ZenAndNow Live

Mark Richardson’s Zen And Now web-site is now live in time for his book launch this Tuesday (9th Sept). On the news page you’ll find a list of stops on his promotional tour, where you can drop in and say hello.

As someone particularly interested in the biographical side of the Pirsigs, I can safely say there is plenty of newly researched material building on the original timeline, newer even than the two earlier drafts I saw. As a read, it’s easy and witty and well constructed, and neatly encloses several circles of Marks own life and journeys with those of Robert Pirsig. Those with an academic interest in Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality may find the book lightweight, but Mark does capture the essential message and mood of the original Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and makes a good case that new audiences should seek out the timeless value of ZMM – active human participation in real life embracing, but never limited by the social or intellectual constructs of, technology.

And by way of a random example of ZMM continuing to inspire educators.

Post Note (Friday 12th): Great review by Mel over on MoQ-Discuss.

Richardson has written a book that  walks/rides a deliberately winding line between homage, biography, invitation to revisit both Pirsig’s thoughts, and the same type of ‘real world’ opportunity to look at things through the lens of quality.  It is (deliberately, I think) light on the MOQ but clear on pointing the reader to a shared consensus of Quality.

It is a personal journey and a journalist’s second-pair-of-eyes on the world mythologized in Pirsig’s ZMM book.  We get to see some of the “chorus” members of his book cast in a second light.  (As those who’ve played at photography know a secondary light source can add depth and complexity and at time clarity to an image.  It can hint and imply more)

His work has a hint of melancholy and a touch of his personal worries.  Both add the flavor of the struggle of any seeker after what is “more.”  It is smartly written and should serve to open the door to ZMM for those who are daunted by the work itself and yet it is a pleasant literary meditation on the familiar feel of the original journey for readers who’ve come to give a place in their heart to ZMM.

There are technical points that may be arguable by folks who’ve spent years considering the whole-of-it, but just as good Jazz can evoke another piece of music in it’s own terms, this book brings a fresh echo to recall the enduring original.

Post Note (Friday 12th); Look out also for Mark’s blogged reports on his ongoing book tour following the launch on Tuesday 9th. See also my own Hoops of Fire review.]

Whatever Next ?

[Caveat – this review may not do the subject justice, but I didn’t really notice how good a read it was until I was well into it, by which point not only did I not have any notes, but I was committed to read on to a conclusion. So from memory …  is the summary (in the bullets) any good ?]

[Post Note – Matt Kundert, in this (2008) post and the comment thread below, has turned-up as a McIntyre reference in my wider “Systems Thinking” context thanks to a (2023) post by Ben Taylor linking to an earlier (1977) piece pre-dating “After Virtue” (1981) by Al McIntyre and reviewed by Matt. And re-reading this post now in 2023, I see a wonderful irony in my use of the word “governance” in my implicitly cybernetic (psyberton-ic) context before I had made the connection explicit. What goes around comes around. ]

I’ve had a copy of Alastair MacIntyre’s (1981, 2nd Ed 1984) “After Virtue” tucked away on a bookshelf for some time. I vaguely remembered I’d bought it on the recommendation of Rev Sam, but no recollection of why it came to be tucked-away unread. [I since discover it’s Sam’s most important read ever – after being turned onto things philosophical by ZMM, like myself, and away from “scientism”, as I already was before I read ZMM, “After Virtue” turned Sam to Christianity and theology. Wow. Matt too claims MacIntyre and After Virtue as an important route to understanding the Greeks.]

So, my atheistic reading of “After Virtue”:

Firstly, it is a read that requires some effort – it is in large part a scholarly review of the history of philosophy on the subject of morals & ethics – the virtues, from the pre-Socratics forward. That might make him a mere “philosophologist” in Pirsigian terms, if it weren’t that MacIntyre were clearly working towards his own agenda. The difficulty of the scholarly subject matter is compounded by MacIntyre’s somewhat pompous and knowing, even supercilious, style …  I regularly got the impression of dense passages concluded with intellectually-smart-ass summaries and even dismissals (pot & kettle here maybe ?). Anyway, with your wits about you, the effort seems worth it.

As a reformed Marxist, he shows great fondness for Nietzsche and Marx, but ultimately these moderns too are flawed when it comes to virtue. In fact although MacIntyre does develop his after virtue agenda, it is clearly just a start to be further developed in his later writings.

In essence he is describing the interminable debate on the best or right ontology of “the virtues” and their relation to the ontology / epistemology of existence generally. That is, not only has the history of that debate been interminable, it is in practice never going to be complete and consistent, and therefore doomed to remain unintelligible, without a missing ingredient. [Ref Tom’s dissertation ?]

Nietzsche showed that as currently understood, all existing bases of morals were flawed, and his creative destruction was to sweep them all away. As I do, MacIntyre believes Nietzsche himself did not really provide a satisfactory alternative. MacIntyre uses his study of the Greeks to show that most interpretations of Aristotle which concluded that he too was flawed (haven’t we all ?), threw out too much of the Aristotelian baby with the bathwater.

Much of the history of the debate over the virtues is described – differences between doing the right thing for the right reasons, failing to do the right thing but for the right reasons, doing the apparently right thing but for the wrong reasons, internal and external goods, and so on. The game theory of needing to predict human behaviour in order to decide one’s own best behaviour – and all the Machiavellian twists that evolve from that. Reviewing all the Greek schools of thought, mediaeval, renaissance, post-enlightenment and modern schools – the index of references is a who’s who: Kant, Mill, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, you name ’em.

Sticking in my mind Jane Austen and T E Lawrence. The latter a special interest of mine, the former still largely a source of ignorance to me unfortunately.

The T E Lawrence reference is simply of ironic value to me. In fact MacIntyre mentions TEL only in the context of the wickedness (or otherwise) of sado-masochism – whereas to me the TEL subject is that “it” – life, the universe and everything – “is (not) written” – the irony will become clear in the summary of MacIntyre’s thesis later.

Jane Austen ? A large part of the interminable historical debate on the virtues has been the relationships between them – whether it is possible to hold one virtue and not another – whether there really are virtues or simply virtue. Much of the discussion of the Greeks and other earlier commentators hinges on how imprecisely the linguistic translation of various words for various virtues can be unambiguous anyway. Where’s Wittgenstein when you need him ? MacIntyre draws heavily on the work of Jane Austen to illustrate the complexities of recognizing individual virtues in the lives of people who either are or are not virtuous, and either are or are not free to choose the right actions in their situations.

To cut a long story about which philosophers got what right and wrong, about rights and wrongs, I would summarize MacIntyre’s thesis as follows: So after virtues we get to virtue, and if even virtue is indeterminate, what after virtue … ?

  • All decision-making, expressed as well as in action & behaviour, of (human) individuals and institutions, is done with intention and in context.
  • In order for that decision-making rationale to be intelligible, to the participants and witnesses, they must be expressed as part of a greater “narrative”. A narrative with a beginning, a history, a middle, a now, a future, and an end. And that’s an end in every sense, place and time yes, but also in terms of telos, purpose and meaning towards that end.
  • So, we are all writing our local narratives, rationalizing our thoughts, intents and actions, in the context of that greater narrative, consistent with the telos (or not).
  • That greater narrative is provide by a mythological tradition within a culture. Clearly therefore different cultures will maintain and evolve different such narratives, even though they will share common features of being such a necessary telos. The grand narrative – the tradition of moral virtue – is cultural.
  • Good governance, of collections of individuals in societies and institutions is really based on that moral tradition of virtue. The rules of politics and institutional law are simply pragmatic issues of effectiveness and efficiency.
  • The grand narrative is “written” by the tradition, to provide the context within which individual local narratives may then be written, with or without levels of creativity and freedom, but the local narratives are not themselves pre-written in the tradition.
  • Those individual narratives are indeed written by the participants, but the individuals cannot choose their narrative completely independently of the the tradition and still be intelligible.

It is clear that MacIntyre’s thesis is leading to the Christian tradition – he concludes that what we are really waiting for is “another St. Benedict” to lead us out of the “predicament of our times”. Never been convinced of those “of our times” perspectives, but no matter – ’twas ever thus. Clearly the Christian thesis is developed in his later work, so the argument is incomplete here as to which cultural tradition – but the argument so far is well made. I would guess his argument is going to be that the best mythological tradition for you is the one that is already most developed in your culture – they can’t simply be written on a blank slate.

We need a cultural tradition that provides a telos – a purpose and meaning to life. No amount of logic, objectivity, science or rationality can define the narrative mythological content of that tradition. It is simply written. Even a scientist has to take that on “faith”.

[For me this is entirely consistent with the fact that the acceptance of any metaphysics depends on some ineffable core – not amenable to independent objective rationale of any kind. It is also consistent with my fascination for the teleological aspects of the more serious views of anthropic principles.]

Arrive Without Travelling

“Arrive Without Travelling” (AWT) is the first in a series of documentary films by Anthony McWatt about the work of Robert M Pirsig. Ant is to be congratulated on achieving his debut film-making milestone, the culmination of his own determined journey down a long and winding road, paved with intentions of many kinds.

[Post Note: The 2nd part “On The Road with Robert Pirsig” (OTR) is since published and reviewed here. OTR is probably most interesting to the public as a documentary of Pirsig and his Metaphysics of Quality. AWT is mainly of special interest as a record of proceedings and discussions around the 2005 Liverpool conference  … here, below.]

The major content of AWT was filmed at and around the 2005 Liverpool Conference, about which I reported at the time. If it achieves nothing else, the film nails any lingering suggestion that Bob’s relationship with his “fans” is anything remotely close to being a celebrity guru with his acolytes. And that’s not just in the relaxed participation and conversation recorded, but also in the fact that Bob makes it abundantly clear that despite his own creation of the rhetoric represented by his two books (ZMM & Lila), the philosophical ideas originated with “his mentor” F S C Northrop, and no-one, not even Bob can teach or define the dynamic quality at the core of that Metaphysics of Quality. That requires enlightened and enlightening participation in real life. “Ideas have their own evolution.” as Bob says.

As well as a large part of the papers presented and a number of interviews with Bob and the participants, perhaps the most important content is that informal footage and recording of discussion and free conversation, with the shy and reclusive Bob as simply one of the participants, relaxed amongst friends. Participation again is the key component. The publication as a film allows more more people to participate, albeit once removed from the original.

A few caveats about this review, in the interests of balance, before I proceed. Firstly, as a participant at the conference myself, I am an interested party, but I have to say that I find my own recorded contribution almost excruciating to watch, even edited down by about one third. Secondly as a matter of taste, the use of the psychedelic Beatles clips as links and overlays, has obvious relevance to the Liverpool location and the hippy age in which much of the thesis was developed, but I’m not entirely sure the effect will prove net positive. Thirdly, it was a surprise to find that this first in a series of documentary films, is in fact a full 100 minutes feature length, with extended recordings of the conference proceedings. As a record of the event and contributions, it is invaluable, but time will tell if the format can attract and educate new interest in the subject matter.

Extracts from the talks by Mati Palm-Leis, and Khoo Hock Aun are included, and Gavin Gee-Clough’s paper is included almost in full. [Conference Papers]

The highlight of the film, as it was at the conference, is David Buchanan’s paper “Fun With Blasphemy”, and Bob’s emotional reaction to it. Although David’s paper is published, it would still feel like a spoiler to divulge the punchline here. As I reported at the time, we were all fortunate that Dave’s delivery was recorded for posterity, and here is the proof, presented in full. Dave analyses perennial myths across many cultures, drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell, settles on the myth of Orpheus, and speculates on a possible Orphic screenplay and players to exemplify the MoQ messages, in contrast to earlier proposals to film narrative’s of the ZMM or Lila stories. The idea is genius in itself, reinforced by the specific Liverpool connection in his choice of creative muse. Go watch.

What moved Bob to label Dave as “cool” – in acknowledgement of a “cool” thread in the paper – was that Dave had struck upon something central to Pirsig’s own story. Enlightenment; Christ you know it ain’t easy, and most readers will know that Pirsig went through the occupational hazard of a serious mental breakdown en-route to creating his own enlightened work. [Timeline 1961] It transpires that Bob saw Cocteau’s film “Orpheus” during his descent into madness, just before he left Bozeman and moved to Chicago (featured coincidentally as locations in “Orpheus”) where he suffered his breakdown. In Bob’s emotional words “I entered that film and never really came out.” Dave had of course selected the Orphic myth, of entering an otherworld and returning enlightened for the very reason that it mirrored Pirsig’s own life journey. But little did we know [*].

As Dave says, it’s “the coolest thing that ever happened me.”
Electric moments of dynamic quality captured on film.
Get a copy from www.robertpirsig.org and enlighten yourself.

[*][Post Note – Though the parallel between Bob’s personal journey of enlightenment and the Orphic myth, and Dave’s “Mythos” agenda are well known, you would need to be a close reader of MoQ.Discuss back in 1999 to note that Bob had mentioned the Cocteau film before.
But, little did we know how significant to Bob.]

Major Overhaul Started

You may have noticed a change of format of the blog pages, starting with the header ? Same theme / style, but much re-organized.

MOST IMPORTANT – for users of my “Pirsig Pages” – notice the updated note on the old Pirsig Pages redirecting you manually to the entry point for my new Pirsig Pages. Any existing links to and within the blog pages (including the new header links) are automatically updated. If you switch your Pirsig Pages link to the new “PHP” page – any future changes will be automatic too.

So, if you link directly or via “favourites” to my Pirsig Pages,
Please switch your link
from www.psybertron.org/pirsigpages.html
to www.psybertron.org/pirsigpages.php

The link to the Pirsig Biographical Timeline is unchanged, and will remain so.

Further changes are taking place to add new blog capabilities, whilst simplifying the overloaded side-bar; to create some new pages to help organise and orientate through the subject matter; oh, and a new project – can you tell what it is yet ?

Temes – Techno-memes or what ?

I see Sue Blackmore coined the idea of a third level of replicator above genes and memes, termed (so far) “temes” in her recent presentation to TED2008.

Not entirely convinced yet that this form of technology enabled memes are fundamentally different to memes. As she says herself, in discussing whether “artificial-meme” might be a better name “But really they are no more artificial that we are.”

Meme’s have benefitted from being technology enabled since the printing-press or maybe even the tabula-rasa or papyrus scrolls – whatever  – maybe even the use of myths and symbols in story-telling ? This is really just a debate about what technology is, and our parochial human perspective of intelligence and communication.

It’s really the same debate as to whether Strong-AI need be considered “artificial” if it is indeed “intelligent”. The artifice is in a non-human-bio-physical substrate brain, and the debate as to whether such an intelligence is possible without a substrate that is actually living – artificial life. I’m beginning to believe the latter – that AI may prove impossible without AL (which would be wonderfully consistent with neither actually being “artificial”, and with quality evolutionary theory and experience of life before intelligence to date.)

Anyway, the term may be useful pragmatically; as we so often find “fundamental” definitive distinctions are rarely black-and-white anyway.

An aside … joining up the dots increasingly between Quality (a la Pirsig), Wisdom (a la Maxwell), Inclusionality (a la Rayner), and more recently IdentityTheory, and find the convergence between The Edge / Third-Culture and TED becomes ever greater. These latter two initiatives are on a much grander scale than the former 3 or 4, but the agendas converge – “Third-Culture” is as good a catch-all umbrella as any for these syntheses of classically scientific and traditionally romantic understandings of humans in the cosmos.

Wisdom Research

Tickled me that this “Wisdom Research Network” initiative, associated with the Wisdom Research programme at Chicago University, is now in 2008 called the “Arete Initiative”.

Chicago >> Arete
>> Pirsig >> Quality
>> Values >> Maxwell >> Wisdom
>> Rayner >> Inclusionality >> Fluid >> Dynamic Quality …

… is it just my mind that works this way ?

[Post note. Apparently not …

I see Pirsig picked-up on the Chicago education thread (see comment referring to a Robert Birnbaum interview with story writer Joseph Epstein, Jew to Jew as it were.)

Bob refers to this quote :

 … like a lot of serious booksellers, he was a failed Ph.D. He was a failed Ph.D. in philosophy from Chicago. A student of guy named Richard McKeon who left corpses all over the city. Pascal would not have gotten his Ph.D. from McKeon. Aristotle wouldn’t have. Nobody. He was a miserable character and he made it so hard for everybody. It’s like you and I trying to get a Ph.D. from Martin Bormann.

Understandable given Bob’s legendary relationship with McKeon (see ’60 to ’63 in the Timeline). My favourite is in the next paragraph :

 … I have come to think that a good student is not that impressive a thing to be. A good student can tell you seven reasons for the Renaissance. Big fucking deal. [laughs] He can tell you that materialism is naturalism. Because in order to have naturalism you have to have three things that satisfy materialism and so on. I sensed, in my crude kid way, this really wasn’t where the action is.

How true. Actually the interview is a good read … much on the “church of reason” in education and on “education in culture”. Can see why Bob liked it. Wise words.

PS .. and Arete ?  Bob uses this Greek term for “excellence” in his thought processes of arriving at his Metaphysics of Quality, and his boat in the book Lila, he named “Arete”.]

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