Robert Pirsig, Emotions,
and Radical Feminism
Fluid-essentialism, being a "two-way street" approach to understanding causation processes that link individuals and society, seeks to explain the nature and origins of the particular social context (patriarchy) and the types of constraint that it imposes upon interaction, while also attempting to unravel the processes by which individuals interact with reality (including social reality, i.e., each other) in such a way as to arrive at individual and socially shared understandings. By the nature of the questions and in keeping with the integrated and unified nature of the fluid model, the answers to these questions are largely inseparable; that is, they tend to imply each other.
Of the two explanatory tasks, the existing body of radical feminist theory compares favorably with other macrosocial theories in the extent to which it describes and explains the social context (patriarchy). In developing models for depicting the interactive processes by which meaning is established, radical feminism is comparatively underdeveloped, with other microsocial theories providing more succinct, more crisply defined (though not necessarily more accurate) models for addressing these questions.
Emotions are the key to knowledge: this is the essence of radical feminist epistemological theory. Since emotions are usually considered to be subjective, and to base knowledge on entirely subjective criteria would seem to make it difficult to argue for the accuracy of a critical consciousness of society over a more conservative one held by someone else, the process by which feminists claim that people can transcend the immediate social environment of patriarchy and its ideologies and see things as they actually are is a process that could use further explanation.
Epistemologies in general tend to be connected to metaphysical theories, which define reality and meaning. A coherent, integrated metaphysical system would seem at first glance to require that ultimate meaning be located somewhere, and if meaning does not lie in material things themselves, it tends to be located outside of them, in the socially constructed systems of interconnected signifiers such as language, or, more broadly, in some combination of individual and collective subjectivity that generates meaning and projects it onto the otherwise formless world. Thus, social theories tend to fall prey either to the weaknesses of materialist realism (which has trouble explaining anything other than the unproblematic apprehension of reality as it self-evidently exists) or the radical subjectivist accounts such as poststructuralism (which has trouble making claims for the accuracy of any one apprehension of reality over any other).
As I said, an emotion-based epistemological system is unorthodox. Most students of philosophy are far more likely to be exposed to epistemological accounts of how we perceive, attach meaning, come to know things, etc., which would, if they were accurate formulations, discredit radical feminist theory because of its way of knowing.
For example, theories of phenomenology (Kockelmas 1967; Wolff 1978) represent a serious challenge to feminist epistemology. Utilizing the philosophical metaphysical and epistemological formulations of Edmund Husserl to answer questions of meaning and knowing, the phenomenological school seeks to derive the microdynamic processes of social interaction. Objects in the physical sense are thought to have intrinsic meaning which can be perceived by bracketing off the socially shared associations and valuations, but the process of doing so is rare because we tend to accept conventional interpretations and complex social constructs as unproblematically self-evident. Given the impetus to do so, however, individuals have the ability to go "back to the things", as Husserl advised (Wolff 1978, p. 501)-to suspend those everyday "natural attitude" conceptualizations (Kockelmas 1967, p. 27) and rely only on the self-evidently irreducible objective elements of reality, inside of which no ideological distortions can exist. This irreducible meaning of "things", or eidetic meaning, is said to derive from intuition (Kockelmas 1967, p. 29), and pursuit of intuition is thus asserted to result in knowledge of truth which otherwise remains concealed in layers of social illusion. The challenge to phenomenologists would be to study the processes by which edifices of understanding and meaning are (or are not) properly built up from the eidetic meaning of things themselves.
What this means, despite the attentive focus on the processes by which people come to see situations as having a certain meaning (a process also known as ethnomethodology), is that phenomenology is ultimately rooted in an attempt to ground a kind of objective criticism of social form in an objective material reality. The intuitive process described by Husserl and adopted by the phenomenological school is basically a radical empiricism asserting the existence of absolute objectivity and intrinsic meaning in the world, and that when reduced to the non-abstract sensory input level "there is no consciousness except consciousness of something (Wolff 1978, p. 503), the eidetic meaning of which is immediate and self-evident.
This type of radical empiricism, in which sensory impression is asserted to provide one directly with the understanding of meaning in the absence of illusory distractions, has its supporters but is far from being considered unassailable. The irreducible location of meaning in things and the direct sensory impressions that they provide, which depends on the notion that a person can "bracket" the conceptual structures of categories and labels and meanings and directly experience "things" and know them for what they are, has been criticized as indefensible by skeptics who believe in the social-construction-of-reality models (discussed in Wolff, 1978, p. 507). Meanwhile, for those seeking a way out of the socialized-puppet models, which tend to deny the individual any capacity to discern independently or see through ideologies to which she or he is socialized, phenomenology has its attractions.
This "intuition" of phenomenological interactionist theory is not, however, the same as the intuition to which radical feminists refer. This conceptualization of the relationship between perception and meaning is entirely incompatible with radical feminism insofar as there is no place for emotions and emotionally-driven intuitive processes here except for the discard pile of "everyday" (illusory) meanings which, insofar as they cannot be clearly seen to stem from direct sensory input, are being bracketed out of the way. In fact, a closer consideration of the tight dependency of accurate knowledge upon sensory observation of which one is conscious makes phenomenology's "intuition" start to look a lot like that old sacred icon of positivist science, concrete empirical data. It also looks weak in light of common-sense considerations of how people arrive at meaning-certainly, it would seem that if objects have compelling eidetic meanings which are apparent when social constructs are bracketed and pulled back out of the way, then infants should be immediately cognizant of their environments, and very young children fully acquainted with the ultimate meaning of things. As with rational choice and exchange theories, it becomes difficult to understand how to explain the success of the social illusions of ideology.
The shortcomings of epistemological theories which challenge feminist theory, or are at best incompatible with it, do not negate the need for a more convincing model with which to replace them. I have always felt (intuited) that the radical feminists were right about intuition, emotion, and cognition, but the explanation of how the process works was incomplete and therefore hard to explain, defend, or propose as a counter-argument (though there may be good feminist accounts I haven't been exposed to).
Charles Taylor (1971) delineates the parameters of a theory which seems to point in a useful direction. Hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, describes the relationship of meaning and knowledge in such a way that the object (text) being interpreted has authentic meaning which can be clear and apparent or vague and unclear, and which can be construed or misconstrued by the subject to whom it has these meanings. Hermeneutics seeks to clarify through interpretation, in such a way that the meaning of the object becomes more apparent to the subject. The meaning does not lie objectively in the objects, though, for the meaning that the objects have is meaning to a subject. In other words, the reader of a text (or "experiencer" of a situation or reality) has a relationship to that text such that the text has meaning to her or him whether he/she understands that meaning fully or not. In cases where understanding is missing or incomplete, hermeneutic interpretation translates the meaning of the original text into another form that expresses that meaning so as to make the original text understandable. Meaning is for a subject but not located in the subject either, so much as in the relationship of subject and object. Meaning is distinguished from understanding, allowing us to speak of accurate or false consciousness of a situation. Understanding and meaning are also distinguished from forms of expression, particularly the embodiment of meaning in language, since by definition if one's text's meaning is to be clarified through the writing of another text that interprets it, the same meaning must be said to exist (for the subject) in two different texts. A relative, elastic relationship between meaning and expression is understood to exist rather than a tight, rigid correspondence.
The hermeneutic process only begins to take on full meaning when plural subjects are considered, since the occasions for a single observer to engage in an act of interpretation and re-expression for his or her own clarification are more limited and the importance of the process is less apparent. In the social setting, when an object (text) becomes a topic of debate or consideration due to ambiguities of meaning or different readings of its meaning (including different opinions as to its clarity and the extent to which it makes sense at all), those who perceive the meaning that it has for them render their understanding into new words through which to convey that meaning. Similarly, when the object serving as text is the social setting itself, the meaningful activities of what Taylor refers to (in prefeminist terminology) as "the sciences of man" revolve around that same process of translating the meaning of the social context into another text of interpretation for the purposes of clarifying, for other subjects involved, the meaning that the social context has for them.
Taylor's version of hermeneutics has troublesome implications for academia which would be mirrored by the implications of radical feminist theory were it to receive more serious consideration. Hermeneutic social science can only exist outside of the conventional realm of scientific standards of certainty. There are no exterior standards from which to judge the accuracy of a given act of interpretation.
What if someone does not "see" the adequacy of our interpretation, does not accept our reading? We try to show him [sic] how it makes sense of the original non- or partial sense. But for him to follow us he must read the original language as we do, he must recognize these expressions as puzzling in a certain way, and hence be looking for a solution to our problem. If he does not, what can we do? The answer, it would see, can only be more of the sameWe cannot escape an ultimate appeal to a common understanding of the expressions, of the "language" involved. This is one way of trying to express what has been called the "hermeneutical circle."
On the basis of this state of relative and self-referential certainty, I'm inclined to consider hermeneutics an "art" process rather than a "science" process, and in accordance with Taylor's assertion that the social sciences should proceed hermeneutically, to assert that there is no valid social science, but rather good social art.
Although this approach does not claim that the "knowledge" that any one of us possess is merely a set of beliefs and ideas that have been instilled within us through social construction, it will probably be unappealing to sociologists of a more positivist inclination; and it should be noted that even the proponents of social construction tend implicitly to exclude themselves and other social scientists when they advance their theories of meaning and knowledge, as evidenced by their tendency to behave as if there really were a difference in accuracy and quality between their "knowledge" and that of their undergraduate students.
Nevertheless, the hermeneutic model seems to accurately describe the process of trying to convey sociological understanding, both within the classroom and through the process of writing social theory-
Today's facts are embedded in today's situation. We accept them as being self-evidently true, as signifying what they are; or at least, we try to. We are unhappy with puzzles and ambiguities, uneasy with shifting roles and mysterious behavior. Why?
Because they demand something from us. Present events act on us and call for action by us. Since we can change them, not simply define or describe them, they acquire a moral presence. They pose a question of responsibility, and by doing so they change the way we look at themSo valuing invades description, moral judgment confounds analysis.
The most illuminating reaction occurs when a statement is made which runs counter to the customary attitudes of any given audience. Sometimes it is directly upsetting; that is, the audience takes in its significance and disagrees. But more often the meaning is separated from the fact of the statement. Then people say, "Oh, I suppose this absurd and disgusting thing you tell me is true enough, but it doesn't matter because it's just an aberration." It may be true, that is, in the particular instance cited, but it isn't true importantly, because it doesn't link up with the overall pattern. It can, and should, be ignored
Clearly, even apparently scientific and objective data do not operate in the social world in the same way that they operate in the physical world. A "fact" can't be pinned down simply by being correct in the sense that, Yes, it did happen. In the physical world, hypotheses that don't work have to be abandoned. In the social world, hypotheses will swallow up "facts" that challenge them over and over again. As long as the emotion invested in them can keep them plausible, they will "work" well enough to get by.
(Janeway 1971, pp. 135-6, 143-4)
In the classroom, one presents content to one's students, which must be integrated into the preexisting background of what they already know or believe, and if comprehension does not take place, it is necessary to move back to more general subject matter until one reaches common ground, a mutual agreement as to what is so. From there, one introduces interpretations and explanations that purport to clarify some aspects of social life, perhaps by providing new information about other human experience within the overall social context (data), but always and necessarily by describing matters according to a schematic pattern that attempts to make sense of things (theory). Unless one can offer up that which clarifies life as one's students know and experience it, they may take notes and remember the "right answers" long enough to write them down on a test paper, but this will have little if any effect on what they understand and know about life, and, therefore, on their behavior, political or otherwise.
Taylor's perspective integrates agency into a social framework in which people share (and expect each other to share) a conceptual framework of social (and, for that matter, physical) reality. While avoiding the deterministic sense of individuals as "programmed" by the surrounding culture, Taylor places them each in an idea-context of intersubjectively shared beliefs which provides them with the tools for interpreting experience--what he calls "proto-'interpretation'" (p. 16). But whereas a social constructionist would see individuals as entirely constrained by an inability to experience anything except in those terms, there is nothing in Taylor's schema that limits individuals' understandings to the confines of those beliefs and concepts.
What we are left with is the question of what this understanding consists of, and what its characteristics are. In separating understanding from language, Taylor implicitly theorizes a class of meaningful thought that does not depend on processing signifiers as terms. This would certainly tend to eliminate rationality from consideration, since rational thinking is dependent upon terminologies in order to set temporary axioms for consideration and so forth. It sets the stage for revalorizing emotional processes. Taylor, however, does not develop this sense of unlanguaged cognition, and therefore now his model needs elaboration.
I have found, in the theory-laden fiction of Robert Pirsig, an excellent and detailed explication of epistemological processes that pick up where Taylor leaves off, and which fits the radical feminist paradigm like the proverbial glove.
Like Husserl, Pirsig grants that when the measure of an object is reduced to the sensory impression of it, socially maintained concepts (and possible ideological distortions) do not play a role, and there is a sense in which one is making a clean, new "back to the things" assessment. Unlike Husserl, Pirsig does not claim that a deliberate and rare process of "bracketing" is necessary; instead, one is inevitably "back to the things" on a constant basis. Using the example of seeing a tree, Pirsig notes that
At the cutting edge of time, before an object can be distinguished, there must be a kind of nonintellectual awareness, called awareness of Quality. You can't be aware that you've seen a tree until after you've seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness there must be a time lag...Quality is shapeless, formless, indescribable. To see shapes and forms is to intellectualize.
(Pirsig 1974, pp. 221, 224)
In contrast with the Husserl model, Pirsig is saying there is nothing compellingly meaningful about those visual sensory impressions that automatically tells the person that its source is a tree. If you have seen trees before, you have past experiences with similar visual sensory impressions which are cross-indexed with other experiences, sensory impressions, concepts, social attitudes, and so forth, all of which taken together represent "treeness" to you. But before these sensory impressions can be cross-referenced and interpreted, they have to be felt. This experience, which is nonverbal, nonanalytical, nonconceptual, is entirely located in the present moment, and consciousness consists of "feelings" in both senses of the word-sensation (in this case, visual sensations) and emotion. Pirsig refers to this mode of knowing as the "romantic" mode. McMillan (1982) notes that rationalists who try to put a wedge between reason and emotions and assign validity only to the former "fail to see that what makes bodily states and sensations emotional is the presence of evaluations or cognitions. Although feelings involve bodily processes, they are nevertheless distinguishable from them" (p. 28). This experiencing of self-in-relation-to-tree, which is the romantic mode of knowing as opposed to the classical mode, is also preverbal and preanalytical. A classical analytical response, in its simplest form, is necessary to distinguish between self and tree. Analytical categorization identifies the tree as a tree and assigns objectivity to it, identifies the emotional-preverbal impressions as subjective reactions to the tree, makes separate observations about the appearance of the bark and the length of the branches and color of the leaves or needles, and given sufficient familiarity with trees perhaps makes the determination that the tree is a pine tree; or, for that matter, that it is a seventeen-to- eighteen-year-old Ponderosa pine with a mild case of tree blight.
The newborn infant would not only be incapable of identifying the object in her field of visions as a tree, she would be incapable of knowing immediately that these strange new sensory sensations have something to do with an object that she could touch if she could move in the direction her head is pointed, or even that visual impressions of a certain sort imply the existence of an object in her line of vision.
It seems compellingly obvious to anyone who has been around a baby for a couple of months that an infant's mind is filing sensations and emotions and noticing patterns with startling rapidity. The patterns formed, which allow for the infant to predict occurrences based on previously connected patterns and so forth, constitute what Pirsig calls "analogues of reality". Prior to language acquisition (which itself depends on a preverbal ability to notice patterns), the process of recognition and the fitting of feelings into existing patterns is a limited one, and the patterns are limited patterns. The process at this point is entirely intuitive. Intuition, therefore, is the simplest, most basic form of comparative analysis, a feeling for and recognition of pattern that forms a bridge between the totally nonanalytical split-second here-and-now "romantic" experience and the classical analysis which uses language-based categorical systems.
Actually, the process of analysis always requires a level of emotional involvement. The process of fitting a new experience into preexisting analogues of reality involves a consideration for the elegance and beauty of its fit, a consideration that is made manifest through feeling:
[Jules Henrí Poincaré used to say that]...Mathematics isn't merely a question of applying rules, any more than science. It doesn't merely make the most combinations possible according to certain fixed laws. The combinations so obtained would be exceedingly numerous, useless and cumbersomethe subliminal self, Poincaré said, looks at a large number of solutions to a problem, but only the interesting ones break into the domain of consciousness. Mathematical solutions are selected by the subliminal self on the basis of "mathematical beauty", of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometrical elegance...Poincaré made it clear that he was not speaking of romantic beauty, the beauty of appearances which strikes the senses. He means classic beauty, which comes from the harmonious order of the partsIt is the quest of this special classic beauty, the sense of harmony of the cosmos, which makes us choose the facts most fitting to contribute to this harmony...It is this harmony, this quality, if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know.
(Pirsig 1974, pp. 240-241)
Once our hypothetical infant becomes verbal, language makes complex communication and comparison of analogues with those of other people possible. The analogues of reality which are formed and modified by this process become extremely complex, as do her mind's analytical processes themselves. Analogues rendered in words are shared and are expected to be shared with other people experiencing the same world (Newcomb, Turner and Converse 1965), and we depend on consultation with other people to double-check our comprehension of the universe we live in:
What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings.
(Pirsig 1974, p. 241)
The complex patterns of verbally coded analogues of reality are social analogues, and now we are speaking of a level of interaction that includes the elements of individual, external reality, cognition, and society and socialization. Now it is possible of conceptualize a discrepancy between reality perceptions of the individual and social analogues of reality utilized by the surrounding culture, and to account for both awareness and lack of awareness of oppression, if it were to exist, is an easy matter.
Pirsig mentions in his introduction of the concepts of classical and romantic esthetic that the classical mode of understanding (analytical and reductionistic) tends to be associated with masculinity and the romantic esthetic (intuitive and holistic) with femininity. Although he deemphasizes the gender connection, the thesis of his book concerns the degree to which Quality has been disregarded, both in the romantic and the classical mode, and that the world has for a long time operated on the erroneous premise that analysis and rationality can be detached from subjectivity and emotion, that science can be separated from art.
Radical feminist Robin Morgan makes a similar point:
Unfortunately, technology as we have come to express and experience it exists in quite a different context, one split off from [art and poetry]and often posed as actively antagonistic to art.
(Morgan 1982, p. 270)
A central part of what patriarchy means to interaction is that feeling has been surgically separated from thinking, and such a separation not only neglects and maligns the validity of feeling, it also destroys the validity of thought. The interactive nature of all meaning, and the role of feelings in arriving at objective as well as subjective meaning, are denied as part and parcel of the process of separating feeling from meaning, which constrains cognition. In a context of interaction comparatively free of such constraints, the fact that we all share the ability to recognize patterns and make sense of reality would mean, more often than not, that the social check of communication would reveal compatibility between our individual images of reality and the images that other people have. Individuals would not be exposed to a constant denial of the validity of their personal reality-assessing processes. Knowledge would not be viewed so exclusively as something that one learns from people who know better. Thus, the radical feminist indictment of the patriarchal myth of value-free emotionless rationality is an identification of distinctively central political characteristics.
I began by considering cognitive social analogues of simple physical realities such as trees in my examples because simple models are easier to present and discuss, but as Newcomb et. al. (1965) pointed out, evaluative norms concerning social reality work according to the same principle. The sharing of a perception constitutes a cognitive norm, an element of the social analogue of reality. Values, ethics, and moral priorities-those cognitive norms that most consciously determine behavior-are among these. Behavior-indicative systems take the form "You (I, he, we,) ought to do such-and-such", which is a perception of what a person ought to do, and why; these form the social-context version of a cognitive norm; that is, they are cognitive norms that are shared and expected to be shared which address the subject matter of which behaviors are desirable. Social reality, whether it be a n administrative procedure or a moral code, may seem far more abstract (and more arbitrary) than physical reality such as trees. Nevertheless, under conditions of relatively unconstrained interaction, what individuals are doing, when they socially interact, is not constructing social reality in the same sense that a potter constructs vases out of clay, but rather comparing their analogue-models of human social needs in a physically natural context, and individual needs in a physical and social natural context. Therefore, within abstractions about how things ought to be is an assertion that should not be considered to be arbitrary. The essence of social reality is not arbitrary, to be shaped as compromise and chance circumstance determine, but is rather geared towards the "discovery" of objectivity.
In relatively unconstrained interaction, as a result of the elasticity of language and perspective differences, there would be a relative, rather than absolute, certainty that the rest of the people in one's world were seeing the same world. This elasticity, this fluid rather than rigid condition of interconnectedness, would probably soften the "edges" of objectivity to permit a sense of individuality, although it would be an individuality not so dramatic in its separateness as the individuality we know. Newcomb et. al. (1965) cite a study by Kitt and Gleicher demonstrating what they call "pulling"--the tendency for people to skew their estimation of other people's behavior in the direction of their own. We can extend this understanding to include estimates of all of the cognitive processes of other people as well as those most directly responsible for behavior, and this would be what I'd expect to find in a relatively constraint-free interactive world as the normative and functional adaptation to the elasticity of different individual experiences.
In contrast to relative elasticity and the assumption of shared reality, oppression correlates with a pattern, qualitatively different from those little discontinuities, in which an individual feels (and perhaps, but not necessarily, comprehends and analyzes) a rigid and ongoing tension between his or her experience of reality and the social definition thereof.
Table of Contents
Forward to Next Section