Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

book review philosophy psychology reason science value Zen

I recently completed the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, which, contrary to its name, is not a book about Zen or motorcycle maintenance, except in a very roundabout way.

The book is set in the motorcycle roadtrip of a father, the narrator, and his son, Chris, but the real meat of the book is contained in a series of chataquas, or talks, investigating a philosophical conundrum central to Western thought. Actually, it is the philosophical conundrum that defines Western thought, at least according to the narrator. The whole book is about the conflict between Value and Reason, and how reason came to be the dominant mode in Western thought and action. To explain this point, the narrator takes us through his past life as a philosophical genius-turned insane, as well as a quick journey through the development of Western rationality with the Greek philosophers.

I found this book riveting. You would think that a book that was essentially the absent-minded philosophical musings of a guy on a motorcycle tour would be pretty dull, but he relates the conflict between Value or Quality and Reason to everyday life and behavior so strongly that you feel like you are a part of the ongoing war. The absolute supremacy gained by Rationality in our society has had some pretty brutal aftereffects, but it wasn't until I read this book that I began to understand the origins of the problem.

Pirsig does a great job of helping you take a step back not only from society, but from the whole mythos of Western thought, that great edifice of rationality that has become so powerful as to be accepted as the norm. The thing is, reason was not always the basis for making a decision. Scientific thought was not always the end-all-be-all of truth seeking. Of course, we would say that before then, people simply weren't enlightened enough to use it, relying instead on inadequate forms. But Pirsig opens the reader's eyes to the possibility that all this was just the result of some Ancient Greek mind games set amidst a great academic debate. It's impossible to convey even the gist of the argument in a summary, and Pirsig not only does a good job explaining it, but also of setting it up. There is a lot of set up required to see the charade of Rationality, which is why it's a long book.

If anything, this book really made me think. The truth is, I had always had misgivings about this blind reliance on reason, but it's very difficult to argue against the variety of thought that is now taken as the definition of thought. I'm glad I finally sat down and read this book, and I will certainly think differently about my life and the most basic assumptions of the way I form my thoughts. I recommend this book to anyone who has ever had even a passing interest in philosophy or psychology, especially artistic types who have been frustrated by the argumentative, hyper-rational sciency friends. This book doesn't repudiate science and reason, but it seeks to return them to their proper place as one of many tools in the great human endeavor of truth and meaning seeking, not basis for defining that endeavor.