Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig)

On one level, Zen is a book about a motorcycle journey taken by John and his son Chris from Chicago to San Fransisco. On another, it’s a treatise about how mechanics ought be practiced. On another it’s a recollection of John’s previous life before a nervous breakdown, when he pursued the ghost of reason, and quality or “the one” as the prior origin behind all rational dividing up of the world according to categories. But mostly, it’s all these things at once – an argument for what the appropriate life is, demonstrated in a road trip, exemplified in mechanical practice, and the historical-philosophical grounding of which is given in an encounter with Greek philosophy.

So, why is this book significant? To me, it’s significant for many reasons. As a scholar, I’m interested in the proximity of Pirsig’s reading of Aristotle to Heidegger’s, and also Pirsig’s affinity with Heidegger on insight that Greek thought was something like a “first beginning”, a first opening up of a truth or a seeing so important that it was worth fighting for (i.e. Socrates’ case), and that a wortwhile current task is not simply to “surpass” Greek thinking but to re-experience it’s original profundity. But as a mechanic (mostly bycicle, although I’ve done no shortage of work on cars), I find Pirsig’s discussion of “having the right attitude” when practicing mechanics to be essential, something I know negatively by having many experiences of not having the right attitude, and not being able to diagnose or solve mechanical problems. But also, I know it positively, because when you bright the right mindset to problems, and tackle them mindfully, solving them gives a strong sensation of worthwhileness. Furthermore, as a phenomenologically aware thinker, or rather, one who makes it a task of thinking to become aware how his body is understanding a situation, the kind of awareness Pirsig talks about having with the bike, with the road, with the weather, is all intuitively confirmed by my own experience. It is the kind of thing usually reserved for literature, but that philosophy can do much better through increased clarity.

Would I recommend this book to others? Almost certainly. Mostly, I would recommend it to undergraduates or beginners studying Greek philosophy – not only is the way the questions presented in the work as live problems for contemporary life philosophy, they are grasped within their historical context in a manner which exceeds by far the standard historical “context” given in any Plato or Aristotle course. And the context is not grasped as a historical nicety, but as a situation of strife within which the irony and mis-representations used by Plato can be understood as strategic within a living conversation.

But not “mostly”, because mostly this book is a book for not only the non-expert, but the person who hasn’t cultivated an interest in philosophy through the standard trappings of academia. Mostly, this is a book for someone who is willing to ask the question, “What is quality?”, and see it as a significant question. In a larger sense, it is a book for anyone willing to grapple with the inherent strangeness of notions in our everyday language which are immediately comprehensible yet impossible to define in a way that is not either empty or obscurantist (or a combination). In other words, it is a book for anyone who is willing to take on the serious challenge of making clear what is not only unclear but which is unclear not-accidentally.

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