Written by Robert M. Pirsig, this metaphysical treatise was the second in a series and served as the culmination (at the time) of his thoughts on Quality. The author felt this book was 'the point' of his efforts while the public latched onto the first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
In his 1991 follow up to his best-selling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (hereafter abbreviated ZMM) Robert M. Pirsig fleshes out the metaphysics suggested by his ideas on Quality. Inspired by such disparate sources as his studies on Native American Indian tribes, and the young prodigy William James Sidis, the author uses anecdotes from his life and travels, simple analogies and straight-forward prose to explain how his metaphysics provides for a truer model of the universe than a conventional subject-object metaphysics. He explores such themes as the transition from the society of the Victorians through to the society we see around us today; the moral relationships and correct moral judgments to be made between the inorganic, the biological, the social and the intellectual; as well as tackling a few of philosophy's oldest paradoxes. More ignored than either positively or negatively critiqued by his fellow scholars, Pirsig still enjoys a wide following and his work is still a subject of vigorous and lively debate. While ZMM has enjoyed higher sales it is fair to say that LILA was the author's masterpiece.
Left undefined in ZMM, Pirsig believed that Quality was something everyone understood at a level preceding definition;
Any person of any philosophic persuasion who sits on a hot stove will verify without any intellectual argument whatsoever that he is in an undeniably low-quality situation: that the value of his predicament is negative. This low quality is not just a vague, woolly-headed, crypto-religious, metaphysical abstraction. It is an experience. It is not a judgment about an experience. It is not a description of experience. The value itself is an experience. As such it is completely predictable. It is verifiable by anyone who cares to do so. It is reproducible. Of all experience it is the least ambiguous, least mistakable there is. Later the person may generate some oaths to describe this low value, but the value will always come first, the oaths second. Without the primary low valuation, the secondary oaths will not follow.
From this intuitive understanding of the preeminence of Quality Pirsig goes on to outline his Metaphysics of Quality. On the way he addresses or anticipates the arguments against his metaphysics as will likely be posited by Mysticism
on the one end and Science (or Logical Positivism
) on the other.
The First Division - Static & Dynamic
"In any hierarchy of metaphysical classification the most important division is the first one, for this division dominates everything beneath it." - Opening to Chapter 9
In ZMM Pirsig used Quality to unite the classic and romantic aspects of the universe. But while Quality served wonderfully well to unite these two, that did not imply to him that these two would serve as the best first division. He eventually settles on Static and Dynamic Quality as the first division. Using quality, good and value interchangeably he divides quality into static patterns of reality and Dynamic good or Dynamic Quality. Examples of static patterns of reality would be a cup, Socialism, cell walls and Julia Roberts. To contrast with these, "Dynamic Quality is the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality, the source of all things, completely simple and always new."
By way of example, the positive sensation a person experiences upon hearing a new song or new type of music might be described as Dynamic Quality. Upon hearing Metallica for the first time a young person might be incredibly excited by the guitar, the driving drum rhythms and the forceful vocals. However, upon purchasing the CD and listening to it over and over this sensation fades or is replaced by the more familiar static patterns of reality. Other bands may come along behind Metallica and use some or most of these new patterns to create new songs, but while the songs are new to you, the patterns are not - there is no Dynamic Quality in using a preexisting template.
Another example of the difference between Static and Dynamic Quality can be demonstrated in the India of Gandhi's time, of British rule. Gandhi’s development and demonstration of non-violent resistance and the philosophy behind it could be considered Dynamic for that time and place. It was new, contagious and effective. Martin Luther King Jr.'s application of non-violent resistance, however, could be considered an exercise in application of static patterns of reality. By the time MLK joined the civil rights struggle Gandhi’s actions had been completed, studied and joined the ranks of static patterns of reality.
Static Quality Further Divided
While Pirsig's initial fascination was with Dynamic Quality he realized very soon that there was a great deal more to be said about the static patterns of reality. He divides these into the Inorganic, Biological, Social and Intellectual. He states there is no thing that does not fall within one of these categories, except of course Dynamic Quality.
But while the four systems are exhaustive they are not exclusive...Although each higher level is built on a lower one it is not an extension of that lower level. Quite the contrary. The higher level can often be seen to be in opposition to the lower level, dominating it, controlling it where possible for its own purposes.
This, to me, is one of the most fascinating tools his Metaphysics provide. Using this moral hierarchy allows one to clarify complex issues and determine correct moral judgments.
Applications of this hierarchy are all around us. Firemen approaching a burning building, where time is of the essence, will attempt to rescue all of the biological patterns within the inorganic structure before attempting to rescue the structure.
For a more in depth example we can start with a wall and an artist. There is nothing wrong with an artist's desire to paint a mural upon a wall. A biological pattern may make use of or destroy or do whatever it pleases with an inorganic pattern. However, if that wall is one of the faces of a building in the middle of a metropolis, society may determine that for its own continued smooth operation biological patterns should not go about defacing property. We have laws against vandalism or against individuals going about and putting up murals wherever they desire. In this case, society outranks the biological and that artist may find himself in jail for the protection of society. If, however, the artist were to make an intellectual case to society, in the form of a request to a city council, he may be allowed to circumvent society's normal rules. A colorful mural with a positive message may contribute to the well-being of the biological patterns within the society, it may serve to strengthen the society as a whole. Here the intellectual dominates the societal.
LILA is a deceptively easy read. I've given here only a very light coverage of the wide range of ideas sparked by the book. As well, while I have read more on Pirsig's MOQ online, for this write up I used only the book itself. For those more classically trained in philosophy please feel free to write me with any mistakes you've feel I've made in translating his ideas. Also, if you feel some other topic from the book deserves coverage or are interested in other areas related to the treatment I've given above, please feel free to write me and I will see what I can do.