Friday 15 December 2017


'Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' by Robert Pirsig was first published in 1974 and caused a literary sensation. It became a million-selling classic - one of the must-read books of the decade. I gave it my best shot but got no further than the first few pages. The narrative seemed tedious and the philosophy that was interwoven within the story too difficult for me to get my head round. I remember thinking that I needed to teach myself some philosophy before picking up Robert Pirsig again.

Decades rolled by and I did get an education in philosophy - part-time study at the University of East Anglia, one evening a week between 2003 and 2005, led to a Certificate in Philosophy. And that was followed by three years part-time study between 2006 and 2009 with the Open University which led to a M.A. in Philosophy. So the ground had been prepared when this year, in late April, I read an obituary for Robert Pirsig. He had died aged 88 at his home in Maine in the USA on Monday 24 April.

The Guardian had interviewed him in 2006 and Pirsig had said:
'It is not good to talk about Zen because Zen is nothingness. If you talk about it you are always lying,

and if you don't talk about it no one knows it is there.'

'Ummm ....', I thought, unconvinced.

Pirsig also noted in this interview that the book's narrator (Pirsig) had:

'... set out to resolve the conflict between classical values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road'.

That sounded more interesting. I made a mental note to buy a copy of his classic to read it forthwith. As I read on through the obituary, his life journey was emerging as diverse and complex. He had been a child prodigy scoring 170 in an IQ test - although for me that sounded warning bells, mistrusting such instruments. Then, army service during the Korean war had exposed him to eastern thought and culture. He came back and studied philosophy at the University of Minnesota, travelled to India, and back in the USA taught at Montana State College and the University of Illinois.

I did read 'Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (ZATAMM, hereafter) after we returned from Greece this summer, all the way through. I still have doubts about its narrative structure but I am convinced that Robert Pirsig has formulated a philosophical argument that deserves universal attention. He made, I think, one of the most important contributions to the history of thought in the last century. There is a danger that lack of exposure will mean the ideas of Pirsig will gather dust and be lost, unless rediscovered or articulated afresh. This blog is my contribution to spreading the word that Pirsig was on to something profoundly important. It seems relevant to note that I never came across his ideas when I was studying philosophy at university. Pirsig was a maverick and singular voices can be threatening to places of learning, a fact that is given full treatment in ZATAMM.

Pirsig creates a character called Phaedrus in ZATAMM, a lecturer who engages in a disputation with his university elders. I assume Phaedrus has his basis in the younger Pirsig at an early stage in his academic life. Here are Phaedrus' reflections on the force of the idea that he has developed:

Robert Pirsig and his 11-year-old son, Chris - as featured in ZATAMM. Tragically, Chris was knifed and died, aged 21, in 1979 - a murder-victim of a San Francisco mugging.  

'This was it. He really believed. It wasn't just another interesting idea to be tested by existing rational methods. It was a modification of the existing rational methods themselves. Normally when you have a new idea to present in an academic environment you're supposed to be objective and disinterested in it. But this idea of Quality took issue with that very supposition of objectivity and disinterestedness ... He had the faith that he had solved a huge riddle of the universe, cut a Gordian knot of dualistic thought with one word, Quality, and he wasn't about to let anyone tie that word down ... If he was wrong, who would care? But suppose he was right?. To be right and throw it away to please the predilections of his teachers, that would be a monstrosity!' (pp.328-329).

What then is this 'Quality'? To explain further, I am indebted to the work of Anthony McWatt and his recent article in 'Philosophy Now' (Issue 122, October/November 2017, pp.34-37). McWatt was the first person in the world to receive a PhD on Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality - from the University of Liverpool in the early 2000s.

Pirsig rejects Plato's division of the human soul into its two aspects: higher-status 'reason' and lower-status 'emotion'. He also rejects Aristotle's emphasizing of analysis over rhetoric. Pirsig argument is that the legacy of Plato and Aristotle and the Renaissance rediscovery of such Greek thought has been the 'subjective versus objective' way of thinking that now largely now dominates in the West. We have objectivity, reason, logic and dialectic on the one - and usually superior - hand; subjectivity, emotion, imagination, intuition and rhetoric on the usually less esteemed other. The former has prized scientific validity; the latter is more problematic.

Pirsig's originality lies in the way that he challenges this false division by reconciling the spiritual (for example, Zen Buddhism), the artistic (for example, the effect that art has on us, how I or you react to the paintings of Jago Stone) and the scientific (for example, motorcycle maintenance). All three realms are held together within the unifying paradigm of the Metaphysics of Quality. Pirsig argues that we have had the concepts of 'subjectivity' and 'objectivity' engrained in us from such an early age that we generally accept their validity without question. But this division and these concepts are just metaphysical constructs. And there is a better, more coherent, way of making sense of what we experience - the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ).

In (MOQ), Pirsig divides reality into Dynamic Quality and static quality. The former is the term he gives to the continually changing flux of immediately-experienced reality; the latter refers to any quality abstracted from this flux. Dynamic Quality cannot be defined in words since it is not fixed or determinate and therefore a true understanding can only be realised through its direct experience. So for example, knowing the Ultimate in Buddhism, or knowing the Saviour in Christianity, are direct experiences that do count as valid knowledge, even though they are not experiences that can be fully expressed through theory and the language of words. The Buddha or the Christ cannot tell you what Dynamic quality is, but he can point a way through the concepts of 'static quality' so that you can experience it for yourself, and then you might understand it.

As Pirsig said in a letter to McWatt in 1997, 'All this points to a huge fundamental difference between the MOQ (Metaphysics of Quality) and classical science. The MOQ is truly empirical. Science is not. Classical science starts with a concept of the objective world - atoms and molecules - as the ultimate reality. This concept is certainly supported by empirical observation but it is not the empirical observation itself.' One might now add that  advances in quantum physics and our increased grasp of the strange world of sub-atomic matter also makes this former objectification of atoms and molecules problematic.

All this, a taster for you. Do put ZATAMM on you must-read list - and enjoy the stimulating ride.



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