Foucault on episteme

“If one wishes to undertake an archaeological analysis of knowledge itself, it is not these celebrated controversies that ought to be used as the guidelines and articulation of such a project. One must reconstitute the general system of thought whose network, in its positivity, renders an interplay of simultaneous and apparently contradictory opinions possible. It is this network that defines the conditions that make a controversy or problem possible, and that bears the historicity of knowledge.”

I like to mis-etymologize “archaeology” to mean, not the study of the archaic roots of knowledge, but rather the study of the arche of intellect. What is it, behind our thinking, that moves our thoughts to the only set of conclusions we can reach, given our variable tastes and interests?

Our episteme — not mysterious chthonic drives and biases within the psyche, our very own scientistic demons — is what channels our thoughts into their dogmatic ruts in pristine ignorance of alternative analyses.

The pop-episteme of our times limits the politically conceivable to identitarianism.

Respecting vs respectability

Once I thought if I didn’t respect something that was because it was not respectable.

Then I thought if something was respectable that meant I was obligated to respect it.

Now I think that I should respect what I experience as respectable, while acknowledging the sphere of respectable things is greater than my own sphere of respect. Just because a thing is respectable does not mean I must respect it. Just because I don’t respect something that does not mean it is not respectable.


I am unimportant enough to be arrogant; if I were more important I would have to be humbler.


I’ve been working on my pamphlet again. I’ve been using a different method. I’m revising the last version by hand, writing my changes onto it, instead of editing it directly.

The good news is that the core diagrams and verses seem to have stabilized. It has been a long time since I’ve wanted to change them. The explanatory facing pages are the problematic part, now. Writing them longhand seems better.

I need to get this pamphlet stabilized and printed soon. I may do offset for early editions and save the letterpress for whatever version proves itself by staying satisfactory for a few years.

I’ve got to get it out, though. I really do use these diagrams constantly in forming my understandings of things.

One thing I might change, though is complicating my diagrams to make them nicer to look at. The Sagmeister lecture on beauty I attended last week has made me reconsider my minimalist choices.

Solid-gold inspiration

Anxiety is an unpleasant type of inspiration.


Despising anxiety is not only a waste of inspiration, it is alienating.


The Golden Rule is not gold-plate — it is solid gold all the way down, and nobody finds the bottom. But a morally serious person follows the gold down as far as it goes, and further.


What does it mean to follow the Golden Rule deeper?

Starting at the surface: Do you want others to do do to you exactly what they want done to them? Would you like them to feed you only the food they want to eat themselves and make you listen to the music they would have played for them? Clearly this is not deep enough.

Further down: Would you like others to treat you justly, according to their own sense of justice, in disregard of what seems just, fair and good to you? Do you want them to privilege their own instincts and conceptions — their own conscience — which makes their justice seem as self-evident to them as yours is to you?

Do you want them to believe their anxious suspicions that you think and act in bad faith, and to do everything in their power to stop you and silence you if possible?

Clearly, we must mine deeper.

The more layers we dig beneath — and the more we undermine our own moral complacency by applying the Golden Rule as strictly to ourselves as we apply it to others — the more we discover not only changes in what we believe about morality, but we also change how we believe moral truths, and deeper still, why we care about morality.


When we make others anxious with our ideas, they are full of reasons why they ought to take their anxiety literally, give their paranoid suspicions full reign, and obey its logical consequences and shut us down in whatever way is most efficient.

And if we are willing to apply the Golden Rule symmetrically — as the Golden Rule implies we must — we find we do the same thing to others, all the time, constantly. We can find myriad reasons to silence others, if only in our own head, if only temporarily, if only through saying “maybe later…” It takes tremendous discipline and pain tolerance to do otherwise.


If we welcome anxiety as inspiration, interpreting what it says to us, letting it work on us, allowing it to be productive through us — everything changes.

Everything, literally.


Anxiety is how real transcendence feels before our understanding renders it immanent.


Anyone who wants religion to be an instrument for annihilating or banishing anxiety and having only peace — whether through outer-fight or through inner-flight — is looking for something other than religion.

Religion is for cultivating the fullest possible relationship with reality beyond our understanding. Religion is inherently anxious.


Liberalism is far deeper than authoritarians will allow themselves to know.


Maybe we need a Solid-Golden Rule: Apply the Golden Rule to yourself as you would have others apply it to themselves.

Is Sagmeister a designer?

I was chatting with my friend Stokes about Stefan Sagmeister. He said “I like him but I do not think It is helpful to consider him a designer. He is basically a conceptual artist who gets to practice in a totally different way.” I agreed — his way of being paid for work is just a new form of patronage.

This raises that old question: what distinguishes design from art?

My take: Design is only design if it is created for other people, and only incidentally for oneself. Art is the opposite: it is created for oneself, and only incidentally for others.

And what about engineering?

Engineering is for nobody — engineering is done purely to produce some objective outcome. Even when engineering involves human behaviors, it casts its problems in terms of behavioral outputs, rather than subjective qualities of experience, meanings or relationships. This is why Lean Startup and behavioral economics are so appealing to engineers — they are both ways to reframe design problems as engineering problems.

Expertise versus philosophy

A person who is too busy, too stressed or too knowing — or all at once — cannot hear anything outside their immediate understanding. In other words, they cannot philosophize, and will not permit philosophy to happen in their presence. Their world is a world of expertise.

I define philosophy as Wittgenstein did: “the structure of a philosophical problem is ‘here I do not know how to move around.'” Philosophy is attempting to think the unthinkable. Expertise is the efficient application of established thought.

Two definitions of justice

For some, justice is primarily a matter of determining guilt and proper punishment. For others, justice is also a matter of determining innocence and proper protection.


I remember back in the mid-2000s, when I was caught up in the general leftist panic about the underlying philosophy of the Neocons and decided to dig into the substance of their thought for myself. The panic turned out to be justified. The passage below comes from Irving Kristol’s Neo-Conservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea:

The main priority of a sensible criminal-justice system — its first priority — is to punish the guilty. It is not to ensure that no innocent person is ever convicted. That is a second priority — important but second. Over these past two decades, our unwise elites — in the law schools, in the courts, in our legislatures — have got these priorities reversed. (Page 362, “The New Populism: Not to Worry”)

That is a pretty weird way to frame justice, but it rings eerily familiar is some conversations I’ve had with Progressivists lately. If you wanna make an omelette, you’ve gotta break some eggs.

Ex post facto justice

If you essentialize a particular culture’s ethnomethods/ethos/ethic and begin to view them as self-evident moral truths, it becomes completely reasonable to enforce newly established principles retroactively.

Of course, in a court of law, where violations are heard, tried, judged and punished within defined legal procedures and boundaries, ex post facto law is forbidden — but such formalities do not hold in the court of public opinion, where guilt is assigned and punishments dealt ad hoc and without measure.

Alienated in analogy

Foucault, from The Order of Things:

Once similitude and signs are sundered from each other, two experiences can be established and two characters appear face to face. The madman, understood not as one who is sick but as an established and maintained deviant, as an indispensable cultural function, has become, in Western experience, the man of primitive resemblances. This character, as he is depicted in the novels or plays of the Baroque age, and as he was gradually institutionalized right up to the advent of nineteenth-century psychiatry, is the man who is alienated in analogy. He is the disordered player of the Same and the Other. He takes things for what they are not, and people one for another; he cuts his friends and recognizes complete strangers; he thinks he is unmasking when, in fact, he is putting on a mask. He inverts all values and all proportions, because he is constantly under the impression that he is deciphering signs: for him, the crown makes the king. In the cultural perception of the madman that prevailed up to the end of the eighteenth century, he is Different only in so far as he is unaware of Difference; he sees nothing but resemblances and signs of resemblance everywhere; for him all signs resemble one another, and all resemblances have the value of signs. At the other end of the cultural area, but brought close by symmetry, the poet is he who, beneath the named, constantly expected differences, rediscovers the buried kinships between things, their scattered resemblances. Beneath the established signs, and in spite of them, he hears another, deeper, discourse, which recalls the time when words glittered in the universal resemblance of things; in the language of the poet, the Sovereignty of the Same, so difficult to express, eclipses, the distinction existing between signs.

Received self-contempt of the receptive

In times that despise receptivity, it takes considerable intellectual independence to perceive the value of receptivity and to value and honor it.

That kind of intellectual independence will come least of all from the most receptive people — who will, in conformance with the expectations of the times will obediently perform the role of the bravest, strongest, most independent individual, because that’s what is expected, and failure to play the role would compel automatic self-contempt.


Just as, mediocre generals always want to re-fight the last war, mediocre rebels always want to re-break the last broken taboos, to re-transgress erased boundaries and to imitate originality.

The truly forbidden is, as it always is, beyond the pale, shameful, anxious and doubtful. Rebellion is solely for the most hubristic who do not feel the reality of others enough and least hubristic who perhaps feel the reality of others too much and find themselves compelled to resist present norms. (As Nietzsche demonstrated, it is hard to tell the difference from appearances alone.)

People who expect applause or head-pats from doting authorities or dittos/metoos from peers or acclamations of bravery will rule out precisely what they pretend to be all about. They don’t want the reality of rebellion which comes only in its afterlife, but they want it right now, in advance, and indeed they get their reward, to put it in Christianese.

The real question might be: is rebellion all it’s cracked up to be? Why do we admire past rebels while scorning present ones? Maybe past rebels are just folks who won and wrote histories of glorious rebellions led by courageous rebels.

Religious imagination

Few people I know have tried to imagine the possibility of religion that doesn’t revolve around peace, altruism, enlightenment and/or magic.

Yes, religious life can certainly revolve around these four notions — but it does not have to — unless it is not allowed to.

And it is not allowed to by people in orbit around these notions, who compulsively bring everything back to them, over and over — who call the facts deposited in these aeon-long ruts “eternal truths” and who call resignation to following this well-paved, well-appointed path forever “wisdom”.

Simplicity simplified

I was told that my description of simplicity would be confusing to non-designers and non-nerds.

Here’s another way to say it…

If a person can say all 5 of these statements about a design, they will call the design “simple”:

  1. “This is a __________________ .”
  2. “It is good for __________________ .”
  3. “Everything I need/want is here.”
  4. “It has no extra crap I don’t need/want.”
  5. “Everything here makes perfect sense.”

Simple design

Friday afternoon at work, I facilitated a little salon where we tried to define what “simplicity” means in design.

Because I was facilitating, and it is bad form for facilitators to fight with participants, I had to keep my strong opinions to myself (which is probably exactly why they asked me to facilitate rather than participate).

But, of course, I did have uncomfortably strong opinions, and they had to do mostly with my own compulsion to simplify what we were saying about simplicity.

So here is my distillation, in the simplest terms possible, of how I think of design simplicity:

A design is simple when it is experienced by someone as having the following qualities:

  1. Everything relevant is included.
  2. Nothing irrelevant is included.
  3. It is conceived as systematic: all relationships among parts and within the whole are clear. 
  4. It is perceived as a whole: the entire system is experienced spontaneously as a single unit. 
  5. Its relevance as a whole is immediately obvious. 

Jaspers, Latour — and Buber, too

I love Jaspers, but I have to classify him with Rorty as another pre-material turn thinker who manages to say amazing things despite an uncannily precise neglect of the role nonhuman actors play in generating truth, and in Jaspers’s case, scientific truths.

His distinction between scientific modes of truth and original truths of being, and the application of a universal knowledge versus individual intuition schema to draw the line between the two conceals the all-important continuity between the two and the controversy around where that fuzzy gray line between established fact and questionable opinion ought to be drawn. It is too bad that Jaspers relied so heavily on scientific understanding as a foil, because he seems to have a lot to say about the nature of communication between individuals interacting in an interpersonal/interhuman — as opposed to social — mode of communication.

And now that I think about it from this angle, I view science as a social-material milieu — a setting where individuals and instruments and materials all socially interact, not as individuals, primarily but as representatives of roles. In other words, the social as Latour conceives it overlaps considerably with the social as Buber conceives it. In social interactions both human and nonhuman and actors play socially-defined roles and represent some ideal type in their acting.

And perhaps interpersonal interactions are possible with nonhuman actors… for instance when an artist works sculpts one particular piece of wood, with its own shape and grain. I think it is this intuition that makes me prefer interpersonal to interhuman… Let’s not limit personhood to humans.