Canonic Metaphysics of Quality

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The Canonic Metaphysics of Quality refers to the metaphysical system presented by Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), Lila (1991) and various supplements as a single theory. In other words, the Canonic Metaphysics of Quality is all they would want to talk about on MoQ-Discuss.


In Lila Pirsig begins making offhanded statements that seem intended to conceal some kind of vacuity but in fact reveal it. Any academic referee would have rejected Pirsig's work on grounds of those statements even if it had references and were otherwise okay. Because Pirsig did not subject his work to peer review he could retain the statements. For me, these statements have several functions:

  • Each one points out a poorly resolved issue in the theory.
  • They express unwillingness to develop a better solution.
  • They profess that the theory is still good.
  • Among community members, they expose tendencies to choose sides according to loyalty instead of best argument.

In short, everything is fine despite these statements. Caloric theory is okay because it explains the heat engine. We don't need to be sorry just because modern thermodynamics is better and we certainly don't need to blame Pirsig for not solving every conceivable issue for us. Furthermore, unlike the academic community the Metaphysics of Quality community does not feature an explicit system for ranking competence or merit. Instead, the abilities of individual members are assessed by talking with them. Loyalists will not identify Pirsig's most untenable assertions as weaker than anything else he wrote. If Pirsig hadn't made such untenable statements it would be more difficult to tell (social) loyalty from (intellectual) comprehension within the community.

Subjectivity and Objectivity in Lila

Resolved with tangible quality.

In chapter twelve of Lila Pirsig presents an axiomatic statement whose pertinence to the rest of the Metaphysics of Quality is left a little sketchy. The axiom equates “subjects” and “subjective quality” with social and intellectual values and “objects” and “objective quality” with inorganic and biological values.

A conventional subject–object metaphysics uses the same four static patterns as the Metaphysics of Quality, dividing them into two groups of two: inorganic-biological patterns called "matter," and social-intellectual patterns called "mind." But this division is the source of the problem. When a subject–object metaphysics regards matter and mind as eternally separate and eternally unalike, it creates a platypus bigger than the solar system. It has to make this fatal division because it gives top position in its structure to subjects and objects. Everything has got to be object or subject, substance or non-substance, because that's the primary division of the universe. Inorganic–biological patterns are composed of "substance," and are therefore "objective." Social–intellectual patterns are not composed of "substance" and are therefore called "subjective." Then, having made this arbitrary division based on "substance," conventional metaphysics then asks, "What is the relationship between mind and matter, between subject and object?"

Pirsig proceeds to take on the mind–matter-problem. From a structural viewpoint the idea underlying his approach seems to be that although subjects emerge from objects, a system with only “subjects” and “objects” does not tell what are the intermediary forms between subjects and objects. Pirsig's hierarchy does answer this question because it has four levels instead of two. And if Pirsig's hierarchy is deemed to suffer from the “inorganic–biological–social–intellectual-problem” then we could switch to Maslow's hierarchy of needs which, although considered psychology instead of philosophy, has even more levels. But making a finer grading between mind and matter brings one only so far. From an idealistic or rationalistic viewpoint the grading is less of an issue than the underlying assumptions. The former viewpoint contradicts materialism and the latter contradicts empiricism. If the mind–matter-problem could be solved in a way that does not dismiss idealism or rationalism that solution would probably be better than the solution Pirsig presents here.

Pirsig repeats his axiom of subjects and objects in chapter 24 of Lila:

The Metaphysics of Quality resolves the relationship between intellect and society, subject and object, mind and matter by embedding them all into a larger system of understanding. Objects are inorganic and biological values; subjects are social and intellectual values. They are not two mysterious universes that go floating around in some subject-object dream that allows them no real contact with one another. They have a matter-of-fact evolutionary relationship. That evolutionary relationship is also a moral one.

This time the axiom is presented in a tone that feels persuasive instead of enlightening. When Pirsig begins the sentence “They are not two mysterious universes... “ the reader might expect to learn why the axiom is justified. But what follows is merely another axiom: subjects and objects have a matter-of-fact evolutionary relationship that is also a moral one. This does not make the axioms any more credible than those taxonomic declarations Pirsig finds nearly ridiculous when biologists use them and end up having only the platypus and echidna in the order Monotremata. Pirsig exaggerates the plight of the biologists by giving the impression that there's only species of echidna even though there are four extant species and a few extinct ones. Talk about petty hustles. The order Monotremata includes five extant species but Pirsig's axiom of subjects and objects has only one application – the mind–matter-problem. The application is sound only under emergent materialism and empiricism and it only involves adding two intermediary forms of mind and matter, one of which is still matter despite resembling mind whereas the other is still mind despite resembling matter.

I think this solution has drawbacks that outweigh its merit. Insofar as an axiom is a statement that is accepted on its own merits or whose truth is considered self-evident, Pirsig's axiom about subjects and objects does not do very well. The notions of subject and object are so common and have so many different uses that it is all but self-evident that the latter means inorganic and biological patterns and the former social and intellectual patterns. “Object-oriented” programming languages will never be exclusively about sand and stones, survival and procreation, because computing is a science and thus belongs to the intellectual level. And when mathematicians and logicians use metatheories to handle “object theories” the object theories are intellectual patterns, not inorganic or biological ones. Such a limited solution to the mind–matter-problem is not worth defining the word “object” in a way that contradicts many of its common uses, ecspecially the scientific ones. Adopting such a solution would make it inconvenient for us to apply our metaphysics in any context in which the word “object” has a meaning that contradicts our metaphysics. And I don't know what do we exactly gain by thinking we have solved the mind–matter-problem. We don't need to solve it if we just want to ignore it. And if we don't want to ignore it we probably can develop a better solution than one that only works within empiricism and emergent materialism and involves defining a highly polysemous word that is common in technical language – “object” – in a way that contradicts many of its established uses.

Furthermore, Pirsig's axiom of objects and subjects contradicts his own writing in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig writes of mythos and logos in what appears to be an attempt to describe subjective and objective quality, respectively.

The term logos, the root word of “logic,” refers to the sum total of our rational understanding of the world. Mythos is the sum total of the early historic and prehistoric myths which preceded the logos. The mythos includes not only the Greek myths but the Old Testament, the Vedic Hymns and the early legends of all cultures which have contributed to our present world understanding. The mythos-over-logos argument states that our rationality is shaped by these legends, that our knowledge today is in relation to these legends as a tree is in relation to the little shrub it once was. One can gain great insights into the complex overall structure of the tree by studying the much simpler shape of the shrub. There’s no difference in kind or even difference in identity, only a difference in size.


The mythos-over-logos argument points to the fact that each child is born as ignorant as any caveman. What keeps the world from reverting to the Neanderthal with each generation is the continuing, ongoing mythos, transformed into logos but still mythos, the huge body of common knowledge that unites our minds as cells are united in the body of man. To feel that one is not so united, that one can accept or discard this mythos as one pleases, is not to understand what the mythos is.

Here, mythos appears synonymous with subjective quality and logos with objective quality. At least no difference between mythos and subjective quality, and logos and objective quality, is presented. But the mythos-over-logos argument seems to depict a process in which subjective quality is transformed into objective quality. Whether this is a process of emergence or another kind of transformation remains unclear. In any case, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig wrote of a process in which subjective quality, which he decades later defined as social and intellectual quality, is a precursor to objective quality, which he later defined as inorganic and biological quality. But he didn't explain this process from the viewpoint of the empiricistic system of emergent materialism he adopted later. In Lila Pirsig states the Metaphysics of Quality to be an empiricistic theory and only presents objective or scientific evidence and objective descriptions in conjunction with the theory of static value patterns. If mythos is to be understood as something else than logos, and if mythos is subjective quality, such objective evidence should be irrelevant.

For example, when archaeologists try to determine, whether the pharaoh Akhenaten held a high rank in his society, they are trying to assess the social value of a historical person. Let us suppose social value is subjective. This seems to entail that an archaeologist can only deem Akhenaten to be a pharaoh if he lives within the associated Egyptian mythos which includes monotheistic belief in the deity Aten.

Obviously, actual belief in that ancient mythos is largely extinct and even if it weren’t, archaeologists would not necessarily need to have such belief. They have objective data according to which rulers are often buried in decorated tombs and many statues depicting them are made. They do not need to feel oneness or unity with the ancient Egyptians in order to find tombs and statues. An archaeologicst need not experience Akhenaten as his Pharaoh whose power originates from his God Aten. Hence, an archaeological assessment of Akhenaten’s social value is necessarily objective, as opposed to subjective.

When we wish to question the alleged subjectivity of intellectual quality the previous argument applies in a different form. One does not have to attest faith in science in order to do scientific work. That is to say, strong faith in science is not a necessary part of a scientist’s mythos. It is possible to do scientific work anyway. It is also possible to do other kind of work, such as welding or bartending, even if one did not perceive it to be in accordance with his mythos. From an objective viewpoint the work itself does not change its form. The result of a correctly performed scientific experiment does not depend on whether someone involved in the experiment believed in science.

This is the issue that split the Metaphysics of Quality online community. Either Pirsig's system has foundational problems or he uses more ambiguous language than we'd like. In a commentary of Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy Pirsig made in 2000 he first states:

In the MOQ [Metaphysics of Quality] the term, “objective,” is reserved for inorganic and biological patterns and cannot include “idealism.”

And then:

Objective reality is the most valued intellectual construction.

What does this mean? In a literal interpretation an “objective reality” is an inorganic and biological reality, not an intellectual pattern. It is quite possible to think of ways in which these two statements do not contradict each other but it is not easy to be sure which one of them Pirsig meant. Perhaps “intellectual constructions” are something else than “intellectual patterns”. But had Pirsig known how they differ he would probably have told us. Instead, he just clings to a definition he presented because his belief in having solved the mind–matter-problem depends on the definition. In a way he treats the issue more like a politician than a metaphysician. To my knowledge Pirsig has never had to admit making a metaphysical mistake so it's no wonder if he has made a few but chose to retain the facade of infallibility instead of assisting strangers to see through his own facade. I might have done the same if I had a preposterously grandiose facade thousands of people would actually believe in. If I had the option to seem completely infallibe, at least temporarily, in the eyes of thousands of people all over the world, it would be for their sake that I would not tolerate any blemish on that image if I could help it. This is so that they would get to experience wonder. If Pirsig admitted a mistake that would be like Santa Claus doubting whether he exists.

Is the Metaphysics of Quality an Intellectual Pattern?

This section was already featured in Lila and can be skipped if you read it already.

In his letter to Paul Turner Pirsig states that the Metaphysics of Quality is an intellectual pattern and that he does not understand why it would not be an intellectual pattern. This was a response to Bodvar Skutvik who asserted that the Metaphysics of Quality is not an intellectual pattern.

The argument that the MOQ [Metaphysics of Quality] is not an intellectual formulation but some kind of other level is not clear to me. There is nothing in the MOQ that I know of that leads to this conclusion.

Due to the nature of emergence any pattern, whose level is neither explicitly stated nor apparent from context, can be thought to belong to any static level described by Pirsig. It makes sense to refer to an inorganic book as the Metaphysics of Quality. Suppose you're speaking to a librarian: “No, I don't want idealism, I want the Metaphysics of Quality”. If there are two books on the table, one of them by Pirsig and another by Leibniz, a well-read librarian will give you Pirsig's book – but not a lecture on what is Quality. It also makes sense to refer to a biological pattern as the Metaphysics of Quality. When Pirsig is writing he is the Metaphysics of Quality. He might change his mind later about something but at the moment of writing he conveys the Metaphysics of Quality to the exoteric world and is the most important prequisite for the very existence of that kind of metaphysics. Furthermore, upon looking at the Metaphysics of Quality communities it becomes obvious that the Metaphysics of Quality is also a social pattern, and upon looking at Pirsig's interpretations of anthropological data the intellectuality of the Metaphysics of Quality is evident. The Metaphysics of Quality can manifest on any level. The particular level, on which it manifests, is determined by the context in which the Metaphysics of Quality is referred to, not by stating the Metaphysics of Quality to essentially belong on some particular level independently of context.

If the Metaphysics of Quality consisted only of the theory of static value patterns that would be all there is to the debate. However, Skutvik's criticism becomes cogent when we remember Dynamic Quality which is undefined but included in or referred to by the Metaphysics of Quality. Isn't Dynamic Quality then defined by the Metaphysics of Quality? If so, how can it be undefined? Isn't it an intellectual pattern instead? Absolutely not, but it seems equally impossible to state that Dynamic Quality cannot be defined as a referent of the Metaphysics of Quality. If the Metaphysics of Quality didn't refer to Dynamic Quality Lila would not be about Quality but about static quality.

What is Pirsig's conception of metaphysics? In the fifth chapter of Lila he states:

Quality is indivisible, undefinable and unknowable in the sense that there is a knower and a known, but a metaphysics can be none of these things. A metaphysics must be divisible, definable and knowable, or there isn't any metaphysics. Since a metaphysics is essentially a kind of dialectical definition and since Quality is essentially outside definition, this means that a "Metaphysics of Quality" is essentially a contradiction in terms, a logical absurdity.

Note how Pirsig uses the expression “essentially” instead of “subject–object-metaphysically”. It seems that for Pirsig, essentialism is essentialism when he does it but subject–object-metaphysics when someone else does it. Essentially, Pirsig is shooting himself in the foot here. The attitude he is displaying is that of a retired metaphysician. A working metaphysician does not regard metaphysics as essentially a kind of dialectical definition but a way of life. It might involve drinking coffee, having sex and surely writing. Curiously enough, soon after the previous passage Pirsig also writes:

To the intellect the process of defining Quality has a compulsive quality of its own. It produces a certain excitement even though it leaves a hangover afterward, like too many cigarettes, or a party that has lasted too long. Or Lila last night. It isn't anything of lasting beauty; no joy forever. What would you call it? Degeneracy, he guessed. Writing a metaphysics is, in the strictest mystic sense, a degenerate activity.

This portrays “metaphysics” as different from “writing metaphysics”. I see the distinction makes sense but what does a working metaphysician answer when you ask him what is he interested of? He says he's interested of metaphysics. But if he's creating metaphysics he cannot be interested of a mere pre-existing dialectic definition. He's interested of invoking Dynamic Quality in order to make a new one! This is how the Metaphysics of Quality is not essentially an intellectual or any other kind of a static pattern: it might also be a process, a work-in-progress. Just like any other inquiry. I call this curiosity the process–object-duality. It is similar to the wave–particle-duality which holds that all particles of matter also have a wave nature and vice versa. The Metaphysics of Quality appears as a process if you think of it as such, but it appears as a static object if you think about it in another way.

Empiricism and Abstract Symbol Manipulation

Resolved with abstract quality.

Pirsig tried to incorporate mathematics into the intellectual level. In his letter to Paul Turner he said the highest meaning that can be given to the intellectual level is the manipulation of abstract symbols that bear no relation to particular experience.

“Intellect” can [...] be defined very loosely as the level of independently manipulable signs. Grammar, logic and mathematics can be described as the rules of this sign manipulation.


…it seems to me the greatest meaning can be given to the intellectual level if it is confined to the skilled manipulation of abstract symbols that have no corresponding particular experience and which behave according to rules of their own.

It is quite inconvenient that the intellectual level already contains empirical science. It is unclear how theories of empirical science could have no corresponding particular experience. Quantum mechanics is not purely abstract just because it’s formal and its symbols may be manipulated mathematically. If it were abstract, the numerous applications of quantum mechanics, such as lasers and transistors, would not have come to existence and quantum mechanics itself could not be experimentally verified because the symbols in the formulae would behave “according to rules of their own”.

Defining the intellectual level as ultimately mathematical entails mathematics emerges from social quality. Such an assumption is necessary only because Pirsig subscribes to empiricism in Lila. The theory of static value patterns in empiricistic in a positive way but there is no need to be empiricistic in a negative way that prevents us from understanding mathematics in some other context than the empiricistic one. This other context doesn't necessarily exclude empiricism but is anyhow independent of it.

Even if mathematics were taught to people by a social pattern such as an educational system, the mathematical notions of truth and falsehood depend necessarily on axioms, syntax, semantics and deductive proof methods but not necessarily on any particular kind of social pattern. This is how a mathematician would approach his discipline. The approach is fundamentally different from the way in which an anthropologist – an empirical scientist – approaches his own discipline. But a good anthropologist who studies mathematicians would also want to understand the way how mathematicians think.

Defining the intellectual level as mathematical entails that the Metaphysics of Quality fails to distinguish between empirical sciences such as physics and anthropology from normative sciences such as mathematics and logic. This would make for a Metaphysics of Quality that provides an overly simple account of science. Admittedly, it could be argued that mathematics is empirical as the consistency of mathematical theories is intended to be reproducible. Anyone with the relevant skill should be able to prove the same things about a mathematical statement. Still, the methodology of mathematics lacks the kind of measurements and experiments essential to physics and biology. Using senses is a necessary part of verifying the theories of empirical science.

It’s hard to provide very solid empirical evidence for the argument that people could think mathematically without senses as that would require test subjects who have no senses yet can somehow communicate their thoughts to the external world. Indeed, senses may be considered useful for learning mathematics. People perhaps need to see the mathematical formulae or read them in Braille (if possible?). However, the truth or falsehood of a mathematical formula does not depend on whether the formula is written on a piece of paper. A mathematician with excellent memory does not need to write down his mathematical operations in order to perform them, which implies that formulae written on a piece of paper facilitate mathematical thought by acting as a reliable extension of memory rather than by being the subject matter of mathematics. This means mathematics is about something else than the usual sensory perceptions of vision, audition, smell and such.

Mathematics could be argued to be about observing mathematical phenomena, but these observations are exclusively about relationships between abstract symbols whose meaning depends on arbitrary axioms. The meanings are not about tangible particles, cells, people or capital. Therefore, the objectivity of mathematics appears to be of a different kind than the objectivity of empirical science. And the same goes for any other intellectual pattern that qualifies as “manipulation of abstract symbols that behave according to rules of their own”. You can go all the way from inorganic patterns such as rocks and lakes to empirical sciences such as genetics and quantum physics but if you then proceed to pure mathematics you will enter a domain in which there is no reason to keep taking empiricism for granted. A school of philosophy called mathematical realism believes in the existence of numbers as something that is quite low in a metaphysical hierarchy that is independent of empiricism. In this system Gödel's incompleteness theorems, on the other hand, have a very high rank.

See also