'Dynamic Quality' and the 2016 Election: A Metaphysical Look at the New Aftermath
“[...] we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [...] the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.” - Martin Luther King Jr., from his Beyond Vietnam Speech, 1967.
“Sometimes the insane and the contrarians and the ones who are closest to suicide are the most valuable people a society has. They may be precursors of social change.” - Robert Pirsig, Lila.
Metaphysics: Ontology, Epistemology, and Donald Trump
Metaphysics is the philosophical attempt to understand the causes and fundamental nature of reality. In conventional or academic philosophy, the tree of metaphysics has two main branches: ontology and epistemology. Ontology is the study of the nature of being or existence and the relationship between beings and existing things. It attempts to answer the question, “What is reality?” Epistemology, on the other hand, is the study of the nature of knowledge, specifically of its grounds and limitations. It attempts to answer the question, “What can we know?”
While there is lots of debate over this, I tend to agree with the late British philosopher Roy Bhaskar that all epistemologies necessarily assume an ontology, and therefore that ontology is the primary metaphysical pursuit. During much of the twentieth century, however, academic philosophy was by and large concerned with either denying the need for an ontology other than science or with trying to eliminate metaphysics altogether.
In the first case, 'positivist' philosophers concluded that science was the only valid form of knowledge. They argued, therefore, that we should thus believe science when it says that all there is to reality is 'matter and the void'. We should also fall in line when science concludes that in nature there is no such thing as 'meaning', 'purpose', or 'morality', and tells us rather that these are mere human/cultural inventions. Here, then, the role of the philosopher is simply to act as a handmaiden to science. His only job is to help scientists to clean up and clarify their language so they can be more precise when they are telling us what is and is not real.
In the second case, many a 'postmodern' philosopher set out to (successfully) demonstrate that the dominant form of metaphysics, science, was full of limitations and problems, especially the blindingly obvious fact that science itself was a just another of those socially-constructed human practices that was equally subject to inventing self-justifying ideas or concepts. This 'deflationism' was, of course, much to the chagrin of those committed scientists who believed the scientific method had decisively solved the problems of both ontology and epistemology. But for the postmodernists, neither ontology nor epistemology were actually 'problems ' in need of solutions; rather, metaphysics was a useless pursuit and should just be ignored.
I won't go into any further specifics of either the positivist worship or the postmodern 'de-divination' of science here. Yet I will say that the science/philosophy wars of the twentieth, and now the twenty first, century have left little room for anyone to advance the investigation of metaphysics beyond where it was in the early twentieth century. For postmodernists, as noted, this is fine because they want to do away with metaphysics altogether.
But this postmodern 'victory' has in large been limited to the academy, since the ruling cultural ontology is still scientific. Indeed, it is still generally assumed (Creationists and religious fundamentalists aside) that 'being' or 'reality' is fundamentally composed of vanishingly small bits matter that are in 'motion', whatever that means. It is out of this, and only this, that all of the complexity of life emerges. What is decidedly not metaphysically evident, from the vantage of science, is anything like 'meaning' or 'purpose' or, most importantly here, 'morality'. The positivists, it seems, have 'won' the cultural debate.
Having said all this, what I want to explore here is the possibility of revisiting the metaphysical question, albeit through a fairly unconventional and not directly philosophical or scientific 'route'. In particular, I want to use the election of Donald Trump and public reaction to it as a window into metaphysics. Ultimately, I will argue that the metaphysical question is not only alive and well, but that it is central to the post-election dilemma that many Americans now find themselves struggling to manage.
I will also suggest that the system of metaphysics developed by the philosopher and author, Robert Pirsig, in his two books Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and especially Lila (1991), is one of great relevance and utility in the present age. What Pirsig has called a 'Metaphysics of Quality', I will insist, can go a long way towards helping us to 'decode' the current political, cultural, and moral situation. It can also aid us in realizing the 'revolution of values' called for by King.
In any case, I will begin this exploration not with the specifics of the election, but rather with the much used post-election word 'aftermath'. Why? Because, as I will explain in a section to follow, clues about a culture's guiding metaphysics can often be found by examining their language.
Aftermath I and II: Metaphysics of Quantity vs. Metaphysics of Quality
Odd as this may sound, 'aftermath' is a deeply metaphysical expression. Of course, it is rarely consciously regarded in this way. This is likely because of the term's seemingly pedestrian origins. Interpreted as 'after mowing', 'aftermath' dates back to 15th century British farming culture. The aftermath was simply the second crop of grass or hay grown in a single season after a first crop had already been harvested from the same soil.
In the time and place of its coining, an aftermath was both metaphysically positive and metaphysically numerical. It suggested, among other things, a reality in which prudent human management of the land fostered recurring abundance and multiplying reward. Also inscribed within the phrase was a valuing of self-discipline and hard work as fundamental 'inputs' into the 'abundance equation'. For agriculturally-based cultures, this was a common understanding, a familiar motif that captured 'the way things are'. 'As ye sow, so shall ye reap', and all that.
For some Trump supporters, this homey and 'naturalistic' understanding of 'aftermath' seems to be the relevant one. Accurately or not, 'The Donald's' victory represents for them a return of government to the concerns of the common man, the 'mower' of old. The majority of today's mowers, of course, are more interested in recapturing steady jobs and paychecks rather than in securing tracts of arable land. Their metaphysics, though, is still predominately one of number or quantity: a hard day's work should bring a living wage, and a harder day's work ought to yield a little extra for a rainy day.
Be that as it may, there is also another, more commonly held interpretation of 'aftermath'. This more figurative sense arose somewhere during the mid-1600s, when the term suddenly was no longer solely about 'making hay'. Instead, an aftermath was now equated with the distressing period that follows some significant and usually disastrous event. Where it once hopefully suggested boons multiplied, an aftermath now ominously foreboded miseries intensified. Here, the metaphysical understanding of 'aftermath' had shifted from a positive focus on an increase in quantity to a negative worry about a decline in quality. In the 'new' aftermath, life was seen to be qualitatively 'worse' after the cataclysmic event, such that all that was left was some measure of damage control until what was lost could be rebuilt or regained.
For many of Trump's detractors, it is this traumatic connotation of 'aftermath' that is regnant. In their reckoning, the most important thing to do now is to prevent the post-election apocalyptic pall from permanently extinguishing all that has come to be good about America. Even if the economy improves under Trump (if the quantity grows, in other words), for the 'not my president' faction the quality of life in America is undeniably going to suffer deeply under this new leader. Of course, many on the political right would assert that 'liberal lefties' had long ago set in motion the events that would result in this inevitable 'political correction', and so they should just stop whining and accept their fate. Again: as ye sow, so shall ye reap.
From Feudalism to Capitalism: Disruption/Transformation
Whether or not liberals really did 'have this coming', let's take a minute to consider the term 'aftermath' and its mid 17th century transformation. How did it happen?
Obviously, the 'true' cause of this historic redefinition is impossible to identify. But one explanation presents itself as eminently plausible: capitalism. Indeed, in England at the time of the metamorphosis of 'aftermath', this 'progressive' economic movement was just beginning. And though its effects have ramified to the present day, the immediate thrust of this revolution was most sharply felt by those sowers and reapers of old. The specifics of capitalist development are detailed in great depth elsewhere, and are really not necessary to recapitulate for my purposes here. Instead, what I want to do is present a highly speculative account of how this economic upheaval may have been translated into a linguistic and metaphysical reformation.
We should start, then, by remembering feudalism, which had been the dominant political, sociocultural, and economic structure in medieval Europe for nearly six centuries, beginning sometime in the 9th or 10th century. Though this system was basically replaced in the early 16th century with tenant farming, much of the hierarchical interdependence and protectionary flavor of feudalism lived on into 17th century England. There was still a ruling, landlord class composed of the nobility, gentry, and yeomanry, as well as a 'ruled' class, made up of peasants or commoners. The latter were, as in the feudal system, the primary stewards and workers of the land, the literal and metaphorical 'mowers'.
But in mid 17th century England, as the urban market economy for agricultural goods was starting to bloom, landlords both great and small were inspired by the profit motive to find ways of squeezing the most bang out of their landholding buck. A transformation of culture and its attendant values was soon underway.
As a result, there was a rapid rise in the deployment of scientifically based agricultural methods for managing lands and increasing yields, as well as a gradual enclosing of the commons for personal, rather than communal, benefit. The combination of these radical developments soon led to a major disruption in a long held and relatively stable sociocultural system. Ultimately what this meant, as the historian Carolyn Merchant notes, was that “strong landlords displaced subsistence farmers from the farm, fen, and forest ecosystems” in their attempt to maximize their short-term profits.
In order to survive, some among those displaced farmers were forced to became day laborers on the land they themselves once farmed as tenants. Under these conditions, it would hardly be surprising if at least one of these individuals, having seen himself 'mowed over' and 're-harvested' by his former landlord, might make the connection between his personal plight and the 'aftermath' of old. In a relatively short span of time, he and his ilk had been lowered in the preexisting interdependent hierarchy from the peasantry to that of mere 'hay'. Recognizing this, it would be a short step from such a personal metaphorical and metaphysical insight to a more general, socio-linguistic adoption. A new 'aftermath' concerned with human quality rather than non-human quantity was thus born.
History, Metaphysics, and Language
Whether or not this speculative etymology is fully accurate, such metaphorical (re)inventions almost always accompany and/or reflect major societal changes. And these linguistic changes themselves are always connected to mutating metaphysical assumptions. Indeed, all languages necessarily purport to either reflect or to be 'about reality' in some sense. They must also, therefore, presuppose some form of metaphysics.
While there are ongoing academic 'chicken and egg' debates over which comes first, the language or the metaphysics, there is nonetheless broad agreement that the two coexist symbiotically. There is also general harmony around the fact that, though they may be equal in stature, language and metaphysics are unequal in visibility. Indeed, most of us language-users regularly and routinely communicate with others without ever questioning the metaphysics that is embedded in the language we employ. That is not a problem; it's just how the language-metaphysics system works.
The most important thing to understand about this mutually-dependent system, though, is that like life itself, it is always liminal, always paradoxically between a static sate of being and a dynamic state of becoming. Typically, though, a given linguistic/metaphysical system spends most of its time in a condition of stasis, in an apparent state of 'being'. Human societies, as well as individual humans, require for their stability and survival this pervasive sense of rootedness and solidity.
Sometimes, however, that system becomes a little too rooted and therefore presents barriers to what might loosely be called 'change', 'growth', or even, for optimists, 'progress'. Although it is impossible to predict when such a bottleneck will take place, when it does occur 'being' is temporarily overcome by an irresistible 'becoming' and a revolution of some kind erupts. This is much easier to see in human growth and development than in cultural development but, as I will attempt to argue later, the process is common to both 'systems'.
In any case, during such 'eruptive' events, the linguistic/metaphysical system of an individual or society is altered in such a way that it no longer bears recognizable markings that link it to the system that it once was. This is especially true of those markings that identify what was once held to be 'valuable': peer pressure replaces dolls or action figures; science replaces religion. Whatever the specifics, something genuinely new is created out of the old. This, I submit, was the case with the 17th century transformation of 'aftermath'.
But as the thermodynamic law states, when something is 'gained', something is also 'lost'.
Indeed, during Europe's long medieval past landlords, who relied upon the peasants for food and taxes, had at least to consider the quality of life of the peasantry. And the peasants were, for their part, charged with focusing on the agricultural quantity that resulted directly from their labor. There was, in other words, a certain inescapable communal reciprocity at play that balanced both the quantity and quality for all involved. This is not to say that the feudal system was somehow 'fair' or 'right'; rather, it is just to say that it was one of obvious interdependence.
With the 'arrival' of capitalism, however, the landed elite could simply 'cut out the middleman' and focus the bulk of their energy on increasing the quantity of the returns on their individual holdings. The value of personal material quantity, in other words, overtook communal human quality, and the mutually dependent reciprocity fundamental to feudalism was thus demolished. It was no longer about an interdependent 'us', unequal though 'we' may have been, but rather about an independent 'me'. The world, especially the Western world, has maintained and extended, through both science and economics, this new metaphysics of quantity over quality and its attendant value system pretty much ever since.
What I want to suggest here, though, is that the election of Donald Trump is a signal that we are on the cusp of yet another revolution of our linguistic/metaphysical system. My suspicion, perhaps counter-intuitively, is that it is a metaphysical revolution of the kind MLK Jr. prophesied back in 1967, and as I noted earlier, I will attempt to persuade the reader of this possibility. Rather than seeing post-election America as an 'aftermath' of the traumatic sort, though, I will suggest that we have before us a perfect opportunity to re-imagine the 'aftermath' in a way that not only captures the present reality, but that also guides us in creating that very radical revolution of values King intuited.
Woodrow Wilson: The 20th Century 'Aftermath President'
This forward-thinking revolutionary project must begin, however odd it may seem, by moving in a retrograde motion, in particular by revisiting, of all people, Woodrow Wilson.
Why Wilson? Because his election has been seen by many as the signal 'aftermath' event of 20th century America. Some, mostly conservatives, have viewed Wilson's presidency in the common, cataclysmic 'aftermath' sense. This is because he represented for them a shift away from a government focused on a Metaphysics of Quantity (basically, on a totally unregulated 'free market') to one concerned with a Metaphysics of Quality ('social justice' programs). For the Metaphysics of Quantity section, I will be drawing on the ideas of the legendary black libertarian economist, political philosopher, social theorist, and conservative think tank sniper, Thomas Sowell, whose more negative view of Wilson and his legacy is well-known.
Alternatively, more liberal, progressive types have seen the election of Wilson in generally positive terms. For them, life in America in the 'aftermath' of Wilson has by and large been an improvement over what came before, especially when it comes to the quality of life for the vast 'peasantry'. Robert Pirsig, who we met earlier, will serve here as the representative of this 'counterpoint' view of Wilson's presidency.
Though I will present both sides, I will nonetheless argue that Pirsig's notion of Wilson's significance is much more accurate and profound than is Sowell's. I will also suggest that his exploration of what he calls the Metaphysics of Quality provides a clearer understanding of the evolution of the American sociopolitical landscape than does Sowell's. Lastly, I will argue that Pirsig's metaphysical analysis provides a better indication of where we may be headed in the post-Trump aftermath.
But first, let's hear from Sowell.
Thomas Sowell is a rare and fascinating figure. An African American who was a child of both pre-Civil Rights South and Harlem, he is a one-time Marxist turned Chicago school of economics free marketer who also served as a US Marine during the Korean War. Sowell has degrees from Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, and has taught economics at Howard University, Brandeis, UCLA, Rutgers, Cornell, and Amherst. He also occasionally flirted with governmental and corporate positions, briefly working for both the Department of Labor and A.T.&T.
Never fully satisfied with what he saw as the combination of low standards, ineptness, and irrationality he believed was common to both top-heavy government and contemporary academia, Sowell eventually found his way to a more unfettered and self-directed life as a public intellectual and Senior Fellow at the Stanford University conservative think tank, The Hoover Institution, where he has been continuously employed since 1980.
Over his long and decorated career he has written tome after tome decrying the hubris of 'Wilsonian' progressive policies (which generally concern themselves with 'quality of life' issues) and programs like affirmative action, minimum wage laws, antitrust laws, and multiculturalism. In current times, he has called Barack Obama 'the worst President ever', yet has also criticized Trump as 'dangerous', 'a spoiled adolescent', and as 'the oldest man who has never grown up'. Though he felt that Trump was and is bad, he was convinced that Clinton was much worse. The imminent threat Clinton's potential election posed to the Supreme Court's ruling on the landmark Citizen's United vs. FEC case was one that Sowell shuddered to imagine. If nothing else, this man is unfailingly thorough in his devotion to the sacredness of the free market (where quantity is god).
Perhaps most upsetting for those ideologically opposed to Sowell, though, is his insistence that the long and mighty arm of racism in America is not the primary manipulator of the inequalities that still exist between groups. Rather, says Sowell, it is a combination of destructive and ineffective governmental 'social justice' (i.e. 'quality') programs and self-defeating minority culture behaviors and attitudes that perpetuates and undergirds widening racial gaps. On this matter, he defies his detractors and their 'blaming the victim' accusations with a potent mixture of a personal experience with both poverty and racism, an imperturbable plainspokenness, hard statistical evidence, and a staggeringly wide-ranging erudition. Whether or not Sowell is right in all that he says is up for debate, but his integrity, intelligence, and insight are formidable, to say the least.
In fact, it was this very fearsomeness of Sowell's intellect that persuaded me to take seriously his assertion that the signal 'aftermath' event of the 20th century was the election in 1913 of Woodrow Wilson. Why was this such a big deal? Because as a former professor, scholar, and President of Princeton University, Wilson was the first member of the growing American 'academic elite' to attain the highest office in the country. Since then, says Sowell (and other conservatives like Glenn Beck), the United States has been (or should have been) fighting against the tyranny of this 'anointed' intellectual class that is bent on “imposing [its] superior wisdom and virtue” on the (supposedly) benighted masses.
A major part of this 'superiority complex' is manifest, suggests Sowell, in the Progressive attempts to limit the 'presumed' excesses of the free market (efforts to limit quantity, in other words) and to equate 'morality' solely with the motley assembly of virtues liberals vaguely refer to as 'social justice' (or 'quality of life' issues). Unlike Sartre, who quipped that “Hell is other people,” for the libertarian Sowell hell is perhaps more accurately described as “other people who think they know what's best for you.”
Ostensibly, however, this Progressive pretension was and still is fueled by a genuine desire to improve the lot of the underprivileged, often through some form of social engineering. But Sowell's far-reaching statistics, he argues, illustrate all-too-well the timeless wisdom encapsulated in the old proverb, 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'. Throughout the 20th century that road, composed of a concrete hardened by rigidly left-leaning PhD's and simpatico politicos, has splintered and multiplied into highways and biways that now cover the continent. And the collective weight of that sinister aggregate, in the eyes of conservatives like Sowell, has threatened to permanently crush underneath it the twin American virtues of self-reliance and individual liberty.
The architects of this grand 'public works' project, people like the Constitution-destroying egghead Woodrow Wilson and his heirs, thus need to be revealed for what they are – self-serving, 'regressive' know-nothings. All they have managed to achieve is the designing and building of a well-worn sociopolitical 'transportation system' that now serves as an ersatz autobahn connecting American academic institutions to one another, to the media and, most distressingly, to the nation's capital. A plague is upon us.
One highly insidious facet of this many-tentacled structure, suggests Sowell, is that not everyone has free access to its on-ramps. Only those with vehicles whose engines are powered by Progressive petroleum and whose bumpers are plastered with 'Coexist' or 'Celebrate Diversity' stickers are allowed to merge into its (utterly directionless) traffic.
Perhaps most upsetting for Sowell is the fact that it is on these over-regulated beltways that the nation's 'worst president ever', Barack Obama, logged so many miles that he earned a frequent traveler pass directly to the White House. This unsettling reality has led Sowell, now in his mid-eighties, to redouble his efforts to have that century-old construction project razed.
In metaphysical terms, the economist Sowell is clearly a 'quantity' guy. He shares with the capitalist landlords of old a language in which both the freedom and responsibility to 'cultivate ones own garden' reflect some deep metaphysical truth about universal order and balance. It's all about a mechanism of inputs and outputs; if you manage your personal resources properly, then you should enjoy the rewards, simple as that. No handouts, no free lunches.
What must ever be guarded against in such a Metaphysics of Quantity, at least in sociopolitical terms, is the corruption that follows the wormy rise of radical or revolutionary 'elites'1 who, make no mistake, will act as nothing but underminers of that universal, clockwork order. Just as for the 17th century English landlords turned capitalists, so for Sowell anyone wishing to prevent a given individual from pursuing his own material flourishing (from increasing his quantity) through forcing him to show concern for the well-being of others (their quality of life) must be avoided and prevented from gaining a position of power or political influence.
Now this is not to say that people like Sowell are innately cold and heartless humans, but it is rather to point out that they share a Metaphysics of Quantity view that insists that if you take care of your own quantitative needs first, then the qualitative benefits will naturally follow. This is the sort of metaphysics that lies behind Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'. It is also the one that many in America (and elsewhere) still swear by. How and why they come to hold this metaphysics is not the question being addressed here, though it is probably the most important question of all. As we will see later, though, one thing appears metaphysically evident: all systems require both 'conservative' and 'progressive' components, and this fact alone should temper extremist tendencies in either direction.
In any case, let's say for argument's sake that this summary of the Metaphysics of Quantity and its relationship to conservatism is basically accurate. The follow-up question should then be, “Is the Metaphysics of Quantity 'true'?” For those hewing to such a metaphysics the obvious reply is, 'Yes'. But according to my second Woodrow Wilson way-shower, Robert Pirsig, the truly enlightened answer is, 'Not quite'.
'Okay', you say, 'But who is this Pirsig, and why does he say this?'
Well, like Sowell Pirsig was born in early 20th century America, though into radically different circumstances. A Minneapolis native of German and Swedish descent, he was raised by a law school professor father and a mother about whom not much is recorded. Pirsig apparently inherited from his parents a 'big brain', as testing at age 9 revealed him to have an IQ of 170, over five standard deviations beyond the average of 100. This led to a series of academic accelerations that saw Pirsig entering the University of Minnesota as a biochemistry major at the age of 15. By the age of 17, however, his psychological immaturity and poor work ethic led to him being expelled from the university.
He reacted to this by joining the Army, and was sent off to South Korea, like Sowell, though the Korean War had not yet begun. After nearly two years in the service, he was honorably discharged at the age of 19 or 20 and then returned to the University of Minnesota to resume his studies, this time in Philosophy, and finally earned his bachelor's degree in the subject in 1950.
Over the next ten years, Pirsig got married, had two children, obtained a Master's Degree in Journalism, worked as a freelance writer and at other odd jobs, secured a teaching position in English at Montana State College, and finally decided, in 1961 at the age of 31, to pursue a PhD in philosophy at the University of Chicago, the same place that Sowell, in 1968, obtained his PhD in Economics.
However, by Christmas of his first semester, Pirsig's already deteriorating mental state culminated in a schizophrenic break that forced him to be hospitalized. His condition failed to improve over the ensuing months and, beginning on the very same day as JFK's assassination (November 22, 1963), he was given the first of his twenty-eight Electro-Convulsive Shock Therapy treatments. After two years in a out of mental hospitals, Pirsig was finally released and over the next ten years worked on and off on the book that would eventually be published in 1974 as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The book was an immediate success, both in critical and popular terms, and Pirsig's rising star was even noticed by the Guggenheim Foundation, which awarded him a fellowship in April, 1974. A follow-up book, entitled Lila, however, was not published until 1991. Though Lila, in the opinion of some, including Pirsig himself (and me), was an even more compelling and profound read than Zen, it did not receive the same level of acclaim as its predecessor.
In a 2006 interview with the guardian magazine, Pirsig reflected on both the 'failure' of Lila and the general disinterest in his overall philosophical approach:
He hoped Lila would force the 'metaphysics of quality' from the New Age shelves to the philosophy ones, but that has not happened. Though a website dedicated to his ideas boasts 50,000 posts, and there have been outposts of academic interest, he is disappointed that his books have not had more mainstream attention. 'Most academic philosophers ignore it, or badmouth it quietly, and I wondered why that was. I suspect it may have something to do with my insistence that "quality" can not be defined,' he says.
This desire to be incorporated in a philosophy canon seems odd anyhow, since the power of Pirsig's books lie in their dynamic personal quest for value, rather than any fixed statement of it. But maybe eventually every iconoclast wants to be accepted.”
Whether or not Pirsig will ever find widespread academic acceptance of his Metaphysics of Quality is uncertain, but here at least it will receive both an airing as well as a general endorsement. That airing will commence by 'opening the windows' to let in the terms 'Metaphysics' and 'Quality' so that we can investigate the proportions given them by Pirsig.
A Metaphysics of Quality
As stated earlier, 'metaphysics' is generally defined as the study of the nature and structure of reality. But, as Pirsig points out in Lila, “Metaphysics is not reality. Metaphysics is names about reality. Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty-thousand page menu and no food.” In other words, metaphysics is the map, not the terrain.
What about 'Quality'? Here we really have to rely on Pirsig for insight because, as noted above, he claims that Quality cannot be defined. Nonetheless, in each of his books he does give many helpful pointers towards its nature. For example, in Zen Pirsig says that “ Quality is not a thing. It is an event,” and more specifically, “Quality is the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible.”
Digging deeper, he adds that “The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects,” rather than the other way around. Pulling back, Pirsig continues to tell us that Quality is “not just part of reality, it [is] the whole thing,” and then grandly claims that “Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it.”
According to Pirsig, this thing called “Quality is so simple, immediate, and direct,” yet most of us have trouble recognizing it because we subscribe to a worldview that sees things dualistically, as subjects and objects. In other words, Pirsig claims that our cultural worship of a Metaphysics of Quantity limits our receptiveness to the ever-present reality of Quality and thus robs us, among other things, of an experience of life richer than the one most of us believe is possible.
While this all sounds rather esoteric and mystical, which Pirsig himself admits, in Lila a much more direct, real-life explanation of Quality and, most importantly, its connection to value, is provided:
Any person of any philosophic persuasion who sits on a hot stove will verify without any intellectual argument whatsoever that he is in an undeniably low-quality situation; that the value of his predicament is negative. This low quality is not just a vague, woolly headed crypto-religious, metaphysical abstraction. It is an experience. It is not a judgment about an experience. It is not a description of experience. The value itself is an experience. It is verifiable by anyone who cares to do so. It is reproducible. Of all experience it is the least ambiguous, least mistakable there is. Later the person may generate some oaths to describe this low value, but the value will always come first, the oaths second. Our culture teaches us to think it is the hot stove that directly causes the oaths. It teaches that the low values are a property of the person uttering the oaths.
Not so. The value is between the stove and the oaths. Between the subject and the object lies the value. This value is more immediate, more directly sensed than any 'self' or ‘object to which it might be later assigned. It is more real than the stove. […] It is the primary empirical reality from which such things as stoves and heat and oaths and self are later intellectually constructed.
What I want to emphasize here is Pirsig's assertion that value is experiential (and therefore empirical) and that it lies between the subject and object. This is important because, unlike in a Metaphysics of Quantity, what takes precedence in a Metaphysics of Quality is the quality of human experience, not the quantity. This quality is 'located' in the value-laden 'betweenness' of human experience, especially in person-to-person experience. The level or 'amount' of value present in such person-to-person experiences (and by extension, in a society) is thus judged according to how closely that experience reflects not a subject-object metaphysics, or a Metaphysics of Quantity, but rather an inter-subjective metaphysics, or a Metaphysics of Quality.
Seeing things through this lens, then, we might have some understanding of why the destruction of the feudal system of old led to a redefinition of 'aftermath': the arrival of capitalism instituted a replacement of a relatively 'high-value' societal interdependence or 'betweenness' with a relatively 'low-value' atomistic independence. In Metaphysics of Quality terms, this was truly regrettable development since it signaled a 'devolution' of value rather than an 'evolution' of value.
Morality and the Hierarchy of Value
And since we're on the topic, it is extremely important to note that Pirsig recognizes that there is a hierarchy of value. This hierarchy is explained more fully by Pirsig in Lila than it is in Zen.
For starters, in Lila he says that reality is composed of “static patterns of value that are divided into four systems [from lowest to highest]: inorganic patterns, biological patterns, social patterns, and intellectual patterns” (172). What's more, these static patterns represent distinct 'moralities' which, again, exist on a hierarchical ladder whose highest rung is intellectual. Further explanation of these levels is available in Lila, and those interested in greater detail should look there. But for my purposes here I will assume that the levels are basically self-evident.
Indeed, in many ways this organizational system seems to mirror an evolutionary, survival of the fittest, model. And so it does, but with a distinct twist. That twist shows up very clearly in the Metaphysics of Quality understanding of the controversial issue of capital punishment.
When considering whether or not it is morally proper for a society to kill an individual human being, a straight evolutionary model would say 'yes', in certain circumstances. This is because a society is higher on the evolutionary scale than the biological individual, and if that individual threatens the stability of the society, then it is morally justifiable to kill him. If, however, that individual does not threaten the society, then capital punishment is morally unjustified.
But Pirsig argues that this strict evolutionary reasoning is unsound since it ignores the fact that an individual human ...
[...] is not just a biological organism. He is not even just a defective unit of society. Whenever you kill a human being, you are killing a source of human thought too. A human being is a collection of ideas, and these ideas take moral precedence over a society. Ideas are patterns of value. They are at a higher level of evolution than social patterns of value. Just as it is more moral for a doctor to kill a germ than a patient, so it is more moral for an idea to kill a society than it is for a society to kill an idea (185).
This explanation indicates somewhat the way in which 'value' is understood in a Metaphysics of Quality. In particular it shows that what positivists and postmodernists alike reject as a 'socially-constructed' chimera, 'value', is in reality more fundamental than materiality or 'substance'. This requires some explanation.
We should start with Pirsig's claim that everything is at base a 'pattern of value'. While he recognizes how utterly ridiculous this sounds in our scientifically-minded culture, he offers a compelling response to that 'group-think' incredulity:
The idea that the world is composed of nothing but moral value sounds impossible at first. Only objects are supposed to be real. “Quality” is supposed to be just a vague fringe word that tells us what we think about objects. The whole idea that Quality can create objects seems very wrong. But we see subjects and objects for the same reason we see the world right-side up although the lenses of our eyes actually present it to the brain upside-down. We get so used to certain patterns of interpretation we forget the patterns are there (112).
He embellishes this point by saying that the reason science has been unwilling or unable to empirically validate the fundamental reality of value or Quality is that the subject-object metaphysics science subscribes to (what I have been calling a Metaphysics of Quantity) is a subset of value as opposed to the other way around:
This problem of trying to describe value in terms of substance [or materiality] has been the problem of a smaller container trying to contain a larger one. Value is not a subspecies of substance. Substance is a subspecies of value. When you reverse the containment process and define substance in terms of value the mystery disappears: substance is a “stable pattern of inorganic values.” The problem then disappears. The world of objects and the world of values is unified (116, bold added).
Here you might take a moment to consider your own understanding of the nature of reality. Is it fundamentally scientific? If so, are you willing to entertain the idea that Pirsig may be right about the problems of such a view? While it is not imperative that you accept Pirsig's proposal, in order to get the most out of what will follow it is necessary that you at least try to remain open to it.
Try, in other words, to see things in the world, perhaps beginning with yourself and your loved ones, as beings fundamentally composed of 'value' rather than of cells or atoms. This should have the immediate effect of reawakening in you the innate sense that you and everything else around you is in some way 'valuable'. But this does not therefore mean that everything is 'equally' valuable – it just means that, as Pirsig says, “a thing that has no value does not exist” (114).
With that in mind, it is now time to turn to Pirsig's view on the election of Woodrow Wilson, which he says instigated “a cataclysmic [think 'aftermath' here] shift in levels of static value; an earthquake in values, an earthquake of such enormous consequence that we are still stunned by it, so stunned that we haven't yet figured out what has happened to us” (303).
Woodrow Wilson: Intellectual Value over Societal Value
Like Sowell, Pirsig identifies the election of Wilson as the key transitional moment in America in the 20th century. However, the 'aftermath' of this event, despite its 'cataclysmic' nature, is for Pirsig a net positive rather than a net negative. Judged according to a Metaphysics of Quality rather than a Metaphysics of Quantity, the reason for this is obvious: the arrival of Wilson evidenced the morally-proper, hierarchically-correct dominance of intellect over society. As Pirsig sees it, the rule of Victorian society over both government and culture was rightly overthrown by the growing influence of the intellectual class, of which Wilson was a major symbol.
Again, even though this historical shift created a great deal of chaos, in Pirsig's estimation that chaos was both necessary and valuable in evolutionary terms:
The times were chaotic, but it was a chaos of social patterns only. To people who were dominated by old social values it seemed as though everything valuable had ended. But it was only social value patterns being destroyed by new intellectual formations.
The events that excited people in the twenties were events that dramatized the new dominance of intellect over society. […] Abstract art, discordant music, Freudian psychoanalysis, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, contempt for alcoholic prohibition. Literature emphasized the struggle of the noble, free-thinking individual against the crushing oppression of social conformity. The Victorians were damned for their narrow-mindedness, their social pretentiousness. The test of what was good, what had Quality, was no longer “Does it meet society's approval?” but “Does it meet the approval of our intellect?” (311- 312).
But the story does not end here. Because even though Pirsig celebrates this American 'progress', in which the “idea that society is man's highest achievement [in] the twentieth century moved to the idea that the intellect is man's highest achievement,” (314), he nonetheless finds a flaw in the specific form of intellectualism that took hold:
[…] the Metaphysics of Quality supports this dominance of intellect over society. […] But having said this, the Metaphysics of Quality goes on to say that science, the intellectual pattern that has been appointed to take over society, has a defect in it. The defect is that subject-object science has no provision for morals. Subject-object science is only concerned with facts.
What has occurred instead has been a general abandonment of all social moral codes, with a “repressive” society used as a scapegoat to explain any and every kind of crime. […] The new intellectualism of the twenties argued that if there are principles for right social conduct they are to be discovered by social experiment to see what produces the greatest satisfaction. The greatest satisfaction of the greatest number, rather than social tradition, is what determines what is moral and what is not. The scientific test of a “vice” should not be,”Does society approve or disapprove?” The test should be, “Is it rational or irrational?” (316-318).
The utilitarian, 'greatest number' approach to social moral codes in play here has an obvious Metaphysics of Quantity ring to it. Of course, what is rather murkily defined here is just what 'greatest satisfaction' means. According to a morality-denying, 'rational' understanding of human existence, 'satisfaction' is simple – whatever it is that you personally enjoy, as long as it does not interfere with the enjoyment of others, qualifies as 'rational' satisfaction.
This attitude is clearly an heir of the 'negative liberty' school of thinking inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes and especially Locke. Thinking in this manner, then, according to the new scientific intellectuals of the twentieth century the problem was that Victorian society had been 'irrational' by overly and unintelligently circumscribing the realm of human satisfaction-seeking in order to fit its narrow, tradition-bound dictates. Those irrational boundaries therefore had to be destroyed.
But as Pirsig points out, this proper rejection of 'society' by 'intellect' was not metaphysically 'robust':
Thus, throughout [the twentieth] century we have seen over and over again that intellectuals weren't blaming crime on man's biological nature, but on the social patterns that had repressed biological nature. At every opportunity, it seems, they derided, denounced, weakened and undercut these Victorian social patterns of repression in the belief that this would be the cure of man's criminal tendencies. [...]
This is illogical since, if subject-object science sees no morals anywhere, then no scientific study of any kind is going to fill the moral void left by the overthrow of Victorian society. Intellectual permissiveness and destruction of social authority are no more scientific than Victorian discipline (319-320).
In other words, science giveth and science taketh away. And Pirsig is not alone in suggesting that the rise of the scientific/technological class in the early twentieth century as the new 'ruling elite' was both a sign of progress and of loss. What was gained is obvious: greater freedom of intellectual expression, less subservience to 'tradition', a fantastic explosion of technological innovation, etc.
Yet what was lost was not at first so easy to identify or define. Pirsig, who himself lived through this transformative period, says that during that time, “Something was wrong. The world was no doubt in better shape intellectually and technologically but despite that, somehow, the 'quality' of it was not good. There was no way you could say why this quality was no good. You just felt it (321).
In Lila, he later adds that the Hippies and the postmodernists both attempted to 'solve' this problem of 'quality' (though they were not aware they were doing so) that arose out of the destruction of static (Victorian) social patterns by static (scientific) intellectual patterns. But the Hippies and the postmodernists also ultimately failed because, well, they were ignorant of the root of the problem, which was that the ruling metaphysics was insufficient.
Responses to the Loss: Dynamic Quality and Confused Resistance
In the case of the postmodernists, the problem was relatively straightforward – these liberal intellectual types (of which Pirsig himself was one) of the fifties, sixties, and especially the seventies by and large subscribed to the very same amoral vision of 'truth' that did their scientific intellectual cousins. But as 'Hippie' intellectuals, the postmodernists went a step further and declared that the ruling intellectualism, science, actually had no 'objective' legs to stand on. Indeed, the independent 'facts' which scientists claimed to both identify and to obey were mere socially-constructed conventions, just as were any other cultural products. The postmodernists reveled in this intellectual one-upsmanship as they themselves vied to overthrow the intellectual order and to (hopefully) become society's new Brahmins.
While this war between the two primary intellectual types continues to rage, the point Pirsig makes is that neither group of intellectuals had anything valuable or compelling to say about the most important problem, the problem of morality, except, that is, to confirm that they, the intellectuals, rather than the socially prominent, should guide or help to guide the nation. As he puts it, “In its condemnation of social repression as the enemy of liberty, [the scientific/postmodern intellectuals] have never come forth with a single moral principle that distinguishes a Galileo fighting social repression from a common criminal fighting social repression. It has, as a result, been the champion of both. That's the root of the problem” (351).
In other words, the intellectuals of the twentieth century, whatever their persuasion, were mutually reticent and/or ill-equipped to handle morality in any way. This is because they each denied it as anything more than a mere social convention. Instead, they placed trust in either 'rationality' or 'genealogy', the only legitimate 'decoder rings of truth'. Much of this reluctance arose out their (understandable, based on history) tendency to equate morality with societal or religious rules rather than, as Pirsig would have it, to recognize morality as the basis of all existence.
Yet while this reluctance is excusable, from a Metaphysics of Quality perspective it is also unnecessary and perhaps even degenerative. Indeed, Quality, Value, and Morality are interchangeable terms, all of which point to the ultimate 'force' behind life itself; to be ignorant of this, while not a crime, is in this day and age becoming a state of mind carrying increasingly perilous potential.
This brings us to the Hippies who, in Pirsig's mind had the right idea but, again, not the right metaphysics. Let me explain. Pirsig claims that the Hippies correctly perceived the problem with twentieth century intellectualism, namely its amorality. But he suggests that their response, morally-driven though it was, was also confused. Namely it confused a return to a perceived freedom of 'biological' quality (tune in, turn on, and drop out) with what he calls Dynamic Quality.
And here, with the identification of Dynamic Quality, Pirsig makes his most important amendment to the 'constitution' of the Metaphysics of Quality as originally proposed. If you'll remember, that structure was made up of a set of hierarchically ordered, static patterns of value: inorganic patterns, biological patterns, social patterns, and intellectual patterns. But with the addition of Dynamic Quality, the Metaphysics of Quality is completed, both structurally and logically. So what, then, is Dynamic quality?
Before answering this directly, it might first be helpful to see how Pirsig restates the hierarchical structure of the Metaphysics of Quality with Dynamic Quality added to the mix:
The Metaphysics of Quality says that there are not just two codes of morals, there are actually five: inorganic-chaotic, biological-inorganic, social-biological, intellectual-social, and Dynamic static. This last, the Dynamic-static code, says what's good in life isn't defined by society or intellect or biology. What's good is freedom from domination by any static pattern, but that freedom doesn't have to be obtained by the destruction of the patterns themselves (345).
So Dynamic quality, or freedom, is something like the 'ur-morality'. According to Pirsig, Dynamic Quality is therefore the primary moral force in the universe.
Static quality, of whatever form, is thus the 'residue' of the activity, the expression or 'beingness', of Dynamic Quality. You might think of Static Quality as the domain of the Metaphysics of Quantity, since Static Quality is primarily concerned with some notion of 'fixity' or 'the way things are' rather than 'the way things could be'. In any case, none of those static forms that result from the expression of Dynamic Quality are 'immoral'; they are simply 'less moral' than Dynamic Quality, which is the 'thing' that made those static patterns possible in the first place.
But the relationship between Static and Dynamic Quality is not purely 'parental' – it also interdependent, as Pirsig notes here:
Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change. But static patterns, nevertheless, provide a stabilizing force to protect Dynamic force from degeneration. Although dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world. Neither static nor Dynamic Quality can survive without the other (139).
In this relationship, one can see parallels to Hindu mythology in which Lord Vishnu takes on the role of static preserver of universal order, while Lord Shiva acts as the Dynamic force of both creation and destruction. In fact, this connection becomes more obvious when we consider one of Pirsig's final points about the nature of Dynamic Quality – it's potential degeneracy.
But first, let's restate and summarize: In a Metaphysics of Quality, Dynamic Quality is the highest form of value, or morality. It is the quality of pure freedom. But freedom is not necessarily 'good'; freedom can also be 'horrific'. Dynamic Quality therefore requires a stabilizing force to prevent it from moving too far in the 'destructive' direction. This is the role of Static Quality.
Unfortunately, even when there is a static foundation upon which Dynamic Quality 'works', what it is that determines the integrative or degenerative effects of a Dynamic event on, say, a given society is often only evident in hindsight. And to make matters worse, as Pirsig observes, a balanced society must remain open to Dynamic Quality if it is to ever evolve or progress. Yet if that society is open to Dynamic Quality, it also stands the chance of backsliding. An element of risk is thus always at play. Such is life.
Degeneration or Progress?: Trump and Dynamic Quality
And this brings us back to where we began – to the aftermath of Donald Trump's election. First, it should be obvious that whatever else you might say about Trump's presidential run, it was clearly infused with Dynamic Quality. I mean this in the sense that it defied the static patterns of the vast majority of previous presidential campaigns – the guy is not even a politician in any recognizable sense!
So love him or hate him, Trump is nothing if not Dynamic, and in electing him as the forty-fifth president (some portion of) the American people threw caution to the wind and opened themselves up to that dynamism. This means, of course, that they have also opened up all other Americans to the progress and/or degeneracy that will accompany it. But that inter-citizen feud is another debate. The issue here is whether or a Metaphysics of Quality can give us any insight about the likely form that dynamic quality will take.
We begin unsteadily. Indeed, Pirsig is quite circumspect in discussing whether or not Dynamic opponents of the status quo, such as Trump and Bernie Sanders, can be immediately known as either “radical idealists [or] degenerate hooligans” (256). He says that, “This is really the central problem in the static-Dynamic conflict of evolution: how do you tell the saviors from the degenerates? Particularly when they look alike, talk alike, and break the rules alike?”(256).
Of course, in the case of Trump and Sanders the personal differences are fairly obvious, but this does not mean that those differences are conclusive in a metaphysical sense. However, when Pirsig examines the unique cultural figure known as the contrarian, he offers us a bit more help in making a determination.
Contrarians, says Pirsig, are individuals who “just seem to savagely attack every kind of static moral pattern they can find” (410). Cheyenne Indians who rode their horses facing backwards, Victorian-era Bohemians, and even the Hippies were, according to Pirsig, fine examples of contrarians.
But not all contrarians are created equal. What differentiates them from one another is evidence that the contrarian is not just messing with the status quo for the fun of it, but rather that he is pursuing something higher, something Dynamic. In what way does this evidence of higher aims 'show up'?
Pirsig suggests two possibilities. First, he says, “Sometimes [contrarianism] is degenerative negativism, where biological forces are driving it. Sometimes it's an ego pattern that says, 'I'm too important to be doing all this dumb static stuff” (411). Such degenerative contrarianism, says Pirsig, is usually disintegrative as well, often ending on a personal level in substance abuse or escapism of some kind.
Alternatively, says Pirsig, there are contrarians who
[…] are not being contrary in a way that is just decadent. […] They're fighting for some kind of Dynamic freedom from the static patterns. But the Dynamic freedom they're fighting for is a kind of morality too. And it's a highly important part of the overall moral process. It's often confused with degeneracy, but it's actually a form of moral regeneration. Without it's continual refreshment static patterns would simply die of old age (411).
Included in this second class of morally progressive contrarians are what Pirsig calls “really creative people – the artists, composers, revolutionaries, and the like” (411). Among them would also be the 'moral giants' of history, such as Christ, Lincoln, Gandhi, King, etc.
So, then, with all this in mind, the question becomes, “Is Trump, the contrarian president, primarily degenerative or primarily progressive?”
On the face of it, he would seem to have much more in common with the egoistic, degenerative hooligan than with the extremely creative artist or revolutionary. Indeed, how many more times can we hear him announce, among other things, his thorough supremacy over all those static-clinging 'losers' who opposed him? Furthermore, how can ignore the fact that Trump is far from being an intellectual and, if we are speaking in terms of patterns of value, that he seems to be much more clearly centered on the relatively low biological level? Well, we can't, and we shouldn't.
But we also can't ignore the fact that he is in some sense 'saved' by his Dynamic Quality. This, not his low-value biological acquisitiveness, is in fact what has made him so impossible to ignore. If he were purely biologically degenerative he would have checked out a long time ago. This does not mean that he will be a great, or even a good, president, however. Rather, what it means is that he will be a significant president. Only time will tell what form that significance will take.
Of course, it must be said here that what holds for Trump holds likewise for the equally Dynamic Bernie Sanders. The difference between the two, of course, is that Sanders is clearly centered on the intellectual level of value. This was the combination that truly made him the candidate of highest moral value. Indeed, America really missed an opportunity to take a moral leap forward (if that's what it was hoping for) when the DNC torpedoed Sanders' campaign, choosing instead to place its support for the static-intellectual candidate Clinton. But what's done is done.
A Difficult Truth?
Nevertheless, if we take Trump at his word, then we have to recognize that he does seem to believe he can somehow 'Make America Great Again'. At the very least, this indicates that he has some notion of, and desire to achieve, something 'higher' than what is presently the case. What that 'higher' thing is remains a mystery. But given his background it is likely that the 'greatness' he imagines is grounded in low-level biological value where what matters most is brute power, both of the economic and political persuasion.
While this may not be 'great' in the Quality sense, it is also not unusual or even degenerative, especially for an America that has for the past century prided itself on being the richest and most powerful nation in the world, and has 'proven' this through a variety of morally questionable acts and policies.
Despite (or in light of) this, though, the fact of Trump's Dynamic Quality should encourage us, for the moment, to give him the benefit of the doubt, if only because, as Pirsig notes, “The problem is that you really can't say whether a specific change is evolutionary at the time it occurs. It is only with a century or so of hindsight that it appears evolutionary” (256).
I realize, of course, that this kind of suspension of judgment will be next to impossible for those who are viscerally sickened by, or psychologically petrified of, Trump and are solely bent on removing him as one would a mahogany splinter (they really hurt!). “People's lives are at stake!” they will say. “We can't wait a century to see if Trump is somehow 'good' for America because it is already obvious that he cannot be. He is unfit for the job!” they will add.
Yet while many of these appraisals have an obvious truth to them, it would be a mistake to assume that they necessarily capture 'the whole truth.' Indeed, there is often such a strong element of doomsday prophecy in much of the anti-Trump rhetoric that it sometimes undermines or obscures the many valid points that are being made.
So while we certainly need to pay close attention to the way Trump's presidency unfolds, and while we likewise need to respond forcefully and swiftly when and if his administration makes moves that threaten to (further) degenerate conditions in the US, in the meantime it might be wise for each of us to check ourselves for any unconscious pretensions to omniscience and/or martyrdom.
Perhaps equally unpleasantly, we should also openly acknowledge Trump's truly Dynamic nature, and by extension should likewise recognize and even applaud the risk taken by his supporters in placing their bets on such a wild-card. Like it or not, in a Metaphysics of Quality, Dynamic Quality is always morally superior to static quality.
This idea will likely be the hardest one for opponents of Trump to entertain, let alone accept; it may also be the one that makes a Metaphysics of Quality seem to them beyond the pale, akin to joining a death cult of some kind. But if I correctly read Pirsig, Trump's victory over the static-candidate Clinton is indeed a moral 'victory', at least in the metaphysical sense presented here.
Progress in Decline
I would even go further, though. I would suggest that much in the same way that Woodrow Wilson was the signal 'aftermath' president of the twentieth century, so too is Donald Trump the 'aftermath' president of the twenty-first. In Metaphysics of Quality terms, Woodrow Wilson represented the morally proper triumph of intellectual quality over static social quality. Likewise, Donald Trump represents the morally proper challenge of Dynamic Quality to static intellectual quality.
Whether or not this 'challenge' will be converted into a 'triumph' remains to be seen, however. Nevertheless, in some sense you could say that Trump's election has brought about the full 'introduction' of a Metaphysics of Quality into the American political landscape and is therefore metaphysically remarkable.
And while it may unfortunately or fortunately (depending on your view) coincide with the decline of the American empire, the 'introduction' of Dynamic Quality into the political system might actually bode well for Americans hoping to see their country realize the moral promise inherent in the dynamic freedom to which the country has aspired. In other words, it may be necessary for America to lose its iron grip on a lower-level, biologically-driven, 'might-makes-right' world power in order for it to manifest a truly value-based, domestic moral landscape.
Of course, this is all speculation, but I suggest that in addition to all the other ways in which it has been analyzed, the 'sate of affairs' should at least be considered from this admittedly hopeful metaphysical perspective.
Metaphysics and Morality, Again
Now this is no way to suggest that Trump's election is without its problems, but these are well-cataloged on every person's facebook and Twitter feed and so don't need to be rehearsed here. It is, however, to suggest that those problems do not lie primarily with his character defects. Nor do they lie with his dynamic 'outsider' status which, as we have seen, is metaphysically 'moral'.
Rather, I would suggest that both the promise and peril of a Trump presidency has to do with the unresolved metaphysical issue of the twentieth century – the problem of subject-object scientific intellectualism and postmodern anti-metaphysics, and their shared inability to handle the question of morality.
As a reminder, the reigning morality in America between the Civil War and World War I was grounded in Victorian social codes. These codes were morally 'higher' than those of individual biological codes simply because social forms of organization are 'higher' than discrete biological forms of organization. This is not to say that they were therefore 'high-quality' moral codes; they were not. They were very repressive and, in a very real sense, anti-Dynamic Quality. Regardless of this, they were still social codes that served as guides to behavior and that properly, in a Metaphysics of Quality sense, 'controlled' the lower biological drives.
After World War I, however, those Victorian social codes were overthrown by a still higher form of moral evolution – intellect. Again, in moral terms this was progress because, as Pirsig says, “Once intellect has been let out of the bottle of social restraint, it is almost impossible to put it back in again. And it is immoral to try. A society that tries to restrain the truth for its own purposes is a lower form of evolution than a truth that restrains society for its own purposes” (306).
But as has been said, the problem created by this overthrow of society by intellect was that it not only destroyed the rigid moral codes of the Victorian era, but it also failed to replace those social moral codes with new ones. Again, this is because the intellectual pattern that replaced Victorian social patterns was a combination of subject-object science and positivism, both of which denied the existence of morality. The social moral codes of the Victorian era, unenlightened as they may have been, were nonetheless moral codes. And no society can function properly or maintain its balance without some very minimal guiding moral principle that 'keeps a lid on' the lower biological impulses.
One result of this morally rudderless American predicament was the rise of neoliberalism and the dominance of free market capitalism, which rushed in to fill the moral void left by subject-object science, positivism, and postmodernism. Unless something dramatic happens, this continual gutting of the American middle class by neoliberal policies will persist, which is even more reason for Trump-hating intellectuals to reconsider their rejection (if they indeed do reject it) of the need to concentrate their energies on the nature and basis of morality. It may, in other words, be time to bring metaphysics back into academic and intellectual vogue.
Whether or not a revival of metaphysics is in the offing, it is likely an awareness of this 'morally bereft' condition that is really behind the religious right and its campaign to recapture something called 'family values'. From a Metaphysics of Quality perspective, however, the 'family values' this faction is seeking to bring back is just some version of the same old Victorian-style social codes that were rightly rejected in the early twentieth century. On this matter, then, ceding ground to the religious right would produce a less, rather than more, moral society. We cannot, and should not, in other words, go back to the 'way things were'.
The New Aftermath: A Revolution of Values
But what, then, can and should we do if we are concerned about making the most of this new post-Dynamic Quality presidential election? Well, in addition to participating in whatever forward-thinking activism we wish to get behind, we can also give some serious thought to the ideas discussed above, especially those of Pirsig and his value-based Metaphysics of Quality.
Of course, we can also reject them as either inaccurate or useless, but I would argue that we can only do so after having given them a serious looking-at. This means not just reading the brief summary of it I have provided here, but more importantly it means, among other things, reading and rereading Pirsig's Lila. If that seems like too much work, that is fine, but one should be honest about this and not pretend to have either accepted or rejected the Metaphysics of Quality based on serious engagement with it when the truth is just the opposite.
Beyond that, I think we should seek to implement the revolution of values called for by MLK Jr. in 1967. Interestingly, according to Pirsig, this was perhaps the last year when a solution to the problem of intellect vs. society seemed possible. In the intervening fifty years, of course, much has happened, though little if any of it has led to any lasting resolution of that issue. From Pirsig's perspective, the picture is grim, though predictable: “The end of the twentieth century in America seems to be an intellectual, social, and economic rust-belt, a whole society that has given up on Dynamic improvement and is slowly trying to slip back into Victorianism, the last static ratchet-latch” (349).
But Trump's election is different. And it is different primarily because it is characterized by that very Dynamic Quality Pirsig finds missing at the close of the twentieth century. This is why it has created such an outsized sensation. We would do well to recognize this fact and neither undervalue nor lose our heads about it. There is potential here – let's not waste it.
In any case, after everything that has been said here about a Metaphysics of Quality, one should immediately recognize its relevance to the imploring words of MLK:
[...] we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [...] the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Restated in the metaphysical terms used throughout this writing, King is basically saying that “We must rapidly begin […] the shift from a Metaphysics of Quantity to a Metaphysics of Quality.”
Indeed, despite the significant changes in morality King helped to bring about during his life, he is still found here calling for an even greater 'revolution of values', which I take to mean a revolution of metaphysics. And in identifying that necessary revolution as one founded upon 'the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society' King is highlighting the very same problem to which Pirsig points – the moral bankruptcy of a subject-object metaphysics and its unquestionable connection to 'the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism'.
One way to enact this shift, as I said at the outset, is to re-imagine the term 'aftermath'. But that re-imagining cannot be merely linguistic – it has to be metaphysical as well, or else it and our reality will remain unchanged. I therefore submit that we from here forward begin to see and understand the 'aftermath' of the election of Trump in a positive metaphysical frame, specifically as one that embodies the potential for a Dynamic revolution of values. We should, in other words, imagine the new 'aftermath' as a communal vessel that has the potential to carry all of us in the direction of the fundamental nature of reality itself, that is, towards high Quality Dynamic freedom.