Pirsig’s Romantic and Classical Division

Even when I agree with Pirsig’s main argument I sometimes find myself disagreeing with the logic of his argument. For instance, Phaedrus takes two rather common definitions in literature “romantic” and “classical”

The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association.


The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws-which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form required all give it such a negative romantic appeal that women never go near it.

adds some extra baggage to them, like “unattractive to women largely for this reason” and then redefines them to fit his own purposes:

A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint or schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.

Although I agree that you can break people into two such groups, I’d prefer to use commoner terms like technophiles or technophobes rather than classical or romantic. As the narrator points out:

Phaedrus was a master with this knife, and used it with dexterity and a sense of power. With a single stroke of analytic thought he split the whole world into parts of his own choosing, split the parts and split the fragments of the parts, finer and finer and finer until he had reduced it to what he wanted it to be. Even the special use of the terms “classic” and “romantic” are examples of his knifemanship.

Classification is an essential skill in philosophy, the very heart of Aristotelian logic, but there’s little value in classifying things a particular way if others don’t agree with, or don’t understand, your classifications, even if they are “special.”

Which, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that conclusions drawn from these classifications might not be true:

This is the source of the trouble. Persons tend to think and feel exclusively in one mode or the other and in doing so tend to misunderstand and underestimate what the other mode is all about. But no one is willing to give up the truth as he sees it, and as far as I know, no one now living has any real reconciliation of these truths or modes. There is no point at which these visions of reality are unified.

And so in recent times we have seen a huge split develop between a classic culture and a romantic counterculture-two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward each other with everyone wondering if it will always be this way, a house divided against itself. No one wants it really-despite what his antagonists in the other dimension might think.

This split between those who embrace technological change and those who resist it obviously exists.

I suspect it is this particular split that Steve Jobs has attempted to bridge and to profit from. Apple has been particularly style conscious and has attempted to make the interface as transparent as possible. I don’t think it’s purely coincidental that most of the small art shops I frequent have Apple computers.

But I think this split is a lot deeper and more complex than Pirsig’s division would suggest. A major source of the split is more religious then aesthetic in nature. Many fundamentalist groups I’ve known resist at least some aspects of technology on religious grounds.

There’s probably and even larger generational split, with many older people refusing to transition to new technologies either because they find them difficult to understand, because they find them unreasonably expensive, or simply because they cannot see a need for them.