On Quality: Thesis by Ian P. Hornsby
Section Two: Dispositio|
Arranging, the second stage of classical rhetoric.
Chapter Five Figuratively Zen
The power of speech is not the power to command obedience by replacing argument with silence. It is the power to challenge silent obedience by opening argument. The former result can be obtained by force as well as by logos, but the latter can only be achieved by logos, or rather by anti-logos.(81)
Hannah and Martin are strolling along the river path making their way slowly up and across the Downs. Martin occasionally glances at a notebook he hold in his left hand. On his right hand and arm sits a grey haired ventriloquist's dummy named Jack.
Martin: Within each of his two novels, Pirsig openly acknowledges his application of rhetorical language. He refuses to hide the fact that he is using this device as a channel of persuasion.
Hannah: To influence people in this way sounds slightly questionable and against everything that you've implied Pirsig represents. Isn't rhetoric a misuse of language and an abuse of power and position?
Martin: Mu, because Pirsig never uses the persuasive technique of rhetoric to present a definite truth. He views rhetoric as an inherent factor in all forms of communications. To imply that a language can be somehow above rhetoric is to deceive. Signs are not the 'things' they represent; the word 'hippopotamus' is not what a hippopotamus actually is; the word only represents the physical object we call a hippopotamus. A drawing of a wig, or the word wig, is not a hairpiece anyone could wear; it's only a representation of human hair. All forms of communication are for this reason based upon an understanding of the connection between the sign and the object or idea that it represents. Therefore you could write that all language is metaphorical, that it stands for something that it is not.
By the side of the river, sitting on a low mound is a man dressed in a Royal Mail uniform. He's attempting to take off his boot; he pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted; rests for a short while and tries again. As Hannah and Martin approach, he looks up.
Martin: The word 'Hippopotamus' is a metaphor for a large African Artiodactyla ungulate of aquatic habits, which has very thick skin, short legs, and a large head and muzzle.
Post-Man: Don't forget that even this description you give for a 'hippopotamus' is merely a string of words (signifiers) which are attempting to point towards the concept (signified) of the object (referent). A pointing that is itself trapped within a whole system of ambiguous communications.
Hannah: Excuse me?
Post-Man: Perhaps the referent (the meaning and existence of the objects or ideas) would not exist for us without the metaphors through which we classify and apprehend them. It is also quite probable, from a position that many would claim unthinkingly to be mere linguistic idealism, that the referent has no independent existence at all. Maybe, just maybe, the word 'wig' is not simply a representation of a representation, as you've implied (sounding rather like Plato when he writes of the mimetic image)(82), but the word is instead all the authority the object can ever possess.
Martin: Even so, the metaphor, let us say for example, 'horse,' when it is either spoken, written, drawn or conceptualised, is not a horse we can ride. Therefore, something physical must exist beyond the word, because people do ride horses, don't they?
Hannah: So the reason I don't ride horses is because their existence as rideable referents is in doubt and I always thought it was because of those annoying flies that buzz around them all day.
The Post-man hands Martin a piece of card that is decorated with the picture of a tree falling in an isolated forest. The dummy begins to read from the card.
"Within the chain of supplements, it was difficult to separate writing from onanism. Those two supplements have in common at least the fact that they are dangerous. They transgress a prohibition and are experienced within culpability. But by the economy of difference, they confirm the interdict they transgress, get around danger, and reserve an expenditure. In spite of them but also thanks to them, we are authorised to see the sun, to deserve the right that keeps us on the surface of the mine."(83)
Hannah: That was very poetic, but what the hell did it mean?
Post-Man: I can't claim to know what this passage actually means because I think meaning and knowledge are part of the problem that this text is attempting to address. However, I presume that the term 'chain of supplements' is Derrida's comment upon the contradictory claim of an entity or concept to maintain its own consummation, completion and sovereignty. Especially, that is, when we consider that it can only ever exist as part of an infinite and unbroken chain of signifiers, which must inevitably contain both additions and insufficiencies. The whole situation is complicated still further when we consider that "the word 'supplement' itself creates problems of conceptual grasp when one attempts to define it(84) . . . The notion of 'supplement' is bound up in a supplementary play of meaning which defies semantic reduction."(85) Yet I see all of this, unlike some critics, as obviously a deliberate ploy on Derrida's part, rather than an oversight. It is his attempt to destabilise those fixed notions of meaning, knowledge, and truth that many believe to exist in the spoken word. Speech is no more a direct line to our consciousness and truth, then any of our other pandemic forms of communication. Speech as Derrida informs us, already contains writing as part of its 'chain of supplements'; it doesn't exist beyond them in a Platonistic, transcendental realm of purity and truth.
In this passage, Derrida links writing with masturbation from a locality that perceives each as illicit and immoral acts in the religious sense. He claims that it is because of these prohibited exertions that pious ordinance and the inevitable homogenising consequences are at the very least brought into question. Derrida makes the subtle claim that it is because of these things and in spite of them that we are able to make relative sense of, and express thoughts about, our existence, - 'We are able to see the sun'. It is also because of and in spite of writing and onanism that we remain as dwellers of and upon this fragile earth, - 'to deserve the light that keeps us on the surface of the mine.'
Martin: These last two references sound very Heideggerian to me.
By the time Martin has finished saying these words the Post-Man has upped and left.
Hannah: These ideas are all very entertaining, from an academic point of view, yet they are not entirely practical are they? Do you think you could manage to get a little less cryptic and a touch more 'down-to-earth,' by explaining the relationship between Pirsig and rhetoric?
Martin: Broadly writing, rhetoric is the art of persuasive discourse. Aristotle once wrote that 'rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever.'(86) Although this definition was written over two thousand years ago, it remains even today as an adequate and general description of rhetoric. However Pirsig, or perhaps I should say his Phaedrus, is not altogether impressed by Aristotle's definition.
Rhetoric is an art, Aristotle began, because it can be reduced to a rational system of order. . .That just left Phaedrus aghast. . .(87)
When Phaedrus dismantled Aristotle's statement that rhetoric was an art because it could be reduced to a rational system of order, he discovered that by this criterion, 'General motors produced pure art, whereas Picasso did not.'(88)
Pirsig describes Phaedrus as a hard working yet appalling student who is as unfair to Aristotle as Aristotle himself had been to his predecessors, the Sophists. Yet, Pirsig explains that both Aristotle and Phaedrus are both poor scholars for the same reason; they have each maligned their opposition because these antagonists' ideas made a serious challenge to their own intended thesis. Phaedrus is outraged by Aristotle's displacement of rhetoric as a mere branch of Practical Science. When he investigates Aristotle's claim further he is horrified to discover that the category of Practical Science is itself only a minor division of Theoretical Science, one of the major categories in Aristotle's hierarchical order.
As a branch of Practical Science [rhetoric] was isolated from any concern with Truth or Good or Beauty, except as devices to throw into an argument. Thus Quality, in Aristotle's system, is totally divorced from rhetoric. This contempt for rhetoric, combined with Aristotle's own atrocious quality of rhetoric, so completely alienated Phaedrus he couldn't read anything Aristotle said without seeking ways to despise it and attack it.(89)
Phaedrus implies that Aristotle's only concern with rhetoric is as a counterpart of dialectic. He begins 'to wonder if 'dialectic' has some special significance for Aristotle which makes it a fulcrum word - one that can shift the balance of an argument, depending upon how it is placed.'(90) Phaedrus explains how Aristotle challenges Plato's belief in the 'dialectic' as the sole method of reaching truth. For Aristotle, there is also the physical or scientific method of observing and arriving at facts. This duality of scientific method aided by dialectical reason is, Phaedrus informs us, fundamental for understanding Aristotle's metaphysics. It is also fundamental for comprehending the fulcrum effect of the term 'dialectic' as well as its assault on rhetoric and its advocates. In Plato's dialogue, Gorgias, rhetoric is portrayed as an object and as such is shown to have parts. These parts have relationships to one another and can therefore be dissected. It is because rhetoric is portrayed as an object, with parts and relationships, that it cannot point to truth, because for Plato the truth is whole, the truth is universal, the truth is one. For Plato, only dialectic can lead to the one; rhetoric is relative and leads us away towards the many. Phaedrus claims that it is these many parts that form the basis of Aristotle's art of rhetoric, a mere secondary branch of science upon the proverbial tree of knowledge.
Phaedrus perceives the dialectic method as 'the usurper, a parvenu, muscling in on all that is Good and seeking to contain it and control it.'(91) He believes that Plato sets out to destroy the Sophists and their rhetorical approach because they stand for relativity and as such they give an unstable foundation to the future of the human condition. Plato replaces relativity with the certainty of knowledge that only his single unchanging 'truth' can bring. At the end of a monumental struggle, dialectic had pushed the balance of power on to the side of truth. Rhetoric and relativity had been pushed indefinitely into the margins of Western thought. Phaedrus sets out on a crusade to bring rhetoric back into the main stream; he fails. Pirsig, however, although unimpressed with much of Phaedrus's dogma, is sympathetic to his belief in rhetoric and relativity and continues this part of his crusade.
Hannah: So how does he manage to do this?
Martin: Through the application of tropes. An example of this is Pirsig's use of figurative language to present the characters of John and Sylvia Sutherland as a vehicle for familiarising the reader with the dichotomy of binary oppositions. John and Sylvia stand as a representative of the 'romantic mind,' in contrast to the narrator's predominantly 'classic mind.' This type of rhetorical analogy is a literary effect that Pirsig uses creatively to position the reader into a situation where we are able to make complex analytical connections via apparently ordinary and everyday experiences. A definitive response is never offered in this or any other situation; all that is ever provided is a particular position.
Hannah: This sounds like the same thing to me, simply dressed up in fancy words. How is rhetorically offering a position so very different from a definitive response?
Martin: It is different because a definitive response can be obtained by forces as well as by logos, whereas a rhetorical position can only be accepted through logos, or rather through anti-logos.
Hannah: An illustration would be good!
Martin begins to slowly flick through the pages of Pirsig's first novel.
Martin: I'll quote from this section and then explain what I think Pirsig is attempting to say.
Waiting for [John & Sylvia] to get going one morning in their kitchen I noticed the sink faucet was dripping and remembered that it was dripping the last time I was there before and that in fact it had been dripping as long as I could remember . . .John said that he had tried to fix it . . .but it hadn't worked. The presumption left was . . .if you try to fix a faucet and your fixing doesn't work then it's just your lot to live with a dripping faucet.(92)
Now the narrator wonders whether this constantly dripping faucet, week in and week out, will eventually cause the Sutherland's nerves to snap. Then one day, through 'some intuition,' he saw what he felt was Sylvia's suppressed anger at the faulty faucet.
It was the combined dripping of the faucet and the noise of the kids that blew her up. What struck me hard then was that she was not blaming the faucet, and that she was deliberately not blaming the faucet. She wasn't ignoring that faucet at all! She was suppressing anger at the faucet and that godamned-dripping faucet was just about killing her! But she could not admit the importance of this for some reason.
Why suppress anger at a dripping faucet? I wondered.
Then it patched in with the motorcycle maintenance [the Sutherland's had a block against this sort of maintenance] and one of those light bulbs went on over my head. It's not the motorcycle maintenance, not the dripping faucet. It's all of technology they can't take.(93)
The narrator explains that the reason John and Sylvia motorcycle through the country in the fresh air is to escape technology. They use terms such as 'it' and 'it all' as descriptions of the 'systematic forces that give rise to technology.'(94) They see anything technological as part of this inhuman world and do everything in their power to avoid it.
The narrator is not unsympathetic towards the views of John and Sylvia, but he sees their hatred of technology as self-defeating. The discourse of logic suggests that without technology, standards of living would be rapidly reduced. However, the narrator is quick to add that 'there are human forces stronger than logic,'(95) Herculean forces powerful enough to break the dominance of technology. The reason the narrator gives for seeing this anti-technical stance as self-defeating is that, 'the Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as [it] does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.'(96)
Hannah: Would you not agree that Pirsig's use of tropes to position the reader towards an 'open' reading of the text is something of an oxymoron?
Martin: Quite possibly, but one I would think is almost impossible to avoid. Pirsig's approach is intended to allow the reader a larger degree of personal and intellectual involvement, and dare I say freedom, as they set out to analyse and interpret the book's meaning for themselves. In the passage that I've just quoted Pirsig nurtures the seeds of his Quality-thesis with the wastewater from the dripping faucet in the hope that these ideas may begin to germinate in the mind of the reader. In this short section Pirsig has bound together both the literal and figurative elements of language into a higher quality signification; and also bound together the classic and romantic oppositions into the higher 'Metaphysics of Quality.'
Hannah: The example you've given would seem to enforce the narrator's position in a much stronger fashion than that of either John or Sylvia Sutherland.
Martin: It does, you're right, but that is the narrator's position; Pirsig isn't suggesting that nobody voice an opinion, just that each opinion is simply that; an opinion, without any superior claim to a legitimacy beyond itself.
Perhaps a better example from the novel is when Pirsig uses his narrator to explain a situation in which John Sutherland's motorcycle handlebars are slipping. The narrator attempts to fix the problem on John's new and expensive BMW, with a shim (a thin flat strip of metal) cut from an old beer can. John is insulted that his friend should attempt to fix his precision machine with a piece of disposable beer can. The narrator explains, humorously, and perhaps slightly cruelly, that the beer can is as good at rectifying this particular problem as a shim imported from Germany out of the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who has had to sell it at great personal sacrifice to himself.
What underlies this passage is that the narrator sees the shim in an intellectual, classic, and what he later calls, 'square' way; whereas John sees the shim in terms of immediate appearance. In his romantic 'hip' understanding it is an old beer can. The narrator perceives the shim for what it means and for what it can do; John sees it for what it was and how it looks.
Essentially both John and the narrator are looking, talking and thinking about the same thing; but they are each coming at it from completely different directions. Pirsig terms this as 'a conflict in visions of reality.'(97)
Hannah: The classic/romantic divide once more?
Jack: What the expression 'a conflict in visions of reality' also implies is the direction from which Pirsig's thoughts are emerging, namely relativism.
Hannah: What makes you say that?
Jack: Relativism is the view that accepted standards of right and good may change radically throughout history and also vary enormously between cultures and individual persons. On the subject of the shim, neither John nor Pirsig's narrator is completely right nor completely wrong; for the simple reason that these terms, right and wrong, are invalid and insufficient in this situation.
Martin: From an aesthetic point of view John could well be right, an old beer can is out of place on a precision built machine. However, on a practical level the narrator has an equally valid claim to be right; the beer can does indeed fulfil the function of a shim as well as anything could. Therefore, what is right and good in each case is relative to each individual position.
The whole of chapter ten in ZMM, is devoted to relativism and relativity. It contains a fascinating quotation by a young Albert Einstein who states that "truth is a function of time" and that, "scientific truth is not good for eternity but is a temporal quantitative entity that can be studied like anything else." As the narrator explains, "To state that [scientific truth is relative] would annihilate the most basic presumption of all science. . .But there it was, the whole history of science, a clear story of continuously new and changing explanations of old facts."(98)
Jack: The phrase 'a conflict in visions of reality' also suggests another connection; one that links Pirsig's work to a movement in philosophy that grew in the United States of America at the turn of the century and came to be known as Pragmatism.
Hannah: What's Pragmatism?
Martin: Pragmatism, in the general sense, rejects the notion of an absolute 'Truth', seeing it instead as 'the name of a property that all true statements share.'(99) The practitioner of Pragmatism is of the opinion that all truths are human and relative and can only be tested by the value of their consequences. In the case of the shim, the conflict is between the different ways in which the two men view the application of the metal from the consumed beer can as a means of fixing a precision machine. Their conflict is not with the idea of the shim itself; their difference of opinion is, as Pirsig says, with their visions of reality. They are separated on either side of a people-made, classic/romantic dilemma. John assesses reality as it appears to him at any particular moment; he sees and discusses things in terms of immediate experience. Whereas the narrator assesses reality in terms of its underlying form, the parts of a motorcycle, the lines and planes, shapes and symbols of a drawing, or the words, sentences and metaphors of literature.
Hannah: So, our individual consciousness perceives the world and truth quite differently to others, due to factors such as, life experience, education, physical abilities and disabilities, beliefs and desires; are you suggesting that it is our communication which robs us of all attempts to experience and express these individual responses to 'reality'? Are we imprisoned within the limiting forms of pandemic communication systems? Are we entrapped within what I believe you called earlier 'the homogenisation of language?' If I understand you correctly this reminds me of a work of art I saw on TV last week, in which a glass tank is lined from top to bottom with a variety of fish all facing the same way. I think that it's called something like, 'Moving in the same direction for the purpose of communication.'(100)
Martin: There are two points to make here. Firstly, is there an individual response to, and consciousness of, reality that is separate from the pandemic communication system of society, such as language? Our reply to this question will influence our opinion of whether consciousness and thought can exist beyond the boundaries of our given language, or whether our language constructs our ability to cogitate. I imagine that it does, but I don't say this with any scientific conviction. The second point I wish to make follows on from the first and asks 'what of poets and poetic language?' What is their role if it is not to communicate to the rest of us, in a form we can hopefully comprehend, their vision of reality, their personal response to what they see and experience around them? The poet obviously has to work with the means of communication each society has available. Otherwise no one would understand them and their work would end up in a similar fashion to the late unfathomable ramblings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Surely the poet must see part of his or her role as expanding their particular culture's language, supplying new metaphors and recreating the ones that have slipped into the realm of clichÄ and started to decay. The poet is often the one who swims against the shoal. The symbols and words of a language are like the practical aspects of an engine; and the metal from which the engine is designed and cast is like the sentences each writer creates and moulds. Just as the overall engine is much more than the parts from which it has been assembled, so too is a piece of literature, a painting, a symphony, a bodily gesture, more than the words and letters, lines and colours, sounds and pauses, used within its construction. If we extend this whole idea still further we can also envisage that it is the philosopher's role to work within the pandemic communication system and to express ideas about how they see the world. The philosopher's language is not the world or even a reflection of the world; it is rather the interpretation of the world. The philosopher has no wish to communicate a two-dimensional world of letters on paper. He or she wants to present a multi-dimensional universe of ideas, and in this respect, a philosopher must also be a poet.
The Church Of Reason
Martin and Hannah are still walking close to the river's edge but the scene is far more wooded now.
Martin: Much as Immanuel Kant claimed that David Hume's writings woke him from his 'dogmatic slumber', so Pirsig's Phaedrus ends a long lateral, mental drift after reading F. S. C. Northrop's The Meeting of East and West. Northrop's book implies that there is a primary element within Western cultural existence that has led it down a 'theoretical' path. In contrast, the cultural existence of the Orient, Northrop suggests, has followed an 'aesthetic' path. Northrop's supposition is that at a fundamental level Eastern existence has an aesthetic element that has evolved from a multitude of factors such as climate and terrain, language and diet, myth and ritual, taboo and medication. The same, he believes to be the case with Western culture, except that its foundations have given it a 'theoretical' element.
Just as Kant himself admitted that his most important tenets were either explicitly or tacitly in answer to problems raised by David Hume, Pirsig suggests that Phaedrus's ideas about the 'classic' and 'romantic' modes of reality correspond roughly to those of Northrop's 'theoretic' and 'aesthetic.' However, Pirsig is quick to point out that there are major differences between these two ideas. Phaedrus's 'classic reality,' he informs us, is not exclusively theoretical but also has an aesthetic element, just as his 'romantic reality,' although primarily aesthetic, is not completely devoid of theory. Pirsig maintains that Northrop's 'theoretic and aesthetic split is between components of a single world. The classic and romantic split is between two separate worlds.'(101) Pirsig will eventually attempt to unite these separate worlds via his 'Metaphysics of Quality.'
Phaedrus spends two whole weeks in a Seattle hotel room pondering over Northrop's suggestion that much more notice needs to be paid to the 'undifferentiated aesthetic continuum' out of which theory arose. Phaedrus eventually decides that the path he must take in order to find answers to his frustrated questioning is not a purely scientific one. Instead, he realises that he must choose the steep, winding and often difficult track that will lead him into what he terms the 'high country of the mind.'(102) He returns once more to university; this time not to study science but philosophy.
Hannah: In using this climbing metaphor to describe philosophy as the high country of the mind, is Pirsig, in your view, presenting a general view of philosophy, or is this a more personal view?
Martin: Without wishing to sound contradictory, I'd have to say both. Pirsig is presenting a particular view of metaphysics as a discipline of universals.
Hannah: So, does this 'high country' have one summit or many?
Martin: Mu. Pirsig sees the philosopher's task as investigating the generalities of the human condition as a whole and not the interests of any particular group. However, if the metaphor 'the high country of the mind' suggests a particular version of philosophy, placing metaphysics as the summit of everything that is known thus far, it doesn't necessarily follow that it is meant as an elitist statement. Pirsig is at pains, throughout both novels, to point out that the pathway to the high country of the mind is available to everyone. Yet it is not an easy path and takes a great deal of stamina and discomfort to travel any distance. Moreover, the real drawback in our modern world is that no financial profit can be gained from such a climb. The only profit is an 'austere beauty' that, Pirsig says, makes the hard work worthwhile for the few who undertake the journey.
In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty, and to the enormous magnitude of questions asked, and to the answers proposed to these questions. The sweep goes on and on and on so obviously much further than the mind can grasp one hesitates even to go near for fear of getting lost in them and never finding one's way out.(103)
Hannah: Pirsig's entry into the world of metaphysical questioning sounds like the journey into the labyrinthine cave of the Minotaur that you mentioned earlier.
Jack: Where did you think that he got the idea?
Martin: I think that you're right Hannah, and in Pirsig's cave one only ever has a short length of thread, 'the sweep goes on and on and on so obviously much further than the mind can grasp.' The limits of this thread Pirsig calls the 'Church of Reason.' To travel beyond this thread and to venture into the darkness is to risk being misunderstood within the Church of Reason; to be labelled a heretic and even to jeopardise one's claim to sanity.
Hannah: Would I be right in assuming that Pirsig presents the Church of Reason as a negative influence upon our understanding of the world?
Martin: I would say that Pirsig sees the Church of Reason as more restrictive than negative. He is particularly interested in the 'corruption and decay within the Church of Reason.'(104) This suggests to me that Pirsig doesn't see the Church of Reason as a corrupting influence in itself, but rather, that by its very existence the Church of Reason is open to corruption. Many of those ordained within the 'Church' have an interest in restricting its growth beyond their beliefs. If reason is unable to transform and expand then all it can ever become is stagnant irrationality. The Church of Reason seems to Pirsig at times, unwilling and perhaps, more worryingly, incapable of listening to that which appears outside of its doctrine. Pirsig is attempting to defend rationality against an immovable god of reason that ordains that it is unforgivable to appear illogical. To stop making sense is to be branded a heretic or lunatic in the eyes of reason's overlord. For doing no more than veering off the customary path of reason, travelling beyond the traditional limits of the 'high country', is to be deemed disrespectful to the holy order who kept a tight rein upon the controls of reason.
The church attitude is simply that the accountability must be to the God of reason, not to the idols of political power. The fact that [Phaedrus] was insulting people was irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of what he was saying and he couldn't ethically be struck down for this. But what they were prepared to strike him down for, ethically and with gusto, was any indication that he wasn't making sense. He could do anything he wanted so long as he justified it in terms of reason. But how the hell do you ever justify, in terms of reason, a refusal to define something? Definitions are the foundation of reason.(105)
Hannah: Many new ideas must appear illogical before the structure of our reason is adjusted to compensate for them. Darwinian evolution, the Copernican revolution and Heisenberg's solution, to name but a few. Chapter Seven
Dialectic, which is the parent of logic, came itself from rhetoric. Rhetoric is in turn the child of the myths and poetry of ancient Greece. That is so historically, and that is so by any application of common sense. The poetry and the myths are a response of a prehistoric people to the universe around them made on the basis of Quality. It is Quality, not dialectic, which is the generator of everything we know.(106)
Martin: According to Plato's 'Theory of Forms,' everything from rocks to rodents and from jugs to justice can only be determined by comparison to their original forms; those super-sensible realities, or patterns, that exist exclusively in the 'world of ideas.'
Hannah: I'm confused, because, if these forms exist outside of time and space, in a higher realm of spiritual reality beyond appearance, how can we know what these forms are like? And how are we to judge the 'copies' of these ideal forms, the ones that do exist in time and space, if we'll never be able to measure them against the ideal forms?
Martin: Plato addresses this rebuke by claiming that every human being goes through a process called 'anamnesis' (recollection or the act of unforgetting). Plato believes that the soul travels through numerous cycles of life and death, of bodied and disembodied modes of existence. During each of the disembodied states, the soul comes to know the forms; but to its eternal annoyance, and our anxiety, the soul forgets about the forms during re-embodiment. However, through the use of our reason we are slowly able to recall much, if not all, of our disembodied knowledge and depending upon how great an emphasis we place on rational thinking, the closer we get to anamnesis.
Hannah: So I suppose that in Plato's way of looking at existence, we can never discover anything, or learn anything, new; we simply remember and uncover things we've forgotten at birth. That's sad!
Martin: 'Platocrates' second speech in the Phaedrus proclaims that the most brilliantly seen of all the forms is beauty, 'once ours to see in all its brightness.'(107) Plato introduces these words into the mouth of Socrates to introduce his theory of anamnesis. Yet, what is fascinating in the Phaedrus is that Plato is only able to present his ideas about the self-moving human soul, which is striving to reach the heavenly world of pure forms, by using an allegorical myth. This is a severe contradiction of Plato's earlier statements that such poetic techniques are Sophistry when used to explain ideas. It is also interesting and rather surprising to see that within the Phaedrus Platocrates explains that analogy is the only way to define the indefinable.
To describe [the nature of the soul's immortality] as it is would require a long exposition of which only a god is capable; but it is within the power of man to say in shorter compass what it represents.(108)
In Platocrates' analogy, the charioteer represents the rational part of the soul. The winged chariot is the soul itself that is being pulled by two horses. One horse is white and noble, 'his thirst for honour is tempered by restraint and modesty; he is a friend to genuine renown and needs no whip, but is driven simply by the word of command. The other horse is black, surly stubborn and passionate; wantonness and boastfulness are his companions, and he is hairy eared and deaf.'(109)
Pirsig's Phaedrus uses Platocrates' application of the analogy to undermine the assumption that truth is the sole product of the dialectic method which Plato insists will inevitably prove the holiness of reason! He also uses Plato's text to emphasise the point that although Socrates has sworn to the gods to tell the truth, he has previously stated that this description of the soul as a chariot is an analogy. 'Of course it's an analogy,' Pirsig writes. 'Everything is analogy. But the dialecticians don't know that, [but Platocrates knew it because if he] hadn't stated it he wouldn't have been telling the truth.'(110) Pirsig's Phaedrus then uses Platocrates' application of analogy to weaken the philosophy of Aristotle (or more precisely, of the group of critics at the university in Illinois where Phaedrus was studying for his PhD, who became known as the 'Chicago Aristotelians') that the 'dialectic comes before everything else.' Pirsig writes: 'Once it's stated that the dialectic comes before everything else, this statement itself becomes a dialectic entity, subject to dialectic questions. . .What evidence do we have that the dialectic question-and-answer method of arriving at truth comes before everything else? We have none whatsoever. Moreover, when the statement is isolated and itself subject to scrutiny it becomes patently ridiculous. Here is this dialectic, like Newton's law of gravity, just sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere, giving birth to the universe, hey? It's asinine.'(111)
Suddenly as if appearing out of nowhere the Post-Man is standing on the path in front of Martin and Hannah.
Post-Man. May I suggest that this is a relatively pragmatic reading of Plato's text?
Hannah: Can you stop just appearing out of nowhere? It's making me nervous.
Martin: Pragmatic! In what sense?
Post-Man: In that it implies a tamping down of the needs for truth and closure. It portrays these needs as having been brought about by a cultural arrogance that favours simplistic dual oppositions rather than the chaotic complexities of existence. 'From a fully-fledged pragmatist point of view, there is no interesting difference between tables and texts, between protons and poems. To a pragmatist, these are just permanent possibilities for use, thus for redistribution, reinterpretation, and manipulation.'(112)
Martin: There's certainly an affiliation between the Pirsigian 'Metaphysics of Quality' and generalities of Pragmatism but it's not of the 'fully fledged' variety in Rorty's sense of the term. In Pirsig's second novel, Lila, he describes a kinship between his work and pragmatist thought. This is most clearly seen in a quotation he uses from William James: 'Truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it. . .The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.'(113)
Pirsig is sympathetic to pragmatist views, especially in his analysis of Plato's contradictory claims to truth free from fiction and rhetoric. However, I don't see him as a whole-hearted pragmatist, for he has remained a nostalgic Kantian or Heideggerian who has the tendency to take the legitimacy of his own arguments seriously.
Hannah: You say that Plato's writings are contradictory, how and why?
Post-Man: Because Plato deals at great length, in his own fictional dialogues, with the detrimental consequences of fictional representation. He seizes upon literature's tendency to exchange credible myths for the rational pursuit of truth and knowledge, yet his own work makes use of symbolism, allegory and narrative structure. In texts such as the Phaedrus and The Republic, Plato continually makes assaults upon the artist for his reliance upon what he sees as third rate techniques of mimetic illusion. Yet, at the same time his dialogues are manipulating identical approaches to literary presentation, including fables, metaphors and analogies.(114)
Hannah: You sound as though you're in agreement with Martin.
Post-Man: I think the disagreement between us only arises when Martin refuses to accept the full consequences of pragmatic theory. When he stands upon the escarpment of autonomy in thought and actions, unshackled from the baseless presuppositions of our existence, he is struck with a paralysing fear. It is at this juncture that Martin chooses to pull back and cling once more to an absurd faith in the groundless foundations of that which he himself derides, 'the Church of Reason.' These groundless foundations are what Jean-Fracois Lyotard calls 'grand' or 'meta-narratives'; those ostensibly universal, absolute, or ultimate truths that are used to legitimise various political, metaphysical and scientific projects, such as Marxism and Fascism, Platonism and modernism, psychoanalysis and sociology. Lyotard sees no possible ground upon which to place any such arguments, all are fictions and no dialectic truths can grow from these narratives.
Before Martin has a chance to respond the post-man has wandered off again out of sight.
Hannah: Not again! What's he up to now; and how is it that he seems to know so much about your thesis?
Martin: He's just playing games, that's all. I'd much prefer to get back to our discussion of Plato's Phaedrus.
I'd like to take a look at Plato's spurious assumptions that 'there is not nor ever shall be, as the Spartan said, a genuine art of speaking which is divorced from the grasp of truth.'(115) Plato adds to this attack upon the rhetoricians: 'What a budding orator needs to know is not what is really right, but what is likely to seem right in the eyes of the mass of people who are going to pass judgement; not what is really good or fine but what will seem so.'(116) However, this entreats the obvious question of how can you ever indisputably know what is 'really right?' Can you literally know what is right; or merely know what is right literally?
As he draws to his conclusion Plato distinguishes the pure spoken word as 'the legitimate brother of written speech,' suggesting that 'the living animated speech of a man with knowledge [is true illuminating wisdom], to which written speech might fairly be called a kind of shadow.'(117)
Hannah: What I don't understand is why Plato is so down on the Sophists? I keep asking myself, what is Plato's real purpose in placing speech over writing and what does Pirsig get out of bringing all of this into question?
Martin: 'Plato's hatred of the rhetoricians was part of a much larger struggle in which the reality of the Good, represented by the Sophists, and the reality of the True, represented by the dialecticians, were engaged in a huge struggle for the future mind of man. Truth won and Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality, even though there is no more agreement in one area than the other.'(118) Yet, it would be wrong to assume that Plato's intentions were anything but honourable, even if the eventual implications of his ideas have not been.
Hannah: Surely without the idea of truth, humankind would never have advanced intellectually much beyond the ways of the early ancient Greeks. We'd have no science, technology or collected body of knowledge.
Martin: It is an interesting point but one that is impossible to prove; who could possibly say how things would be today had humankind not sworn an allegiance to absolute truth? What would things be like if we sought to find, in every situation, not what is true but rather what is pragmatic, relative and Good? The pursuit of absolute truth has not brought perfection, but who knows what Quality could have brought or could bring?
Plato, however, has complete faith in the sanctity of truth, and fights for his belief with all his rhetorical skills. He wants it fixed for all time, received from the realm of eternal forms and not derived from our mortal world of change, relativity, and decay.
Jack: I think that it's important to bear in mind that Plato felt alienated from the mortal world after it saw fit to destroy his mentor, the great philosopher, Socrates.(119) Plato idolised Socrates and went on to portray him as the witty epitome of wisdom, knowledge, and truth. Plato believed that the noble Socrates rose so far above those that condemned him to death that he would not accept that their earthly law was all the existence that life contained. The events surrounding Socrates' death profoundly influenced Plato's whole philosophy and led him to believe that wisdom and truth must exist in a realm beyond this world, without all its earthly failings.
Martin: Something that added to Plato's determination to fix truth in a transcendental realm of ideas, was a confrontation that had occurred between the Sophists and several pre-Socratic philosophers whom Pirsig names as The Cosmologists. These Cosmologists sought to establish a universal immortal principle by using analogies from the external world they found all around them. Thales analogy for this universal eternal principle was water. Anaximenes termed it air; Heraclitus labelled it fire and the Pythagoreans (being the first to establish their analogy upon a non-material principle) called it number. Next came the philosophy of Parmenides whose 'Immortal Principle' or 'The One' was, for the first time in history, positioned as something quite separate from appearance and opinion. The importance of this separation and its effects cannot be overstated. 'It's here that the classic mind took leave of its romantic origins.'(120) Pirsig points out that up until this time there had been no such thing as a separation between mind and matter, subject and object, form and substance. These divisions are simply dialectical inventions; fictitious divisions which 'are ghosts, immortal Gods of the modern mythos which appear to us to be real because we are in that mythos. But in reality they are just as much an artistic creation as the anthropomorphic Gods they replace,'(121) concludes Pirsig's narrator.
It is at a time in history when Parmenides' views are spreading throughout the ancient Greek world that a group of philosophers now known as the fifth century Sophists enter the fray. Many of these philosophers hold to views that mark them out as early humanists. This is because they suggest that the humankind has the ability to find a flexible moral position for itself without the need for divinity or divine principles. "Man is the measure of all things" are allegedly the profound words of Protagoras. The Sophists' object was not any single absolute truth, but the improvement of persons. All principles, all truths, are relative, they said.'(122)
On reading back through the history of ideas Pirsig's Phaedrus begins to understand Plato's dislike for the Sophists. He recognises that Plato is using the dialogue form to defend the immortal principle of the Cosmologists against the pragmatic ideas of the Sophists.
Now Plato's hatred of the Sophists makes sense. He and Socrates are defending the immortal principle of the Cosmologists against what they consider to be the decadence of the Sophists. Truth. Knowledge. That which is independent of what anyone thinks about it. The ideal that Socrates died for. The ideal that Greece alone possesses for the first time in the history of the world. It is still a very fragile thing. It can disappear completely. Plato abhors and damns the Sophists without restraint, not because they are low immoral people - there are obviously much lower and more immoral people in Greece he completely ignores. He damns them because they threaten mankind's first beginning grasp of the idea of truth. That's what it is all about.(123)
Hannah: So Plato places speech above writing. Why exactly?
Martin: He considers speech to be a more direct contact with consciousness and therefore identical with reality, knowledge, and truth. Whereas he considers writing (a relatively new development at this stage in Greek cultural life)(124) to be a threat to knowledge and power, portraying it as a second-hand, shadowy imitation of speech. Plato stresses throughout the Phaedrus(125) that because writing can be interpreted in ways that the author had never intended and without the writer being present to defend the work, it is left open to misinterpretation, and is therefore unable, and unfit, to communicate the truth.
Hannah and Martin are stopped in their tracks by the sight of a postcard fixed to a tree. Hannah leans forward but cannot reach the card to remove it because vicious looking brambles surround the base of the tree. Instead she leans forward and begins to read from the card:
Derrida also highlights Plato's debasement of writing by explaining how both the Platonic and Christian traditions consider 'spiritual writing' (a simulated, internal, immediate voice which is presumed to imprint genuine truth and wisdom directly upon the soul without the aid of material instruments) to be free from the ambiguities which face the inferior material script. Derrida suggests that Rousseau repeats this Platonic gesture in his Essay on the Origin of Language: where he says that 'to "judge genius" from books is like painting a man's portrait from a corpse.'(126)
Martin: I was going to address the consanguinity between Derrida's and Pirsig's work in a later part of my thesis.
Martin fights his way through the prickly brambles and pulls the post-card indignantly from the tree only to reveal a second post-card beneath the first. Hannah leans forward once more and began to read.
'Man is the measure of all things.' Yes, that's what he is saying about Quality. Man is not the source of all things, as the subjective idealists would say. Nor is he a passive observer of all things, as the objective idealists and materialist would say. The Quality which creates the world emerges as a relationship between man and his experience. He is a participant in the creation of all things. The measure of all things.(127)
Martin: Which leads me, unsurprisingly, back to where I intended to be; which is addressing the problem that Pirsig's Phaedrus faces when he attempts to equate the above explanation of the Sophists, as relativists, with the central concept and concern of their teaching which is 'virtue', an ethical absolute.
A resolution to this problem is found by Pirsig's Phaedrus in H. D. F. Kitto's The Greeks, and is further explained through a reading of two short passages from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. In his book professor Kitto suggests that 'what moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism, is not a sense of duty as we understand it - duty towards others; it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate "virtue", but is in Greek aretÉ, "excellence" . . .When we meet aretÉ in Plato, we translate it "virtue" and consequently miss all the flavour of it. "Virtue" in Modern English, is almost an entirely moral word; aretÉ, on the other hand, is used indifferently in all categories, and simply means excellence.'(128)
Pirsig then explains aretÉ through a reading of Homer's Iliad, which helps to illuminate part of its essence for the twentieth century Western mind. AretÉ is seen as a characteristic of Hector, the Trojan leader, who shows no signs of pity as he leaves his heart-broken wife and infant son to their inevitable fate of slavery, while he faces certain death as a warrior in defence of the Holy city of Troy. Hector knows that the Trojans will be defeated by the Acheans, yet he believes that his wife will in the future be consoled, even in slavery, in the knowledge that her heroic husband 'was the noblest in battle of the horse-taming Trojans.'(129)
Pirsig also quotes a passage by professor Kitto in which he explains at length the attributes of a hero of the Odyssey. The passage concludes by explaining that Odysseus 'is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing aretÉ.'
AretÉ implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialisation. It implies a contempt for efficiency - or rather a much higher idea of efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.(130)
Pirsig links aretÉ with Quality and Dharma. 'That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine 'virtue'. But aretÉ. Excellence. Dharma! Before the church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectics itself. Quality had been absolute. The first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they chose was that of rhetoric.'(131)
Hannah: Does Plato mean the same within his use of the term aretÉ, as Homer does in his portrayal of Odysseus and Hector? And if so, what is the difference between Plato's aretÉ and Pirsig's Quality?
Martin: Pirsig suggests that Plato usurps aretÉ by subordinating it to a dialectically determined truth, and attempts to encapsulate aretÉ by making it a permanent fixed idea, a rigid, immobile immortal Truth. He made aretÉ the Good, the highest form, the highest idea of all. 'It was subordinate only to truth itself. That was why the Quality that Phaedrus has arrived at seemed so close to Plato's Good. Plato's Good was taken from the rhetoricians. The difference was that Plato's Good was a fixed and eternal and unmoving idea, whereas for the rhetoricians it was not an idea at all. The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way.'(132)
Pirsig then moves on to imply that with Aristotle's monumental creation of our modern scientific understanding of reality through 'substance' (that baseless presupposition for his notion of appearance), aretÉ, as Homer intended it, was buried alive under the man-made foundations of form, identity, difference, and categorisation. For Aristotle the Good becomes merely part of ethics, and rhetoric is reduced to the teaching of decorations and forms of writing. It is reason, logic and knowledge that are Aristotle's major interests, not sophistry and 'empty rhetoric'; those emotional appeals which are without proper subservience to dialectical truth.
Chapter Eight Lila
Martin: In his second novel Lila (An Inquiry into Morals), written in 1991, Pirsig's narrator sets sail on board a yacht travelling down the Hudson river. He is in a race against the freezing waters of the fast approaching winter, on his way south to Mexico via Florida.
The reader swiftly discovers that Pirsig is taking them on another journey, not as in ZMM, to the 'high country of the mind' on a motorcycle, but through the deep and difficult waters of philosophical exploration upon a boat. The narrator and the reader are each embarking upon a poignant voyage that will attempt to illuminate what we have already discussed as 'The Metaphysics of Quality.' The author once again chooses to investigate an array of complex yet practical problems, this time he revisits and refines the initial ideas that were set out in ZMM.
Pirsig's protagonist, Phaedrus, is older now, and quite a different character from the one we came to know in ZMM. In Lila, Phaedrus is no longer a person in total conflict with himself; he is now a synthesis of his two previous identities. At the conclusion of ZMM, we saw Phaedrus re-emerge from the depths of insanity which had been brought about by a split in his personality. In Lila, we see the continuation of this re-emergence, in that the new Phaedrus contains elements of both the dynamic and creative intellect of ZMM's ghostly Phaedrus, and the controlled introspective philosophising of ZMM's narrator. This psychological cure within Phaedrus is also a representation of the healing process Pirsig suggests for the schizophrenia in Western philosophy itself, the split between the subject of knowledge (the knower) and the object of knowledge (the known). Pirsig attempts to remedy this rift via his panacea, the so-called, 'Metaphysics of Quality.' Phaedrus's travelling companion on his journey is Lila Blewitt. . .
Jack: Not the subtlest of created surnames, is it!
Martin: Lila Blewitt isn't the subtlest of people, which becomes evident to us as soon as we meet her. Lila and Phaedrus get friendly with one another in a riverside bar when both are drunk and in need of some company. They appear, at face value anyway, to be the complete opposite of one another. Phaedrus is a 'dull old philosopher'; Lila's a sexually aggressive, fun loving person, whose former beauty is a fading memory. Yet, Lila's outgoing disposition disguises her insecure personality within and like the Phaedrus we meet in ZMM she is on the verge of a serious psychological disintegration. In many ways, the character of Lila can be seen, from a Jungian point of view, as Phaedrus' Anima, his soul image. The Anima represents the archetypal, inner image of the opposite sex which exists at the core of our psyche. In Jungian psychology, the Anima has a character that is often the exact opposite of our own outward personality or persona, and this is very true of Lila in relation to Phaedrus.
Another character who also figures prominently in the novel is Richard Rigel, an antagonistic, puritanical, conservative lawyer, and a modern day sophist who is the antithesis of the fifth century Greek variety. Rigel looks down upon Phaedrus and his ideas as a nasty by-product of the promiscuous and 'immoral' attitudes of the nineteen-sixties. Rigel has a travelling companion aboard his boat, a yachts-person named Bill Capella, who is a friendly, unpretentious young man, who plays only a minor role in the novel.
These two names, Capella and Rigel, are intriguing in that they are also the names given to two first magnitude stars. Capella, situated in the northern hemisphere constellation of Auriga, is said to represent an Athenian charioteer; much like the one used by Plato in his analogy of the self-moving human soul on its journey towards the 'world of forms' in his dialogue Phaedrus. Rigel is the name given to a first magnitude star that resides at the foot of Orion, a constellation in the equatorial region of the sky. It representing the hunter of Greek mythology whom is shot through the head in error by his lover Artemis, the sister of Apollo.(133) This myth bears an uncanny resemblance to Richard Rigel's fate at the close of Lila. He is metaphorically shot through the head by his lover through his own self-righteousness. Rigel sails away, at the close of Pirsig's second novel, to a life with the mentally unstable Lila and with a stubborn refusal to accept any ideas that challenge his own rigid Victorian system of moral values.
The name Lila is used in Hindu mythology to represent the creative activity of the Divine. One of the basic recurring themes in Hinduism is that the world is created through the self-sacrifice of God. Sacrifice in the sense of making sacred, whereby God becomes the world, which eventually becomes God again. For Hindus the world is seen as a divine play in which Brahman is the Great Spirit who transforms himself, using magical powers, into the cosmos. Brahman's creative magic is also called 'Maya', which has come to symbolise the psychological state of being under the spell of this magic play. Within 'Maya' one confuses the divine Lila with our perception of the world. Maya doesn't suggest that the world is an illusion, only that the world we create, through empirical knowledge of things, events, structures, and shapes, are merely perceptions of the world and not the world as it is in itself. Maya is the illusion of taking our concept of reality for reality itself.
In the Hindu view of nature all forms are relative, fluid and ever changing Maya, conjured up by the great magician of the divine play. The world of Maya changes continuously, because the divine Lila is a rhythmic, dynamic play.(134)
Hannah: Would that be a good way in which to describe Pirsig's second novel, as one based upon a rhythmic, dynamic play?
Martin: I wouldn't argue with that; Lila is undeniably a 'Pirsigian' text concerning both its content and style. Lila is both witty and relevant; it is peppered with illuminating digressions and meditations on subjects as diverse as sailing, sex, psychology and metaphysics. At times, the novel threatens the established notions and presuppositions of thought by disseminating fixed ideas about values and truth. Lila has many surfaces, some terrifying and insane, others relaxed and reassuring; and as these surfaces shift like the plate-tectonics of the earth's crust, whole continents of thought are altered in the process.
Pirsig uses his central character, Lila, as a vehicle for presenting complex questions in a down-to-earth manner. She is positioned to represent a particular element of late twentieth century existence; a symbol of the effects of constant progression upon the human condition; a pure dynamic without any static latching, an impetuous avalanche tumbling headlong towards insanity. Rigel, on the other hand, represents another, and perhaps polarised, element of our present human condition; he is depicted as a regressive step backward into a Victorian world of utilitarian morality. He is locked into a mental state of inertia without the merest hint of progression, a static representation of cultural extinction. Pirsig attempts to highlight the impasse between these two positions by using a relatively minor anecdote taken from Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture. This anecdotal case history refers to a conflict of morality concerning a Pueblo Indian who lived in Zuni, New Mexico, during the nineteenth century. 'Like the Zen Koan (which also originally meant 'case-history') the anecdote doesn't have any single right answer but rather a number of possible meanings that keep drawing Phaedrus deeper and deeper into the moral situation.'(135)
Benedict's anecdote describes the anti-social behaviour (window peeping and conduct deemed to be immodest) of one particular Pueblo Indian, whose actions eventually lead to his being charged as a witch and punished by the tribe's respected war priest. The accused Indian manages to get a message out to the white government troops. When the Indian is found hanging by his thumbs (the typical Zuni procedure for those charged with witchcraft) the war priest is tried by white laws and imprisoned for what the white culture deemed an offence. However, instead of the anti-social Indian being outcast from the tribe, he is given a position of responsibility. And before his death, he has reached the position of governor and high priest of Zuni. This situation proves to be of enormous benefit to the tribe because of the anti-social Indian's imaginative outlook and dynamic qualities. He enables the tribe to evolve with the changing times and therefore to survive in the New World order in which the white European immigrants are the growing and dominant power in the region. Yet these positions of responsibility, war priest and governor, imposed upon the rebellious Indian, causes him great suffering and unhappiness. They restrict his native endowment, his dynamic anti-authoritarian behaviour; it clips the wings of his desire to be different and free.
Phaedrus' reading of the case history draws out not only an isolated tribal incident but also an event of universal significance. He sees it as an anecdote for the entire human situation. The story is presented by Benedict as a struggle between good and evil. Yet I feel this is far too simplistic a reading; because, as Pirsig suggests, 'which is which?' Who, in this anecdote, stands for good and who represents evil? Phaedrus becomes increasingly interested in the reasons why this unhappy Indian does not simply leave the tribe. And what causes the tribe to make this former voyeur, egotist, witch and torture victim, their governor and priest?
The reasons appear to be that they are each seeking a way through the two extremes of static extinction and dynamic obliteration. 'Phaedrus concludes that the real reason the people of Zuni made the brujo [another name for a shaman, which Pirsig believes fits the situation of the Pueblo Indian much more satisfactorily than Benedict's 'misfit' or 'witch'] governor had to be because [he] had shown [that] he could deal successfully with the one tribe that could so easily wipe them out any time it wanted to. He had real political clout.'(136)
Phaedrus begins to see that several varieties of good and evil are at work within the context of Benedict's anecdote. There are, for instance, the cultural patterns of 'Static Good', as Pirsig terms them. These are the tribal boundaries and values that define the culture for its members and others. They are derived from the fixed laws and traditions that are the essential structure of any culture.
In the Static sense the brujo was very clearly evil to oppose the appointed authorities of his tribe. Suppose everyone did that? The whole Zuni Culture after thousands of years of continuous survival, would collapse into chaos.(137)
And there is also the:
Dynamic Good that is outside of any culture, that cannot be contained by any system of precepts, but has to be continuously rediscovered as a culture evolves. Good and evil are not entirely a matter of tribal custom. If they were, no tribal change would be possible, since custom cannot change custom. There has to be another source of good and evil outside the tribal customs that produce the tribal change.(138)
The brujo was a precursor of deep cultural change and because the tribe found itself in a period of deep transformation many of its people began to see the brujo's ways to be those of a higher Quality than the old priests'. The brujo was an integral part of the tribe's social evolution, and his own personal confrontations were part of the tribe's cultural growth.
After several months of thinking about this situation Phaedrus emerges with two basic divisions for his growing 'Metaphysics of Quality'. The first basic division is Dynamic Quality, 'the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality, the source of all things, completely simple and always new. It was the moral force that had motivated the brujo of Zuni. It contains no patterns of fixed rewards and punishments. Its only perceived good is freedom and its only perceived evil is static quality.'(139)
The second basic division within the 'Metaphysics of Quality' is, perhaps ironically, static quality, which describes 'any pattern of one-sided fixed values that attempts to contain and kill the ongoing free force of life.'(140) Static quality is the moral force of authority and is a consequence of, and can only be changed by, Dynamic Quality.
These static/Dynamic divisions within the Metaphysics of Quality enable Pirsig to approach such binary opposites as free will versus determinism, mind versus matter and beauty versus truth, by simply ignoring them (he eventually rephrases these traditional oppositions through creating a new vocabulary)(141). He chooses instead to separate the world into patterns of inorganic, biological, social and intellectual value. He then explains that prior to, and beyond these four patterns of value is Dynamic Quality; his Kierkegaardian 'leap' towards versatility, the unconditional trust upon which to form a moral sphere of existence.
In order to illustrate these four patterns of value (inorganic, biological, social and intellectual), it will be necessary at first to appreciate that Pirsig's central concept, the Metaphysics of Quality, of which the four patterns of value are an integral part, cannot be explained in terms of logic. Any attempts to do so are condemned to failure and will sound decidedly absurd, because what constitutes Quality for each individual is unique obviously because each individual is unique. Therefore, no single, universally acceptable definition of Quality can exist because it is not something that can be reified. It is an event.
On the Metaphysics, Pirsig writes:
Metaphysics is that part of philosophy which deals with the nature and structure of reality. It asks such questions as, 'Are the objects we perceive real or illusory? Does the external world exist apart from our consciousness of it? Is reality ultimately reducible to a single underlying substance? If so, is it essentially spiritual or material? Is the universe intelligible and orderly or incomprehensible and chaotic?'(142)
On Quality, he writes:
The central reality. . .that Phaedrus had called Quality in his first book, is not a metaphysical chess piece. . .Quality is indivisible, undefinable and unknowable in the sense that there is a knower and a known, but a metaphysics can be none of these things. A metaphysics must be divisible, definable and knowable, or there isn't any metaphysics. Since a metaphysics is essentially a kind of dialectical definition and since Quality is essentially outside definition, this means the a Metaphysics of Quality is essentially a contradiction in terms, a logical absurdity.(143)
Hannah: So if it's absurd to attempt a definition of Quality through philosophy, why choose this path?
Martin: Because although you can't define Quality via metaphysics, you can come to an appreciation of its many aspects, including what a world would be like without it. Therefore, if you can show that a world without Quality functions abnormally, then you have shown, to some extent, that Quality does exist, whether it's defined or not. Pirsig's narrator then begins subtracting Quality from our description of the world. He describes how in a world stripped of Quality everything from art and poetry, to sports and supermarkets, would disappear and only rationality would remain unchanged.(144)
The world can function without Quality , but life would be so dull as to be hardly worth living. The term worth is a Quality term. Life would just be living without any values or purpose at all. Since the world doesn't function normally when Quality is subtracted, Quality exists, whether it's defined or not.(145)
However, Quality cannot be scientifically defined because it isn't a part of scientific definition; scientific definition is part of Quality.
Does Lila have Quality? It isn't Lila that has Quality; it's Quality that has Lila. She's created by it. She's a cohesion of changing static patterns of this Quality. The words Lila uses, the thoughts she thinks, the values she holds, are the end product of three and a half billion years of the history of the entire world. She's a kind of jungle of evolutionary patterns of value. She doesn't know how they all got there any more than a jungle knows how it came to be.(146)
Pirsig's considerations on the evolving patterns of value are expressed concisely in the line: 'All life is a migration of static patterns of quality towards Dynamic Quality.'(147)
Jack: This line would appear to give Pirsig's whole thesis a teleological bearing.
Martin: I would agree that he appears to break quite dramatically from the traditional subject-object picture of evolution, one that insists that no mechanistic patterns or programs exist to which all life is heading. Yet at no point does Pirsig define an absolute in any sense. There is no absolute goal towards which all life is heading; rather, life is migrating away from the static patterns of absolutism towards the Dynamic. Pirsig suggests that all life via Dynamic Quality is deliberately heading away from mechanistic patterns.
Hannah: Which would suggest that all life is heading towards chaos.
Martin: No! It's not the case that because life isn't structured it must inevitably be chaotic. 'In a metaphysics in which static universal laws are considered fundamental, the idea that life is evolving away from any law doesn't make any sense. It seems to say that all life is heading towards chaos, since chaos is the only alternative to structural patterns that law-bound metaphysics can conceive.'(148)
This traditional interpretation says that if beliefs fail to correspond to that which we think of as 'reality', they must therefore be false. Yet, beliefs, like truths, cannot exist independently of the human mind. Science simply uses people-made sentences to invent a description of the world that will enable us to predict and control what happens. It doesn't, nor can it ever, describe what Kant calls the 'noumenal' world, the world as it is in itself. Science and all of our people-made facts, truths, and beliefs, etc., can only ever describe the 'phenomenal' world, (149) the world as it appears to our intellect and senses. As the Quantum physicist Niels Bohr writes: 'We are suspended in language,'(150) and to paraphrase the American philosopher Richard Rorty, 'A world in itself exists out there, but descriptions of the world do not.'(151) Science creates our reality, and the reality science explains for us is a reality that follows mechanisms and programmes. To fall outside of these mechanisms and programs is to be dismissed as unimportant, irrational, and false. Dynamic Quality cannot be contained by static patterns because it has created them.
Subject/object metaphysics is one interpretation of reality, not reality itself. Therefore, simply because Quality doesn't fit mechanistic laws this doesn't mean that it isn't heading somewhere. And that somewhere, Pirsig suggests, is against these mechanistic laws. 'Naturally there is no mechanism towards which life is heading. Mechanisms are the enemy of life. The more static and unyielding the mechanisms are the more life works to evade them or overcome them.'(152)
Pirsig's metaphysic of Quality is claiming that everything in the universe is an ethical activity. He chooses to divide these ethical activities into four levels of morality: Inorganic, Biological, Social and Intellectual. These four topics leave nothing, that is 'no-thing', out, except Dynamic Quality that is, which cannot be defined. However, the Metaphysics of Quality says something unique about this unoriginal classification. It suggests that these four levels of morality, although having very little to do with one another, conflict, violently at times, with their closest neighbour. Each higher level of morality is built upon the lower level via a process of continuous confrontation.
Hannah: Could you elaborate slightly?
Martin: Okay, here then, very briefly, is an outline, using a shamefully reductionist method, of the four confrontations that exist at the different levels of static moral value:
The first of these levels of morality, Pirsig terms the 'laws of nature',(153) a confrontation in which the inorganic patterns of static value triumph over chaos. Inorganic forces at an atomic and subatomic level choose or prefer, in the language created by the Metaphysics of Quality, to form into regular static patterns, combining into quarks, electrons, neutrons, atoms, molecules, chemicals and much larger compositions. This is so because the Metaphysics of Quality makes a value judgement that it's 'better' for something to exist, and exist in a flexible, yet ordered, state, than it is to be in a constant state of chaos or not to exist at all. 'This definition of 'betterness' - this beginning response to Dynamic quality - is an elementary unit of ethics upon which all right and wrong can be based.'(154) The second level of morality, Pirsig calls the 'laws of the Jungle', whereby biology triumphs over the inorganic forces of starvation and death. An example of this can be seen when the dynamic forces within nature invent, through millennia of evolution, two life-preserving molecules: the static carbon molecular pattern known as protein that protects the dynamic molecular pattern known as DNA. This combination of static and dynamic molecular carbon patterns sustains life allowing it to expand and reach greater levels of versatility and freedom.
The third level of morality, the 'Laws of Justice' are where social patterns triumph over the biological. At this level, the human situation is attempting to assimilate the relevance of evolution, yet at the same time manage to throw it off; to defeat the idea that 'might is always right' and yet find a balance within social boundaries between the private self and the public person.(155)
The final level that Pirsig addresses is that of intellectual morality. 'The Laws of Judgement', the ongoing struggle whereby the patterns of intellect are attempting to control and subordinate the static patterns of society. This Pirsig believes is the major confrontation of the twentieth century and has continuously thrown up one dominating question: 'Are the social patterns of our world going to run our intellectual life, or is our intellectual life going to run the social patterns?'(156)
Chapter Nine The Platypus
Hannah is trying to find a comfortable place to sit on a low branch of a yew tree. Martin is sitting up against the trunk of the tree reading from his notes.
Martin: In attempting to unify the world of objects to the world of values, Pirsig uses two analogies, the first of which is used to explain that his purpose is not to insist that the Metaphysics of Quality is a single exclusive truth. Rather he is suggesting that the subject-object metaphysics, which has been held up as the ultimate reality, is not the only way or the best way of looking at the world. The Metaphysics of Quality prefers instead the highest available intellectual interpretation of things and events that can only then be accepted as a provincial explanation. The analogy that Pirsig uses to explain this situation involves two types of map co-ordinates, 'polar' and 'rectangular'. Pirsig argues that it is as ridiculous to say that the Metaphysics of Quality is false and subject-object metaphysics true, as it is to suggest that rectangular co-ordinates are true and polar co-ordinates false. 'Both', Pirsig writes, 'are simply intellectual patterns for interpreting reality and one can only say that in some circumstances rectangular co-ordinates provide a better, simpler interpretation.'(157)
Hannah: So, what reason does Pirsig give for preferring the Metaphysics of Quality to a subject-object metaphysics?
Martin: His answer is that a 'Metaphysics of Quality can explain subject-object relationships beautifully but', as Phaedrus has discovered in the discourse of anthropology, 'a subject-object metaphysics can't explain values worth a damn.'(158)
Jack: Don't you think that that's a rather sweeping statement?
Martin: I guess so. However, Pirsig does go on to illustrate this position by using the second of the analogies that I mentioned earlier, the platypus analogy.
The inability of conventional subject-object metaphysics to clarify value is an example of what Phaedrus called a Platypus.(159)
The platypus is an animal with broad webbed feet and a duckbill that is found in Australia. It lays eggs and then when the Platypi have hatched the infant suckles from its mother. Following this discovery zoologists considered the platypus, a paradox of nature, an enigma. They could not classify it as either a mammal or a reptile, because it both laid eggs, like a member of the reptilian animal classification, but it also suckled its young, like a member of the mammalia category of animal. How could this be, questioned zoologists? Yet, what Pirsig points out is that it is not the platypus that is at fault. How can it be, when it has lived like this for millions of years, laying eggs and suckling its young without the problem of cross-classification ever bothering it at all. Pirsig insists that the problem is ours, or rather our system of people-made classification. The Platypus is not a paradox of nature, our classifications are.
The Platypus, as an animal, unwittingly, destabilises the foundations of zoological classification. The Platypus, as an analogy, stands as a metaphor for the destabilisation of all foundations. It shows that a system that claims to encapsulate everything is actually incomplete.
Jack: This Platypus analogy is like Derrida's 'supplÄment', an ambiguous term meaning both addition and replacement. The term becomes contradictory when one considers the problem of how it is that something can be added to that which is already complete. Surely, a system cannot be complete if it requires an addition. The Platypus is a dangerous supplÄment like onanism, because it adds a perverse, solitary, and weakening element to that which is considered 'normal'; in this case zoological categories.
Martin: A new animal classification has now been created by Zoologists to account for the duckbilled Platypus. It is called the Monotremata and includes only one other animal species besides the Platypus, the Spiny Anteater. Both of these creatures are marvelled at by Zoologists and are each considered different, when actually their only difference lies in the minds of Zoologist's themselves. Their only difference exists in that they do not conform to human classifications. Indeed Pirsig notes that, 'The real mystery, the real enigma, is how mature, objective, trained scientific observer's can blame their own goof on a poor innocent Platypus.'(160)
Pirsig now claims that the subject-object classification of the world places Quality in the same situation as the Platypus. Because Quality cannot be defined or classified, it is seen in a world divided exclusively between subjects and objects, as a 'problem'. Pirsig calls this the 'value Platypus' and uses a jigsaw analogy to explain the vast amount of information that we receive from the world around us. He suggests that we attempt to place these intricate pieces together in order to create some form of order and meaning.
There are always some pieces like Platypi that don't fit and we can either ignore these pieces or we can give them silly explanations or we can take the whole puzzle apart and try other ways of assembling it that we include more of them. When one takes the whole ill-shaped, misfitting structure of a subject-object explained universe apart and puts it back together in a value centred metaphysics, all kinds of orphaned puzzle pieces fit beautifully that never fit before.(161)
Hannah: What interests me about this passage, is Pirsig's use of the word 'beautiful'. Is he claiming that a value-centred metaphysics contains more 'beauty' than a subject-object metaphysics? If so, is this because he sees a value centred metaphysics as a more balanced form of reason where nothing is left hanging off to one side, or swept out of sight and ignored?
Martin: Pirsig, I feel, would have us create a new and more malleable process through which to interpret the world; a technique that has as its focal point, harmony and balance. In his view the subject-object model by which we interpret the world has outlived its usefulness and become rigid, brittle and static. The template we are using in order to structure our interpretation of the world has become unbalanced by having 'monster Platypi' inharmoniously tacked on to the outside of its form. Take for instance the relation of mind versus matter, or free will versus determinism, both of which fit so uncomfortably within subject-object metaphysics, that they threaten to bring down the whole unstable edifice. Pirsig is attempting to bring into play a new way of looking at our metaphysical interpretations of the universe. The ageing 'subject-object', metaphors of 'foundations', 'methods', and 'structures' do not fit what Pirsig is suggesting. To imply that all structures require a foundation before they can be built is to look at metaphysics as if it were a construction. This is how subject-object metaphysics has failed to grasp the essence of what it is dealing with. Metaphysics is not a building or a structure; it is a way of understanding our forms of comprehension. Pirsig attempts an understanding that includes, as a categorical imperative, balance and harmony, or, in other words, beauty; a beauty that rejuvenates the old forms of reason into a contingent and vibrantly resourceful discourse. That which guides this human desire for understanding, through harmony and balance is, you've guessed it. . .
Hannah: It wouldn't perhaps be Quality would it?
Martin: It is considered to be the lowest form of wit you know. Anyway, Pirsig explains that the 'Value Platypus' is but the largest of four major Platypi that generates an imbalance within the subject-object metaphysics. The other three are the 'Scientific Reality Platypus,' the 'Causation Platypus' and the 'Substance Platypus'. Each of these Platypi will fall, Pirsig claims, when dealt with by a Value-Centred Metaphysics.
The 'Scientific Reality Platypus', Pirsig informs us, was identified a century ago by the mathematician and astronomer, Henri Poincare, who asked the question: 'Why is the reality most acceptable to science one that no small child can be expected to understand?' Pirsig suggests that Poincare is implying that the majority of people will never understand what the scientists call 'reality'. This is not only because the maths needed to comprehend this scientific reality is far too complex for all but a handful of brilliant minds; but also because there are so many different schools of belief to which no resolution can be found.
Pirsig argues that in a Value-Centred Metaphysics this Scientific Reality Platypus vanishes. He writes, 'Reality, which is value, is understood by every infant. It is a universal starting place of experience that everyone is confronted with all the time. Within a Metaphysics of Quality, science is a set of static intellectual patterns describing this reality, but the patterns are not the reality they describe.'(162)
Jack: This sounds very much like Richard Rorty when he writes,
The traditional picture of the human situation has been one in which human beings are not simply networks of beliefs and desires but rather beings which have those beliefs and desires(163)
If we could ever become reconciled to the idea that most of reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it, and that the human self is created by the use of a vocabulary rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary, then we should at least have assimilated what was true in the Romantic idea that true is made rather than found.(164)
Martin: The next two major Platypi that Pirsig identifies are those of 'Causation' and 'Substance'. From an empirical point of view, there is no such thing as either Causation or Substance. You can't touch them, see them, or sense them in any way, yet we accept them as part of our lives. Our entire system of logic is based upon cause and effect; it would therefore seem ridiculous to question these concepts because if there is no such thing as Substance what holds the properties of the tree that I'm leaning against in an unchanging state if it is not Substance. However, Pirsig is no friend of rigid customs and what he proposes is that we substitute these 'grand metaphysical illusions' of Causation and Substance with the term 'Value'. Therefore, instead of saying that A causes B, Pirsig recommends that we say B values precondition A. The word 'cause' implies a definite condition, whereas 'value' suggests a preference. The difference is linguistic, but not scientific and if you think about it, this change of terms doesn't effect any scientific facts whatsoever.
Jack: So why bother?
Martin: Because the term 'preference' is more appropriate for modern scientific theory, especially in the area of quantum physics in which particles act in a random manner and appear to prefer certain courses of action. As Pirsig notes, 'an individual particle is not absolutely committed to one predictable behaviour. What appears to be an absolute cause is just a very consistent pattern of preferences. Therefore, when you strike 'cause' from the language and substitute 'value' you are not only replacing an empirically meaningless term with a meaningful one; you are using a term that is more appropriate to actual observation.'(165)
In the case of 'substance' Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality proposes that we replace this term with the expression 'stable inorganic pattern of value'. Therefore, we could say that what holds the properties of this piece of paper that I'm holding, in an unchanging state, is that the inorganic properties of the paper prefer a stable pattern of values. Although at first this idea may sound absurd, when you begin to think about the absurdity of our present reliance upon 'substance' that lacks any properties at all, you begin to wonder if Pirsig is not actually on to something, and that he may actually have a valid point.
Another advantage of the term 'Value' as a replacement for the terms 'Causation' and 'Substance' is that it allows the user a greater degree of flexibility. We would no longer be restricted by the constraints of scientific facts alone. With the application of the term 'Value', a certain amount of human experience would be included into the scientific and critical process. As Pirsig notes,
Phaedrus saw that the 'value' which directed sub-atomic particles is not identical with the 'value' a human being gives to a painting. But he saw that the two were cousins, and that the exact relationship between them can be defined with precision. Once this definition is complete a huge integration of the humanities and the sciences appears in which platypi fall by the hundreds. Thousands.(166)
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