Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Necessity of Adapting to Present Circumstances

This was a short paper for a class on, roughly, the origins of the novel. The idea was that we'd write a "close reading" of some exemplary passages from each of the books we read for the class--an excellent exercise, though draining on the brain.

It didn't go so well with Don Quixote, though I partly blame Don Quixote. I got two passes at him (it's a huge book, if you haven't seen it), and each time I got too caught up in the philosophical implications of reading him alongside Foucault, Ortega, and Lukacs (the last paragraph here, in particular, becomes incomprehensible in reaching for the big picture, so much so that I cannot even make a second pass at making better sense of it without enlarging the scope and spending more time than I have--it remains an extended figure pointing, though I won't tell you which finger). Don Quixote truly is a fascinating and hilarious read, and certainly stands as the "birth of the novel" for good reason (with all apologies to Rabelais).

I've also included a Postscript on Literary Madness, which sums up the main philosophical moral in the paper and makes some other general reflections of madness.

References are to:
Samuel Putnam's translation of Don Quixote (1949).
The 1971 translation of Foucault's The Order of Things.
Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marin's translation of Jose Ortega y Gasset's Meditations on Quixote (1966).


Almost half way through Part I of Don Quixote, the titular character mounts a brilliant defense of his impending (faked) madness. After explaining to Sancho Panza that he shall go out of his head “without any occasion” (Cervantes 232) for his lady Dulcinea del Toboso, Sancho just about loses it: “Listening to you, I come to think that all you have told me about deeds of chivalry and winning kingdoms and empires and bestowing islands and other favors and dignities is but wind and lies…” (233). Don Quixote retorts: “How is it possible for you to have accompanied me all this time without coming to perceive that all the things that have to do with knights-errant appear to be mad, foolish, and chimerical, everything being done by contraries? Not that they are so in reality…” (233). This extraordinary moment in the narrative, oddly no more nor less extraordinary than the last or the next, is paradigmatic in that it contains, like every other moment in the narrative, the essence of Don Quixote, though perhaps more flamboyantly present at this particular moment.

The peculiar madness that took Don Quixote at the beginning of the tale is well-described by Foucault: “Don Quixote reads the world in order to prove his books. And the only proofs he gives himself are the glittering reflections of resemblances” (Foucault 47). Don Quixote perceives the world through the eyes of his books of chivalry, which is to say that the world he moves through is that reality, “every moment his imagination was filled with battles, enchantments, nonsensical adventures,” “every act he performed, had to do with such things as these” (Cervantes 152). Because every moment and every act Don Quixote performs are through his madness, there is a certain reiterability of every moment of the tale—as every moment for Don Quixote must resemble the books of chivalry, or not been seen at all, every moment and act are similar in just the same way to each other. This reiterability of the essence of chivalry is encapsulated by a repeated figure in the text—after Don Quixote finishes chiding Sancho for not seeing that all knights appear mad (though in reality are not), the narrator cuts Don Quixote off and begins a new paragraph, “Conversing in this manner, they reached the foot…” (234, italics mine), as if what Don Quixote was actually saying didn’t matter, for the form of it, the basic essence of what he would say, we already should know (just as Sancho should).

The basic strategy that Don Quixote’s madness implements over and over to secure its hold occurs after his first encounter with others during his first sally. After revealing his identity through verse to the wenches (or, as Don Quixote perceives them, "ladies"), he concedes he had no intention of doing so, but “the necessity of adapting to present circumstances that old ballad of Lancelot” (36) led him to do so. This is another repeated theme, of adapting to the circumstances around him, and what Don Quixote is adapting is the form of his books to the content of reality. Or perhaps, it is rather the other way around, as Don Quixote says once, “in knighthood there are ways of adjusting everything” (161), notably phrased as not adjusting himself to everything, but adjusting everything to himself. At one point, Sancho gives a fine speech about a rash oath Don Quixote has adapted from that “old madman of a Marquis of Mantua,” saying, “supposing that for many days to come we meet no man wearing a helmet, then what are we to do?” (89) But Sancho, who even perceives Don Quixote’s model as mad, has not yet learned that this is like asking whether Don Quixote will be able to fit another story to “present circumstances.” And though memory sweeps away the oath for about 70 pages (which Sancho gets blamed for), when he is reminded of it, it takes just about 20 for a man with a basin on his head to appear, which Don Quixote sees as “a helmet of gold, for he readily fitted all the things that he saw to his own mad, ill-errant thoughts of chivalry” (185).

Ortega helps us understand both Don Quixote’s madness and the oft-made claim that Don Quixote marked the beginning of the novel (and/or the Modern) when he says that, for the Greeks, “the real is the essential” (Ortega 124). Before Descartes was able to place the whole of reality within his res cogitans (a movement completed by Kant’s transcendental ego), and thus making perception of the appearances our only reality, there was the spectacle of Greek idealism, found in Plato’s elevation of Idea and Eidos to the level of the really real, leaving the appearances of our perceptions mere shadows of their essence, the Forms. So as noted earlier, Don Quixote adjusts everything else to himself because the essence of chivalry is the center of gravity, is his reality, not the shifting appearances of various circumstances. What we might call Don Quixote’s Epitome Speech (Cervantes 189-91) tells us best this essence—for three pages, Don Quixote goes into great detail the general form of every knight’s tale, in future perfect tense, even tossing in an occasional “king or prince or whoever” to show that the story is not set in stone (about 8 or 9 of them in three pages). Cervantes is so good at writing this speech that Putnam pilfers a note from an earlier translator, John Ormsby, saying, “Cervantes gives here an admirable epitome, and without any extravagant caricature, of a typical romance of chivalry” (560n.9). The extraordinary detail, of course, is satirical, but on the other hand, as Ormsby says, it is accurate to the real books of chivalry. Don Quixote takes this general form to be his reality and Don Quixote’s ability to adapt his present circumstances to this form is exhibited by his brief struggle with the fact that he’s not of royal lineage, as all great knights are in the tales, followed by his neat solution (which notably has to do with books): “it may further be that the learned scribe who writes my history will so clear up my relationships and ancestry” (192).

This helps us unlock Don Quixote’s essence by noting with Ortega that Don Quixote’s madness is a satirical instantiation of the Greek mode of reality-as-essence. It is in fact satirical by virtue of it being out-moded. As Ortega points out, we have to read Don Quixote in the light of it being “a polemic against books of chivalry” (Ortega 135), and what it is is a parody of a reality now past, or rather, in a different way, a reality that never existed. The books of chivalry certainly existed, but following Ortega, we should read the chivalric books as in the epic tradition, such that “the epic past is not our past. Our past is thinkable as having been the present once, but the epic past eludes identification with any possible present” (118). This explains why Don Quixote keeps calling his books of chivalry “annals” and “histories,” for instance, “of England that treat of the famous exploits of King Arthur” (Cervantes 106), because Cervantes is parodying these so-called treatments of the past by having Don Quixote believe they are the actual past. And when someone, like the traveler in Chapter 13, pressures Don Quixote about the reality of his reality, the oft-repeated figure of retort is denial (“That…is impossible,” 109) and then recurrence to the books: “I am quite sure that no one ever read a story [that contradicts my reality]…” (109).

Don Quixote’s repeated recurrence to the books of chivalry also helps us unlock how his madness functions, how (our normal) reality is replaced with the books of chivalry (his reality). Take this passage from Don Quixote’s first night with Sancho, which helps establish the pattern of his madness: “He did not sleep all night long for thinking of his lady Dulcinea; for this was in accordance with what he had read in his books, of men of arms in the forest or desert places who kept a wakeful vigil, sustained by the memory of their ladies fair” (74, emphasis mine). The memory Don Quixote is sustained by is not the memory of Dulcinea, for there is no Dulcinea, only an Aldonza Lorenzo that Don Quixote's madness alters to become Dulcinea del Toboso. The memory that sustains Don Quixote is the memory of the books, his memory of the chivalric order, itself a double figure for the order of knights he belongs to and the order he shapes his reality with. Don Quixote’s madness works as a metonymic device, whereby the appearances of our world (Aldonza) are altered (to Dulcinea) so that they resemble, following Foucault, the essence of chivalry, which is Don Quixote’s reality. His entire reality is a series of figures for the hidden (from the person who hasn’t read the books—like Sancho) books of chivalry, or really, his memories of the books of chivalry (punched up nicely by Chapter 4, when the books are burned).

When we return to Chapter 25, where Don Quixote decides to play “the part of a desperate and raving madman” (232), we find all of these themes and figures. To close the events of the previous chapter, Sancho asks Don Quixote why he got so offended when Cardenio disparaged a chivalric queen’s honor—he does so because they are his reality, and so he knows Queen Magimasa better than his own mother (229). When Don Quixote lists off those he will imitate for his bout of faked madness, they are epic personages, Ulysses, Aeneas, Amadis—the latter invoked as “the sole and only one, the very first” (231), which reflects Ortega’s theory of the epic in that the essence (here Amadis) stands outside of history, and is “itself the origin and the norm, the cause and the model of phenomena” (Ortega 121). Don Quixote even realizes this Ortegan wisdom—“And these personages, be it noted, are not depicted or revealed to us as they were but as they ought to have been, that they remain as an example of those qualities for future generations” (Cervantes 231, emphasis mine). Don Quixote decides to imitate Amadis’ madness because it is “easier for me to imitate him in this than by cleaving giants, [etc., etc.,]…” and because “this place where we are is better adapted to such a purpose as the one I have in mind, I feel that I should not let slip the opportunity that now so conveniently offers me its forelock” (231-2, emphasis mine). Don Quixote’s imitation, mind you, will not be “point for point,” but “what I shall give, rather, is a rough sketch, containing what appear to me to be the essentials” (232, emphasis mine).

The series of chapters in the Sierra Morena, in fact, fit in nicely with Ortega’s theory of the epic, tragedy, and comedy. There is a constant flip-flop in Don Quixote as we move from concern for the tragic personages of Don Quixote and (especially) Sancho getting the tar beat out of them to laughing at them, too. These moments of tragedy are also precisely the moments of comedy because these are the moments in which Don Quixote receives his comeuppance for his pretension at being heroic and bossing people around. As Ortega says, “reality” in the novel is a “generic function,” which I take to mean that whatever it is we conceive of as reality functions as the skewer that punctures “man’s pretension to the ideal” (Ortega 144). This flip-flop occurs in two ways: 1) between realism creating comedy and the pretension then producing tragic results (as all epics do) and 2) realistic poetry can only occur with an epic foil—realism can only occur when it has an ideal to skewer. If something realistic loses its foil, the epic myth, it doesn’t lose its –istic and become real, but rather becomes an epic myth itself—an endlessly reiterable essence. Just so with Cardenio’s tragic story—Cardenio has none of Don Quixote’s pretentiousness at heroism, and bereft of that, his story becomes a tragic myth, despite the fact that within Don Quixote Cardenio is real (unlike Don Quixote, who is really Quejana) and whose story has markings of the real (like the fact that as we read it, the unknown detail of what Luscinda’s bodice note said escapes us, like many of reality’s details). For all of that, Cardenio is still not real in the requisite sense of existing outside of the parameters of Cervantes’ novel. Like an epic tragedy, we know the end before we hear it (mad Cardenio in tattered clothes is proof enough). Without Don Quixote’s epic pretentiousness, the foil that creates the comedy, the fictionally bounded character of Cardenio gives us a real tragedy of epic proportions—which can simply become grist for Don Quixote’s mill, as happened earlier to the story of Grisόstomo, echoed by Don Quixote in the Sierra Morena as the “occasion” for his madness (which has the double figure now of both being his excuse for his fake madness and the epic, i.e. chivalric romances, being the cause of his actual madness): “for you have heard that shepherd Ambrosio saying, ‘He who is absent, suffers and fears all evils’” (Cervantes 232). This alluding to: “for whom jealous imaginings, fears, and suspicions became a seeming reality” (119, emphasis mine).


Postscript on Literary Madness

Our understanding of our world and reality, so we say after the post-structuralists and post-positivists have finished their work, is--at least in large part--linguistic. If this is the case, our linguistic representations of reality, by which I mean our descriptions of what's going on around us, are in large part responsible for how we conceive of reality. That being the case, the way we put things in words creates to a certain extent the way we perceive things. And this is just a distended route to throwing out the old slogan, "it's rhetoric all the way down."

At least since Foucault's Madness and Civilization (which in the French is a much larger book) intellectuals have become much more aware of how, in particular, the ideas of insanity and madness, or any category of "mental aberration," are rooted in social constructions, which are partly linguistic. What literature, in general, gives us are differing models of reality-construction--the author orders the reality of his characters by means that the reader perceives implicitly and the critic disentangles explicitly. Seeing literature as such, and seeing reality in general as linguistically conceived, allows us to see the models delivered by literature on a theoretical par with the models delivered by the various sciences and other social institutions. Freud gives us one model of how to conceive of madness; the law gives us another; and Cervantes another. To put it together with my earlier slogan, perception of madness is greatly enhanced by the enlargement of our repertoire of models of mental aberration and, in particular, the critical understanding of how the models work.

In the above, I suggested an understanding of how Cervantes creates his model:
The memory Don Quixote is sustained by is not the memory of Dulcinea, for there is no Dulcinea, only an Aldonza Lorenzo that Don Quixote's madness alters to become Dulcinea del Toboso. The memory that sustains Don Quixote is the memory of the books, his memory of the chivalric order, itself a double figure for the order of knights he belongs to and the order he shapes his reality with. Don Quixote’s madness works as a metonymic device, whereby the appearances of our world (Aldonza) are altered (to Dulcinea) so that they resemble, following Foucault, the essence of chivalry, which is Don Quixote’s reality. His entire reality is a series of figures for the hidden (from the person who hasn’t read the books—like Sancho) books of chivalry, or really, his memories of the books of chivalry (punched up nicely by Chapter 4, when the books are burned).
What I mean by "metonymic device" is that there are two worlds, one the "real world" (what I called "(our normal) reality") and the other the world of chivalry, and that Don Quixote's reality is created by his (largely unconscious) putting up of the chivalric world next to (the metonymy) the normal world and then altering the normal world to resemble the chivalric one.

We might call this one version of a rhetoric of madness. Every conception of madness will have certain methods of creating this effect, in creating the category. I imagine this metonymic device might underlie many other versions (for instance, my treatment of Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven at the end of "Narrative and Making Sense"). Some others include the Lacanian breakdown of a signification chain (which I briefly describe in "Theoretical and Empirical Schizophrenia," which also makes up part of the first half of "Narrative and Making Sense") and Robert Pirsig's spatialized model of madness as "being outside the mythos."

Defining a rhetoric of madness, and the kinds of conceptual moves it makes, should have a special place in philosophical discussion about the "nature of reality" because the nature of this category--call it "madness," "insanity," "mental abnormality"--is designed specifically for those who diverge from what everyone else calls "reality." Rather than using "Nothingness" or "Infinity" as our rhetorical opposites for philosophical reflection about the world in which we finite somethings move, more energy should be concentrated on the way we conceive of those who in practice behave as if they are living in a different world. Foucault made a brilliant beginning on this kind of reflection, and Ian Hacking has followed well, but Pirsig isn't far off when he says that his philosophy opens up a whole new area of discourse, a philosophy of insanity, because philosophers are still too concerned with philosophical puzzles like the relationship between the universal and particular or the contingent and necessary. These puzzles focus attention on Humanity's Opposite as Kant's "starry heavens above," which loses focus on humanity entirely. The puzzles we should concentrate on more are those we have between each other.

Monday, January 11, 2010

How Not to Start a Philosophical Conversation

I first started leaving junk I've written around the internet almost nine years ago. From the very beginning, I pasted a note at the very top of the pieces inviting thoughts to my e-mail address. They made it clear that I hardly even cared what it was you thought, just so long as you wrote me to tell me the thought. I probably sounded pretty desperate, and even now I have a note in my rightnav bar, right near the top, trying to make it as easy as possible to talk to me:
Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me:
I think it is a common problem for people like me, people who like to think about really big, unanswerable questions, to find other people to talk to about them. You can't count on your friends for everything, for friends are forged in the belly of spatialtemporal happenstance. It can be very lonely. I remember even as a philosophy major, I didn't really find very interesting the people in the department, and professors have their own thing going on. When you do find someone, you tend to latch on and keep blathering for fear that if the conversation ends, it will never start up again (alcohol helps with this kind of phenomenon). The e-mail discussion group is filled with people who basically just need ears to listen (or rather, eyes to read). There's only so much one can say about Robert Pirsig and the Metaphysics of Quality before it becomes apparent that it's just one more happenstance collection of conversation partners. There's nothing wrong with this--but such a realization about the contingent nature of discussion and the sheer unfairness of such a dearth of interested partners would help relieve some of the stresses and strains that arise when people have their own lives and concerns.

I have left my e-mail address all over the internet because I always enjoy a fresh conversation. I even have a special mailbox called "OB Letters" (titled so long ago, that I can't quite remember what it was for, though I think it was "Outta' the Blue Letters," though lately--particularly with the below--it's more like "Oh Boy Letters"). I've received many different responses over the years (indeed, a few people wanting me to do their homework), and some people who e-mailed me cold years ago still keep in touch. Everyone has their own interests, but almost everyone is willing to put their own deep, abiding interests on partial hold long enough to intersect them in some minimal way with my own, which I am willing to do to my own in return.

Almost everyone. A conversation is about linking up two different sets of interests. If no effort is made at this, it is difficult to think of what is going on as a conversation. Conversations are optional and we all have our internal barometers on the kind of time and energy we are willing to put into one. What I am about to recount is an e-mail exchange I had recently, and I'm recounting it mainly because it is funny, though--I won't lie--partly out of revenge.

This is not how you start up a conversation:
Hi Matt, My name is [blank blank] from [has really big beer]. I came across your blog while browsing
Please find a unique Understanding of Reality altogether via this essay by Avatar Adi Da Samraj.
Plus related references.
2. The Ancient Reality Teachings
3. Adi Da and postmodernism--Adi Da's unique Understanding of both modernism and postmodernism
4. The Rebirth of Sacred Art
5. The Body as Light

[blank blank]
Okay, first: don't ever send someone an essay, particularly if the only thing you say about it to connect it to the other person who you are contacting cold, out of the blue, and without further preface, is "I saw your blog" and "this is unique, altogether." The second odd thing to notice are the "related references." What's that about? I felt like I was in an interview, and I was the interviewer. It's like walking down the street and someone accosts you with, "Yes, I would like to apply for the job--here are some phone numbers you can call who will say nice things about me." And here I didn't even know I was offering a job.

And what followed was a 1,200 word "essay," annoyingly set in 18-point font, perhaps to make it look more profound than the previous 10-point "this shit will blow your mind" prologue. Now, when I think of "essay," I think of long trains of thought connected together in a pleasing, progressive kind of way. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to think of essays as at the least made up of paragraphs, where "paragraph" is defined as "spatially off-set cavalcade of words of more than one sentence." No such luck for this "essay." Each was just one sentence.

I kind of glanced through the thing, dipped my toes as it were, to get a feel for what it was. Since [blank blank] had done me the kindness of glancing at my blog, I thought I would at least return the favor. The feel went something like this:
Reality Itself egolessly, Indivisibly, and Divinely Is As Is—always already Prior to attention, "point of view", and ego-"I".

Reality Itself Is Self-Evidently Divine.

Reality Itself Is The Only Divine.

Reality Itself is not a Deity.

Reality Itself is not a relation of attention, "point of view", or ego-"I".

Reality Itself—or The Divine Itself—Is The egoless and relationless Context of all-and-All.

Yikes. It even had the weird underlining (who uses underlining anymore?), with the broken "Is As Is." Really bizarre. And then there's the content--fairly typical, New Agey, post-Buddhist pseudo-sophistication. Which, ya' know...whatever--it's just not my kind of thing. I shouldn't even call it "pseudo": it is what is, and makes perfectly good sense in a certain tradition of articulation. The kind of ideas behind the stylized aphorisms, however, I truly think are the same kinds of ideas in a lot of post-structuralist thought. I may not like the quasi-metaphysical talk of "reality itself," but when everything is said and done, what the above kind of thing does is dissolve the subject/object dichotomy, which gives sense to "Reality Itself is Nothingness," and leaves the reality we mere mortals toy around with to be the relational junk pragmatists specialize in. Hence all kinds of books and essays linking Buddhism and pragmatism and Buddhism and Derrida.

And yet, this is "unique, altogether."

So, this is what I replied with, being the nice kind of guy I am:
Hi [blank],

Thanks for the essay, but I'm less in the market for soliloquies than I am for conversation. I'm sure the collection of aphorisms that make up the essay, well-worn and reminiscent of a large-scale trend in thinking, work quite well for most purposes, but they are not exactly the direction I usually go.

Take it easy,

[blank--I mean] Matt

A kind of "thanks, but no thanks" reply. I didn't want to berate him, because he was no doubt well-meaning, though I did want to convey the kind of thing I am looking for should he want to engage in it. I thought "soliloquy" was a nicer way of saying "monologue," which is what an essay is. And, okay, I did want to tweak his whole "unique, altogether" fantasy. But what more could you ask for from someone you've never talked to before?

Apparently, a lot more:
Hi Matt, Thankyou for your response which is really an auto-biographical self description, rather than an intelligently considered response to Adi Da's Luminous Wisdom Teaching.
Plus you could not have thoroughly considerd Adi Da's Wisdom Teaching in the less that hour in which I sent you my email.
Okay, let me stop it right there and say, he's got me there. As it happens, I had checked my e-mail within the first hour after he'd sent it, and I think I took about 15 minutes to read, consider, and craft my reply. And considering how long it probably took him to show up on my website, find my e-mail address, and paste in his no-doubt-ready-to-go cold-call e-mail, I thought it struck just about the right parity.
The essay that I sent you was not a collection of aphorisms or soliloquies. It was/is the most profound essay ever written on the limiitations of ALL of our usual forms of "knowledge", whether secular or so called religious.

Plus Adi Da's Luminous Wisdom Teaching is the most profound, complete, and comprehensive META-philosophy ever written and spoken in any time and place.

This appreciation for instance. 1.

Or these words written by Adi Da on His Understanding of Death--easily the most extraordinary lines ever written about death

1. aphorisms and soliloquies?

Okay, I'm not sure what the last "aphorisms and soliloquies?" means, but I'm guessing it means that whatever is behind the link contradicts that description, though I didn't waste any of my precious time (much better spent in mocking) to find out. However, considering my dictionary tells me that an aphorism is "a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation," I wouldn't wager too much money on it. And the only reason I'm including the links is in the off chance that somebody does a search for the links and finds this page mocking this poor, errant proselytizer (I really hope [blank blank] comes back and leaves comments).

But other than that, yikes!, right? I don't know--[blank blank]'s just about convinced me. If only he'd thrown in a few more "profounds" and "evers," I think I might have to go back and spend some real quality time with Adi Da. I mean, if [blank blank] knows that the brief smattering of sentences in seemingly random sequence are the "most profound, complete, and comprehensive META-philosophy ever written and spoken in any time and place," then he must have some sort of special powers of clairvoyance, no doubt gained from the reading itself, to hear all the things anyone has ever said, right? And that's not even mentioning the powers needed to read everything.

[Blank blank]'s reference to meta-all-caps-philosophy, by the way, is his way of connecting what he's saying to me. That's his extended hand, the attempt to make it look like this is a conversation. I don't know...maybe I should have given him a fairer shake...he did spend all that time clicking on the first link, "Attraction to Metaphilosophy," in the first category of my rightnav bar....
Hi [blank],

You are quite perceptive in noting that my response was largely autobiography--I'm a human being with his own own pressures and demands, including that of being a grad student, and as an amateur philosopher I have my own conceived tasks and projects. I enjoy conversation with those who wish it, but I don't consider it good manners to simply send someone an essay and expect them to be overjoyed with the prospect of having to read and spend time considering it--I have a blog because it gives people the option of totally ignoring it. If people want to talk to me about my bog, or really anything at all, they can start a conversation by e-mailing me, but requiring me to read an essay as a prerequisite to the conversation is more than I can commit to. All due apologies. I said "soliloquy" because I thought it would be a polite way of saying, "You sent me a monologue talking about yourself, but I'm not accepting monologues just now."

I perused the essay briefly, and it does look like a collection of aphorisms to me. I don't even know why you would take that to be a slight. Nietzsche was one of the greatest philosophers of the last 200 years, and some of his best work was in the aphoristic style.

You sound very committed to the philosophy enunciated in the essay, and I'm glad you find it to be the most profound, complete, and comprehensive ever. I'm sure such satisfaction makes life's conundrums and stresses easier to bear, but I'm not unhappy with mine just now, and without any indication that dialogue rather than conversion is your goal, I'll take your opinion about Ladi Da to be autobiographical.

Good luck with that,

Okay, the "good luck with that" was definitely bitchy, but what do you want from me. (And yes, the "Ladi da" was on purpose, too.)

Conversation about really big, abstract topics can be really interesting. Almost all philosophical conversation, whether it's about the meaning of life over a Jägerbomb or an e-mail laced with references to Aristotle, Heidegger, and Camus, are likely to be mostly articulations of our own perspectives and opinions, the kinds of things that we've found useful in the way of thinking and doing, the kinds of things that get us through the day. The conversation is best made when convergence of opinion isn't the explicit goal (though the arrogance of philosophy makes this typically an implicit goal), but rather simply an exchange of viewpoints in the hopes that something said might help the other person.

At least, that's what I've found. What do you think? (The implicit question after every single one of my posts.)

Monday, January 04, 2010

Discussion With Dave Buchanan

Dave Buchanan (or "DMB" as he often goes by in the discussion group) and I have had several long-standing disagreements for over seven years now. I think it might be fair to say that we've had the longest running dialogue between two self-perceived Pirsigians, hands down. If one had all the time in the world, you could follow the history of our conversation in the archives (which oddly enough begins right at the cut between the old '98 to Oct. '02 archive and the Nov. '02 to '05 archive--right in November 2002 we have our first spat, though the real fight doesn't begin until December). I look back and cringe at how silly and arrogant I was then--oh, youth: some things never change.

The arguments have continued off and on all these years, on and off the list. Lately we've each become more reserved, taking on an aloofness more appropriate to the professional stances each of us wishes to take. Well--at least I have, though even through the professed swagger that Dave still takes pleasure in taking (below he refers to his "rudeness," which is more a nostalgic allusion to our history together than what usually goes on nowadays), I can tell he's changed, his style becoming more, well, professional--as much as he continues to articulate an overt aversion to "professional philosophy" that Pirsig makes central to his philosophy (most succinctly in his epithet "philosophology"), Dave is becoming a professional philosopher (which would be hard to help a little bit of in a graduate program), whereas I remain, and increasingly become more overtly in style, an amateur.

These are interesting changes for us, though probably only to us (and maybe only to me). A few years ago we stopped spending so much time on the discussion lists, and our engagements became less and less, though I think that's partly because we've found less and less new to talk about. Our positions have become fairly entrenched, and I think if one were to read our pieces towards each other over the last few years, one would find each of us at a loss for new words more than anything else. We fluctuate reasonably with the tide of new information, as our studies continue, but neither one of us has moved much on what has underlied each of our understandings of philosophy since the very beginning, December 2002: Dave's dislike and distrust of Richard Rorty and my tepid interest in mysticism-proper.

We've remained in contact off and on these last few years, sometimes at, sometimes via personal correspondence, sometimes here, on my blog. A few years ago, after a note from Dave about his experience with Prof. Hildebrand, I was moved to write "Dewey, Pirsig, Rorty, or How I Convinced an Entire Generation of Pirsigians that Rorty is the Devil: An Ode to David Buchanan," a kind of double apology--in the contemporary sense of an "I'm sorry" to Dave, and others, for giving Rorty such a bad reputation when I was getting the hang of him, and in the old sense of "I'm still, though, an unrequited Rortyan." It runs over more detail of how I was back in the day, and what I think divides us, and I think it's still up-to-date as far as my thinking goes. What follows, below, is our most recent dialogue, carried out in the comments section of "Heidegger, Dewey, Pirsig."). The main reason I'm posting it separately is because the response to his reply that I wanted to leave in the comments section there was too big. But, too, I've enunciated some things that I think are worth preserving in a more up-front format, about the Emersonian, antiauthoritarian strain of pragmatism (something I hope to write about a little bit more soon). I should remark that Dave, for his part, was held to the same kinds of space restrictions (which, not being his blog, he didn't have any other recourse but to adhere to) and that it's a comment section, he didn't ever plan on putting these up for show or anything. For a more patient articulation of his view of Rorty and James (and implicitly me), see his "Clash of the Pragmatists."


Hello Matt:

Pirsig's claim, that the MOQ is "more empirical" than traditional empiricism, is best understood by way of William James' radical empiricism. (Dewey and Pirsig both subscribe to this brand of empiricism while Rorty finds nothing of value in it whatsoever.) The radical empiricist's claim to be more empirical than his opponent is not to claim "that there are obvious, neutral features of reality that his opponents are repressing". For a radical empiricist, there is no such thing as a neutral feature of reality. In fact, SOM and the correspondence theory of truth are rejected by radical empiricists and so the claim to be more empirical has nothing to do with traditional dualism like mind and matter, appearance and reality. What makes him more empirical than his opponents is the method of radical empiricism.

Basically, this method says that experience sets the limits for philosophical debate. It says that all experience must be accounted for and that anything that can't be known in experience must be excluded. The provision that excludes "trans-experiential" entities is the provision that puts the brakes on metaphysics, by the way. This method excludes theoretical entities such as Hegel's Absolute, Kant's things-in-themselves and Aristotle's substance. On the other end, the claim to be more empirical than even traditional empiricists is made on the basis of what James calls "the continuity of experience" or the "conjunctive relations" within experience. He calls attention to these transitional types of experiences because the epistemic gap between subject and object, he says, is a fake philosophical problem created by the failure to take them into account. By taking notice of these conjunctive relations, it can be seen that thoughts and things are just the terminal ends or pivotal features of experience and they are connected to each other already within the tissue of experience. Thoughts and things more or less correspond in a practical sense, not a metaphysical sense. James makes quite a big deal out of these conjunctive relations because, he thinks, they plug up a hole through which all the metaphysical fictions of philosophy would otherwise come pouring in. So the radical empiricist is also rejecting all the various attempts to cross the gap between appearance and reality by saying that experience and reality amount to the same thing.

Also, I'd argue that this empirical stance is not at all inconsistent with the claim that our understanding of reality is an evolved web of analogies. As is the case with the discrepancy between metaphysics and reality, between concepts and reality, it is simply a matter of distinguishing between static and dynamic. This is not to say that static forms such as concepts and the other analogies are unreal or outside of experience but they are still distinguishable from dynamic quality, 'immediate experience' as Dewey calls it or 'pure experience' as James calls it.

This would certainly be another area where Rorty is very much at odds with these other pragmatists. You could say they all took the linguistic turn but Rorty took his at a different angle. I mean, where some would say it's language all the way down, the radical empiricist says it's experience all the way down and there is a pre-verbal, pre-intellectual kind of experience that can only be ignored at a philosopher's peril.

Finally, this incorporation of the non-conceptual features of experience is part of a larger effort to re-integrate the affective domain within philosophy, within science and within rationality itself. This sort of philosophical mysticism hardly constitutes any kind of easy escape. Quite the opposite. It's an effort to broaden and deepen the intellect.

For whatever it's worth...

Dave Buchanan

December 20, 2009


That's really creepy--I just started to rewrite some stuff on the "more empirical" claim in the hot stove passage. What a weird apropos.

I don't think I understand enough James to talk about radical empiricism as a method very well. It just doesn't sound right to me as a good philosophical stance (I'll concede to you what James really thought). For instance, I'd feel better if you said, "'more empirical' was a bad way of putting this other point he was making...," and then filling in the ellipsis with the radical empiricism as method thing. Because, as you say, everything is experience for these guys--so at the level of abstraction these guys are playing at, why does making a claim about X being more empirical than Y look attractive? It's all empeiria, right? But you don't seem very bothered by the "more empirical" claim, which suggests to me there's a distinction between "experience" and "empirical" lying around somewhere that I don't understand.

But even then, radical empiricism as a method looks very unattractive to me. Once everything is experience, how can anything be cut out at that level? Do we not experience theoretical entities through our experience of books? That seems really nit-picky, but take Aristotle's substance/form distinction: wouldn't an Aristotelian argue that, though we overtly experience only forms, because of a nettle of logical problems, there is also a substance underneath the form that we experience concurrently, though we are not overtly aware of it. We detect substance by inference (like most entities in physics). To reject things like Kant's noumena and Aristotle's ousia, which we might say were created because of inferential requirements based on the rules of logic, would seem to suggest that logic can't tell us anything about reality. That doesn't seem right. Wouldn't, too, logic need to be rejected as a theoretical entity that we don't experience? Because if one rejects junk you learn about in books and through inference, wouldn't that just tear down all of science and knowledge since the invention of writing (paper being where all these syllogisms got written down and thought about)?

As I see it, any entity is no more or less theoretical than any other (the "theory-ladeness" claim that attends the Kuhnian revolution), and the ones that we call fictive are the ones that aren't very useful. I don't see the need for a method to tell us ahead of time, or to principally demarcate a holding pen for, which kinds of things are real and fake. Call this my greater appreciation of Pragmatism than the posthumously collected Essays in Radical Empiricism, but it is unclear to me why I need a method, rather than regular ole' experience of what works and what not.

I also still don't understand enough about what you mean by "direct experience." I outline in "Notes on Experience, Dewey, and Pirsig," my last apprehension of what I think Dewey meant, but that still seems at odds with the interpretation you want to give it (the main claim is that Dewey shifted from "concepts" to "habits").

On the relationship between "language all the way down" and "experience all the way down," which I still don't think are antithetical, I wrote this a little while ago, probably based out of a conversation I had with you: "Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn."

And hey, don't blame me for the phrase "easy escape of mysticism"--that's Pirsig. I dare say there's nothing easy about mysticism.

Good to hear from you Dave.

December 20, 2009


Hey Matt:

It's not that you've overlooked a distinction between "experience" and "empirical" but rather a distinction between two categories of experience. The common sense meaning or ordinary definition of "experience" is contrasted with abstractions, theories, concepts and such. Logical inferences and deductions are known in experience too, of course, but this fact does not defeat the distinction. The difference is between primary and secondary experience and is does not entail the claim that abstractions are not known in experience. It simply calls attention to the difference between conceptual and pre-conceptual.

This doesn't tear down all of science and knowledge but it certainly has a way of showing both the value and limits of our intelligible world. It puts that big pile of analogies in perspective. Cutting things up this way says that the world as we understand it is drawn from or derived from a richer, thicker, more primordial experience. You know, it's like the difference between all the sand on all the beach and that little handful we call the world. It's like the difference between a fun day with friends and the black and white snapshot you have of that one moment. The photo is real and it is known in experience too, but it was derived from something much richer than any 5" by 7" piece of photographic paper could ever be. Ironically, this richer, more basic form of experience is exactly the one that overlooked by philosophers and so it's not that surprising that you're having trouble with it. This bias toward anything intelligible and against everything that's not goes all the way to Plato. This bias doesn't seem like such a crime to those who can't see the difference between ineffability and mere stupidity.

Or think of the distinction the way Jill Bolte Taylor likes to put it. (She's the Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke and experienced nirvana.) She says the difference between these two kinds of experience is on display in the divided structure of our brains, in the fact that we have two separate hemispheres that process experience in very different ways. Sadly, people have to suffer a medical emergency, take drugs or take meditation lessons to even realize there is more than one way to be. It's almost literally true that we think with half of our brains tied behind our backs. Similarly, meditative practices center on this distinction between primary and secondary experience.

Imagine if the Rhapsode had said to Socrates, "Man will please quit with all those $25 questions and just dig it?." Imagine if that Rhapsode had convinced him that his demands for intelligibility only showed that he was an uptight asshole incapable of appreciating art as such. That's pretty much what Nietzsche says and I think he's right. Imagine if the Sophists had answered similarly. We wouldn't need James or Pirsig if Gorgias had been as rude as I am.

Happy New Year.

December 30, 2009


Yeah, but I don't think I do have a bias against unintelligibility. I think I have a better way of describing it (e.g., as metaphor), and I don't think my way slights or puts down unintelligibility, where it's appropriate, in the least (always leaving open the possibility, of course, that things might initially be inappropriate before becoming common sense for the next generation). In fact, I follow Rorty (argued most famously in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, but also at the end of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) in thinking that unintelligibility is necessary to cultural progress.

I don't think I'm your enemy. I don't think Rorty's the enemy you want him to be. Or at least, I don't think Rorty is usefully rolled up with the Positivists and Platonists as you want.

For the last, geez, probably two, three years now, our conversations have taken on a remarkable consistency. You say, "Radical empiricism something-something, pre-intellectual something, and Rorty's just one more variation of positivist." Then I say, "Well, something-something, Davidson, Sellars, Myth, scheme/content something, and radical empiricism is basically the same as psychological nominalism." Then you say, "No, I'm just talking about two categories of experience something-something, what I'm talking about are just all these somethings [delineation to follow] something, and this way explains the world so much more beautifully." And finally I say, "Well, something-something, I'm happy with my way just now something, and it's unclear to me why I should pick up these distinctions you're offering."

I mean, you're right--saying, "No, Matt, I'm just talking about two categories of experience," does avoid my admittedly simple, artless and somewhat obtuse argument about it "all being experience--so what's the deal?" But the elemental motivation behind this silly-looking, endlessly reiterable argument is the monist-insight that James was attracted to, about half the time. James didn't want to be labeled a monist because British Hegelianism was still really big, but once you make the central pragmatist argument that there is no Way the World Is, that there's no "transcript of reality" or that in this area of philosophical discourse "everything here is plastic" (to steal a couple Jamesisms from "What Pragmatism Means"), once you do that you level the field of eternal dichotomies--which is the same thing the monistic idealists were doing. And James knew this--he wanted to be called, in "The Present Dilemma," a "pluralistic monist." His avoidance strategy was to say, "yeah, there are no metaphysical dichotomies, but we can make as many pragmatic distinctions as we want." (Putnam makes this distinction between dichotomies and distinctions early in his Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, a book I've tried to promote in the brief "Putnam and Pirsig.")

I like this strategy. I would be glad to call myself a pluralistic monist. (I've suggested here and there in posts over the years that pragmatism is a metaphysical monism, an idea I've never gotten further in describing than at the end of "What Is Quality?", though it was to be an entire subsection in an elaborate piece that began as an essay-length reply to your essay on Rorty, but billowed in the planning stages to a projected lengthy-monograph, before finally collapsing under its own weight of ambition. I had to put out to pasture, and I still sigh heavily over its cremains.)

Where was I? Pluralistic monism--whenever you, or Pirsig, or James, or Dewey, (or Whitehead, or Bergson, or Emerson, or Santayana, or Hildebrand, or John McDowell, or Steve Hagen, or etc.) start talking about the kinds of distinctions we can make within the flow of experience--I don't immediately start thinking about monism. I understand that the people in my list, by and large, are pragmatic distinction-makers. By and large. It's the "away and small" I worry about, particularly when those parts are the ones being played up.

I start leaning towards the monistic-solvent when pluralistic-distinctions are being made when I don't know why those distinctions are being made, but are being proffered anyways on their own merits alone rather than by what they can do for me. Because, as I understand pragmatic, pluralistic monism, the one thing that can't be said about them is that they are correct, that "I say there are two categories of experience because there are two categories of experience." As a pragmatist, that doesn't make any sense to me when it comes from another pragmatist. That only makes sense coming from a Platonist of some kind.

So, with your line of explicative examples, your "You know, it's like the difference...," I read them and I go, "Yeah, but I never had a problem with them." I never had a problem handling the sand on the beach vs. the stuff in your hand analogy, nor the two halves of the brain. I don't think I need your distinction to handle them quite well. And what we are talking about is an attempt to get me to think your distinctions are indispensable--you're trying to sell me on the utility of these distinctions. What I'm not sold on are: 1) the difficulty of using my instruments and 2) the ease of using yours.

In a lot of instances, I have no problem with you (or James and Dewey) using "experience-instruments" and me using "language-instruments" (to create two categories I have great qualms about). Once each of us takes on a whole raft of pragmatist theses, I think either one of us gets the job done on a whole host of philosophical problems. Intramural conflict involves pointing to problems where you suspect the other person's tools will rattle and shake under the pressure of getting the job done. The reason I don't move to an experience-only-toolbox is because 1) I don't see why I have to use only them, 2) I have a vague, nagging suspicion that there are certain jobs the experience-tool will have trouble with (which will cause problems for me if that's my only tool), 3) these suspicions are exacerbated when it seems like the experience-tool is being suggested, even demanded, for jobs that I think it's inefficient at best for (and really--it's the demand that exacerbates), and 4) I don't have any persistent doubts about my capacity to use language-tools to handle pointed-out jobs.

I don't see myself in your broad canvas--when you point to Greek Intellectualism, I don't see myself there, so I merely shrug: "yeah, I agree with Nietzsche, too. I don't see our differences yet." When you talk about a "richer, thicker, more primordial experience" I raise my eyebrows and say, "No, thank you. I don't really feel the need to say anything like that in a philosophical context. The metaphor of primalness is a big reason why I stay away from 'primary' as a term of endorsement." When you say, "Sadly, people have to suffer a medical emergency, take drugs or take meditation lessons to even realize there is more than one way to be," I just think you're wrong. I think people realize for themselves that there is more than one way to be in all kinds of ways, and apparently a lot more often than you think (one way people suffer this realization is through the reading of other people's articulation of other ways of being).

What I do think is more rare than the realization itself is the decision to become some one other particular way to be. And that's what I read your "sadly" as. Because I'm more Emersonian than prescriptionally-philosophical, I like to flaunt the negative inducements to self-realization (what Emerson called "self-reliance," Nietzsche "becoming who you are," and Socrates "dialectic"), but downplay the positive steps I've taken on my own path. My steps, I like to think as a full-fledged Emersonian individualist, are but one of many kinds of steps one might make after the deconstruction of what Dewey called the "crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness." I like to think that the "pluralistic," positive, constructive side of pragmatism is too personal a project for it ever to coalesce as the stable center of a tradition called pragmatism. It is, rather, the "monistic," negative, destructive side of pragmatism, which simply consists in parasitic arguments against the past and exhortations to remake the future, that might only ever serve as the ramshackle commonality of individual pragmatists. Pragmatists, therefore, will always be fighting amongst themselves about how free of the past their individual proposals for new tools are.

I don't mind that other pragmatists are not fans of Rorty or Davidsonian/Brandomian philosophy of language (the latter being the only thing I can figure to be meant by what I referred to as "language-tools" in contrast to "experience-tools," which is just shorthand for variations on "pre-conceptual/conceptual experience distinctions"). I don't mind if they are retro-pragmatists, combating the excesses of the present professorial malaise (something every generation will find) by returning to a (somewhat reconstructed, retooled, and slightly imagined) "Golden Age" of pragmatism. I don't mind if they are practicing Buddhists, or Christians for that matter.

What I do mind is when other pragmatists do mind what, exactly, other people are. I do mind when it's suggested, if ever so subtly, that I need to be a Buddhist. I do care, and become a little annoyed and full of the Emersonian-pragmatist spirit of individualist self-creative free choice, whenever anyone makes such arguments about what others should self-realize as. I listen carefully but am reasonably skeptical of suggestions that I've run afoul of pragmatist edicts against Platonism, but I do become annoyed when I can't tell what I'm running afoul of. And I become full of righteous pragmatist anger, the kind of piety that can only occur when there's a center to be hypocritical of, when self-professed pragmatists tell other pragmatists how they should create themselves.

As I see it, you have a choice as a pragmatist: 1) you could throw Rorty out of the pragmatist pantheon (thus avoiding hypocrisy), 2) stop telling people what kinds of experience are "richer," and other kinds of laudatory epithets expressive of what you like--at the abstract level of philosophical discourse that you're letting these fly, I think you're running afoul of the "create yourself" plank in the pragmatist platform, or 3) throw out the "create yourself" plank that is common to Emerson, Nietzsche, James, Dewey, and Rorty.

I read your commentary on Rorty, and me, as implicit versions of (1)--you haven't explicitly thrown him out, but you suggest that "real pragmatism" is "X, Y, and Z" (just as I do in my own way)--centered around the classical pragmatists, radical empiricism, and the pre-conceptual/conceptual experience distinction--and then criticize Rorty for having fallen outside the circle. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but I think you need to say more about the Emersonian side of pragmatism I've hightlighted above, the side of pragmatism I spend most of my time promoting (and Rorty spent his). It is one thing to see Rorty as backsliding into Platonism (which is a reasonable criticism), but it is another, I think, to make Platonic-like authoritarian claims about how things are. You technically avoid them in the Emersonian spirit by telling me how beautiful things look from your perspective and how much sense of the world your distinctions make, but you have a problem on your hands if I reply, "Meh--I'm good." Such odes to your personal experience that opine the richness and freedom of tradition-weighted problems your way of being afford you are all fine and dandy as far as they go, but they are exhortative, not argumentative. If they were argumentative, they'd likely run afoul of Platonist intellecutalism--straight-jacketing the kinds of nonsense I want to make. You move from argumentative-criticisms of Rorty (which are permitted) to exhortative-songs of your freedom in such away that make me think that you think they are arguments--arguments that if I were a reasonable philosopher I would need to rebut or submit to. But I don't know how to rebut your affection for the way of being known as Buddhism without being a Platonist, and that's the only thing I know I don't want to be.

My suspicion is that if you tried to sing the song of Emersonian self-creation alongside your song of mysticism (which I still perceive as quasi-argumentative, as authoritarian edict), you'd run into problems. I suspect you'd find that you wouldn't be able to sing the song of mysticism in just the same way as you have before to hold the harmony of self-creation while remaining in tune. I suspect that the notes that would be modulated to stay in tune would be just those same ones that were previously the ones critical of Rorty. Which is to say: I don't think the modulated song of mysticism would have anything critical to say to Rorty's way of being, or his philosophy.

That's my suspicion. And for my own part (and from my own perspective), the disagreement we've had is that you think I'm singing notes that criticize your song of mysticism, whereas I don't think I am. Or rather, the song I'm singing only criticizes just those notes in the song that I think would have to be modulated away if you sang it in harmony with a song of self-creation.