Robert M. Pirsig

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Robert M. Pirsig
Pirsig, July 7, 2005
Born Robert Maynard Pirsig
(1928-09-06)September 6, 1928
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Died April 24, 2017(2017-04-24) (aged 88)
South Berwick, Maine, USA[1]
Occupation Writer, philosopher
Nationality USA
Genre Philosophical fiction
Notable works Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991)
Spouse Nancy Ann James
(m. 1954–1978)
Wendy Kimball
(m. 1978)
Children Chris, Theodore, Nell

Robert Maynard Pirsig (September 6, 1928 - April 24, 2017) was an American writer and philosopher, and the author of the philosophical novels Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991).


Pirsig was born on September 6, 1928[2] to Harriet Marie Sjobeck and Maynard Pirsig, and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is of German and Swedish descent.[3] His father was a University of Minnesota Law School (UMLS) graduate, and started teaching at the school in 1934. The elder Pirsig served as the law school dean from 1948 to 1955, and retired from teaching at UMLS in 1970.[4] He resumed his career as a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, where he remained until his final retirement in 1993.[4]

Because he was a precocious child, with an I.Q. of 170 at age 9, Robert Pirsig skipped several grades and was enrolled at the Blake School in Minneapolis.[3] Pirsig was awarded a high school diploma in May 1943 and entered the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry that autumn. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he described the central character, thought to represent him, as being far from a typical student; he was interested in science as a goal in itself, rather than as a way to establish a career.

While doing laboratory work in biochemistry, Pirsig became greatly troubled by the existence of more than one workable hypothesis to explain a given phenomenon, and, indeed, that the number of hypotheses appeared unlimited. He could not find any way to reduce the number of hypotheses—he became perplexed by the role and source of hypothesis generation within scientific practice. This led to his determination of a previously unarticulated limitation of science, which was something of a revelation to him. The question distracted him to the extent that he lost interest in his studies and failed to maintain good grades; and finally, he was expelled from the university.

Pirsig enlisted in the United States Army in 1946 and was stationed in South Korea until 1948. Upon his discharge from the army, he returned to the U.S. and lived in Seattle, Washington for less than a year, at which point he decided to finish the education he had abandoned. He earned a bachelor of arts in Eastern Philosophy in May 1950. He then attended Banaras Hindu University in India, to study Eastern Philosophy and culture. Although he did not obtain a degree, he performed graduate-level work in philosophy and journalism at the University of Chicago. His difficult experiences as a student in a course taught by Richard McKeon were later described, thinly disguised, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.[5] In 1958, he became a professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, and taught creative writing courses for two years.

Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals between 1961 and 1963. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression as a result of an evaluation conducted by psychoanalysts, and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy on numerous occasions, a treatment he discusses in his novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

On December 15, 2012, Montana State University bestowed Pirsig with an honorary doctorate in the field of philosophy during the university's fall commencement. Pirsig was also honored with a commencement talk speech by MSU Regent Professor Michael Sexson.[6][7] Pirsig was an instructor in writing at what was then Montana State College from 1958–1960.[8] In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig writes about his time at MSC as a less than pleasurable experience due to the teaching philosophy of the agricultural college at the time that limited his ability to teach writing effectively as well as to develop his own philosophies and literature. Due to frailty of health, Pirsig did not travel to Bozeman in December 2012 from his residence in Maine in order to accept the accolade.

Personal life

Robert Pirsig married Nancy Ann James on May 10, 1954. They had two sons: Chris, born in 1956, and Theodore, born in 1958. On December 31, 1978, he married Wendy Kimball.

In 1979, Pirsig's son Chris, who figured prominently in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was stabbed to death during a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center. Pirsig discusses this incident in an afterword to subsequent editions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writing that he and his second wife, Kimball, decided not to abort the child she conceived in 1980, because he had come to believe that this unborn child was a continuation of the life pattern that Chris had occupied. This child's name is Nell.

Published material

Pirsig's work consists most notably of two novels. The better known, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, develops around Pirsig's exploration into the nature of "Quality". Ostensibly a first person narrative based on a motorcycle trip he and his young son Chris took from Minneapolis to San Francisco, it is an exploration of the underlying metaphysics of western culture. He also gives the reader a short summary of the history of philosophy, including his interpretation of the philosophy of Socrates as part of an ongoing dispute between "cosmologists" admitting the existence of a Universal Truth and the Sophists, opposed by Socrates and his student Plato. Pirsig finds in "Quality" a special significance and common ground between Western and Eastern world views.

Pirsig's publisher's recommendation to his board ended, "This book is brilliant beyond belief, it is probably a work of genius, and will, I'll wager, attain classic stature."[9] Pirsig noted in an early interview that Zen was rejected 121 times before being accepted by William Morrow Publishers. In his book review, George Steiner compared Pirsig's writing to Dostoevsky, Broch, Proust, and Bergson, stating that "the assertion itself is valid... the analogies with Moby-Dick are patent".[10] The Times Literary Supplement called it "profoundly important, disturbing, deeply moving, full of insights, a wonderful book".

In 1974, Pirsig was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to allow him to write a follow-up, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991), in which he developed a value-based metaphysics, called Metaphysics of Quality, that challenges our subject-object view of reality. The second book, this time "the captain" of a sail-boat, follows on from where Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance left off.

See also


  1. Chawkins, Steve (April 24, 2017), "Robert Pirsig dies at 88; wrote counterculture classic 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'", Los Angeles Times, retrieved May 1, 2017<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Robert M(aynard) Pirsig." Contemporary Popular Writers. Ed. Dave Mote. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997. Gale Biography in Context. Web. September 1, 2012.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Robert M. Pirsig". It Happened in History. American Society of Authors and Writers. Retrieved February 25, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 A Tribute to Dean Pirsig, University of Minnesota Law School, republished by
  5. The story is recounted in Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Bantam Books, 1974, pp. 329–330). Richard McKeon can be identified from the context.
  6. "[MD] Pirsig's Honorary Doctorate". Retrieved July 2, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. MSU News Service (November 16, 2012). "MSU News - MSU to award honorary doctorate to philosopher Robert Pirsig at December commencement". Retrieved July 2, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "MSU to award honorary doctorate to philosopher Robert Pirsig - The Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Montana State University". The Bozeman Daily Chronicle. November 18, 2012. Retrieved July 2, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Richardson, Mark. Zen and Now. Random House Digital, Inc, September 9, 2008, p. 194
  10. George Steiner, Uneasy Rider The New Yorker, April 15, 1974, pp. 147–150.
  • Richardson, Mark. Zen and Now. Random House Digital, Inc, September 9, 2008, p. 194

External links