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.