So eclipsistic!

Back in 2003, when I began to wade out into philosophy and enjoyed the new philosopher’s humiliation of rediscovering obvious truths I came up with some names for self-other orientations. A position of solipse looks out upon reality from an explicit self-to-other orientation, sort of a principled egoism, which analyzes existence in terms of relationship to subject. Eclipse is just the opposite of solipse. A position of eclipse looks out upon reality from an explicit other-to-self orientation, which attempts to factor out ego in order to get objective knowledge.

The reason I bring this up is I just wrote some irritated notes in the margin of page 119 of Hyperobjects, where Morton starts positioning Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) against what he calls “sensual objects”, objects as they are for an observer, what Harman calls “as-structure”. Of course, phenomenology is pretty much just rigorous study of as-structure, and Heidegger was a phenomenologist, so using phenomenology as a foil against OOO makes sense. But OOO does a weird move that, to me, seems extremely typical of today’s version of “leftness”: he seems to believe that he can transcend his first person position altogether by extremes of altruism, by equating himself and his own existence to that of all objects. In fact, had I thought of it, I’d have scribbled “object altruism!” In the margin. Instead I wrote “so eclipsistic!”

So, if being solipsistic means behaving as if one’s own subjectivity is the ground of all reality, being eclipsistic means behaving as if one’s own conception of objectivity is the ground of all reality. So a person with a reductive materialist philosophy who imagines that his own experience of consciousness emerges from the workings of material dynamics, and that somehow this raises him out of his first-person perspective into a third-person perspective is being eclipsistic.

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Power assessments

One of the great privileges of power is to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of powers, to judge what is just and unjust, and to define which entities are real and which are only imaginary.

To detect where power is — or where power believes it is — look for where matters of legitimacy, justice and ontology are asserted as self-evident without argument or persuasion, and protests are dismissed or ignored.

And to detect where war is developing look for where two parties each summarily judge the other illegitimate, unjust and deluded with no attempt at understanding, much less agreement.

The conflicting worldviews are a superficial symptom of a deeper disagreement on power: who is actually in a position to dominate the other? Such disagreements intensify to the degree the two powers are equal.

In an armed conflict the more equally matched the combatants the more protracted and destructive the battle will be.

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Depth, breadth and density

If you don’t know what intellectual depth means, you’ll think it means thoroughness. But thoroughness is not depth, it is density within a given breadth and depth of knowledge.

Both excessive breadth of knowledge (how many things one has knowledge of) and excessive density of knowledge (how much one knows about a thing) will be gained at the expense of depth of knowledge (how many ways one knows how to know). And alas, vice versa. Dilettantes, pedants and nomads.

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Against Nature, for the sake of ecology

I am reading Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects by day and listening to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now by night. It is interesting how both thinkers, as different as their philosophies are, come down against “Nature” (in the Romantic sense of a deified, pristine, virginal being who can only be defiled by contact with Humankind) for the sake of ecology (ecology being something in which we actively participate, constructively or destructively).

I see these structures as being identical to the structures of marriage, and for that matter, all sacraments.

The “Nature” model views the sacred as Other apart from us, and demanding from us self-sacrificial acts of altruism, which is the ideal of morality: For You; Not For Me. A tragicomedy repeated endlessly on TV screens: The altruistic lover tells his beloved to leave him forever, because he cares more about her happiness more than his own. What a lovely, heart-rending act of intellectual stuntedness. If he bothered to exercise intellectual independence and reflected on his own experiences of love, he’d see very clearly she’s leaving him because he’s a sentimentally passive moron who doesn’t know how to love because he doesn’t know what love is, because he spends too much time in his soft warm pink heart and far too little in his clear, cold head, and he probably thinks he’s to be congratulated for it.

The ecological view views a sacred Other as co-embedded within something both immanent and transcendent, both participatory and mysterious, and that this embeddedness is the key to relationship and potential immediacy. We experience discrete otherness with a degree of immediacy through the medium of shared realities to which we belong. When we get married, we enter into marriage and abide within it with another, who is in part mysterious to us, but also familiar as a member of the marriage “body” we participate in. Love is a commitment to both the familiar, the mysterious and the occasionally harrowing being in which we are participants when we relate to our spouse as the one to whom we are married. We draw being from our marriage being and we are changed by it, and that is the point of it. We must think and feel in some pretty unusual ways to exist this way and to understand what we are doing. We must think religiously to participate in real marriage with a real other person. We cannot be merely individualistic, but we must be individuals who want both individuality and relationships.

I believe Morton would call this “being ecological”. I’ll go along with that, but I’m going to keep hammering on our collective ignorance of religion.

Too many people worship their own fancies, notions, concepts, symbols and moral algorithms as if they worship God, and being a good Jew I want to remind them of third commandment, and emphasize it with some astonishing wisdom of one of our most best Jews, who joined love of neighbor with whole-hearted, whole-souled, whole-bodied love of God and presented them as two facets of a single supreme commandment. We must love toward realities and within realities, not love experiences-of, or ideas-of — or anything that is essentially features of our own being. We must love others through the shared medium of otherness in which we participate as beings.

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Nietzsche on suffering

Two reflections on suffering from Nietzsche, the first from The Gay Science and the second from Twilight of the Idols:

Knowledge of distress. — Perhaps nothing separates human beings or ages from each other more than the different degrees of their knowledge of distress — distress of the soul as well as of the body. Regarding the latter we moderns may well, in spite of our frailties and fragilities, be bunglers and dreamers owing to lack of ample first-hand experience, compared with an age of fear, the longest of all ages, when individuals had to protect themselves against violence and to that end had themselves to become men of violence. In those days, a man received ample training in bodily torments and deprivations and understood that even a certain cruelty towards himself, as a voluntary exercise in pain, was a necessary means of his preservation; in those days, one trained one’s surroundings to endure pain, in those days, one gladly inflicted pain and saw the most terrible things of this kind happen to others without any other feeling than that of one’s own safety. As regards the distress of the soul, however, I look at each person today to see whether he knows it through experience or description; whether he still considers it necessary to fake this knowledge, say, as a sign of refined cultivation, or whether at the bottom of his soul he no longer believes in great pains of the soul and reacts to its mention in much the same way as to the mention of great bodily sufferings, which make him think of his toothaches and stomachaches. But that is how most people seem to me to be these days. The general inexperience with both sorts of pain and the relative rarity of the sight of suffering individuals have an important consequence: pain is hated much more now than formerly; one speaks much worse of it; indeed, one can hardly endure the presence of pain as a thought and makes it a matter of conscience and a reproach against the whole of existence. The emergence of pessimistic philosophers is in no way the sign of great, terrible states of distress; rather, these question marks about the value of all life are made in times when the refinement and case of existence make even the inevitable mosquito bites of the soul and the body seem much too bloody and malicious, and the poverty of real experiences of pain makes one tend to consider painful general ideas as already suffering of the highest rank. There is a recipe against pessimistic philosophies and excessive sensitivity, things which seem to me to be the real ‘distress of the present’ — but this recipe may sound too cruel and would itself be counted among the signs that lead people to judge, ‘existence is something evil’. Well, the recipe against this ‘distress’ is: distress.

and

Christian and anarchist. — When the anarchist, as the mouthpiece of the declining strata of society, demands with a fine indignation what is “right,” “justice,” and “equal rights,” he is merely under the pressure of his own uncultured state, which cannot comprehend why he actually suffers — what it is that he is poor in: life … A causal instinct asserts itself in him: it must be somebody’s fault that he is in a bad way … Also, the “fine indignation” itself soothes him; it is a pleasure for all wretched devils to scold: it gives a slight intoxication of power. Even plaintiveness and complaining can give life a charm for the sake of which one endures it: there is a fine dose of revenge in every complaint; one charges one’s own bad situation, and under certain circumstances even one’s own badness, to those who are different, as if that were an injustice, a forbidden privilege. “If I am canaille, you ought to be too”: on such logic are revolutions made. — Complaining is never any good: it stems from weakness. Whether one charges one’s misfortune to others or to oneself — the socialist does the former; the Christian, for example, the latter — really makes no difference. The common and, let us add, the unworthy thing is that it is supposed to be somebody’s fault that one is suffering — in short, that the sufferer prescribes the honey of revenge for himself against his suffering. The objects of this need for revenge, as a need for pleasure, are mere occasions: everywhere the sufferer finds occasions for satisfying his little revenge. If he is a Christian — to repeat it once more — he finds them in himself … The Christian and the anarchist are both decadents. — But when the Christian condemns, slanders, and besmirches the “world,” his instinct is the same as that which prompts the socialist worker to condemn, slander, and besmirch society. The “last judgment” is the sweet comfort of revenge — the revolution, which the socialist worker also awaits, but conceived as a little farther off … The “beyond” — why a beyond, if not as a means for besmirching this world? …

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Suffering about suffering

When painless pleasurable existence is assumed to be the normal state of life, and pain and displeasure to be abnormal, pain and displeasure are compounded with metapain and metadispleasure — suffering — at the fact of pain and displeasure: something is happening that should not be happening.

If it is assumed that normality is natural and abnormality is artificial the question of agent automatically arises: who caused this suffering?

And unless we work hard to understand otherwise, we will naturally view all suffering in terms of the suffering we have suffered. We will look around and see some fellow-sufferers and many non-sufferers.

We can also look into history and find other non-sufferers of suffering as we know it.

My kind live like I do and suffer as I do.

“Others created and continue to create my abnormal conditions of suffering. Worse, they pretend that they, too, suffer, even though they do not know what suffering is.”

*

My view: existence itself causes suffering.

We diminish suffering and generate pleasure through collaborative effort.

Sustained diminishment of suffering is a miracle of human ingenuity — a glorious artificiality — which requires vast collaborative effort to sustain, much less expand.

The greatest threat to the continuation of this effort is the loss of understanding that our considerable (albeit imperfect) state of comfort is an accomplishment of centuries of collaboration, and the relapse into the imbecilic resentment of assigning blame to others in the present and in the past for the suffering one experiences and the failure to recognize the universality of suffering.

Instead of the compassion, solidarity and collaboration we live in a world of suffering collective solipsists glaring resentfully at those who do not suffer and who seem the likely culprits and beneficiaries of our suffering, my suffering, the only suffering that exists as far as I can tell.

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Updates to “Eroding to Wisdom”

Responding to feedback from my friend Leafy, I added some transformative comments to “Eroding to Wisdom”. I sort of wish I’d entitled it “Progressive Tradition”.

I can tell rewrites are on the horizon. I may want to elaborate on what I mean by the disgraced word “wisdom”. I see wisdom as simple fundamental conceptions upon which all our other conceptions rest. Or to use a word I’ve been seeing a lot: Wisdom is the small set of simple conceptions which subtend all our other, more complex concepts and hold them together as an immediate meaningful unity.

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Intellectual idolatry

Never, ever forget: Human beings reliably choose the death of other human beings over the death of their own philosophies. And the worse the philosophy, the more unconditionally and violently it loves itself and esteems its own Truth over reality and real living beings.

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Mereology

New word alert!

mereology
noun – The formal study of the relationship between the parts of a system and the whole
ORIGIN: Gr meros “part”, and -ology

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Eroding to wisdom

The best quotes are the misattributed ones — overused maxims that become smoother as they tumble from paraphrase to paraphrase until they are worn smooth like river stones.

Whenever I track one of these retroactively adopted orphans back to their birthplace, I discover that almost always its character has been improved by the traumas of public life.

Take for instance the famous quote that Yogi Berra should have said, but actually never did say: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” The original quote appeared in flabbier form in a Usenet proto-meme: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is a great deal of difference.” Incidentally, one Berra quote Berra really did say is “I never said most of the things I said.”

Mark Twain is a popular misattributed source of collaboratively improved quotes, probably because Twain is the only writer of pithy sayings most people know, so if they hear a pithy saying they assume Twain must have said it. A great example of a Twain saying that Twain never said is “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Quote Investigator found the earliest example of this quote to be “Give a boy a hammer and chisel; show him how to use them; at once he begins to hack the doorposts, to take off the corners of shutter and window frames, until you teach him a better use for them, and how to keep his activity within bounds.”

Another fake Twain quote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Quote Investigator explains the earliest English expression of this thought is a translation of a Pascal quote, “My Letters were not wont to come so close one in the neck of another, nor yet to be so large. The short time I have had hath been the cause of both. I had not made this longer then the rest, but that I had not the leisure to make it shorter then it is.” It took 300 years to shorten this quote to its current svelteness.

I even prefer the bastardized versions of properly attributed quotes. William James comes to mind:

When a thing is new, people say: “It is not true.”

Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: “It’s not important.”

Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say “Anyway, it’s not new.”

Who could possibly prefer the original?: “First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.”

This meditation on misattributed quotes hints at something important: The lessons of the “gossip game” might need some qualifications. It is undeniably true that factual information passed from person to person does degrade over the course of minutes, hours, days and months. But is this true of wisdom passed from generation to generation over the course of decades or centuries? Perhaps not. Maybe wisdom seeks its perfect form through wear.

The designer in me wants to include physical objects in the set of examples of “wisdom seeking form”. I have always loved the perfection of tradition-worn objects like houses, tables, chairs, knives, pens, teapots, clothes and bicycles. My love of erosive essentializing could make me look like some sort of conservative Platonist type, except for one subtle but crucial difference: the Platonist ideal lives above humanity in a heavenly realm of preexisting perfect archetypes; where my ideal lives among us in an eternal democratic project of iterative design, a trans-generational collaboration to makes things better and better, approaching but never quite reaching perfection.

*

A friend tells me I buried the lede on this piece, and that this gives the piece a frivolous effect. One thing I have learned reflecting on philosophical communication and my own characteristic miscommunications, is that philosophy tends to reverse normal patterns of explanation. Things don’t progress in the normal subject-to-predicate order. Instead, it goes predicate-predicate-predicate-subject. You don’t exactly know what the work is about until the about finishes abouting about and finally resolves into the “what”. A capacity to enjoy philosophy is tied to an ability to endure whatlessness for long anxious stretches, until the whole mess finally coalesces and crystallizes into clear conception that makes simple sense of what preceded it.

So there’s just no way am I going to put that lede out in front where it belongs. But, being a good Liberal, I do believe in compromise, so here is what I can do: I will exhume the lede, and append it to the end, so anyone who wants to can re-read the original with this explication in mind.

What I wanted to do was to demonstrate a progressive traditionalist attitude.

Progressive traditionalism might seem like a contradiction in terms, but this is a side-effect of unexamined views of tradition that produce two mutually reinforcing oppositions: 1) progressive anti-traditionalism that wants to ignore or trash an unacceptable past in order to clear the way for a better future, and 2) traditional traditionalism that sees the past as better and the present as unacceptable, and therefore wants a future that looks more like the past than the present.

Progressive traditionalism sees tradition as a long process of collaborative improvement. The past is a swirl of good and bad. Humanity, genius is mixed with ignorance and atrocities, and our ability to discern the good and bad is a direct result of the tradition’s progress. We wouldn’t know how appalling our past is if we hadn’t lived through it, learned from it and been changed by it. Further, this work is nowhere close to finished. We are making mistakes this very moment that will be obviously stupid and wicked within a decade. I believe one of those mistakes is thinking we must choose between wholesale condemnation or wholesale worship of the past instead of treating it with the critical respect it deserves.

I wanted to demonstrate this attitude simply, and I believed a good way to do this was to show that old famous sayings can actually improve over time through being worked on by innumerable unfamous people. And I wanted to make fun of our compulsion to project this simplicity back into the past by placing the perfected words into the mouths of acclaimed geniuses. Why would we want to do that? What is the source of this need? The hammer I carry is philosophy, and the nail I see here is the unconscious impulse to preserve the current popular philosophy (also known as “common sense”) at all costs. This current philosophy, by the way, is also producing our political crisis.

There is a lot to say on this subject and it connects with some of the things in my life I value most, including my adopted Jewish religion. But I’ll leave it here for now.

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My stance on IDW

A reply to the Medium article “The Intellectual Dark Web Is Dead”:

We need to become more nuanced in our expectations of unity.

We will think more clearly about IDW figures better if we think of them in private-inner- vs public-outer terms (inner-Peterson, inner-Paglia, inner-Harris, inner-Shapiro, etc. versus outer-Peterson, -Paglia, -Harris, -Shapiro). We will notice vast divergence in the inner-IDW, but active convergence in outer-IDW.

This is important. In a liberal democracy, we should seek unity solely in the outer, in the civic realm. Essential to this unity is the strong belief that our private beliefs are nobody’s political business.

IDW’s implicit code seems to be: maximum public unity resting on a foundation of maximum private difference. This is why everyone drafted into the IDW makes a point of emphasizing their ability to seek agreement on outer-matters, while maintaining their own private individual metaphysic and moral ideals. The whole point of the IDW is seeking agreement only on those matters that require agreement in a flourishing liberal democracy (public-outer), and protecting the right to disagree on all other matters (private-inner)

The widespread belief that we must agree privately to be united publicly produces an obtrusive politics that cares far too much about what goes on in a citizen’s head. This belief easily metastasizes into a craving for likemindedness and leads directly to illiberalism. It leads to politics that tries to do what it should not, namely to provide individuals with inner-meaning, which sounds wonderful until you find yourself being force-fed someone else’s meaning. Liberal democracy is boring on principle. It leaves problems of meaning to private individuals working alone or together to discover or produce their own meaning.

Regarding the inner-convictions of the IDW crew, I find them all alternately dull and repellant. Peterson and Paglia are total retro-flakes. Pinker and Harris are standard-issue modern philistines. And Shapiro is somehow WASPier than any WASP I’ve ever met. None of them are interesting to me.

But the fact that they can all send these irritating private beliefs home when it is time to discuss politics makes me a huge fan of IDW, not despite my distaste for their private convictions, but because of it.

If you prefer the language of myth over political principle, I can translate it to Olympian: What separated the gods from the titans was the gods prioritized their shared loyalty to Olympus over their commitment to their individual divine vision. I can also translate it to American: E pluribus unum.

Full disclosure: I pretty much lifted this line of thought from Richard Rorty’s beautful article on Nietzsche’s pragmatism. Highly recommended.

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Hammerhead

The well-known saying “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” has a corollary: “If every problem you see can be solved by pounding nails, every tool around you looks like a hammer.”

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Usefulness, Usability and Desirability of philosophies

Tim Morton explains Speculative realism:

Speculative realism is the umbrella term for a movement that comprises such scholars as Graham Harman, Jane Ben- nett, Quentin Meillassoux, Patricia Clough, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier, and an emerging host of others such as Ben Woodard and Paul Ennis. All are determined to break the spell that descended on philosophy since the Romantic period. The spell is known as correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk within a narrow bandwidth, restricted to the human-world correlate: meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks, its “objects,” flimsy and tenuous as they are. The problem as correlationism sees it is, is the light on in the fridge when you close the door?

So far, 65 pages in, I am seeing absolutely no progress toward transcending the human-world correlate. I am seeing attempts at using measurements and mathematical models as a substitute for intuition, but what could possibly be more human than that, even when, or especially when, such substituting of ratiocination for instinct make our minds feel abstracted from our animal bodies. I am also seeing speculations about real objects and what they might be like substituted with access to first-person being of objects (first-object being?). When you insist the light is on in the fridge when you close the door because it is the nature of light to withdraw when doors are shut, you’ve posed a possibility for humans to consider or for human scientists to investigate, and that should not be confused with seeing the inner-light of the fridge with superhuman refrigerated eyes. And even if you place sensors inside the fridge, or discover ways to detect or deduce light inside a closed fridge, or account for your inability to sense, detect or deduce with ontological maxims of withdrawal, you may be “seeing” through long networks of instruments (both physical and mental) but it all converges and terminates in an all-too-human “eye”. And this is true whether that eye is manifested from some archetypal realm, or the eye is imagined in a man’s or god’s mind (along with what is seen), or if the eye is an organ emergenging from interplay of matter and energy situated in a space-time container or if the eye is an object within hyperobjects.

For us, one we know a thing it all becomes something for-us, including our conviction that it is not only what is known, and that it is for-itself. As Nietzsche said “We cannot look around our own corner: it is a hopeless curiosity that wants to know what other kinds of intellects and perspectives there might be; for example, whether some beings might be able to experience time backward, or alternately forward and backward (which would involve another direction of life and another concept of cause and effect). But I should think that today we are at least far from the ridiculous immodesty that would be involved in decreeing from our corner that perspectives are permitted only from this corner. Rather has the world become “infinite” for us all over again: inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations. Once more we are seized by a great shudder — but who would feel inclined immediately to deify again after the old manner this monster of an unknown world? And to worship the unknown henceforth as “the Unknown One”? Alas, too many ungodly possibilities of interpretation are included in the unknown, too much devilry, stupidity, and foolishness of interpretation — even our own human, all too human folly itself, which we know…”

So good for the speculative realists that they have uncovered another human perspective for thinking in a less human-intuitive way. If learning to think that way delivers on the promise to make an ecological ethic more accessible, I’m all for it.

However, I am beginning to worry that this access is most likely occur through the thin conduit of argument, which rarely fully engages human intuition or or taps into moral impulses which “know” by caring or neglecting.

And as a designer-philosopher, I know hitting all three is paramount. For in design these are the holy trinity of experience, the necessary conditions of adoption: Useful, Usable, and Desirable.

The vice of utilitarian, functionalist folks who fancy themselves objective is they find far too much desirability in mere usefulness, and that desirability motivates them to surmount difficulties in comprehension — and then they find yet more desirability in the accomplishment of having surmounted the difficulties. This is why engineers, left on their own, engineer systems that only other engineers can use, much less love. Design is changing all that (at least for things made for non-engineers) and Human-Centered Design is accelerating that change.

Philosophy has been and is in the same stage as pre-design engineering. Because it requires motivated philosophical investigation to even grasp what philosophy does and is, most people can’t even see what it can be used for, or to even detect the symptoms of an obsolete or corrupted philosophy (or, as today, clashing of multiple corrupted obsolete philosophies). Philosophers engineer philosophies for other philosophers.

When philosophies are popularized, all that changes is the Usability. Now an ordinary above-average-smart person can get a sense of what philosophers are making for each other. They probably can’t get the same jolt of pleasure out of it, since most philosophy exists for academic philosophers’ purposes and tastes, but they can get a bit of that surmounting-difficulties pleasure and they can plume their social personas with the book-learning.

What most needs changing is Usefulness and Desirability.

By usefulness, I mean recognizing that every philosophy enables us to think certain kinds of thoughts. The live problems that orient and motivate philosophical effort tend to produce philosophies well-suited to think similar problem-types. The philosophy will instantly become difficult to distinguish from the reality it understands, so there’s a bit of a trap-like character to it. Philosophies are not tools we hold, look at and manipulate. They are tools we climb inside, see from and act from.

By desirability, I mean that you are moved by it. You don’t force yourself to care, or work yourself up and amp-up what little caring you feel. You don’t get argued out of apathy. The philosophy simply makes the importance of whatever it does self-evident. You just do care, and you will not even be able to account for why. Philosophies produce their own motivation, and are actually the only thing capable of producing motivation out of thin air, apart from simple health.

Actually, in writing this, I changed my mind. Philosophy needs to give far more attention to Usability. Popularization of philosophy might help people absorb the content of a philosophy, but that’s the most superficial aspect. Philosophies are not for knowing, they are for doing, for application to real-world situations. Way too many people, even philosophers, think a philosophy is a thing that is known, an object of knowledge. This is not true. Philosophies are that by which everything else is understood and known. And Usability in philosophy is the degree of ease things outside the philosophy itself can be understood. To do that, we must tap into the power of the tacit layer of understanding, intuition. Philosophies ought to be designed for intuitiveness — not a preexisting natural intuition, but an acquired second-natural intuition that operates without conscious effort.

Here, the Usefulness of the philosophy becomes important: useful for what purpose? Because the purpose of the philosophy determines its Usability trade-offs. Scissors make cutting easy and propping open a door or chilling perishable food not-very-easy. A philosophy engineered to make it easier to integrate the latest findings of physics and to overcome the human tendency to think in such a human-centric human-scale way might be super-useful for writing provocative books and heavily-cited scholarly papers and building a reputation in an emerging school of philosophy, but it might not help that many non-academics make sense of the things they encounter all day, to be able to reach understandings with various people of divergent perspectives, to respond effectively to events in their lives, and to feel the importance of all this understanding, responding, communicating, doing and being.

This brings me to that passage from Morton’s book that inspired this post, and which brought to mind another passage, which I will quote after this one:

The undulating fronds of space and time float in front of objects. Some speculative realism maintains there is an abyss, an Ungrund (un-ground) deeper than thought, deeper than matter, a surging vortex of dynamism. To understand hyperobjects, however, is to think the abyss in front of things. When I reach out to mop my sweating brow on a hot day, the California sun beating down through the magnifying lens of global warming, I plunge my hand into a fathomless abyss. When I pick a blackberry from a bush, I fall into an abyss of phenotypes, my very act of reaching being an expression of the genome that is not exclusively mine, or exclusively human, or even exclusively alive.

This passage summoned to mind, a quote by A. S. Eddington:

I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business. In the first place I must shove against an atmosphere pressing with a force of fourteen pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank travelling at twenty miles a second round the sun — a fraction of a second too early or too late, the plank would be miles away. I must do this whilst hanging from a round planet head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence. Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress are resolved.

Well-designed philosophies open doors, and let our human, all-too-human, irreducibly-human eyes see what is in there so we can understand it and respond as humans and follow our human purposes.

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How I work

I don’t do work-hard/play-hard.

I do work-playfully/play-workfully.

 

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Will not be codified

Deleuze electrified me this morning. I need to circle back to this after I finish my OOO binge:

Modern society clearly does not function on the basis of codes. Yet if we consider the evolution of Marxism or Freudianism (rather than taking Marx and Freud literally), we see that they are paradoxically launched in an attempt at recodification: recodification by the state, in the case of Marxism (“You have been made ill by the state, and you will be cured by the state” — but not the same state), and recodification by the family, in the case of Freudianism (“You have been made ill by the family, and you will be cured by the family” — but not the same family). Marxism and psychoanalysis in a real sense constitute the fundamental bureaucracies one public, the other private — whose aim is somehow or other to recodify everything that ceaselessly becomes decodified at the horizon of our culture.

Nietzsche’s concern, on the contrary, is not this at all. His task lies elsewhere: beyond all the codes of past, present, and future, to transmit something that does not and will not allow itself to be codified. To transmit it to a new body, to invent a body that can receive it and spill it forth; a body that would be our own, the earth ‘s, or even something written…

We are all familiar with the great instruments of codification. Societies do not vary much, after all, and they do not have so very many means of codification.

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OOO: an engineer’s philosophy?

Could it be that OOO is an engineer’s philosophy? It seems somewhere between possible and likely.

Since good designers must develop knowledge of the engineering involved in their chosen medium, I probably need to learn to think OOO. Maybe I’ll glue it to my designer’s philosophy with ANT paste.

 

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“Stop making your feelings everyone else’s problem.”

I said the daddest thing ever on vacation: “Stop making your feelings everyone else’s problem.”

You know, I think this is good advice to this moment in history, especially this pervasive feeling of resentment, the least respectable feeling a person can have. I refuse to dignify anyone’s indignation.

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The design of OOO

I’m reading an Object Oriented Ontology book. The OOO folks talk about withdrawal of objects from one another. Things are essentially hidden from one another prior to interaction. Is subjectivity part of what is withdrawn into the interiority of being?

We can certainly choose to fold subjectivity into the withdrawal, and this choice has interesting implications. But what if we choose not to? What if we brace ourselves and look at things dualistically as if subjects and objects are not reducible to one another as products or emergent properties, what then? What does this allow us to do? What does it inhibit? What are the trade-offs?

Choices? Uses? Trade-offs? That sounds like design, not philosophy.

I am, in fact, a designer. I used to be a designer strictly by profession, but increasingly I am a designer by confession. As I’ve lived a designer’s life, spending my working hours propping and poking at tricky stacks of multi-meta-level of design problems (“how can my collaborator and I get aligned on how to get our team aligned on how to get our client aligned on how to get their organization aligned on how best to satisfy their customer’s need?”) my mind has been trained to move in designerly ways. The domain of design has overgrown my life.

Now I see design problems everywhere I look. What does that mean? It means that I see nearly everything in terms of interactions among subjective and objective elements. To my eyes most problems are self-evidently design problems. And I find myself second-naturally evaluating things of all kinds as solutions to implicit design problems. A major part of this evaluation is determining if the solution is attempted to solve the best problem, or whether it just accepted the most obvious or or most conventional problem without reflection. Or if the solution seemed to be picked on the basis of the novelty, difficulty or complexity of the problem with too much reflection on the thinking part, and too little on the sense of urgency or applicability — a vice endemic to virtuosos. If I end up rejecting OOO it is likely because I’ve concluded that OOO is a virtuoso’s playground, and not a viable way to re-see reality in more effective ways.

In my world, subjects are characterized by inner-lives that determine their outer-behavior, whereas objects are characterized by algorithmic controllability. The mode of thought best suited to subjectivity is understanding; where the mode of thought best suited to objectivity is comprehension. What’s the difference? Understanding a subject entails acquiring some degree of ability to comprehend objectivity as that particular subject comprehends it. This is true for an individual subject and it is true for an academic subject.

An ideal subject is autonomous; an ideal object is automatic. To the degree a subject is freed from the compulsion to follow externally imposed rules it becomes more subjective and less objective. The goal of a designer is to work inside a free subjects’s objectivity so he or she autonomously chooses to participate in your design system along with the other autonomous, semi-autonomous (constrained) and automatic participants.

I think I am engaged in some pretty complex question-begging at this point. Because I choose to see philosophy as a species of design, I am evaluating OOO as a designed thing and wondering if it will help me think in a way helpful to a designer of philosophies (about design) or as a designer of other kinds of useful, usable and desirable systems for my fellow-beings.

I am playing around with the possibility of studying Science, Technology and Society at Tech.

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An autobibliobiography

Well, I tried to write about my books and how I want to prune my library, and ended up writing a history of my interests. I know there are loose ends, but I am tired of writing, so blat, here it is:

I used to have strict criteria for book purchases. To earn a place on my shelf (singular) a book had to be either a reference or a landmark. In other words, I had to see it as persistently valuable in my future, or it had to be valuable in my past as something that influenced me. My library was personal.

Somewhere along the way my library became more general. References grew to include whatever I imagined to be the basic texts of whatever subject I cared about. Landmarks expanded to include any book that housed some striking quote that I wanted to bottle up and keep. How did this happen?

When Susan met me, I owned one book, Chaos, by James Gleick. This book is the landmark of landmarks. Reading it was a major life event for me. It introduced me to two of the most crucial concepts in my repertoire. 1) nonlinear processes, and 2) Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. I loved the philosophical fairytale of Benoit Mandelbrot discovering a radical new way of thinking, and then skipping from discipline to disciple, tossing out elegantly simple solutions to their their thorniest, nastiest, most intractable problems, simply by glancing at them through his magic intellectual lens. He’d give them the spoiler (“look at it like this, and you’ll probably discover this…”) and then leave the experts to do the tedious work of figuring out that he was exactly right. And I loved it that the simplest algorithmic processes can, if ouroborosed into a feedback loop, can produce utterly unpredictable outcomes. We can know the dynamic perfectly, and we can know the inputs feeding into the dynamic perfectly — but we are locked out of the outputs until the process is complete. And then factor in the truth that numbers, however precise, are only approximate templates overlaid upon phenomena! Nothing outside of a mathematician’s imagination is a rational quantity. And in nonlinear systems, every approximation, however minute, rapidly amplifies into total difference. I’d go into ecstasies intuiting a world of irrational quantities interacting in the most rational, orderly ways, producing infinite overlapping interfering butterfly effects, intimating a simultaneously knowable-in-principle, pristinely inaccessible-in-fact reality separated by a sheer membrane of truth-reality noncorrespondance. I used to sit with girls and spin out this vision of truth for them, serene in the belief I was seducing them. Because if this can’t make a girl fall in love, what can? I still hold it against womenkind that so few girls ever lost their minds over one of my rhapsodies. They were into other stuff, like being mistaken for a person capable of losing her mind over the beauty of a thought, or being someone who enchants nerds and compels them to rhapsodize seductively. There’s a reason for all of this, and it might be the most important reason in the world, though I must admit, it remains pristinely inaccessible to me and an inexhaustible source of dread-saturated fascination. (If you think this is misogyny, you don’t understand my religion. “Supposing truth is a woman — what then…?”)

After I got married, my book collection expanded, reflecting some new interests and enthusiasms: Buddhism, Borges, and stuff related to personality theory, which became my central obsession. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002 I also became a fan of Christopher Alexander’s psychology of architecture, and I had my first inklings of the importance of design. Incidentally, one of the books I acquired in this period was a bio of Alexander, characterizing his approach to architecture as a paradigm shift. This was my second brush with Kuhn.) Until 2003 my book collection still fit on a single shelf.

In the winter of 2003 in Toronto, Nietzsche happened to me. Reading him, fighting with him, and being destroyed by him, I experienced intellectual events that had properties of thought, but which could not be spoken about directly. It wasn’t like an ineffable emotion or something that couldn’t quite be captured in words. These were huge, simple but entirely unsayable truths. I needed concrete anchors — concepts, language, parables, myths, images, exemplars — anything that could collect, formalize, stabilize, contain or convey what I “knew”. This is when books became life-and-death emergencies for me, and sources of extreme pleasure. I couldn’t believe you could buy a copy of Chuang Tzu’s sayings for less than the cost of a new car. From 2003 to 2006 my shelf grew into a library. I accumulated any book that helped reinforced my intense but disturbingly incommunicable sense of truth — what I eventually realized was a faith.

But then the question of this inexplicable state of mind and its contents became a problem to me. What exactly is known? How is it known? Why think of it in terms of knowledge? If it cannot even be said, then how can it be called knowledge? And the isolation was unbearable. I was in a state I called “solitary confinement in plain sight” with in an overwhelming feeling of having something of infinite importance to get across, but I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on or to consider it important enough to look into. I got lots of excuses, arguments, rebuffs, cuttings-down-to-size, ridicule and promises to listen in some infinitely receding later, but I could not find any real company at all, anywhere. This was a problem I desperately needed to solve.

Richard J. Bernstein’s hermeneutic Pragmatism is what hoisted me out of this void and gave me back a habitable inhabited world, with his lauded but still-underrated classic Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Equipped with the language of pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology and post-empiricism (Kuhn, again) I could account for my own experiences and link them to other people’s analogous experiences. Not only that — he began my reconnection with design, which had become a meaningless but necessary source of rent, food and book money. I was able to reengage practical life. But Bernstein’s method was intensely interpersonal, an almost talmudic commentary on commentaries ringing a missing central common text. The bibliography, however, is the flashpoint for my out of control library. Each author became a new collection. Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and then eventually Latour, and then Harman and now Morton… etc. Geertz seeded an anthropology and sociology shelf which is now an exploding book case. Hanna Arendt is a whole shelf, and spawned my collection of political books and my “CDC vault” of toxic ideologies. Gadamer and Heidegger were another space-consuming branch. Dewey, James and Peirce fill about three shelves. And Bernstein’s line of thinking led me directly to Buber, who also breathed fire into my interest in the research side of Human Centered Design (another half a case of books) and started my long conversion to Judaism (yet another half-case, and growing).

A bunch of these threads, or maybe all of them together drove me into Bruno Latour’s philosophy. Boom, again. Latour inflicted on me a painful and expensive insight: Everything Is Important. Statistics, accounting, technologies, laws, bacteria, materials, roads. Therefore I must get books on everything, apparently. With this we finally ran out of room in my bookcases, them my library room, then our house. We had to get a storage space to cycle my out-of-season books into and out of again when I realize I must read that book right now. Susan just got a second space. I have books stacked up everywhere. I am a hoarder.

I am considering putting all these books back under review, and keeping only the books that fit those two original criteria. Is it a landmark for me? Is it a reference that I know I will use?

I cannot be everything, and I need to stop trying. I need things that help me stay me, and I need to shed the rest. Good design demands economy, tradeoffs, clarity of intent. I have succumbed to personal scope-creep. Time to cut the nonessentials, to enable what is essential to be what it is.

I have another half-written post I think I’ll finish now. It indicates where I need to go.

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Eureka

From Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects:

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory spearheaded by Bohr holds that though quantum theory is a powerfully accurate heuristic tool, peering underneath this tool to see what kind of reality might underlie it would be absurd because quantum phenomena are “irreducibly inaccessible to us.”

“Powerfully accurate heuristic tool” jumps out of the page at me. It is one of many examples of Morton’s explicit philosophical instrumentalism: discover-creating — instaurating — ways to think realities that otherwise resist thought. This is philosophy’s product: conceivability from what has been inconceivable.

Morton’s justification — his background understanding — came earlier in the book, what I take to be a pluralism rooted in the most radical imaginable take on Heraclitus’s maxim “Nature likes to hide.” Reading this, I imagine reality as a hermeneutic holographic film, with each object existing as a parabolic cell of the interpreting and expressing the reality it encounters in its own dialect:

And as an object-oriented ontologist I hold that all entities (including “myself ”) are shy, retiring octopuses that squirt out a dissembling ink as they withdraw into the ontological shadows. Thus, no discourse is truly “objective,” if that means that it is a master language that sits “meta” to what it is talking about. There is also a necessarily iterative, circling style of thought in this book. This is because one only sees pieces of a hyperobject at any one moment. Thinking them is intrinsically tricky.

This book is a demonstration of thinking hyperobjects. But why think hyperobjects? Even here we must learn to think the importance of the purpose:

Lingis’s book The Imperative is a remarkable reworking of Kantian ethics, taking phenomenology into account. The phenomenology in question is Lingis’s own, developed from years of study and affiliation with Emmanuel Levinas, and very diferent from the Husserlian phenomenology that is its great-grandparent. In particular, Lingis makes it possible to think a truly ecological ethics.

So, back to this idea of philosophy being the instauration of heuristic tools. I looked up the etymology of “heuristic” and was delighted to discover that it is derived from heuriskein “to find”; and that “eureka” is a sibling word coming from heureka “I have found”, perfect tense of heuriskein. Concepts provide us abstract meaningful structures, through which we can find meaning in our experiences.

I really like Hyperobjects. I am going to have to go back and reread Graham Harman and make another attempt at reading Meillassoux. I think Speculative Realism might be more relevant to my philosophy and religious life than I’d imagined.

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