Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), will be celebrated at Montana State University in Bozeman on the weekend of December 7th and 8th. On December 15th, during their commencement ceremonies, he will receive an honorary Doctorate from MSU.
These events offer some sweet redemption for Pirsig both personally and philosophically. In terms of his own philosophical journey, as his readers will know, Bozeman is ground zero. His quest for “Quality” began on the campus of MSU and led him to enroll in a Doctoral program at the University of Chicago, which then led him into madness and/or enlightenment. (Pirsig himself does not dispute either interpretation.)
He never did get his Ph.D. but with millions of readers (5 or 6 million copies sold in 27 languages), it’s hard to imagine how his book could have been any more successful. Now, fifty years later, Pirsig is finally getting that degree and in recent years his work has been officially established within academic philosophy, thanks to Anthony McWatt, who wrote the world’s first dissertation on Pirsig’s work in 2005 and to David Granger’s dissertation, published in 2006 as John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living. It’s like one of those happy endings written in Hollywood, almost too neat and tidy to be true. It’s a full circle from Bozeman to Bozeman in life, in the book, and in life again. It’s a fifty year cycle that almost literally begins and ends in same building, Montana Hall, right in the center of campus. This neat vindication is all the sweeter because Pirsig, who is 84 years of age, is still around to see this happen.
Charles Pinkava, project director and teacher of critical thinking at MSU, told the MSU news service that “the two-day Chautauqua will include appearances by national and internationally known speakers and teachers, philosophers and artists, filmmakers and motorcycle enthusiasts who will discuss Pirsig’s work, its meaning, and its legacy.”
Michael Sexson, MSU professor of English, will be the master of ceremonies for the opening night of “CHAUTAUQUA 2012“. The Friday evening session will include introductory remarks by MSU President Waded Cruzado, a short introductory film on Pirsig’s legendary motorcycle trip, as well as three short philosophical speeches. Dr. Sara Waller, a philosophy professor at MSU, will speak on “Consciousness, Focus, and Not Knowing about Motorcycles.” Dustin Dallman, a student at MSU, will address the issue of Pirsig as an American philosopher, and I plan to talk about Pirsig’s central metaphor, motorcycle maintenance. I’ll try to make a case that that Pirsig’s book is about motorcycles in the same way that Melville’s Moby Dick is about whales; hardly at all. As I’ll try to show, Pirsig uses the artful mechanic to illustrate his conception of the artful philosopher. “A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason,” Pirsig wrote, “and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.”
The second day of the Chautauqua will be hosted by Tina DeWeese, daughter of the late Gennie and Bob DeWeese, the Bozeman artists who were featured in Pirsig’s book as friends and mentors. Anthony McWatt will begin the Saturday sessions with a talk explaining how Pirsig’s “Metaphysics of Quality” connects to the world of art. After some lunch, activities continue with an open forum inviting “Pirsig Pilgrims” and other fans of the book to tell their stories. Lee Glover will show his film, “MERIDIAN,” at 3 p.m. and Henry Gurr, a Pirsig archivist, will speak at 5 p.m. on “Travel Descriptions as Fact and Metaphor”. They’re also encouraging people to conduct their own informal sessions following these events. It’s all free and open to the public. If you can get yourself there, I’ll buy the first round.