MD Intellectual level - New letter from Pirsig

From: Paul Turner (
Date: Mon Sep 29 2003 - 16:52:03 BST

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    Hi all

    I wrote to Robert Pirsig to ask for a clarification on the MOQ
    definition of the intellectual level; when he speculates it might have
    begun; and the exclusion of oriental intellect and the MOQ from the
    intellectual level if it is limited to an extension of Greek philosophy.

    I received a reply on 27th September which I include in full below.
    Interestingly, Pirsig mentions the infamous "intellectually nowhere"
    line in Lila. I didn't ask about it in particular but his comments might
    resolve the confusion on what that statement means (I have DMB and
    Steve's discussion in mind here).

    BO AND PLATT: I think your discussions about Bo's "solution" are pretty
    well supported by this letter.

    BO: I may add that I find little to disagree with in your "solution"
    post and I will be reading Julian Jaynes to see in more depth where you
    are coming from in terms of the "transition". I am pleased to see that
    you accept the "manipulation of symbols" definition of the intellectual
    level by linking it to language. I now hope you can see that the MOQ
    does not require a level of its own, but I will return to debate the
    finer points of your solution once I've finished the Jaynes book.





    The question you raise about the intellectual level has troubled me too.
    When I answered Dan Glover in Lila's Child, I remember being a little
    annoyed that anyone should ask what the intellectual level is-as though
    he were asking me what I mean by the word, "the." Any definition you
    give is more likely to complicate understanding than simplify it. But
    since then I have seen the question grow because the answer I have given
    is inadequate.

    First of all, the line that, "Biologically [Lila's] fine, socially she's
    pretty far down the scale, intellectually she's nowhere. . ." did not
    mean that Lila was lying on the cabin floor unconscious, although some
    interpretations of the intellectual level would make it seem so. Like so
    many words, "intellectual" has different meanings that are confused. The
    first confusion is between the social title, "Intellectual," and the
    intellectual level itself. The statement, "Some intellectuals are not
    intellectual at all," becomes meaningful when one recognizes this
    difference. I think now that the statement "intellectually she's
    nowhere," could have been more exactly put: "As an intellectual Lila is
    nowhere." That would make it clearer that the social title was referred
    to and the dispute about her intellectuality would not have arisen.

    Another subtler confusion exists between the word, "intellect," that can
    mean thought about anything and the word, "intellectual," where abstract
    thought itself is of primary importance. Thus, though it may be assumed
    that the Egyptians who preceded the Greeks had intellect, it can be
    doubted that theirs was an intellectual culture.

    When getting into a definition of the intellectual level much clarity
    can be gained by recognizing a parallel with the lower levels. Just as
    every biological pattern is also inorganic, but not all inorganic
    patterns are biological; and just as every social level is also
    biological, although not all biological patterns are social; so every
    intellectual pattern is social although not all social patterns are
    intellectual. Handshaking, ballroom dancing, raising one's right hand to
    take an oath, tipping one's hat to the ladies, saying "Gesundheit!"
    after a sneeze-there are trillions of social customs that have no
    intellectual component. Intellectuality occurs when these customs as
    well as biological and inorganic patterns are designated with a sign
    that stands for them and these signs are manipulated independently of
    the patterns they stand for. "Intellect" can then be defined very
    loosely as the level of independently manipulable signs. Grammar, logic
    and mathematics can be described as the rules of this sign manipulation.

    Just when the evolution of the intellectual level from the social level
    took place in history can only be speculated on. I certainly wasn't
    there when it happened. Julian Jaynes', "The Origin of Consciousness in
    the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," has impressed me, but other
    speculation seems valid. Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, could be the
    pivotal point. Maybe Solomon. Maybe the early Greek philosophers. Who
    knows? But if one studies the early books of the Bible or if one studies
    the sayings of primitive tribes today, the intellectual level is
    conspicuously absent. The world is ruled by Gods who follow social and
    biological patterns and nothing else.

    There has been a tendency to extend the meaning of "social" down into
    the biological with the assertion that, for example, ants are social,
    but I have argued that this extends the meaning to a point where it is
    useless for classification. I said that even atoms can be called
    societies of electrons and protons. And since everything is thus social,
    why even have the word? I think the same happens to the term,
    "intellectual," when one extends it much before the Ancient Greeks.* If
    one extends the term intellectual to include primitive cultures just
    because they are thinking about things, why stop there? How about
    chimpanzees? Don't they think? How about earthworms? Don't they make
    conscious decisions? How about bacteria responding to light and
    darkness? How about chemicals responding to light and darkness? Our
    intellectual level is broadening to a point where it is losing all its
    meaning. You have to cut it off somewhere, and it seems to me the
    greatest meaning can be given to the intellectual level if it is
    confined to the skilled manipulation of abstract symbols that have no
    corresponding particular experience and which behave according to rules
    of their own.

    I'm not sure if all of this defines the intellectual level any better
    than before, or if any such definition is useful. It may be that the
    intellectual level cannot describe itself any better than an eye can
    directly see itself, but has to find itself in mirrors of one sort or
    another. In a scientific materialist mirror there is no such thing as
    intellect since it has no mass or energy that can be objectively
    measured. From a philosophic idealist viewpoint there is nothing but
    intellect. From a Zen viewpoint it is a part of the world of everyday
    affairs that one leaves behind upon becoming enlightened and then
    rediscovers from a Buddha's point of view. But for anyone who really
    wants to know what intellect is I think definitions are not the place to
    start. Since definitions are a part of the intellectual level the only
    person who will understand a definition of intellect is a person who
    already is intellectual and thus has the answer before he ever asks.

    Perhaps you can pass all this along to the Lila Squad with the caveat
    that this is not a Papal Bull, as some would have it, or just plain
    bull, as others will see it, but merely another opinion on the subject
    that it is hoped will help.

    * The argument that Oriental cultures would not be classified as
    intellectual is avoided by pointing out that the Oriental cultures
    developed an intellectual level independently of the Greeks during the
    Upanishadic period of India at about 1000 to 600 B.C. (These dates may
    be off.) The argument that the MOQ is not an intellectual formulation
    but some kind of other level is not clear to me. There is nothing in the
    MOQ that I know of that leads to this conclusion.


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