When a baby is born, it’s not aware of itself as a separate entity. All there is in the beginning, is quality.
The quality of a sound, a flavour, a scent, a soft touch…
Only later does the infant learn to distinguish static discreet objects in the flowing dynamic continuum.
A breast. Someone’s loving face…
Robert M. Pirsig spent his entire life thinking about the philosophical implications of this acquired cognitive shift from dynamic to static quality.
He condensed his conclusions first in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, from 1974, and then in Lila, an Inquiry into Morals, from 1991.
These are not only two of the finest travel stories I’ve had the pleasure to read, but also noted in the Guinness book of records as best selling works of philosophy ever written. (Pirsig’s got rejected by more than 120 publishers, before going on to sell by the millions).
My copies are full of dog ears, underlining and margin notes; atempting to convey their wisdom would be like trying to glue a shattered work of art back together shard by shard.
I will say this though: it’s interesting to note how Pirsig’s philosophy shares many traits with the field of knowledge known as system dynamics.
If system dynamics (or “systems thinking”) is trying to reunite the many different disciplines of engineering, Pirsig’s metaphysics of quality aims to achieve the same feat for philosophy.
He does so by reinventing our most fundamental ontological understanding of the world. In Pirsig’s view, objectivity was always an illusion. We grow into thinking of ourselves as “subjects” interacting with “objects” in our surrounding, because seeing the world as it really is would be too confusing.
If we accept the pain of that confusion, which can literally mean risking our sanity – Pirsig spent years at the not so gentle bosom of American psychiatric care and was only released after fourteen consecutive electric shock treatments – we can get a glimpse of enlightenment.
What that means is a view of the world where the connective tissue is center stage, where no single part can be moved without affecting all others.
Or to quote the mystics, a world where it *all makes sense*.
Pirsig’s outlook feels absolutely unique, but he actually goes to quite some length explaining how that is not the case. In fact, he’s quite annoyed that his first book became a “cult classic” when he really meant for it to be received as a serious work of philosophy.
In the second book, he traces the roots of his thoughts back to ancient Greece, and then further on back to hindu mythology (Pirsig spent a year studying Indian philosophy in Benares), only to then connect the dots with native American culture and with the pragmatist philosophy of nineteenth century philosopher / phsychologist William James.
Pirsig is extremely well read, but never dry. Instead his meandering thoughts always keep coming back to the hyper concrete, which is of course exactly what explains his enormous appeal to a readership far outside of academia.
The first book is actually about motorcycle maintenance. The second book is actually about sailing down the Hudson and walking the streets of New York, thinking about how it’s possible that this big living organism of a city can go on existing long after it reached a level of complexity beyond the grasp of the human beings that created it (all while trying to work out a relationship which started as a one night stand but seem to evolve into something a lot more complicated.)
Pirsig lived as he wrote; up to his knees in the minutia of everyday life. While working on his first book he held a day job writing computer manuals. His resulting deep knowledge of the interplay between hardware and software not only shines through, but actually plays a key role in the formation of his philosophy. As does, of course, his intimate acquaintance with the mechanics of motorcycles.
This solid practical foundation is probably what makes Pirsig’s philosophy so useful in thinking about technology. Never before have I read a philosopher who helped shine a light on the inner workings of concepts such as layered architecture or separation of concern. I would have thought that patterns like these were only relevant to engineers, but they turn out to have very interesting implications beyond technology.
The same can be said about system dynamics, which I find to be the one engineering discipline with a focal length optimised to help make sense of the world.
It’s interesting to note that Pirsig’s most creative period roughly coincided with that of legendary MIT professor Jay Wright Forrester, who’s considered to be the founding father of system dynamics.