Category Archives: Synesis

Common sense

Most of the time, when we say “common sense”, assuming we bother meaning something precise by our words, we mean one of two things: the sense of things we all (should) have in common, or the sense of things common people (should) have. Conversely, lacking common sense is failing to understand what is self-evident to everyone else, or it is being oblivious to what is obvious to common people.

However common sense has another less common meaning. Common sense can mean that sense of things that emerges from the coordination and convergence of all our senses. We intuit that our senses are each different modes of access to a world common to all — a multi-sensory world which transcends any single sense. What we see, we can also hear, smell, taste, touch — and interact with.

If we experience life with all our senses, and account for the full experience instead of just what we see or hear, that gives us something much truer than a truth based only on reflecting on what we see or what we hear. We develop a common sense understanding triangulated, quadrangulated, sextangulated, myriadangulated, and endowed with parallactic depth.

I just read that intuition is the spiritual sense of touch, and that gnosis is the spiritual sense of hearing.

I think we can only know this is true if we can understand what is meant by this analogy.

And I think we can only know what is meant by this analogy if we exercise sensory common sense.

And with this, intuition and gnosis become intrinsic to a deeper common sense.

Ideologies prey on people whose primary experience of the world is spectatorial. Ideology is founded on hearsay and look-see, and absence of direct participation. They look out at a world of televised images seen from a distance. They hear or read reports about things that happen elsewhere and compare them to other things they have heard or read about.

Ideology projects a world of word and image that is consumed and thought about and talked about in a pre-formatted way. Repeatedly consuming these ideologically formatted images and reports, and performing the ideology’s approved actions, thoughts and feelings gradually reformats the consumer in conformity with the ideology. 

Ideologies render those caught up in their closed autonomous logics, numb and deaf to reality.

Is truth constructed?

Ideological truth is constructed.

Common sense truth, however, is instaurated in unceasing collaboration with the inexhaustible. 

A cure for nihilism

I just had this thought as if it were my own:

Poetry is language attending to what transcends language.

If Jan Zwicky hasn’t expressed this thought it would surprise me. If she expressed it in exactly these words it would not surprise me. I cannot remember.

But I do know that I would not have had this thought had I not read her. Yet, I did just have this thought myself.

I rehad her thought.


This is how it is with the kind of philosophies I love:

They give us new givens, if we are hospitable and take them in.

They outfit us with new transcendental conceptions (together-takings) that make us aware of givens that would otherwise evade our awareness. They allow us to understand, anticipate, perceive, recognize and think in radically new ways.

These new conceptions allow new being to irrupt into our sense of everything, ex nihilo, expanding, deepening and enriching the realm of possibility. They miraculously make the word “everything” larger and more accommodating.*

If this can happen once, it can always happen again.

Nothing — nothingness — will ever be the same again, because we can never be sure that some inconceivable somethingness isn’t lurking behind the nothingness, waiting to burst through and flood our lives with glory.

How could we ever take nothingness at face value, ever again?

How could we be nihilists, ever again?

We become exnihilists.


What does it mean to transcend language?

It means to suspend that impulse to recognize everything and assign it a word.

It means to notice those moments when we respond? without the guidance of speech, and to refrain from labeling those moments “absentminded”, but instead to become curious about who is doing all this doing, being all this being, am-ing all this am-ness.

Maybe we are truly absent in these moments — but maybe it is only speech that is absent. How do we discern? Do we really think sitting around talking to ourselves or to each other is going to clarify the issue? To speech, speechlessness is nothingness, but more is going on in us than speech can capture in its textual web.

Words can call us to what is beyond words. And that is exactly what they ought to do.

Language-breakers: Meditation mats, usability labs, acid tabs, shock…

Note: * Expanding, deepening and enriching the realm of possibility, making the word “everything” larger and more accommodating — this is the effect of magnanimity. The measure of a soul is how much is meant by the pragmatic sprawl of its belief in “everything”. But just beyond that sprawl is an inexhaustible more-than-everything, the wellspring of holiness, the awareness of which is wisdom.

Synesis and perplexity

Learning is never just a passive transmission of truths from one mind to another. Learning is an integration of new knowledge into an existing body of knowledge.

All this knowledge, old and new, is held together with intuitive knowing — pre-verbal relating, responding or feeling — of various kinds. This intuitive holding-together is what is meant when we say we understand something. Behind every understanding is a complex coordination of intuitions — an intuitive concerting that makes sense of something. And behind that is intuitive holding-together of understandings that situates and relates each bit of knowledge within our overall sense of the world.

The Greeks, with staggering elegance, called understanding synesis.

Synesis means, simply, “bring together”. Synesis is a bringing together one’s own various intuitions, in order to bring together various ideas and perceptions into something understood, which is then brought together with the rest of one’s understandings, one’s holistic understanding of everything. And once something is understood by one person, it can then be taught to other persons, and then there is a fourth bringing together: shared understanding. So synesis brings together many diverse kinds of bringing together: intuitive, phenomenal, conceptual, social.

Sometimes people must come together to develop an understanding where understanding does not yet exist.

There is a problematic situation that is understood only partially, vaguely and inadequately — or that is understood in conflicting ways — or, far more rarely, is perplexing to everyone involved. Nobody can even agree on what the problem is, or what the questions are that need answering.

These problematic situations are uncannily challenging. The more the situation is examined and analyzed, the less clear it becomes. People begin to see and feel the contradictions in their own positions. Superficial and vague opinions fall apart and dissolve into incoherence.

The problematic situation becomes a full perplexity: a failure of understanding so total that articulating the problem or asking questions is impossible.

Perplexities generate intense anxiety. It is the anxiety we all felt as students struggling to understand a math problem, or trying to get the meaning of a poem or text passage we find opaque. It is the feeling we have when someone corners us and overwhelms us with details on topics we know nothing about, and they refuse to let us disengage. Perhaps you feel some anxiety right now.

In perplexity we are confronted with a demand to understand something that defies all understanding.

If we can avoid confronting a perplexity, we will. We will ignore it, or get by with a vague gist, or we will dismiss what perplexes us as nonsense, or as something for someone else to figure out, something that is not for us.

If we cannot ignore, evade or escape the perplexity, and are forced to confront and enter it, the anxiety can bloom into intense negative feelings. We might feel hostility toward the situation and the people involved in it, especially those who seem responsible for inflicting the anxiety. We might see them as hostile, aggressive, maybe even vicious, malicious or even evil. If we respond accordingly, we might be vicious, malicious or evil, ourselves, but with just cause, of course.

But the anxiety is not about any thing or person. Anxiety is something we go into, something we are in, something that grips us, and which then infuses everything around us, even our memories and prospects. It is like depression.

Referring to anxiety (or perplexity) as “something” is not exactly right. Anxiety is not really a thing. It is, in fact, an everything. It is our own self in a certain mode of existence, refracted through every particular of our existence.

When we in a state of perplexity we become anxiety, because anxiety is the experience of perplexity, and in it our enworldment, the world as it is for us, becomes anxious, on the whole and in detail.

Why does perplexity cause anxiety?

Generations of existentialists have taught us that anxiety is caused by nothingness, and most of all by our own eventual nothingness: death.

No being wants to die. Every synesis is also a being, and does not want to die.

Perplexity is synetic nothingness, in every dimension. It is the nothingness of shared understanding, social alienation. It is the nothingness of significance in a mass of incomprehensible data, chaos. It is the nothingness of our own intuitive coherence, nihilism, self-alienation. It is an ontological migraine. It is drowning in blindness and nullity. It is selfhood’s death, even when one knows the body will live on.

When perplexity happens, a synesis will need to come apart, essentially to die, so it can be brought back together in a form capable of making sense of what confronts it.

It is rare for one’s deepest synesis to be threatened in this way. But areas of understanding, even relatively minor subjects, say our understanding of an academic subject, or an understanding of another person’s subjectivity, or a problem we encounter at work, can throw us into crises.

When synesis is allowed to come apart and then is brought back together as a new synesis capable of ordering what was chaos, to conceive ideas that were inconceivable, to speak where speech was impossible, even to perceive what was imperceptible — and, further, is able to do so in a way that can be shared with other people who, before, were unable before to establish a shared understanding — something else happens, too — something unprovable, difficult to speak about, but absolutely palpable: more of one’s own self is brought together in the new understanding.

It as if silent, intuitive aspects of our inner selves — marginal, suppressed bits of potential within us — alienated spirits — are invited to participate in this new, more expansive understanding, and to become full citizens of ourselves.

We feel more whole, and we feel more connected to others, and to our own world, and to the greater reality. And, if we are open to it, we feel an embeddedness within a vast, incomprehensible reservoir of infinite potential, which exceeds, envelops, sustains and conceives reality.

Once we enter perplexity, how do we bring together a new synesis?

It is a how, and one that cannot be said or foreseen, only done through its own synesse. It is done using words, but much of it happens prior to language. It is done by groping, feeling, smelling, intuiting.

“Here I do not know how to move around.”

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.)

Synesse revision

I largely rewrote the synesse entry in my Designerly virtues article. “Designerly virtues” is one of the most important things I’ve written this year, and it will be the kernel of Second Natural.

One other note: I think Design Instrumentalism is an updated form of existentialism — a pragmatic existentialism that uses design methods.

The new synesse entry: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights open new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”


The earlier version was: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be feeling-led, where synesis is reason-led, seeking insight into how a person’s thinking shapes perception, interpretation, conception and valuation, which provides insight into feeling. Second, the goal is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is for each person to approach the other to produce a  mutual understanding that allows each to effectively relate to the other. The most important distinction is achievability of the goal. The ideal of empathy sets an impossible goal for itself. No person can feel what another feels. But synesis is very possible: we can always reach mutual understandings if both people truly want it and willing to work to achieve it. Synesis is the precisely the form of creative understanding most important in design work — not only for our users but within our design teams. We have to create new thought-spaces to get to the goal of synesis, so we become able to understand one another’s understandings and “get aligned”. These same new thought spaces also enable novel creative solution, which is why design research stimulates radical innovation. —  But synesis is an intensely challenging activity that involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, and in fact all the designerly virtues, in complex coordination. And when we practice this constellation of virtues together, so we get better at it and it functions as a single motion, this is the virtue of synesse, the capacity for synesis. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

Designerly virtues

In my decades of design work, collaborating with a wide variety of people from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds, personalities and workstyles, I’ve noticed that the attitudes most helpful for doing good design work are often reversals of conventional virtues.  I’ve developed a habit of humorously flouting these common virtues and valorizing their opposites.

Over time, this exaggerated oppositional attitude has become my own weird style of professionalism, and these inverted vices have become what I am calling designerly virtues. This post will be a first draft of a list of designerly virtues.

Cooriginality — Designers prize dialogical creativity over individual creativity. We are proud to have contributed to new ideas that pack more insight and expertise than can fit inside the mind of any one person. Cooriginality challenges the modern ideal of the self-sufficient lone genius, who hatches original ideas with no help from anyone.

Epistemic humility — Designers are so accustomed to being wrong, that they eventually become cheerful about the inevitability of being refuted, usually where they least expect it. This acceptance of inevitable error is the mark of experience, not pride that one’s theories will be proved correct. Epistemic humility challenges the desire to be the guy who’s alway one step ahead, who knew all along.

The following three virtues are probably components of epistemic humility, or examples of it:

  • Impertise — Impertise is the opposite of expertise. I guess I could have called it anti-expertise. It is a kind of receptive “beginner’s mind” attitude that constantly tries to perceive all possible novelty in what a more superficial expert glance might dismiss as a redundant, derivative reinvention of the wheel. An impert will try, and almost always find something unprecedented, significant and exciting, to inspire cooriginal creativity. Impertise complements the ideal of expertise, which surveys every situation, classifies it and prescribes a known solution, by adding a critical awareness of expertise’s current limits.
  • Blindsight — Everyone has blind spots. The most perverse characteristic of blind spots is they are blind most of all to themselves. Right this minute you have two blindspots in your field of vision where a optical nerve pokes through each of your retinas, and in each region your vision is interrupted? See it? No, you don’t. When we are blind, literally or metaphorically our vision continues, uninterrupted, right across what we are failing to see — the unknown unknowns — and nothing seems amiss. Blindsight is insight into how blindness really works, and abandonment of the effort to map our blindnesses and compensate with theoretical knowledge, because more often than not, our blindness conceals where we are most blind. Blindsight relies instead on one’s peers — especially the ones we conflict with most — to point out realities to which we are truly oblivious, and think simply do not exist. Blindsight challenges the ideal of corrected vision — the notion that through conscientious calculation, scrupulous adherence to technique and using un-distorting “lenses” we can adequately neutralize our worst subjective blindnesses, biases, and train ourselves to perceive more objectively and justly.
  • Receptivity to be taught — Everyone wants to be a teacher, but the best teachers have something to teach precisely because they have been receptive learners. This is very different from knowing how to inform oneself, which leaves the learner in control. To be taught is to submit to learning: to allow an other to control how the information is presented. Every subject of study has its own effective ways to present its own distinctive kind of knowledge. A math student who comes to a poetry class to interrogate the teacher on the theorems and proofs of verse creates needless obstacles. Human subjects share this characteristic with academic subjects: it is best to invite the teacher to teach, then hand over control. But this is a rare and difficult art especially for people who strongly prefer to play the role of the teacher. Receptivity to be taught complements the ideal of taking the role of teacher.

Phronesis — Phronesis is tacit know-how acquired through hands-on experience. Being tacit, phronesis doesn’t always lend itself to explicit language, but rather, demonstrates itself in practice. When people who understand theory very clearly and who can explain it eloquently, struggle to apply that theory effectively and to adjust their methods to fit contingencies, phronesis is what is lacking. Another reason phronesis is important is “intuitive” design harnesses existing or easily-acquired phronesis to enable users to skillfully interact with a system without having to explicitly figure out or memorize how. Phronesis complements theory with tacit skills that enable mastery of theoretical and physical systems as well as effective improvisation where explicit methods are not available.

Apprehension tolerance — Sartre was right when he said “hell is other people.” Trying to align with other people on how to think about phenomena with no pre-fab interpretation is an intensely anxious undertaking, and frankly, it freaks many people out. Experienced designers learn how to handle this apprehension, and in fact come to see in it a symptom of impending breakthrough, especially when breakthrough seems impossible. Apprehension is the birth pangs of profound insights. With practice we learn how to breathe, relax and deliver radically new ideas. Apprehension tolerance challenges the ideal of the peacemaker who steps in and defuses tension and conflict and restores harmony.

Principled disloyalty — Many designers are afraid to be excited or attached to new ideas, because these ideas might turn out to be wrong, infeasible or otherwise inadequate. But design is inspired and propelled by precisely this excitement and commitment. A good solution to this dilemma is to cultivate an equal and opposite proud and disciplined readiness to reject a beloved idea when it is time to say goodbye. The virtue of principled disloyalty challenges two ideals at once: 1) the passionate champion of the believed-in ideal, and 2) the objective detached rationalist who holds no strong position, out of fear of becoming a passionate champion.

Personal goodwill — Good designers must care more about their colleagues and the people they serve more than their own ideas, and must constantly reaffirm this commitment: “I care more about you and my relationship with you than I care about any of my ideas.” This kind of goodwill is absolutely necessary to do the deep, challenging and often painful work of design. The ideal of personal goodwill challenges the ideal of the true believer whose principles, creed, or ideals matter more than anything else in the world.

Pluralist comparison — There are many good solutions to any problem. Those who believe there is only one ideal solution will be tempted to cling to the first eureka. Sometimes that first solution turns out to be the best. But teams that keep going often find other solutions to consider, and sometimes they find those later solutions are far preferable to the first one. Pluralist comparison challenges the ideal of the discovery of the right solution that is searched for until it is found.

Tradeoff sense — Designers understand that perfection is always a function of certain kinds of partial attention, and that closer scrutiny always reveals unobtrusive trade-offs. The goal is not a solution without trade-offs, but rather a solution with tradeoffs so optimal that they go unnoticed when the solution is encountered in its intended context. Inexperienced and naive idealists often approach problems with impossible standards (and usually highly distorted criteria of perfection) — which lead not to the ideal solution but lackluster ones whose chief virtue is flawlessness according to one unexamined standard. Tradeoff sense challenges the ideal of perfectionism, and all the expectations of perfectionism, especially the belief that the right solution requires no tradeoffs, and everything that does is therefore not right.

Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First, empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights open new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”


This is my first list, and it might not be complete. It is a good start, though, and I am relieved to get it out of my head.


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).

Facets of empathy

Working in design research, empathy is one of our primary tools. Reflective practitioners quickly learn where they and their teammates have strengths and weaknesses using empathy to produce understanding.

Continuing this week’s trend of identifying distinctions and creating categories, here’s a list of skills associated with what is commonly called “empathy” and what I prefer to call synesis, which is a form of interpersonal understanding that emphasizes worldviews as much as feelings and which sees understanding, not so much as a receptive act, but as an collaborative instauration (discovering-making) between persons (researcher and informant) within a situation.

  • Reception – detecting signals from an informant that something requires understanding that is not yet understood
  • Reaction – controlling one’s behaviors to permit or encourage signals to emerge
  • Perception – interpreting the signals and sensing what they signify from the perspective of the informant — feeling-with or seeing-with, using whatever immediate signals are available to the researcher
  • Constraint – suspending one’s own perspective in order to make space for the informant’s understanding
  • Response – interacting with the informant to spiral in on understanding whatever truth the informant is trying to convey
  • Immersion – developing a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview and “entertaining” it, or “trying it on” through detecting the validity in the informant’s truths
  • Application – using a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview to participate in understanding with the informant — to attempt understanding of the situation at hand and explaining it in the informant’s terms
  • Approval – iteratively testing applications of understanding with the informant, and continuing to test applications of the informant’s worldview until the explanations are accepted and confirmed by the informant
  • Conception – clarifying, articulating and internalizing the informant’s perspective in terms of other perspectives
  • Collaboration – dialogically working with researchers and informants to craft new concepts capable of earning approval from all persons involved


From this, you can see why the emphasis on emotions — pathos — in the word “empathy” strikes me as impoverished. Synesis (together-being) is a far better word, especially when you take it in the two-fold sense I prefer:

  1. It is putting together the experiences of a situation so they make sense (understanding a situation)
  2. It is using the pursuit of understanding a situation to develop understanding between persons.

So, yes, sensing and feeling the emotions of other’s or intuitively grokking their mindset are crucial skills required for understanding, but empathy must not be confused with understanding. It is only a necessary starting point. Further effort and deeper insights are required to develop empathy into genuine understanding.

The pluralism of design instrumentalism

Because design instrumentalism views knowledge as a result of conceptualizations of perceptions of particular experiences — that is, as a product of one of myriad possible praxes capable of producing different and even conflicting truths — with a particular set of design tradeoffs — that is, with varying degrees of descriptive, predictive, prescriptive, logical, practical, valuative and social adequacy — and, further, because some designs truly are better than others — that is, they make fewer tradeoffs overall, or solve particular relevant problems far better than expected — faced with an stubborn and morally-charged controversy a design instrumentalist is more likely to attempt to resolve the impasse with intellectual reframing than direct argument for one or another position within the current conflict.

And intellectual reframing is just another word for philosophizing — finding our way out of the current conceptualizations that make agreement impossible, into that uncanny shadowy region where words provide little help, and tacit thought must grope its way by smell, touch and tone through perplexity from one end to the other, out into the new light, where new ways of understanding are possible, and different ideas with different tradeoffs, perhaps acceptable or even inspiring to a wider range of people, can be produced.

(There are some folks out there who are averse to such reframing and from inability or unwillingness cannot bring themselves to cooperate with it. In design workshops, I can spot them from across the room. They alternate between sitting and crossing their arms and leaning aggressively forward, pushing the obvious truth, insisting that people show how the idea or objection they are asserting is false. They are suspicious of reframing, seeing it as a last resort to use only after existing theories have been shown to be nonviable. They often see themselves as hard-nosed rationalists, proud to set aside personal feelings so that objective truth can be served. That people like this can also, with equal inflexible fervor adhere to magical religious beliefs appears as contradictory to some conceptions of religion, but not to mine: rigid rationalism paired with metaphysical otherworldism go together in certain souls like two wings on a bird. Through various wily tricks of the design trade I keep people like this separated from from where collaboration is trying to emerge, because they make conception of truly new ideas impossible.)

Collaborative agon

It’s difficult, painful and uncanny to argue across fundamentally different worldviews. Not everyone can do it and even fewer will do it. It requires collaborative agon, and too much desire to avoid conflict or to make one’s own position prevail will destroy the conditions of success.

Recognizing a conflict that requires collaborative agon and conducting oneself accordingly is an essential dimension of reason, albeit an uncommon dimension, and entirely outside the limits of reasonable discourse for those who cannot imagine that all disagreements are not a matter of evidence and logic, nor is it a last resort to employ only after evidence and logic are exhausted.

Density of soul

“When a poet is not in love with reality his muse will consequently not be reality, and she will then bear him hollow-eyed and fragile-limbed children.” — Friedrich Nietzsche


It seems to me that few people agree with me on what a philosophy is. It is not that they disagree, but rather that they have done so little philosophy themselves that they lack any capacity to agree or disagree. They have not developed a capacity to understand what philosophy is as I understand it.

They have not even developed a capacity to look into why they ought to hear me out on how I think of it, not only for the sake of understanding something new, but for the sake of friendship.


Here is how I understand philosophy:

Philosophies are not reducible to assertions. Philosophies are not even reducible to language.

Language and assertions belong to the praxis of a philosophy. Yet a philosophy is not even reducible to its praxis.

Philosophies produce praxis, but they are “behind” praxis, moving and shaping perceptions and conceptions, values and emotions, recognitions and responses. Or let’s say they stand-under these things as capacities for conception, action and feeling: a repertoire of possibilities of understanding the world which activate long before we find words for them, because these capacities are who find our words for us. These capacities are what constitute our soul.


But don’t we primarily read or hear philosophy? — Yes, but we do not receive it the way people expect to receive ideas. The normal priority of comprehension is reversed. Normally, when we struggle to understand difficult material, we do so in order to grasp factual content. With philosophy, we struggle to grasp the factual content in order to gain new ways to understand.

Engaging philosophical writing is a mimetic linguistic activity intended to expand our repertoire of understandings, which enriches our awareness of and capacity for pluralism, which I call pluralistic sense.


Finite truths overlap in reality’s infinitude. The myriad finite truths are one part of reality. Our pluralistic sense permits us to relate to this overlap with sublime irony. Each of us is a soul among souls, overlapping with souls, swimming in souls, but each of us only gets one. Or at least only one at a time.


Doing philosophy is the effort to densify one’s soul.


For nearly ten years, I have been uncomfortable with the phenomenological term “horizon”. I think it is because this metaphor suggests that what we cannot see is invisible because it is distant.

The metaphor is not without merits. I like the implications that distant things are obscured by the curvature of the very land upon which we stand. I like that the pragmatic consequence of a horizon is a requirement to get peripatetic. Stand up and move and view things from some other perspective.

But as a young adult I spent too many hours seated in meditation, mining the sensations in my body and mind for insight into being to believe ignorance is primarily a distant thing.

And I have suffered too many ocular migraines, and far too often “seen” the blindspots in my eyes burst into bloom and cover my entire field of vision with nothingness, which is not black. Black is something that marks something missing. Blindness is nothing, including nothing being there but also nothing missing.

Too much we don’t know is close to us and in us. I think much of our ignorance takes the form of insufficient density, not only in our factual knowledge but in our capacities to know.


Our souls can lose density if we do not strain them. They can become inflexible, osteoporotic and brittle. We move only one way and see only one way. Trying to move and see other ways is uncomfortable and feels wrong. So we fend off enemies, and refuse to hear any validity in what they say. And as we become brittler, our enemies increase. We begin to discover unacceptable beliefs in our friends. We cling to fondness, but we can no longer converse without fear that words will break our bones.


One of my fundamental beliefs is that most misunderstandings are misunderstood as factual disagreements, when in fact the disagreements are artifacts of different modes of understanding. So some of my friends pore over sociological and psychological studies, because sociology gives us substantial scientific evidence for belief, unlike philosophy which only speculates and doesn’t provide enough factual meat. It takes philosophical thought to see what is dangerously ignorant about this kind of epistemology which says philosophy is “too abstract”. Other friends like to bravely entertain forbidden facts — facts which, if properly weighted and thoroughly considered, would wake us up to an imminent emergency requiring immediate action. The facts all point to ominous actors we cannot see directly, but a thorough connecting of dots leaves a lacuna the shape of  diabolical intention.

I think the imminent emergency is that everyone already knows everything, at least in outline, including the obvious fact that their enemies know nothing. No need to listen — there is no point. In fact, listening is folly. Force is the only suitable response. Both sides think they have the numbers to force their will if things go to plan, and if they don’t… well, truth is on their side and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.


We have failed to teach our children to be citizens in a liberal democracy. Now there is too little tolerance and no willingness to fight for a fellow citizen’s right to disagree with us.

And we have failed to teach our public intellectuals philosophy. There is desperately little pluralistic sense in the upper reaches of our culture. What is known as Political Correctness systematically cultivates brittleness in our elite class by prohibiting all discomfort of pluralism. We are manufacturing narrow ideologues who experience disagreement as life-threatening.


Given the emotional connotations of the word “empathy” and my suspicion that few people have actually had firsthand experiences with empathy outside of merely emotional understanding I am going to re-adopt the term synesis.

Synesis is a greek word for understanding, and it literally means togetherness. It is a capacity to take-together otherwise chaotic data together-with other people. Synesis does tend to generate sympathy — similar feelings — but it also produces similar interpretations of data, suggesting similar practical responses. Where these intellectual, evaluative and practical responses differ, they appear to be the effects of subjectivity or taste — different but not altogether alien.

What is most important to know about synesis, and where it differs in connotation from empathy is synesis is social and learnable.

With empathy, we can respond to another person’s subjective experiences with emotions of our own, but we are permanently locked out of first-hand knowledge. We have our feelings about what the other experiences, and we can remember what they tell us and try to remember and relate it, but the other person’s experiences are theirs and they have privileged knowledge to these subjective truths. If we treat empathic knowledge as the goal of understanding others, true understanding is the insight that acquiring real knowledge of another person’s experience is impossible. This is true as far as it goes, but it artificially limits the possibilities of learning and gaining synesis.

With synesis, we can learn to make conceptual, moral and practical sense of the world in the way another does, and in fact the way groups understand other members of groups. The learning is never perfect, but it is far more adequate than those whose knowledge of otherness is limited to empathy, who tend to wax pious about the unknowability of the Other. As we develop synesis we get progressively better at anticipating how others will perceive things, how they will feel about them and what responses will seem advisable and acceptable, and we get better at speaking fluently, appealing persuasively and acting productively with them. We learn to make room for one another in our understanding.

This is crucial: synesis is the basis for all political alliance. Where it seems otherwise, look closer.


To understand another culture it is necessary for an ethnographic investigator to suspend or temporarily suppress their own reflexive cultural judgments, at least long enough to get a sense of how life looks and feels from within the other culture’s lifeworld. If the investigator carries their own convictions and habitual judgments into the investigation, they will objectify and misunderstand that culture. What does it mean to objectify and misunderstand? To understand the distinction we must contrast it with a form of understanding that avoids objectification, a “subjectifying” understanding.

In subjectifying understanding — what I prefer to call synetic understanding, or synesis — one continues to understand objectively, but this objectivity is developed from a shifted subjectivity. This subjectivity is the true “objective” of the effort.

This absolutely does not mean objective fact is made secondary to feelings and tastes. On the contrary, objective rigor is required to discover the subjective truth upon which the objectivity stands (thus the term under-standing). Success means learning how another subjectivity makes coherent objective and subjective sense of the world. As Geertz eloquently asserted, this does not entail some kind of empathic miracle involving soul transplants or mystical unions. It involves deep learning that permanently changes how we see.

But, then… maybe it is mystical. The kind of change of mind that result from synesis can have very strange effects that resemble religious conversion. In fact, I believe religious conversion is the same phenomenon, one where the shifted understanding is so comprehensive it overwhelms all prior understanding. After experiencing this firsthand myself, and I find it impossible to read about religious conversions and not recognize my own experiences in them. So what if their shift resulted in convictions about the nature of reality that I find non-credible: I think the medium is the message, and the ostensible “good news” is an artifact of the change.

This is why I care little about the theological content of a person’s belief.


One reason I dislike the word empathy is it overstates the importance of feeling with. We think we have empathized with an angry person if we get angry with them about the things they are angry about. This does not lead to understanding. No synesis results. We just adopt someone else’s beliefs in an effort to share their feelings.

The popular left appears to have no concept of understanding apart from this sentimental counterfeit of understanding. Refusal to participate in it is viewed as hard-hearted or self-interested uncaring ignorance.


Ethnocentrism can also be temporal. To understand our own culture’s past (in order to learn from it) we must suspend our own time’s value judgments. If we fail to do this, we are exactly like the colonists who judged native populations to be “savages” and due to this failure became savages themselves.

To look at the history of this country from the moral standards of today, and to reverse cherry-pick examples of wickedness in order to condemn it and cast doubt on its present worth and legitimacy is an egregious example of temporal ethnocentrism, not to mention historically inaccurate. To judge the USA we must compare it to what preceded it, because that gives us a much better idea of what life might be like today had it never existed.

Today’s “wokeness” (a misnomer of unparalleled proportions) is an effect of the abundant liberty produced by the very institutions that it condemns. That liberty allows us to see for ourselves and judge for ourselves, however incorrect and illiberal our conclusions may be.


To overcome a male tendency to “objectify” women, one thing is needful: Learn from the one you love, be transformed in the learning, and then, as a transformed self love even better. Learn willingly, actively, objectively, transformatively. Do not settle for sympathetic agreement.


Synesis — subjective understanding — is not the same thing as sympathetic agreement. Sympathetic agreement obstructs understanding by giving you a sentimental counterfeit to genuine, transformative shared knowing.


I’m going to re-re-re-post one of my better aphorisms, spelled out a little more explicitly:

The bartender who patiently listens to your sad story is not interested in who you are. The brawler who picks a fight with you wants to know what you are made of.

Symmetrical egalitarianism

Can egalitarianism be disrespectful?

In some social contexts strict egalitarianism is the very embodiment of respect. An example of such a context is a gathering of equal peers deliberating on a shared problem. Each is understood by the others to hold an opinion of equal validity to his own. Each peer is entitled the same level of attention, the same time to speak and to be heard out and to be believed and also to be questioned. Of course, each participant has a personal opinion regarding the rightness and wrongness of opinions stated, but any expectation that others will give one’s own opinion more weight than any another’s undermines the equal peer relationship. Let’s call this symmetrical egalitarianism

In other social contexts, however, strict egalitarianism can be disrespectful. An example of this kind of context is a group of people gathered to discuss a specialized topic, where some members of the group have invested significant time, energy and resources to continually improve the quality of their beliefs in this area, where other members have not made the same level investment. The former have worked to become authorities on the topic at hand and the latter have not. (Imagine an accomplished physicist in conversation with a group of less experienced scientists, or even scientists who are accomplished in fields outside the one being discussed). In such situations, giving equal weight to each person’s opinion would insult the authority’s hard-won expertise. For one reason or another his work has failed to accomplish its goal of improving his understanding — that is, elevating his initial opinion to informed belief, reflective practice,  cultivated knowledge and refined judgment.

Why would an expert’s expertise be denied or ignored? Perhaps his field is not one where genuine knowledge is possible, and can never be more than a matter of opinion, where one person’s opinion is as good as another’s no matter how much work is invested in cultivating knowledge. Or perhaps the alleged expert has taken a bad approach, and has wasted years of effort following the wrong path further from the truth. Or perhaps the would-be expert has some personal flaw or limitation that has prevented him from acquiring real knowledge or has led him to aquire delusional opinions that only appear to him to be knowledge. Or perhaps the laypeople are convinced that genuine knowledge in the field necessarily and automatically leads an expert to an egaliarian attitude toward his own opinion: the superiority of his view consists in its paradoxical refusal to regard itself as superior, and any hint of judgment is a symptom of inferior knowledge.

This latter view actually has some validity. The world is stuffed with authoritarian experts who flash their credentials and demand submission to their authority. This ought to be resisted. No expert should require non-experts to obey without being persuaded by reason. This is non-egaliarian tyranny of experts. 

But what true experts ask for is not unconditional obedience or uncritical belief. What they ask for from others is patience and effort The expert needs time not only to express their views, but also to impart enough expertise that others have the context needed to understand and fairly assess the expert’s ideas. Let’s call this asymmertical egalitarianism — an egalitarianism that acknowledges equality of reason and judgment, but also acknowledges the realities of expertise and permits it conditions needed to be heard and understood.  

It is these conditions that symmetrical egalitarianism denies. From the point of view of symmetrical egalitarianism, the time and attention an expert requires to convey the background of his factual opinions is experienced as an unfair domination of a conversation. Each person is doled out the same quantity of time as everyone else, and this self-regarded expert is trying to take more than his share. 

But from the point of view of expertise, this symmetry creates an unfair asymmetry of means to convey meaning. The laypeople are given what they need to fully communicate their views, but experts — the very ones best informed on the topic at hand — are forced to provide their views without context, which means their views will seem obscure, pedantic or nonsensical compared to the down-to-earth practicality and plain speech of the regular guy, or they try to provide context and get cut off before their point is made. Symmetrical egalitarianism guarantees the common sense status quo view always prevails, and those in the room with genuinely unique and deeply considered views will be subjected to a Bed of Procrustes truncation that allows them to talk but denies them the means to be understood.


Incidentally, this symmetrical and asymmetrical egalitarian concept can be applied to other fields. For instance, in education symmetries of fairness are sometimes established on the basis of allocated resources, the right to reach some standard level of acheivement or to maintain some pace of improvement. These symmetries are often enforced at the expense  of subtler forms of fairness, such as the ability to actualize one’s own potential. Obviously, this creates deep problems, including problems of measurement and objectivity, but the depth of such problems does not warrant ignoring these problems as essentially insoluble, or worse (and most commonly) denying the problem’s existence altogether. 



  • What philosophy is
  • What designers do: empathy (as opposed to art which is sympathetic) creation of useful, usable and desirable things
  • Practical use of philosophy for design
  • Truth as reality interface (a useful, usable and desirable philosophy.)
  • Anatomy of this book: ontology, epistemology, ethic.


  • Ontology = inquiring into being = asking “in what sense is this real?”
  • Being encompasses more than physical entities
  • Many kinds of being exist: objects, time, perspectives, imagination
  • Designer’s ontology: the more ways one sees in what sense entities can exist the more space a designer has to work
  • Order bounded by chaos
  • Chaos is superabundance of orders
  • Order filters chaos
  • Practical consequence of chaos: surprise
  • Knowing chaos means openness to surprise: nonsense might be not-yet-seeing-the-sense
  • Perpetual possibility of “otherwise”, esp. when otherwise seems impossible
  • Horizon and the otherwise — horizon always feels complete and excludes the otherwise
  • Pluralism: coexistence of ontologies united in possibilities of otherwise — possibilities which can (and ought) to be sought and actualized (“fusion of horizons”)
  • An ontological framework: a simple way to conceive multiplicity of being (metaphysical manifold)


  • Epistemology = inquiring into knowledge = asking “how do we know?”
  • Knowing is filtering (determining relevance) and relating
  • Knowing is both explicit and tacit
  • An epistemological framework: a simple way to conceive multiplicity of knowing (venn – name?)
  • Tacit know-how: skilled wordless interaction with concrete realities
  • Tacit morality: sensing value
  • Perspective and pluralism
  • Pluralism vs reductionism
  • Perspective and inspiration: the upside of pluralism
  • Knowing is social: “How do we know?” more than “How do I know?”
  • Self as a society
  • Knowledge shows realities: aletheia
  • Synesis: seeing realities as together with others together
  • Positivity and negativity: facts and questions
  • Knowing a subject vs knowing an object
  • Participatory knowing versus objective knowing
  • Hermeneutic holism: knowing wholes and parts
  • Social hermeneutics
  • Social creativity
  • A methodological framework: a simple way to approach social creativity (the outspiral)


  • An ethics sustains an ethos (lifeworld)
  • Designer’s ethos: Maximum diversity within unity, mediated by things
  • Designer’s ethic: Commit to learning from others in order to design to them and provide them a place in the world
  • Designers outfit an ethos with things that support it — not preserve or conserve, but allow it to live and develop like a living thing
  • Enworldment: creating myriad ways to exist in the world with things and people
  • Virtue ethics
  • Virtue of receptivity: otherwise awareness
  • Learning a subject requires unlearning — unlearning is the hard part.
  • Learning involves letting go of what one already knows in order to know better
  • Unlearning is an anxious activity: immersing in perplexity
  • Virtue of sacrifice: willingness to suffer to understand another person
  • No method to emerge from perplexity
  • No way to predict the outcome
  • Virtue of fortitude: acceptance of the pain of learning
  • Inspiration as expansion of horizon: sudden acquisition of new way to see
  • Inspiration brought about by learning from others, suffering anxiety, accepting perplexity, emerging with new perspective
  • Virtue of reason: the obligation to demonstrate, persuade
  • Virtue of constancy
  • Virtue of honor – agreements

Thought scraps

  • Empathy vs sympathy
  • The way philosophy is read… hermeneutically: not step-by-step explanation
  • Blindness vs darkness

Actor-network theory is practical pragmatism

Extending my post from a couple of days ago, “ANT = Practical pragmatism”:

When you are temperamentally theoretical, it is tempting to stop at theorizing about practice, and never to practice anything but theorizing.

When pragmatism begins to apply its insights to practice — that is, to a study specific situation with an aim to understand it in pragmatic terms (which will always turn up unexpected theoretical problems which must be resolved) — pragmatism becomes Actor-network theory.

Actor-network theory is practical pragmatism.


As an experience researcher and strategist, this passage from Latour is galvanizing, because it articulates what I do, and what I’ve had great difficulty communicating to clients and colleagues who still live in an essentially objective world inhabited by opinionated, emotional and behaving subjects:

Even once reality has fully set in, the question of its unity is still pending. The common world has still to be collected and composed. As we shall see at the end of this book, this is where the social sciences may regain the political relevance that they seem to have lost by abandoning the ether of the social and the automated use of the critical repertoire that it allowed.

That idea of “collecting and composing” a shared understanding of the world is what I’ve called synesis. I believe this involves a mode of thinking which goes beyond the algorithmic ideal of business thought into the specifically philosophical mode of intuitive thinking, dialectic.

Then things can be taken even further by modifying the network through the act of design. Maybe this is the best definition of design: intentional modification of actor-networks?



Latour getting melioristic

Hell yes:

To go from metaphysics to ontology is to raise again the question of what the real world is really like. As long as we remain in metaphysics, there is always the danger that deployment of the actors’ worlds will remain too easy because they could be taken as so many representations of what the world, in the singular, is like. In which case we would not have moved an inch and would be back at square one of social explanation — namely back to Kant’s idealism.

The danger cannot be exaggerated when we consider that the open-mindedness shown, for instance, by anthropologists about the ‘other’s’ cosmologies is often due to their certainty that those representations have no serious relation to the solid world of matters of fact. In the scholar’s tolerance for wild beliefs, a great deal of condescension might seep through. There may be thousands of ways of imagining how kinships bring children into existence, but there is only, it is argued, one developmental physiology to explain how babies really grow in the womb. There may be thousands of ways to design a bridge and to decorate its surface, but only one way for gravity to exert its forces. The first multiplicity is the domain of social scientists; the second unity is the purview of natural scientists. Cultural relativism is made possible only by the solid absolutism of the natural sciences. Such is the default position of the endless debates going on, for instance, between physical and human geography, physical and cultural anthropology, biological psychiatry and psychoanalysis, material and social archaeology, and so on. There is unity and objectivity on one side, multiplicity and symbolic reality on the other.

This is just the solution that ANT wishes to render untenable. With such a divide between one reality and many interpretations, the continuity and commensurability of what we call the associations would immediately disappear, since the multiple will run its troubled historical course while the unified reality will remain intact, untouched, and remote from any human history. But it’s not the case that shifting from social to natural objects means shifting from a bewildering multiplicity to a welcoming unity. We have to shift, yes, but from an impoverished repertoire of intermediaries to a highly complex and highly controversial set of mediators. Controversies over ontologies turn out to be just as interesting and controversial as metaphysics, except that the question of truth (of what the world is really like) cannot be ignored with a blase pose or simplified a priori by thumping on desks and kicking at stones. (I maintain the plural for ontologies to remind the reader that this unity is not the result of what the world is like at first encounter, but what the world might become provided it’s collected and assembled.) Even once reality has fully set in, the question of its unity is still pending. The common world has still to be collected and composed. As we shall see at the end of this book, this is where the social sciences may regain the political relevance that they seem to have lost by abandoning the ether of the social and the automated use of the critical repertoire that it allowed. There is no rear-world behind to be used as a judge of this one, but in this lowly world there lie in wait many more worlds that may aspire to become one — or not, depending on the assembly work we will be able to achieve.

Fortunately, we don’t have to solve those arduous questions all at once in order to do our work as sociologists. We don’t even have to deploy the complete set of agencies manifested by matters of concern. We simply have to make sure that their diversity is not prematurely closed by one hegemonic version of one kind of matter of fact claiming to be what is present in experience — and that goes, of course, for ‘power’ and ‘Society’ as well as for ‘matter’ and ‘Nature’. Once again, the key training for practicing ANT is negative at first.


Anthropology = empirical metaphysics

From Reassembling the Social:

What ANT does is that it keeps asking the following question: Since every sociologist loads things into social ties to give them enough weight to account for their durability and extension, why not do this explicitly instead of doing it on the sly? Its slogan, ‘Follow the actors’, becomes, ‘Follow the actors in their weaving through things they have added to social skills so as to render more durable the constantly shifting interactions.’

It’s at this point that the real contrast between sociology of associations and sociology of the social will be most clearly visible. So far, I might have exaggerated the differences between the two viewpoints. After all, many schools of social science might accept the two first uncertainties as their departure point (especially anthropology, which is another name for empirical metaphysics)…


Though Nietzsche rarely spoke of Hegel, and when he did he treated him more as a cultural force than a source of valid ideas, it is clear to me, based on my own experience of reading him, that Nietzsche thought dialectically, in the Hegelian sense.

It is undeniable that the Birth of Tragedy has an explicitly dialectical structure, and Nietzsche’s later disavowals of the work centered more on their treatment of Wagner than in the Apollinian-Dionysian-tragic dialectic at the center of the book. Actually, that structure is the key to understanding the apparent self-contradictions that pervade the rest of his work.

Continue reading Apollinian-Dionysian-tragic