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The Philosophy of Robert M Pirsig

by Herman J Pietersen


In this paper I wish to review Robert M Pirsig's philosophy, twenty years after I was introduced to Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance- an inquiry into values (ZAMM), by a fellow motorcycling enthusiast who confessed to be ignorant about the philosophy parts, yet was very taken with the book anyhow.

I remember that, back in 1984, the book really impressed me, but also recollect that the uneven and intermittent presentation of the two main narratives did not really appeal to me. Despite the book's awkward title (which still seems misleading to me) I was hoping for a fuller, more even-handed treatment of philosophy and philosophers, but this was not to be. Again, although the book provided a fresh perspective, it was also hampered by a tendency to belabour points, by contradictions and all too frequently lapsed into quasi-mystical excess. It soon became clear that for Pirsig more was at stake than just a puzzling and metaphysically interesting concept — somewhere along the way the idea of 'Quality' (with which he struggled so intensely) seemed to assume quasi-divine significance for him.

For stimulating my budding interest in the history of philosophy in 1984, I owe Mr Pirsig an inspirational debt (in my opinion it is still the single most important value of the book). It should be mentioned, however, that at the time of first reading ZAMM I was an experienced psychology professional in my mid thirties and knee-deep in a doctoral thesis that incorporated aspects of Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of science. Given my background as a human scientist with wider intellectual inclinations, I was, therefore, understandably more interested in sustained and scholarly expositions of philosophical thought, than in a (albeit very readable) 'travelling tent show' (Chautacqua) — by an author who seemingly had a personal and intellectual axe to grind (Pirsig's 'truth' versus the 'truth' of the 'Church of Reason'). Nevertheless, and despite my misgivings in the present paper about the significance of his metaphysics, for me, ZAMM still is an outstanding reading event — a book that I gladly recommend to aspiring young intellects interested in 'the high country of the mind'.

Judging by the popularity of the book, which has achieved some sort of cult status, many readers seem more responsive to the inspirational quality of the book, than a critical analysis of its intellectual offerings. That is all well and good for a best-selling author, but raises the question as to the real philosophical contribution of the 'Metaphysics of Quality' MOQ within the wider philosophical literature.

In the following sections a critical look is taken at Pirsig's philosophy as given in his two books, the first on 'Quality' (ZAMM, 1983/ 1974) and the second on applications of the concept and his (MOQ) in Lila (1991).

An unresolved tension

Pirsig's constant metaphysical fence-riding (punctuated by tales of motorcycle riding) - his see-sawing between both defining and then withdrawing from defining a supposedly new metaphysical ultimate called 'Quality' is confusing and reveals an ongoing and, to my mind, unresolved tension in his work.

His dilemma, as it repeatedly unfolds in ZAMM, is this:

The Quality that can be defined is not the real Quality (as in the Buddhistic tradition), yet the Quality that cannot be defined cannot be communicated (in the Western tradition) as a possibly useful intellectual construct — only, it seems, mystically experienced and, at most, poetically described as a 'pre-intellectual awareness', 'the front-end of a fast approaching train', and so on.

The problem is that if 'Quality' cannot be firmly defined one sooner or later has to conclude that the idea is beyond intelligent discourse, and therefore demands a Wittgensteinian silence.

Not to be deterred, Pirsig eventually plunges between the horns of the bull and proclaims 'Quality' to be the ground, cause and source of ALL — specifically the Cartesian subject-object distinction (SOM) characteristic of Western science and thought. However, he expresses doubts about this 'move' as well, and after a while the big question for the reader of ZAMM becomes: Which is it going to be for Pirsig?

As it turned out, after reading the second book (Lila, 1991), ZAMM in the end takes the cannot-be-defined road (in what I would call the mystical-poetical mode of thought), which renders Quality a subjectivist and romanticised metaphysical construct; whilst Lila takes the can-be-defined route (in what I would call the scientific-analytic mode) by producing the 'Metaphysics of Quality' as an objectivist metaphysical system, albeit still embedded in a mystical source, now called 'Dynamic Quality'.


To regard the existence of a pre-intellectual awareness of the holistic totality of everything (which Pirsig equates with 'Quality') as primary, means that it (metaphysically speaking) serves as ground of being (including thinking), and hence is and should be un-definable (if one is to avoid the path of metaphysical regress, which, in any case, soon tends to spiral into the realm of the mystical or numinous).

On the other hand, attempting to further define and analyse such a root concept or idea — whether in scientific-analytic or poetical-narrative terms — means leaving behind the pre-intellectual (mystical) sphere and entering the 'cut-and-control' arena of the conscious intellect. This, Pirsig eventually could not desist from, as indicated below. The overall dialectical movement of Pirsig's thought can be described in the following manner:

(a) ZAMM — the Subjectivist thesis: Quality is an all-encompassing, mystical, ground of being that cannot be further defined. In ZAMM Pirsig ends with the rhetorical question: 'what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good - need we ask anyone to tell us these things?' (ZAMM, 1983:389). In other words: you will 'know' it when you experience it, and that's all there is to it. The close similarity with religious conversion experiences, with deeply personal discoveries of an ultimate faith or a Spiritual source (read: 'Quality'), is obvious.

(b) Lila — the Objectivist antithesis: Quality is a multi-tiered cosmological system of all that is. In Lila Pirsig confesses that he cannot avoid the temptation of giving further content to (read: dissect) 'Quality': 'This was the intellectual part that didn't like undefined things, and telling it not to define Quality was like telling a fat man to stay out of the refrigerator...'(Lila, 1991: 82). Well, he just could not stay out of the refrigerator, could he?

So it does not come as a surprise when in Lila he at last (despite ZAMM, initial doubts and inner resistance) presents his own system, the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ), by dissecting 'Quality' into 'Dynamic Quality' (which for all intents and purposes substitutes for the previous, mystical, conception — now dethroned) and Static Quality, the last-mentioned consisting of four, all-inclusive, evolutionary levels:

'Inorganic, Biological, Social and Intellectual — nothing is left out' (Lila, 1991: 179).

Pirsig's metaphysical system reflects an error that, for instance, also occurs in the elaborate cosmological system of the distinguished Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, namely, of mixing ontological and intellectual categories into one supposedly foolproof cosmology. But, 'Intellectual' (as with the 'logical' in Dooyeweerd's system of fifteen interrelated modalities of reality) does not fit into the system — it is the source and instrument by which the cosmological system is created in the first place, not a cosmological entity in itself!

Furthermore, despite having attacked for over 400 pages in ZAMM the inadequacy (and harmfulness) of the perennial subject-object distinction (SOM) — eventually relegating it to secondary intellectual status, it now suddenly re-appears in an evolutionist cum mind-and-matter dressing in the MOQ system as follows:

'Objects are inorganic and biological values; subjects are social and intellectual values. These are not two mysterious universes that go floating around in some subject-object dream that allows them no real contact with one another. They have a matter-of-fact evolutionary relationship.' (Lila, 1991: 350).
Yet, the mystically inclined thinker in Pirsig continues to hold out for something more fundamental, and finds it in the concept of:

'Dynamic Quality, which cannot be described in any encyclopedia' (1991: 179).

So, from 'Quality' as root or 'final' concept which (in ZAMM) we are advised not to try and analyse any further, we move to Lila where Pirsig, seventeen years after ZAMM, cannot resist picking up the analytical knife again (remember those little box-diagrams early on in ZAMM!) to further dissect this supposedly absolute concept or idea.

Another example of self-contradictory statements concerns the old Freedom versus Determinism problem, which Pirsig tackles in the following manner:

'In the Metaphysics of Quality this dilemma [of free will versus determinism] doesn't come up. To the extent that one's behavior is controlled [read: 'determined'] by static patterns of quality it is without choice. But to the extent that one follows Dynamic Quality, which is un-definable, one's behaviour is free [read: 'non-determined', the result of Free Will]' (Lila, 1991: 187).

But, surely, this is mere linguistic camouflage! For Pirsig the dilemma 'doesn't come up' — yet that is exactly what happens with his explanation. He merely re-phrases the dilemma of determinism and free will in terms of 'static' and 'dynamic' quality, respectively. Instead of, as he obviously thought he did, explain it away as a non-problem, he succumbed to it himself.

Even in ZAMM, near the end, Pirsig realizes that he is treading a path that will end in self-contradiction. As he says:

'He [Phaedrus=Pirsig] is doing the same bad things himself. His original goal was to keep Quality undefined, but in the process of battling against the dialecticians he has made statements, and each statement has been a brick in a wall of definition he himself has been building around Quality. Any attempt to develop an organized reason around an undefined quality defeats its own purpose. (ZAMM, 1983: 389).

Yet, with reference to the last sentence, this is exactly what Pirsig does with his MOQ in Lila, where he also find it necessary to defend his metaphysic by embedding it in the mainstream of James' Pragmatism:

'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', (Lila, 1991: 426).

And just to confuse matters again, a few pages further on, MOQ is now described something else or more (?) than a form of American empiricism:

'The Metaphysics of Quality identifies religious mysticism with Dynamic Quality.' (Lila, 1991: 434).

My considered view, is that Pirsig, contrary to his conviction that he achieved a metaphysical Archimedes point, failed to move beyond basic, archetypal modes or 'ways of understanding' within which all thought occur.

He clearly thought that he successfully avoided the horns of the bull (the object-subject; matter-mind distinction). But, by initially defining (the essentially un-definable) 'Quality' as neither subject nor object but the relation/ event between them, as ground (cause) of reality and all knowledge, he merely (and temporarily it turned out) shifted the 'location' of his super-ordinate construct and so ended up with just one more take on 'Quality'. He thought that his philosophy (metaphysics) avoided impalement — but in reality it did not and could not in the way he envisaged it.

In retrospect, this basic contradiction in Pirsig's work (namely, rejecting the SOM tradition in ZAMM, yet actively using this very same approach for generating his MOQ system in Lila), makes Lila a problematic book. In a sense, Lila (much of which experienced social scientists will likely regard as a rather superficial excursion into and eclectic assortment of ideas from the disciplines of sociology and anthropology) 'betrayed' ZAMM. MOQ (Lila) places Pirsig now squarely in the tradition of objectivist (SOM) metaphysics, despite the continuing story-telling (narrative) style, rhetorical overlay, and fragmentary argumentative props from the social sciences.

Placed within ancient Greek philosophical context: in a classic Platonic manner, Pirsig left the many behind in a supreme effort to identify (and become identified, in an almost spiritual sense) with the one [the Good or 'Quality' that is, for him, beyond even the Form of forms]. However, it is to be doubted whether humankind can ever escape the dialectic of the one and the many. Neither Plato and Aristotle and the whole of Western philosophy thereafter, could — hence the ongoing battle between rationalists and relativists; Platonists against Sophists; Materialists/ Empiricists against Idealists, particularists against universalists, and so on.

At root all our thinking is locked in an eternal struggle between the One and the Many — even the dyed-in-the-wool 'Pluralist' (and Pirsig's philosophical guru) William James, regarded this most basic of philosophical distinctions with an attitude approaching reverence, as that philosophical concept which is 'most pregnant with meaning'. To escape the one (for the many) would mean mental anarchy (the tyranny of the many, ex-plosion and disintegration, thus: insanity); to escape the many (for the one) would mean mental atrophy (the tyranny of the one, im-plosion and everlasting silence, thus: insanity).

Despite declaring himself to be a Sophist in the Jamesian tradition, and despite his attack on Plato (and Aristotle) for elevating 'Truth' at the cost of sacrificing the more original and 'better' 'Good' (and for intellectualising the latter), Pirsig's great indebtedness to Plato should be unmistakeable. The following words (and the uncanny resemblance to Plato's) should make Pirsig's own Idealist cum Mystical tendencies clear:

'The sun of quality... does not revolve around the subjects and objects of our existence. It does not just passively illuminate them. It is not subordinate to them in any way. It has created them. They are subordinate to it!' (ZAMM, 1983: 234)

Anyone who has ever read Plato's Cave metaphor will immediately recognize in Pirsig almost rapturous description essentially the same event — he even expresses it in the same symbolic manner as the 'Sun'. But, of course, it is a metaphor, an intellectual reaching out toward ultimate, final truth. At that highest of the high of mind, there is no logos (inductive or deductive), only the supreme dialectic. For Pirsig it is mythos beyond logos. Here Pirsig was caught up in a mystical, trance-like gazing at the sun — and 'seeing' only a most wondrous 'brilliance: QUALITY, itself! The ONE of all Ones!

In the Republic (Lee, 1987), Plato describes it thus:

P.319: 'The thing he would be able to do last would be to look directly at the sun itself, and gaze at it without using reflections in water or any other medium [the lower levels and forms of truth, less real], but as it is in itself.'

320/1: 'Now my dear Glaucon... That at any rate is my interpretation, which is what you are anxious to hear; the truth of the matter is, after all, known only to god. But in my opinion, for what it is worth, the final thing to be perceived in the intelligible region, and perceived only with difficulty, is the form of the good; once seen, it is inferred to be responsible for whatever is right and valuable in anything, producing in the visible region light, and being in the intelligible region itself controlling source of truth and intelligence. And anyone who is going to act rationally either in public or private life must have sight of it.'

Pirsig's 'Quality', the ultimate reality beyond all, has after two books and more than two decades of tinkering become so broadly conceived and so constantly redefined that one, in the end, hardly knows what to exclude from a term that seems to gobble up everything else in its path. Here are some examples:

' can meditate on the fact that the old English roots for the Buddha and Quality, God and good, appear to be identical' (ZAMM, 1983: 252)

and further on:

'Quality is the Buddha. Quality is scientific reality. Quality is the goal of Art' (ZAMM, 1983: 270)


'The Greeks called it enthousiasmos, the root of 'enthusiasm,' which means literally 'Filled with theos,' or God, or Quality' (ZAMM, 1983: 296)


'He knew the Quality he talked about lay outside the mythos. Now it comes! Because Quality is the generator of the mythos. That's it. ..'Quality is the continuing stimulus which causes us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it.' Religion isn't invented by man. Men are invented by religion. Men invent responses to Quality...' (ZAMM, 1983: 345)


'...a new spiritual rationality — in which the ugliness and the loneliness and the spiritual blankness of dualistic technological reason would become illogical. Reason was no longer to be 'value-free.' Reason was to be subordinate, logically, to Quality...' (ZAMM, 1983: 352)

and, to round it off:

'Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine 'virtue'. But Arete. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric' (ZAMM, 1983: 371).

As one may notice, Pirsig had little difficulty in gathering all and sundry 'big', 'ultimate' ideas under the rubric of 'Quality'!

In conclusion

ZAMM and Lila could not, in this author's view, really accomplish what it set out to do. Essentially, Pirsig unsuccessfully tried to collapse the most fundamental distinctions in Western thought into a mystical metaphysics that, in the end, has more value as the entertaining story of one man's spiritual/ metaphysical quest. He bravely attempted to get beyond basic modes of understanding but, despite much skilful 'horn-hopping', eventually got skewered on the objectivist horn (and by implication had to submit to the dictates of Reason, even if still outside the 'Church of Reason').

Taking both books into synoptic view it must therefore be concluded that the 'Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) is an ambitious but unsuccessful intellectual leap into mystical metaphysics. Despite Pirsig's erudition, wide-ranging intellect and highly entertaining novels, in the end the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) could not escape the subjectivist-objectivist cage that Pirsig so dearly (almost desperately) wanted to transcend.


Pirsig, RM (1983/ 1974) Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: An inquiry into values. London: Corgi.

Pirsig, RM (1991) Lila: An inquiry into morals. London: Corgi.

Plato. The Republic, (1987, 2nd Edition ), Translated, H D P Lee, England: Penguin.

© Herman Pietersen 2005