Zen, quality and labels

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig was first published in 1974 and is one of my all-time favourite books. It follows a couple of motorcyclists as they tour around the United States. Whilst on this trip the orator ponders the concept of Quality. Calling this discussion a Chautauqua, he begins with, “Quality…you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is.”  The geyser at Yellowstone National Park is used as one example of this, saying that by putting a sign on the natural wonder of the geyser, labeling it, the quality of the spectacle in diminished.  I agree with this notion. It reminds you that someone else has seen this before your own discovery. And not only that, but they have named it, described it, and labeled it. This robs you of some essential and unique experience. It places in your mind smaller notions of the possibility of the natural wonder that it is.


We could apply this to all natural wonders. Pristine environments retain the ability to inspire and fill us with humility. Put a sign on it, a fence around it, and describe it and the awe is gone. Our own sense of personal discovery and adventure is stolen by small minds.


This argument applies to people too. Do we all fall into the false habit of labeling people, if not out loud, then certainly in our minds? This person is a baby-boomer. That person is old. That one is young. And the labels go on. This diminishes the person and impedes the labeler’s potential for an authentic interaction with the person they label. It detracts from the Quality of the relationship and fails to allow for a deeper experience to the detriment of everyone in our community.


Librarians are labelers; if not by nature then certainly by vocation. It serves as a way to find stuff and that is the crux of the job. It can be a pitfall though if it becomes habitual and when applied outside of the realm of information and artifacts.


Pirsig later states, through his character Phaedrus; “Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a nonthinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, quality cannot be defined.” To me that states that quality and labeling are mutually exclusive. Is this correct? Food for thought.


I’d like to see an end to this trend of putting people into small inaccurate categories. The reality is that we are all here now in this time and space experiencing this world together as humans! The similarities of that experience are far greater that the differences, and the complexities and ever-changing variants that reside inside each individual cannot be neatly tied up with one meager label.


I was interested to know if this discussion about quality had continued since Pirsig’s novel in 1974 and so I did a bit of web-searching. I was thrilled to find the Metaphysics of Quality website and this provides a very detailed and academic discussion.


I am taking an ebreak to explore this beautiful physical Earth of ours. Au revoir. A bientot!

2 thoughts on “Zen, quality and labels

  1. Pingback: Tourist Traps in the Land of Dinosaurs QLD – Mick & Sue's Aussie Adventure

  2. Pingback: Zen and the Art of Creative Writing | Sues Bent

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