Tag Archives: Robert Pirsig

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Living A Life of Ideas

The presence of a powerful organizing principle can fuel a lifetime of exploration. 

These days our heads mostly in the material world.  We spend a lot of time managing our things. But there are rewards for anyone willing to explore a system of ideas that can shine light on generative human impulses.  Many of us can recall a transformative moment when the lights of understanding suddenly grew brighter: when so much of the strangeness of the world yielded to understandings that made sense.  In most cases the trigger is usually some sort of panoramic explanation of social or physical phenomena. Anyone can cite some famous benchmarks that lead to profound insights:  perhaps relativity theory, or a discovery as revolutionary as Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, or the grounding assumption of sociology that individuals are best understood within communities.

Even so, while we still pay lip service to “the life of the mind,” it is hard to use that phrase in mixed company without producing some half-smiles hiding disbelief.  “How quaint” might be the response of our friends, if they had less tact. Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc (1972) perfectly captures the common stereotype of a socially inept and forgetful academic totally absorbed in the labyrinth of his or her own theory. The academic is presented as at least a century too late for the world he inhabits. In our time large epistemic questions have been replaced even in academia with more mundane “hard skills” that suggest the more modest aspirations of a trade school: Will this skill set make me employable?  How will this course look on a resume?

We usually allow religious believers their one big idea—that Jesus was the son of God, or Joseph Smith was a latter-day prophet—but academics buoyed by a single system of thought are now apt to be seen as lost in a box canyon with no exit. As an undergraduate I remember a very good professor enthused by the ideas of General Semantics, among them: that misunderstandings can be disentangled once and for all. The idea that was popular in the 60s proposed that we can actually fix the natural ambiguities of meaning: a view that no longer carries much weight with people studying natural languages.  But I still think about how he lit up when he talked about this vision.


Good ideas can help us put a lot of puzzle pieces in the right places.


As a 25-year-old I was captured by the writings of sociologist Erving Goffman and the literary critic, Kenneth Burke: two men working in two very different traditions who shared the view that human action is best understood with reference to the language of the theater.  We are “actors,” “playing roles,” managing performances,” “learning scripts,” and so on.  There’s more to this “dramatistic” perspective, but you get the idea. For me, it put a lot of puzzle pieces in the right places, and it is a catechism of analysis I still excitedly pass on to my students. I’m probably the typical case of an academic acolyte, more animated by the possibilities of a single system than the comparatively pale subjects of everyday conversation.

I would hope every student could go through this kind of ‘secular conversion.’ It fires the passion to see beyond a limited horizon.

The idea of creating a future around a core organizing principle sprang to mind while reading Tara Westover’s best-selling memoir, Educated (2018)She describes harrowing years trying to outgrow the low horizons of her survivalist family in Idaho.  Westover lived a nearly feral existence where events and ideas like the Holocaust or the civil rights movement were  total unknowns.  Because her father was imprisoned by a fringe interpretation of his Mormon faith, the much larger world of books, schools and civil society were kept at a distance. Survivalists tend to thrive on these self-made islands of reductionism. His only big idea was that divine guidance interpreted through him would sustain his large and unruly family.

Westover goes on to describe her unlikely journey into the life of the mind, eventually winning a graduate degree in History from the University of Cambridge.  What revelations she must have discovered in that journey!  Unfortunately, we never really given a sustained glimpse of what they are. Her story fades when it slights topics that fueled her ambition.  It’s not the same kind of memoir of ideas given to us years ago in Robert Pirsig’s popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (1974).

By contrast, her father’s big idea remains static and sealed off from development. He begged her to quit the university even after she showed real academic promise

Faith can take take that route to a dead-end. As a form of thought it can protect its owner from new experiences and better understandings. And that’s a problem for all of us. Faiths can thrive on small ideas, dangerous ideas, false ideas and beliefs that disenfranchise. They can poison what might otherwise grow.

So there’s the rub.  Ideas can justify a kind of smug stasis. But more dynamic starting points can be paths to understanding and innovation.

A Sampling of Revelatory Books on Human Communication, Updated

book cover zenGood studies of human communication force us to rethink assumptions that are sometimes more comfortable than accurate. They give new life to the familiar and routine.

This very selective sample of books about communication is wide-ranging, mixing history and media theory with some far-ranging discussions of what is possible in human communication. Some of these studies are recent and helpful in understanding how digital media have altered social relationships. Others were published years ago, but will be thought-provoking for anyone interested in exposing the inner layers of communication. They are listed in approximate order of their accessibility to a general reader.

  • Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (William Morrow, 1974). This multi-million-seller which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary is many things: a narrative of a troubled life, a road-trip saga, an account of different modes of thinking, and an evocative introduction to Plato’s concerns about the corruptions of communication.  Pirsig weaves all of these threads into a coherent personal narrative focused on his friends and his son. He’s especially intrigued that his chosen field of study, rhetoric, was borne under the dark cloud of intellectual illegitimacy.  Plato argued this negative theme in various ways over the course of his life. It’s a claim that Pirsig wants to explore, sometimes while sitting on the saddle of an aging Henderson as he travels through America’s northern plains. Along the way the main event of the narrative is his active mind, considering everything from intellectual black holes to the nature of insanity.
  • Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Anchor Books, 1959). Goffman was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, conducting
    Erving Goffman Source: Wikipedia.org
             Erving Goffman

    research that had a global reach. His methodology of deep observation of everyday events provides all kinds of insights about the intricacies of even simple interactions. The book remains a stalwart for anyone interested in the sociology and communication, and for good reason. His observations of everyday settings–restaurants especially fascinated him–is the perfect antidote to the bland survey research that now dominates so much of the social sciences. And because he helps us see the familiar in new ways, he’s fun to read.

  • empire of their ownNeal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (Anchor, 1998). Gabler’s study of the first film entrepreneurs is a wonderful piece of social history that is especially timely in the current climate of narrow nativist sentiment. Gabler documents our debt to a select group of Eastern European Jews who gave us the Hollywood film factories. These men were driven to turn out reliable middle-class visions of the American dream, even though they were the victims of virulent anti-Semitism. The ironic result is that they were sometimes kept out of key institutions in the very town they created. The book also confirms how vital film and its modern forms remain to understanding the American experience.
  • the shallowsNicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2011). Carr’s popular book makes the case that the pacing and fragmentation of internet content is undermining our abilities to be critical thinkers. Though this study has produced a number of doubters, he is mostly convincing in describing how heavy doses of screen time have altered our abilities to concentrate and focus. We may be schooling ourselves out of the kind of rigorous concentration that has contributed mightily to human progress. His observations raise questions that everyone who is part of the wired planet should consider.
  • reclaiming conversationSherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015). In this useful and eminently readable study, the M.I.T. researcher explains why conversation as the default model for communication is threatened. Using this benchmark, she offers extensive interviews with children and young adults that suggest a drift toward preferences for connecting that weaken links to full and vital face to face exchanges. Her concern is how to maintain the natural social natures of our children, who now fear the unpredictability of direct contact with others. As she notes in her conclusion, “We want more from technology and less from each other. What once would have seemed like ‘friendly service’” from a sales clerk has “now become an inconvenience that keeps us from our phones.”
  • no sense of placeJoshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place (Oxford, 1986). Although written a number of years ago and in advance of widespread use of the internet, Meyrowitz still makes what I believe is the single best case that newer forms of human communication have undermined the psychological security that came with living only in real space and time. The book is revelatory in its assessment of how visual media work as irresistible magnets for our attention, and how visual media often weaken connections that truly matter. Given his use of seminal thinkers like Goffman and Susanne Langer, Meyrowitz’s framework for assessing communication processes is unsurpassed. By the end of the book he’s offered a haunting intellectual case for how electronic media have undermined the sources of personal identity.
  • speaking into the airJohn Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air (University of Chicago, 1999). Peters is a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa and a frequent critic of the common but mistaken assumptions we have for communication. The Introduction to this book is alone worth a look. It takes apart most of the cherished myths we hold, among them: that communication is the best pathway for settling long-standing differences, and the idea that disagreement is just a matter of misunderstanding. From his very first sentence that “Communication is a registry of modern longings” a reader can sense a study that will offer challenging arguments and interesting insights. The references in the book are sometimes obscure.  But every chapter has interesting observations, most of which come by quoting writers and thinkers who were experiencing the powers of telegraphy and the telephone for the first time.  Peters also has surprising things to say about communicating with machines, animals and perhaps other sentient beings “out there” in the universe.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu