Re: MF Discussion Topic for October 2004

From: Valence (
Date: Fri Oct 29 2004 - 06:24:47 BST

  • Next message: Glenn Bradford: "Re: MF Discussion Topic for October 2004"

    Hey Sam, Matt, Glenn and all,
    I've been really busy this month but I just wanted to get a few brief words
    in before the discussion ends....

    Sam asked:
    Is 'subject-object metaphysics' just another word for Cartesianism? If not,
    is there another description of it that might be recognised by the academic

    then added...

    From the first google website enquiry on Cartesianism: "The central idea of
    Cartesianism is that the mind is separate from the body and that the mind
    can be better and more fully understood than the body. One's essential
    identity is one's mind and the interior processes of the mind have more
    reality than the physical processes of the body. It follows from this that
    what you think (subjectivity) is more important than anything outside you in
    the physical world (objectivity); from this would be developed the
    Enlightenment concept of the subject."

    Matt answered:
    .. I would want to take "modern philosophy" to mean the desire to do
    epistemology, the thought that the skeptic needs to be answered rather than
    bypassed. I would want to take "Cartesianism" in the wide sense to be
    synonymous with modern philosophy, or in a restricted sense to be some form
    of the thesis that certainty proceeds from the mind (this would extend
    "rationalism" to include Descartes to Kant to Chomsky). In these general
    terms, SOM in the wide, Greek-as-target sense is synonymous with modern
    philosophy, though I think its ambiguous as to whether Pirsig is modern or
    post-modern then (I think there is evidence for both). On the other hand,
    SOM in its more restricted, logical-positivist-as-target sense is not
    synonymous with the specific sense of Cartesianism because the logical
    positivist (and therefore SOM) is already post-Cartesian (though I wouldn't
    be surprised if there remained a few Cartesian remenants in Pirsig).

    I agree with Matt that the jury is still out on whether Pirsig is modern or
    post-modern and I think that alternative interpretations of SOM must arise
    depending on which category one places Pirsig in. If Pirsig is seen as
    post-modern, then SOM is easily identified with the tradition(s) of
    Modernism (and with Cartesianism to the extent that that term is synonymous
    with Modernism). But if Pirsig himself is a part of the Modern tradition,
    then SOM must be restricted, in one way or another, to some subset of the
    modern tradition (possibly this one that "proceeds from the mind" as Matt

    Glenn answered:
    Finding a useful, near-equivalent academic term for
    SOM is fruitless because SOM is a hodgepodge of ideas
    (idealism AND materialism, for example) without a
    philosophical compass that no one could completely
    agree with. SOM is not a metaphysics, it is a
    rhetorical device.

    Philosophical conversations are typically framed as arguments and the use of
    rhetorical devices is certainly nothing new in argumentation. Pirsig's SOM
    is virtually indistinguishable from the Sophist interlocutors of Plato's
    Socratic dialogues. Plato's Sophists were caricatures of contemporary
    figures making arguments tailored to allow Plato to exhibit his
    philosophical ideas (by proxy, through the character of Socrates). SOM is
    the interlocutor who supplies the answer Pirsig needs to steer the
    conversation towards the issues he wants to talk about (through the
    character of Phaedrus).

    And like Pirsig's SOM encompasses disparate philosophical ideas (e.g.
    idealism AND materialism), Plato's Sophists often advocated mutually
    exclusive points of view (i.e. ethical relativism AND instruction in
    virtue). But Plato wanted to answer both the Sophists who taught ethical
    relativism and the ones who claimed to be teachers of virtue so he united
    his philosophical enemies based on what he saw as their common factor,
    namely, an emphasis on the study of rhetoric. Pirsig wanted to object to
    both the idealists and the materialists (inter alia), so he united his
    philosophical enemies based on what he saw as a common factor, namely, the
    axiomatic acceptance of an initial metaphysical dichotomy between mind and

    Now to a certain extent, using hodgepodges and abbreviations of broad and
    diverse bodies of thought is going to be literarily unavoidable for authors
    like Plato and Pirsig simply because of their respective styles. Plato
    wrote in dialogue, Pirsig in narrative style. Neither style would have
    benefited much from interminably protracted discussions of background
    material (imagine if Pirsig had to fully explain each and every individual
    philosophy he discusses, references, alludes to, implies. LILA would be as
    long as the Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Both simply had to cut corners and
    create "composites" (for lack of a better term) of vast elements of
    philosophical tradition that set them up to make their respective points.

    But let's be honest here, these guys aren't just philosophers, they're also
    salesman (and I'm sure it's no coincidence that Pirsig and Plato are the
    best selling authors in the history of philosophy). They're not just trying
    to explain their ideas, they're trying to persuade you to believe them and
    convince you to act upon them. I don't believe anyone was ever meant to
    agree with the Sophists who appeared in the dialogues, and I don't think
    anyone was ever meant to agree with SOM. On the contrary, I think people
    were meant to disagree with them. Painting clear and flattering pictures of
    all of the particular philosophies and philosophers grouped under the banner
    of SOM is no more Pirsig's task than painting clear and flattering pictures
    of the Sophists was Plato's. Plato was trying to destroy the Sophists, not
    be their lawyer. He believed something important was on the line (Truth)
    and wanted to get people on his side. Simply responding to the Sophists'
    ideas wouldn't do. He wanted to blend the distinctions between the various
    Sophists, homogenize their image as a bunch of immoral slicksters, and
    generally make them look like a bunch of ignorant asses. He was fighting
    against eons of tradition and used every means at his disposal to damage his
    enemy. He wanted people to be horrified by the moral retardation he
    depicted in the Sophists and recoil into his open rhetorical arms. Pirsig
    sees himself as fighting against a similarly ingrained tradition and also
    believes something important is on the line (Quality). Like Plato, he uses
    every weapon in the orator's arsenal to attack his enemies and to win people
    to his side (plug---Matt's newest essay to the forum opines Pirsig's use of
    Populism to win converts).

    So I think the question is whether we should condemn Pirsig and Plato for
    their occasionally muddled and consistently unflattering portraits of their
    respective enemies. Plato's reputation doesn't seem to have been severely
    tarnished by his caricatures of the Sophists (no doubt because even
    intellectual history is written by the victor). And on one hand, I
    understand the urge to characterize these kinds of unflattering composites
    as "strawmen" arguments designed only to be attacked. On the other hand,
    just because a boxer practices on a punching bag that can't fight back doesn
    't mean that his fists won't be devastating to a real opponent.

    But to answer Sam's actual question about whether there is a description of
    SOM that might be recognized by the academic community I would think that
    Glenn is still right in saying that there probably isn't. Pirsig's thoughts
    on the SOM are often hard to separate from his criticisms of professional
    academia (i.e. the philosophologists, the Church of Reason, the Aristotelian
    laughter, etc). He sees SOM as being deeply ingrained into the academic
    community and so I'm inclined to think that we're no more likely to get
    academia to accept the hodgepodge that is SOM (under any name) than we are
    to get Gorgias to accept Plato's hodgepodge of the Sophists.

    take care

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