Leafy says that welcoming the stranger might include welcoming the stranger in people we know well.
What I have been looking for is a vision of liberalism that justifies personhood (individuality) as our best access to God, because 1) it is only as a person that we encounter God as God, 2) it is only in interaction with fellow persons willing to accept and share personal uniqueness that we encounter God in others, and 3) it is through authentically personal and interpersonal encounters with reality in its myriadfold being that humankind cultivates living, sustaining communities.
Such person-founded communities help people 1) intuitively and spontaneously feel the value of life because the value of life flows into it from what surrounds and exceeds it, 2) to act effectively to create, preserve, repair and strengthen the necessary conditions for community in which personhood flourishes and 3) to share, preserve and honor these understanding through clear, demonstrable and inspiring accounts of truth, but truth that is sharply aware that it is only a part of reality, a mediating surface — a person-reality interface — not a container for reality, and certainly not a substitute.
Truth is especially not a container or substitute for any person. This is the crux of liberalism.
Where we try to substitute truth for reality and most of all the reality of others, we suffer the fate of King Midas. Everything and everyone we touch turns to cold, hard truth, and the world becomes a lonely, pointless and oppressive place.
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!
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 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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, and how identity relates to language, specifically to pronouns.
I think I might have a different perspective on identity than some others. It is fascinating to me that so many people naturally think of themselves as a “he”, or as a “she”, or as something between or outside the culturally-defined gender gamut.
This excessive focus on gender seems to me to be distracting us from a much more problematic issue.
When I reflect on my own thinking about myself, it is clear that I have never thought of myself in gendered terms — nor, for that matter, in third-person terms.
Whenever I think of myself, it is always in the first-person. This fact is consistently reflected in my speech: Whenever I refer to myself, I invariably choose the pronouns “I” or “me” or “my”.
However, people invariably ignore these obvious language cues and without asking, presume they can refer to me with second-person and third-person pronouns.
When they do this the implications are impossible to miss. 1) They are assigning me the status of an object of experience in their world, not the experiencing subject of my own world. 2) They are relegating me to the periphery of their awareness — and possibly other people’s awareness as well! — and denying my centrality within my own awareness. 3) Worst of all they render me interchangeable with any number of he-/she-/ze-/they-objects, and in doing so deny the uniqueness of my own self-same identity and perspective.
Not only are these implicit impositions entirely contrary to my self-understanding, they are profoundly disorienting, alienating and threatening.
For all these reasons I am respectfully asking everyone to honor my pronoun preferences, and in the future to address me as I/me/mine.
I am aware that this language change might feel unfamiliar at first, but I assure you that this discomfort is minor compared to the anguish of constantly being made to live among people who refuse to recognize that I am not just some thing or person, but I.
Thank you in advance for your compliance with my choice.
Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.
These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.
Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:
- Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
- Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
- Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)
Westernized “eastern religion” appears to assume that the divinity within each human soul is identical with that of every other human soul, that what is idiosyncratically personal ought to be dissolved and replaced with blissful universality
But what if the opposite is true? — What is a liberated soul is released from universality and is freed for uniqueness as one of an infinitude of unique organs of divine existence, each with its own position and purpose within an incomprehensibly diverse whole, alike only in the fact of its belonging-in-God and its containment of a universe within its own experience.
It is each of us, each divine spark looking out on creation, that makes any one thing the same as another. Each divine spark creates a world-within-world of likeness and sameness which is unlike any other world.
“Freed for uniqueness” means not only to present or express a unique self but to experience uniquely — to exist in uniquity. Among other implications, this means coloring outside the lines of language: experiencing nameless experiences and respecting them despite (or even more!) for their language-defiance. If we are moved to speech we speak poetically, because this is why poetry happens.
But also “freed for uniqueness” means freedom to relate to other unique being where one asks for relationship. If you have ears to hear it, this happens all the time. Each unique being wants its uniqueness known. But this simple desire asks the world of the would-be knower.
Being freed for uniquity enables us to give the world (our present world) when asked, for the sake of a unique being who asks to be known as unique. This is love.
I am not sure I can say I fully believe this vision, and I’m aware of its self-contadictions, but the beauty of the vision cannot be denied and it has the virtue of presenting an alternative to the intuitions of conventional wiseness. Plus, it would be the most liberal metaphysics possible.
(All this may be nothing more than a rehashing Leibniz’s monadology.)
Sunday morning I was talking with Zoe about different varieties of unattainable ideals, and further developing a distinction I made last week, when I criticized altruism for belonging to a misconception of being and relationship that produces ineffective practices and bad results, contrasting it with “impossible” ideals which can never be fully actualized but which are valuable, nonetheless.
Here’s the start of a glossary of unattainable ideals:
Sacred mirage: an impossible end is justified by intrinsically valuable means — so even though the goal is unattainable on principle (that is, progress even toward it is absurd) the effect of pursuing the ideal is intrinsically good.
Asymptotic ideal: an end can never be fully attained, but steady progress toward that end is possible — so the act of pursuing the ideal can be expected to produce value even if perfection is never reached. Rorty’s concept of progress as measured by movement away from a negative ideal is helpful in cases of asymptotic ideal.
Futile ideal: an unattainable end fails to justify means whose value is purely utilitarian — because the value of the means is contingent on attainment of an unattainable goal the act of pursuing the goal is a waste of time and effort.
Corrupt ideal: a misconceived end produces intrinsically harmful means — so, not only is the end impossible, the means employed to obtain it are damaging. A corrupt ideal is an inversion of a sacred mirage, a “desecrating mirage”.
I regard altruism in its myriad forms as a corrupt ideal. It does not produce relationship with real others, but intense feelings toward categories of person who exist primarily in the imagination of the altruist.
I see the illiberal fringes of progressivism as rejecting liberal democracy as a futile ideal, when, in fact, it is an asymptotic ideal, and desiring to replace it with a corrupt ideal, which ultimately undermines their leftism and enthrones them as the elite arbiters of justice according to their own corrupt ideal. The “illiberal left” is not leftist at all, but rather an alt-alt-right who wants to abandon the principles of both liberalism and democracy in order to administer its own moral vision on a majority who does not share their vision (even if they prefer it as a lesser evil to right-illiberalism).
The illiberal fringes of the right also subscribe to a corrupt ideal, antithetical to the left, but antagonistically cooperative with it. I call these antithetical pairings “Ares’s hand-puppets” because they are animated by the same kind of collective hubris that justifies the indignation and retaliation of the other. The illiberal right also pursues an ideal entirely incompatible with liberal democracy, based on scientistic convictions that have nothing to do with science, and which are unacceptable to the majority (even if they prefer it to progressivist-illiberalism).
Liberal democracy, as I said, is an asymptotic ideal, but it also has virtues of a sacred mirage, that is, liberal-democratic practice has life-enhancing virtues apart from the progress it effects, and the more I contemplate it, the more the intrinsic value of the ideal appears to surpass its contingent value. The intrinsic value might even serve as the source of the continent value, in that progress toward the liberal democratic ideal means that increasing numbers of people benefit from the intrinsic value of pursuing the liberal-democratic ideal.
Now that I’ve applied these concepts (informally prototype tested them), I’m seeing opportunities for refinement by categorizing unattainable ideals as having three dimensions:
- Practicability (practicable / impracticable): is it possible to progress toward the ideal’s goal?
- Intrinsicality (intrinsic / contingent): How much intrinsic value do the means have?
- Morality (positive / negative): What is the intrinsic value of the means?
Are souls body-size? Are souls ghostly bodies that fit inside the silhouettes of the bodies they haunt and animate? Most of us assume it, even if — or maybe especially when — we don’t look for alternative understandings.
I definitely used to assume this stance toward minds, souls, spirits. I no longer find it persuasive. In fact, I see it as our primary source of political dysfunction and increasing difficulty collaborating on improving our lives together.
What follows is a series of unsubstantiated statements about souls. These are offered for the sake of entertainment, in the sense of “entertain a possibility.” Try these ideas on, and see if they coalesce and help explain phenomena that have defied explanation or articulation, or if they bring realities to life that seemed nonexistent before.
- Every soul is universe-size.
- Every soul has a certain rhythmic density, determined by where it sees reality and relevance.
- Every soul overlaps other souls and shares a world to the degree they “coincide” in matters that matter in common, whether those matters are material or otherwise.
- This overlapping, partial coinciding of souls is at one reason why we speak of other people’s “vibrations” or frequencies: we pick up on whether another person’s pattern of relevance reinforces ours or interferes causing them to miss the point of what we see, feel, do and say, and to see relevance where we don’t (what we see as trivial or pointless) and to get worked up about things that we believe don’t matter or don’t exist. A radically different pattern of relevance can cause someone to ignore the reality of our existence at all, or to skip over the fact of our own existence as an irrelevant bit of irritating noise or as an unsuspected nothingness concealed in a scotoma between the beats of their awareness.
- Respect is nearly automatic when our soul is tuned the same as another, when harmonious belief is natural.
- Respect is difficult when our tunings are different and we find ourselves marching to different drums, interfering with one another’s visions of life, working at cross-purposes, when we find other people… a bit off. Why would we attempt to acquire respect for someone who is maybe not respectable, who maybe doesn’t respect us? We ask: “What’s in it for me to change my understanding?”
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.
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.
If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.
… Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.
— from “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964
I’ve had a copy of Hofstadter’s book sitting on my side table for the last couple of years, but I have never gotten around to reading it. While I find conversation on the substance of specific paranoid fantasies to be tedious, interminable, unproductive and palpably degrading, as an object of inquiry I find the phenomenon of the intellectual style itself to be fascinating and, sadly, relevant. Maybe it is time to pick it up and read it.
I’ve met people who cope with life’s stresses with distraction, with narrowness, with willpower and with inspiration.
Distraction and narrowness are both avoidance strategies. Distraction often takes the form of a “work hard, play hard” life, oscillating between extreme busyness and extreme entertainment that never leaves time for sustained intensive reflection and the discomfort that attends it. Narrowness does the same thing with different means. Narrowness focuses all attention on a defined region of activity or knowledge, a subject that occupies one’s mind without pushing it past its own limits and producing discomfort.
Willpower does confront discomfort directly but pushes straight through it in order to achieve goals, and to develop skills for overcoming discomfort and maintaining control, focus and equanimity.
Inspiration can go multiple ways. Inspiration can seek sources of meaning that make discomfort seem worthwhile in the context of a meaningful life. It can also look for meaning precisely in the places that produce discomfort, so that sources of discomfort and meaning are the same, but the meaning outweighs and redeems the suffering. Finally, one can seek meaning precisely in suffering (or at least certain forms of suffering), so now the suffering isn’t balanced against meaning but is viewed as a signal of potential meaning and a path into meaning.
I’m sure there are more coping methods, but these are the ones that came to mind first. I’m watching many of my friends moving from avoidance strategies to willpower strategies through the practices of stoicism, and it’s sensitized me to differences among approaches.
If you are a person who invests your best time and effort into understanding what matters most to you, chances are you’ll end up understanding things differently from most people in your life.
But everyone has some kind of understanding of what matters most to them, even if they have not spent time explicitly interrogating it. And by virtue of the fact that these understandings attach to the most important things, the understandings are invested with great importance and might even be counted among the most important things.
This means there is not only a difference in understanding, but a morally-charged difference in understanding.
That moral charge often manifests as taboo against even hints of doubt, much less approaching in a questioning spirit, much less engaging in active interrogation.
So not only is there a morally-charged difference in morality, but also a morally-charged difference in whether we even ought to actively seek a deeper and possibly destructive understanding of understandings of precisely what we value most.
The strangest thing about digging beneath prohibitions against digging into morally-charged understandings, it how much general understanding and how many quotidian beliefs get undermined in the process. These questions literally change everything, including, perhaps most of all, what is meant by the word “everything” when we say it, how much that word comprises.
Everythings come in many sizes.
What is the basic unit of measurement of a soul? Everything.
Our souls give each other’s souls space to live.
The harder you work at understanding — whether you succeed or fail does not matter, but only how much you ultimately diverge from the norm — the less you can expect to be understood, because many cannot follow the thinking and many more refuse to. The difference between people who would if they could but really can’t, and people who could if they would but really won’t becomes starkly evident, and starkly significant.
A lot of longing for freedom might be best explained as existential FOMO. It is a fear of committing to one concrete future self and missing out on all the other future selves who could have been.
I’m reminded of an insight from Nietzsche, where he says something to the effect of: don’t tell me what you want freedom from; tell me what you want freedom for.
The problem with the freedom that existential FOMO craves is that it excludes the positive freedom of being someone, not only because being someone requires sustained effort and discipline, but also because substantial relationships with other people depends on us being someone who can be counted on to be there when we are needed.
A person who seems to be one person one day and another person the next… a person who values very different things depending on context and mood… a person who daydreams of one life one day, and another life the next… a person who’s constantly revising their autobiography and recasting characters (making heroes into villains and villains into heroes to suit the trajectory of the plot, or reassigning stars to bit-parts and bit-parts to star roles to fit the theme of the story du jour)… such people can be friends only with people who care little enough about relationships to skim over the whimsical inconstancy. Such lite friends can be very chill and easy to hang with, and they’ll give you all the freedom you want to be whoever you want to be in the moment, but they are as likely to relieve existential FOMO as a double shot of bourbon is to relieve craving for alcohol. That hollowness and that irritability that says you need more, more, better, better will intensify.
It is difficult to find that one future self you want to be. It doesn’t irrupt into your life as a grand fully-formed epiphany and blueprint. Nor does it appear as a person standing across the room — whether it’s that person you’ve waited for your entire life, or just someone who looks like the next fascinating nut to crack. Nor is it being discovered — first someone, then everyone! — finally realizing who I really am. If you are discovered this way, chances are you’re a by-product of someone else’s delusional self-discovery.
Too much chasing of this kind of self-actualization makes you lose your taste for everything that can make you into someone. Eventually you run out of time, energy and hope.
Being someone worth being takes alertness, sustained attention and a good eye, ear and nose for quiet and subtle hints of love — seeds of meaning that can be nurtured, grown, disciplined and made the core of life worth full commitment.
The best name for my approach to philosophy might be Design Instrumentalism, a variant of John Dewey’s Instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,
Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.
Design Instrumentalism differs from Dewey’s Instrumentalism in that it focuses on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and to be evaluated by design standards, such as Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable:
- How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
- How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
- How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?
Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should not be viewed as collections beliefs, but rather the fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention, guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive worldview and praxis.
Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it all solid, persuasive and boring to rehash. I prefer to just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.
- Pluralism (ontological and epistemological)
- Meliorism (as James conceived it, in the sharpest possible opposition to progressivism)
This is a good start of a list of Pragmatic presuppositions. I’m guessing some are missing, and many more could arguably be included. Phenomenology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Materiality Turn philosophies and, at least for me, Nietzschean ethics also figure heavily, but I’ll err toward underspecification to leave maximum room for variety.
One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like all ambitious philosophies, a meta-philosophy. It might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers, but it encourages the design of philosophies for those who do not find Design Instrumentalism itself valuable, and focused “single-use” philosophies for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of design problems.
Doing just this kind of reframing in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is exactly what drove me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.
It’s difficult, painful and uncanny to argue across fundamentally different worldviews. Not everyone can do it and even fewer will do it. It requires collaborative agon, and too much desire to avoid conflict or to make one’s own position prevail will destroy the conditions of success.
Recognizing a conflict that requires collaborative agon and conducting oneself accordingly is an essential dimension of reason, albeit an uncommon dimension, and entirely outside the limits of reasonable discourse for those who cannot imagine that all disagreements are not a matter of evidence and logic, nor is it a last resort to employ only after evidence and logic are exhausted.
Anxiety is an unpleasant type of inspiration.
Despising anxiety is not only a waste of inspiration, it is alienating.
The Golden Rule is not gold-plate — it is solid gold all the way down, and nobody finds the bottom. But a morally serious person follows the gold down as far as it goes, and further.
What does it mean to follow the Golden Rule deeper?
Starting at the surface: Do you want others to do do to you exactly what they want done to them? Would you like them to feed you only the food they want to eat themselves and make you listen to the music they would have played for them? Clearly this is not deep enough.
Further down: Would you like others to treat you justly, according to their own sense of justice, in disregard of what seems just, fair and good to you? Do you want them to privilege their own instincts and conceptions — their own conscience — which makes their justice seem as self-evident to them as yours is to you?
Do you want them to believe their anxious suspicions that you think and act in bad faith, and to do everything in their power to stop you and silence you if possible?
Clearly, we must mine deeper.
The more layers we dig beneath — and the more we undermine our own moral complacency by applying the Golden Rule as strictly to ourselves as we apply it to others — the more we discover not only changes in what we believe about morality, but we also change how we believe moral truths, and deeper still, why we care about morality.
When we make others anxious with our ideas, they are full of reasons why they ought to take their anxiety literally, give their paranoid suspicions full reign, and obey its logical consequences and shut us down in whatever way is most efficient.
And if we are willing to apply the Golden Rule symmetrically — as the Golden Rule implies we must — we find we do the same thing to others, all the time, constantly. We can find myriad reasons to silence others, if only in our own head, if only temporarily, if only through saying “maybe later…” It takes tremendous discipline and pain tolerance to do otherwise.
If we welcome anxiety as inspiration, interpreting what it says to us, letting it work on us, allowing it to be productive through us — everything changes.
Anxiety is how real transcendence feels before our understanding renders it immanent.
Anyone who wants religion to be an instrument for annihilating or banishing anxiety and having only peace — whether through outer-fight or through inner-flight — is looking for something other than religion.
Religion is for cultivating the fullest possible relationship with reality beyond our understanding. Religion is inherently anxious.
Liberalism is far deeper than authoritarians will allow themselves to know.
Maybe we need a Solid-Golden Rule: Apply the Golden Rule to yourself as you would have others apply it to themselves.