Thursday, April 06, 2006

Dynamic Quality as Pre-Intellectual Experience

I want to cover again similar ground to which I addressed in "The Pathos of Distance." One of the troubles I've always had with Dynamic Quality as a concept is that so many ideas are shunted under its mantle (no less an ostensibly "undefined" mantle). DQ is used in many different ways. One of the ways it is used is as "pre-intellectual experience". I'd like to run through a dialectical sequence, all tied around several ways in which we describe DQ--directly knowable, inexpressible, unlensed (per the glasses/filter analogy of Ch. 8 of Lila), betterness, and finally as just plain different. My effort in running through this is to try and show some of the snags we will encounter if we persist in unpacking "pre-intellectual experience" with ocular metaphors like the glasses analogy, if we continue to throw up mediation between us and reality to create distance and the pathos that follows.

I want to start with "pre-intellectual experience" in the sense of "directly knowable." Something that is directly knowable is something that is knowable without language. You know it before language. The trouble with the directly knowable is that you can't say what it is. If you could, that raises the spectare of whether it wasn't really directly known at all, and really indirectly known. How does one "know directly"? How would you help someone? One could say that the unenlightened do know directly, they just don't recognize that they do. Well, if one gets along just fine with their descriptions of things, but they just don't describe things with the distinction of direct and indirect knowing, how does one "wake up" to see the distinction? How does one "know directly" if there's no way to tell them whether what they just "knew directly" is actual or fake "knowing directly"? If there were a way of telling them, it would be linguistic and that would make whatever it was under discussion not actually "known directly," but simply thrown into the linguistic pile.

This leads to "pre-" in the sense of inexpressible. The tough question for inexpressibility is, "How do you know 'pre-' is inexpressible?" Every time you try to enunciate why its inexpressible is a case of expressibility. And further, how do you know it is impossible to express the pre-intellectual and not simply difficult? Marking off an entire area of experience tout court as impossible to express before any attempt at expression is what you might call baptizing a problem. Instead of dealing with the practical difficulties of expression, you declare that area as an eternal feature of reality.

The first two senses exhibit a conversational problem. It either ends with the mystical dogmatist (because only dogmatists insist that something is unknowable or inexpressible and that every attempt to know or express it is ruled, a priori of any actual attempt, to have failed) shrugging his shoulders, smiling, and saying, "Well, you'll know it when you see it," at which point there's nothing else to say because the conversant is hopeless (not that conversation supplied any hope in the first place because conversation itself to the mystical dogmatist is hopeless) or with the pragmatist shaking his head and saying, "Well, maybe we should just try not to talk about that stuff, or really, in that way. Afterall, talk won't help. Maybe we should just concentrate on the linguistic pile when it comes to conversation." This has the effect of changing the subject. But why should this be a problem for a mystic? Afterall, what's the point of talking about something that is inexpressible? Whatever "knowing directly" is, it can't be shared with other people. The pragmatist reaction is just that maybe we should fix up the rules of the conversation so that we don't get stuck in those kinds of cul-de-sacs.

Next I want to turn to "pre-" in the sense of unlensed. Sometimes people describe the relation between the two kinds of experience, static and Dynamic, as intellectual static patterns filtering our experience. This is an image Pirsig uses and I want to focus on his glasses analogy from the beginning of Ch. 8. Pirsig says, "The culture in which we live hands us a set of intellectual glasses to interpret experience with…. If someone see things through a somewhat different set of glasses or, God help him, takes his glass off, the natural tendency … is to regard his statements as somewhat weird…." (Lila, 112-3, italics mine) The italicized part underscores the possibility of going "unlensed," which is pre-intellectual experience, seeing things with the naked eye. The question I want to ask is simple: How do you know you've become unlensed?

Ignoring the problems of inexpressibility, how do you become convinced that what you experienced was unlensed experience? The ability to convince is the ability to justify, to others or yourself. But say you justify to someone else that the experience you just had was unlensed. Haven't you just given them a new lens to filter their experience with, so now, with your guidance, they'll be able to identify that kind of experience as unlensed experience? More importantly, though, how do you know that you weren't using that lens, which you just enunciated to another, unconsciously in your original experience, the unconscious lens you were handed from your education? And even more striking, how do you know that Pirsig hasn't just given you a new lens to filter experience by making the distinction between lensed/unlensed and showing you how to use it by examples? That the way you seem to be experiencing things seems to be this way because of the lens you're seeing with?

This is the most important problem with using the glasses/filter analogy. It relates to Pirsig's identification of DQ with the experience of babies. At the end of Ch. 9, Pirsig equates the learning a baby goes through, making "simple distinctions such as pressure and sound," with DQ. "From the baby's point of view, something, he knows not what, compels attention." The effort to become unlensed is the effort to be a baby again. But why do we want to be babies again? Would babies have built the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty? No, but the French, working this side of the course of Western civilization, would have. So why are we so eager to toss aside what made Shakespeare and Van Gogh and Lao-tzu possible? And more to the point, we can't actually ever be babies again. Pirsig himself says that we have to settle for something less pure, that "the only person who doesn't pollute the mystic reality of the world with fixed metaphysical meanings is a person who hasn't yet been born...." (Lila, 74) This strikes me as a passage indicating the impossibility of ever being pure, of having to simply try and figure out how to deal with impurity. And if one goes that far, I would think the first thing one would try and do is dissolve the distinction between purity and impurity. We are always lensed, and in fact becoming unlensed doesn't even make any sense. And that should suggest that the lens analogy isn't even very useful.

The next link I want to turn to is "pre-" in the sense of "betterness." I don't just mean the sense of DQ-as-innovation, I mean the sense that, all other things being equal, DQ is better in toto than SQ, pre-intellectual experience better than intellectual experience. The question is again simple, "How do you know pre-intellectual is better than intellectual?" Ignoring the problems of inexpressibility and lensing, we can simply focus on its non-linguistic nature. How would you know non-linguistic is better than linguistic? My continual answer to "how would you know?" has been, "Well, you'd need to justify it and that's linguistic," but here that question can be answered because you could justify the betterness of watching a sunset to talking about a sunset without accidentally evacuating the area where the justification is supposed to occur (unlike for inexpressibility and lensing).

But now there're two different questions. The first is "Why should non-linguistic experience, all other things being equal, always be better than linguistic?" Why should eating a hot dog always be better than reading Proust? Or watching a sunset always be better than writing a poem about a sunset? One could give justification for why they are always better for you, i.e. justify it to yourself, but how do you justify it for everyone whether they like it or not, which is the force of the intended split? The second question poses another problem: how does a non-linguistic experience innovate on linguistic experience? Now I have gone back to the other sense of DQ, as innovation, as the breaking of old static patterns, and I want to know why all innovation should be intrinsically non-linguistic? Is it really the case that the only linguistic innovation, the breaking of patterns, happens when you stub your toe, see a sunset, get eaten by a tiger, or go shrooming? Was Pirsig doing nothing Dynamic when he sat in his office or on his boat trying to work out the Metaphysics of Quality by breaking its ties to SOM?

One could argue that Pirsig was simply working out the implications of his original peyote experience, but are we really going to argue that? That Pirsig didn't use any linguistic ingenuity of his own aside from the peyote experience? What I would want to suggest is that in the case of the first question, you can't justify for everyone that sunsets are better than poems of sunsets without violating the Quality thesis, "Quality is what you like." In the case of the second question, I would suggest that DQ-as-innovation should be pulled apart from DQ as non-linguistic. DQ-as-innovation cuts across the divide between linguistic and non-linguistic. Sometimes you're caused to break some patterns by something non-linguistic, sometimes by toiling around in the linguistic patterns you're given reason to break them apart (which is why Donald Davidson argues that reasons can be causes, though causes can't be reasons).

The last sense I want to turn to is "pre-" as just different than intellectual experience. Paul Turner once took this line in dialogue with me at the MD. But if one makes knowledge internal to language, trade inexpressible for difficult-to-express, eschew lenses and filtering, and make DQ cut across non-linguistic/linguistic, then you've already gone a long ways to the sense in which I would like to use "non-intellectual." At this point, the two will look indistinguishable. The only sense of "pre-" (as opposed to "non-") that makes any sense at this point is the sense that you stub your toe before you say "Ow." But aside from that commonsensical point, there isn't any further philosophical utility as far as I can see. And at this point it becomes cogent to ask in what sense the intellectual is a barrier to the non-? That’s what this whole discussion revolves around, that Pirsig thinks that the intellectual--language--is blocking something. But what is the intellectual a barrier to at this point? To you stubbing your toe?

In the end, I would suggest three different senses of DQ. The first is DQ-as-non-intellectual-experience. This is the DQ of stubbing your toe, watching a sunset, and shrooming. In this sense, DQ causes you to shift your static patterns of belief in some way (though it doesn't offer you any reasons to do so). The second sense is DQ-as-pre-reflective. This is the DQ of offering off the cuff answers to questions like "Is that sunset beautiful?" or "Which student paper was better?" or "Does Lila have quality?" The third sense is DQ-as-innovation. This is the DQ of your static patterns being shifted to the point of breaking. This can happen when a non-intellectual experience shifts them or when you shift them yourself by reflection. All three of these senses can be seen to have links to the others, but I think all three need to be distinguished and that its when you conflate them that problems start to emerge. All three of these senses are commonsensical and there may be good, practical wisdom to be drawn from them, but I think problems will also emerge when you start to push them into philosophical service.

As a postscript, I want to say something more about the baptism of problems. Sometimes philosophers are wont to say that this or that paradox (like free will/determinism) or facet of reality (like consciousness) is simply eternal and will repel every effort to get a handle on it. Oftentimes they will call such things ineffable. Generally in philosophy, you don't get to leave acknowledged paradoxes and ineffable depths lying around without taking a hit for it. This is obviously a point of contention with some philosophers. Why can't we leave them around? Well, comes the responding question, why would you want to? The answer at some point has to be, "Because they're unresolvable." But all that means is that you've changed yourself into a dogmatist, baptizing whatever problem or paradox you're facing. You've made it into a feature of reality and as an eternal feature, you've determined ahead of time that it can never be solved or explained. But if there is no way that reality is in itself, as all post-Kantian philosophers have to agree, then all features of reality are features we've played a part in putting there. Reality can't tell us when something is unresolvable. The answer we don't get to have after Kant when asked, "Why would you leave a paradox?" is "Because its an unresolvable feature of reality that we have to deal with." After getting past Kant, we realize that the way we deal with paradoxes is by making distinctions and as many linguistic innovations until the paradoxical air is cleaned up.

If you leave a paradox, you don't get to baptize it. You don't get to say that that's just the way things are. You might say that leaving the paradox makes things more flavorful, like in poetry, but then you're not playing the game of philosophy anymore. Philosophers don't leave the playing field with unresolved paradoxes. That means they've failed in why they took to the field in the first place, to see how things hang together. (One should note that in the above I've defined philosophy in a certain way, which I've before suggested one shoudn't do. What I don't think we should do is hypostatize any definition. We should, though, define it for particular purposes, like seeing whether two people are playing two different games, talking past each other. Another way of putting my above implicit definitions is to say that paradox-mongering is okay in the game of philosophy-as-poetry, but not okay in philosophy-as-hanging-things-together-coherently.)

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