It was a long time ago that I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I vaguely recall that Phaedrus came up with a final definition of quality.

I've tried skimming through the book to try and find it again, but I've come up dry and I'm wondering if my memory is not correct. Did Phaedrus come up with a definition, and if so, what was it? My recollection is that it was one or two sentences.


1 Answer 1


Phaedrus put Quality into two different forms: one was loose and non-metaphysical and the other metaphysical.

In the first stage, he doesn't define it but rather uses it to come to the conclusion that real learning doesn't come from outside of one's self but rather inside oneself and that the current schooling system of grade hinders this process. He goes into how, for one quarter, he withheld grades in the hope of finding quality learning, but failed.

Later on in the continuation of the exploration of the non-metaphysical Quality, he asks a class to write a paper on "What is quality in thought and statement?" and defines Quality as "...a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a nonthinking process. Because definitions are a product of Rigid, formal thinking, Quality cannot be defined."

There's a large fragment concerning Phaedrus' first class after he gave the assignment on "What is quality in thought and statement?" The atmosphere was explosive, Almost everyone seemed as frustrated and angered as he had been by the question.

"How are we supposed to know what quality is?" they said. "You're supposed to tell us!"

Then he told them that he couldn't figure it out either and really wanted to know.

This he later notes defines it as undefinable -

The fact that this "definition" was actually a refusal to define did not draw comment. The students had no formal training that would have told them his statement was, in a formal sense, completely irrational. If you can't define something you have no formal rational way of knowing that it exists, Neither can you really tell anyone else what it is. There is, in fact, no formal difference between inability to define and stupidity. When I say that, "Quality cannot be defined," I'm really saying formally, "I'm stupid about Quality."

But he then goes on to say that everyone knew what quality was but asking them which of two papers was the better: one which was badly written with rambling ideas and one which was not. This went on for a while, showing them with larger and lager groups of papers that there was a group conciseness on what was Quality. In the end he turned back to the standard way of teaching rhetoric to show them how to gain "Quality" in their work.

Now at least, the standard rhetoric texts came into their own. The principles expounded in them were no linger rules to rebel against, not ultimates in themselves, but just techniques, gimmicks, for producing, what really counted and stood independently of the techniques... Quality. What had started out as a heresy from traditional rhetoric turned into a beautiful introduction to it.

He singled out aspects of Quality such as unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on; kept each of these as poorly defined as Quality itself, but demonstrated then by the same class reading techniques. He showed how the aspect of Quality called unity, the hanging togetherness of a story, could be jacked up with a technique called footnote, which gives authoritative reference.

This brought about self judgment of Quality in his students' work.

Now, in answer to that eternal student question, "How do I do this?" that had frustrated him to the point of resignation, he could reply, "It doesn't make a bit of difference how you do it! Just so it's good." The reluctant student might ask in class, "But how do we know what's good?" but almost before the question was out of his mouth he would realize the answer had already been supplied. Some other student would usually tell him. "You just see it." If he said No, I don't," he'd be told, "Yes, you do. He proved it." The student was finally and completely trapped into making quality judgments for himself. And it was just exactly this and nothing else that taught him to write.

When we get to the metaphysical part of Phaedrus' discussion of Quality he runs into the issue of proving that quality exists if he refuses to define what quality is. He comes back with this -

His answer was an old one belonging to a philosophic school that called itself realism. "A thing exists," he said, "if a world without it can't function normally. If we can show that a world without Quality functions abnormally, then we have shown that Quality exists, whether it's defined or not."

He then continues on to take Quality out of the everyday and come up with Squareness. Squareness is the opposite of Quality and is the natural state of analytics. In fact nothing was wrong with Quality as it was fine, it worked the way it should, the fault was in the way analytics worked that made it impossible to see Quality.

Phaedrus wrote with some beginning understanding that he was involved in a strange kind of intellectual suicide, "Squareness may be succinctly and yet thoroughly defined as an inability to see quality before it's been intellectually defined, that is, before it gets all chopped up into words--. We have proved that Quality, though undefined, exists. Its existence can be seen empirically in the classroom, and can be demonstrated logically by showing that a world without it cannot exist as we know it. What remains to be seen, the thing to be analyzed, is not Quality, but those peculiar habits of thought called 'Squareness' that sometimes prevent us from seeing it."

Thus did he seek to turn the attack. The subject for analysis, the patient on the table, was no longer Quality, but Analysis itself. Quality was healthy and in good shape. Analysis, however, seemed to have something wrong with it that prevented it from seeing the obvious.

Then he was asked a question that brought things to a head and gives us another clue into the definition of Quality -

This was brought about in response to Phaedrus' wild meanderings about Quality when the English faculty at Bozeman, informed of their Squareness, presented him with a reasonable question: "Does this undefined 'quality' of yours exist in the things we observe?" they asked. "Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?"

This brings us to (after a long bit of exploring the subject and after dropping the first part of the question)

He turned his attention to the other horn of the dilemma, which showed more promise of refutation. He thought, "So Quality is whatever you like?" It angered him. The greatest artists of history... Raphael, Beethoven, Michelangelo... they were all just putting out what people liked. They had no goal other than to titillate the senses in a big way. Was that it? It was angering, and what was most angering about it was that he couldn't see any immediate way to cut it up logically. So he studied the statement carefully, in the same reflective way he always studied things before attacking them.

Then he saw it. He brought out the knife and excised the one word that created the entire angering effect of that sentence. The word "just," Why should Quality be just what you like? Why should "What you like" be "just"? What did "just" mean in this case? When separated out like this for independent examination it become apparent that "just" in this case really didn't mean a damn thing. It was a purely pejorative term, whose logical contribution to the sentience was nil. Now, with that word removed, the sentence became "Quality is what you like," and its meaning was entirely changed.

This brought about more moving and shifting of the meaning of Quality... which gave us this "Definition" of Quality:

"Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word quality cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.

"The easiest intellectual analogue of pure Quality that people in our environment can understand in that Quality is the response of an organism to its environment."

In the end what we get is a version of Tao and Zen philosophies. Quality is. And Quality remains undefined and undefinable.

  • I recall being very influenced by this book two decades ago, but on seeing this answer I feel like he's pursuing a very common fallacy among philosophers: "I see things to which the same word is applied. I insist that they must comprise a real category, and that is a fixed point in all future thinking. I find that there are other cases where we do not agree. Conclusion: the category must be some mystical thing of power beyond human comprehension." Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 14:31
  • @Joshua Engel But how do you define something like Quality? It is both a subjective idea (I might like Cadburys Chocolate and think it a quality product and you might like Lindt Chocolate. This is subjective Quality) however it is also something that can be used to measure the worthiness of product and many things are universally agreed upon to be of Quality and have a set of standards that are required to be kept to continue be something if Quality. So I don't think he was making it something mythical - but rather excepted the complex nature of the idea of Quality.
    – Rincewind
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 8:59
  • I think that the complexity is a side effect of people trying to cram unrelated things labeled "Quality" into the same box. I can say, rigorously, "this chair is well-suited to the purpose that I wish to put it to", and you've said something more-or-less meaningful. Or "This chocolate is manufactured using well-selected beans and close attention to temperature control, which I like". Insisting that they have to be The Same Thing invites complexity where none is required. Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 16:18

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