Metaphysics of Quality

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The Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) is a theory of reality put forth by Robert M. Pirsig (1928 onwards) in his philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance published in 1974 and expanded in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals published in 1991. The MOQ incorporates facets of East Asian philosophy, Pragmatism, the work of F.S.C. Northrop, indigenous American philosophy and mysticism. Pirsig claims that the MOQ is a better lens with which to view reality rather than the traditional dualistic subjective/objective mindset.



Pirsig began college as a chemistry student, and dropped out after concluding that the ultimate answers to life were not to be found in science. In consequence, he soon began to look to philosophy to search for answers. In 1950, while studying philosophy at Benares Hindu University, Pirsig 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." It is apparent that the nature of mystical experience plays an underlying role throughout his work.

In the late 1950s, Pirsig taught Rhetoric at a Montana State University and, with the encouragement from an older colleague, decided to explore what exactly was meant by the term Quality. He assigned his students the task of defining the word good. This led Pirsig into what he called "a mushroom cloud of thought." Pirsig began developing his ideas about Quality in his first book and expanded and codified his ideas into the MOQ in Lila.


The MOQ divides Quality 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 become 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.


'Quality,' or 'value' as described by Pirsig, cannot be defined because it empirically precedes any intellectual constructions. It 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). Likening it with the Tao, Pirsig believes 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 mind, ideas and matter) is a product and a result of Quality.

Dynamic Quality

Dynamic Quality includes everything not static. Dynamic Quality is the force of change in the universe; when this aspect of Quality becomes habitual or customary it becomes static. Pirsig called Dynamic Quality "the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality" because it can be recognized before one can think about it. For example, the Dynamic beauty of a piece of music can be recognised before reading any static analysis explaining why the music is beautiful.

static quality patterns

Pirsig defines static quality as everything that can be conceptualized or recognized as forming patterns. Pirsig further divides static quality into inorganic, biological, social and intellectual patterns.

  • Inorganic patterns: Universal laws such as gravity, mass, fire etc.
  • Biological patterns: Laws concerned with physiological processes e.g. sex, processing food, blood circulation, etc.
  • Social patterns: Cultural groupings of people e.g. the family, the state, religion, etc.
  • Intellectual patterns: Matters of the mind e.g. science, philosophy etc.

Pirsig describes cosmological 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.

Pirsig claimed that the traditional Subject Object Metaphysics (SOM) of Western philosophy and science is problematic because it does not clearly recognize the morality of intellect over society by its artificial distancing of the subject from the object, of fact from value. Pirsig claims that it is the conflict between intellectual patterns backlash and the (previously dominant) social patterns which have led to many of the problems of the 20th century.

See also


  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) ISBN 0060958324
  • Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991) ISBN 0553299611
  • Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by R DiSanto and T J Steele (1990) ISBN 0688060692
  • A Critical Analysis of Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality by Anthony McWatt (2004) - for details, see link below.

External links


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