*Note from the Author: If you struggle along to the end, having skipped all the technical junk, and found some of the pieces edifying and illuminating, maybe even enlightening, please e-mail me at pirsigaffliction@hotmail.com and let me know what you think. If you didn’t find any of it useful at all, well, I apologize and you can write me and give me an earful, too.

Matthew P. Kundert

January 2003

Confessions of a Fallen Priest:

Rorty, Pirsig, and the Metaphysics of Quality


1. Introduction

As you might be able to tell from the title, I am, with heavy heart, relinquishing my place in the sanctuary. I am not sure who first compared the Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) to religion and, though I am sure it was meant despairingly, I find the analogy fitting and use it as an apt description, rather than an off-hand denunciation. Though certainly not as shocking as, say, Bodvar Skutvik or Platt Holden leaving the fold, it is a tad shocking for myself, having been there for all the thoughts and essays and misfired essays I’ve had over the past three years. Though not as vocal in the MoQ Discussion Group (MD) as the two aforementioned “priests,” I was a staunch advocate and was in the process of carving out my own little place in the Forum. In fact, my silence for about a year in the MD is part of why I am writing now.1

When I got sucked into Richard Rorty’s “philosophy,” it was, honestly, quite by accident. Nine months after my first reading of Lila and subsequent conversion to Pirsig’s MoQ, I found myself in a Chicago bookstore on my way out to San Francisco to visit my sister. It was my winter break and my parents and I were traveling by train, so I needed some reading material (at the time I had yet to accumulate the library of books-I’ve-never-read-yet-should-be-reading that I seem to be cursed with now). At the time, I was currently in the phase of Pirsig-acceptance where I was looking to “shore up” Pirsig’s defenses towards mainstream philosophy. That meant, on Pirsig’s own recommendation, reading James in particular and pragmatism in general.

The map of contemporary philosophy was still largely unsketched for me. I kinda’ knew that there were two traditions, loosely identified as Analytic (or Anglo-American) and Continental. I knew Moore, Russell, and Wittgenstein were Analytic and the Existentialists were Continental, but that was about all I knew. I assumed pragmatism fit on the Anglo-American side and what little reading I did seemed to confirm that fact, but that didn’t make any sense to me. My first two essays on Pirsig were on the similarities between Pirsig and Continental philosophy. I was very confused on where to turn to.

It was with all that confusion that I found myself in that Chicago bookstore and that is when I stumbled into a book entitled Consequences of Pragmatism. I thought, “Hmm, pragmatism. I need to know more about that and this is about its consequences. Perfect!” And it was by a guy I had heard mentioned in my Contemporary Philosophy class (though it was never exactly explained who he was or what he stood for). So, I naively bought it and got on the train.2

I started to read the introduction. It purportedly would explain to me what pragmatism was. Well, I slogged through for about 15 pages and gave up. The author kept using a lot of Greek, Latin, and German and kept referring to people I’d never heard of and things like “technical realism” and “intuitive realism” and “verificationism” and “psychological nominalism.” All in all, I didn’t understand a damn word he was saying. I was reminded of Pirsig’s warning in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) about technicians. Rorty certainly appeared to be one.

So, I skipped to one of his essays at the end of the book, “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope.” This was a lot easier to read and it looked a lot like Pirsig. It referred to people I’d heard of like Plato and Aristotle and Galileo and Kuhn. I was quite happy. Unfortunately, as soon as it started talking about stuff I didn’t understand, I tuned out again. But the seed had been planted: Rorty is a place of at least semi-agreement.

Fast-forward one year. The landscape of contemporary philosophy now looks a lot less fuzzy. I can pick up on where to place new names and terms in the philosophical landscape much easier. I decided to pick up Consequences, again. My library was quite large by this point, but of all the books Consequences was the one that my eyes kept falling to. I just knew there was something important to be discovered in it. So I started reading. And reading. Essay after essay seemed to be pure gold. I found myself turning into a Rortyan.

But the question that always drove me through the essays was, “How does this affect Pirsig?” In some places it was bad, others, not so much. It was difficult to get a handle on exactly how Rorty would view Pirsig, but a clear picture was forming: Rorty himself wouldn’t like Pirsig much at all. Another picture was forming, though. I don’t exactly feel as though Rorty has all the answers. This may seem an innocuous statement. “Of course, Rorty doesn’t have all the answers. Neither does Pirsig.” But I once acted like Pirsig did, or at least I thought I could find how Pirsig would formulate all the answers. I think most people go through that stage early in their lives. They have a hero of some sort, maybe God, and then, as a person matures, the hero gets replaced or told to move over and make room. I had never been satisfied with God, but I was never satisfied with Reason alone, either. Then in walked Pirsig with the answer to my prayers. Going through a stage of Godlike figures isn’t bad as long as it’s temporary. Soon Pirsig’s answers were beginning to chafe. Something wasn’t quite right for me.

As I read more and more of Rorty, I came to a realization: Pirsig was doing to me what Plato did to Pirsig. For Pirsig, Plato created the Western philosophical nightmare called “Professional Philosophy,” amongst other things. But through Rorty’s eyes, I began to see that Pirsig is attempting the same thing, rather than really fundamentally changing anything. To turn Pirsig’s eloquent phrase back on him, the halo is gone from Pirsig’s head. This is not to say that I’m still not an avid Pirsig supporter. But I’m finding that the better parts of Pirsig are to be found in ZMM, not Lila. What Rorty has given me are the tools necessary to see and to enunciate what I’ve disliked about Pirsig, without throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

2. The Pragmatized Pirsig

In ZMM, Pirsig introduces an entity called “Quality” to drive his discussion of common cultural problems. He uses it as a point of entry into very illuminating discussions of practical, down-to-earth problems such as technology and mental “stuckness.” Pirsig introduces helpful redescriptions of old words like “gumption” and “care.” And all along the way of Pirsig’s Chautauqua is a general description of what he calls “secondary America.” His discourse on these subjects are very interesting and always with an eye towards everyday life.

The transition from ZMM to Lila is the transition from insights about Quality to the Metaphysics of Quality, from edifying, post-metaphysical philosophy to systematic, metaphysico-epistemological philosophy (not that he didn’t show tendencies of both in both books). Pirsig created some very helpful tools in ZMM including “Quality,” the “romantic/classic” division, and the “Church of Reason,” among others. In Lila, however, Pirsig moves from trying to dissolve the Kantian value spheres (Art, Science, and Morality)3 to trying to re-systematize them.  Pirsig, in Lila, attempts to further his repudiation of the Kantian system of philosophy all the while continuing the Kantian project of systematizing and, like Kant, enthrones his own system as ultimate arbiter between the spheres.

In fact, Pirsig's ambivalent relation to Kant is possibly one of the most interesting facets about Pirsig's thought.  I would suggest that we read Kant as Pirsig’s greatest teacher and primary influence, a man that Pirsig wanted so desperately to overcome, yet ends up ambivalently reinforcing. We find Pirsig openly borrowing some of Kant's tools and making some of the same fundamental moves as the master chess player.4   And yet, at least in ZMM, Pirsig's project is almost entirely anti-Kantian.  What I want to suggest is that Pirsig is being a good philosopher when he is edifying and recontextualizing, not when he's systematic and logically arguing.  Pirsig the Rhetorician and Cultural Critic, not Pirsig the Platonic Dialectician.

It is important, however, for the MoQ to shirk Kant as soon as possible because the usual interpretation of Kant is that he’s the key modern representative of the evil of Subject-Object Metaphysics (SOM). Kant was the first great Professional Philosopher, finally living Plato's dream.  He set the intellectual world into separate spheres (Art, Science, and Morality) and set Philosophy as their adjudicator.  Philosophy was the judge that was looked to when an interdisciplinary problem arose.  Is it ethical to clone babies?  Well, Philosophy, step in and tell us, since Morals and Science are eternally separate spheres.

Philosophers since Kant have either tried to reinforce these separate value spheres (like Hegel and Habermas) or they have tried to dissolve them (like Nietzsche and Rorty).  And here comes Pirsig.  Pirsig admires Kant's formidable defense of Philosophy, but smells something fishy.  Pirsig initially, in ZMM, seems to dissolve the Kantian value spheres.  This is where the original Quality insight comes in.  But then in Lila, Pirsig, overcome by what Richard Bernstein calls “Cartesian Anxiety” (the inexplicable fear one experiences if your a foundationalist without a foundation), erects a new hierarchy that, once again, enthrones Philosophy.  Science, Art, and Morality are all connected now, but they still must be adjudicated between.  And the Philosophical interpretation of the MoQ is what does the adjudication.  But even in ZMM, Pirsig compromises his attempt to dissolve the value spheres by calling his project a “Copernican inversion of the relationship of Quality to the objective world.”5 He’s here echoing Kant when Kant suggested that he was performing a Copernican inversion.6 The problem as Rorty sees it is that an inversion, be it Pirsig’s inversion of SOM, Kant’s inversion of Cartesian epistemology, Nietzsche’s inversion of Platonism, or de Man’s inversion of the “metaphysics of presence,” still plays by the same rules as what was inverted. It would represent “merely one more inversion of a traditional philosophical position – one more ‘transvaluation of all values’ that nevertheless remains within the range of alternatives specified by ‘the discourse of philosophy.’”7 (italics Rorty’s)

I suggest that we get rid of this continuity between Pirsig and Kant. I think this continuity comes from two sources: the desire for a foundation and the distinction between appearance and reality. Rorty points the finger of blame for both at Plato. Plato, reacting against the supposed “relativism” of the Sophists, tries to find absolute certainty for our knowledge by putting our backs up against something hard. He suggests that when we apprehend the Realm of the Forms we have knowledge of what’s really real. When we deal with the Realm of the Senses, we only have opinions of what appears to be real. Pirsig follows Rorty in fingering Plato for causing many of the apparent problems of philosophy.8 However, as soon as he finishes condemning Plato for creating SOM, he suggests that what’s really real is Quality. SOM appears to be the Truth, but really its Quality. Pirsig seems to want to get rid of the distinction between objective and subjective, but in trying Pirsig revives the distinction between appearance and reality, the distinction that, according to Rorty, has given us the entire misconceived tradition of Western metaphysics. The appearance/reality distinction is the distinction that allows us to say that what is objective is real and what is subjective is whatever you like. This is what Pirsig rails against for large parts of ZMM, but when Pirsig creates Quality as a third entity, and situates it back behind subjects and objects, he creates what’s real (Quality) as opposed to what’s apparent (subjects and objects). The seeds are sown for Pirsig’s systematic metaphysics in ZMM.9

What I suggest is that we read this out of Pirsig, that we follow through on Pirsig’s pragmatist arc and fully pragmatize him. I suggest that Pirsig take DeWeese’s advice and refuse to enter the arena.10 Pirsig would then follow the pragmatists’ suggestion that we need to abjure our search for ahistorical Truth, stop using Reason as a surrogate for God, and stop thinking of Moral Obligation as ahistorical like Kant thought of it. Doing this would mean making him look a lot more like Rorty, particularly Rorty’s antiessentialism and postmodernism.11 As an antiessentialist, we wouldn’t be able to say that there is anything like an ahistorical essence to Quality. I think this is what Pirsig’s driving at when he leaves Quality undefined. If it’s undefined, how can it have an essence? If we take Quality to be the opposite of an essence, we won’t be tempted say things like,

It is absolutely, scientifically moral for a doctor to prefer the patient. This is not just an arbitrary social convention that should apply to some doctors but not to all doctors, or to some cultures but not all cultures. It’s true for all people at all times, now and forever....”12

If we are tempted, we can simply respond with Pirsig’s discourse on Western ghosts.13 This means that we interpret the static levels of patterns, with all the accompanying moral codes, as contingent, evolving out of history in a Hegelian, dialectical fashion.

In fact, I take the main point of Pirsig's discourse on Western ghosts to be his exchanging of “discovery” metaphors of truth for “making” metaphors. Pirsig says that what’s asinine is that, “We believe the disembodied words of Sir Isaac Newton were sitting in the middle of nowhere billions of years before he was born and that magically he discovered these words.”14 He continues, “Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn't a human invention.”15 This last statement is a bit funny sounding. If “the whole blessed thing is a human invention,” then not only is the idea that we didn’t invent the laws of nature or logic an invention, so is the idea that we did invent “the whole blessed thing.” This leads me to believe that Pirsig would follow along when Rorty suggests,

it is important that we who are accused of relativism stop using the distinction between finding and making, discovery and invention, objective and subjective. We should not let ourselves be described as subjectivists.... For we cannot formulate our point in terms of a distinction between what is outside us and what is inside us. We must repudiate the vocabulary our opponents use, and not let them impose it on us. To say that we must repudiate this vocabulary is to say, once again, that we must avoid Platonism and metaphysics, in that wide sense of metaphysics in which Heidegger said that metaphysics is Platonism.16

If we treat Pirsig as an antiessentialist, we will also want to treat him as a postmodern. Following Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition is an “incredulity toward metanarratives.”17 Rorty suggests that we eschew metanarratives, those narratives which are behind all other narratives, the One, True narrative which all things should be contextualized, in favor of local narratives that last only as long as they are useful. If we read Pirsig this way, we will see the MoQ, not as a metaphysics “true for all time and all people, now and forever,” but as one possible narrative to contextualize things, such as doctor/patient relations.

What I’m suggesting is that we ignore the parts where Pirsig says things like, “[Quality] is more real than the stove,”18 and emphasize the parts were he says things like, “the Metaphysics of Quality does not insist on a single exclusive truth.”19 We cheer Pirsig on when he heroizes the Sophists, Poincaré, and James and villianizes Aristotle, Plato, and Boas and we politely cough when he argues that “the Metaphysics of Quality not only passes the logical positivists’ tests for meaningfulness, it passes them with the highest marks.”20 Pirsig is at his best when he’s recontextualizing the past and commenting on such disparate topics as insanity, gumption, and the Hippies. He’s at his worst when he’s creating a metaphysics and arguing with his enemies, thus giving validity to their objections by accepting some of their premises.

I tend to think that Pirsig wouldn’t mind this misreading. Compare Rorty’s “philosophical narrativism” with Pirsig on how to read philosophy:

...finding a description of all the things characteristic of your time of which you most approve, with which you unflinchingly identify....”21

...the best way to examine the contents of various philosophological carts is first to figure out what you believe and then to see what great philosophers agree with you.”22

Pirsig would seem to agree with Rorty when Rorty says, “We need to tell ourselves detailed stories about the mighty dead in order to make our hopes of surpassing them concrete.”23 This is what Pirsig is doing when he describes Plato’s synthesis of the Sophists and Cosmologists in ZMM24 and Boas’ role in the genesis of American cultural anthropology in Lila.25 He’s making concrete what we need to surpass.

Pirsig also uses other “paradigms of imagination.” Rorty says,

Paradigms of imagination are the new, metaphorical use of old words (e.g., gravitas), the invention of neologisms (e.g., “gene”), and the colligation of hitherto unrelated texts (e.g., Hegel and Genet {Derrida}, Donne and Laforgue {Eliot}, Aristotle and the Scriptures {the Schoolmen}, Emerson and the Gnostics {Bloom}, Emerson and the skeptics {Cavell}, cockfights and Northrop Frye {Geertz}, Nietzsche and Proust {Nehamas}).”26

In a footnote, Rorty adds,

Successful colligation of this sort is an example of rapid and unconscious reweaving: one lays one set of beliefs on top of another and finds that, magically, they have interpenetrated and become warp and woof of a new, vividly polychrome, fabric.  I take this as analogous to what happens in dreams, and that analogy as the point of Davidson's remark that ‘Metaphor is the dreamwork of language.’”

This is his suggestion for strong misreadings: the laying of a framework or vocabulary on another's vocabulary and seeing what pops out.27 The use of strong misreadings is part of an attempt to heroize and villianize certain thinkers or groups in the construction of your own narrative of what’s going on.  Pirsig heroizes Poincaré and the Sophists in ZMM and James and Sidis in Lila.  He villianizes Plato and Aristotle in ZMM and Boas and the Victorians in Lila. He also breathes new, metaphorical life into old words all the time (e.g., Quality, morality, gumption, mu, Church of Reason). 

There is a further reason the Pirsig of ZMM might favor my interpretation. Rorty describes a picture of argumentation that Pirsig would seem to agree with:

The trouble with arguments against the use of a familiar and time-honored vocabulary is that they are expected to be phrased in that very vocabulary. They are expected to show that central elements in that vocabulary are ‘inconsistent in their own terms’ or that they ‘deconstruct themselves.’ But that can never be shown. Any argument to the effect that our familiar use of a familiar term is incoherent, or empty, or confused, or vague, or ‘merely metaphorical’ is bound to be inconclusive and question-begging28

As an illustration of the circular, self-justifying nature of alternative modes of thought, I would illustrate two positions: the Platonic dialectical-foundation position and the Rortyan recontextualization position. These two positions are on the nature of intellectual engagement and so receive special notice. The Platonic tradition argues that for intellectual discourse to occur, we must agree on terms and then argue various positions and platforms according to these terms. At the end of an engagement, some sort of consensus will have occurred given the singular use of terms and the rigorousness and thoroughness of argumentation. If consensus has not occurred, it is only because of equivocation in terminology, sloppy reasoning, or plain old stubbornness. The Platonic dialectic is the basis for logical argumentation. The Rortyan position holds that beliefs are changed causally, not through “rational” argumentation. The proper “method” for intellectual engagement is recontextualization. The private position of a person is recontextualized within a narrative of history by which the private position is shown to have an inadequate understanding of the patterns of the past and the needs of the present.29 Positions are not so much engaged as they are circumvented by shifting the grounds of debate into one’s own private vocabulary. Consensus is reached if you can persuade the other person that their understanding is not as useful as yours.

The “engagement” of these two positions is, obviously, quite problematical. The Platonic tradition demands agreement of terms and dialectical argumentation, while the Rortyan position demurs and asks for circumvention of opposing terms and persuasiveness of narrative. So how do these two positions engage? If you’re a Platonist, they engage like normal: logical dialectic. If you’re a Rortyan, they don’t like normal: the arguments are circumvented and then recontextualized. The Platonist would dialectically engage the Rortyan by showing that dialectical reason is supreme and/or needed for rational discourse to take place. The Rortyan would shift the terms and show that dialectical reason has given us the entire misconceived tradition of Western metaphysics. The two positions cannot do anything but find recourse in their own methods. If either one were to alternate to another method to enshrine the original method, then that undermines the entire effort by showing that there is another method at work behind the original. Both “methods” are necessarily self-justifying.

Arguments can be seen as tending to “force” one static pattern upon everyone else.  The purpose of an argument is to align everyone along the same static pattern, to force them down the same dialectical path.  Pirsig makes this same discovery when the Professor asks his personal opinion about cookery: 

His mind races on and on, through the permutations of the dialectic, on and on, hitting things, finding new branches and sub-branches, exploding with anger at each new discovery of the viciousness and meanness and lowness of this ‘art’ called dialectic.  ... Phædrus’ mind races on and on and then on further, seeing now at last a kind of evil thing, an evil deeply entrenched in himself, which pretends to try and understand love and beauty and truth and wisdom but whose real purpose is never to understand them, whose real purpose is always to usurp them and enthrone itself.  Dialectic - the usurper.  That is what he sees.  The parvenu, muscling in on all that is Good and seeking to contain it and control it.”30

This is why Pirsig favors rhetoric over Platonic dialectic, why he constructs narratives of history, and why he should have taken DeWeese’s advice.

One of my favorite instances of Pirsig recontextualizing is when he talks about the Sophists in ZMM.  We first get Plato's story on what the Sophists are up to (no good), and then Pirsig recontextualizes the situation by pointing out that the Sophists were sometimes named as ambassadors and that Socrates and Plato were called Sophists at times.31 In this way, Pirsig recontextualizes the narrative from the way Plato had it (the Sophists were spinners of lies and Socrates came and showed everyone the Truth) into something else: “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 of man.”32 

That's an example of Pirsig recontextualizing, but I chose this example for another reason: it shows Pirsig favoring recontextualization over the dialectic.  Pirsig recontextualizes the Sophists to show the flaw in Plato and the dialecticians project, but notice that he is not involved in dialectic.  Recontextualization would be better called “rhetoric.”  Pirsig doesn't engage Plato and dialectically and argumentatively show that Plato's cooptation of the Sophists and use of “dialectic - the usurper” was in the end flawed.  Pirsig, rather, recontextualizes the situation to show this, thereby failing to engage Plato in a way he would have found acceptable (by Plato's own dialectical lights).  That's why Pirsig describes his battle with the Chairman as a battle between rhetoric and dialectic (even though Pirsig, at the time, seems to be involved in a dialectical argument).33  The only way to show that Pirsig's suggested narrative is lacking is to beat Pirsig at his own game: go into intellectual history, where we get the raw materials for our narratives, and draw us a narrative that shows that Pirsig is missing something, shows that Pirsig has not understood the past, nor the needs of the present.34 In particular, Pirsig’s use of recontextualization over dialectic not only suggests his preference for it, but that he considers it the preferred tool. As he says, “Dialectic ... came itself from rhetoric.”35 I suggest that when Pirsig engages in dialectical argumentation, we read him as reaching for that tool (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly), rather than as buying into the Platonic notion of an ahistorical Truth that only dialectical argumentation can get at.

What I want to suggest is that Pirsig would sympathize with my (mis)reading of him. I think he would approve of my colligation of himself and Rorty.36 I think his crucial mistake was buying into the Aristotelian idea that metaphysics is the First Philosophy.37 What makes me think this is the ease to which I think you can dispense with metaphysics and still talk about Quality, still have all the freshness of air, the fragrant smell of new, Dynamic directions and metaphors.  I think that we can do without metaphysics and still hold onto his crucial insights about Quality. What Quality means is that we all make value judgments, everyday of our lives.  The various static patterns we’ve experienced is the context from which we make our choices.  They are the base set of values we have.  Discussion of how the MoQ helps moral judgments has faced problems because people see Quality in different things.  I think this is exactly the point.  Our contingent circumstances (read: our static patterns) are going to condition us to see Quality in different places.  The chief contribution Pirsig had in Lila to overcome this so-called, seeming “relativism” was Dynamic Quality.  Dynamic Quality is the striving for excellence that cannot be named, because as soon as you do, you’ve condemned it to staticness, as an ahistorical truth.  Dynamic Quality is the new metaphor over the horizon, it’s the invention of a new context that helps us see the low Quality of our old context.  Dynamic Quality is not absolute, objective Truth.  That would be naming it.  That would be making the same mistake that Plato made, which may have been a good idea at the time, but one we now need to overcome.

Pirsig’s thought, in this way, is inherently Oedipal.  The goal of excellence is to overcome the past, the low Quality of those that have preceded you.  It is a constant dialectical, dialogical interplay that yields up new insights and allows you to move forward, up and beyond the contingent past.  There is no endpoint, no solid footing.  There are only new contexts that can, nay must, be overcome. This is why I want to get rid of metaphysics.  The goal of metaphysics, the onto-theological tradition (to use Heidegger’s term), the tradition handed down to us by Plato and Aristotle, through Descartes and Kant, is to enshrine and hypostatize Dynamic Quality (in the guise of the Good, Truth, God, Reason, Science, etc.), and that is exactly what we must resist.  When Whitehead said that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, Rorty says that Whitehead’s point “was that we do not call an inquiry ‘philosophical’ unless it revolves around some of the distinctions which Plato drew.”38  Pirsig agrees with this assessment when he says, “Systematic philosophy is Greek. The ancient Greeks invented it and, in so doing, put their permanent stamp on it.”39 Dewey called this stamp “that whole nest and brood of Greek dualisms.” We must repudiate the Platonic tradition, rid ourselves of metaphysics, which brokers on the Platonic distinction between appearance and reality, and forge ahead with Dynamic Quality.  When Pirsig said, “It was time Aristotle got his,”40 I read Pirsig as saying that its time that the entire Platonic tradition got its Oedipal comeuppance.

3. Defense of the Pragmatized Pirsig (Nihilism, Relativism, and Irrationality)

      1. Nihilism and Relativism

If we think of Pirsig’s thought as continuous with Rorty’s, as Pirsig’s dissolution of the subject/object distinction as continuous with Rorty’s dissolution of the appearance/reality distinction, Davidson’s scheme/content distinction, Quine’s analytic/synthetic and fact/language distinction, as continuous with Dewey’s attack on that “whole nest and brood of Greek dualisms,” Sellars’ attack on the Myth of the Given, Kuhn’s attack on scientific positivism, Hegel’s historicization of Kant, Wittgenstein’s mocking of “conceptual analysis,” “explication of meanings,” and “the logic of language,” Nietzsche’s proclamation of the “Death of God,” Heidegger’s attack on the “metaphysics of presence” and the onto-theological tradition, Habermas’ attack on the “philosophy of subjectivity,” Foucault’s attack on the truth/power distinction, Lyotard’s attack on metanarratives, and Derrida’s attack on logocentrism and the “discourse of philosophy,” then we will cease to think of Pirsig as constructing a metaphysics that gives us the Truth, as providing a foundation upon which we can construct irrefutable resolutions to all moral dilemmas. Making Pirsig commensurate with Kuhn’s reading of the history of science and Derrida’s reading of the history of philosophy will expose those places where Pirsig falls short.41 This does not take away from what they did, it merely means we have to improve and move past them.

But making Pirsig continuous with these post-Analytic and post-Nietzschean philosophers, these post-modern philosophers, will take away what many sought in the MoQ: what Nietzsche called “metaphysical comfort.” If we emphasize the “many truths” parts over the “now and forever” parts, some people will begin to suffer from “Cartesian Anxiety.” When people suffer from Cartesian Anxiety, they start to say things like,

After Nietzsche knocks down any outside interference from God, the attack would be that morals and values are given by society. What's wrong with that, you say? They're completely arbitrary, of course! Enter relativism, the intellectual scourge that has laid waste to our society's foundations for, well, whatever foundation ya' got.”42

If one thinks that we need a foundation for our morals and knowledge, then one will think that nihilism and relativism is a menace. Rorty however shows us that nihilism and relativism do not really exist.43

One of the first protests that is usually incurred by the call of postmodernism is something like “moral nihilism.” The point of this objection is that, with the eschewment of metanarratives, we have no context from which to construct judgments. Another way to put this objection is to say that, if there is nothing intrinsically good about anything, how are we to say that there is any good? This has been the effect of looking at the world in an increasingly mechanistic fashion. Whereas before, Plato asked if there was anything intrinsically good about justice and Aristotle claimed that all things had an inner telos, after Newton and Darwin we are having a harder and harder time thinking these things.44 But this objection is met simply by the fact that, even though we may get rid of metanarratives and intrinsic values, we do not need to get rid of narratives and relational values. The call for antiessentialism is the desire for us to think of things as numbers. Following Rorty, meditating on the number 42 will not reveal an essence.45 The only thing it could reveal is its relations to other numbers. To describe 42 is to say things like: 20 plus 22, 84 divided by 2, 21 times 2, greater than 40 but less than 42.6, etc.46 But none of these descriptions seems any more deserving of the title “essence” then any of the others. Whatever numbers are, they seem to be relational and Rorty suggests we look at everything else as being relational. Nihilism implies that no contexts, narratives, or relations exist. It’s not that none exist, it’s just that we have to choose which ones we use. After this response, the anxious Cartesian might ask how we can tell which context, which narrative, which relation, is the right one. The reply is that we argue from our inhierited traditions and context i.e. our ethnos. This leads to an attack on Rorty’s avowed ethnocentrism, which I will return to after dealing with relativism.

To begin again, following Rorty and the pragmatists (who range from Dewey and James to (late) Wittgenstein and Nietzsche), the notion that there is Truth or that there is a Reality that must have Truth correspond to it is not a profitable topic of discussion. There are things as truth and knowledge, but truth is simply a property of sentences and knowledge is something gained by praxis, not by determining the boundaries of it, or simply meditating on what it might be. The pragmatist believes that the truth of our assertions is gained by our relation to a community i.e. by solidarity. The ant-pragmatist believes that truth has an intrinsic, antecedent nature that we must be brought into relation with, that we must correspond to it. As Rorty says, “as a partisan of solidarity, his [the pragmatist’s] account of the value of cooperative human inquiry has only an ethical base, not an epistemological or metaphysical one. Not having any epistemology, a fortiori he does not have a relativistic one.”47

Relativism, on this account, is a strawman.  As Rorty says,

“‘Relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps any topic, is as good as every other.  No one holds this view.  Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good.  The philosophers who get called “relativists” are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.”48

Rorty goes on to say that “if there were any relativists, they would, of course, be easy to refute.”49  A common refutation of relativism is the claim that if you really believed it, you wouldn't be able to do anything because you'd never be able to make a choice between A and B because there is no difference that makes a difference between them. For instance, say you’re standing at the refrigerator trying to choose between beer A and beer B. If there is absolutely no difference between the two, then your choosing of which beer to drink is impaired. Further, because you are a true relativist, you can’t even see the difference in value between drinking a beer or not drinking a beer. This continues on for all conceivable choices, such as leaving the fridge or not. However, I and most other people can make the choice between beer A and beer B and drinking or not drinking beer.  A culture decides on matters of morals and values according to its inherited traditions, a culture's final vocabulary.  From this we are able to say that the Greeks use of slavery was bad, the Nazis’ extermination of Jews was evil, and Nietzsche's bashing of democracy was pig-headed.

This brings us to ethnocentrism and Rorty whole-heartedly agrees that he is and we all are.  However, we in the West (particularly America) are a particular kind of ethnocentrist: we are ethnocentrists who despise ethnocentrism.  Ethnocentrism is a closed shop, reactionary-type mentality.  Change is despised.  Rorty says, however, that our culture is better described as “anti-anti-ethnocentrism.”  He says, “We would rather die than be ethnocentric, but ethnocentrism is precisely the conviction that one would rather die than share certain beliefs.”50 So anti-ethnocentrism is part of our tradition, but we're caught in the mudhole of thinking that this itself is ethnocentric, so we swing back to being anti-anti-ethnocentric, which poses the problem of becoming little cultural, windowless monads that merely condescends the rest of the world.  Rorty argues, I think persuasively, that some cultures might be like this, but that ours is not.  We have a tradition of pluralism, a tradition of openness.  Our anti-anti-ethnocentrism “does not say that we are trapped within our monad or our language, but merely that the well-windowed monad we live in is no more closely linked to the nature of humanity or the demands of rationality than the relatively windowless monads which surround us.”51

So, when Pirsig says, “Cultures can be graded and judged morally according to their contribution to the evolution of life,”52 pragmatists can only cheer him on, but not because one culture is closer to the Moral Truth then another.  It is only because we can compare various cultures with ours and see if theirs seem self-destructive. Over the course of history, the West has found some traditions to be useful and others not. Many traditions historically in the American culture have helped in the evolution of life (liberalism, republicanism) and some have not (slavery, supremacies of various types).  Americans have been in the process of removing these undesirable traditions.  The removal process hinges on democracy, which leads us to believe that democracy is fairly integral to the evolution of life.  Hence, we should feel pretty solid about the desire for democracies in all nations. Some might respond that, without real, foundational solid footing, we are simply arbitrarily privileging our own view. But to privilege any view, be it ours, another cultures, or some supposed ahistorical position is to beg the question against everybody else. As Rorty says, “Nobody is being any more arbitrary than anybody else. But that is to say that nobody is being arbitrary at all. Everybody is just insisting that the beliefs and desires they hold most dear should come first in the order of discussion.  That is not arbitrariness but sincerity.”53

      1. Irrationality

So, to ask whether the pragmatist is right to treat truth as a property, to pull off the Platonic goal of trying to correspond with some antecedent Reality, to ask, as Rorty says, “whether the pragmatist view of truth ... is itself true is thus a question about whether a post-Philosophical culture is a good thing to try for.”54 A post-Philosophical culture is one in which we no longer care about whether we are corresponding to Reality, whether we are impinging on someone's natural God-given rights, or whether we are following our ahistorical, true-for-all-time duty to humankind.  What is cared about is the liberal goal of the minimization of cruelty, the proliferation of vocabularies to find new tools to cope with reality.  Following aesthetic pluralists like Jonathon Edwards, Emerson, Peirce, James, Dewey, and Whitehead,55 Rorty desires a poetized culture, a culture whose vocabulary “revolves around the notions of metaphor and self-creation rather than around notions of truth, rationality, and moral obligation.”56 Specifically, philosophy (rather than capital "P" Philosophy, which we have the Platonic tradition to thank for) wouldn't think of itself as a distinct Fach, a distinct discipline with distinct methods and problems, but rather as Sellars thought of it: “an attempt to see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.”  Philosophers would, rather, be “all-purpose intellectuals who were ready to offer a view on pretty much anything, in the hope of making it hang together with everything else.”57

I think Pirsig, with his suggestions about Quality, is urging us in the direction of this post-Philosophical, post-SOM culture. His emphasis on how SOM has no provision for Dynamic Quality and that a post-SOM culture would is the suggestion that a post-SOM culture would be a culture whose vocabulary “revolves around the notion of metaphor.” Dynamic Quality is a metaphor for the call for new metaphors. It is the suggestion that we should allow ourselves to think in new ways. But the eschewment of discussions of Reason, Truth, Knowledge, Realty, etc., lead some to believe that what postmoderns want is irrationality. By saying that there’s nothing philosophically interesting about truth outside of statements about a post-Philosophical, literary culture is to say that if a pragmatic view of truth is true, it simply points out that the only way I (or anyone else) can justify their views is with their own final vocabulary.58 

In other words, post-Philosophical culture will duck questions into the essential nature of Truth and Falsity; it will discharge the Platonic tradition as leading to a dead-end.  This typically brings the charge of irrationality. The charge of irrationality is usually leveled at historicists who do not bow down to an ahistorical, universal Reason.  As Rorty says,

The real and passionate opposition is over the question of whether loyalty to our fellow-humans presupposes that there is something permanent and unhistorical which explains why we should continue to converse in the manner of Socrates, something which guarantees convergence to agreement.59

The Platonic tradition, with its call for universal Reason, aims at stopping the conversation.  The aim is to solve a problem by finding its universal Truth, thereby ending discourse as all opinions have converged (at, presumably, the Truth).  The historicist, however, notices that the conversation the Platonic tradition is involved in has been going on for quite some time and has given no signs of letting up.  She recognizes that all conversations are contingent and the pragmatic historicist then decides that this conversation is probably best avoided so more profitable topics can be discussed.  It is unclear how this issue can be resolved, however.  After the historicist refuses to argue about universal Reason, she gets branded as a relativist or irrationalist.  The historicist, on the other hand, adds this dispute on top of the pile as another example of the futility of arguing over universal Reason.  As Rorty says, “I think that the decision has to be made simply by reading the history of philosophy and drawing a moral.”60

On irrationality, I think Pirsig would feel comfortable with the defense the pragmatists give.  The static/Dynamic division of Quality gives reality (i.e. history), as I noted earlier, a distinctly Oedipal flavor.  The progress of the MoQ (and history) is from static to Dynamic.  As Pirsig notes in ZMM, “To go outside the mythos is to become insane....”61 In Lila translation, it means to go outside the static patterns of your culture i.e. to be Dynamic.  Indeed, Pirsig says in Lila,

When an insane person - or a hypnotized person or a person from a primitive culture - advances some explanation of the universe that is completely at odds with current scientific reality, we do not have to believe he has jumped off the end of the empirical world.  He is just a person who is valuing intellectual patterns that, because they are outside the range of our own culture, we perceive to have very low quality.”62

Metaphors, as breaking the literal meaning of static cultural patterns, on this account, would be a form of insanity.  Irrationality, on this account, would thus be a charge leveled at those who are following Dynamic Quality.  Following Davidson and Rorty, on this conception the “irrational” would be “essential to intellectual progress.”63 The post-Philosophical culture is a culture that attempts to foster Dynamic Quality, a culture that is ironic towards its final vocabulary, a culture that tries to proliferate many different ways of speaking and describing things.

Rorty, however, suggests that, rather than call Quality and a post-Philosophical culture irrational, we adopt another meaning for what counts as rational, one that happens to be available:

It names a set of moral virtues: tolerance, respect for the opinions of those around one, willingness to listen, reliance on persuasion rather than force. These are the virtues which members of a civilized society must possess if the society is to endure. ... On this construction, to be rational is simply to discuss any topic – religious, literary, or scientific – in a way which eschews dogmatism, defensiveness, and righteous indignation.”64

In this sense, rationality is simply contextualized.65 A post-Philosophical culture doesn't discard standards or criteria, which is what people would describe as “irrationality.”  It simply acknowledges the fact that when we appeal to reason, we are not appealing to some ahistorical, universal Reason, but rather to a contingent tradition of reasonable discourse.  When a culture appreciates this fact it will stop looking for the Truth as something to be matched up with and will instead forge forward itself, playing off its past traditions and fixing them as need be. In a literary, poeticized, Dynamic culture we will still have truthfulness, reasonableness, and moral conduct to our fellow human beings, but all of these things will be based on an intersubjective agreement, on solidarity, not objectivity, on our relations with ourselves, not our relation with something nonhuman.

The most telling fear about the lack of metaphysical comfort awaiting them in a post-Philosophical culture is the fear that we are alone, on our own. Rorty says this:

The urge to make philosophy into Philosophy is to make it the search for some final vocabulary, which can somehow be known in advance to be the common core, the truth of, all the other vocabularies which might be advanced in its place. This is the urge which the pragmatist thinks should be repressed, and which a post-Philosophical culture would have succeeded in repressing.

The most powerful reason for thinking that no such culture is possible is that seeing all criteria as no more than temporary resting-places, constructed by a community to facilitate its inquiries, seems morally humiliating. Suppose that Socrates was wrong, that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognize when we see it again. This means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form ‘There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.’ This is a hard thought to live with....

This hard saying brings out what ties Dewey and Foucault, James and Nietzsche, together - the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.”66

This is hard to live with at first, but it is something that Rorty thinks we have been in the process of doing and something we can follow through on. A post-Philosophical culture will give up the groundless desire for something to condemn the evil acts of tyrants; that even when they win, something will prove them wrong.  In this striking passage I think something wonderful appears: in repudiating this nonhuman condemnation, Rorty is forcing us to take responsibility for condemning the tyrants and torturers.  The fact is, if any of the horrific dystopias existed, like Orwell's 1984 or Zamyatin's We, we would be pretty powerless.  If anything was constructed that had such enormous power and control over everyone, it would be the end of humanity as we know it today, whether something “out there” condemned it or not.  But Rorty's message is not one of despair, its one of liberation.  He's telling us that we must be watchful over ourselves; no one else is going to do it for us.  We must take control of our lives and make what we can.  There's a reason Rorty was a Trotskyite supporter of the Cold War.67  He feared the Communist realization of 1984 just as much as the next guy.  What Rorty makes us realize is that we must hope for a better future.  We must take the existing institutions we have and make them better, more liberating and less cruel.  We must take the image of 1984 and always remind ourselves of how we do not want to be.  And then we must create utopic visions of what we can hope to be and that we can then take strides to become.

4. Pirsig, Religion, and Redemptive Truth

In an essay printed at his homepage, Rorty describes redemptive truth:

I shall use the term ‘redemptive truth’ for a set of beliefs which would end, once and for all, the process of reflection on what to do with ourselves. Redemptive truth would not consist in theories about how things interact causally, but instead would fulfill the need that religion and philosophy have attempted to satisfy. This is the need to fit everything - every thing, person, event, idea and poem - into a single context, a context which will somehow reveal itself as natural, destined, and unique. It would be the only context that would matter for purposes of shaping our lives, because it would be the only one in which those lives appear as they truly are. To believe in redemptive truth is to believe that there is something that stands to human life as elementary physical particles stand to the four elements - something that is the reality behind the appearance, the one true description of what is going on, the final secret”.68

Rorty goes on to describe three different phases in human culture: religious, philosophical, and literary. In a religious culture, redemption is sought from some non-human person. In a philosophical culture, redemption is sought by finding out the way things really are, typically described as objectivity. In a literary culture, redemption is sought by exploring the variety of types of human beings. Redemption is sought successively from God, Reality, and other human beings. The thing to see about redemption is that in the first two places, redemption is gained in relation to something non-human, by finding some objective Truth. In a literary culture, redemption is gained by our relations to other human beings.

What my pragmatized Pirsig suggests is that we need to move towards a literary culture. But this is not what the conflicted-Pirsig-from-the-sum-total-of-his-pages might suggest. The interpretation of Pirsig as an essentialist, a Platonic pursuer of Truth, is to suggest that we need a philosophical culture. But Pirsig also links the MoQ with religious mysticism, specifically from the East. Pirsig equates reality to Quality. He identifies us as immediately being in touch with Quality from experience. He then says, “the Metaphysics of Quality identifies religious mysticism with Dynamic Quality.”69 Dynamic Quality is pure experience and Dynamic Quality is the telos of Pirsig’s system, it is the desired end point, the carrot pulling us forward. What Pirsig is saying is that to intellectualize our position in reality is to come up with a philosophical platform like the MoQ. But all this philosophical platform does for us is point out that we need to sink ourselves into religious mysticism. Pirsig’s suggestion for a culture is a philosophical/religious hybrid.

The defender of Pirsig’s hybrid vision might argue that because Pirsig seems to oscillate between retaining redemptive truth and eschewing it, he has conceived of some third, dialectically superior position. As far as I can see, however, no third alternative readily presents itself. Put the Kantian, Philosophical, Redemptive Truth-seeking Pirsig next to my historicized, pragmatic Pirsig and, rather than getting some kind of alternative that has hitherto been unimaginable, we get a kind of incoherent literary/philosophical/religious culture. Pirsig’s cooptation of pragmatism just does not fit with his retainment of a Reality that must be corresponded to.70 He quite clearly uses the Enlightenment’s philosophical language in his call for foundations. When Pirsig uses this Enlightenment, Kantian vocabulary, his main goal is to switch us from a materialist metaphysics to a value-centered metaphysics. But when Pirsig talks like a pragmatist, his goal is to get rid of metaphysics, any centering at all. Rather than affirm our solidarity with other human beings, in the end Pirsig reverts to a religious answer to what redemptive truth is by saying that the highest form of Being is our relation to this ineffable, undefined “pureness,” to Dynamic Quality. The incoherency comes when Pirsig wants us to correspond to this ineffable other, to somehow know what the good is, now and forever.

I think it is best to eschew this part of Pirsig’s vision. In doing this, though, I am not necessarily getting rid of religion. Pirsig’s colligations of the West with the East are some of the more interesting ones. But in a literary culture, these insights would not be privileged in any way. In a literary culture, we would have the freedom to pick and choose are ways and forms of redemption from the entire range of choices. It leaves it up to us. We would no longer believe in redemptive truth, but redemption would instead have to be found in the arms of our fellow human beings, in solidarity rather than objectivity.

We can, however, make Pirsig’s tripartite hybrid coherent with Rortyan pragmatism. From Pirsig’s perspective, religion will appear as existing on the social level. It is a social institution and the explanations it gives are based primarily on authority. However, it is different then other social institutions because it offers redemptive truth. It does this by putting us in relation to a non-human other. The authority that religion claims is gained because of this relation; the authority is ultimately from the non-human other. The movement from a religious culture to a philosophical culture, for Pirsig, would be the movement to SOM. The moment of the turn would be the Socratic moment. Pirsig says that this is primarily a good thing. However, there is a defect in SOM and that is that it does not acknowledge Quality, values, i.e. the non-human other. Pirsig wants to rehabilitate the non-human other that religion saw as its true master. He puts the two together by making Quality, the ineffable object of religion, reality, the object of philosophy. The turn towards irony is when we realize that, if the object of philosophy is also the object of religion, then the goal of philosophy can never be attained. This leads to a turn towards the literary culture, finding solidarity with our fellow human beings. This move is alluded to by Pirsig’s identification of reality with values. Values would normally be thought as the province of humans and only about the relations of humans, but in Pirsig’s vision, values are everything. In Pirsig’s vision, the turn to a literary culture would be the turn towards values, and to search for redemption, after realizing the irony of mixing religion with philosophy, would be to experience a variety of values.

To sum up what I have been saying, I think a pragmatized Pirsig is true to parts of the image that Pirsig set out for us, particularly in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is the Pirsig that spins edifying narratives, rehabilitates old words for practical use, and creates new metaphors. This Pirsig comes to us from ZMM but is undercut to a large extent by his progression to Lila.71 In Lila Pirsig attempts to save both religious redemption and philosophical redemption. Pragmatism would like only to save religious redemption. When religious redemption is seen as people like Lessing and Tillich saw it, as solidarity with our fellow humans, then this type of redemption is perfectly commensurate with a literary culture. When the search for religious redemption is kept as self-perfection, rather than hypostatized into the True Relation to Perfection as Pirsig attempts in Lila, then a truly pragmatic and humanistic account is given. It is this coherent Pirsig that I think is worth keeping, rather than the coherent Kantian Pirsig. I think this is the Pirsig that most readers who read ZMM come away with. Most laypeople who read ZMM for the first time come away feeling edified. I suggest trusting this initial reading.72

Works Cited

Charlton, Bruce G. “A Philosophical Novel: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” (Can be accessed at www.moq.org in their Forum.)

Hall, David L. Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism. New York: SUNY Press, 1994.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: MacMillian, 1929.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979.

Norris, Christopher. Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. Rev. Ed. New York: Routledge, 1982, 1991.

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: William Morrow, 1974, 1999.

-- -- Lila. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Rorty, Richard. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

-----“Introduction: Pragmatism and Philosophy” p. xiii-xliv

-----“Nineteenth-Century Idealism and Twentieth-Century Textualism” p. 139-58

-----“Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism” p. 160-75

-- -- Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

-- -- Essays on Heidegger and Others. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

-----“Introduction: Pragmatism and Post-Nietzschean Philosophy” p. 1-6

-----“Philosophy as Science, as Metaphor, and as Politics” p. 9-26

-----“Two Meanings of ‘Logocentrism’: A Reply to Norris” p. 107-18

-- -- Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

-----“Solidarity or Objectivity” p. 21-34

-----“Science as Solidarity” p. 35-45

-----“Inquiry as Recontextualization: An Anti-Dualist Account of Interpretation” p. 93-110

-----“The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy” p. 175-96

-----“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism” p. 197-202

-----“On Ethnocentrism: A Reply to Clifford Geertz” p. 203-210

-- -- Achieving Our Country. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998

-- -- Truth and Progress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998

-----“The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres” p. 247-73

-- -- Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin, 1999

-----“Relativism: Finding and Making” p. xvi-xxxii

-----“A World without Substances or Essences” p. 47-71

-----“Pragmatism, Pluralism, and Postmodernism” p. 262-77

-- -- “The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture.” (Can be found at www.stanford.edu/~rrorty.)

Works Consulted

Adams, Douglas. The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide. New York: Wings Books, 1996

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, 1997

Brandom, Robert B. ed. Rorty and His Critics. Malden: Blackwell, 2000

-----“Introduction” by Robert B. Brandom, p. ix-xx

-----“Universality and Truth” by Richard Rorty, p. 1-25

DiSanto, Ronald and Thomas Steele. Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: William Morrow, 1990

Malachowski, Alan. Richard Rorty. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002

Nielsen, Kai. After the Demise of the Tradition: Rorty, Critical Theory, and the Fate of Philosophy. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991

Rajchman, John and Cornel West. Post-Analytic Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985

-----“Philosophy in America” by John Rajchman, p. ix-xxvii

-----“After Empiricism” by Hilary Putnam, p. 20-30

-----“Dewey, Democracy: The Task Ahead of Us” by Richard J. Bernstein, p. 48-58

-----“The Politics of American Neo-Pragmatism” by Cornel West, p. 259-72

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979

Wolin, Richard. The Terms of Cultural Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992

1 The name of this essay was first used as the name of a post in the MoQ Discussion Group on argumentation. It has been largely augmented to be a more general introduction to my colligation of Rorty and Pirsig. Much of parts 2 and 3 have been culled from my posts on the MoQ Discussion Group in dialogue with other participants. With that in mind, I would like to thank Bo Skutvik, Platt Holden, John Beasley, and Scott R for their comments on my interpretation. Though in most cases my interpretation strays much farther then they would want to propose, they were instrumental in showing me what possible objections might appear. My thanks in particular to Platt, who drew my attention to some very revealing portions of Pirsig’s writings. Abbreviations I will be using in the endnotes are: CP for Consequences of Pragmatism, CIS for Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, ORT for Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, EHO for Essays on Heidegger and Others, TP for Truth and Progress, and PSH for Philosophy and Social Hope.

2 Since that time I’ve slowly learned not to buy books with interesting or seemingly explanatory titles. It just costs too much money with too little payoff.

3 Evidenced by his title and when he says, “Quality is the Buddha. Quality is scientific reality. Quality is the goal of Art.” ZMM, p. 282

4 One example: Kant's first cut of Reality is between phenomena and noumena.  Phenomena was the definable stuff science was interested.  Noumena is undefinable.  This is very much like Pirsig’s cut between static patterns (definable stuff) and Dynamic Quality (undefinable).

5 ZMM, p. 250

6 In the 2nd Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant says, “We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest. A similar experiment ca be tried in metaphysics....” p. 22

7 EHO, p. 117. By “the discourse of philosophy,” Rorty is referring to another name for the deconstructionists’ primary enemy, “logocentrism.” “Logocentrism,” “the discourse of philosophy,” and “the metaphysics of presence” can largely be regarded as the same as SOM (as can Cartesian epistemology and Platonism). I hope to delve further into the meaning(s) of “SOM” in an essay entitled, “Overcome by the Tradition.”

8 ZMM, p. 388

9 Bruce G. Charlton is pointing at the same thing when he says, “Pirsig is coming close, at this point, to stating that this ‘pre-intellectual awareness’ (value) is Reality (with a capital R): in other words that Quality is the objective truth (the railway track) of the world about which all else is an approximation: coming close, in other words, to epistemology - which is just what he is warning us against.” (“A Philosophical Novel: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”) In this excellent essay, Charlton interprets Pirsig as a post-metaphysical pragmatist, making good on what I’m suggesting, but I don’t think he realizes the extent of the misreading he’s involved in. He says, “While the Pirsig who narrates the book seems to be fairly breezy and down to earth. [sic] Phaedrus was a more tormented, solitary and metaphysical character. Phaedrus goes through a process of system building, but the system is broken apart by its contradictions to lead, via insanity and a complete change in personality, to a better state (post-metaphysical. even post-Philosophical). By the end of the book Pirsig has attained the ability to engage in direct action, without the tortured craving for ‘objective’ foundations.” While his description of Pirsig the narrator and Phædrus are spot on, the climax of the book has the “insane” former self, Phædrus, winning out over the narrator (“That’s what Phædrus said - I always said....”). The end of the book shows the narrator who discussed “gumption” and “care” as the loser in the psychic struggle, and thus symbolically the loser in a choice between the two character types: pragmatist (narrator) v. metaphysician (Phædrus). I’m not at all sure if this is the intended interpretation that Pirsig wanted, given many of the other ambiguities of the book, but it would fit with the move towards Lila. One of the things I hope to bring out in this essay is how there seems to be a fundamental tension in Pirsig’s writing between him wanting to be a pragmatist and wanting to be a metaphysician. This leads to seemingly inconsistent positions best typified by two of his characterizations of Quality: “whatever you like” (ZMM, p. 235) and “the ultimate source of all things.” (ZMM, p. 242) The first is an innocuous truism that the pragmatists like, the second gives people the idea that Quality must then be the same essentially, even though people then interpret it differently. The object of philosophy, for these people then, is to figure out how to correspond what we like to the one true, essential nature of Quality. This essay is not intended to bring out these inconsistencies to full explicitness. I simply want to suggest that there is fuel for two different readings of Pirsig. What this essay further hopes to suggest is that Charlton’s unwitting misreading of ZMM is the better reading, that reading Pirsig as a post-metaphysical pragmatist is better than reading him as a Platonic metaphysician.

10 ibid., p. 233. When Pirsig’s considering his options for answering whether Quality is objective or subjective, he considers several rhetorical options, rather than the dialectical, foundation setting ones. He says, “A third rhetorical alternative to the dilemma, and the best one in my opinion, was to refuse to enter the arena.” This is the strategy suggested by Rorty when he says that the only way to get out of the Platonic philosophical tradition is to simply set aside their problems (which are well documented by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, etc., etc.). “Pragmatists follow Hegel in saying that ‘philosophy is its time grasped in thought.’  Anti-pragmatists follow Plato in striving for an escape from conversation to something atemporal which lies in the background of all possible conversations.  I do not think one can decide between Hegel and Plato save by meditating on the past efforts of the philosophical tradition to escape from time and history.  One can see these efforts as worthwhile, getting better, worth continuing.  Or one can see them as doomed and perverse. I do not know what would count as a noncircular metaphysical or epistemological or semantical argument for seeing them in either way. So I think that the decision has to be made simply by reading the history of philosophy and drawing a moral.” CP, p. 174

11 Rorty dislikes the title “postmodernist” and I generally agree when he says, “The word ‘postmodernism’ has been rendered almost meaningless by being used to mean so many different things.” (PSH, p. 262) However, for my present purposes, it is convenient to call Rorty a postmodernist because of his acceptance of Lyotard’s narrow definition of it. In the end, Rorty would prefer to be called a “post-Nietzschean” philosopher, rather than postmodern, but then, Lyotard’s book is not entitled The Post-Nietzschean Condition. So, to limit the confusing effects of calling Rorty a postmodern, I reserve the title to refer only to the condition of “post-modern philosophy” as in “after modern philosophy.” In this way I hope to minimize the possibility of someone thinking that I’m suggesting Rorty has something in common with “Michael Graves’s buildings, Pynchon’s and Rushdie’s novels, Ashberry’s poems, various sorts of popular music, and the writings of Heidegger and Derrida.” (EHO, p. 1) I’m only suggesting he has something in common with Heidegger and Derrida.

12 Lila, p. 183

13 ZMM, p. 34-6. The dialogue would look like this: “It is absolutely moral for a doctor to prefer a patient, always has been, always will be.” “Was it like that at the beginning of time, before doctors and patients?” “Yes.” “How?” “Well, think of it as a moral law or pattern of action. Just ‘cuz people aren’t around following it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Remember, Pirsig says that not all things are matter.” “Sure, but Pirsig’s entire concept of evolutionary patterns was that the more progressive patterns sit on top of the lower, antecedent patterns. According to Pirsig, intellectual patterns didn’t exist at the dawning of time and, likewise, neither do the moral codes between levels exist without the different levels. To say that, because its true now that a doctor should prefer the patient over the germ, it was always true, now and forever, seems a little overly Whiggish. ”

14 ibid., p. 35

15 ibid., p. 36

16 PSH, p. xviii. To put Pirsig (with Rorty) in a camp that is accused of relativism may seem a little out of sync, but the pragmatized Pirsig will shortly be accused of it. It is also important to point out that Rigel accused Pirsig of hedonism, which comes out to be about the same thing as relativism, something like “Do what feels good, but don’t worry if what feels good will be different for different people.” (Lila, p. 87-92) Lila is Pirsig’s own response to that accusation leveled at ZMM. What’s interesting to note about the Rigel attack is that it combines a pragmatist attack on Pirsig’s universalism and a traditionalist attack on Pirsig’s “hedonism.” The traditionalist attack amounts to an over-emphasis on tradition. The pragmatist wants to save Rigel’s attack on Pirsig’s universalism, but simply point out that tradition is what we act out of. This is what Pirsig attempts to do by his writings about static patterns. What we think is good is derived originally from our static patterns. The saving of Rigel’s attack would, however, prevent Pirsig from further erecting Dynamic Quality as the Ultimate Good, now and forever.

17 The Postmodern Condition, p. xxiv. Rorty says “the postmodern attitude is that of ‘distrust of metanarratives,’ narratives which describe or predict the activities of such entities as the noumenal self or the Absolute Spirit or the Proletariat.” p. 199, ORT

18 Lila, p. 76

19 ibid., p. 114

20 ibid., p. 75

21 CIS, p. 55

22 Lila, p. 372

23 TP, p. 272

24 ZMM, p. 388-9

25 Lila, p. 59-63, 67-70

26 ORT, p. 94-5

27 A “strong misreading” is a stance taken towards a text.  Rorty describes three such stances: the traditional “humanistic” conception, “Newreading” or “textualism,” and “strong misreading.”  A traditional, “humanistic” reading asks the reader to attempt to understand what the author intended for his language and symbols to mean.  Texualism asks the reader to concentrate only on the text; to treat the text as internally coherent with itself. “Alternatively,” Rorty says, “the textualist may brush aside the notion of the text as machine which operates quite independently of its creator, and offer what [Harold] Bloom calls a ‘strong misreading.’  The critic asks neither the author nor the text about their intentions but simply beats the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose. ... He does this by imposing a vocabulary ... on the text which may have nothing to do with any vocabulary used in the text or by its author, and seeing what happens.  The model here is not the curious collector of clever gadgets taking them apart to see what makes them work and carefully ignoring any extrinsic end they may have, but the psychoanalyst blithely interpreting a dream or a joke as a symptom of homicidal mania.” CP, p. 151

28 CIS, p. 8-9

29 Recontextualization is a fancy name for something as simple as “an accountant recontextualizing the figures on a corporate income tax return, provoked to do so by the thought that a certain depreciable item might plausibly be listed on Schedule H rather than on Schedule M.” ORT, p. 95

30 ZMM, p. 379-80

31 ibid., p. 377-81

32 ibid., p. 380-1

33 ibid., p. 399-401

34 David L. Hall provides this summary of Rorty's three types of critics:

“The ‘third rate’ critic attacks the original thinker on the basis of the rhetorical consequences of his thought and defends the status quo against the corrupting effects of the philosopher's rhetoric. ‘Second rate’ critics defend the same received wisdom by semantic analyses of the thinker which highlight ambiguities and vagueness in his terms and arguments. But ‘first rate’ critics ‘delight in the originality of those they criticise...; they attack an optimal version of the philosopher's position - one in which the holes in the argument have been plugged or politely ignored.’ This ‘robustly external’ criticism ‘consists in showing the inability of the philosopher under study, even at his best, to do what the critic thinks needs to be done.’ First rate critics construct a dramatic narrative which contextualizes the thinker under critique in such a manner to show that ‘the philosopher has not understood the pattern of the past and the needs of the present as well as, thanks to the critic, we now do.’” (from Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism, imbedded quote from Rorty’s essay, “Posties”)

35 ZMM, p. 401. In Christopher Norris’ useful colligation of Pirsig and Nietzsche, he says that Pirsig “shows it [dialectic] to rest on a willed and systematic forgetting of its own rhetorical origins.” (Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, p. 62) Norris, however, continues and says, “Reason, or the supposed self-evidence of reason, is thrown into doubt by its manifest failure to justify its methods on other than purely tautological grounds.” Rorty shows us that we shouldn’t expect anything but circular reasoning by both sides. The knock against Reason comes when its “supposed self-evidence” begins to look suspect, but Rorty would demur in suggesting that any other method is more self-evident. The choice of rhetoric over dialectic comes when we realize that dialectical argumentation only works if you and your conversation partner share enough of the relevant premises. Since that is not always the case (usually not in many cases), rhetoric becomes the primary vehicle.

36 Rorty’s advocation of Bloomian “strong misreadings” leads me to believe that Rorty wouldn’t mind my colligation of himself with Pirsig, either. This is why I don’t take Rorty’s own intentions very seriously when acting out my own.

37 Lila, p. 71

38 PSH, p. xviii

39 ZMM, p. 344

40 ibid., p. 354

41 Of course, so do Kuhn and Derrida also often fall short. Almost none of these writers, according to Rorty, followed through on their attacks and achieved a fully pragmatized vision. In some cases, though, their problem isn’t a thoroughgoing pragmatism, but an inability to stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow human beings. See “Dewey’s Metaphysics” (in CP p. 72-89) on Dewey’s residue metaphysics, “Is Natural Science a Natural Kind?” (in ORT p. 46-9) on Quine’s residual scientism, “Representation, Social Practice, and Truth” (in ORT p. 151-61) on Sellars’ residual scientism, “Thomas Kuhn, Rocks, and the Laws of Physics” (in PSH p. 175-89) on Kuhn’s resistance to Rorty’s pragmatic advances, “Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and the Reification of Language” (in EHO p. 50-65) on the late Heidegger’s spill back into divinizing language, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (p. 61-9) on Habermas’ inability to be an ironist while also a liberal (see also, “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity” in EHO p. 164-76), Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (p. 61-9) on Foucault’s inability to be a liberal while also an ironist (see also, “Moral Identity and Private Autonomy: The Case of Foucault” in EHO p. 193-8), “Cosmopolitanism Without Emancipation: A Response to Jean-François Lyotard” (in ORT p. 211-22) on Lyotard’s inability to say “we” (see also, “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity”).

42 “death penalty,” Wednesday, May 30 2001 - 23:01:14 BST. I recommend this post as one of the best representative narratives of someone suffering from Cartesian Anxiety. This post also goes to show that one can be shook out of this Anxiety. In particular, my colligation of Husserl and Pirsig in “Phenomenological-Existentialism and the Metaphysics of Quality” (printed at MOQ.org) shows my desire for a foundation.

43 In what follows, I’m going to treat “moral nihilism” and “cognitive relativism.” However, the arguments against “cognitive nihilism” and “moral relativism” would look much the same way as their nihilist and realtivist counterpart.

44 Richard Dawkins has continued this mechanization from Darwin’s biology to culture with his introduction of “memes.” As I put it during my foundationalism phase, “It is important to see here that Dawkins is describing culture in a purely mechanistic fashion. No meme, be it democracy or equality, has any intrinsic value to it, aside from its survival value in the meme pool. Democracy’s only value, according to meme theory, is its ability to ‘convince’ brains to think about it.” (“Mechanistic Philosophy and the Yellow Brick Road of Science” at moq.org) On this conception, the reason why a meme survives in the meme pool is because we like it. We like equality and democracy. The conception of memes as entities that are trying to survive is, however, a limiting concept. It would be more helpful to think of memes as evolving tools. If a tool outlives its usefulness, we discard it. In this way, there's nothing intrinsically great about equality or democracy, but they help us cope with our environment. They allow us to form groups where avoidance of bloodshed is a foregone conclusion.

45 PSH, p. 52-3

46 You could also relate it to things other than numbers such as saying, “the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.” This relates it to Douglas Adams, and I take Adams’ answer to what the ultimate essence is as a reductio ad absurdum for the question of essences (including what the Ultimate Question actually is: “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”). I also take this to be the point of his description of the Universe, the Babel fish proof for the non-existence of God, and the fact that there are five books in the Hitchhiker trilogy. In fact, read the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide from start to finish, from the introduction (“A Guide to the Guide,” a very funny piece on how the various writings all contradict each other) to Mostly Harmless, and you basically get the most entertaining way I’ve ever read to suggest that we should stop looking for essences i.e. to stop doing metaphysics. The world truly lost its funniest pragmatist when Adams died prematurely at the age of 49 in 2001.

47 ORT, p. 24

48 CP, p. 166

49 ibid., p. 167. Rorty goes on: “One would merely use some variant of the self-referential arguments Socrates used against Protagoras. But such little dialectical strategies only work against lightly-sketched fictional characters. The relativist who says that we can break ties among serious and incompatible candidates for belief only by ‘nonrational’ or ‘noncognitive’ considerations is just on of the Platonist or Kantian philosopher’s imaginary playmates, inhabiting the same realm of fantasy as the solipsist, the skeptic, and the moral nihilist.”

50 ORT, p. 203

51 ibid., p. 204

52 Lila, p. 357

53 ORT, p. 195

54 CP, p. xliii

55 Hall does an excellent job of placing Rorty within this tradition with “his implicit focus upon a problematic deeply embedded in the American experience: the fact and consequences of plurality in its psychological, social, and political forms. It is this more than anything else that moves Rorty along the path of traditionally American thinking, aligning him with what we might call the ‘aesthetic axis’ of American philosophy.” p. 66

56 CIS, p. 44

57 CP, p. xxxix. This is certainly what Pirsig seems to be able to do.

58 Rorty describes a person’s final vocabulary as “a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt of our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives.”

In dealing with final vocabularies, Rorty describes two kinds of people: metaphysicians and ironists.  An ironist (1), “has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.”

The opposite of irony is common sense and common sense is the watchword of metaphysicians. Metaphysicians take terms in their final vocabulary as referring to something real that has an essence.  They see the word "truth" in their final vocabulary and assume it must refer to something real and essential. The ironist sees words in her final vocabulary as contingent to the language games she learned as she grew up. When a metaphysician enters into conversation with a metaphysician, their final vocabularies are pitted against each other so that each metaphysician attempts to make the other accept her own final vocabulary as being real and essential.  Ideally, only one final vocabulary is left standing after an engagement.  When two ironists enter into conversation, the result is a playful exchange in which vocabularies are thrown about so that both will have hopefully learned something from the exchange.  It’s an exchange of insights about your own vocabulary and about the vocabulary of others.  If you enjoy the insight of another, the ironist takes measures to see that she can make such an insight and does so by changing her final vocabulary. CIS, p. 73-4

59 CP, p. 171

60 ibid., p. 174

61 ZMM, p. 359

62 Lila, p. 376

63 EHO, p. 14

64 ORT, p. 37

65 Hall puts the issue like this: “the contrast rational/irrational is applicable only within a given language game and therefore cannot be used to explain movements among language games or the more radical changes in linguistic behavior associated with paradigm shifts.” Within a language game (i.e. an historically contingent cultural way of speaking) we can contrast between rational and irrational, but it’s not fair to contrast that way between language games or after paradigm shifts. Take the example of the shift from Euclidean geometry to Riemannian geometry.  In Euclidean geometry parallel lines never meet, but in Riemannian geometry parallel lines do meet.  Now, if someone who had only ever been taught Euclidean geometry ever met someone who had only ever been taught Riemannian geometry, the Euclidean would say that the Riemannian is irrational for allowing parallel lines to meet and the Riemannian would say the opposite.  Now, Hall and Rorty are saying that it is unfair for either the Euclidean or the Riemannian to explain the other's geometrical behavior by reference to irrationality.

66 CP, p. xlii

67 Achieving Our Country, p. 58

68 You can find this essay, “The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture,” at www.stanford.edu/~rrorty.

69 Lila, p. 427

70 As Charlton says, “I still maintain that pragmatism undercuts the goal of metaphysics: i.e. to establish objective and eternal Truth rather than that kind of provisional and temporary ‘truth’ which it is best to believe for a given purpose.

71 Charlton says that Lila “differs significantly in explicitly pursuing a ‘Metaphysics of Quality”, and therefore advocating a different philosophy from that of ZAMM: no longer Pragmatism but something else.”

72 As Charlton ends in a postscript to his essay, “Notwithstanding, the kind of optimistic, wholesome liberal pragmatism which is expounded - with almost complete success in ZAMM - looks to me like one of the best ‘philosophies of life’ I have so far come across. It will take a lot to make me drop it.”