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!
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
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.
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.”
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, as opposed to
experience of the pre-existing substance or a priori concepts
presumed in various forms by subject-object based metaphysics.
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):
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]
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):
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]
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:
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:
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.
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
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 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
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
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).
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
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,
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 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 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.
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).
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
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.
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.
some brief suggestions on how the distinction into two contexts
can be put to work in understanding the overall MOQ.
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
material reality” would not be able to change as new
scientific discoveries come in. [LILA'S CHILD, Notes on
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
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]
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,
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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.
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]