METAPHYSICS OF QUALITY AT
by David Harding June 2011
his two books Robert Pirsig uses the word Quality about
400 times. So if you add the two books together, Zen
and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and LILA and there
was a index, and you looked up Quality - there would be
400 listings. And this doesn't even count all the terms
that he uses to also refer to the same idea; value, excellence,
worth, the Good, that sort of thing. But what I want to
talk about is a phrase he uses to refer to Quality: "The
Primary Empirical Reality." And I want to
use that phrase, because it hooks up nicely with the radical
empiricism of William James; an American philosopher who
was finishing up his career in 1910. 1912 I believe
Now I should also
say that even though [Pirsig] uses this word 400 times,
plus its synonyms, the term is undefined. And to say that
it's his central term would be kind of an understatement.
It is the whole thing. The whole thing is about Quality.
In fact in the second book, in LILA, he constructs it in
what he would call the Metaphysics of Quality.
Now... the similarity
of James, the thinking of William James, and Robert Pirsig
was discovered after the fact. Between the writings of Zen
and the Art and LILA. He was prompted to look into it,
by a reviewer, a commentator, who had noticed a similarity
between Pirsig and James. So even though Pirsig had dismissed
James as, what does he call him a - a religious ideologue,
he hadn't paid much attention to him. But prompted
by this review, he went back and took a look, and he was
amazed, he was astonished, to see the similarity. Not only
the pragmatism, but also the radical empiricism. These
two doctrines sort of go together; a little context first
I suppose, before I get into that though.
Zen and the Art, Robert Pirsig says:
"In the past
our common universe of reason has been in the process of
escaping, rejecting the romantic, irrational world of prehistoric
man. It's been necessary since before the time of Socrates
to reject the passions, the emotions, in order to free the
rational mind for an understanding of nature's order which
was as yet unknown. Now it's time to further an understanding
of nature's order by re-assimilating those passions which
were originally fled from. The passions, the emotions, the
affective domain of man's consciousness, are a part of nature's
order too. The central part."
As James puts it.
I think this is almost exactly the same sentiment. He's
engaged in a polemic here. His opponent is a Hegelian. He's
a little more specific. He's speaking to the Hegelians in
particular. But he says:
persistence in telling me that feeling has nothing to do
with the question, that it is a pure matter of absolute
reason, keeps me for ever out of the pale. Still seeing
a that in things which Logic does not expel, the
most I can do is to aspire to the expulsion. At present
I do not even aspire. Aspiration is a feeling. What can
kindle feeling but the example of feeling? And if the Hegelians
will refuse to set an example, what can they expect the
rest of us to do? To speak more seriously, the one fundamental
quarrel Empiricism has with Absolutism is over this repudiation
by Absolutism of the personal and aesthetic factor in the
construction of philosophy. That we all of us have feelings,
Empiricism feels quite sure. That they may be as prophetic
and anticipatory of truth as anything else we have, and
some of them more so than others, can not possibly be denied.
But what hope is there of squaring and settling opinions
unless Absolutism will hold parley on this common ground;
and will admit that all philosophies are hypotheses, to
which all our faculties, emotional as well as logical, help
us, and the truest of which will at the final integration
of things be found in possession of the men whose faculties
on the whole had the best divining power?"
So I think he can
see that they are both calling for a reintegration of reason
and feeling. This immediately puts them on the same page.
And they remain on the same page, even as they get more
Now one of the nice
things about making this comparison is that we don't really
have to guess. Robert Pirsig tells us just straight
up explicitly at the end of LILA, specifically in Chapter
29, that the Metaphysics of Quality is a continuation of
the mainstream American philosophy - that it is a form of
pragmatism. And he also hitches his wagon to William James
radical empiricism, naming names, and the whole deal. But
for the most part I'm going to just quote from ZMM [Zen
and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance],because I want
to show that he had already arrived at what James was thinking,
even though he wasn't aware that James had said anything
of the kind. In other words, he discovered this independently
About twenty chapters
before Robert Pirsig ever gets to the chapter about radical
empiricism in LILA. He says, he writes:
Metaphysics of Quality subscribes to what is called empiricism.
It claims that all legitimate human knowledge arises from
the senses or by thinking about 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 they 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."
should say something about the verifiability of such things
as Art. Now the verifiability of these things, things like,
Art, morality and religious mysticism isn't a simple matter
although it can be done. In particular the mystical element
there is a book, the author escapes my mind [James H. Austin].
But a book called Zen and the Brain, in which neurologists
examine what occurs in peoples brains who are meditating.
there is a book called, the Dalai Lama at MIT [Edited
by Anne Harrington & Arthur Zajonc]. Now if I
remember correctly, this one is even more interesting because it's not just third person
accounts, observations of brains of people who are meditating but the researchers themselves
meditating. So they know what the experience is like from within as well as that third
person from without. You kinda need both as a combination to develop a science that can present
this as a realistic possibility. This, this kind of Mysticism is not faith based or even necessarily
religious. It's just based on valid empirical evidence. To put it simply, people all over the
world have had mystical experiences. Why should we discount that? Why is that not real? Why is
that not worth investigating? Well, they are investigating it.
notice that already, he is wanting to, in the quote I just
read, he is wanting to expand the nature of empiricism. It's not just those things as positivists
would have said. That are verifiable through direct observation. But any kind of experience
can be included as a valid empirical data. As James puts it - and this is his essential
doctrine. This is the paragraph. This can all be found in his, Essays in Radical Empiricism. [It's
a] collection of essays. I believe they are given at Harvard University as a series of public
lectures. It might be worth noting at this point that John Dewey another American Philosopher,
also a pragmatist, is also a radical empiricist. It probably wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration
to say that John Dewey probably heard these lectures and ran to his typewriter.
As James puts it:
be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions
any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element
that is directly experienced."
a way he is saying that experience and reality amount to
the same thing that serves as the limit of what we can reasonably talk about. You could
say his attitude was that human beings don't really have any right to talk about what's
eternal or beyond their experience or, what are the conditions that allow experience to take place
in the first place. He wants to just limit what is discussable. This is a method. If it is experienced
you have to account for it. And if it is not experienced - you're probably just making stuff
up. He was trying to get rid of what he called; trans empirical-metaphysical entities. And this
would include the Hegelian Absolute mind, Kant's things in themselves, and even substance, or matter,
in a sense, is a metaphysical idea, it is the conclusion we draw from actual experience. And
it works pretty well most of the time. But in effect, James and Pirsig are both saying that substance
is a metaphysical entity. Also, the self, is not a metaphysical entity, he is denying that
as well. He is saying that the self is a
function, not a thing, not a substance, not a secular version
of the soul. That consciousness
itself is just a function. Something - a function in experience.
first sentence in the quote, that was enough to arrest me.
I think that is completely reasonable - to limit our philosophical discussions to what
is experienceable. To insist that it is experience, that you cant leave it out. Be he goes on:
such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences
must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be
accounted as 'real' as anything else in the system. Elements may indeed be redistributed, the original
placing of things getting corrected, but a real place must be found for every kind
of thing experienced, whether term or relation, in the final philosophic arrangement."
should draw your attention to that phrase, "the relations
that connect experiences". He calls them conjunctive relations. Just things go with other things.
These are unnecessarily large words. He just means that subject and object are already
connected. There isn't some metaphysical break between subjects and objects. They're
already connected in experience. That you're lead from thought to thing, in the natural course
of experience. He uses as a simple example - taking a walk to memorial hall. A particular
building on... Harvard Campus. And he has, he has this thought in mind
of what the building looks like. And he walks in there and he discovers, that's what the building
looks like and that's what it is.
And what he is saying is, you have to notice those experiences
that come between, subject and object; between thought and thing. And then you don't
have to make up a whole lot of metaphysical theories about how to get the subject to correspond
to the object. Subject Object Metaphysics in terms of what counts as true and right.
There's always a correspondence theory. You're right, when your subjective
opinion, matches or corresponds with the objective reality. And James is sort of denying
both of those as a metaphysical entities. They just parts of experience that are already
connected to each other in experience.
first great pitfall from which such a radical standing by
experience will save us is an artificial conception of the relations between knower and
known. Throughout the history of philosophy the subject and its object have been treated
as absolutely discontinuous entities; and thereupon the presence of the latter to the former,
or the 'apprehension' by the former of the latter, has assumed a paradoxical character which all
sorts of theories had to be invented to overcome. All the while, in the very bosom of the finite
experience, every conjunction required to make the relation intelligible, is given in full."
James and Pirsig are both going to differ from the usual
brand of empiricism; not only by including a broader range of experiences, but also, in particular
you noticed the seemingly trivial experiences that connect subject and object. Those
are the terms. Those are where experience that terminates in the thing. You have the thought,
and if your right, your thought terminates in the thing. And it reaches a fruition. It reaches
conclusion. Or, you're mistaken and you find out you were wrong.
Pirsig doesn't quite put it in terms of a long historical
debate, a long historical problem. For
him, the whole question, really began as a practical matter.
was teaching rhetoric at Montana State College at the time.
So he is teaching in Bozeman and there is an elderly woman [Sarah Vinke] about year from retirement
- a Classics Professor. She comes by one day and says. She came trotting by with her watering
pot. He writes:
those two doors, going from the corridor to her office,
and she said, 'I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.' This in a la-de-da,
singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the
moment it all started. That was the seed crystal.. The one sentence 'I hope you are teaching
Quality to your students' was said to him, and within a matter of a few months, growing so fast
you could almost see it grow, came an enormous, intricate, highly structured mass of thought,
formed as if by magic. Others wondered at the time, 'Why should he get so excited about
'Quality'?' But what they saw was only the word and its rhetoric context. They didn't see his past
despair over abstract questions of existence itself that he had abandoned in defeat."
anyone else had asked, What is Quality? it would have been
just another question. But when he asked it, because of his past, it spread out for him
like waves in all directions simultaneously, not in a hierarchic structure, but in a concentric one.
At the center, generating the waves, was Quality."
his past, I should point out, because of his past, he says
this question became a big deal. He had been interested in science. And then the foundations
of science. And he couldn't really find any. He got interested in philosophy. He couldn't find
the answer that he wanted there either. He joined the army and spent some time in Korea.
On the way back from that on a troop ship, he read this long complex book by F S C Northrop.
A Yale Philosopher [called] The Meeting of East and West, I believe. He said
he was glad that he was bored for so long on that troop ship otherwise he probably wouldn't have read
it. Because it was so fat, so difficult. But he did it. That was one of the things that
lay latent, in his mind. He also went to India and studied eastern philosophies for a while. Again,
kind of came home in defeat. It didn't really work for him. So then he sorta just, gave
up on those, philosophical questions and
settled into a life of, I believe he got a Journalism degree.
Became a technical writer, and then finally a rhetoric teacher at Bozeman. So he'd given up
all his philosophic pursuits until that question was asked. And then his rhetoric classroom in effect
became a laboratory for the exploration of Quality. His poor students, one of them almost
had a nervous breakdown, or maybe in fact did have a nervous breakdown over his teaching
was asking his students what Quality was. Not to test them
or to quiz them but because he wanted to know - that made his students pretty angry.
this is how the, issue kind of came up again, so he's teaching,
Rhetoric, he writes:
you're supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses
is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things
to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or
short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but
it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry,
that was remotely close to the models he'd given them. More often their writing got worse. It
seemed as though every rule he honestly tried to discover with them and learn with them was so full
of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he'd never
come across the rule in the first place.
student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain
special circumstance. Phædrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through
a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really
thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to the writing after the
writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became
convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting
down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing
it if it didn't. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation because
that's the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It
had a certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn't pour. But how are you to teach something
that isn't pre-meditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement.. Are you teaching Quality?"
for example, so you have an idea of what I'm talking about
when I say he experimented, he used his classroom for a laboratory. One particularly
dull student wanted to write a 500 word essay about the United States. And right away he advised
her that that was way to broad. He said, why don't you write about just Bozeman. Narrow
it down to just Bozeman. So she thought about that for a while, came back still frustrated.
He said, 'Well why don't you narrow it down to the main street in Bozeman?' And so she tried
that, came back, this time in tears. She wouldn't think of anything. To her mind, "If I can't
think of anything about Bozeman, then why should I be able to think of anything to say about the main
street in Bozeman?" For her that was an even smaller target. And as the target got smaller and
smaller she thought the possibilities of saying something interesting got smaller and smaller. But
he said, 'look kid, you're not listening to me. You gotta really narrow it down. I tell ya' what. Go
to the main street in Bozeman. Go to the Opera House. Just write about the Opera House.
No, write about the upper right
on the face of the Opera House.'
So, desperate, she tried that. She went to a coffee house
or whatever it was across the street and just stared at the building for a while. And pretty
soon she just started writing. And then she kept writing, and she kept writing and she produced
a 5000 word essay. This woman who couldn't come up with anything to say for her 500 word
essay was now just pouring it out. And at first Robert Pirsig didn't even understand why this worked.
But later he realized that she was always trying to think of something to say that she had
heard before. She was having trouble to think of anything to say because she was an imitator.
She wasn't an original creative person at all. By making her focus on that one brick it forced
her to look at something with her own eyes. With fresh eyes. And so he used that as a lesson and
he asked his students to compose essays in class on trivial things, like one side
of a coin, or a thumb. And this, you know, didn't produce any earth shattering revelations, but
the students grew in confidence.
And they learned what it was like to say something original.
To say something they'd never heard anybody say before. Pirsig describes one of these,
experiments, he writes:
reinforce the idea that they already knew what Quality was
he developed a routine in which he read four student papers in class and had everyone rank
them in estimated order of Quality on a slip of paper. He did the same himself. He collected
the slips, tallied them up on the blackboard and averaged the rankings for an overall class
opinion. Then he would reveal his own rankings, and this would almost always be close to,
if not identical, with the class average. Where there were differences it was usually because two
papers were close in Quality. At first the classes were excited by this exercise, but
as time went on they became bored. What he meant by Quality was obvious. They obviously knew what
it was too, and so they lost interest in listening. Their question now was 'All right,
we know what Quality is. How do we get it?'
at last, the standard rhetoric texts came into their own.
The principles expounded in them were no longer rules to rebel against, not Ultimates in
themselves, but just techniques, gimmicks, for producing what really counted and stood independently
of the techniques... Quality. What had started out as a heresy from
traditional rhetoric turned into a beautiful introduction to it.
singled out aspects of Quality such as unity, vividness,
authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, [brilliance, precision,
proportion, depth and so on]; kept each of these as poorly defined as Quality itself, but demonstrated
them by the same class reading techniques. He showed how the aspect of Quality called unity,
the hanging-togetherness of a story, could be improved with a technique called an outline.
The authority of an argument could be jacked up with a technique called footnotes, which gives
authoritative reference. Outlines and footnotes are standard things taught in all freshman
composition classes, but now as devices for improving Quality they had a purpose.
that was over with. By reversing a basic rule that all things
which are to be taught must first be defined, he had found a way out of all this. He
was pointing to no principle, no rule of good writing, no theory but he was pointing to something,
nevertheless, that was very real, whose reality they couldn't deny. The vacuum that had been created
by the withholding of grades (another experiment he created) was suddenly filled with the positive goal of Quality,
and the whole thing fit together. Students, astonished, came by his office and said, "I
used to just hate English. Now I spend more time on it than anything else." Not just one or
two. Many. The whole Quality concept was beautiful. It worked. It was that mysterious, individual,
internal goal of each creative person, on the blackboard at last."
other words, rules are tools, they're not supposed to constrain
you. And they don't really make any sense until you have something to say first. When
you have a purpose, when you have your own internal goal then the rules become a helpful
guide, a helpful aid, then they make sense. The students discovered this on their own. Well,
not completely on their own. But he began to wonder why it worked. And he soon realised
that this was no small gimmick. That he inadvertently stumbled onto something pretty big
which brought on further Philosophical speculation. The, second wave of his crystallization,
as he calls it, his Metaphysical wave, remember that concentric circle, that
image? Quality at the centre. He was working his way out - beyond rhetoric now.
was brought about in response to Phædrus's wildest... (he
refers to himself as Phædrus by the way, it's just the dramatic structure of the book; the
narrator talks about his former self as if he were a different person). This was brought about in
response to Phædrus's wild meanderings about Quality. When the English faculty at Bozeman,
informed of their squareness, presented him with a reasonable
this undefined 'Quality' of yours exist in the things we
observe?' they asked. "Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?'"
was a simple, normal enough question and there was no hurry
for an answer.
"Ha" he writes:
was no need for hurry. It was a finisher-offer, a knockdown
question, a haymaker, a Saturday-night special... the kind you don't recover from.
if Quality exists in the object, then you must explain just
why scientific instruments are unable to detect it. You must suggest instruments that will
detect it, or live with the explanation that instruments don't detect it because your whole Quality
concept, to put it politely, is a large pile of nonsense.
the other hand, if Quality is subjective, existing only
in the observer, then this Quality that you make so much of is just a fancy name for whatever you
Phædrus had been presented with by the faculty of the English
Department of Montana State College was an ancient logical construct known as
a dilemma. A dilemma, which is Greek for "two premises," has been likened to the front
end of an angry and charging bull.
he accepted the premise that Quality was objective, he was
impaled on one horn of the dilemma. If he accepted the other premise, that Quality
was subjective, he was impaled on the
other horn. Either Quality is objective or subjective, therefore
he was impaled no matter how he answered...
knife of subjectivity-and-objectivity had cut Quality in
two and killed it as a working concept. If he was going to save it, he couldn't let that knife get
it." This is what brings him to philosophical and metaphysical issues.
really" he continues, "the
Quality he was talking about wasn't classic Quality or romantic
Quality. It was beyond both of them. And by God, it wasn't
subjective or objective either, it was beyond both of those
categories. Actually this whole dilemma of subjectivity-objectivity,
of mind-matter, with relationship
to Quality was unfair. That mind-matter relationship has
been an intellectual hang up for centuries. They were just putting that hang-up on top
of Quality to drag Quality down. How could he say whether Quality was mind or matter when
there was no logical clarity as to what was mind and what was matter in the first place?
so: he rejected the left horn. Quality is not objective,
he said. It doesn't reside in the material world.
he rejected the right horn. Quality is not subjective, he
said. It doesn't reside merely in the mind.
finally, Phædrus, following a path that to his knowledge
had never been taken before in the history of Western thought, went straight between the horns
of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and said that Quality is neither a part of mind, nor
is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two."
here he is telling us that it isn't known of anybody coming
to this conclusion that there's something that isn't subject or object, that is neither.
But, James had already said something very similar.
the primary empirical reality, is what William James is
gonna call, pure experience. They mean the same thing. Quality is the primary empirical
reality - pure experience. In Northrop's jargon it's called the 'undifferentiated aesthetic
continuum' - which is quite a mouthful.
the essay of William James called 'Does Consciousness Exist?'
instant field of the present is at all times what I call
'pure' experience. It is only virtually or potentially either object or a subject as yet. For the time
being, it is plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that. In this naive immediacy it
is of course valid; it is there, we act upon it; and the doubling of it in retrospection into a state
of mind and a reality intended thereby, is just one of the acts. One of the acts of consciousness."
can see here. He's already suggesting, that subjects and
objects are concepts - ways to interpret reality, rather than the way the world is inherently
carved up. The same idea in Pirsig's words,
felt that at the moment of pure Quality perception, or not
even perception, at the moment of pure Quality, there is no subject and there is
no object. There is only a sense of Quality that produces a later awareness of subjects and
objects. At the moment of pure Quality, subject and object are identical. This is the 'tat
tvam asi' truth of the Upanishads, but it's also reflected in modern street argot. 'Getting with
it,' 'digging it,' 'grooving on it'
are all slang reflections of this identity. It is this identity that is
the basis of craftsmanship in all the technical arts. And it is this identity that modern, dualistically
conceived technology lacks."
they're both talking about this cutting edge of experience.
What Pirsig is calling the primary empirical reality and what James is calling pure experience, is at the cutting
edge, at the front edge of every moment of experience. And this is, this is, sort of everything
all at once. The total situation. This is the first thing that come up and then conceptually
we start to interpret and carve things up into the terms that we all use in our language - in our
thought categories. For that, for things that are sorted by the mind. It just comes in as
a whole. This is pure experience. This is, the primary empirical reality. Primary in the sense
that it's not only first, but primary in the sense that it's the most basic. It's not yet differentiated.
It's not yet carved up. Pirsig writes:
"This Copernican inversion of the relationship of Quality
to the objective world could sound mysterious if not carefully explained, but he didn't mean
it to be mysterious. He simply meant that at the cutting edge of time, before an object can be
distinguished, there must be a kind of non-intellectual awareness, which he called awareness of
Quality. You can't be aware that you've seen a tree until after you've seen the tree, and
between the instant of vision and instant of awareness there must be a time lag. We sometimes think
of that time lag as unimportant, But there's no justification for thinking that the time lag
is unimportant... none whatsoever. The past exists only in our memories. The future exists
only in our plans. The present, is our only reality."
hear a little Zen in that, don't you?
present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware
of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always
unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality
is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality.
This pre-intellectual reality is what Phædrus felt he had properly identified as Quality. Since
all intellectually identifiable things
must emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality
is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects."
should qualify that. In LILA, he's not gonna say that concepts,
the concept of the tree that comes after you've seen the tree. That's not unreal. It's
distinguished from the pre-conceptual reality. And it's a different, well, one's pre-conceptual
and one's conceptual. In LILA he's gonna call that 'static intellectual quality'. And he has a whole
hierarchy of static quality. These are the things that are known. These are the static patterns
or the, what we think with and talk with.
James writes in A World of Pure Experience:
one moment of it proliferates into the next by transitions
which, whether conjunctive or disjunctive, continue the experiential tissue, cannot, I
contend, be denied. Life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected; often, indeed,
it seems to be there more emphatically, as if our spurts and sallies forward were
the real firing-line of the battle, we're like the thin line of flame advancing across the dry autumnal
field which the farmer proceeds to burn. In this line we live prospectively as well as retrospectively.
It is 'of' the past, inasmuch as it comes expressly as the past's continuation; it is 'of'
the future in so far as the future, when it comes, will have continued it."
and sally forward. Elsewhere... William James talks about, perches and
flights. Like a bird. Rests on a branch. Perches and Flights.
And he's convinced that it's the spurts, the sallies, the flights, where life is really
lived. Not in those resting places. Those concepts, that we sort of rest in.
and Dynamic. In fact, Pirsig would discover, between the
writing of his two books, that William James at the very end of his career adopted exactly
that terminology: 'Static and Dynamic'. Another remarkable co-incidence.
also writes, and this one is, this one is, at least in part, quoted in LILA:
experience' is the name which I give to the immediate flux
of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories.
(An important qualification here):
Only new-born babes, or men in
semi-coma from sleep, drugs, illnesses, or blows, may be
assumed to have an experience pure in the literal sense of that which is not yet any definite
what, tho ready to be all sorts of what; full both of oneness and of manyness, but in respects that
don't appear; changing throughout, yet so confusedly that its phases interpenetrate and no
points, either of distinction or of
identity, can be caught. Pure experience in this state is
but another name for feeling or sensation. But the flux of it no sooner comes than it tends
to fill itself with emphases, and these salient parts become identified and fixed and abstracted;
so that experience now flows as if shot through with adjectives and nouns and prepositions
and conjunctions. Its purity is only a relative term, meaning the proportional amount of unverbalized
sensation which it still embodies.
here he is saying that pure experience is never had straight
up. Perhaps by a master meditator or something like that. Instead it's always going
to be mixed with those static patterns. Because he says 'soon fills itself up with
all kinds of adjectives and nouns.' And I think Pirsig expresses the same idea in Zen and the
he, he uses a moving train as an analogy,
one hundred and twenty boxcars long. It's a train moving
across the praire. And he says that our static concepts, the static patterns of
are the engine, and the boxcars and all the cargo that's in the boxcars, and Dynamic Quality
that primary empirical reality or pure experience as James calls it, that's at the very front
edge of that moving train. And, of course, it's not really a train unless the whole thing is
moving. So even the static patterns in
themselves are sort of constantly in a flow; a constant
flow of continuous experience. And the boxcars are basically full of all the places where that
train has already been; it's full of static patterns, from the past. And those static patterns guide
us into the future. So you can never have pure Dynamic Quality. Otherwise nothing would last.
Nothing could persist. It would be pure chaos. On the other hand he can't have just static
patterns because without Dynamic Quality you can't ever change or grow or evolve. And so
they're both completely necessary to the process of living. Pirsig writes:
the leading edge of reality, is no longer an irrelevant
offshoot of structure. Value is the predecessor of structure. It's the pre-intellectual awareness
that gives rise to it. Our structured
reality is pre-selected on the basis of value, and really
to understand structured reality requires
an understanding of the value source from which it's derived."
isn't static any more", he says.
not a set of ideas you have to either fight or resign yourself
to. It's made up, in part, of ideas that are expected to grow as you grow, and as we all
grow, century after century. With Quality as a central undefined term, reality is, in its
essential nature, not static but dynamic. And when you really understand dynamic reality you never get
stuck. It has forms but the forms are capable of change.
put it in more concrete terms: If you want to build a factory,
or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured,
dualistic subject-object knowledge, although necessary, isn't enough. You have to
have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what's good. That
is what carries you forward. This sense isn't just something you're born with, although you
are born with it. It's also something you can develop. It's not just intuition, not just unexplainable
skill or talent. It's the direct result of contact with basic reality, Quality, which dualistic
reason has in the past tended to conceal."
I think what you see in this quote a philosophical version
of exactly the same thing that happened in the rhetoric class. It's not a set of ideas
you have to either fight or resign yourself to. Just like the rules! Rules aren't something
you have to follow by rote, they're there to help you. Again, rules are tools. Or as Ralph Waldo
Emerson once said: "Man should not be subdued by his instruments."
said this to American scholars. Calling on them to be original.
To say something fresh. To look with fresh eyes and be original. Man should not be
subdued by his instruments.
are just tools for getting Quality. This is true in, English
composition as well as philosophy as
well as science. As well as fixing a motorcycle. Oops, I
almost got through the whole thing without mentioning motorcycles!
last thing I should mention is that, in LILA, static quality
is further divided. This is when the full fledged Metaphysics of Quality is sort of all laid
out. And just like James's, parameters. This is not a claim about how the world really is. It's
just a method. It's just a way to think about things. But, it is based on, what is knowable
to our science now. He bases it on the theory of evolution so
that you have an inorganic reality. This is material reality.
The stuff that physics studies. Then there's the - organic level of reality : organic static
quality. And this is life. Obviously. Distinctly different. Life in rocks are noticeably different.
On top of this biological level you have a social level. And this includes all cultures that
have ever been. All the rules are in our culture you'll notice a lot of them have to do with controlling
or modifying or taming the biological
appetites. Who's allowed to eat what. Who's allowed to procreate
with who. That sort of thing. Checks on violence. All the sort of instincts
that Freud talked about. The social level puts a harness on that which is ironically liberating.
then, finally, beyond those three. There's the intellectual
level. This is where philosophy and science are and how all of these things take place.
he wants to create this sort of moral hierarchy. What trumps
what when these things come into conflict. Intellectual values over here, and you
have social values over here. And when they conflict. What do you do?
Robert Pirsig says intellectual values are more evolved.
More Dynamic, therefore, more moral. And so he sort of gives us, a generally orienting
moral compass. But not any hard and fast rules. But just sort of a basic orientation. And you'll
hear a lot of him talking about that. In terms of Oxford! Robert Pirsig would analyse Oxford University
in terms of these four levels of static quality.
distinction between social and intellectual... does seem to
be the most difficult, the most contentious. People argue about that. Which is which,
because they're defending something. They have an axe to grind. So that I guess the
details of that remain to be worked out. That's the end of my talk.
The MOQ at Oxford DVD
third DVD in the authorized series about Robert Pirsig's
life and work. It features him in the three films
specially made for the last year's MOQ Study Day at Oxford
University together with the lecture (transcribed above)
that David Buchanan presented on the day. This
is Pirsig's recent assessment of the compilation:
We have just watched your film and think
it’s exceptionally professional. No one else could have
done it because they wouldn’t have known what to select
and what to leave out the way you do. I
think it will have a long life. There
is no doubt about its Quality.
DVD is priced at $25/£16
note that the copyright of this paper remains with the
author who need to be contacted directly for permission to
use this material elsewhere.
“Fun with Blasphemy”
can also be found on this website
and his paper
“Clash of the Pragmatists”