All posts by anomalogue

The pluralism of design instrumentalism

Because design instrumentalism views knowledge as a result of conceptualizations of perceptions of particular experiences — that is, as a product of one of myriad possible praxes capable of producing different and even conflicting truths — with a particular set of design tradeoffs — that is, with varying degrees of descriptive, predictive, prescriptive, logical, practical, valuative and social adequacy — and, further, because some designs truly are better than others — that is, they make fewer tradeoffs overall, or solve particular relevant problems far better than expected — faced with an stubborn and morally-charged controversy a design instrumentalist is more likely to attempt to resolve the impasse with intellectual reframing than direct argument for one or another position within the current conflict.

And intellectual reframing is just another word for philosophizing — finding our way out of the current conceptualizations that make agreement impossible, into that uncanny shadowy region where words provide little help, and tacit thought must grope its way by smell, touch and tone through perplexity from one end to the other, out into the new light, where new ways of understanding are possible, and different ideas with different tradeoffs, perhaps acceptable or even inspiring to a wider range of people, can be produced.

(There are some folks out there who are averse to such reframing and from inability or unwillingness cannot bring themselves to cooperate with it. In design workshops, I can spot them from across the room. They alternate between sitting and crossing their arms and leaning aggressively forward, pushing the obvious truth, insisting that people show how the idea or objection they are asserting is false. They are suspicious of reframing, seeing it as a last resort to use only after existing theories have been shown to be nonviable. They often see themselves as hard-nosed rationalists, proud to set aside personal feelings so that objective truth can be served. That people like this can also, with equal inflexible fervor adhere to magical religious beliefs appears as contradictory to some conceptions of religion, but not to mine: rigid rationalism paired with metaphysical otherworldism go together in certain souls like two wings on a bird. Through various wily tricks of the design trade I keep people like this separated from from where collaboration is trying to emerge, because they make conception of truly new ideas impossible.)

Design Instrumentalism

The best name for my approach to philosophy might be Design Instrumentalism, a variant of John Dewey’s Instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,

Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Design Instrumentalism differs from Dewey’s Instrumentalism in that it focuses on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and to be evaluated by design standards, such as Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable:

  • How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
  • How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
  • How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?

Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should not be viewed as collections beliefs, but rather the fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention,  guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive worldview and praxis.

Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it all solid, persuasive and boring to rehash. I prefer to just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.

This is a good start of a list of Pragmatic presuppositions. I’m guessing some are missing, and many more could arguably be included. Phenomenology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Materiality Turn philosophies and, at least for me, Nietzschean ethics also figure heavily, but I’ll err toward underspecification to leave maximum room for variety.

One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like all ambitious philosophies, a meta-philosophy. It might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers, but it encourages the design of philosophies for those who do not find Design Instrumentalism itself valuable, and focused “single-use” philosophies for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of design problems.

Doing just this kind of reframing in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is exactly what drove me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.

Wordless ground of meaning

When we say we know what something is, or know how to do something, or know why something is valuable or worthless we implicitly assume we understand what it means to know these things. But how sure can we be of this?

Are we sure we understand exhaustively what understanding is and can be? Are we sure we know what understanding does and can do? Without a full set of possibilities to consider, can we claim to have a clear sense of what it ought to be like to understand? And what if multiple distinct ways of knowing exist — ways that can be confused for one another, leading to misapplications, misunderstandings or even misnorms?

I will claim below that we have impoverished and unclear understandings of understanding. My claim is based, not on speculation or empty abstraction, but on personal experience working in the field of design, and it is this experience that gives the claim and its constituent concepts meaning and urgency. Over and over, I have found that misconceptions around understanding and knowledge to interfere with the work of improving understandings and producing more effective knowledge. This is an attempt to create and justify conceptual space for a wider range of intellectual functioning, including, most of all functioning that is palpably real, demonstrably effective (when permitted to act) but profoundly language-resistant:


First, we tend to emphasize explicit knowledge that is readily articulated, operationalized and agreed upon. This is done, I believe, at the expense of tacit, primordial, intuitive understandings that invest explicit knowledge with meaning, that allow us to inhabit the knowledge and have real mastery of a field or subject or genre.

We assume that if someone can clearly explain a practice that they have demonstrated an expertise that can be applied in practice, and that if someone has difficulty explaining how they do something, they do not know what they are doing. In both is an implied belief that language is directing one’s activities. But what if the know-how of explaining is one thing and the know-how of doing is another? And what if the meaning of the explicit explanation is predicated entirely on a tacit know-how (or do-how?), one that is not some latently explicit knowledge that, with effort, can be brought to the surface, but rather as a primary source of competence, one that is supplemented or equipped by explicit, formal language (verbal, mathematical, geometrical or otherwise) but never dispensable?

The same is true of valuing, whether emotional, moral or aesthetic. Often we assume unconscious principles or logical processes are working behind the scene to produce our valuative responses. A person who can say what these principles are or produce arguments for applying them in some particular way, must have clearer discernment of value. But again, what if the valuative response — a know-why (or feel-why?) — is primary? What if value is perceived directly or not at all, and explanations, accounts and expressions are supplements to something preceding them that cannot be replaced with principles or logic, which alone give these supplemental forms meaning? In value, if you don’t actually experience the value, you do not know the value in the way value is known. With love, “to know is to love.”

Last, perhaps even conceptual knowledge is like practices and values in that it is rooted in some kind of tacit response that produces awareness of relationships? A sort of analogical intuition, a wordless recognition, underlies the ability to make any kind of abstract connection and to speak about it, or respond to it. This is a tacit form of know-what. It is entirely possible to detect relationships prior to applying categories or articulating criteria. Without this relating, all categorizing by criteria is a mechanical formalism. It is abstraction in the worst sense of the word — language games conducted in mid-air, uprooted from the wordless ground of meaning.

Perhaps “wordless ground of meaning” provides a clue to account for why experience is so hard to encapsulate directly. We have to indicate it indirectly by telling origin stories of life paths, or show what it has done and can do through lists of accomplishments, or we sense it in the liveliness, skillfulness or gravity of actions, words or works. When I use the word, experience, of course what I really mean is wisdom — a fund of tacit know-what, do-how, feel-why that invests words, actions and responses to life situations with immediate significance.


Second, each of these kinds of understanding, these primary intuitions, ways of knowing, can take one another as objects, which makes them easy to confuse.

For the sake of comprehension I will call them intuition of What, How and Why.

(Unfortunately, this What-How-Why triad is already in prominent use elsewhere, but for different uses and in a different relation. This line of thought does not build on the other, and it will be necessary to at least temporarily forget the other system to understand this one. It does not build upon it, and might even be incommensurate with it, despite using the same three words. They’re the best words for the purpose, however, so I am using them.)

And for grammatical reasons I can’t explain or excuse, the “objects” are verbs… An intuition of What or How or Why can apply to whatness (as “is”), or to howness (as “can”) or to whyness (as “ought”), producing strange hybrids that are easily mistaken for one another. And to make it even worse, the hybrids can take other hybrids as objects, and produce long chains of associations. This is my explanation for the confusions I described above. Knowing how to speak about concepts describing how something is done (speaking expertly about expertise) is confused for the expertise itself. Mastering the vocabulary and rules of a language game is one thing, intuitively connecting the language to what it signifies is quite another, as many perplexed newly graduated scholars will tell you, if they’re honest.

Defining primary (What, How, Why) and secondary (What is, What can, What ought, How can, How ought, How is, Why ought, Why is, Why can) should at least create some distinctions to untangle what can and cannot be expected from the various forms of knowledge.


Finally, there exist some vivid experiences that occur when we lack an understanding and are unable to use a counterfeit. These experiences also need names. I call an incapacity to intuit What perplexity, and incapacity to intuit How faltering, and incapacity to intuit Why indifference. These, too, should aid in sorting out what kind of understanding is operative and inoperative in any given situation.


The above could serve as an explanation of my obscure as hell trefoil diagram and its attendant prose poem delucidations from my Geometric Meditations pamphlet, formerly known as The 10,000 Everythings.

Collaborative agon

It’s difficult, painful and uncanny to argue across fundamentally different worldviews. Not everyone can do it and even fewer will do it. It requires collaborative agon, and too much desire to avoid conflict or to make one’s own position prevail will destroy the conditions of success.

Recognizing a conflict that requires collaborative agon and conducting oneself accordingly is an essential dimension of reason, albeit an uncommon dimension, and entirely outside the limits of reasonable discourse for those who cannot imagine that all disagreements are not a matter of evidence and logic, nor is it a last resort to employ only after evidence and logic are exhausted.

Respect: experiences, versus interpretations of experiences, versus…

I listen to other people speak of their experiences, and I also listen to their explanations of their experiences. The former is privileged knowledge: respect entails belief in the other’s testimony. The latter is not: our explanations for the experience belong to our own theories founded in our own philosophies. And here respect entails allowing each individual to hold their own beliefs on what caused the private experience.

Perhaps these two respects deserve different names.


If you experience God speaking directly into your ear, I must respect your testimony or risk disrespecting you — but you must respect my interpretation of your testimony or risk disrespecting me.


If my child throws a fit, I must believe she is experiencing real distress or I am failing as a parent — but I must interpret that distress and respond to it as an adult parent or I am failing in a different, perhaps worse way — a way that neglects the obligation of parents to teach their children to interpret their own emotions and to respond to them in a socially reasonable way.


What should these differing forms of respect be called?

  1. The respecting of direct testimony of experience, taken on faith as true.
  2. The respecting of interpretation of experience, taken as one of a plurality of arguable truths.

There is a third respect I have not mentioned, one in which I might be deficient. This is respect for rigorous comparison of experiences (at least empirical, sharable experiences) and interpretations (at least interpretations that are strictly logical) and their consequences, which means abandoning one’s favored interpretations when another is shown to have more explanatory power. This would probably be called scientific respect. Or… (see below) positivistic respect…?

But, then, there is the respect for precisely those experiences that are least sharable and conclusions that are reasonable but not determined by any logic fed by empirical data, one that recognizes that relevance is a function of framing and that reality infinitely exceeds our perception, conception, comprehension and understanding, and when reality is beyond not only our grasp but even our our touch, it is indistinguishable from nothingness — not that dark nothingness that announces its present absence with a shadow, but that absent absence, the blind nothing that looks like the expected somethings, the reality that can stare directly into each of our pupils and breathe the air directly from our nostrils, unperceived, undetected, unsuspected.

Some assertions are experiential, some interpretive, some positivistic, and these deserve their own kind of respect, but some assertions are none of these and aim at what is beneath and beyond all of them together — and this commands an enforceable philosophical respect. Or is it religious respect?

Foucault on episteme

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

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

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

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

Respecting vs respectability

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Solid-gold inspiration

Anxiety is an unpleasant type of inspiration.


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


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


What does it mean to follow the Golden Rule deeper?

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

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

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

Clearly, we must mine deeper.

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


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

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


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

Everything, literally.


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


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

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


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


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

Is Sagmeister a designer?

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

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

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

And what about engineering?

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

Expertise versus philosophy

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

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

Two definitions of justice

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


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

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

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

Ex post facto justice

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

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

Alienated in analogy

Foucault, from The Order of Things:

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

Received self-contempt of the receptive

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

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