During the early 1970s, author Robert Pirsig released a philosophical (and many believe semi-autobiographical) novel called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZaMM). Ostensibly, the novel is about a father and son's cross-country motorcycle trip to reunite with a mentor named Phaedrus. In actuality, the narrator frequently departs from the plot to deliver a series of philosophical discussions, which he calls 'chatauquas', after an Indian tradition. These chatauquas form the basis of a philosophy known as the Metaphysics of Quality.
The concept for the Metaphysics of Quality began after Pirsig and some of his colleagues had a discussion concerning the word 'good'. One school of thought suggested that 'good' was actually quantifiable, even if it could not be measured scientifically. When we say a painting is good, what we're really saying is the painting contains a certain amount of 'good'. As a society, we are naturally drawn to objects and ideas which contain more 'good' than others. Pirsig reasoned that 'good' functioned as a noun as much as an adjective, leading to the concept of 'Quality' as a philosophical measurement of goodness.
The Metaphysics of Quality philosophy suggests that individuals and societies alike are all driven by the pursuit of Quality. For example, if a small child is presented with two sandwiches, one with steak and the other with bologna, the child has no reason to choose one over the other. Both sandwiches would contain equal Quality. An adult who has tasted steak, however, will almost always choose the steak sandwich, because the sandwich would have a higher Quality. In a much larger sense, cultures and societies are also driven by the pursuit of higher Quality, which explains how dynamic cities such as New York and Paris continue to grow and expand.
The Metaphysics of Quality also address the natural evolution of culture. One man living by himself on a remote island has only one standard to live by, and that is physical survival. If several more people joined this man on the island, then the natural evolution would be the implementation of social codes. Once all of these people established a social structure, then a more intellectual structure would naturally emerge. The Metaphysics of Quality suggests that the three levels of society-- the physical, social and intellectual-- work as a form of checks and balances.
Another aspect of the Metaphysics of Quality is the examination of Quality itself. Pirsig believes that we can never truly see Quality at work, since it is in constant or dynamic motion. What we can see are the results of that dynamic Quality. For example, we can visit a museum and view Leonardo Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." This painting would represent a static form of Quality, since we can examine it physically and assign a level of 'good'. The dynamic aspect of Quality, however, swept over the artist hundreds of years ago and inspired the painting.
Some critics of the Metaphysics of Quality suggest that Pirsig borrowed heavily from existing philosophies and his original concepts stop well short of other 20th century philosophers. Following the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig himself took time to codify his Metaphysics of Quality. His follow-up novel, Lila, further expanded his original concepts of Quality and its effect on moral choices. Phaedrus, the narrator from ZaMM, encounters a troubled woman named Lila, whose life decisions inspire him to examine Quality as an inquiry into morals.
The Metaphysics of Quality can be a challenge for those unfamiliar with advanced philosophical theories. Reading both of Pirsig's philosophical novels is a critical first step towards understanding the underlying concepts. There are also study guides available which will answer many questions readers may have. Essays by supporters and critics of the Metaphysics of Quality alike may also prove enlightening.