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)
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(1974), Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991) and he co-authored On Quality: An Inquiry Into Excellence: Selected and Unpublished Writings (2022) along with his wife (now widow) and editor, Wendy Pirsig.[1]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 graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, taught in that school from 1934, served as its dean from 1948 to 1955, and retired from teaching there in 1970.[4] He subsequently taught at the William Mitchell College of Law until his retirement in 1993.[4]

A precocious child with an alleged IQ of 170 at the age of nine, Pirsig skipped several grades at the Blake School in Minneapolis.[3][5] In May 1943, Pirsig was awarded a high school diploma at the age of 14 by the University High School (later renamed Marshall-University High School), where he had edited the school yearbook, the Bisbilla. Pirsig then studied biochemistry at the University of Minnesota. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he describes the central character, thought to represent himself,[6] as being an atypical student, interested in science in itself rather than a professional career path.

In the course of his studies, Pirsig became intrigued by the multiplicity of putative causes for a given phenomenon, and increasingly focused on the role played by hypotheses in the scientific method and sources from which they originate. His preoccupation with these matters led to a decline in his grades and expulsion from the university.[7]

In 1946, Pirsig enlisted in the United States Army and was stationed in South Korea until 1948. Upon his discharge from the Army, he lived for several months in Seattle, Washington, and then returned to the University of Minnesota, from which he received a bachelor's degree in 1950.[8] He subsequently studied philosophy at Banaras Hindu University in India and the Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods at the University of Chicago. 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, delves into 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. Pirsig pitched the idea for his book to 121 different publishers, sending them a cover letter along with two sample pages, with 22 responding favorably.[12] Ultimately, an editor at William Morrow accepted the finished manuscript; 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."[13] 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".[14]

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.[15][16]

Pirsig was vice-president of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center from 1973 to 1975 and also served on the board of directors.[17]

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 had 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;[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

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,[21] allowing him to complete his second book. The University of Minnesota conferred an Outstanding Achievement Award in 1975.[22] He won an award for literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979.[23]

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.[24][25] Pirsig had been an instructor in writing at what was then Montana State College from 1958 to 1960.[26]

Pirsig did not travel to Bozeman in December 2012 to accept the accolade, allegedly due to frailty of health.[10][27] However, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig writes about his time at Montana State College as a less than pleasurable experience, and that this limited his ability to teach writing effectively and to develop his own philosophy and writing.

In December 2019, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History acquired Pirsig's 1966 Honda CB77F Super Hawk on which the 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.[28] In 2020, the Smithsonian acquired additional material from the Pirsig family relating to Pirsig's maritime interests and background.[29] In 2020, the Robert M. Pirsig archive was collected by the Houghton Library at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts;[30] a 2021 article in the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies details the writer's close historic relationship with motorcycles from the age of four to shortly before his death.[31]

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. ^ Gent, George (May 15, 1974). "A Successful Pirsig Rethinks Life of Zen and Science". The New York Times. Retrieved July 15, 2022.
  13. ^ Richardson, Mark (September 9, 2008). Zen and Now. Random House Digital, Inc. p. 194. ISBN 9780307270481.
  14. ^ Steiner, George (April 15, 1974). "Uneasy Rider". The New Yorker. Published online at pp. 147–150. Archived from the original on April 28, 2003.
  15. ^ "Robert Pirsig Discusses 'Lila: An Inquiry into Morals'". NPR. April 21, 2005. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  16. ^ "Books of The Times; Novelist Continues A Philosophical Voyage". The New York Times. October 14, 1991. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  17. ^ "Pirsig, Robert M(aynard) (1928–)" (2005). In T. Matthews & T. Watson (eds.), Major 21st-Century Writers (Vol. 4). Gale Virtual Reference Library. Detroit: Gale.
  18. ^ Adams, Tim (November 18, 2006). "The interview: Robert Pirsig". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved April 25, 2017.
  19. ^ "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.
  20. ^ Pirsig, Robert (1984). "Afterword". Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Bantam Books.
  21. ^ "Robert Pirsig". Guggenheim Fellowship. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  22. ^ "Recipients of the Outstanding Achievement Award". University of Minnesota. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  23. ^ "Arts Academy Awards Honors". The New York Times. March 21, 1979. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 23, 2021.
  24. ^ "[MD] Pirsig's Honorary Doctorate". Archived from the original on June 25, 2013. Retrieved July 2, 2013.
  25. ^ "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.
  26. ^ "MSU to award honorary doctorate to philosopher Robert Pirsig". Bozeman Daily Chronicle. November 18, 2012. Retrieved July 2, 2013.
  27. ^ "MSU to award honorary doctorate to philosopher Robert Pirsig at December commencement". Montana State University. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  28. ^ ""Zen Motorcycle" Takes Final Journey Into the Smithsonian's Collections". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved January 28, 2020.
  29. ^ Johnston, Paul F. (Winter 2020–2021). ""If boat is going down" --Bikes, boats, and Robert Pirsig" (PDF). Sea, issue 173, pages 12–19. Retrieved January 5, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  30. ^ Harvard University, Houghton Library (2021). "Robert M. Pirsig papers, circa 1880–2019 (inclusive), 1930–1990 (bulk)".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  31. ^ Johnston, Paul F. (2021). "Black and Chrome and Dusty: Robert Pirsig's Motorcycle Heritage". International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. 17.

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