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Strawdog bites Strawman

By David L Thomas

After reading both of Robert Pirsig's books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values and LILA: An Inquiry into Morals, one of the first questions that probably comes to most minds is: What do "real" philosophers think of them? In a large part what you will find is deadly silence. You can search for scholarly tomes, scan page after page of philosophical publications, or walk the hallowed hall of professional associations finding nary a word mentioned. Only on the Internet will you find any discussion of his work and most of that will be lay-people who have little or no philosophical accreditation. If you are looking for a filter to tell you what to think, you will have only a few critical book reviews that will even give a glimmer of what philosophers think. The following is a much condensed version of a review by an Oxford philosopher to give you a taste.( underlined words are from the review)

Excerpts from: Lone man on high seas, by Galen Strawson, 27 October 1991

Pirsig, as his own hero, is a big nosed, poor-postured, drifter who has clumsily written two mind-numbingly unclear books with great stylistic anxiety that are interlarded with heavy slabs of historical anthropological-philosophical ruminations which are worthless and rigorously unoriginal ! His problems begin with his controversial arguments attacking "subject-object metaphysics, a strawman position held by no one. His position is brittle and insubstantial and sounds like a good old-fashioned strict empiricist, a neo-Humean extremist, and a heavily hierarchical proto-Hegelian. He is surely wrong and I suspect a little mad.

Pretty clear that neither the message nor the messenger are held in very high esteem. So why did the reviewer end with this caveat?

But perhaps I am trapped in some dead theoretical outlook; perhaps Pirsig won't be properly understood for 50 years yet.
Since the "real" philosophers are "perhaps trapped in their dead theoretical outlooks" while devising ever more esoteric arguments to delight their colleagues it appears up to real people, however unknowing, untrained, and poorly postured, to take the lead.

What the hell is a strawman anyway? A brief surf of the web turned up literally thousand of references. The majority deal with computer programming, a bunch referred to straw bale construction, one, from Washington State, had pictures of a strawman with a chocolate penis being built, then burned, by a group of folk dancers, but the ones that pertain to our question were "How to" articles, primarily by and for college students, about writing good term papers in philosophy. How do you identify a strawman? Sampling below:

Straw Man occurs when:

  • an opponent takes the original argument of his/her adversary and then offers a close imitation, or straw man, version of the original argument; "knocks down" the straw man version of the argument (because the straw man, as its name implies, is a much easier target to hit, undermine, etc.) -- and thereby gives the appearance of having successfully countered/overcome/answered the original argument.

Straw Man

  • The straw man fallacy occurs when a person misrepresents anothers view so as to easily discredit it. This can happen intentionally or unintentionally. The image that this fallacy conjures up is that of a person building a straw man just to knock it over. Well, straw men are easier to knock over than real men simply because they are not real.
  • A "straw man" is a fake version of somebody's real argument that's constructed to look like the real argument and to be easy to refute.
  • Deliberately constructing straw men is dishonest. Accidentally constructing them is a mistake anyone can make, but it means a lot of time wasted in writing about the wrong argument.
  • The best defense against straw men is charity. That means make the arguments against your point as strong as they possibly can be and then do your best to knock them down. You should also read the people you're criticizing very carefully.

The reviewer is right, if you walk the hallowed halls of Western Philosophy you will not find a weighty, dust covered, tome titled the Critique of Pure Subject-Object Metaphysics. nor any writings except Pirsig's where those words are that closely strung together. So Pirsig gathered a bunch of straw of from the big names in philosophy, baled it up, named it Subject-Object Metaphysics and flailed away at it. Classic strawdog. But wait, given Pirsig taught college rhetoric and at the very least is well read in philosophy and logic: How probable is it that he would fail to see a strawman fallacy? Not very, something else must be at work here. Is it possible that we've mistaken a strawman for a strawdog. What you ask is a strawdog? (a web search will not help you here) A strawdog is a Trojan strawman.

Straw Dog occurs when:

  • The straw dog occurs when a deliberately constructed straw man turns out to be the truth.
  • Deliberately constructing a straw dog requires brutal honesty.
  • The best defense against straw dogs are humility. And an open mind.

Why did straw dog become a necessary being? Let's start with the second most popular philosophical book, after ZMM, The Story of Philosophy - (Will Durant-Simon & Schuster 1926, 2nd Edition 1954) and add to it Death of the Soul, From Descartes to the Computer (William Barrett-Anchor Press/Doubleday 1986) with these two books you have a highly condensed history of Western Philosophy from around 600 AD to the present. In the preface of the 2nd edition of TSoP you find:

"philosophy..which had once summoned all sciences to its aid in making a coherent image of the world..found its task of coordination too stupendous for its courage, ran away from all these battlefronts of truth, and hid itself in recondite and narrow lanes, timidly secure from the issues and responsibilities of life."

While hiding there according to Barrett:(DoTS, Foreword xvi)

"..the theories of mind that spout among philosophers become more paradoxical and at odds with each other...our understanding of human consciousness in this time has become more fragmentary and bizarre, until at present we seem in danger of losing any intelligent grasp of the human mind altogether."

In plain English: Philosophers you had over 2500 years to craft a meaningful and relevant basis for reality. You blew it! Oh what about that strawdog? On page 11 of Death of a Soul Barrett says:

" The rift between ourselves and the cosmos-between subject and object- is, then, one troubling legacy that the seventeenth century bequeathed to us. Contemporary philosophers, of all schools, and in differing ways, have protested against this subject-object spilt. The would like, if possible, to get rid of these troubling notions altogether."

How could, a big nosed, poorly postured drifter, itinerant computer manual writer, multiple academic dropout, certified mental institution graduate, dare to propose a way to heal that centuries old rift ? And then disguise it in two novels published over 15 years apart

But he does. He steps back takes a broad and general overview, traces this rift back to the very roots of Western Philosophy, and clearly explains that it is the de facto metaphysical base upon which all was built. But it was not and is not a necessary split. You all have seen it, you all have protested against it, but you all were afraid to name it. Thus the strawdog bites.

A Strawdog, somnolently curled in on front porch, is always vigilant for the smell of smoke, lest he miss someone's barbecued chops.

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