Stuff I’m going to write

I think my “Coalition of the Unique” post might be the core of a Liberal Manifesto chapbook.

Susan’s and my strategy has shifted over the last several months. Rather than attacking illiberalism, we’ve chosen instead to find more beautiful reconceptions and redescriptions of Liberalism to help people understand and to feel why Liberalism is precious and worth protecting, conserving and progressing.

I also still need to finish my Liz Sanders Useful Usable Desirable chapbook. Maybe I’ll print them together in one run.

And Second-Natural is also starting to take shape. It argues multiple interlocking points, and I will probably write it as independent mutually reinforcing essays.

  1. Human beings have coevolved with our tools and built environments and our languages for so long, we have become naturally artificial. Whatever vestiges of pure nature we have left in us emerges in rare moments, usually (but not always) when we are at our very worst. We may long to be natural, feel natural, be in nature, or return to nature, but we are hundreds of millennia beyond that possibility. If we wanted to remain natural, we should have thought of that before we developed the capacity to think.
  2. Maybe what we long for is not exactly to be natural. The antitheses natural and artificial exclude the most desirable quality, second-natural, which is artificial naturalness. Second-naturalness is the true goal of design. If an action is second-natural it is done intuitively, with wordless intelligence. And any thing, any tool, we make that is used second-naturally becomes an extension of our selves. Artificial-feeling things never feel like extensions of our selves.
  3. One of our most second-natural tools is language. Second-naturalness in language use is fluency. That fluency can become so second-natural we lose the subtle distinction between our intuitive intentions and the words that give them form. It can begin to seem as though our intellectual intentions are essentially linguistic — that the language itself is thinking through our speech. I want to argue that language use is a special case of tool use. An artist can pick up a pen and start drawing a picture without consciously thinking about moving their hand or directing the pen, ink or paper. Most of the time there are no words.  No imagined final product is necessary. Ideally the artist becomes absorbed in the image. Language works exactly the same way. When we speak naturally, the words flow toward an intended meaning which emerges in the speech. We do not necessarily know how a sentence will end when we start it, but the saying is guided by an intuition which is not itself verbal, an intuition of what the sentence is trying to become.
  4. Activities feel artificial when we must continue to use our language fluency to verbally direct what is not second-natural. This is why a language-learner must begin to think in a language. An internal translation process keeps the second language artificial. But when we think about designing the things we use in our lives, often we are content with assuming an internal translation. Because we think our thought, maybe even our essential self, is linguistic it seems inevitable that we’ll be using language to tell our brains and our hands what to do. Consequently, most of the things we make feel artificial. We fail to design them for second-naturalness, for fluency. Our lives feel artificial because our philosophy of design is logocentric.
  5. A primary goal of design should be to thin the layers of language between intention and outcome. What is meant by a layer? What I do not mean is removing some linguistic veil of of illusion that separates us from some realm of metaphysical truth. All I mean is to minimize or eliminate the need for verbalized instructions to ourselves in our daily activity. And especially instructions for instructing ourselves. If we are using word processing software and we are trying to think about the sequence of actions required to, say, spell check a word in the document that has been marked misspelled, but we are unable to get the word selected in order to see the correct spelling options, we are now unable to stay absorbed in the sentence we were trying to write. We now have the words of the sentence we are typing, words instructing ourselves to try different options to select the word, verbalized questions regarding why the function is not working as expected, not to mention expletives. It is like operating a robot arm to operate multiple other robot arms. I believe these accumulating layers of verbalization are contributing to our increasing sense that something is going wrong with our lives.
  6. Because our logocentric philosophies assume the presence of language is inevitable in every detail of our lives, it doesn’t occur to us to challenge it. We are suffering from a thickening layer of words, insulating us from direct interaction with real entities that surround us. But we do not even know that this philosophy is interfering with seeing the problem. Our popular philosophy is so established in our own thinking — it is so second-natural to us, we cannot conceive of the possibility of changing it. When we think of philosophical thought, we automatically assume that we will be thinking about it, using the popular philosophy we already have.  We assume it will feel artificial. We have no expectation that a new philosophy can ever become second-natural to us. And this is not helped in the least by the fact that philosophers generally do not think of philosophies as something which ought to be designed for use, much less in a designerly way using designerly methods, and even more rarely, with the goal of second-naturalness.
  7. Philosophy should be understood as a design discipline. It should be directed by the things designers are directed by. Where are people encountering problems that might be the result of how they are conceived and thought about, or at least might be alleviated by thinking about them in new ways? Where is our thinking misdirecting or misguiding or misnorming our actions? It should make use of some of the methods of design, many of which are themselves philosophical praxes: interviewing, observing, opportunity definition, problem definition/briefing,  codesigning, modeling, visualizing, prototyping, iterative testing and most of all radical self-transcendent collaboration. Philosophy should adopt some key design concepts, for instance wicked problems, tradeoffs, divergent/convergent thinking, sensitivity to context, primacy of interactions. And perhaps most importantly, philosophy should push pragmatism to its logical next step. William James (I think) said that “truth is what is better to think.”. Philosophy should get more specific about what it means for a thought to be better or worse, by taking cues from one of the fundamental guiding frameworks of design, namely Liz Sanders’s Useful/Usable/Desirable. I’m tentatively calling this Design Instrumentalism.
  8. What does it mean for a philosophy to be useful, usable and desirable? A normal first inclination is to subject the presentation of the philosophy to these standards by asking questions like “Will this book teach me something useful? Is it written clearly and straightforwardly so I don’t have to struggle to understand it? Is it an engaging read, or is it a boring slog? These are all important questions, but I mean more than that. I want to ask these questions about the philosophy itself — about the ability of this philosophy to become second-natural in everyday constant use, after It is adopted as how one thinks, long after the book is put back on the shelf and the words are mostly forgotten. How does this philosophy work as a mind-reality interface? “Does it effectively guide and support my actions (or does it lead me to do things that interfere with my intentions? Does it allow me to think clearly and act intuitively without having to laboriously puzzle things out first? Does it force me to use language that feels abstract or theoretical to get to a conclusion? Does my life feel purposeful and valuable and worth effort?” If the answer to any of these is no, or even a weak yes, the philosophy design process should continue.
  9. Some other practical observations from my life of philosophical designing and designerly philosophizing deserve mention. Understanding anxiety and perplexity is crucial. To conceive something new, it is necessary to suspend or reject older ways of conceiving, or allow new data which defies conceptualization and full or clear comprehension to remain perplexing. All too often we misread anxiety as a signal that we are on the wrong track, and interpret perplexity (a state of intellectual disorder so thorough that the problem cannot be stated despite the fact that it is inflicting intense distress) as an emergency to end by any means possible as quickly as possible. Anxiety is the sign we are in the right path, and the right path is the one that goes directly into perplexity, through it and out on the other side, where we have found new ways to conceive truth. Another observation: wherever we see monolithic beings, we are generally getting lazy with our categories and reifying pluralities into singularities. This applies to our own souls. But I would like to take a few potshots at Richard Rorty‘s logocentrism here. He seems to think that if Nature does not exist as some humanity transcending monolithic authority, it can be sidelined from our humans-only conversation club. That redescription of truth underemphasizes the role real nonhuman beings play in shaping our truth. Nature isn’t one thing with one truth for us to discover, sure, but the myriad entities who we’ve assigned to nature do have natures that we interact with. These entities will cooperate with us if we interact with them one way, and will rebel against us if we treat them other ways. Our philosophies need to be designed to help us win the cooperation of nonhuman entities, and this is a huge factor determining the degree of truth in even our most universally-held beliefs. If we all agree something false is the truth, we’re all going to stop believing it when nonhuman entities register their dissent by scuttling our intentions.
  10. Finally, I want to suggest some ways philosophy and design can learn from one another how to converse across difference. All too often we debate before debate is really possible. In design we ask one another to try on possible ways of approaching problems, and we try thinking out problems using different logics. We draw what we are thinking when words fail us, as they frequently do. We are happy to play with possibilities, even when we are not fully conscious of what is directing our play, because often such play is fruitful. This is what it takes to get an infant concept viable enough to stand up to interrogation, argument or debate. Design teams dread having that guy in the room who only knows how to argue, and who kills all possibility of intellectual creativity with his still, narrow logic. But this is how all too many philosophers are: argumentative logicians. Hopefully, better designed philosophies can help guide better ways to craft, compare and iterate philosophies.

Update 9-15-20: I’m also being asked to write a book on Service Design research, so that’s another item on the list.

14 thoughts on “Stuff I’m going to write

  1. “Our lives feel artificial because our philosophy of design is logocentric.” I think you need to make more of a case for this claim. I entirely agree that poorly designed interfaces make us feel confused and that confusion causes us to have in inner monologue about how to use the interfaces. But I don’t see how that entails the design is logocentric. It could just imply that many designers don’t think at all about how confusing an interface might be. I don’t think that makes them “logocentric”. I don’t feel like they consciously think to themselves, “Don’t worry, the user can talk themselves through how to use this interface.” At worst, they might say something like, “I don’t have the resources to make this an incredibly easy to use interface, but I’m sure it’s good enough that they can figure it out without too much effort. They’ll get used to it.”

    So if counting on users to “figure it out” when it comes to interfaces counts as logocentrism, then I suppose the problem is logocentrism, but I’ve never heard it called that. And I’m not sure how fruitful the new label will be in addressing the problem.

    1. What I mean here — and what I definitely will support better when I expand it into a full chapter — is that when we are not even considering the goal of non-linguistic usability, when we just assume anything we make ought to involve an inner monological process we add just a little more friction to our existence. Instead of taking on an interesting design problem of making things as intuitive intuitive for everyone, we spare ourselves inconvenience and export tedious hassles to innumerable others, multiplying and degrading effort in the process. It creates stupid and fragmentary distractions in every minute of our lives.

  2. When it comes to making difficult interfaces seem second nature, never underestimate the power of repetition. When I look at the design of musical instruments, especially the piano and the violin, I see extremely difficult to use interfaces. Yet many people put in the hours to make playing them feel second nature.

    On a much more mundane level, have you ever watched experienced pro use one of those horrendously designed green-screen travel booking interfaces?!? It’s all slashes and 2 or 3 letter codes (which must all be memorized) that have to be both input and read on the screen. Yet these folks can clack away on the keyboard like lightening, while conversing with you, to perform amazingly complicated re-routings. For them, these interface abominations have become second nature.

    And don’t even get me started on gaming consoles and the tap, tap, trigger pull, joystick left command for flying kicks!

    My point of highlighting all this is that I’m not feeling to connection between making UIs for things like musical instruments or flight reservation systems or game controllers more intuitive more quickly (because with enough repetition they will become intuitive anyway) and deep philosophical issues or insights.

    Furthermore, it seems like there’s already an abundance of insight and advice about designing more intuitive interfaces, and that it is largely ignored. So why would a more philosophically-grounded perspective help make things better–since most people ignore philosophy even more than they ignore design insight?

    PS Sorry if I’m being a little harsh in these comments, but you did ask me to go at your ten points with hammer and tong. I’ll still help you with this in any way I can. ;)

    1. It makes sense to see this as matters of degree. Just about anything can be mastered with enough effort. But designing to minimize effort increases likelihood of adoption and mastery and decreases likelihood of incorrect use or mistakes. My view is that philosophical insights can benefit from being thought of in this way. The compulsion to announce a new philosophical insight the minute it is discovered is, I believe, a holdover from when we thought truth was “out there” waiting to be found like a new continent or buried treasure. I believe it is fruitful to view concepts as tools we can use in certain contexts, that they can, with effort, be crafted to work better, and that insights are less revealed truths than sparks of inspiration that point toward improvements of our thought toolsets that we can adopt or reject, based on what it does for us.

  3. “I believe these accumulating layers of verbalization are contributing to our increasing sense that something is going wrong with our lives.”

    Again, I’m going to see more of a case made here. I look at my kids and I don’t see them showing any signs of having to deal with “accumulated layers of verbalization”. And even if there is more verbalization in their lives today, I don’t think it is causing the sense that something is going wrong in their lives. There’s so many other causes of such a sense. I’m pretty sure that accumulating layers of verbalization caused by poorly defined UIs would be on the top 10 list.

    If you limit your focus to how interfaces affect political discussions, then you’re probably onto something. But if that’s your focus, then you need different motivating examples than how natural a well designed pen feels when using it. What are some examples of how better interface design could make political discussion more civil? Those would be GOLD!

  4. Sigh. The blog timed out and lost my reply. So here’s the short second version:
    “When we think of philosophical thought, we automatically assume that we will be thinking about it, using the popular philosophy we already have. We assume it will feel artificial. We have no expectation that a new philosophy can ever become second-natural to us.”

    Do what Rorty does: paint a picture of your utopia, where we finally have a second nature philosophy. How do human interactions feel different, especially political ones. In what different ways is liberalism flourishing.

    Why won’t making philosophy more second nature be dangerous? Aren’t cults based on such an approach: their motivating worldview seems so second nature to them that they don’t even question it.

  5. “And this is not helped in the least by the fact that philosophers generally do not think of philosophies as something which ought to be designed for use.”

    I just thought of a concrete example of a toxic philosophy that was beautifully design to simple natural and intuitive: Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. She packaged it in the form of romantic novels with simple credos that make great sound bites. And in every generation, a cadre of youth (mostly men) fall in love with the philosophy.

    And the fact that it is so seemingly simple, intuitive, and natural makes it harder to rationally debate it. How will second naturalism avoid such outcomes?

  6. “Philosophy should be understood as a design discipline.”

    Here’s a big one. And thank you for provoking my deeper dive into this issue with your clear and simple claim.

    I claim that philosophy is not JUST a design discipline. It is also a poetic discipline. It’s role is not just to solve “design” problems–it is to generate new purposes. This latter activity is beyond the scope of conventional design discipline; at least I haven’t read anything in design thinking or philosophy of design discussing its role in generating new purposes.

    Rorty acknowledges philosophy’s problem-solving role: ‘[Philosophers] job is to weave together old beliefs and new beliefs, so that these beliefs can cooperate rather than interfere with one another. Like the engineer and the lawyer [and the designer], the philosopher is useful in solving particular problems that arise in particular situations-situations in which the language of the past is in conflict with the needs of the future.’ Rorty and Pragmatism

    Notice that Rorty claims philosophers are trained to solve one particular kind of problem: ‘situations in which the language of the past is in conflict with the needs of the future’. If that is indeed the case, than such problem solving is unlikely to ever feel second nature. In fact, the problem is often that the language of the past has gotten to feel SO second nature that the conflict with needs of the future feels quite deep.

    But Rorty also points out that philosophy is not JUST problem solving:
    ‘My disagreements with Habermas’s attempt to be a liberal without being an ironist become obvious when one realizes how deeply Habermas would dislike my claim that a liberal utopia would be a poeticized culture. Habermas sees my aestheticizing talk of metaphor, conceptual novelty, and self-invention as an unfortunate preoccupation with what he calls the “world-disclosing function of language” as opposed to its “problem-solving function” within “intra-mundane praxis.”

    Habermas criticizes both me and Castoriadis for indulging in Lebemphilosophie; this charge means, roughly, that we both want to poeticize rather than rationalize.’
    CIS

    https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Lebensphilosophie

    So Rorty views his form of literary philosophy as having a poetic function–to create new purposes and their attendant problems–not just a problem solving function. The poetic aspect of philosophy does not strike me as a design discipline.

  7. ‘I want to ask these questions about the philosophy itself — about the ability of this philosophy to become second-natural in everyday constant use, after It is adopted as how one thinks, long after the book is put back on the shelf and the words are mostly forgotten. How does this philosophy work as a mind-reality interface?’

    I’m not sure most philosophical insights would ever be put into ‘everyday constant use’. Certainly scientific insights aren’t. Look how little most people use scientific insights in their day to day lives. Certainly the fact that the world is made of atoms doesn’t matter to them. Nor quantum physics. Nor relativity. Nor evolution. And so on.

    In fact, I would claim that with the exception of the scientific concept of germ theory, which we use all the time in avoiding infected people and contaminated food, that a 21st century citizen uses science theory as little as an 18th century citizen.

    In other words, I claim the average person’s mind-reality interface has been largely unaffected by any theorizing, scientific or philosophical.

    Note that I’m not claiming that the technology generated by science isn’t in use everyday by most people in the developed world. I’m just saying that such technology use does not entail embracing any scientific theories. People just use electronics, and internal combustion, and pharmaceuticals, etc without caring about the science behind them.

    So how or why should we expect philosophical theories to be put into everyday use?

  8. “But I would like to take a few potshots at Richard Rorty‘s logocentrism here. He seems to think that if Nature does not exist as some humanity transcending monolithic authority, it can be sidelined from our humans-only conversation club.”

    No. Rorty never remotely claims nature can be sidelined. It still surprises us. It still hurts our knee if we bump into a table. We must always COPE with Nature, thus it can never be sidelined in that sense.

    What he does claim is that it is merely a constraint, NOT an authority. More specifically, nature has NO authority over what humanity embraces as purposes. It can unquestionably constrain our ability to achieve our self-created purposes–even to the point of making them virtually impossible.

    But he vociferously opposes the claim that nature imposes any purposes on us. Traditional philosophy and religion does exactly that. It tells us we have a duty to seek the truth (about Nature) or to obey God’s edicts.

    Rorty only claims that we should sideline Nature as some transcendental source of human goals and purposes. Only the human community should be the source of human purposes.

  9. ‘These entities will cooperate with us if we interact with them one way, and will rebel against us if we treat them other ways. Our philosophies need to be designed to help us win the cooperation of nonhuman entities, and this is a huge factor determining the degree of truth in even our most universally-held beliefs. If we all agree something false is the truth, we’re all going to stop believing it when nonhuman entities register their dissent by scuttling our intentions.’

    I couldn’t agree more! In fact, I think I will adopt the word ‘cooperate’ in place of Rorty’s ‘cope’. His description that we merely ‘cope’ with the causal interactions we have with the world sounds (a) very reactive, and (b) slightly pejorative, as if the only causal interactions we have with the world are negative ones that we must cope with.

    I think a paradigm of causal cooperation between a person and the world is surfing. If we time things just right, and balance ourselves and our board just right, the causal force of tidal ocean waves will provide us with an exhilarating ride. Describing surfing as ‘coping with causal forces’ seems plain wrong.

    But aside from the name change from coping to coordinating, Rorty’s claims about nature are 100% in alignment your your description.

    But note the fairly bright dividing line between causal cooperation and conversational conversation. We win cooperation with fellow humans through a very particular type of causal interaction language (the making of marks and noises): the giving and asking for reasons. We win cooperation with nonhuman entities both organisms and objects through non-linguistic causal interactions.

    Bertrand Russell nailed this distinction:

    ‘Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so.’
    ‘In Praise of Idleness’

    I would change it to:
    ‘[Cooperation] is of two kinds: first, [causally] altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, [using marks and noises in order to get] other people [to cooperate to] to do so.’

  10. ‘In design we ask one another to try on possible ways of approaching problems, and we try thinking out problems using different logics. We draw what we are thinking when words fail us, as they frequently do. We are happy to play with possibilities, even when we are not fully conscious of what is directing our play, because often such play is fruitful. This is what it takes to get an infant concept viable enough to stand up to interrogation, argument or debate. Design teams dread having that guy in the room who only knows how to argue, and who kills all possibility of intellectual creativity with his still, narrow logic.’

    Again, couldn’t agree more. Which is why I think you’ll like ‘Philosophy as a Transitional Genre’. Rorty, like you suggests we need to embrace a more fruitful style of conversation than traditional philosophical debate. But he suggests literature as the emerging style.

    I think design practices are somewhat compatible with the shift in this direction. Design’s emphasis on storytelling and on personas is a form of the ‘literary turn’. What can convince a diverse group of stakeholders in a service design is a compelling narrative with realistic characters and their concerns.

    ‘As I am using the terms “literature” and “literary culture”, a culture which has substituted literature for both religion and philosophy ?nds redemption neither in a non-cognitive relation to a non-human person nor in a cognitive relation to propositions, but in non-cognitive relations to other human beings, relations mediated by human artifacts such as books and buildings, paintings and songs. These artifacts provide a sense of alter- native ways of being human. This sort of culture drops a presupposition common to religion and philosophy – that redemption must come from one’s relation to something that is not just one more human creation.’

    Literary culture finds redemption is ‘NON-COGNITIVE [aka nonlinguistic] relations to other human beings, relations mediated by human artifacts such as books and buildings, paintings and songs [and pens and surfboards and tables and chairs NG]’.

    I think this should put to bed any claims of logocentrism in Rorty’s philosophy. Humans create worlds out of far more than just words. It would be nice if such a world had a better label than ‘literary culture’. Nonetheless, Rorty is clearly talking about a human-designed world, in cooperation with Nature, whose artifacts include far more than literary texts.

    1. For me the choice between the somewhat overlapping paradigmatic models of literature and design comes down to two things. 1) How should we understand the substance of philosophy? — Rorty says language all the way down. I want to argue philosophy provides a scaffold of words, but beneath those words is some kind of semi-malleable intuition that can be molded in life-transfiguring ways with the help of words and which will also use new words in new ways. I want to argue that this tacit, language-using (but not essentially linguistic) knowing that is the substance of philosophy. 2) What is the purpose of philosophy? It seems to me that Rorty emphasizes the role philosophy plays in subjective experience of life far over the role it plays in shaping our objectivity. Yes, philosophy does wonderful things for our experience of life, and our own senses of what matters, who we are, what we notice and the significance we find in it, etc. But when deployed in everyday practical activities it can also help us abduce novel hypotheses to test with real material objects or hybrid human-nonhuman systems. It can guide our various rhetorical strategies — or limit them by constricting what strategies occur to us to try — when appealing to fellow citizens to take steps to conserve Earth’s environment. It even guides the activities of scientists, especially when science goes into crisis and takes a turn toward the extraordinary and new paradigms are sought. Anywhere that intelligent activity is thrown back on its intuition without guiding metaphors or language (where, with Wittgenstein, we say “here I do not know how to move around”) philosophy does its strange concept-producing work, showing us new ways to take-together the disparate chaos of reality in an orderly, significant, practical and hopefully also inspiring way. When I think of philosophy as the crafting of these ways of taking-together of “things in the broadest possible sense of the term” so they “hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”, philosophy simply does far more kinds of things and is used in many more ways than any novel or poem. In my view, Rorty’s explicit philosophizing seems to take place before a background of another philosophy which severely constrains the role that “philosophizing” does and separates it in a very non-Kuhnian way from what I would call practical philosophy, which permeates all human activities, and which expands the usefulness of philosophy far beyond philosophy professional and enthusiasts — if we’d bother refining our designs to make it accessible to more people.

      Think an]bout what happened with computers when Jobs realized that non-technical people might find these machines useful if we put enough effort into designing them to function as appliances instead of raw technologies only engineering-types can master. Engineers love to invent and tinker with material technologies. Philosophers love to invent and tinker with intellectual technologies. That love (and maybe a little jealousy) can prevent us from opening up our work to people outside our tribe, because we are perfectly happy with these raw technologies and the community who controls them.

    2. Part of what is at stake here is the dividing line between literature and tools. When we think of tools, what comes to mind are engineered utilitarian things used by workers to make things. When we think of literature what comes to mind are artistically produced things experienced by readers to temporarily or permanently transform their experience of life. In Liz Sander’s terms, tools are useful and hopefully usable; literature is desirable. What design does is fuse these three qualities together so that the experience of using a design to do something useful has some qualities of literature. The object you use each day orients you to a certain vision of life, makes you feel personally affirmed (or at home, or connected to your community, or subversive, or courageous, or safe and secure, or cared for, or loved, or playful, etc.) doing what you are doing. A well-designed object intentionally introduces utility, ease and a sense of importance or value into a person’s life, and hopefully helps make it “hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”.

      I want “users” of philosophy to expect a philosophy to do more than just explain things clearly and compellingly (be useful to argument or discourse or getting published or cited). I want people to ask if it will help them make sense of inexplicable or chaotic things that perplex them, find graceful, effective responses to events where they would currently falter and to feel value, inspiration and motivation in circumstances where they are feeling dull indifference or ugly, debilitating or destructive emotions.

      Even if many philosophers choose to stay technical and make philosophies for other philosophers — totally legitimate — I’d like it if technical innovations found their way to philosophies designed for specific kinds of people in specific kinds of use contexts.

      Thinking of philosophy as a literary genre makes tradeoffs that conceals, rather that reveals or emphasizes philosophy’s potential value in the lives of nonintellectuals.