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.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Thinking and Response

May 21, 2010, Friday: An insight on the train.
I was heading towards Center City Philadelphia and all of a sudden I had this thought, which I wrote down in the notebook I had with me, as follows:
"Thinking - of course - is response, responsiveness - and the philosophy of the West since Descartes is just a smokescreen.
Hence the moral act inherent in thinking -
Thinking - the spiritual organ of hearing"
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Not much, you say? Yes, not much. But I understood the little that it was in a new way. It seemed to crystallize something for me.
What is response? It is the inner or internal counterpart to what Robert Pirsig was exploring - that is, Quality. Response is our gesture to the "Quality" to the "Quality" in the world.
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The terrible error of Western philosophy -- was to make thinking cognitive. To really see this - get a glimpse of it - is to begin to have a dim understanding of the magnitude of the error under whose dominion we have placed ourselves... hence our political servitude, our moral incoherence, our slavery to appetite, to words, to appearances..........
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Indeed, it seems that the "progress" of Western thought increasingly led away from the concept of responsibility toward more and more thickets of intellectual abstraction. Is it any wonder that our cosmologists have followed in the same track? Western man lost the key to his own mind when he threw our honor and conscience -- those two qualities, according to Nikolai Levashov, which dispense with the need for "beliefs."
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There is probably a line of relation from "responsibility" to "participation" and back again. That is to say, that Owen Barfield wrote about "participation" in Saving the Appearances, tracing the idea from its classical form to its modern deterioration and diminishment and one may say, "derangement." But has there been any similar treatment of the concept of responsibility, philosophically speaking? The concept of Responsibility seems to have dropped off the precipice of theology, only to re-emerge shakily from the abyss in the form of war crimes trials and the like. Such books as The Nuremberg Fallacy (Eugene Davidson) are a monument to the lost or squandered possibilities of Western thought with respect to the issue of responsibility.
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I suspect that real understandings come slowly and in few words, after all.

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I hope -- to be continued.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Few Words on The Last Word

In The Last Word (Oxford, 1997) Thomas Nagel defends the objective principles of reason against the idea that "the first person, singular or plural, is hiding at the bottom of everything we say or think." This question touches upon issues raised by Matt concerning foundationalism. I don’t think it’s possible to say, as he does, that "Modern foundationalism is the same as ancient foundationalism," for the reason that ancient philosophy was grounded in solid realism and modern philosophy has ever since Descartes begun with the idealist premise, namely that the real is what is in our minds. The whole tenor or climate of thought is different, although philosophers may have in both cases wanted to ward off skepticism and relativism.

I am not going to spend time recapitulating Nagel’s argument in any detail, for I am already inclined to a certain kind of rationalist tenet, in the sense in which Chesterton defined the realism of Thomas Aquinas: if we do not affirm that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real, we may as well give up, for there can be nothing more to say. He says, "… the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is truly a marriage, because it is fruitful… [and] produced practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact."

We all know that this bracing realism did not survive the succeeding centuries intact, to the extent that some four centuries later it came about that Descartes sought to receive assurance of his own being from his thought. Well, we are placed another four centuries distant from Descartes, and what do we have to show for it? In our time it is thought itself that seems to be tottering about in the ruins of cultural relativism, subjectivism, skepticism, and numerous other ills. Thomas Nagel, in summarizing this landscape of philosophical ruins, basically returns us to the lap of Descartes. He says that there is this about fundamental reason: we cannot get outside of it. Thus he returns to the first, primordial, mysterious and irreducible interiority of our thought. That a modern philosopher recognizes interiority as a principle surely is a sign that serious thought has gotten sick of philosophical promiscuity. For thinking is promiscuous if it does not take account of itself, and it cannot take account of itself unless it accepts itself. I count this as a solid gain.

Yet I am of two minds. The first and most important thing to say is that Nagel’s contention is a grand advance, a true progress, a landmark. But the second, and less important thing to say, is that we should have known that this interiority of thought was already the true significance of Descartes. It was not his geometry, his res cogitans and res extensa, his beneficient God, the support of his being, the tool of science, the subject-object division. None of those things was as important as the sheer act of asserting what he did about the act of thinking. But it took us four hundred years, and now Thomas Nagel, just to point this out. So we made a wide circle with many detours and dead ends only to return to the cogito at last. To have suffered so much and to be dragged along by the tail of so many false hopes only to regain what we should have already realized – this seems to me a sad comment about our real state of affairs. One can only call it a persistent stagnation of modern thought. There is something in Nagel’s return to Descartes that hints of resignation rather than of creative renewal.

It was Descartes’ misfortune – and ours – that the assurance he received from the interiority of his thought did not extend in equal measure to the rest of the world. There was this problem of how disembodied thought connected to embodied reality, as one of his more astute critics, the Princess of Bohemia, put it. So we embarked on a long train of subject-object problems such as Pirsig has written of. The latest edition of this problem concerns how a being, such as ourselves, a product of natural history, can possess capacity for objective thought which penetrates to the true nature of the world. Evolution, in other words, does not explain reason, and it is refreshing of Thomas Nagel to admit as much. For obviously, we must employ reason in discussing evolution (or anything else). With a certain timid hesitation Nagel offers the thought that, despite the fact that we seem to be here as the result of a long sequence of physical and biological accidents, nevertheless, "the basic methods of reasoning we employ are not merely human but belong to a more general category of mind." Like a creature emerging from a cave, blinking in the light, Nagel proffers this startling idea - which is actually quite important if not overwhelming! But he soon scurries back into the darkness because this thought, if taken seriously, might lead to the Land of Anathema… the land at whose borders loom Intelligent Design.

So I would say that Thomas Nagel wants reason without taking account of the fundamental faith of man, which is, that our reason is capable of understanding things about the world because intelligence is embedded in the world. This fundamental faith is greeted by the bien-pensants of modernism with something approaching violent horror, as if those who espoused it were afflicted with a leprous contagion. Nagel is at pains to clarify that he is not that sort of person. He is indeed a very nice kind of non-believer. He says, "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that."

I have thought quite a bit about those last two words, "like that," which arouse all sort of associations all the more sinister for not being explicitly tabulated. Descartes’ "beneficient God" has been turned on his ear after all!

Or perhaps not – for Descartes "beneficient God" was an abstract beneficence just as Nagel’s "like that" is vague, an abstractly malignant presence. The result is that the problem with Nagel’s rationalism is the same problem that Descartes had with his rationalism. Both of them want interiority without intimacy. And when I use the term "intimacy" I do not mean merely physical or emotional closeness. I mean by this term a sense of intellectual coherence, of a destiny that wears an outward face in things and an inward dimension in thought, and that our human thinking, when sufficiently developed, can penetrate to this level of … "Quality."

Let me attempt to spell out what I am saying. First of all, "intimacy" in the sense in which I use it means that there can be Quality. For there can be no Quality in a world haphazardly arranged, whose objects and bodies, and thoughts corresponding to these entities, are mere aggregates of bodies at a simpler level of organization. If haphazard aggregation did characterize the essential nature of things, then pragmatic considerations of mere utility or Matt’s "ad hoc" arrangements would be entirely appropriate.

It is for this reason that I do not see Pirsig’s Quality metaphysics as pragmatist in any sense. Or rather, the only pragmatist element I see in the Metaphysics of Quality is Pirsig’s desire and intention to get to real life – to get to "the stuffy, hot-ground floor of life as soon as possible" as Matt poetically puts it. But the actual tool of thought which the concept of Quality provides is miles away from pragmatism. The problem Pirsig had was there was no rationalist framework in which his magisterial tool could make sense and unfold. For, if you say that Quality presupposes an intelligence in the world in which human reason can share and participate, because this intelligence partakes of a deep structure common to both the world and to human minds, where’s the dynamic element in reason itself? It is at this point that Owen Barfield’s insights bring considerable assistance, for Barfield speaks of an evolution of reason, or rather of an evolution of consciousness. This concept is the missing key, for it enables us to attach the concepts of Static and Dynamic Quality to reason itself.

I urge Matt to read Barfield’s Saving the Appearances for further elucidation of this point – and I will be particularly interested in whatever responses to it he cares to make.

Finally, let me note that the Cartesian cogito was a sort of new Genesis for modernity. The last time something like that (to use Nagel’s phrase!) occurred was in the Garden of Eden. Recall, dear Reader, that it was Woman, Eve, who was hidden in Adam’s "within-ness" – and that the making explicit of what was inward and interior began the world we know today . . . for good or for ill – for history. But what is hidden in the within-ness or interiority of reason today?

Thomas Nagel doesn’t want to go there. It’s an odd modern twist on the fear of God – not the fear of God but the fear that there might be a God. Nagel has shown a rare candor in stating it. It’s the deepest place of all rationalism, the foundational point of irreducible intimacy of intellect and world. And at that threshold a man chooses fear… or love.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Response to M. Kundert - Round II

Response to Matt Kundert's "Philosophical Antiauthoritarianism: A Reply to Johnston" Posted Thursday, December 27, 2007, on his website.

Thanks to Matt for his thoughtful reply to my response which, as he is probably right, left a lot to be explicated. It is very challenging to discuss these things in detail and try to articulate just where one’s differences, and agreements, lie. Philosophy at its best is a conversation, I think – a good or a best that somehow got pulled into something we call rational argumentation or dialectic. Or as Matt might say, a professionalization of the conversation. This is the way things are ; nothing I or anyone can do can change this fact. But perhaps just by engaging in it we can remind the professionals of their purpose, which is not to lose sight of the conversation in the argument – that is, conversation affords us the possibility of knowing one another as subjects, and secondly, of getting out of our own heads and maybe even of learning something.

I would agree with Matt that Pirsig is not free of subject-object metaphysics. Nor do I think that Pirsig claimed to be altogether free of it. What is significant in Pirsig is that he provides indications for a route to take outside of the particular cul-de-sac which SOM has led to in post-Enlightenment philosophy. And that particular cul-de-sac is not so much the subject-object distinction in itself (which is an ancient distinction going back to the earliest beginnings of human thought and which may indeed be an inescapable feature of any form of thought) as it is the particular twist it has taken through Cartesian and modern philosophy. For alongside the fundamental "thoughts and things" dualism of the world there arose through Cartesianism a sort of bifurcation. Wolfgang Smith describes it thus:

"One generally perceives this Cartesian dichotomy as nothing more than the mind/body duality, forgetting that Descartes has not only distinguished between matter and mind, but has, at the same time, imposed a very peculiar and indeed problematic conception of the former element. He supposes, namely, that a res extensa is bereft of all sensible qualities, which obviously implies that it is imperceptible. The red apple which we do perceive must consequently be relegated to res cogitans; it has become a private phantasm, a mental as distinguishable from a real entity. This postulate, moreover, demands another: one is now forced – on pain of radical subjectivism – to assume that the red apple, which is unreal, is causally related to a real apple, which however is not perceptible. What from a pre-Cartesian point of view was one object has now become two; as Whitehead puts it: ‘One is the conjecture, and the other is the dream.’" [1]

Now the important thing to remember is that both pragmatism and traditional philosophy or metaphysics (sophia perennis) deny this bifurcationism. The Metaphysics of Quality also denies it by asserting the primacy and reality of the immediate participated experience with the object. To that extent, pragmatism, the Metaphysics of Quality, and traditional metaphysics as represented, say, by St. Thomas Aquinas, all agree.

The paths begin to diverge only after this initial meeting at the road of thought with its object or content. These differences begin to appear in the notions about truth, authority, and the good which characterize the respective philosophies. St. Thomas Aquinas recognizes a sphere of revelation which is protected from the corrosive powers of reason, safeguards the good and makes possible therefore the exercise of legitimate authority. Pragmatism does not recognize such a sphere and instead identifies the good with expediency, offering the criterion of usefulness or utility as test of the true. The particular problem that arises with this viewpoint is that it seems not to be able to make distinctions of value between differing claims of expediency. Even though "expediency" may for James represent a wide range of options, from religious faith to empirical verification, it nevertheless lacks within itself an inner or principled position whereby one may make judgements of value.

James’ biographer notes that James had a certain dislike of principles, which he tended to see as a part of the classical or ossified metaphysics that he was opposing. Yet he recounts several occasions in which James did make a principled objection. James objected to the war in the Phillippines as an instance of imperialism and he objected to the way Americans treated the English-born labor organizer, William McQueen. The biographer notes – "Writing with unusual emphasis in an uncharacteristic defense of general principles, James [wrote] ‘Exactly that callousness to abstract justice is the sinister feature… of our U.S. civilization."

Beyond noting that philosophy has a whiplash and that James apparently didn’t like these demonstration of practical pragmatism, one has to say that there seems to be little in James’s actual philosophy beyond personal liking and disliking that would lead to such condemnations. The historian John Lukacs once commented that it is a perennial American weakness to mistake habits for principles. I think pragmatism, despite its many congenial aspects, was a major engine that got this tendency set and going. Pragmatism has not been able to arrest America’s deadly march into imperialism and insouciant disregard for the structures of international law. A decent respect for the opinions of mankind may indeed involve a philosophy that takes account of principles more than pragmatism has been able to do. The criterion of action or utility is simply inadequate as a philosophy of society.

It is for these reasons that I argue that Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality – though it professes a certain bond with pragmatism in its congenial aspects – nevertheless represents a sharp move out of what we could call this "American dilemma," which could be called an innate distaste for the concept of authority or sphere of principles.

The Metaphysics of Quality enables discernment according to differing levels of value. That is, it enables the enunciation of standards. It is not a complete philosophy. It is only the beginning of one, and I think it is much needed as an indispensable tool to work our way out of the collapse of standards so apparent today in every field. For we Americans have unfortunately confused the collapse of standards with freedom. But such a confusion only leads to – re-barbarization... which is the end of all philosophy.

[1] From his essay, "Sophia Perennis and Modern Science, in The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology, Foundation for Traditional Studies, 2003, p. 22.
[2] The rest of the quote: "Instead of expressing outrage at illegal or unconstitutional behavior by the authorities, the ordinary citizen, James says bitterly, ‘begins to pooh-pooh and minimize and tone down the thing, and breed excuses from his general fund of optimism and respect for expediency.’ Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, p. 483.
[3] Principles: that which refers to the beginning, in principio, or origins; as ‘authority’ refers to the author or point of origination of something.
[4] Ortega y Gasset thought very highly of William James. Yet compare his "Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made," from The Revolt of the Masses.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bad Dreams


Note: This essay comments on William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, by Robert D. Richardson (Boston, 2006) from the perspective of Robert M. Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. [1] I have argued in the Initial Essay and in other posts on this site that I don’t think that the Metaphysics of Quality is a continuation or revival in any sense of James’s radical empiricism or pragmatism and that I think it is a mistake to see it in that light. It is true that both James and Pirsig see the subject-object division as an obstacle, discount it, and do not regard it as fundamental. The difference between James and Pirsig is that in Pirsig’s philosophy the subject-object division is in the rear-view mirror while in James’s philosophy it looms ahead in the glare of headlights announcing the collision with Pure Experience which is just about to take place. The subject-object issue occupies a different position in these respective philosophies because of their different relationship to Modernism and modernist premises. The Metaphysics of Quality values the coherent ordering of experience and may be seen as an important step on the way to this achievement. It is truly post-modernist in this sense, if we see Modernism as the attempt to break down and loosen constraining forms.

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I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. – Hamlet

Character is destiny. Heraclitus


The study of biography is a particular branch of the Metaphysics of Quality. If Quality, as Pirsig says, is the original experience which gives rise to subject and object, we may have a Quality feeling for biography when we see it as the total expression of the thoughts and circumstances of the individual. Sometimes we are able to discern in the events in someone’s life a kind of mirroring of that individual’s inner life of thought, a particular “fittingness” that Keats meant when he said the life of any man of worth is an allegory.

One of the incidents in the life of William James as recounted by his biographer expresses quite clearly this “allegorical” mirroring of thought and event. At least I believe that seeing it this way is warranted from the point of view of the Metaphysics of Quality. To read events in this way is to see them not as mere “happenstance” but more along the lines of traditionalist considerations of character as destiny, as Heraclitus put it. However, this view of happenstance or circumstance challenges the “psychologizing” of experience typical of subject-object metaphysics. Psychologized or subjectivized experience does not really take account of the domain of Quality. It does not see how thought has a structuring or formative influence on individual and social life, and in this sense it denies the objectivity of thought and how thought forms our circumstantial world. [2] Or on the other hand it can objectify too much and fail to see how thoughts are a result of our freedom to choose and how choice plays into the kinds of thoughts we have. Or it may yet take still another tack and exaggerate the factor of will, as if to reduce thought to willpower alone and thus return to Biological Quality (or less flatteringly, re-barbarization).

The point is that there are as many ways of doing philosophy as there are of interpreting the relation between thought and life – and all of them have all been tried! But basically any extreme polarization of thought-will vs. thing-event or subject-object makes it difficult to see why we should think at all, for the extremes are linked only in an external way, i.e. through control or helplessness. “Power over nature” has historically been a strong theme in the development of subject-object metaphysics. The opposite of this view is determinism. But neither of these alternatives expresses a possibility for thinking as Quality. Things happen to us without our control. That is the meaning of circumstances. Yet there must be an intrinsic relation between thought and life which enables us to perceive Quality. Do we think, or do we only think that we think? Events deliver a punch that no amount of rationalization can accomplish. Events reveal our thinking to us. The action in philosophy is not what philosophy does, it is what life does to us through our philosophy. I believe something like this unambiguous message from events came about in the life of William James.

The last ten years in the life of William James were a fruitful and fulfilling period, bringing many of his ideas into public recognition and appreciation. He gave his first set of Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1901, at age 59, to much acclaim. These lectures were to form The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’ most popular book and the one about which, he said, he received more letters than all of his other works combined. There must have been something congenial in that late-Edwardian crest of civilized life with James’ favorable (if, as it seems to me at times, superficial) attitude toward religion, conversion, mysticism, healthy-mindedness. It was all very wonderful to hear that religion, after all, was basically a good thing when you get down to it.

I do not really mean to make light of James. For at the very high tide of philosophical materialism here was a most thoughtful and energetic American speaking to the late heirs of the Enlightenment about the mother-lode of mysticism in the soul as the fountainhead of religious experience. Although James might have benefited from a discourse on Dynamic and Static Quality – he didn’t have much use for static-quality manifestations like dogmatic theology and ecclesiastical institutions – still, it was a new opening on something that, for many modernists, is often a sore subject. The capstone of these lectures were the five lectures on saintliness, in which James put forth his view of the significance of Voluntary Poverty.

His biographer writes: “Nothing in William James’ life that we know about prepares us for this emphasis on voluntary poverty. Yet his language, his insistence on that word ‘mystery,’ convinces us that we are seeing as far into the real man as we ever can. His undisguised admiration for the inner strength and self-command of the person who voluntarily accepts poverty brings him back to the subject again at the very end of the five-lecture unit... where he makes a startling proposal: ‘What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war... May not voluntarily accepted poverty be 'the strenuous life’ without the need of crushing weaker peoples?’” (p. 411-2)

Following the first of the Gifford Lectures, James was actively engaged in his project of Radical Empiricism, which one can call the attempt to put philosophy on pure Dynamic Quality alone. “All classic, clean, cut and dried, noble, fixed, eternal worldviews seem to me to violate the character which life concretely comes… and novelty and possibility forever leaking in.” Well, yes, but as Pirsig formidably and concisely remarked, it is impossible for life to exist on pure Dynamic Quality alone. The same must be true of philosophy, in which it would even be impossible to perceive such as thing as ‘novelty’ without some background of stability with which to compare it.

Radical Empiricism eventually took second place to pragmatism, but James was still working on it in connection with the idea of “Pure experience” before he took his trip to Stanford in late 1905 to deliver another set of lectures. The problem with Pure Experience as a philosophical doctrine is that it cannot explain how minds can arrive at a world in common. Also, how is experience experienced?– this just dissipates the act of thinking into an indefinite series of experiences, perhaps into a sort of infinite regress. These problems seem to have led to the abandonment of Radical Empiricism, although the biographer comments that Radical Empiricism’s main ideas – consciousness as a process, objects are bundles of relations, and all we have to go on is experience – were accepted as fundamental notions of pragmatism. But Radical Empiricism did not let go of James easily. It clawed its way into his dreams.

Upon his arrival in Stanford, James notes some problems sleeping. In February 12-13, 1906, he is assaulted by a series of strange and frightening dreams – interwoven yet disconnected, which left him thoroughly shaken. He wrote in his journal: “… I seemed thus to belong to three different dream-systems at once, no one of which would connect itself either with the others or my waking life. I began to feel curiously confused and scared, and tried to wake myself up wider, but I seemed already wide-awake.” As a testimony of pure experience without mediating structure, James’ description of his bad dreams is as good a definition of what Radical Empiricism actually feels like is as good as we can get. I don’t think James connected the dreams to his philosophy – if he did, his biographer doesn’t note it – and in fact his only way of assimilating the experience was to “psychologize” it. He was much taken with a psychology book that talked about “dissociated conscious states,” and later Erik Erikson speculated that James had had an episode of “acute identity confusion.” In the understanding of that time – and ours – few are likely to see in these bad dreams the symbolized expression of an inadequate metaphysics. But in Quality biography, no experience can be tossed outside the sphere of thought – just as no thought can be utterly divorced from experience.

But more to the point, could pragmatism deliver the goods – that is, do what it claimed to do – which is, understand an experience or an object by means of its effects, fruits, results? If it defines the truth as “what works,” what works as an account of these dreams, what is their pragmatic interpretation? [3] I don’t see that pragmatism is able to satisfy these questions. Bad dreams did not lead James to any radical questioning, second thoughts, deeper insights or new directions. They seem not to have provoked a crisis, and they did not lead to any permanent disability. What some might take as a warning from the gods, James, while admitting to being shook up, seemed to see in them no more than a momentary strangeness, a ripple in the process of consciousness. [4]

My reasons for believing that pragmatism is ultimately unable to win fruitfulness from experience do not lie solely in the area of “the interpretation of dreams.” I was quite struck to read that at age 68, in January, 1910, James published his essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” yet with an argument totally recast from his earlier version of it in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Not only did he drop the idea of Voluntary Poverty, this new essay advocated that young people should be universally conscripted to work in coal and iron mines, on roads and tunnel-building. The idea of asceticism or renunciation had wholly disappeared. It’s get with the program, onward and upward, all hands on deck, utopia’s around the corner, time to get down to business. Whatever you want to call it – and it’s not that this program is necessarily or logically bad, it’s just that it represents the complete opposite of his earlier view. Given the biographer’s own amazement at this earlier view and the fact that he felt the “real James” was present in it, how do we understand this turn-around? Is this new view of conscripted optimism the real James too? Where does this enthusiasm for coerced togetherness of youth in the cause of labor and conquest of the continent by will come from? I cannot read his words, especially in light of their complete contrast with his former ones, without a sort of shudder at the technological nightmares soon to be unleashed in the trenches of the First World War. The mania for building, consuming, using up and exploiting was, as it were, baptized by James in this utter betrayal of his earlier views. If the Devil got to him through his dreams, and bent his mind through philosophy, who in his inner pragmatic-empiricist circle or outer circle of acquaintances comprised of séance-sitters and New Thought enthusiasts, would even suggest it, much less take the idea seriously? Martin Luther was the last one to take the Devil seriously and threw his inkpot at him. But James didn’t throw even as much as an inkpot, and even compounded his complacency by taking pride that his Pragmatism was a new kind of protestant revolution.

I don’t know and can’t guess what place James’ bad dreams may have played in this “renunciation of renunciation.” But if, as a famous German proverb has it, “There is no culture without asceticism,”[5] James’s renouncing of his earlier view takes on a larger significance. In essence, apart from whatever it may be in religion, the act of renunciation or the path of asceticism is to leave an opening for Dynamic Quality. It is the refusal to consume experience, it is to make allowance for the future, the give a gift of inexperienced, chaste being, either for oneself or for others.

In any case, quite in contrast to subjectivist or psychologized interpretations, I see in William James’ “bad dreams” a spiritual crisis which he was in some sense unable to meet. Two months after James said No! to the angel of his dreams, the San Francisco region was struck by a powerful earthquake. Any connection? Any meaning? -- of course not! -- not to minds mired in subject-object literalism. Only on the level of parable – or Quality, does the whole series of inner and outer events begin to resemble another poet’s words: “In dreams begin responsibilities…” [6]

Footnotes:
[1] As enunciated in his two books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Lila (1991)
[2] Richard Weaver had to write a whole book reminding us of an idea that Christianity was developing for two thousand years – the idea that Ideas Have Consequences (1930).
[3] “To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve – what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects … is for us the whole of our conception of an object.”
Also: A pragmatist turns his back on “abstraction, insufficiency, verbal solutions, bad a priori reasons, fixed principles, closed systems, pretended absolutes and origins – and turns toward concreteness, adequacy, facts, action and power.”
[4] My objection to process philosophy is that it obscures the role of moral decision and action. I was thinking about this in connection with my own life. In 1963 my parents sent me away from Birmingham to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts. There was no particular reason that I should attend a fancy Northern prep school; the girls’ school in Birmingham that I attended was excellent. For the most part I have looked back on this boarding school episode as a mere part of the process of my life. But just through trying to think through some of James’s ideas on pragmatism, I looked back on this episode as a sort of mistake or misfortune. If I had been a little less willing to go along with the process I would have stayed in Birmingham throughout 1963-1965 and would not have missed these critical years in Birmingham's history and in the history of the civil rights era.
[5] Quoted in “Religion and the Environmental Crisis,” in The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Perennial Philosophy Series (World Wisdom) 2007. Nasr is a professor of Islamic philosophy at Georgetown and former Gifford lecturer.
[6] Line of W.B. Yeats.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Incidents from the Biography of William James

A Quality Analysis. Part I: Dynamic Quality in Thinking

Comments on: William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, by Robert D. Richardson, Boston, 2006.


In 1884 William James published an article in the journal Mind, arguing for a "pluralistic, restless universe" which is not amenable to a single or unified perspective. In the issue that followed, J.S. Haldane, the biologist, offered a modernized version of the idea of entelechy, or design. [1] As Richardson summarized it, "Noting how some creatures can regrow lost limbs and how cut nerves can regenerate, Haldane argued that we should regard the body not as separate parts with separate functions but as a whole [which] operates ‘through and through’ an organism, affecting and directing every part of it." [p. 248]

In the next issue, James attacked this idea from Haldane’s article. In "Absolutism and Empiricism" he defended "irrationalism," or what he called "respect for fact before system." As Richardson puts it, it was "another way to register his opposition to what he saw as neo-scholastic rationalism. ‘Fact,’ he says, ‘sets a limit to the ‘through and though’ character of the world’s rationality."

I believe we can apply Quality analysis in two places here. The first instance deals with Quality in the sense of wholeness, to which Haldane was referring in the case of organisms, and the second analysis discusses the "fitting-ness" or appropriateness (Quality) of James’s response to Haldane.

We do not experience Quality as a ‘part’ of something. Quality implies the Whole in the sense of its characteristic or essential nature. [2] The whole-and-part issue is a long-standing and legitimate question in biology and relates to the question of how a potential life becomes actual and how, or if, there is an overall guiding form or idea. Darwinists imagined that they had put this question forever back in the trash bin of history, but such has not been the case, and entelechy or design has re-emerged with renewed strength in modern microbiology. The staggering complexity of life at the cellular and sub-cellular levels has shown up the simplifications of Darwinism and the Darwinist model is proving to be next to useless. [3]

In any case, the question of the entelechy or guiding form of an organism does not have a direct bearing on issues of consciousness or psychology, and these were James’s primary interests at the time. Only in the sense of the historical development of science would this issue be connected with classical metaphysics, something that James was very much opposed to. In that light he saw the Haldane piece as a threat, saying that "The one fundamental quarrel Empiricism has with Absolutism is the repudiation by Absolutism of the personal and esthetic factor in the construction of philosophy."

But what does "the personal or esthetic factor in the construction of philosophy" have to do with Haldane’s article? The "personal factor" is not a concern of a regenerating nerve, although it would be of major concern to a young person deciding upon a career or to a philosopher attempting to enunciate a new view of philosophy. The charge of absolutism is a strong one to make against the idea of the way an organism regenerates, achieves and maintains its integrity.

James was very interested in the relation of consciousness to the nervous system. He once pointed to the fact that consciousness is the means by which an organism that possesses a complex nervous system offsets the tendency of that system towards mechanism. Haldane was apparently discussing only that mechanism, i.e., an important aspect of Biological Quality.
James’s critique of Haldane thus seems to me an imposition of an analogy appropriate to the domain of Intellectual Quality onto the realm of Biological Quality.

By way of contrast, consider what James once said about the Grand Canyon—"it had a unity of design that makes it seem like an individual, an animated being." Why was James able to accept the design premise with the Grand Canyon and not with a biological organism?

This question would lead to a fascinating discourse on the history of Western thinking about Nature. Why was the sense of participating in an "animated being" true of the Grand Canyon but not true for an organism or biological being? Note how for James the Grand Canyon still possessed ‘Dynamic Quality,’ that is, it was participated. But this participated sense for Dynamic Quality once lived in mankind also in respect to the creatures and organisms of Nature. It comprises a large part of myth and folklore, it appears in legends the world over, most normal children even today experience a bit of it, and it existed as late as the Middle Ages in the West, where it was also an important element in philosophical reasoning. [5.] Barfield (see note below) remarks that St. Thomas Aquinas uses the world ‘participation’ on almost every page. It was such a common tool of his philosophical reasoning that he did not even feel the necessity of defining it.

The story of modern science is in many ways the story of the diminishing, dimming-down, or ousting of this participant relation to Nature. This is actually what we mean strictly by the "subject-object metaphysics." In this subject-object metaphysics the living world appears as ‘substance’ and living organisms have been, or are in the process of being, reduced to mere quantities of ‘atomic matter.’

That William James could feel something coherent, living and animated about the Grand Canyon, but not for the living organisms of Haldane’s examples, is a telling instance of just how far this atomization of Nature had become the common assumption in his day. In today’s world, where the integrity of the natural order is threatened on every side, and where the "mix ‘n match" attitude of modern scientists to the genetic inheritances of the earth’s creatures is cause for real alarm, this process of the de-cohering of the natural order is even more advanced. Indeed, the classical metaphysical notion of integral form may offer the only real possibility for restoring a stewardship attitude toward nature instead of the exploitative one that reigns today.

Reviving this way of looking at things will demand a more conscious awareness of human participation in nature. This more conscious participation would mean the cultivation of ‘Dynamic Quality’ in thinking. It would mean learning how to inform thinking with something of the life, coherence, and animated being of the living world . It is a "thinking-with" more than a "thinking-about."

I think William James would have been sympathetic to this, for in many ways his philosophy aims at the restoration of "Life in the form of Mind." [6] That he missed Haldane's point in this instance is a reminder of how often blind spots and personal preoccupations freighted with historical assumptions can cloud and confuse the enterprise of philosophy.

[1] Entelechy – that by which potential becomes actual; the form or perfection of something.
[2] Contrast with the quantitative, where the parts of something are merely external to one another (Aristotle). Living organisms, on the other hand, show a purposeful or coherent (qualitative) arrangement of parts ( Behe).
[3] See Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (1996); The Edge of Evolution (2007); Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985).
[5] See Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances (pub. 1959 in Great Britain). See my review, reposted in "From the Catacombs-Archives."
[6] S.T. Coleridge's characterization of the "I."

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Quality as Tool of Thought

I can foresee doing a whole series of posts on this topic. Here is a sort of general beginning. Subsequent posts on the topic may not appear sequentially.

The world of philosophy, like the world itself, is such an enormous prospect that to discuss even a tiny part of it is quite a daunting piece of work.

It is not difficult to observe regularities and patterns in the sky – the constellations and seasonal movements – from whence we get astronomy. Nor is it difficult to understand how the earliest movements of human thinking were connected to the observation of the heavens. Actually it is a little difficult to understand – in terms of the worldliness of the modern mind-set, there are so many problems in the here and now, why look to the skies? – but this is not the question I wish to address today. We accept the cosmic tilt of our ancestors without giving it too much thought, though it is indeed an orientation of staggering importance in human destiny. Still, I must leave this interesting question aside for the moment.

It is again a natural step – well, somewhat natural – to move from spotting regularities in the sky to noting them on earth. These regularities we call the "laws of nature" – a phrase which, interestingly, means something quite different from "natural law." Natural law means something like the moral core in the human being, whereas the "laws of nature" are commonly viewed as having nothing to do with morality.

It is another step again to note regularities in history. This phase of the game is still in play, so to speak. The ancients did it to some extent, but it really got going as an intellectual discipline in later times – perhaps beginning with the rise of modern philosophy. We had Vico, and then later Spengler and Toynbee, who may be taken as the peak of this kind of activity. Post-Toynbee, historical commentary is so bound up with every other kind of commentary, from science questions to clashes of civilization and political arguments, that it is a little hard to discern its original impulse.

In historical commentary we see, I think, the incipient beginnings of the movement of intellect to become conscious of its relation to society – a movement that Pirsig has clarified in his distinction between Social and Intellectual Quality. As for spotting regularities in Intellectual Quality – forget it! We have not even begun. Our sense of the inward and intellectual character of the world today is a type of chaos. On the ‘outside’ of our world, that is to say what holds this intellectual chaos in some kind of precarious equilibrium, is a dominating economic system and the political ideologies that serve this ruling power.

The question that occupies me today is how Pirsig’s tool of Quality can be of service to the elucidation of certain intellectual problems. Ultimately and actually it is more than an intellectual problem, if it is true, as I suggested, that Force is the counterweight to Chaos. Force vs. Chaos is a terribly unbalanced system, as we are learning to our dismay in every experience of life. No Quality in nature or the arts of life can make the slightest headway, but gets sucked into the pressurized void formed by this polarization of forces. The unaddressed problem of the subject-object polarization, which is the fundamental source of this Force vs. Chaos paradigm, has created a true "black hole" on earth which threatens to swallow us all.

Thoughts and things, consciousness and phenomena, spirit and matter, subject and object, are in mutual coexistence and correlation. The financial debt of the global money system is spreading throughout the world - this is the outward, phenomenal, or 'thing-aspect' of the polarity. In a more inward sense this globalized modern man lives in a perpetual spiritual indebtedness to the past - to religion, history, law, customs, courtesies, arts and systems of thought which have all been developed by human beings living in previous ages. This past endowment has made possible the development of that modern science which has proven to be such a boon to the exploitation of nature's resources, particularly the extraction of oil. [1]

My point being that the black hole which is at the center of the Force vs. Chaos paradigm has spun off another set of polarizations, namely, debt, comprising both a material and spiritual aspect.

In order to steer society away from falling into the black hole of debt, it may become necessary to reinstate the gold standard - to back up financial credit with something of real and tangible worth. Likewise on the spiritual plane the search for Quality, the desire for Quality, the understanding of Quality as tool of thought. Only this search, desire and understanding can bring us the wherewithal to develop a new paradigm.
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[1] Which William James, for one, saw very clearly: "The most significant characteristic of modern civilization is the sacrifice of the future for the present, and all the power of science has been prostituted to this purpose."