Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Re-reading Pirsig

From notes in an old journal, I know I first read Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in 1982 (it was first published in 1974). I read his second book, Lila, shortly after it came out in 1991. I recently re-read them, and I have a greater appreciation for his (idiosyncratically expressed) philosophy than I had the first time through. In fact, I think he was pretty much on the right track. (BTW, I read a recent interview with Pirsig here -- hat tip to the Market Metaphysics blog.)

What I originally absorbed from “Zen” (philosophically speaking – I should say it is also a compelling novel) was mostly negative: Pirsig saw fit to basically indict all Western philosophy. Starting with Plato and especially Aristotle, those darn philosophers broke down the ineffable mystic oneness of reality into cold bloodless conceptual categorizations and led us astray. Given my own youthful contemporaneous interest in eastern philosophy, I embraced the criticism, but didn’t really grasp any positive import from Pirsig’s proposal of “Quality” as the supreme notion: I would have been just as happy with Zen, Tao or Brahman.

Now, by the time I read Lila, I was on the same page with Pirsig regarding the deep problem of the subject-object ontological division, which seemed to lie at the root of many seemingly intractable philosophical difficulties (most obviously the mind/body problem). Around this time I was reading Continental philosophers who I thought had taken on the challenge of bridging this divide (most notably Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty). The idea I was exploring was one of activity or process as the central entity. Pirsig seemed to agree, although it seems again that Pirsig’s specific talk of “dynamic quality” or “patterns of value” still didn’t resonate. (Also, I should digress to mention that Lila is much less compelling as a novel compared to “Zen”, and much of the book consists of social commentary/cultural criticism which doesn’t inevitably follow from the philosophy IMHO).

In the intervening years since 1991, the most interesting part of philosophy to me was the debate over conscious experience in the philosophy of mind. The fact that I believe the debate points toward a panexperientialist solution is a touchstone for a lot of the discussion on this blog. And it is the idea of placing experience (or a network of experiential events) into the center of metaphysics which I think shows a tie to what Pirsig was talking about.

To see this, let’s first shift from “Quality” to “value”, which Pirsig endorses in Lila: In chapter 4 (on p.58 of my 1991 hardcover), he says “Quality was value. They were the same thing.” Well, value is inherent in an experience; it is an aspect of the intrinsically intentional first person participation in an event. Pirsig then actually identifies value with experience on p. 66: “It is an experience” (Emphasis original). Value, according to him, exists in the interaction – it is more fundamental than the subject-object division, it is “Between the subject and object…” For me, at various subsequent points in the text, if I substitute the term experience or “experiential event” for quality or value, things begin to make a lot of sense.

At various points in Lila, Pirsig explains how he thinks his perspective points to solutions to various philosophical conundrums. For example, in Chapter 8 (p.102-3): “To say ‘A causes B’ or to say that B ‘values precondition A’ is to say the same thing.” The way I put it (inspired by Gregg Rosenberg and an interpretation of QM): in addition to the effective/dispositional side of a causal event, there is equally an experiential/receptive side. Further on in the chapter he criticizes substance as a derivative and misleading ontological category, again asserting the primacy of “value”, in tune with the endorsement of an event ontology here on the blog.

And of course, arguing that value (or dynamic quality) is ontologically prior to its division into subject and object directly addresses the origin of the mind/body problem in the same spirit as panexperientialism. As he says late in the book (Ch 29, p. 365): “Pure experience cannot be called either physical or psychical: it logically precedes this distinction.”

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