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Paper presented at the Design Research Society conference ‘Common Ground’,  Brunel University September 2002.


I start from two assertions: philosophy is our highest form of practical reasoning; design is our highest form of practical adaptation to our environment. I ask a question. What necessary conditions must exist for us to do both philosophising and designing?

The method of argument I use is based on the philosophical methods of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and the principle of parsimony or Occam’s razor: what is the simplest set of ideas necessary to answer the question.

The area of design on which I draw most heavily is the area in which I have done most of my designing and researching: information design.

The argument leads to seeing designing and philosophising as either panaceas or prostheses. If we ‘change the aspect’ in a Wittgensteinian sense, we can move between these two.

The practical and social implications of this conclusion suggest that  ‘designing philosophy’ (in the full ambiguity that the phrase implies) may well be one of the most important aspects of intellectual life in the 21st Century.

Starting assertions

I start from two assertions: philosophy is our highest form of practical reasoning; design is our highest form of practical adaptation to our environment.

Necessarily (in a logical sense) arguments have starting points that are not themselves dealt with within the argument itself. These starting points are the assumptions, articulated or unarticulated, on which the argument is grounded.

No argument about design or philosophy takes place without being grounded in a whole web of experience, a form of life. I can no more exclude this experience than the air I breath. However, if I were to try and elaborate the starting points in all their wealth of detail, there would be no end to it. Indeed, as each one of us experiences the web from different positions, there are many different starting points, leading us into many arguments over what we share and do not share by way of understanding our forms of life. In my view, this is not a productive way to spend one’s intellectual life, though I grant that many do, and derive great pleasure from the endless elaboration.

I am starting, then, from two assertions that I do not intend to either explain, defend, or define in this paper. Rather, I am going to rely on what I hope is a shared understanding of what it might mean to do philosophy or design, and see where the argument takes us. I have adopted this somewhat austere approach so that instead of endless justification the argument itself can be the most visible part of the paper.

Note what I am not doing. I am not behaving as a scholar, treating philosophy or design as objects of study; nor am I behaving as a journalist, giving you an account of what I have discovered ‘about’ these things. Rather, I am  concerned with them as practical activities, things to do. I am interested in doing philosophy, doing design.

A question

What necessary conditions must exist for me to engage in both philosophising and designing? I stress necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for doing philosophy and design. Doubtless, the list of sufficient conditions would be large and would vary with different philosophical and design activities. My question is about foundations, not assumptions; and it is a question about practice, not essences.

The traditional way of approaching the question of foundations is to dig deep, to look for essences, underlying true propositions on which an intellectual edifice can be built. Russell and Whitehead’s project to ‘discover’ the foundations of mathematics in logic was such a project, and it is the one that Wittgenstein, from whom I take inspiration in this paper, so vehemently disagreed with. He argued that logic was no more ‘basic’ than mathematics; logic and mathematics are just different language games.

So I am not asking a foundational question using the digging deeper approach. I am not creating a new language game (in Wittgenstein’s sense). I am, however, approaching the question of foundations from a novel perspective, inspired, as I said, by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I am also inspired by the principle of parsimony, or Occam’s Razor: what is the simplest set of ideas necessary to answer the question.

With these inspirations in mind, I ask again: what necessary conditions must exist for me to engage in both philosophising and designing? To use the building metaphor implicated in the term ‘foundations’, I am asking what must always be there for the building to be useful as a building. However, because I am dealing with something that we do, rather than with an object, it is more appropriate to ask: what  must I be able to do in order to do philosophical or design work?

I will deal first with doing philosophical work. I want to suggest to you that communicating is the foundational basis of philosophy.

I have already developed the arguments for this conclusion in detail (Sless 1986, 1990). In this paper I will summarise the main points of the argument .

If I want to do philosophy I must engage in communicating. I have to argue, articulate, write and so on. Without these communicative activities, philosophy is not only impossible to do but also impossible to even conceive of. For this reason, communication is foundational. I must be able to communicate to do philosophy. However, it could be argued that communication is only trivially foundational; that the ideas which philosophy engages with are more important than the process which carries them. But this argument is only sustainable within a conception of communication as a transmission process. There are good reasons to suggest that a transmission view of communication is unacceptable for all but the most limited technical and instrumental view of communication (see, for example  Reddy 1979, Shepherd 1993, Sless 1986, Shrensky 1998). The alternative—a dialogical view of communicating—makes communicating central to all forms of intellectual activity: communicating is the process that leads to the creation of ideas rather than being simply their conduit.

From a dialogical point of view communicating is foundational in a non-trivial sense, and is a necessary condition for engaging in philosophy.

Foundations and certainty

I now take this argument  further to show that communicating is foundational in the sense of providing us with truths, but not the truths sought by classical philosophy.

I begin with an observation that must necessarily be true of all communicative phenomena: communication depends on signs. To communicate is to assume the logical pre-existence of signs. Therefore we need to have some notions of signs in order to carry the argument further.

My understanding of what a sign is (Sless passim) has in part derived from Peirce (1958). A sign can only be a sign if it is one of the elements in a tripartite relationship consisting of the sign itself, a user of the sign, and what the sign stands for. These three elements are inseparable; it is meaningless to talk about the properties of a sign in isolation from the other two elements, since a sign, qua sign, has its properties only by virtue of the tripartite relation it is in.

In principle anything can be a sign.  A sign can be a material object, an imaginary object, an idea, another sign.  It derives its sign properties by virtue of its relation to users and referents, not because of anything intrinsic to it.  The only partially intrinsic property of a sign is that it should be distinguishable by the user from its referent.  This distinction is necessary because a sign cannot stand for itself. Similarly, a referent can be a material object, imaginary object, an idea, even another sign, and it enjoys its properties by virtue of the relation it is in with a user and a sign.

The process of linking signs and referents through the stand-for relation is called semiosis.  It is an action, something we do. Semiosis­—the stand-for relation—is invoked by the user and acts as the link between the sign and its referent.  The stand-for relation accounts for communicating, and crucially locates agency  (people doing things) within the process.

Creating new signs: letness

Here is another important question: how do we create new signs, new stand-for relations? Answering this question is critical to doing philosophy, and, as you may have anticipated already, critical to doing design.

I will develop the argument in relation the origins of axioms in mathematics.

Mathematics depends on axioms but has nothing to say on the origins of axioms—where they come from, how they come into being. Yet every mathematical system depends on statements which take the form “let x stand for y”.  Once x is given its new status, the operations performed on it are as if it were y. …. However, “let x stand for y” is not part of any rule inside a mathematical system.  It is the method by which the system comes into existence. The axioms of mathematics come from such humble primary propositions. This is not to be confused with a picture theory of meaning, where terms in the language correspond to facts in the world—the theory of language that Wittgenstein adopted in his earlier Tractatus but repudiated and abandoned in his later investigations. Wittgenstein in both his earlier and later work was concerned with how language worked, or rather how we work language. I have suggested the principle of letness (Sless 1986) to explain how language is possible in a protological sense.

“Let x stand for y”, is the simplest expression of the nature of semiosis.  The core operation which links the x and the y is contained in the term “let”. ‘Letness’ is at the heart of semiosis, communicating and hence doing philosophy.

Letness is characterised by a fundamental anarchy.  It is subject to no logic, no rules of inference, no causal relations or moral imperatives.  We may of course attach these things to letness retrospectively or even at the time when a new stand-for relation is created but there is no necessary requirement for letness to be subject to any imperative.  Further, letness is not reducible to some other state, condition or explanation.  When a mathematician says “let x stand for y”, we cannot reduce this statement down to some more basic construction —untie its logical knots or reveal its inner workings.  It stands alone.  Letness we may take to be the central metaphysical necessity of the semiotic point of view. (Sless 1986)

Two things emerge from these arguments. First, there is a kind of certainty in letness about how we make communication work, though not the kind of certainty sought in classical philosophy. Secondly, and perhaps perversely, there is here a fundamental anarchy: in principle we can make anything stand for anything. In practice we exercise a degree of control over what can stand for what through our cultures, our ways of life. Consistency of usage occurs because it is practical; it works.

Yet the fundamental anarchy of letness is always present. It erupts in tropes, humour, science, the arts, design and madness.

Letness is an incredibly simple principle on which to build the entire edifice of communicating and hence our highest form of practical reasoning, philosophy. How can such richness and complexity arise from so simple an act? I am indebted to people working in the area of complexity theory for a suggestion. Using computer modelling, researchers have found that a remarkably simple set of starting rules can lead to highly complex patterns and structures which can remain stable on the edge of chaos, as it were. These researchers were looking at highly determinate systems, ones in which numerical computations and simple laws of cause and effect applied. Letness, however, suggests something outside computation or cause and effect. Letness does not imply indeterminacy so much as non-determinacy, not unpredictability so much as non-predicability—something outside a systems view of the world, even a very fuzzy open-ended system.

Creating new things: design

If you have been following the threads of this argument and you are familiar with some of the recent history of design theory then you may sense the general direction in which I am heading.

First I need to move from language, communicating and philosophy to design. This may seem like a large leap, but it is quite a small step.

Taking Wittgenstein’s view that language is something we use, it is just a step to realise that language is something we create, albeit slowly and over many generations. Language, we might say, is one the prime examples of collaborative design at work, and it is always a work in progress; new product features are developed all the time, old ones are modified or discarded. At some point in time each feature that we now take for granted was new. And features we now use routinely will almost certainly be changed by future conversations. Iterative testing and development is not a late 20th century invention, not as far as language is concerned.

Some of us, I think, assume that design is primarily concerned with material objects. I am suggesting to you that doing design is a much more generalised activity, indeed may well be the most generalisable of human activities.

Second I want to draw attention to something in Wittgenstein’s philosophical methods and suggest that these are as relevant to philosophical language (or at least the current prototype version that we are testing) as they are to designed objects. One of the most difficult things to discern in Wittgenstein’s philosophical methods—the way he did philosophy—is the repeated pattern of questioning or interrogation that he uses. He describes it at times as a kind of therapy, a therapy applied to the philosophers’ patterns of language use. Through his methods he demonstrates that if we attend to the way in which we use language, many of the traditional problems of philosophy dissolve. Is this a kind of usability testing? Well yes, but much more. It is also to do with changing the problem definition so that a modified or new  usage can occur. How like a designer! And how unlike a philosopher bound by propositions and arguments.

And what is at the core of Wittgenstein’s method of analysis? He often used the term ‘changing the aspect’, and he was intrigued by the distinction between, as he put it, ‘seeing’ and ‘seeing as”—looking at something anew from a different point of view. Once again, how like a designer. Let us make x stand for y and see what happens. Letness.

This then brings the two activities, doing philosophy and doing design, together. Hence the title of this paper: Designing philosophy. This is, I believe, an original conclusion.

Doing both

Where does this take us? It is relatively easy to see how creating, using, and changing language is a non-determined, non-predictable activity. This is not to suggest that using language is not orderly, far from it. Without the order and regularity of a common shared usage, there can be no language. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations spends so much of his effort arguing against the idea of a ‘private language’. It is also for this reason that Wittgenstein continually returns to the idea of language games—usage governed by sets of rules. But these are not the immutable rules of nature, the basis of cause and effect, predictability. These are humanly made rules, like the rules of a game, rules that can be made, changed, broken, and subverted, but not as a result of blind cause and effect or their nemesis—randomness, uncertainty, indeterminacy, or chaos—but rather through human action and human interest.

I would like to suggest that much of our design of material things is similarly non-predictable, non-determined. This takes us to the so-called ‘wicked problems’ view of design. However, I come to wicked problems from outside a systems view of design methods and design problem solving. This is not to suggest that designers subvert the laws of physics. But there is an aspect  of doing design occurring in a realm in which choosing or creating an appropriate metaphor, for example, is as essential as choosing the right material to fabricate an object. Our highest forms of practical thinking and our highest forms of practical adaptation to our environment come together in designing philosophy.

Unfinished business

Yet there is a residual and necessary (in a logical sense) incompleteness to designing. Rules were made to be broken. Going back to letness, nothing ever does nor can completely stand for something else. Gödel demonstrated this through a mathematical proof (Gödel 1931), though I think it is much more easily demonstrated by going directly to the nature of stand-for relations.

This incompleteness is at odds with many of the design manifestos that we have inherited from the last century and earlier, ideas that inform both design education, research, and practice. ‘Problem solving’ , ‘creating order’, ‘harmonious balance’, ‘synthesis’  are the terms in which the vision of design is cast. These visions recur, even when they claim to be new:

We are faced with the task of building a new approach to design, which yields useful, useable, and desirable products for people. (The Nantucket Manifesto, October 1998)

Here is a vision of resolution, closure, achievable ends, complete solutions. In a word, a panacea. Yet, as I hope I have shown, such a vision is a chimera, forever, necessarily and logically beyond reach. Indeed if we change the aspect, that is, look at any design from a different point of view, it is a minor transitory thing, a brief adaptation to a changing environment, a prosthetic device.

How then do we reconcile our historical trajectory with our lived experience?

Working at the boundary

In a recent paper (Sless 2002) I gave some examples of how design ‘problems’ get redefined in the scoping stage of a design project. For example, I talked about  the special instructions that had to be designed for a medicine in order to help patients deal with some of its possible side effects. In the scoping stage it became apparent that redesigning the medicine was a better option than redesigning the instructions. This type of boundary shifting is common in design practice: the nature of the brief is changed, the problem is redefined.

One of the ways of dealing with the boundary problem is to extend the boundaries ever outward. Indeed, one way of telling the story of design in the last century is to see it as a series of transitions in which design progressively extends the boundary of its problem solving domain, beginning with designing individual objects, moving through designing for mass production, then designing entire systems, societies, biological ecosystems, forms of life. This story is predicated on the vision of design as offering ever more comprehensive panaceas, boundaries extending ever outwards.

But the visions of a panacea are, as I suggested above, a chimaera. Consider the ‘problem’ of ‘terrorism’. Consider the ‘problem’  of ‘global warming’. How would you design a ‘solution’ to these ‘problems’? Where is the boundary of the ‘problem’ ? Is there a ‘therapy’ in Wittgenstein’s sense. Is a ‘solution’ possible?

To even engage in a debate about these issues is, through language, to be involved in designing philosophy. I would like to suggest that what we do at these boundaries is critical to designing philosophy and the emerging challenges of our time.


Gödel, K. 1931. On formally undecidable propositions of principia mathematic and related systems I. In S. G. Shanker 1988.Gödel’s Theorem in focus. London: Croom Helm.

Peirce, C S. 1931-58 Collected Papers, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.

Reddy, M.J. 1979.  The Conduit Metaphor, in Ortony, A. (ed) Metaphor and Thought.  Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

Shepherd, Gregory J. 1993. Building a discipline of communication. Journal of Communication 43 (3), 83-91.

Shrensky, R. 1998. The ontology of communication, PhD thesis, Canberra: University of Canberra.

Sless D. 1991. Communication and certainty
Australian Journal of Communication 18 (3) 19–31.

Sless D. 2002 Philosophy as design: a project for our times: Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of the Design Education Association, Cardiff March 14 2002. available online: www.communication.org.au/html/paper_33.html.

Sless, D. 1986  In Search of Semiotics.  London: Croom Helm.

Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophical Investigations,  translated by  G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.