I just finished reading Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I understand to be a popular-yet-important book for those looking to enter the realm of philosophical discussion and discourse.

Of course, the text features the author's long endeavor to define "quality," specifically in a philosophical context.

After re-reading chapters 19 and 20, I'm still unsure if I have understood what Pirsig claims "quality" to be. At first, I thought he meant that "quality" is essentially "reality," including all the atoms in the universe (or multiverse, I suppose), both in actuality and in theory (i.e., hypothetical situations, along with thoughts, are also included in the realm of "quality"). In other words, I interpreted "quality" to be the general domain of discourse we humans perceive as the "universe."

I wasn't satisfied with my interpretation, albeit because of a person reason: why not just say "quality" is "reality"? And if that's the case, why do we need two words to describe one thing? I thought that there must be something more significant about Pirsig's claim.

In this Wiki entry, quality is broken down into two classes: the dynamic, and the static. "Dynamic" quality cannot be explicitly defined, unlike "static quality," which can be defined (in terms of increasing morality, static quality includes non-organic forms, organic forms, social forms, and then intellectual forms).

Here is my question: is Pirsig trying to say that "quality" is the opposite of chaos/disorder? After all, dynamic quality is allegedly the "force of change" in our universe, along the continuum of increasing morality. Is it also fair to say that static quality is the result of the dynamic quality?

I would think that in this paradigm, reality now becomes an environment (i.e., "platform"), while "quality" becomes the main driver of action/evolution in this environment.

If I have this entire understanding wrong, feel free to explain it further. I really just want to make sure I'm not misunderstanding Pirsig.

  • 1
    What's so hard to define quality as of how well an item serves its purpose?
    – ronenfe
    Oct 26, 2016 at 5:38
  • Because Pirsig says that quality is the uncaused first cause; it brings about both the item and its purpose. This doesn't click for me. Jul 11, 2018 at 21:54
  • I also can make no sense of his ideas on quality. I would disagree that this is an important book and would call it a confusing and ill-informed. But on the plus side it's a good read and he does introduce and raise interest in the topics, so as a way into philosophy it probably works - as long as we quickly move on. .
    – user20253
    Feb 5, 2019 at 16:06
  • @RonenFestinger Exactly what I thought when Pirsig posed the question in the book. Jul 6, 2021 at 19:07
  • @legionwhale Also I would add reliability to the definition.
    – ronenfe
    Jul 7, 2021 at 23:03

2 Answers 2


Pirsig and his adherents would disagree, but it seems to me that 'Quality' (I capitalize it, because it seems to me at least to be something very different from what we normally think of as quality) in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not quite the same thing as 'Quality' in Lila (where static and dynamic Quality are discussed). In fact he seems to want to mean all three things at once—his usage in Zen, his usage in Lila, and everyday usage. Perhaps he can reconcile them somehow, but I don't see how.

So one answer to your question might be: Quality means anything you want it to mean, since Pirsig himself seems to have no clear meaning; in fact he stipulates that the word itself is undefinable. It's reasonable to assume that an undefinable word is literally meaningless.

But I think we can take it a little farther than that. It's been a while since I read Zen, but as I recall, his meaning there meant something like the interface or space between reality and our perception of reality. Why he associated that concept with the word "Quality" I've never been quite sure, except, as I said above, he seems to want to mean both that and the normal meaning of "quality," i.e. 'good stuff.'

His meaning in Lila, where he develops his notion of "the metaphysics of Quality" seems like a wholly different thing to me. There he seems to basically go back to our commonsense definition of 'quality,' and split it into two parts: Static Quality and dynamic Quality. I've always pictured it like a ratcheting gear (I don't recall if this example is from the book or not). You pull on the lever, and it moves forward, but you can't push it back, because in pulling it forward you have advanced the ratchet. The pulling forward is dynamic Quality; the ratcheting mechanism is static Quality. In other words, dynamic Quality is the good things about change and dynamism, and static Quality is the good things about tradition and conservatism.

So no, I would not say that Quality is the opposite of 'chaos and disorder,' as both chaos and stability are necessary to Quality.

  • 2
    Yet, in Zen, the problem arises because he's grading papers, and he's trying to understand what makes one paper of higher quality than another, and he realizes that there's a philosophical problem in defining quality. So, it seems to me that while he has a hard time defining it, he's not using it in a "literally meaningless" way. Dec 19, 2015 at 11:57
  • I agree, he's not; I'm just saying that one could be excused for deciding that a word stipulated to be undefinable is meaningless, and wash one's hands of the matter.
    – Calion
    Dec 19, 2015 at 23:49
  • 1
    I do not think one can be excused for equating undefinable with meaningless. Some words, basic words, are bound to remain undefined even in science and mathematics, as something is needed to define everything else. Their meaning can still be gleaned from how they are used. Such are "sets" in mathematics, "mass" or "charge" in physics, "being" in metaphysics, "Tao" in taoism, etc. So why not Pirsig's "Quality"?
    – Conifold
    Jul 10, 2020 at 7:20
  • There is a large difference, to my mind, between “undefined” and “undefinable."
    – Calion
    Jul 11, 2020 at 12:24

Robert Pirsig's philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and expanded in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991. (also, for the brave moq.org) see also Research Gate discussion on "Can Rational Thinking exist without Language" for associated discussions.

Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality gets to some recurrent questions that philosophy has encountered in a variety conundrums. In the following discussion I use signs to stand for any empirically observable language such as spoken, written or signed languages. Also included are marks/images such as paintings, sculpture, carvings and digital forms of communication. Music and other forms of sound are included as is dance and gestural forms of communication. In the use of signs in analogy, generally speaking, first use, for Pirsig, has higher quality because it is dynamic and is the sharp point of the possibility of change, where change is increasing complexity and therefore increasing the possibility of expressing higher dynamic quality. After first use and with the spread of adoption among sign users, the sign use becomes part of a sharing of 'how we view the world'. Eventually sign use becomes preserved in dictionaries or parts of repertoires or schools of thought, or communities of practice, or disciplines, or philosophies. At that point, Pirsig would hold that sign use is the basis of patterned behaviours, static quality. Davidson's label of dictionaries being the repository of dead metaphor is a parallel concept. For Pirsig, patterning is of higher value than disorder. In patterning there is order from inorganic, to organic, to social and to intellectual patterns and, in my view, on to spiritual patterns. Increased complexity has survival value because it increases the possibility of accommodating for change in the life-world at a species level. In the opposite direction we start with highest level of complexity, spiritual patterns, then intellectual patterns, moving inevitably to the, in Pirsig's metaphors, eventual (unspoken) entropy.

I part company with Pirsig at the point at which, it seems to me, he is implying an inevitability of the eventual outcomes of change (entropy) as being beyond our control and therefore that we need give no thought of action now. In my view that passivity is the point of madness. While the inevitability of entropy may be true over the time scale of existence, at the time scale of a human life I put the discriminating power of Rational Thought employing Language to use in determining whether I wish to make a choice about my relationship with the views being advanced or not. Those continuing moral choices are my attempt to fend off entropy by continually introducing and defending another point of view and thus contributing a little more complexity.

Pirsig's notion of 'Quality' is constrained to exclude the act of defining it. But we can say that dynamic quality can be experienced by everyone: at the moment of seeing how analogies work or where the melody comes from or the art in the 'bon mot' or elegance in a gymnastic performance, or in the enduring regard people have for one another in long-term relationships, or in the achievement of a long sought goal, or at the moment any new idea begins to expand the complexity of collective thinking.

In a metaphysical sense every human experience of dynamic quality, by increasing dynamic complexity, ultimately fends off entropy. That may be a point of human existence consistent with Pirsig's metaphysics.

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