Friday, June 09, 2006

Cartesian Epistemology, or Incorrigibility as the Mark of Something

There’s an early essay by Rorty, “Cartesian Epistemology and Changes in Ontology” (1970), that I think marks the point at which Rorty figured out that he had to write PMN and how he would do it. The paper serves to point in the same general direction and uses the same style of partial historical, argumentative narrative and partial contemporary engagement of issues. The paper is, for the most part (like most of Rorty’s earlier papers, though probably more so), entirely replaceable by PMN . . . but essays are so much shorter. And, in my experience, Rorty has a way of saying the same thing over and over again in rarely the same way. Each experience opens you up to new angles. I’m not going to lie and say that I can reread every single piece of his writing with relish, but for being predominately a self-acknowledged one-note Nelly, he has the surprising capacity to hold your attention throughout most of his corpus of writing. I’m not sure the same can be said for many others. But then again, maybe I just have the same obsessive interests as he does and like hearing that one same thing over and over again. At any rate, I’d like to take that earlier paper and use it to help illuminate a portion of Pirsig that has always gotten my panties in a bunch.

First, I shall present Rorty’s six claims he hopes to make:
1. A necessary condition for participating in ontological discussion during what I shall call the ‘Cartesian period’ was that an answer be given to the question: Given that we have incorrigible knowledge only of the contents of our minds, how is it that we can know about anything else?

2. The paradigm of an answer to this question was the claim that the nature of the object of knowledge—reality as opposed to appearance—was different than either common sense or science conceived it.

3. The justification for the existence of ontology as a distinct discipline came to be the fact that neither science nor common sense could offer an adequate reply to the epistemological sceptic. Giving such a reply became the paradigm of what it was to do philosophy.

4. The refusal of many contemporary philosophers to take seriously the suggestion that reality is different from either common sense’s or science’s picture of it is due to the fact that they no longer accept or find it necessary to answer the epistemological sceptic.

5. The reasons why this premise is no longer accepted can be traced back to the abandonment of certain more general principles.

6. These principles are such that, once they are accepted, it is not clear why there need be a discipline called ‘ontology’ over and above empirical science. The justification of the existence of such a discipline thus requires to be rethought. (275, emphasis his)
The first thing I should note is Rorty’s use of common sense and science. These were his earlier years and I do not think that he’s suggesting that only science gives us knowledge, or some such thing. The object of his attack is the notion that there is a special discipline called “philosophy” (or ontology, in this case) that gives us a special kind of knowledge that only it can give us, something different than what we gain from physics, sociology, literary criticism, or walking down the street.

The second thing I should note is that Pirsig doesn’t seem to obviously fit in this schematic of claims. There are three reasons: 1) it isn’t obvious that Pirsig is practicing a discipline called “ontology” that is over and above anything, and this because 2) Pirsig doesn’t consider offering a reply to the epistemological sceptic to be a big deal, and this because 3) Pirsig doesn’t talk about something called the “mind” a lot. Pirsig really doesn’t have a philosophy of mind, just as it would be curious to say that he has a philosophy of language. He has latent views about mind and language, but he doesn’t spend time constructing a large view of the subject that hooks up to other views and can be used to rebut perceived criticisms. However, time and time again I find things in the philosophy of mind and language that make me think of Pirsig, but not always in a good way. In particular, it’s Pirsig’s notion of “immediate experience” that always raises my hackles. “Immediacy” is notorious for causing philosophical problems. With respect to the above, it’s Pirsig’s attendant claim that the value that is immediately experienced is known with absolute certainty. (Lila, 76) This certainty is a mark of the mental, of mind, that Rorty popularized as “incorrigibility.” But if Pirsig doesn’t obviously have an extensive notion of the mind (let alone a problematic one), what is a problematic mark of the mental doing in Pirsig’s account (Rorty has said that incorrigibility is ­the only property of the mind that can make it problematic, or at least make epistemology seem necessary)? What is it doing? Is it problematic?

I think it can be, but it all depends on how it is put to use. For instance, in Pirsig’s example the notion of us being certain about our experience is completely commonsensical. Of course we are going to be absolutely certain of whatever value-experience we have with the stove. The trouble is when Pirsig pushes this certainty into other services. Pirsig will eventually want to claim that mystics shouldn’t be ignored because they have direct experience with Quality. And, in fact, this direct experience carries with it the full weight of being absolutely certain knowledge because it was an immediate, direct experience. This is where things become problematic. For instance, if somebody says that they see water, should we believe them? What if you’re in a desert and it turns out to be a mirage? What happens to the absolute certainty? By using such an example we should notice how far the certainty extends: not very far at all. If the person who saw water was being sincere, then we can say that they were absolutely certain that they saw water, or even that they did actually experience the sight of water. It turns out, however, that they were wrong. They didn’t experience the sight of water, they experienced an optical illusion. This is what I’ve called the shibboleth problem: when do we believe the mystic? Do we believe all mystics? How do we tell the Lao-tzus from the gun-toting, compound nut-jobs (aside from the guns)? They both claim a direct relation, so how do we tell?

There are obvious, pragmatic answers to this (like the guns), but they burn a hole in the binding of “immediate experience” with “absolute certainty” that Pirsig affects, which then destroys the reason he gives for including formerly excluded mystics. I think the bridge can be built again to include mystics, but I think a different route needs to be taken.

I'm not going to explore this particular issue further, but I’d like to bridge back to the Rorty essay. The claim I’d like to make is that it would appear that when Pirsig makes claims about the exclusion of mystics, which hinge on a problematic mark of the mental, he’s tripped into doing a special discipline called ontology.

Here’s Rorty:

The mind-body problem is an offspring of the theory that knowledge consists in the having of certain representations of reality (including perceptual ones), by the subject. As [Wallace] Matson has recently pointed out [in “Why Isn’t the Mind-Body Problem Ancient?”], the Greeks had a soul-body problem but not a mind-body problem—or, at least, not the mind-body problem which has bothered philosophers from Descartes to Feigl. Before this mind-body problem can be made to seem urgent (as Matson also notes) one has to have the notion of ‘immediate awareness’, and to believe that the things we want to know about (tables, other men, stars, the moral law, and the gods) are not things which we are immediately aware of. Once one believes all this, one will have to grant the existence of a realm to contain the objects of immediate awareness. This will be the Mind, or the Subject qua Subject. Psychophysical dualism follows from epistemological dualism. In the great systems of the Cartesian period, the primary task of ontology was to get the Subject and the Object back together. Solutions to the mind-body problem appear as simple corollaries to solutions of the Problem of Knowledge.

Thus the ontologies of almost every important non-sceptical philosophy from Spinoza to Russell consisted in a redescription of the Object—that which we want to know about—according to which the Subject and the Object turned out to be much the same. The concomitance of the modes of the two known attributes of Spinoza’s God, the pre-established harmony of Leibniz’s monads, the variations on what Austin calls ‘the ontology of the sensible manifold’ (Berkeley, Kant, Russell), the perfect union of appearance and reality in Hegel’s or Royce’s Absolute, and Whitehead’s panpsychism are so many ways of showing that if you know enough about the sort of thing you are directly aware of (the contents of your mind) you will know everything there is to know about everything. In short, the mainstream of ontology has been a redescription (specifically, a ‘subjectivizing’) of the Objects—a redescription which would not have been thought necessary had not the original claim about direct awareness been swallowed. (278-279, emphasis his)

I want to point out the family resemblances between Pirsig and what is said here. First is the claim that “psychophysical dualism follows from epistemological dualism.” While it isn’t immediately apparent that Pirsig carries with him a notion of representation (though I have my suspicions about that, partially articulated here) or that he practices a special discipline called ontology, it should be clear that his direct/indirect distinction is some sort of epistemology, some sort of claim about knowledge and knowing, and that the Dynamic/static distinction which houses the direct/indirect distinction seems to be more than an epistemological distinction. While Pirsig wouldn’t seem to have a psychophysical dualism, the Dynamic/static dualism does deal with “stuff,” what is real, such that we have “things” on one side and “no-thing” on the other (Paul Turner has been working on disentangling Pirsig’s epistemology from his metaphysics). These are pulled together in a muddle which can produce weird effects.

Second, when Rorty says that to engender the mind-body problem “one has to have the notion of ‘immediate awareness’, and to believe that the things we want to know about (tables, other men, stars, the moral law, and the gods) are not things which we are immediately aware of,” notice that while Pirsig doesn’t seem to be hampered by the mind-body problem, he is hampered by both of these notions: we are immediately aware of Dynamic Quality and the things we want to know about are what we are not immediately aware. All things are housed under static patterns—that which we are only indirectly aware.

And third, while Pirsig has rejected claims that Quality is similar to Hegel’s Absolute, one can see here why they were offered. In ZMM, Pirsig takes the Subject/Object divide and shows how they are not divided in Quality—thus fulfilling “the primary task of ontology” of getting the “Subject and Object back together.” There is an immediate difference in that Pirsig is in some sense saying that the divide is illusory, that Quality is primary and the divide is secondary, not the other way around which engenders the problems. This is important and, I think, right. But look at what else Rorty says about these ontologies: they all “consisted in a redescription of the Object—that which we want to know about—according to which the Subject and the Object turned out to be much the same.” They are all Quality. And Rorty suggests further that “the mainstream of ontology has been a redescription (specifically, a ‘subjectivizing’) of the Objects”. Before Pirsig, “quality” was thought to be something that humans had or found, not something that rocks had. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think that critics of Pirsig would call his saying that Quality is Reality is anthropomorphic, a subjectivizing of reality.

These family resemblances begin to mount up. But, hey, Rorty himself obviously has many family resemblances to such despicable characters as the logical positivists. However, I think Pirsig’s family resemblances collude to produce the Myth of the Given. Pirsig’s claim that static patterns are what are deduced from the immediately apprehended Dynamic Quality seem to me to produce the idea that we are Given something completely untainted by language or distinctions or anything else we might do to it, some unblemished content, to which all of our dealings with it, linguistic and such, are the persistence of a certain scheme. Pirsig thinks that our current cultural scheme is unjustly giving mystics the short shrift and that if we got back to the content, we would be able to create a better scheme (see Pirsig’s comments about “cultural immune systems” in chapter 4 of Lila).

This cuts back to what I was saying about how far the absolute certainty of touching a stove or seeing water goes. Rorty calls his Sellarsian thesis the Principle of the Relativity of Incorrigibility:

That a given sentence is used to express incorrigible knowledge is not a matter of a special relation which holds between knowers and some object referred to by this sentence, but a matter of the way in which the sentence fits into the language of a given culture, and the circumstances of its user, at a given time. (282, italics his)

Again, not immediately applicable given that Pirsig isn’t motivated by the epistemological sceptic. I think that this is good, but I think we can still see him in these lines. First, with incorrigibility—we gain our absolute certainty by our special relation to Dynamic Quality. And second, Rorty’s linguistic alternative makes knowledge internal to a language game and Pirsig would prima facie reject that because we directly know Dynamic Quality before any language. The differences between these two treatments of incorrigibility are summed up later by Rorty: “The importance of the principle of the Relativity of Incorrigibility is that it undercuts the attempt to discover this nature by casting doubt on the first move which the sceptic makes—namely, to have found some case of knowledge which is a clearer case than others, and is thus a clue to the essence of what it is to be knowledge. It causes this by saying that the cases in which ‘doubt plays no role’ are cases in which we do not let doubt play a role, not cases in which we are in a different natural state.” (283, emphasis his)

Why Rorty should say “the sceptic’s first move” I’ll skip over. Pirsig isn’t interested in finding the essence of knowledge, but he is interested in being more Dynamic. Dynamic Quality is obviously the kind of “clearer case than others” when compared to static patterns. Dynamic Quality is direct, static patterns are only indirect. The direct knowledge of Dynamic Quality is better and replaces the indirect knowledge of static patterns (the resemblance to the appearance/reality distinction should be apparent). It does this because we don’t doubt it. Its high or low Quality is absolutely certain. However, what of the guy in the desert? In Rorty’s case, it makes perfectly good sense to absolutely believe the guy you see put his hand on the flaming stove when he tells you that he’s absolutely certain that his hand experienced low Quality. However, it also makes perfectly good sense to have some doubt when the guy in the desert says he sees water. Because of our circumstances of being in a desert, though the linguistic cue of “I see…” tells us that he’s absolutely certain he is seeing something, we let doubt play a role. It’s not clear how this is to pan out in Pirsig’s philosophy. It seems perfectly reasonable that Pirsig could frame incorrigibility the same way as Rorty does. All this means is that the person who’s experiencing X has changed his beliefs in a certain way (experiencing a hot stove, the sight of water, the hearing of a good Republican argument). What it doesn’t mean is that everybody else has to change their beliefs (or static patterns) just because the other person did. The absolute certainty, and particularly not the experience of high or low value, doesn’t travel that far. As I suggested before, however, this is damaging to the way Pirsig claims that mystics have been left out of the conversation of mankind. I think one should toss Pirsig’s particular argument. I think that argument tries to put commonsensical distinctions to philosophical use, which is the way philosophical problems are created. Pirsig is better when he is seen as dissolving philosophical problems and suggesting cultural criticism, not using a philosophical apparatus to tell us that we have to do something. Some of the tools Pirsig leaves lying around are good for some purposes, but bad for others.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: