MF Towards a Narrative of SOM

From: Matt Kundert (
Date: Sat Oct 23 2004 - 17:05:32 BST

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    Sam asked two questions a couple weeks ago to stimulate discussion: 1) what
    is the Greeks' relation to SOM? and 2) is Pirsig consistently non-SOM in his
    thinking? If you've followed my posts in the past two years, clearly my
    answer is no to the second question. The assumption that has guided my
    inquiries has been that Pirsig's SOM is sufficiently like the
    appearance/reality distinction to warrant a charge of inconsistency (or as I
    like to put it, to force us to make a choice between two irreconcilable
    Pirsigs). To properly answer the second question, though, we need a close
    textual analysis of Pirsig's varied uses of SOM. And then to relate it to
    the focus of the month, we need to travel through the first question.
    Though I've made more than a few suggestions about how I see SOM hanging
    together, what I haven't done is package it all together. I won't be doing
    that here (if you want a quick gloss on how I see Pirsig's relation to
    philosophy, see my recently posted review of Thomas Op de Coul's essay,
    "Herds of Platypi?"). To fully succeed in the aforementioned task we need
    1) a close textual analysis of SOM, 2) a narrative of philosophy to situate
    SOM, and 3) an evaluation of how Pirsig fits into this narrative.

    To fulfill 2 and 3, I would suggest looking at the way Pirsig lines up Truth
    and dialectic on one side and the Good and rhetoric on the other. Pirsig's
    analysis of Plato, I think, is dead on. He says that Plato ostensibly sets
    the Good as the highest Form, as the highest principle in his system. But
    if you look closer, the highest principle is subservient to the dialectic
    because the dialectic is how the Good is discovered. Dialectic, or Method,
    attains priority over the Good. I would suggest that this analysis gives us
    the first suggestion that epistemology must have priority over metaphysics,
    though this became apparent (or at least pressing) to philosophers only
    after Descartes. I think the historical reasons for this, and its run up to
    contemporary times, are excellently given by Stephen Toulmin in his
    Cosmopolis. In the absence of his book, I would give this passage from the
    end that should have no small amount of resonance with Pirsigians

    "Throughout history, the development of philosophy has displayed a sequence
    of pendulum swings between two rival agendas. On one agenda, the task of
    philosophy is to analyze all subjects in _wholly general_ terms; on the
    other, it is to give _as general an account_ as the nature of the field
    allows. Theoretically minded Platonists speculate freely, framing broad
    generalizations about human knowledge; practical-minded Aristotelians
    hesitate to claim universality in advance of actual experience. So read,
    the move from 16th-century humanism to 17th-century exact science was a
    swing from the practical, Aristotelian agenda, to a Platonist agenda, aimed
    at theorectical answers. The dream of 17th-century philosophy and science
    was Plato's demand for _episteme_, or _theoretical grasp_: the facts of
    20th-century science and philosophy rest on Aristotle's _phronesis_, or
    _practical wisdom_. When Wittgenstein and Rorty argue that philosophy today
    is at "the end of the road", they are overdramatizing the situation. The
    present state of the subject marks the return from a theory-centered
    conception, dominated by a concern for _stability_ and _rigor_, to a renewed
    acceptance of practice, which requires us to _adapt_ action to the special
    demands of particular occasions."

    At this point, I can give a small suggestion about Sam's second question: is
    Pirsig consistently non-SOM? I would simply point out that in ZMM, he
    attempted to attain a balance between Phaedrus (who was "a Platonist by
    temperament") and the narrator (who was "pretty much Aristotelian in this
    sense"), but Part IV of the book centers almost entirely on Phaedrus'
    Platonic obessions. The end of the book sees the Platonic Phaedrus
    triumphing psychically over the narrator and in Lila, of course, there is no
    narrator, only Phaedrus. I think Pirsig's mistake was to gradually
    overemphasize his theoretical obsessions in place of his practical
    aspirations and this plays out thematically in his books and particularly in
    his creation of a systematic, wholly general "Metaphysics of Quality".


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