[Note: This article has been updated post-discussion; I didn't want to create a new post when we've had all this great discussion on this one that I want people to continue. The episode itself should be up w/in the next day or two.]
Mark, Seth, Dylan, and guest David Buchanan have recorded a conversation on Robert M. Pirsig’sZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,a book that’s not about Zen and only a little bit about motorcycle maintenance.
It’s an autobiographical novel describing (in part) Pirsig’s encounters with the idea of “Quality.” In trying to teach this to freshman composition students, he decided that it’s a fundamental, immediate, and undefinable part of our experience. We don’t, on his account, first consciously analyze things, and then decide based on that analysis what’s better than what. Quality (or more precisely, “dynamic quality,” a term he comes up with in his 1991 book Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals)phenomenologically primary: even distinguishing a foreground object from the background, i.e. perception itself, relies on a quality judgment, namely that this aspect of the perceptual field is of interest. Once we establish habits like this (e.g. object recognition, which can be generalized into a metaphysics of objects in space), they get ossified, codified, and passed on, so they seem natural, but we can’t forget that all the systems of classification, of conceptualization, of making sense of things at all are human inventions. This should sound very much like William James’s pragmatism.
Pirsig thinks that we’ve forgotten this lesson: that we receive so much from our culture that we’re alienated from it, we’ve forgotten why the patterns of thought we’ve received are the way they are, that we are in fact the sources of value. In an age of technology, things invented by others can seem daunting and ugly to us, and insofar as something has been marketed to us with an idea of simply making money rather than with craftsmanship, i.e. having the beauty of the thing in mind, then it probably is ugly. He uses the example of a motorcycle as something that we can be in tune with: we can understand it from the inside out and be sensitive to when something is going wrong with it, and have the patient, quality-mindedness to maintain it with care. This can be generalized to a whole outlook on life, that has some connection with Zen, but this is not expounded on in the book.
But does Pirsig as narrator apply this lesson to his life as depicted? His connections with other people are tenuous; he’s certainly not “in tune” with those around him. Through the course of the book, it’s clear that the narrator has suffered a major bout of disassociation with his own past self, though I don’t think the resolution of this issue fits quite as neatly in with the philosophical picture of disassociation with the culture of cold reason as the book implies.
As someone who shuns “philosophology,” i.e. studying the history of philosophy as opposed to actually doing philosophy, Pirsig’s work is inspiring to those who don’t want to bother to read more than one or two philosophy books, but of course these are many parallels between Pirsig’s phenomenological picture of the role of quality in experience and other philosophers’ work. Feel free to jump in and add to the plentiful comments already on this post.