Sunday, February 16, 2020

Thoughts on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Chris & Robert Pirsig
If anyone saw me sitting in my truck, in a parking garage on Valentine's day at 5:43am in the morning, they would have found a grown man crying.

I had just finished listening to the Audible version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The book is about living a good (quality) life.  There are a number of stories in this book.

There is the story of the first person, who is taking a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son and friends.

There is the story of Phaedrus who is the previous "version" of the first person.

There is the story of actual motorcycle maintenance.

And there is a story of the chautauqua - which ties all of the above stories together.

Some Thoughts on the Book

One problem he is trying to solve is the alienation of people ... conservatives, liberals, hippies, etc.  Somewhere along the line, people began to culturally reject the way society was living.  He tries to understand why and how can we (re)bridge the schism.  This is where he gets into the Romantic and the Classic view of the world.

The question that really got him thinking was from a teacher colleague about if he was teaching his students quality.

The Romantic view is enamored with the final product, as it were.  While the Classic view loves the inner workings.  Quality is a unification of the two perspectives.

The motorcycle, throughout the book is symbolic of any hobby, or career, or job or even the way of living life itself.  The motorcycle is symbolic of technology and modernization.  It's interesting to note, as I'm reading John Sellars' Stoicism I learned the Greek word technē is translated to art and is defined as "a practical skill requiring expert knowledge" (p. 163).

One way to solve alienation is to fall in love with something (a job, a career, a hobby such as motorcycle maintenance) and all of life, and to care about it - to love it - to make an art of it.  Too many people have not fallen in love with acquiring expert knowledge of modern life or how to live a quality life.

One of the most important somethings a person should focus on and acquire expert knowledge is that of philosophy - the art of living.  When you read the book, just substitute his discussions on motorcycle maintenance with the art of living or philosophy, and you will gain a lot of insight.

Attentiveness is needed for quality; you have to give a damn (about the subject/hobby/career/life).

He gets into aretē which has been translated into virtue or excellence (of the soul).  And although Pirsig writes:
“Then Phaedrus feels a tugging to read the passage again, and he does so and then…what’s this?!…’That which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek ‘excellence.’
Kitto had more to say about this arête of the ancient Greeks.  ‘When we meet arête in Plato,’ he said, ‘we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavor of it.  ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; arête on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.’”
... he discounts the virtue aspect of it.  When I look at it from a Stoic perspective, I see aretē is virtue (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance) and a human shows these qualities no matter what the platform or technē / art he expresses himself in.  It is all-encompassing; in living as a quality father, a quality employee, a quality neighbor, a quality chess player, and on and on.

He later writes:
“Arête implies a respect of the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization.  it implies a contempt for efficiency — or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”
Pirsig (the first person of the book and Phaedrus) is learning to grapple with the art of being a quality father.  He doesn't do such a good job on the road trip, but by the end, he finally realizes it and we can see the immediate changes in his style of fathering.

The book is a love book.  The love of a practical skill; the love of art; the love of being a parent; the love of being a teacher; the love of quality itself - of workmanship; the love of wisdom - philosophy.

I cried at the end of the book after listening to the epilogue.  Chris (the son), was stabbed to death in San Francisco just before his 23rd birthday.  Pirsig describes the death in detail and then discusses where and what Chris is after his death.

And one more thought ... I loved his description of how we see the present, past and future.  It is as if we are walking backwards.  We see all that we have passed up to the present.  That is all we can see and know.  But the back of our body/head faces the future - it's unknowable.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Notes on Stoic Logic from Stoicism by John Sellars

The different parts of classical Stoic logic were “reason, language or argument – in all of its forms, including formal arguments, rhetorical arguments, speech, grammar, philosophy of language and truth (i.e. epistemology)” (p. 55, Sellars)

Today’s logic is usually understood to be “the formal analysis of arguments.”

For the Stoics, logic was divided into two principal divisions: rhetoric and dialectic.

Rhetoric is defined as: “the art of speaking or writing effectively” (Merriam-Webster).

Dialectic is defined as: “discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation” (Merriam-Webster).

The central them of Stoic logic is “the acquisition of knowledge” (p. 79, Sellars).

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge – “the process by which the individual gains knowledge” (p. 64-65, Sellars)

Birth of Cognition

At birth, human infants possess little to no knowledge.  Jean Piaget’s knowledge experimentations on babies conclude infants are born not knowing much.  To quote a Time magazine article, “Piaget's work led him to conclude that infants younger than 9 months have no innate knowledge of how the world works or any sense of "object permanence" (that people and things still exist even when they're not seen). Instead, babies must gradually construct this knowledge from experience” (The Brain: What Do Babies Know? Time, Monday, Jan. 29, 2007).  The article later notes modern experimentation have drawn the same conclusions as Piaget.

Humans gain information about our world, largely through impressions and sensations – through experience, as stated in the previous point.

Empiricism is defined as: “a theory that all knowledge originates in experience” (Merriam-Webster).

Regarding the epistemology of the Stoics, Sellars notes, “Whereas most impressions are assumed to come from sensation, and so the Stoics might broadly be characterized as empiricists in epistemology, they do also acknowledge impressions received from the mind that are the product reasoning” (p. 65, Sellars).

An example of an inadequate impression might be light coming into a room and someone thinking it is day, when in fact, they’ve not gone outside to check that it is night, and it was a fire or street light causing the light to enter the window.

An example of an adequate impression would be someone thinking it is day while they are standing outside at noon, with the bright sun over their head.

The Stoic response to the Skeptics’ claim that we can never know if an impression is adequate, would be to “reply by saying that over time it will become possible to develop a certain ability to recognize adequate impressions.  One might not be infallible at first, but one might eventually be able to become highly accurate with certain sorts of impressions” (p. 70, Sellars).  Therefore, a Stoic can point to the sun directly above our heads and be absolutely certain that it is day; while at the same time, the Stoic can accept the possibility of mistakes by suspending judgement when uncertain (see p. 73, Sellars).

When we give assent to an impression, the impression is called an adequate impression (p. 73-73, Sellars).

When we withhold assent to an impression, we are suspending judgment (p. 73, Sellars).

The Greek word for cognition is katalepsis (p. 70, 164, Sellars).

An instance of cognition is “an assent to an adequate impression; a building block for knowledge” (p. 70, 164, Sellars).  It is the mental process of knowing (by experience or through reasoning) by giving assent to an adequate impression.

For the Stoics, knowledge (episteme) is more substantial than cognition.  To me, it represents putting experience from cognition together into a system or structure.  Cognition provides the basis and building blocks to make something – knowledge – which is to see a wider, bigger picture as it were – something greater than the individual part.

Cognition Analysis

Sellars states “An adequate impression is an impression that is so clear, vivid and distinct that it is its own guarantee of its accuracy” (p. 69).  We can also guarantee the accuracy of an empirical impression by observing the “causal history” and ensuring that nothing has interfered with “one’s sense organs, the object in question, and all the other variables involved are not obstructed or in an abnormal state” (p. 69).

“The impressions we receive that present external objects to us are not within our control.  We do not have the power to choose them; instead they force themselves on us.  However, we do have the power to choose whether to assent to these impressions or not” (p. 66, Sellars).  Stoics will often be forced to confront these external circumstances and will at least have the choice to behave virtuously and serenely, but this does not mean they will choose to do so every time.  Because “first movement” emotions come to all humans, many people do not question or analyze these emotions and propositions before assenting to them.  The Stoic will try to pause and reflect on the emotions and proposition from the “first movement” before fully assenting to or rejecting an external object.  Assuming a Stoic consistently practices this pause before assent, then over time, the Stoic will act correctly (virtuously) and serenely more often than not.

The four stages of assent are (p. 67, Sellars, emphasis added):
  1. “a perception of an external event or state of affairs”
  2. “an almost involuntary and seemingly unconscious value judgement that is made about the content of the perception”
  3. “the presentation to the conscious mind of an impression in the form of a proposition that is composed of both the perceptual data received from the outside and the unconscious value judgement”
  4. the act of assent to an adequate impression or we suspend judgement of the impression
Propositions have corporeal and incorporeal aspects.
  • The corporeal aspect would be physical utterance or written word of the proposition.
  • The incorporeal aspect would be the meaning of the physical element presented.
  • Incorporeal propositions subsist, if they are never spoken or written and remain as a cognition in our mind.
"The meaning or sense of a proposition is a sayable", which is purely in the mind of the utterer and listener, is incorporeal.  “Sayables only subsist” (p. 79, 63, Sellars).

Sellars notes, “What is perhaps unique to the Stoic position is their rejection of meaning as something that exists.  As incorporeals, sayables only subsist” (p. 63).  How does this explain how the meaning of words can cause action?  The key aspect would be in the assent of the person comprehending the sayable.  A man shouts a warning to a woman that a ball is being thrown her way.  She hears the words the man shouts, she comprehends the sayable, she assents to the meaning and therefore chooses to act, either to catch the ball or move out of the way to avoid being hit by the ball.

There are two kinds of sayables – complete and incomplete (p. 62, Sellars).
  1. A complete sayable would be: Rocky is typing on his computer.
  2. An incomplete sayable would be: is typing.
Complete sayables are used in dialectic.


“An assertible is a complete sayable” (p. 58, Sellars).

The four important characteristics of assertibles are (p. 58-59, Sellars):
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Simple assertibles can be
    • affirmative
    • negative
  4. Complex which include logical connectives
    • conditional ... if
    • conjunction ... and
    • dis-junction ... either/or
    • pseudo-conditional ... since
    • causal ... because
    • comparative ... more/less-likely
While not characteristics, all assertives can be distinguished by their modality:

  • possible - an assertible which can become true and is not hindered by external things from becoming true
  • impossible -  an assertible which cannot become true or which can become true but is hindered by external things from becoming true
  • necessary - an assertible which (when true) cannot become false or which can become false but is hindered by external things from becoming false
  • non-necessary - an assertible which can become false and is not hindered by external things from becoming false

The four kinds of assertibles listed above are the propositions that can be combined to form Stoic arguments for systematic scientific knowledge of the world.  These arguments are called syllogisms (p. 59, Sellars).

Summary of Stoic Logic (p. 79, Sellars)

  1. “the mind at birth is like a blank sheet of paper”
  2. “via sensory experiences or impressions … we gain information” of an external event or state of affairs.
  3. we experience "first movements" which are almost involuntary and unconscious value judgements
  4. “the impressions we [initially] assent to are presented to the mind in the form of propositions” which are composed of the perceptual data and the unconscious value judgement.
  5. we either assent or reject the impression as either adequate or inadequate.
  6. "a proposition is a physical entity” or corporeal [spoken or written] which carries meaning/sense, which subsists and incorporeal.
  7. Sayables are the subsistence of the meaning of the proposition.
  8. Sayables are either complete or incomplete.
  9. Complete sayables are called assertibles used in Stoic dialectic.
  10. Four kinds of assertibles (true/false/simple/complex) can be combined with other assertibles to form syllogistic arguments.
Syllogistic arguments “form the foundation for systematic scientific knowledge of the world.”  A syllogism is an argument with premises and a conclusion.  Aristotle was the first to use the syllogism (p. 56, Sellars).
Aristotelian syllogisms used universals with letters, whereas Stoic syllogisms could use either universal or particular assertibles for their propositions. In Stoic formal logic, ordinal numbers replace propositions, not individual terms. (p. 57-59, Sellars).

An argument may be valid “in its logical form” but if we doubt the premise, the conclusion may not be true. So, we can just say, "no." :)

An example of a logically valid argument that is untrue would be:
All Texans are human;
All humans are male;
Therefore, all Texans are male.

An example of the 3rd Stoic argument using ordinal numbers:
Not the seventh and the eighth;
The seventh;
Therefore, not the eighth.

The above example would contain a complex negative conjunction assertible as one premise and a simple assertible as the second premise.

An example from the physical world of the 3rd argument would be:
The temperature is not both hot and cold;
It is hot;
Therefore, it is not cold.

Examples of the other four arguments (1, 2, 4, 5):

If the man is in Texas, then he is in the United States;
The man is in Texas;
Therefore, the man is in the United States.

If the boat is sailing, then it is on the water;
The boat is not on the water;
Therefore, the boat is not sailing.

Either is it night or it is day;
It is night;
Therefore, it is not day.

The animal is either a mammal or a reptile;
It is not a reptile;
Therefore, it is a mammal.

More on Stoic Logic:

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Notes on Introduction and The Stoic System from Stoicism by John Sellars

Below are some notes and key things I learned from reading and studying the first two chapters of Stoicism by John Sellars.

While fragments of early Stoic writers have been found through the years, the earliest, complete surviving record of the philosophy comes from Cicero around 45 BC.

The founder of Stoicism is Zeno of Citium.  Citium is in modern day Larnaca Cyprus.

Zeno actually studied at two philosophy schools before founding the philosophy of the porch.  He studied with Polemo at Plato's Academy, and then studied with Stilpo at the Magarian school.

Zeno published a work entitled Republic in which he advocated for the abolition of law courts, currency, marriage and traditional education.

One of the first arguments in Stoicism was about "preferred" and "non-preferred" indifferents.  Zeno's student Aristo did not want the classification - he wanted to call all of them simply "indifferents."  But he lost the argument with other students.

The second founder of Stoicism was Chrysipus.  As Diogenes Laertius said, "If there had been no Chyrisippus, there would have been no Stoa" (p. 7, Sellars).  Chyrisippus advanced the philosophy by bringing all the ideas of his predecessors together, and then adding his own original material, thus leaving a highly systematic philosophical system for students learning Stoicism for the first time (see p. 7, Sellars).

In 128 BC, Panaetius became head of the Stoa.  He deviated from his predecessors in three major ways.

First, he "rejected the Stoic doctrine of the periodic destruction of the world" and instead declared the world eternal (p. 9, Sellars).

Second, he denied that virtues was "sufficient on its own" for a person to achieve happiness.

Third, he shifted "the focus of attention from the ideal sage to the average person on the street" (p. 9, Sellars).

The Stoic Posidonius was important because his most famous pupil was Cicero.  Posidonius was also a polymath, studying history, geography, astronomy, meteorology, biology and anthropology.

Both Panaetius and Posidonius deviated from the early Stoic doctrines.  Had they not deviated, perhaps they would been faithful disciples rather than philosophers who “expanded and developed” the early Stoic philosophy.  Posidonius deviated from Stoic orthodoxy in psychology.  Early Stoics did not separate reason and emotion into distinct faculties, whereas “Posidonius followed Plato in proposing a tripartite psychology, dividing the soul into the faculties of reason, emotion and desire” (p. 10, Sellars).

We own much to Seneca, who was born between 4 and 1 BC and survived until 65 AD.  We own him our gratitude for his diligence in writing.  Many of his texts have survived and have also "[shaped] the image of Stoicism in the West" especially as he was seen by the early "Church Fathers, medieval reading and Renaissance humanists" as sympathetic to Christianity" (p. 13, Sellars).

Musonius Rufus is sometimes called the third founder of the Stoa due to “his status as a Stoic sage … combined with his influence as the teacher of Epictetus, Euphrates, Dio and others” (p. 15, Sellars).

Sellars makes brief notes on Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, but nothing new for me.

Sellars notes the decline of Stoicism around 200 CE.  While the decline can be explained by the rise of Neoplatonism, he also believes that the decline can also be attributed to the strong teaching and focus of Epictetus practicing the philosophy as opposed to commentating and theorizing on it.  As Sellars notes, Epictetus placed “value on deeds rather than words” (p. 26).  Coupled with Epictetus’ fame as a philosopher, followers would have spent more of their time practicing the philosophy rather than writing about it, hence writings of Stoicism would have diminished.

While I personally appreciate Epictetus’ sentiment on applied Stoicism over theoretical Stoicism, I do admit that we of the present day, owe it to subsequent generations to keep the flame alive as it were.  And being a rudimentary student of history and knowing how quickly knowledge can be lost, I feel it should be a duty and obligation of scholars and librarians to preserve the record as much as possible.  For my part, I take notes on what I read and commentate on Stoic books.  I try to share what I’ve learned with others, including my children and close friends.  In sum, we need to continue to learn and practice what we’ve learned.  However, in that process, we need to preserve in writing the theoretical.

Sellars said, “If we assume that the Stoics were philosophers simply in the same sense in which a modern academic is a philosopher, then we run the risk of countless misunderstandings and distortions” (p. 31).  If I understand the context correctly, then it would seem the modern academic philosopher is one who studies the various philosophies that have been developed over the centuries.  The academic philosopher would be able to describe frameworks and philosophic paradigms and may not necessarily practice any of the philosophies.  Whereas the ancient Stoics sought love of wisdom in practice – it was a never-ending pursuit for identifying the proper way to live and then demonstrating that knowledge.  They viewed philosophy as the way to properly live life and not simply describe how it ought to be lived.  Much like a doctor who demonstrates her ability to heal as opposed to writing a book on it.  The value is in the doing and practicing, rather than the learning and teaching.

The Epicureans hold pleasure to be the key to happiness.  The Peripatetics “hold virtue to be the key to happiness, but [required] favorable external circumstances” as well (p. 32, Sellars).  The Stoics, on the other hand, “must be able to translate those doctrines into concrete behavior.  It is not enough to say that one can be virtuous, and thus happy, regardless of circumstances; one must actually be happy regardless of circumstances, whether one is in danger, disgraced, sick or dying” (p. 32, Sellars).  Therefore, the Stoics differ from the Peripatetics by dropping the requirement for favorable external circumstances.  They view that happiness is found entirely from one’s attitude and perspective and adherence to virtue, no matter the circumstances or external factors.

Regarding the sage -  the problem with the sage is the near impossibility of the criteria for a person to become a sage.  The qualifications for sage-hood would be a person who is “never impeded, who is infallible, who is more powerful than everyone else, richer, stronger, freer, happier and the only person truly deserving of the title ‘king’” (p. 36, Sellars).  The qualifications for being a sage are so high, the Stoics could hardly produce an example of someone who embodied the Sage.  “There is something inevitably futile about devoting one’s life to trying to become a sage if that is an impossible goal to reach” (p. 41, Sellars).  Stoics addressed this problem by providing some examples of people who embodied various examples of specific Stoic doctrine.  Therefore, while Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic may not have been a full Sage, they nonetheless practiced key teachings that Stoicism embraced, and subsequently, provide examples for people who are trying to live the philosophy (see p. 41, Sellars).

There are various similes which represent the three parts of Stoic philosophy.

One is the animal, where logic corresponds to bones and sinews, and where ethics corresponds to the fleshy parts and physics corresponds to the soul.

Another simile is that of an egg: shell is logic, the white is ethics and the yolk is physics.

Another simile is the orchard: the fence is logic, fruit is ethics and soil and trees are the physics.  Posidonius rejected the orchard simile because the representations of the orchard could exist independently of each other (p. 42-43, Sellars).

The second stage of philosophy after one learns doctrines or theory, is “to put those doctrines into practice” through “a series of exercises (askeseis)” or what Pierre Hadot called “spiritual exercises” (p. 45, Sellars).  The purpose of this practice “is to habituate the soul so that one’s consciously chosen philosophical beliefs can shape one’s unconscious habits, and so determine one’s everyday behavior” (p. 46, Sellars).

Is the two-stage paradigm of learning and live philosophy necessary?

Socrates maintained that if a person gains knowledge of something, they will necessarily follow on with the correct behavior.  This stands against the Stoic notion of practice, because the first stage is sufficient and all that is needed to change behavior.

It appears not all classical Stoics were united on the two-stage process.  Aristo argued exercises would be of no benefit for someone who is ignorant and for someone who is free from ignorance, the exercises are unneeded.  Seneca cites Cleanthes “who held that this second stage of philosophical education ‘is indeed useful, but that it is a feeble thing unless it is derived from general principles’” (p. 49, Sellars).

I think the two-stage process is needed for people (like me) who have never seriously inquired about their personal philosophy until much later in life, having lived in a world full of false judgements and emotions.  However, for a young person who is taught philosophy from youth, perhaps with right knowledge written on a somewhat ‘blank mind’ then right actions will naturally follow and therefore, practice is not needed.  With all that said, I am of the opinion that the large majority of people will need to learn then practice before full absorption takes hold.