Friday, June 25, 2010

Pirsig's Quest for Certainty

This was initially written from a prompt by Leela, who asked in a discussion at the MD, after suggesting that the quest for metaphysical certainty drove Pirsig to insanity, whether Pirsig achieved a comfortable equilibrium.


From what little appearances we know of Robert Pirsig's life since the time of ZMM, he's been able to control the demons that left him in the corner of a Chicago apartment with cigarettes burning into his knuckles. I think the most important thing to understand about Pirsig's philosophy is the personal nature Pirsig most of the time perceives to be at the heart of the philosophical enterprise. This is the point at which we might bring up the James picture of a hallway with different doors, or an art gallery with a myriad of paintings. This, of course, makes Pirsig sound like he only half-meant the Metaphysics of Quality. Emphasizing the fact that Pirsig thought philosophy was like playing chess, rather than having a perfect set of chess moves, suggests to some Pirsigians that the system Pirsig created is trying to be ignored. The question is: how do we balance Chapter 26 of Lila, the philosophology chapter wherein Pirsig tells us how to read philosophy, with Chapter 12, the levels chapter wherein Pirsig solves a few philosophical problems with his Metaphysics of Quality?

Pirsig attempted to develop a new metaphysics not just for himself, but for others, too--everybody gets that. The Metaphysics of Quality wasn't just for Pirsig. However, the way to balance the self-other equation might be like this: the Metaphysics of Quality is Pirsig's, but the insights of the Metaphysics of Quality are for everyone.

The "comfortable resolution" of a quest can only be decided by the life lived, because that's ultimately where philosophy dumps out. I think one of the greatest passages Pirsig wrote is the gumption chapter in ZMM. In that chapter, Pirsig brought together philosophical abstraction with practical living--he showed us how he thinks his explorations of the "high country of the mind" dump out into the valleys of life. What he shows is how a mind can get trapped in certain thought-loops, like the monkey and the rice. That's what happened to Phaedrus. That's the problem with the Quest for Certainty, as Dewey named it. What Pirsig picked up are techniques for quelling the inferential machine known as the mind--that's what the art of meditation specifically helps with. Pirsig perceived (rightly I think) the modern mind as quickly skipping down a road that will eventually prove to be self-destructive to both individual and society. So Pirsig wanted to expand a different set of roads, to show how we don't need to run into dilemmas like "where is the value, in the subject or object?"

But there are many ways of avoiding certain bad trains of thought--Pirsig's one occasional fault is that he sometimes creates the appearance of yelling out alone at night. But there are a lot of intellectuals who perceive similar evils and propose useful techniques and roads of travel. The one major problem caused by Pirsig's occasional flirtation with superlative uniqueness, which we could forgive in a friend, is that it leads to inflexibility of thought in fellow-travelers. It leads people to perceive themselves as not fellow-travelers, but rather disciples. It leads to the thought that edifices of thought generated by thinkers must be either rejected or accepted wholecloth, and that disagreement with the master is a rejection of everything holy.

Pirsig became comfortable with his quest for certainty because he eventually learned how to tone down the personal ramifications for failure. I think he learned that it isn't a Quest for Certainty that the philosophical tradition is in search of an answer to, but rather a personal quest for the kinds of everyday certainties that we act out of. Phaedrus' quest in ZMM may have begun as Plato's, but Pirsig's quest in writing it down was the quest to resolve doubts about the everyday certainties that are leading to bad things. Phaedrus began with Doubt about the possibility of Certainty, but Pirsig finished with specific doubts about particular certainties. Pirsig eventually became comfortable with the line of thought he'd written down, and the kinds of life-instincts it had given him.

That others may not be comfortable with his resolution only matters insofar as what is being pointed to are limitations in the tools and insights he afforded. Philosophy is autobiographical--we are commending things we've found useful. What philosophy is not is a search for an Answer to an antecedantly posed Question, like from Reality, or some other entity that's big and powerful enough to be able to pose a question antecedantly to spatialtemporal people. Only with the latter understanding of philosophy does it make sense to "reject the MoQ," or any system. Only if one assumes that there are universally perspicuous questions that every philosophy or person must have an answer to would one think that the MoQ's success rests on its ability to please everyone. Only if one thinks there's a big universal Quest humanity is on, rather than a lot of little quests individual people are on, will one take seriously the rhetoric of "demonstration" and "proving."

Philosophy is autobiography for Pirsig, and it is best served by taking it seriously, but not too seriously.

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