Bruce G Charlton MD

Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry
Department of Psychology
Medical School
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Tel: 0191 222 6247
Fax: 0191 222 5622

Visiting Professor
UEL Centre for Public Health Policy and Health Services Research

Charlton B.
A Philosophical Novel: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Durham University Journal. 1992; 84: 111-17

The purpose of this article is to suggest a way to approach Robert M. Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values (ZAMM for short). In an important sense the book does not require an introduction or gloss as it is specifically designed to induce the reader into its desired way of thought. However, Pirsig’s message is so radical that it can prove hard to hold onto the insights attained from reading the book, and it is at this point that an unpacking of the meaning can be useful. Furthermore, a comparison with the work of other philosophers can be helpful in clarifying just what Pirsig is suggesting.

Pirsig is doing philosophy for moral reasons. He is concerned with the effects of his thinking and writing on ordinary life. The book is intended to be read for this reason, and not just by professional philosophers. Which, I presume, is why Pirsig gave his book such a paradoxical and arresting title. If he had called it by the subtitle An Enquiry Into Values it is unlikely that it would have been read outside educational institutions; although the price paid is that it is not much read within them. But it is not just the title which makes Pirsig’s hook stand apart from the usual academic books. ZAMM is written as a sort of novel, in that it achieves much of its effect by literary techniques such as characterization, plot and suspense.

What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua that’s the only name I can think of for it like the traveling tent-show Chautauqua’s that used to move across America... an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. ( p.7)1

Pirsig adopts a deliberately homespun’ tone throughout. even though the book tackles problems of great importance and difficulty. This is perhaps an American trait, and Pirsig is a Midwestern American of a kind seldom encountered in the cultural products with which we are familiar in Britain. We are used to the West Coast hedonists, the East Coast intellectuals and the wealthy Southerners; but the Midwest is known, if at all, only for its football teams. It is not the least of the pleasures of this book that we are given a view of another America, one which Pirsig clearly values.

But why write philosophy as a novel? It is as if in order to say something new, Pirsig was compelled to say it in a new way so as to avoid getting drawn into the old predictable arguments with the old predictable results (objective versus subjective, realism versus idealism, ends versus means, or whatever). He is engaged in supplying us with a different context for our lives. The text must supply the new context, must defeat our tendency to view the new things it says in the same old ways; slotting the new information into old categories. Pirsig achieves this context by writing philosophy as a novel. He dramatizes the philosophical process. and in order to follow the drama we must put ourselves into the new context through imaginative identification with the protagonist. In doing this the book’s form reflects its message. The book is about the importance of ‘care’ in all that we do, so an impersonal and ‘objective’ text would not be appropriate.

Philosophical discourse as a narrative is nothing new when we consider the dialogues of Plato, rather than simply the part spoken by Socrates. ‘Philosophy’ as the whole thing and not just one point of view. A digest of Socrates ‘philosophical views’ abstracted from this context misses the point that it is the dialogue in its totality which is what we should consider. Bald conclusions are neither compelling nor correct. What Plato regards as the philosophical life (the best life) is that of the dialogues, and not that of the opinions of Socrates in isolation from that life.

In ZAMM Pirsig tells the story of his former self, a philosophical system builder he names Phaedrus. after the character in Plato’s dialogue of that name. While the Pirsig who narrates the book seems to be fairly breezy and down to earth. Phaedrus was a more tormented, solitary and metaphysical character. Phaedrus goes through a process of system building, but the system is broken apart by its contradictions to lead, via insanity and a complete change in personality, to a better state (post-metaphysical. even post-Philosophical). By the end of the book Pirsig has attained the ability to engage in direct action, without the tortured craving for ‘objective’ foundations.

Pirsig at the time of writing this book is asking himself a whole different set of questions about life from those he asked himself as Phaedrus. He is no longer hung-up on the metaphysical puzzles which previously ‘bewitched’ him (to use Wittgenstein’s word): the hunt for the ‘ghost of reason’; the nature of quality. Pirsig the narrator sometimes puts himself forward as merely the husk remaining after insanity has destroyed the ascetic genius Phaedrus: ‘Just another middle-class, middle-aged person getting along’. However it is the Pragmatic (in both senses) narrator who has got it right, and who leads a better life than the hero of faith called Phaedrus. This modesty is best seen as a literary device; after all it is the present-day Pirsig who wrote the book.

On the one hand Pirsig presents himself as a plain man, but on the other hand to attain this he had to go through the processes described for Phaedrus. Which is, of course, why he describes the tragedy of his former self Phaedrus, rather than simply describing his present way of life for us to admire and emulate. We identify with Phaedrus as his story unfolds, and come to understand how it was that he needed to ask the questions he did, and how deep he needed to dig to believe that the questions themselves were the products of bewitchment. That is how deep the reader must dig, because we too are subject to these delusions.

There are two valid ways of life described in ZAMM: the pre-critical Romantic and the post-metaphysical Pragmatist; and one non-valid (though understandable) way of life: the metaphysical system builder. If as a Romantic you don’t feel drawn towards philosophical speculation but lead your life as an integrated whole without trying to analyse it, then that is fine. The pre-critical or ‘unexamined’ life can be a good one, although Pirsig clearly feels it is fragile, vulnerable. An example of a successful Romantic is portrayed. the abstract painter De Weese. This is how people were (says Pirsig) before Socrates, and sometimes they still are. It is a special kind of moral genius’ who has a natural but unreflective sureness of action: De Weese in his painting, intuitive and undivided.

It is fragile because it cannot answer questions from ‘square’ or Classical critics, questions concerned with analysis or justification. Indeed it can hardly even risk thinking about such things. And it has great difficulty dealing with technology the ‘motorcycle maintenance’ of the title. For most of us, things can only get better after getting worse; we must pass through the illusions of metaphysics in order to become free of their distortions. Pre-critical innocence cannot be got by trying; instead we must stay with our legacy of metaphysical ‘nonsense’ (another Wittgensteinian term), pushing it as far as it will go until we have seen past it to the clear light of a post-metaphysical state: a state when we realise the futility of becoming entrapped in our own metaphors and mistaking them for inescapable and insoluble paradoxes. We are then less vulnerable, our innocence will not be corrupted by reflection, and we can act with sureness and satisfaction. And technology can become a joy.

It is in this context we can see Pirsig’s description of working on a motorcycle (pp. 296—3 19) with its discussion of gumption. There is reason to suppose that this section forms the most important part of the book for the author, the part where the ‘philosophical’ discussion is cashed out in a down-to-earth example in everyday life.

— I like the word ‘gumption’ because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along... I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption. (p. 296)

The paramount importance of gumption solves a problem of format of this Chautauqua. The problem has been how to get off the generalities.., there’s the kind of detail that no motorcycle shop manual goes into but that is common to all machines and can be given here. This is the detail of the Quality relationship. the gumption relationship, between the machine and the mechanic, which is just as intricate as the machine itself. Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up. low-quality things. from a dusted knuckle to an ‘accidentally’ ruined ‘irreplaceable’ assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things ‘gumption traps’. (p. 298)

And after discussing the particular gumption traps involved in motorcycle maintenance. Pirsig is able to return to the general discussion, but with a better sense of just how much, and how little, such general principles can help us.

Maybe it’s just the usual late afternoon letdown. hut after I’ve said it these things today I just have a feeling that I’ve somehow talked around the point. Some could ask, ‘Well, if I get around all those gumption traps. will I have the thing licked?’

  The answer, of course. is no, you stilt haven’t got anything licked. You’ve got to live right too. It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts...

  The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be ‘out there’ and the person that appears to be ‘in here’ are not two separate things. They grow towards quality or fall away from Quality together. (pp. 3 18—19)

The philosophical impulse (the desire to analyse, systematize, ‘objectify’ the sense of mystery on regarding the world) is seen, finally, to be a blasphemous response; immoral, a superstitious reaction with the covertly egotistical aim of attaining mastery.

Why [Phaedrus] chose to disregard [advice from De Weese] and chose to respond to this dilemma logically and dialectically rather than take the easy escape of mysticism. I don’t know. But I can guess... Philosophical mysticism... has been with us since the beginning of history... But it’s not an academic subject...

  I think a second reason for his decision to enter the [philosophical) arena was an egoistic one. He knew himself to be a pretty sharp logician and dialectician, took pride in this and looked upon the present dilemma as a challenge to his skill. I think now that trace of egoism may have been the beginning of all his troubles. (p. 225)

Pirsig wants to dislodge objective truth from its status as providing the bottom-line justification for human action. And we tend to feel that he should provide us with an alternative. But even to name the alternative will expose it to attack by philosophers who ask questions which can only be answered in the terms appropriate to enquiries into objective truth, whereas those terms are exactly what are under question. If we really want to understand we must listen, not argue. On the other hand to leave ‘it’ unnamed is to risk being incomprehensible, in exactly the way that Zen koans are incomprehensible (that is irrelevant, incoherent, inconclusive — a series of non-­sequiturs). Pirsig does name his alternative as Quality, and takes the bull by the horns, or rather goes between the horns (to use his own bullfighting metaphor for philosophical debate). by refusing to define it.

Much of the book is taken up with this refusal to attempt a definition of the central term, and the reasons for this. How could we define our primary value except in terms of lesser values, and therefore fail to capture it? But, what is more to the point, why do we feel we must define it before we can act well? That is the crux. Instead of practice (how we do our motorcycle maintenance) we get stuck on paradoxes derived from the process of definition and analysis; subjectivity versus objectivity, the real versus the ideal. This is exactly what happened to the debating opponents of Socrates, and what has been happening to philosophers ever since. Why then, says Pirsig, do we keep doing it?

The very notion of first thinking up a philosophy and then applying it to life is at fault. That division between thinking and doing is the whole problem: the idea that the good life is the examined life. Before you start living (or doing) you must sort out certain ‘Philosophical’ problems, and what is more sort them out using terms defined more or less) by Plato et al.

This agenda is woven into our discourse from so far back that we can’t see any other rational way of discussion. Breaking the grip of reason is just what Zen Buddhism is about, and also why Pirsig adopts an historical approach: he is telling a story of how we came to think this way, in order to show us alternatives (places where we could have branched off), and to explain that our present way of thinking is only one of the possibilities (the one that for some reason or another actually happened), and that reason throughout history is a changing concept.

We should see Pirsig’s use of the concept of Quality as a way of short circuiting the entanglements of philosophy which prevent us from living the good life. It is not a name for something, hut a deliberate non-sequitur such as mu or the fourfold negative for Zen Buddhists. Like the off-the-wall answers or unpredictable responses of a Zen master, it means something like ‘think again’; or in a more American parlance, ‘shut up and wise up’.

Perhaps [Phaedrus] would have gone in the direction I'm now about to go in if this second wave of crystallisation, the metaphysical wave, had finally grounded out “here I’ll be grounding it out, that is, in the everyday world. I think metaphysics is good if it improves everyday life; otherwise forget it. (p. 240)

The search for the nature of Quality digs back and back to the ‘fall of man’: that point at which Socrates (or Plato) demoted Quality (or what the ancient Greeks called arête) and instead substituted Objective Truth as the greatest good.

It seems to me that Pirsig is a Pragmatist, as that description is used by Richard Rorty in The Consequences of Pragmatism (Brighton: Harvester, 1982):

Pragmatists think that the history of attempts to isolate the True and the Good, or to define the word ‘true’ or good’. supports their suspicion that there is no interesting work to be done in this area... The history of attempts to do so. and of criticisms of such attempts. is roughly coextensive with the history of that literary genre we call philosophy’ — a genre founded by Plato. So pragmatists see that tradition as having outlived its usefulness. This does not mean that they have a new, non-Platonic set of answers to Platonic questions to offer, but rather that they do not think we should ask those questions anymore... They would simply like to change the subject. (p.xiv)

Pragmatists are saying that the best hope for philosophy is not to practice Philosophy. They think it will not help to say something true to think about Truth, nor will it help to act well to think about Goodness, nor will it help to be rational to think about Rationality. (p.xv)

Pirsig is also against principles or law’s as a guide to conduct, and in favour of the ‘holistic’ notion of Quality or arête (the quality of an excellent life). And this notion is not something we should (or can) try to define, analyse or even talk about much. He regards the whole business of looking for foundations as profoundly mistaken, and is trying to substitute for it a different way of doing things. If he is successful we will find the new way so interesting that we will simply forget about our old preoccupations, cease to be tormented by them.

This is a two-stage process, although both stages happen together: first Pirsig attacks the philosophical way of doing things by describing it as a social and historical ‘accident’, then he shows us an alternative way of doing things. The text must succeed at both of these aims in order to effect change. Following Rorty, I regard Pirsig as being engaged in the overthrow’ of capital ‘P’ Philosophy which is (roughly speaking) that enterprise begun by Plato to establish eternal and objective foundations for knowledge.2 He is trying to change the subject of conversation, and the way in which we converse. This links him to the likes of Wittgenstein. but in mood more closely to Rorty himself and to the earlier American Pragmatists such as John Dewey and William James.

If you want to build a factory. or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured, dualistic subject-object knowledge although necessary, isn’t enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what’s good. That’s what carries you forward. This sense isn’t just something you’re born with, although you are born with it. It’s also something you can develop. It’s not just ‘intuition’, not just unexplainable ‘skill’ or ‘talent’. It’s the direct result of contact with basic reality. Quality. which dualistic reason has in the past tended to conceal.

        It all sounds so far out and esoteric when it’s put like that it comes as a shock to discover that it is one of the most homespun, down-to-earth views of reality that you can have. Harry Truman. of all people. comes to mind, when he said, concerning his administration’s programs. ‘We’ll just try them... and if they don’t work... why then we’ll just try something else’. (pp. 277—78)

So the end of Pirsig’s philosophical quest is a return to the down-to-earth, the particular: a return to practice. Philosophy does not give us the key to a ‘new’ and transcendent way of life. What was a good life before philosophy is still a good one after it. Pragmatism is the hard-nosed, no bullshit, Midwestern version of Zen.

However, it can also be seen from the above passage that even Pirsig does not entirely avoid metaphysical thinking. In talking about Quality, he is almost irresistibly tempted into the business of defining Quality. Just prior to this point in the book there is a somewhat half-hearted attempt to draw an analogy between Quality and ‘reality’:

The real train of knowledge isn’t a static entity that can be stopped and subdivided. It’s always going somewhere. On a track called Quality...

Romantic reality is the cutting edge of experience. It’s the leading edge of the train of knowledge that keeps the whole train on the track... The leading edge is where absolutely all the action is. The leading edge contains all the infinite possibilities of the future. It contains all the history of the past. Where else could they be contained?...

Value, the leading edge of reality, is no longer an irrelevant offshoot of structure. Value is the predecessor of structure. Its the pre-intellectual awareness that gives rise to it. Our structured reality is pre-selected on the basis of value, and really to understand structured reality requires an understanding of the value source from which it’s derived. (pp. 276—77)

Well.., sort of. But Pirsig is coming close, at this point, to stating that this ‘pre-intellectual awareness’ (value) is Reality (with a capital R): in other words that Quality is the objective truth (the railway track) of the world about which all else is an approximation: coming close, in other words, to epistemology — which is just what he is warning us against. Because how on earth could we understand ‘the value source’ from which our structure is derived, without being able to take a God’s eye (timeless, omniscient) view of Reality, and then compare it with our perception of that reality? The whole discussion makes no sense and is not necessary.

In this passage the notion of quality has become reified by having it located in sentences where it can be construed as having a place in time and space.

At the leading edge there are no subjects. no objects, only the track of Quality ahead, and if you have no formal way of evaluating, no way of acknowledging this Quality, then the train has no way of knowing where to go. (p. 277)

Of course, this is an analogy, but it is going against the trend of the rest of the book to talk of ‘formal’ ways of evaluating Quality, or even to say just exactly where Quality is situated (i.e. in the track). As Peter Cook and Dudley Moore might say, ‘That could confuse a stupid person’. I am being rather unfair in picking out this portion of the book, because it is one of the few places where ‘Pirsig nods’, but it shows the constant danger, in this kind of writing, of slipping back into vocabularies which inevitably depict things in a way which favours the opposition. In trying to do justice to his opponents’ arguments. Pirsig has allowed them to choose the vocabulary (the metaphors) in which discussion will proceed — in doing this he concedes important ground. You cannot, meaningfully, philosophise about Quality, and that is that.

It is particularly unfortunate that this misleading (although well meant) analogy should appear at this particular point in the book, where Pirsig approaches nearest to a credo, and indeed puts the pragmatic (anti-Philosophical) message most strongly.

One’s rational understanding of a motorcycle is therefore modified from minute to minute as one works on it and sees that a new and different rational understanding has more Quality. One doesn’t cling to old sticky ideas because one has an immediate rational basis for rejecting them. Reality isn’t static anymore. It’s not a set of ideas you have to either fight or else resign yourself to. It’s made up. in part. of ideas that are expected to grow as you grow, and as we all grow. century after century. With Quality as a central undefined term, reality is, in its essential nature, not static but dynamic. And when you really understand dynamic reality you never get stuck. It has forms but the forms are capable of change. ( p. 277)

We must not be misled by complimentary metaphors like the ‘essential’ nature of reality. There are no essences except those changing ‘forms’ which are ‘reality’ only insofar as they are helpful to us in improving the Quality of our world. With metaphors, as with anything else, ‘We’ll just try them... and if they don’t work... why then we’ll just try something else’.

This is Pragmatism, surely. the same as the way of life outlined by James C. Edwards:

The sound human life, construed pragmatically. would be tolerant. experimental. optimistic. forward looking, unconstrained by outmoded intellectual or practical patterns. and so forth. It would, according to men like James and Dewey, free us to preserve the good of the past while remaining outside the clutches of its various rigidities; and the sound human life would give us confidence in a better future, a confidence unshadowed by fears of skepticism (and its political correlate, anarchy) or dogmatism (with its offspring, tyranny). The sound human life points towards an ever-increasing liberalism, the wider and wider extension of that conversation among equals which J.S. Mill thought essential to civilisation itself.3

I am well aware that Pragmatism forms a circular justification (‘people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like’), but that is what every justification boils down to —in argument (or conversation) what we are really trying to do is to persuade other people to enter our favoured circle alongside us.

In this essay I have not been trying to say that Pirsig should be regarded as a canonical philosopher and studied in Universities, although there is no reason why he shouldn’t be. But I would like to suggest that philosophers read Pirsig for personal rather than professional reasons. I am unsure whether there is much to be gained from a specifically ‘academic’ placing of his work. but I am confident that there is a lot to be gained from reading the book: and from listening, not arguing.

However, it does seem to me that the radical nature of the philosophical message in ZAMM has not been sufficiently realised. Nor have Pirsig’s links with writers who, in different ways, have been attempting to round-off the Western philosophical tradition and start something different: for example Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger from the German tradition:

Rorty, James C. Edwards. Thomas Kuhn, William James and John Dewey from the USA; Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida from France; Don Cupitt from Britain, to name but a few. The differences between these writers, I would contend, are mostly differences of their characters. Pirsig is, in this analysis, an optimistic, practical ‘middlebrow’ philosopher writing for a broad audience of non-professional philosophers like himself.

I am not being dismissive here. Whether a writer counts as highbrow (academically respectable) or middlebrow (read by an intelligent lay audience) is a matter of style rather than intelligence, excellence or importance. Charles Dickens, Bernard Shaw and Dylan Thomas are middlebrow writers, and are at least the literary equals of equivalent highbrows such as George Eliot, Henry James or Ezra Pound. Not superior, but different. Likewise for philosophers, we need all types and temperaments. There is a long line of brilliant and influential lay philosophers such as Montaigne, Samuel Johnson. John Ruskin and G.K. Chesterton. And I would suggest that Pirsig is one of our best living representatives.


1      Page references are to the 1976 Corgi edition published in London.

2      Small ‘p’ philosophy has been defined as loosely as possible by Wilfrid Sellars as ‘an attempt to see how things. in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term’ (quoted in     Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, p.xiv). Philosophy in this sense is something done by novelists, poets, playwrights, priests, jounalists and critics, as much as, or more than, by professional Philosophers.

3      James C. Edwards, Ethics Without Philosophy: Wittgenstein and the Moral Life (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida. 1982), pp. 225—26. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the influence of this book by Edwards on my essay. The whole approach I have taken with Pirsig was suggested by Edwards’s intense and satisfying unpacking of Wittgenstein’s moral purposes. My interpretation of the nature of Pragmatism was also substantially affected by this book, although derived primarily from the writings of Richard Rorty.


Since I wrote the above essay in 1989, Pirsig has published another hook. Li/a: An Enquiry into Morals (London: Bantam. 1991). My impression (after a single. careful reading) is that the book forms a sort of extended and elaborated commentary on ZAMM. However, it differs significantly in explicitly pursuing a ‘Metaphysics of Quality”, and therefore advocating a different philosophy from that of ZAMM: no longer Pragmatism but something else.

I sent a typescript of my essay to Robert Pirsig shortly after it was completed, and he was kind enough to reply and make some comments (letter dated 18 August 1989). My explanation as to why the hook was written as a novel, he described as ‘exactly right’, as was my point that the philosophical argument in ZAMM ‘continues the philosophy of William James’.

Nevertheless, for reasons explained in Li/a. Pirsig has now come to believe that Pragmatism is incomplete, and that the Metaphysics of Quality is its completion. As he recognizes, ironically, according to the argument I have made in my essay. this Metaphysical enterprise ‘will strike [me] as an enormous “nod”’. Well, perhaps.

Clearly, Pirsig’s views have evolved over the years since ZAMM. I do not yet feel ready to make a firm decision as to whether or not this evolution constitutes progress or merely change. I still maintain that pragmatism undercuts the goal of metaphysics: i.e. to establish objective and eternal Truth rather than that kind of provisional and temporary ‘truth’ which it is best to believe for a given purpose.

On the other hand, it may be the case that when we act, we always (implicitly) act on the basis of a metaphysical system. This system may never be grounded in God-like certainty, but may nevertheless be unshakable without destruction of the individual: a ‘final vocabulary’ as Rorty has called it.

Notwithstanding. the kind of optimistic, wholesome liberal pragmatism which is expounded —with almost complete success  in ZAMM  looks to me like one of the best ‘philosophies of life’ I have so far come across. It will take a lot to make me drop it.