Jaspers on philosophy and science

From Philosophy, “Epilogue 1955”:

This came to be the great philosophical challenge: to hold on to science, to keep testing by its standards of compelling certainty, and yet to do our ascertaining in the realm of our lives. The point is to make our philosophizing a function of our reality itself, to have the thought figures spring from personal life and address themselves to the individual. The only proof of an impersonal, objectified philosophical construction lies in personal Existenz. It makes no sense as a knowledge of formulae, theses, and words, nor as a contemplation of soul-stirrmg figures; it does make sense in the inner action which it stirs or recognizably reflects.

This philosophizing is thinking. That is what sets it apart from the tendencies of emotional self-satisfaction, from thoughtless romanticism, and from the self-destruction of reason in so-called irrationalism. The joy of a thinking life, whether in sorrow or in rapturous love, is that philosophical thinking will not only make each experience, each action, each choice more clearly conscious but more deeply based and more intense.

To study such thinking means to deal with oneself. It commits not only in the manner of surface laws, to which I might conform in calculable fashion. This commitment goes farther; it is an existential responsibility which my thoughts make clear and certain.

Philosophical thinking occurs in movements that accomplish and confirm an ethos so that the effects of the philosophical thought extend into our private and political lives, thus showing what it is. The thought proves true if it encompasses our everyday actions as well as those of the exalted moments of its birth.

The sciences can neither vindicate philosophy nor produce it as their result. Philosophy antedates them all, and in the grandiose figures of Antiquity it managed to exist without them. Still since their development they have constituted the inevitable field of orientation for any philosophy that cares about truthful thinking. To philosophize today, a man must know the profound satisfaction of scientific insight. At the same time he must know the consciousness of method without which he cannot be sure of his insights; he must know what it means to be aware of the limits of science. He must experience the immense difficulty of communicating with the unscientific, about concrete everyday questions in particular, whether the unscientific approach appears in the guise of pseudoscience or as “philosophy.” The scientific approach is the premise of all rationality. We sense its germs in the earliest philosophies, in Anaximander, in Mei-Ti, in the Sankhya system. It is not the basis of philosophical truth, but today it is a condition of truthfulness in philosophizing. The scientific approach has become unavoidable in the conceiving, the weighing, the judging we do every day.

The belief that a science, religion or political vision can be an adequate substitute for philosophy is an artifact of an inadequate popular philosophy. Generally, such popular philosophies lurk inside common-sensical attitudes toward truth without ever articulating themselves as philosophies, while presenting “philosophy” as a useless, abstract, speculative activity that has been supplanted by more practical and rigorous disciplines.

My concern is that the majority of educated Westerners have been indoctrinated in this anti-philosophical philosophy through the content of their educations, through consumption of what passes today for public intellectual product, and, increasingly, enacted in the routine social just-so stories the casually woke perform for one another to signal their fealty to a class identity none will admit is an identity, which uses its full hegemonic power to suppress talk of its own existence.

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Judging judgment

Whenever I hear stories about how unjustly the emerging generation deals with the injustices of past generations I recall Anaximander’s immortal snark:

Beings must pay penance and be judged for their injustices, in accordance with the ordinance of time.

We all get our turn.

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Apprehending apprehension

The word apprehend is uncanny.

When I encounter it, I cannot fully comprehend what it means, in a way that makes me mildly anxious.

When I comprehend an idea, I am able to wrap my mind around it, conceptualize it as a complex whole, explain it to others and use it. Not so with the idea of apprehension. I can only touch it with my mind, not grasp it. It feels like trying to pick up a basketball by my fingernails.

My topological intuition suggests that I try some russian-reversal style eversions. Perhaps in apprehension the normal subject-object relationship is flipped. a) What I comprehend “belongs” to me as a fully-contained part of me. Apprehension is not mine in this way, and I might very well exist within it, as a mere part, or participant, not privy to the containing whole. b) I do not comprehend apprehension, but those incomprehensible beings I know only through apprehension might comprehend me.

These everted-comprehension relationships are identical with the relationship I have with reality that transcends my own existence. As I unceasingly try to comprehend this reality, with increasing recognition of the futility of the goal but the value in the action, reality hands me consolation prizes of new concepts and new modes of understanding. (I am reminded of a t-shirt design I’ve been laughing about for the last 30 years where a bulky weightlifter exclaims “I will not rest while gravity threatens my people.”)

However much we comprehend truths about reality, what is comprehended are mere intentional objects, not the realities themselves (“extensional objects”?). The realities are only apprehended. The anxiety we feel in the discrepancy between known reality and real reality ought to be called apprehensiveness.

I notice that I feel less apprehensive about the word apprehension. While the objects of apprehension cannot themselves be comprehended, the relationship between a knowing subject and objects of apprehension can, and this consolation prize is not only consoling, but useful.


In the past, when I needed a word for experiencing reality in a non-cognitive way, I used “perceive” (in contrast to “conceive”) or “encounter” (in contrast to “understand”) , but I think “apprehend” (in contrast to “comprehend”) might become my new word of choice.

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A more subdued existentialism

Jaspers published his magnum opus Philosophy when he was 49 and delivered the lectures that became Philosophy of Existence when he was 55. His is a different kind of existentialism from that of Sartre, who was a full decade younger when he reached his peak.

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Jaspers is uncannily close to my own worldview:

Authentic reality is the being that cannot be thought in terms of possibility. What does this mean?

Any actuality, whose existence I comprehend through the causes that produced it, could have been different under different circumstances. Considered simply as something known, any known actuality is a realized possibility; as an object of thought it retains the character of possibility. Even the whole world, considered as an object of my thought, is one of many possible worlds. To the extent that I know reality, I have posited it in the realm of possibility.

When we are dealing with reality itself, however, possibility ceases. Reality is that which can no longer be translated into possibility. Where what I know is one of many possibilities, I am dealing with an appearance, not with reality itself. I can think about an object only if I think of it as a possibility.

Reality is therefore what resists all thought. . . .

Since reality as thought recedes from us while nonetheless being present as the all inclusive bearer, and since its presence consists in what no thought can turn into a possibility, philosophical thought means not that we void the inconceivability of authentic reality, but that we intensify it. The force of the real is made palpable by the foundering of thought.

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James Dickey documentary

This James Dickey documentary is required viewing: “James Dickey: Lord Let Me Die, But Not Die Out”

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Intellectual fashion

When an idea goes out of fashion it is not always because it is shown to be false or discovered to neglect important considerations. It can also be discarded prematurely because another idea ascends and conflicts with it, or even because the new idea makes the old idea seem dull and played out and sucks all attention away from it. An idea can also be abandoned and forgotten because of a change in collective mood, or because the philosophical drift of a time renders an idea irrelevant, then incomprehensible, then nonsensical. Or a whole culture can decay into ideological microomniscience: all thought beyond the ideology’s horizon is self-evidently immoral, ignorant or both.

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Oppressive rooms

It feels terrible to be in the midst of hyper-aggressive people who only care about what they are doing and saying, who leave no room for anyone else and expect anyone who wants to participate to barge in, make room for themselves and fight off all competitors. If your ideas are not fully worked out and armed with hard, definitive answers it will be crushed by better arguments or obscured in the fog of war. In an aggressive milieu subtle thoughts are lost.

It feels terrible to be in the midst of hyper-receptive people who are sensitive to what is going on with everyone else, who are incessantly on the lookout for subtle signs that someone might have something to contribute, who make room for all people at all times — and who expect all others present to do likewise. If inspiration distracts you from perceiving and tactfully responding to each and every individual present, or worse, compels you to unfold your idea beyond your equal share time and attention, only your boorishness and inequity will be heard and your injustice will be secretly repaid. In an excessively receptive milieu big ideas are placed in solitary confinement.

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Look out. I am entering a Jaspers phase. Reading Hannah Arendt’s essay “What is Existential Philosophy?” I’ve drawn a ridiculous number of stars, explanation marks and yeses into the margins of her summary of his thought. My plan is to read him through a material-turn lens and see if I might connect him up with Postphenomenology and ANT as a complementary second-person perspective, and develop it all into the design philosophy I’ve been threatening to write about about for last decade.

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Hineni might be the best one-word Jewish prayer.

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Humility as insight

Objective reality as we all (to some degree) know it is a product of myriad overlapping subjective realities as each of us know it; and each of these subjective realities is in turn a product of metaphysical reality none of us knows in any normal sense of knowledge.

If we are insufficiently alert our objectively-tempered subjective truth seems for all the world to be an imperfectly but adequately known objective reality that faithfully represents metaphysical reality.

The hardest thing for a human is not mistaking oneself for God. Most of us fail at this task and succumb to apotheosis.

Humility is a hard-won insight. Self-humiliation is a grotesque counterfeit.

(I’m pretty sure I’ve written this post before.)

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Far too few folks have given real thought to how they think — only to what they think.

They might think outlandishly different things, but they do not think about those things in different ways. And they think about different things precisely because the things they think about in their conventional way fail to give them satisfying answers, which drives them to go digging for data in new places, or to speculate about things allegedly happening beneath the surface, inaccessibly, but in a manner that soaks up the inexplicable remainder without requiring any change in how one thinks.

My instinct, a pragmatist’s instinct, is, when confronting an intractable conflict of interpretations, to suspect the How of thought first, and only after to question the What, or Why, or (God forbid!) Who.

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Object attachments

Most of the research I’ve done in my career has been focused on removing problems or finding opportunities for increasing usefulness. Much less has been focused on intensifying desirability and long-term attachment, except as a side-effect of function. I’d like to focus more on designing for desirability in the next decade.

I would also like to think more about what desirability is. It is not only visual aesthetics. Nor is it only a matter of personality or identity projection. Since early childhood I have always formed unusually strong attachments to objects, and these attachments are deep, intense and inward. They are never one thing, but a mix of aesthetics, use quality and symbol — and occasionally they are social as well.


I keep returning to my triad of What/How/Why (aka Is/Can/Ought) which started as an obsession with the meaning of the I Ching trigram yaos back in the early 2000s, and which is still a live problem for me and in the form of a venn trefoil is one of my most enduring geometric meditations (along with three other diagrams: wheel, star and spiral).

(For me, these shapes are intuitive springs and no matter how hard I try to finally explicitly nail down what they mean, they are never even close to exhausted. I’ve written about each of them extensively, in prose and verse, but it all seems so pompous that I get embarrassed and I don’t want to expose it. I should probably just get it all out of my head onto ink on paper and into boxes in a storage area and just move on. And if it is not obvious, I have a powerful object-attachment to my unpublished magical pamphlet.)

For the moment, I want to connect this with Liz Sander’s design trinity of Useful/Usable/Desirable.

I am tempted to view Usefulness as the overlap of How/Why; Usability of How/Is; and Desirable as the overlap of Why/Is.


I might need to explore attachment theory.

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Lek and “the social”

Yesterday, talking with a friend about the current generation of youth’s terror of being awkward or inappropriate, I realized I’ve somehow managed to never write about the concept of lek on this blog, much less in connection with Buber’s social versus interhuman/interpersonal distinction. I’d imagined this linkage so vividly I assumed I’d written about it already.

So what is lek? I learned about it from Clifford Geertz: in his paper “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali: The Social Nature of Thought”:

The concept of “shame,” together with its moral and emotional cousin “guilt,” has been much discussed in the literature, entire cultures sometimes being designated as “shame cultures” because of the presumed prominence in them of an intense concern with “honor,” “reputation,” and the like, at the expense of a concern, conceived to be dominant in “guilt cultures,” with “sin,” “inner worth,” and so forth. The usefulness of such an overall categorization and the complex problems of comparative psychological dynamics involved aside, it has proven difficult in such studies to divest the term “shame” of what is after all its most common meaning in English — “consciousness of guilt” — and so to disconnect it very completely from guilt as such — “the fact or feeling of having done something reprehensible.” Usually, the contrast has been turned upon the fact that “shame” tends to be applied (although, actually, far from exclusively) to situations in which wrongdoing is publicly exposed, and “guilt” (though equally far from exclusively) to situations in which it is not. Shame is the feeling of disgrace and humiliation which follows upon a transgression found out; guilt is the feeling of secret badness attendant upon one not, or not yet, found out. Thus, though shame and guilt are not precisely the same thing in our ethical and psychological vocabulary, they are of the same family; the one is a surfacing of the other, the other a concealment of the one.

But Balinese “shame,” or what has been translated as such (lek), has nothing to do with transgressions, exposed or unexposed, acknowledged or hidden, merely imagined or actually performed. This is not to say that Balinese feel neither guilt nor shame, are without either conscience or pride, anymore than they are unaware that time passes or that men are unique individuals. It is to say that neither guilt nor shame is of cardinal importance as affective regulators of their interpersonal conduct, and that lek, which is far and away the most important of such regulators, culturally the most intensely emphasized, ought therefore not to be translated as “shame,” but rather, to follow out our theatrical image, as “stage fright.” It is neither the sense that one has transgressed nor the sense of humiliation that follows upon some uncovered transgression, both rather lightly felt and quickly effaced in Bali, that is the controlling emotion in Balinese face-to-face encounters. It is, on the contrary, a diffuse, usually mild, though in certain situations virtually paralyzing, nervousness before the prospect (and the fact) of social interaction, a chronic, mostly low-grade worry that one will not be able to bring it off with the required finesse.

Whatever its deeper causes, stage fright consists in a fear that, for want of skill or self-control, or perhaps by mere accident, an aesthetic illusion will not be maintained, that the actor will show through his part and the part thus dissolve into the actor. Aesthetic distance collapses, the audience (and the actor) loses sight of Hamlet and gains it, uncomfortably for all concerned, of bumbling John Smith painfully miscast as the Prince of Denmark. In Bali, the case is the same, if the drama more humble. What is feared — mildly in most cases, intensely in a few — is that the public performance that is etiquette will be botched, that the social distance etiquette maintains will consequently collapse, and that the personality of the individual will then break through to dissolve his standardized public identity. When this occurs, as it sometimes does, our triangle falls apart: ceremony evaporates, the immediacy of the moment is felt with an excruciating intensity, and men become unwilling consociates locked in mutual embarrassment, as though they had inadvertently intruded upon one another’s privacy. Lek is at once the awareness of the ever-present possibility of such an interpersonal disaster and, like stage fright, a motivating force toward avoiding it. It is the fear of faux pas — rendered only that much more probable by an elaborated politesse — that keeps social intercourse on its deliberately narrowed rails. It is lek, more than anything else, that protects Balinese concepts of personhood from the individualizing force of face-to-face encounters.

Lek is clearly an artifact of what Buber calls “the social”, where “each individual existence is enclosed and contained in a group existence.” The role one performs (and in lek, fears performing poorly) is a role assigned by a culture for the purpose of smooth social functioning.

My suspicion is that the combo of social media and inadequate liberal indoctrination has brought lek to dominance in today’s youth culture, in the form of anxiety about awkwardness and inappropriateness, endangering intimacy and solidarity among individuals.

Lek combined with the devastating consequences of digitally amplified public shaming the stakes of performing one’s own individuality, which is individual to the degree that it deviates from the norm, are simply too high to risk. People play out their individual deviance in isolation, without company, language or light. We have taken more and more of our singing birds back into the cellar and locked them up with the wild dogs, transmuting gold to lead, virtues into vice. Shame is back, with a vengeance.

Love is profoundly individual. Only an individual loves. An individual loves only an individual.

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Perspectives on hybrid systems

Approaches to the composition of hybrid systems (systems made up of both objective and subjective elements) can be classified according to perspective.

Actor-Network Theory views hybrid systems from a 3rd-person perspective, in objective terms, without emphasis on either the human or the nonhuman components that make up the system.

Postphenomenology views hybrid systems from a 1st-person perspective, in subjective terms, emphasizing how a human experiences, interacts with — or, better, participates in — the hybrid system.

This suggests a question: what would a 2nd-person perspective on hybrid systems look like? I would assume a radical Buberian I-Thou conception of 2nd-person, that would concern itself with accurately empathizing with and understanding others, appealing to and persuading others and motivating participation in order to influence the formation, development and or stabilization of hybrid systems. I am tempted to answer: Design. And by design, I always mean Human-Centered Design.

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One way to see design

Design is materialized philosophy.

When designing something — which always and necessarily means designing something for someone — the central question is always: what is the right philosophy for this context?

The purpose of design research is to get to the heart of this central question out, and then to pose the design problem in such a way that designers think about the design problem in the right way, from the philosophical perspective suited to the problem.

Design briefs are tiny philosophical primers.

A good design brief will effect a perspectival shift in the reader (the designer) that brings new possibilities into view, possibilities that were inconceivable prior to the shift. This phenomenon is what is commonly called inspiration.

It is the job of design researchers to produce precision inspiration.

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Popper: “We all have our philosophies…”

“We all have our philosophies, whether or not we are aware of this fact, and our philosophies are not worth very much. But the impact of our philosophies upon our actions and our lives is often devastating. This makes it necessary to try to improve our philosophies by criticism. This is the only apology for the continued existence of philosophy which I am able to offer” — Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach.

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Reject the conflict

This passage from Bruno Latour expresses a humility that I feel is disappearing from the world: “It is us, the social scientists, who lack knowledge of what they do, and not they who are missing the explanation of why they are unwittingly manipulated by forces exterior to themselves and known to the social scientist’s powerful gaze and methods.”

Today, the further you are to the left or to the right the cockier you are about already knowing what is controlling the behavior of the world.

If you think in far-right terms, you know that people are manipulated by occult forces. Nefarious conspirators, supernatural entities and mysterious forces (essences, destinies, cosmic plans) all control the unfolding of history. Where effects take place, that action must have been intentionally planned by someone, Someone, or someforce. To counter these plans, one be on 24-hour red-alert — watching and prepping to defend oneself violently if necessary against the schemes of a concealed, intelligent and organized enemy whose actions have been prophesied in the Bible or by other sketchy divinations.

If you think in far-left terms, you know that people are controlled by unconscious psychological forces, mostly biases for and against categories of others. Leftists also believe in conspiracies, but these conspiracies happen through unconscious or lazy complicity: openly prejudiced people enlist the private, complacently habitual or unconscious prejudices of people of their own identity category to do what is in their collective best interest against the interests of other categories. To counter this semi-conscious institutionalized prejudice, it is necessary to intentionally institutionalize counter-prejudice (which isn’t actually prejudice because prejudice is only prejudice if it is held by the stronger groups against weaker groups, according to the prejudices of this theory).

These two extremes cannot imagine anything more opposite to themselves than their opposite. “The opposite of Good is Evil. We on the Right are the Good.” Or: “The opposite of Hatred is Love. We on the Left are on the side of Love (which is why we hate the haters, especially the invulnerable majority who hates complacently without even noticing it.)”

Each extreme justifies and feeds the other. And each extreme views moderates as unwoke dupes or cucks who brainlessly do the bidding of the other side.

But actually it is the moderates who are the true opposite of the two extremes, which can be seen as one thing that mistakes itself for two. The fringe-left and fringe-right should be seen as two pistons in the same apocalyptic engine, reciprocally feeding on one another’s force and fire.

This is why I refuse to engage extremists on their terms. I always present the conflict as one of moderation against extremisms. I align myself with normal moderate Americans who want to preserve what is best about America (individual autonomy for those who want it enough to work hard for it) against the hysterical hubristic know-it-alls and the apocalyptic engine they’re constantly revving up as loudly as possible over this or that emergency or outrage.

Philosophers have learned, when faced with either-or choices that the most philosophical thing to do is to “reject the question” and to look for a better one. Similarly, patriotic American will need to learn to “reject the conflict” and to redraw better battle-lines. I am an agonist, which means I believe conflict between mutually respectful adversaries is necessary and good. The battle-lines the extremists draw can create nothing but enemies.

I will conclude this rant with an inspirational passage from Eric Voegelin who lived in Germany in its worst moments, and knew a thing or two about ideologues:

“…I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology. I have in my files documents labeling me a Communist, a Fascist, a National Socialist, an old liberal, a new liberal, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Platonist, a neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, and of course a Hegelian—not to forget that I was supposedly strongly influenced by Huey Long. This list I consider of some importance, because the various characterizations of course always name the pet bête noire of the respective critic and give, therefore, a very good picture of the intellectual destruction and corruption that characterize the contemporary academic world. Understandably, I have never answered such criticisms; critics of this type can become objects of inquiry, but they cannot be partners in a discussion.”

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You didn’t have to convert to do that!

I interviewed an Israeli woman earlier this week as part of the work I’m doing. Of course I had to tell her I’m a recent convert. She immediately brightened up and demanded to know why I did it. I tried to answer her, but everything I said she shot down with “you didn’t have to convert to do that.”

“You could observe Shabbat without converting.” “You could have your Jewish friends…” You could read Jewish thinkers…” “You could celebrate the holidays…”

Somehow I didn’t feel like she was doubting my decision. It seemed like maybe she was honoring it. Because things were immediately different between us when I told her. Kicking my ass with such familiarity, cheer and warmth, she was showing me my best answer.

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