David E Romm

Rhetoric 1152W

Oral presentation 1/30/01

Robert Pirsig "On the Scientific Method", excerpt from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Science, like rhetoric, is a technology. It had to be invented and developed. How we approach knowledge, the ordering of knowledge and the acquisition of more knowledge has changed over the course of human history.

The David E Romm Concise History of Thought in Western Civilization states: Socrates invented asking questions; Plato invented answering questions; and Aristotle invented asking questions, looking around and answering questions. This may not seem like such a big deal until you realize that the next step was 1800 years later with Francis Bacon, Galileo and the Italian Renaissance who invented asking questions, looking around, answering questions, and then checking back to make sure your original question was actually answered. This is known as The Scientific Method.

Robert Pirsig, in the excerpt "On the Scientific Method" is, as usual, being brilliant and incomparably dense in the same passage. He astutely lays out the basics of modern science and observation, then claims that motorcycle repairmen don't use them consciously. That's the Zen part of motorcycle maintenance. In other parts of the book he tries to come to grips with Plato, and fails, which is why he is so big on explaining why he's not using Platonic logic to fix his bike. Well, he isn't. He's not using the same tools the ancient Greeks had, he's using tools that that were built as an advancement on their tools. He's using modern scientific methodology to repair a piece of technology that didn't exist when Plato wrote Pheadrus. His pursuit of the underlying forms that Phaedrus pursued are only a part of the modern approach. He's not comparing apples and oranges; he's comparing the Model T to a Lexus. Different aspects of the same technology at different time periods.

Studying logic and philosophy from the past is useful, even critical, to today's logic and philosophy. Many of the tools still apply, and almost all of them are important steps that led to today's tools. Still, we must be careful. The questions we ask today are different than those that came before in fundamental ways. How we arrive at the answers must also be fundamentally different. Not just what we think, but how we think. Sometimes the older tools will work, whether Aristotle's Rhetoric or Zen Buddhism or simple induction and deduction. Sometimes we need to use more modern tools, perhaps tools that are in the process of being formed. Often, more than one tool can be used to solve a problem; often more than one tool can be used in combination. As in the modern scientific method, realizing that a tool is inappropriate is an important piece of information. We have a vast rhetorical arsenal, and using the appropriate tools is sometimes a process of trial and error. Let's try 'em all and see what works.

Appropriate technology. Using proper methodology to answer a question. This is the concept that Robert Pirsig didn't understand, and it drove him crazy. I hope we won't fall into that particular trap, but there are no guarantees.

Some questions this article raises:

Do we have the rhetorical tools to discuss 21st Century ethical questions such as cloning? If not, what will we need to develop to talk about such problems?

How often to you think about the steps you use to fix something? Do you, like Pirsig's motorcycle repairman, just work on a problem without consciously going through the methodology, or do you do it by the book, step by step?

Pirsig is comparing Western and Eastern methods of scientific thinking. How are they different? How are they similar? Do they overlap? Can each learn from the other? Do they solve the same problems?

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