Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Values and matter

In Lila: An Inquiry into Morals Pirsig tells us that he was drawn into the metaphysics of values via a failed attempt to contribute something to the field of anthropology in the form of a study of Native American culture and its influence on contemporary North America. He writes:

You can't get anywhere because you are forced to resolve arguments every step of the way about the basic terms you are using. It's hard enough to talk about Indians alone without having to resolve a metaphysical dispute at the end of every sentence. This should have been done before anthropology was set up, not afterward.

That was the problem. The whole field of cultural anthropology is a house built on intellectual quicksand. As soon as you try to build the data into anything of theoretical weight it sinks and collapses. The field that one might have expected to be one of the most useful and productive of the sciences had gone under, not because the people in it were no good, or the subject was unimportant, but because the structure of scientific principles that it tries to rest on is inadequate to support it.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch.5)

The problem with trying to use "scientific principles" to build anthropological theory, Pirsig states, is that:

Patterns of culture do not operate in accordance with the laws of physics. How are you going to prove in terms of the laws of physics that an attitude exists within a culture? What is an attitude in terms of the laws of molecular interaction? What is a cultural value? How are you going to show scientifically that a certain culture has certain values?

You can't.

Science has no values. Not officially. The whole field of anthropology was rigged and stacked so that nobody could prove anything of a general nature about anybody. No matter what you said, it could be shot down any time by any damn fool on the basis that it wasn't scientific.

(ibid, Ch.4)

So Pirsig identifies the problem as the attempt to reduce values to the physical properties and behaviour of matter. Pirsig's answer to this quandary was to reverse the hierarchical primacy of patterns of matter over values such that matter becomes a particular pattern of values. Then, to the extent that metaphysics determines the purview of science, Pirsig argues that:

If science is a study of substances and their relationships, then the field of anthropology is a scientific absurdity. In terms of substance there is no such thing as a culture. It has no mass, no energy. No scientific instrument has ever been devised that can distinguish a culture from a non-culture.

But if science is a study of stable patterns of value, then cultural anthropology becomes a supremely scientific field. A culture can be defined as a network of social patterns of value. As the Values Project anthropologist Kluckhohn had said, patterns of value are the essence of what an anthropologist studies.

Kluckhohn's enormous mistake was his attempt to define values. He assumed that a subject-object view of the world would allow such a definition. What was destroying his case was not the accuracy of his observations. What was destroying his case were these substance-oriented metaphysical assumptions of anthropology that he had failed to detach from his observations. Once this detachment is made anthropology is out of the metaphysical quicksand and onto hard ground at last.

(ibid, Ch.8)

The reversal of the primacy of matter over values is the key to Pirsig's philosophical solution (the MOQ) to the obstacles faced by an anthropologist and this move, and its validity, will be the focus of the next post. More generally I want to consider how Pirsig's ideas bear up to recent developments in philosophy and science and how well my aontic approach aligns with the MOQ.

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