Howardism Musings from my Awakening Dementia
My collected thoughts flamed by hubris
Home PageSend Comment

You're making it too hard. "Quality" is just how well something meets the expectations of the observer. If the observer is a romantic, your romantic definition describes their expectations. If the observer is a customer, quality is the benefits they expect from you.

—Josh Poulson

What is Quality?

For some time now, I've been thinking about the question, "What is quality?" Most people have a difficult time defining it, and yet like pornography, "they know it when they see it." Robert Pirsig in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, initially introduces this subject with:

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…

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?

Let me begin with my own perspective on this subject, and please indulge me if I don't go into the deep water with this first attempt.

My Definition

Quality is a ranking based on values. It is often viewed as both the embodiment of those values, and the value system itself.

But both Pirsig and Kant show that quality, as a characteristic, exists before we identify or label it as such, meaning that we take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable.

When talking about quality, we assume that this ranking is shared… and this is often a useful expectation, for instance, the price of a new home is based on its worth or shared evaluation. We act as if quality (or beauty, to use the term of the aesthetics) is a factual characteristic of an object that can be scientifically measured… like its color or height.

But while it can't be measured, it can be evaluated based on knowing the shared value system or ranking of others. But while we act as if quality is a ranking that is share, it isn't always. My wife wanted to put an offer on a beautiful home that had a front yard open onto a 4 lane thoroughfare. The quality of the home wasn't high enough for me to want it, but it was for my wife.

Two Forms of Quality

Pirsig illustrates two forms of quality. One form, which he labels romantic, is concerned with its immediate and apparent quality. The other, which he labels classical, is concerned with its long term and underlying intellectual quality… on the level of Platonic forms.

Romantic quality would appreciate the curves and contours of a car, the feel of the seat and the steering wheel, the two-tone paint, etc. Classical quality would appreciate the workmanship of the car, how often it needs repairs, etc.

Often these qualities overlap. For instance, when a car door forms a tight seal when shut, there is both an emotional as well as an intellectual satisfaction of quality.

Why such a duality of quality? Pirsig says the split is based on time-- Romantic quality is based on a shorter time frame than the classical. I think it has to do with the inclination of the observer and the observer's brain. Our brains have two hemisphere's … a right and a left side.

One side, the right side, is highly visual and has no recognition of time. This corresponds to Pirsig's romantic quality based on immediate appearances. The other, the left side, is analytical and time-based. The majority have a predisposition to one of these sides and the amount of this will vary from person to person.

A few of us balance the two. :-)

Hrm… I think it is now time to wade in Kant's Critique of Judgment.

Tell others about this article:
Click here to submit this page to Stumble It