MF Concluding Remarks

From: Matt Kundert (
Date: Sat Oct 30 2004 - 19:24:23 BST

  • Next message: David Buchanan: "RE: MF Discussion Topic for October 2004"

    To sum up my story:

    I maintain that the road to modern philosophy (and Descartes in particular)
    was begun by Plato's attempt to combine Euclid's geometrical method with
    Socrates' conversational style, or to put it another way, as Rorty says, his
    attempt to combine the Greek's love of argumentation with their love of
    wisdom. The earlier Greek philosophers had taken the first tentative steps
    by attempting to assert what was really going on behind the appearences
    (which Parmenides made explicit). But Plato took the decisive step by
    arguing that we needed something to decide between all these
    competing hypotheses. Plato's alteration of Socrates' dialectic from a
    searching conversation between several people into a method by which Truth
    is ascertained was the push needed to solidify method's grip over
    philosophy, taking us down the path towards epistemological priority. It
    only stalled in the bed because Aristotle's philosophy, with its emphasis on
    practical wisdom, took hold of the Romans' minds, before all of it tumbled
    into obscurity for a thousand years.

    The rise of Descartes marked the rise epistemology. Richard Popkin argues
    that Descartes, like Plato before him, was involved in a program of
    cooptation. The patriarch of Renaissance philosophy was Montaigne. He
    exemplified the skeptical tradition of Pyrrho that had blended with
    Aristotle's philosophy. Descartes took this skepticism and pushed it
    towards his own ends. By coopting something like the skeptical devices used
    by these earlier philosophers, Descartes tried to say something positive.
    He used it as a method to reach his Archimedean foundation. The actual
    skeptics during this time were outraged that Descartes would call his
    philosophy "skeptical." Pyrrhonian skepticism doesn't say anything
    positive, it only provides the negative point that maybe we shouldn't be
    trying to say those positive things. They vigorously attacked Descartes,
    but to no avail. As Toulmin likes to say, "Descartes' coup d'etat" was
    complete and his program of philosophy captured the imaginations of European

    Between Descartes and Locke, modern philosophy saw the rise of what Quine
    calls the "idea idea," the idea that we have ideas over here in the mind and
    the material world out there. This was the first step towards divorcing man
    from the world, observer from the observed, subject from object. Rorty
    suggests that, if we accept Descartes' representational problematic (as
    opposed to sticking to Berkeley's dictum "ideas can only represent other
    ideas"), modern philosophy can be seen as a series of attempts at trying to
    get the subject and object back together. This is why Pirsig can be seen to
    have so many superficial similarities with 19th century philosophers
    (particularly Hegel), because the "subject/object" idiom was in vogue after
    Kant put his stamp on philosophy. However, this idiom never really took
    that strong a hold in Britain. The beginning of the divorce between
    Anglophone philosophy and Continental philosophy was with the rise of
    linguistic philosophy. The triumph of Russell over Anglo-American
    philosophy was matched by Husserl's triumph over Continental. In the
    subsequent decades, analytic philosophers began focusing more and more on
    matters that were dry and remote, stuff that simply seemed "academic" to
    laypeople, talk about predication, modal logic, etc. It didn't have the
    world-historical verve and romance that Kant and Hegel gave to Continental
    philosophy, which continued in mutated form the subject/object idiom. But
    despite these superficial differences, _both_ idioms have held to an
    essentially Cartesian picture of philosophy. Many of the most important
    philosophers in the late 20th century have been able to transcend the
    differences in idioms and show how paradigmatic philosophers like Donald
    Davidson and Jacques Derrida are making essentially the same points.

    Why the long story? Because I think by the end of it we can begin to see
    why Pirsig's SOM raised so many hackles. I contend that SOM is the product
    of Plato and Descartes, but it is the divergence in philosophy since Kant
    (either towards Hegel or towards Frege) that tells us something about the
    reception of Pirsig's philosophy. Pirsig is reacting to the logical
    positivists, a camp of Anglophone philosophers (despite the most famous ones
    being German), but he assigns the problem dramatic importance, which is
    entirely Continental in demeaner. This is why we get Galen Strawson going,
    "What the hell are you talking about?" Its not that SOM as a target misses
    its mark, or is completely incoherent, its that analytic philosophers can't
    imagine why Pirsig talks about it like its a world-historical conspiracy.
    Foucault and other Continental philosophers, however, would have been
    perfectly happy with the kind of spin Pirsig puts on the story.

    I hope the above ties up some of the loose threads that began to wander
    around during this month's conversation. As the MF is here to ask a
    question and have it answered one way or the other, my answer is a qualified
    "Yes, SOM is just another name for Cartesianism." But I also think its just
    another name for Platonism and Kantianism. The reason is that I think SOM
    is just one more signifier for a tradition that stretches from the beginning
    of philosophy to our current stage. The original battle lines were drawn
    between rhetoric and dialectic, and though the battles have changed over the
    years, essentially the same war is being fought. One of the great facets
    about intellectual history is that at every stage in the sequence, we always
    find a Sophist, or Pyrrhonian skeptic, or pragmatist to counter the
    Platonist, Cartesian, or Kantian.


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