On Metaphysical Quality

So he wrote on the blackboard, write a 350-word essay answering the question, “what is Quality in thought and statement?” — Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Quality can sometimes be the truth or correctness of a work, usually an academic paper or policy proposal. Such correctness must be created and judged intellectually. But Quality of the sort that “you know what it is, but you don’t know what it is” can be rendered as ‘appeal’. Appeal can be experienced without being consciously explained. No training is required to enjoy Poe’s Raven; the study of rhetoric largely aims to discover the origin of the appeal. Devices like rhyme, meter, and alliteration have their effect regardless of whether the rhetorician analyzes them.

It is not necessary to define Quality by leaving it undefined, nor must Quality precede subject and object. Instead I adopt the empiricist’s view: there is the conscious self, and reality external to that self. That reality exists regardless of if it is observed, but it can only be known to the self through the senses. Subject perceives object, and the self tries to coalesce and codify sensory perception into a coherent mental model of the external reality. Such a model is never truth, but it is frequently more useful than truth. The process goes in reverse as well: the expectations set by the model affect one’s perception (so that one does not perceive typographical errors in one’s own work, for example).

Therefore, appeal is perception that is deemed to be pleasurable or desirable. But this does not mean Quality is arbitrary. One may always determine why something was perceived to be of high Quality through constructing a mental model. But that model is not required to appreciate the Quality of the perception. There’s always a reason; you just might not know what it is. We can perceive more than we can explain.

It is naive to classify the arts as the romantic mode, and their Quality therefore arising from evasive feelings and inspiration. Every art form has an enormous vocabulary of techniques, devices, and other methods to decompose, criticize, and increase the Quality of a work. When master artists work by intuition, it is a nonverbal, modeled form of these ideas — not innate, inexplicable talent.