Category Archives: Enworldment

Second verse, same as the first

We apprehend that something is, but we may not comprehend what it is.

“Apprehending that” establishes something’s existence.

“Comprehending what” establishes its conceptual relations within our understanding.

Sometimes (often, in fact) we apprehend something, but we cannot immediately comprehend it. We either ignore it as irrelevant, gloss over it, or are forced to figure out what it is. Sometimes, after a little effort, we recognize what it is, either with a word, or, failing that, with an analogy that has not yet been assigned a word: “this is, in some sense, like that.” Sometimes this recognition clicks, and we begin to experience it as a given what that thing is. Sometimes the recognition does not click, but we have no better option than to manually recall what we made of it, and hope the recall eventually becomes habitual.

In other words, there is spontaneous whatness, and there is artificial whatness.

In some cases, we can apprehend that something exists, or comprehend what it is, but still have no univocal sense of its meaning (in the valuative sense — moral or aesthetic), either because there is no distinct meaning or because we sense conflicting meanings. We have to reflect on it, turn it and its context around in our minds, and work out how we ought to feel. Sometimes a sense of moral clarity comes to us, but often it doesn’t.

In other words, there is spontaneous whyness, and there is artificial whyness.

We also might apprehend that something exists, or even comprehend what it is, but be unprepared to respond to it practically. We can talk about it, but cannot interact with it effectively. We are forced to think it out, devise a plan and execute the plan before we know what to do.

In other words, there is spontaneous howness, and there is artificial howness.

Perhaps the reverse of these cases is more interesting: sometimes we might lack comprehension, but still somehow still sense the value of something only apprehended. We might even respond practically — pre-verbally — to a realy that is apprehended but which remains uncomprehended.

Does that seem impossible? Do you believe a thing must be comprehended before value can be felt or response is possible? If you believe this, I accept that this is true — for you. I have no doubt this is true for a great portion of modern human beings. I won’t even rule out the possibility this is the case for the majority of educated people living in this era. For this type, reality is intercepted and linguified prior to feeling value or responding practically. And when we do something often we get better and better at it. We begin to think we can train ourselves to understand the world the way we want to, to train our feelings to find goodness or beauty where we want it there to be value, and to train our behaviors to automatically respond as we want them to.

To us, this imposition of artificiality might be acceptable to people accustomed to constantly instructing themselves with words, verbalizing whatever they see, arriving at conclusions using syllogisms or frameworks, and calculate valuations in units of currency. But those of us who value in minimizing linguistic mediation between ourselves and the world, see this aggressive linguification and retraining of our What, Why and How — with little or no concern for the fact that they feel artificial or false to us — seems nothing less than an existential threat. It is social engineering on the micro-scale, and not outside and (hopefully) at a distance, like the grand social engineering of the twentieth century, but in the intimate domain of the personal soul.

And like the old “macro” social engineering projects, this micro social engineering preys on insensitivity to experience and gross over-reliance on verbalized thought. Macro-social engineering believed it would, using iron and concrete, intentionally construct a better society to replace the inadequate one that organically developed unintentionally, or more accurately developed through non-centralized, uncoordinated, distributed intentions. “Oh, you think it is ugly? It is only new and unfamiliar.” They said this about building projects, and they said this about serial music. Both produced blight. Today’s micro social engineering wants to replace inadequately-accommodating concepts and language with new truth constructions with better intentions. “Oh, this seems ungainly and false to you? It is only new and unfamiliar.” I have little doubt that entrusting the construction of truth to overconfident, ambitious wordworlders will produce intellectual and cultural blight. Of course, exactly this kind of person will make relativistic objections: Who are you to judge matters of taste? And indeed, to those without taste, taste is arbitrary. But this does not make taste arbitrary, it only disqualifies them from speaking credibly about taste — at least to others who actually have taste and know better.

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But isn’t this… conservative? How can we make progress as a society if we must stick to what seems natural and familiar to us?

It seems obvious that what is most familiar to us feels natural to us. Social constructivists (or at least the vulgar majority of them) will insist that these things seem natural only because they have become familiar. But this neglects the possibility that perhaps they became familiar precisely because they naturally and spontaneously appealed to people from the start. And because they felt natural soon after being adopted.

This is why I keep bringing things back to design. Design, or at least good design, aims at intuitiveness, which simply means for non-verbalized cognitive processes. We want the whatness, whyness and howness to be spontaneously understood, and to require the least possible amount of verbal assistance or figuring out.

Familiarity is a key factor in such designs. A mostly-unfamiliar design will require too much adjustment. But the innovations introduced into mostly-familiar designs are not all equal. Some are confusing, or ugly, or hard to interact with, where others, after a moment of adjustment, are experienced as clarifying, or beautiful, meaningful or delightful, or effortless to use — and it is these designs that are adopted and then seem retroactively inevitable.

But our verbal minds and its logic and frameworks do not decide what does or does not make sense or have positive value or affords an effortless interaction. It can only speculate about what might work, and use these speculations to prototype artifacts which are then offered to people’s whatness, whyness and howness intuitions. The intuitions accept them or reject them, and good designers honor this acceptance and rejection over their linguified reason.

Good designers are not really conservatives, but they are even less social constructivists. They seek a better second-naturalness — something that people willingly choose over what was familiar.

The only places where inadequate familiarity (bad conservatism) or ungainly social constructivism (bad progressivism) prevails is where voluntary adoption is not an issue because the adopters lack choice. They cannot escape the situation or have nowhere to go. Or at least the bad conservatives or bad progressivists believe they lack options and must comply.

Where rough equality and free choice exist, design prevails.

*

When I philosophize, I think things out. I try different interpretations, different analyses, different syntheses, different articulations. The ideas I devise I then offer to my intuition. If they click, I then try to use these ideas to make intuitive sense of things that matter to me, that seem to require understanding. I see how these ideas perform: do they clarify the matter? help me feel its various values? help me respond more effectively?

As with all other design, there is a strange ambiguity between the designed artifact as an object, the subjective using of the artifact, and the new sense of objectivity as given through the artifact’s mediation. To offer a tangible example, when we use a new digital tool, we are aware of the tool itself, we are also aware that we are using it in some particular way that is patly novel, and we find that what we are using the tool to perceive or act upon (for instance, images we view or images we edit) are understood somewhat differently. All these ambiguities are what designers mean when we say we are designing an experience, as opposed to merely the artifact.

With philosophy, there is language and there are concepts. But there is also a using of these words and concepts, and this using can be effective or ineffective. The using of the words and concepts, once acquired, is applicable even outside of the philosophical artifact itself. It “clings” like the mood of a novel, except it produces intuitive understandings — What, Why and How of various kinds and relations. I’ve called these “conceptive capacities”. New conceptive capacities are what “inspire us” and what “gives us ideas”. Perhaps this very line of thought I’m sketching inspires you and gives you ideas. This line of thought also has given me a world of ideas and thst world is what my book is about. I’ve called this book Second Natural and also Enworldment — the former, because the very goal is to produce a second natural truth that we truly believe, and the latter because radically new second natural truth produces a very different overall understanding of the world and of everything. Which reminds me of an old abandoned third title: The Ten Thousand Everythings, so named because every person is the center of an enworldment, even if, to us, they seem to be a thing belonging to our own enworldment.

Respect requires us to approach all other persons as the center of an enworldment. Our dignity is injured if we are not treated as such.

Yet, tragically, the more brilliant we are, the better informed we are, the more certain we are of our own benevolence and righteousness — and, yes, the more powerful we are — the more likely we are to disrespect those who differ from us, and the more ready we are to injure their dignity by forcing upon them our own self-evidently superior enworldment — which, to them, feels artificial, tyrannical, hubristic and profoundly dehumanizing.

Comprehensive-participatory

Perhaps I should abandon all talk of objectivity and subjectivity, and reseat the conversation on the distinction between comprehensive and participatory knowledge.

Or maybe I should just finish introducing and developing the comprehensive-participatory distinction before associating comprehensive knowledge with objectivity and participatory knowledge with subjectivity.

Soap bubble

Some kinds of knowledge are simply there for the grasping. You point your head at an object and a fact tumbles into your mind.

Other kinds of knowledge are constructed. Grasped facts are logically or causally linked to produce systems of knowledge. Facts are glued together with “therefores”, “thusses”, “ands” and other operations to make complex assertions. Then the whole assertion is black-boxed, sealed shut and labeled “idea”.

Other kinds of knowledge are analogical. We recognize some abstract characteristic and say “this is like that in x respect”. Then we give x some name, and then that x becomes one more graspable object. Sometimes that named abstraction becomes more real to us than the original this and that. Identity occludes uniqueness.

Some kinds of knowledge — to me, the most fascinating and consequential knowledge — requires us to change ourselves before we acquire the capacity to understand them. Or perhaps it would be better to say: we must change who we are before we have an ability to participate in this knowing. Until we make this change we are inadequate to the knowledge, and we cannot even recognize, conceive or comprehend that there is anything knowable. We are “blind”, or lack “ears to hear” what is meant. We lack the living question to which this knowing is an articulate response.

Until we acquire such a conceptive capacity, though, we will go right along knowing exactly what all this miraculous seeing, hearing and conceiving means. We will overflow with explanations for why people believe it and what kind of validity it has or lacks. We cannot conceive that we don’t really conceive its meaning, because we have no point of comparison.

We are trapped in our unpunctured soap bubble of omniscience, and even if that pops, there is another beyond it, containing it.

It’s soap bubbles all the way out, sahib.

*

Nobody knows more than someone who knows nothing.

*

IN THE NORTHERN DARKNESS there is a fish and his name is K’un. The K’un is so huge I don’t know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P’eng. The back of the P’eng measures I don’t know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move, this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven.

The Universal Harmony records various wonders, and it says: “When the P’eng journeys to the southern darkness, the waters are roiled for three thousand li. He beats the whirlwind and rises ninety thousand li, setting off on the sixth month gale.” Wavering heat, bits of dust, living things blowing each other about — the sky looks very blue. Is that its real color, or is it because it is so far away and has no end? When the bird looks down, all he sees is blue too.

If water is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up a big boat. Pour a cup of water into a hollow in the floor and bits of trash will sail on it like boats. But set the cup there and it will stick fast, for the water is too shallow and the boat too large. If wind is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up great wings. Therefore when the P’eng rises ninety thousand li, he must have the wind under him like that. Only then can he mount on the back of the wind, shoulder the blue sky, and nothing can hinder or block him. Only then can he set his eyes to the south.

The cicada and the little dove laugh at this, saying, “When we make an effort and fly up, we can get as far as the elm or the sapanwood tree, but sometimes we don’t make it and just fall down on the ground. Now how is anyone going to go ninety thousand li to the south!” — Chuang Tzu

Enceptive-synthetic

Conceptive understanding is a matter of presequence: given some particular fact, to what questions can it be understood to be an answer? This is hermeneutic meaning.

Synthetic understanding is a matter of consequence: given some particular fact, what facts follow, logically and or causally? This is pragmatic meaning.

But “what follows” is determined by (enabled and limited by) what questions we can meaningfully ask. Conceptive understanding is what makes live questions live, what animates our asking, what invests a search with urgency.

The primary and universal givens and questions of mundane human life — practical questions concerning other people, faces, animals, natural and artificial objects, dwellings, terrains, emotions, dispositions, intentions, and so on — are universal because all people are concerned with them. Upon these, questions of biological functioning hang. “What is this?” “What can I do with it?” “Is it dangerous?” “Can I use it?” “Can I eat it?” “Should I get away from it?” “Should I approach it?” “Can I break it into pieces?” “Can I make something out of it?”

From these primary givens all manner of complex synthetic understandings can be built up. These ramifying, interconnected syntheses form systems.

Sometimes synthetic systems will “click” and a gestalt will emerge from a system. One suddenly intuits the system as a whole. Or, better, one intuits a whole together with its parts, as an articulated whole. In such cases we develop a complementary mutually-reinforcing conceptive-synthetic understanding.

(Philosophers, especially, love conceptive-synthetic understandings, though they rarely foreground this taste and instead simply look through it at their various objects of thought. But this is how conceptive understandings essentially are: they are not themselves objects of thought, but instead mediate our thinking and produce some sense of objectivity. This makes them impossible to think about if we expect all thinkable entities to be mental objects. Synthetic understanding, failing to find graspable elements to connect, makes an objection: “This does not compute.”)

Conceptive understandings are not necessarily limited to synthesized gestalts — or at least, they don’t have to be, unless we intentionally limit them. To liberate themselves from irrational notions, many rationalists discipline their thinking to fully accept as true only synthesis-vetted conceptions, and to tune out or psychologically compartmentalize the many other conceptions — such as mental, emotional, verbal and imaginative associations, aesthetic perceptions, superstitions, fantasies, etc. — that happen constantly during any ordinary day. We select some conceptions to take seriously and integrate into our sense of truth, and bracket innumerable others that interfere with our systematic understanding of truth built up from primary givens.

My belief is that there is another unacknowledged ground of truth that complements primary givens, with a conceptive understanding of the ultimate whole. But, being conceptive, it shares that unnerving refusal to be an object of thought, and instead mediates our sense of “everything”. I have called this “enception” — that whole from which all conceptive understandings are articulations. I believe it is precisely from our enception that all conceptive understandings derive their meaning, their life, their urgency, their animation. And so, if we only permit truth in the form of synthesis of primary conceptions, our overall sense of meaning in life can become attenuated or even cut off and starved.

I believe all healthy religious life attempts to discipline thought and action to articulate one’s enception in such a way that one’s sense of truth is animated by it. Ideally, because I am both philosophically religious and religiously philosophical, I want the synthetic truths I build up from primary givens to mirror, as exactly as possible, the gestalt givens that I spontaneously recognize in the world around me.

Or to say it better; I want my angels to ascend all the way from Earth and to descend all the way from Heaven on the same ladder.

*

Let’s call the state of full enceptive-synthetic correspondence synesis.

I learned this word from Richard J. Bernstein who died on July 4th this year. May his memory be an ever-expanding, ever-deepening, ever-intensifying blessing.

Re-cranking the writing machine

(I’m trying to get back to publishing my ideas, even when they are far from perfect. For some reason I’ve been inclined to leave most of what I write private, but I’m going to make myself start putting things out there again. )


My immersion in the philosophical work of Jan Zwicky has given me a much sharper sense of what I want my book to 1) be and 2) do.

I want it to be a beautiful and dense work — of the kind I, myself, love. As much as I’d love readers to understand and be persuaded by my thoughts, explanatory or persuasive writing is not what I enjoy doing. Even more importantly, it is not what I love reading. I put enormous effort into cracking into difficult ideas —  if I sense something momentous and sublime in them. I am bored and impatient with books that take on too much of the task of explaining and persuading. I don’t want that understanding done for me. I don’t like reading examples and stories. I’ll find my own meaning, connections and applications.

My book will be as simple as possible, but for the sake of aesthetics, not for making things easy for lazy, complacent, merely curious readers. Those lacking urgency and pain-tolerance are invited to give up. That is a virtue, not a flaw.

I want my book to do several things.

  1. I want by book to defend that mode of understanding that Zwicky calls lyric and connects with gestalt psychology. Lyric understanding responds to reality in a way independent of, irreducible to, but intimately related with the form of thinking she calls analytic. She acknowledges the value of analytic thought, but believes it is currently failing to coexist with lyric understanding, one result of which is seeing nature as something to dominate. She outlines a different relationship — one which balances lyric sensitivity to the real with analytic practicality (and for beings like us an unavoidable necessity) in a stance she calls “domestic”. I have a different vocabulary from hers, and I think it has some powerful application in everyday social life, especially social life infused with design practice. I think design represents not only a way to produce domestic artifacts, but a way to think domestically. I want to design a simple, practical philosophy equipped with sharp, hard, gleaming vocabulary that can be deployed with confidence, force and grace against analytic hegemony — (that mindset I’ve been deriding as “wordworld”) — a language-dominated worldview that according to itself is justified to reject as unreal, or at least irrelevant, whatever cannot be made explicit, said, and, ideally, measured.
  2. I will insist that when words and logic fail to do justice to our intuitive relationship reality, it is the words and logic that must yield — ideally to new and better words and logic that do. Perhaps the words and logic will conform to the intuitive sense, or perhaps word and logic will provide new intuitive access (that is, it will spark a conversion). But both the intuitive sense of reality and the language and logic must be satisfied, neither dominating the other. What absolutely must go is the this modernistic conceit that we can change our nature and sense of reality through brute effort. Whatever we do — whatever we are coerced to do for a long time — will eventually become habit and seem natural.  Change is possible — profound change is possible — but it must, must, MUST answer to our lyric sense, not rape it with logical and conceptual constructs.

  • This is true for art. For instance, serial music is purely synthetic production, and its embrace by the classical music profession helped sink its relevance. It did not become familiar and beautiful to any but a small, determined and concept-bound few.
  • It is true for technology. People have lost the new perspective on digital devices that Steve Jobs taught us (or at least some of us) — that the difference that really makes a difference is experience. We’ve relapsed into spec lists, feature lists, superficial styling. Consequently, the experience of digital interfaces in use (what “user experience” used to mean) have degraded precipitously. Because, for many, these digital interfaces serve as interfaces to much of life itself (we interact with each other, transact through them and learn most of what we know about the world through them) — our lives have degraded with it. Indeed, we ourselves have degraded in ways we are too degraded to notice.
  • And it is true for the ways we think. I do not mean what we think. I do not mean our facility with logic or math. I mean how we intellectually relate ourselves to reality. This intellectual relating produces truth (of varying quality) but is not reducible to truth content. Truth is instaurated in the process of collaborating with reality, not constructed according to our meager stock of concepts and our hopes. To believe truth is purely constructed and that reality will eventually conform to what we construct could be called toxic Apollinianism.

Not every truth construct or art construct or art construct will become, with time and practice, second-nature. Forced exposure or use of a purely synthetic construct will only desensitize our intuitions and alienate us from reality until we no longer expect intuitive contact or miss it if it is absent. The consequence of too much alienation from conceptivity, with too much reliance on synthetic substitutes is nihilism and anomie. I believe this is the core cause of our current cultural crisis. We do far too much synthetic thinking-about, and far too little intuitive interacting-with or participating-in. Consequently reality has become unreal to us. It feels horrible, but the worst afflicted — our children — don’t know there is any other way to be.

  1. I want to lay out a framework I’ve been using for the last fifteen years to think about design research and craft.
  • Like art, design is a coordination of meaningful wholes and parts (which are themselves wholes): this is conceptive. It “together-takes” new givens, which can then be thought about synthetically.
  • Like engineering, design is a coordination of functional parts into systematic wholes: this is synthetic understanding. It explicitly “together-puts” givens into theories, arguments, proofs and so on, which sometimes but often cannot be conceived as new givens.
  • Design, unlike art and engineering, attempts to accomplish both orders at once. When we do this successfully, we achieve what I believe Zwicky calls “domesticity”. I’ve suggested to her that the book I am writing is an outline of domestic philosophy.

I’m ending here. This is pretty bad, but it will help me rebuild momentum.

Ecologic

Ecology is situated between comprehending supersystem and comprehended subsystem.

Supersystems that contain and involve the comprehender are not objectively comprehensible. An understanding of the incomprehensibility of containing systems is, however — as is the fact that the proper response to the condition of containment is participation in the system. Rather than participate in what contains and involves us, however, we tend to truncate, encapsulate or even evert it to objective form conducive to our usual thing-manipulating mode of thought. This objective deformation is, in my opinion, the kernel of “taming wicked problems” — situating ourselves outside a problem whose problematic nature is our situatedness within it.

This is why we find all eco- realities — including ecology and economics — so difficult. We know the containing whole largely through our participation (or non-participation) in it, and many of us lack any mode of understanding beyond objectivity. If a reality refuses objectification, it is excluded from consideration.

*

Ecologic is understanding situated between comprehending supersystem and comprehended subsystem that seeks to relate both to each other and to the system one is oneself.

*

My theology is an ecologic. Before I saw theology this way, theologies were nonsense to me. After, everything and more-than-everything was inextricably bound up in practical metaphysics.

Multipersonal perplexity

A.

Long ago, (perhaps informed by experiences sitting in meditation?) even before I began intensive philosophical study, I adopted a psychology of “subpersonalities“. I’ve talked about it dozens of ways, but the language orbits a single conviction: our personal subjects are microcosmic societies, composed of semi-independent intuitive units.

One of the main reasons I came to this belief was noticing that subjects do not always respect the borders of the individual. Pairs of people can form a sort of personality together, and this personality can leave bits of each person behind. Sometimes this new joint-personality can threaten existing ones, leading to jealousy and estrangement.

Taking-together the idea of subpersonalities and superpersonalities (“ubermenschen” wouldn’t be a bad German synonym) leaves our ordinary personal subjects in a strange position. We both comprehend subjects that are aspects of our selves, but we also are comprehended by subjects in whom we participate.

One of my most desperate insights — which I need to find a way to say clearly and persuasively — is that we are much better at thinking about what we comprehend as objects than we are at thinking what comprehends us as subjects in which we participate, but which transcend our comprehension. I believe we need to learn this participatory mode transcendent subjective thought so we can navigate difficult interpersonal and social situations we find ourselves in, and avoid the mistake (the deepest kind of category mistake) of translating these situations (literally “that in which we are situated”) into objectively comprehensible terms that make understanding impossible. We lack the enworldment to think or respond to such situations.

A subject can be smaller than, larger than, or the same size as a personal subject.

Subjectivity is scalar.

B.

Perplexity is another idea that has obsessed me since I underwent, navigated and overcame my own first perplexity, and experienced a deep and powerful epiphany — an epiphany about perplexities.

(To summarize: A perplexity is a subjective condition where our conceptions fail, and we cannot even conceive the problem, much less progress toward a solution. We instinctively fear and avoid perplexities, sensing them with feelings of apprehension at what resists comprehension, because perplexity is the dissolution of a subject.)

Emerging on the other side of my first overcome perplexity, I understood the positive, creative potential of perplexity. I realized (in the sense that it became real to me) that much of the worst pain and most egregious offense I’d sustained to that point in my life were, at least in part, perplexities that I had interpreted as externally inflicted — and that I had interpreted them that way because my objectivizing enworldment supported no other way of conceiving them.

This epiphany re-enworlded me in a way that I could discern when — or at least try to discern when — perplexities were contributing or amplifying distress in my life. When I later learned the word “metanoia” I recognized it as describing what happened to me. It happens to many people, and once you know it, you can feel it radiating from them. It is palpable.

This insight into the relationship between perplexity and epiphany is my philosopher’s stone, who transmutes leaden angst into golden insight.

The worst things that can happen to us can potentially be the best things that happen to us… if we have a sense of how to move about in the shadowy realms, where we say “here I don’t know my way about“.

Perplexity is the dissolution of subject — a sort of subjective death — that makes possible resolution of a new subject — a subjective rebirth: metanoia.

C.

If we believe that subjects can be larger than an individual subjectivity (so, for instance a marriage is a subject within which each spouse’s subject subsists)…

…and we also believe that when a subject undergoes perplexity that very deep conceptions lose their effectiveness and must be reconceived if the subject is to regain living wholeness…

…why would we suppose that only an individual person can be perplexed?

I believe that multipersonal perplexities are real.

It seems improbable that I never took-together scalar subjectivity and perplexity as the dissolution of subject, and never followed the pragmatic consequences of conceiving these ideas together, but doing so feels like… an epiphany.

*

Just as a perplexity can grip a single personal subject, it can also grip a subject of two people, or three, or a dozen or multiple dozens. It can grip hundreds, thousands, millions, or multiple billions. Entire cultures can be perplexed.

Try to imagine a perplexed marriage; a perplexed friendship; a perplexed organization, a perplexed community; a perplexed academic subject.

(Thomas Kuhn imagined perplexed scientific communities.

Try to imagine a perplexed civilization.

*

I mean “to to imagine” literally. Consider pausing and concretely trying to imagine what multipersonal perplexities might be like if encountered in real life.

Try to imagine a perplexed married couple.

Try to imagine a perplexed organization.

Try to imagine a perplexed community.

*

*

*

If you tried to imagine these scenarios, reflect: Did you imagine being in the situation as a first-person participant, subjectively experiencing the perplexity from the inside? Or did you observe the situation from outside, as an third-person observer of other people embroiled in perplexity?

Can you evert the perspective, and imagine the same scenario, situated within it as an a first-person participant, and and situated outside it as a third-person observer?

*

*

*

If you can, assume with me for a moment that collective perplexities really are possible, and consider a speculative scenario:

Party A and Party B have entered a collective perplexity.

Party A is the privileged party in these scenarios, blessed by me (the inventor of these scenarios and all the assumptions governing them) with true insights into “what is really going on”. It’s an invented scenario, so there can be a true truth here, if nowhere else.

Party B sees things differently (and, again, because this is my custom-made vanity scenario) incorrectly. Party B rejects the notion of perplexity and sees what is happening according to its own worldview, which has no perplexity concept. What Party A claims is perplexity, Party B perceives as needless conflict caused largely by Party A’s iffy (or worse) beliefs and actions.

So, Party A conceives what is happening as a collective perplexity, and attempts to engage Party B in a perplexity-resolving response — a transcendent sublation.

Consider a first variant of the scenario: Faction B wants to recover the collective mode of being that existed prior to the perplexity, and “turns around” and attempts to move back to how things were before the conflict began. How does this play out?

Now, consider a second variant: Faction B decides to bring an end to the conflict through breaking free of Faction B altogether. It secedes, or splits off, forms a new denomination, or resigns, or hits unfollow, or blocks or mutes, or divorces, or cuts off contact, or whatever separation mechanism makes sense for the kind of faction A and B are. How does this play out?

Now consider a third variant: Faction B decides to fight and dominate Faction B. It makes Faction A a deal it can’t refuse. Or it tries to use the justice to force its will. Or it tries to steal an election through various kinds of deceit and treachery. It tries to weaken, dissolve or destroy some institutions and strengthen, reinforce or build others in order to dominate faction A. How does this play out?

There is a fourth variant, but I don’t want to digress.

What is the ethical obligation of Party A and Party B in each of these variants? How does each see the other’s?

*

I have been in deeply perplexed relationships where I was the only one who saw a perplexity, and so I could not win the cooperation required to resolve it. I could not resolve the perplexity of the relationship alone, so I had to resolve the perplexity in myself. This resolved perplexity, however, is not the shared perplexity. The shared perplexity is left unresolved, unasked and unanswered in a state of nothingness.

Over the years, I have gradually learned to avoid such perplexities, except where I sense a possibility of fruitful struggle. Most of the time, with most people, however, I keep things light and gloss over anything that might cause apprehension. I have learned to get along with most people most of the time, and that means keeping my active philosophy to myself.

I have also been in many superficially perplexed relationships, which, because they were superficial, could be collaboratively resolved. Design research has been my laboratory.

Once every decade or so, I get stuck in a situation — usually with a client with little hands-on design experience, but with much learned-about “design expertise” — who can neither cooperate nor resist the impulse to dominate the process, who makes resolution of the perplexity possible. And these leave me detaching from the shared perplexity and resolving a perplexity of my own, not the shared one.

(I feel every lost shared perplexity, whether deep or shallow, like an intellectual phantom limb. It is nothing — but nothingness feels terrible. I see no reason to pretend it doesn’t bother me, or that I can just unilaterally “forgive”, which an individual effort, without mutual reconciliation, which is a collaborative effort.)

I have also had one extremely deep shared perplexity resolve in a shared resolution.


“Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes”

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,
and forests made of mist. There were bridges
spanning the void, and that great gray blind lake
which hung above its distant bottom
like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.
And through the gentle, unresisting meadows
one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, —
but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.
Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached
back to the footsteps of those other two
who were to follow him, up the long path home.
But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,
or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.
He said to himself, they had to be behind him;
said it aloud and heard it fade away.
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,
a traveler’s hood above his shining eyes,
his slender staff held out in front of him,
and little wings fluttering at his ankles;
and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars –:
So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands
had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s
infinitely gentle touch of guidance
hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around –,
she could not understand, and softly answered
Who?

Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

Dematerializing

I read strangely.

When I read, I work hard at understanding the material, but I do not put much effort into retaining the material.

Rather, I use the effort to understand to repattern my conceptions.

As I read, I look for signs of textual attunement or misattunement. I pay close attention to when I am confused or perplexed, or when I am partially or superficial understanding, which means I am misunderstanding. Alert but easy following — fluent reception (influence?) of words into sentences into ideas — spontaneous, intuitive comprehension — these are all positive indications that I am becoming someone capable of understanding this material.

I also notice changes in my experience of the world. What odd details stand out to me as significant, or curious, or beautiful, or mysterious, or disturbing, or infuriating? And what is the overall tone of life?

Instead of trying to possess the material, I allow the material to transform me.

In this state, I write what I am moved to write. These are my own concepts in my own words, but they are formed and animated by conceptions from others, others who have taken a place in my soul. I am densely possessed.

*

I know there are significant tradeoffs to my way of reading. I acquire no expertise. If someone asks me to summarize what I read, or to respond to some particular passage, I am likely to be at a loss. The material is not retained, only the conceptions that give the material meaning. The conceptions continue giving meaning, though, and what is given meaning is lived reality.

What is given this way, I never lose, because it is now part of me, and shows in the givenness of the world.

*

When I am in my library, engaged in conversation with friends, they are sometimes confused or amused by my gesturing to various authors whose conceptions I feel animating my thoughts. I know exactly where each of them sits around me on my shelves, and who is helping me be myself at any moment. I am at home.

*

Do I live in a wordworld? Most people who know me would think so.

*

My Orthodox Christian friends tell me that they do not pray to icons, but rather pray through them.

*

Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favourite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in colour. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.

…Now the man who first chose glass instead of clay or metal to hold his wine was a ‘modernist’ in the sense in which I am going to use that term. That is, the first thing he asked of his particular object was not ‘How should it look?’ but ‘What must it do?’ and to that extent all good typography is modernist.

Wine is so strange and potent a thing that it has been used in the central ritual of religion in one place and time, and attacked by a virago with a hatchet in another. There is only one thing in the world that is capable of stirring and altering men’s minds to the same extent, and that is the coherent expression of thought. That is man’s chief miracle, unique to man. There is no ‘explanation’ whatever of the fact that I can make arbitrary sounds which will lead a total stranger to think my own thought. It is sheer magic that I should be able to hold a one-sided conversation by means of black marks on paper with an unknown person half-way across the world. Talking, broadcasting, writing, and printing are all quite literally forms of thought transference, and it is the ability and eagerness to transfer and receive the contents of the mind that is almost alone responsible for human civilization.

If you agree with this, you will agree with my one main idea, i.e. that the most important thing about printing is that it conveys thought, ideas, images, from one mind to other minds. This statement is what you might call the front door of the science of typography. Within lie hundreds of rooms; but unless you start by assuming that printing is meant to convey specific and coherent ideas, it is very easy to find yourself in the wrong house altogether.

— Beatrice Warde, “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible”

*

Printing should be invisible.

As should words, sentences, passages.

As should concepts and systems of concepts.

As should truth.

*

If we love reality, or aspire to love reality, we will choose truths that reveal reality rather than represent it, explain it, model it, or otherwise eclipse it. Our truths will not be objects of contemplation. Our truths will be subjects who contemplate.

*

“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.” — Nietzsche

Consummated knowledge

A synthesis (syn- “together” + -tithenai “put”) is put-together piece by piece, expertly connected at each joint with logic.

The synthesis is placed before the mind, and the mind conceives it (con- “together” + -capere “take”). It is taken-together — conceived as a whole.

But the conceived whole still contains within itself the synthesis, which may be safely assumed and ignored. The whole can, in principle, be reopened, analyzed and seen to form a valid synthesis, or it can remain a closed unit — a given — represented by a concept.

In being simultaneously together-put and together-taken — both a conceived con- and synthesized sum- — the knowledge is consummated.

*

When a synthesis is unblessed by conception, the synthesis must remain either a certified truth claim, or a thinking process that must be consciously repeated to reaffirm the truth. The knowledge feels unnatural, mechanical and artificial in application.

Consummated knowledge feels natural and can be called second-natural.

Consummated knowledge is integrated into one’s own subjectivity, and becomes an extension of one’s own self. Consummated knowledge is faithful.

Synthesis stays external. It is a pile of objective ideas one thinks about and considers “true”. Synthetic knowledge might become engrained in habit and experienced as familiar, but it can never be seen in nature as a given,

*

Some rationalists are unable or unwilling to conceive a distinction between habitually-engrained and second-natural. They want to believe human nature is artificial and arbitrary. This is the mentality that assured us that our ears would learn to love serial music, that we would feel happy dwelling in cold, austere modern spaces. This is the mentality that wishes to reengineer language in order to remake our norms.

The only difference between artificiality and second-nature is time — and compulsion.

These rationalists fancy themselves more open and imaginative than those confined to the narrow convention of today’s taste. They are prophets who refuse to limit themselves to contemporary prejudices.

But what if today’s worst and most narrow prejudice is the malleability of human nature? That taste is a prejudice — but not rationalism, not unfettered imagination?

*

Consummation is the ideal of design. A great design is intuited on the whole, but the intuition provides insight into the design’s synthesized parts. Designers work hard keeping the system consummated so part and whole inter-illumine.

This consummation is also the ideal of philosophy. An enworldment is a conceptual-synthetic understanding of everything that permits us to feel the synthetic black-boxed truth sealed tidily inside wholes, which we could, but needn’t, open, analyze, inspect and reassemble, unless we are bothered by it, or truly curioys. Without being burdened and overwhelmed we can intuit an intelligibility of the world around us.

*

Or we can just break open every concept and leave the parts disassembled snd scattered. Every concept can be deconstructed, as we invariably find if we try.

The deconstructions do not necessarily destroy our faith in the concepts, but if the concepts are destructible, a deconstruction is the most effective means.

For this reason, we often deconstruct unwanted given truths with an intent to destroy. Once we have done it, we sometimes feel we have earned the right to call the former given a mere construct.

Do we, ourselves, stop seeing the given as true? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

We can also make new syntheses and put them into concept-like boxes and claim that we find these boxes intuitive.

Do we ourselves see these concept-like constructions as given truths? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

And many of us have grown so burdened with facts accepted from other experts that we no longer have any expectation of intuiting a given world. Nothing feels natural, and we congratulate ourselves on that fact. We tell ourselves and each other that we are better off relying on “System 2” artificial thinking-about as we bob about adrift in a meaningless universe. Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

Nobody can prove one way or another, so we think it is safe to lie if we wish — except this unprovable dishonesty is felt with immediacy. The dishonesty pervades a personality and gives it a coloration and odor. Though this profound dishonesty cannot be formally discredited, it is not believed, even by oneself. But nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

*

Lack of intellectual conscience is a liability to philosophical and design craft.

Gestalt : gesture

In Wisdom & Metaphor, Jan Zwicky’s playing of gesture against gestalt is characteristically precise, clear and beautiful. All the essential left-side passages of this book are spare (but never stark) — pristinely unornamented — not out of aversion to ornament, but because ornament is unnecessary. The beauty of this book is in this freedom for ornamental need.

If I am understanding Zwicky correctly, gestures relate to gestalts in the way I wanted to say that conceptions (as mindmoves) relate to concepts. Gestures and conceptions both spontaneously conceive meanings in wholes taken-together.

But it is so much prettier to say “gesture” instead of mindmove. And linking that to the gestalt taking-together (conceiving) is just perfect. And by perfect I don’t mean merely flawless. I mean it is deeply complete. This is where the advantage of being both poet and philosopher shows.

So, a gesture is a disciplined intuitive murmuration — intuitions flying in formation in response to realities — realities that can be understood as alike in their yielding meaning in the same gesture.

*

I’m concerned, but not devastated in the least, that I may longer have any need to write the book I intended to write. The greed driving my writing — my intense need to give these sacred ideas a perfect form befitting their value — is, at least for now, satiated. I cannot believe how much I love this book.

I still have some important new ideas to communicate, but those ideas are more profane and can be said in more relaxed language. And maybe the work I was doing can still be useful, by forming these beautiful poetic truths into beautiful intellectual equipment for doing practical work in this meaning-parched, contempt-convulsed, dirty, fragile, precious world.

Since you asked…

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

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

What is value? Can it be objective?

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

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

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

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


What is value? Can it be objective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Argyle

Today, I am recollecting and reflecting on the insights that originally inspired me to draw a diagram that I’ve called “the argyle”.

It was originally meant to show how conceptual wholes and synthesized parts can intersect to produce meaningful systems. In a meaningful system the conception of the system makes the synthesized parts feel necessary and given, because their relationships are pre-determined by the logic of the concept –“Of course it works this way! — but, also, the synthesis is rationally constructed, so even if the concept were missed, the system would make sense — “This is perfectly clear and logical!”.

A meaningful system is comprehended with intuition and reason, or with both together in concert. (I’ve also considered the idea of treating comprehension as being simultaneous inter-illuminating conception and synthesis — instead of as an umbrella term for either conception or synthesis.)


The reason I needed to create this framework was that I’ve found that certain very types of designers (and people doing the work of designers) tend to prioritize concept over synthesis or synthesis over concept to such a degree that they stop reinforcing one another. One one extreme we have the wild genius who conceives a vision of the whole and regards all logic as stultifying formalism that undermines the inspired spontaneity of creation. It does not have to make clear sense if hearts are stirred and wallets open wide. On the other extreme we have the logical organizer of elements who views with suspicion and impatience any delaying attempt to seek an overarching concept to guide the design. After all, logic can get down to work immediately and start making demonstrable progress toward the final goal. If the final output is uninspired and dry — so what? Can the system be figured out with minimal effort? Good enough.

Years later, out of exasperation and a weakness for potty-mouthed ridicule, I developed a second model to describe the failure of merging concept and synthesis — though somehow, until today, I managed to miss the opportunity to explicitly link this failure to synthesis and concept. Instead I linked it to inspired meaning versus practical details.

I called this “the bullshit-chickenshit model”.

Bullshit – Meaningful, inspiring ideas that seem to promise something, but that something can never be fulfilled through any practical action.

Chickenshit – Practical activity that seems like it ought to serve some meaningful purpose, but in reality is pointless busyness.

Bullshit is meaning without practice. Chickenshit is practice without meaning.

But, really, bullshit can be understood as unsynthesizable concept. The meaning is a feeling of vast promise that cannot be applied to any particular.

Chickenshit can be understood as inconceivable synthesis. It is a giant mechanism of logically conjoined pieces that never resolves into a meaningful whole.

Most of what we encounter in the world is pure bullshit and pure chickenshit, and this produces that one-two KO nihilistic punch in the face that sometimes makes us want to burn this whole madhouse down.

*

Finally, I will accept the risk of being accused of bullshit by suggesting that the  Star of David can be viewed as a transcendent argyle, and the ultimate overcoming of bullshit and chickenshit . Even before I was Jewish I conceived it this way, and this insight contributed to my need to be Jewish.

Here, the overlap of concept and synthesis is maximized, and both the depth of concept and extent of the synthesis is felt to exceed the overlap. The meaning of the religious vision resonates in every practical detail of life, but also the doing of every day mundane life is sacralized in Tikkun Olam.

Sacred practicality is practical sacrality.

Practical sacrality is sacred practicality.

This is my own Jewish ideal, and I don’t think it is only mine.

*

Postscript

The “skeleton” of the star — formed by connecting the opposing points of each of the overlapping triangles — eventually became the asterisk “star” in Geometric Meditations.

Nietzsche vs liberal theology

Thinking about religion in an appreciatively or tolerant way from a standpoint that sees itself as having overcome the need for religious belief is the furthest thing from understanding religion.

This religion-appreciating standpoint — which sees intense awe or the excitement of discovery as a genuine substitute for religious feeling and the gestalt shifts resulting from extraordinary science or abnormal discourse as metanoia — believes it pays religion a compliment when it maps isolated bits to scripture to its discoveries.

It is the furthest thing because, at bottom, it is a benevolent nullification of religion as even requiring strong disagreement. Religion need not be attacked or suppressed, when it can be analyzed, disassembled and reintegrated into less fanatical, less absolutist, less violence-inclined worldviews.

Why shouldn’t these worldviews be seen as just as religious as any of the older religious faiths? Who gets to define what is and is not a religion?

I grew up with this antifaith.

My whole life I’ve tried to overcome this religion-tolerant religiosity.

I really may have failed to overcome it.

*

And if my thought-dreams
Could be seen
They’d probably put my head
In a guillotine.
But it’s alright, Ma,
It’s life,
And life
Only.

— Bob Dylan

*

Early in his career, Nietzsche published a series of essays collected under the title Untimely Meditations. In one of these essays he attacked the liberal theologian David Strauss as a founder of a Christianoid religion safe for — even useful to — “cultural philistines”.

It’s a painful read, because young Nietzsche hadn’t found his voice yet, and this voice is one of unsubtle, unconstrained romantic fury. But the overtness of the anger is also revealing, and it renders visible much of what older Nietzsche learned to hint at from a higher and cooler altitude, resulting in vastly better style.

In this book, he lashes out at a type who resists, as if on principle — but what Nietzsche claims is the instinct of a temperament — what I would call a fully successful enworldment — that is a way of life animated (in the most literal sense of the word) by a unifying conception.

I use the word conception in a sense defined against another term, synthesis. Conception is a mode of comprehension that spontaneously and transparently takes-together experience as givens that, for all the world, seem given by reality itself, even though it is an artifact of relationship between self and reality. Synthesis is a mode of comprehension that consciously puts-together ideas into truth assertions.

My take on Nietzsche’s rage toward Strauss (who is only a stand-in for the cultural philistine type), is that Nietzsche expects far more from culture than cultural philistines will allow. The cultural philistine, according to my interpretation of Nietzsche, is a person occupied with culture (religion, art, philosophy) but from a perspective that forbids authentic participation in culture. Instead culture is taken as collections of artifacts which are somehow valuable and edifying apart from the naivety of the conditions that engendered them. The philistine enworldment that takes them up trusts only syntheses — an external putting-together of these meaningful artifacts, so they are objective possessions of the intellect, not dismemberments of potentially possessing enworldments.

To put it in Kahnemanese, a philistine trusts exclusively in System 2, and treats all System 1 as something to debunk and neutralize. But cultures (if you believe Nietzsche, and my own odd Nietzscheanism) are System 1 enworldments: passionate, committal, participatory, intuitively-immediate enworldments.

At a young age, Nietzsche, I believe, in his philological work took some of these cultural dismemberments and managed to re-membered them in a fuller and more possessing context. In other words, he re-enworlded himself with some ancient faith. This is what forced him out of the university. Because the modern university is itself an enworldment — a sort of oversubject that places academic subjects in mutual relation with one another — and in Nietzsche’s day, that oversubject was Germany’s philistine anticulture, and it needed the services of cultural philistines, not professors whose allegiance in their subject exceeded their allegiance to the universality of the university.

*

Today, in the United States of America we are tolerant of religions, as long as the members of the religion keep their priorities straight. Their allegiance to their nation must be higher than their allegiance to their religious faith. If they take their religious faith to be higher, and they allow what (they think) God commands to have priority over what the government commands, they are dangerous fanatics.

And I agree!

But I agree as a religious person who thinks liberalism is not a condition to be imposed by religion — but as a condition religion itself imposes… or at least ought to.

*

Many believers would dispute that I am religious.

Cultural philistines would probably find my religion unacceptable, because I sincerely, helplessly, actually believe the things I have come to believe. I can no longer place them against a 3rd-person impersonality, nor can I temper my faith with irony, however much I try.

Some Jews have told me I am a Jew. I’ll go with that.

Random thoughts about theology, symbol and design

Imagine a religion where the congregation convenes and worships by expounding theology in explicit language — instead of worshiping in the beautiful but ambiguous symbolic language of ritual and prayer — with the intention of developing the clarity, depth and inspirational intensity of the theology to the furthest possible extent.

Imagine that, through this practice, the congregation does succeed in its collective goal. Imagine also, that this theological worship enables every member of the congregation to make personal progress, each at their own maximum pace, in their own theological understanding.

What happens?

I will tell you exactly what happens: With each personal epiphany, the congregation shatters and reshatters in protest and counter-protest.

*

A clear theology is univocal. It conveys one specific belief.

But, ultimately, every one of us, being unique, has a unique relationship to the infinite. There are as many theologies as there are persons. The better the theology, the less it accommodates more than one theologian — and the less comprehensible it is to all others — and the more intensely it induces apprehension in the uncomprehending.

A religious symbology is polyvocal. The more radically polyvocal it is, the more universal its community. A symbology can be an expression of any number of beliefs of varying depth and clarity.

Even beliefs that clash and conflict when stated explicitly, when expressed in symbol, affirm a harmonious commonality of faith beneath the beliefs.

*

Each religious symbol is a miracle of polysemy, a part of an even more miraculous polysemous symbol-system, the symbology of the religion. A change in any one symbol can crystallize a change throughout the system.

But these symbols are not external tokens that can be known through external manipulation.

One cannot understand a symbol as an object, grasped in the hand of the comprehending mind. Assembling and disassembling symbols like Lego blocks and combining them with pieces from other sets might give you some kind of knowledge about the pieces, and you might enjoy the experience of playing with them, but this comes at the cost of understanding their meaning of the symbol within the symbology that engendered it.

A symbology is not an object. A symbology is a subject.

To know a subject, we immerse in that subject, participating in its praxis until we have an epiphany — an epiphany that renders the subject clear — clear, invisible, imperceptible, transparent (trans- “through” + -parere “show oneself”) — so transparent that we experience the world itself through the subject, as made apparent by the subject, as given by the subject.

A subject is an enworldment.

*

If we conceive religions in terms of belief content, this produces a different understanding than if we see religions more like languages that put communities in relation with each other, and with ultimate reality.

*

Is a dictionary an inventory of every entity English-speakers believe exist? Isn’t that a notion we kicked to the curb when we rejected correspondence theories of truth? I’m curious: When we naively believed in correspondence theories of truth, and adhered to them, does that mean that this restricted our actual thinking and speech? Or did it mean we actually thought and spoke one way, but spoke about and thought about our speech and thought another?

Isn’t it possible that religious people participate in religion one way, but think about and speak about religion another? Likely, even?

*

In usability testing, we watch people use an artifact. We don’t thrust the artifact before them, invite them to look at it and ask them for their opinion of it. We give them a task, and they try to use the artifact to accomplish it.

When we ask them about what they did, or why they did it, it doesn’t add up. They say it was easy, when the struggled. Or they make up reasons to explain things they were clearly doing instinctively, unconsciously. They are clearly confabulating.

Looking at a thing and looking through a thing is radically different.

But we keep on thinking: “No, I get the gist of it.”

No, you do not get the gist of it.

*

The craft of research-informed design teaches us this over and over and over and over again not to trust our ability to see other perspectives from our own perspective.

*

The strangest thing about being human is that we are free. We can spiral our finitude out into infinitude, or we can withdraw our finitude and close it into an impenetrable circle. Anything we prefer to regard as nonsense we can leave nonsensical. Nobody can compel us to pursue its sense, unless we want to. We are free to understand or refrain from understanding. We can, if we wish, even obliterate understanding through willful misunderstanding. Nobody can stop us, or even know for certain what we are doing.

*

To say “the author is dead” is not a statement of fact, but a speech act that kills authors. And every day that we celebrate the author’s wake is a day that we, alone, are free to author our own life as we wish. Postmodernism was a disobligating liberation movement, and it succeeded. Nobody is the boss of me.

*

To say “God is dead” is also a speech act that kills God.

But, to that I say: Happy Easter.

*

There is wisdom in keeping our beliefs private and expressing what matters most symbolically.

Synesis and intellectual conscience

The Greek word synesis – literally, “togethering” – means understanding.

In synesis many forms of bringing together are brought together: bringing together one’s own various intuitions, which bring together various perceptions and ideas into understandings, which are then brought together with the rest of one’s understandings in a general understanding of everything. And once something is understood by one person, it can then be taught to other persons, in a fourth bringing together: shared understanding.

So synesis brings together many diverse kinds of bringing together: intuitive, phenomenal, philosophical, social.

*

Many of us are spiritual individualists, whether we think of ourselves as religious worshipers or secular connoisseurs of awe. We work out our own respective salvations, hammer out our own views, in disregard of public chatter.

We undervalue synesis — or even defiantly devalue it on principle. “My relationship with the Universe/Cosmos/Divine is between me and the Universe/Cosmos/Divine, and is not the business of other people.”

This approach works only if we exclude other people from the infinite domain of Universe/Cosmos/Divine. And we can do it, if we choose to — but we do pay a price we might not notice, or at least not recognize as symptoms of our spiritual individualism.

However, when we conceive other people as fellow participants in the Universe/Cosmos/Divine — intrinsic to it and inseparable from it — we understand clearly that this principled spiritual exclusion of other people from our spirituality falsifies the very being of the Universe/Cosmos/Divine. With infinity, every exclusion is a disqualifying impurity.

And further, if we decide to be unsparingly honest with ourselves — if we allow the quiet voice of our intellectual conscience to be heard through the noise of our “narratives”, our explanations, our theorizing, our justifications, and all our other sundry various whistlings- in-the dark — if our standard becomes “do I really believe this?” instead of “can I defend this position?” or “can anyone really prove that I don’t really think or feel this way?” — in other words if we pursue truth, not proof — we must acknowledge the importance of other people and our need to share our world with them.

*

We do not want to be alone.

Dishonesty isolates.

The dishonesty that isolates us most of all is that undisprovable inner dishonesty we cower in if we have been damaged by betrayal and spiritual coercion.

Then we are tempted to say, with Milton’s protagonist:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence…

We do not have to stay here.

We can reconceive things — re-conceive ourselves — and walk away from our self-isolating dishonesty. It is not exactly safe, but certainly not lethal, to care.

The universal design brief

It occurs to me this morning that Liz Sanders’s useful/usable/desirable framework is the heart of what could be thought of as a universal design brief.

  • Useful: The design satisfies functional needs.
  • Usable: The design minimizes functional obstacles.
  • Desirable: The design is valuable beyond its function.

The goal of design research is to particularize this brief. Useful how? Usable how? Desirable how?

For me, at least, the most striking thing about such a brief is how poorly language serves its purpose. Perhaps the widest and strangest gap between academic research and design research is the role language plays in the research, especially in its output. Where the end product of academic research is normally a written publication, design research aims at producing a concrete design that users actually experience as useful, usable and desirable. Whatever words produced on the way are only a means to this end, and often design researchers are wise to say as few words as possible, and instead simply influence (in-form?), as directly as possible, the shaping of the design.

Useful is the most linguistically accessible goal. Usefulness can be summarized in terms of explicit functional needs addressable by features. When people think about what is learned in design research, those few people with any inclination and ability to imagine anything distinct typically see a method for uncovering needs. Here words serve us well. We identify a list of “jobs to be done” by the design. Some of these jobs are functional, and others are emotional or social, but all can be stated in words.

This helps explain why “design thinking” focuses most on usefulness. For most people, especially the kind of professionals who get invited to design thinking workshops, thinking is done in words.

Beyond usefulness, however, words help less — or even start to mislead and impede. Beyond the talk of usefulness, where usability and desirability is developed, design craft takes over.

Usable is the goal of removing friction and barriers to use. This should not mean (but all too often does mean) friction and barriers to figuring out how to use something. Figuring out is friction.

The flooding of the design field with non-designers from other disciplines — people who love problem solving, but lack real love of designed artifacts — who don’t notice, appreciate or maybe don’t even expect intimacy with designed artifacts — has caused a serious degradation in our usability expectations. Most designers today stop short at verbal “figure-out-ability”, instead of seeking intuitive usability.

Intuitive usability seeks spontaneous conceiving of the What, How and Why of a system in pre-use encounter, and direct wordless, transparent interaction in use.

Certainly, helpful things can be said about how to make something more usable — general principles of usability do exist — but ultimately, if spontaneous conception and tacit transparency is sought, usability is something that develops experimentally and concretely through an iterative design process. Usability can be indicated and its effect can be described, but usability cannot be encapsulated in speech like usefulness can. Usability is designed into things.

Desirability is the hardest goal. Here we try to create something attractive or compelling in pre-use and intrinsically meaningful in use. We want users to respond favorably to the intrinsic qualities of the artifact when beheld from a distance (when it is present-at-hand) and to experience an unobtrusively noticeable, ambient positivity during use when the artifact is ready-to-hand. Here, the better the design, the more reliably words fail, except maybe poetic words. Desirability is not just associated emotions, and especially not emotional uses (that is only emotional usefulness). Desirability is the je ne sais quois goodness in a design — a quiddity or thusness that makes it, to some degree, lovable. We feel the desirability of things when we feel it, and those who really know the craft of design can produce it reliably, but nobody can say how. Design researchers can help inform this effort, but much of the help is showing, not telling.

*

I guess I’m doing my usual beating-up-on-words thing again.

Why, though?

I think it is this: In a world that exalts language over craft, abstraction over concreteness, theory over practice — a world where craft must talk its way to the top or languish at the bottom under the micromanagement of talkers — where Thinkers reign over Doers, because obviously this is how things are — life itself is dictated by what is sayable.

Life devolves into features — heaps of What – and the quieter qualities of intuitiveness (How) and desirability (Why) fall by the wayside. What can’t be explicated, argued, listed on a PowerPoint slide drops away into ineffable oblivion.

Overall, life gets more and more useful… while growing less usable, less intuitive and less desirable. Life feels artificial, overwhelming and not worth the effort.

This artificiality seems to us to be the cost of progress. We see no alternative but returning to nature — retrogressing to simpler times.

But design offers an alternative to the A/B choice of progress into artificiality or return to nature.

Design offers second-naturalness.

But to get to an overall second-natural state we need to 1) raise our expectations of what we make for one another, and 2) kick our language supremacy and relearn reverence for craft. The more we can do this, the better chance we will have to instaurate a world that we experience as useful, usable and desirable.

*

Polycentric design seeks usefulness, usability and desirability for a plurality of actors who interact with things and one another. It seeks systems of mutual benefit, which make the system itself manifestly beneficial.

Do we know how to think in a way that supports acting in a way — making in a way — that supports polycentric design?

Do we actually understand what it takes to accommodate pluralistic mutuality?

Don’t we all sort of assume that all people ought to share our ideals, and that if only they would, that we could finally make progress toward something better? Don’t we think their resistance to what we want is an illegitimate obstacle that ought not exist? And don’t they think that about us?

We don’t want to discuss what ought to go without saying. We are exasperated, offended! We need to move on, make progress.

In design — real design that doesn’t just think design, but does design — this ironing out of mutuality demands things of us that seem unreasonable. The politics of what constitutes progress is the hardest part of making progress! But we want to skip this part, and just make progress as we see it, accusing the other who wants to make a  progress toward another ideal (or away from something experienced as undesirable or wrong) as mere obstruction. So pluralism, like design,  must not just be thought, but done.

Design is the practice of pluralism. Doing design, doing pluralism, and being unable to escape its terrible demands has forced me out of my head, down into my arms, hands, legs and feet and deep into my own heart. I have been forced to move my body to unfamiliar places, so I can watch how people do things, so I can hear them talk about what they are doing, why they are doing and how they feel about it all, so I can soak up the je ne sais quois of how they decorate, equip and inhabit their environments — and this moves me. I have worked and struggled to come to agreements with my colleagues and clients on what we have learned and how it is significant, and this has rarely been easy. Frequently, we have had to wrestle with perplexity together, to develop tiny, local philosophies to make what we intuit intelligible, thinkable, discussable. This has forced me to learn apprehension tolerance, and the art of summoning goodwill in the midst of angst.

To do these things at commercial velocity, and to survive as the kind of person I want to be, I have had to rethink how I think, rework how I work, redesign how I design — re-enworld myself — over and over again, iteratively.

I am convinced that what prevents us from designing better is our way of thinking. Our manner of thinking, our expectations of thinking — undermines our doing, and our capacity for doing-with — deep forms of collaboration.

We need a philosophy of polycentric design. I’ve made a solid start in designing one. I believe if I can get others to adopt my prototype and collaborate on developing it further, this way of understanding, this designerly way of enworlding ourselves together, could help us align on the kind of progress we would like to make together so we can move past this current dangerous-feeling impasse.

Faiths and doctrines

I was talking to some religious friends this morning, and mentioned some things that seem worth recording:

Everyone has a faith of some kind. Faiths are that by which we believe.

But religious faiths are oriented toward what transcends objectivity, and, therefore, toward what transcends all belief.

Religious faith has beliefs toward a kind of being that defies objectivity, where irreligious “belief-systems” end where cognition ends.

Fundamentalists are people with irreligious faiths who try to believe in the truth of religious doctrines. They are “believers” because believing is something that takes constant effort. They try to force themselves to believe something their faith cannot actually believe, and it makes them irritable and aggressive toward anything that arouses their doubts and sets them back. Atheists are people with irreligious faiths, and are therefore unable to believe religious doctrines and have no problem admitting that fact.

This is why fundamentalists and atheists prefer to debate each other. They have commensurable ideas, and differ mainly on the question of whether these ideas are true or false. Religious faiths make no sense to fundamentalists or atheists, and people with religious faiths often avoid debating truth or falsehood of doctrines with people who conceive them in irreligious terms and miss the point. Such debates focus on irrelevancies.

*

For a religious faith, doctrine is an expressions of something that defies language. The doctrine expresses and supports the faith — so doctrine is undeniably important — but faith is not reducible to the doctrinal content — not even close.

For “believers” faith is primarily a matter of accepting the truth status of the doctrinal content, despite the fact that it has little support. When people talk about faith that way it indicates that they haven’t yet experienced a change in faith.

Truth as antierror and antifalsity

“We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt…” — C. S. Peirce

*

For the Boomers and for Gen X, that massive heap of post-everything glopped together as postmodernism was an exotic novelty that either liberated or infuriated depending on your temperament.

For Millennials, postmodernism was simply what was taught as current thinking, combined with Kahnemaniacal cognitive scientism, to produce a confused paradox — or is it an oxymoron — that fears cognitive distortion of… what, exactly? I have yet to hear anyone address the doublethink at the root of the Millennial generational faith.

For Gen Z, postmodernism is another conventionality to ridicule. When a Gen Zer says “That’s just a construct” they say it from a minimum of two  ironies layers if not more. For them there is nothing beneath the irony, to contrast with it, and there never has been. Postmodernism is all they know. They are thoroughgoingly faith-fluid.

*

What we miss in the constructivist vision of truth and the deconstructionist vision of skepticism is two crucial questions.

The first is a question of practicality: Does reality cooperate with what we assert as true? We can claim all kinds of things, but our claims can be demonstrated to be wrong. They can also be demonstrated to be at least to some degree — but never conclusively — right.

The second is a question of intellectual conscience: Do we actually conceive a construction as true, and does a deconstruction cause us to conceive something as doubtful? Nobody can demonstrate sincerity of belief, disbelief or doubt, nor can they prove that a provisionally held assertion can never someday become sincerely believed. This hope is actually held by some, and for others is a ruse and a crutch.

How can discern the difference between actual and feigned belief — or sincere hope for future belief and willful delusion? Even if discernment were possible, how could we ever prove it? We cannot, so charlatans abound.

Where the first and second converge — where a truth is demonstrably true and conceived as true — this is where truth exists. It may not be a truth that satisfies a metaphysician’s fantasies, but it is a truth defined against demonstrable error and faithless falsity.

*

I think younger generations are barely in touch with demonstrated truth, and entirely alienated from intellectual conscience. Everything is a construct and no construct has anything to recommend it over any other, except…

Soulswarm

My soul is a swarm of intuitions.

This swarm knows how to fly in various formations to meet reality and respond to it. The intuitions know one another through these reality-responsive formations. Without reality’s mediation, without common objects, my intuitions would be unaware of the whole to which they belong.

No realities, no enworldment, no self. New realities, new enworldment, new selves.

My soul swarms with other souls. Some formations are made across souls, alighting upon and responding to reality. We understand together, share truth, share enworldment.

My soul has learned new formations, and new partial-formations, and these have changed how I enworld myself, and how it is to play my part within this world.

We are imprisoned within our selves only if we refuse to notice otherwise.

The reality of the world and each another is manifest if we accept it.