Is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Legit?
October 1, 2008 4:43 PM   Subscribe

[Philosophy Filter] Is Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" legitimate philosophy?

I've always really enjoyed this book, but not knowing anything about epistemology (and all those other philosophical things), I don't know if it is actually accepted as legitimate. Does it commit any great fallacies? What do real philosophers think of it?
posted by phaedrus441 to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Philosophy is defined as "the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct". There is nothing irrational in Pirsig's work at all, in fact he goes to some lengths to discuss the very subject of rationality as it applies to the subject of reason and perception. I would submit that if something (anything) makes you think in ways you didn't or weren't able to prior, then yes it is in fact a "legitimate" philosophy.
posted by datter at 5:03 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Considering Mr. Pirsig is a philosopher himself, I'd say yes.
posted by symbollocks at 5:34 PM on October 1, 2008

I consider it philosophy only as far as any book ever written can be considered philosophy.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 5:43 PM on October 1, 2008

As a philosophy student I really enjoyed reading Zen, but when I read the "sequel" Lila, it seemed to me that the philosophy had been developed into a way to live your life. The sequel left a foul taste in my mouth, I can't think of anything specific, but it kinda ruined the whole magic of Zen for me. Zen counts as philosophy, to me anyway, but anything after that just seemed kinda hacked together.
posted by robotot at 5:47 PM on October 1, 2008

In my studies of philosophy many many years ago, one of the first things I learned and one of the things that stuck with me is that before you can start to talk, or worse, argue about matter philosophical, it's important to define your terms.

Define 'legitimate'.

Do you mean 'correct' in its methodology or form? In its conclusions? In the propositions it takes as input for its arguments? Are those even good measures for the 'legitimacy' of a philosophical argument?

For my part, it's legitimate to the degree that it spurs thought, and when I first read it decades ago, the book did that for me. There was much about it that struck me, even at the time, as tenuous at best, but it's a novel of sorts, after all, and not a tract.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:18 PM on October 1, 2008

Response by poster: I realize that it's a good source for spurring thought, but, how about this-- do any of you believe that his philosophical ideas are true? As in, does your personal philosophy align with Pirsig's in the novel?

I can't help but think that while it's a well-written book with stimulating stimulating, it seems a bit far to actually 'believe' it.

Being a layman, forgive me if I am completely missing something here...
posted by phaedrus441 at 6:23 PM on October 1, 2008

This is something on my mind lately, so apologize for the long answer. Here's the way it goes.

When you ask "is it legitimate", you're really asking one of these things:

a) Does it make sense?
In other words, are there any serious logical fallacies? Does it misquote authors? Does it read like the writing of a relatively coherent, logical person rather than the rantings of a madman?

b) Is it properly applicable?
Does it help me, as philosophy? Does it make sense and fit into my worldview? Do I agree?

c) Is it accepted by the general philosophical discourse?
Is it taught in universities? Do other philosophers debate with or base their work off of Pirsig? Are papers about him published in philosophical journals?

For A, I don't mean "is he wrong in his deductions", I mean, is he blabbing out loud? Is he totally off his rocker? Clearly, Pirsig isn't. Let's strike that off the list.

B: this is a completely personal thing, so legitimacy doesn't really enter into the equation. You'd say that a massage was legitimate in some way or another if you felt relaxed and less tense afterwards, but you'd also understand if it didn't work on someone else for some reason. Whatever.

C's really the clincher here. Is it legitimate == Is it accepted? What we consider legitimate is only legitimate in so far as it's been validated by a community -- the philosophical community, at large.

Here's a good example. Comic books often aren't considered "legitimate" literature because the literary community (both academic and not) doesn't consider them literature.* They're very very rarely studied and analyzed academically, except from an anthropology/sociology/cultural studies angle. Comics aren't considered literature not because they're not emotional, meaningful, original, ingenious -- some of them are -- it's because they dont' have any "literary value", and that's because "literary value" is defined by the shared qualities that a certain arbitrary group of works (literature) has.

It's like, say, stumbling upon a plant and saying, "That's a not weed -- that doesn't look like other weeds, it isn't at all around the same height and shape and color as other weeds!" But really -- the definition of a weed is simply a plant you don't want. And to not recognize this process of definition based on an arbitrary criterion -- desire -- would lead to wrong conclusions in regards to what is or is not a weed.

Clearly I'm not equating literature and weeds. What I mean is that the question of legitimacy runs the same way -- It's legitimate because a large community of people consider it legitimate, not because it has certain values or characteristics. The criterion of legitimacy is respect, or more accurately 'communal respect'.

And respect, too, is tricky -- respect from whom? how? It's possible that the philosophical community loves Pirsig, and most casual readers hate him. In this case, then, Pirsig is a legitimate philosopher within philosophy, and a crackpot/fraud to everyone else. But the matter is that academic communities hold sway and power over the general community, so the general community would most probably take him as a philosopher, albeit a really bad one. There are these power dynamics, always.

So, then the next question would be -- is it respected, and if so, which communities is it respected by? Is it respected by the philosophical community?

Those are separate questions that I can't answer very well.

* Some comic books are, sort of -- Sandman and Watchmen come to mind -- but then they're often re-termed as "graphic novels", which I think of as a nasty way to distinguish between comic books considered to be 'good' and those considered to be 'bad'. And even these novels might make the New York Times bestseller list, but they still aren't considered literature --- at least, not yet.
posted by suedehead at 6:57 PM on October 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

As a philosophy student (though a green one), I would say yes, it is philosophy, but I personally found it rather unappealing. Just because it's not an impenetrable essay written by a German in the 1800s doesn't mean it's not philosophy.
posted by Autarky at 6:58 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I got the same feeling as stavros when I read it - particularly near the end, where I felt that Pirsig's perception of the legitimacy of his argument was based on the fact that it stumped some professor of philosophy in some tutorial situation (was it the University of Chicago?) once. Kind of a reverse appeal to authority.
posted by Paragon at 7:04 PM on October 1, 2008

Oh, and what stavros said much more succinctly.

And also -- two notes:
A) Does it read like the writing of a relatively coherent, logical person rather than the rantings of a madman?

This is another problem, which is "who defines what coherent and logical is?" Isn't the usage of logic in language also based on a system of consensus -- not that logic is established by consensus, but in that we agree to use this logic in speaking? It's the same question, I guess, just on a larger scale. If English was dying out completely, and LOLCATS reigned as the dominant language, then the last living speaker of English would be considered to be incoherent, speaking gibberish like a madman.

posted by suedehead at 7:06 PM on October 1, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, these are really interesting comments. Suedehead's ideas made me realize that, if one follows Pirsig's own ideas of quality-- that it is not variable among different people, only that people's a priori knowledge changes the way that is is viewed-- can apply directly to the book.

If someone has certain a priori knowledge (in Pirsig's terms), then they could easily conclude that comic books are literature, while others, that only see "pretty pictures" (or something along those lines), would just see the pulpy-image that seems to pervade society.

Along those lines, It's awfully tough for me to remember that everybody sees things differently; that perhaps I really like something because of all the amazing attributes it has, though to a friend, perhaps all those positive aspects are actually detractors. I just think, "WHY DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND WHY THIS IS GREAT?!?"

Bit off-topic, sorry.

To get back to Pirsig a bit, what do you think when the narrator says he see things for what they mean and that another characters see them for what they are?

How do you see things?
posted by phaedrus441 at 7:15 PM on October 1, 2008

Think about this, Nietzche was a legitimate philosopher, so were Kant and Aristotle, and yet Nietzche's position in essence was that if you put up a stick covered with poop and works of Kant and Aristotle side by side, it's not immediately clear which is more palatable. And this is not so uncommon in philosophy. I've read Pirsig's book and I thought it was 10-cent variety of philosophy but it is philosophy nonetheless. The thing is that there is no inherent dignity or quality in the world 'philosophy'. It can be as bad as anything else.
posted by rainy at 11:04 PM on October 1, 2008

IANARP, but I did read Zen and the Art etc not long after completing a degree in philosophy (as a sub-major, admittedly) and I'd personally say that it's philosophy only in the sense that some sophomore who's just read a bit of Aldous Huxley at the same time as discovering pot is a philosopher.

It was such painful bullshit to me at the time that I struggled - really had to force myself to endure it - as far as about a dozen pages from the end, and literally threw it away. I've never thrown another book away in my life. It seemed that woefully naive & just plain crap to me at the time.

To add some explanation: my sociology major was largely around continental philosophy - structuralism, semiotics, poststructuralism etc, so broadly approaching our understanding of the world from the subjective "it's all language & discourse" viewpoint, counterbalanced by a bunch of analytical metaphysics & epistemology, which broadly tries to seek to understand very similar things from a more objective perspective: "what exists, and how can we know it?"

Having that whole subjective / objective thing going around in my head for three or four years had Pirsig's whole "oh, maybe there's a third element, in between, that I'll call Quality" sound to me like little more than the rantings of some dickhead on acid.

I liked the pithy summary from the Telegraph's 50 Best Cult Books:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Values by Robert M Pirsig (1974) Burnt-out hippy takes son on bike trip. Remembers previous self: lecturer who had nervous breakdown contemplating Eastern and Western philosophy. Very bad course in Ordinary General Philosophy follows. If he’d done Greek at school and knew what "arête" meant, we could have been spared most of the 1970s.

Anyway, the fact that I couldn't stand it doesn't necessarily prevent it from being philosophy; I just personally don't think it even closely cuts it as good, informed or relevant philosophy.

You might get some value from this thread, just so as I can contribute something positive to this thread.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:12 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

This started as a legitimate question:

Is Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" legitimate philosophy?

This was answered (basically: sure, even if it's not up there with [insert Great Name here].

You have now turned the thread into pure chatfilter: "How do you see things?" This is not what AskMe is for.
posted by languagehat at 5:51 AM on October 2, 2008

It's bad philosophy. That's the thing with philosophy -- anyone can do it, but not everyone should.

Oh, and this:

If you think you want to follow a philosopher, you are mistaking philosophy for religion.

This is simply false. Do we mistake science for religion when we accept the results without doing the experiments ourselves?
posted by voltairemodern at 7:35 AM on October 2, 2008

I don't necessarily agree with Pirsig. In fact, I only read the first 100 pages of his book a few years ago. That having been said,

I just personally don't think it even closely cuts it as good, informed or relevant philosophy.

That's a completely acceptable opinion. Just wanted to point out, though, that "good", often times is defined by 'being informed or relevant". It's less of a separate quality and more of a characteristic of collusion/conformity to the current narrative of philosophy. Quality as determined by adherence to the common, shared narrative -- a tyranny of the majority, in a sense.

voltairemodern: It's bad philosophy.

I'm curious. What makes you think so?
posted by suedehead at 9:45 AM on October 2, 2008

do any of you believe that his philosophical ideas are true?

One believes, or not, in dogma. Inquiry is central in philosophy, and it doesn't come to an end.

By and large the academy has not found Pirsig's lines of thought to be worth pursuing. I believe that he's been the subject of at least one dissertation but considering how long ago his first book was published, that's not much. That doesn't make it a settled issue for all time, it just means that most academic philosophers do not consider him an insightful and provocative writer.
posted by BigSky at 9:50 AM on October 2, 2008

Zen always struck me as an autobiographical journey through one guy's struggles with a lot of relatively heavy philosophical questions. It's not a work of rigorous philosophy so much as the story of someone trying to develop their philosophy of life. I remember in particular one passage where he describes months that he spent thrashing around a particular challenging idea, coming to a particular conclusion with some satisfaction. Shortly thereafter he discovered that he'd just walked through the same progression of ideas that a philosopher covered in his college classes had -- but he hadn't paid much attention.

To him, that moment was a humbling one -- he saw it as indicative of his tendency to tilt at windmills and ignore the insights that others had worked hard to acquire. Was that portion of the book philosophy? I don't think so. But it was still very interesting, and I found a lot to identify with in it.

I think that's one of the reasons Zen resonates with a lot of readers who are trying to figure things out. They may not have a lot of interest (or the energy for) formal philosophy, and Zen is a more personal and approachable kind of book.
posted by verb at 3:21 PM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are many different definitions of the term "philosophy."

Yes, Zen is a book that talks about understanding the world, so, in modern parlance, it is "philosophy."

My only comment, I guess, would be that its conceptions of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and Plato, among many others, are horribly and utterly wrong. Maybe that's because Zen is written from the perspective of a dissenting voice on the University of Chicago campus in the '70s - I don't know - but the amount of bluster, bravado and falsity that Mr. Pirsig has promulgated through this book is a constant source of vexation to me. Not least because his opinions especially of Aristotle seem to have become the dominant ones today.

I don't know if 'philosophy' is something that people can speak about coherently much anymore, but I can urge you in the strongest terms not to take Pirsig at his word when he talks about Aristotle in that book. Of course, Aristotle doesn't have many friends nowadays - it's ridiculous to me that Phaedrus can believe that he's standing up to some dominant paradigm when he's happened to stumble into the one backwater where the nabobs prescribe Aristotle, as little as they understand him, over the modern ideals - so you don't hear that much. But I'll say it again: Robert M. Pirsig doesn't know a damned thing about Aristotle.
posted by koeselitz at 11:22 AM on October 5, 2008

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