Sunday, April 1, 2012
Reflections on 'Quality,' part V
I think now that I can look at Pirsig's abstraction, and at my own notion of an ideal, and make some useful conclusions about them.
First, I do think that Pirsig's criticisms are useful and of merit, but that he is unreasonable to think that Eastern approaches offer a way out of the dilemma. Michael Oakeshott also tries to avoid some of these problems by avoiding the act of definition. Rather than defining what he is talking about, he chooses to merely 'describe,' thereby avoiding potential limitations to his subject matter or imposing an artificial 'officiality' that isn't warranted.
If he is only trying to use this approach to compensate a bit for the dilemma of imposing artificial divisions on reality for the sake of being able to reason about it, or to reflect the fact that any such categorizing of things must necessarily be rather roughly done in the real world, then I think it is quite useful and has much to recommend it. But if he thinks that he has actually beaten the problem by this approach, then I think he is mistaken. Description is nothing but a sort of 'fuzzy,' open-ended definition. It may serve to remind the thinker that he is not doing analytic geometry with human beings, and that situations are more fluid and complex than some rigid system of definitional hierarchy would imply, but in its essence it is hardly any different from the Classical approach. It is still to separate 'this from that,' just in a looser way.
Their failure to escape the Classical net with their philosophical innovations does not detract from their ideas, however. I think that many of Pirsig's abstractions have a great deal of merit. His 'value-ratchet' created by the interplay of dynamic and static values is a very interesting mental image, as is his notion of categorization on the basis of value as opposed to substance. Certainly these approaches could provide insight into a great many situations. But as he was shooting for a very broad applicability -- his metaphysics of quality is one of those 'theories-of-everything' -- it should be expected that this abstraction will probably have limited utility in specific situations, just as any broadly useful tool will likely be outperformed in any specific situation by a more specialized tool designed especially for that job.
That, really, was all that my mathematical analogy of an ideal was about. I took a very general abstraction and tried to 'increase its resolution' and specificity, so that it could account for a specific situation which appeared to pose a conundrum. If my notion of 'value' and his aren't quite the same, well, that is only to be expected. We were considering different philosophical problems, and I doubt that my abstraction would be appropriate to his situation or vice versa. He was trying to account for all of reality, and I was only concerned with beauty pageants and the notion of 'the best.'
As to virtue, I don't think I ever really left the Classical model of things. Not that I really think that such a thing is possible, at this point. Romantic philosophy might try to criticize the Classical sort, but as even Persig would admit, when pressed to make its own assertions, it must resort to the same approaches. I think the distinction is more one of style than of substance.
One point on which I think we really did depart in a meaningful way, however, is in terms of transcendence. He identifies his notion of quality with the Tao. Quality ultimately comes from some undefined, unnamed source. But even as he does so, as I remarked before, he too often takes his impressions to be reality itself, merely because they are reality to him. His aversion to specificity of language and to real thought of the Tao itself, as well as the residue his insecurities impose on his thoughts and expression, leave me wondering what his notion of the ideal -- or the Tao, or value -- really is, even after reading two whole books about it. Saying things like "value is the 'cutting edge' of experience" doesn't help. It doesn't mean anything.
I am more inclined to question my impressions because I do believe in a sort of 'Absolute Subjective' -- a transcendent source of 'objective virtue.' Thus there is an Absolute Quality or Virtue or Ideal, independent of myself about which I may be incorrect in my opinions and impressions.
Virtue is of the heavens. I see no logical way around it. I'm inclined to sympathize with Plato broadly, if not specifically on some matters, in saying that notions of the ideal come to man from transcendent, eternal realms, and to which I would add that man is connected and his understanding of it is real, but flawed and corrupted. Again, I can't really say whether Pirsig would agree with that, but he doesn't show the symptoms of it. He seems to think that value is embedded in reality as almost a physical presence without being specific about how it got there. And again, these thoughts are abstractions. Reality is no doubt more complex, and there is much which is important that my abstractions do not capture.
The only thing I did was inquire into a few specific properties of these ideals. I created room in old notions for discrepancies with what I consider to be a slight modification. Older ideas seem to take ideals to be singular points of perfection, while I suggested that they might be complex functions which encompass more than one possibility, in a sort of similar way that the phenomenon of energetic degeneracy erupts from the equations of quantum mechanics. The 'problem' of atomic orbitals are often simultaneously satisfied by different combinations of quantum numbers, so that even though the orbitals described by these quantum numbers are different and distinguishable, they are energetically equivalent. My endeavor was really rather piddling, and doesn't seem to me to have much of a subjective-objective component. It is all objective to me, it just creates room for variety and allows for differences in taste, which I suppose is something generally associated with subjectivity, but perhaps need not be.
One way in which this really might bear on the subject-object problem is if those complex functions depend on the thing being evaluated itself. Do ideals depend on, for example, one's own opinions of them, or one's own characteristics, such as when I argued that an ideal government for ancient Greeks might be different from one for modern Americans?
I confess that I have trouble thinking about this problem, and a lot of that I suspect is due to the way one generally thinks about the notions of ideal, subjective, objective, and the various properties that generally attach to them in thought. The word 'ideal' can be taken to mean many different things, and 'objective' and 'subjective' tend to come with a lot of baggage.
If I say that an ideal government depends on the nature of the people which will be subject to it, is this to say that the ideal being referred to is subjective? I think not. Firstly, 'ideal' here should be taken to mean 'the best realistically possible' and not some kind of absolute human utopia. That kind of thing is not really the subject of Plato's Republic or Laws, is not possible and probably not much worth thinking about. Plato's writings are certainly about ideal governments, but they deal with real people and the problems that real human nature create. Many of his schemes are designed to thwart the flaws and problems of human nature, and as such and are not so much based on some notion of a heavenly realm on earth, but on dealing with reality in the best way possible. They are basically to answer the question “How could one achieve maximal justice in a government given what we know about human nature?” Utopianism must always rely on perfection in nature.
Also, 'subjective' is often taken to mean 'relative,' and relative to mean not definable. But I am talking about a very well defined relationship. Certain given characteristics in a people I would expect to correspond to the same 'ideal' outcome, in every case. The relation is absolute, in other words. Absolute and relative are taken to be mutually exclusive (and they are), but here they are referring to different things. The relation is absolute, the ideal is relative to (or dependent on) the nature of the thing in question. One is relative to the other in an absolute fashion. Are mathematical equations of the sort y=f(x) relative or absolute, or subjective or objective?
It might be said that this makes the ideal subjective from the point of view of the object whose nature is the deciding element, i.e. the 'independent variable,' but I do not think that is the case. The ideal is not determined solely by the opinion of the object -- in this case, a human, as the question is one about government. The ideal is a function of 'his' properties, not his opinion except insofar as his opinion is one of his properties. A man might be of the opinion that the best government for him is socialist, but reason may indicate that, given all of his proclivities taken as a whole, he would be better off under a monarchy. Or it may side with him, if his opinion and character is such that no other will perform better over him, and even as 'the best' it still may not work out that well. But it isn't a matter of taste. I don't think that I left the objective frame of reference in my argument, it just looks as though I did because of what I was talking about. But I may be wrong about that. This is beginning to take on a specificity that is making my head spin. I'm generally better with intuitions and generalizations than specific arguments.
So, I think that maybe the point of all of this is that Pirsig 'solved' the subject-object problem (so far as he did solve it, anyway) by attempting to eliminate the distinction as far as possible and embedding the notion of value into the stuff of reality itself, while I basically dissolved it in a mathematical analogy.
But I'm not sure that that is so impressive.