Popper: “We all have our philosophies…”

“We all have our philosophies, whether or not we are aware of this fact, and our philosophies are not worth very much. But the impact of our philosophies upon our actions and our lives is often devastating. This makes it necessary to try to improve our philosophies by criticism. This is the only apology for the continued existence of philosophy which I am able to offer” — Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach.

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Reject the conflict

This passage from Bruno Latour expresses a humility that I feel is disappearing from the world: “It is us, the social scientists, who lack knowledge of what they do, and not they who are missing the explanation of why they are unwittingly manipulated by forces exterior to themselves and known to the social scientist’s powerful gaze and methods.”

Today, the further you are to the left or to the right the cockier you are about already knowing what is controlling the behavior of the world.

If you think in far-right terms, you know that people are manipulated by occult forces. Nefarious conspirators, supernatural entities and mysterious forces (essences, destinies, cosmic plans) all control the unfolding of history. Where effects take place, that action must have been intentionally planned by someone, Someone, or someforce. To counter these plans, one be on 24-hour red-alert — watching and prepping to defend oneself violently if necessary against the schemes of a concealed, intelligent and organized enemy whose actions have been prophesied in the Bible or by other sketchy divinations.

If you think in far-left terms, you know that people are controlled by unconscious psychological forces, mostly biases for and against categories of others. Leftists also believe in conspiracies, but these conspiracies happen through unconscious or lazy complicity: openly prejudiced people enlist the private, complacently habitual or unconscious prejudices of people of their own identity category to do what is in their collective best interest against the interests of other categories. To counter this semi-conscious institutionalized prejudice, it is necessary to intentionally institutionalize counter-prejudice (which isn’t actually prejudice because prejudice is only prejudice if it is held by the stronger groups against weaker groups, according to the prejudices of this theory).

These two extremes cannot imagine anything more opposite to themselves than their opposite. “The opposite of Good is Evil. We on the Right are the Good.” Or: “The opposite of Hatred is Love. We on the Left are on the side of Love (which is why we hate the haters, especially the invulnerable majority who hates complacently without even noticing it.)”

Each extreme justifies and feeds the other. And each extreme views moderates as unwoke dupes or cucks who brainlessly do the bidding of the other side.

But actually it is the moderates who are the true opposite of the two extremes, which can be seen as one thing that mistakes itself for two. The fringe-left and fringe-right should be seen as two pistons in the same apocalyptic engine, reciprocally feeding on one another’s force and fire.

This is why I refuse to engage extremists on their terms. I always present the conflict as one of moderation against extremisms. I align myself with normal moderate Americans who want to preserve what is best about America (individual autonomy for those who want it enough to work hard for it) against the hysterical hubristic know-it-alls and the apocalyptic engine they’re constantly revving up as loudly as possible over this or that emergency or outrage.

Philosophers have learned, when faced with either-or choices that the most philosophical thing to do is to “reject the question” and to look for a better one. Similarly, patriotic American will need to learn to “reject the conflict” and to redraw better battle-lines. I am an agonist, which means I believe conflict between mutually respectful adversaries is necessary and good. The battle-lines the extremists draw can create nothing but enemies.

I will conclude this rant with an inspirational passage from Eric Voegelin who lived in Germany in its worst moments, and knew a thing or two about ideologues:

“…I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology. I have in my files documents labeling me a Communist, a Fascist, a National Socialist, an old liberal, a new liberal, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Platonist, a neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, and of course a Hegelian—not to forget that I was supposedly strongly influenced by Huey Long. This list I consider of some importance, because the various characterizations of course always name the pet bête noire of the respective critic and give, therefore, a very good picture of the intellectual destruction and corruption that characterize the contemporary academic world. Understandably, I have never answered such criticisms; critics of this type can become objects of inquiry, but they cannot be partners in a discussion.”

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You didn’t have to convert to do that!

I interviewed an Israeli woman earlier this week as part of the work I’m doing. Of course I had to tell her I’m a recent convert. She immediately brightened up and demanded to know why I did it. I tried to answer her, but everything I said she shot down with “you didn’t have to convert to do that.”

“You could observe Shabbat without converting.” “You could have your Jewish friends…” You could read Jewish thinkers…” “You could celebrate the holidays…”

Somehow I didn’t feel like she was doubting my decision. It seemed like maybe she was honoring it. Because things were immediately different between us when I told her. Kicking my ass with such familiarity, cheer and warmth, she was showing me my best answer.

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Epiphany-effects

I had insomnia again last night and put on the audiobook of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. The best history is always disorienting, and this is premium disorientation, on the order of Inventing the Individual.

According to Anderson, nations and nationalism are a modern phenomenon which uses the past to construct an imaginary present outfitted with an equally imaginary history that provides it a sense of continuity.

Continuity, coherence, clarity are basic human needs, it seems. What varies is how we get these basic needs met — but the way we get them met can erase the variations in how we have gotten them. The continuity, coherence and clarity we have now consist in our sharing that coninuity, coherence and clarity with our ancestors. Human nature seems invariable precisely where it is most variable, but for the sake of what actually is invariable.

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These periodic historical disorientations, along with my regular philosophical disorientations have given me a quite different sense of continuity — one of human beings looking for continuity and building it out of whatever materials are closest at hand.

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How many “red pill” folks remember that the reality to which Neo awoke was just another dream within nested dreams?

In an epiphany, we experience clarity, renewed purpose and resolve, and we conclude: “this is truth.” But this could not be further from the truth. It isn’t that the epiphany lacks truth, it is that it the clarifying, galvanizing effect happens despite truth — at least “truth” as those who seek it understand it

To refuse to know this truth about truth gives a knowing person even more clarity and resolve — even greatness.

To exalt these epiphany-effects is to exalt the power of delusion.

We dream red pills, we dream waking up, we dream enlightenment, we dream reality and call it truth.

We dream wokeness or awakenedness to amass power over those who dream weaker, wider, more liberal dreams.

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Our epistemic misnorms are our deepest misnorms.

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Even generations get lonely in their time.

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Latour’s vocabulary

Bruno Latour changes his vocabulary and framework in every book. This is both irritating and valuable. It is irritating because there is too little continuity and much conceptual sprawl. Each book feels slightly out of control, and his corpus feels like a series of accelerations without momentum. But it is valuable because behind his attempts to capture his insights in words is a tacit metaphysic, from which his theories proceed. The theories must not be confused with the metaphysic, and his failures to truly nail it make the impossibility of nailing such truths evident. In this Latour is like Nietzsche. Both thinkers are mercurial in the most literal way imaginable.

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Designers develop hybrid systems

Reading Verbeek’s What Things Do, I’m reminded of Latour’s handy term “hybrid”, an entity that is neither purely subjective nor purely objective, but a fusion of both.

In Latour’s eye, the distinction between nature and society, or subject and object, which has seemed so self-evident since the Enlightenment, needs to be seen as a product of modernity that has far exceeded its expiration date. No other society makes this distinction in such a radical manner, and in ours it is more and more painfully obvious how poorly it allows us to comprehend what is happening in the world. The project of modernity, according to La tour, consists of the attempt to purify objects and subjects — we set objects on one side, subjects on the other, and draw a line between them. What is on the one side of the line is then material for scientists to investigate, with what is on the other side for the social scientists. … This purification and separation of subjects and objects, according to Latour, is coming to be less and less believable. Ever more entities arise that cannot be comfortably placed in this dichotomy. Latour calls these entities “hybrids.” The irony is that these hybrids thrive thanks to the modem purification: precisely because they don’t fit within the subject-object schema, we cannot recognize them and therefore they can proliferate at an astounding rate without anyone trying to stop or change them. But now, as their numbers become ever greater, it becomes more and more difficult to deny their existence. We are flooded with entities that straddle the boundary between humans and nonhumans…

Humans and nonhumans are just as bound up together in our culture as they are in others; therefore, Latour concludes, we need to study our technological culture similarly to the ways that anthropologists study other cultures. This means studying how the networks of relations between humans and nonhumans develop and unravel. In order to understand our culture, we must trace out both the process of purification and that of hybridization; we must understand how hybrids arise and why they are not seen as hybrids. In order to understand phenomena, they should be approached as black boxes that, when opened, will appear to contain myriad relations and activity.

If we grasp and internalize this understanding of hybrids, it becomes possible to compactly differentiate how designers approach their problems versus how engineers approach theirs — and why they so often marginalize designers and accidentally prevent designers from working in the way designers believe is best. Here it goes:

Designers develop hybrid systems. Engineers develop objective systems.

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I’ve written two elaborations of this idea, material to supply the understanding that makes grokking the compact definition above possible. I’ll post both, because there’s no time this morning to combine them.

Version 1

An engineering perspective treats design as a sub-discipline of engineering. Design adds an aesthetic (and among more enlightened engineers) and usable “presentation layer” to a functional objective system.

A design perspective ought to treat engineering as a sub-discipline of design. Once a hybrid subjective-objective system is developed through a design approach, objective sub-systems can be defined within the larger context of the hybrid system and built according to engineering methods. According to a design mindset, an engineered system is always and necessarily a subsystem belonging to a larger hybrid system that gives it its purpose and value.

The reason so few people see the obvious truth of the latter design perspective is that their vision is obstructed by a philosophical blockage. The hybrid system concept does not play nice with the modern subject-object schema. Designers learn, through the practical activity of design, to view problems in a new way that is incommensurable with modernity’s default philosophy (as described by Latour).

But designers are rarely philosophical, so the methods rarely progress to the point of praxis. Design language is all bound up with humans and the trappings of subjectivity (emotions, opinions, habits, etc.) on the side of who the design is for and the trappings of romanticism on the side of who does the designing (insight, inspiration, creativity, passion, etc.) Design practice is a jumble of “recipes” — procedures, jargon, styles and theater — a subterfuge to make design fit the preconceptions of folks who don’t quite get what designers are really up to. So design submits to modernist schema and goes to modernism’s special territory for people people, romanticism.

Version 2

Designers consciously work on developing hybrid systems where subjective and objective elements relate and interact. In design, people and things are thought of together as a single system. And things are not only material objects; they can be ideas, habits, vocabularies, etc. Whatever makes a design work or not work, including the engineered elements, as well as all business, cultural, environmental considerations are part of a design problem. When a designer opens a black box of their own making, they will see subjects interacting with objects and subjects, and objects interacting with other objects and subjects.

Engineering, on the other hand, works inside the subject-object dichotomy, and works on problems of objective systems. As a matter of method, engineering purifies objects and arranges them in systems. When an engineer opens a black box of their own making they see objective components interacting and working as a system.

From the view of engineers, the interior of the black boxes they make are their concern, and the surface layer of the box — the point where subjectivity encounters engineering, is the concern of designers. Engineers build the black box; designers paint and sculpt it to make it appealing to people.

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Philosophy fails

This morning I was forced to use the redesigned Freshbooks. They’d totally revamped the user interface. It was very slick and visual. And it was six times harder to use.

This is a depressingly typical experience in these times. I’m constantly suffering the consequences of wrongheaded, well-meaning changes made to things I rely on to not change.

I was lamenting to a friend how much work, time and money Freshbooks (and companies like them) sink into solving the wrong problem and making new problem.

I complained: “Not only did they thought about it wrong — they didn’t even think about how they were thinking. This was a philosophy fail.”

And these are the mistakes that offend me: philosophy fails. People failing to reflect when reflection is most needed. They need to think about how they are thinking about what they are doing… and they instead choose to be all startuppity, and just do. Just doing is valorized, and it shouldn’t be, any more than just thinking. We need thoughtful practice matched with practical thinking: praxis.

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Let’s stop engineering philosophies

My pet theory is that philosophies have been developed in an engineerly mode of making, with emphasis on the thought system, and to be evaluated primarily epistemically: “is it true?” The Pragmatists improved on this by asking, “does it work”?

But I believe the pluralistic insight requires us to take a designerly approach to philosophy by expanding the questions we ask of philosophies to those of design (as originally posed by Liz Sanders): “is it useful; is it usable; is it desirable?” And human-centered design has taught us always to dimensionalize this triad with “…for whom, in what contexts?”

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Very few people grasp what philosophies are, and how and why they are so important. They use philosophies that lead them to believe their philosophy is their belief system — the things they believe to be true true and the means by which they evaluate these truths. They think they know what their philosophy is, because their philosophy points them only to their explicit assertions and arguments, and this sets sharp limits to what they can think and what they can do with their thoughts.

Philosophies are the tacit thinking that give us our explicit truths and our sense of reality. We had better design them well! But we keep engineering them… for other engineers.

Maybe philosophy is waiting for its own Steve Jobs.

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Design brief

A design brief is a compact design problem definition, carefully designed to inspire designers to produce effective solutions to a real-world problem.

I’ve been thinking about and collecting briefs for years, and I have noticed that the very best briefs do three things well: define the problem, inspire solutions and provide guidance for evaluating solutions.

1) An ideal brief should be informed by an understanding of a real-world problem.

…which means the brief focuses on the right problem, addresses the full problem, and gets the details of the problem right. This way a design team will work on solving the right problem, will consider the most important factors, will incorporate the most important elements and will strike the smartest balances and tradeoffs when designing a solution, and the team’s efforts won’t be won’t be guided by assumptions or errors. The elements of a design problem definition will always include who the design is for, why the design will be useful and desirable for them, and all factors from the use context that might affect the solution. It will also include all requirements and constraints from the client organization.

2) An ideal brief should convey the problem powerfully.

…which means the brief communicates its problem clearly, memorably and inspiringly. Clear communication means the problem is crisply and unambiguously defined for the design team. Memorable means each designer can hold the whole problem in their minds, so that the parts of the problem all hang together as a whole, while remaining distinct. Inspiring is the most difficult part: this means that the brief can help produce surprising ideas not specified or implied by the brief, but which still satisfy it. The brief stimulates ingenuity that surpasses anything the brief anticipates. (* Note: A tight, effective brief is likely to require supplemental materials to educate the team and get them aligned with the people and contexts of the design problem. Ideally, the designers will participate in the research and gain a tacit feel for the situation they are designing into. The brief does not have to carry the entire team educational load, only the interpretation of the situation into a design problem.)

3) An ideal brief should provide an explicit evaluative standard.

…which means the brief outlines criteria by which a member of the design team can assess the quality of the solution, and determine where it is and is not successful. This removes arbitrariness from the process and fully empowers designers to try bold, radically novel approaches to solve the problem.

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I have never created nor have I seen a design brief that fully lives up to the ideal sketched above. I believe what I’ve written may be a design brief for a designing a design brief.

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10,000 foot view

The spew below might be a plan for a talk.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on what strikes me as the most difficult and interesting challenge I’ve faced adjusting to service design after decades of practicing other flavors of human-centered design — namely the problem of altitude and granularity appropriate to solving service design problems.

If strategy flies at 30,000 feet (where the ground is so distant it looks like a map) and we agree most design flies at 3 feet (where the ground is so close and so chaotic it is hard to survey), service design flies at 10,000 feet, approximately the height a single-engine prop plane flies.

10,000 feet is a very useful altitude that bridges 30,000 foot and ground, but it does introduce some difficulties.

First, there is the issue of clouds. At 30,000 feet, the clouds are below you. Standing on the ground, the clouds are above you. But at 10,000 feet you are flying in and out of clouds, which can become very disorienting, in the most literal sense. It can be a challenge to know which way is up. And the view is neither clear nor continuous.  One moment you can see a bit of ground, the next you see nothing but your instruments, and you have to use your memory, imagination and your recording and data-gathering tools to form a sense of the whole. But that whole you finally grok has far more structural clarity than you can get from the ground, and more human richness than you can pick up from up in the cold, thin air of the stratosphere.

Second, you are dealing with some odd scales of meaning. Looking down at a town, everything looks miniaturized but still human, maybe even exaggeratedly human because the tedium of life is abstracted away and we relate to it like kids playing with toys. Some homes are big, some are small, some are complexes or towers. Some are arranged in grids, some along windy branches of street bulbing in cul-de-sacs, and some cluster along the edges of lakesides or hills. Some homes have trees or yards, pools, trampolines or gardens, driveways or parking lots. You can imagine what life in the neighborhood might be like. But you can also see the layout of the city, and get a sense of how parts of the town connect up. You can see where the schools, the stores, the churches and the sports fields are. You can see where things have been built up, what has been left in a wild state, and where development is happening.

Now imagine trying to tell a story about the life you see below, doing justice both to the individual lives taking place in the tiny buildings below but showing how it all connects in a living system… this is not the usual storytelling scale. It is neither intimate nor epic. It must generalize, but without blurring key particularities or averaging individuality into bland average anonymity. But if you wish to tell the story of how a town works, or if you want to propose significant structural modifications to the town, this is the narrative scale required. Telling such a story requires judicious zooming in and zooming out to show connections between whole and part, connecting fine grain details of breakfasts, meetings and bills with broad generalities like demographic trends, commerce and traffic patterns.

Finally, intervening at this height is strange. The proposals for changes are unnervingly between strategic and tactical. They anticipate details of implementation, but without overspecifying them. Specifications are suggestive and provisional and intended more to clarify a problem than provide a solution. Many people find the interpretive latitude confusing: what in the recommendation is fixed and what is variable? If everything is open-ended what use is the recommendation at all? It can all seem vague and insubstantial, yet there is a thrust and lasting momentum in the work that carries initiatives forward and in a direction that benefits both the organization as a whole, its employees and the people it serves. Somehow the recommendations made from this altitude are capable of creating continuity between the grand plans of strategists and the intricacies of implementers on the ground.

The 10,000 view manages to refract the grand plans and sweeping aspirations of the 30,000 foot view into actions on the ground that actualize it and prevent it from remaining mere aspiration and plan. And the 10,000 foot view provides individual actors on the ground a way to relate and connect their efforts to tangible, relatable and realistic goals that connect up with the purpose of the organization.

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Recently it occurred to me that this 10,000 foot theme is closely related to an idea I hatched years ago, which I called bullshit-chickenshit.

Bullshit – Meaningful, inspiring ideas that that seem to promise practical action but never fulfill that promise and never find application.

Chickenshit – Practical actions that seem like they ought to serve some meaningful purpose, but in fact is meaningless and done for no reason.

Bullshit is meaning without application. Chickenshit is application without meaning.

The 10,000 foot view prevents strategy from dissociating from everyday application and devolving into bullshit. And the 10,000 foot view provides some meaningful, relatable context for people working on or near the front lines to help them to remember how what they do connects up with organizational goals so the operational minutia supports the organizational goals and prevents it from devolving into bureaucratic chickenshit.

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Design vs marketing mindset

What is it about the marketing mindset that makes it feel so familiar and so unfamiliar at the same time to my designer’s view of the world? Why do designers and marketers talk past one another if they aren’t very careful?

This is an important question. Marketing is close to design, and addresses many of the same problems. Along with engineering, marketing is design’s closest neighbor, with the large stretches of contested boundary lands, including the choicest turf, coveted by many disciplines, product management.

I think it comes down to the fact that ultimately design is about individuals and marketing is about aggregates. Design thinks in terms of each; marketing thinks in terms of all.

When design thinks about groups, it still thinks of these groups as constituted of individuals experiencing and responding to designed artifacts. The aggregates are just collections of many individuals with certain similarities that allow the designer to design something for them that each might potentially choose and use. The data a designer needs to work effectively is everything that affects how an individual (or constellation of individuals) encounters a thing (or system of things).

When marketing thinks about aggregates it is in its true element. Its basic unit is a segment that hopefully will produce some aggregate outcome. When it thinks about individuals, those individuals are samples from a mass that might give indications of mass perceptions and behaviors — what percentage of a cohort of what size can be expected to perform some desired behavior?

This, like so many things, recalls Buber’s distinction between the social and the interpersonal.

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For the sake of one

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi led Torah study yesterday. She focused on “the first thing Abraham did after becoming a Jew”: argue — and with God, no less, which she characterized as an essentially Jewish act.

Then Adonai said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before Adonai.

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?

What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

And Adonai answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?”

And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.”

But he spoke to Him again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?”

And He answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.”

And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?”

And He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.”

And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”

When Adonai had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.

My question was if this sequence didn’t imply an essentially liberal argument. She said, “first, you’ll need to define what you mean by ‘liberal’, and I found myself answering, almost as if the answer was being pulled from me: “For the sake of one.”

(The rabbi answered that in the ancient Jewish world, the closest thing to an individual was ten people, a minyan. There’s something in this idea, ten people as a fundamental unit, that I can feel is going to stay a live problem for me.)

After class several of us stayed in the room and talked. I pointed out a similarity between Abraham’s dialogue with Adonai and hostage negotiation as presented by George Kohlrieser in Hostage at the Table. 1) A hostage negotiator progresses in small steps, starting with any kind of response at all; 2) the goal is to move toward clarification of what truly matters to the hostage-taker, in order to find some way to appeal to it for the sake of a humane outcome; and 3) in the process to create an emotional bond and establish the negotiator as a “secure base”. It is interesting to see this newly established relationship between Adonai and Abraham starting with what can be viewed as a hostage negotiation creating a secure base of covenant.

It was a great Torah study.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh Jews were being gunned down by a right-wing antisemite who, after surrendering to police told them, “all these Jews need to die.”

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Ink

At the boundary between physicality and symbol stands an object marking the line between the two: the pen. A pen can be seen as a herm, a Janus at the gate, a hand-mezuzah, by which thoughts become physical, and physical in a way that permits the thoughts to flow back into other minds. Reading deeply, my eyes tracing lines of intricately inked symbols on pages, I’ve had whole human souls flow into my being, flowing on ink. Pens, books, lines, letters, graphics… everything I love most is inky.

Ink is miraculous.

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Personality and civility

I haven’t tracked this alleged Hannah Arendt quote, so it probably isn’t her: “Every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians — we call them ‘children’.”

Barbarians, how?

I would say half of the children enter the world as me-less I’s, and the other half as I-less me’s. My crude, simplistic theory: Babies start out autistic or borderline, and must be raised out of that condition by parents and communities.

Children are civilized when they develop both an objective sense of me and a subjective sense of I, and put these two aspects of self into relationship with one another as a maturing personality.

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I posted something (plus a bunch of comments) on Facebook that belongs here:

  • I propose an amendment to Useful, Usable and Desirable: RELIABLE. Who’s in?
    • Reliability is knowing that when you go to use a thing that it will work as expected.
    • The problem with most software design today is that it is embedded in bad service design, a.k.a. nonintentional service design.
    • The problem with most software design today is that it is embedded in bad service design, aka nonintentional service design.
    • Bad design = nonintentional design = mere engineering
    • Engineering is a specialized subdiscipline of design, not the other way around as most industrially-minded folks still think.
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First, second, third people

First-person thought is perspectival, understood when it is inhabited, seen-from, felt-from, known-from, experienced from. Understanding first-person thought is about finding the from, from which the thought understands whatever is presented. It is “where you’re coming from” as hippies say. First-person thought does not always refer to I; the best of this genre omits I to leave room at the center for the addressee (the reader or hearer) to occupy. It invites to understand, and if the invitation is declined, the understanding (subject) is misunderstood as something to be understood (object). Do you understand?

Second-person thought is relational, understood when it is heard as addressed-to. Second-person thought makes the thinker’s being actual and particular: from me to you. It might give, or demand, or praise or accuse, or ask or tell, but in second-person two people are present in the thought.

Third-person thought is objective. It is universalistic. It’s not about me or you, but what is. It’ll argue your head off.

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Drops away into blindness

This passage from Voegelin’s Anamnesis sparked the insight I diagram as an asterisk.

In the illuminatory dimensions of past and future, one becomes aware not of empty spaces but of the structures of a finite process between birth and death. The experience of consciousness is the experience of a process — the only process which we know “from within.” Because of this its property, the process of consciousness becomes the model of the process as such, the only experiential model to serve as the orientation point of the conceptual apparatus through which we must also grasp the processes that transcend consciousness. The conflict between the finiteness of the model of experience and the “infinite” character of other processes results in a number of fundamental problems. (The term “infinite” indicates already by its negativity that along with it we enter on an area transcending experience. To speak of a process as infinite is tantamount to saying that we have no experience of it “as a whole.”) One of the most interesting of these problems is that of the antinomies of infinity in Kant’s sense. We can subject the finite process to certain derivative transformations, the so-called “idealizations,” which conduce to such concepts as the infinite series or the infinite regress. When such “idealizations” are related to finite series, there result the paradoxes of set theory; when they are related to such processes as the causal nexus, there result Kant’s antinomies. The causal series cannot begin in time because we have no experience of a beginning “in time”; more precisely, one could say that because we have no experience whatsoever of a time in which something might begin — for the only time of which we do have experience is the inner experience of the illuminated dimension of consciousness, the process that drops away, at both ends, into inexperienceable darkness.

Two elaborations: 1) We have more “illuminated dimensions of consciousness that drop away, at both ends, into inexperienceable darkness” than just time. In my asterisk, I added two other dimensions.

2) I also another analogy to illumination and darkness. We may not see objects in darkness, but we do see the darkness that prevents us from seeing. In my own experience, sight and blindness is a better analogue for our experiences of finitude and infinity, because blindness conceals not only what is concealed, but the concealment itself. With blindness, we can fail to see what we look at, because when nothing is there, nothing is also missing. If we do the blind spot experiment, wherever falls in our blind spot simply dis-appears — becomes visually nothing — without any tell-tale something blotting it out — there is no visual “nothing” to see. When nothing is there, no thing is missing, as far as we can tell.

We have to wonder — or rather, it is good to wonder — that if we can’t even tell the difference between a blind spot and a seen spot, what exactly is going on in our field of vision, which seems so continuous to us? And if we extend sight to perception, and perception to consciousness, and ask the same question — the question of what happens in in the nothingness of existence? — things get weird.

When we sit in meditation, for instance, we learn how this happens constantly at all times even in our own concentrated awareness. You could say that meditation is an existential blindspot test. We cannot see it directly, and we never have to see it at all if we do not want to (for instance if we wish to imagine ourselves to be self-omniscient) but if we allow our perplexities to bloom we will see ample signs that our consciousness is as sporadic and permeated with nothingness as our visual field. I think, therefore I am? The corollary: I don’t think when I am not, in the gaps that permeate my existence.

Crap. I’m out of time. There’s new stuff here, so I’m going to go ahead and post this.

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Whitehead, Levinas, Schuon

Reading Whitehead’s Modes of Thought I’m reminded of Levinas’s dichotomy of totality versus infinity, and Schuon’s similar indefinite versus infinite. The former term (totality/indefinitude) is some particular conception of all possibilities, against which all particulars are defined; the latter term (infinity/infinite) is real possibility independent of any and every conception. According to Schuon, the indefinite (within a totality) simply repeats a finite entity interminably. The idea of time extending endlessly backwards and forwards is indefinite time, and should not be confused with infinite time, Eternity. That, at least, is what I took from him 15 years ago when I read Stations of Wisdom.

From within any particular conception the difference between totality/indefinitude and infinity is indistinguishable, and for casual practical purposes we treat them as identical. The difference between the two comes into view only when reality defies our conceptual repertoire by producing an inconceivable actuality that refuses to fit within possibilities anticipated by the totality in question and its indefinite possibilities.

We encounter infinity as such when we experience viscerally an incapacity to comprehend, and I will list three instances where this happens:

  1. When we encounter a natural phenomenon that cannot be understood in natural terms as we know it. If we confront the phenomenon as an anomaly to be understood by changing our understanding of nature as a whole, and we do come to understand it in new term, the before and after of our understanding hints at infinity.
  2. When we encounter another mind who attempts to convey concepts inconceivable within the terms of our current conceptual repertoire. These concepts are used to explain reality in alternative terms that conflict with our own, resulting in apparent factual disagreements, but the intensity of such conflicts betrays that more is at stake than epistemic differences. If we shift from disputing facts to attempting a plurality of understandings to compare, the parallax among worldviews opens a depth vision capable of penetrating further into infinitude.
  3. When religion works on us, and draws us from contemplating the indefinite into a living relationship with infinity, which permeates reality, and addresses us continuously.

I’ve travelled a long way from the passage that inspired this reflection:

Matter-of-fact is the notion of mere existence. But when we seek to grasp this notion, it distinguishes itself into the subordinate notions of various types of existence­ for example, fanciful or actual existences, and many other types. Thus the notion of existence involves the notion of an environment of existences and of types of existences. Any one instance of existence involves the notion of other existences, connected with it and yet beyond it. This notion of the environment introduces the notion of “more and less,” and of multiplicity.

In Taoism the infinite is Tao and the indefinite is “the ten thousand things”. I love thinking about people’s totalities as “everythings” and then imagining a totality of totalities as “ten thousand everythings”, each potentially forming a relationship with infinity, starting with forming relationships with one another and their shared realities. This is not intersubjectivity worship.

Posted in Hermeneutics, Judaism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Taoism | Leave a comment

Public shaming as cruel and unusual punishment

Fron Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed:

The common assumption is that public punishments died out in the new great metropolises because they’d been judged useless. Everyone was too busy being industrious to bother to trail some transgressor through the city crowds like some volunteer scarlet letter. But according to the documents I found, that wasn’t it at all. They didn’t fizzle out because they were ineffective. They were stopped because they were far too brutal.

The movement against public shaming was already in full flow in March 1787 when Benjamin Rush, a United States founding father, wrote a paper calling for their outlawing— the stocks, the pillory, the whipping post, the lot.

“Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death… It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth up on any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.”

—BENJAMIN RUSH, “AN ENQUIRY INTO THE EFFECTS OF PUBLIC PUNISHMENTS UPON CRIMINALS, AND UPON SOCIETY,” MARCH 9. 1787

In case you consider Rush too much of a bleeding-heart liberal, it’s worth pointing out that his proposition for alternatives to public shaming included taking the criminal into a private room—away from the public gaze—and administering “bodily pain.”

To ascertain the nature, degrees, and duration of the bodily pain will require some knowledge of the principles of sensation and of the sympathies which occur in the nervous system.

Public punishments were abolished within fifty years of Rush’s paper, with only Delaware weirdly holding out until 1952 (which is why the Delaware whipping critiques I excerpt were published in the 1870s).

The New York Times, baffled by Delaware’s obstinacy, tried to argue the state into change in an 1867 editorial.

“If it had previously existed in [the convicted person’s] bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. Without the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, without some desire to reform and become a good citizen, and the feeling that such a thing is possible, no criminal can ever return to honorable courses. The boy of eighteen who is whipped at New Castle [a Delaware whipping post] for larceny is in nine cases out of ten ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the launt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.”

—QUOTED IN ROBERT GRAHAM CALDWELL, Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post

If the practice of public shaming was abandoned for being a form of cruel and unusual punishment, isn’t it at least a little alarming that it is being used as an instrument of vigilante justice, without trial or oversight?

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