Re: MD Unofficial Rorty Dictionary

From: Platt Holden (
Date: Mon Sep 30 2002 - 21:32:08 BST

Hi Matt the E:

> Your summary of Rorty isn't too far off the mark. I'll go into more of
> that in a moment. Your interpretation of Pirsig is, however, what I find
> disagreeable. Your interpret Pirsig as a systematic philosopher, one who
> indulges in universal truths. There is much in Pirsig that would support
> such an interpretation. My own interpretation of Pirsig, the historicist,
> pragmatist Pirsig also has textual support (as I've been attempting to put
> forth). My use of Rorty is an attempt to underscore why I think it would
> be best to interpret Pirsig in this manner, rather than in the systematic,
> universal manner.

I don't understand what you mean by "textual support." It's not in my
Rorty Dictionary. (-:
(Platt previously):
> >First, Rorty completely rejects all universals, absolutes and self-evident
> > truths. (That his total rejection is itself an absolute doesn't phase
> >him. Logic in his view is "contingent" like everything else.) By contrast,
> > Pirsig's explanation of reality is based on an universal absolute he
> >identifies as "Quality."
> Your right about Rorty (though, as usual, you're attempt to catch him in a
> language-trap fails).

My "trap," if there is one, is based on logic whose form transcends
native spoken languages, like mathematics.

> However, I don't find anything absolute or universal
> about Quality. To say that Quality is Reality is simply to redescribe
> reality. There's nothing universal or absolute about it. Its just simply
> everywhere and everything we experience.

Last time I looked, "everywhere and everything" means absolute and/or
universal. Pirsig writes, "Whether the stove is the cause of the low
quality or whether possibly something else is the cause is not yet
absolutely certain. But that the quality is low is absolutely certain. It is
the primary empirical reality from which such things as stoves and heat
and oaths and self are later intellectually constructed." (5)

If you aren't absolutely certain about the Quality (reality) of sitting on a
hot stove, perhaps you'd like to try it some time. Without saying a word,
I'll stoke the coals in a stove and then, without a word, you place your
rear end on it. My guess is you'll directly experience "Truth." (-:

> >Second, in Rorty's view, reality can only be known by words which are
> >infinitely flexible. Therefore, reality is also flexible, or as he might
> >put it, "corrigible." Truth cannot be established without recourse to
> >language and "intersubjective" agreement. By contrast, Pirsig posits that
> >truth can be established by a self-evident, nonverbal reaction to the
> >moment's Quality. like viewing paintings in a gallery.
> It is true, "truth" is something that only arises through the use of
> language. Without languange, truth doesn't even make sense. (If you
> remember, though, there are two routes to formulating truths: one private
> and the other public.) The Pirsig that says that truth is self-evident and
> a nonverbal reaction is a Pirsig that hasn't taken the linguistic turn and
> one that I think needs to. Truth isn't a nonverbal reaction to Quality.
> When you look at a sunrise, there's nothing truthful about it. Its not
> until one says, "Ah, that's nice." That, according to the person, would be
> a truthful statement.

Pirsig doesn't need to take a "linguistic turn" because for him reality
(direct experience) is prior to concepts. Truth, like in the hot stove
experiment above, is immediately and directly perceived. You don't need
the linguist turn of a Greek chorus in the background singing, "Get off,
get off, it's true, it's hot" to know your backside is getting scorched.

> >Third, Rorty's moral philosophy is circumstantial. His moral guide is
> >"contextualism" whereby moral decisions can only be made when all the
> >factors involved in a unique situation can be weighed by those involved in
> >the problem. By contrast, Pirsig establishes universal moral levels in
> >ascending order of rightness whereby, for example, it's "more moral for a
> >doctor to kill a germ than a patient" and "for an idea to kill a society
> >than for a society to kill an idea."
> I would never say "all the factors involved can be weighed" because there
> are potentially an infinite set of factors. The use of recontextualization
> is to see the context with recourse to as many factors as one sees as
> important. The more efforts at recontextualization, the more we may be
> able to see other factors that might be important.

You don't deny that Rorty's moral philosophy is relativism. So if a
culture practices human sacrifice, we've nothing to say.
> That Pirsig "establishes universal moral levels" I deny outright. There is
> nothing universal about Quality or the levels. The levels are contingent,
> they are as we find them and recontextualize them. What the MoQ is best
> seen as is an effort to recontextualize old problems, to see new factors.
> When we use the MoQ to contextualize the 60's, for instance. When we say
> that it is more moral for doctor to kill a germ, it is within a context
> that says "It's okay 'cuz the doctor is more evolved," not because its
> always been more moral for doctors to kill germs.

According to Pirsig, you're wrong. It's always been moral for doctors to
kill germs. From Chapter 13:

"But what's not so obvious is that, given a value-centered Metaphysics
of Quality, 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, a moral
pattern of reality as real as H20. We're at last dealing with morals on
the basis of reason."

> >Fourth, Rorty adheres to the cause/effect principle, i.e., the assumption
> > that nothing happens without prior cause and that the cause and effect
> >principle applies universally. (That this contradicts his anti-universal
> >stance doesn't phase him, as noted in No. 1 above). In Rorty's world,
> >everything including human behavior, is "contingent." In contrast, Pirsig
> >advocates free will where "To the extent that one follows Dynamic Quality,
> >which is indefinable, one's behavior is free."
> That Rorty adheres to an environment that causes us to have beliefs, I
> certainly won't deny. Once again, though, this isn't somewhere you can
> catch him in a word-trap. Its just something that happens. There's
> nothing universal about putting your hand on a stove and saying "Damn
> that's hot" (outside of the fact that almost anybody you'll meet will say
> that).

Well, I don't know what exact words you'll say when we do the hot stove
experiment above, but I'll wager you'll exhibit a universal reaction when
you sit on it.
> >Finally, Rorty believes that whatever can't be defined doesn't exist. His
> >world totally consists of "narratives" and "texts." It's maps on maps on
> >maps all the way down. In contrast, Dynamic Quality, which cannot be
> >defined, being prior to all concepts, is an essential part of existence in
> > Pirsig's MOQ.
> Think of it this way: you are defining Dynamic Quality by labeling it. You
> are constricting it. Insofar as Dynamic Quality has to be a metaphor, an
> unfamilar sound, Rorty has nothing wrong with it. Metaphors, in this way,
> are undefined because people gradually understand their usage and meaning
> by context. As soon as a metaphor becomes defined, in a strict sense, it
> becomes literal. This is the dynamic that occurs between DQ and static
> Quality.

Think of it this way: to communicate we have to use words. But words
are not the things they denote. A menu won't fill your empty stomach.

> > If my comparison of Rorty and Pirsig is anywhere near accurate, it
> > appears the two are miles apart. In fact, Rorty's philosophy far from
> > being original like Pirsig's seems to be a throwback to medieval thought.
> > When I looked up the word "nominalism" in my unabridged Random House
> > dictionary, the only entry was as follows"
> >
> > "(in medieval philosophy) the doctrine that general or abstract words do
> > not stand for objective existing entities and that universals are no more
> > than names assigned to them"
> >
> > When you get through the thickets of verbiage, isn't this what Rorty is
> > saying?
> I'm not going to enter into a debate about who's being the most original.
> I think such debates are pointless and they certainly don't clue you into
> who's better or more useful as a thinker. Plato was innovative and he gave
> us the entire misconceived tradition of Western Philosopy.
> But yes, the definition of nominalism you've given is one of Rorty's
> philosophical platforms. It being first conceived in the Middle Ages, of
> course, matters little. Consider, afterall, that the Pirsig you're touting
> fits snuggly in a Greek tradition of metaphysics. I don't see how the
> timeframe in which some of the tools and labels Rorty and Pirsig use were
> created shines good or bad light on either.

You make a good point. But, do you know of anyone, past or present,
who has a metaphysics based on the premise that the world is a moral
order having four distinct levels of static moral patterns and an
undefinable Dynamic creative moral aspect? As for Pirsig fitting into the
Greek tradition, if you mean he's rational as opposed to Rorty who
proposes we transcend "logocentrism," I agree.
> The two things that I think have become apparent from this post and past
> ones in our exchange is that you want Pirsig to be a foundationalist and a
> believer in truth as correspondence to reality.

It's not so much I want him to believe that knowledge is founded on
evidence provided by our senses, but that he does believe it--as I have
tried to show by the many quotes I've offered.

>This is why I prefer ZMM
> to Lila: Pirsig talks like a foundationalist all the time in Lila. This is
> something I think needs to be overcome and circumvented. The
> correspondence to reality bits are those where you find Pirsig talking like
> the Truth is out there, waiting to be discovered. In contrast to this, I
> would point out sections like the one on Poincare in ZMM. Here he talks
> like theories are conventions i.e. made out of convenience. Created, not
> found.

Yes, all theories are created, just as Rorty has created his. I see no
contradiction between Lila and ZMM on that score.

> What Lila is to ZMM is Pirsig's attempt to couch some of his insights into
> an overarching theory. Rorty denies that we need to do this. The only
> thing theories can do is perhaps give us a nice summary of how we already
> behave at this point in time or of what we believe at this point in time.

Rorty denies we need to put insights into an overarching theory, then
proceeds to do exactly that. Do you really think he ever intends to
change his theory that "truth is intersubjective agreement?"
> That is how I predominantly view the MoQ: a summary of Pirsig's views.
> Places he attempts to ground things out in a systematic metaphysics, I
> ignore. And I don't think any of the good, edifying narratives and
> insights are adversely affected by this kind of reading.

Likewise, I don't think any good, edifying narratives or insights can
come from Rorty. Not only do I base my conclusion on his quirky,
murky expository style, but also on these words he wrote:

We must accept the fact "that we have not once seen the Truth, and so
will not, intuitively recognize it when we see it again." This means that
when "the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent
there is nothing to be said to them."

At least, he's honest. (-:


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