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.