The Design of Philosophy

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Turning Descartes upside down[/caption]

Many people I know, thoughtful people at that, have a poor opinion of philosophy. They think it’s a has-been discipline: too many words and too little applicability. It’s a pretty short sighted view, but that view is encouraged by philosophers who hew close to the sciences. As long as philosophy is seen as a handmaiden to science, it’s destined to be meta butterfly collecting.

When I think of philosophy as a craft and an art than a science, it reminds me much of design — addressing genuine human needs while alerting us to the fact that these needs are bound to a certain time and place. In fact, I think it will benefit all of us if we subject epistemological and metaphysical ideas to a design analysis. I am sharing some thoughts on how one might go about doing so.


I am not a postmodernist, but I also think the postmodern turn made us aware of the social and material circumstances underlying the creation of knowledge. I do believe that philosophical, mathematical and scientific ideas emerge in response to needs of a particular time.

Human agency plays a role as well. Take the telescope. When invented in the early seventeenth century by Lippershey and others, merchants used it to see further out to sea than before. There was money in sighting a ship loaded with goods from the East. Galileo took this invention, improved it and pointed it toward the stars; the world hasn’t been the same since that 90 degree turn.

A particular time and place — like Italy in the late Renaissance — makes both uses of the telescope possible. Not only does the need for the telescope arise from the merchant culture of that time, glassworkers of that time had the resources to turn an idea into reality.

Design isn’t arbitrary, for it addresses objective needs of a human community. Design also needs creativity and human agency. At the same time, design problems have a history — a problem isn’t a design problem until the time is ripe. This is what the Indian tradition calls Deshakala, the spatiotemporal context for the emergence of a phenomenon. In my opinion, design is the science of Deshakala — it walks the tightrope between objective knowledge and sociohistorical determinism. With that preamble, let me turn toward design challenges in knowledge itself.

The Design of Certainty

What if philosophical ideas are solutions to design problems? What if philosopher’s needs aren’t different from merchants’?

Descartes was almost a contemporary of Galileo; unlike his older peer, he escaped from France to Holland to avoid persecution. Descartes’ great meditation on certainty is the beginning of modern philosophy. Descartes, like many philosophers before and after, was enamored with the certainty of mathematical reasoning. He pointed the eye of reason toward knowledge, somewhat like Galileo pointing the telescope to the heavens.

After a long and rather clever argument that echoes to this day, Descartes arrived at the conclusion that the only thing we are certain about is our own consciousness. To put it in one sentence: you can mistake a rope for a snake, but you can’t mistake your experience of a snake for anything else. Consciousness is transparent to its experiencer.

That emphasis on certainty lead to some of the great discoveries in mathematics and logic all the way to Godel’s theorem and beyond. Mathematics has benefited from this philosophical demand: we have much higher standards of proof from our 17th century counterparts and that rigor has helped us build a much greater edifice than they could have ever imagined.

But, as I said at the beginning, what if certainty was a design solution that arose in response to a specific need? Consider scientific knowledge in the 17th century: scientists were few and far between, data was scarce and expensive and it took months to communicate your results to anyone else. In that situation, certainty was a fantastic design principle for knowledge: the more certain you’re the less you’re dependent on data and less likely that your message will be subject to corruption during its travels. Our needs are different from Descartes’.

The Design of Plausible, Correctible Knowledge

We now live in a different age. There are tons of scientists. Data is cheap. Communication is fast. It’s easier — both technologically and financially — for us to correct errors than to insist on incorruptibility. It’s time to design a new epistemology that doesn’t take certainty to be the utopian ideal of knowledge. In this new design, plausibility is a better design constraint than certainty. Plausibility goes hand in hand with correctibility, i.e., the idea that the premises of knowledge can be changed systematically. Sometimes those premises are modified because they don’t match the data — as often happens in science. On other occasions, you might want to change the premises because the problem has changed. You want a system that can consume apples once it’s weaned off oranges.

Mathematical knowledge is particularly brittle in this regard: we don’t have good theories for replacing an axiom by another one if the first one turns out to be inadequate. Mathematics is good for building edifices; it’s less so for building systems that generalize quickly to new domains. The latter is the hallmark of cognitive systems.

Children can’t understand Fermat’s last theorem but they’re very good at identifying bulldogs as dogs after having seen German Shepherds and nothing else. Our task in the future is to theorize mathematical and cognitive epistemology in one framework.

There’s a larger method at work here: knowledge has to be brought into a world of human or animal needs so that we see the outlines of the design problem and create our ways toward a solution. If done properly, philosophy will be as important to future technology as design is today. Apple made design a buzzword in technology circles. As we enter a new era of technologicall mediated higher education, can philosophy play a similar role? It’s time to turn Descartes’ vision of knowledge upside down.


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