Robert M. Pirsig





This is a short extract from Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. It deals with the subject of Quality that is the theoretical and practical focus of the author while he travels with his son Chris through the States.



What the classical formalists meant by the objection "Quality is just what you like" was that this objective, undefined "quality" he was teaching was romantic surface appeal. Classroom popularity could determine whether a composition had immedit appeal, all right, but was this Quality? Was something that you "just see" or might it be somethin more subtle than that, so that you wouldn't see it immediately, but only after a long period of time?

The more he examined this argument the formidable it appeared. This looked like the one that might do in his whole thesis.

What made it so ominous was that it seemed to answer a question that had arisen often in class and which he always had to answer somewhat casuistically. This was the question: If everyone knows what is, why is there such a disagreement about it?

His casuist answer had been that although pure Quality was the same for everyone, the objects that people said Quality inhered in varied from person to person. As long as he left Quality undefined there was no way to argue with this but he knew and he knew the students knew that it had the smell of falseness about it. It didn't really answer the question.

Now there was an alternative explanation: people disagreed about Quality because some just used their immediate emotions whereas others applied their overall knowledge. He knew that in any popularity contest among English teachers, this latter argument which bolstered their authority would win overwhelming endorsement.

But this argument was completely devastating. Instead of one single, uniform Quality now there appeared to be two qualities; a romantic one, just seeing, which the students had; and a classic one, overall understanding, which the teachers had. A hip one and a square one. Squareness was not the absence of Quality; it was classic Quality. Hipness was not just presence of Quality; it was mere romantic Quality. The hip-square cleavage he'd discovered was still there, but Quality didn't now seem to fall entirely on one side of the cleavage, as he'd previously supposed. Instead, Quality itself cleaved into two kinds, one on each side of the cleavage line. His simple, neat, beautiful, undefined Quality was starting to get complex.

He didn't like the way this was going. The cleavege term that was going to unify the classic and romantic ways of looking at things had itself been cleaved into two parts and could no longer unify anything. It had been caught in an analytic meat grinder. The knife of subjectivity-and-objectivity had cut Quality in two and killed it as a working concept. If he was going to save it, he couldn't let that knife get it.

And really, the Quality he was talking about wasn’t classic Quality or romantic Quality. It was beyond both of them. And by God, it wasn't subjective or objective either, it was beyond both of those categories. Actually this whole dilemma of subjectivity-objectivity, of mind-matter, with relationship to Quality was unfair. That mind-matter relationship has been an intelual hang-up for centuries. They were just putting that hang-up on top of Quality to drag Quality down. How could he say whether Quality was mind or matter when there was no logical clarity as to what was mind and what was matter in the first place?

And so: he rejected the left horn. Quality is not objective, he said. It doesn't reside in the material world.

Then he rejected the right horn. Quality is not subjective, he said. It doesn't reside merely in the mind.

And finally: Phaedrus, following a path that to his knowledge had never been taken before in the history of Western thought, went straight between the horns of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and said Quality is neither part of mind, not is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two.

He was heard along the corridors and up and down the stairs of Montana Hall singing softly to himself, almost under his breath" ·'Holy, holy, holy … blessed Trinity."

And there is a faint, faint fragment of memory, possibly wrong, possibly just something I'm imagining that says he just let the whole thought structure sit like that for weeks, without carrying it any further.


The world now, according to Phaedrus, was composed of three things: mind, matter and Quality. The fact that he had established no relationship between them didn't bother him at first. If the relationship between mind and matter had been fought over for centuries and wasn't yet resolved, why should he, in a matter of a few weeks, come up with something conclusive about Quality? So he let it go. He put it up on a kind of mental shelf where he put all kinds of questions he had no immediate answers for. He knew the metaphysical trinity of subject, object and Quality would sooner or later have to be interrelated but be was in no hurry about it. It was just so satisfying to be beyond the danger of those horns that he relaxed and enjoyed it as long as he could.

Eventually, however, he examined it more closely. Although there's no logical objection to a metaphysical trinity, a three-headed reality, such trinities are not common or popular. The metaphysician normally seeks either a monism, such as God, which explains the nature of the world as a manifestation of one single thing, or he seeks a dualism, such as mind-matter, which explains it as two things, or he leaves it as a pluralism, which explains it as a manifestation of an indefinite number of things. But three is an awkward number. Right away you want to know, Why three? What's the relationship among them? And as the need for relaxation diminished Phaedrus became curious about this relationship too.

He noted that although normally you associate Quality with objects, feelings of Quality sometimes occur without any object at all. This is what led him at first to think that maybe Quality is all subjective. But subjective pleasure wasn't what he meant by Quality either. Quality decreases subjectivity. Quality takes you out of yourself, makes you aware of the world around you. Quality is opposed to subjectivity.

I don't know how much thought passed before he arrived at this, but eventually he saw that Quality couldn't be independently related with either the subiect or the object but could be found only in the relationship of the two with each other. It is the point at which subject and object meet.

That sounded warm.
Quality is not a thing. It is an event.
It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object.

And because without objects there can be no subject - because the objects create the subject's awareness of himself - Quality is the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible.

Now he knew it was coming.
This means Quality is not just the result of a collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!

Now he had that whole damned evil dilemma by the throat. The dilemma all the time had this unseen vile presumption in it, for which there was no logical justification, that Quality was the effect of subjects and objects. It was not! He brought out his knife.

"The sum of quality," he wrote, "does not revolve around the subjects and objects of our existence. It does not just passively illuminate them. It is not subordinate to them in any way. It has created them. They are subordinate to it!”

And at that point, when he wrote that, he knew he had reached some kind of culmination of thought he had been unconsciously striving for over a long period of time.


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