Sunday, January 27, 2008

Primitivism in Rousseau

Note: This was written for an intellectual history class in 2001. Clearly, it is very old. But I thought I'd fill in a little of the work I've done in other areas (stuff that is at least presentable--you should really see the crap I was writing when I first got to college), which oddly enough has mainly been in political and moral philosophy (given how much I usually spend writing on these kinds of topics otherwise). This is a fairly pedantic piece, very short and not terribly insightful, but perhaps it might serve some purpose.


In October 1749, while walking to a prison to visit his friend Diderot, Rousseau is said to have stumbled upon an advertisement from the Academy of Dijon for an essay contest. The subject was “Whether the restoration of the Sciences and the Arts has had a purifying effect on morals.” Rousseau had a sudden revelation upon seeing the advertisement and is said to have stopped right there to pen part of the First Discourse, thus launching both Rousseau’s career and his political thought. The part of Rousseau’s political and moral thought that is of current concern is that of his primitivism. Rousseau’s First Discourse provides a strong example of Lovejoy’s concept of cultural primitivism and how a primitivist can criticize civilization while residing within its influence.

Lovejoy’s short but sweet definition of cultural primitivism is “the discontent of the civilized with civilization, or with some conspicuous and characteristic feature of it.”[1] The understanding that goes with this definition is that “civilization” as a concept is relative to the culture in question. Americans may call the Middle East primitive, with a lack in consumer products, but by the same token the Middle East can come up with other examples that it would consider primitive (like Australian pygmies). This is also contrasted with chronological primitivism, which would change the caveat in civilization to “relative to the time in question.” Cultural primitivism, though sometimes fused with chronological primitivism, is concerned with particular cultures, which only sometimes have temporal differences.

The conspicuous feature that is almost invariably opposed by primitivists is any notion of “progress.” For the cultural primitivist, the simple life is the good and easy life. Lovejoy says, “It is easier precisely because it is … simpler; it is less burdened by apparatus and … with a multitude of restrictive rules and regulations and conventionalities.”[2] The primitive life is idealized as free from societal pressures and free from the labor that is required by civilization to sustain civilization.

The concern of primitivists is that a civilization’s aggregate desires (and consequently an individual’s desires) will increase faster that its ability to satisfy them. The cultural primitivists do not want to get rid of civilization. The primitivists want to guard against the overindulgence and decadence of civilization, not oversee the destruction of civilization. They themselves are civilized and benefit from the advantages of civilization. The advice of primitivists to the civilized is to not desire, hence Lovejoy’s elegant turn-of-phrase, “the wisdom of not wanting.”[3]

Rousseau’s First Discourse provides a clear and strong example of cultural primitivism. Rousseau opens the piece with the question from the advertisement: “Has the restoration of the Sciences and Arts contributed to the purification of Morals, or to their corruption?”[4] Lovejoy summarizes Rousseau’s answer: “The study of the arts and sciences does not contribute à épurer les moeurs [the purification of mores], and therefore it is of minimal value, and often actually harmful.”[5]

Rousseau first sets civilization up for a fall by applauding its emergence from the ignorance of the Middle Ages. He writes, “A few centuries ago the Peoples of this Part of the World, which is today so enlightened, lived in a state worse than ignorance.”[6] But then he begins to twist the advantages of civilization and the tools of the civilizing process: science, art, and commerce.
“Soon the sciences followed Letters; the Art of writing was joined by the Art of thinking … and the major advantage of commerce with the muses began to be felt, namely of rendering men more sociable by inspiring in them the desire to please one another with works worthy of their mutual approbation.”[7]
Rousseau’s disdain is almost palpable is this passage as he describes the exercise of intellectual passions and reason as simply an act of mutually reinforcing self-gratification, rather than a pursuit or progress towards perfect knowledge. This is particularly poignant given the backdrop of the vogue of French salons. Even more important is the link between commerce and the sciences and arts. Rousseau paints them as co-conspirators, as mutually reinforcing as Voltaire and other Parisians.[8]

Rousseau then springs his trap:
“While the Government and the Laws see to the safety and the well-being of men assembled, the Sciences, Letters, and Arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which they are laden, throttle in them the sentiment of that original freedom for which they seemed born, make them love their slavery, and fashion them into what is called civilized peoples. Need raised up Thrones; the Sciences and Arts have made them strong.”[9]
This beautiful passage contains two very important points about cultural primitivism: 1) the sciences, arts, and commerce (which were linked intrinsically in the passage before) stifle the freedom and virtue of the primitive and 2) some restrictions are necessary.

Rousseau continues the assault on the sciences and the arts with more disparaging remarks about the hypocrisy of outward decency and inward vulgarities. Art has fashioned our manners, but left behind our natural rustic morals. We no longer present ourselves to others, rather only an appearance cut from a uniform mold: polite, customary, constrained. We are no longer sincere, but rather deceitful and malicious. Rousseau ends the tirade with, “…our souls have become corrupted in proportion as our Sciences and Arts have advanced toward perfection…. Virtue has been seen fleeing in proportion as their light rose on our horizon, and the same phenomenon has been observed at all times and in all places.”[10] All of this condemns the sciences, arts, and commerce because of progress. The scientists and artists think they are progressing and becoming more virtuous when really they are moving farther away from the ideal.

But Rousseau’s attack on the sciences and arts is not totally unrestrained. As we saw before, Rousseau does believe that some restrictions are necessary. Society itself is a necessary condition for any freedoms to arise. Rousseau continues the thought “Need raised up Thrones” in The Social Contract where he famously says, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”[11] Even more importantly to the First Discourse is the fact that Rousseau came under a lot of fire after its publication, with many refutations being brought out against him. Rousseau replied to five of them and in his replies Rousseau can be seen narrowing the object of his attack. No longer are the sciences and arts themselves at fault, only those who are not virtuous enough to handle them are. And no longer are all sciences and arts condemned, only those that are useless or sophistic.[12] These qualifications on the corruptive nature of the sciences, arts, and commerce can be seen as completely consistent with cultural primitivism, rather than potentially conflicting.

Rousseau’s primitivistic advice is littered in the piece, but in most places it can be read as the antithesis of the corruption he’s defaming. In two short passages, Rousseau says, “What gives rise to all of these abuses, if not the fatal inequality introduced among men by the distinction of talents and the disparagement of the virtues?”[13] and “The wise man does not run after fortune…”[14] The first passage lays the road for his Second Discourse (on inequality) and the second is clear positive advice in the primitivist tradition. In short, Rousseau’s First Discourse is a fertile breeding ground for his primitivism and many ideas that Rousseau later develops. Rousseau shows great contempt for the “progress” of the sciences and arts, but stays short of condemning all progress and civilization.

[1] Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935), 7

[2] ibid., 9

[3] ibid., 10-11

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on the Sciences and Arts,” in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5

[5] Lovejoy, 274

[6] Rousseau, 6

[7] ibid.

[8] Other links between commerce and the arts occur on pages 9 (“luxury and the Arts”), 13 (“thatch roofs, rustic hearths where moderation and virtue dwell”), 14 (“luxury, dissoluteness and slavery”), 16 (“Arts … luxury”), 19 (“question of luxury”) and many more.

[9] ibid., 6

[10] ibid., 7-9

[11] Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G. D. H. Cole (London: Everyman), 181

[12] John C. Hall, “The Development of Rousseau’s Political Philosophy,” in The Social Contract and Discourses, lvii-lviii

[13] Rousseau, "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences," 23

[14] ibid.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Pirsig, the MoQ, and SOM

Note: This has been culled from Discussion Forum postings that first appeared beginning October 14th, 2002 under the same thread name. It represents an angle of criticism that has since receded in my thinking about Pirsig. I do not agree with everything here anymore, but there might still be some fruit to pick from this branch. My alteration process was to change phrasing if it was easy, but large scale things got left as is, even if no longer current.


In the past (primarily in "Confessions of a Fallen Priest"), I've put forth a thesis that Pirsig can, and should at times, be seen as a Kantian philosopher. He can be seen following many of the same metaphysical moves that Kant made. On the surface, this is bad because Kant should be seen as one of the primary stakeholders in the Subject-Object Metaphysical Industry. This is, in that sense, a not-so-tiny indictment against Pirsig's view of the MoQ as repudiating SOM.

I must confess, in my first readings and exegeses of Pirsig, I was never very comfortable with what a subject-object metaphysics was supposed to be. It seemed to be a lot of things to a lot of people. I don't mention subject-object metaphysics very often in my early forum essays because, other than a very specific criticism of Sartre as using that splicing of reality, I'm not sure why so many things fall under the "evil of SOM." SOM for Pirsig is the heading that many of us (including Pirsig) throw the bad things we see being done. In this case, it is much like Derrida's "metaphysics of presence": they are what's been wrong with traditional philosophy as passed down to us from Plato. I prefer, to these broad signifiers, Dewey's "whole brood and nest of dualisms" which we inherited from Plato. I think that calling each dualism as we see them makes it easier to tackle them, even when they are tangled together.

I would like to sketch a short, simplistic narrative of the history of philosophy. It will be very short, but I hope it will contextualize my thoughts about Pirsig.

During the Pre-Socratic period of philosophy, many philosophers were embroiled in a debate about cosmology and other topics. These were the first philosophers and they tried to establish the immortal truth about these things. Thales wanted everything to be reduced to water, Anaximenes air, Heraclitus flux, Anaxagoras nous, Pythagoras Number, etc. They argued and argued, but more and more hypotheses were being offered rather than any particular hypothesis zeroing in on truth.

Plato (who also represents Socrates) entered the scene and separated true knowledge from opinion. He established the dialectic as the method with which we could find the truth. With this sure path towards true knowledge, he divided Reality into two: the Realm of Ideas (or Forms) and the Realm of the Senses. This is the first systematic appearance of the appearance-reality distinction: the Realm of Ideas are real and are our foundation upon which we have true knowledge. Info we gain from the senses simply give us opinions about appearances, rather than penetrating to the truth. In the inflection I would like to give it, we can see the Realm of Ideas as being "out there" waiting to be discovered and the Realm of the Senses as something closer to us, something immediately sensed.

Fast-forward many years. Europe's intellectuals are embroiled in a skeptical crisis, quite reminiscent of the one that raged before Socrates and Plato. Descartes entered the scene and continued the Greek project of searching for a foundation for knowledge and truth, though he was one of the first to dispense with the Greek way of doing philosophy (i.e. following the direct footsteps of either Plato or Aristotle). The Rationalists and Empiricists of this time can be seen as trying to fill in the blanks of what this foundation is. The Rationalists said the foundation came from reason, but they had a hard time applying the "truths" they discovered to the world around us. The Empiricists said the foundation came from our senses. Locke and Berkeley, though, had God on their side and, essentially, this is what kept the world from falling apart. Hume, however, stepped up and said, no, we cannot have the certainty and foundation that the Greeks were looking for. It is not logical to infer universality from an empirical experience. Hume, in this light, is something of a proto-pragmatist.

Right after Hume finishes his attack on the possibility of a foundation, Kant famously steps in. Kant picks up the project to lay a foundation from which we can attain absolutely certain, true knowledge. For Kant, the real world is "out there." Kant makes an inner-outer distinction which is essentially the subject-object distinction. Objects are "out there" and when the subject represents the object correctly, then we have true knowledge. While Kant's arguments for absolute certainty are generally supposed to have failed, between Kant and the Empiricists, experience of a real world that is "out there" is solidified as our connection with Reality. Experience, in some sense, becomes our gateway to a foundation. This sets the stage for 20th century realists, many of whom believe that science is the great excavator of Truth.

Parallel to this debate in professional philosophy was an increasing sense during the 18th century that there were two tracks of life for humans: an inner, moral track and an outer, material track. The material world is "out there" and supplies us with food to eat. Morals, on the other hand, are felt in the heart, inside with our connection to God. We don't experience morals like rocks. That these two tracks were becoming increasingly divergent was also becoming more and more important and apparent. While science and economics helped us get we wanted on the material track, what would help us get what we wanted on the moral track? Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment helped solidify the new economics. The bourgeoisification of people made them more comfortable, eased their material concerns. But what would ease their moral concerns? Hume suggested that people would just gradually become more sophisticated and gradually turn their attentions to more "high-minded pleasures." Rousseau suggested that the sciences were corrupting and that we turn away from luxury and material things. Benjamin Constant emphasized the need for a moral education.

This is the ground upon which Pirsig entered. We have an outer track and an inner track and never the twain shall meet. Given this context, we can see that Pirsig’s solution was to move everything to the outer track. He made morals experiential. He saw that the outer track was where Reality was, where people placed great importance (be it in the metaphysical sense or economic sense), so he collapsed everything into Reality. Pirsig usurped the realist answer. By this token, the MoQ isn’t a kind of idealism at all—it’s a realist hybrid.

According to this reading, Pirsig believes he's repudiating subject-object metaphysics, but I find that he is still caught in it in the following way: he follows the Kantian inner-outer distinction, which leads people to interpret an appearance-reality distinction. Reality is still "out there." It’s just now, morals are "out there."

To support this reading, I would draw attention to the turning point in ZMM: Chapter 19, the subject-object dilemma. Pirsig is very correct in his diagnostic of the problem. In the Platonic tradition, there are two options: out there in the object, or in here in the subject. Pirsig goes on to give a pretty good description of what would happen to either of his answers: a demand for empirical verification or the charge of idealism. Pirsig's Gestalt switch, his Copernican revolution, is best seen as a redescription of what is being empirically verified, rather than falling into idealism.

One objection to this line is that Pirsig says, "he rejected the left horn. Quality is not objective, he said. It doesn't reside in the material world. Then: he rejected the right horn. Quality is not subjective, he said. It doesn't reside merely in the mind. And finally: Phaedrus ... said Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two." (240) This is Pirsig's definitive move away from SOM. The equivocation that I see is that when Pirsig describes our relation to Quality it is almost always, "When we experience Quality" or "Why does everybody see Quality differently?" Pirsig always uses language in which an ego (or subject) is experiencing reality (or object). There is still an inner-outer distinction in which reality is still "out there."

I don't think Pirsig sees this because he too hastily assumes that objective reality in SOM is considered to be material or matter. I don't think this is an assumption he should make. A realist doesn't assume that reality is corpuscularian, he simply assumes that it is "out there." This makes more sense, when we contrast the realist with the idealist who thinks that reality is "in here."

To add to my critique, I would draw attention to Chapter 5 and 6 of ZMM, the chapters in which Pirsig begins his description of the romantic-classic division. This division is, firstly, very Kantian. One of Kant's divisions was between intuition (romantic) and understanding (classic). When Pirsig describes "immediate surface impressions [as] essential for primary understanding," (75) Pirsig could be quoting straight out of the Critique of Pure Reason. In particular, the classic mode of viewing things views itself as reality, and the romantic mode as appearance. You can hear the naïve scientist saying, "The atomic structure of the table is the real table, not your sense impressions of it." Pirsig wants to counter both the classic, square privileging of reality and the romantic privileging of appearance. In other words, Pirsig wants to counter SOM.

However, when we turn the classic-romantic lens back on the rudimentary metaphysical hierarchy that Pirsig sets up in Chapter 20 (much like Pirsig's own analysis of analysis, turning reason back on itself), what appears is an appearance-reality distinction. Reality is now Quality and the appearances of Quality are either romantic or classic. There is still a reality behind the appearances that is privileged and that we must correspond to. Quality is Reality prior to any division, but it would seem to be Reality, "out there," behind the appearances of any division. This is where Pirsig's mysticism comes in. Mystics who lean on the concept of maya utilize the appearance-reality distinction, otherwise they wouldn't think of language as obscuring anything.

The appearance-reality distinction is in play if you think, not just that there is something real behind appearances (like real motivations between apparent altruism), but that there is a systematic distance between reality and our perception of it. For instance, Plato believed that the Realm of Forms was real and the Realm of the Senses were simply appearances. Kant believed that objects had a real essence and that this essence could be falsely represented (Locke believed this, too). Christians, too, in a way, believe in this distinction insofar as they believe that Heaven is real and Earth is simply a passing stage. Mystics believe in this distinction when they say that language obscures reality. You believe in it when you think there is something else, something more real, lurking behind whatever it is now that you are sensing or experiencing.

To take up the last example, that language obscures reality, the trouble is that if Quality is simply the environment around us, reality around us, then that is suitably pragmatized. But to say that "Quality is what exists before you say anything," to say that language gets in the way of Quality, is to take an SOM stance. The pragmatist is going to say that, in addition to Quality being what exists before you say anything, Quality is also what exists during the speaking and after you say something. The reason this is is because the pragmatist line is that us speaking does not somehow distort our connection with Quality. We are always connected to Quality, but the Quality we perceive will be different depending on how we speak. This makes Quality different for different people. It’s still Quality, our environment, but it will be different depending on the static patterns we've been born with. The conception of a "static filter" is another SOM signifier. The pragmatist wants to replace wholesale the metaphor of a static filter with static patterns. We directly experience the static pattern and which static patterns we experience determines which other static patterns we experience. Dynamic Quality is the effort in changing our static patterns, so that we may experience new and better patterns.

Metaphysics, by a conventional definition, falls into an appearance-reality distinction because it assumes something is "beyond" reality (by strict definition, if reality were gleaned by physics). A conventional notion of metaphysics hopes to incorporate an "ultimate reality." "Ultimate" is superfluous unless "ultimate reality" is contrasted with "reality." This retains the appearance-reality distinction. Some routes around Pirsig’s use of “ultimate” in his descriptions of Quality have been to emphasize who it is undefined. This leaves a formless, ineffable, universal, ahistorical, foundational ultimate reality, while leaving all formulations of it as contingent. One could make the case that this is what both Plato and Pirsig were trying to do. Plato's instrument of irony is Socrates. David L. Hall attempts to make this case (as a strike against Rorty's narrative) when he says, "Socrates is made to play edifier to Plato's systematic aspirations. This involves the institutionalization of doubt." This makes Plato's writings "permanently ironized." Pirsig can be seen as doing the same thing with Phaedrus as his mouthpiece. It is, perhaps though, a juxtaposition of the roles Plato and Socrates played because Phaedrus seems to be the systematizer and Pirsig (as narrator of ZMM or simply as writer) the edifier.

This, I think, is the best way to try and do justice to the historicist elements of Pirsig while remaining an essentialist. However, my question is: "What good is an ultimate reality if you can't correspond to it?" Pirsig keeps Quality undefined, but I can’t understand trying to correspond to it and I can’t understand keeping around a terminology that creates metaphysical distance. It’s the same thing that Locke did in explaining the difference between real essences (or definitions) and nominal essences (or definitions). Locke thought that real essences existed, but he didn't think we'd ever know if we correctly corresponded with them. He thought that all we'd ever have were nominal essences, which we defined. The question to Locke and Pirsig, in the name of Ockham's Razor, is why keep the real essences or undefined ultimate reality? In Locke, at least we could correspond to the real essences, we'd just never know it. In Pirsig, we can't correspond to Quality because it’s not defined and never can be defined. The definition of Quality is "undefinable."

The use we get out of Quality as ultimate reality is as a foundation for universality and ahistoricality. The appearance-reality distinction is retained so that we can touch something universal: a replacement for God. The retainment of the appearance-reality distinction, even when we can't ever correspond to reality, is a statement for the demand for a foundation. This is a foundation that pragmatists dispense with, something we do not think is needed. So we are quick to pull out our razors.

A textual example in Pirsig from Chapter 8 of Lila is very revealing. Pirsig begins a section by saying, “This may sound as though a purpose of the Metaphysics of Quality is to trash all subject-object thought but that’s not true.” (114) Most of that paragraph sounds like Pirsig is discarding a correspondence theory of truth. He sounds like an antiessentialist when he says, "One seeks instead the highest quality intellectual explanation of things with the knowledge that if the past is any guide to the future this explanation must be taken provisionally; as useful until something better comes along." However, two lines before, he sounds like a confused metaphysician: "But if Quality or excellence is seen as the ultimate reality then it becomes possible for more than one set of truths to exist."

This I take to be Pirsig's hubris. He believed he could succeed where Plato failed. He believed he could encapsulate the Good. Pirsig thinks he can have an ultimate reality and not expect people to want to correspond to it. He says, one line before that, "If subjects and objects are held to be the ultimate reality then we're permitted only one construction of things—that which corresponds to the "objective" world—and all other constructions are unreal." Well, my question is, what good is an ultimate reality if you can't correspond to it? If Quality becomes the ultimate reality then it tempts people to come along and say, "Hey, the MoQ is universal and ahistorical." But then, in the same breath, Pirsig trys to say that "No, it isn't." By retaining a fairly traditional formulation of what metaphysics is, he's retaining rhetorical facets of SOM. The point is that Pirsig doesn't have to retain metaphysics or SOM: Nietzsche and the pragmatists show him a way out. They show him a way in which he can retain the second and fourth quote without the need for the third. In fact, to be more precise, the fourth quote should read: "If we retain an ultimate reality then we're permitted only one construction of things."

In contrast to Pirsig's solution to the problem of SOM, the metaphysics of presence, or that whole brood and nest of Greek dualisms, the pragmatist suggests a rhetorical answer that Pirsig both considers, thinks is the best stratagem, and others apparently counseled him in doing: refuse to enter the arena. (233) Following Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dewey, and Wittgenstein, throw out the tradition of even considering these things as problems. Dissolve problems by making them disappear, rather than solve problems which gives them more credence than they deserve. But Pirsig doesn't do this. In attempting to get people to start to care about the material realm, in getting them to start to view morals as just as real and important as motorcycles, Pirsig pushes everything "out there" into reality.

If I'm right, that in setting up the MoQ Pirsig ressurects the Kantian inner-outer distinction, then this gives credence to universalist, right-rendering-of-reality readings of Pirsig. The question that this reading brings up is how dedicated you are: do you love the MoQ more than you hate SOM? If you're like me, you start to read the MoQ like a pragmatist would. If not, then be prepared to face the problems of realism, which are much like the problems that Pirsig levels against the whole scientific establishment. This is the problem of ZMM and Lila: some of what he writes can be subjected to the same criticisms that he brings up.

This is why there are so many wildly differing readings of Pirsig and the MoQ: there is ample room for wildly differing readings of the MoQ. Just like Kant, who can be read as an idealist or a realist, I think Pirsig can be read as a realist, an idealist (or anti-realist), or a pragmatist. So, the moral of this story is that, if you are looking for a foundation, a true, ahistorical MoQ to set your feet upon, you are following in the footsteps of Kant and a tradition of Platonic dualisms, three of which are the entangled appearence-reality distinction, the inner-outer distinction, and the subject-object distinction. If you repudiate the need for foundations, you are following Dewey and the pragmatists. Both can be found in Pirsig. The question is, who's side are you on?

Suggestions About Morality and the Metaphysics of Quality

Note: This first appeared in the Discussion Group on October 10th, 2002. It is very old. However, it reflects a few things I still agree with about discussion of morals and Pirsig. It has been edited mainly to eliminate direct reference to MD participants, which I thought suitably ossified to be expendable. It is still rhetorically directed to the MD and I have not altered reference to "the MoQ." Some may have noticed how little I otherwise use that particular handle here. That was a conscious rhetorical choice I made a few years ago, referring nowadays instead to "Pirsig's philosophy." Some will know why I do that. (Meta-comment: How many more pre-written sources will I be able to lazily dig from to pile up without much extra effort? Only time will tell.)


What does the MoQ do for morality?

I have predominantly stayed out of such debates because I haven't known quite what to say, at least in relating it to the MoQ. I've always had an uneasiness with the discussions. It's not that our political dispositions inform our readings of the MoQ—that's an obvious truism. I don't think the MoQ has a true political undergarment that is waiting or needs to be discovered. What usually makes me queasy is when conversants start labeling such-and-such country as "biological" and this-other-group-over-here as "intellectual." But why should this make me feel queasy? Isn't this what the MoQ adds to the discussion of morals? Isn't this how the MoQ helps us make informed moral decisions?

The answer is, I think, "Yes, this is what the MoQ adds to the discussion," but the way in which it is typically addressed is why there have been so many heated and passionate exchanges between conversants about what exactly the utility of the MoQ is and what exactly the MoQ says. The problem is that the MoQ doesn't say anything exactly, rather it gives us a new way to contextualize things that will shed new light on the situation.

I've always felt queasy about chauvinistic, Lila thumping moral superiority because I think chauvinistic moral superiority is something to feel chagrined about. But even as we bow our heads, showing a little ironic humility, we shouldn't stop affirming our superiority. I believe this chauvinism comes out of the belief that the MoQ is the One Truth—that there is a True MoQ to be gleaned from the pages of Lila or from Pirsig's head and that once we have it, we will be able to solve the world's problems, once and for all. This, I believe, leads to a lot of pointless arguments about what the One True MoQ is during conversations about morals and politics.

The first problem people run into is the definitions of the levels. It's really not all that clear what the definitions are from Lila. I myself had a problem with this, particularly after I found out that Pirsig advocates only having humans at the social and intellectual levels (see, for instance, Lila’s Child annotation 49). In a past essay, before reading the annotations, I had set the bar with animals at the social level and humans at the intellectual (from "Absurdity and the Meaning of Life"). The problem is that our moral understanding arises from our interpretation of the MoQ. And detractors of the MoQ use the endless bickering that goes on about which interpretation is the true MoQ as a reductio ad absurdum argument for the uselessness of the MoQ as a tool for moral growth.

The problem is that, once we blur the edges of there being a "true" MoQ, we run into the problem of it being a metaphysics. Some think the object of the MoQ is to correctly correspond to reality and that's what some people think gives it its power. The levels of the MoQ are taken to be separate metaphysical kinds, not lines that can be bandied about. They have to be distinctly defined so that no wishy-washiness occurs when we dispense our moral judgments.

As a pragmatist, I don't think the levels in the MoQ are discrete or fixed: I think they should be fuzzy and ad hoc. I think the MoQ gives us a useful narrative into which to contextualize our moral judgments, a new perspective to compare the Middle East and the West, or the Catholics and the Buddhists, or the past with the present. I don't think the MoQ gives us a metaphysics at all. I think it just gives us a new vocabulary with which to frame our thoughts and which, hopefully, helps us make better moral decisions.

So, I have two suggestions, one philosophical, the other practical. The philosophical suggestion is simply my earlier suggestion that we pragmatize and historicize Pirsig (from “Confessions of a Fallen Priest”). That we treat the MoQ as an ad hoc taxonomy that splits the world into useful distinctions, not as a metaphysics that splits the world into discrete ontological kinds. That we use it as a narrative in which to contextualize the topic at hand.

My practical suggestion (and, to me, the more important one) is that, when debating moral and political issues in this forum [the MD], we refrain from argument over who has the MoQ correct. We simply offer our particular narrative on how the issue fits into MoQ terms. Someone can then offer an alternative narrative, perhaps using slightly different definitions. We can then contrast the narratives, see which ones suggest better outcomes or offer up keener insights to the situation.

Simply put, my practical suggestion is this: we suspend debate about the MoQ as a system during moral and political threads. This does not, of course, mean that we suspend debate about the system completely. I'm simply suggesting that we separate threads about moral and political MoQ applications (where we can discuss abortion, the death penalty, and Bush's IQ to our heart's content) from threads about the MoQ as a philosophical system (where we can discuss definitions, our favorite colligation, and the literal word of Pirsig).

To end, I would like to emphasize that these are not suggestions from someone-who-knows, like a teacher suggesting to her students that they refrain from talking during class. I'm not trying push an agenda as if, if everyone followed my lead, then the world would be alright. I'm merely offering a particular perspective from my humble, pragmatist viewpoint.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Le voyage et la philosophie morale

Note: I can't help myself--without further ado, here is the French paper that I wrote on travel a year and change ago. I believe the assignment was to respond to a quote from St. Augustine (which you'll see at the beginning) about traveling. So I took the opportunity to write about philosophy. My teacher liked it, but then again, one can only imagine what the 18-year-olds in my class were writing about.

If anybody can read this, you should let me know if there are any good ideas in it. I can only tell that I brought up Albert O. Hirschman halfway through, probably in relation to his doux-commerce thesis (from his fantastic book, The Passions and the Interests).


Saint Augustin a dit autrefois : « Le monde est un livre et ceux qui ne voyagent pas ne lisent qu’une page. » Augustin était célèbre pour a écrit les Confessions. Ce livre lui était à propos d’activités dissipé pendant quand il était un jeune. Nous pouvons l’imaginer en train de dire cela quand il était farouche et fou, avant de trouver l’église. Il y a beaucoup de vérité dans ce qui lui a dit. Quand les gens voyagent, ils connaissent beaucoup d’autres gens et connaissent leurs cultures.

Dans la philosophie morale, l’objet du jeu est à trouver les principes moraux qui peuvent vous faire à prendre des décisions. Après d’église avait perdu sa puissance, les philosophes des siècle des lumières essayaient aux établir par la raison seul. Il y avait beaucoup d’avances morales pendant cette époque, par exemple la démocratie moderne et l’abolition d’esclave (au moins en Europe). Mais certains penseurs contemporain pensent que ces avances étaient dû à l’augmentation des livres à propos de voyage et le commerce avec autres pays (une idée que Albert Hirschman appelle « la thèse à commerce doux »).

Quand vous voyagez, vous rencontrez les gens que vous n’auriez pas autrement rencontrées. Si vous parlez à les et voyez comment ils vivent et ce qu’ils croient, votre imaginaire moral lui élargira. Vous commencerez les comprendre et voyez comment penser comme les. L’analogie d’Augustin entre le monde et un livre est assez doué parce qu’il expose leur réflecteur sur l’un l’autre. Quand vous lisez, c’est beaucoup de pareil le voyage parce que vous l’ajoutez à vos connaissances. Augustin avait juste peur de gens qui lit très peu et voyage très peu. Il les craignait parce que l’ignorance n’apporte aucune de félicité, mais plutôt la mort.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

No More, Please: A Parody for Parity

A word: I wrote this (and there will be many more to come) for a class I'm currently taking on Elizabethan literature. I'm lazy, so I'm just posting them. My professor, who took an amazing amount of time attempting to justify his insistence on so much writing (a 2-page max reflection for each class, i.e., twice a week--to which my response, in true fashion, is: "2 pages? I piss two pages before brushing my teeth every morning"), has also given directing questions and what-not for these reflections.

In fact, for this first one, he asked us to pretend that we were a counselor to King Henry VIII, advising him on Thomas More's Utopia, giving one thing we liked and one thing we disliked. At first, I was miffed at being treated like an 8th grader (do we really need to pretend to be somebody else to help us write something?), but in the end I succumbed to the opportunity. I also employed my now classic trick of writing two single-spaced pages on the first assignment because the professor had neglected to say explicitly anywhere that it was to be double-spaced--why would he? Every college kid knows that you write double-spaced to leave room for comments. And that's why it's a trick. "Oh, did you mean double-spaced? I'm sorry, I didn't know." So this is twice as long as the rest will be (and yes, this was exactly two pages with footnotes--one more line would've kicked it up to three).


His Highest, Most Excellency, King Henry VIII,

This new book, Utopia, by Thomas More, a man of substantial eloquence and poise, of intelligence and courage; whose prodigious memory serves an immense capacity for subtle praise and critique; by whose manner we can discern the breadth and limits of your own substantial contributions to our own not entirely precarious polity; whose immense wit wizens with its wherewithal; a man with the carriage and control over his presentation and prolifically long and illustrious sentences to point to profound problems; and whose writings show the ability to dissemble a message to not completely uncourteous auditors through a not altogether veiled series of veils by partial means of a not exclusively uncluttered profusion of classical learning and rhetorical command of figures and tropes (including that of litotes)—this book comes to us, as advisors, with the task of advising you on what to think of it, though More’s tact is not at all unlike that taken by many who refer recommendations to royalty.

In this most serious of tasks, I will parse More’s language as tersely as possible so as to eliminate the ambiguity that instills its most significant passages. The trouble with More’s text in this regard is that he has cobbled together a fantastic collection of self-undermining insights that can roughly be separated into a colligation of an outrageous public intervention with an honestly brokered inner turmoil. It is safe to say that any so-called positive “position” of endorsement one can pull from Utopia can easily be distanced from the intentional compliments of the author, thus making it nearly impossible to pin anything on More himself.

But for you, Magnificent Monarch, I shall struggle ahead with some sort of analysis, if only as a guide for your own sovereign scrutiny. I shall concentrate my attention on portions of Book I because, in my estimation, Book II represents the dullest drech I have ever read. In an effort at creating verisimilitude for his fictional island of Utopia, More has employed a number of techniques (master rhetorician that he is) to that effect: in the first of the bookending letters to Peter Giles (itself part of the effort), More asks for Giles to “raise with Hythloday the points I mentioned,”[1] either “in person or letter.”[2] Raphael Hythloday, the traveler who has lived in the fictional Utopia, is himself an obvious fiction intended as a distancing maneuver between More and the text. But one of the points Giles is to bring up to have resolved, should More’s memory have failed him, is whether a certain bridge in Utopia is five or three hundred yards across, a fact so trivial that only a person wanting to get his facts straight would want to know it—thus contributing realism to the, again, fictional island of Utopia. And Book II as a whole is dull for this exact purpose: More, after wowing us with rhetorical gymnastics in Book I, adopts a plain style to create the illusion of a clear window opening upon the island so that all may see the splendor of Utopia for themselves, even beginning with what you’d literally see: the geography of the island. In this More follows his sometimes master Plato, who deplored the rhetoric of the Sophists, and in effect out-Platoes Plato by creating something more boring than The Republic (taking his own advice in Book I[3] and finally giving Glaucon a non-speaking part—an interlocutor already reduced to yea-saying—creating the monologue The Republic really is).

But it is duller than ditchwater (though its purpose is no less significant for it), so I shall confine the rest of my remarks to Book I, which includes us in on a discussion that surrounds the purpose of even describing Utopia in the first place. I agree with Hythloday’s endorsement of Ciceronian liberty, roughly seeking happiness and doing as one pleases[4] (which I predict will become emblematic of English political philosophy, so much that I foresee a cynical German someday remarking that, “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does that”[5]), so much so that I regard his suggestion that we eliminate private property to be extraordinarily foolish, as he predicts most will.

The abolition of private property is the suggested change to our society that underwrites all of Hythloday’s criticisms, it is the crux upon which he would heal all problems. Seeing our incredulity from far off, More writes a dialogue between his Utopia-self and Hythloday that throws us up into the abstractions of philosophy. The textual More urges Hythloday to work with the establishment in order to change it, a reformist attitude in which one doesn’t move too far afield from what the mass can countenance.[6] Hythloday responds sharply that, “I would be doing no more than trying to remedy the madness of others by succumbing to their madness myself.”[7] Hythloday’s argument creates a specious contrast in which his opinion, the opinion of one who would heal society of its problems, “would either be different,” and therefore incomprehensible for it would be so radical as to be considered madness and laughed off the stage, “or it would be the same,” and therefore aid and abet the madness of the status quo and thus not heal a thing.[8] But this argument bespeaks a debilitating pessimism that requires one to hold the theoretical position that no substantial change, for better or worse, has ever occurred because, unless one is prone to leaping blindly into darkness with no rational breadcrumbs to follow home, every change is part of an endless parade of variations on the first establishment. (I foresee in the future, possibly in France during the 20th century, a philosopher coming onto the stage and saying, “I think to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system,”[9] a forecast as dark and bleak as it is incoherent, but a natural extension of Hythloday’s argument, which itself sits across common assumptions that Plato uses in the Phaedrus.)

My own suspicion is that the abolition of private property would lead to tyranny on a scale unknown in England and all other lands that bow to the rule of law (something I predict a man—I’m seeing the name “Karl Popper”—will someday trace to Plato’s doorstep). Rather than continue this rebuttal, in the reformist, experimental spirit of the Archbishop[10] I should like to praise one of Hythloday’s thoughts as an insight. Indeed, I think Hythloday is depressingly right when he suggests that thieves do not necessarily steal because they want to, but rather because they have no other recourse. One structural problem Hythloday recognizes are returning veterans of war: “They have sacrificed their limbs for the commonwealth or the king; their disability does not allow them to practice their former trades and they are too old to learn a new one.”[11] Though Hythloday overlooks these to get at the structural problems of private property, I think we can see clearly an opportunity to improve the lives of both those who have fought for your Majesty and the lives of those who would have sacrificed their possessions when these once patriotic veterans become vermin. I implore you to consider measures that might relieve both pressures, some sort of light stipend perhaps, all for your Merciful Glory.

[1] Utopia (trans. Clarence H. Miller, Yale University Press, 2001), 7

[2] ibid., 5

[3] ibid., 43

[4] ibid., 16

[5] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, maxim 12

[6] Utopia, 43-4

[7] ibid., 44

[8] ibid., 45

[9] Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practise, 230

[10] Utopia, 31

[11] ibid., 19