Philosophology is to philosophy as art history is to painting, Pirsig says. He uses that ridiculous-sounding word to draw a distinction between comparative analysis and original thought, between critical examination and creative production. In the tradition of Emerson’s famous 1837 speech, “The American Scholar“, Pirsig is calling for creativity and originality.
This is not to say that the critics and historians of philosophy serve no purpose. Like art critics, they can help us appreciate particular creations by meaningfully situating them in a wider context or tradition. Pirsig doesn’t mind slapping a few philosophological labels on his own work. It has to be located somewhere on the philosophical landscape, after all. “The Metaphysics of Quality is a continuation of the mainstream of twentieth century American philosophy,” Pirsig writes in Lila. “It is a form of pragmatism, of instrumentalism.” Even more specifically, he identifies his MOQ with the pragmatism and radical empiricism of William James.
Charles Sanders Pierce, William and John Dewey were, more or less, the original founders of American pragmatism, although James had said that “pragmatism” was a new name for some very old ideas. The founders from this period, and the contemporary professional philosophers who follow them, are known as classical pragmatists but there is also a rival branch known as neo-Pragmatism. This latter school is roughly centered around Richard Rorty. There is a bit of a war going on between the two branches, which is pretty interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.
I take David Granger’s book, John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living, as good evidence that Pirsig and Dewey are of the same school. (Did you know that Dewey uses the motorcycle mechanic to talk about the quality of aesthetic experience?) My recent investigation of James produced more than enough evidence to convince me of their sympatico. In fact, it’s a little bit spooky.
John Stuhr, Editor of Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy: Essential Readings and Interpretive Essays,tells us that Dewey was a radical empiricist as well as a pragmatist. “It cannot be overemphasized that Dewey is not using the word ‘experience’ in its conventional sense,” Stuhr says. “For Dewey, experience is not to be understood in terms of the experiencing subject, or as the interaction of a subject and object that exist separate from their interaction. Instead, Dewey’s view is radically empirical.” It seems pretty clear that Pirsig, being a harsh critic of subject-object dualism and a subscriber to both pragmatism and radical empiricism, fits in quite neatly with the classical pragmatists, especially James and Dewey.
In Beyond Realism and Antirealism: John Dewey and the Neopragmatists,David Hildebrand asks if the Neopragmatists’ are accurate interpreters of Classical Pragmatism. (Full discloure: Hildebrand was the chairman of my thesis committee and he went to school in Austin with Mark, Seth and Wes, although I’ve heard they didn’t really hang out.) This book will give you a good taste of the current battle within pragmatism. I don’t want to spoil the end for you, but Hildebrand makes a case that Rorty “eviscerates” the classical pragmatism of John Dewey. He cuts the guts out. Ouch. Despite the criticism, Rorty said nice things about Hildebrand’s book. Joseph Margolis says it’s indispensable and splendidly argued, and Larry Hickman calls it a meticulous corrective.
In Pragmatism as Post-Postmodernism: Lessons from John Dewey,Larry Hickman argues that contemporary philosophers from all sorts of schools – postmodernism, phenomenology, analytic philosophy, neopragmatism, etc. – could benefit from a fresh look at Dewey’s central ideas. Like Hildebrand, although for his own reasons, Hickman also argues that Dewey’s classical pragmatism is often misunderstood by today’s neopragmatist interpreters.
In Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture,Douglas Anderson looks the role of philosophy within the wider culture. What can philosophers say to us about religious experience, political action, and, as the title suggests, popular music. (Full disclosure: Americana is my favorite genre. One critic described my favorite band, The Gourds, as “music for the unwashed and well-read”.) Anderson uses unstuffy Americana – the music of Hank Williams, Gram Parsons and Bruce Springsteen and Beat literature of Jack Kerouac – to look at the work of pragmatists like Dewey and James. In this book, smokey little dive bars become places of worship. Who ever said cultural context couldn’t be fun? Lies. Damn lies.
William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophyby Charlene Haddock Seigfried will be of interest if you’re fairly serious about a coherent, scholarly understanding James’s work as a whole. She is considered to be one of the best in the biz. It’s worth mentioning that Siegfried also does some substantial work on pragmatism and feminism.
Robert Richardson’s biography, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism,is serious enough to satisfy even the snobbiest philosophical snobs. This biographer not only read everything that James ever wrote, including private letters and such, he also read everything that James read. On top of that, he’s written similarly substantial biographies of Emerson and Thoreau. This guy definitely knows how to write about the lives of American thinkers. Maybe someday he’ll write Pirsig’s biography. It would make a certain amount of sense.