Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Rationality and Irrationality Theme Analysis

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Throughout the book, Pirsig’s narrator juxtaposes rational, objective thought with more mystical, subjective ways of thinking. This contrast is evident in the difference between John’s and the narrator’s views on motorcycle maintenance. The narrator calls his own methodical, almost scientific approach the “classical” mindset, while the idealistic, repair-averse outlook John and Silvia share is the “romantic” mindset. The romantic view is a reaction to the classical view’s inability to encompass some aspects of human experience. However, as the book illustrates, neither approach suffices on its own.

The inadequacy of classical reason stymies Phaedrus’s pursuit of knowledge. Phaedrus reasons that there is not yet an explanation for the phenomenon that allows the infinitude of equally rational hypotheses and facts to be sorted and evaluated in terms of their merit. This rational process forces him to abandon the traditional rationality of the scientific method and embark on a new series of philosophical investigations, which culminate in the discovery of Quality. Instead of supplanting reason, however, Quality simply expands it: the narrator writes that Phaedrus “showed a way by which reason may be expanded to include elements that have previously been unassimilable and thus have been considered irrational.”

As the book progresses, calcified forms of academic, scientific, and institutionalized reasoning frequently stand in opposition to Phaedrus’s philosophical goals. Quality is meant to bolster reason by remedying the persistent disharmony between objective “classical” and subjective “romantic” perspectives. However, this disharmony is so entrenched that Phaedrus’s frameshift comes across as irrational. In this way, Pirsig illustrates the tenuous division between the rational and the irrational, and emphasizes the status of “reason” as an arbitrary apparatus that remains in a state of flux.

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Rationality and Irrationality Quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Below you will find the important quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance related to the theme of Rationality and Irrationality.
Chapter 1 Quotes

What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that’s the only name I can think of for it...like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator begins with visual descriptions and the motivation behind the motorcycle journey that he is taking with his son, Chris. He describes images seen from the cycle, the feeling of his feet inches above the pavement, and the type of winding country road he and his friends prefer for such trips. With the time such a trip provides for deep thought, the narrator here introduces the philosophical inquiries he will undertake. To these inquiries he give the name Chautauqua, "traveling tent-show," which provided popular adult and spiritual education at the turn of the 20th century.

The narrator's assertion that Chautauquas were "pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies, and TV" looks forward to much of the content of his philosophical inquiry, which deals with responses to changing technology and the American way of life. Here he says that the change has not been entirely good, since it has increased the "stream of national consciousness" in speed and breadth, but reduced the depth of culture and general inquiries. Much of the book will deal with what the narrator calls a "romantic" response to technology, also linked to the irrational, which resists the changes and romanticizes the past (much like this nostalgia for Chautauquas). The narrator will try to reconcile this romantic perspective with the "classical" perspective, linked with the rational, which embraces changes and new technologies.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in.…Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 43-44
Explanation and Analysis:

At the motel, Chris tells ghost stories and asks the narrator if he believes in ghosts. The narrator then launches into a philosophical lecture suggesting that reason and science are ghosts in their own way. He gives the example of gravity, which he ultimately argues did not exist until Isaac Newton thought of it. Thus he argues that the "laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts." Believing in science is no more rational than believing in ghosts.

Logic and mathematics and laws like gravity are all only human invention, and thus they only exist within human minds. The narrator argues that everything we know falls into this category. The world as we know it only exists in the human imagination. Everything is a ghost. Ideas that we take for granted all originated from historical figures, now long gone, but their words and ideas still linger as ethereal guides to our assumptions about the world. Thus "common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past." This philosophical conversation quickly gets out of hand, as John and Sylvia and Chris all become confused and slightly uncomfortable. It also leads to a private conversation / ghost story between Chris and the narrator, in which the narrator formally introduces Phaedrus.

Chapter 5 Quotes

What we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The world as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be. That’s the way John sees it. But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear, and people in John’s dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it if they want to hang on to their vision of reality. …
What you’ve got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another. That’s quite a situation. You might say there’s a little problem here.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John Sutherland
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:

Thinking about the very different approaches to motorcycle maintenance that he and John have, the narrator recalls an incident where he tried to help John repair a bike in order to get him interested in mechanics. He realizes that beyond viewing motorcycles differently, the two men have completely different world-views and understanding of reality. The narrator is interested in what things mean, while John is only interested in what things are.

John is invested in the present experience of things. The world how he sees it is reality, "regardless of what scientists say it might be." But the narrator asserts that the world and reality are also described by scientific discoveries, and that "people in John's dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it." The romantic dimension involved with what things are is aligned with a frustration with and distrust of technology. The narrator also calls it "grooving." But to hold on to that type of living and that reality of immediate artistic appearance, "hip" people must also try to understand the alternate reality of "underlying scientific explanation." These realities, however, seem completely at odds and like they don't relate at all. This dichotomy and contrast is one of the main problems that the narrator will try to reconcile in the Chautauqua.

Chapter 6 Quotes

But he saw a sick and ailing thing happening and he started cutting deep, deeper and deeper to get at the root of it. He was after something. That is important. He was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had. But he took on so much and went so far in the end his real victim was himself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter the narrator describes Phaedrus and his style of thought, which is quintessentially classical. It is organized and rooted entirely in logic and reason. To give an example, the narrator breaks down the components of a motorcycle in an extremely detailed, organized list. It is pure analysis; there is no room for the romantic or for value judgements or anything in line with John's worldview. Phaedrus mastered this type of rational thinking and used it as a tool. The narrator refers to the tool, used to cut things and organize them into pieces like the motorcycle, as Phaedrus' knife.

The narrator also reveals that Phaedrus' obsession with an idea or philosophical project seemingly drove him to insanity. But rather than calling him an assassin, the narrator calls Phaedrus a poor surgeon. He does this to make the point that Phaedrus was trying to do something—"he was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had." The "sick and ailing thing" that Phaedrus operates is the dichotomy that the narrator has so far been outlining. The tragedy of this inquiry is that eventually he cuts so far that he ends up permanently damaging himself.

Chapter 7 Quotes

What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phædrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Just before this quote the narrator introduces the metaphor of a handful of sand to describe both the Classical and Romantic modes of thought and being. Some sort of sorting, says the narrator, is essential and is done by everyone, since we are exposed to so many experiences at once that if we were aware of it all at once we could not even think. The landscape of awareness available to us is endless and unfathomable. From that landscape, we take a handful of sand, which represents details and experiences and the world we are conscious of. Taking the handful alone is an act of sorting.

But the romantic seeks to look at the whole handful of sand at once, and the classicist seeks to sort the handful into specific piles by the means of Phaedrus' "knife"—logic used to divide the world we are conscious of into distinct parts.

In the quote, the narrator describes the major project of Phaedrus and of the book itself, to find a way of looking at the world that "does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and then unites them into one." By violence, he means that when you attempt to look at the handful all at once, you lose some of the nuance found in the sorting, and when you sort, you lose some of the beauty of the whole. Something is always lost. Phaedrus attempted to embrace both means of viewing the world and unite them. He wanted to look at the endless landscape itself, and the idea that we grab sand at all.

Chapter 10 Quotes

The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.

Related Characters: Phaedrus (speaker)
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the narrator is elaborating on Phaedrus' quest for "the ghost of rationality" and the goal of uniting the classical and romantic realities. He gives a quote from Albert Einstein which talks about the different reasons that draw people to become scientists. Phaedrus, by age 15, was studying biochemistry at a university. His break occurred when he became interested in the nature of hypothesis.

During the course of his studies, he realized that the easiest part of science was coming up with a rational hypothesis to explain the data. No matter how many times he was stifled, he could always come up with another hypothesis, and the more and more he learned he realized the more hypotheses he could generate. The quote excerpted here is Phaedrus' coined law, which was intended to be humorous. But the more he studied and questioned, the less humorous it became.

Eventually, Phaedrus realized that if the law was true, it was nihilistic and a complete disproof of the scientific method. If science is meant to test and eliminate hypotheses, and hypotheses are generated faster than they can be tested and eliminated, then any scientific conclusion lacks certainty and "falls short on its goal of establishing proven knowledge." This discovery drove him to abandon science, and was a key step in his unraveling and eventual path to insanity. 

Chapter 14 Quotes

This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

The travelers have arrived at their destination in Bozeman, Montana, where Phaedrus used to teach, and have met DeWeese, the old friend of Phaedrus with whom they will stay. There they are greeted by a small welcoming party, during which at one point DeWeese asks the narrator to review an instruction manual for a rotisserie (a cooking appliance for roasting meat). The inspection of the manual sends the narrator on a long philosophical speech.

In this speech he returns to the split of the classical and the romantic, explaining some of the content of his private Chautauqua to his friends. Here, he elaborates on the false dichotomy between technology and art, saying that it is "completely unnatural." This idea, he says, has been carried throughout history much since the invention of reason. He says "rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture," suggesting that technology and art are one. He explains that instead of there being only one right way to assemble a piece of machinery, there are actually infinite ways. The art is in approaching the problem with peace of mind, and in the process of figuring out and choosing which way to proceed.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Quality—you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Seed Crystal
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:

Visiting the school where Phaedrus used to teach, the narrator recalls the question which acted as a "seed crystal" for his ideas and for his eventual mental breakdown. One question was a tiny catalyst that enabled him to produce an immense body of thought in a short period of time. The question was, "are you teaching Quality this year?" Phaedrus became obsessed with the question, at one point asking his students to write an essay describing what Quality is.

Here, he gives the paradox that drove Phaedrus' breakdown and much of the book's central philosophy. We know what Quality is, but it is very difficult to define it. We can name things as better than other things, but when you try to say what that "betterness" really is, it seems to not exist. He wonders, if no one knows what it is, does it exist? At the same time, it must exist! The concept eludes all rational analysis. Phaedrus cannot use his knife of reason to understand what Quality is. The chapter ends with the problem unresolved. The narrator simply asks, "What the hell is Quality? What is it?"

Chapter 18 Quotes

Phaedrus’ refusal to define Quality, in terms of this analogy, was an attempt to break the grip of the classical sandsifting mode of understanding and find a point of common understanding between the classic and romantic worlds. Quality, the cleavage term between hip and square, seemed to be it. Both worlds used the term. Both knew what it was. It was just that the romantic left it alone and appreciated it for what it was and the classic tried to turn it into a set of intellectual building blocks for other purposes. Now, with the definition blocked, the classic mind was forced to view Quality as the romantic did, undistorted by thought structures.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator and Chris are still hiking, and the narrator says he wants to make one last point about Quality. He begins by summarizing some of the points he has made about the split between classical and romantic, or "hip" and "square." He briefly goes over the analogy he has previously made, which says that life and awareness are an infinite landscape, and from that landscape we take a handful of sand. The romantic approach is to appreciate the whole handful; the classical approach is to sort the handful into piles.

Using this analogy again, the narrator explains that Phaedrus' refusal to define Quality in the classroom and in his thought can be understood as him trying to "break the grip of the classical sandsifting mode of understanding." Phaedrus wanted to challenge classical reason. Instead of using his "knife" or sifting the sand (using reason) to define Quality, Phaedrus wanted to find a concept that could bridge the classic and romantic worlds and unite them.

Phaedrus determined that Quality was the concept that united hip and square (classical and romantic), and that both worlds used Quality and knew what it was. Because of these ideas, Phaedrus thought that Quality was the thing that could bring rationality and irrationality, hip and square together. The romantics like John knew what quality was, and "they left it alone and appreciated it." Classicists would try to define Quality and use it as a tool for reason. But by blocking the classic mind from defining Quality, Phaedrus would force a classicist to see Quality how a romantic might, free from the confines of rationality and logic. In this way he might bridge the gap that has occupied so much of the Chautauqua.

Chapter 20 Quotes

Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word quality cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.

Related Characters: Phaedrus (speaker)
Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator decides that it is unsafe to climb to the top of the mountain. During the descent, he continues describing Phaedrus' breakthrough. He conceptualizes Quality as "preintellectual reality." Quality is reality, and classical quality and romantic quality become different modes of perceiving and processing it. He also reasons that people think different objects have Quality not because of any difference or variability within Quality itself, but because people are all so different and bring a different set of memories each time they interpret quality.

Here, Phaedrus writes to his colleagues at Bozeman that "any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation." Analytic thinking, we know, is breaking things down into its components (the narrator has previously used sandsifting and knife metaphors to help us understand this point). But Quality, he says, cannot be broken down into any more parts. It cannot be broken down or cut apart not because it is complicated or mysterious, because it is so simple. Quality is the event of reality itself. He goes on to say, "Quality is the response of an organism to its environment."

Chapter 21 Quotes

No, he did nothing for Quality or the Tao. What benefited was reason. He showed a way by which reason may be expanded to include elements that have previously been unassimilable and thus have been considered irrational. I think it’s the overwhelming presence of these irrational elements crying for assimilation that creates the present bad quality, the chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 327-328
Explanation and Analysis:

Still descending the mountain, the narrator says that he wishes to move way from the abstract intellectual pursuits of Phaedrus and connect those ideas back to everyday life and the general dissatisfaction with technology and the spirit of the 20th century. He says that he cannot say for sure if Phaedrus' comparison between Quality and Tao was correct, or good, and he even says that it's possible to "hurt" Quality just by trying to define it.

Rather, the narrator says that Phaedrus' work was done in the service of reason. By climbing the intellectual mountain (investigating Quality), Phaedrus showed how to include irrational and emotional issues under the umbrella of reason. He found a way to connect what had "previously been unassimilable" in reason and academia. The narrator goes on to say that it is the presence of irrational ideas and the need to assimilate them (understand them, and bridge the gap between classic and romantic) that is driving all of the "bad quality' and the "chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century" which drove him to begin the Chautauqua in the first place.

Chapter 24 Quotes

Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It’s this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 366
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the Chautauqua, the narrator is discussing the feeling of stuckness that occurs when reason fails to solve a problem. The example he uses is of a screw stuck in a motorcycle you are trying to repair. Like the screw itself, you become stuck, unable to remove it and unable to proceed. Such a moment can be extremely frustrating.

However, the narrator suggests that moments like this are actually key to new ideas and recognizing Quality. Stuckness is what comes before true understanding. Rather than avoiding stuckness, he says it should be embraced. Without ego, we need to accept this position of stuckness as a key to understanding Quality. It is this patience and embrace of stuckness, he says, that makes self-taught mechanics better than "institute-trained men." The self-taught person knows how to move past stuckness and figure out ingenious solutions to new problems, but the institute-trained person knows only a set of procedures which sometimes can lead to the unfamiliar stuckness he or she can't handle.

Chapter 25 Quotes

The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is ... not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footstep on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 373-374
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator reiterates a point made earlier in the Chautauqua. The aversion that John and Sylvia feel to technology needs to be solved, and running away from it wont solve the problem. Indeed, the narrator said early on how reliant they all are on technology, despite their hatred of it. The best way to approach the conflict, he says, is "to break down the barriers of dualistic thought" (classicism vs romanticism) which prevent a true understanding of what technology really is.

Technology is not an exploitation of nature. Rather, it is a "fusion of nature and human spirit.. a new kind of creation that transcends both." We recognize this special transcendence of nature in major technological revolutions or events, like the first airplane or the moon landing. But the narrator says we also need to recognize how special and artful technology is on a personal (and "less dramatic") level. As we know by now, proper understanding and application of Quality, both as a designer of technology and as a user and a consumer, will alleviate the problem and help us to recognize technology for what it truly is and should be. This sort of recognition, the narrator believes, will make people like John and Sylvia feel like they don't want to or have to run from technology any more.

Chapter 26 Quotes

A very strong case can be made for the statement that science grows by its mu answers more than by its yes or no answer. Yes or no confirms or denies a hypothesis. Mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis. Mu is the "phenomenon" that inspires scientific enquiry in the first place! There’s nothing mysterious or esoteric about it. It’s just that our culture has warped us to make a low value judgment of it.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Mu
Page Number: 413
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator is continuing to discuss possible "gumption" traps. He has introduced the truth trap, which is concerned with "yes" or "no" questions. The narrator introduces a third option: the Japanese Mu, which means "no thing." It is a kind of "no" answer; it means that the question is too small, or the answer is neither yes nor no. Our natural inclination is to resist "mu," but it is even present in the sciences.

What's more, the narrator asserts that mu answers actually contribute more to science than yes or no answers. The reason he gives is that yes or no simply tells you that a certain hypothesis is correct or incorrect. But "mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis." Mu, he says, is the very "phenomenon" that inspires scientists to study and explore in the first place. The narrator says that we should place more value on mu, and that it is an error that "our culture has warped us to make a low value judgment of it." Like embracing "stuckness," the narrator says that we should embrace mu as part of his Zen solution.

Note also that much of his (and Phaedrus') project has been to unify or break the duality of classic and romantic. Mu is the same type of answer and gesture—a rejection of duality. It refutes what seems like should only be "yes" or "no," and provides a third option.

Chapter 29 Quotes

Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine "virtue." But areté. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric. He has been doing it right all along.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 484-485
Explanation and Analysis:

This excerpt comes at the end of a long, detailed chapter which continues to describe Phaedrus' struggles with other academics at the University of Chicago, leading closer and closer to his psychotic break. The narrator describes Phaedrus' experience in a philosophy class about ancient Greek literature, and the research he did into Sophists, the pre-Socratic thinkers who supposedly taught virtue. These Sophists are given a bad name by Plato, who pits them against Socrates in his Dialogues. Phaedrus, for some reason, aligns himself with these Sophists, and distrusts Plato's rejection of them.

Looking at the ancient Greek heroes, Phaedrus has an epiphany. What we translate as "virtue" is the Greek word "areté," which means excellence. Here he realizes "Quality! Virtue! Dharma!" are all the same thing. The Sophists, he believes, were teaching Quality, not the "ethical relativism" that we commonly associate with the English word virtue. Before reason, substance, mind, and matter, and before the classical / romantic duality, Quality was absolute. These Sophists, the "first teachers of the Western world," were "teaching Quality," and they taught it through rhetoric, just as Phaedrus had been doing all along.

This realization is a major epiphany for Phaedrus in the context of his struggles with the university, and it demonstrates again that Quality is trans-historical and multicultural.