays, and I have only read some of it. I am aware he took science very seriously, and also that he also sometimes over-stated positions primarily for rhetorical reasons. I am assuming that what I have said above is not doing full justice to Rorty’s most carefully stated positions.

What I am more interested in here, is this: I am not aware of him ever taking a third position that is compatible with his project, but which can (maybe boringly) give the nonlinguistic world its due in our evolving conceptions of truth. I suspect he never considered it, and that if he had, he might have preferred it.

Rorty was incredibly smart, so I make this claim with appropriately shaking knees.

This third position, which I learned from Bruno Latour, refuses to treat the external world as one monolithic being capable of acting as a referee, but nonetheless treats it as something that does do quite a bit of “judging” of different sorts.

Latour’s external world is made of networks of human and non-human actors causing one another to act. He has described these networks in political terms. Human and non-human actors alike enlist one another, resist one another, combine forces and act as one, gain strength, lose strength, become weak, break apart and disintegrate. Human life is largely a matter of creating, extending and redirecting networks of heterogeneous beings. Among these beings are words (which exist within networks of words, called languages) which are connected to networks of objects, people, other words, etc.

Nature, then, is a category that refers to a loose collection of diverse actors in diverse networks. When we engage in science, what we are doing, in effect, is collaborating with non-human actors to understand how they act on other actors, and fit into actual or possible networks. This activity can be described as working to extend our democracy to non-human actors and find ways to involve them in the networks that constitute our lives. In this way, the myriad beings we include in “nature” do in fact interact directly with our language and help shape it, but without standing outside language as a model for the form language should take. Nature and words are strung together, woven together, act together. If the words we choose form shoddy networks with the entities they are suppose to interact with, “false”, “untrue” or “less true” are pretty good words to describe what is happening. A whole language that puts words into strong and extensive networks with one another, with people and nonhuman entities really can be judged as truer than one that creates networks that cannot extend without tapering or disintegrating.

No, with this third view, which can be called an “ontocratic theory of truth” does not survive as what we took it to be, but is does survive as something that connects human beings to a reality that extends beyond us and our words. And if we want our words to do more for us than to win agreement from other people, that is an extremely important capability.

It’s probably not enough for the staunchest anti-relativists, but it most certainly avoids many of the worst objections to relativism, at least the ones that bother me me most, while preserving the most important advantages of relativism, which is pluralism and pluralism’s creative freedom of thought.

Ritual design and privacy

The New York Times published an article last week “The Office Is Adrift. Divinity Consultants Are Here to Save It.”

There have been times in my life when I might have been friendlier toward the ideas in this article, but I’ve grown not only wary, but hostile to this kind of blurring of lines separating the personal and the private. The following is a slightly edited email I wrote to a friend this morning, who also reacted negatively to the article, for her own reasons.

Here is what is bothering me most about this article: The last thing any of us needs right now is compulsory religious practice handed down from on high by any ruling authority — private, public or (increasingly) both.

Another thing that bothers me for more personal reasons is encapsulated in this line: ‘Some of the rituals I grew up with in Protestantism really have emotional utility.” To which I commented in my notes: “Unitarianism in a fucking nutshell.” I grew up in a compulsory, artificial religion made up by folks who saw religion as serving utilitarian social and emotional purposes, and who saw traditional religious practices as crude, but salvageable social tools that could be put to better use by more evolved, rational, modern intellectuals.

Another line also leaped out at me: “‘We’ve seen brands enter the political space,’ said Casper ter Kuile, a co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. Citing a Vice report, he added: ‘The next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality.’”

This entry of brands into politics translates directly into the entry of political ideology into the workplace, which I view as a direct threat to the private realm of individuality. Suddenly your employer has a legit business case for meddling with your personal worldview, your private judgments, your utopian hopes, your faith. Suddenly, outward behaviors — etiquette and professionalism — are not enough. You must adopt certain sociological theories, attitudes toward spirituality, feelings about other people, because these innermost secrets do subtly affect other people, not only in what you do (motivated reasoning, biased judgments, microaggressions), but even worse, in what you do not do (silence is violence!) and these little actions and nonactions add up to grand-scale oppression. Therefore, we are entitled to rummage around in your personal convictions looking for evidence of thought crimes, because we take seriously our obligation to take part in creating a more just society. Besides (according to our own political view) everything is unavoidably political — we are just making our politics more explicit and intentional, which means abandoning pretensions of “neutrality.”

What can be said of politics can also be said of religious faith: everything is unavoidably a matter of religious faith. What we hold sacred and make central to who we are shapes what we think, how we feel, how we interact, what we are motivated to do. Our collective values have everything to do with the quality of our work lives, and so they are a valid concern of any enlightened employer. And therefore rituals that affirm these values are a reasonable thing to require from employees.

But even if those rituals are not compulsory, they create performative belonging and not-belonging. Back when I was a youth, the UUs created a little ritual where the children would leave the adult service to go to R.E. (Religious Education) and they would playfully skip out to this jaunty and saccharine children’s ditty on the piano. I resented being pushed into this ritual performance of what these assholes thought childlikeness was. The kids would produce childlikeness, and the adults would laugh, and rejoice and contemplate how they would like to recover their own childlikeness. I’d wait for it to end, then angrily sneak out, with renewed alienation. Years later, among Orthodox Christians, I was the one who never crossed himself, who never asked priests for blessings, who at Easter never said “indeed he is risen!’ In response to “Christ is risen!”, though, on occasion my agnosticism moved me to answer “perhaps he has risen.”

These actions put me outside of these groups, to them and to myself. And that is one of the functions of rituals, to exteriorize faith in visible behaviors. It is a physical way of confirming shared conviction, which is why *religious* communities do them.

And this points to why only religious communities should do them. We enter a religious community and gather with them precisely because we share a common faith and are happy to see others who share that faith with us. Synagogues, churches, temples are spaces set aside for gathering to affirm, share and cultivate faith in various ways. And those present who do not share the faith will feel with utmost tangibility the issue of belonging or not belonging.

Rituals remove that shelter of reticence which softens and downplays inner difference in situations where people of diverse faith must collaborate and accomplish things together. Instead of rituals of inner faith we do rituals of etiquette, where we demonstrate outer respect, willingness to set aside, suppress or even conceal inner differences in order to take up common goals and to collaborate effectively and harmoniously as possible. It is true, this does mean we must disguise ourselves in certain situations, that we will sometimes feel phony or compromised, or that many of the most important aspects of ourselves must remain un-expressed in work settings.

But if we are alert and reflective and work actively and intentionally to develop more mature understandings of personhood and social existence, something weird happens to us. We grow to develop an intense loyalty to these “soulless”, “formal” institutions that observe boundaries between public, social and private realms and preserve each with thoughtful tradeoffs. The etiquette rituals become almost matters of inner faith — the acknowledgement that not baring our souls to each other all the time permits us to develop as unique persons.

This ties into some thinking I’ve been doing on Richard Rorty’s idea of the public and private realm. I think there’s a third realm between the two, that we should call the social realm, where we come together as members of groups and interact in rule-governed ways but outside the scope of law.

The controversy of our time is where the boundaries should be drawn between these three domains. Which changes ought to be political, and are matters of legislation and legal penalty? Which are social, and are matters of etiquette and interpersonal penalty? And which matters are private, and should be protected from politics and society?

The Mercury Mikvah

Sometimes if I drink too much scotch I will announce the “I am never drinking ever again for a week.”

An ironic worldview permits statements like this. Why not admit that eternally-binding resolves, while being experienced in the moment as permanent, are, simultaneously, recognized in history/biography as temporary?

I will argue that this kind of ironizing is not only permissible but necessary and good, and supportive of a liberal, pluralistic society.

A pluralist experiences the self-evident truth and goodness of their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions against a deeper ground of myriad others who also experience their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions as self-evidently true and good.

Pluralism includes pluralism of scale. A historically conscious pluralist is aware that the plurality of worldviews exists not only individually, but collectively. It pertains not only to individuals, but to cultures, and to the deep interrelationships between individuals and cultures. Much of what was obviously and indubitably true and good in the past is now, to us, absurd, abhorrent and naive — and most of all to what seemed most certain and foundational. The same thing is certain to happen to our present shared convictions and foundational beliefs.

Pluralism includes pluralism of self in time. A self-aware, apperceptive pluralist will count among the myriad others their own past selves, and recall the fact, even if they cannot fully recall the experiences themselves (including the convictions and their attendant blindnesses, which, once unblinded cannot be re-blinded).

Pushing pluralism of self in time further, the most radical pluralist will count as crucially important their possible future selves. They will recall themselves prior to a past change, taking care to remember what that past self understood “everything” to include, along with the field of possibilities that followed from it. And they will recall the shock of epiphany, of change in worldview, of change in what seemed evident, relevant, possible and permanent. The experiential resources needed to anticipate future transformation are drawn indirectly (and negatively) from experiences of past transformations.

Pluralism is empathic. An empathic pluralist will strain to do full justice to their memories of the in-between of worldviews and stretch it out into its own story, in a progression of anxiety, to aversion, to panic, and finally to perplexity, where orientation, definition, method, logic and words fail. They will never forget why so few willingly immerse in this mercury mikvah — this expanse of the worldless-blinds, the liminal void, the rings of ego-solvent Hadean waters, the churning chrome of “seen” blindness — and why those facing it deserve understanding, if not compassion.

And finally, pluralism is reflexive, symmetric and demanding. A committed pluralist will know, with the intensest irony, that they, most of all, fear reentering liminal perplexity. Even with their experiences of before, during and blissful after, even with their firsthand evidence and insights — they will balk like everyone else when the time comes for them to follow their own advice. Those others — they are the ones who need to go in. But, the pluralist will also know, with all the irony they can intentionally summon, that they must keep going back in, and that their only claim to their own kind of truth and goodness is going back in, despite their already-knowing of everything worth knowing.

*

My moral alchemy has its own weird metallurgy which transmutes silver, gold, mercury and iron(y).

Rorty therapy

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

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

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

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

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

My best voice

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

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

Next book: Philosophy of Design of Philosophy

Now that I’ve gotten Geometric Meditations into a finished state I am starting to feel a compulsion to write a more accessible book about design, tentatively titled Philosophy of Design of Philosophy. I’m excited to be freed from the excessive formal constraints that made Geometric Meditations take so long to finish.

There are several key points I want to make.

  1. Design needs to be rethought, along with its relationship with engineering. I propose re-defining design as “the intentional development of hybrid systems composed of interacting human and non-human elements.” Most importantly the human elements of the system should include the people for whom the system is intended, treated as an intrinsic part of the designed system, and interior to it — not exterior users of a system designed to be used by them. Follow this link to see a visualization comparing the “conventional” and “hybrid systems” view.
  2. We find it difficult to define design, and distinguish design from other creative activities (like art and engineering) because we think in a way that obscures the question. In particular, the way we think about making tools and using tools has gradually become inadequate for dealing with the world as it has evolved. Our working philosophies have grown obsolete, and their very obsolescence makes us look for solutions every but philosophy.
  3. Philosophies are essentially tools we use for living lives in an infinitely complex radically pluralistic reality. Every philosophy has advantages and trade-offs, meaning they make it easy, even automatic, to have some kinds of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and responses, and nearly impossible to think, feel, perceive and respond in other ways — and these other ways might be the key to confronting what are perceived, conceived and felt to be insoluble problems. Designers will recognize in this description characteristics common to all design problems, and that is my intention. The design field has developed effective techniques for dealing with problems of this kind. I propose we approach philosophy as design problems, using design methodologies to interrogate problematic situations we face to uncover and frame the most fruitful problems, to develop holistic approaches to thinking them that permit solutions to these problems, to iteratively experiment with and improve our practical thinking. I call this understanding and approach to philosophy “design instrumentalism”. We need to design philosophies that help us design better lives for ourselves, and this book will hopefully contribute to this project.
  4. Part of the reason we need to take design much more seriously is that who we are is changed by what we design. Indirectly, when we design things we use, we design ourselves. And this is because human being is extended being. To be a human being means to have one’s own being stream out into the world in every direction. Despite what spiritual conventional wisdom tells us, in some very important ways we are our possessions, we belong to where we live and we are our egos. But what we are can be released, transformed, improved or degraded based on what we do with ourselves: our environments, our physical tools, our conceptual/mental tools, our life practices, etc. This part of the book draws on extended cognition, cyborg theory, ANT, postphenomenology crossbred with existentialism, but I plan to be atrociously unscholarly, synthetic and magisterial in my approach and keep external references to a minimum. The goal here is to reframe human existence in a way that liberates us from the subject-object and self-other dichotomies that dominate the working philosophies that unconsciously shape our conscious thoughts. (The pre-conscious “how” of our thinking produces the “what” of our thoughts. I may have to also take some potshots at pop-psychologism that views the unconscious as sneaky little mind forces that lurk about behind the scenes motivating us this way or biasing us that way. Where most folks see secularized demons, I see poorly designed conceptual systems, a.k.a. philosophies.)
  5. The process of being human is a nonlinear (iterative feedback) process of co-evolution. As we change the world, the world changes us. This process has brought us to a perilous point where we must choose our next step very carefully.

This is an early sketch, but I think some of the ideas are interesting and consequential, and I think it will be fun to right. And my design approach will ensure that at least some people will find the book useful, usable and desirable.

Other names for design instrumentalism

This whole line of thought I’ve been calling “design instrumentalism” — and the minimally technical language I use for describing it — has become increasingly productive. I can’t write in my own voice and exclude all philosophical language — especially those words and names that have become experience-near for me and are organic elements of my thinking.

I have, however gotten feedback that the name itself might be confusing or annoying, so I’m considering other names.

“Axiopragmatism” is one option — which has the virtue of explicitly introducing valuative/moral/aesthetic concerns to a school which has been accused of excluding them.

I’m still thinking, and I’m open to suggestions.