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I've been reading Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and just now I reached the center of the book, where he finally lays out his central concept: "Quality." I can tell that there's something seriously amiss with how he presents it, but its not something I can fashion a comprehensive argument against. In part this is because he says, over and over, that Quality isn't something that can be defined, and arguing against something that he won't let you define is like trying to eat something he won't let you put in your mouth. My negative reaction is probably due to how close the idea of Quality treads to the idea of inherent or absolute value. Value isn't a characteristic a thing has, it's a judgement made about the thing. Things have values to a person, and for a purpose, not a one-size-fits-all value that's independent of context.

I can start picking at the notion of Quality through Pirsig's demonstration of its existence. He states that, while we can't define what Quality is, we all know it when we see it. The point is made through the story of the narrator's time as a writing teacher. To demonstrate to the members of his class that they already know what Quality is, he reads them selections from several essays and asks them which one has more Quality (essentially, which is better). Since one example is incoherent while the other is clearly reasoned, the class is nearly unanimous in its assessment of Quality. Through this empirical demonstration, he says he has shown that Quality exists and we can tell when it's there. But literary quality is perhaps the best demonstration that value judgement is subjective. It is a plainly verifiable fact that, even within a single culture, you'll have a tough time getting an agreement as to which works of literature are the highest quality. This fact leads us to one of two conclusions. Either some people are wrong about what Quality some works possess -- which disproves the idea that we know Quality when we see it -- or Quality is a subjective notion. I can't prove the latter at the moment, but either conclusion weakens Pirsig's argument.

Further, he asserts that Quality is best left undefined. He sees it as a huge breakthrough when he gets his students to stop trying to follow rules on how to write, and simply asking them to do whatever seems to lead to the most Quality in their work. I don't dispute this result, but I don't think it says anything about the definability of Quality. Shifting focus from following the correct means to securing the best ends will certainly lead to better ends. The difference he sees between defined means and vague ends is due to the means/ends distinction, not the defined/vague distinction. Defining those ends will make them more attainable. I've written enough articles to know that the best results occur when you can say explicitly what you mean to accomplish with your writing. Take my seahorses story for National Geographic, for example. I significantly improved the quality of my work when I stopped trying to work in anything interesting I had learned about seahorses, and focussed on discussing their mating habits. I got more quality when I clearly laid out what the criteria for a quality seahorses article. Brainstorming -- writing without a clearly defined purpose -- can be invaluable in generating ideas as to where to go (indeed, the vaguer first draft of the seahorses story brought up a second direction I could have gone with it, which I reworked into a separate sidebar), but you can't write a whole piece that way.


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