Robert M. Pirsig

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Robert M. Pirsig
Pirsig in 2005
Pirsig in 2005
BornRobert Maynard Pirsig
(1928-09-06)September 6, 1928
Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.
DiedApril 24, 2017(2017-04-24) (aged 88)
South Berwick, Maine, U.S.
OccupationWriter, philosopher
Alma materUniversity of Minnesota
Banaras Hindu University
University of Chicago
GenrePhilosophical fiction
Notable worksZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991)
Notable awardsGuggenheim Fellowship (1974)
Nancy Ann James
(m. 1954; div. 1978)

Wendy Kimball
(m. 1978; his death 2017)
RelativesMaynard Pirsig (father)

Robert Maynard Pirsig (/ˈpɜːrsɪɡ/; September 6, 1928 – April 24, 2017) was an American writer and philosopher. He was 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).[1]

Early life[edit]

Pirsig was born on September 6, 1928, in Minneapolis, Minnesota,[2] the son of Harriet Marie Sjobeck and Maynard Pirsig. He was of German and Swedish descent.[3] His father was a University of Minnesota Law School (UMLS) graduate who 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]

A precocious child with an IQ of 170 at age nine, Pirsig skipped several grades and was enrolled at the Blake School in Minneapolis.[3][5] At 14, in May 1943, Pirsig was awarded a high school diploma from the University of Minnesota's laboratory school, University High School (now Marshall-University High School) where he edited the school yearbook, the Bisbilla. He then 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 himself,[6] 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 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. The question distracted him to the extent that he lost interest in his studies and failed to maintain good grades. Finally, he was expelled from the university.[7]

In 1946, aged eighteen, Pirsig enlisted in the United States Army. He was stationed in South Korea until 1948. Upon his discharge from the Army, he returned to the United States and lived in Seattle, Washington, for less than a year, at which point he decided to finish the education he had abandoned. Pirsig earned a bachelor's degree in 1950 from the University of Minnesota.[8] He then attended Banaras Hindu University in India, to study Eastern philosophy and culture. At the University of Chicago, he performed graduate-level work in philosophy in the Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods but he did not obtain a degree there. In 1958 he earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.[7][9]


In 1958, he became a professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, and taught creative writing courses for two years. Shortly thereafter he taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago.[10]

Pirsig's published writing consists most notably of two books. 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 had taken 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 Aristotle as part of an ongoing dispute between universalists, admitting the existence of universals, 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.[1][11]

Pirsig had great difficulty finding a publisher for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. When he did, his publisher's internal recommendation stated, "This book is brilliant beyond belief, it is probably a work of genius, and will, I'll wager, attain classic stature."[12] 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".[13]

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, Metaphysics of Quality, that challenges our subject–object view of reality. The second book, this time "the captain" of a sailboat, follows on from where Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance left off.[14][15]

Pirsig was vice-president of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center from 1973 to 1975 and also served on the board of directors.[16]

Personal life[edit]

Robert Pirsig married Nancy Ann James on May 10, 1954. They had two sons: Chris, born in 1956, and Theodore (Ted), born in 1958.[10]

Pirsig suffered a mental breakdown and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals between 1961 and 1963. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with electroconvulsive therapy on numerous occasions,[7] a treatment he discusses in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Nancy sought a divorce during this time;[17] they formally separated in 1976 and divorced in 1978.[10] On December 28, 1978, Pirsig married Wendy Kimball in Tremont, Maine.

In 1979, his son Chris, who figured prominently in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was fatally stabbed in a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center at the age of 22.[18] Pirsig discusses this tragedy in an afterword to subsequent editions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writing that he and his second wife Wendy Kimball decided not to abort the child they conceived in 1980 because he believed that this unborn child — later their daughter Nell — was a continuation of the "life pattern" that Chris had occupied.[19]

Pirsig died aged 88, at his home in South Berwick, Maine, on April 24, 2017, after a period of failing health.[1]

Legacy and recognition[edit]

Pirsig received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974 for General Nonfiction,[20] allowing him to complete his second book. The University of Minnesota conferred an Outstanding Achievement Award in 1975.[21]

On December 15, 2012, Montana State University bestowed upon Pirsig an honorary doctorate in philosophy during the university's fall commencement. Pirsig was also honored in a commencement speech by MSU Regent Professor Michael Sexson.[22][23] Pirsig had been an instructor in writing at what was then Montana State College from 1958–1960.[24] In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig writes about his time at MSC as a less than pleasurable experience, and that this limited his ability to teach writing effectively and to develop his own philosophy and writing. Due to frailty of health, Pirsig did not travel to Bozeman in December 2012 to accept the accolade.[10][25]

In December 2019, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History acquired Pirsig's 1966 Honda CB77F Super Hawk on which the famous 1968 ride with his son Chris was taken. The donation included a manuscript of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a signed first edition of the book, and tools and clothing from the ride.[26]

See Also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Italie, Hillel (April 24, 2017). "'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' author dead". The Kansas City Star. Associated Press. Retrieved April 24, 2017.
  2. ^ Mote, Dave, ed. (1997). "Robert M(aynard) Pirsig". Contemporary Popular Writers. Detroit: St. James Press.
  3. ^ a b "Robert M. Pirsig". It Happened in History. American Society of Authors and Writers. Retrieved February 25, 2008.
  4. ^ a b "A Tribute to Dean Pirsig". University of Minnesota Law School – via
  5. ^ Adams, Tim (November 18, 2006). "The interview: Robert Pirsig". The Guardian.
  6. ^ "Robert Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance author dies aged 88". The Guardian. April 24, 2017. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c Vitello, Paul (April 24, 2017). "Robert M. Pirsig, Author of 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', Dies at 88". The New York Times.
  8. ^ A Study Guide for Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". Gale, Cengage Learning. March 13, 2015. pp. 5–. ISBN 978-1-4103-2079-7.
  9. ^ "Robert Pirsig dies at 88; wrote counterculture classic 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'". Los Angeles Times. April 24, 2017.
  10. ^ a b c d "Author Robert Pirsig dies at 88". New York Post. Associated Press. April 25, 2017. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  11. ^ "Robert Pirsig Dies At 88; Motorcycle Trip Inspired Popular 'Zen' Book". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  12. ^ Richardson, Mark (September 9, 2008). Zen and Now. Random House Digital, Inc. p. 194.
  13. ^ Steiner, George (April 15, 1974). "Uneasy Rider". The New Yorker. Published online at pp. 147–150. Archived from the original on April 28, 2003.
  14. ^ "Robert Pirsig Discusses 'Lila: An Inquiry into Morals'". National Public Radio. April 21, 2005. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  15. ^ "Books of The Times; Novelist Continues A Philosophical Voyage". The New York Times. October 14, 1991. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  16. ^ "Pirsig, Robert M(aynard) (1928–)" (2005). In T. Matthews & T. Watson (eds.), Major 21st-Century Writers (Vol. 4). Gale Virtual Reference Library. Detroit: Gale.
  17. ^ Adams, Tim (November 18, 2006). "The interview: Robert Pirsig". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved April 25, 2017.
  18. ^ "100 Zen Students Keeping Vigil Over Body of Man Slain in Street". The New York Times. San Francisco. Associated Press. November 20, 1979. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  19. ^ Pirsig, Robert (1984). "Afterword". Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Bantam Books.
  20. ^ "Robert Pirsig". Guggenheim Fellowship. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  21. ^ "Recipients of the Outstanding Achievement Award". University of Minnesota. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  22. ^ "[MD] Pirsig's Honorary Doctorate". Archived from the original on June 25, 2013. Retrieved July 2, 2013.
  23. ^ "MSU to award honorary doctorate to philosopher Robert Pirsig at December commencement". Montana State University. November 16, 2012. Archived from the original on April 3, 2013. Retrieved July 2, 2013.
  24. ^ "MSU to award honorary doctorate to philosopher Robert Pirsig". Bozeman Daily Chronicle. November 18, 2012. Retrieved July 2, 2013.
  25. ^ "MSU to award honorary doctorate to philosopher Robert Pirsig at December commencement". Montana State University. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  26. ^ ""Zen Motorcycle" Takes Final Journey Into the Smithsonian's Collections". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved January 28, 2020.

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