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 Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

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MOQ Textbook


Introduction to
Robert Pirsig’s
Metaphysics of Quality


Anthony McWatt


Textbook Introduction

Textbook Preface

Chapter 1: Why Pirsig devised the MOQ

Chapter 2: A general overview of the MOQ

Chapter 3: Subject-object metaphysics

Chapter 4: Metaphysical problems of SOM

Chapter 5: The MOQ and Eastern philosophy

Chapter 6: Quality and alienation

Textbook Epilogue

Textbook Bibliography




In this text, I take the general line that the MOQ, despite some drawbacks, is a positive development for Western metaphysics.  It commences with a brief chapter examining the anthropological origins of the system.  There then follows a general overview of the MOQ and, then a chapter devoted to how it deals with the metaphysical problems of modern Western philosophy.  The next chapter is dedicated to how the MOQ relates to East Asian philosophy followed, finally, by an enquiry devoted to applying the MOQ more practically in the context of alienation.

A note from Robert Pirsig

Anthony McWatt comes closer than anyone to being a dharma successor of my own work on the Metaphysics of Quality. By ‘dharma’ is meant a duty that transcends one’s own personal self. It was this sense of dharma that made me write Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance over a period of four years when no one, including myself, thought it would ever be published. I think it’s this same sense that has caused Mr. McWatt to study for so many years to produce this clarification and expansion. He has been so painstaking here because he’s not just trying to entertain you or instruct you with philosophic details. His purpose here is to permanently enlarge and improve understanding at the most general levels of philosophic comprehension. The Metaphysics of Quality is a radically different way of understanding the universe but, as McWatt makes it clear in this treatise, its conclusions are not necessarily untrue.

Robert Pirsig

April 2003




At a 1998 presentation in London for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Professor Harry Kroto[i] unexpectedly spent his time elucidating the merits of meccano[ii] instead of discussing his recent Nobel award winning discovery of Carbon 60.  His argument being that students require tactile experience to know when to stop tightening a screw and computer use alone doesn’t teach this.  When asked[iii] at the end of the lecture, whether he had read Robert Pirsig’s[iv] Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM),[v] Kroto replied: ‘Yes, and that’s what it’s all about!’ 

Conversely, in a 1991 review for Pirsig’s second book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (LILA), Dan Cryer of the New York Newsday remarked:  ‘Like the village crank hanging out at the public library, the guy really believes he has discovered the secret of the universe’.[vi]  I doubt Pirsig has discovered the secret of the universe though the writer of the classic[vii] novel ZMM has formulated a new metaphysics from first principles that may yet prove to be a useful one.  This is the ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ (or ‘MOQ’) which was first published in LILA.

My initial interest in the issue of values (and specifically Pirsig’s work) developed in the late 1980s while studying art and social theory.  In the latter, I was initially keen to have just the ‘hard facts’ for my academic work but became aware when examining Durkheim’s 1897 study of suicide[viii] that the distinction between facts and values is often ambiguous.[ix]  In his study, Durkheim concluded that in comparison with Protestants, Catholics are less likely to commit suicide because they’re more socially integrated.  However, due to the dogma attached to suicide by traditional Catholic belief, the statistics (i.e. facts) were distorted by some suicides being recorded as other causes of death.[x]  This indicated that Durkheim’s positivistic belief that the methodology of the social scientist should commence with just the collection of pure, objective facts was possibly problematic and that the distinction between facts and values were not as clear-cut as I had previously assumed.

Andre's 'Bricks'

Another issue concerning values, not totally unrelated to social theory, was the classification of certain avant-garde pieces as art.  It was difficult for me to reconcile pieces which lacked any mastery of technique such as Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII of 1966[xi] (pictured) as art; let alone art that pointed towards the transcendent.  For as Daisetz Suzuki (1958, p.xi) notes, even technical ability does not necessarily produce art of Quality:

Mastery of technique alone does not satisfy; we feel in the depths of our consciousness that there is something more to be reached and to be discovered.  Teaching and  learning  are not enough, they do not help us to penetrate the mystery of art; and so long as we have not experienced this mystery, no art is real art.  The mystery belongs to the realm of metaphysics, is beyond rationality; it springs from prajna, transcendental wisdom.

Conversely, I didn’t agree with comments such as Brian Sewell’s that ‘art’ pieces such as Andre’s should ‘be taken to the dump’[xii] because such pieces can be intellectually stimulating.[xiii]  I just thought the distinction between such pieces and art that approached the sublime was not a purely subjective one even though it was difficult to suggest which objective criteria should be applied to distinguish the two.  As with the issue separating facts from values in a scientific study (and especially the social sciences), this issue indicated that values were problematic.  The solution seemed to require philosophical examination and eventually directed my academic interests to Robert Pirsig. 

In 1989, a few weeks after completing the above studies I was introduced to Pirsig’s philosophy while assisting an engineer[xiv] in constructing a steel-framed shed.  While we were working, he made a comment about over-engineering in iron framed Victorian buildings and 1950s motorbikes.  He suggested that I read Pirsig’s ZMM (the ‘engineer’s philosophy book’) as this examined a number of philosophical issues in relation to modern technology.  Not the biggest adherent of motorcycle maintenance, I noted the Pirsig reference but only pursued it six months later with the commencement of an M.A.  These studies contained a large philosophical component and showed that there had also been considerable argument in philosophy about the ontological status of values.  It then seemed a suitable time to follow this line of research.  In reading ZMM, I noted that Pirsig shared my view that values were not just subjective.  Though, additionally, he put forward the more radical (and intuitively false) postulation that actually all subjects and objects were types of value.  Despite my reservations concerning its coherence, his radical thesis elicited enough interest in me to write an M.A. dissertation.  With the publication of LILA in late 1991, Pirsig’s philosophical ideas were developed into a new metaphysical system termed the MOQ.  This was of particular interest as it seemed to make further progress with the fact-value dichotomy.   In consequence, I decided to continue my original query in more depth.  The following text, therefore, is largely based on my Ph.D. thesis though in a more accessible format. 

In this text, I take the general line that the MOQ, despite some drawbacks, is a positive development for Western metaphysics.  It commences with a brief chapter examining the anthropological origins of the system.  There then follows a general overview of the MOQ and, then a chapter devoted to how it deals with the metaphysical problems of modern Western[xv] philosophy.  The next chapter is dedicated to how the MOQ relates to Eastern[xvi] philosophy followed, finally, by an enquiry devoted to applying the MOQ more practically in the context of alienation...


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[i] Professor Sir Harold Kroto was made a Royal Society Research Professor in 1991.  In recognition of the discovery of Carbon 60 (a.k.a. Buckminsterfullerene), he received a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996. (August 6th 2001)

[ii] The engineering toy developed in the 1900s by Frank Hornby for building model bridges, cars etc.

[iii] The question was asked by a student of mine, Dr Mathias Brust.  Brust is a lecturer at the University of Liverpool’s Chemistry Department who were involved in research with Kroto.

[iv] 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).

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

[vi] Pirsig (1995d) notes:

‘The hardest thing for me to deal with since the publication of Lila has been the complete disbelief of many that quality is or can be anything real…  The solution to this cultural resistance to the MOQ may come from the Orient where quality is a central reality.  But there the problem is reversed.  A famous Japanese Zen master who read ZMM told me he thought it was a nice book but he didn’t see anything unusual in it.’ 

[vii] It’s doubtful that Pirsig’s status as an academic outsider has helped in the serious consideration of his work.  As the Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, once quipped, no one has ever advanced an academic career by writing a popular book.  However, Plato, Nietzsche and Sartre also successfully combined popular narrative with philosophy and others, such as Iris Murdoch and Olaf Stapledon, also wrote philosophy and fiction, though their work was clearly fictional or philosophical.

[viii] (July 12th 2001)

[ix] The fact-value dichotomy is also known as the ‘is-ought problem’ or ‘Hume’s Principle’.  It was originally noted in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1738) section III/1/1.

[x] A similar contemporary example is seen in the recording of pneumonia as a cause of death in UK hospitals.  It is often the last illness a person suffers but, in many cases, the pneumonia itself is caused by other illnesses (such as AIDS).  As with Durkheim’s Catholics, a celebrity’s family, for instance, might not desire the wider world to know the full picture.

[xi] The notorious Equivalent VIII (or the ‘Tate Bricks’) is 120 firebricks simply arranged on two tiers. There has been controversy about classifying the bricks as art since the Tate bought the piece in 1972.

[xii] Sewell is the London Evening Standard critic.  His original quote reads ‘Let’s return this rubbish to the dump.’  See Kenan Malik’s article The good, the bad and the avant-garde (July 11th 2001)

[xiii] As I noticed when visiting the Tate from the amount of debate generated between my students by most pieces.

[xiv] John Middleton who is a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at Liverpool John Moores University.

[xv] In this text, the term ‘Western philosophy’ denotes the Anglo-American and Continental traditions and the term ‘Eastern philosophy’ denotes the traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism and Taoism. 

[xvi] Eastern, in this context, refers to the countries of the ‘East Asia’ such as India, Japan, Malaysia, Tibet and China.