Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I recently finished reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence” (ZAMM) by Robert Pirsig and I would like to say a few words about that book.

First, I think it’s a good book and would recommend it to anyone who has an (perhaps small) interest in philosophy. It contains some important parts of the history of philosophy, told in a pretty approachable way.

I don’t want to summarize or give a full review of the book. Instead, read the reviews on Amazon for that: http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Motorcycle-Maintenance-Inquiry/dp/0553277472

Beware, because there are some traps in the book. ZAMM is a book about philosophy and metaphysics, so there’s going to be a few ideas in there that challenge your view of the world. At least, it challenged me. Here’s an important tip: Don’t get stuck! For example, Pirsig tells us about David Hume’s version of empiricism and its implications, which for me was very hard to accept at the time. So, I thought about it for quite a while. Instead, I could have read on and discovered that Pirsig introduces us to Kant, who (according to Pirsig) wrote “Critique of Pure Reason” as an answer to Hume.

I mean that you should absolutely think about the problems introduced in the book, but try not to get stuck.

Actually, one of the most practical parts of the book is when Pirsig talks about “not getting stuck” and you find some of his ideas here and here. As a software developer, I really found this part of the book useful.

What does Pirsig mean with the word Quality? There’s so much that word could mean. There’s a part in the book which talks about if quality is objective, subjective, or outside that dichotomy. Pirsig says that quality can’t be objective (I agree) and gives some arguments. He then also says at the same time that quality can’t be subjective, but the argument is pretty much like “when you sense quality, you feel something that is outside of yourself”. I don’t get that argument. (If I missed something, please comment below or tweet me).

[I think that quality (for humans) is subjective. More specifically, I think that it is very close to that which Lacan calls “objet petit a” – the unattainable object of desire, or perhaps “the the object cause of desire” (but don’t take my word for it). Then, of course, some of us desire similar things, but I think at least that it is more of a cultural phenomena, rather than something universal in nature.]

A lot of the book is travelogue, Pirsig tells us what he sees and experiences on the road with his eleven years old son, Chris. I don’t like the amount of travelogue text in ZAMM, it’s just too much. Sure, it lightens up the philosophical material in the book, but there’s just such a big amount of travelogue text and as far as I can tell it doesn’t add much to the book.

There is a good podcast episode about ZAMM from The Partially Examined Life podcast. There, you also find some good blog posts which discusses the ideas in the book, and they do not have a consensus on Pirsig’s ideas in the group. More specifically, they seem to disagree on the value of his ideas and also on the novelty of them. For example, some say that there are some Heidigger, Hegel, and pragmatism in his text. Perhaps I could personally stretch it to say that Pirsig takes a pragmatic process philosophy stance, but I’m not too sure about that one..

In summary, ZAMM is a good book which introduces some important part of the history of philosophy in a quite easy manner. Recommended reading.


About gustafnk

Developer at Jayway, REST/Hypermedia, AWD, Software apprentice, Dvorak user, Christian atheist, Zizek fan. I'm on twitter: @gustaf_nk
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2 Responses to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  1. Vividhunter says:

    I read this book at uni a few years back and really enjoyed it. His notes on gumption especially stuck with me. His sequel to ZAMM, Lila, is more densely philosophical, but less narratively satisfying, at least for me. Still another book worth reading.

  2. Pingback: Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Robert M. Pirsig « For Whatever It's Worth…

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