Meaning and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

LOGO FINALQuality IS…a pattern of allied concepts.

Why seek meaning in conceptual fields of knowledge and those allied concepts, principles and paradigms that describe and control them and then connect them with a theory?


In my last post it was suggested that we may need to seek the meaning of Quality in a biography, or the National Geographic Society or in a rock or a tree.  I think not. Or, maybe, we should ask management in any function to tell us about the meaning of Quality.  I think not. Where else can we look?  This brings us to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Robert Pirsig.

Robert M. Pirsig, a philosopher and author, probably made the most revealing statement about Quality when he said: “If you can’t define something you have no formal rational way of knowing that it exists. Neither can you really tell anyone else what it is. There is, in fact, no formal difference between inability to define and stupidity.”  Pirsig also believed that Quality cannot be defined. Is it feasible that we don’t know that Quality exists? Are we just fooling ourselves? Perhaps Pirsig has no confidence in our ability to define Quality accurately. However, Pirsig clarified his position: “When I say, ‘Quality cannot be defined,’ I’m really saying formally, “I’m stupid about Quality.”   It seems he is relegating the definition of Quality to those who are not “stupid” regarding the subject. Perhaps the paradox can be simply stated—if an authority is not considered stupid about Quality by his or her peers, but still fails to define Quality accurately, then stupidity rears its ugly head.

Pirsig may have a point. Why do we define abstract concepts, like Quality, as if they were trees? Ostensibly, because Quality is an abstract noun, but is not used in the context of definition as one. Abstract nouns have meaning, concrete nouns do not. What is the meaning of a tree? Quality, democracy, and freedom have meaning when thought about critically.

But, is there a problem with defining an abstract noun accurately, assuming accuracy successfully captures meaning?  I will introduce you to Paul Elbourne, a distinguished professor of semantics at the University of London in my next post.


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