by John Beasley
by John Beasley
Robert M. Pirsig wrote two books which explore quality. In Lila he developed a metaphysics of quality. Quality, which he equates with value, (Lila Ch 5) or morality, (Ch 7) is the foundation for his "hierarchical structure of thought". (Ch 5) He asserts that "quality is a direct experience independant of and prior to intellectual abstractions" (Ch 5) and is "the primary empirical reality of the world", (Ch 5) yet he wishes to retain the assertion that "Quality cannot be defined" (Ch 5) that he developed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Hence he admits that a Metaphysics of Quality becomes a contradiction in terms, even a degenerate activity.
At the very end of Lila, Pirsig sums up his argument very briefly. "Good is a noun." 'Good' here equates with 'quality'. He finishes "Of course, the ultimate Quality isn't a noun or an adjective or anything else definable, but if you had to reduce the whole Metaphysics of Quality to a single sentence, that would be it." (end Ch 32)
In this article I wish to explore these two assertions; that quality cannot be defined, and that quality is a noun. Pirsig's early 'irrational' definition of quality ran as follows. "Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a nonthinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, quality cannot be defined." (Zen Ch 17)
Good is introduced as a noun in a story about an Indian who replies to the question "What kind of dog is that?" with the response "That's a good dog". (Lila Ch 32) Pirsig remembered that the Indians also described his friend Dusenberry as a "good man". He elaborates, "The Indians didn't see man as an object to whom the adjective 'good' may or may not be applied. When the Indians used it they meant that good is the whole center of experience and that Dusenberry, in his nature, was an embodiment or incarnation of this center of life." (Ch 32)
I have long been uneasy with both assertions, just as I feel uneasy with Pirsig's use of a capital 'Q' for 'Quality'. His friend DeWeese apparently urged him to leave quality undefined, when he was invited by the English faculty at Bozeman to explain whether quality was objective, existing in the things we observe, or subjective, existing only in the observer. Phaedrus (Pirsig) rejected "the easy escape of mysticism", "the idea that truth is indefinable and can be apprehended only by nonrational means", because he felt "the academy, the Church of Reason, is concerned exclusively with those things that can be defined, and if one wants to be a mystic, his place is in a monastery, not a University." (Zen Ch 19) This choice, which Pirsig appeared to regret, returns to haunt him in Lila. Pirsig actually gives us the context. His second book was to be about Indians. Pirsig drove to Montana to see them, wanting to talk. But the conversation always became difficult, awkward and self-conscious. To Phaedrus the problem was his inability to maintain casual conversation. He "had never learned how to make small-talk like that and as soon as he got into it his mind always drifted off into his own private world of abstractions and the conversation died." (Lila Ch 4)
In the event Pirsig went to study anthropology, so he might know better what to ask the Indians, and again he took up the role of heretic in the Church of Reason. Whatever he had experienced in the peyote ceremony, he was unable to stay with that immediacy in his pursuit of Indian values. He was driven to definition, and his fascination with quality had ultimately to be defined as a metaphysics, despite his protestations that quality was indefinable. He was angered to find that in the dominant anthropological science value did not exist. Yet to prove the centrality of value, he wrote a metaphysics, knowing full well that this is a contradiction in terms. For Pirsig, either he must just leave quality alone, or attempt to define it. And the intellectual part of himself wants the fun of trying to define the undefinable. "Writing metaphysics is a part of life", he concludes, just as "getting drunk and picking up bar-ladies" is a part of life. (Lila Ch 5)
The Problem of Definition
For Pirsig, as we have seen, definition is at the core of the intellectual quest, and hence of the acadamy or university. He has experienced quality, notably in the peyote ceremony, and he is driven to construct an intellectual map of reality that places quality at its centre. In the course of this project, he constructs a hierarchy of values with the intellectual at the apex. Yet within this schema, he recognises that quality is primal experience, the absolute bedrock from which all classification, all language, arises. His fatal assumption is that only what can be defined is worthy of academic study, even as he berates anthropologists for their failure, in the name of science, to discuss values, which he asserts are not definable.
As a way out of this morass, I argue that quality may be quite well understood without being defined. That is, we may hold fruitful discussions about quality, just as we do about science or logic or mathematics, without necessarily being able to define all our terms. Indeed, many of the core terms in science, such as energy or mass, are notoriously incapable of clear definition. New theories continue to emerge that radically redefine them, such as Rueda and Haisch's recent reworking of the idea of mass. (New Scientist, 3 Feb 2001) Definition is about seeking to pin down a term in a verbal formula. It is ultimately a word game. While definition is often useful, clarifying what was otherwise unclear, and refining intellectual argument, there is a fundamental fallacy in the assumption that this is the most valuable human understanding.
There are at least two dimensions to this fallacy. The first is a misapprehension of the function of language, and its limitations, to which I shall soon return. The second is linked to Pirsig's placement of intellect at the apex of his hierarchy of values. In short, he is asserting that the most valuable learning is intellectual. And yet he knows this is just what the mystics reject. To the mystic, "metaphysics is not reality. Metaphysics is names about reality." "Thought is not a path to reality." (Lila Ch 5) "The fundamental nature of reality is outside language ... language splits things up into parts while the true nature if reality is undivided." (Ch 5) Pirsig, however, lacks a language adequate to discuss 'the true nature of reality', and perhaps more importantly, it seems that despite his involvement in Zen, his studies in India, and his experience with peyote, he has failed to find an adequate experiential path to learning about reality as the mystic views it. His friend Dusenberry loved chatting with the Indians. Pirsig blames his failure to communicate on his inability to generate small talk, instead drifting off into his own "private world of abstractions". But the mystic would view this drifting as just what must be overcome if true learning is to occur. Learning arises from actual encounter, contact, experience; not from definition and abstract argument.
When Pirsig says quality cannot be defined, he is making a statement about language. He quite correctly acknowledges that language is a static latch derived from what he calls dynamic quality. The words we use are never adequate to encapsulate the uniqueness and vitality of actual experience. Just as the map is not the terrain, words are not our fundamental experience of reality. Where Pirsig errs, it seems to me, is to get trapped in the academic view that "the Church of Reason is concerned exclusively with those things that can be defined", so that the 'knowledge' of the mystic belongs in the monastery, not in the university. Yet, as I suggested previously, science gets along quite well without being able to define such key terms as "mass", and the mystic path, far from being "an easy escape", may well be a more advanced form of learning than what commonly occurs in universities. It seems that Pirsig is falling into the very dichotomy he so detests elsewhere, in viewing academic debate as objective and rational and based on definition, while mystic understanding is subjective and indefinable. Yet surely it was just such a polarisation that the metaphysics of quality was supposed to resolve. "Most empiricists deny the validity of any knowledge gained through imagination, authority, tradition, or purely theoretical reasoning ... The Metaphysics of Quality varies from this by saying that the values of art and morality and even religious mysticism are verifiable, and that in the past they have been excluded for metaphysical reasons, not empirical reasons." (Lila Ch 8) There we have it. On the one hand Pirsig wants to develop a metaphysics that is empirical, based on the senses, or thinking about what the senses provide, yet expanded to include the realm of quality and values, which are just as real, in fact more real, than traditonal subject-object definitions of reality. On the other, he rejects the possibility that there is a way of learning about and understanding such a reality, that goes beyond the intellectual pursuits of the Church of Reason.
It is relevant to enquire why, if Pirsig is so concerned to make an intellectual statement that is valid in the academy or university, he has chosen to present his metaphysical musings in the form of two novels. Surely the use of an art form to promote his message is not such a large step from the mystic enquiry that he claims must be kept for the monastery. It is also quite evident that any verbal exploration of dynamic quality must occur within a language that is essentially a static latch. Nonetheless, an essentially static medium is capable of producing a dynamic outcome in the reader, and words, defined or not, are able to educate us about dynamic quality. The novel can indeed be dynamic in a way that a philosophy text might not. Lila seems a poor novel to me, in part because the philosophy is intrusive. It lacks the device of the chautauqua that insulated the philosophy from the story in 'Zen'. It is built upon the trays containing eleven thousand slips of paper, a giant intellectual effort, and situated within a story involving Lila. Yet in spirit it is a philosophy text, a metaphysics. Was it written as a novel to ensure publication that might have been denied it had it been presented in a thoroughly academic style, or is it just that Pirsig quite enjoys the extra dimensions that a novel permits him as an author? Probably both, I guess.
It is worth making a minor diversion into the nature of language at this point. Post modern thinkers have delved deeper and deeper into the nature of language and at its heart they find nothing substantial. To some, words are so fluid and unstable that communication appears an impossibility. The fact that they then proceed to inform us of this in words is an irony that seemingly escapes them. This is a consequence of exploring meaning through a process of logic and definition, though. In the puzzle of the hare and the tortoise, a good intellectual argument is developed for demonstrating that the hare will never pass the slower tortoise in the race, yet we know from our direct experience that the faster runner simply cruises past the slower one. Edward Pols, in his book Radical Realism, is much concerned with the paralysis that has developed within philosophical discourse as a consequence of such delving. He speaks of "a restorative access to reality" which equates with the 'direct experience' I mentioned above. Ultimate authority in both cases derives from the ontic level of the person.
In reality, we do communicate rather satisfactorily using language, much of the time. When I purchase a new appliance, and am confused with how to operate it, a glance at the handbook is often helpful. If the extreme views of language were valid, this would not happen. We know that words are not what they point to, just as the map is not the terrain, but what is important is that words are understood. Just as the map reader orients himself within the mapped terrain, and proceeds to use the map to get where he wants to go, it is generally enough if words and the message they carry are understood. Exhaustive analysis and definition are actually unnecessary most of the time.
I shall argue for the importance of education in more detail below, but it is worth noting that most education occurs informally without much drama about definition, and is, for all that, quite effective. David Bohm, in a discussion with Krishnamurti, points out that the root meaning of intelligence is 'to read between the lines'. Our brains have a marvellous ability to take in new meanings and attach words to these. Children actually learn about five new words a day for a period of years. The Zen image of 'a finger pointing to the moon' picks up a similar theme. Our brains have evolved, it seems, to make meaning, and we intuitively seek the code that will provide it for us. Helen Keller, blind and deaf, learned to 'speak' when her teacher tapped out the symbol for water on her skin. If I listen to 'white noise' on an amplified blank cassette tape enough times, my brain will start to interpret some of the sounds as speech. I shall argue later that brains are 'threat or benefit' seeking structures in living things. They search out quality.
Talking About Quality - Quality in Organisms
Pirsig has consistently attempted to maintain that quality is unified and uniform. I shall argue that it is not. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Phaedrus explored what he called romantic quality and classic quality. He was horrified to think that "his simple, neat, beautiful, undefined Quality was starting to get complex." (Zen Ch 19) His solution was to view quality as "the source and substance of everything", (Ch 20) "the Tao, the great central generating force of all religions ... all knowledge, everything". (Ch 20) Then came madness. Pirsig later equivocates on this statement, but holds out hope that if it is true then Religion, Art and Science may be united in a shared fundamental quality. (Ch 21)
After discussing Poincare, Pirsig states, "Quality is the Buddha. Quality is scientific reality. Quality is the goal of Art." (Ch 24)
In his metaphysical exploration of quality in Lila, Pirsig adopts the language of evolutionary development to carry his ideas. I think this is sound. However, the schema he developed, though clever and useful, stretches the meaning of quality to breaking point. Substitute the word 'God' and not much changes. Quality has been reified as moral codes. His hierarchy runs as follows. "First, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of biological life over inanimate nature. Second, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the social order over biological life - conventional morals ... Third, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the the intellectual order over the social order ... Finally there's a fourth Dynamic morality which isn't a code. He supposed you could call it a 'code of Art'". (Lila Ch 13) In saying that there were moral codes that established the supremacy of life over inanimate nature, he is asserting something as untestable as any religious belief. (On the first day, God created...) For me, it makes more sense to look at quality as co-emerging with life, not as some prior code.
Living things may be defined as those things for which the environment has quality, (or value), either positive or negative. Living things have needs, which must be met if life is to be sustained and reproduced. The environment offers both satisfactions and threats. What helps the organism survive and reproduce has positive value. What harms the organism has, for that organism, negative value. Pirsig suggests that only those experiences which have quality or value for the organism will be experienced. Quite possibly this is correct for species other than man. Threat and benefit are the very basis of contact between the organism and the environment. Indeed, the brain operates to restrict the flood of 'useless' information that would overwhelm it and leave the organism vulnerable. The brain emerges, then, as a threat or benefit seeking structure in living things. Only in man, so far as we know, can it transcend this role to attend to data which is only indirectly threatening or beneficial. According to Plotkin, in Evolution of Mind, "my memory of my Aunt Sarah, that I can conjure up at will and extend and imaginatively transform in any number of ways, has no equivalent in other species of animal." (p 4). He argues that both language and culture are exclusively human qualities.
Take the word 'are' in the last sentence. I can attend to it. Yet it is hard to show that this word, three marks on paper, is either threatening or helpful to me. Delete it, and my brain will immediately register that something is wrong with the sentence though. Its value is instrumental. Perhaps, to stretch a point, it could be said to have a functional value. Unlike most animals, human beings are able to attend to something that is only indirectly of value.
We speak of scientists attending closely to data, a word that captures something of the flavour of this ability. We don't expect data to be very exciting, as a rule. Our ability to remember, to predict, and to plan, make this abstract attention possible.
Primitive life forms develop senses that may assist them, for example, to move towards the light which offers an energy input vital for survival. In more advanced life forms the senses may be much more specialised. A young bird may experience terror and take appropriate avoidance activity when the shadow of a hawk passes over it. 'Primitive' and 'advanced' are value judgements, too. But this is another realm of value. Evolution, seen from this perspective, is not neutral. Those organisms 'better' adapted to ascertaining the helpful and harmful aspects of their environment thrive and reproduce. At the very foundation of life is a set of values, and evolution implies a value development.
The interaction between the organism and the environment is inherently dialogical. While the organism has the ability to act, the environment has potency. The action of an organism, to be of value, must deal with what is actual in the environment, and what is potent in the environment. Organisms that are ineffective at discriminating real threats from imaginary ones are not going to survive. But responding to a certain proportion of imaginary threats may not greatly harm the organism, and may give it some advantage in fleetness of response in comparison with a more accurate but less sensitive companion. Animals that form the main prey of other animals often are consuming quite a deal of energy responding to imaginary threats. The proportion of 'real' to 'apparent' threats responded to is likely to be quite finely tuned in any population. Those animals that overreact to possible threats have less time to graze, and do not thrive. Those animals that underreact, on the contrary, may make easy prey. So evolutionary pressures will select an optimum level of accuracy of response for a given species in a given context. (In practice, of course, many different types of reaction to threats and benefits will interact in very complex ways.) And of course over time predator and prey species are involved in a behavioural ballet in which each maximises their own advantages, and searches out the weaknesses of the other, the better to survive. All of this gets very complex, seen from the outside.
For each individual, though, each moment brings its unpredictable threat or promise, the quality of which attracts attention, and promotes contact with the environment. Threats and attractions vary in intensity. Needs fluctuate. The well fed lion is not a threat to its prey. Put differently, the value of the impala to the gorged lion is minimal. The impala with the ability to discriminate that this lion is well fed will graze longer without fleeing. The ability of the organism to discriminate the intensity of threats and attractions, and compute the probability of danger or assistance in the field, can become very sophisticated. This ability is exemplified in the daily drama as prey species go to drink at waterholes that also become magnets to their predators.
The key word is 'unpredictable'. Quality emerges in each unpredictable moment, in the existence of each organism. It is experienced. It is encountered. It is utterly primal. Ken Wilber points out, in The Eye of Spirit, (p 375), that subject/object dualism "is the hallmark, not of Descartes's error, but of all manifestation". It is tempting to say that quality, too, is the hallmark of all manifestation, but just as the subject/object dualism can be bridged, so the mystics tell us, by interior transformation, so our inability to directly communicate quality can be bridged by a process we call education. Before exploring this more fully, though, I wish to examine quality in a different context, in human culture.
Quality in Culture
I have spent some time exploring the complexity of animal behaviour, since as human beings we are also subject to this fundamental level of perception of quality. But the world we inhabit is much more complex than that of animals. We are members of a society, a culture, in which language becomes an important tool for manipulating our environment. It is likely that for most humans, our greatest threats, and rewards, will come from others of our species, rather than from being preyed on by other species. This is perhaps a recent development, witness the fact that children in Detroit (as evidenced in their dreams) are more scared of snakes, generally rare in downtown Detroit, than they are of much more significant dangers such as traffic. We have to be educated to appreciate the real risks we face, rather than depend upon the residue of more or less instinctive responses with which we have been endowed by the evolutionary battles of the past.
An organism operating within its environment really has no choice but to respond to the values it encounters. We know, though, that much cultural value is a matter of choice, or perhaps more accurately, of taste, in which education plays a significant role. Let us take an example.
Assume a young person with no experience of opera visits Covent Garden for the first time. The opera is in Italian, with period costumes. A likely response is that the music is old fashioned and rather boring, the acting is crude, and the story line, as gleaned from the program, is rather unbelievable and somewhat trite. Let's not go on. If our visitor comes from a significantly different culture, say Japan, where the equivalent to opera might be the Noh play, there may be some recognition of some elements of the opera, and total incomprehension of the rest. We know, though, that opera lovers were once neophytes, too, and learned to love opera by attending performances, listening to records, and generally talking with others who enjoy and appreciate opera. Can the quality of an opera performance be defined? I doubt it. But those who have bothered to learn about opera by attending performances and so on, may well agree that a particular performance was very fine. In short, they have been educated, probably informally, to appreciate opera.
Ken Wilber explains that the quality in a work of art is located in different loci, depending on how the art work is viewed. Quality is found in the inspiration of the individual artist who created the work. Quality resides in the features of the artwork, which is expressed in a medium where the relationships of those features are themselves the locus of value. Quality occurs in the experience itself as judged by the audience member, and quality is located within the broad social and technical context of the day. All are valid. Each requires education for its elucidation. We are a long way here from the innate, instinctive reaction of an organism to its environment.
And it gets more complex. Wilber asserts that each of the four dimensions in which quality can be ascertained is itself organised hierarchically, with at least ten layers, or degrees of depth in each. So the child who has reached a relatively low level of intellectual and moral development is simply unable to recognise aspects of quality available to a more advanced adult. Not that all adults advance far. Most societies reward their members attaining a basic level of development, but beyond that tend rather to constrain further advancement. And while each level represents an increase in depth, this is accompanied by a marked decrease in the numbers of people achieving that level. In Wilber's view, it is not possible to skip levels. Each builds upon the level below, which in some sense it will contradict, much as Pirsig developed his four levels, which he illustrated by the emergence of different qualities of law in each. (Natural law, the law of the jungle, the Law, and the emerging law of individual intelligence and judgment.) But while Pirsig saw his hierarchy as formed by evolutionary forces, and situated in history, for Wilber the extended hierarchy exists within each individual, and "the knowledge quest takes on different forms as we move through those various levels." (The Eye of Spirit p377).
Further to this, there are almost infinite realms of discovery and hence of quality. From pure mathematics to flower arranging to motorcycle repair, human beings have created a rich diversity of skills and accomplishments. Often these are very specialised. Ikebana is a type of flower arrangement, originating in Buddhist Japanese culture. The Sogetsu school is a more specialised form of Ikebana, and within it you may find an avant garde movement that creates arrangements without any flowers or plant material at all. The quality of an arrangement will be judged differently, depending upon which tradition or school is involved. And it is not that there is a continuum of quality from basic Ikebana flower arrangement to avant garde; not at all. Each is equally valid, but the rules are different. There is indeed an evolutionary sequence in the formation of schools, and a history in time of this development, but it is not possible to say that a later development is 'better'. It may be more specialised, but the development is branching, rather than hierarchical. We can more accurately speak of differences in personal taste, rather than in quality as such, when comparing different schools of art, or codes of football, or any of a multitude of human endeavours. Pirsig correctly identifies the freedom this offers us in terms of choice, though he is wrong in asserting this is true of all quality. Biological quality, as it applies to us as organisms, is not a matter of taste.
Given that our culture often offers us choices, it is possible to ask if a quality life consists in choosing our pleasures wisely, or if there might be some aspects of life that are intrinsically more 'valuable' than others. So is being the best basketballer in the town of equal weight with being the most advanced citizen morally or spiritually? If we look at the fame, fortune and media attention our society offers to sportsmen we would have to assume not only equality, but a seemingly greater importance for sport. Yet fame is not an adequate indicator of quality. Pirsig discriminates between saviours and degenerates, and hence implicitly recognises another dimension of quality. He would be inclined to impute the quality of the saviour to the superiority of the intellectual position that person adopts. Yet when he talks of the Nazis he is implying the judgement is moral, not intellectual. If it makes any sense to talk of a better person, or a better society, then we are talking about a quality hierarchy that Pirsig's scheme seems inadequate to demonstrate.
Quality as a Noun
"If quality or excellence is seen as the ultimate reality ... 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." (Lila Ch 8) Would it were it so simple. While it may not matter which school of art or flower arrangement I like, the consequences of subscribing to a corrupt ideology may be serious. Nazism surely is the paradigm case. Many of its supporters were true believers. To them it seemed the values of the Third Reich were of very high quality indeed. And Pirsig cannot escape this quandry. How do we separate the saviours from the degenerates?
If 'Quality' is a noun, as Pirsig asserts, then in theory it is possible to measure the 'Quality' in a person, by assessing the value of that person's ideas. I see no evidence that this can happen. It is like the search for intelligence, and like that search it offers comfort to demagogues. "That's a good dog", said the Indian, and in doing so pointed to a range of qualities that he found admirable in that dog. But as an intellect the dog rates pretty low. Lila has quality, and again it's not much in evidence in intellect or artistic appreciation, or any other culturally determined arbiter of success. She does have a strong, almost animal, vitality. Perhaps just sexuality. There is a wonderful irony in the Nazi labelling of Jews as low quality, yet this was a race that had made a disproportionate intellectual contribution to European culture. The Gypsies, also despised as degenerates, have their own tradition of vitality, especially in music and dance. Such generalizations, of course, are insulting to individuals. Individuals vary widely in their almost infinite range of qualities. Only if quality is a noun do we enter the nonsensical world of labelling one person as a saviour, another as a degenerate, on the basis of their quality.
Pirsig's story of the Zuni Indian reinforces this; his leadership may have eased the Zuni adaption to a world dominated by their white conquerors, but he was an unhappy if talented man. Do present day Zuni regard the overthrow of the war chiefs as a 'quality' event, I wonder? Pirsig speculates that "he did much during his life to prevent a clash of cultures that would have been completely destructive to the people of Zuni." (Lila Ch 9) Perhaps. Perhaps not. It seems to me impossible to say whether his leadership, dynamic though it probably was, was 'good'. Describing dynamic 'contrarians', as opposed to decadent, degenerative 'contrarians', Pirsig says "They're way too energetic and aggressive to be decadent." (Lila Ch 29) But Hitler, and many another dictator or pirate or war lord, seem to have had plenty of dynamism. What they fight for may indeed be a "kind of morality", or it may be power or plunder or revenge. The question of how to discriminate betwen the saviour and the degenerate remains unresolved.
An important part of the problem, I think, is Pirsig's cavalier treatment of the self. He mocks "this Cartesian 'Me', this autonomous little homunculus who sits behind our eyeballs looking out through them in order to pass judgement on the affairs of the world" as "just completely rediculous". (Lila Ch 15) He then takes a confusing ramble through what quality is for cells, and organisms, and finally asserts that the quality inherent in Lila is sexual. She doesn't like his intellectual superiority, and judges him lacking as a potential mate. He is getting close to inverting his own hierarchy at his point, and admits to being "sick of all this intellectualizing". (Lila Ch 15) This half of the book ends literally all at sea, to the faint rocking of the tidal surge.
Pirsig's disdain for the self is not without consequences. In his description of the Giant, the city or organisation or society that uses people as expendable pawns, for the 'good' of some larger totality, he comes close to implying that people are just ciphers in the ongoing self perpetuating struggle for the emergence of quality at higher and higher levels in an inhuman world. I find this sad and alien. It makes his "secret loneliness, so penetrating and so encompassing that we are only beginning to realize the extent of it " (Lila Ch 22) look almost benign. "This scientific, psychiatric isolation and futility had become a far worse prison of the spirit than the old Victorian virtue ever was," says Pirsig, yet his vision of society in which memes compete for primacy and selves are 'rediculous' strikes me as soulless in the extreme. Sadly, the spirit of which Pirsig speaks seems little more than an intellectually successful meme. I am with Pols in saying that authority derives from the ontic level of the person, and with Wilber in asserting that the knowledge quest takes on different forms for each person as we move through a hierarchy of increasing 'depth'.
Pirsig appears to be drawing on a Zen understanding of self, a mystic view of the self as the impediment to real being. But the self operates at different levels. The self that emerges in the early object relations of the infant indeed becomes a barrier to the relaxed experience of our essential natures, causing us to believe that all gratification must come from a potentially hostile world, and vitiating our ability to encounter what is, moment by moment. But the self is also our agency, our ability to act as an integrated mind and body in the world. Many mystic traditions have the enlightened one, who has overcome the stunting of the egoic self, returning to the market place as an agent. Indeed, an agent with a mission; not to leave this world of suffering while others remain ensnared in their egoic selves. This self takes on suffering so as to be an agent of liberation to others. Other mystic traditions would say that enlightenment is at base merely attending to what is, as it arises, rather than to our ego driven projections and distortions of what is. In this view, the truth is right in front of our noses, and the work of enlightenment is merely a removal of those self created veils that have us think otherwise. In both cases it is the illusion of self created by ego that is the problem, while an essential self is also present, waiting to be recovered.
The whole idea of a unified quality comes unstuck the moment we start to look at quality from the perspective of the cell, or the organism, or the person, rather than as some metaphysical 'noun'. As I have said before, quality enters the physical universe with the coming of life. To talk of pre-existing moral codes establishing the superiority of biological life over inanimate nature is a form of theologising. Quality only makes sense as seen from the perspective of the organism. Life brings value. It is meaningless to assert value without life. Human life brings a magnificent unfolding of quality, which emerges in intellect, as Pirsig correctly asserts, but also in art and ethics and creativity, and none of these flower without education, as we know from study of the wolf-boy, the individual raised alone.
To summarise, quality is not so much defined as understood. To understand something, I enter an educational project, either formal or informal. I learn from those who have preceded me in this process, and who in turn have learned from those who taught them. Occasionally a person of genius seems to have reached the heights of quality without passing through this educational process, but such an appearance is false. Mozart may indeed have been composing at his piano at a very young age, but it was not until he became an adult that his great works were produced. Studies of extremely talented people show that most spent at least a decade refining their craft before achieving excellence.
Quality begins with the emergence of life: the organism lives within an environment that has value for it. Language and culture immeasurably expand our environments. Intellect is one dimension of this expanded range. It is not necessarily superior to social quality. Intellect itself is limited. It cannot tell me whether to become a teacher or a sculptor, or resolve my moral dilemmas. For these I need a sense of vocation, and wisdom. While Pirsig often refers to Zen and a mystic view of reality, he ignores the whole issue of education for wisdom. Zen is not fundamentally about intellectual choosing, almost the opposite; indeed, enlightenment as I understand it is very much about contacting here and now reality free of our habitual projective fantasies and filters. Intellect is easily conscripted to do the work of projection. Paul Goodman, when writing 'Gestalt Therapy' in the middle of the twentieth century, saw immersion in a pervasive intellectual 'reality' as the defining quality of mental illness in the West. Ken Wilber in his book 'No Boundary' suggests that the developing person transcends an alienating, overly intellectual phase of his or her development by reintegrating the body into a centauric unity, and it is just this that therapies such as Gestalt facilitate through their focus on the body rather than the intellect.
This is not the end of the developmental road. The fundamental assumption that the world is divided into self and other is itself an outcome of the earliest stage of the human process of individuation. Various forms of spiritual development work to break down this boundary imposed by the egoic mind, and once again the fundamental process of change and development is educational. The Diamond Approach of Hameed Ali, for example, which is recommended by Wilber, is explicitly educational in style. Only sustained practice of a transformative process such as meditation can overcome the Cartesian dualism that so annoyed Pirsig. Intelligence can help us to talk about transformation, while actually acting as a barrier to any real change. At this level of development, then, the intellect is something to be overcome. Zen recognises this fact, though its critics accuse it of being quite mindless, or more accurately, of valuing the cerebellum which controls our instinctive actions, while condemning the cortex which controls our thinking. (Aubrey Menen, The New Mystics, p229). Possibly the simplest description of what the mystic way offers is from Menen. "It is a way of stopping you thinking. It has no appeal to people whose worry is that they never seem to have started: but more intelligent people do often feel that they need a holiday from their own minds, while leaving them intact to come home to when the holiday is over." (p7)
Pirsig seems unable to escape thinking. His response to the Indian values that impressed him was ultimately to define them. He tends to assume that wisdom can be had by talking about transformation. What he fails to adequately address is the educational process that can simultaneously resolve the subject/object division while facilitating immediate experience of 'what is'. If Wilber is correct, there are no shortcuts. Intelligence is indeed a necessary component in wisdom. A drug experience, (peyote for Pirsig), can assist in the transformation of an overly intellectual person, but the same experience for someone at a low level of development will achieve nothing. What makes the whole business so complex is that transformation is not unidimensional. There are a host of qualities that combine in any individual. My spiritual development, artistic development, moral development, and so on, may run in parallel, with many interconnections, yet the strands are separate enough that I may demonstrate different stages of development in each, with the pace of development also differing in each field. This complexity is anathema to Pirsig, who wants a neat indivisible schema for his quality.
Fundamentally, Pirsig's limitation is that he does not allow for a deeper level than that of the intellect, and this is the basis of the sterility that we can sense in 'Lila'. He points to a mystic resolution often enough, but his own level of operation is intellectual. And wryly he admits this. Writing a metaphysics is a self defeating activity. It is degenerate. It cannot save us. Ah! But the exercise is rescued by one thing. In this activity he finds quality, or at least more quality than in any alternative he can conceive.
For each of us the challenge is to know quality in our lives. Reading a metaphysics, if it engages us, excites us, is in a limited way to know quality. But the understanding of a metaphysics ultimately is to 'know about' quality. There can be higher or lower quality in a metaphysics, and in its presentation; this is the "quality meats" understanding of quality. The quality of Pirsig's metaphysics on this scale is judged both in the formal way characteristic of universities, in regards to the consistency and defensibility of the ideas it contains, and artistically, in terms of how well Pirsig uses his medium of the novel to engage the reader in his concerns. One ultimate test of the quality in a novel is how much we, the readers, care about it.
So paradoxically, the degeneracy of writing a metaphysics of quality can be rescued if the artistic form of its presentation engages the reader to the extent that a new educational project is born. The dynamic spark of the novel, that which causes us to care about the characters as they grapple with quality in their own fictive existence, is indeed part of that "code of art" that Pirsig barely points to in his novels. He is constrained by his limitations as an intellectual, and his inability to point beyond the rational constraints of system building. Despite the numerous hints, the appeals to mystic experience, Pirsig's metaphysics seems to resolve no human problems. It is just another system, and its appeal seems to be to those who are by temperament desirous to manage their world by understanding it. That is why so many of those who debate Pirsig's ideas in cyberspace belong to that 1% of the population who fall into the 'intellectual' personality type (The INTP Myers Briggs category.)
Yet this is not the whole story. Pirsig's agonies as he explores his past and seeks some closenes with his son in 'Zen' can grip us in a way that makes the sub theme of quality seem important. It is ironic that 'Zen' explores the limits of the intellectual explorer, who encounters madness, in his obsession with understanding, while in 'Lila', eleven thousand slips later, the same obsession returns. Nothing important has been learnt. As an intellectual project the metaphysics of quality is of interest to system builders. Yet in as much as Pirsig cares about quality, and succeeds in communicating that concern through the artistic code of the novel, his writing does become an authentic finger pointing to the moon of quality. The tragedy is that he focuses his effort on the metaphysics, the intellectual structure, rather than on the path, the educational process through which each of us might in time find more immediate access to the dynamic quality inherent in our existence.