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.

1 comment:

  1. "What is the use of studying philosophy if all it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions in logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?" (Wittgenstein)

    Just to repeat - I'm dead glad you've discovered blogging.


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