Category Archives: Geometric Meditations
Pluralism and open faith
Some faiths are open-ended. Such a faith is aware that it animates only one way of being — and produces only one way of understanding being (and of responding to being). This way of understanding receives truth, as given, in its one particular way (and responds to being in its one particular way) — but with awareness that many other ways are possible. And it might also be aware, or even anticipate, that multiple possible ways can be actualized in a single lifetime.
But some faiths are closed. These faiths believe they possess knowledge of what animates reality itself, and that what varies from their own way of understanding, to the degree that is conflicts with or confuses is wrong.
A way of understanding and responding — what I am calling faith — is not the same thing as belief, or knowledge, opinion or doctrine. Belief, knowledge, opinion and doctrine are only the content of faith, where faith is what contains the content and, by its containing, shapes the content and renders it intelligible and known.
(Technical note to myself: Faith transcendentally conceives truth. The form imparted by faith on any understood truth is concept. The specific material conceptually shaped by faith into an instance of a concept is content. But content only gives us some of being, not all of it. Every concept, in its selection and exclusion, makes tradeoffs of illumination and shadow. Every faith, in its habitual patterns of selection and exclusion, makes tradeoffs of illumination and shadow. We know only our own faith’s enworldment, not the world in its chaos of possibility. Ignore this if you wish. Leave it in the shadows as irrelevant, or not-yet-relevant.)
Many people who have known only by one faith conflate container and content, and believe when they change opinions they’ve changed their mind as radically as a mind may be changed. These are the clever philistines.
Others change from one closed faith to another, and experience the second closed faith as waking up to the truth after a long delusion. These are the awakened omniscients.
Strangely, all open faiths, despite their diversity, share something in common — perhaps the most important thing — that one most needful thing rejected by closed faiths — a belief in transcendence, in mystery, in possibility of change of the most surprising kind… of change toward one another as we outspiralingly embrace more and more inexhaustible being.
I call the doctrine that expresses this open faith and its orientation toward the hopeful and unseen pluralism.
I understand very few are capable of this faith.
This faith is the essence of living religion.
“You do not believe in God,” [Alyosha] added, with a note of profound sadness in his voice. But suddenly remarking that his brother was looking at him with mockery, “How do you mean then to bring your poem to a close?” he unexpectedly enquired, casting his eyes downward, “or does it break off here?”
“My intention is to end it with the following scene: Having disburdened his heart, the Inquisitor waits for some time to hear his prisoner speak in His turn. His silence weighs upon him. He has seen that his captive has been attentively listening to him all the time, with His eyes fixed penetratingly and softly on the face of his jailer, and evidently bent upon not replying to him. The old man longs to hear His voice, to hear Him reply; better words of bitterness and scorn than His silence. Suddenly He rises; slowly and silently approaching the Inquisitor, He bends towards him and softly kisses the bloodless, four-score and-ten- year-old lips. That is all the answer. The Grand Inquisitor shudders. There is a convulsive twitch at the corner of his mouth. He goes to the door, opens it, and addressing Him, ‘Go,’ he says, ‘go, and return no more… do not come again… never, never!’ and — lets Him out into the dark night. The prisoner vanishes.”
“And the old man?”
“The kiss burns his heart, but the old man remains firm in his own ideas and unbelief.”
Schmoness: a tantrum
We humans have no idea how to handle conversions.
When “the scales fall from our eyes”, or…
…when we suddenly become aware of the element within which we swim (“this is water!”)…
…when we suddenly become aware of the gross institutionalized, systemic injustice of a system that we, ourselves, have participated in…
…when we wake up in an oikophobic nightmare and finally see the evil in which we are immersed…
…when we swallow a hard truth that gives us a xenophobic glimpse into the goings on of a cabal meeting in distant lairs…
…when we finally see the They Live writing on the wall that we have been dupes of a totalitarian global elite who’ve sold us libertine liberty in order to buy out the very ground of our humanity so they can excavate it, leaving us traditionless, soilless, bloodless, posthuman…
All becomes clear.
We transcend the world of confused, shadowy obscurity into a new clearer realm of dazzling insight.
We are enlightened, born again, woke, red-pilled into the Kingdom of Truth.
And we try in vain to unshackle the minds of the complacent consumers of shadows plays but they are strangely invested in these illusions. They do not want to wake up. They complain that you are the one who is strangely invested in illusions. You are the one who needs to return to reality.
And you know what?
They are right.
Because, as deluded as they are, you are doubly-deluded.
You believe you have transcended to Transcendence.
And you are wrong. You have only transcended to another immanence… an immanence that is oblivious to its own obliviousness .
You love your new immanence. Some immanences truly are much better than others.
Some immanences give wonderful relief from despair. Or from onerous obligation. Or from anomie. Or from self-fragmentation. Or from fear. Or from perplexity, or indifference, or faltering.
Every new immanence gives us relief from some painful form of alienation.
This relief from alienation bestows a beautiful illusion upon us that we have popped outside the human condition and can now experience it from an external godlike perspective. We can now see where we were imprisoned objectively in the bright sunlight, in a way impossible when we were still sealed inside its cold, dark, clammy walls.
This conceit that We have escaped ignorance, that We have transcended to insight, that We now know — is a new and for most, much worse meta-imprisonment, meta-immanence, meta-ignorance, because now we lack all motivation to see that we are still inside the human condition — still a schmo among schmos.
Nope, mere shmohood is not good enough for I — the one true I who was born to sit on the egoic throne situated at the very center of the universe.
We are as gods: woke, red-pilled, enlightened, born again.
We are reborn into a community of others who are also woke, red-pilled, enlightened, born again. They all agree with me that our tribe really knows, where other tribes only think they know. But I trust my tribe, because, according to me, they know.
I call this condition misapotheosis.
In misapotheosis we think we’ve become something special, when we are really just another know-it-all, ignorant-ass god.
There is nothing more human than mistaking yourself for a god.
Are we doomed to divinity?
Probably. Being a god is divine.
But we can, if we decide to choose otherwise.
If, by some miracle, we manage to stop spewing our hot wisdom at the unfortunates around us, and just listen — (no, not that way; don’t “be a good listener”) — if we really listen with hearing ears, and hear with a faith that, despite our glorious omniscience we still have something deeply, urgently important to learn…
…if we can miraculously incarnate ourselves back on the human plane as a mortal student…
…we discover that we can transcend again.
Each time we return more human and less godlike.
Each time we find ourselves in a world populated more densely with gods and more sparsely with mere humans.
If we do this too much we may become like Diogenes wandering the streets with a lantern asking “Where are the fucking humans? All I see are crowds of glorious, all-knowing gods.” And if we happen upon a Socrates who actually knows he doesn’t know, we almost fall out of our chair.
It takes perseverance, effort, wisdom, talent to become a mere human among humans.
It takes more than most people have to understand the ordinary, humble miracle of liberalism — to feel the obligation to hammer out with others the questions of what is true? what is just? what is beautiful? what is good? and to do so as an equal among equals, a schmo among schmoes.
We want to transcend our schmoness and exalt ourselves as the ones with insight into Just Justice, True Truth, and so on and so on.
Equity is the unfair imposition of one hubristic group’s of fairness on those who have lost too much power to resist it.
Only a god could be ignorant enough to enforce equity on others without noticing the inequity of it.
Somehow, in this time — this time that everyone agrees is a uniquely degraded, distracted, dissatisfied, despairing, dangerously demented time — somehow in this time everyone has become wise to liberalism.
Everyone is too radical and insightful to buy liberalism.
Everybody knows what this society really needs instead of liberalism.
If only those who really know could have their way.
So goddamn many gods.
So few humans.
Once again, I’ve been reading selections from the Sophia Perennis.
My response today, as it has been from the beginning is this: Accepting as given the intellective certainty that we are endowed with microcosmic insight to know a divine macrocosmic Absolute is certainly one beautiful way to understand the human condition and to relate ourselves to that which transcends, envelops and involves us.
An Absolutist can prove the Truth of this understanding — and I cannot disprove it.
But proofs prove nothing, unless we start from a faith that they do.
I do not share this faith that Logos and the Absolute are one and the same — not even from a human perspective. In other words, I am not Christian, though I do love Christianity.* (see note below.)
From where I stand, the only absolute I know is a simple fundamental fact of human condition: I am — as we all are — finite being situated within infinite being, whose being, by virtue of infinitude, defies all totalizing conception. I am inclined to include also the concept of being itself as defied by infinitude.
It is the task of faith to relate ourselves — I — to infinite Thou — from the very heart of this all-encompassing, edgeless Thou. And this task requires more than the conceiving mind. It requires one’s entire being — mind, feelings, intuitions, willpower, blood, muscle, bone. All these are mobilized by faith that relates I to the Infinite One.
Through my own urgent incessant efforts to find the inadequacies in my own totalizing conceptions, I have arrived at a faith that infinity is inexhaustibly capable of shocking my finite conception with new revelations beyond the limits of my current conceptive capacity.
For this to happen, I must welcome the inconceivable shock before its advent, enduring the dread that heralds its coming — and to do all this for the sake of the shock itself and not for the reward of epiphanic bliss that often follows the shock.
Each time this happen, I am invited or demanded to conceive a new way to accommodate the new revelations as well as a way to relate myself to this incredibly strange situation of being within being among beings, where at any moment, if you maintain an open heart, new beings may enter from the edges of nowhere, ex nihilo.
If I am anything, I am exnihilist.
But this accommodation is never final. No norm is ever finally just, however just it seems to the judge who judges it. We fiddle away with our codifications, persuaded we at last have Knowledge of Good snd Evil. But only the appeal, only the shock of the suppressed voice finally heard is just, and it comes from beyond what we conceive.
Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.
(* NOTE: “What is love but understanding and rejoicing at the fact that another lives, feels and acts in a way different from and opposite to ours?” We must not try to be who or what we love; we must be with, toward, for our beloved. Only then can we participate in I-transcendent We. This We is as inconceivable as God Godself, and this We is as much God as any finite being can hope to be. A Jewish sage presented love of God and love of neighbor as one and the same highest mitzvah. Do both in one action of love, or you do neither.)
Beliefs versus arguments
Commonsense obliviousness, which can include philosophical commonsensical obliviousness, forgets how pervasive and ubiquitous metaphysical beliefs are.
Whenever we are not thinking phenomenologically — carefully bracketing the sources of our experiences (a very strenuous and unnatural effort!) — and instead take our experiences at face value as experiences of reality, we live metaphysically.
Humans are naturally (and second-naturally) metaphysical.
One of our most primordial, ordinary and important metaphysical beliefs the faith in the reality of past and future. To interpret our memories as records of a reality that has passed, or to understand our imagined anticipations as attempts to foresee a reality to come — both of these take the given present as a part of a larger transcendent reality.
The same goes for the reality of what we experience as phenomena — Kant’s noumena, and the reality of the space within which they extend, which stretches on into the distance beyond our vision, and according to modern commonsense, endlessly into space — these are also metaphysical beliefs. We naturally (and in the case of “infinite” space, second-naturally) go beyond the present givens and take these experiences as parts of a larger transcendent reality.
But our most important metaphysical beliefs concern the reality of other people — not as space-extensive noumena, but as fellow selves. If we take fellow selfhoods as a transcendent reality we begin to see our own selfhood as part of a larger transcendent reality of multiple selves.
And less obviously, our own selfhood is also a matter of metaphysical belief. The nature of this selfhood, and the possibilities of change in one’s selfhood (or even how we conceive selfhood) go far beyond the given present — far further, in fact, than the other metaphysical beliefs.
Of course, philosophers love playing the epoché game, bracketing this dimension or that, or all of them together in radical skepticism, or even total Humean solipsism.
But playing around with concepts and seeing what one can construct and argue is not at all the same as changing beliefs. We can affirm or deny assertions all day, and we can claim that we believe or doubt these assertions, but, fact is, whether anyone can prove it or not, these claims are truthful or untruthful reports on our real beliefs.
This line of thought always brings me to C. S. Peirce’s call to intellectual conscience: “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… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”
In the last couple of decades, and especially in the last year I’ve given a lot of thought to the distinction between those thoughts we think with, and the thoughts we merely think about.
The distinction I am making here might parallel that between beliefs and assertions.
How do we know the difference? One test is whether the truths asserted are consistent with truths performed. If one asserts a moral principle, does one act in accordance with the principle, and its full pragmatic consequences — or least hears and responds to appeals? Or does one find reasons to disregard the principle when it makes claims on oneself instead of others. Hypocrisy is a sign that one uses assertions that one does not really believe.
But belief goes beyond simple avoidance of hypocrisy.
I’ve been reading about Habermas, and he talks a lot about the performative truths inherent in discourse. The very act of engaging in discourse implies beliefs, and to deny them is a performative contradiction.
Habermas is a holdout for absolute morality, as something distinct from relative ethics. And his arguments seem to point to precisely my own beliefs on morality, as evidenced by what actually offends me and inspires my contempt — not only of others who offend against me, but also myself when I offend against others. My formulation would almost certainly bother Habermas, but here it is: Thou shalt be fully metaphysical. For me, I feel this belief most intensely with respect to other people, which is a Jewish attitude.
I cannot doubt in my heart that there is something contemptible about treating others as less real than oneself.
I believe that denying the full metaphysical reality of other selves is a betrayal of what we cannot doubt in our hearts is evil — and that any theories that support that effort is also evil. Conversely, any theory that intensifies our awareness that other beings are both real and other is, at least in that respect, good.
Another insight from Habermas has captured my attention is this: morality is not to be determined monologically, but rather dialogically.
And this might reveal another angle for unlocking the full value of the Electrum Rule: “Do to others only what you would have them do to you.” Wouldn’t we always have others involve us in decisions that impact our lives? The Electrum Rule is essentially dialogical, and it is this dialogical reciprocity that drives its non-linear development through degrees of prime.
If philosophy aims at changing our beliefs, and we authorize our intellectual consciences to serve as referee, this certainly does raise the stakes of philosophy — but it does it make philosophy less playful? — Only if by playful we really mean frivolous.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Around 2005 Susan get into flamenco, and learned the word duende. She talked about duende as a real thing, and she got me thinking about it and writing about it, too. A few excerpts from that time — I time when I’d forgotten decency and hadn’t yet remembered it:
Susan’s main measure of things: How much duende?
warpspasm sent me a link to Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement”.
“Bands, ranked by duende”
My ranking of bands based on how much duende was in them at their peak:
1) The Pixies, from Come On, Pilgrim, to Surfer Rosa (the most duende-possessed album of all time), to Doolittle. To my knowledge no recordings have ever managed to combine torment and manic pleasure at this intensity, in such perfect balance.
2) The Rolling Stones, on Beggars Banquet. The darkness slightly outweighs the exuberant innocence, so the balance tilts toward evil, which, of course, was intentional, but the tension in the contrast is enormous, and ambiguity still rules.
3) Bob Dylan, on Bringin’ it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. It’s one long jeering indictment of all that has no reason to exist. It’s not nice at all, in fact it’s outright malicious, but it’s all for the best. Dylan isn’t afraid of anyone’s hurt feelings.
4) Johnny Cash.
5) The Beatles’ middle period, from Revolver, where the balance between the darkness and lightness is nearly perfect and at its most intense, but oscillates from moment to moment, and progresses toward greater simultaneity without ever quite reaching it (Paul vs John, oil vs water) and at the expense of intensity, through Sgt. Pepper’s, to the under-rated, happy-ominous masterpiece Magical Mystery Tour. Yellow Submarine has a few perfect moments, too. (Everything past that was infected by the denim sound of the wrong drugs in the wrong quantities for too long, which foreshadowed the pus-weeping of the laxest 70s, epitomized by Carly Simon, James Taylor and Cat Stevens, all of whom have zero duende and are loved for that reason.)
6) The entire 60’s Garage Punk phenomenon. Every one of these bands was possessed by duende, raped by it, knocked up, and forced to have its baby in the form of exactly one perfect song. The used-up victims were then discarded– dumped into the suburbs to wonder for the rest of their lives what the fuck happened to them.
7) Susan swears both the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk have it, and that seems plausible to me. They’re energetic and not altogether benevolent. They want you to have a good time but they can’t resist their compulsion to beat the shit out of your brain with intolerable noise when you get too relaxed.
Now, I’m reading Jan Zwicky’s reflections on duende, and I am seeing duende in a clearer, more Judeochristian light.
Duende is the moving simultaneity of love and dread.
Until quite recently, design has been monocentric.
All the various x-centric design disciplines were named after the single protagonist of the design. User-centered. Employee-centered. Customer-centered. Citizen-centered. In search of something more general and accommodating, most designers have settled on “human-centered’.
Human-centered design centers design on the experience of a person. While “human” can, of course, mean more than one person, in actual human-centered design practice — in the methods employed — it must be admitted that human meant one human. Designers nearly always focused all attention on the segments of people who might wind up a person at the center of their design, and they did this in order to ensure that it is useful, usable and desirable for whoever that might be.
Lately something new — much newer than it seems at first glance — has emerged: polycentric design.
In polycentric design multiple protagonists are simultaneously experientially centered. Multiple storylines — each an experience some person is having — weave together, converging and looping at points where people interact with one another, separating where people experience things alone. Polycentric design concerns itself with all the storylines equally, and attempts to make every point in this complex mesh of experiences useful, usable and desirable for everyone.
This new development in design began when human-centered design principles were applied to service design.
Even as far back as the early-90s (two decades before service design became human-centered) service design considered the entire service — not only the receiving of the service, but also the delivery and the support of the service — as a single designed system. The delivery and support of the service is not secondary to receiving the service, but of equal dignity and deserving equal focus.
So, when a human-centered design approach is applied to service design, then, the humans who are centered multiply. Any point in the experience where any person experiences anything in the receiving, delivering or supporting of the service — including where people experience interacting with one another — is framed as a design problem. It is a design problem part (a service moment) embedded within a design problem whole (the service) and the success of that moment and that whole is assessed by whether everyone valued what happened and feels that they participated in a win-win.
Designers debate whether service design is a species of human-centered design or vice versa. There is truth to all sides of the debate. I think they were both decisively transformed in the process and I like calling that transformation polycentric design.
Part of the reason I like to claim that polycentric design transcends both human-centered design (one person considered in first-person) and service design (originally multiple people considered in third-person) is that polycentricity challenges so many of our basic views outside of design — ideas bound up with what I believe are rapidly-obsoleting moral attitudes.
For instance, often we try to temper the natural egocentricity of children by telling them they are not the center of the universe. But why not instead tell them “you are not the only center of the universe“?
Or social activists will speak of decentering privileged groups. Why not instead extend centering to those who have been marginalized or excluded, and polycenter all people?
And consider altruism’s reflexive exaltation of martyrdom. Good people sacrifice their interests to the interests of others. But with polycentrism the selfless refrain of “not me, but you!” can be humanely transcended with an unselfish but also unselfless response: “not any one of us, but all of us.”
When we learn to think polycentrically, much more is possible than me getting my way, or you getting yours, or each of us compromising. We can rethink situations, we can philosophize pragmatically, and find entirely new ways to conceive what we face and find solutions preferable to all than the relatively impoverished conceptions we began with.
Oh, am I being an idealistic dreamer? Am I not tough enough for the hard truths of reality? for waging war for what matters?
I will argue the opposite.
I see tough-guy refusal to compromise, and resignation to the necessity of losers to produce winners as evidence of philosophical cowardice.
I see it as bullshit macho posturing of people who cannot handle the unknowability of the unknown and the dreadful apprehension one feels confronting what exceeds us and defies our language and even our thoughts.
(I overstate my position, in order to remind us that anything can be redescribed to look brave or cowardly, or realistic or delusional.)
What does it take to do polycentricity?
In individuals, it requires rare goodwill toward I-transcending We. It requires courage in the face of incomprehensibility — an ability to feel intense anxiety and antipathy, but not to obey it. It requires faith in the inconceivable becoming conceivable — so that our blindness to what might emerge if we approach problems in I-transcending We stops being evidence of impossibility.
And sadly it requires more that one person to possess polycentric virtues. In fact, it requires everyone involved in a polycentric situation (which is all situations) to commit to these virtues.
Most of all requires us to change our relationship to apprehension. Whatever we apprehend — a That we can touch with the tip of our mind — but which we cannot comprehend as a What we can grasp — makes us feel apprehensive.
When we take apprehension at face value, and conceive either the phenomena in question, or the other person forcing these phenomena to our attention — or both at once! — as signaling an offense or threat, we cannot entertain any important possibility that stands outside our comprehension.
And outside our comprehension is precisely where polycentric possibility stands!
For quite some time I’ve been arguing that it is helpful to reconceive philosophy as a design discipline.
More recently I’ve realized it might be even more helpful to reconceive philosophy as a polycentric design discipline.
Yang Earth is inclined to understand truth Earth-upward.
Yang Heaven is inclined to understand truth Heaven-downward.
Yang Man is inclined to understand truth Man-outward.
My pragmatic phenomenological re-interpretation of Guenon is a yang Man interpretation of a yang Heaven truth.
Before you listen to me, though, be sure to consult the I Ching, and see what it has to say about the trigram, K’an, the Abysmal, the world viewed from yang Man.
Susan and I have been debating what wisdom is. We each felt the other’s view was incomplete. I thought her conception was overlapping too much with prudence; she thought mine reduced wisdom with mere open-mindedness. (Actually, she was right.) As we turned the question and viewed it from multiple angles, it became clear, as is so often the case, that it was a matter of emphasis. She was emphasizing exercise of foresight and consideration — awareness of implications beyond the immediate desires and compulsions. I was emphasizing readiness for thought-defying shock — awareness that our awareness is always partial and situated within a much vaster and weirder context, only the minutest speck of which we are conceptually prepared to understand or even perceive. We’re slowly converging on an agreement. Here’s my latest attempt, written primarily for Susan’s review:
Wisdom is an attitude of mind that considers ramifying implications that transcend the immediate concern, in time, in space and in subjectivity — especially those nonobvious implications that unfold only in careful consideration and those that unfold in ways inconceivable until they unfold in reality and which will be understood as inevitable only in retrospect. Wisdom expects to be surprised, because wisdom knows the limitations of thought, and leaves room for irruptions of reality and the epiphanies they bring.
If we accept this definition of wisdom, that would make design practice a methodical form of wisdom — an alternative to speculative-thought-and-talk decision-making.
Design method directs us to go to the reality we plan to change, and encourages us to interact with it directly, in order to encounter some of the implications and ramifications of our proposed changes — many of which we otherwise would never consider.
Design is methodic wisdom.
Chief among design’s considerations are the subjective ones — the interpretive and experiential consequences of deep, hidden differences in subjectivity that must be learned before they can even be conceived. (* see note below.)
Subjective learning of new conceptions is a rigorous exercise of hermeneutic, intellectual and emotional empathy (which I prefer calling synesis). It can sometimes radically redefine the designer’s understanding of the design problem, by revealing it in a new subjective light with new practical consequences — metanoia.
This metanoia — this new, consequential reconception — simultaneously reframes the problem and opens space for novel solutions. Problems and solutions, questions and answers, possibilities and actualities burst forth together with new conceptions. And because the new conception has been learned from real people and refer to real contexts, the newly conceived solutions are far more relevant and on-the-mark. I like to call design metanoia “precision inspiration”.
(* Note: The whole field of thought around conception is grossly misunderstood. Until a conception is learned, all ideas that require it are either inconceivable — submerged in intellectual blindness, neither perceivable nor imaginable — or misunderstood by another conception that comprehends it in a wrong sense, and commits category mistakes. If the originating conception of a set of ideas is finally acquired, the new conception spontaneously reorders the understandings, both on the whole and in part, and there is an epiphany. If the reconception is a very deep one, upon which many other conceptions are rooted, and these have wide-ranging pragmatic consequences, it can seem that everything has changed all at once. The scales seem to have fallen from one’s eyes, one feels reborn as a new person, and it feels and if the entire world has transfigured itself. Until one has experienced something like this, all language associated with this kind of event sounds like magical hocus-pocus — but this is only a misconception of what remains inconceivable. The consequences of this hocus-pocus are just the copious category mistakes of the believing fundamentalist and the unbelieving antifundamentalist.)
A souls is a multistable dynamic intuitive system.
Insofar as it is a system that remains stable across changing conditions, a soul has a character, a personality of its own, enduring selfhood. To the degree a soul changes and adapts to conditions, a soul is responsive to the world.
At the extreme of selfhood is closed self, an intuitive system that no longer adapts or responds to the world, but instead uses the same intuitions the same way all the time. Only information it can comprehend is seriously entertained, and only conclusions that reinforce its workings are accepted. The soul maintains itself in a closed, circular state of autism.
At the extreme of responsiveness is the fragmentary self, an intuitive system that is so adaptive to its environment that it cannot find its own enduring selfhood within the changing configurations that its intuitions take as circumstances buffet it around. Its only hope for integrity come from the social environment. If the social environment gives it an identity and expects it to perform that identity, the soul responds obediently and then finds itself able to feel itself to be a self. But if the environment does not provide these reinforcements, the self is literally existentially threatened, and goes into a crisis. The soul has no internal means to maintain its own stable sense of self, and exists in a fragmentary state of borderline personality.
Under certain circumstances the closed selves and fragmentary selves can form an alliance. The closed selves adopt an ideology and ethical ruleset that, when performed, assigns stable identities to those who would otherwise live in fragmentary nothingness. The alliance requires strict adherence to roles and rules, and deviations from it, especially those which contradict the ideological conceptions and produce conditions that threaten its collective closed system, are treated as a collective existential threat. These alliances have low intolerance of stresses from beyond its ideological horizon, especially modes of conception incommensurable with the logic that holds its brittle system together.
When a person insists that selfhood is a superstructural artifact of social forces, that a person is reducible to the play of various identities, that social standpoints imprison us within limited understanding, beyond which there is blind belief in the testimony of others or disbelief and violence, this indicates participation in the closed alliance.
The overpowering need for selfhood in one particular conception, existentially threatened by rival theories or expressions of selfhood is the driving force behind all illiberalism.
Liberal democracy requires selves of a different shape, neither closed circles, nor open fragments, but a synthesis of the two, which I symbolize as a spiral — multistable dynamic intuitive system that is stable but is, to a degree, open to realities that challenge its integrity. It does this by cultivating a dynamic stability that can shapeshift in response to different challenges of its understanding — that is, it can entertain multiple understandings, but which is ordered by a deeper integrity that sees multiplicity of understanding as intrinsic to the human condition.
This deeper integrity goes by the name pluralism.
Pluralism’s unique mode of understanding, which conceives inconceivability in a manner conducive to actually conceiving inconceivable truths, and in this, to continually reaffirm its own pluralistic integrity.
Not all citizens of a liberal democracy must be pluralists, but enough must participate in political and cultural life to prevent a closed alliance to form, and for illiberalism to drive pluralism underground.
Hermeneutics is important in pluralism and in religion, because any deep act of understanding requires a soul to respond to a stable set of conceptions with a stability of its own, to re-form itself in an act of understanding. It must experiment with polysemic words and allow them to combine and crystalize in multiple ways, and then to respond selfully to these crystallization with its own intuitive order, and experience how it is to understand this text, this phenomenon, this design this way, and accordingly experience the world from this state.
Producing meaningful artifacts — whether objects, interactions, services, arguments, rituals, symbols — that order an understanding soul in a way that improves the experience of life is experience design at its profoundest level.
Just as there are multistabilities of conception when understanding texts (hermeneutics) and multistabilities of perception while experiencing phenomena (postphenomenology), there are multistabilities in the self-organization of intuitions.
In my art pamphlet Geometric Meditations, I called the mysterious swarm of self-organizing intuitions behind the I “potential” — possible states of soul in various kinds and degrees of order.
Every experience — which is a mix of conceptions, perceptions and responses to what we conceive and perceive — engages some set of our intuitions and induces them to organize and cooperate. Some of these organized cooperations involve most or many of our intuitions and cause them to function as a unity. This makes us feel whole. Some exclude intuitions or even force their suppression. This makes us feel conflicted, divided or empty.
Some of us have a flexible, modal, dynamic stability of soul. Different intuitions emerge and participate in various domains of activity. Most intuitions have a meaningful role to play, and none are entirely excluded. No intuitions are considered intolerably dangerous, and when possibilities and questions are sensed by one intuition, other intuitions participate from various angles, as the notion rises to conscious consideration and is turned in the mind.
Others of us have less flexible stabilities. One set of intuitions tris to stay in total control all the time. This intuitive gang collaborates to keep the other intuitions under their control. This is especially true of the darkest, most dangerous intuitions, which must be suppressed at all costs, along with their unwanted, harmful thoughts. If anything in the environment stimulates these marginalized intuitions they rise up and threaten the dominant order. This is experienced as an existential threat, and triggers a forcible inner crackdown by the offended dominant intuitions. They fear an uprising of the intuitive underclass and the change of mind it will bring, which signals the end of its reign. The soul must continue to believe their true beliefs and condemning all the lies it disbelieves, or that soul as it knows itself will cease to exist. It will lose its identity as a believer in some ideology or religion, a member of some special group or nation. It lives in a constant inner (and sometimes outer) police state to maintain its very existence as itself. And because it suppresses much of itself, it feels itself perpetually empty, dissatisfied, unfulfilled, persecuted, oppressed.
All this brings me back, once again, to where my transfiguration started, reading Christopher Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building.
His idea of wholeness is bound up with how we dwell in spaces and how our “inner forces” are harmonized or conflicted by what our environment offers us.
A man is alive when he is wholehearted, true to himself, true to his own inner forces, and able to act freely according to the nature of the situations he is in.
To be happy, and to be alive, in this sense, are almost the same. Of course, a man who is alive, is not always happy in the sense of feeling pleasant; experiences of joy are balanced by experiences of sorrow. But the experiences are all deeply felt; and above all, the man is whole and conscious of being real.
To be alive in this sense, is not a matter of suppressing some forces or tendencies, at the expense of others; it is a state of being in which all forces which arise in a man can find expression; he lives in balance among the forces which arise in him; he is unique as the pattern of forces which arise is unique; he is at peace, since there are no disturbances created by underground forces which have no outlet; he is at one with himself and his surroundings.
This state cannot be reached merely by inner work.
There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need do only inner work, in order to be alive like this; that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself he need only change himself. This teaching has some value, since it is so easy for a man to imagine that his problems are caused by “others.” But it is a one-sided and mistaken view which also maintains the arrogance of the belief that the individual is self-sufficient and not dependent in any essential way on his surroundings.
The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.
Some kinds of physical and social circumstances help a person come to life. Others make it very difficult.
Nietzsche had a similar conception, a more vitalistic one centering on nourishment and starvation:
However far a man may go in self-knowledge, nothing however can be more incomplete than his image of the totality of drives which constitute his being. He can scarcely name even the cruder ones: their number and strength, their ebb and flood, their play and counterplay among one another, and above all the laws of their nutriment remain wholly unknown to him. This nutriment is therefore a work of chance: our daily experiences throw some prey in the way of now this, now that drive, and the drive seizes it eagerly; but the coming and going of these events as a whole stands in no rational relationship to the nutritional requirements of the totality of the drives: so that the outcome will always be twofold — the starvation and stunting of some and the overfeeding of others. Every moment of our lives sees some of the polyp-arms of our being grow and others of them wither, all according to the nutriment which the moment does or does not bear with it. Our experiences are, as already said, all in this sense means of nourishment, but the nourishment is scattered indiscriminately without distinguishing between the hungry and those already possessing a superfluity. And as a consequence of this chance nourishment of the parts, the whole, fully grown polyp will be something just as accidental as its growth has been. To express it more clearly: suppose a drive finds itself at the point at which it desires gratification — or exercise of its strength, or discharge of its strength, or the saturation of an emptiness — these are all metaphors –: it then regards every event of the day with a view to seeing how it can employ it for the attainment of its goal; whether a man is moving, or resting or angry or reading or speaking or fighting or rejoicing, the drive will in its thirst as it were taste every condition into which the man may enter, and as a rule will discover nothing for itself there and will have to wait and go on thirsting: in a little while it will grow faint, and after a couple of days or months of non-gratification it will wither away like a plant without rain. Perhaps this cruelty perpetrated by chance would be more vividly evident if all the drives were as much in earnest as is hunger, which is not content with dream food; but most of the drives, especially the so-called moral ones, do precisely this — if my supposition is allowed that the meaning and value of our dreams is precisely to compensate to some extent for the chance absence of ‘nourishment’ during the day. Why was the dream of yesterday full of tenderness and tears, that of the day before yesterday humorous and exuberant, an earlier dream adventurous and involved in a continuous gloomy searching? Why do I in this dream enjoy indescribable beauties of music, why do I in another soar and fly with the joy of an eagle up to distant mountain peaks? These inventions, which give scope and discharge to our drives to tenderness or humorousness or adventurousness or to our desire for music and mountains — and everyone will have his own more striking examples to hand — are interpretations of nervous stimuli we receive while we are asleep, very free, very arbitrary interpretations of the motions of the blood and intestines, of the pressure of the arm and the bedclothes, of the sounds made by church bells, weathercocks, night-revellers and other things of the kind. That this text, which is in general much the same on one night as on another, is commented on in such varying ways, that the inventive reasoning faculty imagines today a cause for the nervous stimuli so very different from the cause it imagined yesterday, though the stimuli are the same: the explanation of this is that today’s prompter of the reasoning faculty was different from yesterday’s — a different drive wanted to gratify itself, to be active, to exercise itself, to refresh itself, to discharge itself — today this drive was at high flood, yesterday it was a different drive that was in that condition. — Waking life does not have this freedom of interpretation possessed by the life of dreams, it is less inventive and unbridled — but do I have to add that when we are awake our drives likewise do nothing but interpret nervous stimuli and, according to their requirements, posit their ’causes’? that there is no essential difference between waking and dreaming? that when we compare very different stages of culture we even find that freedom of waking interpretation in the one is in no way inferior to the freedom exercised in the other while dreaming? that our moral judgments and evaluations too are only images and fantasies based on a physiological process unknown to us, a kind of acquired language for designating certain nervous stimuli? that all our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, but felt text? — Take some trifling experience. Suppose we were in the market place one day and we noticed someone laughing at us as we went by: this event will signify this or that to us according to whether this or that drive happens at that moment to be at its height in us — and it will be a quite different event according to the kind of person we are. One person will absorb it like a drop of rain, another will shake it from him like an insect, another will try to pick a quarrel, another will examine his clothing to see if there is anything about it that might give rise to laughter, another will be led to reflect on the nature of laughter as such, another will be glad to have involuntarily augmented the amount of cheerfulness and sunshine in the world — and in each case a drive has gratified itself, whether it be the drive to annoyance or to combativeness or to reflection or to benevolence. This drive seized the event as its prey: why precisely this one? Because, thirsty and hungry, it was lying in wait. — One day recently at eleven o’clock in the morning a man suddenly collapsed right in front of me as if struck by lightning, and all the women in the vicinity screamed aloud; I myself raised him to his feet and attended to him until he had recovered his speech — during this time not a muscle of my face moved and I felt nothing, neither fear nor sympathy, but I did what needed doing and went coolly on my way. Suppose someone had told me the day before that tomorrow at eleven o’clock in the morning a man would fall down beside me in this fashion — I would have suffered every kind of anticipatory torment, would have spent a sleepless night, and at the decisive moment instead of helping the man would perhaps have done what he did. For in the meantime all possible drives would have had time to imagine the experience and to comment on it. — What then are our experiences? Much more that which we put into them than that which they already contain! Or must we go so far as to say: in themselves they contain nothing? To experience is to invent? —
My own conception of these same prelinguistic forces or drives includes Alexander’s energetic and Nietzsche’s vitalistic characteristics but also emphasizes their organizational structure and how their concerted cooperation shapes, reinforces, weakens, threatens, destroys or restructures their organization and coordination.
I’ve entertained many words to denote these prelinguistic forces and drives, but I’m feeling broad inner-acceptance and thick resonance around the word intuition.
Detune to retune
Intelligence denotes understanding of finite entities in systematic combination.
Wisdom denotes understanding of infinity and infinity’s inner surface which we experience as radical surprise and its implication, the permanent potential for radical surprise.
Intelligence comprehends finitude. Wisdom suprehends infinitude. Philosophy is intelligence in love with wisdom. Theology is wisdom in love with intelligence. This is how I’m seeing things today, reading Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement and attuning my intuitions to what he is saying. I’ve been reading him this week, partly in an effort to re-tune my soul, which has been sounding sour notes lately.
A detuned soul is not necessarily regrettable.
Between any harmonious tuning and another is a stretch of disharmony.
Early in the re-tuning process, certain notes go off-key, and things are out of tune.
Soon, the key is lost entirely, and no key is discernible in the noise. There are only clashing resonances.
But then, after some more adjustment, a hint of key emerges from the dissonance.
Gradually, the notes converge into a harmonious state, into a new tuning, a new key.
A musical ensemble tunes its instruments together before rehearsing. A perfectly but differently tuned individual instrument will sound out of tune with the others.
Each instrument carries its tuning out of the rehearsal space after the performance.
Tuning is a concerted effort.
If we immerse in art or reading or conversation, something of the experience clings. In some mysterious way, the experience continues to resonate in us.
A few times in my life, when I’ve read a certain kind of philosophy very deeply, a near-total shift has occurred that went beyond mood or coloring, and changed the resonance of existence itself, and it endured. Fishbane is making me wonder if these works were actually not philosophical, after all, but theological.
My generation embraced deliberate cacophony in our popular music. We wanted instruments detuned, harmonics clashing and beating against each other, only occasionally lining up in sonic moires, and for any melodies to be submerged in thick noise, concealed, coverted. Anything sweet needed to be coated in thick layers of salt or bitterness. Strange tastes over simple ones.
It was almost as if we wanted to train our ears for hearing hints of emergent alternative harmonies. We wanted to acquire penetrating tastes: to taste through, into, across — vectorially.
Salmiac. Scotch. Puehr. Acquired tastes.
Two quotes from Nietzsche, my first and deepest transfigurative read:
Blessed are those who possess taste, even though it be bad taste! — And not only blessed: one can be wise, too, only by virtue of this quality; which is why the Greeks, who were very subtle in such things, designated the wise man with a word that signifies the man of taste, and called wisdom, artistic and practical as well as theoretical and intellectual, simply ‘taste’ (sophia).
One must learn to love. — This happens to us in music: first one must learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate and delimit it as a life in itself; then one needs effort and good will to stand it despite its strangeness; patience with its appearance and expression, and kindheartedness about its oddity. Finally comes a moment when we are used to it; when we expect it; when we sense that we’d miss it if it were missing; and now it continues relentlessly to compel and enchant us until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers, who no longer want anything better from the world than it and it again. But this happens to us not only in music: it is in just this way that we have learned to love everything we now love. We are always rewarded in the end for our good will, our patience, our fair-mindedness and gentleness with what is strange, as it gradually casts off its veil and presents itself as a new and indescribable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. Even he who loves himself will have learned it this way — there is no other way. Love, too, must be learned.”
The overlapping region of the trefoil venn diagram of what-is/how-can/why-ought (from my chapbook) forms a reuleau — a confluence of intuitions where people are most likely to feel an urgent need to establish public, objective truth.
In this objective rouleau, we feel that a matter is important, that we can and should respond to it practically, and that, in order to do so, we will need to clearly understand it — to conceptualize, speak, reason and argue about what it is, how it functions, how we can respond to it, why it is important, and so on.
This intuiting, responding, articulating, valuing activity creates the kind of densely tangled, knotted and enmeshed reflextive activity that tends to solidify our ideas (like the knitting of bone cells) and makes them not only seem true but to become socially true through being performed as true, and act-ual.
(For all you reckless flakes, I woke up from a dream last night with this thought in my head. Woo-oo-oo!)
Faith and belief
Belief is the content of comprehension, those ideas our mind can grasp.
Faith is an attitude toward pure apprehension, encounters with that which our mind can touch, barely touch, fleetingly, but not grasp.
These incomprehensible apprehensions, which fill us with apprehension that something beyond our minds exists — something within which we subsist in our own existence — challenges the mundane world of our comprehension.
If our faith is one that condemns, ignores or demphasizes apprehension, we will have a faith in and of belief, and are at risk of succumbing to ideo-idolatry.
Anything can happen
A change in one of our comprehensive conceptions (a conception that holds together other conceptions) can change our overall all-at-once experience of the world.
Let’s be clear: this does not only change how we think about, talk about or respond to life: a comprehensive conception shift happens preconsciously and preverbally; it reshapes our perceptions; it reworks the gestalt sense of reality that invests everything with its own significance — what we sense, recognize, think about, interact with, dwell within.
We and our entire enworldment are transfigured. Every thing within everything has new significance and promise.
Scales, however, do not drop away. No pre-existent heaven is revealed. We are not made possessors of a hidden truth. Magic had absolutely nothing to do with it. No supernatural beings intervened or bestowed grace. Nothing happened that should offend an honest atheist.
But we do learn something miraculous from this experience, something that adds a new dimension to life: transfiguration is a permanent possibility. If this can happen, anything can happen.
In my opinionated opinion, this, precisely is what the world has lost sight of.
We are trapped inside a constricted, bleak, angry but arrogant worldview that sees its only fascination and occupation in destruction of the world out there. Woody Allen’s paradoxical restaurant review applies to the whole world of todays unwitting nihilists: “The food is just awful, and the portions are too small.”
It occurs no none of them that perhaps they are not yet qualified to change the world for the better. Revolutionaries with a nihilist mindset will sometimes destroy the corrupt crust of convention expecting to find a Rousseauean Paradise beneath — but all they find is long-denaturalized apes stripped of their second-natural humanizing artifice.
No, on the contrary: we have reconceptive work to do before we are qualified to change the world out there to make it more accommodating and human. But that work is good work, even before we roll up our sleeves to materially re-make the world.
Here is a three-note chord of Nietzsche quotes, followed by some intensely Nietzschean reflections on Rorty.
“Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that the philosopher came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.”
“There is a point in every philosophy when the philosopher’s “conviction” steps onto the stage — or to use the language of an ancient Mystery: ‘The ass entered / beautiful and most brave.'”
“It was ever in the desert that the truthful have dwelt, the free spirits, as masters of the desert; but in the cities dwell the well-fed, famous wise men — the beasts of burden. For, as asses, they always pull the people’s cart. Not that I am angry with them for that: but for me they remain such as serve and work in a harness, even when they shine in harnesses of gold. And often they have been good servants, worthy of praise.”
If, in pursuit of truth, you track it into the driest, harshest regions of the desert, you might emerge with a conviction that truth is best used for pulling little carts.
But does every car need to haul the same burdens over the same terrain from the same origin to the same destination for the same purpose?
Rorty says: “We can, of course, stick with Kant and insist that Darwin, like Newton, is merely a story about phenomena, and that transcendental stories have precedence over empirical stories. But the hundred-odd years spent absorbing and improving on Darwin’s empirical story have, I suspect and hope, made us unable to take transcendental stories seriously. In the course of those years we have gradually substituted a making a better future — a utopian, democratic, society — for ourselves, for the attempt to see ourselves from outside of time and history. Pan-relationalism is one expression of that shift. The willingness to see philosophy as helping us to change ourselves rather than to know ourselves is another.”
My response to Rorty is that Pragmatism taken to its extreme pan-relationalist point suggests that we approach philosophy as a design discipline, concerned not only with what allows us to reconcile what seemed true and valuable in the past and what seems true and promising in the present, but with what situates us in reality and orients us toward it in a way that helps us live a life that we experience as good.
My question is this: If as pan-relationalists, we are truly, wholeheartedly, wholemindedly, wholebodiedly able to conceive of ourselves as transcendental beings — each of us entrusted with one of the myriad center-points of the infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere — where objectivity is viewed as a product of subjectivity, the brain produced by mind — and if by doing so we manage to maintain communication and communion with our fellow humans, interact with the world effectively to cope with it, predict it, shape it, but also find ourselves more able to love being alive, to love others, to love reality as a whole — what is to be gained by refusing this pleasure? Why kill God if God lives for us, and nothing — not even truth — can compel us to? And isn’t this what pan-relationalism gives us? Are we afraid, perhaps, to give up our last shred of compelled belief, and to enworld ourselves in a world that shows us our value?
Why can’t a pan-relationalist, seeing myriad possible ways to use tools and language to enworld oneself, not place pan-relationalism in the background, like a deep heaven populated by innumerable stars, and go into orbit around a sun of his own choosing? Why stay out in the vacuum of space, unless you actually like it out there? A cozy, habitable planet has as much right to call itself “space” as those colder, emptier and more common expanses that seem so strange and remote to children of Mother Earth.
So I will now trot my conviction onto stage, beautiful and most brave, and let it bray: “If your philosophy works, if it makes the world not only intelligible and practicable but also profoundly desirable, and you manage to adopt that philosophy with all your heart soul and strength, so that doubts do not trouble you, there is no philosophical reason to abandon it.”
Yea-Yuh and amen.
The variety of category mistake I’ve been trying to name might best be called a deictic mistake.
My old asterisk/star symbol attempts to convey a conception of transcendence that could be called deictic transcendence.