Tag Archives: Philosophy

Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values”

Quality, not subject or object, as the elementary fabric. ἀρετή. A rehabilitation of the sophists.

Some quotes:

If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge. …

God, I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There’s a place for them but they’ve got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved. We’ve had that individual quality in the past, exploited as a natural resource without knowing it, and now it’s just about depleted. Everyone’s just about out if gumption. And I think it’s about time to return the rebuilding of this American resource – individual worth. There are political reactionaries who’ve been saying something close to this for years. I’m not one of them, but to the extent they’re talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse for giving more money to the rich, they’re right. We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do. …

What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

Anthony McWatt’s discussion of Pirsig’s philosophy in Philosophy Now:

In Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig first explored the history of the term ‘Quality’, or what the Ancient Greeks called arête, tracing it all the way back to Plato (428-348 BCE). He concluded that the strange position of Quality in today’s West originated with Plato’s division of the human soul into its reason and emotion aspects, in his dialogue the Phaedrus. In this dialogue, Plato gave primary place to reason over emotion. Soon afterwards Aristotle was similarily emphasizing analysis over rhetoric. And as Hugh Lawson-Tancred confirms in the Introduction to his 1991 translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “There are few things that are more to be deplored in Greek culture, and notably in the legacy of Plato, than the wholly forced and unnatural division between… [the] two sister studies” of rhetoric and philosophy (p.57). Eventually this division grew into the ‘subjective versus objective’ way of thinking now largely dominant in the West. So now in the West we have objectivity, reason, logic, and dialectic on the one hand; and subjectivity, emotion, imagination, intuition, and rhetoric on the other. The former terms suggest scientific respectability, while the latter are often assumed to be artistic terms, having little place in science or rationality. It is this Platonic conception of rationality that Pirsig sought to challenge by reconciling the spiritual (for example, Zen), artistic (for example, art) and scientific (for example, motorcycle maintenance) realms within the unifying paradigm of the Metaphysics of Quality. …

Plato was perhaps a little too over-confident in how usable his theory of Forms is in practice. I wonder if it ever crossed his mind that his mentor, Socrates, might have been hinting to him and the other young philosophy students in Athens that the Good and Beauty are actually indefinable? The idea of Forms was, of course, invented by Plato, not Socrates. Unfortunately, as a consequence of Plato’s thinking that reality can be basically defined, Western philosophy is in the state that it is in today: more a handmaiden of science rather than its master. Assuming that words can capture all aspects of reality is an understandable error to make at the very beginning of the Western philosophical tradition… but having said that, it was a metaphysical error avoided by East Asian philosophy. Think about Plato’s allegory of the Cave of Ignorance and escaping from it to see the Sun of the Good, then compare it with the following quote:

“Not by its rising is there light,
Not by its sinking is there darkness
Unceasing, continuous
It cannot be defined…
The image of no-thingness…
Meet it and you do not see its face
Follow it and you do not see its back.”

Dao De Jing, Laozi, Quoted in ZMM, p.253-54

If you think about it long enough, then you’ll see that there was no ‘Cave of Ignorance’ until Plato put Western culture inside its metaphysical darkness for 2,400 years!

Obituary by Paul Vitello in the New York Times:

One of Mr. Pirsig’s central ideas is that so-called ordinary experience and so-called transcendent experience are actually one and the same — and that Westerners only imagine them as separate realms because Plato, Aristotle and other early philosophers came to believe that they were.

But Plato and Aristotle were wrong, Mr. Pirsig said. Worse, the mind-body dualism, soldered into Western consciousness by the Greeks, fomented a kind of civil war of the mind — stripping rationality of its spiritual underpinnings and spirituality of its reason, and casting each into false conflict with the other.

Obituary by Michael Carlson in The Guardian.

Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”

In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson argues for the kind of values instilled by a socially conservative parental home: Aim for paradise, but concentrate on today. Meaning is key, not happiness. Assume responsibility. Listen carefully, speak clearly, and tell the truth. And stand straight, even in the face of adversity.

Here they are, Peterson’s 12 rules:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Peterson motivates the rules by telling stories and anecdotes from his experience as a clinical psychologist, which he mixes with interpretations of religious (mostly biblical) texts as well as Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Frankl, or Dostoevsky. Peterson gets politically incorrect when discussing his 11th rule: He strongly rejects postmodernism and nihilism; and he shows little respect for management science: “[T]he science of management is a pseudo-discipline.”

As so often, what the author has to say could be said much more concisely. The book is far too long to precisely communicate the core ideas. What are they? Dean Bokhari suggests the following three key quotes from the book:

“We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything.”

“Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society establish, maintain, and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld. Where everything is uncertain, anxiety provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a parent can bestow.”

“The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.”

He also offers a “tweetable summary:”

Always tell the truth. Admit and learn from the past, make order of its chaos, and work towards not repeating the same mistakes. Pay close attention.

Other reviewers stress that Peterson wants his rules to help us strike the right balance between order and chaos (see also Philippa Perry’s “How To Stay Sane”). For example, Wyatt Graham condenses Peterson’s thinking as follows:

… life (or Being) involves suffering. … So, “We must have something to set against the suffering that is intrinsic to Being. We must have the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount” (xxxi).

We need to embrace Being, to not give in to suffering, and to find meaning. We need to live in the border between chaos and order and find our meaning there. …

For Peterson, to find meaning is to take on the responsibility of Being. We find it when we realize “that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life” (xxxv). He continues, “If we live properly, we will collectively flourish” (xxxv).

Yet others offer longer summaries, for example u/AresProductions on reddit, James Razko, or Neil Soni. Nat Eliason collects quotes from the book. Here is my summary of the summaries:

  1. Dare. Show strength in the face of adversity.
  2. Avoid self contempt. Be self-conscious and have a vision.
  3. Assume that you chose the easy path, and then take a different one. Improving is much harder than the opposite. “If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself?”
  4. Focus on taking one step at a time. And take it.
  5. Teach your kids to behave properly (not least, to make them socially desirable). Discipline is not revenge.
  6. Conduct yourself as if Being is more valuable than Non-Being (or risk becoming a serial killer). Set your own house in order before trying to improve the world. Blame yourself—not for life’s tragedies, but for surrendering to them.
  7. Search for meaning, not for happiness. Sacrifice, i.e., invest.
  8. Be authentic. Avoid life-lies. Tell the truth to yourself and others. Big Wrongs are based on countless small lies. Only truth is compatible with meaning.
  9. Listen.
  10. Lack of precision breeds chaos. Precise speech brings things out of the realm of the unspeakable. Precision separates the unique terrible thing that happened from the others that might have happened—but did not.
  11. Respect culture, and human nature. Pity today’s boys.
  12. Our vulnerability is what makes us human. So celebrate the small joys of life.

In The Guardian, Tim Lott summarized Peterson’s worldview as follows:

“Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

In another discussion in The Guardian, John Crace made it even clearer that he didn’t like the book at all.

Goodreads contains many reader reviews. Wikipedia page.

Julian Baggini’s “Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will”

In his book, Julian Baggini points out that materialism, not determinism, undermines the notion of free will. He accepts that man is subject to the laws of nature but simultaneously seems to argue for a holistic model of man and human choice. He concludes that the concept of free will is consistent with predetermined causes; with unconscious choice; and that it does not require that a choice could have been different.

Discussion in The Guardian.

Zoroastrianism, Mandaeism, Yazidism

The NZZ runs a series on endangered religious minorities in the middle East.

Daniel Steinvorth reports about Yazidis. More on Yazidism.

Inga Rogg reports about the gnostic Mandaeans in Irak. More on Mandaeism.

Ulrich von Schwerin reports about the Zoroastrian heritage in Iran. More on Zoroastrianism.

The Case Against Democracy

In the New Yorker, Caleb Crain reviews the case. It’s a difficult case to make if most voters are uninformed.

Jamming the stub of the Greek word for “knowledge” into the Greek word for “rule,” Estlund coined the word “epistocracy,” meaning “government by the knowledgeable.” It’s an idea that “advocates of democracy, and other enemies of despotism, will want to resist,” he wrote, and he counted himself among the resisters. As a purely philosophical matter, however, he saw only three valid objections.

First, one could deny that truth was a suitable standard for measuring political judgment. This sounds extreme, but it’s a fairly common move in political philosophy. After all, in debates over contentious issues, such as when human life begins or whether human activity is warming the planet, appeals to the truth tend to be incendiary. Truth “peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate,” Hannah Arendt pointed out in this magazine, in 1967, “and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.” Estlund wasn’t a relativist, however; he agreed that politicians should refrain from appealing to absolute truth, but he didn’t think a political theorist could avoid doing so.

The second argument against epistocracy would be to deny that some citizens know more about good government than others. Estlund simply didn’t find this plausible (maybe a political philosopher is professionally disinclined to). The third and final option: deny that knowing more imparts political authority. As Estlund put it, “You might be right, but who made you boss?”

Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou’s “Logicomix”

“Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth” (Wikipedia) is a nice graphic novel by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou about Bertrand Russell’s life and work. Whitehead, Frege, Poincaré, Hilbert, Wittgenstein, Gödel, von Neumann and many others as well as Greek tragedy make appearances.

Dietrich Schwanitz’ “Bildung (Cultured Education)”

Dietrich Schwanitz’ book (Wikipedia) covers “Wissen” und “Können” against the background of the German “Bildungskanon”, the liberal education of a cultured, well-bred German-speaker. The very ambition of the endeavor is breath taking and provokes disagreement and objection. But Schwanitz delivers. A lengthy book of nearly 700 pages it is concise and dense and contains lots of food for thought.

Among hundreds of tidbits, here are some:

  • Footnote on the footnote (pp. 461–462).
  • On Switzerland (p. 596):

Was die Schweizer auf dem Hintergrund ihrer eigenen Geschichte bei den Deutschen am wenigsten begreifen, ist, daß sie mit der antiautoritären Kulturrevolution alle bürgerlichen Tugenden so restlos über Bord geworfen haben. Es sind die Tugenden, die ehemals als besonders deutsch galten und jetzt nur noch in der Schweiz eine Heimstatt haben: Solidität, eine gewisse Ordnungsliebe und Pedanterie, Zuverlässigkeit im Ausführen von Aufgaben und Präzision bei der Produktion von Apparaten, und ein Standard der Sauberkeit und Wohlanständigkeit weit über dem europäischen Durchschnitt sowie ein fest verankerter Glaube an Normen und Regeln.

  • In the section about intelligence, a ranking of what might have been the 10 most intelligent men ever (p. 604):

1. John Stuart Mill; 2. Goethe; 3. Leibniz; 4. Grotius; 5. Macaulay; 6. Bentham; 7. Pascal; 8. Schelling; 9. Haller; 10. Coleridge.

  • Short summaries of “books that changed the world” (pp. 635–654).