1. Introduction
  2. Quality Undefined
  3. Definitions
  4. The Metaphysics of Quality
  5. Zensylvania’s Provisional Definition
  6. See Also
  7. References & Notes
  8. External Links
If your compass does not point towards Quality, where does it point?


I wanted to start this essay with a reasonably brief and straight-forward definition of the word “quality”. As it turns out, I couldn’t find a practical definition that I was satisfied with. It may be a peculiar trait of mine that I prefer a word’s or concept’s definition not to contain words or concepts that merely point straight back to place I started. Like some semantic Ouroboros eating its own tail. Unfortunately, definitions for the word “quality” often circle back on themselves.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s definition says that quality is “a degree of excellence”. Follow-through on this information and you find that excellence is “an excellent or valuable quality” and that “excellent is very good of its kind eminently good.“. Of course something that is “eminently good” means that it is observably good. Next we find that good is something that is “of a favourable character” or “conforming to a standard” among other things. Finally, something that is of a favourable character is something we favour or prefer while a standard is of course “something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality“.

It’s like that with all of the definitions that I’ve looked at so far – a somewhat fuzzy realm of subjective preferability and objective standardization.

Image Courtesy: https://mythology.net/others/concepts/ouroboros/

The extraordinary fuzziness and variability of what may be contained within the term “quality” is somewhat surprising but hardly a new matter. Every one of us has some degree of self-assuredness that we know what is or is not of good quality. So certain are we that Pirsig quoted Plato as a kind of heading to ZAMM with And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good – Need we ask anyone to tell us these things? We’ve always known what is or is not good….we have our own fuzzy logic system to determine what meets our individual and ever-changing mix of subjective preferences and objective standards.

Regular visitors to Zensylvania will probably be familiar with Zensyalvania’s ongoing preoccupation with Robert Pirsig’s books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. I have readily used Pirsig’s books as touchstones within several investigations and inquiries. These two books are categorized by some people as works of philosophical fiction. This categorization describes a situation where a story is used as the setting, context or framing for some particular philosophical material to be conveyed.

While it is tempting to spend time quibbling over the extent to which the categorization of any book or work as philosophical fiction is meaningful, and indeed the extent to which the term reasonably applies to Pirsig’s books, I’m going to avoid doing that for now. It may be something to examine at some later time. Instead, I’m going to go along with this particular application of the analytical knife because it is clear that Pirsig’s books are intended to communicate some particular philosophical content and that they are fictionalized versions of Pirsig’s life, if not entirely fiction.

The particular philosophical content that the books convey has come to be known as the Metaphysics of Quality. And that is where we’re going to start in this essay.

‘Start” may not be exactly the correct term since that really began in Episode 15, when I spent some time in review of a book titled On Quality: An Inquiry into Excellence. This is a posthumously published collection of Pirsig’s comments and insights into the Metaphysics of Quality which was released in March of 2022. For this essay, I want to begin by returning to some of my comments from that Zensylvania episode. If you’ve previously reviewed that episode, this may be slightly repetitive, I hope to mitigate any sense of redundancy by expanding on the initial reactions I had.

All of this will be in an effort to pin down a few basic questions when it comes to the Metaphysics of Quality.

Quality Undefined: Moving Towards an Initial Definition

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.

Despite his early motivation to avoid providing a definition of Quality, Pirsig eventually used the term as a direct or indirect referent to a variety of other concepts which I am listing here:

  • 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. Initially, I’d like to focus on the third item in this list, “the essence of experience” as it introduces two underlying connections that should be examined.

In David Grainger‘s 2006 book, John Dewey, Robert Pirsig and the Art of Living: Revisioning Aesthetic Education, Grainger suggests that Pirsig’s idea of Quality is equivalent to Dewey’s idea of “Experience“. For those who may be interested to verify for themselves whether Grainger’s comparison is correct, he seems to rely upon Dewey’s Art as Experience and Experience and Education. You can be sure that these are on my acquisition list for 2023.

In the meantime, here are a few ideas from Dewey. Ordinary experience has no structure. It is a continuous stream. The subject (i.e. person) goes through the experience of living but does not experience everything in a way that composes an experience. Meanwhile an aesthetic experience is a kind of event which stands out from the ordinary or general experience. While I don’t pretend to any kind of authority to correct or alter Dewey’s terminology…it occurs to me that Dewey was establishing that Aesthetic Experience is at least partially comprised of definable events while Ordinary Experience is not. Experiences are structured situations over time – however fuzzy may be the definition of the experience’s actual beginning or end.

Dewey’s ideas do seem to echo Pirsig’s notions of Static and Dynamic Quality where Static Quality seems to share some attributes with Dewey’s Aesthetic Experience and Dynamic Quality with Ordinary Experience.

In FSC Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West (that is the book which Pirsig credits with closing his youthful period of drifting and lending direction to his life, there is a passage about “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum” and “experience”.

Later in this essay I will look at A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality but for now let me suggest that if there are parallels between Pirsig’s “Quality” and Dewey’s “Experience”, these may also be aligned with Whitehead’s “Process”: “The process is nothing else than the experiencing subject itself. In this explanation, it is presumed that an experiencing subject is an occasion of sensitive reaction to an actual world.

Granger references’ Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy and says something that links these things together, “all existences, material and ideational, are best viewed as events rather than substances.

And this leads me to the observation that

Quality is an event.

What is Quality?: Toward a Second Definition

In order that we may get at what Pirsig may have been trying to convey in the Metaphysics of Quality, it seems essential to get at the individual terms in the phrase. I’m going to set aside the term metaphysics for now except to accept a kind of common-knowledge definition of metaphysics as the part(s) of philosophy which deal(s) with the fundamental nature of reality and existence and, by extension, those parts of reality and existence which don’t (at least superficially) appear to have a source or cause in physical, objective sources.

Provisionally I am interpreting the phrase “Metaphysics of Quality” such that the word “of” is a function word indicating origin or derivation. So the phrase, “metaphysics of quality” means: an explanation of the fundamental nature of reality and existence where quality is the original source or cause. Another way to phrase it might be that reality and existence is derived from a primordial Quality.

And now we have the question…what is “Quality“?

Since the Metphysics of Quality is Pirsig’s notion, it seems only fair to begin with explanations that he’s provided. But we will get to some other explanations that I’ve found interesting during that time I’ve been examining the idea….and, of course, also to some of my own observations.

In On Quality, there is an excerpt from a letter dated September 11, 1994 and it includes this brief section:

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 Quality, 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)

This seems to be a good place to start because it establishes and gives shape to a few specific traits that Pirsig posited about Quality. So I want to parse the various phrases here in an attempt to determine what he may have intended.

First he says that “Quality can be equated with God“. I want to take notice that Pirsig did not say “Quality is God“, only that “Quality can be equated with God”. Philosophy can readily be an exercise in splitting and re-splitting of conceptual hairs, but this is one that does seem to need to be split. The difference between the phrase “Quality is God” and “Quality can be equated with God” is meaningful because the concept of equivalence (as represented by the words “equated with“) is not that of sameness (As represented by the word “is“).

By saying “Quality can be equated with God“, Pirsig seems to be suggesting a comparison of two separate concepts based upon a function. The specific function being described is, as established in the brief definition above, that of an original source or cause.

In other words, Pirsig’s Quality functions in his metaphysical system as a monism in a similar fashion to how God functions as a monism in some other metaphysical systems.

The balance of Pirsig’s passage is an attempt to steer examination of “Quality” away from theology. Undoubtedly, there are a number of very good reasons to do that. But it is also very difficult to establish an existential origin story without having to engage the argument for a primordial entity or agent of creation. A deity. When I read Pirsig, I have the sense that he tries to do so.

Of course trying to posit an existential origin story without a deity causes some people a great deal of difficulty. And that maybe one of the reasons that Pirsig phrased things the way that he did. The Metaphysics of Quality is an explanation of existence and reality where the concept of “Quality” functions as the concept of “God” in separate and distinct existential origin stories. Discussion of “Quality” is not, therefore, a theological discussion on the nature of a deity.

Quality vs quality vs qualities: Towards a Third Definition

Now that we’ve established, to a limited extent, what Robert Pirsig had in mind in his Metaphysics of Quality, I’d like to get back to some more practical and familiar conceptions of quality.

In the day to day usage of the term, we may be quite comfortable with referring to any given thing or experience as being of high or low quality or perhaps alternately good quality or poor quality. In other words, we are readily able to assign a value to a thing or experience based upon some collection of subjective (personally perceived) traits and objective (empirically measurable) characteristics.

If we are, for example, visiting an auto-parts store to purchase a bolt to replace one that has broken during a repair on our motorcycle, we might say that a particular store-clerk’s dismissive attitude or lack of knowledge regarding engine bolts was a low quality service; similarly we might feel that the purchased bolt was of excellent quality as its metallurgy and machining met the specifications for the bolt’s purpose. Our subjective and objective criteria either were or were not met.

Often these criteria are considered to be “qualities” of the item or experience. A store clerk’s attentiveness is one quality while their product knowledge is another quality. Similarly, the bolt’s metallurgy and machining are sometimes referred-to as qualities.

This use of the term quality in day-to-day use is actually problematic as these ought more accurately to be referred to as: properties, factors, components, elements, constituents, items (a variety of other terms might easily be added) of the artifact’s or experience’s overall quality.

In this way, quality (and even qualities) are a set of subjective and objective measurements of an artifact’s or experience’s ability to fulfill its defined or expected purpose.

It would be correct, albeit slightly absurd, to argue that a banana makes a very poor quality engine bolt nor that an engine bolt is a low quality snack. Clearly, banana’s are not intended to be engine bolts and engine bolts are not machined for human nutrition. This means that defined purpose is an important and meaningful consideration. Defined purpose is another way to say that quality is relational and that the quality of an artifact or experience is normally assessed in context of an expected or defined purpose.

Fuzzy Standards: Synthesis of the Definitions

This is where the title of this essay considers what I’m calling “fuzzy standards”. While I am not completely aware whether this term that I’ve used is completely novel, I will say that it derives from my Incomplete Exploration(s) of Fuzzy Logic and concepts therein.

Within Fuzzy Logic, there are so-called Fuzzy Sets which comprise a predetermined set of conditions to inform an input-output decision making model. In this situation, the Fuzzy Set attempts to allow for a nearly infinite range of possibilities between 0 and 1 (the ultimately reductive binary either/or). In a binary-digital world, engine oil might be called either “hot” (denoted by 1) or “cold” (denoted by 0). Clearly this is not correct as temperature is almost infinitely variable and could be assigned a nearly infinite range of temperatures based on the extent to which more (or less) heat is present.

I mention this as an indication that “Fuzzy Standards” begins to consider the matter of the phrase ” the extent to which” in setting of standards within a Dynamic Quality world.

I’ve borrowed Pirsig’s term Dynamic Quality and the fact that a perpetually changing world fundamentally establishes that any standard (eg. a specific oil temperature, a particular metallurgical composition of a bolt, a depth of knowledge of a clerk) must necessarily be fuzzy (situationally-defined) and relational.

The Metaphysics of Quality and The Philosophy of Organism

In Episode 15, I commented that I felt this passage maintains Pirsig’s inquiries in alignment with humanist enlightenment ideas and also some ideas that Alfred North Whitehead expressed in Process and Reality.

Alfred North Whitehead

In that book, Whitehead provided what he called the “Philosophy of Organism“. In my opinion, Pirsig’s philosophy is well-aligned with many of Whitehead’s ideas.

Whitehead opened Process and Reality with the declaration that “This course of lectures is designed as an essay in Speculative Philosophy.” and then goes on to define and defend speculative philosophy. Well Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality is also an exercise in Speculative Philosophy. Here is Whitehead’s definition “Speculative Philosophy:

Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to form a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.

Since Whitehead was a thorough-going philosopher, he proceeded to provide definitions for most of the terms used in the definition. I’m not going to chase that all down at present. I’m including it here in our consideration of Quality to help set the setting for Pirsig’s definitions (since there have been many) of Quality as a concept within a Speculative Philosophy system as presented by Whitehead.

“I ride, therefore I am.”: Rene Descartes would have written it, if only he’d had the opportunity; Photo Courtesy Pinterest

In Whitehead’s preface to Process and Reality, he explained his approach in contrast to others when he wrote that “The positive doctrine of these lectures is concerned with the becoming, the being, and the relatedness of ‘actual entities’. An ‘actual entity’ is a res vera in the Cartesian sense of that term; it is a Cartesian ‘substance’, and not an Aristotelian ‘primary substance’. But Descartes retained in his metaphysical doctrine the Aristotelian dominance of the category of ‘quality’ over that of ‘relatedness’. In these lectures ‘relatedness’ is dominant over ‘quality’.”

Whitehead goes on to give a brief summary of relatedness but again I’m going to defer examination of this to focus on the similarity in approach between Pirsig and Whitehead, specifically that the positioning of quality within a metaphysical system is a meaningful part of that system.

Returning to the earlier passage by Robert Pirsig that Quality can be equated to God, 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 the kind of metaphysical positioning of Quality that Pirsig reached.

All of that is to say that Pirsig’s capital-Q “Quality” term may be readily separated from common day-to-day usage of the term since the underlying position of the term is different than a subject-object-relational metaphysics as found in Rene Descarte’s outlook.

I say separate – but that may not be the right term as Pirsig did further divide Quality into “Dynamic Quality” and “Static Quality”.

A Provisional Definition of Quality

While it is certainly tempting to continue running down various rabbit-holes… I think we’ve actually reached a good point to finalize and summarize a provisional definition of Quality.

Quality is an event which a subjective experiencer (an actual entity) has a relationship-to within an actual (objectively real) world; in static form, quality is the aggregation (or fuzzy set) of subjective and objective measurements of an artifact’s or experience’s ability to fulfill its defined or expected purpose(s) and is consistent with a delimited Aesthetic Experience within an ongoing Undifferentiated Aesthetic Continuum. In dynamic form, Quality is that which mediates relations between an undifferentiated aesthetic continuum and actual entities. Quality is an idea and term which allows every element of our experience to be interpreted. It functions as a monism and may be best described via the metaphor of a field.

(Editorial Note: the above definition is a second revision circa December 2022).

I hope this jumble of metaphysical jargon is as clear to you as it is me. I will admit that I find it extremely satisfying that this definition has not yet resulted in an Ouroboros–like circle where I end up staying that quality is quality and we all know what it is.

Strangely, I also find that this definition has both practical daily applications which may be just as useful as any metaphysical implications that there may be.

See Also

References & Notes

  • Item

External Links

  1. https://www.etymonline.com/word/cycle?ref=etymonline_crossreference#etymonline_v_521

Image Courtesy: https://riders.drivemag.com/news/helmet-crash-statistics-why-an-open-face-can-be-fatal/

This page was last edited on 05 December 2023.

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