Over a decade ago now, I discovered Robert Pirsig. My first encounter was blasé—I read the first 60 pages of ZMM for a high school class on philosophy and religious studies and faked my way through a paper on it. My interest in Pirsig didn’t surface until the next year, as I took Phil 101 and had ZMM assigned on the syllabus. I groaned inwardly, but—in the context of a semester on Plato, Nietzsche, and Kuhn—I found him much more interesting. I became simultaneously interested in philosophical problems and the life-entanglement that ZMM represented. Here’s a guy who went to the mat for these problems. It was very interesting.
I was on my way up to my 101 discussion group one day in an elevator with my TA, when he asked me what philosophy courses I was taking the spring semester. I looked quizzically at him and kind of shook my head saying, “I’m…not taking any…?” He got a funny look on his face: “Oh—I thought you were a philosophy major.” I said no, I was still undeclared. He said I should think about it, and a month later when our professor asked me to assist her in a class that spring, I thought the least I could do was declare (though it took me till mid-spring—I’m very lazy).
I took three philosophy courses that spring, in addition to the aesthetics course I helped out in (a complete farce: what do I know about aesthe—wait, I’m a literary critic in training now…I love aesthetics! Ha!, and boy do I know a lot about beauty, and stuff!) . They were in Greek philosophy, existentialism, and a random cavalcade of 20th century people, including the existentialists. The deal with the 20th century class was that we could pick out any philosopher we wanted, even if we didn’t study them specifically, and write our final on them. I chose Pirsig, and because he wasn’t well known as a philosopher, my professor suggested I compare Pirsig with someone else. Because I was taking so much existentialism, I picked Sartre. This turned into “Phenomenological-Existentialism and the Metaphysics of Quality.” I read Lila for the first time for this paper, and became enamored with Pirsig’s arguments about needing a new metaphysics for our culture. And because I had so much Pirsig on the brain, when it came to writing my existentialism paper, I couldn’t help but refute Camus with the help of my newly learned Pirsig-foundation called the MoQ. This was “Absurdity and the Meaning of Life.”
It never ceases to fascinate me that of all the junk I have lying around the internet, this particular essay sends me the most random readers who feel like writing (all of my reply letters begin “Thanks for reading and writing!”). Having written it a decade ago, though, I have mixed feelings about the arguments. (I have no mixed feelings about the writing—it’s horrid.) At the close, with the help of Pirsig’s theory of static levels, I get to state that Camus’ most pressing of philosophical problems, the question of suicide, of why I should not just off myself, has an easy answer: “It’s simply that Life has Meaning: to live.” Really? Life’s purpose is to be lived? I suggest that this “rather simple ethics” “leaves the door open” for the further development of a teleological ethics, but why on earth should we think that the firm foundation of the ultimate telos of life is “to be lived,” and this because we are cellular beings? At root, life has biological meaning, so now Camus’ full of crap. “Life’s purpose is to be lived” is at best a tautology, and how boring is that? Why on earth would somebody think that that’s an interesting answer to Camus’ problem?
In my estimation, there are two types of 19-year-old philosophy students: 1) people who thought Nietzsche was probably right when he said “God is dead” at 18 and still do and 2) people who thought Nietzsche was right at 18 but now don’t. I was the latter type. Most people who go in for philosophy these days do not make it through their teenage years undisillusioned (saying “illusioned” would be unfair to people for whom it hasn’t even occurred that life might be an illusion—and since Platonism is predicated on the appearance/reality distinction, such an awareness does seem to be intrinsic to philosophy). I, certainly, didn’t make it. However, I also didn’t really care that God was dead. Some people like Camus do. He cared very much, for only somebody that takes Nietzsche far too seriously could take seriously the question, “Why should I not commit suicide?”—let alone as the only truly pressing philosophical question. Passing through Nietzsche makes some people (call them “existentialists”) really pessimistic about humanity, even cynical. I wouldn’t say I was optimistic—I spent much of my time making fun of everything around me and I thought most other people were idiots (it’s hard not to when living in a dorm)—but cynical? It seemed like the perverse twin of the eternal optimism of people who go in for God. I just couldn’t get up the energy for that—it seemed like I’d have to spend just as much energy pissing on God’s grave as I would have had to do propping Him up, and when it comes right down to it, I’m very lazy.
So, what happens to some lazy 18-year-olds who go in for philosophy is that on their way to 19 they discover an easy way out—someone offers them a quick dialectical fix, a cheap but sturdy looking foundation that claims to give more polemical bang for your argumentative buck. (If they don’t find one of these by 20, they either cease to be lazy and declare as political science or sociology majors and try to save the world, or—if still lazy—enter an English department.) That was Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality for me. The trouble is, you still have something you need to prop up, and that’s no fun. It ends up being just as much work as a full-fledged God. Here you are, standing your philosophical ground, and you need something to cover yourself from all those existentialists pissing on you, but you choose a shack with a leaky roof, when at least the God-guy across the street has somebody to talk to for comfort. And so many, by 22, leave philosophical ground and never come back. I mean, shit, you just move a hundred yards south and you can watch all the football you want without ever worrying about the pissing match occurring right up the alley.
True enlightenment happens, though, when you realize that you can avoid the golden shower while still remaining on philosophical terrain. You don’t need a foundation, you just move up hill and let the others piss themselves all they want. Doing this means seeing the need for a house, even a shitty leaky one, as a small problem in a larger landscape. Seeing this, where there’s suddenly a dry hill out back you’d never noticed before, means seeing that not only is the tautology, “Life’s purpose is to be lived,” both true and boring—but it makes you wonder why you thought you should’ve been excited by it. Seeing the larger terrain of life starts to make you wonder about everyone’s motivation for saying and doing certain things, like praying or building houses or pissing on them.
Why did I go in for being a quasi-metaphysician for a time, to want to build some sort of foundation, but not an expensive God-like one? The presupposition in this is: I felt that Camus’ question needed to be answered. I felt that the cynics needed to be answered on their own ground. But once one looks at that dry hill, you have to wonder: why would I want muddy ground that’s been pissed on for 2500 years? I.e., why does Camus feel the need to ask his question? Is every question a good question? Maybe not—maybe we should wonder about Camus.
Once you start wondering about the foundation metaphor, about the need for a knock-down answer to stubbornly stupid questions like “Why should I not kill myself,” you start seeing philosophy as just another mode of articulating yourself. And you notice that you can articulate yourself anywhere, not just at your pissed-on house. So you think about moving up hill. You start to think of philosophy as just another piece of your clothing, that keeps you warm and comfortable, but is mobile and flexible, and if it becomes threadbare, you get something new—because it’s all about having something nice to wear while you wander through the landscape of life. (If anybody’s wondering what expensive, well-worn term of opprobrium to apply to this attitude, if you guessed “aestheticism,” give yourself a serious, stern nod of approval. Sorry, all the gold stars and hot bling are reserved for the people who care about the appearances—you only care about reality, a cold, bleak place which could give a shit if you get it right. So while you shiver in your patched-up hovel, dripping like an R. Kelly wet dream, console yourself—as you watch the carnivalesque, tiki-torch party on the side of the hill—with the thought that all those people are going to hell…or whatever equivalent you’ve dreamed up for them.)
The argument I made in the essay was valid, I think, but it was also—much like my last parenthetical—just silly. Why would one make it? I made it because I thought life needed a big Telos, even if it was a silly one. And, come to think of it, mine was perfect: if Camus is going to ask a stupid question, then I’m going to give a stupid answer. If you demand that the space where the Grand Telos used to be is filled, then in a disillusioned age the only way to fill it is with the inverse of God’s grandeur—tautological insipidness. Some people think that the space does need to be filled. Those who think, for instance, that free will is impossible because Darwin and Newton have proven determinism true, and therefore moral action is in trouble—these people think the hole left by God needs to be filled. They want a Grand Telos.
But why? Why not just have a little telos, or a bunch of little teloses? Why even continue using the Greek? Just say “purpose,” think of all the little things you do and why you do them, and if you like fulfilling these little goals, then keep doing them. If not, then don’t. If you break things into small enough pieces, then odds are that you’ll never answer “no” to all of them and have to start contemplating suicide. Camus’ mistake was to take all the little things as emblems for one big thing, to take riding the subway or going to work as symbols that don’t signify various little purposes, but all signify One Big Purpose. And the only thing he could figure out to fit was Nothing, and hence the absurdity. But if we thought it was a good idea to stop contemplating the big guy named God, maybe the trouble wasn’t God, but the continual contemplation of something big, parenthetical or otherwise.
My attempt to resurrect “teleological arguments” was a short-lived effort to save my leaky roof. In “Absurdity and the Meaning of Life,” I answered for ethics by taking on Kantian deontology. I still think that’s right. Deontology rests on the assumption that the World, or Reason, or Something—Something Big—gives us obligations to be performed. I don’t think that’s true. I think the only reason we have any obligations is because somebody gives them to us, meaning we give them to ourselves, and we can start breaking these obligations off into small pieces and deal with them in terms of the purposes they fulfill—which is to transform “obligation,” and deontology, into a utilitarian ethics of some kind. Not the old teleology, but a pragmatist notion of only being obligated to each other, a notion of solidarity rather than the old, cosmological obligation Kant tried to keep alive (for more on this train of thought, see “Religion, a Utilitarian Ethics of Belief, and the Public/Private Distinction”). In a later paper, “Mechanistic Philosophy and the Yellow Brick Road of Science,” I tried to give sense to “teleological argument” for science. That failed miserably, as one helpful commentator pointed out ruthlessly, and was the beginning of my suspicions that I should just can the telos talk.
So while I still think Nietzschean anti-Kantianism is right, the whole idea of pressing philosophical ethical questions doesn’t, and that’s because the notion of “philosophy” is typically the “big view.” As my metaphor earlier suggests, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a big view—the problem just seems not knowing when to give it a rest. The big view is necessarily, because of its bigness, abstract—the “high country of the mind,” as Pirsig put it. But some problems are down in the woods, under the canopy, and being up high obscures them. My engagement with Sartre and Husserl brings out somewhat the part of existentialisme français I still think is true. Whatever Husserl’s scientism and Sartre’s decisionism (let alone Camus’ woeisme), the easy slogan we might distill from existentialism is “existence precedes essence.”
The slogan signifies two movements: 1) the movement away from essentialism, the notion that there are set, defined centers to each particular thing that can be discovered rather than fluid, evolving centers created by the thing (any “essence” is created by the way in which we exist) and 2) the movement away from Platonic other-worldliness, away from the Realm of the Forms and back down to the ground-level of life. If there is any utility left in the “Absurdity” paper, it is the slapping around of deontology; if any in the “Phenomenological-Existentialism” paper, it is my playing up of lebenswelt, the “lifeworld” that Husserl wanted us to get back to. (Oh, and Demonstration Stick Man, who finally made an uncredited comeback in “A Spatial Model of Belief Change.” What a mysterious person—is he a man who is a demonstration-stick or a stickman used for demonstrations?) The notion of lifeworld is useful in reminding philosophers, people who occasionally think too big for their own britches, that their reflections are rooted in a world that is not itself the world of reflection. This sounds other-worldly again, but perhaps a comparison with fiction may help—the words of a novel serve to create a world in which we can live through the reading of the words. Philosophy does that, too—the only difference is that if the words of philosophy do not connect up usefully enough with the things we do when not reading philosophy, then we might begin to doubt that it is philosophy we’re reading, but perhaps rather fiction (which is what well-read pragmatists think of large swaths of Plato’s dialogues and what most of my dorm-mates thought of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, as much as I tried to persuade them to the contrary).