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'Pragmatism and The Art
of Motorcycle Maintenance:
A study of Robert Pirsig's contribution
to the Pragmatism of
Peirce, James and Dewey.'

B.A. dissertation, completed 1994,


Dean Summers 



The lack of philosophical analyses of Robert Pirsig's texts, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE and LILA (which we will henceforth refer to as ZAMM and LILA), might indicate that they contain nothing of philosophical importance. In the majority of articles on Pirsig, which approach his work as literary fictions, there seems to be a general acknowledgement that he offers a certain unique kind of wisdom and insight through the synthesis of diverse forms, but that this wisdom falls short of being philosophy. When the philosophical content is addressed it is as what we might term a pop philosophy - as a sort of popular distillation and reworking of conventional philosophies which, as such, is interesting in context but has no significance for the philosophical mainstream. 

Undoubtedly Pirsig's texts are unique in their synthesis of the forms of fiction, autobiography, travelogue, chautauqua, ‘how to’ manual and philosophy amongst others. However the agreement that they are unique seems also to serve to identify the texts as cultish and to thereby contain and remove Pirsig's philosophy from mainstream philosophical consideration. This is quite probably a mistake at the expense of contemporary philosophy. In this study we will try to show that Pirsig presents not only a coherent and tenable theory, but that he has made a significant contribution to American pragmatism. We will ignore the unique form of his work in order to focus on the relevance and importance that his concepts might have for the mainstream philosophical discourse. 

Firstly though we will dispel the objection, unstated but very much implied by the general response to Pirsig's work, that he is a modern day Sophist (Levinson, for instance, offers a typical accusation which brings the Sophists to mind – 

he (Pirsig) is more concerned with the impact of his ideas than with their faithful presentation...a nascent anti-intellectualism. (Levinson, 1976, 269) 

In its most basic form we can see this objection in the tension between Pirsig's own claims to be producing a valuable philosophy, and the corresponding lack of critical attention to it as a philosophy. This brings us back to the idea that Pirsig actually offers us wisdom, not philosophy; like his ancient Greek counterparts he uses fine rhetoric to persuade us and teach us wisdom, but ultimately he, like they, is a deceiver because such wisdom - which aspires to the philosophical and which presents itself as being so - is actually devoid of philosophical method and thus empty of philosophical truth. On this view Pirsig offers us some synthesis of mystical, poetical and novelistic truths perhaps, but they do not add up to philosophy. However, as Pirsig points out himself, this negative idea of the Sophists is one that is constructed by and handed down from Plato; the only idea we have of the Sophists is derived from Plato's own bias which constructed his method of philosophizing as the only means of achieving truth, and which denied that any other means could do so. 

Pirsig's rhetorical methods may well be in the Sophistic tradition, indeed he deliberately avoids traditional philosophical methods precisely because they are the object of his attack – 

The cause of our current social crises...is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. And until this genetic defect is cleared, the crises will continue. Our current modes of rationality are not moving society forward into a better world. They are taking it further and further from that better world. Since the Renaissance these modes have worked. As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is - emotionally hollow, aesthetically meaningless and spiritually empty. (Pirsig, 1974, 120) 

It would however be naive simply to ignore or to deny his ideas on the basis that they are presented in a particular manner. Rather we should give Pirsig a fair trial. This may actually be of some benefit to conventional philosophy too - for Pirsig's texts demonstrate the possibility of a radically extended kind of philosophy in which analytic reasoning can operate in conjunction with intuition, experience, emotion and imagination, in short – the expansion of reason that Pirsig thinks is needed and emphatically calls for (Bump. 1983). Twentieth century Sophist? In ZAMM Pirsig identifies his project with the Sophists, 

Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric. He (Pirsig) has been doing it right all along. (Pirsig, 1974, 381) 

but this does not necessarily mean that he is not also offering a 'proper' philosophy; we might note that the American pragmatist Schiller referred to himself as a disciple of the arch Sophist Protagoras (Russell, 1946, 94). In a very general way we can recognise a basic connection between the Sophists emphasis on the quality rather than on the truth of a statement, and the pragmatists’ emphasis upon value and meaning rather than upon certainty and truth. 

To give Pirsig his fair trial then we will be analysing his philosophy in terms of the pragmatism of Peirce, James and Dewey. Regarding Pirsig we will be necessarily reductionist, considering only the essentially philosophical aspects of his texts and ignoring all other aspects. Regarding the founders of pragmatism, we will be necessarily selective - we will select from their rigorous and extensive arguments in order to support, clarify and achieve the fullest possible exposition of Pirsig's rather sketchier arguments. The crucial point of this is that Pirsig offers a significant development of pragmatism. If it were simply that he agrees with or is in line with the pragmatists, then Pirsig's philosophizing might be of little interest to us. The importance of his work is that his specific concept of Quality is an original and valuable development of American pragmatic philosophy. 

The concept of Quality seems to have been sought and touched upon but never fully realised by Peirce, James or Dewey. As the central concept in Pirsig's scheme it can also be seen to connect both broadly and deeply with the pragmatists ideas. Toward the end of LILA, Pirsig realises when reflecting on the ideas he has developed that they are connected to pragmatism. and to the pragmatism of James in particular. He claims firstly that the concept of Quality or Value (he uses the terms interchangeably throughout both texts) enables a unification of James' formerly distinct theories of pragmatism and radical empiricism (Pirsig.1991, 372). And secondly on the basis of the first claim, he states that 

The Metaphysics of Quality is a continuation of the mainstream of twentieth-century American philosophy. It is a form of pragmatism, of instrumentalism. (Pirsig, 1991, 373) 

These claims, which seem to involve only the central concepts of his and James' positions, are quite specific. We will address them in this study but our aim is also to make a wider comparison than Pirsig has done - wider in the sense that it extends to Peirce and Dewey too, and wider in the sense that we will consider the full extent of Pirsig's position, including the general motives and the criticisms of other philosophies which he shares with the founders of pragmatism. It is hoped that in doing so we might initiate a revised understanding of Pirsig's unique inquiries into values and morals, and that we might indicate further areas of Pirsig's philosophy which require necessary critical analysis. 


The sub-titles of Pirsig's texts make the nature of his inquiries clear; ZAMM is an inquiry into values, LILA is an inquiry into morals. How then does he come to embark upon a metaphysical inquiry into the nature of reality? To understand the reason for this we should consider the epigram which he derives from Plato's Phaedrus, and with which he begins his first text – 

And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good - Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?  (Pirsig, 1974, 9) 

As well as understanding the good, Pirsig is also concerned to understand why we have always turned to others (ultimately - philosophers in ethical and aesthetical discourses) to tell us what is and is not good. He sees Western rationality as the primary cause of a contemporary mass nightmare of confusion and suffering for two reasons; one, Western philosophy has defined itself as the only means of understanding such things as the good, and two – at the same time this philosophical tradition, dominated by dualistic subject-object metaphysics, has failed to offer any satisfactory or useful conception of the good because it has always been forced to conclude that the good must be subjective and unreal. Thus, for Pirsig, Western rationalism has denied the individual's access to the good in her own experience, and furthermore, its own definitions, of the good are trivialising - the effect of this having been to create a huge vacuum in the individual's life. 

We can recognise, in Pirsig's desire to unearth the good by destroying the subject object metaphysics which has buried it, the intrinsically pragmatic revolt against the conception of a meaningless, purposeless universe. It is science, as the dominant discourse of this century, which reinforces and disseminates this picture. But science derives the picture from the dualistic metaphysics in which it itself operates. Like Peirce, James and Dewey, Pirsig turns to experience both to find the reality of value and meaning, and to reject dualistic metaphysics. In doing so he believes that it is possible to expand reason and to bring our vision of science “far closer to actual scientific practice.” (Pirsig, 1974, 285) 

Pirsig reunites mind and matter, subject and object by offering a monism –   “Quality (is) the source and substance of everything” (Pirsig, 1974, 254). Quality (value,  the good) is reality. The only definition that Pirsig offers of quality is that it is undefinable because it is dynamic, it is “shapeless, formless, indescribable” (Pirsig, 1974, 252).  

It is possible to see in Peirce's metaphysical theory a similar idea. However Peirce is problematic in that whilst sometimes he works within a clear idea of reality, at other times he contradicts this idea and works within his distinction of ‘reality’ and ‘existence.’ Rather than analyse this discrepancy, we will confine ourselves to Peirce's distinction because it is that which offers the most ground for comparison. 

Existence, for Peirce, is something which “is experienced rather than cognized” (Goudge, 1950, 217), and as such is in his category of secondness - a matter of insistency, of forcefulness which cannot be defined but only denoted. Peirce's ‘existence’ then corresponds with Pirsig's concept of reality which is experienced but cannot be known. Here we will give Pirsig's reasoning for why this is so at some length in order not to dilute them; 

Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct. 

The easiest intellectual analogue of pure Quality that people in our environment can understand is that Quality is the response of an organism to its environment. An amoeba, placed on a plate of water with a drip of dilute sulphuric acid placed nearby will pull away from the acid (I think). If it could speak the amoeba, without knowing anything about sulphuric acid, could say, “This environment has poor quality.” If it had a nervous system it would act in a much more complex way to overcome the poor quality of the environment. It would seek analogues, that is, images and symbols from its previous experience, to define the unpleasant nature of its new environment and thus “understand” it.  In our highly complex organic state we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvellous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilisation and science. We call these analogues reality. And they are reality. We mesmerize our children in the name of truth into knowing that they are reality. We throw anyone who does not accept these analogues into an insane asylum. But that which causes us to invent the analogues is Quality. 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. 

Now, to take that which has caused us to create the world, and include it within the world we have created, is clearly impossible. That is why Quality cannot be defined. If we do define it we are defining something less than Quality itself. (Pirsig 1974, 253-254) 

The idea here of Quality as a stimulus brings us back to Peirce's idea of existence as forcefulness or insistency. For Peirce, like Pirsig, an object is real in terms of knowledge, and its reality consists in its insistency - for Pirsig, in the fact that Quality has stimulated us to create it as an analogue – 

It is the brute irrational insistency that forces us to acknowledge the reality of what we experience. (Peirce, 1931-1935, in Goudge, 1950, 217)  We might add that there is a logical reason why a reality that consists of quality cannot be described but only denoted; it is simply that if quality is primary, then it can have no more primary qualities belonging to it. Whilst we can describe an object by its qualities, and only by its qualities (the stone is brown, hard, heavy etc), there can be no further description of any quality in itself (this brings to mind the familiar problem of how one could describe a colour to a congenitally blind person for instance. It is impossible to do so properly because a colour is an experience, however as Peirce and Pirsig state themselves, an experience may be denoted by recourse to analogies of that experienced quality). 

This point also allows us to clarify logically the reason why Pirsig's reality is dynamic (note; in ZAMM Pirsig only uses the term ‘Quality’, but in LILA he realises that what he meant by that is what he comes to call ‘Dynamic Quality’ in the second text. See Pirsig, 1991, 124). Dynamic Quality is Pirsig's primary and all inclusive category. We have seen that this entails that quality is itself qualityless.. .devoid of properties, and the logical entailment of this is that reality (quality) has no properties to be ‘fixed in’. It has no fixed, qualitative nature and thus, logically, must be dynamic. Understanding this also allows us to see that Peirce's statement that “Reality is altogether dynamic, not qualitative” (Peirce, 1931-1935, in Goudge. 1950, 217), can actually clarify Pirsig's concept. What else can be qualityless? What else but quality itself? (Of course, the void - nothingness – is qualityless but then it could not be dynamic since it is nothing. Nor would nothingness constituting reality be a sensible idea; we experience something, not nothing). 

It seems from this outlining of a connection that the pragmatists arguments not only agree with Pirsig's but can also reinforce it. Furthermore Pirsig's concept of dynamic quality is seen to be a development of Peirce's metaphysical inquiries. It seems that Pirsig has given a name to that which Peirce all but names himself - quality. Turning to James' idea of reality we see that the connection is equally strong. We can agree with him that he is a pluralist but still identify his metaphysics as monistic. James' pluralism covers his concept of truth and meaning, but does not extend to his concept of reality. He conceives of reality as “neutral stuff” , neither mind nor matter, which can only be described as flux. Again, we can understand this to mean ‘that which is without essential qualities, something which is no-fixed-thing - in short - dynamic. And as we have argued, the only candidate (except nothingness, which we have discounted) for this flux is Pirsig's ‘quality.’ Only quality can be qualityless and thus dynamic or 'flux' in James' terms. There is no obvious difference between Pirsig's monism – dynamic quality - and James' “neutral stuff.” For James the separation of this neutral stuff into mind and matter is a later conscious addition to the prior experience. This is the central point of James' doctrine of immediate perception - that there is no separation of subject and object, of knower and known at the moment of experiencing. James calls the neutral stuff of reality “pure experience” (James, 1912, 93) – 

Pure experience is the name which I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories. (James, 1912, 93) 

Thus James agrees with Peirce and Pirsig that reality, which is utterly dynamic, is experienced but not in itself known consciously. We might then acknowledge that Pirsig also holds the doctrine of immediate perception (as held by all three founders of pragmatism), as can be seen clearly in this reasoning – 

at the cutting edge of time, before an object can be distinguished, there must be a kind of non-intellectual awareness.. .called the awareness of Quality. You can't be aware that you've seen a tree until after you've seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness there must be a time lag. We sometimes think of that time lag as unimportant, but there's no justification for thinking that the time lag is unimportant - none whatsoever. 

The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This pre-intellectual reality is what he had identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects. (Pirsig, 1974, 249-250)  Here Pirsig inverts the relationship of quality, subject and object. In what he calls a “Copernican inversion” (Pirsig, 1974, 249) the dualistic picture in which the experience of quality is the product of the relationship of subject and object is reversed so that the concepts of subject and object arise out of the experience of quality. Subjects and objects are part of the material which, in James' terms, pure experience furnishes our later conceptual categories. 

At this point we can now examine Pirsig's claim that his Metaphysics of Quality seems to unite (James') pragmatism and radical empiricism into a single fabric. (Pirsig, 1991, 372) 

Pirsig takes the central theses of James' two philosophical systems, which he was unable to unite satisfactorily himself, and finds that the concept of quality makes that unification possible. Quality, or value, is the pragmatic test of truth - and this is the essence of any form of Pragmatism (we will discuss truth in chapter 2). The significance of Pirsig's theory is that he also demonstrates that quality or value is the primary empirical experience, in other words - that it is reality itself. Radical empiricism stated the doctrine of immediate perception - that in experience the knower and the known are not distinct, not separate, which Pirsig also maintains. He adds to this that experience is value. Thus it is experience (which is value), and not correspondence to the objective world (of knowledge) which is the test of truth. A statement is true only if it is valuable...if it is good, and we evaluate the statement on the basis of experience. Since quality is reality in Pirsig's system, the ultimate guarantee of truth and meaning is reality itself. He has developed a pragmatic conception in which pure experience, reality and value are one and the same thing, thereby dissolving the problem which plagued James' pragmatism - that the test of truth - satisfaction - is entirely subjective. 

Any person of any philosophic persuasion who sits on a hot stove will verify without any intellectual argument whatsoever that he is in an undeniably low-quality situation: that the value of his predicament is negative. This low quality is not just a vague, woolly-headed, crypto-religious, metaphysical abstraction. It is an experience. It is not a judgment about an experience. t is not a description of experience. The value itself is an experience. As such it is completely predictable. It is verifiable by anyone who cares to do so. It is reproducible. Of all experience it is the least ambiguous, least mistakable there is. Later the person may generate some oaths to describe this low value, but the value will always come first, the oaths second. Without the primary low valuation, the secondary oaths will not follow. 

The reason for hammering on this so hard is that we have a culturally inherited blind spot here. Our culture teaches us to think it is the hot stove that directly causes the oaths. It teaches that the low values are a property of the person uttering the oaths. 

Not so. The value is between the stove and the oaths. Between the subject and the object lies the value. This Value is mare immediate, more directly sensed than any 'self' or any 'object' to which it may be later assigned. It is more real than the stove. Whether the stove is the cause of the low quality or whether possibly something else is the cause is not yet absolutely certain. But that the quality is low is absolutely certain. It is the primary empirical reality from which such things as stoves and heat and oaths and self are later intellectually constructed. (Pirsig, 1991, 68-69) 

We see here the essence of Pirsig's pragmatism. All relationships between things are value relationships. The ‘self’ and the ‘stove’ are static patterns of quality related by dynamic quality from which they emerge. When referring to humans (and also to any being with a nervous system presumably), we ordinarily call this value relationship with their environment ‘feelings’ or ‘sensations’ as James makes clear in his doctrine of radical empiricism – 

Pure experience...is but another name for feeling or sensation. But the flux of it no sooner comes than it tends to fill itself with emphases, and these salient parts become identified and fixed and abstracted; so that experience now flows as if shot through with adjectives and nouns and prepositions and conjunctions. (James, 1912, 94) 

These ‘salient parts’ that we become conscious of make up the universe of knowledge - such things as the self, heat, stoves and so on. They constitute our conscious reality but they emerge firstly from primary experience. For Pirsig these things were, in ZAMM, intellectually constructed analogues of reality. In LILA however we see a development from that idea. This is made possible because in that second text Pirsig undertakes a subdivision of his primary metaphysical category of dynamic quality. Subjects and objects emerge from dynamic quality as static patterns of quality. Reality is dynamic quality, objects and persons are static forms of that reality (and therefore not themselves real to the extent to which they are static). The simple and complete reason for the emergence of a static pattern is that it is good or valuable (at least it is valuable initially; static patterns, in Pirsig's scheme, will always lose their value and become negative in time simply because they are static things in a dynamic reality. The conditions under which a particular static pattern emerged because it was good to do so will change dynamically, thus leaving literally ‘no good reason’ for the continuation of that pattern. Pirsig's texts abound with examples of this but perhaps the most insightful example of a static pattern becoming negative is the dualistic rationality which is the static intellectual pattern that Pirsig believes so urgently needs to be changed...to be made dynamic again. We will discuss this more fully in chapter 3 where we examine Pirsig's concept of morality). If we return to Peirce's primary metaphysical distinction of reality/existence, we see there a strong connection with this division of dynamic quality/static quality.  

Above we connected Peirce's ‘existence’ with Pirsig's ‘dynamic quality’ (reality). To complete this equation then we can now see that by ‘reality’ Peirce meant something significantly similar to Pirsig's 'static quality'. Unlike existence, which can only be experienced, Peirce's ‘reality’ can only be cognised (Goudge, 1950, 217) - that is, reality is not experienced, it only exists in the realm of consciousness. And similarly Pirsig maintains that whilst we are conscious of self and stove and heat, we do not find them in primary experience. They are static patterns of quality, the sum of which constitute our scientific reality (Pirsig, 1991, 106), and which we ordinarily call 'reality.' Likewise Peirce thought that what is real, while it stands in complete  independence of the thought of any particular person, is wholly dependent on the final  opinion reached by the community of scientific minds. (Peirce, 1931-1935, in Goudge, 1950, 217)  

The instrumental connection though is found in Peirce's idea of reality as a matter of thirdness. In this category reality “is persistence, is regularity” (Peirce, 1931-1935, in Goudge, 1950, 217), that is, it is the fact that something has regular action, that it persists, that makes it real. An object is real precisely because it is not dynamic in other words. So, where Peirce sees the real as being (dynamic) existence made regular, Pirsig sees the real (our conscious reality) as being dynamic quality made static. If we accept that by 'persistence' and 'regularity' Peirce meant the same thing that Pirsig means by ‘static patterns,’ then we can reasonably state that the two philosophers shared the same basic picture of reality.  


Pirsig initially makes the fundamentally pragmatic distinction of consciousness from experience thus;  

All the time we are aware of millions of things around us - these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of -the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road - aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world (Pirsig, 1974, 85)  

Because it is selected consciousness is a reduction from primary experience. Pirsig is speculating without a safety-net here regarding the need for selection, however it is interesting to note that the implication is that the basis on which the selection is made is that of usefulness; because consciousness has limited capacity, presumably, only the most useful information is selected to enter it. The criteria of usefulness is of course a peculiarly Jamesian one, and James' distinction of cognition from immediate perception says no more and no less than Pirsig –  

Every one of our conceptions is of something which our attention originally tore out of the continuum of felt experiences and provisionally isolated so as to make of it an individual topic of discourse. (James,1890, in Moore, 1961, 151)  

Like the pragmatists Pirsig recognises the practical character of reality and of cognition. In Peirce's terms there is an inseparable connection between rational cognition and rational purpose (Peirce, 1931-1935, in Thayer, 1973, 80)  

The track of consciousness selects only that which is useful or purposeful from “the endless landscape of awareness,” the rest of which is “useless details” to us. To begin to clarify Pirsig's initial idea we can consider Peirce's theory of knowledge. Peirce starts from the basic idea that particular sensations have no cognitive significance for us (Thayer, 1973, 34).   

We can identify Pirsig's “useless details” as “particular sensations” and, following Peirce, deduce that the useful details which do enter consciousness are generals - that is, that they have significance because we recognise them to be in a relationship. So, if we experience relations then that experience will be selected for consciousness. As his theory develops Pirsig sees these generals as being formed in a relation with memory; an experience that is related to a previous experience will stimulate us to produce a conscious analogue - an object of knowledge (Pirsig, 1974, 252).  

As the theory is further developed in LILA Pirsig identifies these analogues as patterns of value. We become conscious of patterns because, unlike particular sensations, patterns have cognitive significance. It is the recognition of patterns that enables us to make sense of the dynamic world of experience by the connection of past and present experiences; He gives this speculative example –  

One can imagine how an infant in the womb acquires awareness of simple distinctions such as pressure and sound, and then at birth acquires more complex ones of light and warmth and hunger. We know these distinctions are pressure and sound and light and warmth and hunger and so on but the baby doesn't. We could call them stimuli but the baby doesn't identify them as that. From the baby's point of view, something, he knows not what, compels attention. This generalized ‘something,’ Whitehead's ‘dim apprehension,’ is Dynamic Quality. When he is a few months old the baby studies his hand, or rattle, not knowing it is a hand or a rattle, with a sense of wonder and mystery and excitement...    If the baby ignores this force of Dynamic Quality it can be speculated that he will become mentally retarded, but if he is normally attentive to Dynamic Quality he will soon begin to notice differences and then correlations between the differences and then repetitive patterns of the correlations. But it is not until the baby is several months old that he will begin to really understand enough about that enormously complex correlation of sensations and boundaries and desires called an object to be able to reach for one. This object will not be a primary experience. It will be a complex pattern of static values derived from primary experience. (Pirsig, 1991, 122-123)  

This process of pattern recognition - deduction - is developed as a skill which the growing child uses more swiftly to create more and more objects of knowledge and In this way static patterns of value become the universe of distinguishable things.  Elementary static distinctions between such entities as 'before' and 'after' and between  'like' and 'unlike' grow into enormously complex patterns of knowledge that are transmitted from generation to generation as the mythos, the culture in which we live. (Pirsig, 1991, 123)  

Knowledge then is our response to the environment. We form conscious analogues of experience - static patterns of value – in order to make sense of that experience. Without this ability we would be unable to act in the world (Pirsig. 1974. 252) since we would be adrift in a world of utterly dynamic experience.  

Dewey too sees knowing as an interaction of an organism with its environment (Moore. 1961. 191). In his theory of inquiry he holds, like Peirce and Pirsig, that we immediately experience the world but that experience itself has no significance - that it is not a sign of anything. Knowledge however is not immediate (as it is in spectator theories of knowledge), rather it comes mediately through acting upon the world of experience (Moore. 1961, 194). This is because, in Dewey's system, knowing is identical with the known, together they form one situation for inquiry in which knowing actually creates the object that is known. Pirsig too is quite clear on this point - the object, the baby's rattle say, does not exist prior to being known. It is does not exist in experience as a rattle, it is simply a pattern of values which stimulate consciousness to form an object (of knowledge).  

What makes this idea particularly pragmatic in essence is not simply that knowledge is a response to experience, but that knowledge is purposeful - it enables us to act. Like Pirsig. Dewey believes that there is no ontological separation of subject and object. However, whilst Pirsig sees the dualism arising in consciousness - in our intellectual construction of the world (Pirsig. 1974, 250) - and thus that subject-object dualism occurs as a reality in terms of knowledge, he is not explicit on the implications of this. Dewey realises that knowledge allows us to act precisely because it constructs a dualism, because it separates us from the object of inquiry and thereby allows us to act upon it. Taking Pirsig's example, the baby can act - reach for the rattle - only because he comes to know the distinct patterns of self and object. On this view we see that concepts are instrumental – they are instruments which have the purpose of directing action (reaching for the rattle).  

In James' theory of knowledge he wants to explain cognition, not as a response to external conditions, but as being determined by emotional states and by future concerns. “The interests precede the outer relations noticed.” (James, 1920, in Thayer, 1973, 85) he says external conditions are themselves conditional - that is, coloured and selectively interpreted according to our operative practical and pass ional concerns. (James, 1920, in Thayer, 1973, 84)  

Pirsig agrees with the basic fact that what we are conscious of is itself selectively interpreted from the “endless landscape of awareness,” but departs from James on the basis for that selection. Rather than the subjective interests which James posits, Pirsig posits quality or value - which is the experience of reality – as the basis for selection. Things in the world have value relations to us, and we will become conscious of those things which have the most value, namely patterns of value. Like James Pirsig implicitly rejects the spectator theory of knowledge with this theory.  Knowledge is the  construction of valuable analogues of experience...of the world, and not an immediate  response to an antecedent reality.  One particular class of things that the intellect constructs are facts, in Pirsig's scheme. And James' pragmatism is grounded in the realm of facts. It is facts which have utility or not for James. Facts work more or less successfully for us depending on our interests, aims, needs, and so on. And for James the truth of a fact consists entirely in its utility. This does not mean though that we can choose which facts to believe on a personal whim;  

They (facts) coerce us; we must treat them consistently, whether or not we like the results...Our ideas must agree with realities, be such realities concrete or abstract, be they facts or be they principles, under penalty of endless inconsistency and frustration. (James, 1907, 101)  

Despite such statements though James' critics level their heaviest attacks at this conception of facts, in which truth is determined by subjective interests, and which is thus in constant danger of sliding into relativism. Pirsig however prevents that slide. He offers a conception of truth in which facts are pre-selected not on the basis of a relation of utility with our interests, but on the basis of their quality - which is reality. A valuable fact is one that agrees with experience. Since experience is of reality, the test of the truth of a fact is, ultimately, reality. The problem that drives Pirsig to this position is, in the first instance, his recognition of the paradox involved in science's claim of objectivity. “Which facts are you going to observe?” he asks, “There is an infinity of them.” (Pirsig, 197, 267) Pirsig derives this question from Poincaré in whom he sees a direct continuity of ideas with his own. This particular point is generated by Poincaré’s proof of the infinity of mechanical models that can explain any given phenomenon - see Pirsig, 1974, pp263-272. But Pirsig was independently aware of this problem before reading Poincaré - see Pirsig, 1974, 117).  

Science operates under the spectator theory of knowledge which the pragmatists fundamentally reject. Pirsig gives a strong example which undermines science's theoretical position; he has a particular problem of a screw on his motorcycle that is stuck –  

and the only way it's going to get unstuck is by abandoning further examination of the screw according to traditional scientific method. That won't work. What we have to do is examine traditional scientific method in the light of that stuck screw.  

We have been looking at that screw ‘objectively.’ According to the doctrine of ‘objectivity,’ which is integral with traditional scientific method, what we like or don't like about that screw has nothing to do with our correct thinking. We should not evaluate what we see. We should keep our mind a blank tablet which nature fills for us, and then reason disinterestedly from the facts we observe.  

But when we stop and think about it disinterestedly, in terms of this stuck screw, we begin to see that this whole idea of disinterested observation is silly. Where are those facts? What are we going to observe disinterestedly? The torn slot? The immovable side cover plate? The colour of the paint job? The speedometer? The sissy bar? As Poincaré would have said, there are an infinite number of facts about the motorcycle, and the right ones don't just dance up and introduce themselves. The right facts, the ones we really need, are not only passive, they are damned elusive, and we're not going to just sit back and ‘observe’ them. We're going to have to be in there looking for them or we're going to be here a long time. Forever. (Pirsig, 1974, 284-285)  Pirsig's proposed means is recognisably Deweyian in its emphasis upon actively looking for the facts. Indeed Pirsig has offered a prime example of a situation, in Dewey's sense of the word, which requires inquiry. There is a problem, the solution to which can only be achieved through the activity of knowing.  

In the light of Poincaré’s proof of the infinity of mechanical explanations, it would seem that the only possible criteria for selecting a fact or an hypothesis is that of value. There can be no other rational basis for selecting one fact instead of another fact, except that the chosen fact is more valuable. In Pirsig's scheme it is the experiencing being that evaluates facts. Facts are pre-selected (in experience) to enter consciousness because they are valuable. It is the sense of harmony of the cosmos,  which makes us choose the facts most fitting to contribute to this harmony. It is not the  facts but the relations of things that results in the universal harmony that is the sole objective reality. (Pirsig, 1974, 270)  

Because the “relations of things” are value relations - more or less valuable - we select the facts that have the most value in their relation to us. Unlike James' conception of truth, Pirsig's is not of a subjective truth. James offers the threefold criteria of ‘forced,’ ‘living,’ and ‘momentous’ as the mark that an hypothesis should be believed, but these criteria cannot be objectively determined. And furthermore these criteria indicate that James believed hypotheses are consciously selected, that we make a conscious decision to accept or reject hypotheses, and this opens James to Pirsig's criticism - that we cannot possibly choose from an infinity of hypotheses in such a manner. Pirsig's idea of pre-selection overcomes these problems – The pre-selection of facts is not based on subjective, capricious ‘whatever you like’ but on Quality, which is reality itself. (Pirsig, 1974, 271)  

The sense of harmony which guides the selection of facts, and which guarantees their truth, is the source of subjects and objects and exists in an anterior relationship to them. It is not capricious, it is the force that opposes capriciousness; the ordering principle of all scientific and mathematical thought which destroys capriciousness, and without which no scientific thought can proceed. (,Pirsig, 1974, 272)  

Peirce, who maintained the reality of relations on the grounds that while cognition is limited to particulars only, experience is not (Moore, 1961, 100), holds a remarkably similar view of the way in which we select on the basis of those relations. Like Pirsig and Poincaré, Peirce recognises the problem that the plurality of possible hypotheses poses for traditional ideas of reasoning. Whilst not armed with Poincaré’s proof of the infinity of mechanical explanations, Peirce concludes that the possible theories, if not  strictly innumerable, at any rate exceed a trillion (Moore, 1961, 82)  

And so he asks, How is it that man ever came by any correct theories about nature? (Peirce, 1931-1935, in Moore, 1961, 81)

It is worth quoting his answer in full in order to see clearly its similarity with Pirsig's idea of ‘harmonious reasoning’;  

You cannot seriously think that every little chicken, that is hatched, has to rummage through all possible theories until it lights upon the good idea of picking up something and eating it. On the contrary, you think the chicken has an innate idea of doing this; that is to say, that it can think of this, but has no faculty of thinking anything else. The chicken you say pecks by instinct. But if you are going to think every poor chicken endowed with an innate tendency toward a positive truth, why should you think that to man alone this gift is denied? If you carefully consider with an unbiased mind all the circumstances of the early history of science and all the other facts bearing on the question...I am quite sure that you must be brought to acknowledge that man's mind has a natural adaptation to imagining, correct theories about forces, without some glimmer of which he could not form social ties and consequently could not reproduce his kind. In short, the instincts conducive to reproduction, must have involved from the beginning certain tendencies to think truly about physics on the one hand, and about psychics, on the other. It is somehow more than a figure of speech to say that nature fecundates the mind of man with ideas which, when those ideas grow up, will resemble their father, nature. (Peirce, 1931-1935, in Moore, 1963, 82-83)  

It seems that Pirsig's contribution to this reasoning has been to show the way in which “nature fecundates the mind of man with ideas.” He has significantly strengthened Peirce's argument by showing that nature does not merely push the right facts into our minds, but that in our relationship with the world we evaluate facts and hypotheses about that world in experience, and then select, pre-consciously, the most valuable ones for consideration. On Peirce's view knowledge seems passive - it is simply given instinctively, but for Pirsig the process is an active one – we actively evaluate and select ideas on the basis of our instinctive sense of harmony.  

Moore finds Peirce's view to be a strong one, but one which should not be accepted or rejected, rather it should be tentatively adopted as a basis for development until psychology can satisfactorily account either way for these instinctual powers (Moore, 1963, 83). Are these instincts fallible? Reliable? Unlimited? By what mechanism do they work? Psychology only can provide answers to these questions, until then it would seem that we have every reason to treat Pirsig's idea in the same tentative way that Moore advocates for Peirce's. Until the source of hypotheses and the necessary (in the light of Poincaré’s of proof of the infinity of mechanical explanations) selection of facts can be accounted for differently, the remarkable success of scientific method would seem to have no better explanation.  


In a review of ZAMM (Wagner, 1976, 45-46) Wagner criticises Pirsig's philosophy for a lack of moral concern. He understands Pirsig's conclusions to be that The only moral issue is whether or not your work is "Quality." (Wagner, 1976, 46)  Pirsig has no sense of right or wrong, he believes. This attack, which stems from Pirsig's emphasis on quality, brings to mind criticisms of James' pragmatism for its emphasis upon practicality and individual satisfaction at the cost of truth and morality. On this view James must allow murder as a good thing if such an act satisfies the murderer. Of course, James never meant this but he tried in vain to refute such interpretations. Wagner asks a question of Pirsig which could have also been asked of James;  

Would Pirsig object to making more deadly weapons systems or spy devices for the FBI if he could work in a craftsmanlike way? (Wagner, 1976, 46)  

Here Wagner refers to Pirsig's belief that his concept of quality means that the way to achieve the good in what you do is to care (Pirsig, 1974, 300). Subject-object metaphysics prevents identification by separating the worker from the work, but a metaphysics of quality entails involvement and care which, in terms of work, is expressed in craftsmanship. Now, Wagner's reading of Pirsig is correct to the extent that he is not explicit, in ZAMM, on a concept of morality. However Wagner is mistaken in his understanding of Pirsig's fundamental moral position which is implicit. Specifically, Wagner sees Pirsig's goal to be to order the universe and  make his place in it through mechanistic thinking alone, rather than with the head  and the heart integrated, seeing as one. (Wagner, 1976, 46)  

Whatever led the critic to this conclusion, Pirsig's primary motive is the exact opposite of this. He wants to expand reason beyond mechanistic thinking so that reason can also involve values. To analytic thought he wants to add evaluation as well. His entire project is one of unification - it is to unify mechanistic thinking with the emotional and the spiritual, thus he attempts to demonstrate that experience is not a poor relation of knowledge but is as important as it. Translated back into Wagner's terms, Pirsig is emphatically trying to reunite ‘head and heart.’ It is dualistic metaphysics, which Pirsig seeks to destroy, that separates ‘head and heart,’ truth and value, knowledge and morals and, as Dewey realises, it is that dualistic thinking which has historically elevated the ‘head’ (knowledge, truth,) above the ‘heart’ (feeling, values) because it had held certainty to be the desirable ideal, and held the uncertainty which characterises the human realm to be undesirable (Dewey, 1929, pp 3-25). Dewey sees the root of this attitude to lie in the belief that knowledge must correspond with reality, and that since knowledge is of the fixed and unchanging, the real must be fixed and unchanging. Thus, because reality is held to be valuable, knowledge comes to be elevated above desire and purpose (Dewey, 1929, 21). Like Dewey, Pirsig holds that reality is not fixed but that it is characterised by change (is dynamic), and that experience rather than knowledge is the way that we can access that reality. So, returning to the implicit idea of morality in ZAMM, it is the concept of reality as quality that means that Pirsig holds a strong moral position; reality is quality - the good - and is the source of all our conscious constructions of the good (aesthetical and ethical). Because we experience reality, and because experience guides us in everything we do and think, it is ultimately the good which guides us and, since this good is the source of our intellectually constructed morality it must itself be moral.  

A similar reasoning can be used to defend James against equivalent interpretations. His idea of satisfaction as the thing which guides our actions is not meant to entail that we can choose what satisfies us and therefore do whatever takes our fancy. Above all James was a moralist. When he says that truth is one species of good,  and not... a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. The true is the name  of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief (James, 1907, in Thayer, 1973, 90)  he is asserting the moral basis of truth. Like Pirsig he holds that truth is derived from primary experience. It is beliefs which we consider true that make us act and, therefore, as with Pirsig, the source of satisfaction (in our actions) is experience of reality and not personal whim.  

Despite Wagner's mistaken view of Pirsig, he does at least raise the vital question of morals in Pirsig's system. As a development of the ideas in ZAMM, LILA addresses this issue directly (as one might gather from its sub-title - AN INQUIRY INTO MORALS). It is from this second text that we can derive a definitive refutation of Wagner's criticism. It is also there that Pirsig offers not only a recognisably pragmatic moral theory, but perhaps a unique contribution to ethical philosophy in general with the concept of an evolutionary morality.  

Pirsig's moral theory begins by identifying what we ordinarily call ‘morality’ as being merely traditional, social and religious meanings, which need to be replaced by more a fundamental meaning if we are going to truly understand morality (Pirsig, 1991, 100). By ‘fundamental’ of course, he means a morality based on reality. Because Quality is morality. Make no mistake about it. They're identical. And if Quality is the primary reality of the world then that means morality is also the primary reality of the world. The world is primarily a moral order. (Pirsig, 1991, 100)  

This is basically an exposition of the idea of morality that is implicit in ZAMM. In LILA however the concept of quality is considerably developed upon when Pirsig makes a primary metaphysical sub-division of dynamic quality-static quality, and it is this division which allows the formation of his moral theory.  

The pragmatic heart of the theory is that static patterns of value are constantly changing or evolving in response to something that has more quality than their situation. All static patterns – ‘matter,’ living creatures, laws of nature, society, truths, and so on - must change because the reality in which they exist is dynamic. Pirsig's pragmatism consists in his idea that they ‘change for the better’ (because quality is dynamic.. .because change is the good) (Pirsig, 1991, 148).  

To understand this we need to understand Pirsig's definitions of dynamic and static quality. Their values are different - one is the value of change, the other is the value of stability - and so morality - that which is the moral good - is different in terms of each.  

Dynamic Quality is the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality, the source of all things, completely simple and always new... It contains no pattern of fixed rewards and punishments. Its only perceived good is freedom and its only perceived evil is static quality itself - any pattern of one-sided fixed values that tries to contain and kill the ongoing free force of life.  

Static quality. ..emerges in the wake of Dynamic Quality. It is old and complex. It always contains a component of memory. Good is conformity to an established pattern of fixed values and value objects. Justice and law are identical. Static morality is full of heroes and villains, loves and hatreds, carrots and sticks. Its values don't change by themselves. Unless they are altered by Dynamic Quality they say the same thing year after year. (Pirsig, 1991, 119)  

Regarding dynamic quality, its place in Pirsig's moral system is quite simple; it is the good. The more dynamic a static pattern is, the better.. .the more moral it is. In terms of static patterns the dynamic represents freedom from other static patterns (Pirsig, 1991, 307). Dewey's equivalent concept is that of adaptation to the environment. Life, for Dewey, is growth, not growth toward an end, (but growth as an end in itself. The ability to adapt (for Pirsig - the dynamic aspect of a static biological pattern) is that which enables growth (Thayer, 1973, 119), thus he says  The process of growth, of improvement and progress rather than the static outcome and result, becomes the significant thing. Not health as an end fixed once for all, but the needed improvement in health - a continual process - is the end and good. The end is no longer a terminus or limit to be reached. It is the active process of transforming the existent situation. Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever-enduring process of perfecting, maturing, refining is the aim of living. Honesty, industry, temperance, justice, like health, wealth and learning, are not goods to be possessed as they would be if they expressed fixed ends to be attained. They are directions of change in the quality of experience. Growth itself is the only moral “end.” (Dewey, 1920, in Thayer, 1973, 142)  

When Pirsig states that:  All life is a migration of static patterns of quality toward Dynamic Quality. (Pirsig, 1991, 143)  he means precisely what Dewey meant. Dynamic quality is an end, the end toward which life is heading, but, by definition, it is not a fixed, static end. It is change itself that life moves toward. Does Pirsig mean the same thing by ‘dynamic quality’ as Dewey's emphasis on ‘growth’? If we now turn to Pirsig's concept of evolution we will see that he does, and that they agree entirely upon what is the only moral “end.” In a metaphysics based on ‘substance’ change can only be explained as the effect of a prior cause. Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality replaces ‘cause’ with ‘value’ (Pirsig, 1991, 107) and so reverses the picture;  

Instead of saying ‘A magnet causes iron filings to move toward it,’ you can say ‘Iron filings value movement toward a magnet.’ (Pirsig, 1991, 107)  

and this is essential for his pragmatic moral theory. If change is a matter of cause and effect then there can be nothing good, nothing moral about it - it just happens mechanically. But if evolutionary change is based upon values then it is fundamentally moral. It is on the basis of this that Pirsig can state that “everything is an ethical activity.” (Pirsig, 1991, 161) We might take the liberty of slightly altering the statement though, in order to make more sense of it, to ‘every activity is an ethical tone.’ That is, every activity is a change of the status quo, therefore, because in Pirsig's system all change is in response to quality, every activity is evolutionary, and therefore it is moral.  

When inorganic patterns of reality create life the Metaphysics of Quality postulates that they've done so because it's ‘better’ and that this definition of ‘betterness’ – this beginning response to Dynamic Quality - is an elementary unit of ethics upon which all right and wrong can be based. (Pirsig, 1991, 161)  

We can trace the fundamental reasoning for this right back to Peirce who began the entire chapter of American pragmatism's ethical theorising. Like Pirsig he recognised that any ethics had to be based upon a concept of the good. The only question of importance in ethics, was for Peirce, “what am I to aim at?” (Peirce, 1931-1935, in Coppleston, 1966, 318) - thereby making the outcome, the end of conduct, and not the cause of conduct, the important thing.  

Peirce and Pirsig then share the picture of a good which ‘pulls’ rather than a cause which ‘pushes.’ Activity, change, is goal driven and thus moral. Peirce concludes then that  

The supreme good is really the evolutionary process itself considered as the progressive rationalization of reality (Peirce, 1931-1935, in Coppleston, 1966, 318)  

For Pirsig the supreme good is actually dynamic quality, but, in terms of static patterns of quality - of things that exist in the world, he would agree entirely with Peirce; in terms of static patterns evolution is morality. However they disagree upon the nature of that process - Pirsig agrees with Dewey that there is no fixed end but only continuous change (or - growth), whilst Peirce's teleological picture holds a definite end - of a unified, rationalised cosmos (Moore, 1961, 92).  

At this point Pirsig's evolutionary morality goes beyond any pragmatic conception. Dewey's naturalism, as an advance on previous pragmatic ethics, comes closest of all perhaps. There he draws from Darwinian evolutionary theory, and realises that moral conceptions and processes grow naturally out of the very conditions of human life (Dewey, 1908, in Moore, 1961, 217)  

- that our morality flows from our experience of change. Darwin enabled Dewey to state this by revealing that, as organic beings, we do not have any objective finalities, toward which we should develop, except the “end” of continuous evolution. Pirsig agrees with this as we have seen, but the development of his theory stands as considerable advance upon this position - in which morality is not only derived from experience of the world but actually covers everything in the world. Pragmatism can only apply morals to purposeful beings, which for the founders of pragmatism meant only human beings (in terms of both their physical and their cognitive actions), Pirsig however radically expands on this so that everything is purposeful and thus moral. So, from this point our sketching of the majority of his theory can have no direct comparison with the pragmatists. So far we have tried to demonstrate that at its fundamental level, Pirsig's theory is wholly pragmatic. For the following we can only consider that it is pragmatic, not through supporting arguments from the pragmatists, but by demonstrating that Pirsig's ideas do not contradict their pragmatic basis. Pirsig divides static quality into four exhaustive systems; the inorganic, the biological, the social and the intellectual (Pirsig.1991. 153). These systems are not continuous, one is built upon another but each is discrete - each has its own set of values – and they can have conflictory relationships. An example of this is that our biological nature is often in conflict with our social nature, for instance - society seeks to control the sexuality of its population ‘for the good of society.’ If uncontrolled our sexuality would undermine and destroy society. Static biological patterns have values (the sex drive) which is in conflict with the values of static social patterns (order, decency, and conventional ‘morality’).  

Based on this distinction of static patterns Pirsig offers five moral codes; inorganic-chaotic, biological-inorganic, social-biological, intellectual-social, and dynamic-static (Pirsig, 1991, 307).   The first, inorganic-chaotic, is explained on the basis" that, as far as inorganic patterns  are concerned, that from which they have directly evolved from - dynamic quality - is chaotic. The last code - dynamic-static - is the all encompassing code to which all of the other codes are subject. Each static pattern has its own values, for instance static intellectual patterns value the truth (the most valuable intellectual patterns are true ones), but the most valuable truths (the most moral truths) are those which are most dynamic.  

These moral codes are absolute. The moral precedence must always lie with the higher level of evolution, so that static inorganic patterns are always more moral than chaos, biological patterns are always more moral than inorganic patterns, social patterns are always more moral than biological patterns, and intellectual patterns are always more moral than social patterns. Pirsig's reasoning for this stems from the fact that change is always in response to “something better” (Pirsig, 1991, 148), therefore it is always evolutionary, therefore the evolutionary development is of higher quality...is more moral. This reasoning itself depends on Pirsig's novel interpretation of evolutionary theory. He asks  

But why does the fittest survive? Why does any life survive? It's illogical. It's self-contradictory that life should survive. If life is strictly a result of the physical and chemical forces of nature then why is life opposed to these same forces in its struggle to survive? (Pirsig, 1991, 144)  

and he gives an answer which is not teleological in the ordinary sense - not that life moves toward a fixed goal, but a teleology which is in line with the pragmatists. Life, he says, is not heading toward a fixed pattern, but is heading away from fixed, mechanical patterns (Pirsig, 1991, 146). The static patterns of life are heading towards dynamic quality. The ‘fittest’ that survive in Darwinian theory can only mean the ‘best.’ “Natural selection is Dynamic Quality at work.” Pirsig concludes (Pirsig, 1991, 148).  

Naturally there is no mechanism toward which life is heading. Mechanisms are the enemy of life. The more static and unyielding the mechanisms are, the more life works to evade and overcome them. The law of gravity, for example, is perhaps the most ruthless static pattern of order in the universe. So, correspondingly, there is no single living thing that does not thumb its nose at that law day in and day out. One could almost define life as the organized disobedience of the law of gravity. One could show that the degree to which an organism disobeys this law is a measure of its degree of evolution. Thus, while the simple protozoa just barely get around on their cilia, earthworms manage to control their distance and direction, birds fly into the sky, and man goes all the way to the moon. (Pirsig, 1991, 147)  

We remember that for Dewey growth meant the continual adaptation to the environment in order to overcome problems in our relationship to it. The kernel of Pirsig's idea seems to be exactly that; we change in an evolutionary way (we adapt) in order to overcome the problems posed by static patterns (our environment). On the basis of this evolutionary theory Pirsig believes that we can unite science and ethics (Pirsig, 1991, 161). Moral questions can be considered and answered scientifically because, in his system, morals have a reality - an evolutionary reality. Thus we can now return to Wagner's question which we can now answer definitively and scientifically; would Pirsig object to making more deadly weapons systems for the FBI if he could work in a craftsmanlike way? Now, the FBI is a social institution - a static social pattern of values - and weapons systems are part of that static social pattern, they are instruments of social control. Pirsig must say that it is categorically immoral to create such killing devices because, not only would they result in the destruction of biological patterns of value - physical beings - (which would be moral in his system since it would be a higher level of evolution, society, protecting itself against its potential destruction by a lower level - the biological) but they would also result in the destruction of intellectual patterns - thinking beings and their ideas - which is absolutely immoral since that would be a lower level, the social pattern, killing a higher level – the intellectual pattern.  

This is what Pirsig means by the unification of science and ethics. All moral questions can be answered definitively with reference to the five moral codes. The moral choice is always the more evolutionary, the more dynamic one. In practical terms the theory would seem to be quite complex and far from simple though. How for instance would we decide between two courses of action, both of which affect the same evolutionary level of static quality? Between, for instance, killing one person rather than another (as in the argument over abortion in cases in which the failure to abort would result in the death of the mother)? However, despite what could amount to serious difficulties with the theory, it is not our place here to discuss them. Pragmatism, and Pirsig's pragmatism, are, like any philosophy, imperfect systems. What we have tried to show in this chapter is that Pirsig has developed a moral theory which is worthy of consideration simply because it stands as a significant development of pragmatic ethics - from the pragmatic understanding that evolution is the basis of morality Pirsig has constructed a radically extended moral theory which covers, in a categorical way. everything that exists, from atomic particles to ideas - not because it is a perfect theory in itself.  


I think metaphysics is good if it improves everyday life; otherwise forget it.  (Pirsig, 1974, 249)  

Pirsig says infamously in ZAMM. And we recognise the fundamentally pragmatic spirit in the statement. A large part of the pragmatist's thinking is in the form of radical criticisms of traditional philosophy on exactly these grounds - much of western philosophy not only does not improve the quality of everyday life, but has actually had a negative effect upon it. And so their philosophy was constructed precisely as a means of redressing the balance. It is a philosophical movement which aims at reunification of philosophy with life, of knowledge with experience, of truth with the good. Although Pirsig's means are unconventional, his project can be demonstrated to be wholly pragmatic. In a sense his texts may be seen as a demonstration of the pragmatic intention. In them he does unify philosophy with everything else that goes to make up a persons life.  

This intention though should not be used as a reason for ignoring or denying the philosophical aspect of Pirsig's work. We have shown in outline that his philosophy is a substantial one – it provides much ground for comparison with the work of Peirce, James, and Dewey. It is also a coherent philosophy that seems to remain consistent throughout, that is, from the central concept of reality as being dynamic quality, his concepts of experience, knowledge, truth, and of evolutionary morality follow logically and without contradiction. If one accepts the concept of dynamic quality then it is difficult to see how one could then deny any of the ideas which Pirsig believes that it entails.  

His philosophy then, which he calls the Metaphysics of Quality, seems to deserve rather more consideration, as a genuine philosophy, than it has so far received. Not only is it interesting and controversial in its own right, but it is also consistent with and a significant development of American pragmatism. The fundamental development consists in the metaphysical concept of reality. This is not found in previous pragmatic thought, but it does not contradict it either. In fact it seems to allow for considerable strengthening of the pragmatic position in terms of its epistemology, of its idea of truth as the “highest quality intellectual explanation” (Pirsig, 1991, 103), and of its ethics in which morality is shown to be real in the human realm because humans are part of a, quite literally, moral universe.  The Metaphysics of Quality is a continuation of the mainstream of twentieth century American philosophy. It is a form of pragmatism, of instrumentalism, which says the test of the true is the good. It adds that this good is not a social code or some intellectualized Hegelian Absolute. It is a direct everyday experience. Through this identification of pure value with pure experience, the Metaphysics of Quality paves the way for an enlarged way of looking at experience which can resolve all sorts of anomalies that traditional empiricism has not been able to cope with. (Pirsig, 1991, 373)  

Perhaps though the most important thing, the ultimate demonstration of Pirsig's pragmatism is that his philosophy grounds out in everyday action...in everyday life. Like the founders of pragmatism Pirsig shows above all that there is a demonstrable reason why that which we feel is good, is good. Experience is not subjective, it is of the good, therefore the moral good issues directly from reality. Pragmatism breaks the picture in which knowledge is somehow ‘higher’ than experience and action. It does this by showing that knowledge is actually a form of action which is guided by experience. Pirsig's contribution has been to show that that experience is of an absolutely real good. Furthermore, the moral theory that this gives rise to is an extremely interesting one. It is perhaps the most dramatic advance that he makes upon pragmatism, which is itself, for most critics, above all a moral philosophy. If for this reason alone, Pirsig's philosophy deserves to be re-evaluated in order to generate further analysis of its concepts.  

With thanks to Paul Turner and its author, Dean Summers in re-constituting this high quality paper on Pirsig nearly lost to posterity.  If you would like to contact Dean directly about his paper, he can be reached at: D.Summers@shu.ac.uk



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