Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and Lila

August 4, 2015

Robert  M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila

Reviewed by James Tiptree Jr (2006)

Pirsig's ZenYes, I’ve finally read the book with one of the best titles in philosophy, after several years of having it queued, and after introducing my parents to it some time before I managed to read it myself. One of the reasons why I put it off was a worry that it would be too dense or circuitous for my mood, but it is instead quite readable and firmly grounded in a Western rational mode of idea exploration, even though it touches on some Eastern religious concepts. I think publishers do this book a disfavor now by playing up the mystic overtones and releasing it under imprints like “Bantam New Age,” although that was probably a great way to sell books a few years ago.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is told at three levels, two-thirds memoir and one-third philosophy. The philosophy is told as internal musings intermixed with a biography of Phaedrus, the person who originally developed the ideas put forth in the book. These internal musings happen during a motorcycle trip across the country taken by Pirsig and his son (at first also accompanied by two friends). The exact relationship between Phaedrus and Pirsig is part of the narrative, so forgive me for being coy about it.

Pirsig uses the cross-country trip partly as a framing device, and for that it is adequate but not particularly notable. If the book were more constructed, I would expect more thematic links between the trip and the philosophical discussion; that’s hit and miss and at times doesn’t match well. But this is a real trip, a real memory, and what it loses in thematic structure it more than makes up by humanizing Pirsig, providing an emotional context for the philosophy. The core of Pirsig’s theme is the unification of holistic, subjective perspective with analytical, objective perspective. Putting an emotional context behind his personal philosophy not only makes it easier to understand his motivations but also provides an immediate practical example of the application of the theory.

The trip also drives the story forward, providing an element of pacing that’s missing from pure philosophy, but most of the suspense comes from Phaedrus’s story. As strong as the philosophy is, Phaedrus was the most engrossing part of the book for me. His mixture of maverick obsessiveness, frightening mental disconnection, disrespect for accepted academic authority, and creative approaches to both philosophy and teaching make him an excellent tragic hero. One keeps turning the pages to find out what happens next, and in the process, despite some awkward early narrative self-consciousness, is drawn into the discussion of philosophy that dominates and saturates Phaedrus’s life.

By traditional standards, this is more a popular philosophy book in structure than a serious philosophical treatise. The philosophy is introduced slowly and idiosyncratically, it is mixed in with memoir and biography, and it’s presented with deeply personal arguments rather than objective appeals. That, of course, is much of the point. Pirsig’s focus is on finding a way to integrate the holistic, subjective, emotional view we all have of the world, the knee-jerk reaction that drives our immediate reactions and intuitive satisfaction, with classic Western philosophy. The focus of that reconciliation is Quality, in the sense we mean when we describe an object as “high quality.” Slowly building his conception of Quality and linking it to both subjective artistic appreciation and suitability for purpose, he equates our concept of Quality with what others have called Zen, or Tao, or flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work came after Zen and I wonder what Pirsig thinks of it). From that, he builds an approach to unifying subjective and objective appreciations of quality.

Writing in 1974, Pirsig was addressing a culture that has since substantially changed. At the time, much anti-establishment rebellion rolled technology in with the rest of the power of the establishment and thought of technology as inherently dehumanizing. Since the advent of personal computers, the shift towards an information economy, and literary movements such as Cyberpunk that reclaimed technology for the outcast, progressive, and rebellious have changed the landscape, and the attitudes Pirsig discusses sound a bit quaint. After all, I work in an industry (software development) where work combines science and art, where subjective style is seen as important as objective capability. Still, that adoption of Pirsig’s core goal just supports its importance, and his explanation leads to an excellent analysis of how to merge the two in one’s thinking. Also, the subjective, holistic rejection of reductionism and objectivity is still visible today in religious worries about secular science, and Pirsig’s ideas on bridging apply as well there with a slight recasting.

Zen may have the attitude of popular psychology, but it’s refreshingly devoid of preachy conversion, superficial surveys, or facile answers to everything you need to know for life. Pirsig may be using an informal tone, but he is trying to say something original and powerful, and while I’m not a sufficiently serious student of philosophy to comment on his originality, he seems to succeed. His iconoclastic approach did bother me in places, though, the most notable being his initial presentation of quality as a third co-equal aspect next to subjective and objective experience. He introduces this by saying that Phaedrus was, to his knowledge, the first person in Western tradition to avoid subjectivity and objectivity and take a third path, and then presents an interrelationship that bears significant similarity to Trinitarian doctrine that stood at the center of Western theology for a thousand years. Yes, he did say “to his knowledge” and comments later that Phaedrus was in some respects a poor scholar, but that’s a big one to miss. The parallels between quality as the interaction between object and subject that gives each independent existence and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the manifest love between God the Father (subject) and Jesus Christ (object) that gives the Trinity distinct individual existence are startling, and I would think hard to miss for a student of philosophy.

There are a few other problems like this. Pirsig covers the link between Quality and Tao, but misses the close similarities between his description of Quality and the descriptions of God in the mystical branches of both Christianity and Islam. Quality as the indescribable that exists before description matches closely with the conception of Allah in Sufism. And the weakest part of Pirsig’s argument for me, perhaps because of my knowledge of Trinitarian doctrine, is the argument that, since quality must exist as interaction between subject and object to allow either to exist, quality is somehow above or more fundamental than either. I would argue that it’s equally valid to say that quality could not exist without both subject and object to interact; it seems more natural to me to argue for a balanced trinary system than to put forward quality as a monism.

Quibbles aside, though, this is excellent, thought-provoking material. Even if Pirsig’s focus neglects comparisons and ties to other significant philosophical systems, the existence of such parallels is evidence that there’s something here. This sort of attempt to reconcile Tao with reductionism is valuable, worthwhile reading for me; that is a combination that I work with on a daily basis, and Pirsig gave me quite a bit to think about. And the book works at all three levels it attempts, adding two satisfying stories to its philosophical exploration and balancing weaker spots of one against stronger passages of another.

This has the readability of popular psychology but not the shallowness, and if you’ve been putting it off because you were worried it was going to be too mystical, too difficult, or too proselytizing, worry no longer. Pirsig kept me interested, made me think, didn’t talk down to me, and didn’t annoy me, and higher praise for philosophy is rare.



Lila is a sequel of sorts to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s probably possible to read it on its own, but Pirsig introduces his notion of Quality at some length in Zen and Lila is more approachable with that background.

One of the beauties of Zen as a book is that it works on multiple levels and creates a coherent whole that’s superior to just its philosophy or just its narrative. It’s the story of a man re-establishing contact with his son, a story of mental illness and the life of a iconoclastic scholar, and a philosophical meditation. Where the philosophy is weak, the book is still strong in its portrayal of the author as a character and in its story of the intellectual life of one person.

Pirsig is clearly going for a similar effect in Lila, but it’s not as successful. The philosophical discussion here is mixed with the story of a boat trip down the Hudson River and about a mentally ill former prostitute named Lila who the author picks up along the way. This to some degree provides grounding for the discussion in the book (most effectively around the question of whether Lila has Quality and what that might mean), but it doesn’t click the way that Zen did, and the style seems more affected. Pirsig writes about himself, but in the third person and calls himself Phaedrus. Some sections of the book are told supposedly from the perspective of other characters (Lila or one of her friends), which would work in a novel but which feels very strange in an account that seems like it’s supposed to be non-fiction. The narrative thread of this book is part novel and part true story in a way that made me rather uncomfortable; either it’s fictional, in which case the embedding of clearly realistic details feels a bit deceptive and Phaedrus is inadequately differentiated from the author, or it’s intended to be non-fictional, in which case writing bits from the perspectives of other characters seems arrogant and a bit dishonest (particularly since those parts always reinforce and never contradict Pirsig’s, or Phaedrus’s, interpretation of events). The effect feels more constructed and less real than Zen.

This, though, is a smaller part of the book. Most of the book is devoted to the construction of a metaphysics of Quality, an analysis of the world, its purpose, its classifications, and the values and morals that it gives rise to. More so than in the previous book Pirsig directly tackles the question of what his philosophy means for human morality and human behavior. In his usual style, he presents this as a discursive ramble, and in the process shows a great deal of his thinking process and his intellectual approach to the world. His presentation of Quality as the best method of understanding the universe starts as proof by assertion and constant repetition, but if one sticks with the book, he does slowly build a justification and defense for his position and provides interesting bits of analysis that I found valuable even if I didn’t buy his overall framework.

Pirsig’s basic theory goes something like this: Traditional philosophy is focused on subjects and objects, which is too limited of a view. Quality or value is a property of the interaction between subject and object and is more fundamental than either; subjects and objects only attain existence through interaction, and that interaction therefore comes first. Quality, the valuing of one thing over another or a sense that one state is better than another, is therefore the fundamental principle of the universe on which everything else is built. He divides these values into four sets of static patterns (inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual) that form the basic structure of the world and of human society, and into something that he calls Dynamic Quality, which is the force of change or breaking down of static patterns and is identified with religious mysticism, society-changing technological development, cutting edge science, or life-changing personal growth.

Pirsig never convinced me that this structuring of the universe is ideal or better than any other perspective, but he did convince me that it’s useful in some contexts. I think some of his clearest insights are in the interaction between static and dynamic quality, in the observation that static patterns of quality can be stifling and destructive and dynamic change is necessary and important, but that dynamic change by itself is fleeting and unsustainable and there must always be a balance between dynamic change and static patterns. Social and personal advancement is therefore a ratcheting process of dynamic change and then consolidation of gains by the creation of new static patterns. I already felt, from other readings, that mysticism is poorly understood and therefore frequently misunderstood or ignored in Western Christian philosophy; Pirsig’s unusual approach to mysticism is, I think, clearer and more easily digestible than the religious explanations I’ve more often heard and therefore valuable as another way of describing a technique and mindset that’s quite difficult to describe adequately.

I do, however, have some serious problems with Pirsig’s basic arguments, going all the way back to his contention that Quality is fundamental to the universe. One example he uses repeatedly is that of a man sitting on a hot stove. His argument is that the low quality of that situation is an immediate and fundamental perception, and that rational analysis and even separation of identity between oneself and the stove comes behind the immediate recognition of a low-quality situation. There’s something to this, but where he sees a truth about the construction of the universe, I see a bypassing of intellectual thought processes by biological instinct. I’m much more willing to believe the man has a pre-conscious negative reaction to sitting on a hot stove becuase of pain receptors triggering an instinctual response that happens faster than higher brain processing. In other words, this example doesn’t, to me, show that quality is a more fundamental aspect of the universe than the stove or the man; it shows me that we have biological overrides that trigger before intellectual models. That doesn’t make the biological model more true than the intellectual model.

The end result of Pirsig’s privileging of values over objects is a metaphysics that deals directly with the ranking of values and the contention that the universe is fundamentally moral. Pirsig recasts physical laws as inorganic static patterns of value and the behavior of biological organisms as organic static patterns of value, while making an interesting argument that higher-level patterns (like biological patterns or human social patterns) are not simply emergent behavior from inorganic static patterns (phyiscal laws). Rather, he argues that each lower-level static pattern is set up in such a way as to support many possible higher-level patterns and the higher-level patterns attain a life and existence of their own that cannot be derived directly from lower-level patterns. His comparison is to a computer: the word processor program is in some sense a manifestation of the physical laws governing the operation of the computer hardware, but this isn’t true in any useful sense. One cannot reasonably discover the program from an inspection of the physical laws governing the operation of the computer; it is an entity of its own that relies on the hardware to exist and run, but which is not obviously derived from it. I found this perspective intriguing and not obviously refutable.

His next leap, though, gets him into the most trouble that he has in this book. Based on this model, he proposes a very absolute model of morality where moral actions are dominance of higher-evolved patterns over less-evolved patterns and immoral actions are the reverse. In other words, it’s moral for biological patterns to dominate inorganic patterns, moral for human social patterns to dominate biological patterns, and moral for intellectual patterns to dominate human social patterns. Above all of this, he places dynamic quality as the most important, since dynamic quality is creativity, change, and growth, and therefore no static pattern should have the right to suppress dynamic quality. In places this works; in places, I think it fails badly. For one, it reduces too easily to an order of being in which humans dominate the planet because we’re more evolved and we therefore have an absolute moral right to use any inorganic or lower biological pattern to our own purposes, leaving no justification for environmentalism other than purely pragmatic human concerns. I think this is an odd miss; even if he completely disagrees with environmental ethics, I wanted to see him address them, and explain why, then, so many of us have a strong notion of stewardship and obligation to protecting lower biological patterns that goes beyond simple practical maintenance of our social and intellectual lives.

He draws a few other conclusions from this absolute morality that I found disturbing. For example, he considers social control of biology to be moral and even makes the very incorrect claim that social control over biology is always through force and makes an ancillary argument that attempts to deal with crime through anything other than force are doomed. Despite a lot of discussion of the good and bad of Victorian morality in other parts of the book, he seems to completely miss issues of desperation, poverty, and class here and simply writes off violent crime as a biological pattern of survival of the strongest. This same simplification happens elsewhere: he calls democracy an intellectual pattern and therefore says that it’s moral to have democracy control and be able to change social structures because those are less-evolved social patterns, which ignores a great deal of complexity behind the curtain of democracy and could easily be perverted into a justification for a foreign policy of “spreading democracy.” In general, I found the distinction between social patterns (less evolved) and intellectual patterns (more evolved) less than clear and had the impression that Pirsig occasionally called things he liked intellectual patterns and things he didn’t like social patterns so that the morality worked out according to his personal preferences.

These appear to be serious systemic flaws, but I don’t want to give the impression that this destroys Pirsig’s entire work. I’m very suspicious of systems of metaphysics that purport to explain everything; I expect to find flaws and uncovered territory in all of them. Pirsig’s system tackles problems from an angle that I’d not considered in detail before, and while I think he’s on firmer ground when contrasting dynamic and static quality, some of his rankings of static patterns are useful as an intellectual tool. His discussion of how celebrity functions within social patterns of value, for instance, I found intriguing, and his application of this intellectual framework to the problem of Lila’s mental illness brought the high-flying concepts down to earth in a very compelling model of mental illness and mental turmoil.

I would describe Pirsig, both here and in Zen, as thought-provoking rather than enlightening. He doesn’t provide me with a way of looking at the universe that clicks for me, but he does make me think about how I model the universe and why and provides new angles from which to consider the problem. And, most successfully, he provides in Lila a detailed examination of his personal thought processes and the ways in which he resolved these questions for himself. As a philosophical treatise, Lila is readable and approachable but not convincing; as insight into another person’s thought processes and a different view of the world, I found it compelling. I kept turning the pages, not because the nature of the universe was becoming clear, but because Pirsig is a fascinating person about whom I enjoyed learning more. This isn’t as good of a book as Zen, but if you enjoyed Zen and want to read more of Pirsig’s thought processes, I recommend it.

4 thoughts on “Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and Lila

  1. One of the seminal books that impressed my youthful mind! I am so glad to see it reviewed again here and yes, I agree that it gains from being re-read. Some of the philosophy was indeed hard going then, I remember, but it was the difficult, silently tender, relationship between father and son that kept me turning the pages!

  2. Wouldn’t Heart of Darkness or Why Leaders Lie be more appropriate for the circumstances Bolehland is in?
    The former may be a tad difficult to grasp for UMNO politicians but I am sure they can identify with the latter, seeing how lying and cheating seems to be almost second nature to them. Especially when their main aim in life is to be rich beyond everyone’s dreams even if they have to steal to do so.

  3. Yeah, I remember now: it was Stuart Urmston, my friend who looked lost most of the time who recommended the book to me. That must have been ages ago since for decades now I’ve lost contact with Stuart. After I finished the book my respect for Stuart went up a few notches and then I realised why he looked lost for days on end. I was also lost in thought for months after finishing it, struggling to make sense of what its really saying. But it changed my attitude towards work….if before I worked to get things done, not really concerned on the end result. Whereas after, whatever the circumstances, I always try to do the best I can so that the end result is something of Quality. Especially when you do your maintenance, not only on your motorcycle, but also on just about anything.

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