Monday, May 22, 2006

Introduction to Pirsig

A little belatedly, but I thought I might provide an introduction to the namesake of my little blogthingy I got going on here. I'm simply going to present what I take to be Pirsig's main philosophical suggestions.

Pirsig's first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, presents his "Quality thesis". This thesis has many sides, but it comes out of a reaction to the dominant subject/object distinction in post-Cartesian modern philosophy. Pirsig sees quite rightly that if we dissolve the dichotomy between the knowing subject and the known object that we end up with a play of values. Pirsig's way of getting there is to attack the Greek idea that our primary relationship to reality is one of knowing. Pirsig asserts, rather, that our primary relationship is one of valuing, and that everything else falls from there.

What this thesis ends up meaning from "there," however, is disputed to a certain extent. Some people are content to follow Pirsig in offering a broad, general onto-cosmological view of reality centered around the undefinable "Quality." I consider such views to be occasional poems with a determinate subject matter that are potentially beautiful, but generally shouldn't be taken too seriously. Because if they are taken seriously (as Pirsig and most of those who do write and enjoy such poetry), they turn back into the Platonic philosophy of knowing that Pirsig was trying to get rid of. When it comes to philosophical theses (of the kind that get bandied about in professional circles), Pirsig should be seen as only offering negative ones against a predominate image of philosophy--Subject-Object Metaphysics.

One of the theses that Pirsig presciently sides up with in ZMM and continues in Lila is that of historicism. Pirsig suggests that we are situated in history, in a continuing conversation with "ghosts of history" that produces what we call knowledge: "the building of analogues upon analogues upon analogues". In the cosmological poem to reality that Pirsig offers us in Lila, he adds an important nuance--the distinction between static and Dynamic. Our static patterns of value are broken by Dynamic Quality, those crazy new things that we sometimes just instinctively feel are better. If these crazy new things end up being better, then they leave behind in their wake new static patterns, which eventually become the new crust of convention that Pirsig, like Dewey before him, suggested we should always be ready to break through.

The importance of the connection between Pirsig's Quality thesis and his historicism is that the move from knowing to valuing moves us from essentialism to relationalism. No longer do we have objects with an essence that we can know. Instead, we have "objects" that are constituted by the layerings of value placed upon them. And since any "subject" doing the valuing is also a collection of these layers of placed value, we invite a kind of panrelationalism in which any "object," or "subject," or more generally, any "thing" we differentiate from any other "thing" is defined by its relations to every "thing" it's being differentiated from (including what's doing the differentiating).

This is why the static/Dynamic distinction becomes very helpful in Pirsig's later philosophy. All objects are static patterns of value of some kind. A static pattern of value is a repetitive way of valuing some "object," but since all there is to this "object" are those repetitive valuings, we call the locus of those valuings the "object" and name it, e.g., a "rock" or a "molecule" or an "electron." However, the relations between things change over time. Sex changed biology. The Greeks changed politics. The Romantics changed the way we create ourselves. All of those things changed the way things were previously done and are retrospectively viewed as progressive (namely because they allowed the other things after them to occur). But more importantly, we must become historicists after renouncing essentialism because essentialism held up the ideal of being rational by correctly identifying objects with particular amounts of intrinsic value. By rejecting essentialism, we reject the idea of intrinsic value and so reconstitute the process of valuing (and the rationality of it) as an historical process of advancing betterness. A break in the old patterns of valuing is defended, sometimes only retrospectively, by the betterness accrued in the new patterns, and betterness can only assessed by other old patterns being left in place. Eventually, it is theoretically possible that we may tear down so many of these old patterns that there are none left that we could identify with, essentially making us a new form of life. But as long as we can tell a story of progressive betterness, of how we got from there to here, we can be rational and avoid the charge of nihilism often attributed to those who deny essentialism.

There are a lot more facets to Pirsig's philosophy, and even more to his writings. But I take the above to be basic to the position in philosophical space that Pirsig occupies. While I don't think a whole lot cosmologically follows from the above, I do think think that it breaks down Plato as Pirsig wished to do.


  1. Hi Matt,

    I haven't read this post and I will, but wanted to make the following comment while the spirit moved me.

    I read with interest your answer to Dave Buchanan’s post on the MoQ discussion forum, in which he asked, “aren’t you on my side, man?”

    Your answer was measured and you explained your stance that philosophy plays little role in the affairs of politics. You went on to say that you think the liberals need to approach the issues on a cultural level and then you went on to report the observations of Al Franken, Randy Rhodes and Big Ed.

    I have been listening to talk radio ever since Limbaugh came upon the scene. I realize that there needs to be all kinds of talk, but the liberal’s (oops progressive) answer to Limbaugh, Hannity, et al, is awfully weak in my opinion and if this is the best of the left, I would say the left is in real trouble.

    I grew up in the esteemed sixties. At that time I was looking for real answers to my youthful angst. What I got mostly was a lot of emptiness in the form of “love each other, man” “women are oppressed” and “marriage is just a piece of paper”. Not much to build a life on and it is no wonder that “the left” lost many of its members to the likes of Limbaugh, who has a discernable message.

    It would seem that someone who is so obviously intelligent as you are and who seems to be quite invested in your political stance, needs to articulate “why” you think the way you do instead of merely calling the other side “thugs” and “thieves”. Otherwise, it’s just more talk radio.

    I have quit the discussion because I don’t see it doing much for me, but I will continue to check your blog and make my way through the various articles you recommended.

    Best, Alice

  2. Yeah, I wouldn't say I'm all that extraordinarily well-read or anything when it comes to politics. But whereas you think what Air America has to offer is weak in comparison to what Limbaugh and Fox News has to offer, I think that Limbaugh and Fox News have always been laughable, though not in the way that Al Franken used to make his bread as a comedian.

    But you're right, its no wonder the Right had a resurgence after the 60s and with Gingrich. The have been very skilled at consolidating their message and getting everybody in line. Through most of my life, the Right has presented itself with one loud voice and the Left has mainly been bickering with each other.

    And you're right, if I were so inclined to comment extensively on politics I should be able to articulate better why I should opt for such epithets as "thugs" and "theives".

    As it is, though, I'm not so inclined to comment extensively on politics. One of the historical backdrops to my recent interlocution with DMB on is a long history of my reticence to talk about politics, which as it occurs on the MD is either a detailed political discussion (of which I'm not that well-informed) or a confused mix of philosophy and politics, which I occasionaly suggest shouldn't occur. All you can usually get out of me are platitudinous doses of democratic and Enlightenment liberal commonsense.

    I am generally better informed about what's going on in political current affairs then the people I personally know, but that isn't saying much. All I really have are a set of moral intuitions about the direction our country should go and a little historical knowledge about the direction our country has gone. I suppose that makes me no better or worse than most, but I'm comfortable with that right now. After all, I don't go out hunting for political fights like I know what I'm talking about.

    And really, liberal talk radio (neocons may have stigmatized everyone else into thinking liberal is a bad word, but I still wear it with pride) isn't as bad as all that. They do take a lot of time out to explain why they would call the Bush administration a bunch of "thugs" and "theives" and "liars". And those aren't any worse than what the Right calls us. They also take time out to try and form a way forward, something positive to hold onto (which has been the big failure for the left for a long time). But, who knows? Maybe I've been brainwashed. All I know is that I'd rather be brainwashed by Franken than Limbaugh.

    But like I said, there will rarely be much talk about politics on my blog and most of the philosophy (on my view) swings free of it.

    p.s. If you have something you want to say to me that doesn't really have anything to do with the post, you can just e-mail me privately. It makes more sense with the way the format of blog-style posting works.

  3. My compliments for this excellent blogpost about Pirsig. I put you in my RSS reader. Keep up the work.

  4. Hi! Is Karl Marx in your reading list. I'm interested in reflections on Marx-Pirsig connections. Are you? I take it that the MD group does look kindly on Marxist stuff -- socialism, communism, revolution, not to mention Christian faith. I like to connect with a Pirsigian open to Marx and taking him seriously.


  5. It's not like I don't have Marx sitting on my shelf, but in all honesty, no, he's not really on my reading list. I like political theory and the like, but I tend to be a liberal, bourgeois apologist, like my other hero, Richard Rorty.

    The MD group has mixed feelings--there's one strident neoconservative, who is also nearly the only Christian (did I mention he was a neocon?), but otherwise most are typical liberals, I think--open enough to Marx, but not really heavy imbibers.

    While, on the one hand I tend to agree when Rorty once said that Marx was a great political economist who also, unfortunately, did his dissertation in philosophy, on the other hand, I enjoy conversations of all kinds about Pirsig. I think there is a strong revolutionary impulse in Pirsig, though more to do with the individual spirit, but it comes out of the same tradition that began with Rousseau. (The quickest synopsis of both the primitivist strain and revolutionary strain that are both in Pirsig, though perhaps only the latter in Marx, you can peruse my short paper Longing for the Apocalypse, particularly the last two paragraphs. I have a couple other papers floating in the intellectual history section on Rousseau, though I don't think they're very good, but they do explain what primitivism is if you're not familiar--it was an old intellectual history concept that I think is out of favor right now.)

    So, talking Marx is fine by me--most conversations are more stimulating when the conversants don't totally see eye to eye anyways.


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