Category Archives: Philosophy

Esoteric and exoteric philosophy

Once we learn to disbelieve in positive metaphysics and to think in terms other than presence, and we recognize that no Rortian “final vocabulary” is final, and we give up on the project of remaking society to conform our own private ideal, it seems to me this constitutes a wonderful philosophical craftsman’s philosophy to be applied in making useful, usable and desirable philosophies for nonphilosophers. These latter philosophies might use positive metaphysics, presence, codified moralities, and any number of apparitional apparatus to help give the philosophy the sort of form required for optimal use.

In a sense, philosopher’s philosophies and nonphilosopher’s philosophies divide into something analogous to what in traditional religions (or at least modern traditionalist theories of religion) call esoteric and exoteric. Esoteric religion is for those who dedicate their entire existence to religious pursuit, in coming to terms with a soul’s relationship with the Absolute, including the myriad illusory appearances that mediate that relationship. The exoteric philosophies cannot be said to be false, because they are not matters of fact; they are matters of interpretation. They make intentional tradeoffs toward wholesome value and action, at the expense of depth and precision of understanding.

All esoterisms cheerfully qualify the exoterisms they offer with disclaimers. “This is just a device for indicating a truth, not truth itself”, etc., but such qualifications are comprehensible only in light of esoteric insight. Exoteric qualifications function more as depth charges that sink with the seeker and detonate at the proper depth, simultaneously authenticating the teacher’s teaching, and destroying the exoteric construct the point it becomes an obstacle to further progress.

Provincialisms

On one hand, living in a bigger city exposes you to lots of types of people. You get used to seeing a wide range of diverse races, cultures and ways of life around you all the time, and it takes a lot to freak you out.
But on the other hand, living in a smaller town you learn to have real relationships with people you would normally ignore or avoid if you had more choices. You just can’t be that selective about who you associate with. You have to figure out how to (more or less) get along with who is there, and so you learn to deal with diverse personalities. Differences of opinion (albeit in a narrower range) don’t freak you out.
Each produces its own kind of liberalism — and its own kind of provincialism.
Ideally, you grow up in a small town and move to a big city and then you are perfect and wonderful in every possible way.

Nouveau puissant

If you are truly marginalized, you are used to being misunderstood, disregarded and misrepresented by people around you. You feel vulnerable and anxious about what might be done to you. You seek allies wherever you can find them to help and protect you. You learn to understand alien perspectives, so you can make effective appeals and influence the actions of other — or at least anticipate what they might do next so you can defend yourself.

Marginalized people are forced by necessity to develop insight and empathy. This is the consolation prize of marginalized existence, and its one real advantage. This is the source of the belief that powerless people know things powerful people cannot imagine.

When I meet a person who calls themselves marginalized, but who is overcome with imperious fury if someone seems to understand them with insufficient nuance — who is willing and able (or at least feels able) to punish anyone who dares treat them with less than perfect conformity to their expectations, without any apparent fear of reprisal — whose theories about their enemies are used only only to condemn and insult them, not to illuminate their logic or make sense of their behaviors — these people do not seem marginalized to me. They show no evidence of real insight or empathy — only a presumption of omniscience. Maybe they were taught things or read books by marginal people, but they themselves seem to have missed the real point of the lessons and absorbed nothing but the vices of marginalization: resentment and intellectual arrogance.

They are like nouveau riche, who play out the grotesque image of what poor people think rich people are like.

The nouveau puissant play out the evil, tyrannical image of what powerless people think powerful people are like.

They think it is now their turn to be what, in fact, only existed in their own imaginations.

Fact and opinion

Where do you draw the line between news and editorial?

The exact placement and sharpness of the line is debatable. This, however, does not make the distinction meaningless. Editorial argues a conclusion, and data is selected to support that conclusion. News attempts (with varying success) to present all relevant data regardless of what conclusion it might support or undermine.

Most of us learned long ago to scoff at claims of actual achieved neutral objectivity. We should not scoff at the intention to attempt it, though. After all, what is an ideal but an attempt to approach something unachieved and perhaps finally unachievable, but which points us toward something we believe is better? Facts are the product of such an effort, and their quality is a matter of how successfully they avoid being deployed to support any single argument. Opinions are the beliefs we argue, and their quality is a matter of how well they deploy facts to persuade others to reach a desired conclusion.

So basically, I am proposing that the difference between fact and opinion is one of intent, not of the truth of the content or how well supported it is.

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I would argue that the line dividing fact and opinion should also govern what is and is not taught in public schools. This is the line that separates education and indoctrination.

If I were a parent with young children I would be livid if I discovered that their school had officially adopted a political position and were intentionally indoctrinating my children to share their political opinions.

If the leaders of that school were to argue that their political opinions were not simply their own views, but were objectively true and good, I would be doubly alarmed because this indicates a degree of naivety and political immaturity that should disqualify a person from leadership of any organization.

If the leaders of the school argue that all education is intrinsically political, and all they are doing is foregrounding the political content, I would argue that whatever political content they are foregrounding should be a matter of public deliberation.

A belief that one is permitted to use whatever authority one has (or rather, has been temporarily granted) to advance one’s own political opinions indicates contempt for liberal democratic process.

If we were to subject the political content our children are being taught to public scrutiny, I am confident the outcome would be what it always is when things are done out in the open with full transparency: we will agree to teach pluralism and honor the right of individuals to reach their own conclusions. We would return to teaching what the vast majority of us accept, our best attempts at fact.

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I want to return to something I hinted at earlier. A lot of today’s political extremism is being driven by two naive notions.

1) Any ideal goal that has not yet been fully actualized (such as MLK’S dream) has been discredited and ought to be discarded.

2) If a line between one extreme and another (such as fact and opinion) cannot be clearly and sharply drawn, there is no real difference between these extremes and that no attempt should be made to observe any difference at all.

Most people I know who run around using these two notions have never really questioned them. Someone taught it to them as fact, it made sense to them, and it allowed them to go by their feelings instead of having to think things through or to consider the validity of other people’s beliefs. Education should teach people to question, challenge and resist such naivities, not train children to believe them unquestioningly.

Rorty on “liberal ironists

This is a selection of quotes from Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, which I pulled together to help me get the full picture of how Rorty understands liberal ironists, and how they differ from nominalist/historicists.

xv

I use “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires — someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.

45-46

In his Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin says… that we need to give up the jigsaw puzzle approach to vocabularies, practices, and values. In Berlin’s words, we need to give up “the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail each other.” … Berlin ended his essay by quoting Joseph Schumpeter, who said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” Berlin comments, “To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.”

61

The citizens of my liberal Utopia would be people who had a sense of the contingency of their language of moral deliberation, and thus of their consciences, and thus of their community. They would be liberal ironists — people who met Schumpeter’s criterion of civilization, people who combined commitment with a sense of the contingency of their own commitment.

87-88

In the ideal liberal society, the intellectuals would still be ironists, although the nonintellectuals would not. The latter would, however, be commonsensically nominalist and historicist. So they would see themselves as contingent through and through, without feeling any particular doubts about the contingencies they happened to be. They would not be bookish, nor would they look to literary critics as moral advisers. But they would be commonsensical nonmetaphysicians, in the way in which more and more people in the rich democracies have been commonsensical nontheists. They would feel no more need to answer the questions “Why are you a liberal? Why do you care about the humiliation of strangers?” than the average sixteenth-century Christian felt to answer the question “Why are you a Christian?” or than most people nowadays feel to answer the question “Are you saved?” Such a person would not need a justification for her sense of human solidarity, for she was not raised to play the language game in which one asks and gets justifications for that sort of belief. Her culture is one in which doubts about the public rhetoric of the culture are met not by Socratic requests for definitions and principles, but by Deweyan requests for concrete alternatives and programs. Such a culture could, as far as I can see, be every bit as self-critical and every bit as devoted to human equality as our own familiar, and still metaphysical, liberal culture — if not more so.

But even if I am right in thinking that a liberal culture whose public rhetoric is nominalist and historicist is both possible and desirable, I cannot go on to claim that there could or ought to be a culture whose public rhetoric is ironist. I cannot imagine a culture which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization. Irony seems inherently a private matter. On my definition An ironist cannot get along without the contrast between the final vocabulary she inherited and the one she is trying to create for herself. Irony is, if not intrinsically resentful, at least reactive. Ironists have to have something to have doubts about, something from which to be alienated.

I think I’ve been misusing terms. I have used “irony” to mean “conviction despite contingency” in all cases, not only ones where doubt is active. Simply putting ourselves on even footing with those with whom we disagree, viewing their conviction and our own as essentially alike, despite the fact that we only feel our own conviction, to me, is an ironic stance.

Ray Davies sang, “I was born, lucky me, in the land that I love.” This is my paradigm of irony. We believe, lucky us, the truths we believe.

Stuff I’m going to write

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ontocracy

As I’ve complained many times before, Richard Rorty’s theory of truth in Irony, Contingeny and Solidarity is radically logocentric.

Rorty sets up change of language, specifically in our choice and use of metaphors, as the driving force behind the evolution of truth. We perceive the history of our language games culminating in the language game we use today as progress toward knowledge of truth.

He contrasts this with an opposing conception of language as “a medium which is gradually taking on the true shape of the true world or the true self.”

The goal is to shed all external referees of truth, whether that arbiter is God, Nature, Logic or anything that stands outside humankind and imposes judgment, and to finally take responsible for our own truth, and also to claim our creative freedom to the fullest extent. We evolve our own language games by way of our own language games, and are limited only by what the players of the language game can and will do with their language.

To be fair, Rorty wrote a lot of books and essays, and I have only read some of it. I am aware he took science very seriously, and also that he also sometimes over-stated positions primarily for rhetorical reasons. I am assuming that what I have said above is not doing full justice to Rorty’s most carefully stated positions.

What I am more interested in here, is this: I am not aware of him ever taking a third position that is compatible with his project, but which can (maybe boringly) give the nonlinguistic world its due in our evolving conceptions of truth. I suspect he never considered it, and that if he had, he might have preferred it.

Rorty was incredibly smart, so I make this claim with appropriately shaking knees.

This third position, which I learned from Bruno Latour, refuses to treat the external world as one monolithic being capable of acting as a referee, but nonetheless treats it as something that does do quite a bit of “judging” of different sorts.

Latour’s external world is made of networks of human and non-human actors causing one another to act. He has described these networks in political terms. Human and non-human actors alike enlist one another, resist one another, combine forces and act as one, gain strength, lose strength, become weak, break apart and disintegrate. Human life is largely a matter of creating, extending and redirecting networks of heterogeneous beings. Among these beings are words (which exist within networks of words, called languages) which are connected to networks of objects, people, other words, etc.

Nature, then, is a category that refers to a loose collection of diverse actors in diverse networks. When we engage in science, what we are doing, in effect, is collaborating with non-human actors to understand how they act on other actors, and fit into actual or possible networks. This activity can be described as working to extend our democracy to non-human actors and find ways to involve them in the networks that constitute our lives. In this way, the myriad beings we include in “nature” do in fact interact directly with our language and help shape it, but without standing outside language as a model for the form language should take. Nature and words are strung together, woven together, act together. If the words we choose form shoddy networks with the entities they are suppose to interact with, “false”, “untrue” or “less true” are pretty good words to describe what is happening. A whole language that puts words into strong and extensive networks with one another, with people and nonhuman entities really can be judged as truer than one that creates networks that cannot extend without tapering or disintegrating.

No, with this third view, which can be called an “ontocratic theory of truth” does not survive as what we took it to be, but is does survive as something that connects human beings to a reality that extends beyond us and our words. And if we want our words to do more for us than to win agreement from other people, that is an extremely important capability.

It’s probably not enough for the staunchest anti-relativists, but it most certainly avoids many of the worst objections to relativism, at least the ones that bother me me most, while preserving the most important advantages of relativism, which is pluralism and pluralism’s creative freedom of thought.

“The personal is political”

1) “The personal is political”is a political belief, not a fact.

2) If I believe you hold this belief, you will not be welcome in my personal life.

Martin Buber’s distinction between the social and the interhuman remains centrally important to me. Personal friendship is a function of transcending the social and entering interhuman relationship  A person who politicizes everything does the opposite. They force the rules of social interaction into situations where, if they were transcended, if it were safe to transcend them, encounters with unique personhood could reveal novel, creative and transcendent possibilities.

Politicizing the personal destroys the possibility of this ever happening. This is why ideologues are so aggressive about such encroachment of the political into all things.

Ideologies are closed conceptual systems, hostile to whatever stands outside their horizons. They interpret the anxiety of what is outside their thought as evidence of malicious intent and impending harm, which they are permitted to meet with actual malice and aggression. This can happen anywhere, but is especially likely wherever social rules are not enforced, and so ideologues will find arguments for why more and more of the interpersonal should be subject to political regulation.

So people who politicize the personal are generally very constrained and timid but also aggressive people who are just not very interesting or rewarding to talk with. Nothing will come of it but sterile arguments. But also, ideologues are not trustworthy. Their first priority is defending their ideological convictions, and such people are often willing to destroy other people’s lives to do so.

I don’t like feeling bored or paranoid, so I keep ideologues as far away from me as possible.

Ritual design and privacy

The New York Times published an article last week “The Office Is Adrift. Divinity Consultants Are Here to Save It.”

There have been times in my life when I might have been friendlier toward the ideas in this article, but I’ve grown not only wary, but hostile to this kind of blurring of lines separating the personal and the private. The following is a slightly edited email I wrote to a friend this morning, who also reacted negatively to the article, for her own reasons.

Here is what is bothering me most about this article: The last thing any of us needs right now is compulsory religious practice handed down from on high by any ruling authority — private, public or (increasingly) both.

Another thing that bothers me for more personal reasons is encapsulated in this line: ‘Some of the rituals I grew up with in Protestantism really have emotional utility.” To which I commented in my notes: “Unitarianism in a fucking nutshell.” I grew up in a compulsory, artificial religion made up by folks who saw religion as serving utilitarian social and emotional purposes, and who saw traditional religious practices as crude, but salvageable social tools that could be put to better use by more evolved, rational, modern intellectuals.

Another line also leaped out at me: “‘We’ve seen brands enter the political space,’ said Casper ter Kuile, a co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. Citing a Vice report, he added: ‘The next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality.’”

This entry of brands into politics translates directly into the entry of political ideology into the workplace, which I view as a direct threat to the private realm of individuality. Suddenly your employer has a legit business case for meddling with your personal worldview, your private judgments, your utopian hopes, your faith. Suddenly, outward behaviors — etiquette and professionalism — are not enough. You must adopt certain sociological theories, attitudes toward spirituality, feelings about other people, because these innermost secrets do subtly affect other people, not only in what you do (motivated reasoning, biased judgments, microaggressions), but even worse, in what you do not do (silence is violence!) and these little actions and nonactions add up to grand-scale oppression. Therefore, we are entitled to rummage around in your personal convictions looking for evidence of thought crimes, because we take seriously our obligation to take part in creating a more just society. Besides (according to our own political view) everything is unavoidably political — we are just making our politics more explicit and intentional, which means abandoning pretensions of “neutrality.”

What can be said of politics can also be said of religious faith: everything is unavoidably a matter of religious faith. What we hold sacred and make central to who we are shapes what we think, how we feel, how we interact, what we are motivated to do. Our collective values have everything to do with the quality of our work lives, and so they are a valid concern of any enlightened employer. And therefore rituals that affirm these values are a reasonable thing to require from employees.

But even if those rituals are not compulsory, they create performative belonging and not-belonging. Back when I was a youth, the UUs created a little ritual where the children would leave the adult service to go to R.E. (Religious Education) and they would playfully skip out to this jaunty and saccharine children’s ditty on the piano. I resented being pushed into this ritual performance of what these assholes thought childlikeness was. The kids would produce childlikeness, and the adults would laugh, and rejoice and contemplate how they would like to recover their own childlikeness. I’d wait for it to end, then angrily sneak out, with renewed alienation. Years later, among Orthodox Christians, I was the one who never crossed himself, who never asked priests for blessings, who at Easter never said “indeed he is risen!’ In response to “Christ is risen!”, though, on occasion my agnosticism moved me to answer “perhaps he has risen.”

These actions put me outside of these groups, to them and to myself. And that is one of the functions of rituals, to exteriorize faith in visible behaviors. It is a physical way of confirming shared conviction, which is why *religious* communities do them.

And this points to why only religious communities should do them. We enter a religious community and gather with them precisely because we share a common faith and are happy to see others who share that faith with us. Synagogues, churches, temples are spaces set aside for gathering to affirm, share and cultivate faith in various ways. And those present who do not share the faith will feel with utmost tangibility the issue of belonging or not belonging.

Rituals remove that shelter of reticence which softens and downplays inner difference in situations where people of diverse faith must collaborate and accomplish things together. Instead of rituals of inner faith we do rituals of etiquette, where we demonstrate outer respect, willingness to set aside, suppress or even conceal inner differences in order to take up common goals and to collaborate effectively and harmoniously as possible. It is true, this does mean we must disguise ourselves in certain situations, that we will sometimes feel phony or compromised, or that many of the most important aspects of ourselves must remain un-expressed in work settings.

But if we are alert and reflective and work actively and intentionally to develop more mature understandings of personhood and social existence, something weird happens to us. We grow to develop an intense loyalty to these “soulless”, “formal” institutions that observe boundaries between public, social and private realms and preserve each with thoughtful tradeoffs. The etiquette rituals become almost matters of inner faith — the acknowledgement that not baring our souls to each other all the time permits us to develop as unique persons.

This ties into some thinking I’ve been doing on Richard Rorty’s idea of the public and private realm. I think there’s a third realm between the two, that we should call the social realm, where we come together as members of groups and interact in rule-governed ways but outside the scope of law.

The controversy of our time is where the boundaries should be drawn between these three domains. Which changes ought to be political, and are matters of legislation and legal penalty? Which are social, and are matters of etiquette and interpersonal penalty? And which matters are private, and should be protected from politics and society?

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.

*

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

Mutual mutation

Mutual, mutable, mutate and mutant are all derived from the same Latin root, mutare, to change.

Mutual comes from Middle French mutuel, from Latin mutuus — lent, borrowed. Mutable, from Middle English, from Latin mutabilis.

Why should anyone care about this etymological bit of trivia? For me, the profoundest value of entering a relationship of mutuality — of that sacred acknowledgment of thou, of namaste, of the gassho gesture — is its transformative power, which is the most powerful demonstration that otherness is transcendent, real, relevant and radically surprising.

Speaking of etymologies, surprise has a surprising etymology: sur, super + prise, take, derived from prendre. Prendre is also the root of comprise and comprehend, to together-take. Surprise is the eversion (the flipping inside-out) of comprise — to be taken by what is super, beyond, above.

To remain alert to what always transcends any particular comprehension is a kind of everted comprehension that complements every comprehension with expectation of potentially disruptive always-more — I want to call that suprehension.

Comprise : surprise :: comprehend : suprehend

Suprehension is a vectoral state of awareness toward a permanent possibility of radical shock, a something that will change everything, which is the prize of mutuality.

Suprehension is fallibilism, but intensified, charged with positive value and religious significance.

Suprehension is knowledge placed in the context of infinity as qualitative fact.

(Infinity as qualitative fact means infinity produces novel categories that have never before produced instances. And only instances of categories are countable.)

Feeling, interpretation and reality

I showed this clip of Henry Thomas’s audition for E.T. to Susan yesterday. She says she hadn’t stopped thinking about it since, because it has raised important questions for her: Isn’t it strange and even disturbing that someone can have that much emotion about something that is purely imaginary? This raises further questions: How much of what we feel is directly caused by reality? How much comes from how we interpret reality? How much of it is a response to our own imaginations?

For Susan, this clip is a dramatic case study for exploring some basic questions important to both educators and religious people connected with cultivating ways of thinking, perceiving and acting in the world.

When she shared her reflections with me, my mind took it in a social-political direction: What does it mean to understand another person’s experiences? What elements in accounts of experiences can be reasonably debated? What norms ought to govern conversations about other people’s experiences and what they imply about truth and morality?

Some actual real-life examples:

  • Someone has a religious experience and undergoes a conversion. They see, hear and feel things that they know are real which suggest new truths to them that they consider indubitable and universal. How ought they relate their new truths to someone like myself, who has not experienced what they have? How should I respond to their truth claims, and the assertion that the claims are relevant to and in fact binding to me?
  • Someone is situated differently in society than I am, and has been from birth. They have been treated differently, learned (and absorbed) different beliefs about themselves, must behave differently to get along, and consequently have developed a very different worldview than mine — one that (according to this worldview) makes me unable to understand how they think and feel, implicates me as responsible for the state of society that has produced and continues to produce their situation. And further, the convergence of the essential unknowability of this alien worldview, my complicity in their suffering and my obligation to sacrifice to remedy this state of affairs produces a defensive reaction from people with my worldview. How should I address these claims? How do I respond to the claim that (according to this worldview) there is really only one acceptable response?
  • After a lengthy, arduous and painful struggle with a set of questions, I have a philosophical epiphany and undergo a conversion experience. Only personal struggle with the line of thought I followed will induce the conversion, and until the conversion is undergone, the conversion is impossible to understand at all. I feel isolated in this new worldview (it is like spiritual solitary confinement), and desperately need others in my life to understand it, but to do so requires inordinate amounts of time, energy and suffering. In this situation, what is reasonable to ask from loved ones, especially when they are unable to understand my distress?

 

My friend who shared this video with me got barraged  out of the blue with thoughts yesterday, as these questions coalesced in my head. We had debated the understandability of marginal perspectives, and the morality of listening versus arguing, and trusting versus challenging, and for me this video became a great reference point for the conversation. Here’s the spew, slightly cleaned up:

I can’t believe they were taking E.T. away from Henry Thomas!

Those emotions he was having were real.

And that means the thing he was having emotions about is also real, otherwise we are telling him that his emotions are not real and valid, right?

The only way I can know the truth about the reality he is having emotions about is to talk with him and let him explain it to me. Because i am not the one having those emotions, I have to listen to him about it and believe what he tells me. It is not my place to argue against experiences I don’t know.

Right?

That’s the logic of Progressivism.

There is a confusion between:

  1. the subjective experience (including the emotions),
  2. the interpretation that produces the subjective experience of the emotions, and
  3. the reality that is interpreted and becomes object of the subjective experience.

Progressivism blends these three things into a single unknowability that requires us to listen to the one and to believe what they tell us about a reality they are experiencing, about which they and have special and exclusive knowledge.

Not that there is not special and exclusive knowledge involved in the account. I cannot really know or dispute #1. There I must take someone’s word for it.

But I can, through active listening, come to understand #2. With effort and feedback, I can pick up their way of interpreting their experiences and apply it to make sense of phenomena (this is known as intellectual empathy), even if I cannot have exactly the same subjective experience they have. Further, I can compare this way of interpreting phenomena with alternative interpretations of the same phenomenon, and note the different implications and see where different emotions might occur. While interpretations are not really debatable, they are open to a gentle  form of challenge that far too few people know about: dialogue. I call it gentle because it requires voluntary mutual effort to achieve. (There’s another grisly alternative to interpretive change, which I will only mention but not discuss. Brainwashing can replace one interpretation with another.)

And #3 is entirely public and open to dispute, apart from all emotions. Claims about reality are about things we have in common. The fact that they are perceived, interpreted, experienced and produce knowledge through subjective experience (#1) does not make the reality itself subjective. The reality remains transcendent and open to a plurality of interpretations and subjective responses. It is here where debate is appropriate.

Only if we take it for granted that feelings and objects of feelings are inseparable can we conclude with progressivists that it is impossible to understand the experiences of other people. Only the feelings they have about those experiences are unknowable in principle.

*

Many Progressivist who are parents harm their children irreparably though this same confusion. When their children throw tantrums, they fail to pick apart the validity of their emotions from their mode of interpretation and its fidelity to fact. Because the emotions must be honored, so does the childish worldview and the current understanding or misunderstanding of the state of affairs. This prevents children from growing up and learning to separate these three ontological layers, which is a condition of civilized adulthood. Or to put it in old-fashioned language, they spoil their children and make them into confused narcissistic permanent adolescents.

Wordworlds

Design is tacit value proposition.

*

[That’s all I meant to say originally, but then this came out…]

*

Proposition. As if value is something we talk about.

The greater the value, the more words fail us.

The best design has je ne sais quoi.

The best in life is je ne sais quoi.

Value drives us beyond words.

*

Words do matter — a lot! — but they easily become an insulating, alienating layer between ourselves and our interactions.

Words can even slip between ourselves and our words. Fluency gives way to turgidness as words direct words to use words.

Somewhere beneath the layers of linguistic gloves is a wordless hand.

*

Poetry is the attempt to handle words directly, skin to skin.

*

In the end,
the trees will grow like snakes,
splitting and sloughing bark,
bending in coils of green heartwood;
and the snakes will grow like trees,
depositing skin under skin,
and in their turgid leather casings,
they will lie about on the ground
like broken branches.

*

earlier

Rorty therapy

To recover from a rough couple of weeks and, also, to clarify my thoughts on liberalism, I am rereading Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. I wish I still had the paperback I read the first time through, because I would like to see if I am underlining the same things. It feels very different to me reading this in the midst of a Trump presidency, a pandemic shutdown and an unprecedented intensification and expansion of progressivism.

So far, the one thing that is standing out to me, partly because of conversations I’ve been having with fellow-Rortian, Nick Gall, is a suspicion that I might have a slightly different conception of how language fits into human life than Rorty does. I want to try to nail down the difference as simply as possible so I can 1) confirm this difference actually exists, and 2) track the pragmatic consequences of the difference as I continue the book. This is especially important because my next book (or first book, if you do not consider a 9-page art pamphlet a proper book) is closely connected to this question.

So here is what I am seeing. While Rorty and I appear to share an instrumentalist view of language — that is, language ought to be viewed more like tools we use than as expressions of self or representations of world — Rorty appears to privilege language as uniquely constitutive of our human way of being, where I see language as one instrument of many (albeit, the most important one), and that interaction with all of these instruments together contributes much to our being. However even the sum of all instrumental relations falls well short of constituting the whole. Non-instrumental forms of relationship (for instance, those we have with loved ones) are as important as instrumental ones, and constitute much of what we often consider our moral character. If I were to reduce human being to one essential ingredient, I would prefer interaction to language.

No doubt, I will continue this line of thought as I read further.

God, I love Rorty. I am smarter and happier when I’m reading him.

1200 cubic centimeter universe

The supreme evil is solipsism.

To prefer one’s own imagined world to the transcendently real world —

To prefer one’s own categories to the real being of fellow-beings —

To prefer one’s own theorized dynamics to the actual doing of fellow beings —

To prefer one’s own moral formulae to the intrinsic value of fellow beings —

And to terrorize, dominate, suppress or punish the beings of the real world for non-compliance with one’s own imagined Truth —

All these are symptoms of misapotheosis.

*

Misapotheosis is confusing one’s own self with God — It is a hubris of simple ignorance — Of willful ignorance of transcendent being — Of contempt for all that defies one’s own mind-products — Of hatred of infinity and infinity’s dread — Of the dread of the indefinable.

A semblance of omniscience requires shrinking omni to the paltry 1200 cubic centimeters that fit inside a human skull.

*

Only with extreme and willful ignorance of the overwhelming majesty and richness of reality can we confuse ourselves for God and prefer our own tiny truth with the vastness of Reality.

To maintain such titanic hubris we need lots of help.

So we duplicate our little omniscience, pour it inside other skulls with a similar need to possess Truth.

This produces universality.

Everyone knows that this contained universe, reproduced inside likeminded skulls is universally true, because everyone who knows anything knows this.

And, also, we know exactly why those others who deny the truth cannot accept the truth.

We know the unbeliever’s conscious and unconscious ulterior motives — and that is a part of the truth we know. Everyone who knows anything knows this.

“What? You search? You would multiply yourself by ten, by a hundred? You seek followers?– Seek zeros! –“

*

If you can stand the humiliation of seeing yourself within an infinite perspective — as one unique spark in an infinite fire — you can participate in God instead of needing either to be God, or to deny God.

*

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.’”

Man, I really hate Fundamentalism

Religion (when it is real religion) helps form an active, mutual relationship between a person and the infinite reality in whom each person participates as a unique, divine spark.

Fundamentalism (which is misunderstood as extreme religion, but which is failure of religion) severs relationship with infinite reality and replaces in with beliefs. The entirety of Fundamentalism’s metaphysics — “god”, types of people, categories, moral judgment — takes place inside the skull of the “believer”. Its heaven is imagined and the god who riles over this imagined kingdom is the believer. I call this misapotheosis: stupid confusion of oneself with God and confusion of Creation with the paltry product of one’s own creative imagination.

Fundamentalism places all emphasis of the factual content of its belief, so it sees no connection between itself and other denominations of Fundamentalism. What could be more opposite, Christianism and Progressivism? But each approaches belief the same way and approaches non-believers the same way. The faith is identical, and the differing content is a superficial difference.

Recovering “Christian” Fundamentalists are especially vulnerable to Progressivism. Fundamentalists rarely are able to recover real religious life. They wander through life god-gutted and empty, able only to stop the Fundamentalist habits, but unable to re-conceive religious life in order to live it. Then something like Progressivist Fundamentalism comes along and the sheer familiarity of it is seductive. Fundamentalism kicks back into motion with new omniscient fervor.

New drug, old habit.

I will say it again: the distance between Fundamentalisms is paper-thin. The distance between Fundamentalism (and its always-oppressive political agendas) and authentic religion (and its liberal agenda — yes liberal religion is the purest form!) is vast.

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.

*

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.

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.