Re: MD Pirsig's conception of ritual

From: Wim Nusselder (
Date: Fri Feb 21 2003 - 22:35:08 GMT

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    Dear Sam (and David B.),

    You asked David B. 15 Feb 2003 23:28:54 -0000:
    'what ... constitutes the "necessity of the social level"? ... what social
    institutions, customs - rituals?? - etc
    etc are needed in order to preserve or develop a functioning intellectual

    David B. answered 15 Feb 2003 18:02:58 -0700:
    'It's what makes us human, more than animals. It's what allows us to think
    and talk, gives us our desires and
    conceptual categories, ideas of rights and wrong. It's most of what we are.
    It's as necessary as the body.'

    You go on asking 16 Feb 2003 18:38:31 -0000:
    'Are all those ... elements ... products of fertilization from the
    intellectual level, or are they intrinsic to the social?'

    David B. answered 16 Feb 2003 15:07:19 -0700:
    'they are products of the social level ... All languages, civilizations,
    societies, myths, morals, religions and rituals are products of the social
    level. It's huge and ancient. It is everything about us that is neither
    animal nor intellectual. It's everything that makes us human.'

    You come to the point 18 Feb 2003 16:39:29 -0000:
    'how do *you* understand intellect to be separated from all that?'

    I don't think the social level as David describes it can be properly
    separated from the intellectual level (not to be confused with
    'intellect' or 'intelligence' understood as biological capacities of our
    species). Pirsig's descriptions aren't much better.
    If Pirsig writes in chapter 30 of 'Lila':
    'These rituals may be the connecting link between the social and
    intellectual levels of evolution. One can imagine primitive song-rituals and
    dance-rituals associated with certain cosmology stories, myths, which
    generated the first primitive religions. From these the first intellectual
    truths could have been derived. If ritual always comes first and
    intellectual principles always come later, then ritual cannot always be a
    decadent corruption of intellect.'
    you can interpret this in different extreme ways:
    1) Religious (song- & dance-)rituals (associated with ...), being the
    connecting link between the social and intellectual levels, are the first
    intellectual patterns of values, the basis of the intellectual level (not
    just a decadent corruption of it).
    2) These rituals, along with the cosmology stories, myths and resulting
    primitive religions belong to the social level and only the intellectual
    truths derived from them belong to the intellectual level.

    I think Pirsig's definition of the intellectual level (from 'Lila's Child')
    as 'the collection and manipulation of symbols, created in the brain, that
    stand for patterns of experience' would indicate the first interpretation is
    closest to what he -in retrospect- meant. The cosmology stories, myths and
    primitive religions and maybe even the rituals themselves can clearly be
    understood as 'symbols that stand for patterns of experience'.

    My way of separating the social and intellectual level in the context of
    this Pirsig quote is that such rituals -being a kind of 'machine language
    interface'- belong BOTH to the social level (when interpreted as unthinking
    behavior copied between generations in processes focussed on seeking
    'status/celebrity') AND to the intellectual level (when interpreted as
    symbolizing/referring to experience outside the rituals themselves, e.g.
    hunting experiences, the experience of seasonal rhythms, experience of birth
    and death etc.). They are in Pirsig's words from chapter 12 of 'Lila': 'a
    tiny isthmus of information', BOTH a 'final achievement toward which [the
    lower level] aims', a 'design goal', AND 'the lowest element of the lowest
    level [patterns of the next higher level]'. 'Even in this narrow isthmus
    between these two sets of static patterns ... there [is] still no direct
    interchange of meaning. The same machine language instruction [is] a
    completely different entity within two different sets of patterns.'
    It's a pity that Pirsig in chapter 12 only compared his
    hardware-software-novel analogy only with 'trying to explain social moral
    patterns in terms of inorganic chemistry patterns' and not with the
    relation -over two 'machine level interfaces'- between intellectual patterns
    of value and biological patterns of value. He didn't even mention what is
    the 'machine level interface' between biological and social patterns of
    value. So we have to choose for ourselves. My choice (for the interface
    between social and intellectual patterns of values) is both rituals and
    symbolic language (e.g. the letters that are forming this text).

    Returning to your first question (and broadening it somewhat): What in each
    level is needed to preserve or develop the next level?
    Carbon compounds (and more specifically DNA and proteins) from the inorganic
    level are needed for the biological level, for 'life' to develop.
    Elementary behaviors that have no rigid ('hardwired') relations with
    previous behaviors or with outside circumstances from the biological level
    are needed for the social level, for 'status' to develop.
    Complex patterns of unthinking behavior that have no direct survival value
    from the social level are needed for the intellectual level, for 'meaning'
    to develop.

    With friendly greetings,


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