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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

Art & the MOQ by Robert Pirsig

An Introduction to
 Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

An MOQ Summary by Robert Pirsig

Pirsig Annotations on Copleston

David Buchanan's Oxford Lecture

David Buchanan's Art & Morality Paper

David Buchanan's 2006 Paper

Gavin Gee-Clough's "Brisbane Winter" Paper


Andrew Sneddon Thesis

- Part One


Sneddon Thesis - Part Two

An Open Letter to Sam Harris 

Observer Interview

Notes on the tetralemma

The MOQ & Time

The MOQ & Education

Pirsig & Pragmatism

David Granger's Aesthetics Paper

Evolution, Time & Order Paper

PhD Commentary

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 overview of the Metaphysics of Quality


by Robert M. Pirsig


July 2005


The transcript of the third film on the "The MOQ at Oxford" DVD


Robert Pirsig:

There is an opening line in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance":

"And what is good Phaedrus And what is not good - Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"

And, of course the answer is "No!" Everybody knows what Quality is. You can't take a step forward without deciding that step is better than standing where you were. You can't take a meal without feeling it'd be better to eat than not to eat and you can't go upstairs without deciding that it will be better to go upstairs… and so on. And so Quality is not just some abstraction; it's something that guides your life every minute of every second [of every day] even though you do not intellectually recognize that it is so.

So, I found that certain people know this automatically and they are usually skilled artists. When you're trying to create a painting or a piece of music you've got to have this feeling of what's better. And just this feeling of what is better immediately will guide to whatever you want to do. If you base what you are trying to create on what's been done before you are going to get an imitation of something done before. But if you want to do something new you can't look to the past, you can only look to this empty Dynamic thing that is coming at you and say "Oh yeah, I'll do that!" you know… and put that in. And then it works. Artists sometimes say: "He's got it!". They mean, he is hooked on to that Dynamic thread that pulls them forward into their art world. And people who don't understand that look at their art and say: "Now I wonder how he managed to create that thing?" Well, he doesn't know either; he just knows that something in his consciousness (or something ahead of him) told him to go that way.

I've talked with many artists, including Robert Redford interestingly enough and he said "That's how I make my films!" Well, I don't know what I'm going to do [either], I just have to see what has Quality. If it has Quality then I'll do it. If it doesn't have Quality, I won't do it. If I look at it a week later and I see it doesn't have Quality, I'll throw it out. If I suddenly, in the middle of the night say, think of something better, I'll put that in.


Let's go back to ZMM. You set the students a challenge to work out what Quality was. And you came to the conclusion that you [all] knew what it was, that you could recognize it and then you went looking for… how we find it, how do we learn to grow Quality in the making of our writing? How important to you was it that you had a kind of rational process at that point?


THEY MADE IT IMPORTANT TO ME! I was in a university [Montana State College] and they said you can't just teach something and say it's indefinable and expect our students to learn it. You've got to define what you're doing. There were some professors at the school, professors of philosophy and they ridiculed what I was doing, of course, and their way to attack what I was saying is in the dialectical manner and they said: "Well is Quality in the subject or is Quality in the object?" And, as I said [in ZMM] this is a haymaker, they're just trying to knock it out of the ring completely. And as I thought about it for a long time I realised that you can't say it's in the object and you can't say it's in the subject and that started me really onto the Metaphysics of Quality.

I took a tack which, as far as I know has never been done before: I say it's a third entity. It is not in the subject, it is not in the object. And in saying that (I didn't realize that at the time) but in saying that, you are creating a whole new system of metaphysics, where you now have subjects and objects and values which are no longer connected in the old way. In the traditional subject-object metaphysics [SOM] which has guided our [Western] history, values have to be either objective or subjective and everybody says they're subjective which in a subject-object system means they are not very important.

And as a result you get the kind of world we live in where what you love and, what you believe in, are quite separate and the value is regarded as unimportant and the objects are regarded as important. So, this new idea that came out asked for further and further development and there [were] months and months of years where I was not talking to anybody very much but thinking about this and gradually these ideas just grew and grew and grew into a whole structure of thought that is this Metaphysics of Quality (which we are promoting today).

If you are going to have a theory of value and you are going to turn it into a metaphysics you are going to have to do some breakdowns of classifications of what you are going to have and my first division was into romantic and classic values… That didn't work very well so I finally ended up with static and Dynamic values. Static values are… the values of everyday life; they don't change while Dynamic values are those that change them. So, to give an example, say if you're writing, you'll have a lot of ideas to write and you'll be putting them down altogether and you say: "That's not what I want", and then at that point if you're lucky a Dynamic breakthrough will occur and suddenly you'll find "Oh, this is better".

Well, that "Oh, this is better", that "Oh" moment is Dynamic Quality but what you actually write down, that pattern will be the static quality. So… static quality then I broke down into four kinds which were related to each other by evolution. And these four kinds were inorganic values, biological values, social values and intellectual values. And these four are related by evolution. Now, in ordinary evolution you have to stop at biology… there was a Herbert Spencer back around 1890 who tried to develop Social Darwinism and it was a disaster because he thought that the law of [the] jungle should be applied to society but in the Metaphysics of Quality the social evolution that takes place is in conflict with biological evolution.

As each of these levels emerges, it is in conflict with the previous level. The inorganic level generates biology, but pretty soon biology goes off on purposes of its own… [often] in conflict; it tries to keep alive even though the inorganic forces in it keep trying to kill it. Similarly biology levels will develop social levels because the biological organisms (say people) gradually form into towns and families and so on and they develop rules which are in conflict with what used to be Quality for the biological level.

Pirsig quoting from LILA:

"This opposition is the basis of all morality. All good can be seen as a domination of the lower levels by the upper levels. All evil can be seen as the reverse. The strategies by which biological mechanisms overcome the inorganic forces of gravity and temperature and death are a kind of biological morality. The strategies by which the social level overcomes the biological forces of anger and greed and lust constitute what we ordinarily mean by morality. The strategies of intellect over social tyranny are another form of morality, and prevention of intellectual bigotry by forces of Dynamic discoveries and freedom are another."

So we really have four sets of morality here. You see, commonly in a culture where there's a conflict between the kind of marital love of people who have families and so on, infidelity, incest and so on which are biological forms. And, so we say that the upper level, the social level, should dominate the lower level and that is the basis for morality. Now, both cases are a case of Quality that is there. Biological quality is really there, the sexual drives [etc]… but the social level is another kind of Quality which should dominate the lower level. And so there you have one of the oldest moral problems of history explained by the Metaphysics of Quality.

Beyond that the society which says that you should conform to certain ways of behaving has to be changed from time to time in order with reason and so we have parliaments that say that the old codes of law which may have served the Medieval times must be changed in order to produce greater justice. And so there's a conflict between the intellectual forms over the social forms.

And, in the case of Dynamic Quality over intellectual quality we have the case of modern art where there is very little intellectual quality in modern art and yet people find it quite impressive and beautiful and valuable in its own way.


So, yes, I was saying you've talked me through though to find there is this division between Dynamic Quality and static/stable quality and you've subdivided that. But let's go back to Dynamic Quality because, in a way, part of the difficulty is that you don't want to define it, can't define it, that it blows the whole game out of the water if you try and define it and yet, that is exactly what it was…


You got it right! [laughs]. That is perfect. This is why Zen sounds so mysterious because ultimately, any explanation you give of Dynamic Quality is going to be static the moment it is out of your mouth. So all you get is static quality, static quality, static quality and the person says: "Now what do you mean by Dynamic Quality?" and you give another explanation and it's still static quality and it goes on and on.

The ancient Vedic description of Dynamic Quality (although they didn't call it that) was "not this, not that". That is all they would say: "not this, not that". They would say if you want to see Dynamic Quality you are not going to get it in words. Words are an intellectual static pattern and they can't do it. If you want to see Dynamic Quality, if you're a poet and you want the Dynamic Quality of the bamboos they would say: "Go out all night and sit among the bamboos until you are one, and then write who you are", and you will have Dynamic Quality as it applies to that particular poetic exercise.


You were talking about the 1920s and the scientific way of looking at the world becoming our dominant way of looking at the world and I suppose that if I would take that thought forward it's what are the consequences of our ways of looking at the world in that way…


First of all, all the Victorian modes of morals and ethics that were so strong were considered out-moded and ready to be discarded. World War 1 had just shattered people, particularly here in Europe. And they were looking for new things and new ways and so you had the roaring twenties where they just threw morals off to one side and said: "We will behave in ways that are completely rational." As far as we know there is no rational reason why not to have free love, and yet, subsequent experience shows that there, well, within the completely scientific framework there is no reason for it. And you've got the 'isms' of Communism and Fascism both of which have their own completely rational way of looking at things but which sacrificed ethics… the ethics of human love to these rational schemes that are designed to build huge empires of material construction. Both Fascism and Communism wanted to build material things… more planes, more guns, more dams and more superstructures of one sort or another.

I think the Hippy revolution was the revolution against that scientific way of looking at things which was, in turn, was a revolution against the Victorian way of looking at things. My parents were very much part of that scientific period. My father went to school in the 1920s and he studied law and philosophy and he was very much opposed to these old social patterns but, yet he had a sense of ethics but it wasn't really guided by any overall feeling anymore. I think the hippies said, "Well this is an ugly world you are creating." I guess that's a good word for it… what's wrong with the scientific solution of things… it came out ugly.

[For instance], chemical plants were scientifically perfect but they're as ugly as hell and nobody paid any attention to it. A side walk which is not well tended serves its purpose just as well, rationally, as a side walk which is a mess and so, why clean it up? And so you found a neglect of beauty everywhere in favour of strengthening of material purposes. And you still see some of that in China today and in countries where the economic base is poor and they're still trying to build up the material wealth before they switch over to beauty.

So I was a little ahead of the Hippy period in age but I sympathised with what they were doing, trying to make a more beautiful world. They said we got all the bread we need, we've got all the cars, all the tools for everything, now let's figure out how to have a good life. And they found that science wasn't doing it. And I guess you could say that my own ideas were growing out of that same dilemma, that everything we're doing is right but it doesn't seem to be any good. And so goodness rather than material rightness became a dominant thing to guide people. And that's what I mean by Quality: the goodness that should guide people in everything they do.

Everybody knows what it is they just disagree a little bit about how to get there… I am lucky that a lot of people have found that my books kind of point the way.

With thanks to Andre Broersen




The MOQ at Oxford DVD


"The MOQ at Oxford" DVD features Robert Pirsig in three films specially made for 2009's MOQ Study Day at Oxford University together with the lecture that David Buchanan presented on the day. This is Pirsig's 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."



It is priced at $25/£16 for all regions. Postage and packing free!


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