Episode 50: Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

PirsigOn Robert M. Pirsig's philosophical, autobiographical novel from 1974.

What's the relationship between science and values? Pirsig thinks that modern rationality, by insisting on the fundamental distinction between objects (matter) and subjects (people), labels value judgments as irrational. Society therefore largely ignores aesthetic considerations in the buildings and machines that litter our landscape.

People rebel against this ugly commercialism by rejecting technology altogether, and Pirsig thinks this is a mistake. If we realize that value judgments (where we sense "Quality") are fundamentally a part of experience, that they drive what what we consider "rational" (e.g. a "good" scientific explanation) in the first place, then we can stop with the hippie rebellion and more sensibly and peacefully co-exist with technology. Though the book is not about historical Zen, it is about keeping centered, connected, and in the moment.

Featuring guest participant David Buchanan. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: "Freeway" by Mark Lint and Stevie P. Read about it.

If you enjoy the episode, please consider a donation.


  1. Tim says

    Attn “P.E.L.” peeps,

    My name is Tim (Rappl). I have been schooling these “M.o.Q.”ers for roughly the past year, and it seems our little tiff, … rather, the players in this tiff, – mainly Bo (Skutvik), now, – are needing to find extra “outlet” for their “shame”. Bo is an old man, tryin’ to establish a legacy for himself before he die. I’m ‘a try to clean up his mess a bit, for Ya. And, as the prophet, Jay-Z, say, “naggas stuck on stupid.”: seriously, check out his song, “On to the next one” – see how much more baller this is than some stupidly “simple” “DQ”? But don’t let the thought of Jay as “caesar” distract You now 😉

    I am a “successful” metaphysician. This is quite possible, and I can explain it quite well (there is still room for “betterness”, to be sure). But I’m having a hard time finding people who will, first, listen, and second, learn. Anyway, I can’t find more than a handful of men in the whole of history who have succeeded. But I do find about a handful, myself included. Failure is easy to detect; all failures, it turns out, can be classified as philosophic materialism. To be sure, this is – still – where science is making its home. Thee solution is I’dealism.

    We can ask what is the significance of, I type, $_real_$? The essence of failure, of materialism, is belief that “real” can be “simple”. Real is not simple; it is inherently complex. Alternatively, since “simple” _cannot_ be True, as they live, the liars who faith/e simple metaphysics, do so by supplying “something else” – something else that they simply refuse to acknowledge, – no matter how many times you show them that that’s what they really are doing. Yada yada yada, the other way to reliably recognize failed metaphysicians is that they reveal, – pretty much at every step, – that they believe that they can, as it were, simply leave out things – other “I am”! – that don’t happen to suit their “taste”. “Real”, quite simply, has never been able to find way to “un-relate” “I am”.

    I’dealism, in short, then:


    Actually, let me make sure you know, from the outset, that, for instance, Einstein, when he published his theory of special relativity some 100 years ago, and which underpinning Feynman also elucidated, when he talked about the mere tool of “counting” (to his cal tech students, in the chapter from his “lectures on physics” entitled, yes, {as I recall, hmmm} “algebra”!) … Einstein “started in the middle”. He took for granted all sorts of necessary (I’deal) complexity. For but one example, a working clock. But how does an I’deal clock actually “work”? Science might be able to answer this very soon, but they haven’t yet. And, actually, I have offered that thee big question needing to be answered before we obtain thee physic: account for I’deal change? (Thermodynamics takes an “inversion”! :-) Another “layer” of symmetry in our “cake”. 😉 )

    So… Thee “real” I’dea is necessarily complex.

    It doesn’t take a genius physicist, not even a successful metaphysician to “tune” in. “Cake”, “complexity”, really is cake. It is what we do, for chrissakes! Thee I’dea, thee only fully real I’dea, is best said, I think: “I am”.

    The whole of phenomena, like Jesus (the first successful human metaphysician) said, is as a body. Flesh. Kosmos. While the value of it is “decay”, it itself, the “system”, – and because “decay” is a really good idea, – is not a product of itself. The kosmos is, I say, a derivative representation. Merely phenomenal. But creation comes from “above”; it is superphenomenal.

    Again, real is complex. The “superphenomenal” is the glory of I’dea. Each “quantum” of “I am” is noumenally equivalent, at least at “depth” (why we can have the MIND {soul} of God, at least at “depth”, a.k.a. “the gates of hell”, or whatever other analogy …). Every “I am” is a mentally potent “clock” who keeps his own “hours” (“hours” are just part of the inherently complex time-piece). Such information is totally proprietary. We have, then, incorruptible personality, and, free will.

    I have touched on the phenomenal and the noumenal, but I must now get to, as Jesus called this aspect (~”I am: the way; the truth; the life”), “the Life”. “Spiritual” relations between ultimately noumenal “I am”. Jesus described this as “I in you; and you in me [to degree N, where N is the number of “I am”]”; I call it an I’deal fluid. Again, I am quite confident that science will “confirm” me before too too long.

    The superphenomenal isn’t miraculous to the point of making un-real ideas real, but it certainly is more than there mere electromagnetic phenomena. We are, vis-à-vis the “treasure we have stored up for ourselves in heaven”, (superphenomenal) potent MINDS who have a say about when we use our potent “no” (/ “yes”), amongst other such “spiritually” relating “I am”. That is, I, as this greatest of I’deas, subjectify other “I am”, and objectify our relations. These relations are so complex and intertwined, that you can’t look to any one “thing” in phenomena to say, aha, that’s really … I am, my body, is no less than all the phenomena I can detect! (This is, clearly, not Pirsig’s SOM.) Phenomena area trustworthy derivative representation; and potent, willful, idea-creating “I am” “continuously” “gas this hoe” – ideation, self-limitation, observation, repeat.

    Like I said… There have been very few successful metaphysicians in history. I count myself amongst God, Jesus (as represented by John the Gospeler), perhaps John the gospeler himself (though maybe not back then, pro’lly certainly by now), and George Holmes Howison (author of “the limits of evolution, and other essays, illustrating the metaphysical theory of personal idealism” {get the 1905 copy for the appendices [available at google books}}). I tell you this, now, because I want you to know that, the “spiritual” “game” being what it is, you pro’lly gonna have to find way to include these super-baller “I am” in your reality. Without too much fuss. “Like I said”, second thing, decent people who try to live moral lives, – and I say “decent” because I know that I have been so blessed, – end up “tuning” in to the same “station”. We pretty much agree. I am talking specifically about a number of music videos, the artists who created them, which I have highlighted – wonderful, open, honest — Godly Spirited —stories – for the LilaSquad… along the way.

    One more thing, to be sure, Bo:

    I nailed him to his cross but a few weeks ago. You know, I suppose, that he claims the solution to the likes of the mind/body problem is to say that there is some “level”, – somewhere, somehow, – and the 4th, no less!, which _is_ that “problem”. So, for him, it’s contained. For ever and ever. Some unknowable, indescribable, “the MoQ” is, then, thee solution. He’ll harp on about some “DQ/SQ” that he’ll never try to elucidate further, except to say that it is not an idea! Lol!!!

    See this thread at the LilaSquad, scoll down to Feb 9:


    I asked Bo, “so the MoQ is neither subjective nor objective, right? Also, it isn’t
    even an idea, right?”

    He answered, “That’s right, more questions?”

    I then asked (same day), “is “the MoQ”, itself, “dynamic”? Or is it better to leave that word off too when “speaking of” the MoQ?”

    On Feb 11, cropping my question, he replied:

    You asked:
    > is “the MoQ”, itself, “dynamic”?
    No it is the DC/SQ reality that has swallowed the S/O one and made it
    a subset of its own.
    Next question!
    Bo ]
    Later that day, Feb 11, I replied to him, “whoa, nelly. Can I take it as “No. The MoQ, itself, is not dynamic.”? Or must I include your further ideation with that “no”?”

    Hopefully you can see how hopeless is his position. That didn’t bother him though! His shit don’t stink, he think. Again, the answer is complexity. My squad be stuck, and I don’t know how to get them to open up.

    Thanks for your time, (I’m tired, pro’lly won’t follow up much,)
    Ballers ‘ould never worship any such “DQ”,

    • Tim says

      to be sure,

      living complexly…

      one is a self-marriage, noumenally assertive, spiritually vulnerable/receptive. Real, i’deal, superphenomenal potential. Relating with other “I am”, i’deally/spiritually, is our highest faculty. Justice has $_real_$ meaning, for instance.

      The hope is to “tame” our superphenomenal selves. Because the ability to _also_ play tamely with one another really opens up some great “doors”. You can’t “fake the funk”.

      Mature and responsible society – across the board / “tie a yellow ribbon round the world” style – …

      spendin’ cake could be real dope play.

      In a populous earth, it seems no way around everyone recognizing the need to guarantee the savage necessities to all. Or, of course, we could just keep tramplin’ the cake, I guess. Gets real ugly out there ‘do. And, again, the former is way “free”.

      Anyway, maybe enjoy this “prophesy”, – music video :-) , – from Nicki-Nicki (Minaj), “Moment 4 life”:



      • Tim says

        to be sure once more,

        when thinking superphenomenally, that is, i’deally, all of phenomena is just a ball (you know it gonna hit everyone when you kick it; every time you kick it). You give it, and take it, like a baller! The ball still be the same ball you been ballin with all along though. The game be the same game. Only, more skillz to be had: better relationships; particularly the distant ones. But not soo weird, afterall.


        • Tim says

          maybe if I suggest this one more gem I can feel relieved that I didn’t leave my shit too rank. Lupe Fiasco, “The show goes on”:


          • Tim says

            one more post?,

            I neglected to give the metaphysicians’ answer: I am holds himself together through i’deal change.

            Second, perhaps I was a bit too casual in talkin’ ’bout kinkin’ and being hit by “the ball”. There is no (phenomenal) thee ball. The ball I kick is proprietary to me (likewise the one that hits me), and it is not, precisely, the same ball when it his another (all other I am). The process be real ‘do. And, to be sure, that process is not-other than you! “Spirit”. “Flow”. Time be complex. (But niggas ‘ll, I spose, keep talkin’ as if there were only *an* “immediate” “flux”… stupid, simple, shit)

            Third, – in play, – Bo, “who gon stop me, huh?” (You?! “DQ”?: please 😉 ) – See “Ye” and Jay, here:


          • Tim says


            hell yea! <— Baller alert!!!

            I haven't really read the thread (I'm so sick of the MoQ by now), but I see above, from Feb 21, 7:23 p.m. (you still reading?), the likes of:

            "In other words, Quality is indeed “whatever you like,” but it just so happens that a great deal of “whatever you like” is similar by virtue of all this shit we have in common." – love that you said "shit"!!!!!


            "Thus, Pirsig’s account of Quality may be correct in its Phenomenological role, but he is mistaken about the metaphysics and/or ontology–Quality does not deserve its own metaphysical category because it happens in the same category as the rest of the mind. In fact, Quality is just something the brain does for one aspect of the mind, so it doesn’t make sense to make it ontologically distinct from all of the other aspects of the mind."

            Only real complaint I have is that your talk of "thee ball" – phenomena – is (still) too restrictive. As regards your "aspect" (propa!: same word I too have used, many times) "the ball", you be the whole (of your very own!) "the ball".

            A quantum of i'dea, I am, is noumenal/spiritualphenomenal. A la "parallel" "universes" harmonizing. We "observe" a self-limited derivative representation of a (our) superphenomenal "holographic". Law of $_real_$, – coupled with the fact that we are not more complex than we are, – means we can't find way to un-relate "I am". I'deal change operates by faith/e. Yet?/never? to "fail"?


          • Tim says

            Moses, to be sure,

            faith/e is thee process, and must be, because of individual propriety. We can’t even know the whole of our proprietary self, how could we concretize another? (except that we do “it” back and forth, relating together, baller style :-) )

            Listen to when Young Jeezy says, vis-a-vis “why you wann’a count my money?”, “You cain’t ‘do!”.

            Akon, Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne (again, speaking the Truth well enough that they shine like baller prophets), “I’m so paid”:


          • Tim says


            since I have given so many music videos already, let me also, at least, put the stories on a “good” footing.

            I’ve called this music video “spiritual milk” before. “I am in love; with what we are; … and I am; I am star-struck; with ev’ry part; of this whole story.”: “animal”, Ke$ha.

            What I might? call a “spiritual womb”, this post from the LS offers five music videos celebrating the nature of “I am”:


            “spiritual meat”? I think I wait here,

  2. Burl says

    Clarification of grammar and style in previous post of early this morning (Mark, you can delete the other).

    Dave said: “There you have four… thinkers… doing – right in front of your eyes – what you claim to be impossible [i.e., philosophy not trapped in a S/O paradigm].”

    Dave: The literature indicates Dewey’s metaphysical statements are not reliable inasmuch as he thought it too abstract to be valid. James’s corpus of studies in various areas of psych and phil is generally held to be seminally insightful, but often not thoroughly fleshed out (even he says so).

    The quote of Pirsig on James to argue against Mary and Bo, who say with Pirsig, ‘philosophers are stuck in S/O dualistic thinking,’ simply makes their point:

    “[James’s radical empiricism] meant that subjects and objects were not the starting point of experience. Subjects and objects are secondary. They are concepts derived from something more fundamental which he described as ‘the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories’. In this basic flux of experience, the distinctions of reflective thought, such as those between consciousness and content, subject and object, mind and matter, have not yet emerged in the forms which we make them. Pure experience cannot be either physical or psychical: It logically precedes this distinction.” (Pirsig 1991, 364-5)

    That’s a loaded but ambiguous string of symbols from our Mr. P.

    Is James successful in avoiding S/O duality? In his famous James/Lange theory of emotion, for instance, he says that we do not feel fear of an aggressively approaching bear and then run. Rather, we observe-the-bear-and-run, and this experience, observe-the-bear-and-run, itself has the affective tone of fear.

    James says the primary reality here is ‘immediate flux of life,’ but how can one deny that there is, first, a bear and a human? Remove either, and there wouldn’t have been the experience.

    The real experience had its genesis in the chance interaction of a bear with a human, which are not post-hoc concepts.

    What is decided post-hoc (i.e., which was object and which was subject), depends on who is asking: the bear or the human. And, further, from a third person POV, they are BOTH objects. In a kind of ‘follow-up interview after the event’ – the analysis and other forensics of experience – we get our a myriad of S/O cause/effect patterns useful for figuring ‘who, what, why, and how.’

    This is Pirsig’s 4th level of SQ.

    Dave, Mary, and Bo:

    The big problem as I see it is that somebody needs to give a solid ontology of experience: What is experience?

    James says it is ultimate reality – ‘the immediate flux of life’?

    Was there no reality before life? What is flux, and what is fluxing – the bear, the prey, the emotional interchange…? And what’s with the hint of time in ‘immediate?’ Is there also similar allusion to space?

    Pirsig says: “Pure experience cannot be either physical or psychical: It logically precedes this distinction.”

    So it would appear experience’s attributes do not involve space, time, or affect – it’s all Quality, which we Pirsig folk know to be an indefinite monism with dual modes of presence – stability and dynamism (???). Is such a dual monism logical? How can logic determine that an indeterminate Quality precedes, follows, or anything else about it? Logic is predicate/object.

    There definitely are S/O issues prevalent in both these thinkers, and for my money, I recommend you try the other white-pragmatist, Whitehead, for a robust ontology of experience as energy/affect. I love P, but respect the depth of W much more.

    • Bodvar Skutvik says

      Burl, Dave, Mary, and interested parties.

      I agree with Burl in a general way, but as always I get a sinking feeling when other philosophers are introduced as a being on par with Pirsig. In my opinion Immanuel Kant was the last word on the S/O (mind/matter) issue, after him everyone believed that the schism and the riddles it created is something built into existence that we better learn to live with, thus post-Kantian philosophy took SOM for granted.

      Until Pirsig (as Phaedrus) performed his break with SOM. This was however nipped in the bud by SOM’s immune system and the chastised Pirsig recanted by modifying Phaedrus’ original MOQ by his diagram-drawing . A motorbike remains whole regardless of theoretical divisions and he made Quality-as-Reality an “MC” with dynamic/static its first THEORETICAL split. But this is all wrong, Quality-as-Reality is not divided along SOM’s theory/practice line, rather it’s seen as has having spawned static levels and NB!!!! no Quality remains after this operation .

      But this remaining Quality – more dynamic than DQ – has resulted in the nonsensical “Quality/MOQ” meta-metaphysics (I call) that has haunted the MOQ since its emergence. I don’t know if David care much for these fundamental issues, he always zooms in on the part of LILA where Pirsig declares the likeness between James’ and himself possibly because Pirsig so badly needed an ally or – most possible – because he had given up on the MOQ from the beginning of LILA – it was just another “menu”. However I’ve discovered that David has performed a trick that he hopes will go unnoticed

      LILA: “In his last unfinished work, Some Problems of Philosophy, James had condensed this description to a single sentence: “There must always be a discrepancy between concepts and reality, because the former are static and discontinuous while the latter is dynamic and flowing.” Here James had chosen exactly the same words Phædrus had used for the basic subdivision of the Metaphysics of Quality. What the Metaphysics of Quality adds to James’ pragmatism and his radical empiricism is the idea that the primal reality from which subjects and objects spring is value”.

      See, Pirsig says that James has used the same words for the basic subdivision as the MOQ, and he means DYNAMIC and STATIC, not REALITY vs CONCEPTS but Pirsig was not careful enough to distance himself from the latter and now that Dave has hijacked this for his own Jamesian travesty. Pirsig doesn’t care about the MOQ – it’s just another “menu” in his view – and lets this butchering of his great work pass by.

      I won’t involve myself about James, Dewey or Sthur, Dave is of course right in there being scores of thinkers who lament SOM and point to it being untenable. But as Mary says, if these these thinkers says the same as Pirsig why did he claim:

      (ZAMM page 231) “And finally: Phædrus, following a path that to his knowledge had never been taken before in the history of Western thought, went straight between the horns of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and said Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two”.

      No, no one anticipated MOQ. James came close, but got lost with his concepts (language) as the “static” part of existence. Why Pirsig let himself be drawn into the Jamesian blind alley Goodness knows.


  3. Tim says


    Howison is a post-Kant success story. I’ve been – adamantly – trying to get you merely to read him for a year now. But you keep putting your own balls on your tee and hitting dribblers never even make it back to the “pitcher”.


    • Bodvar Skutvik says

      Hi Burl

      You said:

      “What are your thoughts on the Quality as Tao in ZAMM?”

      First of all a deep sigh: There ought to be a “ZAMM in a MOQ light” handbook, but for some reason Pirsig have refrained from such a venture and so have the MOQ scholars, obviously because it would force the “strong interpretation” on them, and that must not happen.

      In ZAMM it’s the author who tells about Phaedrus and this Author/Phaedrus distinction is important because a few pages ahead of this the author had drawn diagrams of the SOM and Quality realities and this differs from Phaedrus insight:

      (ZAMM page 246 in my edition)
      “He read: The quality that can be defined is not the Absolute Quality. That was what he had said. The names that can be given it are not Absolute names. It is the origin of heaven and earth. When named it is the mother of all things — . Exactly. Quality [romantic Quality] and its manifestations [classic Quality] are in their nature the same. It is given different names [subjects and objects] when it becomes classically manifest.”

      (NB! I skip “Romantic/Classic” for Dynamic/Static” and sort of anticipate the full-fledged MOQ)

      See, Absolute Quality is the Dynamic part that has spawned the Static part (here “heaven and earth”, the levels in the MOQ) while in the diagram it looks as if Quality has spawned the DQ/SQ configuration. And this has grave consequences for the understanding of the MOQ
      most obvious in Pirsig’s below.

      (“A Summary” 2005)
      “The Metaphysics of Quality itself is static and should be separated from the Dynamic Quality it talks about. Like the rest of the printed philosophic tradition it doesn’t change from day to day, although the world it talks about does.”

      What utter nonsense! The MOQ says that the DQ is realitys dynamic aspect! Full stop! What more can he ask? But this looks like a childish effort to “outwit” language, to make it look like something can be conveyed without COMMUNICATION. Lower down in the “Summary” he speaks about the famous “moon and finger” example, but also this is some kind of communication – “body language”.

      The above by Pirsig creates a “Quality/MOQ” meta-metaphysics (I call) makes the MOQ nil and void. I often wonder about David Buchanan, but even more I wonder about Pirsig, he’s like a pioneer trying to hide the path (out of SOM) he found …. so well that one has to be a Davy Crockett to rediscover it.

      Back to you question: Yes, I believe the Oriental “Tao” is MOQ’s DQ, but I also believe that the MOQ is a better “Taoism” for the West because of our difficulty with Eastern mysticism.



  4. Tim says

    ah’ …

    here’s one cut$ of “spiritual meat” I’m comfortable sharin’ with y’all now:

    Diddy – Dirty Money – “coming home”, ft. Skylar Gray:


  5. Burl says

    Bodvar Skutvik :
    Hi Burl
    I believe the Oriental “Tao” is MOQ’s DQ, but I also believe that the MOQ is a better “Taoism” for the West because of our difficulty with Eastern mysticism.

    I now am re-convinced this is true. Furthermore, I have come to an insight of a far more novel nature while pressing David on the ontology of James’s pure experience (which he and Pirsig hold equal to Quality):

    Pirsig and David know they are talking to Westerners strictly about an Eastern concept, but coyly, they scarcely admit this is so. For instance, I went back and listened to the Episode 50 podcast for a third time, and this point was not at all seriously discussed.

    I know enough about Eastern thought to know that Western philosophical concepts do not work in getting at Tao. David provided a lengthy comment to me to explain the ontology of pure experience, without bringing up Tao at all (quoted below).

    In a flash, it dawned upon me that he was repeating over and over and over that the words we say to describe pure experience cannot get at the nature of pure experience. No ontology exists.

    That’s it, the game is over. Let’s wrap up our Pirsig and James literature and head to China for further enlightenment. For Mark, Dylan, Deth, and others here at PEL, this is the simple reason we’ve all had trouble with this material.

    Pirsig could have saved his followers a lot of trouble with a simple message “Go to Tao.”

    David Buchanan :
    The work that James did as a psychologist was finished about 15 years before his first essays in radical empiricism were published. The James/Lange theory of emotions comes from his psychology and so asking for radically empirical explanation is a bit like mixing apples and oranges. Basically, his work as a psychologist raised questions and doubts about subject-object dualism and those questions get answered in his philosophy.
    More to the point, your question about pure experience doesn’t make any sense – mostly because you are conceiving it as exactly the opposite of what James and Pirsig say it is. You want the bear, the human and the fearful running to be pure experience but that’s exactly what they’re not. Those are the static concepts into which we sort pure experience. Those names are among the secondary concepts, among the differentiations of consciousness. Pure experience contains all that will later be identified as “things” like bears and people, objects and subjects, matter and mind. Pure experience is the full fact or the whole situation before it’s chopped up and sorted into these things, into these concepts. So these things do not exemplify pure experience but rather are contrasted with it. Pure experience, James says, supplies the material to our later reflection. It’s only afterward, upon reflection, that we look back and add the conceptual distinctions. We run from the bear and jump off the hot stove before we have time to think about it, but these are biological responses to pure experience or DQ.
    You want to point out that there is a human and a bear before any abstractions about knower and known can come to the fore, but that’s exactly wrong. The human and the bear are just particular versions of the knower and the known. It seems that you are baffled by their rejection of subject-object dualism. I think you’re trying to understand pure experience in terms of the experience of the Cartesian subject, which is the very thing they’re rejecting. I mean, it would make no sense to say that subjects and objects are secondary concepts derived from the experience of subjects. That would be a bizarrely circular and contradictory claim. The secondary subject and object are derived from the subject and the object, which are pre-existing and primary? How would that work? It can’t work.
    See, you’re trying to understand their view in terms of the very assumptions they are rejecting. You’re reading their solution in terms of the problem. They are insisting that subjects and objects are only conceptual, not ontological, and so your demand for an ontology of these things only shows that you’re missing the main point here. This is the crucial point made in all four pieces of the textual evidence (from James, Dewey, Stuhr and Pirsig).
    Reification is a conceptual error wherein concepts are mistaken for realities, wherein secondary abstractions are wrongly taken as the primary starting points of reality. This is what Pirsig and James are saying about subjects and objects. They are NOT the pre-existing conditions that make experience possible, as is assumed under subject-object dualism. These guys are saying that’s just how we slice it up, that our culture teaches us to sort and classify experience that way. And the reason it’s so easy to confuse this way of sorting with reality itself is because it has been so amazingly successful and productive.
    From the Wiki article on “Sciousness”, which is linked above…
    “Then thirteen years later {After the last revision to his giant psychology book], writing solely as a philosopher, James returned to his “parenthetical digression” of sciousness that “contradict[ed] the fundamental assumption of every philosophic school.” James had founded a new school of philosophy, called “radical empiricism,” and nondual sciousness was its starting-point. He even wrote a note to himself to “apologize for my dualistic language, in the Principles.” James did not continue to use the word “sciousness” in later essays on radical empiricism, but the concept is clearly there as the “plain, unqualified … existence” he comes to call “pure experience,” in which there is “no self-splitting … into consciousness and what the consciousness is of.”
    In “Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy”, Stuhr says, “it cannot be overemphasized that Dewey is not using the word ‘experience’ in its conventional sense. For Dewey, experience is NOT to be understood in terms of the experiencing subject, or as the interaction of a subject and object that exist separate from their interaction. Instead, Dewey’s view is radically empirical” (PCAP 437). On this view, “experience is an
    activity in which subject and object are unified and constituted as partial features and relations within this ongoing, unanalyzed unity”. Please notice that “unanalyzed unity” is another way to say that pure experience is an undifferentiated whole, an undivided continuum or pre-conceptual flux. All these phrases are descriptive labels and what they describe is experience prior to the intellectual distinctions we use when talking about it or reflecting on it.
    William James says that radical empiricism is meant to save us from “an artificial conception of the relations between knower and known. Throughout the history of philosophy the subject and its object have been treated as absolutely discontinuous entities.” James goes on to show how they are neither discontinuous nor are they entities. Their relations come to life within the tissue of experience, James says, and the apparent discontinuity is a result of treating them as distinct entities rather than partial features within the stream of experience. If pay close attention to experience itself, James says, we see that there are transitional experiences that connect these supposedly discontinuous entities. Conjunctive experiences, he call them, and because of linking, conjoining relations go unnoticed, an artificial gap is created and then mistaken for the very structure of reality itself. Then you have a bunch of fake problems, not the least of which is the haunting feeling that reality is some mystery we can never solve, that we’re forever doomed to grope in the dark, the see through the glass darkly, to watch shadows on the cave wall. This is the kind of metaphysics they are NOT doing anymore. Whatever we say about realities and entities behind or beyond experience as such is always going to be a concept, a hypothesis, a posit and not reality itself. Reality itself, they say with humility, begins and ends with experience. Philosophers should include every kind of experience and every feature of experience and they exclude everything that can’t be experienced – except as a hypothesis, as a concept to be tested in experience, to be put to work in experience.
    The Stanford encyclopedia puts it this way: “James’s fundamental idea is that mind and matter are both aspects of, or structures formed from, a more fundamental stuff — pure experience — that (despite being called “experience”) is neither mental nor physical. Pure experience, James explains, is “the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories… a that which is not yet any definite what, tho’ ready to be all sorts of whats…” (ERE, 46). That “whats” pure experience may be are minds and bodies, people and material objects, but this depends not on a fundamental ontological difference among these “pure experiences,” but on the relations into which they enter. Certain sequences of pure experiences constitute physical objects, and others constitute persons; but one pure experience (say the perception of a chair) may be part both of the sequence constituting the chair and of the sequence constituting a person.”

    • Bodvar Skutvik says

      Hi Burl

      You said: “I now am re-convinced this is true. Furthermore, I have come to an insight of a far more novel nature while pressing David on the ontology of James?s pure experience (which he and Pirsig hold equal to Quality)”

      Good, you are now convinced that MOQ’s Dynamic Quality matches Tao, then we can drop further discussion about it. But a lot can be said about Static Quality and that’s the reason for my assertion that the MOQ is a better Taoism than the Oriental article. Nothing matches the static quality. To say that it is “the fountainhead of all things” is correct but a bit vague. ᾕ

      David may not have talked about DQ-as-Tao in the podcast. Presenting an uprooting of our metaphysical foundations can’t be done in such a format. However, quoting from your quoting Dave:

      “The Stanford encyclopedia puts it this way: “James’s fundamental idea is that mind and matter are both aspects of, or structures formed from, a more fundamental stuff — pure experience — that (despite being called “experience”) is neither mental nor physical”

      This Jamesian stuff equals ZAMM’s proto-moq “Pre-intellectual/Intellectual” where the last part is subjects & objects (mind & matter) and I suspect that young P. didn’t know about James or this would have struck him. But OK, Pirsig’s full-fledged MOQ surpasses James … had he just kept the “intellectual= S/O” at the 4th level everything would have been fine, but as everyone knows it came out more like “Mind” and in a metaphysics that rejects Mind/Matter as existence’s fundamental dualism it’s poison.

      Anyway in the MOQ there are 3 levels before the intellectual, namely the inorganic, the biological and the social, and all are out of Pure Experience, DQ or Tao.



      • Bodvar Skutvik says

        Hi PEL
        Looks like everyone has dropped out of the discussion. That’s another MOQ quality, it’s a break with Western philosophy’s SOM premises that has been going since the term was coined. This makes MOQ a conversation killer, unless one adopts it’s “weak interpretation” (David Buchanan) which makes it another academical dee-da-dum. Why I use the weak/strong term is its likeness with Quantum Physics which for a long time was tried kept inside the Newton Physics. The most prominent person here was Albert Einstein who insisted that QP’s strange implications were due to som “hidden parameters” if these were found it would become all rational. He worked – along with Rosen and Podolsky – a thought experiment that would prove its rationality. This experiment was made practical back in the eighties and carried out by one Alain Aspect and it disproved Einstein. QP is just as weird as Schrodinger’s Cat example tries to convey. However the Western mind is so deeply SOM-entrenched that QP’s strong outcome is tried incorporated in its S/O matrix and the “weak interpretation” emerges. It says that the human mind (subject) determines the experiment’s outcome.

        Regarding the MOQ, it’s a break with the SOM which is behind the mentioned Quantum Quandary but SOM’s tentacles are just as tough om the metaphysical plane as on the physical, and the MOQ is tried kept inside its premises and this “weak interpretation” presents the MOQ as a subjective (idealist) philosophy. David Buchanan looks my scapegoat, but the latter-day Pirsig seems to have got cold feet and have backed away from his younger self’s original “strong interpretation”. And everything hinges on the 4th static – intellectual – level that young Pirsig said was the present SOM. The ramifications of this is (no adjective really covers it) the whole academy juggernaut, all S/O offshoots (mind/matter, psychic/physical, mental/physical, culture/ nature …etc) and millions of philosophers and scientists trying to find the interaction/interface between these dualisms have not succeeded BECAUSE THE PREMISE CREATING THEM IS FALSE. The S/O is not reality’s ground …. Dynamic/Static Quality is!!!!

        As said even Pirsig backed off from this original interpretation and consequently his explanations of how the MOQ solves SOM’s paradoxes are awkward and useless. There is really just one paradox (all other are dreived from it) the Mind/Matterr one and the obvious resolution is that it is Intellect’s static value and as such confined to the 4th level. This is really a dissolution a showing that the premises that created it is flawed. Much the same way that Newton Physics dissolved Classic Physic’s (Greek’s) famous paradoxes. They were not resolved but dissolved in light of the new premise. Instead Pirsig involves himself in a tedious explanation of how (in his view) the biological and social levels are bridges between the inorganic (here matter) and the intellectual (here mind) and messes the MOQ thoroughly up. There are lots and lots of issues where the weak interpretation messes up the MOQ, but enough for now.



  6. Frank callo says

    I too read the audio book last year on a 21 hour bus trip to the city of my birth (Knoxville back to Philadelphia). What I saw in it was an attempt to merge theory with practice. It reminded me of this story from Chaung Tzu;

    Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui.2 At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.3

    “Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

    Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

    “A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room – more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

    “However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.” 4

    “Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

    Me again here. As an interesting parenthetic aside, t “Ting” is a ritual caldron on which the “laws of the land” are inscribed. It is used in banquets and religious rituals to serve food but as a symbol (in the I Ching) it stands for cultivation of self, especially in terms of finding the “ground of being” in what ever work you do (my son, who is an aspiring chef, had the hexagram of the Ting tatooed on his arm along with a cook pot and ladle for his 18th birthday).

    Anyway, back to Persig. I almost felt that the narrative almost served as a “mere” vehicle for the philosophy (kind of like a plot serves a porn or horror movie). Having said that, he did an admirable job weaving some pretty esoteric stuff into something fairly readable. It was a WHOLE lot more fun to read than Aristotle’s metaphysics.

    Thanks for this pod cast, it was fun thinking about this book again on the year anniversary of reading it.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      That’s a great parallel, Frank (and from my favorite Eastern philosophy book!).

      I don’t know if this reference will mean anything to most readers of this blog, but I’m also seeing that story from the Chuang Tzu very directly in Phillip Pullman’s “The Subtle Knife.” I already knew that he was keenly aware of the sort of relaxed concentration state associated with Buddhist mindfulness… his characters in that series (The Golden Compass one) have to assume this stance for a variety of purposes, and one of them even consults the I Ching a few times, but I hadn’t previously noted the exact point of contact with this story: a knife that comes to a point of no thickness and finds the spaces between the joints of reality.

      I recommend the series highly for people who listen to audiobooks in cars with their kids a lot; there are lots of bits snatched from philosophical and theological history in it.

  7. Frank callo says

    Me again. At just about an hour into it, you guys start talking about “preference language”. does the electron really prefer to be at the lowest energy level, does the high performance motorcycle really prefer to operate at 100 mph. It strikes me as funny that scientists don’t mind this kind of language as long as we understand that it is “mere metaphor”.

    When I was studying philosophy of mind I noted plenty of people, like the Churchlands, for example, who didn’t seem to have any problem saying that humans DO NOT really prefer ANYTHING, that this phenomenon we call preference is “merely” an emerent quality that comes from a number of completely deterministic events at the neurological level.

    So why is it conventionally appropriate among some scientists to “reduce” humans to the status of non-sentient machinery but not so to elevate supposedly non-sentient entities to the level of sentience?

    I am a gardener. When some plant is suffering-say, my zucchini have in infestation of squash vine bores-I say, and LITERRALLY mean, “the plant doesn’t LIKE that”. The plant tells me this by displaying certain “qualities” (there it is again) like the leaves turn yellow, the vines go black and soft at the base. How is this different from my grandaughter letting me know that she isn’t feeling well by flushing, running a fever, moaning etc.

    I think that Persig is trying to overcome alienation as you guys alluded to. What he is doing is saying that there is a certain resonance between things that are functioning well (or not). In some way, by studying the idea of quality we start to find it in ourselves and can therefore recognize it elswhere. This is where the “Zen” comes in I think.

  8. David Buchanan says

    I think Pirsig’s artful motorcycle mechanic is supposed to be operating with the same sort of masterful fluidity we see in the ox butcher. This “Zen” state of mind is roughly equivalent to “flow”, as psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi calls it. If he’s right, this has everything to do with happiness, which is no small thing. As the Open Culture post says, “his research shows [that] we tend to be most happy when we get immersed, almost lost in, being creative and performing at our best. It’s an ecstatic state that he calls “flow.””.


      • David Buchanan says

        Yes, I think the original plan was to do Flanagan right after Pirsig. I suppose a lot of people would be surprised to know that there is quite a lot of overlap between those three classical pragmatists (James, Dewey and Pirsig) and Buddhism. In fact, at least one scholar (David Scott) has claimed unequivocally that the Buddha was both a pragmatist and a radical empiricists. Thanks, dmf. Don’t be too surprised if I quote Johnson’s paper.

        • Bodvar Skutvik says

          Pirsig’s art of motorcycle maintenance – when adjusting valves etc. may be like Frank Callo’s about the cook’s art of cutting up an ox, but I maintain that Pirsig’s motorcycle “metaphysics” is the cause of the great mistake that haunts the MOQ. You know a box on top called “Motorcycle” divided into two boxes below called “components” and “functions” and then some more splitting (page 92 in my book).

          This is OK regarding mechanical devices, but not regarding reality the way the opening “no one can avoid metaphysics” is meant, because on page 243 he draws a similar diagram – first of SOM – with a top box called “Reality” that splits into subjective and objective boxes below. But this is not SOM, had there been a notion of a super-reality being arbitrarily divided it would have lost its sting. No, our experience is one subjective (mind) reality and one objective (matter) reality without any conceivable bridge between them.

          Similarly – but with even worse consequence – is the MOQ diagram where he changes “Reality” in the top box to “Quality”, believing this to be sensation. But as I tried to show earlier, there was no metaphysics that said anything about what reality IS, so the Quality = Quality does not mean anything before the Dynamic/Static QUALITY replaces SOM. In that capacity it’s dynamite.

          However Pirsig’s obsession remains with proving that Quality = Reality regardless of MOQ’s DQ/SQ configuration, for instance the Hot Stove demonstration in LILA. We all know that what makes us jump is the autonomous neural system and nothing wrong, but that’s PRE-BIOLOGICAL QUALITY while Pirsig’s makes it sound as if this is pre-intellectual. I suspect the H.S. to be an early Phaedrus insight resulting in his proto-moq which only had one “level” – intellect. But Pirsig couldn’t resist bringing it into LILA, and David Buchanan uncritically helps with the confusion.



  9. LK says

    Hello all — sorry i found this late; first time visitor/poster. Great job with PEL; a nice addition to the philosophy blogosphere.

    Like many others, i read ZAMM as a youth and it was an inspiration re philosophy and the intellectual life — “the high country of the mind” — and the search for “wisdom”. This was far more important to me than Pirsig’s philosophy (which, btw, i find completely unconvincing).

    In the years since, i’ve remained curious: What other people/books are “like” Prisig/ZAMM? Or: Why aren’t there any!?

    The ballpark i’m looking for would be something like:
    [] a personal quest that’s “whole-person”, involving self-understanding/psychology, ethics, social/cultural issues, interpersonal relations, maybe “spiritual” levels (interpreted as religious/secular as you like), etc;
    [] but which included “sophisticated” philosophical/intellectual reflection, eg referencing canonical philosophers; not eg wooly new age stuff;
    [] yet also not the auto/biography of an academic philosopher (unless there’s lots of non-academic aspects to the story) — broader than that, general (highly) educated layperson kinda thing.

    There are many possible ways all that could fit together, but one that’s of particular interest is: A person who did some maybe-lay-but-serious philosophizing about their worldview (maybe including justification, moral obligations, etc), before deciding how they should live — even though that life might not involve much more philosophizing. Thus they wouldn’t, if nonfictional, be known as a “philosopher”. Even more briefly: Philosophy as (one) path/stage/technique for creating a foundation for living (though not necessarily foundationalist philosophy!).

    A couple (not-so-?)near misses pop to mind: Wittgenstein (eg the Monk bio), and Magee’s “Confessions of a Philosopher”. If you’ve read either those plus ZAMM, i assume you’ll understand why ZAMM fits much better. In fact, it’s still the best i’ve found. That’s why i’m asking here:

    Is anyone aware of people/books like that?

    Thanks so much,

    • David Buchanan says

      Thomas Mann’s Nobel Prize-winning novel The Magic Mountain (1927) was recommended to me above all other books. (As a book about broad and substantial ideas.) It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for many years but I think I’m finally ready for it. It might be the kind of thing you’re looking for, LK.

  10. Craig says

    Hey PEL,

    I’ve just discovered this site and the podcasts, and I planned on going through each one in order, but as soon as I got through Wittgenstein I immediately had to jump to Pirsig to hear what parallels were made, and I was surprised to hear that the conversation really didn’t go there. Maybe that is because the podcast focused on ZMM, and not Lila, where Pirsig further works out the metaphysics. Anyway, I saw a lot of similarities between Wittgenstein’s fact based metaphysics and Pirsig’s MOQ, with both being a non-substance based metaphysics.

    It looks like from the conversations here that there is a bit of interest in discussing the merits of MOQ beyond what is touched on in ZMM. Do you think you might return to Pirsig in another episode and perhaps dive deeper into the MOQ and how it compares to Wittgenstein’s metaphysics?

    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      I think a return to Pirsig in the near future is not likely, though we may tackle process metaphysics via Whitehead. Unfortunately our ‘to do’ list is longer than our ability to tackle the texts and record episodes. Thanks for the feedback!

      • Craig says

        Very cool. I have never read Whitehead. So glad you have a long to do list; that just means that more awesome episodes are coming. Keep up the great work!

  11. Tesshin says

    Isn’t quality simply the interface between you/object? A high quality object (the sound of a well played Stratavari, the lines of a Triumph Bonneville) drags your attention into the present moment, stops the rumination of thought for a bit. From the other direction, your ability to put your whole unjudgemental attention in stillness on the present task at hand, (without being sidetracked by worry about the outcome) affects the quality of the experience for you/object. Allowing the situation at hand to be “enough” for the time being, increases quality.

    The example you give of the BMW 800 sport bike is a great example of designers designing based on the race track (or perhaps the Autoban), ignoring regular driving experience, and the resulting disappointment of the buyer who ends up with the product.

  12. Profile photo of Evan Hadkins says

    There is an immediate all-at-onceness to our immediate experience. Which we can then reflect on.

    However the immediate perception is educated. A musician trained on an instrument of in a particular kind of music will have a different immediate experience than a novice.

    Here’s an experience of the arising of quality. Choose something to look at. Look closely at it. Look at what it surrounds and how it blocks some parts of stuff and whether it rests on stuff, bumps up against them and so on. Focus on the thing and then its surroundings and flow back and forth. Gradually you can notice that your vision is a horizontal oriented oval that comes right up against your eyeballs. At this point you may find that your vision has an aesthetic dimension. It has quality.


  1. […] From my perspective, however, none of those episodes failed in its intent, which was merely to give folks an active, entertaining engagement with a particular reading, or in some cases, with a topic, such that it doesn’t even much matter if we didn’t get around to completely spelling out the content of the reading (though I’m hoping that our new Precognitions will ensure that we get that basic summary across even if the conversation itself goes off in some less discursive direction). The episodes that I’ve regarded as most problematic have been those that got boring, either because we were tired and some of us sort of lost interest while we were talking, or I got bogged down in trying to be complete in how much of the reading we covered, or our guest started ranting drunkenly or was otherwise less than helpful (no, I’m not going to provide a link for that one; our guests have actually all done adequately… at no point have I left a discussion feeling that it was simply unusable). In most cases, particularly in the last of these, we use the magic of editing to still make the thing listenable, and some of the ones that I have the greatest doubts about right after we recorded have after some good editing become fan favorites (OK, I’ll provide one link for that). […]

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