Thursday, 1 December 2011

Pirsig's assumptions, Cocks students, my former self

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Reading an essay by Richard Cocks on teaching Plato at college, made me think about my enthusiasm for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), by Robert Pirsig.

http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/4871

(H/T Laura Wood aka the Thinking Housewife)

I was recommended this by an instructor at an Outward Bound adventure school in my mid teens, loved it at first reading, and it became one of my favourite and most re-read books; indeed I published an 'academic' article on it at one time.

http://www.moq.org/forum/BruceCharlton/APhilosophicalNovel-ZenAndTheArtOfMotorcycleMaintenance.html

Most recently I published an article on Pirsig's use of ECT (electroshock) as a fictional (not factual) plot device

http://medicalhypotheses.blogspot.com/2009/03/electroshock-and-pirsig.html

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Reading Richard Cocks made me recognize that one reason I found ZAMM so appealing, aside from its being superbly written, was that Pirsig was (like me) so non-Christian that he did not even consider God as an explanation for Quality. The whole book (and the much-worse follow up Lila) was about the importance of Quality (value, excellence) in our world, but that it was increasingly difficult to regard Quality as real and important.

Pirsig, and the reader, struggle to find a way to acknowledge the reality of Quality, the origin and nature of Quality - and at times it feels as if this has almost been achieved - but of course it never has and never is, because the only answer is that which is ruled out from before the beginning, so far back that its being ruled out is not something that needs justifying.

Quality is either transcendental and underwritten by the divine, or else it is nothing: Pirsig knows that Quality is vital, and will not let go of that, but he cannot (except by sleight of hand) do what he wants to do - which is regard Quality as real and objective but in a universe with no God.

This reminds me of the attitude of Cocks students, who regarded the introduction of divinity into metaphysical arguments as something of a 'cheap trick'.

If it is a cheap trick to invoke divinity as an explanation, then it is one which Socrates, Plato and Artistotle used, as well as the other greats of philosophy up to and including Descartes.

And divinity (the god of the philosophers, if not the God of Abraham) turns-out (as Pirsig apparently recognises at times) to be a 'cheap trick' without which nothing really makes any sense.

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7 comments:

HenryOrientJnr said...

I was interested to hear that the ECT episode in ZAMM was fictional, especially since it is a rather crucial part of the whole story.

It is hard to pin down exactly whether it is biography or fiction. I read on a website somewhere about one of "Pirsig's pilgrims", as they are called, retracing the route of the book and to his surprise ending up at DeWeese's house and meeting him in the flesh.

I will have to do that trip sometime if I ever buy another motorcycle. (I think the cruise down the Hudson is a bit beyond my budget.)

As to whether God is the source of Quality I would say that it is irrelevant for the argument of the book. If you are Christian then of course the answer is yes. To an atheist such as myself, Quality has a Platonic reality of its own. I sometimes felt at times that Pirsig was attempting to raise Quality almost to the level of a deity ("it is everything" "it is the source of subjects and objects" etc.) whereas I would consider it to be more prosaic in nature: the awareness of universal principles such as symmetry, harmony etc.

(Thanks for the tip on "The Place of the Lion". I will give it a try.)

postgygaxian said...


Pirsig knows that Quality is vital, and will not let go of that, but he cannot (except by sleight of hand) do what he wants to do - which is regard Quality as real and objective but in a universe with no God.

I see no evidence from the books, or from Pirsig's later writings, to suggest that Pirsig wanted to do away with God.

Pirsig compared his standpoint to that of Bishop Berkeley! Would you accuse Berkeley of trying to do away with God?

Pirsig certainly was not a conventional Bible-thumping Christian, and certainly he had little respect for that culture. And, yes, he frolicked with peyote-eating Indians and so on. One can claim that Pirsig was not a member in good standing of any Christian congregation. But one cannot claim that Pirsig was an atheist - at least, not without serious evidence.

bgc said...

*I* would claim that Pirsig was an atheist - in the sense that Zen is atheist. I never imagined for a moment he was anything else!

A de facto atheist - for example, he never talks about the immortality of the soul, does he?

bgc said...

@HOJ - The book is, in general. highly biographical and you can find on the web photos of the points on his trip and the people he met - including DeWeese. That is what makes the ECT fiction so shocking (pardon the pun!).

As an atheist, through numerous re-readings spread over nearly 30 years, I accepted Quality as having a reality of its own, and found this inspiring; but if I was truthful I could not hold-onto this, nor could I argue it persuasively - it was at root mere assertion and I could not make sense of it in a rationalist and materialist frame.

postgygaxian said...

In the climactic debate of ZAMM, Pirsig declares Phaedrus to be a monist like Socrates, believing in a spiritual soul:



The Chairman is right. It is an immortal dialogue, strange and puzzling at first, but then hitting you harder and harder, like truth itself. What Phædrus has been talking about as Quality, Socrates appears to have described as the soul, self-moving, the source of all things.
There is no contradiction. There never really can be between the core terms of monistic philosophies. The One in India has got to be the same as the One in Greece. If it’s not, you’ve got two. The only disagreements among the monists concern the attributes of the One, not the One itself. Since the One is the source of all things and includes all things in it, it cannot be defined in terms of those things, since no matter what thing you use to define it, the thing will always describe something less than the One itself. The One can only be described allegorically, through the use of analogy, of figures of imagination and speech. Socrates chooses a heaven-and-earth analogy, showing how individuals are drawn toward the One by a chariot drawn by two horses.—


So Pirsig was not arguing for atheism or for orthodox Zen, as Pirsig mentioned in the foreword:
Author’s Note
What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.


Pirsig was not evangelizing orthodox Zen. Even if Zen is atheistic, Pirsig was not bound by that atheism.

So Pirsig can only be called atheistic if Socrates can be called atheistic.

bgc said...

@pg - thanks very much for this - and for transcribing the passage.

It can be interpreted as you say, but this was not how I read it. As an atheist (until a few years ago), it never really crossed my mind that the One, here referred to by Pirsig, was a divinity, a god - certainly not The God - I thought he was talking about metaphysics, about 'the way things were', about the idea that things are not truly divisible or detachable from one another.

And as far as I know this is compatible with Zen - Pirsig practiced Zen (whether orthodox or not I don't know) for many years, and was involved in getting a Zen centre brought to his home town. His son was murdered after attending this centre.

This was from the 1974 interview which I can't find (in a hurry) - just to flag up this interesting website - http://www.psybertron.org/pirsigpages.html

postgygaxian said...

I'm happy to have helped with the transcription.

As for Pirsig's involvement with the Zen center, I surmise he practiced Zen.

As for "the One," Pirsig definitely seems to have been on the side of Berkeley, not on the side of the materialists. A Berkeleyan God is not necessarily the god of orthodox Christianity. Thus, the Pope, for example, might insist that Pirsig does not/did not believe in the real God because Pirsig's notion of the One was not a supernatural God.

There are some materialist scientists who hold out for materialist "pantheism," and arguably those misguided folks truly should be called atheists.

There is still an active debate about pantheism, panentheism, and non-dualistic monism. A strict Christian might rule that all three of those philosophies are not "true theism," but it is absurd to say that non-dualistic monism is atheism.