Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Notes on Experience, Dewey, and Pirsig

My confrontation with Pirsig can be said to center around two terms, “philosophy” and “experience.” In particular, it is when you put the two together that, as in a “philosophy of experience” (or, in Pirsig’s terminology, a “Metaphysics of Quality”), that I think you can get problems of a kind that Pirsig is elsewhere at pains to distance himself from and criticize (all depending on how you define the terms, of course). My development of this angle of confrontation and this picture of Pirsig has been in part due to the pressures from my interlocuters, expositors of Pirsig who think that there’s nothing wrong with such a formulation, and vice versa with them. Our pictures of Pirsig, developed in partial dialectic with each other, have over time overflowed into the general pictures of philosophy we may hold and other particular philosophers we may attend to. This has led to surprise, on both sides, when we look in more detail at what the other is describing and drawing in our continuing efforts to expand our own horizons.

This phenomenon shouldn’t itself be surprising. It happens all the time and might most generally be called “education.” The peculiar thing about developing a picture of Pirsig is that there isn’t all that much material of Pirsig’s to keep in mind, not a lot of detail to dig around for or have to remember (though, as always happens to diggers, we may become so focused on the mineshaft we are currently in that we sometimes start to forget about the others). This isn’t so, though, for the job of developing a picture of Pirsig’s place in philosophy (or anything else), for developing a picture of how Pirsig resonates with or reverberates into the rest of what people are saying and doing. There are a lot of mineshafts out there to look through and the phenomenon of surprise is the effect of having a shaft described to you for so long as one thing, and then going into it and finding something else.

This effect, I think, isn’t due to willful mis-description or even partial understanding. All of us move through the world with partial understandings that are further increased, though never made less partial. Some people understand more about one thing than another and should be taken as authorities on X, over this other person over here. Who should be taken as an authority, as having a good understanding, is something developed over time, over conversation and debate and the dialectic. Our finitude is what produces the demand that we never rest totally certain on a platform, but always be looking for or producing a better one.

This is all to say that I’ve had my own little moment of surprise, which turned rapidly, as dawning understanding swept over my face, into joy. The ball got rolling, oddly enough, by me, but not in the usual way. In this case, my girlfriend and I were having a conversation about racism and moral progress and I started to try and impress upon her my slightly counterintuitive viewpoint. She’s studying psychology and has a bit of the scientist in her and I’m, of course, an irrepressible Rortyan and so scientistic rhetoric doesn’t take too well with me. As we were talking, I called upon Dewey to help me out. I pulled out his “means-ends continuum” to try and help me describe my hocked vision of moral progress. Turns out, she was quite taken with it and over the next few days kept asking me for where it was and more information on it.

Here’s my partial: I don’t know where in Dewey it’s from and I don’t have my Dewey books with me anymore. She wants to incorporate it in an art project she’s doing (which, she’s told me, she’d rather have me call an “art experiential” because “art project,” in her words, makes it sound like she’s in eighth grade; I told her she looks like she’s in eighth grade—she has a young face—at which point she called me a “butthead”) and maybe a paper she’s writing, so I read to her sections of Rorty that continues to gloss the notion. She also goes onto the web and grabs some papers about Dewey, art, and the means-ends continuum. They’re lying around the apartment and so I read a few of them. Most of them are lame articles about Dewey and art (not because they are about his vision of art, but because they are just lame), but one article is solely about the means-ends continuum that she picked up from the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, a reputable philosophical journal. The scales fell from eyes.

In his paper, “The Means-Ends Continuum and the Reconciliation of Science and Art in the Later Works of John Dewey,” (Summer, 1999, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, 595-611) Leonard J. Waks seeks to focus on something that has never, apparently, received much isolated focus: Dewey’s analysis of the means-ends continuum. The first part of the paper is an admirable summation of the background that Dewey was reacting to. Nothing out of the ordinary here; just the usual stuff about dehumanizing, technical action, theory and practice, teleology, etc. But then the second part, “Dewey’s Analysis of Means-Ends,” which should be the meat of what I’d like to learn about, begins, “Its key distinction is that between two dimensions of experience which Dewey calls”—and at this point I can hear the choir of antithetical, experience-jargon toting Pirsigians chime in triumphantly—“primary and secondary.” (598)

I rolled my eyes and got ready my thresher, ready to neatly cut out all of that kind of talk as merely the ways of the time, a vocabulary handed down to us from Locke to Kant to Northrop, the kind of thing I had hoped that James and Dewey had gotten away from in the main, or at least not used those damn exact words, words that have haunted me ever since my interlocuters had started reading more Northrop into Pirsig than they should’ve, hammering down every time Pirsig writes that Quality or DQ is the “primary experience.” I got a little ticked because here I am wanting to read about moral progress and the means-ends continuum and I have to go through a negligible discursus on experience. But then I read the next paragraph, which if I hadn’t completely forgotten by the reading of it that I had just started my thresher, I should have thought was a complete non sequitor (all in-text citations of Dewey have been removed, though all italics, before and after when quoting, are Waks’s):
“Let us turn to the deconstructive argument. Its key distinction is that between two dimensions of experience which Dewey calls primary and secondary. This distinction emerges from his ‘doubt-belief’ theory of inquiry.

“According to that theory, the live organism acts to sustain the conditions needed for its continuing life. Every experience is thus situated in a causal continuum of life-sustaining activity. Every feature of experience is conditioned by the life-directing goals of the organism; it is perceived in relation to a reaching, a trying to bring into or sustain in existence the conditions required for life. Every situation is qualitatively felt as enjoyable or unsettling, depending on whether the conditions for life sustaining activity are, or are not, maintained in existence by present activity. The features are potentially cognitively meaningful, because they are all elements in the web of causal connections; they are related to their own antecedent conditions, and they are pregnant with possible consequences bearing on the life goals and life-sustaining ativities of the organism. Doubt is felt as uneasiness or imbalance, as obstacles are encountered that frustrate activity. Frustrations emerge as entrenched habits prove inadequate to the life-sustaining task and must be reconstructed. This reconstructive process, which terminates in new belief as more adequate habits are formed and doubt gives way to renewed action, Dewey, following Peirce, calls inquiry.”
When I finished that paragraph, I nodded my head in agreement. I had read about Peirce and Dewey’s redescription of inquiry and absorbed it from Rorty’s redescription (primarily from “Inquiry as Recontextualization,” ORT). The paragraph was all fairly abstract, but when you navigate your way through the jargon it says something very simple and commonsensical: you putter your way through life as you’ve been puttering until you hit something that you can’t just putter through, which causes doubt in the way you’ve been puttering, which causes you to think about whether you should perhaps find some new way of puttering. In nodding my head serenely, of course, I had completely forgotten that that paragraph was supposed to be explicating primary and secondary experience. I didn’t see anything plainly relevant and forgot all about it.

But then Waks hits me with this simple, straightforward gloss on the previous paragraph: “For Dewey, life activities undergirded by adequate habit and intelligence-in-action constitute primary experience.” (ibid.) Like a ton of bricks, it hit me all at once. First, I went, “Oh yeah, he was supposed to be talking about that.” But then: “Oh…my…God….” The constellation of what primary and secondary experience shifted completely out of kilter from my normal understanding of how neo-Kantians and Pirsigians use it by five simple words: “adequate habit … constitute primary experience.” It was almost as if the word “primary” had been italicized just for me, for the quakes of what those five words mean for a confluence of Dewey and Pirsig are tremendous.

The background is simple: for Pirsigians, Dynamic Quality is the primary experience and static patterns of Quality are secondary, following in a wake behind the cutting edge of pre-intellectual experience. Simply stating it allows one to see it: static patterns are adequate habits, which means that Pirsig is the exact reverse of Dewey.

According to Waks, for Dewey, we make our way about the world following a pattern of accumulated habits. “In this dimension tacit goals adequately direct behavior and condition a relatively fluid field of experience apprehended as a qualitative whole.” (ibid.) We just live when we are in this dimension, we don’t think about what we are doing, we just act. This is often how a Pirsigian will want to describe Dynamic Quality. For Dewey, however, accumulated habits, or static patterns, are the primary experience and the secondary is, though oddly just as in Pirsig, the reflective experience. Dewey, like Pirsig, annoyingly uses the language of “reflective delay,” but the point here is that both agree that reflection causes us to analyze into parts, as opposed to the qualitative whole of primary experience.

Dewey’s description is very convincing and intuitive: we navigate the world by a set of habits, obstacles cause doubt, doubt causes a rethinking of our habits, and the rethinking causes us to change our habits. If one finds this very convincing, however, it puts Pirsig in an awkward position—his description of DQ as the primary experience, as the qualitative whole, has to be rejected. I think one could make a run at trying to creatively put Dewey and Pirsig back together. I’m not going to attempt that here. What I will do is first try and explain why Pirsig would suggest something backwards to Dewey and then try and explain why I prefer and find quite congenial Dewey’s distinction between primary and secondary experience, a distinction I hadn’t been able to countenance before.

I think Pirsig reverses Dewey (after Dewey had reversed Kant) because he still shows signs of what Heidegger called “nostalgia for immediacy” (and what I have previously called the “pathos of distance”). This comes out in several places, but I think it’s easiest to see when we link together the baby passages in Lila to the hierarchy passages in ZMM. When Pirsig calls DQ the cutting edge of experience, he is obviously making use of a sense of immediacy, our sense that the present is a knife’s edge of conjoined beginning and ending, ever moving onward. Before Pirsig conceives of DQ in Lila, however, he already has one of its functions in mind: “You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after you’ve seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness there must be a time lag. … The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal.” (ZMM, 250, italics his)

I’m not going to slap Pirsig on the wrists for saying that the past is unreal because one of the things that I make it a point of trying to do is realign people to ZMM, that the book is not a doctrinal exposition but a dialectical journey. However, even if we don’t take this passage as doctrine, something like it is still in Lila (which much more closely resembles a doctrinal exposition). Even after the refuse of these statements in ZMM is cleared away, there is still left the sense of importance that Pirsig places on them, how emphatic Pirsig is remains.

One might wonder how or why we would want to call this a “nostalgia.” After all, isn’t Pirsig suggesting that immediacy is our only reality? How can one be nostalgic for all that there is? The nostalgia comes in when Pirsig links DQ with the experience of a baby. “One can imagine how an infant in the womb acquires awareness of simple distinctions such as pressure and sound, and then at birth acquires more complex ones of light and warmth and hunger. We know these distinctions are pressure and sound and light and warmth and hunger and so on but the baby doesn’t. We could call them stimuli but the baby doesn’t identify them as that. From the baby’s point of view, something, he knows not what, compels attention.” (Lila, 137, italics his) By this linking, Pirsig makes a very real shift in the meaning of DQ. No longer is DQ simply the only state we are in, how we experience reality. DQ is something that we can lose, something we can be more or less in touch with. The nostalgia for immediacy is the lost, purely new experience of a baby, or that first time we heard that one song that one time.

This creates no small amount of tension, but it is the kind of tension that is required to produce the grand effects that Pirsig claims for DQ on metaphysical thinking. However, it does tend to put a strain on its logical coherence. Further strain comes from Pirsig’s suggestion that we are static patterns, that our ego, our I, is static patterns and does not, as the Cartesian tradition has suggested, have static patterns, are separate from them. It is this suggestion of Pirsig’s that most fully aligns him with Dewey.

If Pirsig had focused more attention on the repercussions of this reversal of the tradition, I think Pirsig may have shifted his emphases in DQ. For the time being, I shall content myself with pointing out why I prefer Dewey’s description (with the idea that it doesn’t take much to see Pirsig’s conception of “static patterns” the same way). The two problems I’ve always had with the formulation of the primary and secondary distinction between experiences are the senses that 1) primary experience is more important (as in the fact that DQ is a trumping good over static patterns) and 2) that the primary experience comes before our concepts (as in DQ as pre-intellectual experience). In Dewey’s formulation, both problems disappear.

Taking the latter sense first, we can see that the supposed “time lag” in Dewey becomes totally innocuous. Waks says that for Dewey, “when habits fail and obstacles frustrate action in a situation, the unease of doubt prompts a transition to a secondary dimension, characterized by reflective delay.” (Waks, 598) This delay in Dewey, however, is not the same delay as in Pirsig. For Pirsig, the time lag is a razor thin delay between experience sans concepts and conceptualized experience. For Dewey, there is no experience that is not conceptualized. Dewey affects this shift from Kantianism by moving from concepts to habits. By dispensing with talk about concepts, and when we have them, where we get them, can we get rid of them, etc., Dewey moves us to talk about our habits of behavior. Instead of talking about how a baby forms concepts, as Pirsig does, Dewey would talk about how a baby forms habits—and the idea of concepts drops right out. This leaves us as being a set of habits, just as Pirsig says we are static patterns, accumulated patterns of behavior.

Reflective delay, then, becomes the same thing you get between the time of placing the nail and hitting the nail. When doubt enters our domain of habit, we cease the habit so that we may think about the habit and how we may reform it. There’s no mysterious time lag here, just the normal lag between hitting your thumb with a crowbar and thinking that maybe you shouldn’t use the crowbar to pound the nail, that perhaps a hammer would work better.

The nostalgia for immediacy also drops out once one recognizes that “primary” and “secondary” are simply two separate modes of being, two dimensions of experience, two different activities. Pirsig and Dewey’s highly philosophical way of putting the point can obscure the effect, but the only reason one is primary to the other is that you can’t have doubt until you have a habit to be doubtful of. Reflection on our habits is secondary because we have to have habits to reflect on. However, reflection is just as much a habitual activity as anything else that goes on in our primary experience.

This is how the first problem, the problem of beatifying primary experience, is muted. The primary and secondary designations are simply ways of distinguishing how we usually make our way about the world and a special case of making our way about the world. What is also interesting in Dewey’s model is the importance placed on secondary experience, which is often lost in Pirsig’s DQ/static set up. For Pirsig, the only reason we have static patterns is so that we won’t fall apart into chaos. Otherwise, Dynamic Quality plays all the good roles in our lives: newness, betterness, wholeness. For Dewey, the very idea of falling apart into chaos doesn’t arise. In Dewey’s arrangement, secondary experience, or inquiry, plays an important role in giving us better habits, static patterns. “Inquiry leads to a re-cognition—a new, explicit view of the situation, a new causal map enabling the formation of new plans that liberate us from doubt and re-engage us, armed with new habits, in cognitively enriched primary experience.” (ibid.) Wholeness cut into parts holds at bay the Otherness of Chaos, the fear of degeneracy, in Pirsig, but for Dewey cutting things into parts enables us to construct a better wholeness.

So much for my notes on experience, Dewey, and Pirsig. Dewey’s vision, and Waks’ article, continues into his conception of the “means-ends continuum,” which I won’t go on to discuss here. I’ll simply note that was interesting about how the distinction between primary and secondary experience links up with the means-ends continuum is that the purposes for which we construct the means to get them (ends-in-view) are incomparable to the end results after following through on our plans. This is because ends-in-view and end results exist in two different dimensions of experience, secondary and primary respectively. This produces the famous oscillation that Rorty emphasizes when we he takes up Dewey’s mantle. This isn’t to say I’m about to start talking about primary and secondary experience. I still think it is needlessly esoteric to talk about two dimensions. But Dewey’s vision in out-of-date jargon still foresees many moves made in the game of philosophy that the best pragmatists are carrying out (most of them acknowledging their debt).


  1. Or, Dynamic Quality is Dynamic Intellect -- when existing concepts are refashioned. I wouldn't say, by the way, that concepts "drop out". Rather, following Peirce, I would say that physical laws, instincts, habits, and concepts are the same thing, operating in, as you say, different activities.

  2. When I wrote that particular bit, I did think of you and how you might protest. Your response is what I thought it might be and it reinforces why I suggested that there's no pragmatic difference between saying its all mind and there's no mind. Whether one follows me or you, Dewey's talk of habits or Peirce's talk of "it's all concepts," one is led to the same rejection of the problems given by sundering concepts from content, mind from matter, or any of the other dualisms set in a nice constellation, reinforcing each other.

    Now, you still disagree about my suggestion about whether there is no difference that makes a difference. You still think Rorty harbors two, twin metaphysical views of materialism and its attendant nominalism. I think both epithets, hinging on your view that metaphysics in this way is unescapable (if I'm remembering our conversations correctly), beg the question too easily. I still think there's something else going on.

    You suggested in your other comment that the only reason Rorty and me like to say that it's all the same is that, really, we don't think so but think if we can convince people it's true, things have gone along long enough that we'll win if we do. While this is a little unfair, every conscientious secularist like myself who sincerely thinks that Christians and every other religious believer should be allowed to believe what they want--so long as they keep religion out of politics--is hurt when people suggest that, in point of fact, everyone will eventually be atheists if turned to the secular compromise. I don't think that, but I must take an objection like that seriously because it always is a tricky situation when you think these three things 1) I believe X, 2) I believe people would be overall better off if they believe X, and 3) so long as beliefs like X are kept away from politics, it doesn't matter whether people believe X or not, just so long as they are happy. I happen to think that people, in the long run, would be more happy if they were atheists, but I can't be certain and I know that people will not be happy if they are forced by the state to make a decision about whether to be an atheist or not. I don't think Mill's political philosophy, Jefferson's compromise, leads to atheism. I still believe there's a difference between secularism and atheism.

    All that being said, then, my response to your suggestion, that I'm just being unconsciously smug about being on the (currently) winning team, that I'm just trying to convince your team to run out the clock because my team's ahead right now, is that I think there's more than one sports match being played and that we should finish our game, not in this particular arena, but in another arena.

    In this arena, as a pragmatist who denies both idealism and materialism, denies that there is a choice between them, I think that as long as Darwinian evolution is able to sustain its success, there's no good reason to think that the choice between idealism and materialism is a live choice. I just can't see it. You see Darwinism as only something precommited materialists could come up with, but I don't see it that way at all. The way I see it, the only reason you think that is because you think that evolution simply cannot explain where the mind came from, when we moved from making noises and scratching marks to using concepts.

    Is this more or less right, more or less where our conversations have moved us in the debate? Dennett called people like that the "new mysterians" and I think that sums it up. I cannot wrap my head around why there is a problem in constructing an anthropological tale about how homo sapien created language. If it is all mind, then you still need a distinction between what it is that humans do that animals don't, what allows humans to produce Shakespeare and theories about materialism v. idealism and not, so far as we know, other animals. Whatever you call that distinction (and I can't imagine you being able to function philosophically or commonsensically without it) is the distinction I would call the difference between "using language to make your way about the world" and "not using language to make your way about the world." The creation and growth of language is then no more mysterious than the creation or growth of a limb--both evolved due to evironmental pressures over millenia.

    If we disjoin debates about "mind" from the above distinction, which is what I think happens if you say awkwardly (given pragmatist and Nagarjunian doubts about both slogans) there is either "no mind" or "all mind," then you've accepted pragmatism, which is how I would put our agreement on pragmatism. You think, however, that there is still something that hinges on our choice between the two slogans.

    I don't know what that is.

    Do you think homo sapiens evolved from earlier incarnations of biological species (the usual tale)? Do you think an evolutionary tale can be told about the creation and growth of L ("L" being whatever is produced by the above distinction between humans and other animals, I call it "language," you call it __________)? Do you think those two tales can be interwoven (e.g., we evolved a particular kind of tongue because of X, this particular kind of agile tongue allowed us to make new kinds of sounds, which, because of Y, we employed to distinguish between "food" and "non-food," etc.)?

    If you agree to those three things, then you are Darwinian enough for me. So far as I've been able to tell, you've held out because of the inability of Darwinism to explain the origin of concepts, which at this point have to be disjoined from the distinction that produces L. Whether you call it all concepts, or mind, or even language, you still need a practical distinction that produces L. If you don't have that, I can't see you being able to explain some of the obvious, commonsensical differences between humans and animals (like the ability to create governments and atom bombs) that call for an explanation. And barring a good explanation, your redescription would be unpersuasive on the basis of non-utility. I wouldn't be able to find a use for it.

  3. Thanks for your "Pirsig, Dewey, and Experience" Essay. All good and quite illuminating!!

    Henry Gurr
    Professor of Physics

    Persons who enjoyed reading book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" will especially enjoy Robert Pirsig's OWN 12 color photos of his 1968 original ZMM Trip at:


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