Robert Maynard Pirsig

Biography of Robert Maynard Pirsig

Robert Maynard Pirsig (born September 6, 1928) is an American writer and philosopher, and author of the philosophical novels Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991).

Pirsig was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Maynard Pirsig and Harriet Marie Sjobeck, and is of German and Swedish descent. His father was a University of Minnesota Law School (UMLS) graduate, and 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. He resumed his career as a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, where he remained until his final retirement in 1993.

Because he was a precocious child, with an I.Q. of 170 at age 9, Robert Pirsig skipped several grades and was enrolled at the Blake School in Minneapolis. Pirsig was granted a high school diploma in May 1943, and 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, 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, indeed, 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. This led him to an awareness of a (to him) previously unarticulated limitation of science, which was something of a revelation to him. The question distracted him to the extent that he lost interest in his studies and failed to maintain good grades; he was finally expelled from the university.

Pirsig enlisted in the United States Army in 1946 and was stationed in South Korea until 1948. Upon his discharge from the Army, he returned to the U.S. and lived in Seattle, Washington for less than a year, at which point he decided to finish the education he had abandoned. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Eastern Philosophy in May 1950. He then attended Banaras Hindu University in India, to study Eastern Philosophy and culture. Although he did not obtain a degree, he performed graduate-level work in philosophy and journalism at the University of Chicago. His difficult experiences as a student in a course taught by Richard McKeon were later described, thinly disguised, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In 1958, he became a professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, and taught creative writing courses for two years.

Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals between 1961 and 1963. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression as a result of an evaluation conducted by psychoanalysts, and was treated with ECT on numerous occasions, which he himself talks about in his autobiographical book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

In the years following the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he has been solitary and reclusive. Pirsig has traveled around the Atlantic Ocean by boat, and has resided in Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, England and in various places around the United States since 1980.

In 2012, Montana State University announced that during the University's Fall Commencement 2012, Robert Pirsig will be presented with an honorary doctorate in the field of Philosophy. Pirsig was an instructor in writing at what was then Montana State College from 1958-1960. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig writes about his time at MSC as a less than pleasurable experience due to the teaching philosophy of the agricultural college at the time limiting his ability to teach writing effectively as well as develop his own philosophies and literature.

Due to frailty of health, Pirsig will not be traveling to Bozeman, MT in December 2012 from his residence in Maine in order to personally accept the accolade.

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