Saturday, April 22, 2006

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


  1. Ok,
    First re-action:

    (what a chump!)
    You seem to have successfully preempted any criticism I could think to launch towards this, not that I would as this is exactly were I’d like my thinking to lead.

    I’m going to have to chew on this for a bit and come back.

  2. FYI,
    The whole “Correspondence Theory & TAG” post derived out of an ongoing debate I’ve been having with the owner of this website:

    Proof That God Exists

    If you care to look, just make sure you play along by clicking the assumed buttons – if you don’t, it sends you to Disney worlds website. There’s a certain irony in that.

  3. Matt,
    There’s really not much I can say to this other then the fact that I completely agree with you.

    At the foundation of this seems to exist the insistence that we change the nature of our conversation; in other words (from my perspective) it’s always been my intention to show the validity of religious language as apposed to proving God for example. That is I generally find myself in tangles between atheists and theists where the discussion follows in the manner you pointed to – each side begging the question over the other. It hasn’t been until recent that I picked Rorty back up as I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere; each side has its beginning premise which leads to a conclusion, and both sides reject the others premise. So that led me into finally just saying, “Who cares! For God’s sake give me something I can use.”

    The beauty of this line of thinking takes a complex argument like TAG (which is bullshit anyway) and reduces it to Pascal’s Wager. In which case the theist either needs to take off his hat and walk away, or come up with a more pragmatic argument – so you’re left with showing horrible pictures to the Nazi.

    So again, there’s not much I can say to you here other then, A.) Yes, I agree (and that’s a boring conversation), and B.) Your prose suggests to me that you should be writing books and getting rid of this tired old blog.

    The title of my blog, “Idiot Philosophy” is as such because no doubt I’m a hack.

  4. Uh! I love my tired old blog!

    Yeah, I think you came to pragmatism in a very similar manner as I did. It was my experience of dialogue at's discussion group, with its impasses and personalities, the sheer contingency of conversational movement and change, that led me to a more practical, rhetorical outlook. It didn't have to happen that way, one can be a Platonist and still understand quite a bit about contextual exigencies (just look at Plato), but since I was already leaning that way, the experience struck me. No less than I came to philosophy by way of religious conversation, never being happy with God-talk by theists, but being uncomfortable by atheists who over-enthusiastically applaud thumpings of theists.

    I suspect I won't ever ditch the blog, exactly, because I'll likely remain an amateur philosopher. I hope to be a professional academic, but it won't be in philosophy and I still have theoretical thoughts that would otherwise fall to the wayside. An outlet like this may stay handy.


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