Robert Maynard Pirsig (born September 6, 1928, Minneapolis, Minnesota) is an American writer, mainly known as the author of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974), which has sold millions of copies around the world.
By virtue of being a precocious child with an IQ of 170 at age 9, Pirsig skipped several grades.
In 1943, Pirsig entered the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he described himself as being far from a typical student. He was an idealist of a sort, interested in science as a goal in itself, rather than as a way to establish a career.
While doing biochemical lab work, Pirsig was greatly bothered by the fact that there was always more than one workable hypothesis to explain a given phenomenon, and that the number of such hypotheses seemed almost unlimited. He could not think of any way around this, and to him it seemed that the whole scientific endeavor had been brought to a halt, in some sense. This question so distracted him that he was dismissed from the university for poor grades.
After serving with the US military in Korea, he returned to Minnesota and completed his B.A. in philosophy in 1950. He then attended Banaras Hindu University in India to learn about Eastern philosophy. He also did graduate work in philosophy at the University of Chicago, but did not obtain a degree. His difficult experiences as a student in a course taught by Richard McKeon are described, thinly disguised, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Until the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig supported himself with freelance work and by teaching freshmen English. An emotional and mental breakdown led him to spend part of the period 1960 – 63 in and out of mental institutions, where he underwent shock therapy.
Pirsig married Nancy Ann James in 1954. They had two children, Chris (1956) and Theodore (1958). Pirsig and James divorced in 1978. Later that year, he married Wendy Kimball.
In 1979, Pirsig's son Chris — who had played an important role 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 spouse 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 is Pirsig's daughter Nell.
Pirsig avoids the public eye. He travels around the Atlantic by boat, and has resided in Norway, Sweden, Belgium, England, and in various places around the USA.
Pirsig's work consists almost entirely of two books. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sets out Pirsig's interpretation and definition of "Quality" and "the Good." It is mostly a first person narrative of a motorcycle trip across North America, undertaken with some friends and his son Chris.
Pirsig's publisher's recommendation to his Board ended with "This book is brilliant beyond belief, it is probably a work of genius, and will, I'll wager, attain classic stature." 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". 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 elaborates and focuses a value-based metaphysics, called Metaphysics of Quality, to replace the subject-object view of reality.
In 2005, Dr Anthony McWatt at Liverpool University, England, organized the first conference on Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality. At the same time, Liverpool awarded McWatt the first PhD specifically concerned with the subject.
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