Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cavell at Criticism

This is a companion piece to, as opposed to a part of, “Cavell and What We Are Doing,” primarily because I got a little carried away with reading his essay “Aesthetic Problems in Modern Philosophy.” I think there could be no better introduction to what it is that Cavell does then the second essay, “Austin at Criticism.” Seeing Cavell read Austin, one of his primary philosophical forefathers (with Wittgenstein and Emerson), is very interesting and shines a brilliant light on how Cavell views philosophy. It is filled with bits of philosophical wisdom concerning their self-image that philosophers would do well to think about. I shall try to highlight some of them.

Cavell talks a bit about “Austin’s procedures,” but as I had mentioned before, I don’t think there is anything much procedural. Instead, I think Cavell gives us a very insightful read as to where accepting Davidsonian philosophy of language leaves us (before Davidson had even finished his work besides). The first thing Cavell does is dismiss the notion that “Austin attends to ordinary or everyday language” which “is to go on saying, roughly, nothing.” (98) He also dissociates what Austin does from what a descriptive linguist would do: Austin is most assuredly not simply reporting the behavior of the majority of language-users. Cavell builds three insights out of how Austin writes as a better beginning towards a description of how ordinary language philosophy proceeds:

“(1) that one can as appropriately or truly be said to be looking at the world as looking at language; (2) that one is seeking necessary truths ‘about’ the world (or ‘about’ language) and therefore cannot be satisfied with anything I, at least, would recognize as a description of how people in fact talk—one might say one is seeking one kind of explanation of why people speak as they do; and even (3) that one is not finally interested at all in how ‘other’ people talk, but in determining where and why one wishes, or hesitates, to use a particular expression oneself.” (99)

(1) is the Davidsonian point about the erasure of the distinction between knowing a language and knowing your way around the world generally. Since this is Cavell’s starting point, his insights can be fairly seen as what we do after the destruction of the ghosts that Davidson was trying to exorcise from us, the dogmas of empiricism, namely the ones Quine identified, the dogma of the analytic/synthetic distinction and the dogma of reductionism, and Davidson’s third dogma, the dogma of the scheme/content distinction.

That being said, Cavell does seem to get off on the wrong foot when he immediately starts talking about “necessary truths.” This, I think, is negligible, both because of how little Cavell spends on it and because of how easy it is to ignore it. The invocation of “necessary” raises the spectre of the appearance/reality distinction, but it we excise it from the sentence, we still get the common sense distinction between being right and wrong—people may describe themselves a certain way and believe it, but they still might be wrong. Psycho guy might talk about his mom being alive, and sincerely believe that she is, but the fact is she isn’t. (2) is pointing out that, just because people do in fact talk a certain way, doesn’t mean that it is the most efficacious, that it is the best way to talk. What we need is an explanation of why people speak the way they do and those reasons will help us decide how to speak.

(3) seems the largest leap, but it seems perfectly reasonable and very insightful, particularly as to why philosophers could sometimes care less about counter-examples of speech. The investigation of others may help, but we finally rest on ourselves, on our own intuitive grasp of how the world is and what we want to say about it. The Davidsonian picture produces this particular kind of philosophy because in our person-community-world relationship, our “I” is produced in part by its relationship with the community and the world, but it is distinct. The sway of language use then becomes a conflict between a person and the community, as the person who wants to deviate from accepted linguistic behavior tries to convince the community to follow them. By trying to enunciate to others the reasons why you would want to withhold the label of “love” from the capricious philanderer’s feelings towards another person, you try to explain how you want to use the word love, how they should use the word love, what love in fact is.

Cavell talks about “Austin’s procedures” and “proceeding from ordinary language,” but after we learn from Davidson that we are everywhere and always in touch with the world, that no language gets the world wrong and was produced by something and for some reason, we see that Cavell’s description of philosophical procedure is obfuscated by saying “from ordinary language.” Cavell would seem to like to restrict the Davidsonian point to “ordinary language,” but it isn’t clear that Cavell or anyone else even knows what that might be—especially considering the efforts Cavell makes to ward us away from others. Davidson, however, goes the whole way and provides us a good reason as to why we should be suspicious of Cavell’s greater and greater fascination with “the Ordinary.” All languages are in touch with the world and the trick is to find out which ones are better than others, not which ones are more ordinary than others. I don’t think Wittgenstein’s spirit is best served by thinking that he espoused the elimination of linguistic innovation. It is one thing to think that philosopher’s problems are created by taking ordinary words out of ordinary contexts and transplanting them into new contexts. That is certainly true, but if people never did that, then cultural evolution would grind to a hault. The problem with the Plato-Descartes-Kant sequence is that not everything they did, not all of the new contexts, panned out. Sometimes the new contexts, the new metaphors, worked; sometimes they didn’t.

What we have between Cavell and somebody like Rorty (who I summon in my moments of need) is a struggle over the spirit of Wittgenstein, just as Rorty has struggled over the spirit of Dewey with Richard Bernstein (among others) and the spirit of Heidegger with Hebert Dreyfus (among others), and just as I have struggled with others over the spirit of Pirsig. One of the bonuses of Cavell is his cognizance of this kind of struggle. In this particular essay, Cavell is struggling over the spirit of Austin, but what he says here about Austin and his fans is cogent just about anywhere you apply it:

“To accept Austin’s explanations as full and accurate guides to his practice would be not only to confuse advice (which is about all he gave in this line) with philosophical analysis and literary-critical description (which is what is needed), but to confer upon Austin an unrivaled power of self-discernment. It is a mystery to me that what a philosopher says about his methods is so commonly taken at face value. Austin ought to be the last philosopher whose reflexive remarks are treated with this complacency, partly because there are so many of them, and partly because they suffer not merely the usual hazards of self-description but the further deflections of polemical animus.” (101)

So not only for Austin, Wittgenstein, and Pirsig, but also for Cavell himself. “Procedures” is far to methodical sounding a word to be appropriate for what Cavell enacts on the page.

Cavell locates in Austin (and Wittgenstein for that matter) a new style of philosophizing: “a change of style in philosophy is a profound change, and [is] itself a subject of philosophical investigation.” (102) What we see in Austin’s practice, in his manner of investigation, is a focus on the nuances of particular words, like the difference between a “mistake” and an “accident,” and this focus in distinguishing and comparing creates a “crosslight” in which we see that the “capacities and salience of an individual object in question are brought to attention and focus.” (103) This crosslight doesn’t just tell us what the difference between a mistake and an accident are, it tells us “what a mistake is and … what an accident is.” (104) This is the appropriate response to the panrelationalism that pragmatism unfolds in front of us. We can’t simply define a mistake in isolation, we can only define it in relation to other things, non-mistakes, because the very act of definition is a relational act. That is what Wittgenstein taught us when he said there is no ostensive definition by itself.

In this seed-crystal we find the pearly wisdom of Bloom, that life is an agon, a family romance, which it is so much more in philosophy if for no other reason than that philosophy purports to be in love with wisdom, that is life. Cavell mounts a series of explosive questions to show how Austin might sunder philosophy’s pretensions, though in the end I think he might claim too much for Austin and not enough for those following after him:

“How can we learn something (about how we—how I—use words) which we cannot have failed to know? How can asking when we would say ‘by mistake’ (or what we would call ‘doing something by mistake’) tell us what in the world a mistake is? How, given such obvious data, have philosophers (apparently) so long ignored it, forgetting that successful knowledge is a human affair, of human complexity, meeting human need and exacting human responsibility, bypassing it in theories of certainty which compare knowledge (unfavorably) with an inhuman ideal; or elaborated moral philosophies so abstracted from life as to leave, for example, no room for so homely, but altogether a central, moral activity as the entering of an excuse? What is philosophy that it can appear periodically so profound and so trivial, sometimes so close and sometimes so laughably remote, so wise and so stone stupid? What is philosophy that it causes those characteristic hatreds, yet mysterious intimacies, among its rivals? What kind of phenomenon is it whose past cannot be absorbed or escaped (as in the case of science) or parts of it freely admired and envied while other parts are despised and banished (as in art), but remains in standing competition, behind every closed argument waiting to haunt its living heirs?”

Here someone like Rorty may wish to lodge a complaint, that Cavell is housing too much power in philosophy’s past. Cavell, in the years after, will start talking about something called Skepticism that is a condition of humanity. Rorty’s problem is not that skepticism isn’t common, but rather that it doesn’t look properly philosophical, that it isn’t entirely clear why we will always have to keep talking about the Platonic canon when we talk about skepticism. This may be true, and Cavell may imply too much (in this case overpowering) power to the philosophical canon, but I think there is some truth in the idea that we still haven’t yet overcome it. Cavell’s view of spectres still captivates, but we see in these lines what exactly Rorty’s effort of therapy has been. Rorty wants us exactly to break off our agon with Plato, to view Plato as we might a piece of art rather than as a competitor to be wrestled with. And Rorty’s practice is to compare and to distinguish, to tease apart and give new contexts to old words, to show when skepticism means Skepticism and when it simply means showing a little doubt.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cavell and What We Are Doing

Just as Santayana is my favorite name to throw out when I need an example of an early 20th century philosopher, Stanley Cavell is clearly my favorite of a late 20th century one. They aren’t quite arbitrary examples, for the reason I usually need an example, and the reason why I’m usually grasping for them, is because the topic I’m often discussing is the difference between charismatic and systematic philosophers, philosophers who are respected and brilliant while they are alive and philosophers who leave behind a problematic and a school of followers. Santayana has no school, and as far as I can tell Cavell does not either. However, like Santayana (who famously left philosophy mid-semester when it was just too beautiful in Harvard Yard to spend it in a class room), Cavell is an extraordinarily intriguing figure and I’ve been collecting his books for some time.

Cavell made his name as a brilliant interpreter of both Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin. He was one of the foremost members, though most certainly the most idiosyncratic, of the now defunct school of “ordinary language philosophy,” or “Oxford philosophy.” I’ve known about Cavell for many years from my readings of Rorty, but he has remained enigmatic. After reading Danto’s essay, and having the book in question on my shelf, it became too irresistible to ignore. However, while the book isn’t unreadable, it isn’t exactly what you’d want if you were either trying to get into Cavell’s philosophy or find stuff you might find useful for yours. You’d already have to have a preexisting desire to know more about Cavell (which isn’t to say that it isn’t interesting to read).

I do have on my shelf, though, Cavell’s earliest book of essays, which shows how powerful he was early on and how little he’s changed in the subsequent fifty years. I’d read his opening preface a little while ago and had taken a few good lines from it, but I knew at the time that, if not quite inscrutable, Cavell wasn’t exactly “ordinary,” as his supposed school implies. Just as Danto says he has in his recent writings, Cavell’s been attempting to make his style reflect his theses since the very beginning, which is to say that Cavell wants “to make philosophy another kind of problem for itself.” (74) What that means is another thing altogether. But suffice it to say, I’ve found in Cavell’s writings an interesting window into a time now past. Cavell isn’t the clearest guide to Wittgenstein or Austin, but he is fascinating to watch.

I read two essays in his collection, Must We Mean What We Say?, “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy” and “Austin at Criticism.” It’s difficult to read books in your free time if you have no compass, if there’s no particular reason why you’re reading, if you have no purpose. Most of the time when I struggle with books it’s because I find them boring because I’m just not that interested in the problems the author is struggling with. Cavell’s no exception, and his style makes it even more difficult, but as I worked my way through them (the shortest essays in his collection) I began to get a clearer picture of how they could help me. And there are a plethora of sumptuous lines to chew on.

“Aesthetic Problems” was interesting to read because of the lack of attention usually given by philosophers considered to be in the midst of the “central problems” in the field at that time (epistemology, philosophy of language or science) to “peripheral” fields like aesthetics. It gives us a good indication as to why Cavell is seen as marching to the beat of his own drum, even from the very beginning (though even more so from his essays on Beckett and Shakespeare). It is difficult to put the essay together, as it runs in two parts: a first section on two problems in aesthetics (the paraphrasability of poems and the tonality of atonal music) and a second section on the general problem of aesthetic judgment. I’m still not quite clear on how to connect them, but I think it runs along the lines of two specific examples of the general problem, that lack of consensus on the general problem of aesthetic judgment would preclude answering the specific problems of paraphrasability and tonality. Cavell’s treatment of the two specific problems are interesting, though that depends on if you find the problems of literary criticism exciting (I certainly do) or if you could give a rat’s ass about music theory (I could not).

The problem of paraphrasability, as Cavell generates it from a quarrel between Cleanth Brooks and Yvor Winters, is one about what we are doing when we are reading a poem, or more specifically, what is it really that the literary critic is in the business of doing. Brooks suggests that a paraphrase of a poem, i.e. a reading of a poem, does not limn the true essence of the poem, though it does point the way—as long as it’s properly done. Cavell rightly wonders who it is that “has just flatly given it out that the essence, core, structure, and the rest, of a poem is its paraphrase,” considering we should have some trouble “in understanding what is any or all of these things, since it takes so much philosophy just to state them.” (75)

It is in this that we begin to taste the power that Cavell wields from the ordinary language tradition. Cavell, at this stage, talks a bit about the “methods” or “procedures” of ordinary language philosophy, but I should think that, just as Rorty suggests that we distinguish between “deconstruction” as whatever it is that Derrida is doing and “deconstruction” as a method of reading texts (see “Deconstruction and Circumvention” in EHO), we should distinguish “ordinary language philosophy” as whatever it is that Austin is doing and “ordinary language philosophy” as a method that his less imaginative and skilled followers employ. Cavell is certainly not one of these less skilled followers, and whatever it is that Cavell is doing I would be apt to say is the heart of the wisdom in Austin and that so-called school.

Cavell, in the above, is just getting started, and runs us through an imaginary dialectical encounter between a Brooksian critic and his defense of what he is doing. Jumping on Brooks’ concession, that a paraphrase is all right if you know what you are doing, Cavell retorts, “Which is about like saying that of course criticism is all right, in its place.” Cavell then offers a wonderful little description making fun of the lit crit’s typical habits of writing books:

“But how, in particular, are we to assess a critic’s reading the opening stanza of Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations’ Ode and writing: ‘… the poet begins by saying that he has lost something’ [Well Wrought Urn, 116]? We can ransack that stanza and never find the expression ‘lost something’ in it. Then the critic will be offended—rightly—and he may reply: Well, it does not actually say this, but it means it, it implies it; do you suggest that it does not mean that? And of course we do not. But then the critic has a theory about what he is doing when he says what a poem means, and so he will have to add some appendices to his readings of the poetry explaining that when he says what a poem means he does not say exactly quite just what the poem means; that is, he only points to its meaning, or rather ‘points to the area in which meaning lies.’ But even this last does not seem to him humility enough, and he may be moved to a footnote in which he says that his own analyses are ‘at best crude approximations of the poem’ [189]. By this time someone is likely to burst out with: But of course a paraphrase says what the poem says, and an approximate paraphrase is merely a bad paraphrase; with greater effort or sensibility you could have got it exactly right. To which one response would be: ‘Oh, I can tell you exactly what the Ode means,’ and then read the Ode aloud.” (75-6)

Cavell is thus able to quite quickly thrust himself into the middle of a dispute about the self-image of literary critics: what is it that they are doing? Not, what do they think they are doing, but what are they doing? I find the above passage hilarious, if for no other reason than I’ve had such dialectical encounters before, and ended them with something like, “Well, if you’re being such an ass about it, I can just read you the section from Pirsig.” Those are definite endpoints because being pushed there, with no other outlet of response, effectively evacuates the area in which both you and your difficult counter-interpreter were existing—the position of a writer. And we even find in a literary critic like Stanley Fish, from a book from that era, Self-Consuming Artifacts, just those kinds of appendices.

Of course, the need that Fish was forced into fulfilling was entirely antithetical to the need being fulfilled by the New Critics. As Fish would later make more clear in books like Is There a Text in This Class?, he was providing an anti-theoretical rebuttal to the continual theoretical repositionings that literary critics felt they were forced to include ever since Eliot and Frye and their lot became hegemonic. And this is the splash of cold water that Cavell is involved in giving us. The part that should make us laugh is the idea that we need a theory to justify what we are doing. “If you put such phrases as ‘giving the meaning,’ ‘giving a paraphrase,’ ‘saying exactly what something means (or what somebody said),’ and so on, into the ordinary contexts … in which they are used, you will not find that you are worried that you have not really done these things. We could say: That is what doing them really is. Only that serenity will last just so long as someone does not start philosophizing about it.” (77)

Cavell’s Wittgensteinian project is then to try and diagnose why we think we need a theory. Why are commonsensical descriptions not enough? Why must we get into a debate about what metaphors are and what the literal/metaphorical distinction is that allows a theory, and a condemnation of paraphrase on the part of Brooks, to be possible? Cavell would like to get us on the couch and apply the right kind of therapy so that we may stop philosophizing when we want to. The hope is that we may then be able to face up to the self-image problem in literary, and artistic criticism generally (which can just as easily be applied to philosophy): “namely what it is we are doing when we describe or explain a work of art; what function criticism serves; whether different arts, or forms of art, require different forms of criticism; what we may expect to learn from criticism, both about a particular piece of art and about the nature of art generally.” (82)

The next, thankfully brief, part of his essay is about music theory, and specifically tonality. As you may have guessed from my earlier comment, I found it boring and would like to jump right over it. On reflection, however, my gut reaction might highlight something about the problem Cavell is dealing with. I’ve never understood what music or art theory thinks it is doing. It has always seemed to me to be quite stupid. The catch is that, while I’ve always found theory about music or paintings to be stupid, I’ve not always felt the same about philosophy. Why is that? I have a feeling that my gut reaction to music theory is the gut reaction that Wittgenstein and Cavell would like to instill in us in general (not exactly true for either of them, but I’ve read too much Rorty and Fish to care). Why on earth do we need theory?

My general feeling is that aesthetics, and music and art theory, never took off as, or at least are still not today, philosophical hot topics is because they seem on their face to be silly (which isn’t to say that you wouldn’t have to take a theory class if you were in a Music or Art, or even Dance, department). The difference between theories of music or art and theories of knowledge or texts is that, on their face, the former are non-discursive, while the latter discursive. This made it easier for reflections on the latter to be more easily confused with their objects (Cavell’s problem of paraphrasability), whereas nobody confuses a painting with its critical review. As Cavell suggests, for all his talk of approximation, the critic himself “furthers the suggestion that paraphrase and poem operate, as it were, at the same level, are the same kind of thing. … And then he has to do everything at his philosophical disposal to keep paraphrase and poem from coinciding….” (76) But nobody confuses a poem for an essay about the poem. (Pace Bloom, who says delightfully that “All criticisms that call themselves primary vacillate between tautology—in which the poem is and means itself—and reduction—in which the poem means something that is not itself a poem. Antithetical criticism must begin by denying both tautology and reduction, a denial best delivered by the assertion that the meaning of a poem can only be a poem, but another poem—a poem not itself.” (The Anxiety of Influence, 70) But discussion of Bloom’s engrossing attempts to make poetry a kind of criticism, and criticism a kind of poetry, a grand pragmatic attempt I must say, are for another time. Until then, see my “Bloom and Criticism.”) It is this position from common sense, where nobody confuses Iggy Pop with Lester Bangs or Michelangelo with Freud or Shakespeare with Samuel Johnson or reality with dreams, apples with sensations, or people with robots, that Cavell and Wittgenstein would like to return us to. For as long as we make the distinction between theory and practice that traditional philosophy since Plato has taught us to make, theory will itself seem pointless, superfluous, and generally unhelpful.

(I might at this point say something about Wittgenstein, silence, and the fact that I’ve just made the differentiation of discursive modalities as easy as that between the discursive and non-discursive, but I don’t know enough about Wittgenstein to do so. However, for all that, I certainly wouldn’t want to claim that differentiation between discursive modalities is necessarily easy. It can be hard, just as science fiction tells us that the differentiation between people and robots might someday be hard. For instance, is it easy to tell the difference between what Derrida does and Christopher Norris or Jonathon Culler does? Probably. But what about Foucault and Ian Hacking? Or worse, Heidegger and Gadamer? It’s a practical problem, not a theoretical problem. At his worst, Pirsig seems to think that its easy to tell the difference between what Wittgenstein did in the Tractatus and Heidegger did in his lectures on Nietzsche (reflective system-building versus parasitic criticism), but Pirsig’s distinction between philosophy and philosophology has nothing to do with the continuum I just drew. For more on criticism and philosophy, with special attention to Pirsig, see the first part of my “Philosophologology”.)

Moving on to Cavell’s second section on a general problem of aesthetics, Cavell suggests that “the aesthetic judgment models the sort of claim entered by these philosophers, and that the familiar lack of conclusiveness in aesthetic argument, rather than showing up an irrationality, shows the kind of rationality it has, and needs.” (86) This is a good suggestion because one of the problems Platonic philosophy set itself is the rationality of its own claims. As time wore on, fields like mathematics, science, and logic all showed themselves to be able to gain consensus, whereas philosophy more and more looked like a field like aesthetics, where the slogan “in the eye of the beholder” rose to prominence. Plato wanted philosophy to look like geometry and contemporary philosophers want philosophy to look like science for this very reason—the ability to gain consensus seems to mark its rationality. Cavell, however, comes to much the same conclusion that Rorty has, that philosophy is something different. Cavell even uses the same Hegelianism, aufhebung, to refer to what (as Rorty calls them) strong poets do to philosophical issues, “a criticism in which it is pointless for one side to refute the other, because its cause and topic is the self getting in its own way.” (85) If this gloss on a familiar Rortyan point remains obscure, it is only by working through what Cavell is saying (and saying Wittgenstein is saying) that some of his more opaque lines (usually left to sparkle by Cavell) gain resonance.

Cavell provides an interesting discussion of the genesis of the aesthetic problematic in Hume and Kant before facing us off between the positivist and post-positivist: “the positivist grits his teeth when he hears an analysis given out as a logical one which is so painfully remote from formality, so obviously a question of how you happen to feel at the moment, so psychological; the philosopher who proceeds from everyday language stares back helplessly, asking, ‘Don’t you feel the difference: Listen: you must see it.’” (90) In a fascinating reversal, Cavell aligns the anti-pragmatist efforts of Frege, Husserl, and Kant with the efforts of Wittgenstein to help suggest a way out of this standoff:

“We know of the efforts of such philosophers as Frege and Husserl to undo the ‘psychologizing’ of logic (like Kant’s undoing Hume’s psychologizing of knowledge): now, the shortest way I might describe such a book as the Philosophical Investigations is to say that it attempts to undo the psychologizing of psychology, to show the necessity controlling our application of psychological and behavioral categories; even, one could say, show the necessities in human action and passion themselves. And at the same time it seems to turn all of philosophy into psychology—matters of what we call things, how we treat them, what their role is in our lives.” (91)

In an excellent footnote, Cavell adds:

“Consider, for example, the question: ‘Could someone have a feeling of ardent love or hope for the space of one second—no matter what preceded or followed this second?’ [Philosophical Investigations, §583]. We shall not wish to say that this is logically impossible, or that it can in no way be imagined. But we might say: given our world this cannot happen; it is not, in our language, what ‘love’ or ‘hope’ mean; necessary in our world that this is not what love and hope are. I take it that our most common philosophical understanding of such notions as necessity, contingency, synthetic and analytic statements, will not know what to make of our saying such things.”

I think this is a tremendous description of Wittgenstein’s achievement and it links quite well with the hopes of Iris Murdoch, who, in The Sovereignty of Good, reacts to the underpinnings of analytic and existentialist moral philosophy, with their conception of the individual as a monad who chooses freely, by suggesting a phenomenology of choices that seems to make more sense with the way in which we proceed in our lives: we don’t simply choose, willy-nilly, between two alternatives, our attempts to choose by weighing pros and cons and the like force our hand into making the choices we make. By the time we make a choice (at least in the things that matter), the route we choose doesn’t even appear to us as a choice, but rather as the only good option available. This is the kind of real life necessity that Cavell is talking about that analytic philosophy can hardly acknowledge.

I’m going to leave to the side for now Cavell’s perceptive treatment of the “procedures of ordinary language philosophy” at the end of his paper, one in which we find an illuminating cross light for Rorty’s legendary “we’s” (I will continue on in a second reflection on Cavell), and instead end with a comment about where Cavell leaves us with this description of Wittgenstein’s achievement, with the hopes of illuminating Cavell’s earlier opaque claim that the cause and topic of philosophical criticism is “the self getting in its own way.” With where he leaves us, Cavell says that is difficult to name it, that “Wittgenstein called it ‘grammar’; others might call it ‘phenomenology.’” (93) Murdoch herself doesn’t, I believe, use “phenomenology” to describe what I noted above, but these seem like fitting descriptions, and as Cavell notes in “Austin at Criticism,” Austin’s nigh only title for what he did, thrown out sheepishly once, was “linguistic phenomenology.” (99) The title captures something important, that what Wittgenstein, Austin, Cavell, and Murdoch were all doing is making themselves at home in the language games we find ourselves inhabiting. They wish to shove aside some recent philosophy as pathetic, failed attempts to flee these language games, these forms of life.

But can we flee our language games? I believe we can, but my grasp of Cavell leads me to believe that he isn’t so sure we should want to, that all fleeing endeavors are perverse. As I understand it, in recent years Cavell has been apt to talk about something called the “Ordinary” that is supposed to be the object philosophers strive after. This, to me, seems to be a maneuver that kills the imaginative genius of our poets, those intellectuals that try and conceive a new form of life. No doubt, Plato created a new form of life, but not all new creations are necessarily good ones. Talk about the “Ordinary” as some kind of control on what we should be able to think about or conceive seems to me to be just one more Platonic twist on ending philosophy, ending the progress of intellectual life, as if once everything were “ordinary” it’d all be hunky-dory and we philosophers would be out of a job.

There are two other ways of putting this point. One is by reference to the wisdom Rorty pulls out of the two competing schools of linguistic philosophy circa 1960. In Rorty’s brilliant, expansive and informative introduction to his anthology, The Linguistic Turn, Rorty pits “ordinary language philosophy” (with alums like Austin, Strawson, Cavell, and Urmson) against “ideal language philosophy” (with alums like Carnap, Quine, Goodman, and Bergmann) to see what their differences might be. His concluding wisdom runs along the lines of, “Any stick will do to beat the devil, and it would seem that offering an alternative to ordinary English might be effective in some cases, whereas demonstrating a misuse of English would be effective in others.” (LT, 15) What lies at the bottom of Rorty’s difference with Cavell is that Cavell would like to read Wittgenstein as simply returning us to common sense, whereas Rorty would like to read Wittgenstein as envisioning a new form of life, that for the Philosophical Investigations to “return” us to common sense, we must also extirpate the Platonisms and Cartesianisms that are our common sense, thus changing it and not leaving it as it always was, us where we always were.

The other way of putting this point is to say that Cavell’s description of Wittgenstein as undoing the psychologizing of psychology, which itself ironically psychologizes philosophy, parallels precisely Rorty’s description of Davidson’s achievement: “Davidson, in other words, seems to me to have found a transcendental argument to end all transcendental arguments—one which tears down the scaffolding upon which the standard paradigms of ‘realistic’ transcendental arguments were mounted.” (“Transcendental Arguments, Self-Reference, and Pragmatism,” 78*) The idea Rorty is suggesting about Davidson, and that I think Cavell is suggesting about Wittgenstein (though unwittingly counter-productively), is that they worked through the dialectical structure of the language game of Platonic-Cartesian philosophy to its very end and showed how it defeated itself, and was therefore a pointless, superfluous, and self-defeating enterprise (“its cause and topic is the self getting in its own way”).

And we see in Cavell things that sound reminiscent of Davidson’s working out of this “transcendental argument to end all transcendental arguments” first proposed in “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” The one that should leap out is when he says, “the philosophy of ordinary language is not about language, anyway not in any sense in which it is not also about the world.” (95) That counterintuitive statement about what Austin is doing should remind us of Davidson saying, “we have erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around in the world generally,” which leads to his shocking formulation: “I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed.” (“A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs,” 107**) The erasure occurs, according to Davidson, once we drop the notion of conventions as ruling linguistic behavior and adopt a holistic picture of functioning, Davidson’s picture of triangulation between world, community, and person.

Cavell, I believe, is gesturing towards what Davidson worked out systematically, which isn’t too surprising given Cavell’s love of Wittgenstein and Rorty’s love of both Wittgenstein and Davidson. Unlike Davidson, however, Cavell is a more romantic thinker who is not content to plug away at posed problems, but is also concerned with self-creation, with the giving of wisdom for us, not just the wisdom Davidson dispenses primarily to other philosophers of language. The primary bit of wisdom is this: just as Cavell says that “Ordinary language philosophy is about whatever ordinary language is about,” we should see that what we do in life is about whatever it is that we do—there is nothing deeper, or secret, underlying our actions. We may not always understand what we are doing, and should always seek better descriptions of them, but there is no key to unlock what’s truly happening, certainly not any philosophy can provide.

*Found in Transcendental Arguments and Science, eds. Peter Bieri, Rolf-P. Horstmann, Lorenz Krüger Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979.
**Collected in Davidson’s Truth, Language, and History.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What is Quality?

In my endless pursuit for Pirsig material, I once stumbled upon a book that contained a number of small reflections by authors on what books affected them the most. Pirsig was there and his answer, as befitting a man choked by the anxiety of influence, was fairly vague. The really interesting find in the book was when I went to the index and checked to see if anyone had chosen ZMM as their book. And lo’ and behold, there was someone. I don’t remember his name (I’m currently bereft of my materials), but he wrote that he was deeply affected after reading ZMM, but he couldn’t remember how. He just remembered that after reading it he felt as if a veil had been lifted.

I think a lot of people have had that same experience with Pirsig. In my own experience, most Baby Boomers, if they haven’t read ZMM, have at least heard of it, though most of them don’t remember much of what the book was about. Even many kids in my generation (yes, I still retain the right to call myself a kid) have read or heard of ZMM. But why, if the book is so revolutionary, or at least seems to deeply affect its readers, do most not remember how it was that they were deeply affected?

I’m not proposing to answer that question. I’m sure most of it has to do with the fact that most people can’t remember what a book was about or how it affected them five years after the fact. Some people just don’t consider the reading of books a central part of their lives. But what about the philosophy? Pirsig proposes a new kind of philosophy of life in ZMM, and people seem attracted to it, but they neither remember what it was nor seem to alter their lives accordingly. And why did philosophers not pick up on it?

I’m not going to answer that question either, but again, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that “professional” philosophers didn’t find it useful for their own pursuits. In my earlier phase as a Pirsig enthusiast I once wrote Rorty about Pirsig. Nice guy that he is, he wrote me back and said essentially that he remembered reading it, but recalls not being that impressed with the philosophy and not understanding what everybody was so excited about. Which is interesting considering that few these days, apparently, can remember what they were so excited about either.

What I would like to suggest about the effect that ZMM has on people is that, while it doesn’t instill a positive message about how to live one’s life (it isn’t a self-help book), it does instill curiosity in some. I think the reason some don’t remember the message of ZMM is that there isn’t much of one, more or less “live life excellently.” Pirsig’s philosophy revolves around this magical word “Quality,” but people don’t remember what the philosophy is, principally because Pirsig doesn’t flesh it out. That was the purpose of Lila. But ZMM does instill curiosity in us because we see how lack of curiosity almost killed Pirsig, we see how the “establishment” can try and suppress curiosity.

What ZMM makes us curious about is philosophy, and specifically in the question “What is Quality?” If people have been affected by ZMM in a strong way, and in a way that has a lasting effect, it is typically in the fashion of making them interested to read more philosophy. They try and read Plato and Aristotle, and anybody else. That’s what happened to me, at least. What I’ve come to see, however, are two things: one, that “What is Quality?” on Pirsig’s analysis gives way to a second question and two, that this second question is not strictly philosophical in the sense that we’ve been instilled with by Pirsig.

Pirsig’s question, “What is Quality?”, gives way on his reflection to “Who are you?” While the first question is overtly meditated on in the book, the second question is only implicitly given attention to by the functioning of the book itself. Pirsig is drawn to the first question because he has an analytical mind, or as he says, a Platonic streak. He has to answer that question at the prompting of the Bozeman English Department and this is what leads him to the University of Chicago. It is there that the book ends supposedly. But, upon further reflection, the trail of the book continues and wraps all the way around to the beginning. The trail is foreshadowed by the very beginning of the book, the no-doubt-forgotten-about-by-the-time-you've-reached-the-end-of-the-book inscription prefacing the entire novel—“And what is good, Phaedrus,/And what is not good—/Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

The only person we need to ask about Quality is ourselves. But how should we answer that question? As Pirsig shows in Bozeman, most kids are puzzled by the question, and yet they seem to know intuitively that some things have higher Quality than others. Why is that? Pirsig’s later answer is that “we,” each person’s “person,” is built out of our history, cultural and biographical, those “analogues upon analogues upon analogues.” And thus we see that Pirsig’s first, Platonic question, “What is Quality?”, gives way to the second, non-Platonic question, “Who are you?” And, as I’ve already alluded to, this second question gives way to a third, almost anti-Platonic question, “Where have you been?” And thus the trail of the book continues on after the University of Chicago. Pirsig leads us through his past, showing us how he came to be who he is, and that trail continues on all the way up to the very writing of the book, his effort to confront fully the consequences of his own analysis of his question “What is Quality?”

Of course, I’m not at all sure that this is Pirsig’s intended effect. First, while I’m sure that the first question gives way to the second, and that Pirsig would be okay with this, I’m fairly positive that his explicit philosophical stance is antagonistic to the functioning of his book to reach the third question. The second question, after all, can still be given a Platonic spin to it, but the third certainly cannot. Using Pirsig’s own categories, Phaedrus is the Platonist and the narrator is the Aristotelian, and the narrator is the one who is vanquished in the end, the narrator is the one to be found to be holding the hero, Phaedrus, the real Pirsig, down. Plato created philosophy. Plato followed his teacher, Socrates’, lead in asking, for every instance of justice, piety, and the good, “What is it? What is it outside of these instances?” This flung us into the arid climate of generalities. It is Aristotle, on the other hand, who wanted to keep us in the details. And the third question is all about the details and history, something that a Platonist has no use for.

If we settle on for the moment that “What is Quality?” is Platonic, and therefore philosophical (because Plato is philosophy), and that “Who are you?” is not Platonic, and therefore not philosophical (because we are usually drawn by such a question to detailed autobiography), then the tension in Pirsig can be drawn not only by the questions or by Pirsig’s Plato/Aristotle categories, but by drawing a contrast between philosophy and literary criticism. We know that Pirsig hates literary criticism, thinking it a parasitic enterprise best left to second-rate minds, and that most of all of what professional philosophers do is no better than literary criticism. I want to suggest that the second question belongs to literary criticism.

The reason can be seen in the very look of what we typically canonize “philosophical” texts versus “literary” texts. Philosophy is abstract, it deals with concepts by themselves. Plato’s dialogues are explained as simply the method of conveyance for his philosophy, Descartes’ meditations as simply a heuristic, the first grand modern thought-experiment. Kant is taken to be paradigmatic, Spinoza is taken to be the most pure, and Montaigne and Voltaire aren’t even taught in philosophy departments because they wrote too topically, too much about themselves. As for literary texts, we can take the novel as the obvious example: a novel charts the course of a character’s life. It is all about the details. It may give you ideas, but it gives you a whole lot more than that.

Philosophy’s roots are in the search for wisdom, but since Descartes invented modern philosophy, philosophy has largely abdicated that role in favor of the abstract manipulation of symbols, of the search for foundations or transcendental outlines. Wisdom has been left for novelists and poets to convey and explore. Dealing in the abstract can indeed help us, but, as Pirsig tells us, only if it can cash out into real life, only if it can be applied. But most philosophers in the modern period have thought of “applied philosophy” as a secondary effort, as opposed to their pure pursuits. Pirsig oscillates between the two, which is just as well, but by explicitly focusing on “What is Quality?” as opposed to “Who are you?” he gives new lease on life to the Platonic impulse, the impulse to ignore life. This is what ZMM can tend to instill in the reader. The way to read Pirsig is not as a philosopher, but as a literary critic. If we read as a philosopher we will be led to Platonism. But reading as literary critics, we can see the rootedness of his philosophy in life.

Another way of seeing the tension in Pirsig’s philosophy, and not just in ZMM, however, is by seeing what his philosophy does to literary criticism. One of the things that I’ve found suggested by Rorty’s philosophy is that there are two ways to read texts, two purposes that we can find them attuned to. One is the search for moral wisdom and the other is the search for aesthetic power. Harold Bloom has spent most of his life charting the intricacies of the search for aesthetic power, centered in what he calls the anxiety of influence and charted by criticism as “the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem.” (The Anxiety of Influence, 96) Aesthetic power in its pure form is originality, centered around the question “What is new?” Bloom has often been accused of being too narrowly focused, but Bloom would be the first to acknowledge his narrowness, and he would simply claim to be reacting to the literary critical establishment of his time that has lost its way in performing one of its duties. But indeed, Bloom has not ignored moral wisdom, and in one of his latest books, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (dedicated coincidentally enough to Rorty), he reflects at length on the great writers in our Western wisdom traditions. Moral wisdom is centered around the question “What is best?” For true pragmatists like Rorty and Bloom, it is experiencing the actualities of life and reading the possibilities of books that gives us the wisdom to navigate our way through life and find what is best.

The reason I should put together such possibly odd pairings of words, “moral wisdom” and “aesthetic power,” as literary categories is because of my readings of Pirsig, Rorty, and Bloom. Pirsig has particularly taught us that all wisdom is a moral effort, that there is no distinction between morality and ethics and other categories of choice, such as prudence and taste. And Bloom has taught me, not only that to find what is new you must struggle with the vastness of time past, but that originality is a powerful force that changes us, the more original, the more we are changed.

What I should like to meditate on is how I’m making a distinction between the two and how Pirsig would not. This is crystallized in Pirsig’s concept of Dynamic Quality. DQ is both what is best and what is most new. DQ for Pirsig is a punch to the face that we cannot ignore, that changes us whether we like it or not. But for Bloom, originality does not mean wisdom. We can appreciate the power of new metaphors without being enticed into picking them up. Metaphors, for Rorty, are meaningless, and so, linguistically speaking, something like punches to the face. The trap that Pirsig falls into is twofold: first, he falls into the Heideggerian trap of searching for elemental words, words that can never be banalized by use and thus given meanings (hence DQ/Quality’s undefinition) and second, the Platonic trap of thinking that power and the good are the same thing.

On one of Rorty’s readings, Heidegger (as he says in Being and Time) is in search for elemental words and that we can trace his movement from early to late by the changes in those words he takes as elemental. In Heidegger, these words move from German candidates like Dasein to Greek candidates like noein. What Heidegger wants are words that slough off meaning, words that simply have force. By moving back to Greek words, to words that Plato first imbued with philosophical senses, Heidegger wants to reclaim these originary words by shedding the history of philosophy from them, thereby making them metaphors again. Heidegger thus, on Rorty’s reading, evinces Bloom’s sense of poetic anxiety.

I think it is instructive to read Pirsig as searching for, not just indestructible metaphors, but elemental words for two reasons. For one, Pirsig goes back to the Greeks and the roots of language much like Heidegger, such as his recapturing of arete in ZMM and rta in Lila. For two, and more importantly, Pirsig’s DQ/Quality is originary in a cosmic sense, whereby Pirsig traces them to being reality itself, and thus the causes of reality. DQ is both originary and permanently new, always a force and never banal. Pirsig hopes not only to find a metaphor that is always a metaphor, but a metaphor that has created all the others in its wake. The Heideggerian trap is one that is set for all those who feel the strain of their predecessors. Because Pirsig’s poetic metaphors are set for philosophical purposes, however, his production of DQ/Quality causes us to lose sight of history. By focusing on the question “What is Quality?”, Pirsig’s answer in the form of an elemental word produces the Platonic tendency of metaphysical speculation rather than autobiographical introspection.

The Platonic trap is one that is produced by Plato’s attempt to, in Yeats’ phrase, “hold reality and justice in a single vision.” Rorty spins the history of philosophy out of this phrase and it is epitomized in Plato’s Republic. In this dialogue, Plato attempts to philosophically explain why his fellow Athenians were wrong to convict his hero and mentor, Socrates, by showing that the Form of Good is reality behind the appearances. Heidegger, like Rorty following him later, traces the modern fixation on Reason to Plato (seen in the dialectic), which produces the modern ethical manifestation of Platonism in Kantian and Hegelian ethics. Pirsig, too, traces modern philosophy to Greek roots, but he still insists on equating the Good with Reality.

Pirsig obviously does not want us to repeat the failures of Plato. The Pirsig of ZMM has certainly located the roots of SOM in Plato, particularly in his dialectic, and there is no doubt he attacks him for it. Nevertheless, however, Pirsig does find that the Greeks were up to something good and that what this is is something like abstract thinking, which is why Pirsig suggests that he be seen as a Platonist as opposed to an Aristotelian in temperament. If Platonism and Aristotelianism are taken to be impulses towards abstraction and details respectively, then certainly these temperaments exist and are helpful and not to be denied. And yet Pirsig does seem to fall into the trap. The trap comes out clearly in what we might call the indeterminacy of Dynamic Quality thesis, when, after identifying reality with the good and with the new, Pirsig cogently says that one cannot ever tell whether one is being Dynamic or degenerate in the moment—only history can tell us that. If DQ is something that punches us in the face, how is it that we could be wrong about being punched? How does DQ help us then?

The reason Pirsig falls into the trap, I think, is not because he’s a crypto-Platonist, but because he places too much stock in abstraction. Pirsig wisely hitches his boat with pragmatism at the end of Lila, but after Rorty, having a “pragmatist metaphysics” looks like an oxymoron—and Pirsig even sees it coming when, attempting to split the difference between positivists and mystics, he says that a Metaphysics of Quality is a contradiction in terms. Pirsig takes that as a good sign for building bridges, but I should like to think that that would be a good time to look around for new terms.

From a metaphysical point of view—the view from which we make hard, deep cuts into Reality, splitting it into the correct pieces, the pieces Reality wants to be in—pragmatism is a monism because it denies that deep cuts can be made. Pirsig senses this and this makes pragmatism of a piece with the Buddhist strain in Pirsig. But while from a metaphysical point of view reality is monistic, from a pragmatic point of view reality is in as many pieces as you need it to be. There is an important sense in which Pirsig captures this in his distinction between DQ and static patterns. But I think there was a casualty in the process and that is the distinction between moral wisdom and aesthetic power, between what’s best and what’s new. After abstractly chopping everything down, I think Pirsig misplayed his hand in putting things back together.

So while Pirsig’s philosophy blurs the difference between moral wisdom and aesthetic power because a pragmatist metaphysics is a monism, there certainly is a pragmatic difference between the two that is lost in Pirsig because he takes “What is Quality?” to be the more serious question than “Who are you?” Pirsig takes metaphysics too seriously and so loses sight of life, lost in the mountains without a clear way home. Pirsig says that metaphysics ain’t worth a damn if it doesn’t help out in life and I can’t think of a clearer case of forgetting what we already intuitively and commonsensically know—the new may just be a passing fad.

This reflection has taken quite a few turns. I’d like to close by reiterating the difference between “What is Quality?” and “Who are you?” If we take the first question seriously, we will become lost in a sea of concepts, terms that can be pushed around in almost any direction, in an infinite number of constellations. If we take the second question seriously, however, concepts or terms we use become grounded in our lives, which is where they have their meaning. Literary criticism becomes the preferred discipline to exemplify because our lives are narratives that we reflect on. In the end, if we focus on the second question and literary criticism, the difference between the first and second question, and philosophy and literary criticism, disappears as we draw back to the roots of philosophy—the search for wisdom. Abstraction and details only gain their meaning when in harmony with each other, rooted in a narrative, the story we tell ourselves about history, our culture, our nation, our lives.