Why is the Metaphysics of Quality NOT like a restaurant where they give you
a thirty-thousand page menu but no food?
I'd have to say it is because Pirsig (like others) realizes the limits of
metaphysics. The section you quoted extensively from shows Pirsig running
together the function of metaphysics with the function of language. In that
section it would seem that mystics take language itself to be metaphysical.
If we think of the mystics as saying that we don't need menus, only the
food, and the positivists as saying that there is no food, only the menu,
Pirsig's way of splitting the difference between mystics and postivists can
be put in two different ways:
1) Pirsig sides with the mystics in saying that language will itself never
get us the food, but the positivists are right in thinking that language can
help us, in fact by pointing the way towards the food.
2) Pirsig sides with the positivists in saying that language isn't itself
metaphysical, that it isn't supposed to get us at the food, but the mystics
are right in thinking that there is food that isn't language.
I think both ways more or less amount to the same thing. I think people
tending towards mysticism will, following Pirsig, prefer the first
description. People tending towards positivism, which is to say
anti-metaphysics, will, like me, prefer the second description. But the
consequences of the two positions, I think, are the same and its a kind of
pragmatism that gets us there. As long as people who like the first
remember that language can be helpful and people who like the second
remember that there is food that isn't language, then there's no
philosophical difference between the two (at least at this level of
generality and on this particular point).
(And for anyone who has been following my arguments with DMB over the last
few years, I've concluded that this is a very basic way of describing our
philosophical differences. DMB prefers the first description, I prefer the
second. As far as I can tell, DMB still thinks there is a very large
philosophical disagreement between us, but more and more I've not been able
to discern what it is. It seems more and more to me to be simply a verbal
disagreement: he likes the first, I like the second. That being said, I
still think DMB hooks his train up to the wrong language once in a while
(like "pure sensation"), and those occasions have led me to think there _is_
a philosophical disagreement in the area, but if there is, I thinks it's in
the minutiae rather than in the broad area of agreement we do in fact seem
Why would people turn to the Metaphysics of Quality when they could have
Eliot, Frost, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson and Whitman? And
where did these great writers get their inspiration in the first place?
Would they have turned to the Metaphysics of Quality if it had been
available to them?
Ah, now that's an interesting question for those taken by cases of
adventitious philosophical puritainism (to borrow Donald Davidson's phrase
applied to the logical positivists). I've never been particularly fond of
the streak in Pirsig's followers to say things like "the MoQ is the best
philosophy ever," but then it stops looking adventitious when you see Pirsig
saying things like that himself.
I think the response that is proper to a Pirsigian, a response that holds
true to the spirit of rugged, philosophical individualism that Pirsig lays
bare in ZMM, would be that people turn to Pirsig, rather than Eliot, Laozi,
or Whitman, because they simply like Pirsig better. It's a simple fact,
that everybody is familiar with, that we are struck by different things at
different times for usually very particular reasons (mostly hidden) having
to do with our own personal biographies. You could in fact probably learn
many of the lessons that Pirsig taught us from Laozi or Shakespeare or
Shelley. Or Coleridge or Nietzsche. Or Montaigne or Homer. Or Milton or
Faulkner. Or Wilber or---we all get the picture.
The point is that for people like Pirsig and Emerson and Nietzsche, it is no
good to work with the tools and pictures of others. They were strong poets
who had to craft for themselves their own lives. So of course no strong
poet but Pirsig would prefer Pirsig's vocabulary. That's what makes them
strong. For the rest of us weak poets, on the other hand, all we can do is
push around the strong poets into interesting patterns, colorful bricolage.
The common denominater of both the visionaries and the acolytes, the
charismatics and the apostles, the strong and the weak poets, is the
philosophcial individualism that causes each of us to make our own pattern
without worrying whether or not our pattern looks like Bob's or Bobbet's or
the Jones' or even the strong poets' that we're making the pattern out of.
It's our own little revenge, or own mark of individuality, that leads us to
smirk, "Well Pirsig, you may not have liked X very much, but _I_ can find
some use in him. And, by the way, I _hate_ Thoreau."
So its not at all that we need to choose between Pirsig and Eliot and
Shakespeare and Whitman. Only an adventitious philosophical puritainism
would make one think so. And even if somebody doesn't have Pirsig in their
pantheon, there still may be something admirable about it, something
interesting and cool about the pattern of Confucius, Protagoras, Milton,
Shelley, and Steinbeck, something you can take advantage of. And then
again, maybe not.