“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” – Revisited. Part 1

  1. One of the few books that influenced my personal philosophy in a long lasting way.

Robert Pirsig drives with his son on the back of his Honda Super Hawk across the US and is accompanied by his friend John, who travels with his wife Sylvia on a BMW, a R50 I assume given the time the trip was undertaken. During this trip Robert tries to come to grips with his troubled past as Phaedrus and uses motorcycle maintenance as an example to explain two opposing approaches to view the world, to solve problems and to everything (or was that “to everything” in another book, maybe about hitchhikers?). This is, in a nutshell, what I remember about Robert Pirsig’s book, I have read it from beginning to end around 20 years ago. These opposing approaches to problem solving he calls Classical and Romantic. A Classical person analyzes a problem logically based on observations, understanding of the underlying principles and then uses logical reasoning to come up with a conclusion and solution. In my interpretation the understanding of the underlying principles can come from natural laws, science based evidence, technical documentations etc. A Romantic person bases decisions on feelings, perceptions, beliefs and other criteria more related to emotions that to facts.

Remark: I think it is important in the context of the following excursion of mine to note at this point that there is no right or wrong here. These are part of different ways to view the world and reality is that people are just different.

He also struggles with the concept of quality, something he finds difficult to define and during the trip develops what he calls Metaphysics of Quality, which he believes can bridge the gap between the Classical and the Romantic people. Living in Asia for more than 20 years, where quality is understood often very differently than back home, I do struggle with a precise definition of quality too and came to the conclusions that there is probably no universal definition.

He gives one example for the Classical and Romantic approaches to problem solving that is still fresh in my mind as if I had read it just now. Motorcycle handlebars are mounted on the fork with clamps, which are tightened by screws. Properly tightened screes, prevent the tube of the handlebar to turn in the clamps and thus prevent the handlebar from moving forward or backward under load. If the gaps between the upper and lower part of the  clamps holding the handlebars are too big, even with tight screws they can not hold the handlebar tight enough to not moved under load. This is exactly what had happened with John’s BMW. The handlebar was turning inside the clamps and further tightening of the screws did not prevent it from doing so. The travelers were in the middle of nowhere and John was desperate for a BMW service center to fix the problem, but there was none for hundreds of miles. Robert took a stroll around the place and came back with an empty aluminium Coke can. He told John that he had the solution for the problem and explained to the increasingly alarmed John that he will cut the Coke can to get a small stripe of Aluminium sheet, which he will put between the handle bar and the clamps. This would reduce the size of the gaps between the  clamp half’s and thus the handlebar could be tightened again with the screws. A perfect technical solution based on analysis of the problem, sound knowledge of the the design and mechanics and the assessment of available options. So anybody with a Classical view of the world would agree. What did John do? He flatly rejected the idea, how could you use a piece of scrap metal from a cheap Coke bottle on a quality product like a BMW, designed by German engineers and made by highly skilled German workers. He could not be convinced, despite all logical arguments, and preferred to continue riding with a loose handlebar rather than having his prime German product spoiled by a piece of scrap metal. A clear example of the Classical world view colliding with the Romantic view.

I clearly identify with the Classical person. I base all my decisions on a sound analysis of the situation backed up by measured data, if possible, I almost never buy a product without having scrutinized the specs, and I basically doubt any statement that is not backed up by data from a reliable data source, or measurements, or own experience. For my own motorbike tinkering I bought all the tools needed to do the required measurements, a compression tester, gages for pneumatic synchronization to synchronize carburetors, etc. I deeply distrust any information that is provided based on believe, trust, reputation, popularity and similar subjective criteria, even if it is backed up by a large number of people.

Another point Pirsig makes very early in his book is that in most cases you are better off, at least as a Classical person, to maintain your motorcycle yourself, to avoid the frustration caused by jobs not being done to your expectations. He cites some examples, which were very much in line with my earlier experiences when I still brought my first bike to the local Honda dealer where I had bought it when I turned 18. Because of dissatisfaction with those experiences I had brought my bike to a shop for repair the last time in 1978, when I was 18. Since then I have serviced and repaired all my bikes myself and also completely disassembled and then restored 4 bikes from ground up. Only some jobs I could not do myself, like boring and honing the cylinders or re-building the valve guides in cylinder heads I sub- contracted. This has served me well for 39 years.

To be continued…

A not on the side: Further above I said there is no right and wrongs, but being a Classic person I am deeply troubled by the current tendency to dismiss a science base approach in favor of the “post factual world” where people ignore facts and decide based on values, popularity and emotions, which is almost an analogy to the underlying principles in the terms Piersig used.