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.


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]

[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.
[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."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Responding to M. Kundert

Matt Kundert has kindly left a comment on my post, "A Note on the English Admirers of Pirsig." He left several links to articles of his own, which I would like to comment upon in this post.

They are, first, the August 2004 piece on Philosophology, An Inquiry into the Love of Wisdom,
and the second, the January 2006 piece, "Pirsig Institutionalized: More Thoughts on Pirsig and Philosophology"

I appreciate Mr. Kundert's links and willingness to dialogue. In attempting to articulate a position very much at odds with his interpretation of Pirsig, I hope he will not consider me ungracious – though he might very well consider me to be a philosophical novice, a characterization I certainly do not deny.

In the introduction to his website, Mr. Kundert introduces himself in this wise: "My name is Matt Kundert and I'm pending to graduate from UW-Madison, pending that is on whether a former History Professor wishes to take pity on me and accept a very late term paper... I'm an "amateur philosopher" and by "amateur" I mean I don't get paid for it…" I would describe myself in very much the same terms, so perhaps two amateurs can have a go at it.

My general sense of Mr. Kundert’s two papers is that he wishes to defend the academic province of philosophy. There is nothing wrong with this. Although I think that the Metaphysics of Quality leads us to ask questions and come to realizations which have been excluded in conventional philosophy since Descartes, and for this reason the academic framework may be part of the problem, this Metaphysics of Quality will nevertheless have to confront the academic establishment by the very nature of the case. What other group of people would be likely to debate such issues? Philosophers discuss philosophy. But this is not quite the full truth, because philosophers have not been altogether willing to discuss the Metaphysics of Quality, which arrived at their door in the guise of novels rather than by means of in-house production, so to speak. Already there is a suspicion of unwillingness on the part of the philosophic community to greet this new visitor with open arms, given its uncertain parentage.

Well, such is the status of the foundling. It is acceptable to defend academic philosophy, or anything else. But let us try to keep our facts straight by consulting, at times, that demanding muse, History. Mr. Kundert maintains that "Pirsig’s distinction between philosophy and philosophology is between philosophy’s history and its substance, but it is not at all clear that one can separate the two." He may be right about this, but on the other hand, what difference does it make? Pirsig maintains that one should have a passion for a question, and thanks to that passion one can learn what other people have said on the subject. History becomes alive through the passion, thus there can be such a thing as wanting to learn and master the cultural heritage. It is intellect for a purpose, and is not a purpose of this kind the very spark of Quality? And isn't that what we're after?

I do not agree with Mr. Kundert that "…many of the things philosophy struggles with on a day-to-day basis are not things that immediately come to mind for the man on the street." The man on the street may have trouble articulating his thoughts, or he may not be led to believe that the struggle to articulate his thoughts is an important thing to do, or that it would matter to anyone else in the slightest or even to himself. But I affirm the common essence of philosophy and humanity, and insist that "the man on the street" deals with philosophical problems day in and day out – and not only deals with them but has to suffer for them, pay for them, and fight against them or for them. Any other view seems to me to smack of haughtiness. It is the academic attitude, and Pirsig, for one, seems refreshingly free of it.

Part of my disagreements with Mr. Kundert spring from the fact that I simply do not see Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality as having much of anything to do with Pragmatism. Now, I am aware that Pirsig mentions William James favorably, and he wonders if the Metaphysics of Quality might in some way be aligned with James’ radical empiricism. This is one of the few instances in which I find myself disagreeing with Pirsig’s own opinion of himself. Pragmatism is all very well, and William James is a likable and thoughtful American, perhaps the best of our kind. But I see Pragmatism as inherently anti-metaphysical, no matter how dressed up, softened and made serviceable for real life it may be. And softened it is – compared to positivism and reductionism. But it does not affirm the metaphysical task, which is the struggle to clarify what it is we actually think, or rather the struggle to put ourselves in the position of actually being able to think. This struggle is for Logos, and without this struggle on behalf of Logos we only lead confused and self-deceived lives. [1]

I am somewhat at a loss to understand Mr. Kundert’s attribution of "Cartesian anxiety" to Mr. Pirsig, who spent quite a bit of effort in showing how the "objectivity" of Cartesian philosophy cannot be considered to be a truly reliable form of objectivity, because it leaves out so much of importance to real life. It is interesting that Mr. Kundert quotes from a commentator who remarked that Descartes’ final certainty, the reward after his doubt, was owing to his belief in the existence of a "beneficient God." It is true that Descartes does this, and it is a most revealing incident in his Meditations. If Descartes cogito is a sort of "new Genesis" or new creative moment in history, at the very least it is wholly unlike its inspired prototype. For in the old Genesis the world was full of all sorts of Beings, not all of them with a beneficient attitude toward mankind. There was a serpent in the Garden – remember? Descartes’s simplification of the old complex Christian cosmos that contained all kinds of moral perils to a safe and guaranteed world more to his liking was, at the very least, a striking instance of self-deception. This has had deleterious consequences for philosophy. The horse of the subject-object division was already hobbled with respect to values. For having been handicapped from the starting gate with a false notion of the cosmos, why struggle for values if a "beneficient god"was already in charge of the underwriting department? At best this is a blank check to endorse things as they are.

The Christian God was brought down to size - Descartes' size, or rather the scope of his cogito --thus where Christianity was concerned, modern philosophy thus began with a falsehood, and the accumulations of falsehood have reached quite a crescendo today. In his second essay, "Pirsig Institutionalized," Mr. Kundert mainly finds Pirsig to be "anti-authoritarian." He writes:

Antiauthoritarianism is a specifically philosophical thesis that says people are not bound to any non-human authority, be it God, Reality, or Reason. In this sense, for example, Protestantism, in the West, was a step towards anti-authoritarianism because it located the House of God within each person, rather than a relation only attainable through a priest caste that had a special relation to God. .. Antiauthoritarianism
is thus coextensive with the pragmatists’ project of getting rid of the appearances/ reality distinction in philosophic thought…


"Pirsig’s key message top us is his recitation of Socrates’ message to Phaedrus: "And what is good, Phaedrus/ And what is not good---/Need we ask anyone these things?" This passage can strike two chords. First is a kind of antiauthoritarianism that mimics the Protestant move…. I shall argue, however, that there is a second chord…[that is] not only is one caste’s special authority destroyed, but anyone else’s authority is destroyed. "Need we ask anyone these things?" By internalizing our relation to the good – Quality – Pirsig has basically told us that each of us has a special relation to Quality that no one can override …"

Thus Kundert moves from "antiauthoritarian" to a charge of "antiprofessionalism in philosophy," and the argument becomes increasingly torturous. We leave behind the creative movement inherent in the Metaphysics of Quality and enter a longwinded tunnel with no light on the issues Pirsig raised. Kundert seems not to be talking about the Metaphysics of Quality but with the ghost that the Metaphysics of Quality came to exorcise: namely, the Metaphysics of Substance.

The question of "authority" would be an important issue with the Metaphysics of Substance because this view of the world puts all the emphasis on the subjective self as the generator of values. But to see in the Protestant move an anti-authoritarianism seems to me to be a view of history in keeping with the kind of popular and propagandized culture which is often little more than thinly disguised anti-Catholic bias. For certainly Luther and the Protestants substituted the authority of Scripture for the authority of the living Church. One of the unfortunate results of this "subjectivation" of authority was the loss of ecclesiastical counter-weight to the power of the State – and as a consequence a transfer of greater authority to the State. In addition, one ought to ponder deeply the Catholic statements at the Council of Trent asserting the foundational nature of human free will – very much in contrast to Protestant statements on the subject – before launching into a dewy-eyed paean to the Protestant "God Within."

I do not read Pirsig as "anti-authoritarian" in any sense. I think he is probably more liberal than I am in many of his views, but his sense for the importance of Static Quality shows his to be a mature and well-grounded mind. No human being can live without authority, and if it will not be grounded in religion, it will be find its way to some other source – philosophy, science, or their popularizers, or even lower down the scale into mass advertising and the celebrity culture. The question is whether the static value of authority allows for dynamic openings. It is a question – like so many others – of the Quality of the authority.

[1] I picked up Robert Richardson's 2006 biography of William James, feeling that I needed greater familiarity with this remarkable philosopher as an aid to my studies of the Metaphysics of Quality. Richardson describes Pragmatism as "the belief that truth is something that happens to an idea, that the truth of something is the sum of its actual results. It is not, as some cynics would have it, there mere belief that truth is whatever works for you. It must work for you and it must not contravene any known facts. James was interested more in the fruits than in the roots of ideas and feelings..." (p. 5) I find this both very appealing and very non-metaphysical. I would say that the concern with fruits of an idea is a fundamentally Christian concept ("A good tree bringeth forth good fruit;" "Ye shall know them by their fruits," etc.) and that a way to characterize metaphysics would be to say that it is a disciplined inquiry into the fruitfulness of ideas. Therefore, it has to be concerned with the roots of ideas and feelings and with the problem of how differing forms of the good are to be evaluated.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Islam Re: Social and Biological Quality

In a recent comment comparing Islam with Communism, Mr. Lawrence Auster asks: “How does Pirsig's biology/society distinction help us defend ourselves against Islam?”

I don't go along with demonizing Islam. I am more inclined to see how Muslims should want to defend themselves against us, than that we should need to defend ourselves against them. There is a long history of Anglo-American interference in their affairs and it is a very dark story of colonialism, neo-colonialism, racial arrogance, subversion of law and good faith, and betrayal of Western Christian values at every turn.

On the issue of 9/11, I believe it was engineered to make Muslims look bad in much the same way that the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was engineered to make Catholics look bad. I am not satisfied with official explanations for either event.

This much being said, however, in terms of Auster's context (his anti-Islamic views) it's a fair question. Pirsig does have some thoughts about the subject, although he was writing long before the present wave of hysterical hatred being fomented against Islam by dual loyalists and morally corrupt Christians.

Historically Islam provided an enormous taming and civilizing force to the warring tribes of the Arabian peninsula. Pirsig remarks in Lila that some of the Muslim animus against the West is owing to the fact that Muslims perceive the West as aiding and abetting the release of those very biological forces that Islam has striven so hard to contain. [See note below.]

Distinguishing Social from Intellectual Quality might assist in sorting out Mr. Auster’s other comment. Communism was an intellectual ideology brought forward in the very heydey of Western materialism. It is a perfect example of how intellectuals turned against the very society that provided for them. Not only did Marxism deride and disparage static social values like marriage and religion, it also derided the “bourgeois” safeguards for Intellectual Quality – freedom of speech and press, trial by jury, government by consent, human rights. Thus it could not preserve social values from deterioration or prevent society from falling back into biology. Which is exactly what happened -- i.e. the rule of the strong, or re-barbarization.

Pirsig on biology and society, with comment on Islam:

“The central term of confusion between these two levels of codes is ‘society.’ Is society good or is society evil? The question is confused because the term ‘society’ is common to both of these levels, but in one level society is the higher evolutionary pattern and in the other it is the lower. Unless you separate these two levels of moral codes you get a paralyzing confusion as to whether society is moral or immoral. That paralyzing confusion is what dominates all thoughts about morality and society today.

“The idea that ‘man is born free but is everywhere in chains’ was never true. There are no chains more vicious that the chains of biological necessity into which every child is born. Society exists primarily to free people from these biological chains. It has done that job so stunningly well intellectuals forget the fact and turn upon society with a shameful ingratitude for what society has done.

“Today we are living in an intellectual and technological paradise and a moral and social nightmare because the intellectual level of evolution, in its struggle to become free of the social level, has ignored the social level's role in keeping the biological level under control. Intellectuals have failed to understand the ocean of biological quality that is constantly being suppressed by social order."

“Biological quality is necessary to the survival of life. But when it threatens to dominate and destroy society, biological quality becomes evil itself, the ‘Great Satan’ of 20th century Western culture. One reason why fundamentalist Muslim cultures have become so fanatic in their hatred for the West is that it has released the biological forces of evil that Islam fought for centuries to control.”
Pirsig, Lila, p. 353.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Book of Static Latches

I was glancing through the pages of my poetry book, and it occurred to me that it could be called “a book of static latches.” Pirsig does not write about language as the primary and perhaps most important of the static latches of man’s pilgrimage on earth (a.k.a. “evolutionary development”). Maybe it was so big that it escaped him. After all, the fish cannot perceive the water in which it is immersed.

But language is incredible – an incredible instrument preventing degeneration (“static latch”), an incredible instrument for the potentization of Dynamic Quality, an incredible instrument of exquisite balancing between static and dynamic.

Poetry encapsulates this characteristic of language. I am sure that language originally descended or devolved from poetry. Poetry is the art of language, and its science, ritual, essence, epitome, condensation, and vehicle both of remembrance as well as of movement.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Apocalyptic Quality - in Fiction and Fact

The two senses of the word, Quality, comprise one of the difficult aspects of the Metaphysics of Quality. The phrase "biological quality," for example, refers to the biological character of something acting in accordance with that character. In the sense that it does what it must do to maintain or enhance its biological life, it is good in those terms, that is, it has "biological quality." Eat or be eaten, survival of the fittest, law of the jungle, might equals right – all of these phrases refer to "biological quality" and should not be taken as purely Good in an abstract or general sense. They might be, but on the other hand, they might not be.

We have first to clarify what level we are speaking on. If we are speaking of the social level, biological quality cannot be taken as determinative of social quality. Social quality might be very much in opposition to biological quality. In fact many novels in our English literary tradition deal with the conflicts between biological and social quality. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind was attractive and had many admirers of the opposite sex. But her biological charms were put to a severe test when the Yankees came and she had to learn to direct her natural egotism to the more social goal of helping to preserve the lives of her family and friends. Biological Quality was not enough. She had to acquire Social Quality - to learn how to get along and help others.

The novels of Jane Austen show this more clearly than this somewhat second-rate novel from our American South. One can contrast the purely biological quality of Lydia Bennett in Pride and Prejudice with the more social and intellectual virtues of her elder sisters, Jane and Elizabeth -–who also married much better. But my favorite of the Austen novels, Persuasion, deals with a young woman who is navigating the difficult passage from social to intellectual quality, and having to do it very much alone and in the midst of great opposition. The social pressures are enormous against the acquisition of an independent relation to intellectual quality – that is, of free choice of the highest intellectual good. Of course, this "free choice" was cast in terms of biological-social quality, i.e., choice of a mate. But that was because of the time the novel was written and the requirements of the story. The point is that the freely-chosen intellectual quality was both more interior and ultimately integrative of the other levels.

Ideally, of course, intellectual quality, being more interior, should possess this integrative capacity, though it doesn’t always turn out that way. In fact in modern storytelling it almost never turns out that way. The intellectual quality is held to be aloof from the biological and social quality if not in actual conflict or opposition to them. And this is Pirsig’s point. In America the opposition of intellectual to biological-social quality is made unutterably tense and conflictual because of the factor of race.

A few months ago someone told me a little story about a couple I slightly knew which, it seems, had just been recently divorced. The daughter of this couple had taken up with an inner-city black youth and had a child by him. The grandchild ended up being deposited with the grandparents – I don’t know if the daughter was there as well -- and this new ménàge was proving to be quite a stress to the couple, which had probably had the full set of liberal views typical of their suburb and class. But what, in essence, was the cause of the stress? Was it because of the mixed-race grandchild, the city-suburb tension, the unmarried and evidently irresponsible status of the parents of the child, or some other combination of factors? It seems to me that race was ultimately of less importance than the fact that no-one, in this little parable of modern times, seemed to have the slightest clue about social quality or social values. Instead of confronting the young couple, getting them married, insisting that their child was their responsibility and not that of the grandparents – the older couple simply threw in the towel and divorced. They ran away from the problem. Insistence on the importance of static social values would have sent a strong message that civilized behavior does not stop at the borders of race. Since our society seems to be incapable of stating this message, perhaps we should not wonder that this couple failed to do so as well.

The importance of Pirsig’s four-fold structure of Quality is that it helps to build a structure of thought in which such issues can be discussed entirely apart from their racial elements. Without clarity of thought no action is possible. And "no action" always in the end means "a loss of the good," that is, it means deterioration. For Good - that is, Quality in its original sense of excellence or virtue, does not impose itself upon human beings. That is the essential meaning of freedom of the will. Human beings must choose the Good, decide on its behalf, make the decision of participating in it and fostering it. [Note below.]

It is in this sense that the Metaphysics of Quality is apocalyptic. For it has to do with the revealing of the will of man, and in this way it is a great deal more, or possibly somewhat less, but at any rate, different from, the traditional metaphysics -- "traditional," that is, since the rise of rationalism and modernity. The old subject-object metaphysics of rationalism enjoyed a certain independence from the problems of society because religious habits and sentiments were more or less still in force, at least until the 20th century. The fading of religious consciousness has exposed the weaknesses of rationalism, and it is really those weaknesses of rationalism that is what we mean by the "liberalism," or the "moral confusion," or "weakness of the will," of that couple I described. What these conditions signify is the absence of a structure of thinking adequate to meet the problems of real life. And it is just that "structure of thinking" which Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality can so much help to provide.

Note: Simone Weil -- "To be possessed by the bad, it is not necessary to have consented to it; but the good never possesses the soul until she has said yes…" See my essay, "The Virginity Monologues" where I discuss Weil's astonishing letter to Joe Bosquet - which I think has deep resonances with the Metaphysics of Quality.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Note on Inspiration

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

The dualism subjective/objective, "...which is fundamental neither psychologically, historically or philosophically, is an inveterate habit of thought which makes it so extraordinarily hard for the Western mind to grasp the nature of inspiration."
Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction [1927] p. 204

Robert Pirsig as one of those "dispossessed Ishmaelites" -- from a blog entry on another blog site.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Note on the English Admirers of Pirsig

In the initial essay, I noted that Pirsig had found a following in the UK. That website is In looking over the dates posted on the website, they don't seem to be that recent (for example, there are several entries from 2006).
There are several essays posted there, for example, this, "A Review of Dr. McWatt's Essay on the Metaphysics of Quality," and an Interview with Robert Pirsig with Julian Baggini of Philosophers Magazine Online. There are other assorted papers, postings, and discussion groups.
My general impression and comment is this: the very strengths which have led the English to admire Pirsig (their superior education and academic training) are the very qualities which seem to lead them more in the direction of academic (as contrasted with apocalyptic) commentary.
I think that the true import of the Metaphysics of Quality is in the apocalytic sphere (as characterized in my initial Essay and relating to the "truth-finding process") and not in any continuation of academic philosophy as we have known it.
We have reached a breaking point. I don't think Pirsig's English admirers quite get it.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Biology vs. Society

"Blacks have no right to violate social codes and call it 'racism' when someone tries to stop them, of those codes are not racist codes. That is slander. The fight to sustain social codes isn't a war of black vs. whites or Hispanics vs. blacks, or poor people vs. rich people or even stupid people against intelligent people, or any other of all the other possible cultural confrontations. It's a war of biology vs. society.
"It's a war of biological blacks and biological whites against social blacks and social whites. Genetic patterns just confuse the matter. And this is a war in which intellect, to end the paralysis of society, has to know whose side it is on, and support that side, never undercut it. Where biological values are undermining social values, intellectuals must identify social behavior, no matter what its ethnic connection, and support it all the way without restraint. Intellectuals must find biological behavior, no matter what its ethnic connection, and limit or destroy destructive biological patterns with complete moral ruthlessness, the way a doctor destroys germs, before those biological patterns destroy civilization itself." Lila, p. 357

This is the best description of the proper relationship between intellect, society and biology, and how this relationship is confused by race, that I have seen anywhere. In two paragraphs Pirsig puts the tenured thinkers and writers of reams of sociological jargon to shame.

American society would wear a very different social profile if a small but high-quality group of people had fully read and digested these two paragraphs back in 1991, when Lila was published.
Unfortunately the evidence is all around us of how the message of these two paragraphs has been completely overlooked.

May I bring my reader up to date with Fred Reed's latest:

And: Learning from Diversity, The Case for Expatriation"
Dec. 8, 2007
Again it happens. In Baltimore a young white woman boards a bus and wants to sit down. Each time she tries to take a seat she is told by nine black middle-schools students, ages 14 and 15, including three girls, that she can’t. Finally she sits anyway. The little—the middle-school students, I mean—attack her.
From the Examiner, "She sustained ‘serious injuries’ and had to be transported to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, according to a police report…[Sarah] Kreager suffered two broken bones in her left eye socket, police said. She had eye muscles that were damaged…She had deep lacerations on the top of her head and another above her neck." Her face will never be the same.
Life in the United States. Race relations as usual. Journalism as usual. I suppose you have been swamped, dear reader, by the national press coverage of this racial attack—right? The outrage? You’ve heard about it over and over on the lobotomy box? Editorialists everywhere just won’t let it rest? Sure.
Curious. Don Imus, apparently a radio jock of some sort, refers to a black women’s basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." Rude, certainly, and unnecessary, but nothing more. It becomes national news and he loses his job. Blacks beat a white woman until her bones break and…near silence.
I’m sick of it. I’m sick of these attacks and of the animals that commit them. And I’m sick of the attitude of the press. But I’m doubtless alone in my sentiments. Right?
The headline in the WJS account says, "Woman Attacked On Bus Placed In Witness Protection." Why? The only reason can be the expectation that blacks will try to kill her to prevent her from testifying against the attackers. Things are out of control...[More on Fred Reed's website]

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Putting in a Good Word for Plato

In Pirsig's view Plato comes in for a bit of a scolding because of his disparagement of the Sophists. I found a passage in one of Owen Barfield's book that may help to restore Plato's reputation vis-a-vis Pirsig:

"…The more common a word is and the simpler its meaning, the bolder very likely is the original thought which it contains and the more intense the intellectual or poetic effort which went to its making. Thus, the word quality is used by most educated people every day of their lives, yet in order that we should have this simple word Plato had to make the tremendous effort (it is one of the most exhausting which man is called on to exert) of turning a vague feeling into a clear thought. He invented a new word,= ‘poiotes,’ ‘what-ness,’ as we might say, or ‘of-what-kind-ness,’ and Cicero translated it by the Latin ‘qualitas,’ from ‘qualis.’ Language becomes a different thing for us altogether if we can make ourselves realize, can even make ourselves feel how every time the word quality is used, say upon a label in a shop window, that creative effort by Plato comes into play again. Nor is the acquisition of such a feeling a waste of time; for once we have made it our own, it circulates like blood through the whole of literature and life about us…"

From Barfield's History in English Words, p. 18-19.

Several things about this: first, Quality in the sense of "of what kind or character" does not pertain to Pirsig's criticism of the Platonic Idea of the Good. The definition of Quality as Excellence or Good is a different meaning of the word from Quality as the type, character, tenor or nature of something. It is important to bear these two senses of the word in mind, as for example, in the history of philosophy, in which the question of the "primary qualities" or "secondary qualities" of things became a matter of debate.

What is the "qua" in the sine qua non, mentioned earlier?

More on these matters in due course.

Sine Qua Non

Latin: "without which it could not be."

I wish to thank Monsignor Wright for bringing this phrase to my attention this morning, in the Mass of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Pirsig defines "Quality" much along the lines of a sine qua non - that without which life as we know it could not be. We will explore further ramifications of the roots, derivations, and meanings of Quality in successive posts on this blog.