A Project with Paradoxical Goals


Inspired by Robert Pirsig's book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, An Inquiry into Values

And that door leads to Sarah's office. Sarah! Now it comes down! She came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, "I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.". This is a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal.

Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others . . . but what's the betterness? . . . So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?

Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; An Inquiry into Values ╩Full text. Reprinted with permission. (local copy) A Letter on Quality An awesomely good discussion of quality (author unknown).

Robert Pirsig Resources Project English 330 Tarleton State University ░Zen (contribution by Kim Wade, Spring, 1996) ░Buddhism ░Author's Note ░Plato's Phaedrus ░Bjorn's Guide to Philosophy (cool site for info on Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Hume, et al referred to in Pirsig's Chautauquas) ░Chautauqua ░Aristotle's Rhetoric (e-text) ░Henri Poincare ░Robert Pirsig: Author Links and Info ░The Common Place Book. Pirsig ░George Gent's May, 1974 New York Times Interview ░Lyonel Feininger's The Cathedral of Minorities (contributed by Bill Paton, April, 1996) ░Will the Real Richard McKeon Please Stand Up (link contributed by Pill Paton, April, 1996)

Robert Pirsig "I do not intend to perform an exhaustive explication of Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality; rather, to present a series of related thoughts & philosophical meanderings (read: pearls before swine). It is possible that I will implement some kind of posting feature in the future, enabling some open discussion; until that time, or such time as someone donates server capacity for the creation of alt.philosophy.pirsig, you must make do with mailing╩me."

Inventory of Ideas and Initiatives by William P. Sheridan "An effective information strategy must be multi-modal; electronic communication cannot replace the spoken and the printed word - it just complements them. Books continue to be, in Derek Bickerton's felicitious phrase, "machines to think with". Software, on the other hand, IS electronically embedded cognitive assistance. This section is reserved for periodically posted assessments of books and software products that I have found to be good sources of thinking tools. In most cases there will be reviews of complementary books and/or software products, and I will attempt to compare and contrast their respective approaches, strengths and shortcomings."

Deming Electronic Network Also see Electronic Deming Study Group Guide and Public Sector Network and other information by John Hunter

What is Software Quality? Peter Denning

Why are we so stupid? David Kerridge, Margaret Morgan and Sarah Kerridge At a two day seminar, someone suggested the idea of a Deming tee- shirt. Asked what should be written on it, Dr Deming said: "Why are we all so damn stupid?".

Quality Improvement and Government:By David C. Couper Ten Hard Lessons From the Madison Experience ; Chief of Police, City of Madison, WI. A new way of thinking within the police department as well as within city government in Madison. This new way of thinking involves quality improvement methods similar to those used by many companies in the private sector, particularly in the manufacturing arena.


National Performance Review by Bill Clinton and Al Gore

Your Toolkit To Help Reinvent Government Vice President Al Gore National Performance Review announces the test release of, an Interactive World Wide Web Home Page. This ToolKit provides users with the necessary tools to participate directly in the process of reinventing government. In the ToolKit users will find one of the best sources of reinvention information as well as important links to the people and places working to make a customer driven government a reality.


Robert Pirsig; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; An Inquiry into Values; William Morrow Publishing Co; New York; 1979

The machine, the observer, and Quality

I was thinking about this same lack of care in the digital computer manuals I was editing. I knew they were full of errors, ambiguities, omissions, and information so completely screwed up you had to read them six times to make any sense out of them.

But what struck me was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude in that motorcycle shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that "Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error conditions╔" and so on.

And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.


You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, its always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.


Kant called his thesis that our a priori thoughts are independent of sense data and screen what we see a "Copernican Revolution". By this hse referred to Copernicus' statement that the earth moves around the sun. Nothing changed as a result of this revolution, and yet everything changed. Or, to put it in Kantian terms, the objective world producing our sense data did not change, but our a priori concept of it was turned inside out. The effect was overwhelming. It was the acceptance of the Copernican revolution that distinguishes modern man from his medieval predecessors.


I like the word "gumption" because it's so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn't likely to reject anyone who comes along. I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption.

A person filled with gumption doesn't sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He's at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what's up the track and meeting it when it comes. That's gumption.

If you're going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven't got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away, because they won't do you any good.


You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

I've wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn't see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps, into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth,", and so it goes away. Puzzling.

We were both looking at the same thing, seeing, the same thing, talking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking and thinking from a completely different dimension.


At first this difference seemed fairly minor, but then it grew . . . and grew . . . and grew . . . until I began to see why I missed it. Some things you miss because they're so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don't see because they're so huge.

Phaedrus' Knife

We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape around us and call that handfull of sand the world.

Once we have the handful of sand, discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and while. Now and then.

To understand it's necessary to see that part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles.

To see the landscape without seeing this figure is not to see the landscape at all. To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely.


Next he subtracted Quality from the marketplace and predicted the changes that would take place. Since quality of flavor would be meaningless, supermarkets would carry only basic grains such as rice, cornmeal, soybeans and flour, possibly also some ungraded meat, milk for weaning infants and vitamin and mineral supplements to make up deficiencies. Alcoholic beverages, tea, coffee and tobacco would vanish. So would movies, dances, plays and parties. We would all use public transportation. We would all wear G.I. shoes.

A huge proportion of us would be out of work, but this would probably be temporary until we relocated in essential non-Quality work. Applied science and technology would be drastically changed, but pure science, mathematics, philosophy and particularly logic would be unchanged.

Phaedrus found this last to be extremely interesting. The purely intellectual pursuits were the least affected by the subtraction of Quality. If Quality were dropped, only rationality would remain unchanged. That was odd. Why should that be?

Cleavage Term

The wave of crystalization rolled ahead. He was seeting two worlds, simultaneously. On the intellectual side, the square side, he saw now that Quality was a cleavage term. What every intellectual analyst looks for. You take your analytic knife, put the point directly on the term Quality and just tap, not hard, gently, and the whole world splits, cleaves, right in two . . hip and square, classic and romantic, technological and humanistic . . . and the split is clean. There's no mess. No slop. No little iterms that could be one way or the other. Not just a skilled break but a very lucky break. Sometimes the best analysis, working with the most obvious lines of cleavage, can tap and get nothing but a pile of trash. And yet here was Quality; a tiny, almost unnoticeable fault line; a line of illogic in our concept of the universe; and you tapped it, and the whole universe came apart, so neatly it was almost unbelievable. He wished Kant were alive. Kant would have appreciated it. That master diamond cutter. He would see. Hold quality undefined. That was the secret.

The Train of Knowledge

In terms of the analogy, classic knowledge, the knowledge taught by the Church of Reason, is the engine and all the boxcars. All of them and everything in them. If you subdivide the train into parts you will find no Romantic Knowledge anywhere. This isn't because Romantic Knowledge is nonexistent or even unimportant. Its just that so far the definition of the train is static and purposeless. This was what I was trying to get at back in South dakota when I talked about two whole dimensions of existence. Its two whole ways of looking at things.

Romantic Quality, in the terms of this analogy, isn't any "part" of the train. its the leading edge of the engine, a two-dimensional surface of no real significance unless you understand that the train isn't a static entity at all. A train really isn't a train if it can't go anywhere. Its the process of examining the train and subdividing it into parts we've inadvertently stopped it, so that really isn't a train we are examining. That's why we get stuck.

The real train of knowledge isn't a static entity that can be stopped and subdivided. Its always going somewhere. On a track called Quality. And that engine and all those boxcars are never going anywhere except where the track of Quality takes them; and romantic Quality, the leading edge of the engine, takes them along that track.

The past cannot remember the past. The future can't generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is.

To put it in more concrete terms: If you want to build a factory or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured, dualistic subject-object knowledge, although necessary, isn't enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what's good. That is what carries you forward. This sense isn't just something you're born with, although you are born with it. Its also something you can develop. Its not just "intuition," not just explainable "skill" or "talent." It's the direct result of contact with basic reality, Quality, which dualistic reason has in the past tended to conceal.
Virtual School Middle of Nowhere Brad Cox