Thursday, December 27, 2007

Philosophical Antiauthoritarianism: A Reply to Johnston

There is a long, venerable history of philosophers inspiring others in divergent ways. Beginning with Socrates, who inspired the history of philosophy in all of its factious dissonance, I doubt there has been a single great philosopher who hasn't been struggled over. Pirsig is no exception and there is a lengthening record of these differences. Caryl Johnston has recently began a site dedicated to thinking through Pirsig's philosophy and putting it to use. She has also taken an opportunity to confront some of my writings on Pirsig and I would like to return volley.

After reading her response to my criticisms of philosophology, it isn't clear to me where our major disagreements are. I think Johnston gets me just right when she says, "Kundert seems not to be talking about the Metaphysics of Quality but with the ghost that the Metaphysics of Quality came to exorcise: namely, the Metaphysics of Substance." ("Responding to M. Kundert," para. 13) It is common practice to criticize me for my avowed preoccupation with the various guises of SOM, which we might call Platonism, Cartesianism, Kantianism or essentialism, representationalism, realism, etc. I make no bones about concentrating much of my energy on these exorcist rituals and since Pirsig spends at least half of his energy doing so, I'm always surprised when people respond so poorly. Because if Pirsig's philosophy really is still needed so desperately, then SOM is still something that needs to be exposed.

Of course, what upsets other Pirsig enthusiasts is that I tend to turn the anti-SOMism back on Pirsig. Defenses of Pirsig under these circumstances puzzle me because they usually consist of what I see as further backsliding into SOMism combined with outrage at the thought of turning the soap back on Pirsig to see if he is not himself clean, which just makes me bridle even further. After all, why shouldn't we make sure that Pirsig isn't free of that which he says he is? I see most of my so-called critiques of Pirsig as aggressive investigations. I don't think every avenue I've set out to explore has panned out, but I don't regret spending time to explore it. Is not philosophy supposed to be about questioning?

What puzzles me about Johnston is her declaration that she does "not read Pirsig as 'anti-authoritarian' in any sense." (para. 15) This concerns me because the stipulated sense I had given it in "Pirsig Institutionalized" ("Antiauthoritarianism is a specifically philosophical thesis that says that people are not bound to any non-human authority, be it God, Reality, or Reason," Part I, para. 1) is one that I had thought all Pirsigians would have been able to get behind. It didn't occur to me that it would be contentious at all. Johnston goes on to read "antiauthoritarian" in a non-philosophical sense, which is a construal I don't use for that term. (Johnston ends her piece by talking about real authority, as opposed to philosophical authoritarianism, which is interesting given my discussion of real authority in Part III, indeed in Pirsigian terms in footnote 6.) So, leaving aside my further claims about an antiprofessionalist pattern of argument (which then collapses into antiestablishmentarianism), I would like to lay out in a different way why I take it as plain that Pirsig is a philosophical antiauthoritarian.

There are two sides to the Quality thesis that I would highlight as antiauthoritarian. One is the identification of Quality as undefined and the other is the identification of Quality as reality as experience. The first I take to be anti-Platonic and anti-essentialist. Plato created the Realm of the Forms by taking his teacher's style of conversational engagement, the elenchus, and turning it into the dialectic. It was hard not to notice that Socrates had the disconcerting habit of starting from definitions of terms, but Plato misconstrued Socrates as trying to get to the correct, True definitions, rather than just better definitions.

Socrates wasn't looking for the essence of piety, he was first eviscerating Euthyphro's understanding, and then supplying a different one. Plato took Socrates' style and turned it into a theoretical method of metaphysical ascension. Pirsig, by not just not defining Quality, but by defining Quality as undefined, is making Quality an anti-essence. For Plato, the Realm of the Forms was True Reality which we needed a method to reach, a reality that is a force. Pirsig's Quality, on the other hand, is undefined, which immediately makes Plato's quest look like a fool's errand. There are no essential definitions that must be respected and that force themselves on us, there are only negotiated points of reference, hence the primacy of rhetoric and Pirsig's reiteration of Protagoras: "Man is the measure of all things."

The identification of Quality with reality and experience follows for the same underlying reason of antiauthoritarianism, of taking Protagoras seriously and not making up things to bow down to. Modern philosophy separates itself from Greek philosophy by making a separation between experience and reality. (The roots for this are Greek, but Rorty makes a convincing case in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that this particular dichotomy only became a problem after Descartes. In this, Rorty is following Whitehead, who in Process and Reality said that what was distinctively modern was the "subjectivist bias" we inherited from Descartes.) This is the subject/object divide that so concerns Pirsig. What Pirsig finds particularly pernicious is the fact that there are facts about things like rocks, stuff "out there," but things like values are pejoratively "subjective" because they are only "in here," in our minds. Facts, from a SOMist point of view, are to be respected because of what they are, true and in reality, whereas mental states like happiness and ethics are going to be different for everybody because they are internal.

Pirsig wants to collapse the experience/reality distinction because it collapses all of these dichotomies that create an area that is clear and a force and an area that is murky and amorphous. Rather than supposing that "facts" are what they are because reality forces us to think of them that way, Pirsig wants to emphasize the role our experience of them plays. Facts are what they are because of how humankind, as a whole, experiences them, and this "humankind" is built out of individuals experiencing them. Reality is no longer an authority figure, it is an experiential partner.

So much for my rehearsal of philosophical antiauthoritarianism. I suspect Johnston would find little to object to in its outline, though perhaps in some of the details. But given agreement on the outline, I'm finding it difficult to find important disagreements, aside from a few lonely details. For instance, Johnston apparently respects my right to defend academia, noting correctly that the whole goal is for Pirsigian philosophy to take it over, but I would quibble with her sense that "philosophers have not been altogether willing to discuss" Pirsig's philosophy and that "there is a suspicion of unwillingness on the part of the philosophic community to greet this new visitor with open arms." (para. 5) I have to confess that this sounds a little naive. I think we should remind ourselves that there is no single philosopher that inspires the same opinion in other philosophers. Philosophers are notoriously individualistic. Look at Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein: rare is the philosopher that esteems all three highly, but it is hard to find someone who doesn't rate one of them highly. It is best for Pirsigians to not focus on how few their numbers are, which just leads to building resentment, and instead focus their energy on philosophy.

Another point is when I think Johnston misses the point of my argument in "Philosophologology." She agrees that you can't really separate history from the essence of philosophy, but scoffs, "what difference does it make?" (para. 6) It is no wonder she found my train of thought "torturous." The whole point behind the exercise was to try and isolate what the two terms mean, what they must mean for Pirsig to get the required force behind the derogatory epithet "philosophology." (Some people, in defense of Pirsig, have gone the route of claiming the epithet isn't derogatory.) As I say at the beginning of "Pirsig Institutionalized," if all Pirsig meant was "intellectual history" v. "philosophy," then Pirsig's epithet loses its force. But if Pirsig meant "history" v. "substance," then we have a Platonic ghost to be exorcised. The first paper goes through the motions of the exorcism and why I think I keep finding fire underneath the smoke in, probably excruciating, detail.

An example of fire: after shaking her head in bewilderment at why I would emphasize the inseparability of history from philosophy to Pirsig (sometimes I do the same thing while I'm doing it, since I wouldn't have thought I'd need to), Johnston balks at my attack on what has sometimes been called "perennial philosophy." (para. 7) Part of my argument in "Philosophology" was on the idea that, in Pirsig's analogy, the "horse" of philosophy is always open for inspection. This continued on to my claim that "…many of the things philosophy struggles with on a day-to-day basis are not things that immediately come to mind for the man on the street." What's interesting is that Johnston immediately belies her disagreement with this by following with an admission that the man on the street may not have the problems of philosophy in mind. For Johnston, however, this means nothing, because for her philosophy does have a common essence that we all struggle with, whether we know it or not.

Now, Johnston thinks it is haughtiness on the part of academics to think that they are fighting problems that the common person can't deal with, but I think it is just the reverse: it is haughty to think that you, the philosopher, know better than a regular guy what his problems are. My academic attitude is just the opposite of what Johnston attributes: it is what I consider a proper humility in not thinking that everything I find problematic is a problem for everyone. Philosophy is what I do and I'm not about to be so high-and-mighty as to think that that is what everyone should be doing.

Of course, under Johnston's implicit definition of philosophy, which in that section is roughly "articulation," it is hard to see how non-philosophers might escape philosophy's purview. And Johnston's right, only very haughty people would use such a broad definition while retaining professional jurisdiction. Philosophers used to do that around the time of Kant, but it's increasingly difficult to find old-fashioned traditionalists like that anymore. Johnston's definition was not the one you would find hiding behind what I was talking about. What I was referring to in that section were "problems of philosophy" philosophy, the professional problems of the "mind/body problem," the "problem of the external world," the battle between freedom and determinism, etc.

If Johnston would agree with me that most people don't think about these things as problems, she may yet argue that it is the job of we who do find them as problems to show them to be problems to Joe Blow. But the idea that these problems are inherent to reality, that they are inescapable, is part of the Platonic edifice that I called "philosophy as a natural kind." In this picture, these problems are hidden at our core and simply need to be pulled out to the surface. But this imagery goes against the empiricist strictures that Pirsig abides by, that we are born tabula rasa, that all ideas we have are gained through experience, i.e. we are educated into seeing these problems. What Johnston might call eliciting what was implicitly always there, I would call teaching how to play a new game. I don't think of the debate between freedom and determinism as an obstacle for humanity, I think of it like a crossword puzzle, and who would force everybody to play crossword puzzles if they didn't want to?

But, of course, "problems of philosophy" philosophy isn't the only kind of philosophy, and I suspect that Johnston could care less about the problems of Platonism and Cartesianism. Her impatience with my exoricism preoccupation is no doubt because she wants to do something else. I write these kinds of tracts, however, because the form in which other's write about Pirsig, or argue about this or that, still looks Platonic to me. The kind of rhetoric we use matters. That's lesson one from Pirsig: it's all rhetoric. People get exasperated with me, but I think if we aren't careful, we'll lose whatever ground we think Pirsig gained.

The biggest prima facie difference that I've been neglecting so far is Johnston's and my's respective esteem for pragmatism and metaphysics, or should I say, the words "pragmatism" and "metaphysics." (para. 8) I'm an avowed pragmatist and Johnston an avowed metaphysician, and one of the few things that we agree on over and against my many other Pirsigian interlocutors is that the two are like oil and water. Except that, I'm not so sure we do agree on that, just as I don't think those many others disagree. The reason is a certain ambiguity in the terms. Johnston says she doesn't like pragmatism because it is anti-metaphysical, but with the wide definition of philosophy and metaphysics she seems to consistently employ, then it would be hard indeed to be anti-metaphysical without being anti-life.

For instance, Johnston says that she sees, "Pragmatism as inherently anti-metaphysical, no matter how dressed up, softened and made serviceable for real life it may be." That is one of the funniest ways I've ever seen pragmatism construed. In my experience, it is metaphysics that has always had to go to great lengths to show everyone how "serviceable for real life" it is. Pragmatism, on the other hand, dressed itself as the practical philosophy, as the philosophy that would get rid of all the stuff the impeded real life.

But this is where the ambiguity resides. In her "In Search of Quality," Johnston says this about metaphysics:
The value of metaphysics is that it forces a confrontation with one’s basic beliefs, and therefore, with one’s strategies for deviousness. It seeks to suspend or disrupt that which is purely automatic in us. According to Ortega y Gasset, metaphysics has to do with the sphere of fundamental beliefs. (para. 4)
I think Johnston is construing metaphysics as pretty much coextensive with critical thinking. This makes pragmatism, which tells us that it is anti-metaphysical, a kind of status quo enhancing philosophy. But this wasn't the metaphysics to which the pragmatists were rebelling. Peirce, James, and Dewey were all rebelling against the same Platonic and Cartesian specters that Pirsig is. For "anti-metaphysical" to make any sense at all, as opposed to some kind of irrationalism, metaphysics has to refer to something narrower. This narrower thing is pretty much coextensive with Platonism, who--against popular belief--is not coextensive with thinking itself.

What this pans out to, on my reading, is a relative like or dislike for the writings of avowed pragmatists and for use of the word "metaphysics." If Johnston doesn't like reading James or Dewey, it would priggish of me to fault her. (I wish I could convince Pirsigians that they're being a bit unctuous in demanding everyone read Pirsig.) And, on the other hand, it would be equally persnickety to require me to use the term "metaphysics" when referring to what I do. I'm not sure I see the point in that kind of faithfulness.

Where does that leave us? I'm not entirely sure. I take it that we do have a different estimation of the relative merits of systematic philosophy versus, what we might call, ad hoc philosophy. Just in terms of Pirsig, Johnston seems to favor the systematic tenor of Lila, whereas I favor the edifying tenor of ZMM. But in the end, I'm not sure how much is divulged by that preference. I take one of the main lessons from Pirsig to be that one can never predict where wisdom may arise, a quest that all philosophers, indeed all people, are always involved in simply in virtue of living life.

Before leaving off, I would like to make one last note, and this is on Johnston's use of aletheia ("In Search of Quality," para. 4). I am only really acquainted with two uses of the term, one with Platonism and the other with Heidegger. In Platonism, aletheia was an "unveiling" that Plato linked to anamnesis, his view that the Truth was laden in us all from before we lighted upon this mortal coil and that we simply needed help to "recollect" it. This is bad Platonism as far as I'm concerned. In Heidegger, the term serves a similar purpose, but in Heidegger's attempts to out-Plato Plato, it is difficult to put the term to use at all. However, I'm intrigued by Johnston's use, which she identifies as the "truth-finding process". This seems to me a more Socratic notion, with emphasis on process, one that is palatable to pragmatists and something I hope she expands on more in her meditations on Pirsig and his relation to the Greeks.

1 comment:

  1. Caryl has left a further reply to this engagement here.


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