Sunday, April 8, 2012

Further Reflections on Quality

Looking back over the monstrosity I have just produced, I think that I did not remotely do the topic justice.  Of course, given that the topic centers on the origins of value and the nature of the universe, maybe nobody could.  But more importantly, I think the whole thing came off kind of negative in a way that doesn't really reflect what I thought.  Actually, I thoroughly enjoyed both books, and thought that they were quite incredible.  They certainly really, really made me think, and in reading them I came to a lot of realizations that I might not have come to any other way.  So, if you're out there reading this Mr. Pirsig, please don't think that I was trying to tear your efforts down or anything like that.  It really is quite a fantastic piece of thought that you have captured there.

Thinking about it more, I also realized a few things which I did not explicitly see the first time through.  Probably the main one is that neither Pirsig nor Plato could ever explicitly define the subject of their writings -- quality and virtue, respectively.  I can't define them, either.  And yet, all three of us can write quite intelligently about them and could have a conversation about them and understand one another.

I don't think that's a trivial thing.  The whole cloud of ideas swirling about the distinction between Romantic and Classical philosophy turns on the notion of definition, and yet, without being able to define ideas it is perfectly feasible to discuss them in an intelligent manner.  And where Classical thought tends to assume that it must begin at definitions and then commence into discussion, here one finds two perfectly clear examples where the discussion comes at the beginning, and for all appearances may continue on indefinitely, and definitions may or may not crystallize out of them.  Operating without clear definitions seems to be a perfectly reasonable and practical thing to do, much as it may make the logic-mongers cringe.

So, perhaps Pirsig's inability to define quality really isn't a big deal and shouldn't have been so much a focus of my criticism.  In reality, to philosophize is to form abstractions about reality, and part of that is dividing things up (i.e., defining them) in ways that are useful for illustrating a point or exploring a dynamic, but are themselves inherently without any real meaning as far as concrete reality is concerned.  Definition, like abstraction, is a tool for perceiving reality, not reality itself, and if it is stirring up controversy in one's thoughts, that is precisely because one is letting his thoughts be dominated by the abstractions themselves, rather than submitting his thoughts to earnestly capturing the truths of reality he is seeking to explore.  In other words, he has become an ideologue, or a sophist, and no amount of wordplay and logical convolution will ever save his thoughts once they have fallen into this tar pit. 

It seems that perhaps the whole definition thing may be the very most difficult part of philosophy precisely because it is the most unnecessary...a fact which makes me wonder if the dictionary is possibly the most presumptuous book ever written.


Lastly, I think that I will be avoiding this topic for awhile.  Alas, my tube of toothpaste is being squeezed from both ends, and I find that I cannot do these topics of justice without a great deal of further reading -- precisely at a time when I find it difficult just to produce a few posts per month.

I had been rather rigorously following a schedule of reading about three books per month for the last couple of years, but now I find that I can't possibly keep that up anymore.  So, I am committing this year to a (hopefully) more realistic goal of:
  • Finishing off the works of Plato
  • Reading Man, Economy, and State by Murray Rothbard
  • Reading Human Action by Ludwig von Mises
  • Reading the King James version of the Bible
I kind of think that even this is unrealistic, but at this point I absolutely have to prioritize, or my attention will wander off into other things and I won't make any real progress.

I think that if I don't start really reading the foundational books of these kinds of subjects, I'm just wasting my time writing about them.  I spend a great deal of time constructing what appears to me to be a useful abstraction (such as the 'seen' and 'unseen' economy, for example), only to find that somebody else has constructed something far more elegant and more encompassing.  If I'd just read the durn books, I would be way ahead of the game.

So, no more philosophy for awhile, except maybe some of the informal sort which doesn't attempt such vast enterprises.

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