Saturday, April 29, 2006

Marjorie Grene

I don't know a lot about Marjorie Grene. I have her historical portraits of Descartes, Aristotle, and the existentialists on my shelves and they've always showed some fascination for me. I'm not sure why, possibly because, for whatever reason, I identify her as a maverick philosopher. Nobody's a Grenean, but she is very well respected. Well, I found the above interview and it is absolutely hilarious. I die for academic gossip, and this just exudes the kind of thing I crave. Her personality is absolutely scintillating. The funniest part of the interview (other than her calling E. O. Wilson "that awful E. O. Wilson"), and why I found it, is this:
BLVR: That reminds me, I forgot to ask about Richard Rorty. You’re friends with him, though you don’t agree with his philosophy?

MG: We are friends, but you can’t agree with his philosophy. It doesn’t exist! He’s a wit! He should’ve lived in the eighteenth century. He just makes clever remarks that don’t mean anything. The thing about Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is based on a total misinterpretation of Kant. It’s totally wrong about Kant, and I’m sort of a Kant person.

I love it. And I'm not entirely sure Rorty would disagree. My favorite clever remark of Rorty's was apparently at a Hegel conference some years back, discussing the Phenomenology of Spirit and Hegel's later thought and Rorty said something like, "Well, after writing the Phenomenology of Spirit, what could Hegel possibly do for an encore?"

Are You Irrational or an Asshole?

A little anecdote: I have this beat up copy of Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. I get most of my books used and, living in a university town, most of them were formerly in the possession of students, students who like to mark the hell out of them. Most people have no idea what they’re marking, and many of the marks are a bunch of underlining and circling in ballpoint pen which makes it hard to read the book. Annoying to be sure, but for a quarter of the price, it ends up being worth it (so I keep telling myself). The second chapter of Williams’ book is entitled “The Archimedean Point.” In this chapter, Williams asks what kind of rock hard, root bottom, this-has-to-be-the-way-it-is could be used against ethical skeptics and amoralists. In the beginning of the chapter Williams poses his quandary: “Unless the ethical life, or (more narrowly) morality, can be justified by philosophy, we shall be open to relativism, amoralism, and disorder. As they often put it: when an amoralist calls ethical considerations in doubt, and suggests that there is no reason to follow the requirements of morality, what can we say to him?[1] Williams quite rightly sees he’s in a tough spot because this amoralist, like Callicles in dialogue with Plato, “has a glistening contempt for philosophy itself, and it is only by condescension or to amuse himself that he stays to listen to its arguments at all.”[2] The likely response to such a contempt is, “the question is not whether he will be convinced, but whether he ought to be convinced.”[3]

“But is it?”[4] Williams sees that to say that the amoralist ought to be convinced is saying that “the justification of the ethical life could be a force.”[5] The question, then, is “Why are they supposed to be listening? What will the professor’s justification do, when they break down the door, smash his spectacles, take him away?”[6] That is a good question. So, Williams asks what is meant by “ought.”
Is it meant only that it would be a good thing if he were convinced? It would no doubt be a good thing for us, but that is hardly the point. Is it meant to be a good thing for him? Is he being imprudent, for instance, acting against his own best interests? Or is he being irrational in a more abstract sense, contradicting himself or going against the rules of logic? And if he is, why must he worry about that?[7]
As it happens, Williams doesn’t have the last bit, “why must he worry about that,” italicized. But it’s something I would want to italicize, and apparently I’m not the only one who thinks it important because the previous owner had underlined that bit of the sentence. Why must he worry about that? Why must the amoralist worry about contradicting himself or going against the rules of logic, why must he worry about being irrational, in this abstract sense? The punch line to this anecdote is that Williams goes on to quote from Robert Nozick’s book, Philosophical Explanations, a bit about how the “immoral man” might respond to his being told that he’s inconsistent: “To tell you the truth, if I had to make the choice, I would give up being consistent.”[8] At the end of this block quote, ending in this choice, my previous owner has written “—because he’s an asshole”. Why would someone give up being consistent? Because he’s an asshole.

No doubt a flip remark, but what if we took it seriously? Going back to Williams’ question, “Why must he worry about that?,” you can say you’d only worry about that if you didn’t want to be an asshole. But who are these assholes? Is being an asshole different from being irrational? My previous owner, that silent, invisible interlocuter, didn’t write down that Nozick’s immoral man was being irrational, but that he was being an asshole. What’s the difference then? To capture the unintended force of my playful, I’m-imagining-exasperated student, someone who’s a little tired of all the abstract contrariness that seems to exude from the very pores of philosophy, I think the difference is that being “irrational” means being contrary to the rules of logic, while being an “asshole” means being contrary to the rules of conversation.

This difference captures the difference between a Rortyan, pragmatist reading of ethics and morality and an objectivist, foundationalist reading. When Williams says that “a limited benevolent or altruistic sentiment may move almost anyone to think that he should act in a certain way on a given occasion, but that fact does not present him with the ethical[9] (another line underlined by my former owner), that “the ethical involves more, a whole network of considerations, and the ethical skeptic could have a life that ignored such considerations altogether,”[10] the pragmatist is wont to reply that this “limited benevolent or altruistic sentiment” would probably keep a person from kicking down your door and breaking your glasses, and that this, then, is all we need. When the objectivist opposes the ethical to sentiment, morality to prudence, the pragmatist tries to blur these differences and say that they are not a difference in kind, but only in degree.[11]

For the pragmatist, being called irrational is an abstract scare tactic that has as much force as the Golden Rule: people would like to live by it, but they consistently ignore it everyday of their lives. However, being called an asshole is a less abstract scare tactic, one that has more force because it is more specific and particular than the Golden Rule. When confronted with a contradiction in our thinking, oftentimes we are liable to shrug it off, the thought being that we could untangle it if we had more time. That is, in fact, what Rorty suggests can be cone with most contradictions, given time and ingenuity. But when you're called an asshole, you're presented with something much more presently forceful, something that must be attended to now. Rather than being presented with the emptied out rational, you are presented with the embodied ethical. Some people don't care if they are assholes, and so would remain unaffected, just as Williams suggests, that the only people that feel the force of the ethical are those that already embody it. But in the actual, workaday conversations we have with people, who wants to talk to an asshole? Should we feel bad if nobody then talks to them?

[1] Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 22, italics his
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid., p. 23
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] ibid.
[7] ibid.
[8] Nozick, quoted from ibid.
[9] ibid., p. 25
[10] ibid.
[11] Williams’ account in this chapter does give way towards something like this view. Williams says that the moral philosopher looking for justification typically takes ethical skepticism as the natural state and so overestimates “the need for a justification just as he had overestimated its effect,” i.e. that it would force the skeptic into ethicalness. (p. 26) Williams then says that “When the philosopher raised the question of what we shall have to say to the skeptic or amoralist, he should rather have asked what we shall have to say about him.” (ibid.) This seems to me a much better question and the kind of question I answered above. Williams says that Plato recognized that “the power of the ethical was the power of reason, and that it had to be made into a force. He saw it as a problem of politics, and so it is.” (p. 27, italics his) Williams insight is that those who hear the force of being called an asshole are those who are already within the bounds of ethical discourse and that moral philosophy’s aim is “not to control the enemies of the community or its shirkers but, by giving reason to people already disposed to hear it, to help in continually creating a community held together by that same disposition.” (ibid.) Thus moral philosophy becomes a subject about what kind of moral education we should receive. Williams' moral philosophy, then, is remarkably in sync with pragmatist moral philosophies, like those of Annette Baier and Jeffery Stout. I am absolutely fascinated by Williams' writing because he somehow combines a Cartesian reading of epistemology (which breeds realist tendencies in his philosophy of science) with a Nietzschean reading of moral philosophy. He is either the most confused brilliant 20th century philosopher or brings to stunning clarity the consequences of Cartesianism. I'm not sure if he can bring it off or not, but he is absolutely fascinating to watch and a wonderfully better read than the sterile moral philosophy that usually comes down the analytic pipe.


Self-esteem is a strange piece of baggage. A lot of times what gets called self-esteem is the obvious sense in which it is how highly you esteem yourself. But self-esteem as it works in life is a bit more complicated than that. It importantly revolves around other people. Which is odd, because it's called self-esteem, not other-esteem. But esteem only enters the picture of the self when there is something to compare it against. If there were no one but you, you would have no self-esteem because there would be no one to esteem you, nobody else with similar abilities to be placed higher or lower than yours. That wouldn’t bad, though, because you wouldn’t need any, not having anybody else to put up with.

But just as self-esteem is not all about how you esteem yourself, it isn't all about other people either--you do get involved in the act, at its most critical level. Self-esteem marks an area in which you and the other are bound together. It is based entirely on the perception you have of other people’s perceptions of you. You can either give a shit what they think, or not. But usually, saying that you could give three shits what somebody else thinks is simply a cover. You really do care, you do think about it, you are affected, it just isn’t as overt and pandering as other people.

The funny thing about self-esteem is the circle of interactions that brings it into being. If we focus on erotic attachments, this is certainly clear. Sandy likes Bob. Bob doesn't know that. Bob thinks Sandy is great, but doesn't like Sandy in the same way. Bob tells Sandy that he likes his ladies thin in the hips. Sandy is not thin in the hips. She thinks that this is why Bob doesn’t like her and so gets down on her own wide, child-bearing hips. Sandy thinks the comment is somehow directed at her, when really, Bob would never say anything to hurt Sandy and is certainly not thinking of Sandy when he says it. But that’s just it: it doesn’t really matter how people perceive you. It only matters how you perceive people as seeing you.

Real life is much more complicated then the Bob and Sandy story. Real life people have layers of these circles, all going around each other, all connected, all stirring up trouble.

The trick of self-esteem is that other people's perceptions aren't always wrong. They don't always matter, but sometimes they do point out something about you that is true. Sometimes you are rightly esteemed as having low value in some area. It’s a hard thing to be awakened to a widespread perception of you that you have willfully ignored or always been oblivious to. It just so happens that I should finally come to terms with the fact that I’m going bald, I have bad acne, I have a big nose, I have thin and flat hair, I have hair all over (even my back), I’m not that funny, I'm a huge poser, I drive too fast, I drive too slow, I’m too quiet and standoffish, I’m too loud and obnoxious, I’m too drunk, I’m too stoned, I’m too stupid, too elitist, too straight, too effeminate, I’m pretentious, I’m boring, I'm silly, I'm cowardly, I'm ignorant, peevish, defensive, unfun, depressed egotistical cranky simple--

but who needs that shit?

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Tree

This was an allegory I wrote some time ago, right after I got turned on to Pirsig. It again begins with the same tired story of my early years, the one I've told countless times about my Methodism. But it branches out, so to speak. I have no idea what gave me the idea for this. But one thing it'll do is strike some heavy disharmony with the way I think about Pirsig now. It is a record of how I first thought about Pirsig (and a record of how important narrative has always been to me), of a time when my thinking was more in sync with Pirsig of Lila.


When I was a child my parents took me to church every Sunday. I diligently went to Sunday School and learned all the stories and when I was 13 I was baptized and confirmed a Methodist. At that point in my life I had never really thought about what it meant to be a Christian, or believe in God for that matter. The next year I started High School and the Methodist Youth Group. My teacher there opened up my eyes to entire other realms of thinking. I started to see that maybe Christianity isn’t the only way.

At this point I looked around and found myself in a pasture with a lot of trees and other Christians. Except now I didn’t know what I was doing there. I looked to the gigantic tree that they said Christ planted. I didn’t know what to think. I felt strange and out of place. I asked the others what we were doing here and they said, "We have faith in God." Where before I would’ve understood what they meant, now I couldn’t comprehend what they meant by faith. It didn’t make sense anymore. What does faith mean? And every time they answered, it never seemed to make any more sense.

So I decided to leave. The only thing that seemed to be keeping these people here was that word … faith. And all I knew is that, apparently, I didn’t have it. So I left. I walked to the edge of the field and climbed over the stone fence onto a path that was in between two fences. It was here I realized something: I had never seen this fence here before! I couldn’t remember ever seeing it before, but now it was obvious that there was one. Even stranger was that I saw people walk to the fence, close their eyes, and walk straight through the fence! They then walked across the path I was on, through the next fence, and then opened their eyes after they reached the next field. I then realized that I always remembered this other field as being apart of the field I had been in. There were all sorts of other trees in this other field and I noticed my chemistry and physics teacher and other people in white lab coats walking around.

I peered into this field and saw a lot of the old trees I liked to play on. But it didn’t look as inviting as it used to. It was missing something. It seemed cold and unfriendly. The people didn’t talk to each other very often. So I left both fields. I just started walking down the path.

I walked for a long time. I saw a lot of other fields over their stone fences. Some of the fences were bigger than other ones. Some were much smaller. I didn’t see many people in between the paths either. Once in a while I would see someone and we would talk about the different paths we had been down and the different fields we had seen. But we usually parted before too long. As I continued down the path I noticed that it was beginning to get overgrown. It started looking less like a path and more like just a corridor in between the fences. I began to see some people actually building fences around this part of the path. They would find a particularly open stretch of the “path” and just start building. Some of them walled themselves in. But all of them started growing trees in their little walled in field.

I walked and walked. Then I saw something I had never seen before. A tree growing in the “path” that didn’t seem to be claimed by any fence. It didn’t seem so big from a distance but the closer I got the bigger it got. When I got to the base, the tree seemed to stretch indefinitely into the sky; I couldn’t see where it ended. I also saw a man sitting in the shade. He was reading Farewell to Arms.

He looked up once and then went back to reading. I walked around the tree. The man continued to ignore me. So finally I tried talking to him.

"Hi. My name’s Matt. Matt Kundert."


"Uh, what’s your name."

"Bob. Bob Pirsig."

"So … this your tree?"


"Oh. Who’s tree is it?"


"Really? I’ve found that most trees are claimed by someone. Like Aristotle’s tree and Kant’s tree. And Christ’s tree."

"Yeah. I know. And then they build walls around themselves to block out people who don’t like their tree. Or to keep people in. Well, I take that back. Not everybody builds walls around their tree. Sometimes other people build the walls. Like Christ. He planted the tree, true. But he didn’t build the walls. Paul did that."

"So … what’s with this tree? Why isn’t it walled in?"

"Actually, it is walled in. You can’t really see it from here, but this tree is actually at the very center of it all. And all these walls aren’t just free standing. All of these walls and all of their trees are actually walled in by a much bigger wall."

I looked around. "Where? I don’t see it?"

"Well, did you see the walls before you left them?"

"No, not until right before I left."

"Right. And you won’t see this one until you’re ready to see."

"Well, I do want to see. Can you show me?"

"Sure, but this isn’t just for fun. I’ve showed too many people who just look and smile and say, 'Wow, that’s fascinating' and then go back to their old walled-in existence. If you want to go, then you're gonna' have to want to go."

He then put down his book, got up, and started climbing the tree. I shrugged and started climbing after him. I had climbed trees before. It was how you truly got to understand what the tree was there for. But whenever I got to the top I always found the view less than impressive. Some of the trees showed me things I had never seen before. But after a while I would become bored of the view because a lot of times, while I would get to see new things, a lot of the old things I liked became obstructed. I had supposed it was because you were never meant to see everything at once.

I kept climbing and climbing. We seemed to be climbing for all of eternity.

But then I saw it.

The ground was above me.

I didn’t understand. I looked back down and there was the ground, way, way down below me. I looked up and there was the ground! But then I noticed something about the ground above me: there weren’t any walls. Only trees stretching down to me.

We finally reached the "top." Pirsig then jumped off the tree, flipped, and landed up on the ground! I just looked at him.

"Come on. You can do it."

Still clinging to the tree, I reached out a hand to the ground above me.

"Just … let go."

So I did.

And promptly fell on my head.

"What … is this?"



And that's where it ends. I never wrote any more. Seeing it and being reminded of having started it, I remember being really excited about writing it. And I remember finding it again when transfering files from my old computer to my new one several years ago. I don't remember what I thought then, other than perhaps a hint of nostalgia and the possibility of finishing it.

But now, I feel very nostalgic. As I read it, it felt like I was being put in touch with a kindred spirit--which is to say, somebody that ain't me. Because the truth is certainly that I'm not him anymore, at least not philosophically. As I read it, I recognized and remembered my old thoughts about the relation of religion and science and other things. That Pirsig's reading Farewell to Arms because the teacher that first put ZMM in my hands told us that Pirsig had a style like Hemingway's (and that I didn't like Hemingway or Pirsig when I first read them).

The part that really punches me in the face, though, the part that really intrigued me, was when Pirsig says, "And you won't see this one until you're ready to see." I never realized that I was canny enough in my youth to recognize the importance of that response by Pirsig. That is the appropriate response for Pirsig, about opening up his philosophical doors, because of the importance of mysticism. What was lost to me for a long time was how heavily that response rests on that visual metaphor. And what has also lain dormant, but is now obvious through and in this picture of somebody who once recapitulated Pirsig with more heart than I do now, is how Pirsig's cranky, obtuse, curmudgeonly stance that is well displayed by his Baggini interview is a direct outcome of that visual metaphor. People just don't see. It's so simple to see it, and yet they just don't. They stare right through it, in fact. The trouble with seeing is that you can never talk about "it", you can only show it to people.

I understood that somehow in my youth. I'll never know why "The Tree" ends where it does, why I didn't write more. But I suspect it was because I never saw. I understood that it all hinged on me seeing, but when I got to the part where Pirsig would now describe what I and he see--I couldn't do it because I didn't see. I probably didn't know it then, but it was probably by writing this little allegory, and getting to that point at which I couldn't write anymore, that forced me down the road I've travelled down. It's as if I kept trying to finish "The Tree" with everything that I wrote up until the point at which I stopped and started to wonder if it ever could be finished. The way I read it now, to finish that story is to fulfill the dreams of Plato, of metaphysics, to encapsulate Quality with a ceiling instead of the Dynamic, open sky.

That's, ultimately, what's so wrong with the mystic's ocular metaphor. If they actually saw, they would be fulfilling Plato, not refuting him.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Quality as Archimedean Point

This is something I wrote while writing "Philosophologology" (at It eventually got cut because it didn't fit in very well with the direction of the paper, but it is useful for picking out another section of Pirsig (and going over the glasses analogy section again) that is ambiguous over how good a pragmatist Pirsig is. It also makes some connections with Nietzsche and Wittgenstein.
At the outset I suggested that Pirsig’s distinction between philosophy and philosophology is at best muddy and misdirected and at the worst untenable. The degree to which the distinction is untenable is the degree to which you are a pragmatist. It's difficult to get a good bead on Pirsig on this matter because Pirsig consistently talks both like a pragmatist and a traditional philosopher. I have so far spent most of my time on how Pirsig talks like a traditionalist in the passages on philosophology and I have elsewhere suggested how Pirsig talks like a pragmatist in general.[1] There is one place in particular that is pertinent to this discussion where Pirsig is particularly ambiguous. In ZMM, Pirsig talks about the mythos-over-logos argument. Pirsig says, “the term logos … refers to the sum total of our rational understanding of the world” and that the “mythos is the sum total of the early historic and prehistoric myths which preceded the logos.”[2] “The mythos-over-logos argument points to the fact that each child is born as ignorant as any caveman. What keeps the world from reverting to the Neanderthal with each generation is the continuing, ongoing mythos, transformed into logos but still mythos, the huge body of common knowledge that unites our minds as cells are united in the body of man.”[3] Pirsig’s “continuing, ongoing mythos” as our “huge body of common knowledge” recalls Nietzsche’s claim that truth is “a mobile army of metaphors,” “a sum of human relations.”[4] Pirsig’s claim that “Everything is an analogy” and that “Dialectic … came itself from rhetoric” are of a piece with Nietzsche’s inversion of Platonic philosophy.[5] That the mythos can be transformed is the pragmatist point about changing our intuitions. Pirsig wants to change our intuitions about truth and reason, like that we should “do what is ‘reasonable’ even when it isn't any good,” and replace it with a “new spiritual rationality.”[6]

This so far is all good pragmatist stuff. Like Nietzsche, pragmatists want to get rid of God and his doubles, they want to remove the capitalization from all of the traditional playmates of traditional philosophers: Truth, Reason, Nature, Science, History, etc., etc. This, of course, is what makes the pragmatist immediately careful about Pirsig. Pirsig seems to be Nietzschean enough, but his insistence on calling Quality the “pre-intellectual reality” makes the pragmatist a little nervous, let alone his insistence on capitalizing his moniker for the pre-intellectual reality. In the present context, this nervousness is spelled out when Pirsig says that “Quality is the generator of the mythos.”[7] Quality is completely ineffable, undefined, and our definitions of Quality are not actually definitions of Quality, they are definitions of our responses to Quality. Pirsig says that we respond to Quality and that is how we create the mythos, “analogues upon analogues upon analogues.”[8] Outside the mythos lay insanity, “the terra incognita surrounding the mythos.”[9] Pirsig then, gathering all his rhetorical strength, says that our Western mythos is insane: “the mythos that says the forms of this world are real but the Quality of the world is unreal, that is insane!”[10]

It is not clear that pragmatists can say this, however. It would require a pivot that doesn’t move, that philosophical holy grail known as the Archimedean point. For pragmatists who think that “everything is an analogy” and that everything from the “laws of nature” to the “laws of logic, of mathematics” are human inventions, that, in fact, “the whole blessed thing is a human invention,”[11] as Pirsig says in his discourse on Western ghosts, Archimedean points are hard to come by. If Pirsig wants to claim that the Western mythos is insane, he must be standing in another mythos. But it is not clear why the Western mythos could not respond as he does: that he is insane. This is how the Western mythos responds, which makes one wonder why we should even start exchanging the epithets. I think Pirsig fingers the Greeks as “the villains who had so shaped the mythos as to cause us to accept this insanity as reality”[12] because he thinks he has found such an Archimedean point. He doesn’t think he’s created a better mythos, a better invention, he thinks he’s found the correct mythos, the mythos that actually follows Quality, “the track that directs the train.”[13] To call our mythos insane must mean that our mythos, “the whole train of collective consciousness of all communicating mankind,”[14] has been derailed.

Pirsig’s Archimedean point is Quality, his own capitalized, philosophical playmate, his own God-surrogate. If “everything is an analogy,” that would mean everything, not just everything up until the point at which it reaches Quality. When Pirsig says that “Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live,”[15] Nietzsche would respond, “A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image—first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound—second metaphor….”[16] All of our knowledge is built on metaphors, up to and including Quality. Pirsig seems to get to the second metaphor and stop. When Pirsig declares that our present mythos is insane, after saying that insanity exists outside the mythos, he sounds like the early Wittgenstein when he said the traditional problems of philosophy arise because “the logic of our language is misunderstood.”[17] Pirsig is essentially trying to say that we misunderstand Quality.

Wittgenstein then notoriously goes on to make fun of himself, as he evolves from the early Wittgenstein into the later one. In Section 114 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein begins by quoting the Tractatus: “The general form of propositions is: This is how things are.”[18] He then says, “That is the kind of proposition that one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.”[19] Wittgenstein is here making fun of the idea that we can get at the nature of anything, that there is a correct mythos. Even this, however, is slightly misleading because you might begin to think that there is a nature, it just happens to be the fact that we can’t get to it. When Wittgenstein says famously that, “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably,”[20] Wittgenstein is creating an analogy exactly like Pirsig’s analogy of the glasses in Lila.[21] Like Pirsig’s analogy, you can’t press it too hard, for if you do, you might be tempted to say that if we could discard language entirely, we could reach the nature of the thing. You would be tempted to suggest, as Pirsig does, that you could get rid of the glasses through which you see the world. For pragmatists, it's pictures and glasses all the way down. Wittgenstein’s later question to his earlier self is, if we misunderstand language, how are we to phrase our realization if the only thing we have is language? Analogously, what we should ask Pirsig is how we are supposed to misunderstand Quality if we are all everywhere and always in touch with Quality?

The reason I’ve spent so long on this particular passage from ZMM is that the muddiness in interpreting this passage is directly related to the muddiness in interpreting Pirsig’s use of philosophology. They revolve around his use of Quality. The generator of the mythos, our knowledge, is Quality. In Pirsig’s Lila analogy between the horse of philosophy and its cart, the mythos is the cart that follows behind the horse: Quality. Quality is the hinge on which hangs the distinction between philosophy and philosophology, Quality is what we can all reflect on and expect to generate beliefs. Pirsig seems to oscillate between making a “new spiritual rationality” and finding an Archimedean point on which we can pivot with some assurance. If Pirsig sticks to handing in his discovery metaphors for creation ones, then he can say that philosophy is individualistic and that we can create a better one, but he can no longer be assured that everyone will be talking about the same thing nor that we aren’t the ones seen as insane.

[1] see my “Confessions of a Fallen Priest” at
[2] Pirsig, ZMM, p. 358
[3] Pirsig, ZMM, p. 359
[4] Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” in The Portable Nietzsche, p. 46-7. When Pirsig says later that “Religion isn’t invented by man. Men are invented by religion,” (ZMM, p. 360) he recalls Nietzsche’s successor, Heidegger, when he says that “language speaks man.” (see Heidegger, “…Poetically Man Dwells…” in Poetry, Language, Thought)
[5] See Christopher Norris’ discussion of Pirsig and Nietzsche in his Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, p. 61-4.
[6] Pirsig, ZMM, p. 368
[7] ibid., p. 360
[8] ibid.
[9] ibid.
[10] ibid., p. 361
[11] ibid., p. 36
[12] ibid., p. 361
[13] ibid., p. 360
[14] ibid.
[15] ibid., p. 255
[16] Nietzsche, “Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” p. 46
[17] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, p. 3
[18] ibid., 4.5
[19] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I, sec. 114
[20] ibid., sec. 115
[21] Pirsig, Lila, p. 112-3

I don't write poetry

Almost May

I thought of you today,
In this month almost May,
And how out of all the men
You chose this one out of ten:
Falling for me, as a girl gets ready to play.

I can’t help but feel as though I was not asked
About my feelings of the matter, towards you
And your simple, sweet pressure and task
Of loving you, and making it all true.

It’s true! It’s true! Nobody cared to think
That I might have a say in this selection
About why my life should go to the brink
For love, for tear-drops and doting affection.

I thought once more
About love a l’amour,
And it came to me fast
That love does not ask:
Falling for you, the one that I adore.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Philosophy and Biography

I can't remember when I started distinguishing between philosophy and biography as shorthand for two different intentions with a thinker. I can't remember if it had a lot to do with what I was reading, Rorty or Pirsig or maybe Toulmin or someone else. I assume it arose in dialogue, as a riposte to some interlocuter, but it is a contrast that holds a lot of resonance for Rorty and Pirsig and much other philosophy I read. It's a contrast I ponder about often, though nothing in significant form.

Biography is the easier term to handle, it being roughly coextensive with intellectual history, scholarly work of the type Pirsig made fun of with "philosophology". Once one realizes with Wittgenstein that the history of ideas is the history of the way in which words have been used, and that words don't use themselves, only people do, then describing the excavation of a philosopher's philosophy as biography, by attending to any and all facets of his life and where ideas arose and how they impinge on other ideas (i.e., other philosophers' uses of words), seems a natural progression.

Philosophy, though, is a much more nebulous kind of thing. The more I read, the more interesting kinds of ways I find that one could define it for one's purposes. There's the extraordinarily broad etymological conception in which it's simply the "love of wisdom." Thus broadly employed, there are many, many philosophers if for no other reason than there are many, many places one can find wisdom. One can define philosophy as it has been employed since Descartes, which is essentially an armchair, theoretical discipline of some kind. Alexander Nehamas taught me to not be so suspicious of this kind of philosophy, that not all of it is degenerately epistemological. That what Rorty, for instance, is doing is largely a kind of theoretical philosophy (though therapeutic in nature).

Nehamas and Pierre Hadot also taught me slightly different ways in which to think of philosophy as a form or way of life, Hadot in a broader sense as the "art of living" (though still Nehamas' term), tying how we live in with our theoretical scruples, and Nehamas in a more narrow sense of self-making, a tradition begat by Socrates and carried out dialectically against him by Montainge, Nietzsche, and Foucault. And then there is my own favorite sense of philosophy which I first read in Rorty, Sellars' "seeing how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term."

What I also learned from Rorty is how history ties into our present projects. "Ties" is almost exactly the wrong word, for it almost seems to imply to me a kind of volitional act, as if one could tie it or not. That is, of course, my claim in various places (particularly the essay "Philosophologology"), that we can tie in history to our philosophy if we want to, but the claim underneath of that one is that we are always and everywhere as tied to history as we are to Quality. Without Quality there is no history, but without history there is no Quality. I learned from Rorty to read philosophy as Harold Bloom reads poetic history, as a Freudian family romance, one of tremendous agon and anxiety over influence. As I read more and more Bloom, I see that demand placed more and more heavily.

For, another sense of philosophy is that of autobiography, the obvious flipside if we are going to call unearthing somebody else's philosophy biography. And if our own philosophy is a kind of testament of ourselves, if philosophy is a kind of autobiography, a written record of where we find value (as Pirsig's surely and explicitly is), then philosophy, and autobiography, must surely travel through biography. And if this is the case, then Pirsig's contrast between philosophy and philosophology looks ever the more specious. One cannot just write the testament of themself ex nihilo, not if one is at all anxious, one must first clear out the conceptual space around them. Just as our banal autobiographies would consist of struggles with those around us, so does our philosophy consist of struggles with those philosophers around us. To grab a word, and make it central and important, is to grab a word with a history, a history of use by other people, and so to grab that word is to grab it and wrestle it away from others.

I remember when I first started taking philosophy classes and we were asked to write papers about really large topics. It always seemed so awkward to me, and it still does. How does one write an answer to the problem of free will and expect it to pass muster? My mind works argumentatively, and so writing any particular thing down, in the middle of a battlefield that was shrouded in darkness, seemed to me to be the stupidest possible thing. Where were the attacks going to come from? They will come, and you will be found wanting, so how do you ensure your position of any success if your defenses are meager because you don't know who to defend yourself against? All the imagination in the world will only get you so far against innumerable others, past, present, and future, all with far more imagination than you (considering they get to at least start with yours). I've always had to know the terrain I was to be working on before I could unfreeze myself to get moving. Granted that people work in different ways, and my way just one more alternative, but Pirsig's suggestion that we just stake our flag and make our stand just seems pure folly. I need intel reports before moving out into the field.

Both ways work, of course. Pirsig's way of just busting onto the scene and fighting everybody that looks at you wrong does work, and it does so because you learn the tricks of the trade, you learn ground-level tactics, how to fight, albeit all from the school of hard knocks. And unless you're stubborn, you learn to give up the spot of quagmire you initially staked and head for the high ground. My way is more like getting a course in broad-scale strategy before going into the field, going to West Point first before heading to 'Nam. I guess that's where Pirsig and I differ in our marriage of East and West. Pirsig marries together Socrates and Lao-tzu, whereas I marry Socrates and Sun-tzu.

Socrates said to know thy self and Sun-tzu said to know thy enemy. You can't do one well without doing the other and you can't do one and then by proxy have the other taken care of. They are less flip sides to the same coin then two pieces to the puzzle. You won't know yourself by virtue of knowing your enemy, but neither will you know everything about yourself until you do.

Pirsig seems to denigrate all the book learning we get at West Point and instead favors going directly to Vietnam. The trouble is when you write something. It's one thing to enter dynamic conversation, attack, parry, riposte. You have your foil right there. And in this sense I think we can see Pirsig siding with Socrates against Derrida in favor of speech over the written letter. Pirsig wants the dynamic conversation that erupts from watching a squirrel on a tree, not the soulless written voice speaking for eternity. But should we really eschew writing? Hardly. Pirsig in fact follows in a long tradition of philosophers who create themselves through their writing, Nehamas' Socrates-Foucault tradition. So when we sit down to create ourselves on the page, how do we begin? How do we situate ourselves?

That's the trouble with writing a 1200 word essay solving the problem of free will when you're 18. The broader your generalizations, the greater the demand for concrete enemies becomes, otherwise you're faced with ethereal strawmen. That was the triumph of ZMM. Pirsig endeavored to create himself on the page by creating conversations with people. They were, for the most part, created out of his own mind, but the trick of the novel was getting us to believe, and be swayed by, the convictions of his interlocuters, John, Sylvie, the teachers of Bozeman, the Chairman. Pirsig had enemies, he was doing dynamic biography in terrain where we all could see some semblance of ourselves and he then performed transumptive philosophy to affect the change he desires in how we see ourselves. But if transumption is easy in conversation because your partners are right there to tell you how they feel, if it's easy to talk about squirrels when they are right there, when does the opportunity arise to create a systematic metaphysics in conversation?

It doesn't and that was the struggle of Lila. Pirsig needed to make that transition and it wobbled and felt heavy. Lila creates interlocuters, but every time Pirsig glosses systematic, he loses his audience because we don't see the point in becoming systematic. When Pirsig starts talking to himself, we lose Pirsig's conversation partner and so lose our point of view. Despite Pirsig's protestations against "philosophology," Pirsig is no idiot and he made concrete philosophical enemies to play with, he did travel through biography. Pirsig set his philosophy against logical positivists and (I would say, though Pirsig may not) against traditional mystics. But why should comfortable, bourgeois Americans care about the logical positivists? If Pirsig can't make that case, then he can't make the case for us caring about systematic philosophy, his or anybody else's. In ZMM, Pirsig offered multiple therapeutic strategies, layers of discrete medicine that could be taken. But in Lila he's offering a cureall. But why do we need it?

When Lila succeeds, it succeeds despite the systematic effort. It's success is the same as ZMM, multiple therapeutic strategies. Pirsig's distinction between Dynamic and static is very persuasive when taken as an edifying bit wisdom, but the effort to place it systematically always falls a bit short because we don't know why we should be systematic. This isn't to denigrate all system, but post-Lila I think the demand is clear: for philosophers who wish to systematize Pirsig's thought, the trail through biography must be accomplished. Galen Strawson was upset because he saw SOM as a strawman. So it is if it isn't brought down from broad generalization and properly buoyed by concrete enemies. Pirsig may love wisdom from everyday life, but he also loves sitting in his armchair and reflecting. There's room for both, but the audience for the second is much smaller, more focused, more opinionated, and much more demanding. Pirsig's trouble in Lila wasn't being caught between postivists and mystics, it was being caught between laypeople and professionals.

You got a cureall for the spirit of modern man? Yeah, you and every other philosophy PhD. Get in line.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Begging the Question, Moral Intuition(s), and Answering the Nazi, Part I

I mentioned to Sam in a comment that I was saving for posterity some of my old posts at the MD by reposting them (with some minor revisions) here. I consider one of my state of the art posts, one of the posts that shows where my thinking currently is abut Pirsig, to be this one, "Begging the Question." What's funny is that I can never find it in the archives when I look for it because I wrote it two and a half years ago. I'm like, "There's no way it could be from 2003." But there it is.

The difficulty with this series of posts is that my opinion hasn't changed much and I think it says something important. I've tried on several occasions to prepare to write it up as an essay, which still needs to be done, but every time I can't quite figure out how to frame it, what background is necessary. I can never quite figure out which direction to go. So it sits. But now I'll repost it with minor revisions, hopefully that will help me think about what to do with it. And of course more peer review always helps.


One of the things that is commonly misunderstood about Rorty and pragmatism is that people think that it is irrationalist. That what we find in Rorty, particularly in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, is a complete disregard for argumentation and that pragmatism in general leads to fuzzy thinking. I think this is a slight misunderstanding, or at least misleading. I think it is from a keen understanding of logic that leads Rorty to some of his conclusions about the limits of logical argumentation (or as some alarmists may put it, the limits of reason). In three parts, I hope to string together the related subjects of argumentation and morals in light of Pirsig and Rorty. Pirsig argues that his "Metaphysics of Quality" gives us a firm foundation for our moral thinking, something that stems the tide of "moral paralysis" and gives us something with which to beat the heads of our moral enemies. I would like to test the parameters of this foundation to see what exactly is being used to beat our enemies, what exactly Pirsig's philosophy gives us that he thinks is lacking from, for instance, James' pragmatism. I will first begin by exploring an important, if not the most important, argumentative fallacy--the act of begging the question.

Begging the Question
Petitio principii, begging the question, as an informal fallacy means "the procedure of taking for granted, in a statement or argument, precisely what is in dispute" (according to Anthony Flew's fine dictionary of philosophy) or "arriving at a conclusion from statements that themselves are questionable and have to be proved but are assumed true" (according to Peter Angeles' equally fine philosophical dictionary). The technical, formal meaning of "begging the question" is "assuming the conclusion or part of the conclusion in the premises of an argument". (Angeles) This leads to circular reasoning. Circular reasoning and question begging go hand in hand. You can't argue with "All bachelors are single" because the definition of bachelor is singlehood.

In Rorty's hands, begging the question takes on a new form. John Stuart Mill said that, "if logic did not contain real inferences, all deductive reasoning would be petitio principii, a begging of the question." (Oxford Companion to Philosophy) However, this contains an element of Kantianism. Mill contrasts between verbal inferences and real inferences and this matches up to the distinction Kant drew between analytic judgements and synthetic judgements. After Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", however, it has been increasingly hard for philosophers to hold this distinction. This pans out to mean that Mill was inadvertantly right, all deductive reasoning does beg the question.

To help see what I mean by this, I'm going to give a short lesson in formal logic. This is what a logical proof looks like in formal mode:

~P, Q->P, RvQ - R

Formal logic is like algebra, except with stand-ins for propositions, rather than numbers. Each capital letter stands for a proposition, and each combination of capital letters with other symbols stand for propositions. What that line of symbols means is that you assume (i.e. they are your premises) "~P" (i.e. "not P"), "Q->P" (i.e. "if Q, then P"), and "RvQ" (i.e. "R or Q"). The "-" means that stuff on the left are your assumptions and stuff on the right is what you are trying to prove, i.e. your conclusion.

Okay, here's how the proof looks:

1. ~P ------- A (meaning Assumption)
2. Q->P ---- A
3. RvQ ----- A
4. ~Q ------ MT 1,2
("Modus Tollens" on lines 1 and 2. Why? Because if you assume "if Q, then P" and you find out "not P", that means it couldn't possibly be "Q" because if it were "Q" then it would have to be "P". And you already have "not P". That would make a contradiction.)

5. R ------- vE 3,4
("'Or' elimination" on lines 3 and 4. Why? Because "R or Q" means you must have either "R" or "Q". Since you've found out "not Q", it couldn't possibly be "Q" (that would be a contradiction) so it must be "R".)

A simple five step proof.

In Rortyan terms, the capital letters ("P", "Q", and "R") and every combination of those letters in our proof ("~P", "Q->P", "RvQ", "~Q", and "R") is our vocabulary. Our final vocabulary corresponds to our assumptions. The final vocabulary of our five-step proof was lines 1-3. We didn't ask if those assumptions were true, we assumed them and then performed logical machinations to see what our assumptions would yield us (we got both lines 4 and 5).

When Rorty talks about the shifts between vocabularies as falling outside the bounds of argumentation, he's saying that there is no argumentative way to shift the truth-value of your assumptions, because to argue is to be inside of a logical proof, so to speak. If you find that you can argue about some particular assumption, that means that there is a bigger logical proof with other assumptions working in the background, that "~P" is really the conclusion of another logical proof. Rorty's point about vocabularies is the Millian point that all argumentative reasoning is circular, that if you try and argue about an assumption, you will be led back to another proof with assumptions, and if you argued about those assumptions, you will be led further back to another proof, ad infinitum. And what will more than likely occur is that, at some point, you will start to find some of the conclusions of your first few proofs as assumptions in your later proofs. That's circular.

Given a vocabulary, given a set of assumptions (e.g. lines 1-3) you will always reach your conclusions (lines 4-5), i.e. the conclusion is implied in the set of assumptions. That means that if you don't assume the same propositions, you will not get the same conclusions. If you assume "~P", ala our 5-step proof, and I assume "P", that means I will not get "R", given the rest of the assumptions. It means I'm working in a different logic proof, a different vocabulary. And because we can't argue over the truth-value of our assumptions, because it would be hopelessly circular, we are both begging the question over each other.

This explains, for instance, the title of Rorty's first book of essays, Consequences of Pragmatism. Rorty isn't simply recapitulating Dewey, or James, or Quine, or Sellars, or Davidson. He's working out the logical consequences of the vocabulary that these men have suggested that we start using, rather than this other vocabulary called "Platonic metaphysics". In Rorty's suggestion that there is no way to logically move from one vocabulary to another, he is playing out the consequences of Quine's inadvertant rendering of Mill. And in working out these consequences, he has pointed out along the way when these same people fall short of endorsing these consequences. That, in a nut shell, is what I use Rorty to do with Pirsig. Given certain assumptions in Pirsig, I find that he's a pragmatist. But Pirsig also has these other conclusions that don't seem to jive with pragmatism. So I try and tease out all of his assumptions, his entire vocabulary, and see whether they mesh, or whether we don't, in the end, end up with a series of short 5-step logical proofs and find that in Proof 8 he assumes "P" and in Proof 16 he assumes "~P".

When we look at philosophy in general, I think we will find that logical argumentation of the kind I laid out rarely, if ever, occurs between philosophers. My five-step problem is a useful heuristic, but probably only that. We typically only find logical argumentation in a book written by one philosopher. What occurs between philosophers is a long series of circumventions. One philosopher constructs an argument, another philosopher criticizes it as bearing out the wrong conclusions, and the first philosopher either capitulates (because he shares the same assumptions as the second philosopher and he did make an error of some kind) or he shifts the terms of debate from the criticizing philosopher's terms back into his own and refines his terms. Take, for instance, arguments about "post-modernism". Philosopher A says, "Post-modernism is great because it eschews metanarratives." Philosopher B says, "Post-modernism sucks because it leads to nihilism." PhA says, "No, pomo doesn't lead to nihilism because, even though it eschews metanarratives, it doesn't say that narratives do not exist." PhB says, "Yeah, but without a metanarrative, how could a narrative mean anything?" PhA says, "A narrative means something the same way a metanarrative means something. If you hold your proposition to be true, why wouldn't the metanarrative be meaningless unless there was a meta-metanarrative?" PhB says, "Because a metanarrative means the buck stops here." PhA says, "Well, that's what a narrative means. The pomo point is that our narratives aren't ahistorical like a metanarrative is supposed to be." And on and on it goes.

My point is that circumvention really isn't all that rare, that it is in fact a commonplace of communication. It only becomes important to point out when two people's vocabularies differ to such a great extent that they can't agree on anything of concern. This is the point when "begging the question" becomes an important phrase. This is the point where philosophy meets metaphilosophy. When doing philosophy, the vocabulary being used is somewhat agreed upon. Engagements are more or less in argumentative form in which the back and forth between philosophers takes the form of refinement, or small circumventions. When doing metaphilosophy, the vocabulary we should be using to do philosophy is up for grabs. Engagements more or less do not look like engagements at all, and the back and forth is in the form of explication. The circumventions are so large it becomes convenient to speak of "begging the question" and the only thing to do is describe what your position is and why you think it better. In ZMM, Pirsig is doing metaphilosophy when he suggests that we drop the SOM vocabulary and instead create a Quality vocabulary. The MoQ is his attempt at setting out what that vocabulary would look like.

What should be recognized is that in ZMM, Pirsig does not argue conclusively that we should drop SOM. He argues periodically (like his brief taking on of each of the horns of the Subject/Object Dilemma), but he typically drops these arguments because he finds the terms in which he argues are unsuitable because they are their's, they are SOM's terms. What drives Pirsig is the apparent SOM conclusion that we should "do what is 'reasonable' even when it isn't any good." (ZMM, 368) Pirsig's key attempts at persuasion are rhetorical: he recontextualizes in an attempt to make the old picture appear inadequate and he redescribes in an attempt to paint an alternative picture that looks better than the old one.

Pirsig's major attempt at recontextualization in ZMM is his sections on Greek philosophy at the end of the book. Pirsig's first move is to set a new context for Plato's Dialogues. Are they transcripts of what Socrates and his interlocuters actually said? "When it is known that Plato put his own words in Socrates' mouth (Aristotle says this) there should be no reason to doubt that he could have put his own words into other mouths too." (380) Pirsig's second step is to reconstitute the Sophists' reputations by pointing out that they were ambassadors. This sets up his narrative where he goes through the Homeric myths, to the pre-Socratics via Thales, Anaximenes, etc. to Parmenides and Zeno, and then to the Sophists which sets up what Socrates and Plato were up to: a historical synthesis of his predecessors. Pirsig is not arguing here that Plato is wrong, he is not dialectically engaging Plato. He is showing us that Plato's achievement in philosophy was contingent on his predecessors. Pirsig is thereby suggesting that the problems of Plato's achievement are contingent, that they can be changed by changing the problematic, changing our philosophy, changing our vocabulary.

Pirsig's alternative comes in the form of redescribing things in terms of his new vocabulary and asking us to compare the old with the new. He does this when he substitutes "Quality" in place of "Dao" in the Daodejing, (256-7) when he restructures our metaphysical hierarchy (252-3), and when he performs his Copernican inversion by suggesting that Quality sits behind subjects and objects and not the other way around. (250)

His inversion is of particular interest to us here given his description of his options in the Subject/Object Dilemma. He says that he has "three classical logical refutations" and several "illogical, 'rhetorical' ones". (232) However, his third logical refutation is to "go between the horns and deny that subjectivity and objectivity are the only choices." This isn't, however, "logical" given our analysis of how logical arguments work. Going between the horns is the same as saying, "Sorry, my friendly Bozeman English faculty cohorts. You are begging the question." Pirsig is saying that he doesn't accept the Subject/Object Dilemma as a dilemma. This isn't a refutation. He didn't argue with them. He refused to answer the question because he didn't accept their terms. He shifted the debate.

On this count, his answer is rhetorical and akin to the third rhetorical option he uses, "refuse to enter the arena". However, I think there is a difference between what Pirsig calls his third classical answer and his third rhetorical answer. The difference is that the classical answer, the inversion, still sufficiently plays by enough of the rules of philosophy to count as a small circumvention, a refinement. The stark refusal to enter the arena, to take the "easy escape of mysticism" (which I would argue is not the only way to refuse entrance), would count as a large circumvention, a significant begging of the question, a call for explication. The consequence of the difference I am drawing is that Pirsig is still playing by enough of Plato's rules to count as doing philosophy in Whitehead's sense of being footnotes to Plato. He has not sufficiently disputed Plato's project to count as doing metaphilosophy. This means he could be still playing with the vocabulary of the SOM.

That Pirsig doesn't completely circumvent Plato's project doesn't mean that he is playing SOM's rules. What remains to be seen is if Pirsig's refinement of Plato's project dodges sufficiently what Pirsig takes to be the dangers of SOM. To see this, I would like to show how Pirsig attempts in some way to conflate argumentation and morality, how Pirsig tries to envision moral problems as arguable, as answerable to reason, how Pirsig wants to answer the Nazi and not simply convert him.

To Part II

Begging the Question, Part II

Answering the Nazi
What I would like to bring out of Pirsig's texts is how Pirsig seems to want to usurp the rhetoric of the "hard" sciences as paradigms of argumentation, that Pirsig seems to want to make morals arguable. Whether, in the end, Pirsig does want to make the Nazi answerable, I think, is still left open.

To do this, I would like to use the example of the Nazi as the paradigm case of a morally corrupted individual. For our purposes, the case of the Nazi is only interesting if he is a convinced Nazi, as convinced of the morality of Nazism as we are convinced of its immorality, and a sophisticated philosopher, as sophisticated in the art of argumentation and rhetoric as we are. What many individuals want is a knock-down, logical argument, the force of which would, if the Nazi were to remain a sane, logical interlocuter, demand that the Nazi recant his erroneous ways.

Rorty's reply to such a request is that "there is no neutral, common ground to which an experienced Nazi philosopher and I can repair in order to argue out our differences. That Nazi and I will always strike one another as begging all the crucial questions, arguing in circles." (p. 15, PSH) Rorty says that we cannot answer the Nazi because we do not hold enough of the relevant premises in common to have an argument in which our arguments and his arguments are engageable, answerable in terms we both would recognize as good, sufficient, and relevant.

It has been pointed out on many occasions that Pirsig has this to say about morality and pragmatism: "James would probably have been horrified to find that Nazis could use his pragmatism just as freely as anyone else, but Phaedrus didn't see anything that would prevent it. But he thought that the Metaphysics of Quality's classification of static patterns of good prevents this kind of debasement." People have tried to say that this makes the MoQ impossible for the Nazi to use, that, in effect, you can answer the Nazi by using the MoQ.

There are several problems with Pirsig's analysis of pragmatism and the Nazis. For one, the reason why pragmatism appears to be cooptable is because pragmatism only makes a negative point about the state of philosophy, it makes no positive contributions to our discourse about literature, morality, or politics. James would not have been horrified at the cooptation of his philosophy because James held too much in common with Nietzsche. What protected James from the Nazi was his American politics, not his philosophy. It was his Whitmanian faith in democracy and plurality that confronted the Nazi. This, however, isn't the problem I want to focus on, so I will not attend to the various arguments and counters.

The second problem is that I see no reason to think that a sophisticated Nazi philosopher could not co-opt the MoQ just as easily as an American rhetoric teacher. Just as a sophisticated rhetoric teacher can redescribe the history of philosophy in terms of Quality, so can a sophisticated Nazi redescribe a metaphysical system and tailor it to fit his needs. The problem with metaphysical systems, with philosophy in general, is that it is too general. When you have a systematic moral hierarchy of Dynamic Quality, intellectual static patterns, social static patterns, biological static patterns, and inorganic static patterns, what's to stop the Nazi from describing Jews as no more than animals, the fascist state as being the most evolved government, Alfred Rosenberg's "blood, race, and soil" interpretation of the MoQ as the greatest philosophical achievement, and Adolf Hitler the great brujo of our generation? As far as I can see, as long as we stay at generalities, nothing.

What stops the Nazi is concretizing the MoQ, defining the terms of the MoQ so that democracy is the greatest government and freedom the greatest intellectual achievement. However, this creates the third problem of reading Pirsig as answering the Nazi, in being able to do something that James cannot: if we insist on our definitions of the MoQ, we beg the question in our favor over the Nazi. In effect, we don't answer him, we merely exclude him from our conversation. In fact, when we look closely, it isn't clear that Pirsig is saying that the MoQ answers the Nazi. He says that the MoQ "prevents this kind of debasement", meaning that the way the MoQ should be interpreted prevents the Nazi from arguing for his own morals, in other words, it excludes him from continuing the conversation in terms he would use. It stops him cold and causes him to reply, "Well, have it your way. I refuse to enter the arena."

But it certainly seems like Pirsig wants to answer the Nazi, particularly if he denies he can be criticized the same way he criticizes James. The problem is that Pirsig seems to want to say that we can argue about morals, that reason in the Platonic, dialectical sense, is something that should not be divorced from morals. In ZMM, Pirsig felt that the solution to the Platonic, SOM mess was "a new philosophy ... a new spiritual rationality--in which the ugliness and the loneliness and the spiritual blankness of dualistic technological reason would become illogical." (ZMM, 368) Pirsig wants to erect a new philosophy, a new rationality, a new five-step deductive proof in which, with our new assumptions in tow like how Quality comes before subjects and objects, we can argue with people about morals and art. "Reason and Quality had become separated and in conflict with each other" (ibid., 368) and Pirsig wants to bring them back together.

Pirsig continues his cooptation of an argumentative model of morality in his rhetoric in Lila by usurping the rhetoric of the sciences. On page 183 he says, "it is absolutely, scientifically moral for a doctor to prefer a patient. ... We're at last dealing with morals on the basis of reason. We can now deduce codes based on evolution that analyze moral arguments with greater precision than before." "[A]bsolutely, scientifically", "the basis of reason", "deduce codes", "precision". These are things we find routinely in physics and chemistry, but not so often in ethics. Two more times: "Is it scientifically moral for a society to kill a human being?" (ibid., 184) and "A culture that supports the dominance of social values over biological values is an absolutely superior culture to one that does not...." (ibid., 357) His use of this rhetoric isn't extensive, but it is evocative and overbearing. It overshadows all of his moral pronouncements and his system.

To reformulate everything I've been saying so far, pragmatists are Humeans, they think reason the slave of the passions. Pragmatists think this because they think you can be a perfectly logical and reasonable and intellectual if you are a convinced Nazi, just the same as a convinced liberal or conservative or religious fundamentalist. The moral engine is not reason, as if you could argue a Nazi down, but passion, getting people to feel sorry about the immiseration of other people, jerking their tears at the sight of Holocaust victims. Rorty's point is that there is no way to answer the Nazi, there is no way to argue with him. The Nazi has different moral intuitions. We beg the question over each other when we argue because we are using different assumptions. However, while we can't answer the Nazi, Rorty urges that we can convert him. This doesn't occur by argumentation, it occurs by persuading him with pictures of the atrocities he has done, accounts of how the Jewish family acts and behaves and loves just like the Nazi family, that the Nazi shouldn't exclude the Jew from his we-consciousness. Clear thinking and reason and rationality are great. But Hume's point is that our clear thinking will always be in the service of our passional natures. In other words, clear thinking occurs on the model of a 5-step proof and that will always be in the service of a final vocabulary.

Pirsig's big enemy is the lack of value in science and reason, but what is he really doing, what is going on? Pirsig was right, there was nothing to stop the Nazi from coopting James' pragmatism, but Pirsig was sorely wrong to think that his MoQ was somehow safe from cooptation if it is simply based on his new hierarchy for reality. If you abstract away from the concrete, away from moral intuitions, you are either easily cooptable (like pragmatism and the morally abstract MoQ), or begging the question (like when you fill in the abstract with the concrete).

So we are led back to our question: does Pirsig want to answer the Nazi? I think the answer is still inconclusive. I think given the language he uses, it still appears that Pirsig wants to be able to wrestle the Nazi down, he wants to rely on more than our "soup of sentiments". But can he, can Pirsig, given the tools laid out presently, wrestle the Nazi down? No, he cannot. Even if Pirsig wants to create a new spiritual rationality, a logical game where the Nazi couldn't possibly win, it isn't clear yet that Pirsig is implying that the Nazi is forced to play this game, is compelled to play by our assumptions, in our terms. The question is still open.

To bring this question through one last twist, one last spin of the hermeneutical wheel, I will offer the most compelling reason I've found to believe that Pirsig thinks that the Nazi should be compelled to play our game. It hinges on the acquisition of our moral intuitions and hence, as one might guess, on Dynamic Quality.

To Part III

Begging the Question, Part III

Moral Intuition(s)
There are two senses of intuition that we should distinguish. The first are ideas that we feel without argument. The second is a way of accessing something nonrational, something beyond argument. The two are obviously related, but the first sense is the sense of "intuition" as ideas that we feel are fairly obvious. The second sense is the sense of "intuition" as a faculty that gives us access to ideas that should be fairly obvious.

By "moral intuitions" I mean certain ideas about what is good. For instance, we Americans have intuitions that democracy is the best form of government yet realized, that freedom is the best route to happiness, and that Nazis are despisable. We feel these things without argument and we agree to them without argument. They are in our blood, so to speak. By "moral intuition" I mean an ability to access ideas about what is good, ideas that we accept without argument.

What I will argue is that Pirsig holds to both senses of intuition and that pragmatists hold to only the first sense.

The reason people want to answer the Nazi, want to be able to argumentatively and dialectically wrestle the Nazi down, is that they fear "that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form 'There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.'" (Rorty, CP, xlii) Rorty says that our moral intuitions are temporary resting places, that there is nothing ahistorical or universal about them. They are simply the best that we have come up with so far. They are what make us us, or as Wittgenstein would put it, they are a form of life, the best form of life we have yet seen. When Sartre says, "Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us" ("Existentialism is a Humanism," quoted by Rorty in intro to CP), the "us" Sartre is referring to is not some universal image of mankind, but us Westerners, we who have lived through the Enlightenment and WW II, who have seen the terrible things that fascism and totalitarianism can do.

Pirsig however does refer to something that is beyond our practices, something that will condemn us even if there is nobody else around but us. He calls it Quality and Dynamic Quality. Quality is reality for Pirsig. This is consistent between ZMM and Lila. In Lila, however, Pirsig develops two ways in which we access Quality: through static patterns of quality and through Dynamic Quality. Pirsig calls Dynamic Quality the "pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality." (Lila, 133) For Pirsig, "Static quality ... emerges in the wake of Dynamic Quality." (ibid.) One way we can interpret this is that Dynamic Quality represents our intuition, our access to the nonrational, our access to Quality. It gives us our moral intuitions, which take the form of static quality patterns. Static quality patterns are what is left over and these are arguable. These represent our patterns of argument over the years that have accumulated, arguments for democracy and freedom. But unlike Rorty who says that we can never reach outside of the cicle of these static patterns, Pirsig says that the argument begins and ends with Dynamic Quality.

To help see this interpretation, I think we should first stop and look at the way Pirsig literally writes these two things: static patterns of small "q" quality and Dynamic big "Q" Quality. Quality as reality, for Pirsig, is always capitalized, just like Dynamic Quality. Static patterns, on the other hand, are never capitalized, the "Quality" that comes with them is never capitalized. I don't think this is just some German pretension. I suggest that we take this as a sign that Pirsig is suggesting that static patterns are not quite "Quality," not quite reality, but that Dynamic Quality does give us access to reality, to Quality.

My main analysis starts with Pirsig's glasses analogy at the beginning of chapter eight in Lila. "The culture in which we live hands us a set of intellectual glasses to interpret experience with, and the concept of the primacy of subjects and objects is built right into these glasses. If someone sees things through a somewhat different set of glasses or, God help him, takes his glasses off, the natural tendency of those who still have their glasses on is to regard his statements as somewhat weird, if not actually crazy." (Lila, 112-3) The "intellectual glasses" that we are given by our culture is our static patterns, they are our intuitions. The shift to another set of glasses represents the shift to another set of intuitions, another vocabulary. Pragmatists would agree to all of this. However, Pirsig continues and says that we can take our glasses off. This is Pirsig's split between mediated and unmediated experience, his idea that static patterns are a veil and a distortion of our experience, of the true reality.

What Pirsig does is privilege unmediated experience. Pirsig says, "The purpose of mystic meditation is not to remove oneself from experience but to bring one's self closer to it by eliminating stale, confusing, static, intellectual attachments of the past." (Lila, 134) We must "eliminate" our static patterns so that we can become closer to unmediate experience. Our static patterns are "stale" and "confusing". Further, Pirsig says that "All life is a migration of static patterns of quality toward Dynamic Quality." (Lila, 160) Life is a movement towards unmediated experience. The privileging is solidified with "In general, given a choice of two courses to follow and all other things being equal, that choice which is more Dynamic, that is, at a higher level of evolution, is more moral." (Lila, 183)

This isn't a minor interpretation of Pirsig that is hard to get a handle on. It is pervasive. Pirsig says, "Mystics will tell you that once you've opened the door to metaphysics you can say good-bye to any genuine understanding of reality. Thought is not a path to reality. It sets obstacles in that path because when you try to use thought to approach something that is prior to thought your thinking does not carry you toward that something. It carries you away from it. To define something is to subordinate it to a tangle of intellectual relationships. And when you do that you destroy real understanding." (Lila, 73) Static patterns, thought itself, will never lead to a "genuine understanding of reality," "it carries you away from it", it "destory[s] real understanding." To think about something is to "subordinate" it, it is to make static patterns higher than Dynamic Quality and, all other things being equal, this is immoral.

Not only is this theme pervasive in Lila, the later, more metaphysical Pirsig, it has precedent in ZMM. Linking together Pirsig's cooptation of the rhetoric of science and Dynamic Quality as a faculty of intuition, a capacity for that which is beyond rational means, he says, "What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings. We know that these reasonings do not come from us and at the same time we recognize in them, because of their harmony, the work of reasonable beings like ourselves. And as these reasonings appear to fit the world of our sensations, we think we may infer that these reasonable beings have seen the same thing as we; thus it is that we know we haven't been dreaming. It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know." (ZMM, 273)

This, in itself, seems to simply refer to a redescription of objectivity into intersubjectivity, which every pragmatist can rejoice in. However, Pirsig says that there is a "guarantee". Pirsig is saying that intersubjectivity, alone, is not enough, we need a guarantee for this intersubjectivity to be objectivity. Pirsig spins his words to make it look like intersubjectivity guarantees objectvity, but a close reading shows that this is not the case. Preceding this passage, we find that the guarantee is "... the sense of harmony of the cosmos, which makes us choose the facts most fitting to contribute to this harmony. It is not the facts but the relation of things that results in the universal harmony that is the sole objective reality." (ZMM, 273) "The sense of harmony of the cosmos" is Dynamic Quality, intuition, and this sense "makes us choose the facts most fitting to contribute to this harmony." It makes us, it forces us, it compels us. This is what forces the Nazi to play our game, a game in which the Nazi has no chance of winning. The force is our intuition of Dynamic Quality, a capacity that every person has, that every person has a moral obligation to follow. If the Nazi denies it, then we should feel righteous in saying that he is subordinating Dynamic Quality to immoral static patterns. The Nazi is immoral because he denies Dynamic Quality.

Pirsig's force comes from Dynamic Quality as bringing in something outside of static patterns; this in effect reconstitutes Kant's analytic/synthetic dichotomy and Mill's real/verbal dichotomy, the ones that Quine gets rid of. Rather than following the pragmatists and saying that our language never brings in or refers to something that is outside of itself, Pirsig becomes a Kantian by suggesting that some static patterns, like "All bachelors are single", are analytic, wholly internal to themselves, and that some static patterns, like "Nazis are immoral", are synthetic, they refer and are forced by something outside of the pattern. This allows, in argumentation, for Pirsig to not simply make verbal inferences, but real inferences, like the kind that would be made when answering the Nazi, when engaging in an argument where you can triumphantly and dialectically declare "You are immoral!"

But the pragmatist gets rid of this distinction. He dissolves our ability to distinguish between analytic truths and synthetic truths, verbal inferences and real inferences. By doing this, the pragmatist is saying that our moral intuitions are inside of a vocabulary, too. That the distinction between Dynamic Quality and static quality, between unmediated and mediated experience, is inside of a vocabulary. Pirsig wants to say that our vocabulary is only our static patterns of quality (specifically our intellectual static patterns of quality) and that Dynamic Quality exists outside of our vocabularies. Dynamic Quality then becomes our trump card, that which forces people to use certain vocabularies rather than others. But the pragmatist simply becomes metaphilosophical and says that you are begging the question. By saying that something exists outside of a vocabulary, you are begging the question over the pragmatist who says that nothing can, that nothing can force us to play a vocabulary. The pragmatist instead says that some vocabularies are better than others, but the choice in vocabularies is always a question-begging experience.

People should notice that I've conveniently walked around in a circle: I've ended with Quine's dissolution of the analytic/synthetic dogma, which was one of my original premises. I didn't actually conclude with Quine's dissolution, but I could try by pointing out that "Dynamic Quality" exists as a static pattern, that we can't seperate any of those words from a vocabulary, from the Quality vocabulary. That any effort to point or refer or demonstrate the existence of something unmediated is doomed to mediation. But that's not my main point. My point isn't to argue for the pragmatist position, for Quine's dissolution of one of the dogmas of empiricism. The point is that Rorty is showing us the consequences of pragmatism. My effort is to show that Pirsig fails as a pragmatist part of the time, and succeeds some of the time. I am not arguing for pragmatism. I am showing the fruits of its labors. It's up to each individual interlocuter to decide whether or not pragmatism seems persuasive.

I've continually tried to point out Pirsig's ambivalence concerning these subjects, what I've called his pragmatist impulse and his Kantian or Platonic impulse. People have taken this to mean that I am debasing Pirsig's genius. But this isn't so, not in the least. I believe the grey space in Pirsig's writings is enormous, compounded by the fact that the volume of Pirsig's writing is very small while the topics he convers are large. Rorty writes that "the works of anybody whose mind was complex enough to make his or her books worth reading will not have an 'essence,' that those books will admit of a fruitful diversity of interpretations, that the quest for 'an authentic reading' is pointless. One will assume that the author was as mixed up as the rest of us, and that our job is to pull out, from the tangle we find on the pages, some lines of thought that might turn out to be useful for our own purposes." ("Taking Philosophy Serious" quoted in Hall, 166) I think that, given in particular the kinds of books Pirsig wrote, books about a man who went "insane" and then came back to tell the tale, this is as true of Pirsig as it was for Heidegger.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Prospectus for an Idiosyncratic and Possibly Controversial Reading of Lila

Firstly, let me say up front that this was originally not my idea. Rick Budd gets sole credit and bears total responsibility (and blame) for hatching it. He wrote me with it and we exchanged a number of letters about it and the initial intention was that we would work on developing it together. In the end, however, Rick decided, probably because he was too chickenshit to attach his name to it (I'm calling you out, bitch), that I should take it and run with it. So as the thesis is worked out, I bear more and more freight and responsibility for where it goes. Rick should only be blamed for giving me the idea (though, probably for bequething it to me, too, and allowing me to run wild and unchecked).

Secondly, as the title announces, this is not what I would call a full, persuasive reading of the book. It is only a suggestion for one, an angle that could be more fully explored. In what follows, I do not stray very far from what our letters hatched. So, in that sense, Rick and I are co-authors (though I didn't ask him for permission to put it together and present it publicly, so in that sense, I bear responsibility).

What if Lila is more autobiographical than it seems? That's the question that popped into Rick's head one day and launched a number of interesting angles and insights. We are led to such a question when we stop and wonder why certain shifts occur between ZMM and Lila and within the story of Lila itself. For instance, it isn't at all questioned that when Phaedrus opens his mouth in Lila that the philosophy he spins is the philosophy of Pirsig himself. The irony of ZMM is seemingly displaced in Lila for a clear window into Pirsig's mind. So in that sense Lila is autobiographical, it tells Pirsig's philosophy as he wants it. But, we might ask ourselves, why the shift to the creation of a systematic metaphysics in Lila? And why did he drop his "pesky Indians" project in favor of it? Why does Pirsig suddenly see the need for a moral foundation, which towards the end of Lila reveals itself as a strong motivation, as seen in his reaction, for instance, to James' pragmatism and the sloppy "soup of sentiments"?

Pirsig sometimes says that Lila and Rigel are creations of his to service the story, yet on the other hand he does say that they represent himself in some way, though just as every character a novelist creates takes some part of the creator with them. But we know that not all the characters in Lila are completely fictional. Dusenberry is real, Robert Redford is real, even the boat is real. We know that Dusenberry was a real anthropologist that studied the things Pirsig says he did, we know that Redford was interested in making ZMM into a movie and that the project had moved some way towards that goal, and we know that Pirsig is a sailor with a small yacht of some kind. And what's more, from Ian Glendinning's work on the Pirsig timeline we know that the timelines of both books line up very closely to Pirsig's actual biographical timeline.

From Ian's timeline, it seems that Bob and his wife Nancy were planning to sail around the world together after he took the boat down the canal--the trip recounted in Lila. They separate almost immediately after the events of the novel end. The suggestion that turns the tide of the way we read this book is that, after reading the work Ian has done in lining up Pirsig's biographical timeline with the events of Lila, we ask ourselves: what if Lila is based on a real woman who got mixed up with Pirsig and, in some way, destroyed his marriage (as adultery tends to do)? And what if Rigel, if not based on someone real, is the voice in Pirsig that still feels guilty about what happened? Remember that Lila's character has been said to be allegorically connected to biological static patterns and Rigel to social static patterns. And now turn to Lila and reread the Rigel confrontation in the beginning of the book. With that in mind, certain passages flair up with different, ambiguous meanings.

"It's not a public matter," Rigel said. "And I won't mention his name… or you'd recognize it." (85)
"Are you trying to tell me his wife had no right to be angry?" (86)
"The person we are talking about dishonored his wife and he dishonored his children and he dishonored everyone who put trust in him, as well as himself. People forgave him for his weakness, but they lost respect for him and that was what finished him for any position of responsibility." (ibid.)
"And I don't know what the circumstances of your own personal family are my friend, but I warn you, if you're not careful she'll do it to you."
As an afterthought he added, "If she hasn't already." (87) [Is it significant that he added this as an afterthought?]
"Well there are some of us left," he said, returning to the author, "who are still holding out against your hedonistic 'Quality' philosophy or whatever it is." (ibid.)
"Well, we've been talking in a rather general way so far, now let me ask a rather specific question: Did the universal source of things, that is responsible for the creation of Heaven and Earth, broadcast on your radio receiver as you stumbled across my boat at two a. m. this morning that the woman you were stumbling with was an Angel of Quality?"
"What?" the author asked.
"I'll repeat," he said. "Did God tell you that Miss Lila M. Blewitt of Rochester, New York, with whom you stumbled across my deck at two this morning, has Quality?"
"What God?"
"Forget God. Do you personally think Miss Lila M. Blewitt is a Woman of Quality?"
Richard Rigel stopped. He hadn't expected this answer.
Could the Great Author really be so stupid? . . . Maybe he had some trick up his sleeve . . . . Richard Rigel waited but nothing came. (88-9)
"I find quality ... is found in values I've learned in childhood and grown up with and used all my life and have found nothing wrong with. Those are values that are shared by personal friends and family ... and other companions. Because we believe in these common values we're able to act morally toward one another." (90)
"Now you may argue, and many do, that the values of the community and the laws they produce are all wrong. That's permissible. The law of the land guarantees you the right to hold that opinion. And moreover, the laws provide you with political and judicial recourses by which to change the 'bad' laws of the community. But as long as those recourses are there and until those laws are changed neither you or Lila or anyone else can just go acting as you please in disregard of everyone else, deciding what does and what does not have 'Quality.' You do have a moral and legal obligation to obey the same rules others do." (90-1)
"Well, do you see what happens when you get all involved in fine-sounding words that nobody can define? That's why we have laws, to define what quality is. These definitions may not be as perfect as you'd like them, but I can promise you they're a whole lot better than having everybody run around doing as he pleases. We've seen the results of that." (91-2)
[Could Pirsig have actually seen the results himself by the time he wrote this?]
"Tell me," he said, "do you really and sincerely believe that Lila Blewitt has quality?"
The author thought for a long time. "Yes," he said.
"Well why don't you just try to explain to us how on earth you can possibly think that Lila has quality. Do you think you can do that?"
"No, I don't think I can." (92)

Is Pirsig talking to himself through Rigel? Scolding himself for ruining his marriage? Blaming his "moral failure" on his old view of quality? Is this what sends him searching for a moral foundation with which to make moral judgments with greater clarity? Or does his guilt reignite the metaphysical madness of Phaedrus, sending him back into his old obsessions for psychological shelter? This certainly gives a whole new tone to the part where he's trying to decide whether or not he should pursue a metaphysics of Quality and says: "His mind went over this many times. A part of it said, 'Don't do it. You'll get into nothing but trouble'" (74) Was this the author-character of ZMM? "The trouble was, this was only one part of himself talking. There was another part that kept saying, ‘Ahh, do it anyway. It's interesting.’ This was the intellectual part that didn't like undefined things, and telling it not to define Quality was like telling a fat man to stay out of the refrigerator, or an alcoholic to stay out of bars. To the intellect the process of defining Quality has a compulsive quality of its own." (ibid.) And was this Phaedrus?

Is this the real story of Lila? The moral failing that sent an otherwise stable Pirsig back down the road of madness? And then, with the Rigel chapter in our minds, when we turn to the conclusion of Lila, we realize that the MoQ, as a systematic philosophy, has nothing really to do at all with the resolution of the story. Rigel saves him plain and simple. Rigel explains that he came back to find Phaedrus because he was curious about why Phaedrus thought Lila had quality. He knew Lila as a child and knew she was a quality person then (she stood up for him against other kids) and thought that maybe Phaedrus had somehow seen a glimmer of that in her and came to find out what it was. Phaedrus writes this off as a "savior" complex of some kind, but from Rigel’s own words we see that it was in fact his desire to find the quality in Lila that leads to the resolution. The metaphysics was besides the point the whole time. It turns out Rigel was the one who really knew about the quality in Lila the whole time and it was Phaedrus who was grasping around the darkness of his own metaphysics to justify the comment he had made defensively, without reason....

"You're the winner, you know," the idol said. ". . . by default."
"How so?"
"You did one moral thing on this whole trip, which saved you."
"What was that?"
"You told Rigel that Lila had Quality."
"You mean in Kingston?"
"Yes, and the only reason you did that was because he caught you by surprise and you couldn't think of your usual intellectual answer, but you turned him around. He wouldn't have come here if it hadn't been for that. Before then he had no respect for her and a lot for you. After that he had no respect for you, but some for her. So you gave something to her, and that's what saved you. If it hadn't been for that one moral act you'd be headed down the coast tomorrow with a lifetime of Lila ahead of you." (462)
Pirsig sets sail down the Hudson planning to write an academic text on anthropology. Along the way, he has an affair and destroys his marriage. The guilt puts him in a moral crisis, which gets him reconsidering quite how in tune with quality he really is. Between the guilt, and the reconsideration, he descends back into his compulsion to define Quality. It consumes him to the point where the earlier project is abandoned completely and in the end he's left talking to a plastic doll that talks back to him, twirling madly, alone on a beach in glee over his metaphysics while the destruction of his marriage is only weeks down the road. Was the MoQ just a giant red-herring all along?

We find the MoQ as a red-herring because the book doesn't end with Pirsig's metaphysics, the book ends with Pirsig's doll telling him his gut reaction was moral. And what was that "gut reaction"? According to the terms of the novel, the terms of the philosophy Pirsig has laid out through it, it was Dynamic Quality, Whitehead's "dim apprehension", mystical apprehension itself. But was it? Or was it Pirsig's old insanity rising up again? Is there a difference?

One of the most important things we have to remember about Lila are the ways in which Pirsig uses points of view to write the narrative. Much of the book is from Phaedrus' point of view, but we get some from Lila and one from Rigel. We need to remember how Pirsig enjoys manipulating points of view to conceal as much as to reveal (as evident from Pirsig's letter to Robert Redford). When we read Lila as the quasi-reenactment of his moral crisis, several other things start falling into place: the dreariness of the "Cruising Blues" essay, the harshness of the "Husband without a Wife" book review (written only months before his own divorce), his sudden "right wing" turn on hippies and criminals (a metaphysical reaction to Chris's murder?).

In Pirsig's letter to Redford, he says:

Here [ZMM] ends for most readers, leaving them a little puzzled and a little haunted by it all, wanting to discuss it with someone and ask questions. A few perceptive readers and one lone British critic kept on going beyond the end of the book into a whole other interpretation which the narrator never really gives you. John and Sylvia, the bourgeois butts of the narrator's criticism, are now seen as tolerant friends. Chris, the troubled brat of the narrator's tale, now appears as almost saintly, and the benign, omniscient narrator, whose point of view the reader has had to accept as true until now is seen as Phaedrus himself, broken, his mind half-destroyed, struggling desperately to recover.

What really happened? In the end Phaedrus said he wasn't insane. But the court ruled he was, and his symptoms through the book are classic textbook symptoms of schizophrenia. What is wrong here?

I think the effect of ending the book on this question rather than an answer to it is correct. Questions can be stories too. Even though the audience is not consciously aware of another possible story, something in their subliminal minds responds to it, and that is why the story lingers with them so.... (Guidebook, 231)

Pirsig goes on to suggest in his letter that there is an "alternative, Zen explanation" of what happened in Chicago: it "was not insanity but enlightenment as it has been understood for thousands of years in China, India, and Japan..." (ibid., 231-2) Pirsig, however, says that the book couldn't say that "because to do so would sink it completely and would in fact be bad Zen to bring up. But the question of what really happened to Phaedrus is taken up again in the book I am now working on...." (ibid., italics mine) And in a buried footnote to the Redford letter, we find this from a letter to Ronald DiSanto: "I don't think all insanity is a form of enlightenment nor do I think all enlightenment a form of insanity, but I think that there is an area of overlap between the two where identical phenomena can be interpreted either way depending upon which culture one is looking out of." (ibid., fn. 3, 239)

Just as ZMM does not end with final closure, but ends with the opening up of questions the question of whether it's all been insanity or mystic apprehension is the point itself.

Almost the last thing Phaedrus says to the doll is " may be right and you may wrong but we're coming to the end of the road here."

To Part II

*Almost all of the above is work Rick did digging out his idea. In fact, partly because of my laziness but mostly because Rick did such an excellent job of presenting it, I mainly copied and pasted what Rick wrote to me. As much as Rick might not want it, he certainly gets writing and research credit for this project.