UK hardback edition




Other papers on this website:

Key selections from the 1993 AHP transcript

The 1993 AHP transcript-Part 1

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 2

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 3

The 1993 AHP Transcript-Part 4

David Granger's Aesthetics Paper

PhD Commentary

An Open Letter to Sam Harris

Art & the MOQ by Robert Pirsig

An Introduction to
 Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

Khoo Hock Aun's Paper

An MOQ Summary by Robert Pirsig

David Buchanan's Art & Morality Paper

Gavin Gee-Clough's "Brisbane Winter" Paper 

 Henry Gurr's MOQ presentation


Sneddon Thesis

- Part One


Sneddon Thesis - Part Two

David Buchanan's 2006 Paper

Observer Interview

The MOQ & Time

The MOQ & Education

Pirsig & Pragmatism

Chai at the Lazy Lounge















The Two Contexts of the Metaphysics of Quality

by Paul Turner


   June 2013  



I've updated my "Two Theses" post from 2005 and changed it to "Two Contexts" which seems more appropriate.  Looking at the MD lately I think a lot of time is wasted by people arguing from one context against the other so I hope this helps reduce that in some way.  I'm not sure how well it will be received when it is finally published though; in its initial presentation on the MD years ago it managed to be both superfluous and over-complicated at the same time!



Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) is not presented in the style of a traditional academic treatise but is instead interwoven in the plots of two novels Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (LILA).  Though not a unique style, for those wishing to understand the philosophical thesis contained within the novels, it can present a difficulty for the reader in at least two respects.  First is the difficulty of picking out the key expositional elements from each text from the illustrative, biographical and purely narrative elements of the plot.  Second is the difficulty of extracting a consistent philosophy across two novels published 17 years apart.  It is to the second difficulty that this short paper is addressed.


When piecing together the expositional elements of the two novels, I believe it is imperative to recognise two contexts within the overall presentation and application of the MOQ.  I suggest that the two contexts represent distinct stages in the MOQ’s development and that the first context is not so much left behind as providing the epistemological basis for the second, more ontological context.  Moreover, I suggest it is sometimes necessary to back up into the first context to answer questions mistakenly or inappropriately levelled at the second.  In the following I will try to briefly outline the scope of each context, as I see them.


Although restated in parts of LILA prior to Chapter 11, context (1) is mainly described in ZMM culminating with Phaedrus's declaration, towards the end of his classes with the Chairman, that “[Dynamic] Quality is the generator of everything we know.”


What is meant by this statement is that the sum total of our understanding of the world around us has always been and still is created by value-led experience (referred to by Pirsig as Dynamic Quality), beginning with prehistoric myths and hymns, progressing through rhetoric, dialectic and logic to the contemporary understanding in which the immortal gods of the past have been replaced with immortal laws of nature.  From this perspective, our experience of the everyday world of distinguishable things is understood as ongoing Dynamic Quality within the context of different static patterns of knowledge, or, in ZMM terms, analogues[1], as opposed to experience of the pre-existing substance or a priori concepts presumed in various forms by subject-object based metaphysics.


The largely epistemological context (1) is elaborated in a thread of several key statements.  The narrator’s comments early on in ZMM, during a conversation with the Sutherlands in a motel near Ellendale, are a clear example of context (1):


Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. [ZMM, Chapter 3]


Although not named here, the narrator is talking about what he later refers to as the mythos, an understanding of which is central to context (1): 


The mythos is a building of analogues upon analogues upon analogues. These fill the collective consciousness of all communicating mankind. Every last bit of it. [ZMM, Chapter 28]


Phaedrus comes to see that all things exist within a mythos that has no reality outside of human experience.  In one of ZMM’s most striking statements (originally written as part of a 1961 conference paper Quality in Freshman Writing) we see an early expression of context (1) of the MOQ wherein the relationship between the mythos and Dynamic Quality is proposed:


In our highly complex organic state we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvelous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilization 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 [Dynamic] Quality. [Dynamic] 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. [ZMM, Chapter 20]


This process of the value-driven human invention of knowledge is reiterated and elaborated in LILA when discussing the emergence of these analogues (or “static quality patterns”) from Dynamic Quality in the consciousness of a baby:


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.


Once the baby has made a complex pattern of values called an object and found this pattern to work well he quickly develops a skill and speed at jumping through the chain of deductions that produced it, as though it were a single jump. This is similar to the way one drives a car. The first time there is a very slow trial-and-error process of seeing what causes what. But in a very short time it becomes so swift one doesn't even think about it. The same is true of objects. One uses these complex patterns the same way one shifts a car, without thinking about them. Only when the shift doesn't work or an 'object' turns out to be an illusion is one forced to become aware of the deductive process. That is why we think of subjects and objects as primary. We can't remember that period of our lives when they were anything else.


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. [LILA, Chapter 9]


Moving beyond ZMM and LILA, we see this context being used by Pirsig when he states in LILA'S CHILD[2] that "Philosophic idealism is part of the MOQ" and again in such statements as:


It is important for an understanding of the MOQ to see that although "common sense" dictates that inorganic nature came first, actually "common sense" which is a set of ideas, has to come first. This "common sense" is arrived at through a huge web of socially approved evaluations of various alternatives. The key term here is "evaluation," i.e., quality decisions. The fundamental reality is not the common sense or the objects and laws approved of by common sense but the approval itself and the quality that leads to it. [LILA'S CHILD, Notes on Annotation 97]


Having now outlined context (1) with some key supporting statements, I will briefly consider its philosophical consequences and relationship to context (2).  A key epistemological point made by context (1) is that, in contrast to materialism, knowledge does not consist of (more or less) accurate representations of the properties of a human-independent world.  Rather, it is proposed that the properties of the world arise within the composition of human knowledge.  It is here that it agrees with philosophic idealism inasmuch as idealism and philosophic mysticism share a common assumption that there is no independent objective world to which ideas may or may not correspond.  Crucially, and in contrast to idealism, the MOQ adds that the properties contained within human knowledge emerge and change in relation to ongoing Dynamic Quality and the value judgements it guides within the context of existing patterns as opposed to being the product of some form of fundamental, independent mind (such as the Platonic Forms or a theistic God).


Context (1) opposes correspondence epistemology by subordinating the true to the good and the logical consequences of this for the “truth” of any body of knowledge, including the MOQ, need to be understood and kept in mind at all times by any student of the MOQ.  Starting from its philosophic mystic premises, and in agreement with pragmatism, context (1) of the MOQ proposes that there is no reality - objective, spiritual or otherwise - for static patterns to correspond to insofar as reality is defined as “the state of things as they actually exist.”  The counterpart to static patterns is unpatterned value so correspondence between the two has no meaning.  As with pragmatism, truth becomes a superlative and is a measure of the static quality of a pattern of thought.  This static quality may be “measured” according to the commonly accepted standards of logical consistency, breadth and economy of explanation, amongst others.  Therefore, competing and even contradictory explanations of experience can be considered true at the same time, having lower or higher quality within a particular context of inquiry or action. 


Unlike subject-object metaphysics the Metaphysics of Quality does not insist on a single exclusive truth. If subjects and objects are held to be the ultimate reality then we're permitted only one construction of things - that which corresponds to the 'objective' world - and all other constructions are unreal.


But if Quality or excellence is seen as the ultimate reality then it becomes possible for more than one set of truths to exist. Then one doesn't seek the absolute Truth. One seeks instead the highest quality intellectual explanation of things with the knowledge that if the past is any guide to the future this explanation must be taken provisionally; as useful until something better comes along. One can then examine intellectual realities the same way one examines paintings in an art gallery, not with an effort to find out which one is the 'real' painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value. There are many sets of intellectual reality in existence and we can perceive some to have more quality than others, but that we do so is, in part, the result of our history and current patterns of values. [LILA, Chapter 8]


Considering all of this, and with respect to context (2) which will be outlined below, it must be seen that the MOQ does not say that, “before, we used to think of the universe as composed of matter but really it is composed of value.”  To do this would be to restate the Parmenidean appearance-reality distinction which it is designed to leave behind.  The MOQ says that the existence of value can be empirically verified by anyone and can be logically proven to exist as illustrated by the reductio ad absurdum argument[3] found in Chapter 19 of ZMM.  But regarding the axiom that “reality is value” it can only say that it is better to think of the universe as unpatterned and patterned value than as composed of, e.g., some kind of material substance, or some kind of mind.  It says that this is because when you do so you can explain more of the world, you can explain it better and you can resolve a number of philosophical problems[4] such as the mind-matter relationship, the free will vs determinism problem, causation, substance at the subatomic level, and, of course, the problem of explaining value itself.  Indeed, the unpatterned-patterned, Dynamic-static distinction itself, by highlighting the limited scope of patterns of thought, should be seen as a device to prevent the notion of an ultimate structure of reality itself rather than to propose a new one.  With everything subordinated to unpatterned value, we find that “reality itself” is just the name given to the most valuable explanations and assumptions held by a given culture.  Thus the MOQ is both justified and restrained by its own epistemology.


From the perspective of context (1), then, we can see that the explanations provided by the MOQ, as with all explanations, are both generated and justified by a procession of intellectual value judgements, which leads us to context (2). 


Context (2) is the articulation of a particular intellectual static pattern - the “plain of understanding” - of the MOQ.  In this second, more ontological context we see a transition from the way that Dynamic Quality produces all intellectual value judgments to the explanations that are the product of those value judgments.  These explanations include such things as:


     the evolution of value patterns

     the stratified ontology of the four evolutionary levels

     the moral codes which have evolved along with the levels

     with respect to the first context, the other static patterns that it proposes are required for social and intellectual patterns of knowledge to be able to latch in the first place.


These are the pragmatic high quality explanations of how the world operates in accordance with the assumption that values are the ubiquitous, empirical element of an evolving universe.  Context (2) is effectively laid out in LILA chapters 8-13 and, with a few exceptions, is elaborated by its application to several topics and historical events in the remainder of the book.  Within context (2), within the static mythos, the world does exist outside of the human imagination, inorganic and biological patterns predate the existence of humans, gravitation existed before Newton and evolution before Darwin.  Dynamic Quality is seen as the undefined betterness towards which static patterns migrate and evolve.  


Below are some brief suggestions on how the distinction into two contexts can be put to work in understanding the overall MOQ. To begin, some confusion is evident on philosophy internet discussion forums about the MOQ’s view on material objects and particularly some of Pirsig’s statements on the matter, such as this one:


The MOQ does not deny the traditional scientific view of reality as composed of material substance and independent of us. It says it is an extremely high quality idea. We should follow it whenever it is practical to do so. But the MOQ, like philosophic idealism, says this scientific view of reality is still an idea. If it were not an idea, then that “independent scientific material reality” would not be able to change as new scientific discoveries come in. [LILA'S CHILD, Notes on Annotation 4]


I think the confusion occurs with this statement because it contains the perspectives of both contexts and arguably equivocates on the term “The MOQ” as the name for both of them. I translate this statement as:


The [second context of the] MOQ does not deny the traditional scientific view of reality as composed of material substance and independent of us. It says it is an extremely high quality idea. We should follow it whenever it is practical to do so. But the [first context of the] MOQ, like philosophic idealism, says this scientific view of reality is still an idea. If it were not an idea, then that “independent scientific material reality” would not be able to change as new scientific discoveries come in. [LILA'S CHILD, Notes on Annotation 4]


And another example from LILA’S CHILD:


The MOQ says that Quality comes first, which produces ideas, which produce what we know as matter. The scientific community that has produced Complementarity almost invariably presumes that matter comes first and produces ideas. However, as if to further the confusion, the MOQ says that the idea that matter comes first is a high quality idea! [LILA'S CHILD, Annotation 67]  

Which I translate as:


The [first context of the] MOQ says that Quality comes first, which produces ideas, which produce what we know as matter. The scientific community that has produced Complementarity almost invariably presumes that matter comes first and produces ideas. However, as if to further the confusion, the [second context of the] MOQ says that the idea that matter comes first is a high quality idea! [LILA'S CHILD, Annotation 67]


Related to this is the debate about whether static patterns are “real” or “merely conceptual.”  Again, both positions are supported by one of the two contexts so a “final answer” cannot be given.  Rather, one must select the context which is of most value for the current purpose.  In most cases, with respect to going about daily life, it is most valuable to assume, as per context (2), that static patterns, and the things contained within them, are real (and follow the laws and rules appropriate to the level in which they reside).  In fact, most people do so without any conscious assumptions needing to be made, as noted by the earlier excerpt describing the development of a baby's static awareness.  On the other hand, if dealing with new data which shatter the current set of dominant intellectual patterns, e.g. when challenging the existence of a fundamental particle or assimilating a mystic experience, then context (1) may be more valuable.


I think the distinction between the two contexts also sheds light on other problems of terminology encountered in the MOQ.  For instance, I think the term “intellectual” as it is used in context (1) of the MOQ is often subdivided in context (2) into intellectual and social quality patterns and one should be wary of equivocation here.


The intellectual level of static quality as proposed by context (2) is characterised by the application of systematic abstract thought following rules of valid inference and this characterisation does not apply to all types of thought.  What would be considered as social patterns of thought in context (2) may also be referred to as “intellectual” in context (1).  For example, the narrator’s statement below is written from context (1) and it seems clear that awareness of a tree is something which doesn’t require systematic abstract thought, but is an awareness that, in context (2), would be composed of social and biological patterns as much as, if not more than, intellectual patterns.


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 preintellectual reality is what Phædrus felt he had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this preintellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects. [ZMM, Chapter 20]


Furthermore, the term “pre-intellectual,” which is mostly used within context (1), as exemplified in the statement above, could be modified to “pre-static” (i.e. the experience of value prior to its contextualisation into any static patterns) when used within context (2) so as not to erroneously relate Dynamic Quality solely to the intellectual level of evolution.


Finally, I want to briefly touch upon the similarities and differences between the two contexts of the MOQ and the two truths of Buddhism.  The two truths of Buddhism are typically designated “conventional” and “ultimate” or alternatively they are described as “the world of everyday affairs” and “the world of the buddhas.”   


Conventional truth applies to facts about the everyday reality of things, people and events.  It is designated conventional in the sense of being the product of human interests and dispositions and does not correspond to anything inherently true.  Conventional truth differs over time and between cultures but is the reality in which we live and shouldn’t be seen as something which is dismissed as merely illusory and insignificant, despite some readings of Buddhism to the contrary.


Ultimate truth applies to the world of the buddhas and is inexpressible in the sense that, in the absence of convention, there is no candidate for predication, including the ascription of existence and non-existence itself.  


In the new introduction to LILA, Pirsig writes:


Zen Buddhism is sometimes symbolised with a circle.  The bottom of this circle is where a student of Zen starts.  At the 180 degree top of the circle is Zen enlightenment.  Here the student has completely left the world of everyday affairs, sometimes called “small self,” and entered the world of the buddhas, or “big self.”


But the circle is only half completed.  The student, who has previously been directed by the events of his everyday life, is now directed in the buddhas’ world by a force called “dharma” which translates as “duty” but means a lot more.  He does not just follow this dharma, he is one with it.  He completes the circle, returning with an enlightened understanding to integrate himself with the world of everyday affairs.


ZMM is a journey through the first half of the circle, Lila is a journey into the second half.


Context (2) of the MOQ, which as stated earlier is contained in LILA, is aligned to the conventional truth of the world of everyday affairs, the second half of the circle.  Context (2) and the world of everyday affairs share the perspective from within the static mythos wherein exist all of the things and laws that populate and govern our daily experience. 


However, despite the close alignment of context (2) and conventional truth, context (1) and the ultimate truth of the “world of the buddhas” are not the same, although closely related.  Context (1) is more like an exposition of the relationship between the two truths expressed in terms of value.  It is the first half of the circle, covered in ZMM, where the perspective is one which sees the everyday world of the static mythos for what it is, and from where it is generated, yet is not outside of it.  The perspective of the buddhas, the 180 degree top of the circle, is outside of any mythos and any fixed context.


It is my view that, with the two contexts combined as phases within its overall development, the MOQ enacts a major expansion and evolution of the modern Western mythos.  In his presentation of context (1) in ZMM, as the narrator heads towards Crescent City with Chris, Pirsig retraces and exposes the ancient branches of the modern Western mythos and finds, in areté, a shoot of human awareness of unpatterned, undefined quality.  In LILA, with Phaedrus moored at Horseshoe Cove with a catatonic Lila, he goes even further back and through the identification of  rta with areté finds a root of unpatterned quality common to both the East Asian and Western mythos.  Where context (1) shows us the limits, edges and roots of the modern mythos, context (2) can be seen as a cultivation of the common root into a fully formed structure of thought encompassing the best elements of East Asian and Western intellectual evolution in an expansion of both.


The physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe, rta is both. This was exactly what the Metaphysics of Quality was claiming. It was not a new idea. It was the oldest idea known to man. [LILA, Chapter 30]


[1] In other sections of ZMM, the analogues are more colourfully referred to as the “ghosts” of the modern mythos.

[2] LILA’s CHILD (2002) was a compilation of Pirsig’s responses to various comments by the contributors at MOQ Discuss.  

[3] This form of argument rests on the truth that if the inevitable conclusions from a set of premises are absurd then it follows logically that at least one of the premises that produced them is absurd.

[4] These problems are addressed by context (2), specifically Chapters 8 and 12 of LILA.




For further reading by Paul on this website, please click on the following links:



Key extracts from the 

1993 AHP Conference  




Some notes on the Tetralemma





Commentary for John 


 Inspirationality essay