Robert Pirsig’s philosophy, woven into “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and its sequel “Lila”, could have profound effects on business and society, if understood and implemented correctly.
How does one overcome the short-term thinking that (stereotypically) permeates modern-day capitalism, and craft a way of doing “business” that is sustainable for the largest audience possible: humanity as a whole?
What sort of paradigm shift would make this possible? I must warn readers that this essay might not be an easy one to digest, as it is quite difficult to undergo such a paradigm shift, but I believe that it is well worth the effort.
In 1974, Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was published for the first time, gaining the 170-IQ previously-diagnosed-mentally-ill-now-sane philosopher an almost cult-like following. Many people to whom I have spoken have heard of the book and that they should read it, but have not yet – let me summarise why reading it, and its sequel “Lila”, should be compulsory for all businesspeople.
Some would wonder what such a philosophical, mystical-sounding book as "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" would have to do with business - I would say that the way that we think about everything has a tremendous impact on how we live out our daily lives, and Pirsig's books will change the way that you think about everything. Bear with me in my summary of these books and you might come to see a new side of business.
“Zen” and Quality
In “Zen” (to abbreviate), Pirsig comes to the conclusion, with highly convincing philosophical justification, that “quality” (or Quality, as Pirsig refers to it) is not something which exists within a subject or an object – it exists prior to subjects and objects, and is, in fact, the very source of subjects and objects. In other words, he concludes that Quality is the source of absolutely everything – the entire universe. To understand his justification for this you must read the book, because it is too intricate to be repeated here in summarised form.
Thus, you do not improve the quality of a motorbike by repairing it and fine-tuning it: Quality draws both you and the motorbike towards Quality itself, where you and the motorbike are temporarily stable patterns in Quality. Evolution can also be understood as Quality drawing the universe towards Quality itself, creating higher and higher forms of life as Quality sees fit.
[Aside: The idea that all matter is a set of temporarily stable patterns of movement within an “unbroken whole” is backed up by the physicist David Bohm (who was heavily influenced by Einstein) in his book “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”, where he attempts to lay the foundation for the reconciliation of quantum theory and relativity theory. It would seem to me as though Bohm’s notion of this “unbroken whole”, which he calls the “Holomovement”, is equivalent to Pirsig’s notion of Quality, but where Bohm identified the unbroken whole, Pirsig gave at least a hint towards an understanding of the direction of its movement.]
“Lila” and Morality
Then, in “Lila”, Pirsig develops this understanding further into what he calls the “Metaphysics of Quality” – a philosophical framework that incorporates his understanding of Quality from “Zen” that can be used as an alternative paradigm to make sense of the world; a lens through which one can gain a much finer appreciation for the world.
In this framework, he divides Quality into “static quality” and “Dynamic Quality” (capitalising the first letters in Dynamic Quality, I suppose, is a gesture of respect). Dynamic Quality is the leading edge of experience – the ever-fleeting here-and-now that can never be grasped or controlled (or possibly even seen). Pirsig equates Dynamic Quality with the Tao in Zen Buddhism.
Static quality consists of the relatively stable patterns left behind by Dynamic Quality. You and I and the computers in front of which we are sitting are “static patterns of quality”, along with all the other matter in the universe. To further illustrate the point, Pirsig uses the analogy of a train to help understand the distinction: Dynamic Quality is like the leading edge of the train, whereas static quality is all that follows behind it.
Pirsig then divides static quality into four types of patterns, as follows.
- Inorganic – the matter which makes up the universe.
- Biological – a special type of patterning within inorganic patterning that leads to all forms of life.
- Social – a special type of patterning within biological patterning (i.e. between biological organisms) that allows for rich interaction between biological organisms.
- Intellectual – a special type of patterning arising from social patterning. See the sociologist George Herbert Mead’s works, such as “Mind, Self and Society” (1934), for a pragmatic description as to how intellectual patterning arises from social patterning. In short, without society, you would not learn or develop language or even a mind.
It is important to note here that the framework above, as well as this text that you are reading, are intellectual patterns of static quality. The importance of this will become evident shortly.
Much of the point of “Lila” is to be an inquiry into that which is moral, where Pirsig simply defines morality as a higher level of patterning prevailing over a lower one – life prevailing over inorganic matter (death) is thus moral; society and social norms prevailing over the biological is thus moral; the existence of intellectual patterning (a focus on “sustainability”, for example) prevailing over social norms is thus moral; and finally, Dynamic Quality prevailing over static quality is moral. Inherent in this notion of morality is the assumption that the universe has a built-in tendency towards favouring higher-level patterns.
A doctor killing a particular type of germ in order to save a patient is thus moral because such an interaction allows for intellectual patterning in the patient to prevail over the mere biological patterning of the germ.
[Aside: For additional justification of the viewpoint that the universe has a built-in tendency towards creating “wholes greater than the sum of their parts”, see Jan Smuts’ “Holism and Evolution” (1927). The movement towards greater collectives comprising smaller-scale patterns is moral according to Pirsig’s paradigm, and is an inevitable mechanism built into the fabric of the universe in Smuts’ paradigm. Martin Nowak, the Harvard-based mathematical biologist, also speaks of the same tendency as “cooperation” in his book “SuperCooperators”.]
Morality and the Organisation
In “Lila”, Pirsig speaks of Manhattan in New York as “The Giant” – no single person has designed the whole of Manhattan, it has simply “evolved” into its present state with all of its complex underground networks of cabling and piping, as well as its social conventions and expectations that keep a constant inflow of the types of people relevant to its existence and an outflow of those irrelevant to its existence. It is almost as if the people and structures there are merely components (“cells”, if you will) that make up the “higher organism” that is Manhattan, where it has a life of its own as a whole.
One could look at organisations in a similar way: an organisation is a collection of processes, and people are part of (and architect) those processes in their daily activities. It is an interesting intellectual exercise to try and think of ourselves as “cells” which make up higher-level “organisms”, perhaps “super-organisms”. One thing of which we must remind ourselves in this analogy, however, is that cells have limited intelligence to be able to understand that they are part of a greater body, and so I think it would be premature to think of an organisation (or a city, or even country) as the basic unit of a collective that is one “level” higher than an individual person.
Despite the often-quoted flaw in his research methodology, Jim Collins might be on to something in the philosophies contained in “Good to Great” and “Built to Last”. The principle behind much of what he says about “Level 5 Leadership” seems to me to be that leaders of truly great organisations seem to act in ways that favour the organisation (the group, the collective) over their own personal ambitions. Smuts’ Holism would back this principle up, and Pirsig’s definition of morality would most likely consider such a principle inherently moral.
The Importance of Lower Levels
It is incredibly important to realise that, without the lower levels, the higher levels would not exist. Higher “levels” are merely relatively stable collections of patterns within those lower levels. You and I, for example, would not have a mind were it not for social patterning. We also would not have bodies were it not for biological or inorganic patterning.
If we want our employees and co-workers to perform intellectually, as is the case in the knowledge economy, then surely all of their various levels of patterning need to be understood and nurtured. People have often realised the need for high-quality food, exercise and rest for optimal biological functioning, but what about the social layer that gives rise to intellectual patterning? What are the mechanisms that govern this social layer?
Power and Social Influence, and Intellectual Patterning
It is my opinion that one of the most fundamental mechanisms that govern social patterning is social influence – the pre-intellectual giving of the ability to influence one’s own behaviour and thoughts to another, or their giving of that ability to you (it is reciprocal in nature). There are many reasons as to why we give others power over us: we love or respect them (maybe they are spouses, friends, members of our community or heroes of some sort), or perhaps we fear them and what they can do to us and the ways in which they can disrupt our long-term pursuit of what we perceive to be Quality. We tend to willingly give power to those people that further our own interests (see this article), and we find ways to take it away from those who do not.
Money allows one power – the power to walk into a shop, take food, and walk out with that food without the threat of violence. Money, therefore, operates at both an intellectual (in numbers and processes to increase/decrease those numbers) as well as a social level (in allowing one freedom).
When we zoom out a little to look at larger groups of people, I imagine that we would see ideas, or intellectual patterning, propagating most easily through the channels carved out for it by social patterning. To rephrase that in more practical terms: the ideas of those who are most powerful will generally tend to spread more quickly and easily to the minds of others.
A lack of understanding of and appreciation for this level of patterning is pointed out by Pirsig in “Lila”, where he talks about how social values have been eroded in modern, Western society due to the prevalence of one static intellectual pattern in particular: the scientific method.
Scientific Management and The Fallacy of Objective Observation
Is it really possible to be completely “objective”? What exactly does it mean to be “objective”? As Pirsig points out, science teaches us that, to be objective, we must rid ourselves of all notions of “value” and quality. Pirsig equates value with Quality, and thus the question arises: is it really possible to live in a Quality-free manner, when the source of all that is, including the scientific method itself, is, in fact, Quality?
Scientific management seems to hint to us to lose our subjectivities, and thus our focus on values. In favour of what? Profit. Why should one use scientific management towards profit? Because profit is valuable. Why do people generally seek profit? Mainly to satisfy biological and social needs such as quelling bodily appetites for food and sex, and the physical rush of adrenaline, and driving one towards greater and greater levels of power to be able to continue the cycle of quelling appetites for food and sex, the physical rush of adrenaline, and so on. This movement is thus inherently immoral according to Pirsig’s paradigm, because it favours lower levels of patterning over higher ones, and with the erosion of social norms and values in modern society, it becomes even easier to pursue such low-level patterning without consequence (at least in the short term, that is – in the long term, we all know that this is unsustainable).
We have a real problem here: scientific management is not actually telling us to rid ourselves of value, it is only telling us to rid ourselves of all value except profit (a static, limited intellectual and social pattern). It is inherently admitting that one cannot do away with the need for value to drive behaviour in a particular direction.
The Rise of Alternative Measures of Organisational Success
Admittedly, scientific management mainly provides us with intellectual tools to help us move towards the goals that we set – the trouble is that the most common goal for many organisations is profit, and only profit.
It is therefore noble to introduce new measures of organisational success such as one’s carbon footprint and various social impact measures, but again the trouble is: what is it that we are to value? What are the goals that we should collectively be valuing in order to drive behaviour towards those goals? Surely there comes a time when a particular measurable goal ceases to create real value? A simple example might be setting a goal such as feeding the hungry (a noble one indeed) that drives employees towards (the unintended consequence of) neglecting their own families - which makes the activity and goal unsustainable and actually harmful to society in the long run.
The question then arises, with this tendency that we have for creating situations that allow for all sorts of unintended consequences, should we be setting such corporate goals at all? What should we set our sights on, then, in our collective activity?
Perhaps we should consider Quality, as understood from Pirsig’s paradigm, with all of its various nuances, as our collective goal, operationalising it into smaller, more measurable goals (static intellectual patterns) that affect all levels of patterning (inorganic, biological, social and intellectual) that we revise regularly as external circumstances (Dynamic Quality) change? Surely, this is the moral and sustainable thing to do?