Kopimism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig (1974)
The Kopimist creation myth identifies three Fundamental Principles that have worked together to create life on Earth: Copying, The Desire to Build Something Larger Together, and The Attraction Force of the Good.
The book of Pirsig revolves around the concept of Quality, which acquires a more and more metaphysical meaning as the book progresses.
I believe that Pirsig’s Quality and what the Kopimist creation myth calls The Attraction Force of the Good are very closely related to each other, perhaps even identical.
The first half of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance deals with the difference between “romantic” and “classic” beauty, the difference between hip and square, to use the language of the 70′s. Romantic beauty is the immediate beauty on the surface that you notice directly with your eyes. Classic beauty is instead the internal, structural beauty, where all the parts fit together to a harmonious whole. To see and appreciate this type of beauty you need knowledge and an understanding of the internal structures, so the classic beauty is not as immediate as the romantic.
Pirsig fells that many of the problems in the world (or at least the conflict between hip and square that was high on the agenda in the 70′s) can be traced back to the divide between these two perspectives, which has given us two different incompatible ways to view the world around us. Pirsig wants to find a way to bridge this divide.
After a while he focuses on the word Quality, which at least is used in both the romantic and the classic view of the world. Romantics and classics (in this sense) may have different opinions about what is beautiful, but they both have the concept. This is a starting point, at least.
A cornerstone in Pirsig’s philosophical reasoning is that he refuses to define what Quality is. He sees Quality as something that exists, but argues that it cannot be defined in terms of other concepts, since any definition would only capture something that is less than and different from what he means by Quality.
But even if Quality cannot be defined, we all have the capacity to recognize Quality. The main character Phaedrus, who is Pirsig’s alter ego in this part of the book, works as a rhetoric teacher at a university- His job is to teach students how to write texts with quality. Now he tries to apply his philosophical ideas about Quality in the classroom.
Phaedrus starts by demonstration that we all have the capacity to recognize Quality, by reading out a good and a bad essay to the class, and have the students vote about which one was the best. Although they have not yet taken the class that is supposed to teach them how to write well, they are still remarkable agreement as to which of the two texts is the best. They may not know how to write a text with Quality, but they can recognize it instinctively.
Phaedrus/Pirsig thinks that this is an ability that all living organisms have, and constructs an example with an amoeba (on page 244 in my paperback edition):
But if everybody is born with the ability to instinctively recognize Quality, why is there so much disagreement about it? Discussions about what is good and bad art seldom lead to a consensus, and so far nobody has been able to set up any objective rules for determining the matter.Quality is the response of an organism to its environment. An amoeba, place on a plate of water with a dri of dilute sulfuric acid placed nearby, will pull away from the acid (I think). If it could speak the amoeba, without knowing anything about the sulfuric acid, could say “This environment has poor quality”. If it had a nervous system it would act in a much more complex way to overcome the poor quality of the environment. It would seek analogues, that is, images and symbols from its previous experience, to define the unpleasant nature of its new environment and thus “understand” it.
Phaedrus’ answer is that we all interpret Quality differently, depending on our different experiences and different knowledge. He speculates that if he had read two texts that were outside his students’ frames of reference, like for example medieval poetry instead of ordinary essays, the students would have had a much harder time telling the good from the bad, since they would not have the proper background knowledge.
But above all, he sees a big dividing line between those who talk about romantic (immediate) beauty and those who talk about classic (inner, structural) beauty. He now has a world view like this:
It is logical, but Phaedrus doesn’t like it at all. Instead of Quality as a unifying concept between the romantic and the classic view, Quality itself has been cut up in two. His neat, undefined Quality is getting cut up and killed by the analytical knife.
Phaedrus also struggles with problem whether Quality is objective or subjective. Behind this seemingly innocent question lurks a raging bull ready to impale Phaedrus’ analysis on either one razor sharp horn or the other.
If Quality is an objective property, why has nobody been able to construct a scientific instrument to detect and measure it?
But if it is subjective and only exists in the head of the observer, then it is just a fancy name for whatever you like!
Phaedrus rejects the alternative to say that Quality is an objective property inherent in the objects, since there is no way to suggest any scientific instruments that would be able to determine Quality in an objective manner.
But he also rejects the other horn of the bull, that Quality would be subjective and be “just whatever you like”. He discovers that what makes that description so infuriating is the word “just”, which adds no logical value to the statement, but is only an insult suggesting “what you happen to like is of no importance”. If you remove the word “just”, nothing remains but except a truism: “Quality is what you like”. That’s what Phaedrus has been saying all along, so he’s got no problem with that.
He now rebuilds his metaphysical pyramid to look like this:
He now has Quality as a unifying concept at the top of the pyramid, either as a synonym for Reality, or at least as part of it. It is not a part of the objects, because it’s meaningless to talk about Quality unless there is a subject there to perceive it. But neither is it a purely subjective property that only exists in the observer’s head. Quality appears at the point at which subject and object meet.
Quality is something that is real and existing part of the universe, according to this model, but it manifests itself as an event when subject and an object meet, rather that existing exclusively within either the object or the subject who is watching.
At this point in the analysis Phaedrus and Pirsig go their separate ways.
Phaedrus, that is, the rhetoric teacher and searcher who is the author’s alter ego from an earlier stage in life, climbs on towards the next metaphysical mountain top, and believes he can see an identity between Quality and the Tao of Taoism.
Pirsig, that is, the author who was once Phaedrus, instead chooses to climb down from this high and thin metaphysical air towards the valley, where the people live. He shows how to use this metaphysical background to gain a new understanding of everyday tasks, like for example having the right frame of mind when doing motorcycle maintenance.
For Kopimism, we don’t have to choose if we want to follow Phaedrus or Pirsig of both. Instead, we can end the comparison right here between Pirsig’s and Kopimism’s respective concepts of Quality , at least for now.
I have no idea if Phaedrus claim that Quality and Tao are the same is actually true, and I know far too little about Taoism to even begin to approach the question. Pirsig himself is rather sceptical on that point.
But the comparison between Pirsig’s Quality and the Kopimist principle of The Attraction Force of the Good feels completely unproblematic. If they are not exactly the same thing, they are at the very least very closely related.
Therefore, I want to simply incorporate Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance into the Kopimist faith.
Kopimism teaches that Quality is one of the fundamental principles of the creation. Pirsig and Phaedrus teach us how to get a deeper understanding of Quality on a metaphysical level.
This is a match made in Heaven.
Copy and Share!
(This sermon in Swedish)