The psychological force of psychology

Where others see psychological forces, I see the functioning and malfunctioning of concepts.

The worst conceptual malfunctioning appears to be happening with the set of concepts associated with psychological forces. What starts as a complex model of the psyche used to understand human behavior can easily degrade into an elaborate demonology used to condemn and control human behaviors through shaming, terrifying and torturing the psyche.

Dealing with offense

My process for dealing with offense:

  1. Allow myself to be angry. (Not that I have an alternative.)
  2. Harness the anger to analyze the offensive behavior and identify the essential personal offense (precisely what is bothering me).
  3. Depersonalize and expand the applicability of the essential personal offense by abstracting from it a more universal principle of offense (something that would bother most reasonable people).
  4. Assuming I’ve committed the same or an analogous offense against others, dig through my memories of times people have been upset with me, in search of cases where I can accuse myself of the same offense.
  5. Using my own memory of my experience and true intentions, defend myself against my self-accusations.
  6. Returning to the present offense, apply the same defense to the person who has offended me.
  7. Look for opportunities to reconcile with other people, because mutual reconciliation is the only thing that definitively repairs damage. (Insights only diminish symptomatic pain.)
  8. Remember principles and defenses for future similar offenses, to avoid unintentionally offending others and taking lasting offense at other’s actions.

Generally, this approach reduces pain, partially or completely repairs damage and produces valuable insights. It also helps prevent compulsively repeating thoughts from metastasizing into philosophies of resentment.

The “material science” of people

My dad is a retired ceramic engineering professor. He is what many people would call “extremely left-brained”. He is the kind of guy who stays up late into the night doing math puzzles for fun. Engineering has always been a core part of his personal identity, even after he became a professor. For him teaching was a process of making new engineers. His job was to take unformed high school graduates and transform them into good engineers, capable of tackling the toughest problems with knowledge, ingenuity, tenacity and a dash of principled impishness.

Like many highly analytical people, my dad tends to view design as a mostly subjective domain, dealing with aesthetic taste and feelings, as opposed to the kind of objective problem-solving engineers do.

This misconception of design is not uncommon. It is especially prevalent in engineering-led organizations. And since designers spend much of their time collaborating with engineers this misconception has practical consequences.

So changing my dad’s view on design and its relationship to engineering seemed like an interesting challenge, and one that might even help solve some tough real-world problems.

I tried several approaches. I talked to him about theory. I explained human-centered design methods. I told him stories about projects. I tried to convey to him what I find fascinating and frustrating about design problems. None of it stuck. So, I backed up and reframed my communication challenge as a design problem. I knew if I wanted him to adopt my concept, I would have to make it intuitive, which meant connecting it to his own experiences and using as much of his vocabulary as possible. Here is what I came up with:

Back when he was teaching, some of the most important classes he taught were on material science. His students learned the properties of different kinds of ceramics under varying conditions, such as heat, pressure, stresses of various kinds, etc.), and how to apply this knowledge to solve engineering problems. Because good engineers build system out of well-understood materials with predictable characteristics.

I explained to him that designers face a similar situation, except our systems include not only physical parts, but also human participants, which we, like engineers, need to understand thoroughly in order to solve the kinds of problems designers are hired to solve. Our problems involve getting people to respond in some particular way to what we are making. Insights into how our human participants think, feel and behave in different conditions helps us develop systems that inspire the right kinds of participation in our systems. Participation might be nothing more than noticing some artifact and forming a positive impression. It might be adopting a tool and using it skillfully. Or it might be actively engaging and actually using a service.

Yes, aesthetics, taste, feelings and subjectivity are an important part of our job, but we are interested in how they coalesce into a person who will experience what we are making and respond with feelings, thoughts and actions that support the overall system we are developing. And that system is made up not only of the participants, but also non-human parts — the parts engineers build.

So, to summarize: design research is the material science of design. In material science, the goal is to understand the rules that determine behaviors of materials, so that when an engineer uses them in a system they predictably function as intended; in design research the goal is to understand the factors that influence certain types of people to feel, think and act, so if someone of that type encounters a design they will predictably respond as intended.

This seems to work well enough for its intended purpose. But unexpectedly, it started working on me as well. Since conceiving design and design research this way, the logic of the explanation has taken on a life of its own, and it has begun to change my own understanding of what design essentially is.

(To be continued.)


Our next Shabbat (and probably more after it) will be a Salon.

The Salon is a structured discussion designed to produce substantial conversations. Basically, everyone brings short passages on some theme determined ahead of time. Participants take turns reading passages, and the group converses on that theme.  Susan and I did our first one back in 2000, and we’ve been doing them sporadically since then.

Here are the rules in case you want to do one:

  • The purpose of the Salon is to generate dialogue. We want to make it possible to express ideas that cannot be expressed in normal, everyday conversation.
  • Quotes will be used to seed dialogue.
  • Please come to the Salon with one quote that is connected with the theme of the event.
  • Quotes play a central role in the Salon, but the purpose of the Salon is not sharing quotes. They are a means to stimulate dialogue. Dialogue should not be cut off or rushed in order to give everyone their turn to read. Not all quotes will be read.
  • This is an intellectual safe zone. No opinion is prohibited. The only rule is respect. If you find an idea offensive, please challenge it using reason and constrain your emotions and moral passions. Please do not self-censor out of fear of upsetting someone with your ideas.
  • We want to be sure people are given a chance to finish their thoughts even if the thoughts are complex. Interruptions can be vetoed by the current speaker, signaled by raising their hand.
  • Contributions to the discussion should always address the ideas of the previous speaker. Evolve the subject, don’t change the subject.
  • Dialogue should be kept thematically close to the quotes and should refer back to them explicitly whenever possible.
  • As conversation progresses and develops, new quotes can be introduced to feed the dialogue.
  • If a dialogue comes to an end, we will restart dialogue with a new quote.
  • The Salon has many modes of participation. Some participants will do more listening and others will do more speaking. Nobody should feel pressured to speak if they wish to listen, or to stay silent if they have something to say.


Next book: Design of Philosophy of Design

Now that I’ve gotten Geometric Meditations into a finished state I am starting to feel a compulsion to write a more accessible book about design, tentatively titled Design of Philosophy of Design. I’m excited to be freed from the excessive formal constraints that made Geometric Meditations take so long to finish.

There are several key points I want to make.

  1. Design needs to be rethought, along with its relationship with engineering. I propose re-defining design as “the discipline of intentionally developing hybrid systems composed of interacting human and non-human elements.” Most importantly the human elements of the system should include the people for whom the system is intended, treated as an intrinsic part of the designed system, and interior to it — not exterior users of a system designed to be used by them, as most people currently see it. Follow this link to see a visualization comparing the “conventional” and “hybrid systems” view.
  2. We find it difficult to define design, and distinguish design from other creative activities (like art and engineering) because we think in a way that obscures the question. In particular, the way we think about making tools and using tools has gradually become inadequate for dealing with the world as it has evolved. Our working philosophies have grown obsolete, and their very obsolescence makes us look for solutions every but philosophy.
  3. Philosophies are essentially tools we use for living lives in an infinitely complex radically pluralistic reality. Every philosophy has advantages and trade-offs, meaning they make it easy, even automatic, to have some kinds of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and responses, and nearly impossible to think, feel, perceive and respond in other ways — and these other ways might be the key to confronting what are perceived, conceived and felt to be insoluble problems. Designers will recognize in this description characteristics common to all design problems, and that is my intention. The design field has developed effective techniques for dealing with problems of this kind. I propose we approach philosophy as design problems, using design methodologies to interrogate problematic situations we face to uncover and frame the most fruitful problems, to develop holistic approaches to thinking them that permit solutions to these problems, to iteratively experiment with and improve our practical thinking. I call this understanding and approach to philosophy “design instrumentalism”. We need to design philosophies that help us design better lives for ourselves,and this book will hopefully contribute to this project.
  4. Part of the reason we need to take design much more seriously is that who we are is changed by what we design. Indirectly, when we design things we use, we design ourselves. And this is because human being is extended being. To be a human being means to have one’s own being stream out into the world in every direction. Despite what spiritual conventional wisdom tells us, in some very important ways we are our possessions, we belong to where we live and we are our egos. But what we are can be released, transformed, improved or degraded based on what we do with ourselves: our environments, our physical tools, our conceptual/mental tools, our life practices, etc. This part of the book draws on extended cognition, cyborg theory, ANT, postphenomenology crossbred with existentialism, but I plan to be atrociously unscholarly, synthetic and magisterial in my approach and keep external references to a minimum. The goal here is to reframe human existence in a way that liberates us from the subject-object and self-other dichotomies that dominate the working philosophies that unconsciously shape our conscious thoughts. (The pre-conscious “how” of our thinking produces the “what” of our thoughts. I may have to also take some potshots at pop-psychologism that views the unconscious as sneaky little mind forces that lurk about behind the scenes motivating us this way or biasing us that way. Where most folks see secularized demons, I see poorly designed conceptual systems, a.k.a. philosophies.)
  5. The process of being human is a nonlinear (iterative feedback) process of co-evolution. As we change the world, the world changes us. This process has brought us to a perilous point where we must choose our next step very carefully.

This is an early sketch, but I think some of the ideas are interesting and consequential, and I think it will be fun to right. And my design approach will ensure that at least some people will find the book useful, usable and desirable.

Polycentric design

Design is the development of 1) systems where the definition of the problem includes elements who are people with some degree of autonomy, and 2) where the production and/or delivery of the designed system involves engineered sub-systems (that is systems that do not include autonomous personal components).

In other words, designed systems are nested systems made up of interacting human and non-human elements (“hybrid systems” as Actor-Network Theory calls them)), and some of the nonhuman elements become engineered systems (ideally explicitly framed as engineering problems).

The idea of design as a system that includes its users as internal to the system is not unprecedented (to name a few Cybernetics, Soft Systems Methodology, and traditional usability engineering have all folded users into their systems) — but it is not widespread among designers, who still tend to view what they make as for people who remain essentially separate from what they are designing.

To sharpen this definition of design it might be useful to define some other design-related activities.

The most important contrast is engineering, which, again, is the development of systems where all elements of the problem are non-autonomous, and predictably follow rules. Autonomous persons are excluded from (defined out of) engineering problems.

Some engineering does involve people but prescribes the rules of their behavior so that they become predictable components of the engineered system. This can be called social engineering. People are controlled and made non-autonomous in social engineering problems.

Naive design is design where the people involved in the designed system are assumed to be as the designer imagines them. In other words, in the course of the design work their goals, behaviors, values, perceptions, conceptions, etc. are not investigated. People are largely imagined in naive design problems.

Human-centered design is design where the people for whom the design is intended (the user, the customer, the audience, etc.) is included within the design problem as substantially unknown. Their personal autonomy requires active investigation, otherwise a critical component of the design’s success is being left to uninformed speculation. To avoid this risk, in human-centered design, the people for whom the design is intended are methodically involved throughout the design process.

As the implications of broader definitions of design come to light, more and more initiatives of various kinds are being recognized as design problems, and are being approached with the sensibilities, methods and tools of design. This has evolved at least one new species of human-centered design, which can be called polycentric design.

Polycentric design is design where multiple interacting people within the designed system are included within the design problem, including not only the primary person for whom the design is intended (user, customer, etc.), but other people involved in the system — ideally all the people who participate in the designed system. Understanding the complexity of such multi-actor interactive systems, and treating each actor as an autonomous person encountering the system from their own lifeworld requires more than a shift of concern — it requires new methods and tools.

Currently, the predominant polycentric design discipline is service design. Of course, services frequently feature multiple actors, and the quality of service depends heavily on the mindset of people delivering it, so it is unsurprising that polycentric design methods are developing in the design of services. But, unless we want to define the word “service” very broadly, the approaches used in service design can be used to design any system where humans are interacting with one another within a hybrid system. To name a few obvious examples, the design of organizations, of public spaces and of online communities could benefit from a polycentric design approach that might differ in important ways from service design.

In search of liberalism

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.


I’m very slowly reading Wahl’s Human Existence and Transcendence. I have come the final section of the book, reading comments from the philosophers who attended Wahl’s 1937 “famous lecture” that is the nucleus of this book, and I’m noticing an interesting and important theme I want to give a name.

First, much of the discussion revolves around differences between existential philosophies and philosophies of existence, the difference being whether the philosophy itself is an existential act or if the philosophy focuses on questions about existence. The same basic form occurs around other questions, including transcendence (thought that is an act of transcendence versus thinking about what transcends us), religion (thought that is religious in nature vs theories about religion), and so on.

This is a very interesting move, and for me it is especially important because it features in my Geometric Meditations. I suggest that intuitions of what, how and why can be both acts of intuition as well as objects of intuition, and that we often confuse them along these lines. I offer some names for different combinations of ways of intuiting with different kinds of intuitive objects, less for the sake of designing a taxonomy than as a distinction sensitization exercise.

Before I can continue this thought I will need to provide some clarity on my unusual (and if I may say so, extremely useful) conception of subjectivity. I prefer to base it, not on our common subject-object distinction, which most serious thinkers have recognized to be irreparably flawed, and instead base it on academic subjects. An academic subject is a distinct style of approaching, encountering, understanding, communicating and generating knowledge in some domain of reality which can partially or entirely overlap with other subjects. I think human subjects and subjectivity in general are best understood in this sense of subject.

This means that the theme I noticed in Wahl — the tendency to confuse of the understanding subjectivity and the understood object — could be viewed as a subject-object ambiguity, or what I will (until something better or more established comes along) call ambijectivity.

Teaching 14

Hannah Arendt taught me that what we call “politics” is in fact the betrayal of politics, and that political life both presupposes and pursues the plurality of persons — (as she put it, it is human beings, not humankind, who live in the world together) — and that if we aspire to be authentically political we must resist indulging that damnable solipsistic urge to reduce our fellow human beings to abstract categories we ourselves have imagined living out grand political dramas we ourselves have scripted, and instead encounter and contend with them as the stubbornly real beings with their own stories, self-conceptions, and worldviews.

Teaching 13

William James taught me the impossibly elegant (and deeply American!) Pragmatic Maxim — which I like to think of as instructions for the Pragmatic Move, which goes like this: when attempting to understand the meaning of an assertion, rather than focus in on the assertion itself, instead expand out the practical consequences (what James crassly called the “cash value”) of the assertion’s truth, and this synthesis will give you the assertion’s meaning much faster and more reliably than analysis can.

Teaching 11

Martin Heidegger taught me the difference between an emotion and a mood — that is, the difference between a feeling toward an object versus a feeling of a totality — and, in particular, that mood called anxiety which is the feeling of nullified totality, a mood toward subjective nothingness — which Heidegger associated with death, but which I see as the mortal response to infinity in any its myriad forms.

Teaching 10

Eric Voegelin showed me an image of time, of past and future dropping away into inexperienceable darkness dropping away into inexperienceable darkness in two directions, and gave me my first clear understanding of metaphysics (to which I have added dimensions of space and awareness in my own model of metaphysical situatedness in my spark symbol in the pamphlet I’m preparing to get printed).