Pirsig meets Foucault and more besides.

The death of Robert Pirsig last month triggered a good deal of new correspondence on his work, his Metaphysics of Quality as well as his novels, “ZMM” and “Lila. My own summary of his MoQ, or more correctly the world-view implied by his metaphysics, I have previously presented here:

I’ve expressed my (limited) appreciation of the French Post-Modernists (PoMo’s) by dubbing myself a PoPoMo, but it is often difficult to talk directly about Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan, Žižek et al and still be taken seriously. It is fashionable to knock the Foggie-Froggies, and just this past month we are reminded of the infamous Sokal hoax by a back-firing pastiche on supposed “gender-based science”. The scientistic meme is to ridicule anything that looks like pseudoscience and to brand as pseuds those whom science misunderstands.

Foucault I’ve actually linked to Pirsig previously, since reading his “Les Mots et Les Choses (1966)” (translated oddly as “The Order of Things”), but as a PoPoMo I’d kinda put PoMo behind me. One persistent thread arising from the renewed interest in Pirsig is a conversation with Janet Abbey (Seymour Blogger @AbbeysBooks) who is a much read French-PoMo scholar who became very enthusiastic about parallels and connections between Pirsig and Foucault. As a consequence, we’ve both been reading / re-reading Foucault’s “Lectures on the Will to Know“. Based solely on his first introductory lecture (9 Dec 1970) the following is already apparent. As with ancient Greek philosophy, post-modern French requires linguistic care, there are terms – concepts – that don’t translate simply into English – not just English language expression but anglophone thought itself.

Foucault majors in his introduction on the Connaître vs Savoir ambiguity in our knowledge, and of course knowledge and epistemology are a major part of my Psybertron blogging project which is why I’ve picked-up on Foucault before. This little graphic summarises what I read from 9 Dec 1970

There is much to infer from this picture in general as well as specific to Pirsig’s MoQ. Certainly the human side of knowing; Connaître as in being familiar with a concept, knowing someone or something by name, as opposed to (say) the “biblical” knowing of another person.

Specifically, the Pirsig connection is in savoir as radical-empiricism, direct experience in the absence of any mediating conceptual model. The “quality” of immediate subjective interaction, involvement or immersion in something before any intellectual attempt to conceptualise, define or document.

The Will to know obviously echoes Nietzsche, but we’re really talking about how we act on our desire to know something, anything, the processes of coming to know, rather than the Power side of Nietzsche’s equation, Bacon’s knowledge as power. Foucault says himself “it is possible to resolve semantic questions completely ONLY at the end of the journey“. Dan Dennett constantly warns us all, including his scientist friends, to hold off on our definitions, to suspend judgement. Real knowing of the actual world is Savoir by participation. Connaître is a model we construct individually and collectively after we think we know, or as a hypothesis to test if we do know.

In Pirsig, this is the tension between his alternative intellects of the Subject-Object Metaphysics and the Metaphysics of Quality, mediated or compromised by the social patterns or shared knowledge we construct.

I’m sure I’ll elaborate further when I’ve read more of Foucault’s “Will to Know” and I’m sure I’ll hear more from Janet Abbey on the subject.

But for now, a final aside, a piece of work I heard about only yesterday. Most of my thinking is based around a memetic view of what is going on as our “knowledge” evolves, and as a consequence I have a particular interest in how media propagates memes, particularly modern social media connections between all forms of online media. The idea is older than Marshall McLuhan, that the medium drives the message, what we know is largely moulded by the medium used to communicate it. It’s not that social media is new, but that it is fast, effectively instantaneous on evolutionary timescales. The evolution of what we know is massively distorted. The medium selects the messenger and the message. The problem is not the players it’s the game. The gap – the tension – between the truly experienced knowledge and instantly constructed social knowledge is massive. So massive that James Williams speculates that “digital technologies are making effective politics impossible“. Absolutely! This is the main driver of my own epistemological agenda – when it comes to making decisions on our behalf, what, why and how do we know?

It’s not so much a post-fact world, but a world where facts are ever more difficult to get a grip.


[Post Note: And many more Pirsig resources coming to light.

[Post Note: And an example to prove a point. Neil deGrasse-Tyson’s latest book. I have him in the same part-of-the-problem league as Dawkins and Cox, but his title tailor-made for the short-attention-span generation “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry“. Don’t expect any lasting useful facts, just persistent catchy memes.]

Also published on Medium.

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