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.


  1. "You do not truly know someone until you fight them." (Seraph, in Matrix Reloaded)

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