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 E. 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 performing biochemical laboratory work, Pirsig was greatly troubled by the theory that there is always more than one workable hypothesis to explain a given phenomenon, and that the number of hypotheses appeared unlimited. He could not search for any way around this, and to him it seemed that the whole scientific endeavor was essentially problematic. The question distracted him to the extent that he was expelled from the university, due primarily to failing grades and lack of interest in his studies.
Pirsig enlisted in the United States Army in 1946, and was stationed in South Korea for two years until 1948. He returned to the United States upon discharge, and briefly resided in Seattle, Washington for less than a year, until 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 was not granted 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.
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