Me & Not Me: Pirsig On Subject-Object Duality

240px-Zen_motorcycleI thought writing about Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance would be a two-entry posting, but it’s looking more like a four-poster.  So far, I’ve written entries about Pirsig’s views on the Counterculture vs The System, and on Pirsig’s ideas about Reality.  This entry is about Pirsig’s opinion on the Subject-Object duality.

Very early in life, a human child becomes aware of what is “Me” and what is “Not Me.”  This is the basis for the classic Subject-Object split that philosophers and psychologists love to go on about.  No one really knows to what extent other creatures recognize the distinctions between Me and Not Me, but as far as we know, Earth is unique in all the Universe in having a “Me” at all.  Thus, we are also the only location in the entire Universe that suffers from the Subject-Object split.

Pirsig does not really like the Subject-Object separation, and one could say that the goal of his Quality Theory Of Reality –indeed, the purpose of his famous book– is to reunite Subject with Object and destroy what he perceives as a harmful duality (I’ll get to this in just a bit).

One confusing thing Pirsig does– if not an outright mistake– is to blur the line between the Subject-Object duality and the Mind-Matter duality.  Pirsig sometimes equates the two dualities, as if Subject = Mind and Object = Matter.

This may look okay at first glance, but I actually think this is a mistake; I do not think these dualities are perfectly synonymous.  For instance, in some connotations, the Subject (the “Me”) can include the Matter of the person’s body.

But regardless, what Pirsig REALLY wants to talk about is the divide between the “Me” and the “Not Me” and how that dividing line can and should be erased.

Pirsig has great respect for the ancient Sanskrit saying, “Tat Tvam Asi,” or “Thou are that.”  In other words, you and the things you perceive are one.  Fully realizing this lack of division, according to Pirsig, is what Eastern-style enlightenment is all about.

Pirsig believes – and this may be his most original contribution to philosophy— that when a worker does not realize that he is fundamentally connected to his product, he does not invest himself adequately in his work, and thus, his product is not as good as it should be, and the worker is not as contented producing it as he could be.

Modern technology, writes Pirsig, suffers from being produced “dualistically.”  Thus the creator of it feels no particular sense of identity with it.”  Pirsig asserts that, when a person does not comprehend his true connection with what he making, that person is not fully in touch with Underlying Reality.  Since Pirsig has given the name “Quality” to Underlying Reality, he contends that such work, by definition, “has no Quality.”  In fact, this is the only reason I can see that Pirsig chose this bizarre term for Underlying Reality:  so that it ties-in to what is basically a worker alienation theory (that shares some kinship with Marxist theory).

Pirsig says that a good worker will identify (and he’s speaking pretty darn literally here) with his work, and that “this identity is the basis of craftsmanship in all the technical arts.”  He also describes what some of us know as being “in the zone”:  when we are totally absorbed in some task (say, trying to hit a baseball coming at us at eighty miles per hour), and we lose much of our self-awareness, simultaneously experiencing a feeling of contentment.  In my best moments, I can feel this bliss when I’m writing something with total focus.

The resultant “inner peace of mind” that attains when we are fully absorbed in our work, says Pirsig, comes from being “unselfconscious, which produces a complete identification with one’s circumstances.”   For Pirsig, any activity that produces “peace of mind” produces “good work,” and activities that destroy peace of mind produce “bad work.”

“When one isn’t dominated by feelings of separateness from what he’s working on,” says Pirsig, “then one can be said to ‘care’.”

Pirsig also believes that if people truly understood the beauty of the creator-creation identity, they would have more respect for the technical arts.  It is “the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is,” he says, “not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit.”  Mechanics should get as much respect as artists.  In fact, the distinction between an “artist” and a “craftsman” is artificial.


Pirsig’s Quality Theory Of Reality

Zen And The Art Of Romanticizing Science

Pirsig, Patterns, Thoughts, And Language


7 thoughts on “Me & Not Me: Pirsig On Subject-Object Duality

  1. Hi Hammering Shield,

    I would like to know that what do you yourself think about subject-object non duality?

    As you can see if you visit my site that this is very important to me, I would like to question you on this topic.

    1. I think the subject-object thing is directly related to IDENTITY. I like what Schelling says about it… …that where we run into Resistance, we beginning pushing that resisting-thing toward the “Other” status. Additionally, I do not believe in “clean break” borders in the Universe, generally speaking. I do not “identify” myself with my work, but there is a connection for sure. Also, I’ve not seen anyone write upon the subject, but I figure when we perceive a force act upon something and feel no immediate and direct effect of that act, we would consider that acted-upon thing as NOT us. I suppose there’s a connection between WILL and SUBJECT– can a rock, for instance, ever be the Subject? But unless you’re God, I think anything can be an Object (and some may argue that even God can objectify himself). Hope that helps. Best wishes… H.S.

  2. I suppose people could contend that Subject and Object are “one” in at least two ways.. 1) the Object becomes an EXTENSION of the Subject, or 2) the “everything is connected,” great “Oneness” of the Universe angle. Another possibility which just occurred to me is… 3) the view from above, in which the CHAIN of cause-and-effect is seen as ONE THING instead of as separate links. I suppose, relatedly, one could argue… 4) at the moment of Subject-Object interaction, they CONNECT and so form, in a sense, one thing. The Uncertainty Principle viewpoint might fall under this too, wherein just the OBSERVATION of a Subject with an Object changes the Object.

  3. You wrote,”wherein just the OBSERVATION of a Subject with an Object changes the Object.”
    This is an interesting idea. Have you thought about this deeply? Are you saying that at this moment, as you are observing the room where you are sitting, your observation alone is changing the room? And how do you know that?

  4. Thank you for all your thoughtful questions, Ontological Realist ! Sadly, I’m behind on my Self-Doctorate reading list, and so I’ll have to delay for a bit our intriguing correspondence until I can make some headway. If you’ve explored the site any, you can see I have several areas of interest to study and a short amount of time to do it. The questions you ask go to the heart of, well.. everything, and have been asked by Man for ages. Enjoy your philosophical pursuit of the answers!… H.S… P.S. As to your most recent inquiry, you should check out the post…, and the book by Kumar that I used as the springboard for that essay. One thing people forget to consider is that merely shining a light upon an object so we can see it, bombards the object with photons, which can produce effects in the object.

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