Monday, May 08, 2006

Excavating SOM

What is SOM?

What seems a simple question, I think, is actually quite difficult. "SOM" is Pirsig's mantle for the Great Enemy, for the kind of philosophy he wants to dissociate himself from. Because there is a lot of philosophy out there, it would help to figure out where exactly the tradition of Subject-Object Metaphysics begins, what it is, how to identify instances of it, and how what other philosophers are saying hook up to it.

I've always identified the SOM with the appearance/reality distinction. When Pirsig developed the S/O Dilemma and suggested that to be subjective is to be unreal, I took that as a dominant marker of what was going on. I see the subject/object distinction as coming out of the appearance/reality one. The subject/object distinction is a specifically modern version of this older distinction, which trails back to the Greeks. The difficulty in figuring out what Pirsig thinks the great enemy is is that sometimes it seems like his enemy is materialism and sometimes it seems like something else. What's more, many followers of Pirsig interpret him as primarily fighting materialism. I'd like to pursue this difficulty by answering two questions: is SOM the same as the mind/matter dualism? and Does the mind/matter dualism really start with Socrates? If either is true, then materialism as a philosophical thesis matters a lot more to Pirsig's project. If they aren't, then there's bigger fish to fry than any thesis about what reality exactly is.

There are two primary areas where Pirsig describes what he’s up against: the S/O Dilemma (Ch 19) and pretty much all of Part IV. The SOD is set up as a mind/matter dilemma: does Quality "exist in the things we observe?" or "is it subjective, existing only in the observer?" (231) Pirsig butts his head against each of the horns. He says in acknowledging the truth of the objective horn, "Quality … was not a physical property and was not measurable," (234) thus taking the dualism seriously, as true. When he goes up against the subjective horn he takes on "scientific materialism," "what is composed of matter or energy and is measurable by the instruments of science is real." (236) Pirsig makes pretty good work of scientific materialism, but, he says, that lands him in the camp of idealists, which he wasn't so sure about. And then he says, "Actually this whole dilemma of subjectivity-objectivity, of mind-matter, with relationship to Quality was unfair," (239) before concluding: "Phaedrus … went straight between the horns of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and said Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter." (240)

Here we have Pirsig linking subject and object directly with the mind/matter dualism. What else could he be talking about? The clues are littered about in this section, but they aren't completely obvious. The first is his treatment of the objective horn. To grab that horn would be to "refute the idea that objectivity implied scientific detectability." (232) He abandons that route, because of the seeming obviousness of physical properties, but not before indicating that he was "thrown off by an ambiguity in the term quality." (234) I don’t think it was the ambiguity in quality, I think it’s the ambiguity in "object" and "subject" that does him in. In preparing his brief assault on the objective horn he says, "In today's world, ideas that are incompatible with scientific knowledge don't get off the ground." (234) Hey, but where are these ideas? They’re in the mind, right? Hunh. So, ideas about objects, like scientific knowledge, get to be objective? And, really, "objectivity" itself simply stands for "ideas in the mind that relate to matter," as opposed to "subjectivity" which means "ideas in the mind that relate to something else, e.g. ______ ." This ambiguity in the terms he's using bursts right out of the text a page later when he slices and dices scientific materialism: "scientific concepts … could not possibly exist independently of subjective considerations." (237) The reason is because anything in the mind is subjective, in the subject. That’s the bind and the ambiguity.

I think the sentence that tells us the most about Pirsig's concerns is this one: "The whole purpose of scientific method is to make valid distinctions between the false and the true in nature, to eliminate subjective, unreal, imaginary elements from one's work so as to obtain an objective, true picture of reality." (236) Because when we get to the finale of ZMM, there is a stunning lack of talk about subjects and objects. Instead, it's about rhetoric, dialectic, logic, reason, mythos, logos, truth, the good. I think it is important to take into account that ZMM is a journey, not a dissertation. It is attempting to bring us to a state that resembles Pirsig's, when he first went through it, and to do that it goes through the same stages he went through. But that doesn't mean theses are positive, like a ladder we keep going up. Its more like pulling a sled through the snow, picking up and dropping things as we need—except that Pirsig doesn't tell us when he's dropping things.

To see this, in Part IV and Chicago, Pirsig says "the more he studied, the more convinced he became that no one had yet told the damage to this world that had resulted from our unconscious acceptance of their [the Greeks'] thought." (358) This wets our appetite. Then he begins the build up, which starts with the "mythos over logos" section (an argument that Pirsig commandeers, but for which I don't think he fully grasps the consequences). Pirsig tells us that in Greek cultures "one invariably finds a strong subject-object differentiation because the grammar of the old Greek mythos presumed a sharp natural division of subjects and predicates." (359) There you have it, the subject/object, mind/matter distinction built by—wait a second. What? "In cultures such as the Chinese, where subject-predicate relationships are not rigidly defined by grammar, one finds a corresponding absence of rigid subject-object philosophy." Subjects and predicates don’t sound like mind and matter to me. What could be the (obviously vastly underdeveloped) connection? But, more importantly, is that connection important? Why would Pirsig leave something like that so horrendously underdeveloped, just kinda' throw it out there and move on? I think its exactly because he is moving on. I think that paragraph marks a shifting of topics. Suddenly, and quite inexplicably, Pirsig has shifted to language use, rather than talk about mind and matter.

I think the topic shift is cemented in the very next two sentences: "One finds that in the Judeo-Christian culture, in which the Old Testament 'Word' had an intrinsic sacredness of its own, men are willing to sacrifice and live by and die for words. In this culture, a court of law can ask a witness to tell 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,' and expect the truth to be told." (359) If we look at this as a shift in topics, we will be less surprised when we reach Pirsig's revelation of our age's spiritual crisis: "Reason was to be subordinate, logically, to Quality, and he was sure he would find the cause of its not being so back among the ancient Greeks, whose mythos had endowed our culture with the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency"--wait for it--"to do what is 'reasonable' even when it isn't any good." (368) Pirsig italicizes that whole last part, just so we don't miss it. But if, as a reader, you had subjects and objects, specifically mind and matter, on the brain, you'd be totally thrown. "Reason and Quality had become separated and in conflict with each other and Quality had been forced under and reason made supreme somewhere back then." (368) Reason? But I thought we were talking about subjectivity and objectivity, mind and matter?

The reason nobody is caught off guard by this is because the structure of the narrative leads us inexorably to it. The narrative is structured so that we slowly forget about that whole thing about mind and matter, and instead start focusing on the bigger culprit: "the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason." (370)

I now want to bridge to my second question: "Does the mind/matter dualism really start with Socrates?" Does that dualism start with Greek culture, specifically Greek philosophical culture? I don't think it does. The first place I'll begin to refute the idea is with Pirsig, to continue to solidify the idea that not even Pirsig thinks the mind/matter dualism central. Pirsig begins his scattered narrative about the genesis of what he later calls the intellectual level with the piece above about subject-object differentiation, which is subtly transposed to grammar, a subject-predicate distinction, thus beginning our shift. The shift is followed through when Pirsig expands his narrative later in Ch. 29 on p. 381. "Early Greek philosophy represented the first conscious search for what was imperishable in the affairs of men." The rest of paragraph says nothing about mind and matter before it ends with "This consciousness, which had never existed anywhere before in the world, spelled a whole new level of transcendence for the Greek civilization." What's important is the new "consciousness," the search for "what was imperishable in the affairs of men."

Mind and matter do come up. In Pirsig's narrative, he says that for Greek philosophers "permanence was no longer the exclusive domain of the Immortal Gods. It was also to be found within Immortal Principles…." (382) Pirsig then runs down a short, pedantic list of some examples. He mentions that the Pythagoreans were "the first to see the Immortal Principle as something nonmaterial." He ends with "Anaxagoras was the first to identify the One as nous, meaning 'mind.'" I think these are dropped to remind us of our former travels, but Pirsig himself doesn't connect the dots. All he does add, ever so subtly is, a paragraph later, "Anaxagoras and Parmenides had a listener named Socrates who carried their ideas into full fruition." (382) Parmenides is often linked as Socrates' direct predecessor, if for no other reason than Plato wrote a dialogue by that name fictionalizing their encounter. But Anaxagoras, not so much. There are a tiny few allusions made (favorably) by Plato about Anaxagoras, but not a lot else. His placement here is entirely to remind us of the importance of "mind." Which Pirsig promptly proceeds to finger explicitly:
What is essential to understand at this point is that until now there was no such thing as mind and matter, subject and object, form and substance. Those divisions are just dialectical inventions that came later. The modern mind sometimes tends to balk at the thought of these dichotomies being inventions and says, 'Well, the divisions were there for the Greeks to discover,' and you have to say, 'Where were they? Point to them!' And the modern mind gets a little confused and wonders what his is all about anyway, and still believes the divisions were there. (382)
This is a difficult passage to interpret. Leaving aside Pirsig's allusion to his "discourse on Western ghosts", (on pages 33-6) I want to focus on how whether we should interpret Pirsig as saying that the Greeks created the divisions, or whether they were created by somebody else. Readings that give high credence to SOM being identified as materialism would suggest that the Greeks created all of those divisions together, that SOM, issuing from the subject/object dichotomy, all came together in a heap. I don't think they did. I think Pirsig shunts all of them under the SOM mantle (for some very good reasons), but I don't think the Greeks created them all. To interpret this passage as suggesting that the Greeks created them, one will hammer down on "until now there was no such thing as…." One will point back to the paragraph before where Pirsig fingers Anaxagoras as one of Socrates' teachers.

To loosen the hold of this suggestion, I want to again remind people that Anaxagoras wasn't a literal teacher of Socrates. I think his placement in the previous paragraph has nothing to do with suggesting that the mind/matter dichotomy existed or was created by the Greeks, but that its there to remind us, us "modern minds," that the "mind" is important. When I read that paragraph, I will hammer down on "Those divisions are just dialectical inventions that came later." When Pirsig says that the modern mind balks and says that these divisions were "there for the Greeks to discover," I think we have to be careful about taking it too literally. I think the important bit is Pirsig's reference to the "modern mind." For the modern mind, we do have these distinctions. But I think we need to gloss forward Pirsig's statement that they "came later" and remember that Pirsig, a page before, says that the "first conscious search for what was imperishable" was what "spelled a whole new level of transcendence for the Greek civilization." When Pirsig goes on to talk about what Plato and Socrates did, he doesn't talk about mind or matter, subject or object, form or substance. He says that Plato and Socrates, "are defending the Immortal Principle of the Cosmologists against what they consider to be the decadence of the Sophists. Truth. Knowledge. That which is independent of what anyone thinks about it. The ideal that Socrates died for. … He damns them because they threaten mankind's first beginning grasp of the idea of truth." (383) And then: "And yet, Phaedrus understands, what he is saying about Quality is somehow opposed to all this." (384)

I want to suggest that ZMM is much more of a journey then some commentators let on. Pirsig is tracing the trail of his enemy through history. His first important stop is with the Subject/Object Dilemma. That is a specifically modern dilemma. It didn't arise with the Greeks, the Greeks didn't think about it or consider to give answers to it. But Pirsig is going backwards through our philosophical history to find the root cause of our problems. So he deals with the SOD (I might add, unsuccessfully at that point), but it is only a stage in his hunt. He (we) learn something from the encounter and what we learn is that the dilemma is all wrong. So we ask: why is it here? Part IV is the finishing of Pirsig's hunt. He traces the modern dilemma back to the Greeks. So what began the chain of events? "Parmenides made it clear for the first time that the Immortal Principle, the One, Truth, God, is separate from appearance and from opinion, and the importance of this separation and its effect upon subsequent history cannot be overstated." (382) He’s right, it can’t be. Parmenides gave us the appearance/reality distinction. We must penetrate beyond appearances, beyond shifting opinion, to the imperishable, immortal reality. Pirsig doesn't say that Anaxagoras' identification of the Immortal Principle with nous, "mind," had importance that couldn't be overstated. Anaxagoras gets one line. His placement with Parmenides as Socrates' teachers is to remind us where we came from and where we are going back to with the wisdom we find in the past.

After the appearance/reality distinction was made important, the Sophists came along and contradicted them. They said that "their object was not any single absolute truth, but the improvement of men. All principles, all truths, are relative." (383) But they didn't have the tools to win. They didn't have a way of distinguishing between probable knowledge and absolute knowledge. All the Greeks had was opinio and episteme, crappy opinion and perfect knowledge. What Plato did to destroy the Sophists was create a method for going from opinio to episteme: dialectic. This was the creation of epistemology. Parmenides created metaphysics by distinguishing between appearance and reality, and that distinction demands an epistemology, a method, criteria for being able to tell opinion about appearances from knowledge of the imperishable reality. At the heart of SOM, then, is that distinction (appearance/reality) and the demand for a method. Through the vicissitudes of time, it turned into its modern progeny: "The whole purpose of scientific method is to make valid distinctions between the false and the true in nature, to eliminate subjective, unreal, imaginary elements from one’s work so as to obtain an objective, true picture of reality." (236)

To supplement this reading of Pirsig, I should provide a story of how metaphysics and epistemology spawned modern SOM. I clearly don't have enough room here, nor, really, the expertise. The best supplemental story for Pirsig's concerns with SOM (as I've drawn them here) is Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. It was accident that I came to read Rorty religiously, him becoming my second philosophical father to Pirsig. But the more I think about it, the more I see their concerns syncing up.

I will suggest this here, though: the mind/matter problem didn't become a problem until Descartes. The subject-object idiom didn't become solidified until Kant. Don’t get me wrong though. The Greeks clearly had some sort of concept for "mind," nous as Pirsig said. But nous isn't exactly what we mean by mind. And the Greeks had some sort of concept for "matter," maybe phusis (which roughly translates to "nature"). What I’m saying is that there wasn't a mind/matter dualism, which spawned off its own particular problems that we are familiar with, until the modern period. It is, in fact, partly what marks off the beginning of the modern period of philosophy. So, for instance, the Greeks would not have understood Pirsig’s Subject/Object Dilemma.

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