A Review of Matthew P. Kundert's “Confessions of a Fallen Priest: Rorty, Pirsig, and the Metaphysics of Quality.”

(Or, “How much is that Dog collar in the window -- the one with lipstick all over it?“”)

by Squonk.


Quality is the aim of Art. My experiences as an undergraduate philosophy student vacillate between static, 'gumption sapping' philosophology, and Dynamic appreciation of the necessity with which all philosophers respond to Quality. Philosophology can make life a chore, but one must be at ease with Static Quality, avoiding either soul-destroying inanimacy or Dynamic disintegration.

Being at ease is an Art. Kundert immediately elicits philosophy department blues by obscuring the bullseye: his project is to display Rorty, Pirsig and the MoQ in valuable terms. Thus, Kundert attempts to place the MoQ within a smaller Rortyan context. The squeeze is shoehorned by diminishing, misrepresenting, and ultimately ignoring Quality altogether.

Quality is in relationships. One of the freeing aspects of Pirsig's work has been to illuminate the relationship between social and intellectual moral codes. Kundert explicitly and inappropriately introduces social morality into the title of his essay due to the overarching influence of Rorty. Pirsig is presented as wishing to recontextualise philosophy with notions of Quality rather than as aiming for Quality, which then presents consequences for Pirsig himself and western philosophical tradition.

Least effort, maximum effect in relationships. In a effort to effect ease of aim I wish to add the following comments to Kundert's essay:

1. Introduction

As you might be able to tell from the title, I am, with heavy heart, relinquishing my place in the sanctuary. I am not sure who first compared the Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) to religion and, though I am sure it was meant despairingly, I find the analogy fitting and use it as an apt description, rather than an off-hand denunciation.

The MoQ is not a religion, it is an intellectual postulate.

Though certainly not as shocking as, say, Bodvar Skutvik or Platt Holden leaving the fold, it is a tad shocking for myself, having been there for all the thoughts and essays and misfired essays I've had over the past three years. Though not as vocal in the MoQ Discussion Group (MD) as the two aforementioned “priests,“” I was a staunch advocate and was in the process of carving out my own little place in the Forum. In fact, my silence for about a year in the MD is part of why I am writing now.1

The MoQ forum is poorly described in terms of social niches. The MoQ itself suggests Social morality can undermine intellectual morality, and Kundert's essay appears to be a good example of this process.

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

Mainstream philosophy is shored up by a Metaphysics of Quality, but the MoQ does not defend aspects of mainstream philosophy in order to shore itself up. Mainstream philosophy has its Quality aspects and some of these are found in the areas Pirsig cites. This is significant as Kundert's essay attempts to encapsulate a large MoQ context within smaller contexts derived from his reading of Rorty.

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

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

Perhaps this work should be read in the light of the MoQ and not as a way of shedding light upon the MoQ? Again, a small context is elicited to encapsulate the larger.

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

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

Semi-agreement about what? About Quality?

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

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

The religious undertones to these passages, God, Prayers, Hero, All the answers, are misleading with regard to Quality. Pirsig does not suggest he has, 'all the answers.'

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

The halo Pirsig speaks of is that of Socrates. Socrates is a hero to the young Pirsig because Pirsig valued intellectual skill. However, the older Pirsig understands the vacuity of intellectual skill as a measure of the good. Thus, for Pirsig, 'to do' to Kundert what Plato (Socrates) did to Pirsig would involve Kundert understanding the vacuity of Quality as a measure of the good.
Pirsig devalues Socrates because of Socrates' relationship to the development of Western culture. Kundert devalues Pirsig because Pirsig cannot formulate answers to Kundert's intellectual satisfaction.

2. The Pragmatized Pirsig

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

Kundert begins to recast Pirsig in Rortyan terms. To describe Quality as an entity is misleading, as Quality (Tao) is expressly undefined. Quality is not simply, 'introduced' into ZMM -- Quality is central to the book.

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

More recasting Pirsig in Rortyan terms. The central issue of Quality is almost disregarded in the process. The Classic/Romantic split is not invented by Pirsig; rather, it is a long established western philosophical tradition to divide experience in this manner.
The consequences of Quality for Western philosophy are as they are. Quality is not induced by Pirsig specifically for the purposes of modifying Western philosophical traditions. That Quality does so results from an exploration of Quality itself.

In fact, Pirsig's ambivalent relation to Kant is possibly one of the most interesting facets about Pirsig's thought. I would suggest that we read Kant as Pirsig's greatest teacher and primary influence, a man that Pirsig wanted so desperately to overcome, yet ends up ambivalently reinforcing.

Most interesting facets of Pirsig's thought? Why is this so?
For many, Pirsig's central term Quality is more interesting and continually disregarded in this essay.

We find Pirsig openly borrowing some of Kant's tools and making some of the same fundamental moves as the master chess player.4 And yet, at least in ZMM, Pirsig's project is almost entirely anti-Kantian. What I want to suggest is that Pirsig is being a good philosopher when he is edifying and recontextualizing, not when he's systematic and logically arguing. Pirsig the Rhetorician and Cultural Critic, not Pirsig the Platonic Dialectician.

Dialectic is an intellectual methodology. There are many variations of this method -- many dialectics. Pirsig explicitly states that such methodologies are useful when appropriate, but not as a complete measure of the good. Thus, in exploring Quality, Pirsig does not restrict himself to dialectic, or philosophical traditions which predominantly value it.
Pirsig is not noted for his systematic logic. That logical relationships may be found in the works of an individual writing within Western culture should hardly be surprising, either for the author or the searcher.

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

Quality has reprocussions for Western philosophy. Western philosophy has consistently produced ideas that do not accommodate Quality very well, and Kant is one of these. The personal nature of his relationship to Pirsig is an intellectual one and as such is inappropriately termed Evil. SoM is not Evil, it is a Quality intellectual pattern of value, but a MoQ appears to be better.

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

Science, Art and Morality are not simply, 'connected now' in a MoQ. Science, Art and Morality are not separate to begin with. They appear to be separate in western philosophic tradition.

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

Quality, subjects and objects are real in Pirsig's view. Subjects and Objects are not merely apparent. However, insisting that they are more real than Quality is a feature of SoM.

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

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

Examples already indicated in the essay illustrating Kundert's poor understanding of basic MoQ tenets inform the remaining material with increasing force. For this reason i shall conclude my commentary with the suggestion that more attention to Quality would have been welcomed.