Next book: Design of Philosophy of Design

Now that I’ve gotten Geometric Meditations into a finished state I am starting to feel a compulsion to write a more accessible book about design, tentatively titled Design of Philosophy of Design. I’m excited to be freed from the excessive formal constraints that made Geometric Meditations take so long to finish.

There are several key points I want to make.

  1. Design needs to be rethought, along with its relationship with engineering. I propose re-defining design as the discipline of intentionally developing hybrid systems composed of interacting human and non-human elements. Most importantly the human elements of the system should include the people for whom the system is intended. (I probably need to visualize this relationship.)
  2. We find it difficult to define design, and distinguish design from other creative activities (like art and engineering) because we think in a way that obscures the question. In particular, the way we think about making tools and using tools has gradually become inadequate for dealing with the world as it has evolved. Our working philosophies have grown obsolete, and their very obsolescence makes us look for solutions every but philosophy.
  3. Philosophies are essentially tools we use for living lives in an infinitely complex radically pluralistic reality. Every philosophy has advantages and trade-offs, meaning they make it easy, even automatic, to have some kinds of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and responses, and nearly impossible to think, feel, perceive and respond in other ways — and these other ways might be the key to confronting what are perceived, conceived and felt to be insoluble problems. Designers will recognize in this description characteristics common to all design problems, and that is my intention. The design field has developed effective techniques for dealing with problems of this kind. I propose we approach philosophy as design problems, using design methodologies to interrogate problematic situations we face to uncover and frame the most fruitful problems, to develop holistic approaches to thinking them that permit solutions to these problems, to iteratively experiment with and improve our practical thinking. I call this understanding and approach to philosophy “design instrumentalism”. We need to design philosophies that help us design better lives for ourselves,and this book will hopefully contribute to this project.
  4. Part of the reason we need to take design much more seriously is that who we are is changed by what we design. Indirectly, when we design things we use, we design ourselves. And this is because human being is extended being. To be a human being means to have one’s own being stream out into the world in every direction. Despite what spiritual conventional wisdom tells us, in some very important ways we are our possessions, we belong to where we live and we are our egos. But what we are can be released, transformed, improved or degraded based on what we do with ourselves: our environments, our physical tools, our conceptual/mental tools, our life practices, etc. This part of the book draws on extended cognition, cyborg theory, ANT, postphenomenology crossbred with existentialism, but I plan to be atrociously unscholarly, synthetic and magisterial in my approach and keep external references to a minimum. The goal here is to reframe human existence in a way that liberates us from the subject-object and self-other dichotomies that dominate the working philosophies that unconsciously shape our conscious thoughts. (The pre-conscious “how” of our thinking produces the “what” of our thoughts. I may have to also take some potshots at pop-psychologism that views the unconscious as sneaky little mind forces that lurk about behind the scenes motivating us this way or biasing us that way. Where most folks see secularized demons, I see poorly designed conceptual systems, a.k.a. philosophies.)
  1. Human being is a nonlinear (iterative feedback) process of co-evolution. As we change the world, the world changes us. This process has brought us to a perilous point where we must choose our next step very carefully.

This is an early sketch, but I think some of the ideas are interesting and consequential, and I think it will be fun to right. And my design approach will ensure that at least some people will find the book useful, usable and desirable.

Polycentric design

Design is the development of 1) systems where the definition of the problem includes elements who are people with some degree of autonomy, and 2) where the production and/or delivery of the designed system involves engineered sub-systems (that is systems that do not include autonomous personal components).

In other words, designed systems are nested systems made up of interacting human and non-human elements (“hybrid systems” as Actor-Network Theory calls them)), and some of the nonhuman elements become engineered systems (ideally explicitly framed as engineering problems).

The idea of design as a system that includes its users as internal to the system is not unprecedented (to name a few Cybernetics, Soft Systems Methodology, and traditional usability engineering have all folded users into their systems) — but it is not widespread among designers, who still tend to view what they make as for people who remain essentially separate from what they are designing.

To sharpen this definition of design it might be useful to define some other design-related activities.

The most important contrast is engineering, which, again, is the development of systems where all elements of the problem are non-autonomous, and predictably follow rules. Autonomous persons are excluded from (defined out of) engineering problems.

Some engineering does involve people but prescribes the rules of their behavior so that they become predictable components of the engineered system. This can be called social engineering. People are controlled and made non-autonomous in social engineering problems.

Naive design is design where the people involved in the designed system are assumed to be as the designer imagines them. In other words, in the course of the design work their goals, behaviors, values, perceptions, conceptions, etc. are not investigated. People are largely imagined in naive design problems.

Human-centered design is design where the people for whom the design is intended (the user, the customer, the audience, etc.) is included within the design problem as substantially unknown. Their personal autonomy requires active investigation, otherwise a critical component of the design’s success is being left to uninformed speculation. To avoid this risk, in human-centered design, the people for whom the design is intended are methodically involved throughout the design process.

As the implications of broader definitions of design come to light, more and more initiatives of various kinds are being recognized as design problems, and are being approached with the sensibilities, methods and tools of design. This has evolved at least one new species of human-centered design, which can be called polycentric design.

Polycentric design is design where multiple interacting people within the designed system are included within the design problem, including not only the primary person for whom the design is intended (user, customer, etc.), but other people involved in the system — ideally all the people who participate in the designed system. Understanding the complexity of such multi-actor interactive systems, and treating each actor as an autonomous person encountering the system from their own lifeworld requires more than a shift of concern — it requires new methods and tools.

Currently, the predominant polycentric design discipline is service design. Of course, services frequently feature multiple actors, and the quality of service depends heavily on the mindset of people delivering it, so it is unsurprising that polycentric design methods are developing in the design of services. But, unless we want to define the word “service” very broadly, the approaches used in service design can be used to design any system where humans are interacting with one another within a hybrid system. To name a few obvious examples, the design of organizations, of public spaces and of online communities could benefit from a polycentric design approach that might differ in important ways from service design.

In search of liberalism

What I have been looking for is a vision of liberalism that justifies personhood (individuality) as our best access to God, because 1) it is only as a person that we encounter God as God, 2) it is only in interaction with fellow persons willing to accept and share personal uniqueness that we encounter God in others, and 3) it is through authentically personal and interpersonal encounters with reality in its myriadfold being that humankind cultivates living, sustaining communities.

Such person-founded communities help people 1) intuitively and spontaneously feel the value of life because the value of life flows into it from what surrounds and exceeds it, 2) to act effectively to create, preserve, repair and strengthen the necessary conditions for community in which personhood flourishes and 3) to share, preserve and honor these understanding through clear, demonstrable and inspiring accounts of truth, but truth that is sharply aware that it is only a part of reality, a mediating surface — a person-reality interface — not a container for reality, and certainly not a substitute.

Truth is especially not a container or substitute for any person. This is the crux of liberalism.

Where we try to substitute truth for reality and most of all the reality of others, we suffer the fate of King Midas. Everything and everyone we touch turns to cold, hard truth, and the world becomes a lonely, pointless and oppressive place.


I’m very slowly reading Wahl’s Human Existence and Transcendence. I have come the final section of the book, reading comments from the philosophers who attended Wahl’s 1937 “famous lecture” that is the nucleus of this book, and I’m noticing an interesting and important theme I want to give a name.

First, much of the discussion revolves around differences between existential philosophies and philosophies of existence, the difference being whether the philosophy itself is an existential act or if the philosophy focuses on questions about existence. The same basic form occurs around other questions, including transcendence (thought that is an act of transcendence versus thinking about what transcends us), religion (thought that is religious in nature vs theories about religion), and so on.

This is a very interesting move, and for me it is especially important because it features in my Geometric Meditations. I suggest that intuitions of what, how and why can be both acts of intuition as well as objects of intuition, and that we often confuse them along these lines. I offer some names for different combinations of ways of intuiting with different kinds of intuitive objects, less for the sake of designing a taxonomy than as a distinction sensitization exercise.

Before I can continue this thought I will need to provide some clarity on my unusual (and if I may say so, extremely useful) conception of subjectivity. I prefer to base it, not on our common subject-object distinction, which most serious thinkers have recognized to be irreparably flawed, and instead base it on academic subjects. An academic subject is a distinct style of approaching, encountering, understanding, communicating and generating knowledge in some domain of reality which can partially or entirely overlap with other subjects. I think human subjects and subjectivity in general are best understood in this sense of subject.

This means that the theme I noticed in Wahl — the tendency to confuse of the understanding subjectivity and the understood object — could be viewed as a subject-object ambiguity, or what I will (until something better or more established comes along) call ambijectivity.

Teaching 14

Hannah Arendt taught me that what we call “politics” is in fact the betrayal of politics, and that political life both presupposes and pursues the plurality of persons — (as she put it, it is human beings, not humankind, who live in the world together) — and that if we aspire to be authentically political we must resist indulging that damnable solipsistic urge to reduce our fellow human beings to abstract categories we ourselves have imagined living out grand political dramas we ourselves have scripted, and instead encounter and contend with them as the stubbornly real beings with their own stories, self-conceptions, and worldviews.

Teaching 13

William James taught me the impossibly elegant (and deeply American!) Pragmatic Maxim — which I like to think of as instructions for the Pragmatic Move, which goes like this: when attempting to understand the meaning of an assertion, rather than focus in on the assertion itself, instead expand out the practical consequences (what James crassly called the “cash value”) of the assertion’s truth, and this synthesis will give you the assertion’s meaning much faster and more reliably than analysis can.

Teaching 11

Martin Heidegger taught me the difference between an emotion and a mood — that is, the difference between a feeling toward an object versus a feeling of a totality — and, in particular, that mood called anxiety which is the feeling of nullified totality, a mood toward subjective nothingness — which Heidegger associated with death, but which I see as the mortal response to infinity in any its myriad forms.

Teaching 10

Eric Voegelin showed me an image of time, of past and future dropping away into inexperienceable darkness dropping away into inexperienceable darkness in two directions, and gave me my first clear understanding of metaphysics (to which I have added dimensions of space and awareness in my own model of metaphysical situatedness in my spark symbol in the pamphlet I’m preparing to get printed).

Teaching 9

Clifford Geertz helped me see that understanding (or, empathy) is not an act of directly experiencing what another person experiences (which renders understanding impossible, if not essentially absurd), but rather the ability to participate in their symbol system, so that we can understand a proverb, a poem or a joke — or, as I like to add, design something for them that they love with head, hand and heart.