1992-03-24: Lila

Lila (1991)

by Robert M. Pirsig (1928-)

This is a continuation of Pirsig’s inquiry into Quality and the primary importance of values in organizing the life of individuals and society.  Along the way he includes observations and suppositions about American Indian anthropology. The book continues the philosophical explorations from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

In particular he sees modern American society as a dialectic synthesis of characteristics of Indian and European culture, an interim result in an incomplete “struggle” (I would say accomodation), resulting in a society with characteristics between the two source cultures.  For instance, he sees the American Plains speech or dialect as an imperfectly realized approximation of the original Indian speech pattern, as attempted by the Europeans.  The approximation is closer in the West than in the East, and the ideal is held more closely there than in the East.  The ideals (values) of the cowboy are derived from those of the Indian, via the mountain men, and the ideals of the society are derived from those of the cowboy.

His Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) takes Quality (read “Tao”) as the root from which Metaphysics should begin (as well as the defining standard for determining value).  His next step is to divide it, to allow analysis of phenomena to proceed in new terms.  He rejects the traditional division into a subject/object duality.  He considered using a romantic/classic duality, but rejected that too.

On page 110 he quotes what he calls a Zuni koan, a case history from Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture.  She said, “most ethnologists have had … experiences in recognizing that persons who are put outside the pale of society with contempt are not those who would be placed there by another culture….  The dilemma of such an individual is often most successfully solved by doing violence to his strongest natural impulses and accepting the role the culture honours.  In case he is a person to whom social recognition is necessary it is ordinarily his only possible course.”  This case history was about a shaman who breaks with tradition, is tortured, but eventually replaces the priesthood who attacked him.  The result was a better accomodation of the Zuni with the dominant white culture.  Thinking about this person led Pirsig to accept (at least around page 120) a division into Dynamic and Static Quality.  Static quality provides the stability, tradition, the framework within which most interaction between people takes place.  Dynamic quality takes over when conditions change in such a way that the static framework can’t cope.  This occurs in episodes, and results in a changed static order that then takes over.  Each revolution results in a new establishment.

He quotes A. N. Whitehead: “mankind is driven forward by dim apprehensions of things too obscure for its existing language.”  This is a dim apprehension of Dynamic Quality.

Static Quality establishes the framework within which other classifications are made: hero/villain, justice & law, love/hatred.  These classifications are valid only within the assumptions provided by the framework of the time and place.  Other cultures have their own frameworks in which the divisions may be different or even meaningless.  He cites several questions that can’t be satisfactorily be answered by other metaphysics, and which are easily answered by a metaphysics based on this division.  (It appears that he is attempting to discover the one true division; presumably later he will abandon this search, and recognize the advantages of multiplicity.)

He spends some time criticizing the evolutionists for not knowing what life is evolving toward, pointing out the emptiness of the stock phrase “survival of the fittest”.  He claims that evolution is a struggle by dynamic quality against static quality.  The argument is poorly posed, and not clearly presented; that is, the intended meaning of his words is not made clear.  For example, he says it is important that all life forms struggle against the (presumed) laws of nature, such as gravity; indeed that almost defines life.  (page 144)

Pirsig seems stung by a criticism levelled earlier, that his promotion of Quality is used as an excuse by people to ignore the standard rules, mores, morals of society, and to just do what they feel like.  He recognizes the need to explore static quality, and its effects of creating stability.  At this point, however, he seems still to be looking for a justification for praising dynamic quality, and the (perceived) chaos it brings.  A symptom of his imbalance is his invariable capitalizing Dynamic Quality, and invariable non-capitalized static quality.  He tends to ascribe motive to dynamic quality, speaking of it “choosing” the carbon atom as its vehicle.  He divides the chemistry of life into static and dynamic parts, calling protein static and DNA dynamic.  I think most people would cringe at this reversal of nature, or wonder if he means the same thing by those words as most people.  He probably doesn’t, but he has an obligation to explain if he has a separate, technical meaning in mind.  After all, this is a fairly big book.  (It would be interesting to know if he has read Hofstadter’s and Dennet’s works.  I think they provide a better perspective on evolutionary mechanisms, and also on the mental patterns he must eventually address.)

He recognizes a division of static quality, and its consequences or patterns, into four categories: inorganic, biological, social and intellectual.  He then describes them as layers, with minimal interaction between layers, except that one supports another.  He uses the computer as an analogy to describe layers.

His criticism of other ways of dividing the world are reasonable, because of the unsolved puzzles they create.  The subject/object division also leads to the same four categories, but calls the inorganic and biological categories matter and the social and intellectual categories mind.  The matter/mind division has notorious problems not presented by the layered approach he uses to relate the same categories.

Chapter 13 poses the idea (paraphrasing) that morality and ethics are based on the relations between the different categories.  For example, it is moral for a doctor to kill a germ to save a patient because the patient is a ‘higher’ form than a germ.  Similarly, a society can kill a person (or group of persons) who is a threat to it, because a society is a higher form.  The concept of “vice” is a reaction of social quality to biological quality: biological “feel good” hurts society because it weakens the patterns of family, money, channelled effort that promote the construction and operation of social patterns.  In turn, he sees the twentieth century (particularly the sixties) as a struggle between the intellectual forms and social forms in a struggle for dominance, where intellectual quality favors democracy, trial by jury, freedom of expression to construct and operate intellectual forms.  However the higher levels rely on the lower ones for the existence: they provide the substrate from which they are made.

An analogy to moral codes from the computer levels analogy is interfaces.  When a system is divided into levels with different kinds of functions, it is necessary to define the interfaces between levels.  These are the actions that entities on one level can take in interacting with entities in another level.  Usually interaction is constrained to adjacent levels; entities separated by more than one level don’t have enough in common to support meaningful interaction.  These interface definitions are analogous to moral codes, and the stratification of moral codes among the different levels might make sense; at least it deserves further thought.

In chapter 17, he compares an entity at the social level, New York City, with a farmer who raises animals for the purpose of devouring them, utilizing their biological capabilities of harnessing energy for his own ends.  He sees the city as doing the same thing with its humans.  He sees it as an entity independent of any human, not created or maintained by any human, but providing an environment in which dynamic quality thrives, resulting in constant turmoil from the static quality view.  He quotes E. B. White: “If you want to live in New York you should be willing to be lucky.”  That is willing to grab an attractive bit of dynamic quality and incorporate it into your personal pattern of static quality.

An epigram on another aspect of dynamic quality versus static quality: “The pencil is mightier than the pen.”

A two sentence commentary on Robert’s Rules of Order: No minority has a right to block a majority from conducting the legal business of the organization.  No majority has a right to prevent a minority from peacefully attempting to become a majority.  These two meta-rules create a stable static situation in which dynamic quality can flourish.

He likens celebrity at the social level as performing a similar function to the function sex performs at the biological level.  Sex enabled rapid evolution by the shuffling of genes in many combinations in just a few generations.  Its importance in promoting otherwise ephemeral dynamic quality in the biological level into lasting static quality has resulted in a tremendous emphasis on sex in inborn and learned behavior.  Similarly celebrity is the mechanism that promotes ephemeral dynamic quality in the social level into lasting static quality.  It permitted a successful hunter or toolmaker or organizer to become a chief or king or politician.  Those whose focus is primarily on one level often are put off by the dynamic part of the lower level, even if it is essential to the continued operation of the level on which their favored level relies for its support.  So social-oriented people are disgusted by the emphasis that sex receives from people stuck on the biological level.  Intellectuals are disgusted by the emphasis that celebrity receives from people stuck on the social level.

Since an entity is composed of parts that have arisen at different times, and serve different functions, when a level conflict arises, entities at the higher level must compete with many entities at the lower level, some of which are more robust than others.  For example, at the social level, biological level behavior is constrained (by mechanisms called mores or morals or ethics).  But the biological level includes many functions, such as feeding and sex.  The mores governing feeding constraints are more easily accomodated, because the biological demands are being met, than are the sexual mores, where demands are being suppressed.  The result is long-term struggle, with no clear success.

Pirsig points out that the biological level won over the inorganic level billions of years ago, but the social level has won over the biological level only thousands of years ago.  He sees the intellectual level still struggling with the social level, but sees a divide in the struggle in the early 1900s.  He uses the term “Victorian” to stand for the forces of the social level, at their zenith in the period between the Civil War and World War I, and sees their grip loosened after that, partly as a consequence of that war based on Victorian values which cost so much life and illusions.  The consequences of the rise of the intellectual over the social are still being worked out, and the resulting turmoil is incomprehensible in a metaphysics based on the traditional subject/object or substance/mind divisions.

The Victorian value system put society at the top.  “What we today call Victorian hypocrisy was not regarded as hypocrisy.  It was a virtuous effort to keep one’s thoughts within the limits of social propriety.  In the Victorian’s mind, quality and intellectuality were not related in such a way that quality had to stand the test of intellectual meaning.  The test of anything in the Victorian mind was, ‘Does society improve?'”

He sees the rise of Hitler as a resurgence of the social against the intellectual, as represented in socialism and communism; anti-semitism was also anti-intellectual; the raising up of the German volk supported the social over the intellectual.

In chapter 29, Pirsig puts his MOQ in the perspective of twentieth century American philosophical thought, and specifically calls it a natural extension of William James’ ideas of pragmatism and radical empiricism.  The primary difference is his addition of value as the pragmatic test of truth and the primary empirical experience.

“Nothing disturbs a bishop quite so much as the presence of a saint in the parish.”  This (unattributed) aphorism illustrates the religious side of the tension between the static and dynamic.  Pirsig uses MOQ to illuminate the problem of insanity, comparing it to heresy or religious mysticism.  He describes insanity as a religion of a single believer; once others accept the beliefs of an insane person, the insanity becomes religion.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig showed how Quality was equivalent to the Greek arete, as used by the earliest Greeks, the rhetoricians and Homer; later he decided the connotations were not realy appropriate, since they all referred to static quality rather than dynamic quality.  He found the connotations he wanted in the Indo-European or Sanskrit rt or rta, and in dharma.  He refers to a dictionary of Proto-Indo-European that contains cross references between related terms.  He also finds instances of the ratchet-effect by which dynamic quality is incorporated into static quality in the evolution of Hindu thought.

Pirsig closes out the book with an apparent admission that he doesn’t need to make a full-fledged MOQ, or at least doesn’t need to fully explain it.  He seems to appeal to people to look to the American Indian cultures and attitudes to verify the rightness of the primacy of Quality.  Despite an inconclusive conclusion, Pirsig clearly thinks that a great many, possibly all, of the problems facing Americans in the late twentieth century can be explained in terms of his MOQ, and presumably thinks that solutions can be found by people who live and think with that framework.  He might be right.


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