Monday, May 08, 2006

Against Northrop

A month or two ago in the MD, some people were using Northrop in expositions on Pirsig's philosophy. Understanding Northrop should be important to understand how Pirsig's philosophy grew to be what it is, and I don't deny that, but from what I understand of Northrop, I don't like him much. I first read some sections of his books when I was writing a review of one of Anthony McWatt's papers and I didn't like what I found, and recently I picked up a book called The New American Philosophers by Andrew J. Reck ("new" circa 1968) that had a number of expositions on philosophers, including Northrop. What I read there did not please me either and simply deepened my suspicion that Northrop is a neo-Kantian. Which only deepens my suspicion that Pirsig is still caught in the philosophical web he hoped to rend and replace.

The first thing that makes me leery is that Northrop apparently is of the mind to make everything "scientific." This was a problem that Dewey had, too, so it doesn't necessarily mean anything really bad, it just means they are probably using a really wide sense of "science", probably as coextensive with "inquiry". This is all confirmed in the Reck book, but the way it is confirmed is not enticing. "...Northrop defines logic broadly 'to include any form of knowing in religion and art as well as the sciences,'" which sounds a lot like what Pirsig is up to in his redefinitions, but then Reck continues "closely linking it with epistemology, which examines the relation between the knower and the subject matter as known." (200) Knower/known distinction? Not a great sign.

Northrop adopts a "methodological pluralism," each appropriate to different problems or stages of inquiry. That sounds appropriate, but one repetitive note is sounded over and over again throughout the chapter: Northrop's distinction between the aesthetic and conceptual, the immediate and the postulate. This is what some expositers have been using with Pirsig and it is exactly that distinction that makes me so wary. Here's an instance in Reck: "Although the second stage of scientific inquiry opens with pure fact under observation, it terminates with described fact or classified fact, fact no longer pure but altered by concepts. Pure fact, 'defined as that which is known by immediate apprehension alone,' is 'a continuum of ineffable aesthetic qualities, not an external material object.' The bedrock of empirical knowledge is drenched with intuited quality, evincing an essential relation between fact and the sort of values mirrored in impressionistic art." (201)

The passage holds both resonance and dissonance with Pirsig and plays to some of the "red flag words" I've been suggesting people stay away from. Words like "pure", "immediate", and "ineffable". Pirsigians will think that "drenched with intuited quality" sounds good, but how they can coutenance an "essential relation" between fact and value is beyond me. I thought Pirsig's primary move was to make everything value. It is this kind of thing that suggests to me that Pirsig still, in the moments when he describes that which is most immediate to us (DQ), is reinscribing a fact/value distinction into his philosophy. And this is bad. Not good.

To just briefly attack Northrop's distinction between intuition and postulation, Northrop says that a concept of intuition is one "which denotes, and the complete meaning of which is given by, something which is immediately apprehended." (ibid.) Now, first realize that Northrop's philosophy seems to hinge on the notion of "sense data". Sense impressionism is way, way out of vogue these days, and with good reason. It is based on bad Humean psychology, which may have pushed us down the track to pragmatism, but is a ladder best left behind. Northrop may want to replace much of bad Humeanism, but I don't think he did it radically enough. Second, try and think of what "meaning" is given by something not under a description. As quoted above, "pure fact" is not "described fact," which means that a pure intuition is not under any description. Where is the meaning? This is one of the reasons why the "linguistic turn" became so popular. There seemed to be something funny going on when we talk a lot about "pure experience" and such. How do we get meaning if there is no language? Northrop and many others have forwarded answers, but I think all of them fall under Quine and Sellars' swords. It's just bad, Cartesian/Kantian-engendered philosophy.

Another thing that makes me leery is Northrop's attempt at "philosophy of culture." He suggests, reasonably enough, that ideologies underlie cultural beliefs and that we should understand these ideologies. (He also says, roughly, that a culture has an implicit philosophy, but this is either repetition of the first point or saying, very badly, that all cultures have philosophical presuppositions. I think he leans towards the latter.) But his notion of "scientific inquiry" comes lurching foward and leads him to suggest, in Reck's words, that "Consequently, world peace hinges upon the ability of men to understand the differing ideologies which motivate the behavior of nations, in order to reconcile them when they are compatible and to correct them in consonance with impartial criteria when they are incompatible." (204) Impartial criteria? Where the hell are we going to get those? Wouldn't any "impartial" criteria you come up with, when it goes against a given ideology's beliefs, be rejected as being partial, as begging the question over it? Isn't the point of Pirsig's attack on Subject-Object Metaphysics to disimbue us of the notion of an objective, impartial viewpoint? That we are all partial, valuistic?

All of this comes to a head in Reck's exposition of Northrop's legal philosophy.
If legal science is to contain objective norms for the criticism of living laws, it must include natural law ethics and natural law jurisprudence. To clarify and justify this claim Northrop distinguishes bewteen "first-order" and "second-order" facts. "First-order facts are the introspected or sensed raw data antecedent to all theory and all cultures, given in anyone's experience in any culture. Second-order facts are cultural artifacts; that is, they are the result in part at least of human theory of first-order facts. Nature and natural law are the names for all first-order facts and their relations. Culture and living law are the names for all second-order facts and their inner order." On the next page he continues: "Stated more precisely, therefore, natural law jurisprudence is the thesis that scientifically verified theory of the 'is' of first-order facts provides the cognitive standard for measuring the goodness or badness of second-order artifacts. Thus just as sociological jurisprudence uses the scientifically verified theory of the 'is' of the living law to judge both legislation and the cases of positive law, so natural law jurisprudence uses the empirically verified theory of the 'is' of first-order facts to judge the goodness or badness of the living law." (214-5)
Do I even need to go over this? First, fact v. artifact. An artifact is an artificial fact, something made up, something not real. Second, we are supposed to get our second-order facts, the fake, artificial ones, looking closer like the first-order facts, the real ones. And a closely following third, first-order facts judge our second-order facts. The first-order facts provide the "cognitive standard for measuring goodness or badness." Cognitive standard? Again, doesn't Pirsig get rid of Kant's idea of a tribunal of pure practical reason sitting in judgement over us? Of an "is" imposing itself over our "oughts"?

I think Pirsig, in his better moments, does get rid of all those things. But I think Northrop works out fairly consistently what is required of an intuition/postulation distinction. Northrop is quite obviously trying to find that God's-eye point of view so we can find impartial criteria on which to judge other people and cultures. Pirsig says we can judge other cultures, but I hope to God there isn't any kind of notion of impartiality built in there. But I think that is exactly what is built into the intuition/postulation distinction. Things we gain by "intuition" are those things that everybody would gain in perfect symmetry, without variation.

Rocks may be such a thing, but are morals such a thing? This prima facie sense that we can get agreement on rocks and not on morals is what led to scientism. Northrop still has the sense of scientism in thinking that we can ultimately get morals to kow-tow the line. But pragmatists want to go the other direction and say that rocks aren't kow-towing any line and neither are morals. Its just the case that we can get agreement on rocks better than morals most of the time. That doesn't say anything about reality, that just means we're going to have to work hard to get people to start paying decent living wages and stop persecuting women. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time of Galileo and Newton to do to ethics and morals what they did to planets and rocks, but all that the attempts to do so have seemed to have shown us is that it wasn't, in fact, a good idea.


  1. Total agreement with that, as I'm sure you'd have expected. Northrop is as wholly trapped within Enlightenment-era understandings as was his teacher William James, and Pirsig simply continues it, reifying 'experience' as the foundational category. Gotta let go of it all..

  2. Well, come now, we can cut James a little slack, can't we?

    It's like, there is something wrong with "foundational categories", but not with "experience", per se. The slack I want to cut for James is the same slack I'd want to cut for Pirsig, that for all their talk about experience as foundational, they still worked hard at cutting out all the structural equipment that held up the foundation metaphor.

    I'd like to see James and Pirsig as simply talking in a 19th-century idiom. Northrop seems to me worse for building a positive program, taking the idiom of James and Whitehead and building back in all the Kantianism they wanted out.

    I don't know. I know the James you're thinking about is the one in Varieties of Religious Experience, but I think the one in "The Will to Believe" isn't all that bad. I'd still like to see you write a little something more about the former James. It's an interesting genealogical story.

  3. he he - God grant me the time to write it!


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