The Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) is a theory of reality introduced in Robert Pirsig's philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and expanded in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991). The MoQ incorporates facets of Sophism, East Asian philosophy, pragmatism, the work of F. S. C. Northrop, and indigenous American philosophy. Pirsig argues that the MoQ is a better lens through which to view reality than the subjective/objective mindset that Pirsig attributes to Aristotle. The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance references the Sanskrit doctrine of Tat Tvam Asi or "Thou art that" which asserts an existential monism as opposed to the subject-object dualism.
The Metaphysics of Quality originated with Pirsig's college studies as a biochemistry student at the University of Minnesota. He describes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that as he studied, he found the number of rational hypotheses for any given phenomenon appeared to be unlimited. It seemed to him this would seriously undermine the validity of the scientific method. His studies began to suffer as he pondered the question and eventually he was expelled from the university.
After spending some time in Korea as a soldier, Pirsig concluded that Oriental philosophy was a better place to search for ultimate answers. On his return home from Korea, Pirsig read F. S. C. Northrop's book The Meeting of East and West which related Western culture to the culture of East Asia in a systematic way. In 1950, Pirsig continued his philosophical studies at Banaras Hindu University, where he came across the Sanskrit doctrine of Tat Tvam Asi --in his words, "Thou art that, which asserts that everything you think you are (Subjective), and everything you think you perceive (Objective), are undivided. To fully realize this lack of division is to become enlightened." The nature of mystical experience plays an underlying role throughout his work.
In the late 1950s, Pirsig taught rhetoric at Montana State College - Bozeman and, with the encouragement of an older colleague, decided to explore what exactly was meant by the term quality. He assigned his students the task of defining the word. This, coupled with a Native American Church peyote ceremony he attended with an anthropologist friend, James Verne Dusenberry, led Pirsig into what he called "a mushroom cloud of thought." Pirsig began developing his ideas about quality in his first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and expanded and codified his ideas into the MoQ in Lila.
"Quality," or "value," as described by Pirsig, cannot be defined because it empirically precedes any intellectual construction of it, namely due to the fact that quality (as Pirsig explicitly defines it) exists always as a perceptual experience before it is ever thought of descriptively or academically. Quality is the "knife-edge" of experience, found only in the present, known or at least potentially accessible to all of "us" (cf. Plato's Phaedrus, 258d). Equating it with the Tao, Pirsig postulates that Quality is the fundamental force in the universe stimulating everything from atoms to animals to evolve and incorporate ever greater levels of Quality. According to the MoQ, everything (including ideas, and matter) is a product and a result of Quality.
The MoQ maintains that quality itself is undefinable (Tao), but to better understand it, Pirsig breaks quality down into two ("knife-edge") forms: static quality patterns (patterned) and dynamic quality (unpatterned). The four patterns of static value as well as dynamic quality account exhaustively for all of ("knife-edged") reality. As the initial (cutting edge) dynamic quality becomes habituated, it turns into static patterns (viz. data, expectations). It is important to note that Pirsig is not proposing a duality: quality is one, "every last bit of it", yet manifests itself differently. Rather than dualism, this manifestation of quality in terms of dynamic and static aspects represents a dialectical monism.
Dynamic quality cannot be defined. It can only be understood intellectually through the use of analogy. It can be described as the force of change in the universe; when an aspect of quality becomes habitual or customary, it becomes static. Pirsig calls dynamic quality "the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality" because it can be recognized before it can be conceptualized. This is why the dynamic beauty of a piece of music can be recognized before a static analysis explaining why the music is beautiful can be constructed.
Pirsig defines static quality as everything which can be defined. Everything found in a dictionary, for instance, is static quality. These static forms, if they have enough high or low quality, are given names and are interchanged with other "people", building the base of knowledge for a culture. So some cultures divide between things other cultures perceive as equal (Pirsig gave as example the sounds of the Indian syllables "dha" and "da," which are absolutely equal to western ears), and some cultures haven't any words for a specific meaning at all (for example, Spanish has no word for "accountability"). Pirsig divides static quality into inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual patterns, in ascending order of morality.
Pirsig describes evolution as the moral progression of these patterns of value. For example, a biological pattern overcoming an inorganic pattern (e.g. bird flight which overcomes gravity) is a moral thing because a biological pattern is a higher form of evolution. Likewise, an intellectual pattern of value overcoming a social one (e.g. civil rights) is a moral development because intellect is a higher form of evolution than society. Therefore, decisions about one's conduct during any given day can be made using the Metaphysics of Quality. It is important to note that Pirsig is not proposing criticism or responsibility, but acceptance, and pure absorption:
"When he wrote it he felt momentary fright and was about to strike out the words "All of it. Every last bit of it." Madness there. I think he saw it. But he couldn't see any logical reason to strike these words out and it was too late now for faintheartedness. He ignored his warning and let the words stand."-ZMM, Ch.20
"Good is a noun. That was it. That was what Phaedrus had been looking for. That was the homer, over the fence, that ended the ball game. Good as a noun rather than as an adjective is all the Metaphysics of Quality is about. Of course, the ultimate Quality isn't a noun or an adjective or anything else definable, but if you had to reduce the whole Metaphysics of Quality to a single sentence, that would be it."-Lila, The End
"The language we've inherited confuses this. We say "my" body and "your" body and "his" body and "her" body, but it isn't that way. ... This Cartesian "Me," this autonomous little homunculus who sits behind our eyeballs looking out through them in order to pass judgment on the affairs of the world, is just completely ridiculous. This self-appointed little editor of reality is just an impossible fiction that collapses the moment one examines it."-ZMM, Ch.15
"Another immoral way of killing the static patterns is to pass the patterns to someone else, in what Phaedrus called a 'karma dump.' ... If you take all this karmic garbage and make yourself feel better by passing it on to others that's normal. That's the way the world works. But if you manage to absorb it and not pass [editor's emboldening] it on, that's the highest moral conduct of all."-Lila, Ch.32