Thursday, March 30, 2006

Pirsig, Baggini, and the First Rule of Philosophy

The first rule of philosophy is to keep the conversation going.

Socrates was told by the oracle that he was the wisest in Athens. Socrates had no idea why the oracle would say such a thing because he knew nothing. So he spent his days wandering Greece to prove the oracle wrong by engaging others who thought they were wise. Socrates marked the beginning of philosophy and we live in his image and by his example. Without the conversation, there is only the dogmatism of those who think themselves wise.

It would appear that in Julian Baggini's interview with Pirsig that the conversation did indeed break down and founder. I'm not entirely sure why it did. But the thing that struck me the most about the interview was Pirsig's certainty about his own wisdom. For instance, his specious contrast between "one who only tries to explain a few things and succeeds or one who tries to explain everything and succeeds." Of course more is better than less, but success is exactly what is at issue. If it is indeed wisdom is exactly what is attempting to be determined. And the only way to make strides is to keep the conversation going, to keep searching, to always be questioning.

The central problem that Pirsig raises in Lila is how we are to tell Dynamic Quality from degeneracy. He never answers the question, nor should he because there is no general way to tell. You just experiment and find out. I would think that the only way we could tell is if static latching occured, that is, looking back at our past from where we are now. One of the ways in which we use "DQ" is as a compliment. Calling something "Dynamic" is either an empty compliment about something currently being experimented with (empty because there's still no way to tell whether the experiment will be degenerate or Dynamic, though the only reason you're experimenting is because you indeed think it will succeed, but of course everyone knows that you think so already, for why else would people experiment?) or a full compliment paid to something in the past, something that was Dynamic, but is now the static patterns it left behind. Static latching is what gives you a defensible sense of success, else you'd just have a baseless opinion which might be either superiority or degeneracy. This means that Pirsig's already some ways into the conversation, or else Pirsig (and we) would have very bad opinions indeed.

Kant said that you can't learn philosophy, you can only learn how to philosophize. Philosophy is an activity. Pirsig brings that out well when he says in the introduction to Lila's Child that philosophy is like chess and "real chess is the game you play with your neighbor." Some of those neighbors we play against, of course, are those who are no longer alive, those great masters of the tradition. We cut our teeth on their books, we engage them to learn how to philosophize, we engage them to steal their wisdom. Baggini's interview brings out strongly Pirsig's desire to not engage with those of the past, but it also shows him not really engaging with those of the present, like Baggini. Pirsig's sometimes refusal to enter the "Western conversation" isn't really to be explained by some specious contrast between Pirsig's Dynamism and the Western tradition's staticness, between philosophy and philosophology. I think its to be explained by Pirsig's incarnation of rugged, American hyperindividualism, which toes along the fear of being influenced.

Pirsig's desire to ignore other philosophers, other chess partners, is tied into the anxiety of influence, Pirsig's unwillingness to see himself in anybody else's eyes. But unlike strong poets like Socrates, Nietzsche, and Hegel, Pirsig's tactic sometimes seems more like closing his eyes then staring down his predecessors and saying with Nietzsche, "Thus I willed it." Pirsig does indeed want to be original and, like Nietzsche, not owe it to anybody, but without engaging in the conversation, how are we to know if it is indeed wisdom? Wisdom arises through the conversation, not outside of it.

What I think we see in the interview is the playing out of static and Dynamic as they are instantiated in intellectual virtues: focus and curiosity. When we focus on one thing we are following through as far as possible on a single idea or subject. We are focusing our attention, like Phaedrus' laser beam cutting through the darkness. But curiosity is what keeps us on our toes. Curiosity is the virtue of the fallible conversant, always engaging others in the hopes of finding something better than they already have. Curiosity is what led Pirsig from chemistry to philosophy and then to Benares. Focus is what led Pirsig from Montana to the University of Chicago, where he chides himself on not learning more than he could of because of his obsession with his own Quality thesis. As Pirsig says in the interview, both static and Dynamic are absolutely essential. A balance is needed between focus and curiosity.

In philosophy, you always need to keep the conversation going. Without the conversation, we'll all just sit around with our own little ideas of what is good and right. Philosophy is indeed an individual's activity as Pirsig says. Every individual is a collection of beliefs and attitudes and it is the activity of philosophy that causes them to clash to see which ones are best. But because of philosophy's high level of abstraction, it is fairly easy (given time and ingenuity) to build a fairly impregnable fortress. Philosophy is the game of changing the rules, of questioning everything. When you do philosophy, potentially everything is up for grabs. The question then becomes, is the fortress you've built useful? Does it constitute wisdom?

That is why the conversation must always be kept going. If Pirsig's right in saying that "the best way to examine the contents of various philosophological carts is first to figure out what you believe," then we really are solipsistic monads if not for the conversation with other philosophers. The game of philosophy demands that we keep building bridges between each of our fortresses, all the fortresses that have been built throughout history. Good philosophy is performed when we both focus on ourselves and are curious about others.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Cult Followers and Free Thinkers

One of the things that comes up more than a little in relation to people attracted Pirsig, particularly when they find themselves at, is that Pirsig's philosophy is a little cultish, or that the people surrounding it are little more than a cult. Actually, that's kinda' what happens around any genius from any discipline, but I imagine Pirsig gets it in part because ZMM is sometimes filed under the "New Age" section of the bookstore. But Pirsig's philosophy, however, is built around the Individual's search for Quality. "And what is good, Phaedrus--should we ask anyone these things?" Pirsig links his notion of Dynamic Quality with the notion of freedom. One of the uses to which Pirsig's vocabulary is sometimes put to use is by saying, "You're thinking Dynamically" or "statically". In what follows, I'd like to redescribe what it means to be a Dynamic or static thinker in terms of the notions of a "free thinker" and cult follower, but in such a way as it avoids the SOMic assumptions built into them.

A "freethinker" was an appellation atheists used for a time a while ago (and still do, sort of). A polemical title, the idea was spawned by Enlightenment secularists who thought that belief in God was a prejudice, or worse a superstition, that precluded rational thought, much like the Marxist idea of ideology as being a blanket that blocks light. If one threw off this blanket, then one would be able to use the cool light of reason to properly judge this or that. This conception of reason is what Pirsig was trying to reform or displace in ZMM. Pirsig's reversal of the Platonic hierarchy in ZMM, so that dialectic comes out of rhetoric, is followed up by his vision of a person being a set of static patterns. Any Enlightenment-style dichotomy between unconstrained thinking and constrained thinking is spurious because thinking and reasoning can only occur against a backdrop of, roughly, thoughts and reasons (though more appropriately for Pirsig, judgements). There is no empty monad, like the transcendental Subject (which the existentialists picked up and ran with), that looks around at the available options and picks the best one (Iris Murdoch does a wonderful job of attacking this picture in her The Sovereignty of Good). Rather, a held-in-place set of intellectual patterns judges other possible patterns for inclusion.

This means, then, that we need a new conception of what it means to be a "free thinker". Surely there's something that's different between people, between, say, fundamentalists and intellectuals? One thing I think Pirsig is misleading about is that I think he says that some static patterns are freer than others. I think this is a mistake. When it comes to patterns within a level, I think they are all as static as any other. (I think Pirsig gives this impression because he oscillates between saying that some static patterns are freer than others and that some static patterns lead to more freedom, but this second sense of freedom is the more commonsensical notion of political freedom, while the former is the more ontological kind.)

If we look at intellectual patterns, we can take two views of them. From a first-person point of view, you can say that we hold static patterns, but it is also just as true that the patterns hold us. For a pattern to be "freer" than another is to say that you could let it go easier than another. But could you say you really held it then, or that it held you, that you really believed it? After all, how free, in this sense, are we to let go of the static pattern we call "Pirsig's philosophy"? We are drawn to it, it holds us just as much as we hold it. With all his talk about "care", I don't think Pirsig is talking about patterns that you can't hold on to. I think he's just talking about patterns that enable you to consider more better patterns than others (I think this is where his example of communism and capitalism comes in, which I still think is misleading and muddy at best). Static patterns enable lines of thought, they enable what you can consider to be good or bad, better or worse. What we want, though, is to get the best patterns. How do you know if you have the best patterns or whether there is something better out there? How do you know whether its their theism or your atheism that's constraining, that's worse?

Those are epistemological quesitons and I don't think they have answers. But those are the answers you have to come up with if you hold Enlightenment-style dichotomies between reason and superstition, rational thought and prejudiced thought. You won't ever know with any epistemic certainty whether you have the best beliefs or ideas or arguments or patterns. Reflecting on epistemology won't help you decide which of your beliefs are bad. But if you are bugged about whether you have the best ones or not, then there is something practical you can do: sift through a lot of alternatives, what Rorty called being an "ironist". I think being a free thinker means having a lot of intellectual curiosity, not being content with what you currently believe, being restless in trying to expand your range of knowledge and acquaintance. Being a free thinker means trying to get inside the heads of other people and trying to figure out how they think, in the hopes of finding something that maybe'll fit in your head.

This leads to the opposite, the cult follower. I remember when I was in Sunday School as a high schooler, my teacher described to us what it means to be in a cult. He said that we are all in cults. Being in band, being a cheerleader, on the baseball team, going to church, the Math Group, Forensics Squad, your group of friends--those are all cults in the sense that some people do it, others don't, some are included, others excluded. This loosened up the way we think about cults--cult behavior could happen in any group you're in. What keeps you from actually being in a cult, from displaying cult behavior, is being in lots of cults, lots of groups. I think this fits in somewhat with the above free thinker conception. A free thinker is someone who has a broad range of interests and groups and a cult follower is someone who doesn't. This is what the worst of theists and atheists are. They don't have any curiosity. Intellectually, this can be death (though not necessarily).

This leads me to my redescription of Dynamic Quality and static patterns. To follow Dynamic Quality intellectually means to always be expanding your range of intellectual acquaintance. To be static is to not be curious. But there is a balance between the two. We aren't always going to be curious about everything. There's only so much one can do. And what enables you to follow Dynamic Quality in one area, what allows you to judge different ideas, is keeping another area in the background stable, static. Wilfrid Sellars said that science was just that sort of thing that could put any claim in jeopardy--just not all at once. When repairing Neurath's Ship, we can't pull up all the planks at once. I think this is exactly the sentiment Pirsig was after when he said science had a built-in eraser--though, one should add, you don't erase everything all at once. You work with the page you are given. We can't be Dynamic about everything without falling into chaos and not being able to judge--that's what the moral paralysis Pirsig talked about is. And neither can we simply rest with the patterns we were born with--well, we can, but there is something wrong with someone who calls themself an intellectual who does. I would think an intellectual is necessarily someone who is curious, who is interested in expanding the set of alternatives he has currently available to acheive the best possible set of intellectual static patterns--which is, incidently, another way of saying being the best possible person you can be. A good person.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Pirsig, Ad Hominems, and the Three Rhetorical Archetypes

If you've spent any amount of time at's discussion group, you'll quickly become familiar with various styles of argumentative engagement. One of the topics that comes and goes on the MD is exactly that: how should we compose ourselves? And the double meaning in "compose" means a lot more than most think. Some people think that it doesn't matter, that all that matters is the truth of what you are saying. It doesn't matter if you wrap it in pretty or nice words, it only matters if its right or not. Of course, almost universally, the people who think this way are the ones who use arguments like battering rams. Often the topic comes to the status of the ad hominem argument. Often, those who use arguments like battering rams feel perfectly comfortable with ad hominems. These kinds of people often enjoy the battle for the sake of battle--and they really enjoy winning.

But--who doesn't enjoy winning? And nobody lasts long in philosophy these days if they don't enjoy the art and form of argumentative discourse, if the don't enjoy the battle, the engagement. But that still doesn't address the question of how we should compose ourselves, or the status of ad hominem arguments. Ad hominems are supposedly outside the bounds of rational argumentation. But we find them everywhere, both in the MD and abroad. They are, after all, effective. So what's wrong with them and who would use them?

I once said to someone on the MD that there were two main positions in favor of ad hominem attacks in philosophy: Socrates/Rousseau and Nietzsche. Socrates and Rousseau both thought that the Truth was out there and that we had a duty to speak the Truth no matter who feelings it hurt. Socrates is famous for making fun of his philosophical opponents, twisting them up in words, and Rousseau for being the great, paranoid Parisian pariah who never quite fit into salon life because he didn't think much of decorum or kind of dry wit Voltaire prided himself on. Nietzsche thought that a philosophical position was a reflection of a person. Before Wittgenstein suggested that philosophy was a therapeutic enterprise and around the same time as Pierce (stealing from Alexander Bain) suggested that thought was a habit of action, Nietzsche ran the two suggestions together. He thought it was okay to attack a person in order to get to their philosophy because the two were basically interchangeable.

This isn't quite right, though. It doesn't quite cut to the philosophical thick of it, for I think there might be something interesting philosophically about it. The first thing to realize is that Pirsig (philosophically) sides with Nietzsche. When Pirsig suggests that we are static patterns, rather than having static patterns, he's suggesting that attacks on philosophical positions are attacks on the person, at least a particular part of the person. Not every part of the web of static patterns that make up our "self" effects every other part. Many philosophical beliefs don't effect our other, more day-to-day beliefs. But they all, as a whole, make up who we are.

I've written several times over the years on the MD about this topic because various people over time have written that people who react violently to criticism are overreacting, usually because their egos are getting in the way. Most of the time, the ones who say this are the ones who use the vitriolic language to make their point. Something's not right. The thing is, egos are the whole thing. "Ego" is latin for "self". In Pirsig's vision of things, how could our egos not "get in the way" when our egos are the whole thing, the only thing, given the description of the self as a set of static patterns, including philosophical patterns. What they mean, of course, is inflated self-importance. Their claim is, "Hey, it doesn't matter how I say things. If you react poorly, it exposes you as an ego-manical lightweight." A very effective rhetorical ploy. But that still doesn't vindicate us acting vitriolically.

One reply to this line of argument is that in Pirsig's vision ego is the whole thing, but the object of the game is the Buddhist one of dissolving your "self". "There is no spoon" as the kid told Neo in The Matrix. So, goes this counter, when Pirsig climbs the mountain and describes one kind of climber as an "ego-climber," he isn't just talking about egotists, he's talking more generally about people who climb for their "self", people who haven't dissolved their "self" as the Buddhists say is a prerequisite for enlightenment. In this vision of Pirsig's philosophy, our egos do get in the way, but they can be gotten rid of by dissolving them. I think this vision involves the kind of seperation of ideas from people that I'm suggesting is counter to Pirsig. But the practical up-shot of this Buddhist dissolution is that, once we see that "there is no self," we can just sit around and talk about which ideas are the best ones. No one takes offense because there is no "one".

I don't think this quite works and I think it does a poor job of accounting for real life (which is rarely something you'll hear me say about a philosophical position, but when you start talking about real life deployments like "Your ego is getting in the way!", you start descending to an area where it makes sense to say). The philosophical problem with the above account is that, also in Pirsig's vision, intellectual patterns (or "ideas") don't hang around by themselves. They sit on top of social on top of biological on top of inorganic patterns. In other words, we can't seperate the patterns from the person--the practical up-shot is impossible because the patterns to be dissolved are the person. Any practical up-shot to Buddhist dissolution is more like death. The return counter is that the dissolution of the self is the Dynamic viewpoint. We don't actually "dissolve" ourselves, they're just two viewpoints, Dynamic and static. From a Dynamic viewpoint there is no self, so debating ideas is no rub against ourselves. It is only from a static viewpoint that one's ego might get in the way. My counter-reply is that from a Dynamic viewpoint, there is no self, and if there is no self, there is no self to have opinions about ideas let alone ideas to have opinions about--the self is static intellectual patterns. The only way to judge is from the static standpoint.

The poor account of real life objection is actually the more interesting one, though. It's one that Pirsig gives us, actually. In the very beginning of ZMM, Pirsig talks about "care". We need to care about the things in our lives. That is excellence. On the face of it, "care" isn't a very Buddhist thing. Care is the flipside of desire, and we are supposed to get rid of that. Isn't that always what they're telling us in the movies, that the hardest thing for someone turning into a Buddhist is getting rid of their attachments--particularly to other people? Pirsig is obviously involved in his own re-visioning of Eastern philosophy, but I'm not sure he gets it quite right all the time. He gives us all the pieces, but I don't think he quite fits them all together. So, we are supposed to care about our ideas, which is really another way of saying, care about yourself. If you can just talk nonchalantly about an idea (which seems to be the practical up-shot of the impossible Dynamic viewpoint), then obviously you don't care about it much. It isn't central to who you think you are. You're like the young mechanics who tear into Pirsig's motorcycle. The object of philosophy is to dig around at who you conceive of yourself centrally. I'm not saying you should care equally about all parts of yourself, or all parts of philosophy, but the really hard philosophy, the philosophy really worth doing, is the stuff that you care about most. So, in the end, because we are our ideas, the choice we do get to make (since we can't choose the Dynamic viewpoint, we can't choose to not be us) is about how we present ourselves, what rhetorical tact we take. Pirsig taught us that rhetoric is the father of dialectic, not some irrelevant brother. There are three general archetypes (and three contemporary manifestations) I'd highlight: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

A Socrates claims that he has no knowledge. He confronts and confounds his discussion partners without ever taking a position himself, dancing away lightly when pushed. His air of superiority comes from the fact that the only thing he knows is that he does not know--and he can show that you don't either. The contemporary manifestation is the Buddha (particularly a fat, pudgy, laughing Buddha). The Buddha does know something: that the Knowledge everyone is after isn't possible. When pushed on that, the Buddha dances away because all of this is an illusion. So, while we can talk about consequences and ideas, we shouldn't get all that worked up about it because it is all a mirage.

A Plato is an earnest seeker of Truth. Knowledge has to be possible and the Plato will find it--and do whatever it takes. Truth is the only goal and if people get hurt, its their own fault for getting in the way. The Plato will often us a Socratic mask to batter his enemies, make them look like fools, befor elaborating on the Truth that he has found. The contemporary manifestation is the Nietzsche. The flip side of the Plato, the Nietzsche doesn't think there is any Truth or Knowledge at the end of any Yellow Brick Road--there are only People. Truth is a power play, and ridiculing your enemies is the same as ridiculing their ideas.

An Aristotle is an earnest seeker of Truth, but he is fair-minded and contemplative. Not everyone else is wrong, sometimes they are right, and the rightness of everyone's ideas must be integrated together before moving on. The Aristotle is a sifter, a diplomat who sees the best in everyone, who knows that there are different tools for different occasions. Sometimes people need to get pushed, but sometimes not. If we are all seeking Truth, then we're all on the same team, so let's work together, pool our resources and brain power, and for a research team to find the Truth. The contemporary manifestation is the Pirsig. The flip side of the Aristotle, much like the Nietzsche to the Plato, the Pirsig doesn't think there is any Truth or Knowledge--there are only People. But truth isn't a power play. We are all in some sense on the same side, not in the sense that we need to form research teams to hunt the Truth, but in the sense that we are all fellow-travelers, wandering our way through life. The Pirsig's goal is to live an excellent life. He cares about other people and wants to help them live excellently, too.

These are all rhetorical tacts and they are, I think, bound up in some way with our philosophical positions. To be a Pirsig, you are polite, yet playful, and rarely are you vitriolic. We are all in the same boat trying to make the best of our lives. What's the point of aggressively attacking fellow-travelers?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Parable of the Reductionist

When I first started reading Rorty, I found essays about all sorts of philosophers and little schematic maps splitting the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy into groups. I was always attracted to learning about other philosophers and I love little schematic maps. I learned later that Rorty picked up this technique from his teacher, Richard McKeon--Pirsig's infamous Chairman. I tend to think that Pirsig misunderstood McKeon, though. David Hall (in his book on Rorty) suggested that we really shouldn't be reading McKeon as trying to find the architectonics of philosophical discourse (like some of his similar colleagues were doing), but as performing a kind of interpretive reading. Sometimes people think that "isms" hamper our ability to understand, but I think they're looking at them the wrong way. Categories, like "realist" and "pragmatist", arise only after you've tried to understand them and are part of the attempt to understand by classifying patterns of linguistic similarity and conceptual work. McKeon was misunderstood by Pirsig because of this kind of antiprofessional prejudice against "classification," the one we see all the time when the hippie/stoner says (saying it preferably as Tommy Chong would say it), "Don't put me in a box, man." Except, what else is understanding than classification? How else are we to understand unless we differentiate? The problem is taking the classifications as written in the stars, as Platonists are wont to do. But good pragmatists don't do that. We use them as a map with which to make our way around philosophy. As new bumps appear, you change the map.

But this little anti-antiprofessionalist screed wasn't why I was writing today. Rather, it was about one of the things I found out about Rorty as I read more of him (though, its not about that either). Originally, I found other philosophers and little maps. The more I read, though, the more I started seeing a general pattern in Rorty. One of the earliest things I picked up from Rorty (probably to my detriment) was the sense of when someone was "begging the question," a locution I began to use more and more. The sense I was gradually given by Rorty in his essays was how arguments at a certain point break down and there isn't anything argumentative left to do. As I read back into Rorty's corpus, into his essays in the 60s and 70s that aren't collected into books, I was given a much stronger sense of how important this was to Rorty's project. In his earlier days, I saw much more clearly how seeing patterns of argument, of reasoning, played into his becoming a fully fledged pragmatist. And I saw that this was what attracted me to Rorty: it was the attraction to metaphilosophy, of how we do philosophy. And likewise, that's what attracted me to Pirsig, his ability to display lines of thought and then move backwards to undercut them (like in the S/O Dilemma).

One of the things that's being talked about in the MD recently is "reductionism". And this is something that is in the back of people's minds a lot. One of the problems people have with reductionism is that it seems so deadening. Reducing everything to one kind of thing seems to take all the fun out of life, all the plurality of normal, everyday existence. This, by itself, isn't a philosophical defense, but it does lead to one. When scientific reductionists reduce everything to physics, one of the replies is that they can't reduce our actual experience of reality to physics. Our experience of eating an apple or seeing a sunset is irreducible to firing neurons and bouncing particles. One becomes a realist and says, "No, all this stuff I experience is real." Its the old antireductionist move to "save the appearances" that we've had ever since Aristotle reacted to Plato's divided line metaphysics. Antireductionism is probably one of the most important philosophical instincts that have pushed philosophy forward--the other being reductionism. More on that later.

To stop the endless cycle of reduction, to stop physics from gobbling everything up, my realist from above has made an antireductionist move towards phenomenology, what we phenomenally experience. That barrier is roughly what they call nowadays in anglophone philosophy "qualia". And this does have prima facie resonance with Pirsigians. What we see, though, is that to create this barrier with qualia, the realist has to make the traditional metaphysical distinction between essence and accident, text and context. The antireductionist move is saying that our qualia, our phenomenal experience, is irreducible to neurons because the qualia are the essence of the experience, that the quality of the experience is irreducible to the pattern of it arising. This kind of distinction is a mistake. By using phenomenal qualia as an antireductionist stop gap, the realist resurrects the black box of consciousness, the duality of mind and body.

There is an alternative way of saving the appearances, however. The first thing we need to do is to stop resisting the power of redescription. One of the most important things that Rorty impressed upon me is the notion that anything can be redescribed into anything else. The power of redescription is the power of analogy, metaphor, the genius of imagination. It is, in fact, one of the philosopher's classic tools. Reductionism (which I above somewhat misleadingly called one of the most important philosophical instincts) is a special case of the more general power of redescription. What reductionism adds to its redescription (in terms of Idea, Matter, Spirit, Quality, etc.) is--as everyone can probably guess--"and this is the way things really should be described."

The realist instinct--the antireductionist instinct--is to say, "No, no. That can't be described that way." The question is, why not? What is it hurting? The traditional realist tactic (which has taken many forms, from Aristotelianism to Husserlian phenomenology to defenders of qualia) has been to say that the reductionist is hurting the essence of the thing. This causes the reductionist to bridle and reply, "Well show me this essence!" When the realist can't (because to do so would be to do something no one has ever been able to do, fulfill the destiny of Platonic metaphysics), the reductionist feels smug. The realist, pissed that he failed, then turns to the reductionist and says, "Well, if you're so smart, prove to me that your reduction is the essence of the matter!" And, of course, the reductionist can't either. That's why the quarrel between reductionists and realists, Platonists and Aristotelians, has lasted 2500 years.

The pragmatist sees these two quarreling and suggests that they calm down. She tells them that the problem, so it seems to her, is that neither one can cash in on their proclamations of essence. So why not drop the proclamations? To the reductionist she says, "Go ahead and make all the redescriptions you want." To the realist she says, "And if there's a redescription you don't like, don't use it." What the pragmatist is suggesting, as I did above, is that reductionism is a special case of redescription and realism (in the sense of pluralism, the attempt to "save the appearances") is a special case of pragmatism. What both special cases hinge on is a so far fruitless and conversation stifling essentialism. After brushing aside essentialism, what is left is our ubiquitous power to create new descriptions and our particular power to choose which descriptions we use for which purposes. This means that a scientist can go on reducing color to wavelengths in the laboratory without worrying about whether red doesn't exist and that a poet can go on writing sonnets about love without worrying about whether the Freudian next door will say that its all in his id.

I think this is roughly the position that Dennett calls heterophenomenology. It roughly means that there are as many things that exist as there are ways of speaking, that our ontology is coextensive with our speech patterns. It is, in effect, a kind of insouciance towards ontology. You can proliferate as many different kinds of speech patterns as you want, but the ones that catch on are the ones that are useful and the objects of those speech patterns become, roughly, the ones that we are going to say "exist". This is how pragmatists brush aside questions about whether molecules, electrons, and quarks really exist or are just useful heuristics for science. Another instance, demons. Do demons exist at bars and pubs? Can't say that they do, but they do tend to exist in fantasy novels. Does love exist? Sure it does, because "love" is a very important word in the web of speech patterns that we use in life. Does God exist? That depends. In scientific studies God doesn't play a big role (we are all atheists in the laboratory), but at Church He does.

So if someone says that love and compassion are not reducible to chemicals in the brain, I think we should be inclined to say that they are just insofar as we are capable of correlating brain activity with "love behavior". However, the reason why we don't usually reduce love and compassion to chemicals outside of physiological studies is because when your lover asks you to talk dirty, saying "You make my C-fiber quiver" usually doesn't turn them on. (Come to think of it, that actually does sound kinda' dirty.) And if a Pirsigian reads too much Freud and starts to wonder, "Are there such things as values? Or could we just as easily talk in terms of desires?", our instinct should be to say, sure, there are values and there are desires, and for many things we could follow Freudians like Lacan and just translate values into desires, but I would think there are some forms of discourse, a few practical distinctions in the area, where we could cut a difference between values and desires that makes some sense and would be profitable to do. In those cases, we can easily slough off Freud and Lacan and say that what they say is besides the point right now.

I think the important thing to get over is our fear of redescription. When people start crying "Reductionist!", I think all that means is that they don't like the redescription for a particular reason, that what was redescribed into different terms seems to leave out a distinction they would like to see in place. However, what is often not explored by the knee-jerk reactionary is whether or not one could still make the distinction he wants in the now redescribed terms. Its still left open whether or not the redescribed distinction is suitable or not for the purposes desired, but I think people should follow through a little bit further into what a redescription means for their desired distinctions. It doesn't always mean something bad. Redescriptions are made for just as particular purposes as distinctions are made.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Putnam and Pirsig

I went into one of the used bookstores around town recently and I found a book I've been dying to get: Hilary Putnam's The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. It's one of those moments, where I find an author whose books I've been dying to get my hands on (stuff by Fish, Geertz, Putnam, Cavell, several others, who I'll just buy upon seeing), and I just lunge at it, clutch it to my chest, and look around as if someone's going to sneak up and steal it. And thankfully, the book was five bucks besides. When I went up to the counter, with my Putnam and a book by Quine and a couple others, the register jockey said as he rang them up, "Ooo, Quine. I see you've found some of the books I had to clear off my shelf. And Putnam! Everyone's favorite neopragmatist." I replied, "Nah, not everyone's." "Oh? Who do you like?" "Rorty, of course," I said with a knowing smile, knowing, of course, that if you like Putnam, you probably don't like Rorty. "Hmm." "I'm guessing you don't like Rorty." "No." As I left I thanked him for the book, being as it was just from his library.

Putnam is one of those that I'm dying to get inside. Everyone knows I've read Rorty inside and out. One of the things that is nice about Rorty is that he drops names a mile a minute, which gives you a good idea (at least from his perspective) of how the philosophical map shapes up. That also gives you, if you are a novice like me, a pretty sizable reading list. You've got people Rorty likes to read and you have his enemies to see where the attacks'll come from. I've found several that I really, really like (Fish, Bernstein, Stout, Geertz, Nehamas, Susan Neiman from a blurb Rorty left on the back of her book). And then there's cats like Dennett, Davidson, and Putnam (not to mention Continentals like Habermas, Derrida, and Foucault). These guys Rorty's been "profitably disagreeing with for years," as he might put it. All sides agree that they agree on a lot--there's just a few outstanding disagreements. Dennett's philosophy of the mind stuff I haven't gotten into much. I guess I'm just not that interested in philosophy of mind. He's a great writer, mind you. I've read pieces and he's just brilliant and very readable and funny. (On a readable scale, I gotta' go with a tight top four of Geertz, Fish, Dennett, Rorty, then slightly below with Putnam, and then much further down Davidson, who, god bless'im, is dry as a friggin' desert.) Davidson--well, Davidson's really technical and hard to understand. Every once in a while I give reading him a go. But Putnam--fairly readable with an interest in history, and he self-identifies as a pragmatist (unlike the other two).

This book is small and tight and centers around his Rosenthal Lectures, "The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy". People who are in love with Pirsig and are interested in branching out into reading professional philosophy should read this book. It basically deals with the same place where Pirsig's philosophy begins--dissatisfaction with the current account of values. And this should provide a good place that Pirsigians are familiar with and thinking about to become familiar with attendant issues. What it adds to the Pirsigian picture is a more detailed account of what is wrong with that picture. I've been arguing for a while that Pirsig's claim that SOMists (in this case, specifically logical postivists) leave out values, cannot account for them, is just plain wrong, and is probably what bolsters the thought that Pirsig's creating a strawman. Logical positivists do account for values, they simply redescribe them into their schematic, a redescription that rubs some of our common intuitions about values the wrong way, but is no more wrong for it. After all, Pirsig says a bunch of things that challenge our common intuitions about subjects. That's the whole object of radical redescription (like calling reality Quality, value incarnate).

What Putnam does is offer a quick rundown of what is wrong with the logical positivist picture, what produces such weird slogans as "values are cognitively meaningless," while descrbing, with Pirsig, what some of the undesirable effects to our practice are. Putnam's picture is that the problems start with Hume, which leads rapidly to Kant and his analytic/synthetic dichotomy. From the Humean saying that "you can't derive an ought from an is," we get Kant's picture of language as broken up into analytic statements that are true by virtue of meaning and synthetic statements that are true by virtue of the world. From this, everything in logical postivism follows. Putnam is basically rehashing the destruction of logical positivism at the hands of Quine, but further arguing that we have yet to fully extract ourselves from that picture--specifically in ethics.

Putnam does a good job of getting from the analytic/synthetic dichotomy to the fact/value dichotomy. He shows us how the two go hand in hand and how to get out from underneath that picture (in particular, you'll notice that the picture Putnam's attacking is the "Empiricist Bachground," which should make us more wary about Pirsig hooking up his train to empiricism). His first two lectures are a good introduction to the material in this area of philosophy. His third lecture, however, goes a step further. In this chapter he tries to show how the fact/value dichotomy has effected the discipline of economics and, through the work of Amartya Sen, can get out from underneath it. This is a valuable chapter. It isn't definitive, but it is exploratory and shows the direction we should be moving (and its a good intro to Sen).

The rest of the book includes pendant pieces about (or dealing in part with) Sen, Habermas, Dewey, Bernard Williams (who I findto be an absolutely intriguing figure; he seems to me to be exceptionally eccentric in his philosophical views, being something of both a Cartesian and Nietzschean), and a good chapter on the philosophy of science, that perhaps should be the first read as prep for the Rosenthal Lectures. What's funny is that, after reading most of it, and seeing the usual potshots at Rorty that Putnam takes (which still seem to me to be misleading at best), I'm still not sure what seperates Putnam from Rorty. It revolves around a stonger notion of truth, and I can see Putnam making those moves against Rorty's supposed cultural relativism, but if I were to take them seriously, I'd have to count Putnam as abdicating his pragmatism. He's not, but I just can't see what space he thinks he's occupying between postivism and Rorty. I guess that will take much more reading. In the meantime, Putnam offers cogent criticisms of post-postivistic leftovers and gives a good picture of current philosophical space. He doesn't have the historical breadth or grand narratives of Rorty, but Putnam is very historically conscientious, and a little more of that would help philosophers.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Phaedrus, the Woolf

In the last few years, I've been trying to convince myself to retool as a literary critic. I am convinced that I want to give academia a go by entering an English Department somewhere, but I have difficulty shedding my obsession with philosophy—my desire, when given a choice, to reach for Hilary Putnam instead of Milan Kundera. That and I don't have much experience reading literature. My greatest fear is turning into the kind of literary critic Rorty deplores—one steeped in theory and philosophy, but doesn't know much about literature. Fear alone wouldn't be enough to keep it from happening—I would actually have to enjoy reading novels.

Thus, it was with a kind of relief that, upon taking a lit class this semester, that I found that I did enjoy reading literature—and not just novels, either, but poems, too! (Granted, though, we were reading Yeats and Stevens, two "philosophical poets.") At any rate, I consider the exercise to be a great sign about how I hope my future pans out.

One of the books we read was Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. It is a little frustrating to read sometimes, but ultimately proves to be captivating. There were two things that stood out in the book as I read it: one was Septimus' illusions of grandeur and the second was the way in which the past influences the present. I'd like to weave together these two things with Pirsig's own writing.

Mrs. Dalloway shifts between several narrators and basically contains two different stories that become intertwined—one about Clarissa Dalloway, preparing for a party and dealing with lost passions from the past, and Septimus Warren Smith, a WW I vet who has suffered great psychological trauma from the war. Septimus struggles throughout the novel with a kind of insanity, a kind that should be familiar to Pirsig fans. Septimus thinks that he has found the secret of life, the cure for humanity, he thinks he has found the Truth: "he, Septimus, was alone, called forth in advance of the mass of men to hear the truth, to learn the meaning, which now at last, after all the toils of civilization—Greeks, Romans, Shakespeare, Darwin, and now himself—was to be given to.... 'To whom?' he asked aloud. 'To the Prime Minister,' the voices which rustled above his head replied." (MD, 67) Now, this is kinda' funny and over the top. But we do read in Pirsig's ZMM a kind of megalomania in Phaedrus, in his descent to madness—that he has found the key.

What I would like to suggest is that both Septimus and Phaedrus suggest to us the ways in which we can see ourselves in world-historical terms. It can come out in slightly hysterical ways (like in Septimus and some of Nietzsche), but also in more moderate ways. In a piece about Rorty ("The Quest for Uncertainty," in Rorty's new Take Care of Freedom and Truth will take Care of Itself), David Hollinger says that "Dick really does see himself in world-historical terms. And he is one of the few people who can do this without being pretentious about it." (16) I think there are personality reasons for this in addition to reasons to do with the particular intellectual gifts he has, but there is one thing that links Septimus, Pirsig, and Rorty: their concern with the past.

In their own way, Pirsig, Rorty, and Woolf show how easy it is to see yourself in world-historical terms. One way is by digging into the contingent tissue that makes up your web of beliefs and desires, your self, and digging into the past to see how history has made you the way you are. This is the kind of genre of writing Hegel and Nietzsche specialized in, the writing of a narrative history to show how you are the way you are, the vicissitudes of history that have produced you. Rorty and Pirsig both perform this kind of writing, Pirsig stunningly so by weaving this historical narrative into his own autobiographical history.

There is another way to see yourself in world-historical terms, however, something a little simpler. It involves the way we evolve ourselves, the way in which our beliefs grow and change. To see what I'm getting at Woolf provides a good example in her novel. Clarrisa's former beau, Peter Walsh, is narrating and he tells a theory of his about Clarrisa to account for some of her views:

Oddly enough, she was one of the most thorough-going sceptics he had ever met,
and possibly (this was a theory he used to make up to account for her, so
transparent in some ways so inscrutable in others), possibly she said to
herself, As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite
reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical
metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part;
mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the
dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can. Those
ruffians, the Gods, shan't have it all their own way,—her notion being that the
Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting and spoiling human lives
were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady. That phase
came directly after Sylvia's death—that horrible affair. To see your own sister
killed by a falling tree (all Justin Parry's fault—all his carelessness) before
your very eyes, a girl too on the verge of life, the most gifted of them,
Clarissa always said, was enough to turn one bitter. Later she wasn't so
positive perhaps; she thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so
she evolved this atheist's religion of doing good for the sake of goodness. (MD,

There's probably a lot more in this passage, but I want to focus on Clarissa's shift from "Gods" to her "atheist's religion." The way I see it, I think Woolf was shooting up into this small passage a bit of intellectual history, specifically a shift in moral thinking. The first thing that should strike you is that Clarissa, good turn-of-the-century British woman that she is, should say "Gods" and not "God." Why polytheism when there hasn't been polytheism in the West since Greece? This is partly why I read this passage as exhibiting the evolution from Homer to Plato. She went from believing in "those ruffians, the Gods" to thinking that "no one was to blame." This is where we should remember that Socrates was put on trial for atheism, for not believing in the Homeric myths. With the pairing of "atheist" with "religion," two supposedly antithetical terms, I think Woolf is suggesting that the shift from Homer to Plato, the shift from polytheism to Augustinian, neo-Platonist monotheism, will naturally end in the demise of monotheism and bring about simple worship of altruism, much like Plato's Form of the Good and Kant's categorical imperative.

So what does this have to do with Clarissa's identity? I think exhibiting the narrative of our lives and laying it side by side with narratives of history, when thinking about where we want our narrative to go, we can learn from history and gain suggestions about where to go. We can see ourselves reflected in history. For instance, exhibiting that reading of Clarissa's past to Clarissa, and extending that history to try and show how Homer moves into Plato, Plato collapses into Kant, and Kant eventually eats itself away to settle in pragmatism. Doing so, I might be able to convince Clarissa to further evolve into a pragmatic ethical outlook. This is a tactic I often perform with people who write me about Pirsig or with people in the discussion groups. Often people will begin with a Cartesian picture of, say, language or consciousness and, sometimes in response to my probing, move very smoothly into a Kantian picture. The Cartesian picture produces one set of conundrums, the Kantian another similar set, and I try and exhibit the historical shift in philosophy from Descartes to Kant to etc. to help suggest a way out of these conundrums.

This also suggests how important our past is to the way we are now. This is something that Woolf exhibits in Mrs. Dalloway and Pirsig exhibits fantastically in his books. In Woolf's novel, the narrative often takes long sidetrips into the past of the characters, as they think about the past and its relation to the present. One of the centerpieces of the book is Clarissa's relationship to Peter. Throughout the book, when in one character's psyche or the other, we take sidetrips into their history together, as they think about their past and its relation to the present. Early on in the book Clarissa is reflecting on Peter, who has been gone for years, and thinks, "So she would still find herself arguing in St. James's Park, still making out that she had been right—and she had too—not to marry him." (MD, 7) Clarissa is justifying her choice of her husband to herself, Richard over Peter. But then Peter shows up at her doorstep, flames are tentatively rekindled and Clarissa thinks to herself, "Now of course, thought Clarissa, he's enchanting! perfectly enchanting! Now I remember how impossible it was ever to make up my mind—and why did I make up my mind—not to marry him? she wondered, that awful summer?" (MD, 41) Clarissa's past seems to waver and change before our eyes through the novel.

I think this is the kind of thing that all of us do. And Pirsig's books display this shifting narrative brilliantly. Throughout ZMM we are pulled through Pirsig's autobiography, but the narrative's perspective on Phaedrus changes as the novel goes on, shifting Phaedrus, and Pirsig's past, from a point of distance and vilification to finally one of present closeness and approbation. Furthermore, there is a shift in Pirsig's past with the movement from ZMM to Lila. The narrative of how Pirsig came up with Quality is situated in Pirsig's classroom experience at Bozeman. That story is gone and missing from Lila. Instead, it is replaced with the peyote experience. We Pirsig interpreters have yet to fully chart the shift from ZMM to Lila, but there certainly was a shift, which we can see explicitly with the move from the romantic/classic split to the Dynamic/static split. I think this can be partly explained and connected to the shift in Pirsig's narrative of his own personal history. We can detect shifts in his philosophy or the way he thinks by the story he tells of how it grew in his own mind. The move from ZMM to Lila is a shift in the way Pirsig narrates his own life because the way Pirsig views life (and Quality and philosophy) has shifted.

Who we are now in the present is partly because of the way we tell the story of our own lives to ourselves. Self-narration is an important element in our identity. We tell ourselves how we grew up to be who we are, we tell ourselves stories about who we are going to be when we grow up. We try and embody the stories we tell of our futures and we change the way we tell the story of our past as future elements bring out different emphases in our past. The self is a self-consuming artifact (to use Stanley Fish's term) because our self is an artifact of our heritage, of our contingency, and because this artifact's movement through time consumes itself and changes itself. We are self consuming. Once you've absorbed an experience you revise your self, your web of beliefs and desires, to include that experience so that that experience is no longer the same experience you just had. As Heraclitus said, you can never jump in the same part of the river twice. The story of how you got to be you changes as you go along because you've changed. And if the story of your life is a piece of the changing of your life, then the story is a ladder to be dispensed with once it is told so that it can be replaced with a better story to show how you got to where you are by the telling of the story.

That, I think, is the connection between ZMM and Lila.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

What Is Enlightenment?

I received a letter from a poster the other day, Smith, asking me what I personally thought "enlightenment" was. That is a good question. It's a question that people should think about in their relationship to Pirsig. Something that I'm glad I did think about a little bit more. One thing that is evident about my relationship to Pirsig is that I don't know all that much about Eastern philosophy. I know some surface things, but my range of acquaintance and depth is lacking. So when I talk about mysticism, it isn't from a lot of first-hand experience (which is true enough for when I talk about anything, including Western philosophy, but more so for Eastern). That's something I hope to someday correct, but as of now, all I have is what I got. So when I write about mysticism, as poetry or metaphor and the like, I like to think of what I'm doing as clearing space for the activities of others. Someone like Paul Turner certainly has a better grasp than I do, and we are in a real sense working the same vineyard, but I hope my clearing efforts aren't so forlorn as to be useless.

What is enlightenment? To contextualize my thoughts, I'd like to do a quick comparison of two parties who have adopted the word to their uses. If we compare, roughshod, the European cultural phenomenon in the 18th-century, the Enlightenment, to the Eastern or Buddhist conception of attaining "enlightenment," I think we can see a surface similarity and dissimilarity. The similarity is that Enlightenment philosophers took "enlightenment," what they achieved, to be an epistemological achievement. They thought, with the New Science and the shrugging off of "superstition," that they were now in a position to know things as they really were. Likewise, the traditional Buddhist idea of enlightenment also seems to be an epistemological achievement—an "enlightened" person now knows how things really are, they've cut through maya, the illusory nature of perceived reality, to reach nirvana, enlightenment. The difference between the two is that Buddhist enlightenment is also depicted as a state of bliss, the "laughing Buddha" who has seen through the suffering of this world. Losing our attachments, we relieve suffering and so reach a state of bliss in which we are not perturbed by anything. There is no accompanying state of bliss for European enlightenment (unless you count the haughty laughter of Voltaire). The idea of a philosophically significant "state of bliss" was thought, for the most part, to be a remnant of the superstition of religion that they had finally, through exalted reason, left behind. Unlike the laughing Buddha, European philosophers are serious about what they do. (The elevation of seriousness over playfulness can be seen as true today in Western philosophy when we look at many philosophers’ reaction on both sides of the Atlantic to Derrida.)

Naturally, I would jettison both sides' pretensions to having made an "epistemological achievement." However, I would still hold on to "state of bliss." And that's how I would describe "enlightenment": a state of bliss. Having said that, I think there are as many ways to reach enlightenment as there are people. Reaching a state of bliss can be achieved by just about anything, all depending on who the person is and what could cause them to achieve it. I think of the two views on "enlightenment" as two different views on two different topics. One way to firm up the difference is to look at the 19th-century reaction to Enlightenment philosophy—Romanticism. The Romantics (like Hegel, Schiller, Pater, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley, etc.) thought there was more to life than cold, hard Reason. They thought imagination and aesthetic bliss was important, too (though they all come off as devaluing reason just as the Enlightenment devalued imagination). I think the two can and should be balanced when understood in a certain way.

The clash between these two conceptions of enlightenment (which I view as two different topics) occurs because of their mutual epistemological assertions. The two parties don't just define enlightenment differently (and so talk about different things), they say that what they're talking about is the right thing to talk about. Once you jettison epistemology, you won't get a clash between these definitions because you aren't setting these definitions up as getting at Reality As It Is In Itself. Once you do that, you get an argument about how you could say that. That's an argument that Plato started when he said the "dialectic" would prove he was right about the Form of the Good, Descartes when he said that "introspection" would prove he was right about sundering the world into two substances, mind and matter, Kant when he said that the "transcendental deduction" would prove he was right about sundering the world into the noumena and phenomena, the logical positivists when they said that the "scientific method" would prove they were right about saying it’s all atoms in a void.

Once you start forwarding theses about the Way the World Really Is, you have to generate an epistemological method to prove that you are right. Nobody's ever been able to do that without begging the question over their opponents who forward different theses about the Way the World Really Is. When you get to that root level, where all you can do is beg the question, then you basically end up resorting to "my definition is better than yours" without any way to resolve it, at least not a way that is epistemological in the requisite way. Because pragmatists have to do the same thing for their own definitions. The difference is that pragmatists no longer think there is any way to argue for their definitions, views, except for the pragmatic, practical ways of pointing out upshots and deficiencies of various definitions for getting what you want. This isn't a method, this is just living life.

What differentiates me from traditional Eastern philosophy (so thought of as cutting through maya) is that I don't think a state of bliss has anything to do with knowing, or cutting to reality, or anything else like that. It is simply a euphoric state of bliss. Saying that, I think we can see what the Buddha was right about: reaching a state of bliss is about losing your attachments. Attaining a transitory state of bliss is about suddenly forgetting where you are, who you are, all your problems and desires, and simply being still. Where I may differ yet from Buddhism (so roughly defined as being obsessed only with reaching nirvana, bliss (not because they all are, but simply because I don't know enough to know any better)) is the idea that bliss is a state that should be something we have all the time. I don't think reaching nirvana will help the starving children of the world very much. Something doesn't seem right if we no longer care about starvation, because we are in bliss, even if the starving children themselves don't care that they are dying, because they've reached a state of bliss. Pirsig himself expresses this sentiment clearly when he raises his hand in the Benares classroom and asks coldly, "Do you mean to say that the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were all an illusion?" (This exact sentiment is also satirically displayed, brilliantly as usual, by the Onion this week ( with its article "Poverty-Stricken Africans Receive Desperately Needed Bibles," which later shows a picture of a horribly emaciated man with this caption: "Moussa Yaouli derives spiritual nourishment from his handcrafted leather Bible.")

There needs to be a balance between the attempt for a private state of bliss and the public achievement of the alleviation of material suffering. But when it comes to private enlightenment, I think it can be achieved through any number of routes, from watching sunsets, seeing a rare orchid, reading a poem, or writing a poem. I think what all those things have in common is that they send us out of our skins, they effectively cause us to shed our linguistic ability. I think that's one of the pinches of insight in Eastern philosophy. By shedding our linguistic ability, we sometimes return saying really weird shit. That meaningless refuse is what our metaphors are, that with which we build new vocabularies and meanings out of. Metaphors don't get at reality, but they do open up new vistas of knowledge by producing new ways of talking.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Heidegger, Dewey, Pirsig II

Okay, again, this is more about Rorty and Pirsig than Heidegger or Dewey. But this is another essay that greatly influenced my views of philosophy and Pirsig. I'm jumping out of order (I was going to just start commenting on Rorty's essays in the semi-order I read them), but I wanted to continue along the same vein as the first one by switching to Rorty's Essays on Heidegger and Others.

"Philosophy as Science, as Metaphor, and as Politics"

This is basically an updated version of Rorty's "Overcoming the Tradition." Rorty's concern is to canvas three different conceptions (from the 20th century) of how we do philosophy. With philosophy-as-science, we see traditional, Platonic philosophy morphed into the projects of Husserl and Russell. Before we get to that, though, the important thing is to understand what Rorty means by "metaphor." Rorty offers this curt schematic:

there are three ways in which a new belief can be added to our previous beliefs,
thereby forcing us to reweave the fabric of our beliefs and desires—viz.,
perception, inference, and metaphor. Perception changes our beliefs by intruding
a new belief into the network of previous beliefs. For instance, if I open a
door and see a friend doing something shocking, I shall have to eliminate
certain old beliefs about him, and rethink my desires in regard to him.
Inference changes our beliefs by making us see that our previous beliefs commit
us to a belief we had not previously held—thereby forcing us to decide whether
to alter those previous beliefs, or instead to explore the consequences of the
new one. (EHO, 12)

The key to this is that "both perception and inference leave our language, our way of dividing up the realm of possibility, unchanged. They alter the truth-values of sentences, but not our repertoire of sentences." (ibid.) The importance of this is that under the scientistic conception of philosophy—i.e Platonists, SOMists—these are the only two ways to change belief. It is the idea that logical space does not change, that language has set limits and it is simply our job to trace those limits. However, "to think of metaphor as a third source of beliefs, and thus a third motive for reweaving our networks of beliefs and desires, is to think of language, logical space, and the realm of possibility, as open-ended." (ibid.)

I think Pirsig's line of thinking mirrors this. His train of static beliefs are always enlarging behind Dynamic Quality. DQ is Pirsig's placeholder for open-endedness. For Rorty's Davidsonian view of metaphor, metaphors are meaningless words. But despite having no meaning, they do have a use, much like a wink or slap in the face can have in a conversation. To attach meaning to a metaphor is to kill it, to literalize it. This, I think, can be easily seen to parallel Pirsig's image of static patterns forming in the wake of DQ. By focusing simply on language as a set of static patterns, meaning is the set of static patterns whereas DQ is a metaphor. The metaphor breaks static patterns, it forces us to reweave our language to generate meaning around the new word, the new use—thus killing it.

The two reactions to scientistic philosophy, which itself aims to outline all that there could possibly be, are the "poetic answer" and the "political answer." When Heidegger reconceives philosophy-as-poetry "the aim of philosophical thought is to free us from the language we presently use by reminding us that this language is not that of 'human reason' but is the creation of the thinkers of our historical past." (EHO, 16) Heidegger wants us to "feel the force of their metaphors in the days before these had been leveled down into literal truths." (ibid.) The aim of philosophy is "not to facilitate but only to make more difficult, not to reweave our fabric of belief and desires but only to remind us of its historical contingency." (ibid.) The difference between Heidegger and Dewey, the poetic conception and the political conception, is that, though "the pragmatist would grant Heidegger's point that the great thinkers are the most idiosyncratic," "Heidegger thinks that the task of exploring these newly suggested paths of thought is banausic, something which can be left to hacks," whereas the pragmatist "thinks that such exploration is the pay-off from the philosopher's work." (EHO, 17)

The proper honor to pay to new, vibrantly alive metaphors, is to help them
become dead metaphors as quickly as possible, to rapidly reduce them to the
status of tools of social progress. The glory of the philosopher's thought is
not that it initially makes everything more difficult (though that is, of
course, true), but that in the end it makes things easier for everybody. (ibid.)
I think Pirsig should be seen as offering this political answer. The echo, "if this makes not a whit of difference to life, why do it?" is everywhere. This has to be useful somehow. But I think Pirsig has something of Heidegger in him. When Pirsig leaves Quality undefined, it sometimes doesn't seem like it’s for antiessentialistic purposes, but for preserving its force as an elemental word. I'm not certain. I think it may have something to do with Pirsig's sometimes tendency to say that some things are unsayable, that sayable things are derivative of unsayable experiences. I don't think pragmatists should think that anything is unsayable, ineffable, simply that we're still struggling to speak, still struggling for better metaphors.

But all of this continues my line of thought that mysticism is a kind of poetry. Poetry proceeds by the generation of new metaphors. I think mysticism is in the same analogous business. By coming up with new ways of speaking, it kills them off in service to us. Think of Zen koans. They are jarring. They are supposed to jar. They shake us out of ruts of routine thinking to cause us to create new patterns of thinking. Mysticism is a way to appreciate the openness of reality.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Heidegger, Dewey, Pirsig

So this isn't really about Dewey or Heidegger, but it is about one of the earliest things I found that made me very curious about the extent that Pirsig and Rorty could be put together. Their attacks on the philosophical tradition certainly can, but how much further? It was reading Rorty's Consequences of Pragmatism that sent me down the Rortyan road and it was there that I hit my first few interesting intersections.

"Overcoming the Tradition: Heidegger and Dewey"

This is one of the first essays that really struck me. Rorty's concern in the essay is to first diagnose what Heidegger is up to and defend him against some of the too-easy attacks against him. It opens early with this: "Without discipline, we presumably have mysticism, or poetry, or inspiration--at any rate, something which permits an escape from our intellectual responsibilities." (CP, 37) Knowing that Rorty puts great stock in poetry, it’s easy to see that a rehabilitation is going to occur at some point of these things that provide "an escape." It should also remind us of Pirsig when he says, "the easy escape of mysticism." (ZMM, 233) We know that Pirsig puts high stock in mysticism, so something is up.

What's up, I think, are two things: one, Pirsig and Heidegger's respectful flight from argument and two, their relation to the history of philosophy. Rorty suggests that philosophers' frustration with Heidegger is that he "has done as good a job of putting potential critics on the defensive as any philosopher in history." (CP, 39) He says this because it would seem that however you try to get a handle on what Heidegger says he's up to, whenever you make common distinctions, say between art and science to place him ("Oh, Heidegger. He's more a poet than a philosopher."), Heidegger replies that these "various distinctions are themselves products of metaphysical system-building," "products of the various writers who constitute 'the tradition of Western ontology.'" (CP, 38) And if we get frustrated, "Heidegger suggests that our sense of exasperation is just one more product of the notion that philosophy is supposed to be a competition between arguments, a notion which we get from Plato." (ibid.)

This is one thing that I think marks both Heidegger and Pirsig--their sense of the centrality of argument to the tradition of philosophy. Both Heidegger and Pirsig trace its roots to Plato. And both, in a sense, fly away from it. When Pirsig suggests that one of his rhetorical options when faced with the S/O Dilemma is to "refuse to enter the arena" (ZMM, 233), this is the option he suggests, in hindsight, would have been the best one--and it's the one that is "the easy escape of mysticism." Pirsig seems to suggest that this option is mystical because the specifics of his answer are that Quality is undefinable. ("Philosophical mysticism, the idea that truth is indefinable and can be apprehended only by nonrational means....") I don't think that's the case, however. I think, much like our frustration with Heidegger, the production of mysticism is a direct result of refusing to enter the arena, of refusing to play their game. And instead, what we get from Heidegger and Pirsig are entirely new games.

Rorty says that we shouldn't say that Heidegger must not be a philosopher because he refuses to play with us because Heidegger simply "carries to extremes a tactic used by every original philosopher. Heidegger is not the first to have invented a vocabulary whose purpose is to dissolve the problems considered by his predecessors, rather than propose new solutions to them." (CP, 39-40) Pirsig is doing this same thing. Lila is his more systematic working out of this new vocabulary. Pirsig isn't directly arguing with his predecessors, he has refused to enter the area, because one of the main functions of his new vocabulary isn't to answer his opponents' questions (because an answer would have to be on their terms), so much as make fun of them (consider the meager attention paid to classical problems by Pirsig when does pay attention to them). (I should provide a caveat: I'm not sure Pirsig has disengaged himself fully from the tradition. For instance, one may look at his way of distinguishing the "third rhetorical option" from the "third dialectical option" that he did take as Pirsig's way of still arguing with the tradition, inverting the tradition like Nietzsche, instead of disposing of it entirely. So while, as Rorty says, "Heidegger's later style makes it easy to dismiss him as someone who has simply become tired of arguing, and who, taking refuge in the mystical, abandons the attempt to defend his almost-respectable earlier work," sometimes Pirsig seems to be still too interested in arguing, and not taking the refuge he should.)

So how do we judge Heidegger and Pirsig? Rorty suggests that there is an "obvious way of distinguishing critics of the tradition like Dewey and Heidegger from the amateur, the philistine, the mystic, or the belletrist. This is the depth and extent of their commentary on the details of the tradition." The only thing Pirsig has hampering him is his small oeuvre. But I don't think that is difficult to overcome. Pirsig's commentary, though smaller than Heidegger and Dewey's, is very insightful, no less because it is easily seen as of a piece with Heidegger and Dewey's. Pirsig's attacks on the tradition are easily attached to other commentaries. If Pirsig may leap rather quickly to critical comments on the tradition, his impatience should be balanced with the insight garnished from them. And if those insights, even if quickly reached, do prove to be insightful (by hooking up with other, more extensive commentaries), then they provide a bit more weight to his new vocabulary. And the way Rorty suggests we judge Heidegger, and thereby Pirsig, is by their relation to their predecessors. "The self-image of a philosopher ... depends almost entirely upon how he sees the history of philosophy. ... This suggests that insofar as there is any sensible question of the form 'Who is right, Heidegger or the others?' it is going to be a question of historiography." (CP, 41)

That's not something I'm going to be doing here for Pirsig, but it is something that should be done. I'd like to end this portion by returning to the placement of poetry and mysticism next to each other. This is where the seed for my thoughts on this subject were first born. Poetry is often thought of as outside the bounds of rational argument, which is why Plato denigrated the poets. I think it is important to see, though, that poetry has its own tradition, the context in which it is to be evaluated. Literary critics like Harold Bloom (who are more like literary historians, then literary theorists) place poems and poets next to each other to see how the poems feed off of each other, to see how poets later down the pike react to the poetry, images, and metaphors of their predecessors. Mysticism, like poetry, is only intelligible within a context, one context of which is its own tradition of practice (Sam Norton has also made this point). But like poetry, part of the point of mysticism is to produce unintelligibility--to shake us out of the familiar. This is why I've come to think of mysticism as a kind of poetry. Unlike the kind of philosophy I'm performing here, where we just move the familiar around, in mysticism, poetry, and poetic philosophy of the kind Heidegger, Derrida, and Pirsig perform, we are shaken, not stirred.

"Dewey's Metaphysics"

This paper was very important for helping me to my understanding of Pirsig. This is, I believe, the only extended place where Rorty offers criticisms of his hero Dewey and it helped me understand some of the shortcomings of my hero Pirsig. A lot of it has to do with the word "experience." Since becoming convinced that the "linguistic turn" is the way to go when it comes to formulation, I think that some of Pirsig's problems, what I see as his ambiguity, stems from his use of "experience" as a philosophical term. Rorty quotes a letter from Dewey to Arthur Bentley saying that when he wrote Experience and Nature, considered to be his principal work in metaphysics, "I was still hopeful that the philosophic word 'Experience' could be redeemed by being returned to its idiomatic usages--which was a piece of historic folly, the hope I mean." (CP, 72) I think much the same thing about Pirsig's use. It proves to be confusing. However, much of that simply comes to be a matter of careful interpretation and translation, pulling out the wisdom in Pirsig's texts and shunting aside anything that might be useless or besides the point or simply verbal differences of opinion.

Rorty says that Dewey eventually came to realize that it would be hard indeed to assimilate his Experience and Nature to the other paradigms of metaphysics. Rorty says, "It is easier to think of the book as an explanation of why nobody needs a metaphysics, rather than a metaphysical system." I think the same thing of Pirsig because I take Quality to an anti-essence, his Quality thesis (that Quality is 1) undefined, 2) reality, and 3) experience) to be antiessentialistic, and metaphysics to be the search for an essence to reality. I can, however, never quite figure out what exactly Pirsig has in mind when he uses "metaphysics" to describe his philosophy. Sometimes it just seems like "a really wide paradigm of thought." Sometimes it seems to be something else, as when he says that a "Metaphysics of Quality" is a contradiction in terms. (Lila, 73) In fact, Santayana said in criticism of Dewey that his "naturalistic metaphysics" was a contradiction in terms. I would only think it a criticism if one cannot shrug off the critique by redescribing the terms around you, which then makes what you are doing not metaphysics so traditionally defined. I see in Pirsig the same thing Rorty sees in Dewey:

For most of his life, however, Dewey would not have relished this assimilation [of his Experience and Nature into the history of ideas, of the kind Heidegger and Dewey did in other places, the detailed commentaries I talked about above with Heidegegr and Pirsig]. For better or worse, he wanted to write a metaphysical system. Throughout his life, he wavered between a therapeutic stance toward philosophy and another, quite different, stance--one in which philosophy was "scientific" and "empirical" and to do something serious, systematic, important, and constructive. Dewey sometimes described philosophy as the criticism of culture, but he was never quite content to think of himself as a kibitzer or a therapist or an intellectual historian. He wanted to have things both ways.
We should recognize the desires of "scientific" and "empirical" in Pirsig. And the "kibitzer" remark should also strike a small chord with Pirsig in the introduction to Lila's Child. I think it is obvious that Pirsig didn't just want to kibitz about Plato or the hippies, that he wanted to do something much bigger and more important. But two of the things that make me question some of his desires are his desire to call the MoQ "scientific" and that his philosophy is more empirical than SOM. (Lila, 73) This last one in particular makes my hair stand on end. What could it mean to make something more empirical? For something to be empirical, and not theoretical, it would have to be neutrally so, something not so bound up in theoretical terms and such. By saying that he's being more empirical than his opponents, Pirsig wants to claim that there are obvious, neutral features of reality that his opponents are repressing. But can the philosopher who claimed that our reality is made up of "analogues upon analogues upon analogues" say that? (ZMM, 255)

This latter claim supposes that our language permeates through what we take to be empirical. If something could be more empirical the way Pirsig uses it, then the claim would have to be that some features of reality stand naked and apart from the terms we put them in. This ties into Pirsig's use of "direct experience" and his idea of a cultural immune system. (cf. Lila, 386-7) If there is something neutral that culture can suppress, something that you could be more empirical by noticing, then you've raised the spectre of the appearance/reality distinction, a naked reality that we all would notice had our culture, our theoretical terms, not gotten in the way. I'm not sure all of this is that important or central to his philosophy. I think most of it is simply the rhetoric he's chosen to press some of his claims and insights. As Pirsig has taught us, rhetoric is important, but I'm not sure, having gotten rid of certain ways in which Pirsig presses the attack on his enemy, we've really lost anything of importance to his philosophy.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Reading and Writing

So, Sam Norton said to me the other day, "When are you going to start blogging?" It actually hadn't really occurred to me. Besides, websites and all that stuff were for people who had more skill on a computer than copy and paste. I told him, "Blogging? That's far too hi-tech for me. I can barely run the internet to e-mail." And what would I do with a blog? But then I was tooling around at Ian Glendinning's blog and noticed a bunch of links to other blogs, including another compatriot Paul Turner. I've thought Paul had been developing very nice insights about Pirsig for some time, so I took a look. His very simple blog was basically a working tool of investigation. That piqued my interest. That's something I could use. And then a few days ago I noticed at the top of Paul's blog a little button calling to me: "Create your own blog." I thought I might as well explore how its done. Two minutes later I had a blog.

Like Paul's first entry, I thought I would just give my mission statement. The trouble is, of course, that I don't really have a mission statement. I'm not really pursuing any problems or lines of inquiry with philosophy. I don't really think about philosophical problems by themselves. I think about philosophers to be sure, but I don't think about problems in isolation of any particular writer. I think of philosophical problems as analogous to psychological problems. They just need to be massaged out by the proper therapy.

However, I am plagued by philosophical obsession. The title of my little blog here, "Matt Kundert's Pirsig Affliction," expresses succinctly what I think about because "Pirsig" for me is coextensive with "philosophy." In high school, when Mr. Waldeck first assigned me to read Pirsig's ZMM in his philosophy/religion class, I was already of a "philosophical disposition." Ya' know, the kids who like to think abstractly, if a little dumbly, about really large ideas. I had grown up Midwest Methodist, which essentially means I grew up to be a well-mannered atheist (when I told the Board Director that I probably shouldn't be the Youth Representative because I was an atheist, he said that it wasn't that biga' deal: "You were chosen because you're an upstanding gentleman and the other high schoolers talk to you and like you. We all go through phases when we are young. Maybe someday you'll come back to the fold."). In the High School Sunday School Class, we were provoked by our teacher (a Baptist-turn-Jewish philosophy PhD, something else that might only happen in Midwest Methodist churchs) to think about and defend our faith in God. Sunday School class was never easy on the brain for us. Naturally, upon entering the class I quickly decided that it would be easier to shed the mouthed I-believe-in-Gods and come out of the atheist closet. But I still went to Sunday School because I enjoyed the experience of being intellectually challenged.

And then came Pirsig. Well, actually I only read the first fifty pages of ZMM the first time. I wasn't much into high school, particularly reading things I was told to read, and the book really didn't catch me. Not that much did. It wasn't until I got to college a year later, and entered my Philosophy 101 class with Kay Picart, that the fire that was already lit began to be fanned. I remember walking into the University Bookstore the first week of classes to pick up my books and groaning to my friend, "Oah, I have to read ZMM again. Er, rather a first time." But following an interesting semester, we ended with ZMM, I read it, and was quite attracted to it. Soon after I read Lila for another class and that was it. The fire of philosophy, and Pirsig, was a bonfire.

Pirsig is my obsession and my muse. My interests in Pirsig and philosophy have changed, but the fact that I think about Pirsig hasn't. The main thing that has changed is that I've read Richard Rorty's entire corpus. But unlike Pirsig, rather than providing a fixating focus, Rorty has more provided me with tools. Most, if not all, of the philosophical ideas and moves I use are inheirited from him (and if not him, someone else). I'm not very original. I don't have any striking insights to unleash upon philosophy. I'm an amateur who enjoys reading philosophy. If there's anything I have, it might be a knack for putting writers together, seeing how they fit together, how bridges might be drawn between them. That's all I really know how to do, so that's all the meager wisdom I forsee offering here.

So that's really what all I guess will be offered on this little blog I now call home. I'll comment about what I read. One of the first things I might do, though, is go back through Rorty's writings, more or less as I read them, and connect the interesting spots with Pirsig. Things that made me go, "Oh, he's saying something that effects Pirsig." I get questioned a lot about this bridge, so I might as well provide more of a road map. It'll give me something to do.