Saturday, February 16, 2008

Reading Pirsig as a Philosopher

Let me begin with a division: there are two kinds of readers of Pirsig--those who are attracted to Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and those who are attracted Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality. While being imperfect, as all such generalizations are, it has the benefit of highlighting one particular tension in Pirsig's works, that between literature and philosophy. The two are often opposed in the philosophical tradition, so it becomes a sort of standing question for all to attend to as to why Pirsig chose the route he did in presenting his philosophy the way he did. The kinds of answers deployed by fans and interpreters range from the more practical, utilitarian (e.g., "you can't write a dissertation for the mass the way they are written for PhD supervisors") to the more theoretical, conceptual (e.g., "he was making a point about the distinction between philosophy and literature"). But either way, we are confronted with the particular ways in which Pirsig deployed his philosophy and, either way, the literary quality of Pirsig's books make for the pulling out of philosophical theses difficult and dangerous work. And what's more, I think that's intended.

When I read others about Pirsig, I find less interesting the attempts to reconstruct the systematic structure of the MoQ. Questions asked about the layout of the levels of static quality, about the interrelation of the social and intellectual levels, about how exactly Dynamic Quality functions in relation to static, these questions can be important, or at least reach a level of some importance, but I question the desire to construct a systematic metaphysics out of Pirsig's writings. Pirsig's writings are the way they are precisely because Pirsig doesn't want to simply create a metaphysics. That would simply be at the intellectual level, to use Pirsig's own terminology, when the point of both books is to present all the facets together to show that all of them are needed.

To hearken back to that old cliche, about losing sight of the forest in the midst of the trees, I fear in study of systems of propositions the loss of sight of the forest of life. We are the entire forest of static patterns, inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual, not just a metaphysics, not just a thirty-thousand-page menu. Pursuing philosophy, which we can broadly call the pursuit of wisdom and seeing how things hang together, fits naturally with the forest metaphor: seeing how our forest hangs together brings us wisdom, particularly as we try and change the forest (which is the DQ/SQ dynamic).

So, pursuing simply a Metaphysics of Quality may be helpful, but it isn't the whole thing (as many would, and certainly should, acknowledge). The whole thing is the living of life, which the breaking into parts, pursuing philosophy, analysis, a metaphysics, may help us to see. When we write about Pirsig as a systematic metaphysician, I think we tend to lose sight of the pragmatic effect of metaphysics. What might be called "literary reading," on the other hand, tends to be more self-consciously contextual then the kind of writing that Pirsig describes in ZMM: "The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn't the way it ever is. People should see that it's never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance." (ZMM, 172) We should read Pirsig with all their rhetorical tools and tropes and metaphors and analogies and excavate their meaning and significance that way (which is really the only way anyways, but that's another debate). And I think, it would seem, Pirsig would say that that would be the best way to do it, because otherwise you lose sight of the whole.

I'd now like to offer a few very general readings of ZMM, in the hopes of supporting some of the things I've said so far. I think the way to read the book is as a philosophical dialogue the same way as Plato's dialogues are read, but even more complicated (if that's possible). Despite the fact that we know Socrates is the hero, what we don't know, because of Socratic irony, is what Socrates means. Many have read irony to mean the simple contradiction of what is said. Alexander Nehamas, though (in his brilliant book, The Art of Living), argues that irony isn't as easy as all that. Irony completely hides the direction of meaning, so you don't know whether a basic, contradictory 180 is intended, or something completely other. (And, to make matters worse, it is hidden not only from the audience, but from the ironist themselves.) So the philosophy of Socrates is always obscured, behind a curtain, never available for direct scrutiny. You can only see it out of the corner of your eye because wherever Socrates is pointing is not the direction he necessarily wants you looking.

I would argue that the same thing is going on in ZMM except, unlike the Platonic dialogues, we don't even know who the hero is until the end, and even then you are left wondering if we should think that. The book is soaked in allegory and irony and the author's point of view is only available out of the corner of your eye. It is written to be a philosophical journey, a journey that takes you through a set of hoops and stages but has no definite end point. It is designed to make you think, but not necessarily about any particular thing, let alone any particular way. So Pirsig is both all of the views and none of the views of ZMM. And I think this type of reading is going on in Lila, too, though the book isn't nearly so cleverly or fantastically crafted (much as Plato lost his craft as you move from the early to the later dialogues, though for another reflection on this topic, see "Prospectus for an Idiosyncratic and Possibly Controversial Reading of Lila").

So reading ZMM for doctrinal points, for philosophical theses, is fraught with peril as you are never sure what Pirsig means. All you have is the Narrator's presentation, but by the middle of the book you are led to wonder who's in control of the show (having learned of Phaedrus' real identity), and by the end of the book, after Phaedrus' triumphant return, you are led to wonder at what point Phaedrus began to dominate the Narrator, and so the presentation of the book itself. What we are left with, I think, are a clear series of philosophical episodes that start by being dominated by the Narrator, but are gradually replaced by Phaedrus' concerns, so "Narrator sections" (like the section on gumption) come fewer and fewer, until you reach the end of the book which is an extended meditation on Phaedrus' experience in Chicago.

As I mentioned earlier, the most complicated feature of this whole model is that while reading we don't know who the hero is, Narrator or Phaedrus. The Narrator through the beginning half of the book makes Phaedrus look like the bad guy, but through our extended ponderings over Phaedrus' demise we are made to feel sympathetic for Phaedrus which leads us to view Phaedrus as the hero, which reflects in the book by Phaedrus' triumph. The way ZMM is written is to have us move in stages through our feelings for the Narrator and Phaedrus, with the action in the book unfolding as a reflection of our feelings towards the preceding action. As our feelings for Phaedrus wax, so does his dominance in the story.

This, of course, brings us to the perplexing and infinitely interesting conclusion that the real audience of the story is the Author himself, not knowing how the book is going to end until he gets there because he is taking the journey with us, witnessing the events again as we see them for the first time, but the journey he is on is a psychical one. By creating "the Narrator" as a fallible, perspectivized character in Pirsig's own autobiographical story, rather than a traditional, omniscient narrator, the knowing autobiographer telling his own story, we get a third character, "the Author," reading the events as he writes them, trying to figure out his life by telling the story. The Author changes as the story unfolds, but that is the point for us also: we are supposed to change through the story. But because of the obfuscating mask of irony, the change intended is hidden not only from us but from the Author.

I would suggest that we should read ZMM as having three main characters, the Narrator, Phaedrus, and the Author, and we should read them in the fashion of Plato's Allegory of the Charioteer (which is from Plato's Phaedrus and Pirsig touches on it briefly in ZMM): two separate horses, both at war with each other, pulling the chariot in two different directions (though not necessarily completely in opposite directions; think of the physical description of a chariot allegorically and then remember that, as Nehamas argues, irony does not mean that a statement means the opposite of what it says, but simply something different) and the charioteer is trying to find a mean course between the two. The Narrator and Phaedrus are warring over the Author's mind.

Now, Pirsig says that the difference between the Narrator and Phaedrus is the difference between social and intellectual patterns. I think this a bad description. I think a better description (as I suggest in "Confessions") is between the Pragmatist Impulse and the Metaphysical Impulse. These impulses take two forms, one theoretical and one practical. On the theoretical level, the level at which these two impulses take on philosophical garb and become themselves philosophical positions, these two positions are oil and water--they are the warring factions between Protagoras and Plato, rhetoric and dialectic. On this level, Pirsig must be a pragmatist, for if a metaphysician he falls into self-contradiction.

On the practical level, however, we see the actual efforts of Protagoreans and Platonists and the kinds of real life considerations that conspire to make us one or the other. This is the difference between Pirsig's Coleridgean splicing between Platonist and Aristotelian--one focused on generalities, as supposedly the Metaphysician is, the other on particularities, as supposedly the Pragmatist is. The thing about a philosophical position, of course, is that it doesn't come with a focus--only people do. This is the great muddle--we can separate out logically distinct positions, but when it comes to action, the carrying out of beliefs, the living of life, it becomes sometimes quite difficult to tell what the connection is between being a Platonist and professing Platonism. Take the simple, obvious and sometimes overlooked (for the purposes of getting on with professing) contradiction of Plato's hatred of poetry and his poetic practice. Pirsig notes the lifeless quality of essays, preaching on in a void like God, but what could be more omniscient in position than Plato's Forms and more situational life-like than the Dialogues?

These are tangled webs that I can only approach for the moment, but the parallel between Plato and Pirsig should be obvious: on the other end of Plato's knotted theory/practice relationship is Pirsig's knot. Plato bequeathed to us the battle between philosophy and poetry and still to this day many philosophers still take that battle quite seriously. Literature is still looked on by many philosophers as something quite different than philosophy. The question must be confronted: what does it mean for Pirsig to write the way he does?


This was created out of a post in the currently defunct MF ("MoQ Focus") discussion group written in May, 2005. It was originally written in the midst of a beneficial discussion with Rick Budd and Sam Norton.


  1. All this reminds me a bit of “art criticism”, which is a job a bit like that of a weather man. Lets imagine a guy who writes reviews about the current art scene, or better yet he writes restaurant reviews. Both serve the same purpose in exposing taste, good vs. bad, what has the better quality. What always gets me is, what gives John Doe the authority to speak for my taste? How can you be a generalist in the flavor department? Ultimately you can only speak to your own view of quality. As a guy who absolutely loves those On-cor 2 pound family size Salisbury steak meals, the amount of people who can speak by proxy to my taste in a good meal has just dwindled to the low end of the histogram.

    What I’m getting at here is this; philosophy in my view, is that thing that man tries to get at (lets call it truth) that exist in everyone’s eyes devoid of quality. What makes a good metaphysic stand is it’s ability to be universally seen as, well, lets go with good. To me this is akin to saying that Keizledorf (my new food invention), is the ultimate truth on taste simply because most of the general public likes it. But that doesn’t say anything about truth, or taste, it only says something about our experience of, in this case, taste. It’s much like balls falling to the floor when dropped; this says nothing about the nature of the universe, rather it says something about the way we experience it.

    So again, if I cook up something that is to be the example of a flavor sensation and you spit it out, gag, puke, whathaveyou… Have you missed the boat? If you’re missing anything it’s my taste. Pirsig had something to say in much the same way that any artist, whether painter or poet, had something to say. But to miss it is only to miss the man, not the message.

    Pirsig (if he’s on to anything) cannot ultimately be right about anything. If he was, then quality would disappear along with ZMM (hence is abrupt ending). It is (in true Buddhist fashion), the opposition to quality that gives it it’s existence. In much the same way it’s the opposition to fine art that makes it fine.

    Personally I feel that Pirsig simply wanted to reach a wider audience. In doing so however, I don’t think he necessarily got his message across any better. For example, I work with a guy who loves this book, he’s even got it on CD and probably listed to it on the car to and from work 10+ times (including myself). He however sees this book as a great work of literature and not so much an eye opening new view of things (and I think he’s of the “right” frame of mind).
    We could have a hermeneutical discussion of the book, but again, that’s a discussion less concerned about the overall message and actual interpretation, and more a discussion of the man, his motivations, and what quality was to him. Trying to apply his words, his metaphysic, (to humanity) is being a dirty dogmatist and no different then trying to spread the general message of Christianity for all to see (surely we can find a way of talking about Christianity that we can all agree too). In other words, we’re simply creating a language or a way of speaking about the nature of things we all can agree to – but all we’re really doing then is creating “static value”, and I don’t think Pirsig would want that at all. So lets leave it open in the end.

    I find there to be no more damaging an enterprise then to attach meaning (in the form of truth) to words. As soon as we say we have something, in this case “QUALITY”, it becomes something more of an idol to whatever truth it was trying to get at in the first place. I would say that as soon as you have it (the meaning) you let it go and come up with another way of talking about it.

    Do you have a philosophy? Or do you simply have someone’s phraseology in your head acting as a proxy philosophy. Rhetorically speaking of course. I haven’t read you enough to know whether you like philosophy for philosophy sake, or you like it as a search for self. I do however find profound meaning in your view that the philosophy can only be seen in the corner of the eye, I couldn’t agree with you more. Unfortunately, this is the same for truth, but we all go on looking for it.

  2. If should say one more thing with regard to my perspective on this. I view Pirsig as philosopher, however I don’t view philosophy as a search for truth. Philosophers are (I think), priests for passing on wisdom as new ways of coping with our ever changing reality. I find Pirsig to be good therapy for dealing with the modern world. With our ever increasing diversity, we require an ever increasing way to talk about that diversity (quality of course is in some way about that vary thing, change, and diversity). What use would the medieval world have for quality?

    ZMM I think, is the allegory of the cave.

  3. You've packaged together a nice bit of thinking here, some of which is alright, but some of which I find suspicious. Because of the packaging, I'll simply try and point to the things that make me suspicious.

    There are two structural assumptions I sense in your presentation that I find antithetical to the pragmatism I promote and the kind I find in Pirsig. One is contained in the way in which you separate truth and justification, The Truth and our particular discussions of what is true ("this is akin to saying that Keizledorf ... is the ultimate truth on taste simply because most of the general public likes it"). This is related to your separation between "the nature of the universe" and "the way we experience it."

    This I take to mirror Pirsig's SOM. One of the main things his philosophy was to teach is that we should be suspicious of separations of the world and our experience of the world, of reality and experience. This creates a distance between us and reality, a distance that creates a whole host of problems (some of which I've talked about here).

    In other words, if we separate truth from our discussions of truth as systematically as your comments suggest, then how do we determine in our day to day affairs what is true? I tend to think that our discussions are the only ways in which we make headway on such pragmatic determinations, and that the pragmatic determinations are all we really need. Experience is reality, and the mixing of all our particular experiences produces better and better accounts of it.

    The other structural assumption spins out of the truth/justification one, too. You said, "I find there to be no more damaging an enterprise then to attach meaning (in the form of truth) to words." But how on earth do you function with other people then by attaching meaning to words? If you didn't attach meaning to words, they wouldn't be words at all, they would just be noises. Pragmatism teaches us to not even think that there are essences to words that meanings or definitions can be closer or further away from. Language is just a means by which we coordinate our behavior.

    In answer to your question about whether I have a philosophy or a proxy philosophy, the determination you'd probably reach if you read more, or you asked some other of my auditors, is that I only have a proxy philosophy. But I'm okay with people thinking that. I tend to think the question is for the most part confused, but that's usually a side issue. As to whether I do philosophy for philosophy's sake or as a search for self, I'm not sure I understand the distinction. Philosophy has a sake? I thought only people had those.

  4. With reagrds to "the nature of the universe" and "the way we experience it".

    I seperate the two only to say that there is no universe out there apart from our experience of it. Even if there was we couldn't proove it, so I'm not sure what purpose it serves in speaking as if there was. There too, in order to prooveit we need to be there. It leads to judgemental attitudes towards those who see things a bit differently. Without getting too deep into this, I think it's wrong to suggest that people are outright wrong - becasue for me that's akin to saying that in some way they're experience is not authentic. Nobody sees wrong, they're simply looking at it differently. The goal/role of science seems to be to get everyone on the same page.

    If true is simply what works, I thnk we're both on the same page here. I find that some people use it as though it's something universally transedent to experience, and that's where I get a sour taste in my mouth.

    "I find there to be no more damaging an enterprise then to attach meaning (in the form of truth) to words."
    I'm being a bit hyperbolic here, and that's wrong of me. What's on my mind when I say this are the average religious folk that for some reason I like to pick on. My concern here is only the static value inherent to words, and the idolotry of them, but that's a big topic. Words in the western plutonic tradition create a stickyness that people have a hard time getting out of. I've always been fond of the Koan, "the net is for the fish, once you have the fish, you no longer need the net. Likewise words are for meaning, once you have the meaning, you no longer need the words.
    There's nothing that will make you pull your hair out more then watching a group of christians battle over words and objectivity. As if the "truth" of the situation even mattered. Religious texts are not necessaraly concerned about "objective truth", they're about meaning, but they always argue the other. I don't want to get off topic here.....

    Even though it may not seem so, I think I'm on the same page with you.

  5. So Matt,
    now that you've graduated, who are you writing for these days? No doubt it's what you should be doing in one way or another.

  6. Well, I'm apparently writing for people who want me to call them "anonymous."

    I'm writing for myself, for practice. I write poetry for my girlfriend, verse for friends, copy for a job. Occasionally I write for the professor teaching the english class I'm taking right now. I write because I would go crazy if I didn't. I've been writing stuff, thinking of stuff to say, for so long that I wig a little when I have nothing to do.

    The tough part most of the time is not having nobody in particular to write for, but having to pick a particular audience to write for when I'm guaranteed no particular audience.

    Do I write only for Pirsig enthusiasts? How much should I assume they know? How much philosophy? Will anybody other than Pirsig-people care? Should I care if they care?

    All good questions, some relating to audience, some to motivation.

    But, eventually choices are made. Things get written.

  7. Oh, well, My name is Andy. I have a degree in electrical engineering and work as a Quality Engineer for a company called Parker Hanniffin in Minnesota. I'm 32, married with 2 kids. I live just outside of Mankato.

    I am a fan of Pirsig. But if I made a short list it would go something like this. (in no particular order, my favorites)

    DT Suzuki, Spinoza, Kant, Wittgenstein, Heigegger, Hume, Nietzsche, Pinker, Campbell, James, Rorty, Cicero...

    This is a list containing those I re-read on a somewhat regular basis (if only to skim for this and that), but I've pretty much read everything I can get my hands on from the shelves of Barnes & Noble in Mankato. At the moment I'm on Soren kierkegaard, "Fear and Trembling", and some audio lectures on Existentialism.

    I'm lean to a more eastern philosophical view of things in general, and I'm a recovering Christian (I've been clean for 7 years now). My old man still thinks there's hope for me - for christmas the he got me, "The purpose Driven Life". As a joke of course, I got him "Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening From the Alan Watts Audio Archives" (I'm not sure if he got the joke yet?). It's been almost a couple months now and I havn't heard from him, I'm getting a little worried. Maybe I went too far.. Naw.

  8. I just realized that the above "Anonymous" is Andrew Louis, who now has a fairly thriving blog.

  9. Why doesn't Pirsig mention Heidegger in ZMM? There seems to be a lot of overlap.

  10. I'm not sure Pirsig ever read Heidegger. The events of ZMM happen during the 60s, and he wrote it during the early 70s, but Heidegger didn't start having a major influence in the US until the 70s. The odds of Pirsig having done a lot of reading in professional philosophy in general are slim, and so the odds are against it in his preparation for ZMM. He's said in an interview somewhere before that he doesn't like to read before he writes, and I imagine this is particularly so for philosophy. And since in the 40s and 50s, when Pirsig might have taken philosophy courses in college, analytic philosophy had basically a stranglehold on departments, it's not likely he read him then either (I can't remember off the top of my head when he was an undergrad, but it was at the U of Minnesota, and I know he took a class in logic from Feigl there).

    But that's mainly speculation, without any serious research. Eventually Pirsig's wife, Wendy, will publish a biography on him, and someday I will comb through the material Ant McWatt has accumulated. Until then, I agree, there's some nice overlap between Pirsig and Heidegger, but I might hesitate before "a lot." Pirsig has a few major differences, a lot having to do with his Americanness and belief in amateur philosophy, that set the similarities in a different spin. Pirsig on "care," Newton, and his history of Greek philosophy all dovetail nicely, but he also doesn't see technology as inherently evil, as Heidegger seems to. He calls it the "death drive" at the beginning of ZMM, but that's a setup for a reversal, whereas I'm pretty sure that Heidegger thought civilization was just about over.


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