Horns of a Dilemma

January 25, 2011 by Bill Ivey

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes the main character Phaedrus as being caught in a dilemma. In discussing the idea of Quality which Phaedrus had been developing, the English Department at the college where he taught challenged him, “Does this undefined ‘quality’ of yours exist in the things we observe? Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?” (p.223) Phaedrus quickly realized that to accept either choice was to lose the challenge. If Quality was assumed to exist in the object but could not be scientifically measured, then it was nonsense. And if Quality was assumed to be subjective, then it was “just a fancy name for whatever you like.” (p.223) Neither choice was acceptable. What was he to do?

Eventually, he realized that this dilemma related to the mind-matter conundrum that had been frustrating philosophers for ages. And so he solved the problem neatly by rejecting both horns of the dilemma: “Quality is not objective. It doesn’t reside in the material world. Quality is not subjective. It doesn’t reside merely in the mind. Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two.” (p.231)

Filed Under: On Education, problem solving, compromise, critical thinking, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Conflict resolution