Category Archives: Holism

Ancestors and siblings of process thought

While I’m scanning passages from C. Robert Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy, here are two more that inspired me.

The first passage appeals to my designer consciousness:

Descartes was wrong in his basic dualism. The world is not composed of substances or of two kinds of substances. There is, however, what David Ray Griffin calls an “organizational duality.” Descartes was correct that rocks and chairs and other large physical objects do not have minds, while humans do. In Whiteheadian terms, rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them. In living organisms, however, there can be varying degrees to which the organism is structured to give rise to a single series of feelings that can function to direct the organism as a whole. We can see fairly clearly that at least higher animals like chimps and dogs have a psyche (mind or soul) chat is in many ways like our own. This psyche draws experience from the whole body (with varying degrees of directness and clarity), often crossing a threshold into some degree of consciousness, and is able in turn to use that awareness to direct the organism toward actions that help it to survive and achieve some enjoyment of life. The self, or soul, then is not something separate from the body. It arises out of the life of the body, especially the brain.

The mind/soul/psyche is the flow of the body’s experience. Yet your body produces a unique mind that is also able to have experiences reaching beyond those derived directly from the body. We can think about philosophy, love, mathematics, or death in abstract conceptual ways that are not merely physical perceptions. Without the body, there would be no such flow of experience, but with a properly organized body, there can be a flow of experience that moves beyond purely bodily sensation. Furthermore, your mind can clearly interact with your body so that you can move, play, eat, hug, and work. There is a kind of dualism here in that the mind is not only the body but it is, in Griffin’s phrase, a hierarchical dualism rather than a metaphysical one. There are not two kinds of substances — minds and bodies. There is one kind of reality — experience. But experience has both its physical and mental aspects.

To my ears, this is a beautiful dovetail joint waiting to be fitted to extended cognition. “Rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them” but if a human organizes those rocks in particular ways, for instance drilling and shaping them into abacus beads, or melting them down to manufacture silicon chips, those rocks can be channeled into extended cognitive systems which in a very real way become extensions of our individual and collective minds. It is ironic to me that even at this exact instance, in typing out this sentence, a thought is forming before my eyes with the help of rocks reorganized as silicon chips which are participating in the “having” of this very thought. And if anyone is reading this and understanding it, my thought, multi-encoded, transmitted, decoded and interpreted by your own intelligence — rocks have helped organize this event of understanding! Humans help organize more and more of the “inanimate” world into participants of experience.

And now we are wading out into the territory developed by Actor-Network Theory, which asks, expecting intricately branching detailed answers: How do humans and non-humans assemble themselves into societies? I think the commonality within these harmoniously similar thought programs is their common rootedness in Pragmatism. It is no accident that Richard J. Bernstein saw pragmatism as a constructive way out of  the unbridled skeptical deconstruction of post-modernism, and that Whitehead, who acknowledged a debt to Pragmatism, is said to offer a constructive postmodernism.

The second passage appeals to my newly Jewish hermeneutic consciousness. This is a quote by Whitehead:

The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.

This, of course, is a description of the hermeneutic circle, the concept that we understand parts in terms of the concepts by which we understand them, but that our concepts are often modified (or replaced) in the effort to subsume recalcitrant parts. We tack between focusing on the details and (to the degree we are reflective) revisiting how we are conceptualizing those details. These are the two altitudes Whitehead mentions: an on-the-ground investigation of detail and a sky-view survey of how all those details fit together.

This is an ancient analogy. The Egyptians made the ibis, an animal with a head like a snake (the lowest animal) and the body of a bird (the highest animal) the animal of Thoth, their god of writing, the Egyptian analogue to Hermes. Nietzsche also used this image in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and that is where I first encountered it.

An eagle soared through the sky in wide circles, and on him there hung a serpent, not like prey but like a friend: for she kept herself wound around his neck. “These are my animals,” said Zarathustra and was happy in his heart. “The proudest animal under the sun and the wisest animal under the sun — they have gone out on a search. They want to determine whether Zarathustra is still alive. Verily, do I still live? I found life more dangerous among men than among animals; on dangerous paths walks Zarathustra. May my animals lead me!” When Zarathustra had said this he recalled the words of the saint in the forest, sighed, and spoke thus to his heart: “That I might be wiser! That I might be wise through and through like my serpent! But there I ask the impossible: so I ask my pride that it always go along with my wisdom. And when my wisdom leaves me one day — alas, it loves to fly away — let my pride then fly with my folly.”

And I have seen the Star of David as an image of the synthesis of atomistic ground-up and holistic sky-down understandings. And this is one reason I chose Nachshon (“snakebird”) as my Hebrew name when I converted to Judaism.

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(Eventually, I’ll have to try to connect process thought with my extremely simplistic and possibly distorted understanding of chaos theory. Eventually.)

Hermeneutical/rhetorical bow

This is a redrawing of a diagram I played with in 2009. It is meant to show the relationship of making and understanding and how it weaves between thinking top-down in wholes, and then bottom-up in terms of parts. It was originally inspired by learning (from Richard J. Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism) that the hermeneutical circle was based on a model from rhetoric theory.

hr-bow

Ricoeur

I am beginning to really like Ricoeur:

Let us look once more at the functioning of ordered polysemy, which we considered earlier with field theory at the level of language. Then it was a question of limited polysemy; ordered polysemy is properly a meaning effect produced in discourse. When I speak, I realize only a part of the potential signified; the rest is erased by the total signification of the sentence, which operates as the unit of speaking. But the rest of the semantic possibilities are not canceled; they float around the words as possibilities not completely eliminated. The context thus plays the role of filter; when a single dimension of meaning passes through by means of the play of affinities and reinforcements of all analogous dimensions of other lexical terms, a meaning effect is created which can attain perfect univocity, as in technical languages. It is in this way that we make univocal statements with multivocal words by means of this sorting or screening action of the context. It happens, however, that a sentence is constructed so that it does not succeed in reducing the potential meaning to a monosemic usage but maintains or even creates a rivalry among several ranges of meaning. Discourse can, by various means, realize ambiguity, which thus appears as the combination of a lexical fact — polysemy — and a contextual fact — the possibility allowed to several distinct or even opposed values of a single name to be realized in the same sequence.

I’m picturing this thought as a venn diagram. The first word in a sentence is a vast circle of possible meanings, but as more words are spoken, more huge circles are added to the diagram, and the overlap shrinks. With each word, the overlap is eaten into until the overlap is no more than a point. Or… even better one finds no overlap at all, or multiple convergence points, and the listener/reader is forced to revisit each of the word-circles to see if one has neglected a dimension of meaning which is the key to understanding. This is why, when reading I always read with a dictionary at hand. I do not gloss over unfamiliar words or attempt to grasp the gist of their meaning contextually. It is precisely the unfamiliar words (and the familiar words used in an unfamiliar way) that challenge the assumed context by which one understands.

Coming to understanding something someone says means changing the very context one by which one understands. And, just to make it personal, understanding what someone says is the same as understanding that person. The ability to merely describe repeating behavioral patterns (even if those patterns make a person’s behavior predictable), or even to explain behavior in psychological terms (even if those explanations make people’s behavior in general explicable or even predictable) is not to understand them, but to bypass understanding them as people and instead to understand patterns or explanations. Most people find the latter much much more comfortable, because it fits neatly within an existing understanding, and therefore is a science and not a philosophy.

Vision management

To be assigned responsibility for something is almost synonymous with taking care of all the details of some work activity or work product. But rarely is anyone assigned responsibility for maintaining the vision of the whole in the execution of the parts.

A management truism applies: “If nobody is responsible for getting a job done, it won’t get done.”

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If you suggest that vision needs to be managed apart from the details many people will dismiss the thought on the grounds that once you’ve conceived an idea (in the form of a strategy or a concept), and developed a plan to execute it, the whole is contained in the details.

This is untrue.

It only seems that way because the majority of businesspeople are intellectually blind to wholeness. It isn’t that they can’t feel the difference between a whole and a fragmented mess — it’s just that they don’t know how to think about the problem and prefer to ignore it. We let wholes slide, because it’s hard to bust someone for neglecting a whole. It feels very… subjective. Parts are objective, so that’s where we focus.

But ignoring wholes is what makes so many companies competent but mediocre.

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Philosophies have practical consequences, even when we are not aware we hold any philosophy at all. As Bob Dylan said: “It might be the devil / or it might be the Lord / but you’ve gotta serve somebody.” Actually, it is especially when we are unaware it that a philosophy’s influence is strongest, determining our thoughts, perceptions and action.

One philosophy 95% of people in the modern world believe without knowing it, which they have unconsciously absorbed through cultural osmosis and accepted unquestioningly, is atomism.

According to atomism, wholes are made entirely out of parts. Once all the parts are accounted for, the whole is accounted for as well. In other words, wholes are reducible to parts.

Holism asserts that wholes have an existence independent of their particular constitution (of parts). Some holists say that wholes are what give meaning to parts, and that parts deprived of the context of a whole are inconceivable. Reductionistic holists go as far as to claim that all we have is wholes which have been artificially or arbitrarily divided up into parts.

I’m against reductionism on principle. I think wholes have one kind of being, and parts have another kind of being, and that human beings find life most satisfying when wholes and parts are made to converge.

And my philosophy has practical consequences: wholes need management as much as parts do. And when you do not explicitly manage a wholes the parts will overpower, degrade and smother the whole.

This happens to products, to initiatives, and to organizations.

We forget wholes, mostly because we don’t understand what they are and how they work.

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Inevitably and automatically, if allowed to develop by their own logic, parts diverge from the whole.

Parts tend to work themselves out according to the most local conditions, governed more by expedience, habit and myopia than by the guidance of vision. This type of localized logic is made of very crude forces and very tangible considerations.

Envisaged wholes are more fragile, at least at the beginning, before they are firmly established. They must be protected from the roughness of localized logic, like as we fence off sprouts and saplings until they’ve established themselves and no longer need protection.

Envisaged wholes (especially unprecedented wholes) are vulnerable in three specific ways. They are essentially inchoate, elusive, ephemeral .

  1. Envisaged wholes are essentially inchoate. — We tend to think of vision as being the envisioning of a whole, a detailed picturing of some possible reality. That is not how it happens. Vision is sensing a possibility. Some of the possibility is given in broad outline, and some of it is given in arbitrary detail, but most of it is simply latent in a situation, there but inaccessible to the imagination. As the situation develops under guidance of the vision, the development is recognized as conforming or deviating from the vision. But what is strange is that the vision itself is affected by the recognition. The vision understands itself, reflected in the concrete attempts to actualize it, in a dialogical process of revelation. This is why visions are not directly translatable into plans. The plan must accommodate and support the development of the vision, or it is only a recipe for sterility.
  2. Envisaged wholes are elusive. — While virtually all people are capable of recognizing and categorizing objects, and virtually every professional is capable of grasping processes and plans, relatively few are able to understand or conceive concepts, even after they have been clarified and articulated. An envisaged whole gains concreteness, clarity and general accessibility in the course of its development, and as it does it comes into view of more and more people. In its early stages, though, the fact of its existence, much less its nature will be far from obvious, and completely beyond the grasp of most people. Those with firsthand experience with vision know this process. Those who don’t either operate by faith and support the process or they undermine it, or they create conditions where vision doesn’t even happen. (In many organization, the wholes are determined solely by leadership; but leadership is earned through success in managing details. The result: the only people able to earn the right to set vision are precisely the ones with absolutely no awareness of vision. They try to provide their organizations with “vision”, but all they know how to come up with are ambitions, metrics, and plans to accomplish what’s been done before.)
  3. Envisaged wholes are ephemeral. — Because of how they are known, envisaged wholes are very easily corrupted and forgotten. They are revealed in dialogue with concrete actualization. The vision tries to respond to the actualization. If the actualization is not responsive to the vision and moves away from it far enough, the vision will lose not only its hold on the process, it will get caught up in the localized logic of the development and lose itself altogether. This is what is meant by getting “too close to the situation”. The vision holder must maintain the right balance of contact with the situation — close enough to guide it, but far enough from it to see when the development has begun to go off-track. When nobody is permitted the distance, and everyone is required to roll up their sleeves and get mired in the details, the vision’s chances of survival are nil. The problem is not with the vision, nor with the visionary, but with the absence of conditions necessary for maintaining vision.

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The captain of a ship, after charting the ship’s course and pointing it in the right direction, went below deck and grabbed an oar.

Blind to darkness

A question can be seen as a kind of intellectual darkness waiting to be illuminated by an answer.

Philosophy is not about illuminating darkness. It is about turning one’s head and making visible new regions where darkness and light can exist to one who asks and answers. It is about discovering new questions one has never thought to ask. And when the answers change the character of one’s spontaneous (pre-interpreted) lived existence — when the changes are authentically subjective, meaning the change is experienced as a transfiguration of the world (as opposed to a modification of one’s psychological attributes or one’s opinions about this or that fact, however fundamental that fact is) — philosophy crosses over its line into religion.

Where the sciences answer darkness with light, religion answers with vision questions philosophy raises from blindness.

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As long as a science or philosophy does all its own asking and answering it remains sterile. Fertility requires otherness.

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The best seem to speak only to their own kind. Nobody else understands them.

What is the cause of this, and what is the effect? Nobody understands because nobody wishes to understand. But, maybe the wish to understand has never been awakened simply because they haven’t been asked to understand. For sure, the wish to understand doesn’t want to wake up — but who ever thanks someone for waking them when they’re trying to sleep?

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Calling someone a scientist’s scientist or an artist’s artist or a musician’s musician — this is usually considered a complement. I hope someday soon it will be considered a devastating criticism.

Are there any poets left who are not poet’s poets?

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Collective solipsism is not much better than individual solipsism.

There are even forms of collective solipsism that encourage individual solipsism.

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Years ago I knew someone who insisted that there is no essential difference between the understanding of a technical manual and understanding a poem.  This failure to distinguish between different orders of understanding makes knowing what a self is impossible. It reduces subjectivity to psychological terms — that is, it forces subjectivity into objective thought-forms. This failure always has a peculiarly moral character — it seems to originate in need rather than incapacity. Perhaps it originates in the fear of a need.

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Sight knows only what is visible. Experience knows only what has been experienced.

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Negation does not produce the negative. If negation is possible, the negative is already gone. Philosophy has already occured and cannot be undone. Innocence is irretrievably lost.

Hegel on practical transcendence

Hegel’s introduction to Phenomenology of Mind contains a description of what I have been calling practical transcendence:

This dialectic process which consciousness executes on itself — on its knowledge as well as on its object — in the sense that out of it the new and true object arises, is precisely, what is termed Experience. In this connection, there is a moment in the process just mentioned which should be brought into more decided prominence, and by which a new light is cast on the scientific aspect of the following exposition. Consciousness knows something; this something is the essence or is per se. This object, however, is also the per se, the inherent reality, for consciousness. Hence comes ambiguity of this truth. Consciousness, as we see, has now two objects: one is the first per se, the second is the existence for consciousness of this per se. The last object appears at first sight to be merely the reflection of consciousness into itself, i.e. an idea not of an object, but solely of its knowledge of that first object. But, as was already indicated, by that very process the first object is altered; it ceases to be what is per se, and becomes consciously something which is per se only for consciousness. Consequently, then, what this real per se is for consciousness is truth: which, however, means that this is the essential reality, or the object which consciousness has. This new object contains the nothingness of the first; the new object is the experience concerning that first object.

In this treatment of the course of experience, there is an element in virtue of which it does not seem to be in agreement with what is ordinarily understood by experience. The transition from the first object and the knowledge of it to the other object, in regard to which we say we have had experience, was so stated that the knowledge of the first object, the existence for consciousness of the first ens per se, is itself to be the second object. But it usually seems that we learn by experience the untruth of our first notion by appealing to some other object which we may happen to find casually and externally; so that, in general, what we have is merely the bare and simple apprehension of what is in and for itself. On the view above given, however, the new object is seen to have come about by a transformation or conversion of consciousness itself. This way of looking at the matter is our doing, what we contribute; by its means the series of experiences through which consciousness passes is lifted into a scientifically constituted sequence, but this does not exist for the consciousness we contemplate and consider. We have here, however, the same sort of circumstance, again, of which we spoke a short time ago when dealing with the relation of this exposition to scepticism, viz. that the result which at any time comes about in the case of an untrue mode of knowledge cannot possibly collapse into an empty nothing, but must necessarily be taken as the negation of that of which it is a result — a result which contains what truth the preceding mode of knowledge has in it. In the present instance the position takes this form: since what at first appeared as object is reduced, when it passes into consciousness, to what knowledge takes it to be, and the implicit nature, the real in itself, becomes what this entity per se, is for consciousness; this latter is the new object, whereupon there appears also a new mode or embodiment of consciousness, of which the essence is something other than that of the preceding mode. It is this circumstance which carries forward the whole succession of the modes or attitudes of consciousness in their own necessity. It is only this necessity, this origination of the new object — which offers itself to consciousness without consciousness knowing how it comes by it — that to us, who watch the process, is to be seen going on, so to say, behind its back. Thereby there enters into its process a moment of being per se, or of being for us, which is not expressly presented to that consciousness which is in the grip of experience itself. The content, however, of what we see arising, exists for it, and we lay hold of and comprehend merely its formal character, i.e. its bare origination; for it, what has thus arisen has merely the character of object, while, for us, it appears at the same time as a process and coming into being.

 

Notes on emic versus etic

In “‘From the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding” Clifford Geertz outlines a fundamental concept of anthropology:

The formulations have been various: “inside” versus “outside,” or “first person” versus “third person” descriptions; “phenomenological” versus “objectivist,” or “cognitive” versus “behavioral” theories; or, perhaps most commonly, “emic” versus “etic” analyses, this last deriving from the distinction in linguistics between phonemics and phonetics — phonemics classifying sounds according to their internal function in language, phonetics classifying them according to their acoustic properties as such.

Some thoughts:

  1. The precise meaning of the suffix “-icity” (at least when applied to existential terms) has been unclear to me. The problem has been in that no-man’s-land between registering the presence of light anxiety and actually doing something to relieve it. I know what each -icity word means (facticity, historicity, scientificity, etc.), I just wouldn’t have been able to explain to someone else what it means. The resolution turns out to be fairly simple. The suffix -icity indicates the root is to be considered from an emic perspective. X-icity mean X considered as an interiorized existential condition (which conditions exteriorized facts), rather than as a simple exteriorized fact. (Example: History is the record of past events. Historicity is being inside history as a participant, where each historic moment is understood to have its distinctive way of seeing history, and based on this historic vision, making new history. This condition affects an entire sense of reality, holistically.)
  2. Holism is a quality of the emic, and atomism is a quality of the etic. According to the hermeneutical circle, there is never an etic fact (a part) that is not articulated from an emic whole (a fore-understanding).
  3. Only the etic is quantifiable. The emic as such is discussable strictly in qualitative terms. The emic, however, since it generates an etic vision of reality (in phenomenological terms, its intentionality) will produce quantifiable entities. Attempting to grasp the emic in etic terms (such as statistics) is the factual and moral mistake of behaviorism.
  4. Epistemology knows only the etic. Mysticism and poetry tends to treat the etic primarily as a vehicle for indicating an emic vision. Phenomenology understands the etic in terms of the emic. Hermeneutics understands the interplay between etic and emic and attempts to navigate by etic triangulation other emic visions. Pragmatism might be applied hermeneutics to cultural ends. (Despite the name, pragmatism is much stranger than many showier forms of philosophy. Ever notice how the serious druggies try to look as normal as possible?)
  5. Buber’s I-Thou relationships regards the other as essentially emic. In I-it the other is regarded as essentially etic.
  6. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the practice of listening. It’s not primarily a matter of being considerate and letting the other talk (though that’s certainly a part of it). Real listening requires the entire battery of philosophies I listed above. Listening is inviting the other’s emic vision. One must allow the other to say what he is trying to say and to hear it without trying to force it into one’s own emic schema by stripping out its emic structure (that is, pattern of significance), retaining only its etic content. Then the listener must attempt to apply that structure concretely to his own experience in an attempt to show the other his understanding of what he has heard, and he must be open to the possibility that he has misunderstood. This restatement stage of listening, though, can be non-receptive and aggressive and be used to channel the speaker away from his emic vision toward the vision of the listener. (This is the hardest part of interviews: not asking leading questions or offering leading restatements that derail and rechannel, distort or otherwise damage the emic vision of the interviewee.)
  7. Subjectivity properly understood is emic, but it is so commonly misunderstood to be some kind of interior dimension of a more solid/concrete/real etic world that “subjectivity” has become ruined for all practical communicate purposes. On the contrary, it is the etic that is interior to the emic. The emic “interiority” of each other in our environment is in fact partially shares but largely transcends our own emic and etic vision.

Tree cross (alt palette)

Techne, phronesis, design and innovation

A passage from Richard J. Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, illuminates a problem I have encountered innumerable times working as a user experience consultant: the need for predictability in innately unpredictable situations.

Before I quote the passage, I should provide some background, which involves the role of process in the practice of design, and how the need for predictability and preconceptions about process play into it.

What clients want is an established, proven process which can be applied to their business problems in order to lead them step-by-predictable-step to a predictable outcome. The ideal is maximum predictability throughout the process.

Predictability, though, can apply to many different aspects of a process. For instance, predictability can be applied to the specific form a solution will take, or it can apply to the general effectiveness of a solution to solve defined business problems. It can apply to the specific functions a solution must perform or it can aim at achieving more general goals (and leave open the question of what specific functions are needed to accomplish those goals). It can apply to varying granularities of time, ranging from the time it will take to complete the whole process, to the time it will take to complete each particular step within the process, all the way down to the number of minutes it will take to complete each sub-task in a project plan.

The question of which particular things must be predicted is very important because predictability comes at a cost. Every point of predictability necessitates a trade-off of some kind.

For instance, predictability in regard to the form a solution will take limits innovation: it means the form is pre-defined. The kind of solution available to this kind of pre-definition is most often an assemblage of “best practices”, which is a euphemism for “imitation”. An assemblage of existing elements is easily pre-visualized and implemented methodically and predictably with easily predicted results: a competently executed best-practices frankenstein will perform well enough to earn an employee a shiny new resume bullet and maybe a year’s job security. When a client comes in white-knuckling a feature-aggregate “vision”, nine times out of ten what looks like fixation on an idea is in truth only a side-effect of severe risk aversion.

Genuine innovation requires a different and slightly more harrowing approach. It requires a higher tolerance for open-endedness. Innovation entails, by definition, the discovery of something significantly new: a possibility nobody has yet envisioned and considered. Until it is discovered, the innovation cannot be shown to or described to anyone. (Innovation: ORIGIN Latin innovat– ‘renewed, altered,’ from the verb innovare, from in– ‘into’ + novare ‘make new’, from novus ‘new’).

Innovation does not necessitate radical unpredictability, though, and it also does not entail an undisciplined or purely intuitive approach. The locus of the unpredictability is in particular points within the process where discovery and the need to innovate are concentrated. At the micro-level, a solid innovation process is still mostly constituted of predictable activities, but wherever open-endedness is needed, the demand for predictability is relaxed or suspended. At the macro-level, at the overall success of the solution a solid, user-informed innovation process is predictably effective in its results, even if it is unpredictable in matters of form.

Most companies fail to innovate, not because they lack ingenious, inventive, creative people capable of innovation,  and not because innovation is unavoidably risky, but rather because the thoughtless demand for predictability at all points precludes innovation.

A big contributing part of this problem is that for many people, practice means predictability. It means pursuing closed-ended goals, and evaluating ideas with pre-defined criteria. The notion of an open-ended process, where evaluation involves human deliberation and multiple satisfactory outcomes are possible seems antithetical to “best practice”.

Here is where Bernstein becomes useful. It turns out that the Greeks were aware of this distinction, and had names for the types of reasoning  involved in each process. According to Bernstein, one of the most fundamental and damaging philosophical blindnesses of our time is the identification of techne (of technical know-how) with method. We tend to impose our conception of techne on understanding and practice in general, and in the process we lose something very important and central to humanity, a type of reasoning Aristotle called “phronesis”, generally translated as prudence or “practical wisdom”.

 The chapter from which this passage is taken is excellent from beginning to end, but here is the most directly relevant part:

…Phronesis is a form of reasoning and knowledge that involves a distinctive mediation between the universal and the particular. This mediation is not accomplished by any appeal to technical rules or Method (in the Cartesian sense) or by the subsumption of a pregiven determinate universal to a particular case. The “intellectual virtue” of phronesis is a form of reasoning, yielding a type of ethical know-how in which what is universal and what is particular are codetermined. Furthermore, phronesis involves a “peculiar interlacing of being and knowledge… Understanding, for Gadamer, is a form of phronesis.

We can comprehend what this means by noting the contrasts that Gadamer emphasizes when he examines the distinctions that Aristotle makes between phronesis and the other “intellectual virtues,” especially episteme and techne. Aristotle characterizes all of these virtues (and not just episteme) as being related to “truth” (aletheia). Episteme, scientific knowledge, is knowledge of what is universal, of what exists invariably, and takes the form of scientific demonstration. The subject matter, the form, the telos, and the way in which episteme is learned and taught differ from phronesis, the form of reasoning appropriate to praxis, which deals with what is variable and always involves a mediation between the universal and the particular that requires deliberation and choice.

For Gadamer, however, the contrast between episteme and phronesis is not as important for hermeneutics as the distinctions between techne (technical know-how) and phronesis (ethical know-how). Gadamer stresses three contrasts.

1. Techne, or a technique,

is learned and can be forgotten; we can “lose” a skill. But ethical “reason” can neither be learned nor forgotten…. Man always finds himself in an “acting situation” and he is always obliged to use ethical knowledge and apply it according to the exigencies of his concrete situation.

2. There is a different conceptual relation between means and ends in techne than in phronesis. The end of ethical know-how, unlike that of a technique, is not a “particular thing” or product but rather the “complete ethical rectitude of a lifetime.” Even more important, while technical activity does not require that the means that allow it to arrive at an end be weighed anew on each occasion, this is precisely what is required in ethical know-how. In ethical know-how there can be no prior knowledge of the right means by which we realize the end in a particular situation. For the end itself is only concretely specified in deliberating about the means appropriate to a particular situation.

3. Phronesis, unlike techne, requires an understanding of other human beings. This is indicated when Aristotle considers the variants of phronesis, especially synesis (understanding).

It appears in the fact of concern, not about myself, but about the other person. Thus it is a mode of moral judgment…. The question here, then, is not of a general kind of knowledge, but of its specification at a particular moment. This knowledge also is not in any sense technical knowledge…. The person with understanding does not know and judge as one who stands apart and unaffected; but rather, as one united by a specific bond with the other, he thinks with the other and undergoes the situation with him. (TM, p. 288; WM, p. 306)

For Gadamer, this variation of phronesis provides the clue for grasping the centrality of friendship in Aristotle’s Ethics.

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…for Gadamer the “chief task” of philosophic hermeneutics is to “correct the peculiar falsehood of modern consciousness” and “to defend practical and political reason against the domination of technology based on science.” It is the scientism of our age and the false idolatry of the expert that pose the threat to practical and political reason. The task of philosophy today is to elicit in us the type of questioning that can become a counterforce against the contemporary deformation of praxis. It is in this sense that “hermeneutic philosophy is the heir of the older tradition of practical philosophy.”

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To put it in Bernstein’s and Gadamer’s language: a solid, innovative design methodology requires an intelligently coordinated blend of techne and phronesis, guided by phronesis, itself. It is an immenently reasonable process – meaning that the participants in the process make rational appeals to one another in order to come to decisions – but what is being arrived at is not predetermined, and the decision-making process itself is not determinate. Many good outcomes are acknowledged as possible. The innovators are not looking for a single right solution, but rather a solution that is among the best possibilities.

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Incidentally, innovation is not needed always and everywhere (any more than predictability is). Unrestrained innovation is not a desirable goal, as fun as it may sound.

The I, the We, the Other, and transcendence

I picked through several books today without getting traction in any one of them. I started with Richard J. Bernstein’s The New Constellation: Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity looking for references to Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas (who is generally considered Buber’s heir). I was looking for a summary of their differences, mostly to see if there is any similarity in Levinas’s view on Other and my own. I was also interested in how Bernstein situated Levinas in his understanding of Postmodernity. I began and abandoned Levinas’s Totality and Infinity last year, and I am considering picking it up again.

*

I refer to Bernstein for my sense of the postmodern landscape because I trust him as one of the “good postmodernists”, which means he has given skepticism its full, horrific due (thus “postmodernist”) but that he responds to the destruction of truth (as moderns have conceived of it) by seeking some kind of ground upon which reality can be secured, not only privately but socially (thus “good”). For me, the “bad postmodernists” are the ones who use unrestrained skepticism to insulate themselves from all appeals from their fellow subjects, whether the appeals are directly subjective (that is ethical or aesthetic or psychological) or indirectly subjective (that is, objective or empirical) by depriving conversation of any shared factual points of reference. “Bad Postmodernity” has a tendency to “slide into an attitude that ends up with the bare abstraction of nothingness or emptiness that cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss”. “Bad postmodernity” is my term. Berstein simply places quotes around “Postmodernity” to indicate modes of thought that imitate the forms of Postmodernity without participating in the substance of the thought which actually does stand beyond the horizons of Modernity. Interestingly, Bernstein excludes both Derrida and Foucault from pseudo-Postmodernity, and presents them in a generous light that makes them seem worth reading.

*

I’m in an uncomfortable, intellectually tractionless state right now. This happens to me once or twice a year. I pick around through various books, trying to pick up the scent of where I need to go next.

I think maybe these are the times I’m supposed to summarize where I am.

I’m running short on time this morning, so I will list some of my fundamental views. (I consider these views – a sort of social-existentialism – triggered by Bernstein. These kinds of thoughts began to crystallize for me in 2005, following a deep perplexity arising around the meaning of the I Ching trigrams. I semi-resolved it through reading Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. Anyone who knows something about the I Ching and Bernstein’s fusion of hermeneutics and pragmatist thinking should be able to see fairly easily how I synthesized them.) The views:

  • Denial of the existence of truth is often (and I’ve been caught at times saying “always”) a defense against the impingement of the Other.
  • The impingement of the Other is experienced as a change in one’s self.
  • A change in one’s self is not experienced primarily as a change in one’s own qualities as an individual person-among-people, but as a shift in the entire world on the whole and in many parts simultaneously. In other words…
  • A change in the entire world is a holistic change.
  • Subjectivity pervades the entire world, and for practical purposes is the whole world; it is not localized in an individual’s mind.
  • Inter-subjectivity is experienced as change in one’s subjectivity and the whole world, attributable to the influence of the Other.
  • A radical change in subjectivity is impossible to understand prior to the change: it is transcendent. It is understandable only in retrospect.
  • Anxiety (or angst or dread) is the premonition of a radical change in subjectivity.
  • Perplexity is the yet unfinished radical change in subjectivity – in the whole world, which is in disarray.
  • The impulse to defend oneself against impingement of the Other is the fending off of anxiety in the face of the transcendent.
  • The Other is transcendent. The relationship with the Other, the We is also transcendent.
  • An I knows the Other in participation in We.
  • We is a greater self, a whole within which an I is a part.
  • By participating in We, an I senses its situation within greater Selfhood.
  • A We is embedded in yet greater We.
  • The concept of an ultimate We points to the personhood of God.
  • The image of God: The self composed of instincts; the friendship composed of selves; the being that arises where “two or more gathered”.

*

I’m recalling a Nietzsche quote:

Where are the needy in spirit? — Ah! How reluctant I am to force my own ideas upon another! How I rejoice in any mood and secret transformation within myself which means that the ideas of another have prevailed over my own! Now and then, however, I enjoy an even higher festival: when one is for once permitted to give away one’s spiritual house and possessions, like a father confessor who sits in his corner anxious for one in need to come and tell of the distress of his mind, so that he may again fill his hands and his heart and make light his troubled soul! He is not merely not looking for fame: he would even like to escape gratitude, for gratitude is too importunate and lacks respect for solitude and silence. What he seeks is to live nameless and lightly mocked at, too humble to awaken envy or hostility, with a head free of fever, equipped with a handful of knowledge and a bagful of experience, as it were a poor-doctor of the spirit aiding those whose head is confused by opinions without their being really aware who has aided them! Not desiring to maintain his own opinion or celebrate a victory over them, but to address them in such a way that, after the slightest of imperceptible hints or contradictions, they themselves arrive at the truth and go away proud of the fact! To be like a little inn which rejects no one who is in need but which is afterwards forgotten or ridiculed! To possess no advantage, neither better food nor purer air nor a more joyful spirit — but to give away, to give back, to communicate, to grow poorer! To be able to be humble, so as to be accessible to many and humiliating to none! To have much injustice done him, and to have crept through the worm-holes of errors of every kind, so as to be able to reach many hidden souls on their secret paths! For ever in a kind of love and for ever in a kind of selfishness and self-enjoyment! To be in possession of a dominion and at the same time concealed and renouncing! To lie continually in the sunshine and gentleness of grace, and yet to know that the paths that rise up to the sublime are close by! — That would be a life! That would be a reason for a long life!

Pragmatist inkling?

I’m beginning to suspect praxis is knowledge viewed from the inside… the essential counterpart to what is apparent when knowledge self-reflects or presents itself as knowledge. Consider this possible developmental process: 1) knowledge begins as an instinctive response to a novel situation, 2a) then the response is iterated and refined within the same and similar situations, 2b) and the refined response is demonstrated and imitated between subjects who participate in the interation and refinement process, 3) then the response is reflectively stabilized through analogies and models, and becomes a verbally communicable practice then finally 4) vocabulary is developed for the practice.

I’m sure I’ll see this in Rorty once I start him, because practically I began thinking like a pragmatist back in 2005, when I had to imitate Bernstein’s manner of thinking in order to follow him (learned the steps of his intellectual dance). That is the only way to understand philosophy as such. Since then I’ve applied Bernstein’s ideas and style to many problems – including design problems and political problems I’ve encountered at work. I’ve also found that same style of thought in Wittgenstein and the smattering of pragmatist thought I’ve read. Now I am interested in learning the vocabulary and the ethics of the pragmatist community.

*

I’ve worked intensely and uninterruptedly for 40 months, to be able to say this (relatively) clearly: Hermeneutics is spiritual pragmatism. By spirit, I mean the intellect, but not the intellect that is the mental dimension of an essentially corporeal reality. Spirit is intellect acknowledged as the ground of reality.

Reading hermeneutically is navigating the author’s subjectivity by the objects of his inquiries. The real goal of hermeneutics is not to acquire facts, nor even to uncover the structure by which the author orders his factual reality, but rather to learn to think with the author through his work, and eventually to be able to approach problems as the author would approach them. Such practical knowledge cannot be transferred mind-to-mind across the membrane of individual subjectivities as reflective theoretical knowledge can. It requires gradual merging of wills, until one’s intellectual movements spontaneously mirror or at least play off the movements of the other, and understanding flows in without sharp anomalies or blurry romantic notions.

Hermeneutics is intellectual dance; it is spiritual pragmatism; and it is trans-subjective transcendental phenomenology. It all takes place in the borders between whole and part, mastery and tentative participation, insidedness and outsidedness, in knowing how to know when you do not yet know, and knowing the kinds of knowing one might have or not yet expect.

I set out to account for what it was exactly that Nietzsche did to me. He taught me the dance of dances.

Marys and Marthas

As far as I can tell the only time people finally let down their guard and brave the visceral anxiety of genuine intersubjectivity is when they’re thrown into the pressure of collaborative project work. It is a peculiarly intimate situation, and it is the sole intrinsic value I experience in work.

I’m shameless in my exploitation of collaboration: it is really the only genuine transcendental subjective contact I have anymore outside of my home. It is the only time I feel the presence of other subjects and know in a perfectly immediate, non-theoretical, non-reflective way that I am not alone here.

*

Try to really talk with someone and watch out: they’re indignant. They think they’re anxious because they ought to be doing something else. If they were observant they’d note the sequence: the anxiety precedes the explanation. “Why am I so… tense? Oh, here’s why…” That’s how angst works. Angst is what you feel reading the words of an impenetrable poem, but angst projects itself onto the world’s surfaces as explanations.

Angst is what you feel when a spiritual “close-talker” gets in your psychic space.

*

We’re all a lot crazier than we think – just some of us are lucky to be participants in a collective insanity, so we get a nice cozy psychic habitat, a shared reality. Mine’s better, and I’d know, because I’ve lived both places. Where I live you can’t see the smoke from another man’s chimney, which seems awesome at first.

*

I used to have several friends to whom I “brought things home”. I did not feel as if I really knew something, until I’d told them about it. Only after I’d shared it with them was it mine. Since then, I’ve gone too damn far. Now I have to bring things home to myself. The closest thing I have to bringing something home is the comfort of reading a thought I’ve had in a book.

Martin Buber had my thoughts; so did Husserl. I could name others. It seems I think Jewishly.

*

There is no possibility of culture where angst-tolerance is lacking. Spiritually, we’re total chickenshits. That’s why our art is stagnant. Our art no longer announces any new way to be. At most it shows some new way to appear new, while courteously leaving us untouched, unchanged.

*

How much is “too much to ask”? Not much at all, I promise. Even with your best and closest friends, I bet the limit is a lot closer than you think or hope. Do not test this, unless you really want to know. I wanted to know. I am not sorry to have acquired this knowledge. I will digest this stone, and I will declare the fucking thing delicious. Right now, though, my stomach hurts.

*

Isn’t it true that we fear dull aches less than sharp pains?

Trees

When we walk on the forest floor, the part of the tree we are given at eye-level is the narrowest point, the trunk, slightly above the tree’s midpoint.

To see how the trunk spreads itself upward into the open light, we can simply turn our faces to the sky. However, to see how the trunk spreads downward, we have to dig with our hands, and come to terms with dirt and sweat. Tender leaves and delicate blossoms will not be found down there. This is where the tree braces itself against the weather and procures its nourishment. Below the ground, a tree is not fucking around: it is all business.

That’s one way to see it.

*

Through a seed, the world organizes itself into a tree.

It is also true that a seed “grows” into a tree. We know what this means. But let’s not get carried away with the usefulness of our habitual intellectual devices. Objectivity is instrumentally useful (techne), but this usefulness is true in a certain limited sense; it does not make it “the truth”. To get closer to something like “the truth” we must acclimate ourselves to a different and larger mode of knowing, a mode where we consciously articulate meaningful order out of the whole: the profoundly chaotic world we have arisen and awakened within. What is this chaos, essentially? It is akin to being an infant, or waking up from a deep afternoon nap.

Innately good

I was raised with the idea that people are “innately good”. Good? Meaning that we are innately incapable of cruelty? That we are innately not in need of development of goodness? Or that we are born good but learn evil from “society”? Those were the various meanings I heard in the claim of innate goodness, and they all struck me as self-evidently false, even dishonest.

However when I see good as the ability to acknowledge, to be invested in, to identify oneself as belonging to super-egoic existences – relationships with other individuals and formal and informal cultural institutions that surround us and are the substance of self – I do see people as innately good. We have the innate desire to belong to and to participate in and to love all of what is beyond self, but supports and surrounds self.

*

“The chastest expression I have ever heard: ‘Dans le veritable amour c’est l’ame, qui enveloppe le corps.’ (‘In true love it is the soul that envelops the body’)” — Nietzsche

*

From puritanism to radical capitalism: Humans are innately sinful –> Humans are innately self-interested –> Humans are exclusively self-interested –> Humans should be expected to behave exclusively out of self-interest –> In “the world” I should be expected to behave exclusively out of self-interest. The radical capitalism of the United States is the combination of modalism of moralities (contextual moral relativism) and puritanical moral pessimism. In the world of business a puritan permits his “innately sinful” nature to run amok and wholeheartedly “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

*

Genuine transcendent relationship depends on honesty. This includes the sub-self beings of which compose us. They have to be taught to speak truthfully to one another, and to be patient in speaking and listening. This practice is philosophy.

Holism and systems theory

As far as I can tell, the only way to bridge my own intuitive holistic sensibilities and the infinitely-fragmented-and-quantified reductionist world of business is systems theory. Learning a new language is always tedious – and frankly I’m a little annoyed to be learning this merely useful language rather than something glorious like Hebrew, Greek or German – but my first priority is learning to communicate with the natives, and they speak the objective language of dollars and minutes and milestones.

Joints

Truth does not accrete in a vacuum of ignorance; truth articulates from pre-existent, pre-articulate wholes. Truth does not extend outwardly; it intends inwardly. Truth resolves; truth cannot be constructed. Truth is not a machine or a story or a system. It is not invented; it is discovered and rediscovered.

The primordial truth is a crude, chaotic undifferentiated whole. Language divides the whole into finer and finer distinctions. Only in hindsight are we born on some particular day, on a bed, in a room, in a building, in a city. In actual fact, we are all born exactly at the same time, in exactly the same place, and we all say exactly the same thing about it: “waaaaaaah.”

*

They do not live in the world,
Are not in time and space.
From birth to death hurled
No word do they have, not one
To plant a foot upon,
Were never in any place.

For with names the world was called
Out of the empty air,
With names was built and walled,
Line and circle and square,
Dust and emerald;
Snatched from deceiving death
By the articulate breath.

But these have never trod
Twice the familiar track,
Never never turned back
Into the memoried day.
All is new and near
In the unchanging Here
Of the fifth great day of God,
That shall remain the same,
Never shall pass away.

On the sixth day we came.

– Edwin Muir

A vision

Having vision is a matter of seeing from a distinctive point of view. What is seen from that perspective is not itself the vision but the result of the vision.

Objectivist thinking misses what is essential to vision and leaps over the perspective directly to the objects of sight. Any vividly imagined aggregate of ideas is “a vision”, whether it is seen coherently or not.

*

A vision, being perspectival, is holistic. If, in the course of resolving a problem, you have a vision of its solution, if you are open and alert, you will notice that much more than the object of the vision is affected. With genuine philosophical problems everything is affected simultaneously.

Objectivist thinking misses what is essential to holism and leaps over the quality of wholeness directly to the object-parts that “constitute” a whole. Any aggregate, whether it is seen coherently or not, is called holistic if it satisfies all criteria of “completeness” – that is, no omission is identified. The being of the wholes is reduced to sum of parts.

*

Thinking literally: If you stand in place and have someone else shift the furniture around for you have you changed your perspective?

If you change your opinion on this or that isolated fact have you changed your perspective on it?