I’m not sure what happened to Ezra Klein between his infamous 2018 spat with Sam Harris and the publication of his book this year, but it seems to be a move in the right direction.
During his debate with Harris — especially toward the end as mutual frustration heated it up — he continually accused Harris of a form of false consciousness. Harris kept insisting that his political ideals were essentially left-liberal, not protecting the interests of the categories to which Klein assigned him, namely white, male, cis, heterosexual.
“All politics,” Klein asserted, “are identity politics.”
Which is true, but only if you will permit those identities to be dynamic and creatively shaped by the process of politics itself, not pre-existing, fixed and determinist, controlling the political process in ways only those in the know can fathom.
And the latter was the position Klein took in the debate. For those who subscribe to Klein’s identitarian worldview, it looked like Klein was simply repeating, with admirable patience, and just the right amount of combativeness, what social psychology has taught us about how politics really works, versus how it appears to work.
But for those who take the former position — that participants in politics form group identities that they themselves collaboratively instaurate — what Klein was doing was infuriatingly hubristic and unreflective. Klein was essentially saying that he knew what Harris’s real identity was, because he, Klein, possessed expertise on which identities are real and effective and which are delusions that conceal the political actor’s true motivations. This expertise authorized Klein to take an asymmetrical position in the debate and tell Harris objectively why Harris was making the arguments he was making, where Harris was speaking from such naivety that every claim Harris made could be diagnosed rather than addressed substantially.
In other words, Klein was imputing motives to his opponent. And he was doing so, on the basis of belief that his expertise afforded him privileged access to objectivity. These two moves are anathema to liberal-democratic dialogue. It is a technocratic form of illiberalism, and it exemplifies what has turned half of our nation against all claims to expertise.
This display of technocratic, classist arrogance ended my admiration for Klein. I couldn’t even hear his voice without bristling.
However, since Klein has started promoting Why We’re Polarized, I’ve been hearing him not only include political identity in his schema of legit identities, but considering them to be among the most important.
This makes me wonder if he would debate Harris differently today, especially if Harris were to do what he should have at the time: insist that his primary identity is liberal-democratic. And that his liberal-democratic identity is being attacked when members of other political groups scoff at his ideals and dismiss them as a vehicle for his true racist, sexist, etc. identity interests. It is a double-attack, because it is denying the very existence of his identity in a manner that violates the principles of liberal-democracy.
I think I would feel better about Ezra Klein if he would explicitly acknowledge that he has changed his position to allow identity based on political ideals, and admit that this is a departure from the position he took when he debated Harris.
And I would re-enlist as a fan if he would add to this that when he did these things he was doing so, not as an objective egalitarian, but as an impassioned member of a very powerful political identity, whose power was acting on him unconsciously and made him feel entitled to dictate what is true and good to a member of a socially inferior political identity.
physical sciences : technology :: social sciences : design
I am looking in my anomawiki for a quote from Nietzsche about foreground and background philosophies. I am digging through one of the themes I’ve catalogued, “depth“, and noticing — somehow for the first time! — how many of these quotes involve water, and specifically cold water. Reading Nietzsche I slowly discovered a symbolic language — or did I invent it? — It is probably best to say that in experimental interaction with his corpus, I instaurated a certain symbolic language that invests Nietzschean passages with multiple layers of powerfully direct intuitive meaning. (These meanings have been so intense that at the peak of my early Nietzschean encounter, I sometimes got butterflies in my stomach in the evening anticipating waking up the next morning and reading him.) I’ve learned to interpret water as a symbol of chaos, not only in Nietzsche, but also in Jewish scripture, which is why my Hebrew name is Nachshon. Coldness is another symbol, signifying betrayal. Nietzsche speaks often of coldness at the depths and heights. When we immerse in chaos, when we undergo the deepest, most trophonian perplexities, we often find that our own value hierarchies get loosened and shaken up. And when we ascend so far that we can survey a more expansive whole, this can also effect an inner political shift. The valley is temperate and more stable, but Nietzsche’s preferred valleys were near cold lakes and icy peaks, to remind us of our tragic situation between beneath and beyond.
I did not mean to write this much about Nietzsche.
Here is the quote I was looking for:
The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he [the philosopher] came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.
This passage implies that a person can always dig beneath and undermine his own philosophy if he chooses, and raises the question: why don’t we keep digging forever? What are the “stopping conditions”, to put it in wicked problem terms?
My own suspicious stopping point — (and yes, you should ask “why here?”) — is a metaphysics of radical surprise. Due to the relationship between truth and reality, truth is pluralism which “goes all the way down”, that reality is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Truth is the attempt of each center to make sense of the whole — a whole which is constituted entirely of centers. No center can embrace this infinite whole, so we radiate our being outward into the other centers, and they in turn radiate back. The interwoven radiating centers congeal into real situations and overlapping approximate truths, most of which have some validity, and all of which contain significant blindness toward what others know, and which necessarily make tradeoffs, only some of which we are aware. From time to time we are shocked out of our wits by the irruption of some reality for which we are unprepared, and often we have no idea how to make sense of it, unless we actively make that sense. This making of new sense is philosophy.
Some of us even go looking for shocks. We especially seek them when we are dissatisfied. And especially once we learn how easily apparently stable, unquestionable truths can be undermined, and once we learn to handle some of the unpleasant hazards of undermining and gain confidence in our ability to make new sense where we’ve loosened up and broken down old sense, undermining becomes a tool for overcoming some of life’s occasional horrors. In other words we are free to design philosophies that support a life we want. Like all design, philosophy functions in real contexts, must make optimal tradeoffs to meet requirements while respecting constraints, and they will succeed and fail in different ways to different degrees.
My background philosophy tells me that we can and should design our philosophies using all the best practices of human centered design. This is the best we can possibly do. The closest a human being can get to truth is to believe ideas that work well, meaning they help us do what we need to do, they prevent us from feeling perplexed, or getting confused or making mistakes, and they help us feel the value of our lives. (These, by the way are the criteria for good design laid down by Liz Sanders in the most influential paper no designer knows about.) None of these philosophies should be expected to hold up in every possible context and withstand every criticism, and if that becomes our primary goal, it is certain that this all-encompassing generality and well-armed defensibility will demand tradeoffs that will harm a person’s quality of life in innumerable ways. This deeper philosophy is pragmatist through and through, and draws on many strands of pragmatist thought including Actor-Network Theory. I call it design instrumentalism. It is never far from chaos, and dips in and out of perplexity as a matter of method. I can only handle it in small doses. As I was reminded this morning, Nietzsche said “I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out.”
My foreground philosophy is what I designed for myself as my everyday conceptual models to shape and guide my understandings. I crystalized them in image and word in Geometric Meditations. The ideas might seem profound, but that is because of their careful design: this philosophy was designed to maintain value-stability ‘warmth” at depths of thought where a soul risks coming apart. That is not to say I do not believe them wholeheartedly, because I do, but I believe them with wholehearted irony, meaning that I see them as some among many ways to make sense. The conceptual models in Geometric meditations function as an interface I intentionally designed to shield me from the instability and complexity of design instrumentalism.
I am sure this has made sense to nobody, but I needed to think it through.
It seems obvious to me that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Postphenomenology are complementary lenses for understanding social situations.
ANT gives us the network viewed “objectively” outside-in, and Postphenomenology helps us understand inside-out how the nodes interpret inputs from the network and translate them into outputs.
An ANT practitioner will be the first to tell you that ANT is just one way an actor (a theorist) can interpret and translate the network into a coherent explanatory account — but one that mostly blackboxes how that network is experienced at any one point. The ANT account is one of many multistable descriptions that can be given.
A Postphenomenologist brackets the network in order to understand how certain nodes in the network interpret other nodes before acting within the network, on the network, thereby changing it.
ANT and Postphenomenology are each the everted perspective of the other. Each methodically excludes what the other describes, through blackboxing or bracketing, respectively. A cultural anthropologist might say ANT attempts a rigorously etic view of the actor-network, and Postphenomenology is the emic view of the actor-nodes within it.
To make a chaos theory analogy, ANT gives us a Mandelbrot Set view of a region of the complex plane, and Postphenomenology gives us Julia Sets of selected points within the region.
OOO is a peculiar cross-breeding of the two that focuses precisely on the actor-nodes in the network that resist emic understanding, and then marvels at the fact that they must have some sort of emicity that neither we (nor any other object) can get at. They seem to me to be a mystical branch of Process philosophy, given to authoring fanciful philosophical midrash where both physical and social sciences fail.
To extend the chaos theory analogy, OOO enjoys boggling at how densely the points belonging to the Mandelbrot Set saturate the band of points along its psychedelically-enflamed perimeter, and at the impenetrable blankness of each and every one of them.
On Facebook Leafy said “My friend and I have been asking ourselves WHY people have so much contempt now for experts. … Stephen’s contribution is: Americans still fundamentally live in a culture informed by a team spirit that pits Science against Christianity, as if these things were part of the same sport. Even though many claim not to believe in God, we still tend to thus address all knowledge through the lens of authoritarianism, dogma, and faith. Since the development of the scientific method, modern science has always recognized that knowledge is a work in process, and that part of the Great Work is to prove ourselves wrong. But most Americans nevertheless now apprehend Science as substitute for Christianity, and blame it as if it were a bad religion with evil priests when it doesn’t immediately have all the right answers.”
I felt a need to clarify:
…And further, [when someone rejects beliefs without rejecting the faith that produces and sustains them] because only the what of the belief has changed but the how of the believing is left untouched, most folks who “believe in science” do so in the same manner as those who “believe in Jesus”. In other words, they are scientistic, not scientific.
But to clarify, I do not consider scientistic thinking to be an infection of science with religious thinking. Believing in this manner ruins religious practice at least as much. “Believing in Jesus” with a faith that thinks that certain facts we can hold in our heads are like golden tickets that get you into the heavenly chocolate factory — that’s ideology, not religion. And the only thing it has to do with religion is that it body-snatches and reanimate religious symbols. It is a horrible shame that people equate fundamentalism with religion. Fundamentalism and religion couldn’t be more different.
“I no longer know how from that I came to speak of Jesus and to say that we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him. ‘In a way that remains inaccessible to you’ — so I directly addressed the former clergyman. He stood up, I too stood, we looked into the heart of one another’s eyes. ‘It is gone,’ he said, and before everyone we gave one another the kiss of brotherhood.” — Martin Buber, Between Man and Man
In even the best Christian writing, for instance, Bruno Latour’s religious essays, I am frequently frustrated by a view of Judaism that strikes me as off-the-mark.
Many Christians seem to have received their understanding of what Judaism is (and, because it serves an antithetical function, what Christianity isn’t) through the image of the Pharisees in the Gospels, the deserving targets of Jesus’s harshest rebukes and arguments. Jesus was always on one side, the Pharisees were on the other side. Their sharp differences seem to demonstrate that Jesus represented a different religious vision, a new true one opposed to an old obsolete one. And it is casually assumed the old obsolete way represented by these freeze-framed Pharisees represents what Judaism has been from the time of Moses to today.
From a Jewish perspective, however, things look different. The ancient tradition that is today called Judaism is one long incessant struggle (Israel means “struggle”), a progress achieved through breaks, leaps and resumptions, through losses and recoveries of everything imaginable and unimaginable — the land, the Temple, faith, righteousness, the immediacy of God’s presence — over and over again. Jewish scripture is full of repeated disputes, failings, fallings-away, rebukes, repercussions, returns. People sometimes say “life is a series of interruptions,” and the story of the Jews one of recovery from some of the most catastrophic interruptions humankind has ever witnessed.
It is also necessary to understand that struggle is part of Jewish culture. Jews value argument. There is a Hebrew word for a sacred argument, Machloket L’shem Shemayim, meaning “disagreement for the sake of Heaven”. It is said that an argument of this kind is true in a way that surpasses any belief any person could hold. When the most faithful Jews argue, it is the furthest thing from rejecting the other. It is the best way to love your opponent.
Finally, the tradition to which Judaism belongs has never stopped reinventing and reinterpreting itself. The so-called Old Testament is really a long series of new testaments that reinterpret and add new layers of richness to what came before. It is all woven from past sayings and passages, recombined, tilted and refracted to reveal and generate new dimensions of meaning. When Jesus quoted, juxtaposed and re-angled passages from Torah, Psalms and Proverbs he was, once again, doing what Jews do, and he did it brilliantly.
Seen from this vantage point, Jesus fits right into the pattern of Jewish history, culture and faith. What Jesus represents is not an exception, but the very rule in Judaism. What he lived and taught was not an interruption of Judaism, but the most essentially Jewish reinterpretation, resumption and continuation. His arguments with priests and scribes were not a protest against his tradition, but participation in it. He was Judaism incarnate, but this incarnation neither began with Jesus, nor ended with him, but is just the doing of Judaism. Jews are supposed to incarnate their faith.
Only the deepest misunderstanding of the tradition to which Jesus belonged, loved, and ceaselessly affirmed, permits the strange expulsion of Jesus from his own Jewish world into the bizarre not-of-this-world diaspora of Platonic heavenly forms. This kind of vision of heaven is likely a Greek ethnocentric misunderstanding of Jesus’s at-hand transfigured kingdom, which is right here, right now, with us.
I am not saying that Jesus did not contribute to the development of Judaism. He did, but he did so as one more Jew in a chain of Jews stretching back to Abraham, and extending through the present day into the future. And when Christians penetrate the superstitions and moralisms that crust and obscure their own faith and feel that living kernel inside, it is Judaism they are finding there, the same living kernel that Jesus found and embodied.
This is why I say the best Jews and the best Christians share the same faith, even if their beliefs diverge.
An idea I have repeated too much: We resist deep change, not because we love the old or hate the new, but because of the intolerable span of dread that separates the old from the new.
At the threshold of deep change, in the face of something so new that it requires a preliminary forgetting of the old before true understanding is possible, a soul will sometimes balk. What can this balking look like?
- Allowing the message to be interrupted before it is complete
- Avoidance or distraction, switching focus away from the message
- Interpretation of the threshold anxiety as evidence of a real threat
- Questioning motives of the messenger, or otherwise nullifying the validity of the message ad hominem
- Investigating the causes of the message, rather than receiving its content
- Subjecting the message to formal analysis before listening to its content
- Creating conflict, and destroying the conditions for understanding
- Attempting to silence the messenger
- Ridiculing the message or the messenger
- Postponement of hearing the message to a more suitable time
- Repeating the old truth in place of hearing the new message
- Asserting personal incapacity to understand the message
- Accusing the new message of having no coherent meaning to understand
- Shoehorning the new message into old frameworks, rendering the message incomprehensible
- Reducing the new message to existing old ones and blurring and denying essential distinctions
- Assuming a superior spiritual status, rendering this and all messages pointless
- Dominating the conversation; interrogating instead of listening
- Shifting focus from content of message to the form of the message (for instance critiquing it as rhetoric)
- Deflection; treating the message as something to be heard by someone else
- Assessing the effort required to understand as a bad investment of time and effort
- Performing active listening, while not listening
- Letting the messenger talk, but not allowing message to penetrate; moving to the next topic before understanding has occurred
- Jumping to associated ideas before understanding happens
- Exalting the form of the message itself as a counterfeit for understanding
- Adoring the messenger in place of understanding the message
- Hating the messenger in place of understanding the message
- Flattering the messenger in place of understanding the message
- Interpreting the message as non-comprehensible magical incantation
- Experiencing the message aesthetically instead of understanding
- Listening to the message but deferring understanding until later
In many myths (including the Easter myth, which is on my mind because today happens to be Easter) an uncanny zone (of time or space or state) separating the old and the new. Traversing that zone is requires considerable skill and (as Joseph Campbell pointed out) often spiritual assistance.
Incidentally, speaking of Easter — which for Christians marks the passing of an old dead faith and the rising of a new living one — this morning I am reading an interesting paper by Bruno Latour, where he relates an amusing Babel-like story:
Jesuits who had settled in China in the XVIIth century, write to Rome complaining about the fact that, under pressure from the Dominican friars, they are obliged to utter the formula of the consecration in Latin. In effect, when the priest says: ’’Hoc est enim corpus meus,” it presents to the ear of a Chinese : “Hocu ye-su-tu ye-nim co-lo-pu-su- me-um,” which, if the Jesuits did not provide a French translation of what the unfortunate Chinese hear at the moment of the transsubstantiation, could pass for a fairly good approximation, give or take a few consonants, of : “emanation, ancient, lord, office, rule, handsome, rest, each, road, flee, thing, meditate, greening, meadows”.
I am imagining a short story where the Chinese receive this string of words as a magical incantation — a Latour liturgy — a rite around which a new religious faith revolves. The rite and its commentary is recorded in a Chinese Newer Testament which relates the miraculous story of a series of wild historical accidents that generated the string of Holy Words, despite the conceits of silly Hebrews and Europeans who thought they understood the meanings, but which were only preparations for something far greater:
Emanation, Ancient Lord!
Office rule handsome!
Rest each road.
Flee thing — meditate!
I am making a list of some strange phenomena which are the daily fare of strategic designers, but which are seldom experienced outside the field, at least not in the way designers experience them. By designers, I mean anyone engaged in human-centered design. These phenomena do not occur at the same intensity and frequency in problems that do not explicitly contend with subjectivity. Designers must live with them at full intensity, for long durations, without any easy escape route. Here is the list, so far:
- Dependency on conceptual models (which I will just call “models”) to guide the forming of a system that is experienced as clear and coherent to those who participate in them
- Uncanny difficulties in agreeing on models among members of design teams, which render subjective differences stark
- Difficulties in interpreting phenomena, and especially subjective phenomena, among different team members
- Difficulties in weighing design tradeoffs among different team members
- Existential pain associated with relinquishing (or even temporarily suspending) models that one has adopted — even in order to listen and understand another perspective — a phenomenon that can be called “pluralistic angst”
- Dependence on profound respect, trust and goodwill among team members to navigate through and out of pluralistic angst
- Tactics employed by well-intentioned people to avoid the pain and effort required to overcome pluralistic angst
- The ubiquity and invisibility of models — and the best models are the most ubiquitous and the most invisible — not only in design, but all understanding, which only becomes detectable in pluralistic conflict
- The miraculous way truths and unnoticed realities leap from nowhere (ex nihilo) when a different model is adopted and used
- The weird way a change in a sufficiently foundational model can sometimes change (transfigure) the meaning of one’s life as a whole, even when the change is meant only to affect a localized problem
- The fact that there are no determinate techniques, rules, criteria to overcome pluralistic angst (though there are approaches that can assist the process) — that people are thrown back into their bare unequipped souls to find the resources needed to overcome it together
- The solidarity among team members which can result from overcoming pluralistic angst with respect, trust and goodwill
Anyone who has been through the harrowing experiences described about enough times 1) to recognize what is happening, 2) to find faith that these things can be overcome, 3) to understand the value of overcoming them, 4) to find the attitude of soul most conducive to overcoming them (which includes grace toward one’s own missteps, doubts and moral failings during the process) might start seeing similar phenomena everywhere, at all scales, from international politics to personal relationships to one’s own inner conflicts. Or, at least this is what happened to me.
I was driven deep into existential philosophy, including phenomenology and hermeneutics then into pragmatism and its offshoots in social science to try to understand the weird kinds of pain I experience as a designer. Philosophy has never been speculative or abstract to me. It is concrete, near and a matter of life and death.
As a result of this search for understanding, I have designed myself conceptual models to help me re-understand the human condition as largely one of conflicting conceptual models.
It is here that it becomes fairly obvious how philosophy and design connect and merge into something inseparable. That is what I plan to write about and publish next, now that I have crystallized my core conceptual models in the form I believe they deserve.
“On the one hand, design is determined by ideas and material conditions over which designers have no control, yet, on the other hand, designs are the result of designers exercising their creative autonomy and originality. To put the paradox in the most extreme terms, how can designers be said to be in command of what they do, but at the same time merely be the agents of ideology, with no more power to determine the outcome of their work than the ant or worker bee? There is no answer to this question: it is a fact that both conditions invariably co-exist, however uncomfortably, in the work of design. The same apparent paradox occurs in all manifestations of culture: any painting, film, book or building contains ideas about the nature of the world…” — Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire
More and more, when I read Marxists writing about ideologies and the material conditions that produce them, apparently automatically, with no trace of intellectual agency, especially not of a philosophical nature, I find myself reflecting on the ideologies and material conditions of academic life, especially in those fields where Marxism tends to flourish. What are the forces of academic production, and what is it about them that channels so much thinking into this odd Marxist materialist conclusion? As much as academics like to think of academia as a shelter from brutal commercial forces from which non-academic life can be studied, analyzed and reinterpreted, I’ve seen it up close, and the forces which shape the lives of academics are at least as brutal, and far more intellectually intrusive than any I have seen in out in the private world. If fact, if my only exposure to business were that of a social sciences professor reading newspapers and history books with the rigorously-trained eye of a Marxist, looking through the lens of my own first-hand experience of university committee politics and peer-juried journal submission, I can see myself becoming unable to see anything but materially-determined ideological mind-control behind individual efforts at autonomy.
I need to reread We Have Never Been Modern.
Recently I’ve been asking my teammates to exercise certain rights I believe all design collaborators on projects should have. So far, the rights have been listed as occasions arise, but I’m starting to want to keep a list, because I don’t want to forget them, but also because they feel sacred and I would like to see them worded precisely and laid out systematically as a Design Collaborator’s Bill of Rights. I will be updating this list, and once it stabilizes I might letterpress it as a physical piece.
- The right to a brief: every team member has the right to request a clearly framed problem to solve autonomously (as opposed a specification to execute).
- The right to clarity: every team member can request a detailed explanation for any aspect of the project, until it is completely understood.
- The right to justification: every team member can raise explicit concerns with decisions, and to have the concerns addressed.
- The right to propose alternatives: every team member is free to conceive and communicate different approaches to solving problems.
- The right to have pre-articulate intuitions: every team member can expect to have pure (pre-articulate) intuitions respected as valid, and to be assisted in giving the intuition explicit, articulate form.
- The right to speak: every team member’s voice will be actively welcomed in discussions, meaning that opportunities to enter the conversation will be offered and space to communicate without interruption will be protected.
- The right to be fully understood: every team member can expect active listening from teammates, which means they will be heard out and interpreted until full comprehension is accomplished.
Yesterday, despite UPS’s best efforts I managed to get both boxes of the printed spreads of Geometric Meditations. I unpacked and organized the components, and assembled the first sixteen copies. I gave the first three copies to Susan, Zoë and Helen. I put the fourth in my library, in the religion section with the Kabbalah books. This is a book I’ve wanted in my library for a long time.
The process of making these books is labor intensive. Here’s the process:
- Collate the signature from six separate stacks of spreads.
- Fold each sheet.
- Use template to punch three holes (for sewing) through the signature fold.
- Measure 14″ of red waxed linen thread and thread it through the bookbinding needle.
- Starting from the top hole in the spine sew the signature, using a figure-eight pattern.
- Tie off the top and trim the threads evenly.
- With a craft knife (#11 Olfa) trim top and bottom edges in .75″.
- Trim outer edge in .75″.
I’m working on methods to streamline production, but it is still time-consuming.
If you receive a copy of this book, please take care of it. In each book is fifteen years of intense thinking, hands-on use and iterative design, five years of obsessive writing, rewriting and editing, one year of final editing and design tweaking, two months of production work and about half an hour of handcraft.
I made everything as beautiful as I could, and I am uneasily pleased with how it turned out.
Currently I’m reading David Ray Griffin’s Whitehead’s Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy after more or less giving up on Stengers’s more playful and imaginative, but tragically francofuzzled, Whitehead introduction. Griffin’s is far more straightforward and clarifying, and that is what I am after.
One of the central ideas in this book is prohibition of philosophical performative contradictions., or as Griffin summarizes it: “…it is antirational to deny in theory ideas that one necessarily presupposes in practice is that one thereby violates the first rule of reason, the law of noncontradiction. It is irrational simultaneously to affirm and deny one and the same proposition. And this is what happens when one denies a hard-core commonsense idea. That is, one is denying the idea explicitly while affirming it implicitly. This point has been made by Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas in their critique of “performative contradiction,” in which the very act of performing a speech act contradicts its semantic content, its meaning.”
This reminds me of a passage from Charles Sanders Peirce’s seminal Pragmatist essay “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities Claimed For Man”: “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”
But there are interesting differences between Whitehead’s and Peirce’s objections to skepticism to commonsense beliefs. Whitehead saw self-contradictions, where Peirce saw counterfeit beliefs in the form of theoretical assertions. Both saw a peeling apart of the theoretical snd practical.
My view on this emphasizes the morality of denial: In most of these denials of commonsense I see an attempt at solipsism. Some claim of reality transcending mind is dismantled and reduced to a mental phenomenon that can be accepted or rejected at the discretion of the thinker. This desire to solipsize what is mind-transcendently real is the active ingredient of evil. Life requires small doses of such solipsism to shelter us from the overwhelming dread of infinity, but when philosophies move from emphasis and deemphasis to ontological negation, this should be taken as a possible symptom of autoapotheosis, the desire to mistake ourselves for God, the ultimate failure of philosophy, theology, which manifests itself as ideology.
One of the best things about becoming Jewish is that the process has clarified for me very precisely what I love and what I dislike in Christianity.
What I love in Christianity is exactly what I love most in Judaism. Jesus distilled the most beautiful elements of Judaism and made them harmonize and inter-illuminate. He was an unsurpassed genius, and it was through him that Judaism became capable of producing modern humanity as we know and love it.
What I dislike in Christianity is where Jesus ends and Paul begins — the whole magic legalistic universe he invented and shoehorned his christized Jesus into — which is also precisely where it betrays Judaism.
I’m not one of those boring people who rejects Paul because he was mean, harsh or misogynistic. According to most experts, relative to the standards of his time he was above average in all the virtues good liberals prize most. He may have even helped advance liberalism, and for that outcome I am grateful, even if I find his methods distasteful.
No: my problem with Paul is that his worldview is poorly conceived and designed. It’s a hacked-together mess, lacking in plausibility and usability. If Paul’s concept of God is the only one you have available, it is a miracle if that doesn’t force you into atheism. The only part that’s any good design-wise is the sliver that reinforces what Jesus tried to teach.
To summarize: Judaism and Christianity overlap in Jesus’s teachings. Judaism and Christianity diverge where Paul started inventing his own religion.
A little something to upset everyone.
Someone asked me, with respect to my work, what I call myself these days. If people understood 1) what design is, and that 2) all design, done competently, is, necessarily human-centered design, I’d want to be called simply a Designer. Because this is nowhere near the case, I call myself a Human-Centered Designer.
At that point my friend Tim called me Design-Centered Human. That’s pretty apt.
It seems to be a perverse law of reality that the more ultimate and urgent a question is to human existence, the less we can hope to have an answer. Stuck without answers, we are forced into different forms of faith, which include:
- Tradition — accepting answers provided by trusted others from the past or present and actively cultivating belief.
- Speculation — experimenting with possible answers and adhering to the ones that seem best to believe.
- Practicality — rejecting such questions and living strictly within the limits of mundane truths which can be answered.
- Distraction — suppressing the urgency of ultimate questions by redirecting, distorting or dulling attention.
- Quietism — declaring ultimate unknowns to be unknowable, and therefore less a matter of questions to ask and answer than mysteries to contemplate.
- Mysticism — abandoning metaphysical speculation and instead meditating on symbols that relate us to realities beyond form and knowledge.
- Nihilism — taking the painful unknowability of our most urgent questions as a test of the integrity and courage of our intellectual conscience to refuse to resolve what cannot be resolved.
Another response takes the unanswerability of ultimate questions as a moral clue, a suggestion that here answers are not the answer.
The crucial shift required for this alternative response is rethinking the relationship between questions and answers. Normally, answers alone are seen as having positive value, and the value of questions are entirely bound up with their role in production of answers. Questions are just perceptible holes or defects in our knowledge, and the posing of questions is just requesting more or better answers.
But this view is not the only possible one, and it may just be a stale habit that has gone too long without being challenged. In fact, questions are the furthest thing from mere absence of answer. A question is an active kind of receptivity, guided by a strong intuition of relevance, and it might even be questions that invest truths with intellectual life.
It has been argued that understanding any truth consists in grasping the question implied in its assertion. Misunderstandings occur when truth are taken as answers to the wrong questions. And confusion is failing to find any question the truth might answer.
It is also true that when a person plunged into a disorienting problematic situation, an inability to form clear questions far more painful than simply lacking answers, and that gaining clarity into one’s questions alleviates this pain more than acquiring new factual information, unless the facts reveal the real question at hand.
Dignifying questions with value and positive existence makes possible new forms of faith, oriented less toward having factual answers than toward asking good questions in a good way for good reasons.
If questions are capable of infusing truths with living meaning, can questions do the same for other kinds of relationships? How about relationships between people (who, after all, are irreducible to knowledge)? How about relationships between people and this inexhaustibly surprising reality we inhabit together?
Is it possible that unanswerable questions might help us understand that knower-known is not the right relationship in every kind of situations? Here questions seem to urge us to know-toward, understand-toward instead of comprehending — to touch with the fingertips of our understanding instead of reflexively gripping everything in the fists of our cognition. This way of approaching reality places faith in questions as sacred.
When a person tells you something that is new to them — something they experience as new, whether because it is new to the world or just new to themselves — the generous thing is to find as much newness in it as possible, and to share that newness with them.
The temptation, of course, is to view the other person’s new idea or new insight or new knowledge as something we already had, as if this poor fool just caught up with us.
When people do this to me, it feels like a kind of stinginess. Somehow, this other person lacks the generosity to accept something new from someone like me. Maybe they can’t share excitement over another person’s achievement. Or maybe they cannot be bothered to exert effort to see subtle differences beyond the simple matching of resemblances. Or maybe they don’t like the feeling of anxiety that always attends even the smallest transcendence of one’s own conceptual system. Or maybe they see a loss in prestige being taught by someone else, and their envy demands minimizing other people’s achievements.
Whatever the motive, it feels terrible — deflated, alienated, humiliated — to be on the other end of this treatment.
My own moral method requires me now to turn it around and find where I have done and habitually do this myself. As always, I am finding numerous examples, and in the most painful places — in places where I’ve wounded people and damaged relationships.
Here is a new discipline of generosity I am going to experiment with. I will not pretend an entire idea is new if much of it is familiar and well-known. (I have tried that, and it is disingenuous and self-abasing.) What I will do instead is treat the familiar and known aspects of the idea as a launching point for an exploration of what is truly novel and valuable in the idea. I will look for exciting, consequential content and look for ways to collaboratively incorporate it into my own understandings. This is another way of saying that I will allow this other person to influence me and play a part in creating me.
I’m told I’m a descendent of publishers (Scribner’s Sons). I certainly do feel book-craft in my blood. I care intensely about the best ideas being given the form they deserve, from conceptualization to language, typesetting, page composition, printing, and binding. I cannot believe that I can buy a life-changing book for less than the cost of a luxury car.
I keep fantasizing about starting a press dedicated to publishing the heirloom thoughts of great contemporary thinkers. I am imagining art chapbooks of about 24-36 pages, each containing one essay written in a rigorous, non-scholarly style for an ideal reader — intelligent, informed and critically sympathetic. The essays would not be popularizations — and in fact might be even denser and harder to read than a full book — but would be streamlined to exclude footnotes and references to other works. The point is to immortalize the thinker’s best idea in the most compact, most beautiful words in the most perfectly designed and constructed physical form possible. They would be letterpress printed, of course, on cotton paper and sewn into chapbooks.
In exchange for the content, the author would get half the copies to give to loved ones, and I would keep half to sell.
I would definitely want the first author to be Richard J. Bernstein, whose Beyond Objectivism and Relativism changed the course of my life.
I got proofs back from my printer yesterday, and approved them!
This is noticeably changing how my life feels.