Robert Pirsig and his bike [click to enlarge]


TThe MOQ Shop



Papers on this website:

Inspirationality Essay-Part 1

Inspirationality Essay-Part 2

Inspirationality Essay-Part 3

Selections from the 1993 AHP transcript by Paul Turner 

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 1

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 2

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 3

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 4

David Granger's Aesthetics Paper

Evolution, Time & Order Paper

David Buchanan's Oxford Lecture

PhD Commentary

An Open Letter to Sam Harris

Art & the MOQ by Robert Pirsig

An Introduction to
 Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

An MOQ Summary by Robert Pirsig

An MOQ Overview by Robert Pirsig

AnDavid Buchanan's Art & Morality Paper

Pirsig Annotations on Copleston

Gavin Gee-Clough's "Brisbane Winter" Paper 


Sneddon Thesis

- Part One


Sneddon Thesis - Part Two

David Buchanan's 2006 Paper

Observer Interview

Notes on the tetralemma

The MOQ & Time

The MOQ & Education

Pirsig & Pragmatism

Chai at the Lazy Lounge


MOQ Conference Papers:

Robert Pirsig's Welcome Speech

Dr McWatt's Handout

Henry Gurr's Handout

Ian Glendinning's Paper

David Buchanan's Paper

Mati Palm-Leis's Paper

Gavin Gee-Clough's Paper

Khoo Hock Aun's Paper













An Introduction to Robert Pirsig’s
Metaphysics of Quality

by Dr Anthony McWatt

At a 1998 presentation in London for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Professor Harry Kroto unexpectedly spent his time elucidating the merits of meccano instead of discussing his recent Nobel award winning discovery of Carbon 60.  His argument being that students require tactile experience to know when to stop tightening a screw and computer use alone doesn’t teach this. When asked at the end of the lecture, whether he had read Robert Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM), Kroto replied: ‘Yes, and that’s what it’s all about!’ 

Conversely, in a 1991 review for Pirsig’s second book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (LILA), Dan Cryer of the New York Newsday remarked:  ‘Like he village crank hanging out at the public library, the guy really believes he has discovered the secret of the universe’. 

Which view is true?

I doubt Pirsig has discovered the secret of the universe... However, the writer of the so-called cult classic Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) has formulated a new metaphysics from the ground-up that may yet prove to be a useful one. This is the “Metaphysics of Quality” (MOQ).

How does the MOQ relate to ZMM?

Not too much, actually. ZMM is aimed towards the general reader of philosophy while the MOQ was not introduced until Pirsig’s second book LILA. The latter is more academic in tone. The MOQ stands alone without narrative support and should be taken as a metaphysics that stands or falls on its own merits. This website is largely concerned with the latter not with biographical gossip.

So ZMM is totally irrelevant to the MOQ?

No, that’s not quite accurate either. ZMM can be construed as Pirsig’s search for an understanding of what is meant by value (or what he terms “Quality”). This interest originated from his tenure as an English teacher at Montana State College in the late 1950s. At Montana, he was under legal contract to teach “quality” even though it was not defined by the college authorities. Consequently, with encouragement from a senior colleague, Pirsig became interested in finding an explicit definition or understanding of what Quality is.

In ZMM, therefore, the reader follows Pirsig’s search in achieving such an understanding. In LILA, this understanding is developed into principles from which a holistic paradigm termed the “Metaphysics of Quality” is deduced. His two works, therefore, fit together as one, though ZMM is more mystical and LILA more metaphysical.

So how does the MOQ relate to previous philosophy?

The MOQ can be seen as a (not the) completion of Nietzsche’s project concerning the trans-valuation of values i.e. a complete re-evaluation of western values on more humanistic grounds rather than theistic ones. There is no evidence that Nietzsche would have followed Pirsig’s particular path though the fact it took Pirsig about thirty years to write the MOQ does provide some explanation as to why Nietzsche failed to complete such a project himself.

Within the MOQ, Pirsig incorporates elements of William James’s pragmatism and radical empiricism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, evolutionary theory and the work of F.S.C. Northrop (Sterling Professor Emeritus of Philosophy & Law at Yale University). Northrop was mainly concerned with reconciling the different values of the East and West in the interests of world peace. This reconciliation of East Asian and Western values is also a theme running through Pirsig’s two books.

So what do you think is original, if anything, in the MOQ?

Pirsig builds his metaphysical system on the postulation that everything is a type of value. In addition, the MOQ uses cosmological evolution as a basis for a metaphysical system. Pirsig does this in an attempt to remove the cultural subjectivity inherent in many social and intellectual values i.e. he is attempting to place morals on a more rational and impartial foundation.

Where did this idea of evolution as a basis in the MOQ come from?

Though it appears that cosmological evolution was first postulated in the 19th century, if not earlier, Pirsig’s explains his particular use of evolution thus:

“I didn’t get the idea that the MOQ is an evolutionary theory of value patterns from anybody. It just arrived Dynamically one day the way a good chess move arrives Dynamically. There was probably some stream of consciousness, a series of intellectual jigsaw puzzle pieces that didn’t fit anything and were immediately forgotten, when among them appeared this puzzle piece which fit everything. It seemed of higher quality than anything I had thought before on the subject and so became incorporated into the static pattern of the MOQ.” (Letter to Anthony McWatt, August 17th 1997.)

So is Pirsig’s philosophy “what it’s all about!” or is the MOQ the idea of just another “village crank hanging out at the public library” after all?

One of the purposes of this website is to assist the reader in making their own judgement concerning the value of Pirsig’s work. For you to do this, please refer to the menu on the left which details a number of papers. Many of these were written specifically for the July 2005 MOQ Conference though the oldest one (on pragmatism) dates back to 1994. In the meantime, I leave the last word with Pirsig himself:

“The hardest thing for me to deal with since the publication of Lila has been the complete disbelief of many that quality is or can be anything real… The solution to this cultural resistance to the MOQ may come from the Orient where quality is a central reality. But there the problem is reversed. A famous Japanese Zen Master [Dainin Kategiri Roshi] who read ZMM told me he thought it was a nice book but he didn’t see anything unusual in it. He was quite puzzled at its success. Another Japanese tourist to America said, ‘This book is not interesting to Japanese people because we already know all of this.’ Schopenhauer said that truth is that short interval between the time an idea is a heresy and the time it is a platitude, but the MOQ has managed to be both a heresy and a platitude simultaneously, depending on which culture you view it from.” (Letter to Anthony McWatt, December 24th 1995)



A brief summary of the Metaphysics of Quality

by Robert Pirsig


October 2005


The Metaphysics of Quality, or MOQ, is simply a philosophic answer to the question of what is Quality, or worth, or merit, or value, or betterness or any of the other synonyms for good. There are many possible answers but the one the MOQ gives is that you can understand Quality best if you don't subordinate it to anything else but instead subordinate everything else to it.


[The MOQ] says there are two basic kinds of Quality, an undefined Quality called Dynamic Quality, and a defined quality called static quality. Static quality is further divided into four evolutionary divisions: inorganic, biological, social and intellectual. Our entire understanding of the world can be organized within this framework [a graphic interpretation of this has been kindly provided above by David Thomas]. When you do so things fall into place that were poorly defined before, and new things appear that were concealed under previous frameworks of understanding. The MOQ is not intended to deny previous modes of understanding as much as to expand them into a more inclusive picture of what it's all about.


The “Quality” of the Metaphysics of Quality is not a basic substance, or anything like it. The Buddhists call it “nothingness” precisely to avoid that kind of intellectual characterization. Once you start to define Quality as a basic substance you are off on a completely different path from the MOQ.


I'm not original on this point, except to identify Quality with the Tao and with Buddha-nature (hence the title of ZMM). The amount of material on these two would overflow most library rooms, but it is essential to both that the basic constituent of the universe is nothingness, and by this is meant not empty space but “no-thingness.” It is somewhat incorrect to call “no-thingness” a basic constituent since it is not really even that, (it is not even an it) but in an everyday philosophic “finger-pointing-toward-the-moon” discourse that's about as good as you can get. It is very incorrect to call it a substance in the way that substance is usually meant today.


As to which is more important, Dynamic or static, both are absolutely essential, even when they are in conflict. As stated in LILA, without Dynamic Quality an organism cannot grow. But without static quality an organism cannot last. Dynamic liberals and radicals need conservatives to keep them from making a mess of the world through unneeded change. Conservatives also need liberals and radicals to keep them from making a mess of the world through unneeded stagnation. This also holds true for philosophy. My feeling is that subject-object way of interpreting the world is stagnant and inadequate for our time, but without that base of subject-object understanding to build from, the Metaphysics of Quality, by itself, has no value either.


The Metaphysics of Quality itself is static and should be separated from the Dynamic Quality it talks about. Like the rest of the printed philosophic tradition it doesn't change from day to day, although the world it talks about does. To use an Oriental metaphor, it is just another finger pointing toward the moon. The static language of the Metaphysics of Quality will never capture the Dynamic reality of the world but some fingers point better than others and as the world changes, old pointers and road maps tend to lose their value. Religious orthodoxy is composed of old pointers. Classical science is now an old road map, and modern science keeps looking for new ones. It is this looking for new pointers, not the pointer itself, that is the essence of Dynamic philosophy. What is meant by Dynamic philosophy was explained best in my introduction to “LILA's Child”.


The Metaphysics of Quality is not intended to be within any philosophic tradition, although obviously it was not written in a vacuum. My first awareness that it resembled James' work came from a magazine review long after “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was published. The Metaphysics of Quality's central idea that the world is nothing but value is not part of any philosophic tradition that I know of. I have proposed it because it seems to me that when you look into it carefully it makes more sense than all the other things the world is supposed to be composed of. One particular strength lies in its applicability to quantum physics, where substance has been dismissed but nothing except arcane mathematical formulae has really replaced it.  


During the writing of the MOQ a long search was made through an encyclopedia of philosophy to see if the MOQ was repeating what someone else had said. And this was so stated in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. None of the traditional European philosophers seemed to match in any close way. The closest finds were Plotinus, Lao Tsu, and Professor F.S.C. Northrop of Yale University.  These similarities have been acknowledged many times.


If you follow the development of the Metaphysics of Quality as it is explained in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” you see that it did not start with the question, “What is the best alternative to subject-object metaphysics?” It started with the question of “What is quality?” A question was then asked, “Is quality in the subject or in the object?” The answer was, “Neither one. It is independent of the two and is the source of the two.” Given this answer there was no need to shop around for other alternatives to subject-object distinction, since that was never the original question. And in fact the Metaphysics of Quality actually supports the subject-object distinction as a subordinate part of its own structure.


Using a starting line of reasoning to determine what questions are ultimately asked can be described as, “sticking to the subject.” Ultimate questions and ultimate alternatives are never found. Questions and alternatives go on and on, and one can wander endlessly among them. Even if it were possible to know what they all are it would certainly be impossible to include them in a single book. The website has been quite exhaustive in searching for these questions and alternatives. Anyone who has a new question or alternative has a standing invitation to place it there.


I also have a concern of my own. This is the concern that philosophers, instead of coming to grips with the philosophy at hand, sometimes dismiss it by saying, “Oh he is saying the same as someone else,” or “someone else has said it much better.” This is the latter half of the well known conservative argument that some new idea is (a) no good because it hasn't been heard before or (b) it is no good because it has been heard before. If, as has been noted by R.C. Zaehner, once the Oxford University Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, I am saying the same thing as Aristotle; and if, as has been noted in the Harvard Educational Review, I am saying the same thing as William James; and if as has been noted now that I may be saying the same thing as Spinoza: then why has no one ever noticed that Aristotle and Spinoza and William James are all saying the same thing?


This kind of commentary has a parallel in literary criticism where various authors are compared to one another in an easy way without any serious attempt to fathom what any of them are really saying. So, if Hemingway says death is a terrible thing, why then Hemingway is saying the same thing as Shakespeare! What a discovery! And Shakespeare has said it so much better. Who needs to read Hemingway?


The division between authors and literary critics throws light on this subject. The author is a creator and the critic is a judge. Literary critics normally do not pretend they are authors when they judge a book, but philosophologists do pretend they are philosophers when they judge someone else's philosophy. The best of literary critics know that an author has to work alone and not go around showing his manuscript to everybody, because his source is not what everyone else has said. He has to be out there finding things where nobody has gone before. Because philosophologists think of themselves as philosophers they do not understand that a real philosopher is not doing the same thing they are, and should not be doing the same thing they are if he wants to come up with genuine philosophy, and not just more of the usual repetition and dissection of old ideas.


While “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is a skeleton of a philosophy enclosed within a full-bodied novel, LILA is a skeleton of a novel enclosed within a full-bodied philosophy. Since many more people read novels than philosophy books, this also explains the lower sales. But you can't really call a book that has had six weeks on the New York Times best seller list, rave reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post along others, and sold more than six hundred thousand copies with royalties to match, to be a much of a failure, especially for a book that is primarily about philosophy.


Still it does bother me that LILA is not as successful as it should be among academic philosophers. In my opinion it's a much more important book than “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” My feeling is like that of someone trying to sell five-dollar bills for two dollars apiece and hardly making a sale. Readers of LILA are naturally leery because they're not used to the idea of a Metaphysics of Quality, but I think that if they eventually understand what is being offered, there will be a change of mind.




* This term, philosophology, is one I find myself using all the time to make a point that most academic philosophers seem unaware of: that when they speak of the ideas of such famous philosophers as Plato or Hegel they are giving us a history of philosophy, an ‘ology' of philosophy, not philosophy itself. Philosophy itself is opinions of the speaker himself about the general nature of the world, not just a classification someone else's opinions.


This may seem a minor point but I remember hearing many years ago how a professor of art, Jerry Liebling, was outraged when he heard that an Art Historian told one of his students that he should give up painting because it was obvious the student would never equal the great masters. At the time I didn't see what Liebling was so upset about but as the years have gone by I understand it better. Liebling loathed this attitude of Art Historians because, while they thought they were preserving the standards of art, they were in fact destroying them. Art is not just the static achievements of the masters of the past. Art is the creative Dynamic Quality of the artist of the present. Neither is philosophy just the static achievements of the masters of the past. Philosophy is the creative Dynamic Quality of the philosopher of the present.


There are similarities to chess. Both are highly intellectual pursuits in which one tries to manipulate symbols within a set of rules to improve a given situation. In chess one can benefit greatly by studying the games of the masters. In philosophy one can also benefit greatly by studying the writings of the great philosophers. But the important point here is that studying chess masters is not chess itself and studying philosophy masters is not philosophy itself.


The real chess is the game you play with your neighbor. Real chess is 'muddling through.' Real chess is the triumph of mental organization over complex experience. And so is real philosophy.




To read the very first Ph.D. thesis on the Metaphysics of Quality!, please press on the following link:






I would like to thank Robert Pirsig, Wendy Pirsig, Stephen Mills, Dean Summers, Greg Alvord, Andre Broersen, Paul Turner and the many other contributors for providing their permission to publish their papers here. Also many thanks to Dave Thomas for his colourful MOQ diagram which you can see above.

Dr Anthony McWatt
(site administrator)

Please note that the copyright of these papers remains with the authors who need to be contacted directly for permission to use this material elsewhere. 

Audio clip of Robert Pirsig discussing Dynamic Quality:
Copyright 1993 Robert Pirsig & The Association of Humanistic Psychology. 

The complete discussion "The Metaphysics of Quality: A New Paradigm" between Robert Pirsig & Chip Baggett can be purchased at the following website: