Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pirsig's Church of Reason

Tomorrow I am starting back to Uni, and I see that among other things I need to reread Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (also because the last time I read it, 20 years ago, I had never ridden a motorcycle).

Here's his introduction of the idea of the Church of Reason (clearly it's a little long, but well worth reading, in my opinion):

That night, for the next day's lecture, he wrote out his defense of what he was doing. This was the Church of Reason lecture, which, in contrast to his usual sketchy lecture notes, was very long and very carefully elaborated.

It began with reference to a newspaper article about a country church building with an electric beer sign hanging right over the front entrance. The building had been sold and was being used as a bar. One can guess that some classroom laughter started at this point. The college was well known for drunken partying and the image vaguely fit. The article said a number of people had complained to the church officials about it. It had been a Catholic church, and the priest who had been delegated to respond to the criticism had sounded quite irritated about the whole thing. To him it had revealed an incredible ignorance of what a church really was. Did they think that bricks and boards and glass constituted a church? Or the shape of the roof? Here, posing as piety was an example of the very materialism the church opposed. The building in question was not holy ground. It had been desanctified. That was the end of it. The beer sign resided over a bar, not a church, and those who couldn't tell the difference were simply revealing something about themselves.

Phædrus said the same confusion existed about the University and that was why loss of accreditation was hard to understand. The real University is not a material object. It is not a group of buildings that can be defended by police. He explained that when a college lost its accreditation, nobody came and shut down the school. There were no legal penalties, no fines, no jail sentences. Classes did not stop. Everything went on just as before. Students got the same education they would if the school didn't lose its accreditation.

All that would happen, Phædrus said, would simply be an official recognition of a condition that already existed. It would be similar to excommunication. What would happen is that the real University, which no legislature can dictate to and which can never be identified by any location of bricks or boards or glass, would simply declare that this place was no longer ``holy ground.'' The real University would vanish from it, and all that would be left was the bricks and the books and the material manifestation.

It must have been a strange concept to all of the students, and I can imagine him waiting for a long time for it to sink in, and perhaps then waiting for the question, What do you think the real University is?

His notes, in response to this question, state the following: The real University, he said, has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.

In addition to this state of mind, ``reason,'' there's a legal entity which is unfortunately called by the same name but which is quite another thing. This is a nonprofit corporation, a branch of the state with a specific address. It owns property, is capable of paying salaries, of receiving money and of responding to legislative pressures in the process.

But this second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the real University at all.

It is just a church building, the setting, the location at which conditions have been made favorable for the real church to exist.

Confusion continually occurs in people who fail to see this difference, he said, and think that control of the church buildings implies control of the church. They see professors as employees of the second university who should abandon reason when told to and take orders with no backtalk, the same way employees do in other corporations.

They see the second university, but fail to see the first.

I remember reading this for the first time and remarking about the analytic craftsmanship displayed. He avoided splitting the University into fields or 150 departments and dealing with the results of that analysis. He also avoided the traditional split into students, faculty and administration.

When you split it either of those ways you get a lot of dull stuff that doesn't really tell you much you can't get out of the official school bulletin. But Phædrus split it between "the church" and
"the location", and once this cleavage is made the same rather dull and imponderable institution seen in the bulletin suddenly is seen with a degree of clarity that wasn't previously available. On the basis of this cleavage he provided explanations for a number of puzzling but normal aspects of University life.

After these explanations he returned to the analogy of the religious church.

The citizens who build such a church and pay for it probably have in mind that they're doing this for the community. A good sermon can put the parishioners in a right frame of mind for the coming week. Sunday school will help the children grow up right. The minister who delivers the sermon and directs the Sunday school understands these goals and normally goes along with them, but he also knows that his primary goals are not to serve the community. His primary goal is always to serve God. Normally there's no conflict but occasionally one creeps in when trustees oppose the minister's sermons and threaten reduction of funds. That happens.

A true minister, in such situations, must act as though he'd never heard the threats. His primary goal isn't to serve the members of the community, but always God.

The primary goal of the Church of Reason, Phædrus said, is always Socrates'
old goal of truth, in its ever-changing forms, as it's revealed by the process of rationality. Everything else is subordinate to that. Normally this goal is in no conflict with the location goal of improving the citizenry, but on occasion some conflict arises, as in the case of Socrates himself. It arises when trustees and legislators who've contributed large amounts of time and money to the location take points of view in opposition to the professors' lectures or public statements. They can then lean on the administration by threatening to cut off funds if the professors don't say what they want to hear. That happens too.

True churchmen in such situations must act as though they had never heard these threats. Their primary goal never is to serve the community ahead of everything else. Their primary goal is to serve, through reason, the goal of truth.

That was what he meant by the Church of Reason. There was no question but that it was a concept that was deeply felt by him. He was regarded as something of a troublemaker but was never censured for it in any proportion to the amount of trouble he made. What saved him from the wrath of everyone around him was partly an unwillingness to give any support to the enemies of the college, but also partly a begrudging understanding that all of his troublemaking was ultimately motivated by a mandate they were never free from themselves: the mandate to speak the rational truth.

The lecture notes explain almost al of why he acted the way he did, but leave one thing unexplained...his fanatic intensity. One can believe in the truth and in the process of reason to discover it and in resistance to state legislatures, but why burn one's self out, day after day, over it?

The psychological explanations that have been made to me seem inadequate.
Stage fright can't sustain that kind of effort month after month. Neither does another explanation sound right, that he was trying to redeem himself for his earlier failure. There is no evidence anywhere that he ever thought of his expulsion from the university as a failure, just an enigma. The explanation I've come to arises from the discrepancy between his lack of faith in scientific reason in the laboratory and his fanatic faith expressed in the Church of Reason lecture. I was thinking about the discrepancy one day and it suddenly came to me that it wasn't a discrepancy at all. His lack of faith in reason was why he was so fanatically dedicated to it.
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

The militancy of the Jesuits he somewhat resembled is a case in point. Historically their zeal stems not from the strength of the Catholic Church but from its weakness in the face of the Reformation. It was Phædrus' lack of faith in reason that made him such a fanatic teacher. That makes more sense. And it makes a lot of sense out of the things that followed.

That's probably why he felt such a deep kinship with so many failing students in the back rows of his classrooms. The contemptuous looks on their faces reflected the same feelings he had toward the whole rational, intellectual process. The only difference was that they were contemptuous because they didn't understand it. He was contemptuous because he did.

Because they didn't understand it they had no solution but to fail and for the rest of their lives remember the experience with bitterness. He on the other hand felt fanatically obliged to do something about it. That was why his Church of Reason lecture was so carefully prepared. He was telling them you have to have faith in reason because there isn't anything else. But it was a faith he didn't have himself.

It must always be remembered that this was the nineteen-fifties, not the nineteen-seventies. There were rumblings from the beatniks and early hippies at this time about ``the system'' and the square intellectualism that supported it, but hardly anyone guessed how deeply the whole edifice would be brought into doubt. So here was Phædrus, fanatically defending an institution, the Church of Reason, that no one, no one certainly in Bozeman, Montana, had any cause to doubt. A pre-Reformation Loyola. A militant reassuring everyone the sun would rise tomorrow, when no one was worried. They just wondered about him.

But now, with the most tumultuous decade of the century between him and ourselves, a decade in which reason has been assailed and assaulted beyond the wildest beliefs of the fifties, I think that in this Chautauqua based on his discoveries we can understand a little better what he was talking about -- a solution for it al -- if only that were true -- so much of it's lost there's no way of knowing.


  1. Hmm.. do you know much about Kierkegaard? I'm not sure any system based on rationality is particularly useful.. but then also accept that it would be impossible if based only on some kind of divine ethic.

  2. Are you familiar with A Room of One's Own? The economic conditions of intellectual work are not entirely irrelevant. This is a serious issue, particularly in the UK at the moment, where humanities departments are facing 80% cuts across the country.

  3. Joe--alas--I keep meaning to read Kierkegaard, mostly based on your recommendations. But I never seem to get to it. I kind of agree with you--rationality isn't enough.

  4. Byron--no, I wasn't familiar with Woolf's essay(s). I ought to read it, but probably won't. Thank you, however for putting me on to it. I suppose our cultural values are reflected by upon what we spend money--war, or humanities departments. Alas.