Open Letter to New Participants of the Discussion Groups

Before joining the Discussion Group (or “MD”) there is a page of helpful guidelines for participation, things like “members must have read Lila” and “members should refrain from swearing, using offensive language and personal attacks on other members.” These are broad, helpful tips, but things most who find their way to are probably already familiar with (like the books and common courtesy). After many years of taking part in the MD, though, I’ve found that there are many who are discouraged by the activity they find there, or the people who are there. And for every participant who speaks up, there are ten “lurkers” who don’t. In the interests of full disclosure, I’d like to sketch the inner workings of the MD so you, the new participant, isn’t caught off guard by what you’ll find. I’d also like to give a few, more specific helpful tips or suggestions on how to get involved.

The first thing to realize about the MD is that it is not an Oprah-style book discussion group. It may look like it from the outside, but rarely does it function that way. We do not tend to gather ‘round and discuss our favorite passages once a month and how they make us feel. That happens, but not very often. It isn’t bad when it happens, nor is it discouraged, but people generally gather for something else. Instead, the MD functions as a community of professional Pirsigian interpreters whose aim is to excavate the (micro and macro) meanings of Pirsig’s written corpus. By “professional” I certainly do not mean that we get paid for it. Rather, I want to distinguish a lax conversation about such and such a topic (what one might find in a book-of-the-month club) with an inquiry into such and such a topic. The difference is roughly that we don’t simply offer our opinions about a topic (though there is an awful lot of that, too), we offer arguments on behalf of our opinions in the hopes of establishing some sort of consensus of opinion. In this case, we hope to establish a consensus on the best interpretation (micro and macro) of Pirsig’s philosophy, though, given the nature of the beast, this is linked inexorably with the best kind of philosophy in general.

Realizing that the MD functions as a quasi-professional interpretive community will help explain the unmistakable odor of gunpowder and blood one will smell after listening in on the discussions for a week. This is because, like all interpretive communities, it is highly competitive and arguments are wielded like weapons to assert the dominance of the interpretations they are in the service of. Some people, when happening upon the MD, our disgusted by the foul stench of strife that rips through the MD most of the time. They deplore the antagonistic fervor with which people attack, parry, and riposte. If you are sympathetic with this inclination, then the MD may not be the place for you. As I said, it is simply the nature of the beast.

I can, however, offer two explanations to explain this phenomenon that swing free of both the competitive nature of inquiry and the possibility of participants simply being assholes. The first only holds for some participants. Pirsig’s writings try and place their finger on a “spiritual crisis” in our society. Pirsig’s proposed solution is almost entirely individualistic (meaning centered on each person taking care of themselves) and almost entirely philosophical (meaning we have to change, in a large, general, broad-scale way, many prevailing attitudes). People who find themselves here, then, are by and large taken by Pirsig’s diagnosis and wish to search for the solution and for ways of disseminating it. This is a large task and clearly of the utmost, dire importance (at least for those who think this way). Because of the importance and because of the fact that we, apparently, are the only ones who take Pirsig seriously, reaching consensus on Pirsig’s philosophy and then moving on to dissemination is intensely important, and time is being wasted. In other words, the antagonism is marked by impatience.

As I said before, that explanation holds for only some. But because everyone was attracted to Pirsig (and, what’s more, then this site) for some reason, everyone probably falls on a continuum between “What spiritual crisis?” and “The world is about to end!!!” with most people somewhere in the middle. The second explanation is much more basic than our peculiar affinity with and love for Pirsig, though it is tied to the notion of a “spiritual crisis.” People do philosophy for various reasons, but people who are drawn here typically do it because they are interested in the way our beliefs hang together and how this affects our lives and the world at large. Philosophy is used as a way of excavating our own most deeply held beliefs and then asking, “Should this really be all that deep?” In other words, we do philosophy Socratically, taking the Delphic Oracle’s “The unexamined life is not worth living” as our modus operandi. This means, though, that people here are at their most exposed and naked. When the smoke gets thick, it means that the propositions and theses being kicked around aren’t simply hypotheses with which we are going to gradually eliminate until there is a winner. That is exactly what’s going to happen (given the ideal of inquiry), but it is an excruciatingly arduous and torturous affair when these theses are deeply held and deeply believed. Saying that the ideas we kick around are simply “truth candidates” doesn’t quite grasp the event that is taking place. These ideas are us (this also being a basic position of Pirsig’s). The event of philosophy is the event of reshaping ourselves, not in some cosmetic sense, but in the sense that after we are done we are not who we were when we started.

Sounds painful doesn’t it? It can be. Still want in? If you do, I can offer a few tips for getting started, for getting into the flow.

1) Lurk for awhile. Don’t immediately jump into the group. See what’s going on, what’s being talked about, who’s doing the talking. Get to know the various participants and their styles and viewpoints. Notice the common techniques of exchange. Remember: some of the conversants and the conversations have been here for awhile. There certainly aren’t any rules of exchange or protocol, but a certain rhythm develops over time and people get used to it. If you jump in and muck about with it, it can be disconcerting and people may react badly, despite rhythm not having a whole lot to do with the doctrinal points of philosophy. Remember: these are conversations. If you normally don’t walk into a room, not knowing anybody or what they’re talking about, and break into their discussion, don’t do it here.

2) Don’t start a new thread right away. “Threads” are the way we keep track of different conversations. If you walk into a room and say, “Hey everybody, talk to me about what I want to talk about!” you may not get many hooks. You might, but you might not. A common point of discouragement is when people don’t talk back to you. The easiest way, instead of going off your own merry way, is to break into someone else’s discussion. After you’ve felt out the discussion and figured out what its about and what the people in it are about, stick your toe in and offer your thoughts. You can introduce yourself if you want, but it’s not necessary. You can give everyone some background, but that’s not necessary either, and in fact it may break the flow of the conversation, which I’m suggesting may not be a good idea.

3) Let people get a handle on you. If you lurk for awhile and figure out what people are all about and what they’re talking about, remember that nobody knows who you are yet. As I said above, my suggestion is to not just present yourself and your views in an introductory essay. It really cramps the flow. Instead, let people get to know you through the conversation. Let them get a handle on your style and your viewpoints. Let them get to know your voice. Nothing impedes conversation more than a non sequitor or unknown point of view. If no one can understand what you’re talking about, no one will respond. If they do respond, and they’re wrong and you correct them, they’ll look foolish and that may raise their blood a bit.

4) Don’t act like you know everything. Everyone knows there’s nothing more annoying than a know-it-all. But this piece of advice parses down into the smaller segments, too. When you enter into the discussions, don’t act like you know a lot. You might know a lot, you might even know more than everyone else, but let people become acquainted with your knowledge through the conversations. Let it evolve out of the conversations. Your knowledge will become apparent as people gain confidence in your assertions, which become conspicuous through your arguments, interpretations, and insights. Other, older conversants will naturally act like they’ve comfortably been acting for some time. But first impressions are everything for you because nobody knows you. As you let people get a handle on you, they’ll learn to respect your voice and the knowledge that accompanies it. It’s like having to earn someone’s respect, but look at it from their point of view: how do they know to trust you until they get to know you?

5) Don’t pretend to be Socrates. While it’s useful advice to have a little polite humility, do not over do it. Do not pretend to be Socrates. Socrates is our philosophical father and a man to be emulated, but if you’ve ever read the early dialogues, he’s the most annoying discussion partner alive. I can never read the first part of the Republic without feeling sympathetic towards Thrasymachus. The dangerous thing about Socratic irony in a conversation (that mode of claiming to know nothing and assert nothing in particular, yet continuing on anyways towards a point) is that it completely hides you from everyone else, which, as I mentioned before, has the potential of making anyone who talks back to you look foolish. In addition, thoroughgoing irony always has an air of superiority. So, despite the fact that you profess to know nothing, your aggressive pursuit of epistemic-sinkhole status will make everyone else look like posers, a bunch of tourists while you alone admit to being a tourist, thereby making you a native. Just remember: none of the knowledge we are after in the MD is the kind of knowledge Socrates liked poking holes in. We are after much smaller things, things like “What did Pirsig mean here?” or “What’s the best way to dissolve SOM?” (If you don’t know what “SOM” refers to yet, don’t worry, you will….)

6) Don’t accidentally jump into any landmines. Now that you’re in the conversations, I want to remind you again that some of these same conversations have been going on for some time in some form or other. And in the cases of the older participants, they may have ongoing, unresolved dialogues with certain other participants, dialogues that may be recessive when you climb aboard, but may spring back to life at any time. And by “dialogue” I mean “armed conflict.” Don’t get in the middle of a cat fight. If an obviously heated spat breaks out before your eyes, don’t get in the middle, don’t try and be a moderator, do not try and take sides (at least not while you’re still new). It will only breed animosity and leave you a very open target for the other side. If they are entrenched, not much will budge them, and if you get in the middle, you’ll be open prey for them to release their ire and anger, their frustration at not being able to convince the other one. And if don’t know the issues they were talking about very, very well, you might get ambushed and assailed with a rage that’s not really directed at you. This is the dark side of the MD. If you want to take sides (and on anything important, you’ll eventually have to), make sure you know what you’re getting into.

7) Don’t succumb to the dark temptation of an acerbic fusillade. It says in the MD “Charter and Rules” to not be abusive. It says on the FAQ page that if you are polite and civil, “you’ll soon win the respect of the group.” What it doesn’t tell you is that some people don’t care much for poise, finesse, or simple tact. And I’ve already mentioned how trying self-examination can be. Conflagrations break out from time to time and everyone, no doubt, will at some point get caught in a crossfire even if they didn’t deserve it. And when you get burned, you’ll want to fight back in kind. Resist, resist, resist. Not many people do, but once the hail of bullets start, it is next to impossible to stop. There are family feuds going on that nobody remembers or cares who fired the first shot (despite the fact that we have an historical record relating the accounts called the “Archives”). Save the vitriolic comments for yourself (or a friend in private). The FAQ says that if you are polite and civil, people will notice—and they’re absolutely right. People will notice. If you are well spoken and courteous, people will notice and respond well. Trust me. I wish somebody had told me that. You can forward forceful arguments and be respectful at the same time. In my experience, fire, brimstone, and condescension never work. This is a conversation. Who wants to talk to a jerk? And just remember: you don’t have to talk to a jerk either.

8) Be provocative. If you’ve entered the flow of the conversation and you still aren’t really getting any bites you may still feel discouraged. You’re talking to people, but they don’t seem to really be affected by or take notice of what you’re saying. I’ve suggested tempering personal comments to reduce personal insults, but there is one kind of “insult” that will grab people’s attention without actually being an insult: offend their philosophical instincts (which is stabilized by inertia) by being controversial. There’s nothing a little well placed bombast in the middle of a well-reasoned argument won’t do for your profile. If you can generate a buzz, you’ll start to affect the direction of conversation. This will raise the hairs on a few people’s necks, particularly if the direction is away from them, but this is what philosophy is all about. John Dewey called it “breaking the crust of convention.”

Remember, nothing I’ve suggested requires you to be unfaithful to your own sense of authenticity. If you’ve been around the philosophical block a few times, so to speak, its quite possible you’ve already fallen into your own rhythm, your own style. I’m not suggesting you get rid of that. But people won’t be used to your style and so may not know how to respond. If you break into the flow of the conversation, nice and easy, let people get a handle on you as you figure out what’s going on, your own writing style and personal philosophical idiom will be able to surface easier and with a better chance of being understood. Introducing new concepts and ways of understanding the material can be tough to get through the door, but properly done, they can provoke and entice others into giving them a try.

And remember: have fun. Philosophy is an exciting venture, both for you and those around you. If you take it lightly and with a bit of flair, you’ll have no problems. The worst thing for a conversation is letting it get too serious. There are a lot of nice and interesting people in the MD and getting to know them (through their philosophy or otherwise) can be very rewarding. Remember: its all a learning experience. Once you stop learning, you die.

And if you ever have any questions, Don’t be afraid to ask someone. Even ask me: .

Matthew P. Kundert

July 2005