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.

6 thoughts on “Pirsig’s Romantic and Classical Division”

  1. Good point about Apple – one of the roles of the industrial designer is to add “romanticism” – aesthetic appeal – to “classical” design. Romantics looking at a well designed motorcycle may not have any attraction to the mechanics of it but the styling may cause them to pause and stare in appreciation of the form, the outward design. (hiope this makes sense it’s 6am and I’ve hardly slept 🙂 )

  2. Robert Pirsig wrote:

    “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.”

    (Just for the record)
    In 1971, one of my sisters asked my parents for a motorcycle for her birthday. My father bought her the Honda 50 she requested. She took a motorcycle maintenance course during the summer at a local high school, learned the mechanics of making the engine more powerful and successfully did just that. After taking the class, she did the maintenance of the motorcycle herself. My sister is a lovely mixture of romantic and classical. Unfortunately, she was in a serious motorcycle accident in November of 1971 where she was broad-sided by a car at an intersection and did not ride motorcycles after that time. To this day, she is a technophile and a romantic.

  3. Loren, I think you might wish to reconsider how you interpret Pirsig’s description of classicists and romanticists. You seem to wish to call them technophiles and technophobes, but I think you may be missing Pirsig’s point.

    Romantics wouldn’t necessarily fear or resist technology, they’re the ones who are perhaps Apple’s best customers.

    Classicists are similar to some Windows users, who are less concerned about how the OS “looks and feels” and more interested in its underpinnings and what they can find in it to exploit, for both good or ill.

    Romanticists are probaby no more “frightened” by technology, but have little interest in its underpinngs and more interested in the whole “look and feel.”

    I think Jobs’ approach to technology is far closer to Phaedrus’ ideal than anyone else of his stature or position.

  4. I wouldn’t insist on the two alternatives I gave, Dave, but I still object to taking two terms which have a very definite literary application, adding a few new traits, and then applying them to an entirely different situation.

    It’s clear, for instance, that Alexander Pope was a classical writer and William Wordsworth was a romantic writer. It certainly helps to make that classification when we study the values of the society at the time each poet wrote because the society as a whole was either looking back (classical) for inspiration or looking to attack society and inspire new values (Romantic.)

    Using those terms, in an entirely new context makes it difficult to know which values in the original definition you’re using and which you’re not using.

    Ironically enough, using the traditional definition Pirsig would definitely be classified as a Romantic, though he hardly seems anti-technology.

  5. The Classical and Romantic split Pirsig describes here is less about technology than you think, he isn’t discussing the truth of an experience, he is discussing different ways in which we experience. Whilst his point of there being ‘classical’ and ‘Romantic’ based people is still true, and his connection with sexes largely being distracting, he is more trying to explain how we build a sense of reality – I believe he connects this to the existentialists and a Priori and a Posteriori concepts.

    He is Phaedrus, a character who is largely described as a purely classical person to the point of insanity, and yet he writes entire passages about his immediate and romantic experiences of riding that motorcycle. Whilst he explains his breakdown and change of character, I believe he is simply trying to state that there are different ways to receive the world, and we often use both – not so much that one is more honest than the other. After all, to a certain extent we are entirely subjective beings.
    This is only an introductory concept which he develops along his journey.

    ALSO, amazingly, the human brain is composed of two hemispheres – no not right and left brain thinkers/ creative non-creatives (that’s utter bullshit), BUT the types of memories we use in each hemisphere are different – One is focussed on running many actions at the same time, the other in a linear order – in other words, one focusses on the here and now experience whilst the other is working on an ordered progression. Similar to the difference in parallel and serial processors in computers. They both generate different types of thinking, this can be seen in stroke victims.

  6. In your analysis, you fail to realize a major point made by Pirsig later in the novel. While Phaedrus is bias towards the classic mode of thought, Pirsig himself believes that it is necessary to collapse the binary and live in a world in which classical aesthetics lives in harmony with romantic aesthetics. Pirsig believes that “quality” is the merger of the two.

    Pirsig even concedes that “a dichotomy of this sort has little meaning” and that he is only creating it in order to classically analyze human thought (Pirsig 70).

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