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Laura Laine Kelley

What is philosophy?

In the final moments of Robert M. Pirsig's philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the young son and companion traveler of the narrator asks if he can have a motorcycle when he is older. Yes, he is told, "If you take care of it." The son then wonders if motorcycles are hard to take care of. "Not if you have the right attitudes," he's told. "It's having the right attitudes that's hard."

If the novel is read as a "cautionary tale," as some have suggested, the response provides a moral lesson about the narrator's pathological journey a journey by which motorcycle maintenance serves as a metaphor for a mental navigation toward the world. "The study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind. The motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon." Put more succinctly: "The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called 'yourself." From this perspective, having the "right attitudes" will enhance one's ability to care well for one's "Self."

Like the alter ego of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, my own sense of Self was engendered in the "Church of Reason." The humanist religion that influenced my growing years is sometimes (usually snidely) accused of being "a philosophy" rather than a religion. It is a distinction at the foundation of my identity. When I was young, I craved the certainty that religion offered, yet the only faith which I was instructed to embrace was that which sought questions rather than answers. The roots of the religion extend to a critical reading of the Bible by a contemporary of Martin Luther (which resulted in a heretical stake burning), and have evolved to a global religious perspective that continues to honor reading, widely and broadly, from a critical perspective. For better or worse, my religious inheritance was one which indirectly trained me to learn to live with a passionate hunger for the quest for truth, yet with a skeptical belief of ever finding it. From this experience, I gained the perspectives from which I respond to the question, "What is philosophy?"

A standard refrain is that philosophy is "love of wisdom." What I propose is that more often than not, this "love" is demonstrated by attitude. By attitude, I mean (as the Random House Unabridged defines) a "manner, disposition, feeling, position, etc, with regard to a person or thing; tendency or orientation, esp. of the mind." I relate the metaphor of attitude that Pirsig's narrator identifies as implying a "philosophical disposition."

When my identity was forming, I gained a reputation for having just such a "philosophical disposition," despite my never having read philosophical texts, nor having demonstrated reasoned discourse. What were people projecting on to me, that they identified me as being "philosophical"? What I suggest is that it was merely my attitude of passionately seeking answers, yet only being satisfied with questions, that was the disposition that qualified me as "philosophical" in the minds of others.

Perhaps it is "right" then for me to seek philosophical mentoring, even though, as Pirsig's narrator says, "It's having the 'right' attitude that's hard." By this I gathered he meant that maintaining one's Self, one's mind, one needs to approach maintenance with patience and deliberation and that's often hard to do. It's easier to want to find the quick fix. In contrast to other characters in the book, who just want a motorcycle that runs (and are not interested in the mechanics of, or maintenance for, the machine itself) Pirsig's narrator strives to understand, to know his machine inside and out even if that means sitting down with the instruction manual and figuring it out for himself. I, too, have often longed to find the quick fix, but from the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance, learn along with Pirsig's readers that many problems have logic underlying the form, and sometimes it takes patient deliberation to discern it.

The notion of "right" further defines the response to the question "What is philosophy?" in that it suggests that there might be a "right" as opposed to a "wrong" attitude. It is this notion that makes philosophy more than a "presence" or "form," by giving it substance. An attitude implies a passive reflexivity, whereas a "right" attitude implies decisive action, or choice. Active philosophy moves out of the contemplative realm, and seeks to choose between dichotomies: right/wrong, good/bad, before/after, either/or. I may have seemed philosophical to those who regard appearances as substantial, but without the qualifying distinction of whether I was a "good" philosopher, or a "bad" one, their projections reflected a superficial understanding of the form.

Based upon my experience, then, I draw on Pirsig's novel to suggest that philosophy can be defined as an active attitude resembling the "love of wisdom," and that the "right" attitude might be one that seeks to understand and to know and models patience and care toward the pursuit of that goal. It is an attitude that is hard to hold onto, because one is often tempted to try resolve problems quickly, or ignore them and take one's chances that they aren't really big enough to matter in the end.