I made the point both on the episode and in a recent post that I thought MacIntyre to be a better model of the outsider philosopher than Pirsig. This is not a point I really want to hammer, as I like Pirsig and I don’t relish dissing someone that many of our listeners have a great appreciation for. So let me just clarify what I mean re. this “maverick philosopher” designation. As someone who didn’t see the rigors of academia as worth the effort professionally, this is obviously of pretty paramount importance for me as I’ve been sucked back into philosophy with this podcast. In addition to MacIntyre’s comments on academia, we linked to an article a while back that gives a pretty stark case for the philosophy profession being a bad deal.
My two most crucial philosophical influences in my undergraduate and graduate years were Frithjof Bergmann and Robert Solomon respectively (Bergmann having been the graduate advisor at Michigan to Solomon, who then went on to Austin). Both taught what you might call classic continental philosophy, i.e. Nietzsche/Hegel/Sartre, and by learning how to clearly and compellingly interpret these difficult figures, they each were able to fill “the continental guy” slot at a major university. So they played the game; no maverickism there, right? Well, both of these guys eschewed the kind of academic publishing that MacIntyre complains about: esoteric works read by no one. In Solomon’s case, he took mass education to be his main goal, and put out many many books aimed at non-specialists. I recall some snobbery about this from other folks in the philosophy department at Austin. By losing patience with, for example (this was a case Bob mentioned to me), the everlasting font of literature on whether Husserl was an idealist or a realist, and turning instead to such areas of mass concern (and lucrative financial opportunity for him) as business ethics (here’s a paper someone here cited for us on Aristotelian business ethics), he was playing the academic game his way, and not accepting the measly part that academics in the humanities are routinely relegated to play in our culture.
Bergmann, also under the theory that a philosopher in isolation producing some great idea is near worthless compared to one whose ideas get out there and change the world (this was a point in one of his lectures), also avoided footnote-laden, esoteric papers (in fact, he only has one major book and a few notable articles.) and has devoted his efforts for the last thirty years almost solely to getting his ideas about the transforming workplace acted upon. Very maverick, that, and it worked particularly because he’d already established himself as a big-time genius at Stanford and Berkeley and with some early publications before moving to Michigan to work on his project.
We’ve heard Pirsig’s story: he established himself through an IQ test and some precocious childhood academic childhood accomplishments as someone we should pay attention to, and then developed a profoundly influential philosophy, through both the perspicacity of his ideas and his skill in presenting them, and moreso, the coincidence of them really resonating with 70s culture. He recognized the “Ph.D. octopus” (as William James described it) and after a couple of attempts stayed the hell away, for his own mental health.
However great his philosophy might be, though, Pirsig’s method was exactly the same as Ayn Rand’s, i.e. he took some courses from professors he didn’t like and developed a very strongly held view in opposition to those views. Now, I should also say this was also roughly the method of maverick philosophers Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and C.S. Peirce, the difference being that in the latter cases, other, more academically connected people wrote a lot of secondary literature interpreting and grounding these figures, making them talk to the tradition and proclaiming them (or often actually making them) responsible for major shifts within academia. So who knows? If we have enough academics like Dave Buchanan to voice Pirsig’s insights in a language fully informed by James, Rorty, Putnam, and the rest of the contemporary pragmatists, and who also make the case that the Eastern aspect of Pirsig’s thought and his particular formulations on Quality add something really significant to that tradition, then Pirsig may well earn his spot in the historical canon despite his own discomfort with academic philosophy and his not having wanted to read or write more philosophy than he did.
MacIntyre is a guy like Bergmann and Solomon who showed first off that he could play by the establishment’s rules, but used that position to in some way subvert it. Whatever you may think of the effectiveness of his critique of Enlightenment ethics and the clarity of the narrative-based virtue ethics he’s recommended, the breadth of After Virtue is hard to argue with. This is a man who really let a lot of different strands of philosophy sink into his bones, such that the way in which he both relies on and ultimately rejects Moore and Stevenson (as well as Marx, Kant, and several other figures) displays much more thought and philosophical acumen then, say, Pirsig’s rejections of Aristotle and Hegel based on his short exposure to a limited range of scholarly takes on these figures. All I can say beyond that in a blog post is [begin snotty voice] “you’ll know what I’m talking about if just go read After Virtue.” [/end snotty voice.]
The places where I find After Virtue the least satisfying are those where I think MacIntyre has the figure he’s describing wrong, i.e. where he falls short in the same way that one accuse Pirsig or Rand of. MacIntyre’s picture of the conflict between Aristotle and Nietzsche, where he casts Nietzsche as advocating a moral philosophy of going it alone because the establishment is so bereft, doesn’t, I think, cover the more “friendly” interpretations of Nietzsche (e.g. the one I learned from Frithjof, who got it from famed Nietzsche scholar/translator Walter Kaufmann). This is similar to Pirsig’s mistake in dismissing Hegel; like Russell and James, Pirsig got his Hegel through the British Hegelians who emphasized the the later Hegel’s Absolute instead of the early Hegel’s penetrating insights on human relations and process philosophy.
As we’ve been trying to convey in the podcasts, there’s a great deal of common effort and helpful dialog available among the pragmatists, Buddhists, virtue ethicists, phenomenologists, relativists, humanists, moral sense theorists, and communitarians to be had. All of these schools and projects are arguing in a similar direction against an Enlightenment-rooted, science-dominated picture of knowledge and an ethics focused on managing the competing interests of self-contained, fundamentally selfish, autonomous individuals. I can’t adequately sketch out the relations between all of these here (they’re certainly not all equivalent or in agreement or in some cases even talking about the same topics), but I can connect a few of the dots:
Through MacIntyre and Flanagan we saw an effort, begun in the modern age by Hume but highly influenced by Aristotle, to sketch out a picture of morality as a human creation that is nonetheless non-whimsical and hence non-subjective. Pirsig, like Aristotle, noted as a (supposedly empirical, but this is complicated) observation that our choices are fundamentally and inherently inclined toward the good, where good is defined by a relation to human nature and the circumstances of a particular individual in society, not as some entity independent of human characteristics, choices, sentiments. and history. Pirsig, Aristotle, and Hegel, all employ some notion of teleology, or internal purposefulness, and apply this at both the level of the individual and that of the culture. Nietzsche describes the individual at the center of this, struggling to live up to his potential, which as human involves not just growing up like a big strong plant, but a certain creativity and open-endedness, even while we understand that what we take to be creativity (like the creativity of a maverick philosopher or genius) is really something the ground for which has necessarily been prepared for by society. Consequently, for Nietzsche, a good philosopher is a prophet (and of course, he’s talking about himself here) that can read the cultural zeitgeist more clearly than someone who’s explicitly conforming to the culture. MacIntyre describes this as the dynamism within a culture, and Hegel calls it the movement of Spirit (“geist” in German).
In either case, we have a system where thee well-considered moral beliefs of the most morally astute individuals are culturally rooted but at the same time are a result of individuals using their judgment (phrónēsis) to reflect on the culture. Pirsig and the Buddhists (and some phenomenologists) may emphasize more the individual, intuitive component of this, and that is a primary point of disagreement within this larger anti-Enlightenment philosophical set of views: do you (like Moore or Pirsig says) get at value as an ontogically basic part of the world through moment-to-moment experience, or does intuition (as MacIntyre and Flanagan counter, not to mention Derrida) only serve up the garbage fed into it by your culture? This is an issue that I think it’s actually correct to be ambivalent about, and Nietzsche’s alternating emphases on our animal nature and our ability to overcome it well reflect that ambivalence.
To conclude, a “maverick” is one who recognizes the deficiencies of the academic system and pursues philosophy in the way he or she actually thinks most effective, or life-affirming, or otherwise desirable. This can take many forms, and there are lots of considerations according to which one might judge these forms, e.g. life/work balance, freedom from academic pressures to conform, depth and astuteness of arguments. I think these folks, writing without a net as it were, are the ones most likely to make the great historical strides in philosophy, but are even more likely to spout unmitigated, half-blind nonsense. As much as I hate the conformist idea of a philosophical canon, I am grateful for all those other people who have read these books before me and thought more than I will have time to think about whether they’re worth anyone’s time to read. Daring individuals may delve into new realms of thought undreamt of by all before, but laying the highways within such new country so we can all check it out and see if it’s really any good requires not genius but strong communications skills. A good maverick, as MacIntyre says, needs to be able to speak the language of the central academy in order to effectively undermine it.