"Overcoming the Tradition: Heidegger and Dewey"
This is one of the first essays that really struck me. Rorty's concern in the essay is to first diagnose what Heidegger is up to and defend him against some of the too-easy attacks against him. It opens early with this: "Without discipline, we presumably have mysticism, or poetry, or inspiration--at any rate, something which permits an escape from our intellectual responsibilities." (CP, 37) Knowing that Rorty puts great stock in poetry, it’s easy to see that a rehabilitation is going to occur at some point of these things that provide "an escape." It should also remind us of Pirsig when he says, "the easy escape of mysticism." (ZMM, 233) We know that Pirsig puts high stock in mysticism, so something is up.
What's up, I think, are two things: one, Pirsig and Heidegger's respectful flight from argument and two, their relation to the history of philosophy. Rorty suggests that philosophers' frustration with Heidegger is that he "has done as good a job of putting potential critics on the defensive as any philosopher in history." (CP, 39) He says this because it would seem that however you try to get a handle on what Heidegger says he's up to, whenever you make common distinctions, say between art and science to place him ("Oh, Heidegger. He's more a poet than a philosopher."), Heidegger replies that these "various distinctions are themselves products of metaphysical system-building," "products of the various writers who constitute 'the tradition of Western ontology.'" (CP, 38) And if we get frustrated, "Heidegger suggests that our sense of exasperation is just one more product of the notion that philosophy is supposed to be a competition between arguments, a notion which we get from Plato." (ibid.)
This is one thing that I think marks both Heidegger and Pirsig--their sense of the centrality of argument to the tradition of philosophy. Both Heidegger and Pirsig trace its roots to Plato. And both, in a sense, fly away from it. When Pirsig suggests that one of his rhetorical options when faced with the S/O Dilemma is to "refuse to enter the arena" (ZMM, 233), this is the option he suggests, in hindsight, would have been the best one--and it's the one that is "the easy escape of mysticism." Pirsig seems to suggest that this option is mystical because the specifics of his answer are that Quality is undefinable. ("Philosophical mysticism, the idea that truth is indefinable and can be apprehended only by nonrational means....") I don't think that's the case, however. I think, much like our frustration with Heidegger, the production of mysticism is a direct result of refusing to enter the arena, of refusing to play their game. And instead, what we get from Heidegger and Pirsig are entirely new games.
Rorty says that we shouldn't say that Heidegger must not be a philosopher because he refuses to play with us because Heidegger simply "carries to extremes a tactic used by every original philosopher. Heidegger is not the first to have invented a vocabulary whose purpose is to dissolve the problems considered by his predecessors, rather than propose new solutions to them." (CP, 39-40) Pirsig is doing this same thing. Lila is his more systematic working out of this new vocabulary. Pirsig isn't directly arguing with his predecessors, he has refused to enter the area, because one of the main functions of his new vocabulary isn't to answer his opponents' questions (because an answer would have to be on their terms), so much as make fun of them (consider the meager attention paid to classical problems by Pirsig when does pay attention to them). (I should provide a caveat: I'm not sure Pirsig has disengaged himself fully from the tradition. For instance, one may look at his way of distinguishing the "third rhetorical option" from the "third dialectical option" that he did take as Pirsig's way of still arguing with the tradition, inverting the tradition like Nietzsche, instead of disposing of it entirely. So while, as Rorty says, "Heidegger's later style makes it easy to dismiss him as someone who has simply become tired of arguing, and who, taking refuge in the mystical, abandons the attempt to defend his almost-respectable earlier work," sometimes Pirsig seems to be still too interested in arguing, and not taking the refuge he should.)
So how do we judge Heidegger and Pirsig? Rorty suggests that there is an "obvious way of distinguishing critics of the tradition like Dewey and Heidegger from the amateur, the philistine, the mystic, or the belletrist. This is the depth and extent of their commentary on the details of the tradition." The only thing Pirsig has hampering him is his small oeuvre. But I don't think that is difficult to overcome. Pirsig's commentary, though smaller than Heidegger and Dewey's, is very insightful, no less because it is easily seen as of a piece with Heidegger and Dewey's. Pirsig's attacks on the tradition are easily attached to other commentaries. If Pirsig may leap rather quickly to critical comments on the tradition, his impatience should be balanced with the insight garnished from them. And if those insights, even if quickly reached, do prove to be insightful (by hooking up with other, more extensive commentaries), then they provide a bit more weight to his new vocabulary. And the way Rorty suggests we judge Heidegger, and thereby Pirsig, is by their relation to their predecessors. "The self-image of a philosopher ... depends almost entirely upon how he sees the history of philosophy. ... This suggests that insofar as there is any sensible question of the form 'Who is right, Heidegger or the others?' it is going to be a question of historiography." (CP, 41)
That's not something I'm going to be doing here for Pirsig, but it is something that should be done. I'd like to end this portion by returning to the placement of poetry and mysticism next to each other. This is where the seed for my thoughts on this subject were first born. Poetry is often thought of as outside the bounds of rational argument, which is why Plato denigrated the poets. I think it is important to see, though, that poetry has its own tradition, the context in which it is to be evaluated. Literary critics like Harold Bloom (who are more like literary historians, then literary theorists) place poems and poets next to each other to see how the poems feed off of each other, to see how poets later down the pike react to the poetry, images, and metaphors of their predecessors. Mysticism, like poetry, is only intelligible within a context, one context of which is its own tradition of practice (Sam Norton has also made this point). But like poetry, part of the point of mysticism is to produce unintelligibility--to shake us out of the familiar. This is why I've come to think of mysticism as a kind of poetry. Unlike the kind of philosophy I'm performing here, where we just move the familiar around, in mysticism, poetry, and poetic philosophy of the kind Heidegger, Derrida, and Pirsig perform, we are shaken, not stirred.
This paper was very important for helping me to my understanding of Pirsig. This is, I believe, the only extended place where Rorty offers criticisms of his hero Dewey and it helped me understand some of the shortcomings of my hero Pirsig. A lot of it has to do with the word "experience." Since becoming convinced that the "linguistic turn" is the way to go when it comes to formulation, I think that some of Pirsig's problems, what I see as his ambiguity, stems from his use of "experience" as a philosophical term. Rorty quotes a letter from Dewey to Arthur Bentley saying that when he wrote Experience and Nature, considered to be his principal work in metaphysics, "I was still hopeful that the philosophic word 'Experience' could be redeemed by being returned to its idiomatic usages--which was a piece of historic folly, the hope I mean." (CP, 72) I think much the same thing about Pirsig's use. It proves to be confusing. However, much of that simply comes to be a matter of careful interpretation and translation, pulling out the wisdom in Pirsig's texts and shunting aside anything that might be useless or besides the point or simply verbal differences of opinion.
Rorty says that Dewey eventually came to realize that it would be hard indeed to assimilate his Experience and Nature to the other paradigms of metaphysics. Rorty says, "It is easier to think of the book as an explanation of why nobody needs a metaphysics, rather than a metaphysical system." I think the same thing of Pirsig because I take Quality to an anti-essence, his Quality thesis (that Quality is 1) undefined, 2) reality, and 3) experience) to be antiessentialistic, and metaphysics to be the search for an essence to reality. I can, however, never quite figure out what exactly Pirsig has in mind when he uses "metaphysics" to describe his philosophy. Sometimes it just seems like "a really wide paradigm of thought." Sometimes it seems to be something else, as when he says that a "Metaphysics of Quality" is a contradiction in terms. (Lila, 73) In fact, Santayana said in criticism of Dewey that his "naturalistic metaphysics" was a contradiction in terms. I would only think it a criticism if one cannot shrug off the critique by redescribing the terms around you, which then makes what you are doing not metaphysics so traditionally defined. I see in Pirsig the same thing Rorty sees in Dewey:
For most of his life, however, Dewey would not have relished this assimilation [of his Experience and Nature into the history of ideas, of the kind Heidegger and Dewey did in other places, the detailed commentaries I talked about above with Heidegegr and Pirsig]. For better or worse, he wanted to write a metaphysical system. Throughout his life, he wavered between a therapeutic stance toward philosophy and another, quite different, stance--one in which philosophy was "scientific" and "empirical" and to do something serious, systematic, important, and constructive. Dewey sometimes described philosophy as the criticism of culture, but he was never quite content to think of himself as a kibitzer or a therapist or an intellectual historian. He wanted to have things both ways.We should recognize the desires of "scientific" and "empirical" in Pirsig. And the "kibitzer" remark should also strike a small chord with Pirsig in the introduction to Lila's Child. I think it is obvious that Pirsig didn't just want to kibitz about Plato or the hippies, that he wanted to do something much bigger and more important. But two of the things that make me question some of his desires are his desire to call the MoQ "scientific" and that his philosophy is more empirical than SOM. (Lila, 73) This last one in particular makes my hair stand on end. What could it mean to make something more empirical? For something to be empirical, and not theoretical, it would have to be neutrally so, something not so bound up in theoretical terms and such. By saying that he's being more empirical than his opponents, Pirsig wants to claim that there are obvious, neutral features of reality that his opponents are repressing. But can the philosopher who claimed that our reality is made up of "analogues upon analogues upon analogues" say that? (ZMM, 255)
This latter claim supposes that our language permeates through what we take to be empirical. If something could be more empirical the way Pirsig uses it, then the claim would have to be that some features of reality stand naked and apart from the terms we put them in. This ties into Pirsig's use of "direct experience" and his idea of a cultural immune system. (cf. Lila, 386-7) If there is something neutral that culture can suppress, something that you could be more empirical by noticing, then you've raised the spectre of the appearance/reality distinction, a naked reality that we all would notice had our culture, our theoretical terms, not gotten in the way. I'm not sure all of this is that important or central to his philosophy. I think most of it is simply the rhetoric he's chosen to press some of his claims and insights. As Pirsig has taught us, rhetoric is important, but I'm not sure, having gotten rid of certain ways in which Pirsig presses the attack on his enemy, we've really lost anything of importance to his philosophy.