Feb 292012

Yesterday I started trying to record a “Close Reading” on the Derrida essay we read for the podcast, and I just couldn’t get more than a few sentences into it before losing patience, so I thought I’d either as a substitution for that effort or possibly a warm-up do a few posts dissecting the essay here. I want this to be group effort, so you folks should comment here to help out my interpretations.

Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event,” if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural-or structuralist-thought to reduce or to suspect. But let me use the term “event” anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling.

Continue reading »

Feb 262012

On the podcast both Derick and I made some references to Paul Fry’s literary theory course, which includes lectures on Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Derrida.

It’s a much longer course, of course, so you can get ahead of us to get a handle on the dreaded Lacan, or see what Fry has to say on feminism and African-American criticism. The individual lecture pages linked above even have links to specific points within the videos, so you can jump right to, say, his comments on “langue” and “parole,” which were less than clear during our presentation. You also have the option to download audio or a transcript, and can get the lectures on iTunes U as well.

At 17:33 into lecture 9, Fry gives a more lengthy treatment of Levi-Strauss’s treatment of the Oedipus myth, explaining the different columns on his chart (though, he doesn’t draw this on the board; you can see it here).

Watch on YouTube.
He thinks Levi-Strauss’s treatment is pretty good in that you can even put some of the events from the story into these categories that Levi-Strauss doesn’t bring up. The examples he gives, though, make it sound like Batman logic: the letter “lambda” that starts many of the names in Oedipus’s genealogy looks like someone walking with a limp, which is related to the meaning of Oedipus’s name (“swelled foot”), which is in turn related to having a foot of clay, which is a thematic way of expressing autocthony, i.e. being born from the earth. Whatever, man.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 242012

On Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916) (Part I and Part II, Ch. 4), Claude Levi-Strauss’s “The Structural Study of Myth” (1955), and Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966).
Continue reading »

Feb 232012

We PELers spent black history month actually reading black history, and on 2/28/12 spoke with Law Ware of Oklahoma State University about philosophy and race. Is there a philosophically viable concept of race at all? What are the potential sources of past and current oppression, and what general strategies seem promising to deal with them? Is “understanding” all one needs to beat prejudice? Here’s what we all read:

“Of our Spiritual Strivings,” by W.E.B. DuBois, which is chapter 1 of his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois was a historian who took classes with William James and knew his philosophy. This essay gives an existential take on what it’s like to live with a “double consciousness:” to see through the eyes of Western culture (from his white teachers) as an intellectual, but also to see through the eyes of his oppressed brethren. Far from simply wanting blacks to integrate, he saw the black experience as providing a spiritual viewpoint that commercial white America sorely needed. You can read the book online; however, the Norton Critical Editionincludes lots of helpful footnotes and supplementary essays.

Continue reading »

Feb 222012

Go Pragmatists!Philosophology is to philosophy as art history is to painting, Pirsig says. He uses that ridiculous-sounding word to draw a distinction between comparative analysis and original thought, between critical examination and creative production. In the tradition of Emerson’s famous 1837 speech, “The American Scholar“, Pirsig is calling for creativity and originality.

This is not to say that the critics and historians of philosophy serve no purpose. Like art critics, they can help us appreciate particular creations by meaningfully situating them in a wider context or tradition. Pirsig doesn’t mind slapping a few philosophological labels on his own work. It has to be located somewhere on the philosophical landscape, after all. “The Metaphysics of Quality is a continuation of the mainstream of twentieth century American philosophy,” Pirsig writes in Lila. “It is a form of pragmatism, of instrumentalism.” Even more specifically, he identifies his MOQ with the pragmatism and radical empiricism of William James.

Charles Sanders Pierce, William and John Dewey were, more or less, the original founders of American pragmatism, although James had said that “pragmatism” was a new name for some very old ideas. The founders from this period, and the contemporary professional philosophers who follow them, are known as classical pragmatists but there is also a rival branch known as neo-Pragmatism. This latter school is roughly centered around Richard Rorty. There is a bit of a war going on between the two branches, which is pretty interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.

Continue reading »

Feb 212012

Thanks to Burl for including this link in a comment on this blog:

Watch on YouTube.

It’s an interesting take on energy here: energy being just a relationship between entities. So heat is the motion of particles, but what is this “motion” other than the fact that the relations between the particles changes in a lawlike way? The alternative might be that the heat is what makes the particles do this. This dispute seems to me very much like that about gravity: is gravity a force acting on things, or just a characterization of certain behaviors?

Continue reading »

Feb 202012

Genius!To wrap up my thoughts on this subject: Probably the most interesting part of this Pirsig immersion experience for me has been thinking about his stance as a lone philosopher, rebelling against academia.

Like Ayn Rand’s, much of Pirsig’s attitude towards academia seems to be a direct result of some assholes he had to deal with in school: arrogant professors, sheeplike fellow students, and colleagues who had definite ideas about inquiry that seemed to rule out what he was interested in. As a result, some of what he has to say seems reactive and bitter, and really won’t apply to your experience, unless you read him so repeatedly that you accept his picture of his status quo as an accurate representation of the philosophy profession as a whole today, which it’s just not.

For instance, you might think that, say, Kant was so revered that no one challenged his notion of a thing-in-itself for 150 years until Pirsig, but that’s really a pretty terrible take on the history, given that Hegel and Fichte challenged this immediately, during Kant’s lifetime even, and this strain then dominated most of continental philosophy (it’s particularly blatant in Heidegger). This is hardly just a historical quibble; however valuable you may find Pirsig, your perspective on him will change completely if you read him not as a lone thinker but as giving his own modern articulation of ideas that are the common property of whole trends in history. In some ways, his formulations were fresh and unique; in others, they were a hastily sketched retread of things he’d read, and would have been much improved if he’d read more. Continue reading »

Feb 182012

Amazing!If my notes here have gotten a bit dismissive sounding, it’s largely to provide a counterweight to Dave’s discipleship. This is not to diss Dave (or Bo or other Pirsig fans posting on our board here), but my approach, and the approach I see in enthusiasts like Katie re. Foucault or Matt Evans did for Plato is yes, to try to figure how out to charitably elaborate and defend the view, but perhaps moreso to independently parse and critically appraise it: you pick it apart, test the limits, and see what remains. (Again, this is not to diss Dave, who I’m sure is seeing his role here as sharing his enthusiasm and trying to get more folks interested in Pirsig.)

While of course you want to get out of a reading every bit of richness you can (so as to make it worth your time to have read it), I’m extremely suspicious of anyone who focuses too exclusively on any one philosopher (for non-professional reasons; if you’re a Kant scholar, than of course you have some reason to get obsessed, though of course to be a good Kant scholar you’d need to really know your Hume and Leibniz and many others), whether it be Marx or Ayn Rand or Jesus or whomever. Genius is overrated… even great thinkers steal 90% of their ideas from their predecessors and contemporaries, and don’t necessary end up with the greatest versions of these ideas. The progress of ideas makes any one thinker to some extent instantly obsolete. Pirsig provides a fine model of a very smart guy thinking through things deeply to come to his own conclusions, but don’t think for a second that he invented the idea of overcoming subject-object dualism, which is one of dozen or so major themes pervading philosophical history in the 20th century (see Heidegger, for one, though arguably he was just following on to Hegel), and Pirsig’s account, taking up a whole two books of musings totaling something like 100 pages when you get rid of all the travelogue stuff, is just not going to be the most developed and comprehensive take on this however you slice it.

OK, enough with the general cautionary words to keep perspective, which no one in need of them is likely to listen to anyway. I wanted to recount here a part of Lila that struck me as a particularly stark example of casual overreach: pages 152 to 157. Here he explains how denying subject-object metaphysics solves a whole mass of traditional philosophical problems.

Continue reading »

Feb 182012

There’s enough material floating around on Robert Pirsig to keep you busy for a while no matter what your level of interest might be. If you’re in a seriously philosophical mood, there are two at least two Doctoral dissertations, a gidebook,a textbook and a Master’s thesis. There are also options if you want to discuss Pirsig’s work or even if you’re interested in exploring all the nooks and crannies. There’s even a book that gathers previous online discussions and then adds a series of comments from Pirsig about the various interpretations. Maybe there are times when you’re torn between the desire for edifying self-improvement and the desire to veg out on your couch. In that case, some documentary films about Pirsig might be just what the Doctor ordered.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be said that I have a personal bias about almost everything that’s linked above. The documentaries were produced by Dr. Anthony McWatt, for example, the guy who first introduced me to Pirsig and who has since become a good friend. Ron DiSanto, the co-author of the Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,was one of my thesis supervisors and we both appear in at least two of McWatt’s films, although not the same films. I’m well acquainted with the author of Lila’s Child: An Inquiry into Quality,and the discussion group is hosted by one of my very favorite dudes. (You do NOT want to get into a “cool” contest with this guy, trust me.) I don’t personally know David Granger but his booklinks Pirsig to Dewey beautifully and since my thesis links Pirsig to James, I have to love the guy for pragmatic reasons. Even if you only like this stuff half as much as I do, you’re going to have a real nice time.

-Dave Buchanan

DVD cover

Feb 172012

In looking for other podcasts on Pirsig, I ran across The Digested Read podcast by John Crace, which is sort of a literary humor thing, where Crace retells the gist of famous books using snarky oversimplifications.

In his episode on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he’s none too sympathetic towards Pirsig’s philosophy, which he seems to see as a not-very-well-thought-out mishmash, but anyone who’s listened to our episode will likely have gotten more out of it than that already, so let’s not worry about that aspect.

I’ll admit that Crace’s comments about how jerky the narrator treats his son in the book set the tone for some of what I was saying on the podcast. One interesting tidbit: Pirsig goes on a bit about his adopted philosopher name “Phaedrus.” His discussion of the name in the context of Plato’s dialogues (you can read about that here) seemed uncontroversial, but he also mentions that it’s the Greek word for wolf, as in “I’m a lone wolf philosopher, so I’ll call myself Wolf.” With a bit of Googling you can confirm Crace’s claim that that’s not the meaning of the Greek word (which actually means “bright”). Hardly a fatal flaw in the book, but a strange thing to fictionalize for dramatic effect on Pirsig’s part.

Continue reading »

Feb 162012

William James’ pure experience, the central idea in his radical empiricism,has been subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation for 100 years. As I take Pirsig’s pre-intellectual experience (a.k.a. Quality or Dynamic Quality) to be more or less equivalent to James’s pure experience, any confusion would extend to Pirsig’s work. Objections that cut against James will make Pirsig bleed and vice versa.

The most common objection is to simply to deny that there is any such thing as pure experience.  “All awareness is a linguistic affair” or “it’s text all the way down”. Even our basic sensory perceptions are structured by concepts or categories of thought we inherit from language. There is no way to peel back the human contribution, they say. These slogans represent perfectly good objections against positivism, against traditional sense-data empiricism and against the kind of phenomenology that sought the pure essence of things. These objections rightly push back against any claim that says we can gain direct, untainted access to objective reality or somehow peel back our own subjectivity to get at the things-in-themselves. When educated critics hear phrases like “pure experience” and “pre-intellectual experience” or sometimes even just the word “empiricism”, lessons from thinkers like Sellars (or Quine) spring to mind and immediately there are flags down all over the field. Continue reading »

Feb 152012

Different levels in a Whitehead

By crankular demand, I’m putting aside by irritation at hearing the name “Whitehead” to read this article on Whitehead’s theory of consciousness–Consciousness as a Subjective Form: Whitehead’s Nonreductionist Naturalism by David Ray Griffin–and see if it helps fill in the gaps in Pirsig’s account of experience. Griffin’s CV describes him as a “Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Theology, Emeritus, Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University.”

Griffin sets Whitehead’s theory up as an apparent paradox that he’s going to unravel in the eassay. Whitehead describes consciousness as “an entity… distinct from the brain” and yet “rejects any dualism between two kinds of actualities.” It’s “a function of something more fundamental” yet he’s not a functionalist: consciousness is not just something the brain does. Consciousness is “the subjective form of an intellectual feeling,” which sounds tautological: consciousness is subjectivity, which of course therefore can’t be simply reducible (epistemologically) to the brain: we don’t know consciousness (which, if it’s subjectivity, we know directly, though Sartre will call this knowledge totally empty) in the same way we know that grey matter in our head (i.e. via an axe and a mirror, if that). This was the point of much of our mind/body discussion, and doesn’t in itself entail any particular ontological position. Searle, for instance, acknowledges the epistemic difference but insists that ontologically, mind and brain are one and the same thing (I’m elaborating this because I agree with Searle).

Continue reading »

Feb 142012

Pirsig’s second book, Lila, if you hadn’t gathered, is about a boat trip, though it seems more a matter of drifting around than a purposeful excursion (though he stops off to do some business in New York, or rather not do some business, as he decides to not allow Hollywood to make a ZAMM movie because it will be inevitably dumbed down beyond recognition). Well, here he is talking about his boat, and a different trip he took to cross the Atlantic (“right where the Titanic was sunk,” he notes). As a bonus, the introduction is by John Sutherland, the musician who travels with Pirsig during the early part of ZAMM.

Watch on YouTube.

Not much of philosophical interest here, though I like that Sutherland says that Pirsig should do some travel writing, and if he wants to throw some philosophy in there, he could do that… as if, from Sutherland’s point of view, the philosophical part was just a bit of self-indulgence crammed into this travelogue. I can certainly picture a movie version (Pirsig describes talking with Robert Redford about adapting it; I could picture it as a new Clint Eastwood-directed thing) of ZAMM sort of like A Beautiful Mind, where the philosophy is brought in only so much as is necessary to define the protagonist’s character, and the focus is on the landscapes and the emotional relationships between father and son and the other characters. Personally, I think such a movie would be a boon: it would certainly renew attention on the original book and get the ideas discussed further. …Or maybe it would just be a bust.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 132012

One of the books I checked out in support of our Pirsig episode was Mark Richardson’s Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.I determined pretty quickly that this book was focused on the travelogue aspect of ZAMM and seemed to avoid the philosophy, so I didn’t read much of it.

However, this interview by Colin Marshall (note also Marshall’s interview with us) has Richardson bringing up a lot of interesting points about Pirsig’s biography, particularly regarding Pirsig’s mental breakdown (according to Richardson, there was some threatening-the-family-with-a-gun business not brought up in ZAMM that makes it unlikely that the insanity in question was just a matter of a radically rebellious epistemological outlook). Also, we get the point of view of Chris, whom Richardson interviewed: he thought he had a great, up-for-anything attitude, and is annoyed that the book portrays him for all time as a whiner.

Here’s the link to Marshall’s new podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 092012

Peter KailFolks looking for a clear, concise Hume review with some nice additional details after our epistemology and ethics episodes on him would benefit from this Elucidations episode featuring Oxford Lecturer Peter Kail.

Kail gives a more comprehensive biography than we did, covers induction (note that we also discussed this issue a bit on our Nelson Goodman epsiode), reason, motivation (which we discussed not only in our ethics episode but also in our conversation with Pat Churchland, though his take on motivation based on pleasure and pain can profitably be compared to Spinoza’s), animal behavior, and philosophy of religion (you can jump into some discussion from this site on Hume on miracles here and here; note that Kail cites Dan Dennett’s book as a direct continuation of Hume’s approach.)

Elucidations also has a blog now, though I see only one post on this Hume episode, an essay on induction (and no, the “Mark” who commented on that post is not me).

Given our upcoming semiotics episode, this also seems a good time to plug our Frege episode, which featured Elucidations host Matt Teichman, as there are interesting comparisons to be made between the continental (Ferdinand de Saussure) and analytic (Gottlob Frege) approaches to language.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 082012

I’ve been chatting on and off with Scott at Philosophy Forums to try to synchronize one of our episodes with the Book of the Month over there, and despite my basically having given up on doing this as too hard to coordinate, I see that the book for February is Discipline and Punish, which we recently covered.

So head over there if you’d like and participate in that discussion.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 072012

Split Personality[Editor's Note: Here's the first full-on blog post by our Pirsig guest Dave Buchanan, though he's been a long-time, productive commenter to our posts here. Oh, and this image is by Allison Moore, snatched from here.]

L’esprit de l’escalier or “staircase wit” is a name for the clever reply that comes too late, for the witty comeback that comes to you only after you’ve left the party. As we were wrapping up the conversation Seth expressed some frustration about the complexity of the narrative. Pirsig’s story is a strange kind of autobiography in which he splits himself in two and the tale of Phaedrus’ quest is told only from the narrator’s perspective, from a somewhat hostile and unreliable point of view. Why complicate it this way? Why not just say it? Why be so tricky? I thought it might help to walk up and down the stairs but no clever or witty answer has arrived, and now I just have leg cramps.

One could make a case that this divided self is meant to express the problem of alienation, the problem of being alienated from one’s self. It also supports the larger ghost story, adds dramatic tension, etc., but splitting himself in two was also the solution to a very basic writing problem. At one point Pirsig looked his unfinished manuscript and was disturbed by the number of times he’d used the pronoun “I”. It was tedious, annoying, and just plain bad. Splitting himself in two solved that little pronoun problem.

Continue reading »

Feb 062012

levels!In Pt. 2, I described Pirsig’s notion of dynamic vs. static quality, which should sound a lot like naturalistic moral intuitionism as discussed in our Hume/Smith episode. All there is is people (or, more widely for Pirsig, any being that is capable of reacting affirmatively or negatively to anything: judging agents, we might want to call them), and morality can only be founded on the moment-to-moment judgments of value that we issue, because there’s simply no other available ontological source for a good empiricist. But to avoid this collapsing into a whimsical subjectivism, we have to say that these judgments get ossified into systems, and in many cases, we’ll want to listen to the established system instead of our whim. But how do you decide in which cases to do this, and how to you judge between the different established systems? Pirsig proposes a hierarchy of purpose-generating systems to help clarify conflicts (this is from 158-9 of Lila):

What the evolutionary structure of the Metaphysics of Quality shows is that there is not just one moral system. There are many. …There’s the morality called the “laws of nature,” by which inorganic patterns triumph over chaos; there is a morality called the “law of the jungle” where biology triumphs over the inorganic forces of starvation and death; there’s a morality where social patterns triumph over biology, “the law”: and there is an intellectual morality, which is still struggling in its attempts to control society…

Continue reading »