Zen and the Art of Dialogue: An interview with Robert Pirsig

Interview by Julian Baggini

What is the most important work of philosophy to be written in the last fifty years? Ask a panel of experts and you'll probably be told it's something like Rawls's Theory of Justice , MacIntyre's After Virtue , or Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – all books the average person in the street has never heard of. Jo Public is most likely to remember an international bestseller: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An inquiry into values by Robert M Pirsig, published in 1974.

Our panel of experts would quickly dismiss this nomination. Pirsig's impact on professional philosophy has been negligible. In university philosophy departments, Pirsig's central idea – known as the Metaphysics of Quality (see box) – remains undiscussed and unstudied. Only one PhD has ever been awarded for a thesis on Pirsig's ideas, to Anthony McWatt at Liverpool University last year. McWatt also organised what he billed as the first academic philosophy conference on the Metaphysics of Quality. But even this turns out to be only a half-step into academe for Pirsig: when I asked about how a spoof paper was accepted into the programme, McWatt told me the conference had been “arranged at the last minute on an ad hoc basis” and that “anyone invited to the Conference was free to present a paper of whatever viewpoint they wanted.” Not then what would usually be deemed an academic conference.

But then Pirsig is used to being an outsider. The Guinness Book of Records lists Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as the bestseller that was rejected by the largest number of publishers: 121. Yet as the book became a hit, recognition seemed to be his at last. Zen… combined a fictionalised, autobiographical account of a motorcycle journey with philosophical discourses, or “chautauquas”. It received glowing reviews from highly respected sources. The New York Review of Books said “Pirsig is a stunning writer of fictional prose”, the New York Times declared it to be “profoundly important”, and the Sunday Times called it “an astonishing literary performance”. George Steiner would later compared Pirsig's writing to Dostoevsky, Proust and Bergson.

Pirsig was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to write the sequel, Lila: An inquiry into morals (1991). “While Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a skeleton of a philosophy enclosed within a full-bodied novel,” Pirsig told me, “ Lila is a skeleton of a novel enclosed within a full-bodied philosophy.” Lila developed the Metaphysics of Quality more fully, but despite receiving several good reviews and spending six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, it failed to attract the interest of academe and lacked the enduring appeal of Zen …, and in Britain the book is currently of print.

Since then, Pirsig has published virtually nothing and rarely talked publicly. So when I was offered the opportunity of an exclusive interview with him, the offer was irresistible. There was, however a catch: the interview would be by email. Although a few early TPM interviews were conducted this way, it has been our policy in recent years to prefer no interview over one conducted by electronic means alone. But Pirsig is such an exceptional figure, an exception was made.

Perhaps it should not have been. The exchange often seemed not to connect, and perhaps the medium in which it took place was a major factor. By the end, Pirsig himself was clearly disappointed with the result, writing: “We have come to a standoff here, where I have refused to talk about what other philosophers are saying, and you have neglected to ask underlying questions about what I am saying. What is most remarkable to me about this interview is that not a single question has been asked about what the Metaphysics of Quality actually says. You say there is more to philosophy than I know, and that is no doubt true. I have a degree in philosophy and know quite well that no one knows it all. But there is more to the Metaphysics of Quality than you have shown any indication of understanding, and there was an opportunity to find out more that has been missed. In journalism, where I hold an MA, it is mandatory that when you interview someone you try sincerely to understand what they are saying, not just try to impose other people's views on them, including your own.”

You can make up your own mind as to whether this is fair by reading the entire transcript of our exchange online (at www.philosophersmag.com and forthcoming on www.robertpirsig.org). Whatever your verdict, Pirsig's complaint reflects a tension that ran through the interview. Pirsig wanted to talk about his philosophy and his philosophy alone. I wanted to relate that philosophy to the ideas of others, as a means of bringing out what is supposedly different or superior in it, and also a means of questioning it. After all, if the purpose were just to reiterate what Pirsig has already said, we should simply tell people to go and read his books, or just invite him to provide an overview of his philosophy.

So, for instance, I began by asking, “There are all sorts of echoes and references to the mainstream philosophical tradition in your books, yet it is not obvious where or how you fit into that tradition. You have, for example, been referred to as an American pragmatist philosopher. Where would you locate your work in the history of philosophy?”

“The Metaphysics of Quality is not intended to be within any philosophic tradition,” he replied, “although obviously it was not written in a vacuum. My first awareness that it resembled James's work came from a magazine review long after Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published. The Metaphysics of Quality's central idea that the world is nothing but value is not part of any philosophic tradition that I know of. I have proposed it because it seems to me that when you look into it carefully it makes more sense than all the other things the world is supposed to be composed of.”

Much as I appreciate Pirsig's desire not to be labelled according to the standard, extant divisions in philosophy, there is surely something of a tension in this kind of reply. On the one hand, he is not interested in relating his ideas to those of others, but on the other, he is claiming that his theory makes more sense than all others. But to make the latter claim persuasively, I think you have to engage with those competing ideas, which is something Pirisg seemed reluctant to do.

Furthermore, when he does criticise other ideas, his dismissal of them often seems perfunctory. For example, in Lila he wrote “[The theory of evolution] goes into many volumes about how the fittest survive but never once goes into the question of why.”

I put it to him that most biologists would see that as blatantly untrue, and that furthermore, that if he thought the question of why the fittest survive hasn't been answered by the theory of evolution, he just hasn't understood it.

“I would answer that biologists who think my question doesn't understand the theory of evolution are biologists who do not understand the difference between ‘how' and ‘why',” he replied. “The answers they give for ‘why' are usually ‘competitive advantage' or ‘survival of the fittest'. But if you look closely you will see that these are not scientific terms. ‘Fittest' is a subjective term. It exists only in the mind of a scientific observer. It isn't out there in the nature he observes. The same is true of ‘advantage'. Ask a biologist who thinks my question doesn't understand the theory of evolution, to define in exact scientific terms the meaning of these evaluative words. If he takes time to do so I predict he will give up or he will come up with nonsense or he will find himself drifting eventually toward the solutions arrived at by the Metaphysics of Quality.”

The problem with that reply is that though “fittest” may appear to be an evaluative term, for evolutionists it is no such thing, but simply describes how well an organism is able to survive in the environment it finds itself.

In a similar vein, I try to explore the apparent parallels between Pirsig's philosophy and that of other monist metaphysics, such as that of Spinoza. I put it to him that the Metaphysics of Quality shares with these predecessors an attempt to dissolve the puzzle that the world seems to contain many things that are real yet seemingly incommensurable – such as mind and matter, fact and value, objectivity and subjectivity – by arguing that these are all just aspects of one, unified thing. Given that Pirsig claims his metaphysics is a Copernican revolution on a par with Kant's, doesn't the existence of these precursors rather deflate that claim?

Pirsig answered, “I may have read Spinoza incorrectly but it has seemed to me that his assertion that God is the fundamental constituent of the Universe was not very revolutionary, given the church attitudes at the time.”

To say that Spinoza's views were not very revolutionary seemed to me an extraordinary claim, since the impersonal “god-or-nature” he postulated was entirely different from that of the Jewish or Christian religion.

Pirsig simply replied, “If the claim seems extraordinary to you, then I withdraw it. I am not a ‘Spinozist' and made it clear that I may have read him incorrectly.” But if you are going to claim great originality for your theories, surely you should make sure they really are that original?

Despite Pirsig's later claim that I showed no interest in understanding his metaphysics, we did discuss several aspects of it, including what exactly quality is, and its role in his philosophy. However, he resisted my attempt to relate this to the traditional philosophical concepts of monism and dualism, which categorise theories in terms of the number of basic substances they claim exist – one or two, respectively.

“You are correct in saying that the revolutionary assertion of the Metaphysics of Quality is that ‘Quality' or ‘value' is the fundamental constituent of the universe,” he wrote. “However, the classification of metaphysics into monism, dualism and pluralism, seems to me to be an arbitrary classification where none is needed. The Metaphysics of Quality is all three: Quality is the monism. Static Quality and Dynamic Quality are the dualism, and the four levels of static quality contain a pluralism of things.”

But why is the classification of metaphysics into monism, dualism and pluralism arbitrary?

“I think it is arbitrary the way a count of the length of sentences in a metaphysics would be arbitrary. It doesn't add anything to the truth or falsehood of the metaphysics being described. It is a form of philosophology, if I may use a favourite word, a classification of philosophy rather than philosophy itself.”

I'm not convinced. Of course, I continued, many systems have pairs, trios, quartets (and so forth) of concepts. But it seems perfectly reasonable to classify metaphysical systems as monist or dualist on the basis of how many basic substances they believe the universe most fundamentally comprises.

“The ‘Quality' of the Metaphysics of Quality is not a basic substance, or anything like it. The Buddhists call it ‘nothingness' precisely to avoid that kind of intellectual characterisation. Once you start to define Quality as a basic substance you are off on a completely different path from the Metaphysics of Quality.”

I'm left somewhat confused by the fact that “‘Quality' or ‘value' is the fundamental constituent of the universe”, but that “The ‘Quality' of the Metaphysics of Quality is not a basic substance, or anything like it.” Given that “substance” in the broad sense is usually understood to mean the constituent of whatever exists, and is not taken to refer solely to physical matter, could Pirsig explain further how quality is a basic constituent but not a substance?

“I'm not original on this point,” he replies, “except to identify Quality with the Tao and with Buddha-nature (hence the title of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ). The amount of material on these two would overflow most library rooms, but it is essential to both that the basic constituent of the universe is nothingness, and by this is meant not empty space but ‘no-thingness'. It is somewhat incorrect to call ‘no-thingness' a basic constituent since it is not really even that, (it is not even an it) but in an everyday philosophic ‘finger-pointing-toward-the-moon' discourse that's about as good as you can get. It is very incorrect to call it a substance in the way that substance is usually meant today.”

I think these answers again show some difficulties of our interview. Pirsig often replies by either pointing to a huge stack of literature elsewhere, or by appealing to the essential indefinablity of key terms. For instance, when I ask, sceptically, about the apparent lack of arguments underpinning the Metaphysics of Quality, he replies, “I and many others think that these arguments are in fact contained in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila . I do not know of any philosophical system that leaves all questions answered to everyone's satisfaction in one volume. The MOQ.org website since 1997 has averaged about 500 posts per month, containing arguments for and against the Metaphysics of Quality. That comes to 42,000 posts. That's a lot of arguments. There is an entire book called Lila's Child that is extracted from these arguments, with annotations by myself.”

As to his replies gesturing towards the essential indefinability of things, he uses the metaphor that the Metaphysics of Quality is “just another finger pointing toward the moon”. What would he say to the suggestion that we should take that comment perhaps more literally than he intended and say that all his talk of quality and value should be seen merely as useful ways of seeing things, and we shouldn't worry about whether it is literally true? Should we just see metaphysics as metaphor?

“I think that we should see metaphysics as metaphor to the extent that metaphor is literally true,” he says, gnomically. In my analytic literal-mindedness, I don't accept that as a clear enough answer. In what sense can a metaphor be literally true? We normally understand metaphor in contrast to literal truth. “The sun is shining” is literally true; “The sun is shining in my heart” is metaphorically true. Whether metaphysics deals in statements of the first or second kind seems to me an important question.

“I am really not familiar with the question but seem to remember reading that if the ‘mythos-over-logos' line of thought is followed, then metaphors are literally true since all our knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is metaphorical. In a subject-object metaphysics metaphors are clearly subjective and literal truth is clearly objective. But if the foundations of the subject-object metaphysics are rejected then the question of whether metaphysics is metaphor or literal truth goes out the window with it. It becomes moot.”

My suspicion is that Pirsig's frustration with me is rooted in his deep-seated conviction that his theory is right and to do anything other than explain it is a pointless distraction. And relating it to what others have had to say is the most pointless distraction of all. It is as though he thinks the Metaphysics of Quality is self-evidently true to anyone who takes the trouble to understand it properly. It needs no further support. He says that the reason for accepting Quality as the fundamental constituent of the universe is that “We gain a far better way of organising our understanding of everything, from physics to religion. That gain is its own justification.” Indeed, the beauty of the metaphysical construct seems sufficient reason to embrace it: “I think the Metaphysics of Quality would say that true ideas are more beautiful than false ones,” he says.

I do have some sympathy for Pirsig's distaste for how academic philosophy encourages an inward looking conservatism that makes it resistant to genuinely new ideas. “[Philosophers], instead of coming to grips with the philosophy at hand, sometimes dismiss it by saying, ‘Oh he is saying the same as someone else', or ‘someone else has said it much better'. This is the latter half of the well known conservative argument that some new idea is (a) no good because it hasn't been heard before or (b) it is no good because it has been heard before. If, as has been noted by RC Zaehner, once the Oxford University Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, I am saying the same thing as Aristotle; and if, as has been noted in the Harvard Educational Review , I am saying the same thing as William James; and if, as has been noted now, I may be saying the same thing as Spinoza: then why has no one ever noticed that Aristotle and Spinoza and William James are all saying the same thing?”

Pirsig has coined the term “philosophology” to contrast to real philosophy. The distinction parallels that between literary critics and writers. Philosophologists write about the philosophy of others and philosophers actually write their own philosophy. I tell Pirsig that I agree that one of the main trappings of academic philosophy is that it encourages the former rather than the latter. He accepts that “most philosophologists also philosophise and most philosophers also philosophologise”, but I suggest that the good reason many philosophers spend a lot of time discussing the ideas of other philosophers is because they appreciate that the ideas they have do not emerge out of a vacuum, but have been shaped and preceded by the ideas of many great thinkers. Further, by constantly thinking about how their ideas relate and compare to those of their peers and the greats of the past, they hope to learn from them, and not to repeat errors.

“The division between authors and literary critics throws light on this subject,” says Pirsig. “The author is a creator and the critic is a judge. Literary critics normally do not pretend they are authors when they judge a book, but philosophologists do pretend they are philosophers when they judge someone else's philosophy. The best of literary critics know that an author has to work alone and not go around showing his manuscript to everybody, because his source is not what everyone else has said. He has to be out there finding things where nobody has gone before. Because philosophologists think of themselves as philosophers they do not understand that a real philosopher is not doing the same thing they are, and should not be doing the same thing they are if he wants to come up with genuine philosophy, and not just more of the usual repetition and dissection of old ideas.”

As our exchange drew to a close, I wanted to make my own unease explicit. So in my final question I outlined my own personal response to Pirsig, and asked what he made of it.

“I think both books reveal an author of exceptional intelligence and insight,” I wrote. “However, I do feel that in seeking to build an all-encompassing system to connect all these insights, we end up with a whole which is less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps this does little more than reflect the extent to which my own thinking has been affected (or infected) with the anti-metaphysical bias of recent Anglo-American philosophy. But I don't think it is just that. I think rather that it connects to the above point about philosophology. You have not allowed yourself to be constrained by other philosophers, which has given you the benefit of more freedom and more originality. But constraints also provide checks and balances, and without them, I fear you've constructed a system on foundations that are not up to the job of supporting it.”

“The foundations are okay, in fact they are rock-solid, but we never got to discuss them,” he replied. He then went on to make the comments included earlier about how our interview had resulted in a standoff. But we had discussed where the arguments to support the Metaphysics of Quality were to be found, why we should accept it, its relation to the subject-object distinction (which space has not allowed me to include here), whether it was metaphorically or literally true, what was revolutionary about it, whether it was a monist theory and so on.

It seems to me that Pirsig's dissatisfaction has deeper roots than this, and perhaps the experience of this interview will help dig them up. Pirsig desires contradictory things. He wants to be seen as an original, not constrained by the philosophy of his predecessors; but he also wants to be recognised by the very people whose whole understanding of philosophy is based on those predecessors, and who justifiably believe that newcomers must be judged at least in part with how they measure up to them.

“[It] does bother me that Lila is not as successful as it should be among academic philosophers,” he told me early in our exchange. “In my opinion it's a much more important book than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance . My feeling is like that of someone trying to sell five-dollar bills for two dollars apiece and hardly making a sale. Readers of Lila are naturally leery because they're not used to the idea of a Metaphysics of Quality, but I think that if they eventually understand what is being offered, there will be a change of mind. Perhaps these questions in The Philosopher's Magazine mark a beginning. After all these years I'm grateful to hear them stated openly.”

By the end, I wonder if his gratitude to my series of sceptical questions remained. I am sure he is disappointed that I turned out to be too like the “philosophologists” he decries. But perhaps a true outsider has to remain without. I'm sure that nothing I asked him will cause him to doubt for one minute the truth of his philosophy. But it might just confirm his suspicion that engaging with the philosophical mainstream is a waste of time. Like our interview, neither side is prepared to engage on the other's terms, but both sides believe they have excellent reasons for standing their ground. Would face to face discussion overcome this? Perhaps. But in the meantime we remain with what Pirsig rightly called a standoff, but one which cannot be blamed on one party alone, and which currently seems to suit the establishment more than it does Pirsig.

What is the Metaphysics of Quality?

The Metaphysics of Quality, or MOQ, is simply a philosophic answer to the question of what is Quality, or worth, or merit, or value, or betterness or any of the other synonyms for good. There are many possible answers but the one the MOQ gives is that you can understand Quality best if you don't subordinate it to anything else but instead subordinate everything else to it.

It says there are two basic kinds of Quality, an undefined Quality called Dynamic Quality, and a defined quality called static quality. Static quality is further divided into four evolutionary divisions: inorganic, biological, social and intellectual. Our entire understanding of the world can be organised within this framework. When you do so things fall into place that were poorly defined before, and new things appear that were concealed under previous frameworks of understanding. The MOQ is not intended to deny previous modes of understanding as much as to expand them into a more inclusive picture of what it's all about.

Julian Baggini (www.julianbaggini.com) is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine