Understanding souls

Most folks who believe in souls think of a soul as the being who inhabits and animates a body. I agree with them, but I see souls as inhabiting and animating more than bodies. Anything understood to have an understandable purpose behind it, anything where answers to the question “why?” are more directly to the point than answers to “what?”, “how?” has a soul. When we try to understand something, we are trying to get at its animation.

I would argue that understanding itself implies soul, not only because souls do the understanding, but because souls are implied in the object of understanding, though in this case the object is another subject behind any objective knowledge. Objectivity is understood when it is understood in the context of a subject capable of comprehending that knowledge.

When we understand a loved one we become able to comprehend their words, gestures and actions, because our souls can animate our empathy and allow us to respond to what they mean by them.

But I would like to intentionally misapply homonyms to confuse categories, by suggesting that when we understand the subject of mathematics we become able to comprehend math problems, because our souls can animate mathematical thinking and move our thinking effectively.

No matter what it is that we objectively comprehend, we comprehend it only because we have subjectively — in the broadest sense — understood it first in a way that can animate our comprehension, and it is this alone that makes it meaningful.


Big problems happen when we try to comprehend what first needs understanding.

Kids will try to do this when they try to solve math problems purely procedurally without understanding the concepts. Adults will do this when they try to explain other people’s confusing behaviors before they’ve attempted to know them as people.

Even bigger problems happen when things that cannot be comprehended are dismissed as nonexistent before understanding has been attempted.

This is where we see cynical dismissal passing as insight. “Postmodernism” is confusing because the emperor wears no clothes — there is no sense to get. Souls cannot be scientifically proven to exist, or defined in a precise way a rigorous positivist can do anything with, so it is nonsense. Institutions are even more aggressive about eliminating what they cannot measure and operationalize than individuals, and a great number of individuals think by the logic of the institutions to which they belong.

And when we forget that understanding and comprehension are different and require different kinds of approaches and efforts, we lose the capacity to recognize much less navigate and surmount failures of understanding and we end up entrenching in mutual miscomprehension against enemies. Gaining understanding is hard enough when both parties in misunderstanding seek understanding and know what understanding involves.

But when one side of a conflict of understanding comprehends only comprehension, peaceful impasse is the best one can hope for.

If both sides comprehend only comprehension and become convinced they comprehend evil intent on the part of the other, both are 100% correct. In this case one should stop praying for peace and start praying for the shortest, least lethal war.


A soul is most a soul when lives as a soul among souls.

This is why I chose to live among souls. It is better.

3 thoughts on “Understanding souls

    1. That’s become the central question behind the pamphlet I’m always talking about. Its purpose is to frame (and to a lesser extent justify) a worldview most conducive to understanding reality in terms of interaction among souls, which might seem familiar to you since much of it is based on the daily life experiences of strategic designers.

      I have the pamphlet, which is threatening to overflow into multiple connected pamphlets (also known as that bound-signature object we call a “book”) broken into multiple parts.

      The first part is metaphysical. It tries to ground truth in an indeterminate transcendent reality that only takes on the characteristics of truth when we encounter, interact with, conceptualize and share it with others. It’s standard postmodern constructivist fare, except I assign enormous importance to what remains after we’ve done all this knowing, which makes it standard Levinasian fare. The point of it is to dignify the unknown, to insist on its potential knowability and to load that knowability with moral importance. We may not know the past and future or have it in the immediate present, but what will be and has been (in my view, and contrary to much of the best contemporary thought) is real and important. Same for what others know and could potentially teach us, and who we could potentially become and experience, were we to learn it. And the medium and the setting for all of this — what we experience and conceive as spatial and material — is real in some sense, however distorted our experience and conceptions may be of whatever it is that causes them.

      The second part presents a model of a soul’s tacit animations — a tacit whatness that recognizes, associates and basically animates our conceptions; a tacit howness that animates behavior, especially those behaviors that are not explicitly, consciously directed (the stuff we are so keen to catch in the act when we test usability or make ethnographic observations) and which animates skillful application of explicit techniques (and which is absent when someone knows the theory and the techniques, but cannot apply them in a practical setting); and a tacit whyness that experiences the value of particulars, which emerges in response to moral and aesthetic phenomena, and animates our moral, ethical and aesthetic attention. We often mistake the explicit or formal products of the tacit processes for the animations themselves, but I want to make room for them so we can notice their presence and absence in human life.

      The third part is basically an experiential description of the hermeneutic circle, which I take as an updated redescription of the mandala form found in so many esoteric religions around the world. It describes the stages of coming to understanding — and leaving it, in order to form better and more comprehensive understandings. This is key, and probably the closest I’ll come here to squarely answering your question: I believe we misinterpret where we are in these stages and that leads us to apply existing concepts we’ve already mastered when understanding requires us to question or suspend them, and to listen and grope toward new understandings in a state of perplexity (where we are aware that we do not yet know how to know what we urgently need to know, or as Wittgenstein said “here I do not know how to move around.”). This “wheel” diagram tries to put these stages in relation to one another as a kind of map of the territory, and to give us some landmarks to help us situate ourselves so we can head in the right direction. This will also be familiar to you. Remember how excited I was when you showed me Bloom’s taxonomy? I saw it as a fine young specimen of the mandala….

      The fourth part is the newest and least developed. It tries to find a moral synthesis between closed stability (circle) and open instability (confetti) and finds it in the shape of a spiral, which is a winding continuous fragment, both stable and open.

      Thanks for asking this question, Neil. Answering you, in particular (with our shared history, our professional experience and our respective epiphanic encounters), brought out some new stuff I don’t think would have emerged otherwise. I know I haven’t been able to provide a clean, direct answer, but I hope this spew at least cast some light on the question.

      1. I appreciate the time and care you take in forming your response. I find myself these days taking on the concept of understanding from multiple, simultaneous aspects from a place more in mysticism. Like an electron existing in multiple possible states, then collapsing upon observation, I don’t see understanding another soul happening until I understand my own. Then my soul may observe another, the wave function collapses. It’s a constant ephemeral phenomena on a plane have yet to find words to describe, yet it has somatic resonances that we feel.

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