1996-06-22: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
An Inquiry Into Values
(1974)

by Robert M. Pirsig (1928-)

I have re-read this work after many years. I found it very interesting to note how much of it I had incorporated into my own thought from the earlier reading. Most of this report will concern the differences I have with Pirsig. This should not overshadow the much greater agreement. His second book, Lila, coninues his philosophical explorations.

Pirsig’s approach is philosophical, in accordance with his background and nature. Mine is more practical and my own work is intended for a less-technical audience. Accordingly, for Pirsig Quality is an abstract concept, accessible to intellectual thought and perception. For me quality is a high-level sense, affecting behavior even if not consciously noted. Of course, it is entirely possible that Pirsig’s Quality is not the same as my quality; words are funny that way.

Pirsig divides Quality into romantic and classic types, and labels the romantic as preintellectual; in this he may mean my quality. In that case, his classic type is the basis of nearly all of his intellectual analysis. He spends considerable effort in this analysis, to little effect, in my mind. The point of much of this effort seems to be to justify the insanity that disrupted his life; to this end he creates an artificial bogeyman and then destroys it, just before his own crisis.

Pirsig, early on, emphasizes the analytical knife, which divides any topic of discourse according to the analyst’s desire. The power of the analytic approach has never appealed to me, appearing largely superficial and a posteriori. He divides many things in many ways (romantic/classic, preintellectual/intellectual, mental/physical, intellectual/emotional, mind/matter, dynamic/static) and then attempts to unify them with his analysis of Quality. I prefer a synthetic approach, building up from related observations, deductions, and guesses a larger structure or model that can be used as the source of answers to appropriate questions.

There is, of course, much more to this important book. It should be widely read and understood. When it was published, it had enormous sales and was widely mentioned. I wonder, however, how widely it was used. I seldom hear it mentioned any more, and wonder how many people actually read it and took anything away from it.

I wonder, too, how much of its appeal is due to the ideas it presents, and how much is due to the drama associated with the insanity it describes. Certanly the two are linked, but I suppose many people skip over the philosophy to follow the drama.

 

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