Pirsig's metaphysics of Quality

Pirsig's metaphysics of Quality

The Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) is a theory of reality introduced in Robert Pirsig's philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and expanded in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991). The MOQ incorporates facets of East Asian philosophy, Pragmatism, the work of F. S. C. Northrop, and Indigenous American philosophy. Pirsig argues that the MOQ is a better lens through which to view reality than the traditional dualistic subjective/objective mindset found in the West.



The Metaphysics of Quality originated with Pirsig's college studies as a chemistry student. However, he dropped out after concluding that the ultimate answers to life were not to be found in science. After spending some time in Korea as a soldier, Pirsig realised that Oriental philosophy was a better place to search for ultimate answers. On his return home from Korea, Pirsig read F. S. C. Northrop's book "The Meeting of East and West" which related Western culture to the culture of East Asia in a systematic way. In 1950, Pirsig continued his philosophical studies at Banaras Hindu University, where he came across the Sanskrit doctrine of Tat tvam asi -- in his words, "Thou art that, which asserts that everything you think you are (Subjective), and everything you think you perceive (Objective), are undivided. To fully realize this lack of division is to become enlightened." The nature of mystical experience plays an underlying role throughout his work.

In the late 1950s, Pirsig taught Rhetoric at Montana State University and, with the encouragement of an older colleague, decided to explore what exactly was meant by the term Quality. He assigned his students the task of defining the word. This, coupled with a Native American Church peyote ceremony he attended with an anthropologist friend, James Verne Dusenberry, led Pirsig into what he called "a mushroom cloud of thought."[citation needed] Pirsig began developing his ideas about Quality in his first book, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and expanded and codified his ideas into the MOQ in Lila.


"Quality," or "value," as described by Pirsig, cannot be defined because it empirically precedes any intellectual construction of it. Quality is the "knife-edge" of experience, known to all. "What distinguishes good and bad writing? Do we need to ask this question of Lysias or anyone else who ever did write anything?" (Plato's Phaedrus, 258d). Equating it with the Tao, Pirsig postulates that Quality is the fundamental force in the universe stimulating everything from atoms to animals to evolve and incorporate ever greater levels of Quality. According to the MOQ, everything (including ideas, and matter) is a product and a result of Quality.

Static quality patterns and Dynamic Quality

The MOQ maintains that Quality itself is undefinable, but to better understand it, Pirsig breaks Quality down into two forms: static quality patterns (patterned) and Dynamic Quality (unpatterned). The four patterns of static value as well as Dynamic Quality account exhaustively for all of reality. As the initial (cutting edge) Dynamic Quality becomes habituated, it turns into static patterns. It is important to note that Pirsig is not proposing a duality: Quality is one, yet manifests itself differently. Rather than dualism, this manifestation of Quality in terms of Dynamic and static aspects represents a dialectical monism.

Dynamic Quality

Dynamic Quality cannot be defined. It can only be understood intellectually through the use of analogy. It can be described as the force of change in the universe; when an aspect of Quality becomes habitual or customary, it becomes static. Pirsig calls Dynamic Quality "the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality" because it can be recognized before it can be conceptualised. This is why the Dynamic beauty of a piece of music can be recognized before a static analysis explaining why the music is beautiful can be constructed.

Static quality patterns

Pirsig defines static quality as everything which can be defined. Everything found in a dictionary, for instance, is static quality. These static forms, if they have enough good or bad quality, are given names and are interchanged with other people, building the base of knowledge for a culture. So some cultures divide between things other cultures perceive as equal (Pirsig gave as example the sounds of the Indian syllables "dha" and "da," which are absolutely equal to western ears), and some cultures haven't any words for a specific meaning at all (the exact meaning of the German word "verklemmt" cannot be translated into English). Pirsig further divides static quality into inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual patterns, in ascending order of morality.

  • Inorganic patterns: non-living things
  • Biological patterns: living things
  • Social patterns: behaviours, habits, rituals, institutions.
  • Intellectual patterns: ideas

Pirsig describes evolution as the moral progression of these patterns of value. For example, a biological pattern overcoming an inorganic pattern (e.g. bird flight which overcomes gravity) is a moral thing because a biological pattern is a higher form of evolution. Likewise, an intellectual pattern of value overcoming a social one (e.g. Civil Rights) is a moral development because intellect is a higher form of evolution than society. Therefore, decisions about one's conduct during any given day can be made using the Metaphysics of Quality.

See also


  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) ISBN 0-06-095832-4
  • Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991) ISBN 0-553-29961-1
  • Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by R. DiSanto and T. J. Steele (1990) ISBN 0-688-06069-2
  • "Lila's Child: An Inquiry into Quality (2002) OCLC 59259846
  • Granger, David A.: John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living: Revisioning Aesthetic Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

External links

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