RE: MF Discussion Topic for December 2003

From: David Buchanan (
Date: Sun Dec 07 2003 - 01:02:35 GMT

  • Next message: Patrick van den Berg: "Re: MF Discussion Topic for December 2003"

    Dear focus group:

    Sam's thesis for discussion: "Pirsig's conception of the intellect, as
    expressed most recently in his letter to Paul Turner of 27 September 2003,
    is incoherent and unsustainable."

    Sam said:
    My contention is that the understanding of intellect offered by RMP *cannot*
    work in the way that is required for an adequate description of the fourth
    level. The key element in my argument here is that 'intellect' as such has
    no independent power of decision making ... it comes from an interaction
    with our emotions and personal history, as embodied in the various
    physionomic responses and interactions between viscera and brain - and
    therefore it
    cannot act as the 'choosing unit' within the fourth level.

    dmb says:
    Machine language interface? Choosing unit? I'm not sure I understand what
    that's all about or why such things are required for Pirsig's concept of
    intellect to be coherent. But it might help to simply point out that Pirsig
    never asserts that intellect is independent from the rest of our humanity.
    As he puts it, we are "a complex forest of static patterns" from all of the
    levels. I'm pretty sure he'd freely admit that each of the levels plays a
    role in our decision making. His expanded brand of empiricism asserts that
    our knowledge begins with the biological senses. In chapter 30 he says that
    the MOQ asserts "that intellectual static patterns of quality are built up
    out of social static patterns." And in chapter 24 of Lila he explains that
    the social level also plays a role in the intellectual level.

    "Our scientific description of nature is always culturally derived. Nature
    tells us only what our culture predisposes us to hear. The selection of
    which inorganic patterns to observe and which to ignore is made on the basis
    of social patterns of value, or when it is not, on the basis of biological
    patterns of value."

    There are many quotes along these lines. I don't know that we'll find him
    using the specific terms "emotion" or "viscera", but it seems quite clear to
    me that the biological and social levels are where we'd locate such things.
    He insists that the levels are discrete, but not independent. He describes
    it several times in terms of a parent and child relationship, a
    matter-of-fact evolutionary relationship. The intellect rests upon and
    depends upon the lower levels for its very existence. "Just exactly HOW
    independent IS science, in FACT, from society?" The MOQ's answer is, "Not at

    In other words, I think your premise is mistaken and it is this mistake that
    has lead you to a false conclusion; that Pirsig's concept is incoherent.

    Sam said:
    When making this argument, and discussing it in the MD list, several
    commentators said that the definition of intellect that I was crediting to
    RMP was not in fact his intended use. That is, RMP was employing a 'broad'
    understanding of intellect, ie it was anything 'thought', and that it
    therefore included the emotions etc which are necessary for 'intellect' to
    be able to decide anything, and therefore function as a 'choosing unit'.
    However, that line of defence is not compatible with RMP's most recent
    comment that "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".

    dmb says:
    Right. Pirsig's comment dispells the notion that intellect is any kind of
    thought, including emotions and such. But using that notion to try to defeat
    your argument is just a battle of misinterpretations. I'd like to suggest
    that since the task here is to determine the coherence of Pirsig's concept
    we'd do well to focus on the things Pirsig has actually said about
    intellect. I mean, I hope we're going to discuss Pirsig's metaphysics, and
    nobody else's, in this forum.

    Sam said:
    To my mind RMP has given no account of WHAT is doing that skilled
    manipulation; and the intellect, as commonly understood and described by
    RMP, CANNOT perform that skilled manipulation.

    dmb says:
    I don't understand. If Pirsig DEFINES intellect as "the skilled manipulation
    of abstract symbols", how is it possible to assert that intellect "cannot
    perform that skilled manipulation"?

    Thanks for your time.

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