Copernican Revolutions


Finally finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and this will likely be my last reflection.  Strangely, Pirsig barely skims the surface of ethics in the remaining chapters of book.  I have found out there is a sequel to the book called Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals which tackles the subject. However, there is also a line in the book that seems to dismiss ethics as a minor branch of knowledge.  Pirsig seems quite obsessed with metaphysics, though perhaps the sequel may indicate otherwise.

I have noticed the high value that Pirsig has attached to individualism throughout the book. Take for instance the following excerpt:

I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with the talk of relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value. – Chapter 25, p.267

The high value placed on individual self-improvement and understanding of his or her reality is interesting. If the individual cannot understand how to attach quality, value and care to the discovery of facts, they cannot effectuate larger changes. They cannot “think outside the box”, not in a creative or logical sense, but in the sense of pushing the boundaries and limits of our own knowledge. What he calls the “Copernican Revolution”. Being able to turn our world upside-down and see the facts from a  different angle or different angles to get a better understanding of the truth.

And we as humans, derive a certain sense of satisfaction from breaking the barrier of existing knowledge or achieving a new field of knowledge on our own. The only problem is that the former can easily and dangerously be perceived as insanity in light of existing knowledge. Learning how to fix a motorcycle does not break barriers as momentously as breaking the barriers of reality itself, as Pirsig discovers.

This is how he arrives at value rigidity, or stuckness. To a certain extent, the modern Copernicus must be prepared to throw out old schools of thought and start with a blank slate. Most people are too afraid to let go of conventional thoughts, but Pirsig argues there is a certain freedom that occurs when we are able to break away and save ourselves from value rigidity. It is the dilemma of Plato’s cave (as much as Pirsig hates the man, the analogy is apt here): leaving the shackles to walk out into the blinding sun of enlightenment. Aristotle also repeats this notion when he says that it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it. However, even the most intelligent man on earth still runs the risk of not being able to differentiate between the love of the pursuit of wisdom and the love of wisdom itself. The word “philosophy” becomes a clumsy word in this regard.

If he does not praise ethics, he does bring up the concept of value. We attain peace of mind which in turn helps us to “get things right”. If we were purely empirical beings, we would not attach any value to the discovery of facts. As he describes, it would simply be a train of knowledge sitting there statically, objectively. The interaction between subject and object is important to producing Quality. He regards Quality as dynamic and that it is driven by care, or value, to move forward. The train picks up steam as the value increases through the discovery of more facts and the individual’s investment in them as contributing to some greater harmony of reality.

I have also discovered why Pirsig refuses to equate Quality with Truth as the “source of all things” – reality itself. It is an aversion to the founders of Western philosophy, Plato and Aristotle. They both characterize Truth as fixed, immobile and therefore objective. There is no dependence on the subject-object phenomenon described by Pirsig. They think Truth can be discovered rationally, wrapped up and filed away in the cabinets of our mind, to be pulled out now and then in moments of doubt like a ritual.

At the same time, the author seems to concede that they contribute meaningfully to Western thought, but that the interpretation of their work has set philosophers down the wrong path indeterminately in terms of thinking about Quality (or Truth in my own understanding) as precedent to creative and logical thought. Perhaps the author is a little narcissistic to think that he has unravelled the whole of Western thought, but I believe he suffers from some hindsight bias.

The end of the book leaves me somewhat disappointed for some reason. Perhaps it’s his attack on Aristotle. Perhaps it’s the fact that the author finally devolves into insanity. Perhaps he didn’t actually explain everything as he hoped. There are certainly some life lessons about learning, education and teaching here. Also some interesting ways to think about reality beyond the objective-subjective, classical-romantic divide. Either way, my thirst for philosophy does not end here, but I will continue to read such books to understand myself, my universe, and my reality better.

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