Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


I have been thinking about meaning, time, change, knowledge and science and the frameworks that support these concepts. But recently, while reading Robert M. Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I realized that he has already captured some of these same ideas in his classic book.

It surprises me to know that these ideas have been written in this best-selling book for 34 years, yet our societies have not stumbled upon some ground-breaking innovations in the way we think.

We’re overdue for some great insights. I’m betting on those that are in their early twenties right now. This book should provide a good base or springboard for their innovative ideas.

The complete book is available online. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance there is also a PDF version (from Caltech).

Here are some interesting quotes from this book:

“For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see.”

“This structure of concepts is formally called a hierarchy and since ancient times has been a basic structure for all Western knowledge… mechanical assemblies, computer software, all scientific and technical knowledge is so structured…”

“The box “motorcycle” contains the boxes “components” and “functions.” The box “components” contains the boxes “power assembly” and “running assembly,” and so on.”

“…There are many other kinds of structures produced by other operators such as “causes”…(and effects)…”

“… That’s all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There’s no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone’s mind…”

“… I’ve noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this…that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes…pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts…all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forge work or welding sees “steel” as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough…”

“… An untrained observer will see only physical labor and often get the idea that physical labor is mainly what the mechanic does. Actually the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking…”

“…He coined a law intended to have the humor of a Parkinson’s law that “The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.”…”

“… If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge….”

“… Did Einstein really mean to state that truth was a function of time? To state that would annihilate the most basic presumption of all science!…”

“…Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year. Scientific truth was not dogma, good for eternity, but a temporal quantitative entity that could be studied like anything else…”

“…And what seems to be causing the number of hypotheses to grow in recent decades seems to be nothing other than scientific method itself. The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it! It is your application of scientific method that is causing it to change!…”

“… Lateral knowledge is knowledge that’s from a wholly unexpected direction, from a direction that’s not even understood as a direction until the knowledge forces itself upon one. Lateral truths point to the falseness of axioms and postulates underlying one’s existing system of getting at truth….”

“… He discovered that the science he’d once thought of as the whole world of knowledge is only a branch of philosophy, which is far broader and far more general. The questions he had asked about infinite hypotheses hadn’t been of interest to science because they weren’t scientific questions. Science cannot study scientific method without getting into a bootstrap problem that destroys the validity of its answers….”

“…But how the hell do you ever justify, in terms of reason, a refusal to define something? Definitions are the foundation of reason. You can’t reason without them….”

I don’t necessarily agree with all the statements quoted here. I find them interesting and valuable as thought exercises.

Overall, I still think this is a book worth reading.
Daniel Montano
Keyword: Daniel Montano, Dan Montano, user experience design, information architect


2 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  1. I love this book, although reading it has been the slowest process of my life. I started in 2005. Some days I can only read half a page before my brain takes off. I’m up for some great insights too into the way we think, and to that end am combining logical theory with the realities of human nature to help business leaders. It’s just a start. Thanks for the quotes!

  2. I’m the same way. I can only read for a max of 20mins before I get the itch to start writing.

    Try this..see if it works for you… listen to the audio book while you’re commuting.

    Thanks for the comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s