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Robert Pirsig & His Metaphysics of Quality
Anthony McWatt explores the philosophical ideas underlying the culture-changing 1970s blockbuster Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
In 1967, as the psychedelic sounds of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album echoed around world, Robert Pirsig started writing an essay called Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for his motorcycling buddy John Sutherland. By the time of its eventual publication about seven years later it had grown to the length of a rather substantial novel. The narrative framework is a motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California made by Pirsig and his 11 year old son Chris along with John Sutherland and his wife Sylvia. Into the story of this journey – of the places they ride through, the interactions between the characters, and looking after the motorbikes – Pirsig weaves reflections on their lives, on the relationship between technology and art; on Zen Buddhism; on Greek philosophy; and ultimately on the foundations of values.
As with Sgt. Pepper, Pirsig’s book became an important ‘culture bearer’ of its time, albeit with readers who were slightly older and more cynical than most Beatles fans. Pirsig did have a lot of sympathy for what the hippies and young people were trying to do, but he saw that for their progressive ideals to become established they needed to ground their ideas in practical changes. Free love, hedonism, and psychedelics won’t change this world for the better by themselves. This is one of the primary reasons Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was written. It gives us, amongst other things, a rational framework (or ‘static latch’) to underpin the hippy ideals of peace, love, artistic creativity and personal freedom. It is my concern here, therefore, to introduce to you, the one and only Robert Pirsig, and his Metaphysics of Quality. I hope you enjoy the ride!
As well as Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig was the author in 1991 of a sequel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. The former is now the best-selling philosophy book of all time, having sold millions of copies in 23 languages. Together the two books form a single Zen koan or puzzle, designed to impart an understanding of the Good (or, as Pirsig would say, of Quality) without putting it into a static definition.
Pirsig is generally considered to be a US philosopher and writer, but he lived for a few years as a young child in England during the early 1930s, and later returned to England in the late 1970s, living on a boat off the coast of Cornwall. He also wrote much of his second book in Sweden, the place of his grandmother’s birth. Pirsig was generally a recluse, so, for instance, he never answered a phone. He explained his behaviour thus: “The Buddhist monk has a precept against indulging in idle conversation, and I think the basis of that precept is what motivates me” (Letter from Robert Pirsig to Bodvar Skutvik, 17th August 1997).
The beginnings of his Metaphysics of Quality can be traced back to 1959 when Pirsig was an English teacher at Montana State College, in the American mid-West. As a new lecturer, he noticed that he was under legal contract to teach ‘quality’ to his students, even though it was not made clear by the college authorities what was meant by this term. Pirsig soon realised that teachers had been passing and failing students on the quality of their work for centuries without any viable definition of what ‘quality’ actually was. It was this unsatisfactory state of affairs which gave Pirsig the inspiration to start his particular line of philosophical inquiry.
In Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig first explored the history of the term ‘Quality’, or what the Ancient Greeks called arête, tracing it all the way back to Plato (428-348 BCE). He concluded that the strange position of Quality in today’s West originated with Plato’s division of the human soul into its reason and emotion aspects, in his dialogue the Phaedrus. In this dialogue, Plato gave primary place to reason over emotion. Soon afterwards Aristotle was similarily emphasizing analysis over rhetoric. And as Hugh Lawson-Tancred confirms in the Introduction to his 1991 translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “There are few things that are more to be deplored in Greek culture, and notably in the legacy of Plato, than the wholly forced and unnatural division between… [the] two sister studies” of rhetoric and philosophy (p.57). Eventually this division grew into the ‘subjective versus objective’ way of thinking now largely dominant in the West. So now in the West we have objectivity, reason, logic, and dialectic on the one hand; and subjectivity, emotion, imagination, intuition, and rhetoric on the other. The former terms suggest scientific respectability, while the latter are often assumed to be artistic terms, having little place in science or rationality. It is this Platonic conception of rationality that Pirsig sought to challenge by reconciling the spiritual (for example, Zen), artistic (for example, art) and scientific (for example, motorcycle maintenance) realms within the unifying paradigm of the Metaphysics of Quality.
Sadly, Pirsig died in April 2017, aged 88. In my PhD I closely analysed his Metaphysics of Quality, and concluded that although traditional philosophical concepts such as causation and truth are given unconventional meanings in Pirsig’s writing, there is an advantage in using his system because it has an internal coherence lacking in metaphysical systems based on Plato’s example. I had the good fortune to discuss these ideas extensively with Robert Pirsig himself, and have used extracts from some of his letters to clarify various points in what follows.
Chris with John and Sylvia Sutherland at Bear Tooth Pass, July 1968
Photo by Robert Pirsig
Pirsig postulates that everything that exists can be assumed to be a value (though he divides values into two classes, as we’ll see later). As his system differs from traditional Western metaphysics by making values the ultimate basis of reality, it should come as no surprise that this has relatively radical consequences for his depiction of reality.
In Lila, Pirsig adds the following:
“The Metaphysics of Quality subscribes to what is called empiricism. It claims that all legitimate human knowledge arises from the senses or by thinking [based on] what the senses provide. Most empiricists deny the validity of any knowledge gained through imagination, authority, tradition, or purely theoretical reasoning. They regard fields such as art, morality, religion, and metaphysics as unverifiable. The Metaphysics of Quality varies from this by saying that the values of art and morality and even religious mysticism are verifiable and that in the past have been excluded for metaphysical reasons, not empirical reasons. They have been excluded because of the metaphysical assumption that all the universe is composed of subjects and objects and anything that can’t be classified as a subject or an object isn’t real. There is no empirical evidence for this assumption at all.” (p.121)
It is worth emphasising here that ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’ are intellectual concepts, rather than concepts derived from experience. Unfortunately, these concepts have been ingrained in us from an early age, so we generally accept their validity without question. But this is basically just a metaphysical convention. Pirsig would say that reality can be divided up metaphysically in numerous ways: it’s just that some ways are better than others!
So instead of dividing everything into subjects and objects, Pirsig divides reality into Dynamic Quality (this is capitalised deliberately) and static quality. ‘Dynamic Quality’ is the term he gives to the continually changing flux of immediately-experienced reality, while ‘static quality’ refers to any concept abstracted from this flux. The term ‘Dynamic’ indicates something not fixed or determinate, which means that Dynamic Quality cannot be defined, and therefore a true understanding of it can only be given directly in experience. As Herbert Günther says in his book Philosophy & Psychology in the Abidharma (1957), “The Ultimate, in Buddhism, is something knowable, though not known by theory or discursive method, but by direct experience” (p.235). In other words, the Buddha can’t tell you what Dynamic Quality is, but he can point a way so that you can experience it for yourself, and then you might understand. Or as Pirsig wrote in a letter to me of 6th October 1997:
“It’s important to keep all ‘concepts’ out of Dynamic Quality. Concepts are always static. Once they get into Dynamic Quality they’ll overrun it and try to present it as some kind of a concept itself… [For instance] time is only a problem for the [Platonists] because if time has none of the properties of an object then it must be subjective. And if time is subjective that means Newton’s laws of acceleration and many other laws of physics are subjective. Nobody in the scientific world wants to allow that. All this points to a huge fundamental metaphysical difference between the MOQ [Metaphysics of Quality] and classical science: The MOQ is truly empirical. Science is not. Classical science starts with a concept of the objective world – atoms and molecules – as the ultimate reality. This concept is certainly supported by empirical observation but it is not the empirical observation itself.”
Revealing the Metaphysics of Quality’s East Asian foundations, in another letter to me of 17th August 1997, Pirsig asserts that Dynamic Quality refers to what Buddhists would call ‘unconditioned reality’, and static quality refers to ‘conditioned reality’ – more commonly known by the Buddhists as ‘the everyday world’:
“The Dynamic reality that goes beyond words is the constant focus of Zen teaching… ‘Unpatterned’ might work as well except that ‘unpatterned’ suggests that there is nothing there and all is quiet. There is nothing in the sense of no ‘thing’, that is, ‘no object’, and the Buddhists use nothingness in this way, but the term Dynamic is more in keeping within the quotation, ‘Within nothingness there is a great working’, from the Zen master, Kategiri Roshi… The logical positivists’ fundamental error in my opinion is the assumption that because philosophy is about words it is therefore about words alone. This is the fallacy of ‘devouring the menu instead of the meal’. Their common argumentative tactic is to say that anything they cannot feed through their little box of linguistic analysis is not philosophy. But if discussion about ‘the good’ (which is fundamentally beyond words) is not philosophy then Socrates was not a philosopher, since that was his primary subject.”
By ‘static quality’, Pirsig doesn’t refer to something that lacks movement in the Newtonian sense of ‘static’ (he agreed with me that the word ‘stable’ would have been better because of this ambiguity), but refers to any repeated arrangement – that is, to any pattern that appears long enough to be noticed within the flux of immediate experience – whether inorganic (for example, chemicals, forces), organic (plants, animals), social (cities, ant nests), or intellectual (thoughts, ideas).
Robert Pirsig and his son Chris, July 1968
Photo by Sylvia Sutherland
These static patterns of quality are analogous to both subjects and objects; but only analogous. Static quality patterns relate to each other in some ways which are absent from subject-object metaphysics. For instance, the Metaphysics of Quality recognizes that the four categories of static patterns I just listed are related through cosmological evolution. Taking the Big Bang as the starting point of the universe, at that point in time there were only inorganic quality patterns, that is to say, physical forces. Since then, at successive stages of this universe’s history, plants and animals have evolved from inorganic patterns; societies have evolved from biological patterns; and intellect has evolved from societies: “The universe is evolving from a condition of low quality toward a higher one and in a static sense these two are not the same” (Letter from Robert Pirsig to me, 23rd March 1997). As the cosmologist Edward Kolb once wrote, “In perhaps nature’s most miraculous transformation, the universe evolved the capacity to ponder and understand itself.” (Astronomy, February 1998, p.37).
Cosmological evolution, which is a wider notion than biological evolution, is an important consideration in the Metaphysics of Quality, since a code of ethics can be generated from the four basic levels of quality patterns. Although Pirsig recognises that each level of static patterns has emerged from the one below, each level follows its own rules. The physical laws such as gravitational attraction (inorganic) evolve relatively slowly; whereas the laws of the jungle (biology), co-operation between animals (society), and the ideas of freedom and rights (intellect) evolve relatively fast. It is important to note that the laws of the four static levels often clash: compare adultery (biological good) vs. family stability (social good). It is also important to note that the Metaphysics of Quality does not suggest that these evolutionary processes are in any sense goal-directed or part of some grand design. As Ernst Mayr, Professor Emeritus of Zoology at Harvard University, notes: “The proponents of teleological [goal-directed] theories [of evolution], for all their efforts, have been unable to find any mechanisms (except supernatural ones) that can account for their postulated finalism. The possibility that any such mechanism can exist has now been virtually ruled out by the findings of molecular biology.” (Scientific American, ‘Evolution Edition’, September 1978)
However, the Metaphysics of Quality does follow a form of Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, where ‘the fittest’ is equated with ‘the best’. As Pirsig points out in Lila: “‘Survival of the fittest’ is one of those catch-phrases… that sounds best when you don’t ask precisely what it means. Fittest for what? Fittest for survival? That reduces to ‘survival of the survivors’, which doesn’t say anything. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is meaningful only when ‘fittest’ is equated with the ‘best’, which is to say ‘Quality’.” (p.179).
In this context, ‘the best’ generally refers to the option which produces the most freedom in terms of entities’ abilities to adapt to new situations. This might be said to be Pirsig’s Quality equivalent to ‘the Good’ of Plato. And it’s an increase of freedom all the way: for instance, atoms can change their energy levels by emitting a photon; earthworms can control their speed and direction through the earth; birds are able to fly in the sky; while astronauts manage to fly to the Moon.
This is the point at which the Metaphysics of Quality starts to depart from and update traditional Buddhist thought:
“The MOQ says, as does Buddhism, that the best place on the wheel of karma is the hub and not the rim where one is thrown about by the gyrations of everyday life. But the MOQ sees the wheel of karma as attached to a cart that is going somewhere – from quantum forces through inorganic forces and biological patterns and social patterns to the intellectual patterns that perceive the quantum forces. In the sixth century B.C. in India there was no evidence of this kind of evolutionary progress, and Buddhism, accordingly, does not pay attention to it. Today it’s not possible to be so uninformed. The suffering which the Buddhists regard as only that which is to be escaped, is seen by the Metaphysics of Quality as merely the negative side of the progression toward Quality (or, just as accurately, the expansion of Quality). Without the suffering to propel it, the cart would not move forward at all.”
(Letter from Robert Pirsig to me, 23rd March1997)
The Morality of Quality
The Metaphysics of Quality combines the four levels of patterns to produce one overall moral framework which has a cosmological evolutionary hierarchy, in which the entity or process that has more freedom on the evolutionary scale – the one that is more Dynamic – takes moral precedence. So for instance, a human being is seen as having moral precedence over a dog because humans are at a higher level of cosmological evolution because of our intellect. So, together with updating some Buddhist ideas in the light of modern science, the ultimate benefit of the Metaphysics of Quality is that by removing morals from social convention and placing them on a scientifically-based theory of evolution, it removes much of the cultural subjectivity that is inherent in many ethical beliefs (especially religious ones).
Concerning this, Pirsig gives the following example:
“Is it immoral, as the Hindus and Buddhists claim, to eat the flesh of animals? Our current morality would say it’s immoral only if you’re a Hindu or a Buddhist. Otherwise it’s OK, since morality is nothing more than social convention. An evolutionary morality, on the other hand, would say it’s scientifically immoral for everyone because animals are at a higher level of evolution, that is, more Dynamic, than are grains and fruits and vegetables. But… it would add that this moral principle holds only where there is an abundance of grains and fruit and vegetables. It would be immoral for Hindus not to eat their cows in a time of famine, since they would then be killing human beings in favor of a lower organism” (Lila, p.190/191).
Moreover, by the use of an all-encompassing point of view from the beginning of the universe, the Metaphysics of Quality produces new solutions to previously intractable metaphysical problems, including the relationship between mind and matter, the problem of causation, and the problem of free will versus determinism. At least two of these can be solved when an evolutionary approach is applied to them (as you can read in my PhD, at www.robertpirsig.org/PhD.html). And although it may be argued that a metaphysics that incorporates a central term that isn’t defined – Dynamic Quality – isn’t a genuine metaphysics, it can equally be argued that the strength of the Metaphysics of Quality is its ability to incorporate the ‘indeterminate absolute’ within a coherent, scientifically-oriented paradigm.
Plato was perhaps a little too over-confident in how usable his theory of Forms is in practice. I wonder if it ever crossed his mind that his mentor, Socrates, might have been hinting to him and the other young philosophy students in Athens that the Good and Beauty are actually indefinable? The idea of Forms was, of course, invented by Plato, not Socrates. Unfortunately, as a consequence of Plato’s thinking that reality can be basically defined, Western philosophy is in the state that it is in today: more a handmaiden of science rather than its master. Assuming that words can capture all aspects of reality is an understandable error to make at the very beginning of the Western philosophical tradition… but having said that, it was a metaphysical error avoided by East Asian philosophy. Think about Plato’s allegory of the Cave of Ignorance and escaping from it to see the Sun of the Good, then compare it with the following quote:
“Not by its rising is there light,
Not by its sinking is there darkness
It cannot be defined…
The image of no-thingness…
Meet it and you do not see its face
Follow it and you do not see its back.”
Dao De Jing, Laozi, Quoted in ZMM, p.253-54
If you think about it long enough, then you’ll see that there was no ‘Cave of Ignorance’ until Plato put Western culture inside its metaphysical darkness for 2,400 years! Well, fortunately, Robert Pirsig eventually found a metaphysical torch to get us Westerners out of there… Nevertheless, Pirsig still had immense respect for Plato (at least Plato’s prime subject area was the Good!). This respect was indicated in Pirsig’s last formal contribution to philosophy, which was the Foreword to Donald Moor’s book, Coffee With Plato (2007).
Moreover, as Geoff Sheehan pointed out in his intriguing article ‘Socrates & Zen’ in Philosophy Now Issue 113, it’s worth noting that Socrates was often quite Zen-like in his approach to how to define things. Sheehan writes, “Socrates is seeking knowledge; or perhaps it is better to say that he is seeking wisdom, in that the values in question are not just an intellectual matter, but are values to be lived. In Socrates’ eyes, a man who claims to know what bravery is but does not act bravely would thereby prove that he does not know what bravery is” (my emphasis). That is, it is only lived values that can give you wisdom. John Blofeld, a young English translator in 1930s China, met an old Daoist sage called Tseng Lao-Weng, who was quick to inform him about this difference between the wisdom of East Asia and Platonic ‘philosophical knowledge’: “Wisdom is almost as satisfying as good porridge, whereas knowledge has less body to it than tepid water poured over old tea leaves.” (John Blofeld, The Secret and Sublime: Taoist Mysteries and Magic, 1973, p.208).
Instead of trying to define Beauty and the Good in words, Platonists might find it more productive to find wisdom about these ‘formless Forms’ through painting, mountain walking, running an allotment, writing a poem, solving a difficult mathematical theorem, and/or creating a song. Above all, this process should be seen as an adventure in creating and discovering beautiful things. Non-Platonic texts can be helpful guides in this context. Good examples include F.S.C. Northrop, Homer, Nagarjuna, the Daoist monks quoted by John Blofeld, Patrick Doorly (author of The Truth About Art) and, of course, Robert Pirsig himself. So do check out the articles at www.robertpirsig.org too!
© Dr Anthony McWatt 2017
Anthony McWatt, while based at Liverpool University, was the first person in the world to receive a PhD on Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. His debut documentary film On The Road With Robert Pirsig premiered in 2009.
• Anthony McWatt wants to thank both Carol McWatt and Wendy Pirsig for proof-reading this article.
• McWatt’s personal archives with Robert Pirsig (mainly 1,000 pages plus of unpublished letters and related correspondence between 1993 and 2002 for his PhD work) will be sold at Sotheby’s in London on December 12th.