Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reflections on 'Quality,' part III

This brings me to what I think is an important topic, but one rather difficult to talk about. It is one of those taboo topics which is supposed to be communicated with sly glances and nudges and laughter at just the right times, never explicitly articulated, yet anyone who doesn't understand it and perform acceptably well what it demands of him might as well be on a slow boat to China when it comes to life. And, it seems, philosophy.

Unfortunately, as one might guess, it is also deeply personal, and slights here tend to be taken very personally. My apologies in advance; I do not mean to offend Pirsig fans, or Pirsig himself for that matter, who seems like a perfectly decent guy to me. But not to discuss it would be to ignore one of the biggest elephants in the room, and perhaps deprive readers of exposure to one of the more valuable lessons of life.

What I am talking about makes appearances in all sorts of discussions of social situations. It is the heart of Thorstein Veblen's theories of economics. It is the reason young lovers are nervous with one another, especially before they have 'officially' become lovers. It is the source of stage-fright as well as the desire of the limelight. It is the central issue of the topic of 'game,' the prime currency of the PUA (Pick-Up Artist, for you squares out there...).

It finds temples to itself in such places as bars and nightclubs, frathouses and corporate headquarters, and worship in the form of throbbing club music and the posturing and preening and other forms of ego-masturbation that go on in such places -- and, if we're honest, in practically every moment of our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. It saturates practically every aspect of human life, influencing behaviors as basic as the position and movement of the eyes. It is practically an involuntary aspect of human behavior -- almost all human behavior, and certainly all social behavior.

It goes by many names and descriptors -- social-status, confidence, self-esteem, etc. Christians call its core the principle sin -- pride. Many theorists have written on the topic, though most of the best seem to be of the amateur, fringe, or freelance sort because it comes too close to very delicate truths that people would rather not discuss in public, and wouldn't be good for a career. Much of this writing is worthwhile, though I'm not convinced that I've ever encountered the definitive work on the subject. Personally, I think it is the dynamic that is the basis and animating force of the Satanic hierarchy that dominates the affairs of 'the world.' But hey, you know, whatever.

If a person violates the highly circumscribed system of social rules that exist to respect human ego-bubbles, as in, slighting or insulting someone, or 'putting his foot in his mouth' or 'stepping on someone's toes' he will rapidly find himself experiencing what Pirsig might call a 'low-value' social situation. The perpetrator won't like it. But if anybody really wants to see people get angry, ignoring it altogether and behaving as if it does not exist will usually do the trick. Even people who intellectually would say that they despise this phenomenon will be driven to rage by such behavior. They positively can't help it -- it's hardwired into them.

Unfortunately, there is a substantial fraction of the population which has difficulty 'taking the hint' and is insensitive to these things in some critical regards, and, unfortunately, Pirsig seems to be one of them.

He seems to be somewhat aware of this phenomenon and its influence to at least a degree, discussing it obliquely as a pattern of 'celebrity.' But this discussion is highly fragmented and incomplete; clearly, if he were more aware of it he would have realized how central it must be to the apparent human experience of quality in social settings -- a rather important slice of experience for most of us. He is not completely 'socially retarded;' on some points he seems to be quite astute, able to write convincingly from alternate points of view, for example, demonstrating that he has some ability to put himself in others' shoes. But on the particular points of human personality which surround the issue of pride and self-image, he seems tone deaf.

For a thinker, especially a Romantic thinker, and more especially one who wants to take up this topic in this way, it is a terrible state to be in. And this is why I'm writing about this delicate topic, though I'd really rather not, as in a lot of ways it could easily turn into a very bad case of the pot calling the kettle black. Believe me, I sympathize with this shortcoming. But as Pirsig identifies knowledge of quality as a highly experiential phenomenon, as practically all Romantic, Eastern, and generally mystic philosophy must be, his perception of things -- his 'color' and capacity for experience -- must naturally come under scrutiny. It is his source for understanding reality, unlike an abstract classical thinker for whom most everything would be an objective matter of reason.

So, nothing personal, but it really is sort of a personal thing. His experience of reality, if not to be taken as representative of actual reality, or at least reality as others experience it, will naturally draw criticism. Weakness here counts, a lot.


Throughout both books, Pirsig reveals himself to be a relatively insecure person, especially socially. Insecurity is, to my view, a sort of childishness or immaturity, and a disease of the pride, so that in a number of ways his views of specific issues -- especially the social variety, and especially as concerns relations with the opposite sex and self-image in that regard -- tend to be rather 'low-quality' for anyone more adept at these affairs than he is.

This wouldn't necessarily be a huge problem if he could come to terms with it at least intellectually, so that he could compensate in some degree, but like most socially awkward people, has a real problem even being aware of this dynamic, especially in how it shapes his own experience of 'social quality,' and the problems it creates saturate his writing. Which, again, is a shame.

Pirsig is, I think, far too trusting of his feelings to provide 'accurate' impressions of reality in these particular matters. He would have done better, I think, to have been more critical of his feelings and insights in these cases, or perhaps passed over them with less comment. This may seem a rather obtuse thing to say, since after all, an impression of reality is an impression of reality. Our feelings and impressions, it would seem, are incapable of error as a sort of reflexive matter.  'Error' would not seem to apply to this domain of things. Things make us feel the way they make us feel, and that is reality.

Perhaps. But if his impressions of the behaviors of others are to provide him with an idea of the state of mind of other people, for example, then there really is a verifiable 'reality' against which to compare his intuition. And it would seem at least reasonable that if there may be errors of reasoned intuition, so that one would be rather foolish not to look for errors of logic despite the theoretical 'infallibility' of logic, then so should 'feelings' come under scrutiny as being potentially unreliable windows into reality.

His immaturity also shows up in his conflicts with others, especially his confrontation with an Aristotelian professor at the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, again, this is a critical juncture in both his narrative and his argument. The first major instance where I think Pirsig shows his weakness in this relationship is in his interview for a position as a graduate student. Pirsig has already spent many years teaching at a university as a professor, and when this Aristotelian challenges him with a question, and returns a rather gruff response to his answer, Pirsig goes off for months agonizing over the confrontation. This is not the behavior of a well-adjusted adult, especially one who should be used to the norms of the academic environment.

But really the worst for him philosophically is an argument between himself and this professor which forms the climax of Zen. The class is discussing Phaedrus, one of Plato's dialogues, and, incidentally, the name Pirsig chooses to refer to himself in describing his own character. For those who have not read it, it is a dialogue on the nature of love, in which Plato creates an image of love as a pair of horses pulling a chariot, one of which is lustful, grasping, and undisciplined, regarding the object of its love as a 'piece of meat' to be exploited purely for self-interest. The other horse is restrained, respectful, and well-mannered, regarding the object of love in reverence and taking the beloved's interests into account.  The two fight over the 'direction' to take the relationship.

The Aristotelian professor asserts that this image is 'the truth' according to Plato, but Pirsig argues that he has it all wrong in that it is only 'an analogy.' This distinction is apparently critical to Pirsig's view of things, but obviously the core of this conflict is an emotional one of argumentative excitability for him as the distinction is hardly of any merit at all. Analogies are images used to express truth by means of a relational comparison, and quite obviously the Aristotelian would have to have been a fool to think that Plato really thought love was a pair of horses. Pirsig's 'analogy' was merely a means to the Aristotelian's end of expressing 'the truth.'  There is no real conflict here beyond mere pettiness.

They would have done better to shake hands and have an agreeable discussion on the matter, but instead they both chose to puff themselves up in indignation. The same kinds of dynamics show up in Pirsig's relationships with his son, with Lila, and a friend named Richard Rigel. Both sides make stupid arguments because neither can quite check his pride or see where it is skewing his perception of things and interfering with his judgment. A number of Pirsig's intuitions flow from this habit of projecting his own insecurity, including a tendency to overstate 'bilous' criticism leveled at non-objective thought, and especially the somewhat melodramatic guilt trip he tries to lay on Plato and Aristotle for their respective philosophies, these ideas having laid the foundation for the present tendency towards value-skeptical thought.

Certainly, his philosophical criticisms of their ideas and those that have followed seem relatively sound and of considerable merit, at least in my opinion, but it is a bit silly to blame them for the sins of others, as if there weren't two thousand years of intervening history in which those others could have realized the error and chosen to do things differently. It also does not seem to cross his mind that, awful though things may seem to him now, how much worse they might have turned out had these men kept their ideas to themselves, or come up with something different, for that matter.


On this subject of pride leading to a fall, I think perhaps an anecdote might be in order, to see a bit more what I mean about unhealthy responses to ego-collisions leading to unrealistic impressions of things and stunted intellectual growth. Just before I started graduate school, I did a bit of summer research with a professor on reaction rates and chemical selectivity, and was asked to give a little talk at the end about what I had done. Another professor was at the talk, and asked me a question which I could not answer. Unfortunately, it was one of those questions for which I did not know what I did not know, and so thinking I had something intelligent to say on the matter I continued to try to address what he was asking. It was, however, far from a satisfactory answer, and he would not let me off the hook. It went back and forth for some time, and I really embarrassed myself. At least, I felt so, and I can only imagine what someone like Pirsig would have felt.

After the talk I was positively fuming. I was so angry at him because he didn't let me off with a bad answer in front of all of those people, so that I could pretend at least to myself that I knew what I was talking about. At the time, unfortunately, the only realization that came to me was that if I intended to function in that environment, I would just have to get used to that kind of thing, so I learned to simply shut that little switch in my mind off whenever I would get wound up over something like that. Just shutting it off and refusing to care would get me through those situations, I thought, and it did.

But while it did get me through those situations, it really was not a proper response, and prevented me from learning and growing as I might have for some time afterwards, and even sometimes still today when I run into such things. I would have done better to try to understand his point and accept that challenges to my understanding were opportunities to improve on it, not just attempts to dump on my fragile ego. I should have been grateful that that professor gave me the time of day. The reality is that I was not enough of a person to be capable of anything better.

Even so, it was a first step in a right direction – learning to keep my pride and my temper in check. Years later, I actually came to like that professor, and went on to learn a great deal from him. I eventually found him to be one of the most upstanding and likable members of the entire department. He was only challenging me, and attempting to show me something important about my own experiment which I did not understand. But I was not enough of a man at the time to receive a lesson like that.

If I had been a bigger person, I would have had a much easier time of it, and learned a great deal more. The 'quality' of my experience would have been vastly improved, and my impression of it very different.

Likewise, Pirsig's impression of the world might have been a very different thing without his debilitating personal insecurities, and this casts a shadow of doubt over a considerable portion of his thought.

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