by Robert Pirsig


Re-read 3/11/13:

I got a strange urge to re-read this book as I’ve been delving into some interesting social criticism of late (Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions being the most mind-blowing).  In picking it up again, I realize just how much of my present-day outlook was shaped by Pirsig’s ideas.  Granted, I was very impressionable toward the close of my college career, but it’s alternately shocking, worrying and reassuring to remember just how much I assimilated his fascinating Metaphysics of Quality as presented here.  That said, I changed my original 5-star rating to 4 stars because I was able to read it with a more critical eye almost 10 years later, and I found the writing occasionally stilted and self-congratulatory, more often the latter than the former.

Pirsig’s first major philosophical step in this book is to separate his Quality (as sort of not-defined in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) into two types of Quality: static and dynamic.  With this basic division of reality he aims to supplant the more-traditional-though now-fairly-outdated separation of reality into subject and object (or mind and matter).  Thus his two forms of Quality either take the shape of static, traditional patterns of moral value or of dynamic, immediate, nirvana-like perception of pure Reality.

One of the best illustrations he uses to explain this division is in listening to a great new song.  The first time you hear it you are blown away by the newness, every note seems earth-shattering, and you can’t get enough of it.  Gradually, however, that feeling wears away, and though you still recognize the song as “good” it’s not likely to make you drop everything just to listen to it, to hang on every note.  Dynamic is new and exciting, static is oldie-but-goodie.  Pirsig eventually explains how each type of Quality depends on the other, and how one of them without the other will quickly lead to disaster — wild degeneracy in the case of the former, and stale, suffocating rot in the case of the latter.

Besides this interesting and useful division, the two main ideas I took away when I originally read it (and the two that continue to seem to be the most important ideas of his MoQ) are difficult to separate from one another.  First you have the idea of purpose- or goal-driven evolution, which is anathema to most biologists.  Coupled very closely with this idea of intentional evolution is Pirsig’s separation of levels of organization into four different systems: inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual.

What this means essentially is that when inorganic particles and elements originally combined to make organic compounds, this was an evolution toward Value or Quality, or in other words a moral movement.  Eventually these inorganic compounds, through the initiative of Dynamic Quality, organized to a higher level of evolution and formed a biological organism.  Eventually biological organisms, likewise inspired by Dynamic Quality or “moral” movement toward higher Quality, organized to form societies.  And similarly, societies eventually evolved in the direction of Dynamic Quality and created intellectual patterns of thought, reason, and logic, by which we can analyze and govern our lives.

This idea really gets interesting when Pirsig discusses how all of these levels of Quality are actually in conflict with each other.  This is because once a new level of organization is created on top of an old one, that new level, while dependent on the effective aspiration toward Quality of the level beneath it, will have its own goals and aims that are not necessarily in line with its foundation.  In this way, a virus will have conflicting motives with a biological organism, and an organism can be in conflict with the greater good of society.  Perhaps most applicably, an individual’s ideas can be in conflict with society pressures.

Here, Pirsig proposes and (IMO) pulls off a neat trick by looking at these conflicts through the lens of morality.  Because he has already proposed the division of Quality and because he has already explained how Quality has evolved from a very low level to a very high level, and continues to evolve, he can now say that any time the lower levels of Quality impinge on the higher levels of Quality, that is an immoral act.  Thus he can philosophically explain why it is immoral that someone abuses drugs to the point that they must steal from or injure others in society, and why it was immoral for society to persecute Galileo and Copernicus.

This system also explains why laws that inhibit individuals from indulging in their unfettered biological impulses are moral.  If you look at those impulses from the perspective of biology, they are completely moral because they feel good.  However, from the perspective of society they are dangerous and degenerate. . . it is moral for a higher evolutionary system to judge that those impulses must be kept in check.  Of course, a still-higher evolutionary system (that of the intellect) can then later develop and notice that, “Hey, society is unreasonably and unfairly suppressing certain biological values (for example, premarital sex and marijuana use), and we should really rethink that.”  That’s when you will get a battle between the intellectual and societal notion of value.  That is the stage that we have been struggling with for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.

There’s a lot of different ways you can go with this, and Pirsig goes in a lot of them.  That’s part of the drawback to the writing, how disperse it is and how daunting the entire system ends up seeming (although it is quite easy to understand in the way he explains it).  Around this part of the book it seemed to me that the system he had developed begged the question of what sort of level of organization may lie beyond the intellectual pattern of value.  This question never seems to occur to Pirsig, who sticks with his four levels plus the highest good of all: Dynamic Quality.

I haven’t studied enough philosophy to know how new these ideas are.  Pirsig seems to give a lot of credit to William James for developing a similar framework.  When I explained it to my philosopher wife she said it sounded like Hegel and didn’t sound too impressed.  She also cautioned that any time you have someone setting up an absolute morality or objective Truth or Value, you encounter a dangerous arrogance that threatens to overwhelm any culture that doesn’t buy into the paradigm.  Specifically in this case, despite Pirsig’s cautioning against the over-reliance on rationality and science, his system is still one that is very much grounded in the Western paradigm of reason/logic/rationality.  He admits as much.

Without being a cultural relativist, you can acknowledge how dangerous it might be to invalidate any non-rational way of perceiving truth. . . mysticism, for example, or the shamanistic rites of certain non-Westernized tribes.  I could be wrong, but it seems like Pirsig would have to say that those societies are less moral because they don’t perceive Truth intellectually. . . they still operate completely in the social level of value.  I actually argued about this with my wife, because I happen to agree with that statement.  In my own view of the evolution of consciousness, or enlightenment, or whatever, I think it is necessary to pass through rational thought and analysis — to know the extreme, as it were — before you can truly know what it’s like to reject that extreme and embrace the mystical nature of the universe.  My wife, on the other hand, pretty much thinks I’m a chauvinist.

Anyway, this is getting way too long.  I will say that Pirsig’s book has greatly informed my own outlook on life.  Additionally, this go-round I was really able to appreciate how he weaved his philosophy into the narrative.  The first time I read it I didn’t notice the meta-book in here, how Pirsig explains to us how he’s struggling to organize these thoughts and then divulges the thoughts at the same time he’s looking at the “slips” that he’s trying to organize.  Another example occurs in the end, when he talks about how he must remember to tie his book back into the Native-Americans (of course just by mentioning them in the reminder he is doing that).  It’s pretty ingenious.

Additionally, the creation of the character of Lila and Rigel was a nifty way to illustrate several of the more obscure ideas in his metaphysics.  The way he describes Lila’s detour into insanity is captivating and totally organic.  If you think about it you will perhaps find yourself in the strange position of feeling lucky that Pirsig himself went crazy so that he is able to explain it so authentically.  The fact that the narrative drags at points as he tries to cram a lot of tangential information into the story does not detract from the overall seamless way that he weaves it all together.

It’s an impressive achievement, and I wish Pirsig had more mainstream recognition.  Despite the book not being as perfect as I remember, I am glad to say that most of the impressive points he makes still seem to hold up.  My opinion of Pirsig as one of the most refreshing and innovative thinkers in recent history is corroborated.  I highly recommend both this and ZatAoMM.

Original Review


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