Monday, May 29, 2006
The volume of essays that has Annette Baier's "Doing Without Moral Theory?" also contains a number of other essays by luminaries like Bernard Williams, John McDowell, Charles Taylor, and MacIntyre. I've contented myself with trying to read those essays, a number of different perspectives all around a common, anti-theoretical perspective. MacIntyre's contribution, "Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science," is an excellent little thing and contains the basic anti-theoretical insights he carries in books like After Virtue and Whose Justice? Whose Rationality?. (MacIntyre has said that this essay was a turning point for him from his earlier work to the writing of After Virtue.) The basic idea is that the idea of tradition has been woefully lacking in our accounts of rationality.
MacIntyre begins his essay by thinking about what it means to be in an "epistemological crisis". He does so in a very down to earth, real life manner, like when "someone who has believed that he was highly valued by his employers and colleagues is suddenly fired" or when "someone falls out of love and needs to know how he or she can possibly be so mistaken in the other." (241) These are real problems that most of us have faced, or can at least imagine being in similar circumstances. What we think about people is based on how they behave, but sometimes our entire outlook on them changes and all their behavioral cues become transmogrified--and worse, sometimes we cease to be certain about how to take their behavior at all. What we "took to be evidence pointing unambiguously in some one direction now turns out to have been equally susceptible of rival interpretations."
This produces a frightful situation in which we lose our hold on reality. For "my ability to understand what you are doing and my ability to act intelligibly (both to myself and to others) are one and the same ability." (242) If we begin to lose our hold on others, we begin to lose our hold on ourselves. Recurring to the example of Hamlet as an exemplar of epistemological crisis, MacIntyre says perceptively that "to be unable to render oneself intelligible is to risk being taken to be mad--is, if carried far enough, to be mad. And madness or death may always be the outcomes that prevent the resolution of an epistemological crisis, for an epistemological crisis is always a crisis in human relationships." (243)
The wisdom that MacIntyre is pulling out of the example of such an individual in distress has the same implications for disciplines or paradigms of thought in distress. "When an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is by the construction of a new narrative, which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them." I won't reflect very long on Pirsig, but this is the same wisdom that is embodied in ZMM. Pirsig combines both personal distress and paradigm distress in a single narrative that charts both his own course through time and the paradigm's course, all in an effort to make it intelligible--how he could have been an 18 year old college drop out, former Benares student and University of Chicago PhD candidate, and state committed psychiatric patient all the way to technical manual editor and suburban dad. Pirsig weaves in a decisively dramatic way the course of his own descent with that of intellectual history to both make himself more intelligible, the tradition of philosophical thinking more intelligible, and to show how the two are interwoven.
The most important reason for such narratives is that without them we would be taken over by the kind of radical, paralyzing skepticism that Descartes (and every epistemological skeptic after) pretends to have. MacIntyre points out that even Descartes, having formally eschewed narrative for formal deduction from self-evident premises, constructs narratives to couch his process in the Meditations. The epistemological consequences are large. MacIntyre says that an epistemological crisis, even after being abated, can induce two conclusions: 1) that our understanding of a situation, the schemata or paradigms we use to interpret, even the ones we just adopted to end the crisis, "may themselves, in turn, come to be put in question at any time" (244) and 2) "because in such crises the criteria of truth, intelligibility and rationality may always themselves be put in question ... we are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth or now are fully rational. The most that we can claim is that this is the best account anyone has been able to give so far, and that our beliefs about what the marks of 'a best account so far' are will themselves change in what are, at present, unpredictable ways."
MacIntyre, here, doesn't pull out the point most explicitly, but the point is an important one that Rorty has also developed (particularly in relation to the individual in CIS's chapter on Winston). A skeptical crisis is terrifying because we are no longer sure of those around us. It further makes us unsure of who we are. Global skepticism (of the kind Descartes pretended to have) has gotten its punch from imagining that if we change one theory or precept of interpretation, what's to stop us from changing the whole lot of them, and if we change all of them, what's our criteria for getting closer to what's really going on--how do we know any of our canons of interpretation are at all like reality, how do we know we are getting any better, that we aren't just swinging unhooked from reality in a limitless abyss with no touchstone?
What is terrifying is that we, "we" being made up of our paradigms of thinking, could be terribly and radically wrong about reality, and therefore terribly and radically wrong about who we really are. Death has always been terrifying, and death is exactly what's on the table. On the cultural scale, if we keep pulling up floorboards on the deck of the U. S. S. Neurath, how can we identify the totally new ship we will someday be aboard as embodying the culture we now identify with? And if that's the case, wouldn't that count as the death of an entire culture? That is scary, to think that democracy and freedom could someday end, but what is even more pressing is the personal death we risk at the hands of global belief replacement. For if all the beliefs we now own are replaced by others, wouldn't we no longer count as being us? If I had totally and utterly different beliefs than those that I hold now, how would I identify as that person? Would I recognize me as me? Wouldn't, then, I be dead?
MacIntyre and Rorty recognize, as post-Cartesian epistemology does not, the importance of narrative for the ordering and stablizing of beliefs. Without narrative, something like global skepticism would indeed be frightening. However, part of who we are, both as a culture and as individuals, is because of the story we tell ourselves of how we got from our old, bad beliefs to our new, better beliefs (I've talked about this in Phaedrus, the Woolf and, with more attention to Pirsig, in Prospectus, Part III). This gives us continuity, the continuity in being able to claim that I did all those dumb, stupid things when I was younger. It gives you a coherent self. Without the story, we wouldn't be able to claim any of that.
MacIntyre suggests that the difference between Descartes' Meditations and Shakespeare's Hamlet is that "Shakespeare invites us to reflect on the crisis of the self as a crisis in the tradition that has formed the self." (248) Cultures are made up of traditions that create people and an epistemological crisis is a crisis of a particular tradition. A new, successful theory or paradigm or schema of science, art, religion, or philosophy does so because it "enables us to understand precisely why its predecessors have to be rejected or modified and also why, without and before its illumination, past theory could have remained credible. It introduces new standards of evaluating the past. It recasts the narrative that constitutes the continuous reconstruction" of the tradition of discourse. (249) MacIntyre is important for enabling us to to see that when a tradition is in a crisis, the successful resolution of that crisis extends the tradition. And it does so by its own tools. A tradition "is a conflict of interpretations of that tradition, a conflict which itself has a history susceptible of rival interpretations." "A tradition then not only embodies the narrative of an argument, but is only to be recovered by an argumentative retelling of that narrative which will itself be in conflict with other argumentative retellings." (250)
This is where MacIntyre's metaphilosophical outlook comes closest to Rorty's. Rorty argued in the traditional model of analytic philosophy throughout much of the 60s, in the cold, airy night of theses and propositions. Rorty saw quite plainly that such arguments tend to suffocate, cut off from each other, each begging the question over the other. When great sea changes are called for, one can't argue from X to Y, one has to retell the history of Xs changing to Ys. This will still be disputed, but these argumentative retellings of history are some of the only weapons available. One cannot simply argue that Cartesian epistemology was a mistake, one has to offer a history explaining to us why this mistake occured and how we may reverse it (such as Rorty's PMN).
MacIntyre goes on to talk specifically about Kuhn, Lakatos, Popper and the philosophy of science, but I'd like to end by reflecting on MacIntyre's links between epistemology and madness. MacIntyre remarks that "the categories of psychiatry and of epistemology must be to some extent interdefinable." (252) MacIntyre in this essay has been using "epistemology" in a wide sense of "ways of knowing," these schemata or theories or paradigms or canons of interpretation that generate on the other side what we call "knowledge". MacIntyre, by linking back to the individual's sense of an epistemological crisis, of a crisis of what some individual knows to be true, brings us to some of the same insights that Pirsig developed in ZMM and Lila when he talked about being outside the mythos and the philosophy of insanity. This is the idea of tradition-dependent, socially contextualized definitions of epistemology that have replaced the idea of Cartesian foundation-dependent, acontextual definitions.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
One of the basic positions that I've occupied through Rorty and Pirsig and others is anti-theoretical, that reality and truth and good and the like are not something to which you can really have a theory about. Opposed to theory, I've been talking about this nebulous thing called "wisdom" accrued from practice. When it comes to moral philosophy, Baier talks about just this sort of thing in her assessment of contemporary moral philosophy, "Doing Without Moral Theory?"
Baier begins by noting that Aristotle and Hume, unlike contemporary moral philosophers beginning with Bentham and Mill, presumed a moral consensus on their actual moral judgments. Nowadays, philosophers presume the absence of consensus. Baier doesn't concern herself here with why this exactly occured, but simply that moral and cultural pluralism is now taken for granted. Baier says that "what is striking about this shift from presumption of moral consensus to presumption of its absence is that the philosophers at the beginning of the transition saw themselves as working for some disputed moral cause, saw themselves as members of the nonagreeing community of moral judges, while more recent moral theorists mostly see themselves as above the moral fray, outside the everyday disputes about what is to be tolerated." (30) Mill, in addition to being a moral philosopher, was a moral reformer, but Baier suggests that there are "very few contemporary Anglo-American moral theorists to whom one would naturally apply the term 'moral reformer.'" Baier looks at the theorists around her and sees them in the "intellectual construction business--one attempts to outbid one's competitor constructors in erecting a theory that rationalizes the moral opinion of some group," but in the limiting case of some constructions "the group is oneself."
This, I suggest, makes moral philosophy into either ideology or into play-ideology. Like most of us, I welcome good ideology for a cause I espouse--I admire J. S. Mill for his cultural crusades and for his effort to use intellectual instruments along with any others he could get. What I am less happy with is professional play-ideology, and with unacknowledged ideology, ideology parading as detachment.This play-ideology and unacknowledged ideology is what we get with what Baier calls "normative ethical theory": "a system of moral principles in which the less general are derived from the more general." (33) This is the kind we get with R. M. Hare, Alan Donagan, Alan Gewirth, John Rawls--morally neutral edifices rationally deducted from our common reason, and therefore should be held by all reasonable people (though, it should be noted, that Rawls looks less and less normative in his later writings after A Theory of Justice). Baier notes that neither Aristotle nor Hume had normative theories--this was something that we get after Kant. The main practical trouble with normative theories (there are many theoretical ones) is why do we need them? Baier acknowledges that we need theories as accounts of what's going on in the world, scientific theories, psychological theories, political theories, economic theories, etc. "But do we need normative theories, theories to tell us what to do, in addition to theories that present to us the world in which we are to try to do it?" (34)
Baier wants to suggest that "there is no room for moral theory as something which is more philosophical and less committed than moral deliberation, and which is not simply an account of our customs and styles of justification, criticism, protest, revolt, conversion, and resolution" and the consequence is that "any moral philosophy which is not such descriptive anthropology will tend to merge with moral action." (33) Baier's suggestion is that moral philosophers need to get their hands dirty. They need to live life. If we are to be moral reformers like Mill, guides to moral action and not just sketching out the possibility of moral action (as neutral theorists sometimes describe themselves), we need to have knowledge about many different kinds of moral action. Her example for a secular moral philosophy is Hume. Hume's moral philosophy involved psychological and political and economic theories, but no normative theory. Hume's general practice was to go out and test his theories and go back and refine them. During his life, Hume had been a business man, a secretary to a general, a diplomat, a historian, he knew a little law. He was well acquainted with many different aspects of life. On Hume's account, moral philosophy attempts to provide a "mental geography", maps that can be tested and made better. Hume "directs the philosopher to learn from the nonphilosophers before presuming to advise them." (39) Hume is, in a way, directing moral philosophers to be a bit like dilettantes.
Baier notes at the end that much moral advice would seem to be just as easily given by nonphilosophers as professionals, which is something Rorty notes also (in "Philosophy in American Today" in CP). But that still doesn't leave the moral philosopher with nothing to do. They can at least be very well read, traversing a wide array of literature, looking for wisdom. Baier's article does much towards disabusing us of the notion of Kantian normative theory. Baier thinks that a Humean moral philosophy "would merge with other disciplines, and with the reflections of common life, and such a merger might help us to escape from that arrogance of solitary intellect which has condemned much moral theory to sustained self-delusions concerning its subject matter, its methods, and its authority." (46)
I should note that the last fourth of Baier's essay traverses another, though related, topic, of the way in which moral philosophy teachers compose themselves, and so also the very idea of professional moral philosophers, and philosophers in general. This is very interesting and acute, but a lesson for another time.
*Annette Baier's "Doing Without Moral Theory?" can be found in her Postures of the Mind: Essays on Mind and Morals (London: Methuen, 1985) and (where I have it and all pagination is coordinated to) in Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Convervatism ed. Stanley G. Clarke and Evan Simpson (Albany: SUNY, 1989).
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Rorty, in fact, studied at the University of Chicago in the Hutchins School while it was still around. It was there that he studied with Mortimer J. Adler and Richard McKeon (who were mentioned in ZMM, McKeon being the "Chairman"), but also with Leo Strauss, Rudolph Carnap, and Charles Hartshorne. Rorty was most attracted to the classical, history-oriented side of philosophy that occured with McKeon and Hartshorne, but he did learn a bit from Carnap. It is a coincidence of life that he should have studied with three philosophers at Chicago and then at Yale (for his PhD) that so parrallel each other: McKeon and then Robert Brumbaugh, Carnap and then Carl Hempel, Hartshorne and then Paul Weiss. But despite studying with Carnap and Hempel, he came out the other side ill-prepared for work in the linguistic philosophy that had taken over most American philosophy departments. Rorty was well-versed in the history of philosophy, but not in the logic and linguistic tools that, because of emigrees like Carnap and Hempel, had swept from the Vienna Circle. So he spent a few years at Wellesley, and then after being hired by Gregory Vlastos to teach Greek philosophy at Princeton, his first few years at Princeton, the primere philosophy department in the United States, retooling himself as an analytic philosopher, figuring out what everybody was talking about.
The point in this little detour through Rorty's biography is that Rorty never felt totally at home in analytic philosophy and he also had far more historical depth then those who came out of Harvard and Princeton. Through the course of the 60s and 70s, watching the downfall of logical positivism at the hands of Quine and Sellars, Rorty began putting pressure on his collegues in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language, calling into question their most basic premises. And then in the late 70s he wrote Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature which summarized the problems he saw in analytic philosophy both in the short view (by neatly showing the dialectical path of self-destruction in 50s and 60s philosophy) and the long view (how this path is part of a larger path stretching from Plato and Aristotle, though more particularly from Descartes to Kant). His acheivement was to not only dialectically tangle with those various positions that had arisen in the course of mid-20th century philosophy, but to also sketch a historical narrative that attempted to show the recurring folly the mode of logical positivism, and analytic philosophy generally during this period, kept repeating, something they had learned from their predecessors.
The position Rorty found himself in during the 70s was that of pragmatism. He took up its mantle and carried it forward, taking what he took to be advances in philosophy (by, for instance, Donald Davidson and Daniel Dennett) to show more of the same thing, the things James and Dewey were trying to show us. Three very general positions taken by pragmatism (or at least Rorty's version of it) can roughly be summed up by three slogans (culled from the titles of lectures he gave in Germany and France and published in Philosophy and Social Hope): "truth without correspondence", "a world without essence", and "ethics without principle".
If you take Philosophy 101 and you cover theories of truth, they'll usually describe three: the correspodence theory of truth, the coherence theory of truth, and the pragmatist theory of truth. The first says truth is what corresponds correctly to reality, the second that truth is what coheres best with everything else, and the third that truth is what works. None of those theories work (which is why many philosophers joke that adopting pragmatism will only cause you to reject it). The correspodence theory is roughly something we've had since Plato and the other two have been reactions to that default position of philosophical inquiry--that our statements need to cut through the appearances to the reality of a situation. The coherence theory is something that arose with idealists like Royce. It was also forwarded somewhat by Davidson early in his career. The pragmatist theory came about with Peirce, James, and Dewey's responses to Plato. Rorty's aligned himself with all of them through the course of the sixties and seventies, but by 1980 he had seen that what Davidson and the classical pragmatists should be seen as suggesting is not a theory of truth but the idea that "truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about." (CP, xiii)
The basic gist of this position is that if truth is correspondence to reality (a position sometimes called "representationalism"), then we need to have specific, definable criteria for determining when we've correctly connected up to reality. However, all we have as criteria are such pragmatic criteria as corroboration by evidence, coherence with other beliefs, efficiency of explanation, etc. None of these could tell us that we've correctly seen reality because history quite plainly shows us that our beliefs keep changing according to these criteria. Pragmatic criteria are good for justifying a belief, but not for telling us if it is universally and eternally true. Hence, pragmatists suggest that, though truth may be absolute, there's no sense in having a theory about it because all we'll be able to do is justify our beliefs.
What follows from this is the second slogan, "a world without essence". When one renounces the correspondence theory of truth, one also renounces the idea that there is an essence to reality (or any other particulate). The existence of essences are what produced the idea that we should correspond to them. So with the failure of correspondence, we should redescribe our situation without the use of essences. Rorty says that philosophers like James, Nietzsche, Putnam, and Foucault are "trying to shake off the influences of the peculiarly metaphysical dualisms which the Western philosophical tradition inherited from the Greeks: those between essence and accident, substance and property, and appearance and reality. They are trying to replace the world pictures constructed with the aid of these Greek oppositions with a picture of a flux of continually changing relations. One effect of this panrelationalism is that it lets us put aside the distinction between subject and object, between elements in human knowledge contributed by the mind and those contributed by the world, and thereby helps us put aside the correspondence theory of truth." (PSH, 47. This is the same panrelationalism I talked about with Pirsig and Pirsig also begins to show how the Eastern philosophical tradition can help us shrug these dualisms off, connections that Paul Turner has continued to make explicit, particularly here, here, and here.)
What philosophers need to shrug off is representationalism, the idea that knowledge is an accurate representation of the object. Pragmatists suggest redescribing knowledge in terms of power, "that a claim to know X is a claim to be able to do something with or to X, to put X into relation with something else." (PSH, 50) To be able to make this description stick, pragmatists also need to "break down the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic," (ibid.) between an intrinsic, nonrelational property of X (which is what makes it X) and an extrinsic, relational property that can change as much as it wants without affecting X (defined by its intrinsic essence). Pragmatists reject the notion of a nonrelational property on the basis that all attempts to get at this property are going to be ways of relating to it. "Everything that can serve as the term of a relation can be dissolved into another set of relations, and so on forever. There are, so to speak, relations all the way down, all the way up, and all the way out in every direction: you never reach something which is not just one more nexus of relations." (PSH, 53-4)
One of the most important areas that this pragmatism impacts is that of moral philosophy, which is what gives us "ethics without principles." Kant conceived of morality as different in kind from that of mere prudence. Prudence are those habits of action that are merely convenient, that arise in our interactions with others. Morality, however, is an area of intrinsic authority, giving us laws of action that must be obeyed. The attack on essentialism and representationalism, however, leaves us without any sense of being able to find these laws. Pragmatism thus breaks down the distinction between morality and prudence and leaves us with rules of thumb ranging from uncontroversial situations ("trust family more than strangers") to controversial ones ("treat others as you would have them treat you"). Morality ceases to be a law-finding enterprise and reasserts itself in the contingent web of relations that we find ourselves. It ceases to be the reflective exercise of finding a priori guides and strictures to action that Kant conceived of and becomes an exercise that must include history and anthropology and literature, the learning of how other people interact with each other to accumulate the experience and wisdom in dealing with different people in sometimes surprising circumstances. General, arid authoritative structures of action are out and living in the detailed, sloppy mess of life with other people is in.
Pragmatism suggests that we give up the attempt to find philosophical foundations for morality or knowledge. Such attempts at trying to undergird science or our human rights culture simply end in drained out principles that are no more universal than the details of life they were culled from. Life is increasingly complex and we can search for wisdom and guidance. It would make it all a lot easier if there was a book with the Meaning of Life inscribed in its pages that would tell us exactly what to do in which circumstances. This book is what Plato was after, but all the attempts to find it have failed because life keeps changing. Heraclitus was right, reality is flux. But it is exactly this flux and complexity that gives all the color and joy in life. If you knew everything that was going to happen, would life really be worth living, would it really be all that fun? The Platonic flight from complexity to simplicity, from surprise to knowingness, is the philosophical flight from the exorbitant richness of life to the austere metaphysical foundations of life, from the details of one's own life to the cloistered search for ascetic purity away from all the hubbub going on around you. Kierkegaard first made that connection between asceticism and the Greeks and Nietzsche rejected it in favor of effusive self-creation. Likewise, pragmatism rejects all those dualisms which naturally direct our attention towards ascetic purity and suggests that you just get on with life and do what you can and what you may. Asceticism can be useful, but it is no truer or better a life than any other.
Common book acronyms for Rorty
PMN -- Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
CP -- Consequences of Pragmatism
CIS -- Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
ORT -- Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth
EHO -- Essays on Heidegger and Others
AOC -- Acheiving Our Country
TP -- Truth and Progress
PSH -- Philosophy and Social Hope
Monday, May 22, 2006
Pirsig's first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, presents his "Quality thesis". This thesis has many sides, but it comes out of a reaction to the dominant subject/object distinction in post-Cartesian modern philosophy. Pirsig sees quite rightly that if we dissolve the dichotomy between the knowing subject and the known object that we end up with a play of values. Pirsig's way of getting there is to attack the Greek idea that our primary relationship to reality is one of knowing. Pirsig asserts, rather, that our primary relationship is one of valuing, and that everything else falls from there.
What this thesis ends up meaning from "there," however, is disputed to a certain extent. Some people are content to follow Pirsig in offering a broad, general onto-cosmological view of reality centered around the undefinable "Quality." I consider such views to be occasional poems with a determinate subject matter that are potentially beautiful, but generally shouldn't be taken too seriously. Because if they are taken seriously (as Pirsig and most of those who do write and enjoy such poetry), they turn back into the Platonic philosophy of knowing that Pirsig was trying to get rid of. When it comes to philosophical theses (of the kind that get bandied about in professional circles), Pirsig should be seen as only offering negative ones against a predominate image of philosophy--Subject-Object Metaphysics.
One of the theses that Pirsig presciently sides up with in ZMM and continues in Lila is that of historicism. Pirsig suggests that we are situated in history, in a continuing conversation with "ghosts of history" that produces what we call knowledge: "the building of analogues upon analogues upon analogues". In the cosmological poem to reality that Pirsig offers us in Lila, he adds an important nuance--the distinction between static and Dynamic. Our static patterns of value are broken by Dynamic Quality, those crazy new things that we sometimes just instinctively feel are better. If these crazy new things end up being better, then they leave behind in their wake new static patterns, which eventually become the new crust of convention that Pirsig, like Dewey before him, suggested we should always be ready to break through.
The importance of the connection between Pirsig's Quality thesis and his historicism is that the move from knowing to valuing moves us from essentialism to relationalism. No longer do we have objects with an essence that we can know. Instead, we have "objects" that are constituted by the layerings of value placed upon them. And since any "subject" doing the valuing is also a collection of these layers of placed value, we invite a kind of panrelationalism in which any "object," or "subject," or more generally, any "thing" we differentiate from any other "thing" is defined by its relations to every "thing" it's being differentiated from (including what's doing the differentiating).
This is why the static/Dynamic distinction becomes very helpful in Pirsig's later philosophy. All objects are static patterns of value of some kind. A static pattern of value is a repetitive way of valuing some "object," but since all there is to this "object" are those repetitive valuings, we call the locus of those valuings the "object" and name it, e.g., a "rock" or a "molecule" or an "electron." However, the relations between things change over time. Sex changed biology. The Greeks changed politics. The Romantics changed the way we create ourselves. All of those things changed the way things were previously done and are retrospectively viewed as progressive (namely because they allowed the other things after them to occur). But more importantly, we must become historicists after renouncing essentialism because essentialism held up the ideal of being rational by correctly identifying objects with particular amounts of intrinsic value. By rejecting essentialism, we reject the idea of intrinsic value and so reconstitute the process of valuing (and the rationality of it) as an historical process of advancing betterness. A break in the old patterns of valuing is defended, sometimes only retrospectively, by the betterness accrued in the new patterns, and betterness can only assessed by other old patterns being left in place. Eventually, it is theoretically possible that we may tear down so many of these old patterns that there are none left that we could identify with, essentially making us a new form of life. But as long as we can tell a story of progressive betterness, of how we got from there to here, we can be rational and avoid the charge of nihilism often attributed to those who deny essentialism.
There are a lot more facets to Pirsig's philosophy, and even more to his writings. But I take the above to be basic to the position in philosophical space that Pirsig occupies. While I don't think a whole lot cosmologically follows from the above, I do think think that it breaks down Plato as Pirsig wished to do.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
My disasterous penchant for buying anything with Rorty's name on it is, however, not why I'm writing. This particular paper is, to my mind, very good at bringing together those two disparate parties, pre- and post-linguistic turn philosophers. And, therefore, very good at making sense of how easily Pirsig can be brought into line with contemporary philosophers who, on the surface, seem to have little to do with his pursuits. So I'd like to pedantically summarize and quote extensively (yeah, more pedantic than usual) Rorty's paper so that its insights will be slightly more available.
Rorty opens up his paper very quickly by conceding that, yes, the pigeonholes "analyst" and "metaphysician" are overgeneral, but that "using them is no more unfair to one side than to the other." (39) He says that the metaphilosophical disagreements between the two camps is "usually conceived as centering around a disagreement about what method to pursue. My principal thesis in this paper will be that none of the familiar ways of characterizing such alternative methods are successful." What's more, Rorty says that he will argue that "it would be a mistake to say that analysts and metaphysicians have different subject-matters. It is, to my mind, wildly misleading to say that analytic philosophers take language as their subject-matter, whereas metaphysicians take nature or experience as theirs." The nice thing about this is that it tells us immediately that Rorty is about to sweep out of the way the prima facie objections of metaphysicians who think that analytics are obviously wrong because there is a lot more to life than language (echoes of which we can hear implicitly in Pirsig and explicit cries from most of his disciples) and the naive assumptions of early logical positivists who thought they had brand new, expensive hi-tech weapons to get rid of metaphysics. Both were wrong.
Rorty sets the stage for metaphilosophical confrontation by suggesting that "the only way of describing the subject-matter of either school which does not beg important metaphilosophical questions is to say that both take as their subject the various perplexities and paradoxes found in the philosophical tradition." We can see here Rorty's future position of identifying philosophy as the family romance, or the tradition of writing, from Plato to Descartes to Kant to etc. What's revealing in this old essay (as in his other old essays, where we hear other premature echoes) is the more specific why of the stance: it's to move the conversation along, it's a strategic move in a dialectical encounter, or rather one to produce a dialectical encounter. Here's Rorty at his best:
The aim of both schools is to find a set of truths which will resolve these perplexities and problems--truths which will have a maximum of intuitive plausibility and, taken together as a system, a maximum of theoretical elegance. In my view, the dialectical moves which are made in formulating and defending such truths are much the same on both sides of the fence. [For a further discussion with examples, e.g. Royce and Carnap, see Rorty's early paper "The Limits of Reductionism" (1961).] Among both analysts and metaphysicians, the ultimate criteria are set by a common aim--that of striking a proper balance between effectiveness (at resolving problems), plausibility, and elegance. The apparent differences of subject-matter and method are illusions created by the use of different jargons in which to formulate these dialectical moves. (39-40)
If one, for whatever reason, focuses on arugmentation in philosophy, I think one is led inevitably to a preoccupation with metaphilosophy and, eventually as one reads more and more philosophy, this kind of view. For whatever reason, I find myself drawn to metaphilosophy, probably because I find that the dance of arguments is the beauty of philosophy. Rorty was probably drawn to metaphilosophy because, in lieu of Platonic showing, which he had earlier abandoned as possible, the only way to establish Plato's dream was arguing for it. But it quickly became apparent that that wasn't so easily done either. (Sometimes I think those who are attracted to metaphilosophy are those who never want to lose an argument. Always wanting to win, or at the least never lose, will drive one to being familiar with arguments of all kinds and the various levels of arugments so that one is never caught off guard. This kind of pathology, of which I am no doubt susceptible, leads you to always try and stay one step ahead. Eventually, though, I think you figure out that there are no winners in philosophy qua argument, and so you become an expert at stalemate.)
The bulk of Rorty's paper is taken up by three things: 1) a three-fold division of philosophers into "critical", "speculative", and "empirical", 2) discussion of the distinction between "first-order" and "second-order" questions, and 3) the distinction between "solving" and "dissolving" problems. The first part, of course, is my favorite because I love pigeonholes, even ones that aren't (as Rorty says of this one).
By a "critical" philosopher I mean one who holds that philosophy is, in so far as it is a discipline in which argument and cooperative inquiry are possible, the attempt to dissolve all the traditional philosophical problems and thus to make the discipline of philosophy obsolete.
By a "speculative" philosopher I mean one who holds the negative thesis that philosophical inquiry should not be thought of as a pursuit of truths of the sort about which agreement can be reached by argument. On this view, philosophy is much more like poetry than like the sciences. We need not quibble about whether poetry aims at a special sort of truth, as long as we agre that the sort of truth at which it aims is not one about which argument is possible (except in a very diluted and Pickwickian sense of "argument"). On this view, philosophy does not aim at finding solutions to problems. Rather, it aims at finding new ways of seeing things through finding new ways of saying things
It is harder to specify what I intend by the term "empirical philosopher" but the following conditions will have to do: I shall call a philosopher empirical if:
1. He believes that there are procedures by which rational agreement can be reached on solutions to at least some of the traditional philosophical problems.
2. He defends this first belief by saying that (i) philosophy's method is either simply a description of what experience is like, or else a form of the hypothetico-deductive method exemplified by the empirical sciences: (ii) that philosophy is distinguished from these sciences either by (a) being concerned with a different sort of experience than that which supplies the premises for arguments in any other empirical discipline, or (b) having as its task the proposal of hypotheses of a greater generality than those produced by the empirical sciences. (40-1)
Oh, just lovely. So how do we put it to use? Well, Rorty tells us that it is designed to include all traditional metaphilosophical views, save two: rationalism (because nobody nowadays is a rationalist) and transcendentalism (because he's already gerrymandered the definition of "empirial philosophy" to include "whatever Kant is doing in the Transcendental Analytic and whatever Strawson is doing in Individuals."). Rorty suggests that this trichotomy is "a useful heuristic device for spotting difficulties in a philosopher's metaphilosophical views, and disharmonies between these views and his actual practice."
Thus the later Wittgenstein is professedly a critical philosopher, but his practice often makes him seem an empirical philosopher. Austin and Adler are professedly empirical philosophers, but their practice often makes them seem like critical philosophers. Santayana is a professedly speculative philosopher, but his practice often makes him seem an empirical philosopher. Heidegger sometimes talks as if he were an empirical philosopher and sometimes as if he were a speculative philosopher, but his practice is almost impossible to classify. Turning now to an application of these categories to the quarrel between the analysts and the metaphysicians, I think one has to say something like this: Analysts are, by and large, divided into professedly critical philosophers (like Wisdom, the early Carnap, and the early Bergmann) and professedly empirical philosophers (like Austin, Putnam, and Strawson). Nevertheless, one finds in the practice of all these philosophers a bent toward critical philosophy--in the sense that the test of success of the application of their empirical methods turns out to be the dissolution of certain traditional problems. Metaphysicians are, by and large, divided into professedly empirical philosophers and professedly speculative philosophers--into philosophers who have an explicit metaphilosophical view according to which some quasi-scientific procedure directed upon experience will produce philosophical truth, and philosophers who say "don't worry so much about decision-procedures and criteria, just try to find some way of expressing the nature of things, or some way of gaining wisdom." Nevertheless, one finds that a large proportion of the work of both sorts of metaphysicians consists in dissolving problems, in exposing the false presuppositions which have generated traditional problems--in short, in doing precisely the work the critical philosopher wants done. If these remarks accurately describe the contemporary situation, then the difficulty of my title question is clear. For if the analysts and the metaphysicians are, in practice, critical philosophers, and if neither school would whole-heartedly accept this description, then we need to find out why they would not, and, perhaps, wonder if something is wrong with our original trichotomy. (41-2)
One of the things that looks wrong with the distinctions is that "even if such post-positivistic analytic philosophers as Austin, Putnam, and Strawson are (in their explicit professions) neither critical nor speculative philosophers, they cannot be called empirical philosophers, since they deal with language rather than with experience, and pursue linguistic rather than empirical methods." Rorty thinks this looks wrong because "many linguistic philosophers and many critics of linguistic philosophy are still saddling themselves with an awkward and confusing pre-Quinian view" of the distinction between "questions of language" and "questions of fact." Rorty softens up this distinction by noting that "language is part of what we experience. It is not self-evident why consulting language should be opposed to turning to experience." (43) Rorty suggests that this opposition exists partly because analytic philosophers have relied on the analytic-synthetic distinction, but "it seems clear ... that it is a synthetic truth that certain sentences express analytic propositions. In other words, it is an empirical truth that the various expressions of our language exhibit the 'logical' relations to one another that they do." Rorty's point is that languages are grown by us mortal humans and that inspecting how words interact with each other, determining what they mean, is no less an empirical endeavor than seeing how fast a rock falls.
Despite this, and another point, Rorty says it is not "clear what relation such linguistic philosophers take to exist between hypotheses about the meaning ... of expressions on the one hand and solutions to traditional philosophical problems on the other. Prima facie, there is a great gulf fixed between a straightforwardly and explicitly empirical philosopher like Adler and a linguistic philosopher like Austin, and the gulf obviously has something to do with differing conceptions of the relevance of linguistics to philosophy." (43-4) This is where Rorty moves to the heart of what I take to be the irrelevance of a distinction of more than style between pre- and post-linguistic turn philosophers. It is summed up when Rorty wonders "what difference it makes whether we as 'What is the nature of x?' or "How do we use the word "x"?'"
There would be a difference if we were sometimes in a position to claim that we use the word "x" in such a way as to distort our conception of the nature of x, or to claim that more can be known about the nature of x than either language or science reveals. It is natural to suppose that metaphysicians are in such a position--for if they were not, why should they object to their analytic colleagues using the formal mode of speech?
On the utility of the linguistic turn, Rorty says it helps to "remind ourselves that there are no methods except attending to actual or possible linguistic behavior to decide questions about the nature of x, unless these questions can be settled by further data about the behavior of x's," that "the only poin to asking 'How do we use "x"?' is just to remind metaphysicians that they they have nowhere to turn to except to language." The question remains whether metaphysicians have an alternative method to offer. Rorty uses Mortimer Adler (of Hutchins School fame) as an example of a suggestion, that "philosophy is a 'non-investigative' empirical discipline dealing with 'common experience'". (45) Rorty, however, isn't sure the analyst would find anything here to disagree with and that we would need to know if I can "find out anything about x by consulting 'common experience' that I cannot find out by consulting the linguistic behavior of those who use the expression 'x'?" In trying to answer this question, Rorty turns to Adler's "tests of truth": "empirical truth, logical consistency, harmony between principles pertaining to theory and those pertaining to practice, and ability of philosophical principles to resolve questions arising out of scientific inquiry" (compare this set to Pirsig's in Lila, p. 113). But again, who would quarrel with that?
In lieu of a procedure for discovering the inaccuracy or problems with an account of x drawn from a description of the uses of "x", Rorty speculates that the metaphyscian's discomfort might be something like this: "There could be no quarrel, he might say, with the claim that we found the nature of x by finding out how 'x' was used if it were the case that accounts of the use of various expressions were always consistent with each other. But philosophical problems owe their origin precisely to the fact that our usage generates paradoxes, antinomies, and absurdities." Rorty thinks the analyst would reply that either 1) the perplexities don't really exist, but only appear to because of bad accounts of common usage (which better accounts of usage will clear up) or 2) the perplexities are real but we can eliminate them by linguistic reform, and that most will combine them with 3) "we do not yet know whether perplexity can be removed by better accounts of usage, but that if not, linguistic proposals are the only alternative. If these proposals amount to urging the adoption of a full-scale 'Ideal Language"--or, in older language, a metaphysical system--then so be it." (46)
Here is where Rorty puts all his cards on the table and everything becomes very clear.
Here again we seem to be at an impasse. The metaphysician regards the analyst's appropriation of the term "metaphysics" as merely perverse. The analyst asks why regarding metaphysical systems as so many proposals for the reform of language should be so disturbing. If, the analyst may say, you want to consider these proposals for different ways of speaking as discoveries about the world, go ahead. Just do not pretend that you have any criterion for such discoveries save the absence of paradoxes, antinomies, and absurdities from the language you suggest we use.
This, I think, says it all. If one has discarded all the bad junk, those horrible distinctions from the tradition, appearance/reality, subject/object, conditioned/unconditioned, differentiated/undifferentiated, analytic/synthetic, fact/value, then what does it matter if you talk about language or experience? What's more, what could decide in either favor if the non-existence of paradox is the only non-question begging criterion we have?
In Rorty's expansive introduction to his anthology The Linguistic Turn, Rorty puts it in similar, though slightly more aggressive terms. He asks metaphysicians, "If you were not making proposals for such an ideal language, what were you doing? Certainly you were not making empirical inquiries, nor deducing consequences from self-evident truths; so if not this, what?" (7-8)
If there is a single crucial fact which explains the contemporary popularity of linguistic philosophy, it is the inability of its opponents (so far, at any rate) to give a satisfactory answer to this question. It is no good saying that the great philosophers of the past were not interested in anything so piffling as language, but were interested instead in the nature of reality, unless we can get some clear idea of what it was they wanted to know about reality, and of how they would know that they had this knowledge once they had it. If one construes, for example, Spinoza's 'There is only one substance' as a proposal to stop talking about persons and physical objects in the ordinary (roughly, Aristotelian) way, and to start talking about them as dimly-seen aspects of a single atemporal being, a being which is both mental and physical, then one will have some criteria for evaluating his statement (which, unconstrued, strikes one as patently absurd). If one talks Spinozese, one will indeed be unable to state the propositions about minds and bodies which so worried the Cartesians, or the propositions about God's creation of the world which so worried the scholastics. Now it was precisely upon this that Spinoza prided himself--that the mind-body problem and problems about the relation between God and the world could not (or, at least, not very easily) be formulated in his system. It was this fact that made him confident that he had grasped the true nature of things. (8)
I think if we look at Pirsig, we see very similar things. Pirsig prides himself on his ability to dissolve problems of philosophy with his system. He thinks he has given us a new way to better understand situations like the hippies and ghetto violence and things like insanity and religion. But what is this new way if not a new set of categories or concepts, a new set of linguistic tools?
The rest of Rorty's paper consists of him wrestling with Adler a little while longer, and then James Cornman (over "solving" or "dissolving" philosophical problems). While interesting, they don't shed that much extra light over the previous stuff. I shall end with Rorty's conclusion, which is his short, unargued for suggestion about what the difference is between analysts and metaphysicians. And unlike earlier, where you could read metaphysician and analyst as simply pre- and post-linguistic turn pragmatists, like Pirsig and Dewey and Rorty and Putnam, here you'll want to read analyst as pragmatist and metaphysician as Platonist, as holding an appearance/reality distinction.
I shall conclude with an analysis which, though vague, seems to me at least less misleading than those I have been discussing. The difference has to do with wisdom. I think that analytic philosophers have in common the view that the pursuit of wisdom cannot be served by continuing the inquiries traditionally grouped together as "philosophy." Their examination of the history of philosophy leads them to think that philosophy is indeed, a tree from which all, or nearly all, the branches have fallen. They think that the answers to the questions they pose in the formal mode of speech, and the truths which are brought forward to show the falisty of the presuppositions of some or all philosophical problems, are not truths which will give us wisdom. At best, they will give us the sort of wisdom which Socrates had--the wisdom which consists in not being fooled any more. For the sort of wisdom which Plato sought, we must turn to the sciences, the arts, and, perhaps, to speculative philosophy--to philosophy as the articulation of a vision rather than the solution or the dissolution of problems. They tend to conceive of empirical philosophy as a propaedeutic to critical philosophy, and of critical philosophy as a propaedeutic either to speculative philosophy or to a post-philosophical culture.
Metaphysicians, on the other hand, believe that some species of empirical philosophy will bring us to truths which will offer us wisdom in Plato's sense. They believe that the visions of the speculative philosophers can be backed by argument, and that criteria exist for choosing between such visions. Metaphysicians keep the Platonic faith that argument can bring us to truth--truth about the ultimately important things. Analysts have lost this faith. They have not it (pace Adler, Gilson, Heidegger, Blanshard, and many others) because they have adopted a false epistemology or a false metaphysics. They have lost it because they have looked at the history of philosophy and at our culture and arrived at a judgment about how human life may best be enriched. I believe that their judgment is sound. But I do not know how to prove that it is.
This conclusion is an important marker in Rorty's corpus for a number of reasons. I think it brings together for the first time a number of themes that will become very common in Rorty's later writing. 1) I think it formulates for the first time the lines between pragmatists and Platonists/realists. 2) It defers Platonic wisdom to science (for predicting and controlling), the arts (for moral guidance), and to "speculative philosophers", i.e. strong poets. 3) It reconceives the philosopher in terms of Socrates' wisom: "not being fooled anymore". This is a theme that doesn't appear a lot, but one place it does is in "Philosophy in America Today" (in CP) where Rorty reconceives the model of the analytic philosopher, not on the scientist (as before) or the scholar (as in Europe), but on the lawyer. 4) It shows Rorty first coming to terms with the fact that, as he will later make much of, there is no way to argue between the pragmatist and realist (which recurs most reverberatingly in the Introduction to CP, at the end of "Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism" (also in CP), and in the beginning of CIS). Most interestingly to my mind, though, is seeing Rorty make an unconscious slip of projection. Maybe it was because he was young, merely in his mid-thirties, that caused Rorty to either misjudge or hope for the best of his colleagues. But either way, Rorty is sorely wrong to think that it is anglophone philosophers' "examination of the history of philosophy [that] leads them to think that philosophy is indeed, a tree from which all, or nearly all, the branches have fallen." That his analytic colleagues had "lost faith" because "they have looked at the history of philosophy and at our culture and arrived at a judgment about how human life may best be enriched." My bet is that Rorty, at the time, didn't quite realize at that point the extent of the relative historical illiteracy of his colleagues that he would later diagnose in them. "Lost faith"? That is definitely the Rorty we see in "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids" and in interviews, not the run-of-the-mill analytic philosophy professor. Rorty was definitely projecting his route to pragmatism on his colleagues, but who can blame him? He was young. And on the other hand, it may be a precursor to Rorty's famous "we's", his warm, cozy appellations of what "we pragmatists" or "we liberals" think.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
There is, of course, a very commonsense way in which biology and physics are talking about things that aren't just texts. But Kuhn helped us realize that understanding the movement of disciplines like physics through history is nearly impossible without actually looking at the interplay of different physical theories, different texts of physics. And then there are all the ways in which Quine, Sellars, and Davidson have helped us see that we cannot just pull off a description from an object, that such-and-such object is partly constituted by its descriptions, i.e. texts.
The recourse to traditions of writing also makes us wary about defining the distinctions between different traditions or genres of writing too squarely. By seeing texts as relationally defined between themselves, we may begin to see new ways of relationally defining them. For instance, Rorty's way of defining philosophy as "talk about Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Frege, Russell . . . and that lot." (CP, 92) Rorty's little list is written in a way to invite us to put in all the great philosophers, all the great intellectuals we traditionally call philosophers. Rorty, however, suggests that such a definition is almost entirely useless to put to use. To get a tradition to mean something a little more, you need to be a little more selective in who you include in the list. (As an exercise, try and get Augustine and Frege to comment on each other.) Not everybody is doing to same thing, commenting on the same line of texts. What's more, sometimes people are doing more than one thing at a time, and so the shape of, say, Kant's texts will change depending on who you place them in relation to. But who you place them in relation to will depend a lot on what you want to do.
Take the example of Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought. Rorty's book delineates a tradition of texts that we might call "epistemology". They are a series of texts that are defined by recourse to a certain problematic and to certain kinds of metaphors, specifically ocular and architectural ones. What Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Russell, Carnap, Ryle, Quine, and Fodor all have in common are a running commentary on the ones before them. And because this sequence looks the way it does, so does the commentary that ends up with Fodor look the way it does. It means that things in Plato and Aristotle that don't hook up with Quine and Fodor are overlooked, not because they are unimportant, but only because they are currently besides the point, they are part of genres outside the one currently being discussed and taken part of.
Rorty's purpose in drawing up that lineage was to cast doubt on the way in which current (early 20th century) Anglophone philosophy was being performed. The three dominant fields of philosophy were philosophy of mind, language, and science. Rorty saw that it wouldn't be enough to simply say that these three subjects were just wrong-headed, or pointless, or boring. He had tell a large story about why these subjects, and not others, arose and took their place at the center of what it meant to be a modern philosopher.
Neiman subtitles her book "An Alternative History of Philosophy". That is very important in seeing what Neiman is up to. She is offering an alternative canon of philosophers in delimiting her subject matter, in seeing what modern philosophy is up to. Instead of Rorty's "Plato to Fodor" canon we get "Leibniz, Bayle, Rousseau, Kant, Sade, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Camus, Arendt". Kant is in both canons, but he almost looks like entirely two different philosophers in the two books because of the different relations of texts Rorty and Neiman put him in. Neiman says in her introduction that
the picture of modern philosophy as centered in epistemology and driven by the desire to ground our representations is so tenacious that some philosophers are prepared to bite the bullet and declare the effort simply wasted. Rorty, for example, finds it easier to reject modern philosophy altogether than to reject the standard accounts of its history. His narrative is more polemical than most, but it's a polemical version of the story told in most philosophy departments in the second half of the twentieth century. (6)
I think Neiman is being a little unfair to Rorty, but I can forgive her because she's essentially right, not that Rorty rejects modern philosophy, but that he's recounting the standard story that most anglophone philosophers tell themselves. He recounts it the way he does specifically to show them that it doesn't end well for them. What Rorty, by his own admission, hasn't done entirely well (or at least as well as some others) is tell an alternative story of philosophy that gives philosophers something else to do. I think it's unfair to criticize Rorty on this point, of not offering an alternative account, for the same reason it would be unfair to criticize the forensic body specialist on (insert your favorite cop show here) for not single-handedly capturing the perpetrator. He played his part, not everybody is suited to do everything. We in fact can catch Neiman at cross-purposes with Rorty by turning over the book to the back cover where, for the 2004 paperback release, we see Rorty adding his praise to other luminaries as Jonathan Ree and Michael Walzer (2004 edition) and Clifford Geertz and Jerome Schneewind (2002 edition): "We badly need alternative histories of philosophy. The story told (by me, among others) cries out for supplementation.... Neiman's snazzy prose makes this book a pleasure to read, as well as an immensely welcome change from the sort of history of philosophy to which we Anglophones have become accustomed."
My point in this detour in examples is about the fluid nature of philosophy, let alone the wider panorama of "the written word." Not all contexts produce something interesting, but putting books into strange relations to other books can sometimes create something fruitful. Not all pieces of writing implicitly comment on Plato, but most produce something we might call wisdom and so can be placed in other traditions of wisdom literature, philosophy, traditions that we can create by situating the books together. All that is needed is a context and a persuasive reason for creating the context, some interesting insight produced by the pattern of texts placed beside each other. Genres of writing are created and all texts sit implicitly aside other texts and sometimes the mere act of writing can create a new genre, a new tradition of commentary.
If ever there were a word
That could capture the absurd
Way in which I feel about
That most vainglorious lout
We call Love, the High-Flying, Dusk-til-Dawn Bird
It would be "Danger" and "Dark" and "Stay-away-heart".
Nobody knows the damage that's done in its name,
But I hear on the winds the truth, like a swift dart,
That sometimes a pin-prick can light its great flame.
When we plunge unexpectedly into its center
We don't think for a moment about the tear-drop
That must be paid full attention, just like the necter.
I sometimes forget that I must never stop
Bowing and kow-towing
To the temple of spring.
Lighting its great fire,
As we shine and perspire,
Performing Love's ritual until she goes "Ding!"
Monday, May 15, 2006
The verification thesis turned out to be not only the central weapon of logical positivism, but also its Achilles heel. Combine it with the analytic/synthetic distinction that was also fundamental to logical positivism and you ended up with the awkward question of whether the verification thesis was itself analytic or synthetic, given by language or verifiable by experience. That question is what brought down logical positivism in its early, naive stage.
But then we get to Quine's attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction. The basic outcome of that attack was that language, rather than being something that could be canvassed a priori, was itself also experiential, synthetic as it were. This gave new breath to something like verificationism, such that it became not a thesis about checking language against something else, but a basic metaphilosophical position about being able to come up with criteria for confirming or disconfirming such-and-such thesis. This makes verifiability internal to a language game, rather than between a language game and reality.
Pirsig comes close to something like this kind of verificationism in the beginning of Lila (Chapter 8), but I think he halts at the doorsteps because he still holds to some kind of sense-data empiricism of the kind analytic philosophy had left behind after Quine. One way of enunciating the difference is by looking at Pirsig's desire to call Quality the "ultimate reality." What could possibly confirm or disconfirm the truth of "Quality is the ultimate reality"? The difficulty of metaphysics (defined as the search for ultimate reality) was that there never seems to be a way of shutting the skeptic up: "How do you know Quality is the ultimate reality?" Pirsig seems to think we can shut him up by pointing to the mystic and saying, "Ah, but he cuts through the appearances to reality." That the mystic confronts ultimate reality directly, and so can verify it experientially. But how do we know the mystic has confronted ultimate reality?
Once we move ultimate reality to the realm of experience, the realm of the verifiable, the most important question we need to ask is what should any of us do when confronted with a personal account of the direct confrontation of the ultimate reality? What are we supposed to think of them, and why?
For example, the other day my roommate and I were sitting around talking and she recounted a dream she had. She dreamt she was in a store somewhere holding three black objects and then she suddenly dropped them. Two days later she was at Target with her mother. Mom was buying three watches, each in a black case. She asked my roommate to hold on to them, and a minute later she dropped them—three black objects. She had a major case of déjà vu and I off-handedly commented that she was experiencing some precognition in her dream. She said, "Yeah…isn't it weird how sometimes you're really connected with these things. Sometimes you can be more with it and you start getting those things more." I smiled and she's like, "Ah, I'm guessing you're a non-believer." Yeah, pretty much.
But how am I supposed to receive first-hand accounts like that? Obviously my roommate is no mystic, but it was a personal experience of "something else" wasn't it? I told her that, though I don't believe for a second that she suffered from precognition, or you could be more "with it," more "connected," the one thing I couldn't do was tell her that she didn't experience it. I could only give her alternate explanations of what it was that she experienced.
But, again, how am I supposed to take those personal experiences? Are we to take any damn fool thing a person says seriously (assuming they say it sincerely)? This is what we might call the shibboleth problem. The story goes that one of the Israelite Judges, Jephthah, went to war and not all of the tribes went with him. Well, Jephthah won and when the tribes were coming home he wanted to weed out the ones who hadn't supported him. One of the tribes had trouble pronouncing the word "shibboleth." So Jephthah had everybody coming over the river say "shibboleth," and whoever said "sibboleth," as the one tribe would pronounce it, was killed.
So, because of the story, shibboleth has come to mean a "key word." To tell the real mystics from the fakers, or worse, the simply wrong, we need to be able to tell if they are saying "shibboleth" or not. The problem isn't whether they are saying "shibboleth," whether they are, in fact, real mystics, the problem is how would we ever know if they were? How can we tell the Buddhas from the Call-In Cleos?
The only answer I can figure is through conversation, but the end result of that answer means that the only way we can tell a real mystic from someone who hasn't penetrated appearance to reality is by behavior, by the mystic behaving in accordance to established canons of experience, canons built by the success of earlier mystical sayings, which means that they must be behaving according to the conventions of an established tradition, a tradition that would deem them a mystic. The end result of this line, I think, is that the only practical thing that matters, then, isn't whether there was any penetration to reality or not, but the results of the conversation itself. The conversation is what matters, the inquiry is what matters, not whether we say that they penetrated beyond appearances.
This is the fruit of verificationism. It means that a tradition of discourse is what contains the routes of confirmation and disconfirmation for a proposition. Verificationism is still, in the hands of pragmatists rather than positivits, a weapon for destroying metaphysics. As Rorty says, "that is, pragmatists think our inability to say what would count as confirming and disconfirming a given solution to a problem is a reason for setting the problem aside." (CP, xxiii) The trick is to de-transcendentalize metaphysics, to take the appearance/reality distinction out of metaphysics and so make traditions, be them science, art, or morality, attempts to cope with experience. What counts as successful coping is determined internally to the tradition. This reconstitutes the traditions as Pirsig wanted, but leaves aside questions of "ultimate reality". If we can't tell whether they are saying shibboleth or not by any of the lights we have available, then it probably isn't worth thinking about.
As a word, "occasionally" is ambiguous. Typically nowadays, it is used to mean "every once and a while." But the root of the word is much more specific than that. An "occasion" is a specific time period, and not just a time period, but an event, denoting activity and action. So, if you say, "I have a glass of wine on occasion," it is ambiguous between "I drink wine every so often" and "I drink wine for certain events." An "occasional piece of writing," however, shouldn't be confused with "every so often I write something." To say that this is an occasional piece is to say that I've taken the occasion to put into words something meaningful and prescient.
The occasion at hand is Valentine's Day, the day of love and expression. Certainly it will seem an obvious choice to take the occasion to express myself in the appropriate manner, but neither should that dampen the intention or the sentiment. Many people argue that Valentine's Day should be like any other day, or rather, every day should be like Valentine's Day. That we should take every day to rejoice in our love for another and not just limit ourselves to the hand full of sanctioned days of the year. I tend to agree, but again, that shouldn't prohibit us from taking certain days as extraordinary events, days upon which we can take on a certain Herculean task of egregious and exceptional performance. If everyday were Valentine's Day, if Valentine's Day was the norm, how would we notice particular feats of bountiful fancy? Valentine's Day should be neither anomalous nor irregular, but it should be fantastic and exorbitant.
This particular Valentine's Day has me in a particularly ecstatic state. It's been a long time since I've felt the pang's fervent ardor and passionate zeal. Love is like a harvest that grows in your heart. Even with the best of intentions it may not germinate. If you have the wrong seed or there's terrible weather, the scant chance we all have for real love is seen as the slim possibility it is for most. The sheer face of contingency shows us how lucky we are, and need to be. Finding love is like slash-and-burn farming—sometimes it's best to give up on what you have to find what you really want. And like the great African savannas, we learn that the heart sometimes grows best after a good burn. And that's where I find myself, cultivating an eminent seed in the growing pasture of my heart.
For me, this Valentine's Day more resembles Thanksgiving. I thank God and the Fates for my lavish harvest and I will forever be in their debt. You are a convalescent wind, tearing away the pain and anxiety. You are an incandescent sun of ebullient spirit, burning away the last vestiges of dread and sorrow, obliterating them in a conflagration of effervescent rapture. But more than all of that, you are my daimōn, my muse, my gateway to Eros, the plane of existence we hear fables of from enlightened and benighted fools who risk all for everything.
I'm in love.
Sweetly and sincerely,
There's one scholastic problem, of course, with simply identifying SOM with Cartesianism and that's Pirsig's ZMM tracing of the problem to the Greeks. If you look into the historical studies on the subject, they'll usually tell you that there were some significant changes between the two time periods, typically something like the ascendancy of epistemology in Descartes. I think what can be said, though, is that there are a whole host of problems born of errant distinctions and that many of these distinctions orbit each other. If you start with any one of them in a particular orbit, you'll more than likely get weighed down with the others. It is certainly apparent to me that Pirsig shunts a whole host of distinctions under SOM's canopy and his narrative extending back to the Greeks simply helps show how Descartes and his problematic were still working in Greek shadows.
To help see this, I would suggest looking at the way Pirsig lines up Truth and dialectic on one side and the Good and rhetoric on the other. Pirsig's analysis of Plato, I think, is dead on. He says that Plato ostensibly sets the Good as the highest Form, as the highest principle in his system. But if you look closer, the highest principle is subservient to the dialectic because the dialectic is how the Good is discovered. Dialectic, or Method, attains priority over the Good. I would suggest that this analysis gives us the first suggestion that epistemology must have priority over metaphysics, though this became apparent (or at least pressing) to philosophers only after Descartes. I think the historical reasons for this, and its run up to contemporary times, are excellently given by Stephen Toulmin in his Cosmopolis. This passage from the end should have no small amount of resonance with Pirsigians:
Throughout history, the development of philosophy has displayed a sequence of pendulum swings between two rival agendas. On one agenda, the task of philosophy is to analyze all subjects in wholly general terms; on the other, it is to give as general an account as the nature of the field allows. Theoretically minded Platonists speculate freely, framing broad generalizations about human knowledge; practical-minded Aristotelians hesitate to claim universality in advance of actual experience. So read, the move from 16th-century humanism to 17th-century exact science was a swing from the practical, Aristotelian agenda, to a Platonist agenda, aimed at theorectical answers. The dream of 17th-century philosophy and science was Plato's demand for episteme, or theoretical grasp: the facts of 20th-century science and philosophy rest on Aristotle's phronesis, or practical wisdom. When Wittgenstein and Rorty argue that philosophy today is at "the end of the road", they are overdramatizing the situation. The present state of the subject marks the return from a theory-centered conception, dominated by a concern for stability and rigor, to a renewed acceptance of practice, which requires us to adapt action to the special demands of particular occasions.One thing I wish Pirsig would have done was distinguish more sharply between the various problems that were included in his SOM. I think his neglect to do so leads him to conflate materialism (an ontological thesis) with epistemology in a less than helpful way. I think this conflation is what leads him to say, fallaciously, that any philosopher worth his salt forwarded seriously the thesis that values are not real. The materialism comes out when Pirsig identifies objects with the material realm and subjects with the apparitions in our minds. It is only combining this thesis, that the world is nothing but corpuscles bouncing in a void, with the episteomological distinction between objectivity and subjectivity that we get the absurd claim that rocks are real, but our desire for ice cream is not. I don't think any of the great Western philosophers have ever tendered such a suggestion, though vulgar, commonsensical manglings of the great philosophers may generate such a position. But we should be a bit more sophisticated than that. The two are obviously connected in important ways, but not in the way that Pirsig claims. Pirsig aims this charge at the logical positivists and I think this is why Galen Strawson, who should otherwise have at least picked up from his dad, P.F. Strawson, a thing or two about Kantian philosophy and the persuasiveness of a paradigm of thought, says that SOM is a strawman. The positivists claimed that values were cognitively meaningless, which leads to emotivism, not unreal and there is big difference.
I would maintain, then, that the road to modern philosophy (and Descartes in particular) was begun by Plato's attempt to combine Euclid's geometrical method with Socrates' conversational style, or to put it another way, as Rorty says, his attempt to combine the Greek's love of argumentation with their love of wisdom. ("Philosophy as a Kind of Writing") The earlier Greek philosophers had taken the first tentative steps by attempting to assert what was really going on behind the appearences (which Parmenides made explicit). But Plato took the decisive step by arguing that we needed something to decide between all these competing hypotheses. Plato's alteration of Socrates' dialectic (the elenchus) from a searching conversation between several people into a method by which Truth is ascertained was the push needed to solidify Method's grip over philosophy, taking us down the path towards epistemological priority. It only stalled in the bed because Aristotle's philosophy, with its emphasis on practical wisdom, took hold of the Romans' minds, before all of it tumbled into obscurity for a thousand years.
The rise of Descartes marked the rise epistemology. Richard Popkin argues that Descartes, like Plato before him, was involved in a program of cooptation. The patriarch of Renaissance philosophy was Montaigne. He exemplified the skeptical tradition of Pyrrho that had blended with Aristotle's philosophy. Descartes took this skepticism and pushed it towards his own ends. By coopting something like the skeptical devices used by these earlier philosophers, Descartes tried to say something positive. He used it as a method to reach his Archimedean foundation. The actual skeptics during this time were outraged that Descartes would call his philosophy "skeptical." Pyrrhonian skepticism doesn't say anything positive, it only provides the negative point that maybe we shouldn't be trying to say those positive things. They vigorously attacked Descartes, but to no avail. As Toulmin likes to say, "Descartes' coup d'etat" was complete and his program of philosophy captured the imaginations of European intellectuals.
Between Descartes and Locke, modern philosophy saw the rise of what Quine calls the "idea idea," the idea that we have ideas over here in the mind and the material world out there. This was the first step towards divorcing man from the world, observer from the observed, subject from object. Rorty suggests that, if we accept Descartes' representational problematic (as opposed to sticking to Berkeley's dictum "ideas can only represent other ideas"), modern philosophy can be seen as a series of attempts at trying to get the subject and object back together. This is why Pirsig can be seen to have so many prima facie similarities with 19th century philosophers (particularly Hegel), because the "subject/object" idiom was in vogue after Kant put his stamp on philosophy.
However, this idiom never really took that strong a hold in Britain. The beginning of the divorce between Anglophone philosophy and Continental, Franco-German philosophy was with the rise of linguistic philosophy. The triumph of Russell over Anglo-American philosophy was matched by Husserl's triumph over Continental. In the subsequent decades, analytic philosophers began focusing more and more on matters that were dry and remote, stuff that simply seemed "academic" to laypeople, talk about predication, modal logic, etc. It didn't have the world-historical verve and romance that Kant and Hegel gave to Continental philosophy, which continued in mutated form the subject/object idiom. But despite these superficial differences, both idioms have held to an essentially Cartesian picture of philosophy. Some philosophers like Rorty, Robert Brandom, Samuel Wheeler, and Henry Staten among others in the late 20th century, have been able to transcend the differences in idioms and show how paradigmatic philosophers like Donald Davidson and Jacques Derrida are making essentially the same points.
I think by the end of this story we can begin to see why Pirsig's SOM raised so many hackles. I would contend that SOM is the product of Plato and Descartes, but it is the divergence in philosophy since Kant (either towards Hegel or towards Frege) that tells us something about the reception of Pirsig's philosophy. Pirsig is reacting to the logical positivists, a camp of Anglophone philosophers (despite the most famous ones being German), but he assigns the problem dramatic importance, which is entirely Continental in demeaner. This is why we get Galen Strawson going, "What the hell are you talking about?" Its not that SOM as a target misses its mark, or is completely incoherent, its that analytic philosophers can't imagine why Pirsig talks about it like its a world-historical conspiracy. Foucault and other Continental philosophers, however, might have been perfectly happy with the kind of spin Pirsig puts on the story.
In a qualified sense, I think SOM is just another name for Cartesianism, but I also think its just another name for Platonism and Kantianism. The reason is that I think SOM is just one more signifier for a tradition that stretches from the beginning of philosophy to our current stage. The original battle lines were drawn between rhetoric and dialectic, and though the battles have changed over the years, essentially the same war is being fought. One of the great facets about intellectual history is that at every stage in the sequence, we always find a Sophist, or Pyrrhonian skeptic, or pragmatist to counter the Platonist, Cartesian, or Kantian.
Friday, May 12, 2006
“It was . . . sweet.”
It wasn’t that he couldn’t think of any other words to describe what had happened, occurred, what she’d done. He was like a thesaurus in most cases, capable of proliferating words until ears ached or eyes strained. The verbiage he could’ve spilled in describing that moment, that shared moment, that point at which their perilous gap had been timidly closed, would have been enormous indeed were it not for the fact that the entire exercise would’ve hidden more than it exposed, obscured more than it revealed, destroyed more than it created. What had transpired, no single word could capture, and that was the point. And if no single word, then no armada of words from a thousand languages could succeed in a mission doomed to failure. She’d launched them, but never would they land.
It was his fate to never be able to recapitulate the event with any sort of personal satisfaction, but such was the fate of any who would attempt to frame, capture, and kill that which is so purely an action, so perfectly sublime. It was forever burnt into his memory, etched onto stone, like molten rock having cooled, but it would never be static, forever happening, never happened, always white hot. It was an image, living and dynamic, and had no cognitive expression, no discursive modality. It was beyond the pale. It was metaphor made flesh. It was cause for everything, but reason for none.
2 + 2 = 5
“In what world does this happen?”
At some point there had been a miscommunication. Well, no … not miscommunication, more like … total nerve fry. At some point there must have been a blackout, a total loss of consciousness. Several times perhaps. That’s the only way you can explain waking up one day with two contradictory sets of beliefs and desires. One day you’re fine, you’re coherent, you make sense. The next day its as if there’s an extra person living in your head, like you’ve been living two lives and you didn’t notice till now.
He had no idea what world this was. Leibniz was of no help to him here. He found Arouet laughing at him, pointing out the folly of his wishes, but now the playful philosophe, outflanking both the German and the austere Jean-Jacques, showed him how in this world it is best not to be serious lest you get caught with your car in park. All assumptions had been overturned, all axioms left invalidated, all premises shown as question-begging. Reason had fled along with his jacket. When everything is turned upside-down, there is only one thing left to do:
From Solitude to Loneliness
“Where are you going?”
Sometimes he didn’t know why he bothered. Well, he did know. It was just that—it never seemed real, it always seemed … forced. But even so, he always ended up alone. Solitude isn’t something that happens very much anymore. We’re surrounded by connections to people, cars that get us places, cell phones to call friends while hanging out with other friends, ICQ to type to people while talking to other people about which way you want to go to get to still more people. They say people are losing religion in the modern age because belief in God is irrational or incoherent or stupid or whatever. That’s not why people don’t go to church anymore. They don’t go because you can’t pray while text messaging. Whitehead said that religion is what we do with our aloneness, but if we are never alone, if you are always with other people, how can you get religion?
The irony of modernity is that we are never alone, but more and more we are lonely. We have more connections to people, but they have no depth. We end up being more alone with more people. The one thing he hadn’t had for a long time was solitude. He’d always enjoyed his solitude, but for a long time he wasn’t allowed. Then when he was allowed, it fled again and was replaced by a profound loneliness, a deep anxiety that happens late at night two inches away from another.
She had used him.---------------/-------------------He had used her.
It didn’t make any difference at this point, time having passed by on its way forward and the effects having set themselves in stone,
but he felt as though he was----/----but she felt as though she was
being excoriated and denounced for something, some action,
he didn’t do. It’s the worst-----/--------she didn't do. It's the worst
feeling in the world to be tagged with something that is so completely and utterly beyond your control. That's what had happened, and what other description could there be? But
part of playing the game is that/--it really ticked her off this time.
sometimes you have to bite the/-Over and over again it happened.
bullet. But she should know----/He had been so nice, so sweet, and
better; this pill was too bitter--/-and now it all comes out, it all was
If you reflect too long, become ironic, lose your own perspective for too long, you begin to lose control of your feelings. Maybe not control, but the feelings themselves begin to recede and vanish.
He’d always thought anger a----/-----------Her own anger had been
poor emotion, one that failed in/-------displaced for too long by an
anything constructive. It was--/---emotional impotence, a strange
divisive and cut too much of---/--helplessness that had festered in
the heart, leaving a cavity.----/-----the voided cavity in her heart.
And it was the heart that was ailing, the heart that demanded the most help, the most healing. A strange happening in the dark.
Anger has its moments, but----/------Anger was a friend to her, an
now anger certainly wasn’t----/explosive shock to the system, be
something he could afford, not/--it hers or someone else's. When
with her, not with the way she/she thought about him, she became
was right now. This was all----/-angry, but she wasn't certain why.
unfair, but he wasn’t quite----/---But this was all clearly unfair and
clear on who it was more-----/she certainly didn't want any part of
unfair to. One thing he was---/--it. The more she thought about it,
adamant about though, she--/------the more it burned her up. She
wasn’t a surrogate, Goddamnit.
He knew they couldn't be together.
He wasn’t stupid. He was very well grounded, aware, and self-conscious. His instincts weren’t typically too far off the mark, though he rarely listened to them, and his instincts told him to run, get away, blot the whole thing out of his mind. He could do that, he was good at that. He had always taken Nietzsche to heart and had often used self-conditioning as a sedative to the ill-advised. But Nietzsche had also warned that such Freudian sublimation could come back and haunt you in a perverted, skeksified form. Pseudo-Dionysus is an awful bitch to have sneaking up behind you, bubbling just beneath the surface so that, by the time you notice her, it’s over.
What did him in was boredom, a cold knowingness that ran through his life. He knew where he was going, he knew how he was going to get there, he took everything in stride. Everything simply became shrift for his mill. Emotion, passion, the black horse of Id, had fled and been replaced by a disciplinatrix, someone who demanded his desires and directed his attention. He wasn’t inspired by anything anymore, but he was too young to not be inspired by anything. The meaning of life is not inspiring. Inspiration is the journey towards that meaning. Once you know it, the game is over, you can sit back and relax. Except youth is the exact opposite of relaxation and relaxation is the exact opposite of desire. Without inspiration there is no desire and no desire means no passion which means no purposeful action: there is only inertia. There is no push and pull beyond the gates of knowingness, and youth notoriously cannot sit still. So rise the bitch did rise, and welcome her with open arms did he.
Therapy of Desire
There was nothing left for him here.
A twitching eye was a sure sign of stress. That and his hand wouldn’t stop shaking. Granted, a lot of that probably had to do with the coffee. Twenty ounces is a lot for one hour. But he had to stay awake…. He’d lost some weight, but that didn’t concern him. He couldn’t see through the saltwater hemorrhaging from his eyes, but again, that isn’t what phased him. What worried him was that he was going insane.
Not insane—mad. Insanity is something they lock you away in an asylum for. It’s when the world you are living in doesn’t match up with the world that everyone else is living in. Madness, on the other hand, is something that you are driven to. Unlike insanity, you don’t just silently drift into madness. You explode into it, an intense, slavering growl that reverberates straight through you. Etymologically, insanity is simply the inverse of sanity, but madness—it bespeaks dispossession. When you go mad, you are completely conscious of your madness, but there is nothing you can do about it. Your cognitive functions are not yours to control anymore. All you seek is an end to the pain because only pain can drive you mad. A simple disagreement about the nature of reality doesn’t drive you mad. Only the pain of being caught jealous for no reason will drive you mad. You can only be jealous if you possess and when you are left standing with no heart at all, it kills not from loss of blood, but loss of feeling.
It’s weird, but events never make any sense when they first happen. When something is occurring, it just blows by you, you’re in the moment and its difficult to think, let alone hold on for the ride. It’s only later, while picking through the rubble, that you can piece together some semblance of a narrative, some story that doesn’t have random characters popping up every five seconds. But there are so many stories to tell, so many characters, and so, so much rubble. How to choose which one? What gets left in, what gets left out, what gets smudged?
When you have creative duties thrust upon you it’s sometimes difficult to make initial choices. So you try to use the widest brush with the largest canvas. You paint thin so as to make the most of your limited supplies. But later you realize that depth and detail is what you want, but thin is all you have, so you have to go back and paint over the gray with gray. When you change the prescription of your glasses, sometimes it isn’t to have more accurate vision, but better vision.