Re: MD Irrationality

From: Matt the Enraged Endorphin (
Date: Sat Sep 21 2002 - 19:18:41 BST

Hi Platt,

>I'm having trouble reconciling two statements of yours. In a post to
>Squonk on 19 Sep you wrote:
>[Matt:] "He (Rorty) would, however, protect or individual private right
>self-perfection, be it religion or philosophy or something in between. Our
>final vocabulary is our own; our route to self-perfection is our own."
>This ringing endorsement of private rights and individual freedom
>appears directly opposed to the following statement you made in a post
>to me on the same day:
>[Matt:] "Validity is not measured against objectivity, but against solidarity,

>intersubjective agreement."
>In the first statement, establishing truth appears to be a personal,
>private matter, like Pirsig's choosing paintings in an art gallery that are
>of highest value to the individual viewer. In the second statement,
>establishing truth seems to be a matter of group opinion. I cannot be
>right if my social group disagrees with me. I must test what I think is
>true against what others think.

This cuts straight to the heart of Rorty's practical distinction between the
public and private spheres. There are, of course, many who would abhor such a
distinction including Ancient Greeks (Sallust, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle),
Ancient Romans (Seneca, Cicero), Rousseau, Marx, and Hannah Arendt (on the side
of public emphasis) and Hume, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Isaiah Berlin,
and Friedrich Hayek (on the side of private emphasis). As you can probably
tell, there is a quite obvious political (and particularly economic) split
between the two sides. You can probably also tell that the "private emphasis"
side has in fact argued for a public/private distinction as the basis for
individual autonomy. However, the "public emphasis" side argues that the
public/private distinction that Hume and Hayek urge for has the effect of
reducing the public into the private, the practical effect of de-politicizing
the people. The Sallust-Arendt continuum then argue that the private must be
reduced into the public so that virtue and equality can be retained. Smith to
Berlin argue that for equality we must have freedom. Plato to Rousseau argue
that for freedom we must have equality. We've all heard this debate before.

What Rorty adds to the debate (as Alexis de Tocqueville added to the debate
between aristocracy and democracy in the 19th C.) is a sympathy and desire for
both. Rorty wants both equality and freedom and thinks that the best way to
achieve a balance between individual autonomy and social equality is to
intensify the distinction between public and private.

Enter this narrative to contextualize the discrepancy you have (quite rightly)
pointed out in how I have been using truth. Simply put, in the private realm,
the individual holds authority over "truth;" in the public realm,
intersubjective agreement does. But, quite obviously, it is a bit more
complicated and sophisticated than this, and I plead for your indulgence.

The only way to move forward the public project of the minimization of cruelty
and the protection of autonomous freedom is to reach intersubjective agreement
on issues of public policy. When addressing fellow individuals in the public
realm (such as when at the market when buying some bread), we must draw from a
communal pool of traditions and vocabulary so that we may communicate. Here,
truths can be said to be reached intersubjectively, by recourse to the communal
pool. When formulating your own personal relation to the world and your own
individual drive towards self-perfection, you may draw on a continually
changing vocabulary that has no recourse but to be self-justifying (the
incorrigibility of your final vocabulary). The truths you reach in
self-perfection can be said to be reached individually.

Hall adds these (hopefully) helpful remarks:

"Rorty addresses the problem of the appropriate balance between the private and
the public spheres, in a rather oblique manner, by noting the purposes served
by intellectual activities such as the reading of books. One reads books in
order to extend and develop the stable, widely used vocabulary associated with
both private and public purposes. Secondly, one may read in order to work out
some new vocabulary relevant either to the private or public sphere. A private
vocabulary provides answers to questions of self-creation and
self-articulation; a public vocabulary answers questions about one's
sensitivities and responses to other human beings. Though those who find their
own perfection in service to others may combine the two, most of us require
separate private and public vocabularies."

This last sentence points up the practicality of Rorty's distinction. To help
augment this section, Hall adds this later:

"Rorty characterizes the postmodernist bourgeois liberal ironist as a lonely
provincial beset by doubts about her own final vocabulary, that set of words
and propositions which evoke the sentential attitudes comprising the self.
This vocabulary contains both a private and public element. The private may be
well refined and even idiosyncratic, while the public side can be
unsophisticated and relatively simple-minded. The focus of the private
vocabulary is sublimity, while the private supports the aim of decency."

Leaving aside for now what "postmodernist bourgeois liberal ironist" and
"lonely provincial" means to Rorty, these two sections point out that the
private vocabulary stresses the creation of new vocabularies, but is first
contingent upon the historical, communal tradition of language one gains from
the culture you're born into. The public vocabulary stresses the extension and
development of a stable, communal vocabulary, but to best sensitize us to the
pain of others, it is sometimes helpful to create new metaphors.

Like I've said, there is a balance to be struck. I hope while you've read this
you've noticed similarities between Rorty's vocabulary and Pirsig's. Pirsig
wants to strike a balance between Dynamic and static quality. Rorty wants to
strike a balance between a stable, communal vocabulary and a ever-changing,
idiosyncratic vocabulary. And as you quote Pirsig, "A tribe can change its
values only person by person and someone has
to be first." This is completely harmonious with the Rortyan position.
Someone has to be first and someone has to convince everyone else.

I would like to say this about Pirsig, however. There are two ways in which
you can read ZMM. The effort of ZMM is an effort in dissolving dualities, the
explicit ones being classic/romantic, subject/object: this is continuous. One
sensitive reading of ZMM would lead one to believe that Pirsig would fit in the
Hume-Hayek continuum I outlined earlier. Particularly in this passage, "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." This invokes
the Zuni passage from Lila that Platt pointed out. It invokes the Hume desire
that, once a nation becomes commercially dependent on other nations, those
nations' people will become sophisticated, and that in becoming sophisticated
they will turn from low-minded pleasures to high-minded ones. They will, in
effect, become quite moral by individuals doing it themselves.

Another sensitive reading of ZMM, however, might lead one to believe that
Pirsig would better fit in the Sallust-Arendt. The importance of Ancient Greek
arete, excellence. This is their virtue and it is this virtue that Rousseau
and Arendt feel will be lost by emphasis being placed on the private sphere.
People will become de-politicized and only care about whatever pleases them.
They argue that they will not turn to high-minded pleasures that will moralize
them, as Hume argues. Pirsig's emphasis on the old, Greek arete implies a
dissolution into the public mode. To follow Quality is to follow their lead
into the importance of being a good citizen.

I find both of these readings of ZMM equally persuasive. I think that the
tension between the two readings provides convenient space for a Rortyan
practical solution. I think in Lila that the underlying public/private tension
is carried forward. Rorty would agree with the Dynamic/static dialectic as a
good description of how good change occurs (though he would disagree with it
being a metaphysical split). Rorty would only add that a practical split
between the public and private spheres would help relieve the two tensions in
Pirsig (tensions that I think have helped breed capitalist interpretations and
socialist interpretations of his books).

In closing, I would return for a moment to the descrepancy in truth that Platt
helpfully pointed out. In doing that I think it continues to point out the
pragmatist attempts to repudiate the Platonic tradition. There is nothing
philosophically interesting about the notion of truth. Following James, truth
is simply that which is useful in believing. The "fuzzying" between two
seemingly hard, distinct versions of truth that Platt pointed out is simply the
consequence of this pragmatist outlook on the Platonic tradition. They can,
however, be pratically mediated between by the type of public/private split
that Rorty endorses (or, at least, this is the promise).


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