*Note from the Author: If you finish the essay and feel a warm sensation in the center of your being, please e-mail me at pirsigaffliction@hotmail.com and tell me about your experience.  If it was just some mild heartburn or gas, I apologize and you can write me, too (though, please omit the details of the experience).

Matthew P. Kundert

January 2006

Pirsig Institutionalized: More Thoughts on Pirsig and Philosophology

The genesis of my paper “Philosophologology” was in a post for the MoQ Discussion Group (MD) called “The Populist Persuasion.” [1]   When I sat down to expand that post, however, I noticed that I was quickly moving in a direction that didn’t seem to hook up as directly with my original thoughts on the subject.  I argued that Pirsig’s distinction between philosophy and philosophology could not be maintained without either reducing philosophology to “intellectual history” (thereby handicapping or making ineffectual Pirsig’s use of the distinction) or making philosophy an ahistorical enterprise (thus betraying his pragmatist instincts).  What remained of my original sense of populist rhetoric became a short section where I attempted to unearth a certain mood in Pirsig’s writings, calling it “antiauthoritarianism” or “antiestablishmentarianism,” which I thought contributed to his distinction.  At the time, I didn’t really distinguish between the two and used them fairly interchangeably.  As I’ve come to understand the issues, however, I’ve come to think that I didn’t have quite as strong a hold on the tool I was using as I should have.  I can now see much more clearly the relation between the notion of philosophy as a natural or ahistorical kind, a sort of essentialism, and the type of rhetorical stance Pirsig used.  I would like to call Pirsig’s rhetorical stance “antiprofessionalism,” which is a special case of populism.  If we distinguish between antiauthoritarianism, antiprofessionalism, and antiestablishmentarianism, I would like to present antiauthoritarianism as a philosophical thesis concerning epistemology and antiprofessionalism and antiestablishmentarianism as twin moods or styles of argumentation that are, I shall argue, bound up with one another.  In what follows, I would like to re-present my argument against philosophology and argue that the very idea of antiprofessionalism, the type of rhetorical stance that philosophology was built for, rests on an idea of philosophy as an ahistorical subject and that it falls apart as soon as it is put to use because it turns into antiestablishmentarianism.

I.  Antiauthoritarianism and Antiprofessionalism

Antiauthoritarianism is a specifically philosophical thesis that says that people are not bound to any non-human authority, be it God, Reality, or Reason.  In this sense, for example, Protestantism, in the West, was a step towards antiauthoritarianism because it located the House of God within each person, rather than a relation only attainable through a priest caste that had a special relation to God.  On the other side of this sea change, it forced authority to be reconstituted as something that was generated by humans’ interactions with each other (otherwise there would be something like theological anarchy).  Antiauthoritarianism is thus coextensive with the pragmatist’s project of getting rid of the appearance/reality distinction in philosophical thought.  That distinction banks on the thought that we must get our descriptions of reality in sync with the way Reality really is, thus making Reality the judge and jury of our descriptions.  In successive epochs, priests, philosophers, and scientists have claimed the ability to break through the appearances to Reality, claiming for themselves that special relation to our Judge that we see most clearly in early Catholic priests.

Pirsig’s key message to us is his recitation of Socrates’ message to Phaedrus: “And what is good, Phaedrus,/And what is not good—/Need we ask anyone these things?”  This passage can strike two chords.  First is a kind of antiauthoritarianism that mimics the Protestant move.  No one has a special relation to the Good over and above anyone else.  Pirsig’s special relation to Quality that we all share would seem to devolve into a relativistic free for all, with no purchase for anyone’s opinions.  But in practice this is not so because a special relation that everyone has is not a special relation at all.  Under a thorough-going antiauthoritarianism, we should see the relation we have to Quality as the relation we have to the world, including people and their ideas and opinions. [2]  

I shall argue, however, that there is a second chord that is possibly struck, though reading it in or out of the passage depends on what background assumptions you’re working with.  Under a certain reading, one I shall develop and unlike the one I forwarded above (though, as we shall see, it will in practice collapse into the above description I gave of the passage), not only is one caste’s special authority destroyed, but also anyone else’s authority is destroyed.  “Need we ask anyone these things?”  By internalizing our relation to the Good—Quality—Pirsig has basically told us that each of us has a special relation to Quality that no one can override.  If allowed, Pirsig’s antiauthoritarianism will run rampant over his philosophy because of the mood such a thesis can create in a person.  When we start destroying authoritative idols, sometimes we can tend to get carried away, and we start to think that there is something wrong with authority itself.  Pirsig almost gives us a thorough-going philosophical antiauthoritarianism, but not quite.  This is because of the second chord that is struck by Socrates’ rhetorical question: antiprofessionalism, the first step in a general rebellion against authority.  Antiprofessionalism is a special case of the populist rhetoric I talked about briefly in the earlier essay.  It specifically rests on the assumption that each person has a general, though specific, special relation to the subject matter (whatever it may be).  Because of this assumption, the antiprofessionalist is then caused to rail against professionals masquerading as authorities over the subject material, in this instance professional philosophers. 

In Pirsig’s case, every person has a special relation to Quality, which is at once general in the sense that Quality is reality and specific in the sense that Dynamic Quality (which, in some of Pirsig’s formulations, is identical to Quality) is a direct relation to reality (as opposed to the indirectness of the static patterns). [3]   Because Pirsig’s subject material is reality as a whole, antiauthoritarianism, which is specifically a philosophical thesis, can easily be confused for antiprofessionalism, which is a more general argument applicable to any profession.  What antiauthoritarianism says is that we do have a general relation to reality, but it is not specific.  Everyone is in touch with reality, for how could we not be?  Antiauthoritarianism clears the area of any philosophical idols we might bow down before, thus eliminating anything we might have a specific relation to in addition to our general relation to reality at large.  What remains of authority after this clearing of idols are all the regular versions of authority (e.g., physicists, evolutionary biologists, literary critics) developed around particular, specific areas of reality (rocks, evolution, literary texts) established by human interaction.  Pirsig, however, because of his seeming identification of Quality with Dynamic Quality, sees every person as having both a general relation to reality and a specific one.  Specificity in relation to subject material is what allows authority to develop.  Because of the physicist’s constant familiarization and dealings with the movements of particles, we can say that the physicist has authority over the bricklayer when it comes to particle physics.  And vice versa for the bricklayer.  A general and specific relation to reality as a whole, however, would seem to eliminate the possibility of any authority whatsoever because it locates trumping authority in each person on whatever topic.

The effects of antiprofessionalism towards philosophy, then, are quite catastrophic.  In “Philosophologology,” I argued that for Pirsig to sustain his distinction of philosophy and philosophology he would have to think of philosophy as a natural kind and that to do this he would have to think of philosophy as centered around problems that one will always encounter simply by virtue of existing. [4]   If the problems of philosophy are conspicuous and problematic to all, then it is of utmost importance that everybody solve them.  But if we’ve disbarred authorities from the field, because we are our own authorities based on our own special relation to Quality, then what would count as a successful solution to the problems of philosophy?  Who would decide?  If we aren’t supposed to ask anyone, then we are our own judges, meaning that whenever we aren’t bothered by the problems, by whatever solution we’ve come up with, then presumably we’ve solved them.  But most people are naturally not bothered by the problems of philosophy, though Pirsig thinks we should be because it would seem that he identifies many of the problems of contemporary society, our “spiritual crisis,” with problems of philosophy.  But, again then, how would we know if we’ve solved our spiritual crisis if we’ve barred all authorities from the field, how would we know if we’re not bothered by philosophical problems because we’re ignorant of them, or because we’ve actually solved them? 

A natural response to this line of argument would be that we should let others help check our solutions to these problems, a kind of “peer review.”  They might be able to point out logical missteps or bad assumptions.  This, of course, would make philosophy look pretty much exactly like the philosophy we have: a community of people involved in a specific subject material that, despite its historically essentialistic aspirations (the same essentialism that grounds both the natural kind view of philosophy and antiprofessionalism), functions as an evolving body of opinion that both constrains activity (making certain options of inquiry unavailable) and makes that very activity possible.  In other words, it would be a professional community.  But this natural response to my argument is disbarred by Pirsig because his antiprofessionalism declares as legitimate this response to a negative peer review: “You aren’t the boss of me!” (with appropriate head swiveling and finger wagging). 

So, after dispatching the reigning authorities over philosophical problems with his strong sense of antiauthoritarianism-cum-antiprofessionalism, we are left wondering who’s going to tell us when our search for the solutions of the problems of philosophy is over, particularly if we could be wrong.  This is where Pirsig’s antiprofessionalism turns naturally, ironically, and paradoxically (though entirely predictably) into the contradictory attitude of antiestablishmentarianism, the attitude that wants to bring down the current authorities to let real justice reign (or whatever virtue they’re touting), but upon doing so is left so suspicious of authority that anarchy sweeps in.  Pirsig wants to knock out the reigning establishment, but something has to fill the void if for no other reason than something will always fill that void.  In practice there can never be an authority void in inquiry, so Pirsig’s philosophy is exactly what fills this void.  While cheering Pirsig on in his railing against the evil, egg-headed establishment, we are concurrently, subtly, and slyly won over to Pirsig’s philosophy.  Being convinced by Pirsig’s arguments establishes the authority of those arguments, but this creates another establishment and another profession, this time under the authority of Pirsig, rather than Plato, Descartes, or Kant.  The problem with antiprofessionalism (in all of its forms) is that its rhetoric is aimed at destroying professional work, but its very act relies on professionalism because there is no “work” outside of “professional work.”  Pirsig uses antiprofessionalist rhetoric (like all others who use it) to destroy prevailing attitudes, but only to replace them with his own.

II.  Inquiry and the MD

To concretize what I’ve been talking about I’d like to call attention to the nature, function, and evolution of the discussion group.  This, of course, receives special notice in our scrutiny of antiprofessionalism in Pirsig because the MD and its participants are the heir-apparents of Pirsig’s philosophy.  It is my contention that whenever a discussion moves from a lax conversation to a motivated inquiry into a problem that a “profession” develops.  By “profession” I mean simply a group of people who achieve authority over a problem based on their extended critical attention to a problem.  The MD, in its first incarnation as the Lila Squad, was never a lackadaisical, Oprah-style book discussion group.  It was a group of people motivated by the inquiry into philosophy and its problems, specifically Pirsig’s philosophy and his problems.  As soon as the Lila Squad began in 1997, Pirsig’s philosophy began to be institutionalized and professionalized because as soon as a discussion about Pirsig’s books moves from a simple conversation about some object to an inquiry into that object, the marks of a profession emerge, specifically that of authority.

When Pirsig remarked in the introduction to Lila’s Child that “personalities emerge” in the course of the discussion, what he failed to mention was that, concurrently with personality styles and traits, came differing degrees of authority that were shaped by the discussion as it went.  In a new conversation, nobody really comes in with any more authority than anybody else, but as the conversation moves authority is created and conferred and flexed.  As the conversation moves forward, authority can be increased, but it can also be decreased as it is challenged.

The authority that a profession develops, and particular individuals within the profession attain, isn’t something that should be deplored (nor, really, could it be).  The authority that is developing is the authority that accrues to lines of argument and interpretation.  When an argument is forwarded it is critically evaluated by the rest of the profession.  The more an argument is accepted as being a good argument, the more authoritative power is given to that argument (it is a successful argument).  This also confers authority upon the creator of the argument, upon their argumentative skills and practice.  The more an interpretation is accepted as being a good interpretation, the more authoritative power is given to that interpretation, and thereby, again, also to its creator.  These lines of successful arguments and interpretations create the power grid according to which competing arguments and interpretations are judged. [5]   A competitor is forwarded to dislodge the authoritative power of the old argument or interpretation in order to set itself up as the new authority.  The push and pull of arguments and interpretations, the sway of various authorities, is what marks the competitive dynamic of inquiry. [6]

The difficulty in the MD, though, is that, because of Pirsig’s antiprofessionalism, nobody is supposed to have any authority.  And Pirsig’s dutiful heirs have absorbed that sentiment (if not explicitly that doctrine).  Pirsig’s own professional class has been emerging for the last eight years, yet rarely is it acknowledged.  Besides the antagonism that Pirsig displays to the academic establishment which motivates his creation of “philosophology,” [7] which is then transferred to the MD, there is one other instance of this antiprofessionalism that I would like to highlight:  the problem of “jargon.”  Pirsig’s first sharp instance of an antiprofessionalist attitude occurs in ZMM when he introduces the term “technician,”  “a phrase he used for a writer so deeply involved in his field that he’d lost the ability to communicate with people outside.” [8]   Pirsig tentatively deploys the term to describe the Chairman’s (Richard McKeon) written work, which contained “wondrous and unexplained proliferations of abstract categories that seemed freighted with special meanings that never got stated and whose content could only be guessed at.” [9]   Pirsig isn’t condemning jargon here, but the sentiment of dissatisfaction is strong in these passages.

It has often been remarked in the MD that there is too much jargonizing, mostly do to the influence of the ivory towers of academia, and that the spirit of Pirsig requires us to be “clear and plain spoken.”  This sentiment is picked up not only from Pirsig’s run-in with the Chairman in Chicago, but also in Pirsig’s passages in Lila on the cultural difference between Victorians and Native Americans and the physicists’ version of reality. [10]   It is unclear, however, how we can be free of jargon when we are doing philosophy.  Most people don’t do philosophy and so have no idea what is meant by the words “metaphysics” or “epistemology” or “empiricism,” let alone words with specific (one might even say “freighted”) meanings particular to Pirsig, terms that have their own very, very special meanings like “Quality,” “Dynamic Quality,” or “pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality.” [11]   But how could we do without those words?

Marjorie Garber, in her excellent little book, Academic Instincts, says that “resentment of jargon comes from several sources.” [12]    The first listed is a “resistance to being left out of an in-group conversation.” [13]   I think this is particularly applicable to the MD because of their desire to see Pirsig entered into the philosophical canon.  What is bred is a kind of academic envy where the jargon of others is despised because they resent Pirsig being left out of the conversation.  Garber’s second source is “fear (often transmuted, as a defense mechanism, into dislike or even hatred) of what is not understood or recognized.” [14]   This is a common reaction by people of all colors and stripes, be the topic academic or not, and you can see Pirsig giving it voice in John and Sylvia’s reaction to technology. [15]   But Pirsig’s books are trying to shake people into new ways of thinking and part of this is learning to speak in new ways.  A mechanic needs to know about carburetors and tappets and a philosopher needs to know about metaphysics and epistemology.  The third and fourth source of resentment of jargon is the “suspicion that something subversive may be going on, enabled by a code or cipher” and “aesthetic recoil at language that is perceived as ugly, pretentious, or anomalous.” [16]   One can see here the connections to Pirsig’s talk of “Plains speech,” the “directness and simplicity” of Native American speech as opposed to the “fork-tongue talk” of “aristocratic European speech.” [17]

The problem of jargon is simply one of unfamiliarity.  Jargon in a profession helps create a special language for the profession to help its inquiry into its special problems.  Ideally, one would be able to identify somebody as a participant in a profession if they understood the jargon being thrown around.  Physicists understand what “gluons” and “mesons” are, literary theorists what “deconstruction” and “irony” is, and Pirsigians “Quality” and “pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality.”  But as a profession is growing and changing (as a profession always should be) its jargon grows and changes.  And the way into new jargon is simply becoming familiar with it.  To resist new jargon is to resist new tools for inquiry and it is not always apparent if something new is useless or not until it is used.  To simply dismiss a new word out of hand as “jargonistic” is a reactionary move without much justification because the only way to accrue justification is to become familiar with the new jargon, which means being able to understand it and use it.

It is important to see that Pirsig, as much dissatisfaction as he shows for jargon, does not make the mistake of unequivocally lambasting it. [18]   Pirsig realizes that jargon is what enables an inquiry, be it philosophy, physics, or motorcycle maintenance.  New words and vocabularies are difficult, but to this day, one of the hardest authors to read is still considered to be Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is considered to be the greatest poet ever, but his difficulty isn’t taken as a sign of degeneracy. [19]   Pirsig’s little jabs at jargon should be taken as poking at the sometimes pretensions of those who let it get away from them.  The problem with Pirsig’s jabs, though, is that they only subtly acknowledge the good use of jargon, getting caught up in the easy fun to be made of “technicians.”  And as Garber says, “to resist jargon is to protest against professionalism, professionalization, professions—and, not incidentally, professors.” [20]   So when Pirsig’s jabs get strong, and combined with his distinction between philosophy and philosophology, it is hard not to consider it part and parcel with his antiprofessionalism (though it should be resisted). [21]

Attacks towards others as being jargonistic obscurantists are predominantly of a piece with Pirsig’s antiprofessionalism.  In the MD, concurrently with this antiprofessionalist move (along with the other moves Pirsig taught us, like the shunning of the history of philosophy and/or contemporary philosophy) is the flexing of professional authority.  When participants are feeling lazy towards a critic there are two easy responses at their disposal:  1) they take advantage of the prevailing antiprofessional mood and launch a curt diatribe of that ilk or 2) they flex their authority and claim, with equal curtness and as only a professional could, that the critic “misunderstands” Pirsig.  The problem is not only the fact that the two are mutually exclusive and yet used by the same people, but that both replies stop the conversation, stop the inquiry.  Understanding only arises out of the conversation.

Antiprofessionalism is, of course, the most destructive because it completely precludes continuance of the conversation (because the conversation is the profession), but the curt demand to follow the current power grid also precludes conversation because the critic has been told that they are simply wrong.  Authority within a discursive profession, however, doesn’t seem to be flexed responsibly like this.  Critics are rightly contesting the prevailing authorities and the current establishment is rightly defending itself, but the only way for the standoff to resolve itself is through the conversation, through the marshaling of arguments, interpretations, and evidence.  So while antiprofessionalism is always irresponsible, the response that a participant “misunderstands” is almost always an empty gesture (except under very basic, delimited, and narrow respects, respects that rarely attain between long-standing conversants in a long-standing argument) because “understanding” is the crown that is awarded to the winner at the end of an extended engagement (with “misunderstanding” being conferred to the loser), not a tool to be used during it.  And winners, of course, are notoriously difficult to determine during an ongoing inquiry and will always be continually contested in a healthy inquiry.

III.  Sound a Little Fishy?:  Professional Philosophy Rehabilitated

The arguments in the preceding two sections are heavily indebted to Stanley Fish’s analysis of antiprofessionalism in Doing What Comes Naturally. [22]   Fish’s argument is that “anti-professionalism … follows inevitably from essentialism” which is a “commitment to the centrality and ultimate availability of transcendent truths and values.” [23]   We see here the general (“ultimate availability”) and specific (“transcendent truths and values”) relation to reality that is at the core of antiprofessionalism.  On Fish’s account, however, essentialism is based on assumptions that are wrong.  There are no transcendent, ahistorical truths and values that we could know about.  All we have are the historical truths and values we encounter in life.  The problem with essentialism, and the inevitable antiprofessionalism that follows, is that they claim to be arguing for the common core of humanity, a position that is ahistorical and from no perspective because it is from all perspectives.  They see the machinations of a profession as being tainted because they are from a particular perspective.  But the “aperspectival perspective” just needs to be stated to see the problem with it: it is a perspective.  Essentialism claims to be ahistorical, but it can only be stated in history, as a position in competition with other positions.  This is why Fish says that “insofar as it can have any consequences (apart from the impossible consequence of bypassing the profession), anti-professionalism is a form of professional behavior engaged in for the purposes of furthering some professional project,” [24] i.e., it is intent on overthrowing the current establishment to install itself as the new one.

I earlier called antiprofessionalism irresponsible and it is, not because it is practically impossible as Fish points out (because any instance of it is an instance of what it seeks to destroy, much like the “end of philosophy” debates), but because, in particular instances, it ends the conversation (which it would try and do in general, but again, that’s impossible) and because it causes the profession to feel bad about what it does. [25]   The consequence of antiprofessionalism is not only a bad attitude towards the others in your field, but because you are also in the field, a bad image of yourself: it breeds self-flagellation and bad self-esteem.  Antiprofessionalism “urges impossible goals (the breaking free or bypassing of the professional network) and therefore has the consequence of making people ashamed of what they are doing.” [26]   In the MD, this causes a curious event in which people are engaged in a conversation of exploration, but seem forced to add (implicitly and invisibly or explicitly as salutation or closing) the addenda “but that’s just my opinion” which conveys the sentiment that participants don’t really even want to be having the conversation. [27]   Of course they are your opinions, whose else would they be?  The conversation is there to explore those opinions, to weed out the bad ones.  But in stating “that’s just my opinion,” you’ve excluded exploration because you’ve basically just asserted them as the bald truth of you and exited the room: “Hey, here’s my opinion, see you later.”  The reason this half-foot-in-half-foot-out approach exists is because participants feel bad about saying anything at all because they feel they are intruding into an area where they have no jurisdiction.  This is the feeling of shame that emerges from Pirsig’s impossible antiprofessionalism.  No one has authority over anyone else, so you should feel bad for making an assertion of truth over someone else’s. [28]  

These explicit or implicit “just my opinions” are not only suggested by all the pieces of Pirsig’s antiprofessionalism, but given explicit proof of validation by the man himself:  “Perhaps you can pass all this along to the Lila Squad with the caveat that this is not a Papal Bull, as some would have it, or just plain bull, as others will see it, but merely another opinion on the subject that it is hoped will help.” [29]   Pirsig is here talking about a recent letter of his about the intellectual level.  In trying to dodge both his sometimes treatment as a prophet or lunatic, Pirsig not only authorizes the “just my opinion” approach, but nearly necessitates its backgrounding manifestation.  Part of what my arguments above were trying to make conspicuous is the role of authority in the professional community.  Authority is granted based on extended persuasiveness of arguments and interpretations.  For a number of mainly obvious reasons, Pirsig is at the top of the authority list in the MD.  This isn’t because we worship him as a cult figure, but because we’ve been persuaded by the arguments and philosophical vision offered in his books.  That means we will take much more seriously the things he says because, in other words, we trust his opinion.  An authority relationship in intellectual discourse is pretty much identical to a trust relationship.  People don’t take a trusted opinion as established truth, but they’ll take much more time considering it then one that isn’t trusted.  Say somebody on the street says to you, “That girl is no good for you.”  You’d keep walking, a little bit quicker this time, thinking to yourself, “How’d he even know I was dating Maureen?”  But what if your best friend, whom you’d known for ten years, said to you, “I don’t think Maureen is any good for you.”  You’d sit back and think about it.  “Wow.  Bob’s been my best friend for a long time.  He’s been with me through thick and thin, through many, many—many girls.  He knows me better than my own mother.  If he says that—phew!  I need to think about this.”

Pirsig doesn’t just hold any old opinion, he holds the most respected opinion (particularly when it comes to interpreting his philosophy).  If Pirsig wrote that “Quality is a load of crap” and picked apart a couple of his own arguments, people who’d been persuaded by those arguments would not only be stunned, but they’d begin to rethink those arguments themselves.  By saying that his, the most respected opinion, is “merely another opinion,” Pirsig’s attempting to (impossibly) deflate his own authority (impossible because authority is conferred by others, not something that can be controlled by the one with it), which simply has the effect of both making everybody view every other opinion suspiciously, as “merely another opinion” (except Pirsig’s because his authority is assured, particularly because, after playing to the crowd’s sense of antiprofessionalism, Pirsig himself has at least owned up to his own “mere” existence, making him brighter in every antiprofessionalist’s eyes), and makes the asserting of their own opinion an awkward, painful, eyes downcast experience.

At this point it may be useful to try and sum up everything I’ve so far said to tie up a potentially ugly looking contradiction in the things I’ve said.  In “Philosophologology,” I argued that Pirsig’s distinction between philosophy and philosophology requires him to be an essentialist, which by his own pragmatist philosophy he shouldn’t want to be.  I attempted to pin down a few of the areas where this essentialist feel comes out and one of the areas was in Pirsig’s antiauthoritarianism.  I then proceeded to argue in the last section of that paper that the kernel of truth in Pirsig’s distinction was that philosophy was unprofessionalizable, that philosophy is something so wide that to pin it down would require the essentialism that Pirsig wants to eschew.  However, in this paper I’ve argued that Pirsig’s antiauthoritarianism gets out of hand and turns into antiprofessionalism, which itself requires an essentialism to be consistent, and that this antiprofessionalism, if carried to its logical conclusion, destroys the possibility of philosophy (or any inquiry for that matter).  The effect of my attack on antiprofessionalism has been to resuscitate the professionalism that is the object of its attack.  But didn’t I just say that the upshot of Pirsig’s attack on the profession is the notion that philosophy is unprofessionalizable?  So which is it?  Is philosophy professionalized or not?  Can it or can’t it be?

I think this issue is intricate and its complexity reflects the amorphous nature of philosophy.  The first thing I should do is point out that, to a certain extent, I’m equivocating between two notions of “professionalism,” one wide and ubiquitous, the other more specific and particular.  When I defined a profession as “a group of people who achieve authority over a problem based on their extended critical attention to a problem” I am using professionalism in the wide, ubiquitous sense.  In this sense, a profession is as natural as inquiry, the two, in fact, going hand in hand.  In this sense, it makes as much sense to say that Mary, Doug, and Diego form a “profession” involved in the inquiry into their poor, depressed friend Carrie’s problems as it does to say that Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg all formed a profession inquiring into the problems of physics.  There is a discernible difference between the two of them, but I think almost all of that difference has to do with the fact that only the latter has a University Department dedicated to it.  The two groups fall onto a continuum of relevancy, between the highly-irrelevant-to-the-rest-of-the-world inquiry into Carrie’s screwed up life to very relevant physical inquiry.  Somewhere along this continuum institutionalization occurs, which itself shows a continuum between a few, loose marks of institutionalization like a website housing a discussion group and an essay forum to an academic department with paid professionals in every university in the world.

So in answer to the question, “In what sense can philosophy be professionalized?”, the answer has to begin with, “If philosophy is kept wide, not in the sense of a university department.”  Pirsig’s antiauthoritarian, philosophical individualism is right in pointing out that philosophy is wide and tailored to each individual.  If we think of philosophy as, in Wilfrid Sellars’ phrase “how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term,” there will be as many additions to philosophical inquiry as there are “things to be hung together” and there are as many things to be hung together as there are people because each person will be confronted with many different things through their experience of life (though, by the same token, also many similar things).  But because of the diversity and particularity of these things, the notion of “philosophical inquiry” begins to look implausible.  Philosophy becomes, on this account, entirely Socratic, as self-inquiry, but without the Platonic pretensions of thinking that at root, we all have a common, essential core.  If we did have that common, essential core, philosophy would be professionalizable, centered around the discovery of that core.  This, of course, is what philosophy since Descartes has typically considered itself doing.  But we’ve done away with the essentialism.  For an institutionalized profession to function, it needs a set of identifiable problems and goals to inquire into.  There are things we have in common, like love and friendship, but those things are so specific to individual people that they don’t seem to warrant a discipline to inquire into them.  So if philosophy is so wide in its specificity that it resists general, identifiable problems and goals, what’s left of Philosophy University Departments?  What’s happened to my rehabilitation of the philosophical profession?

I think the answer is that one kind of philosophy centers around hanging together the books that are called “philosophical.”  Philosophy is a kind of writing, a kind of literature, and philosophy professors are people who study (and write) these books and try and achieve a measure of wisdom from them.  And the study of these books, of this tradition, is professionalizable because certain specific, identifiable problems and goals to inquire into arise: What was Plato saying?  How does Kant hook up to Plato?  (and most especially) How do I hook up to Kant and Plato, what do they say to me?  But isn’t this exactly what Pirsig was railing against?  Isn’t this exactly the contrast between doing philosophy and studying philosophy that Pirsig created the philosophy/philosophology distinction for?  It is, but notice that no longer in my cleaned up version do philosophy professors claim to be doing the only kind of philosophy possible.  Pirsig rightly railed against the pretensions of philosophy professors who claimed to have authority over the scope of philosophy since, because the scope of philosophy is so wide, there’s nothing to have a general authority over. 

Pirsig’s mistake was to claim that these philosophy professors weren’t doing philosophy.  Because philosophy is so wide, they are doing philosophy, just one particular kind of it.  There is no point, for philosophy professors or Pirsig, to pin down what “real” philosophy is.  Pirsig himself should have listened to his own advice a little more, that “real philosophy” isn’t “guided by preconceptions of what subjects are important to consider.” [30]   But by the same token, to do philosophy is to immediately delimit your area of inquiry, areas that may or may not on the face of it hook up.  To do “academic philosophy” is to engage in a project that hooks up with the history of philosophy, in a project of reading the philosophical literature of the world to attain a measure of wisdom for us, here and now. [31]   But you don’t have to do this.  Your philosophy will already implicitly be hooked up to the history of philosophy, as everything implicitly hooks up with history because everything is historical, but in a person’s own delimited inquiries they need not do so explicitly.  It just depends on what kind of philosophy you want to do.  It is okay not to like one kind of philosophy or another, just as some people don’t like art or poetry or football.  But it isn’t okay to claim that any particular kind of philosophy isn’t real philosophy, just as it isn’t okay to claim that art, poetry, or football aren’t real human activities.  They are, obviously, all human activities, just with different goals and purposes.

The last thing I want to say has to do with how we should read Pirsig.  I’ve been arguing that when Pirsig makes the philosophy/philosophology distinction, he looks like an essentialist.  Fish makes the same point when he discusses antiprofessionalism.  Fish distinguishes between right-wing intellectuals (essentialists) and left-wing intellectuals (roughly, historicists or, as I’ve been referring to them, pragmatists) and says that “anti-professionalism, as a set of attitudes and arguments, is indefensible no matter what forms it takes: it is indefensible on the right because it begins with incorrect assumptions …, and it is indefensible on the left because it contradicts the correct (historicist and conventional) assumptions.” [32]   I’m currently unsure of whether Pirsig is correctly read as an antiessentialist who contradicts his antiessentialism or an essentialist who contradicts his essentialism.  I do, however, think it has to be one or the other because I do think both types of passages and sentiments exist side-by-side, unsmoothed and unglossed in either direction.  But, at the least, the last two papers have read Pirsig with the understanding that he wants to be read as an antiessentialist and have pointed out the difficulties of doing so.  I think Pirsig should be read as a left-wing intellectual, pointing out to us that Quality is an evolving process of experience, and that when we come to think of reality this way we won’t fall for the old traps of the Subject-Object Metaphysics which tried to get us to think that there was an essence “out there” (the Object) that we (the Subject) were trying to get into contact with.  But, as Fish says, “the moment that a left-wing intellectual turns anti-professional, he has become a right-wing intellectual in disguise.” [33]

Works Cited

Cohen, Avner and Marcelo Dascal. eds.  The Institution of Philosophy.  La Salle:  Open Court, 1989.
            -----“The Inevitability of Pluralism: Philosophical Practice and Philosophical Excellence” by A. J. Mandt, p. 77-101
Danto, Arthur C.  What Philosophy Is.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1968.
Fish, Stanley.  Doing What Comes Naturally.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 1989.
            -----“Going Down the Anti-Formalist Road” p. 1-33
            -----“Profession Despise Thyself: Fear and Loathing in Literary Studies” p. 197-214
            -----“Anti-Professionalism” p. 215-246
Garber, Marjorie.  Academic Instincts.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2001.
Pirsig, Robert M.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  New York: William Morrow, 1974, 1999.
-- --.  Lila.  New York: Bantam, 1991.
-- --. “Introduction to Lila's Child.” can be found at www.1stbooks.com/bookview/12646
-- --. “Letter to Paul Turner.” found at www.moq.org
Rorty, Richard.  Consequences of Pragmatism.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
-- --.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1989.
-- --.  Essays on Heidegger and Others.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[1] “The Populist Persuasion,” December 9th, 2002.  This particular paper began as a follow up, two part post called “Pirsig Institutionalized,” from March 17th, 2005.

[2] This would seem to leave out the notion of Dynamic Quality, but I hope to write further at a later date about Dynamic Quality and how we should see it, not as a direct relation to Quality (unlike static patterns), but rather as the breaking of old static patterns towards the formation of newer, better static patterns.

[3] See my review of Anthony McWatt’s essay “Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality” (found at www.moq.org) for a rehearsal of Pirsig’s identification of Quality with Dynamic Quality.

[4] See Section I,B, “Philosophy as a Natural Kind.”

[5] Note, though, that this “power grid” isn’t typically something one can refer to.  The power grid is as it is because it is what is internalized in each participant when they judge arguments and interpretations.  A power grid that could be explicitly conveyed would be one that almost everybody agrees on, one that makes explicit the standards of evidence and the force of certain arguments that most people use internally.  A power grid of that sort, however, is almost always an historical artifact, a fossilized remnant of the profession.  These fossils can be of interest, though, in showing how the past came to be the present (and sometimes in how fossilized current work is.)  Current professional work is work that is more up for grabs, which makes for a dynamic power grid because people are using differently shaped internal canons of evidence and argumentation.  And so making explicit this dynamic power grid is almost always terminally difficult if one wants to give each (every) side their due.  However, the explicit creation of these dynamic power grids can be useful in the conversation itself, the professional dialogue it is attempting to capture.  In moments of extreme divisiveness, where a dialogue has ground to a halt (because the back and forth doesn’t seem to move forward from its currently entrenched position), an explicit phrasing of the dynamic grid of arguments and interpretations can prove to be useful in finding terms (or creating new ones) in which the different sides can agree on and then move constructively forward from.  For one (successful or not) example of such an attempt (mixed with descriptions of a professionalism stripe laid bare here), see my post “DMB and Me, or a Typology of the MD.” (from May, 2005)

[6] An immediate objection to this line of argument will occur to a Pirsigian: I’m conflating social and intellectual static patterns.  Authority is a social static pattern, while arguments are intellectual static patterns.  However, part of the point of this line of argument is to blur the distinction between the social and intellectual level.  I have many doubts about that distinction, but for my current purposes I would like to highlight one: the separation between who we give authority to and why we give authority to them.  The social level is where we as social beings exist and the intellectual level is where our arguments exist.  But the reason we confer authority to people in intellectual discourse is because they’ve had good arguments.  These good arguments aren’t disembodied from the person, as is possibly suggested by Pirsig’s description of the intellectual level as “independently manipulable symbols.” (See “Letter to Paul Turner”)  These arguments are the person.  We don’t have static patterns, we are static patterns.  But if arguments aren’t easily distinguishable from the person, how can we confer authority to the argument and not the person?  What is authority in intellectual discourse if not trust in the argument’s power and the argumentative skill of the person propounding it?  I’m not arguing that there aren’t distinctions in the area to be made.  But these distinctions will be more ad hoc and fluid then the discrete, universal distinction Pirsig wants to maintain between social and intellectual.  Another way of putting my argument against philosophology is that, because Pirsig maintains a discrete distinction between a social and intellectual level, he undervalues the necessity of a “community” to intellectual discourse.  As A. J. Mandt says, “Philosophy is grounded in its own practice.  It is not only that philosophical views are developed through reflection and argument.  Further, our sense of what it means to be a philosopher, and our standards for evaluating philosophical work, have their genesis in the on-going practice of the community of philosophers.  It follows that community practice is intrinsic, not extrinsic to the nature of philosophy.” (Mandt, “The Inevitability of Pluralism” in The Institution of Philosophy, p. 98)  Another way of putting this same point is following Stanley Fish when he says that “there can be no such thing as theory.” (Fish, “The Anti-Formalist Road,” p. 14)  If theory is something that is independent of practice, and yet seeks to constrain it, then theory doesn’t exist because there are no constraints outside of the content of practices, i.e. the practice of argumentation.  A variation of this point is to say that theory attempts to escape practice or history, but this is impossible because we are all embedded in practice and history, much as Pirsig suggests when he says that the intellectual level rests on top of the social level.  What Fish calls “theory talk” still exists, as in, for example, essentialist philosophy, but theory-talk is no less embedded in practice, though it urges impossible goals of escaping from that very practice.  This is why community practice is internal to philosophy and not external as the distinction between social and intellectual levels suggests.

[7] See Chapter 26 of Lila and Pirsig’s Introduction to Lila’s Child.

[8] Pirsig, ZMM, p. 349

[9] ibid., p. 348

[10] On the differences between Victorians (whom we should read into the passage every time Pirsig mentions “Europeans”) and Native Americans, I’m thinking of the ten pages between p. 43 and 53.  See especially, p. 43-4, “This directness and simplicity was in the way they [Native Americans] spoke, too.  …  It was their attitude—plain-spoken….  this is how they talk, not like some fancy college professor, but Plains spoken….” (italics Pirsig’s) and p. 51, “these well-mannered circumlocutions of aristocratic European speech are “fork-tongue” talk to the Indian and are infuriating.”  The physicists’ reality is discussed briefly, and sarcastically, on p. 118, see especially, “Should reality be something that only a handful of the world’s most advanced physicists understand? …  Should reality be expressible only in symbols that require university-level mathematics to manipulate?” (italics Pirsig’s)  See also p. 36 when Pirsig talks about Dusenberry, “‘Some of these anthropologists make big names for themselves in their departments,’ Dusenberry said, ‘because they know all that jargon.  But they really don’t know as much as they think they do.’”

[11] I had a friend in college who never could understand what was going on in his philosophy class.  The professor was apparently speaking English, but it was no language he understood.  So he coined the word “philosospeak” for the way his philosophy professors (and myself) spoke when they started talking “philosophical.”

[12] Garber, Academic Instincts, p. 117

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid., p.117-8

[15] See the early chapters of ZMM, especially p. 11, “I [the narrator] could preach the practical value and worth of motorcycle maintenance till I’m hoarse and it would make not a dent in him.  After two sentences on the subject his eyes go completely glassy and he changes the conversation or just looks away.  He doesn’t want to hear it.”  That’s the exact reaction my friend always had when he heard “philosospeak.”

[16] Garber, p. 118

[17] see fn. 10

[18] In the passage on “technician,” Pirsig makes fun of them, but the main mistake of the technician is that they’ve lost the ability to communicate to others outside of the profession—not that they use a jargon.  Also see p. 51 of Lila, on the differences between Europeans, Americans, and Native Americans, where Pirsig says, “To this day Americans are mistakenly characterized by Europeans as ‘like children,’ naïve, immature, and tending toward violence because they don’t know how to control themselves.  That mistake is also made about Indians.  To this day white Americans are also mistakenly characterized by Indians as a bunch of snobs who think you are so stupid you can never see how phony they are.  That mistake is also made about Europeans.”

[19] Garber describes a story of when a well-known book reviewer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “popped a recording of a BBC radio production in the tape deck of his care and was ‘immediately struck by how nearly incomprehensible some of the language was.’  The tape was full of ‘confounding passages,’ so difficult that he could not imagine a first-time listener could ever catch the meaning.  He himself had to go over and over the text, in what he characterized as ‘an obsessive manner,’ until the meanings of certain lines ‘revealed themselves.’ … But instead of finding this experience infuriating, he found it ‘gratifying,’ and, finally, carthartic.”  The punch-line of the story is that he was listening to King Lear.  The point of the story is that, as is the case for poets, sometimes “it is possible to consider a difficult text to be worth the trouble of deciphering it, and its difficulty may in fact be part of the experience of reading.” (Garber, p. 98-9)  I think this is especially the case for philosophers, especially for philosophers who want to be poets.  One need look no further than Pirsig for an example.  For all his apparent straightforwardness, much of his philosophy is linked indelibly to his narratives, creating a situation in which finding his philosophy is not as easy as just quoting him.  Pirsig’s philosophy is found in the experience of reading him.  On the connection between poets and philosophers, see Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, (especially Ch. 2), “Philosophy as Science, as Metaphor, and as Politics” in Essays on Heidegger and Others, and “Overcoming the Tradition: Heidegger and Dewey” in Consequences of Pragmatism.

[20] Garber, p. 106

[21] This resistance is made especially difficult when Pirsig talks about anthropology at the beginning of Lila.  See p. 57-8 when Pirsig describes the “professionals’” refutation of his anthropological insights and his clipped commentary on it: “Very formindable.  First you say things our way and then we’ll listen to you.”  On those pages Pirsig then goes on to describe what he calls the “cultural immune system.”  Pirsig continues on p. 68-9, “Mores, determinants, norms … these were the jargon terms of sociology into which they converted things they want to attack.  That’s how you know when you’re within a walled city, Phaedrus thought.  The jargon.  They’ve cut themselves off from the rest of the world and are speaking a jargon only they can really understand.”  If we take Pirsig to be rejecting jargon totally, however, then there can be no hope for Pirsig’s project, because what else is Pirsig’s project but one of instituting a new jargon, “expanding the format” (p. 66, which is another way of saying, “changing the format”).  When Pirsig says that “He could see that some of the anthropologists were struggling to get outside that wall, but within the wall there were no intellectual tools that would let them out,” what could these new “intellectual tools” be that Pirsig is going to provide but new linguistic tools, new words, a new jargon?  A profession’s jargon doesn’t just constitute “things they want to attack,” it constitutes the very basis on which a profession understands things, for praising or attacking.

[22] See especially Ch. 10 and 11.

[23] Fish, “Anti-Professionalism,” p. 221

[24] Fish, “Profession Despise Thyself,” p. 207

[25] Strangely enough, the most curious turn of Fish’s analysis is when he says that, “In my efforts to rehabilitate professionalism, I have come full circle and have ended up by rehabilitating anti-professionalism too.” (Fish, “Anti-Professionalism,” p. 246)  Fish, apparently then, wouldn’t follow me in calling antiprofessionalism irresponsible.  I don’t think this is quite right, though.  I think Fish makes this mistake because he equates essentialism, what it is that makes us antiprofessionalist, with a condition of humanity.  “It is thus a condition of human life always to be operating as an extension of beliefs and assumptions that are historically contingent, and yet to be holding those beliefs and assumptions with an absoluteness that is the necessary consequence of the absoluteness with which they hold—inform, shape, constitute—us.”  I agree with this last passage, but we should not equate the condition of holding and being held by our beliefs with the philosophical thesis of essentialism.  Fish does seem to distinguish them earlier, but then seems to abandon that distinction later.  The only way that I can see for Fish to argue that he has rehabilitated antiprofessionalism is to argue that we are all naturally essentialists (which he’s said is an incorrect assumption) or that all professional change is a kind of antiprofessionalism (which doesn’t make a lot of immediate sense).

[26] Fish, “Profession Despise Thyself,” p. 211

[27] This anti-conversation mood is strengthened by Pirsig’s rugged, American individualism (in addition to the passages about Europeans, Americans, and Native Americans in Lila, see p. 367 of ZMM: “My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all.”).  If we are all directly connected to Quality, able to make it on our own, without anybody’s help (a theme aided by ZMM, p. 356: “He [Phaedrus] wanted this thesis not to owe anyone anything.”), then why would we need conversation?  Why would we need to talk to anybody, ask their opinion, weigh opinions, have arguments?

[28] One sees this most explicitly in Pirsig’s reaction to aesthetics.  In ZMM, Pirsig comments with great glee how, in his vision, “their whole field, definition of Quality, is gone.” (p. 215)  The beginning of Chapter 18 of ZMM is pretty much the predecessor of the beginning of Chapter 26 of Lila, the chapter with philosophology.  Pirsig is pissed about the “critical schools of experts” who “determine rationally where each composer has succeeded or failed.” (ibid.)  This passage, though, tends to inflict the idea that we shouldn’t forward any opinion about what is good or bad art for fear of becoming one of those “experts.”  The discerning eye will notice, however, that Pirsig is not saying that we can’t say what is good and bad art, what is beautiful and what is ugly. When Pirsig says that we can’t define Quality writ large, he is saying that we can’t transcendentally rope off the area of beauty from the area of ugly, by which we could then know before we saw a painting whether it was beautiful or not.  Transcendental rope is the material of essentialists.  I do not think Pirsig is saying that we can’t talk about and argue about what is beautiful or not.  I don’t think Pirsig is sinking all judgments into the relativistic hole of “eye of the beholder” aesthetics/metaphysics—at least, he certainly doesn’t want to.  But it is hard not to have that sneaking suspicion.  Pirsig doesn’t distinguish transcendental aestheticians from working art critics who simply engage in the activity of appreciating art.  I think his passages here (and especially in Lila) pretty much slam together all critics as “know-it-alls” who “finally have to shut up.”  In his attacks on the professions, Pirsig comes across as saying that essentially everything is in the eye of the beholder.  This sentiment from his books is what leads to Rigel’s attack in Lila.  But, if you drop the “essentially,” if you escape the hold of Pirsig’s antiprofessionalism (and his other essentialistic sounding passages) then Pirsig’s point is the innocuous “everything is in the eye of the beholder because who else’s eye would it be?”  We would read Pirsig as only trying to pull down the velvet ropes of transcendentalism, and simply adding, “But that doesn’t mean that every eye is as good as every other.” 

[29] Letter to Paul Turner”

[30] Pirsig, Lila, p. 375

[31] Arthur Danto sums up what we might call “academic philosophy” when he says that, “All intellectual disciplines have a history, but almost uniquely in philosophy is its history self-consciously carried in the minds of its practitioners as part of their intellectual equipment.” (Danto, What Philosophy Is, p. 149)

[32] Fish, “Anti-Professionalism,” p. 242

[33] ibid., p. 231