Category Archives: Wheel

Topics and subjects

I wish I could send Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces back in time to my 33-year-old self. Based on one comment (which I still despise), I’ve had Campbell totally wrong, but this is unsurprising if you remember how etic reading-about/knowing-about is never the same as emic reading/knowing. The former is knowing about a topic, the latter is knowing a subject. Subject here is meant in every sense of the word. Objects are known. Subjects are known-from.

Joseph Campbell (and some weird rambling)

Joseph Campbell’s most famous quote, “follow your bliss”, might really have been a careless remark of an old man, far past his prime. For years I refused to take Campbell seriously, and even posed him against an antithetical motto, “follow your angst.” But reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I do not see any hint of facile hedonism, and substantial evidence of tragic insight. He’s another of those thinkers whose Nietzschean inspiration shows through in every sentence he wrote.

If I’d read this book back in 2004, at the height of my mandala obsession, he would have been one of my heroes, because his theme of the hero’s journey is just looping and relooping the path from West to North to East to South and back again to West (or, alternatively, as discussed in the chapter I’m on currently, “refusing the call” and trying to loop back from West to South and paying the steep price for exalting base things over higher destinies. “One is harassed, both day and night, by the divine being that is the image of the living self within the locked labyrinth of one’s own disoriented psyche. The ways to the gates have all been lost: there is no exit. One can only cling, like Satan, furiously, to one­ self and be in hell; or else break, and be annihilated at last, in God.”)

I don’t think it is any accident that my thoughts are returning to the themes of the early-aughts, because events in my life are feeling like they are rounding a circle and bringing me back to where I was. For one thing, my company has relocated to the same neighborhood where I worked from 2003-2007, and I have returned to cycling the same path to work. Seeing the same scenes has recalled vivid images and I’m accessing memories of thoughts and feelings from that time. Another thing: A generous gift of tea a friend brought home from her travels to the East has inspired me to replace a broken teapot I’d purchased in one of the Chinatowns North of Toronto on a very dark, dry-frozen winter day at the tail-end of 2002. I remember the drive, looking out at myriad identical gray brutalist apartments standing in gray slush under a gray sky against gray air. The gloomy glory of this memory was condensed for me into a yellow, speckled teapot we bought in the tiny tea shop we’d set out that day to find. When the pot was smashed exactly three years later on the way out the door to visit family on Christmas, it had acquired a ruddy glaze from the accumulated layers of tea that had been poured over it in the course of gongfu tea service. The taste of Alishan oolong, and thinking about this legendary lost teapot places me in 2002 and 2003, which was the pivot-point of my life. There are other things, too. Susan has had an awakening of her own, and I am finally having the kind of conversation I’ve desperately needed (begged for, on occasion) for the last sixteen years. Finally — and maybe most crucially — I feel a work-induced crisis nearing. The same weight, the same claustrophobia, the same profound boredom mixed with intense anxiety of the least productive kind, impending soul-balk… I can feel it: there is going to be a summons.

Reading Campbell and John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion, I’m gaining some still inchoate insight into what is common and what differs between my understanding of religion and other attempts at viewing religion from a non-superstitious angle. Campbell is typical of his times in that he wants to explain the force of religious insight in psychological terms. Hick is less obvious at this point, but I’m detecting an opportunity to “replatform” his comparisons and contrasts of varying religious traditions on a material-turn-informed metaphysics, which I find incredibly difficult to doubt, and only slightly challenging as more nourishing ground for religious faith and practice. I’m sure when I’m done I’ll discover that I’ve only rethought Whitehead and reinstaurated Process Theology, but that’s just how the humiliating method of philosophy works.

I’ve said this a zillion times, and they might even be my own words: Philosophy is an exercise in humiliation.

Philosophical insights can only be known firsthand. Whatever symbols are used in an attempt to convey an insight, they remain incomprehensible until the epiphany comes and insight breathes life into the forms. But when epiphany comes — and it comes only when it decides to, perhaps long after words are heard — you are always the original discoverer of the insight, the first to really understand. If you like that feeling, to the degree you are impervious to loneliness, you are perfectly free to remain a solitary genius forever.

That’s what’s on my mind today.

Reasons to love design research

Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.

These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.

Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:

  1. Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means  that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
  2. Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
  3. Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)

 

Facets of empathy

Working in design research, empathy is one of our primary tools. Reflective practitioners quickly learn where they and their teammates have strengths and weaknesses using empathy to produce understanding.

Continuing this week’s trend of identifying distinctions and creating categories, here’s a list of skills associated with what is commonly called “empathy” and what I prefer to call synesis, which is a form of interpersonal understanding that emphasizes worldviews as much as feelings and which sees understanding, not so much as a receptive act, but as an collaborative instauration (discovering-making) between persons (researcher and informant) within a situation.

  • Reception – detecting signals from an informant that something requires understanding that is not yet understood
  • Reaction – controlling one’s behaviors to permit or encourage signals to emerge
  • Perception – interpreting the signals and sensing what they signify from the perspective of the informant — feeling-with or seeing-with, using whatever immediate signals are available to the researcher
  • Constraint – suspending one’s own perspective in order to make space for the informant’s understanding
  • Response – interacting with the informant to spiral in on understanding whatever truth the informant is trying to convey
  • Immersion – developing a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview and “entertaining” it, or “trying it on” through detecting the validity in the informant’s truths
  • Application – using a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview to participate in understanding with the informant — to attempt understanding of the situation at hand and explaining it in the informant’s terms
  • Approval – iteratively testing applications of understanding with the informant, and continuing to test applications of the informant’s worldview until the explanations are accepted and confirmed by the informant
  • Conception – clarifying, articulating and internalizing the informant’s perspective in terms of other perspectives
  • Collaboration – dialogically working with researchers and informants to craft new concepts capable of earning approval from all persons involved

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From this, you can see why the emphasis on emotions — pathos — in the word “empathy” strikes me as impoverished. Synesis (together-being) is a far better word, especially when you take it in the two-fold sense I prefer:

  1. It is putting together the experiences of a situation so they make sense (understanding a situation)
  2. It is using the pursuit of understanding a situation to develop understanding between persons.

So, yes, sensing and feeling the emotions of other’s or intuitively grokking their mindset are crucial skills required for understanding, but empathy must not be confused with understanding. It is only a necessary starting point. Further effort and deeper insights are required to develop empathy into genuine understanding.

Vibes

Are souls body-size? Are souls ghostly bodies that fit inside the silhouettes of the bodies they haunt and animate? Most of us assume it, even if — or maybe especially when — we don’t look for alternative understandings.

I definitely used to assume this stance toward minds, souls, spirits. I no longer find it persuasive. In fact, I see it as our primary source of political dysfunction and increasing difficulty collaborating on improving our lives together.

What follows is a series of unsubstantiated statements about souls. These are offered for the sake of entertainment, in the sense of “entertain a possibility.” Try these ideas on, and see if they coalesce and help explain phenomena that have defied explanation or articulation, or if they bring realities to life that seemed nonexistent before.

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  • Every soul is universe-size.
  • Every soul has a certain rhythmic density, determined by where it sees reality and relevance.
  • Every soul overlaps other souls and shares a world to the degree they “coincide” in matters that matter in common, whether those matters are material or otherwise.
  • This overlapping, partial coinciding of souls is at one reason why we speak of other people’s “vibrations” or frequencies: we pick up on whether another person’s pattern of relevance reinforces ours or interferes causing them to miss the point of what we see, feel, do and say, and to see relevance where we don’t (what we see as trivial or pointless) and to get worked up about things that we believe don’t matter or don’t exist. A radically different pattern of relevance can cause someone to ignore the reality of our existence at all, or to skip over the fact of our own existence as an irrelevant bit of irritating noise or as an unsuspected nothingness concealed in a scotoma between the beats of their awareness.
  • Respect is nearly automatic when our soul is tuned the same as another, when harmonious belief is natural.
  • Respect is difficult when our tunings are different and we find ourselves marching to different drums, interfering with one another’s visions of life, working at cross-purposes, when we find other people… a bit off. Why would we attempt to acquire respect for someone who is maybe not respectable, who maybe doesn’t respect us? We ask: “What’s in it for me to change my understanding?”

Trading off trade-offs

One of the most interesting tensions in design, and the one least accepted by novice designers is trade-offs. Everything we choose to include as a consideration in design comes at the cost of an excluded competing consideration.

But against the tension of trade-offs is another tension: a) to solve the problem right away with this current framing of the problem, which necessitates these trade-off choices, or b) to search for a new framing that might put more considerations into harmony rather than into conflict and require fewer significant trade-offs.

This kind of reframing can occasionally produce the kind of miracles executives demand when they “push teams past their limits”. Sadly, the kinds of executives who tend to do this kind of aggressive pushing prefer to credit the miracles to the belligerent refusal to accept trade-offs, rather than to the reframing that really produces them.

And in the majority of cases where teams are pushed this way, especially when reframing is undermined through shifting goals or demands to show constant evidence of progress, the refusal to accept trade-offs forces the least acceptable trade-off of all. Good design is traded off for all-inclusiveness.

The odor of burning rubber

When thinking about truth, we expect both clarity and effectiveness. These qualities are so expected, in fact, that they serve as criteria for truth. If they are present we assume what we think is true, and if we are surrounded by people thinking the same way we might even succumb to certainty.

Certainty is comfortable. We tend to try to stay in situations where we feel we know what is true, or at least have a gist of truth. Most of us, who work at living normal, orderly, productive lives, mostly succeed most of the time.

The life of a strategic designer is not like this. Strategic designers are routinely asked to help organizations innovate. This requires framing or reframing problems: re-conceptualizing known truths, or making sense of chaotic situations nobody understands or resolving conflicts where incompatible, incommensurable visions collide.

Working to discover/make (instaurate) a concept that manages to produce all three qualities at once — clarity, effectiveness and consensus — is tricky work. Normally it is necessary to try on and discard multiple framings that only produce only one or two of these qualities before one comes along the fully resolves the problem.

This process is instructive if we are observant and ready to meta-reframe what we think is going on. In other words, this activity of frame instauration can produce philosophical shifts. These experiences and my attempts to account for them have shifted my own understanding of pretty much everything.

What have I taken from all this shifting? First, I know what it is like to shift between frames. I know what it does to my experience of whatever problematic situation I am trying to understand and I know what it can do to my experience of the world, instantly, all at once, as a whole. I also know what it is like to do without a frame, and the harrowing things that does to my experience of the world. I am used to radical surprise, of having (literally) inconceivable possibilities become conceivable, and along with it all kinds of ideas that were standing in front of my face, invisible, staring me in the eyes while I was rooting around in the shadows for knowable unknowns. I have a very vivid sense of pluralism, and of a transcendent ground from which truth in all its pluralistic glory emerges.

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An urgent question to ask: If an explanation is clear and effective why would anyone refuse to accept it?

A better reframing of this question is: What good reasons might a person have for refusing to accept a clear and effective explanation?

This question becomes even more effective if it is asked from a pluralistic perspective, assuming that multiple true answers are always possible because questions can be framed myriad ways.

What follows below is my answer to this question.

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It is important to us that our truths are clear; that is, they give us the means to think about our situations. This means, first, being able to ask a question that can be answered. Not knowing an answer to a question can be frustrating, but at least we know what the problem is. Perplexity, the incapacity to find the relevant question in the face of a crisis, is unbearable, when this happens we become anxious that we do not have the truth.

It is important to us that our truths are effective; that is, they work properly, orienting us to the situations we find ourselves in and enabling us to anticipate and respond to what is going on. If we lose this ability and we are constantly surprised and our responses falter we begin to suspect that we do not have the truth.

It is tempting to settle with truths that are both clear and effective, and for a long time many of us have, on principle, rejected all truth criteria but these. But there is another criterion that is just as important: it is importance itself.

It is important to us that our truths are significant; that is they make our situation important to us, and inspire us to care about it, whether caring means loving or hating, embracing or opposing. If we lose the capacity to sense significance in our situation we will become indifferent, and here we ought to learn to suspect that whatever truth we have is not worth keeping.

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I know a lot of people right now who feel irritated, agitated and dissatisfied. If they are not angry or sensorily stimulated or intoxicated, they are just blank in a horrible way.

These same people are certain they know the truth, and everyone they know agrees with them that they know the truth, and part of the truth they know is that philosophy is an inferior precursor to science, or a highfalutin substitute for religion. It never occurs to them to think about how they think, because they already know that is a dead end.

Besides, they know the real cause of their misery: wicked oppressors.

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I heard somewhere that when we lose our sense of smell, we do not simply smell nothing. We smell something resembling burning rubber. It drives people into depression and sometimes to suicide.

Perhaps the moral blankness we don’t feel when we lose the capacity to sense importance is like the burning rubber we don’t smell when we lose our sense of importance.

 

Mathematician’s faith

From Isabelle Stengers’s Thinking With Whitehead (bold mine)

Thinking with Whitehead today therefore means accepting an adventure from which none of the words that serve as our reference points should emerge unscathed, but from which none will be disqualified or denounced as a vector of illusion. All are a part of the problem, whether they refer to the whys of human experience or to the hows of “objective reality.” If compromise solutions do not suffice, it is because they try to circumvent the problem instead of raising it; that is, they try to mitigate the contra­dictions and to make compatible that which defines itself as conflictual. Whitehead was a mathematician, and mathematicians are they who do not bow down before contradictions but transform them into an ingredi­ent of the problem. They are the ones who dare to “trust” in the possibil­ity of a solution that remains to be created. Without this “trust” in a pos­sible solution, mathematics would not exist.

This truth is the one William James called faith or belief, his only an­swer when confronted by those who have declared that life is not worth living, “the whole army of suicides (…) an army whose roll-call, like the famous evening gun of the British army, fo llows the sun round the world and never terminates.” It has nothing in common with what I would call, to underline the difference, “to be confident,” that is, to continue, to carry on in the mode of “everything will work out fine.” The mathematician’s trust is inseparable from a commitment not to mu­tilate the problem in order to solve it and to take its demands fully into account. Yet it implies a certain deliberate amnesia with regard to the obviousness of obstacles, an active indetermination of what the terms of the problem “mean.” Transferred to philosophy, this indetermination means that what announced itself as a foundation, authorizing a position and providing its banner to a cause, will be transformed into a constraint, which the solution will have to respect but upon which it may, if neces­sary, confer a somewhat unexpected signification.

It is funny that Stengers calls this a mathematician’s trust and views it as a characteristic that can be transferred to philosophy. I see this faith as the essence of philosophy (I wrote “dialectical imagination” in the margin of the page) and the element of  intellectual creativity common to problem-solving in any field.

It is certainly crucial to design innovation, and it is finding conditions favorable to it — the right level of desperation (which translates to willingness to trust), the right collaborators (who share this faith), the right deadlines and pace — that separates great design projects from dull ones.

It is also the difference between tedious debates and true collaborative dialogue: Do both parties have faith that another conception of a problem can yield radically new solutions — and actively prefer pursuing this utterly inconceivable, imperceptible, utter nothingness of an impossibility in the face of the most extreme anxiety? Or do they demand exhaustive disproof of all existing hypotheses prior to submitting unwillingly to some futile search for who-knows-what by some mysterious method nobody seems able to explain much less codify? The latter attitude make philosophical friendship impossible (and for those few capable of philosophy, taking this stance, in fact, is to refuse friendship). I feel like I need to add this softening qualification: Luckily, many other forms of friendship exist besides philosophical friendship.

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I have wedded this “mathematician’s faith” (or dialectical imagination) with a religious faith that perceives infinite importance in the exercise (especially collaborative exercise) of dialectical imagination, for the sake of deepening relationship with that who cannot be conceptualized — of transcendence. I have a simple word for the instinct that drives of this collaborative exercise: love.

This latter faith, the faith that there is better, and that better is tied to our relationship with realities beyond our sphere of understanding, and that this relationship involves other people is why I call myself a religious person.

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It is clear that I have to understand Whitehead.

 

Faith space

Normally I don’t publish this kind of disorganized mess, but today I feel compelled to reflect on what feels like a constricting world, where liberal space from others is increasing scarce.

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A person’s beliefs are not the same as that person’s faith.

Here is why I make the distinction: Beliefs are the product of innumerable choices, guided by attitudes that precede belief. The attitudes manifest primarily as our intuitions of relevance and value, and they pre-consciously influence what we are inclined to regard with interest or complacence, what we accept or question, what we embrace or push away.

Our practical responses are similarly guided. We are pre-consciously inclined to behave in particular ways to different kinds of beings and situations.

Before birth, long before we think or begin making conscious choices, a complex feedback process of perceiving, reacting, recognizing, responding has begun, and this process simultaneously produces us as people and our situation as the world we inhabit and the relationship between enworlded self and the world in which the self emerges is faith.

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The best conversations sound out harmonies and cacophonies among faiths, faiths felt to inhabit an impossibly deep, dense, vast reality — a reality which monotheists like to emphasize as one, which polytheists like to emphasize as plural, and which pluralists like emphasize as simultaneously plural and unified.

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When talking with people of other religions I often detect a shared faith, even despite divergent beliefs. They’re “coming from a good place.” Or their “hearts are in the right place.” This place is what I call faith. And the goodness and rightness seems for me to have much to do with a desire for more than what their beliefs can grasp or possess. This is what I experience as liberal, and, for me, it has less to do with what one confesses or professes, and more to do with hospitality, mobility and spaciousness of soul.

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It is not enough to be a mystic, to believe that there is more, to sense that that a beyond exists. It is necessary to desire it and want more and more of it, even though that means almost renunciation of many mystic virtues. A liberal soul does not have special divinatory or gnostic powers, or some special relationship with god that makes one immune to vulnerability, loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty or forsakenness. A liberal at heart might be a mystic turned inside out — …