Some philosophy to chew on....


The following is an exerpt from Robert M Pirsig's book, Lila. I found this quite interesting, troubling perhaps... thoughts?
(Some of the context might not be clear and ignore the metaphysics stuff... unless you're philosphers in which case you should read the book...)

"The idea had first come to Ph?drus in the mountains near Bozeman, Montana, where he first began reading anthropology. It was there he read Ruth Benedict's implication that the way to correct the brujo's problem in Zuni would have been to deport him to one of the Plains tribes where his temperamental drives would have blended in better. What about that? Send the insane to anthropologists rather than psychiatrists for a cure!

"Ruth Benedict maintained that psychiatry had been confused by its start from a fixed list of symptoms instead of from the case study of the insane, those whose characteristic reactions are denied validity in their society. Another anthropologist, D. T. Campbell, agreed, saying, 'Implicitly the laboratory psychologist still assumes that his college sophomores provide an adequate basis for a general psychology of man.' He said that for social psychology these tendencies have been very substantially curbed through confrontation with the anthropological literature.

"The psychiatrist's approach would have analyzed the brujo's childhood to find causes for his behavior, shown why he became a window peeper, counseled him against window-peeping, and, if he continued, possibly 'confined him for his own good.' But the anthropologist on the other hand could study the person's complaints, find a culture where the complaints were solved and send him there. In the brujo's case anthropologists would have sent him up north to the Cheyenne. But if someone suffered from sexual inhibition by the Victorians, he could be sent to Margaret Mead's Samoa; or if he suffered from paranoia, sent to one of the Middle Eastern countries where suspicious attitudes are more normal.

"What anthropologists see over and over again is that insanity is culturally defined. It occurs in all cultures but each culture has different criteria for what constitutes it. Kluckhohn has referred to an old Sicilian, who spoke only a little English, who came to a San Francisco hospital to be treated for a minor physical ailment. The intern who examined him noted that he kept muttering that he was being witched by a certain woman, that this was the real reason for his suffering. The intern promptly sent him to the psychiatric ward where he was kept for several years. Yet in the Italian colony from which he came everybody of his age group believed in witchcraft. It was 'normal' in the sense of standard. If someone from the intern's own economic and educational group had complained of being persecuted by a witch, this would have been correctly interpreted as a sign of mental derangement.

"Many others reported cultural correlations of the symptoms of insanity. M. K. Opler found that Irish schizophrenic patients had preoccupations with sin and guilt related to sex. Not Italians. Italians were given to hypochondriachial complaints and body preoccupations. There was more open rejection of authority among Italians. Clifford Geertz stated that the Balinese definition of a madman is someone who, like an American, smiles when there is nothing to smile at. In one journal Ph?drus found a description of different psychoses which were specialized according to culture: the Chippewa-Cree suffered from windigo, a form of cannibalism; in Japan there was imu, a cursing following snake-bite; among Polar Eskimos it is pibloktog, a tearing off of clothes and running across the ice; and in Indonesia was the famous amok, a brooding depression which succeeds to a dangerous explosion of violence.

"Anthropologists found that schizophrenia is strongest among those whose ties with the cultural traditions are weakest: drug users, intellectuals, immigrants, students in their first year at college, soldiers recently inducted.

"A study of Norwegian-born immigrants in Minnesota showed that over a period of four decades their rate of hospitalization for mental disorders was much higher than those for either non-immigrant Americans or Norwegians in Norway. Isaac Frost found that psychoses often develop among foreign domestic servants in Britain, usually within eighteen months of their arrival.

"These psychoses, which are an extreme form of culture shock, emerge among these people because the cultural definition of values which underlies their sanity has been changed. It was not an awareness of 'truth' that was sustaining their sanity, it was their sureness of their cultural directives. [See Boris Sidis' The Herd and The Subconscious.]

"Now, psychiatry can't really deal with all of this because it is pinioned to a subject-object truth system which declares that one particular intellectual pattern is real and all others are illusions. Psychiatry is forced to take this position in contradiction to history, which shows over and over again that one era's illusions become another era's truths, and in contradiction to geography, which shows that one area's truths are another area's illusions. But a philosophy of insanity generated by a Metaphysics of Quality states that all these conflicting intellectual truths are just [very quantum, islandic] value patterns. One can vary from a particular common historical and geographical truth pattern without being crazy.

These psychoses, which are an extreme form of culture shock, emerge among these people because the cultural definition of values which underlies their sanity has been changed.

Here we go again. This is along the same lines as Dr. Szasz who argues that mental illness, including schizophrenia, does not really exist. If anyone wants to think that -- fine by me -- but they shouldn't complain if they are ever killed by someone who is having a psychotic episode due to not being medicated. (This is not to say that people with psychosis are generally violent.)
I believe this is Robert's way of explaining away his own experiences. In my opinion, he doing exactly what he seems against and that is labeling. He labels psychiatry being wrong but yet for the masses medication is necessary. Clinical psychology is not what it was years ago and the focus on just the individual has long since changed. I remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where Robert experiences some psychotic break in understanding what quality truly is (this is my brief explanation of Robert's experience).


I absolutely agree... I found it quite upsetting actually. It is almost pro-psychotic... it made me question my questioning of reality. That's why I wanted feedback... to ground me. Philosophy tends to throw me for a loop and I get upset about the state of the universe... which just goes to show that even what Pirsig labels "quality" (and I would hope he only writes what he thinks is "quality") can co-exist with, and even spur on, insanity.
You are right that Robert's experiences largely shaped his writing... his own mental illness returned and he seems to be ok with the fact that he used a psychiatrist then. Again, it helps when you've read both books for context.
Philosophy is basically guiding principles that a person holds. I believe every person's existence will be shaped by a variety of experiences, which might produce similar or dissimilar events in life. Pirsig's perceptions of what he considers reality is based upon his environment and biological disposition. I have found it important to not allow other people's belief systems to challenge what I found to be true for me. Pirsig presents interesting points but nothing that moves the earth for me. Opinions are only as valuable as the value you place on them. Hope this helps settle any discomfort you experienced from reading his book.


Thank you, doc. I think part of my problem is that I struggle with identity and so my sense of my own philosophy is very weak and ever-changing. That makes me pretty suggestible.

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