Category Archives: Enworldment

Transformability of givenness

Givenness is the spontaneous, pre-reflective experiencing of something as something.

We tend to think of givens as foundational points of departure. However, as history testifies, at least some givens can be changed, to potentially profound effect. The effect of such changes is inconceivable prior to the change, because the scope of conceivability itself is what changes.

I believe that some givens ought to be changed, that other givens ought not to be changed (but cultivated, protected and bequeathed), and that some givens, maybe most, ought to evolve organically. But we must ask some crucial questions: Who decides, for whom? and by what reasoning is this decision made? and by what means may givens be changed? Finally, how is the transformation of givens experienced by one undergoing the change and how does one understand the transformation, when that by which understanding happens is precisely what is transforming?

(This is me experimenting with approaching my incipient book Enworldment from the angle of transformability of givenness.)

Promises of new worlds

For an enworldment to become culturally relevant, its praxis must not only be good from the inside but it must also be compelling (beautiful, sublime, fascinating) from the outside.

“Inside”: for those who understand and participate in the enworldment, existence becomes manifestly good.

“Outside”: for those who experience only the enworldment’s manifestations — its words, deeds and expressions — it hovers between comprehension and bafflement in that range of semi-understanding we experience as mystery.

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Mystery suggests potential but unrealized intelligibility.

The potency of mystery is a function of the actuality of the enworldment that generates its appearance. If one manages to “get inside” the aesthetic, a new enworldment will spontaneously resolve itself. A new understanding — a new stance — a new priority — a new way emerges — and everything is now different in the most important sense, though most things stay mostly the same. It is the precise opposite of magic, though it is inconceivably magical.

False mysteriousness — a vice of artistic and religious charlatans — tries to use mystery effects to suggest an enworldment that will never spontaneously resolve — will never become second-natural — at any degree of understanding or familiarity with the mystifying words, ways or artifacts.

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And then there’s technik.

Technik assures us that it is possible, through great combinatory effort, that we might find an order that will gives each sundry part — including you and me — a place in the system. Alienation will end. Clarity will reign. And this all-embracing outer technik is our only hope for inner peace. This is the promise of positivist thought and art.

Technik’s plan is to willfully permute our way to an artificial paradise we will learn to love.

Reenworld thyself

Let’s stop distorting the meaning of subjectivity by situating it within an essentially objective world.

But that objective world within which we understand ourselves to be situated is produced by our subjectivity, through its own participation in reality.

It is reality within which we are situated. Objectivity (and the objective truth we know about it) is merely what we instaurate — discover-create — through this participation in reality.

To confuse reality with objective truth — and nearly everyone does this to some degree — is to succumb to misapotheosis: the confusion ourselves and our objective comprehension of truth, with God and God’s own comprehension of reality within Godself. We are a mere image of God, a finite incarnation of infinite more-than-being.

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The objective truth we can talk about is a tiny subset of the objective truth we experience; the objective truth is a tiny subset of the subjectivity we experience; the subjectivity we experience is a tiny subset of the subjectivity a person can potentially experience; and the totality of subjectivities a person can potentially experience is a tiny subset of reality. And reality is a subset of God’s infinite more-than-being.

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The reworking of ontological topologies within a panentheistic enception changes a soul and its enworldment in inconceivable ways. This reworking is religious insight.

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Yet again, Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim comes to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Religion is the most advanced technology, beyond all technological advancement.

It’s not that religion rejects or denies magic. It’s that religious insight renders magic boring and it’s that  “spiritual” magic-mongering (more often than not) stunts religious insight.

Sense of nothingness

We have a deficient sense of nothingness.

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When we lose vision, we do not see blackness. Instead, we see boiling chrome.

When we lose a leg, instead of numbness, we are tormented by an aching phantom limb.

When we lose our hearing, rather than submersion in silence, we hear intolerable hypersonic ringing.

When we lose our sense of smell, the world does not become odorless. It reeks of burning rubber, sulphur and brimstone.

When we lose our sense of taste, our mouths and tongue are filled with bitterness.

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When we lose sense of purpose, we do not become serene or care-free.

We feel ennui.

When we lose capacity to love, we do not become detached or objective.

On the contrary, this lovelessness is depression.

When we lack understanding, we don’t experience ignorance.

Instead, we experience a combination of apprehension and intuitive omniscience. We don’t want to know the particulars — we already comprehend them in principle.

(Only if we press against this ignorant omniscience, or if it presses on us, will it break. And when it breaks we are rewarded with disorientation, perplexity, hellish angst… and the possibility of new conception.)

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When we lose our sense of self, we don’t become selfless. Instead, we become nebulas of nihilism and ressentiment. The phantom self seethes with hostility and plots vengeful dismantlement of its miscreator.

When we lose our sense of world, we don’t become otherworldly nor innocent. Instead, we become paranoid residents of a phantom world — a realm of concealed demonic machinations, a tangle of puppets and puppet strings, traceable to a baleful beyond.

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Wherever we lack a sense of God, we mistake ourselves for gods. We succumb to misapotheosis. We believe ourselves final judges of what is good and evil, of what is what is “ok” and “not ok”.

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Wherever we know God we are of God, toward God, participating in God.

We dance the God with God.

Some of us count and perform steps, hoping they will smooth out and become a fluid motion.

Others of us intuit the dance and spontaneously move with the dance, hoping the movements will gain articulate precision.

This dance is done together, or not at all, with synesse.

Real and ideal

Bruno Latour: “What is real resists.

Reality most conspicuously resists our ideals.

What do we do when reality and ideal diverge?

We can be incurious, and ignore the gap.

We can be ideological, and condemn those who make it hard to ignore the gap.

We can impersonate gods, and condemn the gap itself.

We can be industrious, and reshape the world to conform to our ideals.

We can be reflective, and reshape our ideals to conform to the world.

We can be designerly, and reshape the world and our ideals together.

Design is not a praxis.

Design is praxis.

T. M. Krishna!

Sunday, Susan and I got to attend a lec-dem by the great Carnatic vocalist T. M. Krishna. We were especially excited that he was accompanied by violinist, Akkarai Subhalakshmi.

I was most excited about the musical performance part of the event, but it turns out the lecture part might have more lasting impact.

His lecture was about the history of raga forms, and his own views on the degradation of raga forms from an organic aesthetically-guided musicality to a synthetic computational model. The great loss, according to T. M. Krisha, is the ability to spontaneously feel the belonging of any part of the raga to whole. The synthetic ragas must mechanically repeat phrasings to maintain its re-cognitive character.

What shocked and excited me about what he was saying is that this precisely is a distinction I have been trying to make in my own philosophical work, distinguishing between synthetic ideas — which must be explicitly recalled and applied in constructing thoughts — versus conceptive ideas which work spontaneously and produce givens: givens of perception, of interpretation and of thought. The acquisition of a new conceptive capacity gives us new givens from nowhere, expanding our ontological range, thus enlarging our enworldment and enabling us to accommodate more truth.

I feel certain that my profound philosophical — or better, praxic — kinship with T. M. Krishna’s accounts for my instant love of his music. I conceive his music as an auditory embodiment of the very ideas that animate my thinking.

India is a living superset of every possible philosophical idea humanity will ever conceive, so I am overjoyed, but not at all surprised, to have reconceived an Indian enworldment..

I dug through T. M. Krishna’s book, A Southern Music and found some of the content from his lecture:

In the early eighteenth century, Venkatamakhin’s descendent Muddu Venkatamakhin decided to artificially create ragas for the remaining fifty-three of the seventy-two possible melas computed by his ancestor Venkatamakhin. He used the same method that had been used to create the raga deshisimharavam. This meant that all seventy-two melas were functional. The raganga raga needed to have only the seven svaras. It was around this time that arohana and avarohana came to be used to define the melodic structure of a raga. This created artificial janya ragas that were formulated from the non-functional melas. As these ragas had no aesthetic component to their identity, the simplest way to describe them was to mention the svaras that appeared in their arohana and avarohana. These svaras were after all based on the computed svarasthanas. This was another important marker in raga history. Even under the constructed melas, Muddu Venkatamakhin placed older, naturally evolved ragas. He not only gave names to all the fifty-three raganga ragas that he constructed, but also altered the names of older raganga ragas. This was done to accommodate the ingenious syllabo-numeric memory system that was evolved to identify the number of the mela from the name of the raganga raga, a system called the katapayadi samkhya.

As I move to the next major development, I must point out that the exercise of computation resulted in ragas being reinterpreted in terms of only the svaras they contained, rather than the aesthetic form of their melodic movements. This is also revealed in the use of arohana and avarohana as the defining characteristic of ragas. We must realize that once these systems came into practice, they were also being placed upon ragas that had evolved organically and were not determined by the arohana or avarohana. All ragas were being looked at through the prism of the arohana and avarohana, thus deconstructing their natural melodic features. …

Ragas that evolved from melodic phraseology developed through time and remained cohesively held together by the aesthetic cognition of unity. These ragas may have seven svaras or even less. They cannot be purely defined by the sequence of the svaras in the arohana or avarohana. Examples of this are surati, ritigaula, anandabhairavi, gaula and saveri. …

In the eighteenth century, we come across another treatise called Sangraha Chudamani (1750–1800). We know very little about the treatise or its author Govinda (not to be confused with Govinda Dikshita). This treatise completely sterilized the concept of raga and mela. Govinda combined the ideas of sampurna along with arohana and avarohana. In doing so, he decided that the ragas that held the name of the mela must have all the seven svaras in sequential order both in the arohana and avarohana. He also created a new term for the melakarta: meladhikara (the raga that has authority over the mela). Most ragas that evolved naturally did not have svaras in linear sequence and could not be meladhikaras. Only six older ragas were given the meladhikara status. Older natural ragas were listed within artificial melas whose meladhikara was a synthetic raga. The status of the raga that held the title for the mela had thus changed from being the most popular raga to the one that had authority over the mela…

With these conceptual changes to raga and the adaptation of many forms of contrived svara sequences as ragas, we are faced with an aesthetic challenge. Do all these different types of ragas have the abstract nature that is a creation of the raga’s musical heritage, phraseology and its psychological recognition? An aware listener can sense this by listening to just one phrase. In an artificial raga, the musician and the listener have to constantly connect with all the svaras present and their sequence. They cannot transcend this level of engagement and move to the real level of aesthetics of phrase forms. Why is such transcendence important?

Let me suggest an answer to that question. A raga belongs not to the literal but to the inferred. The inferred comes alive when the perceiver can be invited into the sound of the raga, which is born from every svara, every phrase, every phrase connection and the raga as a whole. This experience is only possible when the listener does not need to be reminded of the technical nature of the svara or its sequence. Synthetic ragas lack the abstractive nature both in form and in the way they can be received.

Polycentric design praxis

Here is where I am right now: I want to integrate polycentric design practice (design for multiple interacting participants in a defined social system) with my philosophical project, which reconceives philosophy as a genre of design — a genre of polycentric design. This integration of practice and theory yields a polycentric design praxis.

This polycentric design praxis is, itself, a polycentric design “artifact”, a way of being-in-the-world: an enworldment.

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These two projects are already joined at the root.

A radical design solution, to the degree it is radical entails philosophical work. Such solutions reach beyond mere ingenuity, by reframing the problem it is meant to solve.

Moderately radical solutions may use metaphor to semantically remap the problem landscape and to find a new standpoint from which one can view the problem in a new perspective, and approach it from new angles. Essentially, metaphor puts existing conceptions to work in new contexts, not only for the designer, but also for the participant in the design. But repurposing of conceptions through metaphor is only one move available to designers and thinkers. Some claim it is the only one, but this claim says more about the limits of the claimant than the limits of possibility. Truly radical thinking involves finding new conceptive movements through direct and tacit interactions with reality — nonverbal intuitions. The wordbound are stopped short where language ends, equally unable to originate or understand what cannot be assembled from dictionary definitions. Much of value can be made inside these limits, but the most important advances in human being happen when linguistic limits are transcended, through religious or artistic activity. The words come later, and new metaphoric material for word-tinkerers. All that being said, though — metaphor does make a design more usable, and the most successful radical designs use metaphor or simple conceptual models to do the reconceptive work of innovation.

Any innovation rooted in reconceptions beyond the verbal will be perceived, not as design, but as art. Likewise, any intellectual innovation rooted in reconceptions beyond the verbal will be perceived, not as philosophy, but as religion. Untamed art (that is, art that cannot be explained) and genuine religion (that is, religion that does not explain) inflicts perplexity on wordworlders.

My philosophical faith was forged in design practice. My worst perplexities come from my worklife. I see them arising from the unique requirements to conceptually align with diverse people. I’ve come to understand (that is, to reconceive) the strange kinds of pain human-centered designers suffer as collective perplexities, very similar to those felt by scientists during scientific crises and to those experienced by philosophers who discover their radical differences. And, I should add, to a culture who has fractured and factionalized and cannot reconcile its difference, because both sides are indubitably right, morally and epistemically) and face existential threats from the other.

Cultivating a practice of moral-epistemic irony toward myself either gives me a uniquely helpful approach to diagnosing and treating such group perplexities, or it gives me a smug and alienated claim to superiority.

What a mess of a post. I’ll stop now.

Contrarian thoughts on the public

Based on my understanding of David Cooper’s characterization of Existentialism, I believe two of my strong convictions may be somewhat heterodox within Existentialism.

First, Existentialism should never seek to be a norm. I do not believe many members of the public ought to pursue the Existentialist ideal. Rather, I think most should play their public roles according to the ethnomethodical rules of their various social settings, as long as doing so allows them to live reasonably rational, effective, meaningful lives. If things are going well for a society, nobody should be condemned for identifying themselves with their social role. If the everyday enworldment of the public isn’t broken, everyone should be encouraged (though not required) to adopt it and live by it.

Second, existential responsibility is not only, or even primarily to oneself. Existentialists should not treat the public as a threat to evade. The public should be seen as its responsibility. If the popular, everyday enworldment of the public is broken — that is, if the life it affords is unreasonable irrational, ineffective or nihilistic — it is Existentialism’s responsibility — its very raison d’etre — to repair or redesign it.

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I continue to view philosophy as a sort of secular esoterism, responsible for maintaining, reforming or remaking the various exoteric enworldments available to the public. Most of these enworldments are small and local (to a social circle, an organization or even a gathering or project), but sometimes responsibilities expand to larger scales.

Designerly exnihilism

Any experienced, philosophically-sensitive designer who reads the passage below will recognize how indebted design praxis is to Existentialist thought:

When we combine Heidegger’s explanation of the shift to the perspective of presence-at-hand with Sartre’s functionalist account of emotions, we obtain as a bonus an interesting explanation of our tendency to pit reason against passion. Examination of objects present-at-hand and indulgence in emotions like anger have the same origin — the recalcitrance of the world. Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world. The mistake of the dualist who seizes upon this and speaks of separate faculties or ‘parts of the soul’ is a failure to appreciate that, when things run smoothly, there can be no factoring out and isolation of the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.

The steepness of a hill is an undramatic example of something disclosed through mood. An important and distinctive feature of existentialist writings, however, is the demonstration that some moods and passions disclose matters of great moment. It is this which prompts one commentator to remark that the existentialists’ ‘phenomenology of the emotions … will prove to be one of their most valuable and lasting achievements’. An obvious instance is Angst, which is taken by several of our writers to intimate to us our radical freedom and individuality. I shall return to this and other examples including, by way of further initial illustration, the disclosive character imputed to sexual experience. ‘There is no doubt,’ writes Merleau-Ponty, ‘that we must recognize in modesty, desire and love in general a metaphysical significance.’ Shame and shamelessness, for example, together reveal the ‘ambiguous’ character of the body. In shame, it is revealed as an ‘object’, victim of the gaze and inspection of another. In shameless behaviour, a ‘subject’ — the dancing Salome, say — seeks to captivate another person, tum him into an ‘object’. More generally, Merleau-Ponty concludes, sexual experience is ‘an opportunity … of acquainting oneself with the human lot in its most general aspects of autonomy and dependence’.

Whether Merleau-Ponty’s particular suggestion is plausible does not matter for present purposes. What does matter is the plausibility, given the Existentialist’s view of our Being-in-the-world, of supposing that sexual and other feelings should have ‘metaphysical significance’. If our Being-in-the-world is an embodied engagement with a world that ‘opens’ itself to us through our concerns and projects, there can be no reason to think that it will be disclosed only when we take stock and reflect. On the contrary, unless its features are revealed in a more ‘proximal’ way, there would be nothing to take stock of and reflect upon. If so, it must be wrong to suppose that reason is the faculty which discovers how the world is and passion merely the arena in which our subjective reactions to this discovery are played out.

Above, I highlighted these sentences: “Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world.”

“Design” has always been a sharply ambiguous word, and the ambiguity has always split along these two strategies for coping with object-recalcitrance.

When engineers, and those who think in the manner of engineers (using the philosophy of technik) say the word “design”, the emphasis is usually on the practical aspects of objects.

But when “creatives” use the word “design”, the emphasis is on the passionate and magical. The goal is to use sensory and symbolic means to aesthetically and emotionally frame some artifact to crystalize within a user’s or customer’s worldview to stand apart (de-) as significant (-sign).

The trend in design is definitely toward a seamless de-severing of these two coping strategies, and instead coordinating them to return us to a smooth integration of “the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.”

But this very project of practical-magical integration requires designers to experiment with philosophy, and “frame” or “concept model” problems in multiple ways — not only to render problems more soluble on a practical level (as some designers think), but to invest the designed artifact with de-significance capable of crystallizing (or at its most magical, dissolving and recrystallizing) a person’s understanding around that artifact — and orienting them to that artifact conceptually, practically and axiosly. (I’m playing with back-forming “axiosly” from “axiology”, to mean pertaining to values. That it is uncomfortably close to the word “anxiously” is a feature, not a bug.)

The most powerful designs force rethinking of entire fields of life — for instance how iPhone put phone design in its own orbit by making it retroactively obvious that the iPhone approach is objectively the right way to design a phone.

(Rant: Upon seeing iPhone, most people were induced to reconceive what a phone can and ought to be. Seeing it, and grokking it, everyone’s understanding reshuffled to accommodate it. After the reconception and reshuffling, it no longer seemed to be an invention; it was a discovery, and iPhone was just a good execution of this newly discovered archetype. And you know, come to think of it, we all knew this truth all along. There was this precursor, and that one. Never mind that nobody did, really, or they would have tried harder to actualize it. But truth is, most people are too subjectively oblivious to catch what happened, and all that stands out to them are little objective novelties graspable by the grubby hands of IP law. Apple could only sue Google over design trifles like rounded-cornered rectangles and elastic scroll behaviors, because its primary innovation — the idea that demanded imagination, faith and perseverance to actualize — was too deep and too subjectively contagious to protect. How else can a phone be designed? It takes a Steve Jobs to hear that question as more than rhetorical and to venture an answer.)

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In my years of design, I have done numerous small, local philosophies and noticed that every really good design brief works like a spell on design teams to make perspective-shifting useful things. I call this philosophical craft “precision inspiration”.

And doing this work, day in and day out, has gradually shifted my own sense of truth, of reality, of practicality, of possibility — most of all of the permanent possibility of reconception of every thing and everything, which has cast a spell on me and made me an exnihilist.

Philosophy is designable. Philosophy-guided practice — praxis — is designable.

When we design praxis, we also redesign our overall experience of life — our enworldment.

My ambition is to be a praxis designer.

Design, existentialism, technocracy, etc.

If a philosophy is more a matter of questions than of answers — or to take this beyond mere language, that praxis is more a matter of problems than of responses — and I do see it this way — then the fact that the questions and problems that concern me most are all, without exception, existential ones — including this crucial distinction I am making this very moment between mind-bound philosophizing and full-being praxis.

Many of my responses to existential problems have come from pragmatism (for example instrumentalism). However, I have noticed where pragmatism departs from existentialism (for instance much of analytic philosophy) the questions it pragmatists concern itself with feel like idle conceptual play in the sandbox of language.

If the work done inside the philosophical sandbox does not persist beyond the conceptual playtime, and the relevance of the work does not extend into the world beyond the sandbox — in other words, if it neglects the practical dimension and falls short of full praxis — the work is not only unimportant, but straight up uninspiring. Yes, praxic work, like any kind of work, can, in its inspired moments, feel playful. But if the work is dropped when it starts feeling painful, not only will the work not get done, the play itself will be mediocre — mere speculative escapism.

While I will continue to use pragmatist tools, I’m seeing my project as existentialist. For that reason I’m kicking all talk of “design unstrumentalism”, “design pragmatism” and the like to the curb, and accepting the fact that I’m just another neo-existentialist. As I see it, I’m returning to existentialism gifts it contributed to design praxis, worn smooth and refined by use, and therefore, hopefully, in improved form.

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I think design praxis should merge more fully with existentialist praxis.

This means design praxis must fully liberate itself at last from the objectifying praxis of technik, which currently dominates not only technology, but the entire commercial world (still mostly managed as industry), the world of politics (technocracy), and even our culture (which objectifies unique persons as mere instantiations of identity).

I hear a lot of careerist-types, whose whole mission in life, it seems, is success and social prestige, sitting around casually raging about “dismantling the system”. I don’t take them even a little bit seriously, because they know who butters their bread, and they like butter a lot. They like butter, in fact, far more than justice. As long as they continue to loyally serve the system in action — which very much includes directing their angry justicy words toward non-problems (such as DEI), and impossibilities (like overthrowing Capital) — they’ll get all the butter they care to eat. Social justice, for most, is butter — a way to self-righteously get a leg up in the market. It is annoying, but luckily also funny to watch them scold everyone around them about their unconscious biases and motivated reasoning… in the name of justice. But now I’m digressing, again.

Say these people did manage to actually dismantle the system. What would replace it? Given their intellectual poverty, all these activists would be capable of would be to construct a new technik-dominated system, and probably one with all the worst vices of the current system, minus the war-honed technical competence of the New Deal, and omitting the redeeming vestiges of liberalism that make what we have today bearable.

We’d end up with another technocracy cobbled together by Dunning-Kruger-crippled social engineers.

It’s the philosophy, stupid.

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Yesterday a friend posted an article on LinkedIn, “Why Corporate America Broke Up With Design”, along with some comments. I left some comments of my own.

Here’s the thing: design is a praxis — meaning it is a philosophically-guided practice. Nearly all large organizations are dominated by industrial praxis. They appropriate the tools and techniques and jargon of design, but confine it to the philosophy of technik, which cannot accomodate it. 1) This severely limits what design is able to accomplish. 2) The philosophy of technik is the actual source of misery, commonly attributed to capitalism by pop leftists.

Unfortunately, it is taboo to talk philosophy in the workplace, but fact is, our culture badly overdue for a philosophical reform, and until it happens the angst and conflict afflicting our society will intensify.

and

If corporate America did break up with design, it would be the typical divorce scenario: some thirsty dude marries an idea of a woman and cannot bring himself to learn that she is a real person, with her own first-personhood, with important lessons to teach him — and not an ideal or a function that exists only to satisfy his own needs or desires.

and, finally

This article is severely marred by its click-bait title. The author talks about design evolving to “stakeholder centered design” (which, by the way is what service design is, and has been for decades) and concludes with “Companies may have no choice but to adopt a more expansive view of design.”

No kidding.

But this is the furthest thing from a breakup. It is a much-needed deepening and internalization of design in how organizations approach their business.

Eventually, if we are all lucky, organizational leaders will finally recognize their organization (not only what it makes) is itself essentially a design problem, comprising smaller design sub-problems, each comprising smaller engineering, operational, financial and executive sub-problems.

The corporate world still has things mostly backwards and inside out… but this seems to be slowly but steadily changing.

Design activism

All design praxis is guided by a glorious hybrid of existentialist and pragmatist ideas, interbred and naturally selected for maximum effectiveness. This is true for monocentric design disciplines (UX, CX, and all the other X-disciplines, where designers focus on the experience of a single person encountering a designed thing) — and it even more  true for polycentric design disciplines (where networks of people interact with one another and with things, each having an intentionally formed experience of that network and its constituent elements, some of whom are fellow persons). Today, service design is the most prominent example of polycentric design.* (See note below.)

Any design project potentially conveys this praxis (and a taste of its enworldment) to those who actively participate in the project, and for that reason all design projects are, to some degree, interesting to me.

But the design projects that are most fascinating are ones where the designed systems themselves (not only the designing of the system) serve the propagation of design praxis and designerly enworldment.

The latter is a kind of activism I find inspiring.

For this reason, I am prioritizing educational service design, in collaboration with my wife Susan.

My goal: I want people to approach all problems as polycentric design problems.

I want to do this by 1) clarifying, developing and articulating the tacit philosophy of polycentric design praxis, 2) by involving as many people as possible in doing and learning polycentric design, 3) encouraging design practitioners to use design praxis as their primary life praxis (most importantly in their political thinking!), and 4) by redesigning education to teach polycentric design praxis, and thereby conserve and perpetually reform liberal democracy.

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“Everything is design. Design is everything.” — Paul Rand


  * Note: I believe the world is badly in need of other forms of polycentric design where interactions are less hierarchical, more equal, and where roles in a system are not clearly defined in consumer and provider terms, and less amenable to being characterized in terms of service. (Service designers might object and offer redescriptions of social systems using service logic, but to me — and, I hypothesize, most people outside the service design profession — this will feel like a reductionistic stretch. Polycentric design is designing for pluralism.

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.

*

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