David Buchanan

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Apr 152014

Henri Bergson postage stamp

“If I had not read Bergson,” William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe, “I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately.” James had been engaged in a very long philosophical debate with the leading Idealists of his day, F.H. Bradley and Josiah Royce, when Bergson came to the rescue. James thought that Bergson supplied him with the concepts he needed to finally win “The Battle of the Absolute,” as his debates with Royce came to be called. For his purposes, James explains, “the essential contribution of Bergson to philosophy is his criticism of intellectualism. In my opinion he has killed intellectualism definitively and without hope of recovery. I don’t see how it can ever revive again in its ancient platonizing role of claiming to be the most authentic, intimate, and exhaustive definer of the nature of reality.”

What’s wrong with intellectualism, you may be wondering, and why would any philosopher want to celebrate its death? The ability to deal with abstractions gives us a tremendous advantage, James admits. “Both theoretically and practically this power of framing abstract concepts is one of the sublimest of our human prerogatives,” James says. It supplies us with “an increase both of vision and of power.” The problem, oddly, is that intellectualism is a bit too good. As any heroin addict will tell you, it’s so damn good that it will ruin your life.

It is no wonder that earlier thinkers, forgetting that concepts are only man-made extracts from the temporal flux, should have ended up treating them as a superior type of being, bright, changeless, true, divine, and utterly opposed in nature to the turbid, restless lower world. The latter then appears as but their corruption and falsification.

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Jan 202014

Einstein as revolutionary“Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world.  . . . The supreme task is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.” — Albert Einstein, 1918

If I had to pick to most dominant theme in the discussion of Kuhn’s famous book, it would be the specter of relativism. The most controversial aspect of Kuhn’s work is the claim that the world itself changes with each paradigm shift, Dylan says in the precognition of episode 86. There has been much negative reaction, Seth says, to Kuhn’s picture of science as a human endeavor, as opposed to science as the quest for “Truth” with a capital “T”. Yes, Mark agrees, Kuhn is rejecting the myth of the given. And presumably because of this strong note of anti-realism, Wes says that Kuhn’s conclusions are “too strong” and he has been “over-interpreted” too. If Kuhn’s picture asks us to give up on the notion that scientific inquiry is progressing toward the one and only Objective Truth, then what kind of truth is science ‘progressing’ toward?

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Dec 232013

Reasonable T-ShirtJohn Rawls certainly has his fair share of critics, but he’s also widely considered to be the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century. As we heard in the Rawls episode, Rawls’s theory of justice is a kind of contract theory wherein he lays out the basic principles of a democratic society. In the same sort of way that his thought experiment asks us to assess the basic rules of society from behind a “veil of ignorance” in order to eliminate our particular biases, Rawls’s conception of “public reason” asks for a kind of neutrality in the basic rules of democratic discourse. As the Stanford Encyclopedia article puts it, “Proponents of public reason often present the idea as an implication of a particular conception of persons as free and equal.”

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Sep 282013

Iris the gazer

…I cannot outline the spiritual problems of modern man without giving emphasis to the yearning for rest that arises in a period of unrest… It is from need and distress that new forms of life take their rise, and not from mere wishes or from the requirements of our ideals.”

When Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul was first published in 1933 he had already treated many hundreds of patients from all over the civilized world and “every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers” (229). His book looks at Western Civilization through those same doctorly eyes and he thinks the collective picture “presents only a somewhat more complex picture of psychic life than the individual” (210). The same basic diagnosis applies both individually and collectively. The problem is meaninglessness, relativism, nihilism and nothing less than the death of God. This problem operates on something like a psychological law of conservation. “For every piece of conscious life that loses its importance and value – so runs the law – there arises a compensation in the unconscious,” Jung says.

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Aug 312013
Francis Bacon's grotesque Pope

Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon, 1953

The partially examined podcasters raised a series of very difficult questions in their recent discussion of Heidegger, particularly during a ten-minute stretch beginning about one hour and ten minutes into the 80th episode. These questions all seemed to pivot around one central problem: what does it mean to get right with Being? Should we take this as a kind of negative theology despite Heidegger’s denials, as Mark tempted us to do? Is this something like getting right with God or aligning yourself with the logos? Is this Heidegger’s way of calling us to a life of contemplation, as Wes suggested? Or is it about a Zen-like mindfulness or a matter of being “open-minded in a certain way,” as Mark put it? Can we get at the question via the artistic use of language, as Seth suggested?

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Aug 152013

Hobby horse as Motorcycle

“A bad work of art is an oxymoron,” Patrick Doorly says, “like bad skill.” He thinks there’s no such thing as bad art because the term does not refer to a class of objects or a category of activity. Art simply refers to excellence or to any “high-quality endeavor,” a phrase he borrows from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Doorly’s new book, The Truth About Art: Reclaiming Quality, devotes an entire chapter to Pirsig’s metaphysics, which Doorly deploys to untie various intellectual knots.

You’ll find big-hitters like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel in the book’s index. There is even a footnote mentioning the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, whose work was the topic for P.E.L’s 16th episode. The Truth About Art looks like an art history book, with plenty of illustrations, but the text feels more like an accessible book of philosophy.

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Feb 142013

Dr. Eugene Taylor Eugene Taylor was only 66 years of age when he passed away on January 30th, 2013. Taylor was a graduate of Southern Methodist University, Harvard Divinity School, and earned his Ph.D. at Boston University. Saybrook University was his academic base but he was also a research historian of psychology at Harvard Medical School, founder of the Cambridge Institute of Psychology and Religion, and an internationally renowned scholar on the work of William James. There is an interesting obituary, of sorts, in Psychology Today. “Only Eugene Taylor could write about William James and the Spiritual Origins of Pragmatism,” Dr. Nassir Ghaemi wrote in the February 6th article.

He was an expert on everything William James, in addition to being a historian of psychology of the first stature, a leading figure in the existential/humanist psychology world, and part of the Eastern/Buddhist tradition of spirituality. He was all these things, but in my experience, he was especially a teacher who opened my eyes to the importance of William James.

His books include William James on Exceptional Mental States; Shadow Culture: Psychology and Spirituality in America; The Mystery of Personality: A History of Psychodynamic Theories; and William James on Consciousness beyond the Margin.

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Nov 292012

Drawing of Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), will be celebrated at Montana State University in Bozeman on the weekend of December 7th and 8th. On December 15th, during their commencement ceremonies, he will receive an honorary Doctorate from MSU.

These events offer some sweet redemption for Pirsig both personally and philosophically. In terms of his own philosophical journey, as his readers will know, Bozeman is ground zero. His quest for “Quality” began on the campus of MSU and led him to enroll in a Doctoral program at the University of Chicago, which then led him into madness and/or enlightenment. (Pirsig himself does not dispute either interpretation.)

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Oct 152012

Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid

“I really would like to have the film rights to this book,” Robert Redford said to the book’s author. “You’ve got them,” Robert Pirsig replied. “I wouldn’t have gotten this involved if I hadn’t intended to give it to you.” As you may have inferred already, Redford is asking for the film rights to Pirsig’s autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Their conversation, as it’s reported in Pirsig’s second book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals (1991), took place far above the ground in hotel room overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. Two famous guys talking in a famous city about making a famous book into a famous Hollywood movie. The celebrity factor is so thick in this scene that you could cut it with a knife, preferably a famous knife with jewels set into gold.

Pirsig devotes a brief, six-page chapter to this scene (chapter 19) and then uses the occasion to ponder the larger meaning of celebrity (chapter 20). His meeting with Redford begins with the same sort of existential weirdness that Mark Linsenmayer experienced in his interactions with our favorite warrior princess, Lucy Lawless. Pirsig describes what it was like to open the hotel room door and find himself looking at the Sundance Kid. The 19th chapter could be titled, “the phenomenology of being star struck”. Continue reading »

Oct 022012

SOPHISTRY in Greek and English?
If you believe Plato, then the answer is “yes”. If all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then the artists have been subordinated to the philosophers for about 25 centuries. According to Plato’s Republic, especially the last section, the artists present a danger to society and to your soul. Two of my favorite thinkers disagree with Plato and Socrates on this point. Friedrich Nietzsche and Robert Pirsig both make a case that there is something terribly wrong with this Platonic legacy. In one of Nietzsche’s earliest works, The Birth of Tragedy, he asks us to consider the consequences of the Socratic idea that virtue is knowledge, that all sins arise from ignorance, and only the virtuous are happy. As a consequence, Nietzsche says, the “virtuous hero must henceforth be a dialectician” because virtue and knowledge are necessarily connected such that “Truth” is the highest good.

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Aug 182012

John Dewey on the cover of Time Magazine[From David Buchanan, frequent blog and Facebook contributor and participant in our ZAMM episode.  See if that doesn't make sense after reading this.]

Richard Rorty opened one of his talks by pointing out that as Europeans see it, Pragmatism is just what the Americans could get out of Nietzsche. This joke suggests that there are many similarities but American Pragmatism isn’t as deep or as dark as the author of Ecce Homo. In Podcast Episode 61, the partially examined dudes and their guest, Jessica Berry of Georgia State, work hard to identify what Nietzsche is wagging his finger at, to identify the conception of truth that he’s attacking. As I’ll try to show, the Pragmatists attack this same conception of truth.

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Jun 102012

Tom Motley (Image: Tom Motley when he’s all spiffed up.)

It is a little known fact, even among our philosophically sophisticated readers, that Heidegger argued for the supremacy of German humor. Because German jokes have the most precise underlying structure, he argued, German humor would rule the earth for a thousand years. (Sorry if you’ve already heard some version of that old joke.)

In the spirit of episode #57, I offer some philosophical comics. (These are to be viewed for entertainment purposes only; David Letterman asks that there be no wagering.) Tom Motley (not his real name) calls himself a “CARTOONiOLOGiST” and he’s one of my favorite dudes. He does all kinds of work and it’s always clever, but not always funny. In fact, he did a “comic” strip that was deliberately not funny. He called it “tragic strip” instead.

I’ve selected a couple of pieces that are particularly philosophical and also humorous. The first one is titled “Fiction Krishna” and it provides instruction on cartooning and enlightenment at the same time. (Tom teaches cartooning at The School of the Visual Arts and illustration at Pratt Manhattan but, as far as I know, he does not teach the practices leading to Nirvana.) The second piece is shorter and gives you some recipes from the Existentialists’ Cookbook, “Bean Dip & Nothingness“. As you may have guessed, Nausea is the basic premise behind all the recipes.

If you are a fairly serious comic nerd, dear reader, then you might want to check out this interview article with Mr. Motely or explore his cartooniologist blog. You might even be interested in an illustrated classic, The Golden Ass.(Insert your own ass and/or gold joke here.)

-Dave Buchanan

May 312012

Castles in the sky(Painting by Robert McCall)

In his book Wittgenstein and William James,Russell Goodman makes a case that James influenced Wittgenstein’s thought and he does so by detailing their shared commitment to concrete experience and actual practice over intellect. (Wittgenstein was also positively influenced by James’s view of religion, especially by The Varieties of Religious Experience, but that’s another can of worms.) Goodman’s account is somewhat provocative simply because Wittgenstein and James are both considered to be major figures, but in separate philosophical traditions.

As Jaime Nubiola reported to the William James Society at Harvard:
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May 222012

Cain and Abel

Would it be reasonable to take Wittgenstein’s case against private language as his case in favor of public language? Or is that too simple? As I was listening to episode 56, a quote from William James from Pragmatismcame to mind:

All human thinking gets discursified; we exchange ideas; we lend and borrow verifications, get them from one another by means of social intercourse. All truth thus gets verbally built out, stored up, and made available for everyone.

Hence, we must talk consistently just as we must think consistently: for both in talk and thought we deal with kinds. Names are arbitrary, but once understood they must be kept to. We mustn’t now call Abel ‘Cain’ or Cain ‘Abel.’ If we do, we ungear ourselves from the whole book of Genesis, and from all its connexions with the universe of speech and fact down to the present time. We throw ourselves out of whatever truth that entire system of speech and fact may embody.

The demand for consistency in our uses of language is, according to James, almost a matter of remaining within the bounds of sanity. If we constantly confuse the murderers with their victims, we “ungear ourselves” from the whole universe of speech – and to have a private language, supposing it were possible, is to be isolated in the corner of dunces. Are James and Wittgenstein saying the same thing on this point?

-Dave Buchanan

(Image by Conrad Botes.)

Apr 192012

introspectiveIf the dialogue between Buddhism and American intellectuals like Owen Flanagan is part of a fashionable trend, then it has to be one of the longest lasting fads in history. Henry David Thoreau published the Lotus Sutra in the first issue of The Dial in 1844. William James was absorbing Transcendentalist ideas at the family dinner table, where his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson often held court. Later in life, James’s friend and neighbor was a Scholar of Sanskrit and his friendly rivals on the faculty at Harvard, Josiah Royce and George Santayana, were dabbling in Buddhism. (The Theosophical Society was also “channeling” Buddhism in the 1870s and 1880s, while a kind of proto-New Age occultism was all the rage in the parlors of Boston.) Chicago held a Parliament of World Religions in 1893, bringing Zen Buddhism from Japan and the Theravada tradition from Sri Lanka. Such was the intellectual climate in William James’s America.

Now, almost exactly one century after James’s death, he might be astonished to find that scholars are debating the convergence of relativity theory, quantum mechanics and brain imaging technology with Buddhism’s anti-essentialism, its anti-metaphysical stance, and its denial of what we’d call the substantial (Cartesian) self. If Alan Wallace is right, William James’s work is not only still relevant to this ongoing dialogue, it’s just what the Doctor ordered.

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Mar 162012

Science examining religionIn the same way that Owen Flanagan wants to naturalize Buddhism by stripping its hocus-pocus, William James focused his attention on personal religious experience rather than the “smells and bells” of traditional institutions. As biographer Robert Richardson puts it, “much of what one usually thinks of as religion James rejects at the start”. James says he has no interest in the, “ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation and retain by habit.” James says he wants to confine himself to “personal religions pure and simple” and say as little as possible about systematic theology or institutional history. The latter are second-hand religions, but he wants to look at the original article. As one might imagine, Richardson says, “James continues to be attacked by church leaders and systematic theologians for his failure to start where they start.” James’s biographer tells us that this approach to the psychology of religion was a “radical departure, more radical even than that of Friedrich Schleiermacher.”

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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.

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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 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 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.

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