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.


  1. Thanks Matt, good stuff (haven't read part 2 yet) but two quick points: strong sympathy with the mysticism/ poetry link, it's something which Wittgenstein also expressed. Have a look here and scroll down to the bit about the Uhland poem - very important to understanding Witt. Second, as you'll remember I too think that 'experience' is a problem with Pirsig, but I think that it goes deeper than you indicate. There is still a part of Pirsig that craves 'scientific' approval (hence that 'more empirical' stuff), and I don't think this can be disentangled from his general ignorance about Christianity, and therefore the intellectual shapes and patterns that western scientific thought has taken. But that's me on my hobby-horse again :)

  2. Nice discussion. It's good to see people are thinking about Heidegger and Pirsig. I'm considering doing further research on this. What fascinates me about Pirsig is the similarity of his reading of Aristotle to Heidegger's from the early 20's courses, specifically "Plato's Sophist" and "Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle".

  3. I haven't read this in a long time, though it's interesting to see I haven't gone very far in many cases from early routes into understanding Pirsig.

    I don't think I'll ever know enough about Heidegger (or enough German to make research worth it), but I've thought for some time there is a deep similarity between the two, one I've always wished I could follow up on.

    What I bet you sense about the Heidegger of Being and Time is that, on his reading, shortly after Plato there was a turn towards mere "technical reason," as opposed to what he would later call "Thought." This is the same kind of thing that has Pirsig's hackles raised about Aristotle in ZMM. And it is significant that Heidegger thought American pragmatism a degenerate philosophy of mere technism, and that Dewey had strong Aristotelian ties. (Richard Bernstein has always been good at fleshing this out about Dewey, and John Herman Randall's Aristotle should otherwise be taken as a portrait of Aristotle that pragmatists find useful.)

    What I've always wanted to investigate was the relationship between Heidegger's use of "care" in Being and Time and Pirsig's in the early parts of ZMM. Pirsig calls "care" the flip-side of Quality and I suspect that would be a great staging point for consolidating their attempts to reestablish "modern man" with his surroundings (in the classic Fall pattern--Paradise, Sin, Fall, Redemption).

  4. Hi, nice work - you are as good as one of the modern writers in philosophy...

    I have been having similar problems in reconciling my heroes - Heidegger and Pirsig. I have myself tried to outline some similarities and often use one to understand the other. One of the points you may be missing is their nostalgia for pre-Socratics. (However reading Dewey has been my most recent addiction, thanks to Rorty.)

    Regarding the hair raising issue of Moq being more empirical and SOM is something I accept easily. Pirsig sees subject and object an unnecessary distintion of experience just as mind and matter is an unnecessary distinction of nature. The will to make this distinction comes from the "Descartian will to secure the possibility of knowledge by first securing self as a static being - a subject". Dewey I think rejects such a claim. The hint to this lies in the statement - "all existence is an event". This again I think has some relation to Pirsig's Dynamic quality and Heidegger's eriegnisis

    It is the ability of these thinkers to truly understand temporality that makes them superior in a scientific sense.

    Thank you for pointing out the "care" aspect of pirsig - I had totally missed that.

    - Saumil Mehta

  5. Hmm--I don't know. While Heidegger and Pirsig did see intellectual history as a philosophical tool (even if Pirsig for some reason spurned it somewhat in Lila), I'm not sure Pirsig had quite Heidegger's nostalgia, Derrida's word for Heidegger's sense of belatedness and the corruption of modernity, begun by the Platonic path of metaphysics. There's certainly a sense in which Pirsig wishes Plato hadn't corrupted what the Sophists were doing, but I don't get the sense that Pirsig wants to turn back the clock, so much as recover lost resources.

    And while I certainly agree that a healthy understanding of "temporality" makes them superior (though I'm not sure what "in a scientific sense" is supposed to mean), it isn't clear to me why that makes them more "empirical." I had thought that once Pirsig, Heidegger, and Dewey taught us that all distinctions are temporal and contingent that meant we should regard all distinctions as empirical artifacts, as opposed to some of them being built into the fabric of the heavens. I thought a healthy respect for temporality meant that the distinction between empirical and it's opposite (a priori being one of many we could slide in) fell apart, which takes away the term as one of commendation--since everything is empirical, i.e. temporal and experiential.

    This makes the pragmatists, existentialists, and Whiteheadians better than Platonists, Cartesians, and Kantians, but I don't think we should be using their words of approbation. It just looks like backsliding.

    The issue surrounding the use of a commendatory term like "empirical" is something I discuss, in relation to the distinction between primary/secondary experience in "Notes on Experience, Dewey, and Pirsig" (the fire really doesn't start until the sixth paragraph) and, in relation to the language/experience distinction, in "Language, SOM, and the Pathos of Distance".

  6. Your articles are a bit too technical. One comment - I think in comparitive philosphy the idea of destroying a philosphical view must only be to enrich one's own understanding. So destruction or deconstruction is justified if one feels uncomfortable with that metaphysical system. Maybe that was what you were doing.

    You are right - better is not a good word, maybe richer - but that too is derogatory.

  7. You're no doubt right about destruction as enrichment. It's basically like saying there's no point in doing philosophy, or any activity, if you're not getting something out of it--if there isn't some value in the activity.

    With "better"--I'm okay with better, richer's fine. Better is a good word just because it's simple--the most basic comparative commendatory term there is. It's like Quality--basic and undefined. What I don't like are certain more complicated comparative phrases, e.g. "more empirical." The latter is something I don't know how to unpack, how to apply it, except in cases where bad philosophical distinctions are in place, like subject/object, mind/matter, experience/language, etc.

    That's why I'm okay with "better" but not "more empirical." I don't think we should be so ecumenical that we can't cast out those that shouldn't be here (Platonists, SOMists, etc.), and use words like "better" to describe what we think we are.

  8. You nailed it- maybe it is also fair to say that the pirsigian method of being contended with "patterns" rathern than "perfect representations of reality" is useful/less misleading as far as gaining insight is concerned. Hence "better" is a better word than "more empirical"!

  9. Hello Matt:

    Pirsig's claim, that the MOQ is "more empirical" than traditional empiricism, is best understood by way of William James' radical empiricism. (Dewey and Pirsig both subscribe to this brand of empiricism while Rorty finds nothing of value in it whatsoever.) The radical empiricist's claim to be more empirical than his opponent is not to claim "that there are obvious, neutral features of reality that his opponents are repressing". For a radical empiricist, there is no such thing as a neutral feature of reality. In fact, SOM and the correspondence theory of truth are rejected by radical empiricists and so the claim to be more empirical has nothing to do with traditional dualism like mind and matter, appearance and reality. What makes him more empirical than his opponents is the method of radical empiricism.

    Basically, this method says that experience sets the limits for philosophical debate. It says that all experience must be accounted for and that anything that can't be known in experience must be excluded. The provision that excludes "trans-experiential" entities is the provision that puts the brakes on metaphysics, by the way. This method excludes theoretical entities such as Hegel's Absolute, Kant's things-in-themselves and Aristotle's substance. On the other end, the claim to be more empirical than even traditional empiricists is made on the basis of what James calls "the continuity of experience" or the "conjunctive relations" within experience. He calls attention to these transitional types of experiences because the epistemic gap between subject and object, he says, is a fake philosophical problem created by the failure to take them into account. By taking notice of these conjunctive relations, it can be seen that thoughts and things are just the terminal ends or pivotal features of experience and they are connected to each other already within the tissue of experience. Thoughts and things more or less correspond in a practical sense, not a metaphysical sense. James makes quite a big deal out of these conjunctive relations because, he thinks, they plug up a hole through which all the metaphysical fictions of philosophy would otherwise come pouring in. So the radical empiricist is also rejecting all the various attempts to cross the gap between appearance and reality by saying that experience and reality amount to the same thing.

    Also, I'd argue that this empirical stance is not at all inconsistent with the claim that our understanding of reality is an evolved web of analogies. As is the case with the discrepancy between metaphysics and reality, between concepts and reality, it is simply a matter of distinguishing between static and dynamic. This is not to say that static forms such as concepts and the other analogies are unreal or outside of experience but they are still distinguishable from dynamic quality, 'immediate experience' as Dewey calls it or 'pure experience' as James calls it.

    This would certainly be another area where Rorty is very much at odds with these other pragmatists. You could say they all took the linguistic turn but Rorty took his at a different angle. I mean, where some would say it's language all the way down, the radical empiricist says it's experience all the way down and there is a pre-verbal, pre-intellectual kind of experience that can only be ignored at a philosopher's peril.

    Finally, this incorporation of the non-conceptual features of experience is part of a larger effort to re-integrate the affective domain within philosophy, within science and within rationality itself. This sort of philosophical mysticism hardly constitutes any kind of easy escape. Quite the opposite. It's an effort to broaden and deepen the intellect.

    For whatever it's worth...

    Dave Buchanan

  10. That's really creepy--I just started to rewrite some stuff on the "more empirical" claim in the hot stove passage. What a weird apropos.

    I don't think I understand enough James to talk about radical empiricism as a method very well. It just doesn't sound right to me as a good philosophical stance (I'll concede to you what James really thought). For instance, I'd feel better if you said, "'more empirical' was a bad way of putting this other point he was making...," and then filling in the ellipsis with the radical empiricism as method thing. Because, as you say, everything is experience for these guys--so at the level of abstraction these guys are playing at, why does making a claim about X being more empirical than Y look attractive? It's all empeiria, right? But you don't seem very bothered by the "more empirical" claim, which suggests to me there's a distinction between "experience" and "empirical" lying around somewhere that I don't understand.

    But even then, radical empiricism as a method looks very unattractive to me. Once everything is experience, how can anything be cut out at that level? Do we not experience theoretical entities through our experience of books? That seems really nit-picky, but take Aristotle's substance/form distinction: wouldn't an Aristotelian argue that, though we overtly experience only forms, because of a nettle of logical problems, there is also a substance underneath the form that we experience concurrently, though we are not overtly aware of it. We detect substance by inference (like most entities in physics). To reject things like Kant's noumena and Aristotle's ousia, which we might say were created because of inferential requirements based on the rules of logic, would seem to suggest that logic can't tell us anything about reality. That doesn't seem right. Wouldn't, too, logic need to be rejected as a theoretical entity that we don't experience? Because if one rejects junk you learn about in books and through inference, wouldn't that just tear down all of science and knowledge since the invention of writing (paper being where all these syllogisms got written down and thought about)?

    As I see it, any entity is no more or less theoretical than any other (the "theory-ladeness" claim that attends the Kuhnian revolution), and the ones that we call fictive are the ones that aren't very useful. I don't see the need for a method to tell us ahead of time, or to principally demarcate a holding pen for, which kinds of things are real and fake. Call this my greater appreciation of Pragmatism than the posthumously collected Essays in Radical Empiricism, but it is unclear to me why I need a method, rather than regular ole' experience of what works and what not.

    I also still don't understand enough about what you mean by "direct experience." I outline in "Notes on Experience, Dewey, and Pirsig," my last apprehension of what I think Dewey meant, but that still seems at odds with the interpretation you want to give it (the main claim is that Dewey shifted from "concepts" to "habits").

    On the relationship between "language all the way down" and "experience all the way down," which I still don't think are antithetical, I wrote this a little while ago, probably based out of a conversation I had with you: "Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn."

    And hey, don't blame me for the phrase "easy escape of mysticism"--that's Pirsig. I dare say there's nothing easy about mysticism.

    Good to hear from you Dave.

  11. Hey Matt:

    It's not that you've overlooked a distinction between "experience" and "empirical" but rather a distinction between two categories of experience. The common sense meaning or ordinary definition of "experience" is contrasted with abstractions, theories, concepts and such. Logical inferences and deductions are known in experience too, of course, but this fact does not defeat the distinction. The difference is between primary and secondary experience and is does not entail the claim that abstractions are not known in experience. It simply calls attention to the difference between conceptual and pre-conceptual.

    This doesn't tear down all of science and knowledge but it certainly has a way of showing both the value and limits of our intelligible world. It puts that big pile of analogies in perspective. Cutting things up this way says that the world as we understand it is drawn from or derived from a richer, thicker, more primordial experience. You know, it's like the difference between all the sand on all the beach and that little handful we call the world. It's like the difference between a fun day with friends and the black and white snapshot you have of that one moment. The photo is real and it is known in experience too, but it was derived from something much richer than any 5" by 7" piece of photographic paper could ever be. Ironically, this richer, more basic form of experience is exactly the one that overlooked by philosophers and so it's not that surprising that you're having trouble with it. This bias toward anything intelligible and against everything that's not goes all the way to Plato. This bias doesn't seem like such a crime to those who can't see the difference between ineffability and mere stupidity.

    Or think of the distinction the way Jill Bolte Taylor likes to put it. (She's the Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke and experienced nirvana.) She says the difference between these two kinds of experience is on display in the divided structure of our brains, in the fact that we have two separate hemispheres that process experience in very different ways. Sadly, people have to suffer a medical emergency, take drugs or take meditation lessons to even realize there is more than one way to be. It's almost literally true that we think with half of our brains tied behind our backs. Similarly, meditative practices center on this distinction between primary and secondary experience.

    Imagine if the Rhapsode had said to Socrates, "Man will please quit with all those $25 questions and just dig it?." Imagine if that Rhapsode had convinced him that his demands for intelligibility only showed that he was an uptight asshole incapable of appreciating art as such. That's pretty much what Nietzsche says and I think he's right. Imagine if the Sophists had answered similarly. We wouldn't need James or Pirsig if Gorgias had been as rude as I am.

    Happy New Year.

  12. The above discussion, beginning on Dec. 20, 2009 above by Dave, is continued (with opening reflections) in this post:

    "Discussion With Dave Buchanan"


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