A Review of
Dr. Anthony McWatt's Essay:
"Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality"
By Matt Kundert
In his seminar paper, “Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality,” Anthony McWatt set himself the unenviable task of trying to summarize and encapsulate a thinker’s lifelong project. Hopping from point to point, pulling us forward by a series of softball questions intended to elicit succinct, expository answers, McWatt does an admirable job of glossing and interrelating the major points and setting the context where these points achieve resonance. McWatt and I, however, are at odds from the very beginning because where he sees a consistent philosophy, successfully blending mysticism with Western metaphysics, supplied with a dash of practical impulse, I see a muddled combination of the traditional Platonic mess known as “metaphysics” with the gadfly, Protagorean tradition culminating in “pragmatism,” all glazed with a suggestive connection to Eastern thought. McWatt sees Pirsig as serving us a radical alternative to Western philosophy, an integrative vision that captures the best in the West and the East, while tossing aside outworn dogmas. I, on the other hand, see Pirsig as attempting to break free from the Platonic dogmas handed down to us, but like so many before, not quite breaking away completely from all of what Dewey called “that whole nest and brood of Greek dualisms.”
McWatt shows his dedication by sticking closely to the version that Pirsig presents to us, simply fleshing out the map that has already been loosely sketched, whereas I hammer down hard on my favorite passages, while skipping lightly over what I like to call “the bad ones.” In earlier essays, I have sketched out my qualms about finding a consistent Pirsig, one who doesn’t argue against himself, suggesting that if you are going to interpret Pirsig, you can either interpret him as a traditional, Platonic metaphysician or a Protagorean pragmatist, but not both (at least not at the same time).1 Though I doubt we will ever be able to find a consistent Pirsig, that oft-fruitless battle isn’t my intended purpose here. Maybe somebody will someday integrate all of Pirsig’s most vibrant passages in a magisterial and plausible interpretation. My purpose here is to point out the places where I think Pirsig (and McWatt, in his brief depiction) goes wrong. I think McWatt starts out perfectly right in deploring the asinine Platonic balancing act of “objectivity, reason, logic, and dialectic, on the one hand” and “subjectivity, emotion, imagination, intuition, and rhetoric, on the other.”2 But in my estimation, everything goes south when he then promptly asks, in his first explication advancing question, “So why introduce a new metaphysics?” and takes it seriously, as opposed to answering “mu” as the pragmatist would. Though according to McWatt’s map, this all denotes a trajectory northward.
Metaphysics, of course, was so named because it marked the set of writings that came after Aristotle’s Physics. Etymologically it means “after physics” or “beyond physics.” What has come to be known as the discipline of metaphysics has more to do with getting “beyond physics,” rather than resting simply as a descriptor for the sequence of Aristotle’s books. Traditionally, metaphysics has named the enterprise in which we attempt to go “beyond” physics (which gets at all the apparent reality we deal with on a day to day basis) to the underlying reality that really structures the world as we know it. Metaphysics, as the name of what gets beyond appearance to reality, has fallen on hard times in the last 300 years, coming under increasingly persistent attacks ever since Descartes suggested that to sustain it we would need a rock solid epistemology. This epistemology, in which the skeptic would no longer get to ask his annoying “How do you know?” has been no where in the finding. With greater and greater skepticism about the possibility of an epistemology, and hence a metaphysics, some philosophers have chosen to vary the assignment in the field of metaphysics to be something much looser, something more like what McWatt calls a “unifying paradigm.” (McWatt, 1)
The reason I would run through this is because, as a pragmatist, I’ve been taught to identify the appearance/reality distinctive “metaphysics” as the big bad wolf, the boogieman that has haunted philosophy’s dreams. We’ve been taught to eradicate its presence on command and purify the remains. I’ve been engaged in these purification rituals over Pirsig, but it is important that I’m not seeing ghosts where there are none. If these rituals are needed and not superfluous, it is important that we can identify Pirsig caught in the act, using the appearance/reality sense, and not simply in the unifying paradigm sense. This is difficult because to my mind Pirsig never really takes a stand either way and flits back and forth between the two senses. In McWatt’s essay, he never really defines metaphysics, but simply takes it as something we must have a new one of. The question would be, then, is he assuming we need a new unifying paradigm (not a bad idea), or is he assuming we need a new description of the underlying reality behind the appearances (horrible idea)?
My instinct tells me Pirsig and McWatt are not just looking for a new unifying paradigm, but are also trying to get at the underlying reality. It’s not because they both seem to unfortunately conflate materialism with Pirsig’s homegrown bad guy moniker Subject-Object Metaphysics (SOM), though.3 It is because, rather than simply agree with Dewey that experience is quasi-synonymous with reality, that reality itself is an undifferentiated “flow of perceptions,”4 what James called the “stream of consciousness,” they attempt to make a distinction between immediate and non-immediate experience, divided and undivided reality. When Pirsig begins talking like a bad metaphysician, about how “value is more immediate, more directly sensed than any ‘self’ or any ‘object’ to which it might be later assigned. It is more real than the stove,”5 I either fire up my philosophical thresher to shuck the metaphysical husk from the pragmatic corn, or if I’m feeling lazy, I lightly skip over such passages. If I’m reading McWatt right, though, he gives them pride of place in interpreting Pirsig. McWatt spends five of his twelve bullet points on the subject and they appear at the beginning, meaning they probably have priority in understanding how Pirsig’s philosophy hangs together.
To get at the problem I see, we should first start with Quality. Quality is Pirsig’s salve for the problems of philosophy. Quality is an event, experience itself, undivided reality and for this reason Pirsig famously leaves it undefined. Giving something a definition is an act of division, differentiating it from all other things, but Quality is all-embracing, from which everything else is derived. This is one of the principle lessons of ZMM and it is a point well taken. When Quality, i.e. reality, becomes the same thing as experience, we are no longer posed with the problem of trying to get our experience hooked back up to reality. As soon as you separate them, as the history of philosophy has traditionally done, you have to try and explain how we are to know when experience reflects the underlying reality. Pirsig rightly sees this as the bugbear of SOM and fixes it by saying we are always already hooked up with reality. Experience isn’t so much a gateway to reality as it is all there is to it.
McWatt, in his exposition of Pirsig, identifies Quality as “immediate experience,” which Pirsig is also wont to do. He explains it as “experience where there is no distinction between what is experienced and the act of experiencing itself.” (McWatt, 5) This seems more or less fine as an expression of Quality, as agreeable with the Deweyan version I just offered, except we may begin to wonder why we would call it “immediate experience,” as opposed to just “experience.” McWatt explains that Pirsig is identifying Quality with F. S. C. Northrop’s “aesthetic continuum”: “what is immediately perceived in an all embracing (emotion producing) field.”6 Quality is to be understood as an event, an event that precedes the designation of subject and object, rather than the other way around as most philosophers in the history of philosophy have presumably done.
It is at this point that McWatt describes Pirsig’s distinction between Dynamic Quality and static patterns of Quality. McWatt says that this lines up with what the Buddhists refer to as “unconditioned reality” and “conditioned reality,” respectively. (McWatt, 6) McWatt says, “Dynamic Quality is the term given by Pirsig to the continually changing flux of immediate reality while static quality refers to any concept abstracted from this flux.” (McWatt, 7) It might be useful at this point to lay out Northrop’s conceptual apparatus as it is closely identified with Pirsig’s. For Northrop, there are three terms that are presently important. Northrop’s fountainhead concept is the “differentiated aesthetic continuum,” which is, it would seem, what Pirsig and McWatt are equating with Quality. The second term is the “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum,” which is then explicitly aligned with Dynamic Quality.7 The third term is the “concepts of the differentiations,” which we can easily gather is aligned to static patterns of Quality. What is interesting with what Pirsig does to Northrop is that, for Northrop, the differentiated aesthetic continuum is aesthetic precisely because it is not conceptual at all, but is instead the immediately apprehended “qualitatively ineffable, emotionally moving continuum of colors, sounds and feelings.”8 In other words, for Northrop, “aesthetic” refers to our sensations (and emotions) whereas “differentiation” refers to our concepts. For Pirsig, however, everything becomes aesthetic once everything becomes Quality, value. This is what makes Pirsig sound like Dewey. Quality is experience which is the sum total of reality. This sum total of reality is a differentiated aesthetic continuum because, within it, we can distinguish the undifferentiated background (Dynamic Quality) against which concepts take shape (static patterns of Quality).9
This schematic begins to fall apart, though. Besides the ambiguity of whether Pirsig thinks our connection with Quality is sensational or whether sensations should be distinguished (and therefore a subsection of) our overall connection to Quality,10 Pirsig, and McWatt after him, is ambiguous over Dynamic Quality’s relationship to Quality. We saw for Northrop distinguishing between the overall differentiated aesthetic continuum from its two constituent parts (the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum and the differentiating concepts) is important. This importance is obfuscated in Pirsig. For Pirsig, it would seem that Quality is synonymous with Dynamic Quality. The first clue is that Pirsig keeps both Quality and Dynamic Quality undefined. What’s the difference between two things that are undefined if the only way we could tell the difference is by first defining them? The second clue is how McWatt describes Quality as “undivided experience” and Dynamic Quality as “unconditioned reality.” What’s the difference between being undivided and unconditioned? None that I can see, at least not in McWatt’s usage. After reading McWatt’s description of Quality, when moving on to his description of Dynamic Quality its hard not to get the impression that you had just read this all before: like just a minute ago when you read about Quality.
The third clue is contained in the comparison of Pirsig and Northrop. Pirsig and McWatt are very careful to keep the term “immediate” as far away from the static side of Quality as possible, yet for Northrop both the “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum” and the “concepts of differentiation” are immediately apprehended. Reading McWatt’s description of Quality and Dynamic Quality shows him hammering down on the immediateness of both, but in his description of static patterns its immediateness is a bit harder to pick up on. In fact, McWatt quotes Northrop on the idea of an “aesthetic continuum” and “immediate experience” for use in interpreting Quality, but obscures the connection to Pirsig by saying that “it is from experience that concepts such as subjects and objects arise; such concepts do not create experience or perceptions.” (McWatt, 5) It is true, concepts do not create our experience, but if we follow Northrop, neither do they arise out it.11 And finally, McWatt comes right out and says that “Dynamic Quality refers to ultimate reality which includes absolutely everything.” (McWatt, 7) But I thought Quality was the ultimate reality, which was then divided into Dynamic and static parts?
The ambiguity is that it would seem not to make any sense to have an ultimate, monistic reality and then divide into ultimate, monistic reality on the one side and derivative, pluralistic reality on the other. The way in which it would make sense is if people were on one side of the breach constantly trying to get over to the other side, not only just because things are better on the other side, but because the other side is the way things really are. This is where I see Pirsig and McWatt resurrecting the Greek appearance/reality distinction. The first step is to construe your division in terms of a visual metaphor. We have an ultimate reality, but there are two ways of looking at it: one through a clear window and the other through opaque stained glass.12 The next step is to prefer one over the other. We have ultimate reality (which, conveniently enough, is also ultimate good given Pirsig’s use of Quality for reality) and who wouldn’t rather see it clearly and distinctly as it really is, rather than through a mediating mirage of colors? Pirsig’s preference for Dynamic Quality over static patterns is built right into the Metaphysics of Quality, not just through the rhetoric used to develop it (as Pirsig and McWatt constantly seem to prefer Dynamic Quality over static Quality, even at moments when they are at pains to not take sides), but in the notion that the MoQ is not only a differentiation of different ontological substances (rocks from cells from presidents from ideas), but also a moral hierarchy of those substances. Dynamic Quality is more moral than static patterns of Quality.13
There is another way to interpret the difference between Dynamic Quality and static patterns and that’s as two different standpoints with which we can view reality, analogous to Kant’s transcendental standpoint and phenomenal standpoint. Pirsig and McWatt do make this move at times,14 but they are still too sufficiently ambiguous over whether they are simply two different pragmatic standpoints (with which we can, depending on the circumstances, view reality as a monism or a pluralism) or are two different ontological substances. If the static and Dynamic are taken as standpoints, sans any residual logocentrism, then there wouldn’t seem to be any problems. We are static when we view the world as differentiated and we are Dynamic when we need to remind ourselves that these differentiations aren’t built into the world itself, are not hypostatized natural kinds that cut the world at the joints. However, if static and Dynamic are two different ways of being, and one way of being is more moral than the other, then we need to know when are one way and not the other. We need to know how we are to tell that we are being Dynamic, particularly if we are going to justify our actions based on the moral superiority of that way of being. But Pirsig himself seems to block this justification with his doctrine of the indeterminacy of Dynamic Quality. He says, “The problem is that you can’t really say whether a specific change is evolutionary [Dynamic] at the time it occurs. It is only with a century or so of hindsight that it appears evolutionary.”15 This, at the least, blocks the move to make Dynamic Quality a moral level in a hierarchy, insofar as a moral hierarchy is supposed to help us make decisions.
I’d like to bring this back around to the original question I asked at the outset: is Pirsig looking for a new unifying paradigm or is he looking for a new description of the underlying reality? If Pirsig were simply looking for a new paradigm for thought, he wouldn’t need talk about an “ultimate reality.” All of the qualifiers to “experience” and “reality,” such as “immediate,” “direct,” and “ultimate” are of no use for a pragmatist because they don’t give you any philosophical traction. The entire idea of equating experience and reality (and equating both with value) is to develop a philosophic acid with which to dissolve the uses of those qualifiers as they’ve been used in the philosophical tradition. As soon as “immediate” or “direct” or “ultimate” are taken up, we are going to start to wonder what their opposites are and what they do, which leads us into the endless quandries of modern philosophy (e.g., appearance/reality, mind/body, materialism/idealism, etc.) with which we were supposed to have been getting rid of in the first place. Such qualifiers should be immediately given up as soon as any critical pressure is applied because they serve no specifically philosophical function.16
Talk of an “ultimate reality” obscures the sense in which Pirsig’s trying to shake us out of an old vocabulary and usher us into a new, better one. By enshrining “Betterness” as the ultimate reality, Pirsig’s making the same move he castigates Plato for making by encapsulating the Good.17 This breeds the type of scholasticism that the history of Western metaphysics, what Heidegger called Platonism, has become. By erecting an “ultimate reality” Pirsig misdirects us into thinking that we can discover this reality and that this discovery will help us in our daily lives. But the history of Platonism has shown that specific inquiry into the nature of the Good, or Quality, will not help us be better, if for no other reason than that the Good and Quality do not have a nature—they are left undefined. The impulse of Pirsig’s philosophy, however, is that philosophy is what arises out of our daily lives and if philosophy can’t help there, it is of no help at all. The notion of “ultimate reality,” in the end, disconnects us from the only reality that is important to us by taking away our time and energy for a fruitless search for what, in the end, is right in front of us: Quality. Metaphysics, in the end, takes us away from the most important thing to us: living life.18
This shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that we shouldn’t be searching for new unifying paradigms, what Wilfrid Sellars called “seeing how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.” As Pirsig remarks in the beginning of Lila, “Getting drunk and picking up bar-ladies and writing metaphysics is a part of life.”19 But by calling this search for (or, rather, creation of) new paradigms “metaphysics” and making some of the same fundamental moves as the traditional metaphysicians, I’m afraid Pirsig has betrayed his better instincts and fallen back into the old mode of doing things.20 Instead of remaking the world as we know it, Pirsig seems to want to discover the world as it is, the ultimate reality.21
So much for my disagreements with McWatt’s version of Pirsig. Despite the fact that I think McWatt continues a project that undermines itself, I do think there is much to be learned from Pirsig and that McWatt is doing a laudable job of bringing Pirsig into the philosophical community. There is much work to be done in unearthing Pirsig’s predecessors in the tradition and his direct influences and no one else has done nearly so much as McWatt.22
Matthew P. Kundert
3 This is a sticky issue that I won’t explore here, but the reason I would choose to say that Pirsig conflates materialism with SOM, even though SOM is Pirsig’s term and by which he should therefore hold some descriptive power over, is because it seems to me that all of the problems and consequences that Pirsig spins out of SOM are not problems or consequences of materialism (taken to be some sort of thesis about the ability of corpuscularian descriptions to explain any given phenomenon), but rather of realism, i.e. the thesis that truth is a matter of piercing behind appearances to correspond to an underlying reality. Since realism and the correspondence theory of truth are my concern here, I will attempt to untangle what I consider to be Pirsig’s unfortunate conflation at a later date.
4 McWatt quoting Paul Williams, 4.
5 Robert M. Pirsig, Lila (New York: Bantam, 1991), p. 76.
6 McWatt quoting Northrop, 5
7 “Pirsig equates Dynamic Quality with F. S. C Northrop’s ‘indeterminate aesthetic continuum….” McWatt, 7
8 F. S. C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities, (New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1947), p. 96. Pirsig ignores this difference when he says about Northrop’s undifferentiated aesthetic continuum, “by ‘aesthetic’ he means that it has quality.”
9 In “Subjects, Objects, Data and Values,” (found at www.moq.org) Pirsig draws a diagram of the interaction between Dynamic Quality and static patterns and comments, “In this diagram you will notice that Dynamic Quality is not shown in any block. It is in the background.” (p. 13)
10 It is, in fact, this ambiguity that is partly what leads me to think that Pirsig conflates SOM with materialism, or rather, realism with materialism.
11 I’m not suggesting that we do follow Northrop all the way on this point, as he seems very Kantian in these sections. However, its important to note that Pirsig and McWatt seem to be saying that Quality and Dynamic Quality are immediate whereas static patterns are not, but if we read Northrop, he’s saying that “the indefinite, indeterminate, aesthetic continuum [DQ] is as immediately apprehended as are the specific differentiations within it [SQ]” (quoted in McWatt, 5, italics mine).
12 Pirsig uses this visual metaphor at the beginning of Chapter 8 in Lila with the idea a pair of “intellectual glasses” and being able to take them off. (p. 112-3) See also, and quite tellingly, p. 428: “This solution [to dealing with insanity] is to dissolve all static patterns, both sane and insane, and find the base of reality, Dynamic Quality, that is independent of all of them.” This sentence alone almost defies any possible reading of Pirsig as a pragmatist, ringing all at once the notes of representationalism, foundationalism, and essentialism into a beautiful, fully formed chord of Platonic metaphysics.
13 Cf. Lila, p. 183 “In general, given a choice of two courses to follow and all other things being equal, that choice which is more Dynamic, at a higher level of evolution, is more moral” and p. 428 “static social and intellectual patterns are only an intermediate level of evolution.” (italics his) The ambiguity between Quality and Dynamic Quality is furthered when on p. 160 of Lila Pirsig says (as one of his major theses) that “All life is a migration of static patterns of quality toward Dynamic Quality” and in a letter to McWatt (in the context of a discussion about Buddhism and suffering) that “the suffering which the Buddhists regard as only that which is to be escaped, is seen by the MOQ as merely the negative side of the progression toward Quality.” (quoted in McWatt, 11, italics mine).
14 Cf. “This is why Pirsig’s metaphysics uses the mystic term “Dynamic Quality” to denote the one and the philosophical term “static quality” to denote the many.” (McWatt, 7)
15 Lila, p. 256
16 Even the equation of experience and reality with the “flow of perceptions,” which I agreed to earlier on, should be given up under pressure (e.g., “What are these perceptions? Are they sensations? Do ‘sensations’ differ from concepts’?”, etc.).
17 Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow, 1974, 1999), p. 388.
18 This should be the main lesson taken away from ZMM, which sees Pirsig becoming distant from his wife and his kids because he was obsessed with Quality as a philosophical thesis. This lesson is ambivalently learned by us, the reader, though, least of all by Pirsig.
19 Lila, p. 74
20 Pirsig’s uncertainty over traditional metaphysics is underscored when he says that a “‘Metaphysics of Quality’ is essentially a contradiction in terms.” (Lila, p. 73) This uncertainty becomes, in McWatt, the concession, at the very end of the paper, that “though it may be argued that a metaphysics that incorporates a central term that isn’t defined … isn’t a real metaphysics, it can also be argued that the strength of the MOQ is its ability to incorporate the indeterminate divine within a coherent and logical paradigm.” (McWatt, 12) I should like to argue that the MoQ isn’t a real metaphysics, but its none the worse for it, and that once that’s realized one should drop all of the terminological baggage that accompanies metaphysics (e.g., qualifiers of experience and reality like “immediate,” “direct,” “ultimate”).
21 See ZMM, p. 32-6 where Pirsig makes fun of the notion of “discovery.” See also my discussion of this passage in my “Confessions,” in the second part “The Pragmatized Pirsig.”