MD Begging the Question, Moral Intuitions, and Answering the Nazi, Part III

Date: Sat Oct 11 2003 - 21:29:05 BST

  • Next message: MATTHEW PAUL KUNDERT: "MD Begging the Question, Moral Intuitions, and Answering the Nazi, Part II"

    Return of the pragmatist,

    Moral Intuition(s)

    There are two senses of intuition that we should distinguish. The first are ideas that we feel without argument. The second is a way of accessing something nonrational, something beyond argument. The two are obviously related, but the first sense is the sense of "intuition" as ideas that we feel are fairly obvious. The second sense is the sense of "intuition" as a faculty that gives us access to ideas that should be fairly obvious.

    By "moral intuitions" I mean certain ideas about what is good. For instance, we Americans have intuitions that democracy is the best form of government yet realized, that freedom is the best route to happiness, and that Nazis are despisable. We feel these things without argument and we agree to them without argument. They are in our blood, so to speak. By "moral intuition" I mean an ability to access ideas about what is good, ideas that we accept without argument.

    What I will argue is that Pirsig holds to both senses of intuition and that pragmatists hold to only the first sense.
    The reason people want to answer the Nazi, want to be able to argumentatively and dialectically wrestle the Nazi down, is that they fear "that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form 'There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.'" (Rorty, p. xlii, CP) Rorty says that our moral intuitions are temporary resting places, that there is nothing ahistorical or universal about them. They are simply the best that we have come up with so far. They are what make us _us_, or as Wittgenstein would put it, they are a form of life, the best form of life we have yet seen. When Sartre says, "Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that mom
    ent, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us" ("Existentialism is a Humanism") the "us" Sartre is referring to is not some universal image of mankind, but _us_ Westerners, we who have lived through the Enlightenment and WW II, who have seen the terrible things that fascism and totalitarianism can do.

    Pirsig however does refer to something that is beyond our practices, something that will condemn us even if there is nobody else around but us. He calls it Quality and Dynamic Quality. Quality is reality for Pirsig. This is consistent between ZMM and Lila. In Lila, however, Pirsig develops two ways in which we access Quality: through static patterns of quality and through Dynamic Quality. Pirsig calls Dynamic Quality the "pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality." (p. 133, Ch. 9, Lila) For Pirsig, "Static quality ... emerges in the wake of Dynamic Quality." (ibid.) One way we can interpret this is that Dynamic Quality represents our intuition, our access to the nonrational, our access to Quality. It gives us our moral intuitions, which take the form of static quality patterns. Static quality patterns are what is left over and these are arguable. These represent our patterns of argument over the years that have accumulated, arguments for democracy and freedom. But
    unlike Rorty who says that we can never reach outside of the cicle of these static patterns, Pirsig says that the argument begins and ends with Dynamic Quality.

    To help see this interpretation, I think we should first stop and look at the way Pirsig literally writes these two things: static patterns of small "q" quality and Dynamic big "q" Quality. Quality as reality, for Pirsig, is always capitalized, just like Dynamic Quality. Static patterns, on the other hand, are never capitalized, the "Quality" that comes with them is never capitalized. I don't think this is just some German pretension. I suggest that we take this as a sign that Pirsig is suggesting that static patterns are not quite "Quality," not quite reality, but that Dynamic Quality does give us access to reality, to Quality.

    My main analysis starts with, Pirsig's glasses analogy at the beginning of chapter eight in Lila. "The culture in which we live hands us a set of intellectual glasses to interpret experience with, and the concept of the primacy of subjects and objects is built right into these glasses. If someone sees things through a somewhat different set of glasses or, God help him, takes his glasses off, the natural tendency of those who still have their glasses on is to regard his statements as somewhat weird, if not actually crazy." (p. 112-3, Ch. 8, Lila) The "intellectual glasses" that we are given by our culture is our static patterns, they are our intuitions. The shift to another set of glasses represents the shift to another set of intuitions, another vocabulary. Pragmatists would agree to all of this. However, Pirsig continues and says that we can _take our glasses off_. This is Pirsig's split between mediated and unmediated experience, his idea that static patterns are a
    veil and a distortion of our experience, of the true reality.

    What Pirsig does is privelege unmediated experience. Pirsig says, "The purpose of mystic meditation is not to remove oneself from experience but to bring one's self closer to it by eliminating stale, confusing, static, intellectual attachments of the past." (p. 134, Ch.9, Lila) We must "eliminate" our static patterns so that we can become closer to unmediate experience. Our static patterns are "stale" and "confusing". Further, Pirsig says that "All life is a migration of static patterns of quality toward Dynamic Quality." (p. 160, Ch. 11, Lila) Life is a movement towards unmediated experience. The priveleging is solidified with "In general, given a choice of two courses to follow and all other things being equal, that choice which is more Dynamic, that is, at a higher level of evolution, is more moral." (p. 183, Ch. 13, Lila)

    This isn't a minor interpretation of Pirsig that is hard to get a handle on. It is pervasive. Pirsig says, "Mystics will tell you that once you've opened the door to metaphysics you can say good-bye to any genuine understanding of reality. Thought is not a path to reality. It sets obstacles in that path because when you try to use thought to approach something that is prior to thought your thinking does not carry you toward that something. It carries you away from it. To define something is to subordinate it to a tangle of intellectual relationships. And when you do that you destroy real understanding." (p. 73, Ch. 5, Lila) Static patterns, thought itself, will never lead to a "genuine understanding of reality," "it carries you away from it", it "destory[s] real understanding." To think about something is to "subordinate" it, it is to make static patterns higher than Dynamic Quality and, all other things being equal, this is immoral.

    Not only is this theme pervasive in Lila, the later, more metaphysical Pirsig, it has precedent in ZMM. Linking together Pirsig's cooptation of the rhetoric of science and Dynamic Quality as an intuition, a capacity for that which is beyond rational means, he says, "What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings. We know that these reasonings do not come from us and at the same time we recognize in them, because of their harmony, the work of reasonable beings like ourselves. And as these reasonings appear to fit the world of our sensations, we think we may infer that these reasonable beings have seen the same thing as we; thus it is that we know we haven't been dreaming. It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know." (p.273, Ch.
    22, ZMM)

    This, in itself, seems to simply refer to a redescription of objectivity into intersubjectivity, which every pragmatist can rejoice in. However, Pirsig says that there is a "guarantee". Pirsig is saying that intersubjectivity, alone, is not enough, we need a guarantee for this intersubjectivity to be objectivity. Pirsig spins his words to make it look like intersubjectivity guarantees objectvity, but a close reading shows that this is not the case. Preceding this passage, we find that the guarantee is "... the sense of harmony of the cosmos, which makes us choose the facts most fitting to contribute to this harmony. It is not the facts but the relation of things that results in the universal harmony that is the sole objective reality." (p.273, Ch. 22, ZMM) [thanks to Paul for calling my attention to these passages] "The sense of harmony of the cosmos" is Dynamic Quality, intuition, and this sense "makes us choose the facts most fitting to contribute to this harmony." I
    t _makes_ us, it _forces_ us, it _compels_ us. This is what forces the Nazi to play our game, a game in which the Nazi has no chance of winning. The force is our intuition of Dynamic Quality, a capacity that every person has, that every person has a moral obligation to follow. If the Nazi denies it, then we should feel righteous in saying that he is subordinating Dynamic Quality to immoral static patterns. The Nazi is immoral because he denies Dynamic Quality.

    Pirsig's force comes from Dynamic Quality as bringing in something outside of static patterns; this in effect reconstitutes Kant's analytic/synthetic dichotomy and Mill's real/verbal dichotomy, the ones that Quine gets rid of. Rather than following the pragmatists and saying that our language never brings in or refers to something that is outside of itself, Pirsig becomes a Kantian by suggesting that some static patterns, like "All bachelors are single", are analytic, wholly internal to themselves, and that some static patterns, like "Nazis are immoral", are synthetic, they refer and are forced by something outside of the pattern. This allows, in argumentation, for Pirsig to not simply make verbal inferences, but real inferences, like the kind that would be made when answering the Nazi, when engaging in an argument where you can triumphantly and dialectically declare "You are immoral!"

    But the pragmatist gets rid of this distinction. He dissolves our ability to distinguish in any absolutely certain way the difference between analytic truths and synthetic truths, verbal inferences and real inferences. By doing this, the pragmatist is saying that our moral intuitions are inside of a vocabulary, too. That the distinction between Dynamic Quality and static quality, between unmediated and mediated experience, is inside of a vocabulary. Pirsig wants to say that our vocabulary is only our static patterns of quality (specifically our intellectual static patterns of quality) and that Dynamic Quality exists outside of our vocabularies. Dynamic Quality then becomes our trump card, that which forces people to use certain vocabularies rather than others. But the pragmatist simply becomes metaphilosophical and says that you are begging the question. By saying that something exists outside of a vocabulary, you are begging the question over the pragmatist who says
    that nothing can, that nothing can force us to play a vocabulary. The pragmatist instead says that some vocabularies are better than others, but the choice in vocabularies is always a question begging experience.

    People should notice that I've conveniently walked around in a circle for everybody: I've ended with Quine's dissolution of the analytic/synthetic dogma, which was one of my original premises. I didn't actually conclude with Quine's dissolution, but I could try by pointing out that "Dynamic Quality" exists as a static pattern, that we can't seperate any of those words from a vocabulary, from the Quality vocabulary. That any effort to point or refer or demonstrate the existence of something unmediated is doomed to mediation. But that's not my main point. My point isn't to argue for the pragmatist position, for Quine's dissolution of one of the dogma's of empiricism. The point is that Rorty is showing us the consequences of pragmatism. My effort is to show that Pirsig fails as a pragmatist part of the time, and succeeds some of the time. I am not arguing for pragmatism. I am showing the fruits of its labors. Its up to each individual interlocuter to decide whether or
    not they will follow in my footsteps, in my interpretation, in my pragmatist vocabulary.

    I've continually tried to point out Pirsig's ambivalence concerning these subjects, what I've called his pragmatist impulse and his Kantian or Platonic impulse. People have taken this to mean that I am debasing Pirsig's genius. But this isn't so, not in the least. I believe the grey space in Pirsig's writings is enormous, compounded by the fact that the volume of Pirsig's writing is very small. Rorty writes that "the works of anybody whose mind was complex enough to make his or her books worth reading will not have an 'essence,' that those books will admit of a fruitful diversity of interpretations, that the quest for 'an authentic reading' is pointless. One will assume that the author was as mixed up as the rest of us, and that our job is to pull out, from the tangle we find on the pages, some lines of thought that might turn out to be useful for our own purposes." ("Taking Philosophy Serious" quoted in Hall, 166) I think that, given in particular the kinds of books P
    irsig wrote, books about a man who went "insane" and then came back to tell the tale, this is as true of Pirsig as it was for Heidegger.


    MOQ.ORG -
    Mail Archives:
    Aug '98 - Oct '02 -
    Nov '02 Onward -
    MD Queries -

    To unsubscribe from moq_discuss follow the instructions at:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sat Oct 11 2003 - 21:36:33 BST