Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

As I said, classics like Robert M. Pirsig's ZenAndTheArtOfMotorcycleMaintenance should get a spot here.

It changed our lives. And it contains a lot of wisdom.

f.e.

"The first is that the motorcycle, so described, is almost impossible to understand unless you already know how one works.". Why does this sound familiar ?

"It's a problem of our time. The range of human knowledge today is so great that we're all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him. The lunchtime here-and-now stuff is a specialty too."

-- MartineDevos


It certainly changed my outlook. -- JohnFletcher

I bought a motorbike ;-) (Well, not entirely because of zataomm, but it helped.) -- MartinPool


CategoryBook seems a little inadequate!

Not really. Yeah, it doesn't distinguish between deep, enduring classics and throw-away novels, but that's what BookList is for.

I thought I was going to create a new page about the book, but it's already here. Anyway, I've been thinking about it some, lately, and I guess I'll inflict some of that thought on the Wiki-world.

There's a lot in the book to build on, but I'll pick out one thing and go with it for a bit. That's the discussion of the scientific method.

Consider a parallel with software design:

That is, ScientificMethod consists of a statement of the problem, followed by a repetition of: generate hypotheses and perform experiments to test hypotheses, followed by From Pirsig's description of ScientificMethod:

a conclusion. Software design can be considered to be a Statement of requirements, followed by a repetition of: generate a proposed design then implement and test it; followed by delivery of the final system.

Unless, of course, you TestFirst, where you test, implement, then design. ;) Essentially turning traditional development process on its head. -- TerjeSlettebo?

Now, Pirsig goes into the fact that what seems like it should be the hardest part - generating viable hypotheses - in practice turns out to be the easiest. In fact, there's no end to them; the act of exploring one hypothesis brings to mind a multitude of others. The harder you look, the more you find. It is an open, not a closed, system.

I would suggest that this correspondence holds: that the set of possible designs to meet the requirements is infinite; that the act of generating a design brings to mind multiple alternatives; that generating a design increases, rather than decreases, the set of possible alternative designs.

This is argument by analogy and therefore not particularly forceful, but I feel certain, myself, that it holds. It certainly feels right, intuitively. I think it ties in with Goedel's work on decidability: that any sufficiently complex system - which any programming language is - is able to say more than it can prove. Thus there's always another hypothesis that might give better answers; there's always another design that might solve the problem better. There's always room for an architect that can pull the magic out of the clouds.


That last bit ties in to a point I'd like to expand on. That is, that all formalisms, or design methodologies, are in some way limiting. By adhering strictly to a particular design process, you forego the gains that come from inventing a new, better process.

Admittedly, you also 'forego' the time lost on ideas that don't work out.

Process or methodology is a means of getting a RatchetEffect, or HoldingTheGains. It's a way of applying a pattern of development to other, related, projects. There needs to be a way of allowing for new developments and ideas, though.

"There's no one more qualified to modify a system than the last person to work on it". That seems counter-intuitive; one would think that the people that created it understand it best. However, they've moved on to other things, while the later maintainers got the benefit of all the original designers' work plus, in addition, all that was later learned about the system, such as how it reacts to the customers, and how it responds to maintenance.


Software design is made up partly of flashing new insights, and partly of routine solutions that have been invented over and over again. Codifying patterns is a way of ratcheting the whole community up to near the level of the leaders, at least in terms of the routine solutions.

It's still necessary to allow for the insights, though. A lot of the big-company emphasis on process ignores this, assuming that nothing is ever new, and that the answers of yesterday are good enough for tomorrow.

(this is turning into a pretty good rant, but I think I'll cut it off for now)

-- KevinKelley
that the act of generating a design brings to mind multiple alternatives; that generating a design increases, rather than decreases, the set of possible alternative designs. --> funny, I just experienced that teaching a class on OO design today! --AlistairCockburn
This is another book with a huge GingerFactor.

I didn't feel this way at all when I read Pirsig. Sure, it was slow going for me, but so are many books. I found myself moving slowly because I had to think about what he was saying, not about how he was saying what he was saying. (Does that make any sense?) -- EugeneWallingford

"The first is that the motorcycle, so described, is almost impossible to understand unless you already know how one works."

Some time soon I'm going to be delivering a seminar to some colleagues to help them understand what OO is all about, and how to build OO business models. Some of them have a very strong DataModelling? background, and I fully intend to (ab)use the motorcycle example to explain why the time-invariant nature of data models makes them so difficult to understand (if you don't already understand the system being described).

My contention will be that by emphasizing behaviour object models suffer from this defect less so.

-- KeithBraithwaite


I recently read the book, and the following paragraph (from Chapter 29) rang in my head like a gong:

"My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that's all. God, I don't want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There's a place for them but they've got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved. We've had that individual Quality in the past, exploited it as a natural resource without knowing it, and now it's just about depleted. Everyone's just about out of gumption. And I think it's about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource - individual worth."

It seemed a very Alexandrian sentiment. That is, it seems to endorse the idea that successful, beautiful, efficient organization in the large will arise naturally from skillful application of well thought out patterns in the small. And that if there is disorder at the small scale, there cannot be beauty at the large scale. It reminded me of the concept of an AlexandrianCenter.

I am tempted to ask whether the Quality that ZatAoMM talks about could have any connection to the QualityWithoutaName, but I don't understand the latter very well and I'm afraid it's a silly question.

I also and especially liked the QuotationOnBeautyFromPlatosPhaedrus (quoted in ZatAoMM Chapter 30), because I do believe that beauty (or Quality or the QWAN ) is something that we can recognize and do respond to, and that it's not something we need to have an authority define for us - which is good, because it's not definable.

-- CameronSmith
[ZenAndTheArtOfMotorcycleMaintenance] is one of the most significant books on the subject of true quality that this reviewer (rj) has ever encountered. And a hell of a good story, too.

I read this book. It was a waste of my time, as I already have read Homer and Plato.

Right. There's never any point in reading an alternative description of something. I don't go to performances of Shakespeare either - it is a waste of my time, as I have already seen them performed before.

ZenAndTheArtOfMotorcycleMaintenance is, as it says above, "a hell of a good story, too". Did you not find it so?

I found the story meandering, the metaphysics poor, and the attempt to grasp the essence of arete misleading.

Performances of Shakespeare always give me new insights. This book gave me nothing.

Rather than read paraphrases, you should read the original: Homer, Plato, MrAristotle, and Kant.

If you believe Pirsig doesn't build something different on top of Plato, then IMHO, you missed at least Hume (but so did Kant). For Plato, the ultimate reality is universal and can be described positively through properties. For Aristotle, it is still universal, but can best be described negatively, through discrimination (classification). For Hume, everybody is responsible for the discrimination, so that the reality is subjective. I think this is very much what Pirsig says as well. Modern philosophy (Heidegger, Sartre...) build on this. Reality (meaning) can be contractual, but in no case universal. But hey: this is object orientation! Nothing global! -- MarcGirod

I agree with MarcGirod that Pirsig's presentation adds in important ways to what Plato and Aristotle had to say. I think he also added something to what Hume had to say, in his explication of how the subject flows from Quality, and not the other way around.

-- EugeneWallingford


I have read a little of each of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, but apparently not enough, because I did feel I gained something from reading ZenAndTheArtOfMotorcycleMaintenance. However, there is another factor that may have disposed me to respond more favorably to the book than the usual reader might: I have, several times in my life, experienced depressive episodes similar to (but less intense than) the condition Pirsig describes in the book. I've never had my brain zapped and chunks of my memory erased (at least, not that I recall...) but I definitely have traveled in the nearer reaches of the mental wasteland that he describes.

I found the book a good travel story, but it wasn't the motorcycle travel that made me feel that way.

And I do feel that a lot of my life has been a search for a way to bring what Pirsig calls (somewhat annoyingly, I admit) capital-Q "Quality" into the work that I do. I wouldn't care about DesignPatterns, LiterateProgramming, or a lot of other BuzzwordCompliant trends if I didn't see them fundamentally as means to the "Quality" end.

I have one other guilty confession to make: Performances of Shakespeare don't always give me new insights, and - even worse - I sometimes enjoy a performance that didn't give me new insights, just because it was fun.

This is one of those books that on first reading feels like TheSingleBook?. It's not. It's always a little disappointing to discover that on a second reading.


There also is a sequel, called LilaAnInquiryIntoMorals I found out that both of the books are not TheSingleBook?, after struggling through and finishing the second book. At the time I found them both impressive books, but I cannot remember having learned anything from them (this was a long time ago, though)

BTW, I recently started studying and practicing Zen. I found that Buddhism and especially Zen is wonderfully void of metaphysical pondering. Metaphysics detracts from a full experience of reality, which makes it all the more curious as to what Zen is doing in the title of the book.

It's a fine book, but it doesn't have anything to do with Zen Buddhism. The author even says so in the preface.
ZenAndTheArtOfMotorcycleMaintenance claims that quality is subjective, an event that occurs or not when entity and observer interact. For lots more about this, see http://virtualschool.edu/mon/SocialConstruction. -- BradCox

Actually, Pirsig says that Quality is neither subjective nor objective, but rather relational - a relationship between the observer and the observed. There's a difference in terminology between what I said above and what Pirsig says in ZATAoMM. Pirsig's objective is my intrinsic, his subjective is the same as my subjective, and his relational is my objective, roughly.

In any case, I don't consider Pirsig an authority on philosophy or even on Quality. He had some good and interesting things to say in ZATAoMM and to a markedly lesser extent in LilaAnInquiryIntoMorals, but he's made a number of mistakes as well. In particular, in the millennia-old duel between the ideas of Plato and Aristotle he has chosen the wrong side, and for mistaken reasons.

Anyone less lazy than myself, feel free to move this discussion to a page where it would be less tangential.

-- DanHankins

Why did he choose the wrong side? What were his mistaken reasons?
I was disappointed when I read the book. Someone else has said this book has a high GingerFactor. I would tend agree although I am not sure that the author intended the narrator's reasoning to be comprehensible. The narrator is mentally ill. He gets progressively worst during his trip across the states as he heads towards the place he used to live before his first mental breakdown. Some of his ideas are interesting but most are just the irrational ramblings of a loon.
Also see: RobertPirsig TheMetaphysicsOfQuality LilaAnInquiryIntoMorals AlexanderPirsigConnection MuAnswer
Offsite links
CategoryBook CategoryEasternThought CategoryWesternThought?, CategoryPhilosophy

EditText of this page (last edited August 2, 2009) or FindPage with title or text search

Why