Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Seed Crystal Symbol Icon
A seed crystal is a small particle used to induce crystallization in a liquid. It is a metaphor that the narrator borrows from Phaedrus’s background in biochemistry to express the insight-based processes that allowed Phaedrus’s thoughts to suddenly take shape.

Seed Crystal Quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance quotes below all refer to the symbol of Seed Crystal. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Quality Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the HarperTorch edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance published in 1974.
Chapter 15 Quotes

Quality—you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Seed Crystal
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:

Visiting the school where Phaedrus used to teach, the narrator recalls the question which acted as a "seed crystal" for his ideas and for his eventual mental breakdown. One question was a tiny catalyst that enabled him to produce an immense body of thought in a short period of time. The question was, "are you teaching Quality this year?" Phaedrus became obsessed with the question, at one point asking his students to write an essay describing what Quality is.

Here, he gives the paradox that drove Phaedrus' breakdown and much of the book's central philosophy. We know what Quality is, but it is very difficult to define it. We can name things as better than other things, but when you try to say what that "betterness" really is, it seems to not exist. He wonders, if no one knows what it is, does it exist? At the same time, it must exist! The concept eludes all rational analysis. Phaedrus cannot use his knife of reason to understand what Quality is. The chapter ends with the problem unresolved. The narrator simply asks, "What the hell is Quality? What is it?"

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Seed Crystal Symbol Timeline in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The timeline below shows where the symbol Seed Crystal appears in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 16
Quality Theme Icon
...on the system and grades normally again. In the narrator’s words, he awaited a “ seed crystal ” to solidify his thought. (full context)