The MOQ Shop

 

UK hardback edition

 

MOQ Textbook Introduction

 

 

Other papers on this website:

Inspirationality Essay-Part 1

Inspirationality Essay-Part 2

Inspirationality Essay-Part 3

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 1

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 2

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 3

David Granger's Aesthetics Paper

Evolution, Time & Order Paper

Selections from the 1993 AHP transcript

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

David Buchanan's Art & Morality Paper

Gavin Gee-Clough's "Brisbane Winter" Paper 

 

Sneddon Thesis

- Part One

 

Sneddon Thesis - Part Two

David Buchanan's 2006 Paper

David Buchanan's Oxford Lecture

Observer Interview

Notes on the tetralemma

The MOQ & Time

The MOQ & Education

Pirsig & Pragmatism

Chai at the Lazy Lounge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A

Critical Analysis

of Robert Pirsig’s

Metaphysics

of Quality 

 

by

 

Anthony McWatt

 

 

 

(To purchase the complete PDF copy of the PhD please press the PayPal symbol below.)

 

 

 

 

November 2004

 


 

Contents
 

 Abstract

Preface

Chapter 1: Why Pirsig devised the MOQ

Chapter 2: The Metaphysics of Quality

Chapter 3: The metaphysical problems of SOM

PhD Epilogue

PhD Bibliography

 

Abstract

 

The purpose of this thesis is to critically evaluate one of the first indigenous forms of Zen Buddhism to appear in the United States: namely Robert Pirsig’s ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ (or ‘MOQ’).  The anthropological origins of Pirsig’s system is first considered with specific reference to Franz Boas’ notion of ‘objectivity’ and Strawson’s objection that Pirsig’s understanding of Cartesian metaphysics is a straw man.  

A critical synopsis of the MOQ is then provided commencing with an overview of the system and its philosophical heritage to allow a reader unfamiliar with the MOQ to locate it within traditional academic philosophy.  This includes an analysis of Pirsig’s inductive and ‘reduction ad absurdum’ arguments that support his claim that Quality is the fundamental element of reality, Pirsig’s assertion that Quality and value are synonyms and his argument that it is more coherent to hold they are ontologically more fundamental than mind and/or matter in reference to the work of Merleau-Ponty, James and the recent experiments by the neurologist, Benjamin Libet.  I then turn to the mystic component of the MOQ, namely Dynamic Quality and the four static quality levels of his system.  Pirsig asserts that these levels can be put in an absolute moral hierarchy and employs the notion of cosmological evolution as the basis of this.  I then investigate how Pirsig constructs this hierarchy together with some objections.  Subsequent to this, I scrutinize his claim that this hierarchy improves James’ notion of pragmatic truth and then provide a favourable comparison of Pirsig’s system with Spinoza’s monism and post-modernist thought.

Subsequently, I employ Pirsig’s system to deal with the mind-matter problem and related difficulties (such as ‘Hume’s Principle’, free-will’s relationship to determinism and Chalmers’ ‘hard question’) in reference to the work of Thomas Nagel, Northrop, Whitehead, Hume, Popper and Bertrand Russell.  As the MOQ deals with these problems in a wider metaphysical context than Cartesian orientated systems, I make the case that the MOQ is able to achieve further headway with these problems.  As such, the thesis concludes that Pirsig’s system is largely a positive development for metaphysics though, conversely, it would benefit from the inclusion of an increased emphasis on compassion (as understood by traditional Buddhism), environmental concerns and other social issues such as racial discrimination. 

Subsequent to the Epilogue is an appendix examining time in relation to the MOQ - an important metaphysical subject originally overlooked in Pirsig’s texts.

 

Detail from Syunrai (The Coming of Spring), Kajin Kodo [click to enlarge]

Preface

‘The central issue we confront today is to re-invent the sacred.’

(Navarro Scott Momaday)

The Metaphysics of Quality (or ‘MOQ’) is a programme by the popular philosophy writer Robert Pirsig[i] first expounded (in a primitive form) in the 1974 best-seller Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM)[ii] and subsequently developed in his second text Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (LILA).  The metaphysical programme introduced via these texts can be perceived as one of the first indigenous forms of Zen Buddhism to appear in the United States since the appearance of Buddhism in North America over a century ago.  In ZMM, Pirsig investigates what has been meant by the term ‘Quality’ in English Departments over the centuries and  builds up (largely through inductive means) to concluding that Quality is equivalent to the Buddhist notion of ‘emptiness’.  On the other hand, LILA is a deductive text and after investigating the problems in the field of anthropology, Pirsig deducts a new metaphysical division of ‘Quality’ into the Dynamic and static.  As Pirsig (1993) confirms:

ZMM has, in some ways, what is the most important part of the MOQ which is the build-up.  It is an inductive book.  LILA is a deductive book… ZMM is a build-up from the inductive experience of the narrative into this final word – ‘Quality’ - into what is the essence of the MOQ.

The MOQ postulates that reality is essentially composed of ‘values’, hence by inference, ‘Quality’ (in the evaluative sense of the word) is the fundamental building block of the world.  Excepting this postulation, Pirsig seeks to avoid providing a precise definition of Quality though he clearly considers moral properties to be as readily perceivable as any other.  Hence, one of the defining characteristics of his work is that rather than dislocating ethics from other fundamental studies, moral truths are assumed to be as readily derivable from our perceptions as are other truths (such as those found in the natural sciences).  Pirsig’s approach is to understand morals in an appropriate scientific fashion based on evolutionary theory, quantum physics and the cosmological work of Niels Bohr. 

The following thesis argues that the MOQ is a positive development for academic philosophy.  It commences with a brief chapter that investigates the theoretical and practical problems in traditional American anthropology’s notion of objectivity that provided the initial catalyst for Pirsig to refine his metaphysical ideas.  To clarify that it is essentially objectivity in the epistemological sense that Pirsig is concerned with, a section distinguishing between the epistemological and ontological senses of objectivity is provided.  This chapter then deals with Strawson’s objection that Pirsig’s understanding of Cartesian metaphysics is a straw man and then examines Pirsig’s suggested methodology for anthropology (namely the participant approach of Verne Dusenberry).  It concludes that Pirsig was correct, certainly to some extent, in his claim that the field would be improved with a value based metaphysics as it facilitates scientific generalisation (as understood by Poincaré) and the recognition of the polysemic elements in social behaviour.

Chapter 2 is devoted to examining the components of the MOQ in detail.  In Section 2.1, there is an overview of Pirsig’s system and its philosophical heritage to allow a reader unfamiliar with the MOQ to locate it within traditional academic philosophy.  After briefly mentioning other philosophers who have similarities to Pirsig’s work (such as Heidegger and Bergson) we study the three principal influences recognised by Pirsig as underlying the MOQ: these are Zen Buddhism, the work of William James and the work of F.S.C. Northrop.  Amongst other issues, testimony from Zen Buddhism, mathematicians and physicists are given indicating that harmony (which Pirsig equates with Quality) is the essential nature of the universe is examined together with some difficulties in these claims.  In Section 2.2., the history of Pirsig’s initial classroom experience in defining Quality is explored and then his ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argument to prove that Quality exists analysed.  This section concludes by considering various problems in Pirsig’s use of the term ‘Quality’ as an equivalent of ‘emptiness’.  In Section 2.3., I then explore Pirsig’s further assertion that Quality and value are synonyms and his argument that it is more coherent to hold they are ontologically more fundamental than mind and/or matter while in Section 2.4., I examine Pirsig’s claim that the MOQ is neither a form of idealism or physicalism.  In Section 2.5., we first turn to the mystic component of the MOQ, namely Dynamic Quality and the reasons Pirsig provides for why it must remain undefined.  In further sub-sections, I analyse the arguments why Pirsig decided to metaphysically divide Quality between the Dynamic and the static, and after noting some possible improvements to his terminology, look at the four static levels of Quality.  Pirsig asserts that these levels can be placed in an absolute moral hierarchy and employs the notion of cosmological evolution as the basis for this.  I therefore examine how Pirsig employs this hierarchy together with some objections to evolutionary theory.  Subsequent to this, I consider his claim that this hierarchy improves James’ notion of pragmatic truth and then provide new comparisons of Pirsig’s system with Spinoza’s monism and post-modernist thought.

With the components of the MOQ in place and some examples of how it operates given in the previous chapter, Chapter 3 employs Pirsig’s system (with support from Northrop’s work) to deal with the mind-matter problem.  This commences by investigating the scientific ideas of Galileo and Newton which gave rise to Descartes and Locke’s notions of mind and matter.  Subsequent to this, I then examine related difficulties to the mind-matter problem (such as the problem with free will and determinism, causation, Hume’s Dilemma and Chalmers’ ‘hard question’ of consciousness), the traditional solutions to these difficulties and the MOQ solution to these.  Due to a number of factors (though largely by employing Searle’s advice that the Cartesian setting of the debate requires jettisoning), I build the case that Pirsig’s system is able to make better headway with these problems than previous metaphysical proposals.  Finally, the notion of time is a subject matter absent in Pirsig’s formulation of the MOQ so, in an effort to rectify this omission, reference is made (in a separate appendix) to the notion of change, the Newtonian theory of time, the latest theories of space-time (such as M-Theory) and the implications of these for Pirsig’s system. 

It is my concern primarily to consider the validity of the elements composing the MOQ.  As the system differs from traditional metaphysics by making values fundamental, it should be no surprise that this postulation has wide-ranging consequences for its depiction of reality.  My analysis concludes that though traditional philosophical concepts (such as causation and truth) are given unconventional meanings in Pirsig’s writing, there is an advantage in his idiosyncratic system, once it becomes familiar, in that it has an internal coherence lacking in previous metaphysics.  I, therefore, adopt a position which gives a limited and reserved approval for Pirsig’s work though his mode of argument often leaves much to be desired – certainly from an analytic point of view... 


[i] Robert M. Pirsig studied at the University of Minnesota receiving a B.A. (1950) in chemistry & philosophy and an M.A. (1953) in journalism.  In addition, Pirsig studied Indian philosophy during 1950 at Benares Hindu University.  Publications include Quality in Freshman Writing (1961), Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), Cruising Blues & Their Cure (1977), Lila (1991) and Subjects, Objects, Data & Values (1995).

 

[ii] The full title of ZMM is Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.

 

To purchase a PDF copy of this text by credit card or PayPal, for £5 sterling (or the euro or US dollar equivalent) please press the PayPal symbol below: