Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 2, Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

The travelers reach the mountains now, and the narrator remembers the route well. He flashes back to when Phaedrus used this road a lot. Phaedrus has an almost physical need for the mountains. He craves silence and space without distraction for his meditations about the nature of truth. Eventually Phaedrus enlists in the army, which then sends him to Korea, where his thoughts reach a turning point. He is "some creature that has found an exit from a cage he did not even know was around him." On his way back home Phaedrus reads a profoundly affecting book called The Meeting of East and West. The book describes two visions of reality: the "theoretic" and the "esthetic." The book inspires Phaedrus to return to college and study philosophy. Philosophy, he now believes, is "the highest echelon of the entire hierarchy of knowledge," higher even than science.

The narrator and his friends are now high in the mountains, and the narrator recalls the way Phaedrus wandered "the high country of thought." Phaedrus studied the writing of philosophers both famous and obscure: "He followed their trails carefully until they seemed to grow cold, then dropped them." Phaedrus felt more at home reading the 19th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant and the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume.

The narrator returns to the motorcycle metaphor to illustrate the difference between Kant and Hume. Hume says that "everything I know about this motorcycle comes to me through my senses." There is no way to perceive the "motorcycle-ness" of the machine except by sensation. Kant says that "the fact that there's no way of experiencing a 'motorcycle,'"—as opposed to a collection of colors and shapes—does not prove the motorcycle doesn't exist: "We have in our minds an a priori motorcycle which has continuity in time and space." (In Kantian philosophy, a priori knowledge exists independent of experience, while a posteriori knowledge comes from experience.) For the narrator, Kant's theory gives "a much more satisfying understanding of how we know things."

The narrator adds that, like Kant, Phaedrus would later come up with a revolutionary method of understanding the world, a method that breached the gap between the classical and the romantic. But when he studied Kant, Phaedrus began to perceive a vague ugliness in the world around him: "It was reason itself that was ugly and there seemed no way to get free."

Analysis

In Chapter 4 the narrator woke Chris, John, and Sylvia earlier than was necessary. As this chapter opens, the narrator decides to let Chris sleep in. Perhaps because he no longer avoids his memories of Phaedrus, he becomes more aware of other people's needs.

As in earlier chapters the bridge between the ordinary experience and complex topic is traversed via the motorcycle analogy. Here, the concept of a priori knowledge—which is the crux of the Kantian philosophy that the narrator tackles—is made accessible to the reader via the ongoing motorcycle analogies of the book. A priori knowledge is that information not provided by sensory information. To make sense of this, Pirsig begins with the philosopher David Hume. Hume was an empiricist, one who thinks all knowledge and information humans receive comes from the senses (empirical). This idea is central to the scientific method, which requires controlled and detailed observation to test hypotheses.

The narrator clarifies the concepts by referencing two examples of a priori knowledge—time and space—and then applying that to the concrete concept of "motorcycle." He explains that the purely empirical motorcycle—Hume's motorcycle—is incomprehensible, but taking the Kantian revision to the idea makes it understandable. According to Hume and basic common sense, observing an object from one position is always different if the same object is viewed from a different position. But then why do observers agree that it is the same object, even though the senses give different views? Kant attributes the agreement to a priori knowledge—the knowledge that comes through the elements of space and time. Humans cannot directly "sense" space or time but can use them to make sense of the world. Ultimately, Pirsig leaves the reader with the comprehensible idea of a complicated concept of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which is that Kant's text is not just about a priori knowledge but how it is acquired and used.

With these dense Enlightenment-era philosophical concepts made accessible to the reader, the narrator then can point out the issue. Phaedrus found both these concepts by Kant and Hume lacking, although he couldn't explain exactly why. For Phaedrus "it was reason itself that was ugly and there seemed to be no way to get free."

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