Fathers Day message to the world

I put this on facebook. I don’t even know why I do that. Here:

I remember back when words like “inappropriate” and “not ok” were meant to ramp down moral judgment in the playroom. “Kid, you aren’t a bad person; you just shouldn’t do that action in this situation.” But it turns out that just speaking non-judgmental language is not enough. If we are secretly terrified that our children might be immoral, our choice of euphemisms does not matter one bit. “Not appropriate” ends up meaning wicked. “Not ok” means shameful.

Now the generations raised with this language have grown up, or at least reached adult age, but never updated their disciplinary jargon. Non-judgy nursery school talk has become public moral absolutist talk.

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I’m celebrating father’s day by dispensing parenting advice, so indulge me: Your kids are not evil. They’re not particularly good, either. They’re somewhere slightly north or south of neutral, depending on how much sleep they got and what you fed them today. And please stop thinking about morality. Unless you are a serious religious person, good and evil probably doesn’t play nice with the other concepts sloshing around in your head. And frankly, being good isn’t as important as you think. This obsessive compulsive need to be good is producing very little real good, and it might be freaking your kids out. Just teach your damn children to be polite so it isn’t too awful for other people to be around them. Things will probably turn out ok.

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Happy fathers day.

Understanding and being understood

Speculating from a distance, none of us really understands anyone else.

The powerful do not understand the weak; the weak do not understand the powerful.

You might ask, if it even occurs to you to ask: Who is more obligated to understand the other? Notice the unexamined belief here that the one understood is the primary beneficiary of understanding.

The weak are often the ones quicker to recognize the benefits of understanding, but anyone who understands benefits — and benefits more than the understood. But ultimately, the greatest beneficiary is the relationship among participants in understanding, which transcends individuality. — In other words, understanding, like marriage, is a form of greatness.

Daybreak

I have been trying to reread Daybreak, for probably the sixth or eighth time.

This is the book that originally, back in 2004, made me start a notebook to capture the connections I was seeing across passages and across books in Nietzsche’s corpus, which before had existed only in the margins of the books themselves. Eventually, the notebook grew so large and complex that locating an associated passage could take up a whole morning, and it began to bog down my reading. At that point I transferred the passages into memos on my Palm PDA, which I’d hacked and made into a wiki. I could text search the passages and organize them in affinity clusters. That database got so large it brought both my desktop Palm app and the Palm device to a crash-prone crawl. In early 2008, when I got an iPod Touch capable of browsing the web, I imported my Palm wiki onto a web-based wiki. Even that got too big for the original host, and text searching became maddeningly slow, so I had to move it to a faster server. Today the wiki lives at brain.anomalogue.com, and it is bigger and faster than it has ever been.

But despite the performance upgrades my reading is painfully slow because of the wiki. If I read authors other than Nietzsche, I’m mostly okay. But Nietzsche shifts my mind into an associative mode, and the wiki amplifies that mode by offering fresh associated passages I’d forgotten when I connect passages I do remember. Then the linking cascades and ignites new lines of thought, and then I end up writing instead of reading.

Today I had a really good example of this effect, and I’m going to walk through what happened.

It started with aphorism 526:

Not willing to be a symbol. — I commiserate with princes: they are not permitted to vanish into society from time to time, and so they come to know mankind only from an uncomfortable and dissimulated position; the continual compulsion to signify something in the end makes of them solemn nullities. — And so it is with all who see it their duty to be symbols.

This reminded me of a passage from Twilight of the Idols:

What? You search? You would multiply yourself by ten, by a hundred? You seek followers? — Seek zeros! –”

I’d thought about the nullification of individuals when they take on public identities. Or, more likely, such people are already nullities, adopting identities in an effort to construct some semblance of selfhood.

I’ve seen this happen with some people who never developed their own first-person perspective, and also, tragically, with a few who lost their perspective seeking — or demanding — recognition from others.

It was interesting to think that not only joiners of movements, but also leaders can be zeros.

But this passage was connected with a couple of other passages that mentioned non-individual naughts, nullities and zeros. This one stood out, because it links into my current project, and also some of Nick Gall’s recent thinking on turning versus overcoming:

I no longer know whether you, my dear fellow man and neighbour, are even capable of living in a way which is damaging to the species, i.e. ‘unreasonably’ and ‘badly’. What might have harmed the species may have become extinct many thousands of years ago and may by now belong to the things that are no longer possible even for God. Pursue your best or your worst desires, and above all, perish! In both cases you are probably still in some way a promoter and benefactor of humanity and are thus entitled to your eulogists — as well as to your mockers! But you will never find someone who could completely mock you, the individual, even in your best qualities, someone who could bring home to you as far as truth allows your boundless, fly- and frog-like wretchedness! To laugh at oneself as one would have to laugh in order to laugh from the whole truth — for that, not even the best have had enough sense of truth, and the most gifted have had far too little genius! Perhaps even laughter still has a future when the proposition ‘The species is everything, an individual is always nothing’ has become part of humanity and this ultimate liberation and irresponsibility is accessible to everyone at all times. Perhaps laughter will then have formed an alliance with wisdom; perhaps only ‘gay science’ will remain. At present, things are still quite different; at present, the comedy of existence has not yet ‘become conscious’ of itself; at present, we still live in the age of tragedy, in the age of moralities and religions. What is the meaning of the ever-new appearance of these founders of moralities and religions, of these instigators of fights about moral valuations, these teachers of pangs of conscience and religious wars? What is the meaning of these heroes on this stage? For these have been the heroes thus far; and everything else, even if at times it was all that we could see and was far too near, has always served only to set the stage for these heroes, whether as machinery and backdrop or in the role of confidant and servant. (The poets, for example, were always the servants of some kind of morality.) It is obvious that these tragedies, too, work in the interest of the species, even if they should believe that they are working in the interest of God, as God’s emissaries. They, too, promote the life of the species by promoting the faith in life. ‘Life is worth living’, each of them shouts, ‘there is something to life, there is something behind life, beneath it; beware!’ This drive, which rules the highest as well as the basest of human beings — the drive for the preservation of the species — erupts from time to time as reason and passion of mind; it is then surrounded by a resplendent retinue of reasons and tries with all its might to make us forget that fundamentally it is drive, instinct, stupidity, lack of reasons. Life ought to be loved, because –! Man ought to advance himself and his neighbour, because –! What names all these Oughts and Becauses have been given and may yet be given in the future! The ethical teacher makes his appearance as the teacher of the purpose of existence in order that what happens necessarily and always, by itself and without a purpose, shall henceforth seem to be done for a purpose and strike man as reason and an ultimate commandment; to this end he invents a second, different existence and takes by means of his new mechanics the old, ordinary existence off its old, ordinary hinges. To be sure, in no way does he want us to laugh at existence, or at ourselves — or at him; for him, an individual is always an individual, something first and last and tremendous; for him there are no species, sums, or zeroes. Foolish and fanciful as his inventions and valuations may be, badly as he may misjudge the course of nature and deny its conditions — and all ethical systems hitherto have been so foolish and contrary to nature that humanity would have perished from every one had it gained power over humanity — all the same! Every time ‘the hero’ appeared on stage, something new was attained: the gruesome counterpart of laughter, that profound shock that many individuals feel at the thought: ‘Yes, living is worth it! Yes, I am worthy of living!’ Life and I and you and all of us became interesting to ourselves once again for a while. There is no denying that in the long run each of these great teachers of a purpose was vanquished by laughter, reason and nature: the brief tragedy always changed and returned into the eternal comedy of existence, and the ‘waves of uncountable laughter’ — to cite Aeschylus — must in the end also come crashing down on the greatest of these tragedians. Despite all this corrective laughter, human nature on the whole has surely been altered by the recurring emergence of such teachers of the purpose of existence — it has acquired one additional need, the need for the repeated appearance of such teachers and such teachings of a ‘purpose’. Man has gradually become a fantastic animal that must fulfill one condition of existence more than any other animal: man must from time to time believe he knows why he exists, his race cannot thrive without a periodic trust in life — without faith in the reason in life! And ever again the human race will from time to time decree: ‘There is something one is absolutely forbidden henceforth to laugh at.’ And the most cautious friend of man will add: ‘Not only laughter and gay wisdom but also the tragic, with all its sublime unreason, belongs to the means and necessities of the preservation of the species.’ And therefore! Therefore! Therefore! Oh, do you understand me, my brothers? Do you understand this new law of ebb and flood? We, too, have our time!

“Life and I and you and all of us became interesting to ourselves once again for a while. There is no denying that in the long run each of these great teachers of a purpose was vanquished by laughter, reason and nature: the brief tragedy always changed and returned into the eternal comedy of existence, and the ‘waves of uncountable laughter’ — to cite Aeschylus — must in the end also come crashing down on the greatest of these tragedians. ” — that reminded me of something… Anaximander!

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.

He who laughs last laughs best; but everyone who laughs is laughing last. More laughers will follow, in conformity with the ordinance of time.

This brings me to my final quote, by Jack Handey:

It takes a big man to cry, but it takes an even bigger man to laugh at that man.

There are so many suns yet to rise.

Relationships with ideas

One of the features of postphenomenology most potentially useful to design practice is its taxonomy of relations between users, technologies and the world. The information presented here comes from Robert Rosenberger’s and Peter-Paul Verbeek’s “Field Guide to Postphenomenology”, from Postphenomenological Investigations.

  1. Embodied relationship. According to the Field Guide when a technology is embodied, “a user’s experience is reshaped through the device, with the device itself in some ways taken into the user’s bodily awareness.” Heidegger’s “ready-to-hand” mode of encounter is a concept very close to embodied relationship, where a tool becomes transparent in use, leaving the activity’s object as the primary or exclusive focus. When we use a hammer, the focus of the activity is on the nail. When we use a pen, the pen disappears in the writing. (Interestingly/annoyingly, the paradigmatic example of this relation offered in the Field Guide is eyeglasses, which to me seems a distinctly different relation than that of a tool. Something that intercepts and modifies a sensory signal seems radically different from an implement that can, with sufficient skill and habit, become a transparent extension of one’s body. I assume this apparent conflation of unlike cases is meant to call attention to a less obvious but deeper and important similarity. I can tell this problem is going to bother me.
  2. Hermeneutic relationship. These are “technologies which are used through an act of perceiving and interpreting the device’s readout.” Where with embodied relationships, the user focuses on some aspect of the world through the device, with hermeneutic relationships the user focuses on the device itself. The example given here is a wristwatch, where the user reads the time from the watch face.
  3. Alterity relationship. Here the technology is interacted with in a manner similar to how we interact with a person. “The idea is that some forms of interface are devised speci?cally to mimic the shape of person-to-person interaction, and that sometimes we encounter a device as itself a presence with which we must interrelate.” The example is a dialogue box in an interaction with a computer application.
  4. Background relationship. These are technologies that are not directly used like tools but which function to modify the user’s environment. Air conditioning is the example given. Utilities like electricity, water and internet are other examples (or at least, I think they are).

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I am thinking about these relationships today, not only because they present some basic questions designers should think about when they are getting ready to design something, but also because these questions are relevant to my design instrumentalist project. If we (re)understand ideas to be essentially things we use to make sense of the world and interact with it and live within it effectively, what relationships with users, ideas and the world are possible, and how do we determine which relationship is best for specific ideas used for specific purposes in specific use contexts?

I believe that most of us, if we don’t think about it carefully, assume our we are in a hermeneutic relationship with ideas, where we look directly at the ideas and get a “readout” of the author’s meaning. But the books I most love to read also offer an ideas engaged in an embodied relationship of sorts. When we use these ideas we conceive the world through them in a way that reshapes our experience. And somewhere along the way I adopted a habit of expecting that reshaped experience to be useful, usable and desirable.

Misrelations

More and more, I see the answer of innumerable confusions and conundrums as a matter of prepositional category mistakes.

What do I mean by this? According to Oxford English Dictionary, a category mistake is “the error of assigning to something a quality or action that can properly be assigned to things only of another category, for example, treating abstract concepts as though they had a physical location.” A prepositional category mistake is a category mistake pertaining to relationships between one that explicitly or (more often) implicitly gets a relationship among entities wrong in a way that misleads thinking. The pragmatic consequences following from the relational conception lead to confusion, error or ineffectiveness.

For instance, we might confuse something we ought to experience from — a subjectivity — for an object of experience. (My example here is philosophy. We think a philosophy is a body of truth assertions which are there for us to examine and judge, when in fact the truth assertions are primarily a means for entering and inhabiting the philosophy — from which truths are asserted, examined and judged.)

Or we confuse something that we understand toward (something we orient ourselves toward that is in principle beyond knowledge, or something we can asymptoticly approach in increasing understanding but never reach) with something suited for comprehension as a direct object. (My example here is reality itself vis-a-vis our understanding.)

Or something that mediates an experience of some object as itself an object, instead of an experiencing through. (Here I’m thinking about user interfaces. Novices look at the interface and ask “does it make sense to me?” Experienced designers want to know if the work being done makes sense when performed using the interface, which is why usability testing is organized around the performance of tasks.)

Or we misconstrue a relationship within which partners function as participants within an enclosing whole which includes but exceeds either, snd view it only as an exchange between two self-contained peers. (My primary example here is marriage. The former is what I call actual marriage, but because few modern couples know how to use a participation-in-transcendence conception most enact something closer to what I would call “peers engaged in intimacy exchange”.)

These kinds of things are easy to get wrong. Our thinking is naturally (or deeply, culturally second-naturally) oriented toward objects. Relationships among objects are far more elusive, and we are often distracted by the things themselves when the real confusion is in the manner of togetherness in the things together.

I realize the examples I am providing are sup-optimal. I’ve jumped to the difficult relationships that motivate my thinking, when what is needed are simple, concrete examples that can be built upon.

For this, I plan to rely on a taxonomy developed by Don Ihde and the postphenomenologists: four basic forms of technological mediation: embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations. Both my philosophy and design practice are pressing me to finally commit these relationships to memory, so I will write up a succinct summary of these relationships in the next few days.

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I also realize “prepositional category mistake” is bad writing. I plan to call this kind of confusion misrelation. I’m over hideous philosophical language, and I plan to design more usable and desirable vocabulary for conveying my more useful, usable and desirable philosophy. The conceptions I take from phenomenology and other disciplines will all be sent to the gym and given makeovers.

And of course it will all be embodied in a well-designed, well-crafted book.

Useful, usable and desirable all the way down, sahib.

Subject rights, object rights

I was just talking to a friend of mine about pronouns and why language is so important to many people.

There is no doubt that language is political and has real social and material consequences. Therefore, nobody should ever blame anyone for critiquing language and arguing for change. It is also entirely fair to suspect anyone who says “sticks and stones” and denies these truths of lacking the experience of social vulnerability and powerlessness.

Arguing for change can mean many different things. It can mean anything from publicizing a personal choice to adopt more inclusive language, to advocating new standards of etiquette in one’s own social sphere, to codifying new linguistic practices within institutions who decide to do so, to using economic means to pressure individuals or organizations to comply with reformed language standards, to passing laws regulating language and punishing noncompliance. In other words, one can act interpersonally, socially, institutionally, economically or legislatively to make what one considers good or necessary changes to language.

As we move across this scale from personal to collective we should bear in mind something that is perhaps overemphasized among conservatives and underemphasized among progressives: the rights of the speakers, thinkers, judgers to speak, think and judge according to their own ideas, beliefs and consciences.

The rights of those who are spoken about, thought about, perceived and judged — the objects of language, thought, judgment, etc. — must be weighed against the rights of the subjects doing the speaking, thinking, judging, etc.

To put the problem simply, Person A thinks about, speaks about or expresses a judgment about Person B, whose rights prevail?

You cannot prevent Person A from oppressing Person B with beliefs that condemn and invalidate her very existence — beliefs which, if shared by society as a whole would make Person B’s life unlivable, without condemning, invalidating Person’s A’s existence. An argument can be made that Person A is intolerant, hateful and dangerous, and should be suppressed or contained to — but can’t it also be argued that a readiness to impose one’s own beliefs and morals on the rest of society and to forcibly suppress and punish those who disagree is also intolerant, dangerous and requiring suppression to protect dissidents? The point is not that one side is obviously right or wrong, but that looking at the full problem from multiple angles makes the question messier, makes it less obvious what ought to be done, and makes it easier to respect opposing views.

Object rights (the rights of those about whom we think speak) and subject rights (the rights of each person to speak their own truth) are in tension must be considered together and weighed together if we wish to do full justice to the problem.

Further we should not make the mistake of neglecting the more modest social actions an activist can take — conversation, etiquette, shaping of local social settings. Enforced conformity under threat of punishments ought to be a last resort, done reluctantly, under the most dire circumstances. It is not a small thing to force another person to conform to your own will and conscience, against their own will and conscience. We might be able to succeed here and there, but when we do, we have disrespected and violated the other person’s judgment and personal autonomy. We have (whether justified or not) insulted and oppressed them and likely made an enemy.

Persuasion does the opposite: by appealing to another person’s reason and moral sense and making arguments to them we show the greatest respect and produce solidarity in difference.

Producing solidarity in difference through respectful attempts to persuade — to say Thou to our adversaries, who share with us a commitment to appeals to reason and mutual acknowledgment of one’s subject and object rights — is the heart of liberalism, perhaps the most miraculous invention of humankind, so far.

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If your reaction to this is “no, I do know what is true and right, and I intend to do whatever it takes to make my views prevail”, I would suggest that you do not really ultimately belong to a marginal or vulnerable group, even if that is how you identify. If you were, in fact, powerless and vulnerable you would have little hope of success using force. Your real political body believes itself capable of imposing its will on the unwilling. As you so often point out to others, it is true: we are often oblivious of our own power and privilege, and power often conceals itself in the truths and morals it imposes.

Ipseity, alterity and love

Our knowledge of otherness is part of our ipseity, not of our alterity.

Alterity is not a matter of knowledge, but of a stance, an attitude: an expectation of surprise.

Once a surprise is experienced, remembered and understood, it is now part of us, but the source of the surprise remains surprising.

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Ipseity comprises all our knowledge.

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To love an other — and love is specifically a relationship we form with others — is to form a being that both involves and exceeds oneself, within which one is a participant. We are no longer only ourselves; we participate in and subsist within a greater being.

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Love is our smallest greatness.

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Ironically, to “other” an other is to deprive the other of otherness: to subsume alterity in ipseity.

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We can other with hate, or with indifference, or with what is mistaken for love.

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The beloved is the familiar and surprising other within a greater being who comprises us, a being brought into existence by the ongoing act of loving.

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Some philosophies preclude love. They arrest love’s progress at selfish lust or selfless altruism.

Love requires a modestly great self, a selfhood that transcends the limits of ego, and gives itself over to We with no diminishment of I.

What, How, Why

Is it too much of a simplification to say that philosophy is not primarily what we think, but how we think — and that a faith is not what we believe but how we believe — and these thought- and belief-producing processes are the invisible workings of a society-of-self in its efforts to form relationships among itself and to the world, producing an enworldment? The enworldment is the theoretical, practical and moral sense of reality — the unique what, how and why of our own existence — that situates us within the world as part of it.

Reciprocities

Why is it that reading Nietzsche always sends me back into working in my wiki?

I just made a new theme: Reciprocity.

  • And under that page I created three headings:
    • Of help
    • Of harm
    • Of love

    I will offer a chord of quotes to indicate the theme that unites these three reciprocities.

    Of help:

    • “Pity is the most agreeable feeling among those who have little pride and no prospects of great conquests: for them easy prey — and that is what all who suffer are — is enchanting.”
    • “If he did not have the compensation of gratitude, the man of power would have appeared unpowerful and thenceforth counted as such. That is why every community of the good, that is to say originally the powerful, places gratitude among its first duties. Swift suggested that men are grateful in the same degree as they are revengeful.

    Of harm:

    • “Benefiting and hurting others are ways of exercising one’s power upon others — that is all one desires in such cases! One hurts those whom one wants to feel one’s power; for pain is a much more efficient means to that end than pleasure: — pain always raises the question about its origin while pleasure is inclined to stop with itself without looking back. … Certainly the state in which we hurt others is rarely as agreeable, in an unadulterated way, as that in which we benefit others, — it is a sign that we are still lacking power, or it shows a sense of frustration in the face of this poverty; it is accompanied by new dangers and uncertainties for what power we do possess, and clouds our horizon with the prospect of revenge, scorn, punishment, and failure. It is only for the most irritable and covetous devotees of the feeling of power that it is perhaps more pleasurable to imprint the seal of power on a recalcitrant brow — those for whom the sight of those who are already subjected (the objects of benevolence) is a burden and boredom. What is decisive is how one is accustomed to spice one’s life; it is a matter of taste whether one prefers the slow or the sudden, the assured or the dangerous and audacious increase of power, — one seeks this or that spice depending on one’s temperament.

    Of love:

    • “The cure for love is still in most cases that ancient radical medicine: love in return.”

    One more quote by Mary Davis, from the foreward of Maus’s The Gift is illuminating: “Charity is meant to be a free gift, a voluntary, unrequited surrender of resources. Though we laud charity as a Christian virtue we know that it wounds. I worked for some years in a charitable foundation that annually was required to give away large sums as the condition of tax exemption. Newcomers to the office quickly learnt that the recipient does not like the giver, however cheerful he be. This book explains the lack of gratitude by saying that the foundations should not confuse their donations with gifts. It is not merely that there are no free gifts in a particular place, Melanesia or Chicago for instance; it is that the whole idea of a free gift is based on a misunderstanding. There should not be any free gifts. What is wrong with the so-called free gift is the donor’s intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient. Refusing requital puts the act of giving outside any mutual ties. Once given, the free gift entails no further claims from the recipient. The public is not deceived by free gift vouchers. For all the ongoing commitment the free-gift gesture has created. it might just as well never have happened. According to Marcel Mauss that is what is wrong with the free gift. A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.”

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    All this is why I have come to a place in my life where I only like interacting with equals, as equals, and this is why I remain specifically a left liberal: Rough equality is the necessary condition for liberalism. But where equality is pre-defined and imposed by one group upon another non-consenting group, there is already an equality-precluding power imbalance. Where equality prevails, any attempt to unilaterally referee justice, truth, morality, etc. must be viewed as delusional hubristic and futile. If this attempt is not, in fact, futile, the attempt to position oneself as an advocate of equality is delusional. And this is why I continue to insist “wokism” is a right-wing movement: it seeks radical inequality of classes, and justifies its lust for power with a mission of defending vulnerable identities, not only from genuine persecution, but also from hurt feelings.

    Real equality is a perpetual negotiation, perpetual conflict held in bounds by mutual dependence: agonistic pluralism. In such struggles, nobody gets a “safe space” from the anxious experience of having cherished beliefs challenged. And frankly, that is what “being triggered” is: it is the experience of existential dread we feel when fundamental concepts are challenged from a source beyond those beliefs.

    The more ideological we are the less we can distinguish our fundamental concepts from reality itself, and the more we confuse our experience of dread from a real threat of violence. Ironically, this ideological stance is the actual origin of real violence, since it views its extreme self-defense and just punishments of what feels threatening and is believed to be threatening with real threats, counterbalances theorized institutional bias with real institutionalized counter-biases, suspected hate with real, felt hate, theoretical violence with actual physical violence, and so on.

    The feeling that we are entitled to feel safe from our own perceptions and our beliefs about other people’s beliefs — freedom from feeling “triggered” — is a symptom of having too much power while needing the justifications of powerlessness in order to exercise it.

    Mindmoves

    Perhaps the reason few people love reading philosophy is that they have no idea how to read it correctly, and this is because people have no idea what philosophy is or what it is supposed to do. They are unaware of the role their own philosophy plays in their knowledge and its limits, or even that they have and use any philosophy at all, much less that they could change their philosophy and, along with it, their experience of reality.

    What philosophical reading does is equip us with new ways to know, and these ways to know should be regarded as something like mental motions one learns to perform. As many philosophers have observed, philosophy is very much like dance — series of mental actions performed with fluidity and rapidity so it is experienced as a dynamic whole, not a series of discrete parts. The essence of both dance and philosophy is fluid motion.

    It would be even more accurate to compare philosophy with martial arts, because the motions of philosophy are responses to entities and events outside one’s own control and anticipation, and while the motions are experienced, interaction, not experience is primary.

    How is a series of mental actions learned, and in what ways, and why on earth would anyone care about learning it? Let’s start with the process and end with the benefits.

    It begins with puzzling out passages. A reader works through a passage, trying out different meanings of words in every combination until they snap into coherent sense as a whole. Normally, reading is a simple linear process where each word is taken in the most usual sense and added to a steadily growing accumulation of factual completeness. People in the habit of reading and listening only within the limits of the popular philosophy expect all communication to work this way.

    But philosophical reading requires polysemic vigilance — constant awareness of multiple possible meanings of words, and that a shift of meaning in one word (or larger unit of meaning) can recrystallize the meaning of the whole — that the snapping often occurs later in the passage than most readers expect. The meaning of a passage might not resolve until the very end, and even that resolution might need to be undone in service of understanding the whole to which that passage belongs. This is the interpretive element of philosophical reading — hermeneutics — where a reader tries to understand the intended meaning of the passage by selecting the optimal meaning of each word and phrase that reconciles parts (words) within a whole (the intended meaning. (And, yes, of course there is an intended meaning, even if that intended meaning is infinitely elusive. “Death of the author” is really the death of all philosophies except the one imposed by the willful reader.)

    Once the meaning is figured out, in each of the parts, and as a whole, the meaning can be experienced as a dynamic whole. This is where dance and martial arts analogies are helpful. The working out of meanings of words can be compared to learning the proper form of each move, and unlearning the old habitual one. Knowing how each proper form fits in a sequence gives a comprehension of an objective whole — a system — viewed from without. The whole is not subjectively understood, however, until the forms flow into one another as a single fluid motion. It starts slowly and haltingly, then speeds up and smooths out, and eventually becomes a single unit of meaning, experienced spontaneously, from within, subjectively. Generally, when I read a passage, I rehearse it a few times, then finally perform it for myself smoothly to experience its spontaneous meaning in motion.

    This is one good reason for binge reading authors. Once a reader locks into an author’s vocabulary, speech rhythms, and characteristic mindmoves it becomes easier and easier to read them linearly — to sightread them, to use a musical metaphor. There is less puzzling out, and more fluid, spontaneous following.

    But something else happens in this process — and it is here that the real value of philosophical reading is discovered: once mindmoves are learned they can be detached from the original material and used for on other material or for other purposes. They can even be detached from the original vocabulary — and even from language altogether. The deepest philosophical shifts alter perception and taste.

    And once a mindmove is detached and used again and again for myriad purposes, and made habitual it becomes invisible. In fact it joins one’s soul, and allows the soul’s myriad members to move in a coordinated way in response to reality. The better designed the philosophy is, the more quickly and completely invisible it becomes, disappearing in acts of understanding, response and valuing.

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    This morning I was talking to Susan about strategies of changing one’s beliefs.

    The usual strategy is to decide to stop believing painful beliefs and to replace them with more affirmative ones.

    I argue this is a bad strategy. Setting aside the crucial problem of honesty toward oneself and the consequences of willful self-delusion, this exhibits deep misunderstanding of how beliefs form. Such an approach treats only the objects of knowledge (the content), not the subject of knowledge, which is the philosophy in the background dancing out the beliefs.

    Change the mindmoves that constitute the subject, and the objectivity changes on its own, along with its objects — naturally, honestly, inwardly and expansively, far beyond the bounds of the troublesome thoughts.

    This is the deepest understanding of subjectivity. Subjectivity is the sum of mindmoves that produce some kind of objectivity. This is why we call an academic discipline a subject, but also a person a subject: both are repertoires of mindmoves that generate objective truth and the way we experience it and respond to it.

    Sophia contingens

    I’m digging through old posts where I mentioned sophia, looking for a Nietzsche quote on taste, where he links taste to wisdom. One striking pattern: a great many of these posts were abandoned but kept private (as opposed to left in draft form, which is what I generally do with with writing I think is good, but is still too strange and vulnerable.) It appears the topic of sophia inspires me in difficult directions.

    Since I appear not to have done it already,  below is a  quotation chord on wisdom and taste. These quotes are some of the principle sources for my central belief that philosophy can — and ought to be — regarded as a design discipline, whose purpose is existentialist (taking full responsibility for our own being and actions) and whose methods are pragmatist (that ideas are best understood in their uses, rather than in their definitions). A good philosophy — one that is useful, usable and desirable — helps produce an enworldment that helps reality seem understandable, manageable and worthwhile, and which, like any good tool, disappears in its ready-to-hand use, but is beautiful when contemplated as a present-at-hand artifact. A sense of reality that feels chaotic, irrational, doomed, hostile or depressing ought to be critiqued and dissolved in skeptic acid to clear ground for a redesign and consequent religious conversion. We do not have to inhabit a confusing, chaotic, hell, unless we cleave to naive and malfunctioning philosophies that tell us we must.

    *

    “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).” — Nietzsche, Assorted Opinions and Maxims

    *

    “The sense of taste has, as the true mediating sense, often persuaded the other senses over to its own view of things and imposed upon them its laws and habits. One can obtain information about the subtlest mysteries of the arts at a meal-table: one has only to notice what tastes good, when it tastes good, what it tastes good after and for how long it tastes good.” — Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow

    *

    “Change in common taste is more important than that in opinions; opinions along with proofs, refutations, and the whole intellectual masquerade are only symptoms of a changed taste and most certainly not what they are so often taken to be, its causes. How does common taste change? Through individuals powerful, influential, and without any sense of shame — who announce and tyrannically enforce… the judgement of their taste and disgust: thus they put many under pressure, which gradually turns into a habit among even more and finally becomes a need of everyone. The reason why these individuals sense and ‘taste’ differently is usually found in a peculiarity of their lifestyle, nutrition, digestion… in short, in their physis {nature}: they have the courage to own up to their physis and to heed its demands down to its subtlest tones. Their aesthetic and moral judgements are such ‘subtlest tones’ of the physis. — Nietzsche, The Gay Science

    *

    “The word ‘taste’ has perhaps got too completely associated with arbitrary liking to express the nature of judgments of value. But if the word be used in the sense of an appreciation at once cultivated and active, one may say that the formation of taste is the chief matter wherever values enter in, whether intellectual, esthetic or moral. Relatively immediate judgments, which we call tact or to which we give the name of intuition, do not preclude reflective inquiry, but are the funded products of much thoughtful experience. Expertness of taste is at once the result and the reward of constant exercise of thinking. Instead of there being no disputing about tastes, they are the one thing worth disputing about, if by ‘dispute’ is signified discussion involving reflective inquiry. Taste, if we use the word in its best sense, is the outcome of experience brought cumulatively to bear on the intelligent appreciation of the real worth of likings and enjoyments. There is nothing in which a person so completely reveals himself as in the things which he judges enjoyable and desirable. Such judgments are the sole alternative to the domination of belief by impulse, chance, blind habit and self-interest. The formation of a cultivated and effectively operative good judgment or taste with respect to what is esthetically admirable, intellectually acceptable and morally approvable is the supreme task set to human beings by the incidents of experience.” — John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty

    *

    “One of the most gifted scientists I know, Dr. Jerry Edelman of Rockefeller University, who became a Nobel Laureate in his early thirties, told me that he is convinced that the instrument of discovery in science is not mathematics; it is taste. And what he meant was that there is an order to everything in life — an order to the universe, an order in our bodies, an order in the structure of all things. And what is taste but an intuitive sensing of that order which takes the innovative scientist beyond his knowledge to a new truth, a new frontier. That is why the breakthrough scientist is essentially a poet with an insight into what must be and the imagination to reach that new frontier with a theory, an idea.” — Bill Bernbach, legendary advertising man

    *

    “What, I ask to begin with, are the characteristics of a good scientific theory? Among a number of quite usual answers I select five, not because they are exhaustive, but because they are individually important and collectively sufficiently varied to indicate what is at stake. First, a theory should be accurate: within its domain, that is, consequences deducible from a theory should be in demonstrated agreement with the results of existing experiments and observations. Second, a theory should be consistent, not only internally or with itself, but also with other currently accepted theories applicable to related aspects of nature. Third, it should have broad scope: in particular, a theory’s consequences should extend far beyond the particular observations, laws, or subtheories it was initially designed to explain. Fourth, and closely related, it should be simple, bringing order to phenomena that in its absence would be individually isolated and, as a set, confused. Fifth — a somewhat less standard item, but one of special importance to actual scientific decisions — a theory should be fruitful of new research findings: it should, that is, disclose new phenomena or previously unnoted relationships among those already known. These five characteristics — accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness — are all standard criteria for evaluating the adequacy of a theory. If they had not been, I would have devoted far more space to them in my book, for I agree entirely with the traditional view that they play a vital role when scientists must choose between an established theory and an upstart competitor. Together with others of much the same sort, they provide the shared basis for theory choice.” — Thomas Kuhn, “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice”

    *

    “To be sure: among scholars who are really scientific men things may be different —  ‘better,’ if you like — , there you may really find something like a drive for knowledge, some small independent clockwork that, once well wound, works on vigorously without any essential participation from all the other drives of the scholar. The real ‘interests’ of the scholar therefore lie usually somewhere else, in his family, say, or in making money, or in politics; indeed, it is almost a matter of total indifference whether his little machine is placed at this or that spot in science, and whether the ‘promising’ young worker turns himself into a good philologist or an expert on fungi or a chemist: — it does not characterize him that he becomes this or that. In the philosopher conversely, there is nothing whatever that is impersonal; and above all his morality bears decided and decisive witness to who he is — that is, in what order of rank the innermost drives of his nature stand in relation to each other.” — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

    *

    “Consider how every individual is affected by an overall philosophical justification of his way of living and thinking — he experiences it as a sun that shines especially for him and bestows warmth, blessings, and fertility on him, it makes him independent of praise and blame, self-sufficient, rich, liberal with happiness and good will; incessantly it fashions evil into good, leads all energies to bloom and ripen, and does not permit the petty weeds of grief and chagrin to come up at all. In the end then one exclaims: Oh how I wish that many such new suns were yet to be created! Those who are evil or unhappy and the exceptional human being — all these should also have their philosophy, their good right, their sunshine! What is needful is not pity for them! — we must learn to abandon this arrogant fancy, however long humanity has hitherto spent learning and practicing it — what these people need is not confession, conjuring of souls, and forgiveness of sins! What is needful is a new justice! And a new watchword! And new philosophers! The moral earth, too, is round! The moral earth, too, has its antipodes! The antipodes, too, have the right to exist! There is yet another world to be discovered — and more than one! Embark, philosophers!” — Nietzsche, The Gay Science

    Conceptual conflict

    My first vivid conceptual conflict was in my senior year of high school.

    My art teacher had taught us that red, yellow and blue were the primary colors and that the reason our red and blue paints produced a placenta brown instead of purple was that no paint was perfect “spectrum red” and “spectrum blue”. Later, through experiment I found that a blue-green clashed with red far more jarringly than green (the supposed complement). Then I learned in physics class about additive and subtractive color worked and saw that the red-yellow-blue primaries were simply wrong.

    When I tried to explain this to my art teacher she refused to listen, and just repeated her own color theory and insisted it was correct. She would not entertain my perspective, and it was obviously more important to her than my need to be understood, and that alienated me completely. I no longer respected or liked her, not because I decided to change my mind, but because that is what spontaneously happened and I did not know how to prevent it.

    This has happened to me many times since. The felt suspicion that someone values a concept, theory or even a tacit philosophy more than their relationship with me is alienating. If I am stupid enough to press it hard enough and that feeling develops into a full-fledged certainty, that is the death of the relationship.

    In working relationships, I often tell people explicitly: “I care more about you and our relationship than I care about anything I think.” I also try to keep things light with people I know cannot or will not be able to make philosophical shifts to make room for me. Often I don’t push against the suspicion, because the certainty is too painful for me.

    But every 7-10 years I seem to wind up in a work situation where I fall under the power of someone who imposes a bad theory or philosophy on me that I cannot escape and I where no appeal is effective. The resulting claustrophobia, the feeling of asphyxiation, the panic paralysis and depression that results appears to be outside most people’s experience, and so it has no reality or rights. It is treated as oversensitivity or prima donna demandingness. I need protection, but I cannot get it. When I protect myself, I am condemned for it. I no longer apologize, or expect apologies.

    I bought myself a talisman to honor this kind of pain.

    A few notes about this form of pain:

    • The most concept-dominated people are sentimental, intuitive and non-intellectual, and fancy themselves the furthest thing from conceptual. It’s Dunning-Kruger.
    • The people who inflict the worst suffering for the sake of their own concept-loyalties are paradoxically precisely the people who fancy themselves highly empathic. They seem to know only an empathy of emotions, but not of values or intellect, and to dismiss whatever they do not know.
    • It seems that deep familiarity with concepts and how they work is the only way to have some semblance of control over them and freedom from them. Conceptually unreflective people only think they are non-conceptual because they are so dominated by their concepts that they treat reflection on them as taboo.
    • Fundamentalisms are the exalting of a theory “faith” over realities, even the realities these theories are meant to represent. They worship a concept of God at the expense of God. They love a concept of people at the expense of people. This includes, most of all, their children.
    • Politics today is dominated by of the most titanically concept-dominated, reality-excluding philosophies I’ve ever encountered, and my political anxieties are tied directly to this horror I’m describing.
    • I found this Nietzsche quote comforting: A Jew, on the other hand, in keeping with the characteristic occupations and the past of his people, is not at all used to being believed. Consider Jewish scholars in this light: they all have a high regard for logic, that is for compelling agreement by force of reasons; they know that with logic, they are bound to win even when faced with class and race prejudices, where people do not willingly believe them. For nothing is more democratic than logic: it knows no regard for persons and takes even the crooked nose for straight. (Incidentally, Europe owes the Jews no small thanks for making its people more logical, for cleanlier intellectual habits — none more so than the Germans, as a lamentably deraisonnable race that even today first needs to be given a good mental drubbing. Wherever Jews have gained influence, they have taught people to make finer distinctions, draw more rigorous conclusions, and to write more clearly and cleanly; their task was always ‘to make a people “listen to raison”.’)

    Weird kid

    My whole life, from earliest childhood on, I’ve formed strong attachments with objects and been fascinated with their aesthetic and symbolic qualities. Some of my earliest memories are vivid experiences with details of objects. The cozy orange glow of vacuum tubes and the curved reflections on brushed aluminum knobs of my father’s Heathkit stereo, the bright red nose and green lederhosen of a German pull-string jumping-jack toy, the green luminescence of glow-in-the dark tokens from a Casper the Friendly Ghost game, magenta Light-Brite pegs, an intense purple metallic paint on a metal toy airplane that pooled and deepened in the indented details, a clear purple plastic yo-yo. I’d attach to objects and use them as talismans to secure myself wherever I went. I had a plastic Porky Pig in 1st grade that I carried with me and found reassuring. Even into college I had a leather jacket I always wore. My record collection played a similar role, and now my books. My house is filled with items magical relational properties. Books, pens, bags, bicycles, even software tools form connections with me, and sometimes weaken or break those connections. Apple and Adobe have changed their product strategies over the years, and I experience the resulting misconceived redesigns as signs of betrayal.

    I think this sense of connection with things is what drives my design.

    But when designs do not have or seek this kind of personal connection, I am bored. There is nothing for me in problems of usefulness and usability but no aspiration of desirability.

    Expathy?

    One of my more unfortunate habits: whenever the bad design of some misconceived and malformed product, service or state of affairs pisses me off I imagine the meeting that produced it. Then I imagine all the little philosophies each participant brought into the room and used for misunderstanding and talking past (or over) all the others.

    Bad design is, for me, not only intrinsically frustrating and aesthetically offensive, but politically and philosophically infuriating.

    I need a name for a sixth-sense, analogous to empathy, but whose object is artificial objects. I feel the generative philosophies behind artifacts.

    Similarly, I sense the enworldment to which a thing belongs. This can be the enworldment that produced the artifact, or it can be the enworldment that is improved by it. The best case is an artifact that is uniquely suited to perfect an enworldment in an unexpected and clarifying way. An ideal gift is physical philosophy.

    You and whose army?

    Our sense of entitlement grows with our power.

    Those without any power have no rights and expect nothing.

    Those of equal power respect one another’s rights and the rights become more finely granulated and observed more exactly the more equality is achieved.

    Those with overwhelming power are free to imagine what they wish about the powerless, and the powerless are expected to complete the illusion by conforming to their expectations. And the most important conformity of all is worldview: those without power and rights have least of all the right to deny truth and justice.

    *

    Whoever feels entitled to control the contents of another person’s mind imagines themselves to have the power to succeed, correctly or incorrectly, consciously or unconsciously.

    It is not uncommon to delude oneself on the source of that power. Most conquerors of the New World acted under Christ’s power and authority, with a little extra assistance from sponsoring monarchs and investors. Anywhere the righteous exercise power under the authority of an abstract ideal — whether of God, of truth, of justice, of progress, of the market’s will — it pays to follow the advice of Deep Throat: Follow the money. Or say what children say on the playground when threatened: “you and whose army?” You’ll either call their bluff or learn exactly whose army underwrites their threats — in the name of the abstraction which is the source and justification of its power.

    How not to destroy an idea factory

    No philosophy is infinitely durable and impervious to criticism.

    We tend to dismiss or minimize critiques and arguments against our philosophies for as long as they remain useful to us overall, not only for providing clear and coherent understandings, but also for helping us respond practically and for feeling the value of life on the whole.

    But most critiques and attacks on philosophies miss their mark, anyway, aiming only at the outputs of the philosophy — its truth claims, theories and arguments — not at the conceptions that produce them, which is a far more elusive target.

    This kind of attack is like trying to destroy a car factory by blowing up all the cars as they come off the assembly line. But even bombing the factory itself is unlikely to be effective in the long-term, because factories are easily repaired or rebuilt. A far better mode of attack would be to investigate the factory’s production efficiency, manufacturing defects, etc. and show the inadequacy of its production. Or better, call into question the design of the cars, or question the value of manufacturing cars at all, making its purpose obsolete. Or question factory mass production, and undermine its conditions of production. Only radical measures will shut the factory down permanently, and prevent anyone from rebuilding it, because the need for the factory has been destroyed.

    The goal is to motivate abandonment of what currently produces facts, arguments, responses, methods, desires, values, etc. and to persuade people to produce them in some other way. This is a tall order, because it is so much easier to repair, rebuild or even to rebuild a new system with a new blueprint.

    Many, many people who have had their religious faiths demolished have built new secular belief factories on the site of their destroyed Christian faith factories, using the same blueprint as before, because this is how such things are built. Now the new factory cranks out new de-divinized models of the old faith — doctrines, moral rules, taboos, sins, confessions, devils, apocalypses, inquisitions, punishments, indulgences and so on — that function the same way as last year’s model, but which now run on new fuels, along slightly altered tracks. But to the constrained mind, the difference is total — the difference between a Prius and a Ford F-150!

    *

    A few thoughts on demolition and reconstruction of philosophies:

    1. Any philosophy can be destroyed, if the need and desire to destroy it exists.
    2. The best reason to destroy a philosophy is dissatisfaction with its product; a philosophy that produces confusion, error and despair can be dismantled, and ought to be.
    3. The very worst philosophies will blame a confusing, paralyzing, hostile, doomed and worthless world for its own shoddy output, namely, that experience of the world.
    4. The fact that a philosophy can be destroyed is no argument against it; sufficient durability is sufficient.
    5. A destroyed philosophy is likely to be replaced with another exactly like it, built on its same pattern, unless great effort is put into rebuilding it on new principles and new values.
    6. A destroyed philosophy leaves one without a philosophy to serve its needs, which is intensely difficult and excruciatingly painful. One of the principle outputs of a philosophy is sanity, not to mention truth, motivation, competence and security. This is the primary reason so few truly new philosophies appear. It takes too much time to make something genuinely new, and that time is truly harrowing and dreadful.
    7. New philosophies are made with groping, intuitive experimentation and the products of old philosophies, most of which go entirely undetected.
    8. Gradual modifications of old philosophies are much easier, but even the tiniest modifications feel shockingly new, alien and portentous.