Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reflections on 'Quality,' part I

Whoever it was that set me off on a philosophical bent has done mankind a great disservice, I think. At any rate, here I discuss and critique Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality, from his writings Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila.

I have broken up this post into a few parts, but even so it is inexcusably long. I had a good bit of it done-- the lion's share of it anyway -- but was caught by the unfortunate and untimely demise of Eternity Road. I scrambled to get it done before the April 1st 'deadline,' only to find the site doesn't work at all anyway.

Oh well. It's really not great, and though I think some of the arguments are pretty interesting, the conclusion is rather anticlimactic. At least it isn't boring old economics...


I think that unfortunately I must begin this commentary with a bit of a gripe. Pirsig is clearly not a fan of complex language, in speech or in writing. This is very clear in his chosen writing style in both books, and is an explicitly articulated attitude in the early part of the second (Lila). Pirsig harbors a good deal of antipathy towards the Victorian -- and generally, European -- way of things. More on that later. He views their use of sophisticated and often convoluted language as pretentious, part and parcel of an outlook given to rather showy, Baroque tastes, such as in art and architecture.

That, in itself, is fine; a man may have his tastes. If he prefers simplicity, that is his choice to make. I generally prefer simplicity in art, too. But he seems to believe that complexity is also unnecessary, and with this idea I must beg to differ, especially as it bears upon his writing.

To be sure, some Victorians (and many others) have used complex and convoluted language to compose pretentious and meaningless fluff, as well as to deceive. Many others, however, have used it to compose rich and highly expressive works full of powerful insights and vivid imagery. It seems to me that it is a very rare and gifted writer who can express a complex idea with very simple language, certainly only a tiny fraction of those with important things to say. For those people, resorting to more complex language may be the only way that their ideas will ever be understood clearly.

Unfortunately, I think that Pirsig falls squarely into this camp, and he has decided not to make use of language that might have allowed him to express himself better. His writing, I think, is not up to the task of expressing his ideas clearly, especially given a topic like the construction of a complete metaphysics, for which I would think every available tool would be brought to bear by anyone seriously attempting the task.

In trying to describe what he means, he too often resorts to metaphors and analogies which are too simple to capture the full idea, or at least enough of it, and often the metaphor is all that the reader gets. In places he begins referring to the confounding elements of logically incomplete thought-structures as 'platypi' (plural of 'platypus') and morally higher-order systems as 'more evolved' -- for chapters at a time. In the second case, I'm not even certain that he isn't using the term literally.

When he discusses established philosophy in general -- at least the parts I am familiar with -- I can usually understand what he means, and often he has some very insightful things to say about it. But if he is discussing something with which I am unfamiliar, especially his own philosophy, I often have difficulty comprehending anything beyond a very vague and general impression of the idea, and sometimes I can't follow him at all. If he had used more specific and more expressive language I might have been able to better grasp what he was saying, but as it is, there's just not enough there to go on.

As a result, I cannot be entirely sure of what he means in many instances, many of them at critical points of argument. This is one of several ways in which his own individual character and attitudes I think tend to flow too much into his thoughts in a way that is a detriment to them. Every writer and thinker probably suffers this to some degree, but in this case it seems to be particularly destructive, as to my knowledge there is little else to go on than one's own imagination in filling in the blanks.

And it makes this essay more difficult to write.


Pirsig's most basic criticism of existing metaphysical philosophies is the way in which they deal with the problem of abstraction. The classical philosopher immediately begins by breaking reality down into divisions and categories in order to make it intelligible and to discover truths in the relationships between things. This is the purpose of 'definition' -- to separate 'this' from 'that,' or at least 'not this.' The most fundamental such distinction is between subject and object -- between the thing observed and the thing doing the observing.

(Aside -- In philosophy, it is my understanding that it is generally considered unacceptable to define a thing using a reference to itself, or to reason using the conclusions of an argument as part of its own supposition. This is considered 'circular.' Arguments and definitions must rely on external references, and presumably these references themselves rely on other external references, etc.

But it seems to me that, in a way, even if it is a useful aid in improving the rhetorical quality of argument, or maybe contributes towards clearer thinking and exposition, it is really something of a ruse or a delusion to think that it necessarily contributes to an argument's overall validity. If one takes reality to be a closed system, won't these references all eventually wind up referring to nothing more than one another, such that ultimately all arguments and definitions are eventually circular, referring back to themselves in an 'it is what it is, and is not what it is not' sort of manner? In dividing one little part of reality away from another, what else is there to refer to but the two bits of reality created in the process?

Wouldn't such an argument's veracity eventually stand or fall on it's own merit and not really on any particular logical demonstration, because all such demonstrations would ultimately contain circular elements? If so, it would seem to stand to reason that, if some form of 'objective' meaning were to exist, that reality must be 'open,' such that meaning may flow in from apparently transcendental realms where such things aren't an issue. Would it not? Or maybe that is what axioms are for -- so that thinkers can pretend that they have proved things by making bald assertions and working logically from there. Transcendental objectivity is maybe just one form of useful axiom. Anyway, I don't know.)

Romantic philosophy objects to this 'slicing-and-dicing' treatment of reality with the observation that any attempt to divide up reality is an imposition on reality itself, such that it is no longer reality at all, but an artificial construct. Somewhere along the way, things will be lost, especially in ill-conceived attempts to be 'objective,' resulting in an ugly, 'soul-less abstraction' that denies important truths.

Romantic philosophy, especially the Eastern varieties, prefers instead to treat reality as a whole, avoiding the constraints of 'definition,' refusing to break it up into pieces, and insisting that impressions and feelings can be a source of truth as well as more 'objective' measures of things. Many of the Eastern philosophies contend that the path to truth does not even involve thinking, as thinking is an activity which separates the self from reality. Rather, the correct approach is the cessation of all activity, such that one 'becomes one' with the rest of reality and absorbs truth experientially.

Pirsig contends that the Romantics are on to something. He thinks that the subject-object approach of classical philosophy produces 'value-free,' substance-centered systems of thought that are inimical to the concept of values since values have no objective, material existence capable of being observed. Values are the principle things lost in the act of constructing objective definitions. He proposes to 'fix' classical philosophy by re-inserting values with the concept of 'quality.' Actually, he makes it the central concept of his entire metaphysics.

'Quality' is merely a convenient word to use to describe -- not define -- the empirical human experience of 'better and worse.' He could equally well have used 'value,' 'good,' 'judgment' or some other similar word, and often does. Under Pirsig's philosophy, it is value or quality which confers existence and distinguishes one thing from another, rather than 'substance.' Two things with identical value-patterns cannot be distinguished from one another and therefore cannot be said to be separate, identifiable things.

Value-patterns determine, well, basically everything in this metaphysics. Pirsig divides reality into four, or perhaps five, 'levels' -- the inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual. Literally everything may be understood within this structure.

No, really.

Value-patterns within the inorganic level of reality overcome chaos -- the ostensible fifth level that would be the only form of existence without inorganic value patterns to 'tame' it -- to produce order observable in subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, minerals, planets, star systems, etc. Inorganic value-patterns can be taken as 'the laws of physics,' and chemistry.

Superimposed on this level is the biological level, created by the value-patterns of life. The 'laws of the jungle' and evolution produce the order of life out of the non-living inorganic order.

Communities of living beings produce the social level of reality. Value-patterns here are customs, laws, and systems of morals. Above this level of reality is the intellectual level. Its value-patterns are ideas, philosophies, and the like.

Value-patterns, then, are the things which determine the 'moral worthiness' of any particular thing or situation. In other words, morality operates at all levels of reality, not just the social level. It is the stuff of reality itself, its ordering principle, not just a human convention. All value-patterns are 'cousins,' moralities operating within different realms. Within the different levels of reality, there are merely different moralities in operation -- and, as you might guess, these moralities conflict.

Biological value-patterns intrude into the social sphere, as when a man rapes a woman. The main object of social morality is to put down biological value-patterns which run counter to social good. Morally worthy intellectual value-patterns are tasked with putting down social value-patterns which are counter to intellectual good, such as human liberty and free-inquiry. Sometimes social value-patterns attempt to impose upon intellectual value patterns by squelching intellectual activities, as with the Victorians and their restrictive moralities.

See how this works?

One other important concept to this philosophy is the distinction between 'static good' and 'dynamic good.' Static good (or quality, or value) is a 'codified' pattern of value which sustains a particular order. This might be a moral code (like the Victorian's) of a society, or the protein reportoire of a living organism which allows it to function, or the quantum-mechanical arrangement of electrons in an atom. Static good provides value stability.

Dynamic quality is the 'cutting edge' of quality. It is 'value innovation.' In a biological context, it might be seen as the DNA sequence of an organism -- the storehouse of information, subject to continual change and innovation. In a society, it is the philosopher or the heretic, who challenges the established static morality looking for a higher quality value-pattern. Et cetera.

Dynamic quality and static quality are supposed to work together like a 'value ratchet' -- the static preserves positive innovations and an ordered environment in which dynamic quality can operate. Dynamic quality is forever searching out ever higher quality organizations and moral innovations -- i.e. more 'evolved' states. In unhealthy situations, one or the other has undermined and overwhelmed its counterpart. If dynamic quality gets the upper hand, its innovation leads to disorder and degeneration because static order can no longer handle the strains it is creating or distinguish between the innovations which should be preserved and those which it should suppress. On the other hand, a restrictive static pattern strangles innovation and the order stagnates.

All according to Pirsig, anyway.  So much for the basics of the Metaphysics of Quality.

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