Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance after 32 years

My old friend Derek, who spends his days repairing a couple of aging Moulton bicycles, reminded me by email of a scene in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which the motorcycle maintaining narrator alienates his friend John by offering to repair the latter’s expensive BMW with a beer can shim [Pirsig 2009]. John, we are told, prizes the appearance of things, or ‘romantic quality’ and thus cannot see the ‘classical’ quality that attaches to underlying form, to a properly functioning motorcycle with non-wobbly handlebars.

Not being able to recall the point of the scene, I glanced back at the book over an Armagnac late last night. This was one of my favourite books in my teens and must have been an influence on me becoming interested in philosophy. I had forgotten that it contains an account of Hume and Kant and a discussion of the philosophy of science. But its central metaphysics of quality was something that I never thought to find in academic philosophy and so, weirdly, I have rather forgotten about it for thirty odd years.

So ignoring all the present tense adventure on a motorbike, the following themes struck me on a quick review.

There is an appeal to a general cultural difference – between what is hip or groovy and what is square – illustrated by the shim story. Some people are alienated from technology and cannot see its underlying formal beauty. Immediately after the shim scene, Pirsig/the narrator remarks:

What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. [ibid: 59]

This leads to the following key early distinction between romantic and classical.

I want to divide human understanding into two kinds—classical understanding and romantic understanding. In terms of ultimate truth a dichotomy of this sort has little meaning but it is quite legitimate when one is operating within the classic mode used to discover or create a world of underlying form. The terms classic and romantic, as Phaedrus used them, mean the following: A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. ... The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic.  The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws—which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. [ibid: 73-4]

There is a second general, pre-philosophical theme. The narrator’s alter-ego, Phaedrus, teaches English composition. He has a chance conversation with a Greek teacher which runs as follows.

She came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” This in a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal. [ibid: 180]

This leads him to set as an essay for his class the title: What is a 350-word essay answering the question, What is quality in thought and statement? There follows a description of a kind of teaching experiment in which he argues that the students know what quality is even though none can define it. As part of the experiment, he withholds marks (though not comments) and refuses to deploy principles of rhetoric until after the students have grasped an inchoate understanding of quality for which the principles are useful guides rather than constitutive of it.

The principles expounded in them were no longer rules to rebel against, not ultimates in themselves, but just techniques, gimmicks, for producing what really counted and stood independently of the techniques—Quality. [ibid: 208]

This leads to a manifesto:

“(1) Every instructor of English composition knows what quality is. (Any instructor who does not should keep this fact carefully concealed, for this would certainly constitute proof of incompetence.) (2) Any instructor who thinks quality of writing can and should be defined before teaching it can and should go ahead and define it. (3) All those who feel that quality of writing does exist but cannot be defined, but that quality should be taught anyway, can benefit by the following method of teaching pure quality in writing without defining it.” [ibid: 213]

That seems to me the main setup for the metaphysical exposition of quality which takes about 30 pages. I am not sure that the descriptions of Hume and Kant and of the scientific method adds a great deal to this. So plunging ahead, the narrator reports that Phaedrus was challenged by colleagues:

[T]he second wave of crystallization, the metaphysical one… was brought about in response to Phaedrus’ wild meanderings about Quality when the English faculty at Bozeman, informed of their squareness, presented him with a reasonable question: “Does this undefined ‘quality’ of yours exist in the things we observe?” they asked. “Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?” It was a simple, normal enough question, and there was no hurry for an answer. Hah. There was no need for hurry. It was a finisher-offer, a knockdown question, a haymaker, a Saturday-night special—the kind you don’t recover from. Because if Quality exists in the object, then you must explain just why scientific instruments are unable to detect it. You must suggest instruments that will detect it, or live with the explanation that instruments don’t detect it because your whole Quality concept, to put it politely, is a large pile of nonsense. On the other hand, if Quality is subjective, existing only in the observer, then this Quality that you make so much of is just a fancy name for whatever you like. [ibid: 228]

The narrator then describes Phaedrus’ response to the dilemma. First, unlike contemporary philosophers such as John McDowell, he rejects any attempt to locate quality in the world as an observer-dependent property like colour. So the bulk of the response is to the second, subjective, horn.

Here a first diagnostic move is to realise that there is something illicit in the way it is characterised: “Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?”.

Why should Quality be just what you like? Why should “what you like” be “just”? What did “just” mean in this case? When separated out like this for independent examination it became apparent that “just” in this case really didn’t mean a damn thing. It was a purely pejorative term, whose logical contribution to the sentence was nil. Now, with that word removed, the sentence became “Quality is what you like,” and its meaning was entirely changed. It had become an innocuous truism. [ibid: 232]

Despite this, however, he does not manage to dismiss this either. There are two sub-moves concerning the implicit perjorative characterisation. One might think that the subjective was just what one likes because of a contrast with a view of objectivity supplied by either a scientific materialism or a classic formalism. Against the former, Phaedrus argues that aspects of its world view depends on subjective elements. (the examples given are the number zero and the status of laws of nature.) Against the latter, Phaedrus gives way realising that at best he will have to subdivide quality into two.

What the classical formalists meant by the objection “Quality is just what you like” was that this subjective, undefined “quality” he was teaching was just romantic surface appeal. Classroom popularity contests could determine whether a composition had immediate appeal, all right, but was this Quality? Was Quality something that you “just see” or might it be something more subtle than that, so that you wouldn’t see it at all immediately, but only after a long period of time?...
Instead of one single, uniform Quality now there appeared to be two qualities; a romantic one, just seeing, which the students had; and a classic one, overall understanding, which the teachers had. A hip one and a square one. Squareness was not the absence of Quality; it was classic Quality. Hipness was not just presence of Quality; it was mere romantic Quality. The hip-square cleavage he’d discovered was still there, but Quality didn’t now seem to fall entirely on one side of the cleavage, as he’d previously supposed. Instead, Quality itself cleaved into two kinds, one on each side of the cleavage line. His simple, neat, beautiful, undefined Quality was starting to get complex. [ibid: 235-6]

In fact, a little later, just such a distinction returns in Pirsig’s account as the first subdivision after the primal quality. Still a failure to respond by neutralising one or other horn forces the narrator to describe Phaedrus’ conclusions as follows:

And so: he rejected the left horn. Quality is not objective, he said. It doesn’t reside in the material world. Then: he rejected the right horn. Quality is not subjective, he said. It doesn’t reside merely in the mind. And finally: Phaedrus, following a path that to his knowledge had never been taken before in the history of Western thought, went straight between the horns of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and said Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two…
Quality is not a thing. It is an event. Warmer. It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object. And because without objects there can be no subject—because the objects create the subject’s awareness of himself—Quality is the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible. Hot. Now he knew it was coming. This means Quality is not just the result of a collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!
[ibid: 234-9]

So that seems to be the heart of the metaphysics of quality. The philosophy backstory continues with Phaedrus going in search of the inversion which made quality as a whole, or as such, not an undefinable pre-rational origin of the relation of subject and object but a mere element within a larger rational structure. His aim is to make sure ‘Aristotle got his’ [ibid: 345].

I am struck now that there is something in all this a little reminiscent of my very basic understanding of Kant’s problem of the schematism. What guides the application of concepts to the world if one cannot simply presuppose the choice of the appropriate concept? The Critique of Judgment can be read as attempting to answer this general question. In its solution, reflective judgment plays a central role and is defined by contrast to determinate judgment as follows:

If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given, then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinate... But if only the particular is given and judgment has to find the universal for it, then this power is merely reflective. [Kant 1987: 18]

The task which reflective judgment has to undertake is to ascend from the particular in nature to the universal. A necessary presupposition of this activity is that nature can be brought under concepts. This principle, which is not constitutive of nature but is a subjective principle governing judgment, is that we think of nature as purposive: we think of it, roughly, as art. The claim, roughly that we must think of the world as teleological, is one part of the solution. The other is that aesthetic judgment sheds light on how judgment generally is possible. The key element of aesthetic judgment, Kant suggests, is the ‘ability to judge an object in reference to the free lawfulness of the imagination’ in which there is ‘a subjective harmony of the imagination with the understanding without an objective harmony’ [ibid: 91-92]. It is the harmony of the faculties of imagination and understanding in judgment which is both the source of pleasure that grounds aesthetic judgment and which solves the problem.

Given that Pirsig/the narrator describes classical understanding of the world as involving the analysis of phenomena into parts and sub-parts - he calls this ‘classical rational analysis’ [Pirsig 2009: 76] – a similar question can be asked in the context of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. How is it that such a form of analysis can be brought to bear on the world? The answer is that it stems from a pre-rational encounter: the quality event which makes the relation of subject and object possible. Pirsig’s quality plays a role akin to Kant’s aesthetic understanding in being a half way house to conceptual judgement. As the narrator stresses, Phaedrus’ English teaching relied on the idea that quality could be recognised and identified and known even if it could not be formally analysed.

Still, it doesn’t seem very satisfactory. One problem is very familiar: trying to balance an ineffability claim with the identification of something. Pirsig/the narrator/Phaedrus tells us that the ‘Quality event’ causes the division of subject and object but makes it entirely unclear how he earns the right to say this since it – I assume – requires a prior division of quality, on the one hand, and the emergence of a subject-object split, on the other. But such a meta-division presupposes classical understanding.

‘Event’ is also tricky as that usually presupposes a series of distinguishable worldly happenings which again presupposes a subject-object split.

The metaphysical account is partly motivated by the prephilosophical distinction between romantic and classical quality judgements but such judgements don’t seem to characterise the ineffable quality he wants. Classical quality is downstream of the primal event as it is articulable. Romantic quality is an instantaneous judgement of the appearance of things. But that idea now looks to fall prey to the dilemma of being ‘just what one likes’. If it is, then it lies on the subject side of the subject-object split and thus presupposes just that division. If it isn’t, if, say, pictorial aesthetics are susceptible to some sort of placing in the space of reasons, then romantic quality will end up a variant of classical understanding in somewhat different terms. But again that presupposes the subject-object split behind which primal quality was supposed to lie as its cause. (Phaedrus’ reintroduction of rhetorical principles suggests a view in which English composition aesthetics cannot be given context-independent general rules. But that does not rule out context-dependent articulations, or reasons, of what is good and bad in an essay.) In neither case will it be the origin of the subject-object split.

Despite this, the main problem is much more recognisable than I would have expected. My hunch is that it could have been addressed more plausibly by rejecting the idea that rationality is codifiable in context-independent, general terms than by rejecting rationality as such. Quality isn’t outside the space of reasons.

Kant, I. (1987) Critique of judgment Indianapolis: Hackett

Pirsig, R. (2009) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values, Harper Collins e-book