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Other papers on this website:

Inspirationality-Part 2

Inspirationality-Part 3

The 1993 AHP transcript-Part 1

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 2

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 3

Selections from the 1993 AHP transcript

David Granger's Aesthetics Paper

PhD Commentary

An Open Letter to Sam Harris

Art & the MOQ by Robert Pirsig

An Introduction to
 Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

Khoo Hock Aun's Paper

David Buchanan's Art & Morality Paper

Pirsig Annotations on Copleston

Gavin Gee-Clough's "Brisbane Winter" Paper 

 Henry Gurr's MOQ presentation


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










































Quality and Inspirationality (Part 1)


 by John L. McConnell


originally written in 1990

revised June 2012[1]



                   "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] called 'yourself'."      (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 Montana was challenged by a colleague with the question:  "Are you teaching quality to your students?"  With 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 understood intuitively.  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 it.


          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 retirement.  "I 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 this quarter?"

          "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 whole idea?!


          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 days."

          "Well, I 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 deliberately.  To 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: 


          "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.[2]


          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 exists?  His 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 normally.  Class 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 ones:  pure science, mathematics, philosophy, and logic.  "If quality were dropped, only rationality would remain unchanged."  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 deduced.  

          "Quality 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."[3]



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 "Scientific Method":


          1.  Gather and record observations.

          2.  Propose a hypothesis to explain the observations.

          3.  Design an experiment to test the hypothesis.

          4.  State the conditions under which the hypothesis will be confirmed or denied.

          5.  Perform the experiment, and record the results.

          6.  Draw conclusions.


Pirsig was struck by the appearance of a singularly "mysterious" step in the midst of this orderly recipe:  Propose 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?  Sympathetic understanding?  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."[4]  


          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 itself."  He set out to find it and eradicate it.


          Pirsig and I arrived, by different routes, at complementary diagnoses of the "illness" of rationality.  Pirsig's search led through explorations of the works of the "great" philosophers throughout history.  The trail led inevitably to the philosophers of ancient Greece .  Among their works Pirsig observed the development of a small number of competing themes.


          Parmenides, he found, typified the group of thinkers known as the cosmologists.  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"[5] 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 relative.  "Man 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, subject-object, rational-emotional.


          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 subsequent generations.  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 aspired.


          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.  He  made 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 “Truth”.)  As 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 Aristotle's classification.  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 database.  It 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.[6]  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.

Part 1 - Bibliography


Castaneda, Carlos (1971) A Separate Reality, Simon & Schuster.


Pirsig, Robert M. (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Bantam Books.

[1] I wrote this essay originally in 1990 for my colleagues at the software company where I was employed as a mainframe system technician and programmer; hence, the allusions to software and programming.  My professional career has been Information Technology, but my true vocation for 50 years has been philosophy, theology, and theoretical physics.

[2]  It is essential, at this point, to deal with our perception, as software manufacturers, that software quality is readily definable in terms of program correctness.  Let 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. 

[3] This assertion may sound less outrageous if we think in terms of the explanation offered by Juan Matus in Carlos Castaneda's A Separate Reality:  "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 survival.  It 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 him.

[4] I agree with his conclusion to the extent of denying the validity of the scientific method as a means of arriving at "Truth".  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.

[5]  In 1984 Alain Aspect and colleagues obtained the first experimental results demonstrating that the Bell inequalities are violated in the behavior of actual photons and that, therefore, quantum theory is a valid, consistent, and complete description of nature on the atomic scale.  Subsequently, these results have been confirmed in numerous and dramatic instances.  The philosophical implication of theses results is the invalidation of the assumptions of ontological duality.  The validation of quantum theory demonstrates the untenability of absolute realism, objectivism, and local realism.  However, these metaphysical changes have not become paradigmatic even for most scientists, not to mention “civilian” society.  The prevailing paradigm that permeates contemporary Western thought is still “the clockwork universe” of Newtonian physics.

[6]  This assertion is somewhat hyperbolic.  Working scientists, with few exceptions, don’t feel this way today and probably never did, but at least in the latter half of the 20th century the ideal of the scientific metaphysics was impersonal value-free disinterest.  This, it was felt, ensured purity of thought and procedure, “intellectual honesty”.


To read Part 2 of this essay, please press on this link.

To read Part 3 of this essay, please press on this link.


For a comprehensive assessment of the philosophy elucidated in Pirsig's two books, please press the following link: