by John L. McConnell
written in 1990
"The study of the art of [software]
maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of
rationality itself. Working
on a [program], working well, caring, is to become part of
a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind.
The [program] is primarily a mental phenomenon...
The real [software] you're working on is a [program]
(Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
In the mid 1950's, an obscure teacher of rhetoric
at an obscure college in
was challenged by a colleague with the question:
"Are you teaching quality to your
that question began an epic personal search for the
meaning of quality and the roots of rationality itself.
The outcome of that momentous search was the
development of perhaps the most profound and significant
philosophical achievement of the 20th century.
Through his heroic efforts, Robert Pirsig has led
the way to an enhancement of the metaphysical foundation
of the very processes of rational thought upon which the
entire mythos of
Western civilization is based.
Today, our civilization finds itself in the throes
of that same quest on a global scale.
Individuals and corporations struggle to find
definitions and rationalizations for things we formerly
We sense that neither our definitions nor our
intuitions are adequate for our survival.
Our paradigms shift from moment to moment under our
feet; the rubric of our metaphysics melts and slurs upon
our lips even as we attempt to recapture it by reciting
Let us retrace Robert Pirsig's steps and see if
perchance his insights may lead us to the threshold of our
own answers for our institutions and for ourselves.
The entire account is recorded in Pirsig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and its follow-up Lila:
An Inquiry into Morals.
These books are required reading if you care
seriously about the pursuit of quality in your life.
My fondest hope for this monograph is that it might
by some means persuade you to read these originals.
The Quest for Quality
It all started with Sarah.
You can just picture Sarah: grey hair pulled back,
tied in a bun; bifocals perched on her nose; watering pot
in hand; surely an English teacher; certainly approaching
hope you are teaching Quality
to your students!" she chirps as she trots past his
office door. Professor Pirsig, absorbed in lecture
preparations, glances up questioningly.
A few days later, she calls out in passing, "Are
you really teaching Quality
"Definitely!" Professor Pirsig insists;
Sarah trots on. Of
course he is teaching quality.
Isn't that what rhetoric is all about?
Good writing, quality of writing; isn't that the
The next time Sarah waters her plants, she stops at
his door. Smiling
sweetly, she enthuses, "I'm so happy
you're teaching Quality
this quarter. Hardly
anybody is these
am," Pirsig affirms.
"I'm definitely making a point of it."
"Good!" Sarah chirps and scurries off.
Sarah's persistent challenge nagged at Pirsig.
He first felt vague but mounting discomfort.
He then began to examine the question seriously and
his consternation, he seemed unable to discover a
satisfactory definition for quality.
This impasse of definition disturbed him profoundly.
If he didn't know what quality was, how could he
presume to teach quality of writing to his students?
Still, he could not escape a conviction that he
really did know what quality was, despite the fact that he
couldn't define it. But
if you can't define a thing, so the inner argument went, you
don't really know what it is. You
aren't even sure that it exists!
He became so obsessed with this paradox that he could
think of nothing else. He
came to the next session of his rhetoric class completely
unprepared to lecture. He
simply wrote on the board:
"Write a 350-word essay answering the question,
‘What is quality
in thought and statement?’"
No one finished during the hour.
During the two days that followed, the students'
frustration and exasperation intensified with every attempt
to complete this intractable assignment.
At the next meeting of the class Pirsig found himself
confronted with a groundswell of hostility and outrage.
But the animosity began to subside into disbelief and
bewilderment when Pirsig insisted that he, too, had no
answer. It was
an honest inquiry, and he had hoped that they might be able
to offer some insights.
A few classroom exercises convinced the students, and
Pirsig, that quality could be recognized, even if it
couldn't be defined. From
these exercises--and from further reflection--Pirsig
distilled the following "undefinition" of Quality:
is a characteristic of thought and statement that is
recognized by a nonthinking process.
Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal
thinking, Quality cannot be defined."
In following Pirsig's development of the concept of
Quality, it is critical to adhere to his characterization of
it and to his insistence that it remain undefined.
By his refusal to define Quality, Pirsig places
Quality entirely outside the bounds of the analytical
process, making it insubordinate to any intellectual rule.
The first question Pirsig had to confront was that
relentless one that had nagged him from the outset:
If you can't define Quality, how do you know that it
personal answer was, "Because you can perceive it and
recognize it." His
classroom answer was based on the philosophical argument
that a thing exists if a world without it cannot function
discussions in which various fields of endeavor were
examined in terms of the hypothetical absence of quality
demonstrated beyond doubt the existence of quality.
Surprisingly, the pursuits least affected by the
subtraction of quality were the most highly intellectual
science, mathematics, philosophy, and logic.
"If quality were dropped, only rationality would
That observation turned out to be pivotal, although
subsequent results would show that even the purely
intellectual disciplines, as actually practiced, would
suffer profoundly from the absence of quality.
The next great challenge arose in the form of a
seemingly reasonable question posed by members of the
English faculty: "Does
this undefined 'quality' exist in the things we observe, or
is it subjective, existing only in the observer?"
Upon closer examination, this seemingly innocuous
question was found to disguise an insidious dilemma.
If quality is a property of the thing observed, why
can't it be detected, measured, or even agreed upon by all
rational observers? If
it is subjective, existing only in the observer, then it's
"just a fancy name for whatever you like" and has
no logical or philosophical value.
Pirsig's mental play-out of several possible
refutations for each "horn" of this dilemma, and
his eventual rejection of each of them, is exciting to read;
unfortunately, the details of it exceed the scope of our
current context. The
outcome of it was a bold decision to drive his thrust of
analysis squarely between the two horns.
It was this courageous stroke that opened new and
significant avenues. The
Quality Pirsig was talking about was not in the object, he
insisted, nor was it in the mind of the observer.
It is not mind or matter, subject or object.
Instead, it is a third
entity, independent of the other two, or more properly,
independent of the distinction between them.
In a subsequent refinement of this
"Trinity" concept, Pirsig concluded that Quality
could not be independently related to either subject or
object. It is
found only in the relationship of the two; it is the event
of subjective awareness
of object. Thus,
Quality is not the result
of subjects or objects, he argues; nor is it even the result
of the encounter between them.
The event of Quality, he affirms, is the cause
from which the very existence of subjects and objects is
is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon
us to create the world in which we live.
All of it. Every last bit of it."
Stalking the "Ghost of Reason"
In the mid 1950’s I was enrolled in a science
curriculum at a large university. Early in the course of my
studies I began to be increasingly aware of a vague feeling
of "wrongness" in the scientific process.
Only certain perceptions, of certain people, were
valid or "admissible evidence."
Vast areas of human experience were unaddressed by
science or were even denied scientific validity.
In fact, the most renowned members of the scientific
community at my university went even further by denying rational
validity to any experience or concept that lacked scientific
validity. To my
young mind then (and to my old mind now) such attitudes
manifest some dark essential flaw at the heart of science.
It imparted to me a sense of "ill" or
"disease" at the roots of rational thought.
Those experiences impelled me to begin my personal
search for the constitutional defect in rational thought as
we know it.
In the mid 1940's Robert Pirsig was a brilliant and
promising student of science at a major university.
In the progress of his studies Pirsig, too, sensed a
fundamental "ugliness" at the core of rationality.
This sensation first arose from his discovery of a
disastrous logical inconsistency in the scientific method as
it is taught. It
is instructive for our purposes to follow the sequence which
led to that discovery.
At first, Pirsig eagerly learned and practiced the
time-honored steps which we all learned in some form as the
and record observations.
a hypothesis to explain the observations.
an experiment to test the hypothesis.
the conditions under which the hypothesis will be confirmed
the experiment, and record the results.
Pirsig was struck by the appearance of a singularly
"mysterious" step in the midst of this orderly
a hypothesis. No
one can tell you how to "discover" a hypothesis;
there is no "rationale"
for it. You just
do it, it seems.
Even Einstein had written, "There is no logical
path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can
reach them..." Intuition?
How glaringly nonrational!!
Pirsig became intensely interested in hypotheses
themselves as objects of inquiry.
Incredibly, what would appear to be the most
difficult step--the formation of hypotheses--turned out to
be the easiest step of the scientific method.
Indeed, Pirsig soon discovered, to his further
amazement, that with continued testing the number of
hypotheses to explain a given observations actually increases
instead of decreasing. In
fact, he coined a law, stated at first with tongue-in-cheek
but then with sober consternation:
"The number of rational hypotheses that can
explain any given phenomenon is infinite."
(Much later, he found this law presaged in the
writings of the 19th century French mathematician and
philosopher, Henri Poincaré.)
With mounting dismay Pirsig saw that the life span of
a scientific "truth" is inversely related to the
intensity of scientific effort.
The greater the scientific activity, the faster new
hypotheses arise to challenge and often replace the existing
accepted ones. So
instead of converging upon a unified view of reality,
scientific method creates an increasingly ephemeral model of
reality that becomes too unstable for civilization to anchor
its collective intuition upon.
These observations constituted for Pirsig a
"catastrophic logical disproof of the general validity
of all scientific method."
In the late 1960's and early 1970's when Pirsig was writing this
remarkable personal history, the counter-culture of the
"hippies" was flourishing.
The revolutionaries sought to escape the ugliness
which they perceived as arising from "traditional"
values--materialism, intellectualism, technology.
Down with "progress!"
Down with "The System!"
The only reality is now.
The only values are inner ones.
"Tune in, turn on, drop out!"
Pirsig recognized that the social chaos of his time
(and ours) was the product of the very process that was
supposed to eliminate chaos.
The rational thought process, epitomized in the
scientific method, had succeeded so well that it had become
the only mode of thought generally available; it had become
the mythos at the very heart of our civilization, and now it was
collapsing under its own weight.
The cause of this crisis, Pirsig asserted, was a
"genetic defect within the nature of reason
set out to find it and eradicate it.
Pirsig and I arrived, by different routes, at
complementary diagnoses of the "illness" of
search led through explorations of the works of the
"great" philosophers throughout history.
The trail led inevitably to the philosophers of
. Among their
works Pirsig observed the development of a small number of
Parmenides, he found, typified the group of thinkers
They believed in an Immortal Principle which is
separate from, and independent of, appearances and opinions.
Here we find the seed of the metaphysical principal
of "ontological dualism"
which has dominated scientific thought to the present time.
Here also Pirsig saw the origin of the conceptual
division of the True from the Good.
The cosmologists were later opposed by the Sophists,
who were committed to the improvement of people.
They believed that principles and truths are
is the measure of all things."
Foremost in their teaching was the idea of arete,
which is commonly translated as "virtue" but is
more accurately rendered as "excellence".
Understood in terms of arete,
the Sophists were not teaching that man is the source
of all things, nor did they affirm on the other hand that he
is merely a passive observer.
Instead, he is the "measure of all things",
a participant, a co-creator.
Pirsig recognized in arete the equivalent of the Hindu dharma and in both the
earliest known analogues of his Quality.
Clearly, it was known and recognized and experienced
long before Analysis, the "weapon" of rationality,
had cloven the world into the dualism of form-substance,
The champion who arose to challenge the Sophists was
none other than Plato, who through his writings made his
master Socrates the Father of rational thought for all
Plato hated and vilified the Sophists because he saw
them and their teachings of the relativity of truth as the
arch enemies of the ideal of Eternal Truth.
His error was to confuse "truth"
(lower-case) with "Truth" (upper-case).
The "truth" whose relativity the Sophists
taught was the equivalent of "knowledge", or
intellectual truth, while arete
was all along exactly the permanent Truth to which Plato
He regarded arete
highly, but his response to it was the habitual response of
philosophers and theologians to knowledge of the spirit.
It must be frozen into a fixed, verbalizable Idea and
brought bound and gagged into the knowledge of the
(intellectual) mind. It
must be defined and domesticated and converted into a
well-behaved rigid Immortal Truth.
This is precisely what Plato did with arete.
it "the Good" and subordinated it only to
"the True". But
"the True" was that which was determined through
the rational method of dialectic.
(Again, there was confusion between “truth” and
soon as "the Good" became subordinate to it at
all, then "the Good" became an "object"
for analysis and could be reduced as far as one chose.
Such was the work of Aristotle, the father of
analysis, who reduced it to Ethics.
It was largely through the widespread acceptance of
the Aristotelian analysis and classification of the known
world of experience that the perception of the immutability
of analysis became entrenched in Western thought.
People thought that Aristotle had named and
classified all things and that to understand the world, you
had to learn the names and hierarchies of things in
They accepted this classification as the
"true" description of reality.
They didn't see that it was only one way among many,
entirely arbitrary, often wrong, and not very useful.
We are still strongly predisposed to fall into the
same trap. We
are prone to accept an "analysis" as the
"true" and only description of a problem or
system. In fact,
however, a given analysis is just one way of
"viewing" a problem or system.
It's like a "view" of a relational
isn't "true" or "false",
"correct" or "incorrect"; it's merely
"convenient" or "inconvenient" for the
purpose at hand.
As a consequence of the incorporation of these errors
of thought into our mythos,
we are led to regard rational (and therefore scientific and
technical) processes as being necessarily devoid of feelings
or value judgments. The
highest attitude of rationality is value-free disinterest.
Thus, the rationality we have inherited is one that
was deliberately disembowelled and cardiotomized.
Its heart and its guts were deliberately cut out by
our intellectual ancestors, and that attitude of mind to
which we eagerly afford our highest mental allegiance is
seen to be a monstrous zombie.
Pirsig has found the constitutional defect of our
venerated rationality, and it isn't pretty.
1 - Bibliography
Castaneda, Carlos (1971) A Separate Reality, Simon & Schuster.
Pirsig, Robert M. (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Bantam Books.
It is essential, at this point, to deal with our
perception, as software manufacturers, that software
quality is readily definable in terms of program
us agree, deliberately, to apply the term accuracy
to the attribute of correctly performing the functions
specified in the design.
Let us also agree that accuracy is only one manifestation
of program quality.
Others that come to mind are usability,
efficiency, performance, maintainability, and other
characteristics that relate to program design but are
not wholly dependent on it.
Still other properties, such as a "sense of
cleanliness" when you use the program, cannot be
traced to any specific phase of program development.
Therefore, let us agree, by
convention, to accept Pirsig's development of a
concept to which he applies the term Quality.
Perhaps we may find value and insight therein.
assertion may sound less outrageous if we think in terms
of the explanation offered by Juan Matus in Carlos
"We do not live in reality; we live in our description
of reality." Don
Juan goes on to explain that from our birth, our family
and our society have taught us a certain interpretation
of our perceptions, a certain convention agreed upon and
constantly reaffirmed by our society.
This description of reality is what enables us to
interact with our world and the people in it.
A shared description of reality, a consensus in
which we participate, is arguably essential to our
is Quality, Pirsig is saying, that enables us--indeed
causes us--to resynthesize our reality description
moment by moment. That
explanation may help, but be advised that Pirsig may
mean much more than that.
I think he does, and I agree with
agree with his conclusion to the extent of denying the
validity of the scientific method as a means of arriving
As a method of constructing a "working
model" of reality, it works fairly well, as long as
you don't take the model too seriously.
Again, we have the idea of a description
of reality, not reality itself.