I maintain the “Psybertron Pirsig Page” (PPPage) as an online static (occasionally updated) resource simply to provide fixed public links and updates to other resources related to the life and work of Robert Pirsig including his two books ZMM (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – An Inquiry into Values) and Lila (Lila – An Inquiry into Morals).
[The best dynamic (social-media) page to keep in touch with all things Pirsig-related (people, places and artefacts, beyond the books and philosophy) is ZMM-Quality on Facebook. I interviewed the people who run that site – Henry Gurr and David Matos – here.]
Although my PPPage includes a “More” section on my own content related to his work, it only ever concerned my contributions to that public resource, and was originally never intended to be about me and my work. Almost invariably however, contacts via the PPPage ask about how and where Pirsig’s work fits within my own? The answer is of course scattered throughout my work in the blog.
This page attempts to summarise what Pirsig means to me (Ian Glendinning) and my work (Psybertron).
[Hat-tip to Tim Kueper in email and @72Degrees3 on Twitter for important corrections to omissions in “The Lasting Content”.]
The Trajectory – from Zero to Pirsig
I missed out on Pirsig and ZMM when published back in 1974. I was a techie-geeky-“STEM”-swot – last year at senior school / first year off to university – who really didn’t read literature, although I maybe have vague memories of older siblings of my contemporaries talking about “Zen and the Art”? I also missed-out on ZMM on a reading-list on the subject of Excellence and Quality Management when doing a Master’s degree in 1988/1991. Coincidentally, 1991 was when Pirsig published his second book, Lila and the whole “Lila Squad” MoQ Discuss / Forum took off. However, it wasn’t until 2001 when I was actually researching gaps in the Philosophy (Epistemology, Ontology and Metaphysics) of “What, Why and How do we Know?” – prompted by real-world business modelling experiences – that Pirsig, ZMM & Lila and the “Metaphysics of Quality” (MoQ) actually registered with me.
I became active in the MoQ-Discuss email discussion forum from 2002 until 2010 and attended / presented at the 2005 Liverpool Conference, through which I was fortunate to meet a lot fellow Pirsigians as well as Bob and Wendy Pirsig. My 2005 paper “It’s Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid” summarises my naïve philosophical journey up to that point, and more recently I created an annotated version “Zero to Pirsig” to indicate where my naiveté has evolved even if the trajectory remained a true reflection of my thought journey. In 2008 I attended a book launch (Mark Richardson’s “Zen and Now”) in Minneapolis and was lucky enough also to meet first wife Nancy, biking buddy John Sutherland and friends of the Pirsig sons Chris, Ted and more at “the Pirsig house”. (In the years since the demise of MoQ-Discuss, email discussion-boards have largely been fragmented, replaced by social media, and by direct messaging and emailing between groups of individual correspondents.)
As well as creating ZMM, Lila & the MoQ, Pirsig created the paper “Subject, Objects, Data and Values” and contributed to Dr Anthony McWatt’s “A Critical Analysis of Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality” PhD, “The Copleston Annotations” and Dan Glover’s “Lila’s Child“. That pretty much exhaust’s Pirsig’s own work, other than a number of interviews. Not surprisingly, since Pirsig avoided intellectual philosophology / philosophising with other academic philosophers, professional / mainstream philosophy has returned the favour and largely ignored him and his work and the few attempts at engagement had foundered. Very few cite his work in theirs. [Some exceptions are collected here. However since the demise of the robertpirsig.org page curated by Anthony McWatt, other papers presented at the 2005 conference – eg by Dave Buchanan, Mati Palm-Leis, Mark Maxwell and Gavin Gee-Clough – are all currently missing here.]
In 2022, 5 years after his death, his widow Wendy edited and published a selection of his work “On Quality” including unseen correspondence and a talk he gave just a few weeks after the first publication of ZMM. The most important aspects of his work collected in one place. This focus on the importance of “quality” itself, provides a good introduction for the summary of my own interests in Pirsig’s work below. However much or little I cite Pirsig directly, his work undoubtedly inspired and influenced my thinking, and some key aspects are specifically adopted and cited.
The Lasting Content
Firstly – Quality (in ZMM, also known later as Dynamic Quality in Lila) is the core of any subject-object interaction / experience / participation in the world, human or otherwise, more fundamental than any intellectual conception of the subjects and objects involved.
- Naming this Q (or DQ) and making it the core of his metaphysics was Pirsig’s creation, but like all “footnotes to Plato” the idea itself wasn’t entirely new. Kantian enlightenment, the nexus of Whiteheadian events, Jamesian radical empiricism, Barfieldian appearances are all analogous. Furthermore, as Matt Segall points out, the distinction between the “percepts” directly experienced / revealed and the “concepts” indirectly intellectualised / constructed is as old as philosophy itself and their ignorance the root of any number of philosophical confusions to this day.
- For me that percept / concept distinction and the relationship between them, remains central to my own thinking. I do spend much time conceptualising intellectual content in ways that can be shared with the wider philosophical and scientific academic community – as any writer must do – but hope I never lose sight of the primacy of the perceptual interaction with the world – being maximally mindful in the world, attentive to such direct relationships within the world, unconstrained by pre-conceived barriers (#GoodFences). Direct active, participatory knowing (Kennen / Connaitre) of the world distinct from meta, symbolic knowledge represented or remembered (Wissen / Savoir) about the world. And, I myself may call that core knowledge monad “information” or significant-differing rather than quality, and I may therefore refer to the events and processes as “computation”, but it’s a relational metaphysics that owes much to Pirsig’s inspiration.
- And to reinforce “the most important point” – the quality event – has lasting value as a living philosophy in the world independent of any subsequent intellectualisation about the world.
Secondly – The MoQ as a metaphysics in Pirsig’s second book Lila was his attempt to elaborate an intellectual model based on his “quality” monism.
- It is surely significant that in the posthumous “On Quality” it is the fundamental quality and not the intellectual metaphysics that is highlighted as most important. Nevertheless his conception of evolutionary layers from physics through biology to the higher mental-socio-cultural level(s) remains to me a valuable moral framework for the patterns of value that persist in the real world. Pirsig’s separation of those upper levels into simply social and intellectual proved problematic for decades of interpreters, and I have my own preferred version of course. To be fair in the 50 years since Pirsig first wrote, the philosophical and scientific understanding of evolution Darwinian or otherwise, has advanced considerably not just in biology and in physics, but also in the individual and collective mental realm.
- As someone with an architectural “systems view” of the emergent layers of evolved reality, I still have no problem adopting Pirsig’s MoQ as a framework, even if I’ve had to elaborate my own detailed interpretations of how significant levels are best defined.
- That said, the most fundamental point in basing the MoQ framework on “Quality” and implicit in the focus on DQ (Dynamic Quality) is that the first ontological division is between DQ and sq – static quality of evolved and evolving patterns existing in the world. This first dynamic<>static split is eternally fundamental.
Thirdly and finally – let’s not forget the books themselves:
- Whether you are at home on bikes on the open road or on boats in the open water, or not, ZMM and Lila are two great “culture-bearing” buddy / road-movie novels, with a great deal of hard-won auto-biographical wisdom and history of thought woven into their Chautauquas. Go read.
The Influential Legacy
Back, somewhere between 2010 and 2014, I might have declared my intellectual interest in Pirsig to have ended, and indeed I had said as much. Those first and second points above are pretty much embedded, often implicitly, invisibly or at least in my own evolved terms, in any ongoing work of mine, so that explicit considerations of Pirsig’s work were / are behind me. (And let’s not forget that first point – the quality event, whatever we call it – has lasting life-value independent of any intellectual elaboration by me or anyone else.)
However, I’m not alone. Over the years, and increasingly so in the last decade, we find more and more modern thinkers and writers acknowledging the influence of Pirsig as a formative read, even if like me, they cite precious few – if any – explicit references. Again, a random selection of several of these acknowledgements by others of Pirsig’s influence are scattered throughout the blog. It seems worthwhile to capture and maintain a more comprehensive list of such influenced influencers?
[To be added: Index of philosophically significant Pirsig-related Psybertron-pages-and-posts.
Updating, re-organising and adding to the “More” link on the PPPage.]
I’ve had several copies of ZMM over the years, given away paperback copies of various editions, left a 25th anniversary edition in the back of a cab in Cambridge. Lila I have a dog-eared paperback as my reference copy, but also have an Alma Books 2006 limited edition No.800 signed hardback. As for ZMM my only current copy is a 1974 first edition first imprint hardback, with a May 1974 personal dedication so I’ll need to get a fresh reference copy!