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.


Matt K said...

This is a very interesting reply, one that shows you aligning more with the work Sam Norton had been doing on Pirsig. (C.f., alongside his blog, his The Eudaimonic MoQ, posted at moq.org.) My relation to Sam has always been interesting for the both of us because of 1) our shared distrust of Platonism (a distrust we share in far more detail than either of us do with other Pirsigians) and 2) my relative commitment to secularism, which sends me into the arms of Rorty, and his relative commitment to Anglicanism, which sends him into the arms of someone like Alasdair MacIntyre.

I'm seeing something similar appear in our relation. I'm pleased to see your account of the relation of pragmatism to Greek philosophy, in opposition to modern/Cartesian philosophy. One of the details that gets lost on occasion (one that hasn't escaped lovers of Owen Barfield like Scott Roberts, another long-time participant at moq.org) is what was different between Greek and modern philosophy, and one of them is that in Aristotle's hylomorphism there is not the radical disconnect between experiencer and thing-experienced that there appears in Descartes. The conceptual tools were there, they just didn't conceive of our relation to reality that way. Rather than a representational relation, in which what appears in the (for lack of a better term) subject is a representation of the object, Greek philosophy seems to conceive of the relation so that the object is itself in the subject (in some meaningful way that modern minds have a difficulty understanding—what? the frog is literally in our mind?).

So I think you’re right that Greek philosophy, which extends all the way to Aquinas (what you called “traditional philosophy” and “metaphysics”), has that similarity with pragmatism, a more modern, American rebellion against Cartesianism. However, I’ve come to think (partly through the work of the Deweyan Richard Bernstein, and also Stephen Toulmin) that there are many more similarities between Aristotelian-centered philosophy, which includes Thomism, and pragmatism.

One of those similarities is on authority. While I think you are entirely right about revelatory experience becoming exposed to the “corrosive powers of reason” (para. 6) in post-Cartesian philosophy, especially in pragmatism (though I would replace your phrase with “the contingency of justificatory practices”), I don’t think one needs a metaphysically safeguarded sphere of experience to create a substantial notion of authority.

To cast doubt on this notion, I would remind you that Descartes carried this exact Greek notion, the distinction between opinio and episteme, with him into modern philosophy for very similar purposes: Aquinas says that there’s a sphere of revelation that cannot be impinged by critical scrutiny, those corrosive powers, and Descartes says that what we know best is our own minds, what Rorty refers to as the incorrigibility of our own minds—we can’t be wrong about what we think (though what we think can be wrong).

Descartes bequeathed to modern philosophy a suspiciously similar, safeguarded sphere, one transplanted from the sphere of God to the sphere of the mind. Modern foundationalism is the same as ancient foundationalism: both are just passing around and arguing over where that safeguarded sphere actually is and all foundationalists fear that if there is no sphere, there will be no authority, and then relativism, nihilism, irrationalism, or some other bugbear will reign.

If one dispenses with foundationalism in all of its guises, one can still find the conceptual resources for a notion of authority in Aristotelianism, though it won’t be a distinctively philosophical notion, and I think it’s the same one that appears in pragmatism that has been thought through completely. It revolves around the notion of a “tradition” and I don’t think pragmatism has any problem with conceiving of it (c.f., my “Verficationism and the Shibboleth Problem” for some reflection on tradition and revelatory experience).

Despite the fact that I would maintain that pragmatism is a philosophical antiauthoritarianism, that doesn’t mean there are no practical, run-of-the-mill authorities. Authority over a subject matter is just what accrues around somebody with a lot of experience with the subject matter. You assert that pragmatism is unable “to make distinctions of value between differing claims of expediency” (para. 6), but I would ask what it is exactly that makes this so? There is nothing in pragmatism that makes it difficult to make distinctions, any distinctions we want.

One of the points that pragmatists have been hammering on is the ad hoc nature of distinctions, that they are not universal, absolute dichotomies, which is how much Greek and Cartesian philosophy has thought of some of them. All distinctions are made for specific purposes and we can judge the efficacy of those distinctions according to how well they get the job done (or, in the case of philosophy, how many problems we get from them). One of the most purely pragmatist passages in Pirsig is his notion of the analytic knife in ZMM. We can slice up reality any way we want, all according to what we want from it.

What I have essentially been arguing for is the notion that you are right when you paraphrase Lukacs, in a bout of cultural anthropology, that “a perennial American weakness [is] to mistake habits for principles”—except for the “weakness” bit. The reason is that the tenor of pragmatism, taken from the tenor of the American experience, is not to mistake habits for principles, but to self-consciously treat principles as habits. They treat the philosophically substantial notion of a “principle” as another variation of Platonism and redescribe principles—because who would doubt their existence and efficacy in our lives?—as, in Stanley Fish’s phrase, “rules of thumb.”

In the high plains of philosophy, that abstract area where we rise above common understanding to a level at which practical problems disappear and only conceptual ones remain, pragmatism churns out a metaphilosophy that treats principles as long-standing habits that have worked, habits of action that have a history of efficaciousness, which is to say, a tradition of authority. Principles are authoritative, on the pragmatist reading, not because of some sphere of revelation (as in Thomism), or a sphere of incorrigibility (as in Cartesianism), or a sphere of direct relation to reality (as in Platonism).

Principles are authoritative because they work, because they get the job done, because they get us what we want. And when they fail, as they always sometimes do, instead of being thrown into a skeptical crisis about the foundations of knowledge (as Plato and Descartes were and Pirsig, on my reading, was in his youth in ZMM), we simply chalk it up to principles being rules of thumb: of course they are on occasion not going to get us what we want—they aren’t safeguarded, fail-proof routes to victory, they are simply paths of action that usually work under certain circumstances.

That’s the short of how I feel about pragmatism. It is a complete philosophy, though I would hesitate in calling it a substantial philosophy, mainly because I am suspicious of the very notion of a "substantial philosophy." What pragmatism is, on my Rortyan reading (which does differ from, say, Dave Buchanan), is a metaphilosophy that tries to get us out of the thin, abstract air of philosophy, with all of its concepts and principles, to the stuffy, hot ground-floor of life as soon as possible. On my reading, I don’t want a philosophy that has substantial standards of conduct. I want a philosophy that has conceptual tools, sure, but they are all ad hoc: when they’re good, they’re good, when they’re not, find a different tool. I take that to be the point in saying that Pirsig’s is an incomplete philosophy (para. 8), but I further take it to be a strike against much of the “principles rhetoric” you’ve been using to defend it.

It may be that “we Americans have unfortunately confused the collapse of standards with freedom.” I think we on occasion do, the most important example of which is the ‘60s (this confusion being part of what I was trying to explain by my analysis of antiestablishmentarianism). But I’m not sure if that’s a paradigmatically American confusion. And, on the other hand, we’ve also recently begun to confuse loss of freedom with safety and security.

There are a lot of confusions to be careful not to run afoul of. I’m just not certain how much and to what extent philosophy will help in untangling them. Maybe it will. I have read stuff I would call philosophy that has been illuminating about current predicaments (Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought comes to mind). But philosophical reflection isn’t the only thing we need more of to get us out of this quagmire, nor do I necessarily think it is the first thing. I suspect there are very few tried and true rules of thumb about where it is best to begin when thinking about a problem—you just got to begin somewhere.

Unknown said...

I saw a link to your blog on MOQ.org. You have some interesting things to say about Pirsig's work. I hope you will join the discussion there so that others can converse with you. (Here Matt made some "comments" on your writing, but he isn't exactly on equal footing with you on your blog, is he?)

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