Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Robert M. Pirsig

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: April 1974
Printing: 1984
ISBN: 0-553-27747-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 380

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Yes, I've finally read the book with one of the best titles in philosophy, after several years of having it queued, and after introducing my parents to it some time before I managed to read it myself. One of the reasons why I put it off was a worry that it would be too dense or circuitous for my mood, but it is instead quite readable and firmly grounded in a Western rational mode of idea exploration, even though it touches on some Eastern religious concepts. I think publishers do this book a disfavor now by playing up the mystic overtones and releasing it under imprints like "Bantam New Age," although that was probably a great way to sell books a few years ago.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is told at three levels, two-thirds memoir and one-third philosophy. The philosophy is told as internal musings intermixed with a biography of Phaedrus, the person who originally developed the ideas put forth in the book. These internal musings happen during a motorcycle trip across the country taken by Pirsig and his son (at first also accompanied by two friends). The exact relationship between Phaedrus and Pirsig is part of the narrative, so forgive me for being coy about it.

Pirsig uses the cross-country trip partly as a framing device, and for that it is adequate but not particularly notable. If the book were more constructed, I would expect more thematic links between the trip and the philosophical discussion; that's hit and miss and at times doesn't match well. But this is a real trip, a real memory, and what it loses in thematic structure it more than makes up by humanizing Pirsig, providing an emotional context for the philosophy. The core of Pirsig's theme is the unification of holistic, subjective perspective with analytical, objective perspective. Putting an emotional context behind his personal philosophy not only makes it easier to understand his motivations but also provides an immediate practical example of the application of the theory.

The trip also drives the story forward, providing an element of pacing that's missing from pure philosophy, but most of the suspense comes from Phaedrus's story. As strong as the philosophy is, Phaedrus was the most engrossing part of the book for me. His mixture of maverick obsessiveness, frightening mental disconnection, disrespect for accepted academic authority, and creative approaches to both philosophy and teaching make him an excellent tragic hero. One keeps turning the pages to find out what happens next, and in the process, despite some awkward early narrative self-consciousness, is drawn into the discussion of philosophy that dominates and saturates Phaedrus's life.

By traditional standards, this is more a popular philosophy book in structure than a serious philosophical treatise. The philosophy is introduced slowly and idiosyncratically, it is mixed in with memoir and biography, and it's presented with deeply personal arguments rather than objective appeals. That, of course, is much of the point. Pirsig's focus is on finding a way to integrate the holistic, subjective, emotional view we all have of the world, the knee-jerk reaction that drives our immediate reactions and intuitive satisfaction, with classic Western philosophy. The focus of that reconciliation is Quality, in the sense we mean when we describe an object as "high quality." Slowly building his conception of Quality and linking it to both subjective artistic appreciation and suitability for purpose, he equates our concept of Quality with what others have called Zen, or Tao, or flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work came after Zen and I wonder what Pirsig thinks of it). From that, he builds an approach to unifying subjective and objective appreciations of quality.

Writing in 1974, Pirsig was addressing a culture that has since substantially changed. At the time, much anti-establishment rebellion rolled technology in with the rest of the power of the establishment and thought of technology as inherently dehumanizing. Since the advent of personal computers, the shift towards an information economy, and literary movements such as Cyberpunk that reclaimed technology for the outcast, progressive, and rebellious have changed the landscape, and the attitudes Pirsig discusses sound a bit quaint. After all, I work in an industry (software development) where work combines science and art, where subjective style is seen as important as objective capability. Still, that adoption of Pirsig's core goal just supports its importance, and his explanation leads to an excellent analysis of how to merge the two in one's thinking. Also, the subjective, holistic rejection of reductionism and objectivity is still visible today in religious worries about secular science, and Pirsig's ideas on bridging apply as well there with a slight recasting.

Zen may have the attitude of popular psychology, but it's refreshingly devoid of preachy conversion, superficial surveys, or facile answers to everything you need to know for life. Pirsig may be using an informal tone, but he is trying to say something original and powerful, and while I'm not a sufficiently serious student of philosophy to comment on his originality, he seems to succeed. His iconoclastic approach did bother me in places, though, the most notable being his initial presentation of quality as a third co-equal aspect next to subjective and objective experience. He introduces this by saying that Phaedrus was, to his knowledge, the first person in Western tradition to avoid subjectivity and objectivity and take a third path, and then presents an interrelationship that bears significant similarity to Trinitarian doctrine that stood at the center of Western theology for a thousand years. Yes, he did say "to his knowledge" and comments later that Phaedrus was in some respects a poor scholar, but that's a big one to miss. The parallels between quality as the interaction between object and subject that gives each independent existence and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the manifest love between God the Father (subject) and Jesus Christ (object) that gives the Trinity distinct individual existence are startling, and I would think hard to miss for a student of philosophy.

There are a few other problems like this. Pirsig covers the link between Quality and Tao, but misses the close similarities between his description of Quality and the descriptions of God in the mystical branches of both Christianity and Islam. Quality as the indescribable that exists before description matches closely with the conception of Allah in Sufism. And the weakest part of Pirsig's argument for me, perhaps because of my knowledge of Trinitarian doctrine, is the argument that, since quality must exist as interaction between subject and object to allow either to exist, quality is somehow above or more fundamental than either. I would argue that it's equally valid to say that quality could not exist without both subject and object to interact; it seems more natural to me to argue for a balanced trinary system than to put forward quality as a monism.

Quibbles aside, though, this is excellent, thought-provoking material. Even if Pirsig's focus neglects comparisons and ties to other significant philosophical systems, the existence of such parallels is evidence that there's something here. This sort of attempt to reconcile Tao with reductionism is valuable, worthwhile reading for me; that is a combination that I work with on a daily basis, and Pirsig gave me quite a bit to think about. And the book works at all three levels it attempts, adding two satisfying stories to its philosophical exploration and balancing weaker spots of one against stronger passages of another.

This has the readability of popular psychology but not the shallowness, and if you've been putting it off because you were worried it was going to be too mystical, too difficult, or too proselytizing, worry no longer. Pirsig kept me interested, made me think, didn't talk down to me, and didn't annoy me, and higher praise for philosophy is rare.

Followed by Lila.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-01-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21