Philosophical reflections on industrial design

Yesterday I had the good fortune, thanks to faculty members Mike McAllister and Tony Guido, to observe the Junior critiques of the University of the Arts Industrial Design program students. For their fall semester projects, Juniors were invited to think about how they could improve the lives of persons with disabilities who wanted better access to their kitchens. Working alone or in pairs, students presented their prototypes as well as the process of thinking, research, sketching, and testing that led them to this particular result. What was emphasized, not least, was the art of storytelling.

The goal of industrial designers, I gather, is to create new products that solve some kind of problem concerning how we use certain tools or interact with the world. Where most people see a world that is given to them and taken for granted, industrial designers see possibilities for how it can be bent, shaped, transmogrified, or transformed. In this case, the focus was on how product design could help address a problem in the daily lives of a particular group of people.

People who use wheelchairs face certain challenges with making food because most kitchens are designed for those whose capacities to reach high and over, turn easily in small spaces, pull with both hands, twist beyond 90 degrees, step up if necessary, and utilize other complex motor skills that are generally taken for granted. Would it be possible, then, to design a product that would, as it were, open up the kitchen–would open the kitchen up as a kitchen, revealing it as a friend rather than as an obstacle or impediment?

In lieu of analyzing any particular project, I would like to make some general points about what I learned overall. I was impressed, to begin with, by something so basic to industrial design that it may, for all I know, go unnoticed. The starting point of the industrial designer is with the not already existing: specifically, with what is missing with (the void in) already existing reality. The Judeo-Christian God creates the world ex nihilo (“from nothing”). The mystery for theologians is how something could come from nothing. By contrast, the Greeks believed that one could only create from something, i.e., with the use of pre-existing matter. We would do well to think of human creations in the latter sense. To create is to give a new form to some pre-existing material.

When you ask most people what kind of business they would open if they had the labor and resources, they tend to reply with some replication of the already existing. They speak of opening up coffee shops in an area of town that doesn’t have one or of designing a new line of linens despite the fact that linens–cheap and luxurious both–are everywhere. So, it would seem that most people conceive of ‘what’s missing’ in terms of the expansion or reiteration of sameness. They can conceive of doing nothing other than ‘upgrading’ existing reality.

It is refreshing, therefore, to be surrounded by creative individuals who seek to pose the philosophical question: what is new? What does it mean for a human creation to count as novel? And what would be involved in bringing the novel into reality?

I come now to a second point. Students at U Arts are encouraged to cultivate the virtue of presentness. In their conversations and interactions with those they seek to help, they try to observe closely, ask open-ended questions, look at their environments in unfamiliar ways, play around, and keep their attention squarely upon the needs of those they are working with.

The final point is that what distinguishes industrial designers from fine artists is that the former take seriously the demand to make something relevant. Relevance can be understood in very broad terms but at least it means that the new product is meant to be used, at some time or another, in such a way that it carries the possibility of making the life of some human beings more flourishing. A $20,000 pair of alligator skin boots will become a fetish, a totem, a thing to be gazed upon, not to be worn, but nothing else. And even though a Pollock painting might invite us to perceive the world differently or anew, it cannot help us to realize some fundamental way of being human. To speak of Homo faber is to speak of creative human’s active engagement with the environment. 

In short, philosophical considerations of the novel, the cultivation of the virtue of presentness, and a mindfulness for relevance all make industrial design into a worthwhile way of engaging with the environment.


I turn now to three quibbles. One was that it was not always easy to make out whether students were genuinely ‘alive to’ this project. By being ‘alive to…,’ in this context I mean keeping a close eye on what is missing and urgently needed Something can be missing but not urgently needed (hence, be irrelevant) or be urgently needed but not missing (hence, there’s no demand for creation). One wonders whether coming to a more resonant sense of the urgently needed might require a fuller consideration of the spiritual exercise of ‘what it is like to be…’

Second, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on ’empiricism’ (interviewing, testing, measuring, refining, etc.) but perhaps not enough on conceptual labor, the kind of thinking that can only be done deductively. The properties of bowls and frying pans rule out, simply in virtue of having these properties and these functions and not others, certain ways in which they can interact with other objects, hands, and so on. For this reason, it would be prudent to consider a range of ways in which an object–not a particular, empirical object but an object that falls under the general category of, say, frying pan–can and cannot be used. We are thinking, when our thinking goes well, about the range of possibilities for an object to be in virtue of its being this kind of object. As Tony Guido nicely put it, “Sometimes students are dragging [a narrow conception] reality into their products.” If one begins with a particular object, this might not only preclude one’s openness to designing something new and viable but also lead to considerable, perhaps intractable flaws in the design later on. But this kind of work, I submit, is philosophical before it is empirical, and its point is, so to say, to stave off later disaster.

Third, it wasn’t clear to me whether a number of students had managed to ask the right question. In “What Makes the Right Question Right? (II),” I write about specifications:

Getting the specifications right helps us to ‘set up’ an inquiry. I need to know, first of all, that I do not know what I am after (if I did know, why would I feel the need to inquire in the first place?), but (second) I also need to have some vague idea concerning what might count as being a good answer. Third, I need to have a good reason for inquiring, with this reason being that ‘I am alive to…’ or ‘I am fraught about…’ We return, as ever, to Meno’s paradox of inquiry.

Perhaps I can say a bit more about the ‘set-up.’ Negatively, I may have already ruled out certain answers that can’t satisfy and have held fast to these conclusions. So, I know that the right answer cannot be A or B or C (etc). But knowing that the wrong answer cannot be A or B or C should, in the case of a good inquiry, tell me something about my specifications: should help me to tighten my specifications so as to exclude answers like A, B, and C (etc.).

Positively, I can say that I have ‘some vague notion’ of what a right answer would be like. It has to be something like this, something with this shape or form or whatever.

Finally, I can say, especially when I am working with a good guide, that there is a certain ‘crystallization’ evident in the right question. “Yes,” we say in unison, “that is the right question. Let’s begin here.”

In sum, the three quibbles I raise are concerned with the ‘urgently needed’ aspect of design, the conceptual work in the design process, and the facility with which one learns to pose the right questions.

All and all, an exceptional learning experience for which I’m deeply grateful.

On sex, clumsiness, and adverbs

Typically, we associate awkwardness, clumsiness, inelegance, and gracelessness with poor aesthetic performances alone, but could aesthetic considerations have any connection to ethical considerations? Could there be a point at which clumsiness cancelled out a good deed entirely?

Sometimes we may think that what makes a good deed good is that the individual has the right kind of intention when he performs the action. At other times, we may believe that a good deed is good in virtue of the outcome. And sometimes, it is said, the right intention may yield the wrong outcome and then we can get very confused. For example, the man who helps an old lady across the street may inadvertently get her run over by a car.

I think this debate between (what are called) deontologists–the people in the right intention equals good action camp–and the consequentialists–those in the good action equals good outcome camp–is missing something special and essential about the nature of virtue. This something special and essential is the manner in which an act is performed. Words that will factor into the moral appraisals of the kind I have in mind are aesthetic terms of an adverbial and adjectival sort. A salient example:

a mother stroked her child’s feverish forehead gracefully.

It might seem as if the adverb were merely being tacked on at the end–for could not a mother care for her feverish child with any number of touches? Some would do and be appropriate but not all. If, in some contexts, a mother were to stroke her child’s forehead clumsily, then the child may not recognize the gesture as an act of kindness or compassion. The act could–and with good reason–be regarded as a slight, a criticism, or something apparently incomprehensible.

But if this is true, then we’d want people to learn how to do something well with this ‘how’ meaning: the way in which…, the manner in which…, the style of…, the (overall) spirit in which…, etc. For a father’s generosity could very well be cancelled out, despite his having the right intention and in spite of his bringing about a desired outcome, by the manner in which he offers the gift. In some cases, the gift could be registered as a burden, and the addressee’s confusion could be warranted.

Arguably, we would do well to consider having good sex as being a synecdoche (that is, a part that stands in for the whole) for being a virtuous person. If one is awkward with one’s caresses, then the beloved may not only be put off by this gesture but may also be put at a distance for good. How can a clumsy caress (or many) not lead in the end to aversion? And what would make one want to continue an erotic attachment with another if the other doesn’t learn how to replace clumsiness with gracefulness? And what makes us think that it would be a good idea to exempt a life led according to virtue from these sorts of aesthetic considerations?

Sex may not be the truth of relationships but it could very well be the truth of ethics.

Simplicity, silence, natural eloquence

Porphyry relates this anecdote about his spiritual guide Plotinus:

One day, when Origen came into his class, Plotinus blushed from head to toe, and made as if to stand up and put an end to the class. When Origen urged him to continue, Plotinus said, “One’s desire to talk is reduced when one knows that one is about to speak to people who already know what he is going to say.”

It is best to keep silence when one understands you, for what is there to say? If one then speaks, is he not already repeating himself?

This morning, during sitting meditation, we watched the sun draw near. The sun had nothing to say. We listened to it.


Rehearsing a line of thought

Rehearsing a line of thought has its place in philosophical life. Saying this seems, however, to present us with a puzzle. If a philosophical inquiry is “an unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined,” then how could rehearsing a line of thought play any part  in a philosophical conversation?

Let us rehearse a line of thought, paying close attention to what we already know.

1. A necessary (but not a sufficient) condition of a philosophical life is that it consist of philosophical conversations.

2. A philosophical conversation consists of at least one philosophical inquiry. (Definition from The Guidebook for Philosophical Life)

Attend to the second thesis, since it leaves room in any philosophical conversation for other genres to come forth. In this meditation, the genre under consideration I am calling ‘rehearsing a line of thought’ or sometimes simply ‘rehearsing.’

I can think of two reasons why rehearsing a line of thought might be valuable. The first reason is that my conversation partner and I may need to establish what it is we already know. Knowing what we already know opens us up to the possibility of inquiring into what we do not already know but are looking for. Knowing what we already know thereby draws forth the virtue of openness (without which we would not be able to inquire into what we do not know) at the same time that it allows us to perceive that something specific and significant is missing. What is missing is precisely what we do not know but have some inkling of. Hence, the purpose of ‘rehearsing a line of thought’ is to call us back to what we know in order for us to to inquire properly about what it is that bewilders us.

The second reason rehearsing a line of thought might be of benefit to us (provided, of course, it occurs at the right time and in the right way) is that it reminds us of the conclusions we have reached in some prior inquiry, conclusions that we must ensure are ‘tied down’ before we can hope to go any further. The rehearsal is a memory device (rather like a chant or song or meditation) as well as a call to resolve, to gentle vigilance. (I have been told that some conversation partners reread old blog posts perhaps for this very reason.)

Speaking of rehearsing, I have been rereading Hadot’s book on Plotinus. Hadot writes, “Knowledge, for Plotinus, is always experience, or rather it is an inner metamorphosis. What matters is not that we know rationally that there are two levels of divine reality [Hadot is referring to the Intellect and the One in Plotinus], but that we internally raise ourselves up to these levels, and feel them within us as two different tones of spiritual life.”

From argument above, we can conclude that rehearsing a line of thought does not tell us something new about ourselves (as inquiry seeks to do) but rather deepens our experience of the ‘different tones’ of self-understanding.

The 3 basic conditions of a gift economy: generosity, onus, wholeheartedness

Welcoming a number of new conversation partners into my philosophy practice has enabled me to rethink the basic conditions of my gift economy. I’ve been urged to find better ways of saying what a gift economy is (and, in conversation, to explore why it matters). All this has involved learning to speak more clearly, more simply, and more directly with the result that our philosophical conversations about the nature of a gift economy have turned into wonderful inquiries about giving, money, and the problems associated with our current economic models.

In the past, I’ve been windy and unclear and, as a result, I’ve made a number of errors in judgment regarding who are good candidates for philosophical practice. Now I believe I have a more focused account, one that contains three basic conditions. I ask the other to give an amount that (1) qualifies as generous but (2) cannot be understood as onerous and (3) is offered in the spirit of wholeheartedness. We’re searching, first of all, for the mean between excessive liberality and stinginess. Second of all, and at the same time, we’re trying to cultivate the right disposition.

1. Generosity

Here, I don’t intend to define the concept of generosity. I want instead to suppose that we know what generosity is and then to inquire about the aim of the offering. In this case, the aim of generosity is to meet my basic needs,  the satisfaction of which makes possible and is a key feature of a life of self-cultivation. We therefore have the injunction:

one must give in order to meet (some of) the needs of the philosophical guide.

2. Onus

We are looking for proper generosity, which is not to be confused with generosity to the point of the onus. If the one has to sacrifice the things that matter most–e.g., raising a child well, loving a beloved well, living in an inviting home, making food with care, and so forth–then this act counts as burdensome. Proper generosity comes out of abundance; giving too much, where this ‘too much’ for the other translates into ‘too little’ for the giver, comes out of scarcity and ‘replenishes’ scarcity. And scarcity, let’s recall, is the very condition we are trying to avoid. We therefore have the injunction:

one mustn’t give in excess, i.e., to the point of ‘self-sacrifice’.

3. Wholeheartedness

Someone who acts or thinks wholeheartedly is going along with the way things are. He does not hold back or restraint himself, does not issue qualifiers or conditionals, does not have competing desires, does not make compromises or engage in negotiations, etc. Wholeheartedness is meant to capture the sense of taking a (good) risk, of being all in, of offering in the freest possible manner. Hence the injunction:

one must give in the spirit of being ‘all in.’

Some Objections

1. It could be argued that one could be a free rider, offering next to nothing but getting quite a lot.

In reply, I claim that a free rider is impossible on the grounds that he fails to meet the first condition of being generous. (He would also fail to meet the third condition of being wholehearted; he would be half-hearted from the start.)

2. It could be argued that any amount construed in the form of a gift would, of necessity, be onerous for someone who is deeply in debt.

In reply, I concede this point; I no longer have philosophical conversations with people whose debt has become onerous. I grant that any amount he offered me would be onerous for him. I also believe that someone who is deeply in debt would have a hard time being wholehearted; he would have learned to believe that scarcity abounds. The trouble is also that I cannot work for him for free. This is because so long as the conversation partner fails to help satisfy my material needs he is not being generous. I am being too generous with my time and understanding while he is not generous enough. For these reasons, I no longer welcome those deeply in debt into my philosophy practice.

3. It could be argued that, under these conditions, one could be lukewarm about the whole thing.

In reply, I claim that, conceivably, the lukewarm person could give generously but not to the point of its being burdensome. Still, he would not be committed. The key, in other words, to wholeheartedness is that one must be committed to putting one’s life to the question. Even if the billionaire offers me $100,000/month (an amount that may not be an onus for him), it does not follow that he offers it in the right spirit. Wholeheartedness, I argue, is the right disposition for the virtuous human being, the human being whose demeanor also happens to be beautiful.