Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Romantic Quality Classical Quality
Subjective Quality Objective Quality

In his first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), Pirsig presents a metaphysical system whose structure is represented by the "Venn diagram" on the right. Upon seeing the diagram some might call me out for ”trying to put Quality in a box” and thus misrepresenting Pirsig, who used tree graphs instead of Venn diagrams to express the same structure. Some other readers might find this trivial, but the Venn diagram is just another method for expressing structure with clarity. Admittedly, Pirsig does not always treat it as such. On page thirteen of his paper Subjects, Objects, Data and Values (1995) Pirsig presents what looks like an annotated Venn diagram. The purpose of the figure is to highlight a certain metaphysical assertion of his, but he also points out that a certain metaphysical concept is not included in the diagram but may be thought of as the background of the diagram – in effect, the white space on the paper or the screen on which the diagram appears. In this particular case Pirsig might have needed to use this kind of rhetoric in order to maintain a certain superficial approachability, as he has written for a wide audience. However, Venn diagrams do not need to be used to imply evasive metaphysical thoughts in clever and unexpected ways. Pirsig's use of the Venn diagram in that paper is quirky and people who are familiar with Venn diagrams may have difficulty overlooking its quirkiness unless they understand that in this particular case the quirky usage has some stylistic justification, which might mean a whole lot more for a best-selling author than it does for a scientist. But this is not the time to go in the details of that issue. Instead, let us examine the structure of the metaphysical theory Pirsig presents in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


The World in Tarot.

Quality itself can be thought of the universal set or the set of all sets. In set theory the existence of such a set usually leads to Russell's paradox although there are variants of set theory that do permit the universal set. Such set theoretic concerns are not of much importance here as Pirsig explicitly refuses to define Quality despite claiming that his metaphysics is about Quality. For Pirsig, the existence and omnipresence of Quality is so obvious that it isn't something he seeks to affirm or deny. He only wishes to describe what Quality seems like. This work of mine, on the other hand, is more like an engineering manual. An ordinary engineering manual would not involve philosophical inquiry regarding the essence of substance so I will not attempt to inquire directly into Quality itself. It suffices to say that the reader has experienced Quality in a similar manner as the reader surely has some experience of steel objects. If the reader nevertheless has no clue regarding what Quality, after reading this wiki he should be able to perceive Quality around him in a similar manner as a person with no knowledge of steel could read a book about steel and then explore a urban environment to find out things that match the description. It would be easy to tell steel from wood but more difficult to tell steel from iron. Attempting to tell steel from wool would usually work but the case of steel wool might turn out puzzling, and so on. The results of this kind of exploration would include being able to tell steel from wool or knowing what kind of things to construct of steel and so on. In the case of the Metaphysics of Quality the byproducts include a lingually and culturally relatively independent understanding of good and evil which might serve as a theoretical framework for an artificial intelligence that makes moral choices.

The Romantic–Classical-Split

This could also be called the Actual–Potential-split.
Part of nonrelativizable qualities in the Analytic Metaphysics of Quality.
The Metaphysician and Death in Tarot.

According to Pirsig's best-selling philosophy novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Quality consists of romantic and classical quality. For example, let us consider the concept of ”joy”. The classical portion of this concept includes descpritions and properties of joy, such as joy being the opposite of sadness, or emanations of joy implying that a celebration has been successful, and so on. The romantic portion of the concepts includes the actual feeling of joy. The classical and romantic portions are different in the sense that a person can understand what joy is without feeling joy. This means he has knowledge by description about joy. But if he actually felt joy he would have knowledge by acquaintance of joy and he could understand that such romantic joy has a classical equivalent called ”joy” that is known by description and that can belong to a taxonomy, perhaps under ”emotions”.

Another example of the difference between classical and romantic quality can be found in bike riding. People who have learnt to ride a bike do not need to consciously focus on the bike they are riding in order to travel. They are able to think of other things for most of the time yet keep biking safely. This means that their ability to ride a bike is romantic and that they know the bike they are riding by acquaintance but not by description, unless they are thinking about the bike they are riding.

Generally speaking, scientifically or logically oriented people tend to understand the romantic–classical-split when I portray classical quality as the domain of references and romantic quality as the domain of referents. The word ”calculator” could be defined as ”a hand-held device that performs a calculation according to input and outputs the result”. This would be a reference to all the individual calculators in the world, that is, my blue calculator, my teacher's scientific calculator, the calculator I saw in the store yesterday and so on. However, describing classical quality as references and romantic quality as referents would not suffice to serve occultists, psychologists or ”hip” people in general. For them it might seem more relevant to portray words and language as referents of romantic experience. For example, a person can conduct astral projection in such a manner that he only retroactively identifies the experience as astral projection. Near-death experiences are another such thing. Although near-death experiences are often also out-of-body experiences, a person on the verge of death is unlikely to see his situation as a splendid opportunity to consciously try to acquire an out-of-body experience. Instead, such experiences frequently occur so that the subject neither attempts to have such an experience nor is actively trying to figure out what is the cause or taxonomic position of the experience. The subject is a passive recipient of the experience and identifies it as an out-of-body experience only retroactively, after it is over and the subject is again in an ordinary cognitive state. In such a case it might appear irrelevant, although true, that the classical notion of ”out-of-body experience” is a reference to the romantic out-of-body experience. The more relevant thing would be to note that the romantic out-of-body experience was a trigger that the subject associated with the classical notion of ”out-of-body experience".

A simpler example would be: ”Seeing a black cat triggered in me an association to the concept of bad luck.” Note how the perception of the cat can be thought to refer to the concept of bad luck.

If we were to think of concepts in terms of cause and effect we would find ”references” to be things that prepare us for the attainment of the ”referent” and without which we might fail to attain the referent. In short, references cause us to gain control over the referent. In the case of joy thinking about ”joy” might improve our ability to identify joy and make assumptions regarding the causes of joy, which consequently makes us more able to affect whether we live a happy life. But ”triggers”, on the other hand, cause us to value their ”association” more than we used to. A person who has had an out-of-body experience is likely to show an increased appreciation towards otherworldly experiences in general. That is to say, approaching the classical–romantic-split in terms of ”references” and ”referents” implies that we wish to take control whereas approaching it in terms of ”triggers” and ”associations” implies that we wish to know what should we strive to control. Neither approach is inherent to the classical–romantic-split but the split can be described by approaching it in terms of both approaches.

However, in this wiki we do not merely want to find out what does the classical–romantic-split mean. We also want express this meaning efficiently so that the classical–romantic-split becomes a good tool for divinatory engineering. Neither ”references” and ”referents” nor ”triggers” and ”associations” are suitable for this as they also imply a certain approach or motive. If I used these concepts I would have to write all parts of this wiki twice to the extent that they involve the classical–romantic-split: once in terms of ”references” and ”referents” when we are interested of actively controlling and another time in terms of ”triggers” and ”associations” when we are interested of passively experiencing. If I wrote this wiki only once, either in terms of only ”references” and ”referents” or in terms of only ”triggers” and ”associations”, then the tool I would create would assign its user into a more active or more passive viewpoint. A versatile tool would let the user choose his point of view himself.

Let us, therefore, approach the classical–romantic-split in terms of intensions and extensions. This concept pair is typical in logic and philosophy but not very popular elsewhere. It is usually described in a way that makes it hard to tell intensions and extensions from references and referents, but this seems to be because logicians are more interested of control than occultists. Logicians have a great desire for clarity and a strong need to avoid ambiguity because only that way logic works for controlling things.

From what I know, the association to logic and control seems historically native to ”intensions” and ”extensions” but is not necessarily inherent to their meaning when these words are used in another context than that of logic. And we do not want this strong association to logic – an instrument of control – because it would obfuscate our understanding of passive subjects. Upon saying that a subject experiences a ”concept” we would be implying that the classical portion of the concept is more causally active for the subject than the romantic portion. This would not be true for passive subjects. For passive subjects the romantic portion of the ”concept” is a causally active trigger whose effect is an association to the classical portion. Therefore, let us call ”steel”, ”joy”, ”out-of-body experience”, ”logical connective” and the like patterns. Pirsig does not adopt this name until Lila but we are better off already calling them patterns when familiarizing ourselves with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

A noteworthy curiosity is found in chapter eleven of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig states:

The book states that there's a theoretic component of man's existence which is primarily Western (and this corresponded to Phædrus' laboratory past) and an esthetic component of man's existence which is seen more strongly in the Orient (and this corresponded to Phædrus' Korean past) and that these never seem to meet. These terms "theoretic" and "esthetic" correspond to what Phædrus later called classic and romantic modes of reality and probably shaped these terms in his mind more than he ever knew.

This statement would be helpful for making the case that classical quality and romantic quality originally corresponded to normative quality and mystical quality, as the former could be thought of as entirely theoretical whereas the latter can readily be noticed to be the highest level of mystical quality. But given the lack of an analytically defined framework these concepts changed their form as Pirsig used them and began to mean something else.

Hereafter we shall, at times, replace the words "romantic" and "classical" with the words "actual" and "potential" whenever these words seem more appropriate.

The Subjective–Objective-Split

Tangible quality in the Analytic Metaphysics of Quality.
Lovers or The Empress and The Emperor in Tarot.

Calling something a pattern does not specify whether the caller intends to take an active or a passive viewpoint towards the pattern. If we wish to specify this, we can do so by describing a pattern as ”subjective” when the caller intends to take the passive viewpoint and as ”objective” when the caller intends to take the active viewpoint. In the former case the intension of the pattern is its romantic portion and the extension of the pattern is its classical portion. In the latter case the intension is classical and the extension romantic. The most obvious consequence of this definition is that no pattern can be deemed objective or subjective by its appearance. Instead, such a judgement is made according to the context in which the pattern appears.

For example, ”blackness” can be a subjective pattern when it appears as an atmospheric description in a literary work of fiction. Although the darkness of the night causes things to be blacker than they otherwise would be, and although this is further compounded by the human eye's limited ability to detect colour in poorly lit environments, there is often little value in mentioning the blackness of the night unless it makes the reader feel more absorbed into the night. Reading does require active effort unlike watching the television, but when an author writes fiction he is documenting some events that take place in his imagination. The blackness of the night appears in his imagination first and upon calling it ”blackness” and writing that down the author is documenting what he imagined. The reader is then supposed to empathise with the author so that even if he did not have such great imagination, he would nevertheless be able to take a journey in the author's imaginary world as if it were his own. This process is rooted in empathy, which basically means that the reader passively receives an imaginary experience from the author without necessarily knowing how and why the experience is transmitted. The reader does not necessarily pay attention to how individual words, such as ”blackness”, contribute to the atmospheric feeling he is experiencing because he is already content being the author's audience. Instead of wishing to know how the author captivates him he might, in fact, prefer to remain captivated indefinitely. When the pattern of ”blackness” is used like this it is not intended as a plausible hypothesis, a probable outcome, the conclusion of a deductive argument or anything of the like. Instead, it is supposed to be a feeling. Even though the romantic intension of such blackness appears after the reader has already read the classical intension ”blackness”, the reader is supposed to empathise with the author so that he can relate to how the author felt when he experieced the intension in his imaginary world prior to writing it down.

On the other hand, ”blackness” can be an objective pattern when it appears as the physical property of absorbing light and neither radiating light nor reflecting it to a degree that is visible to the naked eye. This would be the expected meaning of ”blackness” if you were trying to buy black paint. You wouldn't be happy with pink paint even though that would look black at night. Objective ”blackness” can also refer to the absence of photons. This is the kind of blackness we want inside a film camera because it prevents premature exposure of the film. Such blackness is not intended to feel mysterious. It is not intended to remind you how you felt when you were in a place that was so dark you couldn't see a thing. You don't need to focus on that because the film camera is so small you couldn't go inside and experience the blackness even if you wanted to. The blackness inside the camera is only mentioned so that you would be more aware of how not to ruin your film. You may ”experience” that blackness by developing your pictures and having them turn out fine, but focusing on such an ”experience” is not relevant to what you are trying to accomplish with the camera unless you are interested of the properties of your camera instead of taking pictures of things someone wants to look at.

If we wanted to eliminate such ambiguity with regards to whether a pattern is subjective or objective we could develop a language in which the subjectivity or objectivity of each concept is explicitly mentioned. No natural language has such a feature, although natural spoken and written languages do vary with regards to how explicit they generally are. According to Bradford Hatcher's annotated translation of The Book of Changes, ancient Chinese does not differentiate a certain colorful bird from the notion of standing out from a background, or a female slave from a beard. The underlying reason behind the former is probably that seeing the colorful bird on an unimpressive batch of yellowish grass feels similar to seeing something that stands out. In the latter case, owning a female slave would probably feel the same as growing a beard – at least for a man. As a secondary sex characteristic a beard might make a man feel more manly in a way that resembles enjoying the servitude of a female. Hence the Chinese language used in The Book of Changes is so ambigous, or polysemic, that it seems like an intended feature. Hatcher finds Chinese to be better suited for poetry whereas English is good for being specific. Ancient written Hebrew is also polysemic but in a different way: vowels are not written down. In Arabic they still aren't written down. In these languages a reader will not understand what a writer meant unless he guesses the missing vowels correctly depending on context. Sometimes, such as in poetry, polysemy is desirable or even essential. It might also have other functions. Language has such a profound effect on how people think that these functions may be difficult to perceive but I'll give you a clue and leave it at that.

Let us suppose you are speaking a language in which a certain colourful bird is the same thing as standing out. Now, suppose you also spend most of your time indoors or in your garden which is full of colorful, blooming plants. Your garden is already so colorful a bird with a bright plumage does not stand out. Only a black bird would stand out there. In this case your language does not work for describing an aspect of the reality in which you live. By refusing to serve you if your garden is too colorful your language implicitly prescribes what kind of a garden you should have. Such influences are easily shut out by objective thinking but they roam free whenever we are subjectively associating concepts with each other. Removal of polysemy eliminates that problem but might result in another problem: that of having a language which does not reinforce a shared subjective cultural experience. This might result in societies in which people specialize and specialize until they find themselves nearly isolated from anyone except a small circle of likeminded ones. A person might feel isolated from his neighbor even though he can hear him through the wall.

I am now writing and you are now reading. In a linear conception of time these two ”nows” are different because this is the seventeenth day of July in the year 2014 and the time is 4:13 AM. You will be reading this at a later moment. The linear conception of time is an objective pattern. However, in a nonlinear conception of time we are able to share this ”now” in the sense that by reading what I wrote you will experience something that resembles what I experienced, and in the future it will affect you in ways that bear some resemblance to how it affected me. You will remain influenced by having read this even after the influence can no longer be identified, just like water will always remain influenced by the stroke of an oar even if people who swim in it did not see the boat and cannot infer the stroke from how the water feels. In this subjective sense the two of us do share a ”now”. Currently we are able to identify the now, but like the vortex that the beginning of a stroke leaves in the water, this now we share will fade out in our shared future until we can no longer tell it's there.

See also