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Phenomenological-Existentialism and the Metaphysics of Quality
by Matthew P. Kundert, May 2000
After taking several courses in philosophy and looking back to the philosophers I had studied in the contemporary era, I found that I could never really gain a good liking of anybody I studied. The Analytics seemed too closed fisted. The Continentals seemed too open handed. Where the Analytics stymied the things philosophy could cover, limiting it to a philosophy of language, the Continentals seemed too broad and open to attack. Being dissatisfied with both fields, I looked to a rebel of the entire profession: Robert M. Pirsig. Pirsig has been passed over in philosophy, mainly I suppose, because he’s been deemed a “cult writer.” Many philosophy professionals criticized his first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as being “pop philosophy” and a mere cult phenomena. However, with the advent of his second book, Lila, Pirsig grounded his philosophy in a metaphysical system and went on to say that some reviewers had thought his idea of truth in Zen was very much like William James’.
The comparison with James is an apt one and it got me to thinking about comparisons to other contemporary philosophers. In particular, Jean-Paul Sartre’s version of existentialism seemed very intriguing. For a good comparison, though, the first thing to do was to go to the source of Sartre’s phenomenological-existential technique: Edmund Husserl. Husserl’s name is synonymous with phenomenology. If there was a real connection between existentialism, which got its roots from phenomenology, and Pirsig’s metaphysical system, the Metaphysics of Quality, then it would be within Husserl.
The first thing that needs to be done, though, is to flesh out Pirsig’s philosophy. The key concept that it revolves around is Quality. Pirsig says that, “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.”  This early definition was given to a freshmen English class that Pirsig taught at the University of Montana-Bozeman. He had been struggling in his teaching because he was supposed to be teaching them how to write well. But, as Pirsig found, you can teach all the grammar and rules you want, that doesn’t make you a good writer. So the question Pirsig found himself asking was, “How do you teach quality?”
So the definition that Pirsig supplied to his classes was that Quality is undefined and cannot be defined. Even by naming it, calling it Quality, you’re limiting it. But how do we know it exists?
To solve this problem Pirsig tried imagining the world without Quality. If the world could not function without a thing, whether it was defined or not, the thing essentially exists. The first thing that dropped out was the fine arts. Without Quality you can’t distinguish between Monet and a blank wall, Bach and your car horn, or Chris Rock and my economics instructor. After that sports fell, movies, dances, parties. You couldn’t have any of them without Quality. Everybody would eat bland food, take the bus, and wear combat boots. It seems the world could function without Quality, but it’s fairly obvious that it doesn’t. 
The next question is Where does Quality exist then? Is it in the subject or the object? This was the important question,
On the other hand, if Quality is subjective, existing only in the observer, then this Quality that you make so much of is just a fancy name for whatever you like.” 
What Pirsig decides to do is make Quality neither objective nor subjective. Pirsig says, “Quality doesn’t have to be defined. You understand it without definition, ahead of definition. Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.”  By defining Quality you make it a dialectical chess piece that is subordinate to and grounded within reality. But what Pirsig is saying is that Quality is realty. Quality isn’t a chess piece because it’s the chessboard. And though you cannot define Quality, you know it’s there.
With that let us leave Pirsig and begin fleshing out the main similarity between Pirsig and Husserl: the life-world. Husserl says, “…that science is a human spiritual accomplishment which presupposes as its point of departure, both historically and for each new student, the intuitive surrounding world of life, pregiven as existing for all in common.”  He says that this life-world was originally all there was until the time of Greece, which then cast objective truth as higher than the life-world. Pirsig also identifies the Greeks as having thrown the objective into a higher position than the subjective. Pirsig describes this transition as the mythos vs. logos where logos gained a prominent status in Greek culture.
Husserl continues his investigation of the life-world by pointing out that objective science comes from the life-world. Without the life-world, the original intuited experience, you could not have anything on which to base science. It would be like having the Law of Gravity without mass. There has to be things with mass first before you can show the correlations between things with mass. Even mass is a term in science that would be meaningless without things. These things that we experience are gained through the original intuition and are summarized as life-world. Husserl says, “What is actually first is the “merely subjective-relative” intuition of prescientific world-life.” 
This life-world is starting to sound very much like Pirsig’s Quality. As the pregiven, intuited world that we take for granted, yet know that’s there, it sounds very much like Quality. One thing in particular to key in on is his statement that the intuition of the life-world is subjective. The important thing here is to see that the life-world is not subjective, only the intuition of it. Husserl’s life-world can be stated as “What is initially intuited” or simply “What you see.” What you see may be relative and subjective, but that is because what you see resides in you. However, the What of “What you see” is not relative because it does not reside in you. But since we are talking about the life-world, before logos, this is not a case for the objectivity of the What. All there is is “What you see.” There aren’t objects or subjects and none of the stigmas that are carried along with them. And this is exactly what Pirsig was saying. Before the Greeks there was only the life-world, mythos, Quality. After the insertion of logos, the world became cleaved into subjects and objects and we lost touch with the life-world, Quality. This is also, quite probably, why Husserl named the book where the idea of the life-world is described The Crisis of European Science and Transcendental Phenomenology.
This all boded well for my connection with existentialism. It seemed as if the two were so close that the only difference was that one was called the life-world and the other Quality. This difference is, however, important and will be differentiated further on. Right now it is important to notice that Husserl was not investigating the life-world per sč. When Husserl performed his epochē he was bracketing off the consciousness. His investigations of the consciousness were investigations of the subjective-relative original intuition, not of the actual life-world. They were investigations of the life-world through the subject.
This is not what Pirsig was talking about. When Pirsig was describing Quality he was describing Quality, not Quality as originally intuited by the consciousness. This is important because Pirsig discovered that spitting the world into subjects and objects is fairly arbitrary. As Pirsig says,
Even though Husserl did see the life-world, he still fit the world into two boxes. Subjects—consciousnesses—and objects. This point of interpretation of Husserl’s phenomenology is controversial and has been debated. As Joseph J. Kockelmans says,
It is also my conviction that this is what Husserl meant in light of his careful placement of the “merely subjective-relative” with “intuition.” He didn’t say that the life-world was relative, only the intuition of it. Pirsig doesn’t want to stop at the original intuition of the life-world. With Quality, he wants to take the next step and dissolve subjects and objects.
But before we get to the first division of Quality, the difference of using Quality rather than life-world should be cleared up. Earlier I stated that for Pirsig, Quality is reality. At the time, I can assume, that mental leap didn’t make any sense with the way Quality had been set up. The reason I pretty much posited Quality as reality is because it is easier to understand Quality as reality if we start with it before explaining why it should be. And the best way to get to “Quality behind subjects and objects” is with Husserl’s explanation of the life-world. But now the loose ends need to be tied up.
When Pirsig says Quality he also means value. When you are in a low Quality situation, say your hand in a meat grinder, you do not value that situation. It has low Quality, low value. Look at value as the utility verb/noun for the concept of Quality. It does all the dirty work in the Metaphysics of Quality. Pirsig’s idea is that values create objects. Objects just aren’t there and subjects don’t create them, as Husserl would say. Values create them.
Say our friend Demonstration Stick Man touches his hand to a hot stove. In a subject-object metaphysics Demonstration Stick Man is told that the pain is merely subjective and, because the pain has no objective reality, is not real. It’s all in his head. I’m sure Demonstration Stick Man would contend that the pain, in fact, is quite real. The funny thing about this situation is that every time Demonstration Stick Man touches that stove he reaffirms his original contention that the stove is hot and causes pain. When Quality is stated as what Demonstration Stick Man is sensing, it seems as the situation becomes quite empirical, which is a stipulation governing objective science. Demonstration Stick Man, the subject, is simply interpreting the Quality (value) of the situation, which in turn creates the object.  As Husserl stated in his case for the life-world, the reason we interpret the world as subjects and objects is because we were handed these glasses of interpretation from the Greeks. It’s built right into us. Throwing the glasses away is disconcerting at first, but once you get used to the idea of value creating objects the easier it gets. This is what Pirsig means when he says Quality: reality is made up of value impressions. This is an important difference between Quality and the life-world and it also gives us a leaping off point into the first division of Quality.
M o Q
Pirsig’s first division for the Metaphysic of Quality is between Dynamic Quality and static Quality. Pirsig calls Dynamic Quality the “pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality.” Dynamic Quality is Husserl’s original intuition! It is unmistakable. For Pirsig Dynamic Quality is the original sense of reality, like a baby being born into a new world. For a newborn everything is new. Static patterns of Quality are set up in the wake of Dynamic Quality. Pirsig says,
“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.  ”(italics Pirsig’s)
When Demonstration Stick Man first touches the hot stove he is confronted with Dynamic Quality and his decision is not a rational choice because “the stove is hot.” Demonstration Stick Man was confronted with a low Quality situation and Dynamically chose to leave it. Only later did static patterns to explain the situation arise.
So life as explained by the Metaphysics of Quality consists of static patterns of value interspersed with Dynamic Quality. This isn’t completely making sense yet, I’m sure, because it sounds like we only have humans and nothing else. So, humans first get in touch with Quality through Dynamic Quality and then deal with it on an everyday basis with static patterns of Quality. So what. How is the rest of this Quality/life-world set up?
The first thing to understand is that Dynamic and static patterns of Quality do not just pertain to humans. They pertain to all Quality. To help understand this, Pirsig divides static patterns of value into four categories: Inorganic, Biological, Social and Intellectual. All static patterns of value can be placed into one of these categories.
Science has been haunted by the notion of substance. To this Pirsig says,
Therefore, substance can be replaced by “static inorganic patterns of value” and the only change is linguistic. In this way a little atom is merely an inorganic pattern of values. The electrons fly around the nucleus in pairs with not more than 1 pair in the s orbital, 3 pairs in the p orbital, 5 pairs in the d orbital, and 7 pairs in the f orbital. The reason they do this is because of static patterns of value. All the data remains the same. Nature doesn’t give a whit how we describe it.
Pirsig also tackles causation. Just as David Hume pointed out to the world, Pirsig reaffirms that we have no rational reason to believe the rules of causation. The reason the rules of causation work, more often than not, is because the rules are not definite laws that can never be broken. Nature doesn’t care what we say it can or cannot do. Nature will do what it wants. All we can do is try and predict what is going on. And that’s what models of nature do, they predict what nature will do based on its past behavior. The way causation has heretofore been explained is as “A causes B”, not allowing for the time B will not behave as is if caused by A. Pirsig merely changes the words to “B values precondition A” and suddenly everything falls into place. The difference is that Pirsig’s definition of causation is not eternally binding; it merely allows nature to do what it wants, which it will do without us.
This helps us see how nature can be described as static patterns of value. Each category follows its own set of rules and these rules are independent of the others. Pirsig says,
These four categories are also an evolutionary model. Pirsig’s notion of evolution is encapsulated as, “All life is a migration of static patterns of quality toward Dynamic Quality.” He says further,
This explains why the fittest survive. Not the mechanistic answer, “The fittest survive because they are stronger and swifter and smarter.” The actual why. Why does anything survive? If the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the entire universe is on a collision course with entropy, why should anything be working against the Second Law knowing it will ultimately lose?  The reason given by the Metaphysics of Quality is that it values working against entropy. An oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms value forming water. Carbon atoms value making DNA, which value making cells, which value procreating to evolve into multi-celled organisms, which value creating social patterns such as parents protecting offspring. The way in which a static pattern changes is Dynamic. Dynamic Quality is what spurs the change in static patterns. The reason why is because all static patterns value Dynamic Quality higher than all others. In this way we have an evolution diagram that looks like this:
Something else happens when the world is split into Dynamic Quality and static patterns of Quality. This model also encapsulates the changing of how we view reality. Other models have always asserted that their model is better than the other older models. The Greeks made a strong case for why logos was a much better way of viewing the world then the old mythos. And people agreed. But Pirsig’s split shows how the way in which we view reality can change. The Greeks logos was a Dynamic change in the old static intellectual patterns of mythos. While other metaphysics claim all the other ones are wrong, the Metaphysics of Quality shows that they are all right, to a point. A metaphysics isn’t necessarily wrong unless it fails tests of observation in the world. But some metaphysics are deemed more worthy than others. This is why many have deemed metaphysics meaningless gibberish because none of it can be verified beyond any shadow of a doubt. These people would rather continue on with our current metaphysical pattern of interpretation, scientific objectivism, without a review if there is a better pattern. Indeed Pirsig says, “The tests of truth are logical consistency, agreement with experience, and economy of explanation.”  The Metaphysics of Quality fit all of these.
With Dynamic Quality and static patterns of Quality at our disposal we can move into Sartre. Sartre makes many important observations about the nature of consciousness with Husserl’s model of phenomenological investigation guiding the way. Sartre continues with Husserl’s concept of intentionality and shows that the consciousness is always pointing away from itself. Through a series of dialectical arguments Sartre shows that the consciousness is no-thing and because it is nothing can never be caused and is radically free.
Well, this isn’t completely true. Sartre doesn’t reach his dialectically proven freedom by starting with the causal independence of our consciousness. Sartre shows that we start with our freedom. That is to say that, as a being-for-itself, we are what we are not and are not what we are. In this way we are no-thing and in this way we are ultimately free. Sartre also shows the paradox of our being-for-itself. We are and are not our past and present and future. As Sartre says, “Freedom is the human being putting his past out of play by secreting his own nothingness.” 
With the ultimate freedom afforded the being-for-itself, Sartre turns his attention to how humans actually behave and why humans insist on a determinist view of their actions. The fleeing of human beings from the truth of their freedom Sartre calls bad faith. To see where this bad faith comes from we need two more terms from Sartre: transcendence and facticity. These are two distinct features of our existence come about because I have an essence in the way that I am my past and yet I also do not have an essence in the way that in my future I will create my essence in the continual exertion of freedom. Facticity is the “Yes, I have an essence” of our past and transcendence is the “No, I do not have an essence” of our future.
Bad faith happens when facticity and transcendence are waffled between. If we think of facticity and transcendence as polar opposites, bad faith happens when a person thinks that the “Yes” and “No” of essence is the same thing. Sartre says it best:
These two aspects of human reality are and ought to be capable of a valid coordination. But bad faith does not wish either to coordinate them nor to surmount them in a synthesis. Bad faith seeks to affirm their identity while preserving their differences. It must affirm facticity as being transcendence and transcendence as being facticity, in such a way that at the instant when a person apprehends the one, he can find himself abruptly faced with the other.  (italics Sartre’s)
What is important to see is that when it comes to freedom, Sartre is sided completely behind it. A common avenue towards bad faith is defining yourself by the facticity of your life. For instance, say you work at a grocery store. If you say, “I am a grocer” you are defining yourself as a grocer as if that is all you are and ever will be. By defining yourself as a grocer you are taking your transcendence out of the picture.
Transcendence and facticity: two polar opposite aspects of human reality that are inescapable. This sounds exactly like Dynamic and static Quality! Facticity is those patterns of behavior that you have already set. Transcendence is the future, the awesome freedom in which you confront Husserl’s life-world and continually re-choose your course. The correlation is astounding. Sartre’s description of the human reality couldn’t be closer to the way Pirsig would describe it.
We can see something else in Sartre’s philosophy. In his novel, Nausea, Sartre’s protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, is beset by the Nausea. The Nausea happens when the stable patterns of reality fall away and you’re left naked to the world. When Roquentin looks inside of his mouth he sees a centipede rather than his tongue. Roquentin watches the entire world melt away in front of his eyes:
This enmeshing of Sartre’s existentialism and the Metaphysics of Quality isn’t quite perfect, though. There are major differences between the two. And these major differences are also major problems for Sartre. The first major difference is Sartre’s continued use of subject-object metaphysics. For Sartre the being-for-itself (consciousness) is the subject and the being-in-itself is the object. It is also important to see that because Sartre does not want to accept the causation of consciousness (because the consciousness is not an object to be caused by other objects) he runs into Descartes’ mind-body dualism paradox. If the consciousness is no-thing than how does it affect things? Sartre does attend to the connection of being-for-itself and being-in-itself. He says that the connection lies in negation, by going to a café and focusing the intentionality of your consciousness on Pierre and when you discover his absence . . . wait a minute. How did your consciousness, being-for-itself, get your body, being-in-itself, to go to the café? Sartre explains the behavior of our consciousness with objects, but he never gets to explaining the mysterious connection between the consciousness and its vehicle, the body.
The second major difference is the problem of Sartre’s freedom. How does Sartre account for the truth of science? If he accepts that objects, beings-in-themselves, are required to follow the Laws of Nature, how does he account for his body, being a being-in-itself, still following mysterious orders from the being-for-itself? If all atoms have to obey the Laws of Nature, then it should follow that the DNA has to follow them, the cells, and the organs, too. And when we get to the end we have a perfectly functioning body that should follow the Laws of Nature, yet has the gall to break the Laws by following the being-for-itself. In the same respect, it should follow that if the body has this freedom to break rules, then the organs do, and the cells, DNA, and atoms, too. Yet they don’t for some inexplicable reason.
These problems in existentialism, though, are cleared up when put into the more inclusive Metaphysics of Quality. The problem of the mind and body stems from the fact that subject-object metaphysics lump the inorganic/biological into matter (body) and call it “object” and lump the social/intellectual into mind and call it “subject.” The problem arises because the underlying assumption of objects and subjects is that they are eternally separate. In the Metaphysics of Quality, inorganic, biological, social and intellectual patterns all follow different rules, but they are built on top of each other in an evolutionary fashion. Pirsig says,
The free will problem is also cleared up in much the same way as the mind-body problem. Pirsig says simply,
It’s as simple as that. And the “one” stands for any “thing” that follows static patterns of quality. An oxygen and two hydrogen molecules are exerting their freedom by making water.
Pirsig dissolves the problems of mind-body dualism and free will. In this way we are given a synthesis of how Sartrean existentialism would work in the broader paradigm of the Metaphysics of Quality. The being-for-itself is the collection of these social and intellectual patterns of value along with Dynamic Quality. These are all held in a collection of biological patterns of value called a body. The connection between the being-for-itself and the body is much the same as a computer program being held in the hard drive of a computer. Sartre’s facticity is the collection of social and intellectual patterns of value and transcendence is easily equated to Dynamic Quality. Bad faith is a very good concept of how people, in fact, do want to hide behind the social and intellectual patterns of their lives and deny Dynamic Quality. Sartre is a bit heavy handed in his attack of static patterns, but, in general, the synthesis is fairly clean. When we add in Husserl’s life-world as the backdrop to which we place the being-for-itself we get an excellent view of reality.
There is one more not-so-minor plus to using the broader paradigm of the Metaphysics of Quality. Sartre, and in a larger sense existentialism itself, was condemned during his time for lacking any kind of ethical direction. Sartre attempted to answer some of these critiques in Existentialism Is a Humanism, but never got to actually writing up an ethics for existentialism. The Metaphysics of Quality supplies this ethics:
This is groundbreaking because it is basically saying that all actions in life are ethical actions. The reason oxygen and hydrogen forms water is because it is moral for it to do so. The Laws of Nature are moral laws. This might seem very strange at first, but if you’ve made it this far than this strange view of reality shouldn’t be that far off. The entire theory of Quality has basically been building up to this point. By saying that the world is made up of value anything and everything that happens is some sort of ethical choice. And because of Dynamic Quality it really is a choice.
It has been shown that existentialism is a fairly clean subset of the Metaphysics of Quality. Husserl’s method of bracketing of the static patterns of value (phenomena) allowed us to see the life-world, the backdrop to all existence. Sartre’s analysis of consciousness can be seen as an analysis of social and intellectual patterns of value. These help us see the reality of our situation as human beings. The Metaphysics of Quality simply lifts them up and places them in a broader, cozier, home.
 Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Morrow Quill, 1974., p. 206
 Ibid., p. 184
 Ibid., p. 216
 Ibid., p. 229
 Pirsig, Robert M. Lila. New York: Bantam, 1991., p. 73
 Husserl, Edmund. “The Crisis of European Science and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenology Philosophy.” Trans. David Carr. Twentieth-Century Philosophy. Ed. Forrest E. Baird. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997., p. 12
 Ibid., p. 17
 Pirsig, Robert M. Lila. New York: Bantam, 1991., p. 124
 Kockelmans, Joseph J. “Introduction.” Phenomenology. Ed. Joseph J. Kockelmans. New York: Anchor, 1967., p. 194-5
 Pirsig, Robert M. Lila. New York: Bantam, 1991., p. 123
 Ibid., p. 113-4
 Ibid., p. 137
 Ibid., p. 120
 Ibid., p. 173
 Ibid., p. 160-1
 Ibid., p. 161-2
 Ibid., p. 113
 Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Being and Nothingness.” Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Ed. L. Nathan Oaklander. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996., p. 255
 Ibid., p. 270
 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions., p. 158
 Pirsig, Robert M. Lila. New York: Bantam, 1991., p. 179
 Ibid., p. 180
 Ibid., p. 180