To wrap up my thoughts on this subject: Probably the most interesting part of this Pirsig immersion experience for me has been thinking about his stance as a lone philosopher, rebelling against academia.
Like Ayn Rand's, much of Pirsig's attitude towards academia seems to be a direct result of some assholes he had to deal with in school: arrogant professors, sheeplike fellow students, and colleagues who had definite ideas about inquiry that seemed to rule out what he was interested in. As a result, some of what he has to say seems reactive and bitter, and really won't apply to your experience, unless you read him so repeatedly that you accept his picture of his status quo as an accurate representation of the philosophy profession as a whole today, which it's just not.
For instance, you might think that, say, Kant was so revered that no one challenged his notion of a thing-in-itself for 150 years until Pirsig, but that's really a pretty terrible take on the history, given that Hegel and Fichte challenged this immediately, during Kant's lifetime even, and this strain then dominated most of continental philosophy (it's particularly blatant in Heidegger). This is hardly just a historical quibble; however valuable you may find Pirsig, your perspective on him will change completely if you read him not as a lone thinker but as giving his own modern articulation of ideas that are the common property of whole trends in history. In some ways, his formulations were fresh and unique; in others, they were a hastily sketched retread of things he'd read, and would have been much improved if he'd read more.
Still, as "the partially examined life" idea implies, his approach might have been more psychologically healthy than a more scholarly one. At one point near the end of Lila he says something to the effect of "there's a time for thinking and a time for conclusions." What I might call the Wes Alwan take on philosophy is that the big questions never get solved, so rather than fooling yourself or using some short-cut way of denying the efficacy of the problems (like positivism), you can recognize that the activity of hashing through them is spiritually fulfilling in itself. It's the journey, not the destination.
Pirsig seems (sometimes, at least) to take the opposite approach: he's had to think through these things compulsively, to the neglect of his family and other duties, so if he's come to clarity to his own satisfaction, then he's not going to spend twenty years improving his articulation with additional research. With the apparent amount of money and attention he made from ZAMM, he could easily have kept putting out books, but apparently that effort was more draining than it was worth, because what we get out of Lila is in part the story of a vast heap of notes he'd been collecting to write a book, only a fraction of which actually make it into the resulting book, meaning that Lila tells the story of him trying to write this book, and includes some of his deliberations in this attempt, but moreso the events that happened to him during this time and how he reacted to them.
Pirsig well embodies the virtue praised by Emerson's essay "Self Reliance," but there are other intellectual virtues too: having the patience and empathy to enter into someone else's thought, being able to stay awake and focused through academic lectures even though you think you're smarter than the prof, being able to rise above the pettiness of academic politics to more objectively evaluate your own and others' positions rather than reacting to them like enemies. These are not qualities that Pirsig appreciated, and he came up with this whole derisive terminology as an excuse to discount the viewpoints of virtually all working philosophers. This is from p. 322-3 of Lila:
He liked that word 'philosophology.' It was just right. It had a nice dull, cumbersome, superfluous appearance that exactly fitted its subject matter, and he'd been using it for some time now. Philosophology is to philosophy as musicology is to music, or as art history and art appreciation are to art, or as literary criticism is to creative writing. It's a derivative, secondary field, a sometimes parasitic growth that likes to think it controls its host by analyzing and intellectualizing its host's behavior.
Literature people are sometimes puzzled by the hatred many creative writers have for them. Art historians can't understand the venom either. He supposed the same was true with musicologists but he didn't know enough about them. But philosophologists don't have this problem at all because the philosophers who would normally condemn them are a null-class. They don't exist. Philosophologists, calling themselves philosophers, are just about all there are.
You can imagine the ridiculousness of an art historian taking his students to museums, having them write a thesis on some historical or technical aspect of what they see there, and after a few years of this giving them degrees that say they are accomplished artists. They've never held a brush or a mallet and chisel in their hands. All they know is art history.
Yet, ridiculous as it sounds, this is exactly what happens in the philosophology that calls itself philosophy. Students aren't expected to philosophize. Their instructors would hardly know what to say if they did. They'd probably compare the student's writing to Mill or Kant or somebody like that, find the student's work grossly inferior, and tell him to abandon it. As a student Phaedrus had been warned that he would 'come a cropper" if he got too attached to any philosophical ideas of his own.
Literature, musicology, art history and philosophology thrive in academic institutions because they are easy to teach. You just Xerox something some philosopher has said and make the students discuss it, make them memorize it, and then flunk them at the end of the quarter if they forget it. Actual painting, music composition and creative writing are almost impossible to teach and so they barely get in the academic door. True philosophy doesn't get in at all. Philosophologists often have an interest in creating philosophy but, as philosophologists, they subordinate it, much as a literary scholar might subordinate his own interest in creative writing. Unless they are exceptional they don't consider the creation of philosophy their real line of work.
Again, Pirsig is reacting to some personal impression he got from dealing with a couple of assholes, and can't imagine why professors would want you to be able to give a nice, clear exposition of a few historical figures before they're going to listen to you dish out your own material. He doesn't get that philosophy is a social enterprise.
As you likely know from looking around on the blogosphere, you just don't have enough time to read everyone, so you have to have a reason. In my case, the only reason you're likely reading this is because you've enjoyed the podcast and don't think I'm a total crank. In pitching the podcast, though we're clear that we're not experts, and that's a lot of the fun of it, I'm sure it helps our credibility that we were in fact all admitted to a legitimate philosophy grad school program, and we didn't flunk out or anything like that. In Pirsig's case, he wrote a compelling book that sold people on him, and the bit of background information about him having a genius-level IQ as evinced by his starting college at age 14 or whenever doesn't hurt. This is what distinguishes him from an evident crank, and may give us the patience to follow his thoughts even if he insists on spreading them thinly over a couple of travelogues that you might not be otherwise interested in. A freshman student is not going to be in that position, and as someone who's had to grade a crapload of papers, I'm always excited to see any evidence of thought, but if you don't develop the basic skills of philosophical exposition you're doomed to the land of B-.
If philosophy is a spiritual, solitary activity, and Pirsig reached a personally fulfilling conclusion, then that's very good for him, and he can provide a good model for how to do that yourself, meaning that you will slay the Buddha of Pirsig and reach within yourself for your own personal philosophy. If you're going to bother to communicate with people about your philosophy, and you do not yourself have a genius IQ (and really, even if you do), then he does not exemplify the goal you should have in mind. All of us have to make a personal life-balance choice about how much appetite we have for reading, developing our communication skills, and figuring out where others are coming from, much less giving our formulations the kind of polishing and literature-referencing necessary to meet academic publishing standards. Don't think, though, that some shortcuts you've taken out of personal utility are really optimal with regard to people you're trying to communicate with.
this may say more about my own life/experience than Pirsig or such things in general but I found Lila to be a sad follow-up to ZAMM because he couldn’t accept the limits of philo to settle questions like what is “Quality”, and so never in effect left the academy behind.
for a more expansive reading of Emerson and self-cultivation with a democratic/public spirit folks may want to check out the work of John Lysaker,
also maybe Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature should be added to the reading list.
one of the perhaps unintentional effects of post-structuralism in philo and the related sociology of science has been a pragmatic revival of rhetoric and engineering, which embraces the limits of knowing and our manipulative natures (casting off myths of the Fall without embracing naive utopias) with a kind of amor fati and a calls to experimental action:
While I was posting a comment in response to your Lila 4 blog, at the same time you were posting this Lila 5. My comment there is even more appropo here.
First, I would add that if you do not see the facticity of what Pirsig is saying about philosophology, it is entirely because you are immersed in it. Ask Rorty. Your notion of philosophy as solely social comes from him, and philosophy as social just IS philosophology.
Also, Mark, you are giving too much attention to the person of P rather than comparing his philosophy to other similar metaphysics, and again, I think the following tells us why.
Mark Linsenmayer says
You added the word “solely,” not me. Philosophy, like religion, is I think primarily an individual dealing with his life by trying to figure stuff out.
However, if you’re going to use words to do that, then you’re tapping into the social. Pretty much, you don’t know if you know what you’re talking about until you create an objective thing out of it, which you can then reflect on and evaluate. How do you evaluate it? Using epistemic standards that you yourself did not invent (which isn’t to say that they’re arbitrary).
Beyond that, if you’re going to push these words onto others, then you can do so either like an artist who’s sharing his vision or like a communicator. Pirsig is the former, though he of course doesn’t entirely ignore the latter. My complaint is not that Lila has no footnotes; it’s that the book is lazier than I’d like given that it’s his only substantial follow-up work.
Being someone who was exposed to the profession but is not doing it formally now, I think I’m actually in a pretty darn good position to be objective about this philosophology issue. Yes, doing scholarly research is almost too exhausting to be worth it, but no, a good professor is not going to crap on you for having an original idea. I was in exactly that position with my undergrad thesis, and the several faculty members I bugged about it were happy to help, and my advisor was excited about it even as he criticized my writing as (at the time) raw.
I’m not dismissing P’s thought based on his person; I’m just taking up the topic of his person in this post here as part of the question of what a healthy relation to philosophy looks like. This is very much a live issue for me; I’ve not really decided.
If I may ask a question that may help explain your obvious dis-ease with discussing systematic metaphysicians like W and P: Having finished all coursework towards a doctorate in philosophy from the BA thru graduate level; how many courses in metaphysics did this include?
Did your professors do you a favor in promulgating their bias against such philosophers?
Mark Linsenmayer says
I don’t recall such a bias. Philosophers are such a disparate bunch that most any conspiracy theory about them will be wrong. I took a very analytic oriented metaphysics course and a space/time course in undergrad, aristotle’s metaphys and the Tractatus as a grad. Some Leibniz. Probably others, but typically courses and faculty are categorized by era and figure, not as “metaphysics” generally, which is a bit odd, in that you can take a general ethics or political or aesthetics course. This may have to do with the greater incursion of science into this area, or you can blame Kant (I did plenty of phenomenological ontology.) My specialty was psych-related, but there were physics guys in the program. No, Whitehead was not offered to my knowledge, so yes, according to your monovision, they were utterly lacking. I always liked the idea of process philosophy and would likely have taken such a course.
I don’t think this is particularly relevant to Pirsig; having studied James and some Eastern, I felt prepared enough. Despite his calling his view a metaphysics, he’s more epistemological/existential by my lights. If you want to read his account of levels as a wholesale import of Whitehead’s metaphysics, I won’t stop you. I think it’s more of Whitehead recognizing the explanatory gaps that Pirsig seems indifferent to and trying to address them.
Another thought: the urge towards metaphysics may have historically lapsed as theism ossified.
David Buchanan says
Right, Pirsig calls his thought the “Metaphysics” of Quality but it’s not metaphysics in the Platonic of theistic sense. In fact, radical empiricists reject any kind of “trans-experiential” enitities. Any thing or principle or posit that can’t be known in experience, they say, should be off the table. Philosophers have no business talking about such things, the radical empiricist says. “Metaphysics”, as Pirsig uses the term, is not something we can avoid. We need a relatively coherent picture of reality just to function in life and the only people who don’t have a “metaphysics” in this sense are those who haven’t been born yet. It just means a picture of how thing hang together, or generally making sense of life.
“He doesn’t get that philosophy is a social enterprise.”
HMM…121 publishers (surveyors of societal values) rejected the ZAMM manuscript – a world record. It took the tenacity of a loner who saw that what he saw was valuable DESPITE the social enterprise.
5,000,000 copies later…Score one for loner, 0 for social enterprise.
On philosophology, P is saying that academia is not doing real philosophy, but merely inculcating the history of it in their courses. I submit that in more recent years, following the admonitions of folk like Rorty, professors do not even feel compelled to teach the full history of the field, only those thinkers who interest them.
Rorty told his students they only needed to read HIS books. Not good.
Bruce Adam says
I have to agree with pirsigfan that social philosophy and philosophology are one and the same. Are there any philosophies designed by committees ?
On a personal note ,I intended to study either literature or philosophy , until I was dissuaded by serious academic who said, “You’ll only learn how to criticise them.”
This was in 1971. It was still true when Pirsig said it three years later.
“You’ll only learn how to criticize them.”
Priceless. Yet, Rorty and kin say this is all we need.
Bruce Adam says
I wonder if I can take some of the heat out of the philosophy/philosophology divide. Since Pirsig states that musicology equates, lets take an example from that field.
Donald Byrd is a jazz trumpeter of the first rank. He has also studied and taught music academically and been a professor of musicology. Three different disciplines , but only one guy with three hats. The three can be practised singly or in unison, and they lean on each other, but you won’t learn composition on a musicology course.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Seems to me like the musicology comparison doesn’t work too well. Studying other philosophers is closer to listening to music than criticism, and the point of music is expression, not developing increasingly good ideas. Learning to express yourself clearly is like taking lessons on your instrument. In music, ignorance of tradition can lead to originality. In philosophy, ultimately we’re all reflecting on the same human situation, so an ignorant philosopher will most likely reinvent the wheel (or more likely, fail to do so). I’m a pretty wide-listening musician, but I know plenty of much narrower ones that are plenty creative. Narrow-reading philosophers tend to be the least interesting ones.
Bruce Adam says
I think the musicology comparison shows clearly that three disciplines can approach music, or philosophy, in distinct ways with no conflict. Individuals can, and do, participate in as many of these disciplines as they have time or inclination for. The more the better,surely. Not that I disagree with the points you make.
Also, if you take the musicology analogy seriously, you still have to admit that it’s often probably more enjoyable to read a really interesting, illuminating, original explication of an artist’s music than to listen to someone play a watered down rehash of that same artist’s music. In the same way, I’d rather read well written secondary lit on Kant than read someone who thinks they’re being original poorly apeing Kant without realizing it.
Bruce Adam says
Tim, there’s no need to take the analogy that far. the purpose of the analogy is given in my previous reply. Surely the watered down rehash is played by someone engaged with one of the disciplines of music. She may not be doing so for your enjoyment.
Bruce Adam says
In a similar vein, here’s author Will Self. .His reasons for not studying English literature were discussed by Self in an interview with The Guardian newspaper:
” I [had] a pretty thorough grounding in the canon, but I certainly didn’t want to be involved with criticism. Even then it seemed inimical to what it was to be a writer, which is what I really wanted to be.”
David Buchanan says
I think these analogies work much better when you realize that Pirsig is operating on the premise that philosophy is a form of art and a mode of expression. Studying the ways of the artful mechanic is a miniature study in the art of rationality itself, he says. I suppose it’s not just a coincidence that he uses an art gallery as an analogy for the plural and provisional nature of truth.
Pirsig says that one can “examine intellectual realities the same way he examines painting in an art gallery, not with an effort to find our which one is the ‘real’ painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value. There are many sets of intellectual reality in existence and we can perceive some to have more quality than others, but that we do so is, in part, the result of our history and current patterns of value.” (Lila, 100)
With this in mind, the distinction philosophy and “philosophology” is more properly analogous to the distinction between artist and art historian or art critic. Painting an original intellectual picture and evaluating the visions of others can go quite nicely together and enhance each other but they are certainly not the same thing. A good critic can help us appreciate a particular work by putting in a larger context, locating within a tradition or tracing out its origins and impact. But it’s just a fact that they wouldn’t have anything to evaluate or analyze without the creative efforts of actual artists.
I like the paint gallery analogy of truth because it’s so natural and easy to talk about the content of a philosopher’s thought as his picture or her vision. By the same token, the best painters are pretty darn philosophical. The impressionists, for example, were almost doing something like medical epistemology, literally looking at how eyeballs worked and such. When they do it right, painters show us how to see the world, or at least some salient aspect of it.
Are Francis Bacon’s paintings “truer” than Norman Rockwell’s? …Well, yea, actually. A helluva lot truer. That’s a bad example, but you know what I mean. 😉
Bruce Adam says
I noticed that on the most recent podcast, Ep 58 Moore etc., at 10 minutes from the start, Dylan makes the point that “Serious non professionals……are closer to the activity of engaging in philosophy than what you would often get a chance to do being a professional philosopher.” To me this is a restatement of the ideas covered by Pirsig in his discussion of philosophology.
I’m afraid the response Dylan got is so at odds with the response you gave to the same idea presented by Pirsig, that it only adds weight to Pirsig’s criticism.
Sorry to be so nitpicking, but it doesn’t seem inappropriate.
Mark Linsenmayer says
This is something I’ve continued to think about, and at the end of the episode (58) I contrasted Pirsig and MacIntyre in that respect.
I think this is a matter of two phenomena interfering:
1. Yes, professional philosophers have a warped perspective, due to the weirdness and insularity of the academic world. This doesn’t necessitate that their phenomenological findings are skewed, that they’re incompetent to talk about “ordinary life,” which they have to undergo just as much as anyone else. Still, it’s creepy, and a reaction against that was one of the starting points of this podcast.
2. Non-professional philosophers are cut off from the peer-review structure that may be stifling, yes, but also makes it less likely that they will produce crap. They’re also more likely to recycle ideas but in less well articulated and more confusing forms than their predecessors.
Both Pirsig and MacIntyre make giant, unwieldy claims about the history of philosophy and consequently of intellectual culture. Insofar as MacIntyre’s story is pretty evidently much better researched than the one Pirsig gives at the time of Lila, it better formulates the currently available philosophical alternatives.
As a rule of thumb, the more you know about the history of philosophy, the better able you are to decide on your view and to develop/articulate it. That doesn’t mean that someone w/o this background knowledge can’t do great philosophy, but it does mean that reading the historical sources is not necessarily an irrelevant distraction to the doing of philosophy, and the idea that all wisdom really comes from focusing on immediate experience such that all that book learnin’ is irrelevant seems silly to me. (And if that statement doesn’t adequately represent Pirsig himself, it does well represent the lesson that many take from him and more generally from Buddhism/Taoism/New Age philosophy.)
Bruce Adam says
Thanks for responding, Mark. Obviously , you and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum under discussion and our perspectives are are skewed accordingly. So, I’m glad you recognize that this distinction and I agree with your assessment . However it’s your last sentence (in parenthesis ) that highlights the philosophologist’s blinkers. It’s true, the previous remark does misrepresent Pirsig , and yes , it may well reflect how some have misinterpreted his views, but would you assess the work of accredited “Philosophers” by the public’s grasp of their ideas ?
Please don’t think I’m accusing you guys of being mere philosophologists. As I see it, and I think you’ll agree , most of the great philosophers were also highly accomplished philosophologist’s , and for good reason.
Your wrap up of Pirsig seems embody the sort of “invisible wall of prejudice’ that Pirsig references in Lila when he was trying to figure out how he was going to say what he wanted to say: “First you say things our way and then we’ll listen to you.”
He sold a lot of books and made a good deal of money talking about philosophy in a way that philosophers are not supposed to do: His ideas are not particularly unique, he didn’t really reference and fully explore what others had to say (other than James and a few others), and his logic is a bit sloppy. But he made a point in a way that spoke to a lot of people. Personally, he got me to go back and take a harder look at Pragmatism, which I previously disregarded as a cop out.
In reading your Lila notes, I get the impression that what irks you is not that idea that Pirsig just rewrote Heidegger for the masses, but rather that he did so without paying proper homage to the philosophers that came before him, and without doing it in a proper academic way. The fact that, in doing so, he attracted an L. Ron Hubbard-type following makes it all the more painful. Even if there is something there that is worthy of academic discussion, Pirsig has been unwilling after all of these years to put together a properly annotated work, and that keeps his philosophy in the same kind of undefinable state that he keeps Quality, which makes it harder to attack just pisses people off.
curious reading, where do you find these points in Mark’s writings?
In reading Mark’s critique, I didn’t see where he actually attacked Pirsig’s premises or conclusions. He doesn’t critique whether Pirsig’s Quality really exists, or if the use of a non-subject/object metaphysics is total crap, or if the MoQ has any value as a useable metaphysics. Maybe I just missed it.
Instead the attack is: His formulations “were a hastily sketched retread of things he’d read, and would have been much improved if he’d read more.” He lacked the patience “to stay awake and focused through academic lectures.” Etc.
I get the defensive reactions. Mark was a prof, and Pirsig spends a good deal of time saying that philosophy professors are note real philosophers. Pirsig doesn’t set out to write a traditional philosophy paper, and mark wants to grade his as if he should be.
I see, I believe the values at stake in the ongoing critique were those of close readings, done with/in context, and thinking thru propositions to their due ends, but perhaps there is some irony at play here in that blogging about such matters may well encourage the opposite.
David Buchanan says
At the risk of stating what’s already obvious, Pirsig does have a point to make in his depictions of cranks and mavericks. I mean, the substance of his thought is reflected in the form of his presentation. The outsider fighting against all odds is a common hero type and it’s central to the drama in his first book. The narrator is a conformist who constantly slanders Phaedrus as a crazy loner, as grandiose and delusional. In his second book Pirsig constructs his evolutionary morality upon a basic distinction between “static” and “dynamic”, between stability and growth or order and freedom. And so he uses the “contrarians” and cranky misfits, including himself, to illustrate how agents of cultural evolution tend to be perceived by their societies and what they look like through the lens of Pirsig’s philosophy.
David Granger explains this pretty well in his book: John Dewey, Robert Pirsig and the Art of Living (2006).
“Pirsig’s reasons for identifying the Dynamic with the individual intellect and the static with a repressive society could scarcely be more conspicuous. ZMM and Lila [Pirsig’s books] repeatedly foreground the different types of marginalization endured by ‘Phaedrus,’ Dusenberry, Lila, and the narrator/protagonist himself. In addition, his second book refers at length to dynamic thinkers such as William James Sidis, Harvard’s youngest graduate and godson of William James, and ‘brujo,’ an eccentric Zuni Indian storyteller, both of whom were shunned as being somewhat mad by their respective cultures. But Pirsig wants us to understand that cultures inevitably need those ‘misfits’ who probe beyond the pale of society – including, no doubt, himself – if they are not to squelch their evolutionary possibilities and become walled-off from ‘the real Dynamic force in social evolution’. …Pirsig makes much of the fact that what constitutes insanity is in very significant measure culturally determined. Such factors, I believe, go a long way in explaining why Pirsig’s approach to cultural criticism is characteristically one of fervent self-redemption and self-reliance,…”
From this perspective, Pirsig’s distinction between philosophology and philosophy is just one more permutation of a much larger theme, one that runs through both of his books. In various ways, he’s showing us what it means to balance the static and the dynamic, to balance stability and growth, order and freedom, etc.. Further, he presents his in dramatic narrative form as a deliberate contrast to the objective modes of inquiry, which he repeatedly describes as being “rigged and stacked in such a way that everything he wanted to say” was deemed as unacceptable. More generally, he want to show that philosophers are never disinterested observers and instead are always culturally situated and motived by their values and interests.