A comparison of the genre of drama with that of philosophical inquiry

Compare a couple of the playwright David Mamet’s reflections on drama (the full text is available here) with my own thoughts about the genre of philosophical inquiry. (To read an excerpt from my book, The Art of Inquiry, go here):

Mamet: We know any drama ends when we find the answer to the question which gave rise to it. When we discover the answer simultaneously with the hero, the dramatist has done a very good job indeed.

Me: [Philosophical] Inquiry does not leave us forever in a state of ignorance; it also allows us to arrive at greater mutual understanding. This clarity could be likened to finally saying what is on the tip of our tongues, with the caveat that this something be novel. There is something we want to say but do not know yet; there is somewhere we want to head but this somewhere remains elusive; there is something missing we want to find but the discovery has, as of yet, remain hidden. The conclusion to an inquiry, accordingly, is like poetic naming: a new destination, a novel discovery, a long-sought-after homeland. ‘This,’ we say, ‘is it.’

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Religion without God: Our post-Kantian moment

Ours is a post-Kantian moment. We can neither do without the idea of transcendence but nor can we embrace it as a substantial presence coursing throughout our lived experiences. For the Kant of the First Critique, reason aspires to travel beyond the bounds of human understanding but, when it does so and when it seeks to make certain claims, it gets caught in any number of entanglements (or antinomies).

One strategy for overcoming reason’s predicament would be to ‘tame’ reason’s aspiration, to ‘domesticate’ its yearning; quite another would be to become  agnostic about matters metaphysical and be done with it all. Domestication would be a fine thing were it not that the total loss of metaphysical aspiration would–notwithstanding existentialists’ nonsensical clamoring that each of us ‘create’ meaning–terminate in nihilism. The second, agnosticism, is like sex without teeth: lukewarm, bloodless, enervating, the proffered condom proving unnecessary.

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Measured breath for the ear

Directness: to mean, with each statement, what I say and to say, with each statement, what I mean–this and no more. To avoid expressions of sentiment; to be restrained, temperate, composed, never therefore to blurt out. To get to or at something at the appropriate time rather than beating around the bush. Never to be ‘allusive’ or ‘suggestive’. To be moderate with speech, using only so many words as can fit into my hands and be put into another’s. The voice a well-tuned instrument. Measured breath for the ear.

On awkwardness and accountants

The word ‘awkward’ fascinates me not least because it implies that there is a recognizably crucial connection between goodness and beauty. Derived from ‘awk,’ which means ‘directed the other way or in the wrong direction, back-handed, from the left hand’ (OED), the word applies to persons who lack ‘dexterity or skill in performing their part’ (OED). The awkward person goes the wrong way or does the wrong thing at the wrong time. He is not good at something, and–in aesthetic terms–is said to be uncouth, gauche, clumsy, or boorish.

Here are some examples of the ways in which we speak of awkwardness: An awkward movement can be deemed buffoonish. An awkward time is adolescence. An awkward exchange is one in which the two are not ‘in sync.’ An awkward lover may cause us to recoil.

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Design thinking: Can good design begin with the question of needs?

This post can be regarded as a further thought about design thinking. I may have something else to say about problem-based solution thinking in a couple of days.


The innovative design thinker, Tim Brown of IDEO, suggests in a number of places that design thinking occurs at the intersection of desirability, viability, and feasibility, with desirability being foundational. He identifies desirability in his TED talk with human needs and on IDEO’s website it is implicitly defined in terms of ‘latent needs, behaviors, and desires.’ Viability relates to economic considerations and feasibility to technological considerations. Rightly, he wants to center design thinking on the lives of human beings, for neither financial viability nor technological feasibility can be a foundation of good design. We know that profitable design may pollute local groundwater (hence what is profitable may not be desirable), and a newer, sleeker espresso maker may not be a significant improvement on the already-existing ones that work just fine (hence what is feasible may not be genuinely desirable).

Now, we might inquire whether needs–be they explicit or latent–can be a basis for good design. To see whether they can, we do well to first consider the following questions: what are needs, and how do we distinguish needs from mere preferences? ‘By ‘’needs,” the philosopher Charles Larmore writes, ‘I shall mean desires that are ours not in virtue of our having adopted them, but rather in virtue of our being the sort of beings we all are (so desires for food and sleep, for example, would be needs). Preferences, by contrast, are desires we have because we have adopted them” (Patterns of Moral Complexity 139).

So, needs are ‘givens’ whereas preferences are voluntarily adopted. To remove needs from being human would, in the end, make it impossible for one to be a human being. To minimize our preferences, however, would do no such thing: should I no longer prefer Gucci bags to Hermes bags, this lack of preference would make no crucial difference to my life. But is a human life identical with or reducible to a set of needs?

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