Review of “Herds of Platypi”

Thomas Op de Coul ends his short and sweet reading of Chapter 8 of Lila, “Herds of Platypi”, with what are three lingering questions for him and asks the peanut gallery for thoughts. His first is roughly, “What argument is there for Pirsig’s Copernican revolution of Quality to subjects and objects?” This I take to be the main crux of Op de Coul’s interrogation of Chapter 8. Most of the points Op de Coul scores against Pirsig can be traced to this question and in what follows I would like to offer my own take on the question. I say, “my own take,” because I take the question to be a bad question, one that we should avoid trying to answer and, if asked, reply as Pirsig suggests we do from time to time: mu.

Op de Coul proceeds sequentially with Pirsig through the platypi1 as Pirsig presents them. “Platypus,” of course, is Pirsig’s colorful term for what Kuhn called an anomaly, an aberration that current descriptions cannot explain adequately. The more anomalies, or platypi, that build up, the more need there is for new descriptions and theories. The first platypus is a hold over from ZMM: value. The guiding force of ZMM was Pirsig’s conviction that what he called Subject-Object Metaphysics (SOM) did not adequately explain values. In the beginning of Chapter 8, Pirsig recapitulates the pivotal path he traveled in the beginning of Chapter 19 of ZMM. As Op de Coul says, “Pirsig is comparing the view that Quality emerges from SO to the view that SO emerge from Quality.” Op de Coul rightly points out an invalid inference at this point, that you cannot really get from “A thing without value does not exist” to “The thing has not created the value. The value has created the thing.” Combining this observation about Pirsig’s argument in defense of his inversion of Quality’s relation to subjects and objects with Pirsig’s “tests for truth,” Op de Coul comes to Pirsig’s puzzling statement that “the Metaphysics of Quality does not insist on a single exclusive truth.”2 If we have “tests for truth,” then how come we won’t we get a single truth? Even more puzzling for Op de Coul is Pirsig’s statement that “if Quality or excellence is seen as the ultimate reality then it becomes possible for more than one set of truths to exist. Then one doesn’t seek the absolute ‘Truth.’”3 Expressing succinctly in one sentence what I’ve struggled with for a long time, Op de Coul complains, “What, now, is the difference between ultimate reality and absolute truth?”

I have no idea. To my mind, they are tied together and both are best left behind. With that being said, I think the strategy Pirsig should have taken was to not have tried to argue for his Copernican inversion.4 We should instead think of Quality, not as the “ultimate reality,” but as a redescription of past descriptions. Quality is Pirsig’s signal for a paradigm shift, a “lateral drift” to a different set of axioms and postulates.5 If one retains the notion of an “ultimate reality,” then one will be apt to think of truth as correspondence to that reality. Truth as correspondence is a dead end that philosophers have continually wanted to avoid in the 20th century because if truth is correspondence, then there is a single exclusive truth: that which corresponds to reality. Pirsig doesn’t want a single exclusive truth, which is why pragmatically minded philosophers who eschew the notion of “absolute truth” wonder why we need “ultimate reality.” Why not instead think of our descriptions as ways of making our way about the world and then judging those ways against each other. Ways that are successful we keep; ways that aren’t we ditch.

This is how I think Pirsig begins to argue for the MoQ in Chapter 8, but using this strategy, you won’t actually argue with your SOMist opponents. You can’t, because both you and your opponent are using different starting assumptions, different premises, different maps, as Pirsig says, to make your way about the world. The only thing you can do is play up the differences between the two descriptions and attempt to show why yours is better. The one thing that Pirsig never really seems to come to grips with is that the SOMist opponent, who considers values to be emotive responses to our subjective passions, does explain values. Pirsig says that “a subject-object metaphysics can’t explain values worth a damn,” but by the SOMist’s own lights, values are explained sufficiently. The problem for Pirsig (and many, many others) is that, by our lights, it does a piss poor job. What we have when we come to problems like this are competing intuitions about the world. We have an intuition (more or less passed down to us from the Greeks) that the world can be broken up into idiosyncratic things that exist in subjects and universally commensurable things that exist in objects. But we also have an intuition that values are real and important and shouldn’t just be passed off as terminally idiosyncratic, arising from irrational passions. What the SOMist is suggesting is that we either suppress the latter intuition or redescribe it into something else to mitigate the damage. Pirsig is suggesting the same thing about the former. This is what philosophers do on a daily basis: they take our existing intuitions about how the world is broken up and how it functions and they try to refine them and make them all coherent. But some intuitions, e.g. there are morally inferior races, aren’t going to make it.

If we think of Quality as redescription, then I think Op de Coul’s problems with causation and substance will disappear because it is exactly Pirsig’s strategy to play up the fact that the phenomena we experience, like iron filings moving towards magnets and rocks, do not change, simply our descriptions of them. So when we change causation to preconditional valuation and substance to stable inorganic patterns of value, we are still able to move about the world just as well as we were before in these particular instances (albeit with bulkier descriptions). Pirsig’s rhetorical strategy falls apart when he says that we “never experience [causation] in any way”6 or that substance “is not anything directly experienced.”7 At that point we should begin to wonder what, if anything, we directly experience. Because as Op de Coul points out, we must not directly experience preconditional valuation or stable inorganic patterns of value either, and so Pirsig is simply renaming the original problem.8 Its clear that Pirsig doesn’t think his descriptions are getting closer to corresponding with reality as it is in itself, but one wonders why he should retain the notion of “directly experience.” “Direct experience” is a platypus that has plagued philosophy since Plato first thought it up. As soon as you make a distinction between direct experience and indirect experience, between mediated and unmediated experience, you start to think you can rank the disciplines according to how close they get you to the good stuff, direct and unmediated, ultimate reality. As Op de Coul points out, this has been the pretension of science, that there is an absolute conception of reality and science has figured out a way of getting at it. This is the pretension that Pirsig rightly makes fun of by saying, “Should reality be something that only a handful of the world’s most advanced physicists understand? … If this is so then how is it fair to imprison a person in a mental hospital for life with no trial and no jury and no parole for ‘failing to understand reality’?”9 Op de Coul criticizes this strategy by asking, “What’s wrong with reality being complex?” Simple answer: nothing. What’s wrong is the pretension that there is an absolute truth. Pirsig’s enemy is not science per sé, but the notion that anyone or any discipline has sole authority over understanding or making your way about the world.10

What we shouldn’t do, though, is agree with Pirsig, as Op de Coul does, that “science confuses all their theories and mathematical formulae with truth. There always remains a gap between Reality and the Language … that tries to describe it.” To do this is to raise the platypus of the appearance/reality distinction, one species of which is the “egg-hen problem” Op de Coul calls the “eternal form-content discussion.” To say that there will always be a gap between our descriptions and reality is self-defeating. It cuts off the SOMist before he goes into his schpeal about corresponding to reality, but it begins to make you wonder why we even need to think of there being distance between the two in the first place. As Wittgenstein might say, “reality” becomes a cog that has no place in the machine, unconnected to the cogs, i.e. the descriptions, that are doing all the work. Richard Rorty says philosophers like Wittgenstein and Donald Davidson “would like us to stop thinking that there is something called ‘language’ which is a ‘scheme’ which can organize, or fit, or stand in some other noncausal relation to, a ‘content’ called ‘the world.’”11 It is better to think of the world as acting causally on us and language as a way in which we cope with the world.

In Op de Coul’s conclusion he moves some distance towards tossing the notion of any kind of appearance/reality distinction. He asks, “why does there need to be a hierarchy between S, O and Q?” Going back to a position Pirsig spent all of two pages considering, that of a trinity, Op de Coul takes what appears to be a position radically against Pirsigian philosophy, particularly that as espoused in Lila, the book under his consideration. I’m not sure how Op de Coul sees his trinity conceptually working, but he says, “we cannot ‘know’ O or S as they ‘really are.’ S and O are no more ‘concrete’ than Q. I would treat them more or less equal. I believe that Q, O and S cannot be separately conceived.” The scare quotes with which Op de Coul handles the Cartesian “know” and the Platonic “really are” is in much sympathy with pragmatist philosophy, so I would like to offer an interpretation of Op de Coul’s suggestion that I think keeps with both pragmatism and the best strains of Pirsig.

The first step is to construe subject and object as Pirsig construes them after his Copernican inversion. The subject becomes more or less synonymous with “person” and object with “material world.”12 The second step is to recognize that for Pirsig, “knowledge” of Quality is something that occurs within a set of static patterns. This is the model that leads him to say in ZMM that knowledge, the mythos, “is a building of analogues upon analogues upon analogues.”13 What I think is important about this passage is that Pirsig says that “Quality is the continuing stimulus which causes us to create the world in which we live.”14 The mythos is the “collective consciousness of all communicating mankind” and it cannot be disconnected from Quality, its stimulus.

What we should not do is take Op de Coul as suggesting that Quality is “out there” as separate from people and the rest of the world. I think the only sense that plays to Pirsig’s SOMic busting, pragmatist tendencies is to take the Quality in Op de Coul’s trio as the mythos, the collection of static patterns that make up what we call “common sense.” So, within Pirsig’s conception of static Quality, we can splice out the patterns that make up a person, the patterns that make up the material world, and the patterns that make up “common sense,” and say that you cannot pull any of them apart to find out how any of them “really are.”

This interpretation is essentially a Davidsonian reading of how mind-world relations work, a triangulation between you, your peers, and the rest of the world, or as Rorty puts it, “a suitable balance between respect for the opinions of one’s fellows and respect for the stubbornness of sensation.”15 I realize I’m bending Pirsig to fit my needs, but I take Pirsig to be espousing a muddled pragmatism. By saying that Quality is both undefined and reality, I take Quality to be Pirsig’s anti-essence. I don’t think it does any good to say that Quality is “out there,” like a Platonic sun radiating down on us. Pirsig specifically says that Quality is reality, not something standing along side it, and I take this to mean that everything is relational. You can’t disconnect anything from everything else in an attempt to see how it “really is” because nothing has an essence hiding underneath its accidental appearance. And when Pirsig says that we respond to Quality, I take him to be saying that we don’t have any other noncausal way of connecting to the world. Understanding and knowledge only occur in our analogues, this being the spin on Pirsig’s appropriation of Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things.” On this reading, I think it a grave mistake that Pirsig, after saying that we respond to Quality and the mythos is our knowledge, goes on to say “that to understand Quality he would have to leave the mythos.”16 This makes no sense. If Quality is everything, how could you leave it to understand it? What’s more, if Quality is everything, if we take Quality to be a redescription of our current descriptions of reality, then we are already in the process of understanding Quality. If the mythos is our current understanding of Quality, the “whole train of collective consciousness,” and Quality is “the track that directs the train,” then we are everywhere and always already in touch with reality, with Quality, and we need never fear being out of touch with it. The only thing we could be out of touch with is the train, our peers. Entering the “terra incognita of the insane”17 by leaving the train won’t bring you in closer relation with Quality, as Pirsig seems to suggest. The only thing it could do is give you some alternative directions to point the train.

What I’m suggesting is that we see Pirsig in the tradition of “de-centerings” that includes Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. Copernicus de-centered the earth, helping us see that our world is just one of many. Darwin de-centered the human race, helping us to the thought that we aren’t that radically different from animals, just really, really complex. Freud de-centered our minds, helping us to the thought that it’s not a consistent, smoothly running machine, but a big jumble of inferential patterns and crazy passions. I see these movements as getting us further and further away from a number of ways in which humanity has tried to make themselves feel special. Copernicus and Darwin made it difficult for us to feel like the world was here especially for us. After the mechanization of the environment, philosophers tried to find something distinctive about us, and called that special little drop of divinity that we had and the animals lacked “Reason.” After Freud mechanized the mind and made it hard to think of “reason” as separate from “passions,” philosophers tried to pin their hopes on “science.” Science was a special method that we had that animals lacked. Whether we created it or discovered it is almost besides the point: we got it, they don’t. I see Pirsig (along with many others) as trying to take the wind out of science’s sails. He wants to de-center Science as some special method towards truth and instead make it simply a “formalized interweaving” of “long strings of mixed inductive and deductive inferences,” i.e. a hardcore, triple-check-every-inferential-step version of what we commonsensically do every day to make our way around the world.18 When Op de Coul says that “science is another big system” and that its “extremely exclusive in its attitude,” I want to combine it with Pirsig’s de-centering to say that science offers one description in many and that no particular description is privileged over any other. There are only descriptions fit for certain purposes, some better than others. Science works for prediction, others work for other things.

At the end of his essay, Op de Coul leads in to his conclusion with a “To round off this already long essay,” to which I can only ruefully suggest my own patience trying essays and this review-longer-than-reviewed. In the proceeding, I’ve played verbose “lumper” to Op de Coul’s succinct “splitter.” I’ve been trying to fit the various pieces of Pirsig’s pragmatist doctrine left over from Op de Coul’s “splitting” together in some coherent fashion. I think if we focus on Pirsig’s description of knowledge as being internal to descriptions, internal to our mythos, and Quality as providing stimulus, we’ll see Pirsig as a fellow pragmatist with Wittgenstein and Davidson, somebody who is prepared to say that, whatever it is “out there,” it acts causally on us and our language is just one more coping mechanism, along with our eyes and arms. In fact, I think if we take a pragmatic attitude towards Op de Coul’s splitter/lumper distinction, we can ease some of the nagging thoughts he has throughout. In a loose sense, we can describe people as being either splitters or lumpers, but if you take the distinction too seriously you might begin to think they are exclusive activities. I doubt they are; it seems to me that any person goes back and forth between splitting and lumping in any piece of reasoning, that “splitting” and “lumping,” taken together, is a pretty standard description of what reasoning is. I doubt Op de Coul would disagree with this, but I see the seriousness creep in when he stumbles into the throws of another age old distinction taken too seriously: theoria and praxis. The only people who wonder about doing “injustice to the richness of our lives by lumping all its elements into nice and clean theories” are people who see theory and practice as being two distinctive activities. But like Pirsig’s interweaving of inductive and deductive inference, in any interesting activity you are alternating between the two. I think Op de Coul intuitively senses this, as when he says he could go back and “scrutinize [his] own position in a similar fashion once again,” but he’s still haunted enough by the Greeks who propagated the notion of distinguishing theory and practice to think there might be a problem. Life isn’t smooth and that is what makes it exciting, but that’s why I think we should stop trying to separate the smooth absolute truth or ordered ultimate reality from the dynamic, varied opinion or the exciting, chaotic appearance.

Matthew P. Kundert

September 2004

1 The plural form of “platypus” is “platypuses,” but I’ve kept with Op de Coul’s version for consistency (and because I find “platypi” to be cuter).

2 Robert M. Pirsig, Lila (New York: Bantam, 1991), p. 114.

3 Lila, p. 114

4 See section two of my “Confessions of a Fallen Priest,” found at

5 See Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow, 1974, 1999), p. 119-20.

6 Lila, p. 119

7 Lila, p. 120

8 There’s another problem with Pirsig’s “solution” to the problem of substance and that’s that the problem has never really been about what we call rocks or atoms or quarks. The problem has been about finding a rock hard foundation for everything else, about finding an end point for our correspondence theory of truth.

9 Lila, p. 118

10 This is part and parcel with Pirsig’s complicated mood of antiauthoritarianism that I try and make some strides of getting a handle on in “Philosophologology: An Inquiry into the Study of the Love of Wisdom,” found at

11 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 60.

12 In ZMM, Pirsig calls the subject “mind” and object “matter.” I think one of the bonuses of Lila is that Pirsig clarifies his thought that whatever mind is, it stands on the shoulders of matter and that we should take a specific set of social and intellectual patterns as being that marker of “personhood.”

13 ZMM, p. 360

14 ibid.

15 Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. 195.

16 ZMM, p. 360

17 ibid.

18 ZMM, p. 104. Pirsig, particularly in Lila, often speaks of Science in reverent terms, but I take the virtue of his affectedly wearisome description of the system of the motorcycle in Chapter 8 and of the actual procedure of “scientific method” in Chapter 9 of ZMM (particularly the materiality of it being entered into a “lab notebook”) to be that he’s showing the most excruciating version of Davidson’s triangle, the “slow, tedious, lumbering, laborious” version of reasoning that we do every day to put on our pants, find our keys, and go to work.