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

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