Designers – Thinking Metas Through, Shaping

Designers: Thinking Meta’s Through, Shaping Signs that Comfort
CHUA, Soo Meng Jude PhD FRHistS FCOT FCollT [email protected]
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Policy and Leadership Studies, National Institute of
Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Author Vita:
Jude Chua PhD is an Associate Professor of philosophy at Policy and Leadership Studies,
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and is on
occasion Visiting Research Scholar at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. He lectures for the Dual
Award EdD offered with Institute of Education, London, where he is occasionally Visiting
Academic. He was a president’s graduate fellow at the National University of Singapore, and
won a visiting graduate fellowship at the Center for Philosophy of Religion, University of
Notre Dame, Indiana USA (2003), and worked with the eminent natural law theorist John
Finnis. He won the Novak Award and serves on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of
Markets and Morality. His work has appeared in Semiotica, Design Studies, London Review
of Education, Angelicum and The Modern Schoolman, amongst others. He is a Fellow of the
Royal Historical Society (FRHistS), an elected Fellow of the College of Teachers and holds
its Fellowship qualification (FCOT FCollT). His latest project involves being “new natural
law theory” section editor for the Handbook of Virtue Ethics in Business and Management
(Springer), edited by Alejo Sison.
“Design thinking” is currently the fashion. But what exactly is ‘design thinking’, and what
are the opportunities that design thinking can open up for human civilization? I argue that
‘design’ must be articulated from the fully moral and robustly metaphysical viewpoint so that
it can be related conceptually with what matters. Such a notion of ‘design’, and relatedly,
‘designing’ and ‘designers’ interrogates and diagnoses the eschewing of the critical in the
design profession, and that also opens up other radical trajectories for design, such as the
design of beings qua signs, so that they point to God’s comforting presence. Such design
thinking will not be welcomed by the design profession but is nevertheless also an
instantiation of the semio-ethical stance that seeks to translate signs of what truly matters,
including God’s presence and its meaning for supererogatory fortitude in professionals. This
paper retrieves Aquinas’ metaphysics for current trends in both design and semiotic thinking,
hence pushes the interpretation of what semio-ethics is or can be even further.
Keywords: market, design, semioethics, metaphysics, Aquinas
Designers: Thinking Meta’s Through, Shaping Signs that Comfort
“…I have nothing but admiration for the moral tradition that frowns upon idleness where it
means lack of purposeful occupation. But not working to earn an income does not necessarily
mean idleness; nor is there any reason why an occupation that does not bring a material return
should not be regarded as honorable. The fact that most of our needs can be supplied by the
market and that this at the same time gives most men the opportunity of earning a living
should not mean that no man ought to be allowed to devote all his energy to ends which bring
no financial return…”
F A Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty
“What we need is a catechism of heresy…”
James G. March, Explorations in Organizations
1. Introduction
Design has recently gathered intellectual momentum, [particularly in Singapore]. Stanford
based design consultancy IDEO and its brand of ‘Design Thinking’ which draws on what
enterprisingly successful designers do and encourages empathy for the needs of clients may,
according to its CEO Tim Brown in Harvard Business Review, help firms compete better in
the neo-liberal, globalized future (Brown, 2008); [this version of design thinking is taught in
its flagship educational leadership programme at the National Institute of Education
(Singapore) Ng, 2013)]. New institutions in Asia, such as the Singapore University of
Technology and Design in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),
have sprung up and admissions began 2013, and there is little doubt this is part of the nationstate’s economic planning, motivated by the hopes that design can give its students a
competitive edge. [With Singapore’s education system celebrated (alongside Finland and
England) as instances of an exemplary “Global Fourth Way” of innovation and improvement,
with “a forward looking, integrated planning system that connects education to future
economic needs” (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012:89, reporting OECD’s assessment), design
and design education should draw even more attention.]
But what really might be the opportunities that ‘design’ can open up for human civilization, if
we grasp ‘design’ thoughtfully, and reflectively? Rather than merely and narrowly service
neoliberal economic agendas, can design or more broadly design theory also further develop
new cultures of thinking? In this paper, I want to explore how design theory has the potential
to further what in recent semiotic scholarship is called “semio-ethics”, viz., research and
theorizing focused on relating signs with values, and which is a research focus that comes
with the strong recommendation of no less than two Sebeok Fellows, John Deely and Susan
Petrilli (see Deely, 2010). Just to be clear, I understand design theory to mean, amongst other
things, the theorizing about what “design” is or is not, and this is what is at times called
“design research”. Such design research may, in order to be complete, adjudicate
methodological approaches related to such research, and identify preferred methodological
approaches towards design-relevant conceptual signs that entail discussions of how and under
what conditions something fails to be “design”. In this respect, design research, I explain, is a
kind of semio-ethic and hence, diagnostic analysis. This I show in Part 1 of this paper. But
insofar as design theory qua design research successfully works out a rigorous account of
“design”, then it also theorizes about how designers ought to design, and the things designers
can or should design. I.e., it works out an account of designers who shape particular design
artifacts. In this way, designers, I also argue, ought to instantiate through their designing, the
‘semio-ethical’ stance, whose “special vocation is to evidence sign networks where it seemed
there were none” (Petrilli & Ponzio, 2010: 162). This semio-ethical stance, I demonstrate
below under Part 2, thinks hard about ways to design so that important meanings are retrieved
and re-discovered, not least ways of designing all beings so that they can sign and recall
God’s comforting presence. With its argument, this paper also retrieves Aquinas’
metaphysics for furthering both current design theory and semiotics, whilst it locates the
places where design theory and semiotics converge and mutually inform each other, and so
pushes the interpretation of what both design and semio-ethics is or can be even further.
1. ‘Design’ Research as Semio-ethic Analysis
1.1 Theorising ‘Design’: Central and Peripheral Cases
Let us start with fundamentals. Designers design. But what is ‘design’? Herbert Simon’s
classic The Sciences of the Artificial (1996) points out that design, which in its broadest
interpretation means the shaping of states of affairs or artifacts into preferred ones, is the core
of all professional activity. Methodologically however, The Sciences of the Artificial (Simon,
1996) had sought to develop a theory of design through detailing not any professional’s
epistemology, but only those who reason carefully—i.e., those who according to Simon are
good designers. Here one selects for oneself only that which is worth studying, from amongst
the things one can study. Essentially this means selectively identifying under a conceptual
sign (in this case, ‘design’) what is significant in the theoretical field, and focusing on those
significant things (Chua, forthcoming 2014).
[Rather than succumb to the naivety of “Bedford Way” philosophical essentialism (See
Halpin, 2007: 123) which ignores the plausibility that some concepts have no univocal,
permanent core traits but simply capture meanings related one with the other through what
Wittgenstein calls “family resemblance”, or adopt the unwarranted nominalism of a socialhistorical approach which supposes that all meanings of a concept are socially constructed
and can therefore be equivocally valid, and that therefore all one can do is to describe their
use or employment or constructed meaning in their social or historical context without
normative judgment, Simon’s approach accepts that amongst the varieties of analogous
meanings of ‘design’ more or less univocal or equivocal, there are some in that pool of
meanings that are more focal and others more peripheral. (Chua, 2012a; 2013b; forthcoming
The point therefore is to arrive at the “focal meaning” or the “central case”, which
captures those meanings that are significant in that field (Finnis, 1980, chapter 1). Yet the
‘significant in that field’ or focal meaning should be discerned by those who are practically
reflective (critical, considered, mature…). Because: judgments and evaluations about what
are significant in that field are in turn shaped by what one judges, rightly or wrongly, to be
significant in itself (also see Finnis, 1980: 15-18). Such focal accounts of ‘design’ hence presupposes an inclusive, perspectival access to the moral viewpoint, which is in turn discerned
by a studied grasp of what is truly valuable. This means accessing insights available from the
work of moral philosophers in the first instance, who may not at all be designers, and where
some of the descriptions to such a viewpoint have been developed (Chua, forthcoming 2014).
Consider: design theorist Clive Dilnot’s (2008) quest to uncover ‘design’ as a
criticality – ‘not just as an occasional moment, but as that which defines the very state of
being of a practice’ – in contrast with design that has become the “handmaid of consumption
and the cheer-leader for inequality.” (p. 182) Dilnot’s approach to unpacking ‘design’ is
precisely the one we recommend: notice here in Dilnot the selective, evaluative choices
regarding which kind of ‘design’ is more significant and worth writing about, amongst a
plurality of possible accounts. After all, as he himself admits, design is in fact typically
positioned in such a way that its critical potential is repressed:
“…the dominant stance that design should efface itself as critical knowledge, in favour of
translating the tasks assigned to it into operational or instrumental procedures, already eschews,
from the beginning, a critical perspective. The critical is no less difficult for research. The ‘selfoblivious’ instrumentality that still governs the research ethic (and which design research has
largely taken over without question) tends to balk at such concerns – operational finesse sits
uncertainly with critical viewpoints; certainty is not vouchsafed for in the speculations of critical
thought or practice (which aim, of course, at a different kind of truth)” (p. 3)
Yet Dilnot’s choice notion of design is precisely of one that is a criticality, however
infrequently it occurs in the real world of design, as he suggests. Dilnot’s own approach to
design research is hence also inclusivist (Chua, forthcoming 2014), just as he fully adopts the
ethicist’s moral viewpoint, rather than that of the typical designer who, as he says, eschews
the critical perspective. From the standpoint of one who is normatively concerned, he wishes
us to take note of and grasp that account of design that is ethically critical of social inequality,
rather than those which contribute to market structures leading to inequality – in his words:
“those permitted by the market”. To this end, Dilnot (2008) himself writes approvingly of
Herbert Simon’s (1996) “famous definition of design…the ‘devising of courses of action
aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’ ”, hints at its critical possibilities,
and draws our attention to the latter: “….[Yet n]o motivation for setting in train the ‘devising
of courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’ happens
without an initial apperception that what-is is in some manner deficient vis-a-vis what could
be…[A] critical apperception [opens the game]. (Dilnot, 2008: 178-179; also see Chua
1.2 Semio-Ethical Diagnosis through ‘Design’ Research
Enter semio-ethics, which seeks to relate the study of signs with values in various ways, and
which has received much attention in the semiotic research community (Petrilli, 2010).
Indeed Susan Petrilli points to semio-ethics as “part of the answer to the question regarding
the future of semiosis, the destiny of semiosis” (Petrilli, 2010: 25). Petrilli’s election as the
Seventh Sebeok Fellow is premised on her contributions to semioethics, her “signature issue”
(Deely, 2010: vii), and hence an endorsement of that view in the semiotic scholarly
community. Petrilli and Ponzio (2010: 150) have both intimated that a semio-ethical study of
conceptual signs and their axiological and practical dimensions is inevitably diagnostic and
akin to symptomatology (semeiotics) (ibid.). Elsewhere, with examples in ‘law’ and
‘education’ (Chua, 2006; 2012b; also see Finnis 1980), I have explained how the
development of focal meanings – a strategy that I have labeled ‘significal’ or semio-ethical
designing/translations (Chua 2012b) to gesture its affinity with the semio-ethical stance –
reveals simultaneously the peripheral and defective meanings, often with analytic disclosures
of the natures of such defects. Evidently then, (design) research aimed at developing focal
meanings (of ‘design’), one should say, are semio-ethical studies, and, one can infer, would
have diagnostic qualities.
Indeed, Dilnot’s – if I may, significal or semio-ethical – writing about ‘design’ as a
criticality is not just an inclusively researched account of how ‘design’s’ epistemology ought
to be critical of the deficiencies in the current economy, which is then consequently
problematized as something to be solved through ‘design’. It is simultaneously an account of
the ‘designer’, whose ethically critical epistemology should have framed his design problems.
In that case, Dilnot’s (2008) description of what it means to ‘design’ is at once a study of
what it means to be a ‘designer’ and how one can fail to be a ‘designer’, by failing to embody
criticality “as a state of being”, which as Dilnot explained is eschewed because hard to come
into view both in research and in professional practice. Meaning then, Dilnot’s account of
what ‘design’ is at the same time offers explanatory insights into how and why such
professional designers fail to be ‘designers’ and how they end up in the periphery, servicing
an unjust capital. It says to such a designer who seeks to solve his client’s problems:
physician, first heal thyself.
This said, I think his diagnosis of the design profession is incomplete, and would like
to press for a more comprehensive explanation of the symptomatic lack of critical designers
in the profession. If the economic milieu in which we are situated seems so amoral, and yet
designers so eschew criticality but instead unreflectively placate consumer wants signaled by
the market, this is not necessarily simply because their moral critical viewpoint is difficult to
come into view in design, but rather also because such a moral, critical viewpoint is thought
of as that which should not come into view. Meaning, it is not just that the critical is less
attractive and thus displaced, but that it is completely discredited. There are at least two
reasons for this.
Firstly, certain meta-ethical commitments deny ethically robust normative claims any
veritability; in the case of Herbert Simon for instance, even with the renunciation of an earlier
adherence to positivism which makes nonsense of ought-claims, his affirmation of the
naturalistic fallacy led him to suggest that there is no way to derive ethical norms (see Chua,
forthcoming 2014). Fortunately, such philosophical meta-ethical theses may be overcome,
for instance, with moral theories like new natural law theory (ibid.), articulated
representatively in John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980), which makes a case
for putatively normative precepts pointing to basic goods worth seeking for their own sakes,
whilst affirming the naturalistic fallacy and accepting that robust, non-instrumental normative
claims cannot logically be derived from merely descriptive ones.
Secondly, and less often mentioned, but no less a challenge: the critical consciousness
is conceptually undermined by theological (or metaphysical) shifts in history and in the
current. Historically a voluntarist theology exalted the autonomous secular. This came by
way of the late medieval post-Scotistic, Occamist man, made after the image of God –
specifically, the capricious individual imaged after a capricious God and His factum. Such a
man has to be given full dominium over his private space and property (Milbank, 2006;
Gillispie, 2008; also Coleman, 2012: 87-88), and as the latter progressively enlarged, it
displaced even the otherwise bindingly natural moral law prescribing his duty to aid others in
need. Indeed according to John Milbank’s (ibid) historical analysis in his Theology and
Social Theory (2006), neo-liberal secularism, which is manifested by an adherence to the
violent pressures of wants signaled by the market without moral guidance, is rooted precisely
in this voluntarist theology. If this historical-sociological observation leads to a charge of the
genetic fallacy and the objection is made that what in the past displaced the critical may no
longer do so in the present (and perhaps rightly so), then note also that in the current, the
secular or atheistic non-affirmation or denial of an embarrassing theist metaphysics or theist
natural theology continues philosophically to undermine any substantively ethical or
normative theory, which derives its normative stability only through the concomitant defense
of a non-capricious God who is responsible for the intelligent design of man’s morally
relevant epistemic capacities (Chua, 2006b; 2008; in press; also see Rea, 2002). Therefore,
the concept of “public” responsibilities (c.f. Dilnot, 2008) still is being undermined when
confronted with the defense of private spheres, only that warrants for a secular autonomy
now take the form of a cultural atheism which subjects ‘moral obligations’ to derision.1
In this respect, ‘design’ that is ethically critical ends up incoherent for the designer so
long as the respect for the autonomous secular trumps and displaces the bindingly moral,
whether this autonomous secularism continues to find warrant in a past heretical voluntarist
theology even if trimmed down for contemporary audiences, which James March’s
In this paper I understand cultural atheism or naturalism as a thesis, and thus as having implications that can be
refuted, or shown, modus tollens, to be self-refuting; compare Michael Rea (2002; 2007) who takes naturalism
to be a ‘stance’ or ‘research programme’ with no specific refutable thesis but which can be shown to be at
Quixotesque romantic logics of appropriateness seems dangerously to have re-incarnated
(see Chua, in press); or whether it currently thrives because the ethically critical is
undermined precisely by the refusal to affirm a natural theology of a non-capricious God, as
the militant atheism of a Richard Dawkins makes so clear, in spite of his hopes for human
morality which are unfortunately ultimately nothing but pie-in-the-sky wishes on behalf of
good morals without theoretical backbone (Chua, 2008).
Conversely, a focal ‘designer’ epistemology for which an ethical criticality is not in
vain is one which will reject the respect for the autonomous secular. But this can be rejected
only if these (as Milbank calls them) “heretical” theologies (of God or without God) and their
implied anthropologies and implications for morality are opposed, or else an alternative to
these offered (see Chua, in press), in the context of an inclusive design research programme,
drawing inter-disciplinarily on results of theological or metaphysical research (also see
DeHart, 189-194; like him I disagree with Milbank’s dismissal of metaphysics or natural law
Hence, amonsgt ‘designers’, one further differentiation is required: for there are
‘designers’ who whist initially critical are meta-ethically and metaphysically or theologically
ill-informed and therefore whose ‘meta’ commitments dismantle their purported criticality,
versus, those ‘designers’ whose meta-ethical and metaphysical (theological) world-view
harmonize well with their ethical criticality or else critically reject metaphysical
commitments that undermine the robustly moral. It is the latter ‘designer’ that better fits the
notion of a ‘designer’ in its focal meaning, and whose ‘design’ epistemology enables him to
engage, with a coherence and cogent criticality, the tendency of any design-profession to
serve any unjust pressures of the market.
2. ‘Designers’ as Semio-Ethic Agents
2.1 Design’s New Core: Other than the Market
Let us take stock. I have explained how design research, when understood as the quest to
uncover focal meanings of ‘design’ and ‘designers’, converges with diagnostic semio-ethics.
But apart from the research of design, designing itself, and the thinking in such designing –
specifically the design thinking identified as focal through design research – can also be
understood as a semio-ethic activity. Similarly, designers (and not just design theorists or
researchers) focally understood can be semio-ethic agents.
The tightening of the focal meaning of a “designer” by specifying his metaphysical
commitments sets some designers in the periphery and shifts some others towards the center,
where what we usually mean by ‘poor’ and ‘good’ designers respectively are to be found. I
would venture in broad strokes to flesh out some of his design thinking and trajectories that
have now relocated and become instantiations of designing in its central case, and hence, of
what is ‘good’ (praiseworthy, important, critical, exemplary…) design for professional or
vocational designers, as well as professionals who design and hence are designers broadly
taken in the sense Simon (1996) meant it.
Put another way: if the desired criticality in design is opposed to the instrumentalist form
of design thinking geared towards the satisfaction of market agendas driven by consumer
preferences, then the alternatively labelled “criticality” in design in its focal sense is simply
the “other-than” such an instrumentalist and mercantile form of logic, and by implication, the
“critical designer” is just one who is open to all these alternative forms of design logics,
trajectories and design subjects unrelated to market agendas, made available by these
metaphysical reflections. What would such “central”, “good”, “other” or “critical”…forms of
design look like, and what kinds of metaphysical reflections specifically are we referring to?
Rather than rehearse detailed metaphysical arguments already articulated elsewhere, I will
briefly summarize these.
Each design trajectory below within the focal sense of design has a trace of semio-ethics,
through semiotically designing interpretative translations of signs anew and relating these
signs to values for informing practice, although it is the third that I wish in this paper to
highlight as especially interesting a semio-ethic activity. Firstly, clearly belonging to the focal
design epistemology, as can be inferred from the discussion above, is: a metaphysics which
defends the existence of a non-capricious God responsible for the intelligent guided evolution
of human epistemic capacities relevant to the designer’s grasp of moral (first) principles. As
has been demonstrated, such a theistic metaphysics is necessary in order to save moral claims
from the charge of arbitrariness (Chua, 2006; 2008; 2012b: 395-397) or to save morality from
being confused with the entitlement to arbitrariness (Chua, in press). Only such a
metaphysical worldview would not be at dissonance with the critical in design. With these
metaphysical commitments, design can coherently be an ethical activity, which with
normative authority shapes both end-goals as well as means, critically – i.e., justly –
engaging private whims or responding to market signals, employing sound practical reasons
(sometimes called the natural law) to interrogate rather than placate share-holder preferences
in Hume-an fashion (see Chua, 2005; 2012a; compare Simon, 1996), or conversely, to
recognize as valuable what seems initially merely attractive preferences (see Chua, 2009a;
2009b; Simon 2006). This design trajectory designs morally informed meanings of whatever
tangible and transitive ‘goods and services’ one can design.
A second focal design epistemology is: design which shapes not merely transitive
things, but also the intransitive “self”, and not for market or performative purposes, but for
spiritual ends. A metaphysically informed design epistemology, as has been shown elsewhere
(Chua, 2012a; 2013; in press), can help us shape our professional selves aesthetically: by
ordering our designerly lives and discreet design projects (which arguably are ultimately
always playfully free) towards an overarching transcendent goal viz. the eutrapelian
participation of God’s play and hence, His friendship (ibid). Such a transcendent design
trajectory is also made available through reflection on the putative normativity in designerly
knowing in its focal – and hence, critically ethical - sense. Specifically, by tracing the
conceptually implicit transcendental presuppositions of putatively normative first principles
of practical reasons which feature so centrally in design thinking in its central case (above),
one grasps as a corollary the need to believe as true the existence of a God at creative play in
His ongoingly undetermined gift of existence; participating in such a God’s play becomes a
possible goal for which all designerly plays are ultimately played, as a kind of ultimate end of
professional and designerly activity (Chua, 2012a; 2012b; in press).This stands in stark
critical contrast to the consequentialist-utilitarian types of professional selves ordered only
towards clever money-making promoted by dominant business school curriculums and
corporate cultures (see Chua, in press; also relevant, Chua, 2013b: 397-401).
Finally, there is a third design epistemology that also belongs to the central case. It is
this third trajectory that I hope to detail. The same metaphysical reflections mentioned above
can be pressed for ways they can be employed by designers to re-shape each and every being
in the world meaningfully without remainder, radically exhausting even the existential
principle constitutive of each and every being. The result of this is that new meanings of all
beings are uncovered, signs of what is only gifted (rather than of what can be bought and sold)
are recovered, with important implications for practice. It is this design trajectory that can
most radically further our interpretation of what semio-ethics can mean.
2.2 Thinking Design Meta’s Through: Thomistic Retrievals
Let me put the point across in another way, by differentiating more sharply this new
domain of (or: aspect of) things that can be designed. The key to appreciating this new
domain for design is to grasp that we are now looking beyond the porphyrean confines of all
those principles which determine what-each-thing-is and modifying each of them essentially
(whether substantially or accidentally). Typically, design focuses on shaping the essence of
things – either by changing a thing’s substantial form or else by refining its accidents. This
much is easily visible to designers, and understandably so. But ‘what a thing is’ is not all that
there is to design. Instead, we are now also interested to modify the principles that determine
that-such-a-thing-is. All this may seem rather opaque at this stage, but the general idea is as
The deliverances of metaphysical reflection supply the resources for reshaping what any
being’s existence (esse: is-ness) means. It allows us to re-design what each being’s reality
qua sign can point to. As has been shown (Chua 2008: 820-826; 2012a: 570-573), the
transcendental presuppositions of the putative normativity of first principles of practical
reasons, and hence of ethical criticality, also imply as a corollary what is traditionally
defended by the thomistic tradition as “the real distinction between essence and existence.”
(Chua, 2008: 823-824; 2012a: 573) As early as in the medieval text De Ente et Essentia
(1968 [13th Century]), Aquinas argued that all beings (ens) were in fact composed of two
principles: essence (essentia) and existence (esse). Each being’s essence determines what the
being is, whereas the existence the being had accounted for the fact that the being is, rather
than not, and so stood out of nothingness. This he further demonstrated was not merely a
conceptual separation, but a real one: meaning, that as things really are, there are really two
principles really distinct in each being (Aquinas, 1968, Chua, 2000a; 2000b; 2008: 823-824;
2012a; Wippel, 1984:115). The existential principle, existence (esse), was further shown to
be something which was received from an infinite source of existence, and hence all beings
participate or have a share of this Existence, which must of necessity exist. This infinite
Existence was clearly identified with God, since nothing except God was unlimited in this
manner. These metaphysical claims are fully entailed by the affirmation of putatively robust,
normative practical reasons, which in turn ground ethical criticality in ‘design’ focally
understood and significally translated (Chua, 2008: 820-826; 2012a).
If we look at such a metaphysics, and what they show, we might see nothing more than a
hair-splitting, scholastic account of God’s existence, the onto-theological structure of beings,
and the close relationship between God and beings by way of each being’s participatory
sharing (participatio) in Infnite Existence, or God. But this latter immediately implies
another affordance of beings: that beings point to God by way of their existence (esse). In
other words, a metaphysics like this is not merely an account of God and beings, but also of
each being’s signing, by virtue of its existence, of the God Who Is Existence (Esse), and Who
is deeply part of the world of beings which He ongoingly holds in existence (also Gully,
1961:42-43). For: metaphysics establishes the close relation-ship between God and created
beings, and therefore also leads semiosically from beings to God. Meaning, metaphysics
makes beings signs of God, and functions as the relating interpretant which connects beings
to God semiosically. Thanks to (thomistic) metaphysics, beings are no more merely beings,
but are also now transformed into signs of a God Who Is present. They have been designed
qua signs. Indeed, for the metaphysically informed, all beings, insofar as they exist and
participate of existence from God, can now be designed into signs of an ever present God. In
other words, such metaphysical truths retrieved from Aquinas’ thought imply opportunities
for designing, viz. the practical transformation of all beings as signs. Knowing how to
analyze beings as existents (ens) participating in the God Who Is Existence (Esse) means
that one also knows how to shape, at once, any and every being into signs of God and his
creative presence in the world. Unlike Aquinas our task is not theological speculation – or
perhaps we should say that our primary design goal is not that. Rather it is to design critically,
wherever that leads us, and one consequent trajectory of such critical design thinking is
precisely the semiotic shaping of the existence (esse) of beings.
Furthermore, this task to design the existence (esse) of beings and by implication
beings (ens) semiotically is not just an optional “clever idea”. Instead it is the fulfillment of
the “criticality” in each “designer” that must find expression in a designerly semiosic
transubstantiation (Chua, 2013c; also Kress, 2000: 15) that seeks to write out and to exhaust
the designs of beings without remainder, so that nothing is wasted. Particularly, if design
“criticality” is to be a constant state of being of a designer and not just a one-off act, then
such designing will not rest until it has fully explored all design projects other than those
design projects which any corrupted logic of the market allows. Hence after designing the
essence of beings (constituted by each being’s substance and accidents), a “designer” must
therefore also think of ways to design the existence (esse) of beings. For such designers,
design unevitably includes and welcomes the project of metaphysical writing about ‘beings’,
retrieved from its medieval uses for contemporary design (c.f. Kress, ibid.) of signs. I.e., for
the good designer and good designing that seeks to promote and realize, fully and
exhaustively what ought to be, the design of signs in metaphysical writing is not an option. It
is however and again, first and foremost a project in design, and not primarily one on ontotheology although it employs the latter’s insights.
Specifically, such thomistic,
metaphysically informed shaping of new signs and new meanings of beings is a semioticdesign project. (see Chua 2012b) I.e., this is a design of what beings can afford to point to in
semiosis, and hence, mean.
2.3 Thomistic, Semio-ethic Design: A New Semiotics
This thomistic, semiotic-design project is nevertheless a very radical departure from design
conceived by a design profession that eschews criticality (Dilnot, 2008) when enslaved either
by the totalizing etsi Deus non daretur of the secular, neoliberal market (Milbank 2006) or a
cultural atheism, and, is bound to be rejected as pointless and unintelligible a design project
by those within the profession – “How can we sell this? And who will want to buy such
designs? There’s no market for this today!” To design orthodoxy, it would be curious heresy.
Equally unpalatable for some in the academic design research community is the fact that
metaphysical concepts, besides ethical ideas, now informs the articulation of what design is
and what designers are and do. No doubt Nigel Cross (2006) has welcomed the articulation
of a ‘science of design’ that is rigorous but distinguished from a “design science” that is in
his view corrupted by positivist or scientistic cultures of thought, and so one might think –
and rightly so – this would imply an inclusive design research strategy that draws on
disciplinary contributions outside of design, including (thomistic) metaphysics; still, his own
positing of a category of thinking called “designerly ways of knowing” (ibid.) to be
researched by designers and designers only in fact shuns disciplinary contributions outside of
design, and so leads, wrong-headedly in my opinion, to an exclusive and specialized research
field for designers only (Chua, forthcoming 2014). Such semiotic designers are therefore a
curious category at the cutting-edge, even if fully legitimate and anticipated by Gunther Kress’
(2000:15) argument for a “Design” that shapes words and signs and his plea on behalf of a
new semiotics that acknowledges that signs are not merely used but Designed (Chua, 2013c).
Yet this design thinking is what must make up the new semiotics. Meaning, and more
importantly (at this point pushing the perimeters in semiotics once more) I suggest that the
metaphysically informed design of beings is recognizably also as an instantiation of the
semio-ethical stance, although it is clearly beyond what Petrilli and Ponzio have thus far
imagined semio-ethics to look like. For Petrilli and Ponzio, semio-ethics’ “special vocation
is to evidence sign networks where it seemed there were none” (Petrilli & Ponzio, 2010: 162)
This includes those signs that are of the gifted in critical opposition to the merely
exchangeable (Petrilli & Ponzio, 2001: 37). In this respect, our designerly semiosic
remembrance through beings who have existence (habens esse) recalls the reality of God’s
intimate presence that had already been freely given by the sheer fact of our existence, and
from the fact that God, who is infinite Being, needs nothing else for his own perfection, and
hence gives existence freely without need for something else in exchange.
With Petrilli and Ponzio (2001), we could hence say that while “in today’s world the
logic of production and the rules that govern the market allowing all to be exchanged and
commodified threaten to render humanity ever more insensible [and] humans increasingly
pay little or no attention to the signs of all that which cannot be measured or purchased but
are received as a gift,” this radically critical design thinking which finds its expression as a
semio-ethical design project retrieves “those signs of life that today we cannot or do not wish
to read, or those signs that we do not know how to read, [so that they] may recover one day
their importance and relevance for humanity.” (pp. 36-37) Yet, going beyond what Petrilli
and Ponzio have said, we must now say and invite them to say with us that: semio-ethics
incorporates into itself such a radical thomistic design thinking which designs the meaning of
all beings without remainder into signs pointing anew at God’s gifting, intimate presence.
2.4 Signs of Consolation: “Take Courage!”
Design seeks to produce a preferred state of affairs; equally, semioethics analyzes signs to
emerge practical implications. Their convergence in this new, thomistic, semioethic design
of the signs of God ought therefore to entail, one would expect, practical implications that are
beneficial: indeed for many, as it is for Augustine and Aquinas, such signs of a real powerful
presence, to whom the whole of creation bends in obediental potency by the sheer duress of
its contingently gifted existence, may well be signs of consolation (Barron, 1996; also Gully,
1961: 47-48), precisely if in one’s quest to realize his friendship in accord with practical right
reason (recta ratio) as prescribed by the natural law (see above, Chua, 2012a), one’s
professional and hence design choices and logics (including administrative, managerial and
leadership decisions) in their focal senses (see above; ibid.) are barely appreciated, or are at
other times contradicted and misunderstood, and then passed on and derided, or test our
courage and the security of those we love and care for. Thus Robert Barron (1996: 86) who
teases out the consoling significance of Aquinas’ metaphysics of being writes:
“God [for Aquinas] is not incidentally or provisionally present to the things of the world; nor is
God present only to some and not to others, as some philosophies hold. No, God is, in the most
startling way, in the things that [he] continually makes…Thomas is echoing in more sober
language Augustine’s magnificent assertion that God is intimior intimo meo (closer to me than I
am to myself, nearer to me than that which is nearest to me).”
In other words, these thomistic signs, once semio-ethically designed, point to truths
that help us confront positively the problem of apparent unmerited evil, holding back despair
and debilitating confusion and sadness, even though the consolation of such signs is very far
from the hope of a complete solution that fully quickens, but which now gathers greater
plausibility. For professionals who design (c.f. Simon, 1996), dealing on a daily basis with
ill-defined, wicked problems (see Chua 2008), with little supportive consensus from
colleagues, such semio-ethic sources of fortitude will matter greatly, especially during those
dark nights of the professional’s soul (c.f. Ball 2003; see also Chua 2009b) when struggling
with speech-discourses laden with vocational values (oratio: see Chua 2009b:164; also
March, 1982) to exorcise the terrors of performative pressures to compromise the good, the
just and the beautiful, and the temptation to call it a day.
Such thomistic signs are even more pertinent, perhaps, for the professional under
employment, whose courage on behalf of the good and just must be supererogatory. For:
without the comfortable luxury of being what Frederic Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty
calls the “man of independent means”, a “private owner of substantial property” (Hayek,
2011: 190), he is not free from the duress of being subject, economically, to another’s
coercion (Hayek, 1944, 2011) and hence the courageous defense of the good and right cannot
be expected to be easily forthcoming. Even more so, if David Harvey’s erroneous
prescriptions in his The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (2010) on behalf of
Marxism see light. His incoherent pretensions of critical morality commends his readers to
confront Hayek’s defense of private property “head-on” in order to effectively challenge
“capital accumulation and the reproduction of class power” (p. 233), but ironically portends
the social and political conditions under central planning that will stifle the promotion of the
good and the just, as much as concentrations of economic powers in the name of
redistribution subject all others to coercive duress, and thus leaves these semio-ethical signs
of comfort and their design with even greater responsibility for nurturing heroic bravery.
3. Conclusion: Balancing Semiotics
At the round table on ‘Translation’ of the 11th World Congress of Semiotics on Global
Semiotics, held in 2012 at Nanjing, China, a charge was made that semiotics had been long
on discourse but short on application and practice. To which the chair, Susan Petrilli,
responded by pointing out that semio-ethics, which she and Augusto Ponzio encouraged
through their publications, has and would continue to correct that imbalance. In this paper, I
have made the case that design theory, which implies the design of thomistic signs of
consolation and which leads to some rather significant practical implications and applications,
should enjoy a welcome intellectual reception by semio-ethics as scholarly expressions of the
same. Such reception of design theory by semio-ethics would then mean that, true to what
Petrilli said, semiotics can, through semio-ethical studies qua design theory, address the said
imbalance, and answer that charge somewhat.
Aspects of this paper were presented at the Word Congress of Semiotics on Global Semiotics
(Round Table on Translation) in October 2012 in Nanjing, China. I am thankful to my panel
members, esp. Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio, for their comments and encouragement. A
later version was read at the “Quodlibetal Questions on Education: Design in/as/and
Education” Colloquium at IOE London in June 2013, where I was a Visiting Academic.
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