Monday, April 03, 2006

Language, SOM, and the Pathos of Distance

One of the things that most Pirsigians agree on is the need to get rid of representationalism in philosophical thinking. Representationalism is the contemporary, professional term for the idea that language represents objects. We can easily see this as part of the Subject-Object paradigm by emphasizing how language in here, in the mind, is supposed to represent objects of cognition out there. So, the line continues, since values aren't objects out there, as far as we can tell, they must only exist as linguistic structures, which means they only exist in your mind, your head, the subject. Therefore they're subjective, your morals and values are hinged only on your perspective, and since your perspective is eternally different from anybody else's (unless you've divined a way into other people's heads), values can't be compared and are, really, whatever you like.

So representationalism is one of those structural pillars of SOM that have to go. The modern version started when Descartes said that the function of the mind was to mirror nature and that philosophy was supposed to be able to tell us how clean or dirty our mirror was. Through several twists and turns, philosophers at the turn of the century put aside the mind and asked how our language mirrors reality, or as it is sometimes put, how (and when and where) our language "hooks up to" reality.

What I would like to suggest is that Pirsig sometimes uses an outdated image of language's relation to reality. The place I would like to look at first is in the beginning of Lila when Pirsig describes mysticism and logical positivism. Roughly, Pirsig says that the logical positivists think that (some) language can capture reality perfectly well, we just have to iron out when and where (yes with rocks, no with values), and that the mystics think that language can't capture at all, "the fundamental nature of reality is outside language". (Lila, 72) Language takes you further away from reality, not closer. (ibid., 73) Pirsig tries the split the difference between the two, roughly in the same way Kant did. Kant gave the empiricists and science the phenomena and the rationalists and morals the noumena and, oh by the way, the noumena is how things are in themselves, ultimate reality. Pirsig does the same kind of thing by giving the positivists static patterns and the mystics Dynamic Quality and, oh by the way, DQ is the ultimate reality.

One of the distinctions that is used to buttress this splitting is the distinction between pure and impure experience. Pure experience is what we get from a direct connection to Quality, which is Dynamic Quality. Impure, indirect experience is what is left over for the static patterns in the wake of the "pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality." Dynamic Quality gives us knowledge of the ultimate reality, direct and non-linguistic. Linguistic knowledge is the kind of thing scientists toy with in pure experience's wake. One of the goals described in Pirsigian philosophy is to break the hold of static patterns to realize Dynamic Quality, to have pure experience.

One of the difficulties of this explanation is that it leaves us completely clueless as to what a pure experience could be. The difficulty lies in the fact that any expression of what it is is going to be a linguistic expression. Pure experience, the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality is ineffable. The effable side, the static patterns, is all we get to work with because the ineffable is ...? As soon as you try anything, anything to fill that ellipsis, you've destroyed it. This is something that Pirsig has picked up from the mystics.

For instance, is Pirsig's "Quality" really so undefined? Hardly. It has at least one definition: undefined. And as soon as you do that you've destroyed whatever it is you tried to preserve by leaving it undefined. What the pragmatist will try to do is redescribe why Pirsig defines Quality as undefinable so it doesn't seem like we're always, perpetually, eternally (and thoroughly predictably) losing something we thought we could have. We are defined as never being able to come close to it. Everybody has always defined us that way. Eastern mystics with their concept of maya and enlightenment, the Judeo-Christian tradition with its ideas of Fallenness and Redemption, the Platonic tradition's Divided Line, Descartes' episteme, Kant's noumena. Ever since humanity became a linguistic creature it has been searching for a way back to purity. We are fallen, we are fallible, we can't ever have what is supposedly best for us.

The undercurrent of the mainstream Western philosophical traditions, after they say we are fallen, has always been, "Yeah--so what are we gonna' do about it?" Its been the effort to try and not sound so defeated when we recognize that we could be wrong, that we can make ourselves better, that our children will probably be better than us. Part of that effort is what James and Pirsig are talking about--we are always and everywhere in touch with reality because reality is experience. But what does it mean to lose the wistful tone when we recognize that absolute certainty is a pipe dream, when we realize that--whatever it means to be fallen--it is the way we are? As Pirsig says, "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--and to whose birth no thought has been given. The rest of us have to settle for being something less pure." (ibid., 74) I think part of what it means is ditching that very distinction between purity and impurity. All experience is pure.

This is an example of the pathos of distance. What I see in Pirsig is that, while he does make this move to get rid of this pathos, he seems to reconstitute it in the static/Dynamic distinction. In ZMM it is harder for me to detect this tone, but when we get to Lila it begins to bleed in. Static patterns are what we are--we have to deal with them. But Dynamic--that's what we want to be. We want to be Dynamic as often as we can. But we can never sustain it. When a child is born, everything is Dynamic to her. But as the Dynamic turns to static, the feeling becomes more and more infrequent. Like being cast out of Eden, we long for the Dynamicness of our past, the easy Dynamic highs of a child. But this has to be like always falling in love--falling in love is the greatest feeling in the world, but you can't sustain it. If you fall in love with falling in love, you're doomed to walk the earth moving from one relationship to the next, trying to recapture that fleeting moment.

I remember when I first started posting on, an image that was often used to characterize DQ was of the carrot pulling the donkey forward. I used that image myself for a while. But I now think that that is the wrong image, the wrong analogy we should be using. That image epitomizes the pathos of distance, us always trying to reach that damn carrot and the carrot never quite being in our reach, somehow always staying one step ahead of us. I think Pirsig's mistake in the move from ZMM to Lila was when he reconfigured the classic/romantic distinction into the static/Dynamic by draining the romantic of its everydayness and vaulting it up into the mystic's eternal Other, something rare and mysterious. No longer was the classic and romantic just two different ways of looking at things or patterns of behavior, two things we switched back and forth from constantly. Dynamic Quality became the telos we were chasing, that rare moment when we see differently, when we are connected more directly with our experience, with reality.

The first line of reply will be to protest that Pirsig's point is that DQ just is this everydayness, that mysticism isn't as esoteric as all that. I think that's the proper move, but I think that's a strike against the tone being used, as pathos slides off the end towards bathos. Going back to Pirsig's original point about Quality, that experience is reality, that we are always and everywhere in touch with reality, should be enough to make us rethink the way Pirsig talks about DQ sometimes. If we are always in touch with Quality, and DQ and mysticism happen in everyday life, then I think we should realize that there's no sense in trying to chase DQ--that when Pirsig talks about being more open to DQ, he's singing in a minor key that is an outcome of the pathos of distance, the one he sought to ditch by collapsing experience and reality into each other's arms. DQ will happen to us whether we want it to or not--we can't be more or less open to it. You don't choose to have God speak to you--God chooses, and usually quite inexplicably.

The problem with both the logical postivist's idea that language can span the gap between us and reality and the mystic's idea that it can't is that both take part in the pathos of distance. Both have as a common presupposition the idea that there is a gap between us and reality and both have suggestions about how to span that gap (through language on the one hand and direct mystical experience on the other). When Pirsig says that, since both logical positivism and mysticism eschew metaphysics, metaphysics might be the place to mend the two together, to split the difference between the two, I think Pirsig takes on as conceptual baggage that common assumption: there is a distance.

I think that causes Pirsig to take along some of SOM's conceptual machinery and that that will eventually bog him down in SOMic problems. I think the way to split the difference between logical positivism and mysticism is to eschew the common presupposition between them--the idea that language is supposed to "capture" anything, that there is a gap or distance in need of being spanned. Pirsig leads us towards that eschewment when he tells us, following James and others, that experience is reality, but I don't think he goes far enough in the erasure of the pathos of distance with his descriptions of language's function.

Language neither does nor does not capture experience. Language isn't in the capturing business. Language is not a pirate. Language is a tool that we use to deal with reality, with our experience. If we make this turn fully from language-as-a-mirror/pirate to language-as-a-tool, if we fully get rid of representationalism, I think we will want to get rid of the idea of a "pre-intellectual experience." What we will have instead are non-intellectual experiences, like kicking a rock, seeing a sunset, being eaten by a tiger, dropping some acid. Its not that our language fails in capturing our experience of smoking peyote, its that language sometimes finds it difficult to deal with it. The experience of having a tough time of putting something into words isn't a measure of language's failure or success, its simply a measure of difficulty, of the struggle to find an analogue that makes sense in the analogues upon analogues upon analogues that make up civilization's knowledge.

The effect of this way of splitting the difference between logical positivists and mystics is to say, against the positivists, that mystics do produce knowledge, but, against the mystics, that this knowledge is not from a distinct and particular direct relation to reality. Once you make experience coextensive with reality everything is a direct relation to reality. Smoking peyote will not get you closer to reality if only because there is no distant reality to get closer to--reality is always and everywhere around us. What we can say after we split the difference is that mystics do produce knowledge, just as the physicists do, but its just a different kind of knowledge, not aimed at prediction and control, but at something else, like spiritual balance. The fruits of the mystics' knowledge tree, the one where the Daodejing grows, shouldn't be judged by the standards of other trees, like science, because the purpose of growing the tree is different. We don't pull out and burn the tomato plant because it doesn't grow as tall as the pine tree. We grow both, one for delicious tomatoes and the other for climbing and sitting under for shade.


  1. Great stuff, as usual. Do you ever have the impression that Pirsig's philosophical development got frozen (in part) around 1950? His angle is very much conditioned by the debates at that time.

    BTW I'd quibble a bit with your language of 'the mystics', but from a basis of sympathy with your overall point. All very Wittgensteinian :o)

  2. "The mystics". Yeah, well, that's what happens when you generalize. But I kinda' tried to stick fairly close to the way Pirsig characterizes them. Don't blame me!

    My impression is, yeah, that Pirsig is reacting to the counter-reaction to the positivists takeover of American university deparments, which had pretty much wrapped up by the 50s. My sense is that he reacts by retreating to the way philosophy was done at the turn of the century. Which is the way, oddly enough, people Mortimer J. Adler did philosophy (from Chicago fame). There's this great, terribly obscure paper by Rorty from the mid-60s or something called "Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?" I think it does wonders for breaking out of the idea that what the "linguistic turn" philosophers were doing was so terribly different from what old-school metaphysicians like Adler and Pirsig are doing. But part of my problem with Pirsig is that, by reacting to the analysts like he does, he doesn't learn anything from them. Like what Wittgenstein teaches us.

  3. A good analysis. I agree with Sam's point about Pirsig having being stuck in views of his time.

    I particularly liked this quote which sums up the ineffability problem, and a lot more besides, like language just being another part of reality itself ...

    "The experience of having a tough time of putting something into words isn't a measure of language's failure or success, its simply a measure of difficulty, of the struggle to find an analogue that makes sense in the analogues upon analogues upon analogues that make up civilization's knowledge."

  4. I think the line you highlighted, about ineffablity being difficulty, is the most important line. It sums up what the pragmatist move is from treating ineffability as a _theoretical_ problem to treating it as a practical problem.

    That type of move is why pragmatism often looks like it "ends philosophy" because every time philosophy thinks it can treat something theoretically, by transcendentally circumscribing the area or reaching an essence, pragmatism responds by showing that those theoretical efforts fail (which it has to do case by case, else it would, too, be just a case a transcendental philosophy) and redescribing the area into a practical problem area, not a theoretical problem area.


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