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.

1 comment:

  1. Great point about Kant and what a philosopher is.


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