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.


dmbuchanan said...

Hello Caryl Johnston:

It was a thrill to discover your blog. In the interest of full disclosure I have to say that I'm a big fan of Pirsig's work and Mr. Kundert is my favorite rival on that topic and we've been debating Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality for many moons (at

I've recently returned to school (even though I'm just about to celebrate my 46th birthday) to see if there is a place for the MOQ in the academic world. It appears that this is not as difficult as I imagined. I tend to agree with your attitude toward pragmatism or rather with the Rorty-inspired neopragmatism favored by Matt Kundert. It seems to me that classical pragmatism, which includes radical empiricism as one of its essential features, is much closer to what Pirsig is saying. As I understand it, James's own attitude toward his radical empiricism shifted as he grew older so that in his last works it had become even more important to him than was his pragmatism. That's about where I'm at these days. As I see it, radical empiricism not only makes the pragmatism work, it is extremely congenial to the kind of philosophical mysticism that seems so central to the MOQ.

That's my two cents, anyway.

I'll be checking in. Thanks again for your blog and Merry Christmas.

Dave Buchanan

Matt said...

I've posted a reply to this response on my own site here.

It is true, Dave's and my arguments have been going on for a long time now. My own sense about the future of pragmatism is that James's earlier sense that there wasn't much difference between radical empiricism and pragmatism was right. But either way, we do both agree that understanding Pirsig requires some sort of appreciation for the role of pragmatism, even if it does end up being a pushing away, as opposed to bringing closer

Caryl said...

Hi Dave,
Thanks for writing. I was surprised to read what you said about James' radical empiricism since his biographer said that this played a less important role and was superseded by pragmatism. See my new posting today, "Bad Dreams."
Matt and I are going at it. He has posted a response to my response, which I have printed out, and which I will respond to in a few days.
I think we have a real issue for discussion: The metaphysics of quality is either connected or not connected to pragmatism. I say No. You guys (as far as I can tell) say Yes. It's a great issue to debate and I look forward to many more exchanges.

Fiona Mackenzie said...

Why is the MOQ "either connected or not connected to pragmatism"? Why can it not be both? It is this idea that a thing either is or isn't a certain thing, either has or doesnt have a. certain characteristic, and can't be paradoxically both one and the other, or have and yet not have the certain characteristic, that I can't understand. Why does a person, in the interests of creating definitions, fail to see the natural paradoxical nature of life in which things are often at the same time two seemingly paradoxically things. In fact it is rare that a question put to nature can be answered as either all one thing or all another, so I think that saying either the MOQ is or is not related to pragmatism is missing the point that life is not always black or white but contains many shades of grey.

Matt K said...

I think one reason a person might say "either X or Y" is because they are trying to pose a question to Nature, and wondering whether they've posed the right question or not. The stance you've taken, Fiona, one might call "paradox-mongering," and many of my favorite philosophers and writers were paradox-mongers, and also hyperbolists. The trick for a truly flexible attitude, I think, might be to admit the utility of speech-acts that wear their paradox on their sleeve, and those that do not (like, "Is this a rock...or not?"). Sometimes you have to pose questions to Nature, but certainly a bad question is one that admits only one answer: "both." (Or, to get the whole tetralemma in there, "yes/no/both/either!") It might be technically correct from one perspective, but we take many different perspectives on life. Sometimes we are in a mood for black, sometimes white, sometimes fifty shades of grey. As Emerson said, "our moods do not believe in each other" and "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."