THE PRAGMATISM AND RADICAL EMPIRICISM
OF WILLIAM JAMES AND ROBERT PIRSIG
David Michael Buchanan
B.L.S., Hillsdale College, 1984
A thesis submitted to
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
2011 by David Michael Buchanan
All right reserved.
This thesis for the Master of Humanities
David Michael Buchanan
has been approved
/f J^A/ 2o//
Buchanan, David Michael (M.H., University of Colorado Denver)
The Pragmatism and Radical Empiricism of William James and Robert Pirsig
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Dr. David L. Hildebrand
The following thesis compares William Jamess philosophical pragmatism and
radical empiricism to Robert M. Pirsigs work and attempts to show that James
and Pirsig share a perspective that can rightly be called philosophical mysticism.
A survey of the literature suggests that misinterpretation, confusion and
distortion began with the first critical responses more than a century ago and it is
still largely misunderstood today. The purpose of this thesis to help overcome,
however little help it may be, this persistent and widespread misunderstanding of
pure experience, the centerpiece of Jamess radical empiricism. This is
accomplished by comparing pure experience with Pirsigs Quality, the
centerpiece of Pirsigs Metaphysics ofQuality, as it is presented in Zen and the
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Lila (1991). Pirsig describes his
MOQ as a form of radical empiricism and mainstream American pragmatism.
The second chapter attempts to show the validity of Pirsigs claim to this
identity. This is accomplished by presenting textual evidence of their shared
attitudes and their agreement on specific philosophical positions. The third
chapter makes a case that pragmatism and radical empiricism are best taken as
two parts or aspects of an integrated position and it argues that pure experience
and Quality are equivalent terms. I conclude by making a case that James and
Pirsig are offering a an empirically based form of philosophical mysticism that is
comparable to a non-theistic religion like Buddhism.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
This thesis is dedicated to my infinitely patient wife, to my generous mother-in-
law, and to my thoughtful son. Their support and encouragement made all the
Thanks to Dr. Myra Bookman for securing the financial support for my trip to
Oxford, England and for all she taught me in her courses and for serving on my
thesis committee. Id like to thank the Chairman of my thesis committee, Dr.
David Hildebrand, whose work in pragmatism drew me to the University of
Colorado Denver in the first place. Thanks also go to Dr. Ronald DiSanto of
Regis University for his generous support and encouragement. It was an honor to
have him on my thesis committee. Thanks to Robert Pirsig for all the kind words
and for saving me from chasing countless wild geese. Last but certainly not least,
thanks to my role model and partner in crime, Dr. Anthony McWatt.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. PHILOSOPHICAL ATTITUDES AND PURPOSES..........7
3. PRAGMATISM, RADICAL EMPIRICISM & MYSTICISM...63
A survey of the scholarly literature on the work of William James shows that
there is a fairly serious problem with his notion of pure experience. The most
common complaint is that pure experience, the centerpiece of James's radical
empiricism, has been widely and persistently misunderstood or that it is difficult
to understand. Eugene Taylor and Robert Wozniak, for example, think that the
initial critical responses to James's essays on radical empiricism more than a
century ago were full of distortions and misinterpretations. They also think that
things have not improved much since then. Hunter Brown and Gerald Meyers
both agree that pure experience remains largely misunderstood. G. William
Barnard is sympathetic to James but he admits that the idea is maddeningly
difficult to understand. Charlene Seigfried makes good sense of pure experience
as a method but to the extent that James takes it further than that, even she is a bit
baffled as to its intelligibility. These are among the scholars who point out that
the general situation regarding pure experience is far from settled. This writer
does not presume to be able to settle the matter but the central purpose of this
thesis is to shed some new light on Jamess theory of pure experience.
As far as I know, no scholar has yet conducted a full-throated comparative
analysis of James's pure experience and Robert Pirsig's notion of Quality.
David A. Grangers thesis, published as John Dewey, Robert Pirsig and the Art
of Living: Revisioning Aesthetic Education, compares the work of John Dewey
and Robert Pirsig and Anthony Me Watts dissertation contains a relatively short
section Pirsigs connection to pragmatism but neither of them were aiming their
at James or his pure experience. From this I conclude that any amount light
thrown from a Pirsigian direction will be new light on the issue.
The idea that Robert Pirsigs notion of Quality is comparable to William
Jamess notion of pure experience come from Pirsigs second book, Lila, which
is a kind of sequel to his more famous first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance. Actually, he does not say they are comparable. He goes even
further than that. He equates them. This equation would be wholly unremarkable,
of course, if Pirsig had simply adopted Jamess ideas. According to Pirsigs
account, however, that is not the case. In his first book, Pirsig does not mention
William James or his pragmatism. He does not mention radical empiricism or
pure experience either, at least not by name. As he explains it in his second,
Pirsig was not aware of any similarities between his own thinking and the
thought of William James until it was it suggested by a review of Zen and the Art
o/Motorcycle Maintenance published in the Harvard Educational Review.1 The
author of that article had claimed there were similarities and it was only then that
1. Robert Pirsig, Z//<7[New York: Bantam Books, 1991], 324.
Pirsig began to investigate the possibility. In his second book, Pirsig admits that
as a younger man he had dismissed James. Pirsig thought that Jamess work
smelled like some Victorian religious propagandist trying to smuggle God into
the laboratory data and he admits that he had given James very short shrift as
a result. There were other reviewers who had claimed Pirsigs ideas resembled
very different philosophers like Hegel and Aristotle but Pirsig did not agree. He
found the comparison with James far more plausible and so he cautiously
revisited Jamess work and he found that the comparison actually held up to
scrutiny. Everywhere he read, Pirsig reports, it seemed as though he was
seeing fits and matches that no amount of selective reading could contrive.2 3
Pirsig discovered his simpatico with James only after the fact and, remarkably,
he could go beyond that and claim that his own Metaphysics of Quality is a
form of radical empiricism and mainstream American pragmatism.4 Pirsigs
identification as a pragmatist is largely a matter of attaching recognizable labels
to already existing ideas simply because his second book is an elaboration of the
first book, with no major alterations in the substance of his thought. Apparently,
Pirsig was a pragmatist and a radical empiricist long before he took the name.
2. Pirsig, Lila, 325.
3. Pirsig, Lila, 363.
4. Pirsig, Lila, 364-6.
In the pages that follow the first task will be testing Pirsigs claim. We will
see if Pirsig actually does walk like a pragmatist and talk like a radical empiricist
and to what extent. One important purpose of this examination is simply to see if
we can rightly locate Pirsigs work on the philosophical landscape or, to put it
another way, to see if he belongs in the pragmatists neighborhood. To that end,
the next chapter presents what I take to be the most relevant fits and matches
between them. This includes many sets of parallel quotes wherein James and
Pirsig seem to be making the same point or registering the same complaints. This
chapter will also present their basic philosophical attitudes and purposes, as the
title indicates, in order to see how simpatico they might be in that respect. The
next chapter also includes a good amount of biographical information too. Since
both of Pirsigs books are, in part, autobiographical and those books are the only
access we have to his philosophical views, this personal approach is practically
unavoidable. Hopefully, it will become apparent that including their personal
stories is actually quite fitting, given the content of their views. Again, the central
aim is to shed some Pirsigian light upon the meaning of Jamess pure experience
but in order to reach that final goal, the extent of their philosophical agreement
has to be established first. Quality and pure experience are both centerpieces in
their respective philosophies and so they cannot rightly be understood without
the larger context. Chapter two should serve as a good introduction to the
substance of their thought, namely pragmatism and radical empiricism, and
thereby lay the groundwork for the third and final chapter.
The last chapter of this thesis, titled Pragmatism, Radical Empiricism and
Mysticism, makes a case, to put it roughly, that the Buddha was a pragmatist
and a radical empiricist. That is to say, the final aim of this thesis is to show that
the work of James and Pirsig both present a certain kind of philosophical
mysticism. When Jamess central doctrine is read from a Pirsigian perspective,
James and his pure experience both seem to be in broad agreement with the
things philosophical mystics have been saying for a long time. In order to
provide a better sense of what this means and where this thesis is ultimately
headed, the remainder of this chapter will provide of brief sketch of the relation
between mysticism and pure experience.
For James, pure experience is pure to the extent that it is not conceptual. It is
his name for the immediate flux of life or another name for feeling or
sensation and the perceptual flux.5 James immediately adds an important
qualification; he points out that experience is almost never literally pure, except
in pre-verbal infants or in adults in relatively rare situations involving illness,
blows to the head, mind-altering drugs and I strongly suspect that Pirsig would
5. William James, The Thing and its Relations, in William James: Writings,
1902-1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick [New York: The Library of America, 1987], 782-
like to add mystics and Zen masters to this list. Like Jamess pure experience,
Pirsigs Quality refers to the present moment of awareness before
conceptualization takes hold. He describes Quality as the primary empirical
reality and the pre-intellectual cutting edge of awareness. As Pirsig explains it,
Quality can never be defined because it is what you experience ahead of
thought, prior to the words and definitions we so quickly and habitually add.
You understand it without definition, ahead of definition, Pirsig says, Quality
is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.6 Here
one can see the sense in which this empirical reality is said to be primary. It is
primary in the temporal sense, in the sense that it comes first. It is also primary in
the sense that it is more basic than concepts, which are added to or derived from
direct experience and are therefore said to be secondary. Pirsig might also refer
to Quality as the undividedxz&XxXy and this will have the same basic meaning
because it is not yet divided in the sense that our concepts have not yet carved it
up into categories or otherwise imposed lines of distinction. It is undivided in the
sense that the analytic knife, as Pirsig calls it, has not yet been set to work. As
Im construing it. then, James and Pirsig use their respective terms to reference
the samepre-conceptualexperience, a descriptive label that indicates only what
this experience precedes and what this experience is not.
6. Pirsig, Lila, 64.
PHILOSOPHICAL ATTITUDES AND PURPOSES
The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for
eternity, and that isnt the way it ever is. People should see that its
never anything other than just one person talking from one place in
time and space and circumstance. Its never been anything else, ever,
but you cant get that across in an essay.
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art ofMotorcycle Maintenance
Introductory remarks. The purpose of this chapter is to present the basic
philosophical motives, attitudes and purposes of Robert Pirsig and William
James, to show what they favored and opposed, and to provide a sketch their
respective biographies. As a necessary part of telling their stories, this chapter
will also introduce the philosophical terms, categories and issues most relevant to
their position and most relevant to this thesis. This chapter will present their
similarities rather than argue for them. It will show rather than tell. As the
chapter unfolds it should become increasingly apparent that this personal
approach is consistent with their philosophical attitudes and intentions.
Vicious abstractionism. William James was forever defending his pragmatic
theory of truth against charges from his critics, including accusations of
relativism. James thought their negative assessment was based on a perverse
abuse of the abstracting function and he accused them of subscribing to an
ancient and persistent view that he calls vicious abstractionism.7 James is
casting a wide net with this strong language, extending the accusation to every
rationalist philosopher since Plato. James must have been thinking of ancient,
precedent-setting moments like Platos famous analogy of the cave, wherein
empirical reality is construed as a mere shadow of whats really real, or the
mythic depiction of the soul as a charioteer with two winged horses, wherein our
emotions and desires only weaken and confuse the intellect.8
Vicious and mean. Robert Pirsig also traced the trouble with our present ways
of thinking all the way back to Platos day. Pirsig wrote his second philosophical
novel to defend his first book against charges from his critics, including
accusations of relativism. In his first book Pirsig had attacked Platos notion of a
fixed and eternal truth. This included a defense of the ancient Sophists against
Platos slanderous charges of relativism. Plato had used the dialectic method of
examination as a weapon against the rhetoric of the Sophists, as Pirsig tells it in
his first philosophical novel. Against Plato and Socrates, he sided with the so-
7. William James, The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to Pragmatism, in
William James: Writings, l902-1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick [New York: The Library
of America, 1987], 951.
8. Plato, Republic. and Phaedrus, in Plato: Complete Works edited by
John M. Cooper, [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997], Republic
514a-517a & Phaedrus 246a-249d respectively.
called liars, cheats and defilers of ancient Greece, the Sophists, the teachers of
rhetoric.9 Pirsig saw himself as a teacher of rhetoric and looking at the dialectical
method of exchanging reasons from the Sophists point of view, Pirsig saw a
viciousness and meanness and lowness and even a kind of evil.10
Denigrated and falsified. Very broadly speaking, then, James and Pirsig both
find something vicious about our inherited ways of using concepts and
abstractions. They think there is something fundamentally wrong with the way
thinkers do their thinking, especially the philosophers and scientists, and they are
both accused of relativism as payment for their efforts to correct the situation.
This enemy populates the whole history of philosophy and comes in many guises
but in each case the perverse abuse consists in the deification of intellect and the
denigration of the flesh, the emotions, feelings, instincts, values and anything
else that would interfere with rationality, the logical operations of reason. As the
scholar Charlene Haddock Seigfried puts it, intellectualism became vicious
already with Socrates and Plato, who deified conceptualization and denigrated
9. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into
Values [New York: William Morrow & Company, 1974, 1999], 380.
10. Pirsig, Zen, 370.
the ever-changing flow of experience, thus forgetting and falsifying the origin of
concepts as humanly constructed extracts from the temporal flux.11
James'sfriends and enemies. For James, a more or less literal version of this
deification of the intellect could be found in the Absolutism of contemporaneous
rivals like F. H. Bradley and Josiah Royce. Roughly, the Absolute is a non-
anthropomorphic God. It is conceived as one all-inclusive, rationally intelligible
consciousness. It is the One, the Supreme Being, the ground of being in which all
other beings exist. Josiah Royce, who was on the faculty at Harvard with James,
was a religious philosopher of this type. I dont know that his long-term and
friendly rivalry with James was the main cause, but Royce eventually dropped
his Absolute idealism and replaced it with his own brand of absolute
pragmatism. Similarly, F.H. Bradleys views conform to the Absolute Idealist
label only roughly. He held that and all of the distinctions between the relative
and finite things are only apparent, that all separateness and disjunction is
ultimately illusory and that Reality is a unified One. His view may be better
classified as a kind of mysticism rather than absolute idealism. Bradleys view of
the relation between appearance and Reality is very much like the assertion we
find in the mystical monism of one Swami Vivekananda, for example, who came
to America back in Jamess day to teach the Vedanta Philosophy of Hinduism. A
11. Charlene Haddock Seigfried, William James's Radical Reconstruction of
Philosophy\l\Romy\ State University of New York Press, 1990], 379.
few words about the difference between these two kinds of monism, mystical and
metaphysical, may provide a better sense of Jamess philosophical attitude, a
sense of what hes condemning as an abuse of concepts, as vicious
As James reports it, Vivekananda said that separation does not exist, it is not
real. It is merely apparent, on the surface, a delusion and the cause really of
all our misery.12 For the mystic, this illusion of separateness cannot be
overcome through reason or the intellect because the distinctions of thought
constitute the illusion in question. The Absolutists that James targets, on the
other hand, tend to be the less radical, less mystical and more rationalistic types
for whom the world must have all its parts co-implicated in the one logical-
aesthetical-teleological unit-picture.13 This picture of reality as one unified
rational system is what allows James to use terms like Absolutism, Idealism and
Rationalism somewhat interchangeably. It is called the Absolute because all of
reality is supposed to one thing with a single unified purpose; it is opposed to the
relative and the finite. It is called Idealism because this unity is conceived as a
universal Mind and it is usually opposed to materialism. And it is called
rationalism because it is supposed to be knowable through reason and through
12. William James, The One and the Many in William James: Writings,
J902-1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick [New York: The Library of America, 1987], 552.
13. James, The One and the Many, 552.
principles, as opposed to empiricism. Some types of monism go even further.
James asks us to notice how radical Vivekanandas mystical monism is
compared to the others. Separation is not simply overcome by the One, it is
denied to exist. There is no many. We are not parts of the One; It has no parts;
and since in a sense we undeniably are, it must be that each of us /Irthe One.14 15
The mystical monist, unlike the idealists and rationalists, says that reality is
intellectually unknowable, by which they mean that conceptual understandings
only stand in the way and must be put aside in order to know reality. Usually,
this non-conceptual awareness entails the use of meditation or some other means
of altering consciousness. In some rough sense, then, the difference between the
Swamis mystical monism and the Hegelians metaphysical monism is like the
difference between a monk and a philosophy Professor. The former says that
thought takes one away from reality and the latter says reality is thought.
For James, the more radical and mystical form of monism was actually
preferable to the rationalistic kind, to the viciously intellectual type, although
even the latter has its appeal. To interpret absolute monism worthily, he says,
be a mystic.13 When emotionally considered, James says, this mystical
religion elevates and reassures, it has a high pragmatic value; it imparts a
14. James, The One and the Many, 553.
15. James, The One and the Many, 552.
perfect sumptuosity of security.16 What could be more charming, after all, than
the notion that each one of us is somehow identical to the One Absolute reality?
There is a mystic in all of us, he says, a yearning for some elevated, spiritual
version of the ecstatic union known to lovers and we tend to be stirred by any
idea that conjures such a mystical vision, even if it doesnt quite make sense to
us. In the passion of love we have the mystic germ of what might mean a total
union of all sentient life. This mystical germ wakes up in us on hearing the
monistic utterances, acknowledges their authority, and assigns to intellectual
considerations a secondary place.17 Maybe James was talking about his own
mystic germ. Jamess father was a Swedenborgian mystic and the All of Ralph
Waldo Emerson, Jamess godfather, must have influenced him too. He was the
author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, of course, a book that
catalogued a wide range of mystical experiences and he even flirted with
psychics and experimented with mind-altering substances. He even reported his
own quasi-mystical experiences in the last essays he would ever write. James was
certainly a man of science but not just science and he was always troubled by the
discrepancy between these two worlds, between science and religion.
16. James, The One and the Many, 553.
17. James, The One and the Many, 554.
James had a remarkably sympathetic and generous attitude even toward those
less worthy interpretations of monism, toward those idealistic and rationalistic
versions of the Absolute, but only up to a certain point. He easily admits that
their metaphysical view is possible, that the absolute totality of things may be
organized exactly after the pattern of one of these through-and-through
abstractions, and he admits that, creation may be a rational system through-
and-through. It seems that James genuinely understands the appeal of their
view but his praise is not unequivocal. This notion of an all-enveloping noetic
unity in things is the sublimest achievement of the intellectualist philosophy,
James says, but it is rash to affirm this dogmatically without better evidence
than we possess at present.18 19 There is the rub. Despite the appeal of its content,
the term Absolutism has come to stand for a dogmatic inflexibility, a rigid
style of thought. As James saw them, his opponents believed in their Absolute
Mind with a level of certainty that did not easily lend itself to an open and
reasonable discussion. James thought the contest between his pluralism and their
monism was far from settled and he was far less sympathetic toward the kind of
worshipful rationalists who could forget everything else in their admiration of
18. William James, Absolutism and Empiricism, in William James:
Writings, 1878-1899, ed. Gerald E. Myers [New York: The Library of America,
1992], 1015 & 1018 respectively.
19. James, The One and the Many, 549.
the Absolute, and thereupon to come to a full stop intellectually. As James
saw it, the dogmatic tenacity of his rivals created a kind of stalemate and yet their
dispute revolved around the deepest and most pregnant question that our minds
can frame and the final question of philosophy.20 21 22 This creates an impasse that
is unacceptable for James and it is at this point, he says, that pragmatism must
turn its back on absolute monism, and follow pluralisms more empirical path
But James is still remarkably fair and even-handed even when he is following the
Throughout his lectures on pragmatism and throughout his essays on radical
empiricism James treats the absolutists and empiricists as equals. Despite his
own empirical leanings, he supposes that the lovers of the One and the lovers of
the many are offering competing visions of reality that are equal in all important
respects, except one. They are equally respectable in terms of intellectual rigor,
James is willing to suppose, but they are equally unable to claim a decisive
victory for their side. James thinks that when we are in a situation like this,
wherein the question seems to be a great importance and yet the issue cannot be
decided on the basis of empirical facts or rational principles, we have the right to
20. James, The One and the Many, 543.
21. William James, Pragmatism and Religion, in William James: Writings,
1902-1910\ ed. Bruce Kuklick [New York: The Library of America, 1987], 616.
22. James, The One and the Many, 557.
believe what we like. When all other things are equal, James thought, our choices
become a matter of taste, a matter of our aesthetic needs and personal
preferences. As James saw it, this was intended as an even-handed, pragmatic,
impasse-breaking technique but this was also the stance that drew charges of
relativism from Jamess critics. The critics who took this to mean that one can
believe whatever seems most pleasant, James thought, were reading "the silliest
possible meanings his statements and were likely guilty of "impudent
slander. Perhaps some of his Absolutist rival were too eager to criticize this
position because it does effectively strip the Absolute of its rank, so to speak,
demoting its status from metaphysical entity to a mere hypothesis. Once we
admit that the dispute between these rivals is covertly driven by our personal
motives and instincts and that the contest is, at least partly, between our favorite
ideals and principles, James says we might as well go on and frankly confess to
each other the motives for our several faiths.23 24 Then the two sides can have a
reasonable conversation as equals, he thinks. The central point to notice here is
that the One and the many are on the same footing. Neither is primordial or
23. James, Pragmatisms Conception of Truth, 589 & 588 respectively.
24. James, Absolutism and Empiricism, 1018.
more essential or excellent that the other, James said, and the whole point of
this pragmatic approach is to unstiffen our theories.
James was also making a broader case that our attitudes, feelings and
sensibilities should be recognized as legitimate factors in the construction and/or
adoption of our philosophies. He was quite expressive and forthcoming in
confessing his own feelings and attitudes toward the all-encompassing
philosophy of the Hegelian Idealist. The vision of reality that it conjured would
be like living in a fishbowl or staying in a public resort with no private rooms, to
use Jamess own images. Such an All-Knower somehow made James feel both
claustrophobic and overexposed at the same time, like some great cosmic
panopticon. In Absolutism and Empiricism he gently taunted his opponents,
explaining that Hegelians are not necessarily prigs but that all prigs, when fully
developed, will eventually become Hegelians. Their Absolutism seems to
suffocate me with its infallible impeccable all-pervasiveness, James frankly
confessed, it seems too buttoned-up and white-chokered and clean-shaven a
thing to speak in the name of the vast slow-breathing unconscious Kosmos with
its dread abysses and its unknown tides.25 26 Here one get the impression that
Jamess sustained rivalry with Royce was a philosophical version of The Odd
25. James, The One and the Many, 546 & 556 respectively.
26. James, Absolutism and Empiricism, 1018 & 1019 respectively.
Couple, that old situation comedy wherein the quintessential slob and the
ultimate neat-freak are forced by circumstance to be room-mates. James insists
that his rivals also have feelings about the Absolute, but they have very different
feelings about it. He wants them to admit that they too have motives for their
hypothesis. Philosophical visions cannot rightly be accepted or rejected on that
basis alone, of course, but James insists that our truest and best philosophies will
be constructed using all our faculties, emotional as well as logical,27 But his
Hegelian rivals insist that it is a pure matter of absolute reason and James says
this is his one fundamental quarrel with them; the repudiation by Absolutism
of the personal and aesthetic factor in the construction of philosophy.28
It seems that James was personally offended by the Absolutists apparent
indifference to actual human suffering. In his first lecture on pragmatism, for
example, James relates the tragic story of one John Corcoran, a husband and
father of six who lost his job due to illness. He returned home after one of many
unsuccessful job hunts to find that he and his family was entirely without food
and that they had been evicted from their apartment. The next morning, Mr.
Corcoran committed suicide by drinking poison. Countless stories like that one
are brushed aside, James said, by the airy and shallow optimism of current
27. James, Absolutism and Empiricism, 1020.
28. James, Absolutism and Empiricism, 1019.
religious philosophy.29 For Professor Royce, James reports, such earthly horrors
are necessary for the perfection of the eternal order and for F. H. Bradley such
evil only enriches the Absolute.30
Poison and bombs. Pirsig did not have a Bradley or a Royce in his
philosophical life and he aimed his critical guns at a completely different target,
namely materialism and scientific objectivity, but Pirsig did study at Benares
Hindu University to study Eastern philosophy when he was a young man and he
recounts a similar reaction to the Eastern monisf s apparent indifference to
human suffering. As Pirsig tells it, the professor of philosophy was blithely
expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed like the fiftieth
time but this time the young student raised his hand and asked coldly if it was
believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
were illusory.31 The professor smiled and answered in the affirmative. Despite
the vast differences between these two cases, one small and one great, James and
Pirsig are both objecting to the otherworldly attitude displayed by their monist
rivals. They both shudder at the amoral indifference exhibited in the attitudes of
29. William James, The Present Dilemma in Philosophy, in William James:
Writings, J902-1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick [New York: The Library of America,
30. James, The Present Dilemma in Philosophy, 499.
31. Pirsig, Zen, 144.
their opponents. They both complain that evil is not adequately addressed or
explained so much as it is dismissed or explained mvay. James thinks that
heartache and loss can sometimes turn out to be positively transformative, that
sometimes the bitter makes the cocktail better, as James puts it, but the scale
of evil actually in sight defies human tolerance; transcendental idealism, in the
pages of a Bradley or a Royce, brings us no farther than the book of Job did -
Gods ways are not our ways, so let us put our hands upon our mouth.
Similarly, the philosophy professor at Benares Hindu University may have given
the answer that was correct within the traditions of Indian philosophy but for
anyone else who reads newspapers regularly and is concerned with such things as
mass destruction of human beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate.
Abstractionism could hardly be more vicious than this.
Pirsigsfriends and enemies. Pirsig agrees with James and Seigfried in
thinking that this denigration of the passions is a very long-term trend in
philosophy and he also targets an opponent that could hardly be broader or
deeper. It's been necessary since before the time of Socrates to reject the
passions, the emotions, in order to free the rational mind, but now it's time for
reassimilating those passions because the passions, the emotions, the affective 32 33
32. James, The One and the Many, 548.
33. Pirsig, Zen, 144.
domain of man's consciousness, are a part of nature's order too.34 Like James,
Pirsig objects to the belief that personal and aesthetic factors are just so many
potholes on the road to the truth. This vicious trend is so pervasive that it
effectively constitutes a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself, and
Pirsig thinks that defective form of reason is emotionally hollow, esthetically
meaningless and spiritually empty.35 More specifically, he focuses his attention
on the basic metaphysical assumptions behind^m.% inhuman from of rationality,
namely subject-object metaphysics. Roughly, Pirsig uses the term subject-object
metaphysics to refer to the various permutations of Modern Cartesian dualism,
which posits two distinct ontological categories, namely the mental and the
physical. As this chapter unfolds, James and Pirsig will both have much to say
about this objectionable metaphysical premise.
For Pirsig, this dualism becomes especially objectionable under scientific
materialism, wherein the physical side is privileged and called objectively real
while our values and interests are taken as just subjective. The vast majority of
his critical complaints are directed at scientific materialism and the notions of
objectivity that it rests upon and perpetuates. He attacks the notion that objective
truth, scientific truth, is supposed to be value-free, based only on disinterested
34. Pirsig, Zen, 294.
35. Pirsig, Zen, 117.
observation. Science is about the facts, it is supposed, and values are something
else altogether. Although scientific materialism is very empirical and tends to be
irreligious, unlike the religious philosophies James tended to target, there is still a
denigration of human values and interests. This metaphysics of substance, as
Pirsig sometimes calls it, conjures up an intolerably meaningless, nihilistic vision
of reality. From the perspective of a subject-object science, the world is a
completely purposeless, valueless place, Pirsig says, because nothing is right
and nothing is wrong. Everything just functions, like machinery36
Across disciplines. It would be better to characterize this similarity between
James and Pirsig as a mirror-like symmetry rather than a simple duplication of
attitudes. They both find that there is a fundamental problem with the way
thinkers think. As Seigfried characterized it, the problem is that thinkers have
treated concepts as eternal or divine rather than humanly constructed instruments,
and the result is a strange disconnection of concepts from human concerns. James
directs most of his criticism at religious rationalism, however, while Pirsig
focuses his attack on scientific objectivity. There are other mirror-like
symmetries too. For example, as a young man James wanted to be an artist and
studied to be a painter but reluctantly switched to chemistry, eventually earned a
degree in medicine and then became famous as one of the founders of modern
36. Pirsig, Lila, 277-8.
psychology. Pirsig eagerly entered college to study biochemistry as a very
precocious fifteen year-old but switched to philosophy as an undergraduate,
switched again to earn a Masters degree in Journalism and then, years later,
became famous for his novels. As Dr. David Hildebrand puts it, James was a
literary philosopher and Pirsig is a philosophical novelist. They both took a
zigzagging career path that crossed artistic and scientific disciplines to finally
arrive at a style of operating and a philosophical attitude that could blend the best
of both worlds. They both use a conversational mode of expression that blends
precision and artfulness. They both can both speak a general audience and this
style is consistent with the content of their work because they both insist that
thought should be the servant of life and not the other way around.
Down to earth. They both think that the point and purpose of our ideas is to be
useful in our actual lives. Is thought for the sake of life, James asks, or is life
for the sake of thought?37 As if he were answering Jamess rhetorical question,
Pirsigs narrator says, I think metaphysics is good if it improves everyday life;
otherwise forget it.38 The rivalry that James describes in essays like
Absolutism and Empiricism is a contest of world formulas; a contest of total
37. William James, The Problems of Metaphysics in Some Problems of
Philosophy, in William James: Writings, J902-J910, ed. Bruce Kuklick [New
York: The Library of America, 1987], 1000.
38. Pirsig, Zen, 379.
visions, but Jamess attack is not upon the Absolutists formula itself. The
whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it
will make to you and me, James says, if this world-formula or that world-
formula be the true one.39 Here we have arrived at the doorstep of pragmatism.
This is their shared pragmatic attitude and their shared move against abstraction
of the vicious kind. Abstractions that have no discernable practical consequences
are simply useless and if no consequences follow from believing one abstraction
over another, then the dispute over them is merely verbal. Intellectualism
becomes vicious when an abstraction is used to oppose and negate what it was
abstracted from.40 Such opposition and negation would count as a prime
example of what James called a perverse abuse of the abstracting function.41
As we saw in the monist attitudes toward human tragedy and mass destruction,
our philosophies and ways of thinking can become otherworldly and remote in
the hands of these abusers.
Temperaments and amateurs. James presented his pragmatism in a series of
public lectures but he did not launch directly into pragmatism itself until his
second lecture. Instead, his opening lecture is used to make a case for the crucial
39. James, What Pragmatism Means, 508.
40. James, Pragmatisms Conception of Truth, 586.
41. James, The Meaning of Truth, 951.
role that temperament plays in deciding which philosophies we are most likely to
adopt. He tells his amateur audience that the reason people prefer one kind of
philosophical vision over the other is not a technical matter; it is our more or
less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got
from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and
pressure of the cosmos.,,42In the very first moments of the talk James tells them
that this dumb sense will largely determine their view of the universe, their
overall perspective, and he says that is the most interesting, revealing and
important thing about each person. Because philosophers must also begin with
their individual dumb sense of the total push of things, James says, The
history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human
temperaments.42 43 This clash of temperaments is built right into the structure of
Jamess Pragmatism. Amateurs who seek answers from philosophy face a
dilemma, he explains, because the professionals have fallen into two rival camps
and neither camp can fully satisfy the amateurs needs. Monism meets our
religious needs but it is otherworldly, vacuous and remote and pluralism supplies
the concrete empirical facts but it is reductionistic, depressing, nihilistic and
inhuman. As James sees it, the amateur wants both facts and religion but it seems
42. James, The Present Dilemma in Philosophy, 487.
43. James, The Present Dilemma in Philosophy, 488.
he can only have one or the other. We philosophers have to reckon with such
feeling on your part, James said to his audience in the closing minutes of his
talk, I repeat, it will be by them that all our philosophies shall ultimately be
judged. The finally victorious way of looking at things will be the most
completely impressive way to the normal run of minds.44 In his last unfinished
work, Some Problems in Philosophy, James invokes Coleridge to characterize
this ancient rivalry. A saying of Coleridges is often quoted, to the effect that
every one is born either a platonist or an aristotelian. By aristotelian, he means
empiricist, and by platonist, he means rationalist.45
Amateurs and temperaments. Like James, Pirsig thinks everyone has a
philosophic vision. The only person who doesnt pollute the mystic reality of
the world with fixed metaphysical meanings is a person who hasnt yet been
born, he says, because as long as youre inside a logical, coherent universe of
thought you cant escape metaphysics.46 Pirsig also invokes Coleridges
distinction between the two basic temperaments behind monistic idealism and
empirical pluralism. I think it was Coleridge who said everyone is either a
Platonist or an Aristotelian. People who cant stand Aristotles endless specificity
44. James, The Present Dilemma in Philosophy, 503.
45. James, The Problems of Metaphysics, 999.
46. Pirsig, Lila, 65 & 66 respectively.
of detail are naturally lovers of Platos soaring generalities. People who cant
stand the eternal lofty idealism of Plato welcome the down-to-earth facts of
Aristotle.47 These two distinct ways of taking the world are built right into the
structure of Pirsigs first philosophical novel, built right into the divided
personality that serves as the focal point of Zen and the Art.
The unreliable narrator. Pirsigs novel is a ghost story, of sorts. The most
sustained dramatic tension centers around the conflict between two distinct
personalities inhabiting one body, each trying to destroy the other. In
introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance, Pirsig explains that the story is told from the perspective of an
unreliable narrator. He learned this trick from Henry James, Williams brother,
who had used the unreliable narrator to great effect in The Turn of the Screw.
Jamess short novel is told from the perspective of a governess who tries but
ultimately fails to protect two small children from an evil ghost. As it turns out,
however, it is not the ghost who kills the children, Pirsig explains, but the
governesss hysterical belief that a ghost exists.48 It can be read as a ghost story
only from the narrators perspective; otherwise it is a story about a crazy woman
and the only real danger is her delusional belief in ghosts.
47. Pirsig, Zen, 367.
48. Pirsig, Zen, xii.
Similarly, the unreliable narrator believes that an evil ghost named Phaedrus
is pursuing him. Pirsigs book isnt just a philosophical novel. It is also an
autobiography and so he is both the narrator and Phaedrus. These two characters
represent two distinct phases in Pirsigs life; Phaedrus is his personality before he
received electro-shock therapy and the narrator is the new personality that he
adopted afterward. Phaedrus was an intensely intellectual person, whose
philosophical quest ended in madness or culminated with enlightenment,
depending on ones interpretation. In either case, Phaedrus was destroyed in a
mental hospital by order of the courts and the narrator, his new personality, very
much wants this ghost to stay dead. The narrator is willing to do whatever it
takes to stay out of the hospital so he becomes a people-pleaser. He speaks in
charming platitudes. He carefully maintains the appearance of normality because
he knows what happened to Phaedrus. He has learned his lesson. No more shock
treatment for him.49 The narrator never tells his story except in ways that are
calculated to make you like him, Pirsig explains, but from Phaedruss point of
view the narrator is a sellout, a coward, who has abandoned the truth for
popularity and social acceptance.50 The narrators fraudulent personality is the
main source of anxiety and grief for the young son who vaguely senses that his
49. Pirsig, Zen, xiii.
50. Pirsig, Zen, xiii & xiv respectively.
real father is gone. On some level, the boy knows his new father is some
kind of imposter. As readers, we never get to hear Phaedruss story except
through the words of the unreliable narrator, who is something like a hostile
witness or a wet blanket.
The conflict between these characters is integral to the novels dramatic
structure, but it is important to establish their identities simply because so many
of the quoted passages refer to Phaedrus, often by name. It is necessary in order
to make sense of the textual evidence presented in this document. Pirsig also uses
the conflict between Phaedrus and the narrator to set up the same temperamental
clash that William James sets up in his own work, as will be shown in the next
paragraph, but this conflict is also roughly analogous to the larger philosophic
quest undertaken by Phaedrus. Phaedrus wants to resurrect the Sophists of
ancient Greece. He identifies with those ancient teachers of rhetoric and feels
they were slandered and forgotten long ago. Phaedruss story comes to us only
through the narrator, who is hostile to his cause, and so it is with the Sophists.
What we know about the Sophists comes only from their enemies and their
thought can only be partially reconstructed from fragments. At the same time,
this literary device also serves to endow Phaedrus with a certain mystique.
Because the narrator is our only access and he is only partially reconstructing
Phaedruss thought from old documents and fragments of memory, the reader is
left with the impression that we can never have the whole story, that something
has been lost in the translation. Id like to suggest that this is roughly the literary
equivalent of Jamess ever not quite, of the notion that something always
escapes our conceptualizations and verbal formulas.
Classic and romantic. I myself am pretty much Aristotelian, the narrator
says, but Phaedrus was clearly a Platonist by temperament.51 52 In this case,
Pirsig uses the conflict between them to set up the same temperamental
distinction that James uses. The classic narrator is the lover of the many
empirical facts while Phaedrus was the romantic Buddha seeker and a lover of
underlying principles or unifying ideals. Pirsig uses this distinction to illuminate
the clash between the mainstream culture and the counterculture movements of
the 1960s, which were just coming to an end when the book was first published
in 1974. To the hippies and the Beat poets who came before them, the classic
mode seems oppressively dull, mechanical, ugly and lifeless. As the classic mind
sees it, the romantic type is lazy, flakey, shallow and self-indulgent. And so in
recent times we have seen a huge split develop between a classic culture and a
romantic counterculture two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward
each other.32 Ultimately, Pirsigs aim is to reconcile these two thought styles.
51. Pirsig, Zen, 367.
52. Pirsig, Zen, 75.
The clash between these two types is also depicted in the narrators
relationship with John Sutherland, his riding partner and drinking buddy.
Sutherland is an actual person but he also represents the dismayed romantic. Hes
a drummer with no interest in motorcycle maintenance. Its too dull and too
square, he thinks. The fact-oriented narrator is always trying to convince his
musician friend that groovy feelings are not going to be enough when his
machine breaks down. Phaedrus was a romantic too but, unlike Sutherland and
countless other romantics, he thought he might be able to offer a solution because
his romantic temperament was combined with a mind that was trained in science
and well suited to technology. We might say he was an artful mechanic.
Pirsigs story. There are no scholarly biographers of Pirsigs life but every
edition of Zen and the Art includes an authors note telling us that the book is
based on actual occurrences and there are at least two dedicated amateurs that
have documented countless biographical facts.53 The description of Phaedruss
philosophical quest and the description of his personality as a romantic temper
combined with classically trained mind both seem to be fictionalized only very
53. Neither of these amateur sources are cited herein but curious readers
might want to see Dr. Henry Gurrs website, which is dedicated to Pirsig, at
Ian Glendinnings biographical timeline, which is included as part of his Pirsig
Pages at http://www.psvbcrtron.orq/timcl inc.html. Further, this writer has been
lucky enough to meet both Robert Pirsig and John Sutherland and neither of them
gave me any reason to doubt the story as it was told in the book.
slightly. For all intents and purposes, Phaedruss philosophical journey is the
story of the formation of Pirsigs Metaphysics of Quality. As I read it, Phaedrus
is the bolder, younger Pirsig and the narrator is Pirsigs more cautious self, the
one who keeps reminding the reader how crazy Phaedrus was and how Phaedrus
went too far. In some sense, the difference is basically just the difference
between Pirsig before and after the court-ordered shock treatment and he
presented the story of his own life, with two distinct phases, in an inventive way.
The fact that we have to extract the philosophical substance from an
autobiographical and philosophical novel would seem to complicate the task but
Pirsigs hybrid books are the only things that can be used to establish his views.
It seems that Pirsig wants to leave some room for each reader to make his or her
own judgments as to who is telling the truth in this story and to what extent.
Theoretic and aesthetic. In a conversation that occurred in Liverpool in July
of 2005, Pirsig said that no other book influenced him as much as F.S.C.
Northrops The Meeting of East and West. In fact, he described Zen and the Art
as a kind of popularization of Northrops difficult book. As Pirsig tells it in his
popular first book, young Phaedrus read The Meeting of East and Weston a troop
ship in 1948, when he was coming home from Korea. Northrops book prompted
him to return to the University of Minnesota to study philosophy and, after
earned a Bachelors degree there, he headed to India to study Asian philosophy at
Benares Hindu University. Northrops book says that there are two components
to mans existence. The theoretic dominates the West and the aesthetic is more
prominent in the East. As Pirsig explains it, these two components correspond
to what Phaedrus later called classic and romantic.54 At that point in the young
mans life, Northrops categories seemed to correspond with his own experience.
The theoretic corresponded to his laboratory work as a biochemistry student
while the aesthetic component corresponded to the impressions his Korean
friends had made on him while he was in the Army.
A wordabout truths. He was identified as exceptionally bright (I.Q. 170) at a
very early age and entered college to study biochemistry when he was only 15
years old. Rather than focus on the data-gathering laboratory work he was doing,
he turned his attention to the formation of scientific hypotheses. This young
Platonist had expected to find scientific truth, a single objective truth, the Truth,
but he quickly learned that science was doing the very opposite. He found that
hypotheses were proliferating at an ever-increasing rate. Through multiplication
upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses, Pirsig writes,
it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to
multiple, indeterminate, relative ones.55 As opposed to the notion that the
scientific method can lead us closer and closer to an ideal truth, what he found
54. Pirsig, Zen, 123.
55. Pirsig, Zen, 116.
instead was that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the
application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You
move away from it!36 He had neglected his studies in order to properly obsess
over this issue and was shocked to find himself kicked out for failing grades at
the age of 17. Soon after this shocking academic failure, as he was old enough,
he joined the Army and was stationed in Korea.
A truth about words. While in Korea young Phaedrus was very impressed
with the beauty of ordinary things, with a certain quality things seemed to lack at
home. This was not the philosophical version of Quality yet but it seems a seed
was planted. Also, and perhaps more importantly, an incident occurred that
unsettled him in the same way that the proliferation of theories and hypotheses
bothered him at school. It happened during a conversation with his Korean
friends. He marveled out loud at the astonishing fact that the English language
can, with only 26 letters, describe the entire universe. Upon hearing this
comment, his Korean friends nodded, smiled and said quite simply no. Was the
ambiguous reply intended as polite deference or was it the expression of some
deep paradox? He wasnt sure and he contemplated this incident many times
afterward. Much later, he would realize, as he puts it in Lila, that mystics share
a common belief that the fundamental nature of reality is outside of language
56. Pirsig, Zen, 116.
that language splits things up into parts while the true nature of reality is
undivided.5' He was still looking for some kind of solid ground in the way of
truth when he studied philosophy in Minnesota and in India and by the time he
had asked the philosophy professor at Benares if the two atomic bombs that had
been dropped on Japan were illusory, he had had enough. He quit his quest. He
gave up and went home. Pirsig says, Thats extremely important to understand.
He had given up.57 58
The seed crystal. Through most of the 1950s he studied for a Masters degree
in Journalism, wrote fiction, did odd jobs as a technical and scientific writer,
started a family. In 1959, a year after finishing graduate school, he took a job
teaching English composition at Montana State College in Bozeman. He had
given up on his philosophical quest, his pursuit of the ghosts of reason, as he
called it, and his main task was to teach freshmen how to write a good essay.
Then one day a colleague, a classics professor, asked if he was teaching quality
to his students. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal,
Pirsig writes, within a matter of a few months, growing so fast you could almost
see it grow, came an enormous, intricate, highly structured mass of thought,
57. Pirsig, Lila, 63.
58. Pirsig, Zen, 144.
if by magic.59 That innocently unphilosophical question prompted the thought
that would become Pirsigs Metaphysics of Quality.
He had turned to philosophy to answer the questions prompted by his
activities in science and this time he turned to philosophy to answer questions
prompted by challenges of teaching art. This time he was older and because of
his previous quest he had a supersaturated mind with many dormant ideas
waiting to crystallize. Phaedruss new quest, his pursuit of Quality, would soon
lead him to study ancient Greek philosophy at the University of Chicago under
the Aristotle scholar Richard McKeon, the Chairman of the Committee on
Analysis of Ideas and Methods. He was driven by a single purpose; to discover
what had happened to Quality back in ancient Greece. He really believed. It
wasnt just another idea to be tested by existing rational methods because
Phaedrus saw his thesis as a modification of the existing rational methods
themselves.60 Phaedrus wanted reason and rationality to be subordinate,
logically, to Quality, and he was sure he would find the cause of its not being so
back among the ancient Greeks, whose mythos had endowed our culture with the
tendency to do what is reasonable even when it isnt any good.61 While he was
59. Pirsig. Zen, 180 & 181 respectively.
60. Pirsig, Zen, 345.
61. Pirsig, Zen, 358.
still teaching English composition in Bozeman, Phaedrus wrote a wildly
grandiose letter to the Aristotelian Chairmen explaining his intention to effect a
dialectical reversal of the Universitys fundamental tenets with his anti-
Aristotelian thesis on Quality. In his letter he told the Chairman no one was
really accepted in Chicago until he'd rubbed someone out. It was time Aristotle
got his. He claimed that his thesis would be a major breakthrough between
Eastern and Western philosophy, between religious mysticism and scientific
positivism.62 Phaedrus thinks of himself as a lone wolf coming down from the
mountains of Montana to take up the long-lost cause of the rhetoricians and
Sophists of ancient Greece. He thinks he is going to single-handedly out-flank all
of Western philosophy and revolutionize thought itself.
Rules are tools. The question of quality writing began as the central, practical
problem that he had to face as a teacher each working day. It was also a concrete
example of the way Quality is subordinated to reason, a daily reminder of the
vicious abstractionism that would soon become the focus of Phaedruss
philosophical mission. Phaedruss goal was to teach excellence in writing but he
was frustrated when he saw that the theoretic dominated the aesthetic so
thoroughly that even the creative arts were to be approached and handled as if
they were governed by rules and procedures. The text book he was using was
62. Pirsig, Zen, 345.
one of the most rational texts available on the subject of rhetoric and it still didn't
seem right, Pirsig writes, and he just felt that no writer ever learned to write by
this squarish, by-the-numbers, objective, methodical approach.63 The basic
premise of the text was that college level rhetoric should be taught as a branch
of reason, not as a mystic art, but for Phaedrus it was all table manners, it was
just hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people.64 65 When he used examples
as models of good writing his students only seemed to produce bad imitations
and it seemed to Phaedrus that every rule he honestly tried to discover with
them and learn with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and
qualifications and confusions that he wished he'd never come across the rule in
the first place.63 He groped and grappled and experimented with various
teaching techniques until he finally realized that the good writers he was using as
models of excellence did not write by numbers any more than a good painter
would paint by numbers. They wrote without rules, putting down whatever
sounded right, he concluded, and then the rule was pasted on to the writing
after the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to
63. Pirsig, Zen, 181 & 182 respectively.
64. Pirsig, Zen, 182 & 183 respectively.
65. Pirsig, Zen, 176.
the fact.66 In other words, he thought that the aesthetic component was actually
primary but it was mistakenly being subordinated to the theoretical component.
In the next phase, then, he tried to teach his students without the use of
models, without rules and he even suspended the whole grading system. In an
effort to instill a sense of originality, Phaedrus would assign essay topics that
made it nearly impossible to imitate the greats; essays about one side of one coin,
about ones own thumb, about a single brick. In an effort to convince his students
that they could recognize good writing when they saw it he designed an exercise
in which they would rank their own essays according to their excellence. The
students would simply vote on which essay was best and they soon discovered
that their collective opinion almost always agreed with their instructors choice.
The students grew increasingly confident in their abilities until they became
convinced that they could recognize quality for themselves. These exercises did
not provide the students with a definition of excellence, a theory of art or any
particular principle and yet they could see that quality was quite real. Many
students came by his office to say how they had come to love English because of
this experience. Phaedruss concept of Quality really seemed to work beautifully,
Pirsig reports. Once they were convinced that Quality was real and that they
knew what it was, the students wanted to know how to get it. Now, at last, the
66. Pirsig, Zen, 176.
standard rhetoric texts came into their own, Pirsig writes, because 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.67
Subjective or objective? His colleagues in the English Department did not
understand why anyone would get so excited about the question of quality. They
only saw the concept in terms of English composition. They didnt know that
when Phaedrus was a young philosophy student he hated everything about the
philosophy of Aesthetics and he had written angry, abusive papers condemning
the entire branch of knowledge. It wasnt any particular point of view that
outraged him so much as the idea that Quality should be subordinated to any
point of view. His new working concept of undefined Quality seemed to resolve
this old antagonism very much in his favor, as he saw it, and the thought of this
completely thrilled him. It was like discovering a cancer cure.68Despite being
the newly hired junior member of the faculty, Phaedrus enthusiastically presented
them with his teaching method and his concept of undefined Quality as if he
were providing the standards for his seniors. As a kind of preface to his written
explanations of his teaching methods Phaedrus told them that every instructor of
67. Pirsig, Zen, 208.
68. Pirsig, Zen, 213.
English knows what quality is and he parenthetically advised any instructor who
did not know to keep that fact carefully concealed, for this would certainly
constitute proof of incompetence.69 The only people who do not know what
Quality is are squares, he told them, almost as if he were intentionally giving
them an extra motive to scrutinize his claims. For that, they were prepared to
strike him down and so they looked with gusto for any indication that he
wasnt making sense.70 His attempt to come up with something substantial in
the way of reasonable answers led him beyond the traditional limits of rhetoric
and into the domain of philosophy.71
Of all the questions posed by his colleagues in the English department at
Montana State College, one question in particular really stumped Phaedrus. Does
this undefined Quality exist in the things we examine or does it exist in the mind
of the observer? As Phaedrus saw it, this question posed a real dilemma. If it
exists objectively then he would have to explain why no scientific instrument has
ever detected such a thing and if it exists only in the eye of the beholder then it is
not an undefined reality so much as a name for ones personal tastes and
sensibilities. This question had cut Quality in two and killed it as a working
69. Pirsig, Zen, 212.
70. Pirsig, Zen, 214.
71. Pirsig, Zen, 214.
concept, he thought, and yet it was also unfair because the mind-matter
relationship has been an intellectual hang-up for centuries.72 It seemed that he
would have resolve old philosophical problems that nobody else ever had or he
would have to surrender and admit that his notion of Quality was nonsense. Since
this working concept thrilled him as much as a cure for cancer, he would have to
delve into metaphysics in order to come up with a plausible answer. To ask
whether Quality exists in the subject or in the object is to ask for the ontological
status of Quality and so their question presumed that it had to fit into one
ontological category or the other.
I dont know how much thought passed before he arrived at this, the
narrator says, but eventually he saw that Quality couldnt be independently
related with either the subject or the object.73 This is one of the areas where
some of the details of Phaedruss thought are lost in the narrators translation but
the re-telling does take us through several phases and failed attempts. At one
point, for example, Phaedrus seriously entertain the possibility of replacing their
subject-object dualism with an ontological trinity wherein Quality would be a
third ontological category. Ultimately, however, this would give way to a kind of
experiential monism. He identified Quality as an ongoing event, as a kind of
72. Pirsig, Zen, 237.
73. Pirsig, Zen, 239.
preintellectual awareness that gives rise to all intellectually recognizable things.
Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects, Phaedrus
concluded, and that's why Quality could not be identified with the subjective part
of reality or the objective part, he concluded, because it was the whole thing.74
Phaedrus was under the impression that at least some of his colleagues tended to
understand things in terms of behaviorism or stimulus-response theories and so
he gave an answer that could be easily understood in those terms. He asks them
to imagine an amoeba on a plate of water. If a small amount of sulfuric acid is
put into the water, the amoeba would likely move away in response to that
stimuli. If that tiny organism could talk, it would likely complain about the
quality of the situation or give us reasons as to why things are better in its new
surroundings on the other side of the plate. More complex organisms like us will
seek images, symbols and analogues to define these pleasant and unpleasant
experiences. Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts
upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it,
Phaedrus wrote. Now, to take that which has caused us to create the world, he
continued, and include it within the world we have created, is clearly
impossible. That is why Quality cannot be defined.75
74. Pirsig, Zen, 247 & 249 respectively.
75. Pirsig, Zen, 251.
This claim might seem quite weird or mysterious or possibly even magical
and this is one of those areas where the narrator begins to get very nervous. The
narrator tells us that even he remembers this particular fragment of memory from
Phaedruss life more than any other because it was so important and so
frightening. Quality has caused us to create every last bit of the world? The
narrator calls it madness and he tells us that Phaedrus almost took it back, but it
was too late. After Phaedrus wrote that he put his pencil away and felt something
slip inside. It could be that this is an area where the narrator is not being
excessively cautious or unreliable but I think it would be better to see this claim
as a dramatized version of the Jamesian claim that we carve out everything, that
all of our words and thought categories are the inventions of our ancestors. If
subjects and objects are no longer taken as realities in the ontological sense and
are instead taken as concepts invented to guide and manage experience, then
subjects and objects are among the many invented analogues. From this
perspective, treating subjects and objects as ontological categories is to reify
these concepts, is to grant them a rank and status they do not deserve. Even
further, Pirsigs claim extends to all of our analogues, to all of our concepts. Any
intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality
is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There Is
no other reality. This preintellectual reality is what Phaedrus felt he had properly
identified as Quality.76 If we frame this in behaviorist terms, then the
preintellectual reality and the continuing stimulus are both names for Quality and
any intellectually conceived object would be an invented analogue, something we
carved out. That what he meant when he told his colleagues /^/Quality was
knowable and real even though it could not be defined. This is not because
Quality is so mysterious, Phaedrus wrote to his colleagues, but because Quality
is so simple, immediate and direct.77 You know it in the sense that it is simply
experience itself, the ongoing stimulus itself but it cannot be defined it because it
is not an analogue or any intellectually conceived object. Those are secondary
additions to the primary empirical reality, as Pirsig will put it later in his second
book when he is hitching his wagon to William Jamess radical empiricism.
What James meant, Pirsig explains, is that subjects and objects are not the
starting points of reality. Subjects and objects are secondary. They are concepts
derived from something more fundamental which he [James] described as the
immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its
conceptual categories.78 When he first worked out this answer, Phaedrus
believed he was following a path that .. .had never been taken before in the
76. Pirsig, Zen, 247.
77. Pirsig, Zen, 250.
78. Pirsig, Lila, 364-5.
history of Western thought.79 At that point in time, he was not yet aware that
William James had already taken a very similar path. In fact, the conclusions he
was drawing at this time were actually just the beginning. His time at the
University of Chicago and his period of madness were still in the future and he
would only discover his own affinity with James at some point after writing his
first book. Approximately thirty years separate the answers he gave to his
colleagues in Bozeman and the Jamesian framing he uses in his second book.
Quality and pure experience. At the time, Phaedrus did not know that James
had already coined a name for this primary empirical reality and he didnt yet
know that it was the central doctrine of his radical empiricism. James provides a
neat summary in the introduction to The Meaning of Truth. Radical empiricism
consists first of a postulate, next of a statement of fact, and finally of a
generalized conclusion.80 The postulate is that anything that cannot be
experienced should be excluded from our philosophies and anything that can be
experienced should be included somewhere in our philosophies. The statement of
fact is that the relations between things are just as much a part of experience as
are the things themselves. Please notice how this statement of fact creates a
continuity of experience. In A World of Pure Experience, James describes this
79. Pirsig, Zen, 237.
80. James, The Meaning of Truth, 826.
notion in terms of a mosaic wherein each tiny tile is connected to the other tiles,
except this analogy is a little deceptive, he says, because the parts of experience
(the tiles) require no bedding or glue. Finally, the generalized conclusion is that
the parts of experience are held together by the transitions that connect them and
are themselves parts of experience. The world of experience already has a
continuous structure and we dont need any metaphysical entities or trans-
empirical agents to act as bedding or glue. My thesis is that if we start with the
supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of
which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff pure experience, then
knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one
another into which portions of pure experience may enter.81 82 Please notice, first
of all, the similarity between Jamess claim and Pirsigs. Quality is the source
and the parent of everything, Pirsig says, and James says pure experience is stuff
of which everything is made. Is this starting to sound less and less like madness?
James provides what I take to be an even clearer statement of this central thesis
in another essay. The central point of the pure-experience theory is that outer
and inner are names for two groups into which we sort experiences according to
the way in which they act upon their neighbors. As we just saw, James and
81. James, Does Consciousness Exist? 1142.
82. James, The Place of Affectional Facts, 1207.
Pirsig share an affinity for stripping subjects and objects of their ontological rank
and they both give that demoted dualism a new, secondary role in relation with
the primary empirical reality, with directly lived experience. In other words, they
are both saying that 'subjective" and objective are names for the categories
into which we sort experience but pure experience is prior to this sorting. Pure
experience is only virtually or potentially a subject or an object, James says.
Subjective or objective? The first great pitfall from which such a radical
standing by experience will save us, James says, is an artificial conception of
the relations between knower and known. Throughout the history of philosophy
the subject and its object have been treated as absolutely discontinuous entities;
and thereupon the presence of the latter to the former, or the apprehension by
the former of the latter, has assumed a paradoxical character which all sorts of
theories had to be invented to overcome.83 Where pragmatism is largely a theory
of truth, radical empiricism is a theory of knowledge. The main thrust here is to
overcome an artificial dualistic conception and replace it with pure experience.
With this supposition, James says, knowing can be explained in terms of the
relations within experience or between experiences. Pure experience is not one of
those metaphysical categories or trans-experiential entities, however, which are
ruled out by the first postulate of radical empiricism. Pirsig says Quality is the
83. James, A World of Pure Experience, 1164-5.
source and substance of everything and James says pure experience is the
stuff everything is made of. The use of such terms might prompt one to ask if
they are positing some new master ontological category but I think the evidence
says they are not. There is no universal element and there is no general stuff,
James said, in pure experience there are as many stuffs as there are natures in
the things experienced and pure experience is only a collective name for all
these sensible natures.84 85 Similarly, as we already saw, Pirsig says that Quality is
the primary empirical reality, the ongoing stimulus, and he employs a quote from
James to describe Quality as the immediate flux of life. These sorts of terms,
which dominate their descriptions and explanations, seem to indicate that Quality
or pure experience is anything but trans-empirical.
Jamess story. James never told the faculty of any department that they were a
bunch of squares as Pirsig had but, as we saw already, he did tell his Absolutist
rivals that they were a bunch of prigs. James never wrote any grandiose letters
threatening to rub out Aristotle but in a letter to his brother Henry he candidly
admitted that he wanted the scalp of the Absolute.83 This zealous declaration
was penned in 1908, at which point James had already been battling the Absolute
for approximately 30 years. The sustained rivalry between James and Royce was
84. James, Does Consciousness Exist? 1153.
85. Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American
Modernism, [New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006], 499.
famously friendly but James was not shy about admitting his own attitudes and
feelings on the matter and his published works are littered with verbal punches
that are delivered in gentlemanly tones that are humorously incongruous with the
hard-hitting point James wants to make. For example, James says a certain
contention that Bradley and Royce both lovingly repeat is a meaningless
piece of profundity and after arguing with Bradley on a particular point that
really seems weird to have argue, James concludes his case by declaring, I
sometimes suspect the absolutists of sincerity!86 These examples come from
footnotes but it seems that combative spirit, sarcastic attitude and his gently
insulting points are all clear enough even in small print. But in Jamess letters we
can glimpse and even more passionate, even aggressive, side of the man. When
he was planning the lectures that would become The Varieties of Religious
Experience, one of which was tentatively titled Demolish Royce, James wrote
to Charles Eliot, who was then the President of Harvard, explaining his intention
to destroy Royce and the Absolute.87 James is on the warpath because his
metaphysical rivals have a view that denies, dismisses or denigrates the directly
lived experiences that James takes to be most real and concrete. To be fair, James
was not always talking about taking scalps or destroying his opponents. Despite
86. Richardson, William James, 794 & 798 respectively.
87. Richardson, William James, 387 & 391 respectively.
his abiding wish to crush the Absolutism of Royce and Bradley, he loved Royce
like a brother and he exchanged friendly and respectful letters with Bradley for
15 years. James was an empirical scientist, among other things, and he wanted to
push back against the religious monism of his opponents with empirical facts but
the new science of psychology suffered from a positivistic, behaviorist, objective
approach and traditional empiricists like Locke and Hume were not much help
Psychology and metaphysics. James began teaching philosophy in 1879,
while he was still writing The Principles of Psychology?. In fact he became a
Professor of philosophy in 1885, five years before his massive psychology book
was published. Despite this overlap, James wanted to keep metaphysics out of
psychology, especially the then dominant neo-Hegelian and neo-Kantian
idealism.88 Jamess Principles would establish him as one of the founders of
modern psychology and yet, as he saw it, the field had produced only raw facts
and descriptions. It had discovered no general laws or basic propositions, he
thought, and it was an immature science comparable to the field of physics
before Galileo. This is no science, it is only the hope of a science, James
complained, and when the new Galileos of psychology finally arrive the
88. Richardson, William James, 332.
necessities of the case will make them "metaphysical.89 Ironically, his work as
a scientist led him to doubt the basic assumptions of positivistic science and it
raised metaphysical questions that could not be properly addressed within the
confines of psychology. In Psychology: Briefer Course, which is a about one
third the size of The Principles of Psychology, James said, Everyone assumes
that we have direct introspective acquaintance with our thinking activity as such,
with our consciousness as something inward and contrasted with the outer
objects which it knows.90 This was the same subject-object dualism that had cut
Phaedruss working concept of Quality in half and in both cases the issue could
not be resolved within the confines of their respective disciplines. To doubt this
assumed dualism "lies beyond the scope of our natural science, James said, Yet
I must confess that for my part I cannot feel sure of this conclusion.91 The
questions raised in his psychological investigations led James to doubt the basic
assumptions behind both psychology and traditional forms of sensory
empiricism. In the same way that James wanted to deflate the Absolute so that it
would be treated as an hypothesis rather that a metaphysical certainty, he also
89. William James, Psychology: Briefer Course, in William Janies: Writings,
J878-1899\ ed. Gerald E. Myers [New York: The Library of America, 1992],
90. James, Psychology, 432.
91. James, Psychology, 209 & 432 respectively.
thought that it would be better to treat consciousness, conceived as an entity, as
a postulate' rather than a sensibly given fact.92 This effectively meant that
psychology was a discipline whose very object of inquiry was in doubt. It meant
a psychology particularly fragile, and into which the waters of metaphysical
criticism leak at every joint, a psychology all of whose elementary assumptions
and data must be reconsidered in wider connections and translated into other
James'sclassroom. Jamess excellent biographer says, the exact steps by
which radical empiricism emerged for James are not fully clear, but it is clear
that it happened during the first half of 1904.94 95 By autumn of 1902 James was
anxious to put the public lectures aside and produce something professional,
serious and systematic. James was using his philosophy classroom to creatively
work through the issues he had been grappling with for many years. As James
told his friend and self-appointed philosophical bodyguard, Ferdinand Canning
Scott Schiller, 1 am for the first time in my teaching life, trying to construct a
universe before the eyes of my students in systematic lectures with no text.93
92. James, Psychology, 432.
93. James, Psycho/ogy, 432-3.
94. Richardson, William James, 451.
95. Richardson, William James, 424.
Indeed, the 1902 syllabus shows that James was already teaching the pragmatic
method and the idea of pure experience.
The Bergson boost. During this same academic year James was greatly
encouraged and emboldened by reading and re-reading the French literary
philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson. In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Bergson
denounced conceptual thinking itself in favor of more direct and intuitive ways
of knowing. This bold stance, all by itself, would have been enough to make
Bergson into a very powerful ally against vicious abstractionism. Central to
everything in Bergsons thought was this idea of duration, Richardson reports,
and Jamess excited notes and underlinings in his copies of Bergsons books
showed how he grasped the idea of duration as life, process, change, and growth,
as opposed to stasis, forms, and measurements.96 It was a welcome boost.
James had already emphasized the continuity of experience in his psychology
book, asserting that rivers and streams are the best metaphors because the
actual present is only the joint between the past and future and has no breadth of
its own.97 That is to say, experience is not divided into discrete moments, as the
traditional empirical psychologist and philosophers had held. It flows
continuously. The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river
96. Richardson, William James, 426.
97. James, Psychology, 159 & 432 respectively.
consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other
molded forms of water, James had complained, and it is this free water of
consciousness that psychologists resolutely overlook. In the same way that
walking is not just the placement of one foot in front of the other but also
involves a continuous falling forward, the forms and measurements of conceptual
thought are like momentary resting places but there is also an overlooked
transitive component that connects each step. The failure to take account of these
transitional parts of experience is, James says, the great blunder to which all
schools [of psychology] are liable.98 99 Thanks to a boost from Bergson, the
provisional solutions James had worked out in psychology were on the verge of
developing into a radical empiricism. What James had seen in Bergsons work
in December 1902 was a conclusive demolition of the dualism of object and
subject in perception, as Richardson reports it, and what James recognized in
Bergsons Introduction to Metaphysics in February 1903 was a philosophy of
pure experience, which strongly resembled what he himself was just then
struggling to think through.100 Years later, Bergson and his Critique of
Intellectual ism would appear as the sixth chapter of book James would call A
98. James, Psychology, 164.
99. James, Psychology, 161.
100. Richardson, William James, 428.
Pluralistic Universe. Jamess biographer says this chapter is perhaps James
most persuasive attack on excessive rationalism, on vicious intellectualism, on
the kind of conceptual thinking that ignores the ever-shifting quality of real-life
experiences, and on formal logic considered as an adequate representation of
how minds really function.101 Bergson was no pragmatist but he served as an
excellent ally against excessive intellectualism, against Cartesian dualism,
against mechanistic explanations of evolution and of consciousness. James was
greatly encouraged by the similarity between his own pure experience and
Bergson's concept of Duration, largely because it portrayed experience in terms
of continuous or seamless transitions.
Then came Fec/mer. Excited and encouraged by Bergson's work and by the
broad ranging philosophical issues he had been grappling with in his classroom,
James was gathering notes throughout 1903 for a book he planned to call The
Many and the One. He began writing in October but by late May 1904 he had
written, he said, exactly thirty-two pages.102 That particular book never
materialized but the attempt added to a tumultuous confluence of philosophic
streams of energy", including Gustav Fechner's Little Book of Life After Death,
for which James had written an admiring introduction in June of 1904.
101. Richardson, William James. 503.
102. Richardson, William James, 445.
Richardson describes Jamess short introduction as a liberating, radical,
imaginative flight that is, incidentally, as good a statement of the one and the
many as James ever achieved.103 As Richardson reports it, Jamess introduction
praised the view that the entire material universe, instead of being dead, is
inwardly alive and consciously animated and, James had written, it is easy to
believe that consciousness or inner experience never originated, or developed,
out of the unconscious, but that it and the physical universe are co-eternal aspects
of one self-same reality.104 If James had a covert monistic impulse, as
Richardson suggests, maybe it was Fechners empirical psychology that finally
allowed James to openly entertain the notion. Maybe James could accept the idea
from a scientist even if he would not hear it from an Absolutist. In any case, it
seems that James finally found a place to plant his mystic germ. One might
wonder if James's attraction to this view would violate the radical empiricists
prohibition against positing any trans-empirical realities. But his pure experience
theory, which he had been teaching for years and which he mentioned in writing
as far back as 1897 in The Willto Believe, explains how mind and matter are both
aspects of a single reality without any such posit. As James conceived of it, the
full fact of experience, the concrete actuality of experience, contains all the
103. Richardson, William James, 447.
104. Richardson, William James, 447.
experience, contains all the elements that can potentially be sorted into categories
like consciousness and matter. The full fact, James said, is a conscious field plus
its objects as felt or thought of plus and attitude towards the object plus the sense
of a self to whom the attitude belongs.105 If mind and matter are the ways we
sort experience rather than the structures of reality, then it is not much of a
stretch to say that consciousness and the physical universe are aspects of the
same reality. James thought that our ways of talking sometimes betrayed the
notion that thoughts and things are always distinct. We see this in phrases such as
a lonely road, a tragic situation, or a sullen sty, to use Jamess examples. Their
ambiguity illustrates my central thesis that subjectivity and objectivity are affairs
not of what an experience is aboriginally made of, but of its classification.106
The final detonation. We can only guess at the exact causes of the explosion,
but thats how the scholar John McDermott characterizes this moment in Jamess
life, Richardson reports, as an explosion of creative thought. What he was
getting, from Bergson and others, was corroboration, agreement, support for his
own most important views, a feeling that a new consensus was forming among
his allies such as Schiller, Bergson, Fechner as well as John Dewey and Charles
105. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 447.
106. James, The Place of Affectional Facts, 1208.
Sanders Peirce."107 There was a tremendous enthusiasm in Jamess private letters
at this same moment. He wrote to tell a friend how excited he was about the
prospects for radical empiricism, saying that he had never been more interested
in anything else. James also wrote a letter to the editor of the journal that was
publishing his work. "Every step I make confirms me in the view that radical
empiricism is It, James declared.108 Out of all these tendencies and influences
came, in June and July, an epoch-making pair of essays, the two anchor points of
Jamess philosophy of radical empiricism, Does Consciousness Exist? and A
World of Pure Experience'.109 By February of 1905 James had finished all the
core pieces that would become Essays in Radical Empiricism. In early March he
gave a series of five lectures that "are usually seen as a first draft for
Pragmatism. and James was also working on A Pluralistic Universe during this
Monism versus monism:9 Unlike the Absolute monism of his rivals, Jamess
pure experience was not a single unified Mind nor was it rational through and
through. To accept that kind of monism would be entirely antithetical to Jamess
stance against excessive intellectualism. Pirsigs Quality was a monism too. He
107. Richardson, William James, 430.
108. Richardson, William James, 457.
109. Richardson, William James, 448.
had described Quality as the source and substance of everything. He realized that
Hegel had said something very similar but Pirsig explicitly rejected that sort of
monism precisely because it was so excessively intellectual. Hegel's Absolute
was completely classical, completely rational and completely orderly. Quality
was not like that.110 James had expressed the same sentiment in the notes for his
1903 seminar, the one in which he was teaching creatively, without a text. All
classic, clean, cut and dried, noble, fixed, eternal, Weltanschauung
[worldviews] seem to me to violate the character with which life concretely
comes, James wrote.111 Pure experience was not like that either. Pirsig and
James were both asserting a kind of experiential monism to establish the
authority of lived experience over intellectual formulas. Their monism is the
primary empirical reality to which all our conceptual classifications must answer.
This monism is not a definitive claim about the unified structure of reality so
much as an assertion of the view that experience itself is undivided and
continuous while all of our concepts, including our philosophical categories, are
secondary products, are the result of our carving and sorting activities. James and
Pirsig are pushing back against the kind of vicious intellectualism that privileges
the logical and the articulate at the expense of the immediate flux of life, of the
110. Pirsig, Zen, 252.
111. Richardson, William James, 451.
Knowledge of life is one thing; James says, effective occupation of a place in
life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another.112
From substance to process. With the advent of his radical empiricism James
had dropped the old dualism of subject and object and was arguing that
experience is all there is113 Our two radical empiricists say, in short, that
experience /Irreality. This is not a claim about the ultimate nature of the universe
so much as a statement of epistemological humility. It sets a very human limit
upon what we can reasonably claim and at the same time insists that human
interests and affections are among the most vital features in experience and in the
construction of our philosophies. The result of Jamess radical empiricism,
Richardson reports, is to move the modern mind away from seventeenth-century
Cartesian dualism and toward what we can call process philosophy; to wean us
away from falling back on conceptualizations and to encourage us to trust our
perceptions; to admit feelings to full standing, along with ideas, as aspects of
rationality.114 James and Pirsig both make use of the same analogy to describe
the difference between lived experience and the abstractions we derive from it,
between life and our philosophies. Metaphysics is not reality, Pirsig explains,
112. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 438.
113. Richardson, William James. 451.
114. Richardson, William James, 450.
Metaphysics is names about reality. Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give
you a thirty-thousand page menu and no food.115 A bill of fare with one real
raisin on it instead of the word raisin, with one real egg instead of the word
egg might be an inadequate meal, but it would at least be a commencement of
reality.116 This is not to say that menus are useless, of course. They can help in
directing us to a real meal. Their point is simply that we ought not eat menus,
which is to say we ought not confuse reality with our ideas about it.
Summary remarks. It seems that the most remarkable thing about their
respective stories is that James and Pirsig both struggled with the issues for a
long time before they finally found what they were looking for. In both cases,
their central doctrine was forged in a furious period of creativity. In both cases,
this creative period is described in chemical analogies wherein stored potential
was suddenly unleashed, crystallization in one case and an explosion in the other.
It is also well worth noting that they were both, in effect, forced to be creative
because neither thought the existing options were viable. Like a frustrated
musician who cannot produce the sound he wants with the guitars in existence,
James and Pirsig had to invent new instruments.
115. Pirsig, Lila, 63.
116. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 447-8.
PRAGMATISM, RADICAL EMPIRICISM & MYSTICISM
Place yourself similarly at the centre of a mans philosophic vision and you
understand at once all the different things it makes him write or say.
William James, A Pluralistic Universe
Introductory remarks. As he was developing his two main doctrines,
pragmatism and radical empiricism, James characterized the relationship between
them in various ways. In the preface to Pragmatism James said there is no logical
connection between pragmatism and radical empiricism. A person can reject
radical empiricism without rejecting pragmatism, which can stand on its own, he
claimed. On the other hand, in his preface to The Meaning of Truth, which was
written just two years later as a sequel to Pragmatism, James said that the critical
weapons being used against pragmatism could easily be used against radical
empiricism. In that same preface he also claimed that establishing the pragmatic
theory of truth would be an important step toward making radical empiricism
prevail. Even further, several of the chapters in The Meaning of Truth are
included in Jamess posthumously published Essays in Radical Empiricism and.
as we saw in the previous chapter, James was developing both of these doctrines
during that explosively creative period. Connecting his two doctrines might not
be a logical necessity but they are so mutually supportive and inter-related that it
would not be unreasonable to treat as two features of a single vision or
worldview. In this chapter, then, I will treat the pragmatic theory of truth as
special chapter within a larger book called radical empiricism, following Ralph
Barton Perry's analogy in his original 1912 introduction to Jamess Essays in
Radical Empiricism. On this view, radical empiricism is a generalized theory of
knowledge while pragmatism, as a theory of truth, is more specific and fits
within it. As I read them, James and Pirsig are using both of these weapons
against vicious abstractionism and they are both part of a positive effort to
provide a philosophy that better serves our human needs and values.
Everything here is plastic. James and Pirsig share an evolutionary and
developmental view of abstractions, which is to say our thought categories were
invented for practical purposes and each of us inherits these adaptations as we
acquire language in the developmental process. James consistently uses this
evolutionary framework to talk about the origin of concepts throughout his work,
including Pragmatism, Essays in Radical Empiricism and A Pluralistic Universe.
They both point to the way an individual infant has to learn the theory of object
permanence to illustrate this developmental process. A babys rattle drops out of
his hand, but the baby looks not for it. It has gone out for him, as a candle-
flame goes out: and it comes back when relit. The idea of its being a thing,
whose permanent existence by itself might interpolate between its successive
apparitions has evidently not occurred to hint.117 James asks us to imagine what
the world might be like if the remote ancestor who invented the idea of
permanent objects had invented some other way to conceptualize things. What
conceptual schemes would we now have if that ancient and unknown inventor
had hit upon a different solution? The evolutionary history of concepts might
have played out differently, in which case todays infants would inherit a
different idea about objects and/or permanence as they learned to talk and
think. As it turned out, however, our inherited notion of things has worked fox
a long time now. The idea still serves almost any practical purpose, quite
unproblematically, and for the pragmatist that is all it means for an idea to be
true. In this sense, pragmatic truth is not the only truth or the final truth so much
as it is a good and useful tool, one that agrees with the sensible flux and the rest
of the conceptual order. For us, this is just common sense and most people would
not recognize object permanence as a theory or an invention but, our pragmatists
point out, it is still just an idea, one we have to leam. When a baby is several
months old, Pirsig says, he will begin to really understand enough about that
enormously complex correlation of sensations and boundaries and desires called
an object to be able to reach for one.118 This is analogous to the way we learn to
117. James, Pragmatism and Common Sense, 562
118. Pirsig, Lila, 119.
ride a bike or drive a car. The first lessons are relatively slow and clumsy but we
soon become so accustomed to it that we can ride or drive without deliberately
thinking about it. The same process applies to all of our conceptual inheritances,
to all our carving and sorting, Pirsig says. That is why we think of subjects and
objects as primary. We cant remember that period of our lives when they were
anything else.119 This applies to our whole conceptual reality, not just subjects
and objects, of course. This conceptual order is one big pile of analogies invented
by our ancestors. Its all a human creation, Pirsig says, every last bit of it. We
invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language,
philosophy, engineering, civilization and science. We call these analogues
reality. And they are reality.120. James says the same thing in last unfinished
work, Some Problems of Philosophy. Out of this aboriginal sensible muchness
attention carves out objects, which conception then names and identifies forever
- in the sky constellations, on the earth beach, sea, cliff, bushes, grass.
Out of time we cut days, and nights, summers, and winters. We say what
each part of the sensible continuum is, and all these abstracted whats are
concepts.121 James and Pirsig both paint a picture of the world wherein there are
119. Pirsig, Lila; 119.
120. Pirsig, Zen, 251
121. James, Percept and Concept, 1008.
just two main elements. The first primary element is the immediate flux of
sensible experience and then a secondary conceptual order that we add to it.
These are different parts of experience, of reality, as we know it.
Sublime power. These conceptual tools are quite advantageous, even
marvelous, they both say. Pirsig thinks this power has been very effective in
lifting us up from the primitive conditions of our ancestors. It is a sublime ability
that increases human power and vision, James thinks. It is no wonder that earlier
thinkers, forgetting that concepts are only man-made extracts from the temporal
flux, would have ended by treating them as a superior type of being, bright,
changeless, true, divine, and utterly opposed in nature to the turbid, restless lower
world.122 This conceptual order is such a powerful, all-dominating agent of
civilized man, Pirsig says, that it has all but shut out everything else and now
dominates man himself. Thats the source of the problem.123 Our actual,
concrete experience is then denigrated as fleeting and false in comparison to
these man-made extracts. At that point, as Ralph Waldo Emerson might put it,
our own instruments have subdued us. That is when intellectualism becomes
vicious. This evolutionary picture of the origin of concepts not only figures into
their critique of vicious intellectualism and their critique of subject-object
122. James, the Compounding of Consciousness, 728.
123. Pirsig, Zen, 129.
metaphysics as a reification of those conceptual categories, it also serves as a
central premise for the pragmatic theory of truth wherein the point and purpose
of concepts is to guide experience, not to de-realize or denigrate it. The notion
that experience is primary and concepts are secondary also figures into pure
experience, which is the central doctrine of radical empiricism.
Only re/ative/ypure. The central doctrine of radical empiricism is called pure
experience, but James warns us not to take this notion of purity too literally. To
explain this warning, it might be useful to contrast James's notion with the idea
pure consciousness or consciousness all by itself w ithout any content. James
directly attacks this latter notion in the first of his essays on radical empiricism,
lie uses paint as an analogy to describe the views of his neo-Kantian opponents.
As they saw it. according to James's characterization, consciousness is the oil or
other medium in which the content or pigment is suspended. On this view', the
content can be separated or subtracted from the consciousness if we let the
content settle. This is not easy and one can newer quite tease them apart entirely
but it can be done well enough to see that they are two different things. James's
contention is exactly the opposite of this. Experience, James says, has no such
inner duplicity; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes,
not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition.''124 This is the essay that
124. James, Does Consciousness' Exist? 1144.
startled the world by denying the existence of consciousness as a thing or entity.
Instead, he said, consciousness is a process and a name for the fact that the
content is known. Our language is full of conventions that practically demand
that we think of knower and known as separate, as in simple phrases like I
think and my thoughts but, as Nietzsche pointed out, these are like the phrase
it is raining. We dont usually assume that there really is some kind of it that
performs the task of raining over and above the rain itself. In the same way,
James is saying there is no thinker apart from the thinking process itself. The
Cartesian self as some kind of mental substance evaporates under this heat. Pure
experience, then, is not to be conceived as pure consciousness or consciousness
devoid of any content. For James, there is no consciousness without content. Pure
experience is another name for the immediate flux of life, James says, and
purity is only a relative term, meaning the proportional amount of unverbalized
sensation which it still embodies.125 Only newborn babies, or people in semi-
coma could have an experience that is pure in the literal sense, he says. As
James explains it, the flux of unverbalized sensations almost immediately
become identified into salient parts, which are sorted and abstracted so that the
experience gets filled up with adjectives, nouns, prepositions and any number of
125. James, The Thing and its Relations, 782.
the other distinctions and divisions we habitually add. Normally, both elements
work together so seamlessly that we cannot easily tell where one ends and the
other begins. Like the dioramas we find in museums, to use Jamess analogy, the
difference between the three-dimensional models in the foreground and the two-
dimensional painted background are so well integrated that it is not easy to
discern the two elements. (Similarly, todays filmmakers regularly fuse live
action photography with painted panoramas well enough to fool even the most
discriminating eye.) The naive immediacy of this sensible flux is not devoid of
content. Pure experience, James had said, is a collective name for whatever
sensible natures are presented in experience and this content is something we can
act upon without deliberation or reflection. Common sense notions, the practical
thought habits that work unproblematically, are not absent at this concrete level
of experience so much as they are invisible or transparent in the same way that
the mechanics of walking, bike riding or driving a car become invisible. We just
do it without thinking until there is a problem.
Two-legged walker. These two elements work together, as we saw in the
previous chapter, like menus and food work together. In yet another analogy for
these two elements, James says that we walk with both legs and neither leg more
essential than the other. He and Pirsig are both interested in reformulating the
relationship between concepts and lived experience so that the former are
secondary products. This naturalist view, as James sometimes calls it, says that
concepts can function meaningfully only in relation to the ongoing stream of
experience. That is what our concepts have to answer to, the material from which
they are derived and the reality in which they are supposed to operate. To extend
Jamess analogy just a bit, I think he and Pirsig are both saying that we walk with
a limp, that we have been denigrating one of our legs. To cling to Dynamic
Quality alone apart from any static patterns is to cling to chaos, Pirsig says.
Neither static nor Dynamic Quality can survive without the other.126 Similarly,
whenever we intellectualize a relatively pure experience, we ought to do so for
the sake of redescending to the purer or more concrete level again, James says,
and if an intellect stays aloft among its abstract terms and generalized relations,
and does not reinsert itself with its conclusion into some particular point of the
immediate stream of life, it fails to finish out its functions and leaves its normal
race unrun.127 If intellect stays aloft, we might say, we are eating the menu.
James had already been thinking along these instrumentalist lines in an early
essay titled, The Sentiment of Rationality, wherein he said that every concept
is a teleological instrument.128 Pragmatism has no objection whatever to the
realization of abstractions, James says, so long as you get about among
126. Pirsig, Lila; 121.
127. James, The Thing and its Relations, 784.
128. James, The Sentiment of Rationality, 976.
particulars with their aid and they actually carry you somewhere.129 A true idea
is a teleological instrument in that we can successfully 'ride upon them as we
move into future experience. The pragmatic truth is essentially bound up with
the way in which one moment in our experience may lead us toward other
moments which it will be worth while to have been led to, James says, and so
truth is something that happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by
events.130 You have to set it at work within the stream of your experience,
James says, as a program for more work and not as the final answer to the
riddle of the universe.131
Rubber meets the road. This is the whole premise behind the seemingly
simplistic pragmatic method. This method essentially means asking what
happens when this or that belief is put into actual practice? Does it worP The
pragmatist says that if it makes no practical difference to adopt one view or the
other, then the dispute is merely verbal. Jamess simple test is designed to detect
empty abstractions, expose vacuous concepts and settle meaningless disputes.
James thought this simple test had an astonishing ability to make merely verbal
disputes evaporate almost instantaneously. This simple test makes it very
129. James, What Pragmatism Means, 518.
130. James, Pragmatisms Conception of Truth, 575 & 574 respectively.
131. James, What Pragmatism Means, 509.
difficult to remain aloft in endless verbal quibbling and that is exactly the point.
As James puts it, The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what
definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if
this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one. Jamess intention is
to alter the center of gravity of philosophy because he thinks the earth of
things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume
its rights.132 133
Life and though!. We understand backwards, retroactively, James says, but we
live toward the future. Life is in the transitions, James says. Life happens now,
between the past and the future. To use Jamess metaphors, we live as if we were
riding on the front edge of an advancing wave, moving like a line of flame
burning its way across a dry field. The leading edge is where absolutely all the
action is, Pirsig says. The leading edge contains all the infinite possibilities of
the future. It contains all the history of the past.134 The essence of life is its
continuously changing character, James says, but our concepts are all
discontinuous and fixed.135 As we saw, Pirsig refers to these two necessary
132. James, What Pragmatism Means, 508.
133. James, Some Metaphysical Problems, 540.
134. Pirsig, Zen, 283.
135. James, Bergson and Intellectualism, 746.
elements, the flux of life and fixed concepts, as Dynamic and static respectively
and he found these same terms in Jamess work. In his last unfinished work,
Some Problems in Philosophy, James had condensed this description to a single
sentence: There must always be a discrepancy between concepts and reality,
because the former are static and discontinuous while the latter is dynamic and
flowing. Here James had chosen exactly the same words Phaedrus had used for
the basic subdivision of the Metaphysics of Quality.136 James sometimes talks
about these two elements in terms of thickness and thinness. He contrasts the
thick, rich and overflowing flux of reality with fixed ideas, the latter being like
the thin, flat outlines of a blueprint. Thought, James says, can name the
thickness of reality, but it cannot fathom it, and its insufficiency here is essential
and permanent, not temporary.137 138 These two elements are distinctly different
ways of knowing and they are supposed to work together. Direct acquaintance
and conceptual knowledge are thus complementary of each other, James says,
because each remedies the others defects. This is not the anti-
intellectualism of slack-jawed nativists, of course, but James and Pirsig are both
re-thinking the nature of thought itself and they are both reconstructing the idea
136. Pirsig, Lila; 365.
137. James, Bergson and Intellectualism, 745.
138. James, Bergson and Intellectualism, 745.
of truth so that it functions within the ongoing flux and flow of experience. And,
thanks to the boost he received from Bergson, James finally saw that to continue
using the intellectualist method was itself the fault. and he saw that philosophy
had been on a false scent ever since the days of Socrates and Plato.139 The
philosophical tradition has always tended to favor fixed concepts and fixed
truths, as if reality itself were unchanging and eternal. Zeno, to use the example
James borrows from Bergson, could use logic to prove that motion itself is
impossible. He could use math to prove that the hare could never catch up with
the tortoise. The mathematician fixes only a few results, he dots a curve, James
says, and thereby he substitutes a tracing for a reality.140 The result can be
quite absurd. Cupids arrow can never reach my heart, Zeno said with irony, as
he laughed and smothered his lover with kisses. Similarly, Pirsig thinks that the
present forms of rationality have a genetic defect that can be traced back to the
birth of philosophy in ancient Greece. This is why Phaedrus spent his entire life
pursuing a ghost, Pirsig writes. The ghost he pursued was the ghost that
underlies all of technology, all of modern science, all of Western thought. It was
the ghost of rationality itself.141 Their response to the denigration of the
139. James, Bergson and Intellectualism, 763.
140. James, Bergson and Intellectualism, 737.
141. Pirsig, Zen, 84-85.
empirical flux is notto simply return the favor by denigrating concepts. Their
solution is to restore the proper function of concepts as instruments for getting on
Wedged and controlled Our two pragmatists both say that truth is one of the
good things in life, like wealth and health. Truth is one species of good, James
and Pirsig both say. The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in
the way of belief.142 They do not mean ideas that are good in the sense of
being nice or pleasant. Jamess critics interpreted the pragmatic theory of truth to
mean that we can believe whatever we like, whatever we find most comforting to
believe. James denied that reading quite emphatically. Our truths have to be good
for definite, assignable reasons, as James puts it.143 He insisted that the
pragmatists truth is tested in experience and it is tightly constrained by the two
elements already discussed, namely the sensible flux and the conceptual order.
What we call resistances and harmonious fits are known and felt within the
sensible flux. These are the concrete facts of lived experience. The other
constraining element is the whole body of inherited concepts. These concepts are
mutable but the concrete facts will continue to act as a controlling factor in any
future mutations. These concepts are our common property, a whole system of
142. James, What Pragmatism Means, 520 & Pirsig, Lila, 363.
143. James, What Pragmatism Means, 520.
adaptations that have worked well enough to persist into our own time and they
cannot be carelessly handled if we want to communicate with our fellow human
beings. All truth thus gets verbally built out, stored up, and made available for
every one, James says. "Hence we must talk consistently just as we must think
consistently.144 Cain and Abel might have been named arbitrarily, to use
Jamess example, but now that the names have been established it would be
confusing and therefore untruthful to say Cain is Abel or vice versa. We can no
more play fast and loose with these abstract relations than we can do so with our
sense-experience, James says. "They coerce us; we must treat them consistently,
whether or not we like the results."145 Thus both of the elements in experience
will constrain our beliefs. "Between the coercions of the sensible order and those
of the ideal order, our mind is thus wedged tightly. Our ideas must agree with
realities, be such realities concrete or abstract, James says, under penalty of
endless inconsistency and frustration.146 Those who play fast and loose with
these constraints will find that they cannot ride their truths into the future. They
may be led nowhere or to the wrong place or they may even crash and burn either
figuratively or, in cases involving stop signs and traffic lights, even literally.
144. James, Pragmatisms Conception of Truth, 579.
145. James, Pragmatisms Conception of Truth, 578.
146. James, Pragmatisms Conception of Truth, 578.
At this point the realist might ask where the sensible coercion comes from. It
must come from some source outside us or beyond us or it couldnt constrain us,
the realist might object. I think James and Pirsig would say that such a question
has construed it backwards. The resistances felt and known in experience is what
gave rise to the idea of permanent objects in the first place, as in the recent
explanations involving the unknown ancestor who invented the notion and babies
who have to learn how to use it. Then, by elaborate extension, the same felt
resistances also gave rise to the idea of an external, objective reality, to the idea
of the universe as a countless collection of objects. It is a difficult pill to swallow,
perhaps, but the radical empiricists would say that terms like objective and
outer are among the conceptual categories into which we sort experience, not
the primary metaphysical conditions that make experience possible. James and
Pirsig would say the realist has reified those concepts. According to radical
empiricism, as I understand it, experience and reality are practically the same
thing. To the extent that the realist demands to know where this coercion and
resistance comes from beyond experience as its felt and known he or she is
asking about trans-empirical realities. The radical empiricist says that knowledge
and truth are human goods and they come to life and operate within experience
itself. Whatever there might be outside of that, we can only speculate.
Agreement with reality. James and Pirsig do not reject the very general notion
that truth is agreement with reality. That formulation is broad enough to appeal to
rationalists and empiricists alike but the reality they have in mind is experience
itself, for the reasons just summarized. As a consequence, their idea of what
agreement means is much broader than traditional forms of sensory empiricism.
Agreement does not mean a one-to-one correspondence between objective
realities and our mental representations of them. That formulation is no longer
tenable, of course, because James and Pirsig have already rejected that kind of
dualism. Instead, agreement means the opposite of inconsistency and frustration.
Consistency and smooth operations are the rewards for those who do not play
fast and loose with either the concrete facts or the conceptual order. To agree
with reality in this wider sense means that we are successfully guided through the
sensible or conceptual reality at which the truth aims. True ideas help us to
handle either practical or intellectual tasks better than we could have otherwise.
Any idea that helps us to deed. whether practically or intellectually, with either
the reality or its belongings, that doesn't entangle our progress in frustration, that
fi/s. in fact, and adapts our life to the reality's whole setting.' James says, "will
agree sufficiently to meet the requirement. It will be true of that reality."147
An expanded empiricism. For all his talk of the sensible llux and the sensible
order, James could not rightly be called a sensory empiricist and those Jamesian
phrases do not refer to raw' sense data of the Humean of Lockean type. James is a
147. James, Pragmatism's Conception of Truth,'' 579.
kind of phenomenologist. not a phenomcnalist. He does not deny that we are
embodied creatures with sense organs, but his notion of sensible experience is
not limited to the five senses. For James the full fact of experience, please recall,
includes interests, feelings and attitudes. This is very different from the direct
observation or disinterested examination of the tough-minded empiricists.
"Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and
to count the humblest and most personal experiences." James says. "She will
count mystical experience if they have practical consequences."148 Even further,
the first postulate of his radical empiricism says that anything actually
experienced must be included in the philosopher's account. "To be radical, an
empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not
directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly
experienced.'149 This vastly expands upon what would normally count as
empirical evidence because every thing experienced is real in some sense. The
thirsty, hallucinating man could easily be mistaken about that lake in the middle
of the desert but he might confirm in subsequent experience that he really was
thirsty, he really was in the desert and there really was a lake in his hallucination.
As Pirsig explains it. most kinds of empiricism will "deny the validity of any
148. James. "What Pragmatism Means," 522.
149. James, "A World of Pure Experience," 1160.
knowledge gained through imagination, authority, tradition, or purely theoretical
reasoning and they regard fields such as art, morality, religion, and
metaphysics as unverifiable but these things have been excluded for
metaphysical reasons, not empirical reasons.'30 Positivism, for example, was
generally hostile to any claim that could not be verified through direct
observation. Similarly, James also had an antipathy for the anti-metaphysical
bias of positivist science. He clearly abhorred the mechanico-physical
scientists assumptions of a purposeless universe, in which all the things and
qualities men love ...are but illusions of our fancy'.'31 James and Pirsig are both
fans of empiricism but they both want to soften the tough-minded varieties. They
both think the anti-metaphysical bias of the traditional empiricist is the result,
ironically, of his own metaphysical assumptions. They have him dismissing
certain areas of experience, which means the tough-minded empiricist is not
empirical enough. "The Metaphysics of Quality varies from this by saying that
the values of art, morality and even religious mysticism are verifiable, Pirsig
says, and so the Metaphysics of Quality paves the way for an enlarged way of
looking at experience which can resolve all sorts of anomalies that traditional 150 151
150. Pirsig, Lila, 99.
151. Seigfried, William James's Radical Reconstruction, 65.
empiricism has not been able to cope with."112 In the pages ahead we will take a
closer look at one of these "anomalies in particular, namely mystical experience.
Plural truths. One of the most important consequences that follow' from the
rejection of subject-object dualism is a rejection of the idea that there is a single,
exclusive truth. "Throughout the history of philosophy the subject and its object
have been treated as absolutely discontinuous entities." James says, and this
"artificial conception of the relations between knower and known" is the "first
great pitfall from which such a radical standing by experience will save us.15''
The correspondence theory of truth, w hich is usually associated with some kind
of ontological realism, is probably the most conspicuous offspring of the
artificial conception that Pirsig also complains about. "If subjects and objects are
held to be the ultimate reality then we're permitted only one construction of
things that which corresponds to the 'objective' world and all other
constructions are unreal."114 The correspondence theory of truth construes
agreement with reality in terms of the subjective mind accurately representing the
objective facts of the world. James appeals to pure experience to keep us from
reifying these categories, Seigfried says. This appeal reminds us that the way 153 154
1 52. Pirsig, Lila. 99 & 366 respectively.
153. James. "A World of Pure Hxpcriencc, 1164-5.
154. Pirsig, Lila, 99.
inventive categories by our ancestors that have been found to be useful and
therefore preserved and passed on to us through our culture and language, she
explains, but we cannot remake the world at our will.155 By contrast, James and
Pirsig say that truth is plural and provisional and the pragmatic truth agrees with
reality in a much broader sense than the correspondence theory would allow.
There are. in fact, several "true systems of geometry and there are several ways
to correctly map the same area, to use PirsigA examples. This is yet another way
in which pragmatism and radical empiricism can expand the notion of what
counts as empirical evidence and w hat can count as true. At the same time, there
is still an element of realism that says true beliefs must be in agreement with
reality Despite this rejection of ontological realism, the pragmatist still says that
truth is wedged and controlled by experience as sue/? and by the inherited
conceptual order. This reformulation and expansion of empiricism is not at odds
with scientific truth insofar as science is very empirical. Materialism and realism,
on the other hand, are metaphysical stances that do not alter scientific data as
such. Imagine the argument that would ensue, for example, if Empedocles,
Newton and Einstein were all sitting together under that proverbial apple tree. All
three of them would agree about the basic empirical data, the falling apple, but
that is just about the only they would agree upon.
155. Seigfried, IViiiiam James's Radical Reconstruction, 358.
three of them would agree about the basic empirical data, the falling apple, hut
they would each have their own explanation as to in//?-the fruit falls.
'The personal and aesthetic factors. James opened his lectures on pragmatism
with the assertion that each of us has a basic temperament which shapes our
individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the
cosmos and, he said, the history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a
certain clash of temperaments.156 Philosophers usually try to hide this fact or
gloss over it, James explains, because personal feelings are not seen as a
respectable reason for adopting any particular position. The philosopher urges
impersonal reasons, James says, yet his temperament really gives him a
stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the
evidence for him one way or the other.157 Pirsig discusses this same problem of
urging impersonal attitudes in terms of privileging objectivity over subjectivity.
He zeroes in on the pejorative just, as in the dismissive phrases, that is just
your opinion or what you like is just subjective. This pejorative and
dismissive use of the term just was contained in the questions posed by
Phaedruss colleagues in Bozeman, Montana. If Quality was objective, then
scientific instruments should be able to detect it, they said, and if it was
156. James, '"The Present Dilemma in Philosophy, 488 & 489 respectively.
157. James, The Present Dilemma in Philosophy, 488-9.
subjective, then Quality is just whatever you like. The assumption seems to be
that our likes and dislikes are unimportant, irrelevant, inappropriate or even
opposed to truth. If we indulge in whatever we like, Plato might say, we would
all be eating pastries for dinner every night, as if we do not like to be healthy, as
if following our likes and dislikes could only ever result in childish hedonism and
wishful thinking. As James reports it, this was one of the most formidable and
often repeated objections to the pragmatic theory of truth. His critics complained
that 'to make truth grow in any way out of human opinion is but to reproduce
that protagorean doctrine that the individual man is 'the measure of all things,
which Plato in his immortal dialogue, the Thaeatetus, is unanimously said to
have laid away so comfortably in its grave two thousand years ago." Because
his pragmatic truth does grow in some way out of human opinion, Jamess critics
accused him of being a relativist.
In the thick of it. This same protagorean doctrine plays a central role in the
philosophical and dramatic climax of Pirsigs first book, wherein Phaedrus seeks
to rescue the long-buried Sophists from Platos slanderous charges of relativism.
He defends the doctrine by interpreting it as being neither subjective nor
objective. Man is not the source of all things, as the subjective idealists would
say. Nor is he the passive observer of all things, as the objective idealists and 158
158. James, "Abstractionism and Relativismus, 957.
Not ethical relativism. yVi?/pristine virtue, Pirsig writes, Those first teachers
of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen
was that of rhetoric. He has been doing it right all along.160 For our pragmatists,
human values, feelings and attitudes would count as practical realities, as
concrete factors in the construction of our philosophies. We have a lively vision
of what a certain view of the universe would mean for us. We kindle or we
shudder at the thought, and our feeling runs through our whole logical nature and
animates its workings.161 Because these emotional and aesthetic motives are so
compelling, James says, we seek for every reason, good or bad, to make this
which so deeply ought to be, seem objectively the probable thing.162 This is
another way of saying that thought is the servant of human life. It is Jamess
version of the Humean notion that reason is a slave to our passions.
Kindle or shudder. James and Pirsig both feel the sting of materialism, as
James puts it. Materialism gives us a picture in which the vast stirrings of the
cosmos are indifferent to our needs and everything we care about will eventually
dissolve into nothing. The essence of scientific materialism, James says, is this
160. Pirsig, Zen, 377.
161. James, Abstractionism and Relativismus, 955.
162. James, Abstractionism and Relativismus, 955.
utter final wreck and tragedy.163 Determinism follows from materialism as it
extends the laws of matter to determine human life. In addition to that, if
determinism were a true picture of reality then James thought he would be
doomed by brain chemistry to suffer the same fate as his father, a fate that would
mean a lifetime full of mental terror and emotional distress. This prospect was so
unsettling to James as a young man that he seriously contemplated suicide and
only came out of a deep depression by deciding that free will was the truer
picture. In Pirsig's case, the quest for Quality was a search for reasons after the
fact. He loved the idea first and then he looked for reasons. In both cases the
particular and personal needs of the thinker were central factors in the formation
of their philosophical views. In both cases the content of their philosophy not
only openly and honestly acknowledges that human values actually do play a
role, it also endorses the notion that they sbou/dyXzy a role. James says it many
ways. We cannot weed out the human contribution, he says. We carve out
everything. Everything about our world is plastic, James says, the human serpent
is coiled over everything. Pirsig uses a sand-sorting metaphor to point out that
knowledge does not gather or categorize itself. To understand what he was
trying to do, Pirsigs narrator says about Phaedrus, its necessary to see that
part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure
163. James, Some Metaphysical Problems, 532.
in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles. To see the landscape without seeing
this figure is not to see the landscape at all.164 As I read it, putting humanity in
the center of things like this is not a statement of self-importance so much as an
admission of our guilt as co-conspirators. It is an acknowledgement that we can
only ever see things from our own limited perspectives and the personal and
temperamental factors will always color the way we see things. The age-old
dilemma of free will and determinism that James faced as a young man, for
example, is not predicated on a dispute about the empirical facts so much as it
is a dispute about what to make of those facts. The form of determinism that is
usually associated with materialism, for example, extends the physical laws of
cause and effect to include the sphere of human action. It extrapolates the law-
like behavior of atoms upward to include creatures like us with bodies composed
of atoms. This reasoning can be applied in the other direction, Pirsig says. If
creatures like us make choices and we are made of atoms, then atoms must be
capable of choice too. The difference between these two points of view is
philosophic, not scientific, Pirsig says. The question of whether an electron
does a certain thing because it has to or because it wants to is completely
irrelevant to the data of what the electron does.165 The data itself is not altered
164. Pirsig, Zen, 83.
165. Pirsig, Lila., 157.
irrelevant to the data of what the electron does.16'1 The data itself is not altered
by either interpretation and yet two mutually exclusive worldviews result from
taking the facts in one direction or the other. At this point, James's excitement
over Fechner's vision might spring to mind. James felt liberated by the idea that
consciousness and the physical universe could be co-eternal aspects of the same
reality, by the idea that mind has always been a feature of matter, as opposed to
the usual idea that consciousness comes into existence somewhere in the middle
of evolutionary history. We cannot really know if atoms do what they do because
they have to or because they want to. of course. The point is that panpsychism is
not more metaphysical than materialism or causality, although the former is
certainly weirr/er than the latter. But this is not a beauty contest and, as Pirsig
points out, the difference is just a matter of interpretation and description.
Neither of these perspectives will change the readings on the dials or gauges of
the science laboratories and, if you will allow the phrase, the data do not care.
Anonymous was loosely based on William James's pragmatic view of religion.
One of the governing concepts in that program and other twelve-step programs is
that the addict has a better chance of recovering and improving his or her life by
surrendering to "God or any other higher power". Apparently, adopting such a 165
165. Pirsig, Lila, 157.
faith tends to work regardless of the actual substance or veracity of the beliefs
involved. This program might be predicated on a rather crude reading of
pragmatism and the "religion' involved might seem too vague and narrow but if
such a belief helps to forestall real suffering and even death, then it certainly
would win some points on pragmatic grounds. One essential ingredient of
pragmatic truths is that they work on the whole in the life of the believer. As
James himself saw1 it, the individuals particular religious experience is the
primary data, the proper material to study and explain, while religions and
theologies are secondary, in the concluding chapters of The Varieties of
Religious Experience, James tells us that this is the reason for his stress on the
experiences of individuals. 1 le tells us that a little life is better than much
knowledge in the same way that one little pea is better food than all the menus in
the world. Likewise, he says, knowing about mystical experience is different
from having & mystical experience just as k/io i1 ing about drunkenness is different
from being drunk. The conclusion he draws from the many, many accounts of
religious experience that he gathered for his book is that the conscious person is
continuous w ith a wider self through which saving experiences come" and he
defends this hypothesis as the one that meets "the largest number of legitimate
criteria.166 The w ider self does not necessarily have to be conceived as
166. Seigfried. William James's Radical Reconstruction, 206-7.
supernatural or even external but could instead refer simply refer to a different
mode of consciousness or a category of relatively rare types of experience, a
departure from normal waking consciousness. In any case. James was not
defending the veracity of any particular report so much as surveying the whole
range and what he saw' was that these experiences were very often followed by
dramatic improvements in the lives of those reporters.
The odd move? Charlene Seigfried says that James "consistently held that
conceptual abstractions from the tlux of experience are necessarily partial and
distortive, because "the reasoning process works by isolating aspects from the
totality of experience.167 That seems exactly right. Siegfried thinks that James
betrays this consistently held view, however, because James also seems to think
there are other means of access to reality She says that James "makes a rather
odd move in "arguing that since we cannot intellectually encompass the reality
behind appearances, we must have access to it some other way.168 I would not
like to put it in terms of having access to reality as opposed to appearances
simply because the flux of experience is not something other than what appears
and that is what we have access to by non-intellectual means. Please recall that
James had said pure experience is just what appears, a plain, unqualified
167. Seigfried, William James's Radical Reconstruction. 367.
168. Seigfried. William James s Radical Reconstruction. 367.
actuality, which is only potentially sortable into intellectual categories. This
move is certainly not odd in the sense that James has quite a lot of company on
this point. That is the move that practically defines James as a philosophical
my stic. 1 think the Pirsigian reading of James brings this feature out quite nicely.
This is the move that allows us to appreciate the meaning of pure experience as a
non-verbal and pre-conceptual sensory flux, as direct and immediate experience.
Philosophical mysticism, the idea that truth is indefinable and can be
apprehended only by nonrational means," Pirsig says in his first book, "has been
with us since the beginning of history. It's the basis of Zen practice."169 He says
the same thing in his second book. "Some of the most honored philosophers in
history have been mystics: Plotinus. Swedenborg. Loyola, Shankaracharya and
many others, Pirsig explains. They share a common belief that the fundamental
nature of reality is outside language; that language splits things up into parts
while the true nature of reality is undivided. Zen, which is a mystic religion,
argues that the illusion of dividedness can be overcome by meditation.170 This is
why mystics will say that intellect is not a path to reality. Quality, this
fundamental reality, is what you know by direct acquaintance. Pirsig says. You
understand it without definition, ahead of definition. Quality is a direct
169. Pirsig, Zen, 230.
170. Pirsig, Lila, 63.
experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions."171 172 173 Would it be
fair to not only count William Janies as a philosophical mystic but a/so say that
there was some Zen in the art of William James? David Scott certainly thinks so.
East meets JVest. In "William James and Buddhism: American Pragmatism
and the Orient". Scott makes a compelling case that Jamess work is very
compatible with Buddhist philosophies. "Perceptions of Buddhism were
percolating into American thought through various channels by the end of the
nineteenth century." Scott tells us. and one "channel was the Transcendentalist
movement, which was led by Jamess godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson. Scott
tells us that the famous Hindu spokesman Swami Vivekananda, whom James had
compared to his Absolutist enemies and criticized as otherworldly, received a
letter from James in which James criticized Vivekananda's negative comments
about Buddhism. "That James at Harvard felt concerned enough to have taken
the trouble to send this letter to Vivekananda in faraway Calcutta to defend
Buddhism is revealing.177 Further, Scott says. "James was one oi the earliest
persons to bring Buddhism into this academic debate," and the "case of
171. Pirsig, Lila, 64.
172. David Scott, William James and Buddhism: American Pragmatism and
the Orient, in Religion Vol. 30, no. 4 [October 2000]: page 2. Published online
at http://w ww .thcscotlies.pwp.bluevonder.co.uk 'iamcs-buddhism.pdl
173. Scott, William James and Buddhism, page 3.