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
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.
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
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
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.
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