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 My alteration process was to change phrasing if it was easy, but large scale things got left as is, even if no longer current.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?


  1. Matt,
    have you studied Zen, Buddhism or Hindu? Part of my family is buddhist (being from india), so it's always been a part of my life. For the record I'm a whitebread american...

    I understand that you stated up front these are all old ideas from you. But, Quality is really a mystical word more then it is anything else.
    Born out of Pirsigs dualitic mind though....

  2. Here's the problem with "anonymous": I don't know whether you're the same commentator as any of the other anonymouses. Unless you're trying to annoy me to death, please, at least tag yourself with a nickname (you don't even need a blogger account anymore). Or tag it at the end. Something?

    Anyways, yeah, one of the things I get hammered on most is my Western-centrism. Sadly, I just don't have the proper background (nor time or energy to get it) to feel good about saying much about Eastern cultural-intellectual patterns. I've read some stuff about Zen Buddhism and I took a class on Chinese intellectual history some years ago (also, there's this really interesting book called "Cultural Otherness" that collects together a set of letters exchanged between Rorty and an Indian philosopher, Anindita Niyogi Balslev).

    So most of what I say about mysticism is based on surface appraisals and instincts. I think you are entirely right that "Quality" is a mystical word--the question is, what the hell is a "mystical word"? It seems antithetical, my guess is that it is antithetical on purpose, and my general suspicion is why do we need to be so paradoxical?

    Philosophy built around mysticism (as in many Eastern philosophers, and Western ones like Plotinus and his master, Plato) is not my cup of tea. Just like Western philosophy, which bases itself on common intuitions, mysticisms take off from a "doesn't the world seem this way?" Which is what all philosophy does, must do, couldn't help but do. But, just like people who don't go in for Camus or Sartre, the world just doesn't seem to me as the mystics think it.

    So, certainly my dealing with Pirsig's mystic side is born out of my understanding of Western mysticism, i.e. Plato. And I could never quite tell the difference between the opening move of either: "What you are seeing are pictures on the Cave wall." "It is all maya." Those who wish Eastern philosophy to be radically different from Western deny it until they're blue, and get very angry with my blindness, but the similarities between what each say and do and go from that beginning is too striking for me.

    Like Rorty, whose instincts were to try and figure out why people would say the things they did, my instincts are those of a philosophical anthropologist: "I want to illustrate the difference between taking a standard philosophical problem ... and asking, on the one hand, 'What is its essence? To what ineffable depths, what limit of language, does it lead us? What does it show us about being human?" and asking, on the other hand, "What sort of people would see these problems? What vocabulary, what image of man, would produce such problems? Why, insofar as we are gripped by these problems, do we see them as deep rather than as reductiones ad absurdum of a vocabulary? What does the persistence of such problems show us about being twentieth-century Europeans?'" (CP, xxxiii)

    Pirsig does some interesting philosophical anthropology, but I often feel it is in the service of discovering origins, not to show us the original impulses for X or Y, but to show us the elemental impulses for X and Y. One can be interested in philosophical anthropology either because it tells us something about our culture or being human, because it shows up our contingency or our universality. I feel the former ways, but I suspect Pirsig feels it the latter.


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