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?


  1. I think it was Jung who said 'free will is the ability to do gladly that which you must do'. I think the issue is the interrogation of your own static patterns so that the Quality is able to flow through them - we are not in charge of the Quality, but we do bear some responsibility for allowing it to take place. Augustine said much the same thing.

    FWIW I think this is where the 'soul' kicks in - that bit of us which is identical to Quality which needs to be set free from the static patterns which restrict it, but which we are not able to control, only surrender to.

    I'm definitely an Aristotelian. But I've said that before. Intriguing that you make Pirsig correspond to him - I wouldn't have thought he'd agree - but I would accept that the narrator of ZMM corresponds to Aristotle. I think the Phaedrus of Lila is a Platonist.

  2. Oh and PS - I think 'soul' has some correspondence with 'big self' but I don't know enough about Buddhism to establish how much.

  3. Hi Matt,

    Always with this stuff, I've seen "intent" as the key thing.

    You use "vitriolic" earlier and your last sentence kinda says it "aggressively attack". Attack of arguments (someone's arguments) can take many forms, and attack is a valid part of the analysis - to destroy hypotheses - the destructive part. Attacking people (their personalities, their reasoning) has to be part of that, since as you point out we are often talking about philosophies of real life, real lives of people.

    Aggression and vitriol aimed at the person is the aspect that gives rise to doubt as if hurting the opponent and aggrandising oneself (or venting ones own spleen) were the intent. Which is why it always has to be a fine line, and it can never be established in a single exchange. People can use very "aggressive language" in valid ways, both playful and serious, not just to make "their" point, but to advance a synthetic argument too. So the history / pattern of rhetorical tricks is as important as an given instance of "aggressive" rhetoric in a given exhange.

    There are loops / levels of argument and intent creating the emergent whole.

    Even impeccably well intentioned arguers need to be excused the occasional loss of temper too - ask Sam :-)

  4. Ian,

    Yes, you're right about the situation dependency of certain arguments. What I don't understand is the posture some people take. Aggressive language isn't always out of court, but I still don't understand the conversational habits of some people. Why can't people be polite and respectful? It's a fine line to be sure, but its one that's put in sharp relief after a while with some people. It's the "theatricality" of some people that I think just hampers conversation after a while. And on that, you'll see my post I just wrote to the MD.

  5. Hi Matt, yeah saw your "theatre" post before reading your comment reply.

    A good point, e-mail / forums are quite different from one-to-one "dialogue", and "posture" is a good word - it kinda reifies the individual ego in "its" position in any argument - which was your original point.

  6. Sam,

    I wrote the archetypes bit at the spur of the moment in a letter to Erin Noonan some time ago, which I then included in the MD post from which almost all of this taken from (most of my posts in the near future will be me saving for posterity things I've already written in the past in letters and posts). I just kinda' wrote it for fun, but I think there are some interesting things to be read out of the juxtapositions it makes. I'm still pondering them.

    For instance, you're right that Pirsig would prima facie disagree with being pinned with Aristotle, and that Phaedrus, in both ZMM and Lila, is Platonic. I'm wondering how far that goes, particularly when it comes to philosophical style. My own little archetypes can certainly be bent, broken, and replaced by better ones, but I wonder if Pirsig, taken as the whole of Phaedrus and the narrator, isn't more like Aristotle then he might admit. I don't know.

    I'm becoming more interested in "literary" things with Pirsig, which is what Pirsig inadvertantly denigrated in his Baggini exchange. I think that was a mistake given his rhetoric v. dialectic battle of ZMM, but it does show an interesting side of him.

    With respect to your "soul" comment, I imagine your ready for my reply that that sounds too Platonic. I mean, isn't that too Platonic for an Aristotelian? Your not resurrecting some notion of anamnesis, surely, but I'm not sure what else is implied by that kind of thing other than my most hated enemy, the appearance/reality bugbear. Ya' know, the whole thing about getting rid of our static patterns to set free the "true" part of ourselves, Quality. I've been fighting the idea that DQ is another word for Quality for a while, and your vocab for it fits very nicely for it: the soul, or DQ, is that which is identical to Quality (or God) and we need to set it free. I'd still like to buck that formulation.

  7. Ian,

    I'm definitely at the end of my rope with the "theatre" post. But isn't that the way those particular exchanges go? In this little circle, where the conversation finally just settles on repetitions of how I'm incomprehensible and my repetitions of how I'm sick of this shit?

    Meh, whatever. I like your saying that the written word "reifies" the individual ego. That's the unavoidable danger of writing. Reminds me of Pirsig when he says in ZMM that an essay just sounds like a person speaking for eternity.

  8. can't track down the source at this present moment, but I think that Aristotle says that the soul relates to the body in the way that a smile relates to a face - it's not a separate entity, it's an organisation (a pattern of value?)

    so I'm not meaning it in a Platonic ideal form sense.

    btw I think using your blog as a proper archive is excellent - and it means that those of us who don't subscribe to MD can keep up


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