Category Archives: Geometric Meditations

The Mercury Mikvah

Sometimes if I drink too much scotch I will announce the “I am never drinking ever again for a week.”

An ironic worldview permits statements like this. Why not admit that eternally-binding resolves, while being experienced in the moment as permanent, are, simultaneously, recognized in history/biography as temporary?

I will argue that this kind of ironizing is not only permissible but necessary and good, and supportive of a liberal, pluralistic society.

A pluralist experiences the self-evident truth and goodness of their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions against a deeper ground of myriad others who also experience their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions as self-evidently true and good.

Pluralism includes pluralism of scale. A historically conscious pluralist is aware that the plurality of worldviews exists not only individually, but collectively. It pertains not only to individuals, but to cultures, and to the deep interrelationships between individuals and cultures. Much of what was obviously and indubitably true and good in the past is now, to us, absurd, abhorrent and naive — and most of all to what seemed most certain and foundational. The same thing is certain to happen to our present shared convictions and foundational beliefs.

Pluralism includes pluralism of self in time. A self-aware, apperceptive pluralist will count among the myriad others their own past selves, and recall the fact, even if they cannot fully recall the experiences themselves (including the convictions and their attendant blindnesses, which, once unblinded cannot be re-blinded).

Pushing pluralism of self in time further, the most radical pluralist will count as crucially important their possible future selves. They will recall themselves prior to a past change, taking care to remember what that past self understood “everything” to include, along with the field of possibilities that followed from it. And they will recall the shock of epiphany, of change in worldview, of change in what seemed evident, relevant, possible and permanent. The experiential resources needed to anticipate future transformation are drawn indirectly (and negatively) from experiences of past transformations.

Pluralism is empathic. An empathic pluralist will strain to do full justice to their memories of the in-between of worldviews and stretch it out into its own story, in a progression of anxiety, to aversion, to panic, and finally to perplexity, where orientation, definition, method, logic and words fail. They will never forget why so few willingly immerse in this mercury mikvah — this expanse of the worldless-blinds, the liminal void, the rings of ego-solvent Hadean waters, the churning chrome of “seen” blindness — and why those facing it deserve understanding, if not compassion.

And finally, pluralism is reflexive, symmetric and demanding. A committed pluralist will know, with the intensest irony, that they, most of all, fear reentering liminal perplexity. Even with their experiences of before, during and blissful after, even with their firsthand evidence and insights — they will balk like everyone else when the time comes for them to follow their own advice. Those others — they are the ones who need to go in. But, the pluralist will also know, with all the irony they can intentionally summon, that they must keep going back in, and that their only claim to their own kind of truth and goodness is going back in, despite their already-knowing of everything worth knowing.

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My moral alchemy has its own weird metallurgy which transmutes silver, gold, mercury and iron(y).

Susan’s hope, my hope

Susan keeps asking if there might be an upside to the wokeness convulsion our society is undergoing. She hopes it might inspire people to have conversations they might not have otherwise had and to develop real empathy. I’m pretty sure this hope is an expectation widely shared among progressives.

I think the entire project is deformed by a conceptual solipsism that obstructs engagement with actual individuals. Drawing on Buber’s distinction between the social and the interpersonal — the former being the gamelike, rule-bound, role-bound structured interactions among types, and the latter being the rule-transcending, role-transcending dialogical interaction between persons in pursuit of mutual discovery of the uniqueness concealed within one another.

What our current mood does — and this is my primary objection to it — is politicize the personal by hypersensitizing people to categories (roles) and to impose constantly shifting norms upon interactions (rules) which are treated not as innovations in etiquette, but as universal standards of decency, binding not only in present snd future, but also retroactively. The constant changing of the norms, paired with dire and shameful penalties for violating them, and the fact that changes in rules are enforced retroactively leaves people in such a state of horrible tension, self-consciousness and horror at being judged, that even natural behavior, much less the intimate trust and risk required by dialogue is made nearly impossible.

This blend of deeply uncomfortable emotions is misinterpreted as guilt, or as the necessary pain of transcendence. It is stamped out by same mold Christians use to produce repentance, and this is why many former Christian Fundamentalists have become sucked into Progressivist Fundamentalism: it uses the same intellectual muscle memory.

The “dominant” category is eager to demonstrate extreme submissiveness, and the other will rarely resist the temptation to hubristically inflate to enjoy unchallenged dominance.

It is fascinating how a generation who despises, above all, awkwardness and cringy behavior has managed to produce some of the most unbearable spectacles of obsequiousness this century has seen. Everywhere you look intensely nervous, over-friendly NPR-types frantically smile and build bridges of understanding with POC-types, hoping others see their inspiring act and choose to do likewise. They are so unaccustomed to contact with individual personalities, no doubt they believe in this playacting they met a real person and found a real friend. Given the kind of company they find at work and on social media it probably compares favorably. Clifford Geertz’s description of the Balinese concept of lek comes to mind.

So — returning to Susan’s hope — I think that hope is entirely to her credit, and no doubt, she will fulfill it in her own personal actions — but I think most people will simply use this moment to reinforce their Fundamentalist Progressivist ideologies. They will act out their prescribed roles and they will watch other social actors acting out their parts, and everything will conform to the image of the world-in-their-head.

And anyone who arouses doubt, undermines the faith or defies this image and the Truth Idol who rules over it will be punished as severely as possible.

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But!

I actually have hopes of my own.

(Full disclosure: I am reading Yuval’s beautiful annotated translation of the introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

Though few people understand what philosophy is or what it does, what we are undergoing is a philosophical event.

We are witnessing a mass philosophical crisis and deep philosophical shift. It is nothing less than a mass conversion. The problem is: conversion to what…?

What this mass conversion experience might ultimately accomplish — whether the convert is woke or red-pilled — is to help people see for the first time how much metanoia can transfigure experience, and help them understand how much possibility is buried within the world.

This reality is infinite and positively impregnated with new ways to conceptualize, understand, experience and respond to life!

The trick here will be to pry open the closed circle of ideology and open it out into a spiral capable of revering what is beyond it. This will not be easy: Every new convert naturally views their finding of new truth as ripping aside the Veil of Illusion, revealing the True Truth  glimpsed only by an elect few, and so on.

Every new convert awakes into a dream of buddhahood. Every new convert experiences a glimpse of omniscience, sees the world anew through God’s own eyes and experiences the intoxication of intellectual hubris.

It is a long, slow, humbling process to recognize how common this kind of awakening is, and how rare it is for anyone to want to sober up from the thrilling solipsism of apotheosis. (I call this conversion hubris “misapotheosis“.)

The inflowing glory of conversion, however, is better seen as the effect of allowing a little more of divine reality to flood into our lives — along with the awareness that there is infinitely more, and that this can happen repeatedly if we know how to live by that truth.

There are so many days that have not yet broken. — Rig Veda, via Nietzsche

…And most importantly, we must understand the source of these new truths is the uniqueness of every being — not in its identity with other beings, except in its fundamental belonging to the overarching uniqueness constituted of uniqueness: Adonai Echad.

It is through each of us, in our uniqueness, collaborating with unique others, refracting our being through this strangely overlapping interlapping world of ours that raises our sparks and shows us the value of life.

Consider how every individual is affected by an overall philosophical justification of his way of living and thinking–he experiences it as a sun that shines especially for him and bestows warmth, blessings, and fertility on him, it makes him independent of praise and blame, self-sufficient, rich, liberal with happiness and good will; incessantly it fashions evil into good, leads all energies to bloom and ripen, and does not permit the petty weeds of grief and chagrin to come up at all. In the end then one exclaims: Oh how I wish that many such new suns were yet to be created! Those who are evil or unhappy and the exceptional human being–all these should also have their philosophy, their good right, their sunshine! What is needful is not pity for them!–we must learn to abandon this arrogant fancy, however long humanity has hitherto spent learning and practicing it–what these people need is not confession, conjuring of souls, and forgiveness of sins! What is needful is a new justice! And a new watchword! And new philosophers! The moral earth, too, is round! The moral earth, too, has its antipodes! The antipodes, too, have the right to exist! There is yet another world to be discovered–and more than one! Embark, philosophers! — Nietzsche

Amen.

Meditation on the ten-thousand everythings

….it was said that one god, Hermes Trismegistus, had dictated a variously estimited number of books (42, according to Clement of Alexandria; 20,000, according to Iamblichus; 36,525, according to the priests of Thoth, who is also Hermes), on whose pages all things were written. [Anomalogue: From what I’ve read, Hermes Trismegistus was not a god; the god Hermes is a different being.] Fragments of that illusory library, compiled or forged since the third century, form the so-called Hermetica. In one part of the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille — Alanus de Insulis — discovered this formula which future generations would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” — Borges, “Pascal’s Sphere”

The universe is made entirely of absolutely unique particles, each constituting the very center of the universe. Only from the vantage point of one of these myriad centers can any of the other myriad particles be understood as identical to any of the others.

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“The ten-thousand things” of the Tao Te Ching are also ten-thousand everythings.

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Myriad is a quantitative quality; it means uncountably many. Ten-thousand was traditionally used to represent myriad, but computers have rendered ten-thousand too puny, so now we say zillions or gazillions.

We should not confuse myriad with infinity. Infinity challenges reality at the definitional — de-finition — level, the category level, which alone makes quantity possible. Only a particular viewpoint can render unique things identical.

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Some spiritual people view Liberalism, the coalition of the unique, as shallow and dry, but this has more to do with the prejudices of conventional spirituality than with the depth or richness of Liberalism itself.

The deepest things are cloaked by myopia. Only looking deeply can reveal depth.

—-

Recognizing possibilities of transcendence

There are positive metaphysics which make assertions about reality beyond what can be experienced, and there are negative metaphysics which deny the possibility of making such assertions.

A person who has worked at thinking through problems that started out unthinkable — who had to begin with confronting unthinkability and overcoming it by finding new modes of thinking capable of rendering the unthinkable thinkable — will gradually come to see “beyond experience” differently.

Beyond experience stops being an object of thought, a truth, and rather becomes a zone of indeterminate possibility — with distinctive characteristics one can recognize and about which one can make positive assertions:

  • It compels: we are attracted to it by something within us to transcend our current way of thinking.
  • It repels: the exits from our limitations fill us with anxiety and engulf us in dread.
  • It demands intuition: It can be navigated only by a wordless intelligence that knows, does and values without any ability to explain or justify itself.
  • It demands sacrifice: how we used to think is the chief obstacle to the new way of thinking.
  • It demands rethinking: much of what we once knew will have to be understood anew (metanoia).
  • It generates rebirth: the rethinking changes one’s basic experience of everything, all at once.
  • It is fruitful: it produces new ideas, understandings, interconnections and possibilities that were imperceptible, and in fact, unthinkable prior to transcendence. (Added July 16, 2020. Thanks to Nick Gall.)
  • It increases truth: what came before was not false, but what comes after is more true.
  • It is radically unexpected: with each transcendence truths come into view that were literally unimaginable prior to transcendence.
  • It intensifies expectation: experiencing the radically unexpected assures us that the unimaginable is entirely possible.
  • It is ubiquitous: once we learn to recognize these characteristics, we start noticing them everywhere we look. Existence is pregnant with shocking possibility.

This is why I love philosophy.

This is why I have become religious.

Foregrounds and backgrounds

I am looking in my anomawiki for a quote from Nietzsche about foreground and background philosophies. I am digging through one of the themes I’ve catalogued, “depth“, and noticing — somehow for the first time! — how many of these quotes involve water, and specifically cold water. Reading Nietzsche I slowly discovered a symbolic language — or did I invent it? — It is probably best to say that in experimental interaction with his corpus, I instaurated a certain symbolic language that invests Nietzschean passages with multiple layers of powerfully direct intuitive meaning. (These meanings have been so intense that at the peak of my early Nietzschean encounter, I sometimes got butterflies in my stomach in the evening anticipating waking up the next morning and reading him.) I’ve learned to interpret water as a symbol of chaos, not only in Nietzsche, but also in Jewish scripture, which is why my Hebrew name is Nachshon. Coldness is another symbol, signifying betrayal. Nietzsche speaks often of coldness at the depths and heights. When we immerse in chaos, when we undergo the deepest, most trophonian perplexities, we often find that our own value hierarchies get loosened and shaken up. And when we ascend so far that we can survey a more expansive whole, this can also effect an inner political shift. The valley is temperate and more stable, but Nietzsche’s preferred valleys were near cold lakes and icy peaks, to remind us of our tragic situation between beneath and beyond.

I did not mean to write this much about Nietzsche.

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Here is the quote I was looking for:

The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he [the philosopher] came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

This passage implies that a person can always dig beneath and undermine his own philosophy if he chooses, and raises the question: why don’t we keep digging forever? What are the “stopping conditions”, to put it in wicked problem terms?

My own suspicious stopping point — (and yes, you should ask “why here?”) — is a metaphysics of radical surprise. Due to the relationship between truth and reality, truth is pluralism which “goes all the way down”, that reality is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Truth is the attempt of each center to make sense of the whole — a whole which is constituted entirely of centers. No center can embrace this infinite whole, so we radiate our being outward into the other centers, and they in turn radiate back. The interwoven radiating centers congeal into real situations and overlapping approximate truths, most of which have some validity, and all of which contain significant blindness toward what others know, and which necessarily make tradeoffs, only some of which we are aware. From time to time we are shocked out of our wits by the irruption of some reality for which we are unprepared, and often we have no idea how to make sense of it, unless we actively make that sense. This making of new sense is philosophy.

Some of us even go looking for shocks. We especially seek them when we are dissatisfied. And especially once we learn how easily apparently stable, unquestionable truths can be undermined, and once we learn to handle some of the unpleasant hazards of undermining and gain confidence in our ability to make new sense where we’ve loosened up and broken down old sense, undermining becomes a tool for overcoming some of life’s occasional horrors. In other words we are free to design philosophies that support a life we want. Like all design, philosophy functions in real contexts, must make optimal tradeoffs to meet requirements while respecting constraints, and they will succeed and fail in different ways to different degrees.

My background philosophy tells me that we can and should design our philosophies using all the best practices of human centered design. This is the best we can possibly do. The closest a human being can get to truth is to believe ideas that work well, meaning they help us do what we need to do, they prevent us from feeling perplexed, or getting confused or making mistakes, and they help us feel the value of our lives. (These, by the way are the criteria for good design laid down by Liz Sanders in the most influential paper no designer knows about.) None of these philosophies should be expected to hold up in every possible context and withstand every criticism, and if that becomes our primary goal, it is certain that this all-encompassing generality and well-armed defensibility will demand tradeoffs that will harm a person’s quality of life in innumerable ways. This deeper philosophy is pragmatist through and through, and draws on many strands of pragmatist thought including Actor-Network Theory. I call it design instrumentalism. It is never far from chaos, and dips in and out of perplexity as a matter of method. I can only handle it in small doses. As I was reminded this morning, Nietzsche said “I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out.

My foreground philosophy is what I designed for myself as my everyday conceptual models to shape and guide my understandings. I crystalized them in image and word in Geometric Meditations. The ideas might seem profound, but that is because of their careful design: this philosophy was designed to maintain value-stability ‘warmth” at depths of thought where a soul risks coming apart. That is not to say I do not believe them wholeheartedly, because I do, but I believe them with wholehearted irony, meaning that I see them as some among many ways to make sense. The conceptual models in Geometric meditations function as an interface I intentionally designed to shield me from the instability and complexity of design instrumentalism.

I am sure this has made sense to nobody, but I needed to think it through.

Raw experiential resources for my next book

I am making a list of some strange phenomena which are the daily fare of strategic designers, but which are seldom experienced outside the field, at least not in the way designers experience them. By designers, I mean anyone engaged in human-centered design. These phenomena do not occur at the same intensity and frequency in problems that do not explicitly contend with subjectivity. Designers must live with them at full intensity, for long durations, without any easy escape route. Here is the list, so far:

  • Dependency on conceptual models (which I will just call “models”) to guide the forming of a system that is experienced as clear and coherent to those who participate in them
  • Uncanny difficulties in agreeing on models among members of design teams, which render subjective differences stark
  • Difficulties in interpreting phenomena, and especially subjective phenomena, among different team members
  • Difficulties in weighing design tradeoffs among different team members
  • Existential pain associated with relinquishing (or even temporarily suspending) models that one has adopted — even in order to listen and understand another perspective — a phenomenon that can be called “pluralistic angst”
  • Dependence on profound respect, trust and goodwill among team members to navigate through and out of pluralistic angst
  • Tactics employed by well-intentioned people to avoid the pain and effort required to overcome pluralistic angst
  • The ubiquity and invisibility of models — and the best models are the most ubiquitous and the most invisible — not only in design, but all understanding, which only becomes detectable in pluralistic conflict
  • The miraculous way truths and unnoticed realities leap from nowhere (ex nihilo) when a different model is adopted and used
  • The weird way a change in a sufficiently foundational model can sometimes change (transfigure) the meaning of one’s life as a whole, even when the change is meant only to affect a localized problem
  • The fact that there are no determinate techniques, rules, criteria to overcome pluralistic angst (though there are approaches that can assist the process) — that people are thrown back into their bare unequipped souls to find the resources needed to overcome it together
  • The solidarity among team members which can result from overcoming pluralistic angst with respect, trust and goodwill

Anyone who has been through the harrowing experiences described about enough times 1) to recognize what is happening, 2) to find faith that these things can be overcome, 3) to understand the value of overcoming them, 4) to find the attitude of soul most conducive to overcoming them (which includes grace toward one’s own missteps, doubts and moral failings during the process) might start seeing similar phenomena everywhere, at all scales, from international politics to personal relationships to one’s own inner conflicts. Or, at least this is what happened to me.

I was driven deep into existential philosophy, including phenomenology and hermeneutics then into pragmatism and its offshoots in social science to try to understand the weird kinds of pain I experience as a designer. Philosophy has never been speculative or abstract to me. It is concrete, near and a matter of life and death.

As a result of this search for understanding, I have designed myself conceptual models to help me re-understand the human condition as largely one of conflicting conceptual models.

It is here that it becomes fairly obvious how philosophy and design connect and merge into something inseparable. That is what I plan to write about and publish next, now that I have crystallized my core conceptual models in the form I believe they deserve.

First sixteen copies of Geomentric Meditations

Yesterday, despite UPS’s best efforts I managed to get both boxes of the printed spreads of Geometric Meditations. I unpacked and organized the components, and assembled the first sixteen copies. I gave the first three copies to Susan, Zoë and Helen. I put the fourth in my library, in the religion section with the Kabbalah books. This is a book I’ve wanted in my library for a long time.

The process of making these books is labor intensive. Here’s the process:

  1. Collate the signature from six separate stacks of spreads.
  2. Fold each sheet.
  3. Use template to punch three holes (for sewing) through the signature fold.
  4. Measure 14″ of red waxed linen thread and thread it through the bookbinding needle.
  5. Starting from the top hole in the spine sew the signature, using a figure-eight pattern.
  6. Tie off the top and trim the threads evenly.
  7. With a craft knife (#11 Olfa) trim top and bottom edges in .75″.
  8. Trim outer edge in .75″.

I’m working on methods to streamline production, but it is still time-consuming.

If you receive a copy of this book, please take care of it. In each book is fifteen years of intense thinking, hands-on use and iterative design, five years of obsessive writing, rewriting and editing, one year of final editing and design tweaking, two months of production work and about half an hour of handcraft.

I made everything as beautiful as I could, and I am uneasily pleased with how it turned out.

Whitehead and Peirce

Currently I’m reading David Ray Griffin’s Whitehead’s Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy after more or less giving up on Stengers’s more playful and imaginative, but tragically francofuzzled, Whitehead introduction. Griffin’s is far more straightforward and clarifying, and that is what I am after.

One of the central ideas in this book is prohibition of philosophical performative contradictions., or as Griffin summarizes it: “…it is antirational to deny in theory ideas that one necessarily presupposes in practice is that one thereby violates the first rule of reason, the law of noncontradiction. It is irrational simultaneously to affirm and deny one and the same proposition. And this is what happens when one denies a hard-core commonsense idea. That is, one is denying the idea explicitly while affirming it implicitly. This point has been made by Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas in their critique of “performative contradiction,” in which the very act of performing a speech act contradicts its semantic content, its meaning.”

This reminds me of a passage from Charles Sanders Peirce’s seminal Pragmatist essay “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities Claimed For Man”: “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”

But there are interesting differences between Whitehead’s and Peirce’s objections to skepticism to commonsense beliefs. Whitehead saw self-contradictions, where Peirce saw counterfeit beliefs in the form of theoretical assertions. Both saw a peeling apart of the theoretical snd practical.

My view on this emphasizes the morality of denial: In most of these denials of commonsense I see an attempt at solipsism. Some claim of reality transcending mind is dismantled and reduced to a mental phenomenon that can be accepted or rejected at the discretion of the thinker. This desire to solipsize what is mind-transcendently real is the active ingredient of evil. Life requires small doses of such solipsism to shelter us from the overwhelming dread of infinity, but when philosophies move from emphasis and deemphasis to ontological negation, this should be taken as a possible symptom of autoapotheosis, the desire to mistake ourselves for God, the ultimate failure of philosophy, theology, which manifests itself as ideology.

Publication of Geometric Meditations

I am sending Geometric Meditations to the printer this weekend. I have continued to tweak the layout in vanishingly minuscule ways. Just about every word, every punctuation mark and every line break has been inspected, varied, experimented with, obsessed over.

I am posting what I think will be the final version which will be printed. If anyone happens to look at it and finds a mistake or flaw, please alert me. I know it cannot be perfect, but I’m pushing it as far in that direction as I can.

Once Susan gives it the last pass on Saturday and approves it, I am bundling it up and sending it off. I’m told the printing takes about fifteen days. After that, I will be hand-sewing each copy, and giving them to the people who participated in the development of the concepts and the design of the book.

Continue reading Publication of Geometric Meditations

Extending the autism spectrum

I see the autism spectrum as one half of a much longer spectrum, one that runs from the extreme pole of full autism (mind-blindness to others) to full borderline (mind-blindness to oneself).

A person (or group) unbalanced toward the autism end of this enlarged spectrum will proudly refuse to care what anyone else thinks. A person (or group) unbalanced toward the borderline end will feel existentially threatened by the thoughts of others, because the thoughts of others is the sole source of selfhood for the borderline personality.

The ideal, of course is the middle region, where we are aware of what others are thinking, feeling and intending, but we remain rooted in what we ourselves think, feel and intend. Even when we consider changing our views, we do so as ourselves, making an evaluation and decision.

This ideal is represented in my Geometric Meditations book in the symbol of the spiral.

 

 

Book

I’ve contacted some letterpress printers about making my pamphlet, which used to be titled The 10,000 Everythings, but has been sobered up into Geometric Meditations, which is a more precise description of how I use the content of the book.

One printer has responded so far, and suggested some changes that seems to have improved it. I looked at the book again this morning, and I am still happy with it, so it must really be ready. There is only one word in the book that I’m not sure about.

I am producing it as a chapbook, sewn together with red thread, signifying both Ariadne’s thread as well as the Kabbalistic custom of typing a red thread around one’s left wrist to protect from the evil eye. Both are intensely relevant to this project. I have to remember how much I use these diagrams to generate understandings and to keep myself oriented. It is the red thread that connects all my thoughts. So the utility and value of the ideas is beyond doubt. It is true that the form does look and sound somewhat pompous, but it is the best (prettiest and most durable) form for these concepts, so I have to ignore my anxiety about scorn and ridicule from folks who know too little or two much (a.k.a. “evil eye”). At least one angle of understanding yields value, and hermeneutical decency requires that it be read from that angle.

I am incredibly nervous about putting this book out there. I am guessing I’ll just box all the copies up and hide them with my Tend the Root posters.

Divine trigger

Other minds are our most accessible source of divine alterity, of the accessibly alien, but for this very reason our most intrusive source of dread.

The accessibly alien is a thin dark ring of potential-understanding separating the bright spark of understanding from the infinite expanse of blindness beyond understanding, which some people call “absurd”, others call “mystery”, and others call “nothing”.

As long as we discuss common objects, the things standing around us illuminated by our common understandings. we seem alike. We come from the same place, we want similar things, and we live together peacefully as neighbors.

But when we try to share what is nearest to us with our nearest neighbor the divine alterity shows. As distance diminishes, our innerness — the source of illumination that gives our knowledge meaning — burns with intolerable blinding intensity, and the light it radiates turns strange, hinting in a way that cannot be doubted how much deeper, wider, denser, inexhaustible and incomprehensible reality is, and how thin and partial even the most thorough knowledge is. Too much is exposed. Perplexity engulfs us, and anxiety floods in.

Our stomachs drop, our chests tighten and burn, acid rises in the backs of our throats. Our alarms go off, and the talk will be made to stop. Only the most trusting love and disciplined faith will pull us across the estrangement. This is what it takes to raise two divine sparks.

To many of us this dread seems a mortal threat. And we are right in a sense.

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 well 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 bask in singular, 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?”