Robert Pirsig On Quality

Published this week, On Quality is a collection of writings by Robert Pirsig, prefaced and selected by his widow Wendy Pirsig, almost exactly five years after his death.

The Robert Pirsig Story

Apart from introducing us to Bob’s interest in the ubiquitous presence of Quality and to his two main writings, the books Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) and Lila, the preface also gives us “The Robert Pirsig Story”. Ironically, Wendy points out that most relevant parts of Bob’s early biography are to be found in the pages of ZMM, despite the “for rhetorical purposes” warning which led some readers, myself included, to research which aspects did indeed correspond with reality. I say ironically because for quite some time there was speculation, even a direct suggestion from Bob, that Wendy would one day write his biography. Here she gives us an eight page summary – including, despite its brevity, several newly public details – and lets us know that the selections in On Quality are themselves “loosely chronological”.

Previously published selections come not just from Lila and ZMM, and Bob’s paper Subjects, Objects, Data and Values but also from DiSanto & Steele’s Guidebook to ZMM and Dan Glover’s Lila’s Child. New selections come from Bob’s letters (to unattributed correspondents) and from his notes of the very few talks (*) he gave on quality.

[(*) Post note: In fact the whole of the introductory chapter “The Right Way” is a selection from the transcription of a talk he gave just a month after first publication of ZMM – now available in full here.]

On Quality

And the focus really is on quality. Whilst naturally acknowledging that his Metaphysics of Quality is elaborated within Lila, the multi-level “patterns” that form the full ontology – the model of evolved existence in the world -are not mentioned. Dynamic Quality, originally simply “quality” in ZMM, is the fundamental – radical empirical – essence of what is experienced.

‘Quality is just experience. It is the essence of experience of what is sensed. That’s all.’

‘It is not an intellectual category or any kind of thing that is independent of experience itself.’

RMP, Letter October 2, 1993

On Quality focuses on the quality monism itself and on its first division into static and dynamic, contrasted with the more orthodox subject-object split:

‘That line, “Without Dynamic Quality the organism cannot grow. Without static quality it cannot last. Both are needed,” is emerging in retrospect as the most important one in Lila.’

RMP, Letter September 4, 1993.

That statement itself pre-figures what today would be seen as fundamental to “homeostatic” models of life and consciousness in both science and philosophy, where all empirical knowledge is at root “affect” a categorically good or bad felt property before any more specific kinds of thing can develop in biology or in intellect. On Quality includes several references to Bob’s archetypal “hot stove” example of categorically good vs bad immediate experience. Elsewhere he went further and used also the classic “thermostat” example of what would be instantly recognisable as homeostasis today.

Also included in On Quality are selections from Buddhist texts where Bob saw parallels with his original quality thinking and was inspired that quality must indeed be fundamental and ancient, independent of Western scientific progress.

Still Important Today

Existing Pirsig readers – and there are millions – will welcome this sympathetic selection of “the most important” basic thoughts on quality from their source. For those readers, the notes from the few talks he gave form the bulk of the newly published material [(*) above and (**) below]. For a new reader who may have resisted the urge to dive into two rhetorical best-selling and cult road-novels from 1974 and 1991, On Quality provides a gentle introduction to their core thoughts, and may tempt you to follow-up on what all the fuss was about and why they remain important today.


[For more on Pirsig from me on Psybertron, start from this summary page and follow links to my Pirsig Page short-term and the Robert Pirsig Association page (longer-term)]

[Post Note (**) one such large extract was shared on Literary Hub, by the publisher Harper Collins / Mariner Books.]


2 thoughts on “Robert Pirsig On Quality”

  1. Yes, it’s kind of obvious quality is the focus – it’s the title – but important to be reminded of that.

    In some ways my “review” undersells the book, but having got that obvious point, I didn’t feel I should add any “spoilers” on more of the actual content.

    Thanks for your comment Artun, reinforcing the point.

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