Classifying the Unclassifiable

My first impression of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was that of encountering a new kind of philosophy. The brisk breezes, natural images, interpersonal evaluations, and autobiographical approach of Robert Pirsig’s creation seemed fresh and new; I suppose it has remained so as I have read further. However, its beauty has already been marred for me. What, you might ask, could I find so distasteful that it could change my perspective on the entire piece of writing? It is the introduction of a pervasive and foundational dichotomy. Pirsig writes, “What you’ve got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another” (61). He even goes so far as to claim that “there is no point at which these visions of reality are unified” (Pirsig 75). I can never help but feel what can only be described as a deeply ingrained and pervasive distaste for such sweeping and generalizing categorizations. I just can’t stomach them. They limit what should not be limited and categorize what cannot be categorized.

It seems, however, that I can never escape the categorizations that permeate our culture. People seem to satisfy their human need to classify by grouping nearly everything they can. If you are in a STEM field, you inhabit a reality that cannot be reached by artists. The Democratic Party and Republican Party can almost never agree on anything. Followers of Catholicism and Islam fight often because their foundational beliefs cannot be reconciled. These common and heartbreaking refrains are everywhere, and they often seem to be true. Why? I believe we are raised in an environment where people join factions like they are gangs. We learn that we should join certain groups and be loyal to them. We perpetuate the continued existence of polarizing grouping by our very willingness to identify ourselves through classifications.

In spite of these groupings, however, endless complexities do exist. Human beings are not automatons, and they are not programmed to adhere to societal rules without deviation. Luckily, collaboration amongst seemingly opposed groups is not dead. Pirsig’s notion of an unbridgeable gap between science and art has proven to be inaccurate; a little research quickly reveals that scientists and artists do work together. This is possible because they are not locked in different forms of reality and can be analytical artists or intuitive scientists. When I write, I do not just type whatever words happen to emerge from the murky innards of mind. I evaluate the words I use and ask myself why I am using them; I often change my mind and make alterations to my choices of structure and words. Then, I go back and make additions or eliminate unnecessary or ungainly contributions. I think most decent writers are as analytical as they are intuitive.

Some influential professionals have recognized that dichotomies and classifications like those put forth by Pirsig are potentially damaging, and they have spoken out for change. They argue that we can produce greater results by acknowledging what intuition and analysis can glean from each other and striving to consciously utilize the connection. Check out the inspiring video below to hear a more beautiful rendering of this sentiment.


Classification makes it easier for speakers to utter sweeping generalizations, but I think a great deal of inspiring complexity and important distinctions are lost at the same time. Although it seems impossible in modern society, I still cherish the hope that there will come a day when nearly everyone understands that labels do not and have never been adequate to serve as representations of all that humans are and can be. Classifications would probably still be used, but their meanings would at least be considered limited instead of definitive. Until then, I will just keep refuting sweeping generalizations like those offered to us by Pirsig while trying not to put too much faith in them myself.


One thought on “Classifying the Unclassifiable

  1. chutson says:

    This dichotomy is difficult to parse apart–I want to say that to some extent it is in human nature to make order from chaos (classification), but that would then be a sweeping generalization. I think it ties into what we discussed in class on objectivity versus subjectivity. As wrtiers, can and do we simply create reality (as in Kait’s post), and work in the purely subjective? Or are we forced to be objective so we can have an audience for what we are communicating? Or is it a mix of both, and we need to recognize that the place where to two mix is where it gets really interesting?

    I agree with you that even as we use classification on almost everything around us, it’s somewhat of a broken system, and that we mix art and science (or any other ‘opposite’ you want), whether we realize it or not. I started out my undergrad in biotechnology, and switched to English a year and a half in. During my first two years, I did research in a lab here on campus studying embryonic developmental biology. And although the research we were working on would be labeled as hard science, research to find pure facts, I would say there was something really beautiful about the process that I would label as art. A related example that sometimes bugs me is that scientific writing is often considered dry and not ‘artistic’ writing. And that’s hard for me to hear, because I know there is an extraordinary amount of care that goes into them at the sentence level on up. And yes, a hard science research paper is very different from other disciplines and other style’s of writing, but I think it has it’s own elegance and craft that elevates at some point to a work of art, just as much as we would ‘label’ a piece of fiction as such.

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