Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

Though I suspect much of ZAMM’s early audience was garnered because of his attack on the Establishment — his attack on reason, science, and, not least of all, educational institutions — if the novel is to be remembered it will be for Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality, because the attack on science and reason is simply a prelude to his introduction of the Metaphysics of Quality, which the last half of the book focuses on.

He suggests that there must be a way of reconciling the split between “romantics” and “classicists,” a way to reconcile “reason and feeling:”

“Well, it isn’t just art and technology. It’s a kind of a noncoalescence between reason and feeling. What’s wrong with technology is that it’s not connected in any real way with matters of the spirit and of the heart. And so it does blind, ugly things quite by accident and gets hated for that. People haven’t paid much attention to this before because the big concern has been with food, clothing and shelter for everyone and technology has provided these.

“But now where these are assured, the ugliness is being noticed more and more and people are asking if we must always suffer spiritually and esthetically in order to satisfy material needs. Lately it’s become almost a national crisis — antipollution drives, antitechnological communes and styles of life, and all that.”

Both DeWeese and Gennie have understood all this for so long there’s no need for comment, so I add, “What’s emerging from the pattern of my own life is the belief that the crisis is being caused by the inadequacy of existing forms of thought to cope with the situation. It can’t be solved by rational means because the rationality itself is the source of the problem. The only ones who’re solving it are solving it at a personal level by abandoning ‘square’ rationality altogether and going by feelings alone. Like John and Sylvia here. And millions of others like them. And that seems like a wrong direction too. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the solution to the problem isn’t that you abandon rationality but that you expand the nature of rationality so that it’s capable of coming up with a solution.” [emphasis added]

This reaction against the ugliness of technology certainly isn’t new. 19th Century Romantic poets wrote many of their poems as a reaction against early factories and the accompanying smog and filth that came with the burning of soft coal. In this sense, at least, Pirsig could be dismissed as just another Romantic writer. But unlike many Romantics, Pirsig doesn’t reject technology, but, rather, looks for ways to make it appealing to those who are concerned more with the quality of life than with acquiring the latest technology.

I like this practical, pragmatic, definition of quality:

“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really,” I expound. “It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”

They just look at me, thinking about this.

“It’s an unconventional concept,” I say, “but conventional reason bears it out. The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don’t have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn’t any other test.”

Anyone who’s worked a poorly designed software knows exactly what Pirsig is saying here. If you’ve ever found yourself totally frustrated or incapable of completing an important job because of poorly defined software, you know exactly what Pirsig is talking about here.

Who hasn’t been alienated by companies that employ badly designed phone systems that have you listening to long lists of directories, hold the line while muzak plays endlessly, only to be dropped while being put on hold? Who hasn’t tried to accomplish something that you know software is perfectly capable of doing only to quit in frustration. Is there any doubt why many simply avoid the latest technology? Who’s willing to sacrifice peace of mind for anything short of an absolute necessity, like health care?

Pirsig’s biggest hurdle, though, is trying to define Quality in a way that most people would agree upon:

Quality.. . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the “betterness”? … So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?

I don’t totally understand Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality, MOQ, but I still find his attempts to define Quality and to use it reconcile reason and esthetics fascinating.

Of course, I’ve always been sympathetic to his main argument that quality is the defining characteristic of a product. Even though I think not needing something is better than actually having it, I want those things I do buy to be the best quality possible and luckily that’s possible if you don’t need to much.

Who Wields Science ?

One of the most interesting ideas for me when I first read ZAMM was Pirsig’s perspective on science. Of course, it might have been interesting precisely because it coincided with some of my own (and society’s) growing concerns about where science was taking us.

You’d have to be a fool to live in the 20th century and not question the value, and cost, of science. After all, scientists invented the nuclear bomb that haunted my grade school years. My own particular crisis with science came while attending CBR (Chemical, Biological, Radiological) school in the Army. I was stunned to learn of all the CBR weapons science had created. Apparently it wasn’t enough to invent just one weapon that could destroy the world as we knew it. No! We had to develop multiple ways of destroying mankind. After watching a goat die after a single drop of nerve gas was applied to its nose, I wondered what kind of person could devote his life to developing a weapon like that, and I hadn’t even seen Dr. Strangelove yet.

What I lacked, of course, is Pirsig’s insights into the very nature of science since I’d lost interest in pursuing a scientific career long before he did in life. Unlike most of us, he made it a point to study the very nature of science:

Solution of problems too complicated for common sense to solve is achieved by long strings of mixed inductive and deductive inferences that weave back and forth between the observed machine and the mental hierarchy of the machine found in the manuals. The correct program for this interweaving is formalized as scientific method.

and it’s most basic level the

…real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know. There’s not a mechanic or scientist or technician alive who hasn’t suffered from that one so much that he’s not instinctively on guard. That’s the main reason why so much scientific and mechanical information sounds so dull and so cautious. If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you. It does it often enough anyway even when you don’t give it opportunities. One must be extremely careful and rigidly logical when dealing with Nature: one logical slip and an entire scientific edifice comes tumbling down. One false deduction about the machine and you can get hung up indefinitely.

It’s precisely this methodology that has made possible the great advances that makes modern civilization possible. The science method is probably the ultimate tool.

Pirsig forces us to see science from a new perspective when he quotes Einstein, the most brilliant scientist of the 20th Century:

Einstein had said:

Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world. He then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it …. He makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life in order to find in this way the peace and serenity which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience . . . . The supreme task … is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them ….

Intuition? Sympathy? Strange words for the origin of scientific knowledge.

That’s certainly not the view of science I got from studying it in high school or reading about it in the media. Except where science conflicts with religious views, scientific knowledge has generally been regarded as the ultimate knowledge, undisputed fact.

But Pirsig’s main disillusionment with science comes at even more basic level, that the scientist’s means of attaining “truth” inevitably proves the “relativity” of all scientific truth:

He studied scientific truths, then became upset even more by the apparent cause of their temporal condition. It looked as though the time spans of scientific truths are an inverse function of the intensity of scientific effort. Thus the scientific truths of the twentieth century seem to have a much shorter life-span than those of the last century because scientific activity is now much greater. If, in the next century, scientific activity increases tenfold, then the life expectancy of any scientific truth can be expected to drop to perhaps one-tenth as long as now. What shortens the life-span of the existing truth is the volume of hypotheses offered to replace it; the more the hypotheses, the shorter the time span of the truth. And what seems to be causing the number of hypotheses to grow in recent decades seems to be nothing other than scientific method itself. The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it! It is your application of scientific method that is causing it to change


Luckily most of us never read enough to learn that the “scientific truths” we learned in school are as obsolete as the computers we bought in the early 80’s. It is disquieting, though, to read that the scientific “facts” we base our understanding of the world on are merely widely held opinions that will soon be discarded for even shorter-lived “facts.”

Pirsig’s broader charge, though,

The cause of our current social crises, he would have said, is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. And until this genetic defect is cleared, the crises will continue. Our current modes of rationality are not moving society forward into a better world. They are taking it further and further from that better world. Since the Renaissance these modes have worked. As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is — emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty. That, today, is where it is at, and will continue to be at for a long time to come.

is perhaps more disturbing. Has science become the handmaiden of Industry, more interested in producing new products than in producing scientific truths that will guide us to a better life?

As much as I’d like to believe that science has the ability to help us recover from the environmental damage inflicted on our planet and give us the means of living a good life without making the situation worse, it’s hard to forget that science’s technological contributions to business have gotten us where we are.

Until recently, many had seen science as the ultimate arbitrator of “truth” and technology as the end result of the discovery of such truths, rather than as a mere tool which, like the gun, can bring order or destruction depending on who is wielding it and what their ultimate goal is.

Pirsig’s Romantic and Classical Division

Even when I agree with Pirsig’s main argument I sometimes find myself disagreeing with the logic of his argument. For instance, Phaedrus takes two rather common definitions in literature “romantic” and “classical”

The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association.


The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws-which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form required all give it such a negative romantic appeal that women never go near it.

adds some extra baggage to them, like “unattractive to women largely for this reason” and then redefines them to fit his own purposes:

A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint or schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.

Although I agree that you can break people into two such groups, I’d prefer to use commoner terms like technophiles or technophobes rather than classical or romantic. As the narrator points out:

Phaedrus was a master with this knife, and used it with dexterity and a sense of power. With a single stroke of analytic thought he split the whole world into parts of his own choosing, split the parts and split the fragments of the parts, finer and finer and finer until he had reduced it to what he wanted it to be. Even the special use of the terms “classic” and “romantic” are examples of his knifemanship.

Classification is an essential skill in philosophy, the very heart of Aristotelian logic, but there’s little value in classifying things a particular way if others don’t agree with, or don’t understand, your classifications, even if they are “special.”

Which, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that conclusions drawn from these classifications might not be true:

This is the source of the trouble. Persons tend to think and feel exclusively in one mode or the other and in doing so tend to misunderstand and underestimate what the other mode is all about. But no one is willing to give up the truth as he sees it, and as far as I know, no one now living has any real reconciliation of these truths or modes. There is no point at which these visions of reality are unified.

And so in recent times we have seen a huge split develop between a classic culture and a romantic counterculture-two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward each other with everyone wondering if it will always be this way, a house divided against itself. No one wants it really-despite what his antagonists in the other dimension might think.

This split between those who embrace technological change and those who resist it obviously exists.

I suspect it is this particular split that Steve Jobs has attempted to bridge and to profit from. Apple has been particularly style conscious and has attempted to make the interface as transparent as possible. I don’t think it’s purely coincidental that most of the small art shops I frequent have Apple computers.

But I think this split is a lot deeper and more complex than Pirsig’s division would suggest. A major source of the split is more religious then aesthetic in nature. Many fundamentalist groups I’ve known resist at least some aspects of technology on religious grounds.

There’s probably and even larger generational split, with many older people refusing to transition to new technologies either because they find them difficult to understand, because they find them unreasonably expensive, or simply because they cannot see a need for them.

A Belated Preface to My ZAMM Discussion

I’ve decided to back up on my discussion of ZAMM (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) because I’ve begun to see it in a new perspective the more I’ve thought about it. In other words, this should have been the preface, but since this is blogging it’s the second entry.

When I first read ZAMM many years ago I thought it was a novel, a quest novel. It didn’t take long to realize that Phaedrus and the narrator were one and the same and that the novel was a journey to make the self whole, One.

The novel became one of my favorites, ranking right up there with modern classics like Catch-22, Invisible Man, Cat’s Cradle, and Giles Goat Boy. I identified with Phaedrus and the narrator, because our journeys (minus the mental institution, thank heavens) seemed to parallel each other.

In junior high school I had my own chemistry set and was making and launching solid fuel rockets, before rockets became the rage. In high school I took honors math and science courses, and earned advanced standing in math at the University of Washington, which I entered as a physics major. For much of my youth I dreamed of becoming a “scentist.”

Like Phaedrus, though, it turned out I was looking for answers that science didn’t seem too interested in answering. Once in college, I shifted to English, but actually spent more time taking Philosophy classes my first two years. My favorite freshman class was a Philosophy Course in Logic, a class I nearly aced because it was so similar to my favorite math class, Geometry. It wasn’t until I started trying to apply those logical syllogisms to my own life that I realized such Logic might not be the final answer. I’ve never lost my love for the precision that such thinking offered, as opposed to the messy emotional world of, say, love and personal relationships.

Both Phaedrus and I had become English teachers and struggled with the problem of quality and the best way to elicit if from our students. Any English teacher that hasn’t become disillusioned with the attempt to teach good writing through good grammar is not someone I want to study under. I’d learned that through personal experience. My 8th grade teacher told my parents that he’d never had a student who could diagram sentences as well as I did. Which makes it a little difficult to understand why my writing scores on the SAT were so low, particularly since I’d earned an “A” in all my English classes.

Most of all I agreed with Pirsig’s emphasis on quality, agreed that pride in work and quality products were vital qualities that had somehow gotten lost. It was about this time that I’d discovered woodworking and Krenov’s furniture books. Building quality furniture that I could never afford to buy became an important part of my life. It wasn’t motorcycle maintenance, but I approached it the way Pirsig approached the care and maintenance of his bike.

So, as a novel, ZAMM was about as good as it could get.

When I bought the new edition, however, a subtitle had been added “An Inquiry into Values” and it’s published under Harper Torch: Philosophy, which led me to approach the book with a rather different attitude than I’d approach it as a novel, a more disciplined approach. That’s when I began to see flaws that made me wonder just how rigorous Pirsig’s argument really is.

Statements like this, for instance, make me a little nervous:

At first the truths Phaedrus began to pursue were lateral truths; no longer the frontal truths of science, those toward which the discipline pointed, but the kind of truth you see laterally, out of the corner of your eye. In a laboratory situation, when your whole procedure goes haywire, when everything goes wrong or is indeterminate or is so screwed up by unexpected results you can’t make head or tail out of anything, you start looking laterally. That’s a word he later used to describe a growth of knowledge that doesn’t move forward like an arrow in flight, but expands sideways, like an arrow enlarging in flight, or like the archer, discovering that although he has hit the bull’s-eye and won the prize, his head is on a pillow and the sun is coming in the window. Lateral knowledge is knowledge that’s from a wholly unexpected direction, from a direction that’s not even understood as a direction until the knowledge forces itself upon one. Lateral truths point to the falseness of axioms and postulates underlying one’s existing system of getting at truth.

To all appearances he was just drifting. In actuality he was just drifting. Drifting is what one does when looking at lateral truth. He couldn’t follow any known method of procedure to uncover its cause because it was these methods and procedures that were all screwed up in the first place. So he drifted. That was all he could do.

Like most people, I’ve done some “drifting” in my life, trying to recover from traumatic events that challenged my basic beliefs about life, but it’s not a method I would recommend for finding new “truths,” nor a form of thinking I’d want to rely on to achieve a clear understanding of life.

I’m certainly not about to dismiss ZAMM, but I actually have more questions after a second reading than I had after I read it the first time. I’ll try to explore some of those questions in the next few days and get ready to read Lila to see if it answers any of those questions.