Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Common Sense

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Socrates essentially defined philosophy as a common, basic human activity when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Plato said that philosophy was for the very few people who were able to do it. Pirsig said philosophy isn’t worth doing if it doesn’t help with life. Rorty said philosophy is pretty remote from life.

Is there a way of coordinating all of these thoughts? Do they all fit together? I think they can, in their way, fit together coherently, but there have been better and worse ways of construing them.

Socrates came upon the Greek scene at a very important point in its cultural evolution. For some years, leisured aristocrats had begun popping up around the Aegean Sea and composing themselves in a manner that had previously been unheard of—our first intellectuals. They for the most part had begun speculating about the way reality as a whole functioned, though they did occasionally drift into the way humanity, specifically, functioned (humans being a natural enough subject within the purview of “reality”). These drifts didn’t pick up speed until democracy had taken hold in Greece. The hold of democracy on Athens produced a shift in the educational institutions of Greece. The existence of a citizen class in Athens created a need for a means of educating them, one that surpassed the means that existed for the needs of fickle aristocracies. For the first time in history, an opportunity was created in which people could live on their wits.

These were the Sophists, the first professional intellectuals, and, like most people I know, they soon began talking about themselves and what they do. The trouble for them was that nobody had really done what they did before. Their only real models were the poets, the previous educators of Greece, but the poets’ profession had itself begun to change, too, at about the same time. It was a common enough feature for Greek rhapsodes, oral poets, to brood about what they were doing (captured well by Hesiod in his musings on the Muses) and the earlier physiologoi, Thales, Heraclitus and the rest, had themselves produced occasional remarks, but we can imagine it wasn’t until the pressure of professional differentiation set in for the Sophists (produced by the high concentration of them in Athens) that real self-consciousness kicked in. The Sophists had to attract customers, which meant not only displaying their wares in public, but arguing for why they knew what they were doing, over and against their competitors.

What they did, in fact, was increase the ability of public speakers to convince their audience that they were right. In Athens, in contrast to today, every man was their own politician and lawyer. This meant that arguing your view (say, of innocence) became dramatically more important than in previous, aristocratic generations, where oratory was more for the battlefield (the first great place you had to convince people of doing something, like bleeding). So the Sophists, our first rhetoricians, began to reflect on the process of argumentation, persuasion, how a person is convinced to do something.

The Sophists, however, fell victim to the forces of rampant cultural evolution. Not only were they working without a net on the self-image and practice of intellectuals in general, but they were still working with the tools of their forebears. The Sophists saw quite clearly, and correctly, that the process of persuasion, and particularly argumentation, only works with an understanding of your audience—a persuader, if to prove effective, must work with the beliefs of his audience to have any chance of being understood, let alone be successful. This, however, produced some hasty formulations, a few of which equated the conventions (nomos) and opinions (doxa) of society with what is right and just. Socrates would have none of this. Socrates saw quite clearly, and correctly, that what society currently believes couldn’t possibly be full-blown equated with what is ultimately right and just. This would leave no place for change.

Even worse, the Sophists thought of themselves as teachers of aretê. Aretê was long translated as “virtue,” and it’s hard to have any sympathy for the Sophists in the face of Socrates if they thought they were teaching virtue, good moral behavior. In this light, Socrates appears as the crusading anti-professionalist, damning the know-it-alls for supposing they had the market cornered on the good and righteous. I think this is the good light that comes out of the Delphism Socrates cleaved to: the unexamined life is not worth living. For Socrates, we couldn’t simply take what we were taught at face value because there might be better ways of doing things. This isn’t something for a professional class, but something for everyone. The Socratic spirit is the critical spirit of looking askance at the ways things are done, particularly if they are defended on the grounds of “that’s the way we’ve always done them.” Philosophy, in this sense, is reflection, thinking, taking what you do, your habits, apart to see what it is you’re actually doing and whether it makes any sense to continue to do so. The Socratic interaction between common sense and philosophy is that between the wisdom of the ages and the love of something better.

While there is certainly some truth to Socrates’ scorn of the Sophists, things are never quite that cut and dried when it comes to the Greeks. As I’ve mentioned, things were changing, and quite quickly, during what we now call the Greek Enlightenment. Scholars in the latter half of the 20th century have now mostly come to agree that “virtue” is not a very good translation of aretê and doesn’t quite capture what the Greeks meant by it. Most nowadays go with “excellence,” and one prominent scholar has even suggested “success.” These terms, and in particular the latter, make much more sense out of what the Sophists thought they were doing. “Virtue” may make sense of Socratic enmity, but are we really to believe that a whole class of people of such pomp and arrogance actually existed, as a class? Aretê was a word in transition and in the earlier aristocratic age it was more narrowly confined to the nobility and the things they did. But the rise of democracy spread out the things they did and the application of the commendation. If an Athenian citizen makes his way through his political life (which for them, much more than for us, was their life) by the power of his speech, does it not make sense for the professional orators, teaching the skills of persuasion and argumentation, to not think of themselves as teaching success, aretê?

Much like today’s social misfits, Plato agreed with Socrates that if that’s what success is, give me failure. Neither of them wanted money (easy for Plato since he had money), they simply wanted something better for humanity. They took seriously the idea that an ethical life is possible, but something that must be worked towards, and not just handed (like the nobleman’s aretê). Plato saw democracy at work and saw the blind leading the blind. And so Plato institutionalized the life of the critic, created a home and a tradition of transmitting the skeptical attitude toward contemporary modes of life. This mode of life might best be generally called the “life of inquiry.” Unlike Socrates, however, Plato was far more interested in how inquiry takes place, the methods and instruments of inquiry. Much like his Sophist counterparts, Plato meditated frequently on how we dig into ourselves and reality generally. Plato concluded that, whatever it was that Socrates did, it was hard and not, sadly, for everyone.

With Plato’s notion of the philosopher-king, he crystallized the notion of a professional wisdom-seeker, and for all of the reasons of his idol, Socrates, it must founder. Inquiry into ourselves is better done by ourselves. However, as much as looking askance at the world is a common ability for all, the tools are not. The Sophists were right in that. The tradition that branches out from Plato is philosophical, but it is a specific formation, one which I shall call “metaphysics.” The trail of metaphysics over the centuries is a trail of attempts to inquire, of trying new methods for, and objects of, inquiry. Exploding out from Plato, the paths weave about, branching off in a multitude of directions. Some succeed—these branches break off and fall from the tree of metaphysics and set up shop for themselves, become different disciplines. Some simply die, still-born in the breast of the never-heard-from-again thinker. But the tradition continues on.

It is on the other side of this 2500 year process that we find Pirsig and Rorty, and it is only by understanding their reactions to this process that we can make sense of their opinions about philosophy. To bridge into Pirsig, I’d like to first meditate on my use of “metaphysics,” which is a sort of wedding of Whitehead (“we are footnotes to Plato”) and Heidegger (“metaphysics is Platonism”). The philosophers one studies in Philosophy Departments, these footnotes, have been placed there because of the way contemporary philosophers tell the story of their own discipline. A typical way of narrating it gives us license to break philosophy into three branches: metaphysics (study of being), epistemology (study of knowing), and axiology (ethics and aesthetics—study of valuing). Kant, the first professional philosopher, gave us these branches, and our canonized selection of philosophers, when he looked back at the course of amateur philosophical writings and saw a way of breaking up his near contemporaries into two groups, the Rationalists and the Empiricists, which he was able to broker a peace agreement between and launch true professional study of being and knowing—at least, a kind that didn’t tread on science’s accelerating ground. Many of these philosophers studied other things, but the obsession Kant centered his narrative around, which preselected his choice of exemplars, was of how we are and how we know it.

Metaphysics is a handy moniker for the professional philosophy that stems out of the Kantian historiographical tradition because the understanding it breeds is that the study of being will never be far from the study of knowing. When you assert the way something is, an interlocutor will always be interested in how you know that. Philosophers in this tradition have always gone back and forth as to which is primary, whether you can intelligibly answer the question of knowledge by itself before wielding it upon instances, or whether one must lock down a conception of the way the world is first before wondering about how you know it. One thing in this tradition is certain however—ethics and aesthetics are secondary studies. If one takes the activities of being and knowing as basic, one will naturally think that valuing is secondary because the explanation given is predicated on the earlier assumption of primacy. “What is beauty/good/value and how do you know it?”, metaphysical and epistemological questions, will seem primary in ethics and aesthetics and need to be answered ahead of actual ethical and aesthetic questions, “What things are beautiful/good/valuable?” Taking philosophy to be the life of inquiry, we can see why Pirsig takes the field of aesthetics, as an inquiry into Beauty, to task for being impossible and insipid—what is one going to say about it in general, ahead of instances?

One way to understand what Pirsig did is to think of him as reversing the traditional order of things in professional philosophy and making axiology (Quality) primary to metaphysics (objects) and epistemology (subjects). If we flip the order of axiology and metaphysics, however, we will need new definitions for them, ones that won’t seem naturally metaphysical. I think if we construe metaphysics as “inquiry into how things work” and axiology as “inquiry into what we should value” we can see better, for one, philosophy’s relationship to science. Kant said that philosophy was queen of the sciences, ruling and judging all other human activities, institutionalizing the pretentiousness that Socrates accused the Sophists of. However, if we think of metaphysics as inquiry into how things work, we can see the sense of Newton having described himself as a natural philosopher. Inquiry into how things work began with the Pre-Socratics, who still get treated in history of science classes. The broad inquiry began breaking off into specialties as a new method or new way of looking at an old problem took off. On this view, metaphysics today in Philosophy Departments is the way it is because the natural and human sciences have set up shop on their own, taking with them part of what used to be in the philosophical purview. In fact, we might say that philosophy’s success lies in the fact that it has birthed these specialized fields, and might continue to do so.

With our new definitions, we can also see Socrates’ admonition of the Sophists for thinking they could professionalize, specialize the field of aretê as presaging the failure of 2500 years of trying to specialize ethics and aesthetics. When Pirsig attacks Plato for enshrining the Truth over the Good, he is suggesting that Truth, or “how things work,” is a distinct field and activity within life, but it is a value choice for us to perform that activity amongst other activities. Axiology is Socrates’ pure amateur field of inquiry into ourselves and what we should do. When Pirsig says that metaphysics isn’t worth doing if it doesn’t help with life, he is saying that knowing how things work doesn’t always help with our choices in what we should do, let alone tell us which ones to make.[fn.1]

Pirsig comes to this conclusion from the outside of professional philosophy. Standing at the gates looking in, Pirsig sees a lot of sterile, pointless debates about subjects so seemingly remote from life that it almost amounted to dereliction of duty. Rorty comes to very similar conclusions, but from the inside. Rorty did his time in grad school and spent 20 years burrowing to the center of these debates. Rorty, also, sees a lot of sterile, pointless debates about subjects seemingly remote from life, but for Rorty, the notion of “duty” only makes sense within the parameters of a profession. Physicists have a “duty” to perfecting their models of the physical world and the degree to which they’ve gotten better is the same proportion to which their conversations have become more insular and incomprehensible to the outside world. Rorty’s only concern is that some of the debates in philosophy departments don’t seem to have any outlet into the pool of life. This itself wouldn’t necessarily mean so much, except that many of these same debates, like in ethics, seem to be directly about life—and the professionals start to think they know something no one else does.

There is a prima facie distance between Pirsig and Rorty on the utility of metaphysics, study of being and knowing, to people living their lives. I’d like to help surmount this distance by inquiring into how Pirsig’s view of metaphysics actually functions. The context within which Pirsig’s inquiries occur are that of a culture-wide spiritual crisis. In ZMM, Pirsig sees the dysfunctional attitude of his friends, the Sutherlands, towards technology as expressions of a deep-lying attitude that undergirds Western culture in its relation to life, one he traces to Ancient Greek philosophy. In an odd way, Pirsig’s ZMM parallel’s Plato’s Republic—the central argumentative figure of the Republic is the analogy between the city and the soul and in the same way Pirsig draws an analogy between the individual’s spiritual crisis (Phaedrus’) and his culture’s (this particularly occurs at the end of Chapter 10, as Pirsig narrates the end of Phaedrus’ first university experience). Plato makes the analogy to help show that justice is uniform across the two units and to establish the unity of the questions and answers for both city and soul. Pirsig’s Socratic individualism rejects Plato’s requirement for a professional class of philosophers and reinstates the personal search for aretê. Pirsig’s search is conditioned, however, by its locus in the tradition of philosophy that extends from Plato to Kant to his own philosophy professors. This causes him to point to conceptual distinctions, generated in the Platonic tradition, as the locus of our, of his, spiritual crisis.

My concern right now is not whether Pirsig is right to do this. I’m sure that he is justified in doing so, though perhaps we shouldn’t be assured as to whether these are the only sources of our problems. What does interest me currently is how Pirsig turns philosophy into a kind of therapy. Phaedrus’ descent into madness is analogized, in the concept of the mythos, to the plight of dissident outcasts from culture in general. In Lila, Pirsig draws this parallel further in his discussion of a philosophy of insanity in Chapter 26. The utility of Pirsig’s philosophical pursuits are the extent to which they can be made applicable to concrete situations in life, which infuses the dynamic between the “philosophical” scenes and “narrative” scenes of both books. Pirsig employs philosophy to help him reintegrate with Phaedrus in ZMM and so become a full human being again and, in Lila, to reorient our culture more generally. This is why Pirsig develops a systematic metaphysics of distinctions—its only purpose is to help the individual life. Our sickness stems from the conceptual apparatuses handed us by the past and so we must seek their solution there.

Rorty treats professional philosophers the same way. As Rorty entered the professional ranks he shifted from an historically-oriented, Whiteheadian systematic metaphysician to a conceptual analyst. It wasn’t long before he encountered Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and became imprinted by the sense (and the attendant metaphors) that the textbook problems of philosophy were not only engendered by bad conceptual distinctions, but that philosophy’s obsession with what they took to be natural intuitions of life were neuroses that needed to be massaged out. The image of the Wittgensteinian therapist charmed Rorty most of his career and surfaced in most of his writings, so much so that Hilary Putnam once commented that Rorty wishes to “play doctor to the modern soul.”

I think Putnam get’s Rorty just about right, though Rorty wished more often to be thought of as playing therapist to the modern philosopher. To help understand what’s both right and wrong in Putnam’s comment, it helps to remember that both Freud and the New Science breathed new life into the notion of broiling, unseen causes behind appearances. The Greeks used the appearance/reality distinction to give sense to the notion that how our common sense (the mythos, doxa/opinion, nomos/convention) functions isn’t how reality actually functions and that we should perhaps inquire further into the matter. Pragmatists would like to demolish this supposition by noting that no one’s been able to tell us whether “it works because it's true” or rather “it’s true because it works,” and without being able to tell the difference between the two, we won’t be able to tell whether we’re finding out how reality really is or simply finding better and better understandings of it.

Freud and physical scientists, however, gave us a good, solid sense of what a reality behind an appearance actually looks like. Physicists started telling us that tables aren’t actually tables but clouds of electrons. Psychoanalysts started telling us that our problems getting an erection were because we wanted to do unhealthy things to our mothers and fathers. The reason why we believed them is because they were able to get results—they were able to tinker with the inputs to effect, in predictable and controllable ways, the outputs. The interesting thing about psychologists, of course, is that they don’t work with rocks, they work with us, much like the philosopher. Both the psychological therapist and philosophical therapist offer to help us with our lives, but there is a big difference—the psychologist’s patient isn’t required to know, understand, or even believe the truth of, the psychologist’s theoretical viewpoint to receive the benefit of the therapy that the theory enables. It isn’t clear, on the other hand, that the philosopher is working with anything other than what we know and believe.

Plato marked the birth of expertism, of inquirers knowing something about their objects of inquiry that others can’t follow. However, he also continued a tradition of esotericism, out of which the notion of an expert flows. This is the birthmark of any priestly tradition, which Plato gained through his exposure to the Pythagoreans (and their’s from an Orphic tradition, of which some think was not indigenous to the West, but an Eastern import). The esoteric is a class of mystery and secrets, and though we can clearly see its similarity to expertise, its separation through long affiliation is past due. There are many secrets, but the shift from esotericism to expertise is a shift in attitude, orientation, from viewing life and its variegated problems as ineffable mysteries to discussable difficulties.

There is a sense in which the philosopher, like the psychologist, knows something a little more than the regular Joe or Jane on the street. But this sense is the same in which Joe and Jane’s profession gives them the same distinction over the philosopher and psychologist. When we are talking about ourselves, our beliefs, views, attitudes, desires, habits, hopes and dreams, we are, in a sense, an expert over this area against which no one else could come close. But that doesn’t mean those who study the generalities of which you are a particular instantiation might not be able to help with your difficulties. What you should rebel against, like Socrates, however, is the notion that anyone knows some mystery about you, the reality behind your beliefs that swings free and independently of your view of your beliefs.

Socrates marked the birth of a self-critical culture. He thought it was important for everyone to examine themselves in an effort to better their future selves over their past selves. Plato swung the critical attitude at particular general problems, one’s that may be instantiated in particular people, but might be studied separately to help gain a handle on them. If we define the Socratic spirit as the spirit of Philosophy and the Platonic as Metaphysics, we might say that Philosophy is an amateur genre, one everyone should take part in, while Metaphysics is a specialized genre, one which might help for those who want to take the time and energy to delve into, but for which—because of the very fact of its generality over the particular life—we might not, and simply ask for help from time to time from the experts, should we need it.

If Common Sense is the continuing, evolving body of belief that is passed from generation to generation, then the Socratic spirit is the blood that keeps it moving. Pirsig may have been right, that a certain depth of attention, born of passing the buck on to specialists on too many scores, is lacking in our culture, and that the blood is beginning to stiffen and coagulate. What Pirsig was certainly right about, however, is that the Socratic spirit is not a flame lit in secret and watched over by robed priests called Professional Philosophers—it is the heritage of all reflective individuals. Rorty may have been right that the professionals are rightly picking special nits that might yet play out into the cultural blood stream, but like many specialized fields it isn’t immediately apparent how. What Rorty was certainly right about, however, is that the Socratic spirit is not only unprofessionalizable, but to be all the more protected because of it—it pays to have leisured self-explorers teaching our children how to explore, if not exactly what to explore.


[1] This construal of metaphysics as inquiry into how things work also has the virtue, I think, of shedding important light as to what Pirsig meant by the intellectual level and why Plato was wrong to enshrine Truth.


  1. AnonymousMay 13, 2009

    Your writing is much more clear and insightful than in the past. Keep going!

  2. I'm liking what's in your brain and how it's extruded out. thx Matt _m


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