Category Archives: Judaism

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.

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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.

Letter to an angry friend

One reason I have chosen to be Jewish is because the Jewish people has been on both sides of power so many times. This back-and-forth experience is instructive. The change from being dominated to being the dominator is a shock — the totality of being transfigures, apparently permanently. But then dominator becomes dominated, and, shockingly, the totality transfigures again.

If this keeps happening, and a people is miraculously able to survive it, it has a chance to start making connections between these two pseudo-omniscient states and working these insights into its tradition. From where I stand at this point in my life this is the kind of wisdom I care about most.

People often think the goal of spiritual pursuits is apotheosis. I see overcoming apotheosis as more difficult and valuable. Being of God, within God, toward God, without accidentally becoming God, or falling into Godless nihilism, or (as so often happens) doing both simultaneously, is devilishly difficult. 

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other : ‘The world was created for me.'”

Gospel Pharisee

“I no longer know how from that I came to speak of Jesus and to say that we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him. ‘In a way that remains inaccessible to you’ — so I directly addressed the former clergyman. He stood up, I too stood, we looked into the heart of one another’s eyes. ‘It is gone,’ he said, and before everyone we gave one another the kiss of brotherhood.” — Martin Buber, Between Man and Man

In even the best Christian writing, for instance, Bruno Latour’s religious essays, I am frequently frustrated by a view of Judaism that strikes me as off-the-mark.

Many Christians seem to have received their understanding of what Judaism is (and, because it serves an antithetical function, what Christianity isn’t) through the image of the Pharisees in the Gospels, the deserving targets of Jesus’s harshest rebukes and arguments. Jesus was always on one side, the Pharisees were on the other side. Their sharp differences seem to demonstrate that Jesus represented a different religious vision, a new true one opposed to an old obsolete one. And it is casually assumed the old obsolete way represented by these freeze-framed Pharisees represents what Judaism has been from the time of Moses to today.

From a Jewish perspective, however, things look different. The ancient tradition that is today called Judaism is one long incessant struggle (Israel means “struggle”), a progress achieved through breaks, leaps and resumptions, through losses and recoveries of everything imaginable and unimaginable — the land, the Temple, faith, righteousness, the immediacy of God’s presence — over and over again. Jewish scripture is full of repeated disputes, failings, fallings-away, rebukes, repercussions, returns. People sometimes say “life is a series of interruptions,” and the story of the Jews one of recovery from some of the most catastrophic interruptions humankind has ever witnessed.

It is also necessary to understand that struggle is part of Jewish culture. Jews value argument. There is a Hebrew word for a sacred argument, Machloket L’shem Shemayim, meaning “disagreement for the sake of Heaven”. It is said that an argument of this kind is true in a way that surpasses any belief any person could hold. When the most faithful Jews argue, it is the furthest thing from rejecting the other. It is the best way to love your opponent.

Finally, the tradition to which Judaism belongs has never stopped reinventing and reinterpreting itself. The so-called Old Testament is really a long series of new testaments that reinterpret and add new layers of richness to what came before. It is all woven from past sayings and passages, recombined, tilted and refracted to reveal and generate new dimensions of meaning. When Jesus quoted, juxtaposed and re-angled passages from Torah, Psalms and Proverbs he was, once again, doing what Jews do, and he did it brilliantly.

Seen from this vantage point, Jesus fits right into the pattern of Jewish history, culture and faith. What Jesus represents is not an exception, but the very rule in Judaism. What he lived and taught was not an interruption of Judaism, but the most essentially Jewish reinterpretation, resumption and continuation. His arguments with priests and scribes were not a protest against his tradition, but participation in it. He was Judaism incarnate, but this incarnation neither began with Jesus, nor ended with him, but is just the doing of Judaism. Jews are supposed to incarnate their faith.

Only the deepest misunderstanding of the tradition to which Jesus belonged, loved, and ceaselessly affirmed, permits the strange expulsion of Jesus from his own Jewish world into the bizarre not-of-this-world diaspora of Platonic heavenly forms. This kind of vision of heaven is likely a Greek ethnocentric misunderstanding of Jesus’s at-hand transfigured kingdom, which is right here, right now, with us.

I am not saying that Jesus did not contribute to the development of Judaism. He did, but he did so as one more Jew in a chain of Jews stretching back to Abraham, and extending through the present day into the future. And when Christians penetrate the superstitions and moralisms that crust and obscure their own faith and feel that living kernel inside, it is Judaism they are finding there, the same living kernel that Jesus found and embodied.

This is why I say the best Jews and the best Christians share the same faith, even if their beliefs diverge.

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.

The Jewish-Christian overlap

One of the best things about becoming Jewish is that the process has clarified for me very precisely what I love and what I dislike in Christianity.

What I love in Christianity is exactly what I love most in Judaism. Jesus distilled the most beautiful elements of Judaism and made them harmonize and inter-illuminate. He was an unsurpassed genius, and it was through him that Judaism became capable of producing modern humanity as we know and love it.

What I dislike in Christianity is where Jesus ends and Paul begins — the whole magic legalistic universe he invented and shoehorned his christized Jesus into —  which is also precisely where it betrays Judaism.

I’m not one of those boring people who rejects Paul because he was mean, harsh or misogynistic. According to most experts, relative to the standards of his time he was above average in all the virtues good liberals prize most. He may have even helped advance liberalism, and for that outcome I am grateful, even if I find his methods distasteful.

No: my problem with Paul is that his worldview is poorly conceived and designed. It’s a hacked-together mess, lacking in plausibility and usability. If Paul’s concept of God is the only one you have available, it is a miracle if that doesn’t force you into atheism. The only part that’s any good design-wise is the sliver that reinforces what Jesus tried to teach.

To summarize: Judaism and Christianity overlap in Jesus’s teachings. Judaism and Christianity diverge where Paul started inventing his own religion.

A little something to upset everyone.

A faith of sacred questions

It seems to be a perverse law of reality that the more ultimate and urgent a question is to human existence, the less we can hope to have an answer. Stuck without answers, we are forced into different forms of faith, which include:

  • Tradition — accepting answers provided by trusted others from the past or present and actively cultivating belief.
  • Speculation — experimenting with possible answers and adhering to the ones that seem best to believe.
  • Practicality — rejecting such questions and living strictly within the limits of mundane truths which can be answered.
  • Distraction — suppressing the urgency of ultimate questions by redirecting, distorting or dulling attention.
  • Quietism — declaring ultimate unknowns to be unknowable, and therefore less a matter of questions to ask and answer than mysteries to contemplate.
  • Mysticism — abandoning metaphysical speculation and instead meditating on symbols  that relate us to realities beyond form and knowledge. 
  • Nihilism — taking the painful unknowability of our most urgent questions as a test of the integrity and courage of our intellectual conscience to refuse to resolve what cannot be resolved.

Another response takes the unanswerability of ultimate questions as a moral clue, a suggestion that here answers are not the answer.

The crucial shift required for this alternative response is rethinking the relationship between questions and answers. Normally, answers alone are seen as having positive value, and the value of questions are entirely bound up with their role in production of answers. Questions are just perceptible holes or defects in our knowledge, and the posing of questions is just requesting more or better answers.

But this view is not the only possible one, and it may just be a stale habit that has gone too long without being challenged. In fact, questions are the furthest thing from mere absence of answer. A question is an active kind of receptivity, guided by a strong intuition of relevance, and it might even be questions that invest truths with intellectual life.

It has been argued that understanding any truth consists in grasping the question implied in its assertion. Misunderstandings occur when truth are taken as answers to the wrong questions. And confusion is failing to find any question the truth might answer.

It is also true that when a person plunged into a disorienting problematic situation, an inability to form clear questions far more painful than simply lacking answers, and that gaining clarity into one’s questions alleviates this pain more than acquiring new factual information, unless the facts reveal the real question at hand.

Dignifying questions with value and positive existence makes possible new forms of faith, oriented less toward having factual answers than toward asking good questions in a good way for good reasons.

If questions are capable of infusing truths with living meaning, can questions do the same for other kinds of relationships? How about relationships between people (who, after all, are irreducible to knowledge)? How about relationships between people and this inexhaustibly surprising reality we inhabit together?

Is it possible that unanswerable questions might help us understand that knower-known is not the right relationship in every kind of situations? Here questions seem to urge us to know-toward, understand-toward instead of comprehending — to touch with the fingertips of our understanding instead of reflexively gripping everything in the fists of our cognition. This way of approaching reality places faith in questions as sacred.

Liberalism’s dependence on democracy

In a stable liberal democracy, the majority of citizens must consent to a shared vision of liberty.

As soon as some powerful minority imposes a vision of liberty that the majority experiences as unjust, the fragile alliance between democracy and liberalism begins to break down.

This will happen even if that minority is entirely correct about absolutely everything — that it really does have special access to the absolute moral truth, thanks to better education, purer motives, or more reliable techniques for counterbalancing its biases and neutralizing its own motivated reasoning — or any other similar claims that justify privileging one’s own judgment and enforcing one’s own convictions over the unconvinced.

If the unconvinced also think they have privileged access to the truth (and they do think that!), and however wrong they may be (and they are wrong about having special access to the truth!), the righteousness of the minority will not matter: the majority is going to assert its will. Angry majorities tend to have the advantage over righteous minorities in such conflicts.

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One of the consolation prizes of vulnerability is you can never forget how dependent you are on persuasion for your very survival. This, and this alone, is what gives the marginal person some kind of intellectual privilege.

“Transgressive realism”

Reading the introduction of Jean Wahl’s Human Existence and Transcendence, I came across this:

With this critique, Jean Wahl, at least I would argue, anticipates an important dimension of contemporary Continental thought, which has recently been quite daringly called by an anglo- saxon observer, “transgressive realism”: that our contact with reality at its most real dissolves our preconceived categories and gives itself on its own terms, that truth as novelty is not only possible, though understood as such only ex post facto, but is in fact the most valuable and even paradigmatic kind of truth, defining our human experience. The fundamental realities determinative of human experience and hence philosophical questioning — the face of the other, the idol, the icon, the flesh, the event… and also divine revelation, freedom, life, love, evil, and so forth — exceed the horizon of transcending- immanence and give more than what it, on its own terms, allows, thereby exposing that its own conditions are not found in itself and opening from there onto more essential terrain.

“Transgressive realism” jumped out at me as the perfect term for a crucially important idea that I’ve never seen named. I followed the footnote to the paper, Lee Braver’s “A brief history of continental realism” and hit pay dirt. Returning to Wahl, I find myself reading through Braver’s framework, which, of course, is a sign of a well-designed concept.

Braver presents three views of realism, 1) Active Subject (knowledge is made out out of our own human subjective structures, and attempting to purge knowledge of these subjective forms is impossible), 2) Objective Idealism (reality is radically knowable, through a historical process by which reality’s true inner-nature is incorporated into understanding), and 3) Transgressive Realism, which Braver describes as “a middle path between realism and anti-realism which tries to combine their strengths while avoiding their weaknesses. Kierkegaard created the position by merging Hegel’s insistence that we must have some kind of contact with anything we can call real (thus rejecting noumena), with Kant’s belief that reality fundamentally exceeds our understanding; human reason should not be the criterion of the real. The result is the idea that our most vivid encounters with reality come in experiences that shatter our categories…”

Not only is there an outside, as Hegel denies, but we can encounter it, as Kant denies; these encounters are in fact far more important than what we can come up with on our own. The most important ideas are those that genuinely surprise us, not in the superficial sense of discovering which one out of a determinate set of options is correct, as the Kantian model allows, but by violating our most fundamental beliefs and rupturing our basic categories.

This concept is fundamental to my own professional life (studying people in order to re-understand them and the worlds they inhabit, in order induce innovations through perspective shift), to my political ideal (liberalism, the conviction that all people should be treated as real beings and not instances of other people’s categories, because each person packs the potential to disrupt the very categories we use to think them) and my deepest religious convictions (the most reliable door to God is through the surprising things other people can show you and teach you, which can shock and transfigure us and our worlds.)

Though I am Jewish — no, because I am Jewish — I will never stop admiring Jesus for combining into a single commandment the Ve’ahavta (“and you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength”) with the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself. Incredible!

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.

Transcendence, love and offense

Transcendence is what gives all things authentic value, positive and negative.

Positively, when we value anything, and especially when we love someone, what we authentically value is precisely the reality beyond the “given”, that is, beyond what we think and what we immediately experience.

If we only love the idea of someone or if we only love the experience of being with someone, while rejecting whatever of them (or more accurately “whoever of them”) defies our will, surprises our comprehension, breaks our categorical schemas and evades our experience, we value only what is immanent to our selves: an inner refraction of self that has little to do with the real entity valued. To authentically value , to love, we must must want most of all precisely what is defiant, surprising, perplexing and hidden.

To want only what we can hope to possess is to lust; to be content with what we have is to merely like, and no amount or intensity of lusting or liking adds up to love. (To put it in Newspeak, love is not double-plus-like. Love is not the extreme point on the liking continuum, but something qualitatively and, in truth, infinitely different.)

Conversely, authentic negative value — authentic offense — is our natural and spontaneous response when another person interacts with us as if we are essentially no more than what we are to them. They reduce us without remainder to what they believe us to be, and to how they experience us. In doing this, they deny our transcendent reality. This is the universal essence of offense.

When a social order is roughly equal, it is difficult, if not impossible, for one person to oppress another with such treatment. A person can either shun the would-be oppressor, or make their reality felt by speaking out or refusing to comply with expectations. But in conditions of inequality, threat or dependence can compel a person to perform the part of the self a more powerful person imagines. This is where offense gives over to warranted hostility.

The fashionable conventional wisdom, which has been drilled into the heads of the young, gets it all backwards. Ask the average casually passionate progressivist what is wrong with racism or sexism you’ll get an answer to the effect of “racism and sexism produce or reinforce inequality and oppression.” But the truth of the matter is that inequality is bad because it allows people to get away with forcing other people to tolerate, if not actively self-suppress, self-deny and perform the role the powerful demand of them. And part of that performance is asserting the truth the powerful impose.

Curriculum

I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite this scattered in my curriculum or quite this solid in my own philosophy. Mostly I am jumping around trying to connect my philosophy of design with like-minded thinkers and practitioners. I want to try to organize the leads and strands, so I can keep track of it (or maybe just note my intentions, in case I later want to map out what turned out to go somewhere, versus a dead-end or a road not taken).

Most material-turn thinkers seem to find the metaphysics of A. N. Whitehead to be compatible and supportive of their work, so I definitely want to dig further into his thinking, most likely continuing to use Stenger’s Thinking With Whitehead as a guide.

Stenger and many others refer to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, so when I spotted an episode on them in the completely fantastic podcast “Philosophize This!” (so fantastic, in fact, that I joined Patreon, just to help fund it) I decided to listen. So far, I’m finding their last collaboration What Is Philosophy? to be very close to my views on what philosophy is/ought to be and do. I anticipate finishing this one, before tackling Stengers.

I’m also bumping into Gregory Bateson quite a bit these days. I ran into a reference to him in The Design Philosophy Reader (would also like to finish this this summer, or at least this year, since I’ve decided to root my own philosophy in the bizarre and intensely uncomfortable experiences that permeate a life of strategic human-centered design) — and again in an article on futures literacy, which I plan to finish reading this week.

Last weekend I finished an intriguing paper Latour wrote (translated by Graham Harman — more on him later) on Souriau, which convinced me that I will have to read The Different Modes of Existence soon, which might help me actually understand Latour’s own magnum opus An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.

Regarding Harman, I’ll probably make myself read his introduction to Object-Oriented Ontology, if only to eliminate OOO as a possible area of study. OOO is the one material-turn philosophy that seems almost preposterously wrong-headed, and it is also the hottest philosophical movement in the world right now, embraced by many brilliant people — so what am I supposed to do with that? As I’ve said before, philosophy is a schooling in humiliation, and my reaction to OOO — especially its self-evident foolishness — shows signs that I am failing to understand it. I continue to cautiously reject OOO until I can pin down precisely where it is failing, or until I convert and realize it was right all along. (Until then, however, I believe OOO’s entire trajectory is determined by a fundamental moral confusion endemic to the progressivist regions of today’s popular philosophy, namely, a passionate belief in selfless altruism. I deny not only that it is possible, but that selfless altruism is even a good unattainable ideal. I think the notion of selfless altruism is a result of a conceptual failure and pursuit of the ideal has disastrous moral consequences: it produces an incapacity to develop real relationships with real others, an incapacity to find genuine value in one’s life, and most of all an incurable moral irritability saturated with ressentiment. OOO wants us to try to leave our persons behind in order imagine our(not)selves into the undetectedly withdrawn life of noumena, like inhabitants of Calvino’s imaginary city of Baucis.

Vastly better, in my opinion, generally but especially for the purposes of human-centered design, is postphenomenology. I’ve read part of Robert Rosenberger’s collection Postphenomenological Investigations (Langsdorf’s essay is what reignited my interest in Whitehead as the material-turn metaphysician of choice) and I definitely need to finish it. I’ve already read Verbeek’s What Things Do. I’ll likely read Moralizing Technology next, and then start reading the works of Don Idhe (the founder of postphenomenology) from latest to when he turned his attention to human-technology relationships.

And, speaking of Verbeek — His attacks on Jaspers’s views on technology got me interested in Jaspers work, and strangely, led me into an existential detour earlier this year. I still intend to read (at least) his three-volume Philosophy (which I got scanned and OCRed, so I can read it on my iPad.) Also, Jaspers concept of the Axial Age, has intersected with an obsessive intuition I’m harboring that “we have come to the end of this kind of vision of Heaven”, and might now be starting to move beyond the 2,500-year-old understanding of religion which is so predominant and ubiquitous that we find it difficult to imagine that religion could be anything else. Not to propagate posts in this post-post moment, but I am interested in what post-Axial religious praxis can look like (which would include material-turn ontology set in a panentheistic metaphysics) and I’ve even managed to find a book on it, which, I, alas, also must read, and which threatens to barge in at the front of my reading queue. And of course there’s a whole world of Process Theology out there, based on Whitehead’s thought, which might, for all I know, already be exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve read one book on Jewish process theology, which did not connect with me much, but I don’t think it exhausted the possibilities.

I have a lot of reading ahead of me. I’d love to turn the work into a publicly-acknowledged post-grad academic degree of some kind, but what department in what university would ever award it?

Divine ecology

I have been looking for a “way in” into environmentalism. Intellectually, I know it matters tremendously, but I haven’t felt its importance on a tacit moral “why” level that makes its importance immediate and self-evident. I know this is a philosophical failure — something in my worldview (what Judaism would call levavkha, heart) is preventing a reality from being as real to me as it ought to be (“hardness of heart” toward toward the Earth, and physical reality, in general) — so I have been poking around looking for new angles for conceiving and perceiving our situation.

This passage from Gregory Bateson speaks to me:

Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa—individual, family line, subspecies, species, etc.—as units of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units—gene-in-organism, organism-in-environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology, in the widest sense, turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (i.e., differences, complexes of differences, etc.) in circuits.

Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and “Let’s build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbors.” There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess. When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise “What interests me is me, or my organization, or my species,” you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system—and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.

You and I are so deeply acculturated to the idea of “self” and organization and species that it is hard to believe that man might view his relations with the environment in any other way than the way which I have rather unfairly blamed upon the nineteenth-century evolutionists. So I must say a few words about the history of all this.

Anthropologically, it would seem from what we know of the early material, that man in society took clues from the natural world around him and applied those clues in a sort of metaphoric way to the society in which he lived. That is, he identified with or empathized with the natural world around him and took that empathy as a guide for his own social organization and his own theories of his own psychology. This was what is called “totemism.”

In a way, it was all nonsense, but it made more sense than most of what we do today, because the natural world around us really has this general systemic structure and therefore is an appropriate source of metaphor to enable man to understand himself in his social organization.

The next step, seemingly, was to reverse the process and to take clues from himself and apply these to the natural world around him. This was “animism,” extending the notion of personality or mind to mountains, rivers, forests, and such things. This was still not a bad idea in many ways. But the next step was to separate the notion of mind from the natural world, and then you get the notion of gods.

But when you separate mind from the structure in which it is immanent, such as human relationship, the human society, or the ecosystem, you thereby embark, I believe, on fundamental error, which in the end will surely hurt you.

Struggle may be good for your soul up to the moment when to win the battle is easy. When you have an effective enough technology so that you can really act upon your epistemological errors and can create havoc in the world in which you live, then the error is lethal. Epistemological error is all right, it’s fine, up to the point at which you create around yourself a universe in which that error becomes immanent in monstrous changes of the universe that you have created and now try to live in.

Reading this, I am understanding that I have morally deemphasized and neglected one of the dimensions of the threefold present, the present “here”. As with present I (in spirit) and present now (in eternity), present here (in apeiron) is a dimension of reality that is us, while infinitely exceeds us (which, I’ve been told is a theological concept called “panentheism“) within which we are responsible participants.

I’m fresh off this insight, so only time will tell what it does to me and my sense of the world. It feels like a breakthrough.

 

Adonai Echad

If you have lived your life without a center, imagining other places that where you are, rehashing the past, fretting about the future, judging from from everyone else’s expectations and opinions but your own… absolutely, you must (re-)find your center, (re-)establish yourself in the now, learn (re-)learn to live in the threefold present.

It is a basic condition of spiritual life.

For those who have never had it, the experience of discovering I-here-now is miraculous. It is a miracle on the order of witnessing the genesis of the universe from nothingness. And the happiness and benevolence that floods in put one in a paradoxical state of gratitude toward a past to which one can never again choose.

Believing that a world-transfiguring rebirth is what religion is for is inevitable and nearly irresistible. It is self-evidently all-important, in a way that cannot, and indeed, should not, be doubted.

*

Despite its apparent self-evident universality, this kind of work is not the universal, eternal goal of all religious work.

It is hard to imagine from a perspective of needing centering that finding one’s center is not every person’s primary spiritual problem, and it is not the dominant problem of every epoch.

Some people, and some times, have precisely the opposite problem, living only in the present, as if the threefold present is all that exists. They live solely in the here-and-now, pursuing only what they perceive as important, viewing life only from their own crystal-clear perspective, heedless of the future, contemptuous of the past, and giving little thought to the myriad centers existing around their own centrality.

For people in this condition, finding the beyond — the reality of reality beyond the periphery of one’s own experience is the one thing most needful.

*

Due to an uncanny convergence of events, I’ve been meditating on this theme for a couple of weeks, and I’m going to speculate somewhat recklessly from what I think is a Jewish perspective.

Finding one’s center in the threefold present and learning to participate in life from this center — “I am here being” — corresponds to God as YHWH.

Learning to live from this center toward the myriad other centers (all of whom live from centers of their own) out into myriad overlapping peripheries corresponds to God as Elohim (whose name is plural).

Understanding that YHWH and Elohim is one, and dedicating one’s life with the entirety of one’s heart, soul and strength to living from this reality toward this reality, as a responsible citizen of God, embracing more and more through collaboration with my fellows — that’s the religious ideal that guides me.

 

 

 

Raising sparks

I’ve learned to recognize significance in anxiety, in love, in anger — a significance which points to relationships to transcendent realities through which we have a relationship with transcendence per se, through understanding or wisdom. I am going to start looking for analogous (or anomalogous) significance in other experiences, responses and actions as well, especially ones related to beauty, splendor, duration, foundations and sovereignty.

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.

*

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.

*

It is clear that I have to understand Whitehead.