Footnotes to On Quality: An Inquiry into Excellence

On the interior panel of the dust jacket cover of On Quality: An Inquiry into Excellence, there is a brief proclamation attributed to Robert M. Pirsig that “The ultimate goal in the pursuit of excellence is enlightenment.” This was, apparently, Pirsig’s opinion in 1962 – well before either of Pirsig’s more famous books Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Lila, were published. On Quality, has been published posthumously and a few short months ago. For reasons peculiar to my own interests and inquiries, this proclamation strikes me as tremendously important as well as being something that might just take one down a long path of discovery.

This observation that one of Robert Pirsig’s sentences bears the potential for protracted curiosity is fully consistent with my experience of examining Pirsig’s earlier books. There is usually something to explore, contend-with or discover just about anywhere one happens to open the book.

For example, as I’ve not yet run down the relationship between “enlightenment” and “excellence”, I’m not confident that I fully agree that the ultimate goal in the pursuit of excellence is enlightenment. Perhaps for Pirsig it seemed to be. Having reflected on that sentence, I would actually prefer if Pirsig had claimed that the “ultimate goal in the pursuit of enlightenment is excellence.” My revision of Pirsig’s circa 1962 sentence seems, at least to me, to be more in keeping with the Metaphysics of Quality philosophy that he later developed. And I do wonder if he might have similarly revised that sentiment if given the opportunity. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that question. But I tend to think that Pirsig may have been the kind of person who updated his opinions when new information was available.

I’m also not certain whether Pirsig’s 1962 conception of “enlightenment” aligns with his perception of “enlightenment” in 1974 or 1990….nor for that matter with my understanding of “enlightenment” here in 2022. The same word may have been used to describe three slightly different things.

One thing that the word “enlightenment” often refers to a process where a person is freed -up from ignorance and misconception. The enlightened individual understands things as they really and truly are. Enlightenment is therefore a process by which one achieves that state of understanding. This version of the word “enlightenment” seems to track well with Pirsig’s 1962 sentence…pursuing excellence might well lead to an enlightened status relative that status one is pursuing excellence within. If motorcycle maintenance happened to be the field, then so be it…an enlightened motorcycle maintainer. Even if by “motorcycle maintenance” we are actually metaphorically saying “self maintenance.”

This initial definition of “enlightenment” may, however, be tracked via (at least) two different major philosophical paths – that being the Enlightenment of Western Philosophy and the enlightenment of Buddhism in Eastern Philosophy.

Baruch Spinoza: There’s no reason not to think of Spinoza when examining Pirsig

In the Western/Euro-American tradition, the Enlightenment is what I will call a humanist intellectual movement that is generally recognized as beginning in the 1600s and, arguably, continues on today. I have no difficulty suggesting that Robert Pirsig’s philosophy sits comfortably on a branch of the major route that is the Enlightenment. The humanist Enlightenment movement synthesizes a worldview that focuses on reason, science and a common humanity with goals of human understanding, freedom, and happiness. Robert Pirsig had certainly been exposed to both Western and Eastern philosophy by 1962 and would have been well aware of the Enlightenment. I doubt that Pirsig was specifically referencing the formally recognized enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th century. But it is not inconceivable that he may have been aligning with the ideals and goals iterated as a part of all that. So the pursuit of excellence could be argued to ideally end in human understanding, freedom and happiness.

Finally, along the Buddhist path, we find that enlightenment refers to a blessed status that is free from desire and suffering. Again, we know that Pirsig had been educated about Eastern concepts and would have been able to contemplate whether the pursuit of excellence had an end goal of being free from desire and suffering. On page 109 of On Quality, Pirsig states that Soto Zen Buddhist doctrine holds that “everyone is enlightened. What occurs at “enlightenment” is the falling away of the illusion that one is not enlightened. But the enlightenment has been there all along.” This is from a letter dated August 17, 1997. Putting this perspective into play in the earlier sentence, The ultimate goal in the pursuit of excellence is enlightenment….we might get something like “The ultimate goal in the pursuit of excellence is the falling away of the illusion that one is not enlightened.”…it seems not quite right. But that partly depends on what one might mean by the term “excellence”, doesn’t it?

Image Courtesy: www.meditationpa.org

However, a version that follows my ultimate goal in the pursuit of enlightenment is excellence would be The ultimate goal in the pursuit of falling away of the illusion that one is not enlightened is excellence.”…also seems to be a better presentation.

Of course, there is nothing preventing Pirsig from having been comfortable with all of the possible associations within the proposal that the ultimate goal in the pursuit of excellence is enlightenment. Even though the several notions that I’ve described are not exactly the same, they aren’t necessarily contradictory in nature. In fact, there is significant overlap despite the unique territory that each covers.

It seem to be an “and gate” situation. As, potentially, is the “pursuit of excellence” and “enlightenment”…each in the various possible meanings.

As a person moves toward expressing something they think/know/experience/comprehend/apprehend/understand, they are presented with the challenge to explore the words and word-orders that most suit their meaning. It is both a creative process and an exploratory process. It is a process which first brought Pirsig to explore “Quality” in his first book and then later to talk about Static Quality and Dynamic Quality, the established patterns (on the one hand) and chaotic cutting edge of reality (on the other).

Another Book to Consider Buying

Well, I will certainly be considering all of these terms and the relations and expect that they may form the basis of future Zensylvania territory. In the meantime…

In writing this essay, I realize that I have come dangerously-close to writing a book-review rather than my preferred intention to document only my own reactions to an original work. This is mostly due to the fact that On Quality: An Inquiry into Excellence is mostly NOT a new and original work.

Given what seems to have become for me a long-standing interest in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, I was very eager to obtain a copy of the follow-on Inquiry into Excellence as I hoped to obtain a significant quantity of new material and previously un-revealed insights. Unfortunately, there’s a lot less new material than there is re-printed versions of information that is already available. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ANY new insights or collections of words that make the book worthwhile…it simply isn’t as robustly new as I would have preferred.

Still, I don’t regret the purchase. And I should send a significant thank-you to my daughter Chloe-Lynn for the fathers-day gift card which I used to expand my motorcycle-zen themed collection. And largely, that is the role that this Inquiry into Excellence plays for me today. It’s an artifact…and it is a kind of finger pointing to the moon.

The book was released for sale in April of 2022 and I received my first edition hard-copy several weeks ago. At 150-pages of relatively large-font print, I’ve only read through the book a couple of times so far but I intend to give it serious examination over the course of the summer.

Photographs

Throughout the book there are pictures of Robert Pirsig’s tools. According to the book’s preface, written by Robert Pirsig’s wife Wendy K. Pirsig, the photos were taken by David Lindberg – a nephew of Robert.

That brief paragraph offers the opportunity for observations about Pirsig’s writing and philosophy that I appreciate. First, consider the fact that the book was marketed as, at least in part, a collection of previously unpublished material by the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book’s preface is credited to Wendy Pirsig, an individual with a direct family relationship to Robert, who died in 2017. Actually, what needs to be said is that Wendy is an individual with a kin relationship to Robert. The reason that this phrasing is important can be found in Chapter Five of ZAMM.

Clearly, David Lindberg also has a kin relationship with Robert Pirsig…and as an artist, his contribution is a collection of photographs of tools used by Pirsig. Tools serve an important function in the pages of ZAMM and also in our lives.

The handing-down of legacies (consider Footnotes to Bruce Lee) has always been a massively important feature of individual and collective human endeavour. The handing down of tools – as artifacts and as useful means to achieve let’s say excellence…cannot be emphasized enough. Handing down a tool is:

  • handing down a culture;
  • handing down an artifact symbol of past survival and creativity;
  • handing down an artifact object to serve future survival and creativity;

Robert Pirsig’s tools are a symbol of his past and could be photographed as objects or picked-up and used for the practical purposes that Pirsig acquired and used them for during his life.

Finger Pointing to the Moon

The Inquiry into Excellence is a finger pointing to the moon as the majority of it’s work is as an exhibition to reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila. It is a hard-backed museum.

In the creation of On Quality, an artist has presented photographs of the tools which a person used in the living of their life. The creative act of photography was a dynamic quality act. The photographs are static quality products. Presumably those tools were objects which enabled Robert Pirsig to tune-up and maintain his Honda Super Hawk. Each tool was a kind of sacred object to those dynamic quality rituals he undertook. Now that Robert Pirsig no longer completes those tasks, they are artefacts of that past. They are patterns of static quality.

The photographs point to the dynamically-lived life of Robert Pirsig but they are a finger pointing to the moon. Of course all of these books are fingers pointing to the moon of Pirsig’s philosophy and way of understanding the living at the cutting edge of reality.

MOQ

Many people who choose to investigate On Quality will be interested, as I was, about any new text addressing the Metaphysics of Quality. I’m not going to outline every new or renewed thing I found in the book. If you’re interested, I hope that you’ll buy a copy and thereby contribute to the Pirsig family legacy.

However, there were several passages that engaged my attention that I want to feature in this essay. In a letter dated September 11, 1994, I found a passage which seems, I think to justify my observation that Pirsig’s philosophy was consistent with humanist enlightenment:

Quality can be equated with God, but I don’t like to do so, “God” to most people is a set of static intellectual and social patterns. Only true religious mystics can correctly equate God with Dynamic Quality. In the West, particularly around universities, these people are quite rare. The others, who go around saying, “God wants this,” or “God will answer your prayers,” are, according to the Metaphysics of Qualty, engaging in a minor form of evil. Such statements are a lower form of evolution, intellectual patterns, attempting to contain a higher one….” (pg. 81)

Alfred North Whitehead

It’s quite a tough stance and frankly one that I think not only sets MOQ in alignment with Enlightenment ideals but is also consistent with notions that Alfred North Whitehead expressed in Process and Reality.

I am grateful that Wendy Pirsig and the editors of the book didn’t shy away from including this passage as it does positively establish a metaphysical position of the MOQ.

As a follow-on to that, Pirsig also suggests (c. 1995) that his MOQ solves a list of philosophical “problems”

The Metaphysics of Quality is valuable because it provides a central pivotal term that the Western, scientifically structured mind cannot dismiss. The second reason is for selection of Quality as a pivotal term is that is solve the “Two Worlds” problem of C.P. Snow, the division between the arts and sciences….

The list goes on and I encourage you to obtain a copy of the book and examine the list. I am not certain of the extent to which I agree with Pirsig on his assessment. And that is not a coy way of saying that I disagree.

However, the work does rather go to Pirsig’s critics to do a good job of explaining how/why MOQ might (in good faith) be dismissed.

C.P. Snow

Dharma- Rta – Quality

Many critics of Pirsig’s metaphysics (as of any metaphysics whatsoever) may be expected to be come form those deeply-embedded in the physical sciences – biology, chemistry, physics and the like. On page 101, Pirsig is cited as writing that…”So far [readers seem] struck mute about the equivalence of the terms “Quality” and “dharma”, which are both derived from a common prehistoric root, “rta” meaning “the cosmic order of things.” The Buddhists have no trouble understanding that the dharma is the origin of things, but I think it’s going to take another century or two to convince Westerners that Quality is.”

It is very difficult, if not essentially impossible to approach a comment like that as anything other than a kind of soothsaying that can’t be evaluated. It will take another 150 years or so to know the extent to which Pirsig may be on to something. From my own outlook, I think that the field of biosemiotics seems to be most likely to reveal whatever truth there may be in Pirsig’s metaphysics and prediction.

Quality Undefined

Throughout ZAMM and much of Lila, Pirsig avoided providing a definition of “Quality”. On page 97 of On Quality, there is an excerpt from his 1974 lecture at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design where he said that, “One of the advantage of keeping Quality undefined – which is central to [Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance]…as long as you keep it undefined, then it becomes an instrument of change, and you can grow, because the things that you find Quality in are going to change as you grow.

In this little book though, Pirsig’s use of the term Quality is equated, directly or indirectly with

  • God
  • the phoneme “rta” from the Proto-Indo-European language
  • the essence of experience
  • selection
  • meaning
  • dharma
  • the pure thing (Hindu traditions); the pure non-thing (Buddhist traditions)
  • “what holds together”
  • righteousness; rightness
  • the stable condition which gives man perfect satisfaction
  • duty toward self
  • virtue of the ancient Greeks
  • the Cosmic order of things
  • spirituality
  • Metaphysics of Quality is Metaphysics of Spirituality
  • the Tao

This is probably an incomplete list as Pirsig admitted to a preparedness to talk about Quality for hours on end without establishing a firm meaning.

On page 32 and running for about ten pages there is a delving of the phoneme “rta” as found in words like arete, art, right, rhetoric, arithmetic, aristocrat, virtue and more…this is from the proto-indo-European language. This is interesting as it establishes how words can be “cognate” with each other in descent from that common ancient language. In this case, ‘rta” or “rt” as a phoneme is seen to bear a fundamental meaning of rightness.

Clearly other language groups may have a different phoneme which would affirm something similar. Something about “rt” seemed to convey to a particular community of people that “rt” meant rightness at the most fundamental level. Just as “Ya” seems to indicate “yes/positive/affirmative” or “na” seems to indicate “no/negative/dis-affirmative” across many languages.

A term or word is only correct/useful insofar as it accurately and precisely identifies the object/phenomenon/event/idea that it is intended to identify. Pirsig’s preference to avoid defining “quality” was, as described a trick to maintain exploration and curiosity…but also as seen, it was placed (eventually) in the context of that single syllable meaning rightness.

But not as a judgement after the fact..rightness as a fundamental trait.

What Was I Looking For

When I purchased this little book, I was certainly looking for original material by Robert Pirsig that I hadn’t read before. Inevitably, that might have been some expansion of the work he’d begun in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila. But I found that I was also looking for further glimpses into what kind of a person Robert Pirsig may have been after having written these books. The largest clues come not from Robert Pirsig but from Wendy Pirsig. In the preface, she comments that a depression which followed the murder of Chris Pirsig, led to the delay in publishing of Lila. This indicates that Pirsig experienced a depression that lasted somewhere between 10 and 13 years. Perhaps longer.

She also wrote that Robert “contemplated other works, but they never materialized. His work in later years, involved maintenance of our home, the boat and the motorcycle he kept for the rest of his life.” This seems to be the boundaries of Robert Pirsig’s public persona. Boat. Home. Motorcycle. And, of course two books.

And that may be more than enough.

An Inquiry into Excellence is considered by Wendy to be a reminder of Pirsig’s “challenge to Western Philosophy and science to take on a study of Quality and stop thinking of it as vague and unworthy.

This book focuses on the Philosophy and not on motorcycles or motorcycling. Neither does it focus on the literary side of ZAMM (and to a lesser extent, Lila). It may be inevitable that people will want to make the philosophy the focus as that did seem to be a central ambition of the book.

But as I’ve attempted to describe in my Footnotes essays, there is literary meat on the bones as well. The focus on the philosophy of the metaphysics can be seen as getting in the way of apprehension of the message. Stop looking at the finger and start looking at the moon.

Your experience of this moment right now is the cutting edge of reality. Just as Pirsig’s sentence “The ultimate goal in the pursuit of excellence is enlightenment. ” seems to me that it ought to be flipped to say “ultimate goal in the pursuit of enlightenment is excellence” consider what happens when you flip the question “What is the meaning of life?” to “Life is meaning.”

You don’t have a purpose. You are one of many purposes.

You are “rta”. You are right.

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