Saturday, July 17, 2010

Initial Essay: In Search of Quality


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More than thirty-three years ago Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance took the American publishing world by storm in 1974. It was an immediate critical and commercial success, sold millions of copies in twenty-three languages, and was described by the London Telegraph as "the most widely read philosophy book, ever." To aging baby boomers who may have missed the book when it first came out, and wearied by neoliberalism and neoconservatism and all the perversions known to man in between the two, it may come as a surprise to know that the book is not much about either Zen or motorcycles. Zen and its 1991 sequel, Lila, are actually novels about a quest to establish the purpose and value of philosophy. Or rather, they are attempts to raid the encampment of philosophy, which has become entrenched in the subject-object dualism of modern rationalism and fortified by the spoils dispensed by universities, government, and economics, to capture its real prize: an orientation that makes sense of the world, makes a difference in how one lives, and does justice to all levels of human nature. These “raids” are carried out as true stories related in a novelistic fashion. Their “quality,” aside from the philosophical meaning this term will have for Pirsig, is therefore at the outset personal, participant, embodied in real people – autobiographical, and in a certain sense also, historical. Both books, but especially the second one, contain striking and thoughtful insights into the nature of the modern project, especially in its American incarnation. I want to focus in particular on how these insights help us to understand our society and why it seems to have such difficulty with the affirmation of moral truths.

But first a general comment. Aside from the business craze for “Total Quality Management” which swept America in the 80’s, and then embarked to Japanese corporations – a craze which may or may not have owed something to Pirsig’s discoveries – I see little evidence in the United States that Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality has penetrated into any crevasse of American thinking. His books were immensely popular here, but American literary and professional elites still continue to churn out reams of sociological and “philosophological” (a Pirsig word for something that is not exactly philosophy) commentary that contain the same old eviscerated Cartesian and post-Protestant presumptions which, despite all their varying and even conflicting forms, have basically nothing new to offer. When Americans find themselves in the mood for debate, they can tune in to the same argument that crops up decade after decade: science vs. religion, or evolution vs. creation (or more recently Intelligent Design). The characters retire; the arguments never do.

At least in the UK there are some people who have embraced the Metaphysics of Quality and have established a website of that name. I find this interesting for several reasons. First, England at least up until recently, had a better educational system, and perhaps the English admirers of Pirsig have been beneficiaries of the British classical education. A second reason is a little more depressing: perhaps Americans don’t really believe, deep down, that one of their own could produce work of the highest quality, especially in something like philosophy. The intellect here has not mellowed into the courtesy of intelligence; it is still too raw and full of itself. In America intellect is always proving itself, and because it always has to fight so many demons, real and imagined, it never really has had to renovate itself, challenge itself by going into the roots of thought. The resulting intellectual stagnation leads to a kind of deviousness in our political life. [[1]] Pirsig is simple, honest and direct in his persona, disarming, unaffected, and apparently not in the quest for academic honors, tenure, or having his best selling book made into a movie. And on top of it all -- a motorcycle trip! It’s enough to make an American intellectual sneer – as sadly, many of them have.

The value of metaphysics is that it forces a confrontation with one’s basic beliefs, and therefore, with one’s strategies for deviousness. It seeks to suspend or disrupt that which is purely automatic in us. According to Ortega y Gasset, metaphysics has to do with the sphere of fundamental beliefs. [[2]] He noted that the original word for philosophy, as practiced in the mystery-schools of the Sophists and Presocratics, aletheia, the unveiling or “truth-finding process,” was too unsettling and uncomfortable for people, and in the later classical age Plato and the others came up with a more neutral term, the “love of wisdom.” [3]

Robert Pirsig would find Ortega’s train of thought – going back to the early Sophists and rhetoricians of ancient Greece, very congenial. For he recapitulated the same journey in his quest to overcome what he calls the “Metaphysics of Substance.” This Metaphysics of Substance relates to the primary division, in Western philosophy, between subjects and objects. Only “objects,” that is, things with substantial being, are considered to be objectively real. To Pirsig, it was an artificial dividing line which elevated the rational at the expense of the good. This habit of thinking was detrimental to society, creating chaos in the realm of morals and values. For according to its tenets, those very morals and values lay in the “subjective” side of the equation and therefore culminate solely as expressions of personal preference. [4]

Pirsig’s quest, therefore, led him to make his attack at the very citadel – the subject-object division. More fundamental than a subject which thinks and objects which are thought about is the “Quality” which leads us to postulate the existence of subjects and objects. “…at the cutting edge of time, before an object can be distinguished, there must be a kind of nonintellectual awareness… You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after you’ve seen the tree…” (ZMM, 250) And: “Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place…Since all intellectuality identifiable things must emerge from this preintellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.” (251)

It is true that in his original discovery of Quality (“… the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live,” “Quality is the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible,” etc.) Pirsig wonders if the mystical Tao of Zen is what he means by the metaphysical “Quality,” and says, yes, This was what he meant all along. But the rapprochement with Zen is of short duration. He finds the kinship, but it is almost too great a burden and in some inexplicable way his mind gives way. On the motorcycle trip with Chris, he recalls this sequence of events from his past. His task is to confront Western philosophy, to battle the ghost of Reason. It is not to proclaim the Tao. His is in the deepest sense a Trinitarian quest.[5]

On the surface, ZMM is an account of a motorcycle trip Pirsig took across the Western states with his son Chris, then about 15. Father and son have their good and difficult moments – the father, as we learn, a survivor of shock treatments, having formerly spent some time on the inside of an insane asylum, and the son having premonitory hints of depression and dysfunction. In company with another couple, John and Sylvia, they begin somewhere in Minnesota and end up in Oregon, with a longer stay en route in Bozeman, Montana where the father used to teach.

The philosophy grows slowly through the book in order to get to Montana and its aftermath, the father’s “nervous breakdown” and commitment. There’s a ghost, Phaedrus, who is actually the name of one of Socrates’ interlocutors in the Platonic dialogue of that name. Phaedrus is the father’s former self, the one who taught rhetoric in the Montana college. He once asked his students to write a 350-word essay answering the question: “What is quality in thought and statement?” This was the first, or “nonmetaphysical” phase of his quest, which he says had to do with his teaching and which could be evaluated on its own terms, apart from his later speculations. His sense of what happened in this phase was that while neither he nor his students could define Quality, they still had an ability to recognize it. Quality could not be defined, but we know that it exists, because without it life would be impossible or unrecognizable. One way of getting at it is to say that Quality is the immediate participatory relation with things. His reflections on Quality are very much in agreement with modern theories of perception, e.g. as R.L. Gregory puts it, in Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing (1966; 1971): “… Objects are far more than patterns of stimulation; [they] have pasts and futures; when we know its past or can guess its future, an object transcends experience and becomes an embodiment of knowledge and expectation without which life of even the simplest kind is impossible.” Quality is the immediate experience, our original familiarity which enables our cognition to become re-cognition. [6]

The very definition of “being dull” or “being square” is the “ inability to see quality before it’s been intellectually defined.” Don’t we all know people like this? Everything has to be spelled out for them. “They have eyes but see not; they have ears but hear not,” as the Bible describes idolatry, which is the term that expresses the absence of participatory relation. The square television screen, apart from what it being shown in it, seems to me to epitomize this “squareness” of the modern mind, which seems to have such difficulty in understanding Quality.

Phaedrus’s teaching career comes to an end when he decides to enroll in the University of Chicago in order to pursue a Ph.D. degree. By that time he has figured out where his philosophical sympathies lie. He has mapped out his territory, scouted the encampments, taken cognizance of the fortifications, and identified his friends and his enemies. Those sympathies are not with Plato and Aristotle but with the ancient rhetoricians, the Sophists, as Plato called them. Phaedrus holds that Plato’s hatred of the Sophists was a part of a much larger struggle – “in which the reality of the Good, represented by the Sophists, and the reality of the True, represented by the dialecticians, were engaged in a huge struggle for the future mind of man. Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality, even though there is no more agreement in one area than in the other.” (381)

The argument here becomes very subtle, because there would appear to be a fundamental similarity between Plato’s idea of the Good and Phaedrus’s notion of Quality. Phaedrus acknowledges the significance of the idea of truth, which became the centerpiece in the progressive unfolding of Western science. But a mind grappling with philosophy that it is determined to win anew cannot rest content with platitudes – no matter how true or elevated. Such a mind seeks to become nourished with something akin to a historical imagination. That is to say, it will not merely rest content with what has been gained, but ponder on what might have been lost. What might have been lost in the victory of Plato and Aristotle over the Sophists?

Plato dismissed the Sophists as teachers of “ethical relativism,” but Phaedrus finds this to be a piece of propaganda. The Sophists were concerned with aretê, virtue, or excellence – i.e., “Quality.” Phaedrus finds in the Platonic dialectic – that is, logical argumentation through cross-examination – not a real concern with beauty or wisdom in the sense of understanding, love, or desire to achieve or possess them, but rather a device to install Reason as their usurper—Reason to enthrone itself. “The parvenu, muscling in on all that is Good and seeking to contain it and control it.” Thus Phaedrus

“…began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth – but for this he had exchanged an … understanding of what it is to be part of the world, and not an enemy of it.” (387)

The Great Books program at the University of Chicago was inspired by teachers with an Aristotelian bent, and Pirsig-Phaedrus enters the lists with the intention of doing battle. This is a highly dramatic turn in the book’s closing sections, which I will leave the reader to explore on his own. [7]

In the next section of this paper I want to bring the discussion up to date by discussing how the division of classical metaphysics into subjects/objects plays into our global economic mindset. In particular I will discuss Pirsig’s book, Lila, with the following question in mind: what difference to one’s view of the world if we begin to interpret it in terms of Quality? I hope to show that Pirsig’s terminology of Quality and its ramifications in biology, social theory and the intellectual life provides a real key for understanding many of our present difficulties.

For if it is true, as Pirsig argues, that subject-object metaphysics is an unsatisfactory way of doing metaphysics, its persistence as the dim ground of unconscious values, assumptions and presuppositions must in the end have dire consequences. Pirsig argues that the Metaphysics of Quality can adequately account for subjects and objects. But the converse is not true: a subject-object metaphysics cannot account for Quality. That is, it can accord no compelling abode for values. If everything objective is merely an extension of “substance,” where do values lie? Thus there is the absurdity of trying to assign “values” to some region of the brain, as if their assignment to a real physical location would somehow grant them real existence.

But the subject-object metaphysics has been plagued throughout its history with many interminable debates of this kind: free will vs. determinism, mind vs. matter, causation, the apparent purposeless of the universe, reality vs. appearances, fact vs. values. In a substance-centered view, ethics and morals can have no real presence in the face of the mechanical forces of nature. Thus a purely deterministic outlook comes to occupy the mind. It is one thing when this determinism is purely philosophical. It is another thing altogether when it becomes the ruling value-set of those who wield economic and political power.

This is the thesis of John McMurtry’s 2002 book, Value Wars: The Global Market versus the Life Economy. McMurtry, a Canadian Professor of Philosophy, examines the assumptions of the globalist neoliberal or New World Order doctrine in terms of its “unseen moral syntax.” He writes,

“The profound metaphysical error…occurs when the believer supposes that whatever is not validated by scientific method does not exist. This is a dogma which has penetrated the very grammar of modern thought… [The] implications are not widely recognized; yet, eliminate choice at this a priori level, do so as a given principle of scientific method, generalize its structure of understanding to market demand and state policy formation, and you have the master assumption of the totalitarian value-set – that
no real choice exists…”[8]

McMurtry thus speaks the language of Pirsig when he writes that “Lines of force follow lines of value.” [9]The trajectory from a philosophical activity of severing the world’s reality into objective and subjective components to this “triumphal economic fatalism” is of course a complex history comprising many elements extraneous to pure philosophy. Nevertheless, that an habitual cast of philosophy issues into a “global cosmology of determinism” [10] which is completely at odds with the spirit that traditionally animated Western philosophical activity, is a remarkably forceful illustration of the processes of intellectual inversion and decay. A modern philosophical tradition incapable of apprehending values has been rear-ended, so to speak, by an economic regime which has covertly incorporated a set of values which remain non-discussable and outside the realm of discourse.

But examples of intellectual decay in Western societies are all around us. In Lila Pirsig takes the tool of Quality, develops it further, and uses the insights thus gained to examine the conditions of society. The story ostensibly develops as a boat-trip down the Hudson River, in which the solitary Pirsig-Phaedrus finds himself as the ferryman for Lila, a young and confused woman to whom he is simultaneously attracted and repelled. He is attracted because Lila undoubtedly has “biological Quality.” She’s sexy. He is repelled because she is confused, she doesn’t know who she is, and intellectually, she’s nowhere.

Lila’s particular quality or lack thereof form the backdrop for the continuing clarification in Pirsig’s mind regarding the Metaphysics of Quality. He reaches an important moment, which he confides to the reader with characteristic understatement, that came “after many months of thinking about it.” It is the reward of two terms: dynamic good and static good. “Not subject and object but static and dynamic is the basic division of reality.” Dynamic Quality is the cutting edge, the force in life that leads to betterment. But life cannot exist on pure Dynamic Quality alone: “Without Dynamic Quality the organism cannot grow. Without static quality the organism cannot last. Both are needed.”

This is the germinal idea that leads him to a new understanding of evolution, which is not just a forward movement. Rather, every dynamic advance has to be followed by a stabilizing hold or “static latch.” Unless the dynamic movement forward can be encapsulated by the static latch, the gain will not be permanent, and deterioration or reversion will set in. In the history of life this dynamic-static conversation can be seen in how the static molecule, protein, surrounds and protects the dynamic DNA. All biological and higher forms show this static-dynamic pattern, from semi-permeable cell walls that protect the dynamic interior process of the cell to “bones, shell, hide, fur, burrows, clothes, houses, villages, castles, rituals, symbols, laws, and libraries. All of these prevent evolutionary degeneration.” With this insight he has undercut the materialism from the Darwinian evolutionary idea and freed it to become a usefully (dynamic) concept. Life is the response to Quality, on whatever level of discourse it may be. And human society, too, can be understood in a new and non-reductive way as a taking account of static and dynamic quality.

It seems to me very sad that people in America who are resisting the aggressive (and regressive) influence of Darwinian materialism – a resistance I thoroughly support - seem not to have any acquaintance with Pirsig’s interpretation of the evolutionary scenario. Pirsig’s approach does not derive from religion but it is compatible with it, as indeed it is also compatible with science. To miss such an opportunity for creative development and social rapprochement on this divisive issue in American life seems to me a telling commentary on the fragmented intellectual life of our time and the lack of dialogue among different segments of society. Pirsig’s views would be dismissed by scientists and anti-Darwinians alike, though for different reasons. The causes for such stiff-necked incuriosity and willful intellectual isolation can be found, but they are ultimately not very interesting. What is interesting is when people begin to demand Quality in thinking, i.e., when they have grown tired of an endless debate framed in trivializing and demeaning terms, and seek to transcend it by acquiring a new and more generous framework for understanding it. [11]

By this point Pirsig’s reflections have brought him to a four-fold division of Quality, namely, inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual. These four levels refer to the following domains:

Inorganic: laws of nature, expressing the conquest of inorganic patterns over chaos

Biological: Biology over the inorganic, “law of the jungle,” power, lust, sex, etc.

Social: Social patterns over biology; law; manners; civilizing customs, restraints, catechisms, arts, etc.

Intellectual: Response to Quality as desire for truth, love of liberty in the realm of thought and opinion, creative expression and inspiration


What is new in his thinking, he says, is that he sees these four levels as discrete and non-continuous. Inorganic value patterns (matter or substance) underlie all the others. But the biological, social and intellectual patterns, while dependent upon the inorganic substrate, have rules and patterns of their own that are not derivable from the inorganic pattern. To the degree that “matter” obeys inorganic patterns and “mind” follows intellectual ones, the old mind vs. matter duality is correct. But what is missing in that paradigm is the intervening levels, the biological and the social. Ideas are not generated from inorganic patterns. They arise out of society, which has arisen out of biology. And as Pirsig remarks, “The intellectual level of patterns, in the historic process of freeing itself from its parent social level, namely the church, has tended to invent a myth of independence from the social level for its own benefit. Science and reason, this myth goes, come only from the objective world, never from the social world. The world of object imposes itself upon the mind with no social mediation whatsoever…But a close examination shows it isn’t so.” [12]

Pirsig argues that the main feature of life in the 20th century is the attempt by intellect to dominate society. Insofar as this intellectual dominancy is a response to Quality he favors it. But his valuation is nuanced because of his deepening sense for the importance of static quality. “This has been a century of fantastic intellectual growth and fantastic social destruction,” he comments.[13] The causes of this fantastic social destruction are not hard to find. Modern intellectuals have preponderantly upheld the values of biology at the expense of the social. The intellectual pattern of amoral objectivity “… is to blame for the social deterioration of America, because it has undermined the static social values necessary to prevent deterioration. In its condemnation of social repression as the enemy of liberty, it has never come forth with a single moral principle that distinguishes a Galileo fighting social repression from a common criminal fighting social repression. It has, as a result, been the champion of both. That’s the root of the problem.” [14]

Pirsig believes that the Victorian era was the last period in which intellectual values had been subordinated to social values. A Minnesota native, of German descent, Pirsig grew up in the era of declining Victorian social values, that is, the period in which the white Protestant ascendancy was on the wane. The First World War signified the collapse of Victorian social values. The election of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency of the United States marked the shift from social domination of intellect to the intellectual domination of society. “Before Wilson’s time… intelligence and knowledge were considered a high manifestation of social achievement, but intellectuals were not expected to run society itself… They were expected to decorate the social parade, not lead it.” [15] The domination of intellect over society came to a further stage with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The New Deal was billed as a program for working people, farmers, and laborers, but it was really a new deal for the intellectuals. “Suddenly, before the old Victorians’ eyes, a whole new social caste, a caste of intellectual Brahmins, was being created above their own military and economic castes.”

I can attest to some of these feelings of resentment and bewilderment. My grandfather, Forney Johnston, an attorney, was a vehement opponent of the New Deal, and fought it all the way to the Supreme Court. On the other side of the fence in those days – Birmingham, Alabama in the fifties and sixties – I recall the glowing attitudes toward Roosevelt by some of those ex-New Dealers who had become racial liberals and integrationists. For them, being in Roosevelt’s Washington was like the early Wordsworth’s paean to the French Revolution – “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Wordsworth, I think, repented. But the New Dealers never did.

Pirsig, still on the track of the Metaphysics of Quality, begins to see how the tools of the intellectuals – cultural relativism, objectivity, value-free science, etc., became “a ferocious instrument for the dominance of intellect over society.” Thus:

“From the perspective of a subject-object science, the world is a completely purposeless, valueless place. There is no point in anything. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Everything just functions, like machinery. There is nothing wrong with being lazy, nothing morally wrong with lying, with theft, with suicide, with murder, with genocide. There is nothing morally wrong because there are no morals, just functions.

“Now that the intellect was in command of society for the first time in history, was this the intellectual pattern it was going to run society with?” [16]

Finally, of particular interest to me and my coming-of-age, I appreciated Pirsig’s comment that the Hippie movement was the real moral movement and that the present period (he was writing in the 1990’s) represents the real collapse of values. For it was that decade that saw the rise of neoconservatism, that toxic mix of decayed social value combined with biological value -- pseudo-Victorianism combined with the glorification of force. The Hippies, said Pirsig, having rejected both social and intellectual patterns, were “left [with] just two directions to go: towards biological quality and towards Dynamic Quality.” This statement very accurately summarizes my feelings and apprehensions of this period, which of course at the time, were not altogether conscious. But, he continues, “The revolutionaries of the sixties thought that since both are antisocial, and since both are anti-intellectual, … then they must both be the same thing. That was the mistake.” [17]

A big mistake, and it was a mistake of such magnitude that American society has never recovered and in fact is still dealing with the consequences of its refusal to face it. The direction I took, somehow nebulously on behalf of Dynamic Quality, were framed more in the sense of a rejection of the Hippies and embrace of conservatism. And yet I found myself often irritated by conservative put-downs of the Hippies.[18] The kind of Hippie I meant wasn’t a tenured radical, nor was it someone who became mired in the mud of Woodstock. The Hippie movement for me was folk music, community, social values, spiritualizing the intellect, being a good mom, living with less, and not worshipping the Mammonite god which was hollowing out America and turning it into a gigantic shopping mall. That kind of Hippie was in search of Dynamic Quality, and I was delighted to find in Robert Pirsig – the hippie motorcyclist with a passion for Quality in thinking – the very understanding of just what it was I felt back in those days.



[1] See in this regard Michael Kinsley’s essay, “Election Day,” (New York Times, Nov. 5, 2006) – “In my view, the worst form of cheating in American democracy today is intellectual dishonesty. The conversation… is dominated by disingenuousness. Candidates and partisan commentators strike poses of outrage that they don’t really feel, take positions that they would not take if the shoe was on the other foot…, feel no obligation toward logical consistency… When we vote after a modern political campaign run by expensive professionals, we have almost no idea what the victor really believes or what he or she might do in office…”
[2] e.g. “Only the individual who is in a position to question things with precision and urgency – whether they definitely exist or not – is able to experience genuine belief and disbelief.” The Origin of Philosophy, p. 25. Also his: “To realize or be aware of something without counting on it is the most characteristic form of an idea; to count on something without realizing it, is the most characteristic form of a belief.” From his Historical Reason, p. 21. Along these lines, the American philosopher C.S. Pierce daringly challenged the notion of the autonomy of reason when he remarked, in his essay, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” that “… the production of belief is the sole function of thought.”
[3] This word aletheia, the unveiling, was later translated into an “orientalized” version of the word for the last book of the Bible – Apocalypse.
[4] Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is compelling treatise that shows how moral incoherence arises from the subject-object metaphysics. He argues for a return to Aristotelian teleology but he does not address the fundamental incoherence of modern metaphysical assumptions.
[5] Pirsig is not of a religious disposition, but neither is he opposed to religion. In discovering Quality, he says, he was following a path that, to his knowledge, had never been taken before in Western thought – a path that “went straight between the horns of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and [that] said Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two. “ (240) When he has this realization, “He was heard along the corridors and up and down the stairs of Montana Hall singing softly to himself, almost under his breath, ‘Holy, holy, holy… blessed Trinity.’” Because Quality is the generator of the mythos, the primary perceptual response to the world, “Religion isn’t invented by man. Men are invented by religion. Men invented responses to Quality, and among these responses is an understanding of what they themselves are.” .
[6] The passage begins: “The seeing of objects involves many sources of information beyond those meeting the eye… It generally involves knowledge of the object derived from previous experience, and this experience is not limited to vision but may include the other senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing and perhaps also temperature and pain.” Interestingly, one of Pirsig’s examples for an immediate experience of Quality would be “sitting on a hot stove,” i.e. “temperature and pain.” Concerning the strict Cartesian breach between subjects and objects, John Lukacs quotes a Professor Ogg who said of Descartes, that "“.. he insisted on eliminating the mental processes which can be linked with bodily functions, such as imagination and memory. Childhood he regarded as merely a period of error…” Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, (1968) p. 237.
[7] In Lila Pirsig recounts the story of his meeting with Robert Redford, an admirer of ZMM, who was visiting on behalf of a Hollywood interest in doing the book as a movie. Redford had the idea of beginning the movie in one of these classroom encounters where Phaedrus aims the fatal rhetorical blow at the professor – “[who] has never confronted a living Sophist. Only dead ones.” Pirsig appreciated Redford’s interest but declined to sell the rights to Hollywood.
[8] Value Wars, 102-3.
[9] E.g., “The Metaphysics of Quality says that if moral judgments are essentially assertions of value and if value is the fundamental ground-stuff of the world, then moral judgments are the fundamental ground-stuff of the world.” Lila, 180.
[10] As an example of deterministic thinking, McMurtry quotes former Prime Minister Tony Blair: “These forces of change driving the future don’t stop at national boundaries. Don’t respect tradition. They wait for no one and no nation. They are universal.” Remarks of Tony Blair at National Labour Convention, 1999.
[11] “That’s the mark of a high-quality theory. It doesn’t just answer the question in some complex round-about way. It dissolves the question, so you wonder why you ever asked it.” Lila, p. 186.
[12] The disdain in conservative circles for Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which argued for the important role of social mediating patterns in the formation of scientific theories, was palpable. According to James Franklin, writing in the New Criterion in 2000, “… the worst effect of Kuhn … has been the frivolous discarding of the way things are as a constraint on the theory about the way things are.” Granted, the liberal cultural theorists had already managed to trash Kuhn’s message and turn it into a tract for historical relativism. But the conservatives could have scolded Kuhn’s followers as an unfortunate phenomenon without also engaging in their own form of trashing the book. Kuhn's book was an important marker of how a deepening historical consciousness was beginning to penetrate to the field of science.
[13] Lila, 190.
[14] Lila, p. 351. Pirsig’s example of Galileo is singularly inapt – pace Robert Sungenis, Arthur Koestler, and others who have examined the truth of the Galileo affair – nevertheless his point is well taken. Cf. also: “… when the intellectuals in control of society take biology’s side against society then society is caught in a cross fire from which it has no protection.” The late Norman Mailer is a case in point. See Roger Kimball’s essay, “Norman Mailer, A Dissenting View, on “Roger’s Rules” website (Nov. 10, 2007): “ Many critics believe that The Executioner’s Song (1979) is Mailer’s best book. Subtitled A True Life Novel, it tells the In Cold Blood-type story of the arrest and execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore, a psychopathic killer who spent most of his thirty-odd years in jail. Written in a clipped, unembellished style, the book contains some of Mailer’s most urgent and compelling prose. Considered as a moral document, however, The Executioner’s Song is profoundly repulsive. For Mailer does not simply delve into and display the humanity of the tortured killer he wrote about: He offers him up as a kind of hero, a courageous “outsider” who deserves our sympathy as a Victim of Society and our respect as an implacable rebel…” The whole review is worth reading as Kimball correctly diagnoses the war of intellectuals against social Quality or values – Pirsig’s exact point.
[15] Lila, p. 309.
[16] Lila, p. 317.
[17] Lila, p. 348.
[18] E.g. Midge Decter’s snide comment that the Hippies were children who “refused to be tested.”

28 comments:

Tom Blair said...

Caryl - how nice to know someone else who enjoyed this book.
I read it in the summer of 1971 - between my junior and senior years at Penn.

2 observations)

1) The word "quality" as Pirsig (and you) use it implies an absolute standard - apart from the oberver. It is a value judgement.

2) There are 2 definitions of quality - apparently independent. There is quality (as you intend it) - e.g. goodness, And there is quality meaning "attribute of." It is the first definition that Pirsig deals with.

..tom

psybertron said...

Hi Caryl, just added you to my blogroll. A promising looking blog.

http://www.psybertron.org/?p=1488

Pirsigian Quality is a major theme of my blog since 2001. In some sense it's the whole theme, but it's not organised so that explicit Pirsigian references are apparent other than through searching and browsing.

My equivalent of your introductory essay, is a very naive paper I did for the Liverpool conference in 2005.

Paper here.
http://robertpirsig.org/Glendinning.htm
My Pirsig Pages here
http://www.psybertron.org/pirsigpages.html
Blog here
http://www.psybertron.org/

Regards, Ian

seev said...

Thank you for your excellent introduction to Pirsig's philosophy. I've been working hard the last couple days trying to understand it. Maybe I should read ZMM and Lila before commenting, but I did read Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality by McWatt, and Cruising Blues and Subjects, Objects, Data and Values by Pirsig online, plus some other online things on MOQ. I think I'm beginning to get the idea of his philosophy.

It does bother me that in your quotes from Lila, Pirsig seems to characterize the New Deal as "a caste of intellectual Brahmins" and "a ferocious instrument for the dominance of intellect over society." Why could not the New Deal be looked upon as a static implementation of "Dynamic Quality"? After all, it introduced a totally new way of helping society. And I'm still being helped by Social Security as are millions of other Americans. I suppose he would consider the European welfare states ferocious instruments? Ok, maybe I'm reading more into it than is there.

Caryl said...

Hi Seev,
Thanks for your kind and encouraging comment. It's interesting, a friend of mine also picked up on the negative attitude toward the New Deal. Whatever the problems of that era may have been, what we have now (complete abdication of social responsibility on the part of the State) is much worse. I think that what Pirsig was trying to get at was the insufficient understanding of social value or Quality on the part of intellectual elites, an attitude which played into "statist" solutions. In any case, his important point was that modern intellectuals have not supported social values out of a misreading of the intellectual value of autonomy. This still seems to be the case today. Combine that with statist bureaucracy and you get a real mess! This is apparently what we have today - with the positive and beneficial aspects of the New Deal completely thrown overboard.
You have raised an interesting question about the European welfare state model. I think Pirsig might reply that there has been historically a greater sense for social quality in Europe, which has been better able to withstand the depredations of a financialist elite with no stake in the well-being of society. See my post of today (12/22) Best regards,CJ

seev said...

Thanks, CJ, for your thoughtful comment on my comment. It's certainly true that in FDR's time there may have been a danger of "statism" taking hold, but perhaps the presence of vigorous opponents like your grandfather prevented this, although there are also those who say that FDR saved the country from a communist revolution. I certainly agree with you that today in America the positive aspects of the New Deal have been under attack for last three decades. Anti-tax has been the mantra for some time, and as you say, the financialist elite are in danger of taking over here, and may already have. How would Pirsig handle this?

Caryl said...

Hi Seev, Thanks again for replying. I think the anti-tax movement is part of our major fault as a society, that is, the refusal to recognize and sustain a good quality social order. We seem to think that the values of civilization will just take care of themselves. Pirsig's analysis of static social quality and how important it really is, is a major tool to get our thinking moving in a better direction and prodding us our of complacency in this regard.

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Matt K said...

I'd cede you your politics (though I'd even disagree with Seev's concession about statism: I don't think there was ever a time in US history that there was a real possibility, unless you count the almost-coup of FDR that W Bush's grandpa, Prescott Bush, was involved in): they are more complex than mine to understand easily, though we certainly look at the world a bit differently (I'm as typical a non-Marxist, reformist leftist as they come).

But I think your attitude to MacIntyre in fn4 is a little short: "he does not address the fundamental incoherence of modern metaphysical assumptions." This strikes me as pretty much only true if one first grants that Pirsig is pretty much the only philosopher to have found the fundamental incoherence of modern metaphysical assumptions. As far as I can tell, MacIntyre is addressing almost exactly the same set of phenomena, though his route through and end points are different. In fact, it's difficult not to feel that MacIntyre may have undercut Pirsig's program, because MacIntyre points at the dissolution of the community in modern society, whereas the tenor of Pirsig's writings is still the typical, Emersonian individualism that I think MacIntyre would count as a function of the Enlightenment project, and so emotivism.

At the very least, I don't think one can so easily dismiss MacIntyre's deep penetration into the metaphysical assumptions of modern philosophy (or culture), even if what is discerned as the major root cause is a little different. What would be fruitful is a rapprochement between the two.

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psybertron said...

Hi CJ,
I know you've moved on from this blog, but all the comments since 2010 (except Matt's) are fake / spam. You should probably clean them out and switch commenting off, if you want to preserve the original content.

Regards
Ian

nonzero said...

>"Aside from the business craze for “Total Quality Management” which swept America in the 80’s, and then embarked to Japanese corporations – a craze which may or may not have owed something to Pirsig’s discoveries"

TQM started in Japan and was imported into the US, not the other way around. And TQM doesn't bear much similarities to Pirsig's Quality, it has more to do with efficiency.

> "This is the germinal idea that leads him to a new understanding of evolution, which is not just a forward movement. Rather, every dynamic advance has to be followed by a stabilizing hold or “static latch.”

This is the foundational idea of the non-academic philosophical works of Ken Wilber's Integral movement. It also underpins the more recent 'Evo-Devo Universe' ideas of John Smart et al. Not to mention Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, or modern biologists like Simon Morris Conway (though I take issue with their religiosity).

As for my explanation for why the subject/object dichotomy has persisted and morphed into the dominant 'greedy reductionist' objective worldview, I give at least three major reasons:

1.) Formalization/Mathematization gives the illusion of epistemological certainty, but in the process omits the parts of the world that cannot be formalized (at least not yet). This led to the dominance of analytical philosophy and logical positivism, which pervades almost all of modern intellectual thinking. Read Nassim Taleb for his recent criticism sof this error of modernity.

2.) Abandoning teleology completely instead of updating it into teleonomy. Francis Bacon removed formal and final causes from our epistemological repertoire, the Enlightenment thinkers codified this error, and Darwin solidified it. This led to the moral relativism (implicit or explicit) that dominates modern intellectual thinking. Complexity science has much to offer us in reintroducing these causes, but progress is slow and met with hostility.

3.) Subjective experiences, or in the terminology of the philosophy of mind, 'qualia', have not been amenable to scientific methodologies. This has led to the outright dismissal of such a thing and the rise of the dominant eliminative materialism of scientists and philosophers who research neuroscience and consciousness (Daniel Dennett et al). This has also dominated most of social science until very recently, as the hyperrational model of homo economicus has been the axiom for which most thinking is based on. I think we can trace this back to Alan Turing and his Turing Test, and Von Neumann's game theory. Recent economic failures which have led to behavioral economics and more psychologically accurate social science is a step in the right direction, Reintroducing qualia on scientific grounds is very hard, but I believe it would pave the way for revolutionary advances in cognitive science as well as cosmology (to make a bold prediction).