Session 6: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Yesterday we discussed Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book relates to a number of the themes we have explicitly or implicitly been discussing the last couple of months. Let me give you three. Firstly, it contains an interesting discussion about the meaning of ‘quality’, an attempt to define it, and a conclusion where quality is not so much something we can find ‘out there’ and define, but more a practice or a way in which people deal with their environment. See, for instance, the following excerpt:

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be ‘out there’ and the person that appears to be ‘in here’ are not two separate things. They grow towards quality or fall away from Quality altogether. (as cited by Bruce Charlton)

Secondly, Pirsig has a specific conception of the order in which political change should be brought about. In contrast to the construction of a general theory prescribing the structure of society, he thinks that social-political change should start at the bottom. One should try to stimulate the increase of a certain attitude in the hearts, minds, and the hands of individuals, and don’t try to implement a certain policy from ‘above’. Thirdly, I think this bottom-up approach also ties in with the form in which his argument and story are told. He deliberately did not write a philosophical thesis but instead wrote a novel wherein the main character tells a story about how he previously tried to philosophize about Quality and failed in the process. He, in other words, writes a narrative or tells a story instead of the more conventional attempt to convince an academic audience of a certain proposition. I think this relates to what Jane Bennett explains in her The Enchantment of Modern Life. In this book, Bennett argues that an ethical theory needs to consist of two things: a moral theory or code, and a particular ’embodied sensibility’. Especially this latter component of the ethical theory is meant to stimulate the aesthetic-affective dispositions of the reader when trying to work with the moral code presented. Pirsig succeeds wonderfully in getting across a certain feeling of what needs to be done without simply arguing for his position about the meaning of value (note the subtitle ‘an inquiry into values’). Regardless of what you think about his ethical proposal, the form in which he presented it is definitely worth your time.

I personally think that it is good to take a little summer break, but if you think differently and really want to discuss a book, article, film, or piece of art, please let me know.


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