What is Quality in thought and statement?

Why did Phædrus' students have so much trouble answering this question?

by Patrick Gawley, December 2000

The notion of Quality first came from an innocuous comment from another lecturer at Montana State College:

"I hope you are teaching Quality to your students." (ZMM, p.181)

At this stage Phædrus was struggling to prepare for a lecture, frustrated trying to teach the creative process by rote, the pettiness of strict grammar, punctuation and spelling.

The thought kept returning, Quality? In an attempt to explore the question further he put it to the class. They, like him, were stumped. Interestingly the classs initial reactions were generally negative - anger, fear and resentment. Phædrus himself comments that there was something irritating, even angering about the question. Was this a reflection on the fact that the question shook the foundation of the SOM worldview?

"I sat there all night long, one said. I was ready to cry, I was so mad, a girl next to the window said. You should warn us, a third said." (ZMM, p.205)

As Nietzsche warns (in "Beyond Good & Evil", aphorism 146), when you gaze into the abyss, take care the abyss does not gaze into you.

Phædrus could only come up with:

"Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a non-thinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, quality cannot be defined." (ZMM, p.206)

He knew that this statement was irrational, as if you cannot define something how do you know that it exists? He waited for a refutation that never came. Despite this Phaedrus was able to prove to the class that everyone knew what it was, or at least recognises it when they saw it. The exercise itself provided an excellent background for teaching the students. By proving they could recognise Quality it gave them the confidence to evaluate their own work. It also provided a goal for the various methods of writing that they were learning.

To understand why the students and Phædrus had difficulty defining Quality it must be remembered that they were working from a SOM perspective.

In SOM, Quality must be either subjective or objective.

"If quality was objective why was it impossible to detect it by instruments? If subjective, it is just a question of fashion and popularity and therefore not very substantial." (The Quality Event, p.7)

Is it just a question of fashion and popularity (or because we cannot perceive a world without subjective judgements?) Surely not, as Pirsig points out - it is difficult to recognise a world without Quality. The arts would no longer exist as they have no practical value:

"If you can't distinguish between good and bad in the arts they disappear. Theres no point in hanging a painting on the wall when the bare wall looks just as good. Theres no point to symphonies, when scratches from the record or hum from the record player sound just as good. Poetry would disappear, since it seldom makes sense and has no practical value." (ZMM, p.215/216)

To a "SOMite", Quality can then only be other, which is a disturbing thought when previously your entire world was made up of only subjects and objects.

When seen from the MOQ the reason for their difficulties becomes clear. The MOQ states that Quality is the cause of all things, including subjects and objects. This means that SOMites are trying to explain something in terms of some of its effects. As Pirsig himself says in Chapter 20 of ZMM (p.251):

"Now, to take that which has caused us to create the world, and include it within the world we have created, is clearly impossible. That is why Quality cannot be defined. If we do define it we are defining something less than Quality itself."

Of course Pirsig does go onto define Quality in LILA, though not in terms of subjects and objects but as the foundation of a new metaphysics. The difficulty he had as a SOMite in defining Quality was a clue that he had discovered what he had been looking for. He compares the experience to the crystallisation of a super saturated solution. Quality had been the bump, the knock or the piece of dust around which his entire thought had crystallised creating something altogether new. LILA clarifies the MOQ further, Quality in the form of Dynamic Quality, is the cutting edge of reality. It is everything we perceive prior to intellectualisation. In turn, this intellectualisation produces the static quality patterns within which sit subjects and objects. To define the cause of these static patterns in terms of a subset of the static patterns is impossible.

Finally, as the MOQ is closely aligned to eastern thought it would have been interesting if there had of been a Chinese exchange student in the class he was teaching that day.


Pirsig, Robert (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, 1999 25th Anniversary Edition, Quill/William Morrow, New York.

Skutvik, Bodvar (1998) The Quality Event, paper found at http://www.moq.org (November 2000).

Nietszche, Friedrich (1886) Beyond Good and Evil, Translation by R.J. Hollingdale 1973, Penguin, London.

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