Robert M. Pirsig : Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’m pretty sure I was first introduced to this book in London by a certain Jem Peteln, a motorbike rider and more than a bit of a philosopher himself, in about 1975, i.e. not long after the book was first published. Very few details had remained in my head since then, but it had made enough of an impression for me to have intended re-reading it for the last 35 years, and it was certainly well worth rediscovering. This is a totally unique book, enjoyable to read, thought-provoking and full of wisdom.

(details below)

While reading the book, in spite of being aware that it was, to some extent at least, autobiographical, I hadn’t been at all sure whether the new system of metaphysics developed by the main character was meant to be taken seriously as a coherent system which the author might really believe in, rather than something he’d more or less thrown together, as a literary device, out of all kinds of useful ideas and wise insights he’d either come across or thought up himself. Since finishing it, however, and having done some on-line research, I’ve discovered that Pirsig very much believes in his ‘Metaphysics of Quality’. In fact, since writing the book he’s spent the rest of his life making a career out of telling the world about it, and he seems to have managed to convince quite a few disciples here and there. There are serious articles about it on Wikipedia (not that that means very much), philosophers have written papers about it, at least one PhD has been written on the subject and there are at least two active and fairly extensive websites ( and devoted to it.

I’d come across various points in his philosophy which I’d found dubious or inconsistent, but if it had all been just a literary device I wouldn’t have had any reason to write about them or even to think about them very deeply. Now, however, I feel I ought to give them some more attention. I often found myself reading some of Pirsig’s arguments and wishing I’d been there to say ‘hang on a second!’, points at which it was obvious that his view of the world and mine are very different. One small example which springs to mind is when he’s talking about using a strip of metal cut from an old beer can to fix some part of a motorbike, and his friend in the book is horrified at the idea of using a piece of rubbish to fix his expensive machine. He’d been talking extensively (and often very interestingly) about the difference between what he calls the ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ ways of viewing the world. ‘Classical’ type people see what something means, i.e. the underlying structure, whereas ‘romantic’ type people see what something is, i.e. its surface appearance. His friend, being a ‘romantic’ type person, only sees what the piece of beer can is, i.e. rubbish, while Pirsig sees what it means, i.e. a way of fixing the bike. I’d have used those two terms in exactly the opposite way: what that piece of metal is, is determined by its objectively and scientifically describable characteristics (it’s chemical constitution, weight, dimensions, etc.), which are what decides whether or not it’s useful for a given purpose. What it means, on the other hand, would be the significance and associations ascribed to it by human beings, e.g. the qualification of it as ‘rubbish’. Maybe this is just a question of word choice, so that what he’s trying to say remains the same no matter which way round the terms are used, but I think it’s symptomatic of something deeper: perhaps the fact that Pirsig is more attached than I am to the world of man-made, cultural ‘meanings’, and that this lack of detachment might be a bad sign regarding the rest of his philosophy…

The central problem for me, however, is that I find his philosophy of “Quality” to be essentially religious (i.e. based on belief rather than rationality); much more so, for instance, than that of the Dalai Lama. What it comes down to is that he identifies “Quality” with the ultimate reality, ‘the One’, which includes both subject and object, ‘reality’ and its observer. He equates it with ‘the Tao’, and with ‘God’, and at the basis of his whole philosophy is the assertion that Quality is good, i.e. ‘goodness’ is at the basis of all that exists. He even mentions the apparent etymological connection in English between the words ‘good’ and ‘god’ which, unless I’m much mistaken, is actually just a coincidence. Is there any rational reason for saying that the ultimate reality, ‘the One’, is good ? I don’t think so. As far as I’m concerned ‘quality’ and ‘good’ are relative, man-made concepts. Something is good, or has quality, when it is useful in achieving whatever one is trying to achieve, so that the same thing can be good or bad according to circumstances, and according to who’s deciding. If the ultimate reality, ‘the One’, contains everything, then it contains everything we call ‘good’ and everything we call ‘bad’, and there’s absolutely no reason to say that the ultimate reality is anything other than neutral. To say that it’s good (or bad for that matter) amounts to a belief, pure speculation presented as fact, and if that isn’t a religious standpoint then I don’t know what is! Even if we assume that the ultimate reality is good, I still find it a bit simplistic to equate it so directly with good workmanship, with the relationship of a good worker to his material, and with the way a motorbike ought to be fixed. Pirsig makes a lot of very true and very interesting statements regarding the relationship of a worker/artist to his work/art. He says much about ‘identification’, but doesn’t see this in terms of division of labour, over-specialisation and the unnatural separation of interrelated functions (which may or may not have a lot to do with Marx’s alienation – I haven’t quite worked that one out yet). Given that Pirsig uses what amounts to a religious philosophical system to explain something as innately political as the relationship of a worker to his work, it’s not surprising that he arrives at what could well be described as an anti-political viewpoint, and one which was and still is very popular in religiously inclined circles: ‘changing the world starts with changing yourself’, and because politics is all about trying to change others, it can never solve the world’s problems – all very true, but the world still has to be organised, decisions still have to be made, politics is there whether you like it or not, and being apolitical definitely isn’t the answer. I wonder what Bertrand Russell would have thought of the ‘Metaphysics of Quality’. I bet it would have earned a few of those politely scathing, creatively sarcastic remarks he was so good at.

Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…

Getting away from the ‘Metaphysics of Quality’, however dubious that philosophical system might be, and back to the book, it remains a small masterpiece. Given its autobiographical aspect it could be seen as a view of craziness seen from the inside, an investigation of what ‘mental illness’ really is, in which Pirsig comes down heavily on the side of anti-psychiatry. It is in any case a very honest self-investigation and a unique document of an unusual and interesting life. In the introduction to the 1999 edition Pirsig talks about the ending of the first edition having been misunderstood, in that many people thought that the (good) narrator triumphs over his rival, the evil ghost Phaedrus. I’ve no idea how I interpreted the ending at the time, but in the new edition (with Phaedrus’s texts conveniently in a different typescript) there can be no doubt about it: from the moment Phaedrus appears, the author is very much on his side rather than on that of the narrator, and there can be no doubt whatsoever about who the author considers the goodie of this tale and who the baddie. Not only is it obvious at the end that Phaedrus has won, but it had been obvious for a very long time that he was going to.



author Robert M. Pirsig
title Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
first published 1974
language English
read 29/06/2010 – 11/07/2010


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